Mountains

However hard I work, whatever accomplishments I have achieved, are nothing compared to those of Mountains. The tragedy of the adventurous spirit can only be comprehended by those who have stood upon the summits of mountains. We like to say that we have conquered this or that peak, but these are only fleeting moments of accomplishment. Unlike the mountain, we are the ones that must return to earth while the mountains continue, indifferent to the trifles of man. It’s at this point that we realize we can never be mountains. And that’s a sad prospect. But there is one hope for man and it is this: Unchanged by man, mountains will continue as they always have. Man, once touched by the experience of mountains, will never be the same.

Revisiting Memorization

I am not a advocate of rote memorization, but a few recent experiences with my 12th graders has me re-thinking its purpose and how it can be used effectively in conjunction with Project Based Learning.

I was talking with my IT guy one afternoon. We wandered onto the subject of how his schooling was much different than the education his children are receiving. My tech guy grew up in India. He said that when he was in school he was given a lecture and a set of facts and was instructed to memorize them. Success in school, for him, relied on how well he could regurgitate those facts onto his test. Whether he could apply that knowledge in a meaningful way was irrelevant.

I feel that this kind of learning is pointless. Knowledge must be applied in the real world to fully grasp what it is one knows. My pedagogy is designed around the assumption that students learn best by confronting and engaging “real world” problems collaboratively.  Great chefs, for example, do not become great by simply spouting off all of the ingredients to a complicated dish. To become a great chef one must go through the process of trial and error, often times gleaning helpful hints and bits of wisdom from other chefs, until he can cook the damn thing to perfection. In school, success comes when the students collaborate to develop a solution to the problem and carry it out in real time.

I also believe that if the means in which a student learns instills positive, rigorous, and Ethical work habits, the end result will be positive, rigorous, and Ethical itself. Rote memorization does not mean a student will know a subject with any significant depth. Memorization is necessary exactly because it provides students with a tool to store important background information that can be accessed when delving deeply into a complex concept. Memorization also teaches academic rigor and instills important intellectual habits. When used as part of a larger, more comprehensive Project Based Learning process, the goals of the project will reflect the student’s hard work.

In his article “When Rote Learning Makes Sense”, Ben Johnson lists a few things to keep in mind about memorization:

1) The brain is a learning tool. This might seem obvious, but the brain is not a passive sponge. It requires active effort to retain information in short-term memory and even more effort to get it into long-term memory.

2) Learners need to know that the longer an idea can be kept in short-term memory, the more chance it can be pushed into long-term memory. This is where practice makes perfect makes sense.

3) The body is another learning tool — another often-ignored concept. The body is connected to the brain and if you engage the body, you are engaging the brain too.

4) Learners feel an addictive sense of accomplishment when something has been memorized completely.

The Reality

I never know what kind of students I will inherit from 11th grade. The first few weeks require exhausting exercises meant to diagnose the abilities of my classes. What I have noticed is disconcerting. Imagine for a moment a chef whose knowledge of cooking ends at turning on the oven, boiling water, mixing in and stirring pre-measured ingredients. This is the trend I am beginning to see in my classes. My students would rather follow directions than create them. They know how to cook but do not understand why the dish tastes good. This is an ugly symptom of a standardized test phenomenon which holds that the only thing that matters is bubbling the right answer on the scan-tron.

I began a crusade to introduce my students to higher level vocabulary, not so they could barf the definition back to me, but in an effort to get them  to understand the intrinsic value of learning how words work in society and why. When I quiz the students on the words, unfortunately, the scores are dismal. One student asked if I could give her a study guide for the WOD quizzes. She wanted the definitions and the sentences provided to her. According to her, I am the only teacher she has had that makes her look words up in a dictionary and memorize things. Most disturbing of all was when a student admitted to typing the word into google, clicking on the first website she saw, and writing the definition down from there.

