What Does Learning Look Like?

My “personal narrative” class is going great.

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

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

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

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

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

But here’s my question.

What are they learning?

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

Let me know what you think.

Image by Sergio Roberto Bichara

Advertisements

I Like My High School

If you read the world’s best fashion magazine – I Like My Style – then you will have seen their spread on the High School of Fashion Industries, a vocational high school in NYC that, according to its website, “devotes itself entirely to the world of fashion from styling and design through business and marketing.”  The school’s site lists a host of accolades from the New York Board of Education, the Manhattan Superintendency, the New York Times survey of school performance, and more.  They quote the National Center for Research in Vocational Education as reporting:

“Students we observed in classes and spoke with in groups were self-confident and motivated. They expressed great pride in their school, respect and admiration for their teachers, and a strong sense of commitment to their education. They clearly felt a sense of connection to the school and the school family. Students who plan to pursue careers related to the occupational focus of the school felt they were receiving a first rate education for these pursuits; students who planned on careers unrelated to the specific focus felt they were receiving strong academic preparation as well as valuable work skills… “

This spread, and the high school’s self-description and mission statement, reminded me of a segment of a podcast I heard a year or so ago – I’ve been searching for it, and can’t find it; I believe it was on either This American Life or To the Best of Our Knowledge.  It was a piece on an alternative high school that focuses all its curriculum on design and architecture skills.  (If anyone remembers this podcast, or the school it was presenting, I’d be grateful if you could point me to it.)

What struck me about both these pieces was the sense of pride the students seemed to take in their schools, and the enjoyment they got from their studies.  They wanted to learn.  Learning felt meaningful.

I would be interested in hearing your stories, opinions etc. on the value of vocational education at the high school level.  What are the advantages of providing younger teenagers with an education that focuses on specific practical skills?  What is lost when we do this?

I’m Not Blocked. I’m Obsessively Diverted.

What does it mean to be “blocked”?  Is it possible for a “block” to be a diversion, a new inspiration, a productive distraction?  Or is it just laziness?

Right now, I am “blocked” in a number of ways.

  1. I’ve been working on a novel for the last ten years.  I use the term “working on” loosely.  I go through periods of productivity.  Every so often, I sit down for a week and have a pretty good time “working on” this novel.  Then my energy wanes.  I get bored.  I lose focus.  I decide I’d rather go for a run in the morning or spend the day doing school prep.  At the beginning of this summer, I promised myself that I’d make this novel a priority, but it hasn’t happened.  The story is still a baggy, unfocused, structurally unsound mess, and I have no real desire to fix it.  I’d like to throw it away, but I feel a strange sense of responsibility toward it, even though no publisher is waiting for it.  I feel like I have to finish it.  Perhaps this is because I’ve received government funding to write it and have been awarded a place at a competitive writers’ workshop – twice – to work on it.  Tossing it seems disrespectful and lazy.
  2. For the past few years, I have taken stabs at becoming a serious meditation practitioner.  I’ve taken classes in Shambhala philosophy, have attended week-long meditation retreats, and, for brief periods, kept up a regular morning meditation practice.  For almost a year now, however, I haven’t meditated at all.  When I think about sitting down to meditate, my chest tightens, and I do something else instead.  I trace this aversion directly back to a “city retreat” I attended last August, where I threw myself fully into five days of meditation practice and Shambhala community participation, only to emerge feeling raw, shaken and hurt, mostly because of one long-time member of the community who, for reasons I did not understand, was rude and mean to me throughout the retreat.  (My sense of alienation was not mitigated by the fact that almost everyone else at the Centre had been only kind and welcoming.)
  3. For the past few weeks, I have been trying to find something to write about, in order to get Classroom as Microcosm up and running again for the fall, and the only thing I can come up with is that I’m blocked.  So I’m writing about being blocked.

