Peer-Driven Learning: I’ll Need to Drive a Little More

We’re at the half-way point of the semester. Mid-term grades are in. One of my classes handed in their “required” paper, while the other class has begun their presentations. I have some thoughts about how each class is going and how I will be doing this class next semester.

In my “stronger” class, the presentations have been excellent. The discussions have been interesting and the the students are clearly interacting with the material in ways I could never have hoped they would had I assigned them the same thing. Class participating seems a little better, though dominated by a handful of students. I’ll have to “encourage” the students to find a way to include more of their peers in the discussions. No one has dropped the class. There have been no complaints about attendance or students not doing their “fair share.” It’s amazing.
My other class, we started with the required essay. This was a MISTAKE. Yes, it was a mistake that the students directed, but it’s a mistake that I won’t allow happen in the future. Here’s why it was a mistake. Students wanted to get the required paper out of the way first, and as a result, the class turned into a traditional course, mostly directed by me. The students weren’t engaging with the subject. Students stopped coming. Some students didn’t even hand in an essay. The course became too much like a normal class, so they treated it as such. 
Now, we’re on to projects of their choosing. The difference is incredible. Students who never said a word are engaged and excited. Attendance isn’t a problem anymore (except for a few who I think are going to withdraw). The lesson is, do the unconventional first, because then they’ll be hooked and more likely to produce good work, even on their “traditional assignment.” I will still given students the choice of what they work on, how the project is formatted, how they are ultimately graded/evaluated, but I think I will set the schedule for them from now on.
I’m fascinated by this video on motivation. What worked with my students was to let the students do exactly what Dan Pink recommends (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose), the results were impressive. In my “stronger” class, we never talked about grades. Not once. In my other class, grades became their incentive/reward/profit. And it didn’t work. There was little autonomy (at least, they didn’t perceive that there was; they saw that they were required to write a traditional essay and thus lost their autonomy), little desire for mastery (meh, writing, rather than mastery or attempting mastery of a topic that they are interested in), and their purpose was simply to get a paper out of the way and get the grades. 
Now, I’m trying to figure out how to provide this same kind of environment in my other classes. 

To Steve Jobs

I have to admit that I was really choked up by the news of Steve Jobs’ death last night when I got on twitter just as the news was breaking. Which I was reading on my iPhone. And then I got on my MacBook (the last old-school white one I’ll ever own) to read tributes, reactions, and watch the Fail Whale tell me that Twitter was over-capacity as we all took to social media to collectively mourn Jobs.

I was just old enough in 1984 to remember the first big Apple commercial that ran during the SuperBowl (although I think I probably saw it the next night during the evening news). It scared the crap out of me, but there you go. I had never seen a commercial like it. We didn’t own an Apple (we had a Vic 20 and a Commodore 64), but in what would be junior high, one of my best friends and I would stay up until 3 AM writing our own scripts for our favorite TV shows on her Apple computer (I have no idea which one it would have been. It was around 1990-91). 
I was late coming to Mac computers myself. I owned PCs, unfortunately, but when Blue Screen of Death started appearing far too regularly, I got my first MacBook. I’ve been hooked ever since. I spent entirely too much money on a second generation iPod (the one that still had four buttons on top). When I opened the box, all I could think of was that it was the prettiest thing I had ever owned. Two things that Apple, under Jobs direction, did best: design and usability. I loved my iPod, and I loved having all of my 8000 songs all in one place. 
But it was perhaps one of George Lucas’ cast-offs that, for me, is one of Jobs’ greatest achievements: Pixar. If it wasn’t for Jobs’ belief in the little computer animation company that went on to create the Toy Story movies, The Incredibles, and other classics. My daughter was never into princess movies when she was really little, but she adored the Pixar movies. We all loved the Pixar movies. Her first full movie in the theaters was Toy Story 3, and we were able to have our first full family movie, little brother included, when we went to see Cars 2 (which, regrettably, wasn’t Pixar’s finest moment, but whatever). 
It is really my kids lives that will be and currently are being shaped by what Steve Jobs shepherded into the world. My daughter knew how to work my iPhone before she was 18 months old. She could find videos, her puzzle app, her number match app, Tap Tap Revenge…Neither of my kids understand why they can’t just swipe their fingers across my computer screen to make it work. Their world, they ability to connect, to collaborate, and to learn really have the potential to be greatly changed by the inventions Apple brought to us. But, as Seth Godin said in his brief tribute, A Eulogy of Action
I can’t compose a proper eulogy for Steve Jobs. There’s too much to say, too many capable of saying it better than I ever could.
It’s one thing to miss someone, to feel a void when they’re gone. It’s another to do something with their legacy, to honor them through your actions.
Steve devoted his professional life to giving us (you, me and a billion other people) the most powerful device ever available to an ordinary person. Everything in our world is different because of the device you’re reading this on.
What are we going to do with it?
I think that’s the real question now. What are we going to do with it? Steve Jobs did, in fact, change the world by putting tools in our hands that we never had access to before. Now, it’s up to us to make this world a better place using them. I hope for my kids’ sake that we do. Personally, I keep asking myself, how am I going to use these tools to help my students learn? I started this process through my peer-driven learning experiment, but I need to integrate this thinking into all of my courses. 
I honored Steve Jobs in my own way today, but reading my students the riot act, for not performing to my expectations, for not even attempting to achieve their best. I doubt it was anything close to his infamous tirades, but while I hate being negative and berating my students, it was nice to know that Steve would probably have approved.  

