Gratitude for New Beginnings

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Happy New YearHappy New Year!  Our semester starts early this year – classes begin tomorrow.  Half of our prep week was spent celebrating New Year’s Eve and Day, and since I am teaching a class I am not very familiar with I am feeling most definitely under-prepared.

But that discomfort is more than outweighed by the pleasure of knowing that I am starting fresh with this new batch of students.  I can teach differently, teach better.  Maybe this will be the semester when I figure out how to get everyone on board.  But whether it is or not, it is a fresh start, and I love that about teaching.

We don’t have to carry our baggage with us when we start a new semester.  My mentally ill students and the damage they did to my confidence are in the past.  I learned and hopefully I have moved on to a better place should I encounter such troubled students again (ah, the equanimity of those final days before classes start and reality sets in!)

I am teaching study skills, which can be a fun class to teach.  I am excited about the creativity that is encouraged by the textbook, which is full of diverse ways to teach and learn each topic.  It is the new pencil/new notebook syndrome: everything is fresh and new and full of possibility.  That is the gift of teaching – no matter how badly you screwed up last semester, the next semester is a new beginning.  I am so thankful to have this opportunity to perpetually be able to begin again with a clean slate.  I wish you the same – an ongoing supply of second chances.

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. 14 – What Money Can Buy

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photo courtesy of 401(K) 2012.

Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a second semester at a metropolitan university.

I had a student tell me today that he wouldn’t be returning for spring semester because he couldn’t afford to.  He is going home and getting a job and going to a community college.  Made me sad.  And mad.

Some students go home after a semester because their homesickness gets the better of them.  But it’s the ones who go home because they have to, either due to lack of money or family demands, that I want to acknowledge today.

I know that community colleges offer many strong educational experiences.  I know that most of us have to work our way through college.  I know that life isn’t fair.  And I know that he got a lot out of the one semester at a four-year university that he was able to attend.

But I also know that it will be harder for him to broaden his horizons and his opportunities once he moves back to his home town and gets a job and hopes/tries to attend community college.

Watching these young adults have to walk away from their university dreams is heart-breaking.  The girls are often in tears and the boys more stoic.  They are all disappointed but resigned to this norm of their lives, the ongoing inequity of resources in this grand country of ours.  May their paths be bright.

What I Learned About Teaching from a Tobacco Survey

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photo by lanier67 on flickr

A few weeks ago I was asked to complete a survey on what makes people quit smoking.  As an ex-smoker, I was willing to take the time, but as I moved through the survey I began to feel an unspoken agenda.  I was repeatedly being asked if smokers would quit if they were told that smoking is bad for them – should ads portray the damage that smoking does?  I could almost hear a plaintive voice asking:  “Shouldn’t preaching work??”

Believe me, smokers know that smoking is bad for them.  Every time they try to take a deep breath, every time they catch a cold that settles firmly in their lungs, every time they admit that they are constantly thinking about the where and when of the next smoke, smokers know in their hearts that they are being controlled by a killer.

But for most of us, knowing we should quit isn’t enough.  I smoked for twenty-five years, and for every one of those years I knew I shouldn’t.  I would cough and hack and catch colds that took months to get over, but my fear of trying to fight the addiction was greater than my desire to be healthy.  What finally motivated me to quit was a deep anger that my life was so deeply controlled by an increasingly expensive product that brought profit to the tobacco industry and nothing but addiction, sickness, and ultimately death to me.

From the specifics of tobacco addiction my thoughts moved on to thinking in larger terms about motivation, and that train of thought led me directly to the well-worn track of “How do we get students to do what we want them to do?”  The laments from professors are ongoing and vociferous – we must improve students’  reading, writing, decision making, and critical thinking.  We must somehow convince our students to come to class, do the work, and THINK.

Yes, all very well and good, but simply telling students they need to come to class, they need to study, they need to THINK is not enough.  Why should we expect them to be better at all this than most of us, who clearly have a hard time making positive changes in our lives?   We watch trashy TV that demeans the human condition and the human spirit, we eat too much, drink too much, smoke too much, yell too much, hate too much.

So.  Instead of repeatedly telling students that learning is good for them, I am going to shut up about that and become much more aggressive about  finding ways to make both the process of learning and the results of that process more immediately rewarding.  I keep thinking about how much fun it is to learn something new when we want that knowledge, and I wonder how to tap into (or perhaps re-awaken) that natural eagerness and curiosity.

