Encouraging Others

I was having a nose around the web on how to encourage student writers more and came across this great succinct blog:

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning…

1. Don’t make all the decisions

Allow choice. Encourage students to make decisions about how they learn best. Create opportunities for them to pursue their own interests and practise skills in a variety of ways.  Cater for different learning styles. Don’t expect everyone to respond in the same way. Integrate technology to encourage creative expression of learning.

2. Don’t play guess what’s in my head

Ask open-ended questions, with plenty of possible answers which lead to further questions.   Acknowledge all responses equally. Use Thinking Routines to provide a framework for students to engage with new learning by making connections, thinking critically and exploring possibilities.

3. Talk less

Minimise standing out front and talking at them.  Don’t have rows of learners facing the front of the class.  Arrange the seats so that students can communicate, think together, share ideas and construct meaning by discussing and collaborating. Every exchange doesn’t need to go through the teacher or get the teacher’s approval, encourage students to respond directly to each other.

4. Model behaviors and attitudes that promote learning.

Talk about your own learning. Be an inquirer. Make your thinking process explicit. Be an active participant in the learning community. Model and encourage enthusiasm, open-mindedness, curiosity and reflection.  Show that you value initiative above compliance.

5. Ask for feedback

Get your students to write down what they learned, whether they enjoyed a particular learning experience, what helped their learning, what hindered their learning and what might help them next time. Use a Thinking Routine like ‘Connect, extend, challenge’. Take notice of what they write and build learning experiences based on it.

6. Test less

Record student thinking and track development over time. Provide opportunities for applying learning in a variety of ways. Create meaningful assessment tasks that  allow transfer of learning to other contexts. Have students publish expressions of their learning on the internet for an authentic audience. Place as much value on process and progress as on the final product.

7.  Encourage goal setting and reflection.

Help students to define goals for their learning. Provide opportunities for ongoing self-evaluation and reflection. Provide constructive, specific feedback.   Student blogs are great tools for reflecting on learning and responding to their peers.

8. Don’t over plan.

If you know exactly where the lesson is leading and what you want the kids to think, then you‘re controlling the learning. Plan a strong provocation that will ‘invite the students in’ and get them excited to explore the topic further. But don’t  plan in too much detail where it will go from there.

9.  Focus on learning, not work.

Make sure you and your students know the reason for every learning experience. Don’t give ‘busy work’. Avoid worksheets where possible. Don’t start by planning activities, start with the ‘why‘ and then develop learning experiences which will support independent learning.  Include appropriate tech tools to support the learning.

10.  Organise student led conferences

Rather than reporting to parents about their children’s learning, have student led 3-way conferences, with teacher and parents. The student talks about her strengths and weaknesses, how her learning has progressed and areas for improvement. She can share the process and the product of her learning.

 

 

This webpage also led me to a great site on visible thinking: ‘a flexible and systematic research-based approach to integrating the development of students’ thinking with content learning across subject matters…to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and…to deepen content learning. By thinking dispositions, we mean curiosity, concern for truth and understanding, a creative mindset, not just being skilled but also alert to thinking and learning opportunities and eager to take them’.

I hope to add another blog with a summary of this info soon.

 

 

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Doc Blog

Kamler, B. and Thomson P. (2006). Helping Doctoral Students Write: pedagogies for supervision. London: Routledge.

As a new PhD student, I read this book both for my own learning and out of fear of the fact that I could be asked at any moment to meet with a PhD student who will – absolutely – have more experience of this level of study than I do.

Compared with other texts I have read preparing for this next step, this particular book is aimed at supervisors rather than students, and is therefore couched in a lot of politics and pedagogical literature, which will hopefully be of particular use in the mentoring context.

