Storytelling Through Artifacts

When I was in grad school, we had an assignment where we had to create a lesson plan around an artifact. I had been teaching in museums for several years at that point, so I had experience teaching with and through artifacts. But we also had the Summer Solstice party coming up.

That spring, I had gotten into a bit of a mythology fact-checking fight for a show introduction I was writing for the planetarium attached to the museum. So, the education curator, who happened to be the professor who assigned the artifact lesson plan, asked me to put together a little storytelling program for the party. I asked if the stories I gathered and presented counted as artifacts, and she said, “Absolutely.”

I was the only student in that class who had to present their artifact lesson plan to a public audience.

My classmates couldn’t wrap their mind around the idea of stories as artifacts. But I wrapped each story in its context, with a bit here and there on the science of solstices, and the audience and professor loved it.

I’ve been thinking about that assignment a lot over the last few weeks while I’ve been working on my object for the Sherlock Holmes MOOC. We’ve picked an object to develop into a smart clue for a live, collaborative crime scene, but we’ve also been working on the object’s story and weaving that into a wider story with other students’ objects. It’s been this collaborative storytelling project, in a very odd way.

But it’s made me think about what I knew as a museum educator, what I know as an amateur cultural anthropologist: Artifacts tell a story about their time and place. Something doesn’t have to be old to be an artifact. The device you’re reading this on is technically an artifact. Scary, huh? What story does it tell? Is that scarier?

Oh, the random things you think about while working on storytelling projects.

The Resilient Child is Not the Enemy

An article posted at the beginning of the year revealed that children who rise above challenges in their youth become successful adults at the cost of their future health, and even went  so far as to suggest that maybe children shouldn’t be allowed to endure the stress of overcoming whatever obstacles they are presented with.

When I first read the article, I was livid. It sounded like the writers were encouraging adults to discourage children from daring to set and reach for goals. In fact, the exact note I left for myself in Instapaper was, Yes, let’s find a way to panic those breaking free into rejoining the drones. Because that was what I took away from that reading.

But re-reading the article after several months hasn’t improved my opinion of the writers’ position. Where does anyone get off saying that a child shouldn’t be encouraged to reach for their potential, to learn early how to set goals, hot to identify and handle setbacks? Because that’s really what this article is saying. That embuing children and their plastic, adaptable minds with skills that will enable them to become successful adults isn’t a good idea.

We’ve had this problem for a couple of generations now (my own included) where people seem to have developed what has often been called a sense of entitlement. They seem to not be able to cope with…anything, really. And part of that is because we weren’t really expected to handle things as kids. My generation saw both parents go to work, and as a result were a bit more indulgent with us to try to make up for not spending as much time with us. It was never our fault we did anything; we were just acting out because we missed our parents. Or because one of our parents was no longer living with us, because we were the first generation to have more kids living in broken homes than in nuclear family units. That coddling hasn’t done us any favors, especially those who have struggled to figure out how to function beyond it.

It’s time that we remember children are capable of taking on challenges, of setting their own challenges and successfully managing them, that being given opportunities to take chances and learn how to handle setbacks in a safe zone will take them farther than telling them why their failures are someone else’s fault. We don’t have to throw them to the wolves; we just have to enable them to be able to fail, learn from that failure, and pick themselves up and try again. That’s the key: We have to give them a safe space to fail while they’re learning that resilience. Learning they can fail will go a long way toward minimizing the stress addressed in that article.

Sorry for the soapbox. It probably won’t be the only rant this week.

Expressing to Be Interpreted

Writing has become a contentious art. In one corner, you have the formal, academic rules. And in the other, you have what is often referred to as “txtspeak”, a set of rules that really kind of aren’t. As a writer, a writing teacher, and an editor, I’ve become fascinated with the spectrum of writing rules and how we as a society and how we as the involved professions have reacted to this. Some say, “Well, language is living, and it’s currently in a state of evolution.” Others fight tooth and claw for the  rules.

I tend to err on the side of the rules for one simple reason, one I often remind my students and my beta reading and editing clients about: Writing is a means of communication. That’s its whole purpose for existing. The one exception might be a private journal, where writing serves as a means to codify thoughts, feelings, and memories…but that still means the person who wrote it probably intends to look back at it later and glean information. So, it’s still a form of communication.

While I was deep in trying to decide how best to evolve this blog to keep up with the changes that were taking place in my life last fall, I had in the same day two different conversations, one with a fellow writer and one with a fellow teacher, about this idea of communication and the level of formality. It was interesting, even if neither conversation reached a fulfilling conclusion.

