Tag Archives: Voice of the River Valley

I Do Stew.

I’m so grateful to have a column in the Voice of the River Valley.

1. Even though it has a website, it functions largely as a print publication. You can see it all over southwest Wisconsin, lovely cream pages in stacks here and there.
2. It’s free!
3. The cover has fantastic photography, sometimes from my favorite photographer (hint: he has the same last name as I do).
4. It’s an audience I wouldn’t ordinarily reach. People come up to me in Richland Center, in Spring Green–they don’t read my blog. They don’t have a Twitter feed. But they read the Voice of the River Valley.
5. Regular deadlines help me. Speaking of which, today’s the 15th, isn’t it. Hm.
6. Word count maximums challenge me. I can write a sonnet pretty easily, or I can go on and on in prose–1,000 words, 1,500…. But 500 is HARD.
7. The editor/publisher Sara and I worked pretty hard to figure out what the focus of my column should be & when we landed on writing about the world of teaching from my perspective–long-time professor at UW-Richland and recent volunteer at the River Valley Elementary Studio School, we both knew there was a rich vein of material to mine.
8. I continue to be pleased with the name we settled on for the column. I wanted something to go with “pedagogy” in a way that was provocative or at least startling, and “stew” ended up being the one we kept going back to. It fits, you know? Because I do stew.
9. And so does Sara. The publication already has a pretty big audience and circulation, but she’s interesting in pushing the boundaries and experimenting, and I applaud that, in principle and in actuality.

Back to work on my 7th “Pedagogy Stew” column! The June column is available online; I’ll post it here when the July issue comes out.

Pedagogy Stew: May 2013

When I teach plot in a literature or creative writing class, Freytag’s triangle is usually part of the lesson. (Picture a scalene triangle, with a long slope upward
on the left, and a shorter slope coming down on the right.) Good old Gustav came up with his triangle in the 19th century as a way of describing the structure of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, and as it’s taught now, it’s typically labeled with terms like “rising action,” “climax” and “denouement.” (The last always gives me pause, since, as a Southern Illinois native, I grew up hearing Beaucoup Creek pronounced “buck up.”)

Asked to teach a unit on storytelling to each of the four classes at the River Valley Elementary
Studio School, I wanted a way to translate this triangle for younger students. Here’s what I came up with:

Hello.
Uh-oh.
Oh no!
Now we know.

I’m pleased to say the teachers at the Studio School have found this useful as they’ve continued to work on storytelling. Students will be writing and performing plays to demonstrate what they’ve
learned about the Oregon Trail.

When I told some of my UW-Richland students about my translation, a couple of them said, “Hey! How come you never explained it to us like that?” I will, henceforth.

We do need students to be able to tell stories well. Not just to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Not just to sharpen their analytical skills. Not just to make sure they transfer smoothly into upper-level creative writing courses and move one step closer to publication. All those things are important, of course, but what seems most important to me is that we want them to be able to tell their own stories, to themselves.

We want them, as Brené Brown says, to own their own stories. “If you own the story you get to write the ending,” she says in Daring Greatly. As UW-Richland’s psych professor, Dennis Carpenter, explained to me, the technical term for this is “cognitive appraisal.” Our reaction to what happens depends a great deal on the story we tell ourselves about the event. When students own their stories, they’ll be able to decide whether a week of insults was the uh-oh leading to full-scale bullying, or the oh no! in which they put a stop to the insults. Students will be able to decide if a few weeks of falling behind in assignments meant they needed to buckle down and finish strong, or admit that the story of a particular class ended with dropping.

I go back again and again to the end of Robert Penn Warren’s book-length poem Audubon:

“In this century, and moment,
of mania, / Tell me a story.”

We all need to do that, right? We have a lot of different stories (and, gasp! that triangle doesn’t always work for the telling), but I know what kind of story I need the most right now. It’s the very last line of Audubon:

“Tell me a story of deep delight.”

Pedagogy Stew: March 2013

I’ve invented the most amazing computer game for my
composition students.

When I comment on their essays, which they’ve turned in online, I use “insert comment” to give feedback. There are pros and cons to this, of course, but one major PRO is that I’m now confident students can read my feedback. (I have handwriting issues. Lowest grade I ever got in my life? Penmanship. Fourth grade. At the time, I was sure Mrs. Cox had it in for me, but on reflection, I
think, no, that “C” was generous.)

Here’s the game: After I’ve finished grading the essays, their next assignment is a short exercise in which they should copy/paste one of the comments I’ve made, and then describe what
resource they looked to for help (online grammar site? our textbook? class notes?) and what
they plan to do to improve before the next essay.

All right, so…not so hot as a game.

It is, however, a fairly good test of their ability to navigate the online environment of digital essays and professorial feedback. Fairly often I have a non-traditional student who struggles online. (Drop-down list? Double-click? What’s that?) It’s not just non-traditional students. We think of Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) as being 100 percent wired, but I don’t
find them to be 100 percent proficient in computer usage that helps in the classroom. They can text,but word processing? Maybe not. They all use Google, but they may struggle when online research involves a database that uses Boolean logic or traditional Library of Congress Subject headings.

