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March 16, 2006

Maru’s Classroom Observation

This is a Spanish Class called Analysis of Texts (Span 3104) Its main subject is Spanish poetry. The entire class is taught in Spanish with a few comments in English.
The majority of the students in this class are majors and/or minors in Spanish Studies. Nearly all are required to take this course to enter the major program of core courses in literature. Most know Spanish fluently and want to learn to read and understand literature better. According to the instructor, “Most students are fairly well prepared to enter Spanish 3104, but occasionally there are some who experience tremendous difficulty, especially with older texts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods.?

The class I observed was on Tuesday, march 08 from 2:30 to 3:45 PM. The class consisted of fourteen students and one instructor. The instructor has taught this course for 25 years.


1. To what extent were the apparent objectives for the class session achieved?
The apparent objectives for the class were achieved through critical analysis of “En tanto que de rosa y azucena?, a poem by Garcilaso de la Vega, a Spanish poet from the Golden Century. The objective was, in the instructor’s words, “To find the secret code in Garcilaso’s poem?.
This objective is part of the general objective of teaching students how to think critically through the analysis of fictive texts.

2. At what point in the session did students seem most and least engaged or motivated?

In the last quarter of the class, when the “secret code? was explicit and the students could find some sexist and manipulative features in the meaning of the poem, the students seem most engaged, even excited and some female students showed their surprise with comments. Some of these comments were shared with the entire class, some of them were between nearby partners. I could hear, for example, one female student who said to her nearest classmate: “What a jerk! This poem is a threat: Garcilaso says if you don’t share your body with me you will become ugly and your body will be wasted?

3. Did you have the overall sense that writing instruction and “content? instruction were braided together or separate?

In the class that I observed, there was no specific activity about writing instruction, despite the fact that most students took notes and took note of a few terms written by the instructor on the blackboard. According to instructor, he usually facilitates open discussions in class focusing on particular textual aspects.



March 13, 2006

Gary's Observation Analysis

BACKGROUND

Writing and Representation: Advice and Persuasion (WRAP) is a required two semester course for first year law students at William Mitchell College of Law. The course is described in William Mitchell’s online course catalog as a

[m]ultifaceted study of skills that are fundamental to representing clients effectively and responsibly. Includes interviewing a client, researching primary and secondary sources in paper and computer media, reading the law, reasoning about a client's situation in light of the law, writing office memos and advice letters, counseling a client, negotiating and drafting contracts, investigating facts, settling cases through mediation, and arguing motions in writing and orally. Instruction is through large-group discussion and demonstrations, 12-person small group classes, six-person representation exercises, and individual conferences.

The WRAP class I observed, which met on Wednesday, February 22 from 4:30 to 6:30, consisted of twelve students and one instructor, an adjunct professor who practices insurance law with Meagher & Geer, a large Minneapolis law firm. The instructor has taught the course for several years. Prior to enrolling in law school at the University of Minnesota, he earned an M.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and taught first-year composition and introduction to literature as a graduate student. The instructor commented to me that “moonlighting? at William Mitchell gives him the opportunity to teach, something he enjoys very much.

ANALYSIS

1. Class objectives

From my observation, it appeared that the instructor had two primary objectives for the class: one, practicing legal citation format, and two, practicing advocacy skills.

Objective: Understanding Legal Citation Format

Understanding legal citation format by learning to use the Uniform System of Citation (also known as the “Blue Book?) is a key component of the first year legal writing experience. Students must know how to cite cases, statutes, and other legal materials for assignments in other law school classes as well as for clerkships, internships, and positions after law school where they will be doing legal research and writing.

