This and that…

July 23, 2015

I have been thinking a lot about notebooks and organization…

One of the reasons that therehas been such a big gap between my posts, is because I was ill for an extended period of time. As a result of that illness,I have some limitations particularly around keyboarding and handwriting  so I do a lot of dictation. The other thing that has changed for me is that many of the things that I used to keep in hardcopy, simple things like phone messages and grocery lists, I now keep electronically. I have become enamored of a program called Evernote. I am a total convert.

Evernote is an online set of notebooks. An analogy that I often use with students is to think of it as a set of three ring notebooks that you can carry around on your phone.  I am not a particularly organized person by nature, but Evernote has helped me to remember many of the things that age and my innate mental chaos would normally allow me to forget.  I have been talking with classes and groups about Evernote this year. I have enjoyed the give-and-take with student users about how they use it, and the  brainstorming about how they will use it in the future. We even have an instructor who has asked that all of her classes open accounts. I am looking forward to seeing what use they make of it.  A wealth of information about the program is available here:

This is the beginning of the semester, and so this is the time that students are establishing the way that they will go forward. The habits that they set in place now and the tools that they begin to use are more likely to stay with them than those they begin to use later in the semester. Having regular habits for managing all of their stuff is critical at the college level. My big themes around organization have always been that whatever system they decide to use should always be:

  1. First of all consistent. Most students have a great deal that they have to remember, particularly here at VTC where we are primarily STEM programs.  They carry very high credit loads, do a lot of reading, and generally speaking have a lot of work to get through each week. If they have a different organizational system for each class, they just complicate their lives so unnecessarily.
  2. Second, the system should be expandable. A first-time freshman has absolutely no idea how much stuff they are going to need to keep organized. I have been here for 10 years, and I had two children come out of high school and go through college. I have seen very well prepared students, and very poorly prepared statements. The one thing that they have in common, is that none of them have a clue about how much stuff there really is. It is important for their organizational system to be expandable so that they have a way to fit in all of those bits and pieces that they may lose track of in a logical way.
  3. The third thing that I think it’s really important is that the system has to be flexible. A flexible system, regardless of whether it is pencil and paper or electronic, allows you to accommodate the vagaries of different situations without throwing your entire organizational strategy out the window. Too many times, we become entranced with elaborate organizational schemes that look like they have the answer to all of our issues, only to find out that the schemas itself is more work than it is worth. A simple system, one that suits the work that you were doing, and allows you to make adjustments, is the best.

I used to talk with students about three ring notebooks as a model for an organizational system. They are a flexible place to capture the details of student life, they are expandable, they can be organized in a consistent fashion across all sorts of coursework.  Electronic workhorse applications like Evernote can serve the same purpose, with the added benefit of being extremely portable. After all, we all carry a phone…


June 23, 2015

Live each day as if it is your last. Learn as if you will live forever. (Mahatma Gandhi)

Filed under: education,learning,Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 7:21 pm
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I have mentioned in other posts how enamored I am with TED Talks…so much rich content and so easy to access. In this segment, Ben Dunlap, a professor at Wofford College in South Carolina, talks about the mentors who have inspired his passion for learning and why they have been so compelling.

Ben Dunlap and Lifelong Learning

We talk a lot in education about “creating lifelong learners”. In the years (lots) that I have been an educator, a bushel basket of well-meaning, “research-based” approaches  have been tried. Sometimes they work, more often they don’t. I think this is the least in part due to the fact that learning cannot be imposed from the outside. It is visceral, an internal experience, a struggle, fraught with failure along the road to competence. Students (and we are all students in this context) need to experience many failures as they bludgeon their way to achieving authentic success. Working through that process vigorously, on relevant tasks, and eventually – not immediately, eventually – reaching a goal, has to happen for learning to be. A good score on a test, or the threat of a bad one, often does not provide that sense of authentic success and satisfaction.

I am lucky. I am an adult, and I generally get to choose my learning experiences. If something is a really bad fit, I don’t necessarily have to stay with it. My most satisfying experiences as a learner have always been the most frustrating. My least satisfying experiences have occurred when I have not had to struggle… Full disclosure -there are a few things that annoy me more than taking a class or attending a workshop that I could have taught, just because someone else thought it would be a good idea. Big waste of my time. I wonder how often our students feel that way. Probably more  than we would care to acknowledge.

