If You Post It, They Will Come…

ReadingthuRsday-R2Mathematics and reading are sometimes viewed as opposite concepts that can exist without impairing the functionality of the other. In the classroom students are content to just read or just do math, but when you combine them using the dreaded word problem, students react as if they have been kicked by a horse. greek-theatre-mask-Y1CtReading a math textbook is a much different skill than reading just about any other kind of book. Math textbooks rely on the premise that you need to grasp and apply the concept before you turn the page because you will be building on the concept that you just read. Oftentimes students choose not to even pick up the textbook because not only is it not written like a novel but it requires effort to understand what is going to be on the following page. mathphobia1There is no escapism. Many of the books written about math lead the reader down a path that becomes a black hole, discussing concepts that make even math aficionados cross their eyes.

What is the solution? We cannot discuss math without having some application to the real-world which requires the use of the word problem. No matter the carrot most students will not pick up the math textbook. Can we make the math useful and fun? Yes! We can begin by bringing the math home to the student by using stuff they are already familiar with in pop culture, in the news, or relating to something they find interesting. I always begin my lesson in College Algebra dealing with parabolic shapes by bringing in an article about people being burned and items catching on fire on the sidewalk outside a popular casino on the Vegas Strip. We discuss the death ray and why it is happening.092910hotel It usually elicits much interest in how this could happen to someone who spent millions of dollars designing and building a casino. Do the student enjoy movies or popular fiction like The Hunger Games? Most of my students do so I bring in another article to discuss probability and decision making behind such concepts as should you consider entering your children’s name into the lottery in exchange for more food?

umbrellasWhile these examples are great for the classroom, how do we encourage students to read outside of the classroom? One such way is to post student work. I was amazed at the commentary I have overheard while passing students in the hallway outside the math classrooms where we post our statistics students’ projects. They are reading them!! Once when I was reorganizing one of the boards a student stopped me to ask where they can learn about what they were reading. Students would also discuss the projects posted such as how many umbrellas would it take to cover Seattle, whether views on nursing in public is generational, and views on organ donation. Intermingled with the projects are short articles about scientific advances using mathematics such as the math behind finding fake photos in popular magazines, predicting climate, and finding friends on Facebook.mathword

When you post colorful student projects mingled with articles the passerby is much more likely to stop and read. By changing out the projects and articles regularly the students look forward to the new additions. We even started a puzzle section on a dry erase board with a brainteaser type of problem and the responses to this was overwhelmingly positive. Students can try their hand at the puzzle and their creativity is infectious where students compete to come up with the cleverest answer even if it isn’t correct. In short, if you post it they will come… and read it!

…And Now You Know the Rest of the Story

anneMost of us are very familiar with the title phrase. Paul Harvey, noted lecturer, author and syndicated radio host, always ended his noon radio show with these words after he had recounted an interesting story. Everyone’s attention was focused on what he was saying and what they would learn.

Storytelling is an important element of subjects beyond literature. Tom T. Hall, country music legend, gained the reputation for being the country music storyteller. American Indians used the power of storytelling to convey customs and beliefs to young members of the tribe.

In previous blog posts I have mentioned that through my years teaching, I have been given the title of storyteller. Storytelling is a method I have found to be effective and, being an old southern girl (GRITS – Girls Raised in the South, wonderful book!), it just comes naturally to me. collaborate-communicate-conGet the point across. Relate it to an event with which people (aka-students) can identify. Get those mental juices flowing! It appears to me that effective teaching is more or less dependent on these.

Now for the validation! You know, I take it whenever I can get it! It appears this pedagogy has quite a bit of merit. The Corporation of National and Community Service, National Service Knowledge Network (www.nationalservicesources.gov) has published several articles on the effectiveness of storytelling in the classroom. One, in particular, caught my attention: “Developing Literacy Skills Through Storytelling,” by Linda Fredericks, originally published in Spring, 1997. It has remained a classic.

storytellingThe article stressed that stories have the ability to promote discussion, positively impact behavior, generate interest in academic subjects, and involve students who had previously shown no interest in their classes to become engaged in the material. Eureka! What a concept!! All accomplished by just telling a few stories. Some may be silly, some personal, and some may be on a more serious note, but they all have the same goals: to reach as many students as possible.persuasive-storytelling
In the past, storytelling may have been looked upon as being a way to pass the time or even to be a complete waste of one’s time. Hmm, now look–it is being recognized as a powerful tool which can be used to build literacy and critical thinking skills.

