The Art of Cold Calling: Blogiversary Post #7

I’ve had some heated discussions about whether “cold calling” is good practice.  When I posted about it a couple of years ago, the post got a lot of comments and got passed around a lot.  What are your thoughts?  Is it a good idea to spring questions on students out of the blue?  Does it help them demonstrate mastery, or just provoke unnecessary anxiety?

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oGmlilgAre you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss the problem of the Constant Commenter.  She says, “Some kids want to constantly comment, but the smartest are often the quietest. How can we get them more involved? How do we subdue the chronic commenters?”

One solution is the cold call.  We call on students randomly (or perhaps not so randomly, but it may appear random to them.)  If students raise hands or call out, we say, “I’m cold calling for this one, so no volunteers.”

A few years ago, a Masters teacher of mine said that she never cold-calls students because when she was a student, the idea of being “picked on” without warning made her sick with fear.  She never put her students through it because she hated it so much.  At first I was puzzled by this – Really?  You never ask students for answers unless they volunteer? – but I then realized that I rarely cold-call in its strict sense.  I often call on students, but usually they’ve had a chance to prepare responses beforehand, often with a partner or group so they don’t bear sole responsibility for their answers.

I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (thanks to my friend Sarah for the recommendation!) and he believes in real, honest-to-God cold-calling, asking students to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are mastering the skills and content they’re being taught, at a nanosecond’s notice.  This technique, he explains, has several benefits.

…it allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically…increases speed both in terms of your pacing…and the rate at which you cover material…[and] allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that they are likely to be called on to participate…but that you want to know what they have to say.

Lemov also encourages teachers to use techniques like “No Opt Out,” in which a student who answers with “I don’t know” must eventually give a correct answer, and “Format Matters,” meaning that students need to respond in complete, grammatical sentences whenever possible.  In Lemov’s world, there is no escape: you need to be present, engaged and ready to respond at any time.

I am more inclined to Lemov’s view than my former teacher’s.  At the beginning of the semester, I use the excuse that I need to learn their names, and call on them randomly from the attendance list to answer questions.  As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.  And, as I said, I rarely ask students to think on their feet – if they’re nervous, they can just read answers they’ve prepared with their group, although they may have to stretch themselves if I ask for further explanation.

I feel like I should do it more.  I believe that if students know they can be called on at any time, they will be more engaged and feel more responsibility for the material.  I’d like to create an atmosphere in which students feel that it’s safe to make errors, but that they at least have to take a stab at things, and that they need to be ready to do so at all times.  But I don’t want students to sit stewing in fear, petrified that they may be asked to speak.

Do you cold-call in your classroom?  If so, how do you make students fell okay with that?  If not, why not?  Does cold-calling improve the classroom dynamic, or is it a detriment?  I want my students to rise to the demands cold-calling creates, but I don’t want to poison their learning with terror.

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Tomorrow: Top Ten Student Excuses for Missing Class.

Image by Prawny

A Course Plan for Literary Appreciation and Analysis: Blogiversary Post #6

I struggle with conflicting philosophies about my job.  I teach English literature (as well as language and composition) as core curriculum in CEGEP, a transitional/professional college that all Quebec students must attend before moving on to university or to many professions.  My classes are therefore comprised of students of wildly varying levels of ability and interest when it comes to reading literature.

One element of my job is teaching students how to analyze literary texts.  One challenge of my job is that a large number of my students have little experience reading literary texts; a surprising number have never read a novel, for example, that wasn’t assigned to them in school.  This creates two important problems:

  • A student with little practice in reading literature has much more difficulty developing analytical reading and writing skills.
  • A literature class that focuses solely on analysis is unlikely to inspire a student to read more widely, thus perpetuating the problem.

Is it more important for me to teach students literary analysis, even if they’re not ready for it, or to help them discover pleasure in reading that will then lead them to develop basic intuitive skills that will help them analyze?  The latter seems like the obvious answer to me, but I still have a duty to prepare them explicitly for their English Exit Exam, which requires them to analyze a text.  In wrestling with this problem, I developed the course that I outline below.  My original post on this course is the fifth-most-widely-shared post in the history of this blog.

