Khan Academy: What are the Possibilities?

I just today learned about Khan Academy, the online education institution whose goal is “providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”  In the TED talk above, the academy’s founder, Salman Khan, describes exactly how the project works.

The site is home to more than 2400 educational lecture videos, mostly in the domains of math and science (but there are burgeoning history and finance sections as well.)  All videos are narrated by Khan himself, as we follow his main points on an electronic blackboard.  The videos are entirely free and open to anyone, and the levels range from simple addition to advanced calculus, basic evolutionary biology to “Role of Phagocytes in Innate or Nonspecific Immunity,” and beyond.  There are practice math exercises as well.

Students can watch videos and do exercises.  Teachers can assign videos and exercises as homework or use them in their classrooms.  Teachers and parents can sign on as “coaches” in order to tutor and track their students’ or children’s progress.  Peers can also tutor each other.

Khan says that, ideally, this technology actually “humanizes the classroom.”  If teachers assign the lectures for homework, this frees up classroom time for actual teacher-student interaction – students can do what used to be homework during class time, when the teacher is there to help them and they can discuss the work with their classmates.  The teacher goes from being a lecturer to a coach.  I love this idea.  I’ve never much cared for lecturing, and I feel the best use of classroom time is for discussion, practice and support.

I watched one of the videos on early American history and was immediately excited.  The lecture was lucid and easy to follow, and Khan is an engaging and funny lecturer.  I immediately wished I had nothing else to do today so I could watch more.  For an English teacher (or, to be honest, for any responsible citizen of the world), my knowledge of history is painfully basic and often flawed.  I’ve considered going back to take undergraduate courses in history to fill in the embarrassing gaps.  The Khan archive right now focuses mostly on the history of the United States, with a smattering of French and Haitian history thrown in, but it promises to be “a history of the world (eventually!)”  How cool will it be to bone up on my historical knowledge for free, on my couch, at my own pace, in 20-minute increments whenever I can fit them in?  I will then need to find my own way to apply this knowledge so it will stick, but the foundation will be there.

I’m curious about two things.

  • What are the possibilities for English instruction?  Grammar lectures, for sure.  Lectures on analytical thinking?  On important authors or literary periods?
  • Have any of you explored Khan Academy and made use of any of its materials in your classroom?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Social Media in the Classroom

Rebecca Coleman, Canadian arts marketing expert and blogger, is asking a very interesting question at her blog today: “Social media: a distraction or an enhancement in the classroom?”  She describes such phenomena as participating in two classes at once by attending one and following the Twitter stream of another, and sharing what she learns at a conference with her Twitter followers in real time.

My hackles go up at the thought of students following and participating in another class while being in my classroom.  My instinct and the research I’ve heard suggest that what we call “multi-tasking” is really just “doing a half-assed job at more than one thing at the same time.”  But I’m not an expert in these matters and I’d love to hear what you all think.

I long ago gave up battling with my students about putting their phones away.  I let them use laptops and don’t hassle them about texting, but I’ve always been convinced (and told them) that the students who learn best are those who put away their toys, or at least use them strictly for notetaking or looking up pertinent material.  Am I wrong?

Note that the question of whether a tool like Twitter can be used directly as a learning tool is a slightly different, albeit interesting, one.  My question, and Rebecca’s if I understand it, is more about whether the benefits of using such a tool to share info or participate in outside activities might balance out its detriments as a distraction.

Go read the post!  And comment here or comment there, but let me know what you think.

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

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!

Literary Appreciation + Literary Analysis: A Course Plan

Regular commenter Crystal has asked for some more details about my Personal Narrative course, in which I focus less on literary analysis and more on literary appreciation.  Here’s some general info on how the course unfolds.  Feel free to steal/adapt/query, etc.

Module 1: Literary Analysis Review

Text: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

In the first part of the course, we all read The Glass Castle and discuss the genre of the personal narrative.  We review elements of narrative (theme, plot, setting, character, imagery/symbolism) and they apply them to the memoir.  We then do a short analytical essay in class based on a choice of unseen texts (I like using the “Lives” section of the New York Times magazine as a source for excellent very short personal narrative texts.)

Module 2: Book Talks

Texts: students have a course pack containing copies of the front cover, the back cover or inside flap, and the first chapter of eight book-length memoirs.  I ask them to browse this pack and then tell me the three books they’d most like to read.  This term, I included the following texts:

I assign one book to each student, so each book is read by a group of 4-5 students.  Their major assignment for this module is a “book talk,” in which they must, as a group, present the book to the class and encourage the class to read it.  Each person is responsible for a 5-7 minute presentation on one of the following topics:

