The Accountability Paradox

One of the more frustrating things about being an English is when you assign reading and students don’t read it.  What is even more frustrating is when you assign reading and they don’t read it because you haven’t assigned questions or aren’t giving a quiz.  This has been a problem over the last couple of years in my advanced English classes.  I try to have my students feel like they are not being tracked, nagged, or inundated with pointless busy work; however, instead of an invested group that comes ready to discuss whatever the day’s topic is, I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m being taken advantage of.

On some level, I get it–when everything you have ever read for the past few years as come with an assignment attached to it, it’s hard to adjust to someone who says he wants to spend the period just talking about it; furthermore, with no questions or multiple choice assessment attached, just an analysis paper when all is said and done, there doesn’t seem to be much point to actually doing the reading.  Parents even have a hard time adjusting to this style–I remember a year when one parent complained that I “didn’t have enough grades in the gradebook” and that her daughter said, “All we do in that class is talk.”

And it’s not like I just drop a book on a desk and say, “Read it and come ready to discuss.”  I set the book up with guiding questions and then actually turn most of the discussion days over to students who then run the class as a seminar.  Granted, I set aside at least a day or two so I can run the discussion in order to get to topics that we didn’t get to on the seminar days, but for the most part, the discussion is student-led and student-driven.

On one hand, it makes the class more comfortable because they spend most of the time talking to each other and not me (I literally sit in the back of the room and barely say anything until maybe the last 10 minutes); on the other hand, I often notice that the groups running the seminar wind up feeling as frustrated as I do when they are met with complete silence.  They also worry about their grades, although I do what I can to reassure them that i take into account the class’s lack of participation and look to see how they work around the problem.

So overall, the continuing existential dilemma has presented itself:  grades are not supposed to be punitive, and out of respect for my students, I try not to grade punitively.  I could give a quiz the day the reading is due, which would trap all of the students who didn’t read, but what does that honestly prove?  The paper that’s assigned comes after all of this discussion and it serves a clear, twofold purpose:  I want them to show me how they as individuals can analyze and interpret those works of literature and also want them to have the experience of writing the types of essays and papers that they will continue to write beyond my class, whether it be in AP English or in college.  Our group discussions and seminars should help with that because the guiding questions from the beginning of the unit are the same questions that can be used in discussion are the same or similar questions for the paper.  The grades are more evaluative than punitive and it should show how well students have grasped what we’re doing (if that’s the right verbiage–if not, I’m sure someone can edusplain it to me).  But again, to them, no grade for just doing the reading=no need to read.

Part of teaching literature is to enrich and grow, to take students out of their comfort zones with works they would have never considered and then to explore those works to see what they reveal about human nature or society.  We use literature to explain the whys and hows of the world and to understand that which seems incomprehensible.  However, in order to teach such understandings the literature has to be read.  I want to help my classes reach that point but refuse to lower my standards so that they are rewarded just for doing the bare minimum.


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