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ADHD, teaching, and me

5 November, 2011

I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned this, but last year I was diagnosed with ADHD, the inattentive sort.* If you know me in real life, you know I am not physically hyperactive, but I am easily one of the most unorganized humans I know. In my brain, everything happens at once. Sort of. I have spent my life with at least two conversations going on in my head at once, sometimes more. Combine this with the sort of processing that seems common for introverts, and my head can get really crowded. Much of my ability to do anything has to start with putting thoughts in little boxes and telling my brain to STFU. On the other hand, once I get stuck into something, I become so hyperfocused that I really do forget things like eating, going to the bathroom, places I need to be… (this is why I tried for a long time to stay away from computer games and MMORPGs — I know very well that on some days, especially when I’m overloaded, the only thing that would limit my game time is the fact that too many hours in front of the screen triggers migraines and/or nausea). I listened to a podcast the other day, a BBC documentary I downloaded months ago (for once I have to say I really like iTunes, because it lets me save podcasts after they are no longer available for download), and was struck by something the narrator said, because it wasn’t something that I’d really heard before. He and another person with ADHD were talking about how those mad, rushing, jumbled thoughts also meant that they often made lateral leaps that they really valued. I think that’s also true for me — I have a very hard time thinking about anything without automatically connecting it to everything else, from the obvious to the very obscure. For many people, including my students, this comes out as going on tangents. They are often not appreciated, but some of my students actually say that my tangents help them to get a grip on the information.

Why does this matter? Lots of reasons. First, I’d never really thought about lateral thinking as a concept until about a week ago, when I went to an in-house workshop on teaching students to read. I’ve been having more and more trouble understanding why my students aren’t doing as well as I’d like. One of the things I’ve targeted as a problem is a decline in reading comprehension and in the ability to summarize. This was something that all my colleagues in the workshop thought was a problem. It was an interesting group: Superdean, our Oracle of Teaching, and I (i.e., three historians), someone from education, a Comp/Rhet person, a librarian, two scientists, and a couple of people I don’t know. The presenter was from one of the professional schools not known for brilliance in pedagogy, but the presentation was really useful. He had a strategy for helping get students to read better, and it looked like it could be adapted to different sorts of materials. In reality, it wasn’t different to what I expect, and what I try to model for students, but it seems to me that one of the real weaknesses of my approach is that many students don’t know how to recognize and use models.

Before I go on, I should say that I come from a family where most conversations reflect this sort of thinking. We’re certainly not all intellectuals, but most of the people are interested in learning stuff, and you have to stay on your toes to follow all the threads when we’re all together. “But what about…?” and “what else …?” are two of the most frequently used questions. We pick, we argue, we deconstruct… and we start doing this really early. Not all of us, mind you, but enough that a family gathering can be really intellectually stimulating. We all came out of the same school systems, by and large, and all of the grandparents and parents are the type of people who encouraged us to follow our trains of thought, pick apart our assumptions, and help us find out the answers to questions we had about the world.

I don’t think many of my students have had that. At home, some of them certainly have done. But in school, not so much. There’s no points for going off-topic. It distracts from the test. My students are of the age where many have been diagnosed with ADHD. If what I experience is anything like normal, then I cannot imagine what has been shut down in their heads in service to the “passing” of standardized tests. And I literally cannot imagine how they approach information, or education. I am not saying I think I need to entirely change my approach, or my standards. But more and more, I find that my students just don’t understand me. So, for example, in one of my classes, with students who are all second-years and above, we spent significant time discussing readings that likened reading and writing to a conversation. We enter the conversation, we engage with the opinions of others by arguing against them, clarifying them, and questioning them, we state our own opinions and answer their questions by drawing on evidence, etc. I also talked separately about engaging with the materials we read, asking questions of them, making comments on the authors’ arguments, connecting one reading or example to something else. And three weeks later, a brave student finally said, “I don’t understand what you mean by “engage with the material.”

