From Jennifer Ball
Mon, Sep 29, 2008 at 12:37 AM
So... I'm writing to you about teaching. Post this or not, but I thought you'd be interested in my small classroom achievement this week:
My class on pedagogy - at The Graduate Center, CUNY - is going very well. In fact, I feel a little guilty about it because I feel certain that I am getting more out of it than they are. Every week, we have great discussions and I get 12 unique views on teaching. I bring in my own teaching materials and I get 12 critiques. I see their assignments, syllabi, and teaching plans and I have so many things that I am excited to try out in my own undergraduate classes. Most importantly, it is pushing me to experiment more than usual in my Early Medieval Art class. So this week, I began something very different for me.
After a few years of trying various approaches to the upper level undergraduate research paper assignment, I decided to throw it all away and start from scratch. In the past, I tweaked this and that aspect of the assignment. I introduced classroom and library exercises but still most of my students failed to even get a good topic going. The ones who did it well would have no matter how my assignment looked, but there were always a number who did not do great research or writing. This year I decided to do group oral presentations instead. The group, who ultimately participates in the grading process by evaluating the other members of the group, I am hopeful will push the individuals to keep to a timeline and meet the smaller deadlines along the way - they have to hand in a written topic, an outline of their presentation, and an annotated bibliography. I have been breaking the research paper into mini steps for some time but students think (perhaps they know) that the final paper is really what matters and simply phone in the other assignments. The final presentation, conversely, is lower stakes - it is not written down of course and only counts for 25% of the overall grade. But the process of the assignment I hope will teach these research and preliminary writing skills that I haven't been able to capture in many of my students thus far.
This past week, I began the assignment by putting them into their assigned groups and giving them each an image. Using that image as the jumping off point, they had to create a mind map of the image in which the group free associates and literally draws all over the image, writing down questions, ideas about the work, connections to it - in essence they were brainstorming collectively. After that, they had to assemble the random notes surrounding their image into categories, putting like ideas together until they whittled it down to 4-5 questions. From there they discussed which of those might be worth further research - a potential topic for a paper. Wow! It went well. I had to kick them out of the room and each group left the room with a 'to do' list and a meeting date for their group to finalize their topics. I learned about mind mapping - something that I do from time to time but had never named it as such - at a workshop on the teaching of writing. This was my first try in the classroom. The images that I gave each group were unknown to them, so I was slightly nervous. But it worked so well, I wanted to write you about it.
p.s. I read your friend Bill's posting on his lame classroom setup and was laughing - that doesn't hold a candle to how ridiculously bad mine is (at Brooklyn, not at the Grad Center where the rooms are pretty nice). He's needs to come to the bowels of public education and teach in classrooms that have not changed since 1930.