The Brass Ring

As the Fall semester winds down in United States, I thought this post would be a good reminder for all of us. This post originally appeared on this blog in November 2019. Enjoy!

When I was a child, I remember going to the amusement park with my family. While I was excited to see the roller coasters, the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the other rides, I have to admit that I was too frightened to venture on many of them. Maybe it stems from my fear of heights. Or maybe it comes from a hesitation to do something daring. Regardless of the originating emotions, I avoided riding on many of those amusement park rides as a child.

I say I avoided riding amusement park rides, but that’s not entirely true.  There was actually one ride that I always want to go on: the carousel. I know that’s it’s kind of a tame ride in comparison to rides like the Pirate Ship or the Scrambler, but the carousel was MY ride. I know some readers are probably losing some respect for me as they read about my tame choices for amusement park rides, but the carousel was my absolute favorite. Sure, the ride just goes round and round without changing speed much. And the painted ponies just slowly go up and down. But it’s more than that. My favorite part was the brass ring.

Since a lot of modern carousels don’t have brass rings anymore, let me explain. Older carousels had this mechanical arm that would suspend a brass ring just a little outside of riders’ reach. As riders passed that point, they would try to reach for the brass ring. To grab the ring, riders would have to lean off of the edge of the seat and reach really far to pull the brass ring from the arm. If someone was successful, the mechanical arm would replace it with a new one. During any carousel ride, ambitious riders could grab dozens of brass rings as the mechanical arm kept the brass rings coming.

As I think back to my childhood love of the carousel, I think about how the ride is a really good metaphor for teaching and for motivating learners. We provide learning targets for students (brass rings?) and if we do a good job of gauging students’ ability and interest, those targets can push the students outside of where they’re comfortable. They have to lean and grab and extend to reach the goal. They have to be daring and take chances.

Thinking back to my carousel-riding days, however, I can’t remember ever seeing someone fall off of a horse. While people may have had to anxiously reach beyond what they thought they could, they didn’t really fail. If someone wasn’t able to grab a brass ring on one turn, they could try again on the next turn. The mechanical arm kept offering more and more brass rings until the ride stopped.

And that’s another important lesson here. As teachers, we may want to make our classes more exciting than a carousel, but we have to remember to give our students lots of opportunities to reach our learning targets. We have to motivate them to reach beyond what they think is capable but also not have them reach so far that they fall off the horse. While I’m probably taking this metaphor beyond its utility, the real take-away is carousels are anything but tame.

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Revising Revisions

I’m currently teaching a semester-long research class that serves as the capstone course for our graduate program in Assessment, Curriculum, and Teaching. In the course, the graduate students (who are all practicing teachers) create an action research project to study the impact of an instructional intervention they learned in the program. After collecting data and analyzing the findings, the graduate students write a large formal, professional paper that encompasses all of their work this semester. While the final paper isn’t as arduous or comprehensive as a traditional graduate thesis, the work can be pretty stressful and time-consuming. I try my best to scaffold the class so it builds in complexity and has enough supports along the way, so students don’t feel completely overwhelmed.

The semester is winding down and the students are getting ready to complete their first drafts of their final paper. Typically, I assign peer reviewers to offer first feedback on initial drafts of assignments. I’ve actually done this several times with the students in this class this semester. A few months ago, the students developed a formal “action research plan” which they shared with a classmate for feedback. My goal is that students could help each other catch the “low hanging fruit” of spelling and grammatical errors and can iron out some of the initial issues together. I always provide additional feedback, but I tend to focus on the structure and depth of their writing as well as their overall narratives.

In addition to the peer review process, I actually tried something different this semester. Our institution subscribes to a service called Smarthinking which offers online tutoring for student writing. Students can submit papers to the service, and they’ll receive feedback from a tutor on ways to improve their writing. I offered this option to these graduate students earlier in the semester and the reviews were mostly positive. Some wished they had received the feedback more promptly, and others thought the feedback didn’t align perfectly with the assignment they were completing. Overall, however, the students were generally positive.

