How To Be a Teenage Girl

If you haven’t yet discovered Tavi Gevinson and her webzine Rookie, it’s time you did.  If you know any teenage girls, you need to send them a link to Rookie, because every teenage girl needs to think about the stuff Tavi Gevison and her writers think about.

In her original editor’s letter, Tavi explains that she did NOT conceive of Rookie as

your guide to Being a Teen. It is not a pamphlet on How to Be a Young Woman…Rookie is a place to make the best of the beautiful pain and cringe-worthy awkwardness of being an adolescent girl. When it becomes harder to appreciate these things, we also have good plain fun and visual pleasure. When you’re sick of having to be happy all the time, we have lots of eye-rolling rants, too.

Despite this disavowal, I wish every teenage girl I know would take Rookie as a guide.  Exhibit A: this article entitled “An Actually Useful Article About Dressing for a Party” and subtitled “…without any mention of your body shape or your style personality.”

Gevinson has been clear that Sassy magazine – a fond memory to women in my age bracket – is a major influence.  I loved Sassy, but what she’s doing is so much better.  Sassy was fun, and smart, and acknowledged that some teenage girls have sex.  It was revolutionary, but it was of its time (and it spawned, indirectly, the horror that was Jane magazine.)  Rookie takes what Sassy did and makes it fresh, immediate and interactive, which is exactly what an Internet mag should do.

(The fact that Rookie makes regular references to River Phoenix and [see video above] Stevie Nicks doesn’t hurt, though.  Do teenage girls know who these people are?  Is Gevinson really a 43-year-old woman in 16-year-old eye makeup?)

The mag posts three times a day and has monthly themes like “Transformation” and “Power”.  Sound all second-wave feminist to you?  Well, yes, but so much more.  For example, March’s theme was “Exploration” and included articles like “Literally the Best Thing Ever: National Geographic” and “How to Look Like You Weren’t Just Crying in Less than Five Minutes.”

The ONLY reason I wish I were fifteen again is so that this magazine could rock my world as hard as it should.

I know a lot of teenage girls.  Wait – I shouldn’t say that.  I don’t know them.  I spend a few hours a week with them for fifteen weeks, and maybe fifteen weeks more if they like me enough to look me up again.  They mystify me and enthrall me and make me crazy.  Why are they walking around wearing things that resemble pants but ARE NOT PANTS?  Why do they all, down to the very last one, insist on straightening their lovely frizzy hair?  Why are they all reading those awful Twilight books or, even worse, watching those awful Twilight movies because reading the books is too hard?  Why are they dating that boy?  Yes, that one, missy – he’s just going to drag you down!  And while you’re at it, do up your sweater!

And then I read Rookie.  I know some of the girls I know are reading it too.  It reminds me that teenage girls are just amazing.  Even the ones who aren’t reading it…even the ones who wouldn’t like it if they did read it…even the ones who are wearing those things that ARE NOT PANTS…they’re amazing.  There’s so much going ON when you’re a teenage girl.  Life is so full of STUFF.

No way I’d go back there again.  But Rookie is a delightful, painful, funny travelogue.  Spread the word.

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Cold Call

Are you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss a problem that can arise with classroom dynamics: the Constant Commenter.  She says, “Some kids want to constantly comment, but the smartest are often the quietest. How can we get them more involved? How do we subdue the chronic commenters?”

One solution is the cold call.  We call on students randomly (or perhaps not so randomly, but it may appear random to them.)  If students raise hands or call out, we say, “I’m cold calling for this one, so no volunteers.”

A few years ago, a Masters teacher of mine said that she never cold-calls students because when she was a student, the idea of being “picked on” without warning made her sick with anxiety.  She never put her students through it because she hated it so much.  At first I was puzzled by this – Really?  You never ask students for answers unless they volunteer? – but I then realized that I rarely cold-call in its strict sense.  I often call on students, but usually they’ve had a chance to prepare responses beforehand, often with a partner or group so they don’t bear sole responsibility for their answers.

I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (thanks to my friend Sarah for the recommendation!) and he believes in real, honest-to-God cold-calling, asking students to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are mastering the skills and content they’re being taught, at a nanosecond’s notice.  This technique, he explains, has several benefits.

