I Sorta Like Sorting

Karen3On rainy days when I was a little girl, my dear mom, no doubt at the end of her patience with the busy and inquisitive child that I was, would sometimes allow me access to her button box. She was a talented and frugal seamstress, and she kept a dazzling stash of buttons, most harvested from discarded garments, in a fancy fruitcake tin. I loved to sit on the floor and sort the buttons into stacks by shape and color. Maybe it’s a genetic trait. A favorite aunt, a notoriously demanding nursing instructor, once told me that her ideal job would be sorting oranges. Buttons

Sorting is a skill that can help you succeed in the game of school. Once you start to figure out what goes with what, memorizing facts and writing papers gets a lot easier. Establishing how to sort things has made many scientists’ reputations…just ask Linnaeus. Sadly, some students’ childhoods must have lacked a button box, because they struggle with sorting tasks.

It doesn’t help that we apply intimidating labels, like “dichotomous keys,” to tasks that are basically just sorting, and simple sorting at that. For example, identifying an unknown bacteria with a dichotomous key boils down to plain old sorting. It just looks scary when depicted like this:dichotomouskey

What’s a teacher to do? I like to lead students from what they know to what they don’t by taking small steps. Many of them are familiar with the game “Guess Who?,” so I dragged ours from the depths of the family game closet. Two willing students played a round that lasted less than a minute, identifying the culprit after only five yes/no questions.guesswho

Then I showed them a silly example from mental_floss magazine, including this one:presidents

Next, they worked in pairs to quickly complete a nuts-and-bolts sorting task using a dichotomous key I found on the internet:

bolts

Finally, they were ready to see how a multi-test identification for bacteria is basically just a fancy, colorful dichotomous key, a bit like having a group of tiny elves in a tube answering a series of yes/no questions for you while you sleep. What could be more fun?enterotube

If you have anything that needs sorting, give me a call…happy to help.

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Grades

Brian picA bright student and exceptional writer came through one of my classes, but she had no idea at first where she was on the map. She said that none of her high school teachers ever engaged her about her aptitude and performance. This means that grades did not tell the story since a student can make an A in a string of English classes but still have unanswered questions.

This does not imply blame toward high school teachers, not at all. Classes can be large, with student behavior a constant challenge. Teachers may have to put out fires continually while trying to maintain an orderly classroom. Then too, some students are shy, non-assertive, or show no signs of blooming.grades

This is not to bash grades; they are a necessary evil. Considered as a measurement in the moment, grades might be seen in a purely objective light; but students, families, and institutions often put various kinds of spin on grades.

When I was young, the first pressures about grades were parental. After my father took off never to return, when I was in the fifth grade, slippage concerning grades might have occurred except that friendly competition formed in the classroom. It is hard to resist a fellow student’s question, “What did you get on the test?” This was a good thing since my mother had refreshed her elementary school teaching certificate, and with four kids was weary of body at the end of a day. She could only cheer us on so much.

armwrestleIn high school, a competitive friend came along. We played chess, pool, guitars, and sports. All of this was very competitive—heads on with one thing after another, including the classroom. His parents were very particular about education, so the atmosphere of education hovered over everyone who came over. Fortunately, competition was friendly, likely with a tad of goading now and then, though all I remember is that my friend constantly pressed me to do my best.

For a season in college, studies got bumped down in priority. Living in a dorm 600 miles from home, it took time for the craziness to settle down. Early on, it was just not cool to study too much.

In later years, grades have communicated two perspectives. Grades are grades, and the world runs on competition and comparison. However, it is a fine thing to arrive at comparing one’s self more with personal possibilities and not so much with others. Many intangibles come into play like effort, energy, persistence, and strategy.

Life is lived mostly without grades. Yes, grades are on those transcripts—as they should be. Of more importance, however, are the choices about what to learn that one makes over the years. Out the vast sea of knowledge come the particular magnets that draw me the individual and you the individual.Mikhail-Baryshnikov-Quote-Lg

Early in life, it feels normal to gravitate toward what represents a certain earning power. Later on, learning evolves toward what draws us. Attraction woos a person to pick up that certain book or magazine, to watch that particular documentary, and to visit that kind of museum.

The ideal is for occupation and learning interests to be one and the same. That does not always happen, but it can, either early or late in the land of the free.