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Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  For example, one term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, taking their preferences into account whenever possible. Each book is therefore read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and argue that their classmates SHOULD or SHOULD NOT choose this book as their final reading for the course.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.  Why does the theme make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  2. Historical, geographical or social/cultural information: Describe the historical, geographical and social/cultural setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens).  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book. Why does the setting of the memoir make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  3. Another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story. Why does the author’s use of this element make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  4. Personal connection: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.  Make sure you are comfortable discussing this personal connection, and consider whether your audience will be comfortable hearing about it.  Why do the personal connections we might make with this story make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  5. Other important information you learned: Tell the class about an important topic you learned about from reading this book. Why does learning about this topic make/not make the book a worthwhile read?
  6. Difficulty: Tell the class about a challenge you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Is it worthwhile for readers to take on this challenge and read all the way to the end?
  7. What you loved: Tell the class about something else you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Why does this aspect of the book make/not make the book a worthwhile read?

At the end of each week, students must write a Book Talk Report about one of the two books presented that week. They explain what they learned about the book from the excerpt in their course pack and from the Book Talk.  They must identify at least one important similarity between the book they saw presented and the book they are reading with their group. Will they consider choosing the book they saw presented as their third course reading?

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses another book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their Book Talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we also look at examples of personal narrative in film (for example, Persepolis or Stories We Tell) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

Essay Structure: The Cake Analogy: Blogiversary Post #5

Here’s a nice little post with a link about using a “layer cake” analogy to explain essay writing to students.  I’ve never actually used this analogy, but apparently a bunch of other people have, because the original post got a LOT of shares.  So if your students aren’t getting how to put an essay together, this might be something to try.  You also might want to check the comments on the original, wherein readers share their own favourite tips for teaching essay structure.

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This week, I am working on essay structure with my post-intro students.  After 22 years of teaching essay structure in various forms, I am, as you can imagine, sick of it.  But then I came across this little analogy: how to bake your essay like a cake!  It’s cute.  It’s tasty.  There are things here they might actually remember.

This got me thinking.  A lot of you out there must have analogies that you use over and over in your classroom, because they work.  Or maybe a teacher gave you an analogy years ago that you’ve never forgotten.  Could you please share some of them here?  That way, the rest of us can learn, steal, or just admire your ingenuity and  that of the teachers you’ve known.

Image by Jonathan Fletcher

Triumph Over Burnout: Blogiversary Post #4

At the beginning of the new school year, some of us feel refreshed and eager; others, not so much.  If you’re filled with dread at the thought of vacation’s end (not the ordinary oh-I-wish-I-could-read-novels-on-the-deck-forever dread, but the more acute why-am-I-doing-this-with-my-life dread), then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate: is teaching really what you want to do?

For a while, I wasn’t sure.  I started this blog as a tool to help me wrestle with this question.  Seven years later, I’m still teaching, but my perspective on the profession has changed.

In 2009, Sarah Ebner, then of the Times UK’s School Gate blog, asked me to write a series of guest posts; I chose to write about my journey through burnout and out the other side.  A few years later, she gave my permission to re-print those posts here on Classroom as Microcosm, and those posts are among the most shared in CaM’s seven-year history.  I collected them on this page; you will also find the links below.

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Are you burnt out?  Demoralized?  So was I.  I did some stuff.  It helped.  Now I love my job again.  Maybe you can too!

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Tomorrow: a useful analogy to help students understand essay structure.

Image by VooDoo4u2nv

Why Do I Have To Learn This? Blogiversary Post #3

I asked my students to read the essay I discuss in this post, and to explain which of Menand’s three “theories” they subscribed to.  Their responses were mixed.  Then they asked me which theory I believed in, and I was unable to give them a definitive answer.  Almost three years later, I’m still not sure.  What about you?

This, my eighth-most-shared post of the last seven years, first appeared in 2011.

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Every so often, students ask me, “Why do we have to learn this?”

It’s no use telling them that learning is a good thing, period.  They’re taking seven or eight classes.  Some are doing “part-time” jobs that have them working thirty hours a week.  Making out with their boyfriends is a good thing.  Playing Mortal Kombat is a good thing.  Reading a book or understanding “setting” is … required for some reason.

In an essay called “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,”   Louis Menand reports that, soon after he started teaching at a public university, a student asked him, “Why did we have to read this book?” (a question Menand says he never got  at his former, Ivy League, teaching job.  This surprises me a little.)  According to Menand, your answer to this question will depend on your view of university education.

Those who hold one view will say,

You are reading these books because you’re in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read.

For such people, a university degree is a signal that one has learned certain things, a useful tag for indicating that you know things that other people don’t, that you’ve read books that non-university people have not.

Those holding another view will say,

You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.

