Archive for January, 2010


I Got Nothin’: Acronymic Thoughts on Life

January 31, 2010

I am braindead. I’m sure you’ve felt this way. Drained of inspiration and yet in need of getting your work done anyway? As I tried to dredge up all the ideas for posts that I left at home in a file for just such emptythought moments, I wrote the words, “I got nothin’,” and realized that perhaps there was more there than I thought, cheesy though it might be. (I do find that I am often a Cheese Queen. Just call me Velveeta.) Here’s my nothin’:

N is for necessary. What’s necessary for you? What keeps you sane? What small satisfactions are crucial to your well being? Movies are necessities. Reading in bed is a necessity. Dark chocolate is a necessity. Kind words and smiles and understanding are all necessities. So is good Mexican food. Work I love and work that matters and work that integrates my passions—these are necessities too. And people I care about and people who care about me. I need them too.

O is for optimism. I can’t live without it. I have to believe that the good outweighs the bad in the world. I have to believe that something wonderful is lurking around the corner. I have to.

T is for tarantulas. These are not a necessity. Just checking to see if you’re reading. This is a pet peeve of mine, incidentally, and this is one way I can relate this post to student success. Do not insert clever little traps into your papers in hopes of catching a teacher not reading something. I can’t tell you how irked I get when I come across a “bet-you’re-not-reading-this” in the middle of a sentence. I always want to write, “I was reading, but now I’m not. Too bad for you!” Major success in school hint: Do not irritate your teachers needlessly.

H is for hope. I once worked with a group of elementary and middle school children on a project related to creating a more peaceful world. One girl wrote the word hope on her paper and said that she put hope because without hope what else was there? Indeed.

I is for inspiration. This is daily post number 141 in a row. I am learning about the difficulties of shoehorning this activity into already busy days. I am learning something about my own somewhat obsessive nature. I am learning to let go. I have also learned that I should take my idea file with me when I leave town.

N (oh, no, another n!) is for niceness. I try to be nice. I don’t always succeed and I don’t believe in letting people take advantage of my good nature, but I know that I feel better about myself when I try to be nice and that’s reason enough for me.

And that’s that. I got nothin’ and not much more, but with nothin’ I got somethin’, no matter how lame.

I got nothin’. What do you have?

I love talking about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.
• Oscar Wilde


“People Are Pigs,” She Said, But I Don’t Think Pigs Would Appreciate the Comparison *

January 30, 2010

Pigs are not that dirty. And they’re smart, strange little creatures. They just need love.
• Shelly Duvall

A keynote speaker at the conference I attended yesterday, a community college president, shared her experience working a custodial shift. “People are pigs,” she said of the task that she and the regular custodian faced as they cleaned the cafeteria. It’s true. I see the messes they leave on my own campus. I also spend time in women’s bathrooms. At least some of the pigs are women. I won’t go into the disgusting details here, but there are things that belong in the toilet and not on the seat or on the floor.

In the classroom, sunflower seeds are one of my least favorite messes. It probably surprises you that sometimes students leave snack detritus behind for someone else to clean up. It surprises me too. In an ideal world, I suppose, no one would eat in classrooms, but many of my students are coming from mornings in public schools and have spent their lunchtime traveling to school. They need to eat. Any student in a class that’s three hours long probably needs a snack to help stay alert, so I’m not for banning food.

I’m a proponent of civility and consideration for others and for the general environment. Custodians are not there to clean up our messes. You’ve heard this lecture many times before if you’ve been in school, and it’s true everywhere. If you’re shopping and you see something on the floor, you could pick it up. If you drop something somewhere, you could pick it up. It doesn’t matter if you made the mess, you could be a part of cleaning it up. This philosophy applies in the classroom or in the world.

F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the Buchanans, a wealthy couple in The Great Gatsby (1925), saying, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” I’m reminded of this when I’m shopping and watch someone pull out all the carefully-stacked whatevers to find the one they want and then leave the others piled haphazardly on the floor. I’m reminded of it on a larger scale when I see what human beings do to their environment.

