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Google Docs, Take Three: The User’s Manual

posted: 3.1.13 by archived

In this blog post, I’d like to return to the topic of Google Docs and to share a teaching practice I planned to write about a few posts ago, but never got to. In one of my previous Google Docs posts, I wrote about the way I have come to use Docs to disseminate key course information via standard course genres such as the schedule, syllabus, etc. I focused on the example of the course schedule, a genre I now create as a Google spreadsheet, which allows me to better account for the highly dynamic and shift-shaping nature of the typical semester schedule in a writing class.

Here, I’d like to share another way in which I use Google Docs to, as I wrote before, “accomplish some task I was already accomplishing via pre-cloud apps like Word or Excel,” but in a “new, innovative, problem-solving way.” A few years ago, I began to notice a theme in the comments I was receiving on course evaluations from students. The theme was something like this: Dr. Michaud’s class is different from other courses. It is more hands-on and technology plays a larger role than in other classes I’ve taken. While it took me a little while to adjust to this, in the end, I really appreciate his approach.

As I encountered this theme again and again, I began to realize that what my students needed for my course was something to help them understand my priorities and values and also to walk them through the major course projects—in short, a kind of user’s manual.

I liked the term “user’s manual,” so that’s what I created or that’s what I have come to name the document I have created–a document which gets revised each term for each new course I teach. I write the User’s Manual as a Google Doc, which I then link to via the LMS, as you’ll see here:

In this way, as with my course Schedule, students always have access to this User’s Manual, wherever they are and whenever they need it.

So what’s in the User’s Manual? Well, it varies with each course, but a good deal of the material in the User’s Manual has become standardized. Here, for example, is a link to the User’s Manual from my Digital and Multimedia writing course from fall 2012.

The first page contains a kind of Table of Contents, with links to other areas in the document, so that students can easily access individual assignments, etc. The first item in this particular User’s Manual is a three-page “Overview” that I composed to share my vision for the course with the students. Next, there is a statement that I include in all User’s Manuals, called “Writing is a Public Act.” Here, I explain how we will share writing in class and warn students that almost all of their writing will, at some point, be displayed on the screen for all to see and read and discuss. Following that, there is an overview of the “Varieties of Writing” (stolen from Doug Hesse); a statement of my policy on quizzes; an explanation of how informal, low-stakes writing will work in the course; and, finally, detailed explanations of the major writing projects of the course. The document is punctuated by images and links (to other places in the document, to various locations on the internet). It is interactive and flexible, constantly changing and sensitive to the dynamic nature of my teaching. The User’s Manual I shared above runs to 26 single-spaced pages. I encourage the students not to print it out, as it is likely to change as soon as they do so.

One of the most important things that the User’s Manual allows me to do is to be responsive to students’ concerns as they wade into the various writing projects. I once had a conversation with a colleague who explained that a writing assignment, once published, is a sacred document, a kind of contract, not to be tampered with. I was shocked to hear this as it seems my assignments are always works-in-progress, even after I’ve used them for several semesters. The fact that my assignment guidelines are published in a Google Doc allows me to revise them in real-time, as the questions come in–you know the ones: “So are we supposed to…?” “Is it okay if I…” I only make changes to the assignment guidelines in class, in full view of the students, and then when they get home, they always have the most current or updated version of what they are supposed to do.

The User’s Manual: it’s an early draft of what course documents might look like in the 21st century. It’s a tool to mediate the work of the course, to talk with students about our work together, to be firm about some things and flexible about others. And it’s one of the key documents that facilitates the work of The Paperless Writing Class.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Thirteen Ways of Looking at Revision: notes for a reluctant student

posted: 2.22.13 by archived

Start with this video about how Jerry Seinfeld wrote (and is still writing) his Pop-Tart joke. (You are old enough to remember Jerry Seinfeld, right?)

If you only had one chance to get it right, if your words were squeezed out in quick-hardening concrete, wouldn’t it take you forever to dare to start?

In his Paris Review interview, E. L. Doctorow said that “[Writing is] like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” So you’ve driven across the country and ended up as planned in the Pacific Ocean. Would you require a reader to trace your own circuitous route, blind to all those serendipitous roadside attractions you too had missed?

In the rush of writing (whether immersed in creative flow or the panic of impending deadline), you may not have stopped to consider carefully the words you set down. A more disciplined look may turn up a host of becalming linking verbs, redundant or smugly evaluative adjectives, hazy nouns: “There were some tiny, little, interesting things.” But you can fix that!

