Dignity in Defeat

There is lots of talk about how great failure is… in books, articles… all over the Twitterverse people are praising the merits of accepting failure. How great is it, really? When was the last time you experienced a real, core-shaking, devastating defeat? It’s pretty painful.

A couple of years ago it was popular to make compilations of videos of people “failing” at tasks that made them look silly. Guys with skateboards fumbling  rail-slides down handrails; girls messing up gymnastics; trucks miscalculating the height of overpasses; and more. I fell into the trap of watching several of these. Is there something therapeutic in watching others fail? Laughter is definitely a healing salve, and these short clips will cause you to chuckle, for sure. But, many of these videos are bloopers of people attempting to do amazing feats. Where are the compilation videos of successes? Also, the seemingly therapeutic laughter is achieved at a cost, albeit difficult to measure, to the person whose failed feat will live on in infamy forever captured by video shared so that the public can laugh at his or her embarrassment. Make no mistake about it. We are laughing at others’ misfortune.

To be sure there is therapy in laughing at one’s own misfortune. Additionally, there is a trend spreading where embracing failure is being given value. TED (n.d.) has a collection of talks; over 17; on this topic. I have preached the positivity of negative results to science experiments for years. Failure breeds future discoveries and unforeseen understanding. While this very well may be noble, what about the person relying on results to bolster claims necessary for earning a grant to fund more failures? Companies and governments are probably going to be less likely to give money to projects that prove unsuccessful. Defeat can be incredibly disappointing.

Ss with catepillar in front of ship
Students found a caterpillar crawling around the room.

I experienced a deeply depressing defeat at the beginning of this school year. The fact that it has taken me several months to share it illustrates the emotional impact. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to frame it. The story is a little embarrassing and revealing. I had to throw away something that had taken me many hours to build. Money had been spent on constructing something that in the end needed to be thrown out. Were these hours and this experience wasted? Yes… and no.

Cubbies in Nursery
I made these cubbies for my daughter’s nursery, 8 years ago.

Many teachers and parents (Hampton, 2015) experience a sort of nesting phase, similar to a woman about to give birth, prior to the school year. They buy more school supplies than they need, arrange, rearrange, and re-rearrange their rooms over and over, making everything just right, perfect for the new class. Maybe it is a guy thing, or perhaps it’s just “my” thing, but I like to build stuff to get ready for the school year.

The very first item that I ever made was a couple of bookshelves. I love books, and I wanted to have a room full of them. So, I made homes for them. An idea of what I wanted the shelves to look like, how I wanted them to function, and the ease of making them grew in my mind throughout the summer. In between Professional Development sessions and team planning meetings I was drawing, measuring, sawing, hammering, etc. my bookshelves. They came out great, functioned flawlessly, and are still being used… But, the middle shelf was accidentally placed the exact height of the outlet the construction was to hide. It was impossible to plug anything in with the shelves against the wall. This was easy enough to fix. I simply cut a notch out of the unit so plugs had a space to stick out of the wall. From planning to constructing to fixing this problem, the experience prepared as much my pedagogical psyche as it provided a home for my classroom library.

Bookshelves
The shelves are still in use, today!
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You can see the cut away of the shelf behind this crazy pirate guy.

In the next few years I built a classroom island, a castle, a workbench, fish tank stand/hood, and conference table, among other smaller projects. The classroom island was something I obsessed over the summer prior to making it. The cubbies that I purchased for housing the plunder of books I had been pillaging from second hand bookstores were unattractive and sat flush with the floor. My island has a platform that raises the cubbies off of the ground. I made a countertop that covers the ugly cubby roofs and extends backward to allow students to sit under it. With stools it functions just like the kitchen islands that most students have in their homes.

The castle deserves its own blog.

My workbench was really neat. I didn’t like the way the teacher desk quarantined me behind it, cutting me off from the action of learning. One year I took it all apart and lined it up. The parts included the desk that a teacher’s chair can pull under, a similar table/desk with space under it, and two giant filing cabinets. I placed one of the filing cabinets under the table to hold it up; It had been attached to the teacher desk for support. The other filing cabinet was placed at the end of the twelve foot long line of equipment. Similarly to the classroom island, I built a frame of two by fours to attach one by eights, hanging the creation over one of the long sides and the end so that kids could pull up to it like a gigantic table. Because it was slightly higher than their little student desks, most kids stood to work at it. In my pirate-themed room this came to be known affectionately as “The Plank”.

I learned something new each time I constructed something, and many of the lessons involved solving problems. Every creation proved to be incredibly useful, fun, and loved… Until…

This past summer I got an idea in my head that I could not shake off. It consumed my thoughts. I was picturing building a sunken pirate ship, using planks from the classroom workbench. The workbench had served its purpose, and I wanted to do something different with that space in the room. Plus, I needed lumber for this new obsession–Make no doubt about it–I thought about this project constantly June, July, and August of 2018. Each beginning of the year construction project has been a sort of puzzle. My mind bends ideas and works out how I can form structures quickly and use as little funds as possible. The structure is always something that you can’t simply buy, either. Lastly, it has to be both functional and cool looking. The sunken pirate ship was going to be my masterpiece.

First of all it would be almost completely constructed of wood that I already had, making it virtually free of funds. Second of all, what I pictured in my mind did not exist anywhere but the bottom of the ocean. Thirdly, and most importantly, this new project was going to be the most beautiful, complex, impossible to reproduce, no-one-else-could-possibly-make-this-creation the pedagogical world has ever known! And, it was.

Frame
The frame was a puzzle in my mind.

I began by taking a part the beloved workbench and planing each edge of the one by eights so that the angle was 70ish degrees, rather than square. After doing this to all of my planks, I took four foot by four foot pieces of plywood that I brought from home, and I cut out a curve that would serve as the hull of the ship. This was one of the trickiest parts of the project. I brought the plywood up to my room and looked at it for a long time. I wanted the sunken ship to show the curved bottom of the boat, but also come up from the floor at an angle. This meant that I needed a few curved pieces, but different sizes. Additionally, I wanted the model to be the front of a ship, so I had to have the frame graduate from a large curve to a smaller and smaller one. It is almost as hard to write about this as it was to ponder it in my brain. This puzzle took me a long time to solve. Even after I had constructed a frame, it was tricky to figure out how to attach the planks. Should I build the whole thing outside, or piece it together right in my room?

First Plank
The first plank

 

I decided to assemble the ship in my room, rather than run up and down the stairs over and over. I figured out what angle to cut the bottom of each plank, ending at the floor, and attached my first one. It was beautiful, already! Just the success of figuring out how it could work was exhilarating.

I kept adding planks, alternating lengths and looks. I wanted it to look like the front of a pirate ship that had broken in half, so I left some of the boards ending at varying lengths. The front would be cut in an arching round curve, or so I hoped. This was still a little fuzzy in my head.

Partial completionThe top part of the ship would be flat or vertical, having no curve, to show that this was more than just a rowboat. It had been a tall mast ship. I continued the framework and attached more planks. curved front creation

As you can see, from these images, the ship was a work in progress. Much like a sculpture, I was cutting, shaping, adding, removing, and attaching pieces to adjust the art as it evolved. (Through constant formative assessment I made adjustments.)

Some of the shape of the ship would be produced simply through optics. I would position it at such an angle as to make the front of the boat look like it not only curved up, but also came to a seam with the opposite side (which obviously did not exist). One final extremely difficult, mind-bending trick was figuring out what to do with the front of the ship. I wanted it to look like a beam running the spine of the hull. Luan is a very thin wood that comes in sheets and is used for subflooring. You use it to make an otherwise uneven or bumpy floor smooth before laying tile. Because it is so thin, it is very pliable. It was very difficult to bend, hold, mark, and cut, but I got a piece that curved with my boat’s bow pretty well. I tossed around having a spear like staff sticking off the front, also, but the monstrous beast was already nearly touching the ceiling! A broken off point seemed to fit the theme of disaster.

