Nov. 27 – Student Conferences

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I like to get feedback from students at every point possible throughout the semester.  It starts during the first week of class, when I block out time to meet with each student individually.  This means canceling classes for at least a day, usually two.  I have debated whether or not these initial conferences are worth the lost class time, and I even tried doing without them one semester.  When I didn’t have those meetings in the first week I never felt like I knew the students as well, and I realized that I use the information gathered in this initial meeting throughout the semester.  I returned to those first-week conferences the next semester and have done them ever since.

I have students fill out information forms before our meeting, and the information they provide gives me a basis for an introductory conversation.  Aside from the usual demographic stuff I ask them about their reading – what do they like to read, what do they most want to improve about their reading, what is their greatest strength as a reader?  Sadly, far too many students draw a total blank when trying to answer that last question – “I don’t have any strengths.”  sigh.

I also ask them if they are upset about being placed in a non-credit “developmental” reading class.  Most say they are resigned to taking it, though many don’t understand why they have to do so.  Some are honest and say that yes, they are angry about being forced to take a non-credit class they don’t think they need.  I find that acknowledging and addressing that resistance right away as honestly as I can is the most effective way to defuse it before the mood of an entire class is affected.

I also meet with students at the end of the semester in lieu of a final exam.  We talk about the semester and what should come next for them.  For many students it is a formality but for some it is a powerful moment of affirmation and connection, and for me it is a time to say “Well done” or “I know you’ll do better next semester.”

And now, in addition to these two meetings, I think I want to start having midterm conferences as well.  I have avoided them for a couple of reasons up until now: the additional lost class time and the question of how to just meet with the students I need to meet with, i.e. the ones who aren’t doing as well.  I thought about allowing A students, or perfect attendance students, or some such criterion students a pass on midterm conferences, but that seems to send the message that if you’re good you don’t have to do this thing, which makes “this thing” not a very appealing thing at all.  But why take the time to meet with students just to say “you’re doing great, keep it up?”  Or even more so, with the passively competent students who have absolutely nothing to say and look at me like I’m crazy when I thank them for coming in and ask if they have anything they want to talk about.

But I think it is so important to meet with the shaky students – the ones I might not lose if I reach out at the right time.  It’s so hard to know, and I do try to remember that I am not the only influence in their lives; so many of my students’ lives are so complex, with so many demands and challenges, that sometimes it seems a miracle they get to class at all.  Maybe I will come up with a journal assignment that will give all of my students something to say in a mid-term conference.  That way it is at least not a punitive event, and we might even have some enlightening conversations.  And maybe those good students need to hear that they are doing well.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget the quietly competent.  Don’t want to do that.  Here’s to all of the quietly competent – I think I will make these conferences as much about them as about the strugglers.  That will certainly make for a change of pace, and it will provide me with a new challenge as I design my conference plans next semester.  huzzah.

Nov. 16 – Of Mosques and Mosquitoes

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Photo by david takes photos. Made available by Creative Commons license.

Yesterday in class we read Ishmael Reed’s “America: The Multinational Society.”  While the primary challenge of his writing style for my students was the length of his sentences (the students were convinced that there had to be of a run-on sentence in there somewhere!), it was their interpretation of the  word mosque that surprised me and unexpectedly enhanced my understanding of their reading process.

I have four sections of the same class, reading the same essay.  In the first hour, when the student who was reading came to the word mosque he first read it as mosquito.  With a few gentle giggles from his classmates, he corrected himself and we moved on.  Then it happened again in the next section – when the student who was reading came to mosque, once again mosquito was seen and spoken.  And again third hour.  And yes, fourth class read exactly the same thing.  So clearly this was not an aberration, one student only glancing at the first few letters and making a best guess from there.  Four students, 100%, every single time.  We had us a pattern.

To me those two words – mosque and mosquito –  don’t look that much alike.  Although they start the same way, the length and endings are clearly distinct.  But every one of the students who read the sentence which contained mosque saw mosquito.  I think they know the word mosqueand they definitely know the word mosquito, so I am thinking it is more about the technical aspect of what exactly our eyes are looking at when we interpret words on the page.  My theory is that they look at the first few letters and then guess at the rest.

I think I need to explore word recognition techniques and tools.  This seems like it may be another key that will help us move toward fluency.

Nov. 15 – Reading Aloud

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Image from Briarpress. Made available by Creative Commons license.

As a college reading instructor, I find the most effective way to teach the skills and strategies of reading complex text is to have the students, in a circle, read aloud.   I know the trauma of reading aloud is epidemic (“the other students made fun of me,” “my teacher would always make me read and everyone laughed” ad nauseum) but the practice is so beneficial to both students and teacher that I believe it is worth confronting the trauma head-on.

