What’s That When It’s At Home?

DSC_0742Dear Readers:

I will be back in a few weeks with my yearly “Best Books” and “Top Posts” lists, but otherwise, Classroom as Microcosm will be on hiatus from now until the end of January.  I hope you’ll consider, in the interim, subscribing to my personal/homestyle/living blog, What’s That When It’s At Home?

This new blog is in its infancy.  I originally took a stab at it as a Tumblr blog, but Tumblr is not working out so well for me, so I’ve migrated it back here to WordPress.  My plan is to post a few times a week over the winter in order to get things up and running, and to launch it fully next spring.

The blog will treat subjects related to being at home – cooking, cleaning, home improvement, taking care of plants and pets, etc. – as well as reading, television, knitting, exercising and other things I love to do in and around my house.

The driving question of the blog is similar to that of Classroom as Microcosm: what does it mean to be committed?  At what point can one safely say one is ready to commit?  Classroom as Microcosm has explored my commitment to my job; WTWIAH will explore my journey, over the next few years, toward committing or not committing to my house, and to home ownership in general.

You will find a brief resume of the blog’s intention here.

So please come by and subscribe!  And in the meantime, have a great holiday, and stay tuned here for seasonal updates and a return to twice-a-week posting when the new semester begins.


Education and Growing: Reprise


It’s been a rough week.  Things at work are going fine, but life outside of work – especially life as a new homeowner – has been, shall we say, challenging.  Full of minor and major inconveniences.  Full of questions about whether buying a house, buying THIS house, was such a good idea.  My husband and I are trying to keep a brave face on, but we’re really stressed and tired, and have gone from being annoyed to being overwhelmed.  This is all new to us, and it’s really hard.

I keep reminding myself that difficulties help us learn, and learning helps us grow.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiner at Home.  She quotes Yeats as saying

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.

This is good to hear, as pleasure and virtue are in short supply around here.  It also sent me looking for an old post about education and growth, one I published in 2009.  As I keep telling my students: learning isn’t always fun.  It isn’t always pleasant.  It’s sometimes really crappy.  But it always makes us grow.  The trick is to grow in a direction that will allow us to keep growing.  If we can do that, then we’re golden.


What exactly is “growth”?  Does “education” always foster it?

The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.”  This suggests that growth is an ongoing process, and it is the process that is valuable, not arrival at full maturity.

However, according to Dewey, not all experience is educative:

Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.

Growth is a process of change or evolution, but it is not, in and of itself, a positive thing.  We can grow in negative ways, and such growth can limit our ability to grow in the future.  Such growth is not educative.

As a student, for example, I can have experiences that lead me to be dependent on others for my learning.  If my early teachers teach me that “learning” involves parroting material I learn in textbooks, then I will grow in that direction, and when I leave formal schooling behind, I may have difficulty learning in other contexts; I will have a limited capacity to think independently and to learn creatively from non-textbook-generated experiences.

Each of our students arrives in our CEGEP classroom with a unique set of experiences.  Some of these experiences have been conducive to growth.  A student who is not yet be cognitively ready to be an “independent” thinker (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them aren’t) may still be well prepared to become such a thinker, because he’s been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and has received some sort of satisfaction or reward for his efforts.  He may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who’ve demonstrated “how to be a learner”: models of curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge.  These students arrive in college knowing how to learn.

Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they’ve grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution.  They’re easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks.  They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged.  Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.

Perhaps this is because “growth” can be frightening.  Growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind.  For some students, this may seem daunting or impossible.  In some cases, however, we as teachers are not providing new experiences that will help students redirect their growth in a more fruitful direction – out of the concrete and into the soil, as it were.

Let’s imagine, for example, that I return a student’s first paper, and that student has failed.  Let’s imagine that the student becomes frustrated and angry, and accuses me of “grading too hard.”  I’m likely to become irritable and defensive in such a situation, but if I step back, it may become clear that this student has never learned how to deal productively with failure.  Her past growth in this area has led her to an impasse.

It’s my job to teach her how to learn from failure, or rather, to provide her with an experience of failure that leads to learning.  How can I transform this experience from a blow to her self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?

How can failure help us grow?

For one thing, it can give us the impetus to ask important questions.  If I understand this, I can communicate it to the student.  I can ask her, “Why do you think this paper should pass?  Why do you think it failed?  What comments have I made that you don’t understand?  Look over the first page of the paper, and then ask me three questions.”  Maybe this student has never had the opportunity to ask sincere questions about failures, nor has she received sincere answers.  Students who learn from failure almost always have this skill, and it’s a fairly easy skill to demonstrate, if not always easy to absorb.

