Recently I’ve been thinking about the role of pauses in my classroom and in my own teaching practice. My ENG 236A – British Literature Survey from Beowulf to Jonathan Swift has been reading Othello this week. Last Thursday, we each took a different character and read Scene I in Act IV out loud. After we finished reading, I asked students to freewrite about how reading aloud changed their experience of the play compared to when they read on their own. Students observed that they understood and felt the emotions within the lines more when we read out loud. After the discussion, I showed them a YouTube clip of the same scene we read in class. I then asked how their understanding of the scene changed again when seeing a film version. One perceptive student noticed that Iago’s character used pauses for emphasis in the film. We all agreed that the scene made more sense when characters/actors used silence between lines for effect.
My student’s observation about Iago’s use of pauses in turn gave me pause. It made me reflect on my own use of quiet breaks or silence in the classroom. When I first started teaching as a master’s student in 2004, I was terrified of silence in my classroom. I used to think that silence meant I failed to engage my students. While that might be partly true, strategic silences can also be an effective teaching tool. Many of our students haven’t had the opportunity to think about the questions we ask, much less have an answer in several seconds. I sometimes find myself talking too much or waxing poetic on a specific question they should really answer. Today, I’ll try to remember that my students might benefit from a few silent pauses to ponder the critical questions I raise.
As teachers, we hear this saying a lot. It comes from the mouths of administrators, teacher-scholars, colleagues, and accrediting bodies. Yet, I get the sneaking suspicion it means something different out of each mouth. What does it even mean?
I asked myself this question today as I talked with my sister-in-law who teaches English to university students, CEOs, and professionals alike. As I listened to her experience of leading an intensive four-day English training, my answer to this question emerged. She told me that her students varied from beginner to expert, and this made her work that much more difficult because as she moved from student to student, she had to constantly shift her responses according to the needs of each individual.
While I do not teach English as a second language (at the moment), I do teach critical thinking, reading, and writing, and it is no easy task. Each of my students is at a different cognitive level and joins my class with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. There is no sign posted to their foreheads and no advance copy of their skills is sent to me. Sure, they were accepted to college and have grades and test scores, but none of these numbers or letters illuminates how well they understand my assignments, the readings in my class, or their ability to process concepts or theories and apply them in their own projects. No student is a cookie cutout. There is no one mold or template, and so when I practice the mantra of meeting students where they are, it looks a lot like this: asking a pointed question, listening to answers, asking follow-up questions, repeating the instructions, defining terms, answering more questions, rephrasing questions, listening to what they say, saying back to them to make sure I understand what they say, redirecting the question, coming up with a more pointed question, offering suggestions, reading drafts, providing feedback, reading another draft, answering the same question again.
I’m not sure if this process described above is what other pedagogues mean when they say meet students where they are, but it is the best answer I came up with today. We first have to gauge where each (usually one of about 24) person really is in their thinking ability, contrary to where they think they might be. Then, we must point to a place we want them to be. Meeting students where they are is an improvisational dance that I must do with each student in each class four times a day.
What’s the deal with time? More specifically, even when I devote significant amounts of time to grading, commenting, conferencing, and prepping, I feel behind. It is important to remember that as humans (and not robots) we need time to let our thoughts wander. We need time to take a walk in the woods, to pet our pets, and to putter around the house. We need time for breaks because taking breaks is a form of self-care.
Last semester, I attended a writing workshop with the Teaching and Learning Center. My colleagues and I sat in a circle and did some freewriting on various prompts. The theme on everyone’s mind was TIME. In fact, the subject of time, specifically how much time it takes to grade, preoccupies so much of my brain space that I often spend an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty for going on an impromptu walk, watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, trying out a new recipe, or staring at the ceiling.
To justify my need for breaks and walks and to be sure I am not exaggerating how much time I spend grading, I did the math. This semester I have 63 students in four classes. Each class has approximately four writing projects through the semester. It takes me about 20 minutes to grade each major essay assignment. Each essay assignment, depending on the class and level, ranges from between 3-7 pages. 63 students multiplied by four projects equals 252 projects that I must read carefully and provide feedback. I will spend approximately 5,040 minutes or 84 hours reading and commenting on essay assignments, and this number is only accurate if I stick to a strict schedule of timing my reading and feedback to ONLY 20 minutes per paper. 84 hours is equal to 2.1 full-time work weeks, and these hours must be worked in on top of, around, through, across, in addition to face-to-face teaching, prep for those classes, conferences, emails, grading quizzes, in-class work, homework, committee work, and departmental task forces. These numbers illustrate why my own sense of time feels like an accordion compressed.
And yet, or perhaps especially, when we feel behind, teachers (and most humans generally) need a little time to meander, putter, and stare. We need down time because we are not robots. While this statement seems obvious on its surface, the practice of self-care is not always evident. Think of this blog post as a call to action. Do something to take care of yourself today, even if it’s to look up from your screen and stare at the wall for a few of those 84 hours.
Two or three weeks ago I couldn’t sleep because of one bad student evaluation. (I know, I know! Why do I fixate on the one negative comment out of 75 positive ones?) I kept turning it over in my mind wondering who it was and why they had it out for me. It was just SO specific: a litany of things they “didn’t care for” in my teaching. I would get in bed and wait for sleep only to replay every teensy detail of every class I taught that day, worrying and wondering if anything I said warranted another laundry list of grievances.