There’s a blog about writing that I like, called The Urban Muse, that has lately proposed a couple of explanations for blocks, writers’ blocks in particular.  One suggestion is that we get blocked when we overthink what we’re doing.  Another is that we get blocked when we are doing something that isn’t coming naturally.  I think both these explanations are plausible, and connected.

I think teachers should take the question of blocks seriously, because we see them happening in our classrooms all the time.  We ask our students to do things that they are (usually) not naturally inclined to do.  We often ask them to overthink what they’re doing, or they overthink of their own accord, because they don’t know where to begin, or because they panic and try to think/plan/flail their way out of paralysis.  They may also have unpleasant, humiliating experiences associated with whatever we’re asking them to do (a mean lady at a meditation retreat, a bad grade, a teacher’s or peer’s derision) that make it scary for them to even try.

I think we can see blocks in a subtly different way, however, a way that is perhaps more productive and healthy.  We can see them, not as blocks at all, but as diversions.

This summer, for example, I promised myself I would work on my novel, but I’ve been diverted by a couple of things.  First of all, I’m planning my wedding.  Planning a wedding is a big and complex job.  It is a job that causes many people a lot of stress.  However, I am at an advantage in that I have a long summer vacation in which I can, if I like, focus almost all my energy on this job.  I discovered that if I focus on the wedding planning and don’t try to squeeze it in around other projects (like a novel), planning a wedding can be really fun.  It’s a pleasant and interesting diversion in which I’m learning a lot of things, including how to book tables for an event, what “wedding favours” are (we won’t be having any, but still), and how to do my own makeup.

This last has become a full-fledged diversion in its own right.  Since the age of about eighteen, my makeup regime has consisted, on a good day, of a smear of blush, a swipe of mascara, and maybe a bit of lip gloss.  About a year ago, a makeup professional gave me a lesson in how to apply concealer, and on the days I get it right, this can take about ten years off my face.  My plan was to have my makeup done for me on my wedding day, but one morning, I was flipping through a “wedding magazine” and came across a section on doing one’s own makeup.  It didn’t look that hard.  I was suddenly possessed by the desire to buy myself some eyeshadow.  So I ran to the pharmacy, bought a four-pack in neutral brown tones with instructions on the back, and spent a few minutes in front of the mirror.  I liked what I saw.  The next day I took a trip to a fancy cosmetics store and set up an appointment for a consult.  And within the space of a few days, I had accumulated a massive pile of fashion magazines and several books on basic makeup.  Eyeshadows and mascaras began spilling out of my bathroom cabinet.  I was OBSESSED.

I had never given a damn about makeup before.  What happened?  Why was I devoting all this time – time that could have been spent writing or meditating – on something that I had never cared about and that could be seen as completely inconsequential?

The fact is, I had always been intimidated by makeup, and so had never bothered to learn anything about it.  If anyone had suggested that I spend an hour doing my makeup, I would have greeted this suggestion with derisive laughter.  I had far better things to do with my time.  And this might have been true, but at the root of my derision was insecurity – I simply didn’t know how to do makeup, and didn’t believe I could learn.  This same insecurity led me to avoid physical activity for many years – I wasn’t the kind of person who exercised, because I was too busy developing my mind.  It never occurred to me that exercise, and makeup, could be FUN.

And fun is really the point here.  I have been lamenting for several years now that writing fiction is no longer fun for me.  Hell, even READING fiction feels like work a lot of the time, maybe because I’m an English teacher.  And meditation certainly isn’t fun.  And while blogging often is – at least, it’s fun in the sense that it often helps me enter a state of “flow” – there are times when I need to get away from thinking about teaching and do something entirely different with my brain.

So instead of doing the things I think I should be doing with my summer – writing a novel, meditating, blogging – I’ve been planning a wedding and playing with eyeshadow.  And it’s been a lot of fun.