As you move through the day, think about ways you can make life easier for others rather than leaving messes for someone else to clean up.

Are there any messes, literal or figurative, that you need to clean up?

Clean up your own mess.
• Robert Fulgham

* Pigs wallow in mud to stay cool since they have no sweat glands.


Who Are You Anyway? Are You Your Resume? *

January 29, 2010

Describing your self in understandable terms–your life-work, your image of yourself, your priorities, what you would like people to think you do, what you do, and what you would like to do next–is a telling slice of reality and aspiration. We should all have a personal curriculum vitae or resume that attempts to describe who we really are and not who we are trying to pretend to be.
• Richard Saul Wurman

I went back to school after working twenty years in the private sector, finished a bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, taught high school and completed a master’s degree at night, worked at a community college, and earned my doctorate while working full time as a teacher educator. I have lots of experience that can be found on my vita (short for curriculum vitae or CV—see for a clear description of the difference between resume and CV), but these things that are found on my vita are not all that I am, nor do they represent even a fraction of what I have been, or what I long to become. I have been many women, and I expect to be many more, all of them linked to my dreams for my life.

I created a list of some of the other things I’ve done in my life as an exercise in uncovering what is important to me that doesn’t necessarily appear in more formal assessments of my work. These things also help me understand my life’s throughlines and remind me of things I need to remember if I hope to live with authenticity.

My Vita, Mi Vida • The Other Woman
An Alternative Vita

by Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn (Community College Moment, 2005)

