Category Archives: Pedagogy

The Student Has Become the Master: Flipped Classrooms for Advanced Students


I realized today as I started preparing materials for my class on “Urban Environments in Literature and Film” that my students are pretty much teaching my class for me. Yesterday, I asked the day’s assigned group leaders to send me a list formulated in conjunction with their peers of 3-5 big questions they wanted answered or issues we should track as we proceed through our final novel, LA Confidential. Today, I am compiling some links and background readings based on what they sent me. I am doing work in response to an agenda that my students have set.

This happened by accident. The cession of power happened so gradually that I don’t think any of us noticed it, and the even bigger surprise is that it’s working out swimmingly. As a literature student and instructor, I am, of course, well indoctrinated in “student centered” classroom methods that incorporate Socratic dialogue and small group work. But never have I been in a situation in which the roles have been so radically reversed, in which I am essentially doing homework for my students. And what’s even more surprising is just how swimmingly this is working.

The first half of our semester proceeded pretty much like any advanced literature seminar. I would come to class with a very brief informal lecture prepared, lay out some issues in order to guide the subsequent discussion, and then the students would respond based on the agenda I had set. This seemed to be working just fine. The Bachelor’s level students here are elite students, and the level of participation (with way more than 50% of the class talking on any given day) was far exceeding my expectations. Not only do these students talk, they have opinions. They read texts critically and have interesting things to say about them. A couple of them read the scholarly introductions. I know for a fact that one finishes the books early and seeks out secondary sources on his own.

It was illuminating, then, to find out that the students themselves were dissatisfied with their level of participation when it was repeatedly cited as a weakness of the course on the midterm evaluations I had them hand in. I’ve had excellent students complain about their disengaged classmates before, and no one likes awkward silences. But the dissatisfaction in this case turned out to have a lot to do with my students’ varying degrees of comfort with spoken English. They are excellent readers and solid writers (the range of abilities is roughly equal to that of the American students I have taught but with different areas of difficulty). Students who didn’t talk very much said that they had things they wanted to say but that it took so long for them to put a coherent sentence together in their head that inevitably a more proficient student would beat them to it or the discussion would wander away from the topic. Several said they wished they had more opportunities to prepare what they were going to say in class outside of their daily journaling. And others said that they simply had a hard time understanding what was being said–either by me or by their classmates–if voices started overlapping or if we started speaking fast because we were especially engaged in that topic.

I had also noticed that my students seemed not completely comfortable with the kind of free-flowing discussion I was trying to foster. They still raised their hands to speak. They felt like they needed to have perfectly formed thoughts in order to participate. Some of this is a cultural issue–Russian secondary education has a reputation for being pretty authoritarian–but it was also clearly a confidence issue.

So, I decided to try and maintain the discussion format while giving students more opportunities to engage in a more structured, prepared way. I started having them do quick presentations on the subjects of their papers (two students per class session for a total of 10-15 minutes of class time). And for each session, I assign four student leaders who prepare topics and questions ahead of time for class discussion. They are then broken down into four small groups, which the student leaders guide through the subject matter they have prepared. At the halfway point, the groups have to produce some kind of deliverable (a presentation to the rest of the class, a visual map of the chapter, a set of unresolved questions, etc.), and what we do for the rest of class is determined by what they deliver. After about a week of this, I was doing very little in class aside from observing groups, synthesizing their conversations, and filling in gaps. No more lecturing, no more coming into the classroom with a pre-determined agenda.

Flipped classrooms are certainly not a new concept, but it’s something I deployed reluctantly for two reasons:

1) I was afraid that they would not arrive at the discussion topics that I thought were most important. This turned out to be unfounded, largely because my students are well-trained readers (Russian education is also highly literary). A class with a much lower level of ability probably could not handle this level of freedom. My students wound up covering almost precisely what would have covered. The leaders asked good questions, and they weren’t afraid to return to topics previously covered in order to figure out if peoples’ views had changed. In cases where I thought they had missed or glossed over something, I could use the second half of class to insist they delve into it deeper. During one discussion of a middle section of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the groups were consistently noticing the fact that character names get re-used, but they didn’t make anything of it other than, “Huh, that’s weird.” So I had the group leaders go up to the blackboard and take direction from their peers in mapping the way names were used across storylines to figure out what was going on.

2) My “good student” impulse sometimes supersedes my “good teacher” impulse. What I mean by this is that I as a teacher at the beginning of her career frequently feel the need to “prove” my mastery of the content to my students, when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Thus, class becomes a performance centered on the teacher rather than a collaboration facilitated by the teacher.

So, what began as an exercise to give every student an opportunity to talk, to lead, and to prepare what they want to say (each student leads twice) has resulted in class sessions where I do almost no talking, which is a kind of platonic ideal for some instructors. And it’s resulted in a situation in which my students have set the agenda for the remaining three weeks, and I am taking my lead from them. Approaching LA Confidential, I would have started by talking about noir genre tropes, but these kids are already past that (our last “text” was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, where they had plenty of opportunity to reflect on and discuss Nolan’s and the Batman franchise’s indebtedness to noir). Instead two of the three groups spent the majority of class time discussing immigration, crime, and racism in the novel’s first section. This makes sense. Coming off of Rushdie earlier in the semester, immigration and cities as cites of multi-cultural interaction are already very much on our minds. Immigration is also a very raw political issue in Moscow at the moment. But it meant that instead of feeling the need to explain things they already understood, I instead started putting together a list of sources to help fill in background knowledge on immigration from Mexico to California in the 1950s.

