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Zig Ziglar Click Here To Comment!

I love motivational sayings. I love parodies of motivational sayings. I love the quick hit of wisdom or humour one can glean on the go.

One of the giants in the world of motivational quips died on November 28 – Zig Ziglar.  Here are a few of my fav Zig Ziglarisms:

Remember that failure is an event, not a person.

You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.

People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.

Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.

A goal properly set is halfway reached.

I’m not sure we are teaching some key things to up and coming generations.  Goal-setting. Resiliance to get past failure. Altruism. Self-motivation.  My Mom used to highly regard anyone she met who had, in her words, “stick-to-it-ive-ness”. (Mom and Zig would have gotten along fine.)

Others are noticing this too. Here is a review of a book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,  that seems to come from the same perspective.  I think I may need to ask Santa for this book. Given the author’s perspective on his material, I love that his last name is “Tough”. 🙂

 

Motherhood 1 comment

Once again, Mother’s Day rolls around and I find myself in a pensive, reflective sort of place.  Looking back, or down as my colleagues would say from my standard perspective of 50,000 feet, a pattern emerges. Early May is always the end of two long semesters, and that always feels like the end of a marathon, emotionally. This year has been especially challenging, with the stress of a potential strike, and the sense of powerlessness one has to do anything at all, individually, to affect the eventual outcome. The deeper frustration at having no ability to affect the systemic issues that would cause such a disruptive and disturbing action to even be considered.

All that aside, teaching is a kind of parenting, I think. I recognized a while back that I engage with my teaching practice as a sort of parent/guardian/mid-wife/mentor/coach. I’m not interested in lecturing and I have no confidence at all in such a dynamic resulting in any “learning” of any kind. I’m constantly scheming about fun ways we can get groups of students involved in classroom activities that help them learn and practice their communications skills. Sometimes I think these are more fun than my students do. Also true of parenting, perhaps.

Where teaching – formal teaching – and parenting are different has to do with evaluation. In my experience, healthy parents love their children unconditionally. Without reserve as to their actual level of skill or knowledge. And here is where it gets emotionally tricky for the parenting teacher, because it is our job to evaluate, to judge. To assess whether skills and knowledge have actually been acquired and successfully demonstrated. Unlike some of the more quantitative skill sets, evaluating communications skills is tricky and somewhat subjective. There are some very good communicators who are not so good with funky details of applied English. There are extremely poor communicators who managed to ace all their quizzes and any assignments that did not involve eye contact, and thus will pass the course.  There are students who hate anything to do with communicating who cannot understand why this is important or relevant in any way.

As a “parent” figure, I get a little attached to them all – and herein lies the danger for me. I don’t want to fail any of these, my pseudo-children. I feel affection for them – I find most of their quirky, undisciplined, messy, “sense of entitlement” selves endearing. I want them to succeed, to feel like they are successful. I hate being the judge. But I am. And, this past term, it was my job to fail roughly 20% of my communications class. It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me angry.

I challenge anyone who thinks that teaching is a cushy, over-paid  job to actually do it, full-time, for two semesters running. Then, we’ll talk.

I had an awesome good news story this term, though, and it taught me a lot. In the Fall 09 semester, a student came to me mid-point in the term and explained that her parents had arranged for her to get engaged in Dubai during the last three weeks of term. This young woman has aspirations of becoming a journalist someday and so she knew that this communications course would be important to her. However, her actual ability in this area was proving to be rather weak. Not “failing” weak, but weak. As it happens, the last three weeks of this course involve working in a team to research and deliver a presentation. Thus, if she was going to be out of the country, it would be impossible for her to complete the work.

