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?

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Image by Davide Guglielmo

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What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

Character = Behavior: A Lesson Plan

Two parallel experiences over the last couple of weeks have culminated in a lesson plan that I may need to add to my permanent roster.

First, I’ve been meeting with students to look at their first at-home essay.  Their essays have to include a discussion of characterization, but it’s clear that many of them are still not certain how to write about characterization in their essays, and are still not making the connection between a character’s behaviour and what it says about him or her as a person.  What’s more, some don’t seem to recognize the connection between their OWN behaviour and what it says about THEM as people.  Most are polite, punctual and constructively inquisitive; others show up late with blank faces and no questions and are unable to let me finish a single sentence without interrupting me to make excuses or go off on tangents.

Secondly, many university applications were due this past week, and so, leading up to March 1st, I received a number of requests for reference letters.  I am usually delighted to write references for students, but, as a previous post attests, every year some of these requests are baffling.  Students who talked with their friends and played with their phones all class, who showed up late when they showed up at all, who sat passively during group work and said, “I didn’t read the story,” when I called on them, nevertheless somehow believe that I will have something nice to say about them in a reference letter.

So when I went into class on Thursday, I relayed the above information to the students, and told them the story of the most recent incident in which I felt I couldn’t provide someone with a reference.  “She sat in the back and talked with her friends when I was lecturing or other students were speaking,” I said.  “She spent half the class with her phone held up in front of her face, reading and replying to texts.  When she did group work with people other than her friends, her group members often complained about her, because she wasn’t prepared and didn’t contribute.  I had to tell her no, I wouldn’t write her a letter, and she didn’t ask why, so I didn’t tell her…but a couple of things occurred to me.”

By this time, they were riveted.  Cell phones were forgotten, whispered conversations were abandoned, faces were wary but attentive.

“First of all, it might have been helpful to her if she had known the impression she was making AT THE TIME SHE WAS IN MY CLASS.  It’s too late for her to do anything about it now, but if she’d realized then what her actions were saying about her, she might have been able to change something.  So I took some time and made a list of behaviours that will get you a good reference letter from me, and behaviours that will make me say no.  If you’re interested, I’ll show you my list at the end of the class.

“What’s more, it occurred to me that this is a real-life demonstration of characterization at work.  When we discussed characterization, what did we say is the best indication of a person’s character?”

“Their behavior,” the class chorused.

“Exactly.  Writing reference letters is an exercise in characterization: you identify the character traits you believe a person possesses, character traits that qualify them for a profession or a field of study, and then you identify the behaviours that have suggested that they have those character traits.”

So I showed them a good reference letter I wrote a couple of years ago – with the name of the referrant changed, of course – as an example.  Then I explained, “You will probably also have to write reference letters at some point in your lives.  You may be a teacher, or somebody’s boss, or somebody’s colleague.  Someone may ask you to write a comment about them on LinkedIn.  You will need to describe people and give evidence for your description.  So we’re going to practice that today.”

I had them form groups of three, draw professions from an envelope (primary school teacher, dog walker, event planner, garbage collector…) and discuss whether the three main characters in the novel we are reading possess the character qualities necessary to do these jobs.  Each group member then had to write a letter.  One wrote a reference letter for the character they thought was best qualified for the job; the other two wrote letters of apology to the other characters, explaining why they could not give them letters of reference.

When they were just about done, I asked if they’d like to see my list of pro- and anti-reference-letter behaviours, and they said, “YES YES YES.”

