This year was my second time attending Ed Camp Ottawa. The first year I was fairly quiet, but came away with a ton of questions.
But this year was different. I didn’t take a single note. I shared a LOT more. I also learned a lot. I think one of the most amazing parts of Ed Camp are all the different elements of education coming together. Some of the most amazing voices in the room were the students who were remarkably articulate about their needs and how we can meet them. I also learned a lot from the student teachers. Their questions forced me to look at what I do, think about why, and wonder if there are things that I should change (obvious answer: yes). This year I leave with one strategy I know I want to try in summer school next year, a renewed passion for the work that I do, and a few places I can go to work on learning how to code, something I’ve been thinking about for a long while now. I can’t wait to get started. If you have never gone to an Ed Camp but you have a stake in education, I strongly encourage you to sign up.
I am taking a course online through my alma mater Colgate University called Living Writers. Each week, we read a book and then the author comes to campus to speak with the students. Alumni, parents, and the community have the unbelievable opportunity to join in online (and come to campus if possible) for these events. For me, this will mean a weekly live stream.
This week’s book is The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. The idea that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction on this planet is new to me, but many of the overarching ideas about climate change are not. What is blowing my mind though is how much I am enjoying this book.
I have struggled to get back into non-fiction for a while, and climate change, while an extremely important issue, has never really been the one that I have really delved into. Ok, it’s boring. I said it. Greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, carbon emission statistics. I’ve never really found that interesting. Until now. I’m only half way through the book and already I have learned new things about the history of our knowledge of extinction and evolution, the great auk, golden frogs, coral reefs, and some really geologically interesting places where you can see our past and where our future might be headed. I had no idea that I could have an interest in some of the topics of this book, but there are some really cool photographs and illustrations and excellent writing, and all of these things are pulling me in!
Why am I writing about a random side project? I got me thinking. If I can get into this, a topic I always thought was boring, simply because of a great teacher, Elizabeth Kolbert, what topics might I be able to get students into that they previously thought would be boring? How can I catch them and spark that interest? I haven’t got all the answers yet, but it is making me see that anything is possible.
This week was the first week back to school for most of my colleagues, but as an occasional teacher, it was one extra week of summer for me. But since I spent the first half of summer teaching and the second half mostly not home, this was a week of rest and reflection for me, a chance to reset for the new year. I got my house back in order, started working out consistently again, and did a lot of reading for fun. I’m almost back to routine. More importantly, I have given some thought into how I would like my year to go and I feel ready to start. Here are some of my reflections from the last week (and month before that).
- I really love that feeling when I exercise in the morning. Not the exercise itself so much as when Apple Watch tells me that I’ve hit my 30 minutes and says, “Way to seize the morning, Melanie.” This idea of seizing the morning really stuck with me. I read an article about how if you make your bed, it sets you up to be more productive all day. I tried it, and it works for me. If the bed is made, I can’t crawl back in quite so easily. I also noticed that if I lay out my workout clothes before going to bed, I do a much better job at following through. Most importantly, I recognized these patterns! (I should probably give credit to the podcast Happier for helping me to pay attention and recognize that these things are making me, well, happier.)
- As much as I LOVE teaching, I need to take breaks and not spend every minute of every day thinking about students and how to improve their experience. In the same way that you need to put on your oxygen mask first on an airplane, so too, I need to take care of me first so that I can be the calm, patient person that I need to be when teaching. With this in mind, I am reading more for fun (something that I love and wasn’t making enough time for before) and getting in more exercise, and most importantly, limiting the number of hours I spend on work when I have the ability to do so.
- Stress really is lethal. It makes me less likely to work out and more likely to eat sugary garbage food. Therefore, #1 and #2 above are extremely important. I have taken steps to work on this. I signed up for an online class that has nothing to do with teaching through my alma mater, Colgate University. I am trying out for a hockey team.
- I am very privileged in life. I have a job that I love and that has given me a break. There are so many people out there who do not have such luxury. I need to try to hold on to that as I jump back into the day-to-day life.
