6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Kahlil Gilbran on Teaching

"Whoever would be a teacher, let him begin by teaching himself before teaching others, and let him teach by examples before teaching by word. For he who teaches himself and rectifies his own ways is more deserving of respect and reverence than he who would teach others and rectify their ways." Joseph Sheban, ed. Wisdom of Kahlil Gibran(New York: Bantam Books, 1973), p. 93.


Human Mildew

Although Maine is not particularly known as a wet state, we have had a series of storms during the last week that have dumped an enormous amount of rain, about 6-10 inches total. It seems that because of the constant moisture and lack of sunlight, we have a newly discovered epidemic to contend with. In an article by dermatologist William Gallagher, M.D. (Bangor Daily News, 27 May 2005, op-ed page), several patients with “wooly growth coming out of the ears, and similar wooly changes . . . found on the eyebrows” have been diagnosed with “Human Mildew,” which is said to be a disease that gives the patient a “werewolf like appearance.”

Dr. Gallagher describes “Human Mildew” as a “rare condition caused by an overgrowth of yeasts, fungi and mold.” It is a condition, he says, that is “precipitated by constant wet weather.” He further says that many patients experience “depressive symptoms, i.e. irritability and episodes of crying.” Because very little seems to be actually known of the disease, it cannot be easily determined whether these symptoms are due to constant damp conditions, or to “unexplained toxic effects of fungi on the brain.”

The only “effective therapy” in treating this disease, he says, is “removal of the patient to a warm, sunny and dry environment.” In one case, a patient was “cleared of the lesions after spending a few days in Las Vegas.” Hopefully we will get a break in our weather, and begin to warm up and dry out. Otherwise, as Dr. Gallagher says, “we will be seeing more folks in the mall looking like characters from a Stephen King novel.”


A Third Grader's Perspective On Learning

"I'm into frogs. I don't learn that from school.
I learn that from books and I learn that from
the woods."

--Alex Hooper, a third-grader leading a team of
24 paddlers around Swan Lake to raise funds for
the Pine Tree Camp. "Quote of the Week," The
Republican Journal
, 26 May 2005, A4


Bill Gates on the State of the American High School

“America’s high schools are obsolete.
By obsolete, I don’t just mean they’re broken, flawed or underfunded,
though a case could be made for everyone of those points. By obsolete,
I mean our high schools...even when they’re working as designed...cannot
teach all of our students what they need to know today.”
Bill Gates,
National Education Summit on High Schools

If anyone else but Bill Gates had made the pronouncement that today’s high schools are “obsolete,” it probably would not even get so much as a yawn. After all, it’s been argued for several years now that our present educational system is clearly flawed. But for Gates to address the nation’s governors, along with other business and educational leaders in a February speech at the National Educational Summit on High Schools, and declare that today’s high schools are not designed to meet the specific needs and interests of our students, and leaves them ill-prepared to meet the challenges that will be expected of them later on when they enter college and the workforce, is akin to the proverbial shot that’s definitely been fired as a challenge for all of us to do something about it. Whether what he has said is heard and acted on remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested almost a billion dollars for the purpose of doing just that, helping to redesign and rebuild the American High School.

In doing so he also proposes in his speech a specific framework for developing better high schools that will be more responsive in meeting the needs and challenges of our students today. “The new three R’s,” as he says that will be the “new building blocks” are:

Rigor—making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that
prepares them for college or work;
Relevance—making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals;
Relationships—making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look
out for them, and push them to achieve.

There is much work that needs to be done in making such a transformation reality, but I would not just start with our high schools. It has been tirelessly argued that our entire educational system is a systemic failure. Because so many of our students who are graduated from our high schools are ill-prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead, we have experienced a tsunami of educational reform during the last several years from NCLB to individual states determining their own specific mandates. The graduating class of 2007 here in Maine for example is going to be in for a real shock. Under the competencies defined by the Maine Learning Results that they will be required to demonstrate mastery of in order to graduate, very few will be able to do so.

As educators, business and community leaders, we need to join the debate in discussing how we can positively change the school culture from pre-school through 12th grade to make it more responsive to the behavior and learning of our children. But more than simply challenging our most cherished assumptions in regard to teaching, and what an education should look like, we need to develop, as Gates argues, a sound pedagogy that informs educational practice, especially in terms of acknowledging that effective teaching can only occur by tailoring instruction to the specific needs and interests of our students, and by making what we teach, whether it’s English, science, social studies or math, relevant.

It is not that teachers teach that is important; it is that students learn. “Reform” is not the operative word. Reform will not keep a rust bucket running forever. There are only so many times it can be repaired before it just won’t go anymore.

copyright © 2005 by S. L. Cunningham
All rights reserved.


