The Fear–and the Power–of Change

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Discrimination by any other name is just as rancid.

What is it that defines a person as an individual?  It is how he sees himself or herself in the world?  Or is it how the world sees him or her?  Is there a particular condition or mannerism or peculiarity or talent or quality that makes a person stand out from others?  If there is, by what standard is that concept judged, and by whom?  Is that what makes a person good or bad, righteous or evil, kind or cruel, beautiful or ugly, “abled” or “disabled”?  Can someone be considered successful despite having imperfections, or deemed a failure though seeming perfectly normal?  And what is “normal”, anyway?  Who gets to decide?  And what if a person far exceeds or is far below that definition?

            As sad as this may sound, I did not pay much attention to many of those questions in the past.  No, let me rephrase that: when those questions came up in conversation or in thought, I would rarely if ever put myself as the subject.   Now, however, it seems I am asking myself these questions practically every day.  And with every new reading assignment, new questions come up about how I see myself, my community and the world around me—past, present and future.  My head hurts from all the information being poured into it, but at least I am getting answers—whether I like them or not.

            I believe the first real smack of reality I experienced in my “Disability in Contexts” class–and at Teachers College in general–came from our discussions and readings regarding eugenics.  In one of those readings, Snyder & Mitchell (2006) looked at the rise of eugenics, the explosion of entire medical, sociological and institutional efforts to cure or treat “idiots”, “morons” and the “feeble-minded”, and the wide-ranging effects of eugenics on American society from the late 1800s to today.  It was a difficult read, disheartening and stomach-churning yet wholly valid when you consider the ramifications.  The belief that those with “deficiencies” could be cured, rehabilitated or outright euthanized in order to prevent the spread of “human debasement” sounds almost nonsensical at first, but in light of such strong evidence—from well-meaning but misguided medical and psychological theories to the creation of institutions to the actions of apartheid and genocide—the concept of eugenics quickly moves from the absurd to the frighteningly real.  Adding to this horror was the fact that it was actually done here in America, home of the “all men are created equal” credo.  Whenever I hear this line, I am always reminded of one of Napoleon’s re-written “rules” from Orwell’s Animal Farm (1948):

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For eugenicists, even that statement isn’t enough.

            I don’t mean to sound naïve; I have seen how cruel human beings can be to each other, both from a distance and up close, where their differences are concerned.  Whether it was watching young black men and women being hosed on TV as a child, or bemoaning the outcome of the recent “stand your ground” cases in Florida, I have seen that discrimination is just a prevalent (and more tangible) than what we learned in our history books about slavery.  I have been the target of slurs from both blacks and whites as a child, and until recently had trouble finding my place in the socioeconomic landscape.  When I tell people that I am disabled, or someone takes notice of my “dancing eyes” (nystagmus), people tend to apologize or look at me with curiosity, as if I was suddenly stricken with a curable malady which caused some disfigurement or other impairment to what used to be a perfectly healthy body.  Telling people I was born with my eyes like that (one of the many “symptoms” of albinism) only makes the pity deepen and curiosity grow.  When you add the fact that I come from a multi-ethnic background, have poor eyesight, am overweight, well into my middle-aged years, unemployed, unmarried, and without children…well, the eugenicists would be lining up to put me down in the name of God—oh wait, I’m also an atheist, so that would most likely add more fuel to the already towering inferno.

            I had come across the topic of eugenics before, but only as a side note while discussing Darwin’s Origin of the Species in one of my sociology classes.  In our class, however, eugenics was laid out in all its ugliness—not just for its anti-racial aspects, but as a whole vile entity, covering the spectrum of what hegemony aimed to create.  While Snyder & Michelle’s (2006) article laid the groundwork, other readings—most notably Smith’s (2008) argument that the eugenics movement did not end with the fall of Hitler, and Baker’s (2002) exploration of how eugenics shaped America’s “special education” system—enhanced my knowledge of the subject and to what degree it has (and continues to) affect our lives.  Looking at the effects of eugenics also helped to better understand terms such as “ableism” and “disabled”—the latter being far more complex (especially when pitted against the concept of “normal”) than I previously thought.

