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Life Update and New Semester’s Resolutions for Fall 2021

I recognize that I haven’t updated this space since April. I know I don’t have a lot of readers, but I value those I have, and I haven’t forgotten.

In April, I unexpectedly and suddenly lost one of my cats, Legend. I have spent most of my time and energy since then trying to find her and, in my grief, I have had nothing left for work or research except the bare minimum to meet the obligations I had already committed to. I feel ashamed that her loss broke me so thoroughly and completely, but she has been my research and grading companion for so long that I can barely imagine working long hours at the computer without her at my side.

But having done everything in my power to bring her home with no results, not even a confirmed sighting, I have to try to make a new normal. We adopted a wonderful kitten to help us with our grief, and the new semester has come upon us relentlessly. And it’s time to return to the blog.

New kitten Grimoire can be a little Friskies.

To that end, it’s time for my tradition of New Semester’s Resolutions.

Like so many people right now, I’m coming into this semester burned out, grieving, and scared. We shouldn’t brush that under the rug. We shouldn’t look away from those facts. Our pedagogy should recognize those facts.

This week was my first week back in the classroom in over a year. No longer sitting safely at home with a cat on my lap, but facing my students mask to mask. But while people are already talking about “post-pandemic” pedagogy, activities, etc., we are far from post pandemic. Numbers are rising, ICU beds are full in many places, new variants are causing breakthrough cases, and we teachers find ourselves pushed into classrooms where we don’t know if our students are vaccinated because leadership is failing to draw a hard line on what is, honestly, a pretty clear public health matter.

Of course I’m afraid.

I have 125 students this semester. My institution, like so many others, isn’t requiring vaccinations (merely “encouraging” them). We are requiring masks, thank goodness, but it’s a lot of labor policing all those exposed noses (why are we still having this problem? I would have thought we’d have figured out how masks work by now). I’ve done the math. Statistically speaking, if I were to become a vector in my classrooms, at least one person will die as a result. It could be me. Worse yet, it could be one of my students. I don’t know if I can live with that blood on my hands.

Of course I’m doing everything in my power to prevent that. But that math is there in my mind. Of course I’m afraid. Of course I’m uncertain.

So what am I doing this semester? What goals do I have? (Do I even have mental space to look forward enough to set a goal?)

Mostly I’m petting this kitten, I hope.

Obviously, my main goal this semester is for everyone to make it out alive and breathing without assistance. I’ve often joked about that in the past. This time it’s completely literal and honest.

But my other goals this semester tie into this. I’ve often spoken about how my ideal classroom doesn’t have grades at all, and how I’m envious of teachers I know who don’t work for universities or school districts that require grades. We’re being encouraged to grade on participation, but also to be lenient on attendance so that students don’t feel pressured to attend class if they’re sick. So I’m working on that.

This semester I’m trying two things that innovate my pedagogy and move toward a gradeless space where students are accommodated in their unique situations and supported in deep, reflective learning.

  1. In lieu of attendance and traditional measurements of participation (such as raising hands and answering questions), I’m dedicating a portion of each class to independent or small group work time, and students are submitting a brief (1-3 sentence) report of how that time was used. Students can make this up if they’re absent by setting a timer and writing a report about that timed activity outside of class.
  2. Students will be graded not on my assessment of their work based on a rubric, but rather on their own self-assessment of their work based on my comments on their work and the rubric that they help create. (I’m still not sure how this is going to work but we’ll see!)

These two policy changes are in pursuit of making the class more focused on learning and less on grades. My art-teacher mother taught me at an early age that what matters is how the students improve and learn, not necessarily the products they create. That’s easy to say when you teach in programs and situations that do not produce a grade for a transcript, but nevertheless I hope that these policies will send the same message to my students by encouraging them to do a lot of self-reflection and self-direction.

So far students have expressed interest and pleasure in the idea of using reflection as a means of evaluation, but it’s only the first week and none of us have tested this system out. Still, I hope that it will work well.

And if nothing else, the independent work as class participation and attendance idea will translate well to online-only classes if and when someone gets sick.

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