Over Thanksgiving break, my 75 developmental reading students at Diablo Valley College had the option of a “November Check-in” on how this semester was going (for most of them, their first semester of community college): two paragraphs on expectations, reality, points of stress and intentions for the final stretch. I find this a good time to reflect on whether you have entered a November Nosedive and whether you intend to pull up or crash and burn.
When I checked today, I found that only five students took me up on the extra credit in each class (20%), going online and posting two paragraphs about their semester on our discussion board. At first I was disappointed, but then I thought, well, they were probably crawling to their break and going on the computer to do some extra assignment was the last thing they wanted to do. Then I read through their responses, eager to see how they felt about things. They said it went better than expected. They said it went normal. They said it was going “pretty good.” They said, “Overall, this is a good adventure for me.” One student said his first semester had been “A blast!” Another said, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, but it wasn’t easy either.”
One comment which really caught my eye, though, was about the sense of community in our class. When I was in grad school, something that always troubled me (as a trained elementary school teacher) was the lack of community building. Sometimes, if there were personal writing involved, we got to know each other that way, but very rarely did we spend any real time, beyond perhaps the first class, going deeper in our understanding of and comfort with our classmates. When I first started visiting community college classes, I asked the students if they felt like at the end of the semester they knew their classmates. Most agreed: nope. Not at all. The same people always sit together, they told me, and they just talk to each other.
I decided that my classes would not just start with introductions and personal writing, but would include time throughout the semester to check in with each other: dumb stuff, simple stuff, good stuff, from what kind of alarm do you use to get to this 8am class to where did you grow up to what’s your favorite movie or dinner or singer? I made a real effort to break up the pods and cliques, mapping out different groups ahead of time, moving the back row to the front and the front row to the back, drawing random cards to re-seat students and, later, as they grew to trust me a bit more, asking them to go find someone they had never spoken to and interview them, find out a little bit about who they were. Which is why today, reading through the comments, I was so pleased to see this comment:
“As the classes went on, my fellow classmates and I were comfortable because of the many times we had to switch around the class and interact with one another.”
Another goal I have with my basic skills and developmental classes is to build some muscle memory with them around going to their college library. Marching them in for orientation and showing them around is great, but you’ve got to go back and back again (and back some more). After the tour, I bring them back and have them grab a magazine and find a good study spot to fill out a worksheet reading and responding to the text…but really I’m more interested in them finding a good study spot. I bring them back again and have them use the library computers to go to some web site or send me an email describing a character sitting next to them. I have them check out a book and, if they wish, immediately slide it back through the return slot, just to make sure they know how. Sometimes I have them spend the full class time sitting in the library reading, taking notes, or catching up on their work.
So I was equally ecstatic to see this comment in the November Check-in from a foreign student. Pardon his rapidly-improving English.
“I have never reached out library in my High School and Junior High School. I don’t think library is in my dictionary. I felt so odd with library, once I heard about it, my first impression is nerd, dusty, old and silence. Until… [my professor] encouraged us to do our assignments about library in the library. That was the first time I entered DVC Library, and it overwhelmed me. I have never know library could be so beautiful and cozy. It is not dusty. It is not nerdy. And it is not old. After that assignment, I know something that I have a new place to study now.”
Is he possibly just writing what I want to hear? Almost certainly.
Do I care?