I spent an hour getting the students to think about some of the frameworks we use to put together historical pictures. Frameworks was not really the best word, but still, whatever it was, we spent an hour talking about how historians looked at political things, social things, economic things — and we broke them down, added in all of the other organizational headings we might use (e.g., institutions, class, religion, gender, etc.), and then went over how many of these concepts overlapped, and how, for example, something could be seen in one context as mostly social, and another as mostly political. In my head, I was giving them a lot of ways to organize information and connect it. But several weeks later, some of the students admitted that they really wished I’d given them some tools to help keep things straight.

These are not dumb people. They aren’t particularly lazy, either. But there is a communication gap, and I’m not sure how to bridge it. Given the education system in this country, and what the ConDems seem to want to do to education in the UK, I don’t know that it will get better, either. And when I am in a classroom where students are not engaged, where they are not prepared to discuss (because discussing based on evidence is not something they know), I get stressed. When I’m stressed, it seems to overpower the meds I now take, and I get distracted. I know what I want to talk about when I go to class, but it depends on the students taking part. The mental effort it takes to keep focused, answer questions that are ones I don’t anticipate at all, and then tie them back to the theme I planned on– or switching it up entirely because students have good questions on something I thought wouldn’t need explanation or be interesting — is phenomenal. Teaching used to give me energy, but not anymore. So I need to figure out how to be effective in away that counteracts the drain, so I can have the energy when I need it to read and write my own things. Any suggestions?

Oh — and just because I don’t want it all to sound awful, I had meetings with students on papers this week. Some were dire, and made me want to cry, because several students have simply ignored all my advice and don’t have anything at this point. And they are working on topics that seem to me to be incredibly straightforward, like, “the effects of X on Y, for which there are tons of sources, primary and secondary.” My instructions were, “there’s a lot of secondary stuff, but you can do this by narrowing it down to, “here is what scholars say about the national picture, so I’m going to test it by looking at these people/these records on a local/regional scale.” But a few of meetings were really cool. Students who had done lots of work, but got caught up in secondary sources, or had lost track of their topics, or were finding that they couldn’t make the arguments they had wanted. But they were all right there when I started asking them questions about what they *did* have. Suddenly, they had papers again. And not only that, at least two of them were dancing around what seem to me to be rather sophisticated questions that they reached in ways that are so very different to what any of the others are doing. Both started with a theological idea (different ones, but along the lines of “predestination” or “sodomy”), and both were really down, because, “I thought I could talk about predestination in this period and look and see how it connected to sources in that period, but it’s like they are talking about totally different things!” “Ok. Do your secondary sources discuss how or why there’s a difference?” “No. In fact, it’s as if the authors think that predestination is always predestination, but what the people at the time are saying seems totally unrelated.” “so… ” “so I can write about what people at the time are saying, and how they seem to be defining predestination in a different way?”

Unless I have forgotten how to do the scholarship thing entirely, I kinda think they have papers. They seem like very hard papers, and I don’t know that they will be as complete as I’d like. But what strikes me is that these particular students don’t seem to be phased at all about their topics — just the finding of enough sources. ADHD and differentiated teaching. Two things that probably aren’t all that well suited to each other.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 6 November, 2011 1:31 am

    This may sound counterintuitive. I have ADHD too (in fact, I’ve written about it in my blog), and the meds I take now have helped me a lot with my research. However, I usually don’t take them on my teaching days because they make me feel worse: I get so much spontaneous energy from teaching that if I take the meds I feel like an overcaffeneited Energizer bunny. And I actually lose focus. You mention that you feel that lately your students don’t understand you. Could it be related? Just a thought, I can honestly say for me it has taken a lot of time to adjust and find what works best for me.

    • 6 November, 2011 2:14 am

      See, I don’t get spontaneous energy from teaching, except when the students are on task and are prepared. And when they are, I am fine, with or without the meds. But there might be a difference in how I react to the silences. I’ll have to think about that. The thing is, I’ve never felt like I’m speeding. I do feel a bit removed from things, and I don’t feel focused. My head just has less chatter in it.

