Monthly Archives: February 2016

Defying Gravity

How would I describe my authentic teaching self? Rough. Over compensating. Ok. I’m not real sure at this point. While I have had the honor of teaching people one-on-one, or giving presentations to my classmates, and a few experiences training/teaching new hires at former jobs, I have not had the full experience of teaching a class on my own.

I would love to say, my ideal would be transparent, inspirational, fully present, and encouraging. Transparent enough that my students would understand that there is no way I can be the end-all, know-everything, expert but experienced enough that they can take what I have to offer from that knowledge and understanding. Inspirational that would create thoughts beyond just the requirements of the class and stir a desire to find out more on their own. Fully present, that I can be enough in the room to know what is going on without being said. To be sensitive to the needs of the class and meet them where they are in that moment…be it to discuss what is on the syllabus or what may be happening in the world which could be overriding anything we could cover in class. Finally, encouraging. I would hope that as a teacher I would be supportive and a champion in helping them gain strides in their learning. To be able to have a marked difference from class day one to ending class day.

However, I started out with the words: rough, over-compensating, and ok. I use these adjectives because it is true to how I am currently. Rough because I do not have the experiences in formal teaching to have polished these skills. Over-compensating because I have a tendency to prepare, research, prepare, and repeat that cycle a bit more until I feel prepared to know the material. Usually that is to my detriment, as I learn too much and have difficulties in getting material down to the level where the students are because it all seems important and necessary to me. Lastly, I say ok. Ok, as I have done some things before and have been told I was quite good. That I have a way of explaining things to others without making them feel that my way is the only way and breaking things down into easier to understand ways.

After reviewing some of the materials on finding my teaching voice, I find that being authentic, fully present, and transparent, seem to be a common thread. Honestly, I believe that moving forward, if I give myself enough compassion with my beginner level, I have the potential to be a good teacher. Then I can continue to hone that until I become a great teacher. I know it will not happen overnight, or after one teaching experience, or one class semester. Some liken teaching to acting, with similarities being with preparation, and performance. I think I can relate to that in many ways.

So, in keeping with that theme, and following the lead from one of my favorite Broadway musicals Defying Gravity from Wicked:

Too late for second guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts.
Close my eyes and leap!
 It’s time to try defying gravity.

Let’s see if I can indeed defy gravity and become a great teacher!


A Tapas-Based Approach to Learning

Well, there is no argument that lectures are not the best sole teaching method for 21st century learners and leave a lot of students lacking, or even napping! Lectures have their place, but keep the professor center stage in the “chalk and talk” method, where some students will only hear the Charlie Brown teacher sound “wah wah wah”.

Active learning can engage students into learning complex things which can translate into other areas of understanding. Mark Carnes describes this well in his article Setting Students’ Minds on Fire by using games to engage students. But “active learning” can be read as yet another academic buzzword where the impact of the importance has become watered down from overuse.

So where is the balance? If we the teachers/instructors need to utilize the technology as the resource to engage learners, then how do we employ the most current tools to make best use of our assets in current ways?

Upon reading, digesting, and mulling over some literature regarding shifting in pedagogical approaches for the 21st century, I am reminded of the waves of tapas restaurants and bars popping up everywhere several years back. Yes, tapas, the Spanish cuisine at its brevity and finest.

So how am I connecting these two in my mind?

Tapas are basically a wide variety of appetizers and snacks. They can be hot or cold, simple or sophisticated, and combined to make a full meal. Tapas were designed to encourage conversation rather than to be focus on the food as a meal. The focus is on the engagement of the people enjoying the tapas and not solely on the food. The food is only one part of the bigger context.

Possibly we should look at serving education like serving tapas. We can start out simple, move to something more sophisticated, order a little or a lot, or try several different things to find out what is appealing. Tapas can be a great alternative to huge, heavy meals. Maybe our pedagogy needs to move away a huge, heavy approach to something lighter, varied, and tailored to each individual’s need.

In my mind, a tapas based approach to engagement would look like small chunks of learning opportunities peppered through the class time. Rather than talk out a topic for a 90 minute lecture, things would happen a bit differently. For example, in a 90 minute class, a teacher could have a 10 minute lecture, a 15 minute YouTube video, a 10 minute discussion, a 30 minute experiential project, 15 minute writing post to a common location, and 10 minute on-line discussion thread all related to the main topic for the class. This approach may encourage all types of learners to get involved and engaged at varying levels. Also by moving the teacher from the front to the sidelines, they could offer more assistance where needed by the students. It would also empower the students by trusting their ability to learn and engage on their own. The teacher becomes the helper, like the wait staff or chef. The shift of focus goes from the material being learned to the learning of the material.

