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.)

*

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

Why You Should Fall in Love with Abed Nadir or Some Other Imaginary Person

I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people.  But I may be wrong.

My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.”  We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing  what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life.  Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future.  This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.

Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community.  This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry.  I can’t do anything but watch CommunityI devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again.  My husband is getting a little worried.

That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused.  I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning.  Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir.  And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.)  Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all.  In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case.  His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths.  He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive.  He repeats the phrase “Cool.  Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking.  He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.

Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king.  Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction.  When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her.  (Abed: ” I AM weird.”)  When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.

It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him.  His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems.  They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams.  From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center.  And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely.  (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed.  That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)

It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks.  I want to spend all my time with him.  In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson.  Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.

My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:

  • I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
  • I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me.  He’s adorable.  He’s charming and funny.  He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself.  (And he doesn’t lose his friends.  This is also important.)
  • Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to.  He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is.  Maybe loving him will improve me.

What does this have to do with my class?

I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)

Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being.  For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate.  When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”

Is it really this straightforward?  It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist.  Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?

Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic.  Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that.  Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so.  This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson.  Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?

Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.

I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous?  The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth?  Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at.  This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.

My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession.  I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why.  I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while.  And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.”  What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real?  Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves?  Or can we mostly just take refuge?

And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?

*

Some related and worthwhile links:

Community is TV’s Most Ambitious Show

The Curious Case of Abed Nadir: Community and “Pop-Orientalism”

Episode Recap: “Virtual Systems Analysis”: The Fears of Abed the Undiagnosable

Crushes, Breakups and Natural Lives: How the Critical Romantic Watches Television

The Worst of Me

mmZCRsEWhich of your character traits is your worst enemy, in your life but especially in your job?

In one of my courses, we’re writing reference letters for fictional characters.  In addition, as a possible blog assignment, I suggested students write reference letters for themselves, imagining they’re applying for their dream job and giving an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  It made me think about how I would assess my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher – and as a person, for that matter.

My biggest flaw (and I have thousands) is irritability.  I get annoyed even with people I love, people whom I know have the best of intentions.  When someone interrupts me when I’m talking, or hogs the spotlight, or expresses him/herself in a way that’s less than clear, I turn bitterly cold and sometimes shut down completely.  This seriously bruises my relationships with my students and others.

Example A:

Student: Miss, what were you saying about that thing?  That talk?

Me: “Talk?” [Long pause]  [Note: I know what the student is referring to.]

Student: You said something about … a talk, you said … we have to do something.

Me: When did I say this?  Today?  Last week?  What exactly did I say?  I need more information here.

Student: Never mind.  Forget it.

Example B:

Me: Would you like some coffee?

Mother-in-law: Well…you always make your coffee very strong.

Me: Yes, we do.  [Long, long pause.]

Mother-in-law: Maybe you could add some water to mine?

Me: So you’d like some?  Certainly.

I’m not suggesting that teachers, or people, should always be friendly and sweet.  However, irritation can be mean, and its primary goal is to make the receiver feel bad.  (The ultimate objective is to change the receiver’s behaviour, but it is not a good method for doing so.)  I struggle with this in the classroom, in my marriage, in my friendships, and in my interactions with grocery store cashiers and people who walk too slowly in the metro tunnels.  It tires me out and in makes me an a**hole.

What about you?  Do you have character traits that make your job, or your life, more difficult?  Have you done anything to change them?

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

Education and Growing: Reprise

Foreword:

It’s been a rough week.  Things at work are going fine, but life outside of work – especially life as a new homeowner – has been, shall we say, challenging.  Full of minor and major inconveniences.  Full of questions about whether buying a house, buying THIS house, was such a good idea.  My husband and I are trying to keep a brave face on, but we’re really stressed and tired, and have gone from being annoyed to being overwhelmed.  This is all new to us, and it’s really hard.

I keep reminding myself that difficulties help us learn, and learning helps us grow.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiner at Home.  She quotes Yeats as saying

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.

