Stay Tuned…

Ah, poor little blog, so sadly neglected!

As I am sure many of my educator colleagues know, this past year has been… surreal. Exhausting. Challenging. Terrifying. Exhilarating.

We appear to be moving toward the next phase. I am deliberately avoiding “getting back to normal” for a few reasons: first, what the heck is “normal,” anyway? Second, I don’t think we will resume all our activities exactly as they were before the pandemic. Finally, I hope that we won’t just fall back into doing everything the way we’ve always done it.

So, over the summer, I am working on a few things, inspired by this shift:

  • with my very awesome co-author Erin Reid, a paper on how Canadian university and cegep educators coped with the sudden swerve to emergency online teaching in March 2020, and the shift to teaching online long-term over the past academic year;
  • reflecting on the social media aspect of the past year, and how we used SM to create or expand communities of practice, to provide peer mentorship (and much needed virtual shoulders to lean on)
  • researching online assessment and all the pearl-clutching around ‘cheating’ – I think we need to examine our ideas of what cheating is, and whether our expectations of assessment are realistic, not just in the context of the pandemic, but in the larger context of the digital era.

I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these projects, whether in the comments here or by email maggie[dot]mcdonnell[at]concordia.ca

I will also be drinking iced tea on the back deck and hiking with the dogs, so it’s not all fun and games.

Making the Grade

Letters from the front

As someone who has used point rubrics extensively, I have a pretty good sense of how to calculate number grades, but a recent conversation with colleagues has made me question if number grades are really my preference, or just my Cégep conditioning.

Image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay

I have spent more than fifteen years teaching at the Cégep level, where course grades are reported in percentage, and 60% is the minimum passing grade. I am now teaching in the university system, and we report course grades as letters, with a D- as the minimum.

Number grades make a lot of sense for evaluations that are straightforwardly quantifiable, but what’s the difference between an essay that gets 87% and an essay that gets 85%? Where does one student lose or gain 2%? In this sense, grading with a range seems more feasible—both of these essays get an A, and there’s no uncomfortable quibbling over one or two percentage points [I’m well aware that some students will quibble no matter what grading system one uses, but you get my point].

Is Room for Improvement Justification for Downgrading?

The facet of the conversation that truly gave me pause, though, was one colleague saying matter-of-factly that you just can’t give a perfect grade. If an essay is graded on 10, no student is going to get 10/10. When I asked the colleague to explain, the response was that “there’s always room to improve” in writing. It’s fair to say that this was not the first time I’ve encountered this position, and my colleague is far from alone in taking this approach to grading.

But while I agree that writing can usually be improved with a little more time or scrutiny, my objection to this stance is that the grade should reflect the task and learning objectives. If I were teaching math, and created a ten-question test, each question worth one point, then it’s pretty easy to see that a student could very well achieve a perfect score. Assuming that the test is valid, the 10/10 result demonstrates that this student has learned what was being tested. In my mind, this same thinking can be applied to more “subjective” disciplines, such as writing. If my test is designed to assess student learning on a specific concept, and a student has demonstrated absolutely that they’ve met the objective, then why is a perfect score not possible? I argue that deciding in advance that a perfect score is impossible means that you are assessing elements of the writing that are not actually part of the stated objectives.

For example, if I have assigned a first-year class a five-paragraph comparative essay, and have provided a detailed rubric—or at least a detailed overview of what I am evaluating, my standard for grading is “what does an excellent first-year, five-paragraph, comparative essay look like?”, not “what does a fourth-year, ten-page research paper look like?” How can I evaluate students on concepts and skills that they have not yet encountered?

I think it is entirely justifiable, and in fact, pedagogically ethical, to grade according to level. An excellent first-year paper may well be only an adequate third-year paper—so if the paper is submitted in a third-year course, it gets an adequate grade, but if it’s submitted in a first-year course, it gets an excellent grade. Otherwise, we are punishing students for being first-year students, not evaluating their work according to the standards of the level. When I shared this thought with a friend who teaches physical therapists, she agreed, and pointed out that her students complete four practical stages. The fourth stage is just prior to certification, and naturally, students at that stage are expected to be, essentially, professionals with all the knowledge and skill that implies. Students doing the first stage, on the other hand, have not learned the same content yet, nor have they been exposed to the same skillsets. So students in the first stage are evaluated on the objectives specific to that stage—otherwise, if they were evaluated according to the expectations of the final stage, they would not be able to advance.

A for Effort

So I have decided to give letter grades a try. I have created a rubric for interpreting the grades, shared below.

My number-based rubrics will still come in handy. First, they are an excellent source for articulating criteria and expectations for specific assignments. They’ll also allow me to keep a separate record of student performance to use when calculating final grades, in case there are any hard-to-assess cases.

The number-based rubrics I have been using for the past decade and a half were not birthed fully formed. I tweaked and revised and edited and adjusted over and over. While I feel that these rubrics are excellent reflections of my assessment practice, there’s always room for improvement 😉

Please feel free to provide feedback on the letter rubric, ask questions, and share your own approach!


