The Pronoun Problem

ow1deLuHere’s a teaching conundrum I have never faced before: I have a student whose gender identity is unclear to me.

My first impression from the student’s online ID picture: woman. My (not immediately conscious) impression from our first classroom encounter: very pretty gay man. My impression after 10 minutes of 1-on-1 conversation in my office: no idea. Maybe a very boyish transgender woman? I really can’t tell. And the student’s name is no help at all.

Clearly, no one’s gender is any of my business, but eventually there may be pronoun issues.

Do I ask? If so, how do I ask?

The best thing about my job: I never know what interesting knot I will need to untie next.

Image by Kevin Tuck

The Advantage of a Mean Neighbour

Today, anticipating the beginning of my winter semester and wondering if I have anything to say about it, I opened my “Drafts” folder and found this post, written in August but never published. At the time, the experience was too raw, and I didn’t want to dwell on it. Now, looking back, I see that my thinking around this unhappy incident really did shape my fall semester for the better, and I want to remind myself of some of those insights. So I thought I would share it with you now.

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o2wRZTOI had a very unpleasant experience the other day, and its effect on me was surprising: I want the school year to begin.

Believe me, I have NOT been looking forward to going back to work. My summer vacation was fine, but it never quite got off the ground. Once all my grading was done, I had a handful of teaching and research-related responsibilities to take care of that were neither urgent nor interesting, so they were easy to procrastinate: I dawdled about doing them, but I was never able to fully put them out of my mind. I’d also set myself the task of working steadily on my online novel, a task I more or less accomplished, but which meant I woke up every morning feeling I had something to DO. There were also household repairs to schedule, and trees to get inoculated against ash borers, and a million ordinary grown-up obligations that made me want to throw myself on the floor and kick and whine. I just couldn’t relax. Life felt onerous, like a never-ending to-do list.

When August rolled around, I was full of resentment. Course outlines already? Looming department conferences – could I bail? What do you mean, I have to think seriously about the research project I was determined to put out of my mind for the summer but instead brooded over? Again, normal back-to-work pouting for anyone coming off a vacation, but it all seemed like a huge weight.

Then I had a day that was actually bad.

When we first moved into our current home, the first house we’ve ever owned, we were warned by the previous owners that one of our neighbours was a little…unbalanced. We stepped very lightly with her, and did our best to be super nice. She was clearly an anxious and volatile person, someone who would steamroll you in conversation with a volley of aggressive declarations about how her coworkers are “all fucking idiots,” or how we should tell visitors that she “shoots first and asks questions later,” but we made as many gestures as we could to show her that we planned to live here a while, that we were good people and considerate neighbours, and that we just wanted everyone to get along. She seemed to feel okay about us. For the first year or so, everything went fine.

Then one spring day out in the garden, I saw her at our shared fence, hand-feeding a peanut to a squirrel. I made an offhand, smiling comment about how “that’s why I can’t get rid of them.” The squirrels dig up all my vegetable plants and eat all my tulip bulbs. Other neighbours have complained to me about the same problem. Besides, they chew wiring and move into attics. I said none of this to her, however; I just said, “That’s why I can’t get rid of them,” with a smile.

After that, she was done with me.

She would no longer wave to me or look me in the eye, she met my greetings with a terse “hello” or silence, and on the couple of occasions when I attempted to make conversation, she made it clear through her tone that she had no intention of sharing small talk with me. Being a person who has a horror of conflict, I decided that the best tactic was to leave it alone, so we co-existed in uneasy silence, mostly ignoring one another if we were both outside at the same time.

That was two years ago.

One afternoon this past weekend, I heard her in her back yard pulling weeds off our communal fence, muttering angrily to herself, and occasionally groaning loudly as she pulled something resistant out of the ground, so I went over to ask if she needed help. And she lit into me. She called me names, told me that my “grand lady” act might work with others but not with her, made reference to the fact that I “hate squirrels” while our cats are killing everything in sight. (It’s true: our cats are murderers. However, she had had a perfectly civil conversation with my husband in the yard the day before, so this was clearly not about our cats.) When I calmly asked if there was something she wanted to talk about, she went at me again. It was pretty nasty. She said some truly terrible things, including, “You call yourself a teacher, but I’d never let you near my children,” and then some more extremely offensive epithets.

