Prompt #1: The Writing on Learning Exchange: Learning About School

nkuVRWeWelcome to the Writing on Learning Exchange!  Every week or two I will publish a prompt that is meant to get us thinking and writing about some aspect of our learning and/or teaching experience.  Whether you are a teacher, a learner, a parent or just a citizen who cares about the growth and development of other citizens, I hope you will find some inspiration here.

Some guidelines:

  • Respond to the prompt in whatever way you wish.  It is meant to be a springboard, not a cage.  If the question or topic makes you think about something that seems totally unrelated, follow that thought and see where it takes you.  No wrong answers.
  • You could write a post on your own blog, in which case I hope you will link back to the prompt post, and also leave a link to your response in the prompt post’s comments.  (This is a great way to find some more readers – or maybe it will be the impetus you need to finally start that blog you’ve been sitting on?)
  • You could just leave a comment responding to the prompt.
  • Or you could write about the subject privately, for your own edification – if you do that, I hope you’ll at least leave a comment saying that you wrote about it, and telling us how the writing went.
  • I hope you will have time to read and comment on some of the responses of others. However, if you just want to write a response and move on, or just use the prompt as a basis for your personal internal reflection, that is totally fine.

So here’s the first prompt: What are your first memories of going to school? 

Some details to consider (or ignore, as you see fit):

  • Where and when did you begin school?  How old were you?
  • Do you remember having any preconceptions about school before you began? Were there people around you (older siblings, older friends, adults…) who gave you information about school that shaped your impression of it before  you started?
  • What happened on your first day? What do you remember about the physical surroundings, the teachers, the other students, the activities?
  • If you don’t remember the very first days of school, do you remember any particular school experiences from your very early school years?

Just grab your first thoughts and impressions and go – don’t overthink!  And please share if you feel you can.  I look forward to hearing how this goes for you.

Thanks to Gayla Trail at You Grow Girl, whose creative writing club for gardeners, the Grow Write Guild, inspired the Writing on Learning Exchange.

Image by John Boyer

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?

*

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.

*

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

Scrabbling for the Stone: Reprise

My meditation practice has fallen dormant in the last couple of years, but, as the semester begins slowly winding to a close, I feel that rejuvenating it would be wise.  Students are panicking, and all kinds of unpleasant behaviours result.  What’s more, I’m tired and busy, and so I’m not always nice.

A couple of years ago, the end of semester was particularly hard, and meditation helped.

What do you do when it all seems a bit too much?

*

It’s been a rough week.

I got a couple of shrieking emails from Lia on Tuesday.  I wrote to another student, Janet, on Saturday, to let her know that I wouldn’t be grading her essay rewrite, because I’d found it on my office floor days after the deadline, with no indication of when it had been submitted.  Janet’s response was neither contrite nor understanding, and, like Lia’s, repeated the word “unfair” several times.

I then received an email from Yannick, whose story I began telling a few weeks ago. He wanted to meet with me.  Yannick, as I detailed in the earlier post, disappeared from my course about a month into the semester and then reappeared three weeks before the end, asking if there was any way he could pass, because if he didn’t, he’d be suspended for a year.  Since then, he’s been showing up for class and doing reasonably good work trying to catch up, but not the exceptional work that would be necessary to compensate for his absences.  I responded as follows.

Yannick, please let me know what the nature of your questions is.  If you’d like to discuss the grade for your blog, for example, I’d like to point out that the grade you received is in fact quite generous, and I won’t be altering it.  You’re welcome to take this up with the Grades Review committee if you really feel there’s a problem.

Unless you have something new to discuss, I feel we’ve talked about your situation quite enough.

I spent Saturday in knots.  I was hyperventilating, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and finally I gave up trying to mark papers and went to a yoga class.  This helped, but Saturday night I couldn’t sleep.  I lay awake having angry conversations in my head in which I justified my actions to Janet and Yannick.  I was so agitated that at one point I got out of bed, booted up the computer, and began researching education PhD programs at the local universities.  Maybe, I thought, I needed to spend some time thinking about the classroom instead of being in it.

But on Sunday morning, I shook myself awake and dragged myself to the morning session of Nyinthun, the monthly day-long meditation intensive, at the Montreal Shambhala Centre.  As I settled onto my cushion, I set an intention for my meditation practice: I was going to try to release all this anger.  I was going to try to find a place of equanimity.

The first two hours were spent alternately in sitting and walking meditation.  I tried to focus on my constricted, struggling breathing; I often find that hyperventilation helps me stay present in meditation, as it’s very difficult to take my mind off the breath!  It was doing me some good, but I still felt gripped by fear every time my mind wandered to the moment when I’d go home and would have to decide whether to check my email or avoid it for a few more hours.

