It's all about the narrative


Responses to Other Bloggers

as if myth were a bad thing


I’ve embarked on a foray into educational research, and it’s not coming so easily to me.  I’ve been thinking about the reasons why.

First off, I’ve become a little lazy (There!  I’ve said it!)  when it comes to reading articles with long words and few animated gifs.  Plus, working online brings a constant reminder that there is something more immediately satisfying going on next door,  evidence of which can be found from checking my Google history.

But more than that, and even more shaming, I just don’t believe.  I don’t believe in educational science, not in the way I believe in chemistry, or biology, or the less quantum parts of physics.

It’s not that I think the writers are wrong, not exactly.  It’s more that I don’t think their statements are immutably true.   I think the problem has something to do with  how quickly the pendulum swings in educational theory.  It’s a little like the way one experiences fashion.  At first one sees that wide-legged pants are good and can’t imagine how people could even conceive of narrow-legged ones; later, though, one is converted to tapered pants, and regrets the error of one’s ways.  When you get to my age, and have experienced at least three of these cycles, you start to sense that maybe there is not One True Pant.*  I can observe similar patterns in how we see error correction, or grammar instruction.  It’s a little challenging to accept an educational fact as empirically proven when just last year similar evidence seemed to be proving the direct opposite.  You just don’t see those physics papers: “You know the big deal we made about gravity last year? Actually, it’s not really a thing.

So yes, I think that a lot of educational theories are myths, but that’s not necessarily a criticism.  Generally when one encounters the word myth online, it appears at the head of a listicle, usually one detailing the dangerous and pig-headed beliefs of one’s ideological opponents.   Not all myths, however, are dangerous and stupid. Myths are an inescapable part of who we are.  That becomes obvious when we go back to the original meaning of myth: a story we tell ourselves to make sense or our world.

We still have myths, stories we tell ourselves.  Each sub-culture has its own guiding stories.  Take the myth of the ESL teacher, a selfless individual of unplumbed patience.  The first contact of New Canadians, the teacher embodies warmth and tolerance and sets the tone for the immigrant’s experience of the new country.  Is there a grain of truth there?  Definitely.  Is it universally true?  Of course not.  We were often bitter or judgey or condescending.   Even when we tried our hardest, we didn’t always succeed in making Newcomers feel welcome and secure.  Still, that myth is the story that got me out of bed for 18 years.

So we need our myths.  Every great pedagogical insight is a story of who we are and what we do as teachers.  The communicative classroom is a beautiful story; transformative learning is a beautiful story; Chomsky’s Universal Grammar is a beautiful story.  Are they empirically verifiable?  I’m not convinced, but reading each of them opened up my mind, making me see the world, and my classroom, in a new way.

One example that springs to mind is the concept of Multiple Intelligences. There have been recent articles refuting the claims of Howard Gardner.  It turns out that neurology does not exactly bear out the claims about different brain structures being specifically related to different learning styles.  But did you really believe that?  Seriously?  Come on, didn’t you think it was maybe more complicated than that? If neurology were really that clear-cut, wouldn’t we all be walking around with bionic brains right now?

But does the idea of Multiple Intelligences  help us be better teachers?  I think it does.  It encourages us to acknowledge that different people are good at different things and pushes us to design lessons that  incorporate more than one kind of thinking.  The onus is placed on the teacher to find the meeting place where the student’s set of skills intersect with the course material.

I have seen firsthand  how well such strategies can work. A tutoring student of mine  struggled painfully with Grade 12 English until he read John Krakauer’s  Into Thin Air.  The pragmatic style of the text spoke to him somehow.  His final project was a scale model of Everest with the paths of different climbers mapped on.  As he explained the action to his classmates, the book came alive to him; at the same time, his social confidence blossomed.  Had he not had access to that text and that mode of expression, he would not have been able to find that part of himself that was to develop into a reader and a thinker.  Was his brain lighting up in different places than mine?  I hardly think it’s that simple. The fact remains, though, that  a book and activity that engaged his spatial sense broke through reading barriers where other kinds of assignments would have failed.

Does the idea of Multiple Intelligences extend beyond the classroom?  In my experience, it does.   Simple schoolhouse intelligence alone does not always make for  a productive worker or a relatable officemate. You may have a colleague who composes and sings topical parodies of popular songs , or one who produces a beautiful, realistic chalk drawing of a different animal each morning, or one who manages to defuse any tense moment  by saying the one thing that can make everybody laugh.  All these employees are at least as valuable as the one who is kind of good at remembering a lot of stuff.

