Nellie Returns

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

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

You’ll find the latest chapter here.

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

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


How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

Betraying Elmo

Just a few days ago, I spent an evening weeping with joy over the documentary Being Elmo.  The subject of that documentary, Kevin Clash, is now facing accusations of “sex with an underage boy.”  No matter what the truth of the story is, it will be disheartening.  Which is worse?

1. The allegations are true.

Clash has been accused of sex with a 16-year-old male.  In Canada, 16 is the age of consent; there is a section of the law that criminalizes anal intercourse unless both participants are over 18, but in Quebec (and Ontario and Alberta) this section has been declared unconstitutional.  That is to say: there would be nothing illegal about this alleged relationship if it happened here, and in a lot of other places.  (Please feel free to correct me if I’m getting the legalities wrong here; I’m scrambling around the internet for corroboration, and we all know what that’s worth.)

The fact that Clash was 45 at the time is discomfiting, but calling it “child abuse” is muckraking (the parallels being drawn with the Sandusky case, for example, are shameful.  A consenting relationship between a 16-year-old and a middle-aged man is problematic, illegal in some places, disillusioning if that man is the voice of a beloved puppet…but it is not child rape.)  As for the motivations of the accuser…well, he’s now 23 and it isn’t clear why he chose to come forward at this time.

2. The allegations are false.

Clash doesn’t deny that the relationship happened.  He says, however, that it began when the accuser was of legal age.  Sesame Workshop says there is no evidence to the contrary, and that emails that supposedly incriminate Clash are fraudulent.  The accuser’s lawyers say that SW is protecting its own bottom line, in the form of Elmo, who will obviously never recover from this no matter what happens to Clash.

The possibility that the young man is making up this story is as disheartening as the possibility that it’s true; one way or another, it reminds us that the world is a terrible place full of damaged people with poor judgement willing to make destructive decisions to fill the voids in their lives.  As the A. V. Club article linked to above puts it,

Clash’s current leave of absence, like the one recently taken by your faith in the inherent goodness of things, is ostensibly temporary, and meant to allow him time to take “actions to protect his reputation,” as well as try futilely to return this nation to a place where “Tickle Me Elmo” jokes do not inspire empty, hyena-like laughter.


I spend a lot of time around people who would not be considered legally consenting adults in much of the United States.  I’ve heard plenty of stories about CEGEP teachers taking up with their young students, sometimes for temporary gratification, sometimes abandoning their spouses and ending their careers.  I’ve always felt such incidents were sad and understandable and mystifying and ridiculous.  But mostly sad.

(Yes, of  course it’s conceivable for a 50-year-old to be attracted to a teenager.  Teenagers are often beautiful.  Sometimes they’re also fascinating, and brilliant, and exciting.  It’s possible to get all stirred up by one, if things align in just the right way.  Why on earth would you act upon it?  They’re TEENAGERS.  You’re a GROWN PERSON.  A teenager needs you to be an adult.  A teenager who wants to have sex with your 50-year-old ass has issues that you don’t want to get involved with.  Besides, don’t you have important stuff to take care of?  Like, responsibilities that require your time and emotional energy?  Given that, you know, you’re a GROWN PERSON and all?)

A teacher-student relationship has its own power dynamic.  I don’t know how Clash met his accuser, even if the young man was indeed underage at the time – perhaps that dynamic was in place, or perhaps it was something different.  Clash is a teacher, even if 16-year-olds aren’t his target audience; he’s a celebrity, even if his face wouldn’t have been widely recognized at the time; any older person has a certain authority over a younger person.  At the same time, how do we draw definitive moral lines?  If the accuser was 16, or 17, or 18, how much difference does it really make?

Is Clash guilty of a crime, or a foolish decision, or nothing?  Even if all the facts come out, the answer to this question will not be clear.  In the meantime, the world is a sadder place.

When I saw Being Elmo last week, it rescued me from a dark day.  It’s unlikely to rescue anyone else.

