Summer Book Club: What Are We Reading This Week?

1368361_28917487I love the idea of book clubs, but the last thing an English teacher needs is more assigned reading.  So I thought: what if we had a book club where we all just talk about whatever we’re reading right now?  That way, we can read whatever we want!  And talk about it!

Once a week, I’m going to post about a book I’m reading, or have just finished reading, or would really like to read next.  It would be great if you guys would chime in.  If you’ve read the book I’m posting on,  you could comment on that, and we’ll discuss.  But you could also comment on a book you’re reading right now, and we could discuss that.  Or you could write on your own blog about a book you’re reading, and link here. Maybe I’ll ask you some specific questions about books I’m reading and books you’re reading, and you could respond to them here or elsewhere.

If no one wants to chat about books, I’ll just post about the books I’m reading anyway.  This will be a way for me to keep in touch with you all, but maybe it’ll also mean I’ll spend more of my summer reading books, and less of it watching Project Runway on  YouTube and playing Fishdom.

In the next couple of days, I’ll post on the book I’m reading now, and thereon in, I’ll try to post on Wednesdays.  I hope you’ll tell me about your summer reading too!  Here’s to books we read just because we feel like reading them!

Image by pear83

Fudging the Numbers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the semester, a grading dilemma always rears its head.  Here’s one.  What do I do?

Anjali’s earliest work was dramatically incompetent, but as the semester has worn on, it has steadily improved.  That said, most of her “improved” work has been done at home, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone else is “helping” her a little more than is strictly acceptable.  She’s also been chronically absent – for the last month of classes I saw her only once – and at the moment has a failing grade, due mostly to missing in-class work.

Last week, I held office hours to answer last-minute questions on their final assignments.  To my surprise, Anjali showed up.  She had a draft of her paper with her.  It wasn’t a terrible paper, but it had some serious issues: her absences meant that she hadn’t understood a number of the requirements for the assignment.  We went over some of the most important problems.  Then I leaned back in my chair.

“Anjali,” I said, “It’s good that you’re coming to see me, but it would have been much more useful if you’d come ten weeks ago.  You’ve been failing all semester, and there’s not a lot we can do about it now.  It’s highly unlikely you’re going to pass this course.”

“But miss,” she said, “I’m on probation.”

“I see,” I said.  “That’s another excellent reason that you should have started coming to see me ten weeks ago.  And an excellent reason to get lots of extra help, and attend all classes, and otherwise fulfill all your responsibilities.”

“But miss, I had a very good reason for missing so much class.  But I know I should have come to talk to you about that.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied.  “If you had a medical reason, you should go request a medical delete.  If it’s not a medical reason, then it isn’t really relevant: passing a course means you’ve learned the skills the course requires, and you haven’t been in class to learn any skills.”  I handed her back her draft.  “Do your best, and we’ll see what happens, but you need to be prepared for the possibility that you will fail.”

She got to her feet.  “Miss, do you give any kind of make-up work?  To improve my grade?”

I shook my head.  “Do your best on this last assignment, but I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

So today I corrected Anjali’s final paper.  It has many of the same problems that her draft had, and all the strengths.  If I grade it according to my rubric, it earns between 65 and a 70 percent, depending on how flexible I am about certain criteria.  This isn’t enough; she will fail the course by two or three points.

However, if I look at this paper more holistically – if I ask myself, “Is this an acceptably organized and expressed paper that shows a good understanding of the texts, a paper that might earn a good grade in another course where the assignment requirements are different?”, then the answer is “Yes.”  It’s not a bad paper at all.  It’s just that it has some major weaknesses, and those weaknesses lie in areas that were emphasized in the guidelines and that were dealt with at length in class, when Anjali wasn’t there.

If I fudge her assignment grade to a 75%, she’ll pass the course.  Now, let me be clear: given her lack of overall effort, I don’t think she’s earned a pass, and I’m never comfortable “fudging” anything.  But based on this paper alone – and assuming that it is indeed her own work, and I have no clear evidence that it’s not, especially seeing that she came to see me with it – she has the basic skills she needs to manage fine in her future courses.  I could probably examine my rubric again and make a few generous tweaks so that everything adds up to the grade she needs.  And when a student fails a course by two points, everyone involved is much more upset than if she failed by ten.

What’s a teacher to do?

