Fail Better: Blogiversary Final Post

If there’s one thing we need to teach our students, it’s how to make use of failure.

For  the final instalment in my series celebrating seven years of blogging here at Classroom as Microcosm, I give you my most shared post ever.  This response to Paul Tough’s article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (a precursor to his wonderful and deservedly celebrated book How Children Succeed) was chosen by WordPress as a “Freshly Pressed” feature and attracted 246 insightful comments and exchanges.

It’s also my favourite post, one I return to over and over to remind myself that when my students are panicking, the best thing I can say to them is, “You can’t do it? That’s fine.  Do it anyway.”

(I might also show them this, because it is awesome.)

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Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, you’ll get any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho

What’s the Use of the Academic Paper?: Blogiversary Post #9

I’m still asking myself this question – “Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?” – three years after publishing the original version of this post.  In the interim, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Now You See It (discussed below), and I’m still not sure whether I’m onside with Davidson’s perspective.  It seems to me that the academic paper has got to go, but something just as rigorous needs to take its place.  Do you have thoughts on this?

When this post first appeared, it was chosen as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” feature and received 178 very interesting comments.

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Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”  Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Virginia Heffernan explains, in her review of Davidson’s book (“Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade“) in the New York Times:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of the same students’ research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I’m not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I’m required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

I’ve been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Tomorrow: my all-time #1 most shared post, on succeeding through failing.

Image by kristja

The Art of Cold Calling: Blogiversary Post #7

I’ve had some heated discussions about whether “cold calling” is good practice.  When I posted about it a couple of years ago, the post got a lot of comments and got passed around a lot.  What are your thoughts?  Is it a good idea to spring questions on students out of the blue?  Does it help them demonstrate mastery, or just provoke unnecessary anxiety?

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oGmlilgAre you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss the problem of the Constant Commenter.  She says, “Some kids want to constantly comment, but the smartest are often the quietest. How can we get them more involved? How do we subdue the chronic commenters?”

One solution is the cold call.  We call on students randomly (or perhaps not so randomly, but it may appear random to them.)  If students raise hands or call out, we say, “I’m cold calling for this one, so no volunteers.”

A few years ago, a Masters teacher of mine said that she never cold-calls students because when she was a student, the idea of being “picked on” without warning made her sick with fear.  She never put her students through it because she hated it so much.  At first I was puzzled by this – Really?  You never ask students for answers unless they volunteer? – but I then realized that I rarely cold-call in its strict sense.  I often call on students, but usually they’ve had a chance to prepare responses beforehand, often with a partner or group so they don’t bear sole responsibility for their answers.

I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (thanks to my friend Sarah for the recommendation!) and he believes in real, honest-to-God cold-calling, asking students to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are mastering the skills and content they’re being taught, at a nanosecond’s notice.  This technique, he explains, has several benefits.

…it allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically…increases speed both in terms of your pacing…and the rate at which you cover material…[and] allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that they are likely to be called on to participate…but that you want to know what they have to say.

Lemov also encourages teachers to use techniques like “No Opt Out,” in which a student who answers with “I don’t know” must eventually give a correct answer, and “Format Matters,” meaning that students need to respond in complete, grammatical sentences whenever possible.  In Lemov’s world, there is no escape: you need to be present, engaged and ready to respond at any time.

I am more inclined to Lemov’s view than my former teacher’s.  At the beginning of the semester, I use the excuse that I need to learn their names, and call on them randomly from the attendance list to answer questions.  As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.  And, as I said, I rarely ask students to think on their feet – if they’re nervous, they can just read answers they’ve prepared with their group, although they may have to stretch themselves if I ask for further explanation.

I feel like I should do it more.  I believe that if students know they can be called on at any time, they will be more engaged and feel more responsibility for the material.  I’d like to create an atmosphere in which students feel that it’s safe to make errors, but that they at least have to take a stab at things, and that they need to be ready to do so at all times.  But I don’t want students to sit stewing in fear, petrified that they may be asked to speak.

Do you cold-call in your classroom?  If so, how do you make students fell okay with that?  If not, why not?  Does cold-calling improve the classroom dynamic, or is it a detriment?  I want my students to rise to the demands cold-calling creates, but I don’t want to poison their learning with terror.

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Tomorrow: Top Ten Student Excuses for Missing Class.

