For the past ten weeks, I have been running. More specifically, I have been using apps from Zen Labs Fitness to get better at running. I began with their C25K app, an eight-week program that takes the user from not much of a runner to running approximately 5 km, or about 3 miles; then I progressed to week 9 of their 10K app. Last night, in a downpour, I ran just over 7 km in about 50 minutes. Considering that Week 1, Day 1 consists of 20 minutes of running one minute, walking one minute, I’m pretty proud of my progress.
Running for almost an hour, even in the pouring rain (or perhaps especially), gives one the chance to reflect on many things. When the digital Zen lady whispered into my ear “you are halfway there,” it occurred to me that many fitness apps are a great example of progressive learning, feedback, and scaffolding. There’s a good reason for it, too – as a fitness instructor, when a client says their goal is to run a 5 km race, but they’re new to running, I’m not going to say “There’s the treadmill. Start running and I’ll be back in half an hour to check your progress.” Whether your coach is an app or a person, part of the coaching job is to help the client assess where s/he is now, where s/he needs to be, and the best progression to get there. Too fast, and the client gives up because it’s too hard. Too slow, and the client gives up because there’s no challenge or results. A good program moves ahead at a pace that allows the client to feel challenged, but at the same time, to feel they’re accomplishing something.
In the classroom, we can do the same thing. We can’t expect our students to be ready for the 5k when they’ve just started. We need to help them see the goal, then provide them with the plan to get there.
It’s also worth noting that the apps I use* all provide feedback during and after your run. During the run, depending on the app, you can get input on your time, your distance, and your pace, and, for the more socially minded among us, messages from friends cheering you on. Afterward, you can analyse your run, based on recorded time, distance, elevation, route, pace and so on. You can compare to previous runs, or years, or other runners in your age group, etc., etc.
*(aside from the aforementioned Zen Labs apps, I use Nike+ and Runtastic, because I am, above all else, a gadget geek. All of these work with my phone or my iPod, and connect to my bluetooth headphones. Seriously, I’m ridiculous.)
As a runner, I find this feedback fascinating. Not only can I compare my current stats to last week, last month, or last year, I can see how the different devices record everything (did I mention I’m also wearing a FitBit? and that I’m a geek?)
But perhaps the best feedback I’ve received recently came from my friend Erin, an actual live human being, and one who just ran a half-marathon, no less. She and I ran the 5k Colour Run last month, and I was telling her how I was fine with running in terms of muscles, but I had to keep stopping to catch my breath. “You’re running too fast,” she said. Of course! Once she said it, it made perfect sense. I was thinking that it took me ages to run 5 km because I was slow, when really it was because I kept stopping. If I slowed down, I could run longer. Ever since, I’ve been a better runner.
Again, I think there’s a classroom connection: students need feedback to see how they’re progressing, both during and after the task. Sometimes, this is as simple as walking around the room during an in-class discussion, checking in with the groups to answer questions, clarify instructions, or comment on their ideas. Sometimes, it’s a little more complex, and may involve breaking a task into a few steps. Like a running program that begins with as much walking as running, and ends up with only running, scaffolding an assessment might mean providing feedback on several stages. In my classes, I do this with essays.
Keep in mind, this is only for the first essay. The second essay eliminates or streamlines some stages, and by the time we get to the third and final essay, we’re down to about half the steps.
- Introduction of the essay topics: students have a choice of one of three topics, all designed to elicit a comparative essay based on the novel. Before we begin reading, we review these topics, and throughout the following weeks, in-class discussions are tied to those topics. The grading rubric is also provided at this stage.
- Introduction of what an essay is, and how the writer must approach it differently than the reader. I use the analogy of a cake; the writer, like the baker, must approach the project from the inside, while the reader, like the eater, sees the icing and decorations before getting to the layers.
- Thesis planning: students identify a topic they want to write about, choose two or three literary techniques or devices that might be useful in their analysis, and try to articulate a thesis and planning statement. They also reflect on what they’re most worried about when it comes to writing the essay. I collect these plans, and return them with feedback (no grade).
- Discussion: in small groups, students share their thesis planning and my feedback. The group brainstorms for each member, coming up with ideas to strengthen the thesis, ideas for good quotations from the text, and so on.
- Outlining: based on their thesis planning, students prepare their outline, using a template I provide. Once again, these are collected, then returned with feedback (no grade).
- In-class writing: based on previous feedback and their outline, students begin writing their draft in class. They are not required to finish the first draft. This draft is also collected and returned with feedback (no grade).
- One-on-one discussion: students meet with me one at a time to review the feedback, strategize for the essay, and clear up any misunderstandings or misdirections.
- THE ESSAY – written at home, submitted electronically, and, finally, graded.
Yes, it takes ages. Yes, there’s a lot of work on my part. Yes, it works. And yes, sometimes I get to be like Erin, and watch a student have their lightbulb moment, and become a better, happier writer.
“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast.”
Romeo and Juliet, II.iii