Nellie Vanishes

Dear Readers:

As some of you know, for the last year and a half, I have been working on a new writing project: serializing an adventure story online. The first volume of the story is now complete! Nellie and the Coven of Barbo: Book 1 will remain online until MONDAY, AUGUST 1, 2016, after which it will vanish. If you’d like to read it while it’s still free and in its first raw version, here it is:

Nellie and the Coven of Barbo

It’s a sort-of young-adult, sort-of fantasy novel about witches, coming-of-age and small-town Newfoundland life. There is a bit of harsh language and occasional brief violence, but it’s otherwise fairly clean, and as novels go, it’s short.

If you believe someone you know would enjoy this story, please pass it along, and let them know that it will soon disappear! If all goes well, there will be a Book Two in the near future.

Thanks to those of you who have been reading along and giving me encouragement; it’s been very motivating. And if anyone else has comments, I’d love to hear them.

Have a happy and courageous summer.

Siobhan

 

A Query

When one returns a student’s work with the message, “You failed this assignment because your essay is much too short,” and the student replies, “Miss I don’t understand, I failed my essay because it is too short?”, why does one feel a surge of fury? Why does one not just feel a gentle throb of sadness or wry resignation? After all, it is the student, and not oneself, who must suffer the consequences of this intractable cluelessness. Surely one should be able to laugh, with a note of knowing melancholy, and move on without giving it another thought? And yet one finds oneself unable to refrain from shouting “Are you *@#%ING KIDDING ME?” at the computer screen. Why should that be?

How Do I Get Out of the Way?

p7OMedEI was standing in front of my classroom yesterday and I had a professional existential crisis.

My students had walked into their first exam of the semester in various states of tension, resignation and hope, and a couple of them seemed uncomfortable to the point of rudeness – sticking their legs out into the aisle and not moving them as I approached, until I asked them to; not meeting my eye and limply taking the papers from my hand; saying “More paper” without saying “…please.”

It was irritating, and ego-bruising. I often tell myself, “I don’t care how they FEEL about me; I care about how they BEHAVE.” And it’s true that, for their own sake, they need to learn how to treat everyone, even people they don’t care for – their teachers, their bosses, their colleagues, their classmates – with politeness and respect. I have developed a classroom demeanour that insists upon basic manners, and most students, sometimes after testing a bit, comply. But then there are always a few who, for whatever reason – they hate their mothers; they hate school; something I’ve said has triggered them – continue to test the boundaries, and force me to engage in a delicate dance: When to respond? When to ignore? What crosses the line from carelessness to rudeness? What will help, and what will make things worse?

And, fundamentally, as much as I try to detach from taking things personally: when do their feelings about me have a direct detrimental effect on their learning?

This semester, I am teaching two small remedial Intro to College English classes, with a total of 32 students. As I stood behind my desk, slowly grading papers as 17 of them wrote their exam, I lifted my head and gazed out at them. I paused for a moment, reflecting. Then I opened up my class lists for both classes, and did a quick calculation, based on their names and what I could remember of the personal information they gave me early in the term:

Of my 32 students, 7 would probably be classified as being of white European descent. The others can be more or less equally divided between, in general terms, Middle Eastern/North African, East or Southeast Asian, South Asian, and African Canadian; a couple are of South American heritage.

This is to say: approximately 80% of my students are visibly culturally different from me.

Here’s the greater problem: almost 100% of the approximately 70 English teachers at our college would be culturally identified as Caucasian. Some other departments in the college are a little more diverse, but when I say “a little,” I mean, like, seriously, “a little.” This diversity mostly consists of East and South Asian and Middle Eastern teachers. We have very few black teachers at our college, despite the fact that we have many, many black students. These kids spend all day, every day, looking at people whose reality is different from theirs in fundamental ways, people whom they may (justifiably) believe couldn’t possibly understand them. A whole lot of white people.

