Sunday, September 15, 2013

"American-style Teacher, What's my Score?"

The issue of assessment has already come up a couple of times this semester.  On my syllabus, I told learners that I would not be using any form of quantified grading.  I explained that I would not be attaching a number to anyone's writing.  Instead, I explained that I would be responding honestly to their work and giving them feedback based on my personal reaction to their writing.  At the end of this explanation I slipped in, "that means you will get an 'A' as long as you do all the work and turn it in on time."
I initially thought that the primary issue arising out of this would be the power that I was (perhaps) relinquishing.  It was my intention that this policy would lead students to take more risks, to write in a more personalized way, and to get beyond the need to conform to a set of technical norms.  Perhaps this will still happen, but if it does, it won't simply be because I have removed grades.... it will require a positive alternative that transforms this policy from 'the absence of grades' into 'the presence of... well... something else.'
A student visited me in my office yesterday.  He had a specific question about a lesson we had done on 'agency' in descriptive writing (I'll post on that shortly).  After clarifying the gist of the lesson, he proceeded to pull out the written assignment I had just returned to him.  He asked me, "where can I find the score for my assignment?"  I looked at his paper and saw a few of my own comments scrawled here and there around his short essay.  He went on, "when I was in high school, my teacher always commented on specific problems and gave me a score so I could improve my writing."  This struck me as a reasonable critique of what he may have perceived to be a haphazard response to his work.
After I explained my policy for assessment once again, he went on to say, "I think you are an American-style teacher."
At first I had the knee-jerk response of wanting to subvert this designation.  I told him that my high school writing experience hadn't been so different from his.  But if I'm being honest with myself, I'd also have to admit that it felt good that my teaching was 'recognizable' in some sense.  Even if reductive, it was something that might make sense to learners... a loose logic that might translate my odd decisions into a recognizable pedagogy.
But another statement by this student really stuck with me.  He said, "in the past, teachers would give me a score, tell me what I did wrong, and I could improve my writing."
This complicates things because it brings into focus the fact that he (along with many other learners) have probably developed a system for dealing with more standardized forms of assessment.  I have to wonder if my insistence that 'grades are bad' or 'numerical scores & rubrics must be avoided' in some way puts students in the position of not knowing how to respond to my comments... of not understanding exactly how or what it means to improve in our class, and of recognizing my goals only insofar as they conform to a reductive notion of an 'American-style.'
I have to recognize that the decisions I make might be chalked up to broad cultural references that only serve to obscure and oversimplify what I'm trying to accomplish.
So the challenge I see at the moment will be in finding an alternative to grading that is more than simply the negation of standardized/quantified rubrics.  Any attempts to provoke learners to think about writing within our classroom community in new ways will have to be fueled by feedback that speaks to this issue.
In a fantastic essay on the more general issue of rubrics, Alfie Kohn describes research in educational psychology that challenges the benefits of rubrics in writing classes.  Research states that, focusing too much on the quality of one's performance (how well one is doing on a particular assignment or task) leads to more superficial thinking, an excess of attention on being 'correct', and an inability to function in ambiguous learning environments.  Writing, in its most technical and sterilized sense, improves while the capacity to create original and relevant work for a particular audience is all but forgotten.
My unique challenge here is to grapple with the cultural (or perceived cultural) dichotomies that tend to reduce the complexity and the potential of alternative forms of assessment.  So... perhaps in my next class, I will present this problem briefly, and try to incite a conversation about how I can best help learners improve their writing.

This will begin with four written questions:

- Why do you believe that I choose not to use grades or rubrics to assess your writing?
- What do you think are the possible benefits of this method of assessment?
- What do you think are some weaknesses of this approach?
- What other kinds of feedback do you think would be more beneficial to you?

I'll post later on how this turns out....

Friday, September 13, 2013

Cross-cultural and multilingual Writing

The first week of classes is under my belt.  These two courses are pretty similar to other writing classes I've had in that 1) all students are multilingual writers, 2) there is a pretty wide range of English proficiencies, 3) students have a wide range of ideas as to what they need to do to improve their writing.  These classes are different from many of my past experiences in that 1) there is no shared L1 that everyone in the class has access to, and 2) students seem to be pretty strongly divided along national and linguistic lines.

To put it another way, I feel pretty comfortable with content issues and much more unsure about the social and cultural aspects of the course.  This will probably be an ongoing concern as the course goes on.

