Tag Archives: Learning skills

Five Minutes — Can you focus?

Well, actually it’s a little under five minutes. Most regular followers of my brain leaks and musings know that I’m a pretty big fan of Sir Kenneth Robinson. I’m going to ask you to spend five minutes with him–particularly if you’re an educator or involved in some way with the development of children.

Of late we’ve been hearing lots of discussion about things like “Core Curriculum” in public schools. Our governor recently issued an executive order “affirming Maine’s commitment to protecting local education control and student privacy rights.” It just may be healthy that we’re giving some thought to who “controls” what students learn.

At the other end of the spectrum, I encountered a man with what he thinks is a wonderful concept he calls “unschooling.” His solution to what he thinks are the fundamental problems with public education is to homeschool. Homeschooling is not a bad concept of itself, but in his home school there are no standards and kids (starting as young as preschool) only learn with they feel like learning. At a minimum, I think that he and his followers are at a doing a terrible disservice to their children. (Don’t get me started on this one… How rational is it to tell a five year old “just learn whatever you like, dear!” A “teacher” using that approach is only demonstrating what a poor teacher he or she is!)

My point is supposed to be that before we join the fray with firm opinions and too often a “don’t confuse me with the facts” approach to how and what we teach, we might spend five minutes trying to focus on this Ken Robinson video. In the interest of full disclosure and proper credit, I first received this from the blog http://classroomsandstaffrooms.com.

(Due to some technical challenges, I’ve removed the embedded video… you can find on site given above.)

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Don’t Take A Vacation From Learning!

Summer Couple

“Let’s not learn anything today, ok?”

Summer Vacation for us is developing into a bit of a ritualistic trip to Lancaster County Pennsylvania–also known as “Amish Country.” There’s a lot to like about our trip–including the fact there’s usually plenty of things to write about and this year is no exception.

Every year we get a little better at leaving things behind and I’m not just referring to Harley Dog and Crash Cat. I mean the usual responsibilities and worries that accompany every day life. Even so, we never feel like we are running away. It’s really more a case of changing venue, experiencing some different things, and truly having quality think  and learning time.

That also means I usually return “ready to write” with a host of thoughts and observations triggered by traveling. However, my first post after vacation is about something else I experienced recently that’s pretty awesome. It starts with the observation posted by someone on Facebook that shortly after we returned there were (then) only forty seven days left until the first day of school. I didn’t need to know that.

I’ve always asked the kids I run into during the summer if they are ready to return to school. There’s nothing scientific about my survey, but as the summer progresses I seem to get more “yes” answers than “no” answers. Of course there are a lot of variables, including the weather.

Am I ready to go back? One thing that’s different for me this year is I’ll be starting my second year as an elementary substitute teacher.

Just yesterday a friend and colleague told me a story. She was visiting with a family from our school district and, as it happened, was having a similar conversation with the children. When she asked one young fellow what he liked about school, he mentioned a few things and included “Mr. Boomsma!” in the top two or three. Since there was no way he would have connected my friend and I, it was a genuine affirmation that he apparently enjoys having me as part of the school environment. (Confidentiality concerns prevent me from knowing who he is and what my connection with him has been.)

I confess I got a little lump in my throat, but after I digested the news I managed to tell my friend that she had made my day. No, she’d made my week… maybe even my summer.

Sure, it’s an ego boost. But there’s something more important about this. When I was considering substitute teaching, I agonized over the impact it would have on my relationship with the kids. After all, Mr. Boomsma was the nice guy who showed up to listen to the kids read, maybe join in some recess activities, and be a good listener to kids who want to talk. If he comes as a sub, things change. Now it’s really about learning and behaving and completing assignments, right? He’s got to be “meaner.”

Well, this little guy has shown me I was wrong. Creating and maintaining structure and discipline isn’t mean, really. Or at least it doesn’t have to be! In my world, one of the reasons kids say they are ready to go back to school is they are missing the joy of learning. There’s an Amish Proverb that suggests, “Learning is far more valuable than education.” And while I would not diminish the value of education, it’s really supposed to be about learning.

