Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Rocking the Bronx --- S - L - O - W - L - Y

I needed a hook to start an AAR about reverting to doing and thinking the expected and safe thing under pressure.  It needed to be something that both I and the students could relate to.  Took quite a lot of musing and rejecting things before I remembered a story about a band dealing with a totally misleading album cover proposal from the record company.

At about 3:00, and after warning the folks in the nearby offices about the burst of noise, I put on Rocking the Bronx by Black 47.  Let a few verses of that play, as the on-time students entered the room.  Got some dancing to their seats.

Then I put up my simulation of the record company's proposed album cover with a thatched cottage on a hillside and Black 47 Fire of Freedom in Celtic half-uncial type*.  Asked, "What's going on here?"  Answers came gradually - stereotypes, assumptions, quick decisions, culture, media, seen similar associations.  A volunteer wrote them on the whiteboards. Someone asked whether the graphic designer heard the music or was just told "Irish band".  I went off these comments to talk about the human tendency to revert to the expected, tried and true under pressure.  So far, so good.  I did show the real album cover.  I think some what's-the-point confusion set in around then, and continued.

Next I asked for characteristics of creative and innovative work.  Here is where things slowed to a crawl, but slowly worked.  Ideas came, one very minute or two.  An insightful question popped up, creative/innovative process or creative/innovative product?  I replied either or both - maybe I should have waited for another student. Back to the slow drip of good ideas.  It was tormenting ME - it was the slowest idea generation session I've ever witnessed.  The silences in between ideas seemed endless.  But every time I was ready to call it off, another student popped up with an idea, and a good, relevant one.  Finally, at 3:35, we had to move on.  I asked if any of the ideas needed clarification, and a couple did.  The students asked and responded to one another, across the big circle. 

Now it's 3:40 and we're at the point I was hoping for at 3:20.  What was that about plans and contact with students? :-)  I asked how we could improve our already good group process, papers, and presentations away from the expected-response board's characteristics and toward the creative and innovative board's characteristics. Got some comments on time.  Then air-handling equipment noise and a lot of staring.  I finally broke and talked about the good things I saw (everyone bravely presenting, annotation, discussion, some triangulation, group members supporting one another) and the concerns I had (reporting, avoidance of prickly issues), - pretty much the points of the previous blog post. 

To finish, I got out the big index cards and asked for 2-3 ideas on how to "up the game" for Phase III, with my promise that this is preliminary idea generation, not their promise to always do what they wrote.  We'd see how these ideas can work in Phase III as it unfolds.  Got some very interesting responses here, too.  I understood "time" as the scheduled short duration of Phase II, and many of the students took "time" as their own time management practices.  Most focused on keeping a more open mind and exchanging more ideas with one another.  Many would go to more and outside sources with more time. 

What keeps happening here is that it IS working, although it always surprises me by HOW it works.  I need to be patient with the students' process.

* Larry Kirwan's story about the album cover negotiations for Black 47's Fire of Freedom, as told in his book, Green Suede Shoes

The force is strong in them...

...But for now, so is the fear. 

The presentations and papers showed a lot of good things.  Following the presentations and the paper due date, all on Oct. 1, we did a journal in class on big index card of how the groups and individuals chose readings, an online journal entry on the group's process (very eye-opening!) and an AAR on the following Monday. 

Everyone in class on the day of the presentation, no matter how shy or nervous, spoke during the presentations, by agreement within the groups.  They stood in front, on camera together and supported one another.  The groups organized their presentations by giving a dictionary definition, reporting on and sometimes analyzing each reading,and giving a summary with their own definition and some analysis to support it.  Three groups chose to use PowerPoint, and the only things read directly from the slides were quotes they wanted to point out.  One group agreed to speak from notes, not PowerPoint.  Quite a few spoke directly from annotations in their books. 

The papers followed a similar format, with more analysis of the question and article the student had and repeating the PowerPoint of the other groups' conclusions. There were a few notable exceptions who explained their own views on the other groups' conclusions.  Everyone's writing was understandable and clear, with no unnecessary repetition or padding to meet a length requirement.

