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

Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

One of my heroes, Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times (whose Sunday Magazine column, The Medium, is sorely missed) writes this week that “Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade.”  She is reviewing a book called Now You See It, in which Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”

Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Heffernan explains it:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of their research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some rigourous research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I am not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I am required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

So I need to get my hands on Davidson’s book, which is not being released until next week.  I have been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers is not a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Image by kristja

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.

What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

Looking for Thoughts on Waiting for Superman

Last week I finally saw Waiting for “Superman,” and I found it both compelling and suspect.  As a post-secondary Canadian teacher, I find myself unable to evaluate the validity of the questions posed or the answers suggested by this film.  Are charter schools the answer to the US’s educational woes?  (Or ours?)  Will merit pay really support great teaching and learning?  Is tenure for schoolteachers a bad, bad, bad idea?

I have seen commentary on all these questions in blogs and American news, but because I’m not familiar with the system, a lot of it is beyond my understanding.  American teachers (or anyone who knows something about American schools), can you help me out here in language I can understand?  If you’ve seen the film, what do you think of it?  If you haven’t, have you encountered the filmmakers’ mission statements and action plans?  Are they valid?  Feasible?  If not, what are they missing?  What  are your feelings about Michelle Rhee and her move to overhaul the Washington DC school system?  Is Geoffrey Canada a revolutionary hero?  Tell me what to think, I beg you.

In Which Siobhan Does Not Lose Her Temper Over Important Literary and Pedagogical Matters

Is non-fiction less “literary” than fiction?  Someone has suggested to me that it is, and I’m so mad about it I could spit.

Last week, I attended a meeting with English teachers from several colleges.  We were there to give feedback to the creators of some online essay-writing activities.  We looked at some sample exercises, in which students were asked to read a short essay and identify a main idea from the essay.  After some discussion, one of the other teachers – let’s call her Teacher A – spoke up.  “I just want to give the point of view of my department,” she said, “and we would never use an activity like this.  I don’t teach essays in my courses, and I don’t know anyone who does.  I teach poetry, fiction and drama.  I would have no use for activities where students learn to analyze essays, and I’ve never really understood why the provincial Exit Exam requires them to do so.”

“I teach essays,” I assured the creators, “both personal narrative essays and argumentative essays.  I teach a whole course on each.  It would make sense to have separate activities, though, for argumentative essays and, say, narrative prose, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.”

A third teacher – let’s call her Teacher B – sucked her teeth and shook her head.  “Oh no,” she said, “you mustn’t teach students to analyze fiction and non-fiction in the same way.”  She pointed to a list of literary elements – imagery, characterization, setting etc. – that made up part of one of the exercises.  “You couldn’t discuss these techniques in an analysis of a non-fiction work.”

“Well, certainly you could,” I said, “if you were analyzing a personal narrative.  A personal narrative uses characterization the same way a short story does.”

“But no – in non-fiction, you can’t credit the author with inventing the character,” Teacher B replied.

It stared at her for a moment, flummoxed.  “But the author is communicating the character to the reader through the selective use of detail,” I said, “in the same way that the writer of fiction does.”

“Then call it description,” Teacher B retorted.  “It is not characterization.  I know that markers of the Exit Exams are very hard on students who treat non-fiction as though it were fiction.  I have one colleague who tries to insist that we fail students who do that.”

Now, I marked Exit Exams for many years and no such ideology ever revealed itself.  If it had, I would have (after a stunned silence) fought it with all claws out.  I did not yield to my impulse to say, “Such a person should not be grading Exit Exams, or teaching literature at all.  Such a person has no understanding of the act of literary creation or the act of reading.”  I did not use such terminology as “backward” and “pedagogically indefensible.”  I sat back and held my tongue, even as several more comments were made about “literature” as distinct from “non-fiction.”  I did not launch into a rant.  If I had, it would have sounded like this:

“The idea that there is a clear line to be drawn between non-fiction and fiction is itself fictional.  The techniques of narrative are the same whether the narrative is based on something ‘true’ or not.  For example: a character in a memoir is no more a ‘person’ than a fictional character is.  It is no more a ‘person’ than a portrait hanging on the wall is a person.  A portrait is an artifact created by the artist out of paint.  A character is an artifact created by the writer out of words.  When analyzing literary technique, we are analyzing the artifact, not the author’s intentions or the ‘truth’ or ‘fiction’ of the story.”

Why am I so mad about this?  Well, it’s partly because I am a writer of both fiction and non-fiction narratives, and the suggestion that they are technically different is, in my personal experience, balderdash.  It’s partly because I feel that fossilized attitudes toward what constitutes “literature” are alienating students from their literature classes and from reading.

Mostly, though, it’s because I teach a course in personal narrative in which I teach students to analyze memoir in exactly the way they analyze fiction.  I explicitly tell them that in memoirs they encounter characters, not people, and that authors very carefully craft those characters, as well as plots and settings, in the same way that fiction writers craft stories from their imaginations, and that even the distinction between “fact” and “imagination” is an area for much discussion.  The idea that my students might then be penalized if they discuss a personal essayist’s use of “characterization” makes me want to picket the Ministry of Education and set up dogmatic training camps for literature teachers across the country.