Other qualities – the willingness to take risks, an openness to new ideas, an ability to identify what one doesn’t know, a talent for organization – may seem like innate characteristics, but it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which these qualities are in fact skills that are learned through appropriate experience, and to consider ways that students might be able to learn such skills even if they arrive in CEGEP without them.  [Editorial note: Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed is an important reference here.]

If we see effective education as a series of experiences that induce growth and that lead to further growth, then our role as educators, along with every moment we spend in the classroom, becomes transformed.  We’re not just teaching students a pile of material.  We’re teaching them how to learn, and how to continue to be learners.

Image by Kym McLeod

Things I Learned From Buying a House #3: Demystification

My husband and I are taking a home repair class, because since we moved into our brand new very old house, we’ve been paying people a lot of money to do things we could probably do ourselves.  The class defies some current wisdom about what makes for “good teaching.”  And it’s great.  And I’m learning some things about myself as a teacher.

This home repair course involves almost no hands-on practice.  Our teacher tells us things.  We take notes.  We ask questions, and he answers them.  Last week we actually got to do some stuff for the first time – he had a friend come in to show us about wall construction, and we got to drill in some screws and apply a bit of plaster.  Otherwise, the best we can do is ply him with the details of our own roofs, toilets and hairline wall cracks and ask for advice.

You wouldn’t think this was an ideal format for a skills-based class.  Nevertheless, we are learning TONS.  We now know the basics of how a house is constructed.  We know what the insides of faucet fixtures look like.  We know why the walls of our bathroom look like they are running in rivulets even when they’re not.  We know the difference between caulking and grout, and which we should apply around our windows.

Perhaps most importantly, we know that we probably shouldn’t panic about the things that make us panic.  Things like: how can I put up a shelf without puncturing a pipe?  What do those little fissures on the foundation wall mean?  How can I stain my deck properly? If my house makes noise, does that mean it’s about to fall down?

A huge part of learning is about demystification.  Our home repair course is mainly about that: a house is just a thing, and it has a lot of parts that are pretty easy to understand.  It will get damaged, and then you need to fix it.  Pipes will break, ceilings will fall in, roofs will need to be replaced.  You just do it.

Of course, ideally, the demystification is not just intellectual.  Drilling a fourth screw into a mock-up wall, because the first three went in cock-eyed, makes drilling a screw into your own wall much less scary.  You get to know how it feels when the screw meets its mark, so you’ll know that feeling next time.

Nevertheless, hearing how something should work can be a good first step.  Then you can go home and try it, because at least you know the basics.

Is there an equivalent phenomenon for more “intellectual” skills? I’m learning a lot about home repair without getting much practice in the classroom.  Is it possible to learn a lot about English without practicing reading and writing?  Are there ways to demystify these activities for students so that they’ll be more likely to take the plunge into doing them on their own time?

Maybe it helps that my home repair teacher is hilariously entertaining, making jokes about how “water is the anti-Christ” and “What does Ikea mean in Swedish? Divorce.”  If I were funnier, would that make my subject matter less intimidating so my students would learn better?

Have you ever been scared to do something until someone taught you it wasn’t so hard?  Have you ever found that a little knowledge takes the terror out of trying something new?  How do you demystify your subject matter for your students?

Image by Melodi2

Things I Learned From Buying a House #1: I Can Do It

You can do things you don’t think you can do.

For most of my adult life, I said that I didn’t want to own a house.  It was too much responsibility.  I was willing to “pay someone else’s mortgage,” as people kept describing it, if it meant that someone else had to call the plumber when the drains stopped working.

The truth was, though, I just didn’t think I could do it.  I didn’t think I could take care of everything that owning a house seemed to require: not just calling the plumber, but dealing with the bank, having the roof redone, mowing the lawn, finding an electrician, lighting the gas furnace, choosing the right insurance.

Turns out, pretty much anyone can do these things.  I have yet to learn whether I like doing these things, or at least whether owning my own house makes them worth doing.  But I can ask for advice, look up YouTube videos, and tighten bolts.  I can learn how to paint a bannister properly and how to care for a birch tree.  It’s a lot of work.  Nevertheless, I can do it.

I find myself resisting tasks.  I don’t want to put up shelves in the bathroom.  It’s too much work.  Then I realize that the work is not the problem – somewhere, buried deep, is the belief that if I put the shelves up myself, they will fall down.  My husband seems to have the same conviction about his shelf-mounting abilities.  Can we afford to hire someone to put up shelves?  No.  Sooner or later, we will have to go to YouTube and learn how to put up shelves that won’t fall down.  Until we convince ourselves that we can learn to be capable shelf-putter-uppers, my toiletries are going to sit in an ugly cardboard box on the bathroom floor.

