Category Archives: Writing

My Changing Attitudes about Failure in the Classroom

Over the years my attitudes about managing classroom activity has changed. It’s a long story. It begins with my own college experience being read to by the professor or even further back being told that thinking on my own would get me into trouble in grade school. I hated school. But I loved graduate school. I thought (which was probably a mistake): why not take the things I liked and make them work at the undergraduate level.

The thing I liked about undergraduate and graduate learning was that, for the most part, I could make my own decisions: I could drink beer instead of going to class; I could go to class and drink beer; it was up to me. To me compulsory is a dirty word and my fingers still smell of the iron bars of grade school. Yes college: I could do it or not do it and take the consequences. I remember a conversation with a professor. I said, “I have to do this reading.” He stabbed me with his reading-shrunken eyeballs and said, “You don’t have to do shit.” In addition, the lively use of technology by many of my professors was an inspiring mix of theory, application, and invention. The good professors would think a lot about why something might work and then try it, even if it failed. Then they would try something else. They asked questions like: how can we make big classes feel smaller? How can we take the advantages of residential colleges and mimic these with tech?

Recently (by recent I mean the last ten years or so), I’ve altered my strategies to include more emphasis on competency-based evaluation and instruction, generic assessments, and to placing more of the burden of learning on the people in my courses. By competency-based I mean telling students that they’re not after a grade on a paper but aiming to improve thinking and skills through written revision and hard work. By generic assessment I mean going from something like this:

Read this specific article and evaluate the author’s use of evidence

to this

Evaluate an author’s use of evidence in support of an argument. Find the author on your own.

Much of the above has to do with the fact that I like to change readings a lot and I don’t want to have to rewrite every assessment I provide to students.

By placing more of the burden on students, I mean to remove what I see as artificial or un-unassessable quantities in the regular movements of the semester: what’s the proper punishment for missing a deadline, I ask myself: grade diminishment or loss of opportunity to learn something? Recall the above conversation with my professor: he meant, “It’s up to you, Bub.”

I still have deadlines, but I tell people that if they miss a paper, what they miss is the opportunity for assessment. This presents a lot of risk, risk I’ve been willing to live with. For example, years ago I stopped reading student drafts because I found it difficult to avoid what might be called robotic or automated revision. That story goes like this: Cut this, this, and this comma and here’s a little about why, and develop the idea in this paragraph with more evidence. The commas would go, simply to reappear elsewhere and in the same context, and people would simply not do the development, responding with the common, “I didn’t know what you meant.” The whole business started to feel oddly enabling. I asked: does teacher editing lead to deep learning?

The typical semester now goes like this: students revise their own copy based on discussion and concepts worked on in class. I expect students in the research course to find copious amounts of information on topics and to study it against some fairly formulaic questions (what I call the argument framework): what’s the problem; what’s the position; what are the arguments; what’s the evidence; what are the appeals; and is it all done effectively or ineffectively by the author or authors and why? What’s your take? Students hand in their respective papers, I evaluate them and provide general ideas about improvement and expect students to revise, applying what they’ve learned. The results are still pretty raw, but those results reflect writing only the student has touched. They own them.

The general competencies are: identification, description, and evaluation/analysis.

Hypothetically, it all sounds pretty well and good. But in the last few years, students have taken the option of not turning things in for evaluation and waiting until the end of the semester to make their case, as the majority end-of-semester grade comes from final portfolios, which is meant to show the results of assessment and revision. Most of the time this makes for strange papers that show almost no improvement because very little option for improvement was made available. They’re supposed to own it all.

Consider this scenario. Student A stumbles to class most days but forgets to wake up in time for the first Chemistry exam. The teacher notes that the student failed to take the exam, hence marking a zero in the grade book. Let’s say this happens throughout the semester, grossing the student a zero in Chemistry. The teacher’s puzzled because attendance was perfect, with the exception of exam days. What’s the accurate conclusion: the student failed to demonstrate any knowledge of the subject even though they attended every session and appeared to take notes? I could give this story the most positive of outcomes: the student weeps about the goose egg but invents a new cure for disease in their basement.

