Puzzling a Positive Attitude of Acceptance

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This year’s puzzle, “Cats” (2019)

I grew up working on puzzles with my family during the winter holiday breaks. Every year between Christmas and New Years, every member of my family could be found hunched over a temporary card table set up in the middle of the living room. Never-mind Santa Claus; The main source of magic in those days was waking up to find a gigantic portion of the puzzle completed. Sometimes, feelings of gratitude flooded the soul, since a piece that had eluded me was found and locked in place. Other times, I would feel cheated, because a large portion of the puzzle was no longer available for construction. 

The purchaser of puzzles was my mom, and she wasn’t very picky. She brought home pictures that she liked. They were typical interlocking jigsaw puzzles consisting of anywhere between one and two thousand pieces. 

Mom was the best at finding matching pieces. I remember puzzling over a section for a long time, only to have mom visit the project, survey the available pieces, and pick the most random-looking one out of the mix. Not every time, but often, she’d have flawlessly, and seemingly effortlessly found the missing piece!

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Dawning her new fuzzy, pink coat, Scarlet connects pieces that have words on them.

Now, I am teaching my daughter Scarlet how to assemble puzzles. My wife and I have given Scarlet puzzles for years, but this Christmas is the first time that she is really engaged in puzzling through a 750-piecer, independently. I came downstairs yesterday morning to find her hunched over the colorful enigma, piece in hand. As I began explaining that sometimes it isn’t enough to look at the colors of the pieces; “You have to examine the negative space to find a matching piece;” I thought about the ways people interact with one another. 

When Scarlet and I first dumped out the 750 pieces, I instructed her to turn all of the pieces over, so that the glossy, colored sides were facing up. As we did this, we placed any pieces that had straight edges into a separate pile: Those were the edge pieces. We also began forming a few other distinct piles of pieces during the flip over process. Any pieces with blue on them went into a pile separate from the pile of red pieces. 

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Puzzles prepare people for finding commonalities.

Anyone familiar with putting together puzzles knows that you first assemble the border, so that you have a literal frame. This also provides a frame of reference for where to place increasingly connected groups of pieces. Sometimes you have to open up the border to allow large sections of connected pieces to slide into the middle of it. Other times, you can pick up a handful of attached pieces and drop them into their spot. Then there are times when you work on bringing individual pieces into the frame to fill gaps and complete sections, all the while you are hunting relationships between interlocking, individual, man-made masses of color and shape that are meant to be together

Scarlet, Mommy, and I are only about a quarter done assembling our family puzzle, when it hits me: What if people had the same attitude about other humans that a person putting together a puzzle possesses? The whole time you work on a puzzle, you are only thinking, where does this piece in my hand belong? Who does it connect to? What spot in the puzzle is its home? How does it relate to the rest of the puzzle?

The puzzle that we are working on is tricky, in that the pieces seem to be cut right on the cusp of varying colors. I am working on assembling a section full of poinsettias and looking for an adjacent piece. I first try pieces that look similar to those adjacent the vacancy. None of those fit. Next, I examine the opening that the missing piece forms; the negative space. Are there any pieces in the pile of red that possess a similar shape? Eventually, I go ahead and try sticking red pieces into the gap, just in case there is a geometric abnormality that I am not seeing. Perhaps one will work, even though it does not look like it. That’s happened before. No success. I widen my scope of potential pieces to include ones that share the colors of surrounding pieces; greens and browns. When finally I do find the piece, I notice that the cut followed the line of red color, seeming to purposefully fool anyone relying on that. 

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The important thing to understand is that the entire time you are putting together a puzzle, you are being inclusive and accepting.

This story goes to show that while it may be advantageous to categorize puzzle pieces into separate colors, initially, this reliance on related pigments can eventually cause frustration. I would have found my missing piece faster, had I looked at the picture of the puzzle on the box, and included any piece that had red AND leaf colors/designs in my pile of poinsettia pieces. And, really, if you want to get really figurative and technical, poinsettia petals actually are leaves that turn red! 

The important thing to understand is that the entire time you are putting together a puzzle, you are being inclusive and accepting. Every single one of the 750 pieces is a potential fit for any opening. They all belong somewhere. I think it was the experience of this particular puzzle’s play on color that brought this to my attention. Time after time, I found myself needing to open my mind to accept the possibility that pieces I never would have imagined going together actually did! 

A coping strategy for dealing with frustration when assembling puzzles is to step away from working on a difficult relationship, in order to focus on another part of the puzzle. When I am not finding the elusive connecting pieces between poinsettias and chipmunk, after searching for tens of minutes, I must move on to the yellow section of flowers on the other side. Often times, I will eventually stumble across a piece that I recognize belongs to a foreign part of the puzzle. The satisfaction felt when dropping it into its home is immense. 

