How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 3: Find Your Community

This is the fourth post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.   See the end of this post for previous entries.

Teaching can be lonely.  We spend a lot of time with our students, but our relationships with them can feel adversarial and/or distant.  Even our good relationships with students are complex: they’re usually younger than us, and although it’s our job to try to understand them, they have no obligation – and often no ability – to understand us.

What’s more, many teachers are independent-minded people who prefer to tackle problems on their own.  I’m like that.  It’s helped me in some areas of my life, but when it comes to burnout, confronting it without support is unwise.

When I first began teaching, my emotional satisfaction came almost entirely from my relationships with students.  (You can see some discussion of this topic here.)  As my job changed and I grew older, I realized that my students weren’t my friends.  I became aware that fostering a community that supported me in my job, that I could turn to when things were rough, and that gave me healthy perspective on what I was doing was essential.

I began shaping and nurturing that community in three forms.

1. Family and friends.

These people were already there for me.  Most of them weren’t teachers.  They didn’t necessarily have advice to give about my professional problems and anxieties; if they did, the advice wasn’t always helpful.  But they did know me.  They were able to listen, relate my experiences to their own, and point out ways of seeing that were more productive than mine.  Perhaps most importantly, they were able to talk to me about something other than my work.

I don’t know about you, but during the semester, I think of little besides teaching.  Friends who don’t work with me go months without seeing me.  If someone wants to have coffee, my response is usually, “Well, how about Thanksgiving weekend/Easter weekend/reading week?  Otherwise, I’ll see you once I’ve submitted my final grades.”

I had to remind myself that my job was not my whole life.  I needed to talk to The Husband about things other than work.  I needed to go for drinks with people who didn’t know or care about the students who refused to do their homework or who cheated on exams, people who just want to talk about books, or gossip.

If I was going to feel like part of a supportive community, I realized, I needed to take care of the relationships I already had.

2.  Colleagues.

I work in an extremely supportive and friendly environment.  Many of my colleagues – including faculty, administration, and staff – have become good friends.  I also have friends who are teachers at other institutions. Sometimes talking to another teacher is the only way to grapple with an issue.  When things started going badly for me in the classroom, I started to lean on my colleagues more for advice, comfort, or just a beer at the end of the day.

If I hadn’t already had strong relationships with my colleagues, I would have tried to establish some.  We all need peers we can turn to for help or just moral support.  Often, there’s someone in the staff we’ve never really gotten to know, but whom we suspect we have something in common with; an invitation to dinner or coffee can pave the way to a deeper friendship.  And there may be more structured ways to forge connections, like book clubs or happy hours.

Obviously, we can’t connect with everyone, but we need some friends in the workplace.

3.  Online connections.

When job exhaustion first overtook me, I started keeping this blog. In a later post, I’ll discuss how invaluable the blog has been in helping my overcome my burnout, but it’s not the only online tool I use.  Reading others’ blogs, participating in online forums, setting up a Twitter account and creating a page on Facebook are all ways to both maintain contact with current friends and colleagues and also generate new connections.

Teachers and education specialists are, as a rule, very interested in reading, writing and talking about teaching.  Over time, it’s possible to build an international network of articulate, passionate and curious educators who want nothing more than to continue the conversation.  My network has sustained me through some difficult moments – if something troubles me at school, I blog about it, tweet about it, or Google the issue and see if others have something to say about it.  I almost always end up feeling better.

*

I felt alone in my burnout, but I wasn’t; recognizing this was one of the keys to getting better.  Reaching out to friends, family, colleagues and online comrades helped me through some of my challenges.  Recognizing and expanding one’s community requires effort, but the payoff is enormous.

If you’re a burnt-out teacher, you might want to look around you and ask: Who are my friends?  How can I find more?

*

What kinds of support and connections help you most in your job?  Do you know of any helpful resources for developing and sustaining connections between educators, or between members of other professions?  Leave a comment!  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

*

Previous posts in this series:

Next post: facing my fears.

*

The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

How I Saved My Teaching Career: Step 1: Take Stock. Is It Worth It?

This is the second post in a series on how to overcome burnout and love teaching again.  For the introductory post, go here.

On Monday, I introduced my career crisis.  After teaching joyfully for many years, I was tired, discouraged and ready to quit.

But I paused before throwing in the towel.  I took a deep breath, and took stock.  Was it really time to look for a new job?

I asked myself some questions.  You might want to consider them, too.

 1.  Are these feelings new?

For years, the classroom had felt like my natural habitat: a place where I was more comfortable than almost anywhere else.  Even if a lesson was disastrous, I was INTERESTED in the disaster and how it had happened.  My students fascinated me, and I wanted to know and help them as much as possible.  This had changed only recently: I was now so irritated by students who were disruptive or disengaged that I was failing to appreciate everyone else.

I’d loved my job once.  Maybe I could again.

2. Do I (still) love what I teach? 

 Was it possible that I still loved teaching but would rather be teaching another subject?

I continued to love language and literature, but I was now less interested in fiction, my area of greatest expertise, and more intrigued by personal narrative.  I asked myself if I could incorporate more of these kinds of texts into my lessons.

