More Organic Carrots in the Classroom, Please

Brian picThe debate about organic foods is always interesting. Articles can range from minimizing the benefits, to maximizing them, to remaining indecisive. Ten years ago, the English department derived its 102 exit exam from three articles—one from each opinion on the spectrum, and students wrote their own argument using the articles as sources. Many students were willing to try organic foods except for the price. Would it be worth it? Generally, they thought not.

Organic_Food2I’m interested because our son’s family in Boone, NC buys organic milk, meat, and certain fruits and vegetables. Their favorite store is Earth Fare, and the store is marvelous. I love going there, and even if the foods are not boosting my life span or vigor, the store is a work of art and an immensely pleasurable outing, so I count part of the cost under the entertainment budget.

The reason for this blog today, however, is not to encourage organic eating but to share an insight that comes from organic carrots and how instructors would like more of their students to be like an organic carrot and less like a carrot sprayed with pesticide.

earth-fare-on-hendersonville-rd-asheville-nc-cheese-005While looking at news stories on line at NPR, I noticed an article by Allison Aubrey on organic food. Click—I opened it. Therein was one of the most interesting study strategies for college students. But first, let’s think about carrots.

Aubrey cites the work of Professor Chris Seal, who explains that certain nutrients come about by stress on a plant. Aubrey goes on to say, “if a carrot fly lands on a carrot and starts to chew on it, what options does the plant have? If it’s a conventionally grown carrot, a pesticide can be applied to repel the pest. But in organic agriculture, that carrot has to fend for itself a bit more. So, Seal explains, the carrot produces compounds … which taste bitter to the carrot fly. These polyacetylene compounds may help drive the fly away — and, serendipitously, this compound may benefit us as well.”

carrotsHow great it is when a student turns into an organic carrot of a student. Adversity begins to work in the student’s favor by producing resistance to predators and by developing healthy internal nutrients, beneficial both for the student and for the quality of the carrot offered to the instructor. Definitely, instructors can taste the difference and feel the vibrancy of the organic student.

Work Cited:


Such a Small Tribute

ReadingthuRsday-R2Last week Harper Lee died. Stories and speculations abound about Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. Greater literary critics and pundits have discussed Lee’s life and her writings, so I do not assume to have the capability to add anything. However, I would like to share my own small tribute to Harper Lee.

I remember so vividly when I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. I was half sitting/half lying in a small fishing boat. I was on my obligatory fishing trip with my Dad. I am not sure he really wanted to take me fishing each year, and I really did not want to go, but we found ourselves in a boat together. I believe my mother was behind this forced excursion. I usually spent most of my time reading, eating, and urging my dad to race his little fishing boat across the lake. I was less than thrilled with the time we sat still actually fishing.Lake_Burton_with_boat So while Scout was talking about her dad, I was drifting along with mine. Since I was quiet and obviously engrossed in my book, my dad actually asked me about what I was reading. I tried to capture the story for him, but I felt I had not captured the emotion. However, I guess I did a fairly good job of explaining because although my dad was not a reader, he seemed to take my recital at heart and urged me to continue reading. I came home that day with a fierce sunburn, a deeper appreciation for dads who listen, and a memory. I can still feel the rocking boat and the sun beating down; I can see my father sitting back with the engine getting ready to get that small engine to open up as wide as it possibly could. My memories of that day are entwined with Scout and Atticus and Boo and all the folks in the book who were so real to me.

tohajiileeOne of my subsequent readings of To Kill a Mockingbird took place a long way from Kentucky Lake. I was teaching at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school at Canoncito, New Mexico (now called Tohajiilee). I was the only high school English teacher, plus I was responsible for a very small library. One day one of my students asked me about my favorite book, and I instantly said To Kill a Mockingbird. My students had not heard of the book, and I tried to explain it. Once again, I just could not get across the story as well as I wanted to, so I decided to read the book aloud to one of classes. To Kill a Mockingbird is a long book, but every day I read a small part aloud. I had always taken the setting of the story for granted, but my students had no understanding of the rural South. So I found myself stopping and explaining a setting I knew so well. I found myself reading with the cadence of a Southern storyteller which is exactly what I was except I was telling Scout’s story. I hold one particular day close in my heart. The weather was cold, dreary and windy. We were all sitting in a classroom that was converted from a store, and I was reading aloud the part where the trial is over and Atticus is walking out of the courtroom. Reverend Sykes speaks, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin.” Not a sound was heard in our room as we quietly shared that moment and listened to the wind. 3160D31500000578-3454823-image-a-14_1455917952403

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a part of my life. Sharing Lee’s classic story enriched my life, and it gave me a platform to have conversations that matter. ` So, my tribute to Harper Lee is one of a humble “Thank you”.

The Cœur of the Matter

Karen3Sometimes I have trouble getting out of my car after arriving in the Fort Campbell Education Center parking lot. I’m stuck not because I’m dreading work—I truly love my job—but because NPR’s Fresh Air is just too interesting to leave. Today, Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, interviewed Maggie Smith, legendary actress, Academy Award winner, and portrayer of the incomparable Dowager Countess Violet Grantham on Downton Abbey. What a treat, and a great way to start the day.maggie smith1

Well into the interview, Davies asked a question that elicited an interesting response:

“DAVIES: Were you an entertaining kid to your friends? Did you make them laugh?

