Breathe Deeply: Another Kind of Patience

karenPatience is a virtue, and it also seems to be the theme of the month.  On April 21, Brian offered some thoughts on the role of patience in students’ mastery of writing. The latest issue of Real Simple (both the magazine and the website are pleasures) featured an article, “Wait for It,” by Ingela Ratledge detailing current research about variability in individual patience levels and techniques for increasing one’s patience quotient. While all the strategies sound promising, two of them reminded me of a pair of phrases that have become slogans in my classes: “Breathe deeply” and “Remain Calm”

Learning all the terms and processes in anatomy & physiology is a daunting prospect for most students.  Even the most determined soul may “hit the wall” when faced with one-too-many busy diagrams. When faced with an apparently incomprehensible sequence of steps described in unfamiliar terminology, the desperate sensation of drowning can overwhelm. It’s hard to learn when you want to flee.Glycolysis_and_respiration_cycles

Anticipating these pits of mental quicksand, I offer my classes a couple of stories (’cause we love those stories, don’t we, Anne?) that seem to help.

When my younger son was three, he suffered a dental calamity that required sedation at our beloved pedodontist’s office. The protocol at Dr. Nunn’s place dictated that the patient was taken to the treatment room while the parent sat in the bright waiting room, pretending to be OK with this. After a very long time, a slightly drunken child was returned to me. I bundled him into his car seat and headed for home.

“What happened back there?” I asked.

“Well, dey put dis ting on my nose.” (The “th” blend was a late arrival at our house.)

“And then…?”

Breather“Dey said, ‘Breeve Deeply‘” (He offered a remarkable imitation of an earnest adult voice.)

“And then what happened?”

“And den I went home!”

Breeve Deeply”  became an enduring part of our family lore, offered up whenever any of us felt overwhelmed by life. I share the story in class, and soon someone calls out “Breathe deeply” whenever a slide suggests tough going ahead.

The second story grew out of the monthly ritual of checking the AED (automatic external defibrillator) at the clinic where I worked. As the apparatus was opened, a mechanical voice would loudly order us to “Remain Calm.” I’m not sure that remaining calm is an option—or even the best course of action—if someone is making a credible attempt to die right in front of you. Still, the ridiculously automated instruction was contagious. Crazy situations like overbooked flu shot clinics or the day before school started found us advising one another to “Remain Calm” in our best robot voices.Remain-Calm

As I introduce a bewildering topic like cellular respiration, replete with crazy-making diagrams, I sprinkle a few “Remain Calm” slides into the presentation. Before long, a chorus of “Remain Calm” greets every frightening concept.

Perhaps this seems a little silly. And yet too many of my students have never been able to persevere through challenging coursework because they haven’t learned to be patient—to hang in there until the fog clears and the desperate confusion passes. If they can handle their frustration at not understanding a concept immediately, I can generally lead them through the swamp. Learning  to tolerate the temporary discomfort of feeling lost allows them to eventually master the important concepts.

And that, friends, takes patience. Breathe deeply. Remain calm.






Inaugural Reflection

Presidential inauguration at Amherst College

Presidential inauguration at Amherst College

“What’s the deal with the inauguration of our new college President?” I was asked in a discussion the other day with a friend and colleague. I explained that the hope behind the inauguration was to get the college off to a new and clean start with a new president. “Will it work?” came the reply.

That is a good question. Will the pomp and circumstance change things? Teaching religion in the college, I often have a chance to talk about ritual. Often we use rituals to give a voice to deep hopes that the ritual helps to seal with solemnity. My friend Tsering Phuntsok talks to me a lot about the power of intention. A ritual will work, but only people are willing to invest intention in it. weddingA priest comes in to marry two people armed only with a few pages of script and two rings. Somehow when the script is read, there is a change and people who were single are now married. We call it performative language—a language that enacts itself in words; does that work? Yes, sometimes.

So my reply to my colleague is that it just might work, but only if we believe in the power of our intention to start anew, only if we “inaugurate” ourselves into a new way of being and dedicate ourselves to the intention to start afresh. begin on slateSo I guess, what I am asking is that my colleagues believe in the symbolic, ritual significance of the robes that we will don. They are the same robes that we don when we grant our students with their degrees—the same investiture of meaning that we dramatize at graduation can also be deployed in the inauguration of a new leader as we look toward the future of our school. I think of it as a ritual of hope.