Image by Miriam Wickett

Science, Art, and the Myth of the “Discipline”

oENpvxkI’m always delighted to read about college teachers who are are taking unusual approaches to pedagogy.   Jailson Farias de Lima is one such teacher.  In an article published on ProfWeb yesterday, he describes an innovative project he has designed for his chemistry students, challenging them to express their understanding of scientific concepts through art-making.  Science teachers may be particularly interested in this article, but I think anyone who is a little skeptical of the divisions between what we call “disciplines” will appreciate the efforts Lima is making to integrate skills and knowledge from various arenas.

What do you think?  Does Lima’s project appeal to you?  Do you make efforts to make links between your course content and other subjects, or do you have memories of teachers who did so?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?

Image by Dez Pain

Blog Hop!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently a “blog hop” is a thing.  I’ve been invited to participate in this one by my friend Anita Lahey, whose fascinating blog Henrietta & Me is all about the books she’s reading and the people in them.  Anita is a poet, essayist and journalist; her poetry collection Out to Dry in Cape Breton was an indelible reading experience for me (I will never look at a clothesline the same way again), and her latest book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, is on my to-read-as-soon-as-my-end-of-term-grading-is-done list.

I’ve chosen to answer these questions wearing my education-writer hat and not my fiction-writer hat, as education writing is what I do on this blog.

What am I working on?

My M.Ed. thesis: an investigation into tools teachers can use to encourage/nurture lifelong reading habits in college students.  As a first step, I’m working on a literature review addressing the question “Is reading for fun really all that important?” (The upshot so far: probably.) I hope to produce a thesis that is of interest to a general audience, or at least to teachers in general, and not just to post-secondary academics and researchers.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

In this blog, I reflect on my own teaching practice.  I do this because I believe that almost any experience will be of interest to someone else if it is examined with attention and expressed carefully.  (I guess this is one of the basic principles that drives people to write things.)  The title Classroom as Microcosm is a good indication of what I want the blog to be about: I’m writing about school, but school is a great metaphor for a lot of other stuff.  I hope my attempt to link the little world of school, and in particular MY little college-teaching world, with the greater scheme of things makes this blog unique.

Why do I write what I do?

I started writing Classroom as Microcosm because I was ready to quit my job.  My resentment of my college students and their bad behaviours, my uncertainty in my role as an authority figure, and my disillusionment with the teaching profession and the education system as a whole were making me miserable.  I was also floundering as a fiction writer.  One summer day in 2007, as I poured these troubles out to a friend over coffee, she said, “I think you need to start keeping a blog.  It will be a place to write without the isolation.  Maybe you should start blogging about teaching.”  So I did, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this blog saved my career.

I’m a less productive blogger these days in part because I have come to a much more solid and self-confident place as a teacher.  That said, there are other things I want to explore here now, so this summer, I hope to start posting more about reading, literature and the place of books – especially narratives – in our textually fragmented world.

How does my writing process work?

In my most productive years, I posted twice a week during the school semester: a new post on Monday and a reprise of a popular past post on Thursday.  These days, I post only when I’m powerfully inspired, but I’d like to return to that more diligent schedule.  I try to view writing of any kind as a professional obligation: churn it out, edit it meticulously to make it as good as you can, and then just get it out there without thinking it to death.  Blog writing is an excellent platform for this approach.  I’ve been working on a novel manuscript for thirteen years because I have become mired in self-doubt; this blog is an excellent reminder that the real goal of writing is to communicate with people.  You have to let your writing travel out into the world.  If a particular piece doesn’t speak to anyone, write the next thing.

Next week on the blog hop:

My friend and colleague Stacey DeWolfe, who, in addition to being an inspiring teacher, blogs on teaching, food, music, books, dogs, and lots of other important things.

My high school and college crony Rebecca Coleman, who knows everything there is to know about social media, but also keeps a terrific blog on things she likes to cook.

 Image by Michal Zacharzewski

I Mean It

If I hear the phrase “I’m going to be honest with you, miss…” one more time today, I’m going to make a big sign saying I DON’T CARE WHY YOU DIDN’T DO THE HOMEWORK and tack it to my forehead.

