Facts and Feelings: The Challenge of Moving from Darkness to Light

This is the time of year when darkness surrounds us; it is also the time when richly varied strands of American society celebrate light, birth and rededication to the values of community.

These days I am spending one evening every week with a small community of learners who are working to master a new language, or, at least, try to. Enlightenment comes slowly. In the room are business people, a medical doctor, teachers and some retirees. We all struggle together toward the light of fluency. I am humbled by my lack of knowledge, annoyed by my slow pace, and envious of the children next door who speak both languages fluently.

I have come face-to-face once again with the difficulty of actually remembering whatever I have heard or read repeatedly during class. I can recognize that a given noun or verb is familiar, yet I cannot dredge up any semblance of a reasonable response. I feel stuck, frozen. Poor Gabby Giffords must experience this frustration 24/7. Experiencing such gaps in knowledge gives me sympathy for what my students must be living through.

Oh sure, I have taken Marzano training; I can recite the fact that it takes upwards of 12 encounters to learn a new word. But knowing a fact is not the same as feeling the fact. It is so easy to forget the sense of “lostness” I feel when I need a word and cannot find it in my brain, a feeling which, I assume, my students often experience too. They must certainly also feel the same hypersensitivity and frustration I do when confronting knowledge holes or chasms.

Another thing I am rediscovering is the inconsistency of my own learning. Last week, in addition to my weekly class, I started a beginning language course on CD. It’s based on the Pimsleur method which is designed to give many, many chances to respond. How curious, I think as I go through each lesson, that I can recall and say a word or phrase correctly at 7:02, and then, at 7:05, mutely search for what I knew three minutes earlier. I would certainly exasperate even a patient teacher.

For me the takeaway message has to do with light and birth and community. Struggling toward the light of learning—while satisfying—is hard, continuous work. I do it better in the company of other learners. When I struggle myself, and reveal this to the students I work with, they find out that learning new things challenges adults just as much as it does young people. They need to know that there is nothing wrong with them if the process takes a long time and many repeated efforts. And I need to remember that the fact that learning takes time is not a negative reflection on my efforts or theirs.

The Swiss Cheese Syndrome

I went to a conference recently. The first speaker was from the state department of education and I was ready to listen; in fact, I did listen, but I could not follow her remarks. Why? I simply could not understand what she was saying.

In her first sentence, she used two unfamiliar acronyms. While I paused to decode the first one, I missed several words which followed. The second acronym was completely new to me, so when she said it, I could not understand it all. Thus, in spite of a wide vocabulary, I could not grasp the meaning of her sentence.

The same problem continued throughout her remarks. I spent more time wondering if I had decoded the acronyms than I did absorbing her advice and information. As you can imagine, I was annoyed and frustrated. But suddenly I saw it as a learning experience: I was feeling the same sensations that students feel when they don’t understand the vocabulary or references that I use in the classroom.

In a related incident, I was the speaker at a staff meeting. After I presented an involved list of steps for meeting the goals in the school improvement plan, one of the teachers said, “I would really appreciate a list, so I could keep track of all these things.”

“She already told us we would get one!” said one of his colleagues impatiently, at the very moment that I held up the checklists I was ready to hand out. I paused to talk about his knowledge gap.

“You know, Justin’s comment brings up a common issue,” I said. “He has been here, and he looked pretty attentive, but he still missed, or didn’t remember, that detail. Everyone misses things. It’s human to miss things. Whenever our attention wanders for just a second, we lose a detail or an idea. It’s important to remember that when we talk to the young people in our classes. They will have the same gaps and not because of bad intentions.”

In both cases it was as if the listener was looking at a scene through a window with stickers all over it. He/she missed meaning because parts of the whole picture were obscured by blockages, whether of understanding or attention.

Add these two issues together and you get what I call the Swiss Cheese Syndrome.

Listeners are highly likely to have holes—big and small—in their comprehension of our words, just as Swiss cheese is normally full of holes. We are wise to expect gaps and do what we can to fix them, rather than let the situation make us angry or discouraged.

What can we do?

First, be aware. We have to stop assuming that if we know a given word ourselves, then everyone knows it. We can plan in advance to include simple words in explanations and descriptions. Generally, the more syllables the word has, the more likely for it to be unknown to someone. In addition, content vocabulary and scientific words must be explicitly taught, and then reviewed and used–up to a dozen times for full comprehension by all students.

