Monthly Archives: March 2010

Really Listening

In my first year of teaching, I had a notebook, its spiral along the top, and I’d flip pages as class progressed.  During my free periods, I’d write scripts of discussion in easy-to-read caps as if I meant to shout the day out, and, along with my own questions, I included student responses.  Not verbatim, but comments sat there on the page, written out lovingly—what I expected them to say.

Which, you can probably guess, is exactly what they didn’t say.

I was young.  I was naïve.  I was idealistic.  One day, I returned to the room from a bathroom break between classes to discover one of my students sitting on my stool, flipping my pages and howling with laughter.  Her performance of “CLASS:…” sent her friends into hysterics.

Planning so carefully helped me study twists and turns—I don’t regret it, and even after being revealed, I continued to script class and did learn to anticipate answers a little more accurately.

But I don’t script anything now.  That work is done, and I’m too lazy.

Instead I improvise.  “Know how to listen,” Plutarch said, “and you will profit even from those who talk badly.”  Teaching is hearing what students really say and making the most of it.  And sometimes, it’s a hard job.

Just before spring break, an interviewer for a summer school visited my classroom.  We were discussing Citizen Kane, and I fixed on really listening, attending to their comments and prodding them to develop and substantiate their perspectives.  Truthfully, I wanted to elude anxiety by asserting very little myself, but I also wanted to demonstrate how central listening is to my teaching, how making a class feel valued often makes their comments valuable.  I had that thought.  “Wow,” passed through my head, and “Gee, I’m really listening.”

And then I lost the thread of what one of my students was saying.  The marker paused over the white board, unsure of its direction, purpose, or reason for being.

Listening requires extraordinary concentration. Albert Guinon said most people, “Are already listening to what they are going to say themselves,” and that statement comes closest to the psychological truth.  We live in anticipation.

The Zen of teaching is treating every moment as unscripted and new, but, if my experience tells me anything, it’s how cultivated that state of mind is.  Strangely, we aren’t born ready to absorb.  There’s too much pouring out to take much in.

Yet, what could be more important than listening?  The health care debates dominating the news over the last week seem a drastic case of pipes pouring and pouring and pouring.  I’m not sure anyone heard anyone else.  The contest came down to who shouted loudest.  Everyone focused on outcomes.  No one was ready for now or the promise it presents.

My children always catch me forming judgments prematurely, about movies, about books, about things their friends have said.  I’ve told them a person needs to know something to interpret it, interpret it to understand it, understand it to appreciate its intent, and appreciate it to judge it, but I often struggle with doing that myself.  Perhaps it’s a symptom of this faster age, but most of us jump straight to judgment.  Listening requires too much patience, too much vigilance.

And desire.  I feel lucky to have been revealed.  I may not have changed my ways when my student aired my script all those years ago, but I did learn something.  I was performing, not teaching, posturing, not engaging, emptying myself when I might absorb ideas to make me more than myself.

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Dear College Admissions Officers,

I hope you can accept this critique in the spirit it’s intended, as advice from someone who believes in the wide choice of colleges in this country, who recognizes the noble and important purpose higher education serves as an instrument of social mobility.  I know I’m not an insider and hope my suggestions won’t sound presumptuous or naïve.  My view is admittedly limited to what I’ve seen teaching at a small independent school and applies only to that finite (and growing more finite) group of truly selective universities and colleges.  However, to someone who experiences the effects of your marketing, your approach to applicants, and your sometimes baffling decisions, the college application process seems a terrible mess.