I also asked myself – perhaps for the first time – why I thought literature should be important to my students.  Why should we read, write, study and analyze texts?  Did these activities have real value for students like mine, who rarely read for pleasure and who often resented being asked to engage with literature?  Could I do more to communicate my passion about these topics?

 3.  How much do I hate grading?

 I rarely meet a teacher who has anything good to say about grading.  However, some teachers find the pressures of marking so crushing that they leave the profession.  Teachers of literature, and other subjects that require mostly essay writing, are especially vulnerable, as are conscientious teachers who feel compelled to give students lots of detailed feedback.

One dedicated English teacher I know left on maternity leave and continually found excuses not to return, saying she might never go back to teaching because the thought of grading mountains of essays caused her to curl up into a fetal ball. Retired friends talked about how they missed everything about teaching but the marking.  It wasn’t just me.  Grading papers is brutal.

My own hatred of grading had gone from a normal aversion to two extreme physical reactions.  For one, I had developed a repetitive strain injury in my hand, arm and neck – it had first manifested a few years before, the result of compulsive journal writing, but it was now so painful to write by hand that I avoided it at all costs, even at the expense of grocery lists and phone messages.  I had also seen an old problem reassert itself: hyperventilation.  I was literally suffocating each time a pile of papers landed on my desk.

I would have to find ways to cut down on the grading.  If this proved possible, I might be able to stay.

 4.  How do I feel about my work environment?

 When I talked to friends (teachers and others) who were dissatisfied with their jobs, a number of them told me, “I love what I’m doing, but my workplace is toxic.  I can’t stand my manager/my colleagues/the administration…”

One evening a few years ago, I called a friend, in tears over a student who was making my life hell.  She responded, “Imagine how you’d feel if the a**hole you were crying about was your boss.”

Her point was clear.  The staff, faculty and management at my college were supportive.  We often took refuge together in offices, union lounges and bars, talking about our difficulties or just enjoying one another’s company.  (For example, if you’d like to know how print shop employees can fill your life with sunshine, go here.)

A positive work environment is precious, and rare.  Did I want to give it up?

 5.  Teaching has many secondary advantages.  How important are they? 

Besides being around young people and taking pride in what we do for them, there are other perks to being a teacher.  These often include long vacations (even after the grading and prepping), flexible work schedules (we can do some of our work at home in our pyjamas), autonomy (in our classrooms, we call many of the shots), and eventually, job security (turning one’s back on a tenured/senior position is no joke.)

It’s important to me to have stretches of time to work on my own projects like fiction writing, studying, and blogging.  Creative and stimulating jobs are often less than financially stable.  When I fantasized about other possible careers – writing full-time, going to culinary school – I couldn’t imagine one in which security, freedom, inspiration and emotional reward would be so balanced.

Jobs are hard.  Period.  My teaching job was, by all objective and subjective measures, a good job.  Did I really think I would find a better one?

*

We all know bitter, unsatisfied teachers.  The world doesn’t need more of them.  If I’d come to the conclusion that I didn’t like teaching, I’d have begun looking for other work.

However, this first step – taking stock of my real feelings – made one thing clear: teaching suited me.  There were serious challenges that sometimes seemed like too much to handle, but they were balanced by the rewards: the chance to do something meaningful, to be comfortably paid for it, to have time to myself, to engage with material that mattered to me, and to work with people I liked and respected.  I wasn’t done.  I was just tired.

I didn’t want to quit; I wanted a new attitude.  What I needed, I realized, was a break.  In my next post, I’ll tell you how I got one, and how it helped.

*

Have you ever considered leaving your job?  What questions did you ask yourself?  What were your conclusions?  Do you have advice for the rest of us?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The series “How I Saved My Teaching Career” was originally published on the TimesOnline’s education blog, School Gate, in 2009.  Thanks to School Gate’s editor, Sarah Ebner, for her permission to repost.

Image by Michal Zacharzewski

When In Doubt, Make a Plan

On Monday, I posted a letter I received from a reader, asking advice about whether he should stay in college.  I promised you I would post my reply today, and here it is.  I sent this response before posting his letter here, and before reading your thoughts on his situation, but some commenters will notice that my advice jibes very well with theirs; others, not so much!  I welcome your comments.  Did I do right by N?

Dear N:

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re in such an unhappy position.  I am not a therapist or a guidance counsellor (and I think it might be a good idea for you to see one of each; your college services might still be available to you, or they might be able to tell you where to go.)  That said, it doesn’t sound like your situation is hopeless at all, although you are definitely in an uncomfortable spot.

One thing that encourages me is that you say your father sometimes tells you to come home and figure things out.  Next time he says that, would you consider taking him up on it?  I think you will have to demonstrate to both him and your mother that you are not just dropping out of life, but are actively trying to figure your life out, maybe by taking a temporary job, exploring some activities you’re interested in, continuing to pursue your writing etc.  It may be that college really is the best option for you, but not now.  It sounds to me like you are the kind of person who likes learning and would enjoy college (maybe a different college or a different program?) if you were feeling less pressured and confused.