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The fallacy that is the “normal curve”

            Armed with this knowledge, I have begun to look at myself—and how others see me—in a different way.  I try not to play the “disabled card”, much as I disdain the use of the “race card”, when identifying myself.  I go about my life as I normally would, but now I can see why there are stares of disbelief if I do something like pull out a magnifying glass to read a menu in a dimly-lit restaurant.  When I see kids in a public school get less funding and poorer-quality technical and faculty support than their more affluent—and less “deficient” peers, I know that it’s not simply a case of “rich vs. poor”, but “power vs. powerless.”  And while my own disabilities do not come with accessories like canes, walkers, hearing aids and such, it by no means proves I am more or less “fortunate” than those who uses such items.    Unfortunately, I do not get to dictate how others see me, or react to me.  For better or worse, understanding their point of view helps me to better relate to them.  Understanding my own point of view—where it comes from, what stereotypes I play into or beliefs I need to change–helps me to better understand myself.

            I can better understand that everyone has differing levels of “disability” or “ability”, just as there are no living, breathing “normal” people.  As Dudley-Marling & Gurn (2010) theorize, the “normal curve” is a fallacy.  Those who use standard deviation to assess how far above or below the mean a person’s given characteristic must understand two very important things: 1) “normal” is a relative term, defined only by those who coin their own definition of what “normal” is; and 2) most people fall below the norm, such that the “true” norm is substandard to what the definers would suggest.  As such, what you end up with is a group of people who believe they are not only “normal”, but above the norm—or elite.

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“Hmph!”

            Whether part of the One Percent of America’s social hierarchy; a genetically or surgically-enhanced symbol of beauty or athletic excellence; an elected or self-appointed leader who believes his or her position was the result of divine order; or one of Dr. Seuss’ star-bellied sneetches (Geisel, 1961), those who follow the idea of eugenics (or any euphemism it may be known as today) are anything but normal—they are the true outliers, the real abnormals…the very things they are trying to eradicate.  They would not exist without having someone to compare themselves to—their interpretation of “deficient”.  Yet they cannot see this: perhaps they have their own “deficiency”—which even an “idiot” can diagnose as “moral blindness”.

            I have learned more in nearly a half-semester of this class than I have in five semesters of sociology and most of my educational life combined.  While the reading may be over-abundant, deep and often harsh, it is also challenging, enlightening and viscerally real.  It not only arms us to understand how power is gained (or lost)—especially in terms of “ableism”, but how such power can be taken apart, examined, and reconstituted in order to give power to the powerless.  The Law of Conservation of Energy states that power cannot be created or destroyed, only converted.  After this class is done, I hope to have learned enough to be a very “able” power converter.

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Can We Teach the REAL American History?

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

“Sherman, my boy, I’m afraid this may be a problem even we can’t solve!”

“History”…to me, it was probably the moldiest word in the English language.  “Social Studies” would rank a close second, if not for the fact that it is actually two words.  Anytime someone started talking about anything “historical”, my mind pictured Mr. Peabody and Sherman—a brilliant dog and his adopted pet boy, respectively—setting the date on Peabody’s “WABAC Machine” and setting off to correct fractured versions of past events, often using similarly and anachronistically fractured means (Ward, 1959).  As funny as those cartoons were, it seems they were prophetically congruent to the history we’ve been taught in elementary and middle school; it too was mostly fractured, if not completely incorrect.  I’d like to step into the WABAC Machine myself and look at how history has been shown to us; how it differed from what I learned outside of the school setting; and how my experiences have affected (and will affect) how I teach in the future.

Being as I had spent very little time in elementary school (attending parts of the fourth and sixth grades), my experiences with history at those levels were in short bursts.  My main sources of education came from old books, movies, television, or stories from my grandparents.  Even so, something about the lessons I learned at the time did not seem to fit in with the reality of the world of the early 1970s.

Cristobal Colon

@ChrisColon: “Google Maps? Hah! I know EXACTLY where I’m going!” smh! #wrongwaystupid

In school, we were told that “we” always won…”we” meaning America as a whole.  Even when we fought ourselves, “we” won.  Places were “discovered” or “won”, and their peoples “conquered” or “freed” (after being enslaved by the very same “conquerors”, of course).  History was, to use one of my mom’s favorite terms, “color-struck”—it always seemed to favor White European (and later White American) males over all others.  We were taught famous people, places, events and dates to memorize and parrot back; many even had their own little mnemonic devices (HOMES for the Great Lakes, for example).  The sad part about the whole affair was that there was no “me” there.  Sure, there was a lot of American history, but it happened either before I was born or in places I only heard about in class or on TV or in movies.  Considering the “current events” of the day, one would think there would be all kinds of questions raised by the students, or even brought into the classrooms by the teachers.  As Cowhey (2006) rightly points out, however, there was no room for controversy in the curriculum (p. 12). When you brought in your own information, it was censored and re-edited to fit the mold, never to deviate from it.

