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Tough Standards and Nurture: Can They Coexist?

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Recently, I read a post on The Chronicle from Charlotte Kent about her insistence that students meet high standards of professionalism and academic rigor in her classroom. She believes that this attitude is key to solving a gap in skills between high school expectations and college-level ones. If students are to become ready for the professional world, she reasons, they need to learn how to abide by the rules.

For her, this means many things, including having a no-tolerance policy for arriving tardy to class, never accepting late work or allowing extra credit, and forcing students to independently follow changes to the syllabus on Blackboard.

I had a fairly complex response to Kent’s ideas (one I wrote about at length on my personal blog Balancing Jane), but the core problem I had with her argument is that I don’t recognize its truth in my interactions with students.

Kent writes:

Students can show up late, but they learn that it matters. If students forget that an assignment is due, they learn how to use their handy-dandy smartphone to set calendar and other reminders about scheduled work. When they return after missing a class without the completed assignment, they learn that the world does not stop with their absence but continues to have demands, even expectations.

They learn to use their peers as support toward ensuring that they are aware of obligations, just as colleagues at work help one another. As many people have said before me, there is no extra credit in life.

But that isn’t what most of my students seem to get out of a harsh lesson. In fact, many of the developmental students I face seem almost primed for failure. I see it in their early writings where they reflect on their past experiences with writing. I see it in the responses I get to the first graded assignment. I see it in the number of students whose dwindling attendance directly correlates with the amount of work expected from them.

If these stern lessons bring about positive change in Kent’s classes, I understand why she uses them as a tool, but in my classroom, they haven’t worked to do anything but complete a self-fulfilling prophesy for many of my students who enter my classroom expecting to fail.

In fact, often the most important thing I can do as a developmental writing teacher is make it hard to fail. I have to stand up to those attitudes of predetermined defeat and insist that my students choose to fail rather than see it as my judgment that has kept them from progressing.

When I first changed from a traditional developmental textbook to the integrated, single-text approach, the one thing I worried about losing was the chance to build up confidence and rapport before diving into difficult work. When the course was slower paced and took longer to complete, I had a chance to make sure students felt capable before challenging that capability with work that stretched those skills. Now, however, the difficulty is apparent from day one. As soon as they start reading that college-level text and seeing full-length essay assignments, they know what they’re up against. I’ve lost the chance to ease them into the work.

But what I gained is worth so much more. Now I have the opportunity to show them that they’re capable of college-level expectations from the very beginning. The confidence that I help them build might be shakier at the start, but it’s stronger by the end, and that’s when it really matters.

Students are perceptive, and they know when the work they’re given is truly challenging by college standards and when it is not. They know if they are being talked down to or being given lower hurdles to jump. And most of them resent it. My students want to be in college, and I think they appreciate the fact that the work in my classroom is college-level work–even when they feel frustrated with the reality of having to do it.

With that in mind, I started to ask myself how I addressed what Kent laid out in her article. Am I too lax in my expectations? Am I failing to prepare my students for the “real world” they’ll face outside my classroom? Am I contributing to a skills gap by being too much of a pushover?

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No. I don’t believe that I am. I think that there’s a way to walk the line between rigidity and flexibility. I think that a classroom can have solid, meaningful rules that must be followed while still allowing for the missteps and mistakes that are inevitable for any learner, but particularly prevalent in a developmental environment.

The way I manage that tightrope walk changes a little from year to year, but I found several concrete examples that have evolved over time.

Attendance and Punctuality

Kent pulls no punches. “If students are late, they are absent,” she writes. I have heard stories of professors who lock their doors when the minute hand hits the 12, admitting no straggler. My policy is much more lax.

Come to class. Come to class five minutes late or even with only five minutes left. Of course, I want you here for the entire class, but I want you here for part of the class if that’s the best we’re going to get today.

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My students come in from working overnight shifts. They catch buses that don’t run on time. They drop kids off at school and get held up by questions from the teacher. They schedule back-to-back classes and take a little too long finishing up their math tests. They often have legitimate reasons for being late.

Or not. Even if they simply chose to sleep in or couldn’t be bothered to stop their phone conversation on time or wanted to grab a coffee before heading into class, I still want them there.

So I have a policy that I think works. I give attendance points every day. If you are on time, present, awake, and not playing on your phone or otherwise distracted, you get five points. Every day. If you come in late or leave early, you get three points. If you don’t come, you get no points. My class has a lot of points (usually between 1200-1500), so these attendance points are not enough to pad a failing grade, but they are enough to make a B an A or a C a B.

