Archive for the ‘college’ Category


I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.


Books Can Be Dangerous. The Best Ones Should Be Labeled “This Could Change Your Life.” *

April 11, 2010

It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.
• Oscar Wilde

The things that influence a person’s reading choices are another of life’s many chicken/egg questions. What comes first? Do we seek out books—or websites or magazines or other reading materials—because of what and who we are, looking for affirmation, or do the things we read influence who we become? Is there power in any kind of reading to truly change who a person is? No simple answers here.

I cannot imagine that anyone who writes for public consumption does not harbor some small hope that her or his words will make a difference for someone. Of course, writers intend to resonate with others of like mind, but there must also be some small secret dream that words can change minds.

I have long been a fan of Martin E.P. Seligman’s work. Seligman is the author of Learned Optimism (1990), a book that influenced my work with students in a dropout prevention program. His work in positive psychology also affirms my research into fun in learning. Focusing on the positive through discovery of students’ strengths and virtues and passions rather than targeting solely what they cannot do well is at the heart of my explorations into building students’ skills of interest and activating their desire to learn.

If students only learn to do adequately that which does not appeal to them, if they spend day after day doing things that they don’t enjoy or do well, if no opportunity is provided to become immersed in things that interest them, it’s not surprising that many students do not like school and that they view their experiences with teachers as largely adversarial. Teachers become people who keep smaller or younger or less experienced people from doing what they love, drowning them in a sea of “not fun.”

In 2001, my mother, a talented musician who started playing the piano by ear before she began kindergarten and a poet whose work has comforted hundreds of people, told me, “I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.” In 1988, three days before he died, my youngest brother, Greg, told me that he didn’t understand why I was hoping to become a teacher “because no one ever has any fun in school.”

I have a stack of books in my bedroom, overflow from multiple bookshelves in the room. The stack includes books I revisit and reread regularly because they remind me of important truths. Seligman’s (2002) book, Authentic Happiness, is in this pile. I remember it, oddly enough, when I am quasi-watching an episode of The Real Housewives of New York City (yes, I know this is trash, but I’m not really watching—just listening for breast quotations while I do other things).

It’s not just boobwords that tickle my antenna. I’m working on an exhibit I call The TechNObots about the human costs of technology, and when I hear Jill, one of the housewives, playing a months-old voicemail message for another housewife and a psychic, saying that she keeps it and listens to it to remind her to stay strong in her fight with the person who left the message, I hunt out Seligman’s book. Jill is wallowing in hurt feelings and determination not to forgive and her choice is not making her happy.

In Authentic Happiness, forgiveness and mercy is a category in the “signature strengths” the book helps people identify. I make myself a note to add to my TechNObot Collectory: technology makes it much easier to capture and cling to hasty or intemperate words spoken in anger and frustration. I also note a benefit of technology. If you’re looking for real life examples of psychological theory, reality television is a bonanza.

You need not buy a book to find lots of information about Seligman and his work, just Googling® his name will work. I recommend doing so if you are hoping to activate your inner relentless optimist.

Finding happiness in school takes work. You have to be determined to focus on your strengths and passions at the same time you’re working on things that interest you less or are more difficult for you to master. What are your strategies for building on your strengths and engaging your passions? What kind(s) of reading could help?

I suggest that the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready and which have gone a little farther down our particular path that we have yet got ourselves.
• E.M. Forster (1951)
, Two Cheers for Democracy

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible.
• E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel,
Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

* Thanks to Helen Exley for the title quotation.


I’ve Been Making a List of the Things They Don’t Teach You in School*

March 11, 2010

I think you should basically teach a kid to read. A little arithmetic, a little writing, but if you can read, that’s the big thing. That’s the biggest thing my education gave me.
• Christopher Walken,
Playboy, September 1997

I’ve been reading about national standards in language arts and math today and such articles always get me thinking about what schools ought to be teaching as well as where the gaps were in my own education. Here’s what Neil Gaiman, Newbery Award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy, novels, graphic novels, comics, and much, much more (I love Coraline) had to say about school:

*I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away form someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.

I don’t agree with Gaiman’s final sentence. Many of us learned to read in school. We learned our math skills there. We learned to get along with other people. We learned practical skills and we learned esoteric things that enrich our lives. I do think schools teach things worth knowing. I also think there are things you can and should learn on your own. And I know that there are things that schools should teach but don’t—like self-sufficiency—as well as things they shouldn’t teach, but do. My education left me better schooled in what I don’t like and don’t do well than it did in what genuinely interested me.

Make your own lists, one of things that they don’t teach you in school and another of things you did learn in school that will be useful in your life.

