Considering the “new” Digital Divide

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As a First Year Writing teacher at an urban, research one institution, it is an understatement to say that I teach a diverse population of students. I happen to love it–interacting with lots of different people each day teaches me about life and the world in ways that I find personally enriching. The tricky part comes when I have to buckle down and teach a cross section of those diverse people. Teach them to write. Oh, yeah–make sure they’re writing with technology, too.

Integrating technology into the composition classroom is not difficult. For some, it’s laughably simple. There are myriad technologies that facilitate writing, drafting, revising, reading…basically if you want to bring in digital tools to your classroom, you simply have to run a couple of Google searches, and you’re in business.

The tricky part comes in when I make assumptions about my students as I craft assignments that integrate digital tools. “Oh, my students will love this–it (fill in the blank with tech-y thing I think students will think is cool)!” The assumption is that my students, diverse as they are, are homogenous in their experience with and penchant for using digital technologies. And, of course, that assumption is wrong.

Lee Bessette’s blog on Hybrid Pedagogy highlights a “new digital divide.” Teaching in Appalachia, Bessette is working with a (potentially less diverse) population that fails to see the value in using technology for anything besides strict, tool-based tasks. Bessette outlines reasons for this: low-tech jobs that students are preparing for, the cultural value of other kinds of “making,” prohibitively high costs of hardware and software, fear of failure. While Bessette wants students to “play” with technology, students are just not interested.

I think this lack of interest and cloud of fears surrounding technology is very present in my urban university students as well. Though we don’t live in Appalachia, there are still very real cultural and familial patterns that keep my some of my students from growing proficient at navigating digital spaces and interacting confidently with technology. There is another aspect to my pedagogical assumptions, though, that surprises me fairly consistently for different reasons.

Bessette states, “I have no doubt that many of my students are simply using technology in the same way they ‘use’ television…: passively consuming content.” Here is another aspect to students use of technology that surprises me when I try to craft digital-based assignments that are designed to help students engage in making, communicating, and otherwise taking advantage of the network. This is why, I am learning, it is imperative to expose students to theories that contextualize the use of digital media around the classroom. Just like Bessette’s students, who need to be persuaded of the value–monetary and otherwise–of playing with technology in order to critically engage with the tools, my students need to be persuaded as well. They need to be persuaded that the cell phone they keep tapping with an index finger, half-listening to class goings-on, half scrolling though tweets, is more than just their access to texting and Instagram. It can be a springboard into important cultural conversations that directly effect their lives, and that, if they’re wise, they can join.

The Future of Teaching

What does “teaching with technology” even mean? For some, it means the virtual classroom. Others snarkily point to their pencils and moleskines, quick to explain how those tools are technology too. Like so much else in education, “teaching with technology” is at once tacit and automatic, while also being hotly debated, objectified into a thing that can be assessed, tested for, counted, measured against other nations and legislated.

Happily, the first few chapters in The Future of Thinking quickly acknowledge this tension, and aim to address it head on. Much of what is offered is not new. However, I appreciated the approach that leads through theory and problematization as much as it points to “cool” new gadgets, apps, and tech. It is a bold move to insist that institutions are networks, capable of mobilizing student learning as well as proving a framework for it. The trick, which I think the book does quite nimbly, is to begin to bridge the divide between the theorizing about technology and the implementation of it in the classroom.

One of the most salient questions, for me, became: “If people are, in fact, self-educating via the Internet, how are we, as educators, using skills to help transform learning practices both in the classroom and out” (23)? This is a question I’m asking myself, all the time. Any attempts I might make to “technologize” my classroom are–I know for a fact–woefully out of touch for many of my students. I know this, because there is a regular contingent, who every semester chooses to gather data and compose research papers on some niche digital discourse community or other. I learn so, so much from these student papers. Like, I never knew what “speed playing” was before, or who the K-pop fandom was. Many of my students come into my class knowing vast amounts more than I ever will about gaming, coding, and random corners of the web. So, how do I teach them about technology?

The short answer is, I don’t. I guide them to teach each other. I guide the students who don’t know much with what little I do have to offer. I so appreciated the section in chapter two on collaborative learning for this reason: thinking about students’ tacit facility and confidence with social networking sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, I cannot hope to keep up. However, I don’t have to feel pressure to do that:

“The best way to extend the reach of student networks is to involve youth in the learning process, encouraging them to explore their individual talents and guiding them as they work together to find ways that those talents can contribute to larger projects” (27).

I try to implement this in my First Year Writing classrooms by first: setting up my assignments to involve as much student choice as possible, and second: by encouraging students to pursue their interests, to bring their expertise to the assignment. Nowhere is the more easily seen than in my secondary-primary research projects that span the middle of each semester. Here, students read about and develop primary research projects that center on topics and discourse communities they are passionate about. It leads to projects as varied as they are personal for students. I love this. I’m encouraged that, at least in part, I’m not crazy.

There is, however, one aspect that I’d like to work on. Moving forward, I want to integrate more of a “common project” that can somehow pull together all the research work my students do. Disparate as it is, it hardly ever coalesces for students in any class-wide way. Something to think about for the future, I guess.

Methods for Teaching Writing and Literature

Another week in one of the snowiest semesters I can recall, and I am wrestling with the practical issues of several snow days. In my M/W/F First Year Writing courses, I found myself spending the entirety of class Friday giving mini lessons (I presented three), along with going over a handout outlining the genre conventions for the proposal students are working towards in this project. I talked. all. hour.

