I have a good memory.  I remember lots of things about being a child and a teenager and a young adult.  This sometimes comes in handy as a teacher and a mom, because I have a lot of empathy given that I remember similar feelings.  But one thing I tend to forget is what it feels like to be a student.

I have taken classes as an adult, of course.  Not only do I remember college and graduate school, but I’ve also taken classes along the way to support my teaching.  In general, I’m a good student.  I look at the work that has to get done, I pace myself, and I work hard  (without usually having to work really, really hard).  I like to do a good job and I like it when teachers are pleased with something I’ve done or said.  Really, I’m the same student I was as a child.

And so therefore it is sometimes frustrating to me when I see a student struggling, or a student who clearly doesn’t like school, or a student who doesn’t seem to be seeking my praise and delight.  These are foreign concepts to me.  Sure, I struggled in a few classes over the years, but I attributed that to a tricky subject matter or an unclear teacher, not to something about me.  Some students are ciphers in the way they feel about being a student.  It’s not a role they enjoy.

But I’m beginning to understand.  To support our study of ancient China this year, I signed up for a class for teachers at our art museum.  It’s on “Religious Arts in Southeast Asia.”  I’ve taken a few classes there before, and they’re always interesting.  There are four sessions, and I’ve now had three of them.

The schedule and format each session are the same.  We arrive at the media room for a two-hour lecture by a professor about a particular region.  We have an hour-long break for lunch, then meet quickly before heading up to the actual galleries for another two-hour lecture by that professor with actual objects.  We then meet again to summarize and talk about what we’d like to see more of as teachers.

The professors have been amazing.  They’re knowledgeable and engaging and interesting.  I take copious notes.  The galleries are full of things I knew nothing about, and now I know some things about their origin and meaning.  The other teachers are, for the most part, intelligent and thoughtful, and I’ve enjoyed chatting with them and eating lunch with them.

I have, however, discovered that my brain feels full before the day is over.  After about an hour in the galleries, I start to tune out.  I have trouble focusing on what the professor is saying, and my eyes roam the room.  My brain starts thinking about songs that have the word Buddha in them, or about Simpsons episodes on Zen Buddhism.  I take fewer notes and start doodling.  I am sure that there have been meaningful things said in the second hour of the gallery talks, but I don’t really remember them.  I look at my watch, I notice that my shoes are starting to hurt, I look out the window and wonder if it’s warmer or colder than forecasted.

Granted, it’s a more intense class experience than my students or I have been in.  Our classes at school are about an hour at most (appropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders).  My college courses involved 70 minute lecture courses or labs that were a couple of hours, but generally not an entire day on one topic like this class.  Six hours of class with an hour break for lunch is, indeed, a very intense day, and we don’t expect our students to do anything like this.

Still, I know that what I’m feeling at hour three of “Buddhism in Korea” is what some of my students feel after 20 minutes of math class.  And I know that it’s a hard feeling to overcome.  Do I want to be more focused and attentive?  Yes.  Does that matter to my brain?  No.

One of the things I have tried, in an attempt to keep myself focused, is to ask more questions.  But I’ve also now had the experience twice in the last three sessions of asking what I think is a totally reasonable question about Buddhism (which, to be honest, I’m still just not really understanding as a system of beliefs), only to be responded to by the professor with some irritation, as if I’ve asked the stupidest question ever and clearly haven’t been listening.  This is also a new experience for me, and it makes me shut down.  If I’m going to be treated like that, why raise my hand at all?  I’ll just go back to doodling and wondering how much longer we’re going to be in this dark room of artifacts.

I find I have a new understanding of some of my students thanks to this class.  I know what it’s like to start to lose focus despite my best intentions.  I know what it’s like to ask what feels like a completely rational question, only to be met with frustration by a teacher who thinks it’s not a very good question.  I know what it feels like to know that I’m learning a lot, but to look forward to the end of the class.  Now I can use this experience to help me reach those who are struggling, which is perhaps a more important lesson to have learned than the many pages of notes I took on the rise of Buddhism.

I am lucky that I am a decent speller.  I don’t have to wonder how to spell most words, and I can recognize it immediately when I’ve misspelled something.  Growing up, I attributed this to being a voracious reader.  My parents also spelled well and were eager readers.  My brother preferred nonfiction and didn’t read much for fun as a boy, but his spelling was still pretty good.  So I decided that reading must have some connection to spelling.

As a middle school teacher for ten years (and now a 4th/5th grade teacher for the last three years), I observed many things about spelling, and I’m more confused than ever about what good spelling correlates with.  There were, generally speaking, four categories of students in terms of spelling and other academic work.

Category One — students who excelled in all areas, including spelling.  These are the students who get all their words correct every week, no matter what the spelling rule or the challenges given.  They like to read, they like to write, they spell well.  This was the category I would have been in as a child, and it fits my initial thoughts on spelling.  These kids spell well, I would have guessed, because they read.

Category Two — students who struggle in all areas, including spelling.  I don’t have as many of these students as one might expect, but I do have them.  Everything academic is hard, whether it be spelling or math or writing or reading.

Category Three — students who struggle in most areas but excel at spelling.  I encountered this group in middle school and was told by an expert language arts teacher that one reason we had spelling tests was that for some students, it was the only thing we could say in the report was “excellent.”  I guessed at the time that maybe these students memorized easily but had trouble processing complex things.  I’m not sure about that now.  As a middle school teacher, I saw a fair number of students like these, but I see fewer of them now, either because of the age difference or because students have changed in some way.

Category Four — students who are voracious readers and eager writers, but are lousy spellers.  This was a group that, according to my childhood concept, should not exist.  If heavy reading made you a good speller, you should not have readers and writers who spell terribly.  But I do.  Lots of them, actually.  I would say that over the last thirteen years, my category three group has diminished while my category four group has grown.  I don’t understand how you can be an avid reader and NOT notice misspelled words everywhere, but some of my students seem to completely overlook misspelled words.

So what accounts for good spelling?  It’s clearly not just a function of reading or writing.  And it’s clearly not a key correlate of general academic prowess, either.  In fact, the other observation I’ve made over the years is that spelling doesn’t even correlate with spelling;  that is, I’ve seen students ace weekly spelling tests and yet misspell the same words repeatedly in their own writing.  How can you spend all week staring at a word, learning how to spell it, and yet not be able to spell it again days later when you’re writing?

The point of this musing is not to wonder about the future of spelling.  Many people predicted the downfall of spelling with the advent of computers with spell check programs.  The problem with those programs is they don’t actually know what you’re trying to say.  Knowing when to use “it’s” vs. “its” is not something the computer recognizes as an issue.  If it’s a word, it’s spelled correctly.  So I don’t think, at least not yet, that spelling is a dead issue.

But I do wonder what being a good speller or a poor speller means, as spelling doesn’t seem to correlate with much.  I am pleased that my son is a naturally good speller only because I think things are easier that way, but I’m not sure I’d be wringing my hands if he struggled with spelling while continuing to do well in other areas.  Just as some people do math easily in their heads, some people automatically spell well, and in both cases it’s helpful but not required for a meaningful life.