I wanted to deviate.  I wanted to know why I could have friends who were Hispanic and Jewish (both Orthodox and Hassidic), and many different kinds of “Black”, while the news showed everyone else fighting and hating each other.  I wondered why real people lived in crowded, run-down buildings while everyone outside of New York lived like “The Brady Bunch”, in nice houses with two-car garages.  I wanted to know why going to the moon was so important if no one could live there.  I wanted to know if people like me who didn’t believe in God could still pledge allegiance to the flag.  We never talked about food stamps, though most of us had them; or teenagers, who were our older siblings or cousins or “aunties”, having babies; or why our fathers or uncles came back “wrong” after being in “the ‘Nam”.  The word “holocaust” was something we heard from the “crazy cat lady”, because no one else wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to know so many things, but was told what I was told, and told to repeat what I was told, and told to write it ten times in my composition book so I wouldn’t forget it.  I was told that we were “one nation, under God, indivisible”; yet, we always seemed to be divided about something, including God.  I wanted to know why, but I wasn’t told.

As with hooks (2010), we seemed destined to remain placed within our socioeconomic status, both by the educational system and by our own local society.  We were expected to succeed at the passing level; anything more than the teachers met with surprise and enthusiasm.  However, getting high marks also brought scorn and taunts (if not beatings) from other students.  Girls were especially fearful of standing out, lest they lose their popularity with their friends and the positive attention of boys.  The idea of going to college was never brought up in class, even during middle school.  We were simply primed to get through high school (or get our GEDs) and get whatever jobs we could…or remain on welfare.  Our parents weren’t rich or famous or in political power, so unless we were very lucky, there seemed no point to look past the next grade.

If there were students who had a physical disability or psychological illness, we didn’t see them at our school, though they definitely existed in our community.  I myself am visually impaired, but not totally blind—I was a curiosity to my fellow students, but I managed to avoid the “special classes” label by fitting in and doing my work.

Stepping back into 2014, I was surprised to find out how much had changed in terms of what is being taught in schools—and what still is not—since the days of disco.  Unfortunately, there is so much yet to be taught; things that fall outside the “teacher-proof” textbooks of our curriculum (Cowhey, 2006; p. 12).  How are we supposed to teach our children about freedom, fairness, justice, equality, ableism and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when what is taught to us—and what we see in the real world—tends to contradict all of these “American” ideals?  We all deserve to learn the true way of things, but at what price?  At what age is it okay to expose a child to the song “Strange Fruit”, with its poetic yet grisly depiction of a Black man hanging from a tree?  How do we get children to relate to child armies in Somalia or school shootings here at home?  Can we get a child whose family lives on EBT to understand how people survived the Dust Bowl or the Potato Famine?  Or that the chances of getting a good job after obtaining a college degree are far better than signing a multi-million-dollar sports contract or being the next big entertainment star?

We could do the radical thing—ask the children.  Regardless of the era, children have always been curious about the world around them.  They also have their own history—their own “social studies”—that they can share from, learn about, and compare to those of their classmates (Jones, Pang & Rodriguez, 2001; Levstik & Barton, 2011).  In this age of instant-access information, students need to be able to understand the events that shape their lives.  My goal as a teacher is to do for them what my teachers had not done for me—help them to find answers in ways they can comprehend.  I want to help them find ways to connect those facts to the present, or vice-versa; that they matter in the grand scheme of things, and that they won’t need to step into the WABAC Machine to see history as relevant, interesting, and fun.

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.

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.

The Intimidation Factor

College is a scary place.  It’s scary in the same way that crazy old man’s house at the dark end of the street is scary.  It’s like the silhouette of the immense castle in the dark, with bats flying around in the moonlight.  It’s scary because you haven’t been there before—it’s an unknown.  Until you take that first step on your adventure, you will always be afraid.

