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When Things Fall Apart – But the Work Must Continue

When the semester began, my students were going to work with a colleague of mine in the Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) region on a project to support local schools combatting ISIS recruitment efforts. The same political turmoil which would allow such ISIS recruitment, however, ultimately pulled the project under and, more tragically, led to my partner and friend being the object of political persecution. In response, the project had to shift to working with another set of schools, also in the MENA region, where a discussion was held on human, political, and gender rights.


This reframed project then encountered complications locally in Syracuse. The project had intended for about eight high school students at a local community center to join the emerging discussion about human rights. Instead, almost twenty students from all ages joined. This provided more input and interaction, but also changed the work my students would be undertaking at the center, and significantly altered the planned discussion with the MENA students.


All this affected students’ individual and group work. Our imagined “prompt” group, for instance, had been assigned the task of developing discussion questions for all the partners. Given the disruptions, they had to create questions for a different type of audience than initially imagined. And, once younger students in Syracuse joined, prompts had to be replaced with more activity-based work. Mid-way through the course, then, their group mission shifted significantly, as did that of each working group in class, in response to every transformation of the process.


Given this experience both in the current project and in projects past, I have come to believe that the key to any assessment of a community project is to embed it not in the successes of the partnerships, but in moments of struggle and collapse. Not only are such moments more common in any community effort, but they also ask the students to place themselves in the work of praxis – connecting theory and strategy to produce a desired goal. I always tell my students the moments of disruption/change are the “teachable moments.” My assessment of their work, then, focuses in on how their individual and group praxis enabled the project to move forward. And as a class, we’ll produce a set of materials and discussions to gauge this aspect of our work.


What is Community? How did you help to create/sustain it?

At the outset of the term, the students read theoretical works about how communities emerge and gain power, and historical pieces about the specific communities/regions in which they would be working. For one of their final assignments, students test how these theories stood up against the community work they undertook this term. How did the difficult daily work of our project enable them to develop their own theories of what makes communities emerge or fall apart?


I am also asking them to generate a portfolio demonstrating the concrete work they did to support the community conversation. This might be emails to other students, drafts of prompts, discarded website projects, etc. The goal is to create a map of their involvement and the particular strategy that emerged for them and for their group’s project. Here the question is not so much a theoretical “What is community?” but an organizational question of “How is community created?” Students will write a short essay describing their emerging sense of community organizing.


How did we work together?

Our work occurred as a collective that attempted to move toward the same goal. During our final class, my hope is to begin with the “strategic maps” created by students to retell the history of their work, referring to how our theoretical understanding was altered by experience. Specifically, the students will have to collectively consider how our original goals were tempered: What can we reasonably have expected individual students or groups to have completed? What might we have done differently? This will lead to the creation of a “collective rubric” on which individual/group products can be understood. The goal here is to show that in such work, assessment is about how to understand not only what happened but what needs to happen next.


How do we value the work?

Hopefully through the work of the class and these final assignments, students have come to understand that they are being assessed for their ability to theorize and strategize towards a collective goal within a dynamic environment. Here the “point” is not so much being “correct,” but working through specific concrete issues with tactical moves and conceptual continuity. It is the overcoming, not the denial of obstacles and set-backs, that will ultimately earn them the “A.”


In this way, a student that can theorize about community, but cannot document the specific tasks they took to actually instantiate or rebuild that community, would not receive an “A.” Nor would the student who can list multiple tasks, but has no conception on why they were done. It is the student who can weave both together, who has learned to work through disruption to enable continued progress, that has truly understood the nature of praxis in any community project.


Final Note: The Community Response#

In the vast majority of such projects, I invite the community partners to attend final class discussions about problems faced, work achieved, and next steps. The global nature of this project made that difficult, to say the least. In my next and last post of the year, I will talk about strategies for community input within a global context.

Every so often, I encounter myths about my work as a community college writing instructor, and I feel compelled to disabuse my well-meaning friends or colleagues of their mistaken assumptions. For example, I have been asked (more than once) how I can possibly continue in such a “boring” line of work; surely it must get tedious teaching the same thing over and over again. “After all,” they hint, “there’s a reason that the ‘grunt work’ you are doing in first-year and developmental writing often falls to those who are lowest on the academic hierarchy!”


At this point, I smile and share a little secret: in over 20 years of teaching IRW, first-year composition, grammar, and ESL courses, I have never taught the same course twice. Granted, the institutions, course names, and even textbooks might be the same, and the syllabi might be quite similar. But my classroom is an on-going laboratory, and the content and pedagogy of my courses evolves continually. How can I possibly be bored when I am waiting to observe just how the latest adjustment will influence the writing, reading, thinking, and “languaging” that I see in my students?