In the last week, my reading material was The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris. While the book was far too self-reflective for my taste, something about it struck a chord. I have been “always on” for too long, and this break was what I needed. The book argues the value of being absent. On Cape Breton Island, Wi-Fi was often not an option and service was often not an option, so all that was left was the beautiful view and the awesome person right next to me. I was absent, and it was glorious.
Then I think about all of the students going back to school this week. In what ways do they need some absence in their lives? For how many of them is school their opportunity to be absent from the stress that is their home life? How can we make sure that students have an opportunity to be absent from academics for at least part of their lives? I’m not sure, but I think that a lot of our kids suffer from being “always on.” What can I do to help alleviate that? That is what I wonder today.
Within the last couple of weeks, I was teaching in a classroom when I found this row of expectations going across the classroom. This was the first string of expectations, but there were more, maybe 10 in all.
There were so many things that bothered me about these signs. The only one that I thought was necessary for students, and people in general, all of the time was the one that said “respectful.” The rest I thought were useful at times, but were more judgement calls. I don’t need students sitting in their seats all the time. In fact, I often prefer them to be out of their seats and incorporate many activities that require them to move. This movement gets their blood flowing and ultimately gets them thinking more.
Ultimately though, I think my problem was that success, according to these signs, stems from being compliant, obedient, sitting down, and doing as you are asked. While this works for some, very few people achieve success in this way. In fact, the people who achieve the most success are the ones who break out of the mold!
I didn’t want to just walk away and point out all that is wrong with the signs though. That’s why I only photographed a few. They got me thinking…..
What do I want from my students?
What do students need to be successful?
How do we define student success?
Here’s where I think we go from here. In my view, students are successful if they are making progress to becoming the best version of themselves that they can be. Mistakes happen. Setbacks happen. But as long as a person has a goal and is improving, even if incrementally, they are being successful. And if for some reason a person isn’t being successful, that’s the time to rally and help them work through whatever it is that is holding them back.
Here are my tips for how students, and people in general, can achieve success:
- be respectful
- set goals
- work hard and work smart
- come with an open mind
- ask questions
- try things, be prepared to fail, get up, and try again
- learn from every opportunity, good or bad
- show gratitude to those who paved the way before you or helped you along the way
This is my list for now. It seems incomplete, like I’m either missing something or haven’t quite got it all in there. If you think of something I’m missing, please add it in.
This quote came across my newsfeed today and I was instantly repulsed.
While I understand that a person can attain a position of relative power by selfishly clinging to what they know that others don’t, this is antithetical to what we do as teachers. We believe in lifting others up and helping them succeed by sharing what we know. When we collectively share our knowledge, we can build on what others do, and as a group, raise ourselves to new heights!
Sharing is also essential for innovation. It’s the iterating off of what others have done, maybe combining the best elements of different ideas, that helps us to grow, create new and better ideas, and ultimately make the world a better place. I’m not sure if I am an innovative teacher. I try to learn from as many people as possible and adapt what they share to what I hope will best serve my kids. What I do know is that other teachers breaking this rule is what has allowed me to grow into being a successful teacher. For this reason, I will share what I know so that others can learn from what I have done, and as many students as possible can achieve success in their lives.
This year I have been thinking a lot about grades. In Ontario, we have the Growing Success document that tells us what we can and cannot do when determining student grades, but I find parts of it to be a little ridiculous, especially when it comes to grades 7-12. For these years, we are expected to evaluate students based on levels of achievement, but then convert that level into a percentage for report cards. For parents who never experienced this as a student, it is very confusing! If we aren’t supposed to evaluate using percentages, why report with them?
For my part, I have been moving away from grades. Occasionally if students have a finished, published work, I will give them a mark, but mostly I have been giving them feedback. In part, this is because my students generally really don’t care what their marks are. In part, I don’t feel like any grade is final until the year is over and there’s no time left. If a student wants to take some of their own time, solidify their learning, and demonstrate their increased understanding, I take it! I make notes along the way, but try to use it more to plan next steps than anything else. My question is this: is what I’m doing good for my students? Is there a way to meet my aforementioned goals in another way? Are there any Ontario people who have done away with marks altogether? How does that work?
