How to Make your Best Students Better

The one percent

As a kid, and through high school, I loved standardized tests. Because I was the maddening specimen who scored in the 99th percentile without a flicker of effort.

Given the bias in standardized tests, it’s not surprising. I was a white kid who had been reading voraciously since age four. I was going to ace anything that measured “verbal” skills, which are, of course, in the context of the tests, reading and writing skills.

Being a killer test taker had advantages. My high school SAT and ACT scores got me into an Ivy League university, and scooped a National Merit Scholarship to help pay for it. Not bad for a poor kid from a decaying seaside town in Oregon.

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Feeding the need

Being Little Miss 99th Percentile felt good. My teachers liked it because I brought up the class average. I liked it because it got me positive attention. My parents? They didn’t care, which is perhaps why cared so much. Acing those tests was more than an academic achievement, it was much-needed validation. Terrified of losing that, I gravitated towards subjects that came easy: English, history, communication, psychology.

Unfortunately, one thing they didn’t teach in first-year psych was that effort counts for more than “intelligence”. Though, to be fair, the results of Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck’s landmark study on the relationship between praise and motivation weren’t published till 1998, my second year of college.

Mueller and Dweck gave kids a series of tests. One group was praised for their intelligence, the other for their effort. They found that the children who were praised for intelligence were reluctant to try more difficult tests, while those praised for effort were eager to try harder tasks.

Kids singled out for “intelligence” were afraid of doing anything that might show them up. Like those kids, I avoided challenges, got good grades and learned almost nothing.

Opportunities lost

Each month, as I make my student loan payment (still chipping away at that. Thank you American tertiary education system), I think about the classes I avoided: Spanish, math, organic chemistry. I went to university planning to major in chemistry and go on to med school. Sophomore year, I changed to English lit.

It was the right decision, made for the wrong reasons. My motivation wasn’t love of literature and language but fear of math and science. If I couldn’t waltz into an exam and out with an A, I wasn’t even going to try.

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The teacher’s view

Looking back, I wish teachers had pushed me more — especially in the subjects I was good at. Maybe, then, I would have realized my skills weren’t “innate” and would have learned to apply myself.

But, as a teacher myself, I can’t blame them. Having a “good” student, one who enjoys and seems to effortlessly absorb the material, is a treat. S/he is one student you don’t have to worry about, one whose enthusiasm and aptitude makes you feel good about yourself as an educator, even if you don’t really deserve the credit. It is tempting to praise the student and more or less leave them to his/her/their own devices.

Tempting, but an abdication of responsibility. Perhaps the student is doing well because h/s/t are an adept learner. In that case, you should see the work gradually improve. If you don’t, chances are they’re coasting on an existing skill set. And without intervention, they may well be self-limiting to stay within that safety zone.

Breaking out of the success trap

How do you challenge a student in an area where they excel? Here are three ideas:

Process

Once, in a job interview, I was asked: “How do you write?”

It was the first time anyone had asked about my process. Formulating an answer made me realize that I had one, and that it could be applied to other tasks.

If you have a student who shines at art, trigonometry, whatever, as them how. They might think it’s a dumb question (I did) but they will discover the work that goes into their accomplishments. Recognizing their own effort and process will help them see themselves as learners, and start to generalize those skills.

Cross-pollination

Use your students strengths to address their weaknesses. If, for example, your  student loves history but hates math, have them research the history of a mathematical concept, e.g. Who was Pythagoras and how did he come up with his theory? Thus tackling something hard becomes a chance to show off what they are good at.

Let them be the expert

Once your students have assessed their own process, reinforce that by giving them an opportunity to be the expert. Pair or small group work is a good setting to allow students to display their strengths. Set up assignments where they teach each other and grade them on how well their classmates do.

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Life-long learning

We tend to think of “life-long learning” in terms of adults but, to deserve the title, it has to start in childhood. The best, that is highest-achieving, students are necessarily the best learners. They may, in extreme cases, be learning very little.

Helping them uncover their process, use their skills to address new challenges, and share their strategies with others will develop those crucial skills.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Should I Have Come Out to My Students?

“Do you consider yourself part of the LGBTQ community?”

The text caught me off guard. Of course. Then I realized: Why would he know — I never said anything. 

I’d shared a link to an article about queer culture witha former English students (let’s call him Jay). He’d responded with an applause emoji — and the question.

Jay is out and proud as a Catholic teenager in a small, conservative Spanish town. His joie de vivre made every class a delight. I admired the hell out of him, but never said anything about being bi.

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Playing safe

I’ll just be supportive, I thought.

So I taught poems by Mary Oliver and CP Cavafy, brought Attitude magazine to class along with Vogue and Wanderlust, and expressed due reverence for the fierceness of Queen Bey and Lady Gaga. That’s cool, right?

Keeping quiet

Jay’s question got under my skin because, really, he shouldn’t have had to ask.

“Definitely,” I responded. “Wasn’t quite sure about bringing it up in class.”

The more I’ve thought about it (and it’s been a lot) the poorer an excuse that seems.

I didn’t want to distract from class. My personal life isn’t important. Blah blah.

Yet I had no qualms talking about my husband, or dating men. I just elided the fact I also date women. That’s not being “appropriate”, it’s cowardice.

Taking it easy

Truth is, being straight is easy. Despite short hair and a penchant for Doc Martens I am a cis woman married to a cis man. That is so socially acceptable it obscures anything ambiguous or complicated. It brings the perpetual temptation to not mention anything that would threaten my hetero privilege.