Who am I anyway? Am I my resume?
A Chorus Line, lyrics by Edward Kleban

I have made doll clothes out of crepe paper,
carefully sewing, gathering, ruffling edges.
I have colored hundreds of zinnias in shades of aqua and magenta,
row upon row of carefully outlined petals.
I have designed my own line of clothing for Lucille Ball paper dolls,
crayoning her coordinating hats and shoes and purses on notebook paper.
I have dressed in outfits beautiful to me
and never cared what any other person thought.
I have decorated rooms from coast to coast with cheap treasures
scavenged from unexpected places.
Making home wherever I have been.
I have sequined and bedazzled.
Sewn costumes for many Halloweens.
I have danced and tapped and twirled and done the splits
and backbends off of coffeetables.
And played the piano.
Endless scales and Mozart.
I have sung for congregations and for crowds.
Made a lot of joyful noise.
I have acted. Danced some more. And sung again.
And hung pictures and baskets. Spackled holes.
Listened. Cared.
Worked with stained glass. Learned to make linoleum prints.
Made curtains. Made a home. And another. And another.
I have baked a thousand cookies and then a thousand more.
Pink frosted bunnies with cinnamon candy eyes.
Chocolate chip with walnuts.
Oatmeal with raisins.
Shapes and colors and batches of fudge and
Bundt cakes decorated like Christmas wreaths.
I’ve folded origami animals and flowers and tried to learn to knit.
I’ve wrapped so many presents I couldn’t start to count. Cleverly.
And I’ve done macrame and crewel, embroidered pillowcases and
made dishtowels out of flour sacks.
I’ve created clothing and picnics and parties with a theme.
I’ve costumed shows.
I have taken this and transformed it into that.
Trash into treasure.
Stuff into home.
Life gives. I take. I make.
I have decorated boards with pine cones.
Fringed the edges of burlap cushions.
Designed the table for those very special dinners
with placemats cut and pasted from a rainbow.
I have carved pumpkins.
Led the celebration at years and years of holidays.
Baked a cake shaped like a deer head, antlers made from Tootsie Rolls,
going to five stores before I found the red jawbreaker for his nose.
I have filled pillowcases with newspaper-wrapped gifts.
Used layaway.
I’ve made and I’ve made do. Happily.
Three meals from one chicken.
A half pound of ground beef to feed four–or more.
Taking hints from Heloise, I’ve scrounged and scrimped
and cut the corners off of life.
I have crocheted and hemmed and hah-ed.
I’ve been the ghost of Christmas past.
I’ve dressed in kimonos.
Worn other people’s shoes.
Safety-pinned my bra strap.
Collected books and alligators and shiny brooches sparkling with cold rhinestone fire.
I’ve made spaghetti and biscotti and real cream-filled eclairs.
I’ve baked a lot of apple pies. Cherry too.
I’ve made cinnamon rolls without a mix.
Popped corn in the same pan since 1965.
Patchworked a wedding dress from a thousand gingham and calico pieces.
I’ve used new sheets for festive tablecloths, then slept on them until
they turned to rags. Then used the rags.
I’ve imagined that the dark and empty spaces under the lilac bush
were home, a kingdom peopled by tiny beings
from some other more enchanted life.
I’ve whirled and wished the wind would blow me any place but here.
Made lemonade and sold it for a nickel.
Ice pops from grape Koolaid.
Turned pancake batter into Mickey Mouse and dinosaurs.
Made dolls from hollyhocks.
Porkchops, potroast, meatloaf, and the perfect toasted cheese.
Eggs over just right.
Tacos with freshly fried shells.
Handmade Valentines.
I’ve made you laugh.
I’ve made acorn caps for people drawn on fingers.
And in the dark I’ve flown away, been big and strong and uncontrollable.
I’ve painted walls. Trimmed windows. Hung shutters.
Painted the ceiling royal blue, the crib bright red.
I’ve ordered a high chair from Spain and followed the directions
two days before the birth.
I’ve had less luck with a tricycle from Sears.
I’ve quilted. Made pillows from old bathing suits.
Decorated every where with the leavings from a hundred other lives.
I have made molehills out of mountains and leveled off their tops.
I have stretched dollars and time and energy.
And made something out of not much.
I have measured and packed and made it all fit somehow.
And done it once again.
I’ve listened. I’ve been home.
I have fried chicken, baked chicken, barbecued chicken, grilled chicken,
made chicken taquitos, chicken salad, chicken enchiladas, chicken in a
crockpot, with rice, with stuffing, with garlic mashed potatoes.
I have eaten the burned hot dog and the smallest piece of pizza.
I have fixed what you wanted. I have wanted what you fixed.
I have made pink and white seersucker pedal pushers,
a black satin flapper gown with rows of undulating fringe,
a sailor suit, a lime green mini-dressb
I’ve dusted and I’ve scrubbed and I’ve banished dirt.
I’ve washed dishes and clothes and dirty faces.
Cut the kernels off a wheelbarrowful of corn.
Picked blackberries and strawberries and tomatoes.
Made jam.
Made a lot of messes.
Made a lot of homes.
I have hung Grandma’s Chinese checkerboard in the dining room and
Mama’s souvenir state tablecloths at the kitchen windows.
I’ve made a place for Grandpa’s teddy bear in every living room I’ve had.
I’ve decorated Christmas trees and left them up all year.
I’ve written and I’ve dreamed and I’ve hoped to measure out significance.
I have.

What I discovered after I made my list is that the throughlines of my life include the creativity of “making do” and the longing for home. As I look at my work choices, these throughlines are clearly part of my teaching beliefs as well.

What does your life-list include?

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order. . .the continuous thread of revelation.
• Eudora Welty

* Thanks to Edward Kleban.


What Kind of People We Become Depends Crucially On the Stories We Are Nurtured On *

January 28, 2010

Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.
• Will and Ariel Durant

Steven Spielberg said that people have forgotten how to tell a story. I don’t agree, although I understand that this brief quotation I’ve written down on a 3×5 card several years ago is probably taken out of context. Still, it makes me think. I hear stories every day in the hallways at school. I overhear stories about love and fear and anger and despair. I hear stories about kindness and bad judgment. I listen to stories as the students with whom I work talk about their teaching experiences. I hear the joy of connection in some of their stories. I hear frustration and reflection as the stories of strategies and lessons that didn’t work turn into questions about what to do next time. I am steeped in stories.