We worked out a compromise. I gave her an “Incomplete” and offered to have her return to my class in Winter 10 (this past term) to complete the team project with another class. She did so, contacting me exactly on schedule and arriving in class exactly as I had asked her to. There was a change in her. In the intervening three and a half months, she had matured and she was clearly able to demonstrate and use the communications skills I had been mentoring her class through the previous term, even though her average at the time she departed was around 57%. Her team, under her leadership, rocked the final presentation. This was a revelation to me – that students, even weak ones, continue to “learn” the material AFTER the course is over. This makes me feel better about the 10 or 15% who SHOULD have failed, but didn’t because of the strength of their quizzes, the mid-term or their group effort. Maybe some stuff will sink in and re-surface later. One can only hope.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before – here it is again in a slightly different context. I’ve always been a bit of a language nazi. Good writing makes me swoon and bad writing makes me gag. This has been true since about Grade Six, I think. So, I was well-entrenched as the self-appointed language police in my household from an early age. When my oldest brother was living in Saskatchewan for a time, lightyears before the age of the Internet, my mother would pain-stakingly write him one page, hand-written notes, usually weekly. She would sweat and labour over each phrase. Her letters wound up reading a bit like this:

Dear Ben,

Harvest todday again, beans. Almost done here, going to Thomas place tomorrow. Combine jammed but it is ok now. Mae brought kool-aid, cherry, and a pie. Too hot but can’t wait. Bails dry soon but no time. John Deere had oil. Leaky again but Aubrey had the right hose and fixed. With clamps. Charlie got a new radio, Fred Woods says new fridge back-ordered. Made cookies. How are you?

Love, Mom

Once, when I was about 16, I came upon her writing one of these, with her face wrenched up in serious concentration, the clicker end of her pen in her mouth as she thought. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and generally behaved like a 16 year old know-it-all who could critique the mechanics but missed, entirely, the depth of communication and love that was being successfully poured into each note. I feel ashamed when I think of this incident and I note, ruefully, that I do not have any such letter from my mother, even though I moved permanently away from home when I was 18, and 20 years would pass before her death. She would not bring herself before the language police again, and I don’t blame her.

But what I wouldn’t give for one of those letters.

I remember this incident often and it helps me be a better teacher. Clearly, for some people writing is extremely difficult. For others, it is easier. Put another way: some very good, talented, valuable, smart people are terrible writers.  Being a good writer does not necessarily translate into being a good person. My role, my job, is just to teach a skill. Try to help each individual express themselves a bit better when they leave my course than when they started.  If they reach a certain external standard, I have to let them move on to the next challenge. That is the best I can do.

Thanks, Mom … Happy Mother’s Day!

Simple Math Click Here To Comment!

Today is the last day of classes for the semester. I have a lot of grading and evaluation to do before May 5, but it will be manageable.

It has been an intense time, as evidenced by my absence here (sorry) and by my inability to keep up with some of my social connections and commitments (sorry). I had Freddie with me for seven weeks, which meant getting up at 5:30 in the morning on Thursdays to be sure to be in front of my 8:30 a.m. class in Scarborough. On days when I had photocopying to do prior to class, or collect the video camera before class, it meant an even earlier morning. Having Freddie here was a real blessing, though. Aside from the fact that she is excellent company, she and I got into the routine of going to Cherry Beach, one of my new favourite places. I’m still going, without her, to just sit still and look at the water.

I have blogged a lot – in my head – while sitting and looking at the water.  Writing and processing it takes time and energy that I’ve had to devote to other pursuits, like teaching and, frankly, worrying. A worried blogger is a boring blogger, so I have just kept my cud-chewing to myself.

The intensity of this semester seems to be the result of a collision of competing ideas and realities, like a conceptual particle collider.  Lots of questions being asked, to which there are no firm answers. For example, so many people have said to me, “Phew! At least you didn’t have to go on strike!” To which I respond, wholeheartedly, “Yes -Phew! I can’t afford to go on strike!” However, the very deep and troubling mis-management of our education system – and the impact that has on the classroom and other modes of delivery – is still present and without a Very Big Stick to get people’s attention about some of these issues, we are still swimming in the same shit.

