The Faculty Senate at Cleveland State University voted no confidence in the administration Wednesday, citing professors' frustration over planned changes in courses' credit hours, The Plain Dealer reported. Faculty leaders object to the administration's plan to convert most four-credit courses to three-credit courses. The administration says that this will bring Cleveland State in line with other public institutions in the state. But faculty members say that the plan will end up costing low-income students much more for textbooks (since they will need to take more courses to graduate) and will make it difficult for part-timers to make progress toward graduation.
This month's edition of The Pulse podcast examines various services that instructors can use to capture their handwriting or voice to embed into learning modules for the flipped classroom or massive open online courses.
Teaching with PowerPoint has been an exercise in frustration for me. I find that my course preparation takes twice as long as it should, and the results are more often than not unsatisfying. It also makes me feel muffled and absent from the classroom. Maybe this is a function of my poor PowerPoint form, of being a latecomer to a technology that younger faculty use with more ease and panache. In a way, it’s not surprising that I would struggle with it. Although I’m young and pretty tech-savvy at 43, I can’t associate PowerPoint with my lived experiences as a learner. I spent my whole life as a student, from kindergarten through graduate school, plucking words out of the air to put them in my notebook, or following along as my teachers scribbled on the blackboard. The most technology-forward moments involved the occasional projection of transparencies in science classes.
Last semester I decided to conduct an experiment. For years, even before becoming a PowerPoint user, my chalkboard form had suffered from a lack of discipline and focus. What if I really rededicated myself to it? I decided to make writing on the chalkboard my primary method and PowerPoint my secondary tool. The outcome of the exercise was fantastic. I felt like I was waking up from being half-asleep as a teacher.
One of the things I liked the most about the experience was how using the chalkboard freed me to be more responsive to the needs of my students. Although I always came to class with an outline of notes to write on the board, I knew that it was changeable and schematic, subject to revision by student comments and questions. If you compared my paper notes with what actually went on the chalkboard you’d discover all kinds of emendations and additions. The chalkboard encouraged me to be more attentive to classroom conversations, to be more confident about changing my script.
Using the chalkboard also encouraged me to package or process information for my students in more versatile ways. I could come to class and write bullet points on the board as a starting point, then while interacting with my students, proceed to annotate with symbols (asterisks, arrows, underlining). If they still didn’t get it, I could erase and diagram, or erase and do a flow chart. The chalkboard is dynamic, changeable, sensitive, immediate, and completely in the classroom moment. It models note taking and underlines the value of trial and error thinking and brainstorming, skills that are vital to analytical thinking.
I also appreciated the chalkboard because it is an embodied kind of learning. It synchs the bodies of the students to the movement of the body of the instructor. The fact that there is no PowerPoint file to download or pass out, and that the eraser is eventually coming around, means that the class gets in a rhythm of following the movements of the instructor. There is a ritual of collective focus and activity. The instructor has to be much more physically present because writing on the chalkboard requires choreography, gesture and tempo. This is of practical value but there’s also something deeper. In an existence increasingly defined by the virtual, it is important to reassert physical presence.
At the end of class, I sometimes looked at the board before erasing it. So this is what had happened in class in the last hour! I could see the vague outlines of my original plan overlaid with symbols of emphasis and additions that had emerged through classroom conversations. Here it was: the exciting record of a collaborative enterprise between teacher and students. The board recorded an event that could never be repeated in precisely the same way, even if I used the same notes to try to do so.
All of this may seem ridiculous if you teach in a pedagogical ecosystem where chalkboards are still prominent. On my campus, it seems like everyone uses PowerPoint. The situation is so pervasive that once I noticed that student pens only went up when the PowerPoint was projected on screen. If I wrote a series of items on the board, not very many students wrote them down. In their minds, PowerPoint was the chalkboard and the chalkboard was just a piece of furniture. All my colleagues, in talking about course preparation, use the word PowerPoint: I was up late preparing my PowerPoints … I left my PowerPoint at home … I couldn’t finish my PowerPoint today in class.
