Ending on an Up Note: Dogged Determination

Some students make teachers proud by performing flawlessly. Others win our hearts by persisting in the face of challenges. Fritz the Dog, starring in a video that’s gone viral this week, is definitely in the second category. Bless his little canine heart.

Enjoy your weekend…and may you catch all your treats on the first try.

R2: Looking for an Advantage

ReadingthuRsday-R2“The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” —Mark Twain

So what is a good book? The answer to this question is as varied as the books folks read. For the literary scholar, a good book is a classic with well written language, universal themes, descriptive settings, strong characters, and so on. For a technical type person, a good book is one filled with helpful diagrams, explicit directions, or information with a logical sequence. For a history buff, a good book is one filled with accurate historical details and thoughtful analyses of events. For first graders, good books are ones they can read all by themselves to other first graders.birdyreading To many students in college a good book is one they actually read from start to finish. To a harried parent, a good book is one that allows for a little escape from obligations. To someone with a stressful or intense job, a good book is one that offers some respite and rest. To someone with more time on their hands, a good book is one that fills time and transports the reader. In other words, a good book is one that fits the reader.

8176196088_4dc6490ca0_zSome books enjoyed by many readers vary in quality. So while I think it is important to read well-written works, I think a good book is one that is read and enjoyed and sometimes the quality is not on the classics level. Dr. Steven Stahl made this point very clear to me at a graduate seminar I attended where folks were talking about all the lofty books they were reading as graduate students. Dr. Stahl also had a variety of scholarly books he was reading, but he made the point that when he needed to just be “Steve” and read for enjoyment, he went for Erle Stanley Gardner detective stories featuring Perry Mason. The other characteristics of good books are they make one feel compelled to share and connect with other readers. Dr. Stahl and I both felt the Perry Mason books were good books because we both liked mysteries with twists and turns, intelligent sleuths, and unpredictable endings.

Although I may not agree with Mark Twain on just reading a steady diet of only well written books, I do agree a person who does not read is in the same category as a person who cannot read. I hear a lot of students say they do not have time to read, but to me that is like saying I do not have time to eat….both ideas are just ludicrous. reading-quote-3I have spent many years trying to sway students over to the side of reading. I have crafted classes where students were required to read one non-course related book over the course of the semester. Along the way, we would share what we were reading, we would give suggestions about books to read, and we would celebrate when books were finished. In my realistic hours, I know students just saw reading the book as one more course assignment. In my hopeful hours, I think maybe I laid the groundwork for reading that later lead to more reading. I hoped students would read something they might otherwise overlook. I hoped students would read something that just allowed them to be themselves with their likes and dislikes. I wanted them to have an advantage.


Justice or Mercy?

karenThe recent spell of bad weather forced a lot of exercise routines indoors, including mine. While I’m ever so grateful for the local YMCA, too many laps on its small track had me feeling like a hamster on wheel. A chance meeting with my colleague Pat offered a welcome distraction and good conversation. Predictably, the topic was teaching, and we both voiced our frustration with students who don’t seem to realize that work needs to be turned in on time.

While we teach in different disciplines, Pat and I both use web-based learning programs, and we both post frequent assignments. We both encounter students who are capable of doing the work, but have apparent problems with completing it in the prescribed time frame. The reason for the tardiness might be a genuine emergency, procrastination, chronic disorganization, too many responsibilities other than school, or…sigh….lack of motivation/laziness. late

Our conundrum: how to motivate the struggler to improve his or her performance without dishonoring all the students who did complete the work on time. When are we helping to improve performance, and when are we enabling? When do we show “mercy” by accepting late work, and when do we use the firm hand of “justice” to teach a much-needed life lesson? At some level, this may be the seminal question for any teacher, especially in a community college.

I’m officially declaring that Pat’s strategy is brilliant. When a student attempts to submit a late assignment for the first time, Pat advises, “Hold on to that, and if there are no more problems the rest of the term, I’ll accept it.” The ball of responsibility is back in the student’s court, with the onus on the student to shape up. At the same time, Pat allows the student to learn from the mistake without a disastrous effect on the grade in the course. Beautiful, simply beautiful.

oops1Because I post a lot of reading and homework assignments, I offer my students two “OOPS” coupons each term. An “OOPS” may be used to get credit for a late assignment or to rework one that the student has made a loblolly mess of. They are not transferable, and the student must fill the coupon out with her name, the assignment title, and her request for late acceptance or redo. Students treat them like gold, and I am no longer besieged by excuses and requests to change online grades.


