Monday, June 20, 2016

Ursula's Demand

Do not consider me now 
as an elegant female intending to plague you, 
but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart. 

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice 

Good morning.

I think I am going to have the above Austen quote tattooed on my forehead. Perhaps more likely is a  fancy printed version of it finding its way to the classroom I'll soon organize & adorn until it drips literature.

Last week was atypical in that we went a variety of places & didn't, to my recollection, spend even one day in our pajamas. I told you last Monday morning that there were child-related activities on the calendar for the day, & what that entailed was our quarterly trip to the endocrinologist in Jackson. 

The four of us had a nice day together. I was able to get a good bit of reading done on the drive over & back, certainly more reading than would've been accomplished had I been at home with the kids all day. Sadly it was school-related reading rather than fiction of my choosing, but still, I felt accomplished. Despite the early morning, the kids were in high spirits on the drive over, thanks mostly to Chick-fil-A's chicken minis.

Nothing solidifies a family like an hour or two at the doctor's office taking selfies while you fret over A1C results & wait to discuss life & carbohydrates with the endocrinologist. 

Reagan's A1C was a 7.2, which is fantastic. I'd slept maybe four hours the night before & I needed a lift beyond even what coffee was providing.

We did a few things after we left the doctor's office. Details are sketchy. I was exhausted, & with the A1C news behind me, I was pretty heavily focused on what had to happen before Tuesday at six in the evening. When I say "exhausted" & "focused," I mean I did not step foot in one clothing store while Trey & the kids were in Barnes & Noble, not Ann Taylor Loft, not Anthropologie, nada. Graduate school: it changes you, sometimes in sad, sad ways. 

Henry left Barnes & Noble with a large Thomas the Train which never left his grip, not even during his nap on the way home.  

As you certainly recall (because I know you read for detail), I have a major assignment due every Tuesday evening by six. Last Tuesday was no exception. Last Tuesday's assignment was to read eight student essays, assign them a grade, comment on them explaining the grade as if addressing the student, & then post our grades & comments publicly so we could see how our peers scored the essays, & how they arrived at their grades. That was the easy part. The other half of the assignment, which was submitted only to our instructor & not posted for public consumption, was a 1,000-word summary of the grading exercise. This is what you do in grad school: you do the work you're assigned, & then you reflect on the assignment. What did I learn? What is my grading philosophy? What will I do differently in the future? Where's Waldo? Was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll?  

And the "Reflection" was not just a simple, "This is what I learned . . ." No, no. In theory, we were supposed to read four assigned articles before grading the eight essays. These are all "scholarly" "journal" "articles" written by academics who've dedicated their lives to researching & theorizing & writing about the best way(s) to teach college composition, & particular to these articles, the best way to approach grading student essays. Not only were we to "consider the advice in the articles" when grading the essays,  but the journal articles had to be referenced & cited in the "Reflection" portion of our assignment.  

By the time we were back in Louisiana Monday night, I'd read all the assigned articles & the eight essays. I'd assigned grades to & commented on four of the essays, but four remained, as well as the bulk of the "Reflection" piece. As soon as we got home, I helped Trey get the kids out of the car, &, without even sitting down (because I knew I'd never get back up), I left the house to go sit at Chick-fil-A, mope a little, & try & finish my work. 

I did get everything submitted on time Tuesday; you can release that breath you've been holding. In fact, I was a little early because I had to hit "submit" in time to then get the kids to my parents' house & jet back to town to meet friends to see Me Before You. The movie was of course the same (Will broke my heart a-gain), but I was so proud of myself for managing the Monday-doctor-appointment / Tuesday-deadline back to back shuffle that I didn't let Will get to me too much.  

The rest of the week I probably took it a little easier than I should have. I wasn't smoking weed & neglecting my kids or anything, but I didn't do as much as I should have concerning my school work. I feel good when I turn in my weekly assignments, shoving to the back of my mind the fact that I have a monster of a research paper due fairly soon. When it's Tuesday night, the next Tuesday's deadline seems so far away, you know.

