This week and last week, we've been talking about conversation rituals in my freshman composition classes. Recently we spent a week discussing public space--what it is, and how we come to learn the rituals for moving acceptably in and out of it. I thought about--not for the first time--how so much of teaching involves helping students understand that so much about success in college has to do with how a student learns to develop and use rituals to help them succeed in the classroom: sitting always in the front row, for instance, taking out your book when you first come in, taking notes, coming to class prepared with a question and/or answer--all of these things can help a student not only achieve in the classroom, but slowly and surely create the mindset for success.
Last week my students spent a class period presenting a project they had worked on. When it was his turn, a young man stood up to talk about his project. Because so many of my students had surrounded their presentations with certain rituals connected with public speaking (note cards, standing up straight, showing visual aids, sticking to the assignment format), I expected him to do much of the same. Instead, he reluctantly came to the front of the class, and spent his time venting in an aggressive manner about what a waste of time the project had been to him. I've taught many young men like him before--students who had to learn, for whatever the reasons--that their ability to survive any situation is desperately connected with their ability to project toughness and an "I don't care" attitude about everything.
How on earth to turn that tense classroom moment into a teachable one is a post for another day, but my first reaction was to be angry with him; angry because if there's one thing I try and instill in my students, it's that they should always question and feel free to constructively criticize the course at any point. I encourage them to challenge the readings, to try and learn that no matter what kind of writer they might be (or think they are), they have the authority to put pen to paper and take issue with the material. While I wasn't angry that he had found the assignment "useless", I was ticked off that he'd so poorly expressed his feelings and made his peers upset.
After talking with him further, once he'd calmed down, I realized that in many ways this student has communication challenges that are not all that different from L.'s. Just as L. is so often oblivious to many of the rituals--conversational and social--that he needs to learn in order to succeed in society, this student is challenged, too. He simply doesn't know what to do with his insecurity, his poor self-esteem, and how to articulate his misplaced anger at not understanding simple classroom rituals. He had previously demonstrated that he just simply hadn't ever learned, or been given the opportunity to learn, many of the rituals associated with classroom etiquette (not speaking out without raising his hand; respecting classmates' opinions; taking notes, etc.). Many of the rituals we learn as we move through the world are so simple, yet our ability to use them effectively can make the difference between success and failure; between getting a job and losing one; between making friends and remaining alone.
We're trying something new with L., inspired, I'm a little embarrassed to say, by something we saw on the show Parenthood. In one episode Max, the child with Asperger's, tells his parents that his behavioral aide extraordinaire (one of the unreal aspects of the show that drives me nuts--wouldn't it be lovely to be able to afford a practically live-in behavioral aide to do all the "dirty" work of parenting a child with AS?) to earn a sticker he has to ask a "feeling question" (how was your day? How was the meeting? How do you feel today?) to show he's interested in what others have to say. At our house, we call these questions "connecting questions."
We decided to try this out with L. He never, ever, ever (did I say never?) asks these types of questions at home. In fact, getting him to initiate or participate in any type of conversation that involves the ritual back-and-forth dialogue is very rare, and becoming more so the older he gets. At dinner, we're lucky to get him to sit/stand for 10 minutes before he's done. Because he's usually eager to rush off to his own room, or back to a project he's working on, or to the computer, we tell him he can't go anywhere until he asks a "connecting question".
Does he care about the answer? I'm sure he doesn't--and not because he's being insensitive, but asking those types of questions--questions that are less about information-gathering geared to a particular purpose, just don't occur to him. And sometimes I feel we're spinning our wheels on this--especially the nights when he barks out "howwasyourdayokayfineleavemealone" and rushes off, so fast he leaves cartoon dust clouds in his wake. But I stick fast to my belief that scripting the rituals of conversation, and learning to use them, is a critical life skill--one most of us take for granted, one we really have to try and learn, no matter where we come from, or how we're wired.