Day One: So Much to Learn!

This past Thursday I attended my first class at Teachers College, and let me tell you, it was quite the experience.  I learned so much in 100 minutes of class time that I needed two days to fully process it all…and that was from one class!  I’m gonna need a bigger brain.

I had thought that the class I attended, Mathematics for Childhood Education, would be a long lecture about how we were to manipulate the brains of our little charges so that they could better grasp the concepts we were about to cram into their heads.  That notion was shattered within the first ten minutes of the class—it was our brains that would be manipulated.

Our preconceived notions about how children feel and think were challenged when the instructor gave us a “do now” exercise.  That’s right, a quiz…on Day One! 

“Carol bought some items at the deli.  All the items she bought were the same price, and she bought as many of the items as the price of the items in cents (for example, if items costs two cents each, she bought two of them for a total of $0.04.  Or if she chose items costing eight cents, she would have bought eight of them.)  Her bill was $2.25.  How many items did she buy?”

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“Oh my…maybe I’m overthinking this problem a bit…”

After giving the class a few minutes to do the word problem, the instructor asked how we felt about having been given the test.  Not surprisingly, the class reported various levels of anxiety.

Our first lesson: Kids are anxious about taking tests, just as we were at that moment.

When the instructor asked how we arrived at the solution to the problem, most gave algebraic formulas, the deconstruction of square numbers or other methods gained through higher learning in order to arrive at the answer.  One answer brought a wide smile to the instructor’s face: a student simply counted up from one until she reached the answer (15 items at 15 cents each).

Our second lesson: Kids don’t use complicated equations to solve problems.

Later, we were broken up into groups, with each group solving a different word problem.  Rather than simply having one person in the group come up with the answer, the group worked together, comparing strategies on how they arrived at the answer.  In most cases, the simplest strategy made the most sense.  Other methods were used to check and double-check answers.  And since the group had to explain how it arrived at the answer to the rest of the class, the simplest way proved to be the easiest to communicate.  In this manner, the group worked together to find the solution, with each member of the group contributing either a different strategy or a concern about the outcome.

Our third lesson: Kids work best when they share information in order to resolve a problem.

As the class continued, we all seemed to pick up on the main theme of the session: children learn the way children learn, not the way adults learn, so we cannot teach them as if we are teaching adults.  This brought me back to the “Growing Down” article I wrote here awhile back; as prospective educators, we cannot expect kids to grasp concepts that we ourselves learned (and in some cases, re-learned) years past their grade level.  It is up to us to understand their thought processes and problem-solving abilities. 

For me, that was the key in solving many of the homework problems we were given.  Rather than using algebra immediately to discern whether a sequence of numbers were arithmetic or geometric, I simply counted the differences between the numbers in each example.  The algebra came to be understood once I had a grasp of how the differences could be put into a formula.  In other words, there was a progression to how I learned..

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Don’t worry, kid…we’ll have you spouting the Fibonacci sequence before lunch!

I’ve been shown how education has changed drastically from the days when I was in elementary school (think pre-disco!).  I am also glad to see my assumptions on how we should reach children was correct; that we should reach them on their level, so that they can relate to the material, even if it gives them a little discomfort.  We should not sell them short—they can work together to solve problems just as we adults can (maybe better than we can, I think!).

One class.  All this came out of just one class.  I have three other classes, and nearly four months to go before this semester ends.  If you see someone’s head spontaneously explode on a YouTube video somewhere, it will probably be mine.

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Guest Post: “A New Way of Thinking”

Hello gentle readers!  While I’m recovering from a cold (brought on by Mother Nature having another bipolar episode earlier this week), I’ve invited a guest contributor to the blog.  I have the honor and privilege of being a co-mentor with Indy Smith at MCNY, and asked her to submit one of her works.  As you’ll see, the word “dazzling” goes far beyond simply describing her smile.  Here she shows how education has given her “a new way of thinking” that extends past the realm of academia.

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The many faces of Indy Smith

I believe that as Humans we have the tendency to be “swept up” in the concept of self-conservation. We believe that there is little wrong with ourselves according to personal standards and feel no need for change. -At least this is was the case with me-  Knowledge is power, and it was only through the knowledge I accreted to attending college that I had the power to attain personal aggrandizement. Through one of my elementary Psychology courses, Psychology 231 (Group, Values and Norms), I was able to attain knowledge of the behavior and thought processes of others and myself, to ameliorate myself.

