Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking Them Down from the Ledge

The chilled reality of the new fall semester settles in when students (especially adult students in school for the first time in many years) turn to the back pages of the syllabus and see a long list of readings, exercises, worksheets, papers, presentations and projects they will have to complete in order to successfully complete the course. Vision blurs and their eyes take on a vacant look as they look up at you but through you, the whiteboard and out past classroom walls toward a dread of failure. It's a kind of academic shock.

The problem is that these students base their fear on the totality of the course as one unpalatable slab that has to be digested before breakfast coffee in the morning. Then, to escalate alarm, they realize that they have four other course schedules just as daunting. "Do I belong in a college classroom?" they ask themselves.

Students need instructors to provide context and support in those first moments. Students have 15-weeks not one day to plan and work and complete all the assessments of the semester. Sure, instructors will make students work a bit -- you need to earn the learn -- but we are not going to make college impossible. What would be the point of that?  Sometimes, I wonder if we shouldn't hide our expectations a little to ease the shock and then issue a new 2.0 version of the syllabus a month in: "Surprise! There are four papers due in this course not two." Well, maybe not.

So, many instructors, like me, spend quite a bit of time that first week in the classroom, through emails and during office hours, talking students down from the ledge, as one of my colleagues puts it. We help students plan a study schedule that makes college doable whether it's through a planning app, a student planner or a week-by-week email reminder. Planning is important, but during the initial days of the semester, I just want students to start breathing again.

I look for determination, dedication and discipline from students during those first weeks, not despair. I need them to trust that I will get them through the first days, weeks and months. Past that, they need to drive. Planning is critical to carving the semester into reasonable chunks. But so is common sense. How do you eat the elephant that is a semester of work, the parable asks? One bite at a time -- after you climb down from the ledge.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Happy: Back Home in the Classroom

I got the keys from the front desk envelope after two weeks too many days of well-meaning but soul-draining in-service meetings. It's good to be home again -- back in the classroom. This is where a teacher belongs.

It doesn't matter that bookcase cabinets of the classroom had been emptied, moved and reshuffled again or that the color of the classroom flipped from a neutral beige to an edgy palette of dark maroon and the kind of fluorescent green you usually pick up off the floor of a calf pen. It didn't matter that no one seemed to know where the attendance sheets from summer classes were or that some of the students on the roster only existed in the imagination of PeopleSoft. It didn't matter that all the summer projects that had been planned and promised in April had not been delivered. Most had. The rest don't matter. Life is good.

None of that matters when you flip on the lights in the classroom for the first time in the fall and see rows of stacked chairs, polished tables and an unopened package of markers on a whiteboard tray. Heaven. There's nothing quite like the promise, hope, anticipation of the first days of a new school year. It's part busman's holiday and part New Year's Day. It's a clean marker board for everyone. For the instructor, the students, the staff and leadership, a brand new school year is the best sort of gift that summer can give you.

When I don't have this feeling come some September, I'll know that it is time to make that appointment with HR to talk about Wisconsin Retirement System benefits. Some day I know that will happen.

But now. Not today. It's good to be back in the classroom.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Yellow Tablet Surrounded by Laptops

My colleague to my right sat down and pulled out a silver HP laptop.

Then another sat across from me. "Ready for another meeting?" she said and opened up another HP laptop. A third, pulled out a chair at the long nondescript conference table, laughed at the comment and opened up her HP. Triplets. After she keyed her password, she pulled a smartphone out of her purse and placed it alongside the laptop. Multi-tasking, As I looked around, I noted there was more raw computer power in the room than all of NASA during the Apollo 11 mission. We were working on a PowerPoint presentation for the next day's inservice meeting. Apollo 11 landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon.

I pulled out my yellow tablet.

