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

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

 

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

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

Classroom Blogging

nIMK48mI’m having my students keep blogs again.  I’m both excited and wary.

Student blogs are a lot more fun to read than papers, but they’re also more difficult to evaluate.  The setup process has gone fairly smoothly so far, but it’s still been a lot of work.  Reading a ton of blog posts every week can be really inspiring, but can also be draining.

The setup for my class is this: Each student will keep a blog.  They’ve been assigned to “blog teams” and are required to comment on others’ blogs as well.  There are minimum requirements they must meet to pass, but if they want to do well, they will have to post more regularly and engage more actively in their blog networks.

I’ve done a few things to ease the burden of reading, commenting on and grading 82 student blogs.

  • I’m requiring students to post only 3 times a month.  However, this is a MINIMUM requirement; a student who wants 100% on this assignment will need to do more than that.
  • I’ve created very detailed written guidelines on possible blog topics, protocols for commenting, and evaluation criteria.  Some students seem overwhelmed by this flood of information at the moment, but I hope they will find it useful as they get into the blogs.
  • Rather than receiving a grade for each post (impossible!) or a single grade at the end of the term (as I did last time; totally overwhelming), students will receive a grade for February (and a face-to-face meeting for feedback), a grade for March, and a grade for April.
  • I’ve decided to set aside a few minutes at the beginning of each class for blog concerns.  Today we’ll go over the mechanics of putting up their first post and making their first comments; next week we will talk about the ins and outs of using images (including copyright issues.)

Their first posts are due on Friday.  Do you have any advice?  I love student blogs, but last time I used them, I thought the workload might put me in an early grave.  What tips do you have for streamlining, responding, tackling problems, and otherwise making this assignment as effective as possible?

Image by charcoal

ClassROOM: Teaching and Physical Space

ChairI was thrilled when I learned my schedule this semester: noon to 4 most days, a nice change from my usual 8 a.m. start.  Then I learned the catch.  When you teach in the middle of the day, it seems, you’re much more likely to end up in a terrible classroom.

My first class of the semester was in a room with no computer projection system.  A major inconvenience for that course, but resolvable – we have portable systems that are usually available, as long as I book in advance and leave for class early enough to get to the IT Centre first.

My next class was, to my astonished chagrin, in the college amphitheatre.  It is, as the name would suggest, a lecture hall.  It seats around 100, so the first order of business was to move everyone in my class of 40 down into the first 4 rows.  The bigger problem is that – well, that it’s a lecture hall.  It has a wonderful big projection screen and interesting acoustics, but I’ve never lectured for more than 10 minutes at a go in my life.  The seats are bolted to the tables, and it’s impossible for me to get between rows; when it comes to group work, moving students around is going to be a crazy headache.  Doing in-class essays is also going to be a challenge, as everyone’s right on top of everyone else.  Lecture halls are for lecturing, not teaching.  I have no idea how I’m going to work with this space.  (When I asked the students how they feel about it, though, they said, “It’s cool!  It’s like being at the movies!”  I guess so, but they’re unlikely to still feel that way after staring at ME for a few weeks.)

The next day I had my third class.  It’s in an almost windowless room in the basement, and five minutes before our first lesson, all the power in the building went out.  I fumbled my way downstairs to find that the students were all shining their phones around to see each other, as the room was completely black.  Mercifully, the power came on about 10 minutes in – or maybe not so mercifully; the fluorescent glare revealed up a blank, bunged-up, low room twice as deep as it was wide, meaning that I seemed to be shouting at the students in the back through a train tunnel.  I have no trouble projecting, but a room like this magnifies student-in-the-last-row behaviour issues; they truly believe themselves to be invisible, so I have a feeling a lot of pauses and “ladies in the back, I’m still talking”s are going to be necessary.

Some colleagues have suggested that I make room change requests – the winter semester is never as crowded as the fall, so there’s an outside chance that such requests will be honoured.  However, I’m curious.  How will working in these spaces affect my teaching and my students’ learning?  How can I accommodate myself and my lessons in creative ways?  Is it even possible that dealing with challenging spaces will make me a better teacher?  I’m tempted to stick with these weird rooms and see what happens.

