After Class: Yesterday's Post on Self-Accountability
I began by telling the students that the quiz scores were terrible and that we were going to spend some time examining why that was the case and what might be done about it. I mentioned that one problem for some of them seemed to be imprecise language, but that that wasn't the only issue, in my opinion. I informed them that I had created a document designed to help us gather information (data) about the students' study habits. I informed them that we would create that data together (or they would, anyway) through secret identities (codes), and then we would examine the data together and try to come up with conclusions and action plans.
I informed them that this was consistent with ideas of "teacher as researcher" that we have seen emerging from our readings, which talk often about the importance of assessment and documentation as data gathering and information for informing practice.
We had a big question: "Why were the scores so low?" Or, in other words, we had acknowledged a problem or issue that needed research: "Score were low despite multiple variables indicating they shouldn't be."
We then came up with a research plan to gather information on the problem. I created a handout that asked students to sign their name under certain statements if they could honestly say they had met the conditions of the statements. Another sheet had asked for students to anonymously respond to the prompt, " I did so poorly on the assessment because....."
Before this happened, I passed to each student an index card with his or her name on one side and the name of a type of cat on the other. They were instructed not to share their cat name with anyone, and not to assume I had assigned them a specific cat name for any specific reason ("Panther" and "Cougar" can be loaded sexual terms, for example). They would sign their cat name under each statement that was true for them. This way, we could examine the data together and still retain a bit of anonymity.
I then left the room for twenty minutes. In that time, students were to create the data and were on their honor as to what they recorded and where they recorded it. Upon re-entering the room, I literally gathered the data sheets, gave them a very quick once over, and then engaged the class with data analysis.
"So, we've noted a problem, we've come up with a plan to learn more about it; we've coded and gathered data. Now it is time to see what it says and think of its ramifications."
*Statement one read, "I verify that I have read 100% of the assigned materials to date."
No cats were listed under this statement, out of a class of 15 with 13 members present (N =15; n=13).
*Statement two read, "I verify that I have taken notes on all the readings to date."
Twelve cats were listed. I pointed out, though, that this data point was made invalid based on the answers to question 1. If they didn't read all the texts, how could they take notes on what they read? Clearly many of the cats misread this question, which might have been more clearly phrased from the initial researcher (me). Perhaps they had taken notes on the 50% of assigned readings they had completed, for example. We talked about how the combined effects of 1 and 2 cancelled out the claims made by the twelve in statement 2 and that we might consider statement 2 a "wash."
* Statement three read, "I verify that I have taken notes on each day's class session to date, and that these notes include the list of key concepts that Dr. Carter places on the board or otherwise draws our attention to."
Twelve cats were listed under this one. One new cat was listed, and one old cat disappeared.
So, from here we were able to see that while some of the class might be reading some of the material some of the time, none of the class is reading all of the material all of the time. I asked students if they could see a possible correlation (yes, I used the term) between the data gleaned from statements 1 through 3. I reminded them of my comment about imprecise language being part of the issue for some of them. Could there be a correlation with only using the definitions I go over in class -- which are often simplifications based in the readings designed to help make the text of the readings more accessible -- and not knowing the more formal , exact definitions or usages? And how could those be obtained without reading the core materials, many of which review the same concepts and key words over and over again across texts?
I did get into a bit of lecture mode here. I asked questions like, "Do you think your future students deserve to have teachers who don't do their own readings?" and "Do you think your study habits make you worthy of the privilege of working with young people?" and "Would you want to teach a class full of students who weren't doing the reading?"
I also informed them that relying only on class discussion and input from me and their peers during this time was not adequate, that it would not help them pass their certification tests, and it would not help them internalize key concepts for the rest of their work in my class and their pending professional careers. I mentioned that I have no intentions or desires to spoon feed them.
I tried to get them to come to the conclusion that there might be a correlation between reading and annotating read materials and comparing those notes to ones taken during class and their scores. No one was able to offer this on their own, though I was able to coax a couple of comments that helped me get to this point.
*Statement 4 read, "I verify that I review my notes at least once a week."
Six cats were listed, all names that had previously appeared in statement 2 or 3. I asked if they thought there might be other connections we might pull from the data knowing this new information. Again I had to lead them to the possibility that maybe more of them needed to review notes and that notes needed to come from multiple sources.
* Statement 5 read, "I verify that when I feel unsure about a concept, I ask questions about it in class."
Seven cats responded, all pooled from the regular list of previous cats listed. Here I reminded students that I want for them to feel comfortable asking me any question about teaching any time, that this is why we often sit together in a circle and try to have discussions rather than lectures. Why we started out with texts that were designed to get at "things I never thought about" or "things I always wondered about but was afraid to ask about."
By this time it is clear to me that my ideas of class are predicated on the creation of discourse that stems from considerations of texts and the sense that students must bring something to the table, whereas my students' ideas of class seem predicated on the transmission model of learning (ironically, both terms we've discussed and that they were asked about on the assessment) where I am supposed to give them everything they need and they need not help create a dynamic class, well, dynamic. I have resisted the notion that my students are lazy, but they might be. I have tried and continue to try to create a discourse, but for that to happen, they have to bring and share not only their previous experiences in life and education but their experiences with our readings as well. I'm trying to model an new way for them, but they won't buy in.
