What I Did on my Summer “Vacation”

holiday washed awaySchool starts on Friday with a day-long department conference, and classes begin on Monday.  I’m tempted to say things like “Where did the summer go?”, but I’d been putting it on.

The summer didn’t seem short.  (Some Montrealers will retort, “Summer only began last Friday,” but I have nothing against cool, rainy summers, so I feel satisfied with what I got.)  It was filled with events, mostly revolving around the death of a beloved elderly cat, the acquisition of two new kittens, and the relentless health problems of said kittens, most of which we hope will abate now that the kittens have been plugged with all sorts of drugs.

In June, I committed to a project called the Professional Development Meme, in which I listed three professional goals to accomplish over the summer, and agreed to blog about them once the summer was done.  So here, again, are my goals, with commentary on whether/how they were achieved:

I did read the book, and I enjoyed it a lot.  Willingham is a cognitive scientist, and his thoughts on learning either reinforced many things I’ve learned, or suggested new perspectives.  He asks questions like, “Why Do Students Remember Everything That’s on Television and Forget Everything I Say?” (Chapter 3) and “Why is it so Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?” (Chapter 4).  The book is very readable, and whether or not you agree with all his ideas, it’s a pleasure to sink into them and his lively storytelling voice.

As for the book club discussion, I’m afraid I fell short there.  I made an effort at the beginning, but then my cat died, and so I didn’t feel up for chatting about “differentiated instruction” and “21st-century skills.”  I found the tenor of much of the (sparse) discussion in my group very jargonistic; I was always delighted to hear real stories about people’s experiences and thoughtful reflections on Willingham’s ideas, but I found many of the comments so dense and dry that I couldn’t invest the little energy I had in wrestling with them.  I intended to check out the other groups’ discussions (there were 4 groups in all), but by the time I had recovered from my grief enough to make the effort, the book club had finished.

So that was a bit of a bust, but I’m glad I read the book, and I met a couple of interesting teachers through the book club.

I left some preparations to the last minute, and the kitty illnesses have taken a bite out of these last two weeks, so I’m a bit behind.  My plan for the blog project is half-baked but workable.  I’ve put together an evaluation grid, a list of suggested topics, and an outline of due dates for posts and comments.  I need to create a handout of guidelines, and Scheduling still hasn’t called me back to confirm I can use a computer lab for the blog introduction class.  However, if all goes well this week, I should be able to get the blog assignment up and running.

  • Develop a new course! Preparation for College English – I’ll be teaching it for the first time, and so must spend the summer refreshing my TESL skills.
  • This one I’m a bit concerned about.  I have a textbook.  I’ve put together a tentative course schedule.  I taught ESL for years, so theoretically, I have a bag of tricks just waiting to be opened again.  However, I’m finding it hard to get my plan off the ground.  I’m worried that it’s going to be a very dull course if I don’t find some inspiration that has so far eluded me.  In particular, I need to put together a plan for keeping lessons both content-heavy and fun.  Suggestions welcome.  (Maybe once I lay my hands on some actual students it will get the wheels turning…)

    If you have any advice to offer me about how to spice up my courses or get more out of book club discussions, I welcome your suggestions!  And I’d also love to hear about your summer vacation and whether you accomplished all you desired.

    Image by Chris Windras

    The Uses of Boredom

    boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

    I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like most children, I read only picture books until I was seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

    I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. I was capable of reading these “chapter books,” but they seemed like too much work.

    Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about eight hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.

    The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

    Of course, I read through most of my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)

    For the first week of our stay at the summer house, I was forced to play outside far more than I would have liked. My books were all read, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

    Then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

    And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

    I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

    It was still raining. I started to read.

    I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

    The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.

    I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

    These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers, or even without cell phones. At any given moment there are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

    Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t entirely blame them. I don’t even read much for pleasure any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.

    I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

    A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.

    How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

    We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?

    Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, have been brought up environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

    Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

    My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

    I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me listening to BlipFM and playing solitaire as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

    Lesson Diary, or, Stuff I Might Do Next Semester

    diaryI used to keep a lesson diary. I might start doing it again.

    I’ve been participating in the Castle Book Club discussion of Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? – half-heartedly, I admit, for two reasons. First, my beloved cat died last week, and since then I’ve been doing everything with only half a heart. Secondly, much of the discussion in my group has centred around American education curriculum and policy – things I know little about – or educational technology – something I know little about and have little interest in.

    However, when we were discussing Chapter One, I pointed out Willingham’s suggestion that teachers keep lesson diaries in which they chronicle the strengths and weaknesses of specific lesson plans. I did this when I started teaching, and I still have those diaries – sometimes they consisted of just a line or two of commentary, and sometimes the comments addressed student behavior more than lesson content, but they are still a useful reference all these years later.

    Today I came across this article about the advantages of teacher journals, and started to think once again about how helpful keeping a lesson-by-lesson diary can be.

    I’m considering keeping a lesson diary next semester as an offshoot to this blog. It would be accessible to anyone interested, and I might occasionally provide links when a lesson brought up a subject I wanted to address further.

    I’m not sure, however, whether there’s an advantage to keeping this diary publicly, beyond my natural exhibitionism. It would mostly consist of lesson plans, commentary on their success, and notes on possible future adjustments.

    Would such a lesson diary be of interest to anyone? Do you keep one? Do you keep it online? If so, can I see it?

    What’s to Like about School?

    Did you like school? (Or, if you’re a student now, do you?)

