Is the solution to my problem more worksheets?

Image by Carl Glover. Used under creative commons license.

There’s a line I use quite a bit when I’m frustrated (probably too much, actually):  “I feel like I’m re-training Pavlov’s Dogs.”

One of the problems I have encountered repeatedly while teaching 10th grade English is that students are so incredibly used to the task-response-assessment-reward method of doing things that when they are given a significant amount of independence on a task or even a project, they falter and sometimes fail even though they clearly have a decent grasp of the concept being used.

Take student-led discussions, for example.  In my advanced English class, I go pretty heavy on these, taking maybe one day out of a unit to do some introductory notes, post guiding questions, hit the major highlights, and assign the paper that they will be writing when all of our discussion is finished.  I even strongly suggest that the guiding questions and the paper questions (which are often the same) be what is focused on during our discussions of the literature; however, since it’s “their show” for however many days we’re discussing, I don’t make it a requirement.  The result is a lot of “What would you do in this situation?”-type questions and also a lot of dead air.

After a class observation where the student-led discussion didn’t go as well as I had hoped, my administrator, who loved the concept, suggested that I tweak things by having student groups submit their questions beforehand and then conference with me–a due diligence strategy, if you will.  It’s a good idea and I might do it if I can come up with a way for it to be constructive and helpful to those groups.

Because I personally love student-led discussions.  I love how they take my classes out of their comfort zones and how I can sit back and participate instead of standing up and leading.  But the lack of tasks does seem to be a hindrance.  The class doesn’t always do the reading and therefore they don’t always participate in the discussion; even when the works of literature read have been student-chosen, things have been lackluster.

So the question is:  should I have a specific task for everyone to do when it comes to our reading of literature.  I don’t hand out study guides with every large work, and there are only a few times here and there that I hand out questions to go along with an article or short story, or film (and most of the time, that’s sub work).  But the result has been a complete lack of engagement even when students have said they liked what they’ve been reading and I think it comes from a lack of a concrete task to do.  I’ve even had parents complain about my class:  “Why aren’t there more grades in the gradebook?”  “How can one paper carry so much weight?”  “He/she says all your class does is talk.”

Going cold turkey doesn’t seem to be helping a number of my students.  Or maybe it is and I just can’t see the forest for the trees.  So should I be putting more points in the gradebook through worksheets?  Should I be collecting notebooks or doing notebook quizzes? Should I ring more bells to make them salivate more?


What Joan Rivers taught me about creativity and grit

The Hollywood Squares, circa 1986-1987.  Joan Rivers at center.  Not pictured: JM J. Bullock.

The Hollywood Squares, circa 1986-1987. Joan Rivers at center. Not pictured: JM J. Bullock.

I knew who Joan Rivers was when I was very young and she was the center square on the mid-1980s version of Hollywood Squares, the one hosted by Jon Davidson’s hair (and Davidson himself).  I think I found her funny because I was growing up on Long Island and she sounded like half of the old ladies I would see when I went out in public or went to visit my extended family (read: loud with a thick New York accent).  I honestly don’t remember if she actually was funny but I do know that she was one of only a few comedians I knew by name (Phyllis Diller, and anyone who had shown up on Win, Lose, or Draw were the others).

In junior high and high school, I’d become a much bigger fan of comedy because of specials like Robin Williams’ A Night at the Met, Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer, and shows like Comic Strip Live and Seinfeld. She next showed up on my radar when she began red carpet commentary for E! and I began seeing my wife, who is a huge fan of fashion, but it wasn’t until we sat down and watched the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work that I really felt like I got to know her.

If you’re not familiar with the documentary, it is both a biography of the comedienne and a look at what was going on with her life and career at the time, which was in an interim period between a prior gig on E! and the launch of her weekly show, Fashion Police.  Rivers put together a one-woman show that debuted in London but did not fare well at all, she continued to play spots in Vegas as well as in other comedy clubs, and had a falling out with a manager who was unreliable.  It gave her a vulnerability and humanity that you wouldn’t often see in her act.

More importantly, it showed just how hard she worked.  Rivers had some major setbacks in her career–she pissed off Johnny Carson, for instance–and yet she continued to come back.  Was it the result of luck?  Perhaps things did bounce her way from time to time, but what I got out of the film was that it was because of her … well, her grit.

At some point in the last year or so, “grit” became a buzzword and then became derided because … oh I don’t know, it’s not the thing that Innovative Educators™ subscribe to or something.  But whenever I have read a biography of someone who is known for his or her creativity or seen a documentary about same, I always notice how much grit and determination they have.  Rivers worked.  And worked.  And never stopped working.  She was incredibly talented and incredibly creative, but she clearly understood that creative success takes more than talent; it takes serious work.

I hear too many Educators treat creativity with kid gloves, acting as if the slightest criticism will destroy any spark of creativity a student has.  Sure, there is age-appropriate criticism and me telling my seven-year-old son that his artwork has no concept of anatomy or no form would be incredibly ridiculous on my part.  But I don’t teach second grade; furthermore, I set high expectations and one of those expectations is that “oh, it’s good enough” is not a true statement.  You think it’s “good enough?”  Then you obviously didn’t do enough.

The best teachers I had were the ones that challenged me and didn’t take less than my best, even in areas that weren’t my specialty, from my first grade teacher who encouraged me to read and build my vocabulary to my calculus teacher who rode all of us as hard as he could to my father who never turned down an opportunity to prep and re-prep me for the AP Biology exam.  And yet, they’d all be lumped into “those teachers” because, oh, I don’t know, they weren’t Connected Edcuators™ or Innovative Educators™, didn’t use enough #edtech, used old methods, or don’t have a book to sell about the 40 best methods to use something.  But they were the first to show me the importance of both effort and follow-through.  Not only that, they all taught me that you didn’t quit when you were in trouble; you kept going.

It didn’t matter if I thought her act or her comments on Fashion Police were funny; when I saw Joan Rivers, that’s what I thought of.  Here was someone who knew from rejection, who knew from setback, who knew that hard work and grit combined with talent and a love for your work is how you succeed.  And who also seemed to be very grateful for that success.  I’m certainly going to miss seeing her every Friday night, but I’m grateful for what I learned.