In conclusion, this is a classroom model that has worked well for the past several weeks and one that I would likely deploy again with necessary adjustments for students’ level of ability. But if you have a class that is capable of setting a substantive agenda and independently performing good critical analysis, then sometimes its just best to get out of their way.

Image source.

The US Model Writing Center in Russia

The New Economic School in Moscow is a rather unique place. Created in 1991 by a group that included a Russian technocrat, an Israeli economist, and George Soros, its ideals are fundamentally internationalist, designed to train the best and brightest from Russia and other CIS nations in economic theory, send some of them to the US or Western Europe for advanced degrees, and bring them back to become the business and academic elite here in their home country. For that reason, by the time they graduate, students are expected to be fluent in English and fully acculturated to academic norms in the West.

For that reason, NES has deliberately sought out foreign faculty and foreign educational models. Even the Russian faculty tend to carry PhDs from places like Cambridge and MIT. And when the school decided to start offering a liberal arts-model BA in addition to its two Master’s programs, the idea of importing the US Writing Center/WAC model followed almost immediately. Because most of the Economics faculty are not equipped for writing instruction in English, this program has been staffed with faculty with Humanities degrees from overseas. Right now, the English department is roughly half Russian/half American. Three of the last four Writing Center administrators have been American (including myself, obviously), and all four have had experience working in American writing centers.

So in a number of important ways, our Writing Center resembles the one I was trained in: we train consultants to use the non-directive, process-oriented pedagogy advocated by foundational scholars like Stephen North. In addition to providing consultations, we provide resources to faculty to support the integration of writing into their curriculum. We encounter similar issues of misunderstanding and resistance from students and faculty when it comes to our Socratic, non-directive pedagogical model, though these are perhaps a bit more pronounced given the authoritarian model of Russian secondary education.

But in some very huge and perhaps rather obvious ways, our Writing Center will probably never look exactly like a US one. NES isn’t the first non-US institution to adopt this model (though it is the first in Russia), which is becoming more popular worldwide (indeed, recent Humanities PhDs with a sense of adventure ought to seriously consider exploring the international market, which often offers more attractive opportunities than the US market). And for that reason, the specific challenges we have here are worth discussing. Naturally, this is a subject that I will continue to reflect on as my time in Russia progresses, but here are a few broad points that have come to the forefront as I’ve begun working here:

For starters, ours is a bi-lingual Writing Center, offering consultations in both Russian and English. And when it comes to English, we have to assist students with widely varying levels of proficiency. Which means that we are involved not only in teaching writing in English but in teaching the language of English itself. Students can come in not only to get help with their writing assignments but to practice their pronunciation or conversation skills. We offer workshops in oral presentation skills in addition to writing skills. For that reason, we call ourselves the Writing and Communications Center (literal translation from Russian: “The Center for Written and Oral Communication”). And while the difference appears subtle, consulting on oral vs. written communication for EFL students requires a different set of competencies for consultants. Simply being a native English speaker helps but isn’t quite enough on its own. Some linguistics training and a basic understanding of English vs. Russian morphology makes a gigantic difference.

The differences between English and Russian extend beyond the mere mechanics of language, however. In the past few weeks at NES, we have come to think of essay writing in English as a completely different genre than  essay writing in Russian, where the argument often appears at the end and the writing tends more toward circularity than toward the pyramidal model we teach in Freshman Comp in the US. It’s not that the Russian way of writing is incorrect, it’s just that audiences in each language have different expectations when it comes to the structure of an argument, and students must be taught to tailor their papers and presentations to fit each. Therefore, this is a Writing Center that has to address the idea of “good writing” not as a set of universal rules but as a set of culturally and linguistically mediated practices.

And finally, as Tzu-Shan Chang reports in this article about Taiwanese writing centers, it is nearly impossible to find qualified peer tutors for consultations in English. We have three American interns (who all hold either a BA or an MA) and one PhD student from Moscow State University, but otherwise, all of our consultants are faculty. Particularly at such a small institution, this requires us to adopt dramatically different roles in our encounters with students as instructors rather than consultants. We do not take consultations for work in our own classes, but it is possible that we will see our students for work assigned by other professors. And I tend to hold that certain superficial (and maybe kind of dumb) distinctions–such as asking students to use my first name when I am working as a consultant–are important to distinguishing my role.

The Pleasures of Narrative

As usual, I’m late to the party and just came across this excellent piece by everyone’s favorite green, be-shortsed film critic on the spoiler conversation following this season’s penultimate episode of Game of Thrones (be not afraid, there are no spoilers here). He weaves his discussion of that fallout into a broader argument about the ways in which we consume art, though he is specifically talking about the filmic arts here. To whit, he argues that there are four:





Spoilerphobia, he argues, comes out of the desire to experience narrative in that “childlike” state of wonder and surprise, and in its most extreme forms–someone for whom spoilers utterly destroy their ability to derive pleasure or enjoyment out of something–suggests that the individual is incapable of or unwilling to experience media in any other way.