George Couros, in his March 15, 2017 blog post, quoted an unknown person as saying “To innovate, disrupt your routine.” It stuck with me. I have all sorts of questions now. I am an occasional teacher (substitute for all you non-Ontario people). I sort of have a routine right now because I’m in a longer term position for a little while, but generally speaking, I NEVER have a routine. How can I disrupt something that I don’t have?
Or if I don’t have a routine, does this mean that I’m innovating all the time? Certainly I’m constantly creating, whether it be all of my lessons right now (I have nothing as a back catalogue of activities) or whether it be adapting a plan left by a teacher to try to engage and empower students and hopefully make that day’s learning stick, all while trying to develop rapport for the many kids I’ve never met before.
I don’t know what the answer is here, but I really wanted to pose the questions and see what the universe throws back at me by way of response.
This week, we have been challenged in #IMMOOC to write 3 blog posts under 200 words. It seemed like a good challenge, and being March break here, one that I could do. But for some reason, I haven’t. Instead, I have been playing with my website. By playing, I really mean learning and doing.
I set up the Book Reviews section and added my reviews for Writersfest. I gave myself a spot to review new books.
I learned how to set up a subscription to my blog because I know that for the blogs I read regularly, I get emails to let me know when there’s a new post.
I learned how to add an image to my sidebar because I have been meaning to add my #DitchSummit badge since December!
Finally, I set up a class website for my class because it’s something I should have done ages ago.
I haven’t exactly been innovating, but I have been learning. And doing.
I write reviews for Foment, the magazine of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This was the review I did for the 2016 edition.
Imagine a cold and snowy night, not unlike what we experience here in Ottawa. It’s late, it’s been a long day, and all you want to do is get home. But your brain is slowing down. As you make your way to your car, your body just …. stops …. moving. You have been walking the few short blocks to your car for an hour, so you are cold, and frostbite is a legitimate concern, but no matter how badly you want to get there, you are frozen and can’t move, not because you are literally frozen, but because your brain is used up and you just can’t make your body move despite your best effort. Without having lived through an experience like this, it’s tough to imagine how this could even be possible, but Clark Elliott describes it so well in the opening chapter of his newest book, The Ghost in my Brain: How Concussion Stole my Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get It Back, that you almost feel like you’re there, like you’re living it right alongside him.
In starting with what it is like to experience concussion and the debilitating nature of his experiences, Elliott helps us to not only understand just how difficult it is to live through this kind of brain trauma, but also why finding an effective treatment is so imperative. His ability to describe the experience is remarkable and really makes the reader feel like they are living the experience. Since reading this book, I have somehow magically met others who have experienced or are experiencing debilitating concussions, and they too are facing the same challenges that he did: doctors that don’t understand or think they are fine based on a limited subset of testing, treatments that consist of nothing more than just rest, which while helpful, does not fix the permanent damage, and a world that doesn’t understand what a concussion is like and is not equipped to accommodate it. Perhaps most troubling is the experience of hopelessness and helplessness as a result of no longer being able to do what you could do before. That feeling would drive just about anyone crazy. Elliott, through sharing his many experiences of trying to find help and not getting any, helps the reader to really feel that sense of frustration, that feeling like you want something so badly and you know there has to be a way forward and yet nobody can help, that sense that you can do more and be more if only your brain would just do what you’re trying to tell it to do. You’re left wanting a solution.
In the middle section of the book, Elliott changes pace and spends some time noting all of the things he discovers about the brain as the result of the damage that happened to his. He asks brilliant questions like, “Why was it that one day I couldn’t walk across a parking lot, but the next I could run a marathon” (49)? It’s a great question! The disconnect would be very baffling to anyone. Elliott makes many conclusions about the brain and about the ways in which people suffering from a concussion adapt to and work around their condition.
When it comes to concussions, Elliott notes that there seems to be three different power levels in the brain:
Set A – the working set – is immediately available, and also recharges rapidly within a few hours. Set B – the first level of backup batteries – can be accessed if Set A is exhausted, but takes longer to recharge, possibly up to several days. Set C – the deepest level of backup batteries – can be used as a last resort at times of extreme demand when Set B is exhausted. But caution must be exercised – Set C charges very slowly, over the course of up to two weeks. (57-58)
I had never really thought of that before, but in looking at my own abilities, I do see the three sets in action. They all have longer action life and shorter recharging times than they would with a concussion, but they are present. This is merely one of many interesting connections in the brain that Elliott notes, but I won’t spoil the fun by giving them all away.