Have you had experiences, good or bad, with challenging classrooms or other teaching spaces?  How did you deal with them?  What did you learn?

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Friends, I’ve taken on too many projects.  I’m going to do my absolute best to post once a week at least, but the next few weeks may be sporadic.  I’ll do my best to be back on a regular schedule as soon as possible.  I hope your winter semester is starting off really well!

Image by Agnes Scholiers

Now You’ve Made Me Mad: Reprise

I don’t like this time of the semester.  A couple of years ago at around this time, I summarized why.

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What do you mean, “Why am I failing English?”

You’ve failed EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT since the beginning of the course.  You handed in your first essay 2 weeks late, and you wouldn’t have handed it in at all if I hadn’t asked you where the hell it was.  You got 37% on your last practice essay, but you didn’t ask me a SINGLE QUESTION about why, or even look at the detailed feedback sheet I filled out for you, and then you went ahead and wrote the real essay, and got a 40% on that.

What do you mean, what can you do to catch up?  There are TWO WEEKS left in the semester.  You’ve been failing English since the fourth or fifth week – why are you coming to see me about this now?  Your grades have been posted up this whole time.  The fact that you’re failing English is NOT NEWS.

Yes, I’m sure your other courses HAVE been very difficult.  If you’ve chosen to prioritize your other courses, then that is a perfectly legitimate choice.  We all make such choices.  Most of us also recognize that if we don’t prioritize something, we’re not likely to do very well in it.

Why am I angry with you?  I’m angry with you because you’ve had 13 weeks to deal with this problem, and yet you march into my office when the semester is, for all intents and purposes, OVER, and you suggest that a) the fact that you’re failing English is a total surprise to you, and b) I am somehow responsible for the fact that you are surprised, and c) I should now be doing something to help you deal with this problem.  THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE DONE NOW, and certainly nothing that I can do.  The time for dealing with this problem has PASSED.

What’s that?  Why don’t I care about your success?

I do care about your success.  I care about it very much.  I’ve been sitting here in my office, and standing in your classroom, caring about it, all semester.

You’ve been so busy not doing your work, you haven’t noticed.

Photo by Dominic Morel

The Power of Regret

I’m not one to regret things.

Of course, I make tons of stupid mistakes.  I look back at things I’ve said, letters I’ve written, men I’ve stayed with past the point of all basic sense, and thought, “Well, that was a colossal error.”

But that’s not the same as regret.  My underlying attitude, when I bother to think about it, is that in each instance, I’ve done my best with what I’ve had.  My state of mind + the external circumstances + my genetic wiring + my previous experience + the alignment of the planets + variables x, y and z = idiot behaviour.  I will try not to do it again.  Moving on.

However, in my teaching life, there are moments when I worry.  I’m dealing with young lives here, and I try to think carefully before I speak or take action, but even so, I sometimes come away from a lesson or a student conference and think, “I don’t know.  I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

We all have memories of teachers who did or said things that threw us off course for years, or who unfairly crushed our self-esteem.  I’m not opposed to derailing students, or altering their overblown self-esteem toward reality.  I AM opposed to confronting students with things they can’t handle, or venting my anger, or making bad situations worse.

In the past week, I’ve had two interactions with students that I now regret.

1. Michael:

I’ve written about Michael a couple of times before, describing an essay he wrote about his troubled home life and the severe difficulties he’s experiencing with his schoolwork.  Last week, Michael did his oral presentation, and he got a zero.  He spoke for barely a minute (for a 5-7 minute talk) and nothing he said bore any relationship to his topic or made any sense.  I was unable to give him points or feedback in any of the categories he was being graded on.  It was hard to watch.

When the time came to discuss the presentation with him, he just nodded as I explained why he’d be getting a zero.  Then I told him that at this point, I see no way for him to pass the course.  “I know you’re working hard,” I said.  “But even with all your hard work, you’re not managing to meet the requirements.”

