It's tough to be an introvert in an extrovert world, especially in an extrovert's profession, like teaching. Through this blog, I'd like to share my own and others' reflections on being an introvert in the classroom. This isn't a place for misanthropes or grumps, though; I hope to thoughtfully discuss the challenges that introverts face in schools and celebrate the gifts that introverted teachers and students bring to the educational environment. If you can relate, please join me!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why I love Nicki Minaj

I admit it. I listen to hip-hop. I love hip-hop. It is my favorite thing to listen to, especially when driving to school in the morning. My latest obsession is with Nicki Minaj, but I have all sorts of other embarassing hip-hop CDs tucked into a compartment of my car.

Put simply, I need to get pumped up to be in front of people all day. I liken it to when my mild-mannered suburban high school boys would tell me they listened to rap on the way to compete in a sporting event.

I try to ignore the derisive lyrics, but some of the lyrics are really good. Most contemporary poets are too cool to worry about rhyme and meter anymore, but rappers aren't.

While sometimes hip-hop stars seem to have an unearned braggodoccio, that is, they come from a world where style sometimes rules over substance, I think the agressive self-affirmation of hip-hop artists is just what I need if I'm preparing to discuss Wuthering Heights at 8:00 in the morning. (And a lot of coffee helps, too.)

I know I have earned my authority and credibility, but that doesn't fully explain how I can have the guts to face sleepy and angry teenagers every morning. I need to hear the beats that inspire you in your gut. There is something visceral about teaching. You really need to be fully there, fully present, fully passionate, fully yourself. Charisma is key. I bet many of you can relate to the experience of having taught the same lesson but one day you were "feeling it" or "in the zone" and the next time you weren't, and you can really tell the difference. If I don't give it all of my enthusiasm, class just doesn't "go." I need to be properly pumped up before my performances.

What do you do to get "in the zone" for teaching? Isabel Gillies writes some funny stuff about this in Happens Every Day, a memoir she wrote after she temporarily gave up her acting career in New York to become an adjunct drama teacher at Oberlin College in Ohio, where her husband and the father of her two children got a full-time job there (he would then proceed to cheat on her with a colleague). The book was popular when Starbucks was featuring books in their stores a couple of years back.

Yep, for those early-morning classes, bring on the Starbucks. And while my more respectable colleagues are doing tai chi, I prefer to blast the hip-hop. I get a surge of courage from  the pink-haired "little black girl" (as she referred to herself on the recent E! Special that I did watch--another admission--) from the streets of New York who bosses around the tough guys.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I've had my socks made fun of.

Lots of people lament the decline of civility in our society. But sometimes people have a shallow understanding of what that means. I don't mean it would be "nice" if people said "please" and "thank you" more often.

I mean that we are living in a world where a fifteen-year-old made fun of my socks. How can I be my true self, how can I be present and really be there for the kids if I have to worry about being disrespected on such a fundamental level? I've certainly had much worse things said to me, but for some reason the "socks" thing really stings. I think it's because nobody wants to look like a dork, and that fear runs really deep all through life.

I was wearing socks because it was 2000 and I was teaching at a California high school in which all the classroom doors opened up to outdoor hallways and it was freaking cold at 8:00 a.m. and therefore I couldn't not wear socks under my hippy-chic / professional long skirt from the '90s. I thought the length of the skirt hid the socks adequately. I was wrong.

This person who made fun of my socks (and gave me all sorts of other grief) was eventually classified as "gifted at-risk" and accepted into what is called a "middle college," or a high school housed on a college campus.

When I first heard of such schools, I thought it was a neat concept. High school sucks for smart kids, and how cool that someone finally saw that and made an alternative place for us! Oh, except not for me, because I was not only smart but also respectful, and that respectfulness would have been stereotyped as submissiveness.

I'm troubled by what I see as a trend of confusing acting like a jerk with having something to say. I even took an interview for a teaching position at this middle college high school, and they flat-out said that they wanted the student who will argue with the teacher. Now, a good teacher will invite students to argue with her intellectually. But I had the feeling they meant merely the student who challenges authority just for the sake of challenging authority.

I saw Dr. Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade speak at Mt. SAC last spring, and he was talking about the disruptive student in the back of the class, and how that student "has so much heart." I think an extrovert who is smart or hurt may show it by acting out, but I worry that some educators seem to believe that all who act out are smart, hurt extroverts. The thinking seems to go something like this: the more trouble-maker-ish you are, the more interesting/smart/hurt/worthy of attention you must be. Could it be that sometimes people act out because they are jerks? I am troubled by the idea that acting like a jerk is acceptable if you have a good reason.

