Educational Insights, Victories, struggles, Parables and questions
There was a man that had only ever had one type of coffee in his life- straight black.
His wife was the opposite- she constantly tried new flavors and was always inviting her husband to try something new. Time after time, he responded: "I know what I like."
Finally, he agreed to go with his wife to a coffee shop that boasted it was the "shop of a thousand coffees." Upon entering, the man looked at the menu board that had seemingly limitless choices: mochas and lattes and espressos; drinks named after candy bars, and drinks that had varying levels of sugar and types of milk. There were cold options and hot options. There were different blends with exotic names. Added to all this was the sensory overload of so much coffee smell, and so many different mixes of smells.
The man was overwhelmed.
Sensing this, the wife asked, "Is it too much?"
"There are so many choices, where do I start?" he replied.
"Well," she said, smiling, "What types of flavors do you like in general- sweet or bitter, do you like caramel or do you like cinnamon or both?"
Through a series of questions, she helped her husband find a type of flavor he might like, then pointed him to a section of the board that had not a thousand choices, but five. He thought for a minute, and then made a choice.
Turns out, he likes lattes with cinnamon and whipped cream.
Moral: As teachers, we are told we need to offer students choices, to get them to seek variety. But we must use caution to not overload with too many choices, for this can be paralyzing. When students seem overwhelmed, we need to limit the choices, direct the choices, to a more manageable number. Do not give them thirteen choices, give them three. If they struggle with five choices, walk them through making the decision. This skill will aid them throughout their life.
And help them be willing to try new things.
Davy Crockett has always been a hero of mine.
I first discovered his story in Kindergarten, when we watched the John Wayne version of The Alamo. I was drawn to something in the character- the swagger, the confidence, and even at that young age, the sacrifice. I was so so enamored with Crockett, my friends and I played "Alamo" every day at recess. My Kindergarten graduation became a play called "Davy Crockett Goes to Kindergarten." Yep, I was Davy Crockett. And yes, there is a video of it. And no, you cannot see it. But there was a line, basically at the start where I uttered a phrase equivalent to "I am Davy Crockett." I reveled in playing the part.
As I have grown, my admiration has not waned, but my perspective is different.
I realize now that I admire Crockett for his pioneering spirit. I was an adult when I discovered (or maybe just recognized the significance and power of) the story of his decision to come to Texas. Fed up with Congress and his constituents, and tired of finding unwillingness to help the citizens of Texas in their plight to independence, according to an April 9, 1836 edition of the Niles Weekly Register, he told the voters if they re-elected him he'd serve. But if they did not, he told them, "You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas." He had a vision, and would go for it, even if no one else did because he believed there were people who needed help, and he could offer it.
This week, I am at the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals (TASSP) annual conference. I got to come because my friends behind #CSISDchat, Aaron Hogan and Jeremy Stewart, asked me to present a session with them- and my District was awesome enough to let me go. Aaron and Jeremy represent "Davy Crocketts" in education, as do several of the presenters I have seen this week, like Todd Nesloney and Brent Clarkson presenting their Kids Deserve It session and the story of Liz Murray and her journey from Homeless to Harvard. "Davy Crocketts" are people who do not want to continue to do the same things they and their surrounding culture accept as "the way it is." They see opportunities, and say, "I am going for this, you can come or not." There is passion, and there is purpose in what these people do. Not everyone gets it- Crockett himself only had a small number of volunteers join him in his journey to San Antonio de Bexar.
But we remember him today.
In fact, TASSP has chosen their theme for the summer workshop to be the image below:
"Davy Crocketts" are more than just passion, there is a desire to serve others even at tremendous personal cost. For educators, it is often long hours, long conferences, financial struggles. But it is also often a fight against traditions and the status quo- which means there is often a fight against the people around them who mean well, but do not buy the vision and the passion for that vision. Being a "Davy Crockett" can be lonely. But "Crocketts" don't do what they do because it is easy, they do what they do because they believe it is right, it is worth fighting for, and it is worth any loss they might incur.
As a kid, loved Davy Crockett because he work buckskins, a coonskin cap, had a cool gun, and literally went down swinging at the Alamo. As an adult, I love him because he was a pioneer- a bit of a rebel, but passionate and principled. Those educators I mentioned- they are "Davy Crocketts". I see "Davy Crocketts all around me this week- and I am blessed to work each day with a number of them.
