Potpourri of Crap

There is a lot of things I could write about today.   I could write about this week’s proud teaching moments, this week’s lame excuses, the danger of oversharing with students, or the willful ignorance that is predominant in American Culture.   I just find myself drawing a blank when I start to write these things today.

Sorry Evil League of Teachers, I’m just distracted.  So I’m going to ramble instead.

My life, how I love thee…

So many irons in the fire, and not enough time to tend them! Here is a general list of the stuff that keeps me preoccupied:

Here on the Evil League of Teachers:   we may be getting a new blogger or two, but I’ll need to revamp the site a bit before that happens.   (1) First up, our disclaimer statement… since much of our material is satire (I don’t abuse my students, I don’t in fact fill my red pens with their blood, and I don’t own a student skin coat!) it is good to have a statement on here saying as much.     Which brings us to (2), we will hopefully be getting a new look.   If you know any graphic artists or web-page gurus who would be willing to work for beer money, let me know (click the comments section!).   (iii) My pie in the sky dream for the ELOT would be setting up an LLC for the League, and associate with some fantastic other educational sites… maybe publish books of teaching with zombies…

At school: (d) if I get a decent microphone and capture software, I’ll start making my own education videos.   This of course means that I will pay out of pocket, teach myself video and audio software, and host the videos.   (fiVe) I’m trying to plan my “other duties” centered on accreditation, as well as maintain having a social life in between quarters. And there is also () maintaining content for my classes and refreshing myself on the esoteric subjects that I tutor twice a year.

The rest of my life: (Libra) I’m digging myself out of debt so I can go back to school, and officially be either “Doctor” Evil. Then there is also (1001) applying to teach in the Seattle Community Colleges (because a 4 hour daily commute is less fun than it sounds). But I also need to (10) finish my physical therapy so I can (XI) start training for a marathon.   And (M.) learning guitar.   I even may be able to play a video game or two now and then.

… all of which are less important than maintaining my relationships who get the bulk of my free time. That and taking over the world.

My life, how I love thee!

No Drama Tuesdays

I like people, but they are so strange sometimes.   Something that confounds me is how some folks make so much drama in their lives.    Some days it feels like I’m dealing with wave after wave of unreasonable demands and people’s overinflated narratives!    Somehow people manage to escalate the most minor problems into harrowing personal crises, or will claim incredible victories over molehills, or will just generally make an ass out of themselves…Things are so peaceful... it must be time for me to make a scene

Students are great at this.   I’ve noticed how some students manage to, week after week have some story of woe that keeps them from turning in their homework, studying for tests, or otherwise doing their schoolwork.*

I would like to start a tradition:   No Drama Tuesdays.   Don’t create drama, don’t feed drama, and fix problems rationally with as little fanfare as possible.

So here is what I would like to see, on Tuesdays**:

  • If it isn’t your problem, mind your own business
  • No whining about your own troubles
  • No gossiping about other people’s troubles
  • Take responsibility for your own problems, quietly and gracefully.
  • As much as possible keep your ego out of problems
  • If trouble seems likely, think how to avoid it, fix it, or ameliorate it
  • Realize that there is no actual pressure on you to be happy, or sad… and no one can actually tell you what to feel.

 

Is that a deal?

 

* Yes, I know life interferes in the best made plans.   At a certain point, it becomes clear that the only common element in the person’s life drama is the person.

** If this tradition happens on other days of the week, that would be nice too.

Mental in the Classroom

One of the reasons I love teaching in a community college is that my students want to be there.   The biggest hurdle I think any instructor can face is the indifference of a student.  In order to learn, a person has to want to learn.   Otherwise, there isn’t the motivation to put in the time and effort that is necessary to learn and grow.   People often bring their own obstacles to learning, both inside and outside of the class.   Scheduling, family and work obligations make up a good part of these obstacles, but the subtle problems of mental illness can be more challenging because they are obstacles we can’t directly see.

Accepting mental illness

The first hurdle with dealing with mental illness is bringing it out into the open.   It’s common for a person (not just students) to think that they are stupid, lazy, or incapable of focus when they have a mental illness.  One of the things that I like to emphasize is that brain and body are all one piece, they cannot exist without the other.

Aristotle should have been drowned after proposing mind-body duality.   You aren’t the ghost in the machine, you are the machine.   Get over it.