I'm not sure what needs to change to see the change I want to see in them and want them to make for their future students, but I know there are things I won't do to facilitate a handholding dynamic. For example, one students suggested offering the exact page numbers where to find the important terms. I responded that, to me, that was not being met halfway. I instructed the student and the class to look for terms and ideas that are repeated across texts, to list any word that was foreign to them and seek its definition based on what the text said and to ask for clarification from me and peers when they weren't sure if it was important. I also reminded the student that I had provided a list of salient terms and concepts, if not the exact place to look or them.
The responses to the open-ended question were, refreshingly, tinged with some self-accountability:
* I spent most of my time working on the lesson plan that was due that day
[Indeed, there was an assignment due that day in addition to the assessment, but I reminded students that they were prompted well in advance that we would have an assessment on the given day, on which there was nothing else scheduled on the syllabus beyond the turning in of the mentioned assignment, a 90 minute lesson plan]
* I focused on terms from the list that were not on the assessment
[Indeed, not all of the terms were on the assessment, but I reminded the class that they were responsible for all of them and would be in the future as well]
* I did not spend enough time studying each term.
* I have a hard time balancing all of the reading.
* I was too vague.
* I need to ask more questions.
* I'm not concentrating.
* Remembering terms from two weeks ago takes a toll on me.
So, we examined these statements and I tried to get students to make connections between the data points. All in all, they were, as always, fairly quiet. But, it was hard not to feel an element of browbeating in the analysis, I am sure.
One student responded to this prompt with, "I was not aware we were having a quiz and I was never exposed to this information, so everything is absolutely new to me."
My initial reaction was consternation. "That's simply not true," I said, and began listing the elements of facilitation that I'd integrated into our sessions. But, almost immediately after beginning talking, I realized that my conclusion was foregone. It was based in how I was interpreting what was said. "Wait a second," I said, "If I look at this sentence differently -- not as if the person is saying they'd never seen the terms at all but that this class was their first exposure to them, then there can be truth to this statement." I am very happy to have modeled that thinking in front of them. I then said a few words about how when we're dealing with written statements as data, we have to really think about what is said and what is not said and what is meant. "This is a type of research we might call discourse analysis," I mentioned, and I at least got the response of several nodding heads. I'd like to think that this was because they saw me trying to be a detached researcher, then saw my ire get raised, then saw a return to a researcher's stance all in the course of a few seconds and words. That was some sincere modeling, and I'd like to think they knew it.
The next step was drawing conclusions and making plans. I offered time for students to share their conclusions and to come up with plans of action. None offered anything, so I introduced the contract you read from the previous post as one suggested way of moving forward. Students have until Monday to decide if they'll sign the contract, but all students were given the form so they could access the links to the sites for study skill tips. I also apologized to them on behalf of the university if it is true that the university does not offer a "college success" class for them to take upon enrolling.
Regarding the contract, it is not nearly as punitive as it might seem. Indeed, I told my students that I'm not interested in punitive measures. I'm only one of several teacher ed professors they might ask for references, for example. And, only about 15% of my students ask me for references, anyway, and most of them know before they ask that I am happy to do it based on their performance and maturity already.
I am thinking of writing a letter to local school districts urging them to contact me if a UTEP student seeks a secondary ELA position, but I'd rather such a letter be part of my program's joint efforts to improve the quality of our teacher candidates from their "acceptance" into the program to their "successful employment" and beyond. So, that plan is on hold until I can develop its precepts.
But, I do believe in asking students to meet me halfway; I mention this on the very first day of class, and the contract is a means of more clearly defining what I mean by "halfway."
But, as you can clearly see herein, there's a lot of "I" and "me." I did this; I led them to this. Never, ever in my teaching career have I encountered such resistance to creating a competent community of learners. But, then again, if the requisite prior knowledge hasn't been at least touched upon, how can we create the community of informed persons working toward better understandings?
I refuse to feel guilty for asking college students to read material and be prepared to discuss it in class. If I wanted to teach reluctant middle or high schoolers again, I could easily do that. Shit, I might end up having to do it any way if I can't find an acceptable way to bridge these cultural divides or change our culture of expectations. I am very good at facilitating growth, but students have to help me out by offering up the raw materials, and familiarity with our assigned readings are part of how we create those raw materials.
I'm not sure how many will sign the contract. I'm thinking of asking students to answer some anonymous questions regarding the "Action Research" activity -- Did it help them see anything about themselves or the class? Did it help them make changes in their habits? Were the websites useful? What other plans of actions could we have taken? -- but I'm not sure.
I will say that after we completed this activity, I down at a desk on level with the rest of class, as I often do (I didn't circle us up because I wanted to respect their possible desire to have some distance after the activity), and started "reviewing" the assigned reading for that day, and there were more people asking questions and for clarification than usual. Whether that's a lasting result and/or if the "Teacher as Problem Solver" activity had a lasting impact, only the future will tell.