This view holds that

 people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

That is to say: because you’re in college, you have a chance to do things that are valuable, but that won’t necessarily earn you a big salary or help you land a client.  So read this book that I say will improve you.

If you believe that college is a threshing machine, separating wheat from chaff (Theory 1), then grades, at least passing ones, are what matters, so that when you graduate, you will be seen as wheat, not chaff, in the larger world.  If you believe that college is a place to accumulate knowledge that will serve you in all aspects of your life and self, (Theory 2), then learning is what matters, regardless of the grades attached to it.

These theories are not compatible.  Learning requires risks, frustrations, even failures.  “Good grades,” more often than not, require a lot of memorization, or at least an understanding of what the teacher wants and a willingness to try to produce it.  A desire for good grades can be detrimental to actual learning.

As Menand points out, though, our colleges and universities (and, I would add, our schools, from first grade forward) seem to operate as though BOTH theories were true.  We tell our students that learning is what matters, that we are teaching them to think critically, that they will be better, fuller people because they went to college.  And then we teach them that a bad grade is, well, bad.  Sometimes we even get angry with them because they fail a test or misunderstand an assignment.

To complicate matters, Menand claims that these two theories really only address education of the liberal arts variety.  Most college students, on the other hand, are not majoring in humanities of any kind: the most popular major in the US is business, followed by education and the health professions.  For these students, Menand writes, university is about neither grades as a sorting tool nor learning for its own sake.

The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation…

Nevertheless, he points out, students in these programs are almost always required to take courses in English and other humanities.  This is where many – perhaps most – of the students in my English classes find themselves.  Everyone must take four English courses, regardless of their program.  There is no literature major at my college; the closest we have are programs in communications (subtitle: art, media, theatre) and in modern languages, along with a very small liberal arts cohort.  Most of my students are in science, social science, or professional programs.  Science students are usually strong students, and sometimes they care about learning things, but their bent is often toward getting into medical school or engineering programs in university (Theory 1).  Social science students, especially those without specialized majors, frequently have no idea what they want to do and had poor high school grades, making them ineligible for more rigorous programs (Theory? What theory?)  And students in industrial electronics or office systems technology or nursing are likely to tell me that they can see the point of learning grammar or maybe even how to structure an essay, but reading Death of a Salesman is of no use to them whatever (Theory 3).

And really, are they wrong?  The fact is, unless I or another English teacher sparks something in them that gives Death of a Salesman meaning, it might forever remain a dead pile of alphabet on the page for them (or maybe it will forever remain the image of John Malkovich, as Biff, dripping from all his facial orifices as he weeps, a scene students find both disgusting and hilarious.)

Our vision of “college” is hopelessly outdated.  Throughout his essay, Menand outlines the same historical trajectory that Alan Jacob does: the  broadening of the university student population since the days when a college education was reserved for the upper classes.  By the 1980s, universities were full of people of all different cultural, educational, gender and economic backgrounds, many of whom could never have gone to college in the pre-war era.

These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them …. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.  This is why “Why did we have to buy this book?” [is] such a great question. The student who asked it was not complaining. He was trying to understand how the magic worked.

Menand is describing a Theory 1 response that he feels has all but disappeared: going to college makes me important and special.  I know that some of my students still feel this; they may have recently arrived in Canada from a place where a university education was impossible for them, or they may come from a family where they are the first to have graduated from high school.

Most, however are NOT trying to understand some magic external to themselves.  When my students ask, “Why do I have to learn this?”, they are trying to make sense of a system that seems arbitrary, full of hoops to jump through and dead-end labyrinths.  They truly do not understand why they have to do all these things we’re asking them to do.  What does this have to do with my career, or my life? they ask.

Maybe it’s never been explained to them, but more likely, it’s been explained to them over and over, and they just. Don’t. Buy it.  And why not?  Because it’s MY theory, MY reasoning, MY agenda, and I have not even taken a second to ask what their agendas are.

Is it possible for us to take the question “Why do I have to learn this?” seriously?  Because it is a serious question.  We often moan about how students no longer want to learn for the sake of learning, but we need to think about what we’re saying.  “Learning for its own sake” is an incredibly privileged activity, one that requires time, money, and the luxury of wandering along a wide, brachiated path into the future.  Most students do not have these privileges; they need to see their school and homework hours as useful.  If I can’t convince them that the definition of “useful” is bigger than the definition we’ve taught them until now, then a passing grade will be their only incentive.

“Why do I have to read/think about/know this?” is a place at which education can begin, if we answer the question authentically, or, even better, if we ask them to answer it for us.  If we show interest in their theories, they might become curious about ours, and together, we might be able to make some learning happen.

