Monday, September 16, 2013

The Art of Asking

Every once in a while, you experience another person's perspective in such a clear way that it guides you in reflecting upon your life, your character, and your biases. Amanda Palmer's TED Talk is such an experience. Her life and her philosophy and her presence contrast so sharply with mine, and yet, I feel as if she is speaking directly to me during her talk, and connecting directly to things that I've been working to develop in my own personality. Amanda Palmer is my guide for asking; whenever I get nervous about the idea of asking for something that I need, I think about what she says, and how she values asking as an art form and social connector.

I've spent a lot of time working on things that I didn't have a real passion for, mostly because I felt that I had to. It was part of my job. Even the things that you know are good, necessary, or profitable don't always come easy or enjoyably. The problem with these necessary things that we don't like to do is that they can sometimes overwhelm the enjoyable experiences so that all you end up doing is the annoying stuff that you hate. All of a sudden, work has become a string of things you hate to do and no time for the stuff you love, the stuff you got into teaching for in the first place, the stuff that makes you feel motivated and energized and invincible.
So here's the hack of the day. First, find the things that take up time, that you don't like. Then, ask yourself: do I need to be the one to do this? Could someone else do this for me? If so, who and what would they get out of it? Students are a great source of help for very little effort. Sometimes the thing they want most is to spend some time with you. I've had students volunteer to clean my room, put up bulletin boards, sort papers, organize my bookshelves, and even make posters. All of those things need to be done, but I don't have the time, patience, or motivation to get them all done in a timely fashion. If you can't find volunteers who want to hang out, you might offer food or other "gifts." I've gotten a surprising response from offering their pick of books from my shelf--I've got some great books. You might also offer incentives like a day in the computer lab or trip to the library, an extra bathroom pass, getting out of class three minutes early (a winner for the class before lunch or the last period of the day), having an extra day to turn in a project, or getting to skip a quiz or homework assignment of their choice.

Take a minute--outside in the sunshine, or sipping coffee in the morning--to think about the things that you don't like about your job, or things that take up more time than you have to do them. Is there someone else who can do those things for you? Who, and what incentives would they be happy accepting? If you can eliminate some tasks from your day that bog you down, you'll feel better and more productive. If you can ask for help, you can create a bond with your helper. Win-win. Just ask.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Taking Perspective for Granted

When I woke up this morning, it was 50 degrees outside--according to the outdoor thermometer. I snuggled up in jeans and a sweatshirt to go outside, thinking how cold it was. But six months from now, I could wake up, look outside and see 50 degrees on the thermometer, and think that finally it was starting to warm up. 50 degrees feels a lot different, depending on what side of winter you're on.

And that's perspective. If we only see life out of our own eyes and experience it from our own perspective without thinking about--and at least trying to empathize with other's views--then we'll miss key connections that we could make to other people. If six months from now me said to me this morning, wow, it's sure a warm day, I'd think she was insane. I would dismiss her ideas because that opinion is so opposite of my own "it was eighty degrees last week" experience. But it's still me--ignoring the metaphysical anomaly that allowed me to talk to my past self. I'm still a good person, hardworking, caring, positive; I still have the same values. I'm just positioning my thoughts from the immediate surroundings and my most recent experience with weather.

I see people do this all the time. You don't talk to somebody for a while, and then meet for lunch or at an event. You play catch up. It's the changes that you're going to notice first, the things in the person's most recent experience that have pushed them to think differently or from a different perspective than the last time you saw them. People change and environment--physical, social, and cognitive changes--plays a huge role in those changes. People adapt without trying--it's a survival trait. But that means that you may think differently or from a different perspective than you previously held.

Apply this to teaching. Summer vacation often changes students. They have different experiences, spend their time differently. Sometimes they go to camps and meet new people; sometimes they spend their days on the couch watching reality TV. All experiences have the potential to change your perspective, so it's important not to dismiss entertainment experiences offhand. Kids come back to school, and it's like a Clash of the Titans for reset mode. Kids who've been friends for years can barely talk to each other, kids who've been enemies shared a summer experience--maybe playing on  a travel team--and can't be separated, which throws the cliques into chaos.

