The Art of Class Discussion

I teach a really cool class at UMD. But for the same reasons that it’s cool, it’s also very difficult to teach. In the course I ask students to reflect on and discuss identity roles that society has conferred upon us: gender, race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability. These roles are deeply ingrained, which makes it difficult for us to acknowledge what we think and know about them; and they implicate issues of power, which makes it very awkward to discuss them with others. Add to that the fact that the class is big (30 students) and incredibly diverse. It’s a gen. ed. course, so the students run the gamut in terms of year, major, ethnicity, geographical origin. And because humans are homophiles (i.e., “birds of a feather flock together”), it seems it would just be easier for my students never to utter a peep.

But this course, and to some extent all courses, not only thrives on but depends on as many perspectives as possible. I had to expand my repertoire as an “expert” facilitator, so I consulted the only place I could think of  where lots of other experts congregate: Facebook! I put a call out for suggestions on “how to ignite great discussion.” I got so many replies, I want to put some of the good ones here so I won’t forget them. Please add any other ideas you have in the comments!

  • One cool idea is to enlist technology. One Facebook friend (FBF) suggested Poll Everywhere, which lets you take a poll that students can respond to on either a laptop or a phone. This looks neat because you can either do a quantitative/multiple choice poll, or you can ask for responses to open-ended questions too.
  • Forced choice. This is where each corner of the room represents a choice– let’s say, one corner is Strongly Agree, another corner is Agree, the third is Disagree, and the last is Strongly Disagree. The teacher (or someone) poses a question and students have to get up and travel to the corner that represents their response. Then the facilitator can call on people to ask why they picked that corner.
  • Write discussion questions on giant Post-Its and post them on the walls around the room. Have small groups travel around the room, discussing the question and jotting new bullet points on each Post-It as they discuss it.
  • Assign small groups to “teach” a reading each week.
  • Collectively establish norms or “ground rules” for discussion. I asked my students at the beginning of the semester to submit one idea for this list and I synthesized them all; we came up with a pretty good list, which I’ll post below. Re-visiting the list throughout the semester is always a good idea.
  • Do a low-tech poll by asking an opinion question and have students demonstrate their response by using their fingers as a Likert scale: 1 finger for strongly disagree, 5 for strongly agree.
  • Ask students to do some writing before discussion. Gets the brain juices flowing.
  • Organize students into small groups, and ask each person to write a question on a notecard. Each person takes turns asking the group to answer the question; if there is consensus on the answer, it is written on the back of the card. Once all the questions have been answered, the small groups exchange stacks of notecards. The next group goes through the stack of questions, trying to resolve them WITHOUT looking at the answers on the back. (I got this great idea here.) 
  • After assigning students to facilitate discussion, ensure that you, the authority figure, remain as quiet as you can. Maybe sit in the back of the room, or quietly take notes on the chalkboard. The more you interject, the more students defer, and the quieter they will become. As my FBF eloquently said, “The trick to fostering discussion in that class, for me, every semester, was to quiet my own voice.” (This one is hard for me– the more animated a discussion becomes, the more I want to join in!)
  • Pass out poster paper to small groups or plain printer paper to individuals and ask them to do an artistic rendering of a reading or concept. Encourage the use of symbols and stick figures so no one is intimidated by the pressure to make something perfect. Hang up the pieces around the room and do a “gallery walk,” where the group walks around freely, looking at pieces, conversing with their neighbors about their interpretations and impressions of the pictures.
  • Loosen things up by saying something about yourself, even if (especially if?) it is self-deprecating or silly.
  • “Never say what a student can say.” If only I knew the magic recipe for this!

-lightning-wallpapers

Discussion Ground Rules:

Here are the ground rules developed by my students this semester. I thought about writing the list myself, but then figured they would be more likely to follow them if they were invested. We do have to re-visit them occasionally, but it’s a much better list than I could have come up with on my own!