Near the end of the morning session, one of the instructors, Francesca, stood and said that she would be leading us in an exercise.  The theme of today’s Nyinthun, she explained, was a reflection on the holiday season.  We were going to do a practice to help us contemplate this theme.

“At this time of year,” she said, “things become intensified.  Things begin moving faster.  There is more darkness.  There are a lot of things to do.  All this leads to an intensification of our experience and our emotions.

“In addition, when it comes to the holidays, we all have a desire.  We could have many desires, but often one desire is dominant.  It could be a desire for a material thing.  It could be a desire for something we want to happen, or not happen.  I’d like you to think about what your desire is for this holiday time.”

It didn’t take me long.  My desire, I thought, is for my semester to be over.  Really over.  I want the grades to be in; I want the emails from students to stop; I want to put everything about the term behind me except a few good memories, and to move into a brief space of a few weeks when I’m not a teacher.  I want to meditate, cook good food, read novels, clean my house, and not think about teaching at all.  I want to be released.

Francesca picked a smooth, large stone up from the altar and held it up.  “I want you to think of this stone,” she said, “as the object of your desire.  Look at this stone and, in it, see your desire.”  Then she asked us to clear the mediation cushions away from a small space in the middle of the room.  She placed a little table in the centre of the space, and set the stone on top of it.  Then she used cushions to create a tight perimeter around the table, and asked us, the dozen or so participants, to stand within the perimeter.

“When I give the signal,” she said, “I want you to walk randomly around this small space, and as often as possible, I want you to touch this object of your desire.  Don’t move in a circle as you would in walking meditation.  Just walk back and forth, and try to cover the whole space, coming back to touch the stone as often as you can.  At a certain point, I’ll begin to clap my hands.  As I speed up my clapping, speed up your walking.”

We began to walk, touching the stone, walking away, returning to touch the stone again, bumping and jostling each other as we tried to manoeuvre the constricted space.  As Francesca clapped her hands more and more quickly, we found ourselves tripping over one another to get to the stone.  At one point she stopped, pushed the cushion perimeter even closer to the table, and had us do the exercise again.

I was doing my best to take this all in good spirits, but I could feel my irritation rise with every nudge and bump.  I’d come here to sit and walk in silence – Nyinthuns, after all, are supposed to be mostly silent retreats, where we eat lunch without speaking and hold talks and discussions only at the end of the day.  I’d been looking forward to a morning of this silence, but here I was, still a bag of nerves, fighting with a bunch of strangers to touch a rock.

Then Francesca brought us all to a halt.  “Now,” she said, “I want you to let go of the stone.  Forget about it.  I want you to walk through this space again, and speed up as I clap, in just the same way.  But instead of looking at the stone – instead of looking at the object of your desire – I want you to look at the others, the people.  As you meet them, look at them.  Go.”

We began walking around again.  As we encountered one another, we looked each other in the eye.  It was embarrassing, and uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before everyone was smiling awkwardly.  And then smiling broadly, grinning at one another as we passed.  Francesca clapped more and more quickly, and we slid by each other more and more rapidly, but there were only a few bumps and jostles.  There was mostly just smiling, and even a bit of laughter.  When the clapping stopped and we slowed to a halt, we just stood there beaming at one another.

“Do you see?” Francesca asked.  “Do you see what I mean?”

We returned the cushions to their places, and as I settled back onto my crossed legs, I felt like I might melt into the floor.

My fixation, my obsession, with the object of my desire – the end of my semester, the resolution of all the semester’s problems, the elusive peace that I would supposedly feel when it was all done – had blinkered me.  The students who were pestering me – Lia, Janet, Yannick – were not obstacles between me and the stone, hurdles to be climbed over or knocked down. They were people.

They were responding to their lives in the same way that I was, scrabbling to get at the stone: the good grade, or the passing grade, or the sense of pride that comes when a teacher respects and validates you.  I was angry because they were getting in my way.  They were angry with me for the same reason.  If I could see them, not as frustrating roadblocks, but as people, then maybe I could stop fighting them, and start looking them in the eye.  I needed to understand that the stone is not the point.  They are.

The morning session was almost done.  We sat for a few more minutes, and then scattered for lunch.  I couldn’t stay for the afternoon, but I stopped Francesca to tell her that the exercise had meant a lot to me.

As I made my way to the metro, my mind no longer simmering, a couple of quiet revelations emerged: a memory of a gesture I’d made a week ago but forgotten, and an inspiration for another one.

That evening, I wrote a message to Janet.

