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 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!

Fail Better: Blogiversary Final Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“But miss, it’s hard!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another researcher tells him,

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

Tough, reflecting on these observations, comments that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by shho

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.

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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?

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

Image by kristja

10 Best Excuses For Missing Class: Blogiversary Post #8

ojY7HqqWhen this post first went up in 2009, it was discovered by Sarah Ebner, then the editor of The Times UK’s education blog, School Gate.  Her promotion drove up its stats, and it got shared around.  Of note: Other than end-of-year roundups of favourite books and most-viewed posts, I have only done two “listicles” in this blog’s history – this one and the list of “10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment” – and both are in the top ten most viewed and most shared posts.  I should probably learn something from this.

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10 Best Excuses for Missing Class That My Students Have Actually Given Me, For Real

10. My mother made me give my dog away three days ago and I haven’t stopped crying since then.

9. While driving to school, I fell asleep at the wheel. I pulled over and napped instead of coming to class.

8. My boyfriend was stabbed at a club on Saturday. He’s okay, but I’m finding it hard to concentrate on school right now.

7. A drug lord burned our house down.

6. I had to go visit my brother in jail.

5. My little sister locked me in my closet.

4. My bank card was cloned by the corner store up the street. They wiped out my bank account and I didn’t even have money for subway fare.

3. My Ritalin stopped working. You really wouldn’t have wanted me to come to class.

2. I’ve never met my father. On Friday, I saw an obituary in the paper for my paternal grandfather’s funeral. I contacted my dad through the funeral home. Since then, my father’s entire extended family has been harassing me on Facebook demanding to meet me. I haven’t told my mother. I’m having a nervous breakdown.

1. I pulled my back reaching into the fridge for margarine.

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Monday: Is the academic paper obsolete?

Image by Gesine Kuhlmann

 

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?

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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.

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Tomorrow: Top Ten Student Excuses for Missing Class.

Image by Prawny