Growing Stronger

That time

I thought I could not

go any closer to grief

without dying

I went closer,

and I did not die

–Mary Oliver from “Heavy”

This passage from the start of Mary Oliver’s poem “Heavy” ran through my mind last week as I entered my WR122_H classroom and was greeted with a request from students to discuss the Michael Brown case.  One of my students pointed out that she’d wanted to talk about the decision all day, but that this classroom, this space where we’d spent all term discussing contact zones and unfolding the many layers of Black American history together, was the first place she’d felt safe to speak. What followed was one of the deepest, most genuine, difficult, and compelling conversations I’ve ever had the honor of participating in in over a decade of teaching. We didn’t all agree. All of us, including me, struggled at some point to articulate the things we felt so deeply that they seemed far beyond the limited reach of words.  But, together, in that space, we opened our minds, our mouths, and our hearts and went closer to our grief. And we did not die. We grew stronger.

It is in moments like this when I am reminded of the true power of the classroom space and my responsibility as an educator to facilitate learning in this space. And it was in this particular moment that I recognized the often bittersweet nature of this responsibility.

The same classroom space where this handful of students were feeling safe and secure enough to engage in a wrenchingly difficult conversation, had failed a much larger number of students over the course of the term.  For the few students “left standing,” this course had been the powerful, transformative experience I’d hoped it to be (and that I had seen it be in earlier terms), and opened up for these students new ways of seeing and thinking about language, power, “race,” and the world.  But for many of the students who didn’t survive this course long enough to make it to this moment, this course had been a very different experience. One in which they felt disempowered and faced academic defeat.

As someone who is herself a first generation college student, as many of my students at Lane are, and understands the impact that failure in a single course can potentially have on a student’s ability to move forward in their academic journey, this is not something I take lightly.

So as I stood in this classroom engaging with my students about Michael Brown’s death, in my head, I was writing a eulogy for the very course that had made the space for this conversation possible.

I did not arrive at this decision to let the course go quickly or easily. And I’d like to take some time here to reflect upon my journey with this course over the past two years, so you might better understand how and why I arrived at this decision.

I’ve been asked many times how I ever came to develop an honors-level writing course with a minority rhetorics framework in the first place, and I think it’s important to know the answer to that question in order to understand the larger context of the course. I was hired by Lane in 2011 for a temporary 2-year position as a “minority rhetorics specialist,” and moved here from Illinois to accept the position.  My understanding of why I’d been hired into this position was that I was to help facilitate conversations about minority rhetorics and their importance in composition classes and the English Department at Lane. So when I was given the opportunity to be the first instructor in the department to develop an honors course, I decided that I should frame it through a lens of minority rhetorics.  I felt this was a vital move to help model how minority rhetorics could be effectively included in writing instruction to better prepare our students to function in a globalized world, where they will be expected to communicate effectively across cultural differences on a regular basis.

I began teaching the course in Fall 2012, and was allowed to teach it for three consecutive terms that year. While, like most new courses, it had a somewhat rocky first term, I could see the ways in which this course was opening a whole new world of language and ideas to students, as well as helping them to re-think the versions of “American” history many of them learned in middle and high school, which virtually excluded genuine inclusion of Black Americans and other minority groups.

Over the course of that first year, the class really took shape and underwent a wide variety of revisions in assignments, readings, and in-class instruction. The class was giving most students who enrolled all I’d hoped for and, in some cases, more. As they researched Black American history and language, students were grasping the power dynamics involved in the shaping of history and in cross- and multi-cultural communication. And as they began to grasp these things, they began to better understand their own place in the world around them.

Due to the non-renewable nature of my 2-year contract, Spring 2013 should have been my final term at Lane. But in the 2012-13 school year, the department had received funding to hire more permanent faculty members.  I applied for one of the positions and was rehired by Lane in a permanent, more generic position as a “writing specialist.”

In this position, I continued to work on refining my WR122_H class. In Fall 2013, I rolled out the first iteration of the course that included ePortfolios as part of the pedagogical approach.  ePortfolios are a programmatic requirement for Lane’s honor’s students, and I felt that now that I was a permanent faculty member, if I was going to continue to teach in the program, I needed to embrace ePortfolios and integrate them into my course.  Given the metacognitive, reflective nature of ePortfolios, and their ability to track self-growth over time, they seemed a natural fit for a course where the curriculum was challenging students to really think consciously about language and how it was used both inside and outside academia.

The first ePortfolio iteration of the course was powerful and successful in many ways, the most poignant of which, I think, was the ways in which the reflective space of the ePortfolio allowed students to really understand their own learning processes. Understanding these processes empowered students to talk about them, to set them to language, as well as to increase their ability to transfer knowledge and skills from one class or area of their lives to another.  But, of course, as is always true of shifts in pedagogical approach, the new iteration also failed in a variety of ways, most related to the fact that I’d not embedded ePortfolios deeply enough into my pedagogical approach overall.

