In My Opinion

I had a student approach me after class to tell me that they had nothing to write about.

“Well,” I said, “that’s fine for now.  We can brainstorm some ideas together and come up with a thesis.”

“No really,” they insisted, “I have nothing to write about.”

“Well,” I pushed back, “as long as you have opinions, you always have something to write about.”

Then, the kicker:

“I have no opinions on anything.”

They said this with a straight face.  More than a straight face; indifference. Apathy.  Looking at me like it’s my problem now.  Or my job to tell them exactly what to think and write.

At first I was angry.  You’re in college; society sees you as nearly grown; you live on your own; come on, of course you have opinions!  You’re being obtuse on purpose!

And then I was sad: they looked like they meant it.  They had obviously come to me in privacy because they didn’t want other people to hear; they hadn’t announced it in class the way a class clown would who was just looking for attention.  They really weren’t sure how to write the essay I had assigned because they believed there was nothing in their head worth putting on paper.

What do I, as a teacher, do in that situation?  How do I teach that you have opinions?  It’s always seemed something innate.  Something happens.  You think about it.  You have feelings about it.  Bam, opinion.

But maybe it’s not so simple.

Maybe there are whole groups of people who see something happen and…that’s it.  It happened.  They note that it happened.  They wonder if it affects them or not, but that’s not the same as forming an opinion on it.  So what is an opinion?  It’s the whole difference between observation and analysis, I think.

Observation: telling me what happened.  The facts.  The use of the senses.  Where, what, who, when, how….

Analysis: bringing in the “why”.  Why did this happen?  Why does it matter?  Why is it significant or not?  Why should I care (or not)?   These why questions often become subjective; they can become personal beliefs.

Perhaps opinion is the analysis.  And if my very job is teaching analysis (why, it’s even the name of my blog!) then it makes sense that it’s my job to teach opinion.  Well, not TEACH opinion; more like help students discover that they have one; or how to have one; or why it’s important to form one.

It’s tricky.  It gets too easy to just tell them what opinion to have.  When a student hands you a blank slate like that it’s satisfying to fill it with your own thoughts; to make them see the world the way you see it somehow makes you feel more validated in your own views.  Like, hey, there’s another person who thinks the way I do!  See, I wasn’t wrong!  Maybe that’s what happens with parents and kids sometimes…

I told the student in front of me that day, “You have opinions.  They’re in there, even if they’re not opinions about the prompt I’ve given you.  What do you like to do for fun?”

We spent the next few minutes proving that they have opinions on things that actually interest them.  Next step will be learning when to NOT share your opinion.  If Ned Stark had been in my class, he may have kept his personal beliefs about rulership to himself for a while longer…..Ned Stark, you needed more analysis, in my opinion.

  

(SHUT UP NED, NO YOU DON’T!)

Farmer

Tried the self-identifying exercise again.  I ask my students to write down 5 words/phrases which they use to identify themselves.  Then they write down 3 stereotypes associated with each identifier (positive or negative).  Then we discuss where those ideas came from in the first place.  As I’ve mentioned before: students say the darndest things.

Student: One of my identifying words is “farmer.”  I grew up on a tree farm and I worked the last 2 summers on a dairy farm.

Me: Oh, wow, how cool!

Student: No, not cool.  Miserable.

Me: Oh….um, what kind of trees did you have on your farm?

Student: We had 42 different varieties.  (student begins listing all 42 varieties)

Me: (Interrupting) Okay, well, nice, how was the dairy farm?

Student: A little better.  Did a lot of tipping.

Me: Cow tipping?!  You actually went cow tipping?!  I heard that’s bad for the cows!

Student: Nah.  Also, it’s not actually “tipping”; you can’t push a cow.  They’re enormous.  Instead you sneak up behind them and blow a horn in their ear.  They get so surprised that they fall over.

Me: Can they get back up?!

Student: Yeah.  They bounce right back.  After a while.

Ministered

For the past few semesters I’ve had my students do an exercise on self-identifying.  Which words would you use to describe yourselves?  Which stereotypes are associated with these words?  And where did you get these ideas in the first place?  Meant to be a deep and mind-blowing exercise, it almost always turns into shocking revelations.  Students use some crazy things to identify themselves and I always learn something new about them.  This has been my favorite so far:

Me: Write down 5 words you use to identify yourselves. What are your identifiers?

Student: Son, student, Polish, writer, registered minister.

Me: Wait, what? You’re a registered minister? How old are you?

Student: 18.

Me: Why are you a registered minister? Did you have to marry someone?

