Are you getting ready for college or maybe you're getting ready to get ready for college? Either way, you can learn from someone who's been in the trenches, like my friend and colleague Ali O'Leary, a recent college graduate and aspiring author, who I interviewed for this post. You can read her blog at https://alioleary.wordpress.com/.
Me: Your introduction to college was a bit atypical. Can you tell me about how you decided which college to go to and when you started your college planning?
Ali: Ok, that’s a funny story. I got to April of my senior year and thought, “Hmmm, I should go to college.” I hadn’t applied anywhere. I thought I would start out with a community college, but my parents wanted me to apply to other schools as well. My dad had been supporting this college, Patrick Henry College, for a couple of years and since it was more of a Government degree type school, he didn’t think it would interest me. But he saw that it had a Literature major and, since I’ve always been interested in writing, he thought it would be a good fit. So I applied with one week to spare before the deadline and got in.
If you’re not a math person, don’t do online math classes.
Me: That is a crazy, crazy story! I’ve never heard of anyone going about the college decision making process this way. (not to be insulting, I’m just really impressed.) So were you stressing out about college before you decided what to do?
Ali: Not really, I knew I should go to college, but I wasn’t in any particular rush. I figured if I didn’t get into the fall semester, I could work until it was time to apply for the spring semester.
Me: And did you have a pretty good idea what you wanted to major in before you applied? I mean, did you know it would be English/writing/literature related?
Ali: Yes, I’ve never really been interested in anything else, so it made sense to study something I loved.
Me: So it looks like your dad had a huge influence on your college decision.
Ali: Very much so. I am the quintessential “daddy’s girl” and he’s always been a key voice in most of my major decisions. He knows what I like and don’t like very well, so I can usually count on him being a reliable source of information.
Me: And what was it about Patrick Henry College that attracted you both?
Ali: We saw that it was a classic liberal arts school that focused on a very traditional way of learning: grammar, logic, rhetoric, all that jazz. It also didn’t just focus on the major you went into, but really wanted all of its students to have a well-rounded education so that they’re prepared for any sort of discussion in the real world. We would know at least the foundations of subjects like philosophy, physics, and biology. I’m also a Christian and it is a Christian school, so that appealed to us as well.
I had three months to have a mental breakdown at leaving my family for the first time and to get my stuff ready for dorm life. :)
Me: So what happened after you were accepted?
Ali: They had a distance learning program that I started out with, so I ended up taking 12 credits my first semester to sort of ease into the whole college/distance learning thing.
Me: So you basically did online classes for the first semester, is that right?
Ali: Yes, really for the first two years. We could get our basics pretty much done online. It was a good way to save on costs.
Me: What was online learning like for you as a student?
Ali: I am an introvert, so I really loved being able to have my own schedule and have online discussions, as opposed to a classroom discussion. I do much better when I can write out my thoughts rather than speak them, so I enjoyed that aspect of it. But it was challenging when I had questions, because I could ask the professors, but it was often hard to get across the particular problem I was having, if that makes sense.
Me: Yes, because there are nonverbal clues we give when speaking that don’t come across online. Also, when you’re speaking to someone, you can kind of tell if they’re getting it or not.
Me: Do you have any advice for college students taking online classes?
Ali: Definitely. You get out of it what you put into it. I made an effort to make friends and have “study groups” online and that really helped me learn. I still have some of those friends today. Also, it really helps to have a planner to write down all of the assignments, because oftentimes online classes have more work for you to do to make up for not having class discussions/assignments.
I was extremely homesick for pretty much the whole first semester on campus.
Me: College was the first time I ever used a planner, and I made GREAT use of it! I planned exactly what work I would do every night and divided up long sections of text (like 100 pages or more) so that I would read just a section each night. I actually ended up planning how many pages and what pages I would read in my planner ahead of time. I personally am not very good at being last minute--too stressful.
So anything else you want to add about taking online class? Did you feel like you were missing out on the “real” college experience?
Ali: Maybe sometimes. Especially once I made friends, I wished we could hang out together, but I never felt like I was gaining a lesser education by doing it online. But again, it depends on how much effort you put into it. And also, if you’re not a math person, don’t do online math classes.
