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If you doubt the value of personal narratives in the writing classroom, you need to listen to what this student has to say

As most teachers know, every class has its own personality. That is certainly true for me, as I feature the texts and voices of the students in my writing classroom. They are the primary text.

The group I’ve taught this semester every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:00 A.M. is very special, and one of the reasons is a 31-year-old father and auto parts store manager who decided to come back to school. Early in the semester, he wrote a beautiful piece about his deceased grandfather. I asked him if he wanted to share it with his classmates. He was willing, but couldn’t do it without breaking down, so he handed it to a classmate and had them read it. That piece of writing, along with some others from that exceptional group, helped set the tone going forward. Game on.

Below is an email I received last week from Justin. With his permission, I’m passing it on to you. My goal, as always, is to make the case for the value of the personal narrative in the writing classroom.

Mr. Graham,

I just wanted to let you know how appreciative I am of you.  Through my experiences in life people are quick to let you know your shortcomings and failures, but for some reason we hold back when it comes to praise.  When I walked to class on the first morning of my college career I didn’t quite know what to expect.  I imagined that these entry level classes I was required to take would be a complete waste of my time.  My perception was sorely mistaken.  You have taken a class that would have had absolutely no meaning and made it very personal.  Thanks to your guidance on our personal narratives you turned what would have been a mundane string of meaningless words and sentences into a tribute to the greatest man I have ever known.  Thanks to you I was flooded with memories of my Grandfather that I had nearly forgotten.  There is no amount of words that I could use to let you know how much those memories and that paper means to me.   Thank you for your passion, your praise, and your guidance.  Your class has been one that I will never forget.

Justin Nowotny


For their next trick, they’ll turn lead into gold.

Here is a link to another blogger writing about MOOCs. Jonathan Rees brings added perspective to the argument I (and others) have been making about the negative consequences of the rush toward MOOCs in higher education. Enjoy!

For their next trick, they’ll turn lead into gold..


Somebody stop that idiot texting and driving before he hurts someone

When I was an undergraduate in the 80’s, I hopped into a friends Honda Civic to get something to eat. He buckled his seatbelt, and before he even started the car he turned to me and said “seatbelt dude.” I responded “it’s cool – I’ll be alright.” He said “if you want to ride with me, you have to wear your seatbelt.” “Dang dude” I huffed as I dragged the belt across my torso and clicked it into place (we said dude a lot). I thought the guy was weired; he was the first person ever to make me put on my seatbelt.

That story might not sound odd now, but up to the 80’s seatbelts were optional. Most folks weren’t into them. Heck, my dad never used a seatbelt; why should I use one? My dad used to take me and my four siblings to school in the back of his work van. When it was empty, he’d put flattened cardboard boxes back there so we could slide from side-to-side on our way to school. Now that was fun.

People who grew up in the 80’s and before often have stories about riding unbuckled as a child and mom or dad throwing their arms across their body when they had to stop suddenly. Most of us begrudged any restrictions put on our freedom, but eventually laws were passed and technology was developed requiring seatbelts for everyone. Now our old ways seem almost barbaric.

I believe we’ll look back one day and say the same thing about texting in automobiles. I drive thirty minutes to work every day, and almost every day I’m shocked by the people I see texting and driving while flying 80 mph in heavy traffic. In 2011, 1.3 million car accidents involved cell phones (I’m sure that number is low, because how many people admit they were texting when they wrecked?). According to the Ins. Institute for Hwy Safety Fatality Facts, texting results in 11 teen deaths per day!

This is insane. I’ll admit that I send a short text from time-to-time when I’m stopped at a light or on a lonely stretch of highway. But I’m not justifying it; it’s dumb for anyone to ever do it. And even though I lean libertarian politically (not in every way), I’m 100% in favor of governments doing what they can to prevent texting in automobiles. It is 100X more barbaric than the old days of driving without seatbelts.

I feel certain that technology will be developed, probably in a partnership between auto manufacturers and phone companies, that will prevent drivers from texting. In my opinion, that day can’t come too fast. Some might argue that people should have the freedom to do what they want, but this is an issue of the common good. People who text and drive are a threat that needs to be eliminated.

Why I No Longer Use Groups in the Classroom

This is an article I had published last year in Education Week. It caused quite a stir.

A recent New Yorker article entitled “Groupthink” takes a fascinating look at the concept of brainstorming. According to author Jonah Lehrer, brainstorming was introduced in the late 1940s as a creativity-inducing practice by advertising guru Alex Osborn in his book Your Creative Power. The book was a surprise bestseller, and Osborn’s ideas about brainstorming, according to Lehrer, became “the most widely used creativity technique in the world.” Whether in business, politics, entertainment, or education, group-thinking was and still is regarded as the ultimate path to ingenuity and productivity.

One small problem: Numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that brainstorming doesn’t work, at least not as Osborn defined it. Lehrer quotes Washington University psychologist Keith Sawyer: “Decades of research have consistently shown that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.”