Student: No, I just did it for fun. Now I walk around the dorm offering to marry people. Especially drunk people. They think I’m joking and then they wake up hungover and married.

Me: I feel like….I should report you….to someone?

Black Hole

So I’m tutoring two 14 year old boys during the summer and I have never seen eating like this before.

Well, I have seen eating like this: 4 young men in their twenties ranging between 5′ 7″ and 6’3″.  But these two 14 year olds (probably 5′ 5″?) are matching what I saw these four nearly grown men eat.

Puberty is hard!  They’re constantly tired and hungry.  It’s like nothing can satiate them!  Like black holes of unhappiness who just keep saying MORE FOOD; GIVE ME MORE FOOD but nothing can ever actually fill the black hole!

hungry hippo

Needless to say they are constantly snacking during class.  At first I tried to put my foot down about it, thinking to create a more focused learning environment — but I quickly realized that they were much more focused with food in front of them.  Denying them snacks just made it into forbidden fruit.  Now their desks are littered with crackers, cheese, hot cheetos, orange juice, chocolate mlik, sandwiches, and salami.  I often have to brush away crumbs when they hand in their work.

They politely offer me slivers of meat or blocks of cheese; I politely refuse.

Once, one of them said he was thirsty suddenly in the middle of class and disappeared into the kitchen.  Before I could tell him to sit back down and pay attention, he had already consumed an entire carton of orange juice in front of me.  He then ripped into a box of granola bars and ate 4 of them.  He then began cooking eggs.

I guess thirsty means “hungry” in puberty; I guess everything means “hungry” during puberty.  I wouldn’t say he was like a pig because pigs tend to chew their food; he was more like a duck — just swallowing and moving on to the next sustenance.  I kept my hands in my pockets in case he mistook them for sausages.  In between checking the frying eggs, he worked on his essay.  He offered me a plate but I was worried about getting in between him and his food.

Girls certainly have their own problems during puberty, but being raised without brothers I guess I was never aware of the pain of constant hunger young men obviously feel while they grow.  Or maybe these guys are just going to be really tall.  Hungry-Man

 

There’s No Crying in Baseball…..

no crying in baseball

…..but there is crying in writing.

Worst of all is when it’s not YOU crying, but someone else…a student…because of you, their teacher.

Man….

It certainly happens. Especially when students have been told their whole lives how smart, how bright, how unique, how special they are. Their personal expectations and the expectations of them from those around them are often so high that getting knocked from the pedestal means there’s a long way to fall.

And sometimes it doesn’t take much to shake that pedestal.

pedestal

I am currently tutoring a 12 year old boy. Well read, well spoken, and entering 7th grade in the fall. Going over his first essay with him, I was careful to point out where he needed to improve for his final draft. After a few minutes of me blindly talking about “analyze more here; reword this sentence”, I looked up to see his big eyes full of tears. I looked away immediately, thinking to save him some face. Any age is tricky; the verge of puberty is trickier. I asked him casually if he needed a bathroom break and he snapped, “No.” Afterward, he stood in the corner of the living room and read over every red pen mark I had made while wiping his eyes with his sleeve.

I felt awful. Objectively, maybe I had done nothing wrong. But all I kept thinking was I had made a young boy cry.

sad teacher

I’ve had both young men and women tear up in my office; full out crying is more rare but has happened. I always keep a box of tissues on my desk. I like having a window next to my desk so that I can pretend to be interested in something outside while my students hurriedly wipe away tears. Sometimes they cry because of difficult things going on at home or with friends or lovers. Most of the time they cry because of grades.

A “poor grade” can be relative; a B- earned by a student who had a 4.9 GPA in high school feels like a slap in the face. I would love if the entire grading system was rescheduled; I’m not sure when we started saying “75% is a C, and a C is basically a failure”, but that’s certainly how my students treat C grades. I wish most students put in 75% effort.

And sometimes a poor grade is not relative…sometimes it’s due wage, well earned. It’s why I try to keep that distance from my students; friendly, but not friends. Because they feel so betrayed when they think you’re friends and then you hit them with a failing grade. No matter if it’s a reflection of their own effort, they still think the teacher made a choice to fail them. Sigh.

Watching my 12 year old ward cry was a bitter moment for me; I certainly felt like I had failed him somehow. As a teacher, I want to be both mentor and support; I want to challenge and at the same time fix all of their problems.  But he took a deep breath, rejoined me at the table, and asked for the next writing assignment. Reminding me that students are more resilient than the pedestals we place them on.swanson pyramid

Brands

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You KNOW you teach rich kids when the following conversation happens:

Student: I love your shoes.