As a former law student I remember well the difficulties I had understanding legal citation format, difficulties I now see in my students as they work with MLA style in my writing courses. I have yet to find what I consider to be a “painless? way to teach students to understand MLA, and I suspect that the instructor faces a similar challenge. Indeed, on several occasions he apologized for how complicated legal citation can be, something I find myself doing with my own students in discussing MLA. It appeared to me that, in the supportive environment of the classroom that he provided, students were able to help each other better understand how to cite correctly, and they showed their understanding in accurately completing the exercises he gave them. His students, with some prompting, seemed well “trained? in using the Blue Book to answer citation questions. His pedagogy reflects my own belief that students need coaching in using the source material to answer their own questions, rather than “rote? instruction in rules that they will not remember.

Objective: Practicing Oral Advocacy Skills

Like citation format, learning to “think like a lawyer? is a key goal of the first-year law school curriculum, including being able to apply legal principles to a particular set of facts, argue a position, and respond to questions challenging that position that would most likely come from another judge or lawyer. In that sense, oral advocacy is as important as written advocacy.

In the class I observed, students were making their first attempts at examining a legal issue, applying a particular set of facts to the law, and then articulating a position. If the instructor’s goal was nothing more than his students “getting their feet wet? with this aspect of the course (which, based on his comments to me afterward, it was), then I think his objective was achieved. Students clearly took the assignment seriously, using the ample time he provided for discussion and synthesis of their ideas, and then presenting their “cases.? In my view, all students were engaged in the task, taking the opportunity to contribute to the discussion and coming to one another’s aid in the question and answer portion of the exercise to convince the “judge? of the worthiness of their position.

2. Students’ engagement

As stated above, my sense was that students were clearly engaged during the second half of the class, when they working on the advocacy exercise. What was more surprising to me was their high level of engagement during the “citation drill? of the first half of the class, when it would have been very easy to lose focus, or engage in other tasks (all had laptops with wireless Internet access). The fact that the class stayed “on task? tells me that the instructor does a good job of stressing the importance of understanding citation format from the beginning of the course, perhaps through grading “stakes? or by emphasizing its “real world? applications (for example, the prospect of risking the ridicule or displeasure of a judge or fellow attorney by not citing sources correctly).

3. Relationship between writing instruction and “content? instruction

In my view, with respect to the first half of the class, writing instruction and content instruction seem inextricably linked. A large part of effective legal writing is understanding citation format. In the second half, however, the relationship between content (making a legal argument) and writing (drafting a brief) is less clear, only because I will not have had the benefit of seeing the written briefs students were going to be writing for the problem that was under discussion and the class was focused on oral presentation of their arguments. The instructor, however, did assign the class to rewrite the facts for their particular position, so I would imagine in the next class he will be working towards integrating their writing with their oral arguments.

4. Sharing of data with the instructor

I did not have the opportunity to share my formal observations with the instructor, but I offered to forward to him this assignment when it is completed. I did chat with him briefly after the class, however, and I commented on what I saw as the high level of engagement of the students, even in something as difficult and tedious as learning citation format. I also remarked that I found his gentle admonition to students to “get the knives out? to be interesting. He said that students often have a difficult time making the transition from writer and researcher in the first semester to advocate in the second (something I can attest to from my law school experience). He commented that it is a “gradual? but necessary process, and it is important to create a supportive but rigorous environment in which students can both practice and be accountable for the positions they take in their advocacy.

5. Representation of theory

In “Inventing the University,? David Bartholomae states:

…students…have to appropriate (or be appropriated by) a specialized discourse, and they have to do this as though they were easily or comfortably at one with their audience [even though] it is difficult to imagine how writers can have a purpose before they are located in a discourse, since it is the discourse…that determines what writers can and will do. (594)

One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of students both appropriating and locating themselves in a specialized discourse than in the class that I observed. In fact, taking control of the discourse is essential to the success of these students in law school and, later on, as lawyers. Indeed, the primary tasks of the class as set forth by the instructor (practicing citation format, arguing a position) were designed to further the students’ comfort level with legal discourse, both as writers and as speakers.