In other words, we all have different strengths and different things to offer.  Stated like that, it appears trite and banal.  What Gardner’s theory does, though, is take an idea that was there all along, form it into something beautiful and compelling, and then present it to us as a model for how to conduct our lives.

That is what myths do, and that is why we need them.


*** You might be offended by my comparison of your research with fashion.  If so, three things a) we do not share a set of priorities b) perhaps you are taking your own work a little too seriously c) haven’t you read the news? offending people is so in right now.


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

Gender balance in ELT — Why do we even care?


Trigger Warning:

Some of the ideas in this post might piss some people off.  If you think of me as a fuzzy kind of person who uses the word “magical” a lot, you might want to skip this one.

Ok so we’ve established that there are two basic models of esl/elt teacher, and that each type seems to have its natural habitat.  Let’s move on to the concern expressed by Russell Mayne  and the curators  of The Fair List: that women are under-represented in certain areas, most notably management and keynote speaking.

I’m going to take management out of the equation  right off.  Number one, I don’t feel qualified to  address it because I have never encountered sexism from management in esl/elt.  Number two, as I have definitely experienced sexism in other work environments (hello retail!), my feeling is that any situations where sexism appears in language schools is a manifestation of a huge systemic battle that we’ve been fighting for the past 100 years.  That’s too big for me right now.

Let’s talk about keynote speakers, but first, let’s take a deep breath.  This conversation reminds me a little of some research I did when I was studying gender relations at OISE.  Apparently, at the time,  a very small percentage (Let’s say 2% to make the math easy.) of senior partners in topflight law firms were women.  Therefore, we assume that 98% of  senior partners were men.  This is definitely an imbalance, but the problem comes when people switch the equation around.  It does not mean that 98% of men were senior partners in law firms.  In other words, this is a really small group of already highly selected people that we are dealing with.  It somehow connects in my mind with the story of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who caused a huge “Can’t have it all” uproar when she left her job at the US State Department to… return to her job as president of the New America Foundation and the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. (not exactly secretary of the PTA)

I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes to feminism,as with most things, one has to pick one’s battles.  I’m definitely not saying “let’s all get back into the kitchen until every Afghani girl can go to school,”  but I do think that fighting over certain high-profile examples of gender balance or imbalance distracts us from the real world questions most people face when we talk about gender.

So let’s look at the example of keynote speakers.   Why are so many of them men?  It seems that men are more likely to write successful theoretical sla texts.  It is also possible that the stereotypical male model esl teacher, who is more of a risk taker and a self promoter, and also more physically mobile, may be better suited to the role of keynote speaker.  Perhaps women are just not interested in being keynote speakers.

Is this a problem?  Should they want to be keynote speakers?  Are they missing out on something valuable by removing themselves from the competition?  What do keynote speakers gain besides the intrinsic pleasure of speaking itself?

There’s money — the speaking fees themselves and the increased book royalties from raising their profiles.  However, if we examine the gender balance in the more practical side of esl writing, women are much more widely represented.  And if we’re looking at purely monetary considerations, it’s the latter group that sells in the greatest volume.  We don’t see many mass orders for the theoretical texts, whereas every esl school in the tdsb has tubs full of the works of the magnificent Betty Azar.

There’s the raising of one’s profile, but again I think we need a little perspective.  Let’s do a little side-by-side comparison.  The inestimable Kim Kardashian is quite successful in the world of reality television.  I do not follow reality television, but I am aware of her existence.  Think of a person who is quite successful as a keynote speaker (I will not cite any examples.  There was that one fluke time when 30 people read my blogpost, so I do not want to inadvertently step on  anyone’s toes.).  Do you have friends outside of ESL/ ELT?  Yes?  Good –healthy sign.  Have they heard of this famous keynote speaker? Yes?  Is it  only because you have a huge poster of him on your bedroom wall?  No?  You’re lying.  The only esl-related person anyone outside the industry has ever heard of is Chomsky and that’s because he a) revolutionized the whole idea of language itself but more importantly b) talks about things that have nothing to do with language and most importantly  c) is a good person to cite if you want to appear smart and edgy.

