Friday, March 10, 2006

March Madness

We’re about halfway through the spring term here, one week away from spring break. In my class, which is project oriented, the first project is due next week and the kids have begun writing in earnest (at least most of them have). But for a one or two this push before the holiday might be sending them off the deep end. I wonder what to do about it.

It’s a blessing being a bright and talented kid. There’s such an upside. So many things seem possible and these kids have openings in terms of whom to talk with – peers, faculty, firms who might offer an internship, administrators at the university, and others. And there is such a diversity of possible activity in which to engage – courses, naturally, but also sports, student organizations, stage performance, greek houses, etc. I’ve got kids in my class involved in each of these.

But it’s also a curse being a bright and talented kid. One develops a reputation for being a high achiever, but one can become defensive about it especially when is unprepared for things that are difficult or feel unnatural. And it’s easy to feel ashamed of not being good in these areas so it’s natural to clam up and no let on about the difficulties rather than to be open about it and seek help. Further, the shyness causes other difficulties, especially with teammates who are working on the project, because it will seem to them that this is just shirking. After all, everyone makes mistakes. What is the big deal?

What is an instructor to do in this case, when it becomes clear there are a handful of bright students who are struggling in this way? Be firm or be gentle? Grade the student according to his performance (and punish teammates in the process because there is a team component to the grading) or accommodate the performance with additional opportunities for improvement.

The irony is, this happened the last time I taught the class as well, but I didn’t make that big a deal of it. In that offering there was a student who hardly spoke up in class and for the team projects seemed to lean pretty heavily on her teammates. But in that case one of her teammates was the most gregarious kid in the class so it was more like different personalities creating a reasonable mix. This time around, more of the class as a whole in on the quiet side. So it’s harder because it is more noticeable.

Because we have so much time together in class for ensemble discussion (and there are only 12 students) I haven’t tried to have online discussion as an alternative. Perhaps I should have. It sure would be helpful for there to be a place where students can open up that is a sufficiently friendly and low-stakes environment and that the kids don’t feel put upon there. Really, I had thought the face-to-face discussion would do that. And I think it has for most of the rest of the class. But it hasn’t for a couple of my kids, so now I’m second guessing the approach.

Somehow we need to transition from such a solemn way of looking at things to something that is lighter and more fun. Making it fun seems to be the key. But I don’t think you can have fun if you’re worried about stinking up the joint.

I hope I’m making more out of this than is really there. I fear, however, that I’m accurate with my call.

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