It's not acceptable to be a jerk just because you're smart. Or because somebody hurt you. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Don't make fun of my socks, man.

Finally, I think acting out in response to grief is a behavior particular to extroverts. By only focusing on the jerks' problems, what happens to the introverts? I suspect the introverts are the ones that punish themselves, not others, for their pain. I suspect it's not the extroverted trouble-maker who falls through the cracks, who gets depression, who self-harms. Who's looking out for those kids?

Friday, November 23, 2012

I teach English.

There are two kinds of high school English teachers. There are the ones who say things like, "I don't teach English; I teach kids!" and then there are the ones who roll their eyes when they hear stuff like that. The introvert knows content but is stereotyped as weak or boring; the extrovert does not usually have the same content-area preparation but is, as Willy Loman said, "Well liked."

Content is, as I've explained in other posts, often brushed off because you can "use" any literature to teach a "process," whether it be writing, critical thinking, or interacting with others. But I think it's still about the content. After all, look at the alternatives.

If education is all about the teacher, we have a dictatorship. If it is all about the student, we have narcissism. You shouldn't hold blindly onto some fixed canon from the good old days nor should class be a big therapy session for students obsessed with the ephemeral.

The content is life. The content is the great conversation that people have been engaging in for eons about how to live a good life. If a class is focused on that, both students and teachers learn.

"Do you actually like grading papers?"

A student asked me this the other day. He's probably heard every teacher he's ever had complain about grading papers.

You would think a bunch of introverted, content-loving professors would love to run out of class and cozy up to some reading material, but we often don't. Even a self-proclaimed introvert colleague said to a group of us, "No one goes into teaching because they want to grade papers. Everyone wants to be in the classroom."

I have a few hypotheses about why even the most introverted among us sometimes hate grading papers (and I think much of this applies also to why online teaching is not as fulfilling as face-to-face even though it's all reading, supposedly an introvert's dream):

  • We need to get our students writing a lot so that every once in awhile there's a great burst of insight. Writing involves a lot of "throat-clearing" before you get anything good out. I think a CSUN prof is responsible for that metaphor. So, while we understand that we have to read a lot of "eh" writing, it's not something we look forward to. 
  • There are so many students and you have to go so fast. 
  • You can't just read or even just read and comment; you have to grade. There are so many factors to consider in writing. My rubric is a page long. And that's the abbreviated one. There's the constant stress of "Was I fair?" "Am I consistent with how I was grading yesterday?" This is especially bad for highly sensitive people or those who are constantly analyzing their inner workings. 
  • Most importantly, introverts are not cold-hearted misanthropes. I want to see my students smile. I  want them to laugh at my jokes. I want to see the twinkle in their eyes when they get an idea. It's not that I don't want to talk to people. I want to talk to people in coherent ways. I want a classroom where only one person is talking at one time and we're all engaging in the same discussion. 
Diana Senechal (in Republic of Noise) and Neil Postman (in his Amusing Ourselves to Death discussion of how 19th-century people used to attend three-hours-long lectures voluntarily) both have discussed how, oddly enough, a large group discussion or a lecture can appeal to the introvert. It has to do not with the number of people present but with the singular focus that exists in a whole-class discussion or in a lecture. 

It has occurred to me that the idea that I, an introvert, prefer whole-class discussion to group work could be viewed as paradoxical. In a sense, I ought to love small group work. Isn't it supposed to let me make more individual connections with students? Doesn't it make more sense for an introvert to want to communicate with a small group rather than a whole class? Isn't it a fact that introverts like to connect with fewer students more deeply than with more students less deeply? I think why I disliked group work for so long was because I could not focus on one single group at any given time. I felt I had to constantly circulate and eavesdrop and worry about what everyone was doing. I felt like I had to be in five places at once, or move from place to place, switching gears constantly. (This may be a hold-over from worrying about classroom control all the time in a society where the teacher is always supposed to stimulate and entertain the students and students left to their own devices will default to "goofing off.")  I enjoy group work most when I can turn off the "worrying about everyone" switch in my brain, spend ten to fifteen minutes with a single group, and engage deeply in their discussion. I explain why I want to spend focused time on each group and will not interrupt that and run over to another group if I suspect misbehavior. It's their education, and I'm not abandoning a good discussion to go police some goof-offs. They need to take responsibility. Just as a focused teacher deserves focused students, focused students deserve a focused teacher. 

I have a problem with "I-messages."

"You didn't interpret the theme of this text" = mean :( and will only make the student defensive, according to current educational and psychological theory.

"I do not see evidence of the theme" = better, supposedly.

