Your phone # is?… Your birthday is?… checking my “smart” phone

There was a time, many many years ago, when I knew the phone numbers of my immediate family and my best friends…those days are pretty much over. Today, I often have to check my “smart” phone’s directory, or just do so to avoid typing the number (for the few cases that I actually know it). The same goes with birthdays, I was very good at knowing my relatives and good friends, of course I still know those that I memorized a while ago. But in the case of my new friends, I don’t know. I have these dates written in a wall calendar, YES I USE ONE OF THOSE, and of course Facebook and Outlook would send me reminders.

Clive Thompson mentions in his book “Smarter Than You Think…How technology is changing our minds for better”, among other interesting points, technology (new digital tools) has/have enable humans to expand their memory. Yes, this is true from the perspective of external memory and all the data that can be stored, and information that we can get access to. But hasn’t this resulted in a shrinkage of our internal memory? Like Mr. Thompson, I don’t believe neuroscience is ready to analyze what is happening to our brains as a result of continuous interaction with technological devices. Or maybe now it is, don’t really know. The point I want to make is: we have definitely change our habits. The need that we had before to memorize appears to no longer be there. Yet in the event of an emergency, and the fatal circumstance of no “smart” phone to check, the perspective would be different. Seems like now we focus more on short term memory, and rely on the technology surrounding us to take charge of the long term memory.

As in most cases, the use of advanced technology in classrooms environments has pros and cons. I have seen situations like those expresed by Darren Rosenblum in “Leave your laptops at the Door to My Classroom“, where students would focus in their computers or cellphones, rather than the class activities. One would think that at graduate level classes this would not be a problem, because “graduate students are more mature than undergraduate students, and they really want to be there” (in quotation marks because I am sure someone else has already said this). But that is not the reality, I have sit in several graduate courses where this happens. So it is not a matter of education level….

I CONFESS: I HAVE DONE IT… I think it is a total disrespect to the professor and classmates (my apologies for past and future events). Yet it is not the laptop’s or phone’s fault, it is the individual. I could easily get distracted with a piece of paper and pen, making a drawing (or attempting to do so) or writing my plan for the next day, or whatever. So the problem is not the how? or the what? but the why? Why do I check my phone while in class? or anything else for that matter? or at almost any moment? The answer should be pretty obvious, lack of concentration, mindfulness, not being able to focus in the moment. For more on this, I invite you to read Sharon Salzberg’s “Three Simple Ways to Pay Attention”, CONCENTRATION, MINDFULNESS and COMPASSION. Perhaps it is the teacher’s fault too (respectful comment, not really applicable to GEDI classes), because sometimes class topics are boring or the class is boring even if the topic is interesting. I am planning to ask students to use their cellphones/laptops in my classes, for educational purposes, the how is another topic.

So, to finish this post before I lose you, and your interest goes somewhere else, let me finish with the following: it is up to you how to embrace technology in your everyday life (not that you needed to read it, but sometimes a reminder that you are owner of your decisions is not bad). If you want to keep checking your phone every five minutes, do it, but better not in class. If you want to continue taking notes in paper, do it. If you like taking notes in a laptop/tablet, keep doing it. If you like to write the birthdays (date) of your relatives and friends in a wall calendar (or any other calendar), YOU ARE AN AWESOME PERSON, keep doing it. If not, YOU ARE AWESOME TOO, but consider doing it :). What matters is how and when you use the technology available for you. “The Myth of the Disconnected Life”, a nice article on the how/when by Jason Farman.

Almost forgot, I purposely wrote “smart” phone, because we are the smart ones, not the phone… sometimes we tend to forget that.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters) … easier said than done. Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out. Let’s create successful teams. Let’s remember that we are unique and have differences, but we have at least one common element among us, perhaps the most important one: we are HUMANS (ambigous term nowadays?). Let’s be smarter than the “smart” technology we have created, let’s use it appropriately…. (I think this paragraph has become a good “super brief” executive summary of my GEDI journey and blog adventure).

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

The Obstructed Line Between Helping and Distracting

Technology helps us learn. Technology distracts us. They’re both true. I mean, I see it every day in my own life in addition to seeing it in the classroom. Technology distracts us with insignificant things while it should be helping us learn. But isn’t it my fault when these things happen? Shouldn’t I be willing to take responsibility for my own actions? But the temptation, the siren call coming from the bright glow of the screen in front of us, is sometimes just too much.

