Last semester, I introduced a new practice into my classes at Shimer College. Every few weeks, we spent the beginning of class evaluating ourselves. I asked each student to say a few words about what they had liked most about their own contribution to class over the previous couple of weeks and to share some thoughts as to what they would like to accomplish in the weeks to come. I participated in the evaluations just as everyone else did, speaking of my own goals and the ways in which I was working towards them. I think the evaluations were valuable as a way to keep us all thinking about what we were doing well and where we wanted to improve.
Self-evaluation plays a central role in the kind of education I believe in. Members of a group can only take responsibility for the progress they make together if they are clear about where they are and where they want to be. This is true whether the group is a class or another kind of gathering. Comments and grades from a group’s teacher or a leader cannot substitute for its members’ own thoughtfulness. And that thoughtfulness emerges most clearly when we try to put what we think into words.
The public self-evaluation I requested of my Shimer students was hard for them. Initially, they were inclined towards familiar, easy, and not very helpful analyses. They would say they needed to talk more in class or less, that they needed to read more carefully. Only over the course of the semester did their thoughts about themselves start to take clearer and more specific shape.
We are all, perhaps, more accustomed to responding to others’ views of us than to struggling to express our own. For the students with whom my colleagues and I are working in Haiti, evaluation is that much more unfamiliar. They are told what classes they will take, what those classes will teach, and they are evaluated in the most straightforward way by regular examinations. They are not generally asked how a class is going or whether their teachers are working with them well. So it was surely a surprise to our 9th and 10th graders at the Institut Abélard when Johny and I started class by telling them that we’d like to talk about how we and they thought class was going.
Johny and I shared the sense that it wasn’t going very well. The project that we brought to the students was translation. We chose Andromache, a classic French play by Racine that is a regular part of high school French literature classes in Haiti. Johny and I had felt that translating with the students could accomplish several things. It would push them to understand the French they read more exactly than they are accustomed to doing and to express themselves in written Creole with more than their usual care. In addition, it would be a chance to read a play that they might otherwise only read about and do so in a manner that would leave it up to them to decide what they think about it. Finally, it would give them a chance to work together in a class where they would share the responsibility to teach themselves and one another. The schools’ leadership was excited enough about the experiment that it agreed to add the activity to the students’ official program for the rest of the year.
But the clearest sign that something was missing was that few of the students were preparing for class. We had been assigning them to translate a number of lines at home each week, and most were just not bothering. A few would. In fact they were doing a pretty good job of it. And they would put their translations on the blackboard for the group to study. But most were, at best, participating only by criticizing details that they found lacking in their classmates’ work, the kind of details that suggest themselves to someone who hasn’t bothered to give a reading much thought. We had a long discussion, for example, about how to spell the play’s French names. At worst, the students would simply disengage for the hour that we spent together.
So Johny and I decided to talk with the students about our impressions and to ask them for theirs. What we discovered was saddening, but also encouraging.
After much hemming and hawing, a number of the students reported that they found our discussions frustrating because Johny and I were not telling them who among them was right and who wrong. Without decisive feedback of that kind from us, they felt that their work wasn’t leading them anywhere. Pushed farther, some also complained that our style wasn’t forceful or pushy enough. We were told that we were insufficiently move, which means mean or nasty, that we were too dou, or soft.
Needless to say, the comments made us sad because they expressed just the views that we want to change. We are committed to pushing the students to look more to themselves for answers, especially when answers are matters of individual judgment, and to inviting a collaboration based on something other than the authority we have as their teachers. At the same time, the students’ willingness to criticize us was encouraging. It made it important that we respond in a way that shows them that their views matter; we could not simply respond by arguing insistently for our own views. We could not tell them that we wanted them to take more control and then fail to incorporate their opinions into our plans.
We felt trapped. So I playfully slapped the young man who asked us to be more move on the back of the head. That brought out some laughter. More importantly, Johny and I agreed that we would collect written homework each week and return it with corrections and suggestions. All this could push the classes back towards more conventional teaching, and it will be our job to see that that doesn’t happen.
It will be hard. Johny and I are not able to spend a lot of time together, and it could take a lot of time to find ways to respond to the students’ written work that both gives them the comfortable sense that they are being judged and helps them see the questions their work raises that are beyond simple answers we can be expected to provide.
I hope that the more the students see that their work raises real and difficult questions, the less satisfied they’ll be with answers from Johny and me. That might be what they need to start looking towards themselves, but we do not know that it is.
We ourselves are in a situation of great uncertainty, but that’s just as things should be. After all, the problems our classes confront us with are closely bound to our reasons for leading them.