Sunday, February 2, 2014

Have No Worries--Bloggin' Is Back!

Last semester I made my ENG 100 students buy a textbook (shudder!), and write weekly response papers instead of weekly blog posts. It wasn't a complete disaster (the textbook, The Composition of Everyday Life, was better than most, but still overpriced), but I decided to go back to my older way of doing business, with some minor changes. I picked articles that students will read, discuss, and blog about for Mondays; students will pick the articles we read on Wednesdays. Add in some sample student essays from previous semesters, and some peer review, and that's most of the schedule. Until...the last few weeks of the semester, during which we will read an actual, real book (not to be confused with a textbook). I gave students a list of 10, well-reviewed, contemporary non-fiction books about topics that might be interesting to them (affordability of college, parenting, consumerism, how the brain works, etc.), and they voted on which ones they would be interested in reading. The book that got the most votes was The Practicing Mind by Thomas Lerner. I'm hoping this book will help students become more "meta-cognitive", or aware of their own thinking patterns, and that the practical advice offered in the book will be applicable to the intellectual challenges they will meet with in college.

Yuriko and I went to dinner last night at the Bistro on Bridge (good pizza and duck risotto), and we ended up having an interesting conversation about the relationship between stress/anxiety and learning. We both acknowledge that many college students today show up with a nearly paralyzing fear of failure. Yet, what can teachers and advisors do to help such students (short of lowering expectations)? I made the case that, to some degree, college should make students feel somewhat uncomfortable. Pushing people out of their comfort zone is part of the learning process. If there is no risk--if one is not being asked to do something one has never done before--then what, truly, is being learned? Without a significant challenge, there cannot be significant growth.

However, for a student to respond favorably to such challenges, she has to believe that she is capable of  learning new, complex skills. Many students, unfortunately, lack that kind of self-confidence? How can teachers show students that, just because you've struggled with math or writing in the past, this doesn't mean you are incapable of improving? It doesn't mean you don't have what it takes. I hate to use cliches, but this one's true: It's not where you start that matters; it's where you end up. Actually, it is not where you end up that matters, either. It's about how you change along the way. It's about becoming the kind of person who says, "Just because I'm not so good at this now, doesn't mean I'm not going to be good at it in three months (or a year, or 4 years)." It's about learning that you are capable of learning, and taking that confidence into every challenge ahead. This, more than anything, is what I want my students to learn.

(For ENG 100 students interested in my thoughts on the assigned reading, please see my earlier blog posts about Jose Antonio Vargas here and here.)