On Feeling Stupid

It is summer and I have been enjoying a little light reading. I love mystery stories. However, I don’t like violent mysteries with lots of swearing, sex and gunfire. I prefer the quieter, thinking kind that reveals a bit about human nature from time to time. One of my favorite mystery series is the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. The series is set in Botswana and the protagonist is a woman named Precious Ramotswe who runs a detective agency. The books have been made into a television series on HBO, also. The book I completed this morning was The Kalahari Typing School for Men. In this installment, Mma Ramotswe’s assistant Mma Makutsi opens a typing school for men so that they may learn the keyboarding skills they desire for modern life. An unnamed student sums up his description of his typing teacher with this statement. “She is a good teacher, that woman, ” he said. “She does not make me feel stupid. She is good at her job.”

Book Cover

At our school, stupid is sort of a curse word.  No one would call anyone that.  Children get a stricken look on their faces if it creeps into a library book.  But that doesn’t stop feelings of inadequacy and frustration.   A teacher doe not have to be overtly disrespectful or condescending for students to feel badly about themselves during a course of study.  Those feelings may stem from a student’s past failures with the subject, the derision of peers, a more sensitive personality, or lower beginning ability level.  While no one can or should save young people from every case of negative emotion, it certainly can be a barrier to learning.  I have often thought that if learning to read had been as much of a struggle for me as learning any sport involving hitting a small ball has been, I am not sure I would have done it. I feel stupid when I play tennis, racquetball, billiards etc. I am sort of sports learning challenged.  Based on past experiences, it would take a very good teacher to overcome my wish to defend against feeling  stupid and try one of these endeavors again. This willingness to acknowledge  a student’s  fear of failure and embarrassment and provide strategies to overcome it should be a part of any good teacher’s game plan.

Sometimes we are very sensitive to this with young children but we expect our adult peers to never have this barrier.  I suspect many people do not fully engage with professional development because they fear that they will feel stupid.   It is easier to reject, make fun of or tune out a new program, idea or way of doing things than to go through the “Oh, no! This makes me feel stupid.” moment.  Of course, as adult reflective learners we should be able to take down the barriers, swallow our pride and move forward with courage.  But if we find ourselves as teachers of adults, we must face the truth of human nature and include strategies to open our learners’ hearts to the risk of change.

How do you make sure your students of any level don’t feel stupid?  What aspects and procedures in your school could be changed to help learners feel more confident and respected.?  How do you share  your passionate beliefs  with your extended circle of colleagues on Twitter and other social media without making new members and dissenters feel stupid or disrespected?

Would anyone like to teach me to play tennis?


The Importance of Imperfection : Wherein We Learn How to Upgrade a Computer

On Saturday, I added more RAM to my lumbering Dell Dimension desktop thereby rescuing it from the imminent destruction of my frustrated fantasies.

Although I am quite comfortable using computers, I really don’t like to open their neat little covers and even peek inside. I am usually convinced that doing so will result in the whatsit falling off of the doohickey thereby irreversibly closing my expensive-to-replace window on the world.

While researching information needed to replace my creeping time-wasting dinosaur, It finally occurred to me that a nice new 1 G of RAM would make my virtual life bearable again without a major purchase.  A couple of Google searches and a visit to the Dell site soon had me pumped for a little computer brain surgery.  Not only were there nice step-by-step directions to be had, but YouTube videos as well! This video made it sound so easy, I was hooked.

When my shiny new memory module arrived, I looked for the video again, but stumbled upon another  one, instead.  This one was rambling and profane.  The beautiful little stick did not snap in on the first try.   (I did have it embedded here but decided to take it out because of the language)

After locating the original video and a frustrating day trying to run a super-slow back-up, I finally cleared a space in the room with no carpet (kitchen) and grounded myself by laying hands on the kitchen stove.  Time for the delicate computer brain augmentation at last.  The cover slipped off easily.  I cleared away 5 years of dust with my handy canned air (which also proved invaluable for keeping the cat at bay.)  The slot was easy to find, but somewhat blocked by those whatsit wires and cables which led to all the  important doohickeys of my computer nightmares.  I solved the problem of worrying about touching the wrong part of the RAM module contacts  with my sweaty fingers by wearing rubber gloves.  This proved to be a good idea, since my little stick did not snap neatly in place on the first try as in the very well-presented first video.  My manipulations much more matched the second video (minus the cursing.)  What relief when the troublesome end under the wires finally snapped perfectly into place!  After carrying my prize work to the computer room and reconnecting all of the life-lines,  I held my breath as I pushed the magic button.  Success!   My cheery little desktop was still alive.  The new RAM was the perfect fix.  I am typing this with 6 open windows!