Consider how anyone becomes an expert. Think about Tom Brady (fill in your own favorite quarterback) and imagine those thousands of hours spent watching film, lifting weights, throwing the same old football down the field, over and over again. True, it’s a different situation on game day, with 10 seconds left on the clock, and there will be no opportunity to revise that pass that sailed over a receiver’s outstretched hands. But if Tom could do it over, don’t you think he would seize that chance?

What I hope for you: is that writing is sometimes more than the drudging chore of spooling out what you already know, that instead you feel the piercing thrill of discovering something new as you write. But when that sparkling realization fills the entire windshield of your consciousness,  perhaps what you have already written will seem incomplete and puny in contrast?

When you speak, you cannot call back your fumbled sentences, splice out your repetitions, correct your malapropisms (or should I say not-quite-right words?). When you write, you have the luxury of cut, copy, and paste, the infinite permutations of the keyboard. Could you just for a minute try to see this as the advantage of writing to speaking?

I know, I resist outlining too. But if you don’t outline ahead of time, if you aren’t using a plan to guide the lines you pencil on wood and then irrevocably cut, how do you know the pieces will fit together?

I don’t mean to make it all about me, but just what is my role here? Is there a point to my reading your works in progress, or shall I just slap a grade on a final draft, which is (as you tell me) exactly what you wanted to say? Will my justifications on one writing project help you to better tackle the next one?

A hypothesis: The masterpieces of Western painting  were painted in oil rather than watercolors because oil paint permits revision. In sculpture, consider the revision possibilities of bronze, marble, clay, Play dough. Is there a contradiction here?

A reader will try to hear the sound of your voice in his head as he reads your words. Can you hear your own voice through  your words on the page? Try to listen to the rhythms of your sentences.

Do you bring friends along on your shopping expeditions to the mall? Do you listen when they tell you a color washes out your complexion, or a skirt is an unflattering shape, or the cut of that pair of pants is outdated? When making selections, it is helpful to learn what others see.

When you leave this classroom to enter to Real World, you will probably be writing in your workplace: ad campaigns, technical instructions, building proposals, law documents. You will be responsible to your boss, to clients, to colleagues, to whoever will need the information you are charged to convey. Will you be able to respond to the feedback they give you, or will you insist that you have communicated exactly what you intended?

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Categories: Holly Pappas
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How We Adopt New Technologies

posted: 2.15.13 by archived

Every time I get together with colleagues to talk about teaching, as I did a few weeks ago at our annual Faculty Development Workshop, I find myself trying to assess where my colleagues are with adopting technology in their teaching–and where I stand in relation to them. The group who attend professional development seminars are, perhaps, not the best group to gauge technology penetration among college faculty. These folks, by the nature of their attending a professional development day, were probably among the more progressive of those who teach at our college.

Still, whether it’s because my colleagues are experimenting more or because the Luddites are staying home, I seem to hear fewer comments these days of the “well-that-sort-of-thing-is-not-for-me” variety. It’s clear that many faculty members at my institution are experimenting with technology. Rather than the “that’s-not-for-me” comments I used to hear, more and more I’m hearing comments of the “this-semester-I-plan-to-try-out-the-(insert: blog, discussion board, wiki, journal)-tool.”

All of this has me thinking about the stages that faculty go through as we adapt to new teaching technologies and try to account for changes in our practice. Not surprisingly, I’m not the only person thinking about this question. A quick Google search revealed any number of studies examining faculty use of and attitudes towards technology in the classroom. One of the most interesting studies I found was “Analysis of Predictive Factors That Influence Faculty Members’ Technology Adoption Level” (PDF) by Ismail Sahin & Ann Thompson. I’ve tended to think that in the not-so-distant future, this question of technology adoption will become a moot point, as more and more of the so-called “digital natives” enter the classroom–as faculty. Faculty at the mid- and end-points of their careers today came of age at under a different pedagogical regime and during a different era. It’s understandable that many are not so enthused to embrace new teaching technologies or ways of teaching.

However, I was interested to learn that in Sahin and Thompson’s study, demographics (including age) were “not a significant determinant of the level of instructional technology use by faculty” (the focus of this study was on College of Education faculty at a midwestern university). Rather, factors such as availability of self-directed information/learning sources, interaction with other faculty members, and participation in learning communities played a much more important role in faculty members’ use of technology. In other words, use of technology in the classroom seems to have less to do with how old you are and more to do with…well, who you spend time with on campus when you’re not in the classroom.