I had thought that I had the answer, that the many active learning techniques I had implemented were enough.  My basic reading class last fall taught me different.  I pulled out all the stops, had them up and moving and exploring and talking and creating, and half of them still couldn’t be bothered to come to class (hmm, sensing a crisply edge of burnout still lurking in my heart.)

Henceforth, I am going to focus my planning on helping students discover the value of reading difficult material and the experience of becoming successful at doing so.  I am not going to preach any more – the “No More Preaching Project” starts here.

Burnout Blues


Art by Gwen Meharg –
made available by Creative Commons license

The semester has been over for several weeks now.  I stopped writing this blog midway through the term because I was so discouraged by teaching students who frustrated me in so many ways:

  • students who told me they were too lazy to do the work, and were willing to fail a required, non-credit remedial reading course and be forced to take it AGAIN rather than be bothered to do the work;
  • students who failed quizzes even after I stood at the board and said “This is going to be on the quiz.  This is what I will ask and this is what I am looking for in your answer.”  I don’t think I could possibly have made it any clearer, and yet students who had been sitting in that class and taking notes, missed those questions on the quizzes.  How???
  • one student who had HUGE anger issues.  No matter how gently I corrected her, she flew into a rage and told me she didn’t even allow her mother to speak to her like that.  When her foul language and rudeness finally drove me to pull her out of the classroom and talk to her in the hall, she told me there was no point in anger management because she’d taken every class out there and none of them worked and that’s why she kept going to jail;
  • a young woman who was excited about the ideas we were exploring and participated actively in class, but only showed up one or two days a week out of five.  She consistently reached out to me to arrange to make up work she had missed but then didn’t show up for her appointments, and when I  asked her why, had no explanation except “I don’t know”;
  • Bored, resentful students who didn’t belong in this level of remediation but were placed there by the university because they did not take the placement test as instructed by the Admissions Office.  Our university places students in the lowest level reading class if their ACT scores indicate the need for placement testing but the test isn’t taken.  We do additional placement testing the first two days of classes, but students’ schedules are set and rarely are they willing to shift classes around to move to a higher level.  Unfortunately that means that students with the weakest reading skills are placed in classes with others whose skills are much stronger and who are deeply bored by the time and level of detail needed to help the weakest students improve;

I just got so TIRED.  I even applied for an administrative position (twelve months????) and recently learned, after two interviews, that I did not get the job.  That means I will be returning to the classroom this fall, and I must find my way through this miasma of discouragement – I don’t want to be one of those teachers (I was going to qualify “teachers” with “developmental” but then realized I have seen this bitterness in every level of university instruction) who dislike their students and resent the challenges inherent in teaching them.

When I was considering the administrative job I realized that there were projects I still wanted to try out in a classroom, lessons I still wanted to teach, new ways of teaching the same old stuff I wanted to explore, (and summers I wanted to enjoy!)  So I am going to work hard this summer on visualizing myself in the classroom, grounded in calm.  I am going to do some work noodling around with the concept of expectations and try to see what part that played in my crash-and-burn.  I am going to think about how to re-structure my instruction to help students more successfully make the transition from high school to college.  Colleagues and I have talked about how  freshmen orientation focuses on the social aspects of college life and not the academic expectations.  Social engagement in college is certainly important but it doesn’t necessarily help them pass their classes.  How can we help them understand and truly internalize what it takes to be a successful student?

I need to build in a higher level of accountability for students without making my own workload unbearable.  I need to help them understand the consequences of their choices before those consequences lead them to suspension.  I need to work miracles.  Miracles, find me now.

Dealing with a Bipolar Student Not on Her Meds


photo by rightbrainphotography on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license

FALL 2011:  I am struggling with a student whose written work is coherent and complete, whose attendance is consistent, but whose behavior in class has me ready to stand at the door of my classroom and physically bar her entry.  The ability of one student to destroy the classroom environment never fails to amaze me.

Although I am usually comfortable with establishing a well-behaved class, she has presented a defiant challenge.  She talks across the room to her friends in the middle of class, laughs loudly and long at the most inappropriate moments, fights me at full volume on my directions for every assignment or project, and challenges every single mark I make on her papers, without listening to my (reasoned and calm) explanations.

