Tag Archives: classroom

Stand and Deliver

Steve Volk, March 6, 2017

Anonymous, 'Le voeu du faisan,' Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

Anonymous, ‘Le voeu du faisan,’ Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

We went to hear Tafelmusik in concert at Finney on Tuesday night. We arrived early, but ran into so many friends that we didn’t get a chance to glance at the program before the musicians took to the stage, all 17 or so of them. Which partly explains how surprised I was when the ensemble (except for the cellists, double bass player, and harpsichordist) started to play while still very much upright. They moved around the stage, forming into and retreating from small clusters, bending in to the counterpoint, musically conversing with each other by their body language. At one point, a violinist bowed her way from the entrance doors of Finney to the stage. And boy, did they deliver! The music, which highlighted J.S. Bach’s time in Leipzig, was marvelous, even more so as it was complemented by an intriguing slide show projected behind them and a well-voiced narrator who put Bach’s music into context. The narration not only illuminated Leipzig as a central crossroads of early 18th century Europe, but explored everything that went into a Bach composition: how the paper he wrote on, the ink he wrote with, the instruments his players used were crafted into existence; what clothing he and his fellow Leipzigers (is that the term?) were permitted to wear, sumptuary laws being what they were; where his musicians performed, and on and on. It was wonderful. And having the ensemble on their feet and in motion seemed to elevate their music making to an even higher level.

And so I wondered: To what extent did the kinetic performance enhance its overall musical quality? (I should add that there was one violinist who remained seated. My guess is that she was stationary because of a mobility issue and that Tafelmusik had nonetheless been able to make her a full participant in the concert, neither excluding her nor drawing attention her way.) The concert made me think about movement and learning and the fact that, unlike these Tafelmusicians, in most of our classrooms, students enter, find a chair, and remain seated for 50 or 75 minutes at a stretch.

Mind and Body

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division,New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

There is a large body of literature on the relationship between mind and body, cognition and movement, generally finding that people of all ages learn better when they have been or are active. The research is quite clear that activity is essential in early childhood education, which is why it’s appalling that teachers, under legislative burdens to make their 5- and 6-year olds “college and career ready,” are taking away recess time in favor of paper-and-pencil tasks at a desk. And what’s the punishment meted out to fidgety kids: no recess for you!

I reported earlier on an elementary school in Owensboro, KY, where the kindergarten teacher won a grant to purchase “pedal-desks.” Because motion increases learning and there’s no time for recess, why not have students pedal at their desks while they are learning math! I’m waiting until they figure a way to connect the desks to the school’s power grid and use kid-power to reduce their utility bills. Think of the possibilities!

More seriously, the problem here is not that it’s silly to consider the impact of motion on learning, but that what needs to be studied is the way that motion itself can be a part of pedagogy rather than a mindless, hamster-on-a-treadmill activity. Of course, the dancers and theater people among us have argued this point forever, but do we listen? Rarely. My guess (raise your hand if I’m wrong) is that the vast majority of instructors operate in traditional classrooms where students come in, sit down and remain seated for the whole period, excepting their move to a new seat when discussion groups are formed. Science labs would be different, as would studio art, and, certainly, theater and dance classes and all athletics. But most of us engage in teaching and learning with our students firmly planted on their bums. And yet, as Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, argued in How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015): “Moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own. People use their body all the time when problem solving, without even knowing it” (p. 69). These movements literally can be as slight as moving our eyes or as large as moving our limbs. Perhaps that is why, I would guess, that most of us are up and about when we teach, either standing at a lectern or, more likely, wandering. (Beilock jokes that one of the best things about becoming a faculty member is that faculty don’t have to remain in their seats during class.)

The Neuroscience of it All

Here’s a bit of the neuroscience behind this (although, caveat emptor, this is not my field so colleagues who actually know what they’re talking about should correct anything that is flat-out wrong or misleading). So, the brain passes information from one part to another, while eliminating unnecessary data and storing valuable data, via neurons (See, for example, Colcombe et al., 2006). Say you’re reading a book: your brain’s frontal lobe is figuring out if the material is new or old, something it can dispose of or information that needs to be stored. If new, the brain encodes the data for storage which will then allow it to be retrieved when necessary (Medina, 2008). How much is absorbed and stored depends on a lot of factors including whether there is a proper balance of neurochemicals and growth factors to bind the neurons together long enough for them to communicate.

