For those of you who are new to my blog, I have been "experimenting" with peer-driven learning this semester in my 200-level writing class, while my 100-level (or Freshman Writing) class has been reading Now You See It by Cathy Davidson. You can read all of the previous posts in this series here.
While my 200-level class has been happily moving forward on their group projects, my 100-level classes have been struggling through Now You See It. I had to insist/require that they did reading journals for every chapter because they clearly weren't reading the book. This, of course, is the worst kind of way to motivate students, but there was little left for me to do but threaten them with a loss of grades. Now, however, we've moved into the more interesting, rewarding, and (dare I say it) fun part of the process: figuring out what we want to write about in relationship to the book and what we've just read and discussed over the past three weeks.
This process actually started with an activity we did in class after reading the first few chapters. I asked the students to list their major (or intended major, as these are almost all first-year students), their hobbies, and their passion. We then discussed how these three things were related to one another, and what skills they learned from one area helped them in the other areas. Basically, we were looking at "soft skills" but also began talking about why some of their chosen majors different so widely from their passions or hobbies. Of course, money came into it, which lead, once again, to a conversation about motivation. I also wanted students to start thinking about their educations more holistically, seeing the connections and relationship between what they do inside and outside of the classroom.
Today, we went back to that list and I asked them to reflect and discuss in small groups how reading the book has changed their outlook/attitude/thoughts on their major, hobbies, and/or passion. I don't think I've ever had a more fruitful class discussion. Each group was on topic, talking excitedly about what caught their interests and what they were still curious about. Even the students who never look excited, interested, or say much in class were sharing their ideas and observations. Of course, it helps when there is an entire chapter devoted to the educational virtues of video games. But students who were set in their ways (get a degree, get a job, work my job, retire) are now questioning and problematizing those assumptions, especially when it comes to the job training versus "soft skills" elements of their education. But mostly students are showing genuine curiosity and excitement for their upcoming assignment.
One of the things I was very conscious of doing was not saying to them that they needed to find a "topic" for a paper they were going to have to write, but instead asked them to think about areas they would like to explore further, or questions they still wanted to find answers to. A lot of the times students seize up when it comes to formal writing assignments, so I wanted to keep them focused on the process rather than simply stressing out about the final step. I also wanted to make sure that they eventual topic is generated by them and not either imposed by me or assumed to be what I want them to write about.
Tonight, they're writing a one-page brainstorm of their ideas, questions, and topics they are interested in exploring further. Cathy Davidson talks about the concept of the Epic Win in her book, a gaming term that refers to, among other things, "an unexpected victory for an underdog." We have, in large part, lowered our expectations of our students. Particularly where I teach (rural, Southern, impoverished, regional, state school), those outside looking in tend to expect the worst from the students. Heck, those of us IN these schools can get beaten down by the reality of poorly-prepared students. But today, in my classes, I saw the potential of these students to do not just better, but do it differently, too. I readily admit that I was skeptical about the possibility of turning my 100-level class into a peer-driven environment, but today won me over.
So, a lowly instructor at a rural state school got her students to get excited and animated about learning and (eventually) writing a paper. That is the perfect definition of epic win as far as I'm concerned.