Monday, November 19, 2007

:: Teaching Moments ::

About once every other year, I get a student in one of my classes who is different. Not has-purple-hair different or only-likes-T.S.Eliot different or refuses-to-bathe different (I get plenty of those kinds of different each quarter). Different different. Everyone-notices different. Processes-information-differently different. Stutters, perhaps, and rubs his leg while he speaks. Raises his hand to speak but never, not even once, answers the question that has been asked. Speaks slowly and disjointedly, or perhaps very quickly.

At the beginning of the quarter, my other students are always very kind to this student. They go out of their way in writing workshops to lavish praise where possible because often, there’s a lot to critique. They listen patiently as he speaks, sometimes for minutes at a time and usually about something that has already been discussed. I’ll ask for evidence from the novel to support the idea that the author uses minor characters to show us how ridiculous the main character is and he’ll start talking about the wordiness of a particular paragraph and my other students will sit quietly, waiting for him to finish, before someone raises his or her hand to answer my original question.

By the end of the quarter, the class has usually figured out that this kid is oblivious to them and so they can more openly react to his meandering thoughts and his odd manner of speaking. They notice that he doesn’t register the slightly mocking undertone to their comments about his paper. They discover that they can look around the room at one another while he goes on and on, unaware of the people around him or their knowing glances. Responding to him becomes a performance one students puts on for the others.

They have also figured out that I, as their teacher, don’t know quite what to do about this.

It’s not the student himself I can’t figure out. Often these students are my most willing and attentive students – my students who make the most effort, ask the most questions, and come to office hours even when there’s nothing due. They’re often the easiest students to help, too, because it’s usually quite apparent what their strengths and weaknesses are. One student will come into office hours with a six-page detailed outline for a two-page paper, so I know to take a slow, analytical approach with him and I know that if nothing else, I need to help him see the forest for the trees. Another will struggle and struggle in class to understand an author’s tone but will be excellent at finding repetitions and patterns that he can turn into themes.

I have these students for ten weeks. That’s all. The best I can do is help them work to their strengths and work around their weaknesses.

The difficulty I have with these students is figuring out how not to let one student affect the other 20-40 students in class. How not to let him take over or derail the class. How not to let him become the subject of interest, overshadowing discussions of novels, films, and writing processes. How to deal with the fact that I’ve asked a question and no one else wants to answer but him.

For awhile I can ignore him, or say that I want someone else to speak, or call on students whose hands are not raised eagerly and willingly in the air. But eventually I must call on him. And when I do, I often must use my best teacher’s “yes but”: “Yes, but what about DeLillo’s use of the word ‘transcendent’ in this paragraph on page 154?” “Yes, but let’s ignore Julia’s paper for now and focus on the film. What evidence can we find in just the film?” “Yes, but that’s not exactly what I asked. Who else wants to take a stab at answering?”

But perhaps more than not really wanting class to go off on a two-minute tangent on whether or not prostitutes become prostitutes because they feel useless (sparked by an incidental prostitute character in a novel, let’s say) because I want to stay on topic and run a tight ship, I dread the two-minute tangent because it puts me into a delicate position with my other students.

They look to me for verification: This guy’s weird, right?

They want me to correct him when he’s wrong. They want me to cut him off when he’s answering a question with a completely irrelevant example or when he’s repeating almost word for word the comment he made earlier in class. They want me to smile along with them, to say, Yup. I know. I’m with you.

Which if course is something I try very hard not to do. They know I don’t always know how to respond to this student. They know that I almost always have to redirect the conversation away from his comment and towards whatever it was we were talking about. But it would be so unfair of me as a teacher to let them know that I am as frustrated, and sometimes as amused, or as offended, as they are. That’s not my job. Neither is it always necessarily my job to validate every single student’s existence or to create a nurturing classroom space in which there are no wrong answers and no weak thesis statements. But as the person who stands up at the front of the classroom and writes the syllabus and assigns the readings and papers, I am in a position of power, even as I often try to create a “decentered” classroom. It’s one thing for the students in class to have a secret behind this one kid’s back – for them to exchange knowing glances and to roll their eyes at me. It’s something entirely different for me to participate in this.