The difficulty came with what to say next.  How to tactfully explain that because he is demonstrating absolutely no progress from assignment to assignment, and is not in possession of the most fundamental skills required to pass, he’ll probably never  complete college?  How to say, “It makes no sense that you ever graduated from high school”?  How to say, “This is the wrong path for you”?

You might ask, “Well, who are you to say these things anyway?” Good question.  Here’s why I felt it was important to say them. I’ve talked to other teachers and tutors who know Michael, and they confirm what I’ve seen: he works very, very hard, and he makes no progress.  None.  It breaks my heart that he continues to waste his time, when he could be investing himself in something that brings him enjoyment and maybe even an income.  For some reason, he’s been continually given false expectations of what he is capable of.  Someone, somewhere – maybe many someones – has to help him understand that he needs to stop banging his head against this wall.

I asked, “Have you ever spoken to someone in counselling about your bigger plans?  About what you want to do with your life, and where college fits in?  I can see that school is a big struggle for you, and it’s causing you a lot of anxiety.  If you talked to a counsellor, he or she might be able to help you think about other options, and plan your decisions with all the facts in mind.  If you have a hard time explaining it, you’re welcome to tell the counsellor to call me, and I can explain what I’ve observed, if that would be helpful.”

I handed him the info for the counselling centre.  He took it and thanked me.

“Is there anything else I can do to help you with this?” I asked.

He hesitated.  “It’s just…do you think, if I really worked hard for the rest of the semester, there is even a small chance that I could pass?”

“No, Michael,” I said gently.  “Realistically, I don’t see that happening.”

He nodded again.  “Thanks, miss,” he said, and left.

I have been racked with self-doubt ever since we had this exchange.  Who the hell do I think I am?  Do I really think this kind of discussion is going to change anything, other than making him feel terrible?  Should I be physically leading him down to counselling and sitting him in front of someone?  Should I just keep giving him failing grades and gentle feedback and keep my nose out of the rest of it?  Do I know for sure that it’s impossible for him to pass?  Should I be pressing him to tell me more about his situation, like what happens when he brings home a failing grade?

The bottom line is: I didn’t know what else to do.  Nevertheless, I’m worried about the consequences of what I’ve done.

2. Kaneesha

I wrote about Kaneesha two weeks ago.  She’s a royal pain.  At the end of last week, she came in for a mandatory appointment to discuss her next essay rewrite, and was perfectly pleasant and asked pertinent questions.  I felt tempted to leave things at that, and to hope that this productive conversation would change something in our relationship.  However, past experience tells me that such hopes are in vain.  So when we were done talking about her essay, I said, “Now we need to discuss something else: your level of attention in class.”

A sheepish smile came over her face.  I detailed her offenses: texting constantly, sleeping on her desk, talking while I’m talking, sighing and yawning loudly.  She shook her head, still smiling: “I’m sorry!  I’m really sorry.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re sorry, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.  I’m not sure how to talk to you about it, so I thought that, rather than being angry about it, I’d give you the chance to explain WHY you do these things.”

She just stared at me for a few moments.  I couldn’t tell if she was thinking, or just paralyzed.

“Well?” I asked.

“I don’t know what to say,” she said.  “I don’t know.”

Let’s pause.  In hindsight, I should have stopped right here, and done something with this information.  I could have told her to think about it and come up with a response.  Write me a paragraph at home, entitled “Why I’m Not Always Focused in Class,” to be counted as a homework assignment, for example.  This would have given her a chance to think about what I was saying, and to express herself without sitting under my accusatory gaze.

Instead, I launched into lecture mode.  (A sign that I hadn’t thought this through.)  Point 1: it’s hard for me to do my job when I’m annoyed.  Point 2: she’s distracting other students, and it’s not fair to them.  Point 3: if she continues making noise, talking and distracting people, she’ll be ejected from the class.  Point 4: if she just quietly continues being rude, I’ll be angry with her, and I don’t like being angry, but I can’t change her; only she can do that.  And so forth.

