I gave up videorecording myself, because when I watched the video I realized that I already am very aware of my movements when I teach. I already adjust my stance to something confident but attentive, I watch myself for fidgeting motions, I analyze my paths of motion for distracting repetitions and wandering. I have a nasal voice, but that’s not going to change; my hair goes flyaway a few hours after I blow-dry it, but that’s not going to change; and my gut hangs out when I’m not paying attention, but oh well. If I thought my students were so put off any of those last three that it interfered with their ability to learn from me, then I might invest some time into adjusting those characteristics; but they seem not to notice or care, so I don’t care, either.
I do still plan on visiting other teachers’ classes to observe them and having them come and observe me throughout the semester. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from that.
Hey! One of my students told me today that he thinks I’m a “really good teacher” because I use a variety of approaches to teach ideas and skills. He’s going into math education, and he is trying hard to think of creative ways to teach math. I invited him to make suggestions as to how I might tweak class activities for better effect, since I’m always trying to figure out how to do it better.
So: class today. This is the last day of our “Skills” portion of the semester, in which we work hard at learning to listen, perceive, record, and interpret. As we have had some difficulty adjusting to the idea of perceiving more than we get at first glance, I finished the “Skills” section with a class period devoted to perception and communication.
(Note: I did ask two different CLC art teachers if they would come do this first part for me, but neither of them could, so I just did it myself. They would have done it better, but such is life.) First, I turned on the computer projector and put up images of paintings from several different art movements throughout the past 700 years or so, one at a time (four or five in total).
I explained the Renaissance (briefly. Gak!) and then I went to the projector screen and traced with my hands the parts of each image that conveyed special meaning specific to that time: an emphasis on curves and formal gesture or symbol (High Renaissance), or the introduction of some angles and more naturalistic vegetation (Romanticism), or the radical shift to small points of color to represent larger color fields and lines (Pointillism), or an attempt to show a variety of perspectives in one single painting (Cubism).
I explained that the way we see and even what we realize is present depends on how our eyes have been trained — much as I had to retrain my eyes to see a human face differently when I lived in Venezuela, because there are facial gestures (the nose squint, which means, “I don’t understand you; please explain” and the pointing lips, which are just a way of pointing without using your hands) which are specific to that part of the world, gestures we do not use in the American West, where I grew up. (For a while, I didn’t even see that those gestures were being made at me; I just thought people were staring at me funny.) Artists are very aware of the techniques they use to direct the viewer’s attention and focus interpretation of their work, and each art movement intends to teach people to see a different way.
Next, I asked the students to spend a few minutes writing down anything they thought of that had to do with anything I had said during that presentation. After five minutes or so, most of them were winding up, so I had them talk in their assigned groups about what they were writing down. This was to give the students who had made lots of connections and the students who had made no connections the chance to share with each other, so the students who were stymied could begin to see ways into the conversation. Also, the students who had made lots of connections got the chance to polish their ideas by talking them out.
One group quickly ran out of things to tell each other, so I went over and asked what they had written down. They really were stuck. All three of these students are fashion-conscious, so I suggested that they think about how the fashion choices they made were actually messages they were sending, using a vocabulary of clothing options, and relying on each person’s knowledge of how others would perceive and interpret these choices. Artists do the same thing. Art uses a language of symbols. This seemed to solidify some connections for them.
After five minutes or so of group discussion, I opened the discussion up to the whole class at once. I have several students this time with a background in art or cultural history, and they were very helpful in the discussion around these artworks, pointing out that Picasso excelled at all the traditional painting techniques, but got bored and wanted to do something completely different, or connecting the shifts in artistic trends to the shifting focus of fashion, and other stuff that I don’t remember right now but was really good.
Daniel spoke up and said that the Cubist painting (Picasso, Le guitariste) we looked at meant nothing to him, but the Pointillist painting (Georges Suerat, A Sunday Afternoon . . .) really made sense. He could see how the little dots of color were working in the painting. This was great input, first because I need to know what is working, and second because the Cubist movement was met with the same response (i.e., “WTH?”) when it began. I told him that that painting was supposed to make you stop in your tracks and wonder how to interpret it. Thanks, students! You rock.
I emphasized that, though we make knowledge in groups, the perspective of one person, such as Picasso, can redirect the whole group. This point was important for the next activity.
I put the students in three groups of six or seven around a decorative object: a white porcelain rooster, a metal windmill, and a cardboard house. They were assigned to observe for at least 60 seconds before beginning to write down anything that would help them describe this object to another person later on, outside of class. They would have to get the other person to draw what was described, as near to the actual thing as possible. Visually impaired students were encouraged to touch the objects during the observation period.
I suggested that they use analogies and ratios to communicate size, shape, and texture. As writers in this class and out of it, I explained, they have a responsibility and an opportunity to describe things to other people that those people have never seen, experienced, or even thought of before. They are going to have to think of ways to relate these new ideas to people’s old experiences, so their readers can embrace these new ideas with understanding. Using analogies to common sensory images or to common standards of weights and measures can be very helpful in communicating about objects that cannot be presented for personal observation.