Human beings are flexible and it doesn't take much to push us to lean in one direction or another. We adapt quite easily, and within a few weeks of being back to school, the inevitable shakeout is over--for the most part--and things have settled down into the routine of the year. Once that initial shakeout is done, it's time for teachers' work to begin. Now that students are finding their routines, what can you tell about them--how they are thinking, how they've adapted to changes, what is influencing them. This is your chance to find out their motivations and start creating your own thoughtful design of their educational experiences. Just remember--no one changes overnight. People adapt, slowly, one tiny change at a time. You've got a lot of kids, so attack on two fronts: the whole class changes you want to see and the individual changes in specific kids.

If you can be accepting of the kids in general, recognizing that their perspectives are inherently different than yours--even if you come from similar backgrounds, you are from different generations--you can begin to design their educational experiences to create great students. They don't have to be like you--act, behave, speak, or look--to adapt to the qualities you want them to, such as communicating thoughtfully and with clarity, using precision in their work, or treating others opinions as valid. Think about what qualities you want most--you won't be able to get them all--and then design a way to slowly adapt the class as a whole to that quality.

The more practice you get, the more side projects--individual students--you'll be able to mold as well. The most important thing to remember is perspective--your class will change students' perspective, as will any environment that they spend a significant amount of time in. How do you want that perspective to change and what can you do to scaffold the way?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Old Dog Learning Strategies

Learning to do something new is rarely easy. It can be particularly frustrating when you are very good at the old things, but the new thing...not so much. Even more frustrating is when the new thing resembles the old things to an extent that you believed that learning the new thing would come easy. So suddenly, in addition to learning something new, you question your ability to properly evaluate how long it will take you to learn this new thing. Identity shaken, you start to question your ability to do the old things at the level you've always believed you could do.

That's where the dog comes in--of the female variety--just to blow off some verbal steam. Add familial terms as needed.

When the cussing is done and you inexplicably--yet inevitably--feel better, here are some thoughts, strategies, and general ideas about how to deal with the frustrations involved with learning to do new things.

First, know that as frustrating as this is for you, you are not the only one. Take comfort in the camaraderie of hair-pulling, eye-bulging, stream of consciousness cursing that is learning frustration.

Second, there are two ways to combat new learning: blindly bulldozer your way through it, or take a break until you can see straight. Both strategies can be effective; the trick is knowing which one will work for you, at any given time, and in a particular situation.

Third, tell me about it. No, really. Talking to someone--even if that person has no way to help you learn what you are trying to learn--can be just the frustration relief you need. People say things that get your brain going in different directions; sometimes they are merely distracting, which can dig your train of thought free from its rut. Either way, other people are helpful beyond their ability to help with the learning task.

Fourth, people--in all of their 21st century forms--can also be great sources of information. People post blogs, make videos, and comment profusely online of every topic imaginable. Find a mentor--even in video or blog form--and let them help you learn.

Finally, if all else fails, reevaluate your goals. Is the goal of your learning essential to your life/work? Is there another way to get the same results? Is this something you need to learn? How could you go about achieving the same result differently? Is it worth your time and trouble, or could you pay/bribe/coerce (with something like chocolate, of course) someone to do it for you? How much are you willing to pay (time, money, energy, sanity) and what do you expect to get in return? Then ask yourself, is it worth it? What's the most cost-effective way to do this? Make an informed decision based on your answers, and go with it.

Learning completely new things always comes with frustration. As we build our capacity to handle that frustration, it becomes easier. Students need practice building frustration capacity, as well. As with anything, the more you do it, the easier (and more of a habit) it becomes. Just as adults sometimes need reminders, rut-breakers, mentors, and inspiration, so to do students; since their job is learning, they may need even more reminders, rut-breakers, mentors and inspiration. In the end, if they try all of the above strategies, work hard but still fail, students need to know that it is smart to reevaluate their goals and see if it's worth it to them to keep going. So much of the failure students feel is because they give up. But sometimes, that's the best strategy to take. After evaluating the situation, sometimes it's the only strategy to take. We need to help students face that and recognize that just because you've failed to learn one thing, it doesn't mean that you can't learn anything. It just means that you're human.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How Vonnegut Gives Sublime Purpose to YouTube

"Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." --Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

I never read Vonnegut in high school. None of his books were part of the curriculum for my school, although I recognized the name Slaughterhouse-Five. I was never tempted to pick up the book, however, because a) slaughterhouses--ick, and b) I heard it was a war story--boring. However, I had also heard that the craft of the writing was worth reading, and despite hating war stories, I did enjoy Catch-22; so, I stayed open to the idea while not actively seeking it out. Circumstances, however, did not put me in possession of a Vonnegut book with ample time to read it, and so I've gone 36 years, eight as a Literature teacher, without reading Vonnegut. Then, I went to Indy.

I went to Indy for a week-long digital writing conference through HWP--Hoosier Writing Project, an organization near and dear to my heart. One of the teacher-consultants leading the workshop volunteers at the Vonnegut Library and gave us a tour. His energy and intensity persuaded me to be more proactive about getting a Vonnegut book into my hands--and head. When I got home from the conference, I kept the idea in the front of my mind; cleaning one day, I noticed that I had (accidentally stolen) a copy of Cat's Cradle from my school's bookroom. Serendipity!

I was entranced with the whimsically harsh plot and irreverent characters. I even snagged a few quotes to go into an American Literature unit I'm working on, including the quote above. The context of this quote is the main character being asked to go somewhere out of the ordinary, and his hesitation to go, clearly juxtaposed in this quote with a religion he adapts later in the book. Complicated, but insightful. And so true of many things. If one is open to the peculiar and doesn't fight to stay on a particular path, there is a sense of omnipotent interconnection in the world.

So, what does this have to do with YouTube? Well, if you replace "travel suggestions" with "hyperlinks," I think you can see the connection. Serendipity plays a huge role in surfing the net and sometimes, it just feels like dancing through knowledge. In an online product demo, the sales rep asked me to find a YouTube video to demonstrate a product feature. I randomly chose a link, and it turned out to lead me--once the sales pitch was over--to a science video site that would work for another idea I was working on. Brilliant! The dance has begun. But it wasn't over there. Numerous content related sites began to pop up as hyperlinks, channels full of usable, high quality resources that I could use. Now I'm dancing! I subscribed to several channels and felt interconnectedness of things. A sales rep pointed me randomly to a website that ended up being exactly what I would need in a conference two weeks from now.

And that is how Vonnegut gives sublime purpose to YouTube--and the internet in general. The interconnectedness of information and "travel suggestions" in the form of hyperlinks make it easy to believe that there is an active force for good guiding us in this information dance. So, next time you berate yourself for spending quality surf time online, remember that the connections may take you to new places, and you've earned the right to dance a bit.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Even More on Bats and Education

The third--and hopefully final--episode in my in-house bat saga also has a happy ending...and education was the key. Several days ago, I found a bat in my bathroom cowering under the toilet bowl, freaked out, got online for information, and rescued the bat (who I affectionately named Bruce) by getting him back outside. Two nights ago, another bat (we called him Wayne) was swooping through the house. He got scared and flew into the rafters, squeezing into a crack in the barn beam--we have an unusual house. An exterminator was taking care of some yellow jackets the next day, so I asked him to give an estimate on getting the bat out. He walked the roof, then walked the perimeter, but claimed the house was sealed up tight. The bat must've flown in while a door was open and couldn't get back out. We were on our own.

Tonight, Wayne started swooping through the house again. Because I had read up on the subject and educated myself on how to get a bat out of the house, I remained calm. We scooped up the dogs and put them in their cages in a back room, then shut all doors to that room. My husband got the flashlight and scanned the rafters once Wayne' swooping had stopped. Keeping the light on him caused Wayne to start flying. I had the back door open and was wafting fresh air into the house--from my reading I learned that bats will fly toward fresh air if trapped in a house. He flew towards the door, but retreated. I stepped completely back behind the door. He flew towards the door but turned around again. I fanned the door as he flew away, hoping to flood the house with fresh air--and probably herding mosquitoes into the house as well.

He turned one last time toward the door, and with deep swooping dips, he glided out of the house. Victory! We are--knock on barn beams--bat free! (Although we might need to invite him back in to deal with the resulting mosquito crisis.) So, what lessons did I learn?

