Monthly Archives: May 2012

ODU Faculty Summer Institute (and more)

Backward design is a powerful theory. While jogging along the Elizabeth River this morning with my dog Stretch, it occurred to me that backward design, a course design strategy espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book Understanding by Design, was evolving into a web of interconnectiveness permeating all of my thought processes this summer.  This became apparent to me in several ways this week; first, as I work to turn the theory into practice by designing course objectives for several writing classes; then, during the ODU Faculty Summer Institute sponsored by the Center for Learning and Teaching; and finally, as I reflected this morning on how to order the many tasks ahead as I plan for graduation in the fall.

seagull community

Image posted at Flicker by Jonathan Kos-Read

Synthesizing the lofty course standards for writing classes provided by institutions into condensed and prioritized goals achievable in a classroom of individuals with varying levels of abilities and aptitudes has proven to be a time-consuming, yet rewarding task for this neophyte. The recursive process began for me, after reading McTighe’s and Wiggins’ book, by reading course syllabi written by instructors at various institutions and reflecting on the philosophies of the teachers that I envisioned behind the printed words in their course objectives. Their tones ranged from poetic to mind-numbing; some even seemed threatening.

Most of these class objectives are certainly gleaned from years of experience and the desire to communicate clearly to students what the instructor intends to teach them over the course of the semester, as well as satisfy institutional standards.  McTighe and Wiggins, however, suggest that by examining the nouns and verbs in the academic jargon of standard objectives, the “big ideas” and questions can more easily be turned into prioritized classroom objectives and activities that result in deep understanding, rather than just surface knowledge and content coverage.  This is the goal of my summer studies and why this week’s conference was so meaningful and pertinent to me.

On Tuesday morning, Dr. Tara Gray, the keynote speaker for the Faculty Summer Institute began by encapsulating the backwards design theory into the overarching theme of the conference; a thoughtful, goal-oriented pedagogy that promotes ongoing assessment and meaningful activities over a teacher-centered lecture “performance.” She presented twelve steps to facilitate an inspiring and interactive classroom.  Dr. Gray spoke like a teacher in touch with her philosophy; love your students and take responsibility for your class, and she acted like an accountant, counting each classroom second like precious gold. More important, I watched as experienced teachers around the room sat up straight, leaned forward, asked questions, nodded, and tracked her eyes attentively.  In other words, they acted like we want our students to act during our classes.

Teachers are individuals just like students are, but I guarantee that as Dr. Gray moved about the room, she left a net of interconnectedness in her wake. I left that session filled with deep understanding and inspiration as well as a feeling of community with other teachers. Speaking with several teachers yesterday made me excited about graduating next semester and finally getting into the classroom.  That makes how I set goals, how I organize and prioritize my tasks, and how I create meaningful, academic artifacts which culminate in a useful and reflective portfolio my major academic focus.  That said, the value of deep understanding, personal responsibility, and community is my individual, life focus.

Academic and career advancement isn’t the most difficult task we and our students have to face in our society, life is. This brings me to the value of  life experience in any endeavor.  As we grow older, we should learn to work smarter rather than harder.  As a runner, I can say emphatically that physical strength and stamina will decrease much sooner than one thinks, but I can say equally emphatically that I won’t enjoy the beauty of an early-morning river run any less. I am a life-long learner, and I hope to be a life-long runner. Will I do things the same way I did them in my youth? No, but I’ll do them more reflectively. And therein lays my secret weapon; I can not only design backwards, but I can look backwards. I have a valuable history as well as a valuable future

Wiggins , Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. 2nd. Columbus: Pearson, 2005. Print.


Independent Study – Contemplating Habits of Mind in the Classroom Context

Thoughts on Habits of Mind

Habits are repetitive acts that form our action and reaction patterns throughout life. Aristotle says,

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence therefore, is not an act, but a habit.

Habits of mind are learned from our environment. Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick, in Activating & Engaging Habits of Mind, emphasize the use of habits of mind in the classroom and make suggestions to create a “thoughtful” environment to facilitate their inculturation. Their definition of “thoughtful” implies not only an environment of learning, but also of empathy. A “thoughtful” classroom, they say, is built around five teacher behaviors that form the acronym S.P.A.C.E.