Determined to address some of the flaws in the course design, I worked with a wonderful trio of students who had taken the course in Fall 2013 to revise the course.  Over the Winter term, we spent hours discussing and revising assignments and assessment tools. These revisions resulted in a stronger, more cohesive course, in which ePortfolios were more deeply embedded into the pedagogical approach.

When I taught the course again in Spring 2014, the effects of the revisions were obvious.  Students were far more engaged overall and really understood how and why the ePortfolio was valuable both in this course and beyond. The level and depth of student learning drastically increased from previous terms in which I’d taught the course. Over the summer of 2014, I presented at the AAEEBL annual ePortfolio conference in Boston and used some examples of student work from this iteration of the course in my presentation.  Many of those who attended my presentation stayed to talk with me after the panel, and nearly all of them commented on the high quality of the work in students’ ePortfolios.

Over the summer, I adjusted some of the readings and made slight revisions to the assignments in an attempt to tighten and streamline the course even more. When classes began this fall, I was excited to journey through this class with a new group of students, to see where the course would take us.

But over the course of the term, as I’ve watched the size of the class shrink with each passing week, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that the class wasn’t working as well as it did last year.  In fact, the course was failing in more ways than it had the very first term I taught it. And, as an educator, it was my job to figure out why and to fix it.

It would be easy to say that this was just a rough term.  Most of the students enrolled for this course faced significant obstacles in their lives outside the classroom during the course.  While I will, of course, not divulge the details of any of these obstacles for reasons of confidentiality, I will say that most of these obstacles were far more challenging than the ones I typically see students face.  These obstacles affected students’ abilities to focus their time and energy on their coursework and sometimes even their ability to make it to class, which impacted their relative success in the class.

I also dealt with some deeply painful and challenging personal issues of my own this term. While I did my best not to let this affect the quality of my teaching, I know that I was more distant and less open with all my students this term than I normally am. And while I usually have a deep well of patience, this term that well was more shallow than it has been in a long time.  Because educators are human too, despite my best efforts, these things affected the quality of my teaching and the depth of my relationship with my students.

But, the longer I thought about what had happened in WR122_H this term, the more I began to realize that I couldn’t just cop it up to saying it was a rough term. That it was actually much more than that.I have realized as I’ve been doing my own reflection throughout the term, that the situation in which I’m trying to teach this course now is much different than the situation in which I created the course and in which the course was able to thrive and empower students.

There is no longer an official position in minority rhetorics dedicated to bringing this branch of Rhetoric and Composition studies into the department.  And though I tried hard to open up conversations about minority rhetorics in the department during my first two years at Lane, I was largely unsuccessful beyond the scope of this course. This means that trying to teach a course framed by minority rhetorics in the larger context of the department is like trying to teach in a bubble because I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off or to help me troubleshoot issues when they arise.  Since I believe that the best teaching practices are the result of an ongoing professional dialogue, this reality has increasingly limited my ability to follow what I believe to be best pedagogical practices in this course.

Part of my original vision for the course was that while I would teach the course with an emphasis in Black American rhetoric, that other faculty would eventually also want to teach the course, framing it with their own areas of expertise, such as Native American rhetorics, Asian American rhetorics, GLBTQ rhetorics, and women’s rhetorics.  That is why it was framed as a general course in minority rhetorics. But this has not happened.  The course remains mine alone, and continuing to teach the course with a focus on only one of dozens of minority rhetorics (the one I feel most qualified to teach) defeats the larger purpose of the course–which is to help foster knowledge about a broad range of minority rhetorics on campus.

The overall enrollment at Lane has steadily decreased in the years since the course was first developed, leaving fewer students overall who might have an interest in taking this course.  This reduction in enrollment has also impeded the growth of the honors program, meaning that most students who enroll in this course are not honors students, and in fact many “accidentally” enroll for an honors course.  While I expected a high percentage of non-honors students in the course during the first year, I also expected the number of honors students enrolled in the course to gradually but steadily increase over time.  This hasn’t happened, and I’ve come to realize this year that students unfamiliar with honors level work who register for this course aren’t prepared for the workload and layers of critical thinking inherent in this course, which often quickly leads to frustration and disengagement.  And just a few frustrated and disengaged students can quickly change the tone of the entire classroom space.

