Thursday, February 28, 2013

Extra Class.

I hit a wall this week with my classes.

They come from the worksheet generation. Literally, most of what they've done in school is take standardized tests and fill in worksheets. They haven't been asked to think, or to try to think, or to imagine that thinking means anything. They just have done things, filled in things.

My class is about critical thinking. They have to read stuff and figure it out, truly, unlock it, look into it, imagine ways to respond to it. There's not nearly as much doing as there is thinking. In our class discussions they have to exhibit this critical thinking through stumbling discussions where we work out - out loud - our thoughts.

They can't or won't do this. They sit in stunned silence. They don't read.

I'm teaching 10th grade.

And I have 15 weeks to get them to the end of a college course and ready for the next college course.

Now, this is probably vain, but I pride myself on never letting my students see me sweat, or flustered, or frazzled. But I couldn't keep it in. I let loose with a "WHAT-THE-FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF-HELL-ARE-WE-DOING!"

I realized we were half way through the semester and that we were nowhere near going to finish the semester where we needed to be.

"We're behind," I said. "And it's partly my fault, partly your fault, and partly your school district's fault. We need to work harder if we're going get anything out of this semester. You aren't reading. You aren't participating. You aren't coming to class ready to do the work. And it's hurting your chances of passing. Now, everyone passes here at regional mediocre university But dammit, we're going to pass for real."

I released them and went to the departmental assistant. I found an empty classroom on Saturday afternoon and booked a 3-5 pm spot. And I booked another for next Wednesday, 7 pm. I sent an email to all of my classes. I called it "extra class for people who want pass."

I haven't figured out exactly what I'll do with them at these meetings. But I know we need more time. I might make them read from the book aloud, and let them start and stop and fumble and find meaning. I might make them write out short paragraphs that summarize what they've read. I've been teaching all this time thinking that was something they could or would do on their own. But I'm convinced that they're not.

I suppose there's some other option, something I'm missing, but extra class is all I could come up with.

Woe be to all of us if it doesn't work.


  1. I did this once for a class of 200 students. 4 people showed up. I hope things go better for you.

    1. Good for the 4. And for you.

      And Hiram.

      Good luck!

    2. I've done it for a smaller class and got more people than you, but it still ended up a waste of time. Half those who attended were the students who least needed to. The other half was divided into the cynical ones who thought putting in the face time would get them favorable treatment (so very wrong) and the ones who didn't seem to grasp that they needed to put in hours outside the classroom to make the endeavor worthwhile.

      Being stubborn as a mule and a glutton for punishment, I tried the exercise again with a later class. Same result. It helped maybe 2 or 3 people in all. Not worth it for the time invested.

    3. I hope it goes well. I know that at this point I feel it's something I can offer that will help some of the students. That seems like enough for me.

  2. But if they are just 10th graders, why are you trying to get them to do college-level work? Or is college-level work now down to 10th grade level?

    1. I think Hiram is saying that college students are now at the 10th-grade level. I find that estimate overly generous.

    2. Hi Suzy. I wasn't clear enough. I'm actually a college professor. But I meant to say that it feels like I'm teaching at a lower level, 10th grade or something.

  3. I don't think Hiram teaches 10th grade. I think he means that it feels like he's teaching high school because of the extra attention and care his students seem to need.

    I applaud you, Hi. Go get 'em!

  4. I applaud your effort. What is sad is that some students will have (or create) excuses for not coming to the extra sessions and then complain about how unfair it is that their classmates got extra help.

    1. I suppose he could call them "office hours".

    2. But yeah, they probably would complain. I used to do the extra class thing myself, but as they say, sometimes there's just too much of a good thing. As much as I am afraid that my students would have admin come down on me, so far the only thing students have done to piss me off is to just not show up to the sessions. That alone was enough to make me not want to do them again, as I've found that there are healthier ways to get depressed.

      Be prepared for an empty room if you are doing extra classes. It will be just like office hours.

  5. Sounds familiar, Hiram. Extra classes: I tried that once, offering problem sessions late in the afternoon (it is a residential campus). I don't think you can technically say: "for those who want to pass". Somebody will immediately complain (not to you, to the associate head) "this requirement was not in the syllabus", and you'll have to back down and make it voluntary. And then what happens is, as I found out, two or three students will show up (in a class of about 20) and eventually you'll drop the whole thing. It didn't even matter to them that the problems would reappear on the tests.

