Cold Call

Are you willing to put your students on the spot?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Sigurd Decroos

Willing to Read and Write

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Peter Galbraith

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Late Penalties?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Chris Gilbert

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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

Top 10 Posts of 2010

For  your reading and catch-up pleasure, I have once again compiled a “year’s top posts” list.  These posts are “top” in that they got the most hits; in some cases this may have been because of timing, a well-chosen keyword, or fluke, but in some cases I think it’s because they truly were the best posts I wrote this year.  If you missed out on these, check them out – they all said something to someone!

1. Encountering the Other: How Literature Will Save the World

I was glad this post got so much traffic, because I really like it.  I return to it from time to time when I’m wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life.  In it, I ask myself once again why reading matters, and come to the conclusion – with the help of some of my students – that “literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.”

2. What an “8th Grade Education” Used to Mean

The text of this post – purported to be an 8th-grade final exam from 1895 – has been making the rounds of the internet for a couple of years now, and, as I note in the update to the post, it’s been more or less determined that it is an authentic test, but not for 8th-graders.  The most interesting part of the post may be the comments section, in which readers once again wax in all different directions about what “education” really means.

3. Why Study Literature?

The central question of this post is an extension of that of #1 above.  Reading books is all very well, but why should the study and analysis of literature be core curriculum in college?  (Spoiler for those who want to read my further posts on this subject: I’m not certain it should.)

4. What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

Zadie Smith + David Foster Wallace = post that gets tons of hits.  Guaranteed formula.  The post itself is really just a DFW quote, but it’s a good one.

5. I Am Disappointment With You’re English Teaching

The story of Khawar, a difficult student who was probably suffering from an undiagnosed learning disability, got a lot of response.  Another post about him also ended up high in the rankings.  (Khawar ended up passing my course, which once again had me asking myself what I’m doing wrong in my grading schemes.)

6. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Four: Harry Potter

Another way to get lots of hits: put the words “Harry Potter” in your title.  Nevertheless, the “Ten Wonderful Things” posts in general pulled in a few new readers, and it felt good to write them.  If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s cool to put a children’s bestseller on a college course, this post will give you an emphatic “yes.”

7. It’s Funny Because It’s True

It doesn’t hurt to include a funny animated video in your post, especially if your audience is mostly teachers and the video is an enactment of everything you ever wanted to say to the boneheaded student spouting excuses across your desk.  Throw in a real-life story of infuriating misspelled emails and it’ll be a winner.

8. Ten Wonderful Things, Part Six: Rereading

I’m not sure why this post got so much attention, but one thing I’ve noticed is that writing about books usually gives the stat meter a little bump.  I’m glad this post got read, because it’s a concept that means a lot to me – one of the joys of teaching literature, I need to keep reminding myself, is getting to read my favourite books over and over.

9. Why Children Shouldn’t Read

No doubt the provocative title is what gave this post its currency.  Like #4 above, the post is composed mostly of one long quote, this one from Susan Juby’s memoir of teenage alcoholism, Nice Recovery.  The quote is great, and even those of us who didn’t start binge drinking at thirteen can probably relate to its description of what too much reading can do to one’s perception of oneself and the world.

10.  A World Without People

This was my favourite post of the year, so if it hadn’t made it into the top 10, I probably would have found a way to squeeze it in here somewhere.  In this story, I have a very, very bad day that ends up being one of the best days ever, and, along the way, I stop hating everyone.

There you have it, folks.  If you need to catch up on your Siobhan Curious reading, start here.  And have a super happy new year full of stories, questions, and challenges bravely met!

What I’m Learning From What I’m Reading: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys.  How’s the water?”  And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College commencement speech, 2005.  Quoted by Zadie Smith in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

(Note: Smith would hate my using this quote out of context and presenting Wallace as a “dispenser of convenient pearls of wisdom;” she says that he was “the opposite of an aphorist.”  Nevertheless, her beautiful elegy to Wallace is full of such pearls, and this one is merely my favourite.)

Foster concludes the speech by elucidating:

…[T]he real value of a real education…has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.  This is water.”  It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.

Image by barunpatro

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

The New Semester: 10 Resolutions

Classes start again in less than two weeks.  (Primary, secondary and university teachers who are already back at work, I know what you’re thinking: “Shut up.”  Believe me, I know how good I’ve got it.)

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  However, one theme that presents itself frequently in my Buddhist meditation practice and my yoga classes is that of “setting an intention.”  Why am I doing this?  What do I want from it?  Where will I place my effort?

So before the kicks to the head begin, I thought I’d “set some intentions” for the semester.  What am I going to focus on when the going gets rough?

1. I will work hard.

Teachers will look at #1 and say, “Like you’ll have a choice.”  Fair enough.  However, one of my greatest struggles is that I resist work and resent it.  What will happen if I decide that I want to work hard?  What if I look at every stack of papers and every test that needs to be prepared and I think, “Here’s another chance to work hard, just like I wanted”?

2. I will not count the days until the end of the semester.

I need to stop wishing my life away.  I need to see my work life for what it is: the place where I learn and grow more than I do anywhere else.