One Minute of Solitude: Reprise


We are six weeks into the semester, and I’m starting to pinpoint small classroom management issues and think about appropriate responses.  Nothing major has arisen so far (fingers crossed), but whenever I am confronted with hints of passive-aggressiveness, defiance or rudeness, I start evaluating what I need to do: ignore? Confront? Defuse in some other manner?

This always makes me think of past experiences, and one class from the autumn of 2009 has been coming to mind.  Here’s an early attempt I made to curb their inappropriate behaviour.  Take a guess: do you imagine this approach was effective?  Do you think it would be effective in one of your difficult classes?


Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered a technique that a friend mentioned a while ago.  She said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

Holden Caulfield Has Left the Building: Reprise


I’m not teaching The Catcher in the Rye this term, but I’m pre-planning next year’s course on novels about adolescence, and wondering whether to include it in the list.  The post below, first published in June 2009, grapples with the possibility that maybe it’s not the best choice for today’s youth, at least not those in my college’s demographic.

Do you love CITR? Do your students love it?  Should I make my students read it?  Give me your thoughts.


Apparently, teens don’t like Holden Caulfield any more.

The New York Times published an article in 2009 about the demise of Holden’s appeal in the minds of the young. One teacher says, “Holden’s passivity is especially galling and perplexing to many present-day students…In general, they do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes; they are more focused on distinguishing themselves in society as it is presently constituted than in trying to change it.”

Another summarizes her students’ attitude as “I can’t really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City.”

For years I began my course on novels about adolescence with The Catcher in the Rye. I reread the novel every semester and found myself gripped, shaken, and finally, reduced to tears. But many of my students stared at me blankly when I rhapsodized about Holden’s journey. When I asked one class how many of them HADN’T liked the novel, almost half of them raised their hands. “And why not?” I asked one of them.

He shrugged. “I’d like to show Holden what real problems are,” he said.

The NYT suggests that Holden’s alienation is less accessible to today’s teens because of changes in the way society caters to teenage boys.

Perhaps Holden would not have felt quite so alone if he were growing up today. After all, Mr. Salinger was writing long before the rise of a multibillion-dollar cultural-entertainment complex largely catering to the taste of teenage boys. These days, adults may lament the slasher movies and dumb sex comedies that have taken over the multiplex, but back then teenagers found themselves stranded between adult things and childish pleasures.

(What Holden would have thought, or SAID he thought, about slasher movies and dumb sex comedies is debatable, of course.)

Despite the naysayers, many of my students say they do like the novel – it’s easy to read, Holden is funny, Phoebe is delightful. So I keep going back to it.

Have you read The Catcher in the Rye lately? Do you still love it, if you ever did? Have you taught it, and if so, what did your students think?

Image by Barun Patro

When You Are Uncool: Reprise

As promised, today I begin a Thursday series of posts from the archives – posts that have long since disappeared from view but that I still like.  New readers may be encountering them for the first time; if you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, maybe you’ll see something new in the post this time around.

The first is a slightly edited version of “When You Are Uncool,” a post that first appeared in December of 2008.  Some of the details of this post are no longer true – for example, my bra size has decreased considerably (yes, this is relevant; you’ll see.)  Nevertheless, the questions raised here still seem significant to me.  Should teachers aspire to be “cool”?  Is it possible to alienate students with one’s coolness or lack thereof?  Please give me your thoughts.


In September 2008, the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s yearly “College Issue” contained a piece by Mark Edmundson called “Geek Lessons: Why Good Teaching Will Never Be Fashionable.”  Edmundson summarizes his premise in a quote from the movie Almost Famous, out of the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, the real-life music journalist Lester Bangs: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”

According to Edmundson, good teachers are not cool. He lists off the ways teachers can be cool: “You emulate your students. You do what they do, but with a little bit of adult élan. You like what they like: listen to their tunes, immerse in their technology. …The most common way to become a hip teacher now … is to go wild for computers.”