Another component my satisfying learning experiences have in common is the deadline. Deadlines allow/require me to focus my efforts. Lack of a deadline gives me permission to put things off- usually in favor of something WITH a deadline. Learning needs to feel urgent. It does not matter whether my deadline is externally or internally imposed, it is the reality of it not being negotiable that provides the urgency. Of course, if the goal is not worthwhile, all the deadlines in the world are not going to create any urgency for the learning…

I am not in any way suggesting that students should be responsible for choosing all of their learning experiences or that all of those experiences should be “fun” or “engaging”. Most do not know enough to understand what they will need next week, much less next year. I am suggesting that perhaps we must remember that as a species, we are hungry learners. Watch babies and toddlers struggle to interact with their environment, or that teenager endlessly practicing her hook shot so that she can make the team, or the novice reader battling their way through the first book that they are reading to younger sibling… All of those experiences are worth the work. That’s the key I think, find a way to make the guided classroom learning worth the work. Then, we will begin to grow those lifelong learners.


June 17, 2015

Randomly Rambling…

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Technology — learningspecialist @ 6:14 pm

Random thoughts on a pretty day…

  1. My office is clean. I mean, really clean. I have emptied drawers, dusted, sorted out bookshelves and gotten a good start on digitalizing files…if it needed doing, I dug in and did it. Some of this is a function of time- the students are gone and the summer session here is never so demanding as the semester. I had some personal challenges with an elderly parent that have resolved themselves and my post GBS stamina seems to be back, finally. All good stuff that is allowing me to destress my workplace environment, if only for a moment.
  2. I am learning a new skill. My family bought me a new camera for Mother’s Day- a good one, not my phone or the Sports Illustrated freebie that I have used in the past. Scenery and flowers are coming along well. Action shots…well, we won’t talk about that just yet. I love learning new stuff.
  3. I went to an amazing TKD testing with some of my favorite Masters on deck demonstrating their expertise Saturday, including Master Amy L. who, besides being fabulous, is a power chair user. I am still awestruck by her grace and guts, and by the Grand Masters capacity to not see her chair as a limitation, and while I am terrified about my own impending 3rd Dan testing in February, I am more hopeful.
  4. This blog has languished post GBS. I regret that, though I do not think I could have changed the situation. A goal is to get it back to being regular and current. I have always been a believer in regular professional reflection and am happiest when I am actively reflecting. It has been too long since I took the time.
  5. I think I will never completely understand parents who are afraid to allow their children the satisfaction that comes from trying, failing, and trying again until they get it. How else did we learn to walk for crying out loud? We fell down, a lot! Failing often, in reasonably safe spaces (though they feel pretty risky to us at the time :)) is how we develop mastery. When we cushion our offspring too much, what we communicate is really that we do not think they are safe out there without us. Not the message I wanted for me, not the one I wanted for my kids. Certainly not what I want to communicate to the students I work with.
  6. Technology often creates as many challenges as it solves.

Now…I am going to take a walk with my camera on this pretty day, and take some photos.


October 4, 2013


Filed under: education,Support Services,Uncategorized — learningspecialist @ 8:04 pm

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard

I am perplexed that more people do not  find the time to reflect on the work that they do. It is essential to me as a professional and a person to regularly d review what I have done and the direction that I seem to be heading. I am often my harshest critic and I am seldom the person who shares my accomplishments with others.

This has been a demanding semester so far. The work that I do is often frustrating. The bulk of my time is spent with students who are most at risk, whose gains are very slow and whose challenges are very great. They are frequently unprepared for college, though they want it badly. I rarely get to spend time with the other half of the world, who find school a joy. It is one of the things that I miss about more mainstream teaching-that balance in perspective. On the other hand, there are some students in whom I have invested a significant amount of time and it seems to be paying off. They are moving forward,  taking control in a positive way. I am proud to have been a part of that process and I delight in seeing them grow.

There are others whose journey is still very, very long. I ache for them and for their families.

The institution that I work at is under the same pressure that all postsecondary institutions labor under… Costs continue to go up. The pool of available students continues to shrink.   We have a relatively new senior staff who seem to be having a difficult time finding their footing and faculty that becomes progressively more frustrated while they wait for that to happen. Money is tight, as it is everywhere. It is occasionally difficult to maintain a positive outlook even though I love this job and I love the school.

As I reflect on the last five weeks, particularly in my personal writing, I see that I have let some things go on a personal level and as a member of the campus community. I could excuse myself by saying I was busy (and I have been) but that does not make it right. I am a member of this community, it has been good to me, and my individual contribution is important.

We  all do well to look back at ourselves periodically,  personally and professionally. It is too easy to slog along from day-to-day and forget how far we have come and where we need to go. Got a minute?

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.


August 13, 2013

Welcome back!

Filed under: Blogroll,education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Technology — learningspecialist @ 5:25 pm

It is no big secret to anyone who knows me that I’m a perpetual student. I love school. I especially love the first day of school. Everything seems so clean and new and full of possibilities. It is easily my favorite time of year.

