How a college class convinced me to try something new in my classroom (and why I no longer deduct points for late work).

Tonight I was reflecting on my favorite class in college and I realized I cannot remember the professor’s name*. Also, my recollection of the class may be hazy as it has been quite a few years since my college days so let’s catalogue this post under “inspired by real events.”

All we were expected to do for this class was to read a book, see if a theme applied to what we read, and journal. Then, on Fridays, we had small group group and then eventually one large group discussion on the theme.

I’m sure you are assuming there were required books, or a core text we all read, or a required number of books?

Nope. Not at all.

You could actually read very few books and still pass (there were different targets for 100% 90% 80% and so on and so forth) as long as you hit on the right number of the “required themes,” you were golden. You could quit the book and pick up another book if you hated it.

The required themes were like “a book written before 1900” and “A horror novel.” Both of which led me to read Dracula by Bram Stoker. I was sure I would hate it and I ended up loving it! Another wonderful novel that I would have never read if it had not been for the fact that it was also on the “best bang for your buck book list” that was included in the syllabus because it was:

  • A work written by a female
  • A work written by a non-native speaker of English
  • A book from South America
  • A translated work
  • A historical fiction book
  • A book that is also a movie

On Monday and Wednesday we would spend 50 minutes reading (music was played, he had some nice lamps, it was pretty relaxed, no assigned seats) and then he would call TIME. We would then journal about what we read for ten minutes and note if we happened to run into anything that touched on the weekly theme. He never checked our notes and some kids clearly just doodled. Heck, I did some days, too.

Then on Friday we would spend our class time having a discussion about the theme of the week. Sometimes the conversations were boring and I couldn’t wait to get out of the class, but sometimes the conversation was engaging and interesting. I don’t remember the midterm or the final, but I think for the final we just turned in the forms. Honor code.

Thinking about it now, this was brilliant. No wonder I still recall that class with such great affection. It was zero stress. Come sit and relax for 50 minutes with a book you may or may not enjoy, but there’s relaxing music, you can bring a coffee and snacks as long as you clean up after yourself, and there was nothing else you HAD to do for that hour but read. And then time to journal? And you’re not going to read my notes, just walk past me before the end of class to verify that I am writing a new entry?

As educators we need to remember that some of our students have spent years cultivating an aversion to reading. It’s not “cool” to be someone who reads. This professor figured out this ingenious ways of helping students explore many different kids of books and help them ~hopefully~ cultivate a love for reading.

Teacher friends of mine frequently say that students report that the first book they ever finished –in their lives– was as a part of their Free Choice Reading/Free Voluntary Reading/Silent Sustained Reading program. A strategy that I employed at the beginning of the year with too much gusto…but simply wasn’t working. Likely because I hadn’t scaffold the activity enough, but that’s a topic for a whole different post….

Yes, our students waste hours on their phones. And yes, they’re teens so they will roll their eyes at every single assignment I give because I’m a teacher. But let’s face it. According to the AADA, “Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children.” They’re not getting enough sleep, and many of them know know they’ll never be able to afford a college education or find an affordable home where they actually want to live. It’s a lot of pressure for no guaranteed delayed gratification.

“Anxiety disorders affect one in eight children.”

To this point, today a student shared with me a poster she was making for a project for her English teacher for a “Propaganda” project. Her project’s message? “ABOLISH POINT DEDUCTIONS FOR LATE WORK.” Her project highlighted that kids are on a rat race that starts on their first day of Kindergarten and ends on Graduation Day. But wait! There’s more! They know that they’re going to be expected to run this marathon for another four years in college, and maybe even more years if their desired career requires education beyond a bachelor’s degree. All for what?

These kids are on a rat race that starts on their first day of Kindergarten and ends on Graduation Day.

It was spot on. I told her after she explained her poster to me that I agreed with her 100% and would no no longer dock points for late work. She and her fellow classmates looked stunned.

I’m currently trying to come up with creative ways to allow my students to explore the Spanish language–on their terms. I want to allow as much flexibility as I can in order to allow the students to explore doing something they want do with the language, much like the profesor did for our English class. I want them to be able to complete the majority (if not all) of the work during our class time. I want them to decide what they are going to do and how they want to show me what they have learned.

This week, one group is getting ready to film their TV show, Las Chismosas, while another is finishing up a script and will be recording himself doing a voiceover for his favorite moment in football history. Another group worked together to write a rap song and make it into a TikTok. I recorded my part today during class. I play the part of a teacher and tell the student they cannot go to the bathroom. Another is writing a biography on Kobe Bryant. Another decided to write Spanish subtitles for a video game that he is programming. One kid did a research report on the history of Spanish Guitar music and then wrote and performed his own original song to show the different chord progressions. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes. They’re due Friday. I’m so excited!

And if some of them don’t have it done, I won’t hold it against them. I’m just going to keep asking how I can help them so they can ultimately turn it in. For full credit. And keep a closer eye on them next time so that I can help teach them how to prioritize, how to make a plan, how to plan for snow days, and how to meet your own goals and meet self-imposed deadlines.

That’s more important than properly conjugating the verb tener in the preterite tense anyways.

*The professor in question was an English teacher at my undergrad, Indiana University of Pennsylvania somewhere during my tenure at the college, Aug ’04 to Dec ’08. I’d love to write him a note to thank him for giving me dedicated time to read a book for pleasure and challenging me to read books I thought I would hate. I’d also like to check my recollection of the details so that I can refile this post under “reflections on true events.”

**For some reason owning a jet ski was always the purchase I assumed would make me feel like “I made it!” But then I quickly realized they are deathtraps.

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