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Seeing Differently and Opening Silences: A Reflection on a Semester of Innovation

Seeing Differently and Opening Silences: A Reflection on a Semester of Innovation
This semester has been transformational in so many ways. I think back to that first day of our Futures class, when the energy ratcheted up as we put our groups together, and when it got so strong and high that it almost did the speaking for us when we asked our wonderful mentors for more time. I had no idea how strongly that energy would shape the course of our collaborative learning, both in our GC classroom and, I think at our campuses. 
 
A lot of that energy translated into the College Writing class I taught at Queens College. I walked in the first day before experiencing that transformative energy of our Futures class, but the dedication and excitement of my students was already apparent. My style, as I've written about, is flexible and energetic, and my students met me there each time. I would come in every week with a new idea gleaned from the Futures laboratory (as I sometimes think of it), and my students would dive right in.
 
I can show you what it looked like, thanks to the "old" technology of my college-issued iPad.
 
They drew pictures for a lesson on close reading: 
 
They turned the classroom into a Talmudic easel, commenting on quotes from readings we had done:
 
They encouraged each other (and me!) to rearrange chairs and even rearrange bodies to see the room in a different way:
 
These last were some of the most powerful moments we experienced in our quest to re-map the composition classroom. I am writing the following about one of these instances for a collaborative piece intended for a pedagogy journal:
 
"A recent conversation with Cathy [in our Futures class] inspired me to have my students do a mini conference. They had just written research papers, and I thought small panels would be a neat way for them to draw connections to others' work and also collaborate with students they might not have worked with yet. They spent part of a session planning in groups (which they made themselves) and came in the following session ready to present. I had set up the table in the front of the room with four chairs in anticipation of the panel format. Since not everyone was there yet by class time, I switched up the order of the activities I had planned and we did a "speed dating" Think-Pair-Share session about Adrienne Rich's "When We Dead Awaken." It morphed into a wonderful, spirited discussion of what feminism is and why some feminist voices are excluded from the larger national conversation. 
 
Here's where the silence comes in. When we slowed down the pairing and sharing to shift over to the conference, I asked my students whether they wanted to sit at the front table or stay in their groups. Nobody answered, but they stayed seated. When the power of what they'd done sunk in, I had to make it a teaching moment. I said something like, "Thank you for doing that - it reminded me that the traditional, formal status quo is not always so comfortable, and the energy in the room can change when the space is shaken up." Several of them nodded.
 
One of the things that grabbed my students the most about Rich's essay, as they shared in that discussion, was its emphasis on personal expression. My students are not used to being allowed to use "I" in scholarly writing - let alone encouraged to use it - and her frankness was striking for many of them. We had already read a chapter of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir Fun Home, and as one student worked - elegantly and with passion - to explain Rich's feminism to the class, another started bouncing up and down in her seat, thinking of how the Bechdel Test might apply to other texts we'd read. I left the classroom that day feeling like my students had done an exemplary job of teaching each other, with less input from me than usual, and we all might have even learned more than on "ordinary" days where my voice is (more or less) in charge."
 
Finally, this whole experience of the Futures Initiative, as a student and as a teacher, added to the robust teaching community that I already have in the English department and at other institutions, broadening out my disciplinary horizons and introducing me to new-to-me ideas from other disciplines. You all are an incredible group of folks, and I am so honored to have been able to learn from and with you this semester. The community we forged is a powerful one, and I'm excited to continue this work together in whatever directions it takes us.
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