Me: So you did two years of online classes, and then what happened?
Ali: I had three months to have a mental breakdown at leaving my family for the first time and to get my stuff ready for dorm life. :)
I ended up praying a lot and that really helped.
Me: How far away was the school from where your family lived?
Ali: I think it was about 1600 miles?
Me: Ouch!!! And it was your first time away from home?
Ali: Yep! Go big or go home.
Me: What thoughts were running through your mind as you made your preparations?
Ali: They weren’t all bad, I was excited about meeting new people, but mostly I was super concerned about how I was going to handle having classes as well as homework. Which sounds funny, but online learning is basically all homework. Throw in class time and it’s like, freak out!
Me: What was it like when you actually made it to campus?
Ali: The campus itself was beautiful - it’s out in Virginia - and everyone was really friendly. But it was a lot of people and I am really bad at meeting large groups of people. I also didn’t have a roommate because mine called me the day I was leaving and told me she wasn’t going anymore, so it was hard to not have someone to immediately connect with.
Me: Were you homesick, and if so, how did you deal with it?
The more I started talking to people and accepting invitations to hang out, the easier it got.
Ali: I was extremely homesick for pretty much the whole first semester on campus. It was my first time away from home and we had just finished going through some pretty difficult situations in my family, so it was hard to leave right when we were starting to patch things up. I ended up having a lot of panic attacks and I called my parents pretty much every other day. My dad even offered to come and get me, but I really felt like the Lord wanted me to stay there. So I ended up praying a lot and that really helped, plus I also started making friends with my suitemates and they made sure I saw the light of day every now and then. The more I started talking to people and accepting invitations to hang out, the easier it got.
Me: I think homesickness is something a lot of college students struggle with and something they don’t even anticipate. What is your advice to students who move away from home for college?
Ali: I think the first step is realizing that the time is going to pass faster than you think it is. Which is not super helpful at the start, but honestly, I wish I had spent less time wishing I was somewhere else and more time enjoying where I was at. It was hard, but it’s important to enjoy the season that you are in. And your family is an excellent support system, but sometimes the only way you learn more about yourself and who you are is by getting out from under their wings. So, I guess, don’t cut your family out of your life, but don’t panic if you’re suddenly discovering parts about yourself that you didn’t know existed before when they’re not around. It’s okay to do a little self-discovery.
Me: I had a similar experience. I stayed home for my undergraduate degree and commuted to a nearby college, and then I went 800 miles away for graduate school. It was okay at first because my sister moved with me, but then she left and I was all alone. It was scary at first, but I learned that I was stronger than I thought I was and that I had the capacity to become self sufficient. Do you have any other advice for college students?
Ali: Enjoy the college experience! I know that people say that all the time, but honestly, it is a great time of life to be able to dedicate time to learning what you love and hanging out with people your age all the time. It can be super crazy, but you’ll make some of the best memories during college. Also, it’s important to find balance between social life and academic life….I was one that was always erring on the side of too much academia and not enough fun, but I know it works both ways.
Me: Thanks for letting me interview you! I think the college years were the best years of my life, but it’s a sharp learning curve, and I think it’s good to go in kinda sorta having an idea of what to expect.
Ali: For sure. Thanks for having me!
Don't forget to check out Ali's blog at https://alioleary.wordpress.com/!
This is an interview I did with a former student, Ashlee W., about her college experience. Ashlee is a second semester college student at a small college in Oklahoma.
Me: So how are you, Ashlee?!?!? What’s it been--five years!
Ashlee: I’m awesome, thank you. It’s been about that long I’m pretty sure.
Me: So I was wanting to interview you because I think it would be interesting to ask people in college what their experience has been like and if they have any advice or tips for new college students. So let me ask you. Before you started college, what did you think it would be like? Did you have an idea of what you expected?
I was nervous about being older than some kids that were just out of high school.
Ashlee: I really kind of had this idea of what a big college would be like. Just how they show it on TV or something, a classroom with a ton of students. And teachers that really couldn’t care less about your grade and such and such.
