Category Archives: Teaching

Bite Your Tongue, Teacher!

Many people mistakenly think learning group advisers need to be the extreme experts in their field. The truth is that the ideal adviser often is one or two steps above the learner. Too much cognitive distance between the learners and advisers creates an environment where the extreme expert focuses on “telling” the learners what they need to know, rather than creating an environment that is open to exploring the topic, solutions and / or ideas.

Excerpted from Expert Advice by Randy Emelo

Shhh... I got this, Mr. Boomsma.
“Shhh… I’ve got this, Mr. Boomsma.” (This is a stock photo compliments of Pixabay.  It is not the young lady described in the article.)

I “borrowed” this quote from the November Issue of Training Doctor News because it’s a common mistake trainers and teachers make with students, particularly when we see ourselves as an SME (subject matter expert). Our real value might be as facilitators of learning, not simply dispensers of knowledge.

Just recently I had the opportunity to spend some time with two young ladies. When I say “young” that means one was a sixth grader, the other a fourth grader. Even though this was not school-related, I tend to believe we who are adults should always be “teaching” children, if only through good role modeling. So I stay alert for opportunities.

They were having a conversation in the back seat that began with an announcement that an adult friend of theirs was pregnant. For reasons I certainly do not understand, the younger asked no one in particular, “When the Mom is pregnant, can the Dad drink wine?”

I tried to look smaller and hoped that I would not be drawn into the conversation in spite of the fact that I certainly qualify as an SME (Subject Matter Expert) on this topic in a relative sense when compared to a twelve-year-old. I was reasonably sure a simple “yes” answer was not going to be the end of the conversation.

Worry wasn’t necessary, the sixth grader accepted the challenge, explaining that while the Mom shouldn’t drink, it would be okay for the Dad. The fourth grader accepted this, explaining that she understood the Mom shouldn’t drink since the baby was in her stomach.

The sixth grader gently corrected this, noting that she’d learned in health class that “the baby is actually in the nest mothers have in their bodies.”

I drove on, both relieved and feeling a bit smarter having learned a new vocabulary term associated with reproduction. I now have a better explanation of the process and successfully escaped from dealing with the topic.

That sixth grader was, in the truest sense, the “ideal adviser” because she was “one or two steps above the learner.” The conversation between the girls continued briefly as they were “creating an environment that is open to exploring the topic, solutions, and /or ideas.”

In fairy tale terms, we all “lived happily every after.”

It reminded me of being in a store once and hearing a youngster ask his Mom a question about something in the store. The mom replied in a genuinely interested way, “What do you think?” It wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to follow them and eavesdrop, but I’ll bet it was an interesting conversation.

Teachers and learners take note. Sometimes knowing the answer just isn’t that important–or necessary! There are times when we need to bite our tongues and sit on our hands so it’s truly about learning and not just about teaching.

BDN Series Mentions Mentoring…

back-to-school-183533_1280“Maine Focus” is currently running a series of excellent articles “Before Addition There’s a Child.” I’m both honored and humbled to report that my experience with Bus Drive Otis Phillips was included in the installment entitled “How one caring adult can change the life of a child.” (Scroll down to the epilog, “Your Stories.”) I continue to be amazed at the impact this story is having.

My ongoing hope is captured in my observation that “We mentor people in ways we don’t even mean to.” A corollary to that is mentoring doesn’t have to be hard. By definition, mentoring is a relationship in which an experienced person helps guide someone who is less experienced.  I think something as simple as  a kind or encouraging word creates a connection that can be defined as a relationship, however brief. Let’s call it a ‘mentoring moment.”

The Maine Focus series is about “preventing one of the largest public health problems of our time.” There’s a growing body of evidence that human connection goes a long way towards combating addiction.

Mine isn’t the only story in which an adult did something that at first seems small, but turns out to have major impacts, perhaps because it is about human connection. Hearing those stories is encouraging and heartwarming. But creating our own stories can be even better. Just look for those mentoring moments.

