Seven Step Common Core

November 4, 2014

In Paragraph City there has been much bluster about Common Core and how it will change the landscape of the college classroom. We are into the second or third year of the bluster, so Common Core is still an infant and no one knows just how the lad will turn out. Yet experience tells us that children raised in single-minded administrative households so often turn out bad, frequently strangled before they are out of adolescence.

The Common Core has the goal of re-tuning high school classes so students are ready for college, without remediation. The worry in Paragraph City, however, is that this is all focused on content, where the deeper problems have to do with process.  Yes, high school graduates are handicapped by a shallowness in their knowledge, but the greater disability is in how they approach learning.

So here is my Seven Step Common Core. Students who could do these would ride the waves while their classmates tread water in the troughs.  You might read them and think, “Hey, isn’t this stuff taught in elementary school?”  What do you mean by ‘taught’, I’d say.

  • Read.  This is the number one handicap, and while for some it’s a lack of ability, for most it’s a lack of willingness. Students just don’t believe it’s worthwhile to do the assigned reading. Many do not even buy the books. Somehow, this does not change in online courses.
  • Really read. The other side to the reading issue is that many students do not know they are not reading. They huddle over a book, the eyes travel over print, their minds are miles away. Nearly every reading assignment there is someone in class who believes they have read the assigned reading but cannot tell me anything about it. It’s as if they are saying, “It felt like reading, it hurt, it was boring, so I must have read it.”
  • Attend class. This is so obvious nearly everyone understands it’s something to be done, but for many it’s understood as a duty, not as a means to learning. I see this in two ways. When students miss class and ask, “Did you do anything important?” many of them mean it. Class is usually unimportant to them. For proof, just say “No, nothing important” in response and see how it goes down. Secondly, most students who arrive fifteen minutes late or leave ten minutes early are certain nothing happens when they are not there. They are shocked and feel cheated if deadlines are changed, assignments are explained, or  opportunities given when they are not in class. “You didn’t tell me,” she says to me when other students are turning in a last minute revision option I gave. “You weren’t in class to tell.”  “But you told everyone else.” “They were in class, and I posted an announcement in BlackBoard.” “But you didn’t tell…”  Somehow, my dean was able to explain it to her.
  • Attend in class. Because class is a duty, the duty is done simply by being there. Texting or day dreaming or surreptitiously working on another course: that’s OK because they have met the duty of being in class. Or, as with reading, some students think they are listening when really they are not:  the person with perfect attendance who cannot do or even remember talking about major topics covered while they were in class, omitting requirements from assignments and neglecting necessary processes. If every student took notes that reflected the class, what a difference could result.  “I can remember it,” they may say when asked why they don’t take notes, not knowing that note-taking is mostly to help with listening.
  • Understand that multi-tasking makes you stupid. Every semester I have this discussion, usually after an in-class essay which is usually one of the better essays. Mostly they write with phones turned on and pinging, kids needing things from them, TV on, multiple screens open, family or roommates strolling by to talk. It’s no wonder the essays are disjointed and lack unity. When the in-class essay gets grades that are up a level, even though they spend less time on it in preparation or writing, I make my case for turning off all the devices and going to the 19th century for an hour to write their essays. Or the library. But most – and they tell me this – can’t see themselves doing it. They lack the discipline to cut off the world for an evening, or an hour.
  • Do the work early. “If” I say, “you would write a complete rough draft three days before it’s due, leave it untouched until the morning it’s due, and then spend a half hour improving it before you submit it, you’ll have a better paper.”  But mostly the papers are written at the last minute. It’s always been just fine to do the homework on the bus as we go to middle school, why change now?  “I work better under pressure,” I often hear.  Actually, they mean that they don’t work at all unless they are under pressure. Doing something well isn’t on the radar; it’s enough to just do it.
  • Plan your life, plan to not have children before you want them, plan how you will get to class before you register for them, plan for how you will fit college in with your job and your family, plan for when you will do the studying and reading and writing you know you need to do, and finally, plan the essay.

