Monthly Archives: February 2014

On Capote and motivation in broken logic.

I’m learning lessons from every situation that gives me a tiny chance at learning something, that is everything that happens with me, everything I do, every consequence and reaction that follows. This post is a perverse version of the original impulsive blog post I drafted a couple of weeks ago, during and right after I watched the movie “Capote”. All this time has allowed impulsiveness to subside. I will now try to work on the draft, in cold blood. I know it will be a bizarre piece of writing, but I can’t keep thinking about having this in my drafts as a very heavy burden anymore, so let me have it out.

*****

As I allowed myself to blog the way I want or see fit for the moment, I’m writing an impulsive post again after I watched “Capote”. In an odd way that is so typical of me, I both enjoyed and suffered watching it. This is exactly the kind of film (not only a film, but a story too) that makes me tick and also gets me have a lump in my throat. This time it was powerful on several levels.

Aside from the non-fictional In Cold Blood story itself (which is one of the books that affected me greatly, as TC character said it would), my mind couldn’t but keep being focused on the writer. That is, on the image of a writer that Philip Seymore Hoffman was picturing for me and which I was closely watching, noticing, paying attention to, getting emotional about.

I see the writer’s pains and torture that lead him to create something extraordinary.
I see how different a writer at a social gathering is from the same man working at his desk.
I see a writer as a sly and tactical man who knows he needs to manipulate people and their emotions for the sake of his art.
I see the way experience has to be lived and suffered through to become real.

For me all these random observations in the flow of the story line, which is a real story line of one particular writer, open up a thinking direction. How knowing or trying to grasp the author’s individuality, intentions, reasons, idiosyncrasies can help me review and re-visualize the image of his writing I have. That idea, I very well understand, must make little sense, for which I apologize and move on to another part of these musings.

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I realize it can be seen as absurd to bring together TC writing and students essays or whatever other writing you get them to do.
But maybe – just maybe – … I want to think ELT and just see what happens.

To track my line of thinking this should be helpful:
It wasn’t a plan (it never is) to get myself to write something after I watch the film. On some other day, I might not even finish watching it. But now that it is happening, I’m looking inwards and question myself: how did you get motivated to make these notes in order to later put them together in some more readable form? Zooming this inward look out, the next question is this: how do you motivate anybody to have ideas? Bringing the focus onto my class: how do you find a way to impress each and every student in such a way that they are truly motivated to do stuff?
You can’t know what would make them tick. Even if you think you do (O. likes football and P. is keen on arts and music), you have no idea, in fact.

***** broken logic line *****

Think writing again – just how utterly frustrating it feels to have limited vocabulary. I am fed up with the words I keep using again and again. That just makes me think of students, any level really, who have an idea they want to express immediately – and feel for words as if they’re drowning, and while doing that (I’ve seen it plenty of times) they get distraught at how long and how much effort it takes, so they give up. They either give up on expressing their point, or on their mission to search for a word which would convey the sense of their thought more accurately (possibly never as precise as it is there in their mind).
I’m right there with them, these students. We are none of us Truman Capote.

“I know what “exacerbate” means…there’s not a word or a sentence or a concept that you can illuminate for me.” (quote from the film)

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So I keep wondering … how motivation that gets me to write is different or similar to motivation that can get students to do their homework, write in their notebooks in class, listen to what their groupmates say in a class, care to write an assignment on their own. I keep wondering if it’s in my power (or if I need to care about it that much at all) to look for and find this something that can motivate them to think. Even if English is not their most favourite subject, not anything they’d readily spend hours doing, even then. Motivation seems to be a shallow, insufficient term to help this.

I believe there is a lot of confusion for both learners and teachers who are, or crave to be, aware of their learning and teaching.

*****

At the end of this mess of a post I’m thinking 3 words. Move. Motivate. Manipulate. That’s what I’ve seen Truman Capote do in the movie. And here’s what Truman Capote himself said in a film-interview here (I hope you watch this till the end, it’s quite interesting and on another level stunned me with the portrayal of TC that P.S. Hoffman did).

I always have this theory… That if you want to move someone else as an artist …you yourself necessarily must have been deeply moved by what it is that you are writing. But you must keep exploiting that emotion in yourself over and over and over and over till you’ve become completely cold about it… I mean so that you no longer laugh, say, about whatever it is that made you laugh… You see it like it was some extraordinary specimen, but you know that it had that effect on you, personally, so that you know that if you can reproduce it you can make it have exactly the same effect on someone else

*****

The lesson I’ve learnt is to never mix different film genres on one day. The Big Lebowski is a hilarious movie clearly deserving blog posts written about it, but its effect on some impulsive posts has been proven destructive.