One of the initial strengths of the course was its roots in inquiry-based research and learning that not only allowed students to be uncertain about answers to questions, but actually encouraged this uncertainty as part of the learning process.  This helped students feel more comfortable critically engaging with subject matter that was unfamiliar to most of them and came heavily weighted by social, historical, economic, and linguistic factors. However, the librarian I collaborated with closely as I developed and revised the course recently left Lane for another position. Because she’d helped me create the course she understood the course as a whole and how the individual assignments fit into the larger class.  She also understood how deeply problematic some of the resources available to students, like the African American Experience Database, could be for the kind of deep critical engagement expected of student in this course. This allowed students to go directly to her with questions, knowing that she understood the context and goals of the course and was familiar with the individual assignments.  This provided students with a second person to help guide their learning in the course and provided me with a second set of teaching hands. No longer having this extra set of hands to help students with research has created a gap that I learned the hard way this term that I simply cannot fill on my own.

I’ve also realized this term that the ePortfolio component of this course is not living up to its full potential. While I certainly worked diligently to incorporate ePortfolios into the pedagogy of this course, what I’m realizing the more I work with ePortfolios is that incorporating them into the course is not enough.  No matter how much I revise and edit the course, ePortfolios will never be as successful a part of the pedagogy of this course as they could be if I’d had ePortfolios in mind when I first framed the course.

Given all of this, I’m left in a space where even as I have been privileged to witness the ways in which this course “worked” for a small number of my students this term, the successful ways in which it challenged this small group of students to deeply engage with language and history, and to work together to build a space in which they felt safe, I must also be honest about witnessing the larger failure of the course this term, and about the reality that this course is unlikely to succeed in the current situation in which I find myself teaching and in which my students find themselves learning.

This course has had many beautiful and positive moments for some of the students who’ve journeyed through it over the past two years.  I’ve seen students open themselves up to whole new ways of thinking about the world around them and the power structures inherent in society that are often manifested in the everyday use of language. I’ve had a student tell me that this class allowed them to understand for the first time what a truly multicultural pedagogy/classroom looked like. I’ve been honored to witness students’ critical thinking and reading abilities flourish. I’ve been humbled by the students who have returned to my office or run into me in town long after they finished the course who have shared with me how this course impacted their academic and personal journeys.

But this term I also have seen the faces of students who’ve been defeated by this course. And as an educator who feels a responsibility to create engaged classrooms that challenge students to grow in ways they find empowering and accessible, I find this unacceptable.  The exigencies from which this course arose and the support system that fostered the creation and previous success of this course have shifted.  It is time to embrace the new exigencies of this moment and craft a course that will leave most students who enroll feeling well supported and empowered as they are challenged to grow.  

It is time for me to take a step closer to my grief at the ways in which I and this course failed students this term, and trust that with this step, WR122_H will not die, but rather grow stronger.

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Kathy Takayama on the Power of ePortfolios

For November’s meeting of the Lane ePortfolio theory reading group, we are discussing Kathy Takayama and John Wilson’s “Mapping Student Learning Throughout the Collaborative Inquiry Process: The Progressive ePortfolio.” 

I had the joy of seeing Takayama deliver a compelling and complex keynote speech at the AAEEBL 2014 conference.  In this speech she talked extensively about the project that is at the center of the article we’re reading this month, so I wanted to share specific clips from that keynote with my fellow reading group members. I’ve compiled a list of clips below that I found especially relevant to discussing Takayama and Wilson’s article.

Enjoy!

“Enhancement” Without Resources

I’ve spent much of my pedagogical energy in the past year researching ePortfolio theory and practice, engaging with others who are part of the international ePortfolio community, building my own ePortfolio, and helping my Honors students create and maintain their ePortfolios.  In short, I’ve had ePortfolios on the brain.

At the AAEEBL ePortfolio conference in Boston this past summer, I came to the realization that while I’d been using ePortfolios in my Honors courses because students in the program are required to craft an ePortfolio as part of their program work, that given my pedagogical approach, ePortfolios were actually best practice in all my Writing classes.  Given that my Writing courses are processed-based, framed by inquiry and information literacy, and focus heavily on reflection and the metacognative practice, ePortfolios are a natural extension of what I’ve already been working toward in my classroom for years. ePortfolios also invite students to situate the work they do in my course within their larger academic and personal goals, an important feature of ensuring that they retain the knowledge and skills they’re learning in my class.

I returned from the AAEEBL conference excited at the prospect of incorporating ePortfolios into the pedagogy of all my Writing courses.  I met with several colleagues and talked through some of the ideas I’d brainstormed at the conference on how I might begin revising all my Writing courses to include an ePortfolio component beginning this Fall. I eagerly began revising assignments in my courses to more effectively function in an ePortfolio-based pedagogy, and was looking forward to seeing the ways in which ePortfolios would deepen my students’ learning and metagcognitive practices (as I’d seen them do in my Honors courses), as well as offer students more opportunities to situate their work in my classes in relation to Lane’s Core Learning Outcomes.

And then, we were notified of the course “enhancement” put in place by the college that would increase enrollment in our Writing classes, beginning this Fall.