Me: Thank you!

Student: Are they Louis Vuitton? 

(I’m thinking: Louis Vuitton makes shoes?!) 

Me: No…they’re from Ross.

Student: Ross?  I don’t know that brand.

Me: It’s not a brand, it’s a chain store. It’s one pay tier above Goodwill and one pay tier below TJ Maxx.

Student: I’ve heard of Goodwill, but I’ve never been there.

**Can’t make this stuff up, people.  You can only accept that sometimes you teach rich kids.  There’s nothing wrong with it; it can just be a sharp reality check.  But at the same time, hey: someone thought my Ross shoes were LV.  Snap.**

Catchy Title

While grading papers, I like to keep a running list of the “best” essay titles I come across.

“Best”, I understand, is a subjective term.  What I personally mean is, most clever, most weird, or most eye-catching: to sum it up, most memorable.  

This is a list that only grows and grows, but for now here are some of my favorites from this last crop of final essays:

“Pork over Chives”
“Rhediculous Rhetoric”
“How Pro is Pro Anorexia”
“Finding Common Ground between a Bulldog and a Rabid Rabbit”
“The Necessity of Regulation on Brain-Computer Interference”
“Catchy Title” 

That last one is not a typo. 

The In Crowd

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Had a bit of an awkward moment last week on campus that I’m not sure how to describe without sounding like I’m bragging, except to add the caveat: this is not to brag.

Spent an entire day on campus grading final papers with fellow teachers. As much as I love building relationships with my students, for some reason I struggle making friends with my peers. I think they’re nice and incredibly smart…but there always feels like a missing link. It could be the age / family difference — most of them are at least 5-6 years older than me and have children or partners. Five to six years doesn’t sound like a lot, but it can mean a whole generational difference in thinking and feeling. So maybe? There’s only so many times I can comment on how cute their children are based on the pictures on their desk before I sound like a creep.

In any case, I had finally found a foothold with the “in crowd” and been invited to grade papers with the group. Let me be clear: the hierarchies built up in middle school, formalized in high school, and renamed in college never really leave you. They’re the same: the hip crowd, the cool kids, the jocks, the dorks, the nerds, the goths, etc. etc. Even as a grown, working professional, it’s the same. Now, the whole “It gets better” campaign, meant to encourage struggling young people that the cycles created in school would one day be broken is TRUE; it does indeed get better when you’re free from the constraints of schoolyard peers. But it’s still THERE; the hierarchy remains, but how you choose to engage with it is completely different. I was a total nerd in school, and I’m still a nerd; but that title no longer has to weigh on me or affect my decisions or friendships. There’s still an “in crowd”, even amongst groups of teachers. But now instead of writing in my diary and holing up in my room when I don’t get invited to an in-crowd party like I did in high school, I can go home to my friends and boyfriend and watch Doctor Who!

BUT I DIGRESS.

So I was invited to grade papers with a group of cool teachers. I had awkwardly attempted to make friends with them before and they had awkwardly tried to reciprocate but it was awkward all around. Now I had finally found some magic word to unlock the gates to their inner sanctum or they had needed an extra person for carpooling, but I was IN. We planned to be on campus for about 5 hours, nose to the grind, grading those final assignments.

Our time grading was interspersed with chatting. We talked about the crazy things some students had written (kids say the darndest things — even on a final) and our shared classroom experiences. We talked about our families and our summer plans. It was nice. At noon, lunch was suggested.

I’ve always had a weird….tic about lunchtime. My family moved a lot while I was growing up and I ended up being the “new kid in school” 13 times. And the hardest part about being the new kid at every school was where to sit during lunch. Making friends, getting into the groove of things, adjusting to classes; I understood that that would all come with time. But those first days, first weeks, of not knowing where you belong as the new kid during lunch — who to sit with? Who to talk to? Where to go? — were always the most painful. There were days I skipped lunch and walked around football fields by myself just to avoid the trauma of trying to figure out which table to sit at in the cafeteria.

So when this group of new acquaintances suggested lunch, I knew it would be that awkwardness all over again and I shuddered inwardly. But I put on an excited smile and left with them. I walked on the outskirts of the group. As we neared the lunching place, the conversation turned to building relationships with students. My fellow teachers complained that students never warmed up to them. That their evals reflected poorly or that students were closed off or refused to engage. I felt bad for them and nodded sympathetically. They asked me if I had “problem students” this semester and I said something along the lines of, “yeah, there are always a few. Never really open up.”