Interpreting letter grades for major assignments

Note that a minus (–) grade typically indicates that your work is mostly situated in the letter range but has some areas of weakness or elements missing. A plus (+) grade indicates that your work is mostly situated in the letter range but demonstrates better performance in some areas.

Grade Overall Your work demonstrates:
A Excellent, exceptional work Your work not only meets all the criteria for this assignment, but demonstrates originality, creativity, professionalism and exceptional engagement in the project. You have clearly gone above and beyond the basic requirements, and your organization, critical thinking, and understanding of the key concepts are outstanding. Meets well, or even exceeds, expectations for this level and topic.
B Strong, competent work Your work clearly and strongly meets all the criteria for this assignment. You have clearly engaged yourself in this project, and have demonstrated good organization, critical thinking, and a strong grasp of the key concepts. Meets expectations for this level and topic—there’s room for improvement, but continuing to work at this level will lead to success in the course.
C Acceptable work Your work basically meets most or all of the criteria for this assignment. You have engaged yourself in the project, but your organization, thinking, and understanding of the key concepts is limited. Satisfies the minimum expectations for this level and topic—you should be aiming for better performance in subsequent assignments.
D Acceptable but unsatisfactory work Your work struggles to meet the criteria for this assignment. It is not clear that you have engaged yourself in the project, and your work lacks organization and critical thinking. You seem to be unclear on some of the key concepts. Fails to meet the minimum requirements for this level and topic—you need to perform better in subsequent assignments to succeed in this course.
F Unacceptable work

Your work fails to meet the minimum criteria for this assignment. You do not appear to have engaged yourself in the project, and your work is disorganized and lacks understanding of the basic concepts. Unacceptable for this level and topic—you need to perform significantly better in subsequent assignments if you intend to continue in this course.

Note that this grade will also be assigned to any work not submitted.

NG Not Graded

Your work does not seem to address the purpose of the project. You may have misinterpreted the assignment instructions. Your resubmission may be accepted after consultation with the professor.

Note that this grade may also be assigned as a placeholder for deadline extensions.

 

 

 

Pandemic Practice

It’s February, which means it has been almost a year since the world changed. On March 13 2020, our campuses closed, and since then, most university business—teaching, research, administration, fundraising—has happened “virtually” (more on my problems with that term later). All classes were cancelled for one week, to give teachers time (ha!) to make the transition to teaching remotely.

Pandemic panic

Initially, most of our panic was focused on the tech—would we have full licenses for the platforms? Did we have the hardware we needed (think back—this was a really big challenge in Spring 2020, when the entire world moved from workers in office towers to a massive work-from-home directive, which means literally millions of people who suddenly needed computers, and all the related peripherals, for their home offices, and retailers just didn’t have the stock.) Parents needed space and hardware to support children learning at home, while carving out space and finding hardware for themselves, to continue working.

There are several things that I was grateful for, as we all faced this unprecedented shift. First, my partner, our kids, and I are tech savvy, and we already each had our own computer, and most of the required equipment to support our working and studying at home. We had reasonably reliable Internet access (we have actually upgraded, but given that it took almost three months from making the call to getting the installation, I’m glad we had workable Wi-Fi to begin). Perhaps most importantly, we have a big house, and each person has plenty of personal space.

Wired in haste, repent in leisure

As a teacher, I have always been excited about using tech to support my practice, so the idea of teaching online wasn’t as daunting to me as it has been for some. I definitely had concerns, though. The mindset in the spring was “let’s just get through this.” As individual instructors, and as an institution, we did our best to finish the term but made it pretty clear that as long as students demonstrated a minimum of engagement, we would essentially give everyone the benefit of the doubt and grade accordingly. We had enough time to rethink final assessment scenarios, but we were close enough to the end of term that we could just limp to the finish line.

For the fall term, though, I had other concerns. I worried about how to structure prerecorded lectures, and how to make them available while not making them too available. I worried about retention and attrition—would students come back, after the confusion and panic of the spring, and would they stay in courses if they did? How could I create a sense of classroom community—in March, when we met online, we had already been meeting in person for several weeks. I knew their names, faces, and voices, and they knew each other. We had a rapport, and they had come to know my style. How could I recreate that sense of connection when we were online from Day One? How could I create trust?

What I didn’t know I didn’t know

Perhaps not surprisingly, there were also dozens of challenges that I didn’t anticipate. The biggest challenge at the outset was the steep learning curve when it came to the tech. I had spent the summer learning how to navigate Teams, and I attended several yoga teacher trainings via Zoom, and learned a ton of dos and don’ts for synchronous teaching and learning—breakout rooms are great, screen shares that hijack your screen are awful—so I felt ready for the fall term. I felt quite foolish when it became apparent in the first week or two that my students were not at all familiar with these platforms, and were overwhelmed trying to navigate them. It certainly didn’t help that different teachers were doing different things—in person, this is also true, but somehow when we moved everyone online, the different approaches just added to student confusion.