Does this mean I have nothing to teach these kids? No. Does it mean that a black kid has license to be rude? No, and most of my black students never, ever are. However: when I look at any young person of colour who is sitting in my classroom with an expression of hostility on his face, my first response may be one of fatigue and irritation, but I need to quickly move to a new response. I don’t know why he’s feeling hostile. It may very well be because of something I’ve actually done. On the other hand, I have no idea what other kinds of garbage he’s had to experience today, or all his life, and maybe I’ve triggered his hostility in ways that neither of us really understand, or maybe his hostility has nothing to do with me; after all, he’s usually pretty engaged, he always does his homework, he attends every class. Maybe he just had a totally crap day today and he’s damned if he’s going to pretend to be compliant and cheerful for yet another middle-aged white lady.

So what’s a middle-aged white lady to do?

Well, my existential crisis consisted of this realization: these kids do not need more white teachers.

I can’t do anything about the fact that I’m white, obviously. But as I was gazing out at them, I was reminded of an interview I heard a little while ago with the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, in which he discussed the abysmal state of diversity in entertainment. The interview is here – I recommend it; I no longer watch the Daily Show but I found Noah charming and his views enlightening.

In essence, his story is that, when the Daily Show was trying to hire black correspondents, they came up empty – the callout brought in no applications from suitable candidates. Then he ran into some friends – comedians – who said, “If you want some black people you’ll let us know, right?” And he said, “But didn’t you send a tape? Didn’t your agents contact you?” And they replied, “Trevor, we don’t have agents. Do you know what it takes for a black comedian to get an agent?” And so he realized that going through the regular channels was just not going to work; that if you want diversity, you have to actively go out and recruit diversity, not wait for it to come to you through the channels that have stifled diversity until now.

The argument in college department hiring committees is the same: we hired from the people who came. The problem is not going to be solved on that level.

What do we need? We need kids of colour to become educators. How do we do that? I don’t know, but I feel like this has got to become part of the agenda. This is not just about helping a kid of colour who wants to be a teacher – it’s about helping the kids whom that kid will teach.

So what can we, as the teachers of right now, do to help that happen? Or maybe: how do we get out of the way?

Image by Dez Pain

 

The Pronoun Problem

ow1deLuHere’s a teaching conundrum I have never faced before: I have a student whose gender identity is unclear to me.

My first impression from the student’s online ID picture: woman. My (not immediately conscious) impression from our first classroom encounter: very pretty gay man. My impression after 10 minutes of 1-on-1 conversation in my office: no idea. Maybe a very boyish transgender woman? I really can’t tell. And the student’s name is no help at all.

Clearly, no one’s gender is any of my business, but eventually there may be pronoun issues.

Do I ask? If so, how do I ask?

The best thing about my job: I never know what interesting knot I will need to untie next.

Image by Kevin Tuck

The Advantage of a Mean Neighbour

Today, anticipating the beginning of my winter semester and wondering if I have anything to say about it, I opened my “Drafts” folder and found this post, written in August but never published. At the time, the experience was too raw, and I didn’t want to dwell on it. Now, looking back, I see that my thinking around this unhappy incident really did shape my fall semester for the better, and I want to remind myself of some of those insights. So I thought I would share it with you now.

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o2wRZTOI had a very unpleasant experience the other day, and its effect on me was surprising: I want the school year to begin.

Believe me, I have NOT been looking forward to going back to work. My summer vacation was fine, but it never quite got off the ground. Once all my grading was done, I had a handful of teaching and research-related responsibilities to take care of that were neither urgent nor interesting, so they were easy to procrastinate: I dawdled about doing them, but I was never able to fully put them out of my mind. I’d also set myself the task of working steadily on my online novel, a task I more or less accomplished, but which meant I woke up every morning feeling I had something to DO. There were also household repairs to schedule, and trees to get inoculated against ash borers, and a million ordinary grown-up obligations that made me want to throw myself on the floor and kick and whine. I just couldn’t relax. Life felt onerous, like a never-ending to-do list.

When August rolled around, I was full of resentment. Course outlines already? Looming department conferences – could I bail? What do you mean, I have to think seriously about the research project I was determined to put out of my mind for the summer but instead brooded over? Again, normal back-to-work pouting for anyone coming off a vacation, but it all seemed like a huge weight.

Then I had a day that was actually bad.