Of course, as you've guessed, I disagree. Recently, as a student was arguing with me about a grade on an essay, I didn't talk about what I thought. I did not talk about the essay as if it were a separate entity from me and the student ("there's no theme here," "this paper has no thesis," etc.). Out of frustration, I finally used "you." "You misunderstood this text." "You used this word incorrectly." And it felt so good.

It felt good because before we were arguing about the grade that "I" gave. Problem = mine. Or, we were arguing about "the essay." Problem = negotiable, as if the essay were a piece of used furniture whose price we should haggle over, as if perception could determine its value. Students who argue passionately, persistently, or emotionally feel that they are as entitled to judge the essay as I am. The medium (snippity-ness, resentment, anger/intimidation, sympathy-appealing, etc.) is supposed to outweigh the (illogical, invalid, dare I say incorrect--what an absolutist I am!) message. In an extrovert society, you're supposed to speak up for yourself. Advocate for yourself. Make people listen to you. Don't look within yourself or ask what you did wrong. Intimidate your introverted teacher so that she will wonder if she, indeed, was unfair in some way.

What about asking questions: "What can I do to make this paper better?" not, "This is good as it is, why can't you see that?!" Throwing the problem back onto the teacher.

So, in an effort to put the onus back on the student, I used "you-messages." He could argue with what "I" saw and what grade "the essay" deserved but he couldn't say what "he" had done well. Telling, isn't it? At that point, when he could no longer deny himself as the writer and the one who needed to do the learning, he stopped arguing. When he stopped talking, he could start listening to and learning from my suggestions for a rewrite.

"Paper Tigers"

This is the title of one of my favorite articles; it is authored by Wesley Yang, and one extremely dedicated online student recommended it to me about a year ago. See the New York Magazine article here. While this article is about Asians in particular, I think you could replace every instance of the word "Asian" with the word "introvert" and gain a lot of insight. (I am not the only one to make this Asian-introvert analogy. In Quiet, Susan Cain visits a predominantly Asian-American Silicon Valley high school to see what a culture that values introversion is like. She treats the high school as a microcosm of an introvert-centric society.)

Yang discusses the "bamboo ceiling," which is, of course, a play on the "glass ceiling," that is, any un-talked-about barrier that prevents a certain group from advancing in the workplace (although Yang discusses areas of life outside of work as well). His argument is that Asians' strong work ethic, attention to detail, and sense of community (as opposed to the Western superstar individualist) make them excel at technical tasks, but in our extroverted American society, it's not technical knowledge that gets paid the big bucks. Promotions go to managers: people who can talk about how great they are.

When I first started teaching, and people didn't yet know that they'd get their heads bitten off for asking, they'd say, "Oh, maybe someday you can move up into administration." That would be my worst nightmare. I don't want to manage people who get to talk about content all day. I want to be the one who gets to talk about content all day. That's why I became an English teacher. Now, my dean comes from a psychology background, so managing people is part of her "content" background, so it's a good fit. But for other types of faculty, like those who know a lot about Shakespeare or chemistry or Latin or calculus or lots of other stuff, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to put those people in charge of other people. The disciplines that they've devoted their lives to require them to enjoy solitary, focused, detail-oriented work. They would not enjoy constant interruptions, conflict management, and "fighting" for their status among other campus groups. These are extroverted tasks.

The thing is that both kinds of tasks are important. We need people who focus on what Yang calls technical skills or what I would call "content." We also need extroverts who can sell our ideas and programs to the power-brokers. I am thankful there are people willing to do my dean's job. The problem in society (and in education) occurs when the extroverts receive higher prestige and higher pay. That's where the "bamboo ceiling" comes in. The introvert/Asian invents the technology or teaches the Shakespeare but does not get the higher-paying job because this goes to an extrovert who can "sell" it.

Remember the Peter Principle? Laurence Peter said that people will be promoted until they reach a position that they are incompetent to fill, and this usually happens because the higher position requires a different personality type. Will we introverts always be lower on the American career food chain than the extroverts?  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"University Frump"

Another phrase/idea I've stolen from Tom McCambridge. Perfect. I saw plenty of displays of university frump at the NCTE Conference in Las Vegas this weekend.

Yes, Las Vegas. Even Sherman Alexie made jokes about English teachers in Las Vegas as he gave his talk at the Secondary Section Luncheon. Besides our name badges, here's how you could tell us apart from other visitors: the preponderance of long skirts, bulky sweaters, hunched posture due to full tote-bags, and awake-ness at early hours of the morning. We've got coffee cups in our hands, not cocktails. We wear low-heeled shoes.