So what we have is a certain group of people who have a chance to perform an activity that does earn them money, but not a huge amount, not an amount that would catapult them into a higher tax bracket than your average language teacher.  They have a chance to earn prestige, but the prestige only extends to the set of people who go to conferences and pay attention to the identity of the keynote speaker.   In other words, they enjoy prestige among the group of people who agree that elt keynote speaking is a prestigious activity.  This group does not extend beyond the limits of the elt community; in fact, there is a large sector of the elt community that is almost completely oblivious to conference proceedings.  In short, this group, which tends to contain more men than women, enjoys a certain degree of privilege, but nothing that in itself elevates its members in a life-changing way.  Is membership in it something we really need to be fighting for?

Teacherpants wades into a controversy –the Feminine Mystique — in Scarborough– Part I

tbt esl
tbt esl


So, there’s been some talk  here and here about the role of women in ELT.  In a recent interview, Russell  Mayne  pointed to the latter article  as the most important of his blogposts for that year.  The two articles deal with the relatively low numbers of women in ELT management and as keynote speakers at conferences. Now while I’d like to respond with feminist outrage (some would say it’s my default setting), I have to admit that my experience of English language teaching has been a lot more nuanced.  You see I come  from the Toronto non-profit system, which is figuratively, and sometimes literally, a matriarchy.

It was pure Feminine Mystique… What? Haven’t read it?  Here’s what the old me would have said:

Here’s a list of books.  Take this away, and when you’ve finished all of them (yes! the Irigaray too! No skipping through the pre-Oedipal babble section!) then maybe we can have a conversation, but I still reserve the right to shout out, “What grounds do you have to say that?  Have you ever given birth to a child?” at totally random moments.  And yes I did do that and for that I am truly sorry.

The new me says, “Well, Friedan’s work is so cogent and logically consistent that I can summarize it in a few sentences.”  (thank you, ifp, for forcing me to learn some practical academic skills!)

Friedan focuses on the group of women in 1940s and 50s US who took advantage  of the new openness of the education system.  They performed well in university and married equally well-educated husbands.  After marriage, however, this balance disappeared.  The men went on to careers commensurate with their academic performance while the women devoted themselves to their families.  Friedan attributes this difference to two factors: the continuing sexism in most areas of the work force, and the prevalent value system, which presented motherhood as the exclusive path to feminine fulfilment.  Friedan sees this discrepancy as a source of discontent and self-destructive behaviour.   It’s a huge cultural trope — think Mother’s Little Helper;

think Diary of a Mad Housewife — hell, even early Family Circus cartoons allude to this.

So this was my mother’s world, and that of her friends. With good degrees from British and American universities, these women had followed their husbands to Toronto.   They struggled with physical and cultural isolation in these large concrete suburbs. Their days were full: families were large in those days –  four children was pretty average.   But still, there wasn’t much social or academic stimulation. They might have been wondering just how they had ended up where they were.

So, they coped.  Where their counterparts might have turned to barbiturates and key parties, they focused on volunteering.  They started performing small jobs for larger organizations, the United Way, the Girl Guides,or the School Board, but many of them turned to language teaching. Toronto was starting to change, on its way to becoming  the multicultural community it is now.  Immigrants were moving in, and there was little support  available for them.  Small volunteer groups set up language classes in public libraries.  These grew and eventually government funding was provided.  Buildings were found to house these programs.  Overland was one of the first.

Right from the start, the classes were set up to be student centred.  There was a built-in understanding that the purpose was not merely language instruction but also a kind of cultural transformation.   A new country meant a chance to re-invent oneself, and the learning centres sought to facilitate that.

Once, during my studies at OISE, I looked up from my copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and asked my mother, “Did you all read Freire before you started?  Did you plan from the outset for the school to turn out this way?”  She looked at her earnest daughter with amusement.  There had been no theory involved, she implied: they had just followed the dictates of common sense.

Wait!  There’s more…

Meeting with Teacherpants 1.0


interview 1994

(a bit of a riff on  this  and  this )

1994 Me:  So sorry I’m late.  One of the kids was throwing up and the other one just realized she had a science project due this morning.

Future Me:  No problem, but you might want to check your shoes.  Is that part of the science experiment, or…?

1994: Grossss! (1994speak for Ewww!)  Sorry.