Each piece has a home; Has a purpose; Has a special function. The piece that you hold in your hand belongs somewhere, even if you aren’t sure where that spot is at the moment. You can put it down, but don’t lose it! It has immense value. They all do!

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One missing piece ruins the whole puzzle! Every single one is important.

The most important dangers of a puzzler include: Do NOT lose even one piece! In fact, if you lose even ONE, you may as well throw the whole thing away. Or, if you are creative and graceful, you could make a substitute piece, but if there are more than one or two missing, it does not matter how creative or full of grace you are, the puzzle will look wholly unfinished; not holy. Never force a piece. If you do this, you could ruin its shape, so that it won’t fit nicely into the relationship it was meant for. Also, if you leave a forced piece in place, it warps the whole puzzle. You might attach a few more pieces to this wrongfully placed piece, but eventually there will be a line of unrelated-ness, like a saltwater tide infringing on brackish water in a bayou. 

IMG_2929Before I leave you to chew on this metaphor, I must mention some of its limitations. First of all, Life has no borders; It has a beginning and an end, but there is no ceiling or floor. Sore as high as you can, and be careful of exploring its depths too far. Understand that experiences, places, and people are all part of your puzzle. Also, it is more like a three-dimensional puzzle. Build out wide on either side to support potential experiences that could attach to your life. Then, watch piece after piece fall into place, grow, and assemble. Finally, but not conclusively, it is ever changing. The piece you hold in your hand may not fit now, but in a few minutes, it could be exactly what you need! Life is like a coral reef; a puzzle of plant, animal, and rock… Living rock

 

Green-Lights: An Analogy Exploring inEquity

A person driving home has to go through the city. While he usually takes the turnpike to avoid traffic, he needs to stop at a store in center-city to make a purchase. On his way to the middle of town this driver is pleasantly surprised to find every single traffic light green. He doesn’t even have to slow down once. This causes him to wonder whether paying the tolls to take the turnpike home everyday are even worth it! 

In the specialty store where the man must make a purchase, there is a very long line at the single open register. He contemplates coming back later, but decides to at least scout out the items under the glass counter. A sales clerk asks the man if he needs some help. While he is there and now getting some personal attention, he might as well find out the specific prices of the items he’s interested in buying! 

“Yes, may I please see these two items up close?” he asks. Upon closer examination, the man makes his final decision to buy his favorite. The sales clerk chooses to ring the man out right then and there. Neither of the two people engaged in this encounter pay any attention to the lengthy line at the other register that has doubled since this sale began.

How lucky I am, the man thinks to himself, as he gets back into his vehicle to continue his trip home. As he coasts through more green lights, he might hear a hint of a remembrance of someone from the store he just left mentioning the irregularity of the traffic lights today. Why ponder good fortune? he dismissively wonders right before noticing an elderly woman stepping onto a crosswalk.

Our driver slams on the breaks, producing a small screech of his tires. Between the sound and his waving, the old woman realizes the driver is intent on letting her cross. She does so very slowly. With each new vehicle forced to stop behind the Good Samaritan, his feeling of importance grows. I made it possible for an elderly individual to have safe passage across this treacherous road, he muses. The feeling of power is heightened when he allows the now long line of traffic to begin moving again. 

Wait! Someone else is getting ready to jump into the road! They are not on a crosswalk, though. Also, they are clearly nimble enough to jog across at a natural break in traffic, the driver assesses. And, the conclusion is to give the jaywalker a warning toot of the horn, while weaving a little to ensure there is plenty of space between the pedestrian and vehicle. With an additional silent internal warning of following the rules and heading patience, our driver dismisses all further thought of the incident. 

imagesHad he sat through a rotation of red lights when allowing the elderly person to cross the road? How could every traffic light still be green? the driver wonders as he continues home. There are dozens of green dots dangling from dark metal branches for miles, ahead. They would look like a gloomy green airplane runway, if it weren’t for the buildings lining each side of the boulevard! 

Luckily, the road is plenty wide enough for our driver to swerve out of the way of a small fender-bender. It doesn’t look like anyone was seriously hurt, our driver notices as he slowly passes. The hit car must have tried making an illegal right on red, when there wasn’t quite enough clearance, our driver concludes. The city can be a treacherous place to travel. Perhaps the turnpike is safer. No one pulls out in front of you speeding along on the turnpike

110927-F-GK203-018.jpgIt isn’t until this lucky driver gets safely home and turns on the news that he remembers seeing some of the faces of people sitting at red-lights on the side streets. Coasting through green-light after green-light, our driver turned from time to time, glancing at the cars waiting for their chance to enter this magical thoroughfare. They looked angry and irritated. Come to find out, the road our driver had traveled had been victim to a traffic light malfunction. As it turned out, his drive home really had been magical; The lights hadn’t changed for over an hour. It just so happened that he turned onto the road that had been broken in his favor right when the lights became stuck on green. His brief stop in the store hadn’t been long enough for him to escape this lucky coincidence! He drove all the way home, before city workers fixed the lights, and travelers on side streets could safely exit their parked prisons!

