Nov. 18 – Pushing Past Perfection

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Photo by Ming Tong, made available by Creative Commons license

This challenge of writing every day for a month has already proven an invaluable exercise for me.  I don’t think I’ve ever lasted this long with a resolution of any sort (except when I finally quit smoking for good, that is.)  I wish I knew what it is that is getting me to sit my butt down in the chair every day and hammer out another post.  But even if the motivational source is elusive, one result is not.

I can no longer be a text perfectionist.  If I am going to get something published here every day, I have to sit down, write it, read it over, proof it, publish it and move on.  That is SUCH a different experience for me, and it has made writing fun again.  Maybe that is where the motivation is coming from.

Writing has become less of a chore and a task and something that needs to be done.  Instead it is a few moments when I get to free my voice and my ideas and take the mind-boggling step of publishing those ideas for anyone in the universe to read.

I think it is knowing I am making this writing public that triggers the perfectionism.  If I were just writing for myself, the need for my writing to be perfect would not be not nearly as loud.

So, thank you to everyone for being out there and forcing me to let go of that crippling self-criticism enough to write these posts.  I hope that, if inner critics are loud in your life, you find your way to releasing their hold on your productivity.  All our voices need to be heard.

Nov. 17 – Standing Side by Side

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One of the most ubiquitous recommendations for teachers is to get to know your students.  It is a powerful tool, but not always possible and definitely not always easy.  College students are on guard and on their dignity in the classroom, and the persona they present is at most a fraction of their true selves.  (I know that is true for all of us at any given time, but I think the artificiality of the classroom, the authority and power of the instructor, and students’ individual experiences with education or the lack thereof combine to make the classroom a difficult place in which to be genuine.)

One of my colleagues has come up with a technique I admire (maybe because I do love a show) – he puts on public exhibitions based on the content being studied in his classes and spends his time at those exhibitions talking to students, standing by their sides.  He told me that his students are so much more open and relaxed when he is by their side rather than in front of the classroom.  The stories students have shared with him have made his teaching easier as he understands what were formerly confusing or misleading responses, and he doesn’t mis-interpret student statements as often.   The effort required to put on an exhibit is amply repaid by the increased understanding he has gained.

Somewhere else recently (I apologize to the author of this as I have no idea where I read it – wasn’t thinking about noting the source for this blog at the time, apparently!) I read a suggestion to move your office outside – walk with students when you are meeting with them.  It has a similar effect to the exhibition conversations – being side by side offsets the power imbalance, even if only by a little bit, and students are more relaxed and honest.  The logistics seem a little challenging when I look at our campus, but I like the idea.  A friend of mine who advises first generation college students often walks with his advisees during their appointments – he says at the very least it keeps his weight down!

Both of these techniques are a start toward dismantling the barricades that prevent honest communication between instructors and students, and neither compromises dignity – trying to be like the kids is a road to disaster for me, so I appreciate a path that doesn’t require (hmmm – everything I start to write here sounds like a grumpy old professor who doesn’t want to go to the raucous noisy student events – I think I’ll just stop here!)

We’re walking, we’re talking.  I like.

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. 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.

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.

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