Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tell Them What You Want . . . Unless You Want More

O Anxiety! Thou taker of life, both literally and figuratively! O provoker of the perpetually furrowed brow and knotted stomach! O great distracter from life’s still, deep, full moments, thou cause for skimming and racing and cursoriness, thou robber of focus and concentration!

How canst we elude thy powerful grip and gain peace with our vocation and gain sweet but appropriate harmony with those we seek to teach, knowing as we do how little they learneth when they be scared bleepless.

Well, my dear friends new to the world of pedagogy, you could try some of the following:

Be predictable – not a slave to routine, but don’t be throwing them curves and changing your mind about assignments and due dates. Don’t assign a paper and have them get all worked up over it, then tell them later you decided not to grade it because they did a lousy job with it or for some other lame reason. Try to remember how it feels to have as little control as students have. They can’t make you delay an assignment, for example, when the due date just happens to coincide with that of a 20-page paper in another class.

What may seem like a great, spur-of-the-moment idea for you may create an anxiety attack for them: “We weren’t counting on this! We have band practice all week! Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” So you shouldn’t take it personally when they don’t share your enthusiasm for that startling pedagogical inspiration the muses dropped in your lap on the way to work this morning. For them, now (they may see the wisdom in it later), it’s just more clutter in an already cluttered daily planner, for those who keep them, and just another thing to forget, for those who don’t.

Don’t change exam dates unless absolutely necessary, and when you do, give them as much advance warning as possible.

You can lessen your students’ anxiety about an assignment by providing a rubric, preferably on the day you assign it. That way you won’t hear this: “Well, hey, I didn’t know you were counting off for grammar!” Remind them, also, of all the little things that aren’t that little to you: “Put your name, date, and class period in the upper right-hand corner.” Some anxiety-ridden students will spend more time worrying about where to put that information than in formulating a thesis – you know, the same ones who have their parents buy an obnoxiously over-sized, monogrammed wooden folder to bury their hastily written research paper in.

If, on the other hand, the “little things” aren’t important to you, tell them. Also, would it kill you to tell them why those little things are important, if they are?

If you say an essay will count 40% of their grade, don’t change it to 50% or 30%. Be very clear about expectations for every assignment. It’s okay to say, “This is just for practice, more for you than for me, so don’t get all freaked out over it. It’s just a small quiz grade.” It’s not cool when Delbert turns in three pages typed, plus a cover page, and Sylvia scrawls a few scarcely legible lines on previously wadded up paper, then you accept them both and have to tell Delbert after the fact that this was just for practice. He could’ve used that time for calculus or Facebook!

Speaking of expectations, here was one of my major pet peeves when I was a student: The teacher makes an assignment, then refuses to respond to questions about it, firing back, “Don’t ask me what I want. Just do this the way you think it should be done. Do your best and you’ll be fine.” Not true. Hardly ever true. Sure, you want them to take initiative, to be original, to stamp their own personality or way of learning on their assignments. But you do want something. You have standards and you’re giving the grades.

So what do you want? Evidence of learning, of studying, of research, of creativity, of collaboration, of memorization? All of these? Tell them: “As long as you ________, you’ll be fine. Now get after it!”

One of my most frustrating and unsettling moments as a student came when I was a college freshman during the last gasps of the anything-goes, let’s-reinvent-the-curriculum ‘60s. My art history class was team taught by a far-out hippie couple who were just a bit too old to be actual hippies – mid-30s, I’d guess. During their opening-day “joint” presentation, they appeared to be in dire need of a nap, drug rehab, and perhaps a blood transfusion, just to be safe.

Their good news was the class had only one requirement. The bad news was that the requirement was “A Happening.” Some of us wanted to be told exactly what “A Happening” was. Their response cleared the matter right up: “Anything, man. Just make it beautiful. Make it real.”

I tried for about a week to think of something that would count as A Happening, then bravely dropped the class, retaking it later with a terminally giddy septuagenarian who always wore a bowtie and who gave actual 1950s-style exams.

Finally, the rule of full, honest disclosure requires me to admit that after all these decades, I remain an anxiety-ridden teacher, too much aware of the real potential in every class meeting for a complete catastrophe. Furthermore, I know I have caused my students more anxiety than I should have, often because of late-arriving “terrific” ideas and a reluctance to delineate too clearly my expectations for some assignments.

In my defense, I have received much beautiful, creative, original, bountiful work from my beloved students because they were free to take assignments where their particular gifts and inclinations wanted to without having to fulfill the nagging, prosaic, ponderous demands of a checklist produced by a smaller vision than theirs.

To my former students, then, I offer a limited apology and an admonition to do as I say, not as I do (or did).

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