Something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps neurons “converse” with one another while building and maintaining cell circuitry, i.e. the kind of system of interconnections that allows the brain to function. So, and hopefully I haven’t made too much of a hash of it, the more BDNF, the greater the amount brains exchange and retain information. And this gets to the crux of the matter: BDNF is elevated with neural activity which then enhances signal capabilities with synaptic transmissions; this causes an increase in protein synthesis promoting structural integrity, all of which is essential for the long-term storage of information. And what elevates neural activity and, hence, BDNF? Would you guess, movement? Probably, if you’re a dancer or a tennis coach.

Study from Motion #27. ScottEaton.com

Study from Motion #27. ScottEaton.com

As I noted before, researchers have carried out substantial research on the relationship between exercise and cognition. To cite just two examples, a small-scale 2007 study by German researchers found that “people learn[ed] vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise” [J.J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008), p. 45]. And, at the other end, a comprehensive review by Tomporowski, Davis, Miller and Naglieri published in 2008 reported that “gains in children’s mental functioning due to exercise training are seen most clearly on tasks that involve executive functions. Executive functions are involved in performing goal-directed actions in complex stimulus environments, especially novel ones, in which elements are constantly changing. Behaviors such as these have long been seen as important for children’s adaptive functioning.”

Of course, this is hardly new: Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. The question is not necessarily whether a regular exercise regimen is good for the mind as well as the heart, but whether movement undertaken as part of the act of learning is valuable. Or, to turn it inside out: are students losing something by remaining seated during most of their class time? As John Medina, a development molecular biologist affiliated with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, cautioned, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”

Well, what if someone actually studied whether intentional physical activity carried out during a college lecture class could increase a student’s achievement level? We’re in luck, because Michala Paige Patterson did just that for her dissertation at the University of Missouri’s School of Education (“Movement and Learning in Lecture Classrooms,” 2011). I’ll only briefly describe this study since I’m not competent to judge the reliability of its design. And even though her conclusions were modest, the research is important to consider when we think about how to scaffold student learning and when we take into consideration the remarkable fact that students have bodies as well as minds.

Patterson worked with four faculty members who offered standard lecture classes. During class, the “treatment” group of students would activate their circulatory systems by performing a “low-impact and/or low intensity movement activity.” Patterson reported mixed findings among the 4 professors whose classes she used in her study. Two showed a statistically significant gain in student achievement when exercises were interspersed in a lecture class; two showed no difference. I was most interested in her conclusions: “By combining the data and different attributes of the professors, there appears to be a manner of incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome. Therefore, this researcher encourages and recommends further development and use of the techniques used in this project.” While she thought that something in the research protocol itself was limiting the impact of the activity, I would argue that the key is in “incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome.”

We already know that students have a limited attention span (some say as low as 7 minutes, others as high as 20 minutes), but they’re not going to make it through a 50-minute lecture without losing attention. So scheduling some movement with a break in the delivery is not a bad way to go. Is it time for the pedal-desks? Noooooooo!

Movement in Service of Learning

SpringerParker, "After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997

SpringerParker, “After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997: http://www.springerparker.com/works_muybridge.html

Let’s go back to the Tafelmusik concert: what if we were to use movement to further content learning or pedagogic approaches the way that movement improved the musicians understanding (and performance) of Bach? Leaving all this neurosciency stuff behind, I’m pretty sure that the players on stage understood Bach’s use of counterpoint and harmony more deeply by physically moving as they interacted with the other musicians. So how can we use movement in class to further specific learning goals? Here are two examples.

The first comes from Naomi Roswell, a junior environmental studies major who is currently participating in the Student-Faculty Partnership program and brought up this example during a recent meeting.

Movement, stasis, independence, dependence

Everyone stands in a circle. Ask each person to select two others (without telling them) to use as reference points. Each person’s task is to remain equidistant from the two others (i.e., in an equilateral triangle) as everyone moves around the room without anyone knowing who has chosen them as reference points. What happens if you move quickly? Slowly? As some point, and this often happens quickly, the room reaches stasis. Then the facilitator, who is observing rather than moving, can ask one person to take three steps, and watch as everyone else adjusts to maintain an equidistant posture.