I can understand the point Clive Thompson makes in Smarter Than You Think, but then again, I also understand exactly what Darren Rosenblum explains in “Leave My Laptops at the Door to My Classroom.”  Last fall, many of our mentors told us GTAs that we should think deeply about our policy on technology in the classroom. It’s a tricky road to navigate for so many reasons. Many conferences want to see research on multimodal pedagogy or technology usage in the classroom. The students in my classroom know way more about technology than I do; few remember what life was like before the iPhone or the iPad. Note taking by hand? Who does that anymore? Why write when I can type faster? In short, I know my students prefer to use technology. They’re way more comfortable with it than I am. I actually still prefer to take notes with a pen and notebook. Maybe my students really do learn better using technology because they are more used it being an every day occurence in education. But as I observed my mentor’s class once a week from where I sat in the back of the classroom, I saw students on Facebook, and I once saw a student buying an actual electric guitar during class time. The thought of students doing this during a class that I would put so much time and effort into scared me. So, I had to think about what I wanted my policy to be. Do I give them the chance to distract themselves? Or do I allow them to take out their laptops in the classroom?

Even now as a grad student in an undergrad seminar course with one of my favorite professors in the English department, I see students on their laptops when we’re discussing a novel that we have in hard copy. These students don’t participate; they don’t speak. What the actual heck are you doing right now? Every once in a while they look up and nod, but then they go back to doing homework for another class or browsing whatever website seems important at the time. Granted, maybe a student could be using the laptop for needed help, and I don’t know it.  I concede this. (I would know it as an instructor in my own classroom.) But for many students, it’s a distraction rather than  an aid. And as I watched instances like the ones I witnessed in the classrooms of my mentor and my professor, I couldn’t help but think that these actions were extremely disrespectful. I’m definitely not perfect either as student, but for the most part, I do try to stay off my laptop when I’m in a class. I would hope my students would do the same for me.

I’m assuming it’s reasons like this that made Rosenblum assume a harsher stance on technology in the classroom. But technology isn’t always a distraction, I will admit. Because I do realize this, I ended up having more of a loose technology policy. Currently, we do use laptops in my classroom. I have in-class writing prompts at the very beginning of class that the students use the discussion board on Canvas to complete. I use a lot of PDF and online readings, and the students use their laptops to pull the readings up  or use their laptops to look at their thoughts on the reading which they turned in as homework. Students can use their laptops on the days when they might have to research a question. Students can use their laptop to record the ideas of their group during out group work session; using the laptop is faster than handwriting in these cases. So, they are beneficial in my classroom.

That being said, if I’m talking, I usually remember to tell them to put their laptops down. If I forget to this, I see a few of them staring intently at their laptop screens, but many do pay attention for the most part. We do heavy amounts of discussion and group work, so they’re not able to not pay attention for the whole class period. Because my class is small, this more casual policy works in my classroom. I might have a different policy if I were an instructor for a class of more than twenty students though. Overall, this is still a tricky road for me to navigate.  There’s a fine line between technology as an aid to students, as a thing that makes our minds better as Thompson argues, and technology as a deterrent to learning as Rosenblum finds it. And unfortunately, the line is most clearly seen from the back of the classroom rather than the front where I stand.

Let’s erase DIVERSITY and INCLUSION

Hello readers, my apologies for leaving you alone last week, I had the intention to write but it never materialized. I went into autopilot mode, without being mindful about it, and time just kept going. In Shankar Vedantam words: that’s when the problem arises, when our unconscious self takes charge but we are not aware of it (“The Hidden Brain” thinking for us). I could share with you how I ended up in autopilot mode, but that is a story for another moment. Instead, I would like for you to remain with your mind wide open while I attempt to explain why I believe we should erase, destroy, disappear, etc. two very dangerous words: DIVERSITY and INCLUSION.

If you have read my posts before, you might think I am joking, based on my typical sarcastic tone, but NO, I AM NOT. I firmly believe that words such as DIVERSITY and INCLUSION, as well as MINORITY, UNDERREPRESENTED, and similar words that speak of differences and discrimination should be erased from our conscience, from our vocabulary. This might sound controversial, but here is my reasoning for this proposition. All these words have the unattended consequence of “stating, highlighting” the existence of DIFFERENCES, instead of recognizing and giving value to the existence of IDENTITY. I know that for some it might seem a simple matter of interpretation, a matter of linguistics, but words are powerful, as Professor Christine Labuski succeeded to highlight in the description of the Universal Precautions project1. She discussed the great impact that talking about “us” instead of “them” has on discussion of sensitive topics, and the benefit of thinking that the person sitting on your side might have gone through that hard topic situation (e.g. abortion, racism, rape, transgender). When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you are more mindful about the words you use, you are likely to look at a problem from different angles, from another perspective.

Another problem that I have with the words DIVERSITY and INCLUSION, not with the intention of promoting diversity and inclusion. Is that now you see them almost everywhere, and seems like all organizations need to emphasize that they promote an INCLUSIVE environment, even if in reality they don’t. But hey, it looks good to advertise it. “Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male”2.