    The other thing I've learned is that it is highly counterproductive to lose one's cool and admonish the little snowflakes, in any way, shape, or form. (Especially, no "hot quotes" they can use on that site, or when complaining about you.) At one point, when going over test questions, I'd indicate which homework problem or class example they were copied from, making it abundantly obvious that their flunking it was entirely their fault. I have never had a positive reaction to that; it just makes them demoralized and apathetic, and evaluations suffer deeply.

    So now, fuck it: when they flunk a test, I let them hope they can do better next time without telling them to work harder (so they won't drop), flunk the hopeless cases quietly on the final, and give some of the rest a courtesy C minus, based strictly on generating numerical pass rates that are acceptable to administrators. It's called 21st century teaching at Bumfuck State U.

  6. "My class is about critical thinking. They have to read stuff and figure it out, truly, unlock it, look into it, imagine ways to respond to it."

    Tell them they're all going to fail, and there's nothing you can do about it, but you're just going to keep teaching the rest of the course. Then invite them to think their way out of that dilemma.

    And then fail everyone who doesn't meet the course requirements. Even if it's the entire class.

    I bet the next group will take you more seriously. Or you won't be asked to teach that course again. Win win.

    Do you have the guts to do that? I do, and my students, and my boss(es) know it. I fail lots of people, and I get results from the people who pass. It's *their* choice, and they know it (through word of mouth).

    "I suppose there's some other option, something I'm missing..."

    "Consequences" is the missing piece of the puzzle.

    1. It is not a question of "guts", but of institutional support. If you have it, congratulations: you're at a more serious place than most people here are.

      And maybe it is only a matter of time...let's see how this looks for you in, say, ten years. It's not a question of not teaching a particular class; pretty soon the grade-conscious students will refrain from taking any classes with you, if they can help it. You might find yourself one day (like Isaac Newton, reportedly) "reading to ye Walls". I don't mind small classes (as in, five) and maybe you don't, either.

      I'm not saying your policy is wrong--I have followed that line over the years, and would continue to do so if I weren't risking my (tenured) job--it is just that, at most American institutions these days, it is not tolerated (and Americans will keep asking themselves `what's wrong? what's wrong? Without seeing the obvious.)

    2. It is institutional support in this instance. Realistically, I can't flunk everyone. I have tenure, sure, but the bomb that would set off within the department would make my day to day existence impossible.

      Plus, if ALL of my students flunk, then there are things I can do to address it. I agree that consequences need to be there. (Good grief, if Cambridge 101 has read any of my posts, he'd know this.)

  7. Was it ever easy to teach people to think, Hiram? Socrates didn't think so.

    But OK, since NCLB, K-12 curriculum has been so narrowed that undergraduates often have never been given the exercise of
    "spot the logical fallacy," even though we had it several times before and in college. As part of my general-ed astronomy class for 100 non-majors, then, here's the homework assignment on it I put together:

    Read pages 85-95 of the Class Notes, on “Some Logical Fallacies, and How to Avoid Them.” For each of the following, identify which answer is closest:

    (1) Suppose someone says, “I must be right, because I have academic degrees.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) argument from authority (B) ad crumenam (C) ad lazarum (D) ad novitatem (E) ad antiquitatem

    (2) Suppose someone says, “Because I’m bigger than you, that’s why.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) post hoc (B) a circular argument (C) ad ignorantiam (D) ad baculum (E) the gambler’s fallacy

    (3) Suppose someone says, “My book must be true because it was on the famous bestseller list for many weeks.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) poisoning the well (B) ad crumenam (C) ad lazarum (D) ad novitatem (E) ad antiquitatem

    (4) Suppose a student says, “You can’t give me a C, because I paid my tuition.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) poisoning the well (B) ad crumenam (C) ad lazarum (D) ad novitatem (E) ad antiquitatem

    (5) Suppose someone says, “Scientists are just a bunch of weirdos who only care about research funding, so we don’t need to take what they say seriously.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) ad hominem (B) ad misericordiam (C) a circular argument (D) ad novitatem (E) ad antiquitatem

