Saturday, February 23, 2013

Classroom Discussion and the Organization of Physical Space

A few weeks ago, a member of my Tenure and Promotion Committee observed and evaluated my SCED 4200 class during a period when we used small-group discussion structures to talk about whole-class discussion structures. At the beginning of the lesson, I asked my students to do a quick write about excellent discussions they'd observed in the past, and I wrote their insights about the discussions on the whiteboard. The observer's critique was that the students were talking to me and were making eye contact with me, rather than with each other.

This observation made me think about how teachers use classroom space. If you, as the teacher, stand in front of the room, then you may direct students' attention toward yourself rather than toward each other. I was also directing students' attention toward the information on the whiteboard. 

My evaluator's comments reminded me of an article I read by Lim and colleagues. (If you just skim it to look at the images, the analysis of classroom space is pretty neat.)

The article mentions how authoritative teachers tend to spend most of their time in front of the class, with desks faced toward them, whereas less authoritative teachers tend to move around the classroom more, at times standing in the back or to the side of their students, making the 'flow' of the class seem less rigid and directed toward the teacher.

I actually really try to think about the use of space in most of my lessons. Personally, I am not opposed to standing in front of the classroom. I think it is unrealistic to say that, as a teacher, you will never use verbal speech to provide information to your students. (Or maybe I just have not evolved to that point in my teaching career...who knows?) At the same time, however, I think that variation is important. Sometimes I will be standing in front with desks facing toward me, sometimes I will be standing in back so students cannot easily look at me but have to look at each other. When we have lengthy discussions about substantive issues, I move the desks facing toward each other in a single large circle, but when the focus is on group work sometimes I have students' desk facing toward each other. In all, the take-home message is this: the organization of classroom space matters. The spatial position of the teacher matters. Through our spatial position and organization of physical objects, we communicate to our students where and how we want them to direct their attention. I think we as teachers can be more conscious about physical space as a form of 'preparation' for partner, whole-class, or small-group discussions.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Finding the Balance in Writing Instruction

This week, I read a passage from a book by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, including her chapter on the meaning of discipline. She writes: "Without discipline, we simply don't have the support we need to evolve...The discipline is to find the balance between not too tight and not too loose--between not too laid back and not too rigid. Within this structure, we proceed with compassion."

What does this have to do with writing instruction, you ask? Well, a few days ago, I emailed one of my former professors who is famous in the field of writing research, and I  asked him if there was any evidence for the "natural process" approach to writing. This approach asserts that students should write about what they want, and teachers will conference with them about what they have written. Many advocates of this approach, such as Donald Murray (1980) have asserted that teachers should not explicitly teach students the 'rules' of writing, such as organizational patterns or ways to combine sentences, because this approach can stifle the natural process of writing.

My professor told me that there was no research suggesting that this more 'open' approach to writing produced positive results. In his words: "The research basis supporting writing workshops is anecdotal, selective, and highly dubious." 

At the same time, however, I have also worked in a middle school in which teachers were required to adhere to the "Jane Schaffer" model of writing, in which almost every sentence is prescribed in the famous (or should I say "infamous") five-paragraph essay. For example, every introductory paragraph needs a thesis, then every following paragraph should include a topic sentence, with evidence, followed by explanations of how that evidence supports the topic sentence, which supports the thesis. This approach, too, failed miserably in the middle school I observed, which had the one of the lowest writing exam scores in the district. The students hated it and felt it stifled their expression.

Which brings me to my original quotation from Pema Chodron. She says that in life, having discipline means establishing structures for ourselves, but not clinging to these structures too loosely or too tightly. By analogy, the same is true for writing instruction. Research has shown that students benefit from some structure, but too much structure can become formulaic and can shut down ideas.

Where is the line? I think that it depends on the class, the teacher, and the writing assignment. I think as human beings, we tend to want answers, such as "just give me the method that works." But, in my personal philosophy, life is more contextual and shifting than that. Consequently, reflective teachers have to walk the path of "not too loose and not too tight" for each writing assignment, identifying how they can provide structure for their students while still giving them a degree of freedom. Lastly, don't forget: proceed with compassion.

P. S. As a teacher, I want to add a disclaimer that I don't intend for this posting to be an endorsement of Buddhism, nor am I against Buddhism. I said in an earlier posting that I was a wanderer, which means I read works from different world philosophies. It just so happens that Pema's quote hit me this week as I was thinking about writing instruction. :)