Got to be a quick post today. It is already 10 p.m., and I am really tired.
Today was the beginning of the first cycle/unit of three in this class, each of which results in a finished paper. I had five different handouts, each describing either how I prefer a specific assignment be completed or how all the assignments work together to result in a finished paper.
They were also asked to bring this handout to class, which I had given them a week or so ago:
After we talked over all the handouts, I asked how many of my students were overwhelmed right then. Nearly everyone’s hand shot up (they were grinning as they raised their hands, but they weren’t kidding about feeling overwhelmed). I reminded them that none of these things was assigned yet — they were all future assignments — and all they had to do for Monday was read and take notes on the second chapter of Cerulli.
We did also talk about Chapter 11 of Graff & Birkenstein, where the authors describe how class discussion should work. We identified some things we do well (which I can’t remember right now, because my brain is overtired), and some things we need to work on, including making sure that joking around with the teacher does not turn into heckling the teacher. I got some very surprised looks when I brought up that one; I’m pretty sure the hecklers did not realize that that was how their jokes were being interpreted (sometimes by me, and sometimes by other students). Overall, though, all our discussions of many different things today were fairly easy to keep on track. No seven-headed alligator this time.
For the last 15 minutes of class, I had them get in their Cycle 1 groups and let their group leaders know whether there was anything they needed explained better in class today. They got in their groups willingly and did pretty much exactly what I asked them to in terms of group participation and roles. No one needed anything else explained, so I let them go about 5 minutes early.
I am very, very pleased with how class went today. Everyone was cooperative, and I think I made sense when I explained stuff. I think we’re on track to do well in Cycle 1 — which is important, because in this unit I’m asking them to do a lot of things they’ve never done before.
These guys just get better and better. (Though Victor couldn’t make it to class today, due to a family emergency that pulled him out of 121.) They are making excellent progress in their reading comprehension, and I have made each of them a group leader for this cycle in 121, and they are really pulling their weight. Phineas is concerned that his work schedule won’t let him be a dedicated group leader, but I think he is overestimating the limits his work schedule will put on the things I will ask him to do during the actual class period. Overall, I’m super impressed with all of them.
Today, I introduced them to the idea of metacognitive conversation. Buehl outlines one kind of metacognitive conversation: talking aloud through one’s reading or writing process, both to get appropriate help for oneself and to show others what is possible. I told these four students that we would cover that kind of talking in 121 as the course went on, but today we were going to do a different kind of metacognitive conversation: we were going to practice talking ourselves down from the emotional crisis we sometimes feel when confronted with a new situation or a new kind of assignment or classroom activity.
I wanted to do this because these five guys are taking on a significant challenge this semester by skipping English 109 and going straight to 121. I can tell that some of them freak out sometimes in 121, and I wanted to give them a tool that would make them more self-reliant and self-confident.
The tool I taught them is actually out of Burns’ Feeling Good book, which I have found extremely helpful in my own life, for improving my handle on interpersonal interaction, among other things. The metacognitive conversation I led the guys through today was the naming and talking back to automatic thoughts exercise from Burns’ book. We pretended each of us was one particular student on a day when he had his own personal freak-out session. He got through it on his own that day, but the crisis did occur. We practiced talking ourselves out of crisis mode and into effective strategies for dealing with the unknown.
After that, the guys told me that they wished we had talked more specifically in 121 about one way we could improve class discussion: keeping student comments to 20 seconds or so, and cutting out unnecessary/tangential information. We did discuss it in 121, but failed to implement the new policy effectively in class today. I suggested that, if these guys notice that a student is not complying with that policy, and for some reason I am not stepping in to guide us back on topic or cut the comment short (in a helpful way, not a mean way), then they can get my attention visually and point to their watches, to remind me of our 20-second rule. We discussed some other ways of handling the situation, but decided that this was the one we felt most comfortable with.
The student we all pretended to be during the crisis management exercise also volunteered the information that he has worried a lot about failing this course. He is not a school-type person, and he has a lot of fear of failure, combined with an almost absolute conviction that failure in school is inevitable for him. I assured him that he would have to try really hard in order to fail in my class, because as my 100 student and as a student who has let me know he has this fear, he is someone I will go to great lengths to help succeed. I said I would hunt him down if necessary: I would call his house, I would show up at his house, and I would sit down with him and work through each and every assignment with him, because I knew he could do it, even if he was convinced that he couldn’t. He has mad metacognitive skills, and though in some ways he may feel he is running behind everyone else in a race, in many ways he is far ahead of students from a more typical background. I said that I don’t do that for every student (I just can’t — I don’t have the resources; also, sometimes you have to let students choose to fail and take the consequences), but I was making that commitment to him and to each of my other four students in English 100. He wrote on his crisis management exercise sheet, “Will hunt me down,” and seemed to believe me. The other students seemed to believe me, too. They each told me how much it matters to them that I am one of the teachers who care about them personally.
On that note: an interesting thing is happening with the 121 MW students and these 100 students. They want to take the time to talk with me individually so we can get to know each other — even the quiet students. I think this is the Millennial generation folkway I have read about, and I have specifically designed aspects of my course to take advantage of this tendency toward personal connection (as in the design of groups and group roles). Getting to know each student is one of the things I find most fulfilling about teaching, but it usually happens much later in the semester. I’m pleased and glad — and kind of grateful — that it is happening so fast in these classes.
I think I’m going to add two more things to the Learner’s Bill of Rights:
Learners deserve to know that their strengths are recognized and valued by their teachers.
Learners deserve to know that they are valued as people by their teachers, no matter what strengths they do or do not possess. This is not the same as getting grades based on their personhood; grades reflect achievement. However, each student deserves respect for and recognition of their value as a person.
I brought oatmeal cookies to English 100 today, because I had made some last night and didn’t want to get stuck eating them all myself. Having something nice to eat made everything better. It’s a hungry time of day.