One indirect consequence of the tech learning curve and the different teaching styles was that students perceived their workloads as significantly heavier than a “normal” course load. This perception was validated by the fact that, in keeping with guidelines from our administrators, teachers were splitting large evaluations into multiple smaller evaluations. So, instead of two essays worth 50% each for a lit course, students were asked to write four essays worth 25% each. The idea was smaller assignments would be easier to manage, and more frequent assessment would encourage engagement. The reality was that students felt the same pressure for a weightier assignment, but had more of them, and had to figure out how to conduct research, work collaboratively, seek feedback, and submit work entirely online.

There were other, smaller, challenges that I had not anticipated. In my freshman Composition course, the default for students was to keep their cameras off. In my Professional Writing course, about half of the group kept their cameras off, while the rest had them on most of the time. I never insisted on having cameras on, although I did encourage them to turn cameras on for breakout rooms, and most of them did. Interestingly, this winter, there are many more cameras on; it seems that the need to feel seen and be part of a community now outweighs the desire to remain anonymous. Someone should definitely do a psych paper on this!

I’m glad cameras are more frequently on now, because one of the unexpected challenges in the fall was not seeing faces—not because I don’t like looking at all the black boxes, but because I rely on non-verbal feedback as a teacher. Are students keeping up? Are they interested? Are they confused? Bored? Asleep? (I have had at least one instance when I call on someone whose camera is off, only to discover that they’re just not there.)

I also felt a little lost without my whiteboard and markers. I use the board pretty frequently, both to record important concepts as I’m lecturing and to illustrate my thought process when answering questions. I’m no artist, but visualizing what I’m thinking helps me explain it. And the whiteboard thought process is really just part of the larger physical aspect of the classroom experience—I stand, and often pace, while I’m talking, and I wander through the classroom while students are working. So teaching statically, with no whiteboard, felt awkward and inauthentic. I tried a few hacks, the most ridiculous of which was a complicated stand to suspend my phone over the desk so I could write and have the camera record; ultimately, I got an actual whiteboard, retrieved my markers from my campus office, and bought a massive easel so I could move the whiteboard into position behind me.

scan of Maggie's whiteboard

I bought a set of four “beacons” that create a digital perimeter around the whiteboard, which allows me to cast the board to my phone, or even livecast it to a URL, refreshed every few seconds, so students can follow, and even save, my notes. I have ended up not using the board as much as that description warrants, but it’s nice to know it’s there.

Silver linings

While there have been myriad challenges in shifting, however temporarily, to teaching remotely, there have also been some genuine epiphanies. There are certain aspects of teaching “virtually” that have proven to be very effective, and some things I was already doing in person that have been improved and strengthened through being adapted for the online classroom.

I discovered early on that most students prefer synchronous sessions. I stopped doing prerecorded lectures after week four of the fall term, and now only do recordings of procedural things, such as a screenshare of how to set up formatting in a document. Everything else, we do in real time. I do keep class time to less than the scheduled time, generally, because I’m asking students to do a lot of collaborative work. Students work in the same small group for the term, and are responsible for determining the conditions for that collaborative work—do they meet once a week or more, or less; do everything individually or work on things simultaneously; use Google Docs or Teams; and so on. This more structured approach to group work is something I will definitely bring with me back into the classroom, and I’ll continue to give groups space in the virtual environment for collaboration.

One aspect of group work that works really well online is sharing results. So, groups go off into the breakout rooms to work on a task, then we reconvene, and each group has a chance to report on their discussion. More and more, students are sharing their screens with the class, so we can all see firsthand their notes, their process, and their results. I’m hoping to find a way to enable this sharing once we’re back on campus, without having to book all my classes into computer labs! Screensharing has also been really effective in one-on-one meetings with students. Holding office hours online is, I suspect, one of the aspects of the current situation that will stay with us post-pandemic. The online office hour is more convenient for everyone involved, and we can see a shared file without all the awkward tilting of monitors and shifting of chairs.

I’ve noticed that this term, there is a lot less tech stress. Most students, especially those who were in one of my fall courses, are now familiar with the different platforms, and have figured out their best home set-up, so we can get right into the course material without spending a week or more just navigating the systems and making sure everyone’s connected. For my Professional Writing students especially, crossing that online work threshold is something that will serve them well in the workplace, a benefit of which they are indeed aware. In fact, I’m working on incorporating navigating online platforms and collaborative work into the learning goals for the program. When the next pandemic drops, we’ll be ready.

Teaching in 2020, in full Pandemic Panic? Share!

Teacher Survey!

If you are a teacher, professor, tutor, TA, or any other kind of educator, I’d love to hear from you. I am hoping to write an article (or more than one) reflecting on how the pandemic has affected and influenced you as a teacher.