I finally said, “Ok, well, if at any point you feel like you’d like to discuss this, let me know,” and I walked away.

As you can imagine, I was shaken. First of all, I have never had such an exchange with another human being, except maybe with bullies in primary school. And this is someone who lives next door to me, someone whom I pass in the street on almost a daily basis, someone I have to see when I’m working in my garden, someone with whom I have had to negotiate homeowner compromises in the past and with whom I will likely have to do so in the future.

The first thing I did was post the story to my personal Facebook page, asking for advice. The advice was reassuring and almost unanimous: “Do not take this on, do not make it your problem, do not feed her anger. This person is who she is and it has nothing to do with you. Any resolution you come to with such a person will not last. Keep your distance, be civil, and as much as possible, pretend she isn’t there.”

I agree with this advice, and I’ve followed it. Since this incident, I’ve been able to keep a comfortable distance from her. She seems to be avoiding me too, so maybe she’s feeling a little bit ashamed.

But I’ve been most comforted by my interactions with everyone else in the world. For example, yesterday, the inoculation of the ash tree took place, and my conversations with both the supervisor and the technician were so courteous and so friendly that that alone would have made for a good day. On my way to dinner with friends last night, I had a lovely chat with another neighbour about her magnolia tree and whether I should also plant one. The dinner itself was an absolute delight, our server (we are regulars at this restaurant) has become one of my favourite neighbourhood people, and our dinner companions, a couple of our best friends, reminded me that honestly, one of the basic ingredients of happiness is knowing one or two or three or four people with whom you always want to spend time, no matter what, because they are great.

And then today, as I had to start to get ready for school in earnest, I found myself feeling excited. I mean, vacations are all very well. It’s nice to relax around the house and do things on your own time and see only people you want to see (except for the mean neighbour who you can maybe see from the window.) But what does it add up to? What does one learn?

If we don’t engage with the world, if we see the people around us (as I sometimes do) as inconvenient obstacles to the safety of being locked inside our quiet homes with novels and cats, then we could end up bitter, mean old ladies feeding the squirrels and screaming at our neighbours. My life’s project has changed: I will not turn into that woman.

I will start by having a good semester.

The Last Test and Proof

oWlWUwkIf I were to ask, What should be at the center of our teaching and our student’s learning, what would you respond? Of the many tasks that we as educators take up, what, in your view, is the most important task of all? What is our greatest hope for the young people we teach?

In his letters to the young poet Franz Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke answered unequivocally: “To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this is what [young] people need….For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love; they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.”

Need I say it? The curricula offered by our institutions of higher education have largely neglected this central, if profoundly difficult task of learning to love, which is also the task of learning to live in true peace and harmony with others and with nature.

Arthur Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education

Image by Rainer Schmidt

My Top 10 Books of 2015

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2015, but they were all a part of my 2015 experience.

  1. dykesThe Essential Dykes to Watch Out For 

You know me: always on the cutting edge of 30-year-old cultural touchstones. After loving – actually, loving seems like too mild a word – Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, I decided to go back to her early work. I’d seen her collections around in the 90’s, and figured I’d get to them someday. I finally did this summer, in the form of this handy compendium, published in 2008. Dykes to Watch Out For is a hilarious down-to-earth, politically-charged soap opera full of wonderful, familar characters, and was my favourite reading experience of the year.

spec2. Dept. of Speculation

How can one be an artist, a parent and a spouse without being thwarted at every turn? This little novel poses this question without answering it. It appears on the surface to be the kind of fragmentary prose experiment that I have little truck with these days, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Its interiority is both absorbing and affecting. It’s also funny, and sad.

3.giants I Kill Giants

Barbara fights monsters. Some of them are real; all of them are real to her. This graphic novel is about a child taking control in any way she can, and eventually reconciling the world outside of her to the world in her mind. I cried a lot.

