Ideas Need Nurturing; So Do People

Recently, at one of my favorite gatherings of teachers, the Long Island Writing Project, I enjoyed a presentation by one of my favorite mentors, Kathleen Sokolowski. We all know her as one of the co-authors of Two Writing Teachers, but I am lucky enough to occasionally see her in person. In true Writing Project fashion, she read aloud a wonderful book, What Do You Do with an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, and then asked those of us who were present to respond to the reading by writing down our thoughts for about ten minutes.

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Unexpectedly, the reading was like an arrow to my heart. You see, for much of my earlier life, I never felt like I had any original ideas. As you will soon see, from the words I wrote during the workshop, this feeling of “emptiness” tormented me for a long time.

Kathleen’s Writing Prompt: What Do You Do with an Idea?

My written response:

This reading blasted right through to my core. Growing up as the eldest of 8 siblings, amidst all the busyness and clamor that results from so many children in one house, my parents had no time to encourage ideas. So I just sat in my room, as often as I could, and read anything I could get my hands on. It was my way of escaping my life, reading about the lives of others.

I was a very accomplished student in high school, but back in the 50’sand 60’s it was enough to memorize and regurgitate what you had learned. I was like a sponge, so I easily absorbed information. It was easy for me to do well on tests that rewarded me for having a good memory and an ability to reassemble what I had learned in coherent writing.

By the time I reached college, I knew something was missing. I continued to be a Dean’s list student, but always felt inadequate when it came to discussions;I lacked confidence. Toward the end of my college years, one of my professors told me, “If you have an idea, no one can take that from you.” I knew he was right, but I still lacked ideas.

I soldiered on through a year of graduate school, but then finally reached my endpoint. One of my professors told me he thought my writing wasn’t good enough to stay in the program. I was devastated; though I knew he was right, his words and criticism felt cruel. I left grad school and went West with a boyfriend where I began a whole new life, not as a student.

Life happened. I married, had children and then, finally, twenty years later, I had the urge to return to school. Having children had grounded me and given me more confidence. After taking a few courses, I began to realize I had lots of ideas, but I still didn’t have a voice. Finally, in one of those graduate classes I found a teacher who thought I had something to say. His feedback on my papers, and in conversations, encouraged me to feel more confident, which in turn led to me finding my voice. (End of my writing response.)

Fortunately, I eventually did begin to have ideas…BIG ones. But this would not have happened without the help of a wonderful mentor who encouraged me. Because I personally suffered from this deficit for so long and because it affected my self confidence, I urge all teachers to consider that perhaps there may be some students in your own classes who perform well academically but are somehow “blocked” when it comes to sharing ideas. All they lack is someone who cares enough about them to encourage them to nurture their ideas.

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Now, three decades later, and acting on as many of my ideas as I could during those years, I can’t imagine a life without ideas. Yes, it is important to have a “voice;” but you can’t have a voice without first thinking you have an idea worth sharing. And until you feel enough confidence in that idea, you won’t be able to find that voice.

Thank you, Kathleen, for reading that lovely book to us, reminding us how important it is to nurture an idea. It’s never too late to learn that lesson.

“A Life-Changing Stroke at 26: Dying to Work

 

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“A Life-Changing Stroke at 26.” I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read this title, so I turned to the story immediately in the Sunday, September 25, 2016 edition of the New York Times.  It’s about a young man who in the year 2000 catapulted himself into the fast lane of today’s employment world by joining a “venture-backed start-up company with a focus on education.”  “I was 26 and felt invincible.” Putting in 70 hour weeks, his career surged until a year later when he arrived at his office not feeling well, attempted to participate in an office meeting, began slurring his words and awoke to the news he’d had a stroke.

My daughter, in her early 30’s, has been looking for a job for the past six months.  Just the other day she read to me two job descriptions for what sounded in ” like glorified administrative assistant jobs. The pay for the full-time job was $19 per hour; for the part-time job the pay was $12 per hour. Both positions required appropriate college degrees, extensive experience with a multitude of computer programs, excellent writing and communication skills, ability to multitask and perform a multitude of functions from writing ad copy to managing staff schedules to financial tasks including bookkeeping, keeping track of staff payrolls and purchases. In both cases, the candidate is advised that he/she will sometimes be required to work additional hours, including weekends, and travel to other sites.

