Content Notes on Course Syllabi

A lot of people have been writing about (not) including content notes/trigger warnings on their class syllabi. An inordinately large number of writers have come out against the idea, and the issue has reached headlines as student groups have pushed for their use and administrations grapple with whether or not to implement such guidelines. This hubbub, and the pushback, was surprising to me – especially given how small the request is. I’m amenable to their use, and I see no reason to not use them – they don’t have to impinge on academic freedom, change course material, or feature prominently – but they could help students deal with sensitive material.

That’s why I was very happy to see Angus Johnston’s piece in Inside Higher Ed address how he plans to use content notes in his courses from now on. I appreciated not only his direct demonstration of how he planned to use them, but his effort to move beyond merely avoiding triggering post-traumatic episodes and towards creating a safer space for learning – something all educators should want to do. He writes:

These warnings prepare the reader for what’s coming, so their attention isn’t hijacked when it arrives. Even a pleasant surprise can be distracting, and if the surprise is unpleasant the distraction will be that much more severe.

Shortly after reading this, I wrote on social media about my own miniature experience with this type of warning. When I was student teaching a few years ago, I showed my students Atomic Cafe, a documentary about the nuclear age. It includes a scene showing footage of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan, and I had forgotten how graphic it was. Some students in my first class were caught off-guard by the footage, and I don’t think they got much out of the rest of the film. I gave my subsequent classes notice, both at the beginning of the video and right before the scene, and I think that helped prepare them.

This is a small example, but is exactly the kind of thing that can help make students aware of the course material without constraining the curriculum at all. Be sure to read all of Johnston’s piece, as I think it’s a good contribution to the ongoing debate, as well this follow-up post from his friend on disability and access in education.


Fixing What Should Be Broken: Grade Reform at Yale

This month, an ad hoc committee on grading at Yale issued its preliminary findings (pdf). The committee’s findings have stirred up some conversation about how exactly to fix what the committee finds is gross grade inflation for undergraduates across the university. This is hardly an isolated phenomenon – almost all schools inflate grades to some extent these days. When I did my student teaching at a high school in the suburbs of Phoenix, it was implicit that students did not fail. Some teachers joked that students must marvel at how their grades went up towards the end of the semester without any additional work on their part. What was happening was obvious. Failing students reflected either failure on the part of the teacher or failure on the part of the school as a whole – and nobody wanted either. Even more importantly, in an age of standardized testing and frequent measurement of “progress,” school funding and reputation, and teachers’ jobs, were always on the line. And so you did what you had to. We even set aside a whole day at the end of the school year for students who were behind to come in and do make-up work while everyone else stayed home. That’s probably the thing I love most about teaching: sitting in a room on the last day of school so the student who did the worst/least could give me a reason to give them a C.

But that’s a story for a separate post, because Yale is Yale. The money and reputation are here no matter what. And most of the students here are incredibly intelligent – even the legacy admissions might not be top tier, but probably still attended private schools with small class sizes and exceptional teachers. So what, exactly, is the fuss about? The report summarizes its findings pretty nicely here:

For many departments now there are in effect only three grades used: A, A-, and B+. For the less generous departments, B is added to this group. Yale is approaching the point, at least in some departments, in which the only grades are A and A-, which is close to having no grading.

This is the finding, and this has been labeled a problem by the committee. A problem which needs to be solved by grading students honestly, doling out Cs, Ds, and Fs, to prove that it’s fair. What I don’t fully get, though, is why grade at all? The only problem with being so “close to having no grading” is that there is still an attempt to grade. The university is so close to not having a grading system, and this report is calling for reforms to bring us back from the brink. But the committee is pushing in the wrong direction – we need to push the grading system over the cliff and never look back. Abolishing grades is really the only way forwards for students, but also for faculty – same as it ever was.

Instead, the committee makes a couple of recommendations.