Here’s what I see:

  • Students applying indiscriminately to large numbers of schools—Though the common application (thankfully) makes applying less arduous and time consuming, being able to shotgun applications delays students’ decision-making.  Many are not really making decisions at all.  Why not apply to ten or fifteen schools when fees are such a small percentage of the cost of college?  Many students decide to decide later and then select from what turns up in April—hardly the optimal, thoughtful process anyone ought to want.
  • Despite growing numbers of applications, the list of schools students apply to seems to be shrinking—Many students aren’t doing their homework to find schools most suited to their skills, interests, and aspirations.  Seniors busy trying to make the grades to qualify for admission naturally fall back on schools they recognize, places with name brand cache.  Because students can decide later, their search falls on the same schools over and over.  Few discover the little-known but wonderful schools who’d rather fund effective education than massive marketing campaigns.
  • Admissions decisions seem more and more capricious—Phantom applicants must make it difficult for you to determine who’s really out there.  It must be tough to say if your acceptance letter is one of five or one of fifteen.  Yet, though you may be admitting more students to reach your yield, the percentage of admits remains essentially the same, and students who thoughtfully apply to four or five schools are at a distinct disadvantage.  You may admit many phantoms before you get to—if you get to—the student who really wants you for the right reasons.  From my angle, you sometimes pass by good candidates and accept disinterested students, which is neither good for you nor good for students’ faith in a meaningful, just procedure.
  • Because students are delaying their shopping to see where they’ve been lucky, nearly all the decisions are yours, not the students’—Right now, the college admissions process seems to create a mass of confused and anxious supplicants.  Instead of embracing an exciting moment in their lives when they might feel empowered to make their first adult decision, applicants feel acted upon.  They see themselves as judged by arbitrary power, as if luck, not twelve years of effort, determines their status and value.

I know you can’t solve all these problems—other players like parents, standardized testing (plus parasitic tutoring services), private and school college counselors, and even teachers like me add pressure to the process.  You may not want to do anything that would shrink your choices.  However, if you are—as you say you are—interested in the education and personal development of young adults, you need to encourage them to make more thoughtful and selective decisions.  You need, at very least, to make the process sensible and, as much as possible, predictable.

To that end, I have eight suggestions:

  1. Open up more about your process—Your rationale for selection is entirely your own, but it needs to be a discernible rationale. Any change undertaken to demystify your work will help make decisions sensible and aid applicants trying to decide if they stand a chance.  You publish average test scores and GPAs and might publish even more numbers—the number of candidates and a thorough statistical summary of who was admitted.  Many high schools are already keeping historical statistics for their own students, but a comprehensive and authoritative document from your end would help immensely.
  2. And, along with numbers, applicants need to know how you reach your decisions, what factors you value and isolate—The absence of a transparent, rational process encourages students to believe in magic. Explaining how you choose freshmen will discourage some potential applicants, but those files will no longer clutter your office either. With fewer applications, you can read more thoroughly and thoughtfully.  Transparency will also keep you honest.  Above all, if you are not need-blind, please say so.  Students who require aid must be able to identify schools that may want them enough to defray their costs.  It seems unfair to lead needy students on.
  3. Compile a list of schools that typically contribute to your freshman class—For some of you, this change may be openly admitting what you do covertly, implicitly, or haphazardly.  Your list of client schools does not have to be comprehensive or exclusive.  You might choose to reserve a substantial majority of your spots for “at large” candidates, but identifying schools that contribute to your freshman class (in coordination with my next suggestion) would refocus your attention on schools rather than individuals while exerting positive influence on secondary education.  I’m not suggesting a new old boys network, quite the contrary.  Your selection of a troubled school might prove inspiring for students there and induce the school to find candidates who will add to the diversity of your freshman class.
  4. Indicate how many students from those schools you can reasonably accept—This number would not be a quota, but a cap or upper limit that would help applicants better understand their chances.  You may choose not to accept that number—you might decide not to accept any—but students in schools like mine might apply less frivolously if they recognized a line forming ahead of them.  They might join another line if they saw fewer people waiting there.  A few might even step out of line to give a better chance to classmates more devoted to that school.
  5. Investigate ways for students to communicate their level of interest—What if students had 30 interest points to distribute among their applications?  Though distributing the points might add another decision to the pile, it would be in the students’ pile, where it belongs.  It might compel applicants to do their homework more carefully and reduce the number of applications they file.  Those interest points might help you predict yields more accurately as well.  You will know when you are taking a chance by admitting a student, and, to me, it seems fair you should share risk.
  6. Eliminate early action and early decision—If you truly want students to make careful and thoughtful decisions, you must grant them time to do so.  You flatter yourself in believing all early candidates want you exclusively.  Some do.  Many simply want the process over with.  Early decisions also create issues of equity and fairness, as early admits often appear to be judged by different criteria than “regular” candidates, adding to the general mystery of the application process.
  7. Reduce or eliminate deferment and waiting lists—These categories demean students.  Rightly or wrongly, most see them as non-decisions, a way of saying, “We don’t really want you, but if we’re strapped for bodies…” They cast you as self-serving and make your marketing materials appear craven and hypocritical.  You try to be nice, but it appears you don’t care about the good will of those you ultimately reject.  If you are serious about your educational ideals, you ought to.
  8. Limit your marketing and redirect it to distinguish your institution from others—High school seniors receive an overwhelming amount of information about colleges, more than they can possibly read or study, some of it from places they have little hope of attending.  Recognizing that colleges may have more common than uncommon elements, you can still highlight what you see as your particular mission, your distinctive niche.  I know about the arms race of the last few years—you don’t dare advertise less—but, make no mistake, your advertising is harmful to the people you court.

