When Real Audiences (Not Just Your Professor) Read Your Writing

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Guest evaluators Jasmin Agosto (Trinity '10, right) and Glenn Mitoma (UConn, center) review their written feedback with student authors in the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar.
Guest evaluators Jasmin Agosto (Trinity ’10, right) and Glenn Mitoma (UConn, center) review their written feedback with student authors in the Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar.

This week we wrapped up one of the most meaningful writing exercises this semester in my Cities Suburbs and Schools seminar. Rather than typing up a traditional paper to be read only by their professor, Trinity students composed essays on the public web, received feedback on early drafts from our “sister seminar” at Yale University, and final evaluations from a panel of three guest evaluators. Based on similar assignments over the past several years, students work harder on improving their prose — and find the experience to be more intrinsically rewarding — when real audiences are involved in the writing process.

Earlier this month, students carved out their topics and digitized source materials from a list of topics on the recent history of education and activism in the Hartford region. The assignment was to tell a compelling story, with analytical insight and supporting evidence, of no more than 2,500 words, for audiences who may be unfamiliar with the issue. Topics included the 1960s Project Concern city-suburban integration program, the 1969 Hartford documentary film interviews, the 1970s Lumpkin school desegregation case, the 1985 Bloomfield school residency case, and plaintiffs’ perspectives in the 1989 Sheff integration case. This seminar had the advantage of drawing on source materials that previous students had already collected and digitized, so that we could focus more of our energy on the analysis and storytelling. See the students’ web essays at: http://commons.trincoll.edu/cssp/web-essays/. Also, to learn more about the philosophy and planning behind this pedagogical approach, see my essays on related examples in the Web Writing book and a recent Connecticut History Review article.

Many thanks to Mira Debs for teaching her Yale University “sister seminar” on a similar topic for her students who exchanged drafts and peer comments with us via Google Docs this semester. Also, a special thanks to our three guest evaluators — Jasmin Agosto (Trinity ’10), Glenn Mitoma (UConn), and Susan Campbell (U of New Haven) — who recognized the strengths of the students’ work and recommended ways to further revise it for potential publication in the On The Line book that I’m currently writing with several contributors.

Although this specific class assignment has concluded, one way to judge the depth of student learning is to follow how many choose to revise their drafts again — without grades as a motivator — to improve our telling of these important civil rights education stories with broader audiences.



Catalyst Summer Internship Funding from Trinity Career Development Center

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I’m spreading the news about the Catalyst funding program, which offers $3,500 grants to support Trinity students in unpaid or low-paid summer internships. At present, the key information is buried so deeply inside the password-protected CareerLink database at the Career Development Center, which makes it hard to find. (Try a Google search for “Trinity College Catalyst Summer Internship” and you’ll find this Tripod story, but as of today, nothing on the Center’s own website.)

Even when you access CareerLink, it’s not easy to find. Typing “Catalyst” in the search box did not work for me. I had to go to Employers > Trinity College > Available Positions to find the info that I’ve reposted below.

The basics: Eligibility is limited to Trinity 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-year students with a GPA of 3.0 or above. Applications accepted until April 8th, 2016. Preference is given to students who have attended CDC workshops or had prior appointments with their staff. See more details in the Student Learning Agreement PDF.

From the CareerLink web page (with links to PDFs I downloaded):

If the only thing standing between you and an unpaid or low-paying internship opportunity this summer is financial support, then the CATALYST SUMMER INTERNSHIP PROGRAM is for you! The Career Development Center is proud to offer $3,500 grants to eligible first, second, and third-year Trinity students!

To be considered for the CATALYST SUMMER INTERNSHIP PROGRAM, you must upload the following completed documents to this application by noon on April 8, 2016:

1. An updated résumé that has been approved by the CDC

2. A cover letter addressed to the CDC that includes the following:
• The type of internship you are seeking and why. (Please specify one of the following: an internship you have already secured, internship opportunities to which you are applying, or an industry or sector in which you are interested.)
• The strengths and weaknesses you will bring to the experience
• What you hope to learn over the course of the internship
• How the experience will help you hone your professional skills

3. One signed Career Catalyst Initiative: Summer Internship Program Student Learning Agreement (please make sure to upload this document in “Other”):

The following documents must be completed and emailed to amy.porter@trincoll.edu by noon on April 8, 2016:

1. FERPA Waiver PDF (signed by student and emailed to recommender).

2. One (1) Letter of Recommendation (recommender completes letter of recommendation and emails both the letter and signed FERPA Waiver
to amy.porter@trincoll.edu).