Image by Prawny

A Course Plan for Literary Appreciation and Analysis: Blogiversary Post #6

I struggle with conflicting philosophies about my job.  I teach English literature (as well as language and composition) as core curriculum in CEGEP, a transitional/professional college that all Quebec students must attend before moving on to university or to many professions.  My classes are therefore comprised of students of wildly varying levels of ability and interest when it comes to reading literature.

One element of my job is teaching students how to analyze literary texts.  One challenge of my job is that a large number of my students have little experience reading literary texts; a surprising number have never read a novel, for example, that wasn’t assigned to them in school.  This creates two important problems:

  • A student with little practice in reading literature has much more difficulty developing analytical reading and writing skills.
  • A literature class that focuses solely on analysis is unlikely to inspire a student to read more widely, thus perpetuating the problem.

Is it more important for me to teach students literary analysis, even if they’re not ready for it, or to help them discover pleasure in reading that will then lead them to develop basic intuitive skills that will help them analyze?  The latter seems like the obvious answer to me, but I still have a duty to prepare them explicitly for their English Exit Exam, which requires them to analyze a text.  In wrestling with this problem, I developed the course that I outline below.  My original post on this course is the fifth-most-widely-shared post in the history of this blog.

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Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  For example, one term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, taking their preferences into account whenever possible. Each book is therefore read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and argue that their classmates SHOULD or SHOULD NOT choose this book as their final reading for the course.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.  Why does the theme make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  2. Historical, geographical or social/cultural information: Describe the historical, geographical and social/cultural setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens).  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book. Why does the setting of the memoir make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  3. Another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story. Why does the author’s use of this element make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  4. Personal connection: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.  Make sure you are comfortable discussing this personal connection, and consider whether your audience will be comfortable hearing about it.  Why do the personal connections we might make with this story make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  5. Other important information you learned: Tell the class about an important topic you learned about from reading this book. Why does learning about this topic make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  6. Difficulty: Tell the class about a challenge you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Is it worthwhile for readers to take on this challenge and read all the way to the end?
  7. What you loved: Tell the class about something else you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Why does this aspect of the book make/not make the book a worthwhile read?

At the end of each week, students must write a Book Talk Report about one of the two books presented that week. They explain what they learned about the book from the excerpt in their course pack and from the Book Talk.  They must identify at least one important similarity between the book they saw presented and the book they are reading with their group. Will they consider choosing the book they saw presented as their third course reading?

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses another book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their Book Talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we also look at examples of personal narrative in film (for example, Persepolis or Stories We Tell) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

Triumph Over Burnout: Blogiversary Post #4

At the beginning of the new school year, some of us feel refreshed and eager; others, not so much.  If you’re filled with dread at the thought of vacation’s end (not the ordinary oh-I-wish-I-could-read-novels-on-the-deck-forever dread, but the more acute why-am-I-doing-this-with-my-life dread), then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate: is teaching really what you want to do?

For a while, I wasn’t sure.  I started this blog as a tool to help me wrestle with this question.  Seven years later, I’m still teaching, but my perspective on the profession has changed.

In 2009, Sarah Ebner, then of the Times UK’s School Gate blog, asked me to write a series of guest posts; I chose to write about my journey through burnout and out the other side.  A few years later, she gave my permission to re-print those posts here on Classroom as Microcosm, and those posts are among the most shared in CaM’s seven-year history.  I collected them on this page; you will also find the links below.

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Are you burnt out?  Demoralized?  So was I.  I did some stuff.  It helped.  Now I love my job again.  Maybe you can too!

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Tomorrow: a useful analogy to help students understand essay structure.

Image by VooDoo4u2nv

Why Do I Have To Learn This? Blogiversary Post #3

I asked my students to read the essay I discuss in this post, and to explain which of Menand’s three “theories” they subscribed to.  Their responses were mixed.  Then they asked me which theory I believed in, and I was unable to give them a definitive answer.  Almost three years later, I’m still not sure.  What about you?

This, my eighth-most-shared post of the last seven years, first appeared in 2011.

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Every so often, students ask me, “Why do we have to learn this?”

It’s no use telling them that learning is a good thing, period.  They’re taking seven or eight classes.  Some are doing “part-time” jobs that have them working thirty hours a week.  Making out with their boyfriends is a good thing.  Playing Mortal Kombat is a good thing.  Reading a book or understanding “setting” is … required for some reason.