Let’s go back to the previous idea of recognizing the existence of differences versus identities. Probably this is not the best moment to introduce this question but, what do you think of when you read: “we need to promote diversity and inclusion”. It might be my personality, but to me it brings negativity, I directly associate this phrase with the need to overcome differences between us, instead of valuing what each can bring to the table. Why do we have to highlight that there are differences between us? I acknowledge the importance of recognizing that not everyone is equal, each person is unique in multiple senses. Should we talk more about developing OPEN ACCESS environments instead of promoting DIVERSE and INCLUSIVE environments? Perhaps “open access” is not the best term either, but from my perspective it partially removes the focus around highlighting the differences. The later a word which I admit to associate with negativity and discrimination, a perspective you might not have. But then again, the same word could have a completely DIFFERENT meaning and context, highlighting once again that the problem seems to be in: not being open to other perspectives.

Diversity and inclusion/inclusive, bring the same negative effect that terms like minority and underrepresented create for me. The later speak of someone else being superior, even if that might not be the purpose. That is why I don’t consider myself a minority, nor part of an underrepresented group, I consider myself a human.

Following my thought process in this post might not have been as direct as I wished. But I hope you forgive me. At the end, probably I didn’t succeed to explain why I consider DIVERSITY and INCLUSION to be dangerous words, and perhaps my writing was more on the lines of a “confuse the masses and you will be king” speech type. But I hope your mind continues to be wide open, to be prepared to carefully listen and read what others have to said, and not going into autopilot mode, ignoring mode, as soon as you hear ideas coming from other perspectives.

You see, at the end, it is not a matter of erasing DIVERSITY and INCLUSION (the words) and replace them with another term, it is a matter of acknowledging the importance of perspectives and what body language, written words, spoken words, etc. could mean to someone else. How messengers can impact the message being delivered. How we should give always our best, no matter who is in front. How there is always more than one story to be told. If you haven’t heard to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk, please do so: “The Danger of a Single Story”.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters) … easier said than done. Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out. Let’s create successful teams. Let’s remember that we are unique, and the only single common element among us, but the most important one, is that we are HUMANS.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

  1. Christine Labuski, project description for Universal Precautions (not open for public access)
  2. Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes us Smarter” (2014 – updated 2017)

Encouraging Discussion. Emphasizing Gracefulness.

Dr. Labuski writes, “My classrooms are spaces where students are encouraged to hold and express opinions that may not be popular and/or
conventional. I generate intellectual safety by framing discussions around phrases like ‘What do people say about ….’ rather than ‘What do you think about …’ “ (Diggs Scholar Award).

I’m passionate about this. Whether we’re talking about race, gender identity, politics, religion, or anything else, I never want a student to feel that he/she cannot bring up a discussion point or offer a perspective for fear of being ridiculed, isolated, or shunned. I thought about this plenty, especially during the election season. I saw a lot of open hostility between both sides of the political parties, even on this campus. I heard a lot of what I call “absolute rhetoric”–my way is the only way, and everyone who thinks differently is wrong and evil. I saw people who could have been great friends hating each other because of their opposing political beliefs. I still do. It’s terribly heartbreaking.

College can be a time of growth for undergraduates. I truly believe that it is a time to re-examine beliefs and to be open to hearing other viewpoints on many subjects–but really, any time is good for doing that, right?  But for undergraduates, I would never want them to think that I “hate” them because they might believe something not as popular or something that they think I don’t personally believe myself. I’ve always appreciated professors who didn’t openly criticize religions or political beliefs in class because it truly made me feel like they understood the definition of tolerance and did not want anyone to feel isolated, stupid, or irrelevant. This has become important to me as an educator. And I truly appreciate the inclusive strategy that  Dr. Labuski utilizes in in order to make students feel safe in suggesting a particular perspective that may or may not be their own.

This can also be tricky to navigate because I would never want the words of one student to wound the heart of another. I make clear in my syllabus that everyone must be respectful to each other. Delivery, I think, is key when expressing opinions. The English department requires some kind of argument paper as the final paper of the semester. My students will be picking a topic (I’m not sure how narrowly I’m limiting the topics yet) and writing a paper expressing their argument. I will be going over gracefulness in class because it’s something that I maintain is a necessary virtue when explaining one’s opinion. It’s important to remember that when we come across people who believe starkly different things, this is a time for open discussion. Listening and explaining. Sometimes, we forget to listen. We start forming responses before the other person in the conversation is even finished speaking. Often, we aim to win, not to learn. I’m guilty of this myself sometimes, but I truly want to work on being intentional about understanding why and how a person believes the things he/she does. I think the way we can even hope to encourage people to consider changing a perspective begins with making them believe that we genuinely care about understanding what they have to say. Then we follow this by explaining our viewpoints with grace.

