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What I really like about anatomizing the discussion board posts of the top students is to see their movement, their change, their improvement. Often in other types of classes, frankly, the across-the-board good students can seem monolithically and monotonously good (O, a third excellent essay by Sarah -- yawn), and I can be unsure what impact my course and my teaching are having (ha! and what credit I should take for their excellence). So I am particularly pleased by what I see in B and L here.
Student B was a force in the class from the get-go. Forward, brash, opinionated, aggressive, strong ego -- he was always "on" and often a bit intimidating. B's voice, I believe, was the first student voice I heard in the class, and he remained one of the great talkers throughout -- almost always giving the impression that he had "the word" on everything. His opinions were quick and strong and often controversial. Actually, he was kind of formidable. He enlivened discussion, but he was bulldoggish and would aggressively pursue or defend positions very competitively, so that some students would not engage with him. I often found myself wondering whether his in-class style was appropriate or not -- whether he was a curse or a blessing. His strong individualism seemed to be a constant tonic to the class, however, a quality, ironically, that might be missed if he were more yielding and "social." He brought zest, pep, energy -- but also a bit of discomfort because of his brashness. So he's an interesting case to ponder on the discussion board. His characteristic mode seemed domination rather than interaction, his characteristic style seemed pronouncement not conversation.
The trajectory of B's discussion board work is especially noteworthy. His very first serve stands out from the crowd in both substance and style (2.2). He challenges me with an arrogant, in-your-face attitude. He dares to say that he knows the official view of the novel that he might have to learn for a test but that he doesn't believe in it. That is, he immediately puts the "game" that students have to play to get through on the table. To wit: give the teacher what he wants to hear. In doing so, B, in fact, seems to be testing me on the basic principles of the class. Is the discussion board truly student space? Can he say and sound like what he wants? Will I move to shut him up? His post is a blast, a bash, written in a quite pesky unacademic voice. And, of course, I immediately wondered how such a rambunctious spirit would fare in a community of learners situation. What kind of interaction was possible with a guy like him?But, truth be told, he mellowed, changed -- as a result of my "program," dare I say? In the beginning his serves were excellent but full of ego, not social, not really reaching out to others (4.1). And he perhaps unconsciously reveals the downside of a dominant personality when in a survey he identifies a difficult return as one in which he has trouble answering a question he never thought about – as if he feels he has to have thought of everything, has to have an answer to everything (4.3). A significant example of the beneficial change that was occurring, however, is a "disagreeing" post that is identified by his group members as a "best return" (4.4). Disagreeing -- one of my higher level post options -- is B's forte. Disagreeing gets his head up; it's something he can really sink his teeth in. But here he shows that disagreement doesn't have to be disagreeable. He finds a community way to disagree. His tone is rational, and he does not try to end the conversation by pronouncing the "last word" but keeps it going. We don't see the forceful, sometimes overbearing personality here. B seems to be listening to my messages.
Another post also identified as a best return is an "enhancing" post that avoids dead ending -- showing that B is not limited to his natural tendency to dominate and disagree (5.2), and in yet another post he seems to play with his classroom persona by jocularly challenging his group to agree with him this time (5.3). In a third telling example, I can see B wanting to disagree (his instinctual response!) but moved to rethink his position (6.3). Receptivity to rethinking -- now that's something for B!! Perhaps the climax to this interesting trajectory away from his dominating, strong personality self occurs in the last unit when I paired him with a bottom student (8.2). N -- a gregarious clown, who was never a factor in the intellectual current of the class but willingly played the fool -- was not a partner that you would think the highly intelligent and serious-minded B would suffer lightly. But B shows agility and humility and charity, keeping in step with a kind of free spirit and making the best of a bad situation.
My feeling is that B -- always one of the best minds in the class -- modified his discussion behavior in a quite positive direction as the class went on and ended up a more valuable member of the community.