This round of essays, in each final draft, I am burying a link to an article in Nature
on the subject of “distributed thinking.” In “People Power: Networks of Human Minds Are Taking Citizen Science to a New Level,” Eric Hand describes how a group of scientists came up with Foldit, an online game in which “players compete, collaborate, develop strategies, accumulate game points and move to different playing levels, all while folding proteins.”
Computer models were thorough but slow—when gamers got involved, things went faster because, as Hand points out, “humans[are] blessed with a highly evolved talent for spatial manipulation, [and] can often see the solution intuitively.”

Beyond gamification (which means structuring learning, or anything else, like a game, with rewards—like giving chocolate for correct answers), what distributed thinking makes possible is
turning those skills our students use in gaming (and, um, some of us might possibly, occasionally, use in something girly and ridiculous like “Candy Crush,” a game that reports results on Facebook) into skills that could help solve real-world problems.

It isn’t just that I would like students to bring some of that persistence to their academic tasks. I would. But I would also love to figure out how to translate challenges (inside and outside academia) into the LANGUAGE and CULTURE of gaming, ina deep and serious way. Maybe then, when my son grows up, all his app-addled gaming hours will be a real asset.
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6/15/13 NOTE: I ended up putting the link to the Nature article inside some Extra Credit directions–three students were very excited to find it. Next semester, I’ll think of more ways to make their hunting & clicking more rewarding.

I was talking about this to a student as we were searching EbscoHost (and online service with multiple databases to find articles) for sources for one of his papers, and told him I wished someone could structure searches like this as a game. He got it instantly: “Well, sure, like EbscoHost is a hallway, and….”

I can’t wait for the iOS version!

Pedagogy Stew in Voice of the River Valley

In the category of New Year/New Adventure, this is my favorite so far. I’m very happy to have a column in the very cool regional publication, Voice of the River Valley. The tagline on the masthead says it pretty well: “A guide to people and events that inspire, educate, and enrich life in the River Valley area.”

That covers a lot because there IS a lot here–I’ve been here for more than twenty years, and I’m still amazed. There really does seem to be some kind of vortex that draws in interesting stuff, and I’ve never lived in a prettier place. (Sure, Missoula was gorgeous, but in a way that alarmed me the whole time I was there–I’d be driving and see MOUNTAIN in my rearview mirror and my Midwestern brain kept telling me “MASSIVE THUNDERHEAD.”)

The current publisher, Sara, is picking up nicely from the founder, Mary, and I’m happy to be a part. I’ll be posting monthly some “stewing” on pedagogy–what we teach, how we teach it, why, whether it works…. This column will typically be focused on the two ends of a spectrum I’m involved in, teaching at the college level and then volunteering at the River Valley Elementary Studio School where Wendell attends. Also, parenting involves a fair bit of educating….

The February issue is available in more than 100 locations around southwest Wisconsin, and also online. The January issue contained this piece, which I’m happy to reprint here (I’ll always wait to post one until the next issue is out–and I’m making almost no changes here, except to add links or correct minor things I meant to say differently.)

ALSO NOTE: I’m happy to take requests. What should I write about as I’m stewing over pedagogy that applies to both college and our public schools?

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Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, came out in 1983, the year I graduated from high school. I saw no evidence of its existence in my college or graduate school courses—as an English major, I was supposed to demonstrate what I knew through exams and essays, and I did a pretty good job of it. In creative writing classes, I was supposed to experiment, but on the page, with regular ink. I did occasionally ask professors to assess my learning in ways they hadn’t announced in the syllabus. I once wrote a poem in response to John Betjeman’s “The Conversion of St. Paul” (better than anything I was writing in creative writing) and asked if the professor would grade it instead of the essay he’d assigned, which wasn’t going well. He was a sweet man and said yes, “But try harder to write an essay next time.”

It wasn’t until I’d been teaching full time for several years that I began to hear about multiple intelligences (or their close cousin, learning styles) from two directions: my university colleagues, typically with much derision; and students, some of whom were very aware of what they were good at and how they learned best. In fact, I’ve had several students over the years tell me they were kinesthetic learners and thus not good essay-writers, and could they have an alternate assignment? (For irony, see previous paragraph.)

I’m interested in how students learn, though, so I do not meet multiple intelligences and learning styles (and I know they’re not the same thing) with the same skepticism as many of my colleagues. Asking about this recently, one common response from my colleagues ran along the lines of, “Wasn’t that all debunked?”

In a 2009 article called “Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students,” author David Glenn reported on research that shows that although students may have a preferred learning style, the crucial thing, in terms of learning, is whether the teacher has designed the class to best teach whatever concept or skill is currently on the docket. To me, this is the best match-up of theory and practice.

I volunteer a couple of hours a week in my son’s second-grade classroom at River Valley Elementary Studio School, usually during literacy time. His teacher, Nicole Steigenberger, has done a terrific job of setting up a variety of activities for students to choose from, and she nudges them, gently, over the course of a week, to read to themselves, to a partner, draw in response to written descriptions, write in response to pictures with prompts, write their own stories, etc. They also take online assessments periodically, and they get a few minutes just before lunch to do literacy apps on the iPad. These students are not only learning to read and write. They’re learning to learn and demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, which, given the amount of learning they have ahead of them, is almost as important as learning to read and write.