We spent the night at my parents' house one night, we swam at my Aunt Donna's, we ate pizza a handful of times, & I finished reading June's book club book. For a day or two, I pretended it was simply summer & my dreams aren't haunted by the MLA Handbook.

Oh, wait. Before I continue, I must share this of Henry & cousin Maisie enjoying the sleepover. It's blurry, but they were bouncing & moving so much this was the best I got:

Toward the end of the week, I got an email from my instructor letting me know she'd graded our first Journal Response. Every week we're assigned all these articles to read, & then we have to respond to them (quoting them directly at least once . . . using proper MLA citation style, of course). This essentially takes the place of attending class & having class discussions. So, I logged in & saw that I made a 100/100 on the first journal. So that's great! What is making me crazy is that, so far as I can tell, she didn't make one comment on the assignment. Unless I am looking in the wrong place online, it's just the "100/100" with no written comment(s) from her. 

I want comments. I am desperate for them. I want to email her & ask her if she commented & I am just not seeing it, but I mean, I don't want her to think I am  (1) ungrateful, given that I made a 100, or (2) an idiot who can't navigate our online portal & figure out where grade commentary is posted. Even if she does think it is perfect, I want to know what she thinks I did well, what did she find insightful? I mean, is there really absolutely zero room for improvement? I've got to know! 

The purpose of last week's faux-essay grading assignment was to get us to rethink the way we read & respond to student essays. Last week on the blog, I briefly discussed assignments whose purpose is not always obvious to students (& how you should do them anyway), but I can honestly say seeing the grades my classmates assigned the same essays I read & graded, & reading their comments to students, was time well spent.   

The subjectivity of grading student writing is overwhelming to me, & to most teachers, as I am discovering while interacting with my summer school classmates. You become acutely cognizant of where you fall on the grammar as well as the content spectrum when you see how others scored the same essays you read & graded (you also begin to throw out phrases like "acutely cognizant").

Excellent content does not woo me much when a paper is full of spelling & grammatical errors, particularly when the errors are such that meaning is impeded, & the paper never gains momentum, a nice ebb & flow, because I am constantly tripped up by grammatical issues that pull me right out of the narrative. A handful of my classmates were heavily swayed by what they felt was sound analysis despite a paper's many grammatical errors. Who is correct? I am doing far more deep thinking about grading practices than I ever have in my life, which I suppose means I am learning things & growing from all this work I've been doing.  

Trey took the kids to sleep at his parents' house Friday night. I took myself to eat nachos. I'd say it was in celebration of my good grade, but I am always honest with you & can honestly say I'd have gone to eat the nachos even if I'd made a D on the assignment. Had I made a D, I'd likely have chased the nachos with ice cream. 

After the nachos, I came home & straightened & vacuumed the living room. Then I sat in the clean living room (I rarely sit in the living room) & watched movies while I folded clothes & tried to think of a research topic. I can write a research paper. I can. I am in the zone again, digging through databases, rattling off citations, & thus far have a perfect score in the class . . . but I remain clueless as to a topic for my research paper, & with every day that passes, this is becoming more of an issue. It's about to become a breathing-in-a-paper-bag issue. 

Once the clothes were folded, I again logged in & dug around to see if I could find comments on the Journal. If any commentary on my 100/100 exists, I've yet to locate it as of the time of this posting. I'm beginning to wonder if this is some sort of test to see if I'll ask about it considering that a major focus of our class is grading and responding to student's written work. Maybe it's not a test, & there are no comments, & I'll just slip this in the "Irony" folder.  

I am internalizing & will well remember the frustration I feel over the lack of commentary on my work (maybe that's her goal?!). Even a perfect score begs for commentary, in my opinion. I mean, if you're dating someone, & he says, "You are perfect for me," that sentiment doesn't end there. The next obvious question is Why? 

