Reading Again

I’m happy to report that I’m reading for pleasure again. For most of the last seventeen months, I’ve found it very difficult to read for personal enjoyment. Sure, I’ve read lots of stuff for work. Journal articles. Research papers. Numerous books. But nothing that I would consider “reading for entertainment.” Before the pandemic, I would regularly read a book or two a month for sheer pleasure. But when the pandemic hit, I found it hard to concentrate on the narrative contained in my novels of choice. Each time I’d pick up a book and begin to read, my mind would wander off and I’d think about the existential dread from the global pandemic. And then I’d put the book down and try to find some other method to quiet those thoughts. I played a lot of games on my smartphone and logged a lot of time on social media through most of 2020.

But here I am, back to reading for pleasure. I’d love to say that the pandemic is completely out of my mind, but maybe I’m just better at quieting those distracting thoughts. Practice makes perfect, I guess.

As I’ve started reading novels again, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stuff I choose to read for pleasure versus the stuff I read academically. When I read for pleasure, I usually like to read stories about the solo spy who is trying to save the world or solve a crime or stop some mammoth tragedy from happening. If you watch action movies, you’re probably familiar with the characters. Characters like Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, and Jack Reacher are the typical protagonists. Over the years, I’ve read most of the books with those guys. Lately, I’ve been reading the Grey Man series by Mark Greaney. The Grey Man is an ex-CIA agent who becomes an assassin-for-hire. Despite his profession as a paid killer, the Grey Man is actually a hero because he only takes jobs where he hunts down bad people. In one book, he fights a drug cartel. In another, he works to take down a group of human traffickers. Each book contains some wild premise with a twisted plot, but the books are so far removed from my daily life that they’re great entertainment.

While my “pleasure reads” focus on the solo spy who is off on some lone adventure, my “scholarly reads” tend to focus almost entirely on communities of people coming together to work and learn. I did a quick search through this blog’s archives and found that I’ve mentioned the word “community” in over fifty different posts. In fact, as I’m writing this post, I’m surrounded by no less than five different books on “communities of practice.” So, while I’m entertained by the adventures of the solo spy, the educator in me sees the world much differently. Although I could try to explain the difference, I’ll let Etienne Wenger do the heavy lifting. In his book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, & Identity, Wenger (1999) considers the nature of learning within communities and writes:

“The primary focus of this theory is on learning as social participation. Participation here refers not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certain people, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities… Such participation shapes not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do.” (pg. 4)

I know that might be heady stuff. But for me, it captures the fantasy of fictional characters like the Grey Man. While it’s great to read about lone spies who run off to save the world, the rest of us are shaped by the communities with whom we are fortunate to participate and learn from. And as we’re nearing (hopefully) the end of a global pandemic where we’ve been forced to isolate from one another, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

References:

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.

Wiser People

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. As a rerun, I’m sharing this post from February 2022, where I write about an interaction with an undergraduate who was questioning her future. An update to the post. “Mary” taught last school year during the pandemic but left her teaching position this summer to explore another role in education.

An undergraduate student stopped by my office a few days ago. Mary (not her real name) was in midst of an existential crisis and wanted to work through some concerns. I had worked with Mary in the fall and was really happy that she felt comfortable enough to stop by and discuss things.

“I don’t know if I still want to be a teacher,” Mary said. “And I don’t know what to do with that.”

In our class in the fall, I found Mary to be really excited about her future as a teacher. In addition to our class, Mary was also completing a field experience where she worked with middle school students three days a week. At the start of our class time, I’d ask the class to reflect on their “rose and thorn” from the week. This is a low-stakes activity to prompt reflection about the high points and low points about an experience and put it in context. Mary always identified roses and struggled to find thorns. The excitement and passion that she shared each week about her own students made her seem naturally suited for the teaching profession.

But, here she was. Questioning her future and doubting her career decisions.