I can, of course, offer the cold comfort of theory to my students. I am a teacher educator and this is stuff I know. One of my students told me he thought my class would be the place to get the right answers to all his classroom questions. I wish that this were so. My job would be much easier if I were the right answer gal. I am not. I can provide a multiplicity of approaches that a novice teacher might use. I can recommend lots of strategies. But my stories and the stories of other students are the most powerful tools. They bring the theory to life and they remind us of the idiosyncrasies of human interaction. The stories we choose to tell reveal what we value and who we are as educators.

Sometimes the stories we share are personal. Here’s one of my favorite family stories. It’s about some cousins of ours at the end of the nineteenth century. These folks were poor farmers barely scraping by on land that was worn out. They managed to feed themselves but couldn’t manage to do much else. They were sinking further and further into debt and were about to lose the farm. Then oil was found on their land. Not a lot. Not enough to make them really rich, but enough to alleviate their financial worries and enable them to buy more land and farm comfortably. They did a couple of other things with their money, though. They didn’t take exotic trips or buy fancy clothes or other stuff you might think the newly-rich would crave. No. They gave other family members, including my grandparents, money for a trip, and they built a carousel on their land. A full-size round-and-round-with-music-and-wooden-horses-prancing-up-and-down merry-go-round. And they invited the town to come and enjoy it.

This whimsical story resonates with me. I research fun in learning. My office is filled with things that make me smile. I live in The House of Stuff, home to The Amuseum of Un-Natural History. I was doing all these things long before I heard this story from Aunt Mildred, but once she told it to me I felt at home, kin to people I’ve never met who provide a context for my ways. I am well aware that this is all a bit of romanticizing poppycock, but that doesn’t make it any less delightful to me.

Our stories are inextricably linked to who we are and to what we value. What stories do you tell about yourself? About your family? What do you learn from your stories that helps you find direction for your life? What stories help explain you to you?

The word “story” is short for the word “history.” The both have the same root and fundamentally mean the same thing. A story is a narrative on an event or series of events, just like history.
• James M. Kouzes

Telling a true story about personal experience is not just a matter of being oneself, or even finding oneself. It is also a matter of choosing oneself.
• Harriet Goldhor Lerner

Tell a story from your life that illuminates a crucial aspect of your character.

I don’t know any family that doesn’t have a story anywhere. Besides, if you didn’t have those things in life, you’d be so bland.
• Orlando Bloom

* Title quotation is from Chinweizu, Nigeria

I’m off to a conference. I’ll be writing and posting when I can.


It Was Those Who Believed in Me Who Helped Me Believe in Myself *

January 27, 2010

My Aunt Mildred, my mother’s only sister, thought I was wonderful. She’s gone now, but sometimes when I listen carefully, I can still hear her saying, “Cookie, ya dear girl, ya,” the way she greeted every one of my phone calls. (Personal note: You may not call me Cookie. My family does. But that’s another story.) I could rely on Aunt M for encouragement. She always believed in my possibilities, and no matter what I was doing—or not doing—she thought I was wonderful. I am not always wonderful, but her unflagging belief in me mattered. It still does.

I teach a course in adolescent development and this week I’ve asked my students to list several adults who influenced them as they were growing up and then to write about one. This is an activity I use in my work with Oregon Writing Project as well. You can learn things about yourself by the choices you make and the things you write as you capture stories that are meaningful.

One of the things I learned from Aunt Mildred was to be on time. She was just about never on time. If you planned to go to a movie with her, you were well advised to lie about the start time if you wanted to get there for the opening credits. As she got older and I became the driver for our thrift store excursions, I never let this bother me. I always took a book to her house and sat and read while she completed an almost endless series of one-more-thing-before-we-leave things she needed to do. Uncle George was not so patient, but he was a career Marine officer, so I can understand his impatience with her unmilitary ways. After he died, I wrote the following in my journal:

Aunt Mildred was often late. Uncle George used to say that she would make him late for his own funeral, and sure enough, as the organist played her repertoire of mournful tunes over and over, and I kept the funeral director and preacher at bay, we waited at the funeral home, friends and family all gathered, for almost forty-five minutes for my cousin Charlie to arrive with the video camera to tape the service. The next day, at the cemetery, the Marines waited, lined up for the twenty-one gun salute, for a half-hour before Aunt M arrived. Uncle George was right.