Can you tell if someone is dependent on you? Much of the time, people are so focused on their own reference points that they don’t realize they are are a reference point for someone else. The lessons derived from this movement exercise can increase understanding about how one’s actions impact others without our even being aware of it. This is a theme that can easily fit into many social science and humanities courses, from sociology to environmental science.

Run it a second time: now each person picks two reference points, but one of them must have two specific qualities (e.g. be wearing glasses and have a striped shirt). Does the room come to stasis more quickly, or more slowly? The facilitator can again ask one person to move and see what changes that action brings about. This time the underlying lesson is that there are two independent systems at play. The exercise can be about an ecosystem with the glasses/stripes individual as a “keystone species” a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically; or the facilitator (generally no one picks them as a reference point) is an insect that occupies such a small niche that if it moves, it hardly impacts the habitat.

Or the lesson can be about relationships and dependency. What does it feel like to always be responding to the movements (requirements/demands) of others and have no autonomy yourself? So, for example: Your child can’t enroll in school without proof of vaccination, but you will lose your job if you take time out to bring her to a clinic which is a 2-hour trip because you have no car? And what if you are able to take the time out to go to the clinic only to find that it’s closed on Tuesdays, the day you arrived, because its funding was reduced and you don’t have a phone to confirm the opening hours? All these “movements” impact you, but you have little ability to respond effectively. What would “stasis” look like in this context? Comprehensive care?

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Slowing it Down

I’ve written before about “slow pedagogy,” the importance of helping students develop an ability to engage in tasks that require “deep attention” by slowing down the pace. This is increasingly important as students (and we, ourselves) are constantly involved in activity that requires very short, little attention bursts: hyper-attention. Checking texts, answering the phone, listening to a snatch of music. In contrast, close readings of texts, deliberate time spent observing art in the museum, extended research projects are all ways to build capacity for deeper levels of attention that are an essential part of learning.

With this in mind, are there ways to help a class “slow down” in order to better engage?  I’ve thought of using a meditation (clear-your-mind) approach, but since it rarely works for me during my yoga practice (when I’m either thinking about what I’ll have for lunch, some article I’m working on, or whether I’ll go to Drug Mart right after class or later in the week), I don’t imagine that it will work on 30 students sitting at their desks and thinking many other thoughts. But physical activity can serve this purpose, and here’s one exercise developed by a colleague at Oberlin. How this is carried out depends on the configuration of the classroom, where desks and chairs are located. Have students line up at the beginning of class in order to walk as slowly as possible from one end of the room to the other. While there can be a bit of silliness involved the first time the exercise is carried out,  the physical act of moving slowly can make a difference in how students approach the class. The exercise can work as a kind of border crossing movement: we are leaving the outside world behind and entering a new space of engagement and learning; as a tempo regulator: we are going to slow down and focus; or as an opportunity to break up a class in which students have been sitting for a long time and just need a change of pace to clear their heads.

In these exercises or others that you develop, you’ll want to think about how they will impact students with mobility issues, visual limitations, or other conditions that might impair their ability to participate, and plan accordingly. But whether or not you have differently abled students in your class, you can increase everyone’s learning by asking your students how they would redesign the exercise with such students in mind.

Movement increases our brain’s ability to “learn”; intentional movement can help students learn what it is we are teaching. Do you have physical exercises, movements that you use in class? Care to share them?

 

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

Suzuki Shōnen, "Butterflies," ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Suzuki Shōnen, “Butterflies,” ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Whether it’s your first year of teaching or your 30th, butterflies will likely take up residence in your stomach, kidneys, or any other organ of their choosing as the first day of classes draws near. Students often seem surprised when I admit to a massive case of the nerves at the start of the semester (and even more surprised when I tell them I get jumpy before every class during the semester). As much as nerves can rob one of much needed sleep, there’s also something wonderful about the preparation for the start of classes that I’ve long appreciated (and often commented on).