Ready! Set! Go!… My Rookie Season

Welcome readers! I hope you like the post that you are about to read. But most importantly, I hope you give me as much feedback as you want. If perhaps you don’t want to make public comments, you are always welcome to e-mail me directly at cfmp01@vt.edu

This story is about a young man, who is getting ready to be an instructor of record for the first time (i.e. he will be in the driver’s seat, and not the co-pilot). Like other rookies, he used to believe that he was ready for the first professional race, and that his previous experiences as a semi-pro driver had been enough to prepare him. But, as in the case of many rookies, he was wrong. He would have probably gone out of the road pretty soon, if not for the mandatory driving certificate that the team leader wanted him to take. As a requisite to be certified, the young driver had to enroll in three preparatory courses. One, in particular, changed his mindset from the very beginning. He realized that although the semi-pro experience had been definitely helpful, getting in the seat of a Formula-1 car, a NASCAR vehicle, a Superbike, or in plain words: being in control of his own class, with all the details of it, was going to be a different story.

              Image Source                                         Image Source

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you like the analogy between being a driver and a teacher?

A driver has to be aware of his surroundings, as well as the condition of his car. That is how I see a teacher, someone who needs to be confident in fron of the class, with the 5+ senses wide open analyzing the environment, and be ready to adapt for the multiple unexpected situations that could occur. Even if the class content has been well prepared in advanced. I plan to find a strong team of collaborators and trust them, just as professional drivers trust their team. I don’t see my teaching as a one-man journey, although I will certainly have my own teaching voice. I plan to rely in both, “experienced” professors (team leaders) and my students (mechanics and apprentice drivers) to set up a well lubricated learning environment (the car). I am planning to be a risky driver when appropriate (i.e. try not-usual engineering teaching strategies), but also a defensive driver, observing the student’s engagement, progress and evaluating if the objectives are being met. I am aware that incorporating too many changes in the first race, could end in a disaster, reason for which I plan to discuss strategies with the team leaders (glad to have at least two mentors on board).

An important sentence was hanging in the middle of the previous paragraph: “have my own teaching voice”. I enjoyed reading Sarah E. Deel’s journey on this topic. I have gone through several of the questions she makes, and agree with several of her statements. I will admit that currently I already have a teaching style that I want to portray, the Socratic Method. It worked during the laboratory sessions I taught. I like to encourage people to find the answers by themselves, rather than me providing the answers. I like to answer with more questions when possible. I know I will have to be careful and don’t exaggerate, and thanks to Sarah’s article, I will make sure to explain to a certain degree the purpose of my teaching approach. If it ends up not working, then, with the help of the class, I hope to make the necessary twists to reach a beneficial environment.

Readers, here I do need your help, especially if you have taught before. I definitely want to connect with the students, and let them know that I care about their progress in the class. Some sort of boundaries will be definitely there, and I haven’t had a problem keeping those in the past. But besides all the questions about teaching strategies, being super serious or a comedian, the question that is puzzling me a little is: How should students address to me? Mr. Mantilla? Professor (even if I don’t have the official title)? How about Carlos? Other?

My current thought is Carlos, and let me share with you some reasons for it. First because they would probably mispronounce my last name, which actually is Mantilla Peña. Jokes aside (maybe not so much), I don’t feel like Mr. Mantilla, it just sounds too serious to me. If you know me, you might think that it could actually fit my personality, since I appear to be serious all the time, and although that might be true (apparently), I just don’t like Mr. Mantilla, not yet anyways. The second alternative: Professor. Not that I really care to be honest, but not sure if faculty members would dislike the idea of students calling me professor. And Carlos, it just fits me, that is how I have been always called (except family and friends nicknames of course). And I don’t see a reason why it will be a problem, although some have suggested that it might lead to boundaries not being clear.

So I spend two paragraphs in a question that might sound silly, but perhaps it could be the difference between a left foot semester (not so good) and a right foot one (great). Besides that, as I tried to share before. I want to be “fair”, “approachable”, “respected” and a good driver during my rookie season. I want my team of mechanics and apprentice drivers to succeed, to reach the objectives set for the course and to collaborate between them, I want a team victory.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters). Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out, create a good pipeline for students to be successful, a well lubricated learning environment. Let’s be great drivers and go for a team victory.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

But What If I Feel Like a Fraud?

The topic of the authentic teaching self is a tricky one, especially for those not so far removed from undergrad themselves. This concept of balance–professionalism vs. humanity–stares me in the face every time I walk into the class room. I’m almost a decade older than these students though I like to think that it’s not that visible yet. I like to think that they can’t tell the difference between 23 and 26, so in their minds, I’m not too far ahead of them in years. They know I’m “younger” than some, but I also want them to respect me. Like Shelli Fowler states in her handout, “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills,” “…As the teacher you are never on a completely equal level with the students, even as you recognize that your students can be both learners/teachers in various moments, and even as your recognize that you can be a teacher/learner” (1).  So again here’s this question of balance: I’m not their equal, but I’m not on a pedestal either.