DO NOT ASK ME FOR A REFERENCE LETTER IF…

  • you often talk in class when you should be listening to me or other students
  • you spend a lot of class time typing on your phone (especially if you hold it up visibly so that I and everyone can see that you’re not listening)
  • you are often absent or late, or leave early, without documented reasons for doing so
  • you often fail to submit assignments or submit them late
  • you often half-complete in-class work or sit passively while other group members complete work for you
  • you’re often not able to answer my questions or participate in group work because you’re not prepared
  • you do homework from other courses in my class
  • you sulk when you get bad grades, or you complain about your grades without asking polite, constructive questions about how you can improve
  • you write me careless email messages without a greeting or signature (eg. “i wasnt in class today did I miss anything”)
  • I have ever caught you cheating on anything (including “small” infractions like copying in-class work from other students)
  • you are not an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

 

I WILL BE DELIGHTED TO GIVE YOU A REFERENCE LETTER IF…

  • you are always attentive in class, with your phone out of sight and your ears open
  • you attend class and are punctual, with very occasional exceptions
  • you ask polite questions when you don’t understand things
  • you always do your reading and make an effort to respond to questions about it, whether or not you “get it right”
  • your work is always complete, even when it doesn’t “count for grades,” and you submit it on time
  • you come to me for extra help if you need it, or you seek help at the Learning Centre
  • you inform me when you know you will miss a class or will be late for class, and you make an effort to catch up on what you miss
  • you do your best when working with other students and pull your weight (even when others don’t)
  • you write me polite, clear email messages (eg. “Dear Ms. Curious: I’m sorry I had to miss class today; I had to take care of a personal matter.  Could you let me know what I missed and what I should do for homework?  Sincerely, Jane X.”)
  • you are an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

Immediate results?  A lot of polite and enthusiastic “Goodbye Miss”s at the end of class, a number of polite and well-formulated messages this weekend asking pertinent questions (and apologizing for disturbing me on the weekend) and a lot of thorough and thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious!) reference letters for fictional characters.  Down side?  I’m anticipating an unprecedented number of reference letter requests next year…but if they’ve earned them, I’ll happily write them.

Students are understandably obsessed with grades, and this means they sometimes miss the bigger picture.  And so do we – I spend a lot of time trying to attach grades to things so that students will take them seriously.  Reminding students that grades are not the only thing that counts – even when it comes to immediate, concrete goals like university admission – can go a long way, not only toward establishing a productive classroom, but also toward preparing them for life outside of school.  I have no idea what the long-term effect of this lesson will be, but if nothing else, maybe it will help them understand how “characterization” functions, not only in literature but in life.

Image by miamiamia

Rolling in the Girls’ Room

Yesterday, the following conversation occurred on my personal Facebook page.

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Siobhan: Am I an old fuddy-duddy because I just emailed Security about the two boys and their girlfriend sitting on the counter in the women’s washroom rolling a massive joint?  Am I less of a fuddy-duddy because, after I kicked them out and found them still hovering around the door as I was leaving, I warned them that I was going to call Security so they really didn’t want to go back in there?  I actually hesitated about it, but my rationale, as I phrased it to Security, was, “Please patrol the bathrooms – a lot of teenage girls do not want to walk into the washroom and discover two boys and a pile of weed on the counter.”

J: Kind of?  Oh wait, there were boys in the women’s washroom? That’s different. The joint I’d just let pass, but that intrudes on the comfort of everyone. You made the right call.  That said, were I to catch students rolling a joint in other circumstances, I’d tell them to lose it immediately and let them know it’s their last chance to learn to do that kind of thing where they won’t get caught. It demands a response, but I’d hesitate to bring security into it since it in no way threatens the safety of students, faculty, or employees.

Siobhan: It’s the total lack of common sense that floors me. I mean, half the female teachers on that floor use that washroom, not to mention tons of students who could easily report them. What did they think would happen?  J, fair enough, but it does threaten some students’ SENSE of safety. A lot of girls would feel very uncomfortable walking in on such a scene, and might hesitate to use that washroom if they knew such things were likely to be going on in there. If students know security guards check washrooms, they’re less likely to do stuff in there that puts other students in awkward positions.

