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

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?

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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

University Isn’t Everything

This is the final post in our series “What Students Think Should Change About School.”  In today’s post, Ruth explains that our fixation on getting everyone to university means a poorer education for everyone.

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Society has this idea that certain levels of education are necessary for a person to have any worth. I think this is a ridiculous idea that is harming students today. In many circles, a person is told they must at least have a college bachelor’s degree in order to get a job or be respected in society. Just going to a technical school or learning a trade is not enough anymore. And yet, if everyone is getting a college degree, then soon even that will not be enough. How far will we push those outrageous expectations?

Because of those expectations and the increased attendance rate at universities and colleges, it seems that our value of education is lowering dramatically. With increased class sizes and more and more fees everywhere a student turns it is so difficult for the average student to get a good education. I know so many students (including myself) who have to take a packed class load while working one or two jobs on the side just to get by without starving. How is a student to get a quality education while stressed to the max?

The thing that has frustrated me the most in my college career has been the useless classes I have had to take. I realize that part of this is because I am going to a liberal arts Bible college. However, I do not think a student should be forced to take (and PAY for!) classes that they do not need. That part of the system is definitely messed up. College is not the place for high school students to play catch-up at the expense of their fellow students.

The last comment I have to make is about how prepared college students are to actually face the world. My biggest complaint is with the Teacher Licensure programs around the country. I had so many teachers in high school fresh out of college that had no idea how to actually function in a classroom and deal with students. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does not spend the majority of his time sitting on his backside learning theories of carpentry. He also does not spend only a few months doing actual hands-on carpentry. If such a method would not work for a carpenter, then how can we expect it to work for a teacher? Teaching really is a skill that cannot be learned sitting in a room learning theories and making cut-outs. Students of teaching need to BE teachers and spend most of their time practicing in order to become skilled. Most Teacher Licensure students at my college spend three and a half years in the classroom with a practicum thrown here or there and only one semester actually teaching. Even though it is not my personal goal to become a teacher, I have spent almost every summer for the past seven years working in a summer school classroom. Comparing my experience with what some of my friends are learning in a classroom shows a major discrepancy in ability and skill level. My exposure and experience actually being in the classroom have prepared me more than years of sitting in class have prepared them.

It seems that the push for a college education has caused schools to create degrees for things that do not need a conventional college degree. Students are then forced to sit through boring and unnecessary classes in order to achieve their goals.

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What do you think of Ruth’s perspective?  Is it true that pushing everyone to go to university makes for useless degrees, boring classes and an inadequate education?  Please leave your thoughts below!

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Previous posts in this series:

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I’ll be taking a hiatus next week to take care of some other matters, so I’ll see you again on October 24.

Image by Piotr Lewandowski

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