The most important thing school can teach you is…

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner
Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...
You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!
Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage
This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?

Why?

The love of learning

By Caitlin Kelly

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I attended two schools of higher education, as different from one another — as the British say — as chalk and cheese.

I did four years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, Canada’s toughest university. Our professors were world-class scholars, some of them terrifying in their capes and bow ties, quoting in Latin or German or Greek.

We didn’t dare speak to them outside of class, and rarely during class. They had little idea who most of us were — lost in a sea of 53,000 students across a downtown campus so large it took me 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other.

I later attended the New York School of Interior Design, where I also now teach occasionally, and found a totally different experience: warm, welcoming, demanding but supportive. I love its bright red door on the north side of East 70th., ducking into Neil’s Diner down the street for a coffee before or after class.

Our classes were small, our teachers consistently insisting on our excellence. I loved it all. OK, except for drafting.

I decided not to switch careers, but don’t regret a minute of the thousands of dollars I spent there. I loved my classes and have developed a strong and solid alternate skill set.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
I’m happiest as an experiential learner — which is why journalism is such a good fit for me. Here, on assignment in Nicaragua, for WaterAid

Learning can be fun, exhilarating, inspiring.

And exhausting.

So, too, can teaching.

Not because simply transferring skills and knowledge is pedagogically complex. People learn at different speeds, with different levels and styles of intelligence, aptitude or interest.

Did you see this extraordinary recent story about an American professor who failed his entire class?

After 20 years in the classroom, he lost it.

malled cover HIGH

Last Saturday I attended and spoke at a writers’ one-day conference in Bethesda, Maryland; I was on the day’s final panel about how to turn a print career into a book.

I’ve been writing for a living for decades — why bother listening to all the others?

What’s left to learn?

Lots. If you’re open to it.

I sat beside legendary biographer Kitty Kelley at lunch and heard delicious out-takes from her book about Frank Sinatra as we ate our sandwiches.

I heard a law professor describe her solution to the exact problem I’d just faced in my own classroom and asked her if she’d advise me more in future.

I heard one biographer describe how much — after years of work — she decided she loathed her subject, Harold Ickes — and gave all her materials to another writer. What generosity!

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

This week I’ll teach my two college classes, as usual, on Thursday.

Then, all day Friday and Saturday, I’ll sit in stuffy hotel meeting rooms for the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual conference in New York City, and learn as much as I possibly can — about new markets, about how to do social media better, about how to improve my thinking and writing.

I’ll meet old friends from across the country, and make some new ones.

Learning is something we do, ideally, until the day we die.

How about you?

Do you love learning (or teaching)?

Should a teacher publicly praise or shame their students?

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

In a few short weeks, I’ll finish the first semester teaching college at Pratt Institute, a highly-regarded private college in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I’ve loved it, but I’m pooped!

“Teaching” is really a one-word shorthand for describing the multitude of feelings, behaviors and interactions that happen in each classroom, ranging from pride, joy and satisfaction to shame, frustration, even anger — those of the students’ and the teacher’s!

I really enjoy teaching — I teach writing to freshmen and blogging to four seniors — but was taken aback by how much emotion also swirls around my classrooms. I knew that adolescents like, and need, to push back against authority figures, especially in college as they start to discover their own intellectual abilities, and their limits, in a tougher setting filled with strangers.

I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to manage those emotions publicly, making snap decisions in the moment how to respond to pushback or rudeness while knowing the wrong choice could destroy whatever classroom environment of trust and enjoyment I had been able to create.

One of the many challenges I’ve faced as a teacher is when, how, where and if to chastise a student for their laziness or poor work and when to praise them.

Publicly or privately? Face to face or in an email?

I remember all too well what both feel like as a student.

So I was intrigued, and a little horrified to read this New York Times story about the ClassDojo app now being used by many American teachers:

ClassDojo, a behavior-tracking app that lets teachers award points or subtract them based on a student’s conduct. On the board was a virtual classroom showing each student’s name, a cartoon avatar and the student’s scores so far that week.

“I’m going to have to take a point for no math homework,” Mr. Fletcher said to a blond boy in a striped shirt and then clicked on the boy’s avatar, a googly-eyed green monster, and subtracted a point.

The program emitted a disappointed pong sound, audible to the whole class — and sent a notice to the child’s parents if they had signed up for an account on the service.

ClassDojo is used by at least one teacher in roughly one out of three schools in the United States, according to its developer. The app is among the innovations to emerge from the estimated $7.9 billion education software market aimed at students from prekindergarten through high school.

I was badly bullied in my Toronto high school, and every day meant listening to the taunts and jeers of a small group of nasty boys. Praise and kindness, from any source there, meant the world to me in contrast.

One day — and thank god for Mr. Stickney’s compassion — I lost my shit. The redheaded asshole, whose nickname (yes, really) was Moose, kept droning onandonandonandon, a litany of the same old insults toward me, as he sat in front of me in 12th Grade math class.

Our textbook that year was hardcover, thick and heavy. I raised it, and whacked him, hard, on the back of his head.

Finally, blessed silence. All I wanted was to be left in peace, to learn.

“Caitlin, can you please sit at the back of the classroom?” Stick asked.

I could, and did.

Being a student, whether you’re four, 14 or 20, means making yourself deeply and publicly vulnerable to the judgments about you made by fellow students, your teachers and school administrators.