Sawyer’s statement supports the assertion that brainstorming is not all it’s cracked up to be, but I am more intrigued by the second half of the quote from Sawyer—the part about how working alone and then coming together to pool ideas gets the best results.

I’ve contemplated the use of groups quite a bit, particularly as it relates to writing in the classroom. You see, “group work” is very common in my field—many writing teachers swear by it, as I did originally. The idea is to break students up into small peer groups and have them help each other along each stage of the writing process. In the beginning of the process, they bounce ideas off each other, and as their work progresses, they read one another’s writing and give feedback.

When asked to articulate my philosophy for teaching writing near the end of my time in graduate school, I wrote this:

Though I was initially resistant to the idea, you can sign me up as one who is going to be applying collaborative learning in the classroom, using groups to create what [Mary] Belenky calls a ‘connected class.’ It is my hope that through their connecting and sharing with one another, the students will be more engaged in the classroom, more engaged in the writing process, and more engaged with the world in which they live.

Ah, the idealism of a new teacher. Belenky, an advocate of collaborative learning, means many things when she speaks of the connected classroom. She means teachers serving as midwives drawing out their students’ thinking rather than bankers depositing knowledge into them. She also means students “constructing truth through consensus,” i.e., brainstorming. While I still embrace the ideal of the teacher as midwife, I no longer believe brainstorming peer groups are an effective way to develop students’ thinking. On the contrary, peer groups often have the opposite effect.

My Change of Heart

My first couple of semesters as a teacher, I used groups weekly, breaking the students up into groups of four to six to respond to one another’s writing at each stage of the writing process. But I quickly grew weary of the mixed results, and a more experienced teacher whom I respected remarked to me one day that she had given up on groups, opting to manage the culture of the classroom from the front rather than entrust it to the luck-of-the-draw approach of small groups. Like so often happens in life, my colleague told me the thing I already believed and gave me permission to follow my instincts.

What are those instincts? Well, I believe group work is fraught with peril, above all the threat of a lousy dynamic due to the negative influence of one or more members. Here’s the thing: I’ve only got those freshmen in my classroom for about 36 hours per semester, and I need to maximize the time to instill in them all the goods I’ve gathered for their benefit.

I’m not talking about lecturing; I’m a workshop guy all the way. I constantly walk my students through writing exercises, then urge them to share their writing with the rest of the class, creating a community of writers in the process. I engage them in conversation as I seek to connect the subject matter with their world. By acting as a moderator orchestrating the interaction in my classroom, I am avoiding the pitfalls in brainstorming pointed to by Lehrer.

There is an art to this kind of classroom. The teacher has to intuit just what it takes to get the maximum participation from each student. Some students will lead the way, under my direction, and then most of the others will follow. Others require special care, but as long as they believe my classroom is a safe place, almost all of them eventually become participants.

This kind of participatory classroom needs strong leadership from the teacher, including the kind sensitivity to each student that cannot be replicated in peer groups. In my opinion, those who push for peer groups as an expression of hierarchy-rejecting collaboration are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. As they run from the misguided “banker” approach to teaching, they fall into the ditch on the other side, missing the middle road where teachers act as diligent guides leading their students on a learning expedition.

Teaching Students to Talk ‘Reflectively’

But my main point here, looking back at my quote from Sawyer, is that the best thinking comes from working alone and then sharing ideas. This is not to say that the writer who writes alone is only thinking his own thoughts—not at all. Every person is a collection of all the things that he has seen and heard and read since he entered the world. Reading and writing are social acts, even when done in solitude.

 It’s not that our students need to block out the thinking of others; it’s that our students need to learn how to work out their thinking on their own. As writing theorist Peter Elbow says, they need to learn to “talk reflectively to themselves.” We can encourage this by dedicating large chunks of class time to solitary writing, providing writing prompts that provoke personal awareness, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity. I do this, and for some of my students, these times of quiet in my classroom are the most reflective, meaningful times of their week. They’ve told me so.

In my experience, students are lucky if they land in a small group whose culture facilitates this kind of in-depth thinking. Unfortunately, there is a very real chance they will land in a group rife with anti-intellectualism, “getting by,” and conformity. I can’t afford to take that chance; I’ve got a small window of opportunity to stir my students to great thinking and writing. So I’ll dictate the culture in my classroom, I’ll act as a coach and mentor, and I’ll force them to sit alone with their thoughts with nothing but a piece of paper in one hand and a pen in the other.

New research supporting my contention that MOOCs will broaden rather than narrow the achievement gap

I’m encouraged to see research that supports what I have been ranting and raving about: No matter what Bill Gates says, online learning is great for advanced students and unhelpful for struggling students. Here’s an article about the new research published yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s brief, so I’m posting the whole thing here:

Online Courses Could Widen Achievement Gaps Among Students

February 21, 2013, 4:28 pm

By Jake New

Low-cost online courses could allow a more-diverse group of students to try college, but a new study suggests that such courses could also widen achievement gaps among students in different demographic groups.