In an essay called “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,”   Louis Menand reports that, soon after he started teaching at a public university, a student asked him, “Why did we have to read this book?” (a question Menand says he never got  at his former, Ivy League, teaching job.  This surprises me a little.)  According to Menand, your answer to this question will depend on your view of university education.

Those who hold one view will say,

You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.

For such people, a university degree is a signal that one has learned certain things, a useful tag for indicating that you know things that other people don’t, that you’ve read books that non-university people have not.

Those holding another view will say,

You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.

This view holds that

 people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

That is to say: because you’re in college, you have a chance to do things that are valuable, but that won’t necessarily earn you a big salary or help you land a client.  So read this book that I say will improve you.

If you believe that college is a threshing machine, separating wheat from chaff (Theory 1), then grades, at least passing ones, are what matters, so that when you graduate, you will be seen as wheat, not chaff, in the larger world.  If you believe that college is a place to accumulate knowledge that will serve you in all aspects of your life and self, (Theory 2), then learning is what matters, regardless of the grades attached to it.

These theories are not compatible.  Learning requires risks, frustrations, even failures.  “Good grades,” more often than not, require a lot of memorization, or at least an understanding of what the teacher wants and a willingness to try to produce it.  A desire for good grades can be detrimental to actual learning.

As Menand points out, though, our colleges and universities (and, I would add, our schools, from first grade forward) seem to operate as though BOTH theories were true.  We tell our students that learning is what matters, that we are teaching them to think critically, that they will be better, fuller people because they went to college.  And then we teach them that a bad grade is, well, bad.  Sometimes we even get angry with them because they fail a test or misunderstand an assignment.

To complicate matters, Menand claims that these two theories really only address education of the liberal arts variety.  Most college students, on the other hand, are not majoring in humanities of any kind: the most popular major in the US is business, followed by education and the health professions.  For these students, Menand writes, university is about neither grades as a sorting tool nor learning for its own sake.

The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation…

Nevertheless, he points out, students in these programs are almost always required to take courses in English and other humanities.  This is where many – perhaps most – of the students in my English classes find themselves.  Everyone must take four English courses, regardless of their program.  There is no literature major at my college; the closest we have are programs in communications (subtitle: art, media, theatre) and in modern languages, along with a very small liberal arts cohort.  Most of my students are in science, social science, or professional programs.  Science students are usually strong students, and sometimes they care about learning things, but their bent is often toward getting into medical school or engineering programs in university (Theory 1).  Social science students, especially those without specialized majors, frequently have no idea what they want to do and had poor high school grades, making them ineligible for more rigorous programs (Theory? What theory?)  And students in industrial electronics or office systems technology or nursing are likely to tell me that they can see the point of learning grammar or maybe even how to structure an essay, but reading Death of a Salesman is of no use to them whatever (Theory 3).

And really, are they wrong?  The fact is, unless I or another English teacher sparks something in them that gives Death of a Salesman meaning, it might forever remain a dead pile of alphabet on the page for them (or maybe it will forever remain the image of John Malkovich, as Biff, dripping from all his facial orifices as he weeps, a scene students find both disgusting and hilarious.)

Our vision of “college” is hopelessly outdated.  Throughout his essay, Menand outlines the same historical trajectory that Alan Jacob does: the  broadening of the university student population since the days when a college education was reserved for the upper classes.  By the 1980s, universities were full of people of all different cultural, educational, gender and economic backgrounds, many of whom could never have gone to college in the pre-war era.

These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them …. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.  This is why “Why did we have to buy this book?” [is] such a great question. The student who asked it was not complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic worked.

Menand is describing a Theory 1 response that he feels has all but disappeared: going to college makes me important and special.  I know that some of my students still feel this; they may have recently arrived in Canada from a place where a university education was impossible for them, or they may come from a family where they are the first to have graduated from high school.

Most, however are NOT trying to understand some magic external to themselves.  When my students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?”, they are trying to make sense of a system that seems arbitrary, full of hoops to jump through and dead-end labyrinths.  They truly do not understand why they have to do all these things we’re asking them to do.  What does this have to do with my career, or my life? they ask.

