October 20, 2018

Haunted

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

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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.

 

 

March 29, 2018

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…

March 27, 2017

When is it OK to tell students not to bother?

Copyright https://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker'>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

Many of the ideas expressed in Bergeron’s piece are valid – but I can’t help but feel that the author glosses over the fact that school, while absolutely necessary for some people’s goals, isn’t necessarily easy for everyone.

Pourquoi sommes NOUS, les enseignants, ici ?

Because school probably came pretty naturally for us. Because the things that fascinated us – philosophy, history, literature – naturally led us into teaching. Because we’re comfortable (perhaps only comfortable in) an academic environment.

Yes, encourage students to reflect on their purpose, both short and long term. Yes, encourage those who wish to pursue non-academic paths. But don’t assume that those who struggle – whether to get the reading done, hand work in, get to class, or stay awake – do so out of disinterest or misdirection.

July 13, 2016

Failure to post

So my plan today was to write a post about thoughts and conversations I’ve had recently on the subject of failure. The more I wrote and thought and wrote, however, the more I realized that this was bigger than the planned post. So, rather than abandon the post altogether, I’m posting my preliminary plan, with an appeal for your input.

It’s a little overwhelming just how many people have said something about failure. Arianna Huffington said that the “failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of the process.” Michael Jordan said “I’ve failed over and over again… that’s why I succeed.” A simple Google search reveals countless famous failures, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey. And of course, when all else fails, we fall back on the old saw, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We seem to understand that failure is an inevitable part of life. In fact, we collectively resent anyone who appears to be an “overnight success,” feeling like anyone who hasn’t paid their dues hasn’t really earned their fame and fortune.

epic-failYet, when it comes to failure in the academic context, we have a different understanding, a different regard for the student who fails a test, a course, or a grade. There seems to be a lot written about how students fail, and about how failure affects students, but I wondered how much has been written about failure from the perspective of the teacher. Are we affected when our students fail? Does student failure effect change in our teaching, in our assessment, and in our professional identity? And, from another angle, what are our assumptions about failure, based on our own experiences? Perhaps most importantly, how can we talk to our students, and to our colleagues, about failure? Can we collectively start to reimagine what failure is, what it represents, and how it (should) influence(s) teaching and learning?

In this paper, I want to explore some of those questions, and look at how we rationalize failure in other aspects of life – in video games and driving schools, for instance – yet equate failure with catastrophe and psychological damage in the academic context. I’ll reflect on my own experiences, as a teacher, a student, and a parent, with failure, and (I hope) get some input from other teachers and students on failure in the STEM fields, in high-stakes standardized testing, and at various levels of education. Finally, in a wild attempt to connect this tangent to my dissertation research, I’ll reflect on failure and identity, from both student and teacher – and perhaps, institutional – perspectives.

Suggestions for resources and, in particular, personal input would be very much appreciated. If you think you’d like to share, but aren’t sure where to start, consider these questions for inspiration:

  • Did you encounter failure in school? How did it feel at the time? Were you expecting it? How does it feel now, in retrospect?
  • If you are a teacher, or educational administrator, what do you think the role of failure is in learning? How do you feel if a student fails? How do you react if a large number of students fail a course or test?
  • If you’re a parent, how have you dealt with academic failure with your children?
  • If you are neither a teacher nor a parent, what are your thoughts on failure in the academic (or any other) context? Are there fields or levels in which failure should be more or less present?

And, of course, if you have other ideas, please share!

 

 

January 29, 2016

The Notebook

I had a sudden flash of inspiration this week, and that flash has turned into a whole laser show.

I’ve been trying out various immediate feedback techniques in class, as described elsewhere on this blog. This semester, I am teaching my Montreal Writers course (you can check out our Facebook page), and our first novel is Gabrielle Roy’s classic The Tin Flute. If you’re not familiar, the novel is set in Montreal, during WWII, and explores the desperate poverty of St-Henri through the story of the increasingly large, increasingly desperate Lacasse family.

In order to provide some way of understanding just what it means to live in real poverty in a place like Montreal, I show the class an NFB documentary called The Things I Cannot Change. The filmmaker followed the Bailey family for three weeks in 1967. Although it’s more than 20 years after The Tin Flute, the circumstances are remarkably similar – the Baileys are a family of nine children, with another on the way; the father is unemployed and, although he waxes eloquent about his opportunities and previous adventures, he fails to find work, and even ends up in an altercation with police.