Let me try to express this mathematically. Yesterday, a student – a very sweet undergraduate student – asked me after class to review her grades with her as she wanted to understand her “standing” in the class more clearly. The grades in this course come in several chunks (presentations, mid-term, reports). One chunk is called “in-course work” and is worth 30% (quizzes, homework, in-class exercises, etc.) I can understand why students are a bit confused as the online tracking of grades does not allow me the granular level of calculation required to show this amount clearly. What the students see is a percentage, in this case, let’s say this student had 54% in the “in-course work” column. So, I pointed to this on the screen.

Me: So, here it says 54%.  This part of your mark is worth a grade out of 30.

Very Sweet Undergraduate Student: Yes. This is why I’m confused.

Me: (?) OK. So, 54% is close to 50% … so we could estimate this. (Smiling, sort of joking …) So, what is 50% of 30?

VSUS: (blank look)

Me: (trying to surpress my rising sense of alarm) 50% of 30?

VSUS: (blank look – now also alarmed)

Me: (in as soft and quiet a voice as I can muster) Half ? Half of 30?

VSUS: OH! That is 15.

Me: Yes, OK, so we know that 50% is half. So, we know, then, that you have already got over half of this portion of your grade, so more than 15 out of 30, since your grade here is 54%, which is more than 50%!

VSUS: (big smile) Oh, thank you Miss!

You see, it isn’t her fault, actually. (Well, maybe it is 54% her fault … which is over half … never mind …) Because somewhere, at some point in her education, she started to be taught by people who were given that one extra class to teach. Mathematically, there are only 24 hours in a day, and we can only do so much. Thus, when teachers and professors are required to take on that one extra class per week, something has to give. Usually, the weak spot is assessment and evaluation which takes up vast amounts of non-classroom time. So, somewhere along the line, this second year college student did not acquire the ability to conceptualize simple percentages because one or more of her teachers didn’t have the time to do more than a multiple choice exam. Because they were asked to take on that one extra class. Because, on paper, it looks like an easy, cost-saving solution when compared to hiring more instructors. I wonder what this type of choice actually does cost us in terms of labour force quality and competitiveness?

In any case, it is simple math. Add one class. Something has to be taken away. Addition. Subtraction. I consider the possibility that some of the people running this show are, themselves, products of this same over-burdened and underfunded education system and may, in fact, require remedial classes in fractions, percentages, proportions, decimals …

Failure … It’s A Good Thing 2 comments

There is a bizarre sort of deja vu that comes from teaching the same material to different groups three times a week. The first time it is fresh, although perhaps not “new”. If not enough time passes between the first class and the second class, serious deja vu sets in. For me this term, the second class happens hot on the heels of the first one, a mere one hour later. It is going to be hard to keep the energy up for this class. I repeatedly had the feeling of “Didn’t I just say this?” The weird thing was that they actually laughed in the right places, even though I had the feeling that I “just did this”. A bit disorienting. The third class happens 24 hours later, thank goodness, and I have had time to shake off the first two. Still, I could feel myself getting a bit punchy. I am grateful that my Friday late afternoon (and I do mean late afternoon) class was equally as giddy last week and that made for an unexpectedly fun and energized class.

I should just say, as an aside, that I’m glad that acting/theatre thing didn’t work out. I can’t imagine keeping 6-8 performances a week “fresh”!

New faculty training, lo these almost 10 years past, included a session on classroom management issues. One of the suggestions I kept from that session is the discussion of my expectations of student behaviour in the course and I have adopted this as part of the first class for every course I teach.  The “expectations” page is about one and a half pages long and I go through it, section by section, trying to keep it light but letting them know I’m serious … all at the same time. We discuss the reasons for some of these expectations, why they are important. One of the sections is labelled “No Personal Attacks”. At this point in the class, I usually draw two little stick figures on the board and show the happy stick figures sharing their ideas in a realm quite separate from their physical beings.  Keeping the discussion in the realm if ideas, and not in the realm of “the person” is an important, nay, critical, distinction to make.  People can disagree with each other’s ideas without, in fact, needing to disagree with each other’s value as human beings. However, people fear that sharing ideas will result in others making judgements based on those ideas – and this is not a groundless fear to have. We do tend to do this, and part of the shift I like to see communications students make is to develop the discipline NOT to rush to judgement quite so quickly. This shift takes time, of course. I like to introduce the concept as a basic rule of operation in my classroom environment and, later, as a concept supporting team work.