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Monday: how I saved my teaching career.

Image by Bjorn Snelders

10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment: Blogiversary Post #2

mflfn0II hesitate to put this post out there again!  Not only does it feel outdated (I haven’t asked for a paper copy of an at-home assignment in three years), but at the time it was published, it attracted some passionate critics (and defenders); if you go to the original and read the comments, you will see what I mean.  I came of age as a blogger when this post went moderately viral and I got my first taste of what it means to blog for the “public” and not just for a small and like-minded group of readers.

Nonetheless, it is the 9th-most-shared post I’ve ever written, and it still gets a fair number of views at the end of each semester/year when teachers everywhere are apoplectic and need someone to vent for them.  What’s more, it tickles me to look back at the quaint concerns we had in 2009, like printer ink and Hotmail.

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Ten Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment

10. You don’t double-space. You KNOW that I take formatting points off when you don’t double-space. Double-space does NOT mean space-and-a-half. We’ve discussed this.

9. Your printer ink is not black. You KNOW that I take formatting points off when you print in blue, purple or green. You also know that if your print is pale, smudgy grey, I will stomp on your paper in a rage. I told you this in class, twice. You need to change your printer cartridge if you want to get an A.

8. You send me your paper by email only. Let me explain this policy again. If you do not place your paper directly in my hands – if, for example, you slide it under my office door – you should email me a copy to confirm the time you submitted it. The email, however, does not replace your hard copy. I can’t print everyone’s paper – do you know what printer ink costs? Of course you don’t. You don’t print your assignments.

7. You don’t send me your paper by email. Ok, let’s review. If you did NOT email me your late paper in addition to submitting the hard copy, I don’t know when you submitted it. The term is over; I’m not sitting in my office waiting for your paper to shoot through the gap under the door.

6. You didn’t follow the structure guidelines. You wrote numbered paragraphs instead of an essay, or an essay instead of numbered paragraphs. You answered in point form instead of full sentences. You handed in a collection of random thoughts that you printed directly from your Hotmail inbox. Yes you did – the Hotmail logo is on the top of the page!

5. You haven’t answered the question. Let me be clear: this paper is great. It’s insightful and well-organized and even funny in parts. What’s more, you being who you are, I’m pretty sure you wrote it yourself. The problem is, you didn’t do the assignment. You wrote a very good paper about the texts we studied that has nothing to do with the question(s) you were asked to address. This paper is going to get a failing grade, and this is going to keep me up tonight.

4. You didn’t proofread after printing. You’ve repeated your introductory paragraph halfway into your essay for no discernible reason. There also seems to be a page missing.

3. You didn’t proofread at all, at any point. I’ve been reading your work all semester, so I know you’re capable of writing comprehensible English sentences, but in this paper you have frequently left out important nouns, switched from present to past tense and back again (ALWAYS WRITE ABOUT LITERATURE IN THE PRESENT TENSE. How many times do I have to say it?), misspelled “their” and “friend” (sometimes your spell check really does know the answer; all you have to do is look at the screen) and forgotten to capitalize. Were you high when you wrote this?

2. You copied parts of your paper from the Internet. I’m not even going to discuss this with you. Zero.

1. You didn’t write this paper. I don’t know who did. You didn’t copy it from SparksNotes or a classmate. You simply handed the guidelines over to someone – either your girlfriend or an essay mill or someone who owes you protection money – and he or she wrote it for you. Now I have to call you into my office and sit you down and either try to trick you into a confession or quiz you on the paper content or announce that, regardless of the fact that I have no concrete proof, I know you didn’t write this and you’re not getting credit for it. The depth and breadth of my rage about this is inexpressible. No matter what delightful experiences I’ve had with my classes this semester, this is what I’m going to remember. What’s more, I fully expect you to drag me through mediation and/or grades review, so this situation is going to escalate over the coming months. I’m tempted to pretend I don’t notice that you didn’t write this. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t notice, and I’m going to be sorry.

Image by Richard Dudley

What Makes a “Bad” Class?: Blogiversary Post #1

August 10 will mark the SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY of Classroom as Microcosm.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that this blog saved my career.  At the moment I began it, I was ready to quit teaching, but writing about my experiences and discussing them with you has been instrumental in restoring my teaching energy and joy. Thank you!