Reading and commenting on these was a new experience for me.  Without having to assign a grade, I found my comments coming out in a much more positive tone. I've always pointed out what's right in a paper, and now issues like missing citations or Works Cited become a suggestion for improvement to make life easier when we go to writing to communicate in the final paper.  It's a whole different experience than reading a good paper and then having to deduct points for it lacking important items specified in the instructions.

With limited time for preparation, there were no sources from outside the book, although many students read more than one reading to find one that would be relevant to their group's question, interesting themselves and to other students hearing the presentation, and of a manageable length for understanding.  I was impressed that the majority annotated at least the reading they concentrated on, and several annotated others.  Curiosity was evident.  Many listed interesting or provocative title high in their prioritized factors for choosing readings.

The group processes were better than I thought.  In the journal entries, I discovered that much of the off-topic noodling that concerned me so much was the students' way of getting to know one another better, in order to build comfort level.  My decision to let most of that go was based on work experiences of digressing to peoples' weekend plans, pictures of grandchildren, or Derek Jeter's last home game, then getting back to the task at hand.  I'm still not used to the spread-out physical arrangements and dipping in and out of the electronics that they prefer, and interpreted this as some people being marginalized from groups.  However, the students who appeared to be on the sidelines stated that they were very much included in their groups.  Based on honest observations from these individuals in other situations, I believe that they are telling the truth.

The thing that worries me the most is that there was no mention of the "prickly" (using Quinnipiac Magazine's term) social factors that contribute to one's identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation.  There was some mention of economic class and differences of opportunity in the group discussions and a little of that made it into the presentations.

This post is getting long, so I'll talk about the AAR separately.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Wrapping up Phase II

My students decided that their first recording from Monday was good to go, and Molly (PC) did some nice video editing and credits, and put it up on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSb6Mt81hzA 

We think the best way to get a conversation going between the sections is to establish a blog outside of Blackboard, although I'd like us to continue to think about this and see what other creative suggestions emerge.  Only five of my students are free at 1, and none are free at the earlier times.  Maybe for future phases we can find a time outside normal class meetings where a majority can get together in a meeting room, but Phase II didn't leave a lot of planning time.

I was also concerned that we weren't really ready to meet the Oct. 1 date.  After some discussion with Thomas and attending part of the last huddle, I decided that it was worthwhile to continue if the students wanted to, ready or not, and consider it a snapshot of where they are in their thinking and teamwork right now.  With about a month each on the next two phases, there will be time to become more rigorous, and time to deal with matters like our unfinished syllabus, some students' gravitation to "easy" readings and solutions, and teamwork issues.  After the AAR on Phase II Monday, I've set aside Wednesday to settle the syllabus, and Friday for Phase III prep.

Catching up - concerns near the end of Phase II

It's been a while -

This is an edited e-mail that I sent during Week 5 to Richard Kamins and Stefano Fasulo, both of whom my section is partnered with, about our readiness for the presentation.

I polled my students on 9/25, and only 5 of them are available at 1:00, none at 11 or 12.  They favored recording so more people could participate in giving the presentation.  They figure they’re on track for Oct. 1, but I wonder.

Two groups are focused and psyched, another is working quietly, and the fourth has students chatting extensively off topic, isolated individuals, and subgroups within the group.  The students chose to have each group present on one of the four questions.  They plan to do a dry run on Friday and record the “real thing” on Monday so Richard's students can see it on Wednesday.  I suspect the bugs, both technical and intellectual, will appear in tomorrow’s dry run.  I would not be surprised by moments of depth, but a good bit of “good enough.”  I have been barely able to make it to class, thanks to a sinus infection.  I’ve been intentionally letting the groups work mostly on their own with minimal checking in, but lots of eavesdropping.  My plan is to get more involved in the groups as they get further into it and I’m not contagious or coughing constantly.

Right now our schedule is to have an AAR on Monday, Oct. 6.  I’m wondering if it’s best to leave it on that date, or push it forward to this coming Monday.  If we push it forward, then we’d have to do our recording on Wednesday and your class wouldn’t be able to see it in class until Monday, Oct. 6, although it could go onto YouTube as an unlisted video (can be seen any time by those who have the url).

As I think through all this, I’m inclined to let what happens happen and keep the Oct. 1 deadline and the Oct. 6 AAR.  

And I haven’t even gotten to how our classes will exchange questions and feedback….