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Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: The Importance of Being Teachable

written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

One of my favorite university classes is my section of String Techniques classes that includes non string players. In this class my task is to teach future band directors how to be future orchestra directors. During the class I teach my students how to play a stringed instrument, although I do not expect that these students will continue to play the violin or viola (they might). The reason I enjoy this class so much is because the students strongly remind me of our need to be teachable.

Both parents and teachers can easily run afoul of this character issue. I have a theory that many teachers were drawn to teaching as a profession because of our innate ability to tell everybody what we know. As a teacher or parent, we are daily put in positions to instruct and guide students or children who do not know as much as we do. We can find it easy therefore to forget how to be students ourselves.

What does it mean to be teachable? Perhaps it is easier to describe someone with an unteachable attitude. When someone is not teachable, you will see such behaviors as:
  • Whining. This behavior includes expressions that make noise but do not really contribute anything useful to the learning process. What is a teacher supposed to do when the student says things like:
    • This is hard.
    • This is uncomfortable.
    • This is weird.
    • It hurts when I do that.
    • My hand aches when I hold it that way.
  • Stubborn Resistance. This behavior includes reasons why the student does not have to execute the instructions:
    • My body just doesn't work that way.
    • My hand isn't big enough.
    • My arms aren't long enough.
    • I can't reach around to play that way.
    • I don't really need to play in order to be able to teach.
    • I don't intend to be an orchestra director (I make sure this student has my phone number so he can call me later when he gets his first orchestra director job or assignment).
  • Passive Resistance. This behavior includes continued incorrect posture despite frequent teacher corrections and instruction. Instead of openly defying instructions with verbal comments, this type of behavior is unexpressed. Still, I believe the underlying mental comments that produce passive resistance include:
    • I don't need to do this the way you tell me.
    • I can still make it work when I do it differently than you instruct.
    • Why can't I just hold it this way?
  • Frustration. This behavioral reaction is typical in most learning situations because students expect things to come easy and are disappointed when new skills or abilities do not come after one or two attempts.
  • Defeat. This behavior includes expressions as to why the student should be permitted to quit. This attitude shows up after a few attempts. Probably this is the hardest attitude that I have to combat as a teacher.
    • I can't do this.
    • I'm not cut out to play the violin.
    • This isn't the best instrument for me.
Notice that the above attitude responses have one thing in common: they are negative responses to a positive situation. Instead of greeting the instruction or task with a can-do attitude, the student minimizes the assignment by thinking and expressing reasons why it cannot work, why the student cannot do it, or why the student should not even bother to attempt it. The student expresses an unwillingness to even try and accepts a justification that excuses the student from even learning the skill.

I do believe that the above attitudes are natural human expressions. We all do these same types of behaviors. These are natural responses. We have all had our glorious moments of unteachableness. So how do we practice being teachable? Here are a few suggestions:
  • Learn a new skill. This can be something as simple as learning how to knit or play the guitar, to learning a new language or starting a new hobby. Take a class. Sign up for something that is entirely new and that places you in the position of student.
  • Watch your language. Be aware of any negative language that may creep into your learning environment. Avoid expressions such as I can't or this is hard or I'm uncomfortable. Cultivate positive expressions, empowering affirmations, and uplifting and encouraging statements.
  • Guard your attitude. Placing yourself in the position of student is a humbling experience. You are admitting that you do not know everything, and this attitude can be difficult for many of us to accept, if we even recognize that we have this problem. As students we need to cultivate the mindset that we are students and learning from someone else. We need to accept the instruction that our teachers give us with good grace and an open willingness to give it a good shot, and maybe five to 10 times of repetition. If we are Suzuki proponents then we need to give it 10,000 repetitions in order to prove that we are indeed Suzuki proponents. We need to close the door on any attitude that allows us to refuse to do something, to give up, or to excuse ourselves from the task. We need to focus on the attitude that does not allow ourselves to divorce ourselves from the work that is required to develop a new ability.
  • Enjoy the process. Rather than suffer frustration because of unreasonable expectations that you will learn things quickly, discipline yourself to enjoy the process of learning. Where does the attitude that we can learn things quickly come from anyway? We know that it is impossible to learn things quickly, whether we are children or adults. Skill development takes time. Allow yourself to experience the learning process. Be fascinated with how you learn, with how you approach new things, and with the joy that comes from adding something new to your human experience.
  • Foster fascination. Allow yourself to discover new things about yourself, how you learn, how you follow instructions, what you find tricky, what you perform easily, and what your attitude strengths and weaknesses are. Let the learning process fascinate you as you discover who you really are underneath the teacher or parent facade.
Learning something new and cultivating the attitude of teachableness is a good discipline for all teachers and parents because we will become better at teaching and parenting if we understand what our students and children experience. When we place ourselves in the same learning process, we remind ourselves what it is like to be a student. We can be more patient and accepting of our students' or children's experiences when they experience bumps in the road.