Now more than ever, we need to blur the line between learning and fun. I’ll tell you a little secret. I really don’t think that little guy likes me as much as he likes learning. We have that in common–it’s a pretty strong connection and bond.

And you don’t have to be a teacher to help a kid learn and summer is a great time to do that. Take an interest in him. Ask her questions. Get him talking. You just might learn something too!

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Old Enough To Dance?

I can dance!

I can dance!

The kids do make me think. While substituting in a first grade classroom, we had a special guest whose presentation included a pretty cool rock video of choreographed exercise. It took a few minutes to get everyone in position with their “space bubble” around them so they weren’t interfering with each others’ moves. During that set up one of the kids asked, “Mr. Boomsma, are you old enough to dance?”

My knee-jerk reaction to his question was a chuckle that he’d asked it wrong. What he really meant to ask was, “Mr. Boomsma, are you too old to dance?” Because we were busy I just redirected his attention to the task at hand. “Spread your arms and make sure you’re not touching a neighbor… turn around in a circle…”

Unfortunately it wasn’t until later that I realized I should have asked him about his question. Maybe he meant exactly what he asked and I was the one who was wrong. His original question doesn’t make sense, you say? Why would he think I wasn’t old enough to dance? Well I, for one, will never presume to immediately understand another person’s thought process–particularly a child’s. They tend to be literal but they also tend to be free thinking.

But here’s the thing. In retrospect, the question I thought he meant to ask doesn’t make much sense either. Other than my gray hair, what basis is there for wondering if I’m too old to dance? I’ve occasionally joked that I can still do the things I did when I was young, it just takes me longer. Another variation of that joke is that I can still do the things I did when I was young, just not for as long.

Perhaps my young friend doesn’t carry that baggage with him. At least not yet. As a society, we will mold him and make sure he operates with assumptions, biases and prejudices he may not even be aware he has. Sometimes we do it unconsciously. The process brings to mind the fictional Borg collective from Star Trek. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

When the video started the kids were mesmerized and I stood back to watch. While I don’t focus on regrets, I do have one from that day.  I should have got right in the middle, created my space bubble, and danced with them. Not only would I have had fun, but I wouldn’t be sitting here wondering if I unintentionally contributed to a perception regarding age that isn’t accurate. There is no age limit on dancing–you can’t be too old and you can’t be too young.

And it’s not just about dancing. It might actually be about everything. Why don’t we wake up every morning wondering what we want to be, what we want to learn, and what we want to do? Why do we wake up tired and then remind ourselves we’re not getting any younger?

In some ways, we can get younger. We can think like a kid–with their freedom of thought and their possibility thinking. I love hearing a kid’s question that starts with, “Mr. Boomsma, what would happen if…”

How easy it is to forget a simple truth: if we truly want to do something, our passion for it opens doors and makes things possible. Some things require practice and there’s a need to balance passion and patience. How ironic is it that I consider an important part of my job in the classroom is convincing kids they CAN do things but I stood on the sideline and missed the fun. What would happen if we just tried a lot more things? What would happen if we put on some music…

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They Are All Winners!

l-r: Mrs. Daniels, Jemyni True, Macee Pearl, Mr. Boomsma, Melissa Burdin

l-r: Mrs. Daniels, Jemyni True, Macee Pearl, Mr. Boomsma, Melissa Burdin

On Friday, March 22, Piscataquis Community Elementary School fifth graders learned the winners of the Newspapers in Education Contest during which they were challenged to create an advertisement for the book “Small People; Big Brains.” Perhaps the even bigger challenge was selecting an ad to publish from the many submissions. Judges finally settled on three finalist ads: first place by Melissa Burdin, second by Macee Pearl, and third by Jemyni True. Each student received a certificate of accomplishment and art kit to encourage the development of their skills.Art Teacher Mrs. Daniels received special recognition for her support of the Newspapers in Education program and this special project:

For your constant understanding and for always being there,

To tell them they can do it and to show them that you care!

