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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The student as teacher

I've just returned to the office after facilitating my students' peer review of each other's papers. I paired one of the smarter, more capable students with Mr. Smart--whom I am going to henceforth call The Flounder, because that approximates his mental acumen and personality as well as being a valid description of how he's doing in my class. In any event, the Flounder was late for class (qu'elle surprise) but said he had a paper to turn in. The bright young man read his paper and then very carefully, patiently, compassionately pointed out what had gone wrong. It was a thing of beauty--and I'm not being in the least snarky about it. In fact, next time I see the Bright Young Man, I need to pull him aside and compliment him on how he handled the situation. He was very clear, explained well, was gentle--and the Flounder either stared numbly into space, stared numbly at his paper, or flounced with annoyance at having to actually do something. "Your works cited page should be on a separate page," Bright points out, and the Flounder flounces. "Your paper is actually shorter than it needs to be": flounce. But other than those two galvanic responses, the numb stare predominated. And Bright didn't lose his composure or his patience. He also was absolutely wonderful about continually pointing out that the information needed can easily be found in the style guide. Overall, I'd say he did better than I could have done.

In terms of the Flounder, I'm completely out of patience. I'm just waiting until he's failed enough assignments that I can tell him he cannot pass--and get him the hell out of there. He shows no signs of being ready for or interested in getting an education, and unless he does, I see no reason why I should go one iota out of my way to help him. Triage: we work like hell to save the ones who have a chance, but we can tell the ones who don't stand a chance, the metaphoric DOAs. He's exemplary of the latter.

But shifting gears back to a more positive note: generally, I love peer review days--and not merely because they do the heavy lifting, not me. This class was remarkably good about engaging in the process with each other, working hard--and, unusually, working the entire period (typically they think they're "finished" well before the 75 minutes are over). But to see them helping each other, asking each other questions, proposing solutions--and checking in with me, sharing what they learn with each other--working things out together: that's just brilliant. I love it. I think any educator will say that the coolest part of our profession is being able to actually watch thinking and learning taking place. It is palpable in these peer review sessions, and it's a joy. I don't even worry too much right now about the effectiveness in terms of the actual changes to their papers: I'm just thrilled to see them working.

And they've been given instructions on how to begin their revisions, even before they get feedback from me. I'm very curious to see how well this process works.

I also have been marking mini-papers for the 229 class, and so far they're pretty disastrous--to the point where I've decided I'm not even going to put a grade on them. Anyone who does a reasonable job will get a grade, but the ones who have not paid any attention to formatting, or who have an approach that is utterly incorrect, will simply get the paper back with some comments--and the grade will be "revise and resubmit." If I let myself, I can get pretty seriously enraged about what's been going on in their education in all the years prior to walking in the door of my classroom, that they've gotten to a sophomore-level English class and still have absolutely no fucking clue how to write a paper that is appropriate for college. But every time I start to get hot under the collar about that, I remember some of the students I've passed in previous semesters, and I squirm: I've been guilty of passing along the unfit, too, dammit. And I know, I know, I know it does the student no favors.

But they are, as Dad would have said, highly "ego involved" in this process: their grades can make them feel wonderful about themselves as human beings or can do genuine damage to their sense of self. Their "self-esteem" has been so coddled and tended to and carefully wrapped in layers of approval that they are exquisitely sensitive and thin-skinned when it comes to bearing up under critique or difficulty. Tough as I am (or as I like to believe I am), I am not unaware of, nor insensitive to, the genuine pain they experience. I try not to let that affect my grading, but I know it does sometimes. (Not when it comes to someone like the Flounder, however: I admit that when faced with a certain level of stupidity coupled with truculent whining, I just want the person out of my hair: if underneath that utterly maddening behavior he is actually a sweet and frightened kid, I don't see enough evidence of it to feel anything like compassion. I just want the excuse to let the axe fall and get it over with.)

I think of the seminar I went to last semester, when the presenter had us do a whole "This is me; this is my idea" exercise, to show students the differentiation between themselves and their ideas, the point being to help remove some of that ego-involvement from situations in which their ideas (or the manner of presentation) are challenged. Makes me think I might need to give them a little talk about that when I return their papers....

I can tell I'm procrastinating a bit here. I need to get back to marking stuff for 229, but what I've seen so far is so awful I'm resisting. Still, the only way out is through, so, excelsior, I guess.

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