When we first moved into our current home, the first house we’ve ever owned, we were warned by the previous owners that one of our neighbours was a little…unbalanced. We stepped very lightly with her, and did our best to be super nice. She was clearly an anxious and volatile person, someone who would steamroll you in conversation with a volley of aggressive declarations about how her coworkers are “all fucking idiots,” or how we should tell visitors that she “shoots first and asks questions later,” but we made as many gestures as we could to show her that we planned to live here a while, that we were good people and considerate neighbours, and that we just wanted everyone to get along. She seemed to feel okay about us. For the first year or so, everything went fine.

Then one spring day out in the garden, I saw her at our shared fence, hand-feeding a peanut to a squirrel. I made an offhand, smiling comment about how “that’s why I can’t get rid of them.” The squirrels dig up all my vegetable plants and eat all my tulip bulbs. Other neighbours have complained to me about the same problem. Besides, they chew wiring and move into attics. I said none of this to her, however; I just said, “That’s why I can’t get rid of them,” with a smile.

After that, she was done with me.

She would no longer wave to me or look me in the eye, she met my greetings with a terse “hello” or silence, and on the couple of occasions when I attempted to make conversation, she made it clear through her tone that she had no intention of sharing small talk with me. Being a person who has a horror of conflict, I decided that the best tactic was to leave it alone, so we co-existed in uneasy silence, mostly ignoring one another if we were both outside at the same time.

That was two years ago.

One afternoon this past weekend, I heard her in her back yard pulling weeds off our communal fence, muttering angrily to herself, and occasionally groaning loudly as she pulled something resistant out of the ground, so I went over to ask if she needed help. And she lit into me. She called me names, told me that my “grand lady” act might work with others but not with her, made reference to the fact that I “hate squirrels” while our cats are killing everything in sight. (It’s true: our cats are murderers. However, she had had a perfectly civil conversation with my husband in the yard the day before, so this was clearly not about our cats.) When I calmly asked if there was something she wanted to talk about, she went at me again. It was pretty nasty. She said some truly terrible things, including, “You call yourself a teacher, but I’d never let you near my children,” and then some more extremely offensive epithets.

I finally said, “Ok, well, if at any point you feel like you’d like to discuss this, let me know,” and I walked away.

As you can imagine, I was shaken. First of all, I have never had such an exchange with another human being, except maybe with bullies in primary school. And this is someone who lives next door to me, someone whom I pass in the street on almost a daily basis, someone I have to see when I’m working in my garden, someone with whom I have had to negotiate homeowner compromises in the past and with whom I will likely have to do so in the future.

The first thing I did was post the story to my personal Facebook page, asking for advice. The advice was reassuring and almost unanimous: “Do not take this on, do not make it your problem, do not feed her anger. This person is who she is and it has nothing to do with you. Any resolution you come to with such a person will not last. Keep your distance, be civil, and as much as possible, pretend she isn’t there.”

I agree with this advice, and I’ve followed it. Since this incident, I’ve been able to keep a comfortable distance from her. She seems to be avoiding me too, so maybe she’s feeling a little bit ashamed.

But I’ve been most comforted by my interactions with everyone else in the world. For example, yesterday, the inoculation of the ash tree took place, and my conversations with both the supervisor and the technician were so courteous and so friendly that that alone would have made for a good day. On my way to dinner with friends last night, I had a lovely chat with another neighbour about her magnolia tree and whether I should also plant one. The dinner itself was an absolute delight, our server (we are regulars at this restaurant) has become one of my favourite neighbourhood people, and our dinner companions, a couple of our best friends, reminded me that honestly, one of the basic ingredients of happiness is knowing one or two or three or four people with whom you always want to spend time, no matter what, because they are great.

And then today, as I had to start to get ready for school in earnest, I found myself feeling excited. I mean, vacations are all very well. It’s nice to relax around the house and do things on your own time and see only people you want to see (except for the mean neighbour who you can maybe see from the window.) But what does it add up to? What does one learn?

If we don’t engage with the world, if we see the people around us (as I sometimes do) as inconvenient obstacles to the safety of being locked inside our quiet homes with novels and cats, then we could end up bitter, mean old ladies feeding the squirrels and screaming at our neighbours. My life’s project has changed: I will not turn into that woman.