Second, check constantly. Ask for a student to restate a point. Be sure to call on those average learners, not just those whose hands are usually waving. It is too easy to assume that if one person in the class knows something, then the whole class knows it. Direct your learners to summarize for an “elbow partner.”
Have each student write a summary as a “ticket out the door.” The methods are numerous once we recognize the importance of using them.

Most of all, remember that when you feel like moaning “but I TOLD them that,” it is pretty likely that some of the students are thinking, “I never heard her say THAT.” Just take a deep breath, know that it is the Swiss Cheese Syndrome in action, and try again.

Helping Young People Find Their Way

Three times in the last three weeks, I have asked this question: “So, how did you decide to go into this line of work?” All three times, I got essentially the same answer. “I spent time with someone who was doing it and I realized right then that it was what I wanted to do with my life.” All three stuck to the plan for all the years it took to get there.

What better career planning and motivation could there be than giving a young person a short exposure to something that has attracted their attention? The drive of a student with an inner desire in unmatchable. I am suggesting that each of us dedicate an hour or two of summer into either taking a young person to a job shadow or planning a process that would involve all our future students in such an experience.

Summer Explorations

Here is an approach to planning absolutely terrific units and projects: Develop at least one every summer.

Although I wanted every unit to be great from the start, I never had the energy during the school year to upgrade all of them to my imagined perfection—too much grading, supervising, attending, meeting and recording got in the way. But by strengthening and enriching one at a time, I finally developed a repertoire of plans I could be proud of.

Look for music, books, poetry, community resources—anything that could inspire and inform students and teachers, too. One year we cataloged everything within walking distance of the school—retirement home, library, community radio station, cemetery– because we could take students there without the expense of busing. Over the next several years we used all those locations and others in improved units that took students beyond classroom walls.

These days we can also turn to virtual communities. This month I’ve collected a few sites that might inspire you to add something extra special to a plan you are currently pondering.

Music
In May of 2011, The Library of Congress announced America’s Jukebox. You can access it at http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/. It contains thousands of American songs spanning more than a century. Use songs to introduce lessons or reinforce lectures. The Library of Congress also offers links to to dozens of performing arts resources at www.loc.gov/rr/perform/new.internet.resources.html.

What could you do with free sheet music for 19th and early 20th century songs? You can select from 3042 pieces of sheet music if you visit http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/hasm.

Project-Based Learning
If you are ready to try project-based learning but aren’t sure how to begin, why not have student teams create educational websites? The ThinkQuest website offers an international competition giving students an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose beyond a grade. You will find links to more than 7000 ideas and activities across many content areas at www.thinkquest.org. Access the competition at www.thinkquest.org/competition.

Math
If you teach math to grades 3-12, you can find lessons, problems, video, lesson plans, instructional tools and more at the Math Forum@ Drexel. Check it out at http://mathforum.org.

Language Arts
ReadWriteThink gives educators, parents and after-school professionals access to best practices in reading and language arts instruction by offering free materials. For downloadable plans and other resources, go to www.readwritethink.org.

Art
If you want to expand teaching and learning in the arts, The Kennedy Center offers 180 lesson plans across artistic disciplines through their “How To” finder, plus multimedia resources and interactive activities. You can explore the riches they offer at http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org.

Science
Detailed lesson plans, historic documents, a “career finder” and lots more is provided at the National Institute of Health website. Go to http://science-education.nih.gov.

History
For oral history, find resources at www.loc.folklife/edresources/ed-teacherstudent.html. To access information from The Smithsonian go to http://historyexplorer.american history.si.edu/lessonindex.asp. To get study guides from the History Channel visit http://www.history.com/shows/classroom articles/study-guides.

Ecology, Economics, and your own peace of mind
To opt out of credit offers, go to www.optoutprescreen.com or call 1-888-567-8688.

Ends and Beginnings

The end of the school year.

For teachers in some schools, it has already happened. In other places it is just days away. Whenever it happens, finishing the school year is accompanied by feeling of pressure to finish things up, anticipation of summer and, almost certainly, exhaustion.

We have just run our own kind of marathon. The pattern of a teaching year is familiar to all of us. Getting organized at the beginning and setting up routines. Finding a pace, punctuated by events—conferences, holidays, renewed efforts. That long haul when the sun nearly deserts us. Spring at last. That flurry at the end, when everything is due. And, then, finally a deep breath.