The writer was thinking about voice and audience, and about how a writer’s voice in certain contexts is a collaboration with the audience, in what the audience brings to the story. Collaboration is highly dependent on communication, and so it made sense that she was thinking about the accessibility of her own writing voice.

The teacher felt that we should be teaching dialectical English instead of what we teach as “standard English”. When I asked how he saw that going along with teaching students to write to be understood, he announced that clarity is bunk. I know from years of lurking around writers and editors that the number one reason writers, especially writers just learning the craft, are steered away from writing dialects is because it can be so hard for those who don’t live in an area where the dialect is spoken to make sense of it, so I  was a little surprised to hear an academic take such a strong stand (especially when he failed to defend it).

We know from studying centuries-old texts in standard English classes that language does evolve as the society it serves evolves. We see it. We explore it when we attempt to modernize a story to where we currently are in our language development. And it’s interesting to think about how this formal vs. informal rules continuum is fought and evolves along with the evolution of the language itself.

How about you? Where do you fall on the continuum, and why?

The Need For Better Role Models

When Titanic was re-released in April, there was an image going around – a screencap of some kids chatting on Facebook about discovering the movie was based on real events.  To them, it was amazing and gave some of them a new perspective on the movie, but the group as a whole became an internet joke, attacked for not knowing the real story to begin with.

There’s more in the world right now encouraging stupid or impulsive, selfish behavior. When that’s what you’re surrounded by, of course you aren’t going to grow up to be someone who chooses to take part in the community. Why should you when these people you freely acknowledge as losers are succeeding by being selfish losers? Of course you aren’t going to develop anything resembling a work ethic. Why should you when television and the internet are full of people who’ve become celebrities just because they made one comment that proved they slept through school?

We talk about all the ways television impacts us negatively, but do we ever really look at what’s going on? Kids grow up in front of the television, Netflix, and YouTube. And a fair few of them gravitate toward the stupid stuff because anything else makes them think, and they’re being taught in school that they don’t have to think. They just have to follow rubrics, make excuses, and have their parents threaten the teacher, and they’ll pass the class. And they’ll be told how wonderful they are, and reassured that their failures and their misbehavior aren’t their fault.

And we end up with a generation with little common or base knowledge and an overly inflated self-esteem and sense of entitlement. They don’t understand how simple things work because they were socially promoted through their math and science classes. They can’t put together an intelligible email…or a complete sentence for that matter, because they were socially promoted through language arts. And develop a love of reading? Forget that! Books are for stupid English class. No one in the real world reads (which does actually confuse me. I see more people reading something on the bus than not reading.) They have no idea how to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, nor any clue with how to deal with rejection.

I’ve talked about this in the past on other blogs, but what if we stopped putting the losers in the spotlight and started heaping all the attention on people doing real, positive, impactful things in the world? What if we stopped making mistakes and failure the enemy, and turned them into the teaching and motivation moments they used to be? If we all stopped acting like teenagers, would the teenagers coming up be more able to move on to a productive adulthood?

Storytelling, An Ancient Teaching Method

I was teaching one afternoon several months ago when a fellow teacher looked over at me and said, “You know, I know there’s a  difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale, but I don’t know what it is. Do you?” After a moment of thought, I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know, either. I’ve grown up with fables, fairy tales, folklore, and mythology my entire life, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between them on the spot.

What’s really embarrassing is that these stories are our history. Teachers’ history, I mean. Storytelling is one of the original teaching methods, and we’re now reconnecting with the power and strength of the story to make topics sticky enough to be learned. Those who wove these stories are really our masters now, those we should be looking to for guidance on how to re-incorporate the story into our teaching…and two teachers sat there realizing they couldn’t tell you which type of story was which.

It turns out sorting them out is relatively simple. The fable is a story, usually featuring animals, that teaches a moral or a life lesson. The folk tale, folklore in the collective, is a story that orally conveys the customs, assumed history, and beliefs of a culture. The fairy tale is a lesson wrapped up in a fantastical story. As they involve animals and humans, they are considered a subset of fables. Fairy tales were told shared orally as entertainment and education until someone finally started recording each story (and its many variations). The myth is a story about a god or a legendary hero that searches to explain the scientific observations of the originating culture. Some cultures have also woven bits of their history, exaggerated a bit, into their mythology as a means of asserting their dominance in an area or to assert cultural pride.

While these stories can’t be easily identified with a core subject, they’ve lasted throughout time, often teaching the modern people who hear them today.

Mentoring Potential

I’m about to make what could be a disastrous confession: I willingly watch both Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model.

Wait, wait, wait. Before you click on that Unsubscribe button, hear me out.