Currently, I’m putting together the final modules to support these students as they complete their first drafts of their final papers. Since this is the first class that conducted peer reviews and used the online tutoring service, I wondered which I should include in their drafting and revision process. In addition to the feedback I plan to provide, should I assign peer reviewers? Or should I offer the online tutoring service? Rather than make the decision in isolation, I decided to ask my students.

I sent out a quick survey asking students about their impressions with the peer review process and with the online tutoring service. I also asked them directly, “What do you feel is the best way to support your revisions of your final paper?

The results were kind of surprisingly. 58% of the students who responded to the survey preferred to use the online tutoring service. 25% of the students wanted to use a peer review process. One student wanted me to allow students to choose either based on their own needs and another student wanted to use BOTH service in conjunction with one another. While these findings were eye opening, I also found the rationale they offered to be educational. While some students wrote about the benefits and (challenges) of the tutoring service, more wrote about their own reservations about being a good peer reviewer. One student wrote, “I feel self-conscious providing feedback to someone when I am not 100% sure that it’s the right move.” Another called the peer review process “intimidating.” One student was really mindful of the fact that their classmates may not be well-positioned to offer good feedback. They wrote, “My peer reviewer meant well and tried their best, but some people do not have writing editing and revising in their wheelhouse. Asking some people to give feedback on writing may not be fair to them. And may have stretched them (maybe even stressed them) more than was comfortable.”

After reading my students’ thoughtful feedback, I’m going to use the online tutoring service for the revision process. Sure, it may not be perfect, but it can help students revise their work in a way that may be better attuned to their needs and strengths.

Permeable

I had an interesting interaction with a student in class recently. They asked a legitimate question about an upcoming assignment, which I answered. But in my response, some wires got crossed. It was clear that what I was trying to say was somehow not reaching the student in the way I had intended. As the conversation became more tense and the student became more upset, I tried my best to quell the escalating emotions before moving on with the rest of the lesson. Later, near the end of class, I quietly asked the student to stay after class so we could discuss the interaction one-on-one. In that post-class discussion, I realized that our emotional, in-class interaction wasn’t really about OUR interactions. It was about the stress the student was experiencing from a variety of other sources.

Like a lot of teachers, I try to foster a safe space for students to learn. I know that phrase “safe space” may mean different things to different people, so let me explain what I mean. By safe space, I mean that I want to provide an environment free of bias, judgement, conflict, and criticism. I want to create a space where it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn from the process. I want to foster a classroom culture where different perspectives are valued, and different opinions can be shared. That’s not to mean that I won’t challenge my students’ ideas or present them with conflicting perspectives, but I want my students to feel like they’re valued and respected and supported. And despite my best efforts to cultivate a safe space, sometimes things go awry.

The walls of the physical classroom in which I teach are built of cinder bricks. And while I’d like to believe those bricks can protect my students (and me) from outside influences, the truth is much more humbling. The walls are permeable. They let in far more variables and influences and stressors than any teacher would care to admit. The goal of creating a safe space, while lofty, is probably impossible. The outside always seeps in.

That’s not to mean I’ll stop trying. Returning to my recent classroom interaction, I hope that my post-class conversation worked to honor my student’s experiences and the stressors they were navigating. More than that, however, I hope it worked to reassure them our classroom is place where we all can learn from our missteps and misunderstandings. And while the outside may seep through our permeable classroom walls, it shouldn’t dictate how we treat and respect one another.

Seeing what others see

Sorry for the rerun, but after listening to an episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I decided that this topic needed to be revisited. This post originally appeared in March 2018. Enjoy!

I have a confession. I have deuteranopia. Before you worry about my mental state or my health, let me explain. Deuteranopia is the scientific term for red-green color blindness. While it’s not really a health issue, it does create some challenges for me as I select outfits in the morning or select paint colors for the house.

My children are fascinated by my color 6or9blindness. I’ve tried to explain that it’s not that I don’t see red or green at all. I just don’t see them the same as they do. I can’t distinguish between different reds and different greens and I see a lot of things other people would characterize as browns and greys. Despite my explanations, they still enjoy watching me fail every one of the color blindness exams. I can’t find that hidden number among the colored dots and they find it hilarious.