I was aghast.  In my experience (and I’ve had many, many jobs of all kinds in my life) fulfilling  the requirements of the fulltime job description would require the services of at least two full-time people; for the part-time job several part-time people would be needed. I couldn’t believe the pay that was being offered for the range of duties that were listed. No one could last a month in the Northeast on $12 per hour; even $19 per hour would not allow anyone to live independently.

We discussed the two ads and laughed about them for their impracticality. My daughter reminded me that this is the way it is now for anyone currently seeking employment. Employers expect the moon, and they expect employees to work well below what they are  worth, if indeed they possess all the requisite skills, stretching themselves thin working unpredictable shifts and long days.

The only scenario I could envision is that anyone who is offered the fulltime job and attempts to fulfull all the duties conscientiously will also have a stroke within a year’s time. Or, the employers for both jobs will hire someone who simply will not be able to do the job well, and will have to either change the job description or keep hiring new employees as they each burn out trying to keep up with the job requirements.

Though both are jobs my daughter would love to have  ( each is associated with non-profit organizations she would love to work for), we agreed that they were impossible jobs, not worth the anxiety and stress she would undoubtedly experience if she were hired.

In the meanwhile, my 33-year-old college-educated daughter, who speaks Spanish, has a college degree from a California University, plays the violin and is incredibly creative, articulate and responsible, since graduation has held half-a dozen minimum-wage jobs in various shops and businesses until she quit the most recent one due to unsavory behavior and discrimination on the part of her two male bosses (I insisted she leave).  She now lives at home after several years of trying to live on a shoestring in California, and longs for a place of her own and a career she can sink her teeth into, as well as the companionship of other working people her age. She has lived in Australia, traveled to Spain for an archaeological dig, visited several European countries on her own but she is stuck at home on Long Island where she has no companions her age, nor any prospect of a good job.

Lately, I have been reading the news about how the economy is improving for low-wage earners. Not so for those who, like my daughter, are aching to use their education, their talent and their passion and be reasonably paid for doing so. Other than providing her with a safe, secure place to live I have run out of ideas for how to help her.  Telling her there are thousands like her, languishing in their parents’ homes, waiting for a miracle is just not helping.

What will you do about her and others like her, Donald and Hillary? We’ve been watching the news and the debates. We’re waiting for an answer, but I fear we aren’t likely to get one. I’m not even sure the problem will be addressed.image

“I Would Move to Ireland Tomorrow If I Could”

“I would move to Ireland tomorrow if I could,” was the first thing my daughter said to me as she emerged from the “Arriving Passengers” doors at JFK airport last night.

I was so happy to hear those words, but I knew it was more complex than that.  Yes, she had had an amazing time and says that Ireland is everything she hoped it would be, but she also felt sad about returning to a place she isn’t particularly fond of…Long Island…for many reasons.

But before we get to those reasons, allow me to share some of the highlights of her trip as I promised you (my followers) I would.

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First stop: The Cliffs of Moher.  The Cliffs are a phenomenal natural wonder along the central western coast of Ireland and are a must-see much like our Grand Canyon.  This was her first day on the road.

First Day, continued:  Doolin is the town she selected to stay in overnight after her visit to the Cliffs of Moher.

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We thought it would be just a small stopover with not much to see.  As it turned out, Monday nights are when the “locals” come out to hear traditional music, so she hit the jackpot.  She ended up spending three nights there (because the ferry to the Aran Islands was not running one day due to inclement weather), and all three of the nights she was able to hear great Irish music in nearby pubs.

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Second Day: The Aran Islands.  The original plan was to go to the big island, Inishmoor, spend the night there and then visit the smaller island on the return trip to Doolin.  The revised plan (due to the bad weather) allowed her to spend only one night on Inishmoor and a day she spent cycling ’round the island before returning to Doolin.

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Fourth Day: On to Connemara.  Part of the day was spent wandering around The Burren, again experiencing the rocky natural wonders of this part of the west coast.

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Then she continued on to the coast of Connemara on  the road known as the Sky Road. She said the scenery was stunning along the way. From Connemara, which I  remembered as very bucolic, green and wild, she sent a text saying,  “Mom, Connemara is as beautiful as you said it would be. ”  I was so relieved to know that nothing had changed and that she loved it as much as I had forty-five years ago.

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Once she arrived at her destination,  she took the opportunity to ride a horse for the first time in her life.  Her trusty steed was named Henry; she rode him for three hours on the beach and has the black and blue marks on her legs to prove it!

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Time to leave Connemarra and head to Galway where she would drop off her rental car and take the bus to Dublin.  She was not enamored of the cities of Galway and Dublin, preferring the vast expanse of sky and mountains on the western coast.

However, she did manage to make some planned stops in Dublin.  At the Museum of Archaeology in Dublin she got to see the Bog People, a people who were buried in the bogs during the Iron Age, most of whom died very violent deaths.

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Next she visited the Museum of Natural History where she saw tons of artifacts of all types, including “her people,” the anthropoid apes.

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My daughter, you see, is a passionate physical anthropologist.

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Last, but not least, a visit to the Guinness brewery which she found disappointing in its modernity and antiseptic ambiance.  She did, however, enjoy a pint!

All in all, she had a great trip with many great encounters and experiences. Now, about her feelings about returning home….

Long Island, you see, just doesn’t offer the access to nature that she so craves, nor the handsome lads of Ireland, nor the excellent traditional music, nor the bustling pubs,…. You get the picture.  The only solution, to move there!

Why We Should Encourage Curiosity: The Case for Teaching Ignorance

A week ago, August 24th to be exact, I came upon this quote embedded in an editorial entitled The Case For Teaching Ignorance by Jamie Holmes in the NY Times:

“…in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.”

I couldn’t help but think of the recent Fox News TV debate by the odd assortment of Republican candidates for the Presidency. What I saw and heard, in addition to blustery Donald Trump, was a bunch of men making declarative, sweeping generalizations about their positions on various matters that were often ridiculous. It seemed they were trying to make their positions clear to the American people in the hope of becoming the favored candidate.

This kind of mano a mano debate leaves everyone dissatisfied. How can a few targeted, and sometimes loaded, questions responded to with truncated air-bites by the candidates give us the information we need for carefully choosing a new President? The process has almost become a parody of itself.

Many would agree that uncertainty is where we live at this point in time in the United States (and perhaps the world at large). We no longer have all the answers…that has become abundantly clear. Our Middle-East policies have failed, our financial institutions are failing working Americans, our education system is in turmoil, our medical system is in a state of constant flux. So how can a bunch of self-proclaimed experts on tv claim to have all the answers?

One of the few changes that I do support in the Common Core is the renewed emphasis on teaching students to ask meaningful questions in their quest for knowledge. Not only do I believe students need to be encouraged to ask more and better questions, I also believe that teachers need to become facilitators for seeking knowledge rather than experts.

“The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline–where knowledge meets ignorance extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Children are naturally curious and we ought to be focusing on deveoping their passionate minds. Before retirement, one of my favorite (albeit old-school) ways of beginning a new unit of study was to use a K/W/L chart. This consists of hanging up a large piece of chart paper on a wall or easel with three columns entitled What do you KNOW (about the subject); What do you WANT to know; and What have you LEARNED (as a result of the lesson). I am always very interested in the middle column, which becomes a list of the students’ questions, because it is that list that will drive our inquiry process.

Once we agree on what we collectively know as a class and record that information in the first column of the chart, I allow students to choose a question from the list of questions in the middle column that they can research alone or with a partner or small group. Becoming invested in seeking answers is what helps students dig deeper for information (another appealing Common Core principle ) and “own” what they discover. This process is so much more thought provoking and motivating than having me spoonfeed them everything I think they need to know.

It would have been so refreshing to see anyone on stage during the Republican debate not pretend to know all the answers but to pause and ask some questions of his own that might have helped reframe the debate into a more meaningful exercise for the American people. This would have taken courage, but isn’t that a quality we are seeking in a President?

“Our students will be more curious–and more intelligently so–if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.” Let’s help our students to realize that it’s ok to ask thoughtful questions; to not know all the answers; to understand that knowledge changes over time; to learn that seeking knowledge is most of the fun. If you get a chance to read the Times article, you may find yourself questioning, as I did, your own model for teaching and, perhaps, how we run our political campaigns.

Addendum: One of my heroes, Oliver Sacks, about whom I recently wrote on this blog, died this past weekend. In a feature written by Gregory Cowles in Monday’s NY Times, Dr. Sacks, reflecting on his youth, is quoted:

“The thousand and one questions I asked as a child…were seldom met by impatient or peremptory answers, but careful ones which enthralled me (though they were often above my head.) I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”

Thank you for sharing your deep curiosity about life. Rest in peace, Dr. Sacks.