I don’t really watch for the shows themselves (although I do enjoy seeing what the designers on Project Runway come up with each show). I actually watch for Tim Gunn and Jay Manuel. I enjoy watching how Gunn interacts with the designers, encouraging them, trying to steer them away from an impending disaster without taking over their projects. He’s respectful, and he tries to provoke critical thinking in the designers, arming them with a skill that’s going to carry them through their careers. He’s a mentor, and a good one. I enjoy watching Manuel direct photo shoots. Even when it’s not going well, he tries to keep his disparaging comments away from the models and instead tries to coach them to take better pictures. If a contestant is struggling, he reminds them of what they’ve talked about in the past and what he’d like them to think about as they’re working on overcoming their weaknesses. He’s a coach, one who praises improvement but always pushes for more.

Okay, now you can click on that Unsubscribe button if you really still want to go.

For those of you who are still here, thanks for sticking with me. The reason I’m revealing embarrassing information about what I do in my down time is because I think the ability to recognize and nurture potential is a big part of the development process, and I’m finding myself spending more time either thinking about it or actually engaging in it. One of my many roles at work is Trainer. I teach teachers new to our programs how to teach our programs. I then coach them through the details until they are standing on their own two feet.

More and more of our teachers, though, are teachers just starting out, the ones looking for their first classroom. And more and more, I’m finding that I’m not just teaching them how to teach our programs, but I’m fielding a lot of New Teacher questions or being asked to help guide someone through New Teacher issues. As I have never had to train a teacher to be a teacher and never intended to be a classroom teacher myself, it’s been a bit disorienting. But as I accept that teaching is teaching, regardless of the setting, it’s almost become easier.

Almost.

The problem is: We have a teacher who has been with us far longer than she should have been, mainly because she hasn’t found her way into a classroom yet. She’s a great teacher, develops an easy rapport with the kids, is enthusiastic. She’s still learning the nuances of student management, but she’s also taken the time to develop systems to help young students learn to make good behavior choices. Everyone acknowledges that it’s a shame no one has picked her up yet, because she does show so much potential…but no one really does anything. I’m pretty much hoping it’s because they’re just not sure how best to help her because…

One of our directors, not long after meeting me, turned herself into my biggest supporter. My own personal cheerleader. She took one look at me and said, “Why are you still here? Where are you supposed to be?” The first time she asked me that (because she has asked me that repeatedly), I didn’t have an answer. I hadn’t quite figured it out yet myself. I have now, and I’m trying to figure out how to get where I’m supposed to be, and she’s right there asking what I’m doing to get myself moving and how things are going.

I love her for it. She’s encouraging with me, firm with me when I start waffling. She throws out suggestions for action plans when I look or feel stuck…but she expects to hear soon after that I’ve done something. She sees my potential, and she refuses to let me do anything but try to live up to it.

And to me, that’s what a mentor or a coach is: someone who sees your potential and pushes you to make something of it. But what leads a mentor to look at two people who are both loaded with potential and push one but not the other? That’s really how I feel about this mess. Even when Gunn or Manuel feel that one of their mentees is slipping, they still try to offer some help, sometimes even turning the person around. Where does someone draw the line?

I wouldn’t be where I am today if people hadn’t given me a chance to make my mistakes, to learn, to prove to both myself and others that I could do something. I wouldn’t be where I am if someone hadn’t felt I deserved being taken under their wing and coached and polished a little bit. Shouldn’t others have that same opportunity?

A Lack of Technical Precision is Holding Us Back

I read the next part of Word Problems in Russia and America. Really, the point he keeps belaboring is that we withhold algebraic reasoning too long. Except we sort of don’t. We do missing number sentences when we’re helping children learn their addition and subtraction facts and processes. It’s not the level of Russia and Singapore, but it’s at least something. A good start, if nothing else. He also goes on (for paragraphs at a time) about how we keep children in simple problems and don’t throw in enough word problems. That’s true. When we suddenly give an algebra student a problem that requires several lines of work, they complain about the work involved.

And as I was sitting there reading it, agreeing with much of it, I found myself not really concentrating on it. Instead, a section on key words taught in place of critical thinking got me to thinking about the afternoon we sorted out who would be teaching which section of the parents’ math seminar. One teacher didn’t get a say in the matter — he was getting algebraic reasoning, regardless, because I felt it was important for any SAM parents (none of whom actually came) to see him in his element, to see what their children were raving about.

That left fractions/decimals/percents and integers/absolute value/radicals for the other teacher and me, and we were both comfortable either way. I let him make the decision, and after much debate he decided to take the first skill bundle. That was fine. I’ve got integer manipulation down to an art after making the videos, and I can rock absolute value just as easily.