J: Sure — I see it as totally a part of teaching to teach kids to watch their asses if they’re going to do something like that. However, I feel like there is too much appeal to top-down authority when it comes to marijuana. I’m not at all trying to argue that drugs or alcohol have any place on campus, but I’m concerned about resorting to a reaction that places students in a position to be punished well outside the realm of what that sort of stupid, clueless behaviour deserves. A stern talking-to and a threat, for sure, but security I’m uneasy about, particularly because it could lead to expulsion (and in some insane cases, criminal charges, which over marijuana constitutes a total abuse of authority to me).   Also, I’d like to state here that I don’t do drugs and find potheads irritating as anything. It’s just the issue of authority over soft-drug use and the execution thereof that leaves me very uneasy.

Siobhan: J, yes, I totally get that, and that’s why I hesitated. The fact is, if two girls had been in there rolling a joint, even as blatantly as these people, I probably would have ignored it, although the best reaction would have been to chew them out for being stupid, as you say. It was the boys just casually hanging out in the girls’ room with their grass hanging in everyone’s faces that made me feel like it was appropriate to contact security – and the concerns you mention that made me warn the kids that security was coming. I’m not sure what I’ll do if it happens again, but I certainly can’t see myself calling the dogs on some kids just for being pothead idiots – it was the total arrogance of it all that made it seem somehow dangerous.

J: Agreed.

P: Nope – doing your job dear. If the rules forbid this, which they do, whether you agree or not is irrelevant…at least in my book it is. I used to tell my students that I didn’t care much for certain rules but because they were there, I would respect them, and that I expected the same from them…I would have emailed security too!

J: P, with all due respect, I must disagree strongly. CEGEP, in my opinion, is not a place for teaching blind obedience to the rules, particularly rules one personally disagrees with. If a student feels the anti-drug, anti-alcohol rules are unjust, I’d prefer to see them work through the reason for those rules’ existence and attempt to find the means to challenge them then to have them obey for no reason other than the rules’ authority.  This has made my job difficult with students at times, since I’ve never been able to tell students, “Do it because I say you have to,” but I feel that it provides them a more humane education and presents them with more challenging ideas at an instance that may be the last chance they have to be challenged like that.  (I also think the vast majority of students would conclude that the rules against drugs and alcohol on campus are for everyone’s benefit and thus not be able to excuse their own flouting of those rules.)

M: Oh dear, I feel compelled to wade into this now. As a CEGEP teacher and a parent of a CEGEP student, I think you absolutely did the right thing, Siobhan. As for J, your approach is refreshing but very hard to manage. If the students in question were in one of Siobhan’s classes, she could have used the situation as a teaching moment, I suppose, and have a discussion about developing a critical approach to following rules. As they were just some random students, I think Siobhan’s approach was right on.  I sometimes compare school to a workplace with my students. Behave at school as you would in a work situation. Unless they are training to be jazz musicians or artists or beat poets, most students get the message. (I just thought of the poor teacher who will have stoned students on her class later that day…)

K: Siobhan, I would have done the same as you (including warning them about security). If they continued their activities after such a warning, it seems to me they are basically asking to be caught. On the other hand, I would probably make an issue out of students smoking in a bathroom period. Some people have asthma, others prefer not to have to inhale second-hand smoke, whether it is tobacco or pot. That rule has been put into place to protect others, and so should be enforced.

Siobhan: K, they weren’t smoking, just rolling – if they were planning to smoke there, then yes, I agree, they would have deserved absolutely anything that came down on them!

B: I think you can question the reason for a rules existence and, at the same time, respect other people’s wish to pee in peace.

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What are your thoughts on this?  What would you do if you were a college teacher and came across such a scene in a bathroom?  Would you handle it differently than I did?