However, the flip side is this: maybe I’m angry because I’m wrong.  Here is my favourite principle of learning psychology: learning is often upsetting, because it challenges our preconceived notions of the world, and this is disorienting and scary.  Maybe I’m angry because I just learned something.  Maybe I need to scrap my whole Personal Narrative course because I’m teaching my students an approach that is invalid.  Maybe my students need to clearly distinguish between fictional and non-fictional stories and use different terminology when analyzing them, and I have been messing them up.

And maybe you have some ideas about this.  What is the difference between a personal essay and a short story, or a memoir and a novel, in terms of literary technique?  If a student is analyzing non-fiction, is he or she required to approach the analysis differently than when analyzing fiction?  Where does “creative non-fiction” fall?  Am I crazy?

Image by Kriss Szkurlatowski

The Five Best Podcasts in the World

Because I’m an English teacher, I rarely read anything I don’t have to.  During the semester, my novels collect dust on the coffee table, my Kindle lies abandoned in my schoolbag, and the weekend newspapers sit coiled uncomfortably in their rubber bands until I toss them in the recycling bin.  Once my final grading is done, it will be a week or so before I feel like reading anything for pleasure or even for edificiation.

I do, however, listen to things.  I listen to audiobooks – mostly popular social science stuff like Malcolm Gladwell or humour like Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, because in my experience, fiction doesn’t really work in audiobook form.  Mostly, though, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts, and the iPod, have entirely transformed my life.  In retrospect, I’m not sure how I functioned in the years before the iPod.  I listen to podcasts on the metro, while I’m running, while I cook, while I do errands.  I am incapable of falling asleep anymore unless I’m listening to a human voice telling me things interesting enough to keep my brain from wandering to the stresses of the day.  The Husband refuses to talk me to sleep, so I depend on the podcasters of the world to fill that role.

Podcasts are doing more for me than preserving my sanity.  I find myself, more and more, quoting or paraphrasing things in my classroom that I have heard on a podcast, whether it concerns Daniel Gilbert discussing the complexities of human happiness or Jonathan Schooler outlining the phenomenon of “verbal overshadowing.”  I ask my students to listen to podcasted stories in order to expand their understanding of narrative.  Podcasts have become another medium through which I can teach my students the skills and the content I think are important for them.

So in that vein, I present to you my five favourite podcasts.  No matter what you teach, these podcasts will enrich your life or, at the very least, help you forget your troubles long enough to fall asleep.

1. Radiolab

Radiolab is without question the best podcast in the whole world.  Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich take sometimes esoteric scientific and philosphical concepts and apply them to basic, concrete, everyday experiences so that anyone can understand and relate to them.  Stochasticity – randomness – is explained through such experiences as gambling addiction and eerie chance meetings.  We learn how hookworms can help cure allergies, how epilepsy can make you an ultra-runner, and whether it’s better for a cat to fall fifteen stories than two stories.  If you care about what makes us human and what our place is in the universe, this podcast is for you.

2. This American Life

Ira Glass’s iconic introductory line – “each week we choose a theme, and give you a series of stories on that theme” – doesn’t do this show justice.  This American Life is the current gold standard in radio storytelling.  David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Sarah Vowell and others all rose to fame on this show, and it ranges from the painfully intimate – stories about babysitting and breakups – to the personal side of global crises like the Iraq war and the economic crisis.  This American Life taught me to love radio as I hadn’t since childhood; before podcasts became a thing, I found countless excuses to get stuff done in my office so I could be near the computer and stream their show archive for hours on end.  Just go.  You’ll love it.

3. The Age of Persuasion

I may have a bit of a nationalist impulse to promote shows from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and certain great CBC shows, like the venerable As It Happens, may be of limited interest to non-Canadians.  The Age of Persuasion is not one of these shows; it is undeniably entertaining radio about the past and present of the advertising industry.  Terry O’Reilly tells us about advertisers’ invention of “The Happy Homemaker,” the rise of the “pitchman,” and the evolution of such phenomena as “luxury marketing.”  The archive at their webpage is limited, but if you subscribe through iTunes you can download most previous episodes.

4. Spark

Another CBC show that everyone should listen to.  Nora Young has the best voice in radio, and it doesn’t matter whether you really care about the world of technology – this show is about technology you DO care about, whether it’s using GPS tracking technology to deal with truancy or paying more because your online shopping history says you will.

5. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour

This regular feature on NPR’s Culturetopia podcast is pure brainy brainlessness – a panel of brilliant cultural commentators who are clearly good friends and who sound a bit drunk (although apparently “the cocktails are fictional”), giddily recounting everything they love and hate about books, music, film, video games and so on.  Recurring segments include “What’s Making Us Happy This Week” (Albert Brooks on Twitter!  Clem Snide!)  and “The Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” (in which panelists try to guess the provenance of some truly horrendous TV audio clips).  Listen to this when you are tired and you’ll find yourself doubled over laughing, even if you’re on the bus at rush hour – the worried looks from strangers will be totally worth it.

Tell me your favourite podcasts – I can’t get enough.

Image by Magstefan

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