F:  Don’t worry about it.  Let me tell you one thing, this part does get better.  You will eventually actually have free time to prepare your lessons.  And by free time I don’t mean the hour between 2 and 3 am.

1994:  Great!  When will that happen?

F:  In about 10 years.

1994:  (a little deflated) oh

F: The trade-off is that you will be expected to prepare, not just walk into the classroom with a vague idea.  You will also have to start showing up more or less on time…

1994: Sorry!

F: … and not give the students a crossword puzzle so that you can hide in the staffroom and make a phone call.

1994:  But isn’t that kind of…. fascist?

F:  under breath (Aren’t you adorable!)  No.  It’s considerate and professional.

1994:  Oh sorry!

F: And about the compulsive apologizing, you’re eventually going to get that under control.

1994:  Oh sorry!  I didn’t realize it was a bad thing.  I thought it made me sound nice and humble and Canadian.

F:  Maybe, but it also makes people anxious.  They think  you don’t know what you are doing.  So are those your handouts?

1994:  Yes.  We just got a computer, and one of those inkjet printers.  I’m learning a lot about fonts and formatting.

F: Indeed. I like the way you right justified this section for absolutely no reason.  Very contemporary.  Anyway, you just wait.  You’re going to have a portable computer.  You will be able to hook it up to the wall and project its image onto a screen.

1994:  Kind of like in Star Trek?

F:  Kind of.  You will also be able to use the computer to communicate with others, even with your students.  You will write extended messages on your computer to share with others.

1994:  That sounds a little nerdy…

F:  Excuse me,  but which one of  us just made an allusion to Star Trek?

1994:  But I’m not that kind of person.

F: You will figure it out.  You will not really love the screen thing, but I can promise you that you will enjoy the communication aspect.

1994:  Ok.  I have a question.

F: under breath  (That won’t change.)

1994:  A student started to cry in my class.  I didn’t know what to so.  Will that get easier?

F:  Hahahaha yes.  In the present, you are the one making them cry.

1994:  Nooo!  What has happened to the warm safe inclusive classroom space?

F:  Oh, it’s still a warm safe inclusive classroom space, but then you tell students that they will fail if they don’t improve their work, and they start to cry.  It’s a tad awkward, actually.

1994:  So what can you tell me about the big picture?  How’s the teaching going to be?

F:  It’s going to get tougher.  You don’t realize how much of your teaching clout comes from the fact that you have a huge class with a constant waiting list.  This will change.  Demographics will shift.  Classes will become smaller; the students will become more demanding.  For a while, you will have to fight harder to do what you d0.  Eventually things will work out for you, but it’s going to be a different world by the time you get there.

1994:  Do you have any advice for me?

F:  You know, I really don’t.  I could tell you to keep a piece of yourself back, rather than throwing it all into your work, but you wouldn’t listen anyway.  I could tell you to make a plan rather than rushing into things headlong, but I doubt a plan would have made a difference, and it was probably that headlong energy that got you through.

1994:  Um ok.

F:  You know I feel  kind of bad doing this, but I’m looking at you so bright-eyed and springy and, well, radiant.   There’s nothing to be gained by burdening you with all this.  Although….maybe I could just leave the bit about the compulsive apologizing. Please  have a look into this device.

1994:  Sure (MIB not released until 1997)



So meta it hurts — Teacherpants and unreflective practice Part I I


So I was talking about reflective practice and dealing with conflict situations in class, as a way of following this set of prompts, and I got to the phrase” muscular teaching.”  I have adapted this from an expression that’s always intrigued me, “muscular Christianity.”  Now I’m sure that I’m totally misinterpreting these words, but I’m assuming the right (along with Humpty Dumpty and certain authors we have assigned this term) to redefine my terms as I see fit.

Before I do that, however, I’d like to backtrack a little to my early teaching days.  As I explained in an earlier post, my decision to embark on a teaching career was a purely emotional one.  Although I’m a fairly logical person most of the time, this was a situation when I jumped in headfirst.  I acted on instinct, and, in my early days as a teacher, this totally worked for me. I was surprised and delighted to find that most people found my classroom persona likeable.   When I walked into a classroom people were happy to see me and receptive to what I had to say.  Even my methodology was  emotion-based.  I would just go into the classroom, equipped solely with my love of the language, and the lesson would evolve naturally.  I was Dogme before it was cool.*

The downside to this group hug was that it was dependent on a certain context.  Teaching at Overland, I felt, well not quite like a rockstar, more like Sally Field winning for Places in the Heart (Google it! — it happened before most of you were born.)  Outside of Overland, I was hopeless.  I was just sending out my happy messages waiting to receive their happy replies, but some places just aren’t that happy.  I was like a little Smartphone in a subway tunnel.  I had no way of being in the classroom that didn’t depend on this kumbaya atmosphere.

