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Topic: customization

No more girls versus boys

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

“Men and women, shoulder-to-shoulder, will work together to make this a better world,” remarked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “We will get there.”

While the festival addressed persistent gender disparity throughout our society, blogger Adriana Gardella reported that “speakers consistently rejected the notion … that women succeed at the expense of men.”

This hit home for me as an educator. Recently, as girls have closed the achievement gap in terms of math scores on standardized tests, some parents have asked, what about boys? If boys no longer outscore girls in math and science, and score behind girls in reading, will they be left behind in an educational system that seems to play to girls’ strengths? Or will men just become “obsolete” (as recently proposed by the Atlantic Monthly)?

I believe it’s not a zero sum game. When one group improves, it doesn’t have to be at the expense of anyone else. We can pull each other up.

Parents are concerned that boys—who generally need to move more and are usually more interested in math and science than reading—are being given the shaft in classrooms that, purposefully or not, promote values traditionally perceived as feminine, such as being obedient or sitting still and working quietly.

But a classroom that only encourages that kind of behavior isn’t good for girls either. Just because it’s easy for girls to sit still and work quietly doesn’t mean that they should all the time. Both boys and girls need to develop their own ideas and voices, learn to assert themselves, use their bodies, and make noise. And all kids, male or female, need to become both passionate readers and enthusiastic problem-solvers.

We all bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table—not just as gender groups, but as individuals. For example, my neighbor recently declared to me that “yoga is good for girls.” He felt that because he wasn’t flexible, yoga wasn’t for him.

I tried to explain that yoga is about developing both strength and flexibility. Many men are naturally more stable—strength comes easily to them, but they need to cultivate their flexibility. But for most women, flexibility comes easily, but they need to cultivate their strength.

To me, yoga is about the balance of opposites—the courage to develop what doesn’t come easily as well as the guts to use and celebrate what does.

I think it’s the same thing with education. It’s not about girls versus boys, or rewarding what comes more easily to one group over the other.

The best education will help each individual tap into the core of who they are and become the most radiant version of themselves possible. True education helps us both to trust what’s inside—to stand up for our own ideas and our own vision—and to learn to do things that don’t come easily.

Topic: customization

A disorder can be an asset

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010


Hampton Sides’ June 7 New Yorker profile of goalkeeper Tim Howard makes some striking points about how a disorder can be an asset. The New Jersey-born son of a Hungarian mother and an African-American father, Howard is one of the only US players who could conceivably start for the UK, who he’ll face as part of the American World Cup team this weekend.

Howard’s considered to be one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world. He’s played for the UK team Manchester United. His current contract with Everton makes him the highest-paid American soccer player in history. And he has Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system.

The concentration required on the field frequently causes Howard’s Tourette’s symptoms to disappear. Also, Howard explains that he doesn’t take medication because he’s concerned it would turn him into a zombie and impair his athletic abilities. Howard himself remarks, “If I woke up tomorrow without Tourette’s, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Sides writes, “Howard says it’s possible that Tourette’s actually helps him in the goal, that it makes him more alert and more reactive.”

Then Sides quotes Yale’s Dr. James Leckman: “Some people with Tourette’s syndrome seem to have an unusual somatic empathy. They tell me that they sense things in the body movements of others that the rest of us screen out, some signal or vibration, some sensory cue. It’s almost like they can see what’s going to happen before it happens.

(Sides himself observes, “Tourette’s is characterized by a buildup of anxiety and neurological tension, sometimes intensified by certain kinds of sensory overload—a not implausible description of the state of mind required for competitive goalkeeping.”)

But here’s my favorite part! Howard’s mom, Esther, remarks, “I believe there’s a certain yin and yang to things. If you have a disorder like this, then you also have a gift that you’ve been given and you just try to learn what it is. Soccer was his gift. It provided an escape from Tourette’s—it absorbed that energy.”

I think this I so cool! Way to turn a disorder into an asset! How many people out there have a way of seeing or being that’s viewed as problematic but is just waiting for the right context to be revealed as an advantage?

I wish that everyone with a disorder was able to find a way to channel it as beautifully as Howard has, and had parents and mentors to help them develop themselves.

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Tiny Garlic Melons

Topic: customization

Building a Better Teacher #2

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

(Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson)

I recently posted about Elizabeth Green’s excellent New York Times Magazine article on how to build a better teacher, which covered Doug Lemov’s quest to find universally effective techniques that could be used by any teacher to each any subject. I neglected to mention that the article then goes on to discuss how content knowledge contributes to effective teaching.

For example, to teach math well, you need to know math, and you need to know how to teach. But there’s a third, separate body of knowledge – knowing how to teach math. Dr. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, one of the world’s experts in effective teaching, has identified this as M.K.T., or “mathematical knowledge for teaching.”

In Green’s words, “Teaching, even teaching third-grade math, is extraordinarily specialized, requiring both intricate skills and complex knowledge about math. … Mathematicians need to understand a problem only for themselves; math teachers need both to know the math and how 30 different minds might understand (or misunderstand) it.” Green describes, “At the heart of M.K.T. … was an ability to step outside your own head. ‘Teaching depends on what other people think,’ Ball told me, ‘not what you think.’

RIGHT ON!!! I think about this every day!

The foundation of my teaching philosophy is that each person’s brain is different, and my job is to help get math into your brain — even if it works completely different from mine. My stance has evolved organically out of the experience of helping people learn math one-on-one for over seven years. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone else discuss it, and I was so thrilled I drew a heart in the margin of the article.

Dr. Ball, if you’re listening, I would love to see you write a book that makes Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching available to the general public, just like Doug Lemov’s taxonomy has evolved into Teach Like a Champion!

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Topic: customization

Tiny Garlic Melons

Friday, January 29th, 2010

This summer, one of my students got to go to Video Game Making Camp. My student explained to me that he wanted to make a video game where you killed vampires by throwing garlic at them. But there was no “garlic” graphic available to build into the game. So he took a graphic of a giant melon and made it so tiny that it looked like a head of garlic!

Part of what I want to teach all my students is how to customize their education when I’m not around. So later in the session, I seized the teachable moment. This particular student has dysgraphia, ADHD, and a really unique brain. I told him that everyone, whether or not they have dysgraphia or ADHD or whatever, has learning situations where they’re not getting what they need. And we all have to learn how to invent our own ways to work around it.

“It’s just like the tiny garlic melons,” I concluded. “Sometimes you don’t get what you want and you have to turn it into what you need.”

So when life gives you melons, make….tiny garlic melons!!!!

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The Downside of Always Telling Students to Try Harder (2)
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Topic: customization

A Cosmic Imperative to Customize!

Monday, December 21st, 2009

From the great free will astrologer, Rob Brezny:

I was listening to a sports talk show on the radio. The host had recently discovered Twitter, and was pleased with how many fans he had already accumulated. But he was not at all happy with the words “Twitter” or “tweet.” Too effeminate, he said. Not macho enough for a he-man like himself to use comfortably. In fact, he promised that he would never again refer to his Twitter messages as “tweets,” but would hereafter call them “spurts.” Instead of “Twitter,” he would say “Twister.” I encourage you to draw inspiration from his example, Virgo. You’re in an astrological phase when you can and should reconfigure anything that doesn’t suit your needs or accommodate your spirit, whether it’s the language you use, the environments you hang out in, or the processes you’re working on.

Wow! This pretty much summarizes my own philosophy of education. Thank you, Rob Brezny, for your weekly doses of thought-provoking inspiration.