Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Children’s Literature Reading List Update

In the last two days, I have read/reread:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler
  • Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 1: A Bad Beginning
  • The Phantom Tollbooth

I have also spent several lovely hours wandering through the stacks of three different children’s libraries.  The nostalgia is permeating everything.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to haul home a stack of 15 new delicious-looking books and devour 2 or more of them before the day is over.

I have spent most of my adult life searching for that blinkered bliss that accompanies childhood reading.  I almost never find it.  If this continues, I’m in for a really  good winter vacation.

This is my JOB.  Are you kidding me?

Thank you all so much for your book suggestions! I will post a full 45-book reading list for my Child Studies course for your enjoyment once it is finalized.

“Well, I would like to make another trip…but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time.  There’s just so much to do right here.”

-The Phantom Tollbooth

Image by Jules Feiffer

42 Books for Kids

I am putting together a list of 42 excellent children’s books (one for each student) for my Child Studies course next semester.

I am looking for books suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 12 – “chapter books” rather than picture books.  I’d also like them to be less contemporary books, books that my students are not likely to have encountered on their own – so no Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

I’m particularly interested in books that will appeal to boys.  Most books that spontaneously come to my mind are ones that I enjoyed, and my interests were not boyish.  (Don’t get all up in my grill about gender stereotypes, please; anyone who teaches teenagers knows that these things matter.)

Here’s my list so far:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (possible candidate for the whole-class reading)
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Bridge to Terebithia
  • Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing
  • Harriet the Spy
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • Swallows and Amazons
  • The Railway Children
  • The Secret Garden

Do you have suggestions for great kids’ books, especially books that my (mostly non-reading) students are unlikely to have encountered by themselves or through elementary-school reading assignments?  What books did/do you feel kids really must read?

Image by brainloc

Willing to Read and Write: Reprise

Last week, this post – first published in September of last year – spiked in my blog stats.  It seemed a whole pile of people were reading it, but I couldn’t figure out who or why, although the search term “effort” had a corresponding spike.  Maybe now, at midterm, teachers and students are being hard hit by the reality of the reading and writing demands of college.  Or maybe it’s bots.  Regardless, I like this post, and am still asking myself these questions: is college the best place for students who find reading and writing a chore?  Is it a place where they can learn to love these activities, or at least see their value?

*

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion - here’s one post that takes it on - but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

*

Go to Siobhan’s Facebook page and hit “Like”!  Follow Siobhan on Twitter!  And if you’d like to know more about Siobhan’s life and thoughts outside the classroom, follow her Tumblr blog.

Image by Peter Galbraith

The Uses of Boredom: Reprise

An earlier version of this week’s reprint appeared in July of 2009.  It tells the story of how and why I became a reader.  And it asks: how do we learn to like challenging tasks if we live in a world where boredom is impossible?

*

boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like many children, I read only picture books until I was about seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. These “chapter books” seemed like too much work.

Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about five hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.  The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

I read through all my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)  Then we arrived, and for two weeks, I had to keep myself entertained.  At the summer house, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

But then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

It was still raining. I started to read.

I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.  I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers or cell phones. There are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips at all times. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t blame them. Even I don’t read for pleasure much any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.  I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.  How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?  Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, grew up in environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me checking Facebook and playing Plants vs. Zombies as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

Penny Tries

On Monday, I brought you the story of Penny, who failed my course last term and is repeating it, and has transformed from a diligent and cheery student into a discouraged and sullen one.  There were lots of thoughtful suggestions about how to help Penny, and several people asked to be updated on her story.

That post was automatically uploaded to this blog while I was in Penny’s class, administering a quiz.  Penny arrived almost twenty minutes late, and almost ten minutes into the fifteen-minute quiz.  She spent almost all of the remaining five minutes slowly removing her coat, scarf, etc., slinking to the back of the room to stack them on a table, returning to her seat, delicately plucking her reference materials one by one from her bag and arranging them on her desk, opening her electronic dictionary and powering it up, and then shutting it down when I reminded her that she was not, nor had she ever been, allowed to use any electronic devices during quizzes.  She had time to circle a handful of random words in the error correction exercise (she did not correct them), and then the quiz was over.

The rest of the lesson was dedicated to working in assigned groups.  Although she was quiet at first, Penny seemed to warm up as she and her partners discussed and completed their exercise.  At the end of the period, she was the last one in the room.  When she finished writing down the homework and began to wrap herself up again in her coat and scarf, I said,

“Penny, you seem very discouraged.”

