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 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.


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.

Ten Chapters In: Thoughts on Online Serial Novel Writing

What are you going to do with your long weekend? Maybe you’d like to read the first ten short chapters of a serialized novel about a twelve-year-old girl who suspects something funny is going on in her small town of Gale Harbour, Newfoundland.  If so, you will find this novel, Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, over here.

So far, the process of serializing a novel has been 1. inspiring and 2. discouraging, in about equal measure.  I’m considering taking a break from the serial in order to reassess my decision to self-publish in serial form.  Here are some of the considerations.

1. Publishing in installments, giving myself deadlines, and knowing that someone is reading what I write as I write it: this is an approach that works very well for me.  Having struggled with long manuscripts throughout my writing life, I know that I become easily bogged down and demotivated. A slow and steady pace, out where people can see me working, is ideal. Blogging here on Classroom as Microcosm taught me this, and for some time now, I’ve been wondering if blogging a novel would have the same effect.  It has.

2. It is hard not to be a bit disappointed with the lack of response that an online novel receives in contrast to, say, a blog about education and pedagogy.  To give some perspective: when I was publishing posts weekly on Classroom as Microcosm, hits averaged at about 10,000 views a month; even now, the blog receives about 300 random views of archived posts per day, despite the fact that new posts are rare.  This is a drop in the bucket in the blogosphere, but it’s enough for me to feel that the blog is meaningful to others and not just me.  In contrast, when I publish a new chapter on Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, it receives about 30 hits that day, and a sprinkling in the days following.  The novel has 30 subscribed followers, most of whom are family and friends.  I am extremely grateful for these views and followers, and for the occasional encouraging messages I get through email, Facebook and face-to-face conversation.  At the same time, I feel that there MIGHT be other people out in the world who would enjoy this little story, and I have no idea how to get it to them.  Yes, I’ve built Classroom as Microcosm over many years and I’ve been blogging my novel for only a couple of months, but I realize now that I was expecting a bit more cross-pollination.

3. This leads to the question of promotion.  I am not comfortable with self-promotion, and I know I need to just suck it up and do it.  I share the links on StumbleUpon, Facebook and Twitter, and I’ve tried listing the novel with curators of serials, like Muse’s Success, WebFictionGuide, and Tuesday Serial. Some friends have kindly shared and retweeted links to the novel, and this has brought in some new readers, but none of these methods have been successful in increasing readership very much.  I have searched in vain for blogs that review self-published online serial fiction; they must be out there, and I’ll keep looking.  I’m even toying with the idea of starting my own, but I can only stretch myself so thin.

4. For the above reasons, I’m considering moving my online novel to a platform like Jukepop or Wattpad, forums that exist exclusively for publishing, promoting and communicating about serial online fiction.  It’s fantastic that sites like this exist, and I know a lot of writers get a huge boost from them. Here’s the catch, though: I have explored these platforms and browsed their offerings, and a lot of what is published there is…just not my thing.  I click on book covers and summaries and I have not yet felt the impulse to read more; when I’ve made the deliberate decision to read a first chapter, it’s felt like a duty rather than a pleasure, and I’m struck by how different the aesthetic is from mine.  I’m not sure my story fits in these places. On the surface, there’s no reason why not: it is, or will be, a genre novel, a YA/middle-grade adventure novel with a fantasy bent – but it’s quiet, slow and character-driven, in contrast to the most popular Jukepop and Wattpad stories, which seem to be big on plot and not so concerned about, say, the quality of the prose.  I’m SURE there are stories I’d love on these platforms, but I haven’t found them yet, which suggests that they may be…hard to find.

5. On a similar note: I should be reading lots of serialized online fiction, to get a sense of that community, but as a writer, I can’t invest my hours in reading fiction unless it’s really good, and finding the really good stuff seems to take an enormous amount of time.  I have a coffee table and a Kobo full of awesome library books; I need someone out there to put all the terrific online fiction in one place so I don’t have to waste my reading hours combing through everything ever published online.  Again: if I were a better person, this would be me. It probably won’t be me.  Has someone else done it?

6. Why don’t I just submit the novel to a traditional publisher, you ask? Don’t even get me started.  Well, do, if you’re really interested; I’ll be happy to get into it in the comments if you want.