As the detached observer I often had the tendency to view a situation and attribute adverse characteristics to the disposition of others, without knowing the full impact of the situation. Psychology 231 has taught me that this is defined as the fundamental attribution error, where we may tend to over emphasize the situational factors and underemphasize dispositional factors. I’ve since learned to be patient and not hasty in the judgment of the character of others. It’s easy to come to conclusions without knowing the full extent of the influence that a situation may have on someone’s decisions. A professor might be very professional at work, because their profession demands it, but very laid back at home with their family. This understanding calls for the situation to always be taken into consideration before judging someone’s personality.

I have always surrounded myself with like-minded individuals–people from my background; who share the same thoughts and beliefs–in order to inhibit conflicts and feuds that come with differences. My ignorance becomes evident when we examine a situation where having like minds inhibits criticism. Criticism, as ugly a word as it may sound, is essential for self-improvement. Having a difference of opinions brings insight to things that individuals of a similar mindset may have not considered. This, according to Psychology 231, is the concept of groupthink; a tendency for similar individuals to share the prevailing ideologies and thoughts of their social group. There is no room for criticism if everyone tends to agree on the same decisions. Whether the group is right or wrong is based solely on the concept, as a social class, of what’s acceptable behavior. However what a particular group considers as acceptable may not be acceptable in the eyes of society when compared to traditional moral standards. I’ve since learned to surround myself with many different individuals from many different backgrounds. It’s benefitted me tremendously in making decisions that are weighed thoroughly.

These are only minor examples of where the power that derives from knowledge denounces contemporary individual behavior. It’s said “if you knew better, you’d do better”; now I can attest to the accuracy of this statement due to the personal development I’ve achieved through furthering my education. I can now stress the importance of certain rudimentary courses in college that make up the whole education process. With the knowledge relayed to me, from what may be perceived as a arbitrary class, I can proudly acknowledge a “New Way of Thinking,” that I’ve adopted, and can never fully state it’s entirety with mere words.

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It’s Indy…at Work!

Indy Smith is the co-host of “The Quiet Storm”, WBLS-FM’s legendary radio show.  She also hosts her own talk show on the same station, “The Reality of Love”.  Visit her at itsindyonline.com.

Move Over, Emily Litella!

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Miss Emily Litella…she puts the “Miss” in misunderstanding.

In the early days of Saturday Night Live, their “Weekend Update” segment would have occasional appearances by Emily Litella (Gilda Radner), a schoolmarm-ish editorialist who would give stinging opinions on a variety of topics while squinting menacingly at the camera.  Unfortunately, Miss Litella was hearing-impaired, so her rants were hilariously directed at the wrong targets (protecting natural “racehorses” instead of natural resources, for example).  When told of her error, Miss Litella would half-heartedly apologize to the news anchor (Chevy Chase or Jane Curtin), and then to the audience…”Never mind!”  Take a look at one of her escapades here…then come back.

Okay, now that you got the gist…I had my own Emily Litella moment today, and I’d like to share it with you…as embarrassed as I am to admit it.

The instructor for my Social Studies class sent us the outline for her class this afternoon; after reading the first couple of paragraphs, I was shocked…shocked, I tell you!  While she described how the class was going to delve deep into the exclusionary tactics faced by many students (racism, classism, religious/non-religious discrimination, etc.), the focus of the class would be on the role of atheism and how its prevalence affects education in the United States.

Atheism??  Wait…there’s a culture of atheism that had led to the promotion of exclusion in the United States?  Was atheism being compared to racism, sexism and the like in keeping minorities, the disabled and the LGBT community from attending the good schools?  Did my professor have an agenda of spreading anti-atheist propaganda amongst the student body at Teachers College?

A look at the syllabus gave me further pause: the two main projects for the course, of which I had to choose one, focused on showing how anti-atheist procedures could be created and implemented in the classrooms of elementary schools.  That’s right, we had to come up with ways to debunk the debunkers before they got their hands on our precious little sheep…er, children!

As an atheist myself, I was appalled!  I was livid!  Hell, I was burnt!  I was ready to fire off a letter of protest to this instructor!  How could she possibly teach a class in inclusion and fairness, while forcing us to participate in anti-atheist activities?  That was beyond hypocritical!  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became, until I was about to transfer out of her class altogether.