The key advice from the book I believe may be valuable for sessions with doctoral candidates is:

  • Supervisors often wish students would write more simply, more logically, and less tentatively.
  • Students need to make their writing more concise and focus on the order of content: lead with comments and themes, rather than other authors for a sense of variety and authority. However, some level of repetition of terminology for instance can be helpful in connecting all passages of the work.  In short, students need to pay attention to style and the how of writing, not just the what and why.
  • Formatting should not be left until the last minute, as presentation is important too.
  • Use blank space to make the writing easier on the eye.
  • Frontloading or backloading is common in theses: either adding too much background and methodology without enough actual new research, or too much writing about findings which are then undertheorized and unsubstantiated.
  • Literature work requires:
    • sketching the nature of the field and possibly some of the historical developments involved;
    • identifying major debates and defining contentious terms;
    • establishing which studies, ideas, and methods are most pertinent to the study;
    • locating gaps,
    • in order to create the need for the study,
    • and identify the contribution the PhD study will make.
  • It is worth thinking of the Literature Review as a metaphor of moving into occupied territory, as it can be overwhelming, the students feeling uncertain as to where landmines are, or which paths are best to take/ avoid. Or it can be seen akin to ‘persuading an octopus into a glass’, which equates to the living, unruly nature of literature which constantly needs to be updated and revised throughout the years.
  • Moreover, the ‘invisible scholar’ phenomenon is common when literature reviews are all ‘he said’ ‘she said’, without evaluation, centralised ideas, or links to broader discussions. The simple act of shifting attribution/citing to the end of the sentence can foreground the idea and writer though. More assertive phrases can also be used, like little attention is paid to…, it appears that…, this work focuses on…, evidence to date suggests…., despite…
  • Be aware of various expressions and their usages. Hedges like possible, may, believe can either show the writer’s uncertainty, or it can bring attention to the concept as an opinion rather than fact, and also convey deference and modesty. Emphatics clearly, in fact, definitely demonstrate writer certainty and stress the information.  Attitude can also be expressed via adverbs like unfortunately and hopefully, as well as modal verbs like should or must.
  • Being critical is not just about praising or contradicting, but
    • making decisions about which literature to engage with, which to ignore, and which aspects to stress or omit or downplay;
    • paying attention to underlying assumptions, definitions, theories, methodologies, methods, and findings, as well as looking at points of similarity and difference;
    • while showing respect by concentrating on what a work contributes as opposed to what it fails to achieve.
  • It can be useful to think of the literature review as holding a dinner party. It is something found in normal everyday life, it is the student who is actively doing the inviting, the student will expect to be part of the conversation, and a dinner party is usually a positive experience.
  • Take care over bias and assumptions influencing the work however, through self-critical questions. All texts can be deconstructed, even our own.
  • Having a supervisor edit work with the student in the room can be dynamic and allow for more integration of the student, while increasing their understanding.
  • The concepts, arguments, and findings of a PhD need to be ‘potent and convincing’.
  • Argument is the compelling part; so can it enter into more parts of the written work than just fixed formulaic sections like the Discussion section? The argumentative thesis, after all, is central to reaching the ‘scholarly contribution’ criteria of the PhD.
  • Lively and stimulating writing can be very appealing; there’s ‘no reason why the scholarly requirement to interrogate complex ideas and to use precise terminology should equate with eye-watering ennui’.
  • Writing papers helps with flexibility and focus: foregrounding and de-emphasising different aspects and playing with structure and coherence for different audiences is a great skill to adopt.
  • Abstract writing helps develop a clear argument and succinctness, as well as author identity.
  • Going to conferences and talking about the work and defending it will clarify the work in the student’s mind, as well as giving the student a sense of authority.
  • There are 3 types of questioner at conferences: people who want to talk about the paper the student didn’t actually write, those who wish to make themselves look smart by ripping into the student’s work, and people who just didn’t get the point. To all, the student can simply say thank you and seek to discuss it after the talk, while the questions may illuminate the work and its gaps.
  • The main message of the book: stop thinking in terms of ‘writing up’. Writing is a ‘vital’ part of the research process from day one, through keeping journals, summarising information, and recording observations, to expressing ideas and theories as they develop, composing articles and conference talks, the act of thinking through writing, and writing the final thesis dissertation itself.  ‘The phrase ‘writing up’ actually obliterates all this labour and complexity.’  I quite agree!

Watch this space for how the PhD sessions work in practice!

