Smarter Faster Better

To do listI read a lot this summer.  Despite my Ph.D. in English, I don’t read much fiction.  I love reading nonfiction, especially the Malcolm Gladwell style books that boil down interesting research into stories that are directly applicable.  So I read quite a few books along those lines, mostly about learning and accomplishing goals.  I’m going to write about all of them eventually, but I’m going to start with the one that has stuck with me the most.  I keep telling stories from this one.  It’s, as the title of the post suggests, Smarter Better Faster by Charles Duhigg.  I read his other book, The Power of Habit, a while back as well.  What I liked about both books is that Duhigg is trying to find solutions to his own problems using evidence from psychology, social science, and neurology.  So the solutions he presents are evidence based, which I love.  He would admit, I think, that science changes over time, so these solutions might too.  But this is what we’ve got for now.

There were a lot of great tidbits in this book, a lot that were applicable to me as I try to grow my own skills, but also applicable to me as I try to grow the skills of my faculty and students.  The very first chapter is about motivation, and I’ve been telling stories from that chapter perhaps the most, as I often struggle to motivate people to do challenging things (and I struggle with motivation myself, who doesn’t!).  The coolest thing he says about motivation is that it can be learned.  A lot of people I talk to, especially teachers, but others as well, believe that if someone isn’t motivated that they’re a lost cause.  But we as teachers, co-workers, and spouses can create conditions under which those we’re trying to motivate (including ourselves) can practice self-motivation.  A key, Duhigg points out, is believing that you’re in control:

The first step in creating drive is giving people opportunities to make choices that provide them with a sense of autonomy and self-determination. In experiments, people are more motivated to complete difficult tasks when those chores are presented as decisions rather than commands.

When you have something difficult or unpleasant to do, figure out what’s in your control, make a decision about it, and that will motivate you.  If you have to write a tedious report, decide on the font or the title.  Another word for self motivation is internal locus of control.  That is, you believe that the decisions you make are what leads to success or failure.  If you fail, you blame yourself not someone else.  Shifting the locus of control from external to internal can be done through practice.  If you’re familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, that’s what it’s all about.  It’s retraining students to think that they are in control of their abilities by focusing praise on their hard work, something they can control, rather than on their innate intelligence.

When things get really challenging, you might need to draw on a lot of self-motivation to get through.  Finishing a Ph.D, getting through boot camp, finishing any long project or difficult task takes a lot of motivation to see through to the end.  In addition to making choices along the way so that you continue to feel in control, you can also connect those choices to a bigger picture, the why you’re doing the task in the first place.  As Duhigg puts it, “we need to learn to see our choices not just as expressions of control but also as affirmations of our values and goals.”  The smaller, sometimes unpleasant, tasks along the way are part of a bigger picture, an emotional reward bigger than the task itself.

These ideas about motivation have really helped, and will help in the year ahead.  The other chapter that resonated with me significantly was the one on setting goals.  I had gone through with the department chairs the idea of setting SMART goals after I saw that some of the goals people were setting were super vague and really wouldn’t guide their work in meaningful ways.  Duhigg points out, though, that SMART goals are really only the beginning.  Some people who set SMART goals

are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set. “You get into this mindset where crossing things off your to-do list becomes more important than asking yourself if you’re doing the right things,”

When I was in GTD mode, I did that a lot, although it did ultimately lead me to finishing my dissertation and stretching myself, which is exactly what Duhigg suggests we do, stretch ourselves.  And here is how he puts it:

So one solution is writing to-do lists that pair stretch goals and SMART goals. Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon. Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make in the next day, week, month?

I ended up providing my department chairs with a chunk of the chapter on goals.  I want people to dream big.  What’s something that seems crazy to tackle and then figure out how you might get there.  I’d rather see one goal like that than three goals that can be accomplished within the opening months of school (i.e. attend a conference or get more organized which should be smaller goals tied to a bigger one).