So for instance, I’m working with Milton, a barely 20-something guy who has all the signs of a bright student. He’s just started a family and wants to turn his life around by caring about things he never cared about before: getting a good job, being respected for what he does and who he is, committing to his family.

In our most recent conversation, I saw how part of Milton’s strategy includes never reading.  He’s silently refusing just now to read my handbook to see how MLA formats a Works Cited page.  A great example is on page 231: I’ve assigned it, projected it in class (on three different days when he wasn’t in class), and recommended it to him in marginal comments on his papers. The book is available used for under $10, another model is free on my class LMS (which he hasn’t visited since the third week of the semester), and copies of the book can be borrowed from the library or learning center.

But this is not his process for learning; instead, he is working by trial-and-error to find the proper form on his papers and by stopping in my office to ask a question here and there. But I will not read to him and it’s a fool’s mission to explain what I’ve already explained in class and what is clear in the reading. I ask him if this is a good plan he’s following and he grins and shakes his head and stares at my shoes, “No, no, I guess not.”  My pal Milton will fail the course, though, in part because he’s still calling it Citations instead of Works Cited and he won’t put sources in alphabetical order or identify the medium of the sources. I’ve corrected these errors on his papers, but Milton doesn’t read those notes either.

Or maybe he thinks he does. He sits in the back, usually with earbuds around his neck or plugged in place. When I ask he says, “Background music, just background. It helps me listen.”


Not Your High School’s Writing Assignment

October 27, 2014

In Paragraph City students complain about their writing assignments. Occasionally the complaints come from students just trying to make their lives easier, which I generally don’t hold against them. I don’t do much of anything with such complaints; it’s just the whining that’s part of warming to a topic. But just as often the complaints come from students genuinely confused about what’s being asked, often because what’s being asked is something they have never done before. These complaints one takes like a pat on the back; sometimes it’s the only praise students will ever offer a beleaguered writing instructor.

As much as high school students are told that college will be different from high school, mostly they expect it to be the same. I see it in when they are surprised to find:
 Some of their English teachers’ ‘rules’ just aren’t rules (never use the word “I”; never start an essay with a quotation; never start a sentence with the words “and” “but” “which” or “because”)
 Looking up a word in the dictionary is not “research”; neither is the use of a quotation from BrainyQuote.
 Explaining the obvious is bad writing, even if comes wrapped in perfect punctuation.
 A paper assignment with a maximum length of 800 words does not mean that a 1,000 word essay is going “above and beyond” normal effort.

So one of my guides to creating writing assignments is that students are being challenged to do something new. Ideally it’s something that they don’t think they can do. I’ve written here before that a great assignment is one that students know they cannot do until they learn something from the class that enables them to do it. This is where confidence comes from.

The assignment I’m thinking about originally looked like this: Build an essay around some important idea or concept you learned in one of your courses this week. I loved it immediately. The topic would be at college level because the idea comes from a college course. It acknowledges the importance of another instructor’s material, and it would be cause for the student to study up on an important idea in that course, chasing after a little more depth or detail or application.

Students hated it immediately. Nothing important was covered this week, they said, or their other courses were boring, or how could anything done in Psychology or Intro to Art or US History or Anthropology or Problem Solving be described as “important”? So I extended it to course material covered in the last month. Next semester I said told them write about any idea from any course anytime this semester. The complaints were even worse. Last semester I said, “any college course you’ve ever taken.” No better.

So I changed the focus of the assignment. “Write” I said, “about your worldview, and how something covered in one of your courses reinforces or opposes that worldview.” Suddenly the content of their courses is no longer a matter, but class after class someone asks what a worldview is, and I start to run out of ways to explain a concept I thought would need no explanation. One student came to my office: “I don’t think I can write this assignment,” she said. “I don’t have a worldview.” Is it possible that the world means to her only what she is told it means?

Next semester I’m going to drop the worldview from the assignment and dial the clock back to material covered in the last month. Because the problem, obviously, isn’t in the timeframe or the course material. It’s in so many students having no idea that their courses are packed with life-rocking, world changing, landmark ideas. They expect nothing but some sort of work-sheet, date-drill boredom, and that’s what they turn their courses into.

