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

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

Image by charcoal

ClassROOM: Teaching and Physical Space

ChairI was thrilled when I learned my schedule this semester: noon to 4 most days, a nice change from my usual 8 a.m. start.  Then I learned the catch.  When you teach in the middle of the day, it seems, you’re much more likely to end up in a terrible classroom.

My first class of the semester was in a room with no computer projection system.  A major inconvenience for that course, but resolvable – we have portable systems that are usually available, as long as I book in advance and leave for class early enough to get to the IT Centre first.

My next class was, to my astonished chagrin, in the college amphitheatre.  It is, as the name would suggest, a lecture hall.  It seats around 100, so the first order of business was to move everyone in my class of 40 down into the first 4 rows.  The bigger problem is that – well, that it’s a lecture hall.  It has a wonderful big projection screen and interesting acoustics, but I’ve never lectured for more than 10 minutes at a go in my life.  The seats are bolted to the tables, and it’s impossible for me to get between rows; when it comes to group work, moving students around is going to be a crazy headache.  Doing in-class essays is also going to be a challenge, as everyone’s right on top of everyone else.  Lecture halls are for lecturing, not teaching.  I have no idea how I’m going to work with this space.  (When I asked the students how they feel about it, though, they said, “It’s cool!  It’s like being at the movies!”  I guess so, but they’re unlikely to still feel that way after staring at ME for a few weeks.)

The next day I had my third class.  It’s in an almost windowless room in the basement, and five minutes before our first lesson, all the power in the building went out.  I fumbled my way downstairs to find that the students were all shining their phones around to see each other, as the room was completely black.  Mercifully, the power came on about 10 minutes in – or maybe not so mercifully; the fluorescent glare revealed up a blank, bunged-up, low room twice as deep as it was wide, meaning that I seemed to be shouting at the students in the back through a train tunnel.  I have no trouble projecting, but a room like this magnifies student-in-the-last-row behaviour issues; they truly believe themselves to be invisible, so I have a feeling a lot of pauses and “ladies in the back, I’m still talking”s are going to be necessary.

Some colleagues have suggested that I make room change requests – the winter semester is never as crowded as the fall, so there’s an outside chance that such requests will be honoured.  However, I’m curious.  How will working in these spaces affect my teaching and my students’ learning?  How can I accommodate myself and my lessons in creative ways?  Is it even possible that dealing with challenging spaces will make me a better teacher?  I’m tempted to stick with these weird rooms and see what happens.

Have you had experiences, good or bad, with challenging classrooms or other teaching spaces?  How did you deal with them?  What did you learn?

*

Friends, I’ve taken on too many projects.  I’m going to do my absolute best to post once a week at least, but the next few weeks may be sporadic.  I’ll do my best to be back on a regular schedule as soon as possible.  I hope your winter semester is starting off really well!

Image by Agnes Scholiers

Now You’ve Made Me Mad: Reprise

I don’t like this time of the semester.  A couple of years ago at around this time, I summarized why.

*

What do you mean, “Why am I failing English?”

You’ve failed EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT since the beginning of the course.  You handed in your first essay 2 weeks late, and you wouldn’t have handed it in at all if I hadn’t asked you where the hell it was.  You got 37% on your last practice essay, but you didn’t ask me a SINGLE QUESTION about why, or even look at the detailed feedback sheet I filled out for you, and then you went ahead and wrote the real essay, and got a 40% on that.

What do you mean, what can you do to catch up?  There are TWO WEEKS left in the semester.  You’ve been failing English since the fourth or fifth week – why are you coming to see me about this now?  Your grades have been posted up this whole time.  The fact that you’re failing English is NOT NEWS.

Yes, I’m sure your other courses HAVE been very difficult.  If you’ve chosen to prioritize your other courses, then that is a perfectly legitimate choice.  We all make such choices.  Most of us also recognize that if we don’t prioritize something, we’re not likely to do very well in it.

Why am I angry with you?  I’m angry with you because you’ve had 13 weeks to deal with this problem, and yet you march into my office when the semester is, for all intents and purposes, OVER, and you suggest that a) the fact that you’re failing English is a total surprise to you, and b) I am somehow responsible for the fact that you are surprised, and c) I should now be doing something to help you deal with this problem.  THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE NOW, and certainly nothing that I can do.  The time for dealing with this problem has PASSED.