This is good to hear, as pleasure and virtue are in short supply around here.  It also sent me looking for an old post about education and growth, one I published in 2009.  As I keep telling my students: learning isn’t always fun.  It isn’t always pleasant.  It’s sometimes really crappy.  But it always makes us grow.  The trick is to grow in a direction that will allow us to keep growing.  If we can do that, then we’re golden.

*

What exactly is “growth”?  Does “education” always foster it?

The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.”  This suggests that growth is an ongoing process, and it is the process that is valuable, not arrival at full maturity.

However, according to Dewey, not all experience is educative:

Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.

Growth is a process of change or evolution, but it is not, in and of itself, a positive thing.  We can grow in negative ways, and such growth can limit our ability to grow in the future.  Such growth is not educative.

As a student, for example, I can have experiences that lead me to be dependent on others for my learning.  If my early teachers teach me that “learning” involves parroting material I learn in textbooks, then I will grow in that direction, and when I leave formal schooling behind, I may have difficulty learning in other contexts; I will have a limited capacity to think independently and to learn creatively from non-textbook-generated experiences.

Each of our students arrives in our CEGEP classroom with a unique set of experiences.  Some of these experiences have been conducive to growth.  A student who is not yet be cognitively ready to be an “independent” thinker (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them aren’t) may still be well prepared to become such a thinker, because he’s been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and has received some sort of satisfaction or reward for his efforts.  He may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who’ve demonstrated “how to be a learner”: models of curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge.  These students arrive in college knowing how to learn.

Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they’ve grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution.  They’re easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks.  They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged.  Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.

Perhaps this is because “growth” can be frightening.  Growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind.  For some students, this may seem daunting or impossible.  In some cases, however, we as teachers are not providing new experiences that will help students redirect their growth in a more fruitful direction – out of the concrete and into the soil, as it were.

Let’s imagine, for example, that I return a student’s first paper, and that student has failed.  Let’s imagine that the student becomes frustrated and angry, and accuses me of “grading too hard.”  I’m likely to become irritable and defensive in such a situation, but if I step back, it may become clear that this student has never learned how to deal productively with failure.  Her past growth in this area has led her to an impasse.

It’s my job to teach her how to learn from failure, or rather, to provide her with an experience of failure that leads to learning.  How can I transform this experience from a blow to her self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?

How can failure help us grow?

For one thing, it can give us the impetus to ask important questions.  If I understand this, I can communicate it to the student.  I can ask her, “Why do you think this paper should pass?  Why do you think it failed?  What comments have I made that you don’t understand?  Look over the first page of the paper, and then ask me three questions.”  Maybe this student has never had the opportunity to ask sincere questions about failures, nor has she received sincere answers.  Students who learn from failure almost always have this skill, and it’s a fairly easy skill to demonstrate, if not always easy to absorb.

Other qualities – the willingness to take risks, an openness to new ideas, an ability to identify what one doesn’t know, a talent for organization – may seem like innate characteristics, but it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which these qualities are in fact skills that are learned through appropriate experience, and to consider ways that students might be able to learn such skills even if they arrive in CEGEP without them.  [Editorial note: Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed is an important reference here.]

If we see effective education as a series of experiences that induce growth and that lead to further growth, then our role as educators, along with every moment we spend in the classroom, becomes transformed.  We’re not just teaching students a pile of material.  We’re teaching them how to learn, and how to continue to be learners.

Image by Kym McLeod

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise

solitude

We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?

*

Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

There Has To Be a Better Way

I am totally over school.

The serious grading has begun, and the serious speed bumps are popping up in the road.  Yesterday’s speed bump was an essay from Michael, whom I wrote about last week.  Michael’s essay was so convoluted that it was impossible for me to grade it.  (It reminded me, troublingly, of essays I received a couple of years ago from Khawar, whose  saga some of you may remember, and who almost drove me to the brink.)  I wrote Michael to say PLEASE COME SEE ME.  And then I put my head down on the table and groaned for a while.