Let me tell you a story.  When I was 21, I returned to school to study education.  I was at a very unhappy time in my life, and was living in a city I didn’t like and studying in a program that wasn’t for me.  I could have completed my program in a year, but I was paralyzed and depressed.  So, less than 3 months before graduation, I dropped out.  I moved to another city, got myself a job in a clothing boutique, and spent some time just figuring stuff out.  Two years later, I went back to school – a different school, and still in education but in an entirely different program – and was very happy there.  I just needed time, experience and reflection to work out my next moves.

Now, I had the support of my parents, although they were worried.  But it sounds like you have the worried support of your mother, and that your father might come around if you presented him with a plan.  What if you said, “Dad, I need to take a year.  I’ll get a job, pay you some rent, and a year from now, I will give you some definite answers about what I’m going to do next.”  How do you think that he would react?

I don’t know your parents, but in my experience, parents are able to be a bit more flexible if they know their children have a plan.

Life without college is definitely a tougher row to hoe in the long term, (especially in the U.S., from what I understand.)  Our society is not constructed in a way, right now, to support people who take the road less travelled. However, I don’t think you need to put yourself on that road for good, at least not yet.  What if you took a year, kept busy, and explored what is out there?  You never know what opportunities might fall in your lap.

Meanwhile, some time with therapists and career counsellors might be a good idea…

I hope that is helpful in some way; I wish I could offer you a pat solution.  I feel sure, though, that you will work this out if you give yourself some space in which to do it.

Best,
Siobhan

What Will Happen If I Leave College?

Last week, I received this query from N, a college sophomore.  I will publish my reply on Thursday, but for now, I’d like to know what you think.  What should he do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan:

My senior year of high school I found myself going from a good student in AP classes to having no motivation and pretty heavy depression. I fell behind, skipped class and if it weren’t for the help of my school administration I probably would not have graduated high school! My dad lives and works out of state and comes home on the weekends and did not know about any of this, but my mother knew. Before senior year I would have never imagined I would be one of *THOSE* kids who barely graduate!

These issues I have had with motivation have carried over into college and I have not done well. I am in a difficult major. I was not ever certain of why I have these issues with school but lately I am wondering if this has something to do with if I am even meant to be in college.

I know I am intelligent and a competent person. I like science and writing and when I am have the motivation I do very well on exams, much better than my friends who are constantly hard at it. But still overall I am not doing well in college.

I have withdrawn from all my classes this semester and only my mother knows. You must be wondering, why all the deception?

When he was a young man, my dad moved to America from his home country and completed and paid for his masters and PhD in under 4 years… yeah. He is VP of a large and well-known international company. To begin with, I feel like there is a lot of pressure to complete college because of the very fact that my Dad did so quickly and was very successful.

In addition to that pressure, there is of course the societal pressure… if you don’t go to college you must be some lazy loser. I was told from Day 1 that college is my only option.

I am getting no guidance from my parents in this matter. My mother just gets scared. I have called my Dad in tears several times, and his reactions are mixed. Sometimes telling me that I should come home and figure out what I want to do. Sometimes telling me that I have NOTHING to be unhappy about because I am at a good school, have college paid for etc…

I have no idea what to do. I do not even know my options besides a 4 year college. I WAS NEVER TOLD ANY! That is what makes me most angry! I feel almost forced into this! I feel like I have NO TIME to even stop and think “is this right for me? is this realistic for me?” because I have people yelling at me from everywhere that college is my best bet and that I have to get out quickly to compete… but at the same time everyone is yelling at me that college will not even guarantee me a job in this country! What on Earth?!

I am sorry that this might just be a long desperate rant… but I have no one I can reasonably talk to about this! I am upset, locking myself in my apartment and not coming out or seeing anyone for days.

What are my options besides college?

Do you have any advice for N?  What would you do in his shoes?  I have already sent him my thoughts, but I’d like to hear yours.

Image by gerard79

Life and Death and Anthologies

Anthologies are odd.  They’re compiled of a lot of stuff that someone thinks we should read, and so they have little to do with the real experience of reading.  Being a “reader” is as much about wandering down the aisle of a bookstore looking for attractive covers, or downloading an excerpt on a Kindle based on a friend’s recommendation, as it is about curling up in a chair and getting lost.  Anthologies are meant to educate us; they are not meant to transport us. But sometimes they do both.

On Saturday, a column by Mireille Silcoff,  in the National Post, begins when she goes into early labour, and is rushed off to the maternity ward in such haste that she arrives without reading material.  Her husband, hapless when it comes to books, brings her some duds from home, including her old Norton Anthology of English Literature.  At least, I’d have called it a dud, but she takes a different approach.  She settles in with it, and  discovers a lot of things about herself and, most tellingly, about her undergraduate education.  All those things are interesting, and I will write about them later, but I was first struck by Silcoff’s unexpected affection for her anthology.  It resembles an experience of my own.

When I was twenty-nine and in the middle of my Masters degree, I went off to Ireland for a summer, in order to research the novel I was writing and earn some transfer credits doing a “writer’s course” through, of all things, the University of Arkansas.  I planned to arrive a couple of weeks early, so I could spend some time with a friend in Dublin, and drop in on a postcolonialism conference at the National University of Ireland campus in Galway, where my course would be held.  I was an experienced traveler, and had learned to travel light.  There would be no shortage of bookstores in Ireland, but I needed one good read to get me there, something small but full of stuff  to chew on, so that after my arrival, I could put off buying more books for as long as possible.