7. One response to all this could be: why are you so concerned about who is/how many people are reading? Why not just write because writing is fun, and audience be damned? Well, that’s a good question.  The answer is: I have spent many years writing stuff and putting it in a drawer, and it is NOT satisfying, it is NOT fulfilling, and it is killing my desire to write fiction at all.  As I tell my students sometimes: the tool of writing did not arise so that people could indulge themselves in self-expression in their own little isolated caves. We learned to write so we could communicate.

8. Of course, it’s possible that the novel is just not all that good.  The positive feedback has mostly been from people who know me, and anyone who makes art knows to take “Great job!”s from loved ones with big grains of salt.  That said: my friends and family are intelligent, discerning and artistically accomplished people. I take their good opinions seriously. This novel is flawed, for sure; I would love to have a professional editor polish every chapter before it goes up.  That said, I think there’s something there. If you read some of it and you agree, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  If you read some of it and decide it’s a big pile of garbage…well, my skin may not be thick enough to take that kind of commentary right now, but I’ll let you know when it is.

Do you have advice? If you’ve self-published online, or know something about that process, or have any thoughts at all about what to do with a novel like mine in the bizarre world of publishing today, or know of terrific online fiction that is well worth the investment of my and your precious reading hours…please give us your thoughts on any of this. Even if you have read some of my novel installments and think they’re terrible (again: please don’t tell me), I’m sure there are other fiction writers struggling with these questions who would like to hear your ideas. I feel like there are terrific opportunities about to open up in the world of online fiction, but they aren’t quite there yet, and I want to know which direction we should all face so we can see them as soon as they blossom.

To read Nellie and the Coven of Barbo, go here.



Triumph Over Burnout: Blogiversary Post #4

At the beginning of the new school year, some of us feel refreshed and eager; others, not so much.  If you’re filled with dread at the thought of vacation’s end (not the ordinary oh-I-wish-I-could-read-novels-on-the-deck-forever dread, but the more acute why-am-I-doing-this-with-my-life dread), then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate: is teaching really what you want to do?

For a while, I wasn’t sure.  I started this blog as a tool to help me wrestle with this question.  Seven years later, I’m still teaching, but my perspective on the profession has changed.

In 2009, Sarah Ebner, then of the Times UK’s School Gate blog, asked me to write a series of guest posts; I chose to write about my journey through burnout and out the other side.  A few years later, she gave my permission to re-print those posts here on Classroom as Microcosm, and those posts are among the most shared in CaM’s seven-year history.  I collected them on this page; you will also find the links below.


Are you burnt out?  Demoralized?  So was I.  I did some stuff.  It helped.  Now I love my job again.  Maybe you can too!


Tomorrow: a useful analogy to help students understand essay structure.

Image by VooDoo4u2nv

Blog Hop!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApparently a “blog hop” is a thing.  I’ve been invited to participate in this one by my friend Anita Lahey, whose fascinating blog Henrietta & Me is all about the books she’s reading and the people in them.  Anita is a poet, essayist and journalist; her poetry collection Out to Dry in Cape Breton was an indelible reading experience for me (I will never look at a clothesline the same way again), and her latest book, The Mystery Shopping Cart: Essays on Poetry and Culture, is on my to-read-as-soon-as-my-end-of-term-grading-is-done list.

I’ve chosen to answer these questions wearing my education-writer hat and not my fiction-writer hat, as education writing is what I do on this blog.

What am I working on?

My M.Ed. thesis: an investigation into tools teachers can use to encourage/nurture lifelong reading habits in college students.  As a first step, I’m working on a literature review addressing the question “Is reading for fun really all that important?” (The upshot so far: probably.) I hope to produce a thesis that is of interest to a general audience, or at least to teachers in general, and not just to post-secondary academics and researchers.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

In this blog, I reflect on my own teaching practice.  I do this because I believe that almost any experience will be of interest to someone else if it is examined with attention and expressed carefully.  (I guess this is one of the basic principles that drives people to write things.)  The title Classroom as Microcosm is a good indication of what I want the blog to be about: I’m writing about school, but school is a great metaphor for a lot of other stuff.  I hope my attempt to link the little world of school, and in particular MY little college-teaching world, with the greater scheme of things makes this blog unique.