After we exhale, we can begin to put our experiences into perspective and answer an important question: What does this year, in this place, at this time in our lives add up to. Part of happiness is finding the pattern and meaning in the span of our lives, something we can do best by looking backward to see what has transpired.

This is a good time to look back on the year just ended and ask some questions. What did I achieve this year? What was I brave enough to try? Why did I do things the way I did? How can I do it differently, better, more deeply, and more fully?

My favorite June question has always been: What’ll I try next year? By the time I had taught a course or a concept a few times, I began to feel stale, and it seemed that if I had lessening enthusiasm, so would my students. So I usually set my mind to intake mode, staying aware of the curriculum and sifting the stimulus from the world around me for something that would click. By waiting and watching, I found inspirations from many sources, most of them serendipitous accidents.

When the new ideas came to me, so did excitement. Technically, I was still vacationing, completing a personal To Do list or taking a class, but ideas would start to percolate about the new possibilities. Maybe I was just redirecting the energy usually taken up by daily planning, but it was fun to consider possible scenarios of how the new project/lesson/approach would look. The process is a bit like mental movie-making, I suppose—imaging details of how I would present or organize my renovated method or content.

So the invitation to keep growing is what I am sending your way. What will you choose next for your own development? What do want to try? How will you grow? Who will you reach? Where can you make a difference?

Whether you reach what you aim for is not the point. Reaching is the point, and every end is a new beginning.

If I Were Queen…

Have you seen this phrase: “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions “? Today, I’ve decided to list some of the physical learning conditions I would change for America’s students, if only I had the power.

Chairs – Almost every time I have taught adults in training sessions, using chairs from average classrooms, they have commented on the seating—unfavorably. I heard comments like these: “Oh man, these seats are hard!” “Wow, it’s hard to sit for two hours.” “ Ooh, I could use some padding.” I agreed completely with each comment, only the next thought I always had was, Then why are we using this furniture with our children? They too have nerve endings.

Production of office chairs is a million dollar industry. Piles of research goes into materials, adjustments, spinal alignment, comfort and good looks. Our children deserve some of the same consideration. Let’s get rid of those rigid, uncomfortable plastic and metal chairs that populate too many classrooms.

Desk and table heights – Tables in my house are different heights for different tasks that I perform—word processing, sewing, eating, sorting. I know from experience that I will get sore shoulders or a stiff neck if I work at a table which is too high or too low for the job at hand. Keep in mind that my height remains the same. Kids, however, come in all sizes and their size is likely to change from month to month during the school year. What a lot of discomfort could be avoided if table height could grow with them. Even more important, I think, is the subliminal message it would send: “You are unique and important and you belong here; see, we will make things just right for you.”

Ergonomic equipment - I was a school newspaper advisor for eight years. Three evenings a month, my staff worked late using leftover tables and chairs, donated mouse pads and some fairly old Macintosh computers. Every work session, as I worked alongside my students, my wrist smarted and sometimes got numb from the terrible angle at which I had to hold my hand. I thought as I worked, We are all going to get carpal tunnel here. I can now report that I was right; I do have carpal tunnel issues in my right hand, and I am pretty sure that is where it all began. I wonder how many of my former student staff members have the same problem. Maybe schools need an educational OSHA board to correct some of these predictable problems.

Lighting – Too much or too little light causes headaches, squinting or missed information. Glare on boards and computers screens makes seeing the information nearly impossible. Yet, there is a limit to what a teacher can do to correct the situation with the standard equipment: a bank or two of florescent lights and some old venetian blinds. If I remember my history correctly, researchers discovered in the early 1900s that improved lighting in factories led to dramatic improvements in productivity. It seems by now, a century later, we would have figured out that this should apply to school rooms too.

Crowding – When scientists pack experiment mammals, like rats, too closely into limited spaces, the animals turn on one another. I believe that humans react very badly to crowding too. I think that many behavioral problems in schools could be alleviated by just giving kids more room.

A middle school teacher from a nearby school district shared this anecdote with my sociology students: Our school was built for 600 students, but we had 900 kids and constant fights. We thought the fighting was gang-related. Teachers were required to stand at their doors during passing periods to maintain control. Then, second semester, the new school was finished, and kids were transferred. Suddenly we had two schools with 450 students in each. Fighting nearly disappeared overnight. We were all surprised to realize that the fighting was not gang-related after all.