What’s that?  Why don’t I care about your success?

I do care about your success.  I care about it very much.  I’ve been sitting here in my office, and standing in your classroom, caring about it, all semester.

You’ve been so busy not doing your work, you haven’t noticed.

Photo by Dominic Morel

The Power of Regret

I’m not one to regret things.

Of course, I make tons of stupid mistakes.  I look back at things I’ve said, letters I’ve written, men I’ve stayed with past the point of all basic sense, and thought, “Well, that was a colossal error.”

But that’s not the same as regret.  My underlying attitude, when I bother to think about it, is that in each instance, I’ve done my best with what I’ve had.  My state of mind + the external circumstances + my genetic wiring + my previous experience + the alignment of the planets + variables x, y and z = idiot behaviour.  I will try not to do it again.  Moving on.

However, in my teaching life, there are moments when I worry.  I’m dealing with young lives here, and I try to think carefully before I speak or take action, but even so, I sometimes come away from a lesson or a student conference and think, “I don’t know.  I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

We all have memories of teachers who did or said things that threw us off course for years, or who unfairly crushed our self-esteem.  I’m not opposed to derailing students, or altering their overblown self-esteem toward reality.  I AM opposed to confronting students with things they can’t handle, or venting my anger, or making bad situations worse.

In the past week, I’ve had two interactions with students that I now regret.

1. Michael:

I’ve written about Michael a couple of times before, describing an essay he wrote about his troubled home life and the severe difficulties he’s experiencing with his schoolwork.  Last week, Michael did his oral presentation, and he got a zero.  He spoke for barely a minute (for a 5-7 minute talk) and nothing he said bore any relationship to his topic or made any sense.  I was unable to give him points or feedback in any of the categories he was being graded on.  It was hard to watch.

When the time came to discuss the presentation with him, he just nodded as I explained why he’d be getting a zero.  Then I told him that at this point, I see no way for him to pass the course.  “I know you’re working hard,” I said.  “But even with all your hard work, you’re not managing to meet the requirements.”

The difficulty came with what to say next.  How to tactfully explain that because he is demonstrating absolutely no progress from assignment to assignment, and is not in possession of the most fundamental skills required to pass, he’ll probably never  complete college?  How to say, “It makes no sense that you ever graduated from high school”?  How to say, “This is the wrong path for you”?

You might ask, “Well, who are you to say these things anyway?” Good question.  Here’s why I felt it was important to say them. I’ve talked to other teachers and tutors who know Michael, and they confirm what I’ve seen: he works very, very hard, and he makes no progress.  None.  It breaks my heart that he continues to waste his time, when he could be investing himself in something that brings him enjoyment and maybe even an income.  For some reason, he’s been continually given false expectations of what he is capable of.  Someone, somewhere – maybe many someones – has to help him understand that he needs to stop banging his head against this wall.

I asked, “Have you ever spoken to someone in counselling about your bigger plans?  About what you want to do with your life, and where college fits in?  I can see that school is a big struggle for you, and it’s causing you a lot of anxiety.  If you talked to a counsellor, he or she might be able to help you think about other options, and plan your decisions with all the facts in mind.  If you have a hard time explaining it, you’re welcome to tell the counsellor to call me, and I can explain what I’ve observed, if that would be helpful.”

I handed him the info for the counselling centre.  He took it and thanked me.

“Is there anything else I can do to help you with this?” I asked.

He hesitated.  “It’s just…do you think, if I really worked hard for the rest of the semester, there is even a small chance that I could pass?”

“No, Michael,” I said gently.  “Realistically, I don’t see that happening.”

He nodded again.  “Thanks, miss,” he said, and left.

I have been racked with self-doubt ever since we had this exchange.  Who the hell do I think I am?  Do I really think this kind of discussion is going to change anything, other than making him feel terrible?  Should I be physically leading him down to counselling and sitting him in front of someone?  Should I just keep giving him failing grades and gentle feedback and keep my nose out of the rest of it?  Do I know for sure that it’s impossible for him to pass?  Should I be pressing him to tell me more about his situation, like what happens when he brings home a failing grade?

The bottom line is: I didn’t know what else to do.  Nevertheless, I’m worried about the consequences of what I’ve done.