We may celebrate the New Year on January first or according to the demands of our liturgical calendars, but our real new year, complete with resolutions but probably absent the champagne, begins in late August, and with it comes the promise that this time we will “get it right,” for goodness sake! As much as we remain ourselves year after year, we also have the opportunity of re-invention each fall, of learning from past practice and reflecting on ways that this time, for sure, we will finally address our most serious challenges and take advantage of overlooked opportunities.

It’s not an easy time in higher education, or in the country, but we are remarkably privileged to be where we are, doing what we love to do, and working with students who may have overcome any number of obstacles and challenges to be here with us.

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

So here’s some advice for the first day/week of classes. You’ve heard some (maybe all) of it before, but, repetition never hurts. (Already the first piece of advice: you’ll need to repeat the information you give to students on the first day of class. Don’t expect them to have “heard” it, and the more important the information, the more the need for replication).

The syllabus is a strange mixture of legal contract and teaching document. While it needs to signal to students what we expect of them (as well as what they should require of us), it can be particularly off-putting if the main thing students encounter is a list of and restrictions and injunctions. So it is for the first day of class: to greet students with a catalog of prohibitions (no laptops, put away your smart phones, don’t come in late) is not much of a welcome, and, anyway, there will be time to get to that.

Prohibitions

Certainly, students will want to know what the course they have signed up for is about, but since the content of most of our courses is largely self-evident, I would suggest that students really want to know something else. They want to know what is it you have found so exciting, intriguing, or challenging about your field to keep you with it for years – if not decades. Your students will explore the field with you for the next 15 weeks. Maybe they have already discovered the questions that have brought them to your classroom, but letting your students know why you came to study economics or neuroscience or dance is a way of signaling that you once sat where they now sit, with more questions than answers. What they want to know is how you got from that first class to where you are today. What were the questions you encountered you felt compelled to answer? Who helped you answer them? Who gave you support when you needed it?

You’re not going to answer all of those question on the first day, but just by raising them you can bring students to your enthusiasm for your subject while letting them know that you, the expert, understand what it means to be on the other side of the desk, to be a novice. You will find time later to unpack assignments and readings, and in any case you might want to give them the syllabus as the first reading assignment in the course before discussing it. But for the first class: tell them why what you do is important to you and how you hope it will matter to them as well.

Thinking as Educators

In an earlier posting (“Classroom Communities and College Communities,” March 4, 2013), I proposed that colleges contain two kinds of communities, one that we build within our individual classrooms, and one that, collectively, we attempt to create across the college as a whole. I want to borrow a bit from that article to discuss the first kind of community, the one we generate in our classrooms, and how to think about that in the context of the start of the semester.

If we do our jobs well, over the course of the semester we will construct an authentic community in each of our classes where, on the first day of the semester, we probably found a group of individuals who shared little in common other than being in the same place at the same time. What we want is to create a community where students not only come to share a interest in the subject matter, but also feel a sense of kinship such that each is eager to support the learning of the others.

How do we get from here to there?

A good way to start is to engage students with the challenge of building that community. What do they think will lend the greatest support to the creation of the kind of learning community they (and you) have in mind?

As teachers, we are aware of the standards to which we hold students: we expect them to be respectful of each other and of us, to challenge but not disrupt the class, to be aware of the ways that words (and actions) have histories and carry consequences, as well as being cognizant that as learners we all make mistakes and should/must be able to learn from them.

Each of us likely negotiates differently the fine line between risk and comfort, challenge and disruption. But it is always good practice to engage students in a discussion of the kind of community they want to see in their classroom. In particular, you can ask them to develop the rules they think would most support and sustain productive learning. One benefit of asking students to develop their own rules of classroom engagement is that they become responsible for maintaining the rules (and can be reminded of them later in the course). Obviously, there is no guarantee that a set of rules alone will prevent behaviors that can eat away at classroom community, but establishing a shared starting point can be helpful.

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

Some years ago, I came across some advice that Audrey Thompson, a professor of education studies at the University of Utah, put in her syllabus, and it helped me think about the kind of community I wanted to create in my own classroom. Here’s some of what she wrote,

I will be asking everyone in the class to think like educators: if you feel that you have a better understanding of particular materials than do other students, ask yourselves what you have had to learn to get to this point, and see if you can make that understanding available to others (without lecturing them).

Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. What Thompson argues in this regard, and what I have found to be useful in my own classroom practice, is that students should be reminded that they are not only students but also teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.

Thompson continues:

If you feel threatened by particular people in the class, think about how to address them so as to get past the impasse: how can you teach them how you would like to learn from them? Thinking as educators means attending to the conditions of learning as well as to whether everyone is learning.

When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility. As student-learners, they do not want faculty or other students to disrespect or abuse them; as student-educators, they need to be aware when their actions have the same effect on their peers or on us.

Thompson concludes as follows:

Thinking as educators…doesn’t mean that no one can ever get angry or that everyone should always be ‘nice,’ but it does mean that you have to show respect for others. ‘Difficult’ behavior – and indeed ‘nice’ behavior as well – becomes an issue when 1) not everyone has the chance to speak; 2) not everyone is listened to; 3) someone is abusive, patronizing, or disrespectful; 4) opposing stances are not acknowledged and addressed when people have questions about them; and/or 5) people expect other people to understand their position when they have not explained their position.

We can create positive classroom communities in a variety of ways: via the knowledge that is generated, the relationships that are supported, the challenges that are addressed and overcome. But as Vincent Tino argued in “Classrooms as Communities,” student engagement will always play a central role in what happens for the simple reason that if students aren’t engaged, learning will not occur to the full extent it should. (A future workshop will explore the ways that implicit bias and what has been called the “stereotype threat” can make it harder for certain students, because of race, gender, religion, sexuality or disability, to feel that they are legitimate members of the academic community we are working to create on campus.)

The start of the semester is a spectacular time to engage students in the excitement we feel about the subjects we teach, and to invite them into a classroom community that will thrive to the extent that all take responsibility for both teaching and learning.

Inksheds and Eggshells

Steven Volk, April 11, 2016

Bored-in-the-Classroom-Vintage-How-To-Learn-Danish-When-Youve-Got-Other-Shit-To-Do-Scandinavia-StandardAs the semester drags itself into the last month of classes, it sometimes feels that we are walking against the tide in a heavy surf. Each step seems painfully slow, the distance gained so small. Classroom patterns are now deeply embedded and it’s hard to change or challenge them. This is particularly obvious in discussions where, by now, everyone in class expects the same hands to be raised when we ask for comments or toss out a question. To be sure, we are grateful that, at least, we can count on those students to say something, otherwise we’d all drown in sea of silence.

At this point, most of us will just wait out the semester, promising ourselves that next semester will be better – that we’ll get them all talking, and they will always be on point, and will be eager to dig into the most serious topics, and….

But maybe it isn’t too late to try something new, even at the tail-end of the semester. Enter “inkshedding.” Inkshedding is a writing-discussion practice begun in the early 1980s that Russ Hunt and Jim Reither of St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) designed to link classroom writing and discussion. While “inkshedding” sounds like a contemporary neologism, it actually dates to the 17th century when some writer substituted “ink” for “blood.” It meant the consumption or waste of ink in writing, according to the OED. Thomas Carlyle’s employment of the term in mid-19th century is eerily apposite of the current political moment:

Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. (Latter Day Pamphlets, III)

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshedding, as described by Hunt, grew out of freewriting exercises developed by Peter Elbow, exercises in which students are asked to write in response to a reading, a comment, or some shared experience. Hunt and Reither were concerned that writing should be more social and that freewriting which doesn’t go to somebody is lacking. Even Elbow later admitted that the stakes might be too “low” in freewriting.

So Hunt and Reither would have the students pass their freewriting texts around the class, and they would then mark with a vertical line the passages in the texts they were given that they found most “striking.” From this beginning, the exercise developed in a number of ways. Dan Cleary, who taught English at Lorain County Community College, came up with one of the most common, a practice which James Lang summarized in On Course (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Students begin by freewriting for 5 minutes on a topic of shared experience (a reading, event, comment in class, etc.). Then they pass their notebooks to another student who reads what has been written, and then spends 5 minutes freewriting in response to the first writer. This continues for 20-25 minutes, with students in written dialogue with each other. Only at that point does the discussion become an actual, out-loud discussion. Encouragingly, as Dan Cleary remarked, “I’ve never had a dead-end discussion after an exercise like this…”

Some Theory behind Inkshedding

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

There are some immediately obvious advantages to the Inkshedding practice. As many who have used it explain, the practice draws everybody into the process, even the non-talkers, since everyone has to write, read, and write again. And it’s not hard to imagine that, once the discussion moves from the written/silent phase to the oral/open phase, not only will it be more informed, but the teacher will have a greater opportunity to intervene to call on those whose voices are often not heard in class. (Note: we often see these as “shy” students, but I’m less willing to employ that term – more on this another week.)