Ending on an Up Note: Good Words

Kid President has millions of devoted fans.  We posted his “Pep Talk” video several months ago, so it’s time for another dose. Maybe we should try making one of his twenty good things our personal word(s) of the day for the next three weeks.

Which do you like best?

Thank you for reading and watching. (See, there’s #20 already.)

Enjoy your weekend.

If You Post It, They Will Come…

ReadingthuRsday-R2Mathematics and reading are sometimes viewed as opposite concepts that can exist without impairing the functionality of the other. In the classroom students are content to just read or just do math, but when you combine them using the dreaded word problem, students react as if they have been kicked by a horse. greek-theatre-mask-Y1CtReading a math textbook is a much different skill than reading just about any other kind of book. Math textbooks rely on the premise that you need to grasp and apply the concept before you turn the page because you will be building on the concept that you just read. Oftentimes students choose not to even pick up the textbook because not only is it not written like a novel but it requires effort to understand what is going to be on the following page. mathphobia1There is no escapism. Many of the books written about math lead the reader down a path that becomes a black hole, discussing concepts that make even math aficionados cross their eyes.

What is the solution? We cannot discuss math without having some application to the real-world which requires the use of the word problem. No matter the carrot most students will not pick up the math textbook. Can we make the math useful and fun? Yes! We can begin by bringing the math home to the student by using stuff they are already familiar with in pop culture, in the news, or relating to something they find interesting. I always begin my lesson in College Algebra dealing with parabolic shapes by bringing in an article about people being burned and items catching on fire on the sidewalk outside a popular casino on the Vegas Strip. We discuss the death ray and why it is happening.092910hotel It usually elicits much interest in how this could happen to someone who spent millions of dollars designing and building a casino. Do the student enjoy movies or popular fiction like The Hunger Games? Most of my students do so I bring in another article to discuss probability and decision making behind such concepts as should you consider entering your children’s name into the lottery in exchange for more food?

umbrellasWhile these examples are great for the classroom, how do we encourage students to read outside of the classroom? One such way is to post student work. I was amazed at the commentary I have overheard while passing students in the hallway outside the math classrooms where we post our statistics students’ projects. They are reading them!! Once when I was reorganizing one of the boards a student stopped me to ask where they can learn about what they were reading. Students would also discuss the projects posted such as how many umbrellas would it take to cover Seattle, whether views on nursing in public is generational, and views on organ donation. Intermingled with the projects are short articles about scientific advances using mathematics such as the math behind finding fake photos in popular magazines, predicting climate, and finding friends on Facebook.mathword

When you post colorful student projects mingled with articles the passerby is much more likely to stop and read. By changing out the projects and articles regularly the students look forward to the new additions. We even started a puzzle section on a dry erase board with a brainteaser type of problem and the responses to this was overwhelmingly positive. Students can try their hand at the puzzle and their creativity is infectious where students compete to come up with the cleverest answer even if it isn’t correct. In short, if you post it they will come… and read it!

…And Now You Know the Rest of the Story

anneMost of us are very familiar with the title phrase. Paul Harvey, noted lecturer, author and syndicated radio host, always ended his noon radio show with these words after he had recounted an interesting story. Everyone’s attention was focused on what he was saying and what they would learn.

Storytelling is an important element of subjects beyond literature. Tom T. Hall, country music legend, gained the reputation for being the country music storyteller. American Indians used the power of storytelling to convey customs and beliefs to young members of the tribe.

In previous blog posts I have mentioned that through my years teaching, I have been given the title of storyteller. Storytelling is a method I have found to be effective and, being an old southern girl (GRITS – Girls Raised in the South, wonderful book!), it just comes naturally to me. collaborate-communicate-conGet the point across. Relate it to an event with which people (aka-students) can identify. Get those mental juices flowing! It appears to me that effective teaching is more or less dependent on these.