At the same time, I hope I didn't look too frumpy. I've always enjoyed taking care of my appearance. I love doing my nails. I wear makeup every day. If I know there are holes in my clothes, I do not wear them out. Mmmm-hmmm. You know who you are!

There is a clear bias among college faculty against those who dress well. The implication is that if you take time on your appearance, you must be either not devoting enough time to your studying/grading and/or you must be a shallow and materialistic person.

Sometimes I think that it's just that some people like playing with clothes and makeup and some people don't. Period. If you don't, that's fine, but don't try to make up a moral reason why you don't and then use it to look down on others.

But maybe there's more to it. As a highly sensitive person, I have always been sensitive to my environment. Is not my body part of my environment? I like feeling colorful and polished. It keeps my mood up. Just as I might be depressed by grungy orange carpet (WHS, I'm talking to you), I'd also be depressed by grungy yellow fingernails. I'm extremely detail-oriented. Why is it so surprising that a person who can spot a missing period in an MLA citation from a mile away would be similarly irked by a scuff on her shoe?

I think the thinking is that we professorly introverts live life in the mind. I think it was in Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk that he said that professors see their bodies as useful only for transporting their heads from place to place. There's of course the Western body-mind dichotomy. But if God gave us bodies, we're probably not supposed to ignore them. I also reject the materialist accusation; people have been adorning themselves since the beginning of time, long before our consumerist age.

I think Susan Cain (Quiet) and Temple Grandin (Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism) are instructive on this point. Both of them trace the introvert's caution and attention to detail back to our animal ancestors. One of them pointed out that if a deer doesn't remember the last place it saw a lion, it will be devoured. This may explain why some people are so attuned to physical details. It was necessary for our survival for a long time. Any small change in the environment could signal danger. In current times in an affluent country, where we don't face survival-threatening danger every day, the meticulousness of highly sensitive people marks them as odd. In a society that values people looking relaxed and having fun at all times, meticulous people get branded as "anal" or "OCD."

Monday, November 19, 2012

I have been in a rush since kindergarten.

Many have complained about the too-fast pace of modern life. I think introverts and those who fall into Elaine Aaron's "highly sensitive person" classification are especially hard-hit by this. For example, I thank God that I work at a college now and never have to hear another buzzer signaling a 5-minute passing period. These types of sentiments started early in my life. 

In kindergarten, I had to be temporarily moved from the "high" reading group to the "middle" group because I didn't complete my work as quickly as the other kids. The teacher would ring a little bell, and I would cry, distressed that I had not finished. Yeah, I was that kid. When I was in the middle group, I could better pace myself and I did not cry, and for this, I earned a prize. Eventually I moved back up to the high group. 

I think I've been in the high group ever since. Sometimes it seems like things have been just non-stop: do well in high school so you do well in college, finish college and get into grad school, then start competing for more jobs, more grad school, apply to present at conferences, go to institutes, do research. Teach five classes, meet people in the office, answer a million e-mails, and attend a million meetings. 

When I hear the backpack zippers as I'm making my last good point, when the copy machine jams five minutes before class, when I could get to the meeting in time if only I didn't have to hike up to Fountain Hall, that little kindergarten bell rings in my mind. I don't cry much anymore, but sometimes I do wonder, "What's the prize?"

Neil Postman and the Tiger Mom

What do they have in common? They think the widespread idea that learning must be fun is a damaging idea. Hallelujah. Learning is rewarding and fulfilling. Sometimes it's fun, but it's a lot of hard work.

I really, really hate when people end their e-mails with quotes that are supposed to make me think deep thoughts, and the one that annoys me the most is, "Choose a job you love, and you'll never have to work a day in your life." What a crock! Admittedly, I love my job; I hope I never have to work anywhere else. But, make no mistake: it absolutely feels like work every single day.

I observed a colleague a few weeks ago who said he felt that he was "jumping through pedagogical hoops" to keep his students engaged. Every five to fifteen minutes there was a new activity, and that is certainly what we've all been taught is the Good and Teacherly Thing to Do. In The Republic of Noise, Diana Senechal laments the fact that teachers-in-training are being told to change it up every fifteen minutes because no kid will focus for longer than that. A pedagogy like this reinforces immediate gratification. It tells students that if you can't get it in a few minutes, then it's not worth the effort.

While I definitely think Amy Chua needs to take a chill pill, she was right when she said that often you have to practice and get good at something before you can like it.

Just sitting there...

"These kids think they can get an A in participation by just sitting there."

