This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors. The earlier version of the course was a solid one. It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships. We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class. The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.
It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it. If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it. And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other. I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.
So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course. I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.
- Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.” The guiding questions: What is character? How do we define it in real life? How do we experience it in literature? Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
- I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature. I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up. The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
- I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts. In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues. In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog. They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.
In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely. I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them. Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote. We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it. They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories. I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.
Things started to come apart around midterm.
First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week. Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week. I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too. I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February. I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.
I was also utterly bogged down in the book list. I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself. I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.
Then we started with the oral presentations.
One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it. It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.
I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class). The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake. The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis. By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME. It was agony. Students stopped showing up for class. I didn’t blame them.
One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other. I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%. Ergo: this assignment was not a success. The oral presentations were not a success. They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings. The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.
Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course. Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning. I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers. Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings. Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature. So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.
At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive. I would love to hear your advice, and your stories. Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea? If you gave it, what did you do to improve it? If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed? Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?
Image by Steve Woods