A truly good teacher, Edmundson writes, is not like this – or, perhaps I can extrapolate, is not invested in being like this. “Good teachers see the world in alternate terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.”

He describes a teacher entering the classroom through the window and asking students to define the word door. Another teacher takes his students outside so they can, with their bodies, create a kinetic scale model of the solar system, complete with orbiting and rotating. (I remember reading, in Lorrie Moore’s novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, about a similar class project in which one student, the narrator, was forgotten well into the night as she stood shivering outside the town library. She was Pluto.) “The good teacher is sometimes willing to be a little ridiculous: he wears red or green socks so a kid will always have an excuse to start a conversation with him; she bumbles with her purse to make her more maladroit kids feel at ease.”

The “Bangsian” professor, Edmundson acknowledges, is taking a risk. Students like cool teachers. They give them good evaluations. But according to Edmundson, “students don’t rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers. They rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers who take themselves too seriously.” The key, if you’re uncool, is to know it and be able to laugh at yourself, just like the fictionalized Lester Bangs.

Now, I’ve never been cool. I was deeply uncool as a child and young adolescent, was tormented and harassed for being uncool. In high school, I had plenty of friends, but I was also a lower-achieving version of Tracy Flick in Election, my hand always in the air and my smarty-pants mouth always running over with big words. I’ve always felt that everyone else knew some profound secret that I didn’t understand, a secret that allowed them to interact comfortably and unselfconsciously with others.

When I began teaching, I felt cool for the first time in my life. I was very young and acceptably good-looking, two qualities that immediately set a teacher on the road to cool. I also cared about my students, a lot, and cared even more about what they thought of me, so I wore clothes I thought they’d appreciate, did activities with them that I thought they’d like, and said “Yes” to almost everything they asked. I was an assistant teacher, so I wasn’t expected to discipline anyone – if students didn’t behave with me, they were removed from my class and returned to their regular teacher – so I rarely had to do anything that a child could construe as mean.

Students wanted to hang out with me on the playground, to hold my hand in the street, to share a room with me when we were on school trips. Never mind that these students were nine, ten and eleven years old and I was congratulating myself for being “cool” in their eyes.

I then began teaching at a high school, and my “coolness” was even more apparent and even more rewarding. I was barely out of high school myself. I was living in a small town where there were no young adults, all of them having left for the city to study or work. So I had no real friends. But to my students, I was cool.

I was an attractive twenty-year-old Anglophone (read: foreigner) who spoke French with a cute accent and had nothing better to do than chaperone school dances and go shopping in the city for slightly, but not threateningly, funky clothes. The boys wrote me love notes. Some of the girls, especially the “cool” ones, disliked me at first, but they came around when I was nice to them. When the Gulf War broke out and I drew a peace sign on my face with eyeliner every morning, the kids started doing it too. They wanted to be like me.

But I also went out of my way to be like them. I played games with them in the classroom, without ever asking myself what the pedagogical purpose of them was. I translated one student’s soap opera-style film script into English and spent all my free time, for the last two months of my time there, casting, directing and videotaping it. I went to volleyball games. I listened to French Canadian pop music. I watched Chambres en ville and Les filles de Caleb, the téléromans that they loved.

It wasn’t hard: I was a young person myself, and found these things enjoyable. I was almost effortlessly, almost naturally, popular.

It was intoxicating.

And then I started getting older.

The transition was a slow, and not a steady, one. I still loved my job, and my students, and that made me cool. When I was working in contexts where students were well-behaved and enthusiastic about what I was teaching, my own enthusiasm was enough to make me cool. I was, for many years, still young, and looked even younger. That was cool.

But I’m really not cool any longer.

I’m no longer good-looking by any teenager’s standard. The music most of them listen to is vapid and boring as far as I’m concerned. I’m not attracted to clothes that a seventeen-year-old would consider fashionable. I hate cell phones. Hate them. And, just as I used to say “Yes” to almost anything my students asked for, I now find myself saying “No” over, and over, and over.

