Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Find Your Voice: Assignment 2 - Approaches to Teaching

The assignment I chose was to design a lesson for a particular class, focusing on the choices I made when designing the learning process.

The lesson that I have chosen to focus on was a lecture that I was invited to give to a group of first year biology students, that are currently in an extended degree program. As part of the program their lecturer had designed a Library Project for the students, that required them to choose a topic inspired by their lecture content to write about. This project gave students an opportunity to learn about how to research a topic, how to read academic journal articles, how to structure an academic essay, appropriate referencing and how to paraphrase, which was where I came into the picture. The lecturer invited experts in various aspects of academic literacy to come and talk to her students and I presented a lecture entitled ‘Find Your Voice
I think that learning to paraphrase is both very important and extremely challenging for students on many different levels - from the theoretical approach to writing, to issues of confidence, to the simple mechanics of words on the page. Because of this, when I teach paraphrasing I like to take students further back and begin by talking about the fears we have around writing, particularly in a scientific way and, even more so, when writing is for assessment and grading. I think it’s important to acknowledge the fear and anxiety that students face and assure them that their feelings are normal, they are not the only ones that feel that way and that it is OK for them to feel unsure. I remind students that I am teaching them a skill, that at first they may find it hard to implement, but that the more they practice the easier it will become.
The next important point I like to talk over with the students, is the consideration of audience. I think that understanding your audience is fundamental to moderating how you write. However, thinking about audience seems like a really foreign and complex concept to most junior students, and so I came up with a fun class exercise to quickly show students that thinking about their audience is a concept they already understand on a fundamental level. I call the game ‘How was your weekend?’ and what I do is begin by describing a typical weekend for the average student. 

I then tell the students that on Monday morning they receive a text message from their good friend asking them how their weekend was. At this point I have the students actually write a response to their friend and then I have a few students share what they have written. I then tell the students that then receive another text message, this time from their mother, asking them how their weekend was. I then have the students respond and share. The contrast between the responses to the same question from two different audiences is usually hilarious. This activity always gets the class laughing and immediately normalises the concept of considering your audience.
The next concept that I like to cover with students is the issue of tone. Many students feel that they can’t be themselves if they have to write in a formal way, as it is so different from how they are used to speaking and writing. At this point I like to use a visual aid. I show students a picture of a man dressed in casual beach clothes and another picture of the same man dressed in a suit. I then ask the students if it is the same man? Yes, of course it is - he is just presenting himself differently. From this visual analogy I move on to talking about how you are still you when you write science, the ideas are still yours, but the way we express and present ourselves is different, our tone needs to be formal. I then give the students an excerpt from a journal article and show then the excerpt paraphrased using two different tones - one causal and the other formal. With the foundation of audience and tone in place, I feel students are now more ready to take on information about the mechanics of paraphrasing.

I like to begin the paraphrasing section by talking to students about the difference between quoting and paraphrasing and audience perception of these two different ways of integrating sources. I really make a point of emphasising how the act of paraphrasing (ideally) shows the audience that the writer has read, understood, critically engaged with the material and is now capable of re-framing it for the reader, while all that quoting indicates is that they know how to copy. At this point I remind students that currently their reader is also their marker, and anything they, as writers, can do to present themselves favourably to their marker is in their best interest. Once the students have accepted the need to paraphrase, I begin to unpack the technicalities of this skill.
My favourite feature of paraphrasing is the power you have when understand the difference between foregrounding and backgrounding and, once again, audience perception thereof. Making it clear to the students that there are two equally acceptable ways of integrating sources, but with distinctly different effects, gives students a measure of control and a sense of agency within their writing – it is for them to strategically choose whether to foreground or background. At times, they may want to hold up an expert opinion, or alternatively distance themselves from a particular theory, and then they need to understand that foregrounding will help them achieve this effect. At other times they may simply be drawing on research in support of their argument, and then they need to know that backgrounding is the appropriate choice.

To support our discussion of paraphrasing, I have the students do an exercise that I came up with based on the childhood party game, 'heads, bodies, legs'. In this game the first person draws a head then they fold the paper over to cover their drawing and pass it on to the next person, who draws the torso and then folds and passes to the next person who draws the legs and so on. In my version, there is a short excerpt from a journal article at the top of each page (and each student begins with such a page, and I provide a variety of different excerpts). The students then paraphrase the excerpt, fold it over and pass it on. The next student paraphrases the first students paraphrase, and so on. I usually aim to create a chain of four or five students, depending on the size of the class.
The various contributing features of voice that I chose to highlight in this class – audience, tone, paraphrasing, foregrounding and backgrounding – are all important, because with each feature, students have a choice. Having a choice gives students agency, and the first step to finding your voice is taking ownership of your work. My goal here is not to tell students what to do, but rather to provide them with the information and tools necessary to make informed decisions about their work – what they choose to create with those tools is up to them.

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