2. Kaneesha

I wrote about Kaneesha two weeks ago.  She’s a royal pain.  At the end of last week, she came in for a mandatory appointment to discuss her next essay rewrite, and was perfectly pleasant and asked pertinent questions.  I felt tempted to leave things at that, and to hope that this productive conversation would change something in our relationship.  However, past experience tells me that such hopes are in vain.  So when we were done talking about her essay, I said, “Now we need to discuss something else: your level of attention in class.”

A sheepish smile came over her face.  I detailed her offenses: texting constantly, sleeping on her desk, talking while I’m talking, sighing and yawning loudly.  She shook her head, still smiling: “I’m sorry!  I’m really sorry.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re sorry, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.  I’m not sure how to talk to you about it, so I thought that, rather than being angry about it, I’d give you the chance to explain WHY you do these things.”

She just stared at me for a few moments.  I couldn’t tell if she was thinking, or just paralyzed.

“Well?” I asked.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.  “I don’t know.”

Let’s pause.  In hindsight, I should have stopped right here, and done something with this information.  I could have told her to think about it and come up with a response.  Write me a paragraph at home, entitled “Why I’m Not Always Focused in Class,” to be counted as a homework assignment, for example.  This would have given her a chance to think about what I was saying, and to express herself without sitting under my accusatory gaze.

Instead, I launched into lecture mode.  (A sign that I hadn’t thought this through.)  Point 1: it’s hard for me to do my job when I’m annoyed.  Point 2: she’s distracting other students, and it’s not fair to them.  Point 3: if she continues making noise, talking and distracting people, she’ll be ejected from the class.  Point 4: if she just quietly continues being rude, I’ll be angry with her, and I don’t like being angry, but I can’t change her; only she can do that.  And so forth.

Finally, I asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying here?”

“I…” She was still half-grinning, but with a touch of shame.  “I just… I don’t think I’m that bad!”

Now, this kind of assertion always throws me for a loop.  My natural tendency is to second-guess all my feelings and responses, so contradiction of them sends me into a spiral:  Maybe she really isn’t that bad! Maybe I’m overreacting! This was a terrible idea!

“It’s not a question of being bad, Kaneesha,” I said.  “It’s a question of creating a difficult atmosphere in a small classroom.  You may think your behaviours are normal, but they’re not normal behaviours for a college student.  If you look around the class, you’ll see that others aren’t doing those things.  I guarantee you that some of them are tired, some of them are bored, but they’re doing their best and they’re not being rude.”

At that point, I could see her face closing down.  “All right?” I concluded.  “I want you to think about what I said.”

“All right,” she said sullenly, and gathered up her things and left.

Argh, I thought.  Stupid.  Useless.  Why did I have to use words like “normal”? Why didn’t I give her something concrete to do, to change, to focus on? I just made things worse.

*

I haven’t seen Michael or Kaneesha since these conversations (and I suppose that, depending on what Michael decides, I may not see him again.)  I am anticipating negative fallout from each of them, but we’ll just have to see.

Have you taken actions with students, with teachers, with loved ones, with friends, that you’ve later regretted?  Why do you think you did what you did at the time?  Were you doing your best, or were you careless?  Were you able to fix things later? How?

Image by Cecile Graat

I Don’t Like You

Basic instructions on classroom management often include comments like, “Of course you will like some students more than others; this is normal.  It is essential, however, that students not know this.”

Wise advice.  Very difficult to follow, in my experience.

I spend a lot of energy trying to see the good in even the most irritating of students, but sometimes I fail.  This semester, I have two students whom I have tried to understand and appreciate, but I can’t.  I dislike them.  I wish they would drop my classes.  Failing that, I wish they would become entirely different people.  I hate it that I’ll have to spend the rest of the semester gritting my teeth and tolerating them instead of having productive relationships in which each of us learns something valuable.  Maybe you have some advice.

