Tag Archives: Learning

Language Learning

After finishing my Master’s degree, I took a short break from being a student. I started my Master’s program the day after my undergrad graduation and it was nice to have a little time in which I wasn’t working on assignments. But it was not long before I realized I missed being in school. I have always enjoyed learning and, for the most part, being in classes. So I enrolled in an Italian language night course at our local community college. I’d taken a semester of Italian my first semester at university but wasn’t able to continue. (And unfortunately, the community college course became a daytime course after the first semester and again, I wasn’t able to continue.) It was such a nice way to spend one evening per week. I enjoyed the professor, the classes, and the way Italian sang in my ears and danced on my tongue. I enjoyed making connections to French, playing with words, and learning the idioms that teach us about cultures. I recently came across my notes and written exercises tucked into the textbook that has followed me across the ocean.

I’m now trying to learn a new language without taking a course and I can definitely see a difference. On the one hand, with the aid of two online programs and a number of websites, I can go through lessons quite quickly and review at my own pace. But on the other hand, my speaking practice is non-existent and one cannot learn a language by reading alone.

That being said, I’m having so much fun. I genuinely look forward to the time in the evenings when I review vocabulary, work on grammar exercises, and take notes on verb conjugations. It’s fun to try out new words and sounds and to realize that my face has never quite moved in that way. And I am excited when I notice a pattern that I hadn’t quite recognized before. I’m learning!

And that’s the thing – learning is fun. When we’re engaged in the things that are meaningful to us, we are learning and this is fun. Much of this is aligned with how I think about education and school, but that is a post for another time.

To be honest, there’s a lot that I don’t like about technology, a lot that I think technology has done to damage who we are and how we interact with one another. I watched The Social Dilemma over the weekend and it corroborated much of what I already know from reading and my experience teaching teenagers, but it led me to immediately turn off notifications to the two social networking sites where I have profiles. Technology is a tool and a resource, and I’d rather be the one using it than allowing it to use me. But technology also provides us with easy access to resources that would be too distant or too expensive for many people otherwise, and I am grateful for this. I would not be able to learn the rudiments of a language on my own and from the comfort of my apartment without technology.

I don’t know how well I’m actually learning this new language, but my brain is doing something rather than nothing. I’m thinking, working, and trying something new, and this alone means it is time well spent.

Dear Diary

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor

I was nine years old when I started keeping a journal, the first of many I received as a birthday gift. It was pink with some sort of design, possibly ballet slippers. It came in a little pink box with a clear plastic lid and keys that I kept conveniently tied around the lock.

I don’t remember why I started to write, but I remember sitting at the kitchen table one morning, looking over at my baby brother who was watching a children’s television show that I did not like. “Can I write that he’s watching a dumb show?” I asked my mum. “It’s your diary,” she said. “You can write whatever you want.”

That’s what I remember when people ask how long I’ve kept a journal. A long time.

I’ve recently spoken with a couple of people who look back on old writing. They write so they can reread later, verify their memories, reflect on situations and decisions, and understand who they are now. I’ve always just thought I’d burn everything one day.

When I think about reading old journals, my insides turn cold. My writing tells stories and relays events that I do not like to think about. I’ve been places I don’t want to revisit, and certainly not alone. My younger self needed to be held, needed to be shaken awake, needed to connect the dots in the writing on the wall, needed to learn, to grow, to love. The person I am now, as is the case with all of us, is a product experiences, responses to challenges, choices made. My writing on this blog tells me that I’m very consistent in many ways, but my personal writing is not nearly so tidy. Our public and private lives are often very different in that way. Is it enough to understand what is now without looking back to see how I arrived here?

And yet, there is a box of two decades of journals in my parents’ basement. Why did I once take the time to sort them, a harder task than it sounds because I didn’t always write the date when I was young? Why have I packed them into suitcases over summer holidays to place in that box? What am I saving them for? I’ve asked myself that question many times and I don’t know the answer. I’m saving them. The end.

I think better on paper. I understood what that meant to me long before I knew anything about cognitive processing, neural pathways, or emotional reactivity. I need to write like some people need a cigarette, and I get fidgety when I feel this way. I carry my journal around during difficult times and sometimes it’s enough to jot a note about what I want to chronicle (that’s usually the word I use) later on. It literally takes the edge off.

Sometimes I write with the intention of remembering, of preserving for as long as I can. But sometimes writing gives me permission to let go, to free up space in working memory so I can focus on something else. If it’s written down, I needn’t actively remember.

Writing is the only pursuit that I do not compromise, no matter how exhausting the day. At the minimum, it’s three things I’m grateful for. And I am grateful, every day, for knowing that there are things to be grateful for.

My journals: 6 June 2019 – Present

Talking with Young People

Educating is about building relationships and this is what makes it emotionally demanding. Our students need us to be present, to be with them, to recognise and name what they either cannot or will not name. When I say that I work with young people, I mean that we work together, side by side. We go through concepts, ideas, information, and assessments together. We are often not doing the same thing, but we do it together.

One of the textbooks assigned in my education methods courses as an undergrad was Discipline with Dignity by Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler. It spoke of respect, responsibility, of treating young people first and foremost as people. This sounds funny to say, but think about it. Educators have a lot of power and that power can build a child up or totally, utterly cut them down.

In the words of Haim Ginott, words that still give me chills:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.”

And this means that teachers must recognise the human role they play in the classroom. We are all beings with dignity and honouring this is critical in the way we treat others – who they are, what matters to them, and the demands we place on their time and energy. Throughout my career, students have come to me just to talk. I’ve heard, “You’re the only one I trust” more times than I can count. I’ve been thanked for saving lives years after the fact. How hard is it, really, to treat a young person the way all people should be treated?

But it is hard. All meaningful relationships are hard. Doing this requires vulnerability and courage. It requires understanding that we are in this together and this can be a difficult position for teachers who do not understand that educating is about relationships. Students know when we are authentic and they know when we are disingenuous. Like all of us, they respond to what is genuine and protect themselves from what is false. I want my students to be good people and this requires me to walk beside them.

At the beginning of this school year, I finally had the chance to get to know a group of young men who had made cafeteria duty a miserable experience the two years before. I smiled while greeting them and said to the class, “To those of you who I have encountered, this is a great opportunity to prove that you’ve grown up.” And they have. Each interaction that we have with young people is a new interaction. Each day really is a new day. If we are going to work together for a year or two, we need to set ourselves up for doing so. I’ve learned to take a deep breath each time I address a question or comment from a student who just grates on me. He deserves the same chances, the same positive attention, as anyone else, time after time. This is how we learn, and I want my students to leave my class knowing more about themselves and the world around them than they did before.

When we feel valued for who we are, we respond. We know this as adults and it is ever more true of young people. A smile, making eye contact, tone of voice, and gestures are all part of communication. Just like how we might know how someone feels about us without them saying so, students know this, too. We like to know someone is looking out for us. This is why teachers should pay attention when a student gets new shoes, a haircut, or looks like they’re having a tough day. It’s a powerful thing to close the laptop and look young people in the eye when having a conversation, or to sit on the same side of the desk that might otherwise act as a barrier. When we sit side-by-side, we are working together. Each member of the classroom community matters, so take the time to do the small things that set a tone.

These are emotional investments that make what we do real rather than abstract. Educating is about building relationships. It is work. It is time intensive, meaningful, deeply fulfilling, and it has the power to change lives. Young people are worth it.

Coney Island, Singapore – April 2020