When I first present the practice at the beginning of the semester, I can see the panic in far too many eyes.  I assure students by telling them they always have the right to pass when it is their turn.  I don’t mind if they never read aloud all semester, and I most sincerely mean that.  Enough students read from the very first day to keep the practice going, and I rarely have students who pass on reading aloud every class.  The most frightened student I ever had passed for the first two months of the semester, and when, with the class’s encouragement, he finally found the courage to read aloud, he was cheered by his classmates.  In addition, each person only reads one sentence at a time, so it isn’t a huge burden.

And now, let’s look at the benefits.  The students hear each other stumble over vocabulary, over end-of-the-line hyphenations and confusing sentence structures.  They hear their classmates mis-pronounce words, mis-read words, and skip lines when they read.  They learn they are not alone in their struggle to make sense out of printed text.  Their fluency and confidence improve, sometimes dramatically, as the semester progresses.  Students frequently identify reading aloud and the circle as their favorite part of the class, and some have said that reading aloud has given them the confidence to make presentations in their other classes as well.

The benefits to the teacher also abound.  I learn just how many words they don’t really know.  I can hear when the sentence tangles them up, so we can stop and pull it apart.  I can hear when they are reading with interest and engagement and when the text has lost them.  I can stop and make connections, point out signal words and constructions, bring attention to text structures that will help them make sense out of the text.  I can help them focus on what is important, on introductory and concluding sentences, on lists, on similarities among details that will help them identify the main point.  And, at the end of the hour I know that every single student in the class has read that piece of text.

I have even brought the practice home.  My partner and I are reading The Happiness Project and we have been reading a section a day, taking turns reading aloud.  It’s been such a great way to share a book, and my students were delighted (or at least intrigued) to learn that I am reading aloud at home as well!

Nov. 13 – “It’s Our Responsibility” – So Why Don’t They Do It?

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After our somewhat energetic vocabulary review yesterday, I thought I would check in with my students to see what they took away from the activity.  And, since I can never stop at just one question, I also asked them if they felt prepared for the test (to be given the day after tomorrow) and whether or not we should have spent more time in class reviewing for the test.  I was curious, as so many of them clearly had little memory of the meanings of these words we have been working with all semester (obviously not working enough.)

The reviews of the activity were consistently positive, ranging from “It was great to get out of my seat and wake up” to “It made me realize how many of the words I am not sure of.”  Students were from “40%” to “80%” prepared for the test, even if they had just acknowledged in the previous question that they didn’t know the words.  Yet.  That knowledge front is moving in fast though, and they’re going to be so ready, because they really want to get an A on that test.

But it was the response to the last question (should we have spent more time reviewing in class) that got me pondering.  Although a few students thought that more review would have helped, the vast majority felt that it was up to them to do the studying.  Well, yes.  It is up to them.  But clearly that isn’t enough to get them to actually do it.  Far too many of them are planning to learn 77 words in two nights.  So what can I, as a basic skills instructor (reading, writing and study skills) do to help them get more successful in their new roles as college students?  I feel like there is some motivational secret key out there somewhere, and I just haven’t found it yet.  Active learning, inquiry-based, community-building, all buzz words that I deeply believe in.  But there is another piece out there and, even though I haven’t found it yet, I am convinced it is there and waiting to be found.  My Eureka! moment is impending.

Nov. 12 – The Competition Was Fierce

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Today we had a review of the vocabulary words we’ve been working on all semester.  There are a few students who clearly have claimed the words and will do well on the test, but for most of them the meanings are still elusive, so I needed to get those words back in front of them before the test at the end of the week.  We have over 75 words that the students selected to learn from a list of SAT and GRE words.  They have the full list to work from, plus they’ve been having weekly quizzes (their choice – I took a vote) to help them work on the words.  And here we are, three days before the big test.

I decided to have them play a game – two teams, with the definitions on the board.  One member from each team had the opportunity to go up to the board and identify the correct definition when I called out the word.  In most of the sections the students had fun as they relaxed and cheered them team members on.  It was a good time and a reminder that they had a lot of work to do before the test.  (You know, of course, that I have been reminding them for almost a month to not leave this until the last minute.  How do we make that real before the crisis point arrives??)

