ConVal voices

Drawing confidence from achievements is important

As I walk the halls of ConVal, students and teachers flood past me in a blur as we each race to our next destination before the bell sounds.

Like so many people who live in the 21st century, most teachers long for a time when they can pause, take a breath, and savor a particularly meaningful moment. As the current of busy schedules and time-sensitive responsibilities pulls us relentlessly forward, it seems we rarely have a chance to reflect on our day, and when we do it’s usually to second guess a mistake we made. For those times when our plans go well and we taste success, too often it’s a quick glance in the rear-view mirror, and then we’re onto the next challenge.

My drive home to Francestown gives me a daily opportunity to review and assess my teaching. But as I reflect, the scrutiny inevitably brings me back to my shortcomings and the parts of my lessons that don’t go as I’d hoped.

With this in mind, I’d like to share and celebrate a moment that otherwise might slip into that constant stream of “keeping up with keeping up.”

Second Semester began back on Jan. 28. New courses, new students, and piles of grading have followed. But through it all I’ve tried to hold on to one memory from first semester. My teaching assignments included a course called Writing the Essay. It’s a nine-week class that aims to support juniors and seniors who face the daunting task of composing an essay for their college application. The classic five-paragraph essay format that all students learn provides an excellent structure for formal writing, but it’s useless when it comes to the college application essay. The “personal statement” required on the Common Application and by most other colleges needs to be just that: a statement that captures the distinct individual voice of the applicant. Students are used to cranking out a five-paragraph formula that’s earned all those grades so far. My first job in Writing the Essay is to give them permission to un-learn the cookie-cutter pattern, and help them find their unique voice and story. In a classic paradox, they typically scorn the five-paragraph formula, yet they’re intimidated by the freedom from it.

So we explore, digging deep into the “Mountain of Personal Experience.” We’re mining for a gold nugget that will provide the rough, raw material to be crafted and polished into a brilliant artifact that will dazzle the college admissions officers. It’s hard work.

At the end of the course there’s a 90-minute final exam. But how do you assess student learning? A multiple-choice test? A timed essay? No. You need a measure of progress that’s consistent with the goals of the course. My final assessment looks like this: During the last week of the course, students must prepare a portfolio of their best work — three essays and a lengthy self-assessment. Two of the essays are revised versions of work they’ve already submitted, newly “upgraded” based on specific feedback I’ve provided. The third is done from scratch to show that they’ve internalized the process we’ve worked on. On the actual day of our exam, students arrive with their portfolio ready to read aloud their favorite piece.

In January, my students show up to the exam block. Some are nervous to read their work, but everyone is prepared. Before we begin, I explain the rules. Each will take a turn as author, but they will also need to participate as an audience. Handing out white-lined paper, I ask them to record their responses to their peers’ work. No advice, no constructive criticism — we’d all done plenty of that in workshop sessions throughout the nine weeks – just a well-chosen compliment.

“Who’s first?”

Without hesitation, Gavin raises his hand. “My piece is called ‘Overcoming Challenges.’” He goes on to read a moving, ultimately triumphant chronicle of his struggles with a speech impediment, dyslexia, and dysgraphia that he’s faced since preschool. No one misses the delicious irony that Gavin is proudly reading aloud an essay that begins with a story of how awful it was for Gavin to read aloud in third grade! It’s a superb essay. And everyone has found an image, a turn of phrase, a stylistic device that deserves an acknowledgment, a smile, a thumbs-up. And I’m not talking about superficial feel-good fluff; each compliment demonstrates that these students know their stuff: “Effective metaphor,” “Great intentional fragment for emphasis,” “Nice rhetorical question.”

And so it goes. Lara captures the magic of taming and training a horse. Cory shares his passion for computer programming. Ben provides a primer on making a skiing video. I’m awed by each essay and by each comment that follows; each author deserves and receives a slew of affirmations for their efforts.

Our 90 minutes together fly by. The bell goes, they submit their portfolios, and it’s onto the next thing.

I need to remember how well that day went. And I hope those students find a moment in the blur of their frantic lives to reflect, savor, and draw confidence from their achievements.

Mark Holding teaches English and is the head of that department at ConVal High School.

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