It’s not Michael’s fault.  Michael is absolutely aware that he has problems – he wrote notes all over his paper to the tune of “I did my best but I don’t think I did good,” and messaged me immediately after the essay (I was home with a cold while a sub invigilated) to say that he was “scared about his essay.”  He has every reason to be scared.  He’s been pushed through the system to this point despite the fact that he has none of the tools he needs to deal with college-level writing.

It is also not the fault of any individual teacher, course, or school.  Students with serious academic issues pass my courses all the time, not because they’ve mastered everything they need to master, but because they’ve worked hard and the numbers have added up.  I think it’s unlikely this will happen in Michael’s case, but I’ve been surprised by this before.

School is the problem.

I’m having my first thoughts of the semester about quitting my teaching job and becoming a strident, shrieking education reformer: abolishing classrooms (particularly 40+ student/teacher ratios) and grades, completely overhauling curricula (particularly “English” studies, which I’m now fully convinced is an antiquated and unhelpful domain, at least at the level of general education), chopping big colleges up into small, focused learning “communities,” and, most importantly, focusing all of formal education on helping students learn how to learn.

Students need to be learning how their brains work.  They need to be focused, not on grades and R-scores, but on becoming flexible, confident, skilled learners who can tackle challenges with brio and curiosity.  They need to be prepared for a world that we can’t even envision right now, for jobs that don’t exist yet, for problems that are not even a glimmer in humanity’s collective eye.  Our school system – the one we’ve almost all been through, the one that pays my salary, the one that will take a freaking revolution to dismantle – prepares them for none of these things.

I know I’m not the first to say this.  I’ve watched Ken Robinson’s TED talks and RSA Animations, I’ve read reams of material on interdisciplinarity, on unschooling, on various other alternatives to the rusty, crumbling structure that is our current view of education.

The question is, why is so little happening?  Why does someone like Michael, who can’t understand a simple personal narrative essay from a national newspaper, feel that going to “college” is his best/only option?  He can’t do college, not as college is right now, and the best college can do for him is to try to jam him into the college mould and maybe, if he’s lucky, shuffle him through.

I would love to hear from any of you out there who are working or studying in alternative educational environments with some success.  Whether you’re homeschooling your own children, or teaching at a “gradeless college,” or designing an interdisciplinary curriculum at a technical high school, or doing an internship in a hands-on work/study program, I would love to know on an intimate, anecdotal level what other models are working for teachers and students alike.

I don’t know that I can pack my bags and leave school as we know it behind.  I certainly can’t do it tomorrow.  But I’d like to know that there are other possibilities, because this one has overstayed its welcome.

Image by Nicolas Raymond

College Teaching and Helplessness in the Face of General Badness

In my memoir course, my students’ first exercise is to write down a small story that they often tell people about their lives.  I like reading these little paragraphs – they are often about getting lost in foreign airports, mislaying precious items and realizing that material things don’t matter, buying liquor while under age.  But there are always one or two students who tell me things I don’t want to know.

This term it was Michael.  Michael (not his real name, of course) wrote a story about being punished when he was around six.  It’s difficult to follow the timeline, but it seems that his parents left him alone while they went on vacation, and came home to find the house a mess, so they beat him and sent him to his room.  The description of the beating is perfunctory, but that of his feelings is quite elaborate: the fear that they would find out, the terror during the beating, the remorse as he recovered, and so forth.

I think it’s possible some facts of the story are less than accurate (his parents left him home alone for the weekend when he was six years old?)  Nevertheless, there is clearly something unfortunate going on here.  I wrote a note at the bottom of his assignment saying that the story made me sad and asking him to come talk to me about it.  Instead, when he rewrote his story he added a paragraph at the end that went something like this.

Yes it is a pretty sad story but I know people who have had been threaten even worse. I find that it was tough but I know a very important star who had problems like that in his childhood and in his career they had a pretty tough time even and a lot worse than me. I think it’s the shock my parents had that made them do that but I understand my parents because if your them and you don’t know that there are mess everywhere when you enter your house you can take it pretty bad so at the same time yes and no it is and it is not a sad story

Here is my reply.

Michael: of course, it is your feelings about the incident that are most important.  Are you aware that we have counsellors here at the college whom you can talk to if you are ever feeling bad about things that happened in the past or are happening now?  Let me know if you would like more information.

