Hope to see you at the conference at Moraine Valley on April 20th! (Wait, there's a conference? Yes - read all about it in the newsletter!)
Our first ILSADE Newsletter is up! Please click on the button below (it's in PDF format).
Hope to see you at the conference at Moraine Valley on April 20th! (Wait, there's a conference? Yes - read all about it in the newsletter!)
We’re in Week 12 at my school and so in my Mastery classes I put something up on the board today, and then I ask something. Here’s what I write, in large, clear, moment-of-truth letters:
8 MORE CLASSES
I mean, I could have written “ONE MORE MONTH”, but this is at the point in the semester where the former implies a degree of urgency that the latter just doesn’t bring to light. The next class we have together I’ll write 7 MORE DAYS, and so on. It seems to help keep students focused a little bit better.
One of the benefits of Mastery is that students often take more of a sense of ownership of their own learning – as opposed to talking about how their teacher is good or bad, they talk about how they need to do more work to catch up. That sounds subtle but it’s, in my opinion, a crucial step for academic development and deeply beneficial in the long run.
Then I say, “What if I got sick?”
I have a chronic illness called Crohn’s Disease that, pretty much every semester, makes me miss a class or two – sometimes a lot more. If I were out for a week, which is possible for any teacher, would that be outside of the tightening window students have to finish class? This is, of course, notwithstanding if the student got sick on top of things – which, when put under stress, seems like it happens more often.
It doesn’t work for everyone, and the power definitely wears off. But reminding students who are self-accelerating that time is measured in class days, and that not all their success can be about pushing themselves harder at this point, can be very helpful.
by Carolyn Markel, Patrick Lohan, and Lauren Zajac
Imagine this scenario: you are a developmental education administrator. You have three leveled reading classes: advanced, intermediate, and developing. Similarly, you have three instructors in your program that you need to assign to these sections. One teacher is very strong, one is average, and one is weak. You’re tasked with assigning one teacher to each class. You’re not allowed to change personnel or move students to different levels. Who do you assign to each class?
We posed this question to many of our colleagues, both administrators and instructors, and received a wide range of responses. Some respondents assigned the strong teacher with the low group of students. Their rationale was that a strong teacher is needed to meet the distinct needs of this particular population. Conversely, some took the opposite stance, pairing the strong teacher with the advanced group of students. Their rationale was that these students have the least amount of deficits, and a strong teacher will be able to take them the furthest. They also reasoned that the strong teacher may get burned out teaching the developing group of students due to the slower pacing, less sophisticated content, and higher attrition rates. Additional responses focused on pairing the strong teacher with the intermediate group, as this group has significant room to grow but has fewer deficits than the developing group. The highest group already are pretty independent, while the lowest group may be hindered due to developing skills, so the pairing the strong teacher with the middle group gives them the best opportunity to progress.
One of the biggest areas of contention was where to place the weakest instructor. One argument advocated for placing the weak instructor with the advanced group of students, as this group is already self-sufficient. These students may be more likely to be successful working independently without a lot of need for instructor support. However, some respondents noted that this is not an optimal pairing, because the advanced group of students may perceive the weakness of the instructor, which may result in discipline problems, disengagement, or ridicule of the teacher. A second suggestion was placing the weakest instructor with the developing group of students; these respondents considered the statistical likelihood of success in the classroom and opted to place the best resources with the students most likely to succeed.
Interestingly, some respondents assigned the weakest instructor to the middle group, stating that both the advanced and developing students had unique needs that could be addressed by higher skilled teachers. Therefore, they assigned the weakest teacher to the intermediate students essentially by default.
Clearly, this is a contrived scenario; in an ideal situation, all of the instructors would be strong. However, this is an interesting question to pose to both instructors and administers alike. Where would you place each teacher? Please share your response on this Google Form:
If you had told me when I was 18 that my career (after some twists and turns early on) would take me to being a Developmental Math teacher, I would have bet a lot against it. It certainly wasn’t in my plan – I don’t think I’m very good at math (even to this day), and there are a lot of days that I don’t even like math at all.
There are some of us that are called, directly, to teach Developmental Education, but I know I was not until later. Ultimately I think I probably became a teacher because I was a good student, and as such it was a natural progression. My Bachelor’s Degree is in History Education and Economics and my ultimate goal right out of school was to become a High School History teacher. I turns out there are very few High School History teaching jobs, and so my first year of school I taught at a parochial school on the edge of an impoverished community on the South Side of Chicago.