Finally, Elliott concludes the book with his treatment. As a former hockey player, I have seen my fair share of concussions, and generally given thanks that I haven’t had to experience one myself. Head injuries are not something to be messed around with. But in all that time, I never saw anybody be treated for it. You get a concussion, you rest, and when the headache goes away, you go right back to practice. I have since learned about the long-term effects of concussions, especially when it comes to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). But again, the research is still just figuring the disease out, and so far, it can only be diagnosed in an autopsy. There is little knowledge of how it works, how to avoid it (beyond not playing contact sports), and how to mitigate its effects. Nobody ever talks about a legitimate treatment plan for concussions. Until now.
Elliott’s treatment comprised of working with two different doctors: Donalee Markus, a neuroscientist specializing in cognitive restructuring, and Deborah Zelinsky, an optometrist with skills in neuro-optometric rehabilitation. With Donalee Markus, Elliott had his first real testing that led to results, followed by treatment involving a series of puzzles. With Deborah Zelinsky, he went through a series of tests, after which he was prescribed a set of glasses with a very
specific goal in mind. He went through six phases of this over several years, which the book outlines in great detail. In fact, the book spends far more time on the Zelinsky side of the treatment, and he speaks fondly of his “magic glasses.” Together the puzzles and the glasses combine to change Elliott’s life.
While Elliott focuses more on his work with Zelinsky, he notes something about Donalee Markus that really stuck out to me:
In those first two hours we spent working together, I found Donalee to be really engaging – smart, organized, and compassionate. Her knowledge of clinically applied neurology was vast. I could tell that she “got it” right from the start. And critically important to understanding how she works is that she pays close attention to the people with whom she works. She is watching, and thinking, and asking, and listening – teasing out small clues to what is going on in the brain. (208)
The italics are Elliott’s, but they really highlight the important part. Here is a doctor who is one of the best in the world, and yet while her knowledge is important, her attention to her patients, her compassion and empathy and need to understand the people she is working with, these are the qualities that make her outstanding at what she does. These qualities are qualities that we can all strive to develop within us. We may not all be able to treat concussions with neuroscience, but we can all pay close attention to the people with whom we interact on a daily basis, and we too can use that attention to detail in order to make a difference.
Overall, the book is a worthwhile read, especially for those with an interest in concussions and/or any of the brain sciences. That said, this is not a scientific book. There are not research findings beyond just one case study. More than anything, this book leads a person to ask a lot of questions. How exactly do the puzzles help? How did she know which puzzles to give him and how to sequence them? How did earlier research lead to this result? How many others have been treated in a similar way? Are there treatment options available to us here in Canada? Does treatment of concussion in this way help prevent CTE? Could this be applied to athletes who experience milder concussions more frequently or does this only work on extreme cases such as Elliott’s? How do the glasses work? Why did the glasses help, even when he was sleeping? Why/how did the glasses affect the way in which Elliott heard music? The questions go on and on. The Ghost in my Brain is an introduction to an area of research that I never knew existed, one worth exploration and more study given the prevalence of brain injuries and their disastrous consequences.
I write reviews for Foment, the magazine of the Ottawa International Writers Festival. This was the review I did for the 2015 edition.
Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumor, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting, and at the same time, we are all doing more. Consequently, trying to find the time to schedule all our various activities has become a tremendous challenge. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salesclerks helped us find what we were looking for in stores, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. The information age has off-loaded a great deal of the work previously done by people we could call information specialists onto all of the rest of us. We are doing the jobs of ten different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favorite TV shows. It’s no wonder that sometimes one memory gets confounded with another, leading us to show up in the right place but on the wrong day, or to forget something as simple as where we last put our glasses or the remote. (xx)
This was the first of many insights contained in The Organized Mind, a book that promises to teach us how “any reader can use their (leaders in the information age) methods to regain a sense of mastery over the way we organize our homes, workplaces, and lives (cover flap).” Daniel J. Levitin promises to show us “how new research into the cognitive neuroscience of attention and memory can be applied to daily life (cover flap again).” In many respects, Levitin did not disappoint, but if you are looking for some quick tips on how to be organized, this is not the book for you.