4. foldedThe Folded Clock

I used to read a lot of diaries; I guess this is par for the course for pretentious literary adolescent girls. This book reminded me why, although it’s a far more crafted and self-contained work than the rambling journals of Anais Nin and the other mentally ill writers that I loved when I was younger. Heidi Julavits is the person I imagined I would become, but never did: a beautiful, wry, successful writer who moves between her home in Manhattan, her hometown on the east coast, and international literary events, fixing her critical eye both inward and outward, dwelling in the past while struggling to manage the present. (I also read Women in Clothes this year, a massive project by Julavits, Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton on women’s relationship to fashion and style. I was, in fact, obsessed with it, and it should probably be on this list too, but only one book per author is my rule.)

5. fangirlFangirl

Everyone loved Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Everyone loved it so much that I took several stabs at it, finally finished it, and even put it on my course on novels about adolescence, because I knew my students would love it (and they did). I did not love it. I didn’t get the hype. It seemed to me to be a typical yet somehow unconvincing love story, and I didn’t care for any of the characters involved. I did, however, love Fangirl, Rowell’s story of a socially awkward college freshman who writes fanfiction to fill the holes where her mother and twin sister used to be, and to cope with the challenges of caring for her erratic father at a distance, and integrating into a new landscape on her own. It’s a fast and funny read, and Cath, the protagonist, is someone I could both identify with and root for.

6. marnie2When Marnie Was There

I was inspired to go back and reread this childhood favourite of mine because of the release of an animated film version by the famed Studio Ghibli, makers of such stunners as Spirited Away. I haven’t seen the film of Marnie yet, but rereading the book – the story of a little girl who is sent away from her foster home to stay with an elderly couple by the sea, and who makes her first real friend, a mysterious poor little rich girl named Marnie who then vanishes – made me both happy and uneasy. It sent me on an extended quest to find a number of my childhood favourites, including some fairly obscure exemplars like The Changeling (still wonderful) and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth (didn’t get through it this time.) The upshot: the books I loved when I was a child were all about loneliness, and about how friendship is never what it seems to be.

7. everythingEverything I Never Told You

The favourite child, beautiful Lydia, is found dead in the lake. The family goes to pieces, and then comes out the other side, bruised but renewed. This novel is entrancing: more than just a murder mystery, but with a murder mystery’s relentless forward momentum.

8.  killmymotherKill My Mother

I know little about the genres this graphic novel draws upon – pulp, noir, hard-boiled detective stories – but this book is terrific. The drawings are dark yet vibrant, the characters are the most complicated caricatures imaginable, and the story – beginning with a manic teenager with a vendetta against her mother, and winding through Hollywood and the South Pacific, movie sets and World War II island outposts – is riveting.

9.girlontrain The Girl on the Train

If you follow book stuff at all, you know all about The Girl on the Train, and have probably read it already, so I don’t have to say much. It was called “the next Gone Girl,” and it’s not, but it’s a juicy thriller, and good novel to take with you to while away hours on, say, the train. Rachel watches out the window of the commuter train she takes every day, and constructs stories about the people she sees, one couple in particular. Then she sees some new things, and learns that the woman she’s been watching has disappeared. Thrillery stuff ensues. It’s a good time.

10. Skim_bookcoverSkim

Another reread, another graphic novel. While revising my book list for my course on novels about adolescence, I put up a Facebook plea: “My list is nothing but white people! Please help!” Skim came up, and my first thought was, “Too short,” but then I thought, “That book was amazing; I should reread it,” and, having reread it, I thought, “Every teenager should read this book,” so it went on the course. The story: Kimberly (“Skim”) Keiko Cameron doesn’t feel like she fits anywhere, and is confused by her broken family, her best friend’s growing insistence that she try to be “normal,” and her amorphous attraction to her art teacher, Ms. Archer. When the most popular girl in school, Katie, is dumped by her boyfriend, whose subsequent suicide might be about his homosexuality, she and Skim bond. My students didn’t like it: too dark, too plotless, witchcraft!  You’ll like it, though, I promise.

