Up and At ‘Em

It’s almost that time again.

I hope you’ve all had a great summer.  Mine has been thrilling, terrifying and exhausting, all on a small domestic scale.  You will hear about some of it in the coming weeks.  The upshot: school begins on Monday, and I am neither refreshed nor enthusiastic, but I am nothing if not dogged, so I am lacing up my boots and printing up my course outlines.

I AM looking forward to communicating with you all again, so, beginning Monday, I will return to regular posting!  Once again, I will post on Mondays and Thursdays, but I am going to shake things up a bit.

Mondays will bring a current post on the events in Siobhan’s teaching life and/or the thoughts in Siobhan’s teaching brain.  On Thursdays, I will dig into the archives and re-publish a post I love that has disappeared from view, possibly with small edits and additions.

Look for the following new posts in the coming weeks:

  • Things I Learned From Buying a House
  • A commentary on Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed (a previous post, “Fail Better,” explored an excerpt published last year)
  • Thoughts on introversion, and on Susan Cain’s book on the subject
  • More advice, solicited and non-, from Auntie Siobhan (send me your questions!)
  • …and of course, much much more.

As ever, I welcome your suggestions of topics.  Post them in the comments here, or visit this page to contact me.  And happy new school year!  See you on Monday.

Image by Dave Dyet

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What Have You Been Thinking About?

Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a student, or just a citizen of the world who believes that learning is important, you may be thinking about new problems or dwelling on old fears or puzzles as the school year begins.  Maybe you’d like to hear what others have to say about your burning questions or personal philosophies about teaching, learning, and living in the world.  Maybe you’d like me to write about a specific topic and solicit input from others.

Are you a teacher who has a concern as you return to the classroom?  A parent who’s been pondering a new situation your child is encountering in school?  A student who often wonders how teachers think about a particular experience?  A blogger who would like to hear more about an educational topic you’ve been writing about?  A career waiter or CEO who is thinking of returning to school and has a lot of concerns?

If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to write about on this blog, get in touch with me.  You can leave a suggestion in the comments; visit my contact page to send your suggestion via a contact form;  or visit my Facebook page, “Like” it if you haven’t already, and post a suggestion on my wall.

My goal this semester is to post every Monday and Thursday.  We all know what good intentions are made of, and this is a goal, not a rule!  However, the more suggestions I receive, the more I will have to think and write about.

Thanks so much for your continued readership.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Image by Svilen Milev

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

Ring in the New Year with the Education Buzz

Carol over at Bellringers has done a bang-up job of putting together post #2 of the Education Buzz, her new incarnation of the Education Carnival.  If you’re feeling a bit uninspired about heading into the new school year, here’s your chance to hang out with a few other teachers and read their erudite thought on all things educative.  Go!

I’m Not Blocked. I’m Obsessively Diverted.

What does it mean to be “blocked”?  Is it possible for a “block” to be a diversion, a new inspiration, a productive distraction?  Or is it just laziness?

Right now, I am “blocked” in a number of ways.

  1. I’ve been working on a novel for the last ten years.  I use the term “working on” loosely.  I go through periods of productivity.  Every so often, I sit down for a week and have a pretty good time “working on” this novel.  Then my energy wanes.  I get bored.  I lose focus.  I decide I’d rather go for a run in the morning or spend the day doing school prep.  At the beginning of this summer, I promised myself that I’d make this novel a priority, but it hasn’t happened.  The story is still a baggy, unfocused, structurally unsound mess, and I have no real desire to fix it.  I’d like to throw it away, but I feel a strange sense of responsibility toward it, even though no publisher is waiting for it.  I feel like I have to finish it.  Perhaps this is because I’ve received government funding to write it and have been awarded a place at a competitive writers’ workshop – twice – to work on it.  Tossing it seems disrespectful and lazy.
  2. For the past few years, I have taken stabs at becoming a serious meditation practitioner.  I’ve taken classes in Shambhala philosophy, have attended week-long meditation retreats, and, for brief periods, kept up a regular morning meditation practice.  For almost a year now, however, I haven’t meditated at all.  When I think about sitting down to meditate, my chest tightens, and I do something else instead.  I trace this aversion directly back to a “city retreat” I attended last August, where I threw myself fully into five days of meditation practice and Shambhala community participation, only to emerge feeling raw, shaken and hurt, mostly because of one long-time member of the community who, for reasons I did not understand, was rude and mean to me throughout the retreat.  (My sense of alienation was not mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else at the Centre had been only kind and welcoming.)
  3. For the past few weeks, I have been trying to find something to write about, in order to get Classroom as Microcosm up and running again for the fall, and the only thing I can come up with is that I’m blocked.  So I’m writing about being blocked.