The book is extremely dense, moreso than one would expect from a book that purports to be about practical applications, and the science goes into more detail than one would expect to present to people not in the field. There is so much going on in this book, that at times I found myself lost or couldn’t remember the larger point that Levitin was trying to make. The tips and insights are left to the reader to draw out, interspersed between the science in a way that makes them not always obvious. On the other hand, if you have an interest in psychology or neuroscience and want to know why people are so overwhelmed these days (and maybe figure out how to improve the situation), this book would be exactly what you seek. There are many interesting scientific findings and other tidbits of insight and information to be discovered.
The book is organized into three parts. The first part goes into a bit about how we ended up with cognitive overload and some of the basics of attention and memory. The middle, second part, which is also the bulk of the book, talks about how to organize various aspects of your life with each chapter’s title beginning with “Organizing” and ending with a different aspect of our lives. Finally part three concludes the book with what to teach our children and the power of the junk drawer. On the surface, this book seems highly organized. So how could a reader get lost?
The first section sets the premise for the book in many ways. Levitin introduces the concept of the highly successful person (whom he calls HSPs) as people who perform exceptionally well in this age of information overload, but we quickly discover that these are people who have executive assistants who take care of organizing their lives. The idea then is to off-load as much of the daily organization in our lives as possible into external processes. By making as much of the unimportant stuff as possible a routine or ritual that we don’t have to think about, we will have more energy, time, and cognitive space for what is really important. He further teaches us how to sort our tasks/to-do piles like one of these people.
However, in the same chapter is also the opening paragraph with one thought on why there is so much cognitive overload, a section on how much information we process on a daily basis along with how that has changed through time, a section on categorizing information and how we have come to do that which includes a flow chart on familial relations (which comes in really handy if you don’t know the difference between a second and third cousin and cousins once or twice removed), and then back to how we can use categorization like an HSP. The flow makes sense if you are looking at it from above in a big picture sort of way. But if you don’t have time to read all nearly forty pages in one shot and you have to set it down and pick it back up, it is very easy to get lost in the middle of the loop and lose track of the point. This same pattern continues in all the other chapters as well, some of which are considerably longer than forty pages.
The second chapter of the opening section contains an overview of the basics of attention and memory. It is good review for people with some background on the subject. Most importantly here, Levitin sets up and explains the difference between mind-wandering mode and intensely focused attention, concepts he will return to frequently to talk about how the brain works in a variety of situations. Perhaps the most important thing to gain here is that both modes of thought are important and useful in their own way.
In the main body of the book (part two), Levitin goes about organizing our lives. He begins with our homes, which makes sense because off-loading where to locate everyday items by organizing our homes is probably the easiest and quickest thing to get organized. Essentially, the take-away message from this chapter is to do as your mother probably taught you as a child and have a place for everything and everything in its place.
Following our homes, Levitin next sets about to organize our social world. This chapter contains a number of interesting pieces of information about how the brain work, including the role of oxytocin in establishing relationships and growing trust and how people with Autism show lower levels of oxytocin than average in their brain chemistry. The chapter also outlines in detail a number of attribution errors that people make that distorts and misrepresents what is going on in the social world. While there are not a whole lot of tips per se in this chapter, an insightful reader could apply what they have learned to maximize the benefits of their social connections while minimizing the feeling of being left out.
The fifth chapter delves into organizing our time. This is a subject about which much has been written and there are millions of different organizers on the market to help people organize their time. Levitin does not focus at all on these organizers and does not offer an organizing solution here. Instead, he discusses the psychological factors that go into time management: dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (including implications for Autism and ADHD), the problems with the constant attention shifting involved in multi-tasking, and when and why we procrastinate. There is an old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Levitin points out that this is true because busy people have developed the tools necessary to be able to organize their time especially effectively. Interspersed throughout are tips and tricks for how to avoid the pitfalls of poor time management.