  • Discussion should be on a topic that is interesting/controversial/relevant to the contributors.
  • Be a good listener. Show you are listening with your body language.
  • It places an unfair burden on others if people don’t participate, or if your participation isn’t genuine.
  • It is collegial to disagree with your classmates, but not to disrespect them. Having different viewpoints is healthy.
  • Contribute to an atmosphere where people feel comfortable, and will not feel judged.
  • Making controversial statements is good; if nothing is arguable, then we have nowhere to go.
  • Seek others’ opinions before launching into a counterargument.
  • Come to class prepared; discussion suffers for everyone if you don’t do the readings.
  • Speak from your own experience; avoid generalizations.
  • Avoid being sarcastic or passive. If someone says something troubling, be very honest about why it troubles you.
  • Do not interrupt or use offensive terms.
  • Teacher should facilitate to help draw out those who are quiet.
  • Discussion points or guides are helpful.
  • Teacher will participate as much as students.

Again, if you have experience facilitating discussion, please add your ideas to the mix. Like most teachers, I need all the ideas I can get.

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Is It Just to Teach Social Justice?

Before grad school I used to teach writing. Aside from receiving the occasional student paper on hotly contested political issues (the importance of teaching intelligent design in science class, the im/morality of abortion, the ineffectiveness of gun control laws, and the perennial favorite, the imperative to legalize marijuana), I rarely found myself in a situation where I was actually exploring any of these issues with my class as a whole. And, as a writing teacher, I could focus on responding to my students not in terms of whether I agreed with them or not on these issues, but in terms of the rhetorical effectiveness of their arguments. For example, I could tell them that no, it’s not credible to rely on the Bible as your only source, or no, biological evolution does not mean that we are watching giraffes’ necks grow longer in one lifetime. In other words, I could pass my students off to more varied, more credible sources and trust (and hope) that they would take the time and effort to inform themselves.

Now, as a graduate student in the College of Education, I teach education courses. The missions of these courses are not as cut and dried as the composition course (or at least the composition course as I used to see it). I am teaching future English teachers, and the preparation of future teachers necessarily includes a wide array of issues that are inherently political. Some of these issues include: whether it is effective or morally appropriate to impose “Standard American English” on students; whether English teachers should introduce, via literature, “risky” subjects like sex, suicide, drugs, bullying, and racism to their students; how tracking practices move middle class white kids into courses that accelerate their learning and academic success, whereas remedial and special education courses maintain a very low bar for minorities and English Language Learners; how teachers will deal with pressures from school, district, and state to emphasize test prep at the expense of science, social studies, art, and physical education. Maybe I had been naively avoiding it, but for the first time in my teaching career I am finding that contested political and social issues are not only trickling into class discussion, but are central to the curriculum.

To take a specific example, this semester I am teaching a course called Literature, Mass Media, and Schooling: The Formation of Group and Individual Identity. The goal of the course is to get students to start thinking about the ways that social institutions like the mainstream media and schools shape our identities. A necessary component of the course is the examination of “dominant” and “subordinate” identities. These identities are determined by such roles as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical ability, age, and a hundred other things, and you probably don’t need me to tell you which aspects of each role (i.e., male/female) historically fit into which identity category (i.e., dominant/subordinate). And of course, these roles criss-cross and so each of us develops identities that are at times dominant, at times subordinate. As a white, American, well-educated woman I don’t often consciously find myself in a subordinated position, though research shows that women in my profession are still trailing men in terms of hiring, advancement, and compensation. Female (and male) faculty of color face a whole other set of obstacles (see, e.g., Ford, 2011).

So if university faculty, one of the most elite American professions, are facing varying degrees of difficulty based on social identities, how are younger people doing? It probably comes as no surprise that in K-12 schools across the country, poor brown kids don’t score as well on standardized tests, have lower GPA’s, are less likely to graduate, and less likely to go to (and graduate from) college. Isn’t it my job as a teacher educator to figure out why this is so, and what we as teachers can do about it?

Amazingly, my efforts to introduce undergraduates to the inequities that subordinate groups encounter in school and society are often met with reactions that range from glazed over passivity to angry disagreement and resentment. This week, for example, I introduced my class to the work of Claude Steele, whose research on what he calls stereotype threat has shown that women (who are equally proficient in math as their male counterparts) perform less well than men on math tests EXCEPT when they are told that the exam has been tested for gender bias. In other words, when women are told that in the past other women have performed just as well on a test as men have, then they themselves perform just as well as (in fact, a bit better than) the men on that test. In another study, Steele gave a control group of African Americans an IQ test; he gave the treatment group the same test, but to that group he didn’t call it a “test,” he called it a “puzzle.” The group that solved the “puzzle” performed much better. As Steele and other researchers hypothesize, the subordinate groups were not distracted by the social narratives that women aren’t as good at math, and that black people don’t test well. Just the tacit existence of these stereotypes causes certain groups to underperform, because the stereotypes are distracting and eat up vital mental energy. It is important to note that, depending on the context, dominant groups can be affected by stereotype threat too (watch the Steele clip I hyperlinked above for more on this). For the purposes of education, however, this research is enlightening insofar as it helps us to understand historically marginalized groups.