I will start by having a good semester.

The Last Test and Proof

oWlWUwkIf I were to ask, What should be at the center of our teaching and our student’s learning, what would you respond? Of the many tasks that we as educators take up, what, in your view, is the most important task of all? What is our greatest hope for the young people we teach?

In his letters to the young poet Franz Kappus, Rainer Maria Rilke answered unequivocally: “To take love seriously and to bear and to learn it like a task, this is what [young] people need….For one human being to love another, that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but a preparation. For this reason young people, who are beginners in everything, cannot yet know love; they have to learn it. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered close about their lonely, timid, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.”

Need I say it? The curricula offered by our institutions of higher education have largely neglected this central, if profoundly difficult task of learning to love, which is also the task of learning to live in true peace and harmony with others and with nature.

Arthur Zajonc, The Heart of Higher Education

Image by Rainer Schmidt

My Top 10 Books of 2015

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 2015, but they were all a part of my 2015 experience.

  1. dykesThe Essential Dykes to Watch Out For 

You know me: always on the cutting edge of 30-year-old cultural touchstones. After loving – actually, loving seems like too mild a word – Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, I decided to go back to her early work. I’d seen her collections around in the 90’s, and figured I’d get to them someday. I finally did this summer, in the form of this handy compendium, published in 2008. Dykes to Watch Out For is a hilarious down-to-earth, politically-charged soap opera full of wonderful, familar characters, and was my favourite reading experience of the year.

spec2. Dept. of Speculation

How can one be an artist, a parent and a spouse without being thwarted at every turn? This little novel poses this question without answering it. It appears on the surface to be the kind of fragmentary prose experiment that I have little truck with these days, but it’s a whole lot more than that. Its interiority is both absorbing and affecting. It’s also funny, and sad.

3.giants I Kill Giants

Barbara fights monsters. Some of them are real; all of them are real to her. This graphic novel is about a child taking control in any way she can, and eventually reconciling the world outside of her to the world in her mind. I cried a lot.

4. foldedThe Folded Clock

I used to read a lot of diaries; I guess this is par for the course for pretentious literary adolescent girls. This book reminded me why, although it’s a far more crafted and self-contained work than the rambling journals of Anais Nin and the other mentally ill writers that I loved when I was younger. Heidi Julavits is the person I imagined I would become, but never did: a beautiful, wry, successful writer who moves between her home in Manhattan, her hometown on the east coast, and international literary events, fixing her critical eye both inward and outward, dwelling in the past while struggling to manage the present. (I also read Women in Clothes this year, a massive project by Julavits, Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton on women’s relationship to fashion and style. I was, in fact, obsessed with it, and it should probably be on this list too, but only one book per author is my rule.)

5. fangirlFangirl

Everyone loved Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Everyone loved it so much that I took several stabs at it, finally finished it, and even put it on my course on novels about adolescence, because I knew my students would love it (and they did). I did not love it. I didn’t get the hype. It seemed to me to be a typical yet somehow unconvincing love story, and I didn’t care for any of the characters involved. I did, however, love Fangirl, Rowell’s story of a socially awkward college freshman who writes fanfiction to fill the holes where her mother and twin sister used to be, and to cope with the challenges of caring for her erratic father at a distance, and integrating into a new landscape on her own. It’s a fast and funny read, and Cath, the protagonist, is someone I could both identify with and root for.

6. marnie2When Marnie Was There

I was inspired to go back and reread this childhood favourite of mine because of the release of an animated film version by the famed Studio Ghibli, makers of such stunners as Spirited Away. I haven’t seen the film of Marnie yet, but rereading the book – the story of a little girl who is sent away from her foster home to stay with an elderly couple by the sea, and who makes her first real friend, a mysterious poor little rich girl named Marnie who then vanishes – made me both happy and uneasy. It sent me on an extended quest to find a number of my childhood favourites, including some fairly obscure exemplars like The Changeling (still wonderful) and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth (didn’t get through it this time.) The upshot: the books I loved when I was a child were all about loneliness, and about how friendship is never what it seems to be.