I liked this piece very much, but one thought occurred to me by the time I came to the end: I only WISH I could get more of the students in my literature classes to care as much about the fate of Isabel Archer or Ellison’s Invisible Man as they do about the Starks (don’t get me wrong: I love the Starks too). Let’s just say that no one is talking about spoilers in a class discussion of My Antonia. A big reason for this, of course, is that “literary” fiction tends to be character rather than plot-driven. But the bigger reasons, I think, have to do with context and the ways in which works–filmic or literary–that students or other readers deem “difficult” reverses the trajectory that Film Crit Hulk lays out, one in which purely libidinal enjoyment passes over the course of maturation and exposure to a mix of the cerebral and the emotional.

What I find in my class is that students who are very apt at picking apart what they think is going on in a text–identifying symbols and figures of speech, even taking apart the gender, class, and race dynamics underlying the text’s surface meanings–tend to treat these things as if they were pure thought exercises devoid of any kind of human meaning. Ok, I know a lot of people with tenure who fall into this category as well.

The truth is that I find Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth to be a perfect novel in almost every possible detail, a work of stunning complexity and nuance both as character study and as a book with a cracking good plot. But I also find it emotionally affecting, shot through with an excruciating sense of the loneliness one feels even in human company written by a woman who saw and experienced the most alienating parts of 19th century upper-class New York society. And it’s a work that speaks powerfully to a present moment in which we both worship and abhor those who are famous purely for being rich and conventionally beautiful.

But to appreciate the pathos of the heroine’s fate, you do have to get past a lot of big words. You have to understand a little bit about Wharton’s historical moment, and you have to know enough to get the jokes (it’s a book that’s as funny as it is sad). I have students who can perform a gorgeous close reading of the opening chapter and explain the clear signs of Henry James’s influence on Wharton’s prose and use of realism, but they seem to experience the text with as much emotional investment as a coroner performing an autopsy.  My goal is to get students to be able to pick apart the techniques of Song of Myself and recognize its contributions to American poetry while also just reveling in it.

When it comes to certain very complex works of art–whether it’s a Terence Malick film or a belletristic novel–the achievement of that third level of consumption, that balance of catharsis and intellectual appreciation, often does mean moving past pure analysis in order recapture the ability to experience a narrative in a state of wonder and curiosity.

This is an attitude that contemporary academic culture doesn’t often encourage, and the staleness of the literary survey may be as much to blame as the recalcitrance of students. But the polarization of emotional and intellectual enjoyment is also, I think, something that has penetrated popular culture and criticism where it is often difficult to carve out a middle ground between adultishly detached snark and, well, 95% of Tumblr. It’s a paradigm that so often pathologizes libidinal enjoyment and transference while at the same time enabling it.

Literature Survey Final Project

I used to hate “creative” school projects when I was a student, since simply writing an exam required a whole lot of less of me, but for this year’s upper division American lit survey I decided to subject my class to just such a final assignment because as an instructor, I REALLY REALLY hate grading blue books.

Inspiration for this project came while I was putting together my syllabus and designing the Prezi course map and decided I wanted to render transparent the way in which designing such a course requires making some challenging decisions about what to include and what relationships between texts, genres, authors, and historical periods to emphasize. Any such course inevitably leaves things out and requires one to smooth over nuances that a more in depth study of any particular element would reveal. So, for the final project, I asked students to design a creative presentation that would re-present the overall arcs of the course in a way that seemed important or helpful for them. I told them to think about what they would do if asked to teach this course to other people or were designing the best study guide ever for a hypothetical final exam.

Link to handout.

I was pleased enough with the results first semester to give it another go during the Spring when I had some exceptional models to offer. I would say about half of the students chose to emulate the course map by using Prezi, though with some decidedly innovative twists of their own. Other students created Pinterest Boards, Tumblrs, and standard blogs.

Here are some Prezi examples:

The last one has an audio component that is completely worth listening to all the way through for its spot-on parody of NPR interviews.

By the way, here is a great shortcode converter that makes embedding Prezi in WordPress really easy.

Using Prezi to Create Interactive Course Maps

Over the past year, I’ve started using the free online presentation platform Prezi to create interactive course maps. Like most platforms of this kind, it is designed with a corporate user in mind, and its built-in templates are, in my opinion, extremely limited. However, since it is so flexible and customizable, once you get some experience with it, you can do some pretty cool stuff. The 3-D navigation means that you can create non-linear presentations that students can explore according to their own needs and interests, rather than flipping through Power Point slides. And it means that I can show relationships among various course concepts and assigned texts in multiple dimensions.

The following timeline for my American Literature survey is designed to show historical relationships, to introduce key periods and styles, and to provoke (by arrangement along the vertical axis) reflection about the canon.

This presentation, by the way, is public, so you can copy it and use it as a template for your own course. Several instructors on Prezi already have.

