Fail Better: Blogiversary Final Post

If there’s one thing we need to teach our students, it’s how to make use of failure.

For  the final instalment in my series celebrating seven years of blogging here at Classroom as Microcosm, I give you my most shared post ever.  This response to Paul Tough’s article “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” (a precursor to his wonderful and deservedly celebrated book How Children Succeed) was chosen by WordPress as a “Freshly Pressed” feature and attracted 246 insightful comments and exchanges.

It’s also my favourite post, one I return to over and over to remind myself that when my students are panicking, the best thing I can say to them is, “You can’t do it? That’s fine.  Do it anyway.”

(I might also show them this, because it is awesome.)

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Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, you’ll get any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho

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

Top 10 Posts of 2012

njpcdISIt’s time again for Classroom as Microcosm’s yearly top 10 roundup!

These are the posts that got the most hits this year. It’s not always clear WHY a given post on this list got so much traffic, but the fact that a lot of people looked at and/or read these posts suggests maybe they have something to offer.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give you a sense of what’s been happening here for the last twelve months.

Please note that this list is comprised solely of posts that were written this year.  It does not include “reprises” of past posts, even if those posts were substantially edited or rewritten.

If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.

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

I expect this review was popular because the book was popular, and deservedly so.  I’ll be using it as a primary text in my English for Child Studies course next year, and I expect to reread it periodically to remind myself of all the things that teachers need to aim to teach: not how to identify a theme or correctly form the passive voice, but how to be resilient, curious, tenacious, etc.  This book made my list of top 10 books of 2012.  It’s great.  Go read it.

This post was also honoured as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” pick, and thus garnered me some new readers, for whom I am very thankful.

2. Plagiarism: What Do Students Think?

In this post, I asked students to tell us why they plagiarize, or, if they never have, why they think others do.  The comments section is full of enlightening responses to this question.

3. Essay Writing: The Cake Analogy

I hope this post was popular because it was useful.  It links to an analogy that explains how and why to structure an essay properly.  A number of teachers have reported that this description of an essay as a layer cake has been very clarifying for their students.

4. Bad Teacher

Maybe this post got a lot of hits because it shares its title with a popular movie.  Nonetheless, rereading it amused me.  It tells the story of a nasty house-hunting experience, in which the bad guy turns out to be a teacher.  The question: can you be a bad person and still be a good teacher?

5. Demoralization vs. Burnout

Being “burnt out” is not the same as being “demoralized.”  Knowing the difference can help you decide what to do.

6. Methinks the Lady Doth Explain Too Much

I hesitated to write about Shayla in 2011, when the email exchange documented here transpired.  At the end of the Winter 2012 semester, I figured enough time had passed that I could write about Shayla with some perspective.  Little did I know that Shayla would turn up in my class again this past semester.  Sometimes I wondered whether I was the one behaving badly.  In those moments, I returned to this post to remind myself that no, I was doing the best I could with a baffling and infuriating student.

7. Things They Should Teach In School

My husband and I bought a house this year.  (I’m keeping track of my home ownership adventures on this new blog.)  In the process of buying a house, we discovered that we know NOTHING about a lot of very important things.  In the comments section of this post, readers suggest topics that really deserve time and attention in school, because we will grow up and need to know how to negotiate a mortgage or repair a bicycle, and most of us won’t know where to begin.

8. “I Do Not Take Off Points.  You Earn Them.”

What do you do with a student who thinks her academic problems are all her teacher’s fault?

9. What’s In a Name?

I can’t seem to make my students learn my name – or any of their teachers’ names, for that matter.  Does it really make a difference if they just call everyone “Miss” and “Sir”?

10. Penny Gives Up

I am happy to report that Penny’s story had a happy ending, but in this post, I consider the lowest point in our relationship.  She’d worked very, very hard and had still failed, and saw little reason to try again.

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Did you read a post this year that you liked, but that didn’t make this list?  I’d love it if you’d let me know; I am considering compiling a list of “commenters’ favourites.”

If you’ve been visiting the blog for a while, please tell me what you think of the new look!