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Quitter.

How (maybe not why) I quit my job as a school teacher (2008).

Pre-story.

I am 20. As a matter of fact, now that I’ve started writing this post with this three-word biographical note I see it was crucial to all that followed. Let’s see how the story unfolds with this new light of truth hanging over me.

So I’m 20, I’m in my fourth year of studies to become a teacher of English, and we’re mercilessly thrown into the chaos of comprehensive schools, in groups of 6 naive and trembling girls, to give lessons to classes we’re attached to for the whole of September. No wonder that I get the class (6th grade) with the worst reputation in that school. Plus it’s one of those rare situations when the class is not divided into smaller subgroups, as it usually is the case in Russian school system (a language teacher would normally get a group of 13 kids max). So I get to teach 19 frightening not-really-kids-anymore. I look too teenage-like to be confidently standing in front of the 19 pairs of eyes sizing me up contemptuously. I don’t know what happened and how it all turned out like it did, but I had such a great great time teaching these eyes. I honestly did. I remember though disastrous lessons that we co-taught with 2 other girls, who I thought appeared more serious and knowing than me at that time (until I saw with my own eyes that appearances made no difference). Well it really is hard to explain for me now why I felt such drive. I think it was about this challenge that I had to deal with during my very first teaching experience.

To cut it short, unlike 80% of my university mates I am suddenly very keen on the idea of actually teaching English. So keen that within a month I find myself a job. It is a small private school (around 50 kids altogether) in my neighborhood. There’s no interview as such. I’ve got good references from some *influential* parents, I’m “sweet”, young and full of energy. I’m in.

Story (started in the final paragraph of the pre-story).

For the rest of that school year (November to May) I study full time at university and teach 12 hours a week at school. By the end of the year I still love everything very much. I’m involved, interested and take weird pleasure in cutting out things and making flash cards. Kids are great, parents are sometimes a nuisance but mostly nice, and the Director of Studies is a very adequate helpful woman. In fact, if she hadn’t left that year, my life might have gone some other way.

Next year, final year of my university studies, we are all required to be teaching at schools, attending classes and writing our theses. Obviously, employment is not a problem for me and I start teaching 18 hours per week. Our school goes through some questionable merging process (for prolonging their license or something) and we end up losing half the staff, the DOS and the bigger part of pupils . New teachers are fine and friendly, new pupils from that other school are smart and energetic, new DOS is the start of the end for me.

I can see it now that we had a false start to our relationship from the very first meeting. When I was informed that from now on I was to use a certain textbook (which is written for schools specializing in English) and that decision is non-negotiable, I suddenly felt bold and experienced enough to air my protest. Indeed, it was a very outdated textbook plus the one that didn’t meet the needs of our learners and expectations of their parents (well I thought so at least). When at a big parent meeting, where all staff and all parents were present, I announced my “professional” (aged 21, mind you) view on the matter of materials, the majority of parents supported me and agreed to go for change. That meant my choice of coursebooks for each class. Sounds soooo unreal to me now. I must have said something very convincing. Anyway, my colleague and I took all pains to organize the transition, worked out the syllabi for our classes with the help of our university methodology teacher I believe (and hope). We ordered and carried books for all kids to school by ourselves. Parents seemed happy, kids loved the colourful pages in their new books. The DOS woman had no choice. It was some kind of a very small but locally significant revolution to me then. I’m now sincerely amazed at how I could pull it off. But the revolution led to the fact that my colleague (also my university groupmate) and I started getting all kinds of ill treatment from “the bosses”. I might have been too emotional in my reactions then. My colleague gave up and sheepishly quit without an official notice or a note to me in April, leaving me to be the only English teacher in that whole school. Those were fun times. Kind of.

Well in that year I had a nervous breakdown, several ambulance calls and countless tears shed as I stepped out of the school yard.
In October 2008, after working as a school teacher for 2 years, I quit.

Factual.