First, to reiterate my life philosophy, education is everything. Getting online and finding out what to expect, what the bat was experiencing, and steps to take to solve the problem let me get control of my fear. I could be calm and do what needed to be done. Education let me identify all parts of the problem; for example, I couldn't shoo the bat out the door because bats can't take off flying from the ground. Seeing the cartoon bat illustrations helped me reframe the situation to identify the bat as a scared victim and me as a rescuer. I played out that scenario the first night to great success. When faced with a similar, but significantly altered circumstance--flying versus cowering bat--I applied the other knowledge I had learned from my reading and made use of the confidence gained from success the first go-round.

Second, success helped me solidify an identity of power and confidence in "bat in the house" situations. During the first instance, I was nervous, worried, and fearful--both of hurting the bat and of getting rabies. The success and perspective of feeling like a hero created positive reinforcement. The knowledge I gained was attached to heroism and therefore easily recalled when next needed. The second time, when faced with Wayne swooping through the house, I remained calm and confident and took charge of the situation immediately. I didn't get frustrated or freaked out. I saved Wayne with patience and understanding of the situation--which I got from my education on bats.

Third, when you do things for others, it's easy to do things that are hard or might scare you. Even though the idea of rabies--a thoroughly terrifying thought--was still in my head, my focus was on the rescue mission. If you can frame things as doing for others--even nonhuman others--it helps you focus on what needs to be done. The temptation to imagine all possible scenarios--most, but not all end in needles for me--can paralyze you into inaction. But if you frame the problem as helping someone/ something else, you frame your role as well. Heroes don't get rabies, and the movie version would be awful if it ended in a hospital. Be a hero, have a happy ending.

So, the real hero in this tale--education.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

More Thoughts on Bats and Education

In my last post "One Story, Two Perspectives" I told two different versions of how I dealt with the bat in my house. The life hack was about how you can change your perspective of a situation and therefore change its effect on you. Instead of being the victim of a scary bat  invasion, I was the rescuer-hero of a lost bat. After writing the post, I realized that another lesson from that experience stood out. Education allowed me to change my perspective.

I was inundated with the scary side of bats--rabies, getting trapped in your hair, biting you viciously--reinforced in innumerable horror movies. When outside, I've never had a problem with bats; in fact, I enjoy watching them swoop up the resident mosquito population. In that regard, bats are my heroes. But in the house was a different story. In the house, close up, that bat was an intruder, invaded, carrying who knows what disease; a threat, a villain, nasty and vicious. From my "experience"--aka scary movies--I had no other way to view this bat.

When I didn't know what to do, I got online an searched for how to get a bat out of the house. I was lucky with the site I found, as it gave a cartoon demonstration of the steps to take. That site helped me develop a whole new vision of this vicious monster in my house. I mean, take a look at this picture from the site. How could you be scared of this little guy? He just wants to go home.

It seemed ridiculous to treat this little bat as anything other than a lost animal. Sure, he had teeth. So do I. He was scared and lost and didn't know how to get out. He wasn't lying in wait to ambush me and my dogs; he was cowering and crying with fear. As soon as I had a way to view this bat as the victim with understanding and empathy for his predicament, I could act heroically. Obviously I wore thick gloves--I wasn't brainwashed into thinking he wouldn't bite me out of fear. But I was in control of my own fear and understood the situation in a way that I could take responsible action that helped us both.

This situation--upon further reflection--made me think of two life lessons. First, education is power. Not just in a commercial, get-a-good-job kind of way, but real-world power. If you take the time to educate yourself, you will have power in the world. At the very least, you'll have power over your own fears and bias.

Second, it's important to see things from others' perspectives. I can view many perspectives of myself and my life, but if I truly want to solve a problem effectively or make the best of a bad situation, it's important to step outside of myself and see the issues from another's perspective. When you do that, you get to see the world differently and ultimately your vision gets broader and more capable of seeing the world in a positive frame.