Here’s a simple example. Like many writing instructors, I assign a literacy narrative in my first-year/ALP course. I first incorporated this assignment in my courses as a novice instructor working in a “process approach”: I spent time with my students in pre-writing activities, creating time-lines and freewriting about powerful memories. We then worked through multiple drafts before editing the final version. Later, as colleges moved to integrate reading more explicitly into the classroom, I began to ask students to read literacy narratives and react or respond to them in the context of their own writing; the assignment shifted to focus more on reading skills and the value of connections between texts and students’ experiences. More recently, under the influence of the Writing about Writing (WAW) approach to composition pedagogy, I have added excerpts from theoretical readings (from articles by James Gee or John Swales, for example) as students prepare to write literacy narratives; such excerpts provide students with a language lens through which they can analyze and reflect on their experiences. We are still working through a process and focusing on reading, but I’ve extended the assignment to address a vocabulary for interpretation and analysis.


This coming semester, I am considering another change to my assignment. In this case, it will be a change in sequence. I have always done the literacy narrative as the first paper in the course, but I would like to see what happens if I make it the final paper instead (or perhaps I can structure it as a two-part paper, with both an initial and final version). I plan to incorporate more structured reflection into the course as a whole, and I would like to give the students a chance to use that reflection as primary research—in conjunction with a semester of assigned readings—to develop the literacy narrative at the end of the term. Perhaps that would spark more analysis, more reflection, more metacognition, or perhaps even a stronger foundation for my students to transfer writing knowledge and writing habits to new contexts.


I’m excited about the possibilities for instruction based on a change in my assignment sequence. My enthusiasm certainly marks me as a very specific kind of teaching-nerd, but I am perfectly ok with that.


What changes are you planning for your spring composition or IRW courses? What do you hope to see as a result? I would love to hear from you.


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Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, on November 30, 2017Inspired by Virginia Tech Libraries’ digital literacy initiative, I am sharing a series of activities that ask students to examine how digital technology shapes literacy and the ways that people interact with others in my recent posts. So far, I have posted an activity on the definitions of digital native and digital literacy and an activity on digital literacy and online identity.

This week I have a collaborative research project that students complete to learn more about how online identities work. Depending upon the depth of research you ask for, this activity will take anywhere from one to two weeks of class sessions for collaborative work and presentations.

The Assignment

In this scenario-based assignment, your group has been hired by the manager of a public figure to assess the online identity of their client. The manager wants an honest and objective presentation on the client, showing both the good and the bad. Your group will present to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. The manager will use the information your group shares to create a plan to strengthen the client’s online reputation and improve the client’s overall reception with the public.

Step 1: Set up group collaboration rules and decide how you want to share the information that you gather with one another. You might set up a shared folder on Google Drive, for example, so that everyone can access what you find.

Step 2: Choose a public figure to investigate. For the purposes of this assignment, a public figure can be someone such as a celebrity, artist, writer, politician, public official, or industry leader. The public figure you choose must be a living person. Do not choose a fictional character, for instance. Additionally, to avoid any potential invasion of privacy, do not choose any students on campus. Be sure that you receive approval for your public figure before you proceed to the next step of the assignment.

Step 3: Create a list of the online places that your public figure has posted information or where others post information in response to or about your figure. Include the name and the link. Additionally, spend some time assessing the reputation of the sites and consider whether each site is a positive, neutral, or negative impact on the figure’s identity. Check places like the following:

  • Social media sites (like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram)
  • Professional networking and job search sites (like LinkedIn)
  • Blogging sites
  • Personal and work websites
  • Video sharing sites (like YouTube, Vine, and Vimeo)
  • Hobby or special interest sites (places where the figure might post or comment)
  • News and current event sites (that might publish stories or interviews about the figure)

Step 4: Gather evidence of the public figure’s online identity. . Consider what the person chooses to put online (personally or through a proxy) and what others put online about that person by examining and collecting information like the following:

  • the words that the figure posts
  • the images that the figure posts
  • the facts that the figure posts
  • the opinions that the figure shares
  • the products and services that the figure endorses
  • the people that the figure recommends or mentions
  • the messages that the figure shares (e.g., retweets, forwards)

Step 5: Review all the information that you have gathered. As a group, look for patterns and connections that appear among the different sites, building an online identity for the public figure you have researched. As you draw conclusions, use the journalist’s questions to think through ideas:

  • who does the figure care about, talk about, appear with, and so forth
  • what does the figure do, use, care about, and so on
  • where does the figure go, visit, stay, and so forth
  • when does the figure seem to be active (what time of day? what days of the week? any special events?)
  • why does the figure share information online (what is the purpose or goal of the online identity?)
  • how does the figure share information online (posts personally, forwards a lot of information, has a PR manager to do the work)
  • how often does the figure share information online

Step 6: Use your research and analysis to create a seven to eight minute group presentation that describes the online identity of the public figure you have examined to the manager, the public figure, and other members of the figure’s inner circle. Share the conclusions that you have drawn about the strengths and weaknesses of the public figure’s online identity, including concrete details from your research as support. Conclude your presentation with some suggestions to strengthen the public figure’s online reputation and improve their overall reception with the public.

What’s Next?

After working together to investigate someone’s online identity, students should be ready to examine their own online identities independently—and that is the topic of my next posts. I will share some specific activities that ask students to examine their online identities and consider what they can do to improve their reputation as digital natives. If you have suggestions for activities or questions about how to talk about these issues in the classroom, please leave me a comment below.


[Photo: Screenshot of Jazz Jennings' Twitter Profile, taken on November 30, 2017]