    I’m reading Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s totally readable and very interesting, and I’ll post a review when I’m done. (I’ve also joined a reading group to discuss it, over at Dangerously Irrelevant; if you’ve been wanting to pick this book up, a book club might give you the kick in the pants you need.)

    When I posted the title of the book on my Facebook page, one of my Facebook acquaintances replied directly to the author’s question, writing,

    “Same reason we hate boring movies … no engaging, nothing to relate with. For starters …”

    Now, Willingham’s responses are quite a bit more subtle. He’s a cognitive scientist, and his explanations of why we like to think but find it difficult are intriguing. But my acquaintance’s response got me thinking.

    When it came to school, I WAS engaged. I DID relate to the material, whether it was geometric proofs or chemical reactions or novels. But I didn’t like gym, because I’d didn’t like running around, and I had trouble in a few academic areas – history seemed like a dry list of facts about politics, and the ultimate goal of studying physics seemed to be understanding how a carburator works. (I’m now well aware that neither of these things is true, but school was capable of reducing them to that.)

    Did you like school? How about the classroom, specifically – if you liked learning in school, why? If you didn’t, why not, and what could have made it more enjoyable? What about your children – how do they feel about it? Have they told you why, or do you have an inkling?

    Watching a Fire; Skimming across Water; Painting a Dragon and Dotting its Eyes

    I should be marking papers on this, the last day of my Easter weekend, but instead, I’m checking my Twitterific and being sucked into reading blog posts. Clay Burell at Change.org has posted this tantalizing bit of info from Richard E. Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why . The post picks up on Nisbett’s discussion of the different methods of writing taught it China. Burell presents this wonderful quote:

    In Chinese literary criticism there are different methods of writing called “the method of watching a fire across the river” (detachment of style), “the method of dragonflies skimming across the water surface” (lightness of touch), “the method of painting a dragon and dotting its eyes” (bringing out the salient points). (p. 18)

    I desperately want to know what all these things mean, so now I have to go find Nisbett’s book. One more thing to read. Damn you, Clay Burell.

    would you read this book?

    I’m putting together a proposal for a memoir based on material from this blog. What do you think?

    Siobhan Curious Falls In Love Again:
    Project Description

    Since August 2007, I have been keeping a pseudonymous blog called “Siobhan Curious,” which details and reflects upon my classroom experiences as a CEGEP teacher. The blog has a regular and growing audience and is a forum for many active and thought-provoking discussions among teachers, students, parents and lay observers.

    In October 2008, I began cross-posting to the “Open Salon” blog network at Salon.com, the celebrated American online news magazine. I took raw material from my original blog, developed it into more coherent narrative essays, and posted it on my new blog, “Classroom as Microcosm.” The response to these essays has been breathtaking, sometimes overwhelming; they have regularly been “Editors’ Picks,” been chosen as Open Salon “cover stories” for the day, and inspired reams of comments.

    Several of my regular readers have asked if and when I intend to develop my blog essays into a book. I have always replied “yes,” and “soon.”

    I would now like to begin working on this book.

    I began the blog as a way to grapple with my growing disillusionment with my job, a job I used to passionately love. I began teaching when I was a teenager and was immediately seized by the desire to do this work for the rest of my life. My job consumed me heart and soul for fifteen years, and my feelings about my daily tasks, my students, and the significance of my role were nothing short of rapturous.

    And then, one day – suddenly, it seemed, although of course it wasn’t truly sudden – I was tired, and bored, and angry, and bitter. I dreaded the beginning of the school year. I snapped at students and dragged myself through the chores of marking papers and planning classes. I began to consider, very seriously, whether a change of career was in order.

    Instead of throwing in the towel, however, I decided to use this crisis as an opportunity. My feelings, I realized, might be about teaching, but they paralleled feelings that almost everyone has, at some point in his or her life, about something, whether it’s a job, a marriage, a spiritual path, or another object of desire.

    We “fall in love” with someone, or something, and we commit. We rarely consider that maybe, someday, we will fall out of love. And if we do, we then have to examine the commitment. What did it mean? Do we wish to break it? Or is commitment, in and of itself, something to cherish and honour, regardless of the intensity of positive or negative feelings behind it? Have we really fallen out of love, or have we simply entered a new stage, one with greater depth and potential than our initial infatuation?

    If teaching is a “vocation” – and I believe it is – then it has many things in common with religious ordination. One can lose one’s faith. One can discover that one was mistaken – what one thought was “vocation” was simply fervour.

    If a commitment to a job is like a marriage – and I believe it is – then it is prey to a number of marital difficulties. What is novel, exciting and charming can eventually become dull and irritating. Routines can be comforting, but they can also feel suffocating.

    In the memoir Siobhan Curious Falls In Love Again, I would like to explore what happens when the honeymoon ends, the magic is gone, and we decide to honour the commitment anyway. Through a series of personal stories, each focusing on an issue that is central, not only to a teacher’s work, but also to human life (cheating, difficult people, decision-making, ego-clinging, the struggle to feel good about oneself and one’s role in the world, etc.), I would like to illustrate how – beginning perhaps with my generation – we have become a society whose choices are so numerous and whose ideas about “security” are so (understandably) cynical that we no longer place a value on commitment. I’d like to examine what the real fruits of commitment – as opposed to the fantasy of “happily ever after” – may be. And I’d like to demonstrate what happens when we decide, instead of abandoning a rocky road, to roll up our sleeves, draw up some plans, and begin the difficult task of clearing (or occasionally picking our way around) the debris in our path.