This article recently appeared in the Houston Chronicle. The class of 2015, comprised of 39 offenders, just finished their first semester in Southwestern’s SACS accredited B.S. program in biblical studies. In my Western Civ I course, everyone did very well.
I will share a quick story: at the end of last semester, the students submitted their extended book reviews of the Aeneid. The assignment was for a five to seven page analysis and critical evaluation of Vergil’s work. I provided them with a detailed rubric for the assignment weeks prior, and was looking forward to reading their assessments of this classic work of Western literature.
They submitted their papers on the last day of class, and I started reading them a day or two later. As I read each paper, it became obvious that we were going to have some major problems. The students weren’t following directions. They were writing mostly summaries of the book. Some expressed inappropriate attitudes. Assessments and evaluations were mostly subjective and many were actually quite childish–“this book was meaningless,” “Vergil has no idea how to write,” that kind of thing.
After speaking with my dean, I decided that instead of assigning failing grades to these papers, to require 28 of the 39 students start over and rewrite them (the other papers were quite good). I called the students together and spoke to them about the significance of where they were and what they were doing. This isn’t some fly-by-night Bible program, I said. This is college, and I would be expecting them to do college work. From what they had demonstrated to me over the course of the entire semester, covering centuries of historical events and trends, I knew that they were capable of better.
A couple of weeks ago, I returned their new papers. All 28 students rewrote and improved their papers, some quite dramatically. I was so pleased with their work, which had once been shoddy, novice, and at times inappropriate, was now scholarly, insightful, and some was quite sophisticated. I was so proud of what they had done.
I told them not to expect a second chance like this again. Each understood the significance of having the opportunity to salvage their situation. Still, it was a thrill to see how they responded. Many expressed appreciation to me that I had not given them a “prison A,” that is, an A grade motivated by sympathy because of their imprisonment. Others were moved because they had never been given a second chance like this before in their lives. It was exciting to be a part of something special, to think that perhaps the Lord had used me to do something of eternal worth for them.
This semester, I am teaching Western Civ II. Next year, I will teach American political philosophy and world religions to the class of 2015, as well as Western Civ to the class of 2016. Should be fun.