A student brings you a piece of writing and as you glance at it, you notice that he has problems with periods—many are missing, and a few are out of place.
You are moving around the room as students work on a math assignment and as you sit down beside one student, you see that she has done some of the problems correctly. When you look a little closer at the ones she got wrong, you see that she has made the same common error time after time.
A student hands an assignment in and you see right away that he has missed the point entirely—he might have been on a different planet when you were teaching the material, because he has done everything wrong, and you don’t know where to begin correcting the assignment.
Teachers have passed down the method for handling these situations for centuries—mark the papers, pointing out the errors, and ask the student to correct the errors. The teacher may look at the mistakes with the student and review the proper procedure, or may ask the student to refer to the textbook to find out how to do the work. In my experience, this approach works only with students who have got nearly all the answers right.
Getting learners on the teaching team is my first order of business at the beginning of a new class. I like to put them on notice that my class is a little different, that I ask for unexpected things from students, that I expect them to participate in shaping the class.
Adult Basic Education students come with strong ideas about what school should look like, and they want me to stick to that program. When I ask them to do something unusual–an art project, for example, or the dreaded working in groups–they resist. They zone out, or grumble, or refuse to take part, and generally rain on my parade.
A student demonstrates that 1/2 = 6/12, 3/6, 2/4 and 5/10
“EXPLAIN HOW YOU WOULD TEACH YOUR LEARNERS PLACE VALUE” and “Explain in detail how you teach ABET level 1 learners fractions” are two recent requests from readers of this blog. (ABET stands for “Adult Basic Education and Training” and is a term used in South Africa as well as other places.) Continue reading →
I remember early on in my teaching ABE career, I ran into a colleague who wanted to have stories and articles with happy endings so we didn’t add to the misery of the students’ lives. I couldn’t then tell her why that seemed so wrong-headed to me. She didn’t want anyone upset and wanted the class to be comfortable for everyone—and I suspect most of all for her. —Evelyn Battell, comment on an earlier post
Many ABE instructors will give the same reasons as Evelyn’s colleague for not wanting to use “difficult” material with their students: it will upset the students, and it will make the teacher uncomfortable. The reasons come as two faces of a weighted coin: What is most comfortable for the teacher often turns out to be what is “best for the students.” Continue reading →
Here’s a recent trigger warning from my personal life. A group of people organizing an art show in a small gallery in a local community centre had invited people to submit works of art about women’s lives. One painting caused a lot of controversy because it referred obliquely to back-street abortions. Some members of the hanging committee wanted not to have it in the show; others were in favour of hanging it. They reached a compromise by including the painting, while placing a trigger warning on the door of the exhibit, Continue reading →
In this series of related posts with the title “Trigger Warnings” I am talking about strategies for using “difficult” material in an adult literacy or ABE class. I’ll get to why it is important to use such material in a later post.
Usually I was aware that a piece of material might be uncomfortable or very difficult for some students, and could prepare accordingly, but once I was caught by surprise by the need for a trigger warning. As I think about it, my surprise surprises me. Did I think everyone would be comfortable talking about menstruation in an ABE class?Or did I bury any misgivings because I wanted to right an imbalance my feminist soul had noticed and railed against? It happened like this:
In an upper level ABE class one year, two women students came to me with a trigger warning that I ought to have anticipated, but didn’t. Continue reading →
After my success with asking First Nations studentsto decide whether or not to use a video about one reserve’s struggle against alcoholism, I began to use the same procedure with other content that I thought might be problematic. I remember a video and an article about a group of mothers on welfare who were fighting back against the way they were portrayed in the media, and the way they were treated by social workers and others who had power to grant or deny them benefits. Continue reading →
It seems that “trigger warnings” are everywhere these days, from the usual “This program contains crude language and sexual content; viewer discretion is advised,” to “Trigger warning: rape, extreme verbal abuse, and torture.”