SMITH: I don’t remember doing that particularly. I went to a school where they were – well, no, they did plays and things. I was never in those, really. But I had a very good English teacher who said to me that she thought I ought to do it. She – I don’t know, she saw something thank goodness because I think if it hadn’t been encouraged by somebody that serious, I’m not sure what would’ve happened to me.” (emphasis mine)

encourageheartEncourage is an interesting word, its etymological roots in the French word cœur for “heart.” To encourage is literally “to put the heart in,” while to discourage is “to take the heart out of.”  Surely an anatomy teacher should have known this. If our students are to experience the pleasure that comes from meeting an achievable challenge, we need to do a lot of encouraging.

Later in the interview, Davies invited Smith to comment on her Oscar-winning performance in 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Smith portrayed a charismatic and controversial teacher at a conservative girls’ school in Scotland. Predictably, Brodie runs afoul of her headmistress. Their exchange includes this gem from Smith’s character:missjean

“To me, education is a leading out. The word education comes from the root ex meaning out and ducere, I lead. To me, education is simply a leading out of what is already there.”

Well said, Miss Jean. Perhaps the best way to encourage our students, to put the heart into them, is to lead them out of their self-doubt and poor habits into a better way of thinking and behaving, regardless of our discipline. To finish with another quote from Miss Jean’s defense of her methods:

“My credo is lift, enliven, stimulate.”

You can read a transcript—or, better yet, listen to Smith’s incomparable delivery—at


Six Inches of Dirt Won’t Fill a Foot Deep Hole

Brian picFor sure, giving up means the end. Sometimes it’s the thing to do, other times not. That’s the hard part—knowing the wisdom of the moment. The desire to persevere and finish a task energizes students who do well and builds into them stamina carrying over into their callings. First, their desire led to making ideas concrete, but then they also learned somewhere, by trial and error, that only deeds lead to completion. The finish line of any task can only be crossed by crossing it, not by anything else.scoreboard

When a team was too far behind realistically to win, the commendable thing to do was to keep playing hard the full forty minutes. In academics, the scenario is often different. Let’s take a student who gets so far behind in a course that realistically, there is little or no chance of catching up. Other priorities in life are crowding in. Putting intense effort into a course for the student will not guarantee a passing or a useful grade, so at a time like this, withdrawal can be wise.

not enoughOne thing about grades is that they are based on math, and that means calculations and quantity. In the manufacturing world, that means making shipment, which means enough of a product at the standards set by the industry. One torsion bar for an auto suspension system means one torsion bar. It does not mean that one bar can count as two bars. It is just like it is in basketball; a layup only counts two points, never three. On a construction site, if a hole needs a foot of dirt to fill it, six inches of dirt won’t satisfy the requirement.

Instructors often have a pretty good idea when a student can rally and when a rally is not going to happen. Their job, however, is not to declare impossibility until it is certain, and not to guarantee success for less productivity than what the instructor can in good conscience accept. falling-behind

An instructor can feel the pain of this more than a student. The instructor likely sees the real picture when the student is still full of hopes based on false premises. This is where no one can reach into another person’s heart and mind and turn things around. It seems like it would be nice, but the most vibrant human could not emerge if such tampering worked; and no one who has seen this personally and grown from it would want to go back and have someone else do more than point the way.

Ending on an Up Note: Real True Love

We love each other, and we love our dog. For years, my husband and I have celebrated Valentine’s week by cuddling up to watch the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The telecast always features a segment highlighting the good works that dogs do: search and rescue, assistance dogs, therapy dogs, visiting angel dogs. I’m fortunate to teach on an army post, so I have a special place in my heart for the canine soldiers who serve our country. Here’s a fitting tribute:

So hug the ones you love, including your dog…and enjoy your weekend.

The Huntington: Cultivating Curiosity

ReadingthuRsday-R2The Huntington is home to a library, art collections, and botanical gardens in San Marino, California. So far, I have not been lucky enough to go to The Huntington, but I did receive a beautiful “coffee table book” as a gift. The pages are filled with beautiful pictures of art, documents, flowers and an assortment of many wonderful things that fill The Huntington. My gift lead me to thinking about the concept of coffee table books. huntington

Coffee table books are usually meant for display in homes in a public place such as coffee table. The books are good for starting conversations, and they give a really good glimpse into a topic. For example, I feel I have a wonderful feeling for the gardens and galleries at The Huntington. Of course, I would rather be at The Huntington in person, but this book has allowed me many hours of pleasure.

coffee-table-book2When I went to Amazon, there is a whole lot of coffee table books available. I took just a few minutes to pick out some I might like to read: Destinations of a Lifetime: 225 of the World’s Most Amazing Places, What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (I actually already have this one), Underwater Dogs, and The Southerner’s Handbook: A Guide to Living the Good Life. The list of coffee table books was long and diverse. In addition, there were many “Best of Lists” for coffee table books. I believe coffee table books’ appeal is the beauty of the photographs as well as readily accessible amount of information on topics. Coffee table books are often the inspiration for conversations, so they serve as a social function as well as a decorative function.

When I went to Wikipedia to get a quick overview of Coffee Table Books, I was amazed to see a rather long description. However, what really caught my attention, was a Seinfeld segment on Coffee Table Books I had forgotten about watching many years Kramer publishes a book on celebrities’ coffee tables (Kramer’s version of a coffee table book), and the book has foldable wooden legs that allow the book to turn into…..a coffee table. Kramer has another kooky and very funny idea. So my mind went from the very prestigious Huntington to coffee table books to Seinfeld to Kramer, so now you have just a small idea of how my brain whirls every day. Settle in and enjoy a great book!