I want to be a "Davy Crockett," to look at a new path, a new way of reaching students, and say, "I will go to Texas." It is more than just incorporating new technology or shifting up the lesson plans a bit. It is a mindset- a pioneering, I am going to try something a little crazy, maybe a little dangerous, but I am doing it for the betterment of my students. For the betterment of my craft. For the betterment of me.
As a Kindergartner, I said the line, "I am Davy Crockett" because I thought he was cool. But today, I see him as an example- a kind of parable of the kind of educator I want to be. Passionate, innovative, selfless.
"I am Davy Crockett."
There was once a cynical man who lived alone at the end of a rural road. His closest neighbor was about a quarter mile away. The cynical man was very practical, and very literal. He only saw the need to practice things that had a direct connection to his day to day life. He sat in his front lawn each morning under his big oak tree, and read his newspaper for the weather report, the stock report, and the classifieds because these things affected his daily life. It irritated him to to no end that his nearest neighbor, each morning, would rise and go for a run to the nearest gym, about two miles away.
"Why do you do this every day?" the cynical man asked him once.
"Because I want to stay in shape. It's healthy, " the neighbor responded.
"What exactly does this workout let you do?"
"I can lift about 400 pounds right off the floor. Because I run, my endurance level is higher and I can do more activity. My heart and lungs are in better shape. There are lots of benefits," the neighbor replied with a smile.
The cynical man shook his head. "That seems like a lot of work for something I can get just by eating right and doing a little moving around. I see no way this is important to your everyday life. I mean, when are you ever going to need to lift 400 pounds off the floor? We have tools that can accomplish that sort of thing. Why work so hard?"
Some time later, the cynical man was sitting on his front porch, under the shade of his big tree, when a sudden gust of wind brought a loud crack above his head. Before he knew it, a huge branch fell from the tree, and trapped him, pinned to the ground. He pushed and pushed, but it would not budge. He knew his neighbor was gone for his morning exercise, so he watch and waited for him to return.
After almost an hour, he could see a tiny dot moving closer and closer, so he yelled "HELP!" The neighbor heard him, and began to sprint to help him. The neighbor ran over, looked at the branch, squatted down and lifted the it, with great effort, off the cynical man.
The cynical man thanked his neighbor profusely, and then asked, "How were you able to lift that log? It was so heavy."
The neighbor smiled, and said, "Yeah. It was about 400 pounds."
I have to give credit here, the idea for this parable came from a pastor friend of mine several years ago, Glenn Shock. He had heard the concept from someone else, a math teacher, I believe years before. So the moral comes from them.
Students often ask "How can I use this in real life?" They cannot see how algebra will help them in life. Or how knowing who signed the Declaration of Independence is beneficial. My friend once shared that a math teacher (I think) once told him that math is a lot like exercise- yeah, you will rarely need to sprint real fast, or lift a lot of weight without aid, but exercise keeps us in shape to be able to do it if we need to. Math is mental exercise, algebra is weightlifting for the mind.
In turn, when we study science and literature, we learn key analytical skills that help us assess situations and personalities and motives of those things and people around us. When we read Shakespeare, it helps us understand the non-fiction people around us better, when we solve for X or understand how chemical solutions work, our brains can solve day to day things like how a system works or why sugar won't dissolve in ice tea effectively. You know, important things.
Those seemingly random things that students complain about are in fact extremely relevant. The hard part of our job is getting students to develop the patience to understand that they often won't know just how relevant until the moment requires it.
By the way, in Psychology, we call that "Latent Learning."
A man bought 100 acres in good farmland and planned to start a ranch. He went out and bought sheep, and cows and horses and dogs and pigs and chickens. He bought a giant round bale of hay and a massive self feeder, and set it in the middle of all the animals. Then he sat back and waited for the money to roll in.
As he watched, he noticed the dogs and chickens turned up their nose at the hay and feed, and were almost trampled by the larger animals who paid them no mind. The cows and pigs began to wander off after a bit, but the sheep and horses kept eating and eating. And eating. And eating.
A kindly older rancher strolled up and asked the man what he thought he was doing. "I'm making a ranch," he said with pride and confidence.