Some couldn’t escape. There were vehicles that ran out of gas, engines continuing to run in hopes that the light would turn green at any moment. These clogged the narrow side streets as others honked at them, trying to get around. Additional fender-benders occurred. Pedestrians jumped to the steps of buildings as vehicles hopped the curb and drove on sidewalks. 

None of this was reported on the news. A more important story about a business merger had captured the headlines. Our driver will never learn about the fate of the fender-bender he’d passed during his green-light adventure. A Ford Crown Victoria that was driven by a man who grew up delivering giant cubes of ice, cut from a pond in Northern Maine’s freezing cold winter for summer iceboxes, the first refrigerators, had experienced a heart attack. His soon to be widow was driving him to the hospital, because they thought that they couldn’t afford an ambulance. In his childhood, they would have harnessed horses and sleighed across town, snow hiding all traces of road and property boundaries. Now, one desperate right on a red light found them trapped in a lengthy waiting period while police officers interrogate the other driver. Was he drunk? Driving without insurance? A wanted man? Who knows?

Our lucky driver does remember this green-light adventure one more time. There is a day when he ventures into the city for an errand. Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, he sees a pedestrian skipping through cars to cross the street. The frustrated driver thinks back to the jaywalker he didn’t allow to pass. Oh, to be free to run around the streets, our temporarily-stuck driver thinks to himself. 

But, how free is he, really?

Appreciating the Past is Classy

Now that I have the Nutcracker read alouds posted in the Willow Lane Read Alouds Youtube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgo7q67pdVRkW2utB6Nnh8Q), I can have students work on this more independently. They can do it from home, and catch up easily if they miss a class. Also, I can differentiate by reading leveled books of the Nutcracker to some kiddos, while others listen to the original.

The Captain of Class

Appreciating the past is classy. That sentence was worded carefully. Being stuck in the past is not classy. In fact being stuck in general is not classy. Glorifying the past is not classy, either; It says, “Those times were far better than today.” With advances in medicine, technology, and transportation, no time in history can compare to modern times.

To appreciate something is to recognize its worth. 

The opposite of “Appreciating the Past” is when a person thinks that things are the way they are because of his or her efforts alone. If you make a scientific breakthrough, that is great, but I guarantee that there were hundreds, if not thousands of scientists and scientific works, not to mention your teachers, parents, and even environmental situation that all lended to you being able to perform your accomplishment.

On the other hand, while age isn’t everything, the older the wine or…

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Trust Two-Point-0h: The Heart’s Strings

Spool_of_stringI have a new trust metaphor for you: String

When you meet someone for the first time, you might find that you have some things in common. These similarities tie the two of you together. They are usually thin threads of thought that help you relate to one another. “I also have a dog. What kind of dog do you have?” … “Does your dog chew things, too?” Connection, connection, connection= thread, braided-thread, forming string.

If there was something uniquely interesting about the acquaintance; This is a person whom you’d like to meet and spend time with again, you may choose to firmly attach a stronger string to the person, tying it to their garment before parting ways. Then, as you swim through the cave of your life, you may follow that string back to the person. 

Perhaps you saved his/her information as a contact in your phone. Maybe you got a business card that you put in a special place. People who spelunk, especially in 22031066109_9ffd96dff6_bunderwater caves, know that there are two paths of every caving expedition (Bernstein, 2017). The one from the entrance of the cave into the earth is the first. And then, there is the path from the end returning to the place you entered. Cave divers will often have a bright nylon string attached secularly to something outside of the cave and to themselves. Legendary cave diver Thomas Iliffe explains that in addition to losing the path to the exit by forgetting the turns one has made through a maze of tunnels, it is possible to kick up sediment that will blind a diver (Grundhauser, 2015). With the multitude of distractions of life swirling around us, how could we ever find our way back to conversing with an interesting person whom we connected with? Sometimes we must carve out; forming our own cavern of time in our schedules. Even if we do, will that person be able to meet you? Pull them in by reminding him/her of all the many connections that you had formed when initially speaking. You may have to string them along a little, but how much will they thank you when you get together and realize that those threads were the beginnings of relational ropes that you can count on? 