Finally, I asked, “Do you understand what I’m saying here?”

“I…” She was still half-grinning, but with a touch of shame.  “I just… I don’t think I’m that bad!”

Now, this kind of assertion always throws me for a loop.  My natural tendency is to second-guess all my feelings and responses, so contradiction of them sends me into a spiral:  Maybe she really isn’t that bad! Maybe I’m overreacting! This was a terrible idea!

“It’s not a question of being bad, Kaneesha,” I said.  “It’s a question of creating a difficult atmosphere in a small classroom.  You may think your behaviours are normal, but they’re not normal behaviours for a college student.  If you look around the class, you’ll see that others aren’t doing those things.  I guarantee you that some of them are tired, some of them are bored, but they’re doing their best and they’re not being rude.”

At that point, I could see her face closing down.  “All right?” I concluded.  “I want you to think about what I said.”

“All right,” she said sullenly, and gathered up her things and left.

Argh, I thought.  Stupid.  Useless.  Why did I have to use words like “normal”? Why didn’t I give her something concrete to do, to change, to focus on? I just made things worse.

*

I haven’t seen Michael or Kaneesha since these conversations (and I suppose that, depending on what Michael decides, I may not see him again.)  I am anticipating negative fallout from each of them, but we’ll just have to see.

Have you taken actions with students, with teachers, with loved ones, with friends, that you’ve later regretted?  Why do you think you did what you did at the time?  Were you doing your best, or were you careless?  Were you able to fix things later? How?

Image by Cecile Graat

I Don’t Like You

Basic instructions on classroom management often include comments like, “Of course you will like some students more than others; this is normal.  It is essential, however, that students not know this.”

Wise advice.  Very difficult to follow, in my experience.

I spend a lot of energy trying to see the good in even the most irritating of students, but sometimes I fail.  This semester, I have two students whom I have tried to understand and appreciate, but I can’t.  I dislike them.  I wish they would drop my classes.  Failing that, I wish they would become entirely different people.  I hate it that I’ll have to spend the rest of the semester gritting my teeth and tolerating them instead of having productive relationships in which each of us learns something valuable.  Maybe you have some advice.

1. Kaneesha

Kaneesha is very beautiful and very bored.  She clearly has important engagements on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, because in our 8 a.m. Monday/Thursday class, she yawns and sighs loudly to demonstrate how bored and tired she is.  If I reprimand her for talking audibly or making other distracting noises, she spreads herself ostentatiously on her desk and falls asleep.  Otherwise, she plays with her phone until I tell her to put it away; the next class, she does it again.  When I call on her, she speaks in a barely audible monotone; when I ask her to speak up, she repeats in exactly the same barely audible monotone; when I ask her to repeat a third time, she sighs and projects just loud enough that I can’t quite justify asking her to do it again.  (This despite the fact that, when she’s speaking to her friend in the next seat, everyone in the room can hear her.)  When I hand papers to her, she stares at them, or reaches not quite far enough to grasp them, so, if I were playing her game, I would have to reach that extra few inches that she is too tired to stretch.  Instead, I say, “Kaneesha, please take the paper I am handing to you.”  And she does, but the next time, she does exactly the same thing.

I can’t be sure that Kaneesha’s hostility is personal.  Maybe this is how she thinks one is supposed to behave with teachers, or maybe she resents having to take a remedial class and wants everyone to know it.  Maybe she’s this way with everyone.  I’m not really concerned one way or another.  I AM concerned about my own reaction – I find myself unable to even look her in the eye because just the sight of her infuriates me.  I’m fond of everyone else in her class, and I think I interact pleasantly with all the others, but every time I speak to Kaneesha, I have to take a breath and steel myself.  It must be evident to everyone that I dislike her.  This is not good.  I’m not sure what to do about it.

