Ask Auntie Siobhan #4: My Students Won’t Put Their Phones Away

Today at, Auntie Siobhan addresses the question: What do I do about the scourge of cell phones in my classroom?

Please come visit and leave your own advice. And if you have a question you’d like Auntie Siobhan to answer, write to me at

Ask Auntie Siobhan #3: The Administration Says I’m to Blame for Student Problems

The third installment of Auntie Siobhan’s advice column appeared on’s education blog this morning. Today’s question: what do I do if the administration blames me for irrational student behavior?

Go check it out, and leave your own advice!

If you have questions for Auntie Siobhan, please email me at


dear Auntie Siobhan, installment 2: an absent student is making me crazy

Today on’s education blog, Auntie Siobhan expounds on what to do when a student refuses to come to class (and thus ruins other people’s lives.)

Please visit and leave your thoughts! And if you have a question for Auntie Siobhan, write to me at

ask Auntie Siobhan, 1st installment: “All My Students Are Cheating!”

My new advice column, “Ask Auntie Siobhan,” debuted on’s education blog this morning. Today’s topic: why are so many of my students plagiarizing their papers?

Please go visit and leave your reactions! And if you have a question for Auntie Siobhan, email me at I’ll be answering one or two questions a day, now through Sunday.

The Uses of Boredom

boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like most children, I read only picture books until I was seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. I was capable of reading these “chapter books,” but they seemed like too much work.

Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about eight hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.

The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

Of course, I read through most of my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)

For the first week of our stay at the summer house, I was forced to play outside far more than I would have liked. My books were all read, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

Then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

It was still raining. I started to read.

I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.

I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers, or even without cell phones. At any given moment there are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t entirely blame them. I don’t even read much for pleasure any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.

I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.

How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?

Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, have been brought up environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me listening to BlipFM and playing solitaire as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

What’s to Like about School?

Did you like school? (Or, if you’re a student now, do you?)

I’m reading Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? It’s totally readable and very interesting, and I’ll post a review when I’m done. (I’ve also joined a reading group to discuss it, over at Dangerously Irrelevant; if you’ve been wanting to pick this book up, a book club might give you the kick in the pants you need.)

When I posted the title of the book on my Facebook page, one of my Facebook acquaintances replied directly to the author’s question, writing,

“Same reason we hate boring movies … no engaging, nothing to relate with. For starters …”

Now, Willingham’s responses are quite a bit more subtle. He’s a cognitive scientist, and his explanations of why we like to think but find it difficult are intriguing. But my acquaintance’s response got me thinking.

When it came to school, I WAS engaged. I DID relate to the material, whether it was geometric proofs or chemical reactions or novels. But I didn’t like gym, because I’d didn’t like running around, and I had trouble in a few academic areas – history seemed like a dry list of facts about politics, and the ultimate goal of studying physics seemed to be understanding how a carburator works. (I’m now well aware that neither of these things is true, but school was capable of reducing them to that.)

Did you like school? How about the classroom, specifically – if you liked learning in school, why? If you didn’t, why not, and what could have made it more enjoyable? What about your children – how do they feel about it? Have they told you why, or do you have an inkling?

Who Are Your Gurus?

This week has been an exercise in detachment.

I’ve been grading very long and sometimes very difficult final papers, and in a moment of hair-tearing frustration, wrote the post 10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment. When it went up here and, especially, on my Open Salon blog, there was an outpouring of hilarity, with a spattering of negative comments (“Huh? Who cares if a paper is double-spaced?”).

It all died down within a couple of days, but then, when I included the post in this week’s Carnival of Education, it went viral on StumbleUpon. It received almost 4,000 hits – twice as many as my whole blog has ever received in one day – and comments began pouring in. Many of them weren’t nice. In fact, some of them were truly vitriolic, mostly from students (presumably) who had taken the “you” in the title personally, and decided to respond in kind.

It was a bit of a shock. This blog has always felt like a safe and protected space – the comments have been overwhelmingly positive. My OpenSalon blog has been more lively, and sometimes contentious, but the commenters have almost always been respectful and articulate.

This was my first experience with trolls. It was rattling, but I was prepared – I’d read about trolls, and read trolls on other people’s blogs, and my minimal experience with them on OpenSalon meant that I knew that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them.

Now, not all the negative comments came from trolls, although it might have at first appeared so. One of the early, incensed responses is from Xannax. It’s pretty over-the-top. But some other commenters take her, gently and not-so-gently, to task, and Xannax responds by writing,

“I have to confess I ranted without really thinking there was room for constructive criticism, so let me apologize for the tone and explain what I meant.”

What follows is a discussion in which Xannax blows my mind. She carefully reads and responds to other people’s comments. She asks questions in order to understand their positions (and, by extension, mine, although I just sat back and watched it all happen.) And, in the end, she writes,

“Ok. I am convinced… I guess I was a bit arrogant trying to tell you how to teach without having any kind of field experience. I will keep what you said in mind when I’ll confront my first students…Thanks”

Yes, Xannax is going to be a teacher. And if this exchange is any indication, she is going to be a fine one. If she can model this kind of communication – modifying our first, impulsive reactions by listening respectfully and with curiosity – for her students, then they are going to learn a LOT just by watching her.

I, in the meantime, learned a lot by watching myself. A few years ago, the enraged, hate-filled responses to this post would have crushed me. I would have lost my will to blog, perhaps permanently. I feel much more even-keeled about it all now, much like I feel more even-keeled in the classroom.

When RateMyTeacher first appeared online, and I read my first negative comment (which was much less diplomatic than anything I’d ever read on a course evaluation), it really messed me up. Now, years later, I still read comments on RateMyTeacher – mine and others’ – and I don’t like getting critical ones, but I think about them, especially if they hit close to home. Sometimes they lead to important discoveries.

For example, years ago, there was a comment about how I was “very intelligent” but “not very pleasant.” That one really got to me. It stayed on my mind for weeks. And it was one of my first clues that maybe I was getting burnt out, and it set in motion a whole series of steps in which I tried to deal with that.

In Buddhism, the people who trigger negative emotions for us – like difficult peers, belligerent students, or blog trolls – are often called “enemies”, but they are also referred to as “gurus.” We can learn from the people who cause us pain, if we are able to detach, and examine our emotions instead of acting them out and escalating the situation.

I think Xannax’s exchange with other commenters was an example of this. It’s also the way I try to deal with my anger, frustration and hurt feelings in the classroom: thinking of my most irritating students as “gurus” has brought me peace during some very difficult times.

As a teacher (if you are one), what have you learned from the students who have caused you the most trouble? What about as a blogger (if you are one) or in your life in general – have your enemies been your gurus?