In Freshman English 125 at Yale, Alice Miskimmon, a great teacher,
welcomed us to class in 1978 with: “In your middle school and high
school, the teachers taught to the bottom half of the class, so that no
one would be left behind. At Yale, we teach to the top 10%. Good luck to
everyone. Don’t worry; almost everyone can get a B. But we are talking
to the most engaged, most advanced students in the class.”
I do that now. I don’t worry much about the bottom 90% of the
students on any day. Happily, at Ohio State all the students are in the
top 10% of the class.
When I’m faced with silence in a class, I simply engage with the students who are engaged.
I have learned that some students are simply not able to be engaged.
This was particularly true at an art college where the students are
very gifted in art, but many are socially incompetent. I learned
(from my friend and co-teacher Andy Havens) that the silent students
are glad for the four students out of 100 who answer all the class
questions. So Andy taught me to change the “class participation grade”
— everyone would get the same class participation grade, allowing some
students to speak for the class all year. That reduced eye rolling and
eliminated my frustration with having to hear from those who do not
know how to talk.
Grading Is Corrosive
Though our meritocracy requires it, grading causes teacher irritation
and poor student learning choices. When the teacher’s focus is on
grading, this all-for-one class participation grade might be considered
unfair, because slackers can ride the coat tails of the hard workers. I
don’t care about people earning grades. I have abandoned final grades. I use grading only when it truly helps people learn.
I teach courses that require no grading. They are all pass/fail.
I had a student in Sunday school last year stop cold, halt the
discussion and urgently ask, “Hey, wait. Can I flunk this course?” I
thought it was a great moment and answered, “I’m not the One who will
be grading you.” We all laughed.
When I find myself becoming irritated, I retire from teaching for a
year. I have felt bitter and realized — for me, in my situation — the
anger was in the way of my enjoyment and my teaching. When the teaching
is not enjoyable, it is no longer worth my time.
For more unsolicited suggestions on teaching, click here.