The behavior and interaction of the students with the instructor and with each other supports this view. Though only “first years,? class members made great efforts to engage in the “language? of the discourse. In addition to attempting to learn the “language? that is legal citation format, students made notable efforts to use legal concepts and terminology to reflect their understanding of the issues under discussion, concepts particular to the legal field (“summary judgment,? “mixed question of law and fact,? for example). Further, though the classroom environment was overall informal and supportive, the instructor addressed students as “Mr.? and “Ms.,? much like they would be addressed in court by judges or other attorneys. Students in turn practiced this modeled behavior with each other, addressing one another as legal professionals rather than as students.

Moreover, the class that I observed appeared to place equal emphasis on writing as well as speaking in the academic discourse community that is law school. Therefore, I would tend to disagree with some of Janet Emig’s statements in “Writing as a Mode of Learning? as applied to this context. She maintains that “[b]ecause writing is often our representation of the world made visible, embodying both process and product, it is more readily a form and source of learning than talking? (91) and that “[w]riting tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking? (111). Law students, in order to evolve into effective advocates, need to understand the importance of speech as a persuasive tool that goes hand in hand with persuasive writing, as demonstrated by the instructor’s objectives for the class that I observed.

6. The instructor’s approach compared/contrasted with mine

Though our student populations are quite different (I teach first-year college writers), I do see some commonalities with the instructor. Most notably, as discussed under question 1 above, I face many of the same challenges in teaching MLA citation format to my students and have tried a number of approaches (quizzes, games, or simply choosing not to cover it at all). I have found that, like the instructor, an applied approach—giving students a particular problem to solve, then asking them to write it on the board for feedback from students and myself—seems to offer the most opportunities for student engagement while also “training? them in understanding and using a handbook to answer citation questions.

In addition, I was impressed with the warm and collegial environment that the instructor has created in his class, an environment in which students are clearly comfortable with and respectful of him and exhibit the same behavior with one another. I like to think that my classes have a similar quality in which students have the opportunity to develop as writers and thinkers and to learn from both me and from each other.

March 10, 2006

Steven's Observation Analysis

1. The apparent objectives for the class (providing the class with thoughtful information about globalization, increasing the class's understanding of proper MLA documentation, teaching the class about proper paraphrasing, and teaching the class about proper use of the colon) all seem to have been achieved. The instructor spent a considerable amount involving the class in discussions of these issues. The instructor used many overheads to illustrate his points and randomly called on his students to make the entire class think about his questions. However, the overheads seemed to be a little small. This probably made it more difficult for students sitting in the back of the class to follow the class's discussions; one student, for instance, responded to one of the instructor's questions about an overhead passage by saying: "I can't really see it, but it changes the text a bit." Most of the class, however, actively participated.

2. The class seemed least engaged during the discussion of proper MLA style. During this part of the class, the instructor had to plead with the students to participate, by saying things like "Come on I need a vote!" The students' lack of involvement was probably caused by two things. One the discussion was very detailed (should a period be placed here or not?), and I suspect that many of the students had not memorized MLA style to the extent that would allow them to participate comfortably in this discussion. Two, the details of MLA style are in and of themselves dull, and the instructor was not forcing students to participate by calling on them randomly in the way that he did when covering the proper use of the colon.

3. Generally, writing instruction and content seemed to be treated separately in this class. The moment when they were most connected came at the start of the class in response to a student's question about how their paper should be organized. Here, the instructor suggested structuring their papers' in three categories: Before Globalization, Impact of Globalization, and After Globalization. The content of their papers was thus intimately tied into how their papers should be written; the suggested organization of the papers might also direct the students to new insights as they wrote their papers. The rest of the class, though, was focused mainly on the mechanics of academic writing. Students were given samples of MLA style, proper punctuation, and proper paraphrase, but these issues were not treated as being closely related to issues involving globalization. In fact, the sentences that were used as examples of proper style were often about subjects unrelated to globalization. Also, the instructor did not incorporate student writing in his survey of which countries were most globalized. This was an isolated instance of learning about globalization, not writing about it.

