How To Make A Positive Difference

A fall semester postscript.

When evaluating their progress at the end of the semester, my first year writing students say the same thing over and over. “In high school, all we ever did was literary analysis. Intro. Three body paragraphs with supporting details. A conclusion. I learned the formula, but it was mind numbing.”

Why are secondary teachers stuck in literary analysis mode? Is it as simple as teaching to Advanced Placement tests? If so, maybe we should risk the ire of parents determined to pass their privilege on and ditch Advanced Placement altogether.

Why not ask students to occasionally write about themselves in the context of big questions? To be introspective. To dare to be personal. To be philosophical. It takes some of my students longer than others to pivot to first person “I”, but eventually everyone sees value in it. Some experience an immediate awakening. For example, in one final paper a student wrote, “I don’t think I truly understood myself until this class because I never contemplated my biggest motivators. Why doesn’t my mom love me? Why do I feel so insignificant? Am I enough?”

K-12 teachers might reply that they’re not therapists so why venture into personal rabbit holes. I’m advocating for public, group-based community; not private, individual therapy.

Another student explained the difference especially well:

“Even on the days with the best attendance, our classroom does not exceed twenty people. This has allowed us to know each other on a deeper level than that of just classmates. I feel as though each person in class is now someone I can call my friend. Through group discussions, the sharing of intimate parts of our lives, and just laughing together in general, we have discovered all the similarities each of us share. As a group, we have formed our own sort of community, filled with people of all different majors and parts of the country. I can confidently say that I have learned just as much from talking to my classmates as I have from the assigned class readings.

Despite the different reasons for each student being placed into Writing 101, we are each leaving the class with one commonality. We formed a special little community built on finding our footing in a new place, trust, and compassion. . . . We made connections that could last a lifetime and learned lessons from one another that changed our perspectives.”

Since classmates don’t assign grades, students are socialized to pay attention exclusively to their teachers. Watch for yourself, in the vast majority of classrooms, students completely tune out one another.

Dig this paradox. My teaching is most consequential when I fade into the background and get my students to listen to, and learn from, one another.

Part Of The Circle

One-on-one conferences with my first year writers are a wrap. At the end of our convos I asked what most contributed to their learning and what if anything I should tweak going forward.

We ended up liking each other, so the feedback was almost universally positive. One recurring theme was, “We sat in a circle and you were part of the circle.”

When the classroom architecture makes it possible, it’s pretty simple isn’t it? Ditch rows. Ditch hierarchy. Ask challenging questions. Listen. And whenever possible, laugh.

Call Me ‘Ron’ Addendum

I like and respect my students, but we cannot be friends. I need to enforce rules, hold them to deadlines, and give them grades. If your friend Steve gave you a D you’d be angry, but if Prof. Lake gave you a D then he’s just doing his job.

The title is needed also to keep a degree of formality in our relationship. This is as much for me as for them. I need to do what is best for them, which is not necessarily what they would want. Thinking of them as peers would leads to a temptation not to challenge them, to be the ‘cool’ teacher instead of the good one.

I also suspect it helps in other ways to maintain this formality. I have only heard of a couple of cases of professors behaving inappropriately with students, but in both cases they were the kind of professors who went by first names.

Besides, I am not at all convinced that the seemingly egalitarian idea of first names is actually egalitarian. Formality makes it easier for those unfamiliar with a culture to navigate it. Being informal just hides the rules and may actually make it harder for those from disadvantaged groups to understand what is expected of them.

My students can call me Steve when they graduate.”

Comment 2. “One thing I’ll add to this excellent post: I am slightly autistic, and one of the ways that manifests in me is that I find rules of social behavior unintuitive. If you put me in a highly egalitarian spontaneous order situation, I don’t really know how to act or how to talk to people. What I need are clearly defined social rules, scripts if you will. Formal, hierarchical relationships like teacher-student or colonel-major make me comfortable because there is a clear script for me to follow.”

Comment 3. “I always ask my students to call me David, but Steven makes a good point that I hadn’t previous considered that formality is easier to navigate – especially given the international nature of the student body.

Nonetheless, I have always found that colleagues that insist on being called Professor or Doctor (or use the titles on Twitter) are almost always insufferable in person.”

Just Call Me ‘Ron’

Stop Calling Professors ‘Professor’. Nicely argued.

I’ve always asked my students to call me Ron. Partly because my first college teaching gig was at a Quaker institution which tried to be egalitarian. Mostly though because I’m wired to be informal. 

Some students are down with it from the get-go, for others it takes getting used to. They’re almost disappointed, as if they want me to be a know-it-all. It doesn’t take me long to disabuse them of that notion.