There’s a blog about writing that I like, called The Urban Muse, that has lately proposed a couple of explanations for blocks, writers’ blocks in particular.  One suggestion is that we get blocked when we overthink what we’re doing.  Another is that we get blocked when we are doing something that isn’t coming naturally.  I think both these explanations are plausible, and connected.

I think teachers should take the question of blocks seriously, because we see them happening in our classrooms all the time.  We ask our students to do things that they are (usually) not naturally inclined to do.  We often ask them to overthink what they’re doing, or they overthink of their own accord, because they don’t know where to begin, or because they panic and try to think/plan/flail their way out of paralysis.  They may also have unpleasant, humiliating experiences associated with whatever we’re asking them to do (a mean lady at a meditation retreat, a bad grade, a teacher’s or peer’s derision) that make it scary for them to even try.

I think we can see blocks in a subtly different way, however, a way that is perhaps more productive and healthy.  We can see them, not as blocks at all, but as diversions.

This summer, for example, I promised myself I would work on my novel, but I’ve been diverted by a couple of things.  First of all, I’m planning my wedding.  Planning a wedding is a big and complex job.  It is a job that causes many people a lot of stress.  However, I am at an advantage in that I have a long summer vacation in which I can, if I like, focus almost all my energy on this job.  I discovered that if I focus on the wedding planning and don’t try to squeeze it in around other projects (like a novel), planning a wedding can be really fun.  It’s a pleasant and interesting diversion in which I’m learning a lot of things, including how to book tables for an event, what “wedding favours” are (we won’t be having any, but still), and how to do my own makeup.

This last has become a full-fledged diversion in its own right.  Since the age of about eighteen, my makeup regime has consisted, on a good day, of a smear of blush, a swipe of mascara, and maybe a bit of lip gloss.  About a year ago, a makeup professional gave me a lesson in how to apply concealer, and on the days I get it right, this can take about ten years off my face.  My plan was to have my makeup done for me on my wedding day, but one morning, I was flipping through a “wedding magazine” and came across a section on doing one’s own makeup.  It didn’t look that hard.  I was suddenly possessed by the desire to buy myself some eyeshadow.  So I ran to the pharmacy, bought a four-pack in neutral brown tones with instructions on the back, and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror.  I liked what I saw.  The next day I took a trip to a fancy cosmetics store and set up an appointment for a consult.  And within the space of a few days, I had accumulated a massive pile of fashion magazines and several books on basic makeup.  Eyeshadows and mascaras began spilling out of my bathroom cabinet.  I was OBSESSED.

I had never given a damn about makeup before.  What happened?  Why was I devoting all this time – time that could have been spent writing or meditating – on something that I had never cared about and that could be seen as completely inconsequential?

The fact is, I had always been intimidated by makeup, and so had never bothered to learn anything about it.  If anyone had suggested that I spend an hour doing my makeup, I would have greeted this suggestion with derisive laughter.  I had far better things to do with my time.  And this might have been true, but at the root of my derision was insecurity – I simply didn’t know how to do makeup, and didn’t believe I could learn.  This same insecurity led me to avoid physical activity for many years – I wasn’t the kind of person who exercised, because I was too busy developing my mind.  It never occurred to me that exercise, and makeup, could be FUN.

And fun is really the point here.  I have been lamenting for several years now that writing fiction is no longer fun for me.  Hell, even READING fiction feels like work a lot of the time, maybe because I’m an English teacher.  And meditation certainly isn’t fun.  And while blogging often is – at least, it’s fun in the sense that it often helps me enter a state of “flow” – there are times when I need to get away from thinking about teaching and do something entirely different with my brain.

So instead of doing the things I think I should be doing with my summer – writing a novel, meditating, blogging – I’ve been planning a wedding and playing with eyeshadow.  And it’s been a lot of fun.

But more than that, I see a deeper purpose to throwing ourselves into these little obsessions, these little diversions.  Writing fiction started out as an obsessive diversion for me when I was a child (growing out of another obsessive diversion: reading).  Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to read and write, and never made me feel like these were frivolous wastes of time.  Meditation and Buddhist philosophy were also obsessive diversions, and blogging is, too.  My interest in these activities waxes and wanes, but they are always there for me when I go back.  There is no need for me to treat them as jobs.