Little did I know the disaster that was about to befall my creation, next.

Fellow teachers from my building visited my room, having heard the commotion or news of my creation. They were increasingly impressed as the structure was developed and took on shape. I remember wanting the boat to have a certain semblance to a ship before inviting my principal, Dr. Moyer, up to see my masterpiece’s progress. When I did finally invite him, I didn’t receive an enthusiastic response. In fact, it took a day before I even heard from him. At the time I was happy to have more minutes to get the ship that much closer to completion. When Dr. Moyer did finally join me in my room, he brought bad news.

Clearly, it pained my principal to inform me that after all of the work that I had put into this beautiful masterpiece, it was going to have to go. It wasn’t his decision. He shared with me an email from maintenance that he had received. The message explained that “The pirate ship being built in room 207 had to be removed, immediately” due to several violations and concerns. Dr. Moyer didn’t see any way around it, but suggested that I talk to the head of maintenance.

The pirate ship was just about done at this point. I called my school district’s head of maintenance several times before we finally connected. Over the phone I told the person who is in charge of not only maintaining all of the district’s facilities, but also responsible for students’ safety that I understood every point that he was making in his email to my principal. I explained that some of the concerns could be remediated and I asked for a chance to make some adjustments to my creation. This saint of a man told me that he would consider my changes and take another look at my project.

This was it. I had to move the ship away from the sprinkler head in the ceiling, make sure the structure was secure, and smooth rough edges as much as possible. I put last minute, finishing touches on the ship to make it look as good as it could… And then, I waited for a verdict.

I am not listing every concern that my masterpiece had raised in the mind of the head of maintenance, but suffice to say, I was unable to completely rectify enough of them to satisfy the justification of leaving the heap of wood in my room, permanently. It was honestly touching how obviously moved this understanding and caring individual was when he told me that, “Unfortunately, the pirate ship still had to be removed from the classroom.”

I had worked feverishly with an obsessed passion to complete this project before school began. I wanted to have this amazing, awe-inspiring, gigantic addition to my pirate-themed room ready for students to appear Monday morning. I couldn’t wait for them to feel the presence of the sunken pirate ship looming in the back of the room. Removing it would be like losing a limb.

Ella and ship
Although temporary, the pirate ship made an impression.

Hesitatingly, I inquired if I could just keep it long enough for students to see it. After a pause, my savior said that he needed the ship removed, but that he wasn’t planning to do a walk through of my building on the first day of school. It was understood that if anything negative happened, it was on me. Having constructed the creation myself, I knew that it was perfectly safe. And, I was very confident in my classroom management, so I took the chance of letting my students at least view the craziest creation I had ever attempted.

Dignified Defeat

I took the pirate ship down. I was okay with this decision because it was made with the safety of students in mind. But, make no mistake about it, this was a defeat, a loss, a failure. As I said earlier in this text, I struggled to publish any information about the pirate ship. I never tweeted images of it or talked about it publicly on Facebook. Was I simply embarrassed? Yes, but even more than that, my dream was defeated.

…Or, was it?

I told the head of maintenance that I had envisioned this creation over the summer, and I felt like I just HAD to make it. He suggested that I speak to the people who produce plays at the high school to help with making their sets. There was a respect for my creativity. I’m not sure that he ever completely understood, but I could not NOT construct this pirate ship. I had to see if I could do it. I had to see if my vision would work. I had to see if I could puzzle out the angles and curves. I had to see what it would look like. Could it become anything even close to what I envisioned? As it turned out, yes, I could. Yes, I did. Yes, it was… beautiful. And, now it is gone.

I eased myself into my defeat by thinking I would reconstruct the ship down by my pool. But, I’d have to build a whole new frame, and I didn’t think that the low-quality wood would hold up outside. In the end I let the thing get moldy and threw it all away.

A chess tournament training I attended recently shared what kids must master before attending their first match. They have to know how to checkmate or win a game. They IMG_1708should know how to operate a chess clock. There are a couple other elements, but what stood out the most to me was the idea that kids must learn to lose. At the time I pictured my 7 year old daughter who hates losing. She has melted down to tears when she loses. But, since then, I have mulled this concept over. At both the beginning of a chess match and at the end you shake hands. It is different from other sports. You don’t jump into competition and then slap hands carelessly at the end, chanting, “Good game, good game, good game,” while never looking the victor in the eyes. A dignified defeat is thankful for the opportunity to learn through this match. I was able to try out my skills, make some good decisions, show my stuff, prove myself to myself and perhaps others, and I am now a better stronger person having competed against you. Maybe, like a match I played against someone better than I, the outcome will be a feeling of “At least I held my own.” There is dignity in that attitude. Dignity is an attitude.

In conclusion, I am pleased to profess that although my room does not dawn a disaster of a sunken pirate ship, it does house one classy educator who has learned the lesson of dignified defeat.

What defeats have you dignified?

 

Sources:

Hampton, K. (2015, August). THE ART OF AUGUST NESTING. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://kellehampton.com/2015/08/the-art-of-august-nesting/

 

TED. (n.d.). A collection of TED Talks (and more) on the topic of Failure. Retrieved March 17, 2019, from https://www.ted.com/topics/failure

 

10 Things to Keep in Mind When Collaborating With Others

I’ve recently begun communicating with a couple of teachers from the other side of the world. This has been very exciting, but also attitude-altering in several ways. I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned at the outset of attempting to foster these new relationships with international colleagues.

ONE. Compromise

I begin with the most basic and obvious. Clearly, for any collaboration to get off the ground, there must be give and take. An airplane needs both aerodynamic wing design AND speed. Without the one it is a very fast weird-looking car, and without the other it is little more than a model of a plane. Speed pushes the air around the wings so that the craft lifts off of the ground. Hopefully, you get the picture, but if you want to go down that rabbit-hole, enjoy. I’ll see you later:)


TWO. Active Listening

This means seeking to understand. Because we are only using text, and my collaborative partner comes from a totally different *everything from me, I must be a super sleuth to find context for concepts. One thing I try to do is “un-think” much of my expectations, as well as not assume that my partner knows American educational habits. This past week I had Monday off due to snow. Then, Friday there wasn’t school for students because of Professional Development. Do my international teaching friends experience these conundrums?

*In addition to all of the concrete differences and experiential differences, there are the attitudes and mindsets that will be different. Are days off considered “off” to people in other countries? Perhaps time away from school is full of more work than being in school.


THREE. Give Up Google

Don’t have a stroke Alice Keeler, but not everyone in the world uses Google. I do, and I love it. In fact, I spend more time in my G suite than my house. (Right now, I’m typing this in Google Doc, planning to copy and paste it into WordPress.)

This may be hard to imagine for some, but what if there were something better than Google? Right now, America is the most powerful and largest tech market, but it isn’t the biggest. China and India dwarf the U.S.A. Were those countries to develop a system that worked better and was even more easily accessible, Google would be Lincoln Logs next to Legos. As collaborators and educators, we would do well to have an open mind and try out whatever our partner wants to use.

All that being said, there is the whole if you set it free and it comes back to you business. I did suggest Google to my pen pals. One person is familiar with Google, and her students use Drive. Another person’s students don’t. With this second collaborator I will be using ePals program to connect my students with hers. We will see how it goes.


