Alchemy

All, Education, Rants, Teaching

Finals week. My students are stressed. I am exhausted. I see stress and exhaustion reverberating through all my social media threads (as I know and love many educators, students, and parents). That may excuse why my friend Greg Zobel and I were gloating just a little about the fact that we had less stress this week than many of our colleagues. Thanks to our focus on project-based learning and reflection, our final’s week is not overwhelmed by grading papers and final exams. We still have grading but mostly we are reviewing student reflections about their work and final projects (which are substantial but as that work has spanned weeks if not the whole semester this is a final review not a first look).

This post isn’t about gloating, because while the grading is a major factor in the above mentioned stress and exhaustion, I think there are other forces at work here. First, as I’ve written about before, this is a stressful time to be in education. Even when you are not tired and overworked (that one day of summer vacation before professional development and semester prep begins, maybe?), simply being a teacher is stressful. Second, there is the students themselves. Not the good, hardworking students, but the last-minute Larrys and Lucys who suddenly realize that manana has come and they are going to fail (or “earn” a lower grade than they hoped) due to excessive absences and insufficient effort. Last, but certainly not least, is the insistence of various powers-that-be (these forces of evil take many forms and are not all administrators) on some form of summative assessment (often ill-conceived and poorly executed by these powers/forces) that bears little relation to the actual purpose of the course. My home department recently decided to continue a practice of an on-demand in-class final essay for our first-year composition class although I am still unclear (after much heated debate) about what the powers/forces believe can be measured by such a thing. It certainly does not measure the type of thinking, reading, or writing I expect to see from my students after we have spent 16 weeks digging deep and peeling back layers of meaning in text. In fact, based on my decades of experience reading on-demand essays, I expect to see very little evidence of thought and only the tiniest of nods to the reading.

I wish instead that all end-of-semester or end-of-year assessments were focused on reflection; asking again important questions such as why are we here and contemplating anew what we have learned and how we have changed. This week, in lieu of a final, I am asking my students to look at our journey together and to think about these questions. This year, in preparation for the written reflection (see inspirations in my wrapping up post), we created fake flyers (see prompt below) which we found to be even more addictive than I anticipated (although Elisabeth Ellington warned me). As I’ve noted before in my ode to #6words stories, there is something about writing in brief that inspires thought and creativity not to mention fun. A classroom win-win-win!

What do you want your classes to achieve? What is your bottom line goal for your students? I like to see alchemy – a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination. I do not want to see an assembly line or banking pedagogy, but hope, that together, we all become something more as a result of our journey together. We often talk, in my comic book based classes, about Full Metal Alchemist. The series explores a number of important issues, but one that I think is important regarding education is the concept of equivalent exchange: to obtain something new, one must pay with something of equal value. I hope my students understand that learning and growth require an investment and I wish all my fellow educators understood this idea as well. If we want to see critical and creative thinking then we cannot continue to fall back on tried and untrue assessments to demonstrate it. Meaningful assessments can be celebrations of learning and successful journeys (not completed but still undertaken) and can be joyous not stressful.

Do you see education as a magical process? Do your students see learning as alchemy? Would our education system be better if all the stakeholders saw education as alchemy? Can summative assessments be joyful celebrations or must they be drudgery at best (torture at worst)? Hopefully our goal is not to make zombies although that seems to be the effect of final’s week on both students and faculty.

make.flyers.not.finals

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