Now You See It: Backward Thinking on Where Education Innovation Should Take Place

I’m in the process of re-reading Cathy Davidson’s excellent book, Now You See It (here’s my initial review). My Freshman Writing classes are done with Fahrenheit 451, and we’re moving on to a more optimistic view of the future. This is (obviously) the first time I’m teaching this book, and it’s going to be a challenge to come up with assignments both large and small to engage the students with the work. Not because it’s a difficult book to engage with, but because it’s new, and as Cathy Davidson points out, the new is hard.  

So much of the book resonates with me because I’ve actively sought jarring and unfamiliar experiences: I decided to not to attend an English university in my hometown on Montreal, instead choosing attend a smaller French university; I headed North and West to do my PhD; my first tenure-track job was at an HBCU (and as to why that’s “strange,” take a look at my picture). Even now, this Canadian city girl is in the middle of Appalachia. Every single one of these choices has forced me to confront my preconceptions and, as Cathy Davidson (and obviously others) points out, this disruption is essential to learning: “Learning is the constant disruption of an old pattern, a breakthrough that substitutes something new for something old. And then the process starts again” (5). 
(This, by the way, is going to be the “free write” discussion question I post to my students before we start any class discussion; how many of them have experienced that as a part of their education?)
I’ve always been restless. I need to feel like I’m moving forward, challenging myself, really learning. As much as I enjoyed my undergraduate experience, I knew that any job I took, any job that I was trained for, would bore me to tears, and that I hadn’t really been challenged intellectually. Grad school, it seemed, held the promise of greater intellectual stimulation. But I am forever grateful for the Universit√© de Sherbrooke for providing me with such a wonderful environment in which to learn. 
Sherbrooke started as a service city for a large and fertile farming area in south-eastern Quebec. The university itself, founded in 1954, in still one of the youngest free-standing universities in the province. All things considered, there was no reason why the university could or should evolve into one of the most innovative and dynamic universities in Canada. But it did. It’s medical school, in 1987, moved to Problem-Based Learning, and now is cited as an example for other schools to follow. It’s engineering school also works largely on a problem-based program. It always seemed strange to me that Sherbrooke was ranked in the “Medical-Doctoral” category (medical school notwithstanding) because the focus was so squarely on the undergraduate experience. 
My program was no exception. I was studying “professional writing” in English (yes, I went to a French university to study English). Our program was small, professionally oriented, but also one that responded not only to the needs of the job market, but also the needs of the students. We learned HTML and web design back in the mid-1990s. In an English program! I edited our small student newspaper, oversaw the birth of the online version (no longer available), and had lots of informal opportunities for translation. When a large group of students (from my year and others who were ahead of us) were voicing their displeasure about the program, I organized a meeting between the faculty and students to discuss the direction of the program. We were writing publicly in many of our classes before we even knew that’s what we were doing.
I was lucky. While I was being “trained” so to speak for a profession (to be fair, multiple professions: journalist-editor-translator-web writer-technical writer), it was in an environment where we were free, in fact, encouraged to create our own jobs, our own profession. It was never hidden from us that, while jobs were almost a guarantee (this was during the tech boom), self-employment and being a freelancer was an attractive option. We were connected with alumni who had successfully gone off on their own. We were, as a small English program in a large French university, a community who worked together, took care of one another, and helped each other succeed. I loved that. 
I compare my undergraduate institution with the one that I am currently teaching at. The experience for my students couldn’t be more different. And yet, this is a place where education should be on the cutting edge of innovation. The programs that most of our students major in (education, nursing, vet tech, engineering tech) are perfect for Problem-Based Learning and a more collaborative style. But, in a cruel irony, these are the programs that are most rigidly standardized and controlled by external (and internal) accrediting bodies. And in most of our other programs, we prepare students for urban, white collar jobs that just don’t exist in our region. 
One expects cities to be the centers of innovation, but I think we need to look to rural colleges and schools for new ways to teach and learn. Scratch that, we need to liberate rural colleges and schools in order for them to better serve their students, providing for them an education that they can use in their communities, to improve their communities. But, we don’t, in part because we assume that rural students are “less than” their urban (and urbane) counterparts. Those who can, leave. Those who stay…
This is, Cathy Davidson would say, an assumption that needs disrupting. Innovative, relevant, and enriching education can happen anywhere. Sherbrooke proves that. I want my students to prove that, too.

