Category Archives: Teaching

My Brains Came! My Brains Came!

The UPS truck made it up the driveway yesterday in spite of the storm… I suppose the driver thought it a bit odd that I proclaimed “my brains are here!” when he set the box down.

It was a fairly large box.

Dealing with test and quiz anxiety is typically a challenge for some adult learners. A few years ago I learned that using stress balls (sometimes called “squeezies”) can help restless children focus… the constant motion seems to release energy and allow the child to focus. So, I thought. “Why wouldn’t this work with adults taking quizzes and tests?”

My first experiment with the theory included a young man who was self-proclaimed “A.D.D.” and he actually broke the stress ball I provided. But he also got a pretty good grade and thought having it helped. So I ordered more–different ones that wouldn’t break.

These cubes proved popular–so much so that they’ve gradually disappeared and I’m down to three. Since it was time to order more, I decided to get a little creative this time… and I was quite pleased to find “squeezies” in the shape of brains. How much more appropriate could things be? Take a test–squeeze your brain! You might be surprised to discover what comes out!

From my side of the desk…

I’m always hesitant to call myself a teacher… for a lot of reasons, I suppose. One is that I do spend a lot of time at the local elementary school as a volunteer and I do not want any role confusion. (I had a young fellow at school ask me if he could something the other day. I replied that he needed to ask his teacher. His reply secretly made my day. “But you teach me stuff–like how to read!” Okay, but you still need to ask your official teacher.)

I do teach. I guess  I can consider myself officially a teacher of adults. And the role of the teacher and student is an interesting one… I’m often surprised–or at least disappointed– that a number of my adult students expect it to be somewhat adversarial. One of my colleagues reported a student announcing that since she was “the customer” and paying for the course she “would do whatever she wanted in class.” Fortunately, my colleague had the presence of mind to reply, “Yes, you are the customer and you can do whatever you like. I am the instructor and can do whatever I like–including giving you a failing grade for the course.”

I’m convinced that we’ve got this wrong in a very fundamental way. I think it stems from a too-often adversarial relationship between parents and teachers. It is not my intent to contribute to the hostility by defending teachers–certainly we are not a perfect profession at any age or grade level. I also do not want to over-simplify the topic.

But I do want to suggest that we get rid of the desk. I don’t want to sit behind it and I don’t want my students or their parents sitting in front of it. (Okay, I’ve never had an adult learner’s parent intercede on the students’ behalf, but I have been contacted by spouses.)

Let’s sit next to each other and talk about what it is that we are trying to achieve. Your homework assignment is to read this article before we meet:

“What teachers want to tell parents.”

The assignment applies even if you aren’t a parent of school-aged children, because our class discussion will be about how we view education and development… and how easy it is to forget what we’re trying to accomplish with it.

“I’m sorry I’m not better at this…”

During a recent visit to a third grade art class a budding young artist finished her assigned work before the class was over. Since project work is often finished at different paces, students who complete their assignment with the teacher’s approval are then allowed to “play” individually with other projects of their chosing. This young lady requested that I sit across from her “So I can draw a picture of you.”

This process involved a number of different colored crayons and certainly included some artistic license. I am wearing glasses in the result, but my clothing was adapted to include a turtleneck shirt. “I’m not really very good at drawing necks,” was the explanation. I chuckled at the thought of the mall artists who will do sketches will you wait. They usually work in silence with a small audience behind them and you get to watch the audience’s reactions as the image forms.

In this cause the artist’s reactions were apparent because she kept a running commentary going. Much of it was actually a series of apologies over the parts she had trouble with or the goofs she made.  “I’m sorry but I can’t draw hands very good.” (My hands are raised as if I’m being held up, but I think I’m actually supposed to be waving.) I would have to say that I look much more muscular than I realized and have very square shoulders. Of course I countered her continued self-deprecation with gentle compliments and made sure she knew I was approving of her efforts. She was, after all, being quite professional–studying me with a trained eye, then attempting to record what she saw with blunted crayons.

I admired her courage. 

But I also felt a deep sadness because she keep repeating her sense that her work wasn’t good. Or at least not good enough. I suppose that makes her an achiever, but at what point will she give up and decide she isn’t an artist? I know I learned long ago that I’m not “artistic.” I’m sure I would not be able to draw a very good picture of her–at least that’s true  if “good” means “accurate.”

As a student of education and learning, I long ago became an opponent of the popular “self esteem” movement that suggests education is all about making kids feel good about themselves. It’s not that I’m against kids developing self-worth. But as my experience with this artist demonstrates, when we try to hand it to them, we actually are taking it away. They want to earn it.

I don’t think we should deprive them of that opportunity. Somewhere between giving all positive messages and constant criticism there’s a balance. That it’s hard to find doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try–any more than the fact that my little friend “can’t draw hands” means she shouldn’t try. We can learn a lot from her. If I’d tried to convince her she’d drawn great hands, she’d have known I was not being honest.

Can we agree with her that my hands “don’t look right” without making her feel like she’s a failure?

Perhaps more to the point, can we face our own errors without considering ourselves a failure? I usually find one student in my adult classes that I refer to affectionately as “my little over-achiever.” Math anxiety and test anxiety have their roots in the fact that we are not taught how to fail. Somewhere along the way we forget there’s process.

Let’s not be afraid to value process and effort. They are as much a part of our self-worth as are our accomplishments.

One of the things I’ve had to learn about working with kids is that it’s best not to read too much into what they say and do. It’s tempting, but I really think she just wanted to draw me–that was her goal and the desired result. She gave the drawing to me when it was finished. I approved it, but I’m not even sure my approval was important to her.

But that drawing is very important to me. And it’s hanging where I have to pass it every day because I want to be reminded of these many things. I’m not ready to start drawing portraits, but if she can try things, so can I. Getting results is great, but enjoying the process is pretty awesome too.

Oh, I also kinda like that the final touch to her masterpiece is the angel she drew sitting on my shoulder.

Bad Business Alert

This is a warning for my fellow educators… Let me save you some frustration, aggravation, and maybe some money. Do not attempt to purchase academic software from a company called “JourneyEd.”  They also do business as Academic Super Store and perhaps several other similar names.

The process is supposed to be fairly straightforward. You place an order, then submit documentation proving you are qualified to purchase. The website says “one business day” is required.

Being a somewhat thorough person, I decided to call before ordering to get some assurance I was qualified. The customer service rep who took my call started reading to me from the website. I kept interrupting; he kept reading. I finally managed to speak to a supervisor who assured me I was qualified, so I placed the order and submitted my documentation for verification.

What followed was several days of nightmarish sorts of communication. I would email customer service–they would eventually reply assuringly that verifications are handled in the order received. I resubmitted my documentation several times, using different channels. Just about the time I was becoming suspicious, I received an email reminding me they were waiting for me to submit my documentation.  At this point I did the research I should have done at the start and discovered they’ve been getting negative reviews since at least 2003.

So I cancelled the order. I did so by emailing, faxing, and placing a phone call to a thoroughly apathetic customer service representative. Now here’s where it gets funny. This morning I had a handful of emails from them assuring me that my order was cancelled and that I would not be charged nor would the order be shipped. So we have a company that is quite adept at cancelling orders but can’t seem to process them and ship them.

The good news is that I found another supplier and placed the same basic order late yesterday afternoon. Creation Engine also emailed this morning, advising that my order has been shipped from California and is already in Louisville KY. Lessons learned:

If you are looking for academic software, do NOT order from JourneyEd. Do order from Creation Engine.

If you are considering a business relationship with an online company, google “customer reviews and the name of that company” BEFORE you go too far.