Despite my explanations, they can never really understand that I see things differently than they do. The real truth, however, is that we ALL see things differently from one another. While I have troubles seeing reds and greens, we also see shades of blue differently than each other. You may remember the huge Internet controversy of 2015. What was the color of the dress?  Was it black? What it blue? Was it white? As the conversation waged across social media, one thing was clear. We see things differently.

Our differences in sight aren’t limited to colors, however. It is also impacted by other factors, too. Take this story I heard about Google Maps. Say you wanted to find the Arunachal Pradesh region near India with Google Maps on your smartphone. Did you know that the way that region would be projected would differ based upon where you were doing the search? In China, the region’s borders would look slightly different than if you searched for it in India. Over the years, there have been some geographical disputes about the borders of different regions near India and Google is required to show those regions differently based on if the smartphone user is in India, in China or someplace else.  That’s right. Someone in another part of the world would actually see the region completely differently than both the Indian and Chinese users. While this is a pretty extreme case, the Google Maps example demonstrates that how we see is based on a lot of factors. It could be huge geopolitical or technological factors. Maybe it’s a physical factor, like my deuteranopia. It could also be due to our backgrounds and lived experiences. Each of these informs how we see.

I learned a great word this week on the Radiolab podcast. Umwelt. The Radiolab hosts were discussing the visual range of the rainbow shrimp and how, despite its amazing cones and rods, it could not distinguish between colors well. In explaining that we shouldn’t pity the poor rainbow shrimp, the one host, Rod Krulwich, chalked it up to “umwelt” and explained that we all experience it. “You are limited by what you can feel, touch, see, and know,” Krulwich said, because of who you are. That’s umwelt.

I’ve been thinking about this for a bunch of reasons this week.  Nature has a funny way of connecting dots across different media. I guess it started with thinking about last week’s post on Bias in Your Online Class? While I’ve been digging into the statistics for my online class and trying to better understand my biases, I’ve also been wondering how my students are experiencing the classes themselves. How are THEY seeing the learning environment? How are THEY seeing my interactions with them? Even if I explicitly asked them about their experiences, it would be hard for me to know how they saw something.

And that brings me back to the Radiolab podcast. At the end, the other host, Jad Abumrad, says that because of umwelt, we can never really see what other people see. We just see things differently. “That’s the lonely part,” Abumrad explains. “The unlonely part is you can try.”

Here’s to trying to see what others see

Questioning Things

“Whose needs are being served?”

I know I often bury the lead with my posts, but I thought I’d start this post differently. Instead of wading through some personal story which leads to the main idea, I’m offering this question right at the start.

“Whose needs are being served?”

I’m offering this question as a litmus test for questioning all sorts of things, but I’ll apply it to the work we do in schools and institutions of higher education. Like many industries today, education is faced a host of new initiatives and innovations to position itself for the future. Some colleges are closing their doors while others are consolidating with other campuses. My institution (thankfully) isn’t facing these challenges, but we’re still in the process of change. We’re currently revising our general education curriculum to better serve our students for the careers their likely to face after graduation. As a liberal arts institution, my university seeks to provide a broad-based education across science, technology, arts, humanities, and the social sciences. These diverse disciplines help students see the world through different lenses and can better prepare them to solve the complex problems and careers they’re likely to face after graduation.

That’s the plan at least. Our current general education model was approved almost fifteen years ago. And while it has gone through some minor revisions and tweaks over the years, I’m working with a group of faculty to propose significant changes to the general education curriculum. Although we’ve only been collaborating for the last six months to develop new models, the work actually stretches back several years through campus conversations, self-studies, external reviews, and more. It’s an arduous process that isn’t likely to wrap up in the near future.

As we’ve been working through the redevelopment process, it’s clear that people on campus have different perspectives on what a general education curriculum should encompass. Some believe that it should be really flexible. Others believe that it should be highly prescriptive. Some want to see the curriculum organized around skills and ways of being. Others want to see the requirements dedicated to specific academic disciplines.  As we discuss these different options and solutions, I believe it’s critical for us to regularly return to the litmus test I offered at the start of this post.

“Whose needs are being served?”

As we weigh innovative proposals and hear challenges to their merits, we need to make sure that we continue to serve our students and their needs. We may have different approaches for how serve our students, but we need to remember that it’s our charge.