I overheard a colleague of mine say this on one occasion during finals week. Although I learned to participate in class because it was expected of me in high school and later because I enjoyed doing so in small, respectful classes full of people I knew in college, I felt a sting when I heard this remark. Not everyone "just sitting there" is "just sitting there." As if you couldn't be learning or thinking without talking. The saying used to be, "Think before you speak." Now the adage of the day seems to be "Talk in order to think." It seems that educators think that people think through "talking it out." OK. I see how this could be the case for some people. Even I myself often talk about a thing with a trusted friend before writing about it. But not all talking means that thinking or learning is going on. Diana Senechal discusses how the recent emphasis on measurable outcomes may be to blame for this. If students don't "produce" something (even noise), we have no proof to the business-people and politicians and others who need quick, easy "evidence," that schools are doing anything. A classroom a-buzz with activity looks like learning. (Senechal asks a key question. Is all this activity and noise "engagement" or merely "distraction"?)

Isn't it interesting that, decades ago, the stereotype was that a class full of quiet looked like learning? And then newer generations of educators came and said that they might just be bored or daydreaming or engaged in rote activities. I argue that if quiet didn't always mean learning back in the old days, then noise doesn't always mean learning in our own day. I think people who promulgate this idea are just as susceptible to stereotype as the predecessors that they laugh at, those fuddy-duddies who wanted a quiet, orderly classroom.

Sometimes thinking has no visible result to document. Sometimes thinking produces several false starts before you have anything you can use. Think of Snoopy and his typewriter and all the crumpled wads of paper on the floor.

And thinking takes time. I remember leading a meeting of the Mother-Daughter Book Club when I was a high school librarian. We were a small group, and almost everyone had spoken on an issue. I noticed one of our members had been quiet, so I did the Good and Teacherly Thing: I "checked for understanding," asking, "So, Xxxxx, what do you think?" And she replied, confidently, simply, tellingly for all introverts, "I'm still working that one out." She seemed just slightly miffed that I had interrupted her reverie. And rightly so.

I don't kid myself that the people who don't speak in class are all misunderstood introverts. Sure, some are zoning out. But others are zoning in. We are paying attention, processing, reflecting. At least there's a name for our type: the reflective thinker. While some are happy to immediately, even impulsively, reply, spar, and debate in a classroom, sometimes my best thinking gets done in the car ride home from class or in the shower that evening. I may not be ready to speak until the next day. And when you're an introvert teacher, it's hard to realize that not everyone is that way. That if you don't make them discuss it now, they will certainly not be thinking about it on the car ride home. But I wonder if this malady is as widespread as it is made out to be.

I remember a ride home from a conference with some colleagues. We had driven over and hour there and back for a day-long workshop, and one colleague still had to attend a class in her doctoral program that evening. "Boy, I hope tonight is a lecture night." The other replied, "Just want it to be easy, huh?" I objected immediately, and I still object. While I don't do all lecture myself (I try to do a lot of whole-class discussion), I don't think that it is "easy" to actively listen and process a good lecture. I think it would be just as foolish to say that reading is "easy"; sure, it's easy if you don't really pay attention and you "just sit there." But just as there is active, engaged reading, there can be active, engaged lecture-listening, and I think it's unfair that lecture has been almost universally maligned in educational discourse. Just as there are good books and bad books, there are good lectures and bad. Just as there are attentive readers, there are attentive listeners, and introverts love a good lecture. I wonder if my colleague, by wishing for a lecture after a long day, simply wanted to learn in a style that she was comfortable with, wanted to cozy up to the content as one might cozy up with a book, without all the small-talk and social posturing of the ubiquitous graduate-program group work. I resented the suggestion that people who liked a certain teaching style were assumed to like it because it allowed them to be lazy.

Why do people still like the movies? TV? Sure, while there are some shows that are somewhat "interactive" by allowing you to vote for the winner or Tweet your thoughts in the hopes that they'll be broadcast, most of the time, you "just sit there." Why? While the cynics will say it's because people are stupid and like loud noises and bright colors, I posit that some activities require quiet, focused, even rapt, attention, and that there are conditions under which people like to give this attention. TV and movies appear to be "passive," like a lecture might, but I argue that they are not. For an interesting discussion of this idea, see Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good for You. I might be able to Facebook and polish my nails during American Idol, but it's much harder to do so during Grey's Anatomy. Hell, who am I kidding? If I'm really attached to the contestants in a given year, I will even focus on American Idol.

Educators have often contended that it's impossible for students to like books or lecture because they feature topics that aren't like our "real lives" and we don't get to "interact" with the material. Well, let's talk about Skyfall. What does James Bond's train-jumping, secret-agent life have to do with any of us? We don't get to jump trains with him, and yet we watch. Bright colors and loud noises, the cynics will say. But I think it's something more than that, don't you?