Through the Sahin/Thompson article, I also discovered the interesting Learning/Adoption Trajectory model developed Sherry, Tavalin, & Gibson (2000). Created to evaluate technology use by K-12 teachers, the model contains five different stages (and identities) among teachers:

  • Stage 1: Teacher as Learner In this information-gathering stage, teachers learn the knowledge and skills necessary for performing instructional tasks using technology.
  • Stage 2: Teacher as Adopter In this stage, teachers progress through stages of personal and task management concern as they experiment with the technology, begin to try it out in their classrooms, and share their experiences with their peers.
  • Stage 3: Teacher as Co-Learner In this stage, teachers focus on developing a clear relationship between technology and the curriculum, rather than concentrating on task management aspects.
  • Stage 4: Teacher as Reaffirmer/Rejecter In this stage, teachers develop a greater awareness of intermediate learning outcomes (i.e., increased time on tasks and greater student engagement) and begin to create new ways to observe and assess impact on student products and performances, and to disseminate exemplary student work to a larger audience.
  • Stage 5: Teacher as Leader: In this stage, experienced teachers expand their roles to become action researchers who carefully observe their practice, collect data, share the improvements in practice with peers, and teach new members. Their skills become portable (p. 170-171).

I’m not sure that Sherry et al. intended for readers to understand this model as a series of stages that one moves through in a linear way arriving, eventually, at Stage 5. I think it’s possible and probably likely to be at different stages at different times, depending on a range of other factors. In fact, depending on the kind of technology you’re talking about, I recognize myself in almost all of these stages. So, where are you with your technology practices? Do you see yourself in one or more of these stages? Where are you headed and where have you been with learning about and adopting technology in the writing classroom? Or is technology in teaching just still not for you?

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Course design: the creative process

posted: 2.7.13 by archived

As I’ve been working on a new version of my comp class, I’ve been thinking about not just the particular units and assignments, readings and activities I plan to use but also the process of course design itself. It has reminded me of one of my old analogies for the writing process, as I described in a comment to one of Susan’s posts:

Writing an essay is like cleaning a room. If you just take it one item at a time, it’s too easy to get sidetracked and leave the job half-(or less) done. When I was a little girl, my mother taught me instead to first dump everything that wasn’t in its place into the middle of the room. Paradoxically it becomes easier to manage when you have a heaping, messy pile in front of you that needs only to be sorted into piles that are easy to manage: dirty dishes for the sink, books for the bookcase, dirty clothes for the laundry, and (always) that pile of garbage for the trashcan.

Picking a room. First comes the choice of a theme. For me, this has often been quite an instinctive decision, influenced by articles (or books or videos or whatever) I happen to come across and the critical mass of curiosity that accretes around these materials.  In a recent blog post “what is the topic of composition?” Alex Reid considers the choice of theme more systematically, coming up with his own list of criteria for an appropriate FYC theme: (condensed version) the issue connects to student experience and instructor interest; the issue has been addressed in multiple academic disciplines and genres as well as in other public professional and nonprofessional discourse; the issue is timely; and the issue does not lend itself to firmly entrenched binary positions. My own criteria are evolving, but include the following: consideration of the theme can move from personal to public; it is not connected to the usual sociopolitical controversies (abortion, immigration, childhood obesity) but rather a topic that encourages students to look at their own experience more freshly.

Collecting up stuff. Once I decide on a topic or theme, my next step is to cast a wide net to gather up information. An earlier blog post lists some of my favorite places to look for articles and websites online; this is a prime place for me to look because then I can provide links to students rather than worry about copyright issues. I use diigo to save sources so that I can access them from my several devices, organize sources with multiple tags, and later share these articles conveniently with students. Now that I’ve activated the dangerous one-click option on amazon, I’ve also found myself ordering books on the theme I’ve chosen, which serve to give me additional info and approaches. (This time I’m not looking for a course text, though I may put some of the books in the library on reserve for student use, and other semesters I may choose to use a mass market nonfiction text to stimulate student thinking and give them practice with sustained reading.)

Making piles. As my pile of sources and information grows, categories become apparent. I’m looking for possibilities for three, four, or five units that will give a structure to the semester. As I decide on these, I can adjust tags on my diigo reading list to reflect these categories. At this point I’m also starting to have ideas about specific assignments I might use.

Deciding on order. In addition to an order that seems appropriate thematically, I also want to arrange these units in a progression that lets me move through the writing-instruction topics I typically cover; a generalized and incomplete list would include critical thinking, writing and reading processes, rhetorical issues, language and grammar, and the research process. So I’m continuing to think about what activities and assignments would fit in with these various units. I’d also like these units to let students move from personal experience to more public considerations and from single-source text-wrestling (to borrow the term used by UMass-Amherst’s Writing Program) to synthesis of multiple sources. I suppose I could use something like Excel to organize these units, but my process feels more visual, like flipping overlays in anatomy text of organ systems, or sliding some apparatus of layered tiles.