The following document must be completed and emailed to amy.porter@trincoll.edu by 4:30 p.m. on May 6, 2016:

Employer Confirmation Form PDF (download and save a copy of this form now as this posting will expire April 8, 2016)

Amy Porter
Assistant Director
Career Development Center



GitHub browser is great, but needs a directional visual cue

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I continue to be impressed with GitHub’s browser interface, which makes sharing, editing, and web hosting code or text so easy for novices. Next week I’ll start teaching GitHub to my undergraduate data visualization seminar, which includes many students who have never touched a piece of code in their lives. We primarily stick with the browser interface to avoid overwhelming newbies, since it does nearly everything we need.  But there’s one small user interface revision that would make it easier for students to learn how to make pull requests inside the browser.

The problem: The current GitHub browser interface provides no visual cue about the DIRECTION of the pull request, as shown below:

No directional visual cue in the current browser
No directional visual cue in the current browser

In my teaching tutorials, I have to create a “TO — FROM” screenshot to help my students understand the direction of the pull request, as shown here:

My modified "To -- From" tutorial screenshot
My modified “To — From” tutorial screenshot

Clearly, GitHub would be even better if this step were more intuitive. Here’s two possible solutions for the developers to consider:

1) GitHub Desktop for Mac already includes a directional visual cue, where the sending branch box is shaped like an arrow, pointing into the receiving branch, as shown below. You could replicate this in the GitHub browser interface.

GitHub Desktop for Mac has a directional visual cue
GitHub Desktop for Mac has a directional visual cue

2) Or if that’s too complicated, a simple fix for the browser interface might be to change the current ambiguous symbols (…) into a visual direction cue with different punctuation (<—), as shown here:

A simple fix: change (...) to (<--)
A simple fix: change (…) to (<–)

Once again, just trying to suggest a simple way to make the GitHub browser interface even easier for novices to use.

If you teach with Google Docs or WordPress, see updated Web Writing tutorials

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WebWritingCoverSmallDo you or your students share their writing, or comment on other students’ drafts, with Google Documents? Or do you or your students publish your ideas on a WordPress platform? If you’re looking for illustrated tutorials on key steps in the process, see these newly-updated chapters in the back of our open-access Web Writing book, published by University of Michigan Press in 2015, and freely available (with occasional updates, like this one) at http://webwriting.trincoll.edu

We designed these tutorials for college-level educators to share with their students. To learn how to share and peer edit with Google Docs, see: http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/how-to-google-docs

To learn how to present your writing and visuals on WordPress, see:  http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/how-to-publish-on-wordpress/

Now you can point students to specific sections by adding a hashtag for the header keyword to the end of the web address. For example, to show my students how to prepare their Google Docs for a peer editing exercise, I point them to the “Advanced” Share section of that tutorial by appending the #advanced hashtag, like this: http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/how-to-google-docs/#advanced

Behind the Scenes: Historians of Education Write (and Comment) on our Teaching

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In Spring 2015, Nancy Beadie and Joy Williamson-Lott, as incoming editors of the History of Education Quarterly, invited me and eight other colleagues to contribute essays for one of their new formats: a teaching forum. Their goal is to spark deeper reflections about our pedagogical thinking in the pages of this scholarly journal, which in past years has published mostly conventional research articles. The editors prompted us with a question — how do we teach history with case studies? — and pushed us to think about it as broadly as possible.

It wasn’t hard to persuade me to participate. I consider teaching to be central to my work, an intellectual exercise in pairing insightful questions with historical sources, closely watching and listening to how students learn, and continually rethinking the process for the next semester. But this group essay assignment also provided an opportunity to rethink how faculty engage in our work as writers. In the traditional mode, we submit our individual essays to editors, without necessarily see or having an opportunity to respond to what other authors are crafting for the same section. Yet this time, the HEQ editors accepted a suggested alternative: to encourage all of the contributors to share our drafts-in-progress in a Google Documents digital folder. This arrangement allowed each of our individual essays to benefit with constructive comments by our peers, and it also created more coherent conversation across our collective works. The key was to insert peer commentary into the middle of our writing process, rather than a traditional review of polished pieces at the end stage, to maximize the value of our feedback to one another.

