Small Wins

Today I finished reading my first book in Japanese. “Reading” and “book” are both perhaps exaggerations; the book in question is the first volume in a manga series called Shirokuma Café, widely recommended to beginning Japanese learners. It is 165 pages long, and it took me 7 months of painstakingly reading a page per day (whenever I had time, which during the working semester was not always) to finish it. Most of the text made use of furigana (phonetic transliterations in Japanese kana) of the kanji (Chinese ideographic characters), making it possible for a beginner like me to look up words even if I didn’t recognize the kanji themselves. With the help of an excellent online dictionary and an excellent online translator, I collected 25 pages worth of vocabulary notes that I will probably never use for anything but that serve as a record of my progress.

60 days ago, I accomplished something else that seemed worth celebrating: a 500-day streak practicing Japanese on Duolingo. And yet, I didn’t celebrate it, not anywhere: not on Facebook where my friends might congratulate me (I had already posted when I reached 365 days, so another post so soon seemed gratuitous). Not in conversations with anyone but my husband (he high-fived me, but that’s kind of his job). Not even here; I began writing a post about it, but quickly realized I had nothing to say other than what I and plenty of others had already written (don’t use Duolingo as your only tool, use the web version and not the app…even the title I’d chosen for the post, “500 Days of Duolingo,” was already in use by a NYT article). So I let that milestone pass by without acknowledging it outside my living room.

When I finished reading Shirokuma Café, I felt similarly disinclined to make a fuss about it (except, of course, by telling my husband, whose first response was sympathy, as he knows how much I’ve liked hanging out with Shirokuma-kun, Panda-kun, and Penguin-kun and participating in their adorable adventures each morning. Fortunately, I have four more volumes on my shelf, so I’m not sad yet.) But something stopped me from just closing the book and moving on. It seemed worthwhile to note this small achievement. So here I am.

A small win of this kind contains within it many other small wins: the first time I was able to recognize and understand a kanji I’d learned elsewhere; the first time I read an entire page without looking anything up (it only happened once, but still); the first time I laughed aloud at a Japanese pun. Stopping to acknowledge the advancements I’ve made since the day I decided to start studying Japanese a year and a half ago is something I need to remind myself to do, because in the moments when I feel like I’m making little progress at all (when, for example, I earn 57% on my morning Wanikani reviews), I need to remember the moments that show clearly that I’ve come a long way.

This morning, a handyman came to install a new bathroom fan for us, a task I wish I could do myself. I regularly feel shame about my uselessness when it comes to home maintenance, and that shame translates into nerves and mistrust, as I have no way to evaluate whether a contractor is doing a good job. One way I’ve chosen to combat this is to first look up YouTube videos about DIYing the task, and to then ask if I can hang out and watch and ask questions during the work, not to monitor but to satisfy my curiosity about the process and about the weirdnesses of our old and irregular house. By the time the handyman was done, I did not feel confident that I could install a bathroom fan myself, but I did understand why the fan I’d chosen was the best one for the job, how to use a fibreglass and aluminum patch plus some plaster to repair a hole, and what our very strange second-floor ceiling looks like inside. I know more about home repair than I did yesterday. High-five, me.

The main reason to celebrate small achievements is to maintain motivation, which is notoriously difficult when learning a language. Frustrations and setbacks are more likely to remain embedded in our memories (and in our visceral reactions, like the way we feel when we sit down to study each morning or when the bathroom fan stops working). Positive moments are less crucial to our survival (remembering which berries are delicious is important, but remembering which ones brought us to the brink of death is much more so); however, the positive moments are what make us want to keep trying even when we fail, as this article reminds us: “The positive feeling you get when you succeed is what ultimately builds confidence. It builds hope that you will be successful again. When you are confident and hopeful, that improves your ability to focus naturally. When you feel that way, you are more likely to concentrate again on a challenging task in the future because you will feel motivated to get that feeling back.”

So here I am, noting to myself and anyone else who’s interested that I just read an entire book in Japanese. Tomorrow I will start on a second one (probably Yotsubato!, another manga widely recommended to beginning readers). I will try to note whether this one goes more quickly, whether my vocabulary list is less extensive because more words are familiar, whether I am better at reading Japanese than I was a few months ago. And when I’m done, maybe I’ll buy myself a bottle of shouchuu or at least a nice plate of sushi, to embed the small win in my memory a little more firmly.