She laughed a bit, and nodded.  When she laughs, I recognize her again – she’s still the same Penny she was a few months ago.  “Yeah,” she said.  “I feel so bad.”

“I know you feel bad,” I said.  “I’m worried that you feel so bad that you’re going to fail the course again.  What are you going to do to try to get past your bad feeling?”

Her eyes filled with tears.  “I don’t know,” she said.  “I don’t know what can I do.”

I let that sit for a minute, and thought.  “I have a suggestion.  Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t.  But maybe you can try.”

She hesitated for a second, but then she nodded.

“Often, in school, students think only about their grades: pass, fail, good grade, bad grade.  Of course, grades are important.  But sometimes we forget that the purpose of school is not the grade.”

She was listening.  She waited.

“The purpose of a course is to learn things.  I know you learned things in our course last time.  You made a lot of improvements.  You need to learn more things before you can pass the course, but you’ve already learned a lot.  Is it possible for you to think about the learning, and to think less about your grade?  To take the things you’ve already learned, and use them to keep learning everything you need to learn?”

There was a long pause.  She was nodding slowly.

“Do you understand what I mean by the difference between the grade and the learning?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I can learn even if I don’t get good grade.”

“Exactly.  Do you think, if you thought more about the learning, you could be more motivated?”

She smiled.  “I’m not sure.  But yes.  I can try.”

When I returned to my office, there were already a number of responses to my post about Penny, and they continued to stream in over the next day or so.  One suggestion that came up again and again was tutoring.  Now, Penny, like all of my Prep students, was directed last semester to get help from the Learning Centre; we visited the Centre as a class, and after every assignment, I suggested that she go; she might have done so once or twice.  I have also received, over the past couple of weeks, reminders from the college about peer tutors, sentence skills workshops, and all the other services offered for our many, many students whose language abilities are so poor that, let’s face it, they really shouldn’t be in college.

I’d been thinking that I should direct Penny to these services again, insisting that this time she MUST go regularly.  But I’d been hesitating.  Deep down, I was convinced that doing extra work of the type we were doing in class was not going to help her.

Something had not occurred to me, however, and it occurred to me now.

There is a tutor who often helps me with students who seem to suffer from undiagnosed learning disabilities.  (I have already mentioned her in a few posts, including this one, about a student whose denial about his difficulties nearly drove me over the edge.)  Penny’s problems are so obviously second-language based, I hadn’t considered that their roots might be cognitive.  However, the knowledge I reported in the previous post – that she’s been in Canada for seven years and went to high school in English – had started a chain reaction of…understanding?  speculation?  I wasn’t sure.

I knew, though, that students who had worked with M had had good experiences.  They hadn’t always produced stellar work, but they had known that someone was there especially to help them, someone they could go to when they were frustrated, someone who could take an hour to walk them slowly, patiently through something until it made more sense, and then another hour, and then another.

I wrote Penny a note saying that I think she needs a tutor, and that I have a specific tutor in mind.  I asked her to come discuss it with me.  I didn’t hold my breath, but yesterday she sent me a response.  “Thank Siobhan.  That’s would be good idea.  We will discuss about next class.”

In the meantime, she received a single-digit grade on her quiz.

I don’t know if Penny can be rescued.  I don’t know if it’s possible to teach students the kind of grit needed to deal with failures on the scale that she’s facing and will continue to face.  The best I can do is the best I can do.

I’ll let you know how it goes – thank you all so much for your input!

Image by Sigurd  Decroos

Penny Gives Up

Penny was in one of my courses last semester.  She failed.  Her basic skills – reading comprehension, written and oral expression, logical organization – were all very poor.  However, she was motivated and hardworking, and didn’t seem discouraged throughout most of the term, even when she failed quiz after quiz and assignment after assignment.

It was only at the end of the term that she started to show her frustration.  After receiving 40% on her first version of her final essay, she seemed to be at a loss.  It was the first time I saw her show signs of anger.  “But I asked some friends to look at it!” she said.  “They said it was good!  I don’t trust these people any more!”

I tried to speak with her logically with her about the difficulties she was having; she didn’t even seem to grasp that her skill level was so low that it was unlikely she could solve her problems in one term.  We had a couple of conversations in which I told her that she needed to be prepared for a possible course failure.  “But I work so hard!” she said.  Yes, I acknowledged, she was working hard.  She was also a lovely person and a delight to have in the class, but she still couldn’t construct a comprehensible sentence.  And, as predicted, she ended the course with a failing grade.