This second course map for my American Realism class is a lot less complex in terms of design, but I like the way it looks. I primarily used it to introduce each author on the syllabus and suggest jumping off points for discussion.

In a future post, I’ll talk about how students used Prezi to create their own final projects.

Entering a New World

So, grading papers was a little bit of a bummer this weekend.  While one student who struggled with the last assignment worked extraordinarily hard to produce an A paper this time around (after one of the most productive workshop sessions I’ve ever moderated, meetings during office hours, and three complete overhauls of his rough draft), a few of my students who had previously done well took a few steps back, committing some of the same errors that I had previously thought were limited to three or four individuals.  Namely, they are using their chosen texts as excuses to talk about their personal views on a subject rather than producing an analytical argument based on clear evidence from that chosen text.

A few of these students came after me after class to say that they recognized the mistakes that they had made, that they didn’t like the papers that they had written either (which is encouraging) and that they would spend more time on the assignment going forward.  But I do think that a number of my students are laboring under that common misconception that the study of literature is essentially a free for all, that the “subjectivity” of interpretation means that interpretation is essentially personal, that there are no wrong answers, that anything can mean anything.  So, I brought in Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” today in order to talk about what the first task of any reader or observer of a work of art is:  to fully understand what the creator of a work was trying to communicate.  This means setting preconceptions aside and allowing oneself to be transported into a particular world with particular protocols, particular rules and causes and effects that may or may not have direct correlaries in the real world:

If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it.  Nothing is more boring or ore unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie.  We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so the first thing we should do is study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know.  When this new world has been closely studied , then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.

For Nobokov and for philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, this is a moral and pedagogical imperative:  art and the effort to faithfully understand what the author is trying to communicate is how we learn to come into sympathy with other perspectives.  Upon re-reading this essay, I was surprised at how much I resist this way of reading, how suspicious I am, in fact, of looking at a work of art as a contained body of meaning, hermetically sealed off from its context.  The good postmodernist in me believes that meaning are unstable, that artists, in many ways, do not control what their works mean for each individual who encounters it.  The feminist in me is inherently suspicious of author’s motives and of the way in which the realities contained in texts are both socially constructed and participate in the construction of contingent knowledge as historically transcendent.  In other words, in my own work, I reflexively attend to everything that comes after “then and only then” in that paragraph and perhaps do a poor job of helping my students master everything that comes before it.  Because while I still hold that meaning is unstable and contingent and that artists are not infallible, I have to get my students to a place where they can see that while there are multiple available interpretations for any given work of art, the number of interpretations is, in fact, limited.  Otherwise, I get papers on why the Will Smith character in I Am Legend is a Christ figure based on a criteria so loose that it could apply to almost any protagonist in any narrative in Western literature.  I also wind up getting papers that tend to read, say, sections of Paradise Lost as an object lesson or a sermon–no matter which character is speaking at any given time–rather than a Milton’s particular entry point into theological and political debates about the nature of freedom and its relationship to both divine and civil law.

Thus, at the moment, I am trying to summon up the good little Formalist in me and disciplining myself to ensure that my students understand, first and foremost, what the author means before moving on to any historicist or postmodernist critique, though this is the first class in six years where I’ve really felt the necessity of doing so.  Either I’m becoming more aware, or I’ve just been dealt a class that is particularly in need of work at the level of reading comprehension.  It’s probably a little of both.


Compulsory Education and the Classroom as Social Contract

The Natalie Munroe thread has sparked some interesting discussions, and the most surprising debate for me has been the one in which people are questioning the very foundation of compulsory education.  Says commenter AK:

This teacher’s students didn’t choose. Kids are obligated by law to go to school up to a certain age (I don’t know what that age is in America). I don’t know if high school is included in that, but even if it’s not, it’s pretty much mandatory anyway since there are no real alternatives (it’s not like a sixteen-year-old can just get a job and support themselves). And you just don’t get to trap people in a building all day and force them to do stuff and then complain if they seem resentful. You just don’t.

Society’s excuse for this is of course that kids don’t know what’s best for them, and I agree that there is no good alternative to organized education, but that doesn’t mean that school is always good for people either. School is an institution. It’s more similar to prison or (mental) hospitals than to parenting. People naturally hate being forced.

I find certain parts of this argument compelling and certain parts of it self-evidently problematic (though others might not find the problems so self-evident), and it raised questions for me that perhaps go beyond what AK was arguing:  does the state have a right to enforce compulsory education “for the good” of minors?  Is being a student or a child inherently a form of oppression, regardless of any other signifiers of privilege?  If we can agree that aspects of the education system are broken and perhaps even harmful to students, in what ways do students have a right to express dissent or non-compliance?  And if education systems are inherently coercive, what are the moral and pragmatic imperatives for teachers in ensuring that classroom environments remain conducive environments for learning?