Like many of my students, Michael is over 18.  I am therefore not under any legal obligation in a situation like this (according to counsellors I’ve spoken to in the past about similar stories students have written.)  I have no intention of chasing him down and making him talk to me about anything he doesn’t want to.  That said, I wonder if there’s something more I should be thinking about doing for him.

Every year, I consider avoiding personal writing assignments.  Every term I ask myself: do I need these close reminders of the general badness going on out there in the world, in my students’ lives?  But I know I will never eliminate them – the assignments, because I won’t, or the badness, because I can’t – so I need a clear strategy for dealing with the stories that rear their heads.

What do you think teachers, especially teachers of older students, should do when faced with stories of suffering, abuse, or trauma?  Have you faced this issue yourself?  If so, what do you do?

Image by Brenda Otero

The Limits of Compassion: Reprise

What does being “compassionate” really entail?

One of my major preoccupations, in my teaching life and my life in general, is the line between “real compassion” and “idiot compassion”.  In March 2009, I was struggling with this dichotomy; I didn’t resolve it, but I often look back on this event when I am wondering how to respond to a student’s difficulties.

*

A few weeks ago, a student named Alexandra emailed me.  She was going to miss a week of classes because a friend of hers had died suddenly; she had to fly home to attend the funeral and help his family.

I sent her my condolences. I also explained that if she wanted to make up the in-class essay she would miss, she’d have to bring documentation of the reason for her absence.  The funeral home was used to these requests, I explained, and would know what to give her. I also reminded her that her lowest in-class essay mark would be dropped, so it wasn’t essential that she make this assignment up if she wasn’t up to it.

On the day she returned, at the end of class, Alexandra slammed a pile of scraps from the funeral – a copy of the obituary, some decorations with the deceased’s name on them – onto my desk and stalked away.  She was gone before I could ask what her gesture was supposed to signify.

At the beginning of the next class, I called her to my desk and asked if she’d brought those “documents” because she wanted to make up the essay she’d missed.  She said, “I brought them because you said you wanted to see something.”  I gently reminded her that I’d wanted to see something only if she wanted to retake the essay test – that documentation is always required if a student wants to redo a major assignment. I explained again that she was welcome to make up what she’d missed, but that, given the time that had elapsed and the circumstances, it would be understandable if she wanted to let this one slide, as her lowest essay test grade would be dropped from her average.

She seemed to soften.  She said that she probably couldn’t do a good job on the essay, so she’d pass on this one. I got the feeling that she understood: the request for documentation had nothing to do with her personally, and everything to do with a general rule that I had to apply equally to everyone.

In the weeks since then, however, Alexandra’s attitude toward me has been considerably colder than it was. I don’t know whether that’s a general change in her mood, because of the terrible loss she has just sustained, or whether she still harbours resentment over her [mis]interpretation of my request.

When I first started teaching, I gave students a lot of chances. If a student said his grandmother had died, I took him at his word and helped him make up the work. Over time, though, it became clear that students were taking advantage of this, and it was making my life more difficult and wasn’t helping them in the long run. Putting clear rules about late and missed work into place, and applying them consistently, has helped me deal with some ambiguous situations.

A case in point: another student in Alexandra’s class, Peter, emailed me more than a week after the due date of a major at-home assignment to ask if I had received his essay, which he had “put in internal mail.” I hadn’t, and reminded Peter that if he didn’t put an essay directly into my hands, he was required to email it to me immediately after submitting his hard copy, as proof that it was done. The next class we spoke about it – he still hadn’t brought it to me – and I told him that if he sent me the essay IMMEDIATELY, I would read it and consider giving him a very small portion of his grade. Four days later, I received an email with Peter’s essay attached. His aunt had died, he said, and so he had forgotten to email it to me “IMMEDIATELY”.  I replied that it was too late, and I wouldn’t consider his essay (such as it was – it was too short and made little sense.)