Like I said, I’ve struggled with this concept a lot. Last fall as GTAs, we were told that it’s a good idea to have a clear boundary with your students. Don’t treat them too much as friends because that opens the door for them to take advantage of you. You know, like that If You Give A Mouse a Cookie-kind-of-story? Last semester, I was super professional with my students, and it worked out very well. They didn’t know that much about me. My professional self was the self the students saw. But even at the beginning of this semester and especially after reading this, I know my authentic self was not as apparent last semester. But then again, I’m generally reserved and quiet with those I don’t know, so coming into the classroom with flashing light shows and vivid personal conversation is definitely not my authentic self. I’m truly trying to navigate the authentic self this semester, figuring out how to be more personal and involved with my students while keeping myself as an authority figure.

But then another problem arises. How can I present myself as an authority figure if I feel like a fraud? Sarah Deel said pretty much everything I feel. As I was reading through “Finding My Teaching Voice, ” I felt so relieved that I wasn’t alone in this situation. While I wasn’t entirely thrown into my classroom, I do feel underprepared, inadequate. I, too, am required to teach papers that I either haven’t written in a almost a decade or have never written at all. I have this overwhelming fear that my students are bored out of their minds and aren’t learning anything or, even worse, that they know I’m a joke. This is that little voice inside my head that likes to tell me that I have no idea what I’m doing. I listen to it a lot because it’s loud. But sometimes that voice of reason finds a way to get a word in edgewise and tells me that I do have a little bit of an idea of what I’m doing and that experience will teach me more.

Aye, there’s the rub. Experience and self-questioning are what I feel is key in both the articles of Deel and Fowler–these writings go together very well. Deel seems to have found her authentic self through semesters of teaching; I don’t think it’s something we know right away. She found what worked for her even if it wasn’t exactly cool or flashy. What mattered was her pedagogy and engaging students, and she found a way to embody that in the classroom. Fowler’s handout gives pertinent questions for me to ask myself to help me “find myself” in the place that is the classroom. The classroom is just as much a learning place for me as it is for my students. What I’ve found out is what I’ll  be trying to implicate more this semester. I’m happy that I already have begun to do so. Being real,  intentionally disclosing appropriate personal information to my students, connecting with them makes them more comfortable with me and probably gives them a more favorable impression of the course. Also, if I’m trying to teach my students not to be automaton thinkers and writers, I shouldn’t be an automaton instructor who shows up to perform the job and appears to have no personality. That’s the worst. I don’t think I was quite like that before (I desperately hope not), but I am working to have more conversations with my students and let me be me.

 


Works Cited:

Deel, Sarah E. “Finding My Teaching Voice.” cte.virginia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Deel.pdf. Accessed 1 October 2017.

Fowler, Shelli. “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills.” mynelson.net/grad5114F15/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/The-Authentic-Teaching-Self-and-Communication-Skills.pdf. Accessed 1 October 2017.

 

 

 

6:30 pm: will you give me an A+?

Today is Sunday, according to the calendar we use to “track” the pass of time, and also based on my current location, because in Europe/Africa, Monday is already starting. Here in Blacksburg, VA, it is 5:15 pm, and I still have some time left to publish this post and make it available to the GEDI community to “make it count”, otherwise my efforts might not receive a corresponding grade. Previously, by this time, I would have already published something, but this weekend was different. For multiple reasons I got derailed from reading and writing, and no, not because I can skip one post (apparently no more than one), simply because I did not feel like doing it, although I always had on mind to write before the deadline, which is why I finally started the readings and now trying to write. What time is it? It is 5:25 pm.

Ten minutes of my life have gone writing the introductory paragraph, and I have the option to erase it and lose the precious time, or leave it as it is and just keep writing, hoping that it was good to keep you reading… But if you decide to leave, then, I guess I am lucky that this post is not being assessed by the number of comments (or is it?), and there is no way to know how many people have read it (or is there a way?), in fact, I have no clue how it is graded at all. But if time spent writing could be a criterion in my grade, then let me share with you, it is 5:34 pm. Which means that I am writing a paragraph every 10 minutes more or less.

It is likely that time spent doing the assignment cannot be used to grade, and that is good, because each person takes different paths to accomplish something. For some it might take a long time, while others are able to convey a clear message really fast. Some might need to erase and erase until the desired product has been achieved, others might have a natural easiness and clear vision from the first time. I could go on and on with examples of how people learn differently or how tasks are done differently, and could potentially site research related to this, and yet, no matter how many situations have been described, all students are typically evaluated the same way: same test, same time limit, same grading scale, etc… is this fair? By the way, it is 5:44 pm.