Or else she sits in the farthest corner of the room with a pout on her face and her arms tightly crossed, refusing to join her group and looking like a three-year-old in a sulk.  I do not know if she has been diagnosed with any type of mental disorder, but her mood flies from manic to comatose and back again within a single class session.

We went for almost a week with no major incident and I thought to myself, “Great, she’s back on her meds.”  But alas, the next day we landed right back in Chaos Land with my assignment of new groups to do our vocabulary project.  She refused to speak to her group members and continued to talk to her two buddies until I physically stood between the two groups and told everyone to work with their own groups, at which point she got up and walked out.

I got the class going on the project, then waited outside the door and met her when she came back.  I asked her to get her belongings and told her that we needed to talk.  I was SO nervous, even though I had rehearsed what I was going to say with my dean the day before and had the Student Conduct Code in hand.  Start with the positive, then express concern about her mood swings, both for her sake and for the sake of the class.

It started out well.  She has a sweetness within her, and that came out as we started talking.  As soon as I broached the impact her behavior had on the class, however, she exploded, first claiming she was doing nothing out of the ordinary.  When I countered that with all the examples I had prepared, she then insisted that her classmates just needed to learn to deal with her behavior.

I admit I lost my temper somewhere right about here in our discussion.  It’s so disheartening to move from the high ground.

When I brought out the student conduct code, she said the class was stupid and I treated them all as if they were stupid by explaining words and text as we read.  This is a low-skill college reading class, and the majority of the students have written about how much they like the way I structure the class, so I started my spiel about how to behave in a class that teaches skills you already have.  This is a topic I have presented enough that I was able to calm down and help her find a way to approach the challenge.

That seemed to go well, and she moved from sitting three feet away from the table with arms crossed and fury in her eyes to explaining with tears in her eyes that she was exhausted and really stressed.  She had a lot going on in her life and had to work sixteen hour shifts on the weekends to pay for the apartment she chose because she didn’t like freshman housing.  I decided now was not the time to discuss choices and consequences!

When she came back to explaining that sometimes she just had bad days, I agreed that everyone has bad days (although her bad days appear as severe clinical depression with a side of fury).  I had a brainstorm and suggested that we come up with “safe words” – something she can say when she is having a particularly bad day and just needs to be left alone.  She wanted a phrase that to me sounded rude and hurtful, even though it was just asking me to go away.  So I suggested “I’m having a really bad day, I’m sorry.”  And I promised that if she said that, I would back off and leave her alone and not ask her to participate in the class discussions.

In return, she is going to not shout out at her friends during class or during group work when they are not in her group.  She is going to willingly work with her own group, and when we start to butt heads, either one of us can say “Let’s just stop here” and we will halt the confrontation before it starts.

She said she doesn’t want to be the person she is in my class.  I had been praying and turning this whole challenge over to God since I decided I had to call a halt to her behavior, so hopefully the result will be positive for her, for me, and for my class.

We are giving it a two week trial until mid-term conferences.  My fingers are crossed.  I will write a follow-up post at that time on our progress.

UPDATE:  We found a place of truce, although she didn’t show up for midterm or final conferences.  It never got easy, but we were able to keep from exploding, with one exception:

A few weeks after our meeting, she left class with about 20 minutes to go and missed the explanation of what I wanted them to do on their handouts.  When she came back in after class to collect her belongings, she said “This doesn’t make any sense!” about the handout.  I (relatively calmly…) said that she had missed the explanation and if she wanted to come by my office I would be happy to go over it with her.  She blew up and started screaming at me and I just walked out.  BUT, a miracle happened.  After I spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what it was about the way we connected that was so incendiary for her, she came to my office the next morning AND APOLOGIZED.  I was stunned, and so very very grateful.

She told me she shouldn’t have spoken to me as she did, that she didn’t like herself when she behaved that way, and that she was very sorry to have acted as she did.  I praised her so much for having the courage to come to me and apologize.  I also suggested that it must be exhausting to get so upset and that she should take care of herself.  What do you say, what do you do, when anything can trigger an explosion?  Hmm, I wonder if there were addiction issues??

Anyway, I survived the most difficult student I have ever had.  It was so so hard.  I reach out to all of you who are struggling with damaged students in your classes.  Being able to respond with love and the right kind of support when they push every button you have is beyond all of us at times, and we have to not spend nights beating ourselves up!  Whatever we do, let it be lovingly and bravely done.

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