Finding the Right Level

I had what I thought was a good plan for a class this week.  I was teaching two short stories in my first-year writing class, and I had found an interesting connection between them last semester, which I was hoping to build on this semester.  The two stories are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” and Tea Obreht’s “Blue Water Djinn.”  I wanted the students to see that in the first story, story itself is used to motivate people, while, in the second story, the young boy is told a story to prevent him from doing something.  I like it when stories can relate to real life, so I wanted the students to reflect on these ideas.

What I did, then, was spend the first two thirds or so of class talking about the two stories and getting the students to see these differing roles stories play.  That part went fine.  Then, though, I wanted them to come up with examples of other stories that both inspire us and limit us (or at least keep us from doing something).  I gave them an example of each, then put them into small groups to let them go to work.  The results were rather disappointing.  I don’t blame them, though, I blame myself for this one.

I had given them a task they were not prepared to do as students in their first semester of college.  They just can’t think at that abstract of a level, even after they’ve been given an example or two.  They went with basic examples, such as stories parents tell to keep their kids from doing something, which are fine, but I was hoping for stories that went beyond that.  I wanted them to see how stories we tell on a national level or even just a community level (my example came from a myth about relationships on our campus) exclude people whose stories don’t fit with that narrative, something like the American Dream, for example.

What I should have done, I know now, was to give them numerous examples and ask them to think through how those stories inspire us or limit us (or both, as stories are more complicated than one or the other, most of the time).  That would have helped them begin to see the positive and negative power of stories, but it would not have required them to hit a level of thinking they’re just not ready for yet.

This is one of the most challenging parts of teaching for me, even now.  I know what I want students to be able to do, but I have a tendency to expect them to be able to do too much too soon.  That’s better than expecting too little of them, certainly, as I would rather push them too far than not push them at all.  Still, if I continually push them too far, then they can get frustrated and shut down or just not learn what I’m hoping they learn.

One way to avoid this is to think of the entire semester as one long class period.  Everything we do this week should be building toward something for the next week.  That way, I can think of today’s class, not as one chance they have to get an idea, but as one step toward learning overall thinking skills that I want them to have by the end of the semester.  That’s what comforts me about class this week.  They might not have gotten the idea I was hoping they would see yet, but I have more chances, and that class meeting was just one step on the way.

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2 thoughts on “Finding the Right Level

  1. It’s something of a relief to hear that an experienced teacher can run into this problem. I often propose a concept for class and expect response that, if I’m honest with myself, took me a lot of time and experience to fully understand. Sometimes I wonder if my love for peer discussion trumps my good sense of a logical progression of ideas throughout a course. Thanks for you thoughts on the subject.

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    • It really is a constant struggle. I’ll ask a question, and I’ll wonder why no one is talking. Sometimes it’s because it’s too easy and obvious and sometimes because I’ve asked them to make a jump they’re just not read to make. If teachers are going to do discussion, they have to constantly keep track of this idea, I think.

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