“Enhancement” seems an ironic word choice to me, given that what the college saw as “enhancing” Writing courses was adding 4 more students to each section. This “enhancement” represented a more than 16% increase in students in each Writing class.  While this may not seem like a significant increase to those outside academia, or even outside the discipline of Composition, I want to take a moment to make the real impact of this increase apparent.  On average, for each student in my Writing classes, I spend at least 3 hours giving feedback on each essay that student writes for my course, as I comment not only on final drafts, but also on earlier drafts in the writing process.  Considering that students write at least three essays each in my courses, this means an increase of at least 9 hours of work per student over the term.  Which results in an increase of at least 36 hours of work in each Writing class I teach. In no way does this additional workload, with no additional time for me to do this work, allow me to “enhance” student learning or my ability to facilitate this learning.

This sudden spike in workload also made me hesitant to introduce a new technology and pedagogical platform required to integrate ePortfolios into my Writing classes. However, after a few days of processing the class “enhancement,” I decided that I could at least begin rolling out ePortfolios in my Writing classes one class at a time.  This would allow me to better manage the additional workload of shifting my pedagogical practice and integrating a new technology into the classroom, while still beginning to roll out ePortfolios, following my belief that this represented best practice in my classes.

And then I found out that while the college was “enhancing” my class sizes, there were no plans in place to “enhance” the classroom spaces on campus to actually accommodate  these additional students.  When I inquired about how the college planned to make space for the additional four students in each of my classes, given that many of the classrooms in which I teach could barely accommodate the number “pre-enhancement” students in each class, I was told that there was no plan in place to “enhance” the classroom space to accommodate these students. I was just supposed to “squeeze” them in wherever I could, in some instances in rooms that didn’t even have an adequate number of chairs, much less work space.

I was also told that in the computer labs in which I and many of my colleagues teach our Writing classes, and in which I would need to teach ePortfolio-based Writing classes, no additional computers would be added to accommodate the four additional students.  I was simply to assume that the “enhancement” would only last the first few weeks of the term, with the expectation that four or more of my students would drop the class by week three.  In the meantime I was supposed to tell four of my students that they were responsible for bringing their own computers to class to fill the “enhancement” gap.  A few people even suggested that students could just use their phones or tablets “which they had anyway” to “replace” the computer they weren’t provided in this “enhanced” classroom, as though working on a phone or tablet was the same as having a computer.

This refusal to “enhance” the classroom space to accommodate the rise in enrollment numbers blocked my ability to begin rolling out ePortfolios in my non-Honors Writing classes, in turn blocking my ability to actually enhance my teaching practices and the learning of my students in my Writing courses through the use of ePortfolios.

Certainly I write about his partly in anger-tinged frustration.  But more so I write about it because it raises a critical issue in the use of ePortfolios in the classroom–the availability of classroom resources.  While I’d certainly considered, and in some cases agonized over, questions of resources in considering the roll out of ePorfolios in my Writing classes, wondering whether I could be an adequate resource for all my students, if the campus had enough technological support resources, and if the WordPress platform I have students use for their ePortfolios offered enough resources and support for students, I must say I never considered whether the college would ensure that I had the basic resources necessary to teach my students in the classroom.  It never occurred to me that I would be asked to teach 28 students in a classroom equipped for only 24.

While I certainly hope that it quickly becomes apparent that the increase in the number of students in Writing classes is in no way an “enhancement” to student learning or success, for right now, I’m left with the dilemma of how to actually continue enhancing student learning without even the most basic of resources in my classroom.  How do I keep working toward increasing student success when the path to what I consider to be best pedagogical practice in my classes is blocked by a policy of “enhancement” without resources?

Opened Forever: The Transformative Power of ePortfolios

The following is a piece I wrote about my ePortfolio work for the English Department newsletter at Lane Community College.


All afternoon it rained, then
such power came down from the clouds
on a yellow thread,
as authoritative as God is supposed to be.
When it hit the tree, her body
opened forever.
–Mary Oliver (From “Rain)

lightening tree

My work with ePortfolios has been, to my professional “body,” as powerful as the yellow thread to the tree in Oliver’s poem. The results of using ePortfolios in my Honors writing classes, as well as creating and maintaining my own professional ePortfolio, has “opened forever” my professional self to a whole new and exciting range of possibilities and experiences.

I will be the first to admit that I was a best skeptical, and at worst, terrified, of the concept of integrating ePortfolios into my teaching.  However, when I became an Honors Program faculty member,  I felt that if I was teaching in a program that had an ePortfolio requirement, then ePortfolios were now a necessary component of my pedagogical and professional life.

So I began considering how I might be able to effectively incorporate ePortfolios into my pedagogical framework. I was fortunate to attend AAEEBL’s Annual ePortfolio Conference in Summer 2013, at the start of this journey.  It was the knowledge I gained from that experience and the sense of community I felt at the conference that gave me a strong foundation to begin integrating ePortfolios into my pedagogical practices.  This conference was also where I began creating my own ePortfolio.