Please do the same for yourself – you did something today, however small, that you might not have been able to do yesterday or ten years ago. This is important! Give yourself a high five.

Keep Going: Maintaining Motivation

At first, learning a new language is super fun. So many interesting words! Quick progress from zero to … something! Apps apps apps!

But then things become a bit routine, and then, stale. The dopamine hits are less reliable. You advance more slowly, or hit roadblocks. For Japanese learning, apparently (according to my very scientific collection of data from random YouTube channels and discussion boards), this often happens when students are approaching “intermediate” level. There are lots of fun resources for beginning Japanese students, but once you’ve completed the whole Duolingo course, have mastered the most elementary kanji, and have started to grapple with more advanced grammar, it’s harder to find learning aids that meet you at your level.

I’m not at the intermediate level yet, and my motivation is still intense. Even though I have little time on my hands, I cram in a bit of Japanese study every day by getting up early, and by grabbing moments between classes or as a break while marking papers. There’s nothing I’d rather do with my free minutes than go through some kanji flashcards or write a four-line composition for my class.

I’m obsessive by nature, but my obsessions don’t last forever; this one has sustained itself for over a year, which is promising foreshadowing of a possible long-term commitment, but sooner or later, the morning will come when I just won’t feel like it. So I’m trying to put good habits in place to get me through that morning and those that come after it. I’ve gleaned some tips from learners with more experience than I, and also from my own past practice as both an English teacher and a learner of French. I’ve made four important choices about my approach to studying that have contributed to keeping my motivation strong so far.

1. Take it slow.

When I was in training to become an English teacher, I learned that limiting new input is essential. One rule of thumb is that you never introduce more than ten new vocabulary items in a lesson. Another is that spaced review is much more effective than cramming – reviewing an item at longer and longer intervals leads to longer-term memory, whereas trying to ingest a lot of stuff quickly, say before a test, leads to loss of all that info once the pressure is off.

So I try to ignore any compulsions I have to go fast. For example, I practice kanji using WaniKani, a 60-level program for learning 2000 or so basic useful characters. I’m currently on level 5, and have been for some weeks, because every day I complete all my reviews and then do just a tiny bit of new learning. At this rate, I might never reach level 60. That’s ok! I’m retaining what I’m learning quite well, and so far there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t wanted to do my lessons.

2. Mix it up.

I’m not a gym-goer; I prefer to get my exercise outdoors. However, when I visited family in the north of Canada one January, the forecast was for unrelenting -40º temperatures. The YMCA wasn’t far from my father’s house and offered a free week to new members. Their pleasant sunlit workout room was usually mostly empty, so I discovered the fun of spending ten or fifteen minutes on each machine rather than, for example, dedicating a whole hour to the mind- and butt-numbing recumbent bike. This bouncing around kept me eager to go every day, whereas if I’d tried to slog through one activity for the whole hour, the gym would have been a chore.

When it comes to studying Japanese, doing a little bit of everything, instead of spending a lot of time on one tool or item, helps me avoid saturation. In the morning I do one small grammar lesson, about 15 minutes of kanji practice, and a little bit of reading. If I have time, I add a few other activities throughout the day, including but not limited to listening to Japanese music on the metro and watching some Japanese TV at night. If I get tired of one activity, I swap it out for something different.

This summer, I’m hoping to dedicate a month to intensive self-guided Japanese study, and one principle I’ll be sure to follow will be to have a wide range of activities and tools so that I can move my attention around and reinforce what I’m learning in a variety of ways. It’s good for my learning, not least because it’s fun, and so I want to keep it up.

3. Set new goals.

When I started serious Japanese study back in December of 2020, I had no real objectives. I just loved doing it. Progress through the absolute beginner levels was quick. There was so much to discover: inventive textbooks, apps, YouTube channels, anime and Japanese reality TV, other people as excited about Japanese as I was. I didn’t need goals. And I still don’t, really. The process is its own reward.

But the tools that are working well for me are no longer as shiny and exciting, and I have recently found myself wondering if I’m making any real progress. I can feel the day looming when I might open しろくまカフェ and think, “Hmm; maybe I should go for a walk instead.” So I’m putting some motivators in place for when that day comes.

