My “Pedagogies of Reading” seminar this quarter is scheduled to meet on Tuesdays from 5:30-9:20. I have never found four-hour evening seminars to be productive, either as a teacher or a student. By the time we begin, I have been running a Writing Center all day, and many of my students have spent the day teaching high school, working elsewhere, or taking care of families. By about 8:00 we are all flagging. So I end the in-class session at 8:00 and move about half of the work online to the Blackboard site.
Blackboard is an online course management system. On my campus a Blackboard site is created for every course , whether the instructor uses it or not. It provides announcements, discussion boards, places to upload and download documents, quizzes, systems to manage grades and statistics, and other features. It is easy to use, but doesn’t do everything I would like, and has maddening glitches. The discussion board is especially clunky. Last year, my honors science fiction class got so fed up with it that they created an alternative discussion board on a free site. But that’s another post.
My grad students, being older and less technologically savvy, get along with the Blackboard discussion board without complaint.
The first task my students had to do was answer the question, “What kind of reader are you?” I modeled this for them by describing my own reading habits and inclinations over the years, in part because they needed a model, and in part because I was asking them to present somewhat personal information in a semi-public forum, and in fairness, I thought I should reveal something of myself as well. Because they are graduate students in English, it is not surprising that most of them describe lots of books in the home, parents who were readers and who read to them, voracious reading of adolescent literature, and early attraction to more sophisticated literary texts. However, not all came from environments like this. One immigrant student describes a home in which the parents worked hard but read nothing, and credits her success as a reader to one teacher who tried to compensate for what was lacking in her home environment.
Of course, that is exactly the question. Can teachers and good pedagogy make a difference?
The second task was to go to the CSU Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC) website, create an account, download one first semester module, read the discussion board for that module to get an idea of what teachers were thinking about, and then post a response on our Blackboard discussion board. The ERWC is a twelfth grade course designed by a task force that I chaired. We were charged to create a course that would prepare high school students to do college-level reading and writing. About half of CSU students systemwide test into so-called “remedial” English courses, and the ERWC is an attempt to remedy that situation. The task force consisted of both CSU and high school faculty. The course is now taught in hundreds of high schools, and thousands of teachers have been trained to teach it.
So far, this assignment is working well. My students are already connecting their own experiences as readers with the pedagogy of the ERWC modules, and plugging in ideas from the first book we are reading Proust and the Squid. The non-teachers see the modules differently from the teachers. For example, one of the modules deals with fast food and discusses the connection between super-sized portions and obesity. The non-teachers were worried that overweight students in the class might be offended by the discussion and be picked on by others. The experienced teachers said that if bullying was going to happen, it was already going on, and that high school students need opportunities to discuss controversial issue that have meaning in their lives. Very interesting.
Two students out of eighteen have not participated online. I will have to treat that as an attendance and participation problem, as these two assignments are non-graded. My experience in the past has been that the online discussions will spill over into the in-class session, and that the non-participants will feel left out and correct their behavior.
I feel that the online component adds significant depth and complexity to the course. And I don’t have to teach four hours straight.