Responses are anonymous, and any details that might expose identity will be eliminated from any forthcoming publications. I have asked respondents to provide an email address primarily in order to discourage misuse of the survey; email addresses will not be shared, nor will I start sending you spam, promise.
If you have questions about the form, please send email to maggie.mcdonnell[at]concordia.ca
If you would like to invite other teachers to participate, please do.

Why the master should become the student

This term has been so busy for me – I’ve started a new job, which I love, but which involves a lot of work, in a lot of different directions. All of this work is the kind of challenge I really thrive with, and in many ways, I’m really happy with the progress I’ve made so far. I still feel like there are things to learn, and I have felt, as one of my sister newbies said of her own teaching, that I’m making a lot of the rookie mistakes we tend to make when teaching a new course. I mismanaged my TA hours, so I now find myself at the end of the term, when marking really builds up, with no help. I’m facing that weird paradoxical feeling of there being only a few classes left, so not enough time to cover everything, while still feeling like I haven’t planned those classes in enough detail. I missed an important deadline for a curriculum change that I really want to have in place for next year, so it’s entirely possible that this change just won’t happen when I want.

On the other hand, I feel like I have established a good rapport with most of my colleagues, and that the changes I’m planning are welcome and supported. My students are comfortable with me, and they’re doing well. I have even figured out (mostly) the intricate online advising platform. I feel very much at home, and full of optimism for myself and my program.

Part of the reason things are a little overwhelming is that I agreed to teach an extra course this term, in exchange for (a) having TAs and (b) teaching one fewer next term. I am taking an online program in editing, and I have enrolled in two courses this winter, and another in the spring. My dissertation is currently in the hands of my committee, so the timing looks like it will work out really well – I’ll have less teaching in the winter, so time to work on revisions and my own coursework, as well as, of course, planning for next year’s courses and more program development. This term, I am taking only one course in the editing program, but that one course is getting away from me. Like, to the point that when our prof sent a message early this week to say she would be late getting to our latest assignments because she had an emergency appendectomy, my immediate reaction was “thank god.” Which makes me a terrible person, obviously, but I’m still grateful for a little extra time to get caught up.

Continue reading “Why the master should become the student”

Thank you

I’ve been listening to A. J. Jacob’s book, Thanks a Thousand, and he inspired me to engage in a gratitude exercise: from A to Z, this is what I am grateful for as a teacher.

Assessment: Obviously, as a researcher, assessment is a source of fascination for me. Through my research, and my teaching, I’ve come to really appreciate the value of assessment as an essential aspect of learning.

Becoming: The notion that we are always becoming, as opposed to being, teachers, is profoundly important to me. Yes, I am a teacher, but I am not exactly the teacher I was last year, or last decade, nor the teacher I will be next year, or next decade. There is always room, and need, for growth – and for forgiveness, for what we weren’t yet, before.

Cegep: I am very grateful for the Cegep system, both as a teacher and as a student (and even as a parent). No system is flawless, and not all colleges, programs, or teachers are perfect, but the Cegep system is an excellent transition from secondary to university, for some, and – perhaps more importantly – a training ground for those for whom university just isn’t the way.

Development: I am grateful that in my new job, I have a chance to develop an already-good program into what I hope will be a great program.

The English Exit Exam: First, I am grateful that the exam introduced me to so many wonderful people from other colleges and other walks of life. I have always loved the slightly crazed but delightfully intimate atmosphere of the marking sessions. I am also grateful for the leadership skills I’ve had to hone to coordinate the exam and marking sessions, and for the opportunity to better my written French with countless emails to and from the Ministry team.

Friends: Most of my close friends are also teachers, and we are, I believe, a valuable resource for each other. We vent to each other, we bounce ideas off of each other, and we share tools, tips, and material with each other.

General Education: One of the things that the Cegep system gets right is its insistence that regardless of program, regardless of university or career track, all students must take courses in literature, humanities, a second language, and physical education. The General Education program prepares our students as citizens, and I am grateful that our system values that aspect of our students’ lives. Continue reading “Thank you”

Remember how much we forget

One of the great things about researching teacher development through community of practice is that I can be in research mode most of the time, and it just looks like having conversations (because that’s what it is). The conversation that’s been happening lately tends to dwell on the idea of trying to put oneself in the learners’ shoes.

When I was a kid, my mother tried to teach me to knit. But she’s a lot like me – I have a ton of patience with my students, but if I try teaching my husband something, I get super frustrated almost immediately. It’s like I know he’s really smart, so why isn’t he immediately getting this thing, that is so easy to do? What does he mean, what does ‘sauté the onions’ mean?

So when my mum taught me to knit, I think it must have been the same – I wasn’t getting it right away, so she got frustrated, which made me flustered and unhappy, which made knitting into something that I didn’t like. Something I wasn’t good at, and there were plenty of other things I was good at, so why would I waste my time on this?