I’ll probably never forget the way I got the job – it was August and I was jobless, and the Principal of my first school (who was hired only a few days before I was) called me to see if I wanted to interview for a History and Mathematics position. I hadn’t taught Math, wasn’t good at Math, and had no interest in teaching Math. What I did have an interest in, however, was a job when schools were opening the next week, so I interviewed that day.
During the interview, in a small room overwhelmed by a loud, choking air conditioner struggling to cool the room down, one of the Administrative Assistants came in, whispered something in the Principal’s ear, and the entire timbre of the conversation changed.
“This position is for a Mathematics, Art, and Religion position. Would you be interested in being a Junior High Math, Art, and Religion teacher?”
I thought about this for a few seconds – which dilated in my mind to a few minutes – and decided that if they were willing to give me a paycheck, I’d teach Portuguese and Opera for them. The pay was paltry (I’m pretty sure I made less than minimum wage), the commute was long, and that year I woke up every day at 5 am and got home at 7 pm. But my experience teaching Math when I didn’t like it, when the students didn’t like it, and when I flew by the seat of my pants every day improved me a lot.
TO BE CONTINUED
Who was the best teacher you ever had? I can think of a couple that were each the best teacher I had, but for different reasons.
One was, funny enough, probably the best teacher I had because she was the worst teacher I ever had, and reflecting back it helped make me aware of what I didn’t want to do as a teacher. (Usually the best teacher isn't the one you realize is the best teacher right after their class, is it?) I had her my Freshman year of High School and, aside from a couple of boring, dry labs (including one during which I broke a slide cover, which cost a nickel, and she pestered me about that nickel for the remainder of the year) the entirety of her class, day in and day out, consisted of her sitting at a desk, reading the textbook, and asking us a question over what was in it. If the first sentence in a paragraph was, “Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell” she would ask one of the students, at random, “Jason, what is the powerhouse of the cell?” I would say, “The mitochondria” and she would give a brief, uninspired explanation. Then she would read the next paragraph and it would continue again. That’s how I spent a year in high school.
I knew, no matter what, that I could never make my class like that. If that’s all I wanted to accomplish – there’s easier and better ways to make money than teaching.
Another of who I would consider to be my best teachers was a teacher from whom I learned very little. He was only my teacher for roughly half the year – he had a lot of chronic health issues and passed away a few years after he taught me – but what he did, more than any other teacher I can think of, is listened deeply, and he truly valued my opinion. For a 13 year old kid having someone who was obviously very smart, and had read and done a lot of things, to listen to me – someone that wasn’t related to me – it really meant a lot. It was a World History class and during most of that time we talked about philosophical ideas, listened to music, and gained an appreciation for the material. I ended up loving history so much that I ended up getting a Bachelor’s in I (and love it to this day).
His tests were over information he barely covered in class – he took the opinion that a teacher was not supposed to be a substitute for a textbook - but because we cared about what he thought (because he cared about us) we read the textbook for ourselves. Because we knew he cared about us, we worked harder, and we did more independently.
As a very wise teacher once told me, “If they know you care about them, you can push them to the moon to succeed.”
The third teacher I had that I would consider to be the best teacher I ever had was similar – she worked very hard for us so we knew she cared about us, but because the class was self-contained she took the opportunity to give us the most freedom we could possibly have (given that we were in elementary school and junior high at the time). We designed spaceships, considered complex ideas, went on field trips to incredible places, and she did an incredible job of opening our minds. In her class we worked hard (and she worked very hard for us) – but our work never felt like work, because everything was so much fun and because we loved being there.
I’ve tried to keep these three people as lessons to me as to how to become a better teacher. Who would you choose, and why?
I’ve known teachers who rant and rave about their cheating policies – that when they catch a student cheating they immediately fail the class, and then they send them to the Student Judicial Board to try and get them expelled, and presumably after that they have them excommunicated from their place of worship. I can only assume that such teachers never actually catch cheaters.
The reason I say this is because, in almost every instance, when I have caught cheaters it’s in a very nebulous, murky area. In times past I’ve seen students with wandering eyes who get similar answers and scratch work to their neighbors. I’m not entirely sure they’re cheating and I’m definitely not sure enough to call them a cheater.
