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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.


    Fieldwork as Social Pedagogy

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:18 pm

    In the fieldwork course that I am teaching this semester, students spend one morning a week in a center with infants, toddlers, or two year olds.  I’ve asked them to write about their experiences and link them to the readings we’ve done this semester.  Some of the readings are about observing and recording young children’s behavior.  Others are about child development.  My hope is that students will see child development theory validated or invalidated as it comes alive in real children and that they will hone their observation skills to continue learning from children.

    For example, one student wrote,

    • According to the reading in chapter 6, I could say Jayquan’s gross motor skills developed well. He could ride a scooter as well as a tricycle. He could paddle forward and backward. He was laughing when I made the sounds like “beep beep beep” when he backed up. Jayquan has very sensitive fine motor skill also. He can use a spoon pretty well and can eat by himself at lunchtime. After he finished his food, he tried to scrape the leftovers into the trash can using the spoon. I wonder who taught him to do that.

    A core concept that causes some difficulty is that developmental domains, or areas of development, work together.  In the example above, for instance, the student is describing Jayquan’s physical development, but her description includes how he is thinking and what he knows.  Students truly grasp this concept of “the whole child” through their direct work with children.  Yet, the professional literature isolates these developmental domains to examine each more closely and to zero in on a child’s development in precise ways.  I (and most early childhood educators) ask students to discuss a child in terms of each domain.  Taken for granted, here, I think, is that students can hold and work simultaneously with two opposing ideas: that it is impossible to isolate domains in real life and that it is a useful heuristic to think about a real child’s ways of being in separate domains.

    Students object to separating the domains and ask questions on their drafts about how they can possibly address different domains using a single event or story without being repetitious.  I think these objections and questions indicate that they are grappling with the opposing ideas.

    I think this might be an example of how social learning — their real work with children — has pushed students to confront a complexity.  Because the children are real, the work is authentic and they care about it.  Even the students who are struggling to engage with the children at their fieldsites are involved in the process of becoming engaged and are explaining to me what they are doing (in most cases, to overcome their shyness and) to become more involved.  They are dealing weekly with the interface between their current selves and the professional selves they strive for — and this is also true for the students who are not having trouble getting involved with the children.

    A fieldwork class is a prime example of the affective connecting with the cognitive to generate a sense of purpose. The affective is ever present as students feel judged by teachers, children, parents, me, classmates, and themselves. They want to do well and be liked, and they want to figure out problems that arise (why is the two-year-old I’m observing throwing herself on the floor and screaming when it’s time to stop doing one thing and start another?). The challenge is to link the affective, which is closely related to their practice, to the discipline’s definition of the cognitive, that is, to the theory on which the class is based. I speculate that on the one hand, that is made easier, because the fieldwork is so important to the students.  On the other hand, it is harder, because the fieldwork seems more important than the class itself.

    A second challenge, which is easier to confront in some cases than in others, is to build an intellectual community among the students, so they address whatever arises at each other’s fieldsites together.  I don’t think that I’ve been as successful with this group as I wish I were and as I’ve been with other groups.  Student reticence and lack of time have contributed, but I also don’t think that I’ve pushed enough.  I could ask student to make their journals (in which they discuss their fieldwork, their observations of a child, and their readings) public to the class and could devote more time in class to students’ discussions of their sites.  I’ve asked each student to choose a week to discuss that week’s topic in light of her or his fieldwork, but not all students have done it and not all students have spoken to the class in a way in which their classmates understood or could follow.  Clearly, other methods would have worked better for this particular group.


    Analyzing Student Annotations towards Understanding Application of Theory (draft)

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:17 pm

    Assignment Overview: Personal Identity Narratives

    In my gender theory course (see course overview here ), which I am now teaching for the third time, students encounter some of the key ideas in gender/sexuality/body studies and practice applying those ideas to personal narratives and cultural texts.  After the assignment overview below, I try to explain how students work with theorists in this assignment.  I have also tried to explain this ‘core concept’ here.

    Read the rest of this entry »


    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.”


    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.