A desk of one’s own

It is an honor to be guest-blogging here along with Rachel Levy and Michael E. Lopez, two of my favorite education bloggers.

There’s much discussion lately (and not so lately) about what can be done to make teaching an elite profession. Some of the suggestions focus on teacher preparation; others, on teaching conditions. I will propose something that I haven’t heard mentioned: to improve conditions substantially, in a way that will encourage good teachers to stay, give each teacher a desk.

By this I mean a desk of one’s own (I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf), a desk that no one else uses, where items don’t get taken or shifted around; a desk in a relatively tranquil room, where one can work and think.

Why is this important, and why is it rare?

First, a disclaimer: I am not complaining about any particular school. Everywhere I have taught, there has been shortage of space, and teachers have had to share desks, use tables as desks, or go without a desk entirely. In my first school, one of my colleagues regularly did her work in the auditorium, in an audience seat. (It was possibly the quietest room in the building.)

I don’t think many people would question a teacher’s need for a desk–but I’m not sure they deem it especially important, either. For instance, they may consider it acceptable for teachers to share desks or to work in noisy classrooms. But many private schools have teachers’ desks in department offices, outside of the classrooms. This is both because they have space and because they recognize the importance of a desk.

Sharing a desk has all kinds of complications: your scissors disappear, your Gumby eraser walks away, your Machiavelli goes into exile, etc. Beyond that, a shared desk becomes, in the mind of the school, a shared desk. Anyone may sit at it.

Noisy classrooms can make it difficult to get work done, unless you have noise-cancelling headphones or can block out the sound. You end up doing most of your work at home.

There are also reasons that go beyond the practical. When you have a desk that’s reliable, you are able to do intellectual work–reading, lesson preparation, grading–during the school day. This affects the school’s atmosphere; there’s greater respect for the quiet work that goes on at the desk, since room is made for it. Like urban planning, a school’s allocation of space reflects its priorities.

Also, because this work does take place at school, it can give rise to interesting discussions. How different the conversation is between two teachers who have been thinking about Oedipus Rex, and two teachers who are running past each other in the hallway in search of a room or supplies. (I have had both kinds of conversations, with or without a desk, but there’s more room for the former when I have a place to work.)

Why, then, is it a rarity for each teacher to have a desk? [Read more...]

Introverts, speak up!

Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School, writes Jessica Lahey, an English teacher, in the Atlantic. “The parents of introverts complain that I am not meeting their child’s unspoken educational needs, or that I am causing serious emotional trauma by requiring their child to speak up in school.”

Class participation is factored into students’ grades.

. . . we spend a large percentage of our of class time in dialogue. How does Pip change once he receives his Great Expectations? What does Edmund mean when he says, “Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound”?

After reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, Lahey “made a number of changes to my classroom in order to improve learning opportunities for my introverted students.”  But she’s not dropping the class participation requirement.

As a teacher, it is my job to teach grammar, vocabulary, and literature, but I must also teach my students how to succeed in the world we live in — a world where most people won’t stop talking. If anything, I feel even more strongly that my introverted students must learn how to self-advocate by communicating with parents, educators, and the world at large.

Are these kids introverts — or very, very shy?  Or do they have nothing to say about Pip or Edmund?

Are quieter students considered less intelligent?

Today’s issue of Education Week has an article by Sarah D. Sparks about quiet, shy, and introverted students in the classroom. It’s gist is that current pedagogy (and teachers themselves) favor the extraverted child. Teachers commonly perceive quiet children as less intelligent than talkative ones, according to studies cited here. The article distinguishes (up to a point) between introversion and shyness.

A 2011 study found teachers from across K-12 rated hypothetical quiet children as having the lowest academic abilities and the least intelligence, compared with hypothetical children who were talkative or typical in behavior.

Interestingly, teachers who were identified as and who rated themselves as shy agreed that quiet students would do less well academically, but did not rate them as less intelligent.

As many as half of Americans are introverts, according to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, located in Gainesville, Fla.

There’s a distinction between shyness—generally associated with fear or anxiety around social contact—and introversion, which is related to a person’s comfort with various levels of stimulation.

A shy student, once he or she overcomes the fear, may turn out to be an extrovert, invigorated by being the center of attention.