Now for the validation! You know, I take it whenever I can get it! It appears this pedagogy has quite a bit of merit. The Corporation of National and Community Service, National Service Knowledge Network ( has published several articles on the effectiveness of storytelling in the classroom. One, in particular, caught my attention: “Developing Literacy Skills Through Storytelling,” by Linda Fredericks, originally published in Spring, 1997. It has remained a classic.

storytellingThe article stressed that stories have the ability to promote discussion, positively impact behavior, generate interest in academic subjects, and involve students who had previously shown no interest in their classes to become engaged in the material. Eureka! What a concept!! All accomplished by just telling a few stories. Some may be silly, some personal, and some may be on a more serious note, but they all have the same goals: to reach as many students as possible.persuasive-storytelling
In the past, storytelling may have been looked upon as being a way to pass the time or even to be a complete waste of one’s time. Hmm, now look–it is being recognized as a powerful tool which can be used to build literacy and critical thinking skills.

Author and educator Joseph Chilton Pearce, in his book Evolution’s End, notes that exposure to stories helps trigger internal images and meaning associated with subject matter. He asserts when students listen to stories, they respond by creating images of things being described. With the use of a story, individuals can explore what others have in common as well as how they differ and how to relate those stories to concepts in the world of education, regardless of discipline.

einstein-quotes-2These anecdotes don’t just take up time – they are essential! They are powerful and indispensable tools for developing literacy and critical thinking skills in each and every student.
As for me, I plan on continuing to tell my stories (I’ve got a million of them) and hopefully this has inspired you to follow suit. You may never know how something so simple to you may impact your students, helping them to realize that what they are learning does have a place and is relevant to their life.
Thank you, Paul Harvey!

“Storytelling is an act of love. Sharing stories connects us to each other. When I tell my story, it connects to your story.”
—Njoki McElroy, teacher and storyteller




Tech Tuesday: Formatting Fairy Series, Part 9

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


This article is part of a multi-part visit from the Formatting Fairy.  Read on to see how to exorcise those Formatting Demons.  Comment and tell us about your Formatting Demons.

Have you ever needed different formatting (like page numbering, margins, or page orientation) in different parts of a document?  I think the most common example for us in academia is when you write and format your thesis/dissertation/academic papers.  Usually, the front matter requires small Roman numerals (I, ii, iii,…) for page numbers and the body requires regular page numbers.

The best way to handle this is to divide your document into sections.  Each section is permitted to have its own page formatting. To begin a new section, simply insert a section break.  With that done, you can have different page formatting in different sections.

Section Break


Slowing Things Down Enough to Enjoy Them

BrianThere we go, ripping through task after task, that is, if we’re producers. Being a producer is a cultural mandate, and I won’t argue for being a non-producer, just for being a more contented producer. Contentment comes from being like the track star whose speed is adjusted to fit the length of the race, or even a certain part of the race. The star doesn’t run a mile like a sprint, or run the whole mile at uniform speed. In working world terms, that means calibrating the pace to fit the size of the task.080807-olympic-sprinter-ff

Some students need to simply begin running; they are used to a passive mode of being rewarded for showing up, listening a little, and turning in mundane worksheets. Most students, however, are running and just need to form strategies. Writing papers does not lend itself to quick results like picking up a donut at a drive-through. Writing is a process needing rumination, uninhibited composing, structuring, reworking, and on to the finish work to smooth and edit.

stairsIf I give a prompt for a paper without prep assignments leading up to it, many will give me their last hour efforts with sources quickly grabbed and minimally thought through. An instructor, therefore, has to intervene on the front end. Intervention is an uppity term these days for confronting others, but it’s a useful term when not visualized as a talk show or therapy group catharsis tool. The writing instructor intervenes by assigning successive stages leading up to the final draft.

Then students do more thinking and planning—that is if they do the assignments. Weighting all the assignments with a grade encourages participation from start to finish. This is working world thinking applied to school. For example, when my wife and I call our handyman, Roger, to do work at our house, multiple visits are normal. Roger has to prep and sand. Mud might need to be applied, so it has to dry. Extra coats of paint may be indicated. To complete a job, he might come three or four times for half an hour to an hour.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Roger’s organizational skills are impressive because he is working a process at several houses, coordinating his movements between houses and the supply store.

Learning often operates the same way. It doesn’t work for students to rip through assignments, only to get poorer results because ideas weren’t given time to surface, set up, and find expression in a process. What Roger, or your handyman, has to do correlates to how one’s better writing develops.

It’s also true that when this is accepted, the race is run with more pleasure, each part being enjoyed for what it is and its place in the whole.