  • Silence- giving students and teachers time (3-5 seconds) to formulate responses to questions.
  • Providing Data- giving students adequate verbal, written, or other resources to support successful learning.
  • Accepting Without Judgment- accepting student input with a non-judgemental response style, i.e. “passive verbal acknowledgement” (“Let’s add that as a possibility”) and paraphrasing rather than ineffective praise.
  • Clarifying- attempting to fully understand what the student is saying by asking questions.
  • Empathizing- the teacher recognizes that emotion and learning are deeply intertwined as a unique social response to circumstances outside the classroom.

cc image posted at Flicker by lay – initially

After looking at four lists of habits of mind for classrooms, I was able to synthesize three that stood out to me as reflecting the “watchwords” of Erica Lindemann’s ideal discourse community (261).

  • Thinking interdependently (Costa and Kallick) — Collaboration.
  • Listening with understanding and empathy (Costa and Kallick) — Community.
  • Responsibility (NCTE) — Personal responsibility and group accountability.

Focus on Habits of Mind

Responsibility: Responsibility is a habit of mind that is the root of all community action; it is our responsibility to and for the society in which we live. It is also a habit of mind by which we either hold or relinquish our personal power over our circumstances. Our choices have far-reaching and cumulative effects for ourselves and those around us. Teachers and students are accountable to each other; this commitment must be clearly stated, agreed on, and upheld. This does not mean rigid adherence to rules, but actions that demonstrate mutual caring and respect.

 In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Teaching Habits of Mind in the Digital Writing Classroom

Responsibility – the ability to take ownership of one’s actions and understand the consequences of those actions for oneself and others. Responsibility is fostered when writers are encouraged to:

• recognize their own role in learning;

• act on the understanding that learning is shared among the writer and others—students, instructors, and the institution, as well as those engaged in the questions and/or fields in which the writer is interested; and

 • engage and incorporate the ideas of others, giving credit to those ideas by using             appropriate attribution.

Course Design

Erica Lindemann, in  A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers, offers a logical course design process that reflects a “thoughtful” classroom:

  1. Decide on your preferred class structure. Lindemann makes suggestions and comparisons between different styles of class structure. What, or subject class style is represented by the typical lecture dominated class. Who styled classes (thoughtful classroom), on the other hand, provide a more individualized, interactive, student-centered model.
  2. Choose a model. Lindemann offers two models for process-based classrooms; individual/ expressive and, probably more pertinent to the class I will be helping to  plan this semester, a collaborative/discourse community. The latter should be student centered and based on real-world context
  3. Survey your students. I like that Lindemann stresses knowing the academic interests and abilities of students in order to determine meaningful reading and writing assignments and the type of support services they will need (computer lab, written or video tutorials, detailed handouts). Here’s a link to Atomic Learning’s technology assessment resources.
  4. Write 5-10 goals for the class. What will students know, and what will they do in clear and simple language.
  5. Create scaffolded assignments.
  6. Write syllabus. Lindemann defines this process as “discovering the relationship between the ‘paragraphs’ or units” of the course.
  7. Write lesson plans. Lindemann emphasizes plan flexibility, recognizing that student’s needs supercede the class schedule. I’m glad she included an end of class questionnaire to assess: what students enjoyed, what things too much time was spent on, and what students needed more help on next class period.


Costa, Arthur L., ed. and Bena Kallick, ed. Activating & Engaging Habits of Mind.    Alexandria:ASCD, 2000. Print.

Lindemann, Erika. A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers. 4th. NY: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

ENGL 539 Portfolio Cover Letter

Footsteps in sand

cc image posted at Flicker by Andrew R. Whalley

Throughout the course of this semester, my technological proficiency greatly improved in ways I often didn’t notice until I  almost effortlessly accomplished a formerly difficult task. I have to remind myself of where I started, however, to fully appreciate this statement. Nearly all that was accomplished in the various projects for this course was a first for me.  Openness  the habit of mind pertaining to a willingness to think differently, was sometimes an obstacle to my learning process. I attribute this to a stubborn tendency to “go it alone” rather than seek the input of peers and experts. Happily, however, I was  finally able to accomplish my main goal of learning how to create a basic, classroom hypertext website incorporating suggestions made by several classmates. The  journey of expanding my technological expertise has truly been an adventure of not only self-awareness, but the realization that, as Marshal McLuhan says, “the medium is the message.”