Classhack: These Are the Worst!

annoyingWe’ve posted about the value of icebreaker activities in opening a new class, but my students have helped me get more bang for the icebreaker buck. Searching for topics that would energize each small group during their brief—think two minutes—session, I proposed a list of “5 Worst Types of People to Have for a Classmate.” The students had already warmed up with “5 Best Movies of All Time” and “5 Tastiest Foods,” so they immediately began composing a list. The lists of “Worst Classmates” are remarkably consistent between groups and between classes. Sometimes, the students’ frankness has surprised me. Here are some of the invariable chart-toppers:

  1. The Know-It-All (this is by far the most common response)
  2. The Loudmouth
  3. The Stroll-in-Late Everyday person
  4. The Stroll-in-Late and Then Ask a Question the Teacher Just Answered person
  5. The Lazy Person
  6. The Whiner
  7. The Comment-on-Every-Point-the-Teacher-Makes person (subspecies of The Know-It-All??)
  8. The Stinky person (seriously…almost always appears)
  9. Negative Nancies

While everyone laughs as the lists are shared, it’s a knowing kind of laughter. Then I can say something like, “So I guess we won’t be seeing any of those people in this class, and we’ll all be tending to our personal hygiene on a daily basis.” Later in the term, if someone strays too close to becoming any of the people itemized above, someone can be heard to say, “Remember the list!” This has saved me no end of trouble.

The 101 Phenomenon

Brian picA 101 course is code name for intro to something. Included is the notion of basics, mixed at the same time with the mysterious. Although intro courses are no longer always numbered 101, the idea of 101 remains the same despite dressier or more random sounding course numbers.

The idea is that a student think, “I would like to learn the ground level A –Z on that subject.” Of course, the student may be thinking, “I have to take that course” instead of “I get to take that course.” Here is a salute to colleges for maintaining the idea that a required core menu opens the curtains wider for students when looking out at life. US_101.svg

The 101 type course is temptingly overfamiliar to the instructor, while temptingly overwhelming to the student who has no notion or nomenclature for a new discipline. This is where an instructor’s familiarity with a subject remains grounded in its beauty at any level, whether basic or advanced. Fundamentals never lose their appeal, much as a carpenter stands back to admire a newly poured foundation, or a framed building now erect as an impressive edifice of two by four studs like a skeleton. Each stage of a process has its vitality and compelling energy.

expert.beginnerIt is the process as much as the product that is the joy. Watching each step, while pieces of knowledge are fit together, has its pleasure. When students see this in instructors, they observe not only the rote material but the humanizing of it and the art of it in the purveyor. That’s why cooking shows are so popular, for example.

Not the least part is the magic of an instructor who vicariously lives out the introductory material through one student or a group of students. Without the uniqueness of the student blended in with the information, the instructor’s love of the subject can only go so far. Humans live to share what they know, not just know it.

Ending on an Up Note: Time Flies

We’ve all enjoyed the oft-circulated lists of things that our students have never experienced or “never known a world without.” Those lists may alter our perspectives (and make us feel like dinosaurs), but they don’t hold a candle to a series of videos produced by The Fine Brothers in which kids react to outdated technology. They also make a series of “elders,” i.e., my contemporaries, checking out new technology. Here’s a sample. One little girl’s reaction to driving to the video store is priceless.

Enjoy your weekend…and your tapes.

A Myth Debunked: Reading Once Is Enough

ReadingthuRsday-R2When I talk to students about reading and studying I always talk about one of the main myths or misconceptions students have about reading. Students think their professors and other experts in a field only read material once. Students also believe professors and other experts in a field understand everything they read all the time. In other words, our students see those who have knowledge as almost super-heroes…..readers who understand at a single read.

I try to explain to students that one of the reasons people are good at something is because they practice. Good readers are good readers because they read. They read widely and they read a lot. Even more importantly, good readers know when they have to read something more than once because good readers can monitor their comprehension. Good readers read actively.pencilbook I had a biology professor tell me once that he always read with a pencil in his hand, not only to take notes, but to sketch out details his reading. His sketches and notes were made whenever he read anything science related, whether it was in a popular science journal or a refereed journal. His eyes were not just moving along the text, but his brain was engaged while he was determining what he wanted to make a quick note about and it was engaged when he was deciding how he wanted to sketch to help him understand. His advice has traveled with me to help me obtain three degrees. I pass his advice along to all the students I work with to encourage them to be active readers.

rereadI also emphasize that sometimes one has to read more than once. The less knowledge students have on a topic, the more students might need to read to understand. I use the “clueless” technique to help students know if they need to read something again. I stress to students if they come to the end of a passage, and they are totally “clueless,” they might want to reread again or at least skim the material again. Of course, it can be demoralizing when students feel they are “clueless” about the entire chapter, but the rereading will help to a certain extent or at least help lay a foundation for lectures and discussions when class rolls around.

I also let students know about struggles I had in my academic career that involved reading and not understanding something I read. While I was a good reader, I was not necessarily a good reader in an upper level statistics class.CatWriting-e1364237880974 I had to re-learn how to read and study for that specific content. I want students to know one can succeed and not necessarily be perfect in their comprehension or know all the vocabulary the first time. I think knowing others may struggle with understanding the first time a text is read is helpful to students. I encourage instructors to share their stories about reading, learning, and how they came to love their discipline.