Maybe it’s never been explained to them, but more likely, it’s been explained to them over and over, and they just. Don’t. Buy it.  And why not?  Because it’s MY theory, MY reasoning, MY agenda, and I have not even taken a second to ask what their agendas are.

Is it possible for us to take the question “Why do I have to learn this?” seriously?  Because it is a serious question.  We often moan about how students no longer want to learn for the sake of learning, but we need to think about what we’re saying.  “Learning for its own sake” is an incredibly privileged activity, one that requires time, money, and the luxury of wandering along a wide, brachiated path into the future.  Most students do not have these privileges; they need to see their school and homework hours as useful.  If I can’t convince them that the definition of “useful” is bigger than the definition we’ve taught them until now, then a passing grade will be their only incentive.

“Why do I have to read/think about/know this?” is a place at which education can begin, if we answer the question authentically, or, even better, if we ask them to answer it for us.  If we show interest in their theories, they might become curious about ours, and together, we might be able to make some learning happen.

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Monday: how I saved my teaching career.

Image by Bjorn Snelders

10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment: Blogiversary Post #2

mflfn0II hesitate to put this post out there again!  Not only does it feel outdated (I haven’t asked for a paper copy of an at-home assignment in three years), but at the time it was published, it attracted some passionate critics (and defenders); if you go to the original and read the comments, you will see what I mean.  I came of age as a blogger when this post went moderately viral and I got my first taste of what it means to blog for the “public” and not just for a small and like-minded group of readers.

Nonetheless, it is the 9th-most-shared post I’ve ever written, and it still gets a fair number of views at the end of each semester/year when teachers everywhere are apoplectic and need someone to vent for them.  What’s more, it tickles me to look back at the quaint concerns we had in 2009, like printer ink and Hotmail.

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Ten Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment

10. You don’t double-space. You KNOW that I take formatting points off when you don’t double-space. Double-space does NOT mean space-and-a-half. We’ve discussed this.

9. Your printer ink is not black. You KNOW that I take formatting points off when you print in blue, purple or green. You also know that if your print is pale, smudgy grey, I will stomp on your paper in a rage. I told you this in class, twice. You need to change your printer cartridge if you want to get an A.

8. You send me your paper by email only. Let me explain this policy again. If you do not place your paper directly in my hands – if, for example, you slide it under my office door – you should email me a copy to confirm the time you submitted it. The email, however, does not replace your hard copy. I can’t print everyone’s paper – do you know what printer ink costs? Of course you don’t. You don’t print your assignments.

7. You don’t send me your paper by email. Ok, let’s review. If you did NOT email me your late paper in addition to submitting the hard copy, I don’t know when you submitted it. The term is over; I’m not sitting in my office waiting for your paper to shoot through the gap under the door.

6. You didn’t follow the structure guidelines. You wrote numbered paragraphs instead of an essay, or an essay instead of numbered paragraphs. You answered in point form instead of full sentences. You handed in a collection of random thoughts that you printed directly from your Hotmail inbox. Yes you did – the Hotmail logo is on the top of the page!

5. You haven’t answered the question. Let me be clear: this paper is great. It’s insightful and well-organized and even funny in parts. What’s more, you being who you are, I’m pretty sure you wrote it yourself. The problem is, you didn’t do the assignment. You wrote a very good paper about the texts we studied that has nothing to do with the question(s) you were asked to address. This paper is going to get a failing grade, and this is going to keep me up tonight.

4. You didn’t proofread after printing. You’ve repeated your introductory paragraph halfway into your essay for no discernible reason. There also seems to be a page missing.

3. You didn’t proofread at all, at any point. I’ve been reading your work all semester, so I know you’re capable of writing comprehensible English sentences, but in this paper you have frequently left out important nouns, switched from present to past tense and back again (ALWAYS WRITE ABOUT LITERATURE IN THE PRESENT TENSE. How many times do I have to say it?), misspelled “their” and “friend” (sometimes your spell check really does know the answer; all you have to do is look at the screen) and forgotten to capitalize. Were you high when you wrote this?

