Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Knowing what's ahead?

So, after getting off the road yesterday, I read some blogs, because, seriously, I have no life. Well, I do, but...

Anyway, I read this entry over at RedStateMoron, a guy who also seems to live up somewhere in snow country, and who seems thoughtful and interesting, both of which are always good. Red's post refers to parents not wanting to identify their new born baby as having Down syndrome to people who haven't already met their baby. Red says he thinks that letting people know would be better, but I'm not sure.

And, since I couldn't sleep and was mulling over stuff, I started thinking about how teachers approach students who are identified as "special" in some way. At NorthWoods University, we admit some students, let's call them NW Scholars, who wouldn't get in under the normal criteria, but who are admitted as NWSs because NWU thinks they'll succeed and do well in a special program, because NWU tries to promote diversity amongst its students (at least nominally). In the case of the NWS program, most students are admitted because they're first generation college students, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or from sub-populations of the state community which are underrepresented in post-secondary schools.

Research I vaguely recall shows that if you tell teachers that they've got a section of "highly gifted" students, something will happen so that the students will actually work at a highly gifted level and the teacher will grade them accordingly. The corollary is that if you tell a teacher s/he's got a section of remedial students, then the students will work at a remedial level and the teacher will grade them accordingly. Therein lies a problem, or at least a potential problem. At the most basic level, we teach to our expectations.

Every fall term, I got an email (sent to the whole of my department, no doubt) asking if I'd accept NWS program students into my first year writing class. The "catch," if you will, is that the NWS program wants to schedule its students into classes in a group, so a typical first year writing class will have, say, about one quarter to one third NWS students if the instructor accepts. The second "catch" is that the email implies (or more than implies) that these are remedial students, and that we might resist having them in our classes because they're remedial. And then the email tells us that these students will have a special skills class and other help so that they won't be a burden on their first year writing instructors.

Out of laziness, I hadn't accepted this fine invitation previously. Out of less laziness, I accepted the invitation a year ago last fall.

I couldn't tell which students were NWS students, and knowing the issues related to expectations and research, I was fine with that. But since the NWSs are in several classes together, and since they know they're in a special program, they often come out in class by talking about the program they're in or talk about classes they're in, so it wouldn't be that hard to figure out if I bothered. (Again with the laziness thing!) They also tended to talk with frustration about the special study skills class they were taking, and how it wasn't really addressing their needs as students.

About half way through the term, the NWS program organizer called a meeting, and met with those of us with NWS students in our classes as a group, several people in my department, one person teaching their college skills class, and one person teaching a large lecture class with all NWS students (who also teaches a section of the same class to non-NWS students). Despite my distaste for meetings of all sorts, I dutifully attended.

And innocent that I am, still, I was irritated to hear the ways that the people not in my department talked about these students. Seriously, if you're {fill in your favorite expletive] administering a program to help underrepresented people, don't put them down behind their backs!

At the end of the meeting, the program organizer suggested that we should look at the list of NWS people in our class, so that we'd know who was who.

I said I wasn't really interested in who was who, so I didn't look; but actually, I was feeling really irritated because these people should know the research about teacher bias.

When I gave out final grades, I wasn't sure which students were or weren't NWSs, but my impression was that they did about as well, on average, as the other students.

I didn't have strong feelings about the students either way, but I'd decided I didn't want the BS of dealing with the program organizer, so I didn't respond to the email this year, and didn't think twice about it, to be honest. I have plenty to keep what few brain cells survived my youth fully occupied.

A couple weeks into my first year writing class this fall, though, some of the students talked about their study skills class, and another class they had in common, and I realized that despite my non-answer, the NWS organizer had assumed I'd continue and put students into my class. I didn't think anything more of it until about half way through the semester when the organizer sent around an email telling us when we'd be meeting, which I promptly ignored. The day of the meeting, one of my colleagues stopped at my office to remind me of the meeting, and I told him I didn't want to go and was going to close my door and hide out. He laughed and went on to the meeting. (Did I mention that I have plenty to keep me busy without an additional irritating meeting?)

I wonder if we aren't doing our NWS students a bit of a disservice by identifying them to their instructors. By all means, admit NWS students and give them the academic and social support they need to take advantage of the opportunity. Sure, put them in a special skills class. Yes, encourage them to take advantage of all the academic tutoring opportunities available on campus.

But don't tell their instructors that they're here through a special program which implies remediation. Don't put them all in one big special section of a class with an instructor who thinks s/he's doing them some sort of favor. And don't put them in groups in first year writing courses.