Achievement Boards

Watching a Christmas film over the weekend, I came across a fantastic idea from across the pond: achievement boards.  Though they presented it in a fixed format, it can be simplified and utilised by anyone.  Might even try it myself.

The fundamentals include taking a fairly simple picture of your choice that you can colour in, with decent blocks of white (see examples below).  Write into each block a target you’d like to achieve, which can be themed or cover life goals or anything you wish.  Then as you reach each goal, you colour that part of the picture in, leaving a stunning and creative image that also highlights your achievements to go on the wall.

This would be ideal for help with time management, organisation, motivation; you could possibly even adapt it for mind mapping.

 

Reflections

Ever since I began mentoring, I have tried to engage in the reflections as much as possible, often informally considering my sessions even if I haven’t written up about them.  However, it can be tricky at times to reflect: digging deep, being so open and honest with myself and with others, and being brave enough to criticise myself while also trying to encourage myself to improve next time.

But recently, I felt that all this hard work had been put into practice with an amazing and enjoyable session in which I simply asked a multitude of questions, such as ‘How else could you do this?’  ‘How would that idea make it better?’  ‘Why is it important to you to change x?’  ‘What else do you need to do and know before you can hand this in?’ ‘Why is x a concern?…What makes you think that?…How could you change this?’

I realised, as the session was progressing, it was the first time I hadn’t actually said anything at all.  I hadn’t pointed out issues I personally thought were important to focus on, or decided on a topic for the session.  I hadn’t said anything was a good or a bad idea.  I hadn’t even come up with suggestions the writer could use.  It was as if I had become the writer’s inner voice, or Jiminy Cricket, present only to listen and to challenge, but not to judge or impose.  The only comment I made was to reassure the writer at the end that they had obviously put in a lot of thought into their work, had clearly exhausted alternatives, and this boosted their confidence in their efforts and they felt ready to submit.  In short, I felt like I had actually earned my star, and I just hope to be able to replicate this in future, after a few inevitable wobbles of course.

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Writing Essays by Pictures

Review: Gröppel-Wegener, A. (2016). Writing Essays by Pictures. Huddersfield: Innovative Libraries.

I recently came across this book as a new addition to the Peer Mentor library and wanted to give it a read.  I found it very colourful and creative, easy to read, with some innovative techniques for approaching essay writing that would best work for a relatively new student or people with a more kinaesthetic learning method.  As a result, it might be handy to have a flick through and keep it in mind as an alternative for anyone struggling with traditional note-taking, planning, and writing techniques.

Some key examples:

  • The ‘Assembly Approach’ uses the analogy of snacking as opposed to eating Christmas dinner when writing up.
  • Connecting the dots instead of simply spider diagramming can reveal gaps in knowledge.
  • The Iceberg analogy shows that work needs to come to a point and have substantial support for one’s polar bear reader to be challenged and intrigued, and yet to remain on safe ground.
  • Seeing the writer as a Detective finding sources and then noting all evidence.
  • Making visual pictorial notes initially if accessing the right words is tricky, or a ‘poetic inquiry’ summarises texts as a poem using key phrases.
  • The analogy of the Ocean of Literature describes skimming, mapping, then diving into the literature.
  • Taking a ‘long short walk’ improves powers of observation by literally slowing down a typical walk to notice things which would otherwise have been ignored; the skill can be transferred to reading and notetaking.
  • Creating an annotated bibliography as greeting cards: with an illustration encapsulating topic, topic details and notes on the inside, and on the back any details about source bias and source details such as whether it is peer-reviewed.
  • Using index cards to make notes of points rather than notes on whole texts, as these can be easily moved around physically to create an order for the essay.
  • Seeing the first draft as spilling the beans only, a bit like free writing.

Academic Writing for International Students

I recently had a more specified query from an International student than just about grammar and writing in a foreign language.  The writer specifically wanted to know how to make their writing more academic, and how to cope with academic terminology.  On the side of their subject, I suggested a formal glossary, as well as that they create their own version as they experience more of their subject over time.  On the academic writing side, then, I managed to find a couple of well-structured and accessible e-books which may be of use to someone in this position:

Academic Writing A Handbook for International Students.

