Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Own it

CC image via Flickr by mind on fire

Yesterday, I had one of those great moments in the classroom where I walked away with a slight skip in my step. Here’s why…

The course is English 101: College composition. It is your standard writing course offered by most colleges and universities. Students are required to produce five essays that total at least twenty pages. I still haven’t figured out why. I have never understood page length, so I challenged my students. From day one, I told them that if they could cover their topic in a concise, succinct essay, I would be more impressed than if they gave me ten pages of filler and 12.5 font. They took the challenge, and as a result,  have improved the clarity and focus of their writing. I have seen dramatic changes in syntax and word choice. Paragraphs are tighter and focused. Their thesis statements are articulate, concise statements that resonate throughout the entire paper. And above all, they seem relatively engaged in writing.

The students just finished their third essay. They have two more to complete. One of the two is the in-class final exam required to be conducted as an in-class essay. So, for their fourth essay I decided to eliminate the parameters, structure, and explicit directions that usually accompany an essay assignment.

Here is what I set up...

1. I gave them a writing prompt: “What do you want to learn?”

2. Open a Google Doc → Share it with me (You could also have them share with the entire class, but for this endeavor, I just had them share with me) → Begin outlining your project

3. For the outline, students are to gather links, images, videos, etc. that will contribute to their final presentation. Their essay is not a standard, written essay, but a focused collection of media that they will use to inform, to persuade, to challenge, or defend. Plus, they are creating a sustainable document. They are creating their own content.

4. Students must build upon this document daily. I reminded them that I would check in daily and provide comments along the way. I also encouraged them to use social media to glean information for their project. One student couldn't come up with a subject, so he posted a call for ideas on his Facebook page.

5. Each class period we will be opening up a Google Doc and discussing the progress and the topic being covered. On occasion, I may use my own personal learning network to collect feedback for the students. So stay tuned!

I told them I did not want them to think of this endeavor as a project or an assignment. I simply wanted them to learn something about a topic they enjoyed. I wanted them to research, evaluate, and filter sources on their own. I wanted them to get excited about learning and researching. Meanwhile, I would reside in the margins of their Google Docs and facilitate the process when necessary. I am still teaching them and collaborating with them on this project, but I am making an attempt to harness all the great resources we have available at the moment. I feel it is my moral obligation as a teacher to open up all learning avenues to them, not hide them.

In class yesterday, I started showcasing student work. One of my students, Kathryn, came through with a great example of what I expected for this endeavor. She is covering LGBTQ bullying and suicides. More specifically, she is covering five bullying/suicide cases that happened last fall within the span of three weeks. On her doc, she posted photos of the teens, links to the news articles, and videos that surfaced during these events. She also collected links to sites that addressed this subject. Near the end of her doc, she started outlining her presentation. It is exactly the start I had envisioned. She took control of this endeavor and owned it.

You can see her doc here.

Not only did Kathryn successfully research her topic, she started creating a resource for others. She was thrilled to share with the class and allowed me to share her story and work with you through this post. Further, Kathryn’s work provoked an impromptu conversation on the subject yesterday in class. One student got out his iPhone and posted a question as his facebook status asking his network what they thought about the subject we were discussing. Needless to say, I walked away from that class yesterday with a slight skip in my step.

I have been teaching essay writing for nearly ten years. It can be a very banal subject to teach, but when you try to find new ways to approach the core concepts of a five paragraph essay, you can create some amazing learning opportunities for your students. Moreover, my students are evaluating sources for use. They are weaving cited content with their own thoughts and opinions. They are using critical thinking and critical analysis to evaluate and filter their sources. They are questioning the work of others along with their own work and using both to drive further inquiry. In the end, they will put it all together in an organized demonstration. They can present, make a video essay, photo essay, lip dub, musical, etc. It’s their call. They will own it.

Every semester my students purchase an overpriced text for this class and many others. This reader is full of well-written essays, but it may not be of interest to them. Plus, most of these essays can be found online for free. Instead, let them create their own reader. Simply have them open a Google Doc and start researching a subject that they want to learn about. Share that document with the class and build it from the ground up. Compile news articles, essays, videos, photos, etc. about the subject. Have the students cite their information correctly and show them how to find Creative Commons media. This way is more fun and engaging. It elicits intrinsic motivation and gives the student ownership of their learning. Let your students create their own content and build their own learning environments.  Trust that they will produce good work.
I hear a lot about how we need to innovate and change the educational landscape, but I rarely see educators putting those tweets and presentation buzz-slides into practice. The strong examples are few and far between, and more often than not, we hear “This is great, but I could never do anything like this at my school." Stop making excuses. I didn’t ask permission either, but if my administration and supervisors have a problem with it, I have happy students and pertinent examples of their work that will defend my teaching in front of any jury. As educators, we must stop the platitude chat and start producing examples of innovative teaching practices (cue the more you know music). Further, what I am sharing with you today is not the pinnacle of classroom innovation. It is a start. It is an idea that I hope you steal, remix and make your own, for your own students. Don’t we owe them that?

Please leave comments for my students and also feel free to comment on Kathryn’s Google Doc. She is still in the early stages of collecting her resources, so any feedback you could present to her would be appreciated.