In my circles you can’t use the word "blackboard" as a synonym for chalkboard because everyone will assume you’re referring to our learning management system. This last detail is probably the most symbolically telling: in spite of hundreds of years of use, and its iconic stature as a symbol of the classroom, the word "blackboard" has been hollowed out by a corporation.
The problem with educational technology when it becomes institutionalized and naturalized is that it easily becomes a crutch rather than an instrument to enhance community and interaction between human being. What is brilliant about José Bowen’s well known "Teaching Naked" concept is that it affirms technology as a tool for enhancing a humanistic classroom interaction. Interest in PechaKucha and Prezi, screen projection formats and templates that discard the stale formulas of conventional PowerPoint, underscores that instructors and presenters everywhere recognize that we need to allow for creativity and responsiveness in our use of educational technology. We are at our best as teachers when we question the tools we are given and reinvent them. This happens everyday in thousands of classrooms when innovative teachers bend PowerPoint to their will, instead of the opposite. The real software behind any instructional technology is the instructor; don’t underestimate her ability to elevate a rudimentary tool or ruin a promising and sophisticate one.
I’m not arguing against PowerPoint tout court. Heck, I plan on continuing to use it as one tool among others. I am just suggesting that the old chalkboard still has something to teach us. If you haven’t tried it recently, you should. It’s the latest thing and you don’t have to plug it into an outlet or find a network to use it.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages at the University of Texas at Arlington, where he teaches courses in modern Latin American literature and culture.
The Mozilla Foundation on Thursday debuted its system of standards and verification for digital badges, which are online representations of skills. The Open Badges 1.0 project, which the foundation has jointly worked on with the MacArthur Foundation since 2011, features free software that will enable organizations to develop and issue badges. So far more than 600 groups have signed up.
"Mike" is a student in my developmental English course. He was born in Argentina and calls himself Argentine, but he came here with his parents and older sister when he was 5 and he’s now 26. His family members speak Spanish at home, but Mike is of course perfectly fluent in English, having gone to public schools. He has been at our community college for two years; his only class this semester is developmental English. He has taken this very course four times, and his choice of other content courses is limited until he passes this class.
He has a round, bright face, dark hair, bushy brows, wire-frame glasses, small features and a neatly trimmed goatee. He is usually smiling broadly or grinning nervously. He is always anxious about directions. Today he is anxious about finding words with which to describe "The Rules of Friendship." I have written those four words on the board, and told the class, "Go ahead. List the rules … or laws or duties … of friendship."
"Friendship’s a duty?" Mike asks.
I address the class, "Is it a duty?"
"No," says Adam. “It’s more like … friendship has duties. That means if you’re gonna be a friend, you gotta do this or that."
"Right! So list — just list — what you think the duties or rules of friendship are."
This assignment never works.
I mean to draw them out, to get them to commit themselves to some ideas and then I imagine complicating those "laws" they’ve proscribed by having them read William Carlos Williams’s "The Knife of the Times," a very short story about Maura, a married woman, whose friend from childhood, Ethel, also a married woman, has realized she is passionately in love with her. Then, having read that story with my students, I imagine saying to them, "Well, why can’t a friend fall in love with you? What control do we have over that? Why shouldn’t we be sympathetic, as the flattered but confused heroine is?"
Just describing that assignment, it fools me again! It sounds so good!
It never works! It’s not Williams’s plot that throws them; even the most agile writers in the class get angry at their thoughts or annoyed with me for having tricked them in contemplating discomfiting possibilities; my queries in the margin are ignored or hastily answered.
Mike, in any case, is stuck. He raises his hand. Mike sits in the front row by, whenever possible, patient Joyce, who knows from her own difficult experiences in education what it is to be an outcast. Though smart and hardworking, Joyce has difficulties with fine motor skills that have hampered her social acceptance and made her handwriting appear — though it’s not — illiterate. (She refused to accept the services of a scribe, though she had used one in high school, she told me.) Mike, in a panicky hushed voice, says something to her. Joyce whispers something in reply. Mike shakes his head and keeps his hand raised.
