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    The Importance of Community

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:39 pm

    I never really thought about the importance of community within the undergraduate classroom until I experienced its absence in my first year seminar, Human Dilemmas.  It was the first time I had taught in the College’s three-year old First Year Experience program.  Coincidentally or perhaps causally, it was also the first time I deliberately tried to implement social pedagogy into a course for first year students, an approach I’ve used very effectively for years in the senior capstone course for the sociology major.  

    Since one of the key features of social pedagogy is representing knowledge for others, I decided to ask my seminar of 13 students to work with me to prepare a presentation which would be given to the seven other first year seminars that were part of the Human Dilemmas cluster.  The topic focused on a complex core concept–enculturation.  I invited my students to work together to come up with a plan for teaching their peers about how culture shapes what humans know and understand.

    This assignment fit the social pedagogy design elements:  it asked the students to engage with a difficult authentic task, to represent knowledge for others, to engage in open ended exploration, to work together as an intellectual community, and to connect the affective to the cognitive.  Once a week a faculty member lectures to the approximately 100 students enrolled in the seven Human Dilemmas sections.  I told my students that I did not want to lecture, that I wanted to involve students directly in the presentation, and that I needed their help to find examples that would enable first year students to grasp this very difficult threshold concept of the social construction of knowledge.  The students read the assigned readings for that presentation the first week of the semester.  The class, then, worked on this project once a week for approximately six weeks.  

    In the end, the students were unsuccessful in coming up with a workable plan for the presentation.  While I incorporated a few of their ideas into it, for example a clip from Friends, and I also asked the larger group of students questions that my specific students were primed to answer when needed, I ultimately designed and delivered the presentation.

    Why did my students fail to come up with a workable plan for representing their knowledge about culture to their peers?  Initially, I thought it was because they were first year students in their first month of college and they simply didn’t have the expertise to design the presentation.  If seniors are capable of representing knowledge for others and first year students aren’t, it must be because novice learners need to know something before they can represent it for others.  

    Then I read their midterm exams and compared them to those from one of the other Human Dilemmas sections and saw that my students had indeed achieved a stronger grasp of this complex core concept than the other students who had only done the readings, heard my presentation, and discussed both in their seminar.   So the social pedagogy had produced a stronger grasp of this core concept.

    Next, I attributed the failure to my students’ inability to get along with each other.  The first week I had the class work as a group as a whole.  When they didn’t get any where, I decided 13 was too large a number to work together effectively and I broke them up randomly into four smaller groups the next week.  When that didn’t work, I decided to break them up into three groups randomly in the third week.  When that didn’t work, I decided to divide them into two groups:  the talkative students and the quiet students.  As I was assigning the groups, one of the talkative students demanded to know who had chosen the groups.  

    Three weeks into the semester, perhaps because of their inability to work together successfully on this project, it became painfully obvious to me that some of my students did not like each other, that they did not want to work with each other, and that they even had trouble being civil to each other in class discussions.  

    What I had failed to do was to create an intellectual community in my classroom, something I have always managed to do with my seniors.  I worked hard for the rest of the semester trying to get the students to behave civilly towards each other at least while in class.  I even had the peer mentor, a sophomore, facilitate half hour sessions with them when I was not present to try to clear the air as well as to encourage appropriate classroom behavior first at midterm and then a month later.  While the situation improved, the problem never went away, perhaps because the problem may not have originated in my classroom but in the dorms.  The new first year experience program includes housing students in first year seminars in the same dorms.  I will never again take for granted the presence of community in the classroom.

    I will teach the first year seminar for the second time this fall.  My first goal will be to create an intellectual community in the classroom.  The students do not have to be best friends but they do need to support each other as co-learners.


    Looking at student work — faculty connecting through students

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:38 pm

    As a result, in part at least, of our recursive focus on the linkage between faculty practice and student work (ePortfolio), this seminar seems to have developed considerable traction.