I loved Aunt Mildred despite her foibles. It’s easy to forgive someone who thinks you’re wonderful. Although she lived a thousand miles away, she was with me in spirit in every class I took until I finished finally my doctorate. When I got discouraged or felt just too tired to go on, she was a cheerleader, telling me that she knew I could do it. Sometimes, she sent random cards in the mail. A birthday card or a Christmas card or St. Patrick’s Day wishes would arrive long after the event (or early, I suppose), always with a few dollars to spend on something I didn’t really need but that would cheer me up. After Aunt Mildred died, I tried to capture her spirit of fun and her lateness in a poem:

Memories of Aunt Mildred
by W-OZ

Brothers sisters cousins mother aunt
we wait,
standing in the lobby
tickets in hand
double bill about to start.

Aunt Mildred’s late again.
That’s no surprise
but we know she’ll be here,
skating on the edges of too late
but never missing out on fun.

Breathlessly, laughing,
she rushes in,
her bag bulging from one shoulder,
her other arm outstretched,
covered with a pale blue sweater.

We know the drill,
surround her,
protecting her cargo from
suspicious eyes.
Moving fast
before the smell can permeate the space.
Before our hamburgers and fries
announce a presence
forbidden in the popcorned darkness.

The show begins.
Elvis sings and gyrates
and we cringe as the big Coke bottle
slips and rolls to the front,
glad we’re sitting where the grownups
call too close,
giggling and pretending we don’t know them
even as we sip our Coke from plastic cups
filled with crumby ice from a twist-tied plastic
bread bag smuggled in in Aunt M’s purse.

When you’re in school, it’s easy to begin to doubt your abilities, particularly if you encounter a difficult class or you’re having trouble getting a paper started or you do poorly on an exam. You need people who believe that you can do whatever it is you need to do to be successful. You can provide this belief for others too. It matters.

List several adults who made a major impact on your development while you were growing up. What was special about these people? In what ways did they influence you? Tell a story about one of them.

I never doubted my ability, but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.
• Hank Aaron (Aaron began his career in baseball in the Negro American League and in 1999 was ranked fifth on a list of “Greatest Baseball Players” by
The Sporting News)

* Thanks to Maya Angelou for the title quotation.


A Handful of Common Sense Is Worth a Bushel of Learning *

January 26, 2010

Overheard yesterday on Monday of week four of a ten-week quarter. Thirty percent of the class is over. Midterms are next week. It’s after class and the teacher is trying to vacate the room so another group of students can enter. This is paraphrased, but you’ll get the gist:

Hi, I’m Anonymous Student. I’m finally here. I haven’t been to class yet because I had a conflict with work, but I’m here and ready to get caught up.

The teacher says: I already dropped you. The teacher might be thinking: Are you kidding? Are you nuts? This is the first time you’re contacting me? Haven’t you ever heard of phoning or emailing? We could have taken care of this much earlier and I could have told you not to take this course if you weren’t going to be able to attend. (Clearly, no eavesdropper is privy to interior thoughts. I am making this up based on what I am thinking about the situation.)

Avoidance is a form of procrastination. Putting off talking to a teacher about just about anything is not a good idea. Putting off contacting someone about a financial aid problem is not a good idea. Putting off contacting a credit card company about the trouble you’re having making a payment is not a good idea. Some problems go away if you ignore them. Most of them don’t.