  1. Plot summary: this is a challenging topic, because you will need to give a detailed enough summary to intrigue the audience, but you can’t give everything away!  Try giving a brief overview with a description of the important characters and relationships, and then identifying important events/scenes that you found interesting, and explaining why.
  2. Discussion of theme: Identify an important theme in the memoir.  Make sure you state your theme clearly and precisely.  Then give evidence from the memoir to support your theme, WITHOUT GIVING THE WHOLE STORY AWAY.
  3. Historical, geographical or cultural information: Identify the historical, geographical and social setting of the book (where, when, and in what social context it happens) and discuss important facts that readers may need to know that will help them understand the story better.  Make sure you make direct connections between the facts you provide and the events of the book.
  4. Discussion of another element of the narrative: You may wish to discuss the author’s use of another literary element such as conflict, characterization or imagery, and how it helps us understand and appreciate the story.
  5. Medical information: Some of these memoirs are about physical or mental illness.  You may wish to provide facts about the conditions the narrators or their family members suffer from.  Again, make sure you don’t just give a list of facts – connect your information to the characters and events in the book.
  6. Author info: This book tells a story of a particular event or time in the author’s life.  Besides the events in the book, what else is interesting about the author?  For example: what happened before or after the events in the book?  Has the author published other books, stories, etc., or have other works been written about him/her?  Is the author still alive?  If so, what is he/she doing now?  Tell us any information about the author that you think adds to the information in the story.
  7. Personal connections: Choose a scene, character, event or idea in the memoir that you found particularly interesting and discuss why you related to it.  Tell us about how this aspect of the book reflected events in your life, and why other people in the class might relate to it too.
  8. Difficulties: Tell the class about some challenges you had, and that they might have, in reading this book.  Explain why it will be worthwhile to take on these challenges and read all the way to the end.
  9. What you learned: Tell the class about some important things you learned from reading this book, and tell them why the book is effective in teaching readers those things.
  10. What you loved: Tell the class about some things you loved about this book.  Be detailed, but again, don’t give everything away.  Sell the book to the class!
  11. Bonus topic: Dramatic scene: Two or more group members might want shorten their talk from five minutes to four, and then to bank their extra minutes in order to perform a scene from the book at the end of the talk.  Take care not to run over time if you do this.

After all the presentations, students must write a Book Talk Report in which they explain their impressions of each book and justify which book they will choose for their third reading.

Module 3: Comparison

Text: each student chooses a second book from the list above.

Students must write an essay comparing the memoir they presented in their book talk to the memoir they have chosen for their third reading.  In this module, we are also going to look at examples of personal narrative in film (maybe Persepolis?) and in radio/TV (This American Life).

*

My goal in the course as a whole is to balance the ministerial requirements of the course (understand and analyze a genre) with my personal goals for the students (learn to behave as readers by choosing reading material, discussing it with others, making informed decisions about what to read next, thinking through the pleasures and difficulties of a text, etc.)

Toward the end of the semester, I’ll let you know the general student response to these various books.

Your questions and suggestions are welcome and anxiously awaited.

What Does Learning Look Like?

My “personal narrative” class is going great.

We started by reading Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and they seemed to like it.  A lot.  Most of them did the reading and participated actively in the group work, and after a little talk to them about “what to do if you HAVEN’T done the reading and CAN’T participate in the group work,” they mostly seemed to take responsibility and work together well.  We looked at the elements of literary analysis, and for each class, each group was responsible for analyzing a different part of the memoir.  When they got to the first in-class assignment (wherein they analyzed an unseen text using the elements we’d discussed), almost everyone did a good job.

Now we’ve started the second unit.  They have each been assigned a memoir from a list of eight; I asked them to give me their top three choices from the list, and I tried to give them one of the books they chose.  They are working with others who have read the same book, preparing a “book talk.”  I have given them a list of ten possible “book talk” topics, including things like “important themes,” “historical, geographical and social context,” “what I loved about this book” and “what I learned from reading this book.”  To practice preparing and presenting, they had to choose one of the topics and present on The Glass Castle.  These practice orals were the best I’ve seen; with a few exceptions, they were thorough, engaging and on point.

Then I asked them to focus on their second book, to divvy up topics among their group members (each of the four or five group members should choose a different topic), and to each prepare a five-minute presentation on their topic (for a total of 20-25 minutes per group).  The overall thrust of the “book talk” is to convince others in the class to choose the book for their third reading.  (I am indebted to Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone for giving me the term “book talk” and for helping me as I constructed these assignments.)

After the “book talks,” students must write a report in which they tell me which book they’re going to choose from the list for their third reading, and why.  They must write a paragraph about each of the seven books they saw presented and explain why they did or did not choose each one.  In the end, each student must write a comparative literary analysis of his or her second and third readings.

They really seem to be having a good time.  In their group discussions today, as they chose their individual topics and structured their group presentations, their level of engagement was the highest I think I’ve ever seen in a literature class.  They were sparring, writing, drawing diagrams, asking questions of me and of each other.  They all wrote tons of stuff on their worksheets and took lots of notes for themselves before handing the worksheets into me.

But here’s my question.

What are they learning?

I chose these activities because I thought they would be engaging.  And there is method and motive to my madness, but I’m not sure I can trust it.  So I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.  What are my students learning from this process?  And is it valuable?  Is it what they should be learning in an English literature classroom?

Let me know what you think.

Image by Sergio Roberto Bichara

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 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.

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Previously on the list:

Wonderful thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Wonderful thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Oleksiy Petrenko

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