GUMP (College Writing): Groupies

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First-year students have a lot on their plates.  There’s so much to learn, and so much to remember!  Fortunately, when it comes to remembering the names of their professors, they’re in luck.  After all, they only have to keep track of four or five of them.

The professors themselves, on the other hand, have a lot more remembering to do when it comes to names.  There are currently 26 students enrolled in each of my four sections of first-year comp this fall.  That’s a hundred and four names and faces I’m going to have to keep straight as I attempt to pursue and develop a meaningful, individual teacher-student relationship with each of them.

That’s one of many reasons I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my students in small groups.  With four or five people in a group, I can learn names and faces much more quickly.  It still takes me about four or five weeks to get them all straight, but before I started doing group work, the whole semester could pass by and I still would know only about half.

So I put everyone in groups, if not on the first day of class, definitely on the second or third.

We’re not talking occasional, spontaneous groups here.  We’re talking standing groups.

Here are some of the other benefits I’ve discovered:

  1. Small-group configurations give me more time to work with students more or less individually.  It simply is not possible for me to give any quality attention to twenty-five individual students in a fifty-five minute class period, but I can sure get to five groups and give all five a fair amount of (almost) one-on-one time.
  2. College can be a lonely place, especially for freshmen.  A standing small-group atmosphere gives students an opportunity to get to know each other over a period of weeks, during which a more comfortable and cooperative relationship develops than is possible with impromptu groups randomly thrown together for a single ten- or twenty-minute exercise.   Students exchange email addresses and/or phone numbers, and I also encourage them to create a Facebook group.  In a standing group, they feel less alone, and they know someone is going to notice if they miss class.
  3. Many students are terrified of asking “stupid questions” where the whole class might laugh at them, but they’re considerably less intimidated in a small group setting.  Working in a small group gives the “wallflowers” a chance to voice their opinions and ask questions without having to do so in front of the whole class.  Often, a shy student will ask a more outspoken group member a question, and the outspoken student, if the group doesn’t know the answer, will promptly throw her hand in the air and ask.
  4. The best way to learn anything is to teach it, and invariably, the students in a group will wind up helping each other to understand the material.  Group work encourages cooperative learning.
  5. Small group work in the classroom prepares students for cooperative and collaborative projects outside the classroom, whether in a corporate or other work environment or elsewhere.  We discuss issues of group dynamics and the students learn, in real time, how to anticipate and try to avoid the difficulties and inconsistencies of group behavior—and to cope more effectively with problems when they do arise.
  6. Small groups also create a positive type of peer pressure.  It might be easy for a student to lie low in a large class and hope she won’t get called on—the odds are generally with her in such a situation—but when she’s working in a small group, she doesn’t have that luxury.  Students who have trouble finding time to do out-of-class reading assignments are more likely to find a way to get them done when they know their group is relying on them to come to class prepared.

At the beginning of the semester, when I don’t know anyone yet, the groups are based on my roll sheet.  The first five students are Group 1, the next five are Group 2, etc.  (Groups of four or five are best.)  The students will stay in those groups for the entire first unit (about five weeks).  When they turn in the final draft of their first paper and I introduce the next major assignment, I change up all of the groups, making sure nobody is in a group with someone else who was in their Unit 1 group.  By the time we get to Unit 3, I know everyone well enough to set up very carefully-choreographed groups for the final project—and by the end of the term, everyone in the class has worked with and gotten to know everyone else.

It’s not so bad being a groupie.

GUMP: Rules of Engagement, Part 2

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As I said last week, first-year students often struggle with forming and expressing personal opinions based on assigned reading, and with reading comprehension itself.  Last week, in Rules of Engagement, Part 1, I discussed the reading comprehension issue and offered tips for improving both comprehension and engagement.

Today, Part 2 is about the other half of the problem: forming and expressing personal opinions.

The source of the problem is simple:  First-year students are not often enough trained to think critically, and thus many of them are ill-equipped to take a carefully-considered position on much of anything.  Therefore, when asked for an opinion, they too often fall back on knee-jerk reactions, and they often do so hesitantly, qualifying each statement with an “I think” or “I feel” or “In my opinion.”