It makes no sense to tell a person with a broken foot that they “just need to try harder to run” or to call a diabetic lazy for not producing enough insulin.   The brain is a complex organ, and it can malfunction as well.  Our brain creates our sense of self,  so when there is a problem blame can get misplaced on the ‘mind’ rather than on a misfiring brain.   Too often mental illness is a disease that tries to tell you it isn’t a disease.   It is victim blaming at it’s worst, and misunderstanding outsiders will often reenforce that misconception with their own myopic judgements.

To these students:   stop shoulding all over yourself.   It’s messy to experience, and it is awkward to watch.   You can get help.  And to those others who think it is all a matter of willpower, or that they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I would kindly invite you to piss up a rope.   Be supportive, or get out of the way.

Getting help

I know a lot of folks tend to think of treating mental illness as just taking medications.  Taking medications can feel foreign, like an admission of weakness, or a crutch.   Pharmaceuticals may be a step, but they are only part of a treatment.   Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists use combinations of mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other things to help a person overcome or work with their mental illness.

Medication may be part of ongoing treatment.   Just like a diabetic can’t produce enough insulin, there are times when you can’t produce enough (or produce too much) neurotransmitters or other hormones.   No shame is attached.

real courage

Teaching Needs

Again and again, patience isn’t just a virtue it is a necessity.  Remember that people under stress may act out in different ways.

Many students don’t know what they need in order to learn.   Standard scaffolding and reinforcement may not be enough to help students with special needs, but they also won’t hurt either.   Different students will have different needs… it seems self evident, but I find (some) teachers will keep pushing one tactic without exploring others.   Not all of students in a classroom have the same strengths.

ADD or ADHD and other executive function disorders:  often the instruction of “sit still and listen” is untenable.   One or the other is often the choice for these students.   Having something physical to do is often what is necessary to let them cope in class – this can be anything from chewing gum to tapping their fingers (quietly) against their leg.   Having a class notetaker is also very helpful, because these students especially will have difficulty following a lecture and taking meaningful notes.   If you have a quiet environment for testing, that can be helpful for these students.

Anxiety & Depression:  Combinations of stress, low-self esteem and guilt often send these students into a spiral.  So as much as possible, take the pressure off!   If you can soften deadlines it can remove some time pressure.   Praise is essential for these students.    I like to give them some easy exercises to begin with, to help them get started.   A little bit of forward momentum will really help these students.  Getting students to build their confidence (and over prepare) outside of class can also help during exams.

Dyslexia/Dyscalculia:   Dyslexia is often misunderstood as well as being misdiagnosed.   The classic notion of reversing letters or words isn’t accurate, it simply takes a longer time to process and parse information (and frequently bad behaviors of second guessing themselves is also reenforced).   Trying to take notes and understand what is going on can be incredibly difficult for these students.   If you can, arrange for a note taker, or allow the student to record lectures.     An additional trick is to limit the focus of the student:  too much input can get overwhelming, so while working an expression or equation I will block out all but the current step with a piece of paper.    Finally, where reading and symbolic manipulation may be difficult for students with dyslexia, you may find that they have good kinesthetic or verbal skills so you can show them how to “walk” and “talk” their way through a problem.

Often we see students get frustrated with repeating the same techniques over and over again.   If you have time, talk to them and get them to try different styles of problem solving.   Getting these students to work with their strengths is a win for them, and for the classroom.   It diversifies the problem solving methods that all of your students can use.

Attitude check…

There is a world of difference between the students who need help because of a mental illness and those who are failing because they don’t want to put in the work.   If a student complains that they aren’t getting the material, the first thing I ask is how much time they are putting in per week.   If the student is putting in 15-20 hours per week, then there may be a problem, and the student can get what they need.  Then there are the students who tell me “Oh, I dunno.  I spend an hour or two.”   Then they may complain that they have a learning disability.   ADD, depression and dyslexia can be overcome, but self-indulgent laziness are much harder to  deal with.    My ability to give a fuck is reserved for students who give a fuck about learning.

*grumblemumblelazyentitledgrumble*

So to all of my students:  the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with you.   I will work with you, but you have to be willing to work.

Mental illness is very real, but don’t let that stop you.

Spring Break, Adjunct Style!

Spring break is so close, and yet so far.

We’re in the last few weeks of Winter quarter.   We have a few brief weeks of respite before Spring quarter begins.