Then as an adult, I got into crochet. I really wanted a scarf, a long, wide, warm scarf, and I couldn’t find one that fit the bill, so I said, OK, how hard can this be? I found a few tutorials and blogs online, got some yarn and a crochet hook, and figured it out. Boom, scarf. So I spent a few years crocheting, but then I started to think, OK, if I can do this, I can figure out how to knit, right? So again, I went online, and found tutorials with images. The videos weren’t helpful for me, but there’s so much out there that it’s easy to find the approach that works for you.

Halfway through a pair of legwarmers, which are basically sleeves, right?

I made more scarves. I made blankets. I got pretty good at variations on the quadrilateral – then, earlier this winter, I made myself a pair of legwarmers. Halfway through the first one, I realized that a legwarmer is pretty much just a sleeve. So I found a really simple sweater pattern, and I made a sweater. That first one, I remade twice. But I figured it out, and then realized that I was actually good at this, after all.

One thing that struck me was that when I first started, I had to look up how to do the basic stuff, every time. How do I cast on? I did it for the last project, but I need a reminder. I had a couple of knitting sites bookmarked so I could translate the weird knitting pattern shorthand, then go find a tutorial for how to do the stitch itself. Then I got to the point where I didn’t need the reminders anymore. The basic stitches and common techniques were second nature. I still find that if I encounter a new stitch or technique that I need to try it a few times – I find it hard to visualize what it should look like. But then once I’ve done it, I’ve got it.

I was talking about the importance of sometimes being a beginner with a colleague. We are both experienced teachers, both with advanced degrees in our respective fields, and both committed to a reflective practice. But when I told him how valuable I thought my learning-to-knit process was, he looked skeptical.

“Being a beginner is scary,” he said. “I’d feel too vulnerable. I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Of course, that’s true – but it’s also a big part of why we teachers need to be willing to be learners, even if we are so inexperienced as knitters, or skiers, or onion sautéers that we feel stupid or slow or frustrated. How many of our students feel exactly that way the first time they sit in our classrooms? How many of them are still trying to remember how to cast on, but we’ve forgotten that once upon a time, casting on wasn’t second nature to us?

I hear a lot of teachers talk about the evils of rote memorization, and it’s certainly true that learning can’t be just that. But maybe we’re so averse to memorization because we’ve forgotten what we’ve memorized. Those basics are so ingrained in our minds, in our practice, that we don’t see that we needed to remember it. That once upon a time we didn’t know how to cast on. That we didn’t know what sauté the onions meant. That we didn’t just know the alphabet. How many of us still mentally recite the alphabet song when we’re doing our reference list?

So my take away is twofold: try to remember what I’ve forgotten I didn’t always know, and be willing to be vulnerable, to look like I have no idea what I’m doing, and acknowledge that sometimes, some of them feel exactly that.

 

Crisis? What Crisis?

At a recent family event, we (naturally) got into a lively discussion of statistics; we all agreed that the biggest mistake people make with statistics is to not demand context. So, for instance, a political candidate might capitalize on the fact that the poverty rate has risen to 13% – but conveniently leave out the fact that it’s risen from 12.7%, or that other measures might suggest that it’s actually fallen from 15% to 8% in the same period.

British PM Benjamin Disraeli said it first, frequent attributions to Mark Twain notwithstanding

Also recently, a friend on Facebook asked for details about the new Quebec government’s promise regarding pre-K, and whether it would be mandatory (it would not be, according to the CAQ election platform). These two exchanges got me to thinking about the government’s stance on various aspects of education in the province, and in particular, in the cegep system. After all, in 2011, François Legault – now our Premier – told a crowd of supporters in Longueuil that “we should not have Cegeps” because while they were a great place to learn how to smoke dope, there was a significant problem with graduation rates.

Legault has backpedalled on this position; in fact, he and his team now claim to be big supporters of the Cegep model, which, they say, prepares students for university and professional development, and contributes to regional development. Legault still seems to think, however, that there is a dropout crisis in Cegep, no doubt fuelled by the fact that only 41% of pre-university Cegep students graduate in the two-year period allotted to such programs. That number, though, goes up to 68%, when we allow students more time. As a teacher in this system, I’m frankly amazed that as many as 41% are able to do it in two years – the course load is almost twice what they will encounter in university, yet we expect 16- and 17-year-olds to leap from the high school model to a self-directed model with nary a stumble. And if you’re thinking that 68% doesn’t seem like much, consider that despite the dire outlook of the CAQ, Quebec has more people with higher education than any other province: 50% of Quebecers between 18 and 34 have a post-secondary diploma, compared to 30% in Ontario. And according to the Conference Board of Canada, the Quebec Cegep system has had a significant positive effect on national post-secondary education rates:

One reason for Canada’s high ranking on college completion is the unique role of colleges known as CEGEPs (collèges d’enseignement général et professionnel) in Canada’s second-largest province, Quebec. CEGEP is a pre-university program offered after Grade 11 that replaces the extra year of high school provided in other Canadian provinces. As a two-year program, however, it also covers one year of community college. It is a prerequisite for university acceptance. CEGEP enrolment is around 150,000 per year. Between 1990 and 2006, college participation rates for those aged 17 to 19 were consistently above 35 per cent in Quebec, compared with only 10 per cent in the rest of Canada.