To be honest, I bring a laptop to meetings when I think I need to do a lot of writing, but I'd rather not. I'm a quick typist, so too often when I am in typing cruise mode the words go in the ears and out the fingers without engaging the brain. Laptop-induced notes go on for pages and pages and have been prescribed as a natural sleep aid. Afterwards, if I do look at the notes, it's as if I wasn't at the meeting at all: "We agreed to do what?"

My meeting recording device of is the Pilot G2 retractable rollerball pen (blue, not black, green or purple). I love that pen. I use it to scribble notes, record main ideas, recall people to contact, and connect disparate parts of the meeting with a shorthand of circles, arrows, stars and checks that make sense to me and mystifies my HP neighbors. Because the notes are cryptic and, ok, sometimes a little messy, I transfer them to other sheets and notes by the end of the day. That's a newspaper reporter habit: review the notes while they are still fresh. When that's done, I staple the translation to the original. Mission accomplished.

I find that handwritten notes engage the brain at a deeper level than do typed notes. The action of picking up a pen and decoding information into the hieroglyphics we call letters creates active neural pathways where learning and retention circle about. The best, most effective learning travels through active neurons, not those who have put up their toes for the night. This summer, I read that players of the Cleveland Browns were given e-tablets in training camp for play books and for film study, but those e-fads were banned from meeting rooms by first-year head coach Mike Pettine. Instead at each seat lay the old-fashioned pencil and paper. Pettine told the Wall Street Journal, "To write is to learn. When you write stuff down, you have a much higher chance of it getting imprinted on your brain"

Coaches know this. Teachers know this. Even those in my meeting of the day knew this if they gave the notion an unplugged moment of thought. That is why a best practice is to encourage and plan for notebooks and notetaking in the classroom rather than passive input through a keyboard. Technology works in many classroom activities, but note taking is not one of them. Not if the purpose of the presentation is to actually learn something. Of course in meetings, it's usually just toes up.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Flipping the Accommodations Lecture

Most of us are able to move about freely without a thought and get those things done that need to be done. But what if our lives were different? What if, in one moment, everything changed?

Those questions were explored by a "flipped" in-service project at my college this past week called "A Day in the Life." The idea was simple. Rather than present a 500-slide PowerPoint about accommodations services available for students and staff, we placed limitations on selected staff and let them report back to the college.

So on Tuesday morning, the first time that we gathered together for the fall term, six volunteers (three in leadership and three faculty) agreed to be "limited" during the opening eight-hour day. To their credit, they agreed to this project blindly without knowing the limitations (three physical and three cognitive) or who would be assigned to what. They spent the entire day (welcoming speech, keynote, breakfast, lunch, break-out sessions, department meetings and mingling with the masses) in some sort of restraint and then reported back during a Thursday in-service session.

Everyone we asked was an active, self-assured and well-known member of our campus community. That was the point. None of them had a speed less than full-throttle, and at first they accepted the limitations in good spirits. Those spirits were drawn down after they realized how much of their energy would be spent coping with the limitation. The limitation changed everything. By noon, only half-way through the day, most of them were looking at us organizers with sad-eyes, hoping to released early. Rather than enjoying the energy of the first day of the term, they were just focusing on survival.

Those with physical limitations (a temporary leg cast with crutches, an immobilized arm and impaired vision) reported they were annoyed by their loss of independence. The limitations slowed them down and forced them to concentrate on just moving about without bumping into things. This group talked of unexpected physical obstacles around the college. The school is ADA accessible of course, but extended tripod legs from hallway easels can still trip the unwary.

Colleagues tried to help them, but the help seemed an annoyance rather than beneficence. The physical restrictions caused physical aches and pains in otherwise healthy bodies. A male colleague fitted with the shoulder harness talked about unexpected challenges in the restroom and while trying to one-hand type email replies to a slew of messages. His support staff wanted to be supportive, but he said just wanted the freedom to be on his own like always.

