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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Advice to New Teachers: Never Underestimate the Motivational Power of Laziness

Today we began discussing "argumentation" in my writing class.  I tried something different.  It needs some fine-tuning, but overall I think it proved fairly effective in introducing the topic.

When I walked in, I told the class that, having looked at their work thus far this summer--and considering that we have only about two weeks left before the final exam--I had decided that they needed more practice with high-stakes, in-class writing.  Tomorrow, therefore, I was going to give them an in-class essay exam that would count toward their final grade--unless they could convince me not to.

Well, all of a sudden, these students--who constantly protest that they cannot come up with any ideas when given a writing assignment--began barraging me with reasons why they shouldn't have to take an exam tomorrow: They already have too much work to do for my class, as well as any other classes they might be taking.  They had just taken an essay exam, so there was no need to do another one.  The class syllabus says nothing about the possibility of additional exams (the most compelling reason, actually).  And besides, Mr. Solipsist, you don't really want to grade another set of essays, do you?  (OK, that was the most compelling reason.)  And not only did they have these reasons, they also had support for these reasons--logical, relevant support!

Need I say that there never was going to be an exam tomorrow?  ('Cause I'll be damned if I was about to grade a whole 'nother set of essays!)  I imagine that some of my more perceptive students, who knew we were going to discuss argumentation today, figured out that I was bluffing and merely wanted to demonstrate the uses of argument in everyday life.  One thing I need to think about for the next time I try this is whether I actually should be prepared to give a test if the class's attempts at persuasion fall short.  Nevertheless, today anyway, the whole class participated in a discussion, for a change, and with minimal prodding from me.  If nothing else, I enjoyed seeing a real-life demonstration of the idea that writing is easy if you have something important--important to you--to say.

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