Alfie Kohn, author of “The Case Against Grades” (2011) and other articles, provides a nice narrative to this case, and is striking that some of what he discusses is not new. Some of the thoughts that caught my attention in respect to the effects of grading are:

  • A danger in grading is that students would not take intellectual risks to avoid failing a class
  • The competition between classmates leading to fear of failure and cheating
  • No desire to learn, rather desire to simply pass…. There is no real motivation towards learning

It is 5:54 pm, and comparatively speaking, the lines immediately above kind of resemble a paragraph, so it seems I am being consistent in my writing speed, perhaps this could be a measure of assessment?

I have no idea what you might think is the reason for me sharing the time after each paragraph is completed, what I do know, is that whatever you think it is, you have a very high chance of being wrong. Therefore, if you were grading this post based on how much non-relevant details were included, you could not (or should not) take any deductions for me sharing the time… and that takes me to reflect how in previous grading that I have done, I used to scratch parts of lab reports written by students, with aside comments like: “this is not necessary”, “you are wasting paper” and even if I didn’t necessarily took points of from their assignment for “excessive” writing, I did truncate in a way their learning process. Likely, I framed future reports to be within certain constraints, and that could have resulted in future poor performance by avoiding key words with the fear of being too much. It is 6:05 pm.

So, to clarify the reason to keep writing the time, in case I could be judged for including non-relevant information: I felt like doing so. Liu and Noppe-Brandon (2009) point out to the value of “imagination first”. I have to admit that while writing this post, I never imagined that it would take me 10 minutes per paragraph, I did however, imagined how I wanted to share my thoughts on Kohn’s article and how I wanted to finish my last paragraph discussing the power of imagination. But, I have run into a problem, it is 6:15 pm, which means that the time I have allotted myself to write this post has come to an end. Will I be penalized for my honesty?

Ok, I didn’t want to just cut today’s journey like that, because I do have some more inquiries to share: Have teachers become “killers” of potential great student’s ideas? Is the education system promoting the assassination of imagination? Is the “job market/world” dictating how learning should occur? Sometimes it seems like that is the reality, and even though I believe that student’s performance, especially in engineering and medicine must be evaluated, to make sure that someone’s life will not be at risk. I do have to admit, that assigning numbers or letters, and ranking students by performance does not sound like the best alternative after all.

Ok, it is 6:25 pm, time to choose a title for this post, publish and move on…

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more MINDFUL… give me an A+ 🙂 … and then let’s discuss how to remove grades from the education system… 6:30 pm

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

When Peter Elbow Says It All…

When Peter Elbow says it all, I still find a way to assemble a lengthy and extremely disoriented post. So sorry!

In “The Case Against Grades,” Alfie Kohn clearly takes issue with how academia currently assesses learning: he detests grading. Understandably so. I can totally understand how our grading system is problematic, how it “diminishes” interest, “creates a preference for the easiest possible task,” and “reduces the quality of students’ thinking” (Kohn). Because wasn’t that how I was in high school? I wasn’t really interested in half the stuff I studied. I wanted the easiest homework possible. I memorized to test and forget. As I’ve said before, I didn’t mind school. Heck, I didn’t mind grades. I was a very competitive high schooler, be it in sports or academics. But that is exactly what grades shouldn’t be. Learning isn’t a competition.  Learning is a life-long process of growth that can be done individually or collaboratively. While I understand Kohn’s sentiments on the current state of assessment, I have a difficult time imagining it being any other way. I suppose this is normal because I suspect most of us were raised in this “QWERTY system” of grades (Liu and Nope-Brandon 9). It’s worked this far. Why change it?

Kohn makes a good argument as to why it needs to be changed. But I tended to align more with the argument Peter Elbow made in “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking.” I mean really aligned. (If only you could see how much yellow highlighter I used in my Mendeley viewer while reading the article.) Having had a pedagogy class within my major before, I’ve come across Elbow in the past, but this time around it made more sense.  Elbow writes, “It’s obvious, thus, that I am troubled by ranking. But I will resist any temptation to argue that we can get rid of all ranking-or even should. Instead I will try to show how we can have less ranking and more evaluation in its place” (188). What I like is that he wasn’t writing an article on doing away with grading altogether; he was writing an article to advocate for evaluation–a method of assessment that helps the student grow as a writer. Not only does he outline the problem with ranking and even over-evaluating within this article, but he devoted time to the concept of “liking” students writing–this blew my mind because I was thinking just today that I was dreading next weekend when my students’ first papers are coming in for grading and how I wouldn’t see the light of day because of the electronic pile of papers that would be blocking the light from the window. I like teaching my students and working with them on their drafts. I don’t mind commenting on their final papers either. But, honestly, I’m not turning back flips waiting to read them, and ultimately, I’m so confused when it comes to smooshing the comments into a letter grade box. It’s a lot of pressure.