But more than that, I see a deeper purpose to throwing ourselves into these little obsessions, these little diversions.  Writing fiction started out as an obsessive diversion for me when I was a child (growing out of another obsessive diversion: reading).  Fortunately, my parents encouraged me to read and write, and never made me feel like these were frivolous wastes of time.  Meditation and Buddhist philosophy were also obsessive diversions, and blogging is, too.  My interest in these activities waxes and wanes, but they are always there for me when I go back.  There is no need for me to treat them as jobs.

This is not to say that painting my face is going to become a central activity in my life, the way writing is.  I’m not going to go to cosmetology school.  But new interests are great fuel for writing.  One of the main characters in my novel, for example, is the sort of person who might become obsessed with makeup.  And writing about her obsession with makeup would probably be a lot of fun.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get to in a roundabout way: obsessive diversions are good.  They bring us a lot of pleasure, and they help us learn.  We can’t predict where they’ll come from, and we can’t necessarily create them in others.  But is there a way we can make our classrooms less block-prone and more obsession-friendly?  Can we create environments where our students are more likely to become obsessed with something we offer them?  Granted, calculus and Shakespeare and molecular biology are not eyeshadow, but we know they can be fun.  If we can get our students to fall in love with them, to want to know more and more, to cram their bathroom cabinets full of them, then we can stop hounding them to do their homework and stop texting in class.  How do we do this?

Image by Christine Weddle

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

The fourth of ten things I loved about teaching this past semester.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about reading lately.

Since I began teaching CEGEP, I’ve become aware of a problem that directly influences everything I do (or, at least, it should) but I don’t know how to grapple with this problem.  The problem is that students don’t read books unless they’re required to read them for school.

This has become a little less true in the last couple of years, though, and I put it down to two things.

I would wager that this year, most of my female students had read the Twilight series.  I can’t count the number of times I was subjected to loud conversations outside my bathroom stall to the tune of, “Not Edward, I love Jacob!”  “No, Edward!  He’s sexy!”  “Jacob!”  “Edward!”  I could have assumed they were talking about the films, but I regularly saw the covers of Twilight installments sticking out of bookbags, and what’s more, it felt like I was seeing more other books sticking out of their bookbags as well.  Mostly vampire-themed romance novels, but still.

I believe that any book-reading is better than no book-reading, and I believe that students who read for pleasure have huge advantages over students who don’t. That said, I tried to read Twilight.  Or, rather, I tried listening to it as an audiobook.  About three chapters in, I was ready to puncture my eardrums to make it stop.

I shouldn’t assume that the book was wholly at fault – maybe reading the voice of the insipid narrator Bella would have been less irritating than hearing it.  But I was also offended and bored by the whole premise: girl with no discernible attractive qualities becomes the object of the obsessive desires of all the boys around her, including a vampire who is not a boy at all, but old enough to know much, much better.  Laura Miller of Salon has written and spoken about the problems with the messages that Twilight sends to teenage girls, and I agree with her.  Rescue fantasies are always troubling, I find, but it helps if the heroine is at least spunky, and Bella, at least in the first part of the first book, is about as spunky as low-sodium polenta.

Which brings me to what I believe is the second reason that these days, more of my students have read SOMETHING that wasn’t assigned by a teacher, and that reason is of course Harry Potter.

At the time when the Harry Potter books were really taking off, my students would have been around the age of the first book’s target audience.  A couple of years ago, when I asked classes if they’d read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone as kids, only a smattering of them raised their hands.  This semester, at least half of them did, and a good percentage of those said they’d read all or almost all the books in the series.  (The percentage who said they’d seen the movies but never read the books was about the same as it had ever been.)  Some of them had read the first book for school, but a lot had either read it on their own or, once they finished the assigned first book, went on to read the rest of the series of their own volition.

I assign it in my Child Studies course, where we first read Franny and Zooey.  They almost all hate F & Z, and they all, almost without exception it seems, love HP.  The reasons for this are a focus of discussion for much of the course; “What makes a book good?” is a running question from the beginning of the semester until the end, when they write a story themselves and evaluate it according to the criteria they come up with.