As a pragmatist of the William James/W.E.B. DuBois/Richard Rorty variety, I tend to look at effects rather than transcendental principles:  what social contacts can we enter into that best respect the rights and liberties of all human beings?  In order to better understand what compulsory education was designed to do, I took a brief look at its history (did you know, for example, that in ancient Judea, parents were required by law to provide education for their children?)  Throughout history, lack of compulsory education has almost always meant that access to education was limited, limited to those with means, of course.  Limiting education to the moneyed and connected classes tended to be a way of preserving the wealth and privileges of the few who had access.  It is no accident that Martin Luther advocated free, compulsory education in order to ensure that everyone in Europe was literate and therefore able to read the Bible:  the language of the Bible was the language of power.  To have access to the Bible was not only to be indoctrinated into its tenets but to have access to the ability to dispute the theological and legal suppositions based on it.  To be able to read the Bible was to be an agent in society.

Compulsory education, funded by taxes, spread throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but did not become standard practice in United States until the nineteenth (though Massachusetts required some grammar education for every child).  Massachusetts was the first to adopt compulsory, free education in the modern form in 1847, and Mississippi was the last in 1918.  This was not always a happy situation.  The laws were, of course, used to take Native American children away from their tribes in order to educate them in government schools and assimilate them into the society of their colonizers.  This was an unmitigated tragedy that students, frankly, should learn more about in school, but that’s a whole other conversation.

Lack of compulsory education has, however, as a rule, meant the disenfranchisement of the underprivileged.  It is absolutely no accident that Mississippi failed to get around to it until the early twentieth century:  Mississippi was home to a textile industry that relied heavily on child labor and a disenfranchised black population that had for more than a century been kept in ignorance because, as Frederick Douglass would argue, lack of education kept slaves unaware of their degraded and oppressed position and deprived them of the tools for self-actualization.

So why make it compulsory?  Because children have historically been uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, education had to be compulsory not because students had to be forced to go to school, but because adults might prevent them from doing so.  In the nineteenth century, a child might be denied the right to education by his parents or employers.  Compulsory education was central to the debates about school integration during the Civil Rights Era, when white parents sought to both prevent black students from attending white schools and attempted to pull their children out of schools that were integrating.  In short, I would argue that on the whole, compulsory education has been a core aspect of ensuring that all students have the inalienable right to education.  In fact, that relationship is encoded into the UN Convention on the Rights of Children:

Article 28

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;

(c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;

(d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;

(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.

3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.

Compulsory education is currently society’s way of ensuring that all adults attain a modicum of social, political, and economic enfranchisement based on literacy and access to employment.  It is a way of ensuring that minors are not kept out of school by parents who wish to psychologically and physically control them, that even parents who object to the public school system for religious or political reasons are required to provide basic forms of education to their children, that children cannot be taken out of school and forced to work, and that communities cannot deprive a minority group of access to education by depriving them of the funding required to maintain a school.  While the last point on this Quebecois website advocating the abolition of compulsory education is compelling, note that the first is “Reduction of the undesirable element in public and other formal schools”:

Abolish compulsory schooling laws, and this undesirable element will simply not attend schools—either out of apathy toward schooling or out of a desire to live a different kind of life. Schooling is wasted on these individuals; however, they might be drawn toward finding jobs and might thereby learn skills that might increase their productivity and respectability in work environments where bullying is simply not tolerated. The absence of such persons from the schools would make the lives of the better students immensely easier and would greatly increase the level of overt intellectualism in the entire society—as many intelligent people today actively repress their abilities from a young age in order to avoid bullying. This repression needs to end, and giving the bullies an option not to attend school is the best way to accomplish such an immensely important goal.


No student, however, is required to bow down and thank the state for providing this opportunity, and compulsory education always runs the risk of become coercive.  That is undeniable.    This is why some public school systems have a “Students Bill of Rights” embedded into their by-laws.  Students ought to be free from religious or political indoctrination.  They should be free from discrimination based on gender, sexuality, race, class, or disability.  They should have access to education in their own language (though some states are trying to put an end to that…I’m looking at you, Arizona), and they have a right to expect professionalism from their teachers.  Students have a right to organize and petition school administrations or school boards to amend practices or rules they deem unfair (as some GLBTQ groups who were suppressed by administrators have successfully done).  In short, they have a right to participate as citizens in the microcosm of civil society represented by the school.  However, because schools have a special mandate–to ensure that quality education is provided to all students on an equal basis–students are required to abide by certain rules in order to ensure that happens.  Because the teacher has the mandate of ensuring that the students in her care have access to quality of education, this means that students and teachers are engaged in a social contract.

A quick word about social contracts.  This is a term that gets thrown out in education and is regarded by some as a distinct pedagogical model.  In fact, it’s what informs my policy on late papers.  Namely, rather than an authoritarian model of teacher/student relationships–“I am the teacher and you do what I say because I am the teacher”–the model is somewhat transactional:  the teacher promises to provide certain things (timely feedback on assignments, opportunities for unconventional learning, opportunities for group discussion, reprieves from homework) in exchange for student’s cooperation (turning in assignments, turning in assignments according to a schedule, adherence to certain behavioral guidelines regarding cell phone use, talking when the teacher or another student talks, etc.).  I am a fan of social contracts in the classroom and use it, for example, to allow students to create guideline for discussing controversial subjects in class so that no one is silenced or marginalized.