I Like My High School

If you read the world’s best fashion magazine – I Like My Style – then you will have seen their spread on the High School of Fashion Industries, a vocational high school in NYC that, according to its website, “devotes itself entirely to the world of fashion from styling and design through business and marketing.”  The school’s site lists a host of accolades from the New York Board of Education, the Manhattan Superintendency, the New York Times survey of school performance, and more.  They quote the National Center for Research in Vocational Education as reporting:

“Students we observed in classes and spoke with in groups were self-confident and motivated. They expressed great pride in their school, respect and admiration for their teachers, and a strong sense of commitment to their education. They clearly felt a sense of connection to the school and the school family. Students who plan to pursue careers related to the occupational focus of the school felt they were receiving a first rate education for these pursuits; students who planned on careers unrelated to the specific focus felt they were receiving strong academic preparation as well as valuable work skills… “

This spread, and the high school’s self-description and mission statement, reminded me of a segment of a podcast I heard a year or so ago – I’ve been searching for it, and can’t find it; I believe it was on either This American Life or To the Best of Our Knowledge.  It was a piece on an alternative high school that focuses all its curriculum on design and architecture skills.  (If anyone remembers this podcast, or the school it was presenting, I’d be grateful if you could point me to it.)

What struck me about both these pieces was the sense of pride the students seemed to take in their schools, and the enjoyment they got from their studies.  They wanted to learn.  Learning felt meaningful.

I would be interested in hearing your stories, opinions etc. on the value of vocational education at the high school level.  What are the advantages of providing younger teenagers with an education that focuses on specific practical skills?  What is lost when we do this?

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

The fourth of ten things I loved about teaching this past semester.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about reading lately.

Since I began teaching CEGEP, I’ve become aware of a problem that directly influences everything I do (or, at least, it should) but I don’t know how to grapple with this problem.  The problem is that students don’t read books unless they’re required to read them for school.

This has become a little less true in the last couple of years, though, and I put it down to two things.

I would wager that this year, most of my female students had read the Twilight series.  I can’t count the number of times I was subjected to loud conversations outside my bathroom stall to the tune of, “Not Edward, I love Jacob!”  “No, Edward!  He’s sexy!”  “Jacob!”  “Edward!”  I could have assumed they were talking about the films, but I regularly saw the covers of Twilight installments sticking out of bookbags, and what’s more, it felt like I was seeing more other books sticking out of their bookbags as well.  Mostly vampire-themed romance novels, but still.

I believe that any book-reading is better than no book-reading, and I believe that students who read for pleasure have huge advantages over students who don’t. That said, I tried to read Twilight.  Or, rather, I tried listening to it as an audiobook.  About three chapters in, I was ready to puncture my eardrums to make it stop.

I shouldn’t assume that the book was wholly at fault – maybe reading the voice of the insipid narrator Bella would have been less irritating than hearing it.  But I was also offended and bored by the whole premise: girl with no discernible attractive qualities becomes the object of the obsessive desires of all the boys around her, including a vampire who is not a boy at all, but old enough to know much, much better.  Laura Miller of Salon has written and spoken about the problems with the messages that Twilight sends to teenage girls, and I agree with her.  Rescue fantasies are always troubling, I find, but it helps if the heroine is at least spunky, and Bella, at least in the first part of the first book, is about as spunky as low-sodium polenta.

Which brings me to what I believe is the second reason that these days, more of my students have read SOMETHING that wasn’t assigned by a teacher, and that reason is of course Harry Potter.

At the time when the Harry Potter books were really taking off, my students would have been around the age of the first book’s target audience.  A couple of years ago, when I asked classes if they’d read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as kids, only a smattering of them raised their hands.  This semester, at least half of them did, and a good percentage of those said they’d read all or almost all the books in the series.  (The percentage who said they’d seen the movies but never read the books was about the same as it had ever been.)  Some of them had read the first book for school, but a lot had either read it on their own or, once they finished the assigned first book, went on to read the rest of the series of their own volition.

I assign it in my Child Studies course, where we first read Franny and Zooey.  They almost all hate F & Z, and they all, almost without exception it seems, love HP.  The reasons for this are a focus of discussion for much of the course; “What makes a book good?” is a running question from the beginning of the semester until the end, when they write a story themselves and evaluate it according to the criteria they come up with.

Harry Potter is special because they think it’s good, but it’s also special because I think it’s good.  It’s a good story.  It has lots of important messages about the value of courage and the danger of judging by appearances.  It has lovable characters, and most of the nasty characters are complex.  And it’s full of wonderful funny writing.  Assigning Twilight on a course would leave a bad taste in my mouth, but assigning Harry Potter doesn’t.  If they haven’t read it, they should.  If they have read it, they should read it again and think about why they love it so much.

What strikes me most about the Harry Potter lessons is the level of engagement in the discussions.  Students are almost never off-task.  No matter what question I ask them about the book, they have something to say about it.  They’ve DONE THE READING.  (If you aren’t an English teacher, you may not be aware of how significant this is.  It is VERY SIGNIFICANT.)  When I walk around and observe them, they hardly notice me, so absorbed are they in discussing whether Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy is more important than his relationship with Ron, or whether there is anything morally questionable about the role of witchcraft in the series.

Some would ask whether pleasure-reading should really be the focus of the college English classroom.  I would argue (and am hoping to soon write a literature review that argues) that it should be at least one of the foci, at least in the context that I teach in.  This might not have been true thirty years ago, when a large percentage of the students admitted to CEGEP already knew how to read for pleasure, and didn’t need to be given opportunities to discuss books they easily loved – they did that on their own time, as all “readers” do.  At that time, it made sense to introduce students to books they might not come to on their own, and to challenge them to find value in works they didn’t particularly like.*

I think it’s still important to do this (and when we work on Franny and Zooey, finding value in the difficult is the main thrust of our work.)  However, I think we also need to acknowledge that for many students, the only books they ever read are the ones they read for English class.  If they haven’t learned how to love books, English class might be the only place they can learn that, the only place where they have natural, invested discussions about books the way “readers” do, the only place they get to practice the skill of being a “reader.”

And if Harry Potter is the only book, or set of books, they’ve ever loved, then it might be a good idea to pause and look at it deeply and think about that experience: the experience of loving a book.

I try to mix up my assigned texts, mostly to avoid semester-to-semester plagiarism, so I’m trying to find a replacement for HP and the PS next year.  I’m considering introducing the students to A Wrinkle in Time instead.  I think of it as one of the Harry Potters of my generation.  (It was actually published seven years before I was born, but my friends and I were obsessed with it.)  It’s also the first in a series – a trilogy, actually – so you never know; it might lead some of them to read two non-required texts that year.

What book did you love when you were seventeen years old?  If I gave it to my seventeen-year-old students now, would they love it?  I might not teach them anything else, but if I give them the chance to love at least one book, I’ll feel like I did something right with my life.

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*Katha Pollitt’s essay “Why We Read: or, Canon to the Right of Me” elucidates this topic in a way that has stayed with me for many years.

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Previous wonderful things:

Thing #3: Early Mornings

Thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Nino Satria

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Three: Early Mornings

At least ten things went right this semester.  This is the third one.

3.  Early Morning Classes

A few semesters ago, I requested the “early schedule” (8 a.m. – 4 p.m., as opposed to 10 a.m – 6 p.m.) for the first time.

I had been relegated to the early schedule fairly often in my early CEGEP teaching days, when my preferences were moot and I took what I was given.  (In fact, I frequently taught Cont Ed courses from 6-10 at night, and then taught again at 8 the next morning.  My office mate and I concocted all sorts of plans to set up a cot in our office so we wouldn’t have to go home at all, but never did it because apparently security guards check offices in order to stymie such plans.)

Once I graduated to full-time ranks, I vowed that, given the choice, I’d never teach another 8 a.m. class.

But in the years that followed, I noticed something about the late schedule.  The late schedule is great if it’s not actually late.  Teaching between 10 and 4 is nice.  Students are awake, but resigned to being trapped at school for however many more hours.  They tend to be at the peak of their productivity (such as it is) somewhere during those hours.