On Monday, classes will begin for the fall semester.  The students are fresh from summer break, the faculty has had some time off (or at least most of them have had some time off) and everyone is ready to roll.  There is  so much to do that it occasionally seems overwhelming, but we will get through. I am looking forward to this year. We had a marvelous group of students during Summer Bridge, and while some of them will certainly struggle, I think they have what it takes. I have sent out my first letter to the faculty talking about the changes in assistive technology that we have made this year. I am excited about them, I think that they will provide good service for students and for faculty all across all our campuses. I am looking forward to the conversations that I will be having with the faculty assembly about accessibility and how important it is in course design. I just want to get under way I think,I think. Welcome back everyone!


December 5, 2008

Diversity and Inclusion…

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Uncategorized,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 4:23 pm

I am going to take a short break from Ruby Paine and the issues around poverty and educational performance to share the videos we have been posting on the Academic Support Services website celebrating the diversity of the human condition in honor of Inclusive Schools week. Enjoy!


Get Back Up!

This is just inspirational…


Clever, amusing and thought- provoking…

November 18, 2008

I want to share a book…

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 11:31 pm

The last few weeks, I have been reflecting on  the work of Ruby Payne and how her research might inform our practice at the post-secondary level. Recently I heard Mary Childers, author of Welfare Brat: A Memoir speak at a conference, and I have since finished her book. It is  much like reading a first person account of Payne’s research.

A review from the American Library Association:

“Childers describes her journey from a childhood growing up on welfare in the Bronx, one of seven children with four different fathers, to her life as a consultant with a Ph.D. in English literature. Her family had no phone and occasionally no electricity, and little food; and their mother often disappeared, leaving Mary in charge of her younger siblings. Something in Mary and her sister, Joan, makes them realize that they must break the cycle of poverty, and that the key is education. Mary is placed in accelerated programs, completing junior high in one year, and entering high school in 1966 in the tenth grade. Along the way she babysits to earn her own money, joins a gang until she perceives their hatred of minorities, experiences racial hatred herself after Martin Luther King’s assassination, and eventually gets a full scholarship to a small college in western New York. Remarkably free of bitterness as she matures, Childers begins to focus on how hard her mother tried, instead of how often she failed.”

Deborah Donovan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

I recommend the book as vacation reading. Have a wonderful, healing and happy Thanksgiving!


November 4, 2008

Hidden Rules….Could you survive in poverty?

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 7:40 pm

This post is about a week later than I wanted it to be…sometimes the world just gets out of control:)

When I first began school, “back in the day “as my kids tell me, I went to parochial school- complete with nuns in flowing black habits. I attended parochial school through the fourth grade, when we moved. My father was a mechanical engineer and worked for IBM, and so we moved a lot in those days. The town we wound up in did not have a catholic school nearby and so I went to public school for fifth grade. I was a pretty bright kid and had been given lots of good feedback from my teachers for both asking and answering questions. (Really! I must have had very progressive religious faculty.) When I arrived in public school, on the first day, I raised my hand to answer a question, was called on, stood up and gave my response. The class laughed at me- not because my answer was foolish but because I was standing up- as I had been taught to do. I was understandably mortified- and I never stood up again- but it took a long time for me to recover enough to be able to make friends and fit in.  Of course we moved again shortly (IBM in the late sixties was bit like the military that way) and so I developed a huge and enduring caution (to this day in fact) about assessing the rules of every new group I find myself a part of.

We have talked about general statistics around poverty, explored some definitions of resources and the role of language in defining the unique challenges that students who come from a background of poverty may face as they navigate school- especially college. One of the particularly important resources we have is our understanding of the hidden rules of the group. Hidden rules are the unspoken habits and cues of any group.  This is a concept that is easy to acknowledge when we think of cultural diversity, but it is less present when we think about the economic diversity of the students we serve. And there are lots of rules to think about that have an enormous impact on achievement in schools and work. this chart summarizes some of these: The Hidden Rules of Class

To see how you fit in, try one- or more- of these inventories…

Could You Survive in Poverty?

Could You Survive in Middle Class?

Could You Survive in Wealth?

I am pretty solidly middle class. I understand the game. I suspect I would not do so well in a truly wealthy environment- though I would not mind trying- and I am fairly sure that I would NOT do well in poverty. I am pretty resourceful but there are layers and understandings that I do not have and might not have the time to learn.

It is so for our students as well. If we pay attention to the stories they tell, we will hear often that our students who are not successful just do not view the world and their resources and options in the same way we do. Too often assumptions about intelligence are made based on behavior.  Schools can teach students what they need to know about mediating the world, but to do that effectively, we must also communicate respect for the world they are surviving.


