Friday, April 29, 2011

With our powers combined...

Group work has a nasty reputation. Perhaps it is one school project too many where you do all the work and a bunch of slackers take the credit (or conversely, where a bossy know-it-all takes over everything and isn't open to alternative thoughts or the suggestion that there's more to life than a presentation about the food pyramid or whatever). Everyone has a horror story or two.

What makes it so difficult?

 With collaboration of any kind, you're forced to examine how you work: your thought processes, how you make decisions, how you define and divide tasks, what your priorities and goals are, and your procedures and timeline for completing the work. These are usually unconscious, but in a group setting, you have to confront them because everyone else's will be different. This is where the conflict comes in: in trying to accommodate different assumptions, methods, goals, and work styles. What makes things even more difficult is that most people give very little explicit instruction in how to negotiate, compromise, work out a plan, and find ways to use the strengths of all group members. Furthermore, even group leaders who want to specifically design plans around the strengths of their group members have difficulty because most people don't know what their strengths are, and if they do, they often have trouble articulating them. So the entire process tends to be fumbling through, on a deadline, working toward an ill- or hastily-defined goal that (all too often) no one really would have chosen in the first place.

That said, I like collaboration. I really do. I have had some fantastic collaborative experiences, both in school and in personal writing projects. During good collaborations, I feel alive with possibilities and more confident that good ideas will rise to the top because two or more people had to approve them, and they had to be explained clearly enough for at least one other person to understand. I focus more on the process than on the product, more on the ideas than on how people will judge me based on the final product. I have to think about why I want to do a particular thing and justify to another person why the end result will be better for it. This has eliminated a lot of self-indulgent, lazy, and just plain silly ideas on my part.

While there is some truth to the waggish quote about meetings, the fact remains that we are stronger together. Go Planeteers team!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Perks and trade-offs in online learning

It's very strange to think that I will be graduating in August with a degree I earned exclusively by taking classes online. When I talk about the program I'm in, I always have to explain that it's a distance education program, because people still tend to assume that graduate-level programs take place in traditional settings. Their first question is usually, "So how does that work?"

Depending on how interested I think they are, I either just say that all the classes are online, or I start to talk about the different tools professors have used to structure the classes ("Some teachers have recorded lectures, sometimes there are discussion boards or blogs, sometimes they just post assigned readings and you do them on your own time..."). After listening for a while, they usually give me one of three reactions:
  1. You must be very disciplined.
  2. It must be nice to set your own schedule.
  3. It must be weird and kind of hard not to ever meet anyone.
I would laugh #1 off, except that I think I actually have gotten more disciplined (go figure). #2 is a mixed bag--yes, it is nice to have the flexibility, but it also means (for the most part) that there's no set schedule telling me when to be in class and when learning is "supposed" to occur. If I want a structure like that, I have to create it. Mostly, though, I've just let my education casually entwine itself in my life. Yes, it can be difficult sometimes to not have a clear differentiation between my school life and my personal life, but it just means I've needed to learn to set my own limits. (Maybe that's where the discipline came in. Sneaky!) I have had to learn to navigate different class setups and schedules and decide when I was going to work on assignments for each class, given a set of due dates. It helped me understand how I work like no other experience has.

So far, so good. Point three is the kicker, though. It is difficult not to meet anyone. It's hard to get to know people in an online environment, even though I am comparatively tech-savvy and have a lot of experience with online communication. I still have to go out of my way to meet other people in any kind of social setting, much less a physical one. I keep in touch with some classmates over Google chat. I go to conferences. Even so, many of the people I meet are not nearby. I envy my roommate (also currently in grad school) who brings her friends from school over to the house. She confided in me that she had considered the SLIS program here, but had decided not to enroll because she needed the structure and social environment of a traditional classroom.

I am very happy with the academic aspect of my education. I just wish I had gotten to know a greater number of people as more than words on a page.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Grade Crusade

Grading was probably my least favorite part of being a teacher because it underscored how much I didn't know what I was doing.* It also highlighted the fact that I had several inchoate and incompatible philosophies of teaching that I hadn't merged into any coherent theory. (I pictured it would be something like a cross between Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society.) Basically, I couldn't articulate what I was looking for. So my students didn't really know what I was looking for either. And I would then have to give them a grade based on... what, exactly? How well what they actually did measured up to a nebulous idea in my head? I also had trouble sometimes with giving lower grades, even if the work deserved it, because it seemed a value judgment on the person somehow, and I remembered my own perfectionism as a student. Suffice to say, I tended to procrastinate on grading, the papers piled up, and everyone wound up terribly unhappy.

Looking back, what I really wanted was for them to think, to engage meaningfully with the issues they were reading about and come up with their own ideas. (This means NO PLAGIARISM!!!) And I didn't know how to assess that. So if the students thought about their grades at all, they probably focused on superficial things, because that wound up being what was easiest to grade, there in the trenches. Based on what they said, I think they thought I wanted my own ideas parroted back at me. This was sad, and actually the last thing I wanted. It upsets me that this is what they had gone through school believing was important--just find the answers and fill them out. If I had realized earlier that this was a problem, maybe I could have broken them of this habit of ignoring their own thoughts, of assuming that I would be upset at them for having an original idea that disagreed with mine.

*To clarify exactly how much I didn't know what I was doing, I was hired as basically the 10th grade English teacher one week before classes started. I had no previous training, unless you count half a semester's worth of an education class in college. There was no preexisting curriculum or lesson plans for me to draw from. I had the English standards, a lesson plan template, and a dream of making a difference. That's about it.