The Cat Parade

Hungry souls“Use these five structures to make three different complaints about your program. You have four minutes.” The task is good, clear, timed and goal oriented. I can’t go wrong. Adding a little excitable jest to it, I grab my watch and assume the ‘I am timing you’ position. “Ready? And then I let them loose with an exaggerated, “Go!”

For some reason, I expect them to sprint towards the goal like curious cheetahs across the academic Serengeti to attack the linguistic gazelles grazing on the fruits of the information they demand. But instead, it’s as though I’ve overturned a box of kittens, and then asked them to march in a parade. (n.b. No metaphors were harmed in the writing of this post)

There are eight university students in the room, so one assumes they’d have the mental ability to concentrate on a task for more than, say, 8 milliseconds.

But, no.

The room becomes a scene of disarray, mental wandering, gazing, Slavic languages and technological distractions. There is only one thing to do: act insane.

By this, I don’t mean lose my temper or shout at them. I mean that sometimes the best way to get a student’s attention is to bring insanity into the classroom. When something is strange, it grabs the attention, even if the listener isn’t terribly interested. This goes for activities and examples too. Consider this, which sentence demonstrating the meaning of the word ‘unhappy’ do you think the student will best remember?

She was unhappy because her cat died.

She was unhappy because her cat was eaten by a thousand pigs.

I’m just saying, sometimes it helps to act like a lunatic. And so I do.

“Honza, how many of the answers do you have?

“Oh, I am just asking Marketa about our homework for history.”

“Is that what I asked you to do?” My left eye starts twitching, though whether this is play-acting a lunatic or the resulting physical manifestation of having to deal with these people for a year, I honestly cannot answer. “Are you in history now?”

“No…” (eyes cast downward, conveying shame).

“Honza, I want you to do make those complaints and if you aren’t finished in three minutes, I am going to kill your dog.” At this, the students all look at me in absolute shock. The cat parade has been halted momentarily. I have gotten their attention with a drastic measure, not unlike getting my cat’s attention by putting her face in my mouth and humming Ride of the Valkyries. However, now I don’t have to make it up to my students by covering a sardine in liver pâté and looking the other way.

“Um, but I don’t have a dog.”

“Then I will buy you one and kill it. Get to work.”

He begins writing and I reflect on how rewarding it is to be present at the birth of a lifelong psychological issue.

This seems to work and I enjoy my job for approximately seventeen seconds. At second eighteen, a bird flies by the window, so everyone needs to check their Smart phones to make sure that all of their friends are on Facebook. I begin circling the room and monitoring like a policeman on crowd control at a Grateful Dead concert. I want to make sure the activity is moving along, but when I approach any group, the students halt their (totally unrelated) discussions and stare at the paper with pens in their hands and guilty looks on their faces. It’s time again.

“You guys doing OK?”


“OK…stop looking at my shoe!”

“I wasn’t!”

“Get back to work.” I back away slowly while watching them. They begin to work. Throughout the remaining minute and a half of the activity, the students lose focus three more times. I rein them in by singing to my pen, banging my head against the whiteboard and doing a moonwalk.

They finally stick to the assigned work and I see discussions, teamwork and note writing. This is great! They’re doing the activity; they’re actually discussing complaints about the program, coming up with ideas and writing them down.

Upon feedback it becomes apparent that there was a cohesive subject to the eventual success of the activity, something they all found highly interesting and controversial to complain about: Me.

Dammit, the cats are on parade, and they’re organized.

  1. #1 by Jeremy Nicholson on January 10, 2013 - 1:16 am

    A couple editing issues, but considering the greatness that is the line, “Then I will buy you one and kill it. Get to work.”, I think they are excusable. I did nearly fall off the side of my bed when I read that exchange.

  2. #2 by Andy on January 10, 2013 - 9:35 pm

    “…I reflect on how rewarding it is to be present at the birth of a lifelong psychological issue.”

    Story of my life, brother. It sure makes for great stories though!

(will not be published)