The older man chuckled and shook his head. "Nope," he said, "You are going to see those sheep and horses overeat. See, they will eat until they die. There is just not turning off that hunger drive for them. You have to parcel out their food so they don't take on too much."
The new rancher thought on this as the older rancher went on. " Now, you also need to realize you cannot just feed every animal the same kind of food, either. Dogs won't eat the hay, chickens will lay eggs in it that trampled, if they don't get trampled themselves. You have to put the animals in a place for them to be safe so they can thrive. Cows and pigs are pretty self sufficient, but horses and sheep need a lot of attention. Chickens are fragile and easy pray for predators, Dogs are great protectors, but sometimes they can be a little dangerous. Pigs like to get dirty, and that's ok, but if a sheep gets that wool really dirty, it can be bad."
The old rancher looked out at the horizon, and pointed to a pond and a tree next to it. "You need to provide space for each of the groups of animals, space that is specific for them. The chickens need safe space, the sheep and horses need structure and boundaries, the cows need space. They all need some shelter, a place to get out of the weather. And the dogs need to be praised, or they won't know the right way to behave."
The new rancher soaked in this knowledge, then set out to create the types of habitats and feeding methods that would make his ranch thrive.
Moral: Students are all very unique and different. Some need little oversight to survive and thrive. Others need constant vigilance. Some students are like sheep and horses and will gorge on knowledge, sitting and getting all they can, and never connect with others and build relationships because they get so caught up in getting the right answers and the best scores. Some students are fragile, easily hurt like the chickens, and you must protect them. Some students are messy and disorganized and that's ok, like the pigs, but others will get in trouble without some help keeping things together. Some students are protectors like the dogs, but their protection can turn to bossy-ness, or controlling to the point of bullying. For them, they need to be praised so they know they are doing the right thing. Even though every student needs to learn the same content- all the animals need to eat- they do not learn that content the same way- not all the animals want hay or grain pellets. The teacher must be like the older rancher, and recognize the needs of each student, and as much as possible, provide a habitat and a "food source" that lets them thrive and grow.
Education cannot be one size fits all. And we cannot treat all students as if they were all cows or all horses.
I was reading a book this summer, and I learned so much about society, and how people communicate, how technology can be a problem, or it can be a savior. It showed me so much about human nature is evolving and changing, and how change is scary, but unavoidable. The book shaped my thinking as an educator and as a person because it challenged my notions of why we do the things we do.
Was this book the latest educational book that all the teachers are talking about?
It was Cell, by Stephen King.
I have a confession: I don't like nonfiction. At least not as much as fiction. I will read it, and sometimes get something out of it, but often times I read it because I feel I am supposed to to be a better teacher. I've always been this way, even in my time as a minister. I spend so much of my time reading nonfiction trying to figure out what point they are trying to make, and I look for the formula to repeat.
But give me a good work of fiction, and man, do I start thinking. When I read fiction, I fall in love or hate with characters, I lose myself in the world they walk in, I hang on the suspenseful, dripping words of the author, I imagine seeing and hearing the things that are leaping from the page.
Something about reading fiction makes me think more creatively in general. And to me, education is all about creativity. I want to look for something beyond the ordinary, try to find a way to communicate an idea in a manner my students haven't seen before, something that might connect with them in a relevant way while shocking them that "We are actually doing this in class?!?!?"
Now, before I continue, I have no problem with educational blogs I see all over Twitter, and that some of my friends write. Clearly, I engage in writing them myself (see, I am not a hypocrite). And I have no problem with nonfiction educational books. But I really wish that someone would start writing more fiction-y educational blogs to stretch my thinking.
Think of your great teachers, the ones you remember from twenty or thirty (or more) years ago.
Didn't they tell stories? Jesus told parables in the Bible to explain hard concepts in terms the average fisherman and paralytic could understand, so clearly, He was a fan.
Stories trick us into learning.
So, rather than wait for someone to write the next great American novel, I decided to write it myself. Well, not a novel, and not necessarily great, but I decided to create some parables for teachers. Periodically, I will post them on this, my new blog site. I will also post those nonfiction teacher blogs, because some people learn better from those than from fiction.
HEY! Look, differentiated instruction!
Which happens to be the first parable I plan to post!
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.