As we chatted, I tried to get Mary to explore the roots of her doubt. More than that, I explained that doubts about big decisions were natural. I shared that over my career, I have doubted my choice to become a teacher numerous times. It’s been a long time since I’ve questioned my career choice, but I remember it being a regular source of consternation for me when I first started as a teacher. At one point, I made the decision to change schools as a last effort to salvage my teaching career. While that was over 25 years ago, I can remember the feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty.

As I shared my experiences, I remembered a quote that I heard in a podcast recently. Attributed to Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, mathematician and all-around smart guy, the quote goes something like this:

The problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.

As I shared this with Mary, I could see her eyes light up a little. Clearly, she was neither a fool nor a fanatic, so she self-identified as one of the “wiser people.” More than that, though, the quote seemed to give her permission to doubt herself.

As she left my office, she thanked me for meeting with her. I honestly don’t know what her future holds. Maybe she’ll still become a teacher. Or maybe she’ll choose another path. Regardless, I know that whichever career she chooses will count a wiser person among their ranks.

The Professor and the Pea

I’m sure many of you have heard the old fairy tale published by Hans Christian Andersen about the princess and the pea, but forgive me as I take a short, literary sidestep to review it.

In the tale, a prince is looking to marry a princess, but is unable to find one in the neighboring kingdoms. He searches high and low and cannot find a bride who can meet his royal expectations. One dark and stormy night, a stranger knocks on his door and asks to spend the night in the castle. The stranger is a beautiful, young woman and claims to be a princess from a distant land. The prince is taken by the stranger’s beauty and falls in love at first sight. But the prince’s mom is suspicious. She doubts that the stranger is really a princess and devices a test to determine whether the young woman is really royalty. In the guest room, the mother prepares a bed with a stack of mattresses and feather beds so the stranger is comfortable. To test the stranger, however, the mother hides a single pea below the mattresses and feather beds. The mother believes that if the stranger is truly a princess, she won’t be able to sleep because of the presence of the pea. The next morning, the stranger announces that she’s had a sleepless night. The kingdom rejoices because that stranger is really a princess and the prince has finally found a bride. They get married and live happily ever after. The end.

I was reminded of this story recently after a few of my colleagues shared student comments from their teaching evaluations on their social media pages. One colleague shared a picture of several of the anonymous student comments and asked her followers, “Guess which one will keep my awake tonight?” Among a series of amazingly positive student comments was one that read something like “This professor is the worst.” Sure, the student provided no context or basis for their assessment and it was buried under a number of really positive comments. But like the pea in the fairy tale, that single student comment was going to create some sleepless nights for my colleague.

The post generated some conversation among my co-workers. Some commiserated that they also tended to focus on the infrequent negative comments more than the numerous positive ones. I work with a lot of caring, inspiring, and motivated colleagues. I know they want to support their students’ learning and it pained me to see them agonize over these student comments. And then I remembered that I do the same thing. While I haven’t received a negative student comment in a few semesters (not a boast), I still agonize over them when I do. Which makes me wonder, why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we agonize over the negative comments, despite receiving positive comments that should act like mattresses and feather beds to cushion the blow?

Before starting this post, I googled “The Princess and the Pea” to make sure I remembered the story correctly. Within the list of links that Google provided, I couldn’t avoid one with a really clickable title: “This Popular Fairytale has a Hidden Meaning You Never Knew About.” In a post from 2017, an author identified only as “Mary” writes:

“The pea is the symbol of our truest selves. Despite the layers of the socially-acceptable, the princess passes the test because she feels so intensely. She cares and is authentic. She’s not afraid to face up to her own issues and discomforts. Ultimately, the prince recognizes her for the princess she is because above all, she doesn’t give up on herself.”

And maybe that’s the message here. Agonizing over negative comments shows how much we care as educators. It shows our true selves. We’re reflective, curious, motivated educators who want to reach every student. Like the pea that reveals the true princess, our agony reveals our true passion and desire to be the best teachers we can be. That may involve some sleepless nights, but we haven’t given up on ourselves. And that’s no fairy tale.