Elbow again seemed to read my mind here: “Writing wasn’t meant to be read in stacks of twenty-five, fifty, or seventy-five. And we are handicapped as teachers when students are in our classes against their will” (204).  I mean, mic-drop. No truer words. How do I solve these problems–my stress regarding reading stacks of papers, my stress at the thought of giving my students a letter grade, and my students simply doing things for this letter grade in a class they just want to tick off their list of “Boring Required Classes?” “Aggggggggggggh” in the words of Charlie Brown.

Another thing that I like about Elbow is that he states the problem AND gives some potential solutions to the problem. This seems normal, but have you noticed how rare it is to come across this in academic writing? There is always a problem, but rarely are potential solutions offered. Elbow writes about a concept and potential solution called “Portfolio Grading” (192-193). I first heard about this concept last fall and thought it was a really interesting means of assessment, mostly because I never had any professor use this method of grading before. I’ve also heard it takes a lot of work and planning. I’m not sure if this is true or not. I would suspect so because evaluating (giving detailed comments on every piece of writing) takes a lot of time. While I think I do spend a lot of time commenting on my students homework and papers, I always feel like I should do more. But I have so little time. Because I’m pressed for time, I made a promise to myself that I would use my two years in grad school as a means of getting myself acclimated to teaching freshmen writing courses before I would try something like portfolio grading. But the more I read about it, the more I like it. As far as I know, portfolio grading involves only giving out one grade at the end of the semester. During the semester, students turn in work only to receive comments on their writing. I also believe conferences are a big part of portfolio grading; this practice enables student and teacher to connect and truly work through issues in writing. The portfolio collects the students writing and evaluates it over the course of the semester. How did the student improve? How did he or she take comments into consideration? How did they not? I like it because it evaluates growth over a longer period of time rather than over the course of four weeks. I really do want to try this out someday.

Currently, I’m planning to offer revision this semester as a means of changing up assessment. I will grade my students papers (as I’m required to), but the grade doesn’t have to mean “end of story.”  If the grade is low, revision allows it to be a “teachable moment” or “learning experience.” I would hope that my students read the detailed comments that I give them, come talk to me about it, and then work to take these comments into consideration to revise for a better grade. While this still adheres to the grading system, it doesn’t suggest that a low grade is failure or that failure is permanent. They have the opportunity to grow and learn as a writer.

And ultimately, that is what I think is wrong with our current assessment system. It suggests to students that learning is done quickly and lasts up until the moment after the test is over. You either learned or you didn’t. If you didn’t recall the information, then sorry about it. You failed. I don’t think that encourages learning at all. Because trying and failing and trying and succeeding are life-long processes.

Should Humans be MINDFUL?… Am I insane for asking this?

If by any chance you are confused about this post’s title, be confident that probably you are not alone. Before reading the next lines, I would be confused too, maybe except for the fact that I chose the title. If you read Langer’s “The Power of Mindful Learning”1 and “Mindful Learning”2, you might be thinking: it seems insane to even ask the question after going through them. If you are in fact thinking this, then respectfully I say to you that perhaps you were mindless while reading about the power of mindfulness. So, why am I asking: “Should Humans be MINDFUL?” The answer is quite simple. No, not to my question, but to why am I asking it: I tried to be mindful while reading.

I truly hope that my introductory paragraph was good enough to encourage you to keep reading. Well, seems the previous sentence was written under the influence of mindlessness. Now that I reflect about it, if you managed to read it, then it means I was successful to engage you, and therefore that sentence is meaningless. On the contrary, had you not read it, then probably I would have failed to gain your attention, or maybe not? But since I kept you interested, which may or may not be measured by you leaving a comment to this post, then travel with me, while I attempt to share with you my answer to the perhaps confusing title of this post.

So, was I mindful while writing the previous two paragraphs? Where you mindful while reading them? Like Langer mentioned, many times we think of being mindful when actually we are not. For instance, an answer to the first question could be that I just wanted to play with your mind, engage you in this reading and then confuse you as much as possible, with the purpose of making you agree with me that I am being mindful about my writing. After all, there is also power in confusing people. But, it is possible that you have another suitable answer to conclude that I was not mindful. And that response, will likely be correct too. Mainly, and this is a fact, because I have no idea of what you think being mindful is, and your definition might be different to mine. Remember, we don’t have the power of reading minds.