FOUR. Swallow Pride

This will read funny after what I just said, but when I found out a collaborating partner from another side of the world didn’t use Google very much, I thought, “Great! An opportunity to show you how awesome, useful, and helpful it its!” I did not email this sentiment, however. Instead, I thought about what the goal of our collaboration should be. Did this person sign up to have her students pen pal with mine, only to have me preach at her about the benefits of Google? We both expect to grow and learn through the experience, but I don’t want to turn off my partner by acting or even dreaming of tech superiority.

IMG_9964
Scarlet and Sonia on vacation.

You arrange to hangout with someone. The new friend suggests riding bikes to a park for a picnic lunch. Do you insist that the two of you drive? “It’ll be faster. The lunch won’t spill or cool off. It’s more convenient…” For you, maybe. If you insist on driving, you could drive your friend away. Even if the new acquaintance agrees to be driven, and the lunch doesn’t spill or cool off, your fragile new relationship could.

3319673304_53ea643fedPerhaps your partner has driven a car before–Maybe they have a Ferrari sitting in the garage that you’ll be able to experience if you allow the friendship to blossom naturally.

 


FIVE. Keep it Consistent: “Rotisserie Relationship”

Keep it moving. Try to stay on top of communication. Maybe even agree on frequency. Do you expect to hear from each other once a week, every other day. Might you be setting yourself up for failure hoping to correspond every day? Take turns and practice a comfortable, reliable back and forth.


SIX. Adjust the Temperature

When cooking marshmallows over a fire, there are three ways to do it.

  1. Grab a raw marshmallow from the bag and plop it in your mouth. You might be too impatient to wait. Or, maybe you just prefer raw marshmallows to gooey, sticky ones.
  2. Thrust the marshmallow right into the flames of the fire. It will light up like a torch. Let it burn for a few seconds. After blowing out the flames, you plop the carcinogen-crusted half-melted marshmallow in your mouth. These have some yummy melted marshmallow, but the papery skin sticks to the roof of your mouth and tastes burnt, which it is. And, the center is still raw.
  3. You know how this one goes. The experienced, patient person waits for the fire to burn to red-hot embers. He finds just the right stick and wittles the end while he waits. Once the cooking conditions are just right, the master marshmallow melter delicately develops a rich brown color on all sides by slowly spinning the fat white column over the heat… checking often for discoloration. The most important thing to know is that it isn’t the flame that cooks the marshmallow; It’s the heat. Embers are hotter than flames, but they take time to develop.

SEVEN. Don’t Pile On

Personally, I have too much to say, in general, clearly;)

I have to work at taming myself to 1 or 2 ideas per communiqué. This is not my strong suit, but I have found that too many ideas can smother a relationship. If you put too many sticks on a fire, do you know what happens? It dies out. (I’m still thinking about those marshmallows.) Fire needs to breath. It is best to add just a few sticks at a time. Let them catch. Then add more. Or, when adding a lot of wood to a fire, be sure that there is an air vent; a place where oxygen can reach the heart of the fire.

When participating in a conversation, try to be masterful about it. Add thoughts that have to do with what other people are talking about. Only tell one story and limit the details. Give listeners the opportunity to ask to hear more. Don’t hog the mic. And, never drop it. Inevitably, it will definitely land on your metaphorical foot.


EIGHT. Be Humble

This may exist as “Eight” in the list, but can be woven in and out of every sentence of this blog. In other words, it is every number.

Humility can be your savior. Back to the “Driving to the picnic” analogy: How would your partner feel if he or she only owned a bicycle, and you show up in a Ferrari? You may as well rev your engine and run over the partner’s pet dog on your way to your picnic. Hubris is killer.


NINE. Questions Show You Care

Always include questions. Again, only a couple; don’t make your correspondent feel like he is taking a survey. It might work well to volunteer your own answer to the question that you asked your new friend. I recently told my pen pal about having to take a “snow day” because of inclement weather. Then I asked if it snows where she lives. A better question, now that I think about it, would have been, “What kinds of things might cause you and your students to close up shop and not have school for a day or more?” Yeah, I think I’m going to go type that into my next correspondence.

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I am asking a student questions about her salsa during our annual 3rd grade salsa taste-testing event.

And, now that my list is just about over and you have come to the end of this blog, I will practice what I preach by asking you:

  • Which of these ideas resonated with you and why?
  • What experience have you had communicating with people from other countries?
  • How did you get in touch with these individuals? (Others might be interested in starting a collaborative project, so provide some specifics, including links, please.)
  • What do you plan to do with the information that you just read?

I ask you these questions because I care; more than caring that you read this blog, I care about people collaborating effectively. I care about people making friends, working together, growing as humans. I care for humanity…  evolving to be better.


TEN. Distance

 

This is related to “Don’t Pile On” (no. 7). Make sure that there is enough space for your partner to provide suggestions.

Relationships are like a simple game of catch. Is it fun to toss a ball to someone who is 2 feet from you? No. The further away, the better.

You start off close, but with mastery, you move further from one another. There will come a point when the distance becomes too challenging or ineffective. And then, you make adjustments. This space can be applied to time, proximity (you are not going to email the person sitting next to you), and ideas (tossing the same thought back and forth gets boring).


Okay. All done. Now, back to “Questions Show You Care”, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of this… Well, on part of this… Okay, just tell me nice things… No, really, I want to read your thoughts, whatever they are. Just frame them nicely, please. Thank you.

 

Unsolicited Criticism is NOT Classy

“How do you tell someone that they shouldn’t bring a lot of toys to school… but, nicely?”

IMG_7591
Scarlet writes the rules for playing with the beany toys that she is sending with me to my school.

On the way home from daycare my daughter asked me this question, and by the way she told me the story, I could tell that she was really asking, “Did I do this right?”

I had to laugh at my crafty daughter. She was working at justifying something that she did that probably made a peer feel badly. She may have well asked, “Why didn’t he take my criticism better?” In fact, as we began to talk about it, Scarlet even suggested a very soothing tone, and modeled for me the way a kid might tell another kid that they shouldn’t do something, and it be respectable. She sounded like an adult explaining something painful to a child.

My initial reaction was, “No”.

“Daddy, how do I tell someone that he is doing something wrong?”

“No. You don’t.” I didn’t realize that she already had. When this concept dawned my cognition, I began to walk Scarlet back. She had explained that a friend who she sat next to on the bus had opened his backpack to show Scarlet all of the toys that he was bringing to school. It seems like this is when my daughter tried as much as she could to classily tell him that he was ridiculous for doing exactly what she would have done if her mommy and daddy let her.

As Scarlet provided more and more details, I could tell that she was actually envious of her friend. The word “fair” surfaces every five sentences, these days. This was definitely one of those times. I explained to Scarlet that it wasn’t her place to tell her friends what to do, how to do it, or not to do certain things. “If someone breaks the rules, you can remind him or her of the rules, and you can let an adult know. But, if someone does something that bothers you, it is your job to deal with it. Let’s say someone says something mean to you. You should tell the person that those words hurt your feelings, and you didn’t appreciate it…”

Scarlet is an only child. She has a bit of a bossy streak in her. When I told her to tell someone something, she was all about that! We discussed how to do this classily. Then she prompted, “And, you tell the teacher!”

I told her that classy kids don’t bother the teacher with every little thing that bothers them. “If someone hurts your feelings, you address this. Perhaps the person apologizes and you remain playing partners and friends. It is possible, though, that the person does not behave politely. And then you just stay away from that individual. You only go talk to the teacher if someone is breaking the rules.”

This bit of news–Rules News–was eye-widening. Someone has experienced this before! Scarlet gave me all kinds of examples of this happening at school. I explained that the rules are set up to help students be safe and not hurt others. Scarlet mentioned punishments for kids who break the rules. I didn’t want her to focus on that. “What happens to students who break the rules is up to the teacher to decide. That is none of your business. And, don’t tell on someone, so that he or she gets into trouble. Your job in communicating rule-breaking is to help your friends and yourself be as safe as possible. Don’t worry about punishments.”

