Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Good, Better, Best

As I grade profile essays for my BYU-Idaho Foundations English 101 course, I can’t help but be reminded of Dallin H. Oaks’ October 2007 Conference address, “Good, Better, Best.”

In his talk, Elder oaks admonishes us to look beyond just what is adequate to get our jobs done – whether they be church callings, family life, career, or what have you – to doing what is better and then, ultimately, what is best as we accomplish our daily tasks. Says he:

As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all.

So as I grade these essays, I wonder, how can I encourage my students to go from the good to the better and then to the best? And – contradictorily – how can I do that without interfering with BYU-I’s learning model in which students are encouraged to work with their peers, with the instructors more in the background? I can do good, I suppose – and I have tried this – by commenting on essays as they’re in the writing workshop groups, so I can offer feedback on them before they’re submitted as final drafts. But then, I have noticed, when I comment, the commenting from the students pretty much shuts down and what I say becomes law. The self-motivation, the peer-to-peer learning aspect disappears, and what I thought was going to be good remains there – only good, not reaching beyond that to better or best.

So I wonder: Can’t we, as we re-shape the curriculum, instill a bit of “Good, Better, Best” into it? And by that, I mean we take an assignment like the profile essay, have the students work through them in the workshops, then have me, at the end of the week, chime in. There, we reach the level of good. In the subsequent week, the students would be encouraged to take all the feedback received and work to take what was adequate and good and shape it into something that is better or best. Because as it is now, the good is about all we reach – because in order not to stifle conversations I offer feedback at the end, and by then, gradewise and curriculum-wise, it is too late to take that essay into better or best territory. They have other writing to work on, but it is on different subjects, taking on different tasks, so the one to one opportunity of taking feedback on a paper and seeing how re-shaping and re-working can make that one paper great doesn’t have time to sink in as they jump from assignment to assignment.

So I find myself in a contradictory environment here. Before I became an instructor of English, I was convinced that the students needed to do more writing. Now, I’m thinking less writing, but lots more feedback, lots more introspection, and lots more re-writing in order to make things go from good to better to best.

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