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What did you read this year that you loved? Tell us below, and happy 2016, reading-wise and otherwise.

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Want to see lists from past years? Here are all my previous Top 10 Books posts on one convenient page.

 

 

 

What Do Students Need to Learn About Learning?

mhGtM2sIf I could change one thing about the education system, particularly the pre-university and professional college system in which I work, it would be this:

Students would learn a lot more about learning.

I have a fantasy in which I go back to school to do a doctorate in educational psychology, and then I overhaul the college curriculum to introduce mandatory courses in Applied Learning Sciences. These would be kind of like intense, intellectually challenging Study Skills courses, in which students would learn…well, how to be students. They would study the learning brain. They would be exposed to different theories about knowing and metacognition. They would also read and discuss educational philosophy – what is school for? What does “learning” really mean? And they would apply this knowledge to everything from keeping an agenda that would actually help them to reading effectively to managing exam anxiety.

If you were designing such a course, what would you include? What do you think students need to learn in order to be good at learning, not just when they are in school but for the rest of their lives?

Image by sanja gjenero

Help for the Restless Reader

mgyp0LmIn recent years, I’ve become a restless reader.

I just can’t relax. Maybe it’s because I spend so many weeks of the year reading stuff I don’t feel like reading, including some really terrible writing, because I’m an English teacher. Maybe it’s because the Internet age has broken my brain. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult with adult responsibilities, like emptying the dishwasher and watching all four seasons of Scott and Bailey as fast as possible. Whatever the explanation, I look back fondly on my childhood days of curling up in an armchair or on my bed and reading for hours and hours, but I just can’t seem to do it any more.

This summer, a number of niggling projects have eaten away at my time, and I’ve felt even less inclined to abandon everything and read a book. Once the first of August loomed, though, a sort of reader’s panic set in. School is coming! I will have no time to do the things I want to do! All those library books will have to be returned unread! Read, dammit, read!

And yet the deficit in my attention remained, until I hit on a possible remedy.

I’ve heard references over the last couple of years to the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity aid in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work intensively for that time, then take a 5-minute break, and then get back at it for another 25 minutes. I’ve never read any of the Pomodoro Technique literature or implemented any of the more complex elements of this technique, like tracking how many 25-minute increments a task requires, or recapping what was achieved in the last 25 minutes and reviewing before I take a break. (I have watched the little video on their website; that’s how I know these things are required if I want to be a “Certified Pomodoro Master”.)

However, I think a lot of teachers probably do their own variations on the Pomodoro technique. For example, I almost always grade papers one at a time, taking a short break after each to go put on a load of laundry, make a cup of tea, or go out in the garden to pick some tomatoes for lunch. Teachers also live our lives in defined and limited time intervals: the 15-week semester; the two-hour classroom block; the four-hour break between classes in which we planned to go to yoga but in which we’ll probably just eat chocolate and read our Bloglovin’ feed.

The Pomodoro technique, at least in its broad strokes, appeals to me, especially when it comes to really onerous tasks. I recently procrastinated creating a research questionnaire for almost two months; telling myself I only had to work on it for 25 minutes a day meant I finally got it done within a week. I think I could make it work for housecleaning, too.  (Maybe.) (Not holding my breath.)

But then a couple of days ago, I thought: I bet reading in 25-minute spells would make me a happier reader.

So I tried it. It helped that it was no longer 41 degrees outside (that’s 106 for you Americans), so I could spend my reading time on the deck. I set my phone alarm to a pleasant melody. I poured myself some sparkling water. I made room on my comfy patio armchair for the cat. And then I forgot about everything else I had to do for 25 full minutes.

After the alarm went off, I dumped the book I’d been reading into my library bag, because it was now clear that I hadn’t been making time for it previously because I didn’t really like it. I made myself a cup of tea. I emptied the dishwasher. I pulled a few more books out of my “unread books” pile, returned to the deck, and set the timer again. This time, one of the books grabbed me right away. I have been reading it in 25-minute increments for the last two afternoons, until it’s dark or rainy enough to go inside, make dinner, and crochet in front of the TV, no longer feeling any conflict about not reading, because I have more reading to look forward to sometime tomorrow!