Principal Mrs. Orton wondered with the group “if we can expect Mr. Boomsma to write a book every year so get this opportunity again…”

There’s never a lack of stories and inspiration from these kids, but I’m not sure I can keep up! Walking down the hall just yesterday a Kindergartner informed me, “I go to school here and my dad coaches one of the teams here… is that weird?” I tried to assure him it was anything but… adults and children can attend the same school and learn from each other. These people may be small, but they often have really big brains.

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The Best of 2012

top_3_pedestal_400_clr_6491Thanks to WordPress tracking, I’ve learned which were my three “most viewed” posts of 2012. In case you missed them, here’s the report and another chance to read them:

  1. Making Change and Not Making Changes  included some musings about a summer vacation to “Amish Country” and an old favorite farm stand. What makes this most popular position even more interesting is that I published quite a few reviews on TripAdvisor relative to that same vacation… My most popular/liked review was “The More Things Change…” my observations regarding our return visit after a ten year absence. Perhaps, as it has been said, “The Amish are islands of sanity it the whirlpool of change.”
  2. Giving Up Teaching…  I don’t know how much my “attention-getting” headline had to do with the ranking of this post, but it seemed important to share an important shift in my focus when I’m in the classroom. While I don’t fully subscribe to the idea of replacing the “sage on the stage” with the “guide on the side,” I do believe “The ultimate classroom management takes place when we engage the learners’ mind as well as their pencils.”
  3. Ten Commandments For Teachers truly surprised me, perhaps because they date back some sixty years. Perhaps we have more sanity in a whirlpool of change! Personally, I hope most who read this also read Back to School Rules… there were only three!

And it does occur to me that assuming it’s not too late to make a New Year’s Resolution or two, you might want to read “Making Change And Not Making Changes” first!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous 2013… with the hope that your “best of” for the year is awesome!

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Resource Recommendation

Strange coincidences… I actually lived in Coventry RI for one month (thirty six years ago!). Today one of my very best friends (and high school English teacher) lives there! And now, I’ve discovered a great resource there! The Coventry School District has developed a series of “tips for parents” that are awesome! I would deem them not just for parents, but for anyone who “works” with kids… the article on “Motivating Learning in Young Children” is a must read! I’ve added this link to the site permanently:

http://www.coventryschools.net/tipsforparents.htm

so you can always come back and find it! (For those seeking more indepth resources, many of these tips are based on information available at the National Association of School Psychologists website.)

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Make That Mistake!

read_together_400_clr_3409We were nearly to her classroom door when I complimented my third grade friend. We’d just read together–actually she read to me–and I thought she’d done quite well. She impressed me with her vocabulary when she replied that she was actually much more “fluent” when she read to herself. I of course asked why.

Her reply was about being self concious and therefore “embarassed” when she made a mistake reading outloud. I confess my reply was a straight shot from the hip, “Don’t you ever be embarassed over mistakes when you are reading with me. Mistakes are an important and natural part of learning. And they actually can be fun.”

Usually these conversations are more about how the mind works faster than the mouth, but for some reason her discomfort seemed wrong. Of course we should challenge others to do well and to a healthy extent avoid errors. But the fear of failure can be paralyzing.

Later the same day I ran into my “giggler” friend. A year ago she was reading to me and when she came to the word “briefcase” she read “beer case.” For reasons I still don’t understand, her mistake struck me very funny. She and I ended up with the giggles for longer than was probably appropriate. She still remembers that day and the mistake–fortunately in a happy way that makes us both smile. I think it’s important that we laughed at the mistake; we didn’t laugh at her.

Recent studies are showing that students perform better in school and felt more confident when they were told that failure was a normal part of learning, bolstering a growing body of research that suggests much of the same. When I’m working with adults, I find that an important part of the process is to create a “safe” learning environment where mistakes can be made and judgement gets suspended. To that end, I’ve adopted the “Learner’s Bill of Rights” developed by the folks at Trainer’s Warehouse. Consider two of the ten.