Change from a letter system to a number/percentage system. The committee says “If, say, only three grades are used, A, A-, and B+, the choice between an A and an A- or an A- and a B+ is of considerable consequence, which is not true if one can use many numbers. The consequences of the unavoidable randomness that occurs in any grading system are less serious with more grading choices.” But that doesn’t solve the perceived problem. The problem isn’t that Yale only has A, A-, and B+ grades – it’s that Yale professors fail to use grades B through F. Changing from letter to number grading doesn’t do anything but lead to a preponderance of Yalies receiving 97s in all of their classes. Am I missing something in this solution?

Suggest distributed grading. This part is hilarious. The report says that distributions may violate some department’s policies and that the committee doesn’t want to impose on professors’ discretion, not to mention the inherent unfairness of grading on a distribution. And yet, it issues “guidelines” to departments that include 4-5% in the 60-69 range and 0-1% in the 59 (fail) range. As a former teacher to middle class youth headed to state school, I’m trying to imagine the outcry if every class of 30 Yale students had 1 or 2 close to failing, and it hurts my brain.

The clear solution, to me, is get rid of grading. Presumably, students at Yale are doing plenty of learning and doing plenty of work. The problem is just that they’re all receiving As for it. Rather than fight to maintain an ineffective grading system and hand out a few token Cs to verify the fairness, why not do away with it? The listed bad effects of grade inflation – cheapening of the grade, more difficult to interpret grades, etc. – all vanish with the grading system. If nobody is getting a worthless letter or number on their transcript, nobody will care what it’s supposed to mean. If you hire competent staff and foster a strong learning environment, you can be sure most of your students are “passing” – then just let the teachers teach and let the students work.

This is especially possible at Yale, where the classes are small, manageable, and demanding. Grades are, after all, a mechanism that makes measuring students’ abilities easier to do. But when classes are mostly seminar-sized, a professor that is involved in the class and aware of her surroundings could easily surmise who is struggling and who is succeeding. If she has students that are struggling, she can help them as much as is deemed necessary. Boom, no grades needed. Instead, there’s a system now where professors condense 13 weeks of conversations and one or two research essays into one of five letters. I really don’t see the point. If the grading system is so ineffective that there may as well be no grading, then let’s do it. Abolish the grading system, and we’ll be able to move on like nothing ever happened.

Next Time, I’m Bringing an Air Horn.

I love graduation ceremonies. Most people think they’re totally boring, and they do drag on, but I love them. Something about a community all celebrating a sort of mutual achievement makes me happy. My family all lives pretty close, so I’ve been to cousins’ high school and college graduations, along with friends’ and in-laws’. Plus, I spent two spring semesters working at a high school – once as a student teacher and once as a long-term substitute, so I elected to go to those ones as well. I’m not a very vocal person, but I also clap and give a small “whoo” to the family/friend/student who is moving on.

Last month, while I clapped for my students, one student got probably the best, proudest cheer from the crowd. One of my students from when I student taught U.S. History was a refugee who had spent years in transit before resettling in Arizona. His family gave their first American high school graduate a solid minute of screaming and instrument-banging that rang out across the field. It was freaking awesome. The teachers reading names paused and let the family cheer before moving on, and there were plenty of other loud and lengthy celebrations as students walked across the stage. This was just one of the moments that made me smile.

Which makes things like this all the more infuriatingly messed up:

A South Carolina mom was arrested on Saturday for cheering at her daughter’s high school graduation.

Shannon Cooper got up and yelled “yay, my baby made it” when she saw her daughter walk across the stage Saturday night, but just moments later, she was handcuffed, escorted out through the auditorium in front of her daughter and jailed for several hours.

“Are ya’ll serious? Are ya’ll for real? I mean, that’s what I’m thinking in my mind. I didn’t say anything. I was just like OK, I can’t fight the law,” Cooper told WPDE. “I can’t argue with the police, but I’m like are you serious? I didn’t do any more than the others did. Which I feel like no one should have went to jail.”