 College can be very intimidating, what with the size of the campus, the amount of classwork and the high cost of tuition involved.  Add the expectations of attending a “name” university, especially from friends and family, and it can be a terrifying experience indeed.  I could not help recalling my own sense of intimidation the first time I stepped off the “1” train at 116th Street—pardon me, at the Columbia University station.

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That was the first clue that I may have been out of my element.  Unlike many other station markers, the name of the school wasn’t simply displayed on a black-and-white destination sign, or even on one of the rarely-seen grey site markers used by the MTA; no, the name of the school was spelled out in marble tile, as if the station was assigned to the college itself.  Since Columbia pre-dates the station by 250 years, it’s no wonder that the university seal and school colors figure prominently in the station’s design.  If that wasn’t enough, a sizeable number of passengers clad in all manner of Columbia blue gear let me know what this place was all about. It was a college town within a single neighborhood; a neighborhood that wasn’t mine.

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Once you exit the station, you are smack-dab in the middle of academia—the west gate of Columbia, complete with Roman scholar statues, bid you entry on one side of Broadway, while the imposing dark gates of Barnard College await you across the street.  The collection of buildings that line the street was a mix of ancient and modern, with the former definitely holding sway.  Looking uptown, the Union Theological Seminary adds a feeling of reverence to the place, its white and grey stones standing out against the browns and reds of the other buildings.

Taking all of this in, I immediately felt overwhelmed.  It must be understood that I was coming from a college whose entire Manhattan campus takes up a floor and three-quarters of a single office building, so please allow me my feeling of oh-my-gawdness.  I dared not enter the gates; first because my own destination was a little further north, but mainly because I felt I was not allowed to do so.  I was not a student yet, nor a relative or a faculty member or a visiting professor or guest speaker or janitor or whatever.  The sheer size and grandeur of the place both enticed and terrified me, so much so that I even kept a wide berth between myself and the walls along my path.

When I finally did reach my destination, I had to take a step back—no, I actually had to cross the street first, then take a step back—to take in the enormity of Teachers College.  The photos on the website and brochures did not do the place justice, let me tell you!  If Harry Potter and company had come out of the main building (Zankel Hall) dressed in robes and carrying brooms, I would not have batted an eye; the place instantly reminded me of Hogwarts, both in size and architectural style.  The fact that it sat along one of the widest two-way streets I’d ever seen seemed to make all the sense in the world; it was probably a moat back in the late 1800s.  The dark, heavy exterior of the buildings helped to enhance the feeling of antiquity, which always seems to ramp any academic facility up a few notches on the credibility scale.  The only thing missing was the ivy…and maybe a dragon.

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Once inside the main building, the 21st century made its presence known right away; a large touchscreen display sat across from the main doors, providing quick information and directions in the nine-building, interconnected maze that incorporates Teachers College.  While the doors themselves seemed heavy and ornate, they also had modern glass and ADA-mandated access information.  Students and faculty passed through security by means of a keycard system.  All this technology was dwarfed by the words displayed in italics above the security desk:

“I believe that education is the fundamental means of social progress and reform” – John Dewey, 1897.

That was it.  That was the moment I think I fell in love with Teachers College, and by extension with Columbia University.  No longer had I felt out of place or overwhelmed by it all, because we had something in common; our belief in the power of education.  Seeing that quote made me feel that I could do well here; that it wasn’t about the centuries old architecture or the amazing statues or the awesome wood paneling or the cushy-comfy student lounge…it was about education, first and foremost, to be learned and to be taught.  It was about a place with over 125 years of history pushing its students to the forefront of the new millennium, generations leading the next.  I wanted to be a part of this.

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A year later, I have yet to see all of the nooks and crannies of Teachers College, and there are many new and exciting things to see in Columbia as a whole.  While I still have a sense of awe about the place, I am excited to see what awaits me.

That old house doesn’t seem so scary now, does it?

CAN’T – ‘T = CAN!

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The world is ready for you…are you ready for the world?

Winston Churchill once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  In terms of one’s academic future, that statement could be amended to include the fear of success.  As students, I believe most of us are conditioned to reach only so high; to be just good enough to pass a given class. When we get that B or the ever-elusive A, we stare slack-jawed at the instructors as if they had some kind of temporary insanity.  Not because they gave us the grade–it was probably hard-earned, and we thank them for noticing–but now they have put us in the unenviable position of having to justify their judgment by getting another B or A.  Yes, the bar has been raised: can we now raise ourselves to match it?  More importantly, do we want to?