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Trust is a give and take.

While the trust forged in an informal meeting is thin, a measure of how deep it is felt could be found in how many threads there are. You are both human. That is a teeny weeny thread. Perhaps you’d trust this person more than the house plant next to him, but it is very limited trust. Were you to learn that, although you now live hundreds of miles away, you both grew up in the same town, and then you begin remembering with the new acquaintance all sorts of things that the both of you independent of one another experienced that are the same! The shared location of growing up is the source of the threads, but now many are shooting out and attaching, some weaving, some solo, and some loose, maybe even unattached (an experience that only one of you had that doesn’t make a mark on the other). You both frequented the same bookstore. The same memorable clerk sold the two of you books. There was a place in the bookstore where you liked to sit and read; You both did this! It’s possible you sat across from each other at some point in what feels like a parallel universe. What?! Wild. I may not have this person babysit for me, but I’d definitely check out a book that he/she recommended. I would trust their opinion over a person whom I’ve known for years, but does not share my affinity for reading.

download-1How can we make this metaphor useful?

When forging relationships, look for and celebrate similarities. Rope is a bundle of flexible fibers (How Products Are Made, n.d.). If you want a student to trust you, tie him or her to you as you lead them through a windy, dark cave of learning. Make sure that the rope of trust is tight and strong. If you dive into teaching with an un-secure knot, the kid could come loose and drift away. They may need constant reminders to find the rope, hold onto the rope, don’t lose the rope… If the rope is not strong enough, the student could get snagged on an idea and the tension could cause the string to snap. Do not assume that a teacher-to-student relationship automatically forms and ties knots of strong string. That is merely a thread, and the end is stapled to the student. If you don’t work on it, the thread will slip right through that staple. 

A mountain climber will have safety lines attached to him/her when scaling the side of a cliff. If a rope breaks or comes loose, the secondary string keeps the climber safe. He/she reattaches the primary rope and continues. When building trust with students, have many lines. Attach them all over your pedagogical pinnacle. Make connections between lessons, and connect those to the backgrounds of your kiddos. Weave a whole safety net of trust so that students feel comfortable performing trapeze tricks of practicing newly learned skills, swinging from concept to concept. They should behave as if they will just bounce if they were to fall. Falling (failing) could very well be even more fun than completing a trick! But, if they stick that tough trick, the whole world will know, because friends will shout from the mountain sides. 

Perhaps there’s a pupil whom you have a hard time making connections with. There just doesn’t seem to be much that the two of you have in common, or maybe he is not interested in forging a bond with you. Find one thing that you can hold onto; one thread; and coat it with additional flexible fibers of support every time you see the student. If they play a sport, learn everything you can about the sport and mention one thing each time you see this person. Don’t over do it: That could strain the thread and it could snap. If the student feels like you are stringing him along, he could pull away, breaking the thin thread of trust. Add a new fiber, one at a time, and eventually you’ll have a colorful, strong mountain-climbing rope attached to that student. When he finally realizes all of the work that you put into researching the thing that matters most to him, he’ll know how much you care about him.

Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 6.11.31 AMIn a previous blog about trust (“Super Highway”) I had mentioned the connection

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This reminds me of the old can and string phone.

between neurons. Myelin coats the axon that sends information between connected neurons. The myelin acts as an insulator. The more there is the faster the information travels between the two brain cells. Your brain wants to send information speedily. That helps you think successfully. It can’t coat every connection with extra myelin, and you wouldn’t want it to. The best is for the brain

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Zip Line of Trust

to choose the most helpful pathways of thinking and coats those with extra myelin. It’s your job as a communicator in the classroom to figure out the best connections to have with students and coat those connections with extra attention, understanding, and interest. If you do this, you will be able to communicate learning experiences more clearly and quickly with your students.

Before I end this analogy, I want to mention the problem of misplaced and broken trust. First of all, the thickest rope has its limits. In fact, mountain-climbing rope has many styles, gauges, and types (REI co-op). Is it possible that you were putting too much trust in a connection? Were you counting on a shared similarity with a student too much? Perhaps you need to attach some safety lines. Here’s another idea: When mountain climbing, you DO want strong rope, but you don’t want to have to carry a million pounds. You have to balance being trustworthy without burdensome.

I like the metaphor of rope for trust, because it has a lot of give. It takes quite a lot of force for even a little thread to break. The trust can snap, but it withstands pressure. One thing that will cause a string to break is when it wears down. This would happen if it were rubbing on a sharp edge. Trust will wear down if there is too much friction, also. Keep this in mind; The heavier the weight, the more friction and faster decay of the line of trust.