Most of the time, keeping my own eyes still and my attention on this one student isn’t hard. Sometimes, of course, it is. But the hardest thing yet is this: in a writing workshop like I’m teaching now, trying to steer clear of the judgments can interfere with my teaching.

When we circle up to read through and then critique a student’s paper, my job is complicated: in many ways, I turn class over to my students, reminding them that you needn’t be a writing teacher to recognize good and poor writing when you see it. You might not always be able to pinpoint why something you read is strong or weak, clear or confusing, and you might not always be able to come up with advice for how to solve whatever problems there are, but you know how to judge others’ writing. If I don’t tell my students this, then they tend to look to me for the entire critique. They think, She’s got way more experience. She knows better than I do. If I’m confused it’s probably me, not the writing.

And yet at the same time, sometimes my students aren’t always great readers of others’ writing, so it remains my job to filter, guide, and redirect their responses. When one student makes a comment on a paper that seems off-base to the others, they look to me: Do you agree?

Workshops consist of a lot of head-nodding from me. And when I do happen to disagree with something someone’s said, I try to turn it back to the group: What do you think? Any other thoughts on whether she needs to rewrite this, or could she maybe use this sentence but just move it to the third paragraph?

That’s what makes workshop days so hard this quarter. My processes-information-differently student makes my task difficult. I am stuck trying to strike a balance between validating him, trying to find something useful in his comment, ignoring my students’ snickers and looks, and letting people know that I don’t necessarily agree with the comment that’s been made. It’s such a hard thing to do well, and I often feel like in the end, I’ve failed in some way. I’ve let him talk too much. I’ve smiled when he’s said something particularly out of left field or when someone else has been slightly mocking in their response to him. I’ve let on to my students that I am also frustrated.

It’s something I may never really master, try as I might. Because teachers are teachers, but they’re also people. Human. Flawed.

Thankfully, this quarter, my student never notices when I’ve smiled at something he’s said or when I’ve shaken my head and furrowed my brow in confusion. He never guesses that I am frustrated. He comes up to me after class with more pages of outlines and a list of questions and we head up to my office to figure things out.


bubandpie November 19, 2007 at 3:35 PM  

I can only think of two students I've had who have been like this - and even then, not exactly what you've described (more plain aggressive or ADHD and less Asperger's). I have a friend, though, who has Asperger's, and one thing that frustrates her is that it's socially inappropriate to tell people when they're being socially inappropriate. She wants clear, straightforward feedback when she does anything unusual or potentially offensive - not raised eyebrows or subtle signals. From what you've described, I wonder if your student might be the same way - the type who might appreciate straightforward rules: it's inappropriate to answer more than three questions per hour, or three questions in a row.

This post just gives me chills, as you might imagine.

Julie November 19, 2007 at 4:16 PM  

That's really interesting. I never thought of it in terms of establishing rules with him. I suspect that this might be just the kind of thing that would work. It's so hard to figure out what to do and how to respond -- what is appropriate and what is not. Often I find that he doesn't read body language at all -- he doesn't even look for it -- so then it's a question of when to be explicit and when to just let something go.

juliepippert November 19, 2007 at 4:58 PM  

That sounds tough.

I think it depends upon the source of the difference. If it is nature, then B&P has a good point. If it is nurture, that is more complicated.

I had an employee once who had a bright son and she focused TOO MUCH on developing his IQ potential, to the neglect (criminally so IMO) of his EQ. Poor kid...he was so left of center it made my heart ache for him.

Using My Words

genevieve November 19, 2007 at 5:53 PM  

This is a student I've struggled with too...we probably all have. I love the earlier responses here.

I've never done writing workshops in my own classes. (Not whole class ones like what I think you're speaking of) While reading what you wrote, I was reminded of my own writing teachers who changed up feedback structures in class to balance the amount of time each student had. I wonder if doing something like having people go around in a circle and respond or more formal structuring like choosing certain people to respond on a given day might help in a situation like this. I know that the more you structure the less you are decentering the classroom...but at the same time it might be less disruptive and help balance out the student dynamics too.

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