At the moment, I am the only person who teaches this course, so this semester, Penny is in my class again.  She seems to have entirely changed.  She missed the first two classes, and has come late for the others.  (She missed no classes last semester, and was always punctual.)  When she does show up, she seems sullen and distracted; she doesn’t ask questions, and moves listlessly to join her groups or write on the board.

After the first class she attended, she asked to speak to me.

“You said talk to you about my essay,” she said.  “I don’t understand how I failed.  If I didn’t rewrite the essay, I would had a passing grade!  But I fail the rewrite and you fail me for everything!  In class, when I show you the essay rewrite, you say it’s all good!  But then I fail!”

And so forth.  It was more apparent than ever that explaining the mathematics of her grade, of reminding her that I did NOT say that the rewrite was “all good,” etc., was not going to be productive.  Nor would it help to tell her that when I said “Come see me in January,” I meant “Come if you want to look at this essay in detail together,” not, “Come if you want to negotiate with me about your grade.”  So I simply repeated what I’d already told her several times: her skills are very weak.  If she goes into a 101 course now, she will fail.  If she works as hard this term as she did last term, she may very well pass the course, but she needs the extra practice.

“But I feel so bad!”  She laughed a bit, and I saw a glimpse of the Penny I knew in the fall.  “I feel so bad since then!  I think, ‘Why am I so dumb?  Why I can’t do this?’”

“I know you feel bad,” I said.  “Failing a course feels bad.  But if you can get past your bad feeling, if you can put it aside, then this can be an opportunity for you.  It’s a chance for you to learn more and practice more, so your skills will be strong.  You are not dumb.  How long have you been in Canada?”

“About seven years,” she said.

This pulled me up short.  What?  “Seven years,” I said.  “But you went to high school in French?”

“No, in English.”

She has been going to English school for seven years.  How is this possible?  “Did you do well in your English courses in high school?”

“English, no, but everything else I do fine.”

I took a deep breath.  “I hope you will try to see this as a chance to do better, Penny.  You are a good worker.  Don’t be discouraged.  If you keep working, you will improve.”

Today in class, Penny was finishing her paragraph homework assignment instead of paying attention.  (Last semester, she ALWAYS came with her homework complete and was ALWAYS completely attentive.)  When I called on her during grammar exercises, she had no idea where we were; she hadn’t even opened her book to the correct page and, as it turned out, was using the course pack from last term, which means that she hadn’t made any attempt to do her grammar homework at all.  It seems likely that she will fail her quiz next week.  What concerns me more, though, is that she seems completely deflated.  I have no idea what to do about this.

What can we do when students are so traumatized by failure that they can’t pick themselves up and move on?  In a previous post, I discussed research that suggests that “grit” – or resilience – is the most important ingredient in student success.  What can we do if a student’s “grit” seems to be all used up?

There’s a Rilke quote I love, and that I turn to when I feel like I just can’t catch a break.  Penny won’t be able to hear it – I’m not sure she’d even understand it – but I wish I could find a way to deliver its meaning to her whole, as a gift.

Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Is there anything I can say to convince Penny that the solution to her problems is to just keep going?

Photo by Cherie Wren

Unfriendly Grammar: A Reply

On Monday, I published a letter from S, who feels the urge to delete friends from her social networks when they write updates full of grammatical errors.  You had lots of interesting responses.  Here’s mine.

Dear S,

I sympathize.  I really do.  But I can’t commiserate, I’m afraid.  I’ve had to work too hard to overcome the response you describe.

People have different priorities.  Those of us who prioritize grammar and clear communication may see it as an almost moral concern.  Believing oneself to be right about something often entails believing that one is, quite simply, better than those who don’t care about that thing.

However, a concern with correct grammar (and its relatives: sentence structure, spelling, punctuation, accurate vocabulary etc.)  is a fairly rarified preoccupation.  And those of us who are preoccupied with it are that way, not because we are better or smarter or right, but because we LIKE grammar.  Maybe not grammar rules (although some of us like those, too), but the effects of correct grammar.  We like the sound of a well-constructed sentence.  We like the clarity of the appropriate word.  Our ears are grated by faulty constructions.  We’ve probably read a lot of books, some of them very snooty books, and we have learned more or less osmotically what sounds right.