So here’s what lots of my students have to do that they’ve never done before. Find an idea that shines in one of their courses, and write about its luster. “Life is meaningful, I tell them, only when you make it meaningful. You make it have meaning. You do it in an essay and you do it in your living.”

Meanwhile, five students stop by my office to ask for advice. “I’ve got a dozen possible ideas just from my Antro class,” one says. “How am I going to decide?” Yep, there we go.

The Opposite of Dying in a Classroom

May 3, 2013

I sit still, in one of the few still moments that will happen this week of finals. The room of writers has emptied but for two, one of which is apparently writing slowly and with great anger. The other is meticulously detaching the ragged ends of paper left from having torn a scribbled page from his spiral binder. I know the student, one of those I’ve unsuccessfully tried to teach over the last fifteen weeks.

His writing will be adequate, barely, which is all he really wants it to be but much less than it could be. The effort it would take to organize his thoughts and make his sentences communicate clearly is more than he cares to do, not more than he can do. He will have a general topic, one or two sentences that will make me stop and guess at what he’s trying to say, a conclusion that is a mirror image of the introduction, and the most interesting things he has to say will be flailing digressions. But it won’t be dreadful.

The slow angry student finishes with a sigh that just eviscerates the room. Behind him, after nearly two minutes of pulling, the edge of the paper from the spiral notebook is clean and straight. Those two minutes might have corrected the comma splice or cleared up that confusing pronoun, but I suppose we each do the work that we’re inclined to do and let the rest fend for itself.

In Paragraph City there’s much talk about measuring results, but increasingly I’m more concerned with the individual moment. If I “do” each moment in a way that is somehow right, I trust the little boat of my life will eventually dock at some kindly port.  Over the last few days, I have loved this quote from Will Schalbe, writing  in the NY Times about the book he had not yet published, The End of Your Life Book Club: “But reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying” (

All the things that make up the opposite of dying, this is what I want each moment I “do” to be drenched in. The angry student and the spiral bound student pass this test with me: their writing class and my teaching and our conversations and all the assigned reading, it’s all been the opposite of dying, whatever they choose to make of it. I will never know what that is; somehow, to know would not be the opposite of dying.

Bad Grades, Blame Games, and Defenestration

April 26, 2013

In ParagraphCity, most of the students who fail my courses expire from self-inflicted wounds, often when they are upon the threshold of success. The final draft gets “lost”; their transportation breaks down and they abandon the course; a paper is plagiarized; they acquire a new job, a debilitating case of the flu, a new boy/girlfriend, or a series of court dates,  and they vanish in the last weeks of the course. Almost always the F I record at the end of the semester sprouts out of their own bad choices and not an inability to get a passing grade from me.

“Fear of success” is the diagnosis  from one of our advisors.

“Some people just can’t break old patterns” says another; “missing deadlines, putting fun above work, getting immediate gratification: when that’s all you’ve known and all you’ve seen from your friends and heroes and plus it worked in high school, that’s a pretty hard habit to break.”

My colleague who growls says, “We reward success with more work, and they know that. Get an A once and all you get is everyone expecting A’s all the time: more pressure, less free time, more work, more pain, and certainly less cool. It’s a loser’s choice, getting good grades.”

I can understand all that up to a point: I was a pretty dreadful student in high school and for a couple of semesters in college. But it’s not just college courses; it’s a way of life. At some point, don’t we stop and decide what we want to be – a life that’s the product of own volition (yes, even if that volition is mostly illusory – but still, don’t we fall for the lovely illusion)? And yes, environment and conditions vary wildly from person to person, I know, but I think I should see more people really trying.

Here’s an example. It’s one of the most debilitating self-inflicted wounds I see:  Blaming others for the fate we ourselves choose. Just recently, I’ve seen the student Blame Game played these ways.