Peer-Driven Learning: The Power of Play and Wasting Time

As a follow up to my last post on encouraging play, and the subsequent #FYCchat, I’m thinking about the groups in my peer-driven learning class that have been the most “creative” in their project ideas. One of the worries that was expressed during the chat on Wednesday was that when we encourage creativity and play, it looks too much to the outside observer that we’re not “doing” or accomplishing anything. Or, that we’re wasting time. 

I’ve written about this issue before, what my “job” as a teacher actually looks like in practice: Coach? Editor? Maternal Figure? All of the above? None of the above? And when I started this peer-driven learning project, I had to once again radically reconfigure what a teacher does. And, a lot of the time, to an outside observer, it looks like nothing much. In fact, if one was to walk into my classroom, they might assume that none of us, myself or the students, are doing much of anything at all.
One particular group of students, a really good group, was killing time the other day during class time. They had their direction, decided on individual assignments for the rest of the week, and were just hanging out together. They weren’t being disruptive, as the whole class is typically a fairly noisy affair, with groups working out their projects. But I knew they weren’t “working.” One of the students had his iPad out, and the others were looking at it, asking what certain apps do, how he liked using it, etc. Another group member saw the DC app, as in DC Comics. Thus began a discussion about how DC was rebooting their entire line of comics, with each super-hero starting all over again at Issue 1. And then, magic happened. This particular group is working on the broad subject of human nature, specifically examining the question of why people commit crimes/transgress laws. Could we, one offered, make a comic book? Within five minutes, they had found an affordable ($2) app allows you to modify photos to looks like a comic book. The group decided, they were going to make a comic book. 
I was thrilled. Thinking about it, though, this idea might never have occurred if the students hadn’t been given the time and the freedom to simply sit around and talk. I know that it helped that I encouraged them to think of different ways they could present their materials, but the idea of the comic book might never have come about had the students not had the time and space to just relax and talk things out. I know that I’m being redundant in this paragraph, but to most, what I let them do is tantamount to misconduct or negligence in my role as their teacher. Instead, they’re creating something really interesting. 
Another group, on their own, decided that they were going to use Facebook to communicate and collaborate with each other. As one of the students put it, I’m on it almost all the time playing. Not any more, I exclaimed! Once again, the line between working and playing is blurred; the students are now working in a virtual space that many see as a waste of students’ time and a massive distraction, a place where they go to socialize (at best) or gossip (at worst). It made me realize that perhaps I should start using Facebook to better communicate with my students. 
Time. If we want our students to be more creative and playful, we need to give them more time. The pressure of deadlines, the limited resources, the overwhelming amount of work students often are faced with, all of that acts to create students who actively work to avoid thinking about their school work. My students are actually pretty relaxed, loose, and dare I say it, enjoying their experience in class. All because I give them time. 
Even it looks, from the outside, like we’re wasting it. 