A very, very happy 2013 to you all.  Thank you so much for visiting my blog, for reading my posts, and for leaving your comments or sending me messages.  As always, if you would like me to tackle a topic this year that’s been on your mind, please let me know!  I hope that your year is full interesting challenges with happy outcomes, and that you will continue to visit me and share your stories.

Image by Dez Pain

My Top 10 Books of 2012

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2012, but they were all a part of my 2012 experience.

gone-girl-book-cover-med1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Each of my  top 5 could easily have been #1.  In the end, I put Gone Girl in the top spot because on almost every page I muttered to myself, “How is she DOING this?”

I want to be a mystery novel lover, because the genre is so huge and so there are so many pleasures to be had, but I often get halfway through a mystery and admit to myself that I simply don’t care who did it or why  (P. D. James is someone who often disappoints me this way).  Other times I don’t even get that far, because I am so distracted by the poor writing.  There are a few writers who never let me down. Kate Atkinson is one; Tana French (see below) is another; and now, I have Gillian Flynn, and I am so, so grateful.

personbe2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and I read it in less than 24 hours.  Heti reminds me of Lydia Davis, but without Davis’s chilly control.  Don’t get me wrong – chilly control is what I’m all about – but How Should a Person Be is exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring.  Imagine if Lena Dunham made a film that was only interior monologue – it would be a bit like this novel.  Self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.  Full of laugh-out-loud gorgeous turns of phrase.  I’ve known of Heti for a while but have never felt inclined toward her work – I’ll go back and investigate her earlier books now.

BROKEN HARBOUR_UK3. Broken Harbour by Tana French

See comments on Gone Girl, above.  Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of those rare finds: murder mysteries that are re-readable.  Not only did I list her novel The Likeness as one of my Top 10 Books of 2010, but it may be one of my favourite books of all time.  Broken Harbour may be just as good.  The intersection of intricate plotting with beautiful writing is almost unparallelled.  Also: set in Ireland, which can’t hurt.

areyoumymother4. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This book should probably be #1, but my top picks are all so good that ranking them is stymieing me.  I love graphic novels.  Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which she grapples with the legacy of her complicated father, is also one of my favourite books of all time.  In this sequel of sorts, she turns her analytical eye on her equally difficult relationship with her mother.  One difference: her mother is still alive, and an active participant in the writing and narration of the story.  Fascinating, unrelenting, and funny, and Bechdel’s artwork never fails to slay me.

book-children-succeed5. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I have written several posts on Tough’s work, including a review of this book and a meditation on an excerpt that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  He is a deep thinker on educational issues, yet he writes fluidly and accessibly and has a warm and gentle sense of humour.  This is not just a work of social science; it’s an entertaining and enlightening read.

marbles6. Marbles by Ellen Forney

Another graphic novel.  Forney’s chronicle of her battle with bipolar disorder is hilarious, touching, instructive and hopeful.  Her honest recounting of her own experience is interwoven with historical and medical info.  The central question – “Do I have to be crazy to be a great artist?” – is not answered, but the exploration is illuminating.

Phantomtollbooth7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

One of my projects this year was to prepare a list of 42 children’s books for reading in my Child Studies course.  When I asked for recommendations, The Phantom Tollbooth came up over and over.  I’d never read it. Now I have.  It is great, and the final line is now one of my all-time favourite quotations.

basilef8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Compiling the above-mentioned children’s book list has involved re-reading lots of old childhood favourites.  I’d forgotten how fantastic this novel is.  I must have read it 10 or 12 times as a child, and reading it again now was perhaps my most delightful reading experience of the year, not just for the book itself but for the immediacy with which it transported me back to being a child reader, the wonder of which is difficult to retrieve in adulthood.

(Note: the finished list of books for the Child Studies course can be found here, if you’re interested.)

filmclub9. The Film Club by David Gilmour

This was also a re-read; it was one of the memoirs I taught in my Personal Narrative course this fall.  I thought my students might like it – a story about a father who lets his teenage son drop out of school if he agrees that they watch and discuss three films a week, chosen by the father – but I was surprised by how much they enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed it the second time around.

quiet10. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Is this a cheat?  I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it as an audiobook, and then bought the book so that I could read it, and haven’t gotten around to it yet.  People keep telling me that listening to a book counts, and I loved this book, so it makes the list.  If you often wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you don’t love going to parties, you’d rather write an email than talk on the phone, and you feel anxious if you don’t get some alone time every day, then this book is for you.  It helped me embrace my introverted weirdness and recognize its strengths.