At that precise moment, a group of my students ran up to me and hugged me.

Okay that last sentence may sound sweet or silly or even made up, but it wasn’t any of those things: in that moment, it was mortifying. On a regular day, sure, I would have loved it. I would have put up a fuss and grumbled about them being too familiar with me and tried not to look touched. I would have insisted that they call me by my proper title and that they go back to studying. I would have been a good mix of pissed and pleased.

The other teachers were just plain pissed. Their icy stares blew over me like cold winds beating at the walls of Winterfell and the enthusiastic embraces of my students were not enough to warm me. I shuddered. My students pulled away and chattered and laughed. They called me by my first name (which I do hate but which always happens by the end of the semester) as though we were old friends. The in crowd just stared. I was scared.

It would be easy to say, “Screw the in-crowd! You have the love of your students, unprofessional as it may be! Who needs peer relationships?” But the reality is, there’s a piece inside of all of us that wants to be accepted by the in-crowd. I think it’s in part biological; as mammals, we are generally safer in numbers. We develop a pack mentality; stick together as a group to be safe from predators. To be different was to be excluded from this pack, leaving you more susceptible to becoming prey. So maybe it’s hard-wired into me that as the group of teachers left me to my students with cries of, “we’re going to go on ahead to lunch! See you later!”, all the while glaring at me for what they assumed was betrayal, I felt profoundly alone. Eventually my students left, off to their own interesting and youthful lives; and I rejoined my peers in grading, feeling suddenly left out of their complaining and chatter.

Certainly I want to pass on the advice that life is not about winning the popularity contest; that it’s more important to make a difference or be yourself. But if we’re truthful, we’re all creatures of habit; we all want to be accepted. Now I’m not condoning my peers’ behavior and I’m not complaining about being friendly with my students.

I know that gaining the love of my students is a victory — but sitting in that group and still feeling alone felt more like a loss, in that moment.

(**Ned Stark, I feel you.**)

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(Who knew the job description for Hand of the King was, “BE LONELY AND HATED”.)

For Zenon

Handed out an in-class essay yesterday and told students to write their name and date at the top.

Student: Do you care about the date?

Me: What?

Student: Do you care if we put a date?

Me: I JUST told you to write your name and the date.

Student: But does it matter WHICH date?

Me: (sarcastically) No, write whatever date you want so that I get confused when grading your paper.

Student: Okay. The year is 3055; the year of champions; the year of ZENON.

Me: ……what is happening.

Student: Sometimes I like to imagine a new date to make things more exciting.

(Now going through the essays, I see that a few of my students made up dates in a similar fashion. Yay for encouraging creativity? Sigh.)

Small Revenge

Today my students took an impromptu essay.  That means I gave them a prompt at the beginning of class, and they spent 45 minutes trying to write a satisfying answer to the prompt, in class.  All I had to do was sit at my desk and watch the clock.  Every few minutes I would walk to the chalkboard and write down a number; something like, “30 minutes remaining” or “10 minutes remaining.”  It was my job to proctor.

Whenever my students would hear the chalk hit the board, they would look up from their scribbling pens, startled, like a pack of meerkats who hear hyenas approaching in the distance, and wait to see which number I put down.  If it’s a big number, like 30, they are relieved and go back to their words.  If it’s a smaller number, like 15, they look to me with wide eyes, praying that I’ve counted wrong.  Yeah, I’m bad at math, but nope, you have 15 minutes left to impress me with your writing.

They hate it, though, if I don’t put a well-rounded number.  I once wrote, “26 minutes remaining”.  They glared at me.  I heard mutters.  I later put “12 minutes remaining” and some of them threw up their hands and leaned to their peers to ask if they could believe my nerve.  I admit that I have one job to do while they’re taking an in-class essay–to alert them about time–and sometimes I miss the exact “30 minute” mark; but come on!  Don’t waste time glaring at me!  Keep writing!  Impress me! Because once those 45 minutes are up, I am taking that paper.

So I sit at my desk, watching them take a test.  Sometimes I look at the clock.  Sometimes I rifle through loose papers to sound busy.  I think about how later I will have to read all of these essays, locked away in my dank office like Grendel from Beowulf — their 45 minutes will mean 4 hours for me.  But mostly I watch them, stone-faced, remembering how the sweat used to drip down my spine during tests, and how I ached for summer vacation, and how cool and collected my own teacher looked as he wrote “10 minutes remaining” on the chalkboard.

A teacher’s small revenge.