My one mostly male, mostly rabid sports fans section, however, was a totally different story.  It was not about fun, it was not about the words, it was about WINNING.  And complaining about the other team cheating.  And blocking the opposing team’s player from getting to the board.  I was exhausted at the end of the hour, and there was a lot of tension and high emotion in the room.  But the most interesting thing of all to me was the one student who displayed a powerful skill at reading me.  (He has been slacking most of the semester and is now trying frantically to catch up – smart guy, but serious slacker tendencies.  In the last few weeks he has asked with every assignment, “Are you grading this?  How many points is it worth?”)  So, today, he was firmly in the game although he clearly had not yet learned the words (though I had specifically pointed out to him that this test would be a great opportunity to regain some lost ground.)  Instead, when it was his turn, he would ask me if I was sure that the definition was on the board, and he would watch my eyes.  His skill at identifying what definition I focused on as I checked to make sure it was up there was unnerving.  I know I don’t have a poker face, but I was trying really hard not to indicate anything in my look.  Apparently I didn’t do as well as I thought, for his skill and speed took my breath away.  If only he could read a textbook as well as he read me.

It made me think about how quickly and firmly we pigeon-hole our students, our friends, our family, and how many talents become invisible as we see only the pigeon-hole, not the person whole and entire.  I don’t know that we ever can see anyone that fully, but I know I can see more than I do.

Nov. 11 – Being a Nuisance

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Freya Stark, courtesy of NY Times

“One has to resign oneself to being a nuisance if one wants to get anything done.”  (Freya Stark)

I came across this quote a few days ago, and it stuck in my mind but I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I had no idea who Freya Stark was, and mixed feelings about the concept of “being a nuisance” – a phrase that had a old-world feisty female feel to it, but at the same time a sense of apology implied.  And to be honest, I was feeling a little self-criticism too, as I am afraid that I have not resigned myself to being a nuisance as often as I probably should.

I Googled Freya Stark and discovered that she was a British explorer in the 1930s who wrote prolifically about her travels to the Mideast and Afghanistan.  Who knew?  Obviously not me.  But learning who she was and what she did, even superficially, deepened my appreciation of that quote no end.  I am sure she found herself a nuisance in the eyes of the men of the Mideast (and Britain) on a daily basis.

And it is the history of Freya that made that quote come alive for me.  I was watching Night at the Museum tonight (do you see the connection coming?) and had that lesson reinforced.  Teddy Roosevelt tells the new night watchman that he will find dealing with all the exhibits coming to life much better if he studies their history.  aha.  Today my lesson is the value of knowing history.

As I almost always take my insights back to the classroom, that made me think about how confusing life must be for students when they recognize so few of the references made in texts because they don’t know the history.    So cultural history, cultural references – the list of things to include and figure out how to squeeze into a finite number of class hours expands and expands.  But important because understanding the history deepens reading comprehension so powerfully.

I need to think more on this, and as I am a committed believer in active learning, I need to think of strategies to get the students involved in finding out the cultural references they need.  sigh.  I think it’s time for a long winter’s nap.  Or at least time for bed.  I’ll figure this out tomorrow.

Nov. 10 – But I Told Them…

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photo courtesy of

I just finished grading exams, and I am experiencing the same confusion I do every time I grade exams.  I make a conscious effort to be very clear about what will be on my exams.  There are even terms and definitions that I clarify: “This is how I want you to word that definition.”  I put the content on the board.  I explain ad nauseum that these items will be on the test.  I review these items.  After most of the students miss them on the first exam, I review them again, on the board, in class activities, and in homework.  I tell students that these items will show up on the next exam.  I review them yet again.  HOW DO THEY STILL MISS THOSE QUESTIONS???  oops.  sorry.  didn’t mean to shout.

I made the “second-time around” questions worth double points, and told the students ahead of time that they would be heavily weighted.  And I have students who are desperate to pull up their grades now that we are in the final reality check weeks of the semester.  And yet.  Yes, not everyone missed them – half the class got the questions right.  But HALF THE CLASS DIDN’T.

And it isn’t just the fact that they are missing the questions – what is getting to me most of all is that I feel so hugely removed from all of these students who are not taking the trouble to lock down those points.  Their “student-ness” is so very different from mine.  I was such a meticulous student – if I knew items were going to be on a test, I made it my business to learn those items at least well enough to spew back whatever was necessary on test day.  So many of my students don’t have that habit, or that value system.  I don’t think my overweening need to please my teachers was necessarily a good thing for my character or the development of my spirit, but it certainly served me well in the academic world.  I am ambivalent about teaching to the test, even when it is my own test.  But shouldn’t they learn to play this game if they’re going to be in college?

I am going to once again utilize one of the very best lessons I ever learned in grad school – when you have a question about teaching, ask the students.  I have started carrying quarter-size sheets of scratch paper with me to class for impromptu polls, and I think on Monday I am going to do a survey to try and find out why so many students still missed these questions, and what we can do about it.  If I find out anything useful, you’ll see it here first.