Thinking that Steele’s work would provide an interesting empirical explanation for achievement gaps, I was surprised by my students’ reactions. A number of them responded by quarreling with Steele’s methodology (“there’s no correlation between the scores and gender/race– he’s just making an assumption;” “there weren’t enough statistics and graphs to make his results credible;” “I’m a female engineering student and if I told my parents that I was struggling because I’m a girl, they’d tell me to just work harder, and they’d be right.”). And the remaining students? They sat there, quiet.

It’s classes like these that make me question myself and think of this report, which argues that too many college professors are pushing their social agendas onto their students. When my students are defensive and resentful that I’ve introduced them to research that questions the damaging effects of white privilege, I wonder to myself: What right do I have to talk about this? Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I pushing an unfounded ideology?

As this Stanford Daily piece shows, the NAS report presents faculty’s political identification as mutually exclusive of course quality. When teachers get political, in other words, the course quality suffers. But what if the course content is inseparable from ideology? What if recent scholarship demonstrates that in order for education to improve, ideologies must be examined, and status quo discriminatory practices must be addressed? I think that some would argue that college curriculum should consist of facts only, and should be divorced from any hint of political stance. To teach otherwise is to be a rogue, an “activist.”

Arguing against Stanley Fish’s admonition that instructors should “keep out of the classroom everything but what is specific to your discipline and its methodical search for truth” and that teachers should “save the world on [their] own time” (Bizzell, 2009, p. 181), Patricia Bizzell claims that she couldn’t do this even if she wanted to. Aside from the fact that often “course material is itself political” (p. 181) as I discussed above, the purpose of teaching is to help students to succeed in the world, and to help them make it a better place. Doing so is “especially valuable for purposes of social redress if the students come from marginalized groups” (p. 185). From the moment I first stepped into a classroom as a teacher, I felt I’d found my calling. Not because all the students in the world need to know the three rhetorical appeals and how to craft a thesis statement, but because learning how to be rhetorically effective is empowering. Students who can write and communicate have a better shot at succeeding, and at empowering others in turn through callings of their own. This might be why most professors identify as liberal– because education is at its very core about making change for the better.

If I am put at ease by these thoughts (and honestly, I’m often not), then Bizzell’s final point packs a pretty strong punch. She has “never found students to be so biddable and easily manipulated as the agitators against so-called political correctness seem to think they are” (2009, p. 186). To assume that my adult students are putty in my ideological hands does them a disservice. Following this logic, I should push them. And as uncomfortable as it can be when they push back with views that confound me, I can only suppose that our sometimes opposing values coming together in a healthy antagonism is a sign that real learning is taking place.

(Un-hyperlinked) Works Cited

Bizzell, P. (2009). Opinion: Composition Studies Saves the World! College English, 72(2), 174–187.

Ford, K. A. (2011). Race, Gender, and Bodily (Mis)Recognitions: Women of Color Faculty Experiences with White Students in the College Classroom. The Journal of Higher Education, 82(4), 444–478. doi:10.1353/jhe.2011.0026

On Writing, Blogging, and Community

For the first time since I lived in Oregon (can 2 years have passed since then?) I’ll be teaching writing again this fall. Teaching writing is my passion, my field of research, what brought me back to grad school in the first place. But I admit I have some trepidation. For one, as any writing teacher knows, teaching a writing class (or any class with lots of writing assigned) means grading a ton of papers. We’re talking 20 students times 6 papers each, not to mention homework assignments and the fact that I’m also teaching a second course in the College of Education. Oh and did I mention that the class starts at 8am? But the biggest worry I think is failing at something I love. Teaching education courses feels a bit more like earning my keep as I work my way through grad school. Teaching writing is, well, who I am. Faltering at that can be pretty difficult.