Writing courses are similar. A student may participate in the day to day and then fail to turn in a paper, or not participate in the day to day and turn in nothing, or play the truant, turn in all their stuff at the end, and win the golden apple. In the first two scenarios, what they’ve failed to do is demonstrate what they’ve learned (maybe they didn’t show and neglected  their papers because they were working on a novel). In a writing course the main method for providing proof of learning is the much-loved academic, MLA-styled paper, the revised paper, and then a final proof. In a competency push, I want to be able to compare the first to the final, where evidence of learning shines through. Problem is: students are not providing me the drafts.

Time to rethink my approach.

On Ability-based Methods and Student Writing

The first major papers are done and evaluated. And now some thoughts on my College’s ability-based approach. A fast internet search will provide loads of listed links.

While Ability-based may sound like a buzzword approach, this method of teaching and learning involves defining a set of “abilities” in descriptive form with the student as subject, as in: the student Writes articulate arguments with increasingly sophisticated claims using authoritative, documented evidence, and appeals. Our department has broken such language into different degrees of ability and demonstration in the form of standards of evaluation, often called a rubric, which is somewhat inaccurate. I prefer standards or degrees of evaluation.

The notion is that people can learn to drive forklifts. Some drivers, however, are the “go-tos.” Others keep backing into the walls. Others can do just fine. There’s no real reason to bother with “why” questions or with the typical judgement that standardized tests provide. This method involves standards but resists standardization as the concepts are broad and learnable.

Long ago, I would develop fairly complicated explanations for grades, as I grew tired of justifying them. A meant this and C meant that. In our current model we represent each degree of ability with a number (humans, apparently, are doomed to hierarchies). Doing this assist in understanding that the number or the grade doesn’t matter. What matters is the meaning of the thing. It’s entirely possible to provide a set of explanations on a student paper that illustrate the degree to which they are writing “articulate arguments” or that provide information about how to improve their method of evaluating a source for bias or motive. In a poetry course, we can move the language toward the requirements of the particular discipline or adhere to a general definition of “problem-solving” as poets do it. Practical politics, however, gets in the way. Students express themselves differently when they say I got an A, what’d you get? versus I got a “can assert a conclusion that doesn’t rely upon belief,” what’d you get?

Students will often tell me they want to know what their grade is, and that’s all they want to know. They use code for this; they say, “I want to know how I’m doing.” I might say, “Well, you need more aggressive analysis and stop using hard-core partisans as experts.” “Yeah, but how do I get an A” is the typical coded response, when the response I gave is the answer. I say: just work on improving analysis or find better sources with which to practice. It can get heated because the modern student isn’t typically acclimated to academic or professional material, communication norms, work load, and subject matter. It’s not something one can just explain.

I’ve been using this method going on nine years. I started in English Literature courses, providing students explanations and means for improvement on their work rather than grades, and boy did I get hell for from students. The ire I’ve received in response has always been difficult to deal with but no more difficult necessarily than the responses I used to get to grades. “Why a C? I need an A to keep my GPA or I won’t get into my program” Or, “I’ve never got D in my life! You’re the worst fucking teacher ever.” From there, the conversations would go haywire.

This semester has proven interesting in the evolution of this system of evaluating as I reviewed some of the best papers I’ve ever read at midterm. More than half of the students nailed the assignment. Student work in an ability-based model theoretically provides a narrative of learning. Students should begin early unable to demonstrate satisfactory work but after practice, writing, and reading, should improve. Why? Because early work involves foundational stuff like summary writing, research basics, short analyses, comparison work, and then the student can move to making a claim or taking a position. Those who stick with the approach typically do improve. Those who want top scores early and won’t take time to understand where they might improve if they put their noses to it typically drop (this is merely a hypothesis). Some students think this makes me a shitty teacher, who explains nothing, and doesn’t give a crap about their needs or wants. (I had a student recently whistle with disbelief at what students have said on the “professor rating” web site; I don;t dare look myself.) Other students grin, bear it, and make out fine in the end. Statistically my success rate is pretty good ( I often grab stats on how students do after they move on), and students who come back by the office claim that the torture paid off. For teachers, anecdotal evidence can be instructive. We deal with people as people and need to know what they do with what they learn.