It’s been very difficult for me to let go of the ego-trip, the sense of validation, that I got out of being “cool” all those years. I decided to become a teacher because of the feeling of self-worth that I got from being in the classroom. That feeling came from the way the students responded to me, a feeling I’d never had growing up. And as time went on, their responses changed. For a while, I thought that maybe my reasons for teaching were gone.

I’m no longer cool, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that I haven’t resigned myself. I’m still looking for the kinds of responses I got when I was nineteen and twenty years old, and that’s just not going to happen.

What’s more, those responses had nothing to do with my students learning anything. I was validating my students just as they were, making them feel good about themselves by liking what they liked and never refusing them anything. But learning is not about being affirmed over and over. Learning is about being put in a position where you need to adapt and change.

I like Edmunson’s example of the red and green socks.

Most teachers I know spend time thinking about their clothes. When you’re standing up in front of rooms full of people all day, you can’t help but worry about your appearance. I know of teachers who safety-pin their flies closed every day, just in case. A colleague told me a while ago about female teachers who wear padded bras to avoid the problem of “nipplus erectus” in cold classrooms. (This option isn’t open to me: I wear a G-cup, and padding my bra would lead to a whole different set of fashion problems.) You don’t want to own too many sweaters that are similar, because then students will accuse you of wearing the same clothes all the time.

I mean, you don’t want to be laughed at. You take yourself seriously.

Even up to a few years ago, I got comments on evaluations along the lines of “I love the way miss dresses! It’s very special.” And I got comments like “One thing the teacher could improve: Her fashion sense.” I enjoyed comments like the former, and was baffled and hurt by comments like the latter. I still couldn’t grasp that I couldn’t please everyone all the time (even though I am, and always have been, well aware that my fashion sense is random and tenuous and sometimes just plain absent.)

Since reading Edmunson’s article, I’ve been musing about going in an entirely different direction.

I knit my own socks, often in hilarious colours. My hand-knit socks are not cool. Until now, it would never have occurred to me to wear a pair of my hand-knit socks in the classroom, unless they were well hidden inside boots.

But last night, as I finished up a thick pair in peony pink and sage green worsted, I held them up and had a vision of walking into the classroom in them, of a student saying, “Oh my God, miss, where did you get those socks?” And then we could have a conversation about sock knitting.

Sock knitting may be cool these days amongst hipster thirty-somethings, but to my students, believe me, sock knitting is not cool. It, and my pink-and-green socks, set me apart from them.

But we could talk about sock knitting, something this student would never have thought of doing, just like she would never have thought of wearing pink and green wool socks.

And even if she didn’t hear another word I said all class, she might go home and tell her sister or her father, “My teacher is a nutjob. You should have seen the socks she was wearing today. And then she told me she knit them herself. I mean, are you kidding me?”

And her vision of the world would have expanded to include people who knit, and wear, pink and green worsted wool socks.

People who, in other words, don’t take themselves very seriously.

I think Lester Bangs would approve.

Image by Riesma Pawestri

How To Be a Teenage Girl

If you haven’t yet discovered Tavi Gevinson and her webzine Rookie, it’s time you did.  If you know any teenage girls, you need to send them a link to Rookie, because every teenage girl needs to think about the stuff Tavi Gevison and her writers think about.

In her original editor’s letter, Tavi explains that she did NOT conceive of Rookie as

your guide to Being a Teen. It is not a pamphlet on How to Be a Young Woman…Rookie is a place to make the best of the beautiful pain and cringe-worthy awkwardness of being an adolescent girl. When it becomes harder to appreciate these things, we also have good plain fun and visual pleasure. When you’re sick of having to be happy all the time, we have lots of eye-rolling rants, too.

Despite this disavowal, I wish every teenage girl I know would take Rookie as a guide.  Exhibit A: this article entitled “An Actually Useful Article About Dressing for a Party” and subtitled “…without any mention of your body shape or your style personality.”