Regardless of the techniques one uses, however, the simple fact is that teachers are charged with creating environments conducive to learning, and that entails policing student behavior and cooperation in some form or another.  Because the simple fact is that when even one student is holding a conversation while the teacher is attempting to teach, or refuses to participate in a group activity, or texts or sleeps conspicuously during class, or persistently questions the teacher’s professionalism or authority, or monopolizes class discussion with irrelevant or offensive speech, the social contract is violated.  That student is 1) distracting other students from the business of the classroom, 2) potentially (if the problem is not addressed) giving the impression this is tolerated, thereby undermining the credibility of the teacher, 3) and potentially (if the problem is addressed) monopolizing the resources of the teacher, who has to take time and energy away from the hir primary duty in order to deal with the offending student.  That last item is not a joke.  Dealing with a persistently non-compliant student doesn’t just mean turning away from the board to make them stop but spending massive amounts of time consulting with other teachers and assistant principals, trying to get the parents involved, attending meetings with all parties just mentioned, all of which takes time away from marking student papers, holding office hours to meet with other students, or developing new assignments or activities (or, you know, eating or sleeping or attending to other fundamental requirements for physical and mental health.)

In short, one student’s lack of cooperation–however slight–can radically change the dynamics of the classroom and can seriously undermine the ability of other students to obtain an education.  As such, even students who do not wish to be there and resent the responsibilities required of students are expected to abide by the social contract, because not doing so actually has repercussions beyond that one student.  Thus, the relationship between teacher and uncooperative student becomes adversarial, not only because human beings often get personally offended at being called an “evil bitch” for asking for homework but because non-compliance in one student can severely undermine the ability of the teacher to provide a quality education for all students, and because (rightfully and in accordance with the rights of students), the teacher is not allowed to deprive the non-compliant student of hir education by throwing them out of class permanently, said teacher may find hirself at an impasse, a toxic, festering impasse.

Which is all to say that this is how teachers wind up in a place where they feel relentlessly antagonized by their students:  because the social contract has broken down and been replaced by a “squeakiest wheel gets the most resources” situation.  Clearly, some teachers violate their own end of the social contract by verbally abusing students or participating in overt or tacit forms of discrimination or behaving in an otherwise unprofessional manner, but as long as a teacher is doing hir job and doing it well, I would argue that students ought to contain their resentment over being forced to come to school not only because it’s “for their own good” and shows respect to the teacher but because it ensures that the student’s classmates receive the education to which they are entitled without encumberance, and teachers have the right to insist upon cooperation for that reason as well.


Natalie Munroe Redux

So, this post.  Commenters (mostly Anna) have raised some important concerns about the Natalie Munroe case, which despite 3 hours of assiduous Googling on the issue, did not cross my radar.  Namely, Munroe did, I believe overstep some boundaries in making fun of students with disabilities and students with other forms of non-privilege.  We might have a whole new discussion about why the most egregious item from her blog was absent from every mainstream report on the story.  Furthermore, it would appear that she was negligent in not ensuring that her very private thoughts were not accessible to anyone who might be hurt by them.  Finally, it occurs to me a bit more fully that public awareness of her blog posts will make it pretty much impossible for her to do her job, and that is, to a very great degree, her own fault.  I’ll defend anyone’s right to free speech, but free speech has consequences.

It did, however, occur to me that this whole kerfuffle is acting as a kind of Rorshack inkblot for many people, revealing some of our deepest points of sensitivity (many of which ought to provoke lively debate) about issues in education.  I, as you can probably tell, was most struck by the very nature of the public outcry, that so many people seemed to be shocked, shocked that a teacher, given the environment in which they work, might have these thoughts.  It hit that part of him that does resent the fact that teachers, particularly female teachers, are expected to be endlessly tolerant and forbearing.  I also find the resentment toward teachers who try to get their students to meet minimum standards for graduation perplexing, because that is, after all, their job.  They are evaluated based on how well their students are doing, though again, we can debate the wisdom of that another time.  Naturally, venting one’s frustrations in this manner was not wise, but the adversarial relationship that teachers sometimes feel toward their students is not altogether uncommon and not altogether a sign of a bad teacher.

Finally, it hit that part of me that is tired of seeing teachers being used as a very easy punching bag for frustrations with a broken education system, as if going after teachers unions and pensions and tenure and collective bargaining rights were going to solve anything.  The perception that government employees–particularly teachers–are incompetents simply living off the federal dole–is disturbingly alive right now.

So, just in closing, Natalie Munroe is not my test case for anything.  My initial assessment of her culpability was wrong, but the public reaction to her blog is, in my opinion, almost as troublesome as the blog itself.

Teacher Complains about Students on the Internet. America Loses Its Collective Shit.

Editorial Note:  I have revised my thinking on the Natalie Munroe case somewhat after coming across some new information.  I will let the original post stand but encourage readers to look at the follow up.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this one:

“Be careful what you post on the Internet,” Natalie Munroe told her students year after year.

Maybe if she had listened to her own advice, she wouldn’t be where she is right now: Suspended and at risk of losing her teaching job at Central Bucks East High School.