Here’s the thing, though.  What sounds right to me – and I am, as you may well know, OBSESSED with grammatical correctness – may in fact be incorrect in some circles.  For example, I know there are people who still castigate those who use “impact” as a verb.  A few years ago, I would have been among the castigators.  Now, I use it freely.  It’s useful, just as the verb “unfriend” (liberally used in your letter) is useful.

I nevertheless still cannot abide the usage “If I would have known….”  Why?  No reason.  It’s wrong, but no more wrong than plenty of other things, and the meaning is clear.    It just bothers me, especially when I hear a news reporter or an English teacher use it.  “Bothers me” is in fact much too mild: it makes me nuts.  So does the word “relatable” and the “its/it’s” confusion you mention.  Other stuff, not so much.

A colleague once sat in my office for almost half an hour, bemoaning her inability to get her students to stop writing sentences beginning with “This.”  As in, “Our house is on fire.  This is a problem.”  For some obscure reason, she hated such constructions.  Maybe she was right; I have no idea.  I certainly didn’t feel like getting into a lather over it, and was a bit disconcerted by how much it upset her.

I am sometimes unable to restrain myself from raging about a foible that peeves me.  However, I frequently hearken back to a conversation I had years ago with another colleague who had ventured into the world of internet dating.  She’d been communicating  with a man  whom she liked quite a lot.  “But I don’t think I can meet him,” she said.  “I’m not going to be able to date him.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because there are spelling and grammar errors in his emails,” she said.

Now, this woman was an English teacher.  I could certainly understand that clear writing was a priority for her.  Here’s the problem, though: that very morning, I had received an email from her that had three glaring errors in it, errors that just happened to fall into my wheelhouse of abominations.  I had to bite my tongue very hard, and I also formed a new opinion of her chances of finding happiness in love.

Mostly, though, it made me realize that my own ravings about misplaced modifiers and apostrophes in plurals might be undercut by lapses of my own, and that others might be thinking, “Well, you used ‘hopefully’ wrong last time we met.”

Which is to say: I try to maintain some humility about this.  I still get irritated, but if I need to run off at the mouth, I try to focus on something specific – my hatred of the use of “aggravate” to mean “irritate,” for example, which according to some people (including Charles Dickens) is not even wrong.  I try not to make sweeping judgements about people based on how well they spell or conjugate.   People make language errors for myriad reasons: dyslexia, limited education, second-language interference, innate ability…I may think less of someone whose poor grammar seems to arise from pure laziness, but I remind myself that, even if that’s the cause, others may judge me the same way for taking taxis when I could easily walk.

Here’s the truth: I enjoy the company of people who know how to use words.  Their ability to use words is one of the reasons I enjoy their company.  However, I enjoy other people for all sorts of other reasons.  Just because they don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect” doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer me.  In fact, while I was busy learning to nit-pick about grammar, they may have been off doing things that had actual constructive impacts on others’ lives.

Go easy on people.  In return, they just might go easy on you.

*

What do you think of this advice?  Leave a comment below!

Have a question about language, teaching, learning, writing or other concerns that Auntie Siobhan can help you with?  Send it to me through my contact page.

Image by Shirley Booth

Unfriendly Grammar

The other day, I received a letter from a reader who is having an extreme emotional response to others’ bad grammar.  What should she do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan,

Would you consider writing a post on the issues of being an English teacher and social media user?

When I read status updates on Facebook and other social media sites, I actually want to unfriend people who make consistent grammatical errors. If anyone posts on my wall and uses “lol” or “its” instead of “it’s” (or worse, “it’s” instead of “its”) I have the great urge to delete the friend and the message. Is there something wrong with me?

Sometimes I want to write to friends and correct them but I know that I’d look like a pedantic twit if I did. I don’t mind the odd typo, but I get scared when it seems as though friends of mine don’t know how to write in English.

Remember in 1984, when they had Newspeak and they trimmed down the language? That could happen to our language! It’s losing its meaning.

It could be argued that if you can’t articulate a thought you are not having the thought. I don’t want our language to be reduced to lols.  I’ve only unfriended one person so far, but I’ve unsubscribed from many…I know that many great writers invented words, and that our language is always changing. I’m all for developments and new ways of expression, but I fear the sloppy use of language and shrinking meanings.

What should I do?  It’s really making me crazy.

Yours, S.

I’ve written a response, but haven’t yet sent it to S – I will publish it on Thursday.  In the meantime, I’d like to know your thoughts.  Have  you ever had a similar urge?  Is bad grammar reason enough to unfriend someone in the social media world?  Let us know what you think.

Image by miamiamia

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