Mid-semester in a brave new world, i.e., my class

A while ago, I wrote about having a crop of M.A. students who don’t know what it’s like to go to school without high-stakes testing as an integral part of their experience.

The class is actually two linked classes, the Teaching of Writing and Writing Nonfiction. After all, you can’t teach writing if you’re not writing, so they write a lot, and workshop the pieces in writing groups.

I wondered what differences I might observe. Here’s a preliminary, completely unscientific, report. I should say that there’s nothing in the following list that I haven’t said to them.

Here’s the list. They

  • express a high degree of anxiety about grades
  • express uncertainty about writing for authentic purposes, real audiences, and to realize their own intention for a piece of writing. In other words, they’ve rarely or never done it.
  • report that they rarely or never have  revised their writing, even academic writing, have received high grades for this work, and, in fact, don’t know how to revise.
  • report having had little high school experience in writing in non-academic genres. Last night a student told me her teachers started on the 5-paragraph essay in 4th grade.
  • focus on delivering what I ask for rather than on whether they understand or have incorporated readings, concepts, etc. into their own conceptions of teaching and learning.
  • express significant anxiety about grammar
  • seek detailed, specific instructions about small, usually irrelevant details.
    • For example, in a recent exercise about grammar, I divided a small section of a chapter into four chunks of several pages each, had the students count off by fours. With the chunk of text that corresponded to their number, they were to create a one-page summary of the grammatical concepts, in any format that made sense to them,  in their own words, find a couple of examples in literature their students are reading, and sketch a couple of mini-lesson ideas.
    • Again and again, I’ve said that they free are to mold any assignment to their own needs.  Soon after I assigned this exercise, I received an email requesting permission to use information from a part of the text outside the range of pages they’d been assigned.

    Mid-semester, I usually ask students to complete self- and course assessments, along the lines of what’s working or not working for you about the class, how’s your work going, what’s your focus going to be in the coming weeks (i.e., goal setting). The results came in this week.

    Whoa, baby.

    (to be continued)

    2 responses to “Mid-semester in a brave new world, i.e., my class”

    1. Beth says:

      Thanks for this insightful post, Karen. I can say that your description of your students does not differ too much from my experiences teaching undergrads.

      I remember last Spring when I taught writing – the look on their faces when I told them that the biggest single part of their grade was for their own personal writing, for their own purposes. They were elated. Then, as a few weeks passed, they started to see how difficult writing, revision, persistence, and generating ideas could be. By the end of the semester they were glad they had gone through it. Most of them had experienced writer’s block and revision-induced grumpiness, just as all writers do who push pieces through to publication.

      I agree about students wanting very specific directions, and wanting to please me instead of fulfilling the purposes of the assignment (two different things). My sense is that in other courses they are not given any of the responsibility for their learning, or much choice.

      I also find it interesting that my students are not sure what to do when I don’t ask for a doctor’s note when they are absent. I tell them I trust them. Seems like it’s unfamiliar. What does this all mean about their ideas about school? And, can one course in semester make a difference in these deeply held ideas about education and school?

      Interestingly, the group of students I have now are leading a forum to discuss the issues they have with our program on Monday. Should be interesting…

    2. Karen says:

      “What does this all mean about their ideas about school?”
      Bad things. Are we now in a high stakes test-induced, downward spiral of a pedagogy of “let me make learning miserable for you”?

      “And, can one course in semester make a difference in these deeply held ideas about education and school?” If I have anything to say about it, *yes*.

      Then again, maybe this is why, for the first time, I felt a combination of helplessness and anger.

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