My husband got a new job, and I am moving to St. Louis at the end of January 2013. That means no more teaching at CLC, and I have to miss the follow-up sessions for the experimental groups I was involved with this last semester of teaching English 121. Still, I can post about what turned out well and what didn’t turn out so well this semester.
What Turned Out Well
Source sandwiches. Pretty much everyone who stayed the whole semester was writing complete source sandwiches in the final exam.
Research and writing process. My embedded librarian, Michelle, and I got most students through the “What the heck? This is so confusing” stage to the “Wow, this is so freaking easy” stage by the end of the semester. I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial it is to have an information professional (not an IT professional) walk the students through the process of finding and evaluating sources. Several students commented in person and in writing on how much easier it was to write a good paper when they did the work of finding and annotating appropriate sources beforehand. Many of them named Michelle’s personal intervention in their research process as a primary reason why they were able to complete their writing assignments with some mastery.
Also, teachers and students need to understand that writing a paper is much easier once you can visualize what your end result should look like. A lot of my 121 students came in without the necessary writing experience to do that. Once they learn the basic steps of finding out, annotating, outlining, and reporting (using source sandwiches), they can visualize where they want to take their next paper.
Paper organization. Intro, transition and source sandwich, transition and source sandwich, transition and source sandwich, transition and conclusion. Badda bing, badda boom. We did this six times per class: 3 papers and 3 in-class essays. I taught them to leave the intro and conclusion until the end, and write their body paragraphs with the supporting information they were able to find or think out for themselves. Then, make the intro and conclusion set up and finish off the argument. Most students were able to do a respectable, 121-level job of this by the end of the semester. This is one of those things you don’t really excel at until you have written several papers on your own, but I am very pleased with the arc of improvement I saw over the course of the semester.
Message quality. Sooooo much better than my teaching produced last spring, the first time I had taught 121 in ten years. I chalk the improvement up to the focus on source sandwiches and paper organization, as well as the intensive reading of the Cerulli text (which is so carefully thought out that it sometimes makes the reader want to scream and bang her head against something hard). Students did better at this when they were able to choose their own topics or write about their own experience; some students let their group members lock them into writing about things they did not care about, and that hurt the quality and originality of their messages.
Engagement with sources. For beginning college students, all three classes did extremely well. I’m sure there are some sources that were used inappropriately; it’s been a month since I graded anything, and I don’t remember exact details. But I do remember being terribly pleased and proud of the maturity and the critical thinking evident in many papers.
Media and message literacy (critical thinking about messages and symbols). Again, pretty darn impressive for a 121 class. I say this as someone who has taught only four 121 classes recently, so more experienced teachers might view the results differently. But some of these papers comprise arguments that would not be out of place in a master’s program, though they would require further development to be fully defensible. I am more pleased with the results from this semester than I have been even of my 122 class results. I am learning that there are ways to improve my 122 teaching, as well.
Integration of Cerulli text with actual class and writing activity. Even the students who hated this text commented on how much better the class discussion was as a result of these readings.
Associated section of English 100. My five guys bonded and became the heart of their class, explaining difficult concepts to other students and reporting back to me what was working and what wasn’t. They took on leadership roles and, through their experiences helping others, learned to direct their own progress, to assess their own learning roadblocks, and to figure out how to address their own needs. If I could teach a section of 100 for each of my 121 sections, I would.
What Needs Improvement
Road map for students. As this was an experimental semester, there were some aspects of the course that did not get fully explained to the students up front. Some of these were the steps for specific assignments or activities, and some of these were the rationale and the desired outcome of assignments/activities.
I try to explain up front what we are doing and why . . . most of the time. Sometimes, I want students to figure it out for themselves. They will not always have teachers who can or want to explain their mysterious purposes, and the students will have to figure out how to gauge and direct their own learning in those courses. If I make them do that once in a while, they can check their analysis with me without much risk.
Still, my first class each week had to put up with an awful lot of first-time-teaching-this mistakes, and they got taught some things more than once because I screwed it up the first time. These students were very patient, and halfway through the semester, they began to engage actively with the design of the assignments and the course as a whole. Both my embedded librarian and the Writing Center manager who visited all my classes commented on how “awake” this class was. So I will dedicate myself to giving better road maps and directions in future, but I am pretty impressed with how self-directed and willingly collaborative these students became, as we faced the problems of a brand-new course design together.
MLA format. Oh, this was bad. I spent so much time on research and writing that I did not have much time left for teaching students how to use the MLA code. Still, the ones that are bachelor’s-bound will have to take 122, and that teacher can pound MLA into them. The ones that are vocational students will have no need of MLA in future, and I taught everybody enough about source attribution that they will be able to jury-rig whatever source citations they need to.
Integration of Graff & Birkenstein text into actual class and writing activity. Though the students did pretty well with this, I can do better next time than I did this time. I had them all read it during the first month of class, we went over it once, and then I told them I wanted them to make the connections on their own from that text to what we were doing in class. Several students referred each other to this text to answer one question or another as the semester progressed, and, as I said, the quality of most papers was quite high, so I think they got out of it what they needed to. Still, I would like to try to integrate this further into actual classroom activity, the way I have done with 122, just to see if there is a noticeable difference in impact.