I was exhausted, and I could tell my students were, too. They were phenomenally good sports about it, but I just had that icky feeling at the end of class that everyone–myself included–couldn’t wait to just get out of there. Now, having taught at the college level for about 7 years, I have developed the performative aspects of my teaching practice. I make jokes, gesture, walk around the room (sometimes I feel like a shark, ever circulating), bring in elements of whole-class discussion and even bits of practice writing to my mini-lessons. I always, always have a visual aid–a Power Point, a Prezi, a video, a handout. Teaching is a performance, and lecturing is perhaps the most intensive aspect of this. Even so, by the end of the hour (for all three sections) I felt like perhaps my words just weren’t magic anymore. No one was really soaking them in. Why was I even still talking? Because I had to get through the material.

So, then, reading Elaine Showalter’s chapter on Teaching Methods, along with a section of James M. Lang’s On Course kind of just made me feel depressed and guilty.

When Lang runs through some bullets on the effectiveness of lecturing–students retain better in the first 10 minutes of class, in a 50-minute lecture, students are attentive about 40% of the time, etc. –my teacher-heart sank. That was exactly what my students were experiencing last week.

Such is the twisted mind of the teacher. All the helpful and practical tips for how to teach without lecturing, or teaching while still making lecturing palatable, only brought me to my recent class of lecture-fail. (at least, it felt like a fail in my mind). The funny thing is, that rationally, if pressed, I would explain my lecturing coherently. And I would do it again. Students needed all the explicit information I was giving them in order to move forward in their projects. We had missed time in the classroom due to snow days, and there was no other way for me to get them up to speed efficiently. This week, we’ll try something different.

For example, today will be a day almost entirely devoted to small group discussion and a problem-solving task. I plan to talk as little as possible to the whole class. In my ideal classroom, every student listens to something, writes something, says something and does something. This is difficult to swing in a 50-minute time frame. Which is why I’ve been thinking more and more about the concept of flipping my classrooms.

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In conversations with colleagues about teaching writing, we have been musing on the aspects of teaching the writing process, teaching craft. This works best in a writing-workshop environment, where students can be practicing concepts in the context of their own work. How can this be budgeted for in an already-packed semester filled with content that must be disseminated? (an issue that looms in both FYW and writing about literature courses…) This is where the idea of the flipped classroom becomes salient for me. In short, flipping the classroom involves moving much of the content-dissemination for a class online, for students to engage with at home, and opens up class time for hands-on workshops, discussion of the material, and other applications. I’m still thinking about how it could be integrated effectively into my classes….but with the winter we’re having, I’m thinking about it more seriously than ever.

Teaching Reading

This week, my FYW (First Year Writing) students begin their second project of the semester–a reading intensive sequence that leads them to write an academic proposal. It is auspicious, then, that this week I also read through a couple of articles on teaching reading.

In “Teaching Close Reading Skills,” Tinker et al. define close reading as identification and argument. Close reading includes, “first, the ability to identify textual details that have significant interpretive implications and then the marshaling of disciplinary terminology and an understanding of genre to develop an original argument about how, what and why a text means” (507). They describe a pilot large literature lecture where the team of authors implements several vaguely described pedagogical tricks to engage their students in productive close reading that manifests in better writing-about-literature. The qualitative study that takes us through their students’ quiz results, and a textual analysis of several papers, adds to a compelling logos appeal. However, as a reader of the study, I wished for a bit more specific description of the explicit instruction that guided students through the close reading practice. As a teacher, I’m left thinking mostly that the study presents an argument for teaching students to use textual evidence in their papers, but not how to teach them how to do that.

On the other hand, Erick Kelemen’s Pedagogy article, “Critical Editing and Close Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom,” presents a specific set of assignments as well as the theoretical backing for doing so. In contrast to Tinker et al., Kelemen draws on a technique Rosenwasser and Stephen call “The Method” for his working definition of close reading: “through exhaustive iterations, look and record exact repetitions first (for example, words and phrases), thematic repetitions (say, nature and imagery) second, and expressed and implied binaries third…” Basically, he says, close reading is pattern recognition. And, rather than lumping the writing portion (forming and articulating an argument) into his definition, Kelemen deliberately keeps close reading as a preceding step within the overarching task of “critical editing”–distinct, and in this sense, better targeting an audience of undergraduate students.

Kelemen writes that he likes to frame close reading as a way to gather data, a method of discovery, “moving form a lack to a plentitude of knowledge.” I like this, because not only dose it keep reading a separate process all its own, but it also keeps things more ingestible for undergrads.

Kelemen’s connection to Friere’s liberation pedagogy, framing his assignment to prompt students to interrogate, rather than passively recieve, resonated strongly with me. There was something very similar in his critical editing assignments to a WAW (Writing About Writing) approach (125). However, the claim that students who engaged in critical editing were “more empowered, more skeptical, more careful readers,” lacked evidence for me.

In the end, there were bits and pieces of both articles I thought useful to my own teaching practice, considering the new unit we begin tomorrow. Framing reading for my students as an act of data gathering will underscore our secondary research focus beautifully. I loved the advice Kelemen passed on to readers from Rosenwasser and Stephen, that rather than trying to find “bits” to support what students “already know,”

“…a more productive approach is to deliberately assume that you don’t understand…”

I love it! Now, how can I translate that into practical knowledge for my First Year Writing students?