It's all about the narrative


IFP Moments

Of Mice and Men, without the dead mice*

*from the poem, not that creepy book about rabbits that everybody had to read in high school.

It’s Monday morning.  My summer class is 45 minutes into their lesson, a listening exercise involving a CBC radio debate on locavorism, in preparation for their field trip to a local Farmers’ Market.  Suddenly I get that pit of my stomach feeling: the class is tanking.  The anti-locavore guy is Francophone; his English is effortless, but the wandering ‘h’s and occasional non-standard stress pattern are enough to throw my students off.  His opponent is Californian, but accent is not the problem.  She is on the attack from word one, going off on ever wilder tangents in her attempt to rebut her opponent’s argument. Even Jian Ghomeshi, the honey-toned local boy and in this case the only voice of reason, doesn’t go down that well.  His studied informality just serves to confuse them further.

I am angry with myself. I could easily have predicted this, but I didn’t.  You see, I was too in love with my own narrative.

I’ll back up a little.  This has been my first experience with formally planning my own program.  Planning was a blast — great arcs of pedagogy meeting at  this transcendent point on the last day of class. “Students will…”. It was a beautiful thing, and it looked great on paper.  But teaching isn’t just planning.

Planning is creating a narrative.  You and your party will go on a quest.  You will journey to the dragon and slay it (the dragon here being superficial reading and comma splices). You will then live happily ever after, or at least until classes begin again in September.  Actual teaching is a lot more like playing tag in a bouncy castle.  “Students will…” — What happens when “Students will not…”?

I had fallen in love with the vision of my students engaging  in witty and erudite discussion about logical fallacies, but for them to do that, they would have had to understand what the debaters were saying.  I should have stopped, thought it through, connected my high flown plans with the real-life abilities of these actual students.  I mentally castigate myself for this hubris.  Once again, I have been guilty of believing my own hype.


and then… it was ok.  By this point, the only way out was through, so we just kept going.  The three strongest students actually got it, and for them the challenge was useful.  As for the others… they learned a lot of topical vocabulary.  We discussed the idea of  ad hominem arguments (although I had to reduce my explanation to, “She’s kind of yelling at him.”)  They learned that not everyone in North America sounds the same, and that even people on the radio don’t always say logical things.

Just goes to show that there is a time to implement the plan, and a time when all you can do is take a deep breath and hope for the best.


keep calm

Sooo tired

It’s 4 pm on a Tuesday, two weeks into the summer term.  I crawl out of the car, barely making it to the couch.  I  pass out in front of the World Cup.  When I wake up 3 hours later, I don’t know whether it’s 7 am or 7 pm, and I can’t remember how I ended up where I am.  I am just exhausted.  It’s this new course: it’s knocking me out.

People who know me from my workhorse days at the TDSB might find this a little strange.  Then, 30 hour teaching weeks were not uncommon, plus marking, plus planning.  Now, I have 9 mostly compliant students, and I’m teaching 16 hours a week in an air- conditioned room.  16 hours?  that’s not even really full time.

I’m trying to figure out what is making me so tired.  Yes, this a new program, but I’ve done new programs before, and they haven’t worn me out.  The fact is, I went into ESL lazy. (Somehow, the world of graduate study had not inculcated a particularly strong work ethic.)  In those days, the Holy Grail of teaching was finding a TOEFL exercise long enough that I could sneak out and make a phone call in the staff room.  In fact, I’m not quite sure why my contract was renewed.  I guess Jan and Keith saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.

Even when I became a little more conscientious, I found that I wasn’t working as hard when I started a new program.  When I was studying for my TESL certificate, a more experienced fellow student said, “The better I get at teaching, the harder I work.”  At the time, I looked at him in horror, but now that totally makes sense to me.  A beginning teacher is a bit like an incompetent swimmer:  no amount of thrashing around is going to get you where you want to go.  It’s only when you feel at home in the classroom that you can really implement all your teaching skills.

Maybe that’s where the difference lies:  it’s a new class, but in some ways it is already familiar to me.  It a module that I have developed over the course of six weeks, planned down to the last sentence.  There is no thrashing around period here: every exercise has been specially tailored to this particular group of students.  The goal is clear and specific, and the stakes are high.  I need to deploy every weapon in my arsenal if I am going to do this.