When my students don’t do their grammar exercises, don’t turn in their essays, don’t show up for quizzes, even don’t do the required reading, it’s sometimes because they are lazy or have other things on their minds.  Sometimes, though, there’s a deeper problem: they don’t think they can do it, and I’m not showing them they can.  More and more, I find myself breaking tasks into smaller and smaller steps and having students practice example after example, not so that they can “learn” the skill better, but so that they can see, “Hey, this isn’t so hard.  I can do this.”

The problem of self-efficacy may be the biggest in education.  This is not at all the same as self-esteem – you can feel great about yourself in general while still having a nagging low-level conviction that you can’t handle certain things.  I do not suffer from low self-esteem in the least, but when it comes to re-caulking my shower, I have yet to persuade myself that I have, or can acquire, the necessary skill set.

Saying “I can’t do this” is, in many cases, what prevents us.  Now that I have the house, I have no choice.  Unfortunately, my students can’t turn to YouTube to learn how to be skillful readers, and copying an essay from the internet is not the same as learning how to write one.  That’s what teachers are for.

On that note, if anyone wants to boost my self-efficacy by teaching me how to level a concrete basement floor, you know where to find me.

Image by Lajla Borg Jensen

Things They Should Teach In School

The Husband and I have just finalized a deal to purchase a house.  (To read about one of the more dramatic  adventures of our search, go here.)  In the process, we’ve had to do all sorts of things that we’ve never had to do before.  We didn’t have the faintest clue how to tackle some of these things: how to best negotiate the terms of a mortgage, or what to look for in a real estate agent, or how to read a co-ownership agreement.

Along the way, someone said to The Husband, “Buying a house is one of those situations where you have to become an expert in something that you might do once, maybe twice, in your life.”  And this is true.  But there are some simple and not-so-simple things that most of us are going to have to do in life that we don’t learn about in school.

For example, the house that we finally found – a house that we totally love – is old.  It has some problems that will need to be fixed.  We will need to call an electrician, and a mason, and a contractor.  The electrician and the mason – well, fine.  But why is it that we feel the need to pay someone to install gyproc over the exposed insulation?  Surely that’s a fairly straightforward task?  For heaven’s sake, I was even talking about paying someone to paint.  I’ll have plenty of time to paint – I’ll be on summer vacation – but I wasn’t confident I could do a proper job.  I’ve come around on that one, but not because I’m sure I can do it right.  I’ve come around because I should know how to paint walls, and woodwork, and bannisters, and so I should practice.

Why don’t we learn things like home repair in school?  I know, there’s woodshop or industrial arts or whatever it’s called these days, but it’s not the same.  Beyond that, why don’t we learn the principles of designing a kitchen or tending a garden?  Most people will own homes at some point.  Most people would be better off if they could install a faucet or properly deal with a musty dryer (a task we found ourselves faced with this weekend, as though the universe is prepping us for the days ahead, when we won’t be able to call the landlord about ANYTHING.)

What else should be taught in school, but isn’t, at least in the schools you’ve attended?  Things that immediately come to my mind: meditation, cell phone etiquette (etiquette in general, for that matter) and how to counsel a troubled friend.  What do you wish you knew that no one ever taught you?

Image by Sanja Gjenero

Bad Teacher

Is it possible for a bad person to be a good teacher?

The Husband and I have been on an adventure.  We have been looking for a condo for the last couple of months – mortgage pre-approvals! Real estate agents! Notaries and house inspectors! We feel like grownups – and two weeks ago, we found what we were looking for.  It was the upper half of a duplex, small but well divided, so The Husband and I could each have an office.  It had a nice roomy kitchen, and a pantry!  It was half a block from the metro, a five-minute bike ride from Jean-Talon Market, and in a new neighbourhood that was still very close to our old neighbourhood.  It was in our price range.

We asked the vendor’s agent about our indoor/outdoor cats.  No problem, he said.  Cats are explicitly allowed in the co-ownership agreement.  On the balconies? we asked.  In the yard, even though the yard will not be ours?  No problem, he said.  It’s in the agreement.

We made an offer.  It was accepted. We were over the moon.  We scheduled an inspection for the following weekend.  No can do, said the agent.  The downstairs co-owner, Mme X Y, is out of town, and so we can’t get access to the basement.  We’ll have to do it the following weekend, when she gets back from her spring break holiday.

Ah, we thought.  A teacher on spring break.  Well, ok.  Less than convenient that she’s away, but it gives us time to confirm our financing and look over the co-ownership agreement.

“Didn’t the agent say that our hot water tank is in the basement?” I asked The Husband.

“Why yes, I believe he did,” The Husband replied.

“And while Mme X Y is away, no one has access to the basement?  What happens if the hot water tank breaks while she’s away?”

“Good question.  Maybe we just need her permission to go into the basement, and she’s not reachable.”

“So the agent didn’t ask, before she left, that she give permission to go into the basement in the case of a sale and inspection?”