This is because too many of them have been told, all too often, that their opinions don’t matter, and to “stick to the facts” when writing papers.  Students are too often led to believe that facts are solid, static, and unchanging, and that “education” consists almost exclusively of successfully memorizing them.

And in many of their K-12 classrooms, that’s fine.  Even in many college-level survey courses, the memorization of information is necessary to an understanding of that information.

But they need to do more than memorize.  Learning and memorizing are not the same thing.  And the thing is, facts are darned slippery little buggers.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s try a little challenge.

How many planets are there?  If you grew up in my generation, you’ll say nine, because we grew up knowing for a FACT that there were nine planets.  But then you’ll stop, confused, because Pluto, as you know, is no longer considered a planet.  And meanwhile, we also now know that hundreds of thousands, if not billions, of other planets are busily revolving around other Suns than our own.  There are many, many more than nine.  Nine, or even eight, is an overly simplistic, knee-jerk response.   The facts have changed.

Who discovered America?  If you automatically said Christopher Columbus, you might not know he never set foot on North American soil at all.  Most people know he took Indians back with him to Spain, but many don’t know he took them there to sell them as slaves—or that many argue this constituted the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.  He also enslaved them right there on Hispaniola, sending them out to fill hawks’ bells with gold.  If they returned without sufficient gold, their hands were cut off.  Tell me again–why is he considered a hero?  And if we just ignore his geography and say he discovered the Americas (note the S), then I ask, Why do we consider it a discovery at all?  Just because Europeans didn’t know it was there?  Millions of people were living here already.  They certainly knew it was here.

My point, of course, is that the “fact” that Columbus discovered America and the “fact” that he’s a hero are both in wide dispute—yet a great many of today’s history textbooks persist in ignoring these debates, even though they’ve been raging for a good twenty years.

What’s healthier, butter or margarine?  Is coffee good for you?  Should pregnant women drink wine?  How many eggs should you eat per week?  The “facts” about all of these have changed multiple times just in the past few years.

Facts are slippery.

Yet K-12 students continue to focus most of their intellectual energy on memorizing them, in whatever shape they happen to present themselves in their classrooms and textbooks.

Students need to stop memorizing and start thinking.  Challenging.  Questioning.  They shouldn’t be taught to ask only WHAT, but more importantly, also WHY and HOW.  But even the answers to those questions generally constitute facts based on other people’s opinions.  When do the students get to form their own?  When will they be encouraged to form their own?

In too many cases, not until they get to college.

All of these problems have roots in what Paulo Freire calls “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” which itself is the result of the power struggle between teachers and students.

Many K-12 teachers are overworked.  Many, unfortunately, are uninspired.  Many are simply victims of a system that is the way it is, and has been that way for generations.  And as a result, many classrooms are run as hierarchies, wherein the teacher is the Information Provider and the students are the Information Absorbers.  As Freire puts it, “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.”

College is all about, or should be all about, the process of inquiry.  All educators should nurture this process.

But too many first-year students are accustomed to being told to keep their opinions to themselves.  Too many of them are told, “Nobody cares what you think—just give me the facts.”

In other words, soak up everything I’ve told you, memorize it, and squeeze it back out for me on Friday’s test, unchanged, unchallenged, and without question.

Students who question, who challenge, who butt heads with the prescribed realities are often labeled troublemakers.  Many teachers will tell you the brightest kids in the room are often the most disruptive.

Surprise, surprise.

While it’s true that most college instructors will wince and squirm at every “I think,” I feel,” “I believe,” and “In my opinion” that appears in a student paper, that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in hearing what our students think.  In fact, most of us are very interested indeed in learning what our students think, and in nurturing their thinking processes.

But this is not to say we want to hear knee-jerk, canned, propagandized regurgitations of other people’s opinions.  We don’t.

Do not tell me a writer “does an excellent job” of blah blah blah.

Do not tell me you “completely agree” with someone else’s position.

Form your own.

If you can present that position in a paper without falling back on “I think” and “I feel,” and if you can defend it logically and cogently, then you will begin to develop confidence that your opinion matters.

Because it does.

 

The Freire quotes were taken from Chapter 2 of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I encourage you to read in its entirety here:  http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html

Evelyne Holingue

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