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. 26 – Teaching Vocabulary with Image and Rhyme

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photo made available by Creative Commons license from:
“Alright, we’ll take your word for it.”

Our brains are hard-wired to recognize images – we see image so much more clearly than we do text.  I am convinced that there is a way to make use of that wiring to teach college students new words.  This semester I decided to move beyond my own paltry imagination and lack of drawing skills and try out some of the college-level vocabulary cartoon books.  I made a list of the words for which I had cartoons, then we chose words to learn from that list.

For each new word, I shared my vocabulary cartoon resources with my students, then looked for feedback.  In quizzes, I asked them to identify which words triggered a memory of the cartoons and which of those remembered images helped them identify the meaning.  Many more students remembered the images than the meanings, which tells me that, even for professional vocabulary cartoonists (?) it is not easy to effectively connect meaning and image.

In previous semesters I have had the students create their own images, and I think that turned out almost as well as using these pre-made cartoons.  There is a lot of initial resistance to creating their own cartoons for their vocabulary words, even after seeing my pathetic stick figure drawings on the board.  Lack of self-confidence about drawing skills is rampant.  But I think that if I use the extensive context example practice first, we could come up with images for the words as a class.

Image is such a powerful trigger for memory that I don’t want to give up on finding a way to utilize that trigger as I struggle to help my students build up their lexicon, to even their chances of succeeding in the academic world.  A worthy goal, a mighty summit.  hi ho.  Next semester for sure.

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. 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.

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