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

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The First Days of School: Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

Image by Simona Jakov

Does Reading Great Literature Make You A Better Person?

I love Laura Miller, the Books critic for Salon.com.  However, in today’s Salon she’s making an argument that I’ve heard a lot and that I do not like.

She’s reviewing William Deresiewicz’s new book, A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter.  I have not read this book – Miller’s review is the first I’ve heard of it – but it’s gone straight to my wish list.  In it, according to Miller, Deresiewicz

explains how his long engagement with [Austen’s novels] helped convert him from a surly, preening grad student — “about as dumb, in all human things, as any 26-year-old has a right to be” and grandiosely convinced that anything other than “complex, difficult, sophisticated” modernist fiction was beneath him — into a decent, civilized man.

Miller is not convinced that the novels were responsible for Deresiewicz’s transformation.  Her argument is basically this: lots of readers are bad people.  In fact, everyone loves stories, but the world is still full of nastiness.

Some of the best-read people I know are thoroughgoing jerks, and some of the kindest and noblest verge on the illiterate…. There’s a theory…that fiction builds empathy, and therefore morality, by inviting us into the minds, hearts and experiences of others. This is what the British children’s book author Michael Morpurgo implied recently…when he claimed that “developing in young children a love of poems and stories” might someday render the human-rights organization Amnesty International obsolete.  While I’m all for cultivating such tastes in children, I also don’t think the love of stories has to be taught. Most children are keenly interested in stories in all their forms. (Reading is a different matter.) They always have been. Yet there has always been a need for groups like Amnesty and it seems probable there always will be, no matter how many stories we pump into our youth.

I hear a lot of variations on this argument.  “Joseph Goebbels loved literature.”  “Sit in on a PhD literature class and see if you come away thinking that literature makes people more empathetic.”  These statements strike me as identical to saying, “Broccoli isn’t good for you – people who eat lots of broccoli still get cancer.”  That is: sure, literature doesn’t cure terminal meanness, arrogance, or psychopathy, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t improve many people. What’s more, a particular book may not turn me into a bodhisattva, but I still might be more compassionate, having read it, than I was before.

Do you buy the idea that literature teaches empathy, that books can make us better people?  I still do, but maybe you can convince me otherwise.

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!

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

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.

One Minute of Solitude

solitude
Two of my three classes this term have been, so far, focused yet energetic, respectful yet lively. The third has been a bit of a pain in the ass.

This class meets from 4-6 in the afternoon – the worst possible time. They’re tired. I’m tired. Their brains are buzzing from a day’s worth of Red Bull and adolescent drama. They’re so done with learning.

What’s more, there’s a little gang of boys who seem to find a lot of stuff funny. I’m not sure, but from a couple of murmured, oblique exchanges that I’ve caught in passing, I’m beginning to think this has something to do with physical attributes of mine that they like.

Also: this is a remedial English class, and so far the work we’ve been doing has foundational (read: pretty easy.) Some of them are bored.

All this makes for a frenetic, nervous and silly atmosphere. After our second meeting, it became clear that this was going to be a continual problem if I didn’t do something to nip it in the bud.

What? I wondered. I stewed about it for a while. Should I throw people out? Should I give a speech? (Past experience suggests that speeches don’t work.) Should I separate the silly boys to the four corners of the room? Should I barrel through material that some students need to focus on so that other students won’t be bored?

And then I remembered something that my friend Lorri mentioned a while ago – I think she wrote it in a comment to a specific post, but I’ve searched and can’t find it. (Lorri, if you’re reading, and you remember, maybe you can point me to it…) Lorri said that begins her classes by allowing the students to shuffle around, chatter, etc. for about five minutes. Then she asks them to sit for one minute in complete silence before they take a deep breath and begin.

This, I thought, seems like a way to, if not eradicate the squirms and giggles, at least keep them more or less in check – to start on a calmer ground, so that escalation will be minimal.

So yesterday afternoon, when I was writing the class agenda on the board, I called the first item “One Minute of Solitude.” I then asked the students to make sure their desks were separated into rows and their cell phones were turned off and put out of sight.

“Last class,” I explained, “I was observing you. I noticed that there was a lot of very nervous energy in the room. It’s late in the day, people are tired , it’s hard to focus, people can’t stop laughing. So I want to do an exercise with you that I sometimes do with late classes. I want you to close your eyes. You can put your head down on your desk if you want. I’m going to turn out the light. And I want you to sit silently for 60 seconds. I’m going to time it, and if there are any distractions – if anyone speaks, if anyone’s cell phone goes off, if someone knocks on the door because they’re late – we’re going to start again.”

“Are we do this for a reason?” Khawar asked.

“Yes,” I said. “A nervous, agitated mind is not a good learning mind. Energy and enthusiasm are good; agitation is not. You’ve all been very busy all day, and your minds are busy too. This is a way to settle our minds so we can learn better.”

I turned out the light. I flicked my iPod stopwatch and said, “Go.”

60 seconds of silence is long. At about the 40 second mark, a couple of students shifted impatiently and looked around, but no one made any noise. And when the minute was up, I quietly said, “That’s it,” and turned the lights back on. They lifted their heads blurrily.

“How did that feel?” I asked.

“Calm,” Khawar said.

“Long,” Philippe said.

“We’re going to do this every class,” I said. “For some of you, it might be the only 60 seconds of calm you have all day. I hope maybe you’ll come to enjoy it.”

Did it help? I think it did, a bit. The major failing was that two of the boys who most needed this exercise came late, and so didn’t do it; as soon as they walked in, the energy in the room ramped up again. However, it never quite reached the height of foolishness that it had the class before, and overall, the work got done and the wasted time was minimal.

I’m a bit nervous about starting every class this way, but I’m hoping that, instead of becoming tedious, it really will be a tiny oasis of peace for some of them. And perhaps some of them will learn that if they can’t sit still and quiet for 60 seconds, it’s probably causing them some problems that they should really address…

Image by barunpatro

how I saved my teaching career part 7: meditate!

The penultimate post in my series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” appeared on School Gate this morning.  In this post, I describe how learning to meditate made me a better teacher.

Dear Auntie Siobhan #7: Helicopter Parent. Help!

My final guest post at Change.org’s education blog went up this morning. Today: what do I do when my (college) student’s parent won’t leave me alone?

Big thanks to Clay Burell for inviting me to guest blog this week while he’s moving to Singapore and writing a (no doubt fabulous) book.

“Dear Auntie Siobhan” will be a continued, if irregular, feature here at Classroom at Microcosm, so if you have questions you’d like to see discussed, send them to me at siobhancurious@gmail.com.

And thanks so much for all your support, feedback and general participation!

Ask Auntie Siobhan #6: My Students are Passionate, but It Can Get Out of Hand

This morning at Change.org, Auntie Siobhan gives her thoughts on the question, “How can I encourage passionate engagement in my classroom without encouraging aggression?”

It’s been quite a ride! My stint at Change.org ends tomorrow, but if you have questions for Auntie Siobhan, feel free to send them along, and she will respond here in the coming weeks.