Spring break means party time!  And by party time, I mean unpaid overtime, preparing a schedule and lessons for an entire quarter, fielding frantic emails from students trying to negotiate on their grade from the previous quarter (and equally frantic students who want to take your class but didn’t register in time), as well as meetings, seminars, and other springtime fun activities.   If you’re very lucky, this time can also involve having lunch with some friends on a weekday, where you’ll hear how lucky you are to have an academic schedule with so much time off.

Who am I kidding?  I know I’ll find at least two days to binge watch Netflix and play Rocksmith.  I may even get through one of my creative projects.

Although it isn’t as much of a vacation for the teachers as it is for the students, I am looking forward to it.   There is a point in the quarter where students and teachers are under strain, final exams are looming, and a change of pace is very inviting.

Teaching is a high energy job, and breaks are necessary.

 

Coming next week:   Finals week playlist!

Teachable Moments

I’ve heard it said that every moment is a teachable moment.

Yeah, right.   Although one time I convinced a pair of proselytizers to read the Tao Te Ching.

Something that I find harder to deal with than another person’s ignorance is a persons unwillingness to examine their own evidence.   I realize that everyone has their own journey, and we have to make our own tools as we go along.   Teachers, parents, and others try to help smooth the path and offer up some alternate tools, ideas, and strategies for dealing with the world.   What isn’t always clear is whether those tools work for every situation.   Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are harmful.

Everyone can use some more tools.  I like the communities that question ideas, because it means that sooner or later bad ideas can be thrown out and replaced with better ones.   Surrounding yourself with like minded people may be comforting, but it doesn’t help with this process.

People are good at recognizing patterns, but they suck at statistics.

When someone hands you an idea (right or wrong) it is really easy for confirmation bias to creep in.   It feels good to have an answer.   This is why people think that horoscopes are true, or think that vaccines cause autism.   Having a bad day?   Mercury may be in retrograde.   Or you may be cursed.   Or fluoride in the water is making you feel sick.

When people spot a pattern, they look at things that confirm their hypotheses and often ignore things that go against their new found pattern.   Critical thinking isn’t easy.   Which is why people feel threatened when you tell them otherwise.

How often to people change their minds?

So… back to teachable moments.  No matter what, you cannot change another person’s mind.   You can only lay the groundwork for them to change their own mind.  Also remember: fear talks louder than reason for most folks.   Acknowledging the fear is good, and it can open the door to reason.

One of the things that is necessary is to get them thinking.  As much as we may want to say “You’re wrong, here is why,” that isn’t productive.   “I’d be happy to talk about that,” is a statement that actually opens people up.   Talking with people can have unintended consequences.   I’ve had to reevaluate some of my own beliefs… and I wouldn’t have if I had talked at people than with people.

 Learning from mistakes

I have an odd juxtaposition.   In private, or in writing I find myself aggressively going after another persons ideas and beliefs.   I’m relentless and sarcastic.    When I’m arguing with the phantom idea, I am loaded with weapons-grade-snark.   In person, manners and civility reign.

It is okay to change what you believe.   No one is immune to bad ideas.   I look on it as weeding my own garden of thoughts… bad ones will choke good ones if you let them.

Every moment is a teachable moment, but sometimes we are the ones who need to learn a lesson.

 

Teaching Dreams

My students share with me when they have math dreams.    Sometimes they make students anxious, some make students feel like they are smarter… I tell my students it is a reflection that they have math on the brain.   I don’t know how the theories of mind intersect with dreams, but I know that I had math frequently when I was in school.    It was pretty common for me to fall asleep over calculus that was stumping me, dreamed I was doing math,  then woken up gotten it right.

Generally my teaching dreams are pretty prosaic:  some simple anxiety dreams rehashing student discipline, or  imagining the first day, or even just dreaming of the homework burn barrel in class.

Last week I dreamed about waterboarding students at school with another teacher.   It was interesting, because the other teacher (in her teacher voice) was explaining in great detail:  (1) why waterboarding was torture and how it was morally repugnant; (2) how to effectively and efficiently waterboard.    We hooded and zip-tied a student to a table, tipped one end, applied water and… voilà.   We violated the human rights of a student.

So please, turn in your homework on time.

One of the other off-the-wall teaching dreams involve teaching students how to solve equations.   Whenever the students tried to divide by zero, they shot off into space.    I did use my scary teacher voice.

I like my brain.

Structure

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” Ralph Waldo Emerson

How often have you wanted to learn something, and just didn’t know how to proceed?   Or desire to get fit, but no real plan to do so.   I’ve heard people say they want to “learn naturally” and not want to have any barriers to their education.   And then they may complain as to not having appropriate material to suit their incredibly vague needs.