As I write this, I am sitting in the Grace Dodge Dining Room at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Even on an early November evening, the place is packed with students cramming for this paper or that presentation.  Here, amid the smell of Asian BBQ ribs and beef fajita paninis, I feel a bit confused.  On the one hand, conversations have a casual, almost happy hour type of feel about them.   On the other hand, those having the dialogue are pouring over documents on their laptops or tablets while putting what they can in their mouths between sentences.  Anyone sitting alone is only here long enough to eat, skim and run…maybe to his or her next class.

The most amazing thing—to me, anyway—is the smiles on everyone’s faces.  This is an Ivy League institution, where most of these students are expected to be at the top of their game.  Rather than cower in the 125-year-old corners of most of the buildings from the pressure of such high academic standards, they smile and laugh and eat and work and run off to the next class.  No fear, no pressure, no mental breakdowns to be seen in this bunch.

How did they go from “C is cool for me” to “A or Nothing!”?  One explanation could be that this is simply not the average “C” crowd—this could be what happens when you bring a bunch of academic overachievers together.  They’re confident in their ability to get the work done, on time and in a scholarly fashion, because they’re used to doing so.  They may have come from prep schools and other high-end facilities where excellence was nurtured and appreciated, thus giving them the room to aim higher without a lack of self-confidence.  This is their pool, and they’re doing the backstroke.

While I considered myself a pretty good student, I come here and hear the conversations, and feel like I’ve missed a few semesters.  There is someone playing a fairly loose medley of classical tunes, and I look at my hands as if they’re broken.  I am easily older, if not twice as old, as most of the people in this dining hall; yet, I hear them discussing topics that seem to be years ahead of me.

Can I succeed here?  Can I raise my skills to this level?  I was considered an overachiever at MCNY, but that was because many of the students were at “C”-level.  No disrespect meant to my current alma mater, but picking out the top students in each class was almost as easy as spotting Siamese cats at a dog show.  When I became part of the Mentor and Leadership Development Program there, I was surrounded by talented, like-minded people who came to me for help, even though some of them could run rings around me in their given specialties.  Now I am the one looking for help.  I am new to a school where the bar is raised so high, only the best academic high-jumpers can clear it.

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“Now get out there, and don’t suck!”

The Ivy League is to education what the Major Leagues is to baseball.  I have been drafted by one of the top teams, and soon it will be my turn to take the field.  Just having the skills will not cut it here; as with any top level, one has to have the desire and the confidence to match those skills.  I have the desire, but the confidence wanes with every passing day.  Opening Day jitters?  Of course.  More to the point, it’s fear of success.  If I throw a strike on the first pitch, I might feel like I have to keep throwing strikes until the game ends.  If I win the first, I will have to win the second, and the third, and the fourth…and the rest.

I know this isn’t really the case, but that is the mind of the overachiever.  Win or fail.  “Good enough” is never good enough.  In order for me to get through this, I’m going to have to learn whatever it is that these good people in the dining room have learned to have such a cool amount of self-efficacy.  It may just be that I have to quiet the voices of doubt and pay attention to what I have achieved.  I AM here, after all.  I wouldn’t be if it someone thought I were incapable.  I once did a speech in one of my classes about how a lack of self-efficacy can be your biggest weakness.  “CAN’T minus ‘T equals CAN!  You’ve done it before, so you can do it again.  The only one stopping you…is you!”  Maybe it’s time for me to listen to my own words.

My Ivy League season starts January 22nd, 2014.  Until then, I’ll be warming up in the bullpen.

NaNoWriMo 2013: Want to Write a Novel?

I participated for this back in 2010, and really enjoyed it! My characters have been begging me to set them free, so I think this is the best time to do so. If you’re a writer–or just like writing–give it a shot…1667 words a day is all it takes!

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It’s just a few days until November, and you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month, better known ’round these parts as NaNoWriMo, is near.

Have you always wanted to write a novel?

We know some of you have been waiting all year for this month! For those of you who are new to this project, here’s the gist:

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Read My (Physical) Book, Please!