You might think if ever there was a place for a trigger warning, it’s an ABE, adult literacy or GED class where teachers daily work with students who have experiences of violence:
those whose childhood experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse made it difficult for them to succeed in the K-12 system;
those who came from war zones, who may have been tortured and who saw loved ones killed or wounded;
those who, as youth or adults, were or still are involved in gangs or other criminal activity;
those who are currently living with violence from their boyfriend or spouse.
those whose schools lives were miserable because of taunts and bullying from students and teachers because they did not succeed at school tasks.
The opportunity for joy often comes disguised as a request for advice. When I refuse to give advice, when I take a moment to ask a question instead, a space opens up to let the joy of teaching in.
A student working on a piece of writing asks, “What should I do? I don’t know if I should explain that Tom is my boss and my uncle right here at the start, or if I should leave it out until closer to the end.”
“I can’t decide,” Maria said. “I don’t want people to smoke in my apartment any more, so I’m making a sign for the door. Should I say, “Please don’t smoke here” or “Butt Out”?
She had come to class with a project from home (the best kind of adult literacy work, generated by personal need and totally student driven).
She was asking for my advice, which put me in a very gratifying position: there I was, with someone tacitly acknowledging my expertise, and waiting to be told what to do. She had my ego right where it wanted to be!
“Always better to be polite when you’re asking people to do something…” The words were almost out of my mouth when my imagination was caught by the brevity and wit of “Butt Out.”
Suddenly I was sharing her dilemma–I couldn’t decide either.
It was the dilemma Marie presented, the dilemma of not knowing what advice to give, Continue reading →
Scenario 1: Mohan tells you he has an appointment tomorrow at the financial aid office, scheduled for the middle of your class. He adds that he is sorry that he couldn’t get the appointment at any other time. The next day, he arrives at your class on time, slips out to go to his appointment, and returns quietly half an hour later.
The last time I had my teaching evaluated by my administration, I was disappointed. Although I was happy to get a grade of “excellent” (highest on a five point scale), the comments from administration made me gag: “Kate is a kind and a patient teacher,” and Continue reading →
Pete was in my class that term, a student who described himself with pride as a “recovering asshole.” Most days it seemed to me that he was enjoying being stuck in the recovering stage, and wasn’t doing very much to move towards finally being “recovered.”
Still, we jostled along. He participated in class activities, and I held him accountable for treating others with respect.
One day in class he made a remark about women that seemed particularly aimed at me, and I lost it. I dressed him up one side and down the other. I can’t remember what he said, or what I said, but I remember that he shut up really quickly, and the other students tried to look like they were somewhere else.
So easy to make assumptions about what’s behind students’ behaviour. Often if we knew the reasons they were absent, late, inattentive, etc., we would be heartbroken, not angry. (I’m quoting someone there, but I can’t remember who!)
Jenny Horsman has just put up an interesting post about what happens when we assume students are not motivated when they annoy us by not showing up, showing up late, sitting at the back, unresponsive, with their coats on, neglecting assignments–I need not go on. You recognize the list.
This is my most popular post, which has been viewed 4,336 times, nearly three times as many as the next most popular post. It reflects the difference between what you see and what you get when you look at good teaching, and captures a worry about how the world perceives the adult literacy practitioner. Since I first posted it, I have added the last sentence, based on a perceptive comment by Jenny Horsman. Thanks, Jenny!
When I chose blogging as a way to share my ideas about teaching, the question of who is reading the blog popped up, as well as the related question, “How many are reading?” I’ve learned a lot about finding/keeping an audience since I started this project. Someone posted this piece to MetaFilter, which brought many readers to the site, which in turn caught the interest of WordPress editors, who chose it to be “freshly pressed,” and this in turn brought many more readers to the site. I had a taste of internet “fame” and discovered that I was even more vain than I had previously thought.
It’s my most famous piece. Is it my best? Is it typical of the themes that I write about? Questions for me to ponder as I look at my blog as a whole.
The last time I had my teaching evaluated by my administration, I was disappointed. Although I was happy to get a grade of “excellent” (highest on a five point scale), the comments from administration made me gag: “Kate is a kind and a patient teacher,” and