Thursday, June 30, 2016

Summer College for Teachers Kicks Off with Discussion of Educational Goals in Democracy

Educators consider a passage written by philosopher Jacques Ranciere.

June 27 marked the first day of the annual Summer College for Teachers, hosted by the Rutgers Writing Program. Kurt Spellmeyer, chair of the Rutgers Writing Program, Regina Masiello, director of Expository Writing, and Brendon Votipka, the Plangere Coordinator and an Assistant Director in the Writing Program, welcomed New Jersey Educators with the first session of the day.

Kurt kicked off the discussion by reminding educators that our current educational system was developed in the nineteenth century and arguably has not moved forward since then. In fact, until as late as the conclusion of World War II, the average American had a ninth grade education. High school and college were distinctly separate institutions, and thinking that high school and college “populations and concerns” are separate remains a hindrance to education today.

“If we want education to survivereal educationwe need to band together,” Kurt said of the collaboration between high school and college educators, which happens at Summer College for Teachers and should happen on a broader scale too.

The group also discussed the lack of stability in high schools as a problem in education today. It’s hard work for a high school departmental supervisor to spearhead a program and get that program off the ground. There is a relatively quick turnover of departmental supervisors, which means that each time a supervisor is replaced, the process of spearheading initiatives starts all over again.

Of course, a discussion of education in America would be incomplete without mention of the Common Core. Many in the room agreed that the idea behind the Common Corean equal, free public education for all Americansmay be admirable, but the way that the standards were created and the way they are enforced don’t always add up with their goals. Educators wondered, where do the goals of Common Core and educators diverge?

“For me [as a student], literature was a door into a bigger world. I have to wonder about these students for whom standardized testing starts in the second grade,” Kurt said.

Kurt went on to share that, although Rutgers has one of the top ten history departments in the country, the department has experienced a 25% drop in enrollment in the last two years. The English department at Rutgers has not experienced quite the same drastic decline, but English departments across the country reveal a trend in universities: the humanities are losing popularity as a vocational mentality increases in students.

Educators discussed how we live in a climate of fear, where students enter career-focused majors such as engineering or business in the hopes of ensuring future security. This mentality ignores the fact that the humanities majors grow into the most cognitively flexible adults. In other words, humanities majors learn how to think critically and outside the box. Business majors consistently score the lowest in cognitive flexibility, Kurt said, and also report low worker satisfaction.

Session one wrapped up with a discussion of where education’s place in politics isspecifically in today’s democracy.

“What we do is inherently political because we change the way people look at the world,” Kurt said.

The group said that one important goal of humanities teachers in both high schools and colleges is to give students permission and a place to present their own ideas.

The session ended on an inspiring note, when one educator commented that sometimes, her students make her rethink her own opinions: “When they make me uncomfortable in my views, that’s when I know I’m in the perfect job for me.”

The second session of the day, Close Reading/Non-Fiction Prose Pedagogy, expanded on the notion that educators need to give their students permission to share their ideas. Regina spoke about her experience as the director of Expository Writing and explained that students in writing courses at Rutgers are exposed to conceptually rich non-fiction. Permission is given for students to share their ideas through the way the prompts are written; students are encouraged to enter into conversation with the texts they read, rather than regurgitate experts’ ideas.

Through an active pedagogy, educators teach students how to digest ideas or recognize that they do not necessarily agree with everything they may be taught.

The second session stressed the importance of revision in academic writing and thinking. Revision may make students uncomfortable because it forces them to have “flexibility of mind and tolerance of ambiguity,” Regina said.

For the remainder of day one, Regina and Brendon spoke to participants about other aspects of non-fiction prose pedagogy, including teaching grammar to students in the context of their own writing and using shared assessment criteria across a department, as Expos uses a shared assessment criteria across its hundreds of class sections. In the afternoon, Brendon led educators in free writing exercises and discussions so that they could put pedagogy into practice.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Rutgers Writing Program Presents at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference

Michael Goeller, Associate Director of the Rutgers Writing Program, and Agnieszka Goeller, Interim EAD Coordinator and Associate Professor, presented at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference on May 25. The pair presented their talk, “Teaching Writing to Second-Language Learners: Focusing on Vocabulary over Grammar,” for the second year in a row.

Michael and Agnieszka’s presentation explained the reasons behind a spike in English Language Learners at Rutgers. In short, Rutgers began recruiting international students more in 2011, and the amount of students coming from Asia to attend Rutgers spiked. This prompted Rutgers to quickly come up with ways to best accommodate and educate their increasing population of foreign students. The increase in students needing more help from the Writing Program means that now, 17,000 students are served each year.

Michael and Agnieszka explained that there are two types of English Language Learners that Rutgers might see. Type 1 is the resident student, or a student who has lived in the United States for at least two years prior to attending Rutgers. The second type of student is called a visitor, and they often arrive in the United States less than a month before the first day of classes. At this time, Agnieszka estimates that 90% of Rutgers’s ELL students are visitors.

Surprisingly, visitors often have stronger grammar skills than residents because they have studied for the TOEFL. But, visitors face the challenge of having a limited vocabulary, and thus present a high level of errors without a clear pattern.

Agnieszka explained that a reader needs to know 98% of the words on a page in order to be able to guess the remaining 2% with context clues. This statistic reflects the importance of having a strong vocabulary at one’s disposal. She further elaborated that vocabulary is more than just memorizing SAT words one by one. In fact, educators need to shift the focus of vocabulary to phrases. When a student understands the words that typically surround a vocabulary word, then they can appropriately understand and use that word in an essay.