…it allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically…increases speed both in terms of your pacing…and the rate at which you cover material…[and] allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that they are likely to be called on to participate…but that you want to know what they have to say.

Lemov also encourages teachers to use techniques like “No Opt Out,” in which a student who answers with “I don’t know” must eventually give a correct answer, and “Format Matters,” meaning that students need to respond in complete, grammatical sentences whenever possible.  In Lemov’s world, there is no escape: you need to be present, engaged and ready to respond at any time.

I am more inclined to Lemov’s view than my former teacher’s.  At the beginning of the semester, I use the excuse that I need to learn their names, and call on them randomly from the attendance list to answer questions.  As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.  And, as I said, I rarely ask students to think on their feet – if they’re nervous, they can just read answers they’ve prepared with their group, although they may have to stretch themselves if I ask for further explanation.

I feel like I should do it more.  I believe that if students know they can be called on at any time, they will be more engaged and feel more responsibility for the material.  I’d like to create an atmosphere in which students feel that it’s safe to make errors, but that they at least have to take a stab at things, and that they need to be ready to do so at all times.  But I don’t want students to sit stewing in fear, petrified that they may be asked to speak.

Do you cold-call in your classroom?  If so, how do you make students fell okay with that?  If not, why not?  Does cold-calling improve the classroom dynamic, or is it a detriment?  I want my students to rise to the demands cold-calling creates, but I don’t want to poison their learning with terror.

Image by Sigurd Decroos

What If They Don’t Do the Required Reading?

It’s a perennial problem for teachers.  You plan a great lesson around today’s short story, but it turns out two-thirds of the students haven’t read it.  What do you do?  Do you kick out the slackers?  Give them class time to read it?  Give up and do something else?  As a follow-up to last week’s post on how we can teach students to be willing, if not enthusiastic, readers and writers, I’d like to throw a question out there from frequent commenter CrysHouse.  She asks, How can we use class time effectively if students don’t do the reading before they come?

I have a couple of techniques.  I have them do some written homework based on the reading, homework that they must then use for the class activity.  It counts for credit, they have to show it to me before we begin, and if they haven’t done it, they have to leave class, because they can’t do the day’s work.  Of course, I’m in a privileged spot here – most teachers can’t throw students out of class – but you could have students work on their own to complete the homework, and receive no credit for the class work they miss as a result.

I have been known, if it seems like no one has done the reading, to designate today’s work as a graded test.  They have to work alone to answer some questions or write a short response.  This, of course, makes more work for me, because then I have to grade the things.  It also doesn’t sit well with my most idealistic principles about separating grades from behaviour issues.  However, it’s pretty effective in impressing the importance of the reading on them, and at least then we can do some work with the reading the following class.

I don’t like the coerciveness of either of these approaches.  What’s more, because we do a lot of group work, the fact that some students haven’t read is often obscured, because their group mates cover for them and resent both them and me.  If all work were individual, it would be easier to allow natural consequences to reveal themselves – you won’t get much done if you haven’t read before class! – but this is not always possible, and I hate structuring all my lessons around the contingency that some students aren’t pulling their weight.

Do people have other techniques?  Is this problem solvable?  I wrote three papers on Robinson Crusoe in high school and college, and to this day, I haven’t read the damn book and don’t intend to – so who am I to fault them?  Is it possible that this is one more thing  we’ll just have to let go?

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Image by Davide Guglielmo

Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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Late Penalties?

Throughout the years, I’ve heard a lot of arguments against giving penalties for late student work.

Back in February, Tom Shimmer outlined some of the arguments against late penalties in a post, and they reflect the main argument I’ve heard again and again: students should be evaluated on the learning they can demonstrate, not punctuality.  I don’t, in principle, disagree with this argument.  It would be ideal if I could get a direct measurement of a student’s learning without any interference from other factors.

However, I’m not sure this is ever possible.  Can the learning of specific skills and material in a specific domain be separated from everything else?  This has always struck me as weirdly compartmentalized.  Yes, I know the student is supposed to demonstrate the achievement of competencies – for example, she can identify a specific theme from a text she’s read, or she can write a sentence that correctly uses the present perfect.  But in most evaluations, these skills are inextricably bound up with other things.  For example, if a student can identify a clear theme in her own mind but can’t state it in a way that an intelligent reader can understand, how can she get full points for that criterion?  If she writes a paragraph in which the present perfect is required, and uses the present perfect correctly throughout but botches all her other verb tenses, does she get 100% for the paragraph?