J was very active in class, every class, so much so that when he was absent the in-class discussion faltered severely. His combination of excellent interpretive skills with a sensitive and humane way of looking at the world made him clearly a leader, perhaps "the" leader, in forming class opinion. But he was a good listener, a good community person too. J was easy to be with and was liked and respected by all.
J was simply one of those students who “got it” right away. He began serving socially better than almost anybody else from his very first post in unit 1 (2.2). He announces his topic; he “wonders” engagingly; he has a clear focus with his questions; he’s familiar with and totally grounded in the text; he frames his questions; he shows himself vulnerable, perplexed, needing help; and thus he invites his audience into conversation superbly.
Already in the first week of class J shows himself as very skilled in discussion. He has visibly bought into the racquetball analogy; he is so community-oriented that he is "desperate" to spark discussion; he has in-class discussion comments and the views of others consciously in mind when he chooses what to write about; he is aware of the changes in his own posting style at the different steps; he sets some goals for the future; he shows mastery not only of relevant details but the big issues in the work, and he concentrates his attention there.
J was very versatile; almost all his posts and exchanges are interesting in one way or another. He makes a good move or two to avoid paralysis in replying to a post that makes an excellent point, leaving almost nothing to say (4.3). A consciously chosen blunt, confrontational, in-your-face serve kicks off an excellent interchange (5.3). A group member appreciates his re-thinking reply for the adroit way he incorporates her serve and other returns into a new idea (5.4). He moves to internalizing in an attempt to get his returner to make a value judgment (7.3). He praises another student for her work in good community fashion (7.3).
In short, J was much the model student! He had perhaps the best sense of social writing in the class. He’s the kind of student you’d like to take credit for but realize that he was so damn good from start to finish that maybe you didn’t teach him anything but just gave him the opportunity to shine.
Student L, who would decide to be an English minor, wrote carefully crafted, thoughtful posts, especially notable for her textual citations and general mastery of text detail. She was relatively quiet in class, but her classy periodic contributions plus her consistently high quality posts quickly gained her recognition as an intellectual leader. My sense is that she was thought of as a deep thinker by her peers.
The most distinctive feature of Student L’s discussion board performance was that she consciously changed her style of writing from "essayish" to "postish" as she absorbed the goals of the project. Her "head was in the game." She was paying attention. Her first post was 550 words – an essay, really – that showed she was a highly talented writer but oblivious to the need to write differently in a discussion space. That post was a perfect essay – she scored an “ace” -- closing off thought rather than opening it up (2.2). After I used this post in class as an example – to her surprise – of bad discussion board writing, she transformed immediately. She listened to and accepted advice. In the very next unit she was discussion friendly, writing with a personal voice, direct address, energy, excitement – passion (4.1). Here was a gifted writer who, however, knew only one way to write yet went on to practice many different ways of writing socially.
For instance, L was one of the few students to practice my higher level option of weaving. In one example, she brings in a point by Student M to her return to Student D, implicitly inviting D to read or re-read M's post, while simultaneously stroking M for the value of his work (5.2). That’s good community building activity. Likewise, L always accepted and even sought intelligent disagreement. In fact, she chose as a best return she received one that disagreed with her, one that offered her a chance for some new and different thinking (4.4). She even consciously served so as to provoke disagreement, saying she likes to get different perspectives (5.4).
Almost every post by L is interesting in some way. She makes further conversation possible by crystallizing the point of a poor serve for the server himself (4.3). She suggests a discrepancy between class discussion and a close reading of the text as a serve strategy (5.3). A group member recognizes that her agreeing/disagreeing response causes him to rethink everything, and he chooses her post as the best return he received (5.4). If she has a fault, it’s going too far at times in coaxing responses in pursuit of the writing socially goal. For instance, playing dumb late in the course given the intellectual capital she had built up is obviously a contrived ploy to elicit reaction (8.5), yet even that shows her commitment to the social and community principles of the course