Over the course of the following year, as I began to help students engage ePortfolios in my WR122_H class, and to built my own ePortfolio, I began to feel the transformative power of ePortfolios splitting open my professional life in wonderful ways.

The work my students produced in WR122_H with an ePortfolio requirement was significantly higher in quality than the work I’d seen students produce before in this course.  I think that the fact that students understood that ePortfolios had a “real,” public audience beyond our classroom was one factor in the increased quality of their work.  The other major factor, I believe, was the constant need for metacognition as they built their ePortfolios. As students’ ability to document their thinking processes grew, their critical thinking abilities deepened. I was honored to be able to return to AAEEBL this past summer and present some of the work my students produced last year, and speak to the process of embedding ePortfolios into my pedagogical practices.

Creating and building an ePortfolio has had a powerful impact on my own work, as well.  I feel both empowered and obligated to be metacognitive about my professional activities. This helps make my teaching more transparent and accessible to my students, who can access my ePortfolio.  It helps me more effectively guide student use of ePortfolios, as I understand first-hand the frustrations and limitations that sometimes arise, as well as how much time it takes to maintain an ePortfolio. And, it has also helped me better understand the connections between different areas within my own professional life and to see and celebrate my professional growth.

As part of my continuing work with ePortfolios, this academic year I will be hosting an ePortfolio Reading Group, open to all faculty.  The first meeting will be held Friday, October 17, from 11:30-1pm in Center 447.  If you are interested in joining us, please email me at lushias@lanecc.edu, and I will provide you with a PDF of the reading material. You can also visit the Lane’s ePortfolio Theory Reading Group Blog for readings and more information. Hope to see you there!

Aftershocks

I again got to attend AAEEBL’s annual ePortfolio conference in Boston this year.  And wow.  I still am left wondering over a week after the conference concluded how it was possible to learn so much valuable information in just four short days.  While I certainly can’t cover everything I learned, I want to take some time to reflect on some of the most meaningful presentations and experiences I had at AAEEBL this year.

Starting the Week Off Strong–Monday Workshops

Let me begin with the Monday workshops, which are my favorite part of attending the AAEEBL conference.  While these are considered the “pre-conference workshops,” in my mind, they are an integral part of what happens at the AAEEBL conference.  The morning workshops included about half a dozen options to choose from.  I chose to attend “Developing Peer Facilitation Models for Scaling and Sustaining ePortoflio Initiatives,” led by the following wonderful folks from the University of Michigan: Carrie Luke, Amy Homkes-Hayes, and Deb Mexicotte.  And I was not disappointed!

For me, figuring out how to tap into the rich resource of students in our Honors program at Lane is a key component to making ePortfolios a meaningful programmatic experience and also to sustaining this program requirement.  I have tried a variety of peer-facilitation methods for ePortfolios on a small scale in my own Honors course.  Some of them were total failures, but many of the things I tried with peer facilitation had at least some degree of success in my class.  The question for me was how the program could possibly scale the use of peer facilitation, especially given the limited buy-in of our Honors faculty and the sporadic use of ePortfolios in the classes offered within the program.

This workshop offered me many useful things to consider as I pondered this question and also provided some guidance as to how we might implement a more solid, sustainable peer facilitation model within the program.  But what I want to focus on here is what I think the most valuable part of this workshop was for me–gaining language and models to allow me to talk about peer facilitation in a more meaningful, clear, and direct way on my campus and with my students.  The workshop leaders provided us with three well-defined models of peer facilitation that will be of much value to me, both as I continue to try new ways of integrating ePortfolio peer facilitation in my classes and as I try to work with the program to build a potential model of peer facilitation that will help ensure the students in our program find their ePortfolios to be a meaningful and rich experience.

The three models introduced in the workshop are the “In the Moment,” “Just in Time,” and “Fully Prepared” models.  I would classify much of what I’ve done with peer facilitation for ePortfolios in my class as the “Just in Time” model, and the rest as the “In the Moment.”  The “In the Moment” model expects all students to be participants in peer facilitation.  This model provides students with the information, structure, and instructions they need to be a peer facilitator in the moment of the peer facilitation.  This is an excellent model to use for small-scale, in-class peer facilitation activities. It is also a model that empowers all students to be peer facilitators and take on leadership roles they might not otherwise try.

The “Just in Time” model allows you to select certain peers to be facilitators and provides these chosen peer facilitators with the information, structure, and instructions they need just prior to the peer facilitation.  This preparation allows the peer facilitators to have the knowledge they need to help their peers, the opportunity to try whatever it is they will be facilitating for themselves, and the opportunity to ask their trainer any questions they may have before the peer facilitation begins. Because the peer facilitators need to be trained just a few days (or even hours) in advance of the facilitation, this model allows instructors/programs to employ students who are currently enrolled in the course/program, as well as those who have completed the course/program as peer facilitators, offering the biggest selection of peer facilitators to choose from.