Oftentimes, though, educators see an error in preposition use, for example, as a grammar error rather than an error in the student’s understanding of the word requiring the preposition. Then, in marking the paper, the teacher will correct the error, drawing attention to the grammar mistakes rather than flagging the vocabulary word the student needs to understand more deeply.

To combat this issue, Michael and Agnieszka suggest having students keep a vocabulary log. When correcting a paper, the teacher should correct the error but also mark the misused vocabulary word with a highlighter for the student to add to their log.

Students can learn the phrases associated with a vocabulary word by using a collocation dictionary, available online here, or by simply googling “[word/phrase] sentence.” This simple Google search will bring up tons of sample sentences available online, and the student can learn from reading the sample and jotting some down in their vocabulary log.

To learn more about Michael and Agnieszka's vocabulary logs, you can access their powerpoint and handout from the conference here, as well as other supporting materials from presenters throughout the day.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Hip Hop Education at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference

Brian Mooney discusses the poem "Boys Will Be Boys," written and performed by his former student Ben.

New Jersey educators and writing teachers gathered on Wednesday, May 25 at Brookdale Community College to attend the 17th Annual New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference. The keynote speaker kicking off the day of professional development was Brian Mooney, an educator at High Tech High in North Bergen, NJ and a PhD candidate from Teachers College, Columbia University. Mooney uses hip hop and spoken word as a way to educate and connect with his students.

“What distinguished Mr. Mooney's class from other high school classes I've observed was his willingness to have students engage with complex, provocative ideas across disciplines and genres,” said Lynda Dexheimer, Associate Director of the Rutgers Writing Program and a parent of one of Mr. Mooney’s former students. “The synthesis and analysis he encouraged his students to grapple with really raised the bar for critical thinking and meaningful writing.”

Mr. Mooney famously caught the attention of Kendrick Lamar after using the rapper’s album To Pimp a Butterfly during class in conjunction with The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Mooney says in a blog post that students often see no hope in the outcome of The Bluest Eye, a deeply moving story of one young black girl’s obsession with beauty as portrayed on the silver screen by white actresses.

It’s easy to become devastated by the stagnation of race relations in America. But Kendrick is careful to balance the chaos with a clear and purposeful sense of direction – even when shining the light on his own hypocritical double consciousness,” Mooney writes. “So how do we help our students find hope amidst such chaos and contradiction?”

Mooney helped his students find hope in Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album, suggesting that Lamar’s nuanced lyrics effectively tie together Toni Morrison’s 1970 classic novel with current race relations in America.

“What would have happened if Pecola listened to Kendrick’s hit single, ‘i’ which celebrates, ‘I love myself’ in a world that tells black people not to?” Mooney wonders.

Mooney’s presentation at NJWA, titled “Writing to Transgress: Breaking Boundaries Through Hip Hop and Spoken Word,” further explored the power of hip hop education. Three of Mooney’s former students also attended the conference and performed their slam poetry, which had previously been performed at Word Up, a performance event that grew out of a spoken word club run by Mooney at High Tech High.

“Word Up is as educational as it is counter-educational,” Ben, one of the poets, said. Mooney explained that Word Up breaks from traditional pedagogy. Students learn how to use their writing skills as a way to tap into their feelings and seize the opportunity to tell their own story. When students are provided with a greater purpose for their writing, such as a culminating performance like Word Up, they become more invested than they would for a simple graded assignment.

Hamza, another poet, read his piece entitled “An Ode to Jersey City.” He powerfully portrayed a moment when a young boy approaches the front desk at the library, only to be told by the librarian, “Put those back, kid, you can’t read all those.”

Following Hamza’s reading, Mooney said, “[Hamza] is asking us to consider the ways young people are silenced by authority.” In contrast, Mooney practiced what he preaches by giving the stage—and a voice—to three young poets during his keynote address. Their work was a testament to his style of teaching, called hip hop education.

Ashley performed her poem “Patsey,” written in response to the film 12 Years a Slave. Ashley’s poem even alluded to Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, showing how Ashley’s advanced writing skills allowed her to close read two different forms of media in one poem. Mooney was proud to share that Ashley won a slam competition with the poem “Patsey” against “adult poets” much older than her in Jersey City. Mooney and other poets from their school attended the slam to support Ashley.

Some might believe that attending a slam to support a student outside of school is going above the call of duty. But, Mooney spoke about the importance of understanding the community from which your students come. “If you don’t live in the community where you teach, spend a Sunday afternoon there,” he urged educators.

Mooney further elaborated on what makes a good teacher by performing a poem of his own, a persona poem in the voice of a bad teacher called “30 Days of American Schooling,” which can be read online here. Educators in the crowd were responsive to the poem, laughing at lines such as, “This syllabus is now your God,” but seriously reflecting on others, like: “We aren’t going to talk about race, class, gender or privilege in this class. We are all the same. Equality, people. Ever heard of it?”

Overall, Brian Mooney’s keynote address was engaging, and many teachers commented that he was the best keynote speaker they had ever seen at NJWA.

I thought Mr. Mooney's address was exactly what we educators in New Jersey needed to hear. It is time to reflect on how and why we are teaching, and whether or not our philosophies and practices are really best serving students today,” said Dexheimer. “Mr. Mooney's students' poetry was deeply moving and shows exactly the sophistication and brilliance young people have within them. We have to work harder to help them empower themselves to find their own voices as writers.”

If you would like to join the conversation about Hip Hop Education, you can participate in a weekly Twitter discussion with Brian Mooney (@BeMoons) and other teachers using the hashtag #HipHipEd every Tuesday from 9-10 PM.