If they’re kind and sensitive, (and it’s usually a mixed bag), school can be a place you look forward to and thrive in — or a special daily sort of hell.

In my early teens, I had become something of a troublemaker in my Toronto boarding school, miserable and frustrated to be parked there while my parents were….elsewhere. By the end of Grade Nine, I was asked to leave.

An app like ClassDojo would have made my life even more nightmarish, making clear to every class how much trouble I was in and dragging them down with me. It would have further concretized the alienating and shaming consensus that I was something annoying to be gotten rid of — instead of the deeply unhappy and smart little girl that I was.

It was bad enough that our area’s neatness, and our behavior, was graded every single day on a chart by the door of our shared bedroom. Public shaming is not an effective way to motivate!

No one simply bothered to sit me down and ask: “How are you? What’s going on with you these days?”

There’s no app for compassion.

There’s no app for sensitivity.

Teacher — students — what do you think of this sort of thing?

Would you use it? Are you using it?

 

Which teacher(s) changed your life?

By Caitlin Kelly

I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?

Or felt as confident of my choice?

From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.

Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...
English: Teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute examine the “String Thing” they built. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.

My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.

I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.

In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.

I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.

But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z.,  had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.

English: A special education teacher assists o...
English: A special education teacher assists one of her students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.

Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.

A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.

My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.

He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.

But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.

Career chosen!

I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”

Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.

Which teacher most affected you and your later life?

How and why?

As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?

Girls With Enemies Do Better

Interesting study cited in The New York Times:

In a series of recent experiments, a group of psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, recorded mutual dislike among 2,003 middle school students. Unlike previous studies on the same topic, these researchers also compared children who reciprocated a fellow classmate’s dislike with those who did not. Students who were not named at all on anyone’s blacklist were excluded from this analysis.

This comparison found that the girls who returned classmates’ hostility scored significantly higher on peers’ and teachers’ ratings of social competence. They were more popular and widely admired. The boys who did the same scored highly on teachers’ ratings of classroom behavior.

“You have several options, as I see it, when you become aware of someone else’s antipathy,” said Melissa Witkow, now at Willamette University in Oregon, the psychologist who led the study. “You could be extra nice, and that might be good. But it could also be awkward or disappointing, and a waste of time. You could choose to ignore the person. Or you can engage.”

She said the study suggested that “when someone dislikes you, it may be adaptive to dislike them back.”

I’ve blogged here about being bullied and how traumatic that was for me. But being disliked — which happens to all of us — is different from being bullied.

I was sent off to boarding school at eight and summer camp at the same age. An only child, I wasn’t used to being teased or fighting with siblings, so running into haters was a new experience. And, when you share a room for many months with four or six other girls — one or more of whom are nasty — you’ve got nowhere to run or hide. The closet? The bathroom?

I still remember a blonde girl named Stephanie and a dark-haired Kathy who were mean. Mean! But it was sort of fun to throw their energy right back at them. It’s not pleasant to discover not everyone likes you, but if they did, you’d probably be way too accommodating. Whenever Stephanie started sharpening her tongue, I was ready with a retort. I actually bit Kathy’s finger once, hard, when she was stupid enough to stick in my face and dare me to. She didn’t make that mistake twice.

Fighting for yourself — when not against a team of relentlessly toxic bullies — is a useful skill. Girls are too often taught to “be nice” when being tough, smart and ready and willing to defend yourself, verbally or even physically, is a better option. Like knowing how to cook or clean or change a tire, it’s a useful life skill.

New York City 12-Year-Old Girl Arrested And Cuffed For Doodling On Her Desk

Early handcuffs, pt. 2
Image by Marcin Wichary via Flickr

Chalk one up for aggressive stupidity — thanks to an overzealous New York City school who had a 12-year-old student arrested — for doodling:

Alexa Gonzalez was scribbling a few words on her desk Monday while waiting for her Spanish teacher to pass out homework at Junior High School 190 in Forest Hills, she said.

“I love my friends Abby and Faith,” the girl wrote, adding the phrases “Lex was here. 2/1/10” and a smiley face.

But instead of simply cleaning off the doodles after class, Alexa landed in some adult-sized trouble for using her lime-green magic marker.

She was led out of school in cuffs and walked to the precinct across the street, where she was detained for several hours, she and her mother said.

“I started crying, like, a lot,” said Alexa. “I made two little doodles. … It could be easily erased. To put handcuffs on me is unnecessary.” Alexa, who had a stellar attendance record, hasn’t been back to school since, adding, “I just thought I’d get a detention. I thought maybe I would have to clean [the desk].”

“She’s been throwing up,” said her mom, Moraima Camacho, 49, an accountant, who lives with her daughter in Kew Gardens. “The whole situation has been a nightmare.”

City officials acknowledged Alexa’s arrest was a mistake.

“We’re looking at the facts,” said City Education Department spokesman David Cantor. “Based on what we’ve seen so far, this shouldn’t have happened.”

And it’s not the first time a city kid has been cuffed for so minor a misdeed:

A class action lawsuit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union last month against the city for using “excessive force” in middle school and high schools. A 12-year-old sixth-grader, identified in the lawsuit as M.M., was arrested in March 2009 for doodling on her desk at the Hunts Point School.