“This is stupid” or How I Discovered Confusion

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photo by Dan4th on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license

Just had a lovely conversation with some students after class about the frustration of non-credit courses and the University’s unrealistic promotion of the goal of graduating in four years.

Three young women remained behind after class today, and we talked about what it takes to become a professor, recovering from mistakes, and being patient with the process of achieving long term goals.  What excited me so much was that one of these young women has regularly expressed her frustration in class with a strongly voiced “This is stupid!”  Today she told me today she really likes this class, and she finds comfort in my stories of having failed classes and taken an embarrassing number of years to finish my undergraduate degree.

Our conversation was a real pleasure, and I realized that, at least for that particular young woman, “This is stupid” is not judgment on my lesson plan, on me as a human being or as a teacher, or anything else but “I don’t understand this and I don’t know how to figure it out and I feel stupid and I HATE THAT.”

Earlier today, during their class, they were working in groups on a narrative that included new vocabulary words.  The definition of the word this young woman had chosen was ambiguous, and the dictionary didn’t explain the usage -the word is only used to refer to ideas, not concrete objects.  So, her story needed to be re-worked.

When I explained, she started to react in her go-to frustration “This is stupid” mode, but I just made myself go to a very calm place in my head and slow w-a-y down.  I showed her in her own context examples how the word is used, then helped her revise her story to make the change.

She got the changes made before the end of the hour, we had a lovely conversation, and she walked out of the room feeling positive about her ability to learn it, do it, get it.  Good day.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Free Grains of Rice for Knowing Words

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I love this game!   You can play a vocabulary quiz game, learn new words, and donate ten grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program for each correct answer.

Every semester I have mentioned the game to my students, but I doubt that they followed up and found the game on their own.  Most of them are not yet avid information-seekers.

I would bring up the game in the vocabulary unit as we discussed the value of knowing word parts – prefixes, suffixes and roots.  I told them about my experience of doing well even though I didn’t recognize many of the more difficult words.  I used word parts to make my guesses, and the rice just kept rolling in.

This semester, with my bi-weekly sessions in a computer lab, I decided to make them play.  So I put this link on Blackboard and had them play the game for the first five minutes of class.  When I asked how many grains of rice we had donated, there were excited shouts: “Five hundred!” “Three hundred twenty!” “Fifty!”  We had easily donated a bowl of rice in each class.  Cool.

One of the many things I like about this game is that if a player gets answers wrong, the questions get easier, but if the answers are right, the questions get harder.  The weaker students can succeed and the stronger students are challenged, all in the same activity.  Lovely.  And we are helping feed a starving soul somewhere in our hungry world.  Amen.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

What A Difference A Smile Makes

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photo by seanbjack on flickr

First day of class. Looking around the room full of new student faces, I see front and center a stern unsmiling young black woman.   Oh dear, hostility already?  As the days passed and I tried to work my reassuring charm, nothing changed.  She refused to smile and consistently challenged almost everything I said.  I began to feel that all my energy was going toward finding ways to graciously respond to her ongoing contempt.  It seemed that no matter what I did or said, I was wrong and I was seriously pissing her off!

I took my concerns to a friend, a black professor (I am white) who also has this young woman in a freshman orientation class.  He was shocked, as in his class she is very quiet and hasn’t made her presence known at all.  Okay, so what did that tell me?  That I just somehow have a pissing-her-off  personality?  Not much help in moving through this stuck place.

My friend and I talked about defense and survival mechanisms, about how issues of race and socio-economic status are often lurking in our black and white interactions, about how so many of our students come from segregated (both white and black) high schools and don’t know how to deal with mixed classrooms (it truly breaks my heart to write that sentence!)  Black students from our neighboring urban areas in particular develop defense and survival mechanisms that don’t necessarily serve them well on this predominantly white campus.