Why do I write what I do?

I started writing Classroom as Microcosm because I was ready to quit my job.  My resentment of my college students and their bad behaviours, my uncertainty in my role as an authority figure, and my disillusionment with the teaching profession and the education system as a whole were making me miserable.  I was also floundering as a fiction writer.  One summer day in 2007, as I poured these troubles out to a friend over coffee, she said, “I think you need to start keeping a blog.  It will be a place to write without the isolation.  Maybe you should start blogging about teaching.”  So I did, and it’s no exaggeration to say that this blog saved my career.

I’m a less productive blogger these days in part because I have come to a much more solid and self-confident place as a teacher.  That said, there are other things I want to explore here now, so this summer, I hope to start posting more about reading, literature and the place of books – especially narratives – in our textually fragmented world.

How does my writing process work?

In my most productive years, I posted twice a week during the school semester: a new post on Monday and a reprise of a popular past post on Thursday.  These days, I post only when I’m powerfully inspired, but I’d like to return to that more diligent schedule.  I try to view writing of any kind as a professional obligation: churn it out, edit it meticulously to make it as good as you can, and then just get it out there without thinking it to death.  Blog writing is an excellent platform for this approach.  I’ve been working on a novel manuscript for thirteen years because I have become mired in self-doubt; this blog is an excellent reminder that the real goal of writing is to communicate with people.  You have to let your writing travel out into the world.  If a particular piece doesn’t speak to anyone, write the next thing.

Next week on the blog hop:

My friend and colleague Stacey DeWolfe, who, in addition to being an inspiring teacher, blogs on teaching, food, music, books, dogs, and lots of other important things.

My high school and college crony Rebecca Coleman, who knows everything there is to know about social media, but also keeps a terrific blog on things she likes to cook.

 Image by Michal Zacharzewski

“I AM the Teacher”

After a long and infuriating day of grading final papers, here’s a random quote from my favourite writer that makes me feel oddly, ambivalently better.

‘You act,’ said one of her Senior Seminar students at a scheduled conference, ‘like your opinion is worth more than everybody else’s in the class.’

Zoe’s eyes widened.  ‘I AM the teacher,’ she said.  ‘I DO get paid to act like that.’ She narrowed her gaze at the student, who was wearing a big leather bow in her hair, like a cowgirl in a TV ranch show. ‘I mean, otherwise EVERYBODY in the class would have little offices and office hours.’ … She stared at the student some more, then added, ‘I bet you’d like that.’

‘Maybe I sound whiny to you,’ said the girl, ‘but I simply want my history major to mean something.’

‘Well, there’s your problem,’ said Zoe, and with a smile, she showed the student to the door. ‘I like your bow,’ she added.

Lorrie Moore, from “You’re Ugly, Too”

The Art of Running Away

meSMNSmIt’s been a tough semester.

I’ve described some of the trials already: a new course that didn’t work very well, an unsuccessful experiment with blogs, a number of unpleasant end-of-semester exchanges.  More than a month after the end of classes, I’m still dealing with a challenge to one of my plagiarism rulings, and still awaiting a decision on what to do about a very rude email.

I’m also trying to work out a solution to a bigger problem, and the solution I like best is the one that probably reflects worst on me.

This semester I had an unusually high number of failures in one of my sections.  Actually, “unusually high” is hedging it – eleven out of forty failed.  For me, this is unheard of: I was consistently astonished by how weak the majority of the students in this section were, how resistant they were to following instructions, how unpleasant the atmosphere in the classroom was.

I interrogated myself about it.  Yes, the course was more challenging than it should have been, but I’d made adjustments, and the other section of the same course was doing fine.  (Four students in the other section had failed, three because they disappeared from the course and/or stopped handing in their work early on.) With only one or two exceptions, those who were making a good effort on all assignments were squeaking by.  It just seemed that there were a lot of students who weren’t invested, weren’t skilled enough to skate through, and weren’t really getting along with each other or with me.  The whole experience was nasty, and it was borne out in the course evaluations: while the other section was very positive, this section returned the worst evaluations I’ve ever received.

Generally speaking, once the semester is over, the grades are submitted, and some straggling complaints are dealt with, it’s time to move on.  Out with the old! Learn from your mistakes! etc. However, there’s a wrench in this scenario.