Reasons I could now think of, very subjective and prejudiced, possibly not well arguemented and too childish.
– emotionally fragile for the intense battle I found myself to be fighting (attitudes; humiliation of my feeble persona; being pushed about)
– couldn’t stand the hypocrisy
– outrageous, frustrating, disarmingly open dishonesty regarding certain financial issues which I couldn’t then stand up to and oppose as was too naive and soft
– living in a neguices routine (writing useless lesson plans, pretending to teach with a textbook we weren’t using)
– depressing and depressive atmosphere and air about the place
– health issues (this is funny, every time I need change but am scared of making it, my body generously provides me with a chance))
– losing hold of English

Lyrical.

There was this one absolutely lovely teacher. She was as intelligent, well-mannered, thoughtful, kind-hearted, likeable and charming as I can possibly imagine a school teacher to be. If I had been smarter and more thoughtful myself I wouldn’t have lost touch with that wonderful lady. Anyway, she would never give me any topdown, I’ve been a teacher for 20 years kind of advice (some problem with punctuating it right here, my apologies). Instead, she would carefully hint at what challenges those kids presented, how special they were, how I could try to help them learn at their own pace. I could always sit in her class and never felt any slightest pressure when she was there in the back of the class during my lesson. On the contrary, I’d feel at ease.

During one of our conversations (which I now realize were not too many and definitely not processed deeply enough by me) she said this: “If you teach in a school for three years and don’t leave, you stay for years.” I believe she did mention the word bog then. She was mostly wishing me well. She said she used to write poetry and prose. She always comforted me when parents, DOS or other teachers made me lose the very shaky emotional balance that I had back in the day. When a couple of years after quitting I had a dream about me visiting the school again, she was the only light in the nightmarish scene.

I believe I would like to see her now, to say a more articulate thank you or something.

Afterword.

This post is facts from a part of my life that certainly had an enormous influence on me and helped to make me the teacher I currently happen to be.
I hold no grudge to anybody in that story, about anything in that story. There is no reason why I should, as every turn, every reaction that followed was mine, caused by my lack of control.
I still remember almost all kids. They were fantastic. They did cause me tears and suffering at times, but also made me smile and laugh and be proud of them. I know for sure that if I now went in those classrooms, we’d have very different lessons which I’d enjoy more, in which I’d teach them better. Well, there’s the right time for everything. But I am not going to be back to school again.
It just started feeling rotten for me. I mean the system. The authority I was supposed to respect provided no opportunity for me to do so. I started feeling small in all senses.

That’s the story of me as a quitter. I don’t feel bad about it at all now. I got the experience and learnt a lot about myself.
Thank you for judging or not judging me in your comments below, if you care to leave some)) I kindly welcome you to do that, no matter what it is you want to say.

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Feedback that just happened

This pile of students’ end-of-term feedback sheets has been on my desk for almost two months now. Every paper has fine varied questions about our course: with a range of answers provided, open-ended, specific, and encouraging a reflective look at the term of learning. As soon as I got them in mid-December, I flipped read through them thoroughly, with all due care and attention… in the metro, leaving my workplace for 6 weeks of winter holidays, with 85% of my brain activity being focused on something other than feedback sheets. *sorry kids*

Well today I was back in class. Same students for me this term, which is not too typical for our scheduling at the department. And for certain reasons I feel visibly energetic and happy, which is not too typical for me after a 4-hour sleep. I step into the class with a beaming smile and just a touch of a heavy heart of having to hide it from students I haven’t done my holiday teacher homework (not pretending though that they’d care too much). We do holiday time hashtags (laughter happened). We do SMART goal setting (learning and an amazing thoughtful attitude happened). And then, as casually as it does, feedback happened.

I am in the middle of going over the nitty-gritty of the point system we’ve been using, again, when one student raises his hand and says something like: “Can you give me some bonus points for the correction of mistakes on my essays? You always make notes and leave messages for me, but I really never pay any attention and just throw the paper into the waste bin. I’d be motivated to look into your notes.” (Several other students start nodding and expressing agreement. Apparently few of them ever paid attention.)
Bang. Thank you.

“Great idea. We can arrange that.”