The “Fully Prepared” model is something I’d like to see the Honors Program work toward in the future as we work to more deeply embed the ePortfolios into the pedagogy of individual Honors courses as well as into the structure of the program.  In this model, peer facilitators are fully trained well in advance of the peer facilitation.  Peer facilitators in this model are knowledgeable about how the ePortfolio aligns with course/program/general education goals and can help the students they are working with better understand these connections. This model also allows students to achieve high levels of communication and leadership skills before they begin conducting peer facilitation in the classroom/program.  I see this model as something we could work toward incorporating as an option for experiential learning in our Honors Program, and a model that will make the meaningful use of ePortfolios in this program truly sustainable.

In the afternoon, I attended the “Using ePortfolios to Improve Educational Quality” workshop, led by John Sener, of Sener Knowledge, LLC.  In this workshop we talked a lot about what the future of education might look like, using Sener’s “Seven Futures Framework,” and how we might assess quality improvement in education.

What I enjoyed most about this workshop was getting the chance to talk to other participants about how they used ePortfolios in their classes/on their campuses, and how they attempted to measure the success of ePortfolios in enhancing the quality of education their students are receiving.

This conversation very naturally led us to talking about the obstacles that we face on our campuses which we feel prevent us from using ePortfolios to their highest capacity of enhancing the quality of student learning.  In a fun but productive way, Sener had us consider these obstacles in terms of “alligators”–obstacles that are frustrating but can be overcome, and “crocodiles”–obstacles that will eat you alive and are better left untouched.

Sener set this discussion up by showing us the video below, and encouraging us to be like the cat when we have to face our “alligators.”

I found it refreshing to hear that other folks in the room faced some of the same “alligators” and “crocs” that I do on my own campus in terms of implementing and sustaining an ePortfolio initiative.  I also found some of the suggestions on how to deal with “alligators”–which ranged from waiting for particular faculty to be on sabbatical to having students present their ePortfolio work directly to campus administrators–inventive and helpful as I consider our own programmatic and campus “alligators.”

I hope to be able to engage even more deeply with some of the ideas Sener was presenting about improving educational quality as I read his book The Seven Futures of American Education: Improving Learning & Teaching in a Screen-Captured WorldI earned a free copy of the book during his workshop for having the most creative answer to a question he posed–more evidence of the ability of this conference to get one’s pedagogical creative juices flowing!

 Best of Tuesday

The first official day of the conference, Tuesday, had a lot to offer including the opening plenary: “Catalyst for Learning: The Difference ePortfolio Makes,” delivered by Bret Eynon from LaGuardia Community College and Laura Gambino from Guttman Community College.  Eynon and Gambino offered an overview of the Connect to Learning (C2L) Project and spoke to the power of social pedagogy in higher education.

I also attended a variety of sessions throughout the day.  I found two particularly compelling.

The first was Janice Smith‘s  presentation “A Deeper Look at Authenticity,” which was co-authored by Shoji Kajita from Kyoto University, who could not be in attendance.  This presentation engaged the audience in considering a variety of questions about ePortfolio authenticity that I found both important and intriguing.  Some of these questions included:

  • What does authenticity mean?
  • What are the cultural assumptions we make in ePortfolio pedagogy? How are these connected to authentic student production?
  • What is a “digital myself”?  How authentic are “digital my-selves”?
  • What criteria is used to determine authenticity?
  • Can authenticity be measured?
  • Can an “inauthentic learning artifact” represent “authentic learning”?
  • Is authenticity and ideal or a reality?
  • When is authenticity safe?
  • Who is the audience for authenticity?
  • Do prompts offered to students shoot too high/low to produce authentic responses?

The other presentation I attended on Tuesday, which is the one I found most compelling out of the entire conference, was given by Carmen Kynard from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  This presentation was titled “Make it Do What it Do: The Intersection of Culturally Relevant Teaching, Digital Rhetorics, and ePortfolio Design in Freshman Writing.”

And it blew me out of the water!

Using Ray Charles’ quote as an inspiration and framework for the presentation, Kynard demonstrated the ways in which her students, predominantly students of color, used their ePortfolios (along with some very basic coding skills) to create a space in which they could connect the personal, cultural, communal, academic, and familial in a meaningful way that reflected who they were as both individuals and students during their first-year writing courses.  In their ePortfolios, students used digital rhetoric to help ensure that their ePortfolios reflected and made space for their ethnic rhetorics.  This is vital because the traditional academic platforms (including many of the available ePortfolio platforms) have and continue to work to silence the voices, experiences, and presence of people of color in academia by making students conform to mainstream-academic rhetoric in order to successfully use these platforms.  Kynard’s approach to ePortfolios created a space in which students could and did subvert the confines of these academic platforms.