Most of the students who come to the Accommodations Office need help with cognitive issues, so those of us who organized the day tried to duplicate those problems in volunteers. Those were the most difficult but interesting limitations to come up with. In order to replicate (sort of) a student who can't concentrate, we asked the volunteer to tune in to talk radio all day long and listen through an ear bud. We asked a second volunteer to repeat everything she said three times. The third cognitive volunteer was allowed one word ("Thank you" he decided upon) but could not make eye contact. The panel feedback from these volunteers was the most interesting.

The talk-radio volunteer said not surprisingly he was distracted by voices through the earphones. It never turned into "white noise" that he could tune out. He found he often asked others to repeat themselves, to his annoyance and theirs. Even normal one-on-one lunch conversations were blocked because the real people around him were competing with voices through the ear piece. "What did I miss?" he asked about the day.

The repeater volunteer complained that she was not able to take part in conversations because of the repetition obstacle. Like all the volunteers, the limitation forced her to drastically slow down. After she had answered questions three time, the conversation was already two or three subjects away. Though normally quite talkative, she said she was forced to listen because she didn't want to three-peat. She admitted that she dropped character during a 30-minute departmental meeting. What would have happened if she had not "cheated" during the meeting? She said she would have not been able to do her job.

The faculty member who had could only speak one word and could not make eye contact seemed the most agitated. He spotted me at the end of an in-service session just before his 3:30 p.m. release time. He tugged on the sleeve of my shirt without looking up and I had pity on him and released him a few minutes early. He burst forward with a variety of surprising stories about the day.

At first he said he thought this would be just a game. But determined to play his part, he soon realized the limitation would be much more difficult than he thought. He particularly said the inability to make eye contact was a massive barrier to communications. To his surprise, after his faculty friends were unable to talk with him in the usual way, they walked away saying they would talk to him the next day when he was able. He was shocked by that rejection. Without the ability to communicate, he said he felt like a "broken person." The next day he did confront his friends, and they told him that they were embarrassed by their reaction and regretted turning away. "Yet they did," he said.

So, what did we learn? First of all, each of the volunteers had the option of receiving help from the Accommodations Office to make it through the day. None of them chose to take advantage of that. They said they wanted to make it on their own, much like our students who also do not self-disclose their limitations. Without that self-disclosure, the Accommodations Office cannot help. It's true that this was just one day, but we learned the independent instinct of the volunteers was not much different than that of our students.

Second, we learned that simple obstacles seemed to change the way we see ourselves. I was surprised by that. The volunteers said the limitations don't just impact outward appearance, but reach down into the core of who we are, even when we know we are "playing" at accommodations. Physical and cognitive barriers changed the best our staff into a shell of their former selves. The energy they usually freely applied to problems within the college was held back in order to help them cope with daily activities.

The volunteers stayed in character because they knew this project would end at the end of the day. What would it be like, we all asked ourselves, if these limitations could not "released" at 3:30? What would it be like, we all asked ourselves, if we had to live with these limitations every single day?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mathematical Uncertainty in Classroom Assessments

In simple math, an answer is either right or it is wrong, right? If the problem is 2+3, then the answer is "5", end of question. If the student answers "6", then you probe a little and find out what the student was thinking. In either case, the question is a straight-forward measurement of the student's ability to count.

Let's say the student moves to simple Algebra and is asked to solve the problem, 2+x=5. The traditional answer, of course, is "3" assuming "x" is a positive integer. Yet just stating the answer, that is grading the assessment without review and reflection, may not correctly evaluate a student's ability to handle the material. The student may have remembered the previous questions, may have had a lucky guess or may be able to handle positive numbers and be blown away by negative integers. Can you tell if a student understands Algebra from the answers to one question? Probably not.

So, we move to multiple questions with multiple answers. I know this drives students crazy (especially the ones who just want me to tell them what is the right or wrong answer), but I don't care about the answer as much as I do for the process and discovery leading up to the answer. That's where learning takes place. If we want facts regurgitated, we google them. We don't need students to sub as smart phones.