My Top 10 Books of 2013

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2013, but they were all a part of my 2013 experience.

interestings1. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer:

I’m a difficult-to-please reader.  I give up on books a LOT; if I get to page 50 or so and am able to put the book down without hesitation, I’m not likely to pick it up again.  When I got to page 50 or so of The Interestings, I just kept barrelling along, to the detriment of everything else I needed to do.  This is the story of a group of friends who meet at an arts camp when they’re teenagers.  I know: privileged white Americans doing privileged white American things; who cares?  Well, I do.  The words “teenagers” and “arts camp” in the reviews of this book meant that I got my hands on it the moment I could, but it was the fine and pitch-perfect evocation of their experiences from that summer onward that made me want to spend all my time with Jules and her friends through their adult misadventures.  Wolitzer writes, with the sprezzatura I aspire to, about the ins and outs of real human relationships.  (When I was done with The Interestings I downloaded Wolitzer’s novel The Wife to my e-reader and enjoyed it almost as much.)

hyperbole2. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh:

No one familiar with Allie Brosh’s blog will need any convincing to pick up this book.  The centrepiece is her stunning graphic essay on depression, but Hyperbole and a Half is also filled with stories about difficult dogs, the complications of a childhood that is in no way “universal” and yet is impossible not to relate to, and the challenges of being an adult while also being a person.  It’s visually gorgeous the way a four-year-old’s drawings would be gorgeous if that four-year-old were also a meticulously trained and scarily intelligent artist.  It’s painful and it’s incredibly funny.

buildingstories3. Building Stories by Chris Ware:

Another graphic “novel”, if a box full of pamphlets, foldouts, chapbooks, and even a “Little Golden Book” can be called a novel.  This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and as I plucked at it in the days following, I kept trying to explain how something as heartbreaking and bleak as Chris Ware’s work can also be an uplifting place to spend the holidays.  I came out the other side in tears and transformed.  If you love the tactile nature of real paper books, this will be an intense extension of that experience for you.  And the access Ware gives us into the inner lives of his struggling characters will make you feel lucky to feel so sad.

faultstars4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:

John Green makes a series of “Crash Course” videos on literature and other topics, and I show a couple of them in my classes: his lecture on “How and Why We Read” and his first discussion of The Catcher in the Rye.  When I showed the first video to my Adolescence and the Novel class this term, several students told me that I needed to read John Green’s novels about adolescence and put them on my courses.  It was only then that I discovered that this John Green is the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, which had been on my “to-read” list since its publication.  I was knitting a blanket at the time of this discovery, and so didn’t have time to read anything; instead, I downloaded the audiobook and listened to it as I knit and occasionally as I went running.  It is (with the possible exception of the book at #5) the best young adult novel I’ve encountered in my adult life.  The narrator, Hazel, is living with cancer, and falls in love with a young man she meets at her cancer support group.  Lots of complications ensue, many of them centering around Hazel’s favourite book.  The genius of The Fault in Our Stars is in Hazel’s voice – she is wry, sharp and never self-pitying – and her love interest, Augustus, is as fully realized a character as she is.

abstruediary5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie:

This is another reading that grew out of my Adolescence and the Novel course.  This course includes a list of 8 novels that students can choose from, and I try to switch up some of the texts every semester.  I try to balance male and female authors, and male and female protagonists, but my greatest challenge is finding authors of different cultural backgrounds whose books I think students can read without too much teacher guidance.  Alexie’s book was such a happy discovery.  It addresses the hard realities of being a teenager on a reservation, a teenager with physical disabilities and social challenges, by creating the character of Junior: smart, hilarious, and driven to do something meaningful with his life no matter what the obstacles or the cost.  My students loved this book, and so do I.

womupstairs6. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud:

This is a very angry novel.  The anger is so perfectly rendered and so justified that it is cathartic.  If I’d been keeping this list in 2007, Messud’s earlier novel The Emperor’s Children would have been on it that year; this novel lives up to and maybe surpasses the earlier one, showing us what it’s like to take all your youthful promise and channel it into middle-aged delusion, obsession, and disappointment; at the same time the novel is built around a psychological-thriller plot that pays off nicely at the end.

wheredyougo7. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple:

This multi-format, multi-voiced novel, about an enigmatic and infuriating heroine who disappears, leaving her daughter to piece together her story from any material she can find, is hilarious and consistently surprising.  The resolution – which takes us away from the initial setting and to a locale so exotic as to strain what plausibility Semple’s bizzarro universe has – is a bit rushed and feels forced, but endings are always hard, and it’s not hard to forgive this one when the characters who bring us there are so much fun.

