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Commenting on student papers, for me, involves a lot of sipping tea and staring into space. So, my eyes often rest on this young tree growing across the street from my work table at home. Springtime floats on the breeze some days in March in Indiana, but buds are still tight, so I can see clearly the serpentine structure of this tree. I admire the way it has veered off course — due to wind, or kids hanging on low branches (there’s a school nearby) — and then found its way back to the vertical climb. How? Through continued growth.
Yes, I’m dealing in metaphor here; it’s an occupational hazard of English majors. But now that we’re midway through the semester, it’s a good time to check in with students — and with ourselves as instructors — to see what’s going well, and what we might do differently as we all continue to grow. Andrea Lunsford’s recent post, “On Engaging Respectfully,” reminds us of the power of using our writing classrooms to help students practice (including failing and trying again) the skills we need now for deep, thorny, and necessary conversations in this divided world. Self-reflection and self-assessment are also skills our students take with them into other courses and far beyond.
For many years, I’ve given over to students the power to assess their own participation. If you’d like to dip your toe into the practice of “Ungrading,” handing students the responsibility for this aspect of their evaluation is a low-stakes and high-impact place to begin, since “participation” grades are inherently subjective from the instructor’s perspective. As I wrote about here, students tend to handle this responsibility with seriousness and aplomb if they are offered some guidance and encouragement to reward themselves for growth.
In my classes, we reflect in the first days of the semester on the power of taking risks and stretching ourselves as learners. Students set specific participation goals for themselves. Now that we’re midway through the semester, it’s helpful to carve out class time for self-reflection to see if they think they are veering off course, and how they would like to continue to grow. The assignment doesn’t take long:
In a paragraph, please reflect on your own participation and attendance in this course up to this point in the semester. How are you challenging yourself? What are you pleased with? How would you like to progress or grow between now and the end of the semester? Remember that at the end of the semester, I will ask you to weigh in with a written self-assessment and numbers (out of a possible 200 points) about your attendance and participation over the whole semester. This is a time to pause and reflect and set some goals for the rest of our time together.
I’m always illuminated by their self-assessments, which are often humble and frequently funny. They help me evaluate whether I’m doing enough to structure democratic discussions and activities that engage each individual. Like students, at this point in the semester, I, too, can fall back on tried and tired activities that don’t push any of us into new territory.
I see self-assessment as more than a “course correction,” though that might be part of what happens with this assignment. But that phrase doesn’t capture the value I see in that serpentine tree, more interesting for its serpentine journey. Nor does it capture the environment I try to cultivate in my classroom, where students can transform themselves by taking risks, often by failing for a bit while trying something new, rather than following the straight line of what they’ve always done to succeed in school. Wisdom, strength, and even grace come from allowing ourselves to veer into new territory, reflecting on what we learn along the way.
Image Credit: Photograph taken by the post’s author, April Lidinsky
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