Stephen Bailey

Florence : Taylor and Francis 4th ed. 2014

and

A Student’s Writing Guide How to Plan and Write Successful Essays.

Gordon Taylor

Cambridge : Cambridge University Press 2009

In fact, the way in which they are both set out might be useful for anyone who struggles to get their head around the rudimentary info, such as what a dissertation is as opposed to an essay, or how to break apart a question, for instance.  The first book also includes a fun little quiz on expectations of what academic writing really is.

 

 

Bird by Bird.

As it comes highly recommended, I decided to try Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott, a copy helpfully shelved the Mentor room.  Comic, vibrant, and honest – if quite dark in places – this book is all about the writing process from initial panic right through to the relief that comes with the final product.  Though the target audience is literary writers, there were lessons that could apply to anyone putting pen to paper.  This is what I took from it:

  • Irony: ‘That thing you had to force yourself to do – the actual act of writing – turns out to be the best part’ (p.xxvi); so perhaps we need to remember why we’re studying and/or mentoring when times get tough.
  • Expectations are often inaccurate, and certainly overblown, such as the supposed miracle of publishing, which can be really quite deflating.
  • Little and often is the key to success. It takes away the burden of productivity, allays fears from life in general, and defies the ogre of perfection.
  • Comparison to others is best avoided. It yields little, but harms a lot.  Instead, be compassionate to yourself as you would a friend (p.31).
  • Narrow a project so it doesn’t overwhelm you (p.34), but at the same time be open to new avenues of thought as the work progresses (p.53). Creativity is fun and productive, and can lead to marvellous discoveries.  Don’t let your Tutor or Editor sit on your shoulder as you draft (p.174).
  • When in doubt, cut it out. Literally, or virtually, cut and paste the draft to make it work as you need it to (p.88).
  • Find your own little rituals that work, such as working at certain times of day, or putting up inspirational quotations on the wall for motivation (p.117).
  • The exquisite pain and despair of a lost idea should be avoided at all costs, so keep a notebook/phone/index card/pen and the back of your hand available at all times (p.136).
  • Taking criticism is tricky, but the benefits of writing groups far outweighs the drawbacks (p.166).
  • Last but definitely not least, the beauty and simplicity of life is wrapped up in the author’s father’s words of wisdom on an otherwise overwhelming project: ‘’Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird’ (p.19).

I would recommend this book to anyone hoping to get a better sense of what it is to be a writer!

Encouraging Reflection

Lately, I have needed to reflect on my actions, research, and experiences in order to learn lessons for the future.  This is a tricky skill I am slowly developing, and it is a skill that I believe would be useful for Mentees, as it promotes active learning, rather than relying on teaching.

To that end, I have found a couple of entertaining and helpful academic blog posts on how to encourage reflection, which I wanted to share:

https://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/10-ways-to-encourage-student-reflection-2/

https://whatedsaid.wordpress.com/2016/11/02/10-ways-to-make-learning-meaningful/

 

 

Being a Mentor

being-erica_70171958

I’ve been watching a Canadian show from 2009, Being Erica, which is about a thirty-something female in Toronto, whose life’s plans – love, career etc. – have become derailed.  Under unusual circumstances, she meets an even more unusual Therapist (Counsellor in British English) who helps her to time travel in order to answer all the ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ queries we all have of our pasts.  Throughout the show, Erica learns to appreciate the present more, takes greater control over her life, and eventually becomes a Therapist herself.

Whilst the premise may sound a bit wacky, it’s been a very popular show, highly entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  It’s Sex and the City, meets Frasier, meets Back to the Future.  And I, personally, believe it could be useful for Mentor training too!

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Granted, the topic in the show is therapy: more life plans than essay plans.  But elements in it ring true of the sessions I’ve had over the past year.  Therefore, I will attempt an overview of lessons I feel are applicable to our own work, substituting in practice, of course, the word ‘writer’ for ‘patient’.