This thread/string/rope analogy for trust can go on and on. I would love to hear what you think of it. Please, add to it by commenting below. Share personal experiences, insights, additional metaphors and symbolism, and also diverging thoughts. 

Sources:

Bernstein, D. (2017, June 23). Under the Mountains: An Idiot’s Guide to Caving. Retrieved December 9, 2019, from https://www.theoutbound.com/dan-bernstein/under-the-mountains-an-idiot-s-guide-to-caving.
Grundhauser, E. (2015, October 23). Cave Diving Is Every Bit As Dangerous and Wonderful As It Seems. Retrieved December 9, 2019, from https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/cave-diving-is-every-bit-as-dangerous-and-wonderful-as-it-seems.
How Products Are Made. (n.d.). Rope. Retrieved December 9, 2019, from http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Rope.html.
REI co-op. (n.d.). How to Choose Climbing Ropes. Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ropes.html.

Card Games Can Be Controversially Classy

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Who do you think won?

Thanksgiving night 2019 my daughter Scarlet, wife Sonia, and I all sat down to play a game together. Scarlet was interested in learning Cribbage. This is a card game where players move tiny pegs that stand in holes drilled into a wooden board. Each players’ line of holes goes to 150 points. You leapfrog the pegs, so that one keeps the place of the previous accumulation of points, while the other counts out the new total. The player to get her pegs to the finish first, wins. 

I wasn’t sure how Scarlet would do with this game of many rules. There were many firsts: I taught Scarlet how to shuffle the deck. She did pretty good. I showed her how to deal the cards. Then there were the instructions of how to play.

Cribbage is all about points, and there are many ways to earn them. One of the ways to earn points is to form groupings of cards whose combined value total 15. When I witnessed Scarlet, who just turned 8 one week ago, working out the different combinations of 15, I was not only impressed with her math skills. It hit me that she was analyzing the cards and evaluating the future potential they held. 

This is a little tricky to communicate via text. Without describing the entire game, let me try to convey what Scarlet had to think about when it came to the 15s. It takes several rounds to accumulate 150 points and win a game of Cribbage. Each round begins with all of the (3) players getting 5 cards. The first thing that you do is try to decide which 4 cards you keep, for you are to give up one of them. It can be a challenging decision to make. 

See, you don’t just record the points represented in your hand. You play your cards against opponents’ cards. And then, there is a starter card that you use over and over, too. Finally, there is a crib that goes to the dealer. This is what you contribute to when you discard a card at the beginning of the round. If you’re not the dealer, you don’t want to place cards into the crib that will easily form combinations of 15, giving your opponent more points. 

IMG_2915So, it’s Thanksgiving. The dinner is cooked, consumed, and cleaned up. I’m watching my daughter wrestle with the cards in her hand. Of the five she is holding, which should she throw in the crib for someone else to use? 

Sometimes it is simple. The starter is a five, and you have three face cards (valued at 10, each), a five, and a four. Throwing the four into someone else’s crib is a no-brainer. It won’t make any points for you. How many different combinations of 15 are you looking at without the four? Try working it out.

The answer is six different combinations of 15 can be formed (3 combinations using your “5” + 3 face cards & 3 combinations using the starter card which is a “5” + your 3 face cards). What if rather than a five, you had an Ace (valued at one in Cribbage)? Now you have 3 face cards worth ten each, an Ace, and a four. And, don’t forget the starter, which is a five. If you give away one of your face cards, you would have four combinations of 15. If you gave away the four this time, you would only have three fifteens: Your 3 face cards, combined with the starter. 

IMG_4017It’s extra hard when you have to add the numbers to make fifteen. Let’s say the five cards that you are dealt are 4, 5, 6, 3, & Ace, and the starter is an 8. You have to discard one of those cards to someone else’s crib. 

  • Ace, 3, 6, 5 = 15
  • 4, 6, 5 = 15
  • Ace, 6, 8 = 15
  • 3, 4, 8 = 15

Am I missing any? It takes time and is pretty tricky finding all of the combinations. You can’t overlap any, using the same grouping in a different order. 

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is great for developing number sense. It also helps grow critical thinking skills. Scarlet was doing all of this math in her head. Once in a while, she would ask for some help. We worked through all of the different combinations to make the best decision possible. She ended up winning, surprise/surprise! 

What struck me most about this experience was the inner conflict centered on deciding which card you would choose to relinquish to the crib each round. I knew this to be an important part of the game, but watching my daughter wrestle with the decision, round after round, brought new light to the fact. With practice, she got better and more confident at choosing the card that she would let go. 