1. Kaneesha

Kaneesha is very beautiful and very bored.  She clearly has important engagements on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, because in our 8 a.m. Monday/Thursday class, she yawns and sighs loudly to demonstrate how bored and tired she is.  If I reprimand her for talking audibly or making other distracting noises, she spreads herself ostentatiously on her desk and falls asleep.  Otherwise, she plays with her phone until I tell her to put it away; the next class, she does it again.  When I call on her, she speaks in a barely audible monotone; when I ask her to speak up, she repeats in exactly the same barely audible monotone; when I ask her to repeat a third time, she sighs and projects just loud enough that I can’t quite justify asking her to do it again.  (This despite the fact that, when she’s speaking to her friend in the next seat, everyone in the room can hear her.)  When I hand papers to her, she stares at them, or reaches not quite far enough to grasp them, so, if I were playing her game, I would have to reach that extra few inches that she is too tired to stretch.  Instead, I say, “Kaneesha, please take the paper I am handing to you.”  And she does, but the next time, she does exactly the same thing.

I can’t be sure that Kaneesha’s hostility is personal.  Maybe this is how she thinks one is supposed to behave with teachers, or maybe she resents having to take a remedial class and wants everyone to know it.  Maybe she’s this way with everyone.  I’m not really concerned one way or another.  I AM concerned about my own reaction – I find myself unable to even look her in the eye because just the sight of her infuriates me.  I’m fond of everyone else in her class, and I think I interact pleasantly with all the others, but every time I speak to Kaneesha, I have to take a breath and steel myself.  It must be evident to everyone that I dislike her.  This is not good.  I’m not sure what to do about it.

2. Shayla

I’ve written about Shayla before.  She failed this same course a year ago, and last semester, I published a slightly edited version of our final email exchange in that course, an exchange that many of you agreed was baffling and exhausting.  Shayla is back, and nothing has changed.

She missed the first two weeks of the semester.  When she finally showed up, she didn’t have her course books, and hadn’t done any reading or other preparations, and so was unable to participate in the class activities.  I pulled her out of class and sent her away, explaining that if she didn’t entirely change her approach, I could guarantee that she’d end up failing the course again.  She missed two more classes and then showed up again without her books and without her homework done.  She’d just moved, she said, and couldn’t find her books among the boxes.  I told her to stop texting, look on with someone else, and do whatever portion of the work she could.

Then I told the class that this problem was arising far too often, and so for the next couple of weeks, we would be doing individual work only.  This way, people who were prepared would not be burdened by doing group work with classmates who hadn’t bothered.  Anyone who came without their books and without having done the required reading would have to leave the class.

Shayla missed the next class, the first in-class essay.  She left a phone message to say that she was sick; I wrote her that without a medical note, she wouldn’t be able to make up the essay but could still do it as the “rewrite” portion of the assignment.

She showed up to the next class without her books and without her homework done.  When I asked her why, she stared at me blankly and said, “I can’t find my books.”

I told her to pack up her things and meet me outside.  There, I kind of lost my mind.  (Please note: As a rule, I do not yell.  I’m not a yeller.  However, it’s possible I was yelling at Shayla – it’s all a bit of a blur.)  I told her that she needed to go away and deal with whatever was preventing her from doing the absolute basic necessary things a college student needs to do.  “I can’t help you,” I said, “because you’re not doing your part.  You need to think about why you’re in college, and whether you can resolve whatever problems are preventing you from doing your work. We are almost TWO MONTHS INTO THE SEMESTER and you haven’t any books?  Fix this, because if you don’t, you are going to fail AGAIN.”

She didn’t show up for her personal appointment concerning the “rewrite” of the essay she missed in class.  The next class, she once again showed up with no books and no homework.  A classmate was supposed to meet her so she could photocopy the book, Shayla said, but the classmate hadn’t shown up for class.  “You were supposed to get the book from her today?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“So you haven’t done any of the reading.  You planned to get the book from her today – when were you planning on doing the reading?”

She once again stared at me blankly.  “Can I borrow your book?” she asked.

“Go home, Shayla,” I replied.

On Saturday morning, I received a message from Shayla.  Attached was a draft of the essay that she was supposed to come see me about on the day of her personal appointment, an appointment that she had missed without apology or explanation.  “I am wondering if you will read my essay and correct it and write comments about everything I should improve before I hand it in,” she wrote.

My reply was brief, and amounted to “No.  You missed your chance.  Good luck.”