By contrast, an introverted child may be perfectly comfortable speaking in class or socializing with a few friends, but “recharges her batteries” by being alone and is most energized when working or learning in an environment with less stimulation, social or otherwise, according to Mr. Coplan and Ms. Cain.

I was interviewed for the article, but some of my points didn’t make it in. I find the denominations “introvert,” “shy” and even “quiet” limiting. There are students who speak very little in class on the whole but liven up when particularly interested in a topic. There are students who speak a lot but are not necessarily “extraverts”; they enjoy the exchange of ideas in the classroom. Many students who might classify as “introvert” do not desire “lower” levels of stimulation; rather, they find certain intellectual activities highly stimulating. And, of course, there are students who seem quiet in class but are social ringleaders outside.

What’s important is to stay alert to the students and to do what will bring out the subject matter. Most subjects require a good deal of focus and quiet thought. Even a class discussion can set the tone for that. Ideally, all students would learn to both speak and listen, to grapple with problems out loud and in quiet. But for this to have meaning, there must be things worth thinking and talking about.

As to whether teachers consider quieter students less intelligent, my experience says no, but this may be because my trachers, especially in high school, recognized the importance of thinking about the subject and not rushing to speak.

Solitude of time

Ted Leach, an English and journalism teacher with a blog, posted a piece recently about the quiet of the early morning. He explains how he started the habit of rising at 5 a.m:

This is something that I’ve been doing for years, so long that the original reasons for it no longer hold true. When I first started teaching, I had about an hour drive to work, and I found that I wanted to ensure that I was awake when I got behind thewheel of the car. I thought the other drivers would appreciate it as well. So I started intentionally waking up, having breakfast, and getting on the road at 6 a.m.

And you know what? I came to like this time of day.

There’s a quiet to this time of the day, broken only by the sound of my fingers hitting the keyboard.

I came upon the piece when doing  some, er, “self-searching.” I have enjoyed Leach’s blog before and am glad to return to it. I’ll be a more regular reader now.

In his treatise De vita solitaria, Petrarch describes three kinds of solitude:

that of place, with which my present discourse is specially taken up; that of time, as in the night, when there is solitude and silence even in public squares; that of the mind, as in persons who, absorbed in deepest contemplation, in broad daylight and in a crowded market-place, are not aware of what is going on there and are alone whenever and wherever they wish.

Many people think of solitude in terms of physical isolation. My book, Republic of Noise, focuses mainly on solitude of the mind. But solitude of time has a special quality. It is place, mind, and time at once.

When I was in high school, I used to arrive early in the morning so that I could enjoy the quiet of the halls. I would sit in my homeroom or walk around, and listen as people started arriving and the voices mixed and multiplied.

There’s solitude of season as well. In college, I liked to stay near the campus over the holidays. (I lived off campus after freshman year, so I didn’t have to clear out.) Walking through the courtyards alone, entering buildings and hearing nothing but the echo of my footsteps, I seemed to be in dialogue with the place.

In some way, these quiet times of day and of year are important to education, but how? They allow not only for untrammeled thought but for a different view of a familiar place. One recognizes gradations of light and sound. These gradations are important for study as well; you come to welcome those hours when you hear the book’s words more clearly.

And essential for teaching, from a practical standpoint, if you have a long commute or wish to get to school early. I like to have half an hour (ideally) at school before the first bell rings. For that, I have to leave home no later than 6:30. This is fine, though; I get to enjoy the long, sleepy train ride, where few people talk and there are usually empty seats. 

I first “met” Ted Leach on his blog when he criticized my article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.” I responded to his criticism, and we ended up having an interesting and enjoyable exchange.

To and through college

To graduate from college, students must work harder in high school and reach out for help in college, advises the co-founder of a college coaching service. Those who need help the most are the least likely to ask for it.

Ssssshhhhh. There’s a new innovation at the college library — a room for quiet study! Nothing that beeps is allowed.

Power to the introverts

Our culture is designed for gregarious team players, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet, in this TED talk on The Power of Introverts.  Schools require children to work in groups, “even in  the most solitary of assignments, such as creative writing,” she complains. Students need the chance to think and learn on their own too. “Solitude is the school of the soul.”

Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise also criticizes the mania for group work, collaboration and “groupthink,” rather than solitary contemplation.