Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Seriously, Am I Lapsing into a Foreign Language?

Today is the due date for the first paper from my two sections of English comp 102. On Thursday, as my students were wrapping up peer review, I put the following instructions on the board:
  1. Name, date, class section up at the top. I don't care if it's left, right, or center. Just on the top. On the first page only.
  2. Paper needs a title.
  3. Final draft should be stapled in case of toddler. *I even told a funny story about my toddler son who likes to go through my bags, and that this is why their papers should be stapled.
  4. In the folder: final draft + rough draft and completed peer review sheet.
My morning class must not be fully awake. Almost half of them turned in a paper without a folder despite the fact that a) I said it out loud, b)it's on the syllabus, and c) I put it on the board.

I don't know yet how many of them followed directions 1,2, and 3 but the prognosis does not look good.

Luckily the afternoon class swooped in and saved at least part of my day: all of them had folders.

And of course this is coming on the heels of grading a significant number of journals (more than half) from my literature class that did not follow the explicit instructions I handed out.

What is it about these people that they cannot follow relatively simple directions? I understand that students have always been sort of goofy their first semester, but not in such large numbers (though I can't remember being this goofy myself--which may be why I ended up a professor). For heaven's sake, I was the campus Engaging Students in the First Year coordinator for 3 years--I know what they're like! I am constantly trying to figure out ways to reach them! And I'm not succeeding (at least not the way I'd like).

Is it me? What am I doing? Why are my words not having their intended effect? I have been strongly encouraged by my department mentor to be proactive (and not complain in my tenure dossier that my students aren't paying attention) but honest to heaven I do not know what else to do. I post instructions on the board. I say them out loud. I post them on the course website. Still don't get it.

I am reminded of the exercise my department did this past spring with using augmented assessment in the placement process (that is, instead of placing students in composition courses using only the simple Wisconsin English Placement Test, which oddly does not have a writing sample--go figure), one of our campuses has made strides in using a diagnostic essay to help better gauge a student's writing ability, thus (hopefully) making success in an appropriate-level course more likely.

We worked for about a half hour on a couple of files (for which our colleagues already had the right answers). My group debated quite a bit, and it was very stimulating and helpful to discuss how each of us interpreted the students' writing samples. Once we were done, we gave our answers ("Comp 101 with an hour of tutoring per week" "Comp 102 no restrictions" etc.) and we got the actual placements, as well as the results of those placements (they were from the previous semester).

What was unsettling to me was that one of the files we'd spent the most time on, to figure out how to give the student the best possible chance of success, was for a student who had eventually dropped out without a trace midway through the semester.

And perhaps I was unwise to volunteer what I was thinking (and am being unwise again in writing about it here), but I said, "You know, it's kind of funny that we work so hard to help them succeed, and they just take it for granted."  All that work, for nothing. No return on the investment. (Though I suppose that the augmented process gives better results for a larger pool of students, so statistically it's a better idea to use it.)

Of course, that's not why we teach. We teach to try to reach the students who want to be reached. I guess that's what I really need to keep uppermost in my mind. The ones who listen and process and engage are the ones who will succeed, and I have to stop worrying about why the rest are deaf to the help I'm trying to give them.

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