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Friday, December 13, 2013

Letting Go of Attachments

Every day, when I sit down to have breakfast, I do two things: turn on the weather channel to see what's going on outside even though I can look out the picture window of the dining room and see exactly what's going on, and read the daily quote offered from the Dalai Lama to start my day on a positive note. Many times, after I've read the daily quote, I think about what I read throughout the day and even days later. Yesterday's quote was one that resonated with me, and I'm finding one idea from the quote is randomly popping into my thoughts: letting go of attachments.

Last week, during final conferences with students, I was realizing how attached I am to what I believe is A writing, B writing, C writing, etc. While I don't want to simply pass a student for being a warm body that has attended class all semester, I do want to let go of the attachments I have to the criteria I've always used to assign final grades. Every time I go into a student paper, the criteria is constantly at the forefront, creating a barrier between me and the student and even a barrier between me and what the writing itself. Most often the barrier carries negative feelings with it, further hindering the overall experience of reading what the student has written. Instead of really reading each word, taking in the ideas, I search for what's "wrong" with the paper in order to come up with a grade. I've reached a point where I believe the criteria hinder the conversation about good, effective writing. I want to let go of my attachment to the criteria, but I wonder how I can and still be completely fair and honest with my students.

Over the years my teaching has evolved in such a way that I try to be as completely transparent as possible with my students when it comes to what my thoughts are concerning their writing. I conference with students one-on-one three times during the semester, and during these conferences we discuss their work. I'll read the paper right there in front of the student, which I've been told is quite nerve-wracking, then begin asking questions about the course concepts and how the student has applied them to his/her writing. Most often, the conversation that develops is one in which the students get a sense of what's happening with their writing and how I, as the reader, am reacting to the writing. I've had more fruitful, satisfying conversations about writing with this process than I ever did when simply reading the papers, marking the papers, then handing back the papers. Most often the students leave my office knowing exactly what's working, what's not, and how to improve upon what they have written.

At the end of the final conference, we work through what their final grade should be by examining the final drafts of their papers as well as everything else connected to the class, including attitude. One young lady this semester was less than happy with the C we came to after our discussion but agreed it was appropriate given her absences and inattention to class work. While she really wanted a B, she accepted the grade because as she put it, "I screwed myself." I try to help this kind of student see what a shame it is the grade isn't truly reflective of her writing abilities. This young woman's final draft was very powerful, definitely A quality, but because of her attitude/behavior, what will show on her grades transcript is that she is simply an average writing student. We talked a bit about why she let this happen, so maybe . . . maybe . . . she'll think about this situation in the semesters to come and not allow herself to slip.

What to do about the criteria is something I'll continue to think about. I have a couple of books to read over break, books that I'm hoping will give me some ideas to consider and maybe even weave into my teaching process. With today's weather forecast being a winter weather advisory indicating possible ice with 4-6 inches of snow following, I'm going to get the fire going, snuggle up on the couch, and enjoy my reading.

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