Up on the rooftops of the world

I've said it before, but one of my biggest gripes about teaching is that there is usually no one around to high five when you finally lurch unaccountably onto a good idea.  You are dying to tell someone about it, but--really--no one cares.  Indeed, sharing successes with colleagues (not to mention your spouse) makes you seem like those people who can't wait to tell you about their latest genealogy research. 

Anyway, with that warning right up front, I now relate the following:

I was so frustrated last semester with my students' lack of preparation in Humanities 101.  They were not even embarrassed about it.  So  this term I decided to make some structural changes.  In order to get into class, they must complete preparatory writing that they discuss in small groups.  Don't do the work and you'll be asked to leave.  No exceptions, no free riders.  Get the work done or get out.  Two students dropped the course after the first day.  I suspect the new policy may have been the reason. 

Those who remained, however, have been doing the work.  Now we've come to the end of the first unit and they have to compose a unit exam essay on Renaissance humanism and autonomy.  Here are the prompts they could choose from:
In-Class Essay Prompt for Renaissance Texts (select one)
The Renaissance that was born in Italy and spread throughout Western Europe in the 14th and 15th century involved a cultural movement away from the static, hierarchical nature of medieval society. Referencing a minimum of three of the six texts in this unit, discuss how artists, thinkers, theologians and scholars began to express humanist values and outlooks on the world. To what extent do humanistic values born in the Renaissance remain a part of our contemporary society?
The medieval worldview was strictly governed by an ideal hierarchy. Each person and object had a place in the well-ordered chain of being. To what degree did painters, thinkers and theologians during the Renaissance emphasize a new autonomy for individuals to define their own life paths, faith commitments and even self-image? Citing a minimum of three of the texts in this unit, discuss how the individual had greater autonomy from traditional definitions of identity. To what extent does society still celebrate and value individualism today?
The Great Chain of Being represented an ideal natural and moral order in the world. The Renaissance, however, saw a renewed interest in the humanist goal to see the world more realistically from a human perspective. To what extent do the techniques of Renaissance artists, the political views of Machiavelli and even perhaps the criticisms of Erasmus and Luther on the pre-reformation church reflect a greater realism about this world and worldly affairs? To what extent does that same realism inform our art and politics today?
So Tuesday I spent an entire class period giving them strategies for writing the unit essay.  I had them fitting evidence into a basic five-paragraph format.  Yesterday (Thursday), they brought in all of their material and wrote for 45 minutes.  Then they paired, shared their drafts and made plans for revising over the weekend.  Next Tuesday they will turn in an entire portfolio: prep assignments, research, first draft and polished draft. 

In effect, I forced them to use a process approach to learning and writing.  Had I simply said here's a take-home essay exam and it's due next Tuesday, they would have begun on Monday evening, typed for half an hour, despaired at their effort, run spell-check and hoped for the best.  By moving almost the entire writing process inside the classroom, I could assure that they actually engaged with the texts and material in a focused way.  It was actually kind of moving to watch them reading the texts and composing for 45 minutes.  It's what we professors hope is happening outside of class but almost never does.

After my students had finished writing and discussing their drafts, I explained my reasons for moving so much of the work inside the classroom.  I asked how many of them would likely have put off the essay until it was almost due.  A majority ruefully admitted that's probably what they would have done.

Then I asked how many thought they had just completed the best response to an essay exam they had ever written?   Several hands went up.  How many, I asked, feel pretty good about what you've done? Again, several hands went up.  Later, one student told me that she was trying to make a point about humanism and Renaissance architecture but couldn't find support for it in any of the texts we read.  I responded, "Why not do a little extra research over the weekend?" 

"I can do that?" she asked.

"Sure," I said.  "Why not knock a pretty good response right out of the ball park?" 

She just grinned back at me.

Another student asked if he could insert some images of Renaissance artworks into his response to illustrate his points about realism.  "Why not?" I said.  "Seems like a good idea." 

And the best part was that they could see the value of what we were doing.  They saw the qualitative difference. 

Hot damn! I wish there were someone around to high five.


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