misspym8. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey:

I had initially entered Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair in this spot, but as the year wound down I found that her novel Miss Pym Disposes, which I purchased and read because I loved The Franchise Affair so much, has stayed with me more firmly.  As I tried to recall the events of The Franchise Affair, it was Miss Pym who kept returning to my mind.  Is it because Miss Pym Disposes is set in a boarding school and revolves around a case of plagiarism?  Probably.  One way or another, Josephine Tey is my Mystery Writer Discovery of the year.

beautifulruins9. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter:

I am not usually a fan of the epic, the historical, the lush and dense, the swoon over foreign locales.  I don’t care for evocative descriptions of Mediterranean beaches or stories that whirl from one corner of the world and one moment in history to the far-flung next and back again.  Fictionalized stories about real people: meh.  Nevertheless, I loved Beautiful Ruins, in all its lavish, complicated narrative glory.  The thread that ties it all together is the author’s evident love of all his characters, from Richard Burton to a lovesick elderly hotel keeper to the despicable producer who is not as soulless as he would first appear.

carry-the-one-paperback-cover110. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw:

This was the first novel I read this year, and it’s stayed with me ever since.  It’s the story of three siblings and the disaster that befalls them at the beginning of the novel and haunts them until the end, twenty-five years later.  I loved this family, and I believed every moment of their suffering and their unwavering attachment to one another, as they struggle with what that attachment means when you are all so terribly, terribly flawed.

*

And now I need something new to read!  Please tell me what you read and loved this year.

“I AM the Teacher”

After a long and infuriating day of grading final papers, here’s a random quote from my favourite writer that makes me feel oddly, ambivalently better.

‘You act,’ said one of her Senior Seminar students at a scheduled conference, ‘like your opinion is worth more than everybody else’s in the class.’

Zoe’s eyes widened.  ‘I AM the teacher,’ she said.  ‘I DO get paid to act like that.’ She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. ‘I mean, otherwise EVERYBODY in the class would have little offices and office hours.’ … She stared at the student some more, then added, ‘I bet you’d like that.’

‘Maybe I sound whiny to you,’ said the girl, ‘but I simply want my history major to mean something.’

‘Well, there’s your problem,’ said Zoe, and with a smile, she showed the student to the door. ‘I like your bow,’ she added.

Lorrie Moore, from “You’re Ugly, Too”

Plagiarism: From Bad to Worse

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following exchange took place this weekend on my personal Facebook page.  What would you do in my shoes?

Siobhan: Colleagues and others, I need help. A student has clumsily copied a definition from Wikipedia into his introduction without attribution. His essay is otherwise his own work. My inclination is to let him off with a 0 in “expression” and a stern warning. However, I have already given one of his classmates (and a friend of his) a 0% for copying a couple of lines into his essay from the novel publisher’s website. That seems like a more egregious offense to me, but I’m having trouble explaining this to myself. Thoughts?

Ms. A.: I think it’s equally egregious. Both were unattributed quotations from websites, no?

Siobhan: I think my hesitation is because it’s so common for students to do this with definitions. They seem not to understand that a definition is a set of carefully chosen words, as opposed to a Platonic form that belongs to everyone.

Ms. B.: If you can’t explain it to yourself, you can’t justify it to them, either. Copying and pasting from a different source without attribution is plagiarism. Also, isn’t it questionable to be quoting Wikipedia anyway?

Siobhan: Wikipedia wasn’t used as a “source” per se – the student needed a grabber in his introduction, and we talked about definitions as weak but acceptable grabbers, so I suspect he took it from there. His essay-writing skills are poor, and I’m pretty sure this was an essay-writing error and not a deliberate attempt to pull something over on me. In the other student’s case, copying from the website added nothing to the essay except to fill out the word count. Thus my dilemma.

Here’s the relevant passage in the college Cheating and Plagiarism policy: “Plagiarism versus incorrect or incomplete documentation of sources: Many… college students have not yet developed the academic skills necessary to correctly and completely document sources used in an assignment….Teachers should endeavour to distinguish between students who incorrectly or incompletely document source material and students who attempt to cheat, through plagiarism, by copying source material and presenting this material as their own original work.”