For example, I just ordered an assortment of books to help me prepare for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I’m not even sure I’ll write it any time soon – I have to travel to another city to do so, and the lowest level is one that learners often skip, as it’s pretty basic; the next level will take me a lot more time to prepare for. Nevertheless, studying for that lowest level will give me an attainable goal, and even if I don’t write it, getting to a place where I feel I could pass it will give me a sense of accomplishment. The study process will also prepare me if I decide to write any of the higher-level tests. So this is a small, achievable step.

(Also, the textbooks are so cute! Look at that little chipmunk face just waiting to teach me vocabulary.)

Sometimes a goal pops up unexpectedly. I love haiku, for example, but now that I know a little Japanese, I see that English translations of Japanese haiku are missing something important. The thing is, I don’t know what. Could I become good enough at Japanese to understand haiku properly? Or even to write haiku in Japanese? Probably not, but I won’t know unless I try.

4. Congratulate yourself.

Every time I recognize a kanji I just learned, or I’m able to read the hiragana on a package at the Asian grocery down the street, I give myself a little fist bump. Singing along to random J-pop choruses while I make dinner makes me feel like I just won a medal.

But I might have been proudest of all when, in class the other day, we were practicing the construction のまえに (before…), and our teacher went around the class asking what each of us does before we eat breakfast. I said that I study Japanese. “本当に [Really]??” she exclaimed. “本当に,” I assured her. She was so impressed that I was embarrassed, but I decided to take it as she meant it: a recognition that working hard at something deserves applause.

I mean, accomplishments are fine. But that time before breakfast is one of the happiest moments in my day, and creating happiness for yourself is worth celebrating.

A Japanese Study Routine

YouTube is full of videos with titles like “How I Became Fluent in Japanese in 4 Days!” or “My Journey to Knowing 10,000 Kanji Even Though Japanese People Ask Me Why I Bother,” or even just “Study Japanese Like I Do and Soon You’ll Be Really Jouzu [good at it]”. I watch these videos occasionally. They seem to be mostly by people who have made Japanese study their whole lives, or who live in Japan, or who live at home with their parents and so have limited responsibilities. They sometimes involve gauzy lighting, a massive collection of kawaii notebooks, and a pretty young woman with an ASMR voice writing perfect hiragana with a feathered pen.

As an obsessive but middle-aged person with a full-time job who lives in Canada and has terrible handwriting, I sometimes find useful resources in these videos but can’t relate whatsoever to the study routines. First of all, I’m in no rush and have no lofty goals. Also, if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the ones I’ve watched, it’s that effective study routines are intensely personal.

I’ve found a method that works well for me. I can’t vouch for this being a good method. After a year of study, I still struggle to put together a simple sentence orally, I can’t read a newspaper article, and I can’t watch Midnight Diner without subtitles. But after a year, I still look forward to practicing a little bit of Japanese every single morning before work. And when I get the chance someday to immerse myself in some serious full-time learning, I will have a good head start.

(Please note that no one is paying me to mention any of these resources; I’ve found some stuff that works for me right now, and that’s it.)

Things I do every day:

  • Duolingo: I do one review lesson and one new lesson on Duolingo every morning. This takes 5-15 minutes. When I have more time, I do more. I currently have a 439 day streak, unbroken since my first lesson. I use the website, and not the app, which I find full of distractions. I haven’t tried the paid version, nor do I intend to.
  • Wanikani: This is a kanji-learning website. It is an SRS (spaced repetition system), meaning it introduces new kanji and then has you review them at longer and longer intervals until they are “burned” into your memory. Every morning I complete all my reviews (usually about 30 radicals, kanji or vocabulary) and then do one new lesson (5 radicals, kanji or vocabulary). This takes me around 15 minutes. Then I complete reviews as they pop up during the day, whenever I have a moment. I started using it in December, and have used it every day since I started. It costs money, but for me it has been well worth it.

