2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

True Grit: What My Blended Learning Students Taught Me

Nancy (not her real name) was a star student in my Blended Rhetoric and Composition class.  She did EVERYTHING I told her to do, she made as many attempts as necessary to achieve mastery on every assignment,  and she tested into Honors English at her college of choice.  This story is not about her.

This story is about Sam (not HIS real name either) because through him, and other students like him, I found my focus in this blended class.

Initially, I thought I was going to teach students how to analyze rhetoric and persuasion so they could see the forces that manipulate them in their lives.  I thought I would inspire them with a comparison between modern and “old school” literary and informative text.  I thought I would help them to see that reflection, especially in written form,  is one of the most valuable tools in learning.  I did accomplish these goals (to some extent), but Sam helped me to see that the most important lessons my Blended Learning classroom could teach were “grit” and independence.

My passive-aggressive boxing match with Sam started very early in the school year.

Am I Homer Simpson or Bugs Bunny in this fight?

I say passive-aggressive because most of our conflict was through email, posts to the class discussion board, or his mother.  He was a shy boy, and he was used to flying under the radar.  He was also used to his mother solving his problems for him.  After reading several lengthy explanations from Sam’s mom about his inability to submit his work on time or at all, I decided to have it out with him.

Me:  Sam, why is your mom emailing me and calling me?  Why aren’t you talking to me?

Sam: I don’t know.  I thought you wanted to know why I couldn’t do the assignment on time.  

Me:  We are going to establish some guidelines right now:  First, you are seventeen.  You are almost an adult.  Next year in college your mom will NOT be permitted to talk to your professors about your work, so we are going to break both of you of this habit right now.  When you have a problem, I want you to contact me in any way you want--email, discussion board, phone, video--but YOU have to do it.  Only you can be responsible for your work.  
Second, I don’t care about deadlines.  I care about mastery.  I want you to do EVERY assignment, and I want you to really learn from every assignment, and it doesn’t matter how many tries you attempt or when you get it done, but you will get it done, and you will know you are finished when you hit the mastery column in the rubric.

This is me when I'm laying down the law in class.  Word.
This is me when I'm laying down the law in class. Word.

Ok, this part about deadlines was quite a departure from the way I usually operate.  I often stress deadlines, telling students that they are an important part of the “real world,” and I penalize students for not meeting my deadlines.  My frustration with Sam led me to change this policy for the whole class.  It was as if the Standards-gods had smacked me upside the head, and I finally saw the light.  Why should I penalize a student for wanting to re-do a blog five times?  Don’t I teach students that writing is recursive, and we are never truly finished with a project?  Don’t I want my students to WANT to achieve mastery, even if it means more work for all of us?  Why should anyone accept only achieving about 70% of a standard if the student can do better?  Maybe I can train the students to WANT to do better if I could eliminate the constraint of time.

I have been listening to interviews on NPR in which “experts” are saying that the most important determinant in a child’s future success is not testing or grades, but “grit,” that is, determination, drive, and the will to do whatever hard work it takes to accomplish a goal.  I have always followed this philosophy (instilled in me by my own “expert,” my father), and I started to see that by emphasizing mastery outside of deadlines, I was teaching my students grit.

 I'll be reading this book very soon.

For the students’ final exam, I gave them an article about “grit,” called “Mastery is  Pain,” and I asked them to respond to it by defining grit and pinpointing where they might have shown grit this year.  This was Sam’s response:

The term “grit” means perseverance and passion for long term goals. Everyone has goals in their life, but sometimes people have the hardest times achieving those goals. Whenever people have a bump in the road, they throw in the towel and give up. I have to admit sometimes this was the case for me, but sometimes I’ve had grit, and achieved my goals.

School hasn’t always been the simplest thing for me, and has created some stress over the years.Yet this Rhetoric and Composition class has really taught me some skills that will later help me in my life. The way this class was set up really forced us to be an individual and responsible for our actions.Time-management was a skill that I really learned to value through the process of this class. With everything going on outside of class, it made it really hard to meet the deadlines when the papers were due.

I know that in college time management will probably be an even bigger issue, and this class has taught me how to focus in and use all the hours in the day to complete a paper.

Other students had similar responses:

Since we did not have to come to class every day, this required us to get things done on our own time, without that constant push from a teacher. At first I found this extremely difficult and struggled a lot. Nearing the end of the year, I started managing my time better and getting things done when they needed to be done and on time without the midnight deadline rush. I also have learned organization during this course. We practiced this through various projects that had to be organized on our own with different types of media, and saved successfully where we would be responsible for it.

Lastly, this came from a student like Sam, who struggled all year with deadlines and mastery:

Over the course of this year this class has given me many skills not just academically but also outside of school and the classroom. Building projects online that the whole world can see like the video and our blogs has given me confidence in myself to not be scared of what people think. This class has given me the confidence to go out and talk and not be worried about what I am saying, I am no longer worried about sharing my opinion whether it be what everyone else thinks or whether it might offend others, this class has given me that confidence. However this class has also taught me that there is something I need a lot of work at, and that is time management, throughout the year I had struggled with this aspect, and I know if I do not get that in check it is really going to bite me in the butt next year.

In conclusion, this class is still a work-in-progress, but isn’t every class?  My students helped me to realize that sometimes I have to let go of something (timelines) in order to get something better (mastery, grit).

This is me when I'm trying to let go of deadlines.
This is me when I'm trying to let go of deadlines.

I intend to use this lesson to my benefit and keep working on my goals for my students, no matter how many attempts it takes, until I can achieve mastery.

Stephani Itibrout

Rhetoric and Composition


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