Nov. 27 – Student Conferences

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I like to get feedback from students at every point possible throughout the semester.  It starts during the first week of class, when I block out time to meet with each student individually.  This means canceling classes for at least a day, usually two.  I have debated whether or not these initial conferences are worth the lost class time, and I even tried doing without them one semester.  When I didn’t have those meetings in the first week I never felt like I knew the students as well, and I realized that I use the information gathered in this initial meeting throughout the semester.  I returned to those first-week conferences the next semester and have done them ever since.

I have students fill out information forms before our meeting, and the information they provide gives me a basis for an introductory conversation.  Aside from the usual demographic stuff I ask them about their reading – what do they like to read, what do they most want to improve about their reading, what is their greatest strength as a reader?  Sadly, far too many students draw a total blank when trying to answer that last question – “I don’t have any strengths.”  sigh.

I also ask them if they are upset about being placed in a non-credit “developmental” reading class.  Most say they are resigned to taking it, though many don’t understand why they have to do so.  Some are honest and say that yes, they are angry about being forced to take a non-credit class they don’t think they need.  I find that acknowledging and addressing that resistance right away as honestly as I can is the most effective way to defuse it before the mood of an entire class is affected.

I also meet with students at the end of the semester in lieu of a final exam.  We talk about the semester and what should come next for them.  For many students it is a formality but for some it is a powerful moment of affirmation and connection, and for me it is a time to say “Well done” or “I know you’ll do better next semester.”

And now, in addition to these two meetings, I think I want to start having midterm conferences as well.  I have avoided them for a couple of reasons up until now: the additional lost class time and the question of how to just meet with the students I need to meet with, i.e. the ones who aren’t doing as well.  I thought about allowing A students, or perfect attendance students, or some such criterion students a pass on midterm conferences, but that seems to send the message that if you’re good you don’t have to do this thing, which makes “this thing” not a very appealing thing at all.  But why take the time to meet with students just to say “you’re doing great, keep it up?”  Or even more so, with the passively competent students who have absolutely nothing to say and look at me like I’m crazy when I thank them for coming in and ask if they have anything they want to talk about.

But I think it is so important to meet with the shaky students – the ones I might not lose if I reach out at the right time.  It’s so hard to know, and I do try to remember that I am not the only influence in their lives; so many of my students’ lives are so complex, with so many demands and challenges, that sometimes it seems a miracle they get to class at all.  Maybe I will come up with a journal assignment that will give all of my students something to say in a mid-term conference.  That way it is at least not a punitive event, and we might even have some enlightening conversations.  And maybe those good students need to hear that they are doing well.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget the quietly competent.  Don’t want to do that.  Here’s to all of the quietly competent – I think I will make these conferences as much about them as about the strugglers.  That will certainly make for a change of pace, and it will provide me with a new challenge as I design my conference plans next semester.  huzzah.

What I Learned About Teaching from the Tarot

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Some of last year’s students were a real struggle for me (see Dealing with a Bipolar Student… and Burnout Blues) , and I have been thinking a lot about how to move on from those negative experiences and not carry those wounds with me into a new school year and a whole new crop of excited, nervous, vulnerable college freshmen.  One of the most useful insights came from a totally unexpected source.  A dear friend of mine, a Quaker and an MBA, is also a Tarot card reader.  She offered me a free reading for my birthday, so for my very first Tarot card reading ever we looked at my writing and my teaching.  The “spread” on writing turned up a lot of cards having to do with work and stamina and fortitude (sigh.)

The spread on teaching, however, turned up lots of messages about change, and the most important card, the “sky of the situation” card covering it all, was the King of Cups, which represents control and balance of emotions.  The interpretation was that I could become very good at teaching if I could gain control of my emotions. The corollary implication was that lack of that control is holding me back as a teacher.  Hmmm.  Temper.  Hurt feelings.  Disappointment.  Impatience.  Those kinds of emotions??  Gotta say that seems right on target as the issue that is keeping me struggling as a teacher.

So, having this information tucked away in my psyche, I went to an “empathic life coach” for another issue of being stuck in my life.  The life coach took this issue of emotions much further, explaining that I was (this feels embarrassing to write – it sounds so self-important) also an empath, and my challenge was to not absorb the emotions of everyone else.  Aha!  I was picking up and carrying students’ emotions.  Aha!!!!  That was such a liberating realization – that maybe all that irritability wasn’t just coming from me, but was more a reflection of students’ emotional struggles.  My emotions felt so childish and out of control and I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from – they didn’t feel like me, and I didn’t recognize myself in them.  Seeing them as a reflection of others’ feelings makes so much sense to me.

