Wednesday, March 16, 2011

I get knocked down, but I get up again

Apologies in advance to anyone who now has that Chumbawamba song stuck in your head; if it’s any consolation, you’re not alone.

Several weeks ago I was working with a student who had quite vocally declared that he was “done” with research. He’d hit a few roadblocks early in the process (he wasn’t connecting to his topic, as a result was having a hard time finding articles, was frustrated with citations, etc.) and had just decided to give up. As I kept trying to encourage him to stick with it, change topics, etc., he also made it quite clear that he felt like I was “picking on him.” I was coming at it from as many angles as I could think of, but nothing seemed to be working.

That encounter (along with many others) got me thinking again about resilience, a topic never far from my mind. I’m always trying to figure out ways to make my students more resilient in the research process. And as much as I know you can’t make somebody be something, I know that it’s possible to create environments in which it’s possible for students to develop these skills.

A crucial part of that process is, I believe, using formative assessments, which I do, but I don’t do enough. It’s hard when I’m not part of the day-to-day classes, and each teacher has different routine that they use, and levels of collaboration vary, but I know those are not particularly good excuses. So as I look ahead to spring research, I’m also looking at more ways to incorporate formative assessments into the research process.

This goes hand-in-hand, of course, with the issue of making students comfortable with failure that I’ve been struggling with. Many of my students see any roadblocks as a permanent state of fact, rather than as a temporary setback. In large part that's because this is what they have been taught to believe about themselves for years--that any failure is a reflection on them, not a reflection of the inherently messy and difficult process of learning.

Which of course makes me think of this excellent TED video, which is about remaking math classes, but I think there’s a solid argument that we need to do away with the paint-by-numbers coursework Meyer talks about in ALL of our courses.

Learning is messy--the learning I’ve done since leaving formal schooling is far messier than anything I did in school, and I am sometimes frustrated that my formal education mostly focused on finding the answer rather than creating good questions (with some notable exceptions, of course).

Luckily, I am a fairly resilient person. “I don’t know” is a starting point rather than a stopping point for me. And that’s part of the challenge for me, and I think for many other teachers; we are drawn to teaching because we are “good at school”--we like learning, and even if things don’t come easily to use, we like working at it. How do you teach a skill--like resilience--when you’re not sure how you learned it yourself?

But I need to figure out something, because it’s crucial to success. A friend posted this article from Wired, and while the researchers identified grit as the quality that's key to success, I think a solid argument can be made that the Venn diagram of how resilience and grit overlap pretty much looks like a circle (if you, like me, would prefer it if more of your world was explained via Venn diagram, I highly recommend thisisindexed).

The paper (which I haven’t read yet) referred to in this article focused on competitors in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and came to the conclusion that grittier competitors (as Lehrer defines it, “those with grit are more single-minded about their goals – they tend to get obsessed with certain activities – and also more likely to persist in the face of struggle and failure.”) fare better.

That “persistence in the face of struggle and failure” is the bit that really resonated with me. I can help students identify and connect with what they’re interested in and passionate about--but how do I help them stick with it through the ups and downs? After all, frustration and struggle are pretty integral parts of the learning process.

And then another friend posted this article: The Right Way to Respond to Failure. I’d need to quote the entire thing in order to do it justice, so you should just go read it.

The crucial role of empathy really resonated with me; when I’m frustrated (with a project, with a colleague, with a seemingly unsolvable problem) more often than not I don’t want someone offering up possible solutions--I want someone with a sympathetic ear who will let me vent and acknowledge my frustration as legitimate.

Which brings me back to the student I was talking about at the beginning (remember him?). The real breakthrough with him happened when I joked with him that as soon as I was done picking on him, I was going to go pick on all his friends about the work they needed to be doing. It was like a light bulb went off for him as he realized that EVERYONE was struggling and frustrated--and getting “picked on” by me. It suddenly became clear to him that the frustrations of research were not unique to him--they were a part of the process that everyone was experiencing.

This kid did a complete 180. He changed topics to something he was really passionate about, and needed no prodding from that point on. When I offered corrections to his citations, he made them without complaint. He was well ahead on note taking and synthesizing information--and cheerfully so.

Now, my interaction with this student is not indicative of how these things usually go, but I took a powerful lesson from it.

I believe that empathy is important--crucial, really--to helping students become resilient. We need to acknowledge that their frustrations are real and valid. But beyond that, we need to help them broaden their perspective--to look around and see that the roadblocks they’re running up against exist for everyone.

In doing that, maybe we can help them develop a little empathy for their peers, and a little resilience of their own.

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Word (and what it means)

This is not, technically, library-related, but it’s been occupying a fair amount of my brain space and I wanted to share.

A couple weeks ago, at the end of evening study hall, I was in the library finishing up working with a student; another student, his friend, was waiting for him. The friend was, I think, coming downstairs and banged his knee on the banister.

