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?”

Image

“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..

Image

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.

Move Over, Emily Litella!

Image


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.”

“Growing Down”

Image

When we were children, we always had this urgent need to “grow up”—whether it was a desire to be treated like an adult, or to get to do the things that “grown ups” do, we could not wait to shed our baby fat and childish ways.  Now that I am an adult, and have been for quite some time, I’m beginning to question that need to grow up so quickly.  This is especially true now, when I will soon be studying to teach those who want to skip the most carefree and joyful time of their lives. 

Being that it has been nearly three and a half decades since I could be considered a “kid”, and I have no contact with children, this will be quite the challenge for me.  In reading over some of the course material offered at Teachers College and other institutes of higher learning, I have come to one conclusion: in order to help these kids “grow up” in the right frame of mind, I have to “grow down” as a person.

For the linguists out there, don’t panic.  Yes, the term “grow down” is an oxymoron.  Yet, I believe it’s the right term in this instance.  I will be growing as a person in terms of the education and understanding of young people; yet, I have to come to a lower level of educational material than I am accustomed.  Well, no…that’s not entirely true, as I’m sure there will be tons of Piaget, Dewey, Friere, et al. to keep my adult brain entertained.  However, I will not be exchanging the ideas of those great thinkers with 7-year-olds.  I will have to understand the hows and whys of talking dogs, curious monkeys, mischievous cats and an overly dependent mouse.  I will have to revel in the overuse of pictures and the underuse of words, and help children decipher the deep meanings layered beneath it all.  It’s not so much bringing myself down to their level, for that would be condescending; it is to remember what is was like to be a kid, to recapture the joy of learning, and to share it with a new generation.

This may be yet another challenge.  I did not attend school on a regular basis when I was a child.  The latter half of both the fourth and sixth grades was all the public education I received, due to family problems.  Growing up as part of what I like to call the “TV Generation” (because we were basically baby-sat by television) gave me some insight on what kids were learning in school.  From the early days of “Sesame Street” to the higher-end lessons of “Schoolhouse Rock”, I was able to get the basics down pretty easily as the years went by.  I filled the gaps by reading everything I could get my hands on—newspapers, comics, discarded math books, phone books…you name it.  I was probably the only kid who got excited by the old Spiegel catalog, because they always had lots of new and interesting things for sale (and to learn about).  The abridged versions of classic novels such as “Great Expectations”, “Moby-Dick”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Oedipus Rex” were found at the back of the old Encyclopedia Britannica, and they found their way into my brain.  By the end of the sixth grade, I was helping other students with their reading and math homework.

Did I miss something important by not being part of the educational system from an early age?  I believe I missed out on what I believe was (and still is) a key element of learning—socialization.  Sure, all the knowledge I accumulated during the time I was not in school was important, but I felt I lacked good social skills.  Don’t get me wrong: I made friends pretty easily, but I think that was more because I had something to offer (help) rather than being a true friend.  If it weren’t for my intelligence, I think I would have been completely ignored by most students, and probably would have gotten the wrong kind of attention (a/k/a bullying) by others.  I believe socialization helps students learn social cues, bonding, rules (both societal and cultural), and shared experiences.  It was difficult for me to relate to kids my age at the elementary level, but I managed.

So here I am, some 35 years later, and I’m about to teach children things I learned much later in life.  In preparation for this endeavor, I have been trying to put my “grown up” hat to the side for awhile and see what it is that children are doing these days.  Since I have no direct contact with the little ones (and hanging out at parks and playgrounds would most likely brand me as a pedophile),  I have been reading children’s books and watching educational/informational programming (noted by the “E/I” rating).

One thing came as a shock to me as I watched about four hours of PBS Kids’ programs: was I really as oblivious of some of the blatant (as in forced) inconsistencies we were taught as today’s kids are assumed to be, as long as I got the message?  The best example of this would probably be “Dinosaur Train”, in which a single mother pteranodon raises four kids—one of which just happens to be a little tyrannosaurus rex.  Mind you, according to the show’s theme song, she had all four eggs, and they all hatched at the same time.  It’s clear to all involved that our little T-rex is not like the others (he even points this out himself, in case we missed it), but why that happened doesn’t matter; he’s part of the family, and it’s all good.  It took about fifteen minutes (including Googling “pteranodon”) for me to wrap the possible combinations (both social and scientific) of how such a birth would take place at all, but that’s the “grown up” me.  Looking at it from the perspective of the “grown down” me, it’s a wonderful example of inclusiveness, bonding and family love.  That’s the important thing to remember here—if we looked at the things we watched or read as a kid through the eyes of an adult, we’d probably lock ourselves up in an insane asylum.  We have to realize that a dog that gained the power of speech and reason because she ate some alphabet soup (as in the case of “Martha Speaks”) is just as plausible to children today as a certain “wascally wabbit” with a sadistic streak was to us when we were growing up.

While I wait to learn to teach, I will be teaching myself to learn…and to re-learn.  I will have to find ways to resist watching or reading material meant for children with the cynical, overly-logical eye of an adult.  In doing so, we tend to lose the things that make childhood fun; magic, wonder, dreams, mystery, and the belief that even the most absurd things can be possible if we only allow ourselves to imagine it so.

Now if you excuse me, I have to give a mouse a cookie…and prepare for the laundry list of crap he’ll ask for next.