“When grownups break rules, they go to prison,” Scarlet offered.

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Scarlet sent her toys with me to school last year. She also sent a list of rules.

“Sometimes they do. There are a few different kinds of punishments for adults who break the law. Rules for adults are called laws,” I explained.

“What are grownup rules?”

When I began thinking about what laws my 7-year old would understand, my mind went to the classroom. I told her that just like kids, adults shouldn’t take other people’s things. I explained that if someone took daddy’s truck, we would have a difficult time getting around. Now, if someone asked to borrow it, that would be different. Then I would know where it is, or at least who had it. I told her that taking someone else’s things without asking is called stealing. Before letting Scarlet go to school and accuse anyone and everyone of this crime, I explained that sometimes a neighbor will borrow something, like a pencil or crayon without asking. If they need one, and you aren’t using yours, someone could choose to use yours for a minute. This is not “stealing”. As long as it does not hurt anything, that is permissible, and you should classily allow friends to use your things. If they didn’t return it, or if he/she broke it and didn’t replace it, there would be a problem. That is not nice. “Then I tell the person, ‘You did something not nice’,” Scarlet practiced.

I smiled. “Do you have to tell the teacher about that?” I inquired.

IMG_7592
Just some of Scarlet’s rules for playing with her beany toys.

“You don’t have to, but you can,” Scarlet regurgitated.

I also told Scarlet that another law for adults to live by is not hurting others, physically. “When adults have disagreements, they use words to sort things out,” I told her. “They do not attack someone with their hands or feet and hurt the person’s body.” I wasn’t sure Scarlet knew the word “physical”, yet. I’m not sure that this idea was communicated clearly enough, but the seed was planted. Those two laws seemed like good ones to begin with. We didn’t need to get into driving, taxes, or copyright infringement just yet.

Going back to the backpack full of toys that Scarlet’s neighbor on the bus had shown her, I wanted to communicate to my daughter that sometimes we need to simply deal with our own feelings. “Just because you think that boy shouldn’t bring all of those toys to school, doesn’t mean that you should tell him. You’re not his mommy. You’re not his teacher.”

When I asked her how she would feel if someone told her what to do, Scarlet said, “You’re not the boss of me.” I laughed.

Open-Ended Questions Are Classy

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ePals is a great way to meet teachers from around the world

I am extremely excited to announce that I have connected with a teacher from another country whose students will be collaborating with mine on a project or two and potentially pen palling each other. I found this class and teacher through the use of ePals. The country that my new colleague is from is very far from mine in both distance and culture. I thought that it would be fun to play the game 20 questions between the two classes to guess where each is located. My new pen pal has never heard of this classic American game. In thinking about how to communicate the rules and strategy of the simple game to my foreign friend, I came up with a use for playing it with my WIN class.

Research Questions

Friday’s WIN class found me teaching research questions. My students are progressing in their “Who Would WIN?” projects. We have decided on animals, checked books out of the library, and are getting ready to learn about our topics. What should we learn, though? And, how do we find the information? We search for it using research questions.

These are open-ended questions that begin with words and phrases like…

When… ?

IMG_3014
Students are finding books about their animals

What type or kind… ?

How… ?

Where… ?

Why… ?

Why are these open-ended questions better than yes/no questions?

I decided to play 20 Questions to show the students the limitations of yes/no ?s.

Rules/Strategies:

You get 20 questions.

Each question must be a yes/no question. It can only receive a yes/no answer. If you accidentally ask an open-ended question, it will still be answered with a “Yes” or a “No”. For instance, someone may ask, “What color is it?” That person would get the reply, “No,” which obviously does not make any sense and is not helpful. Do not waste your questions.

One question per person. And, since we have more than 20 kids in the class, not everyone will get to ask one. Sorry, maybe next time. But, definitely no one will get to ask more than one. If you do get a chance to ask a question, make sure it is a good one. You must remember all of the answers of previous questions, so that you do not repeat any of those and waste your turn and one of the group’s precious questions!

Also, you want to pay close attention to answers, so that you can build on information that’s already been learned.

You want your question to continue trains of thought that seem to be leading down information paths that could end up revealing something that would give away what the answer is. For example, perhaps someone asked if the thing being guessed is alive. If the answer was no, it wouldn’t make any sense to ask a question about something living! You would want to find out where this inanimate thing is located or what it is used for. In this way, your questions will be working together. You must think of yourselves as a team.

When it comes time to guess what the thing is, that counts as one of your questions. You may make this inquiry at any time during the game, but keep in mind that you would be using up one of the 20 questions. It would be wasteful to ask, “Is it Superman?” when you don’t have any information suggesting that it could be. Narrow down the options with your questions.

Now that you understand the game, let’s play. I’m thinking of an animal. It is a wild animal that is not featured in any of the “Who Would Win” books by Jerry Pallota. No one in the class has chosen to research this animal. What is it?

Ways to narrow the field of information include focusing on the following:

Size–Is it smaller than this chair? Yes. Is it smaller than my hand? No. Now you know that it is somewhere between a hand and chair. Don’t guess any more size questions. Focus on another feature.

Habitat–Does it live in the water? Sometimes. (It is at the discretion of the interviewee to answer the questions however he/she thinks best. There may be times when the question, even though it be an appropriate yes/no question cannot be answered with only one of those two answers, satisfactorily. My animal is an amphibian. I didn’t want to kill all chance of my guessers for figuring it out. Also, the person being questioned may provide hints if it seems like the answer is too hard. You may want to steer the guessers in the right direction. Remember, it is just a game.)

Habits–Is it a carnivore? Sort of. So, does it eat meat and plants? Yes. Okay, does it eat bugs? Yes, it loves bugs. (Notice, I am giving them a hint, here.)

Location–Does it exist here in our town? Yes.

Looks–Is it furry? No. Is it scaly? No. Is it a hot color? No. Does it have long legs? Yes, most definitely, for its size, its legs are enormous!

Me: You have many clues as to what it is, are you ready to guess what it is? No. We want to narrow it down a little more.

The students continued to ask more and more detailed questions until they were stumped. They had begun discussing with each other the fact that the animal had to be a frog, but those were usually smaller than a hand. “Is it a frog that is bigger than a hand?”

“Do you want to use one of your questions to ask that?” (They only had a couple left, and I wanted them to be successful.)

“No.” More classroom discussion.

“What do you know about frogs? Are there any that are larger than a hand?”

As if no one had thought of that, surprise lit up faces throughout the room. Finally, someone blurted out, “Is it a bullfrog?”

“Yes.”amphibian-aquatic-animal-close-416206

The Power of Open-Ended Questions

I then prompted more classroom discussion, “What question or questions would have gotten you to the answer faster, if you were not limited to yes/no options?”

Students shared with their turn/talk partners.

After listening to a few ideas, we concluded that the fastest was “What animal are you thinking about?” We also discussed better ways to dig up information about your animal. What does it eat? How does it eat that? Where does it get its food? When does it eat? How often does it eat? Before students’ minds exploded, I had them type some sample research questions in the Notes App on their iPads.atlas-close-up-dark-592753

What Country Are You From?

While that would be much easier a question to ask and get answered, my favorite part of teaching is making things difficult and challenging for my students. So, we will play 20 questions with our pen pals. Hopefully we will learn more than just the name of their country. That’s the idea, anyway.

Have you had interesting experiences playing 20 Questions? Oh no! That was a lame yes/no question;(

What interesting experiences have you had playing 20 Questions? Explain.

When have you played the game? I used to play with my sister on long car rides when we were growing up. It helped to pass the time.

