ADHD, teaching, and me
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.