So, by the end of the week, I had drawn my little stick figures multiple times, and tried to find different ways of saying “play nice … be kind … critique ideas, not people … healthy disagreement is force for creative good … what are some phrases we can use in this situation? … ” and, on my way home on Friday, with all this echoing in my head, I had a revelation of my own.

I ended 2009 feeling exhausted and pretty low and, although the end of 09 had its challenges, I’ve had rough patches before and not felt so defeated. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what else was wrong. Then, I realized that I had a lot of “big plans” for 2009, some as New Year’s resolutions and some as just personal goals … and I didn’t make much progress on any of them. I was experiencing the nagging feeling of having failed myself, of having lost focus. And I was beating myself up pretty good about that.

It seems to me that I forgot a couple of things.

Thing #1 – Failure is good.

Years ago, I took one of those self-improvement courses and one day the instructor said this:

If you haven’t failed recently, you are not doing enough.

At the time, once I thought it through, it made a great deal of sense to me. Of course! Statistically, if we are doing lots of things, we are going to fail at some of them. We are going to screw up, say the wrong thing, start the wrong project, piss the wrong person off. People who don’t take enough risks don’t experience a lot of success. Sometimes, “failure” is the price of success. We also learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Thing #2 – Stick Figures Rock

I forgot to be one of my stick figures for a moment, and I let the sense of failure get too close to me, personally, and not remain in the realm of the external. My “failures”, if they were that, existed outside of me. They are not “me”.

Thing #3 – Expectation Management

Setting expectations, or personal goals, or New Year’s Resolutions – I generally think these are good things to do. Somehow, though, I let an unconscious adherence to these specific and particular outcomes obliterate the beauty and the busy-ness and the fun of 2009. In 2009, I learned so much and laughed so well with such amazing people in my life. I learned to be more “in the moment”. I needed some help and I got it. I felt loved. How can a person wander around feeling gloomy about THAT? (Seriously, girl, get a grip … ) Long-time readers may recall my image at the beginning of 2006 in which I wanted a “burger with everything on it, extra pickle, with the juices running down my arms as I devour it” kind of year. I’d say 2009, most of it, came pretty darn close.

I still want to achieve some of those things on my 2009 list and, oddly, I feel more ready and focused to get there now. Maybe I wasn’t ready a year ago.

So, a new week begins and there are more stick figures to be drawn. I wonder what they will tell me this week?

Extended Absence Greeting 4 comments

Hey there – remember me? 🙂

So, the last few months of 2009 became a muddy blur during which time writing, and exercising, took a backseat to the following:

  • caring for the lovely Freddie as she recovered from surgery to repair ruptured discs in her spine (neck). My home became a baby-gated, cushioned, modified pet crate for seven weeks. My dog was in pain and I felt helpless. And then, shortly afterwards, broke. So grateful that Freddie’s Other Mom, and the lovely WWBA, were able to be such a supportive part of this adventure. But it did take its toll. Freddie needs to be carried up and down stairs and, at first, needed more, shorter walks. I live up two flights of stairs and my routine was tied more than ever, to Freddie’s requirements. I was exhausted.
  • … and thus got I ill myself with a persistent bronchial infection – several weeks of coughing and hacking and sleeping badly.
  • having my car vandalized, right here in the underground parking lot. Stuff stolen, car damaged. Much time and energy lost over a 10 day period, dealing with this. Not to mention feeling just a wee bit violated.
  • grading 174 really sub-par essay-like business reports in 3.5 weeks. That is a real number, 174. 87 in the first round that had to be done quickly and returned so they could have feedback to complete and hand in the second round. Second round to be graded to the grade submission deadline at the end of term. This activity will suck your brain out through the eye of a needle and will rip your heart out of your chest, tossing it away like last year’s PlayStation. Don’t let anyone tell you that teaching isn’t an emotional pursuit. After teaching plagiarism (how to avoid it, not how to do it) as a topic in class, finding students who persist in the behaviour is like getting smacked up the side of the head with a 2 x 4. I’m not sure I can explain why, it just feels … horrible.  It does get balanced out, of course, by students who really do make incredible progress and there were some really fine moments of this as well. Somehow, though, this term, the amount of grading and the roller coaster ride it took me on just about did me in.
  • ongoing negotiations with management on workload issues (see above) and the looming possibility of a strike that no one wants yet that seems difficult to avoid. Multiple meetings with management over next term’s workload. A workload review by a larger committee. Not much progress. Stress. Self-doubt. Worry.