There’s a lot more to the book, chapters on teams and managing others, a chapter on mental models that’s really great for those of us who teach.  He discusses using data, both in decision making and in changing how you do things.  There’s also a helpful guide in the back that articulates easy ways to put the ideas in the book into practice.  I keep returning to this book over and over again, in conversations with others, in structuring my own work, in thinking about how to approach my classes.  Well worth a read.

Fitness Friday: Gamification

JoggingOne of the things I’ve gotten back to is exercising.  I gained a fair amount of weight from being immobile, though people I say that to say that don’t notice it.  Unfortunately, I have clothes that don’t fit.  So I after I returned from vacation early in the summer, I set things up to begin losing some weight, mostly by upping my activity, but also watching what I ate.  Because my foot’s not totally recovered, it can be difficult to walk longer distances.  Running is out of the question for me right now. Walking is my go to activity, and, before I hurt myself, I was training for a 5K.  But walking longer distances was something I was going to have to work up to.  I had to come up with another plan.

We’re two blocks from a brand new Y.  We haven’t joined because we both have access to gyms at our workplaces.  But I’ve discovered that I don’t really like using my facilities.  After school’s out, there are students there, working out on their own or working with a team.  And I just don’t want to try to get things done surrounded by students.  So, first, I joined the Y, giving me access to equipment I can do non load bearing activity on.

Second, I started to take my Garmin Vivofit more seriously.  Mr. Geeky got it for me for my birthday to replace the Fitbit that got destroyed during my encounter with a car.  When I first got it, I wasn’t sure I liked it as much as my Fitbit.  And there are still a few things about it I don’t like.  But one of its best features is an adjustable goal.  On the Fitbit, you pretty much just set your goal for how ever many steps you want to hit.  The Garmin tracks a typical day and adjusts based on what you actually walk.  So, I started with around 5K steps.  I’m now up to 7500.  I’m also participating in some challenges with others, which also adjusts based on your activity.  The challenges get harder as you do more.

Pokemon GO for PC - Windows/MAC DownloadThird, Pokemon Go came out.  In order to even play the game, you have to go outside and there are parts where you have to walk a certain distance.  So that gave me some further motivation.

Finally, I set up some simple rules.  One, I have to meet my step goals every day.  I’ve set up strategies to achieve this.  I walk to the Y, which gets me steps.  If I work on the elliptical, I also get steps.  And finally, if evening rolls around and I still haven’t met the goal, I head out for a “pokewalk” and play some Pokemon Go.  The thought that I might gain some experience and catch some pokemon adds additional motivation.  Two, alcohol only on the weekends. That glass of wine with dinner every night was empty calories.  Three, aim to workout at the Y every day.  I try to go at a time that would be convenient even during the school year.  There have been days when this hasn’t happened, but it still works out that I’m going to the Y 4 or 5 days out of 7.  Four, I only eat when I’m hungry and eat healthier food.

And that’s it.  So far, I’ve lost about 6 or 7 pounds.  The challenge will be to keep this up when the school year starts.

Computer Use in the Classroom

Lectures at Sydney UniversityAt my school, we are constantly having discussions around appropriate computer use for our students.  We are a 1:1 school from 6th grade on and younger than that, we still have many devices that are used for learning in the lower grades.  How and when to use them, and how to help our students use devices outside of the classroom effectively is a regular topic of discussion among the faculty.  Two recent posts on this topic caught my attention, and both illustrate in different ways how fraught the topic is, and how little evidence we actually have for what kind of impact using computers has on the learning outcomes of our students.

First, let me start with Professor Jeff McClurken’s post.  I’ve known Jeff a long time, and I’m not surprised by his take on the recent calls to ban laptops in the classroom.  The context for most of those bans has been in large lecture halls, but some of the op-eds and articles he points to are from high school teachers or from teachers of smaller classes.  Jeff rightly points out the many of the studies that show negative outcomes for students (i.e. that taking notes longhand is better; or that grades improved when laptops were banned) are from large lecture classes.  It’s hard to attribute positive outcomes to one single factor.  He points out that most faculty don’t have a plan for how to use the laptops in class.  In fact, they may never direct the students to use the laptops in any way during class and simply lecture at them while the students, in theory, take notes on their device of choice.

