End of the Semester Musings: Lessons on Raising the Bar and Small Successes

As I rush to grade final papers and revisions, I always find myself making mental notes on how to improve my courses for the next semester. Of course, when that next semester comes around, I find myself scrambling to remember what I told myself. I've solved the problem (somewhat) by taking notes. I've had my share of challenges and successes this semester. My next step is to keep those successes going strong while addressing the challenges to improve for next semester.

This semester had some major changes in my courses. After hearing many of my colleagues bemoaning student writing skills, especially on research papers, I blocked off a major section of my course schedule devoted to research. My composition courses featured a six week "Research Intensive" where students researched a topic, submitted an annotated bibliography of ten sources, and wrote a 4-5 page research paper. They did this twice, once in MLA and once in APA, on different topics.

For the most part, my students rose to the challenge. I read some pretty good research papers. While my students don't know APA or MLA like the back of their hand, I am pretty sure they have a grasp of the basic concepts and--most importantly--how to find resources to help them understand the formatting when they can't remember. My composition students are leaving the course having written more essays than any of my composition students before them. I feel pretty good about that.

What doesn't feel so good is the amount of time it took to grade these papers. Adding a sixth essay to a course that normally requires four is my own fault--I know. This semester was a test for me: how much could I push my students? The answer: until my arms fall off. I think my students, most of them, passed the test. They were willing to participate in my experiment of teaching two citation methods. However, I can't help but feel a little guilty for getting behind in my grading. Sometimes, when I teach, I feel like I am the one doing the learning. This semester, I've learned that when I raise the bar on my students, I've got to raise the bar on myself.

So, I adapted my grading for the last writing assignment. The conference time I normally spend with my students each class became part of the grading process. If part of the draft met the requirement on my rubric, I marked it as met. If not, the student and I discussed how to meet the requirement. By the time papers were officially due, I had a better feeling for the paper and that greatly sped up my grading--which meant I could have had essays for four sections returned by the next class meeting, had I not had to catch up on other papers. Still, turn around for that assignment was still faster than any other paper this semester.

It's these little successes, especially the ones that come out of the feeling of failure, that make me look forward to the next semester. Not only did my experiences teach me a new way to grade--a method I had hoped to incorporate over a year ago but couldn't figure out how--but allowed me to have a stronger sense of collaboration with my students. I have always spent a lot of class time in one-on-one "conferences" with students during work days (it's a writing class, so let's write). While going to each student and speaking to him or her about the assignment allowed me to see what and how each student was doing, I wasn't doing enough. Sure, none of my students could hide the fact that they weren't prepared, but there weren't any consequences. The big change for me is calling students up to my desk rather than going to each student. This puts me in a more authoritarian position (which I don't necessarily like) but perhaps it's what the students need. The next step is to figure out what to do with the students who never have a draft prepared. And that's where I am with next semester's syllabus.

As I mentioned before, I've had some successful moments. The highlight of this semester was the discussion of the final reading for the class. I like to pull articles from online magazines to supplement our course reader. We read things differently if they're in a text book, so these online readings demonstrate a real-world application of their critical thinking and analytical skills. These readings are meant to be provocative in order to challenge students to re-think what they already know. I don't know if it's solely due to the nature of the readings or if it's the accessibility of them, but students in one of my classes revealed that they shared these articles with friends and family members. So, not only did I get to hear my students' reactions to the essays, but I got to hear them tell me other people's reactions.

What was great about hearing my students share the reading was how involved they were with the material. Not only did my students share something from their course work, they got to experience the role of the teacher by working with a less experienced reader. Due to the provocative nature of these essays (one essay was titled "Women Can't Cook," written by a married couple to explore gender stereotypes), many of these friends and family members were outraged by what my students were asked to read. My students had to explain these essays to their friends and family members. That experience, I feel, teaches them more about critical thinking than I can hope to show them in 15 weeks.

As a composition teacher, I rarely get to see the effects of my teaching (unless it's negative). Most of my students take one or two classes from me and move on having practiced a skill they will use in almost every class they take. It's evident from the conversations I have with fellow faculty that students don't take writing as seriously outside of the composition class. The idea of an educational foundation seems to be lost in the world of "tell me what I need to do to get an A" students. The idea of writing well as an important part of communicating well--no matter how much I stress it in class--doesn't appear to take hold.

I can only hope that some fraction of what I teach, what I ask my students do, sinks in. Perhaps that's why I keep raising the bar. Try to shake the idea that we are "Edi High" from my students' collective mindset exposes how thin the lines are between challenging students and driving them off, and between nurturing students and enabling to be too dependent on the instructor's input.

These small successes keep me moving forward, finding balance. I am looking forward to discovering new successes in this next semester. I'm sure this energy will fade over the break, so I wanted to capture it here before I lost it.

Feel free to post your own successes in the comments.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Thanks, editor, for putting in the jump. I tried to put one it but it wouldn't to work--and I don't see what I did different.