“So, professor, is it O.K. if I say … if I say the duty of friendship is to be a friend?”
Joyce covers her eyes and bows her head.
Especially in developmental English, I really try not to be sarcastic. So I pause, but several students in that pause tilt their heads in wonder. It’s only the second week of class and Mike has become already the touchstone of incomprehension. Everyone understands better than Mike. If they don’t, they know they just weren’t listening. Mike’s presence is reassuring ("I’m not that confused!"), but it’s also worrying ("If I’m in the same place as this guy …"). I don’t want the other students to feel misplaced. They are in the right place — but they will make progress and Mike never ever will.
If you’re a serious teacher, you should indignantly ask, "How could you know that?" Or, trying to be kind, "How did you resign yourself to accepting that?" I’ve asked myself those questions, too, because I’m quite accustomed to being wrong about students — so how could I have faith in (resignation to) Mike’s failure?
By the end of the second week, I have guessed that Mike is probably a student who uses the outstanding special services program at our college. He and I are veterans of this course; I have taught it 22 times; he has taken it or the class immediately below this one four times.
He has told me his previous instructors here were nice but they didn’t know how to help him. He says it’s very good that I know some Spanish ("Some?" I wonder — I thought my Spanish was pretty good!), and that he has appreciated a few of the explanations I’ve been able to give him in Spanish, but he says my vocabulary is poor. "It’s O.K.," he says, encouragingly, patronizingly, in the same way I realize I sometimes address the students. "People think Spanish is easy, but it’s not."
One morning at the end of our third week, he waits for me after class. I have announced the date for the departmental midterm, and he tells me, "You know I have a few problems and I get to have extra time on my exams?"
"No, I didn’t know that."
He pulls out a form from the special services program that does not explain in any particulars why he’s to be allowed extra time, and he notes the date of the midterm. "And you have to sign here so I can be allowed to do that."
"I don’t really need it, but it’s nice to have extra time sometimes. It’s hard for me to think when there’s lots and lots and lots … and lots of pressure. When there’s a lot of pressure, I don’t really care for that, you know?"
"I know there’s a lot of pressure with exams. It’s fine, Mike."
The next week, Mike asks, a few chapters into our crawl through To Kill a Mockingbird, "Why is Scout angry with his brother?"
"But … Scout?"
"He’s mad at his brother."
"Remember, everyone, Scout is a girl — Mike, you mean her brother."
"Scout’s gotta be a boy," insists Mike.
"But she’s not."
"Because she plays with boys."
"But she’s a girl?"
“Is it the term ‘tomboy’ that’s confusing, Mike?”
"Yeah, maybe that’s it."
Mike makes progress in moments, but those moments are piles of leaves on a windy day. They don’t stay where we pile them. They blow every which way, and the next day there’s no sign of them.
"Scout was a boy but now she’s a girl," he announces.
"No, she’s always been a girl. She is a girl. 'Tomboy' is a term people used to use to describe a girl who plays with boys and prefers their company to other girls."
"So ‘tomboy’ doesn’t have to be a boy?"
"It’s never a boy — it’s always a girl."
"That doesn’t make sense."
"It’s an expression, but that’s really what it means."
"It’s very confused — that word is confused, you know that?"
He writes draft after draft of an essay on a scene from the novel, and I cross out and query his logic or his bewildering accounts of the book. I return draft after draft to him. He is proud of his persistence. This rare quality, which I aspire to and always admire in others, is finally the quality that convinces me Mike’s hopes for educational progress are hopeless. If he weren’t trying so hard, I could keep thinking of ways to try to motivate him. But he is trying so hard. I’m stumped.
"I worked on the revision you gave me back yesterday, because that’s all I really have to do. I don’t have a job, and so I like to sit at my computer and I do my work really fast. I think you’ll like this new one I did. It has everything you said I should say.”