Monday, November 12, 2012

"But we have all this content to teach."

The above is my least favorite comment that non-English teachers make when I, the ever-gullible sap, fall into the trap of giving suggestions to teachers in other disciplines who complain that their students can't write. They don't like that their students don't write well, but they do not have time to teach them how to write because writing is assumed to be something separate from a discipline like history or biology. It is not uncommon for people who have "subjects" to teach to think that all us silly English majors (we just sit around reading stories all day) are good for is teaching future people with real-world jobs how to avoid comma splices. At a conference at UC Irvine, the director of their upper division writing program, Dr. Jonathan Alexander, told us that he was asked by the business department if they had to teach a course in writing in their discipline or whether that could be, and I quote, "outsourced." Presumably to English teachers or a writing center (Writing Across the Curriculum, anyone?).

Even when I teach "just" composition, and I use nonfiction (which I often heartily enjoy; I am grateful that my career has introduced me to genres outside my specialty, especially now when there is a great deal of exceptional quality narrative non-fiction), you'd better believe that I'm teaching content. When I taught Enrique's Journey, you better believe I had to accumulate a lot of knowledge about immigration. As I prepare to teach Fast Food Nation, I realize that I know more about slaughterhouses than I ever thought I would. And I will be learning lots and lots more as my students write research papers and need help understanding and analyzing their research materials. So, yes, I, too, teach content, and I even manage to squeeze in writing instruction.

As distressing as it is that people in disciplines other than English seem to want me to teach their students to write because they are too busy teaching more important "content," now it seems that this attitude now pervades English departments themselves and those who make the rules for us. As a lowly community college teacher, I mostly teach composition. E.D. Hirsch warned long ago that reading, writing, and thinking cannot be divorced from content (isn't this why cultural bias is a problem in standardized testing? If inner-city students are not familiar with or interested in milking cows, they will not write very well about cow-milking), but nevertheless, composition is listed as its own type of course. The attack on literature continues with the advancement of the new Common Core standards (which have a heavy emphasis in non-fiction, whereas high school curriculum used to be almost exclusively fiction, poetry, and drama--"culturally significant literature," I believe, used to be the phrase in the CA State Standards) and streamlining tools such as the Early Assessment Writing Curriculum of the CSU, in which 12th graders are urged to read "real-life" stuff, like nonfiction, because literature is only useful for English majors. Stories that have enlightened us for centuries (and, by the way, humans transmitted culture and values through stories since the earliest times, long before essays and other expository genres existed), are deemed by today's experts to be a waste of time.

Teaching English no longer means teaching literature, especially if you teach anyone other than English majors. Instead, skills are treated as completely divorced from content. This is now happening not only with composition but also critical thinking. We literally have a class called "Critical Thinking," and this is not just our own craziness but is actually required by the CSU's and UCs. The reason this issue has recently come up to haunt my department is that we've recently been told that our introduction to literature course, to meet one type of critical thinking transfer requirement, must get a unit added to it because we are really trying to teach two courses (literature and critical thinking) in one. As if critical thinking or composition could be separated from content!

Diana Senechal, whose new book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture is becoming my new favorite book, discusses the shift in the pedagogy of schools of education from "what" to teach to "how" to teach. When I think about it, the shift occurred in my own family teaching history. My mom, who went to college in the 1970s, took Spanish language methods classes to become a Spanish teacher. In 1999, I simply took "Methods." All of our cohort, including would-be English, history, biology, and French teachers, were expected to be able to apply the same methods to any subject matter. Senechal explains, "When I began teaching at a middle school, there was no curriculum for ESL. No one told me what to teach, but there were many directives about how to teach" (Ch. 1). And, of course, what technique did the dominant school of education pedagogues want her to use? There it is: GROUP WORK!

Yes, you may have been wondering how this angry English teacher rant was going to turn into a discussion of introversion v. extroversion. Some parts of the literature learning experience, such as reading, close reading analyses, and an in-depth focus on one topic, do not lend themselves well to group work or discussion.  (Anyone who has tried to write a document in a committee meeting can attest to this.) So if the goal is no longer to interpret literature but to make sure students know how to do group work, a key part of our very subject matter gets lost. Yes, I'm going to say it: some fields of study are suited for introverted behaviors! Our society wants everything to be extrovert-friendly, but not all important things are extrovert-friendly. Some very key activities in life, namely contemplation, still require introversion. We are not obsolete yet. And if our society and our schools keep treating us that way, valuable parts of the human experience, and the disciplines through which we make sense of the human experience, will be lost.