Maybe.  The question becomes murkier when we talk about evaluating skills and behaviours that cross disciplines.  If I am a history teacher, do I evaluate my students’ ability to write correct English in their history papers?  Should this count toward some portion of their grade?  Yes, many educators will insist, because literacy and clear communication are cross-disciplinary skills.

Aha.  In that case, could it be argued that carrying work out in a timely manner – as one will inevitably have to do in any job, whether it involve writing memos or changing diapers – is also a cross-disciplinary skill?  Should this be one of the competencies addressed in their course work?

I would argue yes.  However, it occurs to me now that a late penalty is not the same as an evaluation criterion.  Instead of imposing a penalty, maybe I should dedicate 5 or 10% of the grade for each paper to “punctual submission,” much as I do for MLA formatting.  Students who submit papers on time will get the full 10%.  That way, punctuality would be evaluated the same way as all other competencies.

But then, what do I do about a student who comes to me at the end of the term and wants to submit several assignments, when the assignments are cumulative and completing them all in a short time will minimize their benefit?  What do I do when the grade submission deadline rolls around and some students have still not submitted all work?  Do I argue that the administration give me an extension too, or give incompletes (which are not given at my college except for medical reasons) on pedagogical principle?  Schimmer says that he doesn’t receive a “flood” of assignments at the end of term even though he doesn’t impose late penalties.  However, he also doesn’t explain how he deals with individual stragglers (except to mention that students who struggle with deadlines need to be “supported” – how? – and that he contacts parents – not an option when you’re a college teacher.)  How does one run a class without firm deadlines?

How do you deal with late work?  Do you agree that there is no place for late penalties in learning?  Do you have ways of making things run smoothly even if students don’t feel that it’s essential to hand their work in on time?

Image by Chris Gilbert

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What Have You Been Thinking About?

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Svilen Milev

The First Days of School: Then and Now

Today is the beginning of the new school year for me and my colleagues, and many of you will be getting back into the saddle in the next couple of weeks.  As I prepare, my thoughts have returned to three of my past posts that still seem timely.

The first is called “Mean ‘Til Hallowe’een: Classroom Discipline and the First Day of the Semester.” I wrote this in 2007 and return to it at the beginning of every term.  The question: does it help to be strict and unsmiling for the first few weeks?

Another is a commentary on one of my favourite books for educators: Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School.  If you have a week or so before you start teaching, run out and get your hands on this book and read it before classes begin.  Even if you’ve already started, the book has many, many valuable insights about knowing yourself as a teacher and being the most effective teacher you can be.

Finally, I am returning to the teaching resolutions I made at the beginning of 2010, and I am renewing those resolutions for the coming semester.  Do you have resolutions for this school year?  I’d love to hear them.

Feel free to leave comments on the posts themselves, or to comment below.  You can also visit my Facebook Page, “Like” it, and leave your thoughts there!

Image by Simona Jakov

“Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

As the new semester creeps nearer, I’m starting to think about plagiarism again.  My use of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection software, is helping me relax a bit – last semester, the software made discovering plagiarism, and talking to students about it, a lot easier.  However, cheating is a perennial source of anxiety for most teachers, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is causing me to re-think my approach yet again.

In Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism, Rob Jenkins asks if it’s necessary for us to focus so much of our energy on student cheating.

“Of course I care about plagiarism, and I certainly take steps to deal with plagiarists once I have sufficient proof. But I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plagiarism or trying to catch students at it. I’d prefer to direct my time and energy toward something more positive, such as actually teaching the subject I’ve been hired to teach.”

Jenkins then goes on to list steps he uses to deal with plagiarism, most of which are common-sensical: put your plagiarism policy in your syllabus, talk about plagiarism on the first day but not only on the first day, design assignments that make plagiarism difficult.  I do all these things.  It’s his final point that really makes me think.