However, 4-6 p.m. classes are never good.  Never.  Students are exhausted.  So am I.  Students are desperate to get out ten minutes early so they can catch a bus that will get them home an hour earlier than the next one will.  Students have been drinking a variety of caffeinated drinks since early morning, and have probably ingested at least one mild but illegal mind-altering substance in the parking lot.  4-6 p.m. is a particularly nightmarish time for remedial classes, where a lot of students tend to know little and care less about their own learning patterns and biological rhythms, and so are not likely to have, say, gone for a quick walk around the block or drunk lots of water or even completed the necessary homework before coming to class.

So, as an experiment, the semester after I returned from my last sabbatical, I decided to request the early schedule.  How bad could it be? I thought.  I’d often hauled myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. when I was a private language teacher; if need be, I could nap.  I would have time in the afternoons to get marking and planning done, and even to get home and make dinner instead of living on takeout and whatever I could scrounge from the back of the freezer.  And colleagues often told me that they loved getting all their teaching done by noon.

It was not only not bad.  It was fantastic.

All of the above turned out to be true.  I was completely unable to have a social nightlife, even on the weekends, because I was falling asleep by 9 p.m., but frankly, I’m not much of a partier.  I was able to sit in my office at work until everything was ready for the next day, and STILL be on my bike and on my way home before rush hour traffic began.  And prepping and marking after class was far less stressful and more effective than scrambling to get things done before going in to teach in the afternoon.

What I hadn’t counted on, though, was the remarkable difference in the students.

You’d think that an 8 a.m. class would make for a lot of late arrivals, but I really didn’t notice more than at any other time.  (This term, I had a student in my 8 a.m. whom I’d previously taught in a class that began at noon, and he supported a theory that I have held for a long time: people who are late are late.  This student was a “late” person, and the time he was expected to show up made no difference to his lateness.  The only way to make “late” people show up on time is to lie to them about schedules, and you can’t really do that in a classroom context.  Punctual people will show up on time for class at 8 or at 4 or at 1 in the morning, because that is what punctual people do.)

What I did notice was that students come in at 8 a.m. wanting to do something.  Occasionally a head will go down on a desk, but, more often than not, in the early morning, students are grateful to be given a task, any task.  A lot of lecturing goes over less well, but I don’t lecture much anyway.  Group work, pair work, and class discussion are all pretty effective at 8 a.m., because they’ve just had their first cup of coffee and they need to keep that blood moving.

Also, students are less likely to spend a lot of time texting their friends, because their friends aren’t awake yet.  What’s more, they’re not ready to be disruptive, because if they’re the disruptive type, they probably a) didn’t sign up for an 8 a.m. class or b) were up late last night causing trouble, and so slept through the alarm, or c) are groggy.

Finally, teaching at 8 a.m. gives me a chance to give them a good start to their day.  Now, if I’m giving or returning a test, I can’t count on them being happy about it, but otherwise, I can try to find ways to make them laugh, make them think, or make them talk about things they care about.

I was especially grateful for my early schedule this semester, because last term I didn’t get one even though I requested it.  I have my fingers crossed for the fall.  I will happily get up at 5:30 every morning for the rest of my teaching life if it makes my job as enjoyable as it has been this term.

*

Previously on the list:

Wonderful thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Wonderful thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Oleksiy Petrenko

A World Without People

Yesterday, when I left school, I wanted to live in a world without people in it for just a little while.

My classes that morning had gone well – my Child Studies students just finished reading the first Harry Potter book, and we talked about why most of them loved it, and I asked them to make lists of books they’ve read and loved, and why they loved them.  I sometimes make sweeping statements about how “young people don’t read,” and this exercise always reminds me that I’m wrong, and it cheers me.

Nevertheless, there were, as usual, irritations.  One young man laughed uproariously when he got his last assignment back; he explained to his friends, well within my earshot, that he hadn’t read the book and his 90% was “ridiculous.”  Other students talked at inappropriate times and looked amused when I waited with thin tolerance for them to stop.

So, regardless of the fact that everyone else clearly enjoyed the lesson and participated enthusiastically in making lists, discussing with partners and sharing with the class, I headed for the metro feeling that people, especially young people, suck.