I distribute post-it notes and say whatever suggestion or idea for improvement comes to their mind during the class, they can put it down and hand over to me.
But in fact we just start talking about it.
“More grammar, please!” (No surprise here, read this and this. Some variants have been agreed on.)
“Consider updating the spreadsheet with our points more often, please!” (?! No way. Once a month is my smart enough goal here.)
“Give away Teacher’s Pet Essay Award points that you decide on subjectively.” (Wow. I do write personal messages for everyone, sometimes long and detailed, sharing my impressions… It’s good to see they are appreciated and want to be seen as measured quantitatively))
“Let us see a monthly max of points we could score.” (Very logical and doable. I am being honest and tell them I was lazy but will fix it.)
“Let’s introduce bonus points for regular diligence. A student who performs at over 80% of monthly max for all four months gets prize points.” (Here they actually started showing off their mathematical mindsets and suggested intricate scoring schemes involving variables, but I stood my ground by protesting and was mercifully excused for being a language teacher.))
“Teach us idioms and proverbs.” (OK)
“Multiply assignment points for those who approach a task creatively or choose to do it in a more complicated format.” (? Multiplication suggestion is funny and clear, but the criteria for this generosity are not.)

Other, more ordinary and less interesting comments were also made. When I thought we’d really said it all and there was nothing to be added to my lengthy list of their remarks, concerns and proposals, some students handed in those post-its with yet MORE comments (others expressed a wish to keep the stickers in their notebooks in case they’d have some more insights for me). Every possible aspect was mentioned. I was blown away by their willingness to be part of the process, the part that matters and that can/will be heard.

I now have to revisit my own smart goals for these groups. And rack my brains for ways to make most of this actually happen. And keep the open space of our class open for more than this one class, when for certain reasons I feel insanely energetic and happy.

I also hope I have a heart big enough for any amount of bonus points)))

Thanks for reading this. Happy teaching!

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RP mission statement…loading…

I don’t know if I am allowed to do it in this very first RP challenge I’ve willingly signed up for…But anyway.

 

I, along with all others, was encouraged to think about what my reflective practice mission statement might look like. I have thought about it and come to an (un)easy conclusion:

I can’t make a mission statement before I set out on the mission and go a few steps. This thinking, I anticipate and am quite ready for, may cause some eyebrow-raising and sneering. As it is indeed contradictory to basic principles of all known missions and successful planning. Yet, I have my reasons, obviously.

 

  •  Personal experience shows I’m strong-willed, strong and willing at the beginning of initiatives and then easily slide down to being uninterested and unmotivated. Of course, support and nudge mean a lot. So I have more hopes for this project than for others.
  •  I tend to take unhealthy pleasure from preparations for something (projects and missions). Thinking about them, imagining how they will be done, making long-term unrealistic plans, sharing the excitement with everybody around. I can be a daydreamer, which is not always helpful.
  •  I have this amazing notebook. I like to look at it very much. It came to me from South Korea and was doomed to be used as an RP journal. In these several months I’ve filled it with many words… but mostly not mine. That makes me feel sad and more determined to take up the upcoming challenges (coming as, hopefully, small bites that I will be able to chew). I hope I’ll have some words of my own to fill the pages with.

So, for now, my first RP challenge ends with a failure to formulate my mission statement. I’m not unhappy with it, rather I embrace my way of treating the whole mission. Also, it’s more hedonism))

*****

If you’ve read this and feel confused or annoyed because you think you’re missing some crucial parts of information, this is true. I’m sorry, the text from below should have been an introduction, in fact. It’s all upside down here today.

 

I’ve been reading other teachers’ blogs for a while (almost 3 years, by fits and starts). Reflective Practice (RP for short and forever in this space), as an idea to develop for a teacher after actually going through some mental process of analysis and further action based on it + some research, has long been luring me. Blogs of teachers who do RP have been most insightful to me recently (as well as their authors). I’ve found out there are whole RP meetings in certain parts of the world. And apparently, to my knowledge, there are no such meetings or groups in my country. I hope I’ll try to find a way to introduce this idea to those who could be interested in it here in Russia, while I’m still here (because I’m hopeful I won’t be here from some time on in the future). But as trying to find/make up a group of real-life Russian RP enthusiasts offline is naturally a process too long and painful, doing my own first steps in RP online seems a worthwhile chance (plus attractive in many other respects).

So my mission, one of many this year (which fact probably reduces its chances for consistency and success..), is doing these RP challenges John ObservingTheClass Pfordresher promises to supply me/us all with. The mission with no statement to speak of at the moment.

The invitation to team up for online RP fun is open for everyone, I gather. Join in. The more the merrier/ more reflective/ more analytical.

 

And yes, in line with all of the above…

Ann Loseva’s Space is currently emerging. =)

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