This course is a requirement for a major.  I’m currently the only teacher who teaches it.  This means that all these students – as many as FIFTEEN REPEATERS, not including students who have failed the course in previous semesters – will end up back in my class next winter.  This includes the student who has filed the plagiarism challenge, the author of the rude email, and the other students I mentioned in the post about requests for makeup work.  It also includes other plagiarists, other students who got angry at me about something or other, other students who have ALREADY failed the course before, and all sorts of other problematic situations.

Perhaps you can imagine how I feel.

So here’s the question.  My “good teacher” instinct is to say: Here’s a learning experience for you!  What are you going to do with this mess?  It will involve, obviously, a close examination of everything that went wrong with the course, and everything that I didn’t do to address issues as they came up.  It will involve up-front discussions with all the failing students right at the beginning of the semester.  It will involve careful “handling” of students who will be resentful and will believe that their failures are all my fault.  What a challenge!  What an opportunity for growth!

My “self-preservation” instinct is to ask someone else to teach this course next year.

I finished this semester exhausted and overwhelmed.  In addition to the struggles outlined above, I’ve been juggling other work, home renovations, MEd studies and, less and less, attempts to work on my own writing.  (As you may have noticed, my blog fell mostly by the wayside.)  The idea of not only trying to fix this broken course but doing it in the face of a pile of students who are coming in with a grudge feels like way, way too much. What I really need is a sabbatical, but I can’t afford one.  So maybe what I need is a sabbatical from this course.

This feels like a massive, cowardly cop-out.  It’s also what I really, really want to do.  Is there a way to justify it?

Image by Moi Cody

Makeup Work: 3 Scenarios

meZaC80I have a blanket policy against end-of-term makeup work for students who have failed.  If you didn’t complete all the assignments and get the extra help you needed during the semester (and if you did, you probably passed – it is extremely difficult to fail my courses), then you need to face the consequences.

This semester, I’ve received more requests for makeup work than ever before.  It’s exhausting.  Over the last few days, in particular, I’ve grappled with three scenarios that, when I add them all together, I can’t come to a comfortable decision on.  I need your advice.

1. Student 1 is a competent writer and could easily have passed the course.  When we met at midterm, we agreed that she was in serious danger of failing if she didn’t buckle in, come to class and do the work.  Nothing changed.  She did not do the required minimum of blog writing and didn’t show up to do her oral presentation.  A few days before the deadline for her final essay, she wrote pleading for extra work, citing personal problems throughout the semester, a need to graduate etc.  Answer was a blunt “no.”  She failed the course by a few points and wrote again to plead for allowances.  Answer?  Still no.

2. Student 2 failed this course with me once before, due to both poor skills and inattention to work and deadlines.  She was always pleasant but seemed confused and tuned-out, and repeatedly expressed surprise when it was pointed out that she had not followed (very clear) instructions.  For the first half of this semester, it seemed that her approach would be exactly the same as it had been last time.  By the second half, though, she started to try to pull herself together, mostly without success.  There were glimmers of potential in some of the things she produced, but deadlines were still missed, word counts nowhere close to met, writing riddled with all manner of errors.  Again, she looked surprised when told that she had failed assignments for these reasons.  A couple of weeks before the end of classes, she asked me to tell her honestly where she stood, and I told her honestly that there was no realistic chance she would pass.  She soldiered on anyway, and handed in what amounted to a good final paper, but it wasn’t enough.  The day after her final grade was posted, I received an email from her in which she began by wishing me a “pleasant good day” and then went on to say that she couldn’t believe that I “had taken pleasure in failing her by only 3 marks” and that it was clear that I had been “determined all semester to see her fail.”  She informed me that she had thought about “taking me to the dean” but had decided instead that she would benefit from doing the course again because she “had learned nothing in my class.”  (Perhaps she hasn’t put it together that, if she wants to maintain her major, she needs to take the course for a third time WITH ME.)  She ended by wishing me blessings from God.

