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.

Nov. 8 – Hope

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photo by gfpeck, made available by Creative Commons license

Yesterday I was reading Black Youth Project’s post on the riots at the University of Mississippi as a result of President Obama’s re-election.  It broke my heart to learn how ugly people were still willing to be, in this day and age.  Young people, full of hate and willing to shout invective and bile.  I moved my focus to happier places and people, but those students wouldn’t go away in my mind.

Then today, glory be, other students at Ole Miss took the matter into their own hands.  Tuesday night, 200 “male students” were ugly, but today Black Youth Project reported that 600 students rallied for a unity march to let the world know that those 200 troglodytes didn’t represent the University, the state of Mississippi, or the future of America.  Bless those unity marchers, every one.

And then, just to top off the spirit-lifting, I read this post from another of my favorite blog sites, – “The Relentless March of Liberalism.”  It is about a piece by Anil Dash from almost ten years ago, pointing out that, as a nation, we are moving toward tolerance.  yes.  and yes.  and yes.

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