Then, on Valentine’s Day, 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida were murdered with an AR-15. Since that day, I’ve had nightmares about piling desks up across a line of sight from my classroom door window to create a barricade against an active shooter. I spend my nights memorizing the schematics of each classroom and my office suit, imagining how I might attempt to protect my students and myself from mass murder. In all my dreams, far off echoes of gun shots ring through halls and windows. Engaging class discussions about the lasting significance of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein are disrupted with rounds of AR-15 bullets. Will I have to shield my students with my own body one day? Will graduate programs include active shooter drills and training alongside their “how to write a cover letter” when preparing newly minted PhD’s for the job market? Will the PRAXIS and the GRE now include a portion about conceal and carry permits? Will testing centers and gun ranges merge into strange conglomerate education professionalization convention centers? In mentioning the shooting to my Rhetoric and Composition class last week, I struggled to hold back tears. In the harsh light of day, this nightmare does not shake off.
Normally, the things that keep me up at night can be laughed away in the light of day. I might normally shrug and say, white people problems or first world problems. However, this is the conundrum of our 21st century American reality. We live in a first world nation, and yet I must still devote a significant amount of psychic energy worrying about when my students and my classroom will be next. The NRA and the president tell me I should arm myself, as if the intellectual armament of getting a PhD and 14 years of teaching experience isn’t enough anymore. We must ask ourselves what the long term consequences of arming students and teachers will be. If we arm teachers and if schools drop their gun free zone status, it will change the very fabric and foundation of education as we know it. A gun is a symbol of violent power. A gun is an instrument of death. If I carry a gun to school or if my students have guns with them in the classroom, it will forever alter our relationships, our conversations, my ability to challenge them to be better thinkers. In essence, it will put an end to the reasons why I love my job. It will ultimately prevent me from being an effective teacher.
The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas have the answer. Their grass roots, non-violent-direct-action-inspired activism gives me hope that MORE EDUCATION is the answer, NOT MORE VIOLENCE. Mark Newt claims, “After seeing these Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students demonstrate the benefits and foresight and resilience of a quality education by exemplary teachers, every school board should require and fund speech & debate, journalism, and theater programs in their schools,”and I agree. Watching these students exercise their first amendment rights to raise awareness about the pitfalls in some interpretations of second amendment rights gives me courage and inspires me to keep teaching critical reading, thinking, and writing.
………And then I forgot to put the laundry in the dryer, and I still need to grade those Elements of Literature presentations before I grade my Rhetoric and Writing essays, and I’m hungry, and I need to go grocery shopping because I ran out of oatmeal, and all I want to do is drink wine and explore my new environs – not necessarily in that order or together. Are we all just immaculate jugglers? Did we ever imagine that juggling would become our primary skill as teachers? And all those other side hustles we do that no one trained us to do like write 1,000 professional emails, plan your life in four-year-course-rotations, and make mystifying, acrobatic leaps through space to go from classroom to committee to grading to research. Oh yeah, when am I going to revise that article for resubmission? But first laundry and then dinner.
*Special thanks to Elisabeth Ellington for this wonderful prompt*
Sometimes in the chaos of grading papers, going to meetings, planning for class, and doing committee work, it can be difficult to stop and check-in with our students. My mentor during my Master’s program at Appalachian State University, Georgia Rhoades, taught me the value of reflective writing activities in the Composition classroom. 13 years later, I continue to prompt my students to reflect on their own writing process after completing assignments. For example, I write the following questions on the board:
- What are you most proud of in this essay?
- If you had more time, what would you work on and why?
- What did you learn about yourself during this project?
I take these up, read them while I evaluate the final draft of their essays (ideally, though sometimes it’s much later), and then hand them back with a few personal comments. These reflective writings about writing are not graded. They are merely a kind of check-in for the students and for me to gauge what and if they are learning.
Even outside these meta-writing exercises though, the nature of English courses often asks students to connect with material in personal ways, and instructors in these classes learn things about their students which can be concerning.
Lately, however, I find that reflective writing is not the only way to check-in. When a student misses a few days in a row or when I notice a forlorn expression, I make a mental note. I used to e-mail students if they were absent to remind them of attendance policies or remind them to turn in missing assignments. Just prompting them to turn in late work does not always translate that I am concerned about their well-being. More recently, I email them to ask how they are. When they return, I ask to see them after class, making sure to add, “you aren’t in trouble.” I find that when I take a few extra minutes to ask, “how are things,” they are more inclined to share.
Just last week, one student told me she went to her grandfather’s funeral, and when she got back home, her brother was missing. She later found out he was having suicidal thoughts. She missed assignments because she was dealing with the incredible pressure of taking care of her family, but she was afraid to tell me because she assumed I would think she was irresponsible. Another student revealed that her grandmother was dying. I cannot claim to reach every student, and it keeps me up at night. I cannot pretend to be a therapist. However, I can work on being an empathetic human who recognizes the suffering of other humans near me. I can try to listen and be compassionate, and sometimes I can give an extension on an assignment.
I despise being micromanaged or having to micromanage others. I try not to give ultimatums, which means I try to provide enough choice to myself and people around me, so no one feels controlled, probably because it is the thing I loathe most in the world. However, I am constantly confronted by the consequences of giving too much choice – especially when I design major assignments.
Recently, I introduced the next writing project by conducting a freewrite geared toward generating topics. My students were prompted to write about what angered them, inspired them, or interested them. I want my students to examine and analyze the politics in everything. It annoys me when they avoid the political. For example, a student just the other day asked if she could write about glitter “because it’s just happy.” She acrobatically attempted to be apolitical. How can’t they see that even something as frivolous as glitter can be politicized?
Then I remembered that the freewriting exercise was intended to give them choices for which they eventually choose an article. What I learned from hearing their ideas – “what if we write about the Book of Revelations” – is that I need to impose more structure, and structure can be guidelines which are not the antithesis of choice.