Peer-Driven Learning: Forcing Students to Visit the Library

Today, with my Peer-Driven Learning class that is less self-motivated than the other, we went to the library. The class decided that we were going to get our “required essay” out of the way first. The required essay needs to be “an analytical essay that connects multiple texts across disciplines” (to quote our Gen. Ed. Student Learning Outcomes requirement). We are still working on the broad topic of “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class” and we’ve been brainstorming ideas as to what to write about. But, the essay requires multiple sources from across disciplines, and I knew that this wasn’t going to happen without some help.


So I assigned a short annotated bibliography. I know, this is old-school me assign/they do format that we are trying to avoid, but I am so glad that I am requiring this particular mini-assignment. The annotated bibliography is due Friday, and we met today in the library to do research. Keep in mind that this is a 200-level course and most of the students are Sophomores. About halfway through the class, one of the students came up to me and asked if she was able to check out a book and if so, how to go about doing it.

Oh dear. This lead to some very interesting conversations on Twitter about how my experience is not unique. 


In each of my classes I stress how important it is to physically go to the library to do their research. I also mention that their tuition pays the salary of the reference librarians who are there to help them do their research more efficiently and effectively. In the same way that I am a “trained” expert and thus hired to be their teacher, the reference librarians all have Master’s degrees in Library Science; they are also “trained” experts hired to help us do research. Their jobs, their raison d’etre is to help you do research. Why else do you  a) get a Master’s in Library Science and b) go work at a primarily undergraduate university library? 

But it also brings up a larger issue that I have been struggling with all semester with my peer-driven classes: how much can I “force” or require them to do? How do I find a balance between what they want to do versus what I know they need to (or at the very least should) do? The annotated bibliography was not their idea, but when I introduced the requirements for the essay, they were dumbfounded. Multiple sources? Across disciplines? Research? The library? 

When I typically assign annotated bibliographies, I ask for one book, two peer-reviewed articles, and then two other sources of any type. I expect a very brief (1-3 sentence) summary of their source and then a brief description of how they will use the source in their paper. I think in a class of less-than-motivated students, this can be an effective tool to help them refine their topic and start to move in the right direction. And I’m curious to see how much guidance my other peer-driven class is going to need when we get to that stage later in the semester (they wanted to save theirs for last). 

Needless to say, it was an eye-opening experience today, having students unable to find books on the shelves or know that the books could be checked out. But, like I expect my students to do, I learn and I adapt. And I readjust my expectations. 

Peer-Driven Learning: Encouraging Creativity and Play

This week, one of my peer-driven classes was finishing up their project proposals. They will be responsible for teaching two classes, which includes presenting a project that they will then hand in (this is a writing class, so they have to hand in something that is written). As I was going around the class, listening as their brainstorms were beginning to coalesce into a more solid proposal, I kept hearing something that troubled me: powerpoint. Four our of the five groups were planning to use powerpoint in their lessons. 

A shook my head. Do you like, I ask, when your professor uses powerpoint? Most of them shook their head. What happens when a powerpoint presentation starts? They answered that they tuned out, only focused on what was on the slide and only planned to learn what was on the slide. Then WHY would you want to recreate that in your own lessons? Blank stares. It’s what we’re used to, some answered. Because it’s easy, others added. 
The students in this class have four weeks to prepare for their presentations. I sincerely hope that they didn’t think that they would be spending four weeks on a powerpoint. But it shows how set in our ways we all are when it comes to just about everything. Students want to learn differently, but when presented with the opportunity to create a different learning experience, they chose the same old, ineffective tools. In my other class, when invited to explore options for their class assignment, most students didn’t even look at the options I provided for them. 
This inspired me to tweet out to a peer of mine, Kathi Inman (check out her blog/site for her class at USC; this is thinking differently about education). Below is our conversation on Twitter:
Ok, it’s a little truncated, but it really did make me think. How do I encourage students to play and explore, and thus find the space to be creative in my class? Should I have perhaps required them to find an example of innovative pedagogy/project themselves, rather than provide it for them? There’s still time to do that in my other class, where we are doing projects at the end of the semester. But it also makes me think about whether or not I’m doing enough in my own practice, in my own classroom to facilitate play.
In other words, should I require play in a peer-driven classroom? It becomes difficult for me to think about what I should or should not require of students. I have said over and over again that they are allowed to do just about anything they want to, but it seems like they either don’t believe me or have no idea just how creative and free they can be. It feels like I’m splitting hairs, but this is what it takes to make a class like this really work. 
I’m not the only one asking these questions, obviously. Kathi is experimenting with this (see the coding project her students are doing). Dr. Davis is using art and design as a basis for getting her students to think differently about what skills they will need in the future. The 2010 HASTAC Digital Media and Learning competition was based around games (scroll to the bottom). Over at DML Central, they are looking at making education more like Kindergarten for life; more making, tinkering, and remixing. Also, projects are a more creative way to learn, as well as more relevant to what future employers want. 
I’m still working through these issues. How do I introduce these concepts and options to my students without taking the classroom back over from them? There are so many rich and varied examples out there. Here are just a few:
Even just going through this list of fantastic and innovative projects, put together by a group of inspiring education and artists, I feel overwhelmed. And then I remind myself: think about how your students must feel. 
The list goes on. 