3. Students 1 and 2 wouldn’t really trouble me if it weren’t for Student 3.  She is a nationally ranked athlete.  Her spoken and written English are very poor, and she was spotty in her completion of assignments.  At midterm, one of her coaches wrote to me and asked me to call him.  I hesitated, but did so, after confirming his identity with the student.  Only during the conversation with him did I discover that he was not a college coach, but a private one.  He informed me at length about Student 3’s prospects, including a scholarship to a major American university contingent upon her passing all courses.  I explained that I understood the situation but was not going to GIVE the student grades she wasn’t capable of, or dedicated to, earning.  I also asked some questions to find out who at Academic Advising is responsible for monitoring her progress (a setup in our “Sports Etudes” program in which elite athletes are given some academic flexibility to accommodate their training schedules).  I suggested that in future, the coach should ask this contact person to deal with me, and should not write or call teachers directly.  Nevertheless, I received a message from the coach again yesterday, asking about Student 3’s final results.  Although she had made significant effort on some assignments, others had remained undone, and I had posted her failing grade the day before.  I didn’t reply to the coach right away, but minutes later got a panicky email from the student, asking for extra work or other ways to make up her grades.  I immediately wrote to their contact at Academic Advising, asking him to handle the situation and contact me if needed.  He has promised to do so, but I am left with the question: if her results in my course are the only thing standing between her and the next important step in her academic and athletic career, do I take that into consideration?  If I decide to be flexible, should I also be flexible for Students 1 & 2?

What would you do in any of the above situations?  Does leniency for Student 3 also require leniency for the first two students, or should the answer be a “no” across the board?  Or should I lighten up when it comes to borderline failures and allow students to do makeup work regardless?  I would be very interested to hear  your thoughts.

Image by Sigurd Decroos

When the Syllabus Goes Wrong

mhC7ZMoI cannot tell a lie.  My new course is a failure.

This semester, I did a complete overhaul on the English course I teach for Child Studies majors.  The earlier version of the course was a solid one.  It focused on the topic of childhood relationships in literature: parent-child relationships, sibling relationships, and friendships.  We read a couple of books, wrote a couple of essays, researched famous childhood relationships and presented them to the class.  The final assignment was to write a story, fictional or non-fictional, about a childhood relationship.

It always went pretty well, but I was sick of it.  If I had to hear another presentation on the Jackson Five and their father, I was going to lose it.  And I was on a high from another course in which students chose their own readings, I course that I enjoyed teaching more than any other.  I wanted to try blogs again, and I was in love with Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, an exploration of the character qualities that lead to success.

So I had a few epiphanies and redesigned the course.  I knew I’d be flying by the seat of my pants for most of it, but, because this had worked out well for me in recent memory, I wasn’t too worried about it.

  1. Because I wanted to use Tough’s book, I called the course “A Question of Character.”  The guiding questions: What is character?  How do we define it in real life?  How do we experience it in literature?  Can reading literature influence a child’s character?
  2. I wanted each student to read a different classic work of children’s literature.  I compiled a list of books for them to choose from, all of which I was excited about reading or re-reading, and they dutifully signed up.  The plan was for each student to present his or her book, and its lessons about character, to the class.
  3. I wanted to use blogs as a way for students to exchange ideas and explore their own thoughts.  In the first few weeks we spent a lot of time setting up blogs, addressing questions about image copyright and moderating comments, and ironing out other issues.  In the first month, I fastidiously read and commented on every post, and compiled lists of the best posts of the week on my own blog.  They were to receive a grade for February, a grade for March, and one for April, with suggestions and feedback as we went along.

In the beginning, everything rolled along nicely.  I didn’t have a lot of grading to do, so reading the blogs was not stressful – in fact, I loved reading them.  Even the banal ones were interesting at first, as I got to know the students and the way they thought and wrote.  We started the term by reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone all together, and the students were mostly ecstatic about it.  They also seemed interested in the ideas in Paul Tough’s work, and wrote thoughtful first essays in which they discussed whether Harry Potter and his friends supported or contradicted Tough’s theories.  I slowly read my way through the book list, revisting old favourites and discovering new ones.

Things started to come apart around midterm.

First, I started feeling the burden of reading 80 blog posts every week.  Which is to say: I stopped reading 80 blog posts every week.  I couldn’t grade everything else and do that too.  I’d met with students individually in mid-March to discuss how they’d done on their blogs in February.  I’d planned to do that again after the March blogs were done, but there simply wasn’t time; once I’d given them all their blog grades for March (by entering them into the online gradebook with a couple of comments), April was almost over and there was really no time for them to implement the feedback.

