Friday, December 17, 2010

lesson learned. again.

Still re-verbing: Reflect on the year, manifest what's next. See for more details.

Prompt: Lesson learned. What was the best thing you learned about yourself this past year? And how will you apply that lesson going forward? (Thanks, Tara Weaver)

As I am writing in the midst of final exam week, I can say that I have learned the same lesson this semester that I learn every semester: I need to be more of a hard-ass in my teaching. I need to worry less about encouraging and cultivating the precious voices and egos of my students. In part, this is what makes me a good teacher, but each year, I find that I still have not quite tailored my comments so that the geniality is balanced with blunt honesty.

One of the challenges of teaching this course is that we use a portfolio system, one which allows us to look at students’ progress holistically. For this reason, the students are not graded on individual essays and journals; rather, they receive a provisional grade at the midterm, and a grade at the final. So, their sense of where they stand in the class is based entirely on my comments. And in my comments, I try to use language that is unambiguous, encouraging, and activity-related. In other words, rather than saying, “poor analysis here,” I might say, “What other questions might you ask? Look at the word you missed in your close reading; what do you think the author is getting at here?” So, the commentary is a combination of dialogue with the student, assessment of student’s progress, and suggestions for future assignments.

But sometimes I forget that, in their anxiety about passing the course, they often have tunnel vision when interpreting my words. So if I say, “Here you have done a skillful job of incorporating passages from the text, but you have completely disregarded the assignment question,” they will highlight “skillful job” and pat themselves on the back. Their problem, or mine? Usually, it’s both. They think they’ve earned an A, and I have to point them back to the second part of the sentence.

In college, I took a course with an intimidating old-school professor who had perfected the art of bluntness. On the first two essays, I earned an A, and began to believe that I had the formula. I sat down and wrote my third paper in about ninety minutes. It was cool, neat, and probably about five paragraphs long (the book was Fielding’s Tom Jones, which is about five hundred pages long). “It’s almost too easy,” I thought, and handed in the paper the following morning with complete confidence in my ability to impress Dr. L.

His written comments: “Very straightforward, Tricia. And dull.” Emotionless. Straight to the point. And very, very effective. A much-needed kick in the ego, one that still resonates when I think a piece of writing is “finished.” No comment in my college career motivated me as quickly and as deeply as that one. (Side note: Dr. L became my advisor, and we still keep in touch from time to time.)

Of course, I could never get away with such comments in my work (though I did work with a teacher once, in another school, who told one of his students, with a chuckle, that her essay was “utter shit.” I think his British accent made it sound almost like a compliment). But when I look at the work my students produced this semester, and when I read, in their self-assessments, their expectations regarding grades, I’m stunned by the disconnect between what they have written and what they think they have earned.

So, this winter break, I’ll be developing and practicing my “portfolio language.” Yeah, it’s great to read that you are “sweet” and “helpful” and “always willing to meet with students” on your course evaluations, but it’s even more rewarding to read student work that reflects the actual objectives of the course. Some serious re-vamping is in order. I’ll be studying the art of being blunt. Watch out, world.

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