And the points speak for themselves. I don’t need to have lengthy conversations about attendance and punctuality. I give the students the opportunity to decide for themselves if it’s worth it, and if the issues are infrequent, they won’t make a difference.

In addition, I occasionally give low-stakes (10 point) in-class activities that cannot be made up. If you’re there for the activity, you have the opportunity to earn points. If you’re not, you missed it.

I used to do things like drop a letter grade after three absences or automatically fail a student after seven, but this new system seems to work a lot better because it gives more autonomy to the student making the choice to attend.

No Late Work

I used to take late work. I used to penalize a paper one letter grade for each day it was late. Inevitably, a student who procrastinated would decide it was worth the loss and turn their first paper in two days late. Now the highest grade they can possibly get is a C. And while they’re scrambling to catch up on Paper 1, we’ve all moved on to Paper 2. Now Paper 2 is going to be three days late. The highest grade it can be is a D. While they’re scrambling to catch up on Paper 2, we’ve all moved on to Paper 3.

I think you see where this is going. With my old policy, I had a lot of students who were working hard but getting nowhere. I couldn’t accept that.

After that, I tried giving “Late Work Passes.” There were two for the semester, and a student could use them for a one class period, no questions asked extension. If they still had them at the end of the semester, they could turn them in for bonus points. It was a clunky system that sounded better in theory than it worked in practice.

So now I don’t take late work. The due dates are firm, and I use Blackboard to accept assignments so that we all know exactly whether the due date was made or missed.

But within that rigidity, I’ve built in some flexibility.

For formal papers, there are two due dates. If students get their papers in by the first deadline, they get a grade, comments, and a chance to revise. If they miss that deadline, they won’t get formal feedback, but they’ll still get a chance to submit before the revision date. If they miss both dates (which is usually 2-3 weeks of class time in total), they miss the chance to earn points on that paper.

For informal writing, I let some scores drop. I give seven or eight “Informal Writing” assignments throughout the semester. These can be journal entries or reading responses, but I only take the top five scores. If a student forgets one or chooses to skip one, it won’t hurt their grade.

Bonus Work

Kent writes “there is no extra credit in life,” but that’s not true of my life. There’s tons of extra credit. I’ve gotten overextended and done less-than-stellar work on a project and then made up for it by going above and beyond on the next one. I’ve unintentionally  hurt a friend’s feelings and made up for it by going out of my way to show how much I truly care about them. Rules get bent for people who use polite language and creative rhetorical flair. The doctor gives my daughter an extra sticker after her check-up when she’s been particularly personable.

In real life (at least in my real life), there has rarely been a mistake so grave that it cannot be fixed by doing a little extra.

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And I try to give my students that opportunity as well. I give bonus essays. I assign entire, full-length essays for up to 25 points a piece. (The required assigned papers are worth up to 100 points.) I generally base them on topical conversations that come up in class and stagger them throughout the semester with their own due dates. I’ve never had a student who wasn’t already doing very well in the class do more than one of these papers, and even if a student did use them to truly “make up” a 0 on a missed paper, I’m still holding them up to the same grading standards, so I don’t feel that there is a negative learning impact.

I also give make-up assignments. Depending on the class and the conversations of the semester, I might add in an extra Informal Writing that can be swapped out for a missed one or a bonus activity that will make up for some attendance points. It’s never enough to replace repeatedly missed work, but it is usually enough to give a student who is borderline failing at midterm a true chance to turn it around by the end of the semester.

Reaching Out

Perhaps the thing that I do the most of that would be considered “coddling” my students is that I contact them when they’re missing class or not turning in papers. After the first due date on papers, I send an email to everyone who hasn’t submitted it yet. When someone is missing several days of class, I send an email asking them to meet with me if they plan to continue the class.

These emails don’t take much time out of my day. If I send them through Blackboard, I can send a mass message to everyone who qualifies.

I can’t say that students always reply, but about half of them do, and I usually have really good conversations with the ones who take the time to respond. I truly believe that on many occasions it has been the difference between a student fading away for the semester and coming back to complete the work.

Conclusions

Writing all of that up, I can only imagine what a teacher like Kent would say about my class. I recognize that I have made a lot of concessions, but I stand by them.

I give students who have been designated as “remedial” college-level academic expectations from day one. I expect them to read full-length, topical books. I expect them to write thesis-driven, multiple-paragraph essays. I expect them to cite sources, use in-depth analysis, and make logical connections between synthesized texts. I ask a lot of them.

And they can do it. They do do it. But sometimes it takes a little while for them to figure out that they’re capable.

And it’s important to me that they haven’t already locked themselves into a failing grade by the time that message finally clicks.

 

Images: Lisa Brewster, Russ Sanderlin, theimpulsivebuy

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