Throwing things away. Inevitably I have much too much information and ideas to cover. Some are too complex or vague, and some too similar. Here I remind myself of the diversity of experience and abilities of my students and what’s reasonable in terms of number of assignments, amount of reading, types of in-class activities. I look for balance (similarly weighted units, individual vs. collaborative work) and a progression that works both in terms of the theme and my more explicit (or embedded) writing instruction.

Putting things into place. At this final stage, I look within each pile/category to finalize readings and writing assignments. As the beginning of the semester nears, I look at my syllabus; though much of the classroom management is quite similar from semester to semester, I add an introduction to the theme and adjust the section on grading to reflect the particular assignments I’ve chosen and their relative weights. I set up the mother-blog for the course that will provide day-to-day instructions and source material; later it will include links to the blogs that students will set up to share their writing with each other.

For those of you who use a theme-based approach or any approach where you’re actively involved in course design, please share in the comments anything you can add about your own process (or feel free to comment on the process I’ve been using).




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Categories: Holly Pappas
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The Moments When We Become the Teachers We Are Now

posted: 2.1.13 by archived

I’ve been trying, since I started writing this blog, to think through the ethos, if you will, of the Paperless Writing Class–and how I got to the point of living within this ethos. If you’ll bear with me for the next few hundred words, I’ll tell you what I think is the story of how I got here.

In the spring of 1999 I completed a Master of Arts in Teaching degree at the University of Iowa and found a position teaching high school English. I got right to work reading or re-reading the books I was to teach in the fall, but as the summer progressed, a creeping feeling kept trying to tell me that something wasn’t right. I remember the day I knew I had to back out like it was yesterday. I was sitting on the beach on a beautiful day in late July, trying to make my way through Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. I couldn’t do it and I knew that there was no way I could teach such a book–or many of the books I was told I would need to teach, for that matter. I called the department chair and told her I wouldn’t be coming in September. I felt horrible–and relieved.

What came next was a leap of faith. At Iowa, I had been fortunate enough to teach first-year composition for one year while pursuing my degree. High school may not have been for me, but teaching college seemed like it could be a real possibility. I went online and found a list of all the colleges and universities in the state of New Hampshire, where I was living at the time, and began making calls to people I knew who might be able to help me find work as an adjunct English instructor. While I would have to go without health insurance for a little while, I was confident that if I could scare up enough sections of first year composition or introduction to literature, I could earn enough to get by.

Soon I had lined up teaching gigs all around the state–at a private college, a state university (my alma mater), a community college, and the continuing education branch of the public college system. I became a freeway flier. I taught at all hours of the day and night. I taught writing, literature, public speaking. I taught traditional and non-traditional age students. And I never looked back. I was too busy and having too much fun.

Because I needed the money and had nothing to lose, I accepted just about every teaching offer that came my way that year, including an offer to teach online. This was 1999 and colleges and universities were just beginning to experiment with online education. As I indicated in an earlier post, I was, at this time, a bit of a Luddite–and proudly so. But something in me said Give it a chance. So I did.

The first course I taught online was a first-year composition class. I designed the course from scratch and then taught it. The students and I met the first class and the last and everything else was done online. We were all guinea pigs and it was a mixed bag, I think, for all of us. The work of doing the class online seemed to outweigh the work we were supposed to be doing with writing. The second class I taught online was creative non-fiction and again, I was given the opportunity to design the class and then teach it. This, too, was a mixed-bag experience. There were, I was beginning to see, limitations to teaching entirely online. But there were also considerable opportunities, especially for the right kind of student… and the right kind of teacher.

These days, I don’t teach fully online courses. I don’t even teach hybrid courses. But my work with and disposition towards instructional technology these days is very much rooted in that moment over a decade ago, when someone offered me the opportunity to design something I had never envisioned and to teach in a way I had never imagined. I was dispositionally open to those possibilities at that time and I believe that being so set me on the path on which I travel today: using instructional technology to help create the Paperless Writing Class, where my students and I meet face-to-face and use online tools to facilitate and mediate our work together.

What I’m trying to describe when I talk about the Paperless Writing Class, I think, is what it’s like to inhabit a particular pedagogical mindset or system of beliefs and values where writing instruction and instructional technology come together in rich and productive ways. We all carry a pedagogical mindset around with us all day, every day, bringing it with us not just into our classrooms but into every conversation we have with our colleagues about teaching and every presentation about teaching we attend. It’s not something that is easily or quickly externalized, this mindset. But it is, I’m finding, well worth trying to do as one thinks through the how and why of one’s teaching practice.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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… And More Writing Prompts

posted: 1.28.13 by archived

Back in September, I wrote a post entitled “Writing Prompts, Writing Prompts, Writing Prompts.”  I tried to pack that post full of links to sites that offer unique writing prompt ideas.  Today I am writing a sequel to that post, looking at two recent articles I have read about the connection between writing prompts, plagiarism, and the role of the teacher in an intellectual economy in crisis.