My “writer’s course” was going to consist of a creative writing master class and a survey on contemporary Irish fiction.  The survey required an anthology, the Penguin Modern Irish Short Stories.  Perfect, I thought.  Or, at least: adequate.  A book.  Lots of things in it.  I have to read  stuff from it anyway.  It’ll do.

Once I settled into my seat on the airplane, I discovered the first problem: the first fifty pages of the anthology were missing.  There was no table of contents; the collection began in the middle of a story by George Moore.  There was also no index.  The authors and titles of the stories were indicated in headers at the top of each page, but I had to thumb through scores of unfamiliar names to find the names I wanted: Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, and … well, truthfully, those were the only twentieth-century Irish writers I knew anything about.  I sighed.  All right, fine.  What else was I going to do?  I settled in, turned to Beckett’s “Dante and the Lobster,” and started reading.

I carried that anthology everywhere with me for the next two weeks.  I read from it as I lay wrapped in a blanket, at four a.m., ravaged by jet lag, in the lamplit hammock in the yard behind my Dublin friend’s apartment block.   (The hammock was the only place I could read without disturbing anyone.  My friend and I were sleeping on the floor of her one-room; there was a chair next to the communal telephone outside her apartment door, but the light switch beside it illuminated the hallways of the whole building for three minutes, after which it shut off automatically.)  I read that anthology in cafes in central Dublin, in between visits to Nora Barnacle’s house and the National Gallery.  I read it on the four-hour bus ride to Galway, and then during the interminable lonely stretches in the hostel common room as I tried to work up the nerve to make conversation.  (For someone who has spent so much time on my own in foreign countries, I’m a terrible solo traveler.)  I read it between presentations at the postcolonial conference, and even a little bit during Terry Eagleton’s keynote speech (sorry, Mr. Eagleton).  And I kept reading it, marking each story with a dog ear when it was done, until I’d settled into my dorm room at the National University to begin my course.

Flipping back and forth through the pages and choosing stories by whim or chance, I discovered several writers that would stay with me long after that, Elizabeth Bowen and John McGahern in particular. (McGahern would show up as a speaker during my survey course, along with Patrick McCabe and Dermot Healy and a number of others, whose names I would probably recognize if I met them now.  Our teachers kept telling us what an honour it was to spend time with these writers, but we knew nothing about them, and the honour was lost on us.)  I don’t remember a whole lot about the anthologized stories themselves.  I couldn’t for the life of me tell you now what “Dante and the Lobster” was about.  But that wasn’t the important thing.

The important thing was partly that I was in Ireland and was learning snippets of what it means to be Irish.  I was learning things I would have known if I had gone to school in Ireland, if I had read literature at an Irish university, even if I had just spent my youth drinking in the pubs of Ireland and watching Irish television.  Lying on the beach on the island of Inisheer, where the novel I was working on would be set, I began reading Mary Lavin’s “Happiness.”  While I was in the midst of it, a young Australian man I’d met on the ferry came to sit next to me on the sand and chat me up, and although he was handsome and friendly and I’d been lonely, I was annoyed.  I’d been caught in a little teacup of Irish life, and he’d sloshed it.  I eventually froze him out, probably rudely, and he went off to find someone less bookish and more grateful, and I returned to Mary Lavin’s world.

I was getting more than a cultural education.  I was captivated by the intensity of each bit of narrative.  Short stories are like  that, but there was something about the book itself, about the incredible density of this small volume.  It was like a chunk of paper dark matter.  Or a chocolate box, except that each bonbon might turn out to be a bite of foie gras, or a marble, or a leaf of mint.

Silcoff describes her experience rereading her Norton Anthology by saying that when one is in the hospital,

Best to read short things about big ideas that can capture the imagination quickly. You are in a place of life and death, after all. It’s only normal to become a little philosophical.

She’s talking about the maternity ward, but she could be talking about Ireland.  Or any new place, really – any place we travel to.  Everything seems both more alive and more mortal when you’re traveling.  The smallest thing leaps out of the landscape like a butterfly, and then, in no time – a moment or a few weeks – it’s gone.  Just like the title of a story might leap out at you from the page in the middle  of a thick little book, and then, within a few moments or an hour, the story has faded and given way to another.

Once I was done with the anthology – every single story – some classmates and I made a pilgrimage to the Galway bookstores.  Ireland is famously in love with its own literature, and Irish writers were always the most prominently displayed.  I was able to buy novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Flann O’Brien with confidence now, having already tasted their wares.  I loved those novels – I should really go back and read them again – but they were heavy, immersive experiences, very different from the delicious flashes of the short stories in that anthology.

It’s in front of me now on my desk.  On its cover, a coachman glares over his shoulder at me, his whip at half mast.  In the midst of all my grading and research and household cares, I don’t have the time or energy I need to return to it right now.  And maybe returning to it is not the point.  I’m an English teacher, and so have shelves of anthologies around me, at home and in my office at school, the detritus of many years of publishers begging me to impose their books on my students.  Maybe I need to choose a random volume – immigrant narratives or  Victorian poetry, gothic tales or African drama – and taste some new mouthfuls.  I’m not in labour, or on the road, but every place, everywhere, is a place of life and death.