Because I teach many of my classes in laboratory settings the ability to cheat is, in some ways, multiplied. Students have large computer screens in front of them that obfuscate their doings, and I have no ability to remotely see what they see. The “screen” also acts as a “screen” so they could be using a phone in front of me, and unless I’m moving around constantly it would be tough to see.
My classrooms are changing a lot, and as a result my cheating and plagiarism policy has changed a lot. Here are some things I try to keep in mind when continuing to develop my cheating and plagiarism policy:
1) If I’m not sure, there are usually ways to approximate a bad result. In the case of the former, when I have a student that I’m pretty sure but not completely sure is cheating, I tell them I had “a problem” grading their test and that they need to take it again in the Testing Center, leaving the problem unspecified. Many times, where I’m almost sure I was sure they were cheating, they seem to know what’s up and don’t argue about it much. If they do argue about it – well, I can’t do much about it, because there was “a problem”.
If the student approximates what they got the original test I normally give them the better of the two scores. If the scores are dramatically different and the second one under more controlled conditions is lower I normally assume they were cheating, and the penalty is almost always sufficient.
2) Within my classroom, I try to use non-egregious cheating as an opportunity for growth. Because I can’t know about my students’ academic behavior in other classes (and I don’t think I’d want to know, even if I could) I can’t tell whether or not cheating is a pattern a student has with other classes. When I catch students making slight acts of cheating I try to make them opportunities to learn – both for them and for myself.
3) Consider taking away the tools of cheaters. On tests now I allow my students to use calculators and notecards – a part of me says to myself, “What else would a cheater like?” The truth of the matter is, though, as a Math teacher there are far more powerful tools a student can use to break the rules. Right now there are apps students can find – Wolfram Alpha being the most common, but hardly being unique – and I consistently wonder to myself if continuing to teach things that a phone can do easily is being the most productive use of class and curriculum time.
What is your cheating policy? How do you catch cheaters? How has your policy changed over time, given your experiences?
“How can I do better on the next test?”
I wasn’t always a good student. I like learning, sure, but sometimes the rigor of the classroom hasn’t always helped me in learning. Most of the time I didn’t care that I wasn’t getting good grades, but occasionally I felt some pangs at my underachievement. The teacher, almost reflexively, gave me an answer I was sure he had given many times before, and would give many times after I inevitably failed the next test.
“You should study more.”
I didn’t say anything and the teacher stared through me – I’m not sure why. Maybe to see my reaction? I never asked and, frankly, I wouldn’t care much for the answer he gave me anyways, I’m sure. I didn’t respect him and I have doubts he respected me.
After about 10 seconds of silence I broke eye contact with him somehow. This had turned in my mind into a destructive conversation where he would win and I would lose, and I couldn’t take that. Either I would lose because he would have made me give up (this is difficult for a student who has always done well to understand – how confrontational the Student-Teacher Relationship can be) or because I’d be made to look like a fool … well, he already had.
When a teacher says, “You should study more” to an underperforming student, I’m sure almost all the time they mean well. But what I heard from that teacher was, even though I know he didn’t mean it this way, “You’re too stupid to know you have to study for a test.”
Looking back, I’m not sure what sort of answer I was looking for then. I knew how to do better in classes – studying more, doing more homework, asking questions, getting help when I need it. Probably every struggling student knows this. I know what sort of answer I should have given – I needed an answer that spoke to my academic ambivalence, that as a student I lived in a state of limbo between not being sure if I was interested in changing my behavior, that this state of ambivalence is self-perpetuating, and that there were rational reasons why I was ambivalent on being a good student.
Before I thought much about this I assumed that students in my classes, for tautological reasons, wanted to do well in my classes. If they didn’t want to succeed why else would they have signed up? I’m sure in a costless world they would all prefer to succeed than to not succeed. Now I’m not convinced – I think many of our students, especially ones that struggle, live in a world of ambivalence.
Why do I think this? Because I think almost everyone you meet does – if not, I know I sure do. We all live imperfect lives and we all have times where don’t rise to the challenge of our personal goals. I think there are several good reasons why – which will be the topic of a blog soon.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART III
"What’s the worst thing that could happen if you succeeded?”
I ask this question in my College 101 class, a class for students new to college to acculturate them to college and how it’s different, and I let the class fall into an uncomfortable silence as the students reflect on what to write. Not answering isn't thinking hard enough. This question always seems to take students a little aback – they’re used to hearing about how they’re going to screw up their lives if they fail, how they’re going to be broke and living in misery if they don’t graduate from college, and it invariably just makes students feel infantilized in that same way that people who are depressed feel when told they should just stop being so depressed sometime. But many of our students, if asked in an open question about this, might come to terms with the idea that there are some issues besides academic ones holding them back.