But remaining in contact with my fellow English Ed. students and fellow teachers from the University of Maryland Writing Project (a wing of the National Writing Project) has bolstered my inspiration so much. For that, I’m surprised to say, I have to thank the world of blogging. Who would have thought that that this e-medium would keep me in such community with my fellow writers, teachers, and writing teachers? Isn’t community supposed to involve a comfy living room with cups of tea and long conversations? Or at LEAST a classroom with uncomfortable chairs? As it happens though, my living room is still involved, except that my only other companion is my laptop.

Here, for example, is a blog post that I simply love. Written by Joseph McCaleb, the director of the UMdWP, this post eloquently answers the question of Why Write? (By the way, this is a question answered lovingly by many authors over the decades. Paul Auster’s version in the New Yorker is one of my all-time favorites, it’s so gorgeous. It’s not available online, but if you email me I might be able to help you find a copy… .) And while I love Joseph’s post, what I love most is what happens in the comments section. Not only do members of different writing and teaching communities– some of which exist within brick and mortar institutions, some online; some of whom I know, some I don’t– all weigh in thoughtfully, but some even entered the conversation using incredible social media technologies I had never heard of.

For example, one of the commenters annotated Joseph’s post using Diigo, an online tool that you can use to annotate any web page. Here is the annotated version. Pretty damn cool, huh? The conversation about writing among teachers and writers wanders down paths I could not have imagined when I first started teaching. What I love most about Joseph’s post and the comments that follow is that this writing does what it is supposed to do: that is, it plays. And in this venue, his readers can play right along.

Writing “for the joy of creation” (as one of my WP-mates called it) is what I learned at the Writing Project, and what blog posts like Joseph’s remind me of. It’s what I need to remember when we’re all sunk in the depths of the semester, when school is more about just getting through it (for teachers and students alike) than it is about the thrill of new knowledge.

I wonder how I will be able to communicate this to my students when they despise me for assigning a paper every other week (the department made me do it!). Are these Millenials going to be as titillated as I was by the latest online tool? I am not sure. But if I can find community in the comments section of a blog post, then my class and I should be able to rustle up some mutual trust and determination. This is what I am telling myself as the summer winds quickly down.

The Cursed Cursor

In the months since I’ve lasted posted, I’ve made some ok progress on this whole PhD thing. For one, my coursework is now finished, which is a pretty decent milestone. Second, no one has gently suggested that I look for another career, which is nice. I’m even submitting conference proposals, and they are getting accepted, which is even nicer. So I’m still moving forward.

Next up: comps. The exciting, glamorous appeal of comps (“comprehensive exams”) is that I’m now my own boss. I don’t have 23 articles and book chapters to read each day for class; there are no paper deadlines to give me anxiety rashes and bald patches. My schedule is serenely… open. What the heavenly prospect of this newfound freedom did not prepare me for is the fact that I now have to write three very long essays, and ain’t nobody out there giving me an F if I don’t finish them by a certain time. (Well. Someone might notice if I didn’t have anything to show for myself, say, 9 years from now, but god help me in that event.)

Lucky for me, my first comp was a breeze. I simply converted one of the papers I had written for a class and turned that in. It was probably too easy. Now I’m facing #2, and my good luck has gone cold. I JUST.CAN’T.SEEM.TO.START.THE.DAMN.THING. I have analyzed reams of data, I have pages upon pages of notes. I know what I want to say; I just cannot seem to overcome the blinking cursor syndrome. Anyone who has ever tried to write something knows what this is: the cursor blinking and blinking and blinking on a blank Word doc like Chinese water torture, and suddenly you’d rather be scouring the litter box with your own toothbrush than be taunted any longer by that hateful, laughing line.

So, I decided to do what I used to urge my students to do, back when I taught writing. I’m going to write a letter (blog post) telling my reader what I plan to write about. Before I know it, the logic goes, I will just have tricked myself into writing the thing itself. Just so you don’t snap your laptop shut or wander back over to Twitter at the thought of reading someone’s academic essay (and a rough draft, at that) let me tell you about a couple self-imposed rules for this exercise: 1. I’m going to be as concise as possible. Just as it can be difficult to start writing, it can be difficult to stop. Sometimes you can convince yourself you’re being productive, but really you’re just creating a curtain of words behind which you’re hiding from what you really want to say. So, for each main idea, I plan to devote only a short paragraph. 2. I’m not including any scholarly citations or using academic jargon. It’s easy to hide behind that stuff too.