IV. No unreasonable searches and seizures.

While facilitators may search for a right answer, learners have the right to make mistakes. If one is unable to answer a question correctly, the instructor will not cause embarassment.

and

VII. The right to a jury of peers.

You are entitled to a classroom of peers who will not judge or jeer, but make you feel safe and supported when faced with new challenges.

We would do well to consider creating a safe learning environment for others and ourselves. I remember once being part of a team that suffered a major mistake. The team leader said, “Well, we won’t make that mistake again.” I replied, “Nope, we’ll make some different ones.” He was not amused.

Creating a safe learning environment is about a willingness to allow mistakes that is balanced with a desire to “do well.” It’s really about avoiding mistakes, not fearing or focusing on them.

(For copies of the Learner’s Bill of Rights, please contact Trainer’s Warehouse at 800-299-3770 or www.trainerswarehouse.com.)

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Those Who Can’t Do…

Most people are familiar with the maxim, “Those who can’t do, teach.” We can speculate regarding its beginnings, but it’s come to be a bit of a “slam” on teachers as it implies those who fail at doing things can always teach. I am hoping I can raise the maxim without raising the debate because I think the maxim suggests an interesting question: “What about those who can’t teach? What do they do?”

I suppose we could have a “complete the maxim contest.” Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, (fill in the blank).

See, once you dig below the implication that those who fail can always fall back on teaching, there’s an even more insidious implication that teaching doesn’t require very much skill. If you believe that, consider the experience of a recent adult student–and try to believe that the point of the story is not to brag about MY skill–it is to demonstrate the lack of logic behind thinking teaching doesn’t require skill.

She came to me for some help with a fairly specific subject. (I’m omitting lots of details to avoid embarrassing anybody.) Our initial discussion included her observation, “I really suck at this” and a high level of doubt that she would or could improve much.  So here we have a situation where not only does she think she’s not very skilled–she also doesn’t have much confidence in me as a teacher. We did have a little chat about how we unconsciously prove ourselves correct.

We didn’t have to talk long before I figured out at least one reason she didn’t have much confidence in my teaching ability or herself. The person who’d been “teaching” her apparently sucked at teaching. He is a subject matter expert without question; but that’s a big part of the problem. He keeps on teaching the material HE understands but doesn’t understand why his student “doesn’t get it.”

I can help him with that. She isn’t “getting it” in a large part because he isn’t very good at explaining (teaching) it. Let me hasten to add, I’m not saying he’s a bad person. He actually does care about this student. He also obviously cares a great deal about the subject. He just doesn’t “care” (Ben Franklin observed, “Ignorance is bliss.”) about how he teaches. In fairness, it’s not his profession. But at some level, he apparently subscribes to the idea that teaching isn’t very difficult.

So I worked with the student for a while, ultimately sending her home with a lot of stickers on her sweater. “Good job! Wow! A+! You did it!” She’s pretty sure her kids are going to think that’s both funny and cool. I’m not naive enough to claim she “got it” all and neither is she.  But she was at least wearing a smile with her stickers and feeling like she was making some learning progress.

I can’t help but wonder if she’ll tell her “teacher” that she may suck at the subject, but he really sucks at teaching. Another debate we often have in the teaching arena is whether or not the teacher has to be good at or well-educated in a particular subject or discipline to teach it. Personally, I’d like to declare that an invalid debate.

There is a proverb attributed to Buddha that almost gets it right with the claim, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” That makes it sound a bit mystical and magical when it’s actually about a simple balance. There are teaching skills and there are learning skills. Both can and should be developed. A skilled teacher and a skilled learner create that magic. Suggesting that teaching requires little or no skill isn’t fair–it makes the learner totally responsible for the learning. Suggesting that learning requires little or no skill isn’t fair either because that makes the teacher totally responsible for the teaching. Maybe we should re-write the maxim.

Those who can’t do, teach. Those who can’t teach, learn.

