Wednesday, December 7, 2016

End of Semester: Minor Victories!

Finals start today. And I’m feeling, well, pretty good. Usually this time of year, I’m out of sorts. And that’s putting it mildly. It’s the season of recriminations and regrets: “I didn’t finish everything I had planned! Students won’t be ready for their next English class. How did I fall so far behind? Someone’s gonna figure out I’m a fake.” The chorus in my head should be working overtime. 

But it’s not. I’m almost feeling . . . optimistic, uncharacteristically calm.  Is this denial? Have I drunk so much coffee and eaten so much junk food (stress eater!) that I’ve numbed myself out so completely, immunized against my inner critic? 

For certain, there are kernels of truth in my Greek chorus’ remorseful refrain. I could have more effectively prepared student. I could have used my time more wisely. And I’m definitely a master of “acting as if.” But for some reason, my self-recriminations aren’t piercing my so deeply. 

As think about it, I made a few small changes things this semester, which upon reflection, appear to have paid off big time in terms of reducing the end-of-semester stress syndrome. A couple tasks have to do with logistics. And one has to do with what and how I taught. 

Attendance: This is one of my biggest bug-a-boos, completely stressing m me out, especially at census, withdrawal, and dropping deadlines. But taking attendance is important, not just for accounting purposes but for staying aware of what’s going on with students. First year, first generation college students often aren’t ready for the more laissez-faire attendance policies of many junior and senior level classes. I'm not doing students any favors by being so . . . relaxed. 

This semester, I took up a peer’s suggestion to have students sign in as they walk into class. I tried last semester, but didn’t follow through. I did better this time around, stationing a podium with a composition book (one dedicated to each class) near the door. It became part of our classroom culture - by the second week of class, students reminded me to set up the sign in station, and I consistently kept track of attendance. 

Grades: One benefit of using the composition book to take roll? Jotting down notes about what happened in class directly on the page where folks signed in. When students participated in activities that weren’t meant to yield something I would formally collect, (peer revision, group work, pre-writing and drafting, think-pair-share, postering and carousel sessions, annotating texts etc.) I’d mark that on the day’s attendance. I wasn't happy about loosey-goosey assigning“participation” grades. Students (and I!) need to know, at least in broad terms, what work they might have missed if they were absent. And this has helped tremendously when tabulating scores - a huge stressor I avoided this time around. 

Google Docs: I’ve dabbled with Google Docs for several years now, but this is the first time I’ve asked students to set up and share dedicated file for their work of their work. This took a lot of time at the beginning of the semester, but the investment made a big difference. Getting students to uniformly title files and has been a huge time saver and ultimately freed up time for commenting. 

Focus and Multiplier Effects: I’ve been pretty good about using group activities and discussion to help students develop oral fluency and group work skills. It’s a source of pride how I engage students. But one of the things I hadn’t done so well with these types of activities them into students’ actual writing project. The activities and discussions were independent, stand-alone, often far afield topic-wise relative to what students were actually writing. 

This semester, I’m happy to to say that practically every demonstration,YouTube clip, podcast,and discussion fed into the writing process of the project students were actually doing at the moment. This increased oral fluency and comfort level with the topics directly transferred into those projects. For instance, instead of using the “writing-into-the-day” activity to respond to a video or news item I thought was interesting, I disciplined myself to stay on topic, using media directly related to the project at hand. This coherence between “fun stuff” and the “serious” assignments made for meaningful preparation for writing projects- students were able to express and explore their ideas multiple times in different ways before drafting. And so I don't feel guilty about poor use of time. Sounds pretty basic. Sometimes learning curves can be as long as they are steep. 

Of course, I didn't do all this perfectly. And yet,these small, initial steps were enough to forestall the finals' gloom. 

Me. In five days. Maybe less. 
Notes for Next Semester: I had planned, with the attendance procedure, to draw a line at about five minutes into class time to keep track of who was late. Also, I need to use the attendance data on a more timely basis - contacting folks when I see patterns of absences and tardies on a more uniform basis.

In terms of actually recording grades into my grade book, I need to do that weekly so I can stay on top of (and share) student progress. Since I teach primarily first-year, first time students, relying on essays, a midterm, and a final isn’t an effective way to help them build the kind of study habits they'll need. I’ve found it’s often too much independence too soon. I’m not commenting on student work (who is?), but the Google Docs is making it easier to do so. 

But I’m not beating myself up this semester the way I typically would because those few steps I took have precluded stress in ways I hadn't imagined. And since I am experiencing the benefits, perhaps the emotional inertia (I won't be ill after finals, as is my typical m.o.) will push me to keep improving next semester. 

All I have left to do is assess the last essay, the final exam, tabulate grades, and upload them. As I draft this post, students are hunched over their blue books completing their exams! Usually, I'd be scrambling through my notes, trying to recreate attendance rosters and in-class participation grades.  Perhaps since I’m in a better place than usual this time of year, I’ll be able to get seven hours of sleep in every day until grades are due. A first!