He also points out that increasingly, students are showing up at college having used laptops or other devices in their classrooms since middle school or earlier.  Banning laptops for students used to using them for learning is going to frustrate some of them.  A corollary to this point that he makes is that banning laptops makes faculty look pretty out of touch, which isn’t helpful when you’re in a climate where faculty already seem disconnected from the real world.

The rest of Jeff’s post mostly offers helpful advice and/or positive ways in which laptops and the access they afford contribute to a solid pedagogy.  Like many of us who believe that laptop use can be good, he’s not advocating for a binary, all or none situation.  Certainly, a teacher has the right to ask students to close laptops for class discussion or for any other reasons.  What Jeff has a problem with is when there’s a big old note at the top of the syllabus or announcement at the beginning of class that says NO LAPTOPS EVER!

The other post on this topic that caught my eye was one by Anya Kamenetz which looked at several studies that show mostly either negative results from using technology or no better results than students who don’t have technology.  As she points out, most of the studies are flawed and none can really be compared to each other because they are all different populations (colleges, middle schools, high schools) and different aspects were studied.  How the technology was used, for example, was different in all cases, and a lot of the studies didn’t go into a huge amount of detail.

I personally know, that many public schools are using technology strictly to facilitate test taking or test prep.  So poor learning are being blamed, it seems, on the technology rather than on the tests themselves.  (Note that the outcome measure was a different test, not the one being prepped for via the technology).  Also, a few of these studies were not about the use of laptops within a teacher-guided classroom, but about taking online courses or using online resources to extend classroom work.  Kamenetz points out that in many cases it was unclear how much training the teachers got (when they were facilitating the use of software) or when and how often the students were using the software.  So it’s hard to know if maybe the teachers were poorly trained and not using the software as effectively as they good or if the students were bored and not using the software much, so that it could have had a positive impact.  There’s no way of knowing if longer use led to better outcomes.  All we have is these kids used software and these didn’t.

Much more work is needed, of course.  There’s no denying that any device offers some level of distraction.  I remember years and years ago, when we were about to switch from terminals to pcs in my workplace, the CEO was highly upset about the possibility of workers playing solitaire instead of working. And those were adults he was talking about.  I have a conversation with my students every year about responsible device use, and I encourage my colleagues to as well.  I approach it from a standpoint of natural consequences, mostly, basically saying that if you’re distracted and not listening to what I’m saying, I don’t have to repeat myself and that it’s up to you to get the information you need.  And then I approach it with a little bit of humor, joking with students when I see they’re off task about how whatever it is doesn’t look very computer science-y.  And then I just give them enough to do that they don’t have time to go off task.  Not perfect, but it works for me.

One step forward

FootprintsI’m finally, just these last few weeks, feeling like I’m getting my life back, post foot injury.  I got behind on so much during the over two months I was basically immobile, and the following 2-3 months I was focused on being able to get around fairly seamlessly.  In order to catch up, I had to start letting some things go.  I did run again for the CSTA board, which made me sad, but I knew I couldn’t do it justice.  In fact, I didn’t even make it to the conference this year.  I didn’t go to any conferences this summer, in fact.  For comparison, last summer, I went to three.  I did manage three local edcamps, but those were just a day and all in the late spring or early summer.

