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It wasn’t good enough: Reflecting on the last week

This time of year I reflect all over the place. I’ve just posted my Annual Report.  Yesterday, I finished reading papers by and sitting in on the defenses of some of our most gifted seniors. I sat in on the final presentations of many others.

It’s been a strange year at Springfield.  A good chunk of the strangeness falls under the category of what-not-to-blog.  So I will sum that stuff up. Our school experienced shifts and voids in leadership this year. We’ve added a number of new staff members who were not part of the professional development we developed as a team a few years back.  And we dealt with an issue that left our faculty factioned.

This year as we sat in on the seniors’ presentations and taped their exit interviews, we noticed a slide in their efforts and a shift in their attitudes.

Their arguments were not all that strong.  Their papers were not well-structured. I examined works cited lists and discovered not only a sloppier approach than in years past, but more importantly, a lack of understanding of what research energy looks like.  A good enough approach.

When I asked one of my very favorite students why her works cited looked as sloppy as it did, in terms of formatting and selection of sources, she responded, "I didn’t think anyone would notice."

When asked why a student researching the teaching of languages in the early grades neglected to use professional journals, she pointed to the fact that she had used scholarly journals. Weren’t they good enough? She had no response for why the brain research articles she used were 20 to 50 years old.  (This might be due to a new over-reliance on JSTOR.  If its scholarly content works well for AP US History, it will likely work for everything else, right?.) 

When we asked why a student researching the effect of NAFTA on the economies of Mexico and the US chose not to use any readily available hard data or any economics journals, he didn’t really have a good answer.  And he knew it.  After the defense he admitted to me that he knew he should have asked for help. All of these students are high-achieving, independent types. This is a problem.

I wrote about a week ago about how in improving student presentations, we somehow lost a little of their content.  That’s a problem. 

And, over the past couple of months we had to convene our Academic Standards Committee four times for plagiarism issues. (I wonder how many additional incidents did not rise to reporting status.) That’s a problem too.

Okay.  Those of you who know me know that I am not about predicting rain.  It’s the ark-building that moves me. So we may have slid since my friends at SLJ did that lovely cover story back in 2002.

A few of us described our concerns at our Planning Team meeting last week. We discussed the need to get back to a point where we consistent expectations. A point where students know that effort matters across curriculum and to every member of our instructional team.. A point where we all understand how rich our students’ information choices are and we are fussy about expecting them to exploit those choices. A point where we have a shared vocabulary for words like: thesis, argument, evidence, scholarly, energy. Where we all get what quality looks like in project design, in questioning and thesis development, documentation, in student work. 

For students it’s got to be consistent.

I need to find more ways to intervene both on- and offline.  I need to gather that core group of teachers and influence and present professioonal development.  I need to remind my colleagues of the tools we’ve already developed.

We can’t slack off if we want our students not to.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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