What was the best answer or question that you remember someone using?

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Research Questions send you on a QUEST.

Must Mention

I always point out the root word in “Research” and discuss that this term means “searching deeper.” It is like you didn’t find all of the information, so you “Re-Search”.

An extremely creative and bright student pointed out a root word in the word “Question”. Research is like going on a “Quest”. I was blown away. This is the classiest group of kids, I tell ya!

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Cognomens Are Classy

“Excuse me.”

I like to listen to books while I work. I was wearing earbuds when this person was speaking to me, and couldn’t hear what she was saying.

“Excuse me.”

I thought I heard something, so I turned to look. The woman who was housesitting was talking to me. She had been saying, “Excuse me.”

“How long are you staying?” she asked me. “I’m not rushing you… I just wanted an idea.”

We were the only two people in the house, and she was looking right at me. There was no question who she was talking to. It was me. But, there was something missing. What was it? I couldn’t place my finger on it, but there was a feeling.

She hadn’t used my name.

A Confession

I have a confession to make. I am not good at remembering names. I wish I was. I have worked on it. When I was in highschool, I actually read a book about how to remember names. I still remember most of its points, but I can’t remember who wrote it. Too often, I will come across someone whom I had already met, and their name completely escapes me. So, there it is: My concession of unclassy behavior prior to proposing you do what eludes me.

Back to the Tale

The encounter with the housesitter happened yesterday. This was probably the thirtieth time I had met her. Earlier in the day, I was surprised to find I already had her phone number saved. At that time I learned the name that she normally goes by. I programmed that into my phone, as well.

The feeling materialized into a thought: This woman either didn’t know my name or chose not to use it. Why would someone decide another person’s name was not worth saying? In the past, I have witnessed people speak to hired help differently. More than the words they used, it was the way they said them. They spoke down to the person whom they believed was beneath them. Sometimes the way they do this is through the words they do NOT use. I have experienced people who think that their status elevates them so high above me that they try not to talk to me, as if speaking with a worker will somehow drag them down. Now, I bet that this lady did not feel this way. But, by not using my name, it felt like I was less human; a less person than she.

Earlier that Week

Contrast this feeling with a story from earlier in the week. I was picking up my daughter from daycare, when another parent told her child to, “Stand to the side, and let Mr. Weimann through.” At first, I was surprised that she knew who I was. And then, I thought it classy that she used my cognomen. It made me feel special; important.

A person’s name is precious to him (Schultz, 2017). Dale Carnegie famously suggested a person’s name is the sweetest sound to him. The very first word that anyone types on a keyboard is his name. The first thing we learn to write is our name. It is our label. It’s who we are. There is an art to using other people’s names in conversation. It attracts the listener’s attention (Russell, 2014).

Luke Davis (2017) points out plot lines containing a search for characters’ names in “The Power of Using Someone’s Name”. A name in fantasy stories is sometimes magical. When the miller’s daughter learns Rumplestiltskin’s name, she saves her first born’s fate. Davis suggests that people give permission when they offer their name. They are communicating how you may address them. I remember a few years ago, an adult visited the classroom. He wore a nametag that showed both his first and last name. A kid read it and pronounced the adult’s first name. This adult could have handled this better. He said, “It is Mr. __ to you” to the student. He hadn’t given that student permission to use his first name.

Classics

I love classics. Some have been rewritten, made into movies, talked about so often that reading the original work is like looking at a primary source. There are times I feel like an archaeologist dusting off the first few words a master wordsmith penned. This is the feeling every fall when I get out “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving.  

29bd75fffbd860f9116b782fee7b4f5fWith sentences longer than the paragraphs my third graders write, this text presents descriptive writing that transforms the 21st century classroom into a one-room schoolhouse in a comfortably lazy, quiet, rural town. Incidentally, Sleepy Hollow is an actual town. If you cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, a word Irving includes in his text, you will see signs for it.

Remember my mentioning that I listen to texts? I have heard “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” on audio several times. When you listen to the story, you don’t have the ability to look up the words that you don’t know. You just use context clues or allow the meaning to escape, and move on with the plot. The robust vocabulary is part of the allure of the classic. The enchantment of Irving’s learned lexicon is lost, however, when I read the text to/with my third graders. Rather than bump down a bubbling brook, we get caught with confusion at every turn.

As it turns out, I have never gotten all the way through the classic with my students. I begin reading it close to the start of the year, looking toward Halloween. Everyone has heard the story. Many students tell me they have seen “the” movie. (There are several.) None have ever heard a sentence of the original classic. Even though it takes weeks to get through the first chapter, I find it fun and beneficial for students to experience. We eventually peruse the rewrites and end up comparing/contrasting them with what we have witnessed of the original.

How Does Sleepy Hollow Fit?

What on earth does “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have to do with the story that began this blog? When we are first introduced to the main character of Irving’s tale, there is a sentence that I like to present to my students as a riddle: “The cognomen of Crane was not inapplicable to his person.” In addition to the vocabulary word, cognomen, the double-negative throws 8 & 9 year olds for a loop. We had already learned Ichabod Crane’s name, so we could use context clues to figure out that cognomen meant last or surname. The double-negative is harder to explain.

Cognomen

Cognomen is one of the vocabulary words that my brain glossed over when listening to the book on audio. Because it didn’t affect the plot of the story, I didn’t worry myself about it. When reading the text with students, however, it became a curiosity. We looked it up in a collegiate dictionary. (Our elementary dictionaries couldn’t handle it. This makes third graders feel awesome!) In addition to surname, cognomen also means alias or nickname. So, Irving could be saying that he is adorning this character with this name because he wants you to picture him with a beak of a nose. Ichabod’s creator/father, the man bestowing him a surname, Washington Irving, is making this surname a nickname, a cognomen. Of course, I don’t get into all of this with my third graders. We are simply happy to learn the term, surname.

Cognomens Are Classy

Nowadays, we are not reading about Sleepy Hollow. We are looking at manners from a book about being polite. This happens everyday after recess and before math. Last week, 2bookone of our lessons was to use Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms. along with the last name (cognomen) when speaking with adults, or find out how the adult would like to be addressed.

As always, we had plenty of discussion, full of stories. I told the students about a neighbor, when I was a kid. He was elderly, and his family did not live close. He loved company, and we would visit him regularly. Rather than calling him Mr. Vinton, he insisted we say “Grampa Vinton”. He turned out to be one of my best friends, growing up. Even though I visited him nearly everyday and we shot rubber bands at each other in his breezeway, I always called him Grampa Vinton. Placing the respectful title before the cognomen helped me remember this was not another kid.

When I was growing up, I had friends who referred to adults as ma’am and sir. This seemed respectful, but never felt quite right to me. Looking back, I now know why. Sir and ma’am denotes mastery. The kid was suggesting servitude. This is not the same as respect.

Mr. Smith

In my classroom I use kids’ last names all of the time. I do this because it is weird and to help me learn/remember their last names, but I have noticed an interesting byproduct: Kids love it. You should see them light up when I call them Mr. Smith. Their faces look like they just won the lottery. Being called the same thing as your mom or dad is winning a lottery of respect. I place the kid on the same title plane as myself. Why don’t they refer to me as Matt? That would be unheard of, but why? By using their last name, I elevate them to the same status.

When the lady refused to use my cognomen or even my first name, yesterday, I was left with a feeling opposite my students’ when I use their last name.

