I Can’t Believe They Don’t Know That

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photo by ILMO JOE on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license.

“I can’t believe they don’t know that!” I hear that phrase so often.  Is this generation of students as overwhelmed by ignorance as it sometimes seems? Those glaring gaps in student knowledge are  certainly a favorite topic of adult conversation.  As soon as I tell someone what I do for a living, out come the stories.  “My son has classmates who don’t know how to do long division.”  “They (!) don’t even know the name of our vice president / Chief Justice / governor….”  “I can’t believe they have no idea what ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’ means.”  “They can’t even read a regular clock face.”  And on and on and on.

I used to teach a college reading class using African American literature and most of my students, both black and white, had little knowledge of our bloody shameful history of segregation or Jim Crow laws.  It made the anger and bitterness of the literature hard for them to understand, so I created a slide show of images from a segregated America to help them see from whence our country’s racial tensions arise.  I understand why we don’t want to air that particular dirty linen with our children but, without an understanding of our past, the racial tensions of our present time make no sense.  Students, both black and white, need to know that the struggles of black students on a white campus are not solely their own problem or fault, but rather a reflection of our American history.

When I first began to realize how little the students knew about the realities of segregation I did feel surprise.  I couldn’t believe they didn’t know that.  But I had to move quickly to accept and remediate that particular gap – my expressions of surprise clearly made the students feel defensive and upset. We so easily make assumptions about what someone else should know, or what they should have learned, or what they should  be able to do.  Yet that assumption rarely serves us well as teachers.  When we feel (and inevitably express, whether verbally or non-) shock at an unexpected gap in a student’s knowledge, we put that student in a position of defense and opprobrium, not a happy place from which to learn.

Our students were born into their own time, not ours.  No matter how much we believe that our cultural references should be theirs, they won’t be.  No matter how much we bemoan the celebrity-driven “news” and the parochial perspective of the world, we need to move away from judgment and toward teaching.

One excellent tool to help us internalize the reality of the world our students live in is The Mindset List published annually by Beloit College.  In 1998 Beloit College created a list of incoming freshmen’s cultural realities to help faculty adjust their references to better match students’ understanding.  For example, on the list for 2012, Jay Leno has always been the host of the Tonight Show and GPS satellite navigation has always been available.

Our director has shared that list every year during our fall kick-off staff meeting, and it never fails to make me feel oh so very old.  But it also helps me grasp the reality of the “brand new world” that my students occupy.  Their experience, their world, is not mine, and I am a much better teacher when I remember 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