School never taught me how to manage people. The first time I had to reprimand an employee was a nightmare, and then when I had to fire someone, well, I was up all night trying to figure out what to say and what to do if the person fell apart. I wish I’d learned a little bit about these things in school.
• College student response about his post-high school jobs putting himself through college, 2007


Self-Amusement—It’s Not What You Think

February 23, 2010

There’s no excuse to be bored. Sad, yes. Depressed, yes. Crazy, yes. But there’s no excuse for boredom, ever.
• Viggo Mortensen, actor, poet, musician, painter, photographer (Hmmm–no wonder he’s not bored!)

I am easily amused. I am glad that I am easily amused. When I read a headline that says “You Really Can Be Bored to Death, Researchers Say,”* I am particularly delighted that I am never bored. This is not to say that I am never doing something I don’t particularly enjoy doing or that I never have to sit through long meetings about things I don’t care about. I do work, after all, and no matter how engaging any job is, there’s likely to be some drudgery attached to it.

Still, my mind always actively seeks out ways to connect whatever it is that is not interesting to me with something that is. Just like the occasional student in the classroom, my mind wanders if I’m not interested in what’s happening. (Most of you are interested in all your classes, right? Say “of course” right now.) The difference between boredom and interest in potentially unengaging situations is that I have learned to discipline myself to pay attention to the things that matter whether or not I have a personal connection with them.

When I realize that I’ve gotten myself into something that has no relevance for me, I tune out and write poetry in the margins of my notebook or make lists of things I need to do or jot down some notes about projects I’d like to begin. If you’re a student in a class that you need to pass, whether it’s a prerequisite or part of your major or minor or just one that you need to keep in order to hang onto your financial aid, disciplining yourself to be interested in the initially-boring-to-you is a critical student success skill. Tuning out is not a wise choice. You know where it leads.

I must say that I am also aware that it’s refreshing to quiet my all-too-active mind. To sit still and let life flow around me. To empty my mind. This is not boredom, but is a deliberate rest that relaxes. It’s difficult to achieve. The seldom-bored mind does not like a void—it rushes to fill the emptiness with a deluge of swirling thoughts that must be captured and sorted. Beware the temptations of mind-emptying-nothingness. While it can certainly be beneficial for your health, this is not a skill that should be practiced in the classroom.

Cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg claimed that “the life of the creative person is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” This definitely relates to developing the skills of interest in school. As a creative human being who’s taking classes to get knowledge and skills that will help you have an interesting life, learning how to be interested even in those things that don’t at first appear to have any relevance for you is crucial.

What deliberate steps can you take to avoid boredom in school?

You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea.
• Earl Nightingale

Nobody is bored when s/he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true.
• William R. Inge

When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.
• Steven Wright, comedian, actor, and writer

*… (a post by Kelly M. Butler)


I Would Prefer Not To *

February 13, 2010

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
• Lin Yutang

I’m a wordy gal, but there’s a word that I have plenty of trouble saying. It’s no. I try, but I still say yes way too often. When I say no I feel guilty. I understand that this puts me smack dab in the middle of a whole raft full of people who feel the same way. Most recently, I’ve not been following my instincts in a situation where the potentially sustainable simple is becoming infinitely complicated by wonderful possibility.

This is a problem for all of us, whether it’s at work or at home or at school. It is a particular problem as the term moves past the halfway mark and we move into the downhill stretch. All of the wonderful possibilities of creation collide with the reality of coming to completion with sanity intact. This is true for teachers as well as students.

Whenever I’m working on a piece of writing or prepping for class or putting together a conference presentation or creating an art exhibit, I always have lots of materials to work with, gathered over time. The problem is that if I actually integrate everything I’ve collected, I’ll never finish the task. There is always something I could add. Always more research I could do. Always more thought I could give to a project, whatever it is. Always.

But I know that what I must do, in just about every case, is to accept that no intellectual task is ever really finished. Even if it appears done, new revelations and insights will occur to me and to others who are exploring the same things. It’s not possible to integrate everything into a perfect never-again-to-be-touched whole.

To imagine this is to get stuck in procrastinatory hell. I should know. I do this often, although I have learned to pull myself out of these depths because I must get through. Done. Finito. Not infinito, but stopped. I must deal with what’s realistic and will let me sustain the energy to keep moving forward. I’ve been working long enough to know that attaining the wonderful possibility may leave me too drained to do anything else. Wonderful possibilities are wonderful to imagine. Sometimes they’re worth pursuing. But not always.

What can you say no to? What do you need to say no to?