*

Thanks to Erin M. for the link to the National Post column!  It comments on more than just anthologies – its main thrust is the uses of a college education (anthologies included).  More on that topic soon.

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

Word Jars and Grocery Lists: “Your Child’s Writing Life” by Pam Allyn

The premise of Pam Allyn’s parenting guide Your Child’s Writing Life is as follows:

“There are endless practical books to help parents raise their children.  But until now there has not been a book about the importance of getting our kids to understand that every book and story began when someone, somewhere decided to write down his or her thoughts.”

Allyn believes that writing is as important to a child’s development as any other fundamental skill, and that parents who help their kids become writers will foster their emotional, intellectual and academic growth.  It is hard to argue with this, and there is a lot to love about this book.

Allyn’s passion for writing is sincere, and so is her passion for helping children be everything they can be.  Parents or teachers who want children to love writing will find much to work with here: a list of great children’s books to inspire writing, a chapter full of tips to help with times when writing is frustrating, myriad interesting prompts for child writers of all ages.  I wish all parents would read this book and implement some of its general suggestions, because I suspect that, if they did, their teenage children would arrive in my classroom with, at best, a deep desire to write, and at worst, an appreciation of the written word and the impulses and skills needed to write something well.

I have a single, but large, quibble with Allyn’s approach. My quibble is not based in any real expertise.  I am not the target audience for this book.  I am not a parent, and I don’t even teach children of the age described by the author.  I was, however, a child, and a child who loved writing and continues to love it into middle age, so much so that I have dedicated my life to doing and teaching it.

Allyn’s advice often parallels my own experience.  For example, she tells parents,

“Give your child the time to write and the freedom to write as she pleases.  As your child finds her voice, she’ll need you to give her time to practice and experiment, delving into new worlds through the magic of her own creative process.”

This is exactly what my parents did.  They took writing seriously and never made me feel that I should be doing something else.  If I was hiding in my room and they came to check on me, and I told them I was writing, they responded in the same way they would have if I’d said I was practicing my violin or doing my math homework: they praised me, and then left me alone.   I’m a writer today in large part because my parents did everything right in that regard.

However, they never set up “writing centres” or “word jars;” they did not create “writing routines” or set aside daily “writing time” or keep emergency writing implements in a folder in the car.  This is not to say these approaches wouldn’t be useful for some children; they might certainly benefit a child who did not have an intrinsic writing obsession, as I did. I wonder, though, whether creating such routines and rituals might not risk turning writing into a chore, another homework assignment or extracurricular activity that needs to be slotted in.

For example, Allyn asks parents to create a “perfect writing space” for their child – with the child’s input, of course.

“Ask questions like, What do you like to write with?  Pencils? Crayons? Markers?…Is that light too bright or too soft? Do you like to write on big paper on a table or small paper on a clipboard?”

This kind of micromanagement – let’s get it exactly right together, and then you’ll be able to write! – can be anathema to creation, and to me it smacks of overzealous parental involvement.  When I was a child, I would have found these questions, and their implication that there is a “perfect environment” for my creative process, overwhelming and intimidating.  I would have preferred to be left alone in my room, where I would spread myself at my desk or on my bed or on my carpet, depending on my mood, or I might wander out to the landing at the top of the stairs or the hammock in the back yard.  I would make use of whatever implements I could find around me or in the junk drawer downstairs in the kitchen.  I was finding spaces and methods that worked for me, and my parents’ only role was to consider requests I made and fulfill them if they could.

(One of the greatest joys I have experienced, then or since, was the Christmas when, having been told I would not be receiving an expensive electric typewriter I’d been pleading for, I woke to find it under the tree.  It was years before I learned to type properly, but until then, just looking at it on my desk and poking at its keys validated my identity as a writer.  Several aborted runs at learning to touch-type meant that, when I finally took a typing class in high school, I was far ahead of my classmates and was ready to type up my stories and poems.  I was not asked if I wanted a typewriter.  It was I who decided it was time for me to have one.)

Throughout the early chapters of Your Child’s Writing Life, I encountered moments where I felt the line between support and interference was being blurred.  For example, Allyn suggests that, when your child is two, you

“cut out words you love from magazines and put them in little frames on her writing desk where she can see them.  Even if she can’t read them, you are modeling your love of words.”

This feels queasily invasive to me.  Why must a parent insert herself into a child’s experience to this degree?  By doing this, is the parent not modelling something about herself and what she values, rather than the child’s interests?  Why not cut words out and put them on your own desk?  If the child can’t read yet, why not play with words orally, allowing her to choose the words you dwell on?

(I once spent an afternoon in the pool with my much younger brother, who was two at the time.  I taught him the word “buoyancy,” which he thought was the best word he’d ever heard, not because he understood its meaning, but because it sounded so cool.  For the rest of the day and evening he would randomly shout, “Siobhan – bwincey!” and break into giggles.  Is this not a more authentic way to interest a toddler in language than framing words I like and thrusting them into “his” space?)