Inkshedding is also informed by learning theory. Here’s a summary of some of Hunt’s main points:

  • When discussion takes place in a written form, it “broadens the bandwidth,” allowing everyone in the room to “talk” at once. Even in the best of discussions in a relatively small (12-15 student) classroom, students can be frustrated because the point they had wanted to address already left the dock five minutes earlier, and to return the discussion to that place would be counterproductive. Writing allows everyone to comment. But, as Hunt observes, what is even more important is that every idea or response has a chance not only to be formed in the first place, but also to be “heard” (i.e. read by a number of other people).
  • Hunt notes that we often overlook the importance of reading to the writing process. Inkshedding differs from (simple) freewriting because the text is read both in a social and a dialogic way. It is read for what it says, not to evaluate it or give the writer advice for how it could be “improved.”
  • The “transactional” nature of this reading process, particularly in the sense defined by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (Knowing and the Known), is critical in that it “reminds us that no component of the process can be understood or characterized outside the process.” The reader is influenced by the writer, the writer by the reader, and the whole event is tied to preceding and subsequent events. As Anthony Paré, the head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, observed, “Texts are located in an intertextual web. This is something students don’t (can’t) get, since their texts are not linked to other texts. Students eavesdrop on the disciplinary conversation and report what they’ve heard; they don’t join the conversation. They are intellectual voyeurs. Inkshedding gets them into the action.”

From Writing/Reading to Class Discussion

There are a number of ways that the written discussion can move from its initial phase into a full-blown, out-loud class discussion. In the early phase of Inkshedding, Hunt and Reither would form a small group of volunteer editors who would collect the notebooks, read them all, and mark the passages they found to be most “striking.” Those with the most marks would be transcribed, copied and distributed for a subsequent meeting of class, to start off an oral discussion. That practice drew a fair amount of criticism as it meant that not everyone’s comments would be read. In response, students suggested posting all the comments on the class walls so that students could circulate and read them. But this could prove unwieldy, not just because it wouldn’t work in a large class, but because students probably would only read those comments employing the best handwriting.

1962 "Hi-o-Hi" (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

1962 “Hi-o-Hi” (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

Another response was to continue the discussion at a silent level, a period when anyone could read any other comment and note what she felt to be the most “striking” passages for transcription. As Hunt noted, “These ‘reading times’ often bec[a]me one of the most powerful moments in my own teaching and conference participation, as people silently exchange[d] sheets of paper and a “discussion” occur[ed] in almost complete silence, punctuated by sotto voce expressions of agreement or outrage, or laughter. There is something particularly powerful about the fact that the reading and selection is being done immediately, or as one anonymous commentator on an early version of this text put it, ‘in real time.’”

A further possibility, particularly if the intent is to move to oral discussion quickly, is to ask students to find one passage from someone else’s inkshed to read aloud. As Hunt observed,

One of the most important educational aspects of inkshedding, for me, is the way it foregrounds and dramatizes the transactional nature of text. For almost all students (and this is especially important for those who have difficulties, or limited experience, with writing and reading), text has never been the basis of an authentic social transaction — beyond, perhaps, a thank you note to a distant grandmother or, more recently, e-mail exchanges with friends. The process of creating an identity and a role in a group through written text, as they do every day through oral utterance, is one in which they have only rarely engaged. And it is my belief that this process is the defining mark of the fully literate person.

