First, I’ve been meeting with students to look at their first at-home essay. Their essays have to include a discussion of characterization, but it’s clear that many of them are still not certain how to write about characterization in their essays, and are still not making the connection between a character’s behaviour and what it says about him or her as a person. What’s more, some don’t seem to recognize the connection between their OWN behaviour and what it says about THEM as people. Most are polite, punctual and constructively inquisitive; others show up late with blank faces and no questions and are unable to let me finish a single sentence without interrupting me to make excuses or go off on tangents.
Secondly, many university applications were due this past week, and so, leading up to March 1st, I received a number of requests for reference letters. I am usually delighted to write references for students, but, as a previous post attests, every year some of these requests are baffling. Students who talked with their friends and played with their phones all class, who showed up late when they showed up at all, who sat passively during group work and said, “I didn’t read the story,” when I called on them, nevertheless somehow believe that I will have something nice to say about them in a reference letter.
So when I went into class on Thursday, I relayed the above information to the students, and told them the story of the most recent incident in which I felt I couldn’t provide someone with a reference. ”She sat in the back and talked with her friends when I was lecturing or other students were speaking,” I said. ”She spent half the class with her phone held up in front of her face, reading and replying to texts. When she did group work with people other than her friends, her group members often complained about her, because she wasn’t prepared and didn’t contribute. I had to tell her no, I wouldn’t write her a letter, and she didn’t ask why, so I didn’t tell her…but a couple of things occurred to me.”
By this time, they were riveted. Cell phones were forgotten, whispered conversations were abandoned, faces were wary but attentive.
“First of all, it might have been helpful to her if she had known the impression she was making AT THE TIME SHE WAS IN MY CLASS. It’s too late for her to do anything about it now, but if she’d realized then what her actions were saying about her, she might have been able to change something. So I took some time and made a list of behaviours that will get you a good reference letter from me, and behaviours that will make me say no. If you’re interested, I’ll show you my list at the end of the class.
“What’s more, it occurred to me that this is a real-life demonstration of characterization at work. When we discussed characterization, what did we say is the best indication of a person’s character?”
“Their behavior,” the class chorused.
“Exactly. Writing reference letters is an exercise in characterization: you identify the character traits you believe a person possesses, character traits that qualify them for a profession or a field of study, and then you identify the behaviours that have suggested that they have those character traits.”
So I showed them a good reference letter I wrote a couple of years ago – with the name of the referrant changed, of course – as an example. Then I explained, “You will probably also have to write reference letters at some point in your lives. You may be a teacher, or somebody’s boss, or somebody’s colleague. Someone may ask you to write a comment about them on LinkedIn. You will need to describe people and give evidence for your description. So we’re going to practice that today.”
I had them form groups of three, draw professions from an envelope (primary school teacher, dog walker, event planner, garbage collector…) and discuss whether the three main characters in the novel we are reading possess the character qualities necessary to do these jobs. Each group member then had to write a letter. One wrote a reference letter for the character they thought was best qualified for the job; the other two wrote letters of apology to the other characters, explaining why they could not give them letters of reference.
When they were just about done, I asked if they’d like to see my list of pro- and anti-reference-letter behaviours, and they said, “YES YES YES.”
DO NOT ASK ME FOR A REFERENCE LETTER IF…
- you often talk in class when you should be listening to me or other students
- you spend a lot of class time typing on your phone (especially if you hold it up visibly so that I and everyone can see that you’re not listening)
- you are often absent or late, or leave early, without documented reasons for doing so
- you often fail to submit assignments or submit them late
- you often half-complete in-class work or sit passively while other group members complete work for you
- you’re often not able to answer my questions or participate in group work because you’re not prepared
- you do homework from other courses in my class
- you sulk when you get bad grades, or you complain about your grades without asking polite, constructive questions about how you can improve
- you write me careless email messages without a greeting or signature (eg. “i wasnt in class today did I miss anything”)
- I have ever caught you cheating on anything (including “small” infractions like copying in-class work from other students)
- you are not an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades. When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades. I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.
I WILL BE DELIGHTED TO GIVE YOU A REFERENCE LETTER IF…
- you are always attentive in class, with your phone out of sight and your ears open
- you attend class and are punctual, with very occasional exceptions
- you ask polite questions when you don’t understand things
- you always do your reading and make an effort to respond to questions about it, whether or not you “get it right”
- your work is always complete, even when it doesn’t “count for grades,” and you submit it on time
- you come to me for extra help if you need it, or you seek help at the Learning Centre
- you inform me when you know you will miss a class or will be late for class, and you make an effort to catch up on what you miss
- you do your best when working with other students and pull your weight (even when others don’t)
- you write me polite, clear email messages (eg. “Dear Ms. Curious: I’m sorry I had to miss class today; I had to take care of a personal matter. Could you let me know what I missed and what I should do for homework? Sincerely, Jane X.”)
- you are an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades. When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades. I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.
Immediate results? A lot of polite and enthusiastic “Goodbye Miss”s at the end of class, a number of polite and well-formulated messages this weekend asking pertinent questions (and apologizing for disturbing me on the weekend) and a lot of thorough and thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious!) reference letters for fictional characters. Down side? I’m anticipating an unprecedented number of reference letter requests next year…but if they’ve earned them, I’ll happily write them.
Students are understandably obsessed with grades, and this means they sometimes miss the bigger picture. And so do we – I spend a lot of time trying to attach grades to things so that students will take them seriously. Reminding students that grades are not the only thing that counts – even when it comes to immediate, concrete goals like university admission – can go a long way, not only toward establishing a productive classroom, but also toward preparing them for life outside of school. I have no idea what the long-term effect of this lesson will be, but if nothing else, maybe it will help them understand how “characterization” functions, not only in literature but in life.
Image by miamiamia