Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Autumn Colchicum

We moved the petunia pot a little to the right in order to see the star spray of petals beneath it. Oops: we forgot that we planted the bulbs in that spot. A half dozen rosy purple Colchicum, a sort of fall crocus on steroids, hovered only six inches above the ground among the leaves. It didn't care that we had forgotten it. It was just happy to appear during the early hours of a glorious fall morning.

It's always a surprise when the Colchicum blooms because the flower emerges quickly and in full force suspended from a single, almost translucent stalk. I've seen the flower grace late season gardens and pop up in the middle of lawns where a corner garden once lived. Once established, the bulb will stubbornly return year after year. Because the Colchicum flower is not clothed in supporting leaves, a common name for the plant is the Naked Lady and so she is. Surrounded by a carpet of Kentucky Bluegrass, the bloom boldly shows her charms to new homeowners who wonder where the botanical Godiva came from.

Colchicum autumnale (its official botanical name), a member of the order Liliales (thus the slender leaf shape), is said to be the only species of its genus native to Great Britain. I wonder how they know that, though demeanor of the species does seem to be in sync with the Brits' national temper. Most of the time, the Colchicum quietly builds up strength beneath the surface, hidden from the limelight, and bides its time before the spectacular day that it chooses to appear. Then, it's as subtle as a ribald Christmas pantomime.

I learned in my herbaceous classes that all parts of the plant are as deadly as arsenic, so it's not the sort of plant you choose for the garden of a young family. The toxic chemical of the plant, called colchicine, was once used, I assume guardedly, as a herbal remedy for inflammation. That caught the attention of a group of cancer researches at the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire, UK, a few years ago who were looking for a "smart bomb" to destroy cancer tumors. After an initial flurry of publicity and notes in the Cancer Journal, I have not heard much more about their progress.

Perhaps the researchers were not able to make the flower palatable to the human body, its toxicity overwhelming its usefulness. Perhaps it was not as effective against the deadly cancer as it was once hoped. Or perhaps, it is just too early to judge the effects of research or clinical trials. Perhaps the autumn lady is just waiting, quietly, patiently to reveal her benefits to medicine in her own time. We should never underestimate, overlook or dismiss the benefits that lay all about us in the natural world. One never knows when a forgotten treasure will pop up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

RLCs: Start Small. Go Anywhere.

I pity the poor NWTC delivery van driver. His weekly route is east and north, west and north and then, north and north, and north. The NWTC District is large, ungainly and spread out over the rural and wooded northeast corner of Wisconsin with the cities of Green Bay and De Pere anchoring the bottom of the map. Think of the thumb and first two fingers of your right hand, palm up. That's our District.

The main Green Bay campus sprawls over the old Larson Orchard site on the southwest side of the city, just north of West Mason St. There are satellite mini-campuses in Marinette an hour north of Green Bay, up the first finger, and in Sturgeon Bay about 45-minutes north north-east just over the Bayview Bridge on the thumb of the Door Peninsula. Regional Learning Centers fill in some of the spaces between: Luxemburg-Casco, Niagara, Crivitz, Oconto Falls, and Shawano. In addition, NWTC regional managers and central planners extend our classes into local high schools and community and job centers. We've got the District covered.

Up to now, I have split my time between the West Regional Center in Shawano and the Northwest Regional Center in Oconto Falls (thus the name of this blog playing on the title of the 1959 Hitchcock movie: North by Northwest). Either center building could fit inside the gymnasium of the Green Bay campus with parking spaces to spare. But size does not indicate amount of learning that's happening at each of these small sites every day.

Though the buildings are modest, both of  "my" sites schedule full-grown programs in business, health science, ag and general studies. On any day (or night or weekend) in-person and video-conference classrooms at either site run concurrent classes in Nursing Assistant and Healthcare Business Services as well as Accounting, Leadership Development and Human Resources and other courses. This is in addition to a full schedule of General Studies courses transferable to 28 other four-year colleges, including the UW-system.

Our students, especially those in trades and other lab-intensive courses know they will eventually have to travel to take some of their classes in Green Bay, Marinette or Sturgeon Bay. Car detailing and phlebotomy just don't work on VC. Until that time, however, students at the Regional Learning Centers experience college on a small scale, but with no less rigor. I give credit to the leadership who has spread a strong network of student success west, northwest, north, east and central. I may be a tad biased, but I give even more credit to the RLC staff and part-time faculty (formerly called adjuncts) who are key to the success of the regional centers. They are the front-line faces of post-secondary education for many students of the district.

When you serve a District that spans half a hand, and a couple of tanks of gas, it's important for both economic and political reasons to provide equal opportunities for certificate, vocational diploma and associate degree programs across the entire area. NWTC students, all 42,000 by last count, are confident that wherever they go -- main campus in Green Bay or auto tech classes in Wausaukee -- they will receive consistent, quality education. Your zip code shouldn't limit your dreams. As our billboards put it, "Start Here, Go Anywhere."

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.