That said, there is a pretty clear divide between my initial concerns over the social dimensions of our writing experiences, and the needs expressed by students.  To put it simply, there has been a pretty strong call by students to emphasize technical issues in their writing... things like building vocabulary, varying sentence structure and length, addressing structural, organizational, and grammatical components.  Of course, this is no surprise.  It's perfectly understandable that learners would want to focus on objective goals, if for no other reason than the fact that creating then reading objective goals leads to a record of learning.  But as a teacher, I find myself in the familiar position of positing technical skills against socially meaningful engagement.

I started to make an effort to think beyond this tired dichotomy, and I stumbling on some work that is waaay out of my field may have given me an idea.  Neuroscientists have recently been excited about a model of learning that distinguishes between crystallized learning and fluid learning.  It strikes me as pretty similar to a lot of the models of learning that became popular in the mid to late 20th century.  "Knowing that" versus "knowing how" via Ryle, learning versus acquisition via Krashen, explicit knowledge versus habitus via Bourdieu... not to say that these theories are synonymous or even compatible.  But on some level these seem to be different ways of describing and understand pretty similar experiences.  Only now, the crystalized versus fluid model posed by neuroscientists seems to be trying to pin down exactly how these experiences are patterned into neural pathways.

To put it simply, crystalized knowledge would be those facts that we unequivocally 'know'.  I 'know' that Seoul is the capital of South Korea.  I 'know' that behaviorist learning theories preceded cognitive theories in the history or SLA.  I know my address.  This is knowledge that we possess, that we can reiterate, that we can pass down as fact.  Fluid knowledge addresses our working memory and speaks more closely to processes of adaptation and response to various challenges.  In other words, fluid knowledge touches on processes of learning how to solve problems that we have never faced and adapting to social settings that we have never encountered.  It is a continually evolving activity of learning how.

What I like about my (admittedly very reductive) version of this model is that it doesn't require me to reject or deny technical or adaptive aspects of learning.  These are not oppositional.  They are complimentary.  In terms of the writing course, technical knowledge based on the passing down of established norms in academic writing is not necessarily working against my efforts to invoke a more fluid and socially dynamic model of learning/acculturation that I believe to be at the heart of all writing practices.  This means that I have to concede that teaching various writing techniques and established strategies can act as a way into some of the more complex and interesting issues of audience, tone, positioning, and power in writing.

So that's my momentary compromise.  The only practical result of which has been a lesson on two kinds of meaning.

It went as follows:

Meaning can refer to referential meaning in a piece of writing, just as it can refer to the sense of a piece of writing.
For example, if I say something like, "I am the greatest writer in the world!" referentially this would mean something like:  the writer/speaker is making a claim that s/he is 'greater' than any other living being who claims to be a writer.
It is a fairly straightforward, even objective component in meaning.  But it is only a small part of what meaning can do.  If one were to focus on the sense of this statement, one would have to consider the impact, interpretation, or impression that this statement conveys.  In other words, if I were to make such a statement, there is a good chance that I'd be seen as arrogant, cocky, or delusional.  But with 'sense' there is an inherent contextual aspect.  If I were to say this to a colleague, s/he might interpret it as a challenge.  If I were to say this to my wife, she may understand that I am just trying to boost my confidence.  If I say it to a psychoanalyst, s/he may interpret it as overcompensation for a deeper insecurity.  None of these interpretations can be said to be objectively more correct than others.  Further, it needs to be understood that the original statement emerged in/from a specific context and therefore its sense can't be fully distinguished from the social setting in which it was stated.  In other words, it's complicated.  That's why most of the language tests we have devised tend to disproportionally favor referential meanings.

So, the exercise is this....
Take several sentences from learners' writings.  String them together into a short paragraph and have small groups interpret the sense/tone/feeling of the piece.  Question prompts may look something like this:
- What is your impression of the writer?  What kind of person is this?  In one or two words, what does the writer want you to remember about her/him?
- Which particular words  seem to reinforce this sense?
- How could this short paragraph be rewritten to convey a different sense of the writer?  What alternate words or phrases would you use if you wanted to convey a sense of "confidence" / "sheepishness" / "excitement" / "childishness" or "child-like naivety?"

The following clip might serve as an entry into the idea that grammatical rules and structural norms do not fully describe what's going on in a piece of writing.

I asked learners to read short self-introductions that they had prepared for class.  But while reading them out loud, they had to adopt a voice that was present in this clip.  This was meant to allow them to convey a tone or a sense of themselves that couldn't be limited to the technical aspects of their writing.  If nothing else, it was an attempt to place the 'meaning' of their writing in its expression to the class.  For homework, learners are asked to rewrite their self-introductions with a specific voice in mind and they are to select a unique font that they believe captures this voice/tone.