Ending on an Up Note: Woohoo! Top 30%

A preview of the results of Gallup’s upcoming “State of the American Workplace” popped up in multiple media outlets a few days ago. Only 30% of workers report that they are “actively engaged” with their jobs…and fully 18% describe themselves as “actively disengaged.” Finally, I’m in the top 30% of something.

It will be interesting to see if the report provides a distribution of engagement by job. My field observations at our college are cause for optimism. If my colleagues aren’t engaged, they should all be teaching theater arts. Not everyone can claim “Whistle While You Work” as a theme song, but neither would they choose “Working on the Chain Gang.” (Here’s Laurence Fishburne leading the song in this scene from Cadence:

Like any job, teaching college has its less-than-lovely aspects, but our work also offers some great rewards. So, even if we aren’t going to find ourselves on a Forbes list or a red carpet anytime soon, maybe we can nod our heads in agreement with the little girl in this currently popular commercial:

Like a lot of our students— and a lot of us—the little girl at the end of the spot sets out from a less-than-affluent home, fearlessly claiming her spot in life.  Something tells me she’ll end up in the top 30%, too.


The Culture of Education

(pleasureteam note: Brian describes another encounter with a student from our college—he seems to be a magnet for these meetings. We’ll write more about the importance of encouragement in upcoming posts.)

B picTwo young men arrived to move our washer and dryer to our new residence. They had the strength, the tools, and the knowhow.

I asked, “Are you from around here?” and learned that Matt (Kenneth M. Morris) is a twenty year old who has worked two months full time for James Knight Appliance. He also just completed his first semester at Hopkinsville Community College, having taken four courses while receiving financial aid.

Matt gave me permission to talk here about our conversation, and in fact he was excited when I told him about the blog. “I want to go worldwide,” he said.

new washer/dryer set

new washer/dryer set (Photo credit: chris.corwin)

I asked how his semester went, and he did well in two courses but needed to withdraw from two. One he withdrew from was Math 150, college algebra, but the neat news is that he had placed into it and enjoyed it, especially Professor Frank Montgomery: “He’s a smart man,” said Matt. “I understood the concepts but didn’t do well on tests and was behind in my homework, and Mr. Montgomery advised me to withdraw with a week to go.”

Concerned that Matt might have been discouraged over his semester, I asked if he planned to go back in the fall, and he intends to. I told him that the biggest obstacle I see with students is not expecting the unexpected. Things are going to happen: flat tires, sickness, family crises, and money issues.

Roadblock on Bridgeport Rd

Roadblock on Bridgeport Rd (Photo credit: NecroRogIcon)

It’s hard to go to work, go to school full time, and tend to family. “Perseverance is the main quality that I see in students who succeed and press on,” I said.

This isn’t to say that education doesn’t need to be postponed at times, but it’s less likely to happen when a student gets used to education as a culture. Once a student gets a mindset that includes education as a necessity, education gets bumped up on the priority list, and a student is more likely to get through adversity and keep moving toward a degree or credential.

Matt expressed concern about knowing what to concentrate on when he reads. “If I take a history course, I don’t know what to make sure to remember from the book.” He just had GEN 102, so the idea of strategy has been planted, and we talked about looking for the main idea in a paragraph or on a page. “I’m sure you have strategies for other things in your life.”

He liked this and mentioned how when he was first on the wrestling team at Christian County High School that he got whipped badly every time. “I developed my technique and started to win.”

Two high school students competing in scholast...

Two high school students competing in scholastic wrestling (collegiate wrestling done at the high school and middle school level). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I’m sure you’ll find your technique with studying,” I said. Matt and his coworker Sean got into the bright red pickup. It turns out that Sean has a connection with our family that I hadn’t known until chatting with the guys. Sean’s sister was a wonderful caregiver to my wife’s parents in their last year and a half and has a long-term relationship with one of the other women who served as caregivers.