Black History Month: Race

I have one more disclaimer: The text that I was listening to when the housesitter began talking to me was “The Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong” by James W. Loewen. I’m sure you guessed it from the title, but this is one of those truly eye-opening books. I was just listening to Chapter 5, “Gone With the Wind: The Invisibility of Racism in American History Textbooks,” when I heard, “Excuse me.”IMG_8396

Loewen’s text taught me that there are subtle ways that opinions about race are woven throughout most history textbooks. The concepts are thin, and the weave is tight. You don’t even notice it, but there is a thread of attitude here, and a fragment of thought there. Many times, it is what the textbooks do NOT include. They never tell about the laws that demanded black people not look white people in the eye. There were many laws like this that trained race relation deterioration during “equalization” after emancipation that I had never heard. 

I am not about to march into my third grade classroom and dump all of this information onto my students. It has, however, caused me to think about omission as a bad thing. Although it might feel awkward to bring up race, NOT doing so could be damaging. Perhaps, it is like addressing someone without using his name.  

Sources

Davis, L. (2017, August 10). The Power of Using Someone’s Name. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-power-of-using-someones-name-ldvs/
Irving, Washington, 1783-1859. (1963). Rip Van Winkle, and The legend of Sleepy Hollow. New York :Macmillan,
Loewen, James W. (1996). Lies my teacher told me : everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York :Simon & Schuster,
Schulz, J. (2017, January 12). Using a person’s name in conversation. Retrieved February 17, 2019, from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/using_a_persons_name_in_conversation

The Cornerstone of Classy (50th Entry)

balloons-2549161_960_720I have known that this would be my fiftieth blog entry for a few weeks. I wanted it to be special, so I have taken some time to read, think, and prepare what I hope to be an epic entry. I thought it apropos to finally try to explain the philosophy of classiness I propose to captain. In preparation for this writing I revisited a chapter of a book that I read long ago.

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From mom to grammie

I was raised by a mother who instilled in me the need to be nice to others, regardless of relation, race, creed, or gender. Unlike myself, she kept it simple: Be nice to everyone, period. “Turn the other cheek” was both preached and practiced in my home. My parents rarely argued, and if ever there was a disagreement, it was short-lived and ended in comfortable compromise. I witnessed the success of this, first-hand.

When I came across the chapter (12) “Nice Guys Finish First” in Richard Dawkins’s seminole work, “The Selfish Gene” (2006), I felt like all of my upbringing and my desire to mold classy citizens out of my students came into sharp focus. I had already invented “The Polite Pirates” and begun teaching classy behavior to second graders. As I read Dawkins’s explanation of Axelrod’s famous experiments using variations of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, I felt like everything I stood for was being justified… scientifically!

Revisiting this text several years later has been a rewarding experience.  More than what it means to be classy, I am excited to share why one would benefit from taking up this mantle.

First day of school 2018-19
1st Day of School 2018-19

Beginning at the End: Vampires

I want to start by mentioning the very last concept that Dawkins uses to end his “Nice Guys Finish First” chapter (2006), because it pertains to piracy, part of my classroom imagestheme. Probably as famous as pirates to young minds, but much more menacing, is the idea of vampires. Dracula, the most famous, albeit fictional, vampire flies around as a bat, transforms into a human, and uses his sharp fangs to drink people’s blood. This idea originates from real-live nonfiction vampire bats that really do suck the blood out of “hosts” during the darkness of night. Who would imagine that this kind of animal would practice polite behavior?

Well, they do… at least among friends. G.S. Wilkinson published a paper in the prestigious periodical, Nature, entitled “Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat” in bat-42528_960_7201984. His paper discusses the way vampire bats will share food with each other. The food in this case happens to be blood, but nonetheless, they demonstrate kindness by helping neighbors who were less fortunate during the evening hunt. If a bat returned to a community roost in the morning hungry because he did not find a host to draw blood, a friend actually regurgitated part of his supper so that his buddy would have some food to feast on. Why would the bat who had found a host and had his fill of blood be willing to help another? The study examined the relationship and actions between bats and found that the helpful bat was fed when it experienced a fruitless evening hunt. Basically, even vampires look out for one another.

This story of blood-sucking vampire bats ironically helping one another made me think of the contradictory term I have invented for the theme in my classroom: “Polite Pirates.” We plunder bad behavior and pillage rudeness. We do this politely, and we model classy conduct. One might not think of pirates as voicing “Please” and “Thank You”, but mine do more than that: They communicate class through helping others feel nice.

Rule #1

Making other people feel good is classy. If you are wondering if an activity is classy, ask yourself this question: “Would this behavior cause the people around me and/or the people who might be affected by it to feel nice?” If the answer is “No”, then it is not classy conduct.

On the way from the playground to the classroom students often tell me stories about things that happened during recess. Not too long ago one of my Polite Pirates told me about a peer who had done something awkward during recess. The story wasn’t bad, and this student wasn’t telling on her classmate. She was looking for some advice. I decided to make this the topic for my classy sit-down talk with the crew right before math, a practice we have been enjoying since the turn of the year.

“Rule number one, when it comes to being classy, is Making other people feel nice is the most important thing. Classy people help others feel good about themselves. If a person does something weird near you at recess, and it isn’t breaking the rules or hurting anything, do you think that it would be classy to tell them to ‘Stop it’? How about, ‘Go away’?” Gasps from my listeners told me the collective disapproval of such options.

“What about ‘Leave me alone.’ Could that be considered classy? What if the person is being really annoying?” I could see the students considering the classiness of this potential possibility. Before they solidified their attitudes, I headed them off. “Even if you add a polite ‘Please’ to this statement, being told to ‘Go away’ is nothing more than rejection, and there is nothing nice about that.”

I collected some ideas that students could say or do if someone was bothering them. My Polite Pirates love hypotheticals, and we enjoyed brainstorming some ideas.

“What if you invited the person to join you in a game? You could mention a simple compliment to give this person some attention. That is probably what he or she was after in the first place. Make sure that your compliment is genuine; be sure that you mean what you say, and that it is truthful. You could adjust the game a little to accommodate the newcomer.” Clearly, this was not the favorite option.

“How can you say ‘No’ without the person feeling rejection?” This got the cognitive cogs turning.

“Maybe next time,” was okay, but still rejection.

I suggested helping the person not be awkward: A simple “Hi there! What’s up?” could break the ice. Let the person talk to you for a time. Then resume whatever you were doing. That seemed okay to everyone, and we were able to begin math.

Number One Conundrums

The next day delivered new stories: What if making one person feel good makes another feel badly? Then what? Your playing with your friends, and a classmate shows interest in joining your group. In order to make the person feel nice, you invite him to join you. But, this upsets the rest of your friends. They were looking forward to playing with you, exclusively. What do you do?

Knight Fork
The fork attacks two pieces, simultaneously.

“Because this is all hypothetical, wink/wink, we can go back in time to change some of the parameters,” I suggested. “Prior to inviting the newcomer to join you, it is important that you pitch or sell the idea of inclusion to your friends. They may not agree with having the solicitor join in your game and need some persuading. This should not be done within earshot of the asker; What if your friends are not as classy as you?” Nods from understanding listeners tell me to go on. “If they are on your side, the invitation will go more smoothly. If you cannot get your friends to join you in your quest to make others feel nice, you are at a fork.” My students, well-versed in the concepts of chess know this to mean that you are at a lose/lose conundrum; Either upset the solicitor of your friends.

“You could explain to the inquiring classmate that you and your friends had already begun playing a game, would like to have the person join you in the future, but would like to finish up this round the way it is,” I present to the attentive Polite Pirates. “In this way you are not rejecting the person, so much as postponing acceptance.” I also explained the nuance of HOW to communicate this kind of concept. If you do it well, the solicitor can know that you really care about both him and your friends, but are trying to make everyone feel special through this decision, which is exactly what you ARE doing.  