Me: So did you think it would be pretty intimidating?
Ashlee: Yes, especially dealing with financial aid and learning how exactly college works. And also I was nervous about being older than some kids that were just out of high school, in math especially because it had been so long since I was in math and I wasn't good at it when I was taking it, so yes definitely intimidating.
Me: So was your original plan to start college immediately after high school?
Ashlee: Not really, I wanted to take a year off because I think my senior year after high school I had a busy summer and thought the rest of my year would be that way, and I just wanted to experience life without school for a bit.
I dropped out after the first week because I clearly was not ready and didn't know what I was getting myself into.
Me: Do you think taking a “gap year” worked out pretty well for you? I know some people think taking that year off is a great idea.
Ashlee: Yes and no, because I enjoyed my time off, but when I went that next fall after the break I dropped out after the first week because I clearly was not ready and didn't know what I was getting myself into. But now, I regret it a lot because I see people I went to high school with about to graduate and I just think to myself that that could have been me.
Me: So what was it about that first week that caused you to drop out? I mean, I’m not trying to make you feel bad or anything. I just want to share with high school students and new college students what college is actually like so they won’t be shocked. I assume starting was kind of an overwhelming experience for you.
Ashlee: It's totally fine. I was worried about financial aid because I didn't know how it worked and worried about paying for college. Then when I started classes, I put off my work, and that weekend I went to a One Direction concert and didn't do anything. So I put it off and was so nervous to go in empty handed with nothing done. So I wasn’t good at organizing my time or putting school first.
Me: I see, so you just didn’t feel prepared. Also, I think a lot of people worry about paying for college.
Ashlee: Right, and now my second time around it’s not as big as a concern for me because I have more of an understanding about financial help. I have Okpromise, and it's been a major help with easing the worry of money. And now I’m not as afraid to go to the financial aid office with questions on how I can manage the money aspect. I hope that made some sense. Writing all my thoughts about it is not as easy as I was thinking.
In college, a lot of times you have to go out and look for help yourself.
Me: No, I get what you’re saying. I think it can be intimidating for students to seek out the help they need. For one thing, you might not know exactly what kind of help you need or where to go to get it. Also, it’s different than in high school because sometimes in high school the help just comes to you. In college, a lot of times you have to go out and look for help yourself. Was that your experience?
Ashlee: Yes, and I don't think they prepare you for financial aide in high school as much as they do about which college to go to and how to apply and such. Also about what you said in college, you have to go out and look for help, and that could also apply to anything other than financial aide. Because in high school they really coach you on how to do things step by step, and now in college you have to figure it out. And what I had to learn is that I just had to go and do it because no one was going to come and help me; I had to grow up and do it. Which is hard for me because for one thing, I’m a pretty timid person, and for another, my parents usually did a lot for me that I should have been doing for myself. And in college I wasn’t going to have my mom tag alongside me figuring everything out for me.
Me: Yeah, there’s definitely a steep learning curve and maturity curve when you start college. I felt the same thing myself. So what advice would you have for an entering freshman about financial aid?
Ashlee: Probably not to let it ruin their life where that's all they think about and worry about. Because there is aid out there that helps with college. Okpromise is saving my life right now, and it takes a lot of the financial aid burden off. I realize that that's not everywhere, but I figure that there's something similar, not sure. But they also have scholarships for just about everything. I say that it's taken some of my burden off, but I actually will have to stress about it in a few years because it will only cover my tuition for I think 2 more years. Which is another regret I do have about waiting to go back to college for so long. All those years I could be getting a lot of free money, I wasn't taking advantage of it and it didn't even really cross my mind.
Me: You mean it didn’t cross your mind that the money would expire eventually? Is that how it works?
Ashlee: Right, I didn’t really know that there was a limit on how long it would apply for me. That's to my understanding.
Me: Wow--that’s definitely something that students in Oklahoma need to know. I wasn’t aware of that the money from OKPromise would expire. So what are some things you’ve learned about college that you had to learn the hard way or that you wish you’d known when you started?