After sending you that last note, I realized that I had in fact agreed to look over the rewrite of one of your classmates, and give it a small bonus, even though it arrived late.  This is because the student contacted me IMMEDIATELY about the problem.  You did not take that step, but because I did this for him, I will do it for you as well.  I hope you will thank him in your heart for his responsibility and common sense.

And to Yannick, I wrote the following:

You have been extremely respectful and reasonable throughout this whole process, and I appreciate this. As I emphasized to you in our last meeting, I am not going to give you extra work or any other special privileges; I will not be giving you any opportunities that I did not give to everyone in the class.  I do, however, have a suggestion for you.  I think you should go see the dean of your program and explain your situation to him/her.  I would be more than happy to send your dean an email or letter attesting to the fact that, although you were not able to pass my course, you made a good effort at the end, and that I expect that if you are re-admitted to the college next semester, you will try harder.  This might make a difference, and at the very least, your dean might have some advice that could help you.

After sending these messages, I read them over several times.  I still wasn’t sure that I was doing the right thing, or that I was doing it for the right reasons.   But I went to bed, and I slept very well.

Image by Armin Hanisch

Yannick’s Debts: Reprise

There’s a month left in the semester.  Four weeks.  Fifty-four hours of class time.

When I arrive at this point in the term, I always think of Yannick.  I anticipate others like him, students I’ve all but forgotten, who will reappear with stories about why they should be allowed to make up work, do extra credit, coast by.  There are at least four this semester who might turn up in my office with sad tales, and I’m already formulating my answers.  They are all variations of “No,” much firmer than anything I said to Yannick.

That said, I don’t think my responses to Yannick two years ago were all wrong.  Maybe you have a different opinion.  Let me know.

*

When Yannick walked into my office on Thursday, his first words were, “Miss, do you remember me?”

I did.  He’s in my Travel Literature class, but I hadn’t seen him in almost 2 months.  He hadn’t written any of his required blog posts.  He’d showed up to do his (half-assed) oral presentation, but had never submitted his bibliography.  The major essays had been due the day before, and I’d heard nothing from him.  I’d assumed he was gone for good, but that’s often a foolish assumption.

“I’ve been away from school for a while,” he said.  “I’ve been having some problems.”

I gestured for him to sit down, and he explained.  He’d visited Academic Advising that morning.  He’d told them what was going on, and why he’d missed so much school, but they’d told him that there was no official remedy for his situation, because his difficulties were not medical.  His only hope was to speak with his teachers, see what he could do to complete his semester, and try to pass four of his courses, because he’s on academic probation and if he fails this term, he’s out for good.

“I’ve seen my other five teachers,” he said.  “Two of them say there’s no way.  The other three told me what I need to do if I want to pass.  So that just leaves this course.”

Yannick is a handsome and confident young man.  He reminds me a little of another handsome and confident young man I taught a few years ago, one who spoke with the assurance that of course you were going to do whatever he asked of you.  And people did, especially girls, who allowed him to cheat off their tests and, I heard, signed his name to attendance sheets in courses he skipped.  (He eventually failed my course for blatant, unrepentant plagiarism.)  Yannick’s air is a bit less presumptuous, slightly deferential but not obsequious.  It’s an effective air, but I’ve seen it before, and am mostly invulnerable to it now.

I outlined what the possibilities were.  He wasn’t going to pass his blog project, but there was still time to make up some missed posts and get something more than 0%.  His major paper was going to be late, but I accept papers up to a week after the deadline, albeit with a 5%-per-day late penalty.  His Mock Exit Exam would be the following week, and he needed to show up and do his best with that.  His in-class assignments grade was in the toilet, and that was not reparable.  “It’s not impossible, Yannick,” I said, “but frankly, I’m not optimistic about your chances.”

“But, you see, miss…do you want to know my situation?”

I gave a shrug that I hoped was nonchalant without being insulting.  “You’re welcome to tell me about it if you like.”

And then he proceeded to tell me about his father’s business.  The details of it were confusing, but the upshot seemed to be that his father had dug himself into a hole by importing cars, selling them at auction, but then getting behind on his payments and sales and accumulating debt.  The auction had finally seized their cars and, after some negotiation, agreed to accept a payment of $50,000 to cover the remainder, money the family didn’t have.  Yannick had been working 12 hours a day at the shop trying to help out, but now creditors had been calling and coming to the door, so they weren’t spending much time at home.  The family and the business were crumbling.