As you can see, not a lot of writing took place. Furthermore, I actually have found myself daydreaming of the smell of my gym. What I’ve learned is that my mental and emotional health is linked to these two activities. Thus, I resolve to re-prioritize and get both disciplines back into my life. Although I’m going to wait until mid-February to actually step on the scales, I think. Yikes.

Anyway, thanks for your patience – all three or four of you. 🙂 Stay tuned for more … as for now, I’m off to the gym!

Of Things Not Said 4 comments

The strangest, sweetest thing happened in class today. I’m still smiling about it.

We are five weeks in and, thus, it is time for the first round of individual presentations. Each student in each of my business communications classes needs to stand up and make a short presentation to the class. They have had a couple of weeks to prepare and ~ bonus ~ they are recorded on DVD. They keep the DVD for their own self-evaluation, which forms part of their grade for this assignment.

Needless to say, students are nervous about this. Many have no experience presenting and the camera gives them an extra jolt of nervousness. Half the battle is just getting them to show up and do it.  At this stage, they need lots of positive reinforcement and lightheartedness during the class itself, just to get through it. Between presentations, I try to crack jokes, hum, sing, whistle … sometimes I make them stand up and stretch or make faces at each other to help break the tension.

One of the things I’m enjoying about my two classes early in the week is that they have bonded with each other, and, to an extent, with me. I often experience this and sometimes it holds for the whole 14 weeks. Sometimes, around 10 weeks, we all get exhausted and just pull ourselves through the last month feeling a little less bonded. But, right now, there is really good energy in these two classes. Students are very supportive of each other. The jury is still out on the Friday class … but I have high hopes that I’ll get more of a sense of them later this week.

Anyway … today. We were mid-way through the presentations and an affable, usually charming young man gets up to present. He is academically undisciplined, having missed two out of the four previous classes. But he is bright, funny and he is doing his best and, thus, is well-liked by his peers. His comic bravado starts to melt a bit as he gets up in front of the class and I turn on the camera.

Sometimes, when people get nervous, they use language that they would not otherwise use. During his presentation, my young friend seemed to develop “presentation Tourette‘s”, swearing under his breath several times. He also used the following phrases:

“I didn’t know shit about … ”

“Maybe you think it is too girly for you …”

I was trying not to smile too much as I wrote my notes, tried to look at him with my best encouraging-active-listening face, and monitored the camera. His classmates were pulling for him, and you could almost hear the faint groans each time he uttered something he shouldn’t.

Then … the pièce de résistance.

“I used to think that going out clubbing at night was just so … gay.”

Uniformly, and with almost one fluid gesture, every student who was sitting in front of me (about eight of them) slowly turned to look at me for my reaction to this. I sensed several sharp intakes of breath to my left and right. Happily, our young friend at the front of the room was so wound up in his nervousness that he didn’t notice this and he carried on, awkwardly barreling towards his conclusion. I sat, still trying not to smile or react in any way which, admittedly, was difficult under the circumstances.

Until this moment, I had no idea I was “out” to this group. I still really wasn’t 100% sure how to interpret all this until after class wrapped up. There is lots to do at the end of these classes – packing up the camera and tripod, answering individual student questions, organizing the written materials submitted. I had indicated to this young man that I needed to speak with him. However, several other students also needed information, or reassurance, from me so he was left to his own devices. As I was dealing with the bits and pieces of post-class wrap up, I was keeping an eye on him across the room. About six of his classmates surrounded him, speaking in hushed tones. As soon as I was free, he came over and said, “I am so sorry, Miss. I really deeply apologize.” I hadn’t even said anything to him yet.