As Matt and Sean were getting ready to back out of the driveway, I encouraged Matt again and then said to Sean, “A little education wouldn’t hurt you either.” He grinned, and I reflected on two worlds, hard to bring together but not impossible.

Who Needs a Teacher?

npr logo

npr logo (Photo credit: photologue_np)

One of the pleasures, indeed the only real pleasure, of a recurrent 850-mile solo drive that I endure, is the freedom to gorge on hour upon hour of NPR. (OK, so there is also the transient pleasure of consuming gas station goodies, but the subsequent guilt—not to mention the car full of accusatory crumbs and wrappers—quickly cancels any joy in that indulgence.) In the interval between predawn takeoff and sunset arrival, a nerd like me can amass an impressive array of new info, the sharing of which my dear husband patiently endures on our evening walks. (Sample from Sunday’s excursion: An experienced dealer in Afghan carpets can assay the quality of a rug by rubbing his fingernails across its back and noting the pitch of the sound. Who knew?)

The best of the best on this journey was an episode of TED Radio Hour hosted by Guy Raz on “Unstoppable Learning.”  The show featured the ever-intriguing Annie Murphy Paul…can’t wait for her new book Brilliant…and the talk by Rita Pierson that we featured in this blog on 5/30/13, along with some interesting follow-up discussion.

Sugata Mitra "Hole in the wall”

But the most riveting, and perhaps a bit unsettling, segment featured Sugata Mitra addressing “How Can Children Teach Themselves?” Dr. Mitra designed the astounding “Hole in the Wall” experiments which indicated, in his own words, that “In nine months, a group of children left alone with a computer in any language will reach the same standard as an office secretary in the West.” He was awarded the million-dollar 2013 TED prize to “build a place where children can explore and learn on their own — and teach one another — using resouces from the worldwide cloud.” (Read more about this by clicking here.)

You really should allow yourself the pleasure of experiencing Dr. Sitra’s gentle, humorous, and humble explanation of his work by clicking here. It’s truly delightful and will make you happy that you share the planet with someone like him. Don’t you have 12 minutes and 29 seconds for that? Listen while you clear off that messy desk!

1973 Delhi Slum

1973 Delhi Slum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1999, while trying to determine how people interact with kiosks, Dr. Sitra stuck a computer in a hole in the wall three feet above the ground in a New Delhi slum.  It quickly attracted a crowd of children. Dr. Sitra offered no explanation to them. He returned to his office to monitor that computer remotely.  Nothing happened for a long time, but suddenly, despite the lack of a keyboard, Microsoft Paint appeared, followed by Microsoft Word. The children had figured out the character map and were using it to type on the screen.

When skeptics insisted that someone had assisted the children, Dr. Sitra tried the same experiment in a remote village. When he returned, the children were playing games on the computer, demanding a better mouse and explaining that because the computer only used English, they had been forced to teach themselves English.

After an American critic labeled the phenomenon “minimally effective learning,” Dr. Sitra designed “an experiment doomed to fail.” He set up a computer–again, English only—at a roadside in an impoverished village to see if children could teach themselves the mechanisms of DNA replication. And left it there. Upon his return, the students said that they “understood nothing.” You will have to listen to the talk to find out what really happened in his absence. (Teaser: it’s the best line in the whole talk.)

DNA replication or DNA synthesis is the proces...

DNA replication or DNA synthesis is the process of copying a double-stranded DNA molecule. This process is paramount to all life as we know it (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. Sitra feels that we should “look at learning as the product of educational self-organization.” As I listened, I began to wonder if the best thing that I could do for my college students might be to hand them a bunch of complex material, leave the room, and return in a couple of months.  Could that be right? Am I actually useless, or worse, obstructive? Was Rita Pierson wrong about the role of relationship in learning?

I need not have worried. In a subsequent talk during the same episode, Dr. Sitra explains the importance of an encouraging presence to assist learning.  I’m saving that for a subsequent post.