Because he can’t do much with the queries I make (e. g., "Where do you see this in the chapter?" "Is this you or the author making this observation?"), I have been crossing out and rewriting his phrases into sense and instructing him to simply type up what he sees there on the page. Copying what I have written or copying sentences by Harper Lee, it turns out, is quite enough of a challenge. After four or five weeks, we have built an essay about To Kill a Mockingbird. If you don’t look too closely, the essay seems to make sense.
"But this is good, right, professor?"
"Well, it’s getting clearer.”
“But it’s good?"
“Clearer. So, yes, clearer is better, Mike."
During revision time in the computer lab, I have him read new drafts or paragraphs aloud to me and I, holding my own copy, stop him if he doesn’t hear his frantic wandering circlings or missed words. He misreads his own writing and I check him: " 'She seen me,' you wrote."
He’s continually reading my face — I am perplexed by his confusion. "Oh, oh!" he says. He starts his random guessing: "'She didn’t seen me'? …" He studies me. "That’s not right," he concludes. "I can tell!"
"Right. So …"
"Oh! She saw me!"
"Right — and you read it aloud as 'saw' — but you wrote it as 'seen.'"
"Why did I do that?" he asks grinning. He turns and looks over his hunched shoulder at his classmates. He is smiling in embarrassment, though no one else — they’re all typing away -- has witnessed his mistake. "I know what I mean, but I don’t write it. It’s confused. It’s confusing. What’s the difference, confused and confusing? You say both things on my papers sometimes."
"Sometimes I’m confused; sometimes what you write is confusing — producing … making confusion. So, Mike, let’s try to get you to use your ear to check. Go on, we’ll continue, but you can do this on your own, too."
The next day, another draft.
"So this is my sixth draft, professor. You think this’ll pass me?"
"Do I think this will get your portfolio to pass? … No, probably not."
He grins. Had he heard right? "You’re teasing, right, professor? You like to tease."
"I do tease too much … but, no, I wasn’t teasing — Mike, the main thing is to make progress. Your writing is very confusing — even to you! We have to work on that.”
"But I could still pass the class, right?"
"You could — but you don’t need to think about that." He cannot pass! Why am I lying? He will never, ever pass the exams.
“So you think I could pass?” he says quickly, eagerly.
"Right now …" I pause and reflect.
What is encouragement but the faith in progress? I cannot and will not encourage him. I’m going to take back my lie. I’m going to tell him no, never, he’ll never get out of this class and this course. I’m going to be teaching this course until I die and he’ll still be taking it. "Right now, Mike … it doesn’t look likely."
"But if I work real hard …"
"If, somehow, the confusion disappears, then it’s possible."
"It is possible," says Mike. "I can write not so confused, right, professor? And then I’ll pass for sure."
"Let’s get back to work. But I can’t see any more drafts of this because I need time to look at everyone else’s third drafts."
"I have faith in me and you have faith in me, too, right, professor?"
"I know, Mike, that you’re going to work hard. That’s my faith."
He takes a long look over his shoulder, as if to refute his doubters, Pyotr, Adam, and Beatrice, and announces, "I’ll work hard and professor says I’ll climb out of this class!"
A couple of weeks after the midterm, one of my kindly colleagues returns to me my students’ exams. (In our developmental courses we instructors evaluate one another’s students’ exams and portfolios; I’ve come to like this system, as we can all take comfort that the judgments the students receive don’t wholly depend on our personal biases.) "I think I missed on one," says Luisa, with perplexity. "There was something going on and I couldn’t follow it. Miguel, I think it was."
"Mike — yes." That day I hand back the midterms and the other professor’s responses and then meet for a few minutes with each student about the exam. Mike tells me, "I did pretty good!"
"Which part did your reader like, Mike?”"
"None of them really — but she said I could probably do better. I could probably be more clear. So that means I’m doing better."
