Butterfly Moment in the Classroom

I don’t have a better way to describe this highly satisfying situation in teaching than to call it the “butterfly moment.”

No, that’s not an established English idiom– I just made up one for describing moments like the one below. Moments when teaching turns into learning, as it were. Moments when students’ sense of ownership of their learning breaks out of the larvae of all the things that I’ve been demanding of them and takes flight like butterflies. Butterflies of what they want to learn, how they want to conduct their learning, why they want it.

Hi All, I’ve received two emails during the weekend which expressed anxiety about tomorrow’s deadline explicitly– and I’ve [heard anxiety in other] emails/conversations. Do you think adding two more days for the first draft will be justified in big picture of our timeline–or even four, so that the draft is due on Saturday, say noon? …

The above was a message I sent via class email (alongside a version of it via Remind101, a texting app for teachers) on October 21 at 4:04pm. In 4 minutes, the first student replied:

Personally I would like to submit my thesis tomorrow so I can work more with you on editing it and revising. I feel comfortable about my paper but I know it needs a lot of revisions. We’ve also already had a week extension which was more than enough time. – M. / Sent from my iPhone

By early next morning, I heard from all of the eleven students in the upper division “writing in the disciplines” class that I’m teaching to business majors. Only one student said that he wanted to take advantage of the offer for extension (because he had to change the scope of his thesis after struggling to find relevant materials for a research topic that was too new). All other students declined the offer. Extension-wise, this was a first in twenty years.

Because I had also said in my email that students could ask for feedback during the extended time, quite a few students quickly realized the value of this opportunity.

Hi Professor, I have most of my first draft done even though I’m continuing to add to it. I was wondering if you could look it over and help me with the “overall message/argument.”  I know you told me to keep it in mind while writing but I’m having trouble with it. / Thank you, / J.

For a moment, I thought I had created a situation of potential unfairness (because I would be assessing the “second” drafts for the early birds); but then I realized that many of the students had been making significant improvements to their initial drafts by getting one or more rounds of feedback for several weeks anyway. No one was waiting for the deadline to approach/arrive.

This incident made me think about what makes students take responsibility/ownership for their work to the point of turning down an offer of extension. I wished what happened in this class should happen in every class; unfortunately, it rarely does. Too often, students ask how many pages or sources I want, what, when, how, and why I want. Students seem to go from class to class trying to decipher what it is that the teacher wants, because that seems to be the easiest way to understand, approach, and accomplish academic work. When learning is defined in grades/credits, especially when that is further determined by individual teachers, the temptation to do it for the teacher, as he/she wants it, prevails.

The incident also made me become aware of how often I phrase my suggestions, guidelines, assignment descriptions in terms of what “I” want students to do. In fact, especially with students who haven’t learned how to navigate the university’s system of teacher-defined courses, assignments, and activities, I seem to have a greater impulse to be clear and straightforward in my teaching materials, asking students to do exactly this or that.

Write a narrative essay in 700-1000 words in which you describe an event in your academic life, going on to …

That is, “[I tell you to] write a narrative essay…” Indeed, even when I deliberately avoid stating what I want while providing guidelines, resources, and ideas, students tend to read it all as instructions.

Now, I don’t think that there is anything wrong with instructions, demands, directions. The problem is that students tend to understand doing well in a course more as fulfilling the teacher’s demands/expectations than as fulfill the learning objectives set for them by the teacher. Students are capable of understanding the what, how, and why of their college courses in relation to how the courses will help them achieve broader goals in their academic and professional lives/futures; but most of the times, they don’t need to think about the big picture.

And so, anytime students start taking my teaching (resources, instructions, guidelines, ideas, perspectives, etc) and turn it into their learning, I start thinking that something is beginning to fly!

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