In December, as I was grading literally hundreds of essays, I read Claire Potter’s blog post on “Grading in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Potter makes a brilliant but uncomfortable connection.  Every year as we grade, we may joke about bad student writing, or we may complain about the drudgery of the work and how boring student writing is.  But Potter suggests it may be our fault.  She even suggests that if we keep giving the same bad assignments, we can not only expect the same bad writing, but we can likely expect plagiarism too –- and we might be complicit in creating the environment in which plagiarism seems like a logical choice.   Potter ends the post with this:

“Do yourself a favor: don’t assign papers or exams that you don’t want to read… If you are bored reading their papers and final exams, consider this: you may have bored them first.”

I felt like that was a good reminder for me as I looked ahead to my next syllabus. 

Potter’s argument is not as simple as it seems, of course.  Students sometimes rebel, or silently stew, when we tell them they need to come up with their own topics, or when we push them to make a topic idea more unique, or to drop an overdone one.  In other classes (or in their high school career) they may not have been given so much freedom or responsibility.  Of course, this isn’t just the educational form of Stockholm Syndrome – some students simply work better when they are given a push, and others dislike the shell game of guessing what their teachers might really want. Its complicated.

Then, a few days later, I also read this article about a shift in the spirit of the writing prompts given to students on their college admissions essays.  As the author says,

“More schools are serving up unusual essay prompts to gain better insights into young people’s minds and personalities. Colleges also hope for more authenticity in a process skewed by parental intrusion, paid coaching and plagiarism.”

I felt a little ambivalent about this, too.  On first glance, I loved the idea.  But with a little reflection, I started to worry that these unique writing prompts might favor some students over others – students whose teachers, high school writing programs, or family backgrounds offered them the sort of flexibility to take chances. Many of the students who are already less likely to get into the best colleges or to secure merit-based financial aid are the students who could be thrown for a loop by an unconventional prompt. And when an unconventional prompt is on the menu, it begins to look risky to play it safe.  Again, its complicated.  I’m neither inclined towards nor capable of figuring this all out.  But I’m interested in your thoughts. 

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Categories: Jay Dolmage
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On Google Docs: Take 2

posted: 1.18.13 by archived

In my last blog post, I wrote about the ways I use Google Docs in The Paperless Writing Class to accomplish work I was already accomplishing using pre-cloud applications (e.g. MS Word or Excel) and to accomplish work I was already accomplishing but in new or different ways. In this post, I want to talk about a third way I use Google Docs: to do new kinds of pedagogical work. Specifically, I’ll share one way I use Google Docs to prepare students for classroom discussions of course readings. It’s highly process-oriented and hands-on, moving the sage very much off the stage (and into the margins, so to speak).

Like many writing teachers, I spend a good deal of time thinking about what I need to do to ensure that discussions of course readings succeed. The fact is, most students have busy and full lives. A long time ago, I gave up on believing that I would (or should) be able to just walk into class and begin a discussion on a course reading or series of readings. Undergraduate students just aren’t prepared for this sort of work. Even when teaching upper-level students in the major, I’ve found, students have too many other things going on in their lives to walk into a classroom and be “on.”

Over the past few years, I’ve been refining a multi-step approach to get students engaged and ready to participate in class discussions that uses Google Docs in what I think is a new and innovative way. But first, a disclaimer: this approach is made possible by the fact that a) I teach in computer labs and b) classes at my institution run two hours, twice a week.

Step 1: Prior to arriving in class, students have been assigned a reading and have posted a short written response of some kind to the Discussion Board in the LMS.

Step 2: When they arrive in class, students immediately take a brief online quiz in the LMS, which I then go over quickly. I assign such a quiz at the start of EVERY class meeting when we are slated to discuss course readings.

Step 3: Once the quiz is over and we’ve discussed it, we shift gears and prepare for group work. Prior to the start of class, I find a way to break the content of the readings into sections and assign students to small groups. Each group is assigned a section and given a manageable set of tasks. Since most of the readings I give are scholarly articles, I might ask one group to summarize the article’s research question and study design, two to four groups to report on the article’s findings, and a final group to summarize the article’s conclusion or implications. In addition to this summary work, I ask each group to do some of the following (I mix these up and vary them each time we do this activity):

a. generate a list of 1-2 discussion questions about the article
b. generate a list of 1-2 surprising or interesting aspects of the article
c. generate a list of 1-2 challenging or confusing passages from the article
d. generate a list of 1-2 connections between the article and something else we have discussed or read for class

As I give these instructions, I simultaneously create a Google Doc for the groups to do their work in and share the Doc with the students via the LMS. Each group chooses a color for their section of the Doc and they get to work.

