Thursday, December 15, 2005

Teaching to the middle

This time of year, when classes are over, but I haven't yet graded, I start thinking about what I could have done differently. Inevitably, I think about the students I didn't quite seem to reach, the ones I could have helped more. Inevitably, those are students at either end of the spectrum, the top and the bottom. Without intending to, I often teach to the middle.

Sure, the students could have done more themselves. They could have come to class more or pushed themselves more, but often, they don't even know what to do. And that's where I think I could step in more and offer more guidance. Here are some things I might do.

There are two kinds of students (in my mind) who drift toward the bottom. There's the student who's decided my class is not a priority for them and then there's the student who is trying but struggles and never quite makes it. I'm not sure if my strategies would work for both types, but they might. Since I teach writing and I'm keenly aware of the psychological effect that my comments can have on a student, I try in the beginning to be mostly positive, giving the students one or two things to work on. For the weaker students, I think I should follow up better on those things. I should require a revision immediately (instead of in the portfolio) and check to see if they worked on the things I asked them to. I might require additional conferences with them to work on those things. I might insist on further revisions. I might make the writing process a bit more step by step for them, requiring, for example, a topic description, then an outline of their main ideas before they flesh them out into a full blown paper. I might have compared early papers to later ones to show where they were making progress and what they still needed to work on. In this last class, in particular, I would have insisted that they blogged more and better.

For the students who come into the class with better writing skills or who develop them quite quickly, I have a different set of problems. One student actually told me that she wished I'd been a little more critical of her papers. I think that might be a good strategy for the writers near the top. I could critique them as I might a colleague's paper. I could have them work on style and conveying more complex ideas. I could have suggested more complex topics or had them write slightly longer papers or include more sources. I could have had them share their strategies with the class, helping them to articulate how they go about writing. I could have them critique their own work, thus helping them become their own best critics.

The top students, I think, are less harmed by my inability to teach to them. They will push themselves anyway, if not in my class, in another class along the way. It's the students at the bottom that I feel like I've let down. And some of them, frankly, are not motivated and would likely balk at my strategies for helping them, or they would do the tasks in a half-hearted way. I could insist and insist, but ultimately, it's up to them to do the work. And, of course, that's how I justify not putting forth the extra effort, thinking to myself, well, they wouldn't do it anyway. Next time, I'm putting forth the effort. I don't like teaching to the middle and I think the whole class would benefit if I didn't.