Monday, September 2, 2013

A Reader's Question

Lately, I've received a few questions from new teachers, and I'm very grateful for them because they keep me from saying things no one wants to hear.

Many of your questions will no doubt be beyond my field of expertise. If you're saddled, for example,with a class full of the criminally insane who may benefit most from a Hannibal lecture, about all I can suggest is body armor and a good stash of high-quality, but safe, antidepressants. But having taught since before your parents were born, there are many things I can tell you that will make your first months easier. So fire away!

Today's question comes to us from Sheila Burkson, a first-year teacher from Little Falls, Iowa, a sleepy bedroom community just a few miles east of Dubuque:

"I read your post about trying not to give busy work, but sometimes I mistime a lecture, or a discussion runs dry too soon, and I feel I have no choice but to give them busy work in the form of worksheets or reading or some such time eater. Then I'm swamped with grading. Trying to figure out how to fix this, because it stresses them out and gives me too much to grade!"

Thanks, Sheila. Try to convince the little rapscallions that in order for them to improve, they need to write more than you can grade. Take up this apparent busy work and if they ask if this one'll be graded, you say, "It sure as heck will be if you didn't do it." Keep these papers in a folder marked "later" or "just in case" or "mini-informal portfolio." And, of course, be sure to justify the assignment: "This will give you a better idea of what a(n) _______ is like and how to analyze a(n) _______ in order to ________."

Later, depending on the nature and quantity of future assignments, you may decide to grade these. That's not a problem because you notified the students of that possibility. Or a student may later have an extraordinary and legitimate excuse for missing an assignment that is next to impossible for her to make up, so you can plug in one from your folder.

Just be open about this. It's not trickery. You don't need to pretend you've lost a set of papers.

Give them the old piano-lesson analogy: At your weekly visit to your piano teacher, you play some pieces which she more or less grades; she then teaches you a new piece, then you go home and, if you're serious, play it 40 times, none of which is graded -- but those 40 ungraded efforts were necessary for you to improve.

And just keep repeating the mantra: "To improve as a writer (or substitute "reader," "thinker," etc.), you must write more than I can grade."

As for filling up leftover time with reading, there's nothing busy or wasteful about that. Reading helps on many levels, and your classroom may well be the only place some of these teens read (a) an actual book and (b) without the distractions of a room full of social-media temptations. Reading in class, on a practical level, can also eliminate homework, the bane of existence.

If reading-time makes you feel guilty, you can always have them sum up, free write, synthesize, comment on or ask questions about what they read, then take that up and do with it whatever helps. (But you don't have to do this; I seldom do.)

So thanks for your question, Sheila. And as a token of my appreciation, that free bag of Jolly Ranchers should be in the mail to you within the next day or so.

As for the rest of you, if you have a question you think I can help with, but you don't want the whole world to know you asked it, feel free to send it to me by way of Facebook message and, in my response, I will shroud your name in secrecy.

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