People crave feedback. They do. It's human nature. Feedback comes in two varieties, however, praise & criticism, &, as Norman Vincent Peale once explained, "The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism." This is likely the psychology behind the existence of Facebook's "Like" option & the nonexistence of a "Dislike" option. We're a weak people; we can't handle criticism.

Thankfully as a young person I had two parents & a slew of good teachers who taught me the value of constructive criticism. Whenever I sent my book, or portions of the book, off to someone, I vomited in my mouth a little I was eager to read what they had to say, even if it was mostly negative. Sometimes it was mostly negative, but I cried a lot learned a lot from some of it & made some changes, & the negative comments were & always will be preferable to silence.  

I absolutely cannot wait to get to school in August & say, "Hi, I'm your teacher . . . what in the world did you think of your summer reading assignment(s)?!!!" I know their enthusiasm may not match mine, but I am so hopeful for some strong opinions, even if they're of the "I hate it" variety. 

One of the things I noticed & loved as I progressed in college & then went to graduate school (the first time) was that increasingly there were no "right" answers. Most of my teachers were willing to listen to their students, & even entertain ideas about & interpretations of literature that differed from their own if you could argue your case & back it up with scholarly research. Two of the questions on the AP Seniors' summer reading assignment are introduced with the statement:

For these next two questions, I just want your opinion. There is no correct answer. 

And I totally mean that. Promise. It's not a trap.

Friday night when I arrived at Log Cabin, the home of the fancy nachos, the hostess asked me if I wanted to sit at the bar. I looked around at the crowd waiting to be seated & told her I'd take whatever would be faster. You see, I'd eaten little all day in order to prepare my body for the nachos & I was starving. As soon as she stepped away to investigate the seating situation, I realized I'd made a mistake. No, no I did not want to sit at the bar, potentially inviting strangers to assume I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to sit & eat nachos in silence, not fend off chatty fools at the bar.

I didn't have to revise my seating preference for the hostess, thankfully. She returned & promptly escorted me to a table. Nachos, silence, & bliss ensued.  

Silence is indeed sometimes golden, as it was Friday evening. Silence is also sometimes torturous. Often we associate silence with indifference (& we discussed the dreaded indifference a few short weeks ago). 

As my fellow composition teachers & I move through our six-week speed course on assessing student writing, several of the authors we've been assigned to read discuss teachers who usurp a student's work, essentially rewriting entire sentences (or paragraphs) in an effort to show the student how to "fix" issues in his writing. When I read these articles, I was like, Oh yeah. That's so totally me.

Since I won't be writing my students' future papers, since they won't be dragging me to college with them, it doesn't do them much good to show them how Anna would write their research essay, or their narrative essay. There is a consistent theme running through the literature for my summer class, & that is helping students find their voice, rather than inserting your own in their work to such an extent that it doesn't resemble their original composition, & it's not something they could ever replicate for a future assignment.

Naturally as I read these articles in which strategies to help students find their own voice are discussed, ever present in my head is a  picture of Ursula & Ariel, Ursula's gravely voice whispering, What I want from you is . . . your voice.

You're going to be hearing an awful lot of me, dear students - my voice, my thoughts, my opinions. I will likely lose my physical voice once or twice over the course of the year (& I'll sound like Ursula for a few days, fyi).  

I don't want mine to be the only voice in the classroom. I want your voice. I want your thoughts & opinions, & if you're unsure of how to form & articulate them, I want to help you learn how to do that; there is perhaps no greater gift I could give you. I don't want you to think like me or write like me; I just want you to think & write. To borrow Mr. Peale's sentiment, I want to save you with criticism. You won't get silent indifference from me, not in the classroom or on your written assignments (even if you make a 100/100!), & I ask the same of you. I want you to be so full of your own opinions about literature (& life) that you feel you'd burst if you don't express them in some way.

Maybe next week we'll talk about body language. If that reference is not lost on you, we'd probably be great friends.

My plan is to return next week & tell you so much about my research topic & the development of my research paper you could write the paper yourself. Fingers crossed.


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