Things I do most days:

  • Reading practice: If I have a bit more time in the morning, I do some reading practice. I’m currently working my way through a manga that’s often recommended for beginners, called Shirokuma Café (Polar Bear Café). It’s a very cute, quiet story about Shirokuma-kun and the customers at his café (Panda-kun, Pengin [Penguin] -kun, and so on), who go on adventures like becoming a part-time employee at the zoo or learning to drive, so it helps me start my day happily. (There’s a nice review of it here if you’re interested.) I started by reading the first volume from beginning to end, understanding very little but trying to glean meanings from context. Then I went back to the beginning, and I now reread a page each day, using Jisho.org to look up vocabulary and, when necessary, Google Translate and/or web searches to try to understand unfamiliar grammar. I have a Word document in which I list the new words in kanji, then hiragana, then English translation; this list won’t be of much use as a reference, but the act of keeping it helps me focus.
  • TV/Movies: For the past year, I’ve mostly watched only Japanese programming. Netflix is a real treasure box for this. They have almost all of the Studio Ghibli catalogue, as well as plenty of anime series and a bunch of reality shows (I just finished watching Love is Blind: Japan, which is fascinating; this review reflects many of my thoughts about it). I still haven’t found any J-dramas that I much like, but Alice in Borderland is next on my list to try. I don’t love anime enough to subscribe to a service like Crunchyroll or Funimation, but I do occasionally buy DVDs of series I can’t find elsewhere (Steins;Gate, for example) or things I can’t rent from AppleTV in the original language with English subtitles (a strange number of their films are only offered dubbed in Canada, like Makoto Shinkai’s Weathering with You). I have also found plenty of Japanese movies through my local library.
  • Music: I only listen to Japanese music these days. See this post for details.

Things I do once a week:

  • Language course: Monday is a very long day of classes and meetings, and then I have to stay at work to do my online Japanese course, because I don’t have time to get home first. I don’t mind. The course itself is not even that fun – we’re struggling beginners, we’re learning basic rote stuff, and we can’t even be in the same room together. Nevertheless, I look forward to it. It’s my only chance to speak the language, it reinforces things I’m learning elsewhere, it provides me with grammar explanations, and I get to hang out with people who, like me, are mostly learning Japanese for no other reason than that they love it.

Things I do occasionally:

  • Writing practice: I have a couple of kanji practice books that I dip into once in a while. I have a repetitive strain injury that makes all handwriting difficult for me, but I do find the repetition useful for memorization, and it can be quite fun to do a bit of copying while I’m listening to something.
  • Grammar study: I have the first volume of Genki, which I use more for consulting than studying, but when I have time I work through a lesson. More fun, though, is Japanese the Manga Way, an exploration of basic grammar through examples from manga. I take this book with me whenever I know I’ll be stuck somewhere for an indefinite period of time, like a doctor’s office. (Its ancestors, Mangajin’s Basic Japanese through Comics 1 & 2, are harder to come by and more focused on vocabulary, but they are also great).

Things I’ll Do When I Have More Time:

  • Sentence-a-day diary: As I continue to struggle with speaking and writing, I come across more and more recommendations to do something as simple as writing a sentence or two about my day as a regular practice. In fact, my very first Japanese teacher said that, given that I had a little more prior knowledge than my classmates, I could start doing this to speed up my learning, but I balked because it still seemed out of my reach. I’m ready to do it now, and it will be a good way to use the genkouyoushi notebooks I’ve been accumulating but haven’t found a use for.
  • Bunpro: I don’t have time to add another online practice tool to my routine right now, but as soon as summer vacation starts, I’m planning to look into Bunpro, a grammar practice resource. I’ve heard very good things, and grammar is my weakest point, so this seems like a good next step.
  • Individual tutoring: Several places in my city offer Japanese courses beyond the absolute beginner level, but apparently they are often cancelled due to lack of enrolment. As I approach this level, if I find myself without courses to do, I’m going to look into finding a tutor, either in person or through an online resource like iTalki, which comes recommended by a lot of people and is affordable.

My whole life I’ve had a hard time thinking of any of my activities as “hobbies.” It was as if I needed to believe that everything I did was leading to some great goal and therefore shouldn’t be diminished by such a term. Thinking of Japanese study as a “hobby” has allowed me to have a joyful and pressure-free relationship with it. I honestly love every second I spend with it, and that love has been my only objective and my only motivation. If that love starts to fade, I may flounder in my routine, and maybe even give it up – or maybe I’ll find another impetus. For now, though, spending anything from 15 minutes to a couple of hours on Japanese study every morning is a joy and a respite.