Peer-Driven Learning: I’m No Cathy Davidson

I received an interesting set of questions in the comments on my last peer-learning post: 

I’ve read Cathy’s piece in the Chronicle of HE. I hate to be a bit of a wet blanket but having had some experience of designing, leading and being part of peer driven teaching and having been an early member of the so-called ‘anti-university’ set up in London in the late ’60s– I have a few questions that I’d need to know in order to determine if this is an idea that can be realistically applied and allow students to graduate with some kind of marketable qualification (however and whoever determines the ‘market’).The type of class isn’t clear. Are they postgrads/post-experience/mature/straight from secondary school? Are they doing an elective or is it a compulsory class?Will their grade make a difference to their degree and does the degree have to meet any institutional or external (eg professional/regulatory body accreditation criteria)?In fact, what does the grade signify? Is it simply a metaphorical ‘fig leaf’ to cover your back or is it a rigorous measure of the learning and self-instruction?

I’ve been wanting to do a post since the beginning outlining all of the ways my peer-driven class is different from Cathy Davidson’s classes.  I could point “anonymous” to my previous posts on my peer-driven classes that outline more carefully what the purpose of the class is, etc. But, just to reiterate, the class that I am reformulating as being peer-driven in ENG 200 or Writing II. This is a required course for all students, regardless of major. They have already taken ENG 100 or traditional freshman composition. Our student learning outcomes are essentially to have students read primary sources from across disciplines, discuss, and write about them. We have a choice of two almost identical textbooks to assign to them, and a list of required assignments, both large and small. At the end of the day, if the students are using the textbook as a guide, they will be fulfilling the requirements of the course. Most of my colleagues that I’ve told that I am letting the students decide what they want to read from the textbook have shrugged their shoulders; any readings from the book will be challenging and stimulating.

There are some very important differences, of course, between my course and Cathy Davidson’s course. While Cathy Davidson seems to have had a weekly schedule that students followed (more or less), my class has been shaped exclusively by my textbook, which we would never be able to get all the way through. Both my classes are completely different in terms of our assignments and week-to-week layout. One class is much more “traditional”; the students have picked the readings, but we are working on them together, as a class. The other class has broken off into groups and will be teaching their own two-class unit, complete with a project based on their readings/lesson. It’s early, but each class is having some good results.

My students didn’t “chose” to take me, specifically, for this course. Sure, there are a handful who had me last year, but most of the students selected my sections of ENG 200 because it fit their schedule. They certainly had no idea that I was going to turn the tables on them. I have a higher cap in my class (18 students sounds like a dream) and no TA. I don’t have tenure, and I am teaching three other classes on top of the two peer-driven courses. Our college has a high number of first-generation college students, as well as a poor graduation rate and low ACT scores for incoming freshmen. The majority come from our service area, which is largely poor and rural. If one of my classes is less ready to embrace peer-driven learning, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised. Actually, that one of the classes so readily embraced the format is perhaps more surprising.