    The beginning of the seminar, before we introduced the practice of asking them to bring in ePortfolios to share, felt sometimes loose and vague.  But as the year progressed, the seminar dynamics strengthened.   Faculty not only began to develop a clearer notion of the concepts at stake.  They also felt like they had more at stake — showing their students ePortfolios made the issues we were discussing very tangible and real.


    Representing knowledge for others in an intellectual community

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:14 pm

    I’m particularly interested in how the Reacting to the Past pedagogy plays out on two related areas of the social pedagogies framework — representing knowledge for others/sense of voice and intellectual community/situated feedback.

    In the Reacting to the Past games I have taught for the past three years, all student writing is posted to a course blog (for example, the spring 2009 course blog) the day before it will be discussed in class. Students read each other’s writing on the blog to prepare for the discussion that will occur in class – and, ultimately, so that they will be able to “win” the game by achieving certain pre-defined objectives for their individual role. During class sessions, each student typically gives a very brief speech summarizing the claims from her paper and then is actively questioned by her peers.

    Post-game reflective writing by students reveals how significant, and how unusual, it is for them to be writing and speaking for peers who have incentives to be critical readers and questioners.  In post-game reflective writing over the past three years, some 75% of my students report approaching their writing and class preparation differently than they do in other classes because they knew they would be critiqued by peers. Most students describe this pressure positively (“exhilarating” and “intense”), but a few explain their behavior more defensively: “The reason I studied hard ultimately was fear of looking like an idiot.” One student reflection captured the central themes that appear in most student comments about how representing knowledge for their peers alters both their study habits and their attitudes:

    “I had a lot more personally invested in this class than others. It was not about the grade but about not wanting to get picked apart in the game, and feeling confident about my argument. Even if I felt I wrote
    a paper that was good, I wanted to find more support, and I’d send it to people to look over to make sure I had put all I could in it. My writing became a lot more important to me.”

    It is impossible for me to demonstrate that student writing or speaking is intellectually deeper or more rigorous due to the social nature of the Reacting pedagogy; there’s no appropriate comparison group that would provide evidence to support such a claim. However, the consistent themes of student post-game reflections indicate that the pedagogy prompts them to behave in ways that I associate with meaningful academic work – to closely read core texts and peer writing, to write multiple drafts of papers, to speak carefully and listen critically in class, and to ask probing questions. As one of my students wrote: “Through embodying Confucianism and a point of view within it I was able to develop a higher level of understanding than I would in a traditionally-taught course.”


    Core Concepts

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:14 pm

    Core Concepts
    For the Social Pedagogies Group, I am focusing on the “Literature for the North Woods” projects from my Skidmore College English course, “Literature and the Environment.” The goal of the projects is for students to “connect our reading and study of Nature Writing and Environmental Literature to our natural surroundings [Skidmore College’s North Woods] and to find creative ways in which the literature we are reading can enhance our experience of going into the North Woods . . ..  The challenge of the project is to translate or transpose literary ideas to new media for our contemporary audience and situation.”

    Since the student projects radically differ from a 5-7-page paper typically required in a literature class, it is helpful to articulate the core concepts informing the project.   The fundamental core concept underlying the project is understanding the unique purpose or role of literature.   Given the environmental focus of the course, it is important for students to understand and appreciate the distinct contributions that literature (poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) brings to Environmental Studies.   But more generally, the core concept I am after in the project is the purpose of literature.  While this is a complex questions with multiple responses range from the aesthetic to the political, in this introductory level course, the concept of defamiliarization from Russian Formalism best expresses the core concept I am after.   Literature exists to break/wake readers from habitual responses and perceptions and awaken them so that they can see the subject in a new light.   Essential, literature takes a subject out of the familiar context in which we have seen it and defamiliarizes it, makes it strange to us, so that we experience it anew.  It is my hope that through the projects, the students will focus on the features that the reading(s) awakened them too and use that as a starting point to create their projects.

    The second core concept—more accurately labeled a core value—underlying this work is the role of literature.  Often within an academic context, literary texts can be isolated as objects of analysis while their connect to the lived world can be obscured or eclipsed.   The project allows students to learn that literature in not a luxury or a decoration to the human experience but an important lens through which we perceive and understand our world.