I thought of and included a few more details that my class hadn’t imagined. “Don’t be overly persuasive with your friends. Like, don’t push them to make a decision to include the classmate, when they really don’t want to. They could resent you, having bad feelings toward your action, take out these feelings on the game, the newcomer, or even you. Also, you wouldn’t want the solicitor to feel like you allowed him to play with you out of pity, or that you or your friends regret letting him play with you.” This got everyone thinking and sharing. Every student sitting on the carpet had an example of a similar situation.

“If you do manage to sell your friends on the idea of including one more player, and they have good attitudes, the solicitor can feel that much happier, having a group of new friends, rather than one patron saint.” I probably did not use that title. “On the contrary, how do you think the inquiring classmate would feel if you invited him to join, but was mistreated?” More example stories.

Remember Rule No. 1: Making others feel nice is classy.

Why?

Why is it a good idea to be nice to others? Wrong answer: Because adults tell me to.

It takes energy to be nice to others. It is work. It’s not easy, sometimes.

Nice, Nasty, Neutral

Let’s take a closer look at the playground paradigm. What would you have to gain from being nice to someone soliciting company? Others might see you as someone who they want to help or hang around with. They now view you as a nice person; someone trustworthy with emotions; a good decision-maker. The lonely student asking to join could repay you in the future with a token of appreciation, the way the vampire bats repay one another. What might you lose? What kind of negative outcomes could develop as a result of your choosing to be nice to the solicitor? Witnesses to the event, or people who hear about it later might think that you will “accept anyone”; You could be viewed as being too accommodating. If you never say “No”, people could view you as someone who can be taken advantage of; weak. Someone who is all-inclusive may seem un-evaluating, unanalytical, not one for critical thinking, unintelligent.

You could have avoided these negative losses by rejecting the soliciting student, but this nasty option has its own set of drawbacks. This might save you face with your close friends who wanted to play with you exclusively, but the action would communicate, even to them, that if they were not on the “in” with you, they too would receive the cold shoulder. This could very well make them feel insecure. It might foster an “Us versus Them” attitude of exclusivity. This would be harmful because other classmates would learn that you are not open to new friendships. You could lose out on high-quality relationships. Also, rather than reciprocate your generous acceptance, the student who gets rejected will not behave favorably to you, when you may need something. His hand won’t be raised when he hears, “Who has a pencil (nonclassy student’s name) can borrow?” even though his desk is full of sharpened no. 2s.

Maybe you think it is acceptable to “stay out of it” and maintain a neutral position. There are times when this may seem best. A positive outcome might be the avoidance of a messy situation, dodging difficult decision-making that will expend energy, or keep from controversy. It is possible, in the end, that others could value your discernable intellect; Your ability to thwart trouble. This is a gamble, though, because you won’t know until afterward how the situation will play out. The negative side of neutrality is to be viewed by others as weak, unable to make decisions.

PlaygroundAs you can see from the table, being nice will not cost you anything with other nice people. You have everything to gain. If you hang around with negative people, being nice may cost you a little. When you behave nastily around classy people, you have a lot to lose. They will not want to be your friend. You won’t feel nice because you have caused someone else pain. Even if you think that you will gain something being nasty because your friends are nasty, the table shows that this can backfire. It fosters an atmosphere of un-trust and insecurity.

If this scenario were to play out in a neighborhood playground where you and your buddies were shooting hoops, it would be slightly different from the schoolyard in that these outcomes would be temporary. A complete stranger asks to join you and your friends. Perhaps this person is visiting his grandparents for the day. The only people witnessing your actions are your close friends. You could “get away with” being nasty. All of the same outcomes still apply. They are smaller scale, but some of your friends are bound to have some classy bones in them and will view a nasty action as unattractive. They may think twice the next time playing with you is an option. A nasty action is sure to make the solicitor feel horrible, and this can’t make you feel good inside. Even if you think your friends like it, the nasty action will have deep-seated divisive effects that are imperceptible at first glance.

Take this scenario to school, though, and you get a very different picture. The solicitor is sure to be someone that you know and see regularly. There are bound to be many spectators, or at least people to relay the scene to, later. But, most importantly, it is not likely that the event be a one-time occurence. What if the same solicitor asks to play with you every day? Now, it is much more complicated… Or, is it?

In order to explore the cost/benefit analysis of niceness easier, let’s open the story up to all sorts of solicitations: “Can I borrow a pencil? Would you be my partner? May I sit here? Do you want to read together? How would you like to come over to my house for a playdate? What are you having for lunch (Do you want to talk to me)? Can I help you?” When asked any of these and a plethora of other schoolhouse questions, you can behave nicely or nastily; Neutrality would just be ignoring the question, and that would be considered nasty. The person asking the question could respond nastily or nicely, as well. For instance, someone inquires whether you’d like to read with her. You tell the person that you had already promised your friend that you would read with her, but that you would be happy to read with her next time. “Whatever!” the inquirer throws over her shoulder as she marches off to ask someone else. This nasty response takes something away from you; good feelings. It makes you feel badly.Dilema

There is something more, here: The idea of remembering how others treat you. Do you know, or have you ever met someone, who is nasty all of the time? How easy is it to be nice to that person? Would you rather hang around with, that person or someone who is generally nice? You might get away with being nasty to a stranger at a neighborhood playground, one time. But, when you create a reputation for being nasty among people you see everyday, you will not attract classy comrades.

In addition to remembrance, forgiveness plays a key role in classily handling schoolhouse situations. While someone who behaves unclassily over and over may be a person to avoid, it is important to give people the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the scissors solicitor was having a bad day when he gave you a nasty look after you told him you didn’t have any. Should you never talk to him again? That wouldn’t be nice either.

Polite Piracy is Classy

“The Polite Pirates” was the theme that I chose for my very first long term sub position 8 years ago. I liked it because of the alliteration, piracy is an attractive concept, and I wanted to not only foster good behavior in the classroom, but help my students be upstanding citizens of the world.

In preparation for my very first meeting with the students who I would be teaching from November through the rest of the year I came up with a story to teach the skill of summarizing. This story not only taught the skill, but also introduced the classroom theme. I used paper puppets of characters whom would help guide us through many lessons, both academic and also social, during that year.

The woman pirate has a funny characteristic. Her name is spelled “Mary,” but she insists on having it pronounced “Muh-ree.” Although this all started from my silly lesson about students producing summaries, the concept stuck. Students love it, reminding one another how to pronounce Mary’s name. This turned into a lesson on respect. Sure, Mary’s name is spelled in such a way that you wouldn’t typically pronounce it the way she insists. But, that is her request, and we are polite in honoring it. It wouldn’t be nice to pronounce it any other way.

A funny characteristic of the second character, Zeus, is that he is the cook, but he is forever seasick from the rocking of the ship. So, the Polite Pirates have a sick chef. It isn’t nice, however, to point out his discoloration, other than asking him if feels alright.

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Captain Iron Knee

The final comrade of this trio is the captain of the Polite Pirates. This guy is quite hilarious. His large round cranium isn’t the only ridiculous thing that Captain Iron Knee lugs around. He literally has an iron knee. While of course this truly has to do with the contradiction of his being a pirate, while pushing politeness, I have yet to develop a good tale about how the captain acquired his iron knee. We are happy to witness his furtive irony displayed in many ways. He is both silly and wise; handsome and hideous; appreciative and dismissive; respectful and sometimes rude; while strong and swift, he is hindered by his heavy iron knee; and the list goes on, but ALWAYS and above all else, he is classy.

The piracy of this cast (and there are more) comes into realization when they steal nastiness from others. There is plenty out there, and so I am recruiting. In addition to the students in my room each year, I am interested in captaining a class of people from all walks of life, every gender, and all ages. I hope that you join me on the journey toward ever-increasing classiness. I do not profess to being the classiest. I have simply decided to make it “me mission” to champion classiness.