3. I will approach my students as people, not problems.

Registration is in progress, and today I checked my student lists, which are about half complete.  So far, two familiar names caused my heart to sink a little.

Am I going to walk in anticipating difficulties?  Or am I going to walk in with the attitude that these students are complex, evolving beings who are bound to surprise me in one way or another?  If I can truly be present with my students, I can help them more and they, in turn, can teach me something.

4. I will meditate.  Every morning, if possible.

Meditation keeps me grounded and sane. It gives me perspective and helps me to stop working myself into a lather.  I have an early schedule this semester – my classes often begin at 8 a.m. – and I prefer to meditate in the mornings, so it will be tricky.  But even 10 minutes a day makes a big difference, so I need to work it in somehow.

5. I will take care of my body.

Exercise is the first thing to go when I get busy.  I love my yoga classes, but I often skip them when there are too many other things on my plate.  I also love to ski and to jog, and doing these things makes me feel better about everything.  Besides, I’m getting married in September, and I’d like shopping for a dress to be something other than a continuous pounding of my self-esteem.  So I need to exercise, if not every day (that might be asking too much), then at least as regularly as I can manage.

6. I will not forget about my friends.

I find it very difficult, during the semester, to maintain a social life outside of work.  I’m too stressed to enjoy parties, and even scheduling coffee or dinner feels like a chore rather than a break.  I need to change my perspective on this.  My obligations to my work community are important, but so are my connections to my larger community. Spending time with friends gives me distance from whatever’s going on at work.

7. I will find enjoyment in even difficult or tedious tasks.

There are things about teaching that I hate.  It is possible to hate them less by taking joy in small or big things.

I hate grading essays, but I do like playing with different coloured pens, Post-Its, rubber stamps and other stationery bits.  I also enjoy methodical tasks like grading MLA formatting, where I don’t need to think, but can just turn on some fun music and check things off a checklist.

I hate dealing with conflict.  However, a conflict with a student is an opportunity to examine myself more closely and learn something.  If I’m stressed about dealing with a difficult person, I often reconnect with my meditation practice, do more exercise, write more blog posts, and generally invest in activities that help me work through the problem.  Difficult people can be seen as “enemies” or as “gurus.” If I can stop fighting the problem and instead sink into it fully and be curious about it, I can actually take some pleasure in the process.

8. I will take care of my environment.

My offices, both at work and at home, need to be cleaned and reorganized.  My apartment also needs to be thoroughly scrubbed – I’m actually considering hiring someone to do this.  I detest cleaning, but I also detest living in grubby conditions.  I need to set the world around me in order.  It helps me feel better.

9. I will be grateful.

I have a great job and a great life. I need to actively remind myself of that, again and again.

I recently made a half-hearted attempt at a “gratitude journal.”  Every evening, I made a list of ten things (or more) that had happened that day that I was grateful for.  It was never difficult to come up with ten things; my list often extended to twenty items and beyond, and doing it made me feel great.

Last night, The Fiancé and I watched a segment of Dan Gilbert’s “This Emotional Life” in which he presents some of the techniques of “positive psychology.”  Taking time each day to note down things that went well is one practice that positive psychology teaches.  So it’s not just me – there’s some scientific backing for this.  One way or another, it improves my outlook.

10. I will set an intention every morning.

There are going to be problems.  Teaching is hard, and teaching well is especially hard, because it involves real engagement with real people, and real people are challenging.  There will be days when my stomach will be knotted with dread from the moment I wake up.  Setting an intention for the day – What do I want to learn?  How will I set that learning in motion? – can untie that knot and allow it to blossom into useful energy.

In the evening I can then examine my intention and how it shaped my day.  If I carried it out in some way, I can feel glad; if I avoided it altogether, I can feel glad that I have the insight to recognize that.  Buddhists call this daily activity of setting and examining intentions “one at the beginning, one at the end.”

I need to post this list up somewhere, and add to it.  A fifteen-week semester equals seventy-five school days.  If I can engage in each day with mindfulness, curiosity and effort, instead of just allowing the days to happen to me, I may be able to love what I do all the time.

Even when I feel like punching someone.  Which is bound to happen.

Image by Chutiporn Chaitachawong

Education and the Meaning of “Growth”

Is education primarily about growth?  What exactly is “growth,” and does it always equal “education”?

The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “…the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.” However, he specifies that not all experience is educative: “Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience.”  He goes on to say, “…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.”

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

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

When our students arrive in our CEGEP classrooms, they have each had a unique set of experiences.  Some have had many experiences that have been conducive to growth.  Even if they are not yet cognitively ready to be thoroughly “independent” thinkers (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them are not), some have nevertheless been well prepared to become such independent thinkers, because they have been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and have received some sort of satisfaction or reward for their efforts.  They may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who have demonstrated for them how to be learners, who have modeled curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge.  These students arrive already knowing how to learn.

Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they have grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution.  They are easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks.  They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged.  Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.  Perhaps this is because “growth” is a frightening prospect for some of them – growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind, and for some students this may seem daunting or impossible.  Or is it, in some cases, because their previous experiences have not equipped them for the kinds of analysis and critical thinking we ask of them, and we are not providing them with new experiences that will help bridge that gap?