As a result, I’ve had a beautifully relaxing and nourishing couple of days. In the morning, I write and go for a run, and take care of any other urgent tasks. Then I settle in, without feeling like I’m trying to fill a whole empty afternoon: I’m just taking 25 minutes to do something enjoyable, and then I can deal with something practical, briefly, if need be. For someone like me, who constantly feels like some important task is not being taken care of, this practice allows me to really sink into a book, come up for air, and then sink in again. It allows me to spend the last days of my vacation reading, something I’d been planning to do from the first days, but for some reason just couldn’t.

Things I’ve learned from this practice:

  • If you don’t feel like reading it for 25 minutes, chuck it. The world is full of amazing books that you want to read right now; go find one.
  • Whatever you think needs to be done instead of reading, it can probably wait for 25 minutes.
  • I need to create a reading space inside my house that is as comfy and inviting and peaceful as that deck chair.

I’m going to suggest this technique to my students, especially those who have trouble reading long texts: set aside a block of time to get your reading done, but break it into 25-minute intervals. Keep track of how much you get read in that time, and use that information to figure out how much time you need to read a given text. In between intervals, get up and move. Too much sitting is bad for you anyway.

Are you a compulsive reader who will shunt everything off to read all day? Or do you find yourself distracted by Facebook, work email, and the children’s’ need to be fed and spoken to? How do you make time for reading? This method is working for me, but I’d love to hear yours.

Image by sanja gjenero

My Top 10 Books of 2014

sigofallthingsIt’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2014, but they were all a part of my 2014 experience.

This year’s list is compromised slightly by the introduction of the Summer Book Club, a totally fun summer project in which I posted about the best books I read each week.  Accordingly, I have linked back to reviews of Summer Book Club favourites, rather than repeating myself.  However, there are a few new entries here – I got a little bit of reading done even when I wasn’t on holiday!

1. The Signature of All Things: Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster manages to be a thrilling 500-page adventure story about a 19th-century moss expert.  It is amazing.  Full review here.

2. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaz has written and drawn one of the finest graphic memoirs ever, about her struggle to care for her aging and loony parents.  Will make you cry; will also make you laugh until you fall off the couch.  Full review here.

3. Astonish Me: On the surface, a book about ballet, but really a book about the many manifestations of unrequited love.  Full review here.  Maggie Shipstead is my best discovery of the year; Seating Arrangements also blew my socks off.

4. The Middlesteins: Jami Attenberg’s family saga about how hard it is to love people, especially when they’re intent on destroying themselves.  Full review here.

thesecretplace_us5. The Secret Place: I was surprised not to see this book get more attention – it did not, for example, show up in the NY Times’ top 100 books of the year – but I may be a bit blind when it comes to Tana French.  As I’ve said before, I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but she is a consistent exception. This book is one of my favourites of hers, although that may be due to some of my other biases: I love stories about cliques of teenage girls, and have been a sucker for boarding-school stories since I was a child reading Enid Blyton.  In this installment in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, Holly Mackey – whom we first met as a six-year-old in Faithful Place, which I reread immediately after finishing this one – is now a sullen teenager, and she shows up at the police station with information about a year-old cold case, the murder of a boy her age on her school grounds.  The Secret Place unfolds over a single day of interrogation, replete with lots of flashbacks.  The thing to love most about French’s books is her characters: Holly, her friends and enemies, her father, the police officer she turns to and his belligerent partner are all seductively drawn, and the atmosphere of menace that hangs over the school is due in large part to the very real teenagers within, and the lengths they will go to to be themselves, regardless of what it will do to others.

6. Asterios Polyp: A dreamlike graphic novel about an architect who floats out of his unraveling life and into a job as a car mechanic in the middle of nowhere.  Mysterious and moody, it has haunted me ever since.  Full (if brief) review here.