When a child is four, Allyn advises,

“Read aloud even your grocery lists, messages from favorite friends, emails you particularly like and other examples of the little notes and things that come across your desk each and every day.”

When I reached this point in Allyn’s list of “ages and writing stages,” I began to wonder how a similar book about “your child’s math life” or “your child’s sports life” would read.  Would it read, as I suspected, like a slightly unhinged manifesto in which every dinner hour becomes a chance to practice counting one’s peas, or every morning one turns getting dressed into calisthenics?  The litany of ways to encourage writing was exhausting me in the mere reading, and I began to wonder if any parent really spends that much time in direct, active, engaged interaction with his or her child, much less in direct, active, engaged interaction that focuses entirely on getting the child interested in writing.  What about just letting the child run around without making a story about it?  Where would one have time for that?  After a few days of Allyn’s program, I expect I’d be lying on the couch with a cold cloth over my eyes, unable to even keep my toddler out of the knife drawer, much less ask him what adventures the knives could be having in their drawer-house today.

Which is to say: taken alone, any of these suggestions seems like it could help foster a child’s interest in writing.  The key here, though, is in the words “foster” and “child’s.”  There is a great emphasis on how the parent and child will embark on this writing journey “together,” but this “togetherness” eventually gives the book a cloying, claustrophobic feeling.  It is understandable, if we are talking about a stay-at-home parent and a child of two or three, that the parent’s values and interests will take the lead and that the parent and child will share at least some of these writing experiences, but even at that stage, I suspect many children will benefit more from a gentle nudge and then some space to follow their own whims.

What is more, some children do not enjoy reading and writing, and for them, such “encouragement” can start to feel manipulative and burdensome.  Allyn does not seem to feel that there is any circumstance in which a parent should let “writing time” go in favour of other interests.  How is this different from a parent who insists that his child will play football or join the Mathletes even when the child has no real interest in these activities?

(My mother was and is a visual artist, and she encouraged my brother and me to paint and draw. I liked these pastimes well enough, and for short periods I invested quite a bit of time in them, but they were not a priority and I had no real talent for them, so I never pursued them with any seriousness.  One day, my mother presented me with a beautiful blank book with a Klimt illustration on the cover, explaining that this was a drawing journal and that I was to use it only for that.  [Apparently a friend of hers, an art teacher, had suggested that this might encourage me to draw more.]  The book sat guiltily in my desk for several years, until finally one day I couldn’t stand seeing it lie idle, and I took it out and began … to write in it.  I still have it, full of writing, not drawing, and I don’t think I ever told my mother that I had defied her instructions.  These instances of well-intentioned interference on the part of my parents were rare and delicate, and I am grateful for that.  Had they been more aggressive, I suspect I would have fully abandoned some activities that brought me occasional pleasure.)

Allyn’s book seems dominated by a common parenting philosophy that equates “support” with “direction” (or perhaps control?) and I’m  always concerned when parents invest themselves too deeply in shaping their children’s interests.  Children who like reading and writing will read and write, and parents can encourage that by talking with them about reading and writing, and responding to their requests for books, notebooks, laptops if they can afford them, and so forth.  If a child does not show an interest in writing, there are gentle things parents can do: fill the house with books, read and write themselves, suggest that the child write down the stories he tells at the dinner table.  They can give the child a diary and see what happens.  They can experiment with some of Allyn’s suggestions and see if they take, but I would be wary of promoting writing to such a child with the intensity that Allyn suggests, for fear of engendering aversion and resentment.  There’s no doubt that writing a lot will benefit him, but so will playing a lot of basketball or learning a lot about astronomy.  In the end, is it not best to expose him to lots of activities, let him pick the ones he likes, give him time to invest in those interests, and show respect and support for the ways he chooses to spend his hours, as long as they are healthy and promote his growth?

So I think that, as parenting books go, this one is worth reading, and many of its suggestions are worth trying. I also think that parents should consider just being who they are, respecting who their children are, and reading fewer books on the subject, or at least viewing even the best parenting books with friendly suspicion.  I value reading and writing above almost all else, and if I were a parent, I would have to resist the temptation to embrace Allyn’s advice whole hog.  I might even set up a “writing corner” or have occasional “writing evenings” with my children in the hope that my love of writing would infect them.  But I would not expect my children to fall in with the program, although I might learn a lot about them in the process.

Allyn, Pam.  Your Child’s Writing Life. Avery (a division of Penguin Writing Group USA,Inc.) New York: 2011.

What Swimming Taught Me About Teaching

It’s good for a teacher to be a student once in a while.

I learn this lesson over and over as I pursue my MEd.  I have encountered all sorts of challenges I’d forgotten about, like worrying about grades and managing my time in order to get readings done and papers written.  I’ve had to examine how my (sometimes less than courteous) behaviour toward my teachers has affected their feelings and feedback.  I’ve had to wrestle with approaches that I’ve found less than helpful.  All of this is good food for thought for any teacher.

However, sometimes I find myself in a context that gives me a whole new perspective on what my students are going through.  The kind of work I’m doing in my MEd comes pretty easily to me.  I like reading, writing, doing research, participating in class discussions.  I know how to form a sentence, construct an argument, interpret a research paper.  When these tasks are challenging, I still have a strong sense of self-efficacy.  It is more interesting to observe myself when I am struggling with a task that I don’t do well.