7. everythingEverything I Never Told You

The favourite child, beautiful Lydia, is found dead in the lake. The family goes to pieces, and then comes out the other side, bruised but renewed. This novel is entrancing: more than just a murder mystery, but with a murder mystery’s relentless forward momentum.

8.  killmymotherKill My Mother

I know little about the genres this graphic novel draws upon – pulp, noir, hard-boiled detective stories – but this book is terrific. The drawings are dark yet vibrant, the characters are the most complicated caricatures imaginable, and the story – beginning with a manic teenager with a vendetta against her mother, and winding through Hollywood and the South Pacific, movie sets and World War II island outposts – is riveting.

9.girlontrain The Girl on the Train

If you follow book stuff at all, you know all about The Girl on the Train, and have probably read it already, so I don’t have to say much. It was called “the next Gone Girl,” and it’s not, but it’s a juicy thriller, and good novel to take with you to while away hours on, say, the train. Rachel watches out the window of the commuter train she takes every day, and constructs stories about the people she sees, one couple in particular. Then she sees some new things, and learns that the woman she’s been watching has disappeared. Thrillery stuff ensues. It’s a good time.

10. Skim_bookcoverSkim

Another reread, another graphic novel. While revising my book list for my course on novels about adolescence, I put up a Facebook plea: “My list is nothing but white people! Please help!” Skim came up, and my first thought was, “Too short,” but then I thought, “That book was amazing; I should reread it,” and, having reread it, I thought, “Every teenager should read this book,” so it went on the course. The story: Kimberly (“Skim”) Keiko Cameron doesn’t feel like she fits anywhere, and is confused by her broken family, her best friend’s growing insistence that she try to be “normal,” and her amorphous attraction to her art teacher, Ms. Archer. When the most popular girl in school, Katie, is dumped by her boyfriend, whose subsequent suicide might be about his homosexuality, she and Skim bond. My students didn’t like it: too dark, too plotless, witchcraft!  You’ll like it, though, I promise.

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What did you read this year that you loved? Tell us below, and happy 2016, reading-wise and otherwise.

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Want to see lists from past years? Here are all my previous Top 10 Books posts on one convenient page.

 

 

 

What Do Students Need to Learn About Learning?

mhGtM2sIf I could change one thing about the education system, particularly the pre-university and professional college system in which I work, it would be this:

Students would learn a lot more about learning.

I have a fantasy in which I go back to school to do a doctorate in educational psychology, and then I overhaul the college curriculum to introduce mandatory courses in Applied Learning Sciences. These would be kind of like intense, intellectually challenging Study Skills courses, in which students would learn…well, how to be students. They would study the learning brain. They would be exposed to different theories about knowing and metacognition. They would also read and discuss educational philosophy – what is school for? What does “learning” really mean? And they would apply this knowledge to everything from keeping an agenda that would actually help them to reading effectively to managing exam anxiety.

If you were designing such a course, what would you include? What do you think students need to learn in order to be good at learning, not just when they are in school but for the rest of their lives?

Image by sanja gjenero

Help for the Restless Reader

mgyp0LmIn recent years, I’ve become a restless reader.

I just can’t relax. Maybe it’s because I spend so many weeks of the year reading stuff I don’t feel like reading, including some really terrible writing, because I’m an English teacher. Maybe it’s because the Internet age has broken my brain. Maybe it’s because I’m an adult with adult responsibilities, like emptying the dishwasher and watching all four seasons of Scott and Bailey as fast as possible. Whatever the explanation, I look back fondly on my childhood days of curling up in an armchair or on my bed and reading for hours and hours, but I just can’t seem to do it any more.

This summer, a number of niggling projects have eaten away at my time, and I’ve felt even less inclined to abandon everything and read a book. Once the first of August loomed, though, a sort of reader’s panic set in. School is coming! I will have no time to do the things I want to do! All those library books will have to be returned unread! Read, dammit, read!

And yet the deficit in my attention remained, until I hit on a possible remedy.