In celebration, and in preparation for the upcoming school year, I’m returning to the “most shared” posts from the last seven years, posts that, for better or for worse, readers felt compelled to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  I will be re-publishing one a day for the next ten work days, culminating with the #1 most shared post of CaM’s brief history.

obeyToday’s reprised post describes one moment when this blog may have saved me from throwing in the towel. “Bad Class? Define ‘Bad‘” was written in 2010.  I had just finished a semester with one of the most infuriating classes I’d ever had, and was trying to decide: did the fact that they drove me crazy mean things had not gone well?  Or did it just mean that I disliked being out of control?

I’d do things very differently if I met this class today.  I’d love to discuss my change of heart with you, so in the comments, please tell me what you think: what would you do with a class like this?

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 If a class is loud, irritating and occasionally rude, does that mean it’s a bad class?  If I come away from every meeting with them wishing it were the last, does that mean things aren’t going well?  Or are my feelings irrelevant, if the students are actually learning something?

This semester, one class gave me more than the usual level of grief.  They were a Preparation for College English class; Prep courses are designed for second-language students with such weak skills that they can’t be admitted to a 101 course.  In addition to having poor language skills, students in Prep classes often struggle with motivation and other academic difficulties.

We met from 4 to 6 in the afternoon, the worst possible time for any class in my opinion, but particularly for a remedial class.  The students were were both tired and wound up; when I walked into the room each day, the air felt flat and dead on the surface, but with a simmering underneath.  Once class began, every students seemed to have a phone out at all times, and I couldn’t figure out how to deal: should I throw the whole lot of them out? Start taking phones away? My indecision meant I did nothing.

One student, Ahmad, not only refused to focus but was determined to disrupt others’ focus as well.  Many students were happy to join in with his shenanigans, from steering the class discussion wildly off course to trading jovial insults to making silly noises.  The atmosphere was frenetic and a bit hysterical, and it was difficult to work our way through material because so much time was wasted trying to keep the noise under control and telling them to stop doing this and start doing that.

However, I found myself in a conundrum.

I was tempted to tell the main troublemaker to leave and to clamp down on the foolish behaviour, but there was another side to the problem: most people in the class seemed to be learning.  When we went through grammar explanations and exercises, they fell over each other asking questions and challenging the rules I gave them.  They rarely did their homework, but when we did in-class seatwork, they completed it diligently (if noisily) and volunteered answers.  And generally speaking, their grades on tests and essays were fine, except for a handful who just weren’t showing up for class.

The students also seemed to be having a pretty good time.  When we played games, they threw themselves into them with such abandon that we had to take long pauses to calm them down.  And, aside from one or two very shy people who seemed slightly uncomfortable but wryly entertained by all the goings-on, most of the people in the class seemed to genuinely grow to like each other, mostly because of their shared amusement over Ahmad’s inappropriate behaviour (I heard frequent fond murmurs of “Stupid guy!,” as though he were a kitten who kept falling off the couch.)

So what, really, did I want to happen?

I wanted a productive classroom atmosphere, one in which students could learn to the best of their abilities.  But was I sure I didn’t already have that?  It was true that this environment might not be optimal for all students, but is any classroom situation optimal for everybody?  Was my concern really about what was best for the students, or was my concern about my ego, my desire to be a “good teacher” who commands unconditional respect and who can control every aspect of what goes on in her classroom?

When speaking to my office mate, I sometimes drew comparisons between this class and my other section of the same course.  The other section met earlier in the day; there were more girls than boys in the class, which I believe changed the tone; and there were a number of strong, sweet personalities, students who gave off a positive and focused energy.  There were never any behavior issues.  Most of them did their homework.  They never talked when I was talking.  The most cell phone abuse I saw was an occasional quick text message under a desk.

But grammar lessons often passed in dull silence, and when we played games, they never really got off the ground.  What’s more, their grades were not as good as those of the other class.  Maybe they were weaker to begin with, and so felt a greater need to focus, but maybe the other class’s high energy was actually helping them absorb, process and engage more.

I tried a number of tactics with my crazy class.  For a while, I had them sit silently for a minute before class started, and this sometimes helped.  Near the end of the term, after a particularly intolerable lesson, I gave them a stern talking-to, and that helped.  For one class period.  But our last class together was as annoying to me as all the rest, and I never resolved in my own mind whether I should have done things differently.

All those who showed up regularly ended up passing the course, so it’s not like they didn’t learn anything.

Was the atmosphere disruptive to them and their learning, or was it only disruptive to me?

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Tomorrow: the most controversial post I have ever written, complete with some pretty nasty comments.