“O.K.,” I said.  “I understand that this is a difficult situation.  But you’ve been missing from my course for 7 WEEKS, Yannick.  There are 3 WEEKS left in the semester.  There’s no reason you couldn’t have called your teachers a month ago and let them know that you were having problems.  I have plenty of other students who have problems at home, and they’ve either tried to manage these problems differently than you have, or they’ve accepted the consequences.  It’s not impossible for you to get through, but I think, given the work you’ve done already, that it’s highly, highly unlikely, especially if you have three other courses you need to try to pass at the same time.  If you’re on academic probation, then you KNOW what happens when you don’t come to class and you don’t do the work.”

“Well, the academic probation, that was all me.  I just didn’t take things seriously.  But this, Miss, I’m not bullshitting you.  I can bring you proof if you want.”

“It wouldn’t matter.  Unless you’ve had a medical crisis, there’s nothing the documentation can be used for.  You just need to do what you can with what you have left, and hope for the best.  But there are absolutely no guarantees, and I have to be honest with you, Yannick – I don’t think you’re going to pass.”

“The thing is, Miss, you have to understand.  If I fail out this semester, they’re going to kick me out for a year.  I don’t want to spend a year doing nothing.”

I stared at him for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course I understand that this is difficult, but we have to be realistic here.  I’m not going to GIVE you the grades.  You have to earn them by demonstrating what you’ve learned, and you haven’t been in class to learn anything.  So we’ll see how it goes.”

Then we went over the guidelines for the remaining assignments, and he shook my hand, thanked me, and left.

When he was gone, I put my head in my hands.  For a moment I was angry, although that calmed pretty quickly.  Then I was just sad.  Really, really sad.

This 18-year-old man was once a little boy.  He watched his father deal either underhandedly or extremely unwisely with his business.  Yannick watched his father make bad choices, and then try to weasel out of the consequences by accumulating debt and, eventually, staying away from his home and refusing to answer the phone.  And now Yannick, not just for one semester but for two, has made his own choices, and has ignored the consequences until it was no longer possible to ignore them, and has reached the point of trying to make those consequences go away by pleading with others to fix the problem.

How could I be angry about this?  Where would this boy have learned any other way of dealing with the world?

And then I thought about his father, and what kind of a father or mother he might have had.  And then I thought about all the bad lessons I might have taught my children, if I’d decided to have any.

The trouble with trying to be compassionate is that it doesn’t mean you can be easy on people.  On the contrary, I think – although I’m not sure – that the most compassionate thing I can do for Yannick will be to make him face the consequences of his choices, and recognize that they WERE choices.  I have no desire to punish him.  I certainly don’t think I should assume I know what’s best for him, or what will make his life better or easier.

But if there is one thing teaching has brought me to believe with all my heart, it’s that we all – students, teachers, parents, children, politicians, criminals, cats and dogs – need to learn the principle of cause and effect.  If you spend more than you earn, you will go into debt.  If you don’t go to class, you will fail your courses.  And if your family business is going to hell in a handbasket and you can’t go to school because you’re working 12 hours a day at the shop, then maybe a year away from school is exactly what you need.  Not that that’s any of my business.

I don’t know.  Am I crazy here?  It isn’t my job to un-teach the lessons he’s learned his whole life – it’s my job to teach him how to read and write about literature, and evaluate whether he’s learned THOSE lessons.  He’ll pass or fail on the basis of that and nothing else.  But earlier in my career, I might have been tempted to make allowances and exceptions.  Now, I don’t think that any more allowances or exceptions will do him any favours.

Image by Ashley Voortman

How To Fix Schools: Shorten Summer Vacation

In response to my open call on what should change about school, commenter emeraldlakesfreepress has an interesting suggestion.

I think the school year schedule has to change.  Long summers mean that children have months to forget what they have learned.  6 weeks on, 2 weeks off, with a slightly longer break in the winter and one in the summer, would make learning more continuous and help children to keep in the routine of learning.  Rather than promoting children each summer, based on their ages, they could be promoted after each session, if they have mastered the material.  This would promote multi-age classrooms of learners who are working at their best pace, without the stigma of being “held back”. Schools would become more flexible and fluid and students could be placed more thoughtfully in programs they need.   Teachers would need to become year round professionals, with these short breaks becoming professional development time with a more meaningful work and plans being made for specific students.  The breaks would also allow time to remediate and enrich specific students though tightly focused, short term programs.

I love my long summer vacations, but I love these ideas more.  What if the school year consisted of five 6-week sessions, with short breaks in between?  How could such a system be organized to maximize student learning?  The configurations seem endlessly interesting.

Do you agree?  Do you see any problems with this setup?  Would it work for your school, your children, your community?  Give me your thoughts.

Image by Phil Edon

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

Ongoing Open Call: What Should Change About School?