The fact is, as a province, we are increasingly educated: in 2009, 16.6% of the population between 25 and 64 years old (i.e., the working-age population) had no diploma; 20.9% had a high-school diploma; and the remaining 63.4% had at least a Cegep-level diploma or certificate. In 2015, the undiplomaed population had dropped to 12.8%; 68.5% had Cegep or better. Yet Quebec is still seen as the worst province for education, and it is certainly true that we don’t invest nearly as much as other provinces in education (and, in passing, the CAQ has promised to increase investment in education by $400 million annually, without raising taxes. I remain skeptical.).

There seems to be a gap between sets of stats. So here’s some context to help, I hope, bridge that gap. Yes, our graduation rate is lower than Ontario’s, but our pass rate is higher – that is, fewer students graduate, but that’s partly because they need a 60% in core subjects to pass, rather than 50% in Ontario. Furthermore, the studies that are typically cited tend to look only at pass/fail or complete/stall, without taking into account cultural factors. Quebec is the only province that requires some non-francophone students to attend school in French and restricts access to English schools. This restriction mean that students that come to Quebec from outside of Canada must attend school in a language with which they are not familiar, no doubt making it much harder for them to graduate ‘on time.’ The impact on Cegep studies is indirect – students can study at this level in either language, regardless of their eligibilities at primary and secondary – but it amounts to the same thing: about half of our students, depending on the college, are entering an English college from a French high school. Of course it will take these students an extra semester or four to successfully complete their program.

There is a generational and regional facet to these statistics, as well. In 2006, an astonishing 54% Quebecers over 75 had no diploma at all, while only 11% of Quebecers between 25 and 34 could say the same. Women are generally more likely to have post-secondary education in Quebec, if they’re under 55 – the gender divide reverses at that point. Regionally, Montreal skews the provincial average – in 2015, less than 9% of the Montreal adult population didn’t have at least a high school diploma (12.8% provincially), and 16% of adult Montrealers had post-graduate degrees, compared to only 8.7% across the province.

So, as with all statistics, context is key. None of this is to say that we shouldn’t invest more in Quebec education or that we should turn a blind eye to the problems that do exist. But we need to contextualize observations so we can invest wisely and provide support when and where it is needed.

UPDATE: yet more validation, in this article from the BBC, outlining how Canadian education at all levels compares favourably on a global scale. Our teenagers are among the best educated in the world, and

If Canadian provinces entered Pisa tests as separate countries, three of them, Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec, would be in the top five places for science in the world, alongside Singapore and Japan and above the likes of Finland and Hong Kong.

 

Haunted

Since it’s October, it seems fitting to write about my ghost student.

https://www.tripadvisor.ca/Attraction_Review-g186346-d1163552-Reviews-The_Original_Ghost_Walk_of_York-York_North_Yorkshire_England.html
Last autumn, Jennet was one of only nine students registered in my third-semester English for Liberal Arts course. For the first few classes, only eight students attended; Jennet was nowhere to be seen. I assumed she would eventually drop the course – it’s not uncommon in this program for students to transfer to another program or college after their second semester.

But then she appeared.

About three weeks into the semester, we were getting into our feminist readings of Frankenstein, and settling into a nice, intimate group dynamic.

I was really enjoying the course – with only eight students (or so I thought), and a teaching intern, I could experiment with pedagogical activities. We had a great time doing debates, four against four, for instance. The tiny class size did mean other activities, such as the group presentations, required some finessing, but generally, this was a fun class to teach. We had a great group vibe, too, not least because the eight students had already been through two semesters together, so I didn’t have to do any community building.

Then she appeared.

Jennet showed up one day, loud and energetic, chatting with her classmates. She did not bother to introduce herself (perhaps she assumed, justifiably, that I would know the one person in a group of nine who hadn’t been there yet) or explain her absences. She contributed to class discussion, albeit not always from a place of understanding, since she had not been there for previous discussions, nor was she up to date with reading. But I felt odd about her presence—like she was more disruptive than she actually was, just by being there.

Then she disappeared.

Jennet did not return to class the next day. In fact, the next time I saw her was in my office, for the mandatory essay conference. These conferences are based on in-class writing: stage one is the thesis planning, with feedback, then the outline, with feedback, then the in-class draft, with feedback. Before writing the final version of their paper, students must meet with me to discuss the three stages and the feedback I’ve provided, and talk about what they plan to do with the final version.

She appeared.