2. Shayla

I’ve written about Shayla before.  She failed this same course a year ago, and last semester, I published a slightly edited version of our final email exchange in that course, an exchange that many of you agreed was baffling and exhausting.  Shayla is back, and nothing has changed.

She missed the first two weeks of the semester.  When she finally showed up, she didn’t have her course books, and hadn’t done any reading or other preparations, and so was unable to participate in the class activities.  I pulled her out of class and sent her away, explaining that if she didn’t entirely change her approach, I could guarantee that she’d end up failing the course again.  She missed two more classes and then showed up again without her books and without her homework done.  She’d just moved, she said, and couldn’t find her books among the boxes.  I told her to stop texting, look on with someone else, and do whatever portion of the work she could.

Then I told the class that this problem was arising far too often, and so for the next couple of weeks, we would be doing individual work only.  This way, people who were prepared would not be burdened by doing group work with classmates who hadn’t bothered.  Anyone who came without their books and without having done the required reading would have to leave the class.

Shayla missed the next class, the first in-class essay.  She left a phone message to say that she was sick; I wrote her that without a medical note, she wouldn’t be able to make up the essay but could still do it as the “rewrite” portion of the assignment.

She showed up to the next class without her books and without her homework done.  When I asked her why, she stared at me blankly and said, “I can’t find my books.”

I told her to pack up her things and meet me outside.  There, I kind of lost my mind.  (Please note: As a rule, I do not yell.  I’m not a yeller.  However, it’s possible I was yelling at Shayla – it’s all a bit of a blur.)  I told her that she needed to go away and deal with whatever was preventing her from doing the absolute basic necessary things a college student needs to do.  “I can’t help you,” I said, “because you’re not doing your part.  You need to think about why you’re in college, and whether you can resolve whatever problems are preventing you from doing your work. We are almost TWO MONTHS INTO THE SEMESTER and you haven’t any books?  Fix this, because if you don’t, you are going to fail AGAIN.”

She didn’t show up for her personal appointment concerning the “rewrite” of the essay she missed in class.  The next class, she once again showed up with no books and no homework.  A classmate was supposed to meet her so she could photocopy the book, Shayla said, but the classmate hadn’t shown up for class.  “You were supposed to get the book from her today?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“So you haven’t done any of the reading.  You planned to get the book from her today – when were you planning on doing the reading?”

She once again stared at me blankly.  “Can I borrow your book?” she asked.

“Go home, Shayla,” I replied.

On Saturday morning, I received a message from Shayla.  Attached was a draft of the essay that she was supposed to come see me about on the day of her personal appointment, an appointment that she had missed without apology or explanation.  “I am wondering if you will read my essay and correct it and write comments about everything I should improve before I hand it in,” she wrote.

My reply was brief, and amounted to “No.  You missed your chance.  Good luck.”

If I hadn’t already battled with Shayla’s cluelessness for an entire semester, I’m not sure how I’d be responding to her right now.  Clearly she has a serious issue: a drug problem, maybe?  A cognitive disability?  As the previous post about her demonstrates, one of my biggest weaknesses is that I tend to explain and explain and explain because I believe in the power of rational thinking, but in Shayla’s case, I have to stop explaining and let the chips fall.  It’s that tension, between my natural instincts and my knowledge that they are of no use to me in this situation, that is making me so angry with her.  I knew that dealing with her again would be challenging, but I had no idea that it would be EXACTLY THE SAME and she would have learned ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from her previous failures.

What do you do when you are required to work with, help, and encourage someone but they undercut all your efforts, perhaps deliberately, and you end up just wanting the person to disappear?  Being angry is exhausting.  It takes away from my classes and from my own well-being, but there are days when I don’t know how to rise above it.  The semester isn’t even half over; these girls will be in my life for another two months, at least.  (If Shayla fails again, I may never be rid of her.)  Is there something I can change in the way I interact with them?  Or do I need to just take deep breaths and jog on?

Image by Lynne Lancaster

There Has To Be a Better Way

I am totally over school.

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

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

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

School is the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Nicolas Raymond

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