Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Power of Peers

My Friday went much better than my Thursday, I should point out. Or perhaps I am just so accepting of any sort of positive interaction after the downer-ness of my one class that I can become elated based on nothing at all.

My Friday am class is, in comparison to my other two comp classes, rocketing along just fine. They are, and have been since the first day, behaving like college students. They turn in typical stuff that looks like high school, I say, "nope, that's high school," and then I push, cajole, and encourage them and they turn over and start producing college-level work.

I have no idea why I keep using the metaphor of them "turning over" --- I should really mean turning a corner, or to be even more obnoxiously hippie, "blossoming" into college students. But no, in my mind I am turning them over like rocks or abelskivers or poker cards or something. Anyway, in my courses at Postdoc U I always thought of having a period of resistance, where they struggle against me and against the constraints of the class, and then suddenly around essay 3 they start complaining a lot more, but it is a jokey complaining, and then suddenly they are struggling for me and bringing me things --- stuff they have noticed out in the world or their other classes that they are connecting with our last essay, for example, or a draft for another class, or 8 million possible sources for their essay topic do you think ma'am that these will be too much to fit into my research paper? (My class becomes heavily bimodal by the end of the semester, as students either "turn over" and stop resisting or completely give up and stop coming.)

Maybe they come to me like turtles, and my job is to turn them over and get them moving in their own slow direction? No, even for me that metaphor is too weird.

Anyway, I have a student in this morning class who has really, quite surprisingly, blossomed. Even more than weak thinking and writing, she has displayed a distracted, usually hostile and inattentive, attitude and nonverbal behavior. This student used to take it personally that college would require the credit-hour and typed assignments, whereupon I would assure her that everyone just demands it of all college students. It's just the rule of being college students.

However, this student has the luck of being in my Friday section and of sitting down between two very good students ---- one who is very studious and tries very hard and one who is probably almost smart enough to not to need to be there at all, although she has been a very good sport about it. Whenever my struggling student rails against the injustice of homework and reading quizzes or bringing a book to class, these students look at her like she is weird; of course you do all these things! That is the way life is. I do not know how much helping and coaching they have given her to bring her up to speed on the syllabus and homework and readings for any given day, but I am sorta aware (and very appreciative). This same student also showed up two or three times with material for essay three and turned in a lovely final draft --- one that looked like it had been outlined. And that almost slavishly followed the quote sandwich paragraph structure. It even had some logical ideas --- and just the fact that all the sentences were clear and easy to follow was huge. And then on Friday this student proceeded to get a lot out of our class activity, including discovering that such things as tables of contents and indexes can correlate to each other and actually have a point.

The thing is, how well would this student have changed her attitude and made great leaps of progress if she had been in my still-unturned Thursday section? There she would have been reinforced in her thinking that I was weird and mean and asking them to do pointless stupid things. And this story is heartwarming only when you ignore the fact that only one of my three classes has turned like this and while I am worried that a few of my Friday morning class will fail, I'm almost positive that all of my other two classes will.

It's telling that one of the athletes in my late afternoon class transferred into my morning class ---- to fix his schedule, he says, but also I had already yelled at that group of giggly, nonattentive guys quite a bit by then. Who has completely turned around his behavior and is writing normal-sounding C-level college student work? Who is currently failing and trying to play phone games with each other over the network during class? And who was acting exactly like that but has not misbehaved like that once since switching sections?

Uh-huh. Back when I was in band and applying for honor band and state honor band and stuff, I always liked being the worst musician in the room rather than the best --- I always felt pushed to improve, to excel. That's a huge advantage to putting a few unprepared students into a strong classroom --- but what about at a school where the vast majority of students are not the models of behavior, but need those models around them? What do you do in that situation?

Hmm. Maybe I'm not above salting my classes with "ringers" or "plants." Maybe we could hire back some unemployed recent college grads as actors. Or is that too meta?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I have one class, currently, that is hands down the best group of people I have taught since my first year at LRU, and I really want to figure out a way to hire them---at least some of them---to be in every one of my classes till I retire. Maybe we should write a grant: who gives money to improve education?

What Now? said...

My partner is teaching as an adjunct in our local community college this term, and it's been an eye-opening experience for both of us -- not just the lack of college skills and preparedness, but the overt hostility toward college expectations. So it's comforting, in a weird way, to hear about your classes. It means it's not just her and not just that community college. But clearly she is going to need some coping skills to deal with the students who don't want to work ... although certainly there are some students who are working hard and making great strides; it's just that the ratio of these students to the haters is so different from anything either of us has ever experienced.

Belle said...

This is what I love about my blog-buddies. They go through the same stuff I'm going through, and by posting about it, reduce my sense of isolation! Thank you all!

Because yes, I have that hostile jock who resists everything academic. He wants to be Coach, and that's all he's interested in. Painful and only the increasing (passive) pressure of his in class peers is moving him through.

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, Whatnow, you are cheered up, but what about me???

Harrumph. grumble grumble.