Munroe, who has taught English at CB East since 2006 and has a salary of $54,500 this year, wrote a blog called “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?” for more than a year. In between blog posts about muffins, Food Network stars and her favorite movies, she posted long, profanity-peppered rants about Central Bucks administrators, her co-workers and her students.

“My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners,” she wrote in one post dated Oct. 27, 2009. “They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire and are just generally annoying.”

Munroe wrote multiple posts in the year that followed in which she talked about her own boredom and used profanity to describe her students.

Ok, so let me get this straight:  over a year ago, a high school English teacher ranted about students in general (using no names or identifying information) on an anonymous personal blog, using such slanderous language as “rude, disengaged, and lazy” as well as unspecified swear words, and the internet has taken to its fainting couch, called for its smelling salts, and demanded that Munroe be taken to the village stocks and flogged for her misbehavior.

Oh yes, and evidently she has been suspended with pay, and her job is potentially in danger. If you go wade through the comments at some of those links (tread carefully) and hell, even some of the actual reporting, you’ll note that a number of depressing assumptions and stereotypes about educators:

That good teachers are long-suffering and eternally compassionate and never ever ever complain about their students and that teachers who complain are bad teachers who hate their jobs. I am here to tell you that I am married to an award-winning high school teacher.  We regularly hang out with other high school teachers, and they bitch about their jobs all of the time, including their students.  And most of them still qualify as excellent teachers with strong testing records and a legion of adoring students.  Because here is the thing:  teaching is not missionary work, even though state legislatures seem to want to make it so.  Teaching is a job, and sometimes people have bad days at work.  Teaching is also a job that involves a lot of interaction with people, and as a rule, people sort of suck.  Teaching is also a job that requires the job-holder to negotiate an often needlessly complex and even hostile bureaucracy.  And teaching, much like parenting, is a job that carries with it enormous unrealistic expectations that no human being could possibly fulfill.  So sometimes they need a safe space to tell it like it is.

That individuals who do not find the teenage propensity toward laziness and narcissism occasionally frustrating do not belong in teaching. If that were true, our list of eligible teachers would be desperately slim indeed.  Some commenters on this story have said something to the effect of:  “I hate teenagers, but I didn’t sign up to work with them everyday.  She shouldn’t be a teacher, because she clearly hates children.”  I would submit that there is a vast difference between having flashes of sublimated rage toward the teenager who tells you to “fuck off” under his breath after you’ve asked him for his homework and “hating children.”  It means that occasionally, some teenagers are disrespectful asshats, and like most emotionally healthy individuals, and most teachers have a appropriate emotional responses that may or may not get vented once said asshat has been sent to the Vice Principal’s office and said teacher has entered the sanctum of the Teacher’s Lounge.  Hell, if we applied this “you must find all minors uniformly adorably under all circumstances in order to interact with minors on a daily basis” rule fairly, we as a species would have to stop reproducing.

That teachers should never, ever communicate a general displeasure with students or her job in any form that could be detected by her students. Many have seen this incident as an object lesson in using discretion on the internet, and while I think the point is somewhat valid, I also think that insofar as Munroe’s blog was anonymous and never once named any students, administrators, or even the school, district, or state in which she was teaching, and given the sheer vastness of the internet, Munroe was reasonable to expect that no student would ever come across what she had written unless they were looking.  And I find compelling her claim that some student or parent may, in fact, have been cyberstalking her in order to find incriminating information.

That teachers whom students dislike are invariably bad teachers. There was a teacher at my high school who I hated but who I now recognize was an excellent teacher.  She was ballsy enough to teach evolution in a biology department at a Christian school in a state that barely teaches it in the public schools, and she expected the utmost from her students.  Considering that this was a college prep curriculum, I think she understood that she was not getting paid to coddle anyone, that she had a right–in her Honors class–to expect students to rise to the standard she had set based on two decades of prior experience.  She was also frequently accused of “hating kids,” despite the fact that she was raising a developmentally disabled child to whom she showed nothing but compassion.  She just did not have a warm, motherly, nurturing personality, and students who were used to making A’s made B’s in her class, and as a result, she was the target of numerous campaigns by students and parents to get her fired.  Luckily, her administration backed her up every time.  Anyone with a passing acquaintance with children can tell you that they resist and often resent being challenged.  And parents all too often over-identify with students who think they are being treated unfairly and are often unwilling to see their child as part of the problem.

Now, it would appear that not everyone is calling for Munroe to be drawn and quartered, and sympathy for Munroe has been rising ever since she began blogging again, revealing herself to be articulate and lucid when it comes to the issues facing public education today.  And one of those issues she has correctly identified is the fact that when we talk about improving education, we’re almost always talking about teachers:  teacher’s unions, teacher tenure, teacher qualifications, merit pay, how to deal with failing teachers, etc.  The conversation is always about holding teachers accountable.

And yet, with all of that specialized training, people second-guess and blame teachers for so many of the problems that exist in education today. Do we go to our doctors and lawyers and tell them how to do their jobs, and second-guess everything they do? Do we stand alongside chefs at restaurants and tell them we think the boulliabaisse looks like it needs some more saffron? No. We trust them to do what they’ve been trained to do. Of course it’s ok to ask questions along the way so we can know why something is happening or understand the process–but at the end of the day, some trust needs to come into play, too. Let’s let teachers do their jobs.