Peter would have failed the course even if I had graded his essay – maybe this is why I didn’t hear any arguments from him.  I suspect, though, that he didn’t protest because I had called his bluff.  I put such deadlines in place, and ask for documents to confirm legitimate reasons for missed assignments, because I don’t want to make decisions about who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.  Most students understand this – not just students who make up excuses and then can’t back them up, but especially students who have real, compelling reasons for missing work or handing things in late.  Alexandra seems to be an exception.

Of course, it’s difficult to explain to someone in Alexandra’s situation that, because of students like Peter, rules have to be created, and have to be enforced, for everyone. But it’s also difficult for teachers to know when to trust our intuition, and when our intuition will get us into trouble. If I had relaxed the rules for Alexandra, and then Peter had come back to me and said, “Well, you made an exception for her, why not me?”, things would have gotten messy.

How do we create structure and accountability for our students without sacrificing compassion for their very real troubles? It’s an endless dance, and sometimes we make the wrong moves.

Image by Gesine Kuhlmann

What’s a Teacher to Do? Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

When Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, arrived in my mailbox, I opened it with great anticipation.  I love Tough’s writing; his pieces on This American Life and in The New York Times have always impressed me with their warm, clear prose.  What’s more, last year, an excerpt from this book, published in the New York Times Magazine, inspired me to turn around my approach to some serious classroom problems.

In that excerpt (taken from Chapter 2), Tough describes children from difficult backgrounds who nevertheless succeed in school and other endeavours because, he posits, they have developed certain character traits.  I chronicled my thoughts on that piece in a post called “Fail Better,” and I then took his ideas to my students, some of whom were having a lot of difficulty.  I asked them to analyze some of the fictional characters we were reading about in terms of the important qualities Tough describes.  I then asked them to think about which of these qualities they possess themselves.  And I asked them to discuss his main assertion: that character, notably the trait he calls “grit,” is more important than intelligence when it comes to children’s success.

My students seemed convinced by this assertion.  So am I.  It forms the foundation of this book, in which Tough examines current research, as well as a few inspiring case studies, in order to support it.  He supports it very well, and puts together a powerful argument.  The upshot: character is more or less destiny, but character can be taught, or at least influenced.

Tough tells stories of students who have met with terrible adversity but have still managed to achieve impressive things: chess titles, admissions to competitive universities, or just a good GPA and graduation from high school.  He also speaks to people, particularly educators, who have made a difference along the way: curriculum designers, coaches, principals, teachers.  He outlines the qualities that researchers suggest divide children who succeed from children who don’t: curiosity, zest, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, self-control, and grit, or a passionate desire to stick with a task until it is accomplished.

These characteristics are rooted in brain chemistry, Tough discovers, but they are not entirely innate – they are directly affected by a child’s environment, particularly a child’s exposure to stress and, on the other side, nurturance and support.  A child who lives in a stressful environment may have difficulty developing these qualities.  However, such a child, from such an environment, who is given the tools and confidence to face challenges may develop a stronger character than a child who faces little adversity.   A child who grows up in poverty but has a nurturing, supportive parent – one who encourages the child to tackle difficulties, praises success, and promotes the learning potential inherent in failure – may have more character tools than a middle-class or wealthy child whose parents protect him or her from every bump in the road.

I loved this book, and the stories it told about children who succeed against big odds and the people who help them.  The greatest satisfaction it offers is the knowledge that such children CAN be helped.  In the end, though, it left me feeling a bit sad.

Character can be nurtured.  Children are not doomed by their social circumstances or their genes.  Nevertheless, I’m not sure what my role is.  How much can teachers help, especially teachers who don’t meet children until they are no longer children at all?  The book left me with one lingering, powerful desire: to do some research of my own.

This research would involve examining sixteen-to-twenty-year-olds who have made it through high school, who have been admitted to CEGEP – granted, a CEGEP with famously forgiving standards – but who are still floundering.  That is to say, my students.  Is it too late?  Have their characters been formed?  Is it possible for them to now learn grit, curiosity, self-control etc.?  If so, am I in any position to inspire it in them?  According to some of the authorities Tough cites, “variations in teacher quality probably [account] for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.” (191)  However, he also tells us that “transformative help” (196) can come from myriad sources – not just parents, but anyone with whom the child comes in contact.  His book gives us stories about people, mostly teachers, who have offered that kind of transformative help.  These stories are moving, but they also highlight the intensive energy and the depth of inner and outer resources teachers need in order to help these kids, preferably at early stages in the kids’ education.