Chemicals and Cleaning Products – A psychologist once warned me that under no circumstances should I ever spray a commonly used cleaner for desks in the presence of an autistic student. He explained that the cleaner would cause a very strong physical reaction in such students; an autistic student would likely become overwrought and completely out of control after smelling the cleaner. I vowed I would not. But the question I have had ever since is: Are such students like canaries in mine shafts? Is their reaction a warning that the product might not be so great for the rest of us either? And do we have any evidence about interactivity among such products? I hear that Great Britain tests all chemicals before permitting their use. Let’s protect our school children by doing the same.

So, if I were queen, the items above would be my agenda. I would change classroom conditions for the better to remove unnecessary impediments to learning. I don’t want anything to interfere with the learning of a younger version of Edison, Gates or Jobs because our students are the ones who will provide the next wave of American ingenuity.

Saving Our Breath

I talk a lot. Just ask my children, my students, anyone really. I have opinions and information to share and can barely keep myself from chiming in at every opportunity.

I suspect that many other educators talk a lot too. It is a profession that is attractive to the loquacious, as I imagine that the study of law is attractive to the argumentative. Educators know that their jobs will put them in front of an audience of sorts, most days of their careers, and they like the idea.

There is nothing wrong with the talking itself. We often convey useful information as we talk. We beam out information, directions, suggestions, advice and procedures that we know will work. And yet, there is evidence that the people we are talking to are not always listening. If they aren’t listening, our talking is wasted.

It is tempting to blame listeners for inattention, disrespect, even willful disregard, but what does that benefit? Blame makes relationships worse, not better. Instead, think back to times when you didn’t listen.

I can recall listening to my parents’ advice believing that they did not “get it.” I shook off the advice of friends too. I even recall well-meaning, uninvited and utterly infuriating advice from my department chair which made me so angry I did not trust myself to speak. I felt she had neither understanding nor respect for what my objectives were as she told me to do the polar opposite of what I was attempting. I rejected every word that came out of her mouth that day. I managed to remain civil, so she probably did not sense my scorn. She may not have deserved my scorn, but that was the reaction I felt, mostly because I felt completely misunderstood and dismissed.

I believe there is a lesson here: Unless a person feels heard, understood and respected by me, he is unlikely to hear, understand or respect me.

I can almost hear readers arguing with the page. I know what I am talking about, or I told her the truth, or He should do what I told him. While those statements may be true, the real issue is how do we actually reach someone? There are two indispensable steps:

First, listen deeply and restate his or her points clearly in your own words, several times if necessary, until that person relaxes slightly, looks at you and says, “Yes,” giving you an indication that he knows that you can understand the issue, concern, frustration or circumstance from his viewpoint.

Second, ask open–ended questions that allow the person to begin to discover their own solutions.

Pay close attention the second point because it may cause AGONY as you refrain from giving the terrific advice you have right at the tip of your tongue. We talkers love to talk and we HATE to keep quiet when we think we know the answer. But we must do it anyway.

The reason we have to help the other person discover his or her own answer, not ours, is as follows: A solution discovered is superior to a solution delivered. Yes, superior! No matter how great our solutions are, they are suited to our personalities, our experiences and our knowledge. Our ideas are perfectly suited to us, but they are imperfectly matched to the personalities, experiences and knowledge of every other person that we meet in life. So, no matter how difficult it is, learn to really listen and assist people to find their own solutions.

When you are down…

Teaching is a profession that contains days of great satisfaction, even exhilaration, as well as days of frustration and deep disappointment. No one is immune to this. In the world beyond the classroom every human finds that external conditions beyond their control sometimes threaten to overwhelm. At such times, the only resource may be our beliefs and attitudes.

This leads me to the matter of the miners in Peru—in particular, a man named Edison Peña. Perhaps you remember him—the miner who loved Elvis and who ran daily for exercise in that dark cavern below ground, listening to Elvis through his ear buds. We can probably all agree that having a mine collapse around us is a more extreme problem than we usually face at our jobs, yet this was the problem faced by all the miners. Against all predictions, the event even had a happy ending.