I am on the mend, although there is still work to be done in terms of being 100%.  I may never, in fact, be back to what I was before I broke my foot, but I can be close.  I can walk mostly normally, though there is still pain most of the time.  Every once in a while, I’ll have some time where it doesn’t hurt to walk.  It’s usually short-lived.  I’m back to exercising regularly, though I’m focused on low impact work like the elliptical and the bike.  I’m planning to add in some ab and/or arm work soon.  It’s amazing how many activities, even those that don’t involve feet or legs, involve the use of your feet.  Planks are a not go for me, for example.  My foot is just not strong enough to hold up my body like that.  Though there are times when I get frustrated, I count myself lucky that I can walk, and that I am healthy in most other ways and that my work doesn’t require me to stand for long periods, lift heavy objects, or do other activities that I can’t do so well now.  My biggest frustration is finding shoes that work, but I like shoe shopping, so it’s not all bad.

At work, I was able to cut back to a single class each semester, which is allowing me to have more time to focus on my administrative work.  I’ve come to enjoy the challenges of doing administrative work.  I think I will always want to have a class or two, but I enjoy the other work enough that I feel like letting go of much of the teaching pieces hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be.  We have a new head of school, which has meant a fair amount of work on my part over the summer, helping her to get up to speed and getting her input on projects and tasks that I had been working on previously.  I feel that the beginning of school in few weeks will still be the firehose of work that it always is, but that I’m prepared for it.  (Mostly, I still have some class prep to do. 🙂 )

At home, I’m digging out from under long built up messes.  When I was first back on my feet, I just didn’t have the energy when I got home to do much.  Everyone pitched in and triaged as much as possible.  The kitchen stayed mostly clean because we like to cook and eat, but many flat surfaces became holding grounds for stacks of paper and things that people weren’t quite sure where they went.  The purging I had begun came to a halt.  What I’ve found over the years is that my family does pitch in on the housework, but only if I am too.  When I was unable to do so, they kind of quit.  The last couple of weeks, I’ve seen Geeky Girl randomly clean stuff up that wasn’t hers and Mr. Geeky start to purge things that have been lying around a while.  So we might actually have a good foundation to start the school year on.

The rest of the “One step forward” phrase is, of course “two steps back.”  And I’m anticipating that to happen at some point during the year.  At least now, I can make that one step back forward again and maybe even make progress.

Summer for Educators

1898 photograph of a singing class at a "...
1898 photograph of a singing class at a “vacation school”, what in modern terminology would probably be a summer camp. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people think that those of us in education have the summer “off.”  I’ve written about this before.  It comes up often when I talk to non-education people.  My response to people who ask, “Don’t you have the summer off?” is “Sort of.”  I can count on one hand summers that I’ve truly had off, where I didn’t have much of anything to prepare for the coming school year and I could truly just relax for a significant chunk of time.  Every summer since I became a teacher 7 years ago has involved prepping for new courses, going to conferences, and sometimes managing administrative work.  Despite having that work to do, I appreciated being able to do it when and where I wanted.  I could sit out on the deck and read, plan, think, etc.  I could hang out on the couch, work a couple of hours and then spend the rest of the day doing something else.  It does have its perks.

I remember the days of not having summer to myself at all.  When I was in the corporate world, of course, summer didn’t quite hold the special place it does in education.  People took vacation at random times of the year, so it wasn’t like half the office left for three months. Summer was pretty much like any other time of year, except the weather was better. No one resented people who were on vacation during summer or any other time.  In my previous job, I was on the staff side and I also ran a summer program, so not only did I have to work in the summer, my work load was, in some ways, harder than it was during the school year. I found that stressful.  And it didn’t help when faculty showed up at the beginning of the year and asked me how my summer was, which I read as, “What fun things did you do that didn’t have anything to do with work?” Maybe I was projecting, but that’s how I felt.

So this summer is the first summer is about 5 years that I am actually “on the books” to work.  I’m required to work and there is much to do.  I’ve done almost no course planning and have spent a large chunk of time tackling a wide range of administrative tasks.  But it’s still been at a pace that makes it feel like summer.  We have reduced hours and in order to use all my vacation time (which I actually won’t be able to do), I’ve taken 4-day weekends every week.  Much of the rest of the staff has been able to do similar things.  It feels a lot better than my previous experience working during the summer at an educational institution.  Maybe other staff don’t feel that way, but certainly, the workplace feels relaxed and simultaneously productive.