If I hadn’t already battled with Shayla’s cluelessness for an entire semester, I’m not sure how I’d be responding to her right now.  Clearly she has a serious issue: a drug problem, maybe?  A cognitive disability?  As the previous post about her demonstrates, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I tend to explain and explain and explain because I believe in the power of rational thinking, but in Shayla’s case, I have to stop explaining and let the chips fall.  It’s that tension, between my natural instincts and my knowledge that they are of no use to me in this situation, that is making me so angry with her.  I knew that dealing with her again would be challenging, but I had no idea that it would be EXACTLY THE SAME and she would have learned ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from her previous failures.

What do you do when you are required to work with, help, and encourage someone but they undercut all your efforts, perhaps deliberately, and you end up just wanting the person to disappear?  Being angry is exhausting.  It takes away from my classes and from my own well-being, but there are days when I don’t know how to rise above it.  The semester isn’t even half over; these girls will be in my life for another two months, at least.  (If Shayla fails again, I may never be rid of her.)  Is there something I can change in the way I interact with them?  Or do I need to just take deep breaths and jog on?

Image by Lynne Lancaster

There Has To Be a Better Way

I am totally over school.

The serious grading has begun, and the serious speed bumps are popping up in the road.  Yesterday’s speed bump was an essay from Michael, whom I wrote about last week.  Michael’s essay was so convoluted that it was impossible for me to grade it.  (It reminded me, troublingly, of essays I received a couple of years ago from Khawar, whose  saga some of you may remember, and who almost drove me to the brink.)  I wrote Michael to say PLEASE COME SEE ME.  And then I put my head down on the table and groaned for a while.

It’s not Michael’s fault.  Michael is absolutely aware that he has problems – he wrote notes all over his paper to the tune of “I did my best but I don’t think I did good,” and messaged me immediately after the essay (I was home with a cold while a sub invigilated) to say that he was “scared about his essay.”  He has every reason to be scared.  He’s been pushed through the system to this point despite the fact that he has none of the tools he needs to deal with college-level writing.

It is also not the fault of any individual teacher, course, or school.  Students with serious academic issues pass my courses all the time, not because they’ve mastered everything they need to master, but because they’ve worked hard and the numbers have added up.  I think it’s unlikely this will happen in Michael’s case, but I’ve been surprised by this before.

School is the problem.

I’m having my first thoughts of the semester about quitting my teaching job and becoming a strident, shrieking education reformer: abolishing classrooms (particularly 40+ student/teacher ratios) and grades, completely overhauling curricula (particularly “English” studies, which I’m now fully convinced is an antiquated and unhelpful domain, at least at the level of general education), chopping big colleges up into small, focused learning “communities,” and, most importantly, focusing all of formal education on helping students learn how to learn.

Students need to be learning how their brains work.  They need to be focused, not on grades and R-scores, but on becoming flexible, confident, skilled learners who can tackle challenges with brio and curiosity.  They need to be prepared for a world that we can’t even envision right now, for jobs that don’t exist yet, for problems that are not even a glimmer in humanity’s collective eye.  Our school system – the one we’ve almost all been through, the one that pays my salary, the one that will take a freaking revolution to dismantle – prepares them for none of these things.

I know I’m not the first to say this.  I’ve watched Ken Robinson’s TED talks and RSA Animations, I’ve read reams of material on interdisciplinarity, on unschooling, on various other alternatives to the rusty, crumbling structure that is our current view of education.

The question is, why is so little happening?  Why does someone like Michael, who can’t understand a simple personal narrative essay from a national newspaper, feel that going to “college” is his best/only option?  He can’t do college, not as college is right now, and the best college can do for him is to try to jam him into the college mould and maybe, if he’s lucky, shuffle him through.

I would love to hear from any of you out there who are working or studying in alternative educational environments with some success.  Whether you’re homeschooling your own children, or teaching at a “gradeless college,” or designing an interdisciplinary curriculum at a technical high school, or doing an internship in a hands-on work/study program, I would love to know on an intimate, anecdotal level what other models are working for teachers and students alike.

I don’t know that I can pack my bags and leave school as we know it behind.  I certainly can’t do it tomorrow.  But I’d like to know that there are other possibilities, because this one has overstayed its welcome.

Image by Nicolas Raymond

Failing Benoit: Reprise

Students are getting their first tests back and preparing for their first essays.  There are, predictably, some unhappy and even angry faces.  I’m trying to be patient, to remember that learning can be a painful and frustrating process wherein you are told again and again that things that you KNOW with ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY are totally wrong.  However, this is always one of several points in the semester when I start wondering if there are easier jobs out there.