This is not to say that painting my face is going to become a central activity in my life, the way writing is.  I’m not going to go to cosmetology school.  But new interests are great fuel for writing.  One of the main characters in my novel, for example, is the sort of person who might become obsessed with makeup.  And writing about her obsession with makeup would probably be a lot of fun.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get to in a roundabout way: obsessive diversions are good.  They bring us a lot of pleasure, and they help us learn.  We can’t predict where they’ll come from, and we can’t necessarily create them in others.  But is there a way we can make our classrooms less block-prone and more obsession-friendly?  Can we create environments where our students are more likely to become obsessed with something we offer them?  Granted, calculus and Shakespeare and molecular biology are not eyeshadow, but we know they can be fun.  If we can get our students to fall in love with them, to want to know more and more, to cram their bathroom cabinets full of them, then we can stop hounding them to do their homework and stop texting in class.  How do we do this?

Image by Christine Weddle

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Eight: Blogging

The eighth of ten things I loved about this past term.

#8: Blogging

Some days, I teach because I blog.

When I began this blog in 2007, I was seriously considering giving up teaching.  It was just too hard.  Then Vila H. convinced me that I needed to start blogging about something.  Teaching is the only thing I know much about, so it seemed a natural fit.

It’s a bit odd that I didn’t realize, at the time, the potential blogging had for saving my sanity.  I kept compulsive handwritten journals from the age of nine until the age of twenty-five or so.  I stopped because all that writing gave me a repetitive stress injury in my writing arm, shoulder and neck that continues to plague me (it makes marking papers even more of a nightmare.) During that time, though, writing stuff down was my main method of dealing with the world.

Keeping a journal on the computer never felt the same to me, and although I took a couple of stabs at it, it never stuck.  This makes sense to me now.  The computer feels like a tool for communication; a notebook feels like a private box for private thoughts.

Although, for most of my writing career, I thought of myself as a fiction writer, my greatest writing joy came through writing letters.  And later, emails.  Long, rambling, cathartic emails.  At around the same time I was questioning my choice of a teaching career, I was also questioning my choice of genre as a writer.  Did I really care about fiction that much?  I didn’t even read a lot of novels any more.  (This is changing, but slowly.)

So I started blogging, and it made teaching so much better.

First off, when you’re a writer of any sort, everything becomes material.  No matter how impossible/irritating/terrifying the situation I’m dealing with, it’s something to write about.  I’m grateful for problems because they make good posts.   My struggles with Khawar and  the very bad day that turned unexpectedly good were not, on the whole, pleasant experiences, but writing about them was extremely enjoyable.

Secondly, blogging – unlike, say, working on a novel manuscript – comes with an audience.  Not only am I writing, but people are reading what I write, in some cases immediately after it’s written.  Ask anyone who’s been working on a book for a long time how valuable this is.

And not only do people read, they make comments!  Sometimes these comments come in the form of colleagues stopping me in the hall or friends messaging me on Facebook.  This is great.  But often, people leave comments right on the writing!  People read what I write, and then they want to talk about it.  They have things to say about my difficult experiences – sometimes very encouraging things, and almost always helpful things.  (Sometimes not. But hey, if people get mad, at least you’ve got their attention.)

This combination of writing and interaction is the sweet spot for me.  If I had to give it up, I’m not sure I’d have the mojo to keep teaching any more.  There’s no question: I take my bad teaching days to heart.  The blog turns them into something I can use, and share, and then they’re not so bad.  In fact, they’re precious.

*

Things that are also wonderful:

#7: Looking Problems in the Eye

#6: Rereading

#5: Exceptions

#4: Harry Potter

#3: Early Mornings

#2: Incorrect First Impressions

#1: My IB Students

Image by Martin Boose

Joanne Jacobs’ New Blog: Community College Spotlight

The always enlightening Joanne Jacobs has started a new blog, Community College Spotlight. Here’s a little info that she passed on to me earlier today:

Nearly half of college-goers go to a community college. And when people talk about educating our way to prosperity, that will happen at community colleges — or not at all….Community College Spotlight will take a closer look at the colleges that “educate the top 100 percent of Americans.”  The blog is part of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit source of national education news and analysis published by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Teacher’s College at Columbia University.

I’ve already subscribed, and I hope you will too – Jacobs’ original blog is a font of useful education information, and I have no doubt that Community College Spotlight will be as well.

Teaching This Week: 5 Cool Things

I managed to make some time this week (mostly due to a couple of sick days) to mess around online, and see what the world of teaching looks like right now.