Pop in a Marshmallow!

rest-413103_1280One of the concerns we sometimes discuss in the Substitute Teacher’s Course is “How do you quiet an entire class?”

Yelling is not an option.

Age is certainly a factor–some of the more common techniques involve ringing a bell, flicking the lights on and off, using hand gestures. When I’m in a strange school or class, I try raising my hand first–it seems to be somewhat universal.

Today I read one to use with the littles that I just might have to try because it’s fun! The instruction to “pop in a marshmallow” tells everyone to pretend they are putting a big marshmallow in their mouth. (Don’t hand out real marshmallows!) This means lips are closed and cheeks are puffed out. It’s pretty hard to talk with a big marshmallow in your mouth! I’m thinking it might also work with kids in the back seat of the car.

For at least 29 more ideas, check out this post on Edutopia.

Sometimes I Surprise Me!

Some would say it was a baptism by fire… or being thrown to the wolves.  I made a rather spontaneous decision this year to accept some middle and high school substitute teaching assignments. Truth be told, I’d been thinking about it for a while, so maybe it wasn’t that spontaneous. But when I accepted my first two assignments, I didn’t have it all worked out in my own mind and, for me, that means it was at least somewhat spontaneous.

spanish-375830_1280So I found myself standing in front of a high school Spanish class, feeling a bit distracted and inadequate–not a good thing with a roomful of teenagers funneling in. At some level, I was thinking “How did I end up here?” while re-scanning the lesson plan which was, fortunately, written in English.  I was definitely out of my comfort zone.

Most of the kids at least knew who I was–that was a start. There were a few “high fives” as students walked in and took their places. Some of these kids I haven’t seen for a few years, so I was careful about calling people by name. Most seemed happy to see me and expressed surprise that I was going to be their sub. As the pre-class banter subsided and I began to take the roll, a student in the front asked, “Mr. Boomsma, do you know Spanish?”

I should have anticipated that question and prepared an answer, but this was a bit of a last minute assignment. So without much thought, I replied, “No I do not know Spanish. But I do know how to teach Spanish.”

By the time the words made it to the back of the room, I found myself surprised at the wisdom of that spontaneous answer.  I was even more surprised that my answer satisfied the kids, giving them confidence that today’s class wouldn’t be a total loss and might even be a learning experience.

Truth be told, they probably had more confidence in me than I did.

By the end of the class, I shared their confidence. There were several times I had to remind them, “I don’t know Spanish,” but together we got the work done  and they figured a lot out on their own. I found it interesting that some of them were surprised as well–at how much they were able to do and figure out.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the day, another aspect of this has become apparent. Obviously, there’s an additional half to this equation. I could have said,

“No, I don’t know Spanish. But I know how to teach it. And you don’t know Spanish either–at least not much. But you know how to learn it.”

Perfect! (Fantastico!) Here we have the perfect blend of people  who know how to teach and people who know how to learn. We also have some structure (a lesson plan) and resources (dictionaries, worksheets, etc.). Teaching and learning will take place!

The line between teacher and learner should be very fuzzy. Perhaps in some ways, it should disappear.  I don’t know how you can teach without learning. And I don’t know how you can learn without teaching, if only yourself.

In what was hopefully an obvious play on words, I announced a few years ago “I’m Giving Up Teaching.”  One of the problems with “teaching” is that the teacher has to do all the work. There’s a wonderful quip about how lectures are a way of “transferring the instructor’s lecture notes to students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either.”  What I’m proposing here is often called “interactive learning” in more pedantic circles. I’m not going to suggest it’s easier

“Teaching” in the traditional sense becomes something the teacher does to a student. What I’m proposing here is often called “interactive learning” in more pedantic circles. I’m not going to suggest it’s easier for the teacher. But when it works, both the teacher and the student are involved and working–and everybody’s brain is engaged.

I am not recommending we have people “teach” something they know nothing about as a matter or course. But we need to believe they can. If for example, you’re a parent who’s frustrated because you think you can’t help your child with his or her homework, I’ll bet you can. Just don’t make it all about teaching; make it about learning. You just might surprise yourself.