Billie Hara, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a revealing summary of what it’s like to be an overweight, middle-aged gym neophyte and receive inconsiderate, condescending and careless training.  I loved reading this article because it says so much about effective and non-effective teaching.  The teacher-as-student can make excellent use of discouraging learning experiences, and Hara has done just that.  In her article, she lists some questions that her experience has raised for her regarding her own teaching:

Have you ever:

  • Made incorrect and negative assumptions about why a student was in your class and that student’s ability to perform the work, assumptions based on gender, race, class, age, or physical ability?
  • Told a student that she wasn’t prepared to do more even if she had the motivation and skills to do so?
  • Simplified instructions to a procedure (theory or concept) to such a degree that a five-year old would understand it (and your student was an adult)?
  • Assumed that students want to be like you (because, you know, you are so amazingly awesome)?
  • Told a student that other calls (other students, other work) were more important than working with him right at that moment?
  • Cut a short appointment even shorter because a student was late and you were insulted?
  • Used terms and concepts that were above a student’s level of understanding, without asking the student if she understood?

This summer, I have been taking swimming lessons.  To give some context: I can swim.  Sort of.  I love being in the water.  I took swimming lessons as a child – I failed my beginner’s class three times, but finally managed to scrape through and do a survival class in which I learned how to tread water, float, etc.  I took adult swimming lessons about ten years ago and discovered (or perhaps just reaffirmed) one of my  most serious limitations: I am so uncoordinated that I have often suspected that I suffer from mild autism.  (This is no joke – there are other indicators.)  Just walking around in the world is a constant gamble for me; doing one thing with my arms and another with my legs while suspended in liquid is totally baffling.  What is more, I recently lost a great deal of weight, and learned for the first time why most people find swimming to be an excellent workout: most people don’t float like corks the moment they enter the water.

So it wasn’t a total surprise to me to discover that, in my intermediate class of seven, I was at the absolute bottom in terms of ability.  I was so much less advanced than the others that during each class, one of the two teachers took me aside to work with me privately.  Both teachers were very sweet young people.  They were in their late teens/early twenties, and were doing their best to be encouraging and helpful.

One did a pretty good job of it.  He worked with me for only one class and focused on one thing at a time.  We started with my shoulder rotation, and once he felt I’d gotten the hang of that, he got me to extend the motion to my elbows and hands.  However, I found myself unable to grasp one of the instructions he was giving me, and when I tried to explain my difficulty, he seemed bewildered and slightly impatient.  I never was able to figure out exactly what he meant for me to do.

I worked more frequently with another teacher whose approach was to get me to swim back and forth and to explain to me, at the end of each length, one thing I needed to work on.  This would have been fine, except that my problems were so myriad that the moment I corrected one thing, another problem arose, until her corrections were so overwhelming that I finally lost my cool.  “I know it was worse this time,” I explained, “because I’m trying to remember all the things you’ve told me up to now and incorporate this new thing you’re telling me and I’m still having trouble moving my arms and legs at the same time!”  Her face went a little blank, and she nodded sheepishly, and I felt slightly ashamed.  She was so young, and she was clearly doing her best.  But at the end of the next length, she said, “I see what you’re saying – I’m giving you too much to think about at once, and I can see you’re trying hard to use my suggestions.  Let’s just work on your breathing for the rest of the class.”

This really impressed me.  Do I have that kind of humility? I wondered.  If a student gets angry at me because I’m not meeting her needs, do I listen and adjust, instead of dismissing her out of hand or telling her how she should approach her own learning?

This may be the principle I focus on this year: learning can be frustrating, and frustration interferes with learning.  If a teacher can acknowledge and adjust for frustration, a student can learn better.  In the meantime, I’m going to step away from swimming classes for a while and spend some time alone in the pool trying to assimilate what I’ve learned, about both swimming and teaching.  And if anyone can give me pointers about my shoulder rotation, I’m all ears.

*

Check out Siobhan Curious’s new Facebook Page and “Like” it to receive updates in your News Feed!

Image by Annika Vogt

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

Character = Behavior: A Lesson Plan

Two parallel experiences over the last couple of weeks have culminated in a lesson plan that I may need to add to my permanent roster.

First, I’ve been meeting with students to look at their first at-home essay.  Their essays have to include a discussion of characterization, but it’s clear that many of them are still not certain how to write about characterization in their essays, and are still not making the connection between a character’s behaviour and what it says about him or her as a person.  What’s more, some don’t seem to recognize the connection between their OWN behaviour and what it says about THEM as people.  Most are polite, punctual and constructively inquisitive; others show up late with blank faces and no questions and are unable to let me finish a single sentence without interrupting me to make excuses or go off on tangents.

Secondly, many university applications were due this past week, and so, leading up to March 1st, I received a number of requests for reference letters.  I am usually delighted to write references for students, but, as a previous post attests, every year some of these requests are baffling.  Students who talked with their friends and played with their phones all class, who showed up late when they showed up at all, who sat passively during group work and said, “I didn’t read the story,” when I called on them, nevertheless somehow believe that I will have something nice to say about them in a reference letter.

