Featured post

7 Life Lessons: A Letter to My Students

Graduations remind me of diving boards: parents and teachers become spectators, waiting to see each student jump, spring, and dive into ...

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Kids I Love

On some days, I wonder why I became a teacher in the first place.

There's no money.
Papers keep coming in, and the marking never ends.
Where's your thesis? Work on your transitions. Why are there still comma splices in your writing?
At three o'clock, I'm utterly and totally exhausted.

What is it about this profession that keeps me coming back to the classroom, year after year?

When I first started teaching, I taught because I wanted to create a more just and equitable world.
Over the years, I taught because I loved literature, poetry and language, and I wanted to share my passion for words with others.

Most recently, however, I've realized that I teach because of the kids. One of the biggest lessons that I've learned about effective teaching is that you have to teach because you care about kids. The kids have to matter more than the texts, more than any outside goals or ideologies, more than just about anything.

 Ultimately, teaching is about forging a strong relationship with kids, meeting them where they are in the learning process, and then, to borrow Kahlil Gibran's words,  "leading them to the thresholds of their own minds."

I think good teaching is also largely about being yourself. When I think back to the teachers and professors who moved me, I remember teachers who told stories, who gave advice, who made me smile. Professor Bertolini, for example, related Shakespearean plays to his own life; when we read texts about life and death, he told us how he felt when his parents died and he was forced to confront his own mortality. The best teachers and professors were not afraid to be totally and completely human.

Teaching is a uniquely human profession, and to be a good teacher, most of all, you have to be a living, breathing, honest human with passion and feeling and energy and idealism. You have to share your experiences and questions, your ideas and even your failings. You have to be compassionate and kind. You have to be real.

And this, perhaps, is what I love most about teaching: the relationship between teacher and student. And I'm extraordinarily fortunate. Over the last few years, I have taught some of the coolest kids in the world.

 Kids who work very hard, who demand so much of themselves.
Kids who smile and laugh and say thank-you at the end of class.
Kids who see me during lunch because they want to do better on their papers.
 Kids who take a stand and argue their position with spirit and conviction.

 Kids who respond emotionally to literature -- the student who genuinely admires Atticus Finch and says he wants to be like him, the student who cried when Tom Robinson was unjustly convicted, the student who was never fully  convinced that Romeo really loved Juliet, the student who read The Kite Runner and exclaimed that he had finally found a book he loved.

 Kids who get totally engrossed in the heat and energy of a good discussion.
 Kids who stand up and share a poem with their peers, despite the knocking knees and trembling hands.
Kids who listen quietly.

So why do I teach now? I think it's because of the kids I love.


Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Student-Teacher Relationship

Think back to your favorite teachers. Why did you like them so much? Chances are that they made you feel valued. You believed that they cared about you, and that they understood you. You probably don't remember their actual lessons as much as you remember the relationship you shared with them.

Over my years of teaching, I have come to the realization that effective teaching is largely about relationships. At the very heart of good teaching is the ability to show your students that you genuinely value them and care about them.

However, like all relationships, the student-teacher relationship is a two-way street. A teacher can try very hard to forge warm, caring relationships with students, but if the student is indifferent and disrespectful, chances are the relationship will fall apart.

On most days, I feel incredibly lucky to have the students that I have. They are fabulous kids: compassionate and kind, bright and interesting, hardworking and motivated. I hope they know how much I value them. I certainly feel as though, for the most part, they value me and what I do for them.

On some days, however, I feel discouraged. When a student is rude and disrespectful, unappreciative and overly-critical, disengaged and indifferent to class discussions and activities, I begin to feel discouraged. How do I get the student involved? Is it my fault? Am I not engaging enough? Have I not made enough of an effort to cultivate a strong relationship with the student?

In today's world, we hear a lot about what teachers should do for students. Teachers are expected to be somewhat saint-like. We need to care about our students, empathize with them, and connect with them. We need to engage, encourage, and inspire them. We need to be calm, patient, and caring all the time. We need to spend time giving each individual student extensive feedback via conferences, extra-help sessions, and email. (Keep in mind that the average high school teacher has roughly 100 students each year.) When they behave badly in class, we need to reflect on our practice: how and why are we failing to engage them?  Parents, administrators and students themselves are always ready to critique and blame the teacher for failing to be a perfect saint.