Let it go. If some students take unfair advantage of the fact that I let them do most of their writing outside of class, or that I don’t use Turnitin, so be it. It’s not that I don’t care. I do…  When I say ‘let it go,’ I mean that in the metaphysical sense. I’m not saying you should ignore clear cases of plagiarism. But the truth is, there aren’t many clear cases of plagiarism. Most cases are borderline, at best. It’s also true that, no matter what you do to deter cheating, some students are going to find a way around it. You can go crazy thinking about that all the time.”

I’m almost ready to embrace that philosophy.  Unlike Jenkins, however, I find that Turnitin.com makes relaxing about plagiarism easier.  Jenkins says he doesn’t use it mostly because it creates an atmosphere of mistrust, but talking about plagiarism at all creates the same problem.

I used to get complaints from students about the fact that I mention plagiarism more than once and have them sign contracts stating that they understand what constitutes cheating and what will happen if they do it.  I think these complaints are warranted, and now, I always reiterate several times that I know most of my students would never cheat, and that they have every right to be insulted by the implication, but that I need to do everything I can to protect people who do their work honestly. That includes having them submit their papers to a program that will help me identify plagiarism.

Turnitin allows me to stop obsessing over every line that is atypically erudite or awkwardly shoehorned in.  If the program doesn’t find something, I usually feel like due diligence has been done.  Also, simply having students submit through Turnitin makes them less likely to copy things, so I feel I can relax a bit about the whole problem.

What’s more, there’s something about the use of a software program that allows me to step away from cheating and take it less personally.  I know, intellectually, that it’s not personal when they cheat, but I can’t help feeling outraged and hurt, especially when I need to waste my valuable grading time looking for plagiarized sources or comparing two student papers line-by-line.  A student who submits a plagiarized paper to Turnitin is not so much saying that he thinks I, the teacher, am a dupe.  He is saying that either a) he believes his cheating skills are invincible (and who knows? He may be right this time) or b) he  feels this is his only recourse, so he’s going to cross his fingers and take his chances, or c) he somehow still doesn’t understand what cheating is or what’s wrong with it, or d) he just doesn’t give a damn.   It’s hard to take this personally, and when I call him into my office, the printouts covered with highlighted “matches” usually head off any attempts on his part to make it so.

A perfect solution?  No.  There are those who object to the fact that Turnitin stores student work, and others who will have noticed that it doesn’t catch everything.  For now, though, I’m grateful for anything that, as Jenkins says, lets me worry less about cheating and more about doing my job.  “Either you can be a teacher or you can be the plagiarism police,” he says.  Well, I may still have to be a bit of both, but I know I’d rather be mostly the former, and the latter only when it’s unavoidable.

What are your plans for dealing with plagiarism this year?  Are you obsessed, or can you find ways to “let it go” so that it doesn’t colour everything you do?

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Yes, plagiarism can make a teacher crazy.  If you’re not convinced, check out some of my real-life cheating-in-the-classroom stories herehere, here, and here.

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Image by Manoel Nato

Word Jars and Grocery Lists: “Your Child’s Writing Life” by Pam Allyn

The premise of Pam Allyn’s parenting guide Your Child’s Writing Life is as follows:

“There are endless practical books to help parents raise their children.  But until now there has not been a book about the importance of getting our kids to understand that every book and story began when someone, somewhere decided to write down his or her thoughts.”

Allyn believes that writing is as important to a child’s development as any other fundamental skill, and that parents who help their kids become writers will foster their emotional, intellectual and academic growth.  It is hard to argue with this, and there is a lot to love about this book.

Allyn’s passion for writing is sincere, and so is her passion for helping children be everything they can be.  Parents or teachers who want children to love writing will find much to work with here: a list of great children’s books to inspire writing, a chapter full of tips to help with times when writing is frustrating, myriad interesting prompts for child writers of all ages.  I wish all parents would read this book and implement some of its general suggestions, because I suspect that, if they did, their teenage children would arrive in my classroom with, at best, a deep desire to write, and at worst, an appreciation of the written word and the impulses and skills needed to write something well.

I have a single, but large, quibble with Allyn’s approach. My quibble is not based in any real expertise.  I am not the target audience for this book.  I am not a parent, and I don’t even teach children of the age described by the author.  I was, however, a child, and a child who loved writing and continues to love it into middle age, so much so that I have dedicated my life to doing and teaching it.