So when I went into class on Thursday, I relayed the above information to the students, and told them the story of the most recent incident in which I felt I couldn’t provide someone with a reference.  “She sat in the back and talked with her friends when I was lecturing or other students were speaking,” I said.  “She spent half the class with her phone held up in front of her face, reading and replying to texts.  When she did group work with people other than her friends, her group members often complained about her, because she wasn’t prepared and didn’t contribute.  I had to tell her no, I wouldn’t write her a letter, and she didn’t ask why, so I didn’t tell her…but a couple of things occurred to me.”

By this time, they were riveted.  Cell phones were forgotten, whispered conversations were abandoned, faces were wary but attentive.

“First of all, it might have been helpful to her if she had known the impression she was making AT THE TIME SHE WAS IN MY CLASS.  It’s too late for her to do anything about it now, but if she’d realized then what her actions were saying about her, she might have been able to change something.  So I took some time and made a list of behaviours that will get you a good reference letter from me, and behaviours that will make me say no.  If you’re interested, I’ll show you my list at the end of the class.

“What’s more, it occurred to me that this is a real-life demonstration of characterization at work.  When we discussed characterization, what did we say is the best indication of a person’s character?”

“Their behavior,” the class chorused.

“Exactly.  Writing reference letters is an exercise in characterization: you identify the character traits you believe a person possesses, character traits that qualify them for a profession or a field of study, and then you identify the behaviours that have suggested that they have those character traits.”

So I showed them a good reference letter I wrote a couple of years ago – with the name of the referrant changed, of course – as an example.  Then I explained, “You will probably also have to write reference letters at some point in your lives.  You may be a teacher, or somebody’s boss, or somebody’s colleague.  Someone may ask you to write a comment about them on LinkedIn.  You will need to describe people and give evidence for your description.  So we’re going to practice that today.”

I had them form groups of three, draw professions from an envelope (primary school teacher, dog walker, event planner, garbage collector…) and discuss whether the three main characters in the novel we are reading possess the character qualities necessary to do these jobs.  Each group member then had to write a letter.  One wrote a reference letter for the character they thought was best qualified for the job; the other two wrote letters of apology to the other characters, explaining why they could not give them letters of reference.

When they were just about done, I asked if they’d like to see my list of pro- and anti-reference-letter behaviours, and they said, “YES YES YES.”

DO NOT ASK ME FOR A REFERENCE LETTER IF…

  • you often talk in class when you should be listening to me or other students
  • you spend a lot of class time typing on your phone (especially if you hold it up visibly so that I and everyone can see that you’re not listening)
  • you are often absent or late, or leave early, without documented reasons for doing so
  • you often fail to submit assignments or submit them late
  • you often half-complete in-class work or sit passively while other group members complete work for you
  • you’re often not able to answer my questions or participate in group work because you’re not prepared
  • you do homework from other courses in my class
  • you sulk when you get bad grades, or you complain about your grades without asking polite, constructive questions about how you can improve
  • you write me careless email messages without a greeting or signature (eg. “i wasnt in class today did I miss anything”)
  • I have ever caught you cheating on anything (including “small” infractions like copying in-class work from other students)
  • you are not an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

 

I WILL BE DELIGHTED TO GIVE YOU A REFERENCE LETTER IF…

  • you are always attentive in class, with your phone out of sight and your ears open
  • you attend class and are punctual, with very occasional exceptions
  • you ask polite questions when you don’t understand things
  • you always do your reading and make an effort to respond to questions about it, whether or not you “get it right”
  • your work is always complete, even when it doesn’t “count for grades,” and you submit it on time
  • you come to me for extra help if you need it, or you seek help at the Learning Centre
  • you inform me when you know you will miss a class or will be late for class, and you make an effort to catch up on what you miss
  • you do your best when working with other students and pull your weight (even when others don’t)
  • you write me polite, clear email messages (eg. “Dear Ms. Curious: I’m sorry I had to miss class today; I had to take care of a personal matter.  Could you let me know what I missed and what I should do for homework?  Sincerely, Jane X.”)
  • you are an excellent, engaged, attentive student who tries hard, is polite and treats the people around you with consideration, regardless of your grades.  When writing you a reference letter, I do not care about your grades.  I care about how hard you try and how much you learn.

Immediate results?  A lot of polite and enthusiastic “Goodbye Miss”s at the end of class, a number of polite and well-formulated messages this weekend asking pertinent questions (and apologizing for disturbing me on the weekend) and a lot of thorough and thoughtful (and sometimes hilarious!) reference letters for fictional characters.  Down side?  I’m anticipating an unprecedented number of reference letter requests next year…but if they’ve earned them, I’ll happily write them.

Students are understandably obsessed with grades, and this means they sometimes miss the bigger picture.  And so do we – I spend a lot of time trying to attach grades to things so that students will take them seriously.  Reminding students that grades are not the only thing that counts – even when it comes to immediate, concrete goals like university admission – can go a long way, not only toward establishing a productive classroom, but also toward preparing them for life outside of school.  I have no idea what the long-term effect of this lesson will be, but if nothing else, maybe it will help them understand how “characterization” functions, not only in literature but in life.

Image by miamiamia