We still have a couple of weeks before the faculty all come back and a week after that, the students return.  Already, there’s a feeling that things are ramping up a little bit, but I’m going to try to revel in the relaxed atmosphere for just a little longer.




Yep, there’s still sexism

I haven’t been watching the Olympics; it’s not my thing.  But I’ve certainly seen the coverage.  Sadly, many of the commentators have not done a great job when it comes to covering the female athletes.  There’s a running list of the comments some of these men (yes, they’re men) have made. Attributing successes to husbands, identifying athletes as the wife of someone (first and foremost), and comparing them to men (“wow, they’re better than the men”). I’m sure these comments are nothing new, but now, instead of people just getting outraged at home on their couch, they can take to Facebook and Twitter, and their blogs and shine a pretty bright light on them.

Most of these comments are what might be labeled microaggressions, not so egregious in the grand scheme of things, but taken together, they send a pretty powerful message and feel deflating.  This is what happens to many women (and other categories of people not in the majority).  Someone says something that seems innocent enough, but is actually insulting.  If you’re in an environment where these kinds of comments happen regularly, you might find yourself exhausted at the end of the day. Or just start to feel like some of the comments are true.  Maybe you aren’t as good as a man.  Maybe you do owe your success to your husband.

This is where we are with most sexism.  Most of the time, it’s not the blatant sexism of Mad Men.*  It’s entrenched in the culture in a way that it comes out in everyday commentary, often when women are doing some “atypical” for women, like killing it at the Olympics.  And it’s frustrating for those of us still having to put up with it.  Pointing it out the way people are doing during the Olympics is a step in the right direction.   We still need to root this out early, which means providing more examples of women achieving for kids early on.  It means creating an environment where men and women are treated truly equally, where we don’t see the differences between men and women as indicating that one is better than the other, but just as differences.  It’s why I think girls’ schools are still relevant.  Because while we need to work on the boys, we need to give girls a chance to thrive where they’re not facing these issues while they’re learning.  So when they do face comments like the ones we’ve seen the last few days, they won’t internalize them or feel they’re true. They’ll be among those taking to Twitter and Facebook to rail against the comments.

Unfortunately, the comments coming out of the Olympics are minor compared to what’s being said about Hillary Clinton.  (And on the other side, what’s being said about other women and women generally.)  We’re in for a long haul on that front. And if Hillary wins, the likelihood of sexism going away or becoming less is slim.  Look at racism and Obama.  But maybe, just maybe, it will be a one step forward, two steps back situation.  Maybe, eventually, we’ll get a little further.  I can dream can’t I?


*Of course, sometimes it is, e.g. Roger Ailes.

Hello? Is Anyone Home?

So not only did I disappear for 3 months, but my entire site did.  Thanks to a compromised credit card and a crazy end of school, I missed the deadline to renew my hosting account.  I contacted support as soon as I realized what happened and they made noise suggesting that they would restore everything. I got busy again, went on vacation and came back and sure enough, still no backup. So I called.  But I didn’t have much hope. Months had passed. They had no obligation to backup my little site.  I was all prepared to think of this outcome as a clean slate.

But miracle of miracles, they had a backup from right before the site went down (Bluehost rocks, FYI).  48 hours later with a little more tinkering on my part, I’m back in business.

It reminded me how ephemeral all this Internet stuff really is.  Ten years of blogging can disappear in a moment.  I was also frustrated with myself for letting this happen right when I finally had some time and something to say! Even though most people have shifted to Facebook or Twitter (and I, too, spend a fair amount of time there), I still like the long form and having my own space here.

So real posts are coming soon and probably some design tweaking because you know, why not.  And let this be a lesson to some of you out there–backup your site!