    (6) Suppose someone says, “Only a lout would not want to read the Great Books of Western Civilization.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) poisoning the well (B) ad crumenam (C) ad lazarum (D) ad novitatem (E) ad antiquitatem

    (7) Suppose someone says, “I spent 45 minutes trying to figure this out and I couldn’t, so it must be impossible.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) ad misericordiam (B) tu quoque (C) ad ignorantiam (D) the gambler’s fallacy (E) ad crumenam

    (8) Suppose someone says, “Why does mathematics describe and explain the Universe? Because if it didn’t, we wouldn’t use it to describe and explain the Universe.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) a false choice (B) A tautology (C) crumenam (D) personal validation (E) ad baculum

    (9) Suppose someone says, “This slot machine must pay off soon, because I have put so many quarters into it.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) ad misericordiam (B) tu quoque (C) ad ignorantiam (D) the gambler’s fallacy (E) ad crumenam

    (10) Suppose a student says, “You can’t give me a C, because I’m an A student.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) weasel words (B) ad misericordiam (C) tu quoque (D) ad crumenam (E) post hoc

    (11) Suppose someone says, “Scientists don’t know everything, so they must be wrong about X.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) false choice (B) ad antiquitatem (C) ad novitatem (D) tu quoque (E) ad lazarum

    (12) Suppose someone says, “I just bought all new clothes, so it will be easy for me to lose weight.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) post hoc (B) a circular argument (C) ad ignorantiam (D) ad baculum (E) magical thinking

    (13) Suppose someone says, “All alcoholics start by drinking water, so don’t drink water, or you will become an alcoholic.” Which fallacy is this?
    (A) post hoc (B) personal validation (C) tu quoque (D) ad novitatem (E) ad antiquitatem

    (14) Suppose someone says, “If you do not agree with the latest educational fad, you must hate kids.” What kind of fallacy is this?
    (A) a tautology (B) ad crumenam (C) the gambler’s fallacy (D) non-sequitur (E) magical thinking

    (15) The phantom gasser of Mattoon was an example of what phenomenon?
    (A) a quasar (B) parhelia (C) mass hysteria (D) phosphorescence (E) diffraction

    Note: the class average on this was 11/15 (73%), which considering that it required ten pages of reading, is about the best for which we can hope.

    1. I admire the effort, Frod, and hope it will do some good. However, as far as I can tell, one major result of including mention of logical fallacies in comp courses/textbooks for the last 2 decades or so is that far more people are now using the phrase "beg the question," but they're using it wrong (is does *not* mean "raise the question" or "pose the question"), even (heaven help us) on NPR and in the NYT. Since the everyday meaning of language shifts with actual usage, it soon *will* mean "raise the question," because that's what is sounds like it should mean. Sloppy "learning" of half-remembered content is apparently not all that new.

      Nonetheless, keep up the good fight. Maybe some of it will stick (for real) with a few of them.

  8. I don't know about anyone else, but I'm charmed by the idea of blaming the Phantom Gasser of Mattoon on a quasar. I think there's a short story in that somewhere.

    1. This could work, if it had a Kardashev Type III intelligence from a single organism or mind such as in The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, since it wouldn't necessarily involve any physical gas on Earth.

  9. I am just as baffled as you are, Hiram. My sympathies.

  10. Hey man, don't jump to blame the high school teachers. All I do is try to get them to think critically, and this is what they consider the BS busy work. This is the generation of,"Just tell me what you want me to say." They want to memorize and spit it back out. The level of frustration when asked to think outside the box, or when given less guidelines, is insane.

    1. What really annoys me is that when you do give them detailed guidelines, they never read them.

    2. I hear you TM. And I agree. I know that my students were taught what their teachers were told to teach. In my particular area, high school classes bulge, testing is wall to wall, and worksheets are the method for almost everything.

      Our neighbors teach at a really good high school in our town, and we often talk about what they teach kids and what I'm expected to. We wrangle and wrassle and try to figure it out.

  11. Good for you, Hiram. Like others, I have doubts about attendance, but it's worth a try.

    I'd be inclined to basically lead them through what you expect them to be doing on their own, during those 2-3 hours of homework/prep time they're supposed to be spending for every 1 hour of class. If someone questions you, you can always say that you're trying the oh-so-trendy "flipped classroom" model, but weren't certain enough that it would work to spend regularly-scheduled class time.