So, to the original issue of Red's post: yes, of course I'd be able to tell if someone with a serious disability were in my class at some point. But. But, I know research suggests that peoples' reactions to students with dis/ability and giftedness/remediation are closely correlated to their expectations. I don't blame parents for wanting to let people expect their child to be normal, and so hopefully to treat their child as "normal" and to value the child as a child first, before thinking about his/her dis/ability.

PS. I think one of my two strongest students in my first year writing class this past fall was in the NWS program. But, of course, I'm not sure. I try to just assume they're all really smart, capable, interested, hard-working students and let them prove otherwise if not.

PPS. Despite the date shown, it's really Wednesday morning, absurdly early...


  1. I think you make an excellent point. Dream School doesn't do this exactly, but Ph.D. U. did, and I taught a section devoted to these students. Guess what? Like you, I found that these students were no less intelligent, whiney, nervous, or obnoxious than my regular writing students. They refused to own the label, and I refused to apply it. Well said, Bardiac. :-)

  2. This is an interesting post. Maybe you should go to the program director and tell him/her that you chose not to know who the NWS students were, and guess what--you found that they were pretty much equal to everyone else in class. Maybe that kind of experience will teach them to administer the program differently.

    I had a student with Aspergers syndrome this year, and I have to say that I was glad that he told me he had it. I was able to cut him a little slack when he needed it, and otherwise would've been my usual hardass.

  3. I am a graduate student, and I am awaiting a TA position, hopefull this fall. I have, however, taken the pedagogy class to teach me how to teach Comp.I. Now, it amazed me how trite the professor of our class was in regards to the special needs students. He seemed to, without saying it that is, discourage any extra support. He did say that they could take their test in the learning center and smirked when he said it. He wasn't only addressing the students who might be less gifted intellectually, but he made remarks about the physically challanged as well. I believe that his attitude may have caused the up and coming TA's to have a less than positive attitude toward the students who are not in the average, which in my opinion really sucks.

  4. Thanks for the response, RV.

    Good idea, Ianqui. You're right, of course, that students who'll need special accomodations do need to be up front about it much of the time.

    /nod Zelda. It sounds like you're resisting the bad influence. Good job.

  5. I absolutely agree with you about this. And how AWFUL that people involved with the program are condescending about the students in the program. I'm pretty sure the students notice that, too.

    I want my students to feel comfortable with telling me what's going on if there's something that might seriously affect their performance and/or classroom demeanor. But, in my experience, that "something" rarely includes being part of the populations you've named here.

    Students in under-represented populations generally want to perform at the same levels as their peers and are usually quite capable of it. Programs meant to address their needs should be designed as a kind of "home base" where they can feel comfortable and get extra help if they need it while fully integrating themselves in the wider university community. They shouldn't become a means for ghettoizing students who might already feel ostracized.

  6. Anonymous9:25 AM

    interesting issues, amazing how a post can inspire thought. i agree with what you summarized about lowering expectations.

  7. Anonymous8:39 PM

    This fall I started teaching at a community college and we're given the names of students with any type of disability at the start of the class. We're supposed to allow some of them the chance to take exams in the learning center instead of class while others are allowed a note taker.

    Despite "knowing" who they were, these students have literally ran intellectual circles around the majority of their peers (perhaps because they care in an environment where other students might not, it's hard to say) but it's definitely changed my views on "remedial" learners. I worked at a big university previously and I have to say that these "mainstreamed" students are working harder and learning more than most of the average college students I got to know over time.

    Then again, in *that* program most of the teachers thought that none of the students--not even the bright ones--were capable, so maybe the prophecy was self-filled there. Who knows? All I know is that right now I'm very happy with my position, my students, and knowing enough about them to help them schedule the help they need.

  8. Ancrene Wiseass: I pretty much agree with you on wanting my students to let me know when things are going on with them that will affect their performance or behavior. But I think it's important that the students make the choice and communicate, rather than officials, even if there has to be official involvement (as with documenting learning disabilities, for example). I really like your metaphor of a home base. We have several "home base" type areas available for our students, and they seem to work well for getting students together for mutual support and community.

    Dr. C. Yes, exactly! It's fun how a post can get you thinking about something tangential and off you go. Or off I go, anyway!

    Toshfraggle, I think you're so right about knowing enough to help students get connections to the people who can help them in various ways. I've had no training in teaching dyslexic students, but that's why we have folks on campus who DO have that training. If we instructors can help them make the connection, then we're doing our jobs well.

    I'm glad to hear you've found a good place you like. I went to a CC for a year when I returned to school, and it was a fantastic opportunity for me; the faculty were smart, dedicated, and helpful, and I was able to learn so much even though I was working full time. CCs are great places.