INTRODUCTION: I have taught English full-time at Foothill College in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1991. I have been trying to solve exactly the problem that Skip Downing describes in chapter one (page 3) of the On Course text. He describes the “curious puzzle” in which “two students enter a college class on the first day of the semester. Both appear to have similar intelligence, backgrounds and abilities … but one student passes and the other fails.”
In the past, I had only addressed the problem using my strong interpersonal skills of encouragement, trust-building, and interesting class discussions. I had always thought that if I could just keep students awake and inspired in class then I could prevent them from dropping out or failing due to excessive absences. The trouble is, I was ignoring that the rest of their complex lives was interfering with their success, not my teaching style. I didn’t see that they had not learned how to make wise choices; that is, I did not see that I could explicitly teach them that they could choose to be responsible for their success.
The following strategy can be used by instructors of any discipline who consider attendance to be one of the success factors for their course. Schedule this activity early in the semester and it makes a great ice-breaker. The time needed is approximately 45 minutes.
- To help students laugh and get to know one another early in a course
- To improve attendance
- On Course text (optional, but recommended)
- Student journals
1. Introduce the topic: “We’re going to explore some of the reasons you have used for missing classes.”
2. Offer students a chance to warm up to both this exercise and its necessary candor by beginning a list on the board to which they can all contribute. Though they could simply work with their own lists, letting them create a group list offers them an opportunity to share items without being put on the spot. For example, our list had reasons for missing classes such as “I was too tired,” “Somebody I know had just gotten out of jail,” “I was bored with the class anyway.” (10 minutes)
3. Next, ask students to take out pen and paper, and to brainstorm a list of every reason they ever had for missing a class in college (or high school, if they are new students). Some of theirs may already be on the chalkboard, but encourage them to write down every one—the dramatic and not so dramatic –and to do so without judging themselves or the reason/excuse. (5 minutes)
4. Now, have students open to the discussion in On Course where the differences between Victims and Creators are explored. In the third edition, this list can be found on pages 26-27. Ask students to read aloud from the left hand column (Victims) and then from the right (Creators), explaining that this list comprises the criteria that will be used for the next step of the exercise. If you don’t have the text, you might solicit a list of the difference between people who are Victims of external circumstances (pawns on a chessboard) and those who are Creators of their lives (the person playing chess). (7 minutes)
5. Then, beginning with the list on the chalkboard, ask them to put a V or a C next to their reasons for missing class. Students may need this decision modeled, so work through at least some of the list on the board first, asking them to decide, “Is this a Victim’s excuse or a Creator’s reason” for missing class? Ask them to continually refer to the list in the book or the one you have created. Ask them to articulate reasons for their choice. For example, if a student missed a class for a dentist appointment, you might ask: “Which class did you miss? How important is that class to your goals? Did you have another choice here that may have allowed you to go to class?” (10-15 minutes)
6. Once the students have a pretty clear idea of how to determine which items should get a V or a C, ask them to finish labeling their own lists that they have written out in front of them. (5 minutes)
7. Now ask them to write in their journal, “What have I learned about myself and my commitment to attending my classes in college?” (5-10 minutes). If time allows, you can lead a class discussion of what they wrote or have them discuss it in pairs.
We had a great time with this activity in my class! It was fun for me to lead this discussion with the students at the center, rather than for me to give a stern lecture about the evils of missing classes in college. They laughed out loud and supported each other when they were sharing items from their lists. The room also got quiet at times when we decided that 95% of the reasons on our group list were actually Victim’s excuses for missing class. There were some knowing nods as they acknowledged their unwise choices.
I think some students learned that most of their “reasons” for missing class are actually excuses that stem from a lack of commitment to or sense of powerlessness about the success of their lives. Some even saw that they put more energy into avoiding classes than they do into attending them. A few recognized that they can make changes to their behavior. For example, Andre and I had several discussions about his “transportation problems” where I had the opportunity to ask him if when he told me that his ride didn’t show up, whether he thought he was acting like a victim or a creator, and why. He did finally admit that he was using victim’s excuses, and for the next four weeks he didn’t miss a class.
The activity certainly appears to have positively affected four students that I had taught previously. All improved their attendance this quarter. For example, last quarter Cherice and Rashonda both hung on the precipice of being dropped from their Reading course, each for various reasons (transportation problems, my mother needs me to do such and such); this quarter neither one came even close to the maximum number of absences allowed.
I must admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable with the finality of labeling items on the list with the scarlet “V” for Victim!! It did seem like a judgment, even though I assured my students that it wasn’t. As I was writing their reasons and excuses on the board, I felt obligated to comment and respond with things like, “Oh, I see what you were thinking” and a head nod, but this reaction was really just me interjecting my own voice into a process that didn’t really need any commentary. I was trying to diffuse my own judgments in friendly commentary, but it felt distracting to the students’ process of listing and observing their reasons for not attending classes.
I am wondering if I could discuss “victimhood” without the faintest hint of disapproval or judgment in my voice? I take this as my challenge, and I am hopeful that in subsequent run-throughs of this exercise, I will be able to feel more neutral towards that list of Victim’s excuses staring at me from the chalkboard. I think that the more neutral I am, the more space I can give my students to see themselves and their lives more clearly
Having written the On Course journal entries myself, I understand even more clearly why I have been judgmental of my students: I have a very active Inner Critic that likes to keep me on the straight and narrow by criticizing me. So whereas someone else might have gone to class because their Creator self told them to, I went to class as a college student to avoid a tongue-lashing from my Inner Critic who surely would have accused me of being “a lazy failure like my father.” The sheer relief of having become aware of this inner conversation may take some of the tension out of my body and the judgments out of my thoughts when I lead this discussion next time.
–Natalia Menendez, Faculty, English, Foothill College, CA