Please tell me your favourite book(s) of the year!  And happy reading in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up and At ‘Em

It’s almost that time again.

I hope you’ve all had a great summer.  Mine has been thrilling, terrifying and exhausting, all on a small domestic scale.  You will hear about some of it in the coming weeks.  The upshot: school begins on Monday, and I am neither refreshed nor enthusiastic, but I am nothing if not dogged, so I am lacing up my boots and printing up my course outlines.

I AM looking forward to communicating with you all again, so, beginning Monday, I will return to regular posting!  Once again, I will post on Mondays and Thursdays, but I am going to shake things up a bit.

Mondays will bring a current post on the events in Siobhan’s teaching life and/or the thoughts in Siobhan’s teaching brain.  On Thursdays, I will dig into the archives and re-publish a post I love that has disappeared from view, possibly with small edits and additions.

Look for the following new posts in the coming weeks:

  • Things I Learned From Buying a House
  • A commentary on Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed (a previous post, “Fail Better,” explored an excerpt published last year)
  • Thoughts on introversion, and on Susan Cain’s book on the subject
  • More advice, solicited and non-, from Auntie Siobhan (send me your questions!)
  • …and of course, much much more.

As ever, I welcome your suggestions of topics.  Post them in the comments here, or visit this page to contact me.  And happy new school year!  See you on Monday.

Image by Dave Dyet

Top 10 Posts of 2011

It’s that time of year again.

(Actually, it’s a little past that time of year – it was that time of year, oh, two weeks ago, when it was still last year.)

Nevertheless: a roundup!

Here are the posts from Classroom as Microcosm that received the most hits this year.  The reasons for their popularity are varied and, in some cases, mysterious.  No matter.  If you’re new to the blog, or haven’t been able to keep up, they give some indication of what’s been going on around here.  If you like what you discover, please subscribe!  (Look to your right.  See the button that says “Sign Me Up!”?  Click it, and away you go.)

1. Fail Better

This post was chosen as a “Freshly Pressed” cover story by WordPress, which guaranteed that it would get tonnes of hits (over 11 000) and comments (245 at last count – about 15 of them are my replies, but I soon ran out of steam.)  In this little anecdote, I explore a problem – my students are so afraid to fail that they won’t even try – through the lens of some recent research – Paul Tough’s NYT Magazine article on “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”  The results are inconclusive but gratifying.  All in all, it was a good week.

2. Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Another “Freshly Pressed” pick.  This one received almost 9 000 hits and 177 extremely interesting and thoughtful comments.  It’s a response to an article by Virginia Heffernan on Cathy N. Davidson’s book Now You See It.  Davidson’s book proposes, among other things, that the academic paper has had its day and needs to make way for more current tech-friendly forms.  I, and the commenters, are not so sure.

3. When in Doubt, Make a Plan

This post is a response to a reader’s plea for advice.  Nick’s not sure college is the place for him, but he can’t see his parents agreeing to any other path.  I can’t solve his problem for him, but I have some suggestions, as do readers.  His original query, and a lot of interesting reader responses, appear here.

4. The Five Best Podcasts in the World

In May, these were my top five, and I still love them all, although “The Age of Persuasion” is now defunct (but was replaced on Saturday by Terry O’Reilly’s highly anticipated followup, “Under the Influence.”)  If I wrote this post now, I might rearrange these and introduce a couple of new favourites, including “On the Media” and “Planet Money.”  If you have a favourite podcast, please visit the post and leave a link in the comments.

5. What Do Students Think Should Change About School?

I got so many responses to this open call that I followed it with a full week of guest spots: five posts from students explaining how school could be better.  You will find most of those responses in the comments section of this post, along with lots of other interesting ideas on how to improve the education system.

6. “Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

Ah, plagiarism: the inexhaustible inspiration for teacher rants everywhere.  Here, I discuss an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Rob Jenkins explains that we need to just chill out.