She had not been in class for her thesis planning, nor for the outline, nor for the draft. I was, frankly, taken aback when she appeared in my door (at least in part because I genuinely wasn’t sure who she was, having only met her once before). She sat down and handed me a typed draft of an essay that did not address the topic assigned. I told her this, and said that if she handed this essay in, she would fail. I offered her a deal: take an extra week, but send me an outline within two days, with a plan for an essay that answers the questions asked in the assignment. She agreed.

Then she disappeared.

She did not hand in an outline, nor did she hand in an essay. We were already past the deadline to drop courses, but what more could I do? I did not follow up with her – although I did ask one of her classmates about her chronic absences. He assured me that the problem wasn’t me (I didn’t really think it was, given how little we’d actually interacted), but rather some kind of self-defeating habit of not showing up. So I left it alone, and the semester continued, back to our now-established good groove.

Then she appeared.

She showed up once more that semester—her second ever classroom appearance—during oneof our debate classes, which was unsettling, given that we had been working with two teams of four. One of the teams invited her to join them, and she seemed to work well with the group. Again, though, I felt perturbed by her reappearance, not to mention puzzled: she had already missed two of the three essays, several reading quizzes, the group presentation, and there was, mathematically, no way she could pass the course. I expected her to come to my office or send me an email, asking how she might “make up” all the missed work. I rehearsed my response—but no such request came.

She disappeared.

Jennet never dropped my class, but she never submitted any work, either. Thanks to one reading quiz and her participation in one debate, her final grade for the course was 1.2% (note the decimal. One POINT two percent).

Then she reappeared.

Imagine my surprise when Jennet appeared on my class list for this semester, for the same course. This is a program course, required for Liberal Arts students—and apparently, Jennet is still among them. Three weeks into the semester, however, Jennet still had not attended a class. I contacted the program chair, who agreed that she was likely to fail and added that she is currently on academic probation, meaning that failing my class (or any other) would result in her expulsion from the program.

Then she reappeared.

The following week, Jennet was in class. This time, she was subdued, presumably because this year, she doesn’t know her classmates, since their cohort (a group of 23) started the year after hers did. She made a few contributions to the discussion—good ones, even—and approached me at the end of the class to ask if she could meet with me to discuss what she had missed. I agreed. I introduced her to a group who are scheduled to present later in the term, and asked if they would consider including her in their group. They agreed.

Then she disappeared.

Jennet did not attend the next class, or the next week. The drop deadline was approaching, so I sent her a message and reminded her that failing my class would affect her standing in the program, so she should consider dropping my class and discussing her options with the program chair.

She did not drop my course. The drop deadline came and went, but her name remained on my list, even though her body never came back to class. I advised her presentation group to assume that she would not be working with them after all. In the meantime, we had done the thesis planning, the essay outline, and the in-class draft. I set up an online appointment calendar for the essay conference—and she made an appointment.

 

She did not appear.

 

And then she did appear.

The week after the essay conferences, she came to class. Once again, she approached me, and asked if we could meet. We met on Tuesday this week; she did not have any work to show me, but she wanted to explain the many, many reasons she is almost always unable to attend class. I pointed out that so far, she has been to two classes. She told me that’s more than she’s attended any of her other courses. I’m flattered, obviously, but concerned. I asked why she’s in Liberal Arts? What does she want to do?

Corporate Law.

Oh dear. Time for some straight talk. Corporate Law is a very, very long shot for someone with her transcript. I don’t even bother pointing out how unlikely it is that she’ll get academic referees. I ask her if there’s a Plan B, and she tells me that she’s wanted to be a lawyer since she was four. I tell her she needs to start entertaining other options. I tell her she needs to get her sh*t together (and I’m not paraphrasing). Honestly, I expected her to nod and look abashed and swear to do better and then disappear.

But she came back.

She’s in class on Thursday, with her thesis and outline. The essay is due this coming Tuesday, so I tell her that I will accept her outline, and give her feedback, but she needs to come to my office Friday afternoon and collect it.

She appears.

Yesterday afternoon, she collected her outline, discussed her feedback, and promised to submit an essay.

I wonder if she has any idea how much thought I have put into her case. Does she think that I think about her at all? Or does she assume that in higher ed, we profs just don’t care about our students the way our K12 counterparts do? There are no calls or notes going home to parents, so perhaps the impression is that it’s sink-or-swim, and we’re not lifeguards. Certainly, there is only so much I can do—last year, I didn’t do much at all, frankly, but then, neither did she. This year, she is reaching out, however sporadically, and I’m trying to keep the life buoy within reach.

When I saw her name on my class list in August, and when I wrote to the program chair, I had firm resolve that if and when she appeared, I would exorcise her. No second chances. I don’t have time or space in my class to indulge this inexplicable behavior. I have a new group, with their own dynamic, and I don’t want to disrupt them for the sake of one prodigal classmate.

But I caved. She appeared, and I invited her in. She disappeared, and I rolled my eyes. She reappeared, and I met her halfway. She vanished, and then came back.

I think I need a proton pack.

