Day 1: Teacher Training (writing)

Linh rocked the Writing Orientation program yesterday afternoon with info on the Writing Program’s Teaching Wiki “TWIKI.” (Ok, I might be partial because she’s my RCS.) She was “on” for all of us after a bit of group-level conflict regarding the example chosen to illustrate the goals of Unit One: Inquiring Into Self. It’s a tough position for a teacher to fill, to complete the transition out of a zone of strain back to “business-as-usual” (except that these periods of strain are are crucial to the business of teaching, IMHO. 🙂
The training program and trainers are all excellent, and (surprise!) the pre-established curriculum is great, actually. 🙂 (After so many of my juniors in the required junior writing course, COM375, dissed their own Freshmen writing courses I was thinking I’d have to s-t-r-e-t-c-h a heck of a lot; now I’m thinking, not so.) Many of the resources are online, in the Writing Program Wiki.
With my eye, as ever, on group development (stages, dynamics, and discourses) I noticed how many people jumped in to question and contribute to resolving the conflict. It wasn’t really a big deal, but the energy suddenly spiked in the room, so it became (at least potentially) an important moment in the group’s overall development. These things will happen in the classroom too, when someone will ask a question and it will galvanize emotion among a range of students (and sometimes the teacher too).
Peggy asserted her authority to shortcircuit spin. She and I, with Josh, had a great talk about it at the break: there was so much modeling in that interaction! As the teacher, you’ve got to judge when and where to intervene and when to allow the outlet for venting and processing. Because the energy in the room spiked so quickly I think Peggy was right on to interrupt it with a sidestep: “This activity is a choice, an example.” Any of us can adapt activities to our own preferences. I call it a sidestep though, because the pedagogical issue is still there, and this is what we discussed at length: most freshpersons coming to the University will be exposed to more diversity in their first week here than in their entire previous lives.
The question is, how do we – as teachers – open doors for inquiry and create spaces for potentially taboo or at least unfamiliar topics without pushing our own agendas? The activity itself, “The Self in Contradiction,” is awesome. After the brainstorm, any categorical context could have been chosen, it just happened to be gender. [Now you’ll see how my mind works.]
The nice thing about choosing gender is that it is perfect for the expression of affection. At this point in the day, we’ve already spent four hours together, including substantial time in two different small groups. Comfort levels are growing, people are making connections. Some banter got going while generating the list of common male stereotypes. (I think it was Sarah who contributed “visually stimulated”?) When we switched to common stereotypes about women, the first named was “softspoken” and someone (David?) said, “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” to much laughter. We do like each other. 🙂
But there was a heterosexist climate building. I wondered, was gender chosen to counteract my coming out during the “two truths and a lie” icebreaker? Not consciously! Probably, it would have happened anyway (but perhaps if I hadn’t come out there would have been no challenge? Who knows?!!) At any rate, the (innocent?) assertion of a heterosexist framework elicited a challenge (in the form of a serious question) and zappo – high energy. Ryan, leading the activity, might (?) have felt a bit defensive (when the energy goes up in a group like that it almost always feels like an attack) … the trigger seemed to be the naturalistic assumption of framing the next steps in the activity along biological gendered terms – students should pick an item from the list that corresponds with their own gender (the second step was to switch to the other list, but we didn’t know this yet).
This highlights how vital it is to consider whether or not the how complements the intention. (Something no one knows ahead of time; welcome to on-the-job training! The best part is, however, that students rarely know when you’ve messed up. grin)
Peggy suggested to me that if one wanted to introduce the complexity of gender (i.e., blow students’ minds) you could begin the activity with three categories (male, female, trans) … to me that would be over-the-top, because I have no idea how significant an issue such as this might be to the specific group of students in my class (perhaps race or nationality or religion is much more relevant). The real challenge of good pedagogy is (according to yours truly, grin) being subtle (not a trait I’ve ever been well known for, btw). 😮
What was totally cool about the whole interaction for us – as participants in teacher training – is that sometimes you cannot be subtle. Peggy had to rein us in to keep the whole group on track. The clock ticks! There’s a distinction here, between the authority of the teacher and the power of the group dynamic. So, gender is “on the table” for this group – us – now. It will possibly recur. So is authority and authorization. Our small group discussed this at lunch.

“It’s a game of confidence,” Linh said.
“If you can sell it, they’ll buy it.”

We covered a whole range of things: disability access, photocopies (only 750!), transparencies {what do you mean we have to buy our own?!!!}, pros and cons of various seating arrangements, email communication from students, differences between teaching in a classroom building or a dorm, other factors influencing authority (gender, height), formality (use of titles, first names), and various dynamics. “You gotta watch for you,” Linh warned one of my peers, after she confessed (!) to having been meaner (!) to grad student teachers than full professors.
Haesang asked about the political persuasions of students. I found this discussion intriguing. There are liberal/progressive minded students here at UMass, but also a growing conservative strand. John clarified that there are more apathetic students than anything else; on reflection I agree with this. I’m excited by the potential in the context diagram to serve not only as a schematic for the writing process but also as a metaphor for acting in the world. 🙂
I also noticed and thought about the group dynamics/stages of group development during the first activity when three members generated a response to Romney’s hypothetical restructuring of higher education and two members observed the process. Our group (Denise, Janel, Deirdre, Jessica and me) dove immediately into task (no confusion, no reiteration, no questions), agreed on a claim instantly, clarified, paraphrased, and gave each other positive feedback. This ain’t no how no way gonna happen so smoothly with our students! (But they will also muddle through, if you don’t let ’em off the hook.)
It was a good day; a good training. I struggled a bit to hear some people (quiet voices, or a bit mumbly), but that was only when we did the intros in the large group. The icebreaker/intro activity of two truths and a lie showcased how funny everyone is – obviously an important skill for teaachers, to know when and how to quip. Who was it who asked, after we had settled the little storm, “What are we doing again?”
Meanwhile, I’m quite pleased to have an inside connection at Trader Joe’s.

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