Harry Potter is special because they think it’s good, but it’s also special because I think it’s good.  It’s a good story.  It has lots of important messages about the value of courage and the danger of judging by appearances.  It has lovable characters, and most of the nasty characters are complex.  And it’s full of wonderful funny writing.  Assigning Twilight on a course would leave a bad taste in my mouth, but assigning Harry Potter doesn’t.  If they haven’t read it, they should.  If they have read it, they should read it again and think about why they love it so much.

What strikes me most about the Harry Potter lessons is the level of engagement in the discussions.  Students are almost never off-task.  No matter what question I ask them about the book, they have something to say about it.  They’ve DONE THE READING.  (If you aren’t an English teacher, you may not be aware of how significant this is.  It is VERY SIGNIFICANT.)  When I walk around and observe them, they hardly notice me, so absorbed are they in discussing whether Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy is more important than his relationship with Ron, or whether there is anything morally questionable about the role of witchcraft in the series.

Some would ask whether pleasure-reading should really be the focus of the college English classroom.  I would argue (and am hoping to soon write a literature review that argues) that it should be at least one of the foci, at least in the context that I teach in.  This might not have been true thirty years ago, when a large percentage of the students admitted to CEGEP already knew how to read for pleasure, and didn’t need to be given opportunities to discuss books they easily loved – they did that on their own time, as all “readers” do.  At that time, it made sense to introduce students to books they might not come to on their own, and to challenge them to find value in works they didn’t particularly like.*

I think it’s still important to do this (and when we work on Franny and Zooey, finding value in the difficult is the main thrust of our work.)  However, I think we also need to acknowledge that for many students, the only books they ever read are the ones they read for English class.  If they haven’t learned how to love books, English class might be the only place they can learn that, the only place where they have natural, invested discussions about books the way “readers” do, the only place they get to practice the skill of being a “reader.”

And if Harry Potter is the only book, or set of books, they’ve ever loved, then it might be a good idea to pause and look at it deeply and think about that experience: the experience of loving a book.

I try to mix up my assigned texts, mostly to avoid semester-to-semester plagiarism, so I’m trying to find a replacement for HP and the PS next year.  I’m considering introducing the students to A Wrinkle in Time instead.  I think of it as one of the Harry Potters of my generation.  (It was actually published seven years before I was born, but my friends and I were obsessed with it.)  It’s also the first in a series – a trilogy, actually – so you never know; it might lead some of them to read two non-required texts that year.

What book did you love when you were seventeen years old?  If I gave it to my seventeen-year-old students now, would they love it?  I might not teach them anything else, but if I give them the chance to love at least one book, I’ll feel like I did something right with my life.

*

*Katha Pollitt’s essay “Why We Read: or, Canon to the Right of Me” elucidates this topic in a way that has stayed with me for many years.

*

Previous wonderful things:

Thing #3: Early Mornings

Thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Nino Satria

Ten Wonderful Things, Part Three: Early Mornings

At least ten things went right this semester.  This is the third one.

3.  Early Morning Classes

A few semesters ago, I requested the “early schedule” (8 a.m. – 4 p.m., as opposed to 10 a.m – 6 p.m.) for the first time.

I had been relegated to the early schedule fairly often in my early CEGEP teaching days, when my preferences were moot and I took what I was given.  (In fact, I frequently taught Cont Ed courses from 6-10 at night, and then taught again at 8 the next morning.  My office mate and I concocted all sorts of plans to set up a cot in our office so we wouldn’t have to go home at all, but never did it because apparently security guards check offices in order to stymie such plans.)

Once I graduated to full-time ranks, I vowed that, given the choice, I’d never teach another 8 a.m. class.

But in the years that followed, I noticed something about the late schedule.  The late schedule is great if it’s not actually late.  Teaching between 10 and 4 is nice.  Students are awake, but resigned to being trapped at school for however many more hours.  They tend to be at the peak of their productivity (such as it is) somewhere during those hours.