The students accomplished this task fairly quickly (and with pleasure, for most of them), and many of them discussed their notes with each other.
We spent the last 15 minutes or so discussing plagiarism. They have an assignment on plagiarism due next week (they watch and take notes on a Camtasia recording of me giving a PowerPoint presentation on plagiarism and copyright law), but some of them are already working on it. Honestly, I thought the perception exercises would take more time, so the plagiarism discussion was an attempt to use the whole class period, and it may have been too soon for the concepts to really make sense to the class. But that’s life, and I will have many opportunities to reiterate the principles of the ethical use of source material. We did have a good discussion about knockoff fashion products, and what is ethical vs. what is legal in which countries.
There are a few personality clashes in this class that I am going to just avoid heightening through class activities, by making sure certain people aren’t in groups together. Lots of big personalities in this class, as I’ve said before. The good things are that (a) some of these students seem to be able to monitor themselves and keep themselves out of trouble, and (b) the quiet people actually do speak when given the opportunity.
Still, keeping this class on track during discussions is like wrestling seven-headed alligator. I rely heavily on my attentive gaze on students, the overt recognition of student contributions, and deliberately ignoring interruptions, as well as the occasional redirecting finger-snap (to get attention when people are chatting inappropriately) or outright statement that it is “My turn now!”
We have a new student in class as of today. She seems capable and businesslike — a welcome addition to class.
These five guys are great. Three of them talk A LOT (Daniel, Cameron, and Phineas), but they mean well and they do eventually get on track. Daniel takes on leadership roles, explaining and interpreting class assignments for the others. I asked these five if they would be okay with being group leaders in the 121 class for the next cycle (eight class periods or so), and they said it would be fine.
Today I followed up with each of them on the proficient reading strategies they got last time. Zack, who got assigned sticky notes, has been using them to great advantage.
Victor made drawings, but says it did not help him remember more. The group suggested some other strategies, but he came up with one on his own: drawing two people conversing on some topic covered in the reading, and filling in the speech bubbles with the main ideas. This is a riff on the text he will be reading, They Say/I Say.
I explained to the group at this point that the act of writing, either writing down some part or all of what they read, or writing some comment of their own, actually creates new physical pathways in the brain that facilitate remembering and synthesizing new knowledge. This seemed to motivate them to interact with the text through writing.
Cameron, who was going to look up the audiobook of Cerulli, said that he forgot to do it, but he will try again this weekend. He is also going to read all of They Say/I Say in one go, tomorrow, so I suggested that he stop after every chapter and summarize what he learned in that chapter. It is too easy to blow through a whole book and not remember any of it.
Phineas, who was assigned to protect himself so he could have study time, reported that his troublemaking brother got kicked out of the house, so home would be quieter from now on. Also, he has begun using the other student’s trick of reading in his car for 20 minutes before work.
Daniel is already using all kinds of great techniques to help himself, and he said he is going to try to underline the actual text in the book and write his own stuff next to it, even though it seems really wrong to write in a book.
He said that he underlines stuff in his Bible, so he doesn’t know why it’s so hard to write in other books. I said that I underline stuff in my scriptures, too, and I write things on the pages that I hear other people say that help me understand the text. I’ll write the name of the person and the date, as well as what they said. That way, when I open the pages, I have layers and layers of meaning that I can connect in a web, right there in front of me. The guys seemed to respond very positively to that conversation.
One last thing: a couple of the guys asked if my husband had a Ph.D. as well, and I told them that he has two master’s degrees instead. They both then exclaimed that it would be awful to be a kid in my house, because the kids would get lectured all the time about the importance of formal education. I told them that, once you get to the doctoral level, you start realizing that formal education is really an exercise in peer pressure: you will come to know what the group knows, or you will be labeled a loser. Also, formal education is an artificial way of learning, based on some faulty and dated suppositions about intelligence, work, and the application of knowledge. High school itself is designed to prepare students for factory work — to be on time, to comply with rules and regulations, to respect authority figures even if they merit no respect, and to function as a group instead of as an individual. My husband might be more hard-nosed than I will be about school attendance; I, for one, already know I will pull my kids out of school from time to time for museum visits and trips to the bog and stuff.
They asked why I didn’t home-school my kids. I didn’t have time to answer before someone asked another question, but here is the answer: I’m not going to home-school my kids because (a) that’s really hard, (b) I wouldn’t have any time to myself, and (c) public school is a great way to find out how awful other people can be. Dealing with selfish, hateful junior high and high school kids is good preparation for recognizing sneaky corporate, governmental, and community injustice.
At this point, Cameron asked me what I did for my dissertation. I explained community informatics and what my actual project was. Later, when I was explaining ethos, pathos, and logos as prep for later 121 activities, Cameron said that my dissertation was basically in appeals to ethos — and, yes, it was. Figuring out why people trust some information sources over others, and how to get them more reliable information = the investigation of how appeals to ethos work and fail to work in that community.