Author and educator Joseph Chilton Pearce, in his book Evolution’s End, notes that exposure to stories helps trigger internal images and meaning associated with subject matter. He asserts when students listen to stories, they respond by creating images of things being described. With the use of a story, individuals can explore what others have in common as well as how they differ and how to relate those stories to concepts in the world of education, regardless of discipline.

einstein-quotes-2These anecdotes don’t just take up time – they are essential! They are powerful and indispensable tools for developing literacy and critical thinking skills in each and every student.
As for me, I plan on continuing to tell my stories (I’ve got a million of them) and hopefully this has inspired you to follow suit. You may never know how something so simple to you may impact your students, helping them to realize that what they are learning does have a place and is relevant to their life.
Thank you, Paul Harvey!

“Storytelling is an act of love. Sharing stories connects us to each other. When I tell my story, it connects to your story.”
—Njoki McElroy, teacher and storyteller




Tech Tuesday: Formatting Fairy Series, Part 9

Each Tuesday, pleasureinlearning brings you Tech Tuesday.  Come back each week for more ways to become efficient and effective in your use of technology. 


This article is part of a multi-part visit from the Formatting Fairy.  Read on to see how to exorcise those Formatting Demons.  Comment and tell us about your Formatting Demons.

Have you ever needed different formatting (like page numbering, margins, or page orientation) in different parts of a document?  I think the most common example for us in academia is when you write and format your thesis/dissertation/academic papers.  Usually, the front matter requires small Roman numerals (I, ii, iii,…) for page numbers and the body requires regular page numbers.

The best way to handle this is to divide your document into sections.  Each section is permitted to have its own page formatting. To begin a new section, simply insert a section break.  With that done, you can have different page formatting in different sections.

Section Break


Slowing Things Down Enough to Enjoy Them

BrianThere we go, ripping through task after task, that is, if we’re producers. Being a producer is a cultural mandate, and I won’t argue for being a non-producer, just for being a more contented producer. Contentment comes from being like the track star whose speed is adjusted to fit the length of the race, or even a certain part of the race. The star doesn’t run a mile like a sprint, or run the whole mile at uniform speed. In working world terms, that means calibrating the pace to fit the size of the task.080807-olympic-sprinter-ff

Some students need to simply begin running; they are used to a passive mode of being rewarded for showing up, listening a little, and turning in mundane worksheets. Most students, however, are running and just need to form strategies. Writing papers does not lend itself to quick results like picking up a donut at a drive-through. Writing is a process needing rumination, uninhibited composing, structuring, reworking, and on to the finish work to smooth and edit.

stairsIf I give a prompt for a paper without prep assignments leading up to it, many will give me their last hour efforts with sources quickly grabbed and minimally thought through. An instructor, therefore, has to intervene on the front end. Intervention is an uppity term these days for confronting others, but it’s a useful term when not visualized as a talk show or therapy group catharsis tool. The writing instructor intervenes by assigning successive stages leading up to the final draft.

Then students do more thinking and planning—that is if they do the assignments. Weighting all the assignments with a grade encourages participation from start to finish. This is working world thinking applied to school. For example, when my wife and I call our handyman, Roger, to do work at our house, multiple visits are normal. Roger has to prep and sand. Mud might need to be applied, so it has to dry. Extra coats of paint may be indicated. To complete a job, he might come three or four times for half an hour to an hour.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Roger’s organizational skills are impressive because he is working a process at several houses, coordinating his movements between houses and the supply store.

Learning often operates the same way. It doesn’t work for students to rip through assignments, only to get poorer results because ideas weren’t given time to surface, set up, and find expression in a process. What Roger, or your handyman, has to do correlates to how one’s better writing develops.

It’s also true that when this is accepted, the race is run with more pleasure, each part being enjoyed for what it is and its place in the whole.




Ending on an Up Note: Fun Fact

Bell-ringers are an effective way to grab students’ attention at the beginning of class. If you have students guess the answers in teams and offer a little reward to the winners, bell-ringers can also help build a classroom community.  Most of my openers are related to the anatomy & physiology topic of the day, but I make seasonal exceptions.  Here’s a spring favorite:

What percentage of Americans believe that chocolate bunnies should be eaten ears first?