Dealing with Due Dates

I teach online a lot. I know the pandemic forced many educators into online modes of instruction over the last year or so, but I taught my first online class over a decade ago. I don’t say that to be boastful or anything. I offer that information more as a way to explain how long I’ve been tweaking my classes and trying out different aspects of my courses. It’s been a decade-long journey of experimentation, reflection, and revision.

Most of my online classes are asynchronous in nature. Since I work a lot with adult learners who have family and work commitments, I recognize the flexibility that asynchronous classes offer. Students can work at their own pace and at times of the day that work best for them. Looking at student log-in data from my classes, I see that there are groups of students who prefer to complete coursework in the wee hours of the morning and other students who prefer to work late at night. It’s clear that asynchronous classes help to accommodate for students’ different work schedules and let them have some control over their pacing.

Over the last decade of online teaching, there’s one aspect of my asynchronous classes that I’m constantly questioning and revising: my use of due dates. I have some colleagues who release all of the modules at the start of the semester and allow students to work through course content completely on their own schedule. I have other colleagues who require their students to log into their online classes daily or have them complete daily assignments. If those are ends of a continuum, I would place myself someplace in the middle. I release new modules each week and usually break up each module into two due dates, one midweek and another at the end. My rationale with this structure is that I want to slowly scaffold course content over the course of the semester and don’t want to bombard students with content at the start of the semester. Also, despite their different work schedules, I still want to foster a learning community in the class. Having them discuss content together and share ideas with one another helps to build that larger learning community. The multiple due dates prompt students to engage more regularly in the course, but I’ve often wondered whether this is the right approach. Would it be better if I just released all of the modules at the start of the semester and allowed students to set their own deadlines? What impact would that have on student learning?

Traveling back from a beach vacation last week, I binged through a backlog of podcasts and discovered a research-based answer to my due date ponderings. In a recent episode of Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vendantam interviewed behavior scientist Katy Milkman about how we can use our minds to do what’s good for us. In the episode, Milkman shared research by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch who studied the impact of deadlines on performance. In the first part of their research, Ariely and Wertenbroch studied groups of students enrolled in two sections of the same class. In one section, students were given fixed, evenly spaced due dates for three papers. In the other section, students were allowed to set their own deadlines which they had to schedule with the instructor early in the semester. Surprisingly, when given the choice to set their own due dates, most of the students spaced out their deadlines throughout the semester. Only about 25% of the students scheduled the due dates for all of three papers at the end of the semester. This demonstrated to the researchers that most of the students “are willing to self-impose deadlines to overcome procrastination.” While this seems promising from a self-regulation standpoint, what was the impact of the different deadlines processes on student learning? To study this, the researchers looked at students’ grades on papers and their grades on a final project that was scheduled at the end of the semester in both sections. In both cases, grades were significantly higher in the sections with instructor-imposed deadlines.

To examine the impact of deadlines on student performance a little more deeply, Ariely and Wertenbroch conducted a second study. The researchers sought student workers who were willing to act as proofreaders. Volunteers would be paid based on the number of errors they found in three selected papers. The novel aspect is that volunteers were broken into three groups. One group was required to proofread a single paper each week for three weeks. The second group were required to submit their work for all three papers at the end of three weeks. The third group were allowed to choose their own deadlines for the work during the three-week window. The researchers measured the number of errors the proofreaders in each group found and whether the volunteers missed any deadlines. Consistent with the findings from the first study, proofreaders in the group with assigned, regular deadlines outperformed the volunteers in the other groups. That groups also found more errors and missed fewer deadlines.

Considering the research from Ariely and Wertenbroch, I’m more confident that my due date choices are educationally beneficial to the students in asynchronous classes. It’s cool to find research to support a pedagogical decision that I just happened to stumble upon after years of tweaking and revising. Now I just need to find research on the hundreds of other pedagogical questions that bounce around in my brain.

References:

Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.

Being Hospitable

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. As a rerun, I’m sharing this post from December 2019, which I wrote after a difficult interaction with a student. With so many of us traveling this summer to make up for lost time due to the pandemic, I thought Parker Palmer’s perspective on “hospitality” would resonate with you. It certainly does with me. Enjoy.

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.