And yet, I don’t feel tired when I am in class.  The four hour sessions feel shorter than the three hours I am used to.  The teaching seems to come more naturally, and even the difficult moments feel like part of a larger plan.  When I teach, I am in the moment and I could do this forever.  It is only when the class ends that  I sag lifeless into the nearest chair.

It is a gift, I think, an unexpected mitzvah, to feel so consumed by what one is doing.  When one’s energies are so attuned to each other that they all contribute to that one classroom moment, and when one feels those energies reflected back in the students’ responses  — that is the stuff of those inspirational posters that teachers put up on classroom walls.  Not every teaching experience can be like this, and not every one should be — we need our gritty realism as well — but when they happen, these are moments to be savoured.


But what flavour of lazy?

ice cream

So when my students tell me they are lazy, I want to ask them “What kind?”

  • are you lazy because you want to stick it to your parents?
  • are you lazy because you have an undiagnosed learning disability?
  • are you lazy because you’re so homesick that you don’t even want to get out of bed?
  • are you lazy because you’re in love and all else pales?
  • are you lazy because you are in the throes of an addiction to video games?
  • are you lazy because you are working two full-time jobs under the table?
  • are you lazy because the only thing you want to be is a stage magician, and stage magicians don’t need academic strategies?

— any of these is possible.

But I don’t ask.

Because it’s not my job.

But I have started to question this.

Affective Living  is a blog  written by a teacher of high risk kids.  When he talks about laziness, he examines the reasons behind it, as I did, but he goes beyond this, seeking out the students, challenging them, wrestling them into engagement   We don’t do that.  Why not?

Here is the rationale:  Students come from schools where discipline is rigid and where instructors are heavily invested in having the students pass.  Therefore, students are used to being monitored and micromanaged. In contrast, the  University of Toronto is a big unfriendly place where professors are too  busy with other concerns to nursemaid the students.  Besides, they have little to lose when students fail their classes.  In first year, then,  former ifp students will be left completely to their own devices.  If we go out of our way to help the students, we will be enabling them, weakening their ability to survive unsupported.  It is best for all concerned if we provide the students with the necessary information and leave them to make all decisions, no matter how foolhardy, on their own.

I wonder,  though.  The argument makes sense, but it could also be that we overuse the realism defence, that it has become an escape, what my yoga teacher describes as a release valve.  Perhaps it is too easy to use U of T’s unfriendliness as an excuse for our own inactivity.  And is the University even that cold? After all, when I was a TA, I would call the students at home if they missed an assignment.  I know professors who did that too.  To be sure, there are many instructors who would not bother, but is it strictly necessary that we emulate them every step of the way?  Maybe I need to examine my own reactions and my own teaching practice: when I encounter laziness in students, are there ways that I can reach out to them without pandering to them; are there ways that I can make my lessons more motivating without undermining their academic integrity?  I’m not sure that I have the answers, but I think I owe it to my students, lazy and not so lazy,  to search a little more diligently.

Lazy like the Cat*


Well it’s the end of term, and I’ve been thinking about my students, the ones where the program “worked” and the ones where it didn’t. I’m also mulling over the results of this survey,** and filtering it all through a post called The “L” Word .    I’ve been thinking about how we define ourselves as teachers, and about how this relates to how we define our students, and finally to how students define themselves.  I’m going to start at this last point and work backwards.

In this case, the L word is “lazy.”

At the beginning of each academic year, I ask all my students to write one word by which they define themselves.  In each section, in each year, at least one student has chosen the word “lazy.”  I find this both interesting and problematic.

It’s not that we don’t talk about ourselves as lazy.  In fact, the shallow waters of the internet are full of discussions of laziness, often taken to extremes, to what could perhaps be described as  laziness porn. *** My fb friends and I share these back and forth, and engage in our own conversations about our great indolence.  Yet, as can be seen from the term, this laziness porn has a transgressive quality.  Laziness to us still has a certain taboo value.  And yes, we do talk about our laziness, but there is usually a tension between what we say and the shared reality (I am saying I’m lazy, but we both know that I never stop moving, or that I just finished marking 30 papers, or that I’m working on my Goodreads goal.).  We are a little bit like the annoying person we knew in high school who claimed not to have studied but then aced the test.  We do not really think of ourselves as lazy, or if we occasionally  do, we do not choose that moment to post a fb message about it.