I’ve heard references over the last couple of years to the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity aid in which you set a timer for 25 minutes and work intensively for that time, then take a 5-minute break, and then get back at it for another 25 minutes. I’ve never read any of the Pomodoro Technique literature or implemented any of the more complex elements of this technique, like tracking how many 25-minute increments a task requires, or recapping what was achieved in the last 25 minutes and reviewing before I take a break. (I have watched the little video on their website; that’s how I know these things are required if I want to be a “Certified Pomodoro Master”.)

However, I think a lot of teachers probably do their own variations on the Pomodoro technique. For example, I almost always grade papers one at a time, taking a short break after each to go put on a load of laundry, make a cup of tea, or go out in the garden to pick some tomatoes for lunch. Teachers also live our lives in defined and limited time intervals: the 15-week semester; the two-hour classroom block; the four-hour break between classes in which we planned to go to yoga but in which we’ll probably just eat chocolate and read our Bloglovin’ feed.

The Pomodoro technique, at least in its broad strokes, appeals to me, especially when it comes to really onerous tasks. I recently procrastinated creating a research questionnaire for almost two months; telling myself I only had to work on it for 25 minutes a day meant I finally got it done within a week. I think I could make it work for housecleaning, too.  (Maybe.) (Not holding my breath.)

But then a couple of days ago, I thought: I bet reading in 25-minute spells would make me a happier reader.

So I tried it. It helped that it was no longer 41 degrees outside (that’s 106 for you Americans), so I could spend my reading time on the deck. I set my phone alarm to a pleasant melody. I poured myself some sparkling water. I made room on my comfy patio armchair for the cat. And then I forgot about everything else I had to do for 25 full minutes.

After the alarm went off, I dumped the book I’d been reading into my library bag, because it was now clear that I hadn’t been making time for it previously because I didn’t really like it. I made myself a cup of tea. I emptied the dishwasher. I pulled a few more books out of my “unread books” pile, returned to the deck, and set the timer again. This time, one of the books grabbed me right away. I have been reading it in 25-minute increments for the last two afternoons, until it’s dark or rainy enough to go inside, make dinner, and crochet in front of the TV, no longer feeling any conflict about not reading, because I have more reading to look forward to sometime tomorrow!

As a result, I’ve had a beautifully relaxing and nourishing couple of days. In the morning, I write and go for a run, and take care of any other urgent tasks. Then I settle in, without feeling like I’m trying to fill a whole empty afternoon: I’m just taking 25 minutes to do something enjoyable, and then I can deal with something practical, briefly, if need be. For someone like me, who constantly feels like some important task is not being taken care of, this practice allows me to really sink into a book, come up for air, and then sink in again. It allows me to spend the last days of my vacation reading, something I’d been planning to do from the first days, but for some reason just couldn’t.

Things I’ve learned from this practice:

  • If you don’t feel like reading it for 25 minutes, chuck it. The world is full of amazing books that you want to read right now; go find one.
  • Whatever you think needs to be done instead of reading, it can probably wait for 25 minutes.
  • I need to create a reading space inside my house that is as comfy and inviting and peaceful as that deck chair.

I’m going to suggest this technique to my students, especially those who have trouble reading long texts: set aside a block of time to get your reading done, but break it into 25-minute intervals. Keep track of how much you get read in that time, and use that information to figure out how much time you need to read a given text. In between intervals, get up and move. Too much sitting is bad for you anyway.

Are you a compulsive reader who will shunt everything off to read all day? Or do you find yourself distracted by Facebook, work email, and the children’s’ need to be fed and spoken to? How do you make time for reading? This method is working for me, but I’d love to hear yours.

Image by sanja gjenero

Nellie Returns

Nellie and the Coven of Barbo is back! After a hiatus of a few weeks to wrap up the school term, I have returned to the regular publication schedule.

In today’s chapter, we pick up where we left off: kids have disappeared, other kids are concerned, strange conversations have been overheard, and now two classmates have run into one another down by the river in the middle of the night…

You’ll find the latest chapter here.

If you’d like to start at the beginning, go here.

Happy reading! And if you haven’t yet, please subscribe; chapters will appear once or twice weekly for the rest of the summer.

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