An Oh-So-Painful Admission

The other day I wrote about how my students struggled with a comparative reading exercise.  I contended that I thought the biggest issue for them was that they just were not particularly interested in the readings, and thus they had a hard time sticking with it.  I acknowledged that the readings were challenging in terms of vocabulary and content, but I still felt like the biggest issue was that my students often seem to feel that if they are not personally and completely interested in a given reading, then the readings are not really worth the effort.

A former colleague reminded me, however, that there are four pathways to understanding a text, each successively more complex: text to me, text to itself, text to text (what I was asking my students to do), and text to the wider world.  I assumed, wrongly, that my students were already masters of text to me and text to itself.  They are not.  I skipped ahead before they were really ready.  Why did I do this?

Partly I did this because I really do love history, and I want to have deep conversations with my students about a subject matter I love.  I’ve written before about the dangers of assuming when it comes to teaching.  There are so many things we want to do with our students that we sometimes assume they are ready for certain kinds of thinking and reading and writing when they are not.  As I’ve written elsewhere, making such assumptions is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as one makes adjustments when those assumptions prove inaccurate.

But perhaps the bigger reason that I pushed my students beyond their “zone of proximal development” was because I feel pressured to do so.  Every teacher feels pressured to make sure that their students are ready for the next year.  We want to make sure that our students succeed as they move forward, and I know that I worry (too much?) about what their future teachers will think of me based on the students’ preparedness or lack of preparedness.  Sometimes this pressure is self-inflicted, but sometimes the pressure comes, however obliquely, from our colleagues.  Perhaps it’s a comment here or a question there, but added together the inference is unmistakable.  I know this because – and this is so painful to admit – I have been both on the receiving end and the giving end of such comments.  There, I said it.  Confession is good for the soul; it brings humility.

Here’s what all teachers must keep in mind, however.  The teacher “above” you has no idea where those students were when they came to you.  Your students could have progressed more than a year’s worth, but if they came to you “behind,” they may still not be at the level that another teacher feels they should be.  Oh, well.  Unless you teach in a very amazing, super-fantastic school, I would imagine every teacher wishes their students came to them more prepared than they do.  It is what it is.  You just forge ahead.

Forging ahead, however, does not mean skipping ahead.  It does not mean pushing your students so beyond their abilities and understanding that no learning is taking place.  I forgot that for a brief moment in my haste to make sure my students were prepared for next year.  I was so concerned about what a colleague may or may not assume about me and my teaching that I forgot to put the needs of my students first.  Another painful admission, but it’s the truth.

By all means, work on vertical alignment, communicate with colleagues, and try to improve your craft for yourself and for your students.  At the end of the day, however, those students are your students for the year.  They are not the previous teacher’s students anymore, and they are not the successive teacher’s students…yet.  Meet your students where they are, teach them as much as possible within the limits imposed on you, and more than anything, enjoy them!





This Post May Not Be “Interesting”

When you read something for school or work or just to make it through your daily life, what’s the first thing you ask yourself?  I’m curious what goes through other peoples’ minds because here’s what does not go through mine: is this article or book or blog post interesting?  When I first begin reading something new, whatever it is, I don’t really consider whether or not it’s interesting, but it seems like this is the very first question many of my students ask themselves.  Unfortunately, it can also be the last question they ask.

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t ask this question at all while I’m reading.  Once I’m involved in a book or article I may come to the conclusion after a time that I’ve read much more interesting things throughout my life, but it takes me awhile to get to that point. Sometimes, although not always, when I finally realize that an article is uninteresting to me, I’m almost finished and I figure that I might as well read until the end.  When it’s a possibility for me, when I am reading simply for my own pleasure, I may  put the uninteresting book down in favor of something else.  Life is short, and when given the choice, you might as well read the things that interest you.   As I say, however, this is only when I have a choice in the matter.  Sometimes I have to slog through the boring article for work or because I need to understand how my retirement plan works.  No matter what the reading is, however, whether or not it is interesting is never the first matter of importance to me.

We are studying the Great Depression and the New Deal in my college prep history course, and after studying the Depression and FDR’s New Deal in some depth, I asked (Who are we kidding?  I required.) my students  to read two articles by two different historians with quite different views on the New Deal’s overall effectiveness.  Then, I had an assignment asking them to pull out the arguments and compare and contrast the viewpoints of the authors.  Here’s what I found the most intriguing part about the students’ reactions to this assignment.  While some of my students found the vocabulary, content, and argumentation of the articles challenging, more than anything else my students were challenged because the articles were not “interesting” to them.  More than anything else, they found it hard to complete the assignment because they were not immediately engaged from the first sentence or paragraph.  Now, in my students’ defense, there was no major strike on their part; they did the work and they did it without openly complaining, but teachers can sense the mood of even a silent classroom.  The mood was….not great.

We talked today about why I wanted them to read the articles.  No, I explained, this was not a punishment.  No, I did not purposely make an impossibly boring assignment.  No, I wasn’t just killing time.  We talked about how the majority of what they will read for college and career will be nonfiction, informational text and informational text is, perhaps, more challenging than fiction for many of them.  Sticking with those texts matters though, and unless they practice now, they will feel more pain later.  This is what all teachers say though, isn’t it?  Who knows how much actually sinks in?

A few students in different classes asked me after class if I found the articles interesting. When I answered in the affirmative, you would have thought I’d sprouted an extra head.  You would have thought I was an alien from another planet.  They didn’t disbelieve me. They just could not wrap their heads around the fact that someone might actually find the articles interesting, that someone might willingly choose to read more of the same.

Most of the time, I had to leave it there as the bell for the next class rang and students fled in different directions.  Now, however, as I sit here writing this post and thinking about what went right and what went wrong with this lesson, I can’t help thinking that both my students and I missed an opportunity.  Instead of focusing on whether or not the articles were interesting to them or myself, I think I should have explored with them whether or not this should matter as much as it appears to do for them.  Does an article have to be interesting to be worth reading?  And what do we mean by “interesting” anyway?  I can find both a short story and a scholarly article interesting but for very different reasons.  What happens when we don’t immediately find something interesting?  What should our response be?

Was this post “interesting”?  Does it matter?