Here’s the picture I use to illustrate the slide:

My_butt_hurts_by_norbert79The answer? 76%

Enjoy your weekend…and your bunny, no matter which end you much first.

To Read, Or Not to Read?

ReadingthuRsday-R2I read to become a woman. I read to become a Native American, and I read to become a Russian during the age of Czars. I read to become poor, and I read to become a Nazi and a Jewish girl hiding in an attic in occupied Amsterdam. Reading is a way of being. In Seattle a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a discussion in which we discussed writing from the point of view of a persona, someone clearly not the “author” of a poem, and we discussed the power of this to foster empathy in the mind of the writer. Granted, we were discussing writing, but reading and writing are part and parcel of the same thing, and I believe that reading also fosters this ability to empathize on the part of the reader.empathy4
A number of years ago, in the context of some long-forgotten conversation, I was made aware of a concept referred to as “the primacy of the image.” The term addresses, as I understand it, the fact that humans, as a species in general (I am not talking about myself of course), are, well, lazy. We strive endlessly to do more with less, to get more for less, and to accomplish things with less effort expended. This is just the way the human brain is programmed–toward the conservation of energy. Easier is better. More for less is always better. At any rate, “primacy of the image” was explained as referring to the phenomenon of the power that images have. We would rather “watch” than read and have to interpret. But what we gain in time saved also comes with a price.

readingempathyI believe that this phenomenon is antithetical to empathy and compassion on some level. When we “see” something, we are one step removed from “being” that thing. It’s happening to someone else. It’s happening outside of us. It’s “them,” not “us.” Reading, in this regard, works differently. I ask my students what happens internally when they are reading a novel or a short story and they tell me that a type of “internal” film plays. This “film” engages not only their senses of sight and hearing, but all the senses. In reading, ALL of our senses are engaged, and it happens inside of us. We see and hear and smell and taste and feel. empathy-in-actionConsequently, reading is a much more holistic and personal activity than watching a film or even playing a video. It allows us to become. It allows us to be. It allows us to be wizards if we are muggles, men if we are women, women if we are men, Muslims if we are Christians. And maybe that’s what this world needs: the ability of people to empathize, the ability to become “another” more completely. So read. Read to be. Read to become another. Read to save the world.

Stupid vs. “Smartless”

karenPearls Before Swine, a syndicated comic strip drawn by Stephan Pastis, always makes me smile.  The Sunday strip on March 30, 2014 poked fun at the rise of politically correct terminology. You can view the strip by clicking here.

In the strip, a Zeus-like “Word Decider” determines which linguistic terms are acceptable, culminating in the decree that “Stupid is out! Smartless is in!” (Ironically, The Washington Post felt the word “midget” was too much of a slur and pulled the strip.  You can read about that decision here.)pearls_logo_2797

When the chuckles stopped, the thinking began.  Some colleagues and I had been bemoaning—as teachers are wont to do—some of our students’ more hapless attempts at  completing assignments.  “What are they thinking?” we wondered. “Are they thinking at all? Are they just incapable?”

No, maybe they are simply smartless.

medium_duncecapHere’s the thing: “Stupid” implies an intrinsic lack of intellectual ability. It is an ugly word. It does not suggest the possibility of improvement.

Smartless, however, offers a glimmer of hope.  After all, a thoughtless person can, with a bit of sincere effort, become more thoughtful. A careless person can learn to be more attentive and cautious. A helpless person can become more self-reliant. A penniless person might find a way to earn some cash.

This weekend I ran into a student who took my class twice.  Her first trip was disastrous, so I was surprised when she signed up again. The second trip through A&P was completely different. Her performance improved so dramatically that I pulled her aside to ask what had caused the change.  She replied that she just hadn’t put forth a real effort on her first attempt. She’s now enjoying a successful career in a job that she loves. I’m sure that the people whom she serves love her as well.

When I first met her, she wasn’t stupid…just smartless. lightbulb_idea_thinking_veer_3x4

So often, I assume that a student who struggles lacks the intellectual ability or educational background to succeed.  Sometimes this is true. But when I take the time to talk with students about their problems, I often learn about obligations outside the classroom that stretch them to the limit. Sometimes I learn about distressing past experiences and poor perceptions of their own abilities. Again and again, I am struck by the difference that a little coaching, reassuring, and plain old listening can make.

I’m considering a new personal mission statement: Stamping out smartlessnesss, one student at a time.