As I said at the beginning of this letter, these suggestions may be naïve, unrealistic, or presumptuous.  You may feel the current process serves your interests well, and, after all, what motive do you have to reduce your pool or encourage more students to apply to rival institutions?  Behind all these suggestions, however, is an earnest plea to lessen what’s duplicitous and mysterious in your work.  As someone who has nurtured and encouraged the students you accept and reject, I only want to see them treated with honesty, integrity, and respect.

Yours sincerely,



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Pausing By Walden Pond

This week is “Project Week” at school, and I’m busy planning “Thoreau Down,” five days of building a cabin facsimile, reading and discussing Walden, doing things Thoreauvian, and shedding one modern convenience a day (television, iPod, computer, then cell phone).  I hope the brave students who are undertaking this challenge will find their lives simpler and slower, but I’m a little anxious.  I’m granting myself a slow-down today.  The post below is a reprise of one I wrote on my old blog, Joe Felso.

Please excuse the re-run, but I have a million things to do…

I remember my high school chemistry teacher telling me how grateful I should be that water is densest at 4˚ C. If not for that quirk, ice would sink. Streams, lakes, rivers, and ponds would freeze from the bottom up, and, eventually, underwater glaciers might incorporate surface water altogether.

I don’t have time to be scared by hypotheticals. Water isn’t denser at 0˚ C, and, if it were, the world wouldn’t include Mr. Chadwick explaining why. Though I am a great worrier, I don’t lose sleep considering how things might be different if oxygen were lethal to humans or Eleanor Roosevelt had wings.  Some possibilities reside outside reality.

As a metaphor, however, underwater ice works.

Ice accumulates in the bottom of my life. On the surface, I’m the same pond—sometimes choppy, sometimes serene, sometimes the color of sky, and sometimes its own color.  Yet, something does grow down there. Molecule by molecule it inches to the surface.

Immediate needs come first, and I never reach the bottom of what I want to accomplish. “Put more art on the walls” happens only when the realtor is on the way over, and “Make a will” will wait for my deathbed.

We could set aside a holiday, “National Reckoning Day,” for people to write overdue letters, clean the bathroom, and send the package you taped and addressed three weeks ago and put in the coat closet…beside boots too small for your son that you meant to give to a colleague’s child when it actually was winter and he was that small.

But if you give me a holiday, I’d squander it watching “Groundhog Day” for the twenty-seventh time. You don’t see me donning scuba gear and gathering a chisel and hammer to bust up deep ice.

In Walden Thoreau asks, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?…Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.” He would say I have too much to do and too many of my goals are meaningless. I know, I know, I know already, I am a German Confederacy. I get it. I should live a more deliberate life and make tasks finite, “to front only the essentials of life.”

It’s on my list.

Thoreau may be right, but he would be out of place in my neighborhood, mistaken for homeless and hassled by cops. How can I live by his priorities in Chicago, and how can I figure out what’s essential?  Some unessentials give too much pleasure to be deferred, and some needs are hydras—chop off one head to grow two more… until it becomes a bouquet of monsters.