Allyn’s advice often parallels my own experience.  For example, she tells parents,

“Give your child the time to write and the freedom to write as she pleases.  As your child finds her voice, she’ll need you to give her time to practice and experiment, delving into new worlds through the magic of her own creative process.”

This is exactly what my parents did.  They took writing seriously and never made me feel that I should be doing something else.  If I was hiding in my room and they came to check on me, and I told them I was writing, they responded in the same way they would have if I’d said I was practicing my violin or doing my math homework: they praised me, and then left me alone.   I’m a writer today in large part because my parents did everything right in that regard.

However, they never set up “writing centres” or “word jars;” they did not create “writing routines” or set aside daily “writing time” or keep emergency writing implements in a folder in the car.  This is not to say these approaches wouldn’t be useful for some children; they might certainly benefit a child who did not have an intrinsic writing obsession, as I did. I wonder, though, whether creating such routines and rituals might not risk turning writing into a chore, another homework assignment or extracurricular activity that needs to be slotted in.

For example, Allyn asks parents to create a “perfect writing space” for their child – with the child’s input, of course.

“Ask questions like, What do you like to write with?  Pencils? Crayons? Markers?…Is that light too bright or too soft? Do you like to write on big paper on a table or small paper on a clipboard?”

This kind of micromanagement – let’s get it exactly right together, and then you’ll be able to write! – can be anathema to creation, and to me it smacks of overzealous parental involvement.  When I was a child, I would have found these questions, and their implication that there is a “perfect environment” for my creative process, overwhelming and intimidating.  I would have preferred to be left alone in my room, where I would spread myself at my desk or on my bed or on my carpet, depending on my mood, or I might wander out to the landing at the top of the stairs or the hammock in the back yard.  I would make use of whatever implements I could find around me or in the junk drawer downstairs in the kitchen.  I was finding spaces and methods that worked for me, and my parents’ only role was to consider requests I made and fulfill them if they could.

(One of the greatest joys I have experienced, then or since, was the Christmas when, having been told I would not be receiving an expensive electric typewriter I’d been pleading for, I woke to find it under the tree.  It was years before I learned to type properly, but until then, just looking at it on my desk and poking at its keys validated my identity as a writer.  Several aborted runs at learning to touch-type meant that, when I finally took a typing class in high school, I was far ahead of my classmates and was ready to type up my stories and poems.  I was not asked if I wanted a typewriter.  It was I who decided it was time for me to have one.)

Throughout the early chapters of Your Child’s Writing Life, I encountered moments where I felt the line between support and interference was being blurred.  For example, Allyn suggests that, when your child is two, you

“cut out words you love from magazines and put them in little frames on her writing desk where she can see them.  Even if she can’t read them, you are modeling your love of words.”

This feels queasily invasive to me.  Why must a parent insert herself into a child’s experience to this degree?  By doing this, is the parent not modelling something about herself and what she values, rather than the child’s interests?  Why not cut words out and put them on your own desk?  If the child can’t read yet, why not play with words orally, allowing her to choose the words you dwell on?

(I once spent an afternoon in the pool with my much younger brother, who was two at the time.  I taught him the word “buoyancy,” which he thought was the best word he’d ever heard, not because he understood its meaning, but because it sounded so cool.  For the rest of the day and evening he would randomly shout, “Siobhan – bwincey!” and break into giggles.  Is this not a more authentic way to interest a toddler in language than framing words I like and thrusting them into “his” space?)

When a child is four, Allyn advises,

“Read aloud even your grocery lists, messages from favorite friends, emails you particularly like and other examples of the little notes and things that come across your desk each and every day.”

When I reached this point in Allyn’s list of “ages and writing stages,” I began to wonder how a similar book about “your child’s math life” or “your child’s sports life” would read.  Would it read, as I suspected, like a slightly unhinged manifesto in which every dinner hour becomes a chance to practice counting one’s peas, or every morning one turns getting dressed into calisthenics?  The litany of ways to encourage writing was exhausting me in the mere reading, and I began to wonder if any parent really spends that much time in direct, active, engaged interaction with his or her child, much less in direct, active, engaged interaction that focuses entirely on getting the child interested in writing.  What about just letting the child run around without making a story about it?  Where would one have time for that?  After a few days of Allyn’s program, I expect I’d be lying on the couch with a cold cloth over my eyes, unable to even keep my toddler out of the knife drawer, much less ask him what adventures the knives could be having in their drawer-house today.

