This post is part of an ongoing series.
Two weeks ago, I wrapped up my Technical Writing class with a final exam. It was a little experimental (Courtney said more than once, “I’ve certainly never had a final like that!”), but it went perfectly.
In case I didn’t mention it before, Courtney joined us for the final exam period. I asked the class if they were cool with that back in Week 15, and they insisted they had no problem. She wanted to come out of idle curiosity, mainly as a result of reading this blog, and I had no objections.
So she showed up Thursday afternoon, a couple minutes before one o’clock, and the vast majority of my students were already there and in their seats. I was at the front of the class, by the computer station, getting things ready for the class session, and she came timidly into the classroom, crossed in front of the blackboard, and asked me where she should sit that would be unobtrusive and out of the way.
I’m mean sometimes. I sent her to the chair at the teacher’s desk, front and center.
I wasn’t trying to be mean. It was really the only place I had for her. The students were arrayed on the outside of their inverted-U of tables, and though there was a table tucked in the middle of the room (where I’d sat while observing the presentations), I had big plans for the middle of the room, so I couldn’t really send her there.
I was also standing at the computer station and not starting class for a very particular reason. I was buying time, waiting for all of my students to arrive, and also deliberately standing so as to conceal a cookie platter T– had made for my students. I didn’t want to spoil the reveal by having someone walk in late and spot a half-hidden cookie platter, y’know?
Anyway, once the classroom was full, I turned on the overhead projector with just the empty desktop of my school-issued laptop showing, and that got everyone’s attention. All eyes snapped to the screen, and then I stepped back, brought forth the cookie platter, and headed to the table in the middle of the room to set it down.
I was halfway there when someone said, “Are those cookies?”
I explained that T– had wanted to send cookies for my students all semester, but I’d kept objecting because I thought it would be too distracting. Then I finally relented on the one day when their participation counted for 10% of their grade. Hardly fair. Nobody complained, though.
I was in the grip of la grippe, so I left the cookies wrapped in their plastic and stepped back to the front of the room. “I need somebody else to unwrap them,” I said, and about two heartbeats later Sean — seated in the middle of the back row, and as far from the cookies as possible — leaped over the tables to take care of business. He got them unwrapped, then passed the tray around, which was quite calm and orderly.
Chaos and Disorder
The next step was the one that denied Courtney a seat in the middle of the room. I told them I had their graded semester projects ready to return, and I’d call out their names. After they came to retrieve their grade sheets, they were to remain standing in the center of the room instead of returning to their seats. (That was an important step that turned out to be totally useless.)
Once everyone was standing in the middle of the room (and they were sort of packed in like livestock), I explained that we were going to divide up for the day’s activity. Unlike previous activities where each group worked on its own version of the assignment, today’s activity would require three different groups, working on different aspects of one product. So I explained that the table on the right would be for the Documentation Group, the table on the back would be for the Software Group, and the table on the left would be for the Publishing Group. I told them to take their best guesses which group would most suit them, and go sit down.
Everyone sat down pretty much exactly where they’d been before.
Next, I explained to them the assignment. Just as I’ve said here before, my goal was to have the students create a wiki to demonstrate their ability to learn a new document type without my guiding hand. So I pointed to the screen at the front of the room, that showed my blank desktop, and told them my goal was for them to have a full-featured wiki including the contents of all of their weekly tutorials up on that monitor by the end of the class period. By that point, it was a little over an hour and a half.
Then…I sat down at the front of the room. And I looked at them. I may have given a little bit of an indication what each group should do, but it certainly wasn’t anything that could be described as “directions.” I did ask a couple of my students on the back row if they’d completed wikis of their projects for extra credit (Sean and Will, both of whom had asked for permission to do that, and both answered that they had), and that was meant to give them a nudge toward helping the rest of the class figure it out. It worked.
Not right away, though. The next ten minutes were brutal. I had about two minutes of deer-in-the-headlights from the whole classroom, and then my two with experience (both in the Software Group) leaned their heads together and started talking, and got a couple others from the Software Group chiming in before too long. I listened to their chatter for a little while, to get an idea where they were headed, and then gave them a nudge in the right direction, and listened for a little while more.