“I mean, I always hoped this wouldn’t happen, but it did.” Reginald was the first in his family to graduate High School, let alone graduate College. He got a degree in Engineering and, when I talked to him last, was working downtown and making more money in a month than his mother made in a year. I’m happy I still see him about once a year or so and we still talk online from time to time after being out of my class for 6 years. Sometimes Developmental Educators have to take it as faith that their students do well for themselves; Reggie reminds me that I’ve at least helped one student achieve his goals. But sometimes Reggie talks about what happened to him on the way to his success.
Reggie discovered quickly that his degree rescued him from, in his words, “an unsatisfying environment”. But he paid costs, as well, and he remembers first realizing it one year at Thanksgiving. With his new income, Reggie bought a new car a few days previous, thinking he would like to drive to his grandma’s house because he thought his extended family would feel proud of what he had done so young. But his cousins, aunts, and uncles were coldly distant to him – in retrospect he says this had been happening for awhile, but he only realized it when he bought a new car – and joked with him about how he was too good for them now. But Reggie wasn’t laughing, and over the next year comments were routinely framed at Reggie’s expense without even an attempt at humor. It was clear – Reggie had no idea what he had done to mark him as suddenly being arrogant and above his humble upbringings, but Reggie became an outsider at extended family outings, and was made the butt of cruel jokes about what he and his money could now do over social media. He tried as hard as he could but he said his family said, when Reggie talked about putting Christmas presents on layaway, that he was “phony” – which he was, because he no longer did.
Soon, after realizing that his friends were imposing on him more and more (they did in college, he said, but “there wasn’t much to impose on”) his friends from his neighborhood and his high school were reacting to him in the same way. Additionally, while Reggie was working 50 hours a week or more, his friends were working less and spending their time not working around each other, strengthening their bond and experiences
He made new friends – work friends, mostly, since he worked long hours, as did they – but he found that they weren’t like him either. They were friends of convenience as opposed to friends developed through long years together, and he found that he wasn’t quite “one of them” either. His work friends, to the last one, all had vastly different experiences than he did – they spent frivolously and always seemed to just always have more, spent their vacations hiking (Reggie didn’t see the point of hiking and thought camping was ridiculous, something I, as an avid hiker and camper, tried to convince him to try sometime). His friends bonded over the Bears with him and how awful the Bears always were, or how much they liked it when a colleague was away on work, but he didn’t enjoy his time with them much. He also thought that they didn’t enjoy spending time with him.
Reggie has since become engaged to a girl he met on social media, a girl he says his family is nice to but doesn’t really like. He doesn’t understand how to invest money and feels like going on vacations is more stressful than relaxing, so he doesn’t.
“I like who I am right now. But I paid a price for it all, and it wasn’t in tuition.”
This isn’t to say that a college education isn’t a worthwhile goal – far from it. But sometimes students know that their academic and financial success doesn’t always make them feel very successful. For some, a degree means creating separation from them and their families. For others, it means taking a risk or giving up and old life - not just in financial terms - and sometimes, in the words of a wise teacher I know, "sometimes we cling to the things that hold us back".
Part II - To Be Continued
More true than in perhaps any other discipline, educators that are blessed to teach remedial courses are called to believe that our students are capable of change. Our students often come to us with profound barriers to success - not just in unreadiness in disciplinary area, but sometimes without clear ideas on how to study, take notes, read critically, ask for help when help is needed, diagnose errors, and to develop social capital within the classroom - and without believing our students can make the changes necessary, our work is entirely forfeit at worst and transitory, without changing the underlying issues, at best. A very wise administrator once told me "they always have the right to surprise you" - I may not get all of my students where I want them to be (I won't tell you if it's ever happened, you can fill in the blanks for yourself) but if I don't give them the tools to make changes in their lives, I am not helping them to surprise me by making changes deep into the semester.
What does it mean to create a course, let alone a curriculum, designed to foster this change in our students, to allow them the ability to surprise you with how m? I personally don’t have a clue but I feel like I’m getting a better grasp as I age more into my role and into what I’m more comfortable believing now as a teacher, and a quote from a very wise Developmental Educator sticks in my brain as I think about it, “they always have the right to surprise you”: I must build a class where change is possible, at any point, and where I reward that change at any point.