Tech Tuesday: Format Painter

Each Tuesday, pleasureinlearning brings you Tech Tuesday.  Come back each week for more ways to become efficient and effective in your use of technology. 


The Format Painter as been in Microsoft Office for a long time, but beginning in Office 2007 it holds a prominent position on the toolbar.  You can find it next to the copy and paste buttons on the left of the Home Tab in each of the Microsoft Office applications.  Format PainterThe Format Painter quickly takes the formatting from one part of your document and “paints” it on another part of your document.

To use the format painter:

  1. Place your cursor amongst the text that has the source formatting.
  2. Click the Format Painter Button.
  3. Select the destination text to apply the formatting.

If you double-click the Format Painter, you will be able to use it repeatedly as if you had the Midas touch.  Use the Format Painter in almost any of the Microsoft Office applications.


Educated People Have Their Moments Part II

B picThe mailbox needs replacing. There it stands, a standard plastic mailbox at the street, sitting atop a decorative post. The box is black, and the pull down door is missing, doubtless from decades of use by my wife’s parents who lived there. It’s a beaten looking box, ready for the new one, but mailbox replacement can be low on one’s priority list in the shuffle of moving. It’s distressing though to look into a mailbox without its cover. It just looks so ill clad and helpless, besides which little details are part of life, both in form and function. The form part can even include the cosmetic, because no matter how educated people are, women still wear jewelry, and men adjust their belt buckles to line up with their zippers.

OK, so what’s the problem here? The mailbox is functional, but yesterday’s 50 paces to the box revealed a new surprise. Inside was a stack of mail for the resident across the street, whose box is on the odd side, even though the house is an even number.

Old mailbox

Old mailbox (Photo credit: daniel spils)

One problem is now two problems, and there’s gotta be a law somewhere that says when two problems exist, a previously existing third problem becomes irritatingly evident. So now the box is missing its front flap, plus it has a pile of mail addressed to the person across the street. Now the third problem is glaring. In life, we try not to see details that hopefully ignoring can resolve. As I stood looking at my pitiful mailbox at the house we’re soon to move into, the faded white streaks of bird drizzle stood out along the front and back of each side. Strangely, the middle section of the box remained pristine, though faded black from years of sun beating down on the box.

I knew that the box is to be replaced, so the question of a makeshift flap was not on the do-list, and bleaching off the bird art was not a priority either. Getting the right mail to the right box took me over. How could I help the carrier? One white marker or crayon could solve it by writing the numerals on that pristine area on each side of the box.

A search in the house turned up no marker or crayon. Sometimes, the educated person has to think like a child. What would a child do? A child would go to the children’s art supplies. In the process of moving, all of those, materials used by the grandchildren had been packed in a box. My wife, Tandy, said, “I can find them in two minutes if you bring me a knife to cut the tape on this box.” She not only knew where the box was but had labeled it, a fact that proves that wisdom can even supersede education at times.

Crayon Bin - 40/365 - 9 February 2011

Crayon Bin – 40/365 – 9 February 2011 (Photo credit: John Flinchbaugh)

Sure enough, inside the box was a small decorative tin, and in it was a white crayon. Joy can be in small packages. Crayon in hand, I went straight to the mail box and started forming the numerals on each side of the box. Crayon on plastic may not be a standard medium, and so this took repetition. Irritation at having to retrace the numerals over and over gave way to the feel of the crayon tip sliding over previous layers of crayon until each numeral stood out boldly. There is no “Control B” when manually applying crayon. But then, just as a keyboard has its tactile sensation, the swirling and linear motions with the crayon offered a kinesthetic and rhythmic pleasure. Not only that, a plan had come together, and a problem had been solved. The missing flap and the bird art would soon be solved with a new box.

Quadratic Equation

Quadratic Equation (Photo credit: ianqui)

Walking the 50 paces back up the driveway, I couldn’t have been happier if I had solved a quadratic equation. I know that sounds shallow, but sometimes it’s true. And besides, whoever invented quadratic equations probably started with smaller problems first, one step at a time, which is a hallmark of education and always will be.