4. N.A.

5. The theories that seemed most represented in this instructor's style of teaching were Berlin's current traditionalism and Bartholomae's. The instructor focused on teaching the conventions of academic writing, in particular proper grammar and paraphrase. The instructor also modeled how he would structure the students' paper (using a before and after structure and topic sentences). His students were encouraged to think about the facts of globalization, and to analyze those facts, not to express their feelings about them.

6. I liked the instructor's use of overheads and his quizzing his students to teach them correct paraphrasing; I do something similar to this when I talk to my students about academic sources. The instructor's teaching style was, however, more authoritative than my own. He was also much more focused on the conventions of academic writing than I tend to be. While I do spend a little time teaching my students about academic conventions (I have students give group presentations on grammatical rules which I then quiz them on) I put less emphasis on these conventions. In fact, I stress to my students the arbitrary quality of many of these rules. I want them to understand that they are expected to use these conventions in academic writing, but I do not want them to think that people who do not know these conventions are less knowledgeable than they are. I also spend more time looking at arguments with my students, than I spend teaching grammar and MLA. I ask my students to analyze the assumptions of various arguments. The instructor in this class seemed more interested in presenting facts about globalization that were reported in a credible source (here a Foreign Affairs article that lists that world's most globalized countries). While I would discuss with my students the difference between Foreign Affairs and Newsweek, I also would be more interested in getting them to question the importance of that Foreign Affairs article as well as the sources of information that the author of the Foreign Affairs piece was drawing on (presumably government statistics). I also teach styles of documentation very differently. While I will spend time explaining things they need to cite versus things they do not need to cite, I do not expect them to memorize MLA style in detail. I'm more concerned that they know the kinds of things that they need to look up in their style handbook and the pages on which they can find it.

March 7, 2006

Observation assignment (yes!)

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March 2, 2006

Post-Observation Comments, Poetry Seminar, Michael Dennis Browne

Not sure what format these comments are supposed to take; these are just some notes. If I've totally got it wrong, will someone please tell me? Oh, and this is my whole observation, if anyone's curious. Download file


Post-Evaluation Comments

 

Michael Dennis Browne is retiring after this year. He’s taught for over 30 years, and is an extremely successful lecturer and seminar leader. I was mostly interested in observing MDB to pick up successful teaching habits. This seminar, which is on political poetry and seems particularly close to his heart, is a combination of reading and writing poetry. It seemed that his idea was to have the seminar so student-centered that it almost leads itself. He emphasized in-class writing and collaborative work.

 

One aspect of the teaching that seemed successful: When he had them read aloud, he took the time to really listen to what the students were saying and engage other students. What did you remember about that? He picked out something he liked about it, and repeated that back to the reader.

 

Exploit this strength even further? Perhaps he could have taken even more time with each reading, asked the others what they remembered best. Sometimes, he moved over this quickly.

 

Another aspect that seemed successful: He asked them how they used their in-class writing. They responded variously, often chiding themselves for not using it more. At the end, said that he thought, even if they didn't use it anywhere, it was still "recorded in the universe" somewhere. 

 

Exploit this strength even further? Perhaps have had the students talk about ways they possibly could use their in-class writing.

 

Another aspect that seemed successful: He had the students' papers and quoted them back to themselves, situated them in the debate (a real debate about the nature and value of political poetry) before they started the discussion. He seemed to value and respect their comments.

 

Exploit this strength even further? One of the students wasn't engaged in the discussion. Perhaps find something from his paper instead of an already-engaged student's.

 

Were there two-three aspects of teaching that didn’t seem consistent with the professor's goals?

 

1) He kept saying, "I'm talking too much." Sometimes, I think he did give more information--all good--than it was possible to digest. His method/philosophy was almost for the students to run the seminar, so this wasn't quite consistent. There could have been more presentation by students, as he had planned for the following meeting.

 

I couldn’t come up with more than one. Some of his students say he’s a little “quote happy,? but they all fit, and are relevant. Having them bring more to the class would be the only thing, I think.