The post below, first published in September of 2009, reminds me that the moment when students receive their first grades of the term is always tough, for students and teachers alike.  Some students have the character tools to handle first-failure disappointment, but others come apart a little, and it’s easy for a teacher to push back in ways that may not be helpful.

*

Benoit’s in my remedial class – and how.  Every so often I read a student essay that makes me ask, silently or out loud, “How is it that this student was admitted to an English college?  What can possibly be done for him here?  How in the name of God is he ever going to get through?”  My reaction to Ben’s first writing assignment was much like that.

Ben was probably admitted because he is an athlete, a basketball player; it wouldn’t be the first time an athlete was admitted without the academic skills he needs.  Just a couple of semesters ago I worked with just such an athlete.  And then worked with him again the following semester.  In the same course.  But he did finally get through.  He got through because he really, really wanted to, and he knew that when he didn’t understand, when he couldn’t do the work or correct his own errors, he needed to get help.  He was also a sweet and even-tempered boy that everyone wanted to help, including his classmates, all the tutors in the Learning Centre, all his teachers, and his coach.

Ben is not like this.  Ben spends every class sighing loudly, thumping his desk in frustration, and asking belligerent, accusatory questions: “But why can’t I say X?  You mean I can’t ever say X?  But what about when I want to talk about Y?”  “I don’t get it.  I just don’t get it.”  More sighs.

Today I returned their first practice essay.  Ben failed it very badly.  They need to use this practice essay as the first draft for their first major assignment.  Ben sat slumped in his chair until the time came for them to use their practice essay to create an outline.  Then he stuck his hand in the air.  When I came to his seat, he said, “I don’t get it.  I don’t get why you underlined all these things.  And this…,” he turned to the rubric attached to his essay and flicked his fingers at it, “I don’t understand how you corrected this.”

I try to be patient with Ben’s complaining, sulking and accusing, but he annoys me.  It’s not that I don’t understand.  I know that he’s acting out because he’s frustrated, because he really is having serious difficulties and he doesn’t have the tools (academic, emotional or psychological) to deal with his difficulties.  But he’s very unpleasant.  He whines.  A lot.  Anyone who has had to deal with a 17-year-old who behaves like a small child knows what I’m talking about here.

Today, I had 21 other students waiting to talk to me, 21 students who were also struggling but who were doing their best.  They were all diligently creating outlines, looking over their rubrics, and trying to identify the main themes in the narratives they had written.  And here was Ben, slumped on his desk, barking, “I don’t get it.  I don’t see any errors.  I don’t get it.”

So I snapped.  Mildly, but audibly.  “Ben,” I said, “first of all, your goal today is to create this outline.  When it comes to your language errors, you need to work on them on your own, and you can come see me when you’ve made an attempt to correct some of them.  But today, please make an effort to find the main points in your story and identify them on this worksheet.  If you want to talk about other things, wait until the others have gone and we’ll discuss them then.”

So when I’d worked my way through the rest of the class, and Ben remained in his seat, folded against the wall, his expression poisonous, I made my way back to him.  “Now,” I said, “my sense is that you are frustrated.  I understand this.”

“But I don’t even get why you underlined these things,” he screeched.  “You put this mark there, to show a missing word, and I don’t even understand what word is missing.”

“Of course you don’t understand,” I said.  “If you understood, you would have put the correct word there in the first place.  The fact that you don’t understand is the first step.  Now you need to start, piece by piece, with what you DO understand.  You need to fix what you can fix before you start complaining about what you can’t fix.  You need to take this one piece at a time, not just look at it and say ‘I don’t understand, so I give up.'”

“But that’s not the case!  I understand some things.  I know why some are wrong.”

“Then begin with fixing some of the ones you know how to fix.”

“Like, this here.  What’s wrong with this?  ‘He is the best player on the team.'”

“Are you writing about right now?  Is it the team you’re on right now?”

“No.”

“It’s in the past?”

“Yeah.  So how do I fix it?”

“What is the past form of ‘he is’?”

“He was?  ‘He was the best player’?  You mean my whole story has to be in the past?  Even the details?”

