Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Humble Word

We just dropped our son off at college. It's a bittersweet experience. A few weeks before leaving, he had a confidence crisis. His freshman course assigned some reading and a short paper. His comments (read, grumblings)when writing the paper— “This just doesn’t read like a college paper to me-I must not be ready for this.”

I was proud that he was looking at his work with care, but my urging was that he need not worry about whether it was a college paper or not— after all, he was about to START college— and college writing was what he was going to learn while in college. It wasn’t a goal to be accomplished in high school.

What my son needed, was patience-- with himself.

Patience with oneself is a rather meek goal. It might be confused with passivity or lack of ambition. In a world where so much can happen so fast, patience hardly seems as necessary as it once was.

In its mild way, though, patience with oneself, may be just the characteristic I hope for in my students in this year. Students who are patience with themselves are also trusting and confident. When we are patient with ourselves, we realize that whatever we are practicing or working on will improve over time. There is a calmness, and a mindfulness to patience, that some other terms don’t have. 

I can compare it to its cousin, grit, which will have to be banished from my vocabulary, except in those instances when I am working with sand.

Grit has been accused of social injustice, and as an excuse for poor teaching. It's been linked with misery and pain. It may not be a middle class value, but rather one that encourages different expectations for less privileged children. Given its cloud, it would be unwise to ever speak the word in the classroom.

Patience with oneself, though, is infused with hope and calm. Patience can happen without pain and misery. It contains a belief that things will get better.

And, it applies as much to me as a teacher, as it does to my students. It’s democratic, asking only that a little more time and understanding be found, than might otherwise. It is an internal state, not necessarily one that can be observed by others, as grit seems to have been judged to be.

Patience, I hope, will remain an uncontroversial term. I want to keep it.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Learning through analogies

This past week did not start out well.

 On Monday I covered for an absent teacher by teaching a super-sized class as I included his students with the ones that were scheduled to meet with me. To make matters worse, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we had heat under repair, which made my usual lab uninhabitable and I taught in a multipurpose area, without even a whiteboard.

 So, I hit the last part of the week feeling like a bad teacher. My students had been replicating the work of three greats in chemistry-- Thomson, Rutherford and Chadwick. The lab was analogous to the real apparatus, and I thought they were barely getting it. Such moments in the classroom make me feel like I am trying to move the planets into orbit with my mind.

 But then they got it! After working with the analogous process for the past couple of weeks, and gamely and rather happily doing everything I asked while not actually understanding why they were doing it, I felt over twenty minds make a quantum leap. (Had to use that metaphor-- I'm teaching chemistry at the moment, after all.)

 I loved this post by Anne Murphy Paul about making smart analogies. So many of the examples she gives are from science- in fact, scientists successfully form ideas by speaking in analogies all the time. Part of the frustration my students felt comes from not being able to see what they are learning about right now. Learning through discovery can be harder than just drawing pictures or writing down definitions, even though discovery is more engaging. Students have to translate the experience into words in order to process what they learned-- and also to help me know that they did learned.

This week my ambition is to ask students to frame atomic theory making up their own analogies for the structure and discovery of the atom.