  • ‘You are not your patient’. This lesson is about differentiating ourselves from the other person, not judging with same rulebook, allowing for the fact that others have different backgrounds and experiences that inform their outlooks, opinions, and choices.  This necessitates empathy in Mentoring, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, even if at the end you can’t wait for your own footwear again.
  • Linked to this, is the lesson from Dr Tom’s behaviour, that we can’t let our feelings enter into sessions. Mentors are human beings, of course, and sometimes a little of our own personal experience can provide useful examples or helpful advice gleaned from the woes of trial and error.  However, if we are having a bad day, it is not the fault – nor the problem – of our writers.  So this lesson is just to reinforce the professionalism we must bring to the Mentor room, as well as the fact that if we focus too much on ourselves and our own experiences, we are not only detracting from our Writers but also possibly alienating them if they have a different world view.
  • Having said that, ‘You are your patient’ is another valuable lesson from this show, emphasising that we have to see the similarities between ourselves and others. We are not so dissimilar in needs, fears, and desires, and it is best to keep in mind, especially in tricky sessions, that there are common denominators to explain that an aloof person may actually be acting out of pure panic, for instance.  It is important for Mentors to have patience, relate to the Writer where appropriate, and persevere with advice and examples.
  • But we need to be careful with the advice we dispense, for example where Brent – a colleague of Erica’s – is concerned in later seasons. Flippant advice, like ‘Just be yourself’ can be meaningless and not applicable to the real context it is needed for, while overly detailed advice might be too limiting for the other person.  Being a ‘shoulder to cry on’ as it were, someone who will listen and question and find out what the other person really wants and needs, allows Writers to find their own way, which will help them much more in the long-term.  It also occurs to me, as I write this, that there is a huge difference between someone coming to talk about a problem and someone actually asking for advice.  Only in the latter case, and possibly not even then, should we be considering dispensing serious advice and information.  But if we can find a way for the Writer to find out the information or come up with solutions themselves, so much the better.  An exception to this may be emerging needs as noted by a Mentor, such as realising that a Writer’s structure isn’t as logical as it could be.  But once this has been raised, it is perhaps then for the Writer to, again, come up with a solution, even through trial and error.
  • In fact, as with the character, Jenny, one of Erica’s best friends, we sometimes have to let people make mistakes so that they learn from them. We can’t wrap people in cotton wool, which is definitely one of the lessons I need to work on the most.  Just as with Erica’s friend and one-time boyfriend, Ethan, people have to, and often want to, find their own way, believing that one’s past – good or bad – is what makes you who you are.
  • And we make mistakes too, hence the importance of reflections and ongoing training. Like Erica’s ‘day without consequences that won’t stick’, a reckless approach to life, even in this fantastic one-off opportunity, can actually make you think harder about what to do in the first place once things start going horribly wrong.  Plus, the whole premise of the show is about confronting our mistakes, and our past, and to stop ‘if only-ing’ or ‘what if-ing’, remembering that today is tomorrow’s yesterday.  It’s all gone in the blink of an eye, and certainly that’s how most of my sessions feel.  So I’d like to get as many of them right as possible, and as soon as possible.
  • But just how to get it right can be tricky at times. There is no perfect prescriptive way for each and every session to go.  So, just as with Erica’s task to find her way off a deserted island, we often need to make our own path, particularly in difficult sessions.  Sometimes, there is just no simple right or wrong way to do something, or answer a question.  But if the Writer can leave with a clearer understanding of their work, and an action plan to tackle their (sometimes emergent) problems, hopefully feeling a bit happier too, then our work is done.  It comes back, then, to reflection, and exploring if there are lessons to be learned for future sessions.
  • This is a good place to end with the show’s final episode, about standing on your own two feet, as Erica becomes a Doctor in her own right, and not a patient anymore. The importance here, I think, is for the Mentee.  Mentors won’t always be around, so we need to build Writer’s skills and confidence to go on themselves.  And it’s often not us who will know when the time is right for a Writer to spread their wings.  But the Writer will, and it’s my favourite moment, though fairly rare and a little bit nostalgic, when I see the true light of inspiration and productivity in a Writer’s eyes, that they are now ready for their assignment; in fact, for their degree.

I hope this summary is of some use to others, while I highly recommend watching the show if you can – for fun as well as for function!

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