I would encourage any educator, community worker, parent, or person who cares about children and/or the state of our social world as a whole to read this book.  It is well-researched, wonderfully written and thought-provoking.  It also raises a powerful question that it does not answer.  It tells us that children, no matter what their background and innate capabilities, can succeed in school and the professional world.  It tells us that they cannot do it alone, but that we – the people who surround them – can help them.  It doesn’t give us, as individual teachers, a blueprint for how to do that, especially when we come along later in the game.  But it gives us some examples.  With a little grit and curiosity of our own, maybe we’ll be able to figure it out.

Getting It Wrong

When Kalia walked into my office on Thursday, I was having a bad day.

I hadn’t slept in 30 hours.  My husband and I are buying a house, and we’d discovered an error in our mortgage agreement at the notary two days before.  We should have seen it much earlier, but in our housebuyers’ exhaustion and overwhelm, we hadn’t paid close enough attention.  The next day, we’d learned that the error was irreversible because we hadn’t caught it in time.  I’d been up all night with the mortgage documents, trying to determine if there were other mistakes we’d missed.

I’d just heard from the bank, and it seemed that everything else was in order.  The impact of the error was not world-ending, but it was significant.  The greater problem was my feeling of helplessness in the face of the grinding real estate/banking/legal machine that we understand so little about, and the failure of those who do understand it (notaries, mortgage specialists) to protect us from its vagaries.

I was feeling put-upon by the universe.  I was also feeling like an idiot.  I could have prevented this, if I’d paid closer  attention.

Then Kalia walked in.  I’d written her a few days before to advise her that she’d failed her most recent essay and that, although she’s entitled to rewrite it, it’s unlikely that she’ll pass her English course.  So her appearance in my office was expected but not welcome.

Kalia was in my class last autumn as well.  She failed, because she didn’t come to class.  This term, she didn’t show up for the first two weeks, and then one day she appeared during my office hours.  “If I come to class now, can I still pass this course?”

I furrowed my brow.  “I don’t know.”

She stared at me blankly.

“Mathematically speaking?  Yes, it’s still possible for you to pass.  Our first essay test is next class; you haven’t done any of the preparation, but you’re welcome to try it.  You’ve missed one quiz but no other major assignments.  If you come to all the remaining classes, and hand in all the assignments, and do all the quizzes, and pass them all, then yes, you will pass.”

Her face broke into a beam, but I frowned and shook my head, and the beam froze.

“I don’t think you’re asking the right question,” I said. “Last semester you said, more than once, that you were going to make an effort and come to class and do the work, but you didn’t do it.  This semester has started the same way.  The important question is: what makes you think you’re going to do things differently now?  What’s changed?”

Her smile transformed from pleased to sheepish.  “Yes.  I guess that’s the question.”

“You can pass this course, Kalia, if you really do change your behaviour.  If you don’t, you will fail again.”

Again, her face beamed.  “I will.  I’ll come to class and I’ll do the work.”

But of course, nothing changed.  She did show up for the next class, but she hadn’t bought her books and hadn’t done her homework.  I stopped her on her way out and pointed out that just showing up and sitting in the room was not going to lead to success.  She eventually did buy at least one of her textbooks, but her attendance was spotty at best.  When she finally showed up in my office this Thursday, I hadn’t seen her in almost three weeks, except for a chance meeting in the hallway when she told me that she hadn’t come to class that morning because she “had to study for her psychology test.”  Her overall average was 10 points below a pass.

“I want you to help me with my essay…” she began, but I raised my hand and stopped her.

“Did you get my message?”  She nodded.  “So you understand that, as things stand, you’re not going to pass this course.”

