This and that…

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.



January 23, 2009

It is an amazing week to be a teacher…

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Technology,Uncategorized,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 4:35 pm

Tuesday’s inauguration of President Obama left me with a positive buzz that is bubbling like champagne. It is a remarkable thing.  For the first time in months, I feel as though things really could move in a different and better direction.

I am finishing the new book by Thomas Friedman called Hot, Flat and Crowded.  I read it for a course, on the heels of finishing Charles Van Doren’s  book A History of Knowledge, so I was really primed for the energy in the inaugural address.  I had a class (Freshman Orientation for students who begin college in the spring semester)  at 4:00 that afternoon, and I was so pumped that I tossed my lesson plans- an introduction to the Master Notebook, for a conversation about what it all means. My poor students must have thought I had gone completely over the edge, but they were very patient 🙂 And it was completely worthwhile.

I began by articulating the issues we face as Friedman has done: decreasing biodiversity, energy poverty, the need for and supply of readily available power, climate change and petro-dictatorship. I posed a question (Harry if you read this I am aware that I was shamefully ripping off the question in the syllabus- I gave you credit in class:))-

What do schools need to do to prepare students to live in this world and find solutions that will allow us to continue to meet the needs of our planet and populations in a reasonable way? What do YOU as engineering students need to be taught? What do our rising high school and elementary students need to know?

We wrote individual reflections, and then shared those reflections in small groups.  When some coherence had been established, the smaller groups reported back to the large group.

One group talked extensively about making more efficient use of our waste. They ranged from recycling to methane and garbage burning with scrubbers and caps to incentivising the whole process through grants and tax breaks.  Another group focused on economic literacy and understanding history- not just on a personal level but the whole concept of supply and demand and the impact of economy on culture and an awareness of what has gone before. They also discussed relevance- and felt pretty strongly that our current system does not of a good job of  helping students see the relevance of what they are taught to what they might be doing later.  Algebra took a big hit here as did the current iteration of technical education- which was particularly interesting because this was an older group (one Australian student, one Iraq veteran and one student in his mid twenties, all in engineering programs). The last group also focused on literacy- but technological literacy. They felt that in a flat world,being unable to mediate the technology is unacceptable.  The education system needs to catch up if we are to prepare people capable of creative problem solving.

For students from wildly diverse backgrounds, ages and levels of experience, in their first semester of school,  with minimal preparation, their insight was amazing. I left class completely charged.  Days like this are why I became a teacher.

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.


September 22, 2008

What gets in the way…

Filed under: education,Post-secondary,Support Services,Uncategorized,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 2:23 pm

I have been thinking a lot about poverty and it’s relationship to education this summer. Now, granted, much of that is because of the work I am doing in grad school, but even so…the connection between poverty and educational performance is, well, significant would be understating it a bit.  I work at a small technical college. We have about 1600 students altogether, scattered at various sites around the state. We have an active TRiO program serving just over 200 students altogether.  Many of our students are first generation college students, and many of them are low income. Many of our students are both- which poses a unique set of challenges relative to college success. Over the next few weeks, I am going to ponder some of those challenges. This week, a look at some data- taken straight from the Census Bureau via the revised edition of A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne.