Step 4: As they work, I monitor students’ writing in the doc and use the “insert comment” tool to talk with them about what they are writing in real time. I prod them to use complete sentences, tell them where they aren’t making sense, push them to include passages from the text to support their assertions, pose questions and raise problems with what they are writing, praise them, and sometimes rewrite passages for them to show them how they can be more clear are articulate or accurate in drawing on the words of sources. I am thinking and writing with them.

Step 5: I monitor the work process via the Google Doc and  have a sense of when the groups are winding down. When all are finished, I ask the students to review the full Doc on their own, including my marginal comments, and then we begin our discussion of the reading, which is guided by their summaries, observations, and questions. I have the Doc on the screen at the front of the class for all to see, so the writing and thinking is public and available to guide and shape our discussion.

I like this progression of activity because it requires students to revisit course readings multiple times for multiple purposes. Students spend a good deal of class time reading, re-reading, thinking, writing, and talking with one another and me about what we’re reading. There is a high level of engagement and activity PRIOR to the moment when I bring us all together to discuss the readings as a class, at which point I use the students’ questions and observations to guide the conversation, thus avoiding the all-too-familiar progression where the professor asks a question, no one responds, and he answers it himself. For me, this process is something new, different, and worthwhile.  I find it a uniquely effective way to use 21st century tools to engage 21st century learners.


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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Thinking about my iPad: writing teacher version

posted: 1.11.13 by archived

Not long after finishing my foot-tall pile of student portfolios and turning in my grades for the semester, on my iPad for a bit of relaxation, I inexplicably found myself downloading something called the Grading Game. Making a game out of proofreading and getting an amazing four and a half stars from over 1200 ratings, this app is according to one reviewer “the perfect piece of entertainment for grammar fiends.” Though I can’t recommend it (largely because its errors seem much too contrived), that game has set me to thinking about how I’ve been using and plan to use my iPad to support my teaching.

I’ve got another reason for being more reflective about my iPad use. I was an early adopter. My original iPad was a consolation prize from my husband after I was turned down for a full-time teaching position after eight years of adjunct invisibility; my current iPad was purchased a few months ago under much different circumstances, with the help of a technology grant given to full-time faculty (I got the position the next time around).

My initial thoughts about iPads and teaching are tinged with regret: that because iPads are not required at my college and few students seem to own them, opportunities for classroom use are constricted. We do have a couple of iPad carts on campus that can be reserved for limited in-class exercises, but many of the ways I’d love to be able to use the iPad with my students are not feasible. (Our new computer labs have done a great deal to ease this regret, but still it would be nice if students owned technology they could use both in class and outside class.)

General-purpose use. When I first got an iPad, as an adjunct with shared cubicle space (at the time about eight cubicles for at least four hundred adjuncts) but no office, I loved its light weight and portability, so that I could get online in whatever corner I found to perch. It was similarly handy at meetings and conferences for note-taking (small enough to slide in my purse; a conveniently long battery life that allowed me to get online to check refs on the fly; in the early days at least, a sure-fire conversation starter with someone sitting nearby).  Although I downloaded quite a few note-taking apps for use with finger or stylus including Note Taker HD, Pad & Quill, Penultimate, and Side by Side, I find myself these days most often typing notes with the built-in digital legal-pad-like Notes app. I was a little surprised by this, as I’m not a native “screen-typer” like my text-happy students. In fact, I bought a Bluetooth keyboard with my first iPad, which I’ve used about twice, thinking that I’d need it to do much writing with the iPad.  I am comfortable now writing even fairly long emails with the on-screen keyboard, but for longer writing projects (like this blog post) generally go to either my laptop or, more rarely, my office desktop. I routinely use the cloud-storage provided by Dropbox to sync up all of these devices, for any writing I’d like to have available at home, office, or class.