Once, a woman I was seeing was verbally attacked over her holiday plans. My date said she would feel uncomfortable going to Russia. Instead of sympathizing this woman railed at my friend for trying to “flaunt her lifestyle”. Basically, she thought if my girl didn’t fake straightness for the benefit of Russian bigots she deserved to be gay bashed.

This conversation, which took place at a party in Ibiza, shook me. If people are like that on an island renowned for anything-goes hedonism, I don’t want to know what the rest of the world is like. So, it was/is, easier to don the invisibility cloak of straightness.

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What makes an ally?

Self-identifying as queer and a queer ally to myself means jack if I play it straight to the world at large. My silence amplifies jerks who think love is “flaunting your lifestyle”.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m proud of introducing my students to Cavafy and Oliver, of watching Gaga videos with them and discussing gay representation in mainstream media. But it wasn’t enough.

If I were 100% straight, it might be. As a (married) bi woman, I have a responsibility.

Cleaning out my closet

Being married is part of what stopped me from saying anything. If I were single, or dating, saying “I’m bi” probably wouldn’t raise too many awkward questions.

But I could imagine…

Wait, aren’t you married? Does your husband know? Is he bi? Do you date other people? Does that mean…? 

My students are sharp — a thousand times more woke and with it than I was at their age (or a decade later). They could have asked questions that I don’t have answers for.

That unnerved me. Which is precisely why I should have opened up.

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A real education

Being a good teacher means not pretending to know all the answers. I’m comfortable not knowing a grammar construct, or the meaning of a word, so why so awkward about admitting I haven’t solved the mysteries of love?

I’ve asked myself over and over, Should I have come out to my students? The answer is, insistently, yes.

Not just because Jay deserved to know I consider myself part of the LGBTQ community, as he gracefully put it, but because they all deserve to know that love and attraction are fluid and multi-faceted. They deserve to know that you can try things, change your mind, fall in love with one person and still be attracted to others. They deserve to know that you never have to stop exploring, questioning, loving. They deserve to know that marriage doesn’t have to be a house in the ‘burbs and 2.4 kids (though that’s available).

Like I said, they’re sharp. Chances are they already know (or suspect) much of this. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make it okay for me to sit back like, you’re on your own. 

Be there for each other

We all need allies. Every single day. And in our increasingly mean-tempered world, unity and kindness are the life-rings we have to throw to each other.

That means owning who we are, in all its delicious complexity, so others (especially, if we’re teachers, our students) have space to claim their own delicious, complicated selves.

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Storytelling: Education

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 14: Education

Great stories do more than just entertain, they teach (in an entertaining way).

Case study: Raw Beet 

raw-beet-coverWhat it is:

Raw Beet is a cookbook covering four popular ways of eating: gluten free, raw, vegan and low glycemic-index (GI). Based around simple ingredients and straight-forward techniques, it educates people who want to learn more or adopt these nutrition options.

Why it matters:

Publishing a raw, vegan, gluten free or low-GI cookbook is like spooning water into the ocean. The market is glutted with books, most of which are celebrity-led, meaning the potential audience has to like the author. Raw Beet’s genius is pragmatism. Its angle is clean and sharp as a paring knife: Cut through the hype and moralising with clear, easy-to-prepare recipes.

Instead of preaching, it offers practical advice, including dietary descriptions, ingredient tips, and lists of food suppliers, for anyone who wants or needs to eat raw, gluten free, vegan or low-GI. Whether the goal is beating allergies, managing chronic illnesses, losing weight, or experimenting with new dishes, Raw Beet’s emphasis on education makes the process accessible and inclusive.

In their own words:

“With the help of our cooks and other contributors, we have tried to put together a collection of fairly simple recipes that can be served formally or informally, using ingredients that can be bought easily.”

Read more

Practice: “Flowery language can be effective in the right forum; however, overly embellished sentences do not belong in your informative [writing]. Keep your verbiage simple and straightforward, or your reader will pay too much attention to your overuse of adjectives and adverbs.” Angelique Caffrey via Explore Writing

Remember: “Learn the names of everything: birds, cheese, tractors, cars, buildings.”
~Natalie Goldberg

Moving Words (Rock’n’Roll Shoes)

I moved house this week. For the third time in four months.

“Do you always move that much?”

“Actually,” I confessed. “Three months is a pretty long stint in one place for me.”

This is true. There was the year I moved every eight weeks. The long-haul year spent shuttling between America, Ibiza, London and Myanmar.

There were non-moving years: Glasgow 2010; London 2012. Periods of compression. On release, I tumbled from place to place in a blur of kinetic energy.

Always a spur: Don’t get stuck. Don’t miss out. Don’t settle (for less).

On at least three occasions I left a city with only a suitcase, giving or throwing away everything in excess of 20kg. “It is desirable that a man… live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety,” writes Henry David Thoreau. I came close.

This week, boxes and suitcases went into my car and were joined by my cat. Unprecedented adult privilege and responsibility. Undreamt gratitude. The sun was hot and bright as I ferried boxes. White blossoms lingered amidst the almond trees’ fresh green leaves. When I took a break at the cafe, the owner sat and chatted then wouldn’t let me pay for my tea. The neighbouring farmer lent me fruit-crates to pack my books.

Vague anxiety shrouded me like fog. It always does when I move. This time literal and figurative sunshine burnt it off. The irresistible smile of someone who’s a reason to stay. Unpacking clothes instead of piling them in the donation bin of a charity shop. Restoring my books to their shelves. Running the familiar road to San Carlos.

I wouldn’t miss a single move. Every bounce taught me something (the hard falls in particular). To stay is a new education. I am choosing something now, to paraphrase Adrienne Rich, choosing to live with all my intelligence.