Gevinson has been clear that Sassy magazine – a fond memory to women in my age bracket – is a major influence.  I loved Sassy, but what she’s doing is so much better.  Sassy was fun, and smart, and acknowledged that some teenage girls have sex.  It was revolutionary, but it was of its time (and it spawned, indirectly, the horror that was Jane magazine.)  Rookie takes what Sassy did and makes it fresh, immediate and interactive, which is exactly what an Internet mag should do.

(The fact that Rookie makes regular references to River Phoenix and [see video above] Stevie Nicks doesn’t hurt, though.  Do teenage girls know who these people are?  Is Gevinson really a 43-year-old woman in 16-year-old eye makeup?)

The mag posts three times a day and has monthly themes like “Transformation” and “Power”.  Sound all second-wave feminist to you?  Well, yes, but so much more.  For example, March’s theme was “Exploration” and included articles like “Literally the Best Thing Ever: National Geographic” and “How to Look Like You Weren’t Just Crying in Less than Five Minutes.”

The ONLY reason I wish I were fifteen again is so that this magazine could rock my world as hard as it should.

I know a lot of teenage girls.  Wait – I shouldn’t say that.  I don’t know them.  I spend a few hours a week with them for fifteen weeks, and maybe fifteen weeks more if they like me enough to look me up again.  They mystify me and enthrall me and make me crazy.  Why are they walking around wearing things that resemble pants but ARE NOT PANTS?  Why do they all, down to the very last one, insist on straightening their lovely frizzy hair?  Why are they all reading those awful Twilight books or, even worse, watching those awful Twilight movies because reading the books is too hard?  Why are they dating that boy?  Yes, that one, missy – he’s just going to drag you down!  And while you’re at it, do up your sweater!

And then I read Rookie.  I know some of the girls I know are reading it too.  It reminds me that teenage girls are just amazing.  Even the ones who aren’t reading it…even the ones who wouldn’t like it if they did read it…even the ones who are wearing those things that ARE NOT PANTS…they’re amazing.  There’s so much going ON when you’re a teenage girl.  Life is so full of STUFF.

No way I’d go back there again.  But Rookie is a delightful, painful, funny travelogue.  Spread the word.

Education From the Ground Up

I have once again received a very interesting query from a reader.  The blog will be on hiatus until January 9, so you’ll have lots of time to think about it and respond!  Jan Simpson would like to know: if you had to design an education system from scratch, how would you do it?

Here, in more detail, is his question.

It’s the present day, the year 2011. Everything is the way it is. However, there is no existing educational system whatsoever anywhere in the world. It is up to you to create a form of education for at least 500 teenagers between the ages of 15 and 20.

Here is my request: How would you go about creating a new educational system for those “students?” In other words, if you are the first person to create and establish the first educational system in the world, what would that look like?

Keep in mind, there isn’t any sort of education that had been created beforehand; you are the first person to wrap your mind around the basic principles of education and create a system or model where those principles can be taught and learned.

Feel free to post a brief response or a lengthy treatise in the comments section below.  If you’d prefer to contact Jan directly with a long reply, you can click on his name at the beginning of this post to go to his Gravatar profile and find his contact details.  However, I’m sure we’d all be interested to read your thoughts here, no matter how long or short they may be!


Have a great winter holiday.  Eat lots of food!  Go for long walks!  Spend at least two days not thinking about teaching!  And when you ARE thinking about teaching … well, if you’ve gotten behind on your Classroom as Microcosm reading and commenting, now would be a great time to get caught up.

See you in January, when I will will start the year with a recap of the top posts of 2011 and with a list of my favourite books of the year.

Bullying: What Victims Can Do

Last week, the Atlantic published an article that takes a new perspective on the problem of bullying.  The upshot: prevention is all very well, but not enough is being done to treat victims of bullying after the fact, and such treatment might be a way to stop the bullying cycle.