Now, of course, the mainstay of any literature class is group discussion. But then there are the parts of literary study that you must do alone, in solitude. Discussions can only go so far. There is a certain depth of analysis that can only be done alone, by sitting and re-reading and writing and thinking for a long time. If the solitary part of the literary experience gets lost in the quest for group experiences, then part of the discipline itself is lost.

The danger of the current educational philosophy that says it's not what you teach but how is that it suggests, wrongly, that as long as the activity is student-centered, as long as students are actively learning and critically thinking and composing, the lesson is good, no matter what they are group-work-ing, critically thinking, or composing about. I've lumped all these things together because they're all about the "hows," not that "whats" of teaching. I take issue with all of those who act as if the subject matter did not significantly shape the type of methods used in teaching it. (A particularly apt quote expressing my position comes from Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach. In Ch. 1, Palmer recounts how a workshop attendee declared, "I am an organic chemist. Are you going to spend the next two days telling me that I am supposed to teach organic chemistry through role playing?") Senechal describes the focus on teaching in a certain way rather than covering important material: "The lesson was supposed to focus on a strategy, and students were then expected to apply the strategy to the books they were reading" (Ch. 1). She also talks of books as being "used" (Ch. 1) to teach skills, as if skills were the end goal. Rather, traditionally, skills are used to understand content. I write an essay or have a discussion to understand and formulate an opinion on literature and, by extension, life. The means have been confused for the ends! We don't use books to learn to write. We write so that we can learn from books.

What a culture shock it was to go from being an English major, someone who spent hours on end reading, writing, and thinking, to a teacher, where I was supposed to somehow teach others to appreciate literature using completely different methods than those I had used as a learner. A substitute teacher once told my 10th-grade students that she was shocked that I expected them to read the entire period (50 minutes), as people should not be expected to do the same thing for that long a period of. Instead of lengthy, sustained, solitary, creative tasks that require self-motivation, literature was supposed to be taught in a series of quick and jauntily-paced collaborative activities with pre-determined outcomes specified to the number by me (anyone who has ever had to write student-learning objectives, or SLOs, knows what I'm talking about).

My introverted personality is not only suited to foster the development in my students of the introverted behavior that my discipline often requires, but it is also perfectly valid because it is my personality. And to teach well, I must be authentically myself. Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach (1997) is based on "a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher" (Ch. 1). My introverted ways do not make me an inferior teacher, even if many of my students are extroverted. I try to mix up my pedagogy so that people with different learning styles of mine can learn comfortably those parts of my discipline that are amenable to those different learning styles. But when I can't or shouldn't, they can still learn from me. Another encouraging finding from Parker is that students can learn from teachers whose teaching styles do not necessarily match their own learning styles; he found that the enthusiasm and present-ness of the teacher has proven more important than the teaching technique or method. He writes, "in every story [of students describing good teachers] I heard, good teachers share one trait: a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work. 'Dr. A is really there when she teaches'...'Mr. B has such enthusiasm for his subject'...'You can tell that this is really Prof. C's life.' One student I heard about said she could not describe her good teachers because they differed so greatly" (Ch. 1). Therefore, "I no longer need suffer the pain of having my peculiar gift as a teacher crammed into...someone else's method and the standards prescribed by it. That pain is felt throughout education today as we glorify the method du jour; leaving people who teach differently feeling devalued" (Ch. 1).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The awkward moment when...

I'm not usually a fan of sentence fragments or of the weird Facebook cliches out there, but the postings that go, "The awkward moment when you realize xxxxxxxxx," usually make me laugh. My Facebook sentence fragment would be, "The awkward moment when you realize that your introverted temperament is not appreciated in student teaching."

Okay, so maybe it's not as funny as some other Facebook "awkward moment" posts, but I bet I'm not the only introvert who has had such a moment. I should've seen it coming, given that everyone introvert is made to feel like a freak during high school. But between high school student-hood and high school teacher-hood, I had spent four years at a small, liberal arts college being an English major. I guess I got so lost in the pleasure of being among others who enjoyed sitting and reading books for hours on end that I forgot that other world existed, that is, the general population, where it has been said that extroverts outnumber introverts by 3 to 1 (interestingly, though, one of the comments on this book review from the American Library Association says that the world may be more evenly split among introverts and extroverts-- must definitely check out the book Introvert Power, referenced in the comment--but even so, extroversion is so valued by our culture that introverts still feel huge pressure to change how they act).