Ending on an Up Note: Beware of Prestige!

One way to know that you’re finally approaching grownup-hood is that you become more honest with yourself about why you’re doing something. The trendy term is “transparency,” but I think it’s just good ol’ honesty dressed up in new clothes. That clearer vision provides some immunity to doing things for all the wrong reasons. In “How to Do What You Love,” Paul Graham shares these thoughts on the demon Prestige:


baited hook

baited hook (Photo credit: ooki_op)


Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.


(You can read more of Graham’s interesting essay by clicking here.)

Watch out for the hook baited with prestige.

Educated People Have Their Moments, Part I

B picOne gets educated to get a job, solve problems—advance the world a notch or two. There’s critical thinking, communication, math, and all kinds of skills that go into making the 21st century maven. After an education, out pops the new person, newly equipped.

Those of us with diplomas are already out there contributing, and occasionally an old familiar challenge tests everything we’ve learned—moving. Moving from one house to another, for one thing, requires a prompt. But in this case, an instructor isn’t there to write the prompt. That would be too easy. The educated mover must write the prompt and execute the instructions. A lot of spatial considerations factor in as well with the moving and placing of furniture and wall art. This is where I’m an ardent feminist; it takes a woman to plan much of this.

Moving Van, Brookline Moving Company and Mover...

Moving Van, Brookline Moving Company and Movers, 1:00 P.M. (Photo credit: MIT-Libraries)

Some tasks, though, require the sleuth knack that a student picks up in an education. Recently, Clark Anderson—brother to my wife Tandy—stored a piece of history in the house into which we’re moving. It’s a jacket worn by Clark’s great uncle Jack Tandy, who was a captain in the Marines during WWI. Clark put it into a closed plastic bag with half a dozen or so mothballs and placed it on a high shelf in the laundry room and went back home to California.

People shuffling in and out of the house during all the moving commented on the heavy mothball smell on that end of the house, but no one could figure out how a closed bag on a high shelf could account for the pungent smell. It is a strange one. Someone got the idea once to combine “insecticide and deodorant” to create mothballs (Wikipedia).

1,4-Dichlorobenzene (Mothball) Crystals

1,4-Dichlorobenzene (Mothball) Crystals


Meanwhile, no one wanted to get a short stepladder and reach up high to get the bag down, and besides, how could a closed bag cause this? Tandy emailed Clark, and he replied that he had put a few moth balls in there with the jacket and there might be an open box in there too. Tandy interpreted the “in there” to mean in the bag.

She asked me, “Would you get the bag down and look inside?” which I did, and there were the six small mothballs. But how could they be causing the smell? I took them out anyway and disposed of them outside.

Ten minutes later, Tandy handed me an item from a box she was unpacking, and I walked over to another shelf to place it, and right before my eyes, stood an open box of mothballs. Aha!

English: Mothballs

We’re not close to being moved in yet, so when we returned home later, she called Clark and told him the story laughing, and Clark said, “I told you in an email.” Tandy had deleted it, but Clark checked his sent box, and their discussion centered on the ambiguity of “in there,” which Clark had intended meaning the Laundry room, but Tandy interpreted to mean in the bag, to which Clark conceded, “I could have communicated more clearly.” Things like this can either drive one mad or fuel the relish for small details in communication. In our family, it’s the relish that wins.

Doughboy InThe Elements

Doughboy InThe Elements (Photo credit: ChrisM70)

The stream of people in the house recently included a number of highly educated family members. Thankfully, they all get along and have a sense of humor. No wonder wars get started though. I think though maybe we need a refresher visit to campus to sharpen our real world applications of our educations.

As a postscript on Uncle Jack, Clark says, “I also had his pearl handled dress sword engraved ‘Jack Tandy.’ It got stolen out of my farm house. Ask your readers to watch out for it and collect a reward.”