“Of course it does.”  Ben sighed and thumped his paper onto his desk.  “This is the kind of question you need to be asking me, Ben, instead of just saying, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t get it.’ I think it would be a very good idea for you to take your essay to the Learning Centre and get yourself a tutor.  Do you have any interest or motivation to do that?”

His face was dark and sour.  He said nothing.  He crossed his arms against his chest and leaned against the wall.  A minute passed.  Then he said, “Whatever.”

“Do you have any interest or motivation to do that?” I repeated.

He shook his head.

“Well, that is the kind of help you are going to need.  In the meantime, you need to work on what you can fix in this, decide what questions you want to ask me, and come see me next week before you hand this in.”

Ben folded his papers together, gathered up his books, and stalked out of the room.

I mean, what’s a teacher to do?

I’m not under the illusion that I handled this properly.  I was tired and peeved, and unable to summon up any compassion for this clearly troubled young man.  But surely anyone would be tired and peeved in the face of this?  Is there something (other than some sitting meditation and a few glasses of Scotch) that I can do to soothe my jangled nerves and help this boy?  Because I’m telling you, right now I’m having some seriously unteacherly thoughts about what sort of correction he needs.

*

Addendum: Benoit came to see me the following week, almost cheerful, and together we identified a few major essay-writing issues that he could work on.  A few weeks later, in a followup comment on this post, I wrote, “His behavior has changed quite a bit. The tone in his voice has become much more respectful, he asks direct questions about the things he doesn’t understand, and in general he seems willing to take responsibility for his own learning.” He made small improvements throughout the term, and scraped through the course with a 59.6%.  (He probably shouldn’t have, but in the end the points added up.)  This was by no means our only moment of conflict, but it was probably the worst of them.  We weren’t able to significantly improve his skills, but when I think back to the improvements in his demeanour, it gives me hope for the students who are starting this term defiant and argumentative.

Image by Gabriella Fabbri

College Teaching and Helplessness in the Face of General Badness

In my memoir course, my students’ first exercise is to write down a small story that they often tell people about their lives.  I like reading these little paragraphs – they are often about getting lost in foreign airports, mislaying precious items and realizing that material things don’t matter, buying liquor while under age.  But there are always one or two students who tell me things I don’t want to know.

This term it was Michael.  Michael (not his real name, of course) wrote a story about being punished when he was around six.  It’s difficult to follow the timeline, but it seems that his parents left him alone while they went on vacation, and came home to find the house a mess, so they beat him and sent him to his room.  The description of the beating is perfunctory, but that of his feelings is quite elaborate: the fear that they would find out, the terror during the beating, the remorse as he recovered, and so forth.

I think it’s possible some facts of the story are less than accurate (his parents left him home alone for the weekend when he was six years old?)  Nevertheless, there is clearly something unfortunate going on here.  I wrote a note at the bottom of his assignment saying that the story made me sad and asking him to come talk to me about it.  Instead, when he rewrote his story he added a paragraph at the end that went something like this.

Yes it is a pretty sad story but I know people who have had been threaten even worse. I find that it was tough but I know a very important star who had problems like that in his childhood and in his career they had a pretty tough time even and a lot worse than me. I think it’s the shock my parents had that made them do that but I understand my parents because if your them and you don’t know that there are mess everywhere when you enter your house you can take it pretty bad so at the same time yes and no it is and it is not a sad story

Here is my reply.

Michael: of course, it is your feelings about the incident that are most important.  Are you aware that we have counsellors here at the college whom you can talk to if you are ever feeling bad about things that happened in the past or are happening now?  Let me know if you would like more information.

Like many of my students, Michael is over 18.  I am therefore not under any legal obligation in a situation like this (according to counsellors I’ve spoken to in the past about similar stories students have written.)  I have no intention of chasing him down and making him talk to me about anything he doesn’t want to.  That said, I wonder if there’s something more I should be thinking about doing for him.

Every year, I consider avoiding personal writing assignments.  Every term I ask myself: do I need these close reminders of the general badness going on out there in the world, in my students’ lives?  But I know I will never eliminate them – the assignments, because I won’t, or the badness, because I can’t – so I need a clear strategy for dealing with the stories that rear their heads.

What do you think teachers, especially teachers of older students, should do when faced with stories of suffering, abuse, or trauma?  Have you faced this issue yourself?  If so, what do you do?

Image by Brenda Otero

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