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Let the Chaos Begin!

Last Wednesday my groups met for the first time.  Before turning to Jeff’s prompts about assessment, I want to lay out how the groups are set up and what they are working on.

The week before last (2/17) the students generated a list of around 30 elements that they thought essential to having a good society.  As you can imagine, the list was, well, all over the place.  I asked students over last weekend to select and prioritize their top five topics.  Since we have only three groups (three groups of seven) and thus three topics (one per group), I told the students that I would try to accommodate as many top choices as I could, but there was no guarantee.  As things turned out, we gave 11 students their top choice and six students their second choice.  That’s 17 satisfied customers.  Since two students chose not to respond at all to the request for topic choices, and they both insisted that they followed my advice not to respond if they truly didn’t care which group they were in, I consider those two satisfied as well.  What an interesting change that would be for a restaurant to have a customer who said: “Bring me whatever you’ve got.”  Where’s that pail of fish-heads?

That left two students who needed to be assigned to a group.  I gave each a choice of which of group they’d prefer, and, delightfully, each chose a different group, giving us seven in each.

The three topic groups, then, are “Education,” “Sustainability,” and “Individual Rights versus Social Responsibility.”  You can tell that there are some political theorists in this class, because the last topic is amorphous and abstract.  I warned against such a topic, but some students are restive.  I can hardly blame them, but, if things go south, they’ll blame me.

For the three weeks prior, for about an hour each week, we discussed as a group the IF report on Human Genetic Technology.  This gave me an opportunity to model facilitation for them, to send them my organized summaries of the discussions, and to use that IF report as a template of sorts for the IF-style report each group will write on their topics.  This was their orientation to facilitation, and last week three students facilitated the initial discussion of their groups.  Mind you, these students had no real preparation before class began.  However, at the beginning of class, each group worked out its rotation of facilitators, and these three volunteered to go first.

The “education” group and the “sustainability” group mostly generated lists of topics.  As I pointed out after the initial group discussions, when I reconvened the entire class, their task now was to “fill out” these topics by raising questions and concerns associated with or relating to them.  Additionally, I told the facilitators that when preparing their notes on the discussion, they should really try to consolidate topics, because the sheer number in both groups was unmanageable.

Of course, sustainability is itself a HUGE and complex subject, as the students quickly learned.  Paring down the topics will help them see, I think, that they really need to focus on only a few topics or set of topics.

I’m not as concerned about them as I am about the “individual rights vs. responsibility” group.  In contrast to the other two facilitators, one of whom had nearly 15 flip-chart pages of notes, this facilitator had one-third of one page.  I was not observing this group; my TA was (Sorry those of you without one.  I know how lucky and spoiled I am to have a TA for a class of 21.), so I wasn’t sure what was happening.  When we reconvened and I asked the facilitator about this, he said, “Well, we have to define what we’re talking about before we can ‘undefine’ it.”  Hard to argue with that.  They are all swimming in the pond, trying to figure out its dimensions, depths, flora, etc.  I really want to intervene right now and strongly before they “waste time” mucking about for too long.  But I swore that I’d “let go.”  Letting go was during the Summer Institute my greatest concern.  Now it’s living with me.  Woe that it turns on me like Frankenstein’s monster.

Now, then, to the assessment(s): As I overloaded you in my last blog entry, students do a lot of assessment in this class.  Each week each student fills out an assessment form on the group’s discussion and on the facilitators (from now on each group will have two facilitators per week); every other week they fill out a self-assessment form.  Every week each facilitator fills out a self-assessment form and a group-discussion form.  Each week I fill out a facilitator-assessment form for each facilitator (I observe four per class meeting; my TA observes two.) and a group-discussion form for the two groups that I observe.

We end class 10-15 minutes early to permit students to fill out their forms.  During this time or after class ends, I discuss with each facilitator his/her self-assessment and my facilitator assessment.  A few days after class (today, for example) I read over the facilitator assessments from each of his/her group members and then e-mail each facilitator an overview of his/her group’s feedback.

I also look over all of the students’ self-assessment forms.  I keep a file on each student so that I have a record of each student as both a participant and a facilitator.  If any issues or recurring problems with any student arise—say, a tendency to dominate discussion—then I shall deal with the issue privately with that student.

Every two or three weeks my TA and I will sit down with each group at the beginning of class to discuss any patterns or problems we have seen in the group and/or to discuss the feedback from the group-discussion assessments of the group’s members over those last couple of weeks.

Finally, every group sends me their discussion summaries.  They also send them to every member of their group.  Those students who will facilitate the following week work together (since each group starting next week will have one facilitator and one note-taker who switch roles halfway through the class) to prepare an agenda for their discussion, which they must send to me no later than 24 hours before class meets.  This way, I can provide them feedback that they can incorporate before they lead discussion.

As I wrote in my last blog, the assessment forms that the students fill out were based on the rubrics that my small group (Laura, Maria, Keally, Pradip, Adolf, and myself) generated during the Summer Institute.  It’s surprisingly coherent, given that we did the work at the Terrace and Maria kept wanting us all to rent kayaks and do the work while drinking beer in the middle of the lake…and she doesn’t even like beer!

A final observation and question: I noticed during the first group discussions that almost every group member in all three groups directed most of their contributions to the facilitators.  Perhaps this is because two of the groups were mostly generating lists and the third was trying to figure out how to turn “individual rights vs. social responsibility” into something out of which might come policy possibilities.  On the other hand, perhaps this is a common occurrence of groups meeting for the first time or two.  Please let me know whether your own experience with this is similar and whether it is nothing that at this point needs to be discussed.