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Thursday, February 27 (followup): After writing the article posted last Monday about being teachable, I told my section of string techniques class about the article I had posted that day. I showed them the blog post on the screen, and they read through the article. As the class read, there were moments when one student or another would speak up with delight, "There I am!" or "That's me!" Even though I had not written specifically about any particular student, they were intent on finding themselves represented in the article. The rest of the class was quite enjoyable, as each student seemed to find joy in catching themselves whenever they whined or complained.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Quoting Myself

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Recently I have derived a great deal of enjoyment by quoting myself. In the past I have regularly put "words of wisdom" written by others on my office door. These quotes relate to all manner of things that pertain to a student's university experience. I collect quotes from others regarding life pursuits, wisdom, goal setting, character building, etc. A few weeks ago though, I decided to write my own quote:
"The habit of making excuses reveals a weakness of character." -- Paula E. Bird
Underneath that quote I included a three-page document written by a University of Wisconsin professor that refuted the types of excuses that his students made on course evaluation forms. This document reminded me of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's response to a caller, who answered the question of why she chose to do something that I thought was splendidly idiotic and without any thought, "I dunno." Dr. Laura was horrified: "This is your life! How can you not give what you do any thought whatsoever?"

I agree. I agree as a person, a teacher, and as a university instructor. My life and your lives require thoughtfulness and appropriate attention. We should make conscious choices about what it is we want to do, why we want to do it, and what we want to accomplish in the end. Our lives are not something that should be spent with an attitude that cavalierly brushes off any involvement or personal responsibility. So, I have begun my own thoughtful exercise: crafting my own office door quotes:
"Today is one step closer to your future. What will you do today to prepare for it?" 
"Don't confuse uncomfortable with different. Uncomfortable is when someone is poking you with a stick. Different is when you are building a new habit. Uncomfortable, you try to stop. Different, you encourage."
 Making up my own quotes is fun! I have to think about how to craft my remark so that it is short and memorable. What a great writing and thinking exercise!

What quote can you write for yourself and your students this week?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Left-Handedness: How to be a Better Parent and Teacher

Written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

"We must recognize that we were born as wonderful human beings with limitless possibilities. . . . Being Ambidextrous is Ideal." -- Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, Ability Development from Age Zero

Dr. Suzuki's discussion about how we train our children to be right-handed has stuck with me for years. I think that it makes sense to be ambidextrous, and in many areas of doing things, we probably are ambidextrous. I know that I open jars and pour liquid with as much ease with my left hand as I do with my right hand. I play the piano with both hands, and I am able to perform very difficult musical passages with my left hand on the violin. This observation supports the argument that we can learn to use our "other" hand as well as our dominant hand. I also know that I found it difficult to write with my left hand as well as perform other daily activities left-handed. Is what Dr. Suzuki wrote about our limitless possibilities true with regard to the possibility of training ourselves to be other-handed?