It’s also not that our own kids aren’t lazy.  It could be argued that our locally raised kids are much lazier than the ifp students (Not much of an argument really — which group goes to academies until midnight? memorizes vocabulary lists in the summer holidays?).  However, our kids are much less likely to self-identify as lazy.  When I worked in  a private Canadian high school, I encountered kids with serious motivation problems, but they did not define themselves by their laziness.  Instead, they would choose the one thing they were passionate about (skateboarding, Nintendo) and tell me about that.

So why is this the case?  Why do our ifp students willingly adopt the term?  One colleague posits that it’s just a language thing, that the English word does not carry the same weight to a non-native speaker.  It’s also possible that these kids have had this word directed at them so many times that they have internalized it.  Maybe they are even reclaiming it, the way a minority group  proudly repurposes a word that had been used against them.

Whatever the cause, the word is a problem.  If a student is unproductive, but identifies as a music fan, or a soccer player, he or she has opened up the pupil-teacher dialogue, at least a little bit.  Perhaps I will learn a little about Slipknot, or offside rules (thank you, Mental Floss!), just so that I can surprise you with a piece of knowledge on the topic.  Maybe then we can talk a little.  But if the only word you offer me is “lazy,” it’s as if an impenetrable barrier has just been lowered between us.


*Imagine if you will:  a mock-up of the deathless Duran Duran album cover with an image of Teacherpants insinuated next to the pouty-faced Simon LeBon.  Imagine as well: hearing the first two bars of the iconic intro when you click on the image.  I was actually working on this for a while, but the hilariousness: effort ratio was less attractive than I thought.  At any rate, some things are best left to the imagination.

**Which I learned about from this blogpost.  Thanks for the great idea, Anne of Livinglearning!

*** and also this

So meta it hurts — Teacherpants and unreflective practice Part I


I have been following a series of challenges based on reflective teaching practice.  Until now, I have been only a bystander, but this particular post  strikes a chord.  I am asked to give a detailed account of a single episode of conflict during my teaching day.

But wait, I can’t do this.  It’s not that there is no conflict — never a problem.  The thing is,  the example I would be following gives very specific information about the students involved, and I don’t feel comfortable doing that.  After all, I have already been taken to task by a family member (tbh, I was fairly astonished that he was reading the blog at all) because a previous post was “student-shaming.”  So here is my non-shaming account.  This particular section and I, we seemed to have worked out a kind of social contract, where they would behave a certain way, and in return, I would behave a certain way, and this was an easier way of being in the classroom together than patterns I had established with other sections or previous years.  Lately, however, this section has been behaving in ways that are inconsistent with the social contract, and I am perturbed by this.  (Is this vague enough for you?  I believe there is little danger that a student will happen on this post, read it, recognize himself or herself, think “Oh dear, my teacher is disappointed in me.  I am chastened and embarrassed and must immediately return to Country X in disgrace.”)

My response was to ramp up the energy, move forward into the classroom, engage the students more directly.  As a solution to the immediate problem, it worked, in that it got us through the class and got the lesson work done.  However, I don’t think it did much to address the underlying malaise, which probably had more to do with an unbroken series of snow storms coinciding with a similarly unrelenting string of assignments than with anything I was doing in the classroom.

What I’m interested in, though, is the moment before this increased energy, a moment of something I think of as muscular teaching.  I want to explain more about that in the next part of this post.

*btw, the picture is not a representation of Teacherpants.  It looks nothing like me, although my daughter looked a little like that as a child.

No carrot; no stick — Part 1

happy_donkey___________by_melesmeles_faber-d4wlmsvFour of my eighteen students are late for Reading Circle.  Taken singly, no one student is a surprise: two of my habitual failers, the-one-who-shouldn’t-be-here who came in with high language scores but is being led astray by her charismatic hockey-playing boyfriend, and  my star student, who often bites off more than she can chew and comes rushing in with sheaves of graduate level research.  However, with so many students missing, the Reading Circle routine is barely hobbling along.  The stragglers finally stroll in, the two failers proffering handouts that barely even merit the name.    The-one-who-shouldn’t-be here is carrying a tray of Tim Horton’s coffee: clearly punctuality was not a priority.  I decide that it is time for us to have a serious talk.

