Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Horror

We have a name! Our faculty, counselors, and librarians working as part of this challenge have decided on SWCBloggers as our group's name. I love it!

The second SWCBlogger challenge asks us to focus on an end-of-semester horror story. We all have them. Our nerves are fried, our students burnt to a crisp, and we're all angling to just be done. Yet, this is also the time when patience, compassion, and equanimity are so key. My grandfather, a football coach, always offered this adage about getting through college: "It's an endurance contest!" That applies to us, too.

I'm tempted to write about a situation occurring now, but to avoid descending into full venting mode, I'll dip back into my memory a couple of years back. I was teaching a full-semester hybrid college composition course, a class that only met face-to-face once a week. Many students quickly realized how much they relied on the instructor's f2f presence to keep them motivated and remind them of tasks--they just couldn't integrate the flipped model, and as a fledgling hybrid instructor I probably wasn't managing as well as I should have, either.

In this perfect storm of a class was a student who struggled to do the work well--or at least, he struggled on the rare occasions that he did do the work. Passing the class might have been a realistic goal for him had he put the time in, but with all the missing work it just wasn't happening for him. It wasn't until the end of the semester, though, despite regular grade updates and an email check-in or two, that it registered that he wasn't going to pass.

Three weeks before the semester ended, the pleas came in. First there was negotiating: "What late work can I turn in? Do you have any extra credit opportunities?"

Two weeks before the semester ended, big guns were drawn: "I have an athletic scholarship to Important University starting next semester. If I don't pass this class I'm going to lose it."

Then came, "Athletic counselor ______ said you could still give me a W and backdate it. Please do that for me so it won't affect my GPA." Because he had been attending class, though, I was not gonna do a late drop--I'd have to lie on the form to make this happen for him, and as we were also communicating by email at this point that was so not going to happen.

As he lay the final--a timed write--on my desk, he said, "I hope you don't ruin my future."

We eventually ended up at the dean's office. The dean, by nature so pro-student and compassionate, got his hackles raised the moment the student alleged I had it out for him. He launched into a personal responsibility talk so fast, articulate, and accurate that the student sat, stunned and speechless.

The student shuffled out looking as dejected as if he'd lost the Rose Bowl. I felt just awful. I figured the whole thing could have been avoided if I'd just been on top a bit sooner. An email nudge mid-semester is not enough for a student who doesn't thrive in the online environment. Simply having course policies about late work that you go over once or twice in class isn't enough for students who may have been coddled in previous courses or on the field.

This is the dance of the school year or semester. We need enough motivation to get us out of bed in the morning and enough enthusiasm to meet our students on the first day and feel positive about what lies ahead. And yet, we need to be so clear and consistent with our expectations for the course and unafraid to reach out and say "Hey! You're messin' up. What's going on?" when we need to.

By the end of the semester, though, it all seems to be a tangled mess. Oh winter break. Will you hurry up and get here?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

End of the semester? Time to hand over the reins

It's the first at the DigitalConnect@SWC Blogging Challenge! I'm so excited. and I have cobbled together a cohort of amazing faculty to join us on a weekly blogging adventure. I can't wait to see what we all come up with and to connect with folks from across campus.

The first challenge asks us to share strategies for maintaining focus and motivating students (and ourselves) at the end of the semester. What a great question, as we are currently in week 16 of an 18-week semester.

I can't say I have a foolproof technique--little is foolproof in my life except my recipe for pumpkin pie (it's Libby's, but with a homemade crust it turns out great every time)--but I'm happy to ramble on about the topic anyway.

I've noticed that the semester has kind of a natural progression to it that I've learned to surrender to. For at least the first half of the semester, I'm a gatekeeper. I clarify and enforce rules. I have reasonably high standards for everything from classroom etiquette to completing and turning in assignments. I think it's important to make mistakes, though, and the first HW assignment or two I will allow them to revise if they're way off.

I spend a LOT of time at the beginning focusing on the basics of essay and paragraph writing, and yeah, I expect them to do certain things like support their assertions with examples, format their papers correctly, and print and turn in their homework or essays on time.We familiarize ourselves with critical thinking concepts and principles of rhetorical analysis, and initially it's definitely instructor-directed, though hopefully not instructor-centered.

But after that first half, I really hand the reins over to the students. We conference. They get more time in class to work on their projects. They work toward a group presentation. This helps to prevent me from burning out--hey, the students have the materials; they've (hopefully) learned the concepts. Now it's time for them to work through it, turning to whatever resources they need along the way. I step in from the sidelines every now and then and encourage or provide clarification. Boy is it nice to really take myself off the stage.

Admittedly, there are students who still have no clue that they need to do simple things like type or print their work before turning it into me (seriously, yes, this happens). The ones who are having the "Oh crap, I'm failing!" realizations and are now scrambling to do anything they can to still pass didn't have the benefit of making mistakes at the beginning of the semester, so the stakes are much higher for them. This is frustrating for us both, but since I've seen the cycle of the semester enough, it doesn't surprise me, so it doesn't get to me as much as it used to.

Still, as I blogged about last week, the air of desperation that follows many of our students this time of the year can really get to you. It's important to take breaks, even at work. Being pregnant has made me a little better about this: a couple of times a week I take a book or just my cell phone up to the botanic garden and sit for a while before a class. It really, really helps me get centered and get my head out of the "My life is on fire!" space that so many of our students walk around in.