A few weeks ago, I received an email from my dean inquiring about an assignment I had given to my students. Before getting too far into the nature of the email or my resulting reflections, I feel some context may be needed.
In the professional block of classes for our teacher candidates, we offer intensive, shortened classes to offer students more time out in their field placements. For me this semester, that meant condensing an entire course on assessment into seven weeks of instruction. Assessment is a pretty expansive topic, so I hit the ground running and use every minute of every class intentionally. It also means that I assign my students readings to tackle before coming to class. Even on the first day of class.
Beyond reading any assigned articles or chapters, I ask my students to complete “Close Reading” assignments which are designed to help them better engage with what they’re reading. I’ve written about these strategies before (see Reading More Closely and Literacy and the Collegiate Student). For the readings I assigned for the first day of class, I asked students to identify a word, a phrase, and a sentence from the readings and write a short paragraph defending their choices. They had to post these to a discussion forum before coming to class. Even on the first day of class.
I choose to have students post these Close Readings to a discussion forum for several reasons. One, I look over the posts prior to class and quickly assess which topics resonated with my students and which topics they misunderstood. Two, I can assess which students actually read to material. Three (and most importantly), the students have contributed to a large discussion forum where they’re all highlighting different aspects of the text. For the motivated student, they can review all of the posts and see how their classmates have processed the readings. This can foster a collaborative meaning making process of some challenging material. Considering the reasons, I feel the Close Reading assignment is an important one for my students to complete. Even on the first day of class.
So, that’s the necessary backstory. Now, let me get into the email from the Dean. The Dean received an email from the university Provost who received an email from one of my students who was stressed about my first day reading assignment. The student felt it was unfair that I gave an assignment on the first day of class. That student’s email prompted the email I received from my dean who was inquiring about my rationale for assigning work on the first day of class.
If you don’t work in a collegiate environment, you might not know what a dean or a provost does. In some ways, a dean’s work is similar to a principal in a high school. The dean oversees the teachers and students within a college. Continuing with the K-12 comparison, if a dean is like a principal, then a provost would be like an assistant superintendent. A provost oversees all of the academic activity across the entire university. Provosts are pretty high up in the chain of command in a university setting. I would argue they almost have as much influence as a university president. So, provosts are really important people in a university environment. And the provost was contacted about my first day Close Reading assignment.
I guess the challenging part for me is that while I’ve been able to explain my pedagogical rationale to my dean (and to all of you lovely readers), I haven’t really been able to explain my rationale to the student, who hasn’t been identified. I’m happy to report that after a quick conversation with my dean, she assured me that I wasn’t in trouble in any way and that she thought the Close Reading practice was pedagogically sound. That was comforting.
The lack of conversation with the student, however, has been unsettling for me. This student is training to be a teacher and I worry about the missed opportunity for a discussion. Given the chance, I’d like to have a chance to outline my pedagogical rationale for the assignment but also to discuss how best to navigate stressful situations professionally and appropriately. Beyond that, I’d also like to explain that some time down the road, they may have a student or a parent who will email the principal (or the superintendent) to complain about their own class and I bet they’ll wish they had the opportunity to clarify their reasoning directly.