I took Dr. Suzuki at his word, and in the past six months I have pursued diligently the ability to be left-handed. I began with the simplest of tasks. Whereas I normally wiped dry my shower doors with a towel in my right hand, I began switching to my left hand to complete the task. I knew that I was used to switching hands when I was bathing, so I thought that Dr. Suzuki was onto something. I felt stilted when I wiped the doors with my left hand, but I persisted. Then one day I discovered that it was easier if I moved the towel in a different directional path than my right hand used. While I would wipe horizontally with my right hand, the left hand felt easier doing the task with a vertical motion, so I continued to follow this different direction. After awhile, wiping the doors with either hand felt the same.

Learning to write with my left hand felt very strange and uncomfortable. I had difficulty writing in cursive and still do, although I keep plugging away at it. I worked a little bit every day at printing something with my left hand. I began completing Sudoku puzzles daily with my left hand. I forced myself to print items on my grocery store list with my left hand. Eventually I began writing comments in my symphony music with my left hand. Once I allowed my left hand to show me which was the easiest way to form the letters, I had an easier time. As with the shower door lesson, my left hand showed me that it was easier in some cases to form the letters differently than my right hand would do.

I puzzled over this, and my theory is that the left hand feels more comfortable forming the letters differently in order to see what it is writing. If the left hand pursues the same path to forming the letters as the right hand does, then I have difficulty seeing what I am writing. This is most likely why many left-handed people write in a fashion that curves their hand high above the surface of their writing, so that they are able to see what they are doing.

After a while, I made other discoveries as well. I became accustomed to the feeling of strangeness that I experienced with my left hand, and when that feeling would show up in other areas, I was able to ride the wave. The feeling of strangeness was more of a feeling of differentness, and instead of avoiding it, I learned to dwell in it. When I worked on a tricky passage in my piano music, I was tempted to finger things in a way that avoided the weaker fingers, so that I could shy away from that feeling of strangeness. Now, after having lived with this strange sensation during my left-handedness project, I was able to encourage myself to use the weaker fingers again and again until the strange feeling became more familiar. I seemed able to use my piano hands in a stronger way, certainly with mental strength if not also physical.

I became fascinated with my left-handed experiment. Other people told me that there was a brain benefit as well, that by teaching myself to use both hands equally, I was also helping to strengthen my brain in a positive way, which might influence my future ability to fight off dementia or other mental deterioration. I started to develop the habit of switching hands in most everything I did, such as eating, brushing my hair and teeth, and cooking. When I shovel cedar chips or muck out manure, I switch sides with the shovel or rake. When I beat eggs, I switch hands with the whisk.

Always, I observed how I would struggle when I tried to match both hands, meaning that I had difficulties making the left hand do a mirror image of what my right hand did. At these moments, I spent a little more time trying to do the task in different directions, until I found the direction that seemed the most comfortable for my left hand. Just as my car's windshield wipers work at different angles, so my hands seemed to work better independently when I allowed them to move in different ways.

What does this discussion about learning to be other-handed have to do with parenting and teaching? I puzzled over that thought too, because Dr. Suzuki felt it was important enough to include this talk in his book. He must have had some pedagogical reason to include it. Here are some of the thoughts that I have come up with, and I note that these thoughts impact on our ability to parent and teach well. 

Patience. At first my right hand would become quite impatient with the slow progress that my left hand made. I found myself constantly fighting the right hand's very strong urge to take the pencil or spoon out of my left hand and complete the task quickly and efficiently. As I experimented with my left hand project, I discovered that I was practicing my ability to be patient with progress that was at a slower speed.

As parents and teachers, do we not all struggle with this same issue? Why can't you play this piece better/faster/easier? Haven't we worked on it enough to be at that place already? We struggle with thoughts like this, but as my left hand experiment has taught me, each hand has a different speed (at least at this moment), and if I honor that speed, then I will make progress slowly but surely. So I practice patience. As parents and teachers, this practice gift of the lesson of patience will help us to be better at parenting and teaching, with students and with ourselves.