 

 

Tending the Community of Practice garden

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_lightwise'>lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo</a>One of the most rewarding aspects of the research I’m doing for my doctorate is the opportunity to just sit down and talk with colleagues. I’m using interactive interviewing,* which means that I get to hang out with other teachers, talking (venting, ranting, musing, crying, laughing) about teaching. We’ve talked to each other about how we got started, what we think teaching is, how we deal with assessment, and even what our theme songs are (right now, I think this is mine. No Rick Roll, I promise).

I have just finished the final round of four interviews, with my nine participants (yay!! finished!!). I’ve met with each person one-on-one four times since last May; each time, we’ve talked for more than an hour, allowing ourselves to explore the tangents and spirals that naturally arise in our dialogue. The first time we talked, our theme was simple: how did we find ourselves in the classroom? In the second round, we talked about mentorship and metaphors for teaching and learning. In the fall, we met for a third time, to talk about assessment, evaluation, grading, and feedback.

In our final conversation, I asked my participants** to reflect on our process: did anything in particular resonate? Were there any 3-a.m.-wake-up epiphanies? Any moments in the classroom where our discussions echoed in your mind? What was the most valuable part of this process? Each person had different things to reflect on, or to elaborate upon, but what struck me was that every single one said that they just really loved talking about these things with me. One or two said that they’d spoken about teaching and learning with me more often in this past year than with anyone in their department. Most said that they’d really like to keep talking about teaching and learning, even if my research cycle is complete.

Earlier this month, I presented an overview of my research to my college department, and suggested that one of the take-aways from my research so far is that while we may not have Yoda-esque mentors as teachers, most of us experience what I’ve taken to calling mentoring moments. These moments share a few characteristics: they are typically peer-to-peer dialogues (although not exclusively); they are mutually beneficial (both parties get something from the dialogue); they may arise from a crisis but are not really designed to solve a problem – rather, they allow both people to explore ideas, share experiences, and brainstorm strategies, without trying to find the one-and-only way to deal with the crisis.

So, for example, I might engage in a discussion with my colleague Jane about our deadline policies, perhaps because one of us is dealing with a situation that has made us question our current policy. So, I’ll talk about what my policy is, and Jane will tell me about hers. We’ll naturally talk about how our policies differ – maybe Jane refuses to accept any submissions more than three days after the deadline, whereas I accept them but provide no feedback, or deduct 5% for each day late. Perhaps I’ll realize that my policy now is pretty different from what it was five years ago, and we’ll talk about what changed and why – maybe I’ve stopped deducting marks for late submissions because I reflected on that practice and came to the conclusion that I wanted the grade to reflect the work done, not the time management. Maybe it’s the other way around, and I’ve realized that I want students to learn how to manage time and workload, so my deadline policy now reflects that desire. Jane and I might talk for an hour or so, sipping tea, sharing stories of students who’ve tested our policy patience. In the end, maybe one or the other of us will adjust her policy; maybe neither of us will make any changes. No matter what, we both will feel more confident in our policy; in discussing, exploring, challenging, reflecting, we’ve come to understand better why our policy is what it is. We can better articulate the how and why of our policy.

So here’s what I’m thinking about now: these mentoring moments are so fruitful, yet, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, when our institution sets up a community of practice or a mentoring program – even if everyone’s really keen and excited – eventually it fizzles. The online forum for our department includes a space for dialogue – the most recent post in that section is from 2016. We talk about mentorship and community of practice, but it seems like things never really get off the ground.

I was discussing this fizzle phenomenon with a colleague today, and she said “and that’s when people just give up.” People stop attending the brown bag lunches, stop posting to the online forum, stop trying to track down their appointed mentor… but maybe, like a neglected plant, we need to do some pruning, some repotting, careful watering, and see if we can’t bring that plant back to life.

So, then, of course, the question is how. How do we revive a wilting community of practice? How do we keep conversations going? And how do we do all of this organically, so we don’t feel like we’re under some kind of administration-mandated obligation to pretend we’re talking to each other.


*Note: Interactive interviews go beyond the conventional researcher-participant construct to establish a collaborative relationship between the researcher and her participant (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2011). Unlike more traditional, ‘objective,’ interview techniques that ignore the emotional facet of the interview relationship itself (Ezzy, 2010), interactive interviewing uses autoethnography to recognize and reconstruct or redefine the relationship between researcher and participant. Ellis (1999) described her own experiences with interactive interviewing as an opportunity to engage in immediate responses to a participant’s story with her own lived experience. As the stories, experiences, and attitudes of the interviewer and interviewee flow into and through each other, the traditional boundaries and distances between the two participants are blurred or even erased (Fontana, 2002). [This section appears in the draft of my dissertation as well as in Finding Myself in Methodology (2017).

** OH MY GOD if someone can propose a few synonyms so I can stop writing “participant” over and over… the word has lost all meaning. Or rather, its connotation/denotation is starting to rankle – it feels very data-oriented to discuss “participants.” But I digress…