An undetachable burden
Monday, July 02, 2018
RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.
—Ambrose Bierce, "The Devil’s Dictionary"
Games, small group work, puzzles, funny videos, my dancing, and goodies, lots and lots of goodies: candies of all sorts, cookies, minicakes. No matter how student-centered and engaging a class I prepare and present, there are always students who are disinterested, some to the point of slumber, with chins touching their chests and occasionally their heads bobbing.
Some are disinterested to the point of doing absolutely nothing — none of the activities in class or at home — and feigning a search of their book bag for their text, materials, and homework when they and I know full well that they do not have them…again and again.
I wonder if they, as I, wonder why they are in school, particularly in college, university, or professional development programs. I know there are reasons, many reasons, and sometimes no reason. Still, after more than 30 years of teaching students at all English language levels whether native or non-native English users, I am not satisfied for students to miss an opportunity to take account of their work and their role as a student.
Over the years, I’ve used various self-reflection and self-assessment activities to hold myself accountable and to develop in my roles as educator, student, colleague, loved one, and, most necessarily, in my role as me, not in relation to others, per se, but in relation to myself.
The works of John Dewey, Paulo Freire ("Pedagogy of the Oppressed"), Stephen Brookfield ("The Skillful Teacher" and "Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher") and the Bell Hooks Institute ("Teaching to Transgress") have been particularly influential in my self-reflection and self-assessment.
As I reflect on my life as a student — from my earliest days as a fearful, reticent kindergartner and grade-schooler to my unsettled university days and through to my conscientious and indefatigable post-graduate study, I consider the direction I would have — could have — taken had I been held accountable early in my time as a student, not by grades or threats or disappointment or shame, but by self-assessment and self-reflection. While I know hindsight is 20-20, the specter of those lost decades haunts me.
Ghosts of “what if” coupled with disengaged students have been my catalyst for creating various self-assessment and self-reflection activities that I give my students. Of course, even the most diligent and successful student can benefit from self-reflection and self-assessment.
This semester, I was dealt a hand of especially feckless students who shared classes with especially assiduous students. While some students were all but snoring, their classmates were laughing, deep in respectful argument and analysis, eager to ask questions and to share perspectives.
While some students came to class habitually unprepared, wearing blank faces and refusing to interact with their group mates or take me up on my regular offers to meet with students for extra help, others were buzzing and bursting with the pleasure of learning.
More often than not, I felt as though I had two classes in one, and it was jarring. I left those classes with cerebral whiplash.
Common teacher conversations include frustrations about students’ lack of responsibility and the many ways teachers have tried (and too often failed) to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning and for themselves as students. Still, like resolute apothecaries mixing potion upon potion, we try to find just the right blend that, when administered, will work its magic on students, transforming the irresponsible into the responsible.
But I’ve taught enough students at all levels, and have taught long enough and in enough varieties of educational environments worldwide to confidently observe that students are students.
Students are students, regardless of which state they come from in the U.S. or which region in Russia or which province in Korea or Turkey, regardless of their age, and regardless of their level (including teachers). Some are eager and engaged learners, while some are plodding through, content to do enough to get by.
Some aren’t sure why they’re in school, drifting in and out of sleep in class and drifting in and out of classes. Some are sprinters when they need to be marathoners: they succeed early but cannot balance all they need to do for the long haul and lose the energy and focus they need to finish.
Some, buoyed by the increasingly promulgated assertion that education is a business, believe that tuition payments entitle them to passing grades, often high grades. And some ride the learning rollercoaster, excelling when they’re interested and crashing when they’re not only to climb again when something else piques their curiosity.
Despite my own and others’ personal anecdotal insights and observations and libraries of research about student behavior to the contrary, I decided to mix a new elixir of potential responsibility.
Early in the semester, I wrote two commitment documents: one outlined my responsibilities to my students and my teaching, and the other outlined students’ responsibilities to their learning, to themselves, and to me.
Because my reading and writing students posed the challenges, I chose to present the documents to those students. When I presented the documents, I used them as a reading activity for students to practice strategies on which we’d been working: skimming and scanning, deriving meaning from context, and identifying main idea and details.
I facilitated a discussion of the Dr. Seuss quote. Students used the reading strategies they’d been practicing to analyze and glean meaning. In every class section, students were stumped by the word "steer," and they wanted me to tell them the definition.
It was the perfect opportunity to show them, again, how to find meaning from context. In small groups, students dissected the quote and decided upon a definition for "steer": every definition was correct just as every interpretation of the meaning was spot on.
When our discussion of the quote and the point of the documents concluded, I asked students to write and sign their names, and write their ID numbers and the date. To each student, I distributed a signed and dated copy of my commitment.
I wanted them to have proof of my commitment to them, that we were in it together. Then, I asked students to take a photo of their letter and to give me the signed copy.
I suggested that they regularly review the photo they took, and ideally, to make a copy and place it in their class folder. I hoped and intended that students who were disengaged would reflect upon their behavior, recognize the consequences of their actions, and follow the suggestions outlined on the "I should" list.
I hoped and intended that, when I posted final grades, their signed documents would serve as a reminder that they should think at least twice before complaining to me.
Hope isn’t a strategy, and we know where good intentions lead, which is to say that my plan wasn’t wildly successful. It may not have been successful at all — I didn’t conduct follow-up analysis — but it has sent me back to my laboratory.
I’m not at all dissatisfied with the documents. I am examining how to integrate the documents into the course and how to use the documents throughout the semester instead of relying on a one-off lesson, even if the students are in university and, one might think, would "get the message."
I also need to design and implement a follow-up analysis to capture students’ views on the documents’ efficacy. In my next article, we’ll examine the next step I took in my relentless efforts to convey the necessity and gravity of personal responsibility.
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