However, 4-6 p.m. classes are never good.  Never.  Students are exhausted.  So am I.  Students are desperate to get out ten minutes early so they can catch a bus that will get them home an hour earlier than the next one will.  Students have been drinking a variety of caffeinated drinks since early morning, and have probably ingested at least one mild but illegal mind-altering substance in the parking lot.  4-6 p.m. is a particularly nightmarish time for remedial classes, where a lot of students tend to know little and care less about their own learning patterns and biological rhythms, and so are not likely to have, say, gone for a quick walk around the block or drunk lots of water or even completed the necessary homework before coming to class.

So, as an experiment, the semester after I returned from my last sabbatical, I decided to request the early schedule.  How bad could it be? I thought.  I’d often hauled myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. when I was a private language teacher; if need be, I could nap.  I would have time in the afternoons to get marking and planning done, and even to get home and make dinner instead of living on takeout and whatever I could scrounge from the back of the freezer.  And colleagues often told me that they loved getting all their teaching done by noon.

It was not only not bad.  It was fantastic.

All of the above turned out to be true.  I was completely unable to have a social nightlife, even on the weekends, because I was falling asleep by 9 p.m., but frankly, I’m not much of a partier.  I was able to sit in my office at work until everything was ready for the next day, and STILL be on my bike and on my way home before rush hour traffic began.  And prepping and marking after class was far less stressful and more effective than scrambling to get things done before going in to teach in the afternoon.

What I hadn’t counted on, though, was the remarkable difference in the students.

You’d think that an 8 a.m. class would make for a lot of late arrivals, but I really didn’t notice more than at any other time.  (This term, I had a student in my 8 a.m. whom I’d previously taught in a class that began at noon, and he supported a theory that I have held for a long time: people who are late are late.  This student was a “late” person, and the time he was expected to show up made no difference to his lateness.  The only way to make “late” people show up on time is to lie to them about schedules, and you can’t really do that in a classroom context.  Punctual people will show up on time for class at 8 or at 4 or at 1 in the morning, because that is what punctual people do.)

What I did notice was that students come in at 8 a.m. wanting to do something.  Occasionally a head will go down on a desk, but, more often than not, in the early morning, students are grateful to be given a task, any task.  A lot of lecturing goes over less well, but I don’t lecture much anyway.  Group work, pair work, and class discussion are all pretty effective at 8 a.m., because they’ve just had their first cup of coffee and they need to keep that blood moving.

Also, students are less likely to spend a lot of time texting their friends, because their friends aren’t awake yet.  What’s more, they’re not ready to be disruptive, because if they’re the disruptive type, they probably a) didn’t sign up for an 8 a.m. class or b) were up late last night causing trouble, and so slept through the alarm, or c) are groggy.

Finally, teaching at 8 a.m. gives me a chance to give them a good start to their day.  Now, if I’m giving or returning a test, I can’t count on them being happy about it, but otherwise, I can try to find ways to make them laugh, make them think, or make them talk about things they care about.

I was especially grateful for my early schedule this semester, because last term I didn’t get one even though I requested it.  I have my fingers crossed for the fall.  I will happily get up at 5:30 every morning for the rest of my teaching life if it makes my job as enjoyable as it has been this term.

*

Previously on the list:

Wonderful thing #2: Incorrect First Impressions

Wonderful thing #1: My IB Students

Image by Oleksiy Petrenko

A World Without People

Yesterday, when I left school, I wanted to live in a world without people in it for just a little while.

My classes that morning had gone well – my Child Studies students just finished reading the first Harry Potter book, and we talked about why most of them loved it, and I asked them to make lists of books they’ve read and loved, and why they loved them.  I sometimes make sweeping statements about how “young people don’t read,” and this exercise always reminds me that I’m wrong, and it cheers me.