Most of us are so busy doing what we think we have to do that we do not think about what we really want to do.
• Robert Percival

* Thanks to Herman Melville (1853), “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for the title quotation.


I Think It Is Good that Books Still Exist, but They Make Me Sleepy *

February 10, 2010

When I was in elementary school, I dreaded reading time. I’d learned to read early, first figuring out the connection between words in print and sounds I heard when I heard Campbell soup’s “mmm, mmm, good” on the radio at the same time I saw it on a billboard. By the time I was in school and part of reading groups slowly slogging through the illustrated pages of look-look-see-see sameness, I was bored spitless by the slow-moving ordeal.

I hid Nancy Drew behind my textbooks and got lost in her world of always escapable peril. I got in trouble for this. Books were confiscated, but were always returned. In retrospect, these teachers, none of whom ever got to know me very well because my family moved a lot, probably couldn’t bring themselves to keep a book from a child who was actually enthralled by reading.

As I got older, the library was my refuge. One of my greatest thrills was being old enough to ride my bicycle to the library and having a basket large enough to hold the books that fed my voracious appetite for reading. Now I teach a course called language and literacy for people who will soon be teaching middle and high schoolers and I’m saddened when some of them say that they hate to read, not because I think that everybody should love to read, but because I’m afraid that their attitude may influence someone who could get joy from this passion but may turn away because of words from a respected adult.

I understand that some people don’t enjoy reading, but it saddens me equally when someone discounts the value of anyone else’s passion for learning. It could be math or science that’s dismissed as “not fun.” It could be social studies that’s denigrated or art that’s deemed worthless to study. Perhaps it’s music or PE or–oh, no!–writing that’s a waste of time. Whatever.

If you’re a college student, you might be surprised to know that your attitudes toward your studies can shape the beliefs of younger siblings, of cousins, of friends’ children, of your children, of anyone younger than you who is listening and watching and wondering what life will be like once they have the endless choices they imagine are in store for them once they complete their compulsory education.

Class discussion in adolescent development this week centered on the influence of adults. When you’re still in school—even if you are choosing to be there—it’s easy to imagine that you won’t have any influence on someone else’s growth until you actually get where you’re going yourself. But I’ve just finished reading lots of stories about the influence not only of teachers and parents, but also of others not much past adolescence themselves who made a difference in the life of someone younger. Role models are found in unexpected places. Are you one?

What would someone younger than you learn about student success from watching you in school or listening to you talk about it?

Don’t worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.
• Robert Fulghum

* Thanks to Frank Zappa for the title quotation.


If You Were a Verb, What Would You Be?

February 9, 2010

I am a verb. • Ulysses S. Grant

This is post one hundred and fifty. That’s a dozen and a half dozens. That’s a lot of words. That’s obsessive for a daily spare time activity. I’m obsessive about lots of things, but I’m not particularly bothered by my obsessions. I usually revel in them. The title question here is an intriguing way to get to know a study group and today it’s my way of introducing my response to “if you were a verb,” written on June 20, 2007, as part of a class I was teaching.

Everyone brought three quotations that could inspire writing to class, each written on a separate piece of paper. We put all of the quotations into a paper bag* and each drew one out and wrote about it for five minutes. I pulled the Grant quotation. Here’s what I wrote:

There is no verb that I know of that describes the always active state of my mind, racing, connecting, excited about ideas, and always actively pursuing the joys of passionate engagement with life. This happens as I sit in a movie theatre, drift off to sleep, teach a class, laugh with a friend, drink a cup of tea, ride a roller coaster, sit in a meeting, talk on the telephone.

It’s relentless, yet it is seldom unpleasant—only frustrating sometimes when I want to sleep. And the comfort then of paper and pen and a light allow me to drift off, knowing I can always wake and write. I am a verb, but I am a word that exists outside the pejoratives associated with Type A, hyperactive, needs to mellow out, chill out kinds of language often used to describe such obsessiveness. This is not something I want to cure or lose.

But today as I reflect, I realize that perhaps my verb would be write. Or laugh. Or create. Or perhaps just smile.

If you were a verb, what would you be?

Life is a verb.
• Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.
• R. Buckminster Fuller (1970),
I Seem to Be a Verb

* I am a bit obsessed by multiple teaching demonstration and application units I’ve developed. It’s always fun to come with something new to add to them. This activity is part of “It’s in the Bag! Creative Sacktivities for Children of All Ages” which is also part of a larger unit called “Free, Cheap, and Out of the Trash.” Sacks and bags that have been previously used also fit into my “RecycleLit” materials. This overlappery makes me smile. Smile. I am.