I’ve just begun reading Nikhil Goyal’s One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.  Goyal is an American high-school senior who has made a name for himself talking to the media about educational change, and although I’m not far into his book yet, I am already intrigued.  I’ll write more on his ideas later, but for now, I’d like to reopen a discussion on his pet subject: the need to hear from young people about what could make school better.

Last year, I asked for student responses to the question “What needs to change about school?” The answers that flowed in were diverse and enlightening, and I feel like there’s still lots more to be said on this subject.  So I would love to hear from more of you.  What have you encountered in your time in school that you think really needs to change?

You can go to the permanent page devoted to this open call  in order to get more details and to see some previous responses on the subject.  Most of the essays I received last year concerned the administration and requirements of school, things like the usefulness (or not) of Pell Grants and the over-emphasis on grades.  I would be delighted to hear more of your opinions on these and similar matters, but there’s another side of the question that is preying on my mind.

The seemingly endless current stream of cyberbullying scandals, a couple of personal teaching experiences over the last few days, and a second listen to This American Life’s fabulous podcast “Middle School” have combined to make me think more about the strange social environment that schools create.  We pile a bunch of people of approximately the same age together in one building, one classroom, one playground, and we ask them to negotiate so many things.  Is this working?  What are your personal experiences of the way “school society” works?  Is there anything we could change about it to make it work better?

To address this or any other topic on how “school” could be improved, please visit the open call page, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

How Literature Will Save the World: Reprise

Why should we keep reading?  Why should my students learn to love reading?  I began asking myself this question in 2010, and I keep asking it, of myself and others.  Below, some of my initial thoughts on the matter.

*

Lately, I’ve been thinking about reading.

Last summer I published a post in which I mourned the decline of reading, not just among my students and the population in general, but in my own life.  The upshot of the post is that I’m too vulnerable to easy distractions.  At the end of a long day, if I have the choice to pick up a book or waste hours on Facebook, I fall prey to the latter without even making a conscious decision.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my IB students  whether the two novels we’ve read so far have any sort of social or political purpose.  The discussion was interesting to begin with, but it took a turn into the even more profound when someone asked whether literature, in and of itself, has a social or political purpose.

There was a pause after this question.  Then I asked, “Why do we read?  What are books for?  If the novel goes the way of live theater – a medium appealing to only a small, relatively rarefied segment of the population – what, if anything, will be lost?  What can a novel do for us that other art forms can’t?”

I have my own pet answer to this question.  I believe that reading literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.  As we hashed the question around a bit, I proposed this answer to my students, and most of them seemed to find it convincing.

Marcel, however, had another bone he wanted to pick about this.  “People don’t read, because it takes time,” he said.  “You have to invest more time and work harder to receive a greater, delayed reward.  This is why people don’t read.  They are intellectually lazy.”

This assertion struck me hard, because, in my case at least, he’s right.  I know that an evening spent reading a book, whether it’s Proust or a P. D. James novel, will bring greater rewards than a night reading status updates and watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  If I make the effort, I will be happier, I will feel calmer, I will sleep better, and I will probably even learn something.  But turning on the TV or the computer fills the echoey corners of my brain without my having to invest anything.  Most nights, this is more appealing than actually doing something.

Today, a friend sent me Mark Slouka’s essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School”.  Here is another indicator of my laziness: a colleague sent me this article sometime last fall, I printed it up and carried it around with me for almost two months, and then I chucked it out.  When Wanda deposited it in my inbox today, I had stacks of papers to mark, so of course it was the perfect time to read it, and I did.  In her message, Wanda helpfully pulled the most salient quote out for me:

Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.

This assertion – that “the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other” – is at the root of my love of literature and of my belief in teaching literature.  It’s also why, at the end of the day, I’m reluctant to sit down with a book.  I am constantly looking for literature that will make me  feel cozy and reaffirmed, in which I will encounter things that are so familiar as to be transparent.  If I can’t have that, I don’t want to read at all.

And I question whether my students need to read literature, because I want them to have that cozy experience too.  I don’t want literature to be hard work for them.  I want them to love the books I give them, love them easily and wholeheartedly, and when they don’t, I wonder why they should read them at all.

Both my students and I need to work harder.  I have no excuse – I’ve been given all the training I need to approach reading with my sleeves rolled up, and I just don’t bother.  My students need that training, and I need to give it to them.  If I sincerely believe that reading helps us to understand what it’s like to be someone else, then I need to hand my students the tools to help them read – to help them read well, widely, attentively, and voraciously.

Because if there’s one thing that will rescue us, it’s our ability to understand one another, and I believe literature can help us find that.

Image by Jim Larranaga

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