To my students: Observations of You

by Mr. Sheehy

Periodically in my teaching I ask a question I don’t really want to ask. That is, sometimes I go ahead and start the no-penalty conversation, where students can speak freely and not worry about their comments hurting their grades. These conversations are where I learn the truth about your habits. It’s how I know that you don’t read at home, how you access prohibited internet sites, how you throw together your vocabulary exercises at the last minute, and how you fill out my double-entry journals by searching for some random line and commenting on it – “what does moribund mean?” Now, I don’t want to make that “you” to general – understand that I don’t really mean every one of you, but instead mean that these practices are occurring with many of you. So only think of the “you” as you when you know it is you. Follow?

In the past week I have invited comments on two areas – reading stories and writing essays. Here are some of my observations, and I’d love to hear your reactions, rebuttals, or agreement.

1. Very many students refer to any story, no matter how short, as a book. Why is this? “The Devil and Tom Walker” is is not a book, it is a short story, spanning only ten pages in the textbook. Maybe I’m being picky, but I find it weird and I don’t understand.

2. Many people are faking the reading. They are pretending to read but really just scanning around waiting for someone like me to explain what is going on in the story. I am NOT going to tell you what happens in these stories. Seriously – I am not going to restate the story and explain it, because I don’t think you learn anything that way besides, maybe, that if you want to know what something says, ask someone else. This is not a good plan, because you don’t want to rely on second-source information. You’ll find that people who tell you things about other documents are often wrong – many people cannot read well or they read hastily, and if you rely on other people all the time, you might find yourself being misled – especially in a world where blogging and interactive web elements are becoming normal. Take as an example this woman who complained about another person’s blog – she accuses the blogger of being sterile and a neat-freak, but the blogger specifically declared herself the opposite in her original article. And I’m not even going to start looking for examples in politics – let’s just say if you don’t want to be manipulated and misled you better learn how to read – carefully.

3. Many people are not bothering to figure out why they’re stuck. This is related to #3. You hit a hard part, but instead of figuring out why you can’t read it, you decide you can’t read it and look for something else to do – chat, write a note, fake reading while spacing out, see if you can sneak an earphone in without me seeing, etc. But here’s where I get riled up – you are capable of figuring these texts out! You are smart people, and I firmly believe that if you begin to figure out why you don’t understand the text, you can begin to clear them up. I’ve talked with you about reading strategies – I give you one with every text we read (connecting to background experiences, questioning the text for clarity and for conversation, breaking down sentences into bite-sized pieces, identifying difficult parts). What I don’t like is the faking and the quitting. I’d rather see a group of students take three blocks to read 10 pages as they look up words, write down questions, ask each other about particular parts, and summarize pieces of text to see if they’re right, than to see a group fake like they’re reading and then pretend to have read it. I can’t teach fakers – you’ll get the grade if you care to turn in enough homework, but I can’t teach you if you’re pretending. I have too many students for me to reveal every faker – I’m counting on sincerity to be able to help you.

4. You want to hear the story read out loud if at all possible. That’s nice – you know by now how much I like to read things out loud and how much I like radio/podcasting communications – but I have a feeling you want the out-loud element because it’s easier than reading – because it sounds like it makes sense when someone reads it. Here’s one thought on this, though. When I read The Old Man and the Sea, you couldn’t stop if things got hard to understand. We pushed on and you had to ignore what might have tripped you up if you were reading by yourself. Then, you understood later parts of the text, and you may have figured out what was going on broadly enough that the part you didn’t understand didn’t matter anymore. That will happen every now and then – a part may be difficult to understand; but often if we read on, push a bit further, we’ll discover a textual clue that will make it possible to understand the hard part, or we’ll find that it’s not so important to understand it.

5. You like writing on a blog, but you seethe at the mention of an essay. Did you know that an essay is basically any short composition? That means these blogs are basically essays without the formality of a teacher hovering over you. So maybe it’s not the essays you hate, but the hovering teachers and the grading . . .

6. You don’t like to revise your work. Most of you like to throw your thoughts down in a stream of consciousness and then move on – maybe run a spell-check on those fellas, but never examine it to consider serious changes. I can’t blame you here, and I won’t pretend this isn’t a difficult task. I can’t even find the famous writer who said it wasn’t that he was a great writer, he was a great rewriter. (I’ll find that quote for you sometime). But, that is the basic difference between essays as I assign them and the blogs we do – for the essays, I want you to organize it. This is part of becoming a writer who considers the reader, because it is much easier for the reader if you organize your work – if you revise it, put similar thinking together, and eliminate any unneeded phrases and examples. Now, knowing that I will not be able to turn you into thorough revisers (I have to know my limits as a teacher) I will offer this tip – if you want to avoid having to revise too much, but you want your writing to make sense to the reader, organize it before you write. Jot a couple notes and maybe an outline to map out where you’re going. Then, when you spit out that flow, hopefully it can follow that prearranged order rather than a potentially random stream of consciousness.

7. You are very smart – when motivated. I know this because whenever I can get you to invest yourself in the assignment, whether it’s reading The Old Man and the Sea or explaining your thoughts on a book of your choice, you express insight and intelligence. But if something does not interest you, many of you are not manufacturing enough curiosity to motivate yourself. Motivation comes from within, and if you cannot actively build an interest through questioning and inquiry, you may live out your life plagued by ennui, desperately flipping channels as a passive recipient, waiting for the world to entertain you, wondering why life is so woefully dull. It is dull – to those too inactive to discover what it has to offer. There is a reason this quote sits atop my website:

“Only the curious will learn and only the resolute overcome the obstacles to learning.”Eugene S. Wilson

Be curious. Overcome obstacles. Discover the world by taking charge of your learning. I am here to help you begin your journey, and I hope you can be more serious about being real, being determined, and being educated.


Original image: ‘Using more iPod Book
by: Brian Moore

Released under an Attribution-ShareAlike License


Original image: ‘the pilot p-500
by: Matthew Chastain Wright

Released under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License