Heartache in the Classroom (or “Higher” Education, my ass.)

Remember that course I described a couple of weeks ago? Here’s what happened in it today.

Backstory: The course is nearly entirely group work (yes, yes, the unschool post is coming, I promise!) One student, whom I’ll call “Abby,” after two class days, was contributing absolutely nothing and was clearly disinterested. I changed the groups up a bit, as I do (more on that in another post also), and she was in a group with three other students who had been quiet in their groups. The other three were much more comfortable, but Abby remained unengaged. On the second day of work with that group, she was sleeping with her head on the desk – during the group conversation. Today – after she had her head on the desk again – I moved her again, into a group with three students who are talkative but clearly struggling (or not even bothering to struggle, I can’t tell yet) with the material. (And yes, yes, an entire post on group work, pedagogy and unschooling is coming soon!)

Fifteen minutes after the change, she had done nothing. She saw me looking (glaring?) at her, stared down at the book and began to speak, thinking I would assume she was offering an insight or a question about the material. She was not, though; she was complaining about it and about the class. I called her out of the classroom to speak with her. And, make no mistake about it, I was pissed.

Me: I have moved you into three different groups now, trying to find one where you won’t fail the course. It looks to me like you’re determined to fail the course.
Her: I CANNOT read this book. I can’t do it. And I love to read. I mean, I love to read! But I CANNOT read this book.
Me: What do you mean? What happens when you try to read it?
Her: I just – I don’t know – I read it and then I don’t remember what the first part of the sentence said. I just don’t understand ANY of it. NOTHING.
Me: Hold on.

I go into the classroom and bring out my book. I ask her to follow me while I search for an empty classroom. Finding none, we sit on a bench in the hallway.

Her: Wait, I have a question. When we’re reading, what are we supposed to be looking for?
Me: Okay, there’s the first problem. If you’re reading it that way, you’re already lost. You’re not “looking for” anything. You’re reading. You’re reading the words and thinking about what they mean.

She sighs. I open the book and point to a paragraph.

Me: Read that. Not out loud, just to yourself. Read it, and stop and tell me when you don’t know what’s going on.

[This is the sentence:

“In the preceding chapter we may have given the reader excellent grounds to decide that sociology is ready to take over the title of “the dismal science” from economics. Having presented the reader with an image of society as a forbidding prison, we ought now to indicate at least some escape tunnels from this gloomy determinism” (Berger 1963:93). ]

Two seconds later:

Her: Okay, he’s, like, saying that in the last chapter….it was like…not so good….something about a prison…. but now there are going to be some tunnels?
Me: What about a prison and tunnels?
Her: Um…society is a prison?
Me: Read it again.

She reads.

Her: Okay, it’s like – in the last chapter he was saying that sociologists think society is like a prison, but….now…now in this chapter, there will be escapes from that.
Me: Yes. Exactly. So I don’t buy for a second that you can’t read this. The issue appears to me to be that you don’t want to. Try this one:

“This significance of role theory could be summarized by saying that, in a sociological perspective, identity is socially bestowed, socially sustained and socially transformed” (Berger 1963: 98).

Her: I can’t read this sentence because it’s about role theory and I don’t understand what role theory is.
Me: Change it to something else and make sense of the sentence. Make “role theory” “llamas:” The significance of llamas could be summarized…

Unfazed, she looks back down at the page.

Her: Okay, some of those words I don’t know…
Me: What’s “transformed?”
Her: Changed.
Me: What’s “sustained?”
Her: Umm….like sort of kept up.
Me: Yes.
Her: But SEE? That doesn’t make any sense!!
Me: What doesn’t make sense?
Her: First he’s saying that it’s kept up and then it’s changed. That makes no sense.
Me: What is the “it” in that sentence?
Her: Society.
Me: Read it again. That’s good, to stop when you’re confused because it makes no sense. But the next step is to read it again. If it makes no sense, you’re probably missing something in your reading. Read it until it makes sense.

She looks exhausted, but she reads.

Her: Identity. Identity is given by the social, kept up by the social and changed by the social.
Me: Okay, so first of all, no more saying you can’t. I have a dozen students in there who would have taken twenty minutes to do what you just did in 3. It’s not supposed to be easy. You have to work to understand some of it. But you’re perfectly capable. You just don’t want to bother.
Her: Yeah, you’re right.
Me: But WHY?
Her: I don’t want to read it the way you want me to read it.
Me: Well, how do you want to read it?
Her: I just want to, like, read the words.
Me: Without understanding what they say?
Her (and I swear her eyes lit up as if I FINALLY understood what she’d been trying to tell me): YES!
Me: But then what?
Her: Then I’ll be done with the reading.
Me (incredulous): Are you paying for this education?
Her: Yeah.
Me: Let me ask you something. Suppose you walk into McDonald’s and you order a burger. Do you eat meat?
Her: Yes.
Me: Okay, so you walk into McDonald’s and you order a burger. They take your money and hand you your burger. You go sit down to eat it and you open it up and there’s a bun, but there’s no meat inside. Do you eat it?
Her: No!
Me: Why not?
Her: Because I paid for the burger, so they owe me…a burger.

She gives me a slow, grudging half-smile as it dawns on her.

Me: This is what this school owes you, Abby. An education. Not your eyes glossing over words that mean nothing, wasting your time, sitting there day after day getting nothing out of it. You can do it that way; it’s your choice. And I’m sure you can pass other classes that way; you can get your degree – your bun – that way. You can drop this class and take it with someone else, where you won’t have to read until you actually understand what it is you’re reading. It’s up to you. But I gotta tell you, that’s a real shame, because you clearly can do this. You just don’t want to. Really, you’re just hell bent on walking out of here with just the bun, because it’s easier that way.
Her: You’re right.
Me: But if you’re staying in this class, you’re not going to pass like this, so you won’t even get the credits this way. You have to work the reading. And, quite frankly, I just took you out of a group that was going strong and put you into a struggling group. Now you’re going to need to step up if your discussions are going to help any of you to understand the material.
Her: You’re right. She sighs. I’ll go back through the other four chapters and read them in order to understand them.
Me: Glad to hear it. I look forward to seeing what you bring to the table from now on.
Her: Okay.
Me: And no more sleeping in my class.

More thoughts on this another time…and I’ll let you know how things go.


Berger, Peter. 1963. An Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. New York: Anchor Books.


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