I find this so exhilarating.

See … I am so very totally completely “out” in every other aspect of my life that has meaning – except for the classroom.  I *do* wear a tiny rainbow earring on the off chance that any student struggling with LGBTQ or related issues will see me as someone they can come to if they need to. Our school is so pathetically weak in providing such support. If I were teaching creative writing, or theatre, or music or any creative discipline, I’d be much more inclined to be more out and open. I remember my mentor/theatre prof saying that he needed to be “out” when he taught acting, directing and writing. He believed that in the creative arts, we use ourselves, our own lives and perspectives, as the raw material of our work, and I believe this to be true also. However, in the environment in which I teach, it feels inappropriate. There is a high probability that this information might unnecessarily distract from the learning objectives we are pursuing. It just isn’t relevant.

Or, so I’ve always thought. I figured the rainbow rings on this tiny earring would have meaning only to those who know the code. It has simply not occurred to me that the students might ALREADY KNOW and, further, NOT CARE.

As far as my response to someone using “gay” to mean “stupid” or “not cool” or what have you … of course, that is inappropriate and hurtful. I made this clear to our young friend, although he already knew I was going to call him on all this. I’ve given him a chance for a do-over next week, and that stunned him a bit. I can’t say for sure whether he is truly homophobic, or just careless. I suspect the latter. I think no one has ever called him on his use of this word, just like we don’t call each other on using words like spaz or retard or son-of-a-bitch.  Even if he is dyed-in-the-wool homophobic, it remains my job to teach him how to present his ideas more clearly and concisely. It is not my job to grade him on his value system.

What I’m most impressed with are the students in this class and, for all I know, many classes before. My cultural assumptions about THEIR homophobia have been revealed. I’m still not prepared to be any more overt on this topic as I still don’t see it as relevant. But, somehow, I feel ever so slightly more comfortable about walking into class after today. And that makes me smile.

Getting The Right Answer Click Here To Comment!

(I wrote this for a blog several blog generations ago, in October 2006. Just stumbled on it again. Given that tomorrow is Day One of a new semester, it seemed particularly timely. So here it is, recycled. 🙂 )

In 1965, Tom Lehrer released an album called That Was The Year That Was. Mr. Lehrer, one of my heroes, is a brilliant man – a Harvard mathematician – and a comic musical genius. This is a live album and each song has a witty introduction. In his intro to the amazing patter song New Math, Mr. Lehrer concludes that in the new way of doing things, “the important thing is to understand what you’re doing rather than to get the right answer.”

I must admit that in my current role as an instructor at a community college, I’m feeling a bit like Mr. Lehrer. It seems that getting the right answer is no longer important. Let me put it in “ed biz” lingo … we – as a college system collectively – have become more concerned about the process of education than in the outcome of that education.

I have rather more sympathy for this position than one might suspect, me with my hard-ass MBA ‘n’ all. There are students who have overcome profound obstacles just to be sitting in that classroom. In some cases, these may include civil wars and other horrible conflicts, famine, being severed by distance from one’s family, and who knows what else. There are students with learning disabilities, physical challenges, and children who require their attention, too. There are students who, for whatever reason, simply have never learned how to learn, or who do not realize that the ability to learn is, itself, a skill. If you layer on top of this that most of my students do not speak English as a first (or second, or third …) language, then the challenges become quite enormous.

Learning is hard. I have heard the process of learning being related to change, and this makes a great deal of sense to me. Change requires that a person get out of their “comfort zone” and take risks, try new things, operate in a manner in which they have zero confidence. Anytime one is taken from their comfort zone, resistance is a natural thing. From time to time, failure will occur. Learning is like that. To learn a new concept or acquire a new skill, you have to leave behind the safe space of what you already “know” and try on a new idea. It may not fit or even make sense for a while until you wear it around. Or, in the case of a skill, until you practice it quite a lot. At the beginning, you’ll get it wrong far more often than you will get it right and then, as you practice, this should change. You need to question, to probe, to experiment until a new comfort zone that includes the new idea or new skill is reached. Then, along comes a new challenge, a new thing to be learned, and you get yanked out of your comfort zone again.