Ah, Emily Said It Best

ReadingthuRsday-R2

There is no frigate like a book
To take us Lands away.
Emily Dickinson

Emily knew the truth. During this last weekend as I made a quick road trip, I listened to several books while I traveled miles along a familiar highway. My selections were an odd assortment with little connection to each other except I liked the titles. I am so glad I let this bit of whimsy guide me.nofrigate

I started my trip with The Bear in the Attic by Patrick F. McManus. I am sad to say I was unfamiliar with his curmudgeonly essays, but I quickly became a fan as I listened and laughed. Pat had many encounters with the great outdoors as he hunted, fished, and generally just got into trouble, both as a young lad and as an adult. I constantly thought of my friend Steve who is an avid outdoorsman, and I could imagine him on the many adventures I was listening to as I rolled down the highway. Patrick rode with me all the way to my destination and for about 30 minutes of my return trip.

Then I went on a ghostly adventure with Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward. In the play, a séance conjures up the dead wife of the host. The current wife is not real happy with sharing her husband and house with a former wife, dead or not. The play is funny and energetic and quickly paced. Once again, I found myself laughing as I rolled through some beautiful spring filled countryside.

1 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyHowever, I really hit the jackpot with my third choice. I chose The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie: A Novel (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows) without even reading about its contents. I just love the name. I fell in love with the folks in Guernsey just like Juliet Ashton did as she corresponded with the residents through a series of letters. The novel is set in the years just after World War II, and the letters provide a description of the way of life for the people in Guernsey during the German occupation. As a matter of fact, the entire Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie organization is formed as an alibi for being out after hours. Since a Literary society was then a matter of record, some of the residents who had really never read much before began to read and share their thoughts on their books. New lands and new people and new events could fill their time as they tried to survive the food shortages and evils of a World War. Juliet feels their story is so important she begins to toy with the idea of forming them into a book. I am just now to the part where Juliet has decided she must go to Guernsey to meet the people she only knows through letters. I am excited to see how it all works out.

So in a very short weekend road trip, I also managed to travel to lands away and adventures away and people away. I am better for the journey.

 

Handing Them Their Lives

Karen3I recently began teaching medical microbiology, a challenging but intensely rewarding class. The students in the class are mostly those I’ve now had for three terms, and they’re the cream of the crop. I tease them about being “border collies,” always ready to work and apt to get into trouble if I don’t find interesting things for them to do. They love the hands-on nature of the class, and their skill set has expanded at a remarkable rate. They quickly mastered the techniques for preparing bacterial smears and examining them under the daunting “oil immersion” lens of their microscopes. The first day that they tried this, one student jubilantly hollered, “I FOUND something!”

We decided to attempt observation of living organisms by a technique called “hanging drop.” I concocted couple of different jars of nasty liquids (“effusions,” to the sciencey folks), and we went hunting for microbes. Many of the little critters swim fast, and students were challenged to show their colleagues and me their dashing discoveries. Several students reported telling their family members about what they had observed. amoebaproteus450

All this reminded me of what is possibly my favorite passage of prose in the entire English language, taken from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Probably because Dillard’s experience was so similar to my own, I know it almost by heart:

“Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba.  The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park: it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was a blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere.”

Dillard then recounts how she ran upstairs to urge her parents to come view her find. “Chance of a lifetime” in her estimation. But her mother, while pleased for her, declined to join her in her basement lab. As Annie returned to the basement, she had an epiphany:

“She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine.  She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life.”

microscopeHow very fortunate I am to be able to share “my private passion for the thing itself” with a group of students who seem to share that passion. The quote at the end of my campus email is from Katherine Graham: “To love what you do and feel that it matters. Could anything be more fun?”

How Do You Say?????

ReadingthuRsday-R2“Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.” (Anonymous, posted by McKay Books – Nashville)

The quote reminds me of the various vocabularies we carry in our heads. We have a speaking vocabulary, a listening vocabulary, a reading vocabulary, and a writing vocabulary. In other words, we have words we can say and read and understand that we might not use in our writing (sometimes because we do not know how to spell a particular word). We have a listening vocabulary of words we understand but might not use a lot. Evidence of a listening vocabulary is really demonstrated in young children who can listen and understand words’ meanings without the ability to use the word in reading and writing or for that matter be able to say the word yet. We have a reading vocabulary which encompasses the words we know from sight and the words we can determine from context. Rarely are all these vocabularies at exactly the same place for most of us. minionwords

The interesting part about words is that once one encounters a new word while reading and is able to determine its meaning, then it seems the word is used a lot more than we thought in other contexts. For example, the first time I encountered the word verdant, I could figure out what it meant in the context of the story, but I was unsure how to pronounce it. A little while later, I heard someone use the word verdant and then I could put a meaning and a pronunciation together. My internal pronunciation was incorrect, so if I said the word aloud, my pronunciation would be incorrect.