The study, which is described in a working paper titled “Adaptability to Online Learning: Differences Across Types of Students and Academic Subject Areas,” was conducted by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. The researchers examined 500,000 courses taken by more than 40,000 community- and technical-college students in Washington State. They found that students in demographic groups whose members typically struggle in traditional classrooms are finding their troubles exacerbated in online courses.

The study found that all students who take more online courses, no matter the demographic, are less likely to attain a degree. However, some groups—including black students, male students, younger students, and students with lower grade-point averages—are particularly susceptible to this pattern.

Shanna Smith Jaggars, who is assistant director of the Community College Research Center and one of the paper’s authors, said the widening gap is troubling, as it could imply that online learning is weakening—not strengthening—education equality.

“We found that the gap is stronger in the underrepresented and underprepared students,” Ms. Jaggars said. “They’re falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses.”

Online learning can still be a great tool, she said, particularly for older students who juggle studying and raising a family. For those students, as well as female and higher-performing students, the difference between online and physical classrooms was more marginal, according to the study.

“So for older students, you can sort of see the cost-benefit balance in favor of taking more courses online,” Ms. Jaggars said. “They might do a little worse, but over all it’s a pretty good trade-off for the easier access. But where a student doesn’t need online courses for their access, it’s unclear if that is a good trade-off.”

Kathy B. Enger, director of the Northern Lights Library Network and an online educator for a decade, said online learning isn’t just about access. It can also offer an environment that encourages minority students to more easily speak up without worrying about “microaggression,” such as a snicker or a rolling of the eyes, from a predominantly white classroom, Ms. Enger said. “There’s more freedom for students to express themselves and feel validated in an online environment,” she added.

The study suggested several ways to improve online courses, including screening students first and allowing only higher-performing students to take courses online. Ms. Jaggars admitted, however, that such a strategy could put some students at a disadvantage, especially older students who enroll in the courses specifically for easier access and who do fairly well in them.

“But then we have to figure out how to help other students succeed in these classes,” she said. “We need a lot more teacher training, showing them tactics to use to try and reach out. I think it’s difficult for faculty to know how to do that online. Not that they don’t want to. It’s just hard.”

Ms. Enger said that if students are falling behind in online courses, it’s generally because the professor teaching the course is not reaching out in the right ways.

“If it’s not working, find out what’s not working,” she said. “Then make it work.”

Teachers using faith instead of fear is key to students’ success

My first goal as a writing teacher is to get my students to care about their writing like never before, so I was jazzed yesterday when a student said to me “man, my 12th grade English teacher would kill me if she saw me now… I’ve written more pages in your class this week than I did my entire 12th grade year.” I smiled and gave him a fist bump. Most of my students really get into their writing during their time in my class. Believe me, there’s nothing special about me as a teacher, so what’s my secret? I think it’s my faith. Seriously. Faith. I believe each student has something to say, and I believe I can pull it out of them without resorting to fear tactics. As a matter of fact, I think fear-based teaching is counter-productive, at least when you’re advancing the creative process. It’s so strange how writing teachers with whom I agree about so much still resort to holding grades over their student’s heads like a club. That fear can produce adequate writing, but seldom will it produce interesting or powerful writing.

I’m not so idealistic as to believe fear serves no purpose in performance. I use fear to get them in the classroom: attendance is required to pass my class. But when it comes to writing, I’m a true believer, fully committed to the deconstruction of writing as punishment, as obligation, as rule-keeping, as conformity, as a rubric and a red pen. I don’t want to debase writing in that way, nor do I want to participate in the mutually destructive cold war that exists between students and teachers. I’m building bonds of trust with those leery 18 year olds who step into my classroom. I believe each of them has a voice that needs to be heard, and I don’t care if that sounds Pollyanna. I tell them so. I believe getting their writing legs underneath them, gaining confidence in their own rhetorical potential, can be a life-changing experience. So I celebrate every utterance, applaud every stumbling effort to tell interesting stories, form bold opinions, and compose strong sentences.

In my classroom, the person comes first, brought to life by the stories that define her or him. Where are you from? Where are your people from? What’s the story behind that scar, that limp, that name, that attitude? What bugs you? Excites you? What if you could do it over again? We write. We swap stories. Before long, they stop asking about grades and start talking about the craziest stuff. I’ve flipped the switch: their true storied selves start coming to their writing. The fear-driven student has been forgotten, at least for this hour of this semester.

Faith in others is a simple thing—so simple that it can be overlooked in education. But stories abound of strugglers overcoming difficulty because someone believed in them. According to an article in Inside Higher Ed, “A growing (but still small) body of research is finding that students with high levels of hope get better grades and graduate at higher rates than those with lower levels, and that the presence of hope in a student is a better predictor of grades and class ranking than standardized test score.” Nothing instills hope like somebody believing in you, so belief in our students is an essential ingredient to their success.

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