Which is to say: taken alone, any of these suggestions seems like it could help foster a child’s interest in writing.  The key here, though, is in the words “foster” and “child’s.”  There is a great emphasis on how the parent and child will embark on this writing journey “together,” but this “togetherness” eventually gives the book a cloying, claustrophobic feeling.  It is understandable, if we are talking about a stay-at-home parent and a child of two or three, that the parent’s values and interests will take the lead and that the parent and child will share at least some of these writing experiences, but even at that stage, I suspect many children will benefit more from a gentle nudge and then some space to follow their own whims.

What is more, some children do not enjoy reading and writing, and for them, such “encouragement” can start to feel manipulative and burdensome.  Allyn does not seem to feel that there is any circumstance in which a parent should let “writing time” go in favour of other interests.  How is this different from a parent who insists that his child will play football or join the Mathletes even when the child has no real interest in these activities?

(My mother was and is a visual artist, and she encouraged my brother and me to paint and draw. I liked these pastimes well enough, and for short periods I invested quite a bit of time in them, but they were not a priority and I had no real talent for them, so I never pursued them with any seriousness.  One day, my mother presented me with a beautiful blank book with a Klimt illustration on the cover, explaining that this was a drawing journal and that I was to use it only for that.  [Apparently a friend of hers, an art teacher, had suggested that this might encourage me to draw more.]  The book sat guiltily in my desk for several years, until finally one day I couldn’t stand seeing it lie idle, and I took it out and began … to write in it.  I still have it, full of writing, not drawing, and I don’t think I ever told my mother that I had defied her instructions.  These instances of well-intentioned interference on the part of my parents were rare and delicate, and I am grateful for that.  Had they been more aggressive, I suspect I would have fully abandoned some activities that brought me occasional pleasure.)

Allyn’s book seems dominated by a common parenting philosophy that equates “support” with “direction” (or perhaps control?) and I’m  always concerned when parents invest themselves too deeply in shaping their children’s interests.  Children who like reading and writing will read and write, and parents can encourage that by talking with them about reading and writing, and responding to their requests for books, notebooks, laptops if they can afford them, and so forth.  If a child does not show an interest in writing, there are gentle things parents can do: fill the house with books, read and write themselves, suggest that the child write down the stories he tells at the dinner table.  They can give the child a diary and see what happens.  They can experiment with some of Allyn’s suggestions and see if they take, but I would be wary of promoting writing to such a child with the intensity that Allyn suggests, for fear of engendering aversion and resentment.  There’s no doubt that writing a lot will benefit him, but so will playing a lot of basketball or learning a lot about astronomy.  In the end, is it not best to expose him to lots of activities, let him pick the ones he likes, give him time to invest in those interests, and show respect and support for the ways he chooses to spend his hours, as long as they are healthy and promote his growth?

So I think that, as parenting books go, this one is worth reading, and many of its suggestions are worth trying. I also think that parents should consider just being who they are, respecting who their children are, and reading fewer books on the subject, or at least viewing even the best parenting books with friendly suspicion.  I value reading and writing above almost all else, and if I were a parent, I would have to resist the temptation to embrace Allyn’s advice whole hog.  I might even set up a “writing corner” or have occasional “writing evenings” with my children in the hope that my love of writing would infect them.  But I would not expect my children to fall in with the program, although I might learn a lot about them in the process.

Allyn, Pam.  Your Child’s Writing Life. Avery (a division of Penguin Writing Group USA,Inc.) New York: 2011.

What Swimming Taught Me About Teaching

It’s good for a teacher to be a student once in a while.

I learn this lesson over and over as I pursue my MEd.  I have encountered all sorts of challenges I’d forgotten about, like worrying about grades and managing my time in order to get readings done and papers written.  I’ve had to examine how my (sometimes less than courteous) behaviour toward my teachers has affected their feelings and feedback.  I’ve had to wrestle with approaches that I’ve found less than helpful.  All of this is good food for thought for any teacher.