And then proceeded to call the banister a fag.

Which, yes, makes no sense, but the ridiculousness of what he said came a distant second to my shock that he had said it at all.

This was a good kid. A nice kid. A thoughtful kid. Not a kid who I thought I would *ever* hear say that word. Immediately, my heart sank. And anger rose.

In the moment I was angry and upset (and already feeling kind of fried), and I knew I was going to either tell him to leave, or scream at him. And I knew I didn’t want to scream at him, so I said, “You need to leave right now. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

I could tell by the look on his face that he knew he’d crossed a big line with me, and that I was upset. It became even more clear 20 minutes later, when I got his apology e-mail. I thanked him for his apology, and we set a time to talk the following day.

When he showed up the next day I wasn’t sure how the conversation would go; I’ve tried to talk to students before about how hurtful that word can be and its loaded history. Those conversations have mostly been less than productive.

But that was not the case this time; he came to the conversations both genuinely apologetic and genuinely curious about why I’d been so upset when he said that word. While we were talking he said, “If a kid’s my age and he’s gay, it doesn’t make any difference to me. If he’s open about it I have even more respect for him, ‘cause it means he has confidence.” And that’s when I knew--and I told him--that what he’d said the night before was a mistake, and that what he’d just said was far more of a reflection of who he really was.

He also shared that one of the reasons the word had been in his head at all was because he’d been around another student who had been using the word a lot--which, as a friend pointed out, is another compelling reason to address every instance of bullying language; every time a student says it, another student hears it. And becomes that much more likely to repeat it.

Since then I have had an ongoing discussion with this student about language and its use. Our conversations have been wide-ranging; every time he finds out something new about humanity’s less than-perfect-record in dealing with difference (burning heretics, the history of the KKK, the origins of the pink triangle) he pinches the bridge of his nose and looks kind of exasperated with the human race. I find myself wanting to protect him from finding out about the existence of the Westboro Baptist Church; I don’t want him to think any less of people.

A couple days later he came to me with another question--if a faggot was a bundle of sticks, how on earth had it come to be a derogatory term for gay men? Most kids who know that faggot meant bundle of sticks try to use that as a “get out of jail free” card when they get called out for using that word (“What’s the big deal? I was just calling him a bundle of sticks.”), but he instead wanted to know more about the history of the word. So we found out more. *

The next day he wanted to talk again; now that he knew more about the word, and his attention had been called to it, he said he was hearing it everywhere. And it was pissing him off. And while it doesn’t make me happy that he’s hearing it a lot, it does make me happy that it bothers him enough to want to do something about it. He’s inspired me to re-double my efforts around working with faculty and implementing a Safe Zone program. And as much as I think it’s important for faculty to address anti-LGBT language (and bullying or harassing language of any kind), the fact is most of that happens out of earshot of teachers; if we want it to stop, we need kids like this who feel fired up about responding to it themselves.

Based on all of these conversations, he decided to write a paper for his English class on the history of the word fag, and its misuse. He--a student who does not generally enjoy writing--sat down and easily wrote over two pages. As he told me, he feels that now that he knows the real meaning of the word it’s up to him to educate other people.

There is, of course, an obvious lesson here about how students are motivated by topics that they have an authentic interest in. But we all already know that’s true (we all know that, right?).

There is also the lesson about the importance of education, and the value in having honest conversations about difficult issues (we all know that, too, right?).

The bigger lesson, for me, is this:

For all we hear about this generation having no manners, or being disrespectful;
As much as we sometimes worry about the future, and who will shape it;
As much as we bemoan the decline of civility in our culture;
And as much as I sometimes feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall when I try to talk with students about being more thoughtful in how they talk about other people.

I look at this kid and think: We’re going to be just fine.


*From GLSEN:
During the European Inquisitions, "faggot" referred to the sticks used to set fires for burning heretics, or people who opposed the teachings of the Catholic Church. Heretics were required to gather bundles of sticks ("faggots") and carry them to the fire that was being built for them.
Heretics who changed their beliefs to avoid being killed were forced to wear a "faggot" design embroidered on their sleeve, to show everyone that they had opposed the Church. Since it was hard to live with such a bad reputation, people began to use the word "faggot" to refer to anything that was considered to be a burden or difficult to bear. Unfortunately, the term quickly became a sexist insult, as people used it to disrespect women in the same way the term "ball and chain" is used today.
The word "faggot" appeared in the United States during the early 20th century. It was used to refer to men who were seen as less masculine than people believed they should be. During the course of the 20th century, the word "faggot" became the slur most commonly used to abuse gay men and men perceived to be gay. In fact, "faggot" has become a general insult that is often used to humiliate any men. Since many people are biased against LGBT people, being called "faggot" is the biggest fear of many heterosexual men, and thus the easiest way to hurt them. Considering the long and violent history of the word, it’s important for people to understand its meaning before they use it so carelessly.