It’s going to be quite tricky phrasing this, though.  The problem with a pass/fail course is that I have little extrinsic to offer, or to threaten them with.  Reading Circle performance accounts for some portion of the 10% Class Participation mark, but the students have done the math.  Most of them are passing, and the weaker students have considerately taken themselves out of the running by consistently failing to complete their work.  In either case, the portion of the 10% represented by the Reading Circle will have no impact on their status.  They had an assignment from another class due the previous day, and, quite sensibly, they have chosen to focus their energies on that.

I ask myself why I am unhappy with the situation.  It’s not that they’re not learning — their work has been relatively good, compared to that of the previous year’s class.  It’s not that they’re disrespectful — even the most abjectly lazy students are polite and affable face-to-face.  It’s more pragmatic — if we are going to be in a classroom together, we have to have a way of being in the classroom.  I cannot spend the remaining 10 weeks of the course reading off a script while students sleep or play games on their phones.  I want to be teaching; I want the class time to be interactive and stimulating, if only for my benefit.  That’s a hard sell to them, though.  I’ll have to try to convince them that the class work is something that they want to do.  We need a collective suspension of disbelief to get through this.


No carrot; no stick — Part II


I go for a fairly down-to-earth approach.   I start off by explaining the rationale for the reading circles: first the general function, to give them a set of tools they can use when they have to work more independently next year.  I follow this with a more specific argument: that this term’s Reading Circles are a way of helping them prepare for their final assignment, a more immediate appeal to their self-interest.  Then follows a hint of the lash — I tell them that their work has been sloppy and that, in particular, nobody has posted their sources to the class Facebook page.  This leads me into one of my favourite rants, that university is all about following instructions and nobody will care about their creative ideas if they do not complete the assignments according to the specifications.  This last section is a bit more heartfelt.  It is actually a little too close to home, as I spent most of my undergraduate career learning this lesson the hard way.

After that, the students are quieter and a little sheepish.  After class ends, Facebook notifications pop up as they post their missing homework, slowly at first, then all in a rush, a little like microwave popcorn.  Then, through some kind of morphic resonance, the other class, far less delinquent in the first place, begins to post homework that is not yet due.  I hear from my fellow teachers that their students also became unusually conscientious at about that point.

Was it something I said? Did one of those arguments reach them? Did I, in fact, “make a difference,”  to quote the mantra of a more idealistic colleague? Or was it just the fact that I expressed dissatisfaction — would they have reacted the same way whatever I had said?  Maybe it’s neither of the above, just a coincidence that they chose this moment to do the work.  I decide to believe the first explanation — it works for me.  I too need my suspension of disbelief.

How to teach an abstract without migraines

Style: "70's look"

So, first day back, the key item on the agenda is an abstract.  It intimidatingly dense in both syntax and vocabulary.  The particular challenges of this class are

  • relatively low energy, buy-in
  • weak critical reading skills
  • dominance of one language group (Chinese)
  • over-reliance on technology.

Plus, they’re jet-lagged and not all happy to be back here.

Still, I want them to understand the abstract, as it’s necessary for the course.  I also think the practice with difficult reading will be useful.  Plus, I don’t want them to hate me.

Here’s my plan:

1.print out abstract double spaced, large font, sentences numbered

2. assign one sentence to each group

3. ask group to

  • parse sentence
  • use cell-phone dictionary to provide definitions for words they don’t know
  • paraphrase sentence in less academic vocabulary
  • translate sentence into L1
  • write proofread product on chart paper
  • present  sentence to rest of class

4. ask students to write individual paraphrase of abstract.

In the class, everything went according to plan except for the last point of #3 and #4.   Instead of asking them to present, I had them  post the sheets of  chart paper in order.    Students walked from sheet to sheet, discussing, comparing, and taking pictures of the information. This was less time-consuming, and also better for interaction: more collegial, less top-down.   We didn’t have time for #4, so we did a quick re-cap together to confirm comprehension.

I liked the way this went because:

  • by making cell phones and L1 part of the plan, I headed off sources of conflict from the beginning
  • students could focus better on the reading when it was broken down into something less overwhelming
  • the kinetic element helped them stay alert
  • the L1 element was interesting and enjoyable, but it also fed into the main topic  for the term — linguistic aspects of globalization

What’s more, I think the lesson did achieve its immediate pedagogical goal — they came to understand the abstract on a much deeper level than they would otherwise have done.  I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get to #4, but I’ll see if I can make time for it when I do it with the other section.

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