Saturday, February 16, 2013

Teaching Boys, Post #3

You who read my blog (all 40 of you) know from previous posts that the first two years or so of teaching were rocky ones for me. You may also know that what pulled me out of that period and set me on the path to becoming at least a decent teacher was Bruce Wilkinson's excellent book The Seven Laws of the Learner

Reading this book, I learned to accept responsibility for students' learning. I told more stories to keep class attention. I used pictures and graphs to illustrate how papers should be set up. I pushed back paper deadlines when I discovered that I had confused students. It was a big step forward. 

Now, the next step forward is to give responsibility back to the students. 

In The Trouble With Boys, Peg Tyre writes (unexpectedly enough for me) that one way to reach difficult boys is strict accountability for academic and personal performance. In other words, boys, and presumably girls, do better not when class is made easier but when class is made harder. 

I am guilty of the opposite. I have at times made class easier (too easy!) for students, personally and academically.

Two particular student encounters from the last five years of teaching illustrate what I mean when I say that my teaching has become "too easy": 

Some time ago, a student arrived 20 minutes late to my class, well over the time that I would count her absent. When I called her up after class, she apologized for missing and said, "Yes, go ahead and count me absent. I deserve it." I, grateful for the student's admission of error, gave her a tardy instead. Thinking back on it, I wish I'd given the absent. One absence would not have failed the student, and it would have sent a clearer signal: I the teacher expect you to manage your time appropriately in order to arrive on time at my class. Instead, I sent this signal: I the teacher will allow you to get away with anything if you apologize. 


Another time, I was holding paper conferences with my student. The students were required to bring a certain amount of homework in to class. Halfway through my three days of conferences, a student arrived with all his homework completed. I, unthinking, praised his work. He responded, "Uh, yes. That's what we were supposed to do." My heart sank to the floor. During the conferences, student after student with their homework half-finished had managed to convince me that I expected nothing more. I expected that my students would not complete their work.

May God forbid that is what I expect of my students. 

To expect students to fail is to guarantee failure. To take responsibility for a finished paper or project into my own hands is to deny college students, all on the cusp of adulthood, a shot at personal maturity. 

Never again will I excuse students who arrive without homework completed.

Never again will I delay the deadline for a paper because students were not prepared.

Never again will I grant general amnesty on homework because half the class didn't complete it.

Never again will I turn a blind eye when students walk into class ten minutes late on the day a paper was due because they were still printing it. 

I will not allow students to be disruptive in class. I will not allow them to ridicule fellow students. I will not allow them to disrespect me as the teacher. 

Yes, I say this very confidently on my blog. Yes, I will continue to make mistakes in granting excessive leniency. Among other things, five years of teaching have taught me that I am a softie. Yet I cannot allow myself to grow soft with my students.

Of course, "never" statements only guarantee a kind of negative accountability. I have positive expectations for my students, too:

I expect them to work on papers in advance, not in the last three days of the semester. To hold students to this, I will enforce rigid deadlines: all sources submitted by one date; a rough draft, by another.  

I expect students to teach themselves. Some material is too basic to cover in class, such as selecting quotations from research to use in papers. Other material is too boring: All MLA citation information is easily available at OWL at Purdue. Class time is better spent reviewing the finer points of rhetoric than reviewing what is in italics and what in quotation marks on a Works Cited page. To hold students accountable for independent learning, I will provide them the resources (the OWL link, the information about the writing center) and require correct submission. 

I expect students to use strong grammar. If the appropriate use of the colon is beyond them, avoiding comma splices and fragments is not. I will grade students on grammar, and I will teach those that still confuse you're / your and there / their / they're to distinguish between these words. We will practice fragments and run-on sentences.

Regarding my responsibilities as a teacher, nothing has changed. It is still up to me to teach in such a way that students master the content. Yes, this responsibility may extend to delaying a paper assignment if my teaching has confused the students. Yes, it includes making allowances for students challenges: legitimate sudden illness, for instance, or learning disabilities. 

Regarding my students' responsibilities, everything has changed. They are wholly responsible to produce the best that they personally are able to produce. That standard is at different places for different students, of course, but the fact remains. They are accountable. 

And when they are made accountable, they are more likely to learn.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Teaching Boys: Lesson #2

If Lesson #1 was that boys do, in fact, learn differently than girls, then Lesson #2 is not to make preconceived judgments about how boys learn or what they like to read.