I checked the course catalog to see if there were any other options, but there were none, meaning I would have to suffer through this indignity in order to get the necessary credits for my degree.  I would have to swallow my pride and muddle through as best I can, all the while wrestling with the internal emotional struggle faced by my personal morals.  How could such a prestigious university endorse such a horrible class…one that puts the souls of the majority against the beliefs of the few, and discriminates against the non-believer while it champions the efforts of those who fight against all other forms of discrimination?   I was so beside myself, I was ready to go to my advisor and file a formal protest…

…then I read my syllabus again, this time on my 27” iMac.  Oh dear.

Umm…it appears I made a little mistake.  I saw atheism where it actually reads ableism.  Ableism?  I didn’t even know that was a word!  Even as I type this, MS Word has it underlined in red.  I had to look it up.

“Well, that’s very different.  I’m sorry….that’ll never happen again.”

So…what’s the moral of the story?   If you’re a person who is sensitive to an issue, be VERY careful not to see a problem concerning that issue where there is none.  Misreading a single word could have cause a truckload of problems for me, not the least of which would have been being labeled the class idiot even before the class started.  Before we set off to fight against an idea or a perceived attack on our values, be sure that what you’re about to attack is an attack at all—it could very well be a defense, or a strong offense in your favor.  Learning how those with disabilities are given the short end of the stick when it comes to education is something I should pay very close attention to…especially considering the fact that I myself am visually-impaired.

In the words of Emily Litella…“Never mind.”

Mentoring: Experiential Teaching in Action

Some of the members of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program at MCNY, 2013

Some of the members of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program at MCNY, 2013

While waiting for classes to begin at Teachers College, I’m serving as a graduate member of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program (MLDP). at my previous home, MCNY.  One of the great things about doing so is that, while we are always helping students learn new things, we also get to learn new things…even things we’ve been doing all along.

One such lesson came near the end of the last semester.  A student came to us asking about experiential learning—the process of “learning by doing”.  While we were giving examples of this process, one of the mentors asked, “Is there such a thing as experiential teaching?”

That question had us scratching our heads.  Can a person teach “experience”?  Would they simply be using their experiences as anecdotal references in order to inspire their students to follow their example?  Or can a person use their experience ‘in the moment’—that is, can someone reproduce the same conditions in which they learned a skill, and help guide a student through that same experience?

In her blog article, Jen Stanchfield notes that experience is an idea that not only can be used as a learning experience, but a teaching one as well.  While the idea of experiential education is not new (see John Dewey and David Kolb), its use as a teaching methodology has been gaining in popularity, especially at the college level.  Stanchfield tells us that people learn best when they are part of the learning process (what Dewey called active learners) rather than simply being fed information and tested on whether it stuck (passive learners).  She takes Dewey’s idea and puts it into the 21st century, citing studies by Sousa (2005) and Willis (2010) that show learning and retention are improved when the learner is fully engaged (physically, emotionally, and socially) in the learning process.

As mentors, we aim to make the student (the “mentee”) an active participant in the mentoring process.  It would be easy to just give the mentee the answer to a question and see if he or she remembers it later, but that would just be parroting.  Because of the wide range of subjects and the diversity of our student base, we try to use the method that works best with each student, as no one method works for everyone.  That said, however, the one that works most often is the use of prior experience.

Since all mentors are either current or former students of MCNY, our experiences with assignments or projects are still pretty fresh; thus, we can recall what steps were taken to reach the desired goal.

When a mentee comes to us seeking assistance, we draw upon that experience and use it as a guideline to help them solve the problem.  It is very important to note that we do not do the work for the mentee; we show them how the work is done, asking if they understand the steps needed to finish the process.  In this way, the mentees can work at their own pace, rather than that of the class.  They are part of the process every step of the way, from their first contact with the mentor to the completion of the task at hand and beyond.  They have invested their presence, time, effort and (in most cases) pride to make sure they succeed; it is not mandatory, so for them the reward is well worth the risk.

For the mentor, the reward comes in learning how best to usewhat we have learned in order tohelp others succeed as we have—not by lecturing them,but by guiding themthrough each step of the process.  In doing so, we gain such gifts as patience, attention to detail, improved communication skills, and above all, teaching.

Can you spot the error in this shirt?

So yes, there is such a thing as experiential teaching.  It can be seen in many areas, from the play areas of kindergartens to college internships to workplace apprenticeships.  Whether we realize it or not, it also appears daily at the MLDP.