Trial By Fire, A Year Later

A year ago last Wednesday, I walked into a suburban high school social studies classroom and started my student teaching experience. Over the next couple of days, I watched a few lectures, gave two lectures, and helped students put together posters. It was a pretty easy few days of observation, and my mentor teacher and I worked out a slow transition in which I would take over the U.S. History classes completely and help out a little in Government. There was also a little bit of drama, and then…

A year ago today, my mentor teacher quit.

From the next day through the rest of the semester, I went through a stressful and wonderful experience of teaching and learning. I have always loved history and government and I have always loved teaching. I don’t think I would’ve made it through without that. But it wasn’t easy – I spent countless evenings planning lessons (much to my wife’s dismay) and dealt with multiple substitutes and administrators. I had a great group of colleagues who were able and willing to help me as the semester went by and I had a couple hundred students that (for the most part) rocked.

I also learned a lot. I learned how to revise and start over – often in the middle of lessons, and pretty much in the middle of every day. I learned how to deal with all of the stuff that students, parents, and administrators throw at you. I was also on TV announcements more in that semester than in four years of high school. These were things that I’ll be carrying with me (well, not that last thing) – I was constantly revising my work with refugees and I’m sure I’ll be working with different parties no matter what I do with my future.

Yesterday I was substituting in a world history class, watching students take notes out of textbooks, and it dawned on me that I might not end up teaching high school students ever again (unless a teacher somewhere gets really sick, really soon). But while it might suck if that’s not in the future, I know that I can go into whatever else knowing that I went through the most ridiculous student teaching ever, and came out all the better for it.

Life as an Academic and a Mentor

This morning there was a really good post by Apini over at PhD Octopus in honor of the end of term at Oxford. Most of the post is about the quick ending of term there, but a lot of it struck a pretty deep chord with me. I’ve always lived by the academic calendar – having just finished my undergrad, I guess that’s not unique – but I’ve always expected to. I keep track of time based on when school starts and stops. My photo albums are arranged by academic year instead of calendar year. Having been somewhere between teacher-track and professor-track in my career aspirations, I’ve pretty much sold myself on living a teaching sort of life. But living by a calendar starting in the fall isn’t that intriguing, this bit of the blog was what hit me:

I remember that there are newspaper deadlines, and orchestra rehearsals, and plays, and JCR committee elections, and important varsity matches, and internship interviews, and figuring out what you want to do with your life.  I remember walking through the dining hall in senior week and thinking how sad it was that it would never be ‘my’ dining hall again.  I remember a party on the roof of our house.  I remember the panicked feeling of being nostalgic at the same time that the thing you’re being nostalgic for is happening.

And I remember that another reason I became an academic is because I like to operate on that calendar too.  I like to see successive generations do all of those things, and make decisions about their lives, and make silly mistakes along the way, and grow up from scared first years to confident (and scared) finalists.

This is exactly what I love about teaching. I love history and human rights and development, enough to be a professional historian or researcher or development worker. The only reason I would rather teach is for that interaction with students. I love interacting with pupils and watching them grow, both academically and socially. This year I had the privilege of being with 190 students during my four month stint back at high school.

People don’t always talk about this, but teaching is pretty isolating, at least professionally. There are other teachers in your department and you have the daily prep hour to maybe see the colleagues in your hall. There’s the occasional professional development seminar you can attend. But most of the time you’re the only one of your kind. When I was teaching, I started my day with a prep hour either alone or with a couple of other teachers in vicinity, I (sometimes) spent lunch with the same gang, and I usually spent about an hour, maybe more, alone in my room working after the day ended. The rest of the time, I was alone in the company of 35-40 high schoolers. When you spend hours with your students, you’ve got to enjoy it. I have to say, I truly loved seeing all of my students every day throughout the year, and that last paragraph from Apini reminded me why.