October 9, 2008

What gets in the way…language and story

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 3:25 pm

Communication with others is a complicated thing.  Communication with someone from another culture who speaks a different language is even more complex. Communicating with someone from another culture, who speaks a language similar to your own can be a  nightmare, all the more because both sides think they are being clear and should be understood .

When we talk about language, we generally think about three major aspects: register, discourse patterns, and story structure. Register refers to the tone of language, and there are five descriptive categories (Joos 1967). Frozen Language refers to language that is always the same. Wedding vows and the Pledge of Allegiance would be good examples. Formal Language is the standard of work and most schools. Sentences are complete and there are some specifics understandings around word choice. Consultative Language refers to formal register as it is used in conversation and is slightly less rule bound.  Casual Register refers to the language used between friends. The vocabulary tends to be much smaller and less specific. Gestures , facial expressions and body language are important tools to support understanding. Syntax is often incomplete. Intimate Language, the final category, is the language used between lovers and twins. It is also, predictably enough, the language of sexual harassment.

Why is this important? Think of Mark Twain.

“In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language”
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

Formal Register is the language of the middle class and the preferred register for work and school. Many individuals who grow up in poverty, especially those in minority groups, do not have access to formal register use at home.  One of the hidden rules of the middle class is the ability to communicate in the formal register. Those who cannot do not do well on standardized exams like the SAT, nor are they successful in activities such as job interviews. Communicating in writing,  always done in this register, can be an overwhelming and ultimately meaningless task.

Register is connected to the other aspects of communication, patterns of discourse.  One key aspect of discourse is the way in which information is organized. The formal register requires that the speaker get straight to the point. Casual register, on the other hand, is more meandering and inclusive of the listener. Formal register stories go from one point to the next and on to the next until the conclusion is reached. Casual register story telling expects and relies on audience participation and commentary.  When we are working with students who have had limited access to formal register and the attending patterns of discourse, it can be very frustrating to wait for them to wend their way to the point. It is equally frustrating for the students, who need audience feedback to move their story along.

What does this mean for us?

Awareness for one thing. It is not safe to assume that because you are saying something in what feels like plain English, it is being understood. Communication between human beings has layers of levels, many of which have nothing to do with the words themselves. We want to be understood. So do they. The Mark Twain model (see quote above) is not enough of a response.

Understanding formal register is important for student academic success. If we have students- and we do- who are not growing up immersed in the language of the middle class, then we need to teach it to them. Learning language is easier when it is motivated by relationships ( think about the urgency that wanting to talk with some who only signs provides to learning sign language) but it can also be directly taught. Formal instruction in discourse and story structures will help students to mediate their environment more effectively- including the working world. Part of our mission as educators is to encourage students and give them the tools they need to aspire to be something more. Language is one of those tools.

At the same time, we need to recognize that casual discourse has a valid place. It is not less than more formal language- only appropriate in different situations. Part of the journey is to recognize what those situations are. Our students will find themselves in many places as they acquire the skills they need to have the choices they want. Understanding, in a conscious and deliberate way, the role language plays, empowers them.


September 30, 2008

What gets in the way continued…

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 8:23 pm

So…last week I opened a conversation about poverty and it’s impact on student performance by sharing some statistics. Statistics are important because they provide a non-judgmental snapshot of a particular place, time and group.  At Vermont Tech, we work with a large number of students from who are first generation college students ,  and who come from low income backgrounds, so the likelihood of some of our students falling somewhere in that statistical profile is reasonably high.  Since our goal is to retain those students so that they can develop the resources to have satisfying choices about how they spend their lives, knowing something just makes sense.

Which sets up a pretty good segue into a conversation about resources. One might define poverty as “the extent to which an individual does without resources”. (Payne, 1996, 2007) While we generally think of resources as financial, it really is much more than that. Payne suggests this list:

  1. Financial: Having the money to purchase goods and services
  2. Emotional: Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self destructive behavior.  This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance and choices.
  3. Mental: Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, math) to deal with daily life.
  4. Spiritual: Believing in divine purpose and guidance
  5. Physical: Having physical health and mobility
  6. Support Systems: Having friends, family and back up resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources.
  7. Relationships/Role Models: Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing, and who do not engage in self destructive behavior.
  8. Knowledge of the Hidden Rules: Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group.

To discuss the significance of all these in one post would be cumbersome, but it is worth saying that while educators cannot influence financial , or physical resources much, there is a lot that we can do to support students that costs nothing. Being a mentor for example…

The other important point- for me anyway- is that we should always look at the student and their individual circumstances before we start passing judgements and looking for solutions. Suggestions that arise from the middle class head that most educators have, make great sense to us, but may make no sense to someone living with the limited resources available to those in poverty.


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