The best way to understand this HEQ draft commentary process is to reveal the behind-the-scenes process, months before we arrived at the finished product. The examples pictured below feature comments that peers posted on different stages of my writing, because I am the “owner” of these digital drafts, and changed the sharing settings from private to public. I emailed my peers to ask if any wished to delete their comments on my public essay, and no one did. But I do not link to other drafts written by my peers, where many more comments appear, because they own their drafts, not me. If other forum participants wish to do so, they also can make their drafts public, share links and/or screenshots online, or ask me to include them in this essay.

The first draft I shared with the group appeared in this June 2015 Google Document. Looking back, my writing was still in the discovery process. I began by describing a case study comparison in my class — an old one that I had written about elsewhere — but was still searching for the best way to express a new idea that had popped into my head. A few paragraphs into the essay, I rhetorically asked, “Do we ever not use case studies in our history teaching?” My inner skeptic had begun to challenge the writing prompt given to us by the editors, by questioning whether it was impossible to teach history without cases of some type. When we began to comment on each other’s drafts in early July, I noted my temptation to develop this theme further. Three other authors — Heather Lewis, Michael Bowman, and Karen Leroux — offered encouragement and constructive feedback, which shifted my approach. If they thought this half-baked idea had merit, perhaps I should frame it into a thesis and restructure the entire essay. Midway through the writing process, my peers inspired me to rethink and revise.

Excerpt of my first draft with peer comments, from my June 2015 Google Doc
Excerpt of my first draft with peer comments, from my June 2015 Google Doc

A week later I rewrote the essay and shared it with the group in this July 2015 Google Document. This newer version began with a stronger introductory argument and framework for four sections that followed about different types of cases in history teaching. But in this second round of commentary, my colleagues drew attention to some of my uncertain wording in the body of the essay, particularly the fourth section. When historians teach with role-playing scenarios, such as the highly-praised and widely popular “Reacting to the Past” series, does it favor conflict and competition over empathy and understanding? But that question wasn’t fully developed at the time. In this draft, authors Jon Hale, Ansley Erickson, and Isaac Gottesman posted comments that nudged me to clarify my not-yet-formed internal thoughts into clearer prose that others would understand. For authors who are stuck inside our own heads — something that happens to me quite often — their feedback allowed me to re-read my essay through their eyes, and re-word sentences to communicate more clearly.

Excerpt of my second draft with peer comments, from this July 2015 Google Document
Excerpt of my second draft with peer comments, from this July 2015 Google Doc

No doubt, the last draft that I submitted in this final August 2015 Google Document is much stronger than what initially appeared months earlier on my computer screen. But the difference is that I received substantive peer feedback during my writing process, rather than solely at the end, when it’s often too late to significantly restructure and revise. Moreover, my essay became more refined and interconnected with the thinking of other authors because they shared their drafts and welcomed comments at the same time when I was writing and revising mine.

Memo to academic journal editors: If you want scholars to break out of our individual silos and communicate beyond our areas of specialization, then create more interdependent writing and commenting forums such as this one. Also, a memo to historians and other scholars: If the idea of sharing your drafts-in-progress with many colleagues sounds strange to you, then you need to get out of your office more often. Visit more classrooms, from kindergarten through college, that emphasize collaborative writing and peer editing. Read some of the ideas, examples, and tutorials featured in an open-access volume of essays I co-edited with Tennyson O’Donnell, Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning (University of Michigan Press, 2015), or a related volume Writing History in the Digital Age, co-edited with Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2013). Try teaching by assigning short essays where students have compelling reasons to share drafts and peer edit one another. Remember that technology is not the end goal, but rather, a tool that can help to restructure our traditionally isolated ways of writing in both teaching and scholarship.