A Thought on Being Authentic

"Some of what we have learned is trivial; some has changed our lives forever. Much of the time, learning is a joy, especially when it meets a clearly felt need, takes us toward some destination, or helps us make sense of something, formally obscure. But sometimes it brings pain, and we struggle mightily not to see the obvious" (Daloz, Laurent A., Effective Teaching and Mentoring: Realizing the Transformational Power of Adult Learning Experiences (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series), 1986, p.1).


A Strengths-Based Approach to Classroom Management

Trying to vie for student’s attention in the classroom today certainly is not as easy as it was for teachers during my youth. A teacher today, aside from having to contend with student’s emotional and behavioral issues, has to compete with TV, video games, cell phones, pc’s, and a slew of other distractions. Teaching was never meant to be a form of entertainment, per se, yet many students have the unexpressed expectation of being entertained. Thus to get students interested in what you’re about, and become involved as active participants in the classroom, today’s teacher has to be a regular Felix the Cat with a potent magic bag full of learning strategies and tools to gain student’s interest, trust and participation.

As my own son has often proved, young people have incredible energy and enthusiasm, and trying to keep up with them is an incredible challenge in itself. Thus without clear expectations as to what is expected of our students while in the classroom can lead to spending most of the period being Marshall Dillon maintaining law and order. Too often class is said to have gone well if you survived another day without a confrontation with a student that escalated into a major blowout.

In How to Promote Children's Social and Emotional Competence, Carolyn Webster-Stratton offers a strengths-based approach to classroom management by developing a variety of techniques and strategies that will help both teachers and students realize success in the classroom. Even though she says her book is intended for teachers of students aged 3 to 10, her ideas can be easily utilized and applied to older students as well. But not just that, this is a book that could be a terrific resource for parents and homeschoolers. As she says, “ . . . you will find some of the proactive strategies used by teachers to help create a safe and predictable environment for. . . students to learn and a place where problem behaviors are less likely to occur,” (p.50).


Where's My Shorts!

When I taught eighth grade reading at Crosby Junior High, I had this one particular student in my Period 6 reading class that had cornered the market on “obnoxiousness.” Reading class was supposed to be quiet, but for whatever reasons, John found “silence” an extremely difficult concept to grasp. Every now and then he would have to resort to some measure, any measure, to break the silence. One day it was a belching spasm. Another time it was a gas attack that proved you could never have too many windows in a room, even if it was 20 below zero outside. But there was this one eventful day where he really outdid himself.

Somehow, just before coming to class, he had managed to get a black skirt. How, or where, I didn’t know, and at the time I think I didn’t really want to know. After the students had shared their responses to the books they had been reading, I had them settle in for silent reading. While everyone was quietly at their desks reading, including me, John managed to slip out of his Bermuda shorts, and then slip into the skirt. After putting it on he stood up and started to strut about the room. That’s when the commotion started. At first it was just a couple of giggles, but it was quickly followed by loud hysterical laughter.

During the excitement, one of the students noticed John’s shorts on the floor. While John was putting on his fashion show to everyone’s delight, the student reached over, grabbed the shorts, and then got up and walked over to my desk at the back corner of the room, and tossed them under my chair. After the student sat back down, I went over to my desk as if I were going to get a couple of books. I reached down and quickly snatched the shorts. Without anyone looking, I turned around and stuffed the shorts in my file cabinet.

I then returned to the front of the room and sat down at my table. After John had tired of amusing everyone, and the laughter started to fade back to a couple of chuckles, I redirected the students to settle back in and finish with their reading and writing their responses. John went to sit back down at his desk. Just before sitting down, he looked under his desk and froze. “Where’s my shorts,” he yelled!

The student who had hid John’s shorts under my desk seemed equally panicked when he looked over and saw they weren’t there. He cupped his hand over his mouth, and then put his head down between his arms on the desk. I never let on what I did. After the students had settled back in with their reading, John reluctantly resigned himself to sitting at his desk for the remainder of the period wearing the black skirt he had slipped into.

Just before the bell rang, I retrieved his shorts from the filing cabinet and placed them behind my back. When the bell rang John was near panic. “Mr. C.," he said as he looked at me with a pained look. "Someone took my shorts. I can’t go to the rest of my classes like this.”

I looked at John and said, “The next time you decide to play a practical joke, you might want to think about the consequences.” I then handed him back his shorts. I told him he had detention, and then left to go on break. “Oh, John, after you change back into your shorts, shut the door on your way out. And hurry, you only have a couple of minutes before Period 7 starts.