What does this story have to do with teaching?  I had two “teachers” who explained how to place the RAM module into my computer.  One did an awesome job of explaining the details in a very professional way.  The lesson was clear, simple and concise.  The second teacher was rambling, a little profane and less technical.  However,  he let me know that sometimes the little stick didn’t snap in on the first try.  He told me that I would probably have to push harder that I thought I should before it clicked in place.  He gave me permission to turn it the wrong way on the first try.  He gave me confidence that if I kept trying, I would, eventually, get it right.  If I had not seen the second video, I would have been calling for help after the first or second try.

I do love a smooth slick presentation, but our students are learning life skills not just information in our classrooms.  Are we modeling our own perseverance in the face of imperfection or do we hide the messy stuff from them?  Do we give them the opportunity to learn from each other?  Sometimes learning together with someone on our own skill level helps us through the rough spots that the experts have forgotten.  To turn an old tag line upside down — Have you let them see you sweat?

Who Killed the Curiosity? : Wherein We Meet Johnny

The librarian noticed the sullen dark-haired first-grader still wandering the shelves minutes before the bell would sound.

“Johnny, can I help you find a book?”


“What do you want to read today?”


“What do you want to know more about?”


“What kinds of things do you do when you go home?”

“Play World of Warcraft.  That’s all I do.”

At this the librarian began to scratch her head, desperately thinking of items  in a primary school library that could compete with the excitement and strategy of killing your mortal enemy.  She was, also, biting her tongue to suppress her instinctive disapproval at the development of blood-lust in 6-year-olds.

“Is there anything you have been learning about at school that interests you?”

“Once there was a book about this cool car, a Lamborghini.”

“Hmm… I believe that one is out right now, but the Maserati book was returned today”

One look inside and Johnny was smiling.  It was a good moment.  Johnny didn’t smile much at school.

Johnny is a real student (name changed of course)  He really does play adult video games with his mother in the evenings.  This is his passion.  He is not interested in school and does not find joy in learning things that will be tested on the state-mandated skills tests in a couple of years.   He is very familiar with the principal’s office.

There are a lot of “Johnnys.”  Even in the lower grades, students do not necessarily come to school bursting with the stereotypical innocent joy and curiosity of early childhood.   Exposure to adult themes in our changing society, busy parents with no time to indulge the passions of childhood and the deprivations of poverty are some of the factors that shape young minds before they come into our classrooms.

As educators, we often teach lessons as we would have liked them when we were young.   We try to sugar-coat learning with duckies and bunnies and plan themes around happy holidays.   We plan educational experiences around who we wish our children were and not who they are.  Johnny is not a “duckie and bunny” sort of child.

A couple of days before Johnny wandered into the library this week,  I had the privilege of participating in a Twitter discussion with the title #learningdispositions .    A number of educators were determining  strategies for teaching children the learning attitudes and skills to enable them to be successful 21st Century learners.  As the discussion progressed, joy, passion and curiosity became focal points.  Several participants were concerned that externally motivated compliance and “playing school” with meaningless assignments took away the joy, passion and curiosity of students. Others pointed out how authentic project-based learning with choices provided for more engaged learners.

My question is how do we apply this to Johnny?    How do we help Johnny find the joy of learning as Pam Moran describes it in her post If Reading’s Not the Goal, Could It Be Joy? .  Is there a Johnny you can reach out to this week?  Perhaps you can find a way to mentor a student the way  Paula White took time to encourage the passion for technology in  her 5th grade student in Passionate Learning.  When the days are long and stressful this week, will we be modeling our joy, passion and curiosity for our students?

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?

Chapter3: Notes on “Why Don’t Students Like School?” by Daniel Willingham (Wherein we read a “grown-up” book this summer.)


     Don’t you love the school scenes in the Peanuts movies?   No matter what the subject is, the teacher’s voice is depicted by “wah-wah-wah-wah.”  Do you ever think that is what your students hear when they listen to you?  Have you ever had a class seemingly engage in the day’s activities with enthusiasm, only to find that they retained very little of what you thought you were teaching?  In his new book, Why don’t Students like School?, Daniel Willingham outlines nine principles derived from cognitive psychology to help you connect with the developing minds of your students.

     The nine principles are:

