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Monday, May 5, 2014


I wasn't sure what to do with students today, so I came up with an in-class task they could use as they work on their revisions: I call it "post-outlining." Essentially, how it works is that students have to read their papers and create an outline of what they actually wrote: it approaches the process backward, but it is a wonderful tool to help get some objective distance on a paper and to help evaluate organization and structure.

I had the whole thing very carefully spelled out on the board, telling them first to read slowly and carefully, one sentence at a time. (When I do it tomorrow, I'm also going to tell them to stop at the end of each paragraph to do the outline task associated with it.) They were to use the following format:

Introduction: In my paper, I will prove _________________________.

Body Paragraph 1:   * phrase giving the topic of the paragraph (the instruction being that each phrase should be simply a bullet point, no more)
            This helps prove X about my thesis.

Do that for each body paragraph.

Conclusion: Summarizes ideas from paragraphs ______ (provide the number of each paragraph that is recapped in the summary).
          Final sentence connects back to the thesis because _______________________.

I told them that working this way is very difficult, as they have to look at their work as objective outsiders, which is challenging. I also told them that if they were unable to locate a clear topic for a paragraph, or if they couldn't quickly and clearly state how it helps prove the thesis, that should raise a red flag. I also said that the conclusion doesn't need to recap the point in every single paragraph--but it certainly should hit the high points. I also encouraged them to consider moving things around, and to go ahead and correct any sentence-level clarifications they noticed along the way.

I'm not sure how well it worked: I didn't collect the outlines but sent them home with the students so they could keep working on revising while I'm evaluating their second versions--but the better students did seem to see their papers in a whole new way.

One young woman arrived late, still without a paper at all, and again, she told me that she just sits there in front of the computer and can't think of anything to say. I was about to tell her to withdraw, when I thought, no, let me ask a little about what's happening first. She said, "I have ideas but..." and shrugged. Wait, I said, you have ideas? So why aren't you writing them down? We spent some time talking about it, and she's going to keep trying. Unlike the young man who finally, mercifully, withdrew a while ago, I'm actually very glad this young woman is sticking it out. It's very likely she won't pass the class, which is a shame: she started to pull her socks up a little too late in the game, and she still isn't getting as much help as she really needs--but I give her full marks for working through frustration, and I told her so. She is at least trying, and unlike earlier in the semester, when she said she was trying but showed little evidence of actual effort, now I can see that she's doing what she can. She's just barely beginning to understand what hard work actually means, or how to work not merely hard but productively--but at least she's getting that much, and I'm proud of her for sticking it out so she could begin to have that experience.

A few students I had to send off to work on papers, as they had nothing with them in class (and one student was, once again, absent: If he's back next class, I'll have to talk to him after, as at this point I think his absences alone are enough to prevent him from passing the class.

But the best moment came from the very quiet young man whose work has been getting extremely good along the way: I'll call him the Quiet Man. He stayed after everyone else (of course: he's the closest to getting an A of any of them, which is how it always goes. He said that, the more he looks at his paper, the more he sees to change. I told him that's good, and normal--but then we started talking, and he shared his sense of regret that he hadn't come up with an idea earlier: he suddenly saw an idea that he thought would work very well, but he felt he'd have to rewrite his entire paper to include it now. We talked about it, and he's going to at least play around with the idea, see if he can introduce it as a thread throughout what he already has, instead of taking an axe to the paper in order to create a whole new focus. He specifically asked for some feedback on the final body paragraphs of what he has now, so he'll get that, but since he has an idea for real and substantive revision, I don't want to muddy the waters for him: I'll point out anywhere that I think can lend itself to addition of his new idea, and I'll focus on the sentence-level stuff (which will be minimal)--but simply the fact that he's aware that he needs to reorganize paragraphs and include some different support is enough to set me tap-dancing with glee. The fact that he's going way beyond that to consider revising to the extent of including a whole new thread is glorious. I'm beyond thrilled--and I told him so.

When I can work with a student like him, it truly helps me continue to want to teach. He said he liked me as a professor because I love teaching--and I'm glad it shows. I don't always, but when I can teach a student who is so willing and able to learn? Yes, I love it. I truly do.

I did, however, hit the wall a while back in terms of marking any more assignments. I still have a stack to do for tomorrow's classes, not to mention now needing to get the second versions marked and back to the students from today's class--not to mention summer scheduling and a raft of other committee work. But my ESL conversation partner told me last week that he wouldn't be here today, which bought me a little time, and I think I'm going to go home. I may set an early alarm for tomorrow, if I can get myself into bed and asleep early enough. I'd love to go to this year's final meeting of the Creative Writing committee, which is tomorrow prior to P&B, and I remain open to miracles, but even getting up early, I suspect that getting student assignments marked and maybe getting a little scheduling done will be the best I'll be able to manage in the morning.

And now, there are only two more Mondays left of the term--unless something unexpected arises, which is, I suppose, possible. Who knows what the future holds? All I know is that it looks very likely that I'll be out the door and on my way home very shortly here. For which I am grateful.

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