So, Are These Students Learning Anything?

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I’m just about done grading my first batch of unit papers. My first test of myself as a teacher where I get to ask myself the very important question: are these students actually learning anything? Am I teaching them something? Is this–what I’m doing in the classroom and in my assignments–working?

It’s something I promised myself I would do when I started: evaluate what’s working and what’s not and adapt on the fly. It’s the reason I set up my units as vaguely as I could, to give myself room. I don’t want to be locked into a methodology that is failing the students, regardless of whether I feel as though I can blame them for whatever they don’t learn.

The results have been mixed but mostly positive. It’s amazing how much you can take for granted as a teacher. Things I took for granted, I should not have, but that’s not all that important. The big ideas I was trying to teach got through, and that’s what’s important.

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Specifics. I asked my students for specific details, and I’ll give you some (without breaking down the relationship I have with my students). First off, formatting. I need to standardize formatting beyond “12 pt font, double-spaced.” I had no idea I would see some of the issues I have seen. It’s ok, you know, I never went over it, and now I know the issues I need to specifically address so I don’t send these students away turning in papers that look the way they look. But wow. You take these things for granted.

Usage is another issue that is such a big can of worms I don’t even know what I should focus on. Maybe I’ll tackle the issue as something bigger and point them in the direction of quality help for when they have something they’re unsure of. It turns out people have written very good books on this.

The key is that I taught them something. Specifically, most of them really, seriously revised between their first draft and their final (two-three drafts later). Revising here means completely rewriting huge chunks of their paper keeping one thing or another in mind in that revision. In this case, because they were telling narratives that may as well have been stories, and we focused on psychic distance. Wow did they react well to that lesson. The difference is night and day, and right now that difference is what I can hang my hat on as a teacher.

I have to keep in mind that when I see work like that, based on what I was teaching, I need to focus on that, and, you know, not mark down because somehow the final draft I received had a 2 inch margin on the left-hand side and no margin on the right, or was inexplicably in size 10 font, or had spelling errors even though spell check remains ubiquitous in all of our lives, moment to moment.

Focus on the big stuff, the mindset, and spot-correct only when necessary. Celebrate when it looks like you got through.