Brad and the Raccoon

Brian picMy in-laws used to go camping two weeks in the summer at a spot on Kentucky Lake only accessible by boat but a five minute cruise from the marina. This was a big family event and meant living in tents, water sports, and camp fires. Sometimes at night, my brother-in-law, Brad, a creative teenager, would wait until the camp fire was going well and dark had settled in all around.

He would slip off away from the fire into the dark and sit quietly, waiting. This was a calculated wait and a game, for he took a small bite of food and held it gently between the tips of his thumb and first finger while shining a tad of light on the food with a small flashlight in his other hand.bestcoon

Soon there’d be a rustling, and a raccoon would appear 10-15 feet from Brad. The raccoon would cautiously, with stops and starts, make its way toward the pinch of food. Finally, it would be right there, and our delight was watching it pluck the bite with its mouth and take off. To get the best view meant being off in the dark ourselves and very still as the whole thing unfolded.

lightbookAn occasional student can be like a raccoon. The student finds it too fearful to approach in the light for a bite of academic nutrient. The teacher is positioned too openly in front of a group where the group appears to know what it is doing. Further, the teacher is too conspicuous and too much the point. Only when the bite of academic nutrient is isolated in view by means of a small light shining upon it, will the student slowly go for the bite. Then it is just the student and that desirable bite.

The student may only later know the skill of the teacher and the plan employed. That is not the point for the teacher. The teacher is fascinated with the raccoon’s eating habits and wants the raccoon to retain the best of its habitat while interacting with a new one.

Ending on an Up Note: Yogisms

200px-Yogi_Berra_1956The great Yogi Berra left for the clubhouse in the sky this week, leaving a legacy of chuckles as we remember his signature malapropisms. Many of his memorable quotes offer a generous helping of truth and wisdom. Educators might agree with these two:

You can observe a lot by watching.

There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you just can’t tell ’em.

Well said.  Wait…one more for my math friends:

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.

Enjoy your weekend.

Teacups and Reading

ReadingthuRsday-R2During the summer I had some time for a few yard sales and a few visits to antique stores, and for lack of a better word, junk stores. I love “junking.” I think of “junking” as a time of a great quest. Of course, I am always on the lookout for a good book. However, this summer I found myself acquiring a variety of old mismatched tea cups and not quite as many books. The teacups were just a whimsical purchase. I certainly do not need any teacups, nor was I in the mood for hot tea in the hot summer weather. After a lot of thinking, I believe the quest for teacups came from my summer reading of a vast number of British mysteries where the characters ruminated and refreshed themselves with copious cups of tea. teacups

Every time one of my characters had a cup of tea, I thought about one of the teacups I had purchased. I sometimes felt like I was having tea right along with my sleuth. I think it is safe to say I made a connection with my reading. Connections to reading can come in the form of a personal connection, a connection to the world, or a connection to another text. I managed to make all three connections as I thought about my teacups while I happily read along.

DrinkTeaReadBooks2Now, I am thinking ahead to colder months when I can actually drink a hot cup of tea as I read a cozy mystery. To practice for my winter reading, on some mornings, I am drinking my coffee out of the diminutive cups. I am sure my British characters would not approve, and I am finding I have to fill my small cups a lot. Alas, though, I do love the delicate flowers on each cup I purchased, so filling again and again is a pleasure.

I continue to be amazed at how reading affects so many aspects of my life.

How Stories Change the Brain

Karen DoughertyThe September, 2015 issue of Pediatrics features an article that has been picked up by several major news outlets. For the first time, researchers have used imaging to prove that listening to stories literally changes the function of preschoolers’ brains. Dr. Jeffrey Hutton and his co-authors of “Home Reading Environment and Brain Activation in Children Listening to Stories,” concluded:

“In preschool children listening to stories, greater home reading exposure is positively associated with activation of brain areas supporting mental imagery and narrative comprehension, controlling for household income. These neural biomarkers  may help inform eco-bio-developmental models of emergent literacy.”