I will hear, a year later, from Mike’s teacher in the same course, that when Mike showed up to her classroom to take the midterm, she expressed her surprise. "Mike, you want to be here?"
"Yes, here. I know my rights."
“I mean … that’s fine.”
“I can take it here. You can’t stop me.”
“That’s fine, Mike! But you won’t be able to have extra time if you take it here.”
"I know that! I just want to be like everyone else, that’s all."
"Oh." (My colleague: "That’s what got me. After all, his goal’s pretty humble. It’s just … I don’t want to admit it even to myself, but I don’t think I can help him get there.")
The last day of the semester usually seems anticlimactic. The last day used to mean so much to me when I first started teaching. Now the goodbyes are less regretful, less complicated. It’s a cycle rather than an end, I tell myself.
For the developmental class, it’s results day: the students receive their portfolios and their reading scores. If they pass both, they can take the systemwide writing exam and graduate to Freshman English, where they can finally see their time and money paying off in their pursuit of an associate degree. In my office, I gather their portfolios — cross-graded by my colleagues — and leave early for the classroom. I want to see Mike, who is always early, before his classmates arrive. When I arrive he and Adam are there. I have also brought two boxes of doughnuts. I lay the cartons on a desk to the side and open them. "Have one."
"I’m going to wait," says Mike. "I want to see first if I passed."
"Adam?" I say, nodding at the doughnuts.
"Don’t mind if I do!"
I sit at my desk with the stack of student portfolios before me. “Who’s first?”
"We were on the same elevator," says Adam. "Go ahead, Mikey."
Before he approaches, I feel Mike’s eyes trying to read me. Hope? Hope? Hope!
I feel stone-faced, like a judge. How can Mike possibly think he can pass? How?
He sits at the chair to my right beside my desk.
"I passed, right?"
From the stack of portfolios I take his and push it across to him.
"This is my portfolio," he says.
"I should read it?"
“Should I?” he asks. He is desperate to read congratulations in my expression.
As I watch him hesitate, his fingers rubbing at the portfolio cover, his body slowly rocking in the chair, I groan, "You didn’t pass, Mike!"
His mouth goes tight; his round, mobile features go numb. He has never been at a loss for rambling, panicked, anxious words.
The portfolio before him remains unopened. I reach over, he pulls his hand off, and I open the cover.
Imagine a sawn tree just before it’s pushed over. Is it wobbling? Is it unnaturally still because it’s about to topple? I see that stillness in Mike.
I extract the evaluation sheet from the portfolio. "Now look — your revised essay, the one on To Kill a Mockingbird, the one you worked hard on, that’s ‘Satisfactory-minus.’ The professor who read it liked it, for the most part. … See?" I read aloud her comment.
Mike isn’t responding. He is looking at me, not reproachfully, as far as I can tell, or angrily, but as if he has been sentenced to life in prison for a parking ticket. Then I realize he is doing all he can in order not to cry. I am his executioner and in the absence of his voice I am the one babbling. I encourage him!
"You made progress with that essay, Mike. You made some progress. It’s O.K. … it’s not a failure," I lie. "Are you O.K.?"
He doesn’t answer. I close the portfolio.
"Mikey," Adam’s voice calls out from the back of the classroom, "it’s cool. You’ll make it next time."
Mike doesn’t turn. His reproachful eyes land on mine. His eyes are watery but he does not cry. I look down in shame. I see his hand take the folder and when I look up he is lifting his backpack as he rises from the chair.
I say, "Take a doughnut, Mike."
He turns and walks out the door.
I want to lay my head on my desk, but I hear the chatter of voices in the hallway.
Adam says, "I told him before you got here that it might take like two semesters."
For Mike it might be "like forever." He will be here forever, and I will be here forever in that purgatory of non-progress.
I sigh. "You passed, though, Adam. Congratulations."
"I know — anyway, I thought I would. I didn’t want to get too cocky or be too happy while Mike was still here."
The other students are arriving and someday Mike will be back.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.