I’ve been looking for time to front what’s essential, but clarity requires more space and occasion than life affords. “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify” has slipped to the bottom of my to-do’s, adding to the ominous glacier down there, another inadequacy I meant to address.

I’m looking over all I must accomplish. The refrigerator is empty. The sink is full of dishes.  I have the usual stack of papers to grade…which, by the way, do seem to be filling from the deep.

Plus it’s finally something like spring out, which makes matters worse.

Still, here I am, picturing Henry David Thoreau figure skating on Walden Pond, his under-chin beard parting as he turns out of another relaxed toe-loop, smiling all the while.

And I’m jealous.

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First Purchase

This week, a fiction…

Nothing announced the statue was valuable.  The boy spent half of his saved allowance on it, but at a church fair white elephant booth and through several rounds of “Are you sure?” from his mother.  Summoned to assess the purchase, his older brother picked it up, hefted it once or twice, and declared it plaster of Paris.  He told the boy, “Don’t buy it.  It’s made from a kit.  And what do you care about Abe Lincoln?”

But he had money in his pocket and wanted to buy something.  The paint on Lincoln’s bust was metallic, like some his brother applied to models but far shinier and copper, the color of new pennies.  And he did like Lincoln.  He was his favorite president.  They’d studied him in school.  So he bought it, and, on the way home in the car, unrolled it from its newspaper to look closely.  While he was staring into Lincoln’s eyes, his older brother, and now his sister, talked about what a waste of money it was.  His mother shushed them.

“You should put it away now,” she said, “It’s fragile.”

He’d never owned anything fragile and never any art.  Just toys, and those were largely hand-me-downs, scratched-up matchbox cars and other craft that had long lost their pilots, box games he’d have to harangue anyone to play, and other cast-off, mismatched stuff.  He didn’t own much that was just his and had in mind a special spot for Lincoln, on his desk, at the top.  There, he could see Lincoln eye-to-eye when he did his homework.  From there, Lincoln could survey the room and broadcast his approval.

He ran his thumb over Lincoln’s concentrated brow, took the beard at his chin between his finger and thumb as if he meant to caliper its exact dimensions.  Back at the white elephant booth, he’d been afraid to handle it, curbed by his mother’s prohibitions against touching anything, but now it belonged to him. It was his, and he could pick it up whenever he liked.

From the front seat, his mother insisted, “Put it away.”

When they arrived home, he knew not to run to his room—his brother would make fun of him—but he went immediately to install Lincoln in his spot. Then he lay in his bed where he could see Lincoln seeing his room for the first time.  Too excited to recline long, he’d get up to take in the bust from other angles.  He liked his sharp profile against the window and twisted the base once or twice to get the position right.  Once he put his hand to his face the way he’d seen television actors do when they were appraising a beautiful painting.  His sister, who’d sneaked inside his doorway, giggled and ran off.

He should have run after her, but ran toward Lincoln instead.  He was trying to protect the statue, he thought later, but that was little consolation.  He slipped just before he reached the desk and, his hand already outstretched, knocked Lincoln’s bust to the floor.  Being hollow, it shattered on the hard wood, flying into hundreds of pieces, few bigger than a coin.  Each shard came instantly to a rest, showing its copper or plaster side.

For once, he didn’t think about stopping his tears.  He sat on his bed and counted how long he’d had it, counted the money it cost, counted what his mother and brother and sister might say.

His mother must have heard him because she appeared a few minutes later with a broom and a dustpan.  She sat down on the bed beside him and put her hand on his back.  For a few minutes he felt it jump with his ragged breathing.

“You have to clean it up,” she said finally, “Honey, didn’t I tell you not to play with it?”

In another hour, he was out in the yard, telling the kid next door he’d only bought it to break it and how cool it was watching Lincoln’s head explode.  He laughed until he almost believed it, but then something kept burning in his eyes that made him turn away.  His older brother stood nearby with a football, staring at him.

He slapped the ball twice against his other hand and gestured with his chin.

“Go long,” he said, and the boy ran as far and fast as he could.

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