“But we still have the grammar test and the rewrite of this essay,” she said.  “If I pass those, can’t I pass the course?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I haven’t done the arithmetic.  I can tell you from past experience, though, that a student who has a 50% at this stage is unlikely to achieve a 60% by the end.”

She paused.  “Can you calculate it for me?”

I stared at her.  I sighed.  Then I opened my online gradebook and typed in some numbers.  “If you get a 60 on each remaining assignment,” I said, “you will get a 53% in the course.”

She deflated for a beat.  Then she perked up.  “What if I get…”

“Kalia,” I snapped.  “I am not going to sit here and plug in numbers for you.  I am also not going to help you with this essay right now.  As I instructed you and everyone, you should bring the essay to class with you on Monday and we’ll work on it some more and you can ask questions.  We have spent THREE WEEKS working on this latest essay in class, and you haven’t been in class for that work.  So you failed.  I’m not going to give you private tutoring on everything we’ve done because you couldn’t be bothered to come learn what you needed to learn during class time.  We talked at the beginning of the semester about what you needed to do to pass this course.  You haven’t done it.  You’re welcome to do this rewrite and do your grammar test and see what happens.  But I’m not going to re-teach everything I’ve taught for an audience of one.”

Here’s the interesting thing about Kalia.  When I tell her off, she doesn’t become angry or defensive or upset.  Instead, she nods, her eyes downcast, and smiles a little.  “Ok,” she said.  “Perfect.  Thank you.”  No sarcasm.  Just resignation.  She packed her essay up and left the office.

There are all sorts of arguments for why Kalia needs tough love, for why, no matter how harsh my response may seem, it’s really for her own good.  She needs to take responsibility for her learning and fulfill requirements and deal with whatever’s preventing her from doing the most basic things she needs to  do, or she needs to get out of school and come back when she can handle it.  Coddling her is not going to help her.  And so forth.

But none of these reasons are my reasons.  I didn’t snap at her because it was in her best interest.  I snapped at her because I was exhausted and she was pissing me off.  I wasn’t doing it for her; I was doing it because if I had to deal with Kalia right then, I was going to walk right down to Human Resources and quit my job.  And then where would my mortgage payments be?

Much like motherhood, teacherhood is held up to a terrifying amount of scrutiny in our society.  There is an expectation that teachers will be a strange cross between automatons and saints, that we will unfailingly do what our students need us to do.  (Here’s a post that’s been going around lately, detailing what that entails.)  And it’s true that if we’re good teachers, we WILL strive to do that.  We won’t always succeed, but we’ll do our level best.  It’s our job.

There will come a day, though, when we just can’t.  For me, Thursday was that day.  I couldn’t do what was best for Kalia; I couldn’t even decide what that was, and didn’t care.  I wasn’t capable of being a good teacher.  I just wanted her THE HELL OUT OF MY OFFICE.  If someone else had turned up that day, someone less infuriating than Kalia, I hope my responses would have been different.  But one way or another, they would have been limited, because I was THIS FAR from setting fire to my desk, cancelling my last two weeks of classes and booking a plane ticket to somewhere far away, never to return.

I hope you’ll forgive me for this lapse; I’ve forgiven myself, and I forgive you for any day when this has happened to you.  I don’t dispute that it’s essential for us to always, always do our best, whether it’s for our students, our children, our spouses, our friends.  It’s just that some days, our best isn’t very good.  That’s ok.  A good cry and 13 hours of sleep meant that the next day, my best was a little better.

That won’t help Kalia, but honestly?  I don’t know what will help her.  Maybe my outburst was just the trick.  If not, maybe someone else will know what to do.  I could spend some time here scrutinizing my behaviour, as if it were a mortgage document, scanning every line for errors.  I’m fully capable of such scrutiny, as you regular readers will know.  But: no thanks.  I dropped the ball where my mortgage was concerned, and there will be consequences, but the world will not end.  Kalia will survive too, even if I failed her.

Sometimes we get it wrong.  Sometimes we have no idea if we got it right or not.  We have to just keep doing what we do, and fixing what we can, and taking the consequences.  And trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Image by Adrian van Leen

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