Image by Miguel Ugalde

 

Summer Book Club Final Week: The Middlesteins

This will be the final installment of this year’s Summer Book Club!  I’ve enjoyed this project a lot – both the incentive it gave me to read a lot of books, and the comments from all of you about what you’ve been reading. My intention is to hold a blog book club again next summer.  Thanks for your participation!

I hope you will continue to follow Classroom as Microcosm throughout the year.  Starting tomorrow, in celebration of the blog’s upcoming SEVEN YEAR ANNIVERSARY (!!!), I will be re-publishing, with commentary, the blog’s top ten shared posts.  These are the posts that readers have liked (or, in some cases, hated) enough to pass on to their friends, family and colleagues.  Tomorrow, look for a reprise of a post that addresses a question on many teachers’ minds as summer vacation draws to a close: what if one of my classes is really, really bad?

Today, summer book club guidelines still apply: if you’ve read the books I’m reading, please tell us what you think, either here in the comments, or with a link to your own blog.  If not, please tell us what you’ve been reading this week.

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middlesteinsIn the opening chapter of Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, we meet five-year-old Edie and her mother.  They are on the four flights of stairs leading to their apartment, and Edie doesn’t want to walk any more; she wants to be carried.  Her mother’s arms are full of big grocery bags, and Edie is not a small girl; a power struggle ensues.  Within a few pages, we learn a lot about Edie.

She just wanted to be carried.  She wanted to be carried and cuddled and fed salty liverwurst and red onion on warm rye bread.  She wanted to read and talk and laugh and watch television and listen to the radio, and at the end of the day she wanted to be tucked into bed, and kissed good night by one or both of her parents, it did not matter which, for she loved them both equally.  She wanted to watch the world around her go by, and make up stories in her head about everything she saw, and sing all the little songs they taught her in Sunday school, and count as high as she could possibly count, which was currently over one thousand.

A few days ago, I read Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker essay “The Scourge of ‘Relatability'”.  In it, Mead explains that our need for stories that are “relatable” is relatively recent, and that it is stunting us and degrading the experience of reading.  She draws a distinction between “identification” and “relatability” that I like very much.

The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.  But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

When we meet Edie many years later, in the second and third chapters, is she “relatable”? (Note: I hate the word “relatable,” and have told students that it is not a word, that it grammatically indefensible as a word, and that they are forbidden to use it.  The New Yorker has now explained its etymology and grudgingly accepted it, so I guess I must give up this fight.)  For me, Edie is not relatable according to Mead’s definition.  She is not a “flattering confirmation of [my] solipsism”: she weighs over 200 pounds, and will gain more than 100 more before the end of the novel; she is dying of complications from diabetes, and yet continues to ply herself with three-sandwich dinners at McDonald’s and enormous multi-course meals at her favourite Chinese restaurant, despite the gentle protestations of her family.  She is hard-edged and full of denial; she is also very smart, very sure of herself, and not prepared to take anyone else’s crap.  Everyone around her is out of their minds with worry about her, and she absolutely refuses to change.

It’s hard to relate to someone who is loved and cared for yet defiantly killing herself, but I identified with many things about Edie; anyone who has struggled with emotional eating, or any other bad but delicious habit, probably will too.  There is a beautiful exchange with her little son and daughter that shows us how our human minds can move from resentment to the grip of love to self-hatred to optimism in the space of seconds:

in theory, she should be happy to spend time with her children, but sometimes she found them a little dull.  Playing with them was boring, and it wasn’t even their fault.  It was just the notion of playing itself….[Benny] pulled from his pocket a string of orange and pink beads on a long, narrow rubber thread and held it up in the air.  “It’s for you.”  He smiled – oh, he beamed! The beam that could break your heart.

I’m a shit, thought Edie.

“It is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen in my entire life,” she said.  She took it from his tiny hand and then tied it around her neck.

“You look pretty,” he said.

She did not look pretty, she thought.  She did not believe she had looked pretty in a long time.  Her business clothes no longer fit her right, not her jackets, not her shirts…but she could not bring herself to buy a new wardrobe.  Maybe if she gave Weight Watchers a shot this time.  There was always the vague promise of that lingering in her future.

That last paragraph is more or less the exact monologue that went through my mind about half an hour before I read it, as I was standing in my closet wondering if I’m going to have to buy myself more new pants than I can afford before school starts, or can tough it out in the stuff I bought myself last year at least until winter comes and I have to start packing long johns under things.  So yes, there’s a certain amount of “relatability” here, but it’s not the type that makes you feel good about yourself.  It’s the type that makes you feel real about yourself.  Uncomfortably, importantly real.