Nevertheless, there were, as usual, irritations.  One young man laughed uproariously when he got his last assignment back; he explained to his friends, well within my earshot, that he hadn’t read the book and his 90% was “ridiculous.”  Other students talked at inappropriate times and looked amused when I waited with thin tolerance for them to stop.

So, regardless of the fact that everyone else clearly enjoyed the lesson and participated enthusiastically in making lists, discussing with partners and sharing with the class, I headed for the metro feeling that people, especially young people, suck.

I was heading downtown to buy a birthday present for The Fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and people were the last thing I wanted to deal with, but there was nothing to be done.  I managed to score an isolated corner seat, and this made me feel better.

A young man in a red Adidas track suit, white headphones dangling from his zirconia-studded ears, hair rigid with gel on top of his rhythmically bobbing head, slid into the seat opposite me.  He was CEGEP-student age – in fact, it was more than likely that he was coming from my school, and he was the last thing I wanted to see right now.

The solution?  One of the “TED talk” videos on my iPod.  I keep them for emergencies, for days when I have to be out in the world but want to be inside a cocoon.

I allowed myself to sink into Michael Shermer’s talk about how people are idiots.  I soon began to smile, and probably even laughed out loud.  When it came time to push my way out of the train, I barely registered the fact that people were cramming their way in without waiting for others to exit, something that usually makes me furious.

Ten minutes later, standing at the counter of the clinic where I planned to buy The Fiancé a coupon for a therapeutic massage (because he also has days when the world is too much), I realized that I no longer had my purse.  Hiding inside my “TED talk” cocoon, far away from the real world, I had left my purse on the train.

*

I ran back to the metro.  Standing by the turnstiles were three burly Montreal police officers: white, bald-headed, further thickened by their armoured vests and various deadly accoutrements.  They were consulting, and, as I approached, one said a businesslike “Ok, let’s go,” in the inflected way that the Québecois make “Ok, let’s go” a French expression.  They clearly had  somewhere to be, but when they saw me, they stopped and gave me their full attention.

“Yes?” the biggest one said.

Now, this is unusual.  The metro is outside an Anglophone college (not mine), so perhaps they were right to assume that I was an English speaker, but I would have been fully prepared to discuss the matter in French, and police officers I’ve dealt with in Montreal have been fairly adamant about doing so.  These men didn’t seem to be adamant about anything except making sure I was all right.

I explained the situation, and they outlined without delay what I needed to do: find someone who can let you into your house (my keys were gone), call to cancel your credit and bank cards, go to the nearest police station and file a report, then go to the lost and found at the central metro station tomorrow morning, because you never know.  Then they escorted me through the turnstiles so I could get back on the train (my metro pass was gone) and the biggest officer put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It could be worse.  It’s not the end of the world.  Good luck.”

*

Thus followed three very unpleasant hours.  My neighbour, who has copies of our keys, wasn’t home.  I walked a few blocks to the home of a friend who usually has our keys, but he couldn’t find them and then had a vague memory of returning them to The Fiancé the last time he came to visit us.  I called a third friend, and she had our keys, but when I arrived at her door, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for her new door code, and so I couldn’t get into her building; finally, a nearby boutique let me use their phone to call her.  All in all, it was an hour before I could get into my house.

Then I called the credit card company and the bank, had a long discussion about whether I should put a stop on all cheques (my chequebook was in my bag – but no, the landlord has postdated cheques that would be blocked), and went around the corner to the police station, where I filed the requisite report but was told that there was little I could do about identity fraud if someone tried to use my passport or social insurance number for nefarious purposes.  And then I went home to wait for The Fiancé.

Between the tasks that needed doing and the numbness that was probably due to shock, I managed to hold it together until he walked through the door.

He made me change out of my work clothes and lie down on the couch.  He covered me with a blanket and ordered us a pizza for dinner.  He headed out to the bank to get me some cash to carry with me the following day.  He made me watch some stupid show he hates on the Food Network instead of allowing me to persuade him to watch the hockey game.

