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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Advice to New Teachers: There Are Few Black and White Answers

If you're looking for yesterday's post, don't.  It's gone.  At the request of a devoted Sloppist, the post has been excised from history--because we all know once something has been removed from the internet it's gone forever, right?  Well, anyway. . . .

Yesterday's post featured an exaggerated representation of a dialogue between instructors, debating the relative merit of a student's essay.  At issue was whether teachers should, based on extenuating circumstance, pass an essay that had serious flaws.  In this particular case, we debated whether or not to pass an essay wherein the writer demonstrated great improvement in some areas but not enough to show readiness for the next level writing class.  The extenuating circumstance was that the student was moving out of state, and thus would not be going on to the next level class anyway.  In curricular terms, the question was whether it made sense for the graders to serve as "gatekeepers" when, in this case, no one was attempting to go through the gate.

The devoted Sloppist mentioned in the first paragraph was concerned that my typical snarky attitude would be misconstrued by faithful readers--all both of them--as an indication that we instructors hold a cavalier attitude toward grading a high-stakes exam.  She may or may not have been right, but I respect her concern, so I took down the offending post.  But the basic issue behind the post is an interesting one: What should teachers consider when they engage in the admittedly subjective act of grading student writing?

Take the case described above: In general terms, a student had written an argumentative essay under timed conditions.  She had not seen the prompt before, and so had no way of preparing an answer ahead of time or even of "studying" in anything more than the most general way (e.g., reviewing  notes on essay structure, going over grammatical problem areas, etc.).  Her essay, overall, featured strong content: She displayed a solid understanding of essay organization, as well as the ability to provide adequate support for her main ideas.  The essay included an appropriate introduction with a thesis statement, at least three reasonably well-developed body paragraphs, and a conclusion.  The essay even acknowledged and refuted the opposing viewpoint.  The problem was that there were numerous grammatical errors of such severity that they would preclude the student's success in future writing classes.  So what would you do?

Well, actually, the answer is simple: You fail the essay.  You don't set the student up for failure in the next class by "socially promoting" her.  But what if, as in the case described above, you don't have to worry about social promotion: The student is leaving anyway.  Do you stand by your principles--a failing essay is a failing essay--or do you acknowledge the good work the student HAS done, the skills she HAS mastered, and send her on her way with a sense of accomplishment?  You may argue that integrity requires you to fail the essay, but integrity is not a black and white concept.  Integrity could mean rewarding the student for aspects of a job well done, so as to encourage her future efforts--or at any rate so as not to discourage her.  A rigid adherence to standards certainly simplifies one's life, but it may not always be the most appropriate response to a given situation.

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