The article suggests that victims’ reactions to bullying can perpetuate the problem.  If victims receive counselling and social tools, however, they may be empowered to improve their situations.

The key to anticipating victims’ responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place. That is, kids who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

What’s more, victims’ views of friendship and social roles had an influence on how they dealt with bullying.

Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may [sic] be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly.

I was sometimes bullied as a child and adolescent, and I recognize myself in these descriptions.  I was the cool, avoidant type; I was likely to pretend nothing bad was happening, and to gratefully accept crumbs of decency from my tormentors when they decided to be nice to me today.  And I did see friendships as “fixed”: I had no idea how to make friends, clung to friendships once they were even tentatively established, and was bewildered when they failed.

What’s more, for years into my professional life, I replayed my role as a victim in my classrooms.  My desire to be liked by my students and avoid conflict led me to tolerate unacceptable behaviour toward me and others.  It still does, occasionally, but learning to moderate my own responses, to deal with such problems directly, and to accept that I can only control my own behaviour and can’t keep wishing that others will change, have all helped me be a more effective teacher and, frankly, an adult.

The comments section of the Atlantic article contains a rash of responses crying “You’re blaming the victim!”  I think this is misguided.  You don’t have to be the one at fault to take action.  And in the end, who is more likely to approach this problem in a constructive way – the miserable twerp who is taking pleasure in his/her power, or the child who stands to benefit from a change in the dynamic?

What do you think?  Have you ever been bullied? Have your children, or siblings, or other young people you know?  Do the measures proposed in this article seem viable to you?  Is training for those who suffer from bullying likely to help solve the problem?


Thanks once again to Erin M. for sending me to a thought-provoking article!

Check out English Teaching Daily, a site out of India that describes itself as “your one-stop-destination to access the happenings in the field of English Language Teaching.”  Today, they reprinted my post “Why Do I Have to Learn This?”

Image by Rotorhead

What If They Don’t Do the Required Reading?

It’s a perennial problem for teachers.  You plan a great lesson around today’s short story, but it turns out two-thirds of the students haven’t read it.  What do you do?  Do you kick out the slackers?  Give them class time to read it?  Give up and do something else?  As a follow-up to last week’s post on how we can teach students to be willing, if not enthusiastic, readers and writers, I’d like to throw a question out there from frequent commenter CrysHouse.  She asks, How can we use class time effectively if students don’t do the reading before they come?

I have a couple of techniques.  I have them do some written homework based on the reading, homework that they must then use for the class activity.  It counts for credit, they have to show it to me before we begin, and if they haven’t done it, they have to leave class, because they can’t do the day’s work.  Of course, I’m in a privileged spot here – most teachers can’t throw students out of class – but you could have students work on their own to complete the homework, and receive no credit for the class work they miss as a result.

I have been known, if it seems like no one has done the reading, to designate today’s work as a graded test.  They have to work alone to answer some questions or write a short response.  This, of course, makes more work for me, because then I have to grade the things.  It also doesn’t sit well with my most idealistic principles about separating grades from behaviour issues.  However, it’s pretty effective in impressing the importance of the reading on them, and at least then we can do some work with the reading the following class.

I don’t like the coerciveness of either of these approaches.  What’s more, because we do a lot of group work, the fact that some students haven’t read is often obscured, because their group mates cover for them and resent both them and me.  If all work were individual, it would be easier to allow natural consequences to reveal themselves – you won’t get much done if you haven’t read before class! – but this is not always possible, and I hate structuring all my lessons around the contingency that some students aren’t pulling their weight.

Do people have other techniques?  Is this problem solvable?  I wrote three papers on Robinson Crusoe in high school and college, and to this day, I haven’t read the damn book and don’t intend to – so who am I to fault them?  Is it possible that this is one more thing  we’ll just have to let go?


You can subscribe to Classroom as Microcosm by clicking the “Follow” button in the right-hand sidebar!  Or you can come to my Facebook Page and click “Like”!


Image by Davide Guglielmo