Professors must be alert to distinguish if the students are engage and following the topic being discussed, and be open to consider a different approach if needed. Students, will likely maximize their learning experience when their minds are open to process, not just receive, new information. An alert student, will likely be better prepared to apply learned skills under different scenarios, as long as the professor left the door open for such alternate context, in comparison to the student that sits and repeatedly copies what is being told. The previous thoughts that remained with me from Langer’s reflections, probably to some degree, a mere paraphrasing of what being in a mindful state could mean. To continue in the same line of thought, just imagine the infinite possibilities that collaboration between a mindful student and a mindful teacher could potentially bring. A classroom environment where all players are being creative, discovering together, discussing and giving alternatives, rather than, as Langer puts it: taking the facts as the only truth in the absence of context. Certainly, one cannot just 100% agree with the content of Langer’s writing. Otherwise, like I previously expressed, that would mean that we read under a state of mindlessness.

If you have read my previous posts under GEDI F17, I hope you are wondering: where is the personal story? Well, I don’t want to leave you with that uncertainty. Although leaving in uncertainty might be actually better. The post you just read is my personal story about how hard being MINDFUL can be. Writing this post I tried to carefully choose which words to use and what message I wanted to pass. I wanted to try another writing style. I tried to give you options, I tried to transmit a message with confidence, but still leaving you open doors for other possibilities, rather than presenting my thoughts about being MINDFUL as absolute certainties. I tried to explain to you what being MINDFUL is to me, and why humans should be MINDFUL, without directly telling you why. At the end, what I can tell you, as a fact, is that it was not an easy task, but it was an enjoyable one.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s start to be more MINDFUL and less mindlessness about who we are, and alternatives to improve our education system.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

  1. Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning. Book.
  2. Langer, Ellen J. Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 9, No 6 (Dec. 2000), pp. 220-223

 

 

Automaton Fingers and The Five-Paragraph Essay

This blog is going to be messy, a conglomeration of scattered thoughts on a topic that I recognized was an issue throughout my entire history of learning. In the “When Practice Makes Imperfect” chapter in The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer mentions  the “inventive transformations of the routine” and follows it up with an example of traditional methods of learning classical piano (24). This example immediately through me back to how I learned pieces for piano recitals. I grew up taking piano lessons. Once a week from elementary school through my junior year of high school, I was at a lesson practicing pieces in front of my teacher that I may or may not have had time to practice during the week before the lesson. I liked playing piano, but I hated piano theory and I hated public performance.

These sentiments mostly stem from how I “mastered” recital pieces and the crash-and-burn experience I had from this method of learning. See, I was a rote memorization learner. I practiced and practiced and practiced until my fingers were on autopilot and my mind had seemingly nothing to do with what was going on with the keys. Rote memorization. It worked at home. It even worked at recitals. Until the one time it didn’t.

One night, while performing in public, my fingers blanked. I simply could not remember the next two lines of music. I sat with my back to audience in utter mortification trying to recall the next notes, but I couldn’t. Though I wanted to get up and flee the room, I was finally able to jump ahead in the piece and finish it, but I had failed. My automaton fingers had failed. My memory had failed. And failure is bad, isn’t it? I had learned the basics of performance and the piece itself in a “rote, unthinking manner” and had become less than mediocre by the end of the process (Langer 14). It took me a long time to even think about performing in public again. I’d still rather not.

I saw this same thing happen to a number of us students in high school. We memorized the facts that needed to be learned, took the test where we may or may not have recalled the memories, and then discarded the memorized facts to make room for new ones. Sometimes, we were successful in this method of learning; sometimes, we crashed and burned. Hard. So while reading the “seven pervasive myths” that Langer lists in the introduction to the book, I saw that I had adhered to at least four of those myths just by how I learned piano alone (2).

I appreciated this section on mindful learning because I think it applies to some of my lessons this week in First-Year Writing. In teaching writing and critical thinking, rote memorization is a little more difficult to come by. Because in many area of the humanities, there are no wrong answers. We don’t necessarily memorize. But when we’re taught writing, we do practice the basics so that “they become second nature” (Langer 2). As my students begin to write their first paper, I want to talk about the difference between high school contexts and college contexts. Example: the five-paragraph essay. It’s taught in high school because of its relative easiness to explain and because of its usefulness in writing the types of essays high schoolers have to write. I mean, a oddly high percentage of my essays in high school were timed. Because that’s real life, right? No. Because that’s the AP Test and the SAT writing section and maybe even the GRE writing section for many of us, if we’re honest.

Though I understand that the difference between college and high school may not be that different for some students, for many it is. Students practice writing this type of essay so often that it becomes second nature. It’s the formula they need to succeed. But writing is so much more messy than that formula. Thinking about how to analyze, organize, and write about new concepts and perspectives takes more time than 45 minutes. Now, in college, the basic five paragraph essay isn’t as useful. It’s actually more confining.The five paragraph essay isn’t wrong; it was appropriate for some people in a certain time. It’s just one way of writing in a certain context.  This college context is different, and it’s time for learning to build on itself and evolve. So now, many students will now have break themselves of the basics that have become second nature and try something new.

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