After all, in a tapas restaurant, each table will not have the same things; nor would people always order the same amounts or types each visit. A tapas approach to teaching could offer variety, customization, and individual design. Creative approaches could foster imagination of the students, give them bite sized chunks of information to absorb the material, and grab their attention with a variety of teaching methods. Finding that balance of technology, just like finding the right balance of tapas to get you full, can be a beautiful and varied experience.

Hmmmm…anyone else hungry now?

This is not a test

Pencils“Ok class, clear your desks and take out a blank sheet of paper.”

That sentence still sends terrifying shivers down my spine. I remember the countless times I heard this statement all through my learning career. Those words should not be so scary, but we became conditioned to know that it meant a pop quiz, a test, or something to assess our level of skill or knowledge would shortly begin. So conditioned that today it still sets off a PTSD type hypersensitive moment, where I immediately think “Oh please let me remember everything”!

Would it not be great, if our students today could get excited by hearing this request from their instructor? Perhaps curiously thinking what kind of exciting journey will be taken where we need to clear off desk space and have a blank canvas? Unfortunately, we are still steeped in a world full of testing, assessment, standardized learning, and focusing on a student’s ability to regurgitate information in a specific way.

However, fortunately, there is a wind of change starting to blow. Minds like Alfie Kohn in The Case Against Grades who are pointing out how assessment is undermining a true desire for learning. Or like Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon who in 2009 reminded us to keep the flame of imagination alive in their book Imagination First: Unlocking the power of possibility. Reading these works, and several others, give me hope that one day students will learn for the education of it, rather than how well they perform on standardized tests.

Let me say just a few things about testing and the killing of imagination. I do not test well, especially on standardized testing.  Then imagine layering that anxiety over top of the thought of the results determining how my future may unfold based on how high my test score outcomes. So I boycotted. Yep, I totally did. Did not take the SAT. Still got into college. Did not take the GRE. Still got my master’s. Got into a PhD program at a pretty impressive school (ahem, VT)….but I did need the GRE. Which I did finally take, but was a formality of getting in; so I felt no pressure for scoring. All that said, I think I’m doing fairly well without the percentile ranking lurking in my virtual file.

I also remember being a senior in high school at a career fair where a female interior designer told me to my face (at 16 years of age) that it was too late for me to choose that career because I did not have the background. That felt like a slap to my face. Needless to say, I am not an interior designer. Good thing she was not a counselor. That was something I began my specific formal training for at age 34. And here I am today, still continuing to educate myself.

What got me to this point was not mapped out curricula, standardized testing, plotted target dates with specific goals, or grooming from Kindergarten to be sure of my education path. What did get me here was my life experiences, my curiosity, my desire to learn more about what fed my passions, and a lifelong goal to learn because I WANTED to know more. There is no test to prove my worth. No test to measure the value in what I have learned. We need to get back to feeding the want to learn rather than teaching our students how to jump through hoops to measure what someone else deems valuable.

What do you think? Should we be placing more value on the process of learning and education versus measuring the outcomes of canned educative studies? And if so how do we inspire the learning in better, truly valuable ways?


Mindful or Mind Full

I find it quite interesting, while crossing into other areas of study, you run across terms that are the same but hold vastly differing meanings.

Take mindfulness for example. In the world of counseling, being mindful is being purposefully and actively aware of your sensory experiences in the moment without judgment. There are many wonderful exercises and techniques to help ground you in the moment, help slow down your thoughts, and bring your attention and focus to being fully present in the moment. It is a calming thing. It is quite helpful for those who struggle with anxiety or racing thoughts. Being mindful can help you “get out of your head”.

However, in the world of education, being mindful is something a bit different. Ellen Langer, in her book The Power of Mindful Learning, defines mindfulness as being open to new information, new categories being continually created, and awareness of multiple perspectives. She continues to discuss how we can learn “the basics” to various things and practice them so much that the skills become “overlearned”. This causes a risk to miss the nuances of the individual components and lose out on the ability for fine tuning adjustments.

Maybe, these widely different terms are more closely related than I initially thought upon a first read. Possibly, through the magic of amalgamation, these separate things can converge into one interesting thing.

Perhaps that is just it. We miss out on things we really can learn when we are not focused on the moment or are tuned-out by the repetition of muscle memory tasks. Being open, purposeful, and actively aware in a learning environment may help us suspend our previous thoughts and ideas, either as teachers or as students, and gain awareness to new categories and multiple perspectives. If we “get out of our heads” regarding teaching, learning, and pedagogy, then more creative, organic, and interesting methods of learning can come into our awareness.

Now, with a mind full of thoughts on how to look at education and learning with a mindful approach, I am excited to see what new ideas and perspectives pop up. I hope that quieting and stilling my mind can open me up to seeing and understanding more in the world of education, as well as counseling. And in true counselor form, I will practice my mindfulness and continue to allow my thoughts to roll gently past, like fluffy white clouds against a bright blue sky. I will suspend judgment and notice what all happens.