His reason for choosing the fraction/decimal/percent bundle wasn’t quite so fine. He admitted he chose it because I’m strict with the kids about vocabulary. I expect and encourage my kids to use the correct terminology, and he felt that made me highly technical and he was worried the parents wouldn’t cope so well with it.

Um…isn’t that kind of the point? To make sure the person we’re teaching, regardless of age, is able and ready to deal with topics competently? I’d never thought of encouraging preciseness as a weakness before, and there was someone I respect as a fellow teacher, someone I usually see eye-to-eye with…telling me that my preciseness makes me a challenging teacher? Grr. Just…Grr!

The Struggles of Scaffolded Math

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in and out of doctors’ offices because of a stabbing pain in my ankle that turned out to be tendinitis. Recuperating has left me plenty of free time to make some headway on a couple of current projects. While rethinking my approach and topics for Dead Bunny, I discovered that I can’t just confine myself to algebra and adequately do what I want to do.

In order to really develop a sequence of skills, I’ve discovered I have to be open to exploring the algebra and geometry skills in that sequence. It makes sense- I often have to review more basic algebra skills with my geometry students to help them successfully understand a new skill.

This got me thinking about the Integrated Math Program, which attempted to teach algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and statistics in one multi-level class. The original approach presented the students with real-world situations that they had to decode and then determine or discover the math principles behind what they were doing. The main problem was that if the students could even understand what the questions were trying to ask, they often hadn’t been exposed to the skills they needed to attempt the problem. Eventually, the program moved to textbooks that looked like traditional math textbooks, but they were divided back out into their overarching subjects. (No one would ever admit that, but they were.)

I’ve never agreed with the IMP because there was no discernible place in the curriculum for actual instruction, or discussion about student discovery, to take place. I never actually thought about expressing an opinion on interweaving different maths together to build a curriculum.

Now I am, and I feel like it’s opened up this whole new world of possibilities in designing and structuring Dead Bunny’s curriculum.

My Week, Told in T-Shirts

Last week, I got a new T-shirt that I bought with the sole purpose of wearing it to Sylvan.

I wanted to wear it Tuesday, but I was retraining the math teachers that night and my “Math, it’s not just for boys any more” shirt seemed far more appropriate. Despite how colorful the shirt is, very few people even realized I was wearing it. (I normally wear solid, earth-toned tees, so this shirt should have stuck out.)

On Wednesday, I wore my new shirt. Because of my shirt Tuesday, everyone stopped to read and comment on my new shirt. They also, for whatever reason, decided to take it far too literally. The shirt reads “Frequently Asked Questions”, so everyone did. A lot more than they normally do. I almost couldn’t get my work done because I was fielding so many questions.

Today, I stuck to my “I’m blogging this” T-shirt, which earned me a few chuckles.

When I want to be noticed for my shirt, I’m ignored. When I don’t want to be noticed at all, my shirt draws too much attention. Really, I can’t seem to win here, but I love having all of these snarky shirts!

Remind Me Why I Like Teaching Teenagers

Tonight I ran down to the grocery store. When I came out, I discovered that someone had pulled in “beside” me. I use quotes because they weren’t really beside me as they were behind me. And there was a car in front of me, so I couldn’t go that way. While I was sitting there trying to figure out how I was going to escape, the driver of the other car came out, some teenager and his buddy. I thought, This is great! He’ll leave, and I’ll be able to leave. Yeah…no…he sat there and talked on his cell phone for a bit. I had to figure out how to maneuver my car out of the spot.

So then I get home and sit down to read fan fiction. One of my biggest pet peeves (certainly my biggest pet peeve where fan fiction is concerned) is when people write for a fandom that they’ve never actually experienced. I ran into one of those tonight. He wrote this horrible AU Yu-Gi-Oh fanfic…and then asked at the bottom if anyone knew Bakura’s last name. I knew I was already a bit short-tempered from dealing with stupid teenagers so I wrote out a scathing response and then deleted it rather than post it. If he’d asked what Pegasus’ last name was, I’d have completely forgiven that. But no…it was Bakura! Lord love a Kuriboh! *facepalm*

Please understand that I have definitely worked with some kids that have left me wondering what they fried themselves out on, but none of them has ever left me wanting to literally smack some sense into them. Except maybe the Andersons…

I’m finding myself more and more frequently saying, “Wow. Your education failed you.” Not really what a teacher should be saying. Amazingly, I’ve never said it to any of my students. (Then again, I tend to get the students who are in Sylvan because they know they’ve been failed by the local education system and want to correct that.)

On the more positive note, someone I helped prepare for her GED is taking it Monday. Given how close she’s been to passing (and realizing that most her errors are really computational), I think she’s got a great chance of passing it. We’ll see.