And then the phone rang.  It was someone we had contacted about officiating at our wedding; she was calling to ask some questions and arrange for us to meet her.  We had quite a long conversation.  She was a British woman with a calm voice, and I found myself growing quieter and quieter as we spoke.  I’m getting married, I thought, and this nice lady is going to marry us.  As the police officer said, things could be much worse.

And when I hung up, I checked the dial tone, and it was beeping to indicate a message.

“Hello?  I am wondering if you know Miss Siobhan Curious.” The voice was young, and male, and hesitant, with an accent that sounded vaguely Middle Eastern.  “I am looking for this lady, because I found her bag on the metro.”

*

When I called back, the young man’s mother answered the phone.  “Yes, yes!” she cried in French.  “It is my boy who called you, he found your bag!”  And she passed the phone to him.

“Hello?”  He was clearly a teenager; even his “hello” sounded like it didn’t know itself yet.

My thanks were effusive, maybe slightly hysterical.  When I was able to draw breath, I said, “I’m sorry.  What is your name, please?”

“Reza,” he said.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”

He asked if I could come to a metro station the next afternoon, so he could meet me on his way to school and give me my bag.  “Of course,” I said.  “How will I know you?”

“Well, I know how you look,” he said.

“Oh, of course you do, you have my ID cards!  I didn’t think of that.”

“Yes,” he said, “but I saw you on the train.  I sat across from you.  I saw you get up and leave your bag.”

And then I could see him clearly.  Red Adidas track suit.  Zirconias in his ears.  Dangling headphones.  Stiff, gelled hair.  Exactly the kind of young person I hadn’t wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you.  You have made me very happy.”

Image by Brano Hudak

What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

On Thursday, I received a number of pre-spring-break, post-1st-major-assignment visits, emails and phone calls from students who are now hopelessly behind.

These communiqués are always bad for my blood pressure.  I start obsessing about what I will say if they challenge my “no makeups without a medical excuse” policy.  I twitch every time I think of the student who insists that she DID hand in the essay on the due date, and promises to email me a copy at the end of the day, but then doesn’t.  I start anticipating.  I start feeling sorry for myself, and angry at them.

On Friday morning, sitting on the metro on the way to work, I was reading the last few chapters of Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, but I was distracted, thinking about the phone messages that might be waiting for me when I arrived at the office.  I put the book down on my lap and stared at the bobbing metro wall for a while.  It was decorated with one of those shocking STD service announcements that show a girl’s panties down around her thighs, her crotch covered by a black bubble and text that translates as “The thing about chlamydia is that often you can’t see it.”

Everything, I thought, is a slippery slope.

Then I looked down at the book in my lap.  And I thought:

You know what?  I’m not being held hostage by South American terrorists.

*

[Note: something else I’d like to learn: if anyone has any knowledge of what constitutes “fair use” of book cover images for blog posts, I would like very much to know.  I’m assuming that I’m safe to use a cover image for a post like this, but I can’t find any clear confirmation of this fact.]

Steven Pinker, Jezebel, Cathleen Schine and Others on the Value of Reading

In response to my recent posts on the value of reading (and teaching literature), I’ve been sent some terrific links that shed light on the topic.

BikeLizard over at my OpenSalon version of this blog mentioned a Jezebel article called “Page Rage: When Books Make Kids Hate Reading.” In it, the author grapples with the problem of kids not having enough choice about what they read in school.  (The article only briefly references what seems to me to be the crux of this issue: if kids read something outside of what they are assigned in school – that is, if schools were not entirely responsible for most kids’ experience of reading – this problem would be much less dire.)

The Jezebel article in turn referrred me to this essay by Cathleen Schine (author of the novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which is #1 on my “To Read” list right now.)  Schine’s essay does not support the Jezebel blogger’s point, in fact – it suggests, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, that being “turned off” literature in her adolescence planted the seeds for her adult re-discovery of reading and made it far more sublime.