Differentness. My left hand struggled to do things exactly the same way as my right hand, yet when I allowed my left hand to show me another possible way to do things, I was able to use my left hand easier. When I whisked my eggs, I struggled with my left hand until the moment when I allowed my left hand to move in a different direction. Then it was easy.

Children and students are different from one another, as we parents and teachers are. All of us have different learning styles, personality styles, backgrounds, and environments. We do not fit one mold. We do not find one path or direction to fit every situation. If we rest in the arms of patience and allow ourselves the freedom to discover different paths, we will deepen our ability to learn and teach.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Monday Morning Check In: Today I Will

written by Paula E. Bird, copyright 2014

Welcome to February! Where did January go? If you have had a month (or December) like I had, you are scratching your head and wondering whether you were even awake during the past month. How can a month go so quickly?

Time to check in and regroup on some of those goal plans and priorities we had set at the beginning of last month. How much progress have we made? Sometimes I have to fight the perspective that I have made little movement forward. That is when I look back to the very beginning to note exactly how far I came. Every few years I climb South Sister, a hiker's mountain in Central Oregon. I make the climb to remind me of so many different things regarding goal setting and achievement and perspective. This instance I want to talk about achievement on a goal path.

The South Sister climb is arduous. I cannot say that any part of the hike is easy. Once I reach the summit, the hike is still difficult because the temptation is to lie down and take a very long nap into the next century. Of course I know that I need to take advantage of the moment and traverse to the other side of the summit to admire the view. To make the steep climb and then not take in the entire view seems like a silly waste of time and effort.

My favorite part of the hike though is not the summit. My fondest memories involve the point during the ascent when I stop to turn around and admire the view behind me. At this point, I gain perspective about my efforts. While I am facing forward and straining to make progress, I have to fight off feelings of despair. This really is a tough climb, no matter how great in shape I might be. I have to fight off many moments when I am tempted to stop. The experience is quite a mental challenge and strengthens the psychological muscles as well as the physical ones. There are many spots along the way when I want to quit trying and sit down.

When these moments get to be too much, that is the point when I turn around. The view behind me is as beautiful and spectacular as the view will be once I reach the top. The best part though is comprehending exactly how far I have come from my starting point. Even one-third of the climb up looks enormous when I turn around to view it behind me!

Here we have begun February, and I am guessing that you may have hit one of those psychological moments, when you ask yourself questions or battle negative self-talk like:

Is this really worth it? Am I going to make it? This isn't any fun. I don't want to live my life working this hard. Why did I want to set this goal?

This is the moment when you need to turn around and take a good look at how far you have traveled in the past month. Where did you start? What did that picture look like? How many miles have you walked or run? How many pounds have you lost? How many words have you written? How many books have you read? How many bags of trash have you cleaned out of your closets? How many days have you practiced?

I do not know what your particular goals have been, but I am fairly certain that you have made some progress. Instead of beating yourself up because you have not made as much progress as you would have liked for the effort you perceive that you have given, still let us not sneer at the progress we have made. Even the act of taking the first step is an act to celebrate because it helps to overcome inertia and build momentum. Each act you perform or step you take will strengthen your muscles of choice, discipline, perseverance, and patience. A plant will not grow overnight; you will not achieve a goal in that same speed as well. As I am fond of reminding myself from time to time, thanks to the flylady people (fly lady), I did not get to this point in a day, and it will take me longer than a day to get to a new place.

My most powerful tool is the sticky note on my mirror that says, "Today I will _______." My answer each day will determine the direction I will go. I may fill in the blank with a baby step toward my ultimate goal, but as my South Sister climbs have taught me, these baby steps add up in a hurry.

How will you fill in the blank?

Today I will ____________________.