This last round of bulk good work, some of it excellent, is good and excellent because it demonstrates that the students are learning into the abilities. Some students are still guessing about the difference between an argument and a statement of fact. Here’s an example of guessing: “So ‘n’ so argues that Romney or Obama said that if elected every one will get healthcare.” In the ability-based model guessing amounts to a boolean expression. Why: because people can learn to discriminate between these concepts. When students identified and evaluated evidence in relation to an argument, they got it right, maybe not expressed as well as Keats could express but good enough to show that they can do the job.

This doesn’t, however, validate the pedagogy I employ. Too many variables get in the way of this. What the student success does tell me is that they are learning and they’re learning beyond my assistance. It’s important often to avoid pedagogy validity arguments as in some cases courses might simply get lucky with a whole bunch of stars or struggle with a whole bunch of people who needed more preparation or lots of assistance.

Some of the methods are risky. Firstly, I don’t read and comment on drafts anymore. I don’t ask students to provide drafts that I then give back with comments, as my own teachers did and as I once perpetrated. This is not a methodological crime. Past experience has taught me that this method leads to the encouragement of poor study and editing habits, especially for raw freshmen who need more learning in study habits than anything having to do with good writing. Instead, I ask students to read other student drafts and edit against the abilities in typical peer review sessions. How students edit their peers tells me a lot about their own habits of reading and resilience in the face of problems. I ask students to provide me with their edited copy for kicks.

This is risky as final papers may indeed show a great deal of missed opportunity or lack of learning in comparison to more polished work that teachers traditionally poor over in prep for final copy. When it works, the amount of learning a student shows is apparent in comparison to past work. A writer notices the difference between the past and present if they make decisions on their own. This gives me more dramatic information about what I need to do in the classroom. If the majority of students are still having issues with paragraph divisions and transitions, then I can see that in unadulterated copy, and I can work with this issue more in class. In addition, heavily edited drafts by teachers may produced more polished final drafts. This, however, may not assist students when they’re asked to write for later courses where assistance from the professor is no longer provided.

Secondly, I do a hell of a lot of modeling, which is where a screen and word processor really come in handy in a writing course. Using the computer I can build a set of paragraphs and show students what synthesis and analysis looks like on the fly. They see and hear my thought process; they see how I correct spelling; they see how I clean up a cut and paste job from an online article with embedded links or superscripting. We discuss the process a lot. We throw an article up on the screen and we talk about why a writer fell down on the job, either leaping to a conclusion or providing an irrelevant example to support an otherwise perfectly reasonable argument. Then the students are expected to go out and read, practice, and study the notes they generated in discussion, in modeling, and in draft revision, as I will typically grab a student draft and take it apart for all to see (of course, only if agreed upon by the poor student under glass) and then put it back together using the concepts we’re trying to learn: elements of persuasive writing, paragraphing, analysis, quoting and reference, and idea development.

From a teacher’s perspective, observing a range of student performance is a good thing. This range provides a framework for evaluating the story of learning in a particular course. For several years I’ve been struggling with low performance, low preparation, and heavy drop rates. I don’t see an end to this trend. But sometimes the story of performance is encouraging, some times not so encouraging, but it’s valuable nonetheless in instructing the instructor.

On the Creation of Imaginary Friends

From Alexsander Hamon’s The Aquarium

It is not unusual, of course, for children of Ella’s age to have imaginary friends or siblings. The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match. She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses. Ella now knew the word “California,” for instance, but she had no experience that was in any way related to it; nor could she conceptualize it in its abstract aspect—in its California-ness. Hence, her imaginary brother had to be deployed to the sunny state, which allowed Ella to talk at length as if she knew California. The words demanded the story.

Sally Terrell Travels

forkeeps.jpgCongratulations to Sally Terrell, our wonderful talent, for her inclusion in For Keeps, a collection of memoir edited by Victoria Zackheim. Over the course of the next few days, Sally will be reading from her work. She’ll be at Community Book Store in Brooklyn tonight at 7:30 PM, December 8th at Bluestockings in Manhattan at 7 PM, and East Haddam’s Burgundy Books on Sunday at 12:30 PM.

