Reading this book, I learned to accept responsibility for students' learning. I told more stories to keep class attention. I used pictures and graphs to illustrate how papers should be set up. I pushed back paper deadlines when I discovered that I had confused students. It was a big step forward.
Now, the next step forward is to give responsibility back to the students.
In The Trouble With Boys, Peg Tyre writes (unexpectedly enough for me) that one way to reach difficult boys is strict accountability for academic and personal performance. In other words, boys, and presumably girls, do better not when class is made easier but when class is made harder.
I am guilty of the opposite. I have at times made class easier (too easy!) for students, personally and academically.
Two particular student encounters from the last five years of teaching illustrate what I mean when I say that my teaching has become "too easy":
Some time ago, a student arrived 20 minutes late to my class, well over the time that I would count her absent. When I called her up after class, she apologized for missing and said, "Yes, go ahead and count me absent. I deserve it." I, grateful for the student's admission of error, gave her a tardy instead. Thinking back on it, I wish I'd given the absent. One absence would not have failed the student, and it would have sent a clearer signal: I the teacher expect you to manage your time appropriately in order to arrive on time at my class. Instead, I sent this signal: I the teacher will allow you to get away with anything if you apologize.
Another time, I was holding paper conferences with my student. The students were required to bring a certain amount of homework in to class. Halfway through my three days of conferences, a student arrived with all his homework completed. I, unthinking, praised his work. He responded, "Uh, yes. That's what we were supposed to do." My heart sank to the floor. During the conferences, student after student with their homework half-finished had managed to convince me that I expected nothing more. I expected that my students would not complete their work.
May God forbid that is what I expect of my students.
To expect students to fail is to guarantee failure. To take responsibility for a finished paper or project into my own hands is to deny college students, all on the cusp of adulthood, a shot at personal maturity.
Never again will I excuse students who arrive without homework completed.
Never again will I delay the deadline for a paper because students were not prepared.
Never again will I grant general amnesty on homework because half the class didn't complete it.
Never again will I turn a blind eye when students walk into class ten minutes late on the day a paper was due because they were still printing it.
I will not allow students to be disruptive in class. I will not allow them to ridicule fellow students. I will not allow them to disrespect me as the teacher.
Yes, I say this very confidently on my blog. Yes, I will continue to make mistakes in granting excessive leniency. Among other things, five years of teaching have taught me that I am a softie. Yet I cannot allow myself to grow soft with my students.
Of course, "never" statements only guarantee a kind of negative accountability. I have positive expectations for my students, too:
I expect them to work on papers in advance, not in the last three days of the semester. To hold students to this, I will enforce rigid deadlines: all sources submitted by one date; a rough draft, by another.
I expect students to teach themselves. Some material is too basic to cover in class, such as selecting quotations from research to use in papers. Other material is too boring: All MLA citation information is easily available at OWL at Purdue. Class time is better spent reviewing the finer points of rhetoric than reviewing what is in italics and what in quotation marks on a Works Cited page. To hold students accountable for independent learning, I will provide them the resources (the OWL link, the information about the writing center) and require correct submission.
I expect students to use strong grammar. If the appropriate use of the colon is beyond them, avoiding comma splices and fragments is not. I will grade students on grammar, and I will teach those that still confuse you're / your and there / their / they're to distinguish between these words. We will practice fragments and run-on sentences.
Regarding my responsibilities as a teacher, nothing has changed. It is still up to me to teach in such a way that students master the content. Yes, this responsibility may extend to delaying a paper assignment if my teaching has confused the students. Yes, it includes making allowances for students challenges: legitimate sudden illness, for instance, or learning disabilities.
Regarding my students' responsibilities, everything has changed. They are wholly responsible to produce the best that they personally are able to produce. That standard is at different places for different students, of course, but the fact remains. They are accountable.
And when they are made accountable, they are more likely to learn.