I was heading downtown to buy a birthday present for The Fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and people were the last thing I wanted to deal with, but there was nothing to be done.  I managed to score an isolated corner seat, and this made me feel better.

A young man in a red Adidas track suit, white headphones dangling from his zirconia-studded ears, hair rigid with gel on top of his rhythmically bobbing head, slid into the seat opposite me.  He was CEGEP-student age – in fact, it was more than likely that he was coming from my school, and he was the last thing I wanted to see right now.

The solution?  One of the “TED talk” videos on my iPod.  I keep them for emergencies, for days when I have to be out in the world but want to be inside a cocoon.

I allowed myself to sink into Michael Shermer’s talk about how people are idiots.  I soon began to smile, and probably even laughed out loud.  When it came time to push my way out of the train, I barely registered the fact that people were cramming their way in without waiting for others to exit, something that usually makes me furious.

Ten minutes later, standing at the counter of the clinic where I planned to buy The Fiancé a coupon for a therapeutic massage (because he also has days when the world is too much), I realized that I no longer had my purse.  Hiding inside my “TED talk” cocoon, far away from the real world, I had left my purse on the train.

*

I ran back to the metro.  Standing by the turnstiles were three burly Montreal police officers: white, bald-headed, further thickened by their armoured vests and various deadly accoutrements.  They were consulting, and, as I approached, one said a businesslike “Ok, let’s go,” in the inflected way that the Québecois make “Ok, let’s go” a French expression.  They clearly had  somewhere to be, but when they saw me, they stopped and gave me their full attention.

“Yes?” the biggest one said.

Now, this is unusual.  The metro is outside an Anglophone college (not mine), so perhaps they were right to assume that I was an English speaker, but I would have been fully prepared to discuss the matter in French, and police officers I’ve dealt with in Montreal have been fairly adamant about doing so.  These men didn’t seem to be adamant about anything except making sure I was all right.

I explained the situation, and they outlined without delay what I needed to do: find someone who can let you into your house (my keys were gone), call to cancel your credit and bank cards, go to the nearest police station and file a report, then go to the lost and found at the central metro station tomorrow morning, because you never know.  Then they escorted me through the turnstiles so I could get back on the train (my metro pass was gone) and the biggest officer put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It could be worse.  It’s not the end of the world.  Good luck.”

*

Thus followed three very unpleasant hours.  My neighbour, who has copies of our keys, wasn’t home.  I walked a few blocks to the home of a friend who usually has our keys, but he couldn’t find them and then had a vague memory of returning them to The Fiancé the last time he came to visit us.  I called a third friend, and she had our keys, but when I arrived at her door, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for her new door code, and so I couldn’t get into her building; finally, a nearby boutique let me use their phone to call her.  All in all, it was an hour before I could get into my house.

Then I called the credit card company and the bank, had a long discussion about whether I should put a stop on all cheques (my chequebook was in my bag – but no, the landlord has postdated cheques that would be blocked), and went around the corner to the police station, where I filed the requisite report but was told that there was little I could do about identity fraud if someone tried to use my passport or social insurance number for nefarious purposes.  And then I went home to wait for The Fiancé.

Between the tasks that needed doing and the numbness that was probably due to shock, I managed to hold it together until he walked through the door.

He made me change out of my work clothes and lie down on the couch.  He covered me with a blanket and ordered us a pizza for dinner.  He headed out to the bank to get me some cash to carry with me the following day.  He made me watch some stupid show he hates on the Food Network instead of allowing me to persuade him to watch the hockey game.

And then the phone rang.  It was someone we had contacted about officiating at our wedding; she was calling to ask some questions and arrange for us to meet her.  We had quite a long conversation.  She was a British woman with a calm voice, and I found myself growing quieter and quieter as we spoke.  I’m getting married, I thought, and this nice lady is going to marry us.  As the police officer said, things could be much worse.

And when I hung up, I checked the dial tone, and it was beeping to indicate a message.