One of the barriers that a lot of students face is the necessity of structure.   From setting aside set times to meet and study, to a (hopefully organized) calendar of topics to cover.   Sprinkle in to that regular practice and some benchmarks and you can actually make progress towards learning something!

It goes way beyond classrooms though.   What do you do without a plan?   How well does that work out?   Even if you don’t stick to your plans, at least they give you a jumping off point. Once you have a pattern that you can learn from, you can then adapt it for other things!

Let me be absolutely clear: there is a world of difference between the regimented world that Emerson talked about, and the necessary structure of our daily lives.   Structure isn’t a straightjacket holding you back, but climbing harness… not comfortable but necessary.

(wow… I suck at analogy…)

I understand that freeform classrooms can be interesting.   I can see how a lot of emergent things can be created in a classroom, and some very interesting creative projects can happen as well. (But also notice: there is still an underlying classroom structure!   Muahahahaha!)

So with all due respect to Emerson, bite me.   Even creative people keep a schedule, and even consistent people can be misunderstood.

Let it Flow

There is a lot to be said for being detail oriented.   Big things are made up of little things, and little mistakes can bloom in to full blown disasters if you aren’t careful.    Details matter.     Sometimes though, focus on details can eclipse the creative flow of a process and make it joyless.

Have you ever played an instrument, and just thought exclusively of the notes you were playing?    My guess is that it didn’t sound very good.

Or have you run, and tried to focus on your form and gait?   Awkward, awkward, awkward!

Let alone talking to people.   Say you’re at a party and you see someone intriguing… and you go up and are focused so much on what you are going to say, that you end up  feeling like a total fool?

How does this relate to teaching?     As teachers, we often teach certain skills.   Whether it is constructing a sentence,  multiplying numbers, or deconstructing literature, the details of the process are often foremost in our minds.   There does come a point where we need to switch gears from the detail oriented to the overarching process.    Teaching confidence in newfound skills and just… going with the flow.

Letting goA couple of things need to happen before this transition from focus on details to overall process.   The first step is building trust in their abilities, followed by trust in the process.   Once a student sees that they are working from a solid foundation along workable lines, then it becomes much easier for them to relax into a greater process.   From the specifics to the general, students will learn to do big things made up of the little skills they have learned.  And it is so rewarding as you see those details click into place, transforming from mere knowledge and information into genuine understanding.

This is one of the things that I think we should keep in mind as teaching migrates toward recorded lectures and computerized drills.   Various media can demonstrate individual skills fairly well, but people will always need an overview for how those skills fit together.   Teachers are need to show how to see beyond the details and make the process flow into something that feels natural.   Or how to go from playing notes, to playing a song.

Only then do people find genuine joy.   When it moves away from laboring over details, and more about play.

As I write this, I’m also reminded to “let the details go” in my teaching from time to time, and just go with the flow.

 

Culture of Ignorance

“I just happen to like apples, and I’m not afraid of snakes.”  – Ani DiFranco

One thing that I’ve never understood is the desire to remain ignorant.

The notion of information or knowledge being dangerous just seems laughable to me.    You are not actually hurt by an idea.   You may have to wrap your head around new thoughts, you may need to revise your viewpoint of the world.   But the ultimate notion of learning things that are “forbidden” is foreign to me.   All you are doing is giving yourself a broader, more nuanced view of the world.

The worst thing that knowledge can do to you is make you uncomfortable.

Some ideas are at odds with each other.   This is the source of discomfort for many people.   This is because some ideas inherently have more merit than others… and of course some ideas may seem at odds with each other but may be unrelated and exclusive.     People also live with differing levels of cognitive dissonance every day:  if you ask a parent who doesn’t vaccinate their children why not, they will likely tell you that they don’t want their children to get sick.   (Irony, anyone?)

It is also okay if people know more than you.   Trying to convince someone that you know about something you don’t isn’t going to make you look better in the long run.   All it will do is make you seem insecure.    I love finding people who know more than I do.   It is so much fun to explore new ideas and to learn something outside my experience.

Here is the kicker for me:   some people do not want you to seek out other ideas.   The reason for this is that they may not feel secure in their own ideas, and need to try to foster their own faulty (although often comforting) ideas in an atmosphere of ignorance.   ANYONE who tries to control who you talk to, what you read, or what to think is trying to control you for their own sakes.   Any person or organization who cuts off discussion like this is controlling at best, and maliciously abusive at worst.     I have literally lost family members because of this kind of abuse, and I find it abhorrent.