Enter the Eggshells

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Discussions can stall, or never properly start, for a myriad of reasons: students haven’t done the reading, a few voices (almost always the same ones) set the tone and (consciously or inadvertently) dissuade others from joining in, the “quiet” students feel overly cautious about entering the discussion, students are tired or have other things on their minds. But there are other reasons as well, and we are all quite aware of them. Sadly, I can’t tell you the number of times when students, in private discussions, have said that they didn’t take part in a discussion because they were worried about how other students would react to their comments. They were concerned that what they said might be “taken the wrong way,” “misunderstood,” or that, lacking specific theoretical or linguistic chops, they feared tripping some word-choice detonator. They felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells worried that, as they put it, what they said would “be held against them” outside of class.

This is a massive area of concern that requires many posts and much more discussion, but it is one area where inkshedding can be helpful. We can think about this from two different directions. The first relates to the nature of the classroom discussion as it usually occurs. As we know (and as I noted above), when you raise an issue for discussion in class only one person at a time can respond. So you ask the question, wait a few seconds, and call on the first student whose hand is raised. If your classes are anything like mine, the first ones to raise their hands will likely be the same ones every time. Fine – at least this can begin a discussion and others will join in, which is what often happens.

But what we are probably not as aware of is that the first comments tend, in Hunt’s words, “to determine and focus the range of discussion, and effectively determine the kinds of questions or issues which will be raised.” If the discussion has already been framed in a certain direction, students with other perspectives, particularly if they worry that they may be challenging existing orthodoxies (what ever the particular classroom orthodoxy may be) or that they may not be able to state their view in a carefully articulated fashion, are much less likely to engage in the discussion, and therefore the discussion is less likely to open new, suggestive, or controversial, areas. Inkshedding, with its write/read/write/read/discuss structure can allow more “initial” voices into the discussion before it heads down a particular track.

The second point can, itself, be controversial: When employing inkshedding methods, some faculty don’t require that students put their names on their inkshed writing, allowing them to remain anonymous (at least to the extent that students aren’t familiar with each other’s handwriting and only if the paper on which they write is passed a number of times before it halts and is read and commented upon). There is, of course, no anonymity when the discussion is oral, and there is much to the argument that students (as well as faculty) should take responsibility for what they/we say or write, particularly when technology and social media allows individuals an anonymous cover to say the most vile things without any sense of responsibility or any thought to the consequences of such utterances.

And yet, precisely because I worry that the pressures of conformity are preventing students from testing out emerging ideas or putting forward thoughts that could be considered controversial in the classroom, I now assign work that is anonymous to all but me – and have done so with highly positive effects. Certainly, if inkspilling became a surrogate classroom YikYak, the practice of unsigned writing should be halted (and discussed!). But because that seems unlikely and because anonymity might actually promote more cautious voices to emerge, inkshedding should be considered as an approach to more robust classroom discussions that includes a wider diversity of voices and positions.

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Drawbacks?

A number of faculty who have written about their inkshedding experiences have found it too cumbersome to be effective as designed. They support its theoretical basis – the importance of social, dialogic and transactional writing – but they have concerns about the actual implementation of the exercise. Doug Brent of the University of Calgary discussed the most obvious limitation, handwriting. “Handwriting, especially handwriting that is clear enough for other people to be able to read it, is slow. Equally slow is the practice of passing the inksheds around and marking particularly interesting passages. And, since the point of inkshedding is that it should be seen by more than two or three people, somebody needs to collect them, transcribe the marked-up passages, and circulate them later.”

Technology to the rescue. Brent moved the exercise to an in-class Google Doc (he was teaching in a classroom where all the students had computers – the same can be arranged if students are asked to bring in their laptops or are provided with laptops), creating an empty shared document and asking students to read each other’s inksheds and copy interesting passages into the Google Doc. As he noted, “A collaboratively constructed document beg[an] to unfold in real time.”

When Brent questioned his students (via Survey Monkey) about their experiences with inkshedding, 14 of 20 responded, mostly positive:

  • Inkshedding ‘forces’ us to provide our thoughts and ideas, in a way that pretty much 100% engages us.
  • I think it is more beneficial, because I personally do not like speaking aloud.
  • This gives me and other students like me a chance to get their point across without feeling pressured.

The students were particularly positive about the experience in its digital format:

  • I like Google Drive because of how instant everything is. Collaborating and commenting are the most useful parts, I think. Instead of having to send a file or give a physical copy of a paper to a classmate or professor for review, you can just share it on Drive and see the comments as they are being created.
  • Google Drive made it easier to communicate and more efficient. If everyone wrote on a piece of paper and passed it around chances are only one or two people would see it, but with Drive it is available for everyone to view, which is amazing!