What’s more, there are plenty of other characters to identify with, whether we relate to them or not.  It may be difficult to forgive Richard, Edie’s husband, for abandoning her, but it isn’t difficult to identify with the suffering and helplessness he feels in the face of her abuse and her disorder.  Her daughter-in-law Rachelle may be an uptight little control freak, but she also really wants to do something for Edie, to fix this situation before Edie destroys herself.  The bratty granddaughter, the angry daughter, the son who’s too high to do anything but ask his wife to deal – we may not really “relate” to anyone, because their foibles are so prominently displayed that it’s hard not to judge them and get pissed off with them and wish we could smack them around the head a little until they wise up.

But I didn’t meet a single person in this novel – including the elderly Chinese restaurant owner who falls in love with Edie, and the gay dance teacher whose drawer full of bar mitzvah “save the date” gift magnets signals that everyone wants to be his friend but he has better things to do – that I couldn’t identify with in some way.  Every character is totally infuriating and totally sympathetic.

It’s quite a feat, and it’s a wonderful book.  I’d read it if I were you.

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Here are some books that I’m working on but won’t get a chance to write about, unless I love them enough to put them in my Top Ten Books list at the end of the year.  So far, they’re all really good!

  • Katrina Onstad: Everybody Has Everything. After a car crash, Ana and James find themselves guardians of a little boy, perhaps permanently.  They quickly learn a lot about themselves and their relationship.  I’m about halfway through this and loving it.
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard: A Death in the Family (Book One of the My Struggle series).  Any serious reader living today has to at least attempt this six-volume autobiographical “novel” series.  So far, it’s slow and demands a lot of concentration, but is also stunning.  I’m only a few pages in; it’s my bedside book, and I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading before sleep.  I suspect it will be my subway reading once school starts.
  • Jeff Lemire: Essex County.  This collection of three graphic novels was, like Asterios Polyp, recommended by commenter Kathleen.  It is wonderful, but melancholy; I’m reading it in short instalments.
  • Adelle Waldman: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  I started this book while I was in the hospital, in the hours before surgery (afterwards, I was able to do nothing but fall asleep over and over while listening to podcasts.)  I have read about 100 pages.  It is an easy and biting little satire told from the point of view of an incorrigible ladies’ man.  I was enjoying it a lot, but, because I own it, I put it aside when I got home in order to tackle the books that will eventually have to go back to the library.
  • Tin House: The Writer’s Notebook I and II.  I would really like to look back, once the summer is over, and feel good about the amount of fiction writing I got done.  I am finding these two volumes of collected essays on writing craft to be extremely helpful.  If I’m feeling resistant in the morning, I choose an essay that seems to tackle a writing problem I’m having and I read it over my coffee.  If you are a writer who needs some guidance, I’d recommend these books; I ordered them as part of Tin House’s Writer’s Series.

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Have you read The Middlesteins, or any of the other books I’m working on?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Thanks again for reading, commenting and following along!  I look forward to dedicating next summer to reading more awesome books and hearing about what you’re reading, too.

 

Summer Book Club Week 10: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

chastI am by nature a worrier, and one of the things I worry about is what will happen to me as I get old.  I have no children, and no intention of having any; I have a husband, but we’ll be getting old at more or less the same pace, if we’re lucky.  I have good friends, but no one I would expect could look after me if I got seriously ill or had my mobility permanently compromised.  I live in a part of the world where winters are so harsh that even for the able-bodied, getting up and down the street on foot is a major physical challenge for a couple of months of the year.  My financial affairs are only minimally in order; once it’s time for me to receive my small pension, I will not have a lot of stray cash lying around for luxuries like, say, a residence with in-house care.

I have worried a bit less about caring for my parents, as they are both still young and in good health and have partners considerably younger than them, but as the years pass and I see my friends’ parents become infirm, and as my parents themselves bring up things like funeral costs and end-of-life decisions, I find myself faced more and more with questions about how they will be cared for.  I hope they will live to be very old, but I never thought much about what that would mean until I read Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Chast’s parents have not just her but each other; however, they are in their nineties and are becoming less able to live without constant care.  They have never been easy or reasonable people, and as they age, and as she needs to be more responsible for them, she finds herself under almost unbearable strain.  On top of the medical emergencies and the deterioration of their mental capacities, the biggest burden is financial.  Her parents have considerable savings and she earns a comfortable living as a long-time New Yorker cartoonist, but she is still bowled over by the costs that fall on them: for example, a place in an assisted living facility starts at $7500 a month, and once they require more regular care, the price skyrockets.