  1. In the United States in 2006, the poverty rate for all individuals was 12.3% For children under the age of 18, the poverty rate was 17.4% and for children under the age of 5, 20.4% (Us Census Bureau 2007). At Vermont Tech, close to 25% of our student population is eligible for Pell Grant funding- which means they meet the low income guidelines.
  2. There were 7.7 million poor families (9.8%) in 2006, up from 6.4 million (6.7%) in 2000 (US Census Bureau 2007)
  3. The foreign born population in the United States has increased 57% since1990 to a total of 30 million. In 2000, one out of every five children under the age of 18 was estimated to have at least one foreign born parent. Immigrant children are twice as likely to be poor as native born children. Among children whose parents work full time, immigrant children are at greater risk of living in poverty than native born children. (National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, 2002)
  4. Regardless of race or ethnicity, poor children are much more likely than non-poor children to suffer developmental delay and damage, to drop out of high school, and to give birth during the teen years. (Miranda 1991)
  5. Poverty prone children are more likely to be in single parent families( Einbinder, 1993) Median female wages in the United States at all levels of educational attainment are 30-50% lower than male wages at the same level of attainment. (TSII Manual, 1995, based on US Census data, 1993)
  6. Poor inner-city youths are seven times more likely to be the victims of child abuse and neglect than are children of high social and economic status. (Renchler 1993)
  7. Poverty is caused by interrelated factors: parental employment status and earnings, family structure, and parental education.  (Five Million Children, 1992)
  8. Children under the age of five remain particularly vulnerable to poverty. In 2006, children under five living in families with a female householder and no husband experienced a poverty rate of 53.7%, more than five times the rate for children in married-couple families. (US Census Bureau, 2007)
  9. the United States child poverty rate is substantially higher than- often two to three times higher- than that of other major western industrialized nations.
  10. In 2006, the following racial percentages and numbers of poor children were reported:
    United States Number of Children in Poverty in 2006 Percentage of Children in Poverty
    All Races 12,896,000 17.6%
    Caucasian 7,908,000 14.1%
    Hispanic* 4,072,000 26.9%
    African American 3,777,000 33.4%
    Asian American 360,000 12.2%
    Native American 194,000 31.9%

    *Hispanics may be of any race

    **Native American numbers from 2000 Decennial Census (not counted in 2006)

    Source: US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics

This is a lot of information to digest- and you may wonder why child poverty numbers matter in a college setting. They matter because these are our students. These are the students, who, if they get to us here in our rural ivory tower, are to be applauded and supported so that they can stay with us. Poverty is an insidious thing and the culture of poverty is hard to leave behind. The only sure way out is want and education. If they get to us, they have the desire. We can help with the rest- but we need to understand the challenge.

Take care all!


June 13, 2008

Again I am amazed…

Filed under: education,Support Services,Technology,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 5:05 pm


Amazement Number One: I have been -sporadically anyway- working on this blog for just over a year. As I look back over my posts, I can see that I like telling stories and sharing tools the best…there are a few posts with some philosophical rambling but most of them are reasonably informative. I wish I could get here more frequently though. I am working on that.

Amazement Number Two:The Sound of Learning

 This is a remarkable story that would not have been possible as little as five years ago. I post it for two reasons. One is just the inspiration value- Albano is clearly a determined young man who is willing to do whatever it takes to get himself to where he wants and needs to be. It would almost impossible not to find his grit inspiring. The second reason-and perhaps the most important- is the “example to instructors” value…Edutopia has done an excellent job with universal design on this page. There is the video, there is an article, AND there is a transcript of the video for the visually impaired. As we move more and more into using technology like videos and recordings of lectures to support student learning, I continue to advocate for proactive planning around this. We are a technical school- there is no good reason for us to behave reactively instead of proactively around all access.



April 15, 2008

We have a website!

Filed under: education,Support Services,Technology,Vermont Tech — learningspecialist @ 7:38 pm

Our school (Vermont Technical College) uses Blackboard as it’s content management system. Blackboard has a lot of advantages- it is fairly flexible and not too hard to figure out how to use. If you are teaching a class, you can post a great deal of content and assignments and tests and other course related stuff, and if you choose to use it, there is a place where you can store that stuff to reuse. It is not, however, very appealing visually and for us (Academic Support Services), it requires a significant amount of gymnastics to meet our needs. We -me actually- have been working on developing a more inviting web presence that would also allow us to post things like podcasts and video. And now we have it! Welcome to the Academic Support Services Website at Vermont Technical College! We are so excited- or at least I am anyway. The rest of the office tends to get that “oh, here she goes again” look when I bring it up…but too bad for them. The sun is out, my flowers are up (though I still have snow) and the website is LAUNCHED!

Many thanks to the good folks at WebNode for creating this wonderful, intuitive and free resource- much like the wonderful people here  at WordPress, that newbies and non-programmers like myself can use!



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