I tie this last idea to viewing things from your students' perspectives. They attitudes and behaviors they exhibit may mean one thing to you but another thing to them. It's the idea of educating yourself about your students to truly see who they are and what their actions mean that will allow you to help them achieve their potential in the world. Easier said than done, one on thirty, but the lesson remains. Education and vision lead to a better future for everyone. And who knows--maybe it will help you view yourself not as a victim of all that's negative, but as a hero to the lives you change.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

One Story-Two Perspectives

A few days ago, we were the victims of a bat invasion. After returning home from an eventful day out, I was annoyed to find that once let out of her cage, my dog was obsessed with sniffing around the back and side of the toilet bowl. Unfortunately, this was not new behavior as she seemed highly critical of my new bathroom decorations and never missed an opportunity show her disdain for my artistic vision. Whining and pawing viciously at the floor instead of high on the walls where decorative seashells dangled from nets struck me as curious, and so I got closer to investigate. Down under the toilet bowl was a dark, baseball-sized lump that I mistook at first for carelessly tossed underwear.

Something about the form and my dog's bizarre reaction caused the hair on the back of my neck to  rise, so I hauled her from the room and asked my husband to take a look. He revealed to my horror that the lump was in fact a bat. Nightmare visions of Cujo, Old Yeller, and Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird all screamed in my head one single, terrifying word: rabies. Heart drumming, I grabbed my dog and checked her ruthlessly for bites, but miraculously she was clean.

After getting online to help plan the best strategy to attack the beast, I garbed myself in protective gear, including long pants and shirt and think leather gloves; it seemed a fragile, pathetic defense--internet-gleaned knowledge and work gloves against every pet owner's nightmare. It attacked the broom with darting head thrusts and a harsh screech but refused to budge. The second option involved wrapping it with a T-shirt so that it couldn't get airborne, an up-close and personal approach that made me shudder. The agony of needles penetrating my stomach forced me to take several deep breaths before casting my fate to the wind. I managed to capture the vicious predator and transport it outside safely without casualties. But the damage was done. I can no longer enter the bathroom without breathing deeply and mentally preparing myself for another bat attack.

Same Story, Different Perspective

I successfully rescued a lost bat last night. The poor thing somehow managed to fly into the house, probably happily chasing bugs. Unable to get back out, the terrified animal huddled in a safe, dark place, possibly chirping helplessly for his mother. Tucked in beneath the toilet bowl--as close to a cave as he could find--he couldn't be seen, but he also had no hope of ever getting out.

Then, noises and lights exploded in the room and he cowered deeper, trying desperately to stay quiet and hidden. But a large beast came sniffing and despite his best efforts, his safe haven was uncovered. The beast was dragged away, still making a racket that vibrated the walls of his cave. What to do? In the resounding quiet, he stretched a tentative wing out. He couldn't take off from the ground; it was impossible. He couldn't climb the slippery cave walls to get height. He was desperately alone with no avenue for escape. His situation was grim indeed. Then, grimmer still as a giant limb full of tight, thin, bristly leaves cam swatting at him, trying to force him from safety into the cruel harsh lights. He tucked his wing to his body and held his position.

The broom wasn't working, I thought. The poor little bat was so scared that he clung desperately to the ground. He started chirping pathetically, begging for help, for mercy, for his nightmare to be over. I was afraid I would hurt him if I kept at it. The other option was riskier than maneuvering him into a container. If I wrapped him up when his wings were out, I might hurt him irreparably, but what other option did I have. I found an old T-shirt and pushing aside my own irrational fears, I made what I hoped were soothing noises as I got closer. His tortured peeping grew louder that closer I got. I tossed the T-shirt over him and was relieved to see that his wings remained folded tight.

Alright. Deep breath. You won't hurt him; he won't hurt you. You're going to get the little guy home. I stepped up and used my leather-gloved hands to gently scoop up the helpless bat. He barely protested with more than a peep, resigned to his fate. I took him outside and set him--T-shirt and all--next to a big tree. I unwrapped the shirt so that he could get out. Emboldened by the fresh air, he staggered awkwardly, grasping for the promise of freedom. He caught the tree bark and climbed, his leathery wings splayed across the tree like a thank you as his tiny feet climbed for home. Rescue mission a success, I smiled that I could play such an invaluable role.

Life hack: Only YOU can choose your perspective.