Nov. 9 – A Student’s Anger

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I was blithely grading exams yesterday when my boss called and asked if I could drop by.  After the inevitable “What did I do wrong?” thoughts moved through (apparently I will never grow out of that), I wondered if he was going to respond to my proposal to create a new type of writing class for students.

But no, my proposal wasn’t the reason.  sigh.  A former student, the angry young woman I mentioned in Burnout Blues, was having trouble with her instructors this semester, and even worse, she was now homeless and living out of her car.  My boss wanted to “touch base” with me and confirm what I had told him (I think he wanted me to talk to her, but I firmly squashed that idea – it  would so not go well.)  We talked for a while, and I suggested another instructor with whom she has a less … fraught … history as someone who might be able to reach out to her.

I have never had a student work harder to get assignments done, and her attendance was exemplary.  But she cannot take correction at any level without exploding, and I don’t know how to help her find her way beyond that destructive response.

Her anger comes as a reasonable reaction to a brutal childhood, filled with every type of abuse that has a name and probably some that don’t.  But it is not serving her well at all, and she has rejected help, probably after finding no relief from the oceans of pain.  I don’t know what to do for her but pray.

Sometimes teaching is so hard.

Refreshing the Teaching Spirit

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Coming back this fall after a year of difficult challenges, I was apprehensive about my ability to start fresh with my new classes.  But the first week of classes is over, and I feel that my efforts to offset the sense of burnout and frustration were effective (so far anyway….)

I knew that I was bringing emotions from past semesters into the new year, and I didn’t want to do that – clearly not fair to my students.  I worked hard to let go of that feeling of … to be honest it was dread … at  the possibility of having more severely troubled students.  While understanding that we are facing larger and larger numbers of students with varying degrees of mental illness helps keep me from ignorantly judging students with mental illness as big fat jerks, it doesn’t help me know how to help them, or even survive them with my love of teaching intact.

So, throughout the summer I just kept handing my concerns over to God.  Asked to be able to see these students clearly, not through the shadow of former students’ troubles.  I thought about their excitement, their uncertainty, their hopes and dreams.  And I learned techniques to ground myself and protect myself from others’ negative emotions.  I promised myself and God that I will stand in His Love as I face His children and pray to reflect that Love in my teaching.

Another component of the less-than-eager mindset was having taught the same class from the same textbook for the last eight years (goodness, I fell asleep just writing that sentence.)  We have new textbooks, and even though I don’t think I like the primary one very much, at least it is something new.  Hopefully it will trigger new and better teaching methods this semester.

So… fresh clean attitude, new books, hi ho here we go.  If anyone else has realistic techniques to refresh the teaching spirit, send them this way.  And I’ll let you know how my path progresses.

What I Learned About Teaching from the Tarot

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Some of last year’s students were a real struggle for me (see Dealing with a Bipolar Student… and Burnout Blues) , and I have been thinking a lot about how to move on from those negative experiences and not carry those wounds with me into a new school year and a whole new crop of excited, nervous, vulnerable college freshmen.  One of the most useful insights came from a totally unexpected source.  A dear friend of mine, a Quaker and an MBA, is also a Tarot card reader.  She offered me a free reading for my birthday, so for my very first Tarot card reading ever we looked at my writing and my teaching.  The “spread” on writing turned up a lot of cards having to do with work and stamina and fortitude (sigh.)

The spread on teaching, however, turned up lots of messages about change, and the most important card, the “sky of the situation” card covering it all, was the King of Cups, which represents control and balance of emotions.  The interpretation was that I could become very good at teaching if I could gain control of my emotions. The corollary implication was that lack of that control is holding me back as a teacher.  Hmmm.  Temper.  Hurt feelings.  Disappointment.  Impatience.  Those kinds of emotions??  Gotta say that seems right on target as the issue that is keeping me struggling as a teacher.

So, having this information tucked away in my psyche, I went to an “empathic life coach” for another issue of being stuck in my life.  The life coach took this issue of emotions much further, explaining that I was (this feels embarrassing to write – it sounds so self-important) also an empath, and my challenge was to not absorb the emotions of everyone else.  Aha!  I was picking up and carrying students’ emotions.  Aha!!!!  That was such a liberating realization – that maybe all that irritability wasn’t just coming from me, but was more a reflection of students’ emotional struggles.  My emotions felt so childish and out of control and I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from – they didn’t feel like me, and I didn’t recognize myself in them.  Seeing them as a reflection of others’ feelings makes so much sense to me.

I have a colleague who has a very even temperament, and I watch him in awe.  I couldn’t imagine moving through life with such equanimity, but I truly envied his constant composure.  Maybe that demeanor is actually a possibility for me now that I am learning to protect myself from others’ emotions while still remaining open to life.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

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