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.”

Frying that Last Faculty Fuse

December 4, 2013

In ParagraphCity the longevity of faculty is measured in blown fuses. When we hire, we look for professors with solid, well-tuned circuitry, but of course that’s the sort of thing that can be hard to determine in a resume and interview. We once discovered at the end of an interview that the candidate was on his very last fuse; close one there.

Ideally, you want to retire to something less maddening before your wiring gets into that shape. My colleague plans, when she leaves teaching, to employ art therapy in reforming feral cats – says she’ll enjoy the increased peace and order such work will bring to her life. But the greatest danger comes from being unaware of just how many fuses one has left, or even when a fuse blows. A hypothetical situation might be illustrative.

In the third week of the semester, at the end of class Alyce comes to me with a question about the next writing assignment. “I just don’t get it,” she says.

“OK. What don’t you get?”

“All of it.”

“Well, let’s start at the beginning. Have you picked a topic yet?”

“No, that’s part of the problem,” with a whine starting to zing in the words. This should be a warning that we are about to leave the rational world I keep assuming people usually inhabit. “What’s the paper supposed to be about?”


“You are writing about your reaction to something you learned, something from your formal education. Alyce, have you read the handout that describes the assignment?”

“You mean like in school, then?”

“Yes, school. Alyce. Have you read the assignment?”

“No,” with more whine. “I came in late when you were talking about it.”

“Alyce, you are still responsible for knowing what happens when you miss class.  Check with someone in class to see what you missed.”

“Yeah, yeah. And I talked to Rufus and he told me what the paper was …… but I don’t understand it cause Rufus doesn’t get it either!”

“Alyce. You need to read the assignment handout.”

“Oh fine, fine, FINE. If you won’t answer my questions I’ll just have to figure it out by myself,” this last being loudly directed at the floor as she pulls her books and purse and cellphone about her and stomps to the door. “Teachers always say we should ask questions…” and she’s almost to the door “… but that’s just more teacher bullshit,” and she’s in the hall and gone.

Now as an aside, I suppose it’s clear that my big mistake was in following Alyce down the rabbit hole to Crazyland, where instead of reading a paragraph she has had for two weeks, it makes more sense to ask someone else who also doesn’t understand it for an explanation and then get the professor’s explanation in the 60 seconds he has between classes. In a less hypothetical world, maybe I would find a time when I could sit down with her and have her read the assignment to me, followed by her explanation of what sense it makes to her. I’m pretty sure she can read, but there’s not much difference between those who can’t read and those who won’t. I’ve been thinking lately that in ways we ought to treat that second group the way would help the first. But I was talking about fuses.

So she has just left the classroom. If you bark Alyce’s name, kick the lectern, swear, or laugh madly, you have blown a fuse. If you follow her to the hall and do that, it was probably your last fuse. (It’s said that you can hear them pop.) Blown last fuses find you defending yourself in a Dean’s office, on the phone to parents, or worse, your lawyer. It’s why you’d rather be working with feral cats when you fry that last little copper strip. No one expects them to be rational.

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