My Father, Two Cats, and Modeling Learning (Wherein we ponder “Lifelong Learning”)

My father died 8 years ago, but I have been missing him today. He was one of those people in my life who could always make me feel better when I was down. He, always, had a way of bringing me back down to earth when I was having a flight of worrisome fancy. He grounded me with his basic honesty, love and ability to see the “big picture.”
He had, what seems to me, today, a rear gift for intellectual honesty combined with amazing tenacity. The only person I know who comes close to that type of mind-set is my husband. He can make me feel better, too, but he is working right now. I am alone with the two cats. I’ll get to them later.

It is August and in about a week, the new school year will begin. I have read more about learning theory this summer than I have any summer since I finished my Master’s Degree twenty years ago. I feel a need to condense some of this theory and wrap it in a few personal anecdotes before I go face the job at hand. It has been a long time since I was in elementary school myself; longer than I want to admit. I didn’t really like school then, because it always involved too many strangers telling me what to do. We moved around a lot. I was a gawky little kid with glasses, too. So the social side of it was never easy for me. Nevertheless, I was, somewhat of an academic success. So, why did I do OK?

First of all, quitting was not an option in my family. I never saw anyone near and dear to me give up without a struggle. I was never allowed to blame someone else, even though thinking back I had a few teachers who wouldn’t make the grade today. Learning was my responsibility. If the teaching was bad, I was supposed to bring the books home and learn the subject anyway. My mother was the ramrod and the speaker of proverbs about “old man try” and “old man cain’t”, but my father was the model. Did he want a flower garden at a new house? He talked to the man who ran the nursery. He read a seed catalog and a book on gardening. He went out and worked until he got it right. Did the house he was remodeling need plumbing? He bought a book. He asked the man at the lumberyard for advice. He did it over until it worked. I am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s  discussion of eastern and western cultures and their different views of the nature of intelligence. It seems planting wheat and corn did the trick for my ancestors. 

Once, when I was asked what in my home life might have made me want to become a librarian, I explained that in my home when we didn’t know something, we looked it up. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Now stop and think how many people you know that would rather stay in the comfort zone of their ignorance. My father was a preacher, so that meant he was a kind of professional “looker-upper.” I wasn’t until I was in college, that I realized what an accomplishment a minor in New Testament Greek was for a farm boy from west Texas. I just didn’t know that everyone’s fathers didn’t whip out the Greek New Testament when there was a question about the interpretation of a Bible verse. Our house was littered with concordances, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and newspapers. We lived a lot in small towns without libraries and the internet hadn’t been invented, but we always did our best to find an answer. Ignorance was like the “itch”, it wasn’t a sin to have it, but you weren’t supposed to keep it. Reacting to information overload by sticking your head in the sand would never have been allowed.

My father was interested in new ideas and new ways of doing things. What he could have done with PowerPoint, SlideShare, YouTube, Mindmapping and all of our modern visual media! Everyone is abuzz these days about how PowerPoint’s and similar presentations should be composed of visual images that encapsulate the ideas and fewer words and lists. Sorry folks, but my father was ahead of you about 50 years ago. There was this trend called the flannel board sermon back in the 50’s & early 60’. It wasn’t usually done in the formal Sunday morning worship service. It was used in the summer Gospel Meeting. I remember all the pictures cut from poster board spread out on the family room floor, the smell of the flannel backing and the bright colored tempera paint. I remember the sermons preached, sometimes out in a rural community under a wooden tabernacle where my father had to fight the summer breeze to keep the pieces all in place. One by one they were added to the board, until you could see the whole outline of the lesson in pictures with little verse cards so you could write them down in your notes like saving URLs for future reference. He always knew the importance of getting and holding the audience’s attention. Like Daniel Willingham he knew that “Memory is the residue of thought.” He believed in using the latest medium to communicate. He didn’t think he already knew everything. The other day I asked my husband, who always has some historical research going on for his own amusement, what skills he thought it took to be a life-long learner. He replied that the most important ones were tenacity and honesty with one’s self. He said in order to want to continue learning you have to admit when you are alone with yourself that you don’t already have all of the answers.

We all shared in teaching and learning in my family. If one person learned something new, he or she told it to the others. You couldn’t come home from school, be asked what you did today and get away with saying, “nothing.” New ideas and information were expected and both my parents were always ready to listen and learn with us. My father had a special gift for showing his interest. I lived with my parents as a young adult when I got the idea I wanted to learn to photograph wildflowers. My father, then retired, became my assistant. We drove around the countryside looking for flowers. He learned about my camera, learned about the flowers and built a strange contraption to block the wind and not the light. His honest interest was the best sort of encouragement in all my endeavors. I see some of the 5 and 6 year-olds looking for books in my library about cooking, new pets they have at home or a family hobby. They are all smiles when they have been able to contribute to the family pool of information. It is a blessing when collaboration starts at home.

Helene Blowers and Buffy J. Hamilton reminded me this summer that play is an imortant ingredient in learning.  My father was playful. He loved words and wordplay. When people were sick they went to the “horsepistol” and we never traveled without commenting on the fact that we never arrived at “Frontage” on “frontage road.” There were these long stretches in my childhood when our TV was broken and we didn’t get it fixed until there was something really big we needed to watch like a moon landing. I think that is why I remember evenings full of crossword puzzles and taking the Word Power quiz in the Reader’s Digest. Words were fun in our family. They were collected like marbles to win a Scrabble, complete a puzzle, rattle off as a tongue twister, or create the ultimate pun. I used to irritate a certain young doctor-in-training I dated who had drilled so seriously on the MCAT words only to meet a young teacher who seemed to know them all without having undergone the grueling work.. But that was the secret. Words were not learned by tedious effort in my family. They were the root of laughter and games and fun.

I have two cats right now. One is 15 years old. She no longer plays or adapts. She is quite grouchy and set in her ways. The other is a 15-week-old kitten. He plays constantly. Everything and everyone in the house is his toy to be stalked, attacked and pounced upon. He is constantly learning and acquiring new skills. Cats are that way, they get to a point where they don’t need to play and learn. All they need is to be left alone in their favorite sleeping spots and eat twice a day. People should be different. We get to choose how we age. We can become grouchy and territorial in our maturity or we can retain the curiosity and adaptability (if not the energy) of a child.

This little post has gotten a bit long and rambling tonight. I did know how to write a neat, tight little essay at one time. I remember the trepidation at writing in my first college classes. In my little high school, we had gone through a long succession of young Language Arts teachers from the local college who thought our class was incorrigible. But after a few better-than-average college grades, I realized I had heard a very well-written essay every Sunday of my life. My father’s sermons always included an introduction with a “hook” to gain attention and an overview of what to expect; three or four well-supported points; and a conclusion that summarized what had been said. Ideas had to be supported with credible evidence. No lies or half-truths were allowed to sully a worthy idea. I was very fortunate. I had known a very good teacher who modeled learning for me.

What about those little ones coming to us this fall? Who will their models be? Do they come from backgrounds that will allow them to learn in spite of us? Or do they require us to be their models of tenacity, curiosity, intellectual honesty, collaboration and playful joy? Will we react to new initiatives and technology like old cats guarding our territory or as kittens delighting in new explorations? Will we, as Angela Maiers instructs the teachers in her workshops, model not just the skills covered in the objectives, but the act of learning, for our students?