Ms. C.: In similar cases, I have let the student fix the error but told them that I would grade them on 80 instead of 100. It looks like you are accomplishing the same thing by grading a portion of the essay at 0%. I do this in cases where I really do think it was a question of simply not understanding that what they did was wrong.

Siobhan: Ms. C., would you do the same for the student who copied from the publisher’s website?

Ms. C.: If it was their first essay, and it was the only instance of plagiarism in the paper, I would let them fix it for a reduced grade.

Siobhan: I’m tempted to write to the student and say, “Give me a reason not to give you a zero, taking into account the fact that someone in your class got a zero for a similar offense. My feeling is that your offense is less serious, but I can’t figure out why, so convince me.”

Ms. C.: Sometimes what I do when I am uncertain is I set up a face to face meeting with them. I let that interaction help me decide whether to let then redo for a reduced grade or assign a 0.

Siobhan: I think that’s what I’ll do. In the meantime, I’m giving him a zero and will see what he says.

Ms. D.: I like the end of this exchange: I think I too would start by assigning a zero (or no mark at all) and then arrange a meeting. I try to explain things unemotionally and objectively, and also I don’t make any final decision on the spot, while the student is there with me. The passage you cite from the policy leads me to believe that there is plenty of wiggle room here for you, and I completely understand your desire to find that ‘wiggle room’ and use it, but on the other hand, really, students often learn very little from the ‘stern warning’ if there are no actual consequences to their actions. I have certainly had occasion to give a student a 0 knowing that they are fully capable of passing the course with the rest of the work, but what remains with them is that they could have had a significantly better grade, had they made better decisions. Now, if this is a 1st semester student, I would tend to be more lenient; but for a post-intro student, less so.

Siobhan: Yes, one of the considerations here is that this is a post-intro student. To his classmate who earned the zero I said, “You didn’t just arrive in college this minute. You know what plagiarism is. If you don’t, you haven’t been paying attention.”

Ms. E.: At my school (I teach international students who want to go to university, and plagiarism is a huge issue), after the first instance of plagiarism, the student can rewrite the plagiarized parts and resubmit with no penalty. But their name (and details of the offence) goes into a database, which teachers can check. Each subsequent offence (in any class) carries a heavier penalty. They’re let off easily for the first offence because they often don’t connect the ‘theory’ of what plagiarism is to their own practice until they’ve actually screwed up.

Ms. F.: Well, Siobhan, since you said the essay was the student’s work with the exception of the definition, it seems that his intentions were not to plagiarize. How old is this kid? As the mother of a teenaged boy, sometimes all they need is for things to be pointed out to them. I’d give the student the option of fixing it up which I hope he would gladly do. Tell him that you do not expect this repeated action again. I would allow him to redo that part, then mark him. Like I said, I have no idea how old these students are but I’m all about helping them learn and grow from their errors. If this continues, of course, the consequence would be different.

Siobhan: These are college students, and they’ve all been in college for at least a year. They’ve had plagiarism explained to them many, many times by many different teachers. My approach to a first-semester student is always considerably more lenient, but at this point, they’re expected to know these things.

Ms. F.: College student – totally different ball game. Thought they were younger. Yup, I’d have no tolerance for plagiarism at that level.

Ms. G.: I think I might dispute that they all fully understand plagiarism by second semester. Some students in some classes are encouraged to do just what these two students have done and documentation isn’t stressed or even covered. I think with a definition students assume a second party, as you mentioned. Unless the student blatantly says my definition of this is… I don’t know that I would fully penalize either student for just a couple of lines, though reducing their possible grade seems fair.

Siobhan: I would never suggest that they all fully understand it – I would only suggest that they SHOULD, and are responsible if they don’t, especially as it’s already been discussed in our class. Also, this is not second semester but second year for most of these guys. If a student were able to demonstrate to me that he/she had been misguided in another class as to what proper documentation is, I’d certainly take that into account, but if we don’t penalize students for a “couple of lines,” then the concept of plagiarism is not very meaningful. There are of course exceptions and blurry areas, but a student in his second year of college who copies sentences from an online plot summary into his essay needs to feel the full force of the consequences as far as I’m concerned. The fact that some others are not enforcing these consequences is part of the overall problem.

Ms. G.: I’m not advocating being soft on plagiarism; I’d just go with your gut on this one.

Readers, what should I do?

Image by John Nyberg

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