Thursday, December 28, 2006

Assigning papers to your students (Part 1)

Recently, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens wrote about the concept of karate homework and how it is often poorly executed and understood. Those that know me know that I'm a fan of Mr. Redmond's work, even when I disagree with him. This was a great article for me, because it focused in on a longtime practice at my school which I inherited along with the title of head honcho.

My school's parent organization requires a 1000 word essay for 1st dan. For some people, this is admittedly a lot, but since I teach college students, it's not a very cumbersome requirement. On top of that, students testing for 4th gup (brown belt) and above in my studio are required to submit a short essay on the martial arts. That's the only requirement. We've never specified page length, topic, etc.

I didn't come up with the idea, so I can only take my best guess as to why this task was added into the testing requirements. On one hand, it provides an excellent opportunity for students to explore a topic of interest that may one day flesh out into an excellent essay for their black belt test.

On another, it reinforces the concept of the martial scholar / moo sa that we see in the romantic view of martial arts. Let's say I have a student who is somewhat interested in the Art of War. That student might just need an extra push from me to crack open that book. A requirement to submit a testing paper kills two birds: the student gets an excuse or motivation to start reading, and I get a paper. Speaking from personal experience, I often need a little external motivation to stay focused long enough to read one of those books that I'm "supposed" to have read. When I explain the requirement to my students, this is the reason I give them. If they don't quite like this, I give them the more pragmatic reason of preparing for their 1st dan essay.

Sounds good enough, right?

Here's the problem. What use is writing the paper if the instructor doesn't provide any sort of feedback or critique on what you have written? Even worse, what if no one even reads that paper in the first place? Now you have a potentially good idea that has been wasted and deprived of almost all value. The only value left is the small possibility that the action of writing the paper has encouraged the student to independently learn more about their chosen topic.

After the last testing, how many students did I sit down with and offer a solid critique or even a gruff acknowledgement that I'd read their paper? I can count them on one hand. That is, a mangled hand that accidently got stuck in a wood chipper and came out with no fingers. It's OK, I can own up to that failure on my part.

If that is the case, then why should I continue assigning papers? Even if it is a fabulous idea, I don't have the time to allocate to supporting such an assignment. It would be easy for me to continue asking for papers, letting them stack up endlessly in my inbox waiting for my hard drive to fail. No one else would have to know.

As I read over Rob's rules for "doing it right" so to speak, I feel that I'm actually in line with many of them. However, I've certainly never asked anyone if they had any interest in writing the paper. I am essentially in violation of rules #6 and #10. Unfortunately, that doesn't really translate to 80% in my mind, as #10 is a big one.

I would essentially give myself a d+ for my management of their karate homework. Like most instructors, my heart is in the right place, but unless I'm willing to invest a significant amount of time on #10, there is little point in going through the rest of the steps.
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