Free Friday

After reading Daniel Pink’s book Drive I began to think about the idea behind companies that allow workers to direct their own work on specific days, pursuing whatever projects interest them. Couple those insights about the power of autonomy with the persistent, nagging acknowledgment that there is simply too much history that I want to include in my limited course time. The result was what I called “Free Friday.”

I gave students a class period to research anything in history or current events that they wanted. They were expected to spend an hour beyond class time researching and then to write a post to a Moodle forum sharing what they had learned. The final piece was to comment on at least one classmate’s post.

It was interesting to see that some students seemed to jump right into it and take off. Others struggled to find a topic. There were definitely some who spun their wheels for a while. Both groups of students convinced me that it was a worthwhile exercise. I was only able to do it once this year with juniors, but next year I would like to do it with all of my classes – grades 10-12, several times a year. My hope is that they will at least learn something about whatever they choose. My dream is that they will take what they learn and pursue it in greater depth at some point, either in a portfolio project or a major research paper, that they will then share.

There are elements to tweak. I think that I need to provide more lead timeĀ  for students to think about things they might want to pursue. I may even consider providing a list of potential topics, particularly things students may not know about and that we would be unlikely to discuss in class otherwise, with the caveat that they are welcome to discard my suggestions. I think that I would provide a structured setting in class for students to share what they have learned, beyond simply writing a paragraph for a Moodle forum.

I have a vision of creating a community of scholars in my classroom. It seems that giving students some ownership over their learning is absolutely critical. I know that I am making choices about what content we study every single day. It’s about time that I gave up a little control. While I believe there are historical topics that are essential, and it’s my job to construct lessons to illuminate those, there are many more worthy contenders for the remaining time I have with my students.

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First Drafts and Rough Drafts

After spending hours and hours reading research paper rough drafts and providing feedback for students, I am now beginning to enjoy the final products. To see the improvements in clarity of writing, depth of analysis and strength of evidence is gratifying. I feel happy and a little sad at the same time. I’m happy for the “light bulb moments” and growth the students experienced as learners but sad that they are not having the chance to become educators with their work.

Historians publish their work and find an audience. History teachers share lessons and insights with classes. Some of us even blog our ideas to a wider audience. My students may certainly carry forward their work into other contexts, but they may not. If they do not, I feel like I have done them a disservice by keeping their work just between us. I have this nagging sense that the experience would be much more meaningful if shared with a wider audience. Unfortunately, the school year is ending.

I am wondering about the value of perhaps floating ideas on Twitter or blogging parts of a draft in progress. Students may be able to share insights with peers and field questions that arise. I should not be the only one helping the writer shape the final product. Perhaps there could be a more public first draft before the rough draft. I am thinking of a form of peer editing but with students reading multiple works with the option to read as many as they would like. This is more a model of a community of learners. Perhaps the final products could be available to classmates as well. No doubt some students may resist this, and it will provide opportunities for students to compare work, but I wonder if those concerns should override the value of collaboration and the opportunity to share the hard work.

As we watched the events in Pakistan unfolding on Twitter (I showed the Twitter feed in class the next day) and saw the tweets about the Bin Laden raid and then the ones about the mainstream media contacting the Tweeter, I realized that journalists are now often the second draft of history. They used to write the first draft, but now people can and will do that themselves with Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. Reporters try to analyze and make sense of information from social media, but they are no longer the first voices heard. Historians will have to deal with writing history with this new layer in mind. I wonder if it’s time to add another layer to the work my students do.

The Art and Science of Grading

I confess – I hate rubrics. I have never been good at putting things in boxes or columns. In teaching history, I have trouble organizing information into categories such as economic, political and social because I see too many things that cross lines or intersect. I have been told the virtues of rubrics by teachers for whom I have great admiration and respect. I understand the logic of rubrics. I think they are genuinely meant to clarify. So why do they always leave me confused and unsatisfied?

I think that it has something to do with the tension between art and science. I had a professor in graduate school who has inspired me as an historian to think about both the art and the science of doing history. We need to be careful with the evidence, but we must always recognize that we are to some degree constructing a story. I am wondering if the same tension exists in grading. The science part keeps track of the components of an assessment and evaluates how well those parts are fulfilled. I get that intellectually, and do that informally. The problem is that I can’t stop there. I am wired to celebrate the unexpected, the insight I did not anticipate or the outcome I never envisioned. I always want to reward that student who makes me think about something in a new way, even if other elements of a project are less successful than I had hoped. In other words, I want to celebrate the students that teach me. I just don’t know how to fit that into a rubric which contains the elements I expect.

There is an art to student work that does not always compute. Is an “aha” moment more or less valuable than a clear topic sentence? How do we encourage risk taking if we do too much to prescribe outcomes? At the same time, it is our job to provide guidelines and expectations to our students. We are crafting assignments with objectives in mind, and we need to let students know our goals for them. I believe in transparency; I just don’t want to stop someone from exceeding my expectations.

In the end, I have fallen back on providing general guidelines and then copious, narrative comments about what works and what does not. I am a big believer in drafts and rewrites. I know that fair does not always mean equal. Our best efforts at objectivity are still ridiculously subjective. We naturally teach the way we think; that automatically puts some of our students at a disadvantage. At the same time, all of our students deserve our best efforts to help them succeed.

As teachers, we are professionals who make judgment calls every day. It seems to me this is the way many professions work. It’s just that we are expected to quantify and qualify, providing quality control as in a factory model. At the same time, we are expected to inspire and motivate, even transcend, as in a research lab or an artist’s studio.

So, how to balance the art and science? Any ideas?