I have learned a valuable lesson here. I need to adapt the way in which I go about teaching higher level vocabulary. Beyond that, however, I am beginning to discover that a focus on Project Based Learning, if not done correctly, can contribute to a culture of passive learning for some students while empowering others to thrive. When that happens, PBL has failed in it’s mission to create an equitable and rigorous learning experience for all members of the class. If administered without careful scrutiny by the teacher, Project Based Learning can emphasize a particular kind of social intelligence while unintentionally sacrificing other important mental tasks like study skills, memorization, and deep, sustained thinking. I can’t help but think that we are pushing PBL hard without providing the proper training and, therefore,  inadvertently developing a “shortcut” culture.

When I ask students to explain an opinion they present to the class in a more detailed way, or hold them accountable for any number of ideas, the students come up empty or feel like they are being attacked. When it comes to articulating the issue to others, the students lack a coherency stemming from an unwillingness to obtain a working knowledge of hard and fast facts and lexicons. In other words, my students have become accustomed to getting by without reading widely, thinking deeply, internalizing, processing, and storing information in their long term memory. How could they have a deep educational experience if they lack the language which, presumably, provides meaning to the experience?

Take my IT guy’s schooling and reverse it. That’s what I was dealing with. My students can complete a project as long as the individual components of it are handed to them. It is as if a Master Chef, after falling sick one day, orders his protege to take over. Upon entering the kitchen ready to cook, the protege becomes lost because he never learned the names of the ingredients, where the ingredients were kept, or how much of each ingredient to use.

This is one of the unintended consequences of PBL. A project can become so massive, especially when teachers are dealing with 200 or more students, that the teacher provides the components of the project to the students instead of having them go through the tough and messy mental work themselves. Teachers are so focused on the end result that they fail to instill sustainable fundamental intellectual and work habits along the way. It is frightening to think about this “ends justify the means” message it sends to the students themselves. Project based learning is the only equitable way to reach all students in deeply meaningful ways, but we must not sacrifice the process of acquiring rigorous intellectual habits like deep reading, frequent writing, memorization, and engaging in debate at the alter of standardized tests. When part of a larger “Real World” problem based approach, positive intellectual habits, including memorization, will allow the students to create the change they ultimately wish to see instead of simply following others there.

High School and the Future Self

I’m waiting in line at the coffee shop near school and the woman in front of me is engaged in a conversation with the Barista taking her order. The Barista is explaining how she hated high school. She didn’t like any of her teachers. She never read any of the assigned novels in her english classes. She liked the social aspect of school, the Barista admits, but she cannot remember anything she may have learned. As a new teacher, I could have taken that opportunity to express my disgust, to emit a Guffaw in response to the Barista’s enthusiastic description of a worthless education. I could have, but I didn’t. What she was saying is a reality for her and for countless kids across the nation. How can a student leave high school with such a sour attitude about an important formative experience? The factors that go into the answer can be numerous, and I have many ideas (topics for another post). What concerns me the most is how much one’s experience in high school can create the kind of person they will become as adults. If the Barista hated high school, her teachers, and the learning associated with them, how might this attitude affect the decisions she makes as a future citizen?

I have always believed that school is a microcosm of the larger world. In school, we learn to deal with authority, work with schedules, develop relationships, explore the basis of our ethics, and learn work habits. It is in High School that we begin to develop attitudes, opinions, and ideologies that become the basis of our future selves . If a student leaves High School apathetic and resentful of his or her high school experience, than those attitudes might swell and grow into a more sinister apathy and bitter resentment in the adult world. A negative relationship with a teacher might translate into an unworkable relationship with a boss. A student who Constantly harasses peers might develop unhealthy perceptions of power and make bad decisions that reflect that perception. A student who is the victim of constant harassment might look upon humanity with spite and seek vengeance in secret and vile ways. Those shortcuts in Algebra or English may have pushed a student through to graduation, but cheating might become a regular option in the world of work and responsibility.