    Finally, the last core concept embedded in the project is meaning, more specifically, how we make meaning specifically by translating or transposing ideas from one context into another.   By establishing this new relationship—between readings and the forest around the campus—the projects become meaningful not only to the students but also to their large audience


    Intellectual Community and more

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:14 pm

    Note: This Posting originally started out as a discussion of “Intellectual Communities.”   But as often happens in writing, as I wrote about “Intellectual Communities” and especially when I typed up the student comments, I was led to see connections to the “Situated Feedback” and “A Sense of Purpose” petals.   The interconnectedness is an important dimension of the Social Pedagogies schema.

    Community
    The Literature for the North Woods Project is only one dimension of the course in addition to reading and discussion of texts, writing literary explications (close readings) and analyses of the readings.   Students in the class also maintain their own blogs, in which they write regularly in response to the readings and class discussions.  I also require students to read each other’s blogs and comment on the entries.   This activity, along with the North Woods Project, is a central design element for creating and sustaining an intellectual community among the students.   For the project, that sense of community comes from the shared process of developing their projects as well as from the presentation of their projects to each other and other audiences at the end of the course.   Throughout the semester, students create three “snapshots” that invite them to begin to think about their own experiences and relationships to the campus Woods, connections they see among the class readings, and, ultimately, potential projects they might do and designs for these projects.   As students complete the snapshot, they post them on a class discussion forum and then read and respond to each other’s plans.  Some comments about benefits of the collaborative nature of the project:
    •    [About a joint project]  “E. and I spent a lot of them talking about our own impressions of nature.  Often, our interpretations overlapped; we both found ourselves focusing in on the smaller plants, light-play, and motion.  But there were several instances when we were able to enhance our project because we each observed something that the other person overlooked.”
    •    “Working with S. as a partner made the experience much less stressful and more enjoyable.  Meeting a few times before actually beginning the project allowed us to combine our ideas and make sure we were both envisioning the same final project.”
    •    “The best part though, was when J. and I went to put our two parts together.  We discovered that, despite working from different contexts, using different mediums, and contriving our ideas completely independently, we had arrived at basically the same conclusion about nature.”
    •    Throughout putting our North Woods Project together, Z. and I shared some remarkable moments of synchronicity.  At times it was almost too surreal; I can only compare it to when musical improvisation between two players sounds like a well-rehearsed and orchestrated composition.”
    •    “At various stages throughout the process of choosing and then developing my animation, I contemplated changing to a different type of project.  However, there were two things that kept me committed to making a claymation film.   The first was the encouragement from my peers on the discussion board.  From the responses posted, all who read my keep toolkit felt that it was an original and fun idea.”
    •    “Talking to classmates about the project seemed to help a lot in shaping the project.  Students had told us that while a presentation would be adequate, it would not be enough to engage the class and show off our creativity . . . . Spending a little time with classmates allowed us to realize that we could draw ideas from not only the historical readings, but from The Green Man myths and other folklore stories we read in class.”

    These passages are from the reflective essays that the students wrote at the conclusion of their projects.    In typing them up, I am struck by a clear sense of a community that doing the project seemed to create for the students.   As the Social Pedagogies flower suggests, “community” on the Course Design Elements side did correlate to “Situated Feedback” on the Student Experience Consequences side.   But I also have to wonder whether the project achieved a sense of an intellectual community among the students (or between the students and their nonstudent audiences).     On the one hand, I can see the intellectual community in the discussion of the creative process and presentation form in the students’ comments.   On the other hand, though, I don’t have evidence that the students were talking about the ideas of the course (see core concepts) among themselves (although this did come out a bit in the comments during the presentations).

    These passages also seemed to demonstrate the Student Experience Consequences of  “A Sense of Purpose,” in the way the Working Group has been unpacking this “petal”: work that matters to the students, work that they have something at stake in, work that is meaningful to them.