Back to School Anxiety

New students at the start of school—whether elementary, secondary, or university—are unaware that everyone else is as self conscious as them. Each student sits in class thinking everyone else is probably smarter, more articulate, more skilled. And so they fret, “How am I being perceived?” The especially anxious don’t say anything to reduce the risk of possible embarrassment.

I met with my first year writing students after a faculty panel discussion of the University’s first year reading book, Into the Beautiful North. One Spanish professor on the panel did an excellent job of deconstructing the text for the students. I thought she was too critical of the author, but she’s probably smarter than me. Afterwards, the 500 students were encouraged to ask questions. A young woman with strikingly blonde hair asked a thoughtful question which ended with “you-all”. Some students chuckled softly.

I told my students that was too bad because that phrasing probably had less to do with her intelligence than what part of the country she’s from. And no doubt, while asking the question in front everyone, she was wondering, “How am I being perceived?” I used that negative example to talk about how in our class we’ll laugh together at times, but never at anyone. No one, I explained, has to have their questions, thoughts, or comments perfectly formed before participating. Class discussions are where we practice becoming more articulate.

Then, I suggested we deconstruct the faculty panel that deconstructed the text. I told them that what’s true for students is equally true for faculty—they’re self conscious. Consequently, when there are four Ph.Ds on a panel, odds are they will subconsciously compete to be the most insightful and to sound the most professorial. In especially egregious cases, the ensuing pseudo-intellectualism can be comical. I pointed out to my students that the faculty on the panel would not talk the same way with friends later that night when at a pub or at halftime of a high school football game. That’s because they sat on the stage wondering, “Are my insights as cogent as the others’? Is my vocabulary as impressive? How am I being perceived?”

Everyone is insecure in different ways and in varying degrees. The best schools are those where a majority of teachers create supportive and encouraging classrooms where students are inspired to participate fully before they’ve fully arrived.

An Open Letter to High School Teachers Continued

With last post’s “struggling first year college writer” typology in mind, here are five suggestions—from the abstract to the more specific—for helping increase the odds that high schoolers will succeed in writing-intensive college courses.

1) Talk with students about why writing well matters. There’s an ongoing debate in education between business first people who believe schooling is about equipping students with marketable job skills and business skeptics who prioritize things like self understanding, multicultural understanding, and human betterment writ large. Writing is a skill that both groups find valuable for different reasons—one mostly utilitarian, the other humanitarian. I implore high school teachers of all subjects to impress upon students that we’re more than mindless consumers passively participating in a global economic race. We’re social beings for whom human intimacy and friendship make life worth living. I want my first year college writing students to understand and appreciate the potential of writing to connect with others and create community. I want them to understand that writing well is imminently helpful in the job market, but can also foster greater self understanding. It can help one earn a living and live well.

2) Teach students to fixate on continuous improvement, not grades. I want my first year writing students to embrace writing as a process and fixate on continuous improvement, not grades. Many things conspire against this including scholarship eligibility requirements, graduate school anxiety, and years of family and school socialization. Students who repeatedly receive poor grades often throw in the towel on ever being competent writers. The flip-side problem is never talked about, students who routinely receive “A’s” on papers understandably come to think “A” stands for “I’ve Arrived.” Every writer likes having their strengths highlighted. Even when earning “A’s”, my most accomplished writers greatly appreciate having their “next steps” identified sometimes for the first time. As writers we exist on a continuum. We never arrive. The goal isn’t to get “A’s” on every paper, it’s to improve and take steps towards becoming more “accomplished.

3) Teach substantive, challenging content. The more deeply students have to think, the greater their momentum as writers.

4) Assign writing regularly and provide as much feedback as possible. To improve as writers, students have to write, and not just in English Composition classes. Think of writing as “organized, public thinking,” an activity best done across the curriculum. My college-aged daughter’s favorite high school teacher was the one who assigned the most writing and provided the most detailed feedback. My daughter deeply appreciated the fact that her teacher was putting in considerably more time than average helping her classmates and her become more capable writers. Teacher leaders should help others with time-saving strategies including rubric-based self-assessment, peer editing, and providing detailed feedback on a rotating subsection of the total number of students.

5) Provide and teach exemplary models of excellent writing. Criticism of the five-paragraph essay masks the fact that published writing within each genre has identifiable patterns and themes. Put differently, readers within genres come to expect certain forms. A writer’s creativity and voice are most evident at the phrase, sentence, and paragraph level. Students benefit greatly from seeing and studying especially clear writing, whether a peer’s or a professional’s. The most basic question to ask when analyzing positive examples of writing is, “Why does this piece work so well?” And then, once the elements have been identified, provide students with time to practice incorporating them into their writing.

Hope something here is motivating. Thanks for all you do and for reading.

Delusions of Grandeur

During faculty workshops, like last weeks, I sometimes get a feeling that my university colleagues think they’re better than high school teachers. Smarter. More rigorous. Better teachers more generally.

Last week nothing explicit was said by any particular person, it’s just a vibe, and maybe I’m off-base. A handout from our university’s Academic Assistance Center contributed to this sensibility. Titled, “High School vs PLU”, it lists about 30 differences. Some value neutral, “you spend 30 hours a week in class” versus “you spend about 15 hours a week in class” and some that hint at hierarchy, “makeup tests are easily available-h.s.” versus “makeup tests are seldom an option-uni” or “tests ask you to give back facts-h.s.” versus “exams require analysis and synthesis as well as facts-uni”.

The lists are presented as factual, but many of the assertions could be challenged. Newsflash—some university professors use multiple choice exams that emphasize factual recall and some high school teachers require students to analyze and synthesize content.

Two points of distinction under “High School Teachers” and “PLU Faculty” deserve special attention. High school teachers “teach to the intellectual middle of the class” and “write key info on board or give handouts”. PLU faculty “teach at a more challenging level” and “expect you to figure out what’s important, what you need to do”.

I’d put it differently. Secondary teachers work hard to adapt their teaching to their students’ varied learning styles. They accept the burden of “differentiating instruction” or “individualizing the curriculum”. University teachers expect students to adapt to their one or two preferred methods of instruction. Differentiating instruction is more logical and more challenging, and yet, we hold university professors in higher regard. Why is that? Is it because they completed some more coursework and wrote a dissertation that few outside their committee ever read?

The truth of the matter is elementary, middle, and high school teachers are woefully unappreciated by university professors and the public more generally. Compared to university faculty, they teach many more students, many more hours a day and week, for many more days a year. And they receive little to no support for scholarship or professional travel. And they have to work their magic with legions of parents, some who truly believe they have it out for their children. And more and more of the public—the same public that too often delegates both educating and parenting to them—think they have too much job security and too many guaranteed benefits. And to top it all off, the students are compelled to attend so there’s a much, much wider continuum of motivation.

Throughout my career in both secondary education and higher ed, I’ve been fortunate to work beside some outstanding teachers. After periods of adjustment, I suspect the best high school teachers I know would flourish at the university level and many of the best university teachers I know would probably do okay at the K-12 level.

Apart from job swapping, I’m not sure what it will take for university faculty to demonstrate greater understanding, humility, and respect when it comes to their skilled, smart, hardworking, unappreciated K-12 brethren.