Levitin moves from time management into organizing information for the hardest decisions. This is actually one of the most focused chapters of the book as he sticks mainly to how to make medical life and death type decisions. Levitin points out our tendency to conflate factual probabilities that can be tested and proven (such as the odds of rolling a dice and getting a particular number) with subjective probabilities (such as the odds of attending a particular event) which are not really probabilities at all, but more just speculation on how a person feels at the given moment in time. Perhaps the most important piece of advice to come from this chapter comes in the form of a quote: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. (228)” Realistically speaking, the odds are that any person will be in the majority and a person should make a decision based on that fact alone, rather than playing the “what if” game and wondering if they are in the 5% (or 10% or 1%).
After organizing all the personal parts of our lives, Levitin next focuses on the business world. Levitin discusses optimization and different possible hierarchical structures. He adds a few useful ideas about leadership and teambuilding and prepares for the worst. Perhaps the most noteworthy thought to take away is this:
It is now well known that some of the most productive companies – Google, Twitter, Lucasfilm, Huffington Post – provide perks such as in-house gyms, gourmet dining rooms, nap rooms, and flexible hours. Google paid for 100, 000 free employee massages, and its campus boasts wellness centers and a seven-acre sports complex with basketball, bowling, bocce ball, and roller hockey. The statistical software giant SAS and Toyota distributor JM Family Enterprises feature in-house health care; Atlantic Health System offers on-site acupressure massage; Microsoft’s campus has a spa; SalesForce.com provides free yoga classes; Intuit lets employees spend 10% of their time on any project they’re passionate about; Deloitte encourages employees to donate time to nonprofits for up to six months by offering full benefits and 40% of pay. Giving employees environments like these seems to pay, and it makes sense from a neurobiological standpoint. Sustained concentration and effort is most effective not when fragmented into little pieces by multi-tasking, but when apportioned into big focused chunks separated by leisure, exercise, or other mentally restorative activities. (308)
While the average person may not have the benefits of such a luxurious work environment, we can learn to take restorative breaks and not spend so much of our time multi-tasking.
Finally Levitin discusses what we should be teaching our children so that they can grow up to be effective and organized adults. Critical thinking and the ability to detect the bias of a source of information were key points. He points to research that shows that people tend to view a bias in their favour as a neutral piece while viewing neutral writing as biased against their point of view. Levitin also ranks problem solving and the ability to estimate reasonably as essential and impactful skills that will be the key to the quality jobs of the future. He discusses the future of education and how things will need to change to adapt to the changes going on in the world at large. A key element of this is having students doing more finding and using of the information (as opposed to the learning/memorising of facts that are emphasized now).
As the old saying goes, a man with one watch always knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure. We are now less sure of what we know and don’t know. More so than at any other time in history, it is crucial that each of us takes responsibility for verifying the information we encounter, testing it and evaluating it. This is the skill we must teach the next generation of citizens of the world, the capability to think clearly, completely, critically, and creatively. (369)
In order to teach the next generation of citizens these skills, it would be prudent for us to develop these skills. The Organized Mind is a good place to begin.
Levitin discusses at length the value of the junk drawer, that place where you put things that don’t fall neatly into other categories. The junk drawer comes up again and again throughout the book, and the book concludes with an entire chapter dedicated to the junk drawer. Junk drawers are essential as they hold things that cannot be categorized well, giving you a place to know exactly where an item is, even if it doesn’t have a logical home grouped with other like objects. Junk drawers allow for successful organization of everything else.
The Organized Mind might very well be the junk drawer on cognitive research into attention, memory, and organizational skills – a very well organized junk drawer, but a junk drawer none the less. It contains much valuable information and several brilliant insights into how and why people forget and/or confuse information and how we can organize our lives to off-load information out of our memories, making our lives more manageable. Like the junk drawer, it is full of some of the most useful stuff. The items in the junk drawer are well organized, but the drawer is so over-flowing that it can be overwhelming when you are looking for something specific. Make sure you have plenty of time and try to off-load as much of your daily cognitive overload as possible before delving into this fascinating book.