The inner conflict of choosing the best cards to keep and which to get rid of reminded me of using controversy in the classroom. Making topics controversial by providing students with opposing, nearly equal in value concepts that they must analyze and evaluate to decide which is better or more appropriate for a given situation would develop the skill of critical thinking. Cribbage could be a great way to grow this higher order thinking skill, while also developing number sense. 

This got me thinking about other card games. How might a teaching style be analogous to these card games:

“Go Fish” — Students ask for information. If you know it, you hand it over. If you don’t, the students fish for it online (ask Siri). What are students learning when you use this style of teaching? Education is a take/receive, skill-less process. During the card game, only conflict comes in deciding how honest you want to be;) The controversy lies solely in morals. 

“Rummy” — Players work at making connections between like cards. They collect as many pairs, three & four of a kind, and make runs. The player who has accumulated the greatest value in cards at the end of play, wins. Analogy to teaching: Making connections is great! Each time you find two like ideas, you group them in your head. You categorize thoughts and store them away. Furthering this game’s message, however; If you’ve played this game much, you’ve probably learned that runs are where the play is. You can play one of your cards off of someone else’s run. You only get the points that your card is valued, but at least you get to play it! This symbolizes a group or team-learning approach. Students must decide which information they want to keep, and which to discard. This decision will be based on how valuable it could be in the future or how useful it is right now. A potential drawback to this approach is that it teaches students that the kid with the most knowledge in the end wins at life. 

“Poker” — Kids play this when they try to get away with not completing assignments that they think won’t be checked or graded. The lesson students learn from this teaching style: Life is all about tricking people into thinking you are smarter than you really are, have more knowledge about something than you really do, and/or are able so do something when really you are truly incompetent. 

“War” — Without consciously choosing, each player places the top card from their pile face up. Highest card value wins all. When there are ties, War ensues, and only one winner gets tons of cards. This is the opposite of equitable teaching. You teach everyone the same, period; Zero differentiation. Some kids greatly benefit. Everyone else plays along, losing in the end. It should be stated that early on in War, one person begins accumulating the aces and face cards. The other player(s) know that they are going to lose… Unless, they cheat. And, even then, it is hard to come back when you don’t know what card your opponent is playing. 

“Solitaire” — “Go practice what I taught you.” Players become familiar with the cards and some relationships between them. They may practice shuffling. An element of racing a time could make this game more challenging, but you might as well be marooned on a literal island! 

The thing is, we use each of these styles in our teaching. As teachers, we cannot assess everything, and sometimes we have to use a poker face. Sometimes we need to have students play quietly on their own, and there are times when it is good for a kid to repeat the same action over and over, in solitary practice. When a student does not know the definition of a vocabulary word in the middle of a lesson, it is appropriate for them to

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Black Friday found me ordering some Cribbage sets for my classroom.

ask, and there are other times when we tell them to “go fish” for it in their text. Everyday, all day long, students are making connections, building relationships between concepts and accumulating knowledge. Hopefully, there isn’t too much “Rummy” being called out in your classroom;)

When the profession of teaching seems to be swimming in data and everything seems like a numbers game, I suggest injecting life into it by making a topic controversial: Give it an element of inner conflict through pitting two or more opposing ideas against one another. This will require some creative thinking on your part, but the critical thinking through cognitive productive struggle that students will be engaged in will far outweigh the work you put into it. Good luck, and let me know what you do and how it goes through tagging me and my research partner James Norman on Twitter and/or using #ControversyCanBeClassy when posting. Also, feel free to leave a comment, here;)

Teeth-Brushing Vs Hand-Washing Controversy

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A student gives his peer a thumbs up when she makes a point he likes.

You are cordially invited to try out being controversially classy; Or is it classily controversial… Either way, please join me and my good friend James Norman on a journey into trying out a cutting-edge pedagogy of using controversy in the classroom!

James Norman, a higher education teacher of literature from Massachusetts, and I have been exploring the idea of using controversy in the classroom. We are NOT talking about teaching “controversial topics”, although that very well may be a byproduct of our journey. 

Specifically, we are proposing that teaching could be improved by introducing an element of controversy into lessons. I have been trying it out with great success! 

Screen Shot 2019-11-16 at 1.36.07 PMJust this week, I was preparing to have my students read an article about teeth from a brand new Storyworks Junior magazine. What do good teachers do before delivering a text? We have students explore what they already know: recount prior knowledge. There are loads of great ways to do this, and they all work well. It hit me, though: Why don’t I tryout what I’ve been researching? James and I have been reading, discussing, and thinking about the use of controversy in the classroom since the beginning of the summer of 2019. What if teachers took ordinary topics and found ways to make them controversial? How would that affect learning? 