I don’t have a ton of experience being an “innovative educator” nor does what I write about or do in my classroom cause our PR office to have palpitations. Thanks to Cathy Davidson, turning your class over to your students isn’t met with hang-wringing and fainting (seriously, read the first chapter of Now You See It to see how much negative national press Cathy Davidson has inspired). Or, thanks to the fact that I toil away at an out-of-the-way university insulates me from any notice. I’d say it’s a bit of both. I help create one of the most exciting and innovative (to me at least) academic programs/organizations (HASTAC), so I’m starting from behind, so to speak, compared to Cathy Davidson. I’m still learning to let go and embrace all of this.

My job, as I understand it, is to help students become better writers but also more independent learners. I want them to becomes 4-year-olds again, where the world was exciting and new and they wanted to learn about everything. I want them to learn how to create a community, to support one another in their education, and just think differently about anything I can. I want to help them think more critically about their world and how they fit into it. These are my goals regardless of how I teach, but I think teaching this way will be more successful. Even if the rest of their educations are “by the book” both literally and figuratively, I hope they will take what they have learning in my class beyond university.

Is it sustainable for every single program on campus? I don’t know. I’m not as optimistic as Cathy Davidson, although I’m getting there. I’ve said time and time again that it’s my own failure of imagination that I cannot think about how to do my class or university differently. But I know I am doing something right as my class buzzes with excitement and begin to come up with their own innovative and creative ways of looking at their readings and the issues they bring up. I can’t measure that.

I’m not sure if I want to.

Peer-Driven Learning: Accepting Where We Are

This week in my peer-driven classes was amazing. We finally put in concrete terms what was going to be expected of them during the semester. We decided what our major and minor assignments would be and how much of their final grade each part would be worth (yes, we decided to go with good, old-fashioned grades, awarded by me. One class pointed out that they didn’t want the responsibility and the other saw it as too time consuming).

Each class is going to be completely different. The first class (the class that is less self-motivated and less vocal) will run in a much more conventional way. We decided to get our “required” paper (the essay that all students must write) out of the way first. In preparation, we will read the section of our textbook on “Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class.” We will decide collectively which readings we will do for homework and what sort of discussion questions we should address. Homework in this class will be worth 50% of their final grade, as an incentive to stay on task. Once we have completed this section and the required paper, we will move towards being a little more non-traditional in preparation for a final “project,” which can be done in groups.

The other class more closely to what Cathy Davidson imagines for her next peer-driven class. The students are already in groups (with one exception; the class decided that they wouldn’t force anyone to be in a group, so there is one student working solo), working on different sections of the textbook that they found the most interesting. Each group will come up with a proposal for a two-class lesson plan and project on their section. Once the proposals are approved, they will work on their lesson plan and project. Each group gets two classes to teach/present, with the rest of the class expected to read and participate. Once that is done, we will move on to working on our “required” paper, our final task. This class also decided to put together a rather draconian attendance policy because, as one student put it, how can this class be peer-driven if you’re not here?

I was so proud of my students. They recognized their strengths and their weaknesses, developing a class that met their needs. One class wanted more from me as their instructor, the other class, not so much. While they were intrigued by the idea of contract grading, at the end of the day, this class as a concept was radical enough; it seemed they wanted the familiar comfort of grades, as something to hold on to. I can’t say that I minded; it gives me something to hold on to as well, some remnants of “control.”

I realized that we hadn’t discussed a rubric or “scoring” guide in my second class. This worked out well, as we were going to be discussing rubrics during our weekly #FYCchat. As the chat progressed (check out the archive here), it became clear that we were of two very different minds about rubrics; some of us swore by them, while others shunned them as one more way we limit students’ creativity. I panicked; what had I done? I communicated with the students that we might want to develop a rubric. But clearly this wasn’t a concern of theirs. What if they were going to do one just because I had suggested it? Was I in the process of messing with a good thing?

And then the concept of badges (again from Cathy Davidson) did the rounds on Twitter. Why wasn’t my class using badges? Why were we using grades at all? My panic increased. The students decided, I said, but what if the students really didn’t decide, and they were just doing what was comfortable, or worse, what they thought I wanted them to do. Did I not present the concept well enough for them to feel comfortable with it? Am I still being too traditional, conventional? Was I failing my students? I’m not requiring them to put together a digital project or use social media. Should I? Am I doing enough to push my students outside of their comfort zones?

I could no longer see the success of my class, only all of the ways it could (already) be interpreted as a failure.