To Use or Not to Use

So what are the pros and cons of inkshedding? Brent asked colleagues who are active in the “inkshed community” for their opinions. (Yes, there is a community with its own blog, and associations – the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning.) Here is the list he generated:

Pros:

  • as a writing-to-learn tool;
  • as an exploration tool;
  • as a way to understand text(s), assignment(s), difficult concept(s), etc.;
  • as a safe place where students can ask questions and express confusion;
  • as a place of sharing experience and knowledge;
  • as a tool that triggers further thinking about topics, texts, assignments;
  • as a reflection tool (after an assignment or a task has been completed);
  • as a crossroad (making connections between what is in class and what is outside of class or how knowledge gained in class can be applied elsewhere);
  • as a meditation tool (on a difficult day, to get students to centre themselves);
  • To build relationships: I tell my students that I will have a conversation in the margins with them over the semester.  This also happens between the students themselves, but as an instructor what I love best about inksheds is the way it allows me to reach students;
  • To provide a method of writing that everyone can succeed with; inkshedding is diplomatic and the fact that it isn’t about punctuation, grammar and structure means that it opens up spaces of possibility for students who have been previously silenced by anxieties about those things;
  • To bring the voices of quiet students onto the floor; e.g., I pull an insightful quote from a quiet student’s inkshed and just before class, ask them if I can call on them to share their excellent point with the class;
  • To get students can take risks (e.g., test something a little edgier, or feel safe about saying that they dislike or disagree with someone/something);
  • To help students find paper topics;
  • It allows students to read each other’s writing, which not only exposes them to different interpretations and understandings of the readings, but also allows them to see the range of student writing out there. They get to see “real” student writing. This has a variety of benefits, addressed below;
  • Writing for a real audience allows them to develop a sense of audience–they replicate the strategies they find worked for their readers and want to achieve greater clarity for their readers. Their peer readers are often more important than their instructor reader;
  • They get stylistic and organizational ideas from each other. Frequently a student will report that she liked the way so-and-so did this or wrote in a particular way, and they experiment with it the next time around;
  • Reading each other’s writing, especially this informal writing, is immensely reassuring in letting them know they are not the only one who thinks a certain way or struggles with an issue (writing or a difficult article);
  • Conversely, reading each other’s writing exposes them to a variety of experiences and ideas that may be different from their own. Seeing their peers twice a week and having to comment on their writing brings about a certain cultural sensitivity that may not develop otherwise;
  • The pointing and the inkshed reporting, which calls attention to positive aspects of inksheds builds students’ confidence because they are not used to having readers point out what they like or say that their words are eloquent, humorous, powerful, etc. That little smile on a student’s face when someone calls attention to something they wrote is great to see;
  • Often their understanding of a concept is enhanced or increased by reading someone else’s summary or interpretation of it.

And the Cons:

  •  International students sometimes don’t see inksheds as helping them improve their Standard Written English;
  • Students need a certain level of language proficiency before they can inkshed in English;
  • Students can get the false impression that grammar doesn’t matter in their writing–or some lesser order errors can get fossilized– if this is the only or main genre of writing in a class. This can be ameliorated in various ways; i.e. dialogue, ‘soft’ expectations for gradual improvement, etc.
  • If not carefully coached on how to give worthwhile content feedback, students can get lazy in doing so OR actually hurt each other. Feedback needs to be monitored–at least early on.
  • Inkshedding can be stressful, especially the first one or two. Instructors can reduce stress on the first few inksheds by making them about easy topics rather than about a particular reading.
  • Students can reject or de-value inkshedding (especially early on) if they don’t understand why we are asking them to it. Instructors can spend time on rationale (and engage their ideas too) to help with this. Also, writing along with students models its value for all–and also messy writing!

Inkshedding may not be for everyone, but maybe it will offer just the way into a broader class discussion that you were looking for, some way to shake up the class in the latter part of the semester.

(And, by the way, many use inkshedding at conferences as well, as a way to open up a discussion after a presentation.)