Saturday, March 29, 2014

When Breaking News is not so Newsy

The Breaking News banner atop the New York Times screen makes sense for some information, such as news about Malaysia Flight 370 or the latest GM recall, but this foray into March Madness seems questionable to me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Feeling a Little Zapped

A friend of mine teaches high school English, and when I saw her the other day she told me that her school is considering moving to a no zero policy - students wouldn't be given zeros for missed homework but instead would have to stay after school or arrive before school to make up missed work. The idea, my friend explained, is that students will be more motivated by the infringement on their time than they will be by a bad grade. Also, some administrators argue that a zero is too punitive, too discouraging for struggling students, and that it  mathematically skews a student's GPA to boot - every other letter grade, A-D, runs on a 10-point scale, but an F plunges a student into a difficult - and numerically misleading - abyss. Giving a 50 instead - or, in the case of some schools, an even higher minimum - will still mean giving a failing grade but won't disrupt the scale nearly as much as a zero.

My friend works hard, has 150 students, and is naturally exhausted. "My principal says that the research supports it," she said of the no zero policy. "Will you read 'the research' for me and sum it up?" she half-joked, half-seriously asked. "Because I don't have time to."

So (procrastinating on my own work, naturally!) I did do a little research of my own. Despite various differences, there's a unified name for these programs - Zeros Aren't Permitted, or ZAP. A quick Google search reveals that some have been around for years, and you can find them across the country. I also checked out the education database ERIC and found several articles on minimum grading, including a 2012 Educational Researcher article that reports on a seven-year study of a high school. "Statistical analyses revealed no evidence that minimum grading was inducing either grade inflation or social promotion," the authors write.

Artificially high grades and passing students into the next grade level before they're academically prepared - those are genuine concerns, and it's good to know that minimum grading doesn't seem to add to those problems. But what about other objections? For example, do these policies effectively tell a middle or high school student that no work or late, incomplete, or otherwise lacking work will still result in no less than 50 points - that nothing will always equal something? Or that they'll never have the choice or freedom to just not do something? Or that their time will never truly be their own - that "lunch" can always become a "working lunch"? Or that, I don't know, learning and working aren't ever enough to be their own reward?

And what about teachers? If you're supposedly autonomous in your classroom but nonetheless "strongly discouraged" from giving zeros, as discussed in this recent piece about the Virginia Beach school district, what do you do?

I believe wholeheartedly in equal opportunities in education, in helping students who need it, and study halls, tutoring sessions, and other services can and do help. I've taught classes where I've accepted late work in part because I recognize that all students sometimes have bad days or need a little extra time. But I don't accept late work for full credit, and no work = zero. I'm part of the college system that many of these ZAP youth will be entering. But honestly, I'm less concerned that the students won't be prepared for college than that colleges will change too, and one day no one will remember what was funny and painful about Power Points with sentences like this: "The vision of the ZAP program is to: Create a school climate which fosters academic success for those students not turning in homework.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Cleaning Up and Reaching Out

In the process of trying to decide what I want to do with this blog, I recently brought it into the late 20th century by adding tags (!) and just now I went through my blog list to remove abandoned ones, correct changed addresses, and add new ones. For example, I stopped identifying as a Unitarian Universalist about two and a half years ago, so goodbye to the UU World Blog. And I started reading more critiques of higher ed, U.S. culture, and inequality - if you're interested in those subjects too, I highly recommend Tressie McMillan Cottom's blog.

Also, I saw an old friend yesterday. He wants me to join Twitter. I'm not going to at this point, but if you're there, you should consider following him. He posts smart and funny things.

Doing something new I should know about? Lemme know so I can promote you too :)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Swimming Away from "LeAnne"

I've been thinking a lot about course evaluations lately, probably because I'm teaching at a university and it's my first job out of grad school and my contract has not been officially renewed. And because my numbers from last quarter are not what I would have liked and there's at least one review of my teaching on Rate My Professor that is negative. (So, you know, no reason!)

I say "at least one" because I haven't been able to bring myself to go back there after seeing that one, the first. I used to Google my name occasionally because I thought that being aware of search results was part of being a responsible adult in the world. And I did find it interesting to see what made it to the front page - my participation in the Seattle Edible Book festival or my tutoring bio or a short story I wrote when I was 14, somehow surfacing from the Internet deep 20 years later.

I guess I was a digital innocent though, because all that stuff was positive or neutral (well, maybe not everything in that story. Who is only admiring of their 14 year-old self other than some 14 year-olds?) Now I'm finding that I don't want to know about this self out of there that's supposedly me. Maybe it sounds funny or hypocritical to write that here, on a blog - if I don't want to participate in the Internet, what am I doing here?

I used to want to be famous, or at least have famous friends. When I was 11, I wanted to be orphaned so I could live with the cast of Cheers. (There's so many things wrong with that sentence, aren't there?) But if I can't handle ordinary disgruntled students, how could I handle 1/10th of the negative attention someone like Anna Gunn gets? (Woman, you are amazing).

Anyway, I've also been re-reading Art and Fear. Here's a passage I like:

                     The audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold)  
                     approval on the one issue that really counts - namely, whether
                     or not you're making progress in your work. They're in a good
                     position to comment on how they're moved (or challenged or
                     entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge
                     or interest in your process.

Students aren't an audience, but they (rightfully) don't care about the teacher's process of learning to become a teacher. They can talk authoritatively about the finished product of our classroom, but they don't know if I'm making progress. In teaching, unlike in art, progress isn't the one thing that really counts; it's pretty low on the list, below, you know, student learning. And I want to learn from my students in all the genres available to me, including their direct, written assessments. But they aren't taught how to write course evaluations, so the Internet (Rate My Professor, etc.) is their main teacher. And the Internet has a tendency to teach its students to be mean. Just ask Anna Gunn.

What am I doing here? I'm processing stuff, on my own terms. I'm having a conversation with you dear, few readers (hello there!) I'm not trying to create a brand or become famous. I'm not checking to see who Google thinks I am today. I have colleagues whom I like and respect who can read what their students think of them and more or less happily swim up and away; maybe someday I'll be like them. But for now I fear that if I swim into the deep of who the Internet thinks I am, I'll only get lost. Is there a name for this purposeful turning away other than "thin-skinned"?