As someone who specializes in minority rhetorics, and has structured one of the Honors classes I teach  around this topic, the insight, resources, and ideas Kynard shared, and the ways in which she challenged my current ePortfolio practices will remain with me for years to come, and hopefully help transform my pedagogical approach to ePortfolios.  More information about her presentation can be found here.

Humpday Highlights

Wednesday began with me giving my own presentation about the use of ePortfolios in my Honors WR122 course, titled “Reflections on a Pedagogical Chrysalis: Incorporating ePortoflios in My Honors Writing Course.”  I’ll talk more about that experience in a later post.

Wednesday’s plenary session, “Cultivating Learning Cultures: Reflective Habits of Mind and the Value of Uncertainty,” was given by Kathy Takayama of Brown University, and was, for me, the highlight of the day.

This plenary gave me much, much food for thought.  Takayama focused largely on the idea of  “living the question” and how this mentality can be cultivated through the “folio thinking” that accompanies the development of ePortfolios.

I really loved the idea of “living the question” rather than “living the answer.”  Takayama so aptly pointed out that our students often think that we, as instructors (especially in her field of science), function by “living the answer”–meaning that we already know the answer to the questions, and it is our job to teach students the answers and the job of students to learn them.

Takayama pointed out how quickly the mentality of “living the answer,” combined with outcomes-focused teaching and assessment can strip the curiosity, uncertainty, and ambiguity from the learning experience.  As instructors, thinkers, and researchers, we all know that it is this very curiosity, uncertainty, and ambiguity that leads to genuine learning and new discoveries. Yet at the same time, we often, inadvertently, strip these things from student experiences and expectations in the classroom, leaving students afraid to feel any of these things and terrified to express them, especially in submitted work.

Takayama gave a complex and frankly rivioting presentation of artifacts from her own students/classes that demonstrated the power of “folio thinking” to encourage curiosity, uncertainty, and ambiguity once she began using ePortfolios to help students move away from trying to “live the answer” to embracing the idea of “living the question.”  Her presentation did an excellent job of driving home the point that uncertainty is a key element of life-long learning, and demonstrating the role ePortfolios can play in fostering and documenting the uncertainties of learning and of living.

Thursday: Where Do We Go From Here or Looking Forward Rather Than Ending

Bryan Alexander came armed with his enthusiasm, humor, and a wonderful array of geeky metaphors to close out the conference by encouraging us to think forward.  Attending the closing plenary, “Teetering on the Edge of the Future: What’s Next in Technology and Education” was kind of like having a Big Bang Theory marathon with folks like Jaron Lanier in attendance.  And yes, it was just as fun!

There is so much I could say about Alexander and his ideas.  But I’m pretty positive that whatever I could say, Alexander would say better (and with more humor).  So instead of my lame summary of his plenary, I’m going to encourage you to become acquainted with his forward-thinking ideas by checking out his website/blog, which includes information about his ideas of future trends in technology and education, access to interviews he’s given, some of his recent publications, and information about how to access his virtual presence, including but certainly not limited to his Twitter Feed. (He was tweeting about the presentation while answering questions!) I also encourage you to watch some of his presentations which have been recorded and shared on YouTube.

All in a Week’s Work

I am so thankful for the opportunity to attend AAEEBL again this year.  As an ePortfolio lead for the Honors Program at Lane, I feel as though AAEEBL has offered me more ideas, strategies, and possible solutions in four days than a year of research on my own could have given me.  I love the ways in which this conference both challenges and enhances my ePortfolio pedagogy, helps me break new barriers in my understanding of the power of “folio thinking,” and in the words of Kathy Takayama, fosters in me, and by extension my students, the motivation to “live the question.”

ePortfolio Rewards

So it’s time for my annual review at work and my dean and I were discussing what I should focus on when I wrote up a required explanation of some of the contributions I’d made to Lane this year.

The thought of making this decision overwhelmed me a little, because when I really began to think about it, I realized that this had been a quite productive year for me, and that I’d made many contributions.  However, most of these contributions were “small” in the grand scale of things–projects I’d done as part of committee work, conferences I’d attended, new iterations of courses I teach, and event planning.  This made it hard to choose one or even several contributions that accurately and holistically represented the work I’d done this year.

Then, suddenly, it hit me.  I tell my students all the time that one of the big benefits of having an ePortfolio is to be able to share with others what you are, have been, or will be working on all in one place.  Now was an opportunity to take my own advice.  Instead of trying to choose among my contributions to find a few that were representative or having to start an explanation of my contributions from scratch, I was able to simply submit my ePortfolio link with a few sentences of contextual explanation.

In my ePortfolio, administrators can see not just a list of my contributions but also documentation of these contributions in various forms, as well as my personal reflection on each of these contributions.