However, sometimes I find myself in a context that gives me a whole new perspective on what my students are going through.  The kind of work I’m doing in my MEd comes pretty easily to me.  I like reading, writing, doing research, participating in class discussions.  I know how to form a sentence, construct an argument, interpret a research paper.  When these tasks are challenging, I still have a strong sense of self-efficacy.  It is more interesting to observe myself when I am struggling with a task that I don’t do well.

Billie Hara, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a revealing summary of what it’s like to be an overweight, middle-aged gym neophyte and receive inconsiderate, condescending and careless training.  I loved reading this article because it says so much about effective and non-effective teaching.  The teacher-as-student can make excellent use of discouraging learning experiences, and Hara has done just that.  In her article, she lists some questions that her experience has raised for her regarding her own teaching:

Have you ever:

  • Made incorrect and negative assumptions about why a student was in your class and that student’s ability to perform the work, assumptions based on gender, race, class, age, or physical ability?
  • Told a student that she wasn’t prepared to do more even if she had the motivation and skills to do so?
  • Simplified instructions to a procedure (theory or concept) to such a degree that a five-year old would understand it (and your student was an adult)?
  • Assumed that students want to be like you (because, you know, you are so amazingly awesome)?
  • Told a student that other calls (other students, other work) were more important than working with him right at that moment?
  • Cut a short appointment even shorter because a student was late and you were insulted?
  • Used terms and concepts that were above a student’s level of understanding, without asking the student if she understood?

This summer, I have been taking swimming lessons.  To give some context: I can swim.  Sort of.  I love being in the water.  I took swimming lessons as a child – I failed my beginner’s class three times, but finally managed to scrape through and do a survival class in which I learned how to tread water, float, etc.  I took adult swimming lessons about ten years ago and discovered (or perhaps just reaffirmed) one of my  most serious limitations: I am so uncoordinated that I have often suspected that I suffer from mild autism.  (This is no joke – there are other indicators.)  Just walking around in the world is a constant gamble for me; doing one thing with my arms and another with my legs while suspended in liquid is totally baffling.  What is more, I recently lost a great deal of weight, and learned for the first time why most people find swimming to be an excellent workout: most people don’t float like corks the moment they enter the water.

So it wasn’t a total surprise to me to discover that, in my intermediate class of seven, I was at the absolute bottom in terms of ability.  I was so much less advanced than the others that during each class, one of the two teachers took me aside to work with me privately.  Both teachers were very sweet young people.  They were in their late teens/early twenties, and were doing their best to be encouraging and helpful.

One did a pretty good job of it.  He worked with me for only one class and focused on one thing at a time.  We started with my shoulder rotation, and once he felt I’d gotten the hang of that, he got me to extend the motion to my elbows and hands.  However, I found myself unable to grasp one of the instructions he was giving me, and when I tried to explain my difficulty, he seemed bewildered and slightly impatient.  I never was able to figure out exactly what he meant for me to do.

I worked more frequently with another teacher whose approach was to get me to swim back and forth and to explain to me, at the end of each length, one thing I needed to work on.  This would have been fine, except that my problems were so myriad that the moment I corrected one thing, another problem arose, until her corrections were so overwhelming that I finally lost my cool.  “I know it was worse this time,” I explained, “because I’m trying to remember all the things you’ve told me up to now and incorporate this new thing you’re telling me and I’m still having trouble moving my arms and legs at the same time!”  Her face went a little blank, and she nodded sheepishly, and I felt slightly ashamed.  She was so young, and she was clearly doing her best.  But at the end of the next length, she said, “I see what you’re saying – I’m giving you too much to think about at once, and I can see you’re trying hard to use my suggestions.  Let’s just work on your breathing for the rest of the class.”

This really impressed me.  Do I have that kind of humility? I wondered.  If a student gets angry at me because I’m not meeting her needs, do I listen and adjust, instead of dismissing her out of hand or telling her how she should approach her own learning?

This may be the principle I focus on this year: learning can be frustrating, and frustration interferes with learning.  If a teacher can acknowledge and adjust for frustration, a student can learn better.  In the meantime, I’m going to step away from swimming classes for a while and spend some time alone in the pool trying to assimilate what I’ve learned, about both swimming and teaching.  And if anyone can give me pointers about my shoulder rotation, I’m all ears.

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Image by Annika Vogt