Standing between students and Spring Break …

Flower Pear Tree Spring 2013It’s February 28: Thursday afternoon before Spring Break.  The air is clear and warm, flowers are blooming, trees have blossoms, birds are chirping … and we have class.  For about half the students in class, tomorrow is the deadline to submit their written comprehensive exams for their master’s degree.  A set of scenarios guaranteed to produce a distracted group of students.

I haven’t taught on Thursday afternoons for a while so I had somewhat forgotten how this particular Thursday afternoon feels.  Not quite like the last class of the semester, but pretty darn close.  I decided to assign an in-class writing/reflection assignment that took on the air of an exam – the tension in the room was palpable as we began and I had to reassure students that this isn’t a graded exam; rather, it is part of cultivating a reflective practice as discussed in the book.

So here I am reflecting on this day and how I might organize it differently next year.  What exactly is the best approach for working with students who are distracted by a major deadline, are anxious about their comprehensive exams, are anticipating Spring Break, and then will be going to a conference to interview for post-degree jobs?

What I’ve done for today is to include the reflective writing assignment – an assignment designed to help students begin thinking about their own leadership development, including their strengths and areas they might want to further develop.  This is connected to a blog post they’ll complete in a couple of weeks, so it’s a good assignment to stimulate thinking.  I’ve scheduled time to discuss the last chapter in the book – originally in small groups, but  as I sit here, I’m second-guessing that decision thinking it might be better, instead, to have a large group discussion … yet, with a large class, the large group discussion are not as energetic as the small group ones.  I’ve also set aside time for a doctoral student seminar following the break.  I do think this is a good idea as it will give the doc students some focused time to talk about the materials from the last chapter and the overall book.

My uncertainty about the best way to approach today is causing me to doubt the decisions I’ve made; what if I look at my decisions from a more confident perspective?  What would that look like?  First, let me think about what is my responsibility and what isn’t my responsibility.  My responsibility is to create a good environment for learning, including assigning readings and asking questions that promote deeper thinking on a topic.  Hey, I’ve done this!  I have a good reflective writing assignment designed to help students focus on the ways they might apply the readings to their own professional development.  My responsibility isn’t to adjust the class for those students who haven’t finished their written comps.  Sometimes I get sucked into thinking I need to resolve other people’s issues (or what I imagine to be their issues).  As I write this, though, I’m reminded that this isn’t actually my job.  I do want to be sensitive to students’ time constraints, but, really, well, I can still lead a good class session and keep in mind that it’s the students’ responsibility to manage their time so they can complete their written comps as well as stay engaged with their class work.  Ah-ha!  I just let myself off the hook for having to take care of the world!

As I think about Thursday-before-written-comps-and-Spring-Break-2014, I think I would likely do something similar to today.  I would probably scratch the small group discussion to be sure I give enough time for the reflective writing  (students asked for 15 more minutes today) and I would set aside time for the doctoral seminar (assuming there will be doc students in the class).  I might try to find a short movie or I would focus on developing our “end of class” celebration ritual – working on this would be engaging, creative, collaborative, and fun as we wind up before the mid-point in the semester.

What I ended up doing that day:  The written reflection exercise, talking with the master’s students about the deadline & asking for suggestions for next year, and then meeting with the doc students.  I think this overall session turned out well:  Bringing students together for an in-class writing assignment gave students time to focus on their reading and stay engaged with the class materials; working with the doc students gave me an opportunity to meet with them in a small group seminar to discuss the materials.  I would probably do something like this again in Spring 2014. I will also check with colleagues to see how they have handled this dilemma in order to identify strategies that allow me to support student learning in our class while understanding the very real pressures of the master’s written comps.