Here goes.

Main idea 1. I am very interested in teacher identity. Specifically, writing teacher identity. “Identity” is a very sexy idea in the field of education research right now (why do I have to be such a follower?), so I need to make sure that I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon here, and tossing around the faddish word without giving it the weight and meaning that it deserves. So to me, teacher identity is a conception of self and purpose that is constantly being remade and enacted in one’s interactions with students, colleagues, institution, and discourse. In other words, who you are amounts to what you do, and what you have done.

Main idea 2. Like I said, I’m interested in writing pedagogy. If a teacher is trying to teach a student how to use language, then how is she herself using language? Language is the way teachers communicate with students. Language is the main chisel we use for sculpting our teaching identity. As we sculpt ourselves linguistically, what kind of form is the student left looking at? (Case in point, imagine two different writing prompts, handed out to students by two different teachers. One says, “For every typographical error, one full letter grade will be deducted.” The other says, “Engage in a dialogue with Shakespeare/Darwin/Lao Tzu. What would you most want to ask him, and how would he respond?” Can’t you get a sense of the identities and values of each of these two teachers?)

Main idea 3. After conducting interviews with four writing teachers and combing their responses for patterns I’ve come up with what I view as three of the most important influences that shape their professional identities every day. They are:

3a. Academic biography. Each of my interviewees told me happy stories about loving to read and write as kids. Their parents couldn’t pry the books and notebooks out of their hands (this sounded familiar to me too…). Then they went to school. Their flaming love affairs with words were snuffed out by 5-paragraph essays, inverted pyramids, and red-pen wielding professors. Yet somehow, a resolve set in and they learned how to play the game of academic writing, they excelled, and they became English/writing teachers. While I’m still trying to figure out how this history plays out on a day-to-day basis in their teaching, I know that it is a big deal somehow. I’m sure Freud would approve.

3b. Being a “writer.” Research is coming out lately that says that we can’t teach our students to write unless we think of ourselves as writers. Asking your students to write something that you would never write (there’s that 5-paragraph essay again) is a farce, and a transparent one at that. Asking your students to do in-class writing while you grade papers, erase the board, or check Facebook is like lecturing your child on the merits of a healthy diet while snarfing down a Cinnabon. Students will not engage in writing that is authentic and joyful unless you show them what that looks like (because let’s face it, the blinking cursor can be ruthless!).

Problem is, I suspect that most teachers don’t think of themselves as writers. For one, most English teachers got into this gig because they fell in love with reading literature, not writing it. And two, even if the teacher does write a lot– and all professionals write a lot– they don’t view the writing that they do as “real” writing. When I asked one of my participants (a writing teacher and doctoral student in rhetoric) if he wrote, he said glumly, “Not as much as I should.” Later in the interview I discovered that at the time, he was working on his comps, editing an article that he planned to submit to a journal, and regularly contributing to a blog about his writing research. If he isn’t a writer, then who the hell is? What kinds of writing would he need to do to be a “real” writer?

3c. Professional learning and development. My opinion in a nutshell is that, as far as P.D. is concerned, K-12 teachers are way over-managed, and college teachers aren’t held accountable enough. Therefore I’m painting in very broad brushstrokes here when I say that that “professional learning” is the final main influence on teacher identity. Whether it’s from the funny and amazingly astute thing your colleague said in the hall, or from the 8-hour workshop on implementing curriculum standards that your principal made you go to, teachers are constantly learning on the job.

I met my participants in two different courses on how to teach writing, so my study focuses on the context of these courses (one of which was the National Writing Project, which I wrote about last year). So in my interviews I asked my participants to reflect on how the course affected, and affects, their teaching. But I hope to broaden this discussion by observing that influences on our professional behavior are myriad: a thought-provoking mentor, the latest pedagogical theory, a joyful poem that reminds you that, damn it, writing can be play.