Prior to the film, I asked students to reflect on what they imagined living in poverty meant in terms of personal identity. Once the film was over, I asked them to write in response to at least two of the following questions:

  1. What do you want to know or clarify about the production or events of the film?
  2. What are the “things” that cannot be changed? Is it true that they cannot be changed?
  3. What aspect of the family’s life stood out for you, whether positively or negatively?
  4. Are the Bailey’s destined to stay in poverty?
  5. Bailey says “the capitalists capitalize on the poor, but the poor never capitalize on the rich.” What do you think about this statement?
  6. What other comments or reflections do you have?

01d0848eb7e23b2e267ac72bd5de0f87778eceab8b (2)I collected their responses – a pile of papers, most ripped from spiral-bound notebooks, some larger or smaller than standard, some with viewing notes, and so on. Of course, when I return the pages, there’s a good chance that they will go astray, whether deliberately or accidentally. So my flash of inspiration was this: I went to the stationery store and bought enough Hilroy exercise books for everyone. The pages will be tucked into the notebooks, and when I deliver them, I will suggest that the students affix these pages somewhere in their notebook. Then, for the rest of the semester, I will distribute notebooks at the beginning of each class, and collect them at the end of each class. Students will have time to write at the beginning of class, and again at the end, and between classes, I will read and write in response. Sometimes, my responses will be to the whole class – so, for instance, several students wanted to know whether the Baileys were compensated for their participation (they were, $500). Rather than repeating my response to each student, I’ll bring the answer to class, and/or post it on the Facebook page.

My feeling is that there are several benefits to this approach, which is called “double-entry journaling” because both teacher and student are writing in the journal. First, prompts will be used to allow students to explore concepts and texts in class, and their own relationship to those ideas. Their responses will reveal to me any patterns of misconception or misinterpretation, and my feedback will get them used to the idea of receiving regular, non-corrective feedback – I’m even planning to write in red ink, just to show them that red is not to be feared! As an added bonus, I think I’ll get to know their names faster, without having to rely on the attendance list.

I’m compiling a list of writing prompts. So far, I think the first and last question of my original assessment, with rewording to fit specific contexts, are reliable cornerstones of the strategy. I’m also thinking that for opening questions, I can ask them to summarize the main plot points in a reading assignment, or the previous lesson; summarize one passage in the reading that they feel is significant, and explain why; or simply respond to my feedback on their previous response. For the closing reflections, I can ask them to tell me which one thing in the day’s lesson was most unclear to them; to share a personal anecdote related to today’s lesson; to discuss a text or film that they were reminded of by the assigned reading, and so on.

If there are any suggestions you have for prompts, please, PLEASE comment below.

Further reading

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.

Hampton, S. E., & Morrow, C. (2003). Reflective Journaling and Assessment. J. Prof. Issues Eng. Educ. Pract. Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice, 129(4), 186-189. Retrieved January 29, 2016.

Roy, G. (1947). The Tin Flute (H. Josephson, Trans.). New York: Reynal & Hitchcock.

November 19, 2015

[working toward] Definition, Direction, and Discourse

wordcloud1In our doctoral seminar, we’ve been talking a lot about genre and writing strategies. Last night, we experimented with free-writing, or discovery writing, or any other label you’re familiar with. The idea is to write non-stop for a certain period, without backtracking, correcting, planning or pausing.

My original intention was to rework my writing from that session, and create a new post (it has been AGES, after all), but then I thought it might be interesting to get feedback (see what I did there) on the brain spurt itself. So, sans editing, this is what I wrote last night:

Continue reading

August 26, 2015

Rumour has it…

Student: [waves book at teacher in hallway] Sir, this is the right book for our course, right? 

Teacher: No! The correct book is the one I listed on the course outline, ordered through the bookstore, and showed you in class! Where did you find that one?

Student: A friend took your course a couple of years ago and said this was the book…

Forbuden_Frugt_smager_bedstThis was the gist of a conversation a friend reported to me last week. He was frustrated that despite his efforts to ensure that students had access to his chosen course text, this student – who, he says, is a good student who has taken other courses with him – seems to have ignored the official channels and relied instead on information from another student. And this isn’t just a matter of a new edition of a recurring text; the books in question are two completely different tomes.

Many teachers have experienced the hearsay phenomenon: a student will let slip that there’s a rumour circulating that a deadline has been extended, or a reading eliminated, or a class cancelled, and the teacher is left scrambling to undo the misinformation. As we can perhaps surmise from the list of examples, often the rumours are wishful thinking – of course students hope that deadline will be extended, or they’ll have one less text to read, or find themselves with a free period. But how do these whispers get started? Continue reading

July 18, 2015

Don’t everyone raise your hands at once.

So now it’s your turn: when it comes to feedback, whether for or from your students, or received as a student, what do you want to discuss? What do you want to know? What can you share from your own experience? Any feedback myths to bust? Burning questions? Aha moments?

Share as much or as little as you want, and please feel free to share the post!