A common gripe I hear from GED students is that the questions on the credentialed test are not the same as those in class or on the practice tests -- well, yeahhh. Novice students expect a 1:1 alignment of study questions to test questions, which is not going to happen. There's an Urban Legend in teaching circles that after a GED math test a student complained bitterly to a teacher that the class did not teach the algebra material that was on the GED test.

"What do you mean?" the teacher asked.

"In class we learned that if x+2=5, then x=3. And if x-2=1, then x=3," the student said.

"Yeah?" said the the teacher, not understanding the crisis.

"But, the test asked what was the answer to a+2=5 and n-2=1," said the student. "You didn't teach us about 'a' and 'n'. You only taught us about 'x'."

As a colleague once told me, the classroom curriculum is the map and the assessments are the compass. Sure, we teach the facts, the topography of the course, the scale of the region and annual migration routes of indigenous inhabitants, but more important we teach how to use the compass when you find yourself in unfamiliar territory. Assessments are as much a learning tool as are Power Points and study time.

Problems on the GED test, in college classrooms and in job situations are rarely as simple as 2+3=5 whether the variable "x", "a" or "n".  More often a problem is x+y=z, where 0<x<100 and y is a squared multiple of z depending the latitude of the inverse proposition.  Not only don't you know what the initial quantities are, you may not even know what the answer is supposed to be. Keying in on answers alone assumes that right answers or wrong answers are the most important thing in learning. They aren't. What's most important is the process students use to divine the answer. The best assessments that discover that process are as creative, varied and reflective as is the problem. The answer key to those assessments is rarely in the back of the book.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Green Bay Readers Notch No. 1

The Green Bay area is No. 1 in gorgeous summer weather and City Deck entertainers, No. 1 in Kansas wide receivers and pro-shop baseball cap displays, and No. 1 as an Integrated Newspaper Audience. The first two are in my humble opinion, and the last is supported by a national media and consumer study. 

Last Sunday (July 20, 2014, D1), the Press-Gazette’s business writer, Richard Ryman, wrote about a Scarborough Research study that measured media impact from April 2013 to March 2014 over more than 150 DMAs (Designated Market Areas) across the nation. Green Bay newspaper readers ranked No. 1. I guess the No. 1 shouldn’t have been a surprise since Gannett Wisconsin print and digital products in the Green Bay area had been No. 1 during the previous year and No. 2 the year before. Our area understands the importance of a newspaper.

To climb to the top of the newspaper pile, the Press-Gazette recorded a market "reach" of 62-percent. This means 62-percent of our local adults read the printed newspaper, the newspaper’s website, or a mix of both during a typical week. In comparison, according to Ryman, the big dog of journalism in the state, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ranked a respectable seventh with a 52.6 percent overall weekly reach. Considering how newspapers are getting pounded by other media, neither ranking is bad -- though ours is better. Scott Johnson, president and publisher of Press-Gazette Media, was naturally pleased, “Our readers continue to value and appreciate our content and we are grateful to them…”

All this is to the good. I am happy to be part of the No. 1 Integrated Newspaper Audience in the nation. I started the newspaper habit as a journalism student in college and have continued that habit through a variety of careers. Newspaper reading has been a personal and professional advantage. And, I believe, a responsibility of an informed citizenry. If one does not read the newspaper, how will he or she know what is going on? 

I look forward to the morning dose of the world and I expect continued success in media studies in future years since in the past year, the PG has noticeably improved by adding USA Today and other Gannett features to the Press-Gazette. Now the paper takes two cups of coffee in the morning, rather than just one.

Congratulations to Johnson, Ryman and all the other newspaper workers at the Press-Gazette. Together, I think we have the makings for another Green Bay dynasty.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Better You in Five Years

Self-help lists are a dime a double dozen on the Internet. What do they boil down to? Eat right, get plenty of sleep and exercise each and every day. Right. Been there. Done that. Have the Bellin Run t-shirt -- in fact, I have drawer of Bellin Run t-shirts. But has this advice inspired me to create a new improved version of myself? How about you?