Not only does she have to worry about these things, she has to wrestle with her own guilt over her inability to be an angel.  Chast sincerely wants to be the best daughter she can, but finds herself panic-stricken and resentful; time and again she steps up to the plate only to turn tail and flee back to the relative calm of her home and family, hoping that everything will be ok while she hides from the chaos. Part of this is the simple weight of the responsibilities, but part is also due to her parents themselves, especially her mother, with whom she has always had a troubled relationship.  And the major complication is that Chast has tried throughout her adult life to have conversations with her parents about death and money, and they have always brushed her off with the rejoinder of the title; now, when the decisions really do need to be made, they are not being any more cooperative.

While never undercutting the painful realities of this story, Chast makes them funny.  Difficult people make wonderful characters, and her parents are a handful.  To illustrate their preposterous frugality (for which she is now grateful), Chast relates an incident in a department store in which her mother creates elaborate plans to buy reduced-price pantyhose in bulk; none are her size, and the colours are ridiculous, but she could sew small ones together, or cut up big ones to make smaller pairs, and dye them.  Or she could make a vest for her husband out of them.  None of her daughter’s sane arguments will dissuade her.  The scene captures so much about their relationship and about her mother that it’s heartbreaking, but it is also fall-off-the-couch hilarious.  The book is like this from one end to the other: sobering, eviscerating, and hugely entertaining.

My strongest response at the end of this book was gratitude: I live in a country with universal paid health care, my parents are not insane, and if I’m lucky, the struggles Chast illustrates here are some years away.  The greatest gift this book gives, however, is a clear-eyed and searingly honest look at a trauma most of us will have to go through.  The fact that Chast’s humour extends not only to her parents and to the unimaginable situation they find themselves in, but also to herself, makes this one of the best graphic memoirs I’ve ever read.

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Also read this week: The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff.  Ancient Chinese tradition dictates that when Deshi’s brother dies, he needs a corpse bride to accompany him into the afterlife.  Deshi is tasked with finding one.  Thus begins this beautifully illustrated and haunting graphic novel.  Deshi sets off across the countryside, but soon finds that his assignment is a difficult one, and it is made no easier by the appearance of Lily, who would be a perfect corpse-bride candidate if only she were dead.  The story is great; the visuals are stunning.

Abandoned this week:

  • Megan Abbott’s The Fever.  I was laid up for most of this past week recovering from a medical intervention on my uterus.  Despite this, I did not feel averse to reading a novel about a mysterious ailment targeting sexually blossoming young women.  I did, however, feel averse to reading a novel with no sense of humour.  Under different circumstances, I might have enjoyed this book.
  • Joel Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. One complaint that workshoppers have often made about early drafts of my fiction is that these drafts contain long swaths of uninterrupted dialogue that seem mechanical in their desire to advance the plot and characters.  Joel Dicker also has this problem.  It does not seem that he had helpful workshopppers, or editors, to aid him in remedying it.  I was intrigued by the premise: a bestselling author crippled by writer’s block is called upon to investigate, and then write about, his mentor’s implication in the death of a teenage girl over thirty years ago.  I forgave the bald dialogue and ascetic but not very elegant prose for 99 pages, reminding myself all the while that this book is a translation from the French and therefore deserves my indulgence where the language is concerned.  In the end, the prospect of 539 more pages of the same defeated me.

Have you read Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, or any of the other books I attempted this week?  If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week?

Summer Book Club Week 9: Asterios Polyp

This week’s Book Club post is a quick one, as I am recovering from minor surgery and would rather be reading than writing.

Asterios-polyp-bookcoverLast week, commenter Kathleen recommended the graphic novel Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli; I immediately grabbed it from the shelf of my local library and read it in an afternoon.  I have a feeling it will be following me around for the rest of my life.  It is much, much smarter than me, so I feel ill qualified to comment on it.  It’s the story of a “paper architect” (none of his buildings have ever been constructed) whose life has slowly come apart and who is trying to put it back together by leaving everything behind and starting again as a pseudo-car-mechanic in the middle of nowhere.  The book floats between past and present, dream and reality, narrative and abstract philosophical musing.  Loved it.  If you like graphic novels, I think you will love it too.

I hope have more books to tell you about, and more energy to write about them, next week.  In the meantime, what are you reading?

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