Because I was so entranced with the magic of teaching, I had made no provisions for the times the magic didn’t work.  I had  few lesson salvaging strategies, and none that took into account a generally hostile environment.  What’s more, I had no emotional reserves.  My teaching practice involved offering my whole self up, and rejection devastated me.

For many years, my teaching career followed a cyclical pattern.  Overland offered me a home base, somewhere I could evolve as a teacher, but I was curious about what was going on in the outside world.   So I worked at Overland during the school year, and took positions at other schools in the summer.  Although the experience I gained at these summer jobs was valuable,  I often felt lost and disempowered** when I was actually working there.  Returning to Overland in September felt like relaxing into a warm bath.  Over the school year, the emotional bruises healed as my faith in myself was regenerated.  By June, I was again ready to venture beyond my comfort zone.

*Before all you Dogme enthusiasts fire off your angry emails decrying my total ignorance…. Of forget it!  It’s all publicity.  Fire away!

** ok ok, Spellcheck!  I know it’s a jargon word, and a particularly overused one at that.  However, it is right here, right now, exactly the thing I want to say.

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.

How to Escape the Claws of the Grammar Police

This one created quite a debate in our staffroom. I really like how the writer articulates his ambivalence on the subject. I can relate. I cringed when I first saw single letters replace words, but there’s a charming subversiveness to “because argument” and “I just can’t.” It is as if the user is interrogating our conventional expectations of grammar and meaning — or maybe not; maybe the user is just lazy. I tend to read too much into things.
I do draw the line, however, at LOL CATZ, but only because I believe that if cats could write, they would have better grammar.

The Daily Post

If superfluous commas, misplaced apostrophes (looking at you, it’s/its, they’re/their!), and sentence-ending prepositions make you flinch in horror, you’re in the right place. We take grammar seriously at The Daily Post; my fellow editors and I can often be found quibbling and nitpicking over tenses, modes, and — you guessed it — punctuation. Good writing, though, isn’t merely about adhering to rules. It’s also about knowing how and when to break them. Today, let’s talk about grammar — and the kinds of liberties you might consider taking with it.

View original post 802 more words

within these four walls –Teacherpants takes a big step – Part I I

This is the second part of  Teacherpants takes a big step, which is a reply to a Daily Prompt question about an important step that I’ve taken.  My response is about my first official teaching experience.  As I explained in Part I, things did not look promising at the beginning.big step

Fast forward a few years.  Somehow this dedicated non-scholar has been accepted into grad school.  I am excited about the program and happy with the income the TAship will bring (Wow!  Five figures!). I ask around:  “So we just hand back the assignments and then leave?”  “Umm no — it actually means you’ll be teaching for those  four hours.”  Four hours? but it’s too late to give the money back, so here I am at the front of a class,  York University’s Shakespeare 100, to be exact.

Over the years, the crystal structure gets smaller until it almost disappears.  It’s not that I have no anxieties about teaching,  but this particular moment becomes less and less of an ordeal.

(I’m going to switch metaphors here.)  Eventually something happens that’s  analogous to what happens with swimmers:  at first the journey between the diving board and the pool is a frightening one, but to the good swimmer, the pool itself becomes a place of safety.  At so many times in my life when battles have raged, both personal and otherwise, the classroom has been the place where I have felt most sheltered.  “Within these four walls,” I tell myself, “the range of possible events is limited.   I may not always be in total control, but all the conceivable permutations of this class are things that I can accept.”

I was teaching at Overland on the morning of September 11, 2001.  I remember deciding with my class to turn off the TVs and return to the lesson, not because TOEFL reading strategies were more important than what was going on outside, but because the only thing we could do was continue doing what we were doing.  There was a certain comfort in knowing that Question 8 came after Question 9, and that even if the answer was B and not C, the mistake would not cause the world to explode  — pretty meagre comfort, to be sure, but it was the only comfort available at the time.


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