Well, that’s about the sum of it. Re-reading it, it sounds somewhat naked and simple. But like I said, I had to take off the academic claptrap to see what was underneath. I think I’m far too immersed in it to know if the ideas are valuable at this point. But at least I’m writing.

And on the topic of professional learning, check out my bone pile of library books. I think they’re reproducing at night. Luckily, as you can see, I’ve got a very faithful research assistant.  Image

Semantic and poetic meaning: a heart cleft in twain

“Poetry is truer than history.” -Aristotle

In a couple classes I’m taking, I keep running into the same competition of concepts: it’s the duel between the scientific and the artistic. The quantitative and the quantitative. Or as Kenneth Burke would have it, the semantic and the poetic. The difference, which I’ll explain in a minute, is in itself so interesting to me. Long before I knew the word “epistemology” I was curious about a human’s ability (or maybe lack of ability) to understand or describe an objective reality. But this left brain/right brain battle is particularly interesting in light of another issue that puts me in a fettle: teacher evaluations. Without going into the politics of whether or not teachers ought to walk out on their students as they have done in Chicago in recent days, I think it’s important to make a couple philosophical observations about teacher evaluations and the standardized tests that feed them.

But first, a word on semantic and poetic meaning. Semantic meaning is what any scientist worth his (and yes, that pronoun is deliberate) salt is after. They aim at “making true statements about the world” (Eisner, 1981). Put more colorfully, the goal is to “evolve a vocabulary that gives the name and address of every event in the universe” (Burke, 1989). A noble pursuit to be sure! Such pursuit involves a process of universalizing, or essentializing.

Burke offers the example of a chair. According to an “ideal semantic definition” of a chair, “people knew what you wanted when you asked for one, a carpenter knew how to make it, a furniture dealer knew how to get it, etc.” All the actual chairs in the world are but examples of this ideal “chair-ness;” from the particular we move to the general (and here of course we are floating into Plato’s realm). On the other hand, a poetic definition of a chair might be the chair I’m looking at right now– a stuffed velvet chair of golden hue, which I inherited from my dad, and which will always remind me of him and its spot in the apartment where I spent my teenage years. Or it could be the lovely wooden dining room chairs behind me, which, incidentally, my mother gave me. As you can see, my furniture is filled with meaning beyond the simply material. I associate with these objects memories and meanings, and even aspects of my relationships to my family.

In sum: while a semantic definition of a chair tries to “cut away, to abstract, all emotional factors that complicate the objective clarity of meaning,” a poetic definition of my chairs is all for the “heaping up of all these emotional factors… and [for] seeking to make this active participation itself a major ingredient of the vision” (Burke).

Where does this leave us in the messy world of trying to just come to some conclusions for godsakes? And why won’t these teachers stop forsaking their pupils and just get back to work? Good questions, all. But we have to look at what the teachers are protesting. While teacher accountability is of course a good thing, as all accountability is in a social world, we must ask: what are the methods by which teachers are being held accountable? They are being judged by measures of a purely semantic nature (and I’m using the term in a Burkean sense here of course).

Value-added modeling and other similar kinds of teacher evals are based on student standardized test scores. These assessments (of both students and teachers) seek to capture some kind of objective measure– represented by a measly number!– of student learning and therefore, teacher success. While it would certainly be convenient and scientific (because numbers are so unclouded by emotion) to be able to place the attainment of knowledge on an interval/ratio scale, anyone who has ever learned something can testify that what they know is not quantifiable– try counting the things you learned last year!

Indeed, teachers (and for that matter, students) are being assessed semantically for their expertise in a poetic phenomenon. Where we seek fact we should be seeking meaning. Do our teachers help students create meaning? I’m all for assessing that, though I don’t think numbers will play a very big role in the instrument. As one researcher elegantly frames this relentless attempt at quantifying truth, “Truth implies singularity and monopoly. Meaning implies relativism and diversity. Truth is more closely wedded to consistency and logic, meaning to diverse interpretation and coherence” (Eisner, 1981). Certainly, consistency and logic have their place. But how can you compare the millions of contextual factors that make every single teacher, every single classroom, unique?

Works Cited here:

Burke, K. (1989). On Symbols and Society. J.R. Gusfield (ed.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Eisner, E.W. (1981). On the differences between scientific and artistic approaches to qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 10(4), 5-9.