  • “My computer (or my flash drive, your course management system, the Internet, my cable company, or a virus) destroyed my paper.” Every semester, a colleague tells me about a new conversation that follows this same old pattern:
    • “You didn’t submit a paper. Do you have it?”
    • “Yes I have it. Great paper.”
    • “Where is it?”
    • “On this flash drive.”
    • “So you don’t have your paper.”
    • “No I have my paper on this flash drive.”
    • “You don’t have a paper to turn in, one I can read.”
    • “I have a paper; it’s on this flash drive.”
    • “I can’t read a flash drive, but I’ll give you ten minutes more so you can print it out.”
    • “I can’t print it out. The computers at the college won’t let me.”
    • “So you don’t have your paper.”
    • “I have my paper on this flash drive but my computer has a virus so the computers at the college won’t let me print out my paper.”
    • “So you don’t have a paper to turn in.”
    • “Oh, I have my paper. It’s here on my flash drive. See?”  (I love the tech, but I much preferred it when it was a dog eating papers.)
  • “You don’t explain things.” There are plenty of times when this is not a blaming but a real effort to understand something better, like an assignment, so I’ll usually respond,
    • “Well let’s see what we can do about that. What don’t you understand?”
    • “Everything!”
    • “OK, let’s focus on this paper that’s due. What don’t you understand about that?”
    • “Alright, now how long does it have to be?”
    • …and at this point I know it’s Blame Game time. Of all things to understand about a paper, the 600 to 800 words length given in the document that describes the paper is not that tough to understand….except for those who haven’t read the assignment yet and who haven’t been in class when we discussed it.  I’ll certainly see this blaming in my teacher evaluations.
  • “The things you assign for us to read are too hard to understand.” This too is sometimes a real asking for help. It becomes Blame time when I find out the student doesn’t know what the readings are, hasn’t tried to read them, and in a recent case, hadn’t bought the book yet. “I can’t afford these books, and you don’t put one on reserve in the Library for us either,” was a different spin on blaming me, not his reading. Now, the book we were discussing costs $3.05 new, $2.40 used. The material that was too hard to understand was a John Updike short story. I wonder if such students ever think about what they imply about their incapacity to be college students via such blaming.
  • “The placement test put me in the wrong class.” At the beginning of the class, we blame the placement test for putting us into a class that is too easy; by mid-semester we blame it for putting us in a course that is too hard. It must indeed be a terrible instrument to put us in classes that are both too easy and too hard.
  • “Your homework takes too long. Re-write the paper? Read that chapter? You ask us to do things there’s just no time to do. Some of us have jobs and families you know.

I imagine blaming is wonderfully rewarding in the short run. Responsibility for my own bad work is lifted from my shoulders, plus I get all the benefits of not having to do any more work. As I spread the story of blame around among my friends and parents and teacher evaluation forms, I may even get a self-righteous rush. “What a success I would have been if not for …..”  And the sympathy I win from those Rescuers in my life feels even better (again in the short run, and it’s all about the short run) than the good grade would have felt.

I think of it as sort of voluntary defenestration. Mostly our classroom windows don’t open, but still the image of bailing on a class is pretty familiar, and in ParagraphCity we’re dealing with metaphorical windows anyway, which always open.

What the student says: “It’s true I didn’t do the first two papers, and remember I told you that was because my Uncle’s house was practically destroyed by that hurricane, and I missed some classes when I was sick, but I am going to come to all the classes now and if you give extra credit – you give extra credit, right? – I will do all that. I know I can catch up. English has always been easy for me.”

What I hear: “Please professor, just give up all hope that I will put any effort into this class and kindly fling me out the window with all dispatch”


Academic Safety Net

March 4, 2010

At the start of every semester, students in Paragraph City storm the bookstore for the purchase of things academic. Along with their books and Bics, each is issued the standard college safety net.
This is a distressingly familiar item to our students. Some subscribe to the notion that it’s the most important item they get, having depended upon it in the past more than books or notes, concentration or memory. But if you are around when the packages are opened, you hear four kinds of disappointment.

“Why is it so small?”
“Whatsitmean, it’s nonreusable?”
“Is it supposed to have these holes in it?”
“Not very stretchy, is it?”