I decided I’d try out some controversial class on my kiddos, and I asked them, “What is more important, brushing your teeth OR washing your hands?” Because I have had my students do this kind of thing before, they knew how it worked. After I split them into two teams and assigned positions, they naturally formed groups of three or four to discuss ideas that could support their position and challenge their opponent’s. I let them chat for a few moments. I was moved by how engaged and even animated my students became! 

I stopped everyone and had them regroup with different friends from their teams. This way they were able to rethink and better organize their ideas. Mini-debates within teams ensued. 

Some things that I enjoyed witnessing were students taking turns sharing, practicing good listening skills, and displaying passion for the topic through nonverbal communication. 

IMG_8744When we regrouped as a whole class after only ten minutes of controversial competition preparation, I used Siri to “flip a coin”. One team “called it” and won the toss. I asked, “Who is going to present?” Hands were raised and fingers were pointed; Several students were interested in presenting. I told them, “You can only speak once, so decide if you want to go now, or hold onto your argument for later in the debate.” 

IMG_8741The teeth team was presenting first, and the boy they had chosen to headline their position was confident. He communicated to me that, rather than wait, they wanted to come out strong–He literally told me this! I laughed, as I gestured for him to begin. “This is a true fact,” he began, “That once your teeth rot, it will affect your gums, and go down to your heart, and you will die.” 

Wow.

The metaphorical conch was then handed to the hand-washing team. A girl delivered their initial position that germs could be transferred from person to person if hands were not properly cleansed, thus (my word;) affecting more than just one individual. 

Point * Counterpoint! 

IMG_8743Next came the argument that if your teeth did rot and fall out, you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Again, it boiled down to not brushing your teeth leading to certain death! 

The hand-washers chose to point out that you could simply blend your food and “eat” it through a straw before presenting their new argument for the importance of cleansing your digits: It’s winter and everyone catches a cold in the winter. Washing your hands limits the amount of germs left on door knobs, helping everyone stay healthy. Someone called out, “Body-hygiene was the 2nd leading cause of death!” After I regained composure of the group and got over my own shock of third graders knowing and understanding such concepts, I suggested that brushing your teeth was a form of “body” hygiene. Also, “How do you know it is the 2nd leading…?” Shrugs. 

This whole experience was so fun and exciting! I had everyone sit down for my wrap up. I praised everyone for their outstanding, classy behavior. I pointed out that one of the most important things to practice when discussing controversial concepts is being good listeners. I explained that this meant actually being open to the fact that the opposing team could very well have an idea that is correct. Do not assume that your opponent is wrong. You have to be ready to admit when they are right. Only through this attitude can you be prepared to come up with valid, strong, appropriate counterpoints. A classy debater is not dismissive. 

“Who won!?” someone couldn’t help blurting out. 

I didn’t even have to answer: “We all did,” a bright young lady pointed out.

All of this took less than 30 minutes. Now, we get to read the article that spurred this lively controversy in the classroom, “History of Teeth”, written by Kristen Lewis, published in the December (2019)/January (2020) edition of StoryworksJr. 

Incidentally, every Storyworks Junior magazine has a section geared toward and even titled, “Debate”. What James Norman and I are working toward is taking the sparks of debating and lighting a fire in regular pedagogy. Don’t feel like you have to take your teaching topic all the way to debate. Simply find a way to make it controversial. Students could very well engage in an internal debate after you present a rhetorical thought-puzzle. 

In closing, I will reiterate the invitation: James Norman and I would love to hear about how you tried out introducing the concept of controversy in your classroom. Tweet with the hashtag, #ControversyCanBeClassy and connect with us through commenting on blogs. 

Have you ever purposefully made  something simple controversial, in order to get kids thinking?

The Superhighway of Trust

The other day, I was reading a blog about trust, written by Thomas Murray (2019), and it got me thinking. And, this got me thinking even more…

Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 6.11.22 AMSee, I was thinking about relationships being analogous to the connections between neurons in the brain. Neurons or brain cells communicate with one another through conversations called synapses. The messages are sent via an arm called an axon. You could think of this like an old fashioned telephone line or wire. These axons are coated with a material best thought of as an insulator, myelin. What this material does is it strengthens the axon, making it more useful for sending signals between the two neurons. The more two brain cells communicate with one another, the more the brain will coat the telephone line with myelin. It sees this connection as valuable and worth strengthening, speeding up, and reinforcing. 