My students were able to accept where they were in terms of their comfort level with a peer-driven learning environment. One class needs more guidance than the other. I need to accept that my own level with peer-driven learning as their teacher is also evolving. I need to accept where I am just as much as they have accepted where they are. This is a learning process for all of us. In the same way that I try to provide positive support, encouragement, and patience to my students, I need to do the same for myself.

This will not be perfect. There will always be thing that get left out, left behind, and things that could be done differently. In a peer-driven learning environment, I have to trust that the direction my students have chosen to take is the right one. I also have to trust that I am doing my best as well.

Another way that this class is the most challenging thing I have ever done.

Turning Group Work into Collaboration

I was desperate to find a way *not* to blog about some very real drama that is hitting one of my Peer-Driven Learning classes. It’s amazing how one bad, poorly-prepared, attention-starved apple can spoil the whole bunch. And now the class has decided to break out into working groups, with the Bad Apple’s group suffering from a horrible case of regression. Unlike the other groups, where learning and discussion is taking place at a fast and furious pace, this group’s other members have regressed back into sullen, defensive silence, the kind that I’m met with in most ordinary classes when asked to participate or do anything at all. 

(I’ll be writing more about what each of the classes is doing on Monday, as well as how tomorrow goes, trying to mitigate the damage.)
No, this post is going to be about turning group work, something most of our students see as a burden or tedious, into a collaborative unit, which most see as a positive force for good in the world. It’s timely, as last week the #FYCchat was on exactly that, and much of what we talked about was how to create an environment conducive to collaboration, creation, and collective wisdom, instead of competitive units of who-did-more-than-whom. 
Coincidentally, last week’s episode of Project Runway featured a perfect case study on how group work doesn’t work and collaboration does. For those of you who don’t know, Project Runway is the brainchild of former supermodel Heidi Klum. She pits a group of designers against each other in weekly clothes-making challenges, eliminating one a week until the next-big-thing in fashion is declared the winner. The challenges can be ridiculous (clothes made out of materials found at a pet store!), and the drama…Oh, the drama. Sleep deprivation and other physical hardships often push designers to the brink, and the contestants are fighting for their creative and professional life. 
Last week’s episode, Off the Track, is no exception. If you don’t have an extra hour or so to spare to watch the episode (which is what I linked to above), you can read a pretty good recap here. Unlike most weeks, where the designers work as individuals, in Off the Track the designers are forced into teams of three and then expected to create a three-outfit cohesive line. Two groups in particular dissolve into complete and total chaos. One group gets completely wrapped up in drama, and while the team member  (Bert) certainly deserved their ire, the other two forget to actually design clothes and the trouble-maker creates the “best” garment. The other group, equally drama-filled (Him: You’re designs are dowdy. Her: TEARS), but the team leader sucked it up, said he was sorry, and she sucked it up and accepted it, they put their differences aside, ending up creating one of the winning dresses
(Personally, that dress is a big “Meh” for me, but compared to a lot of the other designs, it was the least offensive. I honestly think Heidi was rewarding the group that was able to work through, or at least get past, their differences.)
I really invite you to watch the full episode to see how the “group work” mentality can deteriorate and destroy the final product while trying to really collaborate can produce good results, in spite of conflict. The team that found a way to work together was rewarded. Another important lesson is that you can only control the work that you do within the collaborative setting. While certainly a trouble-maker who doesn’t play well with others, Bert still remembers that the purpose of the challenge is to create good clothes; the other two didn’t even seem to bother, focusing instead on complaining about how useless and difficult to work with Bert is. 
I don’t know why this realization about Project Runway has eased my mind; I still have to teach tomorrow and I still have to deal with the Bad Apple group. But at least now I have an external example to think about and refer to in order to work through the issue. A few hours ago, I was despondent. Now, I’m hopeful. I need to get my students to become the successful collaborators, not the petty group workers. 
Eat your heart out, Heidi!

Peer-Driven Learning: Readjusting Expectations

Programming Note: I’ll be taking a break from writing weekly Bad Female Academic posts, mostly because I don’t have anything left to add. That’s probably because I’m teaching again and am trying something completely new, trying to create a course based on peer-driven learning. So instead of Monday posts on gender in academia, you’ll be treated to posts on my ongoing adventure in allowing my students to decide for themselves what we’re going to learn and produce in our class.