Feeling the burn (out)

This is the time of year where I always wonder if I’m going to make it.  The grading has piled up; there’s only one week of classes left before exams; and those things you started on months ago have to be finished right now.  When I’m not working, I’m too exhausted to do anything.  Today I made the executive decision to take the day off.  I have two doctor’s appointments this morning, which would have put me at work at noon at the earliest.  So I decided that I could use the time more effectively doing a combination of work/house things from my home in the afternoon.

I’ve talked to a couple of colleagues who are feeling the same way.  Final papers have come in and have to be graded before exams.  Stressed out students have taken up free time getting help on either the paper or prepping for the exam.  We feel like we’re neglecting our families and our houses.  And yes, there’s light at the end of the tunnel in the form of summer, but it feels like a really long stretch before then.

This is when things can fall apart, at least temporarily.  Tempers can flare.  Comments can be written a little too sternly.  Emails get fired off too quickly.  You can start to resent the colleague or student who asks for help.  I have been telling colleagues to take care of themselves these last few days.  No, you don’t have grade that one last paper before getting yourself a snack.  Sleep before grading.

I’m reminding myself (and everyone around me) to pause for a moment and apply a little self care.  It just might get your through.

Happy Belated Mother’s Day

Mothers' Day Cake crop
Mothers’ Day Cake crop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday, I achieved Mother’s Day nirvana by staying in my PJ’s all day.  I am on the fence about holidays like Mother’s Day.  Sure, it’s great to recognize and appreciate our mothers, but the holiday is a made up holiday and for some people, gives them an out for not doing or saying anything the other 364 days out of the year.  And then there’s the people who are adopted or whose mothers have died, making the holiday a potentially painful one.  And what about those with two mothers or two fathers.  These days get even more complicated for non-traditional families.

Geeky Girl suggested a Parents’ Day, maybe even two.  I suggested that maybe we don’t need a day at all.  But then Hallmark and flower shops would lose a lot of business.  I’d rather see us actually support family friendly laws, like, you know, paid maternity and paternity leave?  Or affordable daycare? Many mothers would much rather have paid time off than cards and flowers.

So I’m glad that we take a day to recognize the hard work of mothers, but I’d really like us to focus on more meaningful support for mothers and families.

Doing the best they can

A couple of weeks ago, I used this video of a TED talk by Brené Brown at the end of a long retreat.  Go ahead.  Take 20 minutes and watch it.  I will be here.

My thought in showing this video was for us to tap into our human side, that yes, in our daily interactions, we need to embrace our own vulnerability.  I’ve watched it a few times myself, but I wanted more, so I bought one of Brown’s books, Rising Strong.  It’s based on the same research that she presented in the TED talk.  One of the parts I just finished covers the concept of assuming that people are doing the best they can in the moment.  It occurred to me that this is the perfect approach to take with students.  Let me explain.

Back when I was reading a lot of professors’ blogs, there was nothing that would make me quit reading faster than if they spent too much time complaining about students.  I understood that students can sometimes create frustrations, but when a blog veered toward a “kids these days” mentality with little to no empathy for where they are, I was done.

I think it’s important to appreciate that not only are students human, but they’re young humans.  They’re still figuring things out.  There’s an assumption sometimes that students do things almost out of spite.  Or even if it’s not spite, they’re being lazy or disrespectful.  But imagine if you just paused and thought, as Brené Brown encourages us to do, “They’re doing the best they can.” And instead of judging them, you started to explore where they are and why they’re doing the thing they’re doing that’s frustrating or annoying you.  Imagine how much you might teach them and what a great relationship you’d start building.

I try to approach adults this way too.  I used to say all the time, “They’re human.”  When a decision was made that maybe I didn’t agree with or didn’t seem to turn out well, I didn’t assume they there was a conspiracy or that there was utter incompetence, I assumed that the person or persons that made the decision were human with all the blind spots and biases.  Stuff happens.

I think we’d all be better off recognizing that we’re all human and that we’re vulnerable, have complex emotions, and most importantly, we’re not perfect and never will be.  As educators, this seems crucial to doing your best by the students.