One of my first high school students in Los Angeles called me a “tough, young buck from UCLA”. That was cool, but don’t use any of my nicknames like Slip or HD (Heavy Duty), that’s a bridge too far. Oh, except one nickname is fine, Birdie*. You can use that one whenever you’d like. 

*Compliments of Lou Matz in high school. Sigh, these days on Western Washington links, I’m known as Bogey Byrnes. 

On Obsessiveness

Tyler Cowen’s “My days as a teenage chess teacher” is interesting on a lot of levels. For instance, take lesson learned #6 of 7.

“6. The younger chess prodigy I taught was quite bright and also likable.  But he had no real interest in improving his chess game.  Instead, hanging out with me was more fun for him than either doing homework or watching TV, and I suspect his parents understood that.  In any case, early on I was thinking keenly about talent and the determinants of ultimate success, and obsessiveness seemed quite important.  All of the really good chess players had it, and without it you couldn’t get far above expert level.”

I often envy people who are obsessive about anything even remotely socially redeemable—whether being a grand master in chess, or cycling 12,000 miles/year, or knowing more about Mormon history than anyone except a few dozen Mormon scholars. Why do I envy obsessive people? Because I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly obsessive about anything. It seems like it would be fun to be so immersed in an activity that time stops.

And yet, when I take stock of my life, I can’t help but wonder if my lack of obsessiveness about any one thing may be one of my most positive attributes. If it’s not a positive attribute, splitting the difference between similarly compelling forces, is my essence. It’s who I am.

To the best of my ability, I seek balance. Between work and family life. Between intellectual pursuits and physical ones. Between running, swimming, and cycling more specifically. Between listening and talking. Between teaching and learning. Between friends. Between being silly and serious.   

I wonder, should I stop idealizing obsessiveness?

 

How Far Do You Want To Go?

There’s a growing consensus that the only people who should be allowed to inveigh on, or teach about contemporary issues, are those with relevant, direct lived experience with them. This sentiment makes sense given powerful people’s propensity to marginalize people different than them. However, extend the idea, and a lot of questions arise.

Should Catholic priests be allowed to do marriage counseling? Should men be allowed to teach Women’s Studies courses? Should white academics be allowed to teach African American history?

Extend it a touch further as many progressives are and a logical question is whether old, wealthy, heterosexual, white dudes should be allowed to inveigh or teach about anything after centuries of dominating nearly every discussion of consequence.

In which case, I should probably cycle more and write less.

Sentence to Ponder

“Nine months, 400 job applications, and 17 interviews later, I landed a part-time minimum wage job at the local Macy’s working on the loading dock.”

From “What It’s Like to Be Single in Your 60s With $233,921 in Student Debt”.

I need to muster some strength before reading the whole, mind blowing story.

Addendum: Something doesn’t add up. A full-time (I assume) fifth year teacher making $30,000? Ah, private Catholic school that apparently doesn’t have any qualms with not paying a livable wage.

Expect More Of Students

Normally, I teach graduate secondary education teacher candidates; this month however, I’m teaching undergraduate elementary education candidates.

On the first day I canceled class in favor of a chill book club, now I’m the most popular prof of all time. We drink tea and eat donuts while reading half of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and all of Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren. Kidder is a non-fiction writing marvel. Like me, Among Schoolchildren is old; unlike me, it’s still really excellent.

Schools change so slowly, over three decades later, Among Schoolchildren still rings 90% true. The core of the book is one Holyoke, Massachusetts fifth grade teacher’s struggle with a particularly challenging student. Can she get him to cooperate and do some work without the herculean effort derailing the entire class?

This article, “New Peer Mentor Program at Centennial Elementary” just caught my eye because it was my daughters’ school and some friends work there. And because I was thinking about Chris Zajac, the teacher, and Clarence, her challenging student.

What if Clarence needs responsibility more than rules and restrictions. What would happen if Clarence, and Chris’s other challenging students she regularly struggles with, were asked to help some younger students with their school work? And to be role models of sort.

Would they rise to the occasion? Would they feel better about themselves? Could that create positive momentum; improve their school experience; and make Chris’s classroom a more peaceful and productive place?

Rich Beyond Measure

That’s a wrap. The semester is over. Grades are (mostly) in. Back at it January 7th for one month-long course. Then my academic year will be a wrap since I’m a half-timer. Don’t hate me because you ain’t me.

It felt kinda weird returning to work in early September after such a long sabbatical. Pre-sabbatical, I handed off my administrative duties, so I was teaching full-time for the first time in a long time. And while I was gone, even more colleagues who I enjoyed had moved on. By “kinda weird” I guess I mean somewhat disconnected.

After all these years, I sometimes feel as if I should’ve assumed more administrative responsibilities somewhere along the line. I mean what kind of sad sack is back exactly where he started 22 years earlier?