I have a colleague who has a very even temperament, and I watch him in awe.  I couldn’t imagine moving through life with such equanimity, but I truly envied his constant composure.  Maybe that demeanor is actually a possibility for me now that I am learning to protect myself from others’ emotions while still remaining open to life.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Burnout Blues


Art by Gwen Meharg –
made available by Creative Commons license

The semester has been over for several weeks now.  I stopped writing this blog midway through the term because I was so discouraged by teaching students who frustrated me in so many ways:

  • students who told me they were too lazy to do the work, and were willing to fail a required, non-credit remedial reading course and be forced to take it AGAIN rather than be bothered to do the work;
  • students who failed quizzes even after I stood at the board and said “This is going to be on the quiz.  This is what I will ask and this is what I am looking for in your answer.”  I don’t think I could possibly have made it any clearer, and yet students who had been sitting in that class and taking notes, missed those questions on the quizzes.  How???
  • one student who had HUGE anger issues.  No matter how gently I corrected her, she flew into a rage and told me she didn’t even allow her mother to speak to her like that.  When her foul language and rudeness finally drove me to pull her out of the classroom and talk to her in the hall, she told me there was no point in anger management because she’d taken every class out there and none of them worked and that’s why she kept going to jail;
  • a young woman who was excited about the ideas we were exploring and participated actively in class, but only showed up one or two days a week out of five.  She consistently reached out to me to arrange to make up work she had missed but then didn’t show up for her appointments, and when I  asked her why, had no explanation except “I don’t know”;
  • Bored, resentful students who didn’t belong in this level of remediation but were placed there by the university because they did not take the placement test as instructed by the Admissions Office.  Our university places students in the lowest level reading class if their ACT scores indicate the need for placement testing but the test isn’t taken.  We do additional placement testing the first two days of classes, but students’ schedules are set and rarely are they willing to shift classes around to move to a higher level.  Unfortunately that means that students with the weakest reading skills are placed in classes with others whose skills are much stronger and who are deeply bored by the time and level of detail needed to help the weakest students improve;

I just got so TIRED.  I even applied for an administrative position (twelve months????) and recently learned, after two interviews, that I did not get the job.  That means I will be returning to the classroom this fall, and I must find my way through this miasma of discouragement – I don’t want to be one of those teachers (I was going to qualify “teachers” with “developmental” but then realized I have seen this bitterness in every level of university instruction) who dislike their students and resent the challenges inherent in teaching them.

When I was considering the administrative job I realized that there were projects I still wanted to try out in a classroom, lessons I still wanted to teach, new ways of teaching the same old stuff I wanted to explore, (and summers I wanted to enjoy!)  So I am going to work hard this summer on visualizing myself in the classroom, grounded in calm.  I am going to do some work noodling around with the concept of expectations and try to see what part that played in my crash-and-burn.  I am going to think about how to re-structure my instruction to help students more successfully make the transition from high school to college.  Colleagues and I have talked about how  freshmen orientation focuses on the social aspects of college life and not the academic expectations.  Social engagement in college is certainly important but it doesn’t necessarily help them pass their classes.  How can we help them understand and truly internalize what it takes to be a successful student?

I need to build in a higher level of accountability for students without making my own workload unbearable.  I need to help them understand the consequences of their choices before those consequences lead them to suspension.  I need to work miracles.  Miracles, find me now.

The Direction Resistance Syndrome

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From the first day of class I have been talking to my students about the value of reading directions,fighting the urge to say “We don’t just write these directions for our health, y’know?” (among other, less-publishable expressions of frustration.)

I tell them about the faculty survey I conducted, asking faculty “What do you see as the biggest problem for students involving their reading?”  EVERYONE (and how often do we get a unanimous faculty decision???) said that not reading the syllabus and not reading directions were huge problems for their students.  So I tell the students that.  Over and over and over and ….

WHY are so many students resistant to reading directions?  As a college reading instructor, I know that they resist reading in general, but even when we read the directions in class and I give them a hard copy as well as an online link to those selfsame directions, I get work that is clearly a result of NOT reading the directions.

I gave my students what I thought was the coolest assignment ever.  They created their own collection of interesting blogs on Google Reader, then used those blogs to practice skimming for two weeks.  They were to write a journal with daily summaries of one blog post they had skimmed that day and a final reflection on the process and what they learned about skimming.