“I guess not.  Let’s look over the co-ownership agreement, shall we?”

The co-ownership agreement was all in French (not to mention legalese), so the reading of it was time-consuming.  Our agent assured us that it looked pretty standard, so we should just make a note if anything jumped out at us.  Two things did: the description of the downstairs co-owner on the first page as “Mme X Y, enseignante [teacher]” – surely a kindred spirit! – and the clauses saying that cats were permitted in the building but that animals were “not to be kept or left in common areas.”  Common areas included balconies and fire escapes, and no mention was made of animals making their way into the yard.

We called our agent.  This is a routine clause in co-ownership agreements, she assured us, and can usually be worked out between the co-owners; let’s get on it right away.  We emailed our questions to the vendor’s agent.  “Questions about the co-ownership agreement will need to be addressed with the downstairs co-owner when she returns,” he replied.  “We can discuss them with her the morning of the inspection.”

The morning of the inspection?  The Husband and I stared at one another.  The inspection was going to cost us $600.  If Mme X Y refused to allow our cats to pass through her yard, we wouldn’t need to do an inspection.  We wrote him back.  Is there any way at all to contact the co-owner and straighten this out before then?  Not likely, he said, but I’ll see what I can do.  I’ll leave her a message, but I can’t guarantee that she’ll get it.

We re-scheduled the inspection again, for a couple of days after Mme X Y’s projected return.  This would allow us to meet her on the morning we had originally allotted for the inspection, so we could discuss the co-ownership documents and iron out any problems.  Re-scheduling the inspection involved not just the inspection agency, but yet another amendment to our promise to purchase, requiring signatures from us, our agent, the other agent, and the vendor.  Calls were made.  Papers were delivered back and forth.  We sat on our hands waiting to see if Mme X Y would get back to us.

Several days before Mme X Y’s return, we got an email from the vendor’s agent saying that he had heard from Mme X Y and that she “seemed open,” but that she would not amend the co-ownership agreement (as this would involve notary fees).  We would have to discuss it all in person, but that “as long as the cats don’t make damage to her garden, she cannot be against cat.”

Fine, we thought.  There was no need to change the co-ownership document – we’d already spoken to a notary, who said that we simply needed an entente in writing.  It would not be legally binding, but would signal an  understanding.  We wrote up a brief entente stating that Mme X Y would not object to cats in the common areas and in her yard, and that if the cats did damage to the garden, we would repair and/or compensate for it.  We sent it to the vendor’s agent and asked him to forward it to Mme X Y if he could.

The night before our scheduled meeting, we received a message from the vendor’s agent.  Mme X Y did not wish to meet with us the following morning if the inspection was not taking place.  She did not wish to discuss our cats: she did not want our cats coming into her yard.  What was more, she was not available at the time of our (twice re-scheduled) inspection, so the inspection could not take place at that time.

Our agent came by the next morning and we declared the promise to purchase null and void.

Now, here’s the thing.  Obviously, the vendor’s agent bears some responsibility for all these events – for misinforming us in the beginning, and for not taking steps to ensure that things could unfold in Mme X Y’s absence.  And obviously, Mme X Y is not the sort of person one wants to live above.  But what interests me most in all these circumstances is that Mme X Y is a teacher.

What kind of a teacher is she?  Perhaps she conducts herself entirely differently in the classroom than she does in the rest of the world, but let us assume some consistency of character.  Without having once met Mme X Y, here is what we learned about her:

  • She is not available to others even when her availability is crucial (we, and the vendor, delayed everything for two weeks because she did not leave any way to contact her directly, even though she must have been aware that her co-owner might need her.)
  • She does not trust others (no one was given permission to enter her basement while she was not present, regardless of the impact it might have in these or other circumstances.)
  • She is willing to cause enormous difficulties to others on specious grounds (the vendor lost a sale, and we lost a condo, because she wants to protect herself from cats.  Is she under the impression that no cats will come into her yard if the upstairs neighbours don’t let their cats out?  Cats get into yards!),
  • She is defensive and afraid of others (she refused to walk upstairs and meet us to discuss these issues; she has no interest in being introduced to the people who could very well end up living above her for the next thirty years.)

All of these qualities make me think of some of the worst teachers I’ve ever had, people who were inflexible, defensive, terrified of their students, unreasonable, and controlling even when the benefits for them were not clear.  And it makes me interested in hearing your stories about bad teachers.

What do you remember about the worst teachers you’ve had?  What made them bad teachers?  Were they also bad people?  Is it possible for a person like Mme X Y, who seems to the sort of person you would never want as a neighbour, to be a good teacher?  I am furious about how this  all went down, but at the same time, I am feeling a clinically detached interest in the questions it raises about the teaching profession, human nature, and society.  I look forward to your observations.

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski