Hard Choices

It was serendipitous. Yesterday morning I was scanning my Twitter feed more closely than I have in the past few weeks before diving into grading final papers for my senior elective. I came across something that Becky Ellis posted, an article titled “Meaningful Work: How the History Research Paper Prepares Students for College and Life.” It caught my eye particularly because we are beginning a six-week long research paper in junior year US history classes this week. It has always been one of my favorite parts of the course – I love working with individual students on research and writing. I also really enjoy reading their end products. I have learned so much over the years from my students this way. What I learn through working with kids on this project translates into the rest of my teaching. So far, so good.

Then I began reading the final papers. I wrote extensive comments as usual. When it came time to assign a grade, I was uncomfortable. I found myself tempted to assign grades that I believed were inflated for their work because I was grading to my expectations, not their output. I quickly realized that I could either provide inflated grades and tell the students they were lucky and should not complain, I could provide the grades I thought the papers earned and deal with the backlash, or I could take advantage of having had the final papers due with three weeks left in the course and treat them as drafts. I decided to do the latter. Something had broken down in the process, and I needed to give them time to revise.

So, when the students came to class we had the tough conversation – what they had seen as finished products I was treating as drafts. I had them read over their own papers that they had submitted just before Winter Break; then I began conferences with each one. I sent them back copies with my comments and we postponed the class presentations of research. The room was somber, but there was an underlying feeling of relief for some, who knew they had not submitted their best work. We talked very briefly about the possible reasons for the outcome, including time pressures and multiple commitments, but in the end, everyone got back to work.

The last three weeks in my course have now been changed. I am shifting into research paper mode with my seniors as well, although we are in the draft to final paper stage. I did not provide the check-ins and support for them that I do with my juniors. I think I dropped the ball. Yes, they are seniors, but they do not need to work in a vacuum. In fact, it is probably more valuable for me to model with them how to have productive conversations about their work to help them be able to solicit feedback in the future.

At first, some took it personally that they were not good enough. I stressed that it is exactly because they are better than the papers they turned in that I am having them continue to work on them. I have great confidence that they are capable of more. If I thought they had reached their limits, the call would have been to assign grades and move on.

In both cases, the junior year research paper and the senior elective paper, focusing on process and project means giving up some content. I hate racing through the US survey, but I love having dedicated research time built into the curriculum. I hate not exploring more of Modern Asia,  but I love that I can make the decision to work on the craft of history. Come to think of it, the choices were not so hard.

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