I began to speculate that her demeanor was designed to protect her from the slings and arrows of being a young black woman on a predominantly white campus.  It shifted my perception, and I started noticing that she was one of my strongest students, always on time, homework always done, willing to answer my questions in class.  huh.  Not the student I had created in my head at all (see another post on this same issue here).  Still stern, still unsmiling, but present in the class.

The real breakthrough came when we did a role-playing activity in class.  She was outstanding (though still unsmiling) and I complimented her acting skills.  She grinned (I cannot tell you what a joy that was to see!) and said she had always thought about being an actress but had never done anything about it.  She came by my office later that day to ask a question and I once again shared my enthusiasm for her talent.

She still doesn’t smile, but I have changed.  I smile inside every time I look at her, and we have found a working respect for each other that does not depend on her smile.  I don’t feel that I have the right to advise her to smile more –  there are so many bad echoes in that advice.  Also, see my previous blog about the stunning lack of success I had the last time I offered unsolicited advice to a student!

I haven’t let go of my concern entirely, for the lack of a softening smile can definitely be an issue in how we relate to each other.  I saw that clearly one day as I watched her interact with a young man in our class.  He needed a pencil, and she tossed him one which he didn’t catch.  She teased him with “Nice catch” but no smile, and he looked unsure as to whether she was kidding or criticizing.  I know she was trying to tease him, but he didn’t.  The cue he was familiar with to identify friendly teasing – the smile – wasn’t there and its absence made him unsure of her intent and the appropriate response.

We all moved on with no lasting problems, and I will remain alert to any possible teaching opportunities to share with the class what a difference a smile makes.  But for now, I am pleased to say that I am learning to look for the student behind the protective curtain.  Thank you, oh great and powerful wizard of Oz, for that!

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

A Thumbsucker’s Manifesto


Was I right or wrong?

Early in the semester I have students introduce themselves by identifying one thing that is unique about them and probably not true of anyone else in the class.  One young woman’s claim to uniqueness was that she sucks her thumb.

My immediate response was to express my concern that thumb-sucking is a habit that can ostracize her. I shared a story about a student of mine a few years ago, who sucked her thumb all the time.  She sucked her thumb in class, as she walked through the dorm halls (where, according to her roommate, she also trailed a blanket along with her), in the cafeteria – everywhere.

Other students, not surprisingly, made fun of her.  Eyes rolled and giggles were suppressed when she walked into the classroom with her thumb in her mouth.  Students didn’t want her passing their handouts, which led to some awkwardness for me as she always sat right up front.  I had to reach around her to give the stack of papers to the student behind her.  Even though it made me feel rude to do so, I understood the concerns of the germaphobes behind her.

So…. I shared that story as a caution that my current student might want to work on breaking herself of her thumb-sucking habit if she didn’t want to be judged because of it.  Tensions immediately flew into the air.  Two students verbally jumped to her defense, one saying that she too sucked her thumb to go to sleep (I quickly agreed that was a different matter if you only do it to fall asleep) and the other making the point that since the thumb-sucker was from a dangerous neighborhood in a nearby large city she was tough enough to be invulnerable to the judgment of others.

We moved on that day in class, but I worried that exchange around in my head over the weekend, wondering if my automatic decision to give advice had created the adversarial dynamic that blew up so quickly.  Even though what I said was absolutely true, was I wrong to share it in front of the whole class?  My feeling is that the answer is a resounding yes.

I did have the opportunity to explore the issue a little more deeply a few days later.  I meet with each of my students individually in the first two weeks of class, and the thumb-sucker (I am so sorry to be identifying her like that – let me call her TS!) hadn’t been in class for two days.  I was meeting with another student and in passing she mentioned TS.  I expressed my concern that TS hadn’t been in class for a couple of days and that I was worried it was because of what I had said about her sucking her thumb.  This student (who was friends with her two defenders) laughed and said “No, I’m sure that isn’t it.  You know how some students just think they can miss this many days of one class, and this many days of another?  That’s her.”