But what about the students? What responsibility do they have to their teachers? Why is it okay for students to be rude, disrespectful, or disengaged in class? Why does everyone assume that the onus for a healthy teacher-student relationship rests completely on the shoulders of the teacher? On the few occasions where I have students who just don't seem to care about my class or their relationship with me, no matter how hard I try, I sometimes find myself getting angry and upset. I know that I am the adult; the student is the child. I know that, much like a parent, I need to be the bigger person. Yet, it is hard not to take these situations personally. It is hard not to become disengaged myself; not to become distant and cynical.

Fortunately, the vast majority of my students are fantastic kids. However, I do have some advice for all students:
- remember that teachers are human too.
- remember that you and the teacher SHARE the responsibility to create a strong relationship that will support your learning.
- remember that your teacher wants to have a good relationship with you, but she/he can't make this happen without some cooperation from you.
- disruptive and rude behavior is not just an annoyance to your teacher; it's a strong message that you don't care about the class or your teacher.
- It doesn't take much to forge a good relationship with your teacher: come to class on time, engage in the learning process, show interest and enthusiasm for class discussions and activities, be polite and respectful, and show gratitude when your teacher goes out of his/her way for you and your classmates.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Key to Success = Sustained effort over time

Yesterday,  when I handed back essays to my grade 7 students, I happened to overhear the following conversation between two kids.
Student 1: Oh no. I worked so hard on this paper, and I still got a lousy grade.
Student 2: Really? I barely worked on this paper, but I did very well.

My first reaction was to feel really bad. It seemed very unfair to me that a student who worked very hard did less well than a student who had not worked very hard. It made me feel as though the grades that these students received validated their innate ability as opposed to the effort they put into their paper.

On second thought though, I realized that these students were comparing the effort that they had put into this one individual assignment; they were viewing their performance on this assignment in isolation. In English, and I would say in any endeavor, no assignment can be viewed completely in isolation. Student 1 may have worked hard on this particular paper, but she barely reads, and her work ethic all year has been spotty and inconsistent. In contrast, student 2 may have dashed off this paper at the last minute, but she is a voracious reader, and she has worked hard all year.

If student 1 did badly despite effort on this assignment, it is less a function of her lack of ability than her lack of sustained effort all year. Had she immersed herself in books and language all year, she would have gained the vocabulary and skills necessary to write a better paper. In contrast, because student 2 worked hard all year, she had honed her skills to the point where she could dash off a solid paper at the last minute.

My point here is that often what students and teachers attribute to innate ability is actually more a function of sustained effort over time. A kid who has been reading voraciously since she was very young has honed and refined her abilities to the point where things now come easily to her. In contrast, a kid who has barely read anything in elementary and middle school is going to struggle with assignments in later years, and often he will feel as though his efforts are futile. What students need to know is that their performance on any one individual assignment is the result of their work ethic and effort over time.

On a related note, I recently read an article on the importance of third grade precisely because it is the point in a student's academic career when the Mathew effect begins to kick in. In other words, from third grade on, kids who work hard get better and better, and kids who don't begin a downward spiral where they fall further and further behind. The discrepancy between strong and weak students gets wider and wider as a result. Because of the Mathew effect, a student who has worked hard for years may very well end up getting a better grade with far less effort than one who has only now started to work hard; what we think of as ability is actually the product of sustained work over time.  Why Third Grade is so important is interesting because it documents a very real phenomenon that continues through school.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Aunties, Uncles, and Allo-parenting

When I first arrived in Singapore, I was surprised by how quickly I felt at home here. I had never visited Singapore before, and I knew so little about the city-state. Yet, feeling tropical sun on my back and seeing bright flashes of pink bougainvillea made me feel at home. In so many ways, Singapore reminded me of Chennai, my childhood-home.

While the tropical landscape comforted me, what made me feel most at home was the "auntie-uncle culture." Much like in Chennai, every adult here is an auntie or an uncle to every child. Now this may seem kind of ridiculous. If every single adult is an auntie or an uncle, then what do those words even mean? Does the overuse of those words render them meaningless? I think not.