If you want to read the full set of Teaching Forum essays, you’ll need to go to the February 2016 issue of the History of Education Quarterly. Unfortunately, HEQ is published through a proprietary press with a subscriber-only site. At my campus, readers may need to log in through this HEQ ezproxy.trincoll.edu link, which requires a Trinity College username and password. Alas, HEQ does not yet belong to the growing number of open-access scholarly journals. Although my colleagues and I performed the bulk of the labor by writing and commenting on each other’s essays, the proprietary press makes a profit by selling our words, primarily back to our own non-profit academic institutions and our financially struggling libraries. But that’s a different rant, which I’ll save for another time . . .

Teaching Inequality with Standardized Test Data

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Pairs of students commented on inequality data patterns in a shared Google Document
Pairs of students commented on inequality data patterns in a shared Google Document

Today I updated a data exercise for my introductory Educ 200: Analyzing Schools course at Trinity College, and designed it so that others may easily adapt the lesson and materials for other settings. The goal was to prepare my undergraduate students for our next unit on educational inequalities, where we will compare and contrast eight different theoretical explanations for differences in learning outcomes. To springboard us into this unit, I compiled a Google Document with charts on standardized test scores by ethnicity, family income, parental education, and gender. The exercise draws on data from the SAT (very familiar to my students, though not statistically representative) and the NAEP long-term trends (the “gold standard” for educational researchers, though most of my students had never heard of it until today). After introducing the exercise and cautioning the class about standardized test data, pairs of students dug into these parts of the exercise:

Part 1: What are key differences between tests such as the SAT versus NAEP?

Part 2: Describe what you observe in each of the data tables.

Part 3: List different types of plausible reasons that might explain the causes of the data patterns above.

Part 4: Together, we will create broad categories, and sort explanations into related groups.

Students were highly engaged in this activity. Some were surprised to find strong relationships (such as family income), or puzzled about patterns that varied across tests (the math gender gap was less pronounced in the NAEP versus the SAT). We concluded the exercise by sorting some of their plausible explanations into three categories: in-school, out-of-school, and in-between factors. More questions were raised than answered in this exercise, but that’s why it’s an excellent springboard into this inequality unit.

This year I updated the charts (thanks to helpful data published by the Hartford Courant and the National Center for Educational Statistics), and placed all of this in a Google Document where my students could share their insights as “suggestions” or “comments” without altering the original content. Another advantage is that the Google Doc format allows me to easily share this template on the public web, where others may make their own copy and modify as they wish.

Tested film and Q&A with director Curtis Chin, Oct 1st

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TestedFilmJoin us for a screening of Tested, on Thursday October 1st, 2015 at 6:30pm, followed by a Q&A with director Curtis Chin at 7:45pm, in the Washington Room, Mather Hall, Trinity College. This documentary follows students who prepare for a high-stakes test to gain entrance to one of New York City’s prestigious public high schools, and explores topics such as equal access, affirmative action, and the model minority myth. Sponsored by Multicultural Affairs, American Studies, Educational Studies, Political Science, Sociology, and Urban Educational Initiatives at Trinity College. Watch the trailer at http://www.testedfilm.com/.

Hartford Schools Welcome Trinity Educ 200 Students

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ELAMS orientation with teachers Kate McEachern Bermingham '07 and Jesse Wanzer '08
ELAMS orientation with teachers Kate McEachern Bermingham ’07 and Jesse Wanzer ’08, my former students, who now welcome current Trinity College Educ 200 students to their school

When teaching our introductory Educ 200 Analyzing Schools course, we draw on the community-learning model and place Trinity students in nearby Hartford schools as participant-observers. They partner with teachers to support younger learners and become involved in the life of their classrooms, and draw on their observations to evaluate different theories of education and inequality in their academic writing. But adding thoughtful community-learning experiences requires time and energy to develop relationships with our school partners and to schedule orientation sessions and weekly placements for our students. I am fortunate that Robert Cotto, Trinity’s Director of Urban Education Initiatives, now organizes all of these details, and has extended our partnerships with more schools. He set up six orientation sessions at four different schools this week, and I accompanied the groups to meet coordinating teachers who are old friends (and in some cases, former students), as well as new partners who I met for the first time.

Dean of Students Julie M. welcomed us to Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker
Dean of Students Julie M. welcomed us to Environmental Sciences Magnet School at Mary Hooker
Teachers Elissa B. and Kim B. welcome Trinity students to Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy
Montessori Magnet School staff welcomed our Trinity students
Montessori Magnet School staff welcomed our Trinity students