As I thought about neurons communicating via this thread of an axon, I imagined two people’s relationship growing stronger via trust. At the outset there is an initial contact, but then with common interests and shared experiences the connection grows stronger. If the two people were to depend on one another, they would need to talk more. This might make getting in touch with one another through various means necessary. In other words you speed up the way you can contact one another. You are texting, instead of emailing. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 6.11.31 AMWhile you and the person you are building this relationship with forge an increasingly strong, resilient, efficient means of communication, the two of you insulate the bonds between you. This happens a hundred ways, and it causes you to feel more safe around the person, because they know where you are coming from. You feel like they understand your feelings. They are less likely than a stranger to inadvertently do or say something that could hurt you. 

In addition to safety, this relational myelin speeds up communication. Something as tiny, fast, and simple as “a look” can say a lot–and fast! A tiny touch might tell you tons without any words. 

38116093515_4b25310fe4_bTom Murray attributes the success of collaboration, leadership, transformation, and even progress to the “speed of trust” (2019). With the popular warning of trust being easily broken, after taking so long to make, I’ve been guilty of thinking of it as a Ming Vase. The tiniest slip up could shatter the whole thing. Murray does not suggest that trust is anything like this, but it is what I have imagined for years; A once and done breaking of trust. 

Rather, Murray’s idea of trust affecting speed got me thinking about it building and maintaining a highway of information. More than just pavement, trust is both the work of building the road, and the process of maintaining the smooth surface that lends to the speedy communication needed for all of the positive benefits Murray suggested educators would reap. 

In this model, the road of trust takes a lot of work and investment, and an earthquake could completely devastate it, but if built well, it would withstand many travesties. A trust crew could clean up a crash in the morning, so that the afternoon rush hours doesn’t even know it happened!

2018-Road-Construction-Excavation-cmp-for-webBefore we get too excited about our trust highway, you should know that there are some pains in making it. If you want a really fast thoroughfare, it needs to be straight and level. Hills and sharp turns will slow down transportation. Believe it or not, there is something even more troubling than blasting or tunneling through mountains and building bridges over valleys. While that will be a lot of work, you first have to come up with the land to make your highway. 

In the Philadelphia area there is a highway affectionately termed “The Blue Route”. I haven’t heard it called this as much lately, but when I was in college, that was its only name. Nowadays, it is simply the southern part of the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike; the vertical highway (476) that runs South to North. James Wyatt (2016) tells the colorful history of this helpful highway. Any understanding of city traffic will point to the absolute necessity of quick transportation around the outskirts of town. The idea for The Blue Route was born in the 1920’s. There were a few routes that were mapped out, and all of them had to navigate around iconic properties and places. Each had a different color. The one that was finally decided to build was the color blue. 

Here’s the thing. Many people and businesses were moving to the Philadelphia suburbs (Wyatt, 2016). This meant that a means of quick transportation was increasingly needed for decongesting local roadways. But, it also meant that property value rose significantly. In order to build this highway, private citizens would have to give up their property. It isn’t difficult to imagine that no one wanted to do that. There is a law that the government can use to seize property from private citizens for public use (Find Law, n.d.). It is called eminent domain. Citizens get compensated for the land that is taken from them. The property owners and townships that The Blue Route was to cut through protested and held up construction for nearly thirty years! 

Trust requires letting go of things. When we are building superhighways of speedy trust between ourselves and others, it will be necessary, albeit painful, to give up the rights of security and privacy. When you trust someone, you are making yourself publicly available. 

Once this happens, you then have blasting, borrowing, and bridging to construct to make your highway of trust straight, smooth, and level. Returning to my initial concept of myelin and axons, each trustworthy action sheathes your line of communication with more insulation that makes it that much stronger and faster is like laying final coats of asphalt, erecting guard rails, and providing express lanes on a trust highway. 

In conclusion, I propose we view trust as something to build upon, in order to speed communication, help, and support. Tom Murray calls trust an “unwavering thread of classroom culture” (2019). That phrase is what first got me thinking about axons, which then turned into superhighways. He warns us to take care of ourselves so that we can effectively trust others. Perhaps we ARE the highways, and our relationships with others are the exit ramps where traffic comes and goes… 

Pennsylvania_Turnpike_eastbound_at_I-276_exit3

How do you view trust? I would love to hear from you in the comments.

 

Some Sources:

Find Law. (n.d.). The Taking of Property for Public Use. Retrieved November 14, 2019, from https://realestate.findlaw.com/land-use-laws/the-taking-of-property-for-public-use.html.
Khan Academy. (n.d.). Overview of neuron structure and function. Retrieved November 13, 2019, from https://www.khanacademy.org/science/biology/human-biology/neuron-nervous-system/a/overview-of-neuron-structure-and-function
Murray, T. (2019, November 9). Retrieved from https://www.thomascmurray.com/blog/buildingtrust 
Wyatt, J. (2016). The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. In The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. Retrieved from https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/blue-route/