Week one is over, and I’m staring down the reality of week two. Last week was hit and miss. The students seemed to really respond to Paulo Freire and the idea that there is, in fact, a different way to learn (well, lots of different ways to learn, but you get my drift). When I told them to pull out their cell phones and start texting their answers to question and that those answers would appear (anonymously) on the overhead, it was like I had just cured cancer. A teacher who was encouraging them to text, to use the technology that was most available to them and with which they were most familiar with? I blew their minds. 
Their blog posts (sorry, not public) on their initial reactions to the class and the readings were positive. One of my favorite quotes from a student was that they’d been trained to sit and not talk in class the same way a dog is trained not to pee on the rug. Another student also astutely observed that learning technology is only useful if it allows us to learn in new and different ways, instead of recreating more efficient versions of the banking concept. There seemed to be a consensus that the class was different, exciting, terrifying, would be a lot of work, but it was work they were willing to undertake because they “knew” (or at least claimed to know) that it would mean that they would learn more. Students were emailing me to ask about contract grading or if we could use tumblr instead of blackboard. I was psyched. 
Then came Friday. This, I said, is where the hard work begins. Now we have to start making some decisions and actually designing our course. What, I asked, do we need to decide? In my first class, there was silence. Absolute silence. I am proud to say that I waited it out, but it was painful. I have a number of students in the class whom I had last year, students who I know have something to say from reading their blogs, and yet, there was nothing. We finally got through a list, and their job over the weekend (I didn’t want to call it homework) was to participate in a discussion (online) about each of the elements we need to decide on, offering ideas, brainstorming, and, you know, discussing. Communication, I reminded them, is a key element in making this class work.
My other class was better; I barely had time to get the question out of my mouth when a hand shot up and said: “Grading! How will we be graded?” We all laughed. This class had already proposed to break off into smaller groups, and each group would/should have a technologically savvy person in it to guide communication and innovation. They also want me to agree to learn something; one student offered to teach me how to weld. Another student asked if we were limited to our physical classroom in which to hold our meetings. We got threw the list and they, too, had the responsibility of discussing their preferences online so that next week, we can start narrowing our options and making choices. 
The discussion, thus far, at 9:30 PM on Sunday night, has been a relative failure. Very few students have even post or participated. I created an internal wiki to share other innovative class and project ideas, so they could be inspired (I know, make it all public! I’m working on it; most of this is really, really new to me, too). I’m not even sure anyone has looked at it. Most of the suggestions that were made were vague and not well articulated (We should read about Class, Poverty, and Wealth because it looks interesting). I was ready to throw in the towel, declare this whole experiment a failure when I took a step back and remembered that this is really, really new for them, too. No one has ever asked them their opinion on what they should learn or why they should be learning it. While I might have been completely exhilarated by the opportunity as an undergrad, I was a massive dork (still am, obviously). My students will need a little more patience and guidance before they believe that this is for real and that this can and will work. 
I also have to remember that I no longer run on a student’s clock. Did I honestly expect an excited and intelligent exchange of ideas by 2 PM on Saturday afternoon, the first weekend of the school year? I did, and there is my problem. As the weekend has drawn on, the discussion has gotten more interesting, and more people have posted. I half-expect to wake up tomorrow morning and find that the whole class has been decided while I slept (not likely, but you get the idea). The whole idea of this class is to let the students run the show. Of course the students aren’t going to work at the same times I would do my own work and preparation for the course. I need to readjust my expectations to meet their reality. My only fear is that they won’t give themselves enough time to actually discuss; they will just post something and forget about it. 
Communication, true honest communication that represents an exchange of ideas, is something that is completely foreign to these students, both outside, but especially inside, the classroom. When I told them that I had commented on each of their blog posts, they stared at me in disbelief. It never occurred to them that one of the great strengths of social media and other technologies is to truly level the playing field between professor and student. I am just one voice in a sea of voices all sounding off on the issues in this course. The work that they produce isn’t simply to earn a check mark or credit towards a letter grade at the end of the semester. We’re all readjusting our expectations, and these things take time. 
Time, and patience. And, the strength not to lose faith at the first sign of trouble.