The challenge of challenging students: Have you met it?

I had a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. From the entry, I could see a woman, probably in her early twenties, wearing a Covid-protective mask and face shield, seated at a table in the hallway. The woman recorded my name, the purpose of my visit, took my temperature, and sent me on to the doctor’s receptionist. I couldn’t help thinking the woman’s job could be done by a reasonably intelligent fifth grader. She must be bored nearly to tears.

After my appointment, I noticed that the clerk who had signed me in had a tablet on her desk propped up at reading angle. As I zipped up my coat, I asked her what she liked to read, and she said fantasy fiction was what she most enjoyed. She’d just finished a fantasy novel and didn’t have anything else on her device to read.

Lady in Civil War era hat and dress
Paperback edition of the novel

I said I’m not a big fan of fantasy fiction, and that I’m currently rereading a 1980s novel that had fascinated me when I read it as part of my GreatPenformances survey of the twentieth century’s bestselling fiction: Helen Hooven Santmyer’s  “…And Ladies of the Club.”  It’s a novel about a dozen women in a small southern Ohio town between the Civil War and FDR’s election in 1932, their families, and about how America and Americans changed over those decades.

“…And Ladies of the Club” is over 1,000 pages of small print. It’s not difficult reading, I told the clerk, but it does require you to pay close attention. I’ve found I need to draw family tree diagrams to keep the characters straight. The book fascinates me not only because it’s about a rural community that wouldn’t have been very different from our village in the same period, but also because so much of the national politics of the period sound very much like the political news we get on TV every day.

When I finished my book pitch, the clerk surprised me by asking, “What’s that title again?”  She wrote down the title and the author’s name and said she thought she’d like to read that book.

I’d gotten lucky.

I hadn’t recommended a book the clerk would enjoy: I’d unwittingly offered her a challenge, a book that would require all the mental skills she didn’t need to use in her clerical job. She could accept the challenge or not as she chose.

For me, the most difficult part of teaching teens and adults is identifying challenges for each student that they accept as having personal relevance to them. I wish I knew a sure-fire, never-known-to-fail way to produce personally challenging writing activities for each of my students, but I don’t. For me, it’s always a lucky shot, hit-or-miss, never “results guaranteed.”

What about you? Have you mastered the challenge of providing appropriate challenges to teens and adult students? If so, would you share your insights?

©2021 Linda G. Aragoni

Novel predictions for 2045

Novelists seem to have an uncanny knack for telling the future in the present tense. While reading bestselling novels of the 1990s, I’ve been struck by how often writers of that decade mention ideas and activities that are only now becoming strong enough to attract public attention.

Future foretold in the present tense.

Here are a few observations from the 1990s that I scribbled in my notebook.

front dust jacket of 1993 novel The Scorpio IllusionComparing the early 1990s with the Cold War years, in his 1993 novel The Scorpio Illusion Robert Ludlum writes, “We’re no longer dealing with people who think anything like the way we used to think. We’re dealing with hate, not power of geopolitical influence, but pure, raw hatred. The whipped of the world are turning, their age-old frustrations exploding, blind vengeance paramount.”

front dust jacket of DisclosureMichael Crichton in his 1994 novel Disclosure says, “We all live every day in virtual environments, defined by our ideas.”

donkey on Primary Colors dust jacket
In the political novel Primary Colors, the famous author Anonymous has a 1996 presidential candidate leveling with low-income voters about their futures: “Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap—and that’s not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you’re gonna have to exercises a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.”

American flag is dust jacket background
In Executive Orders, another 1996 novel about the presidency, Tom Clancy reflects that “admitting error was more hateful to [Washington leaders] than any form of personal misconduct.”

A question for novel-reading English teachers

Here’s a question for your readers of this blog who are English teachers, your book clubs, and perhaps your students:

What themes in today’s fiction do you predict will be featured every news cycle 25 years from now?