Preparing to redesign my 121 curriculum – notes

I have a lot to think about.

Last semester, I taught 121 (semester 1 freshman composition) for the first time in about 10 years. I took it as an opportunity to design a preparatory course for my 122 (semester 2) curriculum, which I’ve developed over the past 2 1/2 years. I’m used to teaching at the Lakeshore campus, which serves mostly low-income and racial/ethnic minority students, but my 121 class last semester was on the Southlake campus, and the students were from more affluent families.

I learned a lot about my students and their learning needs through teaching 121 last semester. Mostly, what I learned is that, on the whole, they are much less well prepared for academic reading and writing than I expected more affluent students to be, and that I haven’t yet learned how to build into the course structure all the scaffolding that will make it easier for such students to get ready for 122. That’s okay; I expected to find out what I needed to work on next.

That’s one reason why my students last semester probably thought of my course as an “easy A” – because I don’t punish students or assign them extra work to make up for wrong turns I make as a teacher, and the first time I teach a course, I make some wrong turns. One of the wrong turns I made last semester was in the explanation I gave for the argument analysis assignment. My explanation and introductory exercises were overly complicated and less connected to the students’ real experience than they should have been. As a result, fully half the class were unable to complete the assignment within the time allotted. A couple of students panicked and gave up. I rearranged the next several weeks of the course, presented the assignment differently, and asked the students who had completed the assignment to tutor the other students until everyone finished successfully.

The next assignment, a rhetorical analysis paper, was supposed to take four weeks, but was left with only two weeks for completion. Instead of a rhetorical analysis paper, I had the students write, perform, and analyze commercials in front of the class during those two weeks. Everyone got full credit for participating in these activities, and the students who tutored their peers got extra credit for their help.

I just don’t feel it’s fair to give students poor grades when I’ve done a poor job of explaining and teaching the assignment. Also, I think it’s my job as a teacher to make difficult things easier to master. I agree that, sometimes, the difficulty of the journey is a necessary part of learning. But a professor’s laziness or unwillingness to understand and prepare to teach students of all backgrounds is not a necessary part of that required difficulty. Students get mediocre teaching often enough that we don’t need to put that particular obstacle in their way on purpose in our own classes.

That puts a lot of pressure on me to find effective ways of teaching the skills and knowledge I want to see students develop.

This summer, I’ve attended two meetings related to my fall 121 classes. In the first, for the research writing pilot, we (the Gang of Seven) discussed the ideas described in my previous post, Revisiting Composition 121. I did not include my notes from that meeting, but I will here.

Research Pilot Meeting Notes, 6-12-12

  • I’m already doing a lot of what it looks like we should be doing, but I do it in 122. What should be the difference between 121 and 122?
  • immersion, discussion, understanding of topic to find gaps in knowledge; taking more time to get to know sources
  • work sessions in the library or computer lab with librarians
  • student side of reference interview and of Writing Center interviews – videos
  • monitor and reflect on what you know and what you don’t know with an “own learning log” – keep track of library contacts and results
  • synthesis and integration of ideas – can you make sense of the paper if you take out the quotes/summaries?
  • write your own biography/credentials
  • smaller writing assignments and fun engagement activities, such as presentations, throughout course
  • finished writing: 3 papers of 5-6 pages each
  • refer to John Bean, Engaging Ideas, Ch. 13: “Designing and Sequencing Assignments to Teach Undergraduate Research” (Writing Across the Curriculum)
  • Craft of Revision, by Donald Murray
  • Kenneth Burke – entering the conversation

The second recent meeting I attended was for the instructors taking on an English 100/English 121 pairing this fall.

English 100 is a small group of students concurrently enrolled in English 121 with the same instructor. It is basically an hour-long meeting once a week in which to learn more basic reading and writing strategies or to go over class assignments and topics in more depth. This course pairing is based somewhat on the Accelerated Learning Program developed by the Community College of Baltimore County and somewhat on the California Acceleration Project. It is an opportunity for students who would otherwise take a semester of 109 and an additional semester of 121 to skip 109 and take 121 with additional support. If students pass 121 this way, the savings in money and time for the students and the college faculty and staff are significant.

In this meeting, we discussed some characteristics of developmental students, as shown in relevant research literature. I did not take notes on that part, because I knew that stuff already from my PhD research and my teaching experience at CLC.

English 100 Meeting Notes, 6-21-12:

  • 12 sections this fall
  • preview and frontload material (give students context for assigned reading and writing)
  • can ask, “What do you want to be graded on?” including preparation, participation, etc.
  • let them tell you what they need and guide the conversation; be ready to leave your structured plan
  • do initial work for assignments in 100 and give feedback there (brainstorming, developing a thesis, organizing thoughts, making plans)
  • college track requires passing 122 with a C, but career track only requires passing 121 with a C to demonstrate language proficiency
  • refer to John Bean’s Engaging Ideas and Doug Buehl’s Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning

After the meetings, I ordered copies of the Bean, Buehl, and Murray texts. These texts are just so full of information and strategies to deal with exactly the kinds of challenges I have been faced with that I could not pass up the chance to make them part of my permanent teaching library. I plan to use these texts as curriculum design resources in combination with Hayakawa’s Language in Thought and Action and Graff and Birkenstein’s “They Say”/”I Say,” which I nearly always assign as required reading for my comp classes. What I need to do is map out the process cycles and skills sets I want to teach in class and then match up readings and activities to each cycle station, as it is represented in the course day-to-day schedule.

This is the hardest part of teaching, for me. It is hugely rewarding when my plans result in success, and it is deeply satisfying to try out new things and see what happens, but the planning process is nonetheless a huge headache. Not that I don’t enjoy it at the level of deep play; but, I can’t deny the very real headache it gives me.


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