7. Character = Behaviour: A Lesson Plan

This extremely successful lesson, in which students write reference letters for fictional characters and, at the same time, learn a bit about how their own behaviours reflect on their characters, is just now coming home to roost.  This winter, I am receiving an unprecedented (i.e. crushing) number of reference letter requests from students who clearly took this lesson to heart.

8. Life and Death and Anthologies

The stats for this post took a couple of random spikes, and I’m not sure why.  I like it a lot, but it’s just a quiet little meditation on the joys of anthologies and of travel, and on the links between the two.  In particular, it describes my experience of reading an anthology of Irish short fiction while travelling through Ireland.  It seems to have resonated with some people.  Perhaps it will for you.

9. Why Do I Have to Learn This?

We don’t always take this question seriously.  Louis Menand says we should.  I agree.

10. What Young Adults Should Read

After a Wall Street Journal essay made some indignant pronouncements about the trash that young people are reading these days, and after everyone got all upset about it, I threw in my two cents.  This post makes special reference to the thoughts and writings of Linda Holmes, blogger at NPR’s “Monkey See” pop culture blog, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” and person I most want to be when I grow up (granted, she’s probably younger than me, but I still have a long way to go.)

And, just because I loved it:

Bonus Post: Rolling In the Girls’ Room

I walked into the women’s washroom outside my office.  I discovered three students, two of  them male, sitting on the counter, rolling joints.   This post transcribes a Facebook conversation with my friends and colleagues, in which my response to this event is analyzed, critiqued, and mostly (but not entirely) supported.

*

Resolutions for 2012:

  • Continue to post on Mondays and Thursdays.  Posts will, if all goes well, appear around 9 a.m., although dissemination to Facebook, OpenSalon etc. may be slightly delayed, as I am teaching early classes.  If you want to be sure to know about posts the moment they go up, please make use of the “Sign Me Up!” button at the top of the right-hand margin to receive email notifications for every post.
  • Tweet more!  I am lazy Twitterer.  However, I find all sorts of cool stuff that I don’t have time to blog about but should really share with you all.  So now I will.  Again, there is a button to the right that will allow you to follow me at @siobhancurious.  Follow me!
  • Be present, be present, be present.

Do you have a favourite post that you read here this year, and that I haven’t mentioned above?  Do you have blogging or teaching resolutions that you’d like to share?  Please leave a comment.  I always love hearing from you.

Thursday’s post: my favourite reading experiences of 2011.

And finally: Happy New Year, everyone!

Image by Maxime Perron Caissy

Fail Better

Last week, my students were preparing for their first in-class essay, and they were freaking out.

We’re writing commentaries.  In a commentary, you read a short text you haven’t seen before and then comment on the themes or effects that the author has produced, and explain how he/she has produced them.  Commentaries are hard, but we’ve been working on them for weeks now, and they’re mostly getting the hang of it.  Now that they know they’ll be graded, though, they’re panicking.

In one class, a handful sat paralyzed during our final exercise, unable to write anything at all on their paper.  I visited each of them periodically, asking them probing questions and nudging them to put something, anything, down.  They scratched a few notes, then stared at the page, their faces immobilized.

“Is this ok?” Octavia asked me repeatedly.  “Does my thesis statement make sense?  If I want to talk about the point of view, can I do that?  What should I say?”

“Just write it down,” I said.  “We’ll discuss in a few minutes.  Just write it down.”

At the end of the practice class, I asked all the students to share what they had come up with, and some seemed to have a handle on things.  Others who’d been floundering looked more and more relieved as I wrote thesis after thesis on the board and said, “Yes, this is what you’re after!  Please explain!  You see, it’s not easy, but with a bit of thought, you can get started.”

I went directly to my other section of the same course, and there, things went south much more quickly and noisily.

I asked them to do the same individual exercise, to be discussed together at the end of class.  It was clear that a number of them had no idea where to begin.  For a few, this wasn’t surprising: they’d missed classes and previous practice essays and were only now realizing that it was catching up with them.  Nevertheless, the instructions were clear, they had a rubric with all of the criteria in front of them, and EVERY SINGLE CLASS SO FAR THIS SEMESTER has been preparation for this essay.