 Among the many things that can be learned is how to teach! In the last few decades we have been discovering some exciting new ways we can teach people because we are beginning to understand how people learn. So to those who think teaching isn’t very difficult, I agree, it’s not–unless you want to do it well. And you won’t do it well until you understand that teaching is really about learning.

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Nap Time!

I just took a little self-quiz to see how much I “know about learning.” The quiz was recommended by The Training Doctor and I’m pleased to note that I did fairly well because I’ve pretty much given up on teaching. I’m increasingly convinced what we think is about teaching is actually about learning.

Anyway, one of the answers to a question included the observation “many experts believe taking a nap after learning something new aides learning.”

Woo! This explains the behavior of some of my students!

It also means I’ll be able to justify more naps!

Seriously, there is a lot to be said for naps. Perhaps I should offer a course on napping. Imagine the potential for integrating experiential learning! “Do not disturb–learning taking place” would take on a whole new meaning.

If you’d like to take the quiz, follow this link. After you’ve taken the quiz, have a nap!

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When Reading Is About Writing… and writing is about reading

Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that.” That’s okay advice for people who want to write. Writing is definitely about reading. As one who loves to do both I could probably have a lot of fun with this–including wondering how many writers love to read what they have written.

Many folks know that I have worked with second and third graders on a volunteer basis for quite a few years. Much of that work is geared to encourage them to read–and, hopefully, to develop a love of learning. One of the little poems we share at the beginning of the year is:

The more you read, the more you know.
The more you know, the smarter you grow.
The smarter you grow, the stronger your voice.
When speaking your mind or making your choice.

After making some presentations to third graders in an assembly last year, I joked with a teacher about the need to offer some public speaking curriculum to third graders since none would give an acceptance speech. After thinking about it, maybe it’s not a joke. Afterall, we are trying to create an integrated education for our kids, right? And if reading makes you smart and being smarter makes your voice stronger, shouldn’t you be able to speak (and write) with greater confidence and skill–at any age?

Another interesting conversation I had recently was with a media and communications professional. We were sharing some thoughts about how much media has changed in the last decade and ended up discussing the need for “media relations” training for elementary school kids. These kids are, after all, at least social media darlings as young as babies when their parents post their photos on Facebook and other media. While this might be a topic unto itself, a reality is that a lot of kids are “stressed” over their image at increasingly young ages–partly because they haven’t learned how to manage that image.

It was bad enough when we had to worry about the Three R’s without these added challenges. But it’s also still arguable that a good foundation in “reading and ‘riting and ‘rithmetic” would certainly help with the challenges and perhaps allow children to have stronger voices and make better choices.

I’m increasingly pleased and impressed at the numbers of kids who talk about reading at home with a parent or grandparent. (I have a great story to share about the nine year old reading the newspaper to his grandfather in the waiting room at my chiropractor’s office.) While the work of making shared reading the norm is certainly far from complete, what about the second “R” — writing?

The good news is adults (and kids) are “writing” more… the bad news is much of that writing is poor at best. And the worse news is the media doesn’t always encourage or reward traditional writing skills. (I admit–it’s interesting to consider what Mark Twain might have “tweeted.” It’s even more interesting to consider what he would have thought about the challenge of writing something meaningful using less than 140 characters or letters.)

So here’s the challenge… if you are reading with a kid, why not introduce the idea of writing? If it seems a bit more intimidating there’s a good resource for you. You can download a 17 page guide with lots of tips for how to help your kids improve their writing skills–and make the process more natural and fun. (I suspect you could use a few of them on yourself as well!) A better idea might be to contact his or her teacher since not all school systems use the exact same vocabulary and curriculum, but in general any stimulation and encouragement will be good.

I’ve always been grateful to one college professor–”Mr. Bailey.” He taught us to write for sure, but more importantly, he made us write. Every day.  One sentence was allowed, but by the end of the semester it was hard to stop with one. You can get better simply by doing things.

We’re not going to talk about ‘rithmetic.

Yet.

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