I realized late in my High School Career that each teacher I had offered something I needed. I didn’t need to be friends with the teacher, but I could respect the knowledge they had. As soon as I realized this, my grades began to rise. I recognized my capacity to learn from them. The philosopher Bertrand Russel makes a distinction between asserting oneself upon the world and allowing the world to enlarge the self. When I hated my teachers, I was asserting my self on them, expecting them to fit a mold of what I wanted them to be. Needless to say, I became apathetic when they failed to fit the shape of my ego. I saw myself as a victim of a tyrannical system. Things changed when I began to demand to know what my teachers knew. I wanted what they had. Little by little I realized that the only thing I had control over was how I chose to see High School. My Barista chose to see High School as a waste of time. I found much more happiness in the challenge of learning something new, not because I had to, but because it was new and I wanted to know it. If a student can realize this as a freshman in High School, it can save them a good deal of time.

FLOW

Certain of my reluctant readers may not be doing so hot in their core academic classes, but one thing unites them all: Autoshop class, and it’s where they’d rather be. Yes, it is heartening to see my students learning a trade that will prepare them for working in a particular industry. Fine, but what is most exciting to me is that they are happy and focused when they are elbows deep in grease or creating a 3d animation. What, then, is it that gets these students motivated to perform in their “vocational education” classes and transform into sloths in mine? Reading ability has alot to do with it; English Language Learners can be two or more grade levels behind once they begin regular education language/arts classes. These students, especially the boys, are less likely to participate in class if there is any possibility they will be embarrassed in front of their peers. The reality is that learning to read and write confidently and effectively is a long, tedious process. Success in any english class is not immediately achieved nor guaranteed, and so the pursuit loses meaning. That is why shop classes are poised to do alot of good.

I discovered the answer to my question while reading Mihaly Csikszenthihaly and his research into the concept of Flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he says, “The more a job inherently resembles a game–with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback–the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker’s level of development.” Rebuilding a car engine is an ordered, sequential experience, with clear results. You either put the pieces together correctly or you don’t. The engine will start, or a problem exists for the student to solve. My students are happy when they are in control of their learning. The activities in which these students are able to particpate provide “… a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting” the students into a “new reality.” The resulting happiness my students claim to experience when working in these classes was caused by them getting into the “flow” of the activity.

There is no doubt that securing funding for upgrading the “vocational ed” curriculum will benefit students in positive ways, especially the reluctant readers and writers present in classrooms across the country. The fact that shop classes will equip students with life skills is great. But in order for a student to learn, to like to learn, and then to pass that love of learning onto younger generations, he or she must be happy. I have since learned to incorporate the simple lessons of shop class into my curriculum. And, although I can not offer a big block engine to rebuild, I can create activities that aim to get my students into that illusive state of “flow” that makes us all very happy.

The Student Becomes the Teacher

When I step into my classroom, I am forced to face the urge to believe my students are all smarter than I am. And in many ways, this is the unhidden truth.
   In his article,  “World Without Walls; Learning Well with Others”, writer WIll Richardson says, “The technologies we block in their classrooms flourish in their bedrooms. Students are growing networks without us, writing Harry Potter narratives together at FanFiction.net, or trading skateboarding videos on YouTube. At school, we disconnect them not only from the technology but also from their passion and those who share it.”
  
I often find myself having to justify activities like poster presentations and graphic organizers to my students who are routinely building websites and editing sponsor videos (skate or snowboard videos they send to companies for sponsorships) of themselves on thier Imacs using pirated software (which itself is a skill).
  
 Recently, I assigned a piece of writing for students to do for homework. The purpose was to assess how well students learned how analyze a piece of visual advertising. One of my students asked me if he could do the assignment on his computer instead of turning in a written “one-pager” . I agreed, trusting that this student’s request was a genuine one.
 