Another friend made reference to some of Steven Pinker’s discussions of violence, including his assertion that the reading of literature leads us to develop a greater capacity for empathy, and that literate societies tend to be less violent than illiterate ones.  Pinker makes brief reference to this theory in his TED talk on the myth of violence, but I suspect that there is a more detailed discussion of it in either The Blank Slate or The Stuff of Thought – can anyone point me in the right direction?

Image by Horton Group

Literature and the Meaningful Life

Here’s a little something I found in my inbox this morning.

What makes for a meaningful life? I consider each day, not just the life as a whole. I look at four ingredients. First, was it a day of virtue? I’m talking about …avoiding harmful behavior of body, speech, and mind; devoting ourselves to wholesome behavior and to qualities like awareness and compassion. Second, I’d like to feel happy rather than miserable. The realized beings I’ve known exemplify extraordinary states of well-being, and it shows in their demeanor, their way of dealing with adversity, with life, with other people. And third, pursuit of the truth—seeking to understand the nature of life, of reality, of interpersonal relationships, or the nature of mind.

But you could do all that sitting quietly in a room. None of us exists in isolation, however, so there is a fourth ingredient: a meaningful life must also answer the question, “What have I brought to the world?” If I can look at a day and see that virtue, happiness, truth, and living an altruistic life are prominent elements, I can say, “You know, I’m a happy camper.” Pursuing happiness does not depend on my checkbook, or the behavior of my spouse, or my job, or my salary. I can live a meaningful life even if I only have ten minutes left.

-B. Alan Wallace from “What Is True Happiness” (Tricycle, Fall 2005)

The fourth ingredient is the one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  It’s the one that keeps me from quitting my job.

My personal life is pretty small: I have a wonderful fiancé, loving parents, good friends, a couple of cute and snuggly cats.  Very few people depend on me, and those who do depend on me for very little – the possible exception is The Fiancé, but even he could get along just fine without me if he had to.  Oh, and the cats – they’re people too – but their needs are simple.

If it’s true that “a meaningful life must also answer the question, ‘What have I brought to the world?’,” then my job as a teacher is the part of my life that answers that question the best.  Every day, when I walk into the classroom or meet with a student in my office, I have the opportunity to bring something to the world.  What I bring, and whether it helps anyone, is another question, but at least I am given that chance.

The question I posed yesterday – why should we teach literature? – is a similar question to the one Wallace raises, at least in the context of my job.  What am I bringing to the world when I coerce my students into reading books they don’t want to read and thinking about them in ways they don’t feel are useful?  Am I helping them?  Am I helping the world?

I think maybe I am, but I have to keep asking myself the question.

Image by Melodi T

Why Study Literature?

Why should young people study literature?  Why, in particular, should seventeen-to-twenty-year-olds who don’t read for pleasure and have weak literacy skills be forced to spend their time reading poetry, novels, plays etc. instead of working on simple reading comprehension and writing skills?  Is it as important for students to read Salinger or Ishiguro as it is for them to read the newspaper?  Why am I teaching this stuff?

For one of my MEd courses, I need to research, summarize and evaluate scholarly articles about teaching my discipline.  In order to start on this review, I need to come up with a research question.  Thus far, my general questions are those I list above.  From here, I need to decide what, specifically, I want to investigate – skills that I want my students to learn by studying literature, and the best ways to teach these skills effectively.

Maybe you can help get my thoughts on this rolling.  Do you have opinions on this subject?  Why is the study of literature important?  What skills do students learn through reading literature?  Can they learn these skills through reading literature in ways that they can’t elsewhere?  Why should college-level students who don’t like reading and who don’t see a practical application for literature in their lives be required to take English courses in which literary analysis is a major component?  Are we serving them well by demanding this?  Why do we not just focus on grammar and composition and leave the literature to the English majors?

Image by Szuszanna Kilian