Sally’s work is yet another effort in the creative production going on at Tunxis. We’re proud to have her among our numbers.

From the book:

In FOR KEEPS: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance, twenty-seven gifted authors write personal essays about how body image has colored, changed or enriched their lives…or how life’s events have changed their body image. Many of these authors have experienced some transformative moment when they thought Aha! and life was never the same. Whether the focus is illness, depression, our mothers, or growing older, the writing is profound, sometimes hilarious, and always engaging. What better than humor and the naked truth to celebrate and flaunt our bodies…and our attitudes toward them? Whoever we are, the way we feel about our bodies profoundly affects the way we live our lives.

Crazy for Beverly Cleary Clearly

Maybe you remember Beverly Cleary books from the ’60s. I don’t. I read comics, Hardy Boys, and other things I can’t remember in the early ’70s. My son has gone positively ape over Ralph S. Mouse and Henry and Ribsy, partially due to the quality of the storytelling and to the way Cleary writes for performance reading. She has an amazing ear for the oral quality of storytelling. Cleary refines the art of closing at energetic plot points that makes for the wonderful explosion of screams for more and “What’s going to happen to Ralph?”

Even better is the agreement she makes with the reader, young and old: mice are cute, but good storytelling demands edge. In Ralph’s world, the tension is palpable, the danger and dramatic challenges aggressive and unexpected.

Wonderful stuff and refreshing in a time of cute and bland fluff that generally treats children as brainless and provides them no basis for evaluating excellence from mediocrity.

Politics and Journalism

This article by Peter Wallsten from the Los Angeles Times and printed in The Hartford Courant is typical of what I would call “political or horse-race reporting.” It’s also reflective of news programming that concentrates of political strategy and campaign instruction, which may be a new idiom of the art.

Here are some features that describe the idiom:

1. Content is typically inconsistent with the headline
2. Content reflects party activity as the subject of the report
3. Quotes are reported as if they “were” the news

Let’s look at this a little more closely. The headline reads: “Democrats Get Tougher On Illegal Immigrants.” The first paragraph reads:

Top Democratic elected officials and strategists are engaged in an internal debate over toughening the party’s image on illegal immigration, with some worried that Democrats’ relatively welcoming stance makes them vulnerable to GOP attacks in the 2008 election.

While the headline suggests actual changes in policy positions by the Democrats, the first paragraph focuses on “the party’s image.” The debate is not about actual policy, but about a “toughening of the party’s image on illegal immigration” or what Wallsten refers to as “calibration.” The problem for this shift in “image-but-not-actual-policy” comes from “election results”:

Advocates of the change cite local and state election results last week in Virginia and New York, where Democrats used sharper language and get-tough proposals to stave off Republican efforts to paint the party as weak on the issue.

In Virginia, for instance, where Democrats took control of the state Senate, one high-profile victory came in the Washington suburbs, where the winner distributed mailings in the campaign’s closing days proclaiming his opposition to in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants.

In the article, Wallsten does call up one example of actual policy change that shows evidence that more than image politics is at play. He writes:

In Congress, a group of conservative Democrats, led by freshman Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, introduced legislation last week calling for more Border Patrol agents and a requirement that employers verify the legal status of workers. The proposal does not include measures to create a path to citizenship for millions of illegal workers, which in the past have been supported by Democrats nationally.

Significant here is the item left off the agenda which meets the theme of recalibration within the horse-race narrative: the “path to citizenship.” There is a missing context here though as to why the legislation is a “toughening” move and not “good or bad policy” when measured or evaluated against a list of standards: more agents (there are not enough) and “verification requirement” (verify how?). It would seem that this paragraph should form the bulk of the report if indeed the article were “about” the headline.

But then we bleed back into the “narrative”:

With polls showing broad discontent with the government’s handling of immigration, some Democrats are arguing that there are areas in which the party can toughen its image without moving too far away from its traditionally pro-immigration leanings – such as supporting heightened security at the Mexico border, opposing benefits for illegal immigrants and pushing for harsher penalties against businesses that hire illegal workers. (bolds mine)

I don’t understand the concluding list and why these “positions” constitute “pro-immigration leanings.”

The report is about demagoguery not about policy.

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