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1020 Pilot Project, Assignment Description, Collaboration

Piloting the New 1020, Part II: Using Group Work to Lighten Instructor Workload

Note: This it the second in a series of blog posts chronicling the piloting of the new ENG 1020 Curriculum. You can find all entries in the series here.

As we’ve been in pilot committee meetings, revving up for the Fall 1020 pilot sections, I’ve been thinking carefully about my workload. Between teaching, committee work, and now this fall taking classes, I need to revise my 1020 plans to accommodate, not only the newest versions of the Learning Outcomes and Key Concepts we’ve been developing, but also my demanding schedule.

Enter Orientation 2012. Having volunteered to present in several orientation sessions, I was then faced with the task of shaping up some ideas to actually present. For the GTA orientation session on Group Work, I ended up revisiting Hepsibah Roskelly’s neat little book Breaking (Into) the Circle: Group Work for Change in the English Classroom. In it, Roskelly builds a case for what she calls “permanent groups.” She cites Vigostsky and Piaget and their theories of cognitive development as an active, creative process for which socialization is key. She points to Bruffee’s model of collaborative learning vs. the traditional classroom environment, and frames her use of collaborative group work in social constructivism, adding that group work can help deconstruct traditional (and sometimes harmful or exclusive) power dynamics:

“Group work facilitates, and often determines, how learning happens. The group makes talk and knowledge flow in new directions, in a circular path rather than a straight line from teacher to students and back again. This new movement creates more opportunity…” (Roskelly 53).

Not that I was very hard to sway on any of these points. I personally already use group work a lot in my comp classroom, because not only can it promote active, engaged learning, but helps build classroom community, makes room for a variety of learning styles, and accommodates a diversity of personal experiences. But what Roskelly suggests in her book, using her own composition classes as examples, goes beyond just “mixing-it-up” so that things don’t get boring. Her idea of “permanent groups,” which students are put into at the beginning of the semester and in which they remain for all fourteen weeks, offers an intriguing idea for how to manage one’s work load. Each group turns in process work, but only one set per group. Thus, instead of grading, say 27 short invention papers, an instructor might grade five sets of outlines, notes and reflections. Hmmm.

As I looked over my first project assignment, for a Literacy Self-Analysis, I realized that my purpose—to introduce students to key concepts of genre, discourse community and reflection—would be better served on an individual scale. In other words, I want students to have a lot of personal choice in this project, and in the end, I’m asking them to do personal reflection and self-analysis (which I’m not convinced could be done/graded any more efficiently in groups). So, no groups…yet.

Projects 3 and 4 are more apt to be proving grounds for these structured groups Roskelly offers. In my 1020 course, students will be engaging in a primary research project and then a multi-genre project targeting a real audience. As of right now, I plan to integrate group work more thoroughly into those projects. If the groups work really, really well, I may consider a more permanent (i.e. projects 1-4) group set up. If they tank, maybe it’s back to the drawing board. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes!

Nicole Guinot Varty received her MA in Written Communication and the Teaching of Writing from Eastern Michigan University in 2009. She joined the department as a lecturer in 2011 and then as a PhD candidate in 2012. She is currently teaching ENG 1020.

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