I doubt anyone could possibly disagree that accountability must be a part of teaching, but accountability in recent years has increasingly meant sucking all of the creativity, art, and dynamism out of teaching.  And it has increasingly been used as a way for politicians to look like they’re doing something without admitting that we as a society seem either unwilling or unable to hold students, parents, and communities accountable as well.  Any teacher will tell you that she can pour all the love and creativity she possesses into her teaching, but it doesn’t amount to squat if the student isn’t showing up regularly enough to receive it, and it doesn’t translate into better numbers if the student refuses to hand in an assignment despite being given every opportunity to do so.

The trend among administrations has been to avoid telling parents and students difficult truths.  One of the items that made Munroe’s detractors so irate was a list of fantasy responses she made up as replacements for the “canned comments” her administration insists teachers use on report cards:

At report card time, we are obliged to add a comment to supplement and/or expand on the letter grades. We are strongly encouraged to use the “canned comments” option, which have a limited number of comments from which teachers may choose to explain students. However, much like options on those magazine quizzes where you sit there scratching your head and mumbling, “Well, I’m a little bit A, but somewhat D, too… um, I wonder what I should pick,” some of the options don’t work for some of the kids. Some of the students don’t fit within the canned comments. And none of them allow teachers to truly reflect any sort of behavior or academic deficiency in any truly negative way. Examples of canned comments are: “cooperative in class,” “achieving at ability level,” “needs to complete homework,” “needs to increase study time,” “doesn’t take advantage of second chance learning.” So I took the opportunity for myself and the possible amusement of my friends–since I was content and expected for everything to stay low-key with only my 7 pals reading my ramblings–to list those real behaviors that exist but that you just aren’t allowed to write. (Parents don’t want to hear the truth; administrators don’t want us to share the truth.) But regardless, they weren’t comments meant to fit all students, and nor were they even for every student I wrote “cooperative in class” about–I was just being pithy when I made that joke.

In a very real way, Munroe’s “offensive” post on this matter vividly illuminates the utter disingenuousness with which teachers are asked to evaluate their students.  Spared difficult news about themselves, students (and their parents) can proceed blithely from high school to college without ever learning hard lessons about either the subject matter they are supposed to be learning or about the realities of entering the world as an adult.  And then they wind up in my classroom, incredulous that they are receiving mediocre marks for mediocre work.

First Round of Papers

I just finished grading my first batch of papers for the term, and ya’ll, it was a bleak scene.  I had begun the semester resolved to be a little tougher since I already allow students to revise their assignment for a better grade, to insist that students with scintillating analyses go back and polish up the rougher spots in their prose before getting an A and to give out D’s where they’re warranted.  That goal has certainly been met.  The average grade for this assignment is well below normal, but I suspect that that is not so much a product of higher standards as it is an indication of the vast range of ability levels I’m dealing with in one class, and that range makes my strategy going forward unclear.

I have freshman students who clearly are struggling with the difference between analyzing a text and using a text as a jumping off point for talking about whatever it is they want to talk about, and given that this is a course called Literature and Religion, the results are, well…  For example, I received three papers that interpret entirely different narratives as allegories for the Christian life as the student understands it based on a criteria so broad that just about anything could be read as an allegory for the Christian life (which is more or less what I said in comments).  Coming from a religious background, I understand where it’s coming from.  Kids who grow up in evangelical environments are pretty accustomed to hearing popular films, songs, and books interpreted in this fashion in sermon illustrations and books on spiritual life, and for many of them, reading a narrative in this way is an important strategy for justifying their own interest in it.  So, when I get a paper on how the film 300 is an allegory for the Gospel, I understand that at least in part, this kid is trying to rationalize the fact that he likes the movie 300 by projecting Christian themes onto it.  So getting that kid to see that what he’s doing is, in fact, projection rather than an accurate interpretation of the film is, in a way, taking something rather important away from him.

Conversely, I have at least two seniors in their final semester, both of them intellectually talented but lazy.  Unfortunately, one of these students was the one who told me he “has to get an A” in order to graduate. Nevertheless, it’s clear that while I have some students who need to be acquainted with the basics of textual analysis, who really need to be taught how to accurately summarize a text before they can even begin to analyze it, and I have a few others who are bored to tears.

So in addition to the dilemma of how to conduct class in a way that addresses the needs of the weakest students without alienating the stronger ones, I have the question of how to assign and present grades.  In previous semesters, I’ve simply refused to assign a grade to the first draft as a way of encouraging everyone to revise.  However, students were clearly expressing a desire to know where they stood.  Furthermore, a bad grade early on can act as a wake-up call for students who are simply lazy, though I run the risk of students in the first category becoming discouraged and simply shutting down.

It occurs to me now that I worry a bit too much about how students will respond to a grade, that how they choose to move forward is entirely on them, and it is simply up to me to provide thoughtful, honest feedback and allow them to take it from there.