[This has been without a doubt the most challenging and exhausting semester in my 16 years at FSU and 20 years of college teaching. But I’ve also learned a ton, and for this end of semester series I wanted to reflect on a handful of those lessons. Leading up to this crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity and support—add your reflections in comments, please!]
First, I’m excited to share this new book, The Insanely Awesome Pandemic Playbook, co-authored by my awesome colleague and friend Katy Covino! Katy writes, “We are truly living in an unprecedented time. Our kids are experiencing different levels of stress and trauma. The book is intended to use humor to help kids think about the issues that they may be dealing with because of the pandemic. In the book, we talk about tech use (and overuse), how to take a break from screens, strategies for focusing on schoolwork, ways of reflecting on feelings of anxiety, a recognition that others are feeling isolated and alone, and, most importantly, suggestions for steps to take to feel better. I think, more than anything else, Dr. Englander and I want to support kids (and their families) in understanding, processing, and addressing the challenges that they are facing in an accessible, kid-friendly way.”
In response to Tuesday’s ungrading post, Shayne Simahk writes, “My school's policies wouldn't allow for a complete ungrading of my classes and assignments (which in itself is an interesting commentary on public education), but I have made some changes to my policies this year that I think I will stick with in post-pandemic times. One is no late work penalties, and the other is no zeroes. For students in a year-long course, a term with several zeroes can mean an average that's hard to ‘come back from.’ If a student shows up regularly and has some sort of presence in class, I turn their zeroes into 40s. A student who would fail with something like a 17 average might still fail, but probably with something like a 50. Or just maybe, that kid can see that it would be possible to eke out a D if they started to put in effort towards the end of the term. The ‘no zero’ is controversial in my school, but I'm already seeing positive results.”
In response to the same post, Greg Specter tweets, “I wasn't in the classroom this semester, but I'll share my perspective on ungrading. Specifically some reasons for doing it. Ungrading fundamentally alters the traditional relationship between instructor and student. Ungrading removes the adversarial relationship that can exist between teacher and student. It balances power, too. Ungrading enables and promotes collaboration. That collaboration mirrors everything else we do in our academic lives. We collaborate when we share drafts with our peers. Why shouldn't that same spirit exist in our teaching relationship with students? It should. Ungrading alters the dynamic between instructor and student. It promotes opportunities for learning from each other. Conversations change. The ‘How do I get an A’ question falls away. It becomes how do I make the thing I am working on better? And the ‘thing’ becomes more than an assignment. It becomes more real. It doesn't exist for a grade. It exists as something to improve and make better. The conversation changes. When it comes to engaging with the intellectual work of students...ungrading changes that, too. I don't grade papers. I don't read them with an adversarial eye. I read them, engaging with them like any other text I encounter in my life. I'm not grading the work. I engage with them critically, like I would any professional peer's work that I read. What can I learn? What can I share to help make the work better? It is still a lot of work, but it moves faster. The work doesn't feel like a chore or burden. Ungrading enables me to actually hear and engage with student work. It takes time, but I don't dread doing my part. The burden of my labor in this case can't compare to sitting down and ‘grading’ work. It takes work to pull off ungrading in the classroom. However, having done it a few times...I don't want to go back to traditional grading ever.” And he adds, “if someone is thinking of ungrading, but they don't think they know enough to pull it off...If they're even thinking about doing ungrading, then the already know enough about it. Know enough to begin implementing it, I mean. There is always more to learn.”
Jeffrey Melnick adds, “Great idea! Here's my class website from last spring when I tried this experiment for the first time--with lots of help from smart people I met on here (Kate Antonova above all!). Now figuring how to adapt for remote in spring!”
In response to Wednesday’s post on reading lengths, Emily Hamilton-Honey shares, “When I've done survey courses in recent years, I have gone with almost all poetry and short stories, and maybe a one-act play. Nothing long, and I try not to assign more than 20 pages per class.”
Sheryl Bundy adds, “Same. I used to love going to the bookstore as a student to see what novels we’d read. These days, it’s hard to assign them at all bc they won’t be read. Or at least I can’t have more than two, none more than about 200 pages.”
Now onto broader Fall 2020 reflections, on what Josh Eyler calls “one of the most challenging semesters in the history of American higher education.”
Sharon Brubaker writes, “Although it was a challenging fall term, my students ( all freshmen) rose to the challenge. It was a new take on my English 102 class, this fall the class was informed by my participation in an anti-racist pedagogy group for Drexel's English & Philosophy Department. I am proud of my students for discussing difficult subjects (for example, codeswitching, white privilege, culture, language & power...) and for writing informative, sensitive final papers. Attendance was strong and we formed a community.”
Shil Sen shares, “I was thoroughly impressed with the work my students (all freshers in three FYW classes and a good mix from freshers to seniors about to graduate in an Intro to Queer Studies class) did during the semester. They diligently showed up for weekly Zoom meetings; participated regularly in class, on discussion boards, and in essays; and generally did exemplary work under ghastly circumstances. I had students who had lost family-members and friends, who were dealing with crippling mental and physical issues, who were working, who were stuck in difficult living situations--and not a single one of them made excuses or did anything other than apologize when something got in the way of their work. The academic quality and intellectual standards of the classes did not suffer at all. They were, frankly, amazing. (Also, I will throat-punch anyone who says this generation of students are lazy, unmotivated, or entitled, but you might not want to mention that in your post. If you wanna, of course, go ahead.)” [BEN: Since I 1000% agree with Shil, I do wanna!]
Rob Velella writes, “Students are resilient, but Zoom is merciless. Hours upon hours of classes, meetings, and online activities really adds up. At my institution, a feedback forum from students resulted in three conclusions: Students are overwhelmed, students are unmotivated, and students are having a hard time making connections.”
Kelly Stowell shares, “While my classes were small and all virtual, all of my students took part in our virtual production. They wrote all of their own pieces, were happy to be directed, and they did all of their own filming. My Stage Manager was a student, and everything is falling together. They learned while doing, and that's pretty impressive.”
Ian Murray writes, “My semester has been mixed. In my new temporary role as academic support for Nursing at FSU, it has been rewarding to help our nurses stay on track for graduation and to watch them work. They're an impressive and resilient group. On the other hand, I taught an online college class to a group of high school students enrolled as dual-credit. It is too much for them. I feel for high school teachers. I cannot get them to participate or finish assignments. I have tried to encouraged them throughout and now I'm practically begging (okay, I'm begging). About 80% of my class is failing and I'm losing sleep over it. The only bright spots are three young men and women who are among the best students I've ever worked with.”
Natalie Chase writes, “I’ve learned that we can’t expect to have the same teaching practices and expectations when we are all learning to navigate virtual/ semi virtual learning.”
Maria DiFrancesco notes, "We are all broken and in need of compassion. It’s important to pause to consider why other people react the way they do. Their reactions should not have bearing on my actions, especially if I’m really attempting to act in good faith for what is right and just."
Finally, on a more personal note, Amanda Lynn shares, “I have learned that I have spent a lot of time not putting myself and my health first. I think when you work customer facing you learn to shut off a lot of the ‘me’ emotion and this year has given the ‘me’ back. It has increased my motivation to be happier. I am super grateful for that.” To quote Dickens, may that be that truly said of us, and all of us, this 2020 holiday season more than ever!
Holiday series starts Monday,
PS. Any other Fall 2020 lessons, challenges, reflections you’d add?