Then I came across a post from Drake Baer of Business Insider who asked a question on behalf of a 23-year-old physics student: “What can I do today to help out my future self in 2019?” Baer compiled the answers from a website called Quora and summarized the 20-something advice into 17 categories. I almost clicked through the post, but was pulled in by the first couple of suggestions. They were easy (see #17) and made a lot of sense even for someone who is a multiple of 20-something.

Now, I don't advocate starting all seventeen ideas right after you read this blog, but there are enough ideas here that if you can make one or two of them a habit (see #17, again) during the days of summer that are left to us you may achieve better personhood in five years. I am borrowing more or less direct from Baer's article so I am crediting the people who came up with the ideas. We do need to know who to award the t-shirts to.

Here are the seventeen ideas.

1 Pick up an athletic hobby that you can do over your lifetime. Coed rugby and mountain skateboarding will only last so long. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle will do awful things to you. David Cannon.

2. Write down key points of what you did each day. This may seem trivial and a bit middle-school journal-ish, but Harvard Business School research shows that taking as little as 15-minutes of written reflection at the end of the day can make you more productive. Stan Hayward.

3. Talk to one stranger every day. Strangers = opportunities. Opportunities = more opportunities. And, more +++ opportunities are better than fewer :-<<. Who you know (in other eras this was called networking) can accelerate your career, happiness and health. Ashraf Sobli.

4. Learn to listen well. People love to talk about themselves. Listening allows you to build #3 and gives you something to #2 about. Charles Tips.

5. Waste less time. Zig Ziglar (my quotation, not Baer's) points out that each of us have twenty-four hours each day. Lack of direction, not lack of time is the problem of those who waste time. Anonymous.

6. Find happiness in the process of accomplishing your dreams. Avoid a "deferred life plan." Find a way to do what you like to do today, or, like what you have to do. Attitude is always key. Dan Lowenthal.

7. Build strong friendships and be kind to people. See #3 and #4. That will also help #6. Edina Dizharevic.

8. Diversify your experiences. See #3. Dan Lowenthal.

9. Save money. Put a little bit away with each paycheck. Do it automatically so you don't miss it. This is called the miracle of compound interest. India L.J. Mitchell.

10. Drink with old people (see #3, #7, #8). They've been there, done that and have the t-shirts (see #4). Ben Hinks.

11. Start meditating. It trains your brain to be able to deal with the madness of each day (see #6). Anonymous.

12. Learn to work with shame and doubt. Those emotions probably mean your are stretching beyond your comfort zone (see #11). That's a good thing. Diego Mejia.

13. Go outside: hikes, walks, running, that new lifelong sport you are taking up (see #1), anything. Cognitive psychologists prescribe a little "wilderness bathing" to counteract depression and burnout. Non-cognitive sorts say you need a dose of fresh air to chase aways the blues. Stephen Steinberg.

14. Get to know people who are different from you (see #3, #4, #8, #10). You might even meet them during a #13. Judy Tyrer.

15. Date everything (see #2) — no, not that kind of “date.” Whether you're connecting with a person, taking notes during a meeting, or labeling takeout boxes in the fridge, knowing the date when something happened is useful in ways you can't predict. If it could be predicted, we might mention it here as incentive. Dee Vining.

16. Read novels. Fiction is emotional and cognitive stimulation. Novels train you to recognize, understand and model other people's experiences of life. It's almost as good as #3, #8, #10 and #14. It’s even up there with #1 and #13. Anuany Arunav.

17. Set minimum goals. Read 15 pages a day, do 20 push ups each morning (see #1-#16), floss a different tooth each day (???). Starting the habit, even a small habit, is key to changing your life.

Pick only one or two of the group to try for the rest of the summer but don't delay (#6). We’ll check back in five years. T-shirts to the finishers.