Well.  Most of them didn’t turn it in, and most of those who did left out the final reflection, which of course was what I was most interested in.  I spent a couple of days working through my frustration before I talked to the students.  I have found that when I go to them with any anger in my heart I have already eliminated any possibility of being heard.  And I do have a (teensy) bit of a temper, so I am careful about this.

I decided I would rather give them the opportunity to experience the skimming activity for partial credit rather than go the punitive route and just give them zeros for the undone work.  But I was NOT going to explain the assignment again.  I told them my decision, that those who had not turned it in at all would have an additional two weeks to do the project for partial credit, and those who had turned in a partial assignment would have those same two weeks to go back and read the directions and make sure that they had followed them.  Any necessary adjustments would also earn partial credit.

I had a line of students waiting to ask me if they had done it right.  “Go back, read the directions and make your own decision about that.”  Students who had not turned it in explained “Well, I was confused.” In a voice that took great effort not to be raised, I replied “You had TWO WEEKS (okay, I wasn’t exactly successful at the not-raised-voice) to come to me.”

My original title for this post was “The ‘I Was Confused’ Excuse” because I really wonder what goes on in students’ heads when they explain that they didn’t do the work because they were confused.  Is being confused an excuse for not doing anything?  Even after I have told them over and over (and over…) that when they don’t understand they should ASK?

Out of thirty-five students doing this assignment, I had one beautiful response – a page and a half about how hard it was at first so he practiced – he would skim and write a summary then go back and read the post to see if he got it right – I am in love!  A few students had paragraph-long reflections that were okay quality but huzzah they had done it.  One student had only turned in the daily summaries and after my announcement, went back, added titles to each summary and re-submitted it, still without the final reflection.

I am wondering what more I can do to teach them the importance of this seemingly simple task.  Since one of the basic premises of my teaching is to problematize teaching issues and turn them back to students, I think I will ask them that question.  Maybe another reflection journal? – Why do students routinely ignore directions even when it is damaging their grade?

We will see in two weeks what gets turned in this time around.  [cue suspense music]  Until then, READ THE DIRECTIONS.

I Can’t Believe They Don’t Know That

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photo by ILMO JOE on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license.

“I can’t believe they don’t know that!” I hear that phrase so often.  Is this generation of students as overwhelmed by ignorance as it sometimes seems? Those glaring gaps in student knowledge are  certainly a favorite topic of adult conversation.  As soon as I tell someone what I do for a living, out come the stories.  “My son has classmates who don’t know how to do long division.”  “They (!) don’t even know the name of our vice president / Chief Justice / governor….”  “I can’t believe they have no idea what ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’ means.”  “They can’t even read a regular clock face.”  And on and on and on.

I used to teach a college reading class using African American literature and most of my students, both black and white, had little knowledge of our bloody shameful history of segregation or Jim Crow laws.  It made the anger and bitterness of the literature hard for them to understand, so I created a slide show of images from a segregated America to help them see from whence our country’s racial tensions arise.  I understand why we don’t want to air that particular dirty linen with our children but, without an understanding of our past, the racial tensions of our present time make no sense.  Students, both black and white, need to know that the struggles of black students on a white campus are not solely their own problem or fault, but rather a reflection of our American history.

When I first began to realize how little the students knew about the realities of segregation I did feel surprise.  I couldn’t believe they didn’t know that.  But I had to move quickly to accept and remediate that particular gap – my expressions of surprise clearly made the students feel defensive and upset. We so easily make assumptions about what someone else should know, or what they should have learned, or what they should  be able to do.  Yet that assumption rarely serves us well as teachers.  When we feel (and inevitably express, whether verbally or non-) shock at an unexpected gap in a student’s knowledge, we put that student in a position of defense and opprobrium, not a happy place from which to learn.

Our students were born into their own time, not ours.  No matter how much we believe that our cultural references should be theirs, they won’t be.  No matter how much we bemoan the celebrity-driven “news” and the parochial perspective of the world, we need to move away from judgment and toward teaching.

One excellent tool to help us internalize the reality of the world our students live in is The Mindset List published annually by Beloit College.  In 1998 Beloit College created a list of incoming freshmen’s cultural realities to help faculty adjust their references to better match students’ understanding.  For example, on the list for 2012, Jay Leno has always been the host of the Tonight Show and GPS satellite navigation has always been available.

Our director has shared that list every year during our fall kick-off staff meeting, and it never fails to make me feel oh so very old.  But it also helps me grasp the reality of the “brand new world” that my students occupy.  Their experience, their world, is not mine, and I am a much better teacher when I remember that.

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