  2. Contingent Cassandra permalink
    7 November, 2011 3:03 am

    This all sounds quite familiar, from the combination of introvert processing and possibly some ADHD (I think the explanation for me leans more heavily to the fact that I’m a strong introvert, since I don’t really come out anywhere near ADHD on any of the do-it-yourself tests, but there are very definitely a lot of times when I’m much more attuned to what’s going on in my head than to outside input — especially oral/aural input, which just doesn’t grab my attention the way written words do) to students’ increasing difficulty with reading. I teach writing in the disciplines rather than content courses anyway, so I have a somewhat easier time: I can point out features of the readings that make it easier for them to understand those while pointing out that they should follow similar conventions in their own writing. However, I’m increasingly beginning to suspect that should I ever make the switch back to teaching in my field (something I’d like to do) that my time in comp will serve me well, since I’m used to foregrounding the skills involved in my classes, rather than assuming the students will absorb and understand them implicitly (as I did).

    I also do the “that’s a fascinating and huge scholarly conversation; how about finding a small, local, heretofore-unexamined example to practice on” tactic (which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t; I spend a lot of time gently herding my students back into the realm of manageable, focused, primary-source-based projects, while they keep wandering away into the territory of huge ideas derived from secondary sources).

    And yes, I’d say that the students you describe have projects — really cool ones, in fact. One of my most rewarding students this semester keeps sending me emails that begin “I don’t think this is working,” followed by lots of cool observations about his primary sources and statements that are closer to an interesting thesis than many I’ve seen in supposedly finished papers. I think he’s making the leap from black-and-white to more complex theses, and it feels funny because it’s new. He also needed some help with a structure (basic comparison vs. contrast tips worked in this case, and I didn’t have to fear I’d get back a thesis that said “x and y are similar but also different”). I’m sure the end product will have its flaws, but it’s fun for me to watch him thinking — and, even more important, he seems to be enjoying the process, too. It’s nice when it works.

    • 7 November, 2011 12:53 pm

      There are lots of times that I think it’s far more the introversion than the ADHD — I don’t seem to need the meds nearly as much on days when I don’t have to interact with people much AND have structure (like having to catch a train to get to the BL, or a partner or friend who gets up at a particular time and keeps to a schedule). I simply don’t have time to process all the thoughts. And when my classes are on and not screwing around, there’s less chatter…

      The last part of your comment is so encouraging — OH! And reminds me I wanted to talk about differntiated teaching at some point! Thanks!

  3. ScholasticaMama permalink
    7 November, 2011 3:53 am

    Really interesting post. I find I am struggling very similarly to you – but without the ADHD. I spend _a lot_ of time talking about what I call the “craft of history” and students still struggle. I created an outline of a history paper (practically a sentence-by-sentence guide) and have repeatedly referenced it all semester and had a student tell me last week that if I would just tell them exactly what I wanted them to write, that they would do better on the papers. Umm….

    I don’t think I have any answers. I’m consistently dismayed by the fact that practically none of my students read for pleasure. Is it “teach to the test” mentality? I feel like it, but I just don’t know. I did find one exercise helpful – I had them read an article, underline thesis, evidence, interesting points and I did the same thing. Then I put my copy overhead and we talked about what I had underlined, why, and how it related to what they had done. That seemed to help – but I can’t do it for every reading.

    I’m really interested in what other commentors say here!

    • 7 November, 2011 12:55 pm

      Ooh — I should do that. Actually, we ARE going over a rather difficult article together, and I’m good with that. Later this week, they are reading a paper I submitted to a journal, and the R&R comments I got back, in preparation for peer review. We’ll see.

  4. 7 November, 2011 10:50 pm

    I was just thinking about the communication gap today on a smaller but still relevant level. In my composition and argument class, students are learning how to cite and document sources. Today, I was showing them how to cite a “work in an anthology” because I know they will need to do it.

    But they didn’t know what an anthology was, so right there we had a problem. They can’t rely on their handbooks very well if they don’t know any of the terminology.

    I’m noticing more and more that vocabulary is a problem. I don’t know if the problem is worse than it used to be or if I’m just more attuned to my students and what they do and do not understand. I’m also realizing that a lot of times they don’t understand the comments that I write on their papers.

    We seem to be speaking a different language, and I’m not always sure where to begin bridging the gaps of confusion.

    • 7 November, 2011 11:47 pm

      Oh, I think vocab is a HUGE problem. I have a regular patter that includes things like “monarchy,” “citizen,” “slave,” “polytheism,” etc. Plus I teach them a lot of furrin words.

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