It seems like avoiding avoidance would be plain old common sense, but the overheard conversation reminded me of something Mark Twain and Ben Franklin and Voltaire have all been credited with saying: Common sense is not so common. And it’s probably not so common because it’s more difficult than it sounds to be commonsensical. Some people just seem to be better at it than others. I’ve encountered so many students–and other people–who don’t seem to have developed this ability that I’m convinced it’s something schools should deliberately teach instead of assuming that students have common sense and are choosing not to use it. I also believe that a person might be able to self-develop the attributes of common sense.

It’s important to develop critical and creative thinking skills. It’s also important to develop problem-solving skills based in common sense that include giving deliberate attention to using good judgment, thinking things through, considering intended—and unintended—consequences of actions (or lack of them), weighing options, and making sensible decisions.

On a scale of one to ten with one being “have none” and ten being “role model for humanity,” rate your common sense.

The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.
• Thomas Alva Edison

* American proverb


Play The World of Mindcraft: No Purchase Necessary

January 25, 2010

Computer scientist Alan Perlis complained about education, saying, “It goes against the grain of modern education to teach students to program,” asking, “What fun is there to making plans, acquiring discipline, organizing thought, devoting attention to detail, and learning to be self-critical?” Yet the things he describes are exactly the kinds of things that are part of fun in learning. The problem is that not everyone is interested in learning to program. And without interest, almost any activity, no matter how fascinating it is to someone else, is drudgery (see post: “There IS a Formula for Drudgery,” September 16, 2009).

When you’re in school, there’s definitely going to be some drudgery involved whether or not a subject interests you. It’s difficult to avoid it. Almost every discipline has knowledge and skills that take time and deliberate attention to acquire, so even if you love a particular subject, you’re likely to encounter times when what you’re studying is just plain hard work. If you don’t love it, the work may be even harder. Doing the hard work is empowering. Grappling with confusion and uncertainty and coming to understanding builds belief in your ability to successfully meet the challenges not just of school, but of life. It is fun to complete an assignment and know that the work you hand in is meaningful and represents real effort on your part.

It’s week four here on the quarter system and mid-terms are coming. There’s still time to turn the quarter around if you haven’t been making an effort to engage. There’s still time to pay attention, still time to produce quality work, still time to read and study and do what you need to do to be successful. There’s also still time to reflect on your part in the teaching/learning symbiosis, what Perllis refers to as learning to be self-critical. One of the questions students are asked on their course evaluations here is to rank themselves on the degree to which they took responsibility for their own learning. I am always surprised by the number of students who don’t give themselves the highest ranking here. And I always wonder why not.

In “The Curriculum of Necessity or What Must an Educated Person Know?”, John Taylor Gatto (2005) referenced ten learning abilities identified at Harvard University as essential for adapting to a rapidly changing world of work. As you read them, assess where you are as a student/human being related to each one:

• The ability to define problems without a guide.

• The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.

• The ability to work in teams without guidance.

• The ability to work absolutely alone.

• The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.

• The ability to discuss issues and techniques in public with an eye to reaching decisions about policy.

• The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.

• The ability to pull what you need quickly from masses of irrelevant data.

• The ability to think inductively, deductively, and dialectically. (Note: dialectic, debate to resolve a conflict between two contradictory or seemingly contradictory ideas, with truth on both sides; grappling with essential tensions).

• The ability to attack problems heuristically. (Note: heuristic, trial and error solutions, discovery learning, rather than using set rules).

Assessing yourself isn’t enough. To be successful in school—and in life—you must also set goals that target building on your strengths and addressing your weaknesses. This isn’t a one-time activity, but an ongoing process. It’s playing the game of mindcraft and reaching higher and higher levels of self-empowerment as a learner.

What learning goals would be beneficial for you this term?

It’s not only the ability to raise and answer those questions [referring to habits of mind that explore evidence, point of view, connections, supposition, and relevance] though, but also the disposition to do so. For that matter, any set of intellectual objectives, any description of what it means to think deeply and critically, should be accompanied by a reference to one’s interest or intrinsic motivation to do such thinking. Dewey reminded us that the goal of education is more education. To be well-educated, then, is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.
–Alfie Kohn (2004),
What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated?, pp. 9-10