This is part of why I teach.

I want people to be able to explore ideas freely.

I want people to be able to think for themselves, and make up their minds independently.

I want people to value knowledge over ignorance.

 

 

Okay, just to warn you, I’m going to get a little rant out of my system:

 

</begin RANT>

Stupid should hurtOne thing that really pisses me off is when people deliberately cloak themselves in ignorance.    The notion of “what I don’t know won’t hurt me” is probably something that was popular on Easter Island.    Denying information doesn’t change it.   All it does is move you from the category of naive to stupid.   At best it is intellectually dishonest.

Now I don’t have anything against faith.   We all have unjustified beliefs about one thing or another.   But here are my criteria:   belief in something without proof is faith, belief in something with proof is knowledge, and belief in something in contradiction to proof is stupidity.

I got MAJORLY pissed off at the supreme court Hobby Lobby decision last week.   They elevated one groups religious opinions over scientific facts, and let the religious  belief trump the rights of others.   I feel like we have our Plessy vs Ferguson court decision for our generation.

Know any nice, liberal countries in need of a kick-ass math professor?   I’m starting to shop.

</end RANT>

 

Be well, everyone.

And remember to use your powers for whatever you want to.   They’re your powers!

Unlearn some lessons your mom taught you…

Over the Winter break, I got into an argument over whether we should care about what other people think.    It started with one family member rallying other family members against an innocent party, and things turned ugly (not that family fights are ever pretty).

It went a little like this.

Other person, giving ‘advice’ to the person who had actually been living with the problem:  “I raise my kids not to care what other people think.   I tell them ‘If someone else is judging you, you don’t want them around anyway’.”

To which I had to reply, “That isn’t always true, a person’s reputation does matter.”

She repeated, “I raise my kids not to care what other people think.   They’ve turned out okay so far.”

“But how people perceive us impacts how well we can communicate, and how well our emotional support network works.”   I gestured to our now arguing companions.

She repeated, “I raise my kids not to care what other people think.   They’ve turned out okay so far.”

“You aren’t listening to anything I’m saying.   I’m going to stop talking to you now.”

Understandably, developing self-identity and self esteem is extremely important.   I admit that in certain times and places we should disregard the opinions of others, but to say that it is always true is naive at best.   While this is a tactic that may work on a playground, it sure as hell won’t cut it in the business world.   Or a courtroom.   I certainly hope that this woman’s children outgrow these lessons and take a more nuanced approach to the world.

The most glaring problem with the “don’t care” philosophy is the fact that humans are social animals.   One of the reasons that humans are an apex species is because we cooperate!    It is hardwired in us to CARE about our fellow humans, and to crave social contact.   Shunning was one of the oldest known punishments, and another reason why people labeled as a “pariah” or “loner”  are considered sad, lonely, or dangerous.   “Slander” and “Libel” are crimes for a reason.

So here are my lists of when to care, and when you are free to invite the other party to urinate into a moving fan:

When to care:

  1.  When another person’s opinion directly affects your physical safety.  (i.e. don’t piss off judges, cops, or your ER doctor).
  2.  When another person’s opinion affects your career or profession. (Be on good terms with your boss if you can, as well as the accounting staff, and the folks in HR if you ever want to get paid regularly).
  3.  When another person’s opinion adversely affects your CHOSEN support network.  (Some folks will lie and try to alienate you from important people… like your kids, your friends, or your teammates.).
  4. When someone you trust and respect is trying to give you feedback about your behavior.  (“Hey, you might not want to drink so much.”)

When not to care:

  1. If a person’s opinion does not impact your physical, professional, or opinion of your ingroup.      -OR-
  2. A person’s good or bad opinion is causing you harm (like supporting addictions, abuse, or codependency)
  3. A person is actively forcing their opinion on you, disregarding your own opinions.
  4. Someone is being demeaning, being offensive, or being a bully.

Ignoring bullies on the playground or a school is one thing.   They are trying to bolster themselves at your expense, and supporting their behavior is a horrible idea.   Incidentally, dealing with bullies takes more than a SINGLE technique (some bullies, ignoring them doesn’t help).   Bullies are individuals, too.

(As for folks who want to bring me or my family down:   thank you for your opinions.   May I offer you this invitation to go piss into a moving fan?)

But reaching out to people is a good thing.

I like people.   People are fun.  And tasty.