What do you think?

What would you characterize as the most important, number one rule for being classy? Do you agree or disagree with me; Why/How?

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Sources:

Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene(30th Anniversary Edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Wilkinson, G. S. (1984). Reciprocal food sharing in the vampire bat. Nature,308, 181-184. doi:https://doi.org/10.1038/308181a0

Constructing Classy Introductory Sentences to tap Memories

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    Students take notes about bats while reading an informational text.

    Have you ever had something that you really wanted to remember, but couldn’t? What did you do to try to remember it?

  • Did you know beforehand that this was something you were going to want to remember?
  • Have you ever had information that you wanted to help someone else remember?
  • What did you do to help them remember the information?
  • How did it work?
  • What do you think you could have done differently that would have helped the person more?

[These questions were posed to and answered by my class after participating in the following exercise.]

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This slide was projected onto the board, and the following questions were asked.

What are neurons?

And, what do they have to do with you?

What connections can you make?

What do you already know about this subject?

I did not have a lot of hope that my students would be able to provide stellar answers to those questions. In fact, I was hoping that they wouldn’t be able to provide any cognizance on the concept! –Not because I was hoping that they were ignorant, but because I wanted to illustrate the need for an opening sentence that would help a reader tap already existing information from their memories. My aim was to provide a text that my students couldn’t use… yet. With a different opening sentence; however; they might be able to open a prefrontal pathway to a mental folder that holds related information. Then my students would be able to both use existing knowledge to build upon and store this new information with related knowledge.

Now that my class was primed to try to understand where I was going with the original exercise, I asked, “What would be a good opening sentence for the paragraph about neurons that would help a third grader understand what they were about to read?” What ideas might stimulate thinking about related topics?

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Post reading and taking notes, students composed paragraphs in Kidblog.

The idea here is to write an opening sentence that gets your reader to think about your topic. In the same way you try to “actively read”, using strategies that help you get the most out of a text, you should hope that the reader of your writing is doing the same thing. You should write in such a way as to help your reader get the most out of his/her experience.

  • If you want your reader to infer things, don’t write every single detail.
  • If you want your reader to establish cause & effect relationships between things, make sure those connections are clear. (This is what I am trying to do write now–I intentionally misspelled “right” to hopefully pun you into remembering this tidbit of a thought.)
  • If you want your reader to question, present information that is so interesting that your reader wants to know more.
  • If you want your reader to make predictions, give her just enough information, but not too much. Stretch out your text so that the reader has some time to think about what will happen next. Don’t just dump information onto the reader. Spoon it out a little at a time, so that she can come up with her own ideas of what might be next. (Did you notice that I tried to do that… spread out the ideas through writing a few unnecessary sentences, before getting to the next point? I did that to try to illustrate how a writer–in this case, me, but soon to be you–could produce this trick. Good luck!)
  • There are more reading strategies, of course, but I will end this short list with making connections. If you want your reader to make good, strong connections to your text, you must help him through introducing your topic in such a way that the reader is open to receiving the information.

I find that many times third graders assume that their readers already know what they are writing about. This is probably do to a natural level of narcissism that 8- and 9-year olds still possess. Also, they are mostly correct, because what they are often writing about was assigned, everyone who will be reading the produced text (their peers) already knows the assignment, and they are writing for me, the person who assigned it!

This blog and lesson is meant to help students write in such a way as to pretend the reader does not already know the assignment. If an author is writing for an audience ignorant of the assignment, how would he or she begin the paragraph? If you want the reader of your writing to get something from the experience of looking at your text, it will be helpful to know what the reader is doing while reading. In this way you can steer the reader toward your goal of gaining new knowledge that can be retrieved later. If you want your reader to remember any of your text, it helps to understand how remembering works.

Memory

Remembering things can be broken into a three-step process. First, you take in new information. I was tempted to write learn instead of “take in”, but before you understand information, you first literally absorb it through your senses. You hear words and sounds; see images, colors, and light; touch/feel manipulatives, textures, and temperatures; smell; and sometimes taste. This is called encoding.

After your brain gets the information, it looks for a place to store it. This is the second stage of memory. The place and way that the information is stored will depend on how useful your brain decides it is. Are you going to need to know this again, soon? Perhaps, not, but the information would be very useful in a particular circumstance, so it shouldn’t be lost. Some information is interesting, but not very useful. This could get pushed out of your thinking like pictures you delete from your iPad. The information may go to a “recently deleted” file in the brain, awaiting total forgetting when too many new thoughts push the information out of the way.

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“Cognitive Constipation”–1st Usage;)

The last part of remembering involves retrieving memories. This is the part where you try to recall information that you know you know, but can’t quite find it in your brain. Some people who try to remember something that they know they learned, but can’t recall the exact information refer to this as a “brain fart”. Just last night, I may have coined a new term on Twitter: “Cognitive Constipation”. Rather than your brain farting, it is more like it gets all backed up with un-useful information that blocks your thoughts from landing on what you want to remember. A successful memory, though, is easy to recall or comes to mind quickly whenever you want it to.

Writing

A writer (you… and me) wants his readers to remember the ideas that are presented. We want our readers to be able to recall the concepts that we have presented. This will make the ideas valuable. There are a couple of ways that can help writers do this.

Lets begin with encoding. This is the first step of building a memory. Your readers are taking in tons of sensory information all day long. How will your writing stimulate the senses in such a way that it will stand out? One of the things that I try to do during teaching and in this blog is provide visuals. I try to tap more than just the imagination. Also, when teaching (This is virtually impossible through a blog post.), I try to create “experiences” during my lessons. A lesson on narratives will involve smoke machines, giant hairy spiders, and loud noises. Writers will want to make information appealing to readers. But, in order for readers to remember it, authors will need to make the information useful.

IMG_1631When new information comes into your brain, your mind tries to make sense of it.  Your brain looks for information that is related to the new senses being stimulated. It is sort of like looking for a code or translation that can make sense of the new information. If no translator or decoder is found, the information will most likely be deemed useless and get deleted. It may even be found incompatible immediately. This could have happened with the neuron information that I presented to my students at the beginning of this lesson. If I hadn’t talked to them a little about cells and brains, they wouldn’t have anywhere to put this information. I may as well have been speaking Greek to them. This is probably how many people feel when reading or listening to specialized scientific texts and talks.

It is our job, as authors, to help our readers make connections. We must provide the code to our text right at the beginning of our writing. The translator needs to be set up and ready to go before any information is conveyed, or it will be lost. The opening sentence should present this code. It should tell the reader what folder in the brain she will need to access to find related information. This will empower the reader to make sense of what she is reading. Not doing this is like throwing the reader into the middle of the ocean without a lifejacket.

Opening Sentence
I’ll be opening the “Bat File” for this one.

Sources:

BBC Earth Lab (Producer), & Head Squeeze (Director). (2014, February 20). How Does Your Memory Work?[Video file]. Retrieved February 6, 2019, from https://youtu.be/TUoJc0NPajQ

Cherry, K. (2018, August 3). What Is Memory and How Does It Work? An Overview of Memory and How it Works. Retrieved February 4, 2019, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-memory-2795006

Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. & Robynne Boyd “How Your Brain Works” 6 June 2001.

HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/brain.htm> 5 February 2019

Richard C. Mohs “How Human Memory Works” 8 May 2007. HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/human-memory.htm> 6 February 2019

Schwartz, K. (2016, November 21). What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Making Fractions Stick. Retrieved January 16, 2019, from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/46865/what-neuroscience-can-tell-us-about-making-fractions-stick

Texas A&M University. (2016, May 17). How does memory work?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 4, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160517131928.htm

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