The One with the End of the Year

In an episode of “Friends,” Rachel and Monica deal with the “end of an era” after years of living together. While my situation is decidedly different, I am at a bit of a crossroads. The past week of school has been a mix of review and advice with a healthy dose of conversation and fun. Friday I said farewell to my seniors (although several came back to visit), and finals and Tuesday and Wednesday made up my last days with students. Graduation was last night, and today I had three students make up tests and three more swing by to say hello. My classroom is devoid of, well, anything. It’s an odd feeling.

I have only been in 508 (my room) for four and a half months, but it has been a pretty momentous time period – even if it isn’t an era. In the last week of January I began a slow process of decorating my empty room with maps, activist flags, and drawings. Today I took all of that down. Over the last few months I’ve accrued an odd assortment of student artwork and notes, and today I fit them all in a pile – with two additions today! I also signed off my laptop and returned all of my books. I had a few random moments of “WHY?!” as I trashed old posters and packed away notes, but I also got to see some of my favorite students and hang out with some of the best colleagues – and friends – I could have asked for.

But, where to now? I have absolutely no idea. I applied at the only high school history opening in the East Valley today, and I’ve also applied for some sort of obscure mentorship-in-American-Government thing. Other than that, I’m looking for just about anything. In the meantime I’m also perusing grad school websites and planning out what to do next in regards to redecorating. Hopefully, things will be coming together. Either way, I’m on my way into the next epoch or whatever.

In Which I Return to the Classroom

So, long story short – I’m back in the classroom. For details, keep reading.

After closing up shop at my high school, I went home and got word that my grades had posted. Most of the weekend was a waiting game, but Monday went surprisingly quickly as I began to run errands. I woke up to e-mails from several contacts at ASU about approving my attempt to get an early institutional recommendation (IR). So, without further delay, I grabbed everything I needed and drove on out to the Arizona Department of Education. Once there, I waited in line before submitting several forms, wrote out a check, and walked out with a substitute certificate! From there I drove way back across town to the district office to approve everything before I popped my head into my classroom. From there, I just had to go back to waiting.

I passed time by walking in circles with Alli and having some Starbucks before spending the evening with Kim. That evening I got a call saying that I’d have to wait for eVerify to prove that I’m a citizen. All told, I spent most of Monday zipping across the Valley and most of Tuesday relaxing. It was nice to be productive outside of the classroom, but it was also a much-needed mental health break. But, since then I’ve been back in the classroom and it’s been pretty swell.

Last week was pretty slow – we finished watching some movies while students continued to work on study guides and reviews. This week has just started, but it’s the last week for seniors and we’re rounding the corner with my juniors. I’ve got the next seven business days figured out, but after that I’ve no idea what’s next. All in all it’s been a good few months, so I’m just going to enjoy my last weeks of the school year.

Last Day, maybe.

So, I’m feeling oddly lost. Friday was my last day at the high school – for now. As I mentioned in my last post I’m working on a path to subbing before the semester’s out. But this last week has been an interesting one. Trying to get grades as up to date as possible, I stayed until at least 4 every day I think, and on a lot of days I was able to talk with some of my students after class. Wednesday and Thursday my room was packed with test retakes, questions, and conversations.

And Friday, oh that was quite the day. Before the first bell even rang I had students bringing me things to brighten my day. I really don’t think these kids have any idea how important they are to me. It might have been cookies and balloons to them, but it meant a heck of a lot to me. But then again, I’m a complete sucker for anything sentimental.

Even though Monday hasn’t arrived yet, I feel like I’m missing something. Odds are tomorrow I’ll feel a little weird not getting out of bed at 5.30 or rolling down the 202 by 7. But hopefully I’ll be productive and get Operation Subbing underway. In the meantime, I’m listening to Vampire Weekend and glancing through the yearbook I picked up on Friday. And maybe I’ll eat a frosted cookie.


Going Through the Steps

So, my last official day of student teaching was this past Tuesday. It’s the proverbial end of the road. But I’m looking for ways to make that road a little longer, maybe even into a bridge.