This analysis is especially thought provoking as I reflect on the importance of audience in composition and how my use of technology sends a different message to that audience than a message written on paper. Unlike a letter written in the traditional, pen and paper medium, technological communication, through an Image Project devoid of text, evokes emotion directly through one’s vision without the need of translating words. I found that this does not make communication easier, only different. Photoshop Express, the image editing software that I used allowed me to add visual “adjectives and verbs” to my photo essay . Often though, in the excitement of learning a new technique, meaning was lost or confounded. I sharpened my focus on a more specific audience to clarify details for myself and my “readers”.

Metacognition  the habit of mind focused on making mental connections, was a challenge for me. The need to connect the message implied by an image to my choice of editing options sometimes confounded me. I realized that I needed to examine this important habit or I might continue to have difficulty connecting with my audience. In their book, New Media Design, Austin and Doust emphasize the importance of graphic design choices and that

no matter how important the message is, people won’t give it a second thought unless it is presented in a way that captivates and engages them” (116).

I learned that subtlety (or at least simplicity) is often the best path for beginners in all aspects of graphic design composition. I eventually gathered sufficient confidence and  resources while creating my Image Project with Photoshop Express to create an information wiki for beginners.  I learned through the creative process that although new media allows us “to choose from the hundreds of possibilities of thought, feeling, action, and reaction and to put these together in a unique response, expression or message”(quote from poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes) it still must ultimately connect with the intended audience to produce meaning.

Even when the audience is clearly defined, using multiple mediums and design elements can still cause a project to become unfocused. My class Video Project is a case in point. This project, created on Windows Movie Maker, was the most challenging for me because it required the coordination of visual and audio elements. I spent hours just timing the Free Music Archive track to coordinate with the still images in my project. Rereading Jeanne Verdoux’s description of the creative process (Austin and Doust 43), pen, paper, and hundreds of storyboard images, reminds me of how impatient I can become when working on even a simple computer design project consisting of only twelve images. But  Persistence  is a habit of mind that I’ve acquired over my lifetime by believing in my ability to succeed at most anything I seriously attempt. The desire to succeed at learning these new technologies energized my creative process.

An additional challenge to a multimedia composition is the huge amount of free software and image sites available that leads one to forget that images, music, and archived written material, are authored by an individual or group entity that often has ownership rights. I learned during this project just how complex (albeit nebulous) citing  electronic media ethically can be compared to the familiar MLA style citations I use as an English major writing traditional academic papers.

As I completed my final project, a hypothetical class website, I reflected on comments I had received on my blog from fellow classmates during the semester and how inter-connected computer technology has allowed us to become. My website connected to my blog, to outside resources,  and to documents in shared files that created an unending web of information and community. Englebart describes his vision of “reaching the point where we can do all of our work on line”  and the computer becomes an extension of ourselves, what he calls “man-computer interaction” (234). When I’m communicating by using a computer though I’m not interacting “with” the computer but with people, so as a teacher  Responsibility  is a habit of mind that I take very seriously. Being accountable to one’s students is the highest responsibility of a teacher. In the case of a class website, it became not only my desire to communicate, but my responsibility to provide information clearly, concisely, and ethically. The C.R.A.P. design principles:

  • Contrast
  • Repetition
  • Alignment
  • Proximity

provided the guidelines to accomplish my task. The end result was a clear, user-friendly network of hyperlinks to course documents, outside resources, interactive pages, and shared calendars. Deleuze and Guattari, in their article “A Thousand Plateaus,” written twelve years later, use the metaphor of a rhizome to describe and expand on the complex structure of Engelbart’s vision. Unlike a tree, that has one trunk with many roots, a rhizome is a bulb-like structure that although  connected to the whole, is itself a complete unit (hierarchy) “a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, [and] modifiable” (409). This is the essence of a thoughtfully designed website, something only imagined when these articles were written in the 1970’s and 80’s. Flexibility  the habit of mind that allows one to adapt as needed is a valuable personal asset and the very essence of hypertext theory.  I don’t believe that I would have had the success I did this semester (and retained my sanity) without the ability to be flexible even to the extent of an occasional about-face.


Austin, Tricia, and Richard Doust. New Media Design. London: Laurence King, 2004. Print.

Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), National Council of Teachers of English(NCTE), & National Writing Project (NWP). (2011). Framework for success in postsecondary writing. Retrieved from

Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader.Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattaro. From “A Thousand Plateaus.” Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort 407-409.

Engelbart, Douglas and William English. “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect.” Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort 233-246.

McLuhan, Marshal. “The Medium is the Message.” Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort 203-209.