The safety nets they used in high school might extend across an auditorium, bounce dropped grades like bowling balls on a trampoline, and convert a History D- to a B+ as easily as a Geometry 66% to a 94%. Certain nets, by Addidas or Nike, would catch multiple grades simultaneously and only start to show signs of wear into the Junior year of high school. And if by some chance an English teacher didn’t failure-proof his class, fine mesh Kevlar nets were amply available from principles, guidance counselors, school boards and even parents in helicopters. By the time Commencement arrived, even stumble-drunk, blindfolded bozos with clown shoes and vertigo could ride unicycles on tightwires 15 feet above the gym hardwood.

All of which doesn’t prepare people too well for our single use disposable, pocket handkerchief sized, college-ruled safety nets.

Looking for Professor Goodwench

April 11, 2009

There’s a type of student in Paragraph City who regards a college course as a sort of prolonged date. He or she has scoured the options, selected a professor from a dishearteningly limited field of available profs, and is by the second week of the semester hoping that he hasn’t (or suspecting that he has) made a terrible mistake.

On the dating side of this metaphor, I see our character as decidedly male. He’s mainly hoping to get lucky and so has tried to select a date that’s easy. If it turns out his date is not going to put out, he hopes she’ll at least show him a good time and not bore him with lots of talk-talk-talk. Hotness is important, and keeping things superficial is just fine, preferred, actually. He also hopes his date is forgiving about promptness, attendance, and telling the truth: all things he will record in his little black book of a student evaluation and ratemyprofessor ranking. Like the easy girl at the frat party, these profs are immensely popular at the time but not much respected in retrospect. Fun, perhaps even worth a chili pepper, but not “good.”

However, on the student side of this metaphor, I find as many women as men with this approach to course selection. Who hasn’t heard the exchange in the halls that I heard last week as I was entering a building:

“Hey, Kath. I need to talk to ya.”

“Gotta go, Beth. Seth’s waiting.”

“Well you’re in Ms K____’s Childhood Psych now aren’t you?”

Listen: you can hear the eyeballs roll. “Yeah.”

“How easy is she?”

“She’s OK. She canceled class before spring break. Gotta go.”

So what is that? Ms. K___ lets you get to third base but not all the way?  I’m too far out of the loop to know.

While it seems to me most students don’t rely mainly on this course-selection-as-date thinking to build their semester schedule, I think it occupies a dim corner of most students’ minds during pre-registration. Perhaps it’s hard to blame them, given the structure of choosing classes. So I’m trying to envision a different process, where the tables are reversed.

Instead of simply registering for classes in the last five weeks of the semester, students apply for admission. Professors review the students and – as long as there are more students than seats in the class – make a selection. In my case, I wouldn’t be as concerned with that obvious GPA as I would a grade in a writing class and a selection of courses that show a rounded – or even better quirky – range of interests. I’d like to see who has been penalized for plagiarism or cheating (out) and who has a weak high school background but solid grades now (in). I’d prefer a mix of genders, races, and ages. I have a high regard for Nursing students. And I’d welcome especially students who have seriously tried the course with me before and failed, as long as I had a sense of why they failed and a strategy to beat that cause.

Then students still seeking courses find what faculty want them in their courses and make a second round of applications. And a third. Those who are chosen last in this sandlot ballot (and I’d reserve a few seats in each class for these) might wonder what they can do to improve their contributions to the team.

Or perhaps colleges should take the NFL draft as a model. But we descend into folly (in addition to badly mixing our metaphors), or perhaps that happened in the first paragraph. Yet is the current system that much better, where – at least in the first and second year of college – many students build their college career, and even majors, based upon how easy an instructor is? Or where students, upset with a grade, fume “I pay your salary!” to their prof?

Paragraph city is in pre-registration now. We see students slinking off to the neighborhood where the faculty strumpets cluster, red lights burning outside their offices.

The Bard’s student evaluations

April 1, 2009

Student comment: “That Shakespeare, he don’t write good English.”

Teachable moment, perhaps, but where to start?

Math with Bad Drawings

Lover of math. Bad at drawing.

Incurably Stir Crazy

because life is too short to sit still

University Diaries

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.


A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious Says: Teachers are People Too

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Confessions of a Community College Dean

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.

Ferule & Fescue

A million stories in Paragraph City. Some of them wander onto my campus.