7. The Property: I love Rutu Modan’s graphic novels, and this one is no exception. Her bright, colourful, meticulous panels and her sharp sense of humour illuminate challenging subjects: in this case, a woman and her grandmother visit Warsaw on a mission that turns out not to be what the granddaughter expects.  Full review here.

the-dinner8. The Dinner: I sometimes say that I’m no longer capable of enjoying a book that doesn’t have a sense of humour.  I’m not sure whether The Dinner contradicts me or not.  If it does have a sense of humour, it’s a very bitter one.  It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, and it’s difficult to put my finger on just what’s so wonderful about it, aside from the easy, clean, yet unsettling narrative voice.  Perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to tap into the most unappealing thoughts we’ve ever had.  For example: imagine you walk into the only ATM in your neighbourhood, to find your path to the cash machine blocked by a sleeping homeless person and the air to be filled with an odour so vile you have to back out the door.  What is your first emotional response, the one you then tamp down because you are a good and empathetic person?  What if you were the sort of person who didn’t tamp down this response?  That’s what this book is about.  It’s impossible to put down.

bark9. Bark: If you’re a reader and also a writer, you already love Lorrie Moore and don’t need to hear too much more about her.  Birds of America is for my money the greatest short story collection of the 20th century.  Bark is also great.  The conceit – that of the various meanings of the word “bark” – was a bit thin to me, but it doesn’t matter; I kept falling over because of her turns of phrase and wry asides, gems like “My brain’s a chunk of mud next to hers” or “It wasn’t he who was having sex.  The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it.”  (I found those by just opening the book open to random pages.  It’s astonishing.)

nathp10. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: I picked up this book in bookstores a couple of times and put it down again because I thought, Really?  We need more books about self-important young male writers dating in Brooklyn? Then I had to go into the hospital for a bit, and for some reason, it struck me as exactly the book I wanted to read.  I read the first 100 pages lying in bed waiting for surgery.  Then, when I got home, I didn’t pick it up again for several months, until one day I finished a book and didn’t have another new one handy; I plowed through the remainder of it in no time flat.  It is the classic problem of the unsympathetic narrator who is revealing truths that may or may not be important – if nothing else, anyone who’s ever been a young heterosexual female artist will recognize Nathaniel and be impressed by Adelle Waldman’s ability to render his inner life so convincingly.  I had to admit, once I’d put it down, that I’d really liked this book in spite of myself.

What books did you love this year?  Tell me so I can read them!

A Book Blog For Teachers

Friend and reader Tara Warmerdam just pointed me to her wonderful blog, A Reading Corner for Teachers and Writers. I’m so glad she did: she writes about books in a way that is meant to be helpful to teachers, and it  really is.  Some recent posts discuss

If you are a teacher interested in using books in the classroom – whether you’re a literature teacher or not, and no matter what your grade level – I think you’ll get a lot out of Tara’s blog.  Go check it out!

In today’s news…

1. … in his final argumentative essay, a student invented a statistic about Columbian drug cartel activity in 2000-2012.  He inserted a carefully formatted signal phrase and in-text citation, attributing said statistic to one of several random sources he copy-pasted to his Works Cited page from Wikipedia.  The source he cited for this particular fact was Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

2. …Rachael Ray explained on one of her shows that “Girl Math” is when you eat a lot of vegetables so that you can eat a lot of things that are not vegetables.

The upshot: everyone, from my students to Rachael Ray, believes that I am a g$%%^*n moron.

Fail Better: Blogiversary Final Post

If there’s one thing we need to teach our students, it’s how to make use of failure.

For  the final instalment in my series celebrating seven years of blogging here at Classroom as Microcosm, I give you my most shared post ever.  This response to Paul Tough’s article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (a precursor to his wonderful and deservedly celebrated book How Children Succeed) was chosen by WordPress as a “Freshly Pressed” feature and attracted 246 insightful comments and exchanges.

It’s also my favourite post, one I return to over and over to remind myself that when my students are panicking, the best thing I can say to them is, “You can’t do it? That’s fine.  Do it anyway.”

(I might also show them this, because it is awesome.)

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Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, you’ll get any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho

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