  1. “People are naturally curious, but they are not naturally good thinkers.”   Students don’t like school because they are frustrated or bored.  The amount of thinking required must be just right to retain their interest.  Teachers must know their students in order to plan effective lessons.
  2. “Factual knowledge precedes skill.”   No matter how much schools want to teach “higher order thinking skills” there must be factual knowledge in the long-term memory to facilitate the process of thinking.  For example, reading comprehension requies the background knowledge an author assumes the reader can supply.  Willingham postulates that the 4th grade reading slump often seen in students from underprivileged homes is caused by the lack of this type of knowledge. I became interested in Willingham’s work through this video on reading comprehension
  3. “Memory is the residue of thought.   Here is where Willingham’s recommendations seem to contradict those of  other educational experts.  As he says in his conclusion, he is basing his principles on cognition, not just motivation.  Since memory can only come from what students actually think about, teachers must be very careful to motivate students to attend to a lesson without taking their minds off of the learning objectives.  Some possible distracting motivators he mentions are; attention-getting devices such as costumes and props, artificial items to create student relevance, and the use of a new technology to assist students in producing a product.  He suggests using a story structure in any lesson and moving attention grabbers to the middle of a lesson to sustain interest in the material being taught.  Willingham models this well in each chapter of  his book.
  4. “We understand new things in the context of things we already know.”  Abstract principles and deep knowledge are not easy to acquire.  Have realistic expectations. This type of learning must be  built over time.
  5. “Proficiency requires practice.”  Your grandmother was right.  “Practice makes perfect.”  This is true for basketball, playing the piano, learning the multiplication tables, and teaching.  Teachers should choose carefully what foundational skills need to become automatic through practice.  Shorter practice periods spread over time are better than long cram sessions.  Practice can be done while working on more advanced skills.
  6. “Cognition is fundamentally different early and late in training.”  Students will not be able to think like historians and scientists with many years of experience in their work.  Experts were all once novices.  They had to learn certain fundamental knowledge and skills in order to develop the the thought processes they now have.
  7. “Children are more alike than different in learning.”   Oops!  If Willingham is correct, most teachers  have  wasted a lot of in-service time on identifying visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners.  Willingham asserts that even though people have different abilities and preferences, it is the content that should determine the mode of instruction.  No matter what type of input students prefer,  certain types of information and skills require visual, auditory or kinesthetic attention.  Using a variety of instructional strategies in the classroom is good practice for all students.  Learn more about his position in this YouTube video.
  8. “Intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work.”   Much of what we measure as intelligence is shaped by the prior knowledge we have stored in our long term memories.  This is due to both genetic and environmental factors.  Some studies favoring a genetic basis for intelligence may have missed the fact that genetic factors cause people to seek out different environments.  Therefore, environment may play an even greater role than once thought.  In order to foster the hard long-tern work needed to increase intelligence, teachers should praise effort more than ability and increase students’ confidence in their ability to improve.
  9. Teaching, like any complex cognitive skill, must be practiced to be improved.  Experience is not the same as practice.  Teachers often improve in their teaching until they reach a level where they begin to coast.  Videotaping your teaching, keeping a diary, and pairing with a trusted colleague can help you to identify the areas you need to improve.  Be realistic and don’t try to change everything at once.

     By reading this book, you will , also, learn about the limits of working memory, chunking, and the importance of stored facts and processes in long-term memory.  This understanding should help you pace instruction for optimum comprehension.  Willingham’s modeling of his recommended “story structure” in each chapter gives you concrete examples of good cognitive lesson design.  I plan to keep this book handy this fall to use in planning my library and information skills lessons. 

     Willingham’s book is interesting, thought-provoking, and pragmatic.  Some will find a few of his assertions controversial.  I think his viewpoints will help to ground us in sound timeless instructional practice as we meet the challenges of a 21st century education.

     What do you think ?  Will we defeat our goals in teaching children to think if we neglect to teach them foundational factual knowledge?  How do we incorporate technology so that students are engaged in thinking about the skill being taught more than the medium?  Do you think learning styles matter?  Do you think your teaching , encouragement and guidance has helped your students raise their intelligence levels?

Chapter 1: Wherein we begin a new adventure…


         Once upon a time this middle-aged librarian, somewhat smug in my use of Microsoft Office, email and general web-surfing,  watched  my hairdresser (only slightly younger than myself )  checking Facebook while listening to Pandora on her iPhone.  Facebook???  Wasn’t that what kids used to say inane and sometimes obscene things to each other when they should be doing their homework?  It seemed I was in the dark ages of internet technology.  Unbeknownst to me, all of the other people my age were now checking their Facebook accounts for pics of the grandchildren.  Marooned all day in a primary school library with no students over the age of 8, I thought “twittering” was what kindergarten students did when they saw a display of new books.

           It was clear that action was needed!  So, on an icy bad weather day in February, I created my own Web 2.0 in- service.  Armed with a timid Facebook page and a Twitter account (well I might want to “sound off” at CNN) I dipped my cold big toe into the rushing stream of  information.  Over a month later,  I still have pictures of icicles and 0 friends on my Facebook page.  The Twitter experiment was another story.

Honestly, I tried it out of idle curiosity.  It was only a little recreational use at first.  Then I found the librarians twittering ALA meetings.  Next I found school librarians with blogs and wiki pages of student projects.  Finally, I dared to search for elementary teachers.  My tentative trickle of information had grown into a river of links, ideas and collaborative endeavors.  Is this the road  to becoming an information junkie?

           Now, at the end of my precious spring break; the taxes aren’t finished, the floor needs vacuming, and only half of the laundry is done.  However, my mind is buzzing with new ideas.  I have opened a Google Reader account, set up a blog site, and started a wiki.  Join me if you dare.  My little experiment is evolving into a plan of action!!!