But I have spent the intervening two years thinking more or less constantly about education, youth, school. So here is my chance to experiment. I have only 12 students, all women. Several of them are in teacher-training programs, and many of them plan to work with children. (Wait till we get to the young adult section! At least kids are remote from them in their thinking.)
The first writing assignment was due yesterday. I had given them a choice of four topics, also acknowledging that they could come up with one on their own, but I spelled out my goals: to demonstrate that they had done the reading and to deepen their thinking about the topic (Infancy). I gave some guidelines, some technical requirements (use anthropological style for references and citations), length limit (1000 words).
And then I required a page-long self-assessment. It asked them to spell out their goals and to discuss how they had and had not met them. It asked them to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of their paper, in terms of both content and form, and to explain this. And, finally, I asked them to grade themselves.
We began class informally, talking about various courses. I asked them about their ideal class. Lots of choices, flexibility, options. No structure. No!! a science student exclaimed. I like structure. I like being told what to write. I like tests.
One student asked, timidly, if it was acceptable to use the word I in her writing. “Oh, I’m so sorry that our educational system has done this to you,” I responded. Of course there is room for your viewpoint, for your experience. This is anthropology, after all. (Don’t you notice all the “I”s in the reading? Don’t you read? the old voice echoes in my head.) We acknowledge the self as an instrument (channeling Sherry Ortner from the 1980s), and argue that the observer is always situated, and that this must be acknowledged. Bias-free observation is a myth, and there is no objectivity, despite scientific claims to the contrary.
But they told me that some of my colleagues would have scoffed at the question. “Of course you can’t use the word I. You have to support your claims with evidence.”
How many quotations are needed for a two-page paper? One student said that one of her teachers wanted 15.
I let them complain a while, let them talk about kind and flexible professors who let them turn in whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, as inspiration struck. I let them talk about how they wanted to do what they were good at, so the test-takers could take tests while the paper-writers wrote papers, and the poets could write poetry.
And then I gently raised the possibility that maybe there was a place for pushing themselves beyond where they already were. That there are papers that say things like “I liked the movie because it was interesting,” which could use a little evidence, a little less of the author’s viewpoint and a little more about something. That only doing what they are good at doesn’t teach them much. That in their lives they will be doing A LOT of writing of all sorts: tweets and Facebook posts, letters to the editor and comments on blogs, websites and grant proposals, brochures and reports. Few will ever write abstracts of reading or annotated bibliographies (two universally reviled genres), and few will ever write anything resembling term papers or research papers, unless they are among the few who go to academic graduate school. (This is old hat for writing teachers, composition teachers. But for regular teachers, we mostly just keep assigning what we did as students.)
But then we came to the self-assessment. I told them that I wanted them to internalize standards and to be honest about their standards. I gave an example of myself having done some cards offering free food for a local food coop (for recipients of food stamps; we’ll double their purchase). The cards were quite imperfect. The borders weren’t even. The maps were third-generation photocopies. Some of the colors hadn’t been applied to all four of the versions. The color printer was not vivid. It was probably a “C” if I were grading it. But I had little time. I had to get something done by the meeting the night before, so I squeezed it into a short window. There were a number of technical challenges. So I did not meet my standard but I accepted the results. I didn’t expect anyone to think it better than it was.)
We spoke about the grade and the mind-games that the students were playing. If they gave themselves an A, or A+, maybe I’d just let them get away with it. If they gave themselves a B, maybe I would reward their modesty with raising it a little. The student who loves tests said she’d become fixated on her GPA; she is planning to go to professional school in a medical field, so she’s not entirely wrong. But then I went off on a digression about how grades don’t matter much in the long run.
We returned to the task at hand, discussing their writing and self-evaluation and some of their difficulties. Then I asked the logical question:
So what should they do for the next assignment?
I said I could suggest topics for those who like them, and others could come up with their own. But they would still have to do a self-assessment. Okay? Okay.
But for the third one, I’m going to ask them to stretch. (Maybe I’ll do it for the second, as well.) Push yourself to try something. Push yourself to learn something. That’s how kids learn: they try things out, and keep practicing until they can do it. Failure is information, and it is used to improve their outcomes, as toddlers learn to walk and talk, and as older kids learn to ride bicycles, or play the guitar, or ride a skateboard.
Maybe I’ll ask them to think about some form of communication (writing, photographing videotaping) that they would like to be able to do but can’t do well enough, and to try that. They can give themselves extra “points” (not literal points) for courage.
This is all fascinating. I’m excited about the conversation. I don’t want to shock these students, but I want to help them learn something, and if possible it is something that is beyond the content of the reading. I want to learn too.
We’re off to a promising start!
September 21, 2011