2. You copied parts of your paper from the Internet. I’m not even going to discuss this with you. Zero.

1. You didn’t write this paper. I don’t know who did. You didn’t copy it from SparksNotes or a classmate. You simply handed the guidelines over to someone – either your girlfriend or an essay mill or someone who owes you protection money – and he or she wrote it for you. Now I have to call you into my office and sit you down and either try to trick you into a confession or quiz you on the paper content or announce that, regardless of the fact that I have no concrete proof, I know you didn’t write this and you’re not getting credit for it. The depth and breadth of my rage about this is inexpressible. No matter what delightful experiences I’ve had with my classes this semester, this is what I’m going to remember. What’s more, I fully expect you to drag me through mediation and/or grades review, so this situation is going to escalate over the coming months. I’m tempted to pretend I don’t notice that you didn’t write this. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t notice, and I’m going to be sorry.

Image by Richard Dudley

What Makes a “Bad” Class?: Blogiversary Post #1

August 10 will mark the SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Classroom as Microcosm.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that this blog saved my career.  At the moment I began it, I was ready to quit teaching, but writing about my experiences and discussing them with you has been instrumental in restoring my teaching energy and joy. Thank you!

In celebration, and in preparation for the upcoming school year, I’m returning to the “most shared” posts from the last seven years, posts that, for better or for worse, readers felt compelled to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  I will be re-publishing one a day for the next ten work days, culminating with the #1 most shared post of CaM’s brief history.

obeyToday’s reprised post describes one moment when this blog may have saved me from throwing in the towel. “Bad Class? Define ‘Bad‘” was written in 2010.  I had just finished a semester with one of the most infuriating classes I’d ever had, and was trying to decide: did the fact that they drove me crazy mean things had not gone well?  Or did it just mean that I disliked being out of control?

I’d do things very differently if I met this class today.  I’d love to discuss my change of heart with you, so in the comments, please tell me what you think: what would you do with a class like this?

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 If a class is loud, irritating and occasionally rude, does that mean it’s a bad class?  If I come away from every meeting with them wishing it were the last, does that mean things aren’t going well?  Or are my feelings irrelevant, if the students are actually learning something?

This semester, one class gave me more than the usual level of grief.  They were a Preparation for College English class; Prep courses are designed for second-language students with such weak skills that they can’t be admitted to a 101 course.  In addition to having poor language skills, students in Prep classes often struggle with motivation and other academic difficulties.

We met from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, the worst possible time for any class in my opinion, but particularly for a remedial class.  The students were were both tired and wound up; when I walked into the room each day, the air felt flat and dead on the surface, but with a simmering underneath.  Once class began, every students seemed to have a phone out at all times, and I couldn’t figure out how to deal: should I throw the whole lot of them out? Start taking phones away? My indecision meant I did nothing.

One student, Ahmad, not only refused to focus but was determined to disrupt others’ focus as well.  Many students were happy to join in with his shenanigans, from steering the class discussion wildly off course to trading jovial insults to making silly noises.  The atmosphere was frenetic and a bit hysterical, and it was difficult to work our way through material because so much time was wasted trying to keep the noise under control and telling them to stop doing this and start doing that.

However, I found myself in a conundrum.

I was tempted to tell the main troublemaker to leave and to clamp down on the foolish behaviour, but there was another side to the problem: most people in the class seemed to be learning.  When we went through grammar explanations and exercises, they fell over each other asking questions and challenging the rules I gave them.  They rarely did their homework, but when we did in-class seatwork, they completed it diligently (if noisily) and volunteered answers.  And generally speaking, their grades on tests and essays were fine, except for a handful who just weren’t showing up for class.

The students also seemed to be having a pretty good time.  When we played games, they threw themselves into them with such abandon that we had to take long pauses to calm them down.  And, aside from one or two very shy people who seemed slightly uncomfortable but wryly entertained by all the goings-on, most of the people in the class seemed to genuinely grow to like each other, mostly because of their shared amusement over Ahmad’s inappropriate behaviour (I heard frequent fond murmurs of “Stupid guy!,” as though he were a kitten who kept falling off the couch.)

So what, really, did I want to happen?

I wanted a productive classroom atmosphere, one in which students could learn to the best of their abilities.  But was I sure I didn’t already have that?  It was true that this environment might not be optimal for all students, but is any classroom situation optimal for everybody?  Was my concern really about what was best for the students, or was my concern about my ego, my desire to be a “good teacher” who commands unconditional respect and who can control every aspect of what goes on in her classroom?

