When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods

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

Children’s Book List: Finalized

mCTJspoDear Readers:

Many of you asked to see my finalized list of classic children’s books for next term’s Child Studies course.  Here it is.  As it stands for now, anyway.

My criteria:

  • I included only books I have read, or that I really should have read by now, or that I have some interest in reading.
  • I want each student to become an “expert” on the book he/she chooses.  Most of these books have stood the test of quite some time, so that the student can research the life of the author, book reviews, scholarly responses, the historical context, etc.
  • I chose books suitable for children of 8-12 years old; they are mostly on the older end of this spectrum.
  • Each student is expected to do a 10-minute presentation on one book.  However, if two students want to present books by the same author, they may do a 20-minute presentation together.  The either/or options at the end of this are for this purpose.  So, for example, a student can decide to present alone on Charlotte’s Web; if another student wants to present on The Trumpet of the Swan, and the first student agrees, they can present together.

I have not included authors’ names here because I have been at the computer all day and can’t be bothered, but most of you will know who wrote most of these anyway.

I am conscious that this is a super WASPy list, and may try to make some adjustments to remedy this.

In addition to two books from this list, students will be required to read Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and the first Harry Potter book.

This week, I reread The Railway Children and most of Five Children and It (both terrific, but The Railway Children wins.)  I also spent a delightful half hour in my local second-hand bookshop, talking to the owner – a Francophone who has discovered a lot of English children’s books as an adult – about Harriet the Spy.

  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  2. The Phantom Tollbooth
  3. A Wrinkle in Time
  4. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  5. Harriet the Spy
  6. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  7. The Hobbit
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird
  9. Treasure Island
  10. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  11. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  12. Little House on the Prairie
  13. Island of the Blue Dolphins
  14. The Wind in the Willows
  15. Pippi Longstocking
  16. The Borrowers
  17. The Indian in the Cupboard
  18. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  19. Hatchet
  20. Holes
  21. Tuck Everlasting
  22. The Giver
  23. The Dark is Rising
  24. Heidi
  25. Swallows and Amazons
  26. Mine for Keeps
  27. The Secret World of Og
  28. Owls in the Family
  29. The Call of the Wild
  30. The Great Brain
  31. Where the Red Fern Grows
  32. The Cricket in Times Square
  33. The Incredible Journey
  34. What Katy Did
  35. Little Women
  36. Charlotte’s Web OR The Trumpet of the Swan
  37. The Secret Garden OR A Little Princess
  38. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t OR Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
  39. James and the Giant Peach OR Danny the Champion of the World
  40. The Railway Children OR Five Children and It
  41. Anne of Green Gables OR Emily of New Moon

I will be delighted to hear more suggestions, to receive your approvals and disapprovals, and to answer questions.  I’m sure there are plenty of opinions about what I’ve left off here; let me have it (there’s always next year’s list…).

Image by Lynne Lancaster

Children’s Literature Reading List Update

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

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

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

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

This is my JOB.  Are you kidding me?

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

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

-The Phantom Tollbooth

Image by Jules Feiffer

42 Books for Kids

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

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

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

Here’s my list so far:

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

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

Image by brainloc

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