“Hello?  I am wondering if you know Miss Siobhan Curious.” The voice was young, and male, and hesitant, with an accent that sounded vaguely Middle Eastern.  “I am looking for this lady, because I found her bag on the metro.”

*

When I called back, the young man’s mother answered the phone.  “Yes, yes!” she cried in French.  “It is my boy who called you, he found your bag!”  And she passed the phone to him.

“Hello?”  He was clearly a teenager; even his “hello” sounded like it didn’t know itself yet.

My thanks were effusive, maybe slightly hysterical.  When I was able to draw breath, I said, “I’m sorry.  What is your name, please?”

“Reza,” he said.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”

He asked if I could come to a metro station the next afternoon, so he could meet me on his way to school and give me my bag.  “Of course,” I said.  “How will I know you?”

“Well, I know how you look,” he said.

“Oh, of course you do, you have my ID cards!  I didn’t think of that.”

“Yes,” he said, “but I saw you on the train.  I sat across from you.  I saw you get up and leave your bag.”

And then I could see him clearly.  Red Adidas track suit.  Zirconias in his ears.  Dangling headphones.  Stiff, gelled hair.  Exactly the kind of young person I hadn’t wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you.  You have made me very happy.”

Image by Brano Hudak

Late Adolescence and the Life-span Construct

Our students are clearly at a crucial time in the building of their “life-span construct,” a part of our personality wherein we have a unified sense of past, present, and future – in other words, a sense of who we are over time.

Building this life-span construct involves creating “scenarios,” or expectations about the future, projections in which we imagine the possible outcomes of present events and activities. As we achieve (or fail to achieve) some of the goals we set in our scenarios, we begin to construct our autobiography or “life story,” organizing past events into a narrative. We fit new experiences into existing identity constructions (assimilation) and change our scenarios, life story, and self-concept to adapt to new experiences (accommodation).

Between the end of high school and the completion of university, a person’s self-concept will often be based largely on scenarios. Our students, for example, need to choose a course of CEGEP study, accommodate themselves to new information about that field as they pursue it (“Is this really what I want to do?”), either complete their studies here at CEGEP or choose a university program, and then continue to assimilate and accommodate new information and experiences.

Besides career choices, people at this stage of life also have to make decisions about their social and family lives (“Will I live at home or move out of the house?” “Will I stay with my high school boyfriend or play the field?” “Will I continue to invest my energy in my childhood friends or connect more with the people I meet in my program?”)

Some queer teenagers may find that CEGEP is the first place where they feel they have the option to come out or at least explore their sexual identity.

Also, students’ childhood and adolescent fantasies of being movie stars or NHL goalies may have only recently given way to more realistic objectives, and their life stories are showing the first traces of solidity – the choices they are making now really do have concrete repercussions for the way the rest of their lives will turn out. I see this in my office at least a couple of times per semester, when a student announces that he is changing programs, that she is dropping out of school or has decided not to drop out of school, that he is considering studying either English literature or medicine at university and can’t come to a decision, and so on. These are serious dilemmas, and I feel for these students and understand the pressure they are under.

CEGEP students are at a critical moment in forming their life-span construct. The scenarios they are building for themselves are influenced by every piece of information they receive at this time, however small. This includes information about my subject matter that I transmit to them, but also includes information about themselves that they receive from me – their grades, the expression on my face and the tone in my voice when I speak to them, the standards I expect them to live up to and the consequences I mete out when they do or don’t. On the one hand, this knowledge is terrifying – what if I make a wrong move and a student’s life story takes a nasty twist? On the other, it’s exciting to think that we can have an impact, and to know that if we are conscientious and caring, more often than not the impact will be positive.

(This post was adapted from an analytical response to the following text:

Kail, R., Cavanaugh, J. C., & Ateah, C. A. (2006) Emerging Adulthood (Canadian ed.) Custom Edition of Human Development: A Life-Span View. Scarborough, Ont.: Thomson Custom Publishing.

I wrote the original analysis for an MEd course.)