The report includes several pages of highly technical language accompanied by functional MRI scans of the children’s brains. The authors offer candid analyses of the limits of their research, but the results are both tantalizing and affirming to the literacy advocates among us. If you listen carefully, you might here a chorus of reading advocates singing, “By golly, we knew it.” ParentChildReadingrs

So now I wonder: If stories change the very architecture of a child’s developing brain, what effect do they have on older brains? Do my students seem to respond to stories because their parents read to them, or do their brains also function differently when exposed to narratives?

Check back with us regularly for upcoming posts on the power of storytelling.

Stories Teach Soft Skills

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. —Muriel Rukeyser

Last Friday, the faculty and staff at HCC’s FTC enjoyed a real treat. Beth Mann, General Manager of WKDZ/WHVO, presented an entertaining and useful session about the importance of soft skills in her own life and in her role as a media executive who regularly hires people for a wide variety of positions. Mann left us with a list of thirty-five essential qualities and skills exhibited by successful people in her field, and we will reference that list in upcoming posts. And she left us with stories…stories about her own experiences as a student and professional, stories about the people who have influenced her, and stories about both joyous and exasperating encounters with employees and colleagues.

Ms. Mann’s official title testifies to her administrative abilities, but she’d make one helluva teacher. In fact, she WAS our teacher last Friday. To cite two of the items on her own list, she had clearly “planned the work and worked the plan” and had “done her homework.” She empowered us to expect the best from ourselves and our students. She shared our frustrations with cell phone addiction, inappropriate dress, and some students’ general lack of respect for the job and for one another.storytelling

She might have simply handed us a list or a set of PowerPoint frames and then reviewed them for an hour. Instead, she presented concepts as stories that we will remember for a long time. Another teacher, long ago and far away, regularly used the power of stories to help His listeners remember important truths. He would have agreed, I think, that Beth Mann is “a city on a hill.”

Tomorrow we’ll talk about some new science that reveals how stories help children learn.

Live, Love and Learn

Brian picLive, Love and Learn—that sounds like a modern platitude, but it’s the title of a 1937 film that just aired on TCM. Bob is an artist painting outside in nature one day when a foxhunt comes through, and glamourous Julie plows into his easel and canvass. He’s a poor artist, and she’s a rich aristocrat, and as you might guess, love is in the making. She’s ready to scrap the high life and every dime of family money for the chance to start from scratch with Bob in a humble apartment while he tries to break into the art world. They live on love and dreams.aAkguWa7iKs0uIqREq3YoCo7Smw

A break comes, one quite comedic and corny, by means that Charlie Chaplin would get a laugh from. Nonetheless, it is a real break from a highly regarded art critic who gets Bob a showing in a museum where the high society folks attend in formal dress. Already, Julie is fearful and a bit snide because she fears that Bob will be lured into the strata that she wanted to exit.

What follows is a lesson in quality with an edge versus taking the safe and mediocre road that others will approve of. Bob starts doing large and expensive portraits for the socially elite and the patrons of the arts and is able to afford a luxury apartment that Julie hates. Not only that, the art critic who got Bob a break says that Bob has lost his touch and is no longer painting real art. Bob has given into the market. Bob rebuffs this and finds himself living a life that satisfies his clientele but not his own soul. Julie tries to tell him, his critic friend tries to tell him, his own soul tries to tell him.

soulThis is an old movie but an always familiar plot. A dream of roughing it and then making it ends up in a lucrative but stale outcome. The spark is missing. The raw ingredients of what one does see get sacrificed for the predictable ingredients of what one is supposed to see. Nothing new, disturbing, fresh, or edgy is coming forth—only what is good and acceptable. Have you ever mused, “I thought this was supposed to make me happy”?

Complicating things is the fact that most jobs, even that of an artist, involve infinite repetition at the same time that growth is emerging by taking risks. This has to be true or else, “If you’ve seen one sunrise, you’ve seen them all.”sagan-star2

Did Bob get his soul back? I would like to tell you, but the movie could tell you better whether he does, or whether this is a story of unfortunate losses before wisdom comes. Things looked grim. I will say that I recommended the film to my wife and watched it a second time. As corny and slapstick as a few of the scenes are, the questions raised stuck with me for days because there’s a lot of Bob in us, a lot of Julie in us, and hopefully a lot of the keen critic’s eye in whatever discipline we undertake.