Some students were working diligently away, but most, after a cursory reading of the assigned text and a few moments of simmering silence, began talking to their neighbours.  They were on task – they were asking for help, comparing notes, all things that would normally be par for the class.  But the noise was growing louder, and the purpose of this exercise was to do the work alone.

I reminded them of this.  “Next class, you have to write this essay by yourself.  Your neighbour can’t help you.  Why aren’t you taking advantage of the practice time right now?”

The grumbles began.  “Miss, can we have, like, a five minute discussion after we get the text next class, so we can share our thoughts?”

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

“Of course it’s hard!” I cried.  “If it were easy, there’d be no reason to study it in school!”

But I paused.  Something was happening here that I wasn’t acknowledging.  What was it?  I let them buzz a little longer, and then I marched to the front of the room.

“Listen to me,” I said.  They stopped talking.

“I am VERY CONCERNED,” I said.  “But it’s not because I don’t think you can do this.  I’m concerned because YOU don’t think you can do it.  You’re panicking and throwing your hands in the air and not even trying.”

“We’re like the girl in the passage!” Jamila piped up.  “She can’t do what she wants, so she just gives up doing anything!”

“You see?” I said.  “Jamila and I have been talking for twenty minutes and she’s been saying she doesn’t understand.  But see?  She understands SOMETHING.”

“But it’s not enough, miss,” Jamila said.  “What else am I supposed to say?”

“Listen to me,” I said.  “I guarantee you, if you come in next class believing you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.”

“Guaranteed!”  Zack nodded and pointed through the air at me in a “sing it, sister” gesture.

“But you can do SOMETHING, if you stop worrying about doing it wrong.  If you sit there for two hours and write a bunch of notes and come up with a thesis statement or a literary device or anything, I’ll give you any points I can give you.  Then, when you take it home later to revise, you’ll have something to start the next draft with.  You might fail this essay.  But if you fail the essay, THE WORLD WILL NOT END.”

Zack raised his hands to the sky.  “Thank you miss!” he yelled.  “I need to hear that.  I do.”

“Just do it.  Even if you think your ideas are ridiculous, just write them down.  If the draft you do in class doesn’t make any sense, we’ll work on it, and you’ll do it again at home, and maybe next time it will be better.  Honestly, guys, if you get out of college not knowing how to write a perfect literary commentary, it’s not a big deal.  But if you get out of college knowing that now you can sit with a random text for a couple of hours and come up with some things to say about it, that will be an accomplishment.”

I let them go.  I came home exhausted.  My New York Sunday Times was still sitting on the table, untouched.  I pulled out the Magazine, to discover, on the cover, Paul Tough’s essay “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In it, he interviews teachers, principals and other educators who believe that “character” – variously defined – is a more important ingredient in long-term life success than academic smarts are.

Tough writes much of his article about the American KIPP schools, remarkably successful charter schools for students in difficulty.  KIPP graduates an impressive number of its at-risk students, but followup studies have shown that these students don’t always thrive once they get to college, and a large number don’t complete their degrees.  According to one of his subjects,

 the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically [at the KIPP schools]; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead…

Another researcher tells him,

…learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students…

According to Tough and some of his subjects, the key ingredient is grit, the ability to persist in the face of obstacles and even failure.

GRIT! I thought.  This is what I’ve been saying all along!  If I can face down my limitations, if I can labour to be, not perfect, but better – I will be … happy?  Is grit something we can learn?  If so, how can we teach it?

Two days later, my students were still labouring to be perfect.  In my first class, I had to visit Octavia several times.  “STOP SECOND-GUESSING YOURSELF,” I told her.

“I know, miss,” she said.  “I always do that, always.  I don’t know how to stop.”

I don’t know how to help her stop, either.  But after I whispered “WRITE IT DOWN” one more time, and walked away, she began writing things down.  She filled a couple of pages.  I haven’t read them yet, but those pages, regardless of what’s on them, are an achievement.

Teaching them how to write a commentary is all very well, but what is it for?  Maybe the main thing is for is to help them practice grit: Yes, it’s hard.  Just keep going.  If you fail, fail as well as you can, and then try again.

We need to spend less time talking about literary techniques and more time talking about grit.

Image by shho

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