Course-material scavenging. This is one of the most significant teacher-related ways I use my iPad, especially because I generally use online readings in place of a textbook. The iPad is perfectly designed for the sitting-on-the-couch-surfing I typically do to look for possible material. My favorite app for this is Flipboard, which bills itself as a “social magazine.” It allows the user to collect in one place a customized list of feeds from hundreds of possibilities. My list includes many of my favorite, regular stops: New Yorker writers, the Atlantic, Time, Longreads, Byliner Spotlights, Metnal Floss, Magazine, and the always-inspiring Brain Pickings. (In setting up your list, be sure to check out the category “Cool Curators.”) Useful multimedia content can also be found through individual apps from PBS, NPR, National Geographic, and TED.  For lit comp classes, the iPad offers a wealth of materials, the copyright-free resources in iBooks, Kindle, and Project Gutenberg apps as well as a variety of poetry apps (The Waste Land is wonderful, though not cheap).  

Social networking. This is also a natural fit for the casual surfing the iPad invites. Though I’m an infrequent poster, I do keep track of friends, family, and (some) colleagues through Facebook, twitter, and just recently (for family only) Instagram. For all of these apps, the screen size (especially useful for reading twitter-recommended articles) makes the iPad a preferred choice over my phone, and its portability makes it preferable to either my laptop or desktop. My iPad is also useful in my prime social-networking mode, blogging, though I use it more to read blogs (my students’ as well as the colleagues I follow via the app Reeder) than to compose blog posts. (Blogsy does seem like a well-constructed app, though, which I’d like to try out, and WordPress does have an app that seems quite usable as well.)

Grading. Inspired by yet another ProfHacker post, I’m going to try out the app GradeBook. I was never really sold on the grade-book feature in our college’s CMS (nor with the CMS as a whole, actually), so I’ve been using an old-school paper grade-book since I started teaching. I’m hoping that keeping grades on the iPad will help with a couple of issues I’ve had:  I’m not as faithful as I should be in recording grades for low-stakes assignments, so I’m hoping circulating through the classroom with iPad in hand will make this easier; some students would benefit, I think, from getting regular progress reports, which the app seems to make possible. It has some other neat features, like the ability to attach photos of students, which would be a great help with the beginning-of-semester challenge of connecting names to faces.

Feedback? Please feel free to chime in with your favorite iPad finds, either apps or strategies for use in the classroom.


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Categories: Holly Pappas
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On Google Docs

posted: 12.21.12 by archived

It’s not an exaggeration to say that google docs has had a transformative effect on my teaching and that this free application has now become one of the key engines driving The Paperless Writing Class. A quick review of the docs in my fall 2012 ENGL 231: Writing for Multimedia and Digital Settings course reveals that this fall, for this class alone, I created 34 new docs. The types I create vary a good deal and I seem to keep finding new ways to use docs to collaborate with students. For example, this term, for the first time, I experimented with google’s “form” doc, creating a survey with a group of students in ENGL 232 to collect data on attitudes towards writing on our campus (and to date, we have 102 responses!).

I use google docs in a several different ways to accomplish different kinds of work. First, I use docs to do things I was already doing using pre-cloud applications like MS Word or Excel. Second, I use docs to do something I was already do in MS Word or Excel but in a new or different way. Third, I use docs to do something entirely new, something I’ve never done before. Let’s take these one at a time.

It’s not so revolutionary to shift what you were doing in the pre-cloud era into the cloud, via google docs. I used to use MS Word to write letters to students, providing them feedback on their written work; this term, I provided feedback to small groups of students who were collaborating on a single document by writing a letter to them in a google doc. This wasn’t a particularly new or innovative practice. I just shifted applications to complete a fairly routine task  Another example along the same lines: in past semesters, I kept attendance using an Excel spreadsheet. I now use a google spreadsheet to do so. There’s nothing too earth-shattering in these uses (though I have found that once you start down the road of using google docs, it has a kind of gravitational pull–perhaps because you begin to envision and accept their Drive interface as your new composing environment).

The second way in which I use google docs is more experimental. More and more, I find myself opening docs to accomplish some task I was already accomplishing via pre-cloud apps like Word or Excel and accomplishing the task in some new, innovative, problem-solving way. Here’s an example: Many faculty still write key course documents–syllabi, schedules, assignments–in MS Word and then post these documents in the course LMS. The problem with using static, pre-cloud applications for documents like the course schedule or assignment sheets is that the information contained in these documents is fluid and often changes–or, it does in writing classes…or, it does in my writing classes. Take the course schedule.

I find that even in courses I have taught multiple times, my course schedule is a work-in-progress. Because my syllabus is not organized around a series of lectures on topics (the standard method of organizing a syllabus) but, instead, around units of study and activity, it changes throughout the semester–sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

I can remember a time when students would annotate the hard-copies of the course schedule that I would hand out on the first day of class, constantly making little notes and amendments to a four-month plan that I had attempted to articulate before the journey had even begun, at a moment when I could never have anticipated the inevitable pitfalls and alternate routes that arise during a typical academic semester. Once the LMS came along, I would email the students changes to the schedule and hope that a) they would actually read the email and b) they would make a note of the changes. I would also edit the schedule and repost it to the LMS each time I had made changes (tedious!). Neither of these methods was very efficient.