I believe that the way a child addresses an elder is very important. To start with, the terms auntie and uncle imply a familial relationship, suggesting that  adults must treat all children as if they are part of the same family. In other words, all adults need to work together to raise children, and simultaneously, children need to respect and obey all the adults they encounter, as they would their own family members.

These terms originate from a community-orientation. Historically, most Asians were raised in strong communities; in Singapore, kids grew up in communal kampongs; in India and China, they grew up in large joint-families with three generations living together under one roof.  While Asia has industrialized rapidly over the last fifty years, it is still attached, at least in theory, to the ideals of community, extended family networks, and communal child-rearing.

In traditional societies, all the adults in a community or tribe are responsible for the well-being and socialization of the younger generation. In his book The World Until Yesterday: What the modern world can learn from traditional societies, Jared Diamond describes the benefits of "allo-parenting," or communal parenting. When a kid is jointly raised, disciplined, and loved by multiple adults, he/she grows up with a strong sense of belonging to a larger community. This practice not only diminishes the pressure placed on parents, but it also helps children feel secure. Each child has many adult role-models, many adults that he can turn to when he needs advice, support, or help. The popular saying "It takes a village to raise a child"  is another way of thinking about the benefits of "allo-parenting" and traditional wisdom.

As allo-parenting is becoming increasingly endangered in the modern, developed world with its impersonal apartment buildings and fast-paced lifestyles, I think that the "auntie-uncle" cultures of the East should try to preserve these practices as much as possible. In Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers,  the American psychiatrist Gordon Neufeld documents the price that families pay when they are no longer part of a cohesive community. When parents don't have a community to help them raise their kids, they become stressed and exhausted. Simultaneously, when kids don't have a strong network of supportive adults to draw on, kids often turn to peers to fill the vacuum and the results are dangerous and frightening.

On a related note, over the weekend, I watched a Bollywood movie with my husband, and I began to think about the ubiquitous presence of grandparents and extended family members in the movie.  In contrast, your average Hollywood movie doesn't even feature parents, let alone grandparents or aunts/uncles. The young twenty-something heroes and heroines of Hollywood are forced to rely entirely on themselves and their peers for guidance; they get nothing from the older generation. In contrast, the young protagonists of Bollywood have a whole cast of older family members to turn to for comfort, support, guidance, and help. While neither Hollywood nor Bollywood reflects reality, they do reveal something about what their respective societies seem to value or idealize. Clearly, allo-parenting and extended family networks are still idealized in the East, though with 21st century lifestyles, they may become endangered.

Suggestions for parents (adapted from Neufeld's book):

- Socialize as a family with other families; multi-generational socializing is healthy for kids and adults alike. Your kids should know your friends. They should have lots of aunties and uncles that they feel close to. This is important even when (particularly when) your children are teenagers.

- Make sure you know your kids' friends, and ideally, their friends' parents as well. Again, this is fairly easy when your kids are young, but it gets harder as they get older. Yet, Neufeld argues that it is particularly important with teens because they are most vulnerable to toxic "peer effects."

- Spend a lot of time with your kids and make sure that you and the other adults in their lives (grandparents, aunts etc.) are their go-to people for questions and crises. Their peers should never replace the older generation. Again, this is particularly important for adolescents, who could get very skewed advice from friends.

- Make time for family dinners, family outings, and family days.

- Involve grandparents, aunts, and uncles in your lives as much as possible, and talk about "family stories" with your kids. Make sure the kids know their extended family well. Weekend Skype sessions are important if the grandparents live far away. If you're not close to your family, then create a similar network with friends.

And here are some other Singapore-specific suggestions:

-  If you have a domestic helper, encourage your children to think of her as part of your family. She is a crucial part of your "allo-parenting network," and both she and the kids will benefit from a close familial relationship.

- Encourage your child to read Asian literature and mythology -- most Asian stories seem to glorify and idealize familial relationships and community structures. Watching Bollywood movies helps too. These stories will implicitly teach kids that family matters a lot, and they could provide some sort of balance to the other messages that kids get about the need to be independent, rebellious, and "peer-oriented".