And yet, as I read final papers, and email messages, and hand written notes of appreciation, I feel like finally, I might be getting this teaching thing down. Of course, putting that in writing means my “J-term” course will probably be a disaster, you know, pride coming before the fall and all.

Every educator is different, but for me at least, the “secret” to teaching well is the same as living well, the more selfless, the better. Maybe it was having no administrative responsibilities that enabled me to see and hear my students more clearly this fall. More specifically, maybe it was not being in a hurry, maybe it was taking the time to listen to them and to read their words even more closely. And then to respond to those words.

The more authentic and present I am in the classroom, the more my students appreciate my teaching. They also appreciate the thought put into our more accessible, shorter, more thought provoking than average reading list.

My students’ end-of-semester gestures of appreciation make me think I’m still doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Consider one student among many, a physically imposing, politically conservative, first year footballer whose domineering dad tolerated no negative emotions.

“When I found out I had to be in a mandatory writing seminar as part of the ‘First Year Experience Program’ (FYEP) titled ‘The Art of Living’, I dreaded it. I despised writing, especially that of a personal nature. All of the essays and discussions I would have to participate in would be about my life, inner thoughts, and feelings. I figured it was just another stroke of bad luck. My goal for the semester was just to survive, and hopefully improve on my personal writing ability after a few failed attempts. However, I found out very quickly that this was just the class I needed. It turns out that my destiny was not to have an unfortunate event take advantage of me, but was to have an unbelievable stroke of luck being placed in the Art of Living writing seminar.”

Further in:

“This unexpected change of heart provided me with energy and enthusiasm. Writing my fourth essay became something I enjoyed, not something I dreaded. I wrote about my stance on modern love and the concept of soulmates, which was the strongest stance in any essay I had written. I wrote about my own experiences with love, and how in my eyes the person I want to marry will be able to fill my heart with love. I wrote about how that love would allow me to experience the six varieties described in Krznaric’s writing: eros, pragma, ludus, agape, philuatia, and philia. . . . I had ended up doing the exact opposite of what I had initially thought I would: I wrote about my definition of love, my love life, and I loved doing it. By writing from the heart and being vulnerable with my audience, I was able to capture their attention and provide details that I otherwise might have excluded. My paper connected better with my readers, and it was relatable. Over the course of this semester I had not only grown as a writer, but I opened my mind and grew as a person.”

Watching this young man blossom into a superb, sensitive discussant was a joy:

“One of the most influential changes to my (writing) process was in-class discussions. They allowed me to deepen my understanding of the prompts while listening to others’ thoughts and feelings. I could formulate my own stances in response. It allowed me to consider outside opinions and beliefs and flush out my ideas. They made my essays even more thorough because I gained not only different pieces of textual evidence but I learned about different experiences my peers could connect to the readings. Being able to have personal, open conversations in class also made the texts more applicable to daily life. The discussions helped shape not only my essays, but the way I looked at the world as a whole. I could consider expanding my varieties of love as Kznaric wrote, or I could consider the lifestyle of Stoicism written in William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life. These discussions opened my heart and mind to the different ideas we discussed in class, and allowed me to incorporate those into my essays. This class broadened my life views and expanded my horizons.”

Because I’m half-time and I get paid over 12 months, and I max my retirement contributions, and I add family dental insurance and a Health Saving Account in for good measure, my take home pay for November was $34.37. But I feel rich beyond measure.

Thursday Assorted Links

1. Why kids love garbage trucks. There are a lot of theories. Not just kids though.

“. . . Toubes and I immediately agreed that garbage trucks can also be pretty mesmerizing to adults because what they do is so visually unusual. Toubes is himself the father of a onetime garbage-truck aficionado: “My second son was sort of obsessed, and when we asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said a garbage truck,” he told me. “We were like, ‘You want to drive a garbage truck?’ And he was like, ‘No, I want to be the truck.’” And when his son ran to the picture window to watch the garbage pickup, “I’d go to the window and watch along with him,” Toubes remembered. ‘Like, Actually, that is interesting.”

2. How much should teachers talk in the classroom? Much less.

Therese Arahill, an instructional coach in New Zealand:

“I join their discussion, … answering their questions. It’s an attitude. Moving away from teacher ego, toward student voice, student agency.”

3A. Cut from the same cloth. Artist Myfanwy Tristram was irritated by her teenage daughter’s extreme fashions — until she took an illustrated journey into their origins.

3B. What do Gen Z shoppers want? A cute, cheap outfit that looks great on Instagram. This can’t be good for their mental health. Can it?

4. Is your city infrastructurally obese? If you live in Gary, Indiana, yes, most definitely.

5. The best documentaries of the 2010’s.