Every day that I am in the classroom, I am asking people who are already deeply uncomfortable operating in a foreign language to step even further out of their comfort zones.

So I guess my question is this: as an institution, should we be paying more attention to relieving the deep discomfort we cause people, or should we still be focused on “getting the right answer”?

Let me give an example of what I am talking about. I have 16 students in one of my graduate classes. Of the 16, 15 students are not native English speakers. Of those 15, I’d say 10 have real difficulty with the language, to the point of struggling with the clearly written instructions I give them for their assignments. Last week, this class gave their major presentations, in teams of four. Each team got up and made a presentation based on cases I had assigned to them weeks earlier. (I offered to review their powerpoint materials ahead of time, in the days leading up to the presentation, but no one took me up on this.)

After the presentations were over, I told them the same thing I’ve told many classes recently who nervously get up to present their work. I cannot imagine going to a country where my own language is not spoken, and getting up and making a detailed business presentation in some other language. Even in French, a language I have merely passing familiarity with at this point, I would not be brave enough. So I make a point of complimenting them on their courage – and I mean it. They have also worked hard to try to adopt their analysis of the case to a particular presentation format. Many have worked hard just to understand the nuts and bolts of the case. I picture them with two books in front of them at 2:00 a.m. – the textbook with the cases, and an English- dictionary.

They appreciated my words of support and acknowledgement of the level of difficulty for what they just did. And I meant the words. Several students told me what a great thing it was to have an opportunity to practice making a presentation in a “safe” environment. It was a warm and fuzzy moment.

But … did they get the right answers?

I’m not finished marking these, based on my notes, their powerpoints, and their two page summary essays. Some of the content elements and analyses were way off the mark. Every single powerpoint, almost down to every single powerpoint slide within each presentation, had really terrible, in some cases completely incoherent, English usage. Granted, we have six and a half more months with this group, but I doubt we are going to see a dramatic turn-around in English skills in that time period.

My argument is not with these students, it is with an administrative process that would allow students to arrive in my class ill-equipped with the basic language tools they require in order to succeed. I cannot teach English AND business/technology simultaneously. No one would be well-served by this. Similarly, our institutions – by which I mean both universities and colleges – seem willing to turn a blind eye to faculty concerns about “getting the right answer” and seem quite willing to focus on relieving student discomfort. A discomfort, I might add, that the administrative processes have largely created. It would be frowned upon for me to give failing grades to the students who are unable to formulate a coherent English sentence to describe a business problem and yet “defining a business problem” is one of the key outcomes of our program. How can I even evaluate this if a student cannot make themselves clearly understood?

We have one student in particular who is giving us all fits. This person is clearly intelligent, mature, disciplined, well-read, and able to learn. This person has very good social skills and is well-liked by their class-mates. While this student may have some language challenges, this person is also completely unfamiliar with using a computer. Completely and utterly. There also seem to be some cultural issues around education with this person. When we teach a tech section, it goes something like this: Open this data file which you will find here. (wait for all the students to open the file) Open your textbooks to page xx. (wait) Let’s go through this exercise, steps 1-14, together to modify this data file. Please stop me if you have any questions. Of course, each step brings a new interaction with the program or the file and there is much stopping and starting, coaching, and asking of questions. Some students work ahead, some follow on exactly with what the teacher is doing. However, our friend the struggling student does not find or open the file when instructed to do so. In fact, there is some question as to whether this person understands that this is what they are supposed to do. Instead, this student simply watches and then asks for one-on-one help after class. For hours at a time. This student has been shown, in class, by the instructors and by fellow students, where to find the data files and how to open them, but still this student has a sense that they are attending a lecture rather than needing to follow along and DO skill practice/acquisition with the entire group. I can’t describe to you how much time and effort all the instructors have invested here, gently prodding, supporting, and coaching and staying after class and coming in early to class. Still, this student will arrive at the next class once again at square one.