The Software Group and the Publication Group ended up both being composed primarily of technical people, so by that point the Publication Group was pretty involved in the conversation, too. The Documentation Group (my English Majors) were sitting off on the right still waiting to find out what they were supposed to do.
So I finally addressed that. I explained to them briefly what a wiki was — a type of simplified markup language — and that they would need to take the highly-formatted, styled Word documents I’d used for their weekly tutorials, and convert them into flat text files with some simple markup. I suggested they get to work downloading the tutorials from the class website, figure out how they were going to distribute the workload, and then start making guesses as to how they would do the conversion. They wouldn’t know for sure until the Software Group settled on a wiki platform, but they could do some prep work while they waited.
Then I headed back over to the Software Group, and I said, “What you’ll probably want to do, first, is choose which wiki platform you’re going to use–“
And Will cut me off to say, “We just did that.”
I went on, “And then this group is probably going to divide up, half of you going to support the Documentation Group as they convert the existing documents into the right format, and half of you going to support the Publication Group as they figure out how to get those documents up for us to see, within the next hour.”
They nodded, then immediately got to their feet. Will went one way, Sean went the other, and they became Management. It was kind of awesome.
After that, I was done. It was their final exam, after all. I sat at the front of the room and chatted with Courtney, eavesdropping on their discussions, but most of the corrections I would have made ended up getting caught by Will or Sean before I had the chance.
It was only a few minutes into that (maybe ten or fifteen), when I asked Will what address they were using, and Courtney was able to pull it up on her laptop. From that point on, while we were discussing writing or Wil Wheaton, or whatever, we were also scrolling through the wiki as it was under construction. I was impressed with the draft version. I was really impressed with the changes they had in place by the half-hour mark. And at the end of the period, while they were still scrambling to get a couple of the more complicated chapters put together, I asked Will to step up to my laptop and present the finished product to me.
He shook his head. “It’s not ready yet!”
I said, “That’s okay. Show me what you’ve got.” I didn’t say it in a menacing way, either. I was prepared to grade them based on what they’d finished, not the page or two that were still undone.
He wasn’t satisfied with that, though. He said, “Give us a few more minutes. It’s almost done.”
As he said that, from one end of the Publication Group table I heard, “Five’s done!” and down at the other end, “Seven should be up now.” And Will scurried off to oversee the finishing touches.
In the end they all stayed a little bit late, just to present a polished product. It was phenomenal. It was so much better than I’d hoped for, especially given the short time limit.
(If you’re curious, you may be able to see a copy of it here. I have no idea how long that site will be live, but it’s there for now.)
I’d had some closing words prepped, to finish off the semester, and after seeing their work I wanted to go into detail with praise, but there was no time. All I could tell them is, “Well done! You’ve earned a one hundred. Thank you guys for being awesome!” And then I sent them on their way.
Knowing what I know now, I could have made the final session go a little more smoothly. I don’t think I could have possibly gotten any better results, but I could have left the students a little more comfortable with their role. Then again, that’s pretty much true for the whole semester.
And I’m not beating myself up for that. This was my first time teaching. Wow.
Anyway, one thing I experimented with there in the final — dividing them into purpose-based groups — is something I think I’d like to do from the start if I ever teach the class again. On day one, I’d divide them into those groups — with those titles — and let them rearrange through the course of the semester if they wanted, and sometimes divide them up in support roles and sometimes combine them, based on the project, but give them a chance overall to develop some sort of consistent group identity, apart from “we’re sitting within arm’s reach.”
I do wish I’d had another assignment or two in there, and I wish I’d had in-class activities for nearly every class I didn’t have one for. I put that down to limited prep time from being a first-timer, though. Same goes for the uncertainty of their schedule (flip-flopping on due dates), but I think I could be a lot more confident about that on a second go-round.
Apart from that…I’m awesome. I know the class was satisfactory to the powers-that-be, I think the class was useful to the student, and I’m amazed how much I gained from the experience. My students were all amazing people, and I’m glad I got to meet them. And, y’know, I discovered I could do something I never would have thought possible. It was bigger and better than NaNoWriMo. I’d never have guessed.
And that’s it. Hope you’ve enjoyed the updates. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll let you know if they ask me back for more.