Anyway, part of my credential program involved observing a grade I didn't want to teach before student teaching in a grade that I did, so I ended up in a seventh-grade classroom. At this particular low-income school, the principal would breeze into certain classes and give his once-a-year inspirational talk, Jaime Escalante-style. Not that there's anything wrong with that. I enjoy watching extroverts animatedly deliver ideas. It was when he watched me teach that the problem arose. When we met to discuss the lesson, he made it obvious that he was searching for a nice way to call me boring. The words he used were "calm" and "professorly."

It is really too bad that these two words took on a negative connotation in this man's mind and, from what I've experienced, the collective mind of the broader educational world. I'm also glad I wasn't discouraged permanently by this prejudice. Remaining my calm self, I've heard from colleagues, friends, and students (particularly developmental writing students) that they appreciate my "calmness." It makes them feel at ease when they are flustered. I think "calm" is a wonderful quality to bring to the classroom, and it's sad that "calm" was reduced to a euphemism for "boring."

I was also sad that someone who seemed "professorly" was viewed as out of place in K-12. As I grew up, I remember having and liking lots of different kinds of teachers with lots of different personality types. Being a reflective person myself, I also idolized my professors and the contemplative life that academia stood for. The daughter of first- and second-generation college students, I was always raised to believe that college was sacred; it was the American Dream achieved if you studied hard and did well in college. Funny story: my maternal grandfather's younger brother was the first in that family to go to college. When he graduated, one of his professors offered to have my great-uncle's parents lodge at his home. My great-grandmother was reportedly so nervous to stay in a stranger's house, a non-Italian's house, a PROFESSOR's house, that she slept all night in her corset to maintain as much propriety and respect as she could. In short, I thought "professorliness" was something to be sought for, but this middle school principal reduced the word to a euphemism for stuffy, tweed suit-wearing, out-of-touch, ivory tower types.

I'm glad I have a job now where my personality is embraced. My wonderful colleagues like me for who I am. But I want to clarify that I'm not always calm. I do get very excited every day about my subject matter. Susan Cain has written that when the need to communicate arises and the subject matter is one we feel passion about, we can actually change our style and act like extroverts. I must be doing this a lot. A few weeks ago, I was giving examples of topics to write about for the comparison-contrast essay in the developmental writing class. I said that I might contrast myself with my middle-school best friend, who was very outgoing. I classified myself, as so many have over the years, as "shy."

So I nearly teared up with joy when one of my students interrupted me to exclaim, with a genuinely incredulous expression on her face, "You were shy?!"

"Aren't we too introverted to blog?"

This question was asked of me, in jest, of course, by my wonderful mentor and friend, my former professor Tom McCambridge, whose re-launch of his own blog, To Redeem the Time, helped push me to finally make my own blog come to life after chewing on the idea in my head for a few years. When I first got the idea, told him about it (ah, how many ebullient and infuriated phone calls have you graciously listened to from me for the last fourteen years?), and almost demanded that he contribute to it, this question was his first response.

Of course we are both proud introverts, so we had a good laugh, but the remark does remind me of one common stereotype that is quickly denied in any writing about introversion. The stereotype is that introverts don't like people. That idea reminds me of the joke about the teen who asks her parent what a diary is, and, after the parent explains, the teen replies, "So, it was a blog that nobody read?" Nowadays with our culture of social media and confessional books and television, it's incredible to think that someone would write only for himself. That there should be something such as introspection and figuring out things through writing. While I certainly see the value of that type of writing, I still wanted to write a blog. I wanted to write something that would help me connect with other introverts, which brings me back to my agreement with the idea that it is incorrect to say that that introverts don't like people. I've even read that "introverts like people, but just in small doses." But that's not quite right, either. As any book about introversion will tell you, introverts make strong, deep connections with others. "Small doses" sounds diluted and weak. I like a few people in large doses. I think that's more like it. Oooh! With Halloween just past, I thought of a candy analogy. Let's say the extrovert gets the spoils from trick-or-treat. The extrovert empties the bag in the middle of the living room and gleefully tries the Skittles, the Starburst, the Hershey's, the M & Ms, the Snickers, the Milky Way, and the Milk Duds, and loves them all. The introvert (both my -verts love candy) ferrets out the Hershey's, because pure chocolate is the only candy worth eating, and sneaks all the pieces up to her room to savor in peace and quiet. 

I hope you enjoy these blog posts because you can read them when you like, think as long as you want if you wish to reply, and engage in the reflection that comes from not having someone there face-to-face waiting for you to fill in the awkward spots in a spoken conversation (a common complaint among introverts). I hope these posts are like the bit of Hershey's that you can take up to your quiet space and enjoy. I hope to enjoy your comments the same way.