1. The big talk is around the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s article “Can Good Teaching Be Learned?” (or, as it is known online, “Building a Better Teacher.”)  Although the driving question represented by the title is ridiculous – of course it can! – the article is compelling, as it follows one researcher’s quest to identify exactly what good teaching is, what training in good teaching would look like, and what its outcomes might be.

2. I’m teaching J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, and this week we’re talking about the concept of conformity/nonconformity.  Entirely by serendipity, I came across this little treatise on the conditions under which conformity thrives or wanes.  Interesting and useful.

3. I’m always looking for ways to organize my course stuff.  Jim Burke’s system looks labour-intensive, but implementing it might be a good summer project.

4. If you’ve been reading here lately, you know I’ve been wrestling with the question of why the study of literature is important.  Here’s a lovely post about it on Freethought Forum, with insightful comments.

5. One last exciting discovery – one I may have made before, but it only hit home yesterday – is MIT’s Open Courseware site, which gives access to course materials for, it seems, 1900 MIT courses.  The link to literature courses is here.

Image by Deniz Ongar

Top 10 Posts of 2009

Have you gotten behind on your blog reading?  Do you wish you’d had time to read EVERY SINGLE POST here at Classroom as Microcosm this past year?  Or are you a new reader who doesn’t know how to get caught up on all this teacherly goodness?

Never fear – I’ve put together a handy list to help you get up to speed.  I checked out my stats meter for 2009 and compiled the posts that received the most hits in the last twelve months.  I don’t know for sure that these are the best posts I’ve published this year – maybe you can tell me! – but they’re the ones that made people take notice, for better or for worse.

1. Top 10 Student Excuses for Missing Class:

This post’s popularity is due in large part to Sarah Ebner at School Gate, who came across it and generously promoted it more than once to her TimeOnline readers.  It remains one of my favourite posts, because it reminds me each time I read it that my students are complex and interesting people, and that not all excuses are sneaky fictional attempts to avoid consequences!

2. 10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment:

A rising stat meter usually makes a blogger very happy: people are reading my post!  Hurrah!  In the case of this post, however, the rising meter eventually triggered a full-blown panic attack.  A lot of people were made very angry by this rant, in which I wax furious on green printer ink, 1-and-1/2 spacing, sloppy proofreading and unauthorized email submissions.  I also received some very nice comments and emails congratulating me on my uncompromising standards, but this post marks the first time, ever, in my life, that I wished people were paying a little less attention to me.

A follow-up post, in which I examine the effects of the negative feedback on my state of mind, was also high on the list of top posts.

3. Sulk and the 17-year-old Girl:

The saga of Mary, Melanie, and especially Marta begins here, and the anxiety of dealing with these difficult but interesting girls was more than offset by the pleasure I got from writing about them.  Later posts on the trio that also received lots of hits are part two of “Sulk…“, my wrap-up of several of the winter semester’s top stories, and a one-act screenplay of my final meeting with the three girls.

4. Who Says You Have To Go To College?:

The question of whether college is the best path for everyone has been on the table a lot in the past year, and this probably accounts for the popularity of this post.

5. Holden Caulfield Has Left the Building:

Have teenagers really had it with Holden Caulfield?  My classroom experience says yes and no.

6. Yannick’s debts:

I was surprised to see this post near the top, as it’s relatively recent, but the story of Yannick’s troubles and my refusal to baby him seems to have resonated with a lot of readers.

7. There Are Worse Things Than Dropping Out of School:

Another post that asks whether school is really for everyone.

8. If You Use This Phrase in Your Essay, You Will Fail:

Top 10 lists seem to always be a hit.  In this one, I enumerate some word choices that I’d be happy never to read again.

9. What I Did On My Summer “Vacation”:

This one came out in August, just as everyone was ready to start thinking about teaching again; maybe that’s why it received a lot of visits.  It’s a response to the 2009 Professional Development Meme; I had previously listed my professional development goals for the summer, and in this post I examine whether I met them.

10.  One Minute of Solitude:

After reading this post about how I implemented my friend Lorri’s “one minute of silence” exercise in my classroom, a lot of readers wrote to say that they were going to try it, too.  I didn’t maintain this exercise throughout the semester, but I may do it again sometime and stick with it to observe the results.

And, because I do love a good, justified rant, a bonus post…

11. Now You’ve Made Me Mad:

This one is worth it for the “angry kitty” photo alone.

Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and making my blogging so rewarding!

Image by Owais Khan