If you’re working at learning something – Japanese, the saxophone, tennis, cabinetmaking… – do you have a routine? Do you have experience with the resources I mention above, or recommendations for others? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Ten Japanese Pop Songs to Listen to on the Way to Work

My musical tastes are not sophisticated, but they are narrow. I go through long periods when I don’t listen to music at all, as I find it emotionally unsettling and/or overstimulating. When I do, I restrict myself mostly to tunes that are happy, pretty, and a bit weird.

Fortunately for my language learning goals, a lot of Japanese popular music is happy (at least on the surface), pretty (all the way through) and weird. These days I listen almost exclusively to J-pop, J-rock and their relatives. I’ve been pleased to discover that the simple act of listening to a Japanese song many times, combined with my various other forms of Japanese study, means that I’m able to pick out a few more words or phrases, or recognize a new grammatical construction, each time I hear it.

My most important and delicate listening time is when I’m on my way to work. I am a naturally low-energy person, and I often need a spirit-lifter to help me face a day of other humans and their demands. So my playlists are constructed with this in mind, and the songs below appear on multiple iterations of my “on-my-way-to-work” lists.

If you’re a student of Japanese, you probably know many of these tracks. If you aren’t familiar with Japanese popular music but you like the sort of thing I like, some of these will be nice discoveries. And if you know Japanese music, you probably have some recommendations for me – I’d especially like to know about fun stuff that’s a bit off the beaten path. Please leave your suggestions in the comments!

1. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, “Battling”

Gesu is big in Japan, but this is the only one of their songs that really does it for me. I find the hook both hypnotic and stimulating, and the video makes me laugh and satisfies my wish that everything in life be in jewel tones.

2. Yorushika, “The Clouds and the Ghost”

My favourite part of this song is the rhythmic alarm-clock sound, which feels right when I’m heading out of the house in the early morning. Everything Yorushika has done is worth checking out; the singer’s voice gives me nape-of-the-neck chills.

3. Vickeblanka, “Yumesame Sunset”

It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling when I turn this song on; by the time it’s over, the world is a place where fun things happen.

4. Necry Talkie, “Frog Quest II”

My husband walked into the kitchen one day when I was playing Necry Talkie and said, “I’m pretty sure this track is sped up.” “I don’t think so,” I said. “I think that’s her real voice.” NT are not for everyone but I love them; they’re very strange and very cute and yet their lyrics will mess you up. See also “Kita e Mukaeba [You Should Head North]“, which makes me jump up and down.

5. Ømi, “You”

If you’re a fan of BTS, you probably know this one already, as BTS’s Suga is the main producer. It’s a silly happy love song, and the kicky beat is irresistible.

6. Wataru Hatano, “You Only Live Once”

This is the closing credit track for the delightful anime series Yuri!!! on Ice. It doubles as one of my dancing-while-making-dinner songs. If I ever go to a club again, I might harass the DJ to play this (sometime before my 9 p.m. bedtime).

7. Perfume, “Saisei”

Another song with cartoony female vocals and enigmatic/distressing lyrics, but so so catchy. I often find myself bopping in my seat on the metro to this one.

8. World Order, “Have a Nice Day”

I once asked a colleague who is also studying Japanese for song suggestions, and she recommended World Order, this number in particular. The song is great, but the video – with its choreography critiquing conformist salaryman culture – is almost better, and makes it either perfect or devastating for the beginning of your work day.

9. Kenshi Yonezu, “Eine Kleine”

Kenshi Yonezu is another huge star that I don’t know that much about. His biggest hit is a fun and complex tune called “Lemon,” but the melody of “Eine Kleine” is always a high point of my commute.

10. RADWIMPS, “Nandemonaiya”

Ok, not cheerful. But this is one of my favourite songs ever, and if you are a non-Japanese person studying Japanese, there is about a 60% chance that RADWIMPS is your favourite Japanese band (as it is mine). “Nandemonaiya” is the closing credit track from the blockbuster anime Kimi no Na Wa (Your Name.). There is a devastating orchestral performance of this song, but the video for it features the end of the movie playing in the background, so wait until you’ve seen the film to watch that version. In the meantime, you can listen below. One of my life goals is to learn this song well enough to sing it at karaoke.