It’s easy to place a moratorium on students if for any other reason than because teaching Developmental Education can be challenging on teachers. If we took every failure among our students on an emotional level most of us would be emotional wrecks – no other department has higher failure rates than we do, and most teachers find ways of making sure their work doesn’t turn them chronically depressed because they’re haunted with all the students they couldn’t save, as per the previous entry. (Teachers often feel like their students succeed on their own merits, but fail because they weren’t good enough.)
For many years, it was easy for me to tell who was in serious jeopardy to fail based on the first exam – because I teach Math, which much like Reading is a constructivist discipline where one lesson’s mastery is critical in understanding the next lesson – it often feels like trying to teach higher-order concepts like algebra to students who count on their fingers is like trying to build a skyscraper on mud. And, many times, it turns out to be.
But I really try to build my classes now to catch as many students who would fail without my help, and would pass with my help, and to give them the techniques to succeed. I don’t want you to think I have some panacea – my hunch is my success rates are just like everyone else’s. But here are some things I do to foster change in my classes:
Do you believe change is a necessary part of Developmental Education? What do you do to foster change?
Most experienced teachers have many moments of educational catharsis. I've had my share, but one in particular stands out: I knew what I was doing wasn’t working when I had no more answers.
I was no longer a rookie teacher - it was probably by fifth or sixth year teaching, and it was on a clear fall day. I can tell you exactly where the student was, where she sat: front row, right next to the door, so if she needed to leave it would be the quickest way out. Looking back, I wonder if she thought about that too. It was right after I gave back a test in Week 11 – too late in the semester to fix big problems, too late to make the changes that should have been made – and, as we went over the exam, she began weeping in class. Not just crying, but weeping.
I asked the students to go over their work individually for a few minutes, asked her if I could talk to her outside for a second. She showed me the result I know she had – a poor result after a succession of other poor results through class. She hadn’t put in any sort of special effort I had noticed – was sporadic in doing homework, hadn’t take me up on my offers to get help during office hours, hadn’t gone to the tutoring center.
“I tried. This class, I tried. I tried so hard.”
After expressing my shared grief with her and asked her if maybe we could talk about things after class for a few minutes we went back into class, where she said nothing, and left when I was erasing the boards. I never saw her again, in my class or anywhere else, and I realized afterwards that the fact that she spoke in the past tense meant she had already made a big decision. I hope it’s not the last time she was ever in a college classroom and I have thought about this experience, and how much more I should have known, at least once a week for the past 10 years of my life. It still haunts me.
I thought about this for awhile - first, for a few minutes, then for about a half-hour - and I realized I was wrong – that what I was doing wasn’t in union with my values or what I wanted to be as a teacher. There are three things that I realized afterwards, things that I wish I realized from the very beginning:
1. Not trying is sometimes a defense mechanism meant to protect students. If I’m not sure I can do something I might have good psychological reasons to not try. If I fail at something, and I don’t try, I can tell myself that I failed because I didn’t try. If I fail at something, and I tried a little, I can tell myself that if I tried harder I would have succeeded. But if I give it my absolute best, and if I have no excuses to offer my psyche, and if I still fail, can you see how damaging this can be? I know that working harder isn’t always the best thing to change to be successful – the student didn’t take advantage of a wide array of help at her disposal. Still, though, this is a dangerous thing
2. I need to reward behavior change whenever it happens, as much as I can. Students with Developmental Education very often need to learn or remediate study skills – many got through High School or equivalences with a poor foundation, and are discovering that their methods of work and study will not yield success in college. I firmly believe that we can learn more from failure than from success, and I need to remember that failure can be a teacher, but I also need to remember that students need second chances where I can provide them. If a student can demonstrate that they’ve learned from their mistakes – whether they be on a math problem or how they study and take notes – I need to give them the opportunity to demonstrate this when I can.
3. I can no longer expect success from students if I don’t demonstrate how to achieve success. I have taken for granted that students know how to review class material, how to take notes, what to do if they need extra help, how to handle math anxiety, how to not procrastinate. I no longer expect these things when students come into my classroom for the first time – even if they have forgotten these things, these, like mathematics in general, are ultimately perishable: if they are not used, they are lost.
Have you ever had one of these moments of catharsis? What happened to initiate it? How did you resolve it - or did you ever resolve it?