Nothing to fear but…

“Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. What you are doing is exploring. You are undertaking the first experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.” -Wendell Berry

I knew, when I first started teaching, that routine was the enemy of the teacher. Once you’ve memorized your curriculum like a script and recite it year after year, you’re toast– or so they say. I always nodded vigorously to whichever veteran teacher was spouting that sentiment, but secretly, I felt differently. A bigger part of me craved the predictability of a well-worn course. Personally, I was so tired of being terrified at the beginning of every semester. Just as anyone who has waited tables gets the occasional nightmare where you have 50 angry patrons waiting to have their order taken and water glasses filled, so do teachers have similar nightmares: class is about to start, and you’ve got nothing planned; or you have a thousand papers to grade, and grades are due in one hour; or you’re standing in front of the classroom naked and your students are all screaming monkeys… or any combination of these. For those of you unfamiliar with Freud’s basic teachings, these kinds of dreams mean something! And for me it’s fear.

The primary fear is that I won’t do a good job, and that my students won’t learn. Secondarily I guess there is also fear that my students will not like me, or respect me, or think that I have any clue about the subject. And fear requires a lot of energy. It is exhausting. After the first few classes I ever taught I went home drenched in sweat, and with pounding headaches that sent me to bed at four in the afternoon. Is it any wonder that I sometimes wish for an easy, predictable class where every lesson is mapped out and the syllabus is error free? Even if it means a drier, less meaningful experience for my students, can you blame me for wishing for some tried-and-true lecture notes that will enable me to just coast through class for once?

The class I’m teaching this fall starts in a week, and as usual, I’m afraid. But I’m trying to keep a couple things in mind.

One: a colleague at Columbia Gorge Community College where I first taught told me that one of the saving graces of teaching is that you get to start over every term. You may feel that your class bombed, or more likely, that certain things about it weren’t so hot. But after three months, it’s all over; you can wipe the slate clean and with any luck, you can smooth out those wrinkles the next term. I have always appreciated Dan’s reminder about the reprieve of the term’s end: it’s easier to take hard work in small chunks.

Two: the other evening my husband Adam and I were sitting out on the grass in front of our apartment building, having beers and cookies with our neighbor, Mark. A longtime patient advocate in the healthcare industry, Mark was telling us about the binary espoused by healthcare professionals, and readily accepted by patients. In healthcare, there are only two options: health or death. The patient is either cured forever, or she dies. It’s a false dichotomy of course, because sometimes a patient’s disease is terminal (well, strictly speaking, we’re ALL terminal). Is fatality the doctor’s fault in that case? Did she fail for not restoring total health?

This got me thinking about education, and the binary implicit in that field: students (and by extension, teachers) achieve either success or failure. An F means failure, an ineffective assignment means failure, dropping out means failure. No wonder students are afraid of school, and teachers are afraid to teach! I would like to start thinking about success and failure more in terms of a continuum. If I teach a boring lesson, I don’t need to give myself 40 lashes. I should probably also offer the same forgiveness to my students if they write an uninspired paper. Isn’t it odd how few chances we give our students?

So: these are the lessons I’m fortifying myself with as I jump into this semester. First, this term is a new start; in three months, I’ll get another chance. Second, if I (or if my students) screw something up, perhaps this is less a failure than an opportunity. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Pathways to a Common Consensus?

The Common Core State Standards are such an interesting sequel to No Child Left Behind. I’m really glad that the pendulum appears to be swinging away from high-stakes testing (with all its attending basal readers and other kinds of sterilized texts), and toward an emphasis on critical thinking and (yay!) writing, but it also makes me wonder. How many years or decades away are we from another extreme pendulum swing? NCLB was rolled out in 2004 with not much of a trial run, and Diane Ravitch expresses similar fears about the Common Core Standards. So when states roll out these standards too fast, without training or teacher buy-in, will we chuck them in a few years, chalking it up as another educational reform failure? I’ve spent relatively few years as an educator but I’ve learned a couple things about educational reform so far: it is confusing, inconsistent, and extreme.

For a well-written, engaging, and (thankfully) brief discussion about the CCSS, check out Pathways to the Common Core, by Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman. It’s a rosy and perhaps not entirely disinterested picture, but it’s well written enough that it’s one of the few education books that actually kept me up past my bed time.