Not long after the rescue, I saw Peña interviewed, through an interpreter, by David Letterman. Peña had just run in the New York Marathon. He had been offered the chance to attend—instead he asked to be permitted to run in it. Letterman asked only a few questions because after each one, there was a delay to translate the question and then translate the answer. During the wait time, though, Peña’s body language made his reactions clear, even while the audience waited for the words.

Letterman asked what it was like the first day that Peña entered the mines to become a miner. As he remembered his first trip down the shaft and into the mine’s corridors, Peña’s reluctance and even dismay showed on his face. He acted out his desire to turn around and leave as quickly as possible, yet we saw him turn back to the front and march into the mine to work.

Letterman asked about jogging down in the mine, and Peña nodded, placing imaginary ear buds in his hears and bobbing his head. The pleasure he took in the music and the running showed in his face. Then Letterman brought up Elvis. Peña’s smile broadened during the translation. Seconds later he was standing and singing with plenty of Elvis hip action.

Now, if any of us had been asked last year about the future of a Peruvian miner with limited education, few of us would have predicted the dramatic rescue, the New York Marathon, singing on TV or being interviewed in the U.S. Perhaps this is just more evidence that “the impossible simply takes a little longer.”

W can look at Peña’s actions and derive some advice for how to handle difficult times:
1. Do what must be done. Whether it is entering a mine because that is the only available job or revising a lesson plan yet again, we know our duty and must press on to do it.
2. Do what is good for you. Being trapped in a mine would be a great excuse to stop exercising, but excuses get us nowhere.
3. Do what you love. We all need to feed our own souls with things that bring us joy. Every human is more than just a job description.
4. Do keep believing. If we believe that our down times are “darkness before the dawn,” we are better served than when we simply label those times “the pits.”
5. Keep doing. Challenging ourselves to keep participating and trying new things brings more joy that simple sitting on the sidelines of life.

What’s Inside

You may have heard of ArtPrize, a downtown event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that invites everyone to make art, look at art, talk about art and vote for art.

The event really does include everyone. Any person, from any place, can enter their art; any downtown location can display entered art; anyone over 18 can vote for their favorites—no entry fee, no juried selection, no prohibited categories. Though it may sound like a recipe for disaster, it is instead the recipe for a vital, pulsating community event that seems to bring joy to everyone who gets involved.

I can attest that ArtPrize changes the city for two solid weeks. Everywhere I go during ArtPrize, all conversations center on what has been viewed, reactions to it, plans for seeing things other people have mentioned. Sidewalks are crowded, people are connecting and the mood is expansive.

What makes the experience so special to me is the wonderful, stunning eccentricities pouring out of each artist into the art they create. In a world that so often pushes us toward conformity, ArtPrize is a rollicking expression of individuality.

It is almost impossible to explain the diversity of art on display. Traditional and modern paintings, drawings and sculptures mingle with flying pigs and tableaus made of dryer lint. There are portraits assembled from pushpins, Rubik’s cubes or crayons in dazzling pointillism. There are sculptures formed from iron, stainless steel, bronze, nails, pennies, plastic or found objects.

I saw a huge installation made of hand-felted wool that lined a long, tall passageway; I saw a collection of petite graphics illustrating the varieties of joy mentioned in the book of Philippians. I saw constructions made from thread, canvas, molded ceramic hands, salt, glass and sand, from doors, driftwood and detritus. I saw tents, wagons, whole houses on wheeled conveyances, pianos on sidewalks begging to be played, metal elephants with moving parts, and landscapes on multilayered clear vinyl with perspectives that shifted as I passed.

The people are as engaging as the art. They come from all over, each with a different focus. A Scot wearing a kilt explained his ceramic panels to me; a soccer mom described the personalities of the Haitians in her photos; another photographer recalled his near despair in the fourth hour of the eighteen hour panoramic effort to capture the city he loved. An artist/mother, with her baby on her hip, told me what had inspired her.

I am an art enjoyer who is also a teacher, so my thoughts went to students. I realized that inside each one of them are worlds and world views as divergent as the art I was passing. I was reminded over and over of this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within us out into the world, miracles happen.

My post-ArtPrize resolution: Encourage more such miracles.

Radio Interview!

I was interviewed on Lansing, Michigan’s WILS on November 12th. Not long ago the interview would have been a fleeting moment in time, available only locally, that disappeared into the ether. No longer! Click here to listen to the interview online.