Hello-My-Name-Is-Hard-to-Pronounce-400Readers spend a lot of time figuring out the meanings of words, and often just worry about the pronunciation when they need to go public with their reading. When a reader reads silently, there may be less concern about how to pronounce all the characters’ names correctly as well as all the other words. As long as the text is making sense, a few mispronunciations here or there does not impede progress very much. However as soon as a reader’s words become audible, then difficulties arise as one tries to comprehend and sound right all at the same time. For example, a student reading aloud in a class has an extra burden of proper pronunciation while trying to keep the meaning of words in his or her head. Anyone who has spent much time in a classroom with younger children remembers how some school children feel the need to pounce on classmates’ mispronunciations when classmates reads aloud. Unfortunately, all this “help” often leads to the reader making more mispronunciations which impedes comprehension and causes a lot of angst.Louisville_pronunciationguide

Students in college classes may also need some help with pronunciation while they grapple with unfamiliar words. As we teach our classes, spending a little extra time on pronunciation of key terms is helpful. In a few cases, students may ask “How do you say _____?” but usually most adult learners think everyone knows how to pronounce terms, so they do not ask. Timely help on instructors’ parts can put the proper pronunciation into a reader’s head; thus, adding another support for understanding.

March Madness!

anneOnce again there is a buzz around college campuses – bracketology. Number 1 seed vs. Number 16 seed; who will advance who will no;, and who is the Cinderella team? Sound all too familiar? Well, if you are a sports fan, it should. President Obama just completed his bracket choices. Las Vegas is buzzing with making odds on each and every team. It is mayhem for about 4 weeks.

In my house there is a 3’ X 4’ poster of the NCAA men’s tournament brackets. With great care, it is updated daily after each and every game result. This will be displayed until the end of the tournament. One big exception:  if “our” team wins the tournament, it will stay up well into the summer – bragging rights, you know! Presidential+NCAA+Bracket+2016

Coaches plan strategies, work long hours designing plays, schedule specific teams to play and work hour upon hour in practice gyms from October until March in preparation for this event. Player’s shortcomings are tweaked down to the tiniest detail. The end result is focused on being as close to perfect as you can be. Everyone watches ESPN Selection Sunday to see who is in and who is out, whom each team will play, and where they will be going. Then it’s GAME ON!

caliperiIt dawned on me that this sounds similar to what happens at our college. At the beginning of the term you receive your team. Some are going to be NBA draft picks, and some need to be worked with to get them off the bench and onto the playing floor Some of the team (bless their hearts) will sit on the bench the entire season.

Planning strategies for classes and practice sessions are meticulously designed.  Working tirelessly for long hours becomes what you do. What can be done in class to make sure all of the players are getting the correct training? Your time frame is a short – 4 and one-half months (eight weeks at Fort Campbell!). In that short time students are expected to develop a knowledge base of the subject matter and prove to be proficient in the material. Each and every class is getting that student ready to participate in the “big dance”. lesson-plans-and-aims

As a coach, what is your game plan? The success of these players depends on what you provide in the way of educational material. You are taking your experience, knowledge and expertise, just as coaches do, and helping them to become successful. Think about it.

The Mysterious Love of Procrastination

Brian picProcrastination usually doesn’t show up with things we love but with things we don’t. An image comes to mind of a task that is too boring, too long, too difficult, too confusing, or too bothersome—at least that’s the perception.

If the task can be bumped off the to-do list, great. With assignments, that’s not likely. If anything, instructors would like to pack more into a course. They are in the field of their pleasure, and they would like to pass on to students the joy of the subject at hand.  procrastination1

How well I remember the mathematical truth, “The sense of foreboding increases proportionally to the delay of a task, until its exponential spike before an imminent due date.” Foreboding requires a lot of energy. Dread doesn’t come cheap.

procrastinationThen there is the scientific principle, “A task procrastinated upon increases in mass until it becomes unexplainably bigger than it really is.”

This all calls for a state of mind that has weighed up foreboding and increased mass and decided that pleasure is often defined by misery avoided. The amount of displeasure in getting started and knocking out the task is far less than the cumulative displeasure in procrastination.

It is even possible to stop thinking, “I am not enjoying this” and to just do a task, with the mind freed up for the task without having to click the like button or the dislike button. Suppose neither is particularly useful to consider.WWS-Procrastinate1

Of course we like or dislike lots of things. That will not change. However, the like-dislike paradigm does not have to receive so much attention. It can be starved. A person won’t die by not majoring on liking or disliking certain tasks.

The mysterious love of procrastination turns out to be more easily resolved that had been supposed. Life does have its unsolved mysteries, but procrastination need not remain one of them.procrastination-flowchart-2