Last week, I gave my Intro to Literature students a test on the basic literary skills we'd been learning for the first four weeks. For this test, I offer students a choice of several poems, ask them to pick one, and to thoroughly interpret it: find literary devices, write out a theme, and answer an analysis question that I wrote regarding the poem.

This year, the students were asked to choose between a nature poem about the starry heavens, a poem by a (female) slave celebrating her spiritual life, and a World War II poem. At first, I had considered assigning students poems: Some boys would get the war poem, some girls would get the starry nature poem, and a control group of boys and girls would get one or the other. Ultimately, I allowed students to choose, and here's what I found:

Only one boy (in a class of perhaps 12) wrote about the war poem. A girl also wrote about the war poem. The entire rest of the class was split between the slave's poem and the nature poem. Moreover, some of the most thoughtful, detailed responses were by men on the nature poem, or by men on the slave's poem.

Writers such as Peg Tyre in The Trouble With Boys do well to remind us that boys and girls learn differently. 5-year-old kindergartner boys cannot be expected to plant their bottom on a carpet square and stay there for more than a few minutes. 5-year-old kindergartner girls cannot be expected to react will delight and awe in a unit that studies bugs and insects.

Yet this example, similar to many Tyre herself gave, illustrates the danger of assumptions about how boys and girls react in the classroom. While biological reality dictates that (on general) little boys need more physical activity than little girls, biological reality does not dictate that little girls recoil in horror from slugs and snails. What dictates that little girls recoil from a fat, glistening slug is simply a stereotype: that a little girl, whose nails Mommy painted two days ago, could not possibly get dirt on her that Barbie-pink polish.

Thanks to the feminist movement, Americans are alert to stereotypes of women and vigilant in avoiding them. It is thus no shame to me, a woman, to admit, for instance, that I prefer Battlestar Galactica to Downton Abbey and have never seen Ryan Gosling in anything.

Unfortunately, Americans are less aware of stereotypes about men and less able to dismantle them for men who prefer subjects outside the assumed interests such as slugs, or (for older boys) cars and football. Tyre's book, though excellent in some regards, provides evidence of this: Suggestions such as picking books with boy-friendly content and inviting policemen to read aloud are well-meant, even useful, but also based on broad assumptions about what boys are interested in.

Gender stereotypes run deep in our society. Last semester, one of the classes I pulled up short when a young man announced that he loved to quilt. I have no memory of what brought on this confession, nor of how I responded. I do remember the sudden silence, in a class almost never silent, as we all mentally connected the student before us with an activity stereotypically enjoyed by your 80-year-old grandmother.

Between this experience and the test results, I have thus learned not to make assumptions about what the young men (and sometimes, older men) in my class will or will not enjoy.

Yes, J.K. Rowling was asked to use her initials instead of her name (Joan Rowling) to encourage boys to pick up the Harry Potter series. That her publisher, however, pandered to stereotypes about young men does not mean that we teachers should.

False dichotomies must be avoided in class planning and management. As a girl, I speak from experience: To assign us Anne of Green Gables is not to guarantee engagement in the class. Ender's Game may do the trick just as well. For boys, I speak from my observations: To assume that a war poem is more likely to grab their attention than a quilting manual (apparently) is to deprecate the lived experiences of the young men in our classroom - young men who like crafts, who enjoy studying the stars and nature.

Where does that leave me? After all, I rewrote my syllabus to include more boy-friendly texts.

I don't regret anything.

It is one thing to pander to stereotypes of boys' interests. It is quite another to read and discuss material that will affect most men in the population - in this case, the father-son relationship. The young man who quilts and the young man who hunts down slugs both have fathers, and both of them will likely become fathers by the end of their lives. Even gay men who choose to adopt will become fathers.

Moreover, the trades that I made were good. I gave up the beautiful but difficult "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot. In return, I gained the ambiguous, haunting and substantially more accessible "Those Winter Sundays," by Robert Hayden and "My Papa's Waltz," by Theodore Roethke.

Thus, the lesson to be learned about teaching boys is perhaps not, "Teach literature that appeals to boys' interests". Danger lies there: Not all boys have the same interests.

The lesson would be better worded like this: "Teach literature that is accessible and personally meaningful to all students". That literature may be written from a young man's perspective, as "My Papa's Waltz". It is equally likely to be written with a woman's voice, as in "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter".

What's important is not a pseudo-classification of poetry as "for boys" and "for girls" but the fact that poetry represents what both boys and girls recognize as their own lived experiences.