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It is often said that writers should be avid readers.  Whenever you see an image of a great author or successful writer, they always seemed to be surrounded by canyons of books–not just a simple bookshelf, mind you, but enough volumes to give even the most voracious reader a case of mental heartburn.  I think that image will be changing soon, given the move to electronic media.  It could very well be that today’s writers—e-journalists, self-publishing novelists, and bloggers like myself included—will not be pictured seated in a den in front of a massive book collection, but shown in transit holding our trusty traveling companion, the tablet.  As such, I wonder if today’s children will ever want to read a physical, printed book again.

I am neither a great author nor a successful writer (yet!), and if the stereotype has some truth to it (as they often do), then I may not be either in this lifetime.  The amount of books I have in my possession would barely fit a modestly sized bookshelf.  Those that I have managed to collect are textbooks, plays or manuals–all leftovers from college classes.  My iPad actually has a more impressive roster of authors, from Dickens and Melville to Hughes and Bellow.  Yet, those too came to me as the result of filling required reading quotas.  There is anarchy in the gathering; Friere sits next to Dr. Seuss and both serve as constant reference materials, while Othello and Macbeth collect more dust than Shakespeare’s coffin.  My anime DVD titles outnumber my book titles 3 to1.

The sad part of this whole mess is, I used to be an avid reader.  I could quote Marley’s visit to Scrooge at the drop of a hat, or argue for days about why I’m certain Lewis Carroll was on some serious drugs when Alice first wandered into his brain.  But ask me about current works and I’d have to depend on the movie to tell you whether I like it or not…if I even saw the movie at all.

Therein lies the problem, I believe.  There doesn’t seem to be a need to actually read anything anymore; modern technology can do it for us.  Whether it’s listening to an audiobook, having someone narrate it for you while you see pretty pictures on YouTube, or waiting for the big-screen version to hit theaters, the necessity of actually picking up a physical book (or reading the .pdf version on Kindle for that matter) is going the way of AM/FM radio or broadcast TV–it’s still available, but quickly losing its relevancy.

Shortly after my appendectomy, the director of the education department at Teachers College suggested I do some reading of children’s books.  Me being the tech-head that I am, I immediately started looking for .pdf versions of books I could download for free.  I bypassed reading altogether when it came to Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, opting for the animated version I knew existed online.  I didn’t have to read “The Velveteen Rabbit”, because I had the great Meryl Streep in my ears.

The closer I get to starting classes, the more i worry whether this generation will come to view the reading of physical books as old-fashioned or time-consuming as I do now.  Not just because I want them to actually read my books someday, but because I wonder if they will lose the power of imagination.  As many times (and in as many different forms) as I’ve seen the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appear in front of Scrooge, the image I have in my mind as I read it is always more frightening than any I had seen in a movie.  Yes, my mind is twisted that way.  I feel that reading uses an entirely different skill set than simply watching a movie based on a book.  Sure, the movie may show you the terror of Smaug the dragon without your brain kicking that fear up a notch, or Katniss’ mad hunting skills without having to deal with her running monologue, but those things are handed to you pre-packaged.  I think it is more fun to imagine who the perfect Mr. Gray would be than to see someone who doesn’t fit the part at all; or to be a kid and act out all the parts of your favorite book before it becomes the next CG-animated box-office hit.

I don’t mean to say that reading in and of itself be dismissed anytime soon; in fact, I think that those in the Internet Age and beyond will depend on literacy to keep up with each other.  Even though text-to-speech functions are available on both word processors and chat apps, and there seems to be an icon for every action, the online world is still mainly text-based, which means it involves a lot of reading.  And while English appears to be the dominant language, there are more than enough translators (both online and off) to assist non-English speakers.  And while physical books may be seeing their sunset, online publishing is moving in the opposite direction, with even novice writers getting their ideas out there on sites like this one.

Another worry I have is the short-attention span we seem to be fostering in our culture.  In an era where cursive handwriting is a lost art, and contemplative thoughts are reduced to 140 characters or less, I wonder how much time and effort someone would put into reading an entire novel.  I myself have had trouble reading a 100-page book, simply because I have been too distracted by other things…and I think that will only get worse once my studies begin.

Traditional books are still being used and enjoyed by many people, adults and children alike.  There are those who still actually prefer flipping pages and going through chapters to fast-forwarding to the next scene.  The die-hard readers will always curl up with their favorite hardcover or paperback, because they love the smell of the pages; and I’m sure there will be kids who will want to have their parents read to them instead of Siri or some other disembodied voice.   I just wonder how quickly those numbers will dwindle.