About four months ago, I walked into a seemingly innocent history classroom in an East Valley school. I started semi-teaching right away, and a week later I was full-time: five hours, two classes, one prep, and about one hundred ninety-two students. I went from mentor teacher to substitute teacher to mentor substitute. And it’s been very up-and-down, very back-and-forth. It’s been one of the most stressful, frustrating, and difficult situations I’ve ever been in, but at the same time one of the most fun, most rewarding, and most exciting.

And I want to finish off the year. Virtually everyone has been telling me to bail at the end. It’s too tough of a job to be working for free, it’s too thankless of a job to be volunteering. But my annoyingly bleeding heart wanted to stay just to see the year through with my students. So, I convinced myself to stay the week and work things out. The past week has been full of scrambling, and I have spent a lot of time on my phone and writing e-mails. But, Friday came and went and I’m not going to be teaching until I’m working.

So, Operation Teach Again is already crawling forwards. As of the beginning of the week I was on the cusp of getting emergency certification to teach the rest of the year. But, as the week got started I swung by the district office and with a bit of a hop in my step. My hopes were dashed when I found out that my efforts were in vain: no emergency certification for me. But, before the day was over I was charting course for a substitute certification. For the rest of the week I was making calls to ASU’s Teacher’s College and the Arizona Department of Education, and I’ve drafted a to-do list.

  1. Get my grades to post on my DARS at ASU and contact my academic advisor
  2. Get an institutional recommendation (IR) from the Teacher’s College
  3. Take the IR down to ADE in Phoenix and fill out a substitute certification application. Supposedly I’ll walk out with it the same day.
  4. Take the certification down my the school district office and meet with HR and the sub coordinator.
  5. Start subbing!

Step one is done, and hopefully I’ll be getting my IR on Monday. We’ll see. As soon as I get it I should be able to burn through this list and move forwards. Meanwhile, my mentor/sub is going home to Kentucky this week, so there will be a substitute in the classroom anyways. It’s possible that the sub will be guaranteed the job for the week, so I might have to wait in the wings. Either way, I’m hopeful that I’ll be wheedling my way back into my classroom.

Is it political?

Everyone has opinions. One of the most important things studying history can teach you, I think, is the ability to see other perspectives. Learning about the actions and decisions of others allows you to see things their way. I’ve been able to employ that in the classroom a number of times, especially when discussing current events in Government.

I drew a line. Some teachers do, some don’t, but I decided from the get-go that my opinion would, for the most part, be masked by my teaching. Despite having talked about hyper-controversial issues such as women’s rights to abortion, intervention in Libya, and levying higher taxes on the rich, I’ve maintained a position in the middle – even for the shorter conversations about reducing foreign aid or tuition protests.

But I’m not completely closed off. I’m very open about talking with my students. We’ve also discussed anything and everything. And in these conversations I’ve found a few spots where the line I drew wavers, and I’m not sure if it’s political or not. I have said that Barack Obama is a United States citizen more than once, and I have reprimanded students for using the word “gay” as an insult.

Both of these stances have a hint of liberal in them, but I don’t feel like they are political at all. I believe there is ample proof that our President is qualified for his position, and I think the birther movement’s existence does no good for the country. I think using the word “gay” as an insult is inappropriate since it perpetuates that there is something negative about being homosexual. Those are apolitical opinions to me, they’re about the recognition of facts and a nation’s understanding, better use of semantics and less bullying.

Today was the Day of Silence, a campaign to remain silent in solidarity with and support of GLBTQ youth being harassed and bullied. I participated three times, and I chaired the planning of it in my high school (in actuality, it was a minor job, but one I’m still proud of). I told each and every one of those students today “thank you” and “I’m proud of you.” It wasn’t meant to be political. I don’t think they will, but if anyone tries to say I shouldn’t have done that, I don’t care. Bullying is bullying and it shouldn’t happen.