 I was expecting a word processed production, perhaps in a silly font. What I got was a mixed media masterpiece. The student had mastered Photohop by the time he was in eighth grade. He had moved on to programs like dreamweaver, Illustrator, and In-Design. If he wanted, he could publish a magazine. Maybe he is. The point is that he has a literacy that I don’t. And as our society continues to adavance, and businesses rely increasingly on the skills of computer program designers, the one in need of education is me, not my student.
  Part of my personal teaching philosophy holds that a student needs to experience and become a master in the organic elements of creativity. In the case of my student, I would argue that any graphic designer needs to know how to draw with pencil and paper before he can master a computer based graphic design program. But what about my homework assignment? I have the suspicion that his case is not unique and that I am teaching antiquated skills to students who would better benefit from direct instruction in website design.  The great thing about teaching is that I can use technology to teach organic skills. Students must learn how to read and write critically. I know how to teach that. It is time for teachers to stop playing catch up and use technology as a vehicle for teaching good old fashioned knowledge. With continued active participation and collaboration strategies in the classroom, students will find school to be enriching, not torturous.
I have come to accept the fact that, in many ways, my students are smarter than I am. 

If Socrates were to meet a group of young, fresh-out-of-credential-school, stars-in-their-eyes teachers today, say, at the local Coffee Bean around the corner for Friday morning coffee, he would measure his words delicately. He might tactfully jog their memories and remind them of how he was once accused of corrupting young minds. Then, as the coffee flowed, he would open up and opine about how daring they were to choose teaching as a profession. He would simmer in reverie about his days with Plato and say, “Those who dare to teach must never cease to learn.” At this point in the conversation, Socrates would need a quick review of the major developments in education for the last 2,500 years. He would need to know that being daring enough to teach today, in an Urban school district like Long Beach, California, carries a new and evolved meaning—one that diverges significantly away from what it meant back when Socrates strolled beneath the daunting gaze of Doric columns, spouting wisdom to those who would hear, or inciting scorn in those who ruled.

How to Relax

Despite it being a large urban city, Long Beach offers a decent amount of opportunities for out-of-doors recreation. For me, relaxation and recreation are synonomous. When I don’t have much time, my favorite thing to do is jump on my bike and ride down to the bike path. I find a playlist on my ipod that fits the occasion and race the sun as it sinks behind Palos Verdes, casting long shadows on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

I ride down to the Leeway Sailing Center, make my way up Bayshore, and make a right on second street. The bay sparkles in the setting sun. Triathletes, training for the next race, break the tranquility of bay as they ply the water just inside the the bouy line. I head up Second Street, and sprint up the bridge. I scan Marine Stadium for any wakeboarding activity. In high school my friends and I would spend our summer days wakeboarding, always counter clockwise, in the mile long marina. When that got boring, or when the wake from other boats ruined our wake, we would paddle our long boards through naples, climb up onto the bridges and perfect our swan dives. The water was deep enough for the drafts of bigger boats, so we thought it was deep enough for diving. We would paddle across the bay to the penninsula and play beach soccer on the sand. As the sun went down, we’d make our return trip, but promise to meet up later.

Crossing over the Second Street bridge, I can see the power plants looming over the soon-to-be-restored wetlands. Behind the steam stacks are the mountains. On a clear day, it seems like Long Beach is framed by mountains and ocean. It is possible to snowboard in the morning and surf in the afternoon. You can see catalina from highway 18, way up near Big Bear.

At PCH, I turn around. It is getting dark and the Lakers are about to tip off. My heart is pumping and I’m thirsty. I take Second Street through Belmont Shore for the views–the bros outside Shannons, the jocks outside Legends, the debutantes sipping large glasses of red wine inside the glass cubicle of Bono’s. I peddle up the hill into Belmont Bluffs, past the big brick house that reminds me Hearst’s Castle, and straight home. Tomorrow, I think I’ll go for a run instead. I’ll pick up my buddy Christain and we’ll head towards shoreline village with the lighthouse for a destination. Whatever. Either way, it’s a great way to relax after a long day in the classroom.