Giant Post-Its

Trust your students to make the right call: When students shape assignments

Meetings with faculty, favorite comfort food, field research, hot cocoa, potatoes, and blogging. We covered so much today in UNIV 1820 that it was almost as hard to decide what to write for this week as it was to leave after class was finished. But all-in-all my take-away from class is that first-year undergraduates are much more interesting and capable than, in my experience, many people recognize. My evidence? Today, probably without realizing, my mixed-major class set and advocated for the value of college-level writing expectations for one of their major assignments. My Teaching Assistant and I just let them loose, and they did the rest.

The Assignment: In this course students will receive writing guidance and feedback on a minimum of two Blackboard blog posts. The content will be wholly student-driven, consisting of each individual’s spin on coverage of one UConn Reads event on campus (attendance is required) and one weekly topic from class. An optional third blog post can be on any other UConn Reads event, class weekly topic, or approved alternative topic of relevance to the course. Only 1-3 students can cover any one topic, so that they can all have reasonable publication opportunities. Students are expected to read the blogs posted by their peers every week so that at the end of class they can nominate the blogs they want to be submitted for a publication opportunity, with the author’s permission. We will only pass on posts my TA and I approve that also receive confidential “yes” votes from more than 50% of the students.

Pre-Class Homework: To give them some frame of reference for this lesson, students were required to review at least two (somehow relevant) blogs prior to coming to class today. Students knew that they would need to give specific examples of what they though worked well and what was ineffective, but that was all.

In-Class Activity: In class today I explained the way voting would work for publication. And I emphasized that everyone would be accountable to the whole community of learners in our class because everyone will need to read the blog posts their peers create. And any published blog would represent out community. Their most important task of the day was to use what they learned from reading other blogs to collaboratively determine what “accountability” would look like, first in small groups, then all together. In other words, how will we differentiate a strong submission from a weak submission? This is what they created once the four small groups came together:

Characteristics of Strong Blogs Characteristics of Weak Blogs
Creativity / Originality “Copy and Paste”
Personal Anecdotes / Pictures Offensive Language
Respectful Controversy Uncited Sources
Engaging Grammar Mistakes
Clear Organization and Design No Personality
Relevant Content Repetition
Thought Provoking Solely Focusing on Self
Relatable, Conversational Tone Unsupported Opinions
High-Quality Images No Variety
Off Topic

Although they didn’t use the same terms we might use as instructors, I was impressed that they identified core writing elements that would be valued in their academic writing as much as a blog. Specifically, said they wanted to see voice, academic honesty, engagement with ongoing discourse, critical and creative thinking, professionalism, and well-supported arguments. Students most passionately spoke against plagiarism (though, not using the term) because it was seen as disrespectful of other writers, lacking meaningful engagement with the topic, and otherwise reprehensible work. Other students shared equally vehement arguments for proofreading final products, for rooting ideas in larger debates, and against forwarding unsupported arguments.

Needless to say, if I had created and disseminated a grading rubric I would have hit on all of the same standards my students developed for their assignment. But this exercise was infinitely more enjoyable. And because they have not only selected their prompts, but also their grading guidelines, I expect to have greater buy-in. I’m looking forward to reading their posts!

Films, Easter Eggs, and Snow: How to Prepare for Spring Semester

This week I’ve been completing final preparations for spring semester. In New England this necessarily includes planning in some flexibility for the likely weather interruptions. When teaching a course, such as mine, that only meets once a week it’s especially important if you want to avoid make up sessions outside of regular class hours. I learned this the hard way one year when I taught on a Monday in spring. Between holidays and and snow storms my class never met in person until the fourth week of the semester. I was able to shift course content to Blackboard on the fly. But to avoid that anxiety and confusion for both me and my students I simply build in online alternatives right from the start.

For this course I thought it would be fun to include some streaming video options using library resources and the film’s websites, if the filmmakers have authorized a free streaming version of their documentaries. Of course, I wanted to make good choices about which films might be useful and how, so I’ve watched more food-related film over the last couple of weeks than I ever knew existed. My films-to-review list included Food Inc, The Healing Effect, Forks Over Knives, Fresh, Food Matters, The Harvest, The Dark Side of Chocolate, and Super Size Me, among others. Watching all of these films in succession left me feeling ethically (and occasionally physically) uneasy about eating much of anything.

This was especially difficult because two of these films are part of a body of work left behind by my friend U. Roberto Romano whose work I was cataloging for historical preservation before his untimely passing just over a year ago on November 1, 2013. However, I feel like this would have been a gut reaction for others as well. Through this film review process I not only prepared myself for snow days and meaningful course enhancement options, but I also prepared myself for the possibility that this semester’s content might prove emotionally difficult for students. While the former was logistically productive, the latter was by far the more meaningful takeaway. This inspired me to seek out campus resources to produce short video lectures that will contextualize the films and include any trigger alerts that I should share before a screening of the particular film.

Because this is a technology supported course, not a fully hybrid or online class, I also took time to incentivize the students to regularly utilize and explore the site. For the second year in a row, I’ve done this by hiding Easter eggs in the Blackboard course content they’re expected to review in the next couple of weeks. The first student to post a screen shot of the Easter egg in our discussion board gets a prize the next time we meet for class. The rules are that an Easter egg stays in play until a student finds it. But as soon as a prize is claimed it is taken down and a new Easter egg is hidden somewhere on the site that I expect engaged students might find. It’s a game that lasts all semester and adds some competition and comic relief to the class.

With these steps behind me, I finally feel ready for the students to return to campus. I have my films and Easter eggs ready for the snow. And I have my tissue box next to a plush penguin basket filled with an array of hand sanitizers for meetings with students battling winter colds. Bring on spring.