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

It is my job, as his teacher, to teach him how to learn from failure – to provide him with an experience of failure that leads to learning.  What can I say to him that will turn this experience from a negative to a positive one?  That is, how can I transform this experience from a blow to his self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?

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

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

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

Image by Kym McLeod

This post was adapted from a reflection I originally wrote  for a Philosophy of Education course.

Arrows Into Blossoms

I’ve just finished reading Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears. If you’re not familiar with Chodron, she is perhaps the world’s most famous Tibetan Buddhist American nun, and her works are meant to help Westerners understand the basic precepts of Tibetan Buddhism and apply them usefully in their own lives.  I found Taking the Leap, like all her books, inspiring, reassuring, and helpful.

At one point, almost obliquely, she describes a famous Buddhist image that I hadn’t heard of before.  Before mentioning the image specifically, she brings up a part of the story of the Buddha that many people are familiar with.  Most of us know that when the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree (where he eventually attained enlightenment), Mara, “the evil one,” came along and tempted him with beautiful women, delicious food, insults, and all other sorts of distracting objects.  In discussing this part of the Buddha’s story, Chodron says

In traditional versions of the story, it’s said that no matter what appeared, whether it was demons or soldiers with weapons or alluring women, he had no reaction to it at all.  I’ve always thought, however, that perhaps the Buddha did experience emotions during that long night, but recognized them as simply dynamic energy moving through.  The feelings and sensations came up and passed away, came up and passed away.  They didn’t set off a chain reaction.

This state of being – the ability to experience emotion without being “hooked” by it, without being dragged into a whole self-feeding narrative of, say, anger, self-righteousness, and more anger – is the subject of Taking the Leap and some of Chodron’s other works.  It’s also a state of mind that I am profoundly interested in, and one that I’d be willing to spend the rest of my life working toward.

For example, I’ve been seething because the students in my most difficult class absolutely refused to cooperate with an activity I asked them to do last week, an activity that is essential in preparing them to do their next assignment.  They talked when I asked them to work alone and quietly.  They insisted that they “had to leave class now” and that they should be allowed to finish the assignment at home, even though I had clearly explained that this activity was practice for an essay they would have to write entirely in class.  They refused to press themselves beyond the simple declaration that “I don’t understand this story.”

I couldn’t seem to calm my irritated feelings about this, my sense that their stubborn resistance was a personal attack.  There is, of course, room to explore whether the assignment I gave them was too difficult, whether they haven’t had adequate preparation, whether I am expecting something they can’t deliver.  But the deeper problem is that I was angry with them, and couldn’t seem to shake it.

It is possible to see any difficult situation in our lives as an attack from Mara.  We are under threat, and we can react angrily or with panic or self-loathing.  But there is another possible approach.  We can see the attack as food for our growth, as an opportunity for us to develop loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity.  Difficulties are fertile soil for training our minds, and can therefore be greeted with eagerness and gratitide.

A situation like mine, for example, is an opportunity to develop compassion.  The day after this frustrating lesson, my Philosophy of Education teacher returned an assignment to me, and I didn’t do as well on it as I always expect to do on my coursework.  In reading through his comments, it became clear to me that I simply hadn’t understood the criteria he was evaluating me on, and didn’t understand the process of philosophical inquiry he wanted me to go through – in fact, I realized that I didn’t have a clear idea of what a “philosophical approach” entailed, and so had no way of engaging in it.  At first, I was furious and defensive.

And then I remembered my class from the previous day.  This is exactly what they were feeling, I realized.  They were feeling it for a number of different reasons, and the fact that they don’t understand is due to a number of factors that they could have controlled – by showing up to class more often, for example – but the feeling is the same.  I get it.  And understanding where they’re coming from, and why, can relieve some of my feelings of helplessness and irritation.

After Chodron retells the above snippet of the story of the Buddha, she mentions the image I’ve taken all this time to get to.  She says

This process is often depicted in paintings as weapons transforming into flowers – warriors shooting thousands of flaming arrows at the Buddha as he sits under the bodhi tree but the arrows becoming blossoms.

Immediately after reading these lines, I put the book down and ran to Google Images to find a depiction of this moment.  At first, I was less than satisfied with the images I found; none of them captured the beautiful scene in my imagination, the blazing arrows morphing into a shower of soft flowers and cascading around the Buddha like snow.  If I could even hold a pencil steady I would try to draw or paint it myself, but that isn’t possible.  Finally, though, I found this image, by the artist Austin Kleon:

buddhaflowersarrows

He describes the process of creating this image, a tattoo for a friend, here.  If I someday decide to get a tattoo, I may ask permission to use this.  In the meantime, I may have to post it on the cover of my course binder, to remind myself that every challenge can be transformed into flowers if I can only see it, not as a battle to be fought, but as an opportunity for growth and for deeper understanding of the human mind and the human condition.

This doesn’t mean I can make my students do what I want.  But maybe it means I can suffer less as I try to help them.