Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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9 thoughts on “Evolution”

  1. This is a blog post that I wished I had the clarity of thought and gumption to have written. Everything you’ve written here struck a chord. I’m sending it to my teacher education students. It’s a model of how to be a deeply thoughtful professional. Thanks Dana.

    1. Thanks, Steve. I have been thinking it through in my head for a while, and I talked about it with my Dean of Faculty. I have had to address some things I said early on in this blog and realized I no longer felt the same way, so it was time.

  2. Good post. I teach English…did 7th grade for 7 years , 12th grade for 5 years now. I’ve come to a lot of the same conclusions you have. I’d like to think I teach through the lens of “What do they need to know and be able to do to succeed in life?” instead of “What do they absolutely need to know about English today?” It’s a tough balance. First time reading your blog…will try to stop back!

  3. Love your posts Dana! I am currently on sabbatical after 28 years getting my ESL certification. It’s been fun and I see teachers with a total of 10 to 17 students total! (But a lot of individual lesson planning -no less difficult)..Can you imagine? Last year I had 130 and the research paper killed me plus a consultant waltzing in and teaching evaluation-blah blah blah. Never enough time and overwhelmed with tasks that took away from really teaching. I did what I had to and “passed” fine. I love Am Lit and I have had great kids, I am curious how you handle the whole research part without pulling out hairs. This will be first time with spring coming and I won’t be hunched over papers. Back next year,but hopefully with a fresh perspective.

    1. Hi Robin, as I said in your comment about the American lit curriculum, the research paper is in the history curriculum at my school. Perhaps it is time for English teachers everywhere to talk about the research paper. It doesn’t have to be taught in English, and my contention is that teaching a literary analysis paper doesn’t really set students up for the kind of research they will do in college, especially in other subjects. It’s time for teachers to realize that ALL teachers teach reading and writing, and perhaps our history and science teacher colleagues could help us out here. In fact, a case could be made that the research paper in history or science will better prepare students for college research. There is no reason why we shouldn’t think of it is as cross-curricular effort.

  4. Thank you for your transparency, Dana. I, too, look back at some of those early years’ ideas and cringe. I think the one I regret most was automatic zeroes for plagiarism (speaking of controversial). The kid doesn’t learn anything from that, not to mention the many ugly meetings it leads to. A colleague frames many questions regarding late work, zeroes, etc. with the question “Is this serving the taxpayers?” As in, does failing a kid who has the skills from the class make sense, knowing the taxpayer will have to pay for that kid to retake the credit? It’s food for thought.

    1. Liesl, I know what you mean. I have actually changed my policy on that over time, too. Ultimately, I want the students to learn, and as you say, they don’t learn with a zero. However, since I’ve been doing writing workshop, the transparency has prevented a lot of plagiarism. I offer students opportunities to fix plagiarism now. I wish everyone did.

  5. Yes, yes, yes! You have expressed exactly the way I’ve been feeling these past couple of years. Last year was my 20th year teaching, and I feel that I have changed so much since my first few years teaching. A lot of that change has been due to raising my own two children and seeing their particular learning demands through the eyes of a parent. I have a lot more sympathy for students now. I’d like to think that we’re older and wiser too! I agreee with the comment above about how we should be focusing on what they need to know to succeed in life and not just that they need to know all about British literature, for example. (I also just read your post about “uncoverage.”) Great, thought-provoking posts!

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