When speaking to my office mate, I sometimes drew comparisons between this class and my other section of the same course.  The other section met earlier in the day; there were more girls than boys in the class, which I believe changed the tone; and there were a number of strong, sweet personalities, students who gave off a positive and focused energy.  There were never any behavior issues.  Most of them did their homework.  They never talked when I was talking.  The most cell phone abuse I saw was an occasional quick text message under a desk.

But grammar lessons often passed in dull silence, and when we played games, they never really got off the ground.  What’s more, their grades were not as good as those of the other class.  Maybe they were weaker to begin with, and so felt a greater need to focus, but maybe the other class’s high energy was actually helping them absorb, process and engage more.

I tried a number of tactics with my crazy class.  For a while, I had them sit silently for a minute before class started, and this sometimes helped.  Near the end of the term, after a particularly intolerable lesson, I gave them a stern talking-to, and that helped.  For one class period.  But our last class together was as annoying to me as all the rest, and I never resolved in my own mind whether I should have done things differently.

All those who showed up regularly ended up passing the course, so it’s not like they didn’t learn anything.

Was the atmosphere disruptive to them and their learning, or was it only disruptive to me?

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Tomorrow: the most controversial post I have ever written, complete with some pretty nasty comments.

Image by Miguel Ugalde

 

Fudging the Numbers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the semester, a grading dilemma always rears its head.  Here’s one.  What do I do?

Anjali’s earliest work was dramatically incompetent, but as the semester has worn on, it has steadily improved.  That said, most of her “improved” work has been done at home, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone else is “helping” her a little more than is strictly acceptable.  She’s also been chronically absent – for the last month of classes I saw her only once – and at the moment has a failing grade, due mostly to missing in-class work.

Last week, I held office hours to answer last-minute questions on their final assignments.  To my surprise, Anjali showed up.  She had a draft of her paper with her.  It wasn’t a terrible paper, but it had some serious issues: her absences meant that she hadn’t understood a number of the requirements for the assignment.  We went over some of the most important problems.  Then I leaned back in my chair.

“Anjali,” I said, “It’s good that you’re coming to see me, but it would have been much more useful if you’d come ten weeks ago.  You’ve been failing all semester, and there’s not a lot we can do about it now.  It’s highly unlikely you’re going to pass this course.”

“But miss,” she said, “I’m on probation.”

“I see,” I said.  “That’s another excellent reason that you should have started coming to see me ten weeks ago.  And an excellent reason to get lots of extra help, and attend all classes, and otherwise fulfill all your responsibilities.”

“But miss, I had a very good reason for missing so much class.  But I know I should have come to talk to you about that.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied.  “If you had a medical reason, you should go request a medical delete.  If it’s not a medical reason, then it isn’t really relevant: passing a course means you’ve learned the skills the course requires, and you haven’t been in class to learn any skills.”  I handed her back her draft.  “Do your best, and we’ll see what happens, but you need to be prepared for the possibility that you will fail.”

She got to her feet.  “Miss, do you give any kind of make-up work?  To improve my grade?”

I shook my head.  “Do your best on this last assignment, but I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

So today I corrected Anjali’s final paper.  It has many of the same problems that her draft had, and all the strengths.  If I grade it according to my rubric, it earns between 65 and a 70 percent, depending on how flexible I am about certain criteria.  This isn’t enough; she will fail the course by two or three points.

However, if I look at this paper more holistically – if I ask myself, “Is this an acceptably organized and expressed paper that shows a good understanding of the texts, a paper that might earn a good grade in another course where the assignment requirements are different?”, then the answer is “Yes.”  It’s not a bad paper at all.  It’s just that it has some major weaknesses, and those weaknesses lie in areas that were emphasized in the guidelines and that were dealt with at length in class, when Anjali wasn’t there.

If I fudge her assignment grade to a 75%, she’ll pass the course.  Now, let me be clear: given her lack of overall effort, I don’t think she’s earned a pass, and I’m never comfortable “fudging” anything.  But based on this paper alone – and assuming that it is indeed her own work, and I have no clear evidence that it’s not, especially seeing that she came to see me with it – she has the basic skills she needs to manage fine in her future courses.  I could probably examine my rubric again and make a few generous tweaks so that everything adds up to the grade she needs.  And when a student fails a course by two points, everyone involved is much more upset than if she failed by ten.

What’s a teacher to do?

Image by Miriam Wickett

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