While it is certainly a ton of work to create and maintain an ePortfolio, it is quite a joy and a relief to me to know that all the hard work I’ve put into my own ePortfolio will be one of the ways in which my overall job performance is evaluated.   And this is one of the many rewards I’ve reaped so far in my ePortfolio journey.

Frustration Central!

One of the things I have to remind myself about learning new technologies is that it’s often the simplest things that hang us up and make us the most frustrated and ready to give up.

Recently I’ve become fairly adept at navigating the tools in WordPress–at least the basic ones.  As I was preparing to teach tomorrow, I wanted to add a new, embedded page in my ePortfolio.  I thought I’d figured out how to do this already.  So I tried what I thought would work.  I easily created the embedded page and assigned it to the appropriate “parent page.”  However I could NOT get the page to show up in the navigation bar, which meant that the page was inaccessible to anyone looking for it.

I used the WordPress “help” search, which led me to what I thought was exactly the right instructions to fix the problem.  I did *everything* the instructions told me to do…once…twice…three times.  The third time was NOT the charm.  I searched around for fellow colleagues who use WordPress.  Of course none were to be found.  I gave up, deleted the embedded page, and started over, hoping that this might magically solve the problem.  Of course, it didn’t.

Then I just started playing.  And after a while I realized that while I’d created the “custom menu” required, I had missed the tab that allows me to set this custom menu as the navigation bar for my blog.  DUH!  How could I have missed that big old tab that was staring back at me all along?  Oh ya, I was too wrapped up in my frustration to “see” anything and too convinced I’d already tried “everything.”

My own frustration and one tiny little detail almost defeated me.  I guess the important part is that it was an “almost.”

 

From Frustration to Fun

So many people told me when I began building this ePortfolio that WordPress was going to be easy to learn, that I’d quickly figure out how to do the things I wanted to do, and that using features would fast become more like a reflex than a challenge.  This non-tech savvy girl did not believe them.  Not one bit.  Especially the first few weeks that I was trying to get the skeleton of this ePortfolio together.  But, I now must admit, they were…right. 

I won’t say that I’ve learned everything on the first try, and I’ve certainly had to ask for help both from the WordPress Help page and from colleagues and friends along the way, but I realized this morning, as I was working on my ePortfolio that I was actually having fun.  I was no longer frustrated and agitated and I no longer had to look up instructions for every single thing I was trying to do (not that this means I didn’t have to look up some of them). I was having fun.  AND I was able to really focus on crafting, revising, and re-thinking the material in my ePortfolio and how it was presenting myself and my ideas to the reader, rather than on wondering if I’d be able to figure out how to make WordPress do the things I wanted it to do. 

I certainly still have a lot to learn and try.  But I’m proud to say that I’ve reached the tipping point between being frustrated by the technology and having fun with the options it offered me to build an ePortfolio. 

Learning…One Tiny Step At a Time

So today I met with other Honors folks to discuss ePortfolios and to decide on a clear vision of what we want our ePortfolio model to do/be for our students.  It was great to find out that we were on the same page for “big picture” issues and to have the chance to really discuss some of the details we needed to agree upon as we move forward.  But what was best of all was that we got to share tips and “how to’s” for WordPress–the nuts and bolts of building ePortfolios on this platform. One of the things I most enjoy about this undertaking is that working in WordPress and building an ePortfolio is  so new to me that I get to be (not so gently) reminded how lost, scared, confused, and frustrated my students might be as they also begin this undertaking.  It’s a great reminder for me as an instructor to be sure that I show patience, compassion, and understanding as students face their own obstacles in this process.  It’s also a reminder that sometimes the littlest detail or simplest task may seem overwhelming when it’s new and you aren’t yet confident that you can do it.  In other words, a reminder that genuine learning happens one tiny step at a time.

Where Oh Where Do I Even Begin?

And this is the question for me–where to even begin.  As someone who knows just enough about technology to get by, and has worked really hard to keep my online presence to a minimum, I have to admit that the thought of creating my own ePortfolio feels not only challenging but also daunting and a wee bit terrifying.  While the professional part of my brain is convinced (and has been for a while) that ePortfolios are great spaces for students to learn, grow, reflect, and document their academic and career identities, my shy, private inner self is still reluctant to craft an ePortfolio.  But, since I have a motto that I won’t ask students to do things I wouldn’t do myself, and I really do believe that ePortfolios provide great benefits to students in their academic and professional careers, it’s time to “bite the bullet” as my father would say, and make my own ePortfolio.  This is going to be a steep, steep learning curve for a girl who’s not only teaching herself how to use WordPress, but in just over a month, will have to be confident enough to teach others how to do so.  I plan to document my struggles–technical and internal–as I begin to build the foundation of my ePortfolio both as a way to reflect on my own process and as a way to give my students insight into this process and the challenges that come along with it.