I was also utterly bogged down in the book list.  I resented the volume of non-voluntary reading I’d assigned myself.  I found myself beginning a book and casting it aside, feeling sorry for the student who’d chosen it – The Dark is Rising, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Call of the Wild… why on earth did I inflict these on anyone? I wondered.

Then we started with the oral presentations.

One of the requirements was that they each find at least one scholarly article on their book and discuss it.  It turned out that the literary databases at our college are so limited that it was impossible to find even a book review on novels as classic as The Naughtiest Girl in the School or From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I had to adjust the criteria to the point that the research component of the assignment became basically meaningless.

I’d instructed each of them to present for 10-15 minutes, and we spread the presentations over 8 classes (5 presentations per class).  The first handful of presentations was enjoyable, but it became clear early on that requiring a “plot summary” without practicing how to make a plot summary clear and concise had been a big mistake.  The plot summaries dragged on endlessly, rife with minute detail, and the rest of the required components were treated in a couple of moments – a number of presentations were over 20 minutes long but consisted primarily of a brief biography of the author, lifted straight from Wikipedia regardless of my warnings, and a meticulous overview of the plot, followed by 90 seconds of analysis.  By the time we’d dragged through 5 or 6 of these, there was little time for anything else in the class period, and regardless of how different the books were, the presentations were ALL THE SAME.  It was agony.  Students stopped showing up for class.  I didn’t blame them.

One of my two classes is, for whatever reason, considerably weaker than the other.  I just finished grading the blogs for that weaker class, and the class average is 59%.  Ergo: this assignment was not a success.  The oral presentations were not a success.  They are working on their final papers right now, and were required to come in small groups to work on their outlines; barely half of them showed up for their small-group meetings.  The other class is faring better but there is still a general feeling, at least in my mind, that this course is a random, pointless mess.

Despite the issues, I feel some good things came out of this course.  Those students who kept their blogs diligently wrote some really inspiring things, and the conversations in the comments sections showed some deep and broad learning.  I certainly enjoyed reading the blogs more than I ever enjoy grading papers.  Some students reported being inspired by the children’s novels they read, and passing them on to younger siblings.  Some reported finding Paul Tough’s book extremely interesting, and their papers, blog posts and discussions about it indicate that most of them understood his ideas well and are applying them constructively to their lives and the literature.  So it’s not that there’s no learning happening, but I’m expecting a lot of scathing reports on the course evaluations about the confusing and meandering way that learning came about.

At this point, my plan is to shelve this course and return to its earlier incarnation, and take a couple of years to revise, revamp, reorganize, and reconceive.  I would love to hear your advice, and your stories.  Have you ever given, or taken, a course that just seemed like a bad idea?  If you gave it, what did you do to improve it?  If you took it, why was it bad, and what would you have changed?  Beyond that, can you see any solutions to the problems I describe above?

Image by Steve Woods

Prompt #2: The Writing on Learning Exchange: What I Want To Learn Now

mGBNBOqWelcome to the second installment of the Writing on Learning Exchange!

Thanks so much for all of  you who contributed to the last round.  If you’d like to go back to Prompt #1, no worries; there are no deadlines!  If you’d like to just pick up the ball from here, that’s great too.  This is not homework.  It’s for you (and for us, of course, if you let us read what you write.)

For guidelines on participating in the Exchange, please go here.

This week’s prompt: What do you want to learn next?

Additional thoughts to inspire you:

  • Is there something you didn’t value when you were young, and so didn’t actively pursue in school, that you would now like to learn more about or be better at?
  • Is there a skill that you want to have but that you’ve never developed?  Why haven’t you developed it?  Could you develop it now?
  • Do you have a hobby or interest that you’d like to investigate more deeply?  Or a project you want to undertake but don’t feel ready for?
  • Do you envy someone because of something he/she knows or something he/she can do?  Do you think you could turn that envy into action?

…or maybe this topic takes you in a different direction – great!  Post your responses below or elsewhere – if elsewhere, please link back to this post, and direct us to your response in the comments here.

Image by Michaela Kobyakov