Here is my particular bone to pick: with this student, we are WAY far away from getting the right answer. We are in the zone of “do you understand when you are being instructed to do something”? Can you imagine graduating someone from this GRADUATE program who cannot discern when a future employer is asking something of them, or giving them a particular instruction? This person will not last a day at any internship or employment situation that I can picture. Not because of their lack of computer skills, but because of their inability to take direction. Not from obstinence, but from a combination of language and mis-placed cultural norms.

These students require more of me, of us, than our sympathy. They will not succeed in whatever they have chosen to study simply because we were nice to them. They are in front of us because they want the tools they will need to move forward, to move on, with their lives. When a person is studying topics related to business, it really is important that you get the right answer, not just that you felt good while you were learning it.

Icebreakers I Should Avoid 3 comments

Classes start in seven days and, as one does, I’ve started to imagine that first week of classes. What I will say. New ways to present information. Improvements on ways I can connect with students.

Each year, the age demographic shifts. The students stay roughly the same age. I get older. However, as a demographic element, age is not homogeneous in the post-secondary college population. There will be, roughly, 70% of the students in the age range you would expect for second year college: 18-20. The rest will be “mature” or “returning” students who tend to be, I’d say, anywhere from 32 – 50 years old.

The vast majority are first or second generation Canadians. Many have very real challenges with English as a Second Language, the challenge being they are trying to do too much too fast. It is my job to teach them “Business Communications” from a Canadian business perspective. This is to be delivered at a second year college level. Everything from business etiquette to written communications (hard copy and electronic) to interpersonal communications to presentations skills.

Regardless of age, many of these students identify with social, cultural or religious communities that are out of my realm of direct experience. Many are visible minorities in other parts of the city, although typically not in the part of the city where my college is located.

As I’m sure you can picture, it is nice to just have an informal chatty few minutes at the beginning of the first class, as students arrive. Build some initial rapport. Smile. Help students feel welcome and a bit less afraid of the course that is going to make them Stand Up And Speak In Front Of Others.  So I try to come up with innocuous, inoffensive, chatty things to say. Here are some examples of “things not to say” at the opening of the first class:

Did you have a good summer?

Couple of problems with this one. First, within the Sri Lankan Tamil community, a two young men were murdered, brutally, over the summer. Right here in Toronto. At least one of them was a student at our college. A significant percentage of our student population is Tamil, a relatively close-knit group.

Furthermore, many of these students will have studied through the summer to make up for missing courses, or to get through faster. As I found out last year, many of these students don’t take a summer break.

Moving on …

What did you do on your summer vacation?

Same problems as the first question, with one additional problem. A person educated in North America asks this question with a small sense of fun or play or irony. You know, the implied reference to that essay we were asked to write, or joked about writing, in elementary school. A person who did not receive their primary education in Canada will not understand this subtext.

How do you like being back in class, back in a routine schedule?

Some didn’t leave, having attended class all summer. Many are single moms, or have part-time jobs, or more than one part-time job, or full-time jobs, or other family-related responsibilities. For some, adding a class schedule is yet another layer of responsibility. Granted, for others, it is their ONLY responsibility. Our classes are a real mixed bag this way. I’ve seen this sort of question start long, argumentative discussions about who has more responsibility and who has to work harder … which sort of sets the wrong tone for the opening of this class.

The main point to remember in all my casual conversations with this non-homogeneous student body is that their life experience up to the point in time that they walk into the classroom is likely to have been vastly different than mine. Any questions that I ask, any examples that I use in the classroom, that reinforce that distance, or reveal my erroneous assumptions, create a new teaching problem for me to overcome. Any questions I ask, or examples I use, that reinforce commonality will usually make my job easier.

Under these circumstances, on day one, I think I’ll stick with the old reliable stand-by that always seems to work in Canada. “How do you like this weather?” 🙂

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