So, maybe it wasn’t a soul-scarring moment for her.  Good to know.  Nevertheless, I am taking this as a cautionary lesson about advice.  Think once, twice, three times before I make personal comments disguised as advice.  It is a tricky call, because I do feel that as a teacher/guide for under-prepared college freshmen it is appropriate more often than not for me to share my wisdom and experience with my students.  Talking to students about their attitudes, their habits, sometimes even their appearance (and the worst – their odor) can be an appropriate part of my role if it is done with love.  I think my mistake was doing it in class, and I should know better than that.  My best guess as to what derailed my judgment was that the isolation of my previous student flashed up in front of me and blinded me to the fact that this was the wrong setting to share her cautionary tale.

From now on, I will not only be more careful about how I respond to personal statements in class, but I will also do my best to ease up on judging personal habits.  If it doesn’t hurt them or anyone else and  provides comfort, who the heck am I to judge?  It is time for me to let go and move on.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Brand New Shoes

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It was the first day of school, students were everywhere, and everyone was busy indulging in first impression-itis.  As I headed toward my first class I almost ran into one young woman who reminded me to take care when I find myself relying on first impressions.  She was waiting in line at the coffee shop that daily provides an obstacle course of caffeine-craving bodies between me and my classroom, and I was thinking how intimidating she was – tall and broad shouldered, with a strong presence and a defiant tilt to her head.  Definitely not a young woman to  mess with (or run into.)

Then I looked down.  She was dressed all in pink and white (which did NOT soften her fierceness one bit) and she was wearing brand new pink and white shoes.  There was not a scuff or a scratch or a smudge on the bright white of those shoes, and my heart softened so at the sight of them.  You just knew that she had picked out those shoes to go with that outfit, and that she had been saving both outfit and shoes for her first day of college.

Just like that she shifted – from potential defiance and challenge to a child, a fellow traveler, a soul to whom I could connect.  Thank you, brand new pink and white shoes.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

Don’t Trust the Dictionary


photo by Joelk75 @ flickr

I have found a new site that solves a major vocabulary-teaching problem.

When teaching new words to my students, I used to struggle with the gap between dictionary definitions and common usage.  If students create a sentence based solely on the dictionary definition of a new word, nine times out of ten (made-up statistic) the sentence will sound wrong.  Trying to explain why it sounds wrong was a challenge I often struggled to meet.

So I started requiring the students to use online dictionary sites that include context examples.  It is surprisingly obvious when the students have made up sentences rather than copied legitimate example sentences, which taught me that the dictionary definition is not enough to help them learn to use new words appropriately.

Last semester we used a variety of dictionary sites, and I had the students rate them according to their usability.  I wanted sites that included context examples, but there wasn’t a lot of consistency about whether or not a site included context examples.  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Well, eureka!  I just discovered Wordnik, a site that exists to provide definitions and a multitude of example sentences.  I have revised my computer lab assignment, and now the students will be required to use Wordnik first, then find a similar definition and context sentence (if available) at another dictionary site.

Check out Wordnik – way cool!

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com


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Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass, 1855

I want to remember this quote and have it ready to use the first time I contradict myself this semester.  Whitman’s words give me a path to follow as I try to figure out how I can help my students deal with the contradictions and complexities of the world.  Embrace the multitudinousness!

I frequently hear teachers complain that students want clear answers, simple answers, no ambiguity, no gray.  I have to admit that the simple, the clear-cut, the straightforward yes/no answers appeal to me as well, even though I know the dangers (just look at the mess our country is in as we embrace the simplistic).  As we get older we learn that good simple answers are sometimes in short supply, but the allure remains.

So  how do I help my students accept and even embrace the messiness?  Perhaps I can work harder to consciously, visibly and regularly embrace contradiction in front of my students and let them see that I don’t immediately implode as a result. I will be honest with my own discomfort and I will make every effort to come from a place of love, not arrogance as I try to teach them that they too contain multitudes.

2011 © HeyTeach101 & toreadtowrite.com

photo credit:  maubrowncow on flickr

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