What are your favourite Japanese songs? Is music part of your language-learning routine? Please share in the comments below.

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 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

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

A Book Blog For Teachers

Friend and reader Tara Warmerdam just pointed me to her wonderful blog, A Reading Corner for Teachers and Writers. I’m so glad she did: she writes about books in a way that is meant to be helpful to teachers, and it  really is.  Some recent posts discuss

If you are a teacher interested in using books in the classroom – whether you’re a literature teacher or not, and no matter what your grade level – I think you’ll get a lot out of Tara’s blog.  Go check it out!

What’s the Use of the Academic Paper?: Blogiversary Post #9

I’m still asking myself this question – “Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?” – three years after publishing the original version of this post.  In the interim, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Now You See It (discussed below), and I’m still not sure whether I’m onside with Davidson’s perspective.  It seems to me that the academic paper has got to go, but something just as rigorous needs to take its place.  Do you have thoughts on this?

When this post first appeared, it was chosen as a WordPress “Freshly Pressed” feature and received 178 very interesting comments.

*

Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

In Now You See It, Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”  Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Virginia Heffernan explains, in her review of Davidson’s book (“Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade“) in the New York Times:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of the same students’ research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I’m not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I’m required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

I’ve been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

*

Tomorrow: my all-time #1 most shared post, on succeeding through failing.

Image by kristja

The Art of Cold Calling: Blogiversary Post #7

I’ve had some heated discussions about whether “cold calling” is good practice.  When I posted about it a couple of years ago, the post got a lot of comments and got passed around a lot.  What are your thoughts?  Is it a good idea to spring questions on students out of the blue?  Does it help them demonstrate mastery, or just provoke unnecessary anxiety?

*

oGmlilgAre you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss the problem of the Constant Commenter.  She says, “Some kids want to constantly comment, but the smartest are often the quietest. How can we get them more involved? How do we subdue the chronic commenters?”

One solution is the cold call.  We call on students randomly (or perhaps not so randomly, but it may appear random to them.)  If students raise hands or call out, we say, “I’m cold calling for this one, so no volunteers.”

A few years ago, a Masters teacher of mine said that she never cold-calls students because when she was a student, the idea of being “picked on” without warning made her sick with fear.  She never put her students through it because she hated it so much.  At first I was puzzled by this – Really?  You never ask students for answers unless they volunteer? – but I then realized that I rarely cold-call in its strict sense.  I often call on students, but usually they’ve had a chance to prepare responses beforehand, often with a partner or group so they don’t bear sole responsibility for their answers.

I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (thanks to my friend Sarah for the recommendation!) and he believes in real, honest-to-God cold-calling, asking students to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are mastering the skills and content they’re being taught, at a nanosecond’s notice.  This technique, he explains, has several benefits.

…it allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically…increases speed both in terms of your pacing…and the rate at which you cover material…[and] allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that they are likely to be called on to participate…but that you want to know what they have to say.

Lemov also encourages teachers to use techniques like “No Opt Out,” in which a student who answers with “I don’t know” must eventually give a correct answer, and “Format Matters,” meaning that students need to respond in complete, grammatical sentences whenever possible.  In Lemov’s world, there is no escape: you need to be present, engaged and ready to respond at any time.

I am more inclined to Lemov’s view than my former teacher’s.  At the beginning of the semester, I use the excuse that I need to learn their names, and call on them randomly from the attendance list to answer questions.  As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.  And, as I said, I rarely ask students to think on their feet – if they’re nervous, they can just read answers they’ve prepared with their group, although they may have to stretch themselves if I ask for further explanation.

I feel like I should do it more.  I believe that if students know they can be called on at any time, they will be more engaged and feel more responsibility for the material.  I’d like to create an atmosphere in which students feel that it’s safe to make errors, but that they at least have to take a stab at things, and that they need to be ready to do so at all times.  But I don’t want students to sit stewing in fear, petrified that they may be asked to speak.

Do you cold-call in your classroom?  If so, how do you make students fell okay with that?  If not, why not?  Does cold-calling improve the classroom dynamic, or is it a detriment?  I want my students to rise to the demands cold-calling creates, but I don’t want to poison their learning with terror.

*

Tomorrow: Top Ten Student Excuses for Missing Class.

Image by Prawny