Today, I write my course schedule as a google spreadsheet, link directly to it in the navigation bar of the LMS, and review and update it in real-time at the commencement and closure of each class session. Here’s a screen shot of how this looks in my LMS:

And here’s a link that will take to you to one of my course schedules from spring 2012.

This idea of using docs to write and disseminate key course documents is an example of how docs allows me to transform a teaching practice and improve upon it. I think of it in this way: the process of constructing a semester course schedule for a writing class is a highly fluid and dynamic one, requiring flexibility and the capacity for adjustment and re-routing. A static document, like an Excel spreadsheet or a PDF posted in the LMS does not meet the needs of such a dynamic process. Since what we will be doing in class at any given point in the semester is never carved in stone, the vehicle for conveying such information cannot be carved in stone, either. Google docs, in this instance, allows me to do something–admittedly, something rather mundane–in a new and more interactive way which better aligns with the epistemology of the practice itself.

In my next post, I’ll take up the third and, to me, most interesting use of google docs and that is the ways in which I am able to use docs to accomplish work that I could not previously have accomplished and, in some cases, did not even know I wanted to accomplish in the first place.

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Categories: Michael Michaud
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Academic rhythms: the fallow period

posted: 12.21.12 by archived

The cycle of endings and beginnings is one of my favorite parts of the academic life, especially that period of overlap as one semester ends and the ideas for the next start emerging and clarifying, shifting and jostling in my brain.  As the semester wound down and my approach for the current semester started to bore both my students and myself, I’d been toying with the idea of something livelier. Although I do use some of the same assignments from semester to semester, I always seem to be shaking things up; there are clear disadvantages to this approach, in terms of prep time required and limited ability to refine particular assignments, but it has the great advantage of keeping me fresh and excited.

I had originally considered a composition course arranged perhaps around a series of objects-based assignments. I was particularly inspired by Susan Naomi Bernstein’s post “History of New York in 5 Objects,” Time magazine’s more recent “History of the Campaign in 100 Objects,” and Sherry Turkle’s book Evocative Objects, and soon William Carlos Williams’s “No ideas but in things” was drumming in my head. Then I thought people, places, and things (in some order) might be a workable if quite general framework—anything to prompt students to look more closely and think more deeply.

What I’m interested in thinking about and trying to record is this process of how simmering possibilities settle into some more definite plan as a course design starts to reveal itself. I’m not sure how it works for other teachers (feel free to share in the comments below!), but for me it’s a process of shifting my focus from ideas for assignments to course objectives and outcomes to potential reading materials until a critical mass of material starts to coalesce. My metaphors are hopelessly mixed: fitting together pieces of a puzzle, gathering up a ball of pie crust, identifying the pattern in a tessellated floor design, waiting for a disturbed path of water to calm enough that the reflection stabilizes.

My own interests guide this process, but also to a frighteningly large degree so does serendipity. In thinking about places, I stumbled on Orion magazine’s “The Place Where You Live” (which seems to me a great multimodal assignment) and thought about how landscape shapes a person, from my own comfort in the New England landscape of rolling hills and forests to my sister’s preference for the stark exposure and open spaces of the Southwestern desert. I remembered a New Yorker article that’s stuck with me though I’ve never taught it: David Owen’s “Green Manhattan,” about the environmental advantages of big city living. A colleague mentioned an assignment of mine that I haven’t used for a few semesters but that always drew some fine student work, in which I asked students to apply Paco Underhill’s theories to a retail space of their own choosing. I thought about the public art I’d appreciated in recent visits to Chicago, the new bike-sharing system and the old community gardens I’d noticed in Boston, and what I’ve read about the ideals of New Urbanism as manifest in a town like Celebration, Florida. Domestic spaces occurred to me as another possible angle; one of the books on my long to-read list is Bill Bryson’s At Home.

So as one crop of this semester’s students took a final, I sketched out a plan for next semester.  I’m not sure how things will develop, but in addition to the joys and obligations of the coming semester break—cooking real dinners more often and celebrating the holidays, organizing my stacks of books and going to the movies—I also hope to plan out this new course-incarnation and, if time permits, maybe to finally try out iBooks Author to collect up some old and new course materials. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

I’d love to hear in comments below how you use your “fallow” periods to enrich your teaching or, more specifically, anything you’d like to share about germinating new course designs.





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Categories: Holly Pappas
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