From the moment I decided to apply Marie Kondo’s rules to my classroom planning I knew that I had hit on something important for my praxis. Life is a lot right now for everyone: student, teacher, parent, human. Yet too many forces in our lives are still placing demands and expectations on us as if we have snapped back into pre-pandemic life. This is hard enough on me, an adult with decades of experience and the self-possession (mostly) to push back against unreasonable demands or at least shut down my computer and walk away in the evening, but this situation is extremely challenging or even untenable for younger humans struggling to find a healthy school-work-life balance. I also know, because I was once one of them, that this struggle is all the more fierce for first-generation college students. Layer on or mix in those with families in a precarious financial position and you have a lot of first-year college students struggling right now — in a group that was already facing major impediments to their college success.
Even in the before times, there were highs and lows in every semester and the midterm wall was often a real low for many students and instructors as everyone was working to get grades in the books for midterm reports so the workload and stress was intense. Plus, there was the psychological weight of being at the midpoint in the semester and knowing there are still so many weeks left to go. Mix in a pandemic semester with no breaks during the back half and the semester can seem to stretch interminably before us. Pile on the fact that we are exhausted by everything right now and you have a formula for the midterm wall of all midterm walls. Is it any wonder we all want to cry? We are asked to dig into our reserves to power through these challenging times and so few of us have any reserves left to tap. Recently some of my educators friends and I were discussing this mid-semester wall and a range of solutions were offered from giving students a work week to catch up to offering up fun and interesting class activities to re-energize everyone. The truth is that neither of these things are a good long-term solution to the problem of midterm wall, because the problem is systemic and structural. This blog post is about my long-term battle to overcome this stress as well as the specific steps I’m taking this pandemic semester.
Less Is More
In fact, it is the midterm walls of previous semesters that led me to make crucial changes in my instruction plans. The exhaustion and stress that so often plagued us all at midterm are why I vowed that less is more and now have a four-square writing plan for my undergraduate writing classes. As I’ve written about many times before, I have big eyes when it comes to my hopes and dreams for my classes. I know how important first-year writing is as an enterprise and how much I need to overcome with my students’ previous writing experience and my ever-expanding professional learning network is constantly bringing new approaches and ideas forward. I have worked hard to think carefully about these ideas to ensure that I am getting at least a twofer (and hopefully more) from each activity. Our spring of pandemic teaching/learning also taught me to rethink little expectations like page and word counts and to build in flexible/forgiving policies that let students make choices about how much they can take on at the moment. However, the most important thing is that this semester I have fully embraced KonMari teaching to ensure that not only does each activity give us a twofer, but it also brings joyful learning.
Organizing guru Marie Kondo suggests that when deciding what to keep and what to discard that you hold that item and ask yourself whether or not it brings you joy. The same rule should be applied as you plan your class activities, assignments, and units. This is why I build my classes around themes such as games, assignments such as rhetorical analysis (because we analyze fun things like our favorite Pixar films or comics), and passion projects. We are doing serious rhetorical work in first-year writing and learning about important professional writing topics (looking at you usability testing) in my upper level class, but the heart of the work is always something fun and interesting and important to the individual student. Here’s a pro tip: if the work is fun and interesting and important to the student then it will be fun and interesting and important to the teacher. Talking with my students about that work is always a highlight of my day. I love encouraging my students to pursue an idea that excites them and hearing the lift in their voice when I give their work serious attention.
Perhaps that idea, important to the individual student, may be key to it all. In first-year writing we are engaged in key writing tasks from writing and supporting claims to revision to finding and studying models with so much critical thinking going on I’m surprised a cloud of smoke isn’t hanging over Morehead. But this work is centered on my students’ personal values and the values they believe are most important for America. These values are rooted in their personal experience – their lives and the people that matter the most to them. This makes the work matter . This makes the work engaging. This makes the work feel less like work.
This is even more true for my professional writing students as they are engaged in projects they chose that focus on their passions and interests. Project-based learning has long been proven to increase student engagement and learning. At Morehead State professional writing needs to do a lot of heavy lifting, covering both rhetoric and professional writing in the only exposure these students will receive to these topics, and I suspect many students come in dreading the work expecting it will be a lot of dry boring exercises in memo writing or the like. However, by centering that work on a passion project students are more engaged. This makes the work feel less like work.
Doing less, encouraging more fun, and offering more agency are all important ways to build a class to lessen the impact of the midterm wall. In addition, paying attention to time can be a great help. For both my first-year students and my professional writing students, I have structured my four units so that the third unit carries the most weight. This means that we can coast into the end of the semester with a fun project that carries less pressure while also bring all our work together. This plan makes it easier to push through the challenging work of that third unit as we can see that work will be rewarded by less work rather than more work. In our pandemic spring I reduced the expectations of that third unit and now in our pandemic fall I’ve decided to stay with that plan rather than snap back to the original requirements. We are all tired and I would rather see smaller more successful projects than set my students (and myself) up to fail. In addition, because I knew this semester would be a challenge for us all, I have carefully re-focused our assignments so that final unit project that is the culmination of our work for the semester can be a (re)mix or (re)vision of the work that came before. Reworking ideas and deliverables from earlier in the semester can be a valuable rhetorical experience, but also is less demanding (or at least feels less demanding) than writing something new. What tips do you have for defeating the midterm wall?
Note: This weekend I have been thinking a lot about the third unit of my first year writing class. The unit focuses on argument writing and for this American Creed themed class I really wanted to do something with Hamilton and the Constitution. I had all sorts of interesting ideas and then I remembered exactly where we are right now. Exhausted and overloaded. Fortunately I caught myself in time before I freaked out my students and instead have crafted (in my mind, won’t be on the page until later this week because OVERLOADED!) a plan that draws heavily from the work we have already done in our first two units and simply take the theme we have each individually been following. For example: my American Creed essay focus was on service and love and my rhetorical analysis focus has been on Monsters Inc. and the idea of transformation by confronting our fears. To help me arrive at a focus for our argument essays, my challenge will be to identify a news story that captures the zeitgeist surrounding the focus. I contemplated some sources I previously had my students use (Longreads and Longform) and remembering where we are (exhausted) I opted instead to use the Solutions Journalism Story Tracker which provided some perfect news stories to illustrate the point that I wanted to focus on (transformation through service to others) while also hitting on very important topics that (tolerance (probably not the right word) and understanding) challenging us at the moment. I’m currently torn between these two great stories and I didn’t even search that long to find them so I am confident that my students can find some good ideas too. These stories will help us add another dimension to the argument we have been building all semester and give us the opportunity to work on some more rhetorical strategies and basic writing skills without overloading us. I call that a win-win!
Artwork via NeedPix – note: depost is an obsolete form of deposit – it felt appropriate