Ashlee: Something just recently actually--I’m not sure if this was something I should have been expecting which is obvious or not, but last semester my history teacher was literally so easy; he gave you exactly what would be on the test, and all you had to do is study that and eventually I stopped taking notes on what else he was talking about and just on what would be on the quiz. Now I’m in a summer intersession class, and I took my first quiz in there the other day and did horribly because you have to read the chapters in depth, look at his slides, and take good notes because it's not just some test you study for by what he actually talks about in class. I guess it's not that I wasn't expecting that; it's just not like what my first semester was like. But of course as you move on up in college, it gets harder.
Me: So you figured out that each professor is different. They all teach differently, and some are harder than others, I guess?
Me: How is college different from your expectations?
Ashlee: I can give you an example. In my comp class she would teach us one day, the next week our rough drafts were due, and then the next week we would turn in our paper. But it wasn't until two weeks after that when she would post grades, and I had thought it would be more punctual.
Me: I actually have heard of professors who wait until the end of the semester to grade any of your work and give you your grade. When I was getting my Master’s degree in library science, all the assignments were due at the very end of the semester. It was the strangest thing. The professor would grade everything at the very end, so you didn’t really know what your grade was until after the semester when you saw your grades posted.
Ashlee: That would drive me crazy, I’m very impatient when it comes to seeing my grades.
Me: You posted that you have a 4.0 so far, right?
Ashlee: Yes and I’m pretty proud of that considering my grades in high school. My goal in college was to do better than I had in high school.
In high school, for me it was like if you didn't do one assignment, not a big deal, but in college it's crucial.
Me: What advice do you have for new college students for keeping their grades up? How is college work different from high school work?
Ashlee: In highs chool, for me, it was like if you didn't do one assignment, not a big deal, but in college it's crucial because I’ve noticed that there's not as many grades taken so everything you turn in needs to be its best. The advice I have that I actually need to take more seriously myself is not to put stuff off because when it's hours before a paper's due, you’ll be thinking about dropping the class, not going, or just not turning it in. Every bad decision to not do it will run through your head, and it's extremely stressful. Even though I have turned in some pretty good papers on short notice, but that's beside the point
Me: I know my students’ number one problem seems to be procrastination. :-( Even though they know they are guilty of it, they don’t seem to want to change it, oddly enough. I have also had students wait until the last minute to submit their papers because I have them upload them online, and then they have problems uploading their papers and end up having to turn them in late and get points counted off.
Ashlee: Yes, that's one thing my comp teacher stressed was that TurnItIn can be slow, and you might not get your paper submitted on time if you wait until the last minute.
Me: Well, you seem to have learned a lot and become more confident about your college experience. That’s good news.
Ashlee: I know I still have a lot to learn though--I can only imagine.
As I’m learning how to be an adult it comes with a lot of frustration and stress and trying to not just give up.
Me: Do you have anything you want to add about your college experience or any other “grown-up” advice? :-)
Ashlee: My motto, I guess you can say, is just struggle now to succeed later. As I’m learning how to be an adult, it comes with a lot of frustration and stress and trying to not just give up. I just think about how it's shaping me for my better life when I have everything I’ve worked for. So I’ll have fun, live life in my 20’s, and learn to struggle so I’ll be somewhat of an expert at it later.
Me: Okay, well, I’m going to let you go then, Ashlee. Thanks for chatting with me and sharing your expertise. I think you know more about college that you realize!
Ashlee: Oh definitely, and thank you for asking me to do this, I enjoyed it very much
Me: Good, I’m glad to hear it. You’re welcome!!!! Okay, bye now, Ashlee! Good luck! I’m glad to hear things are going so well for you.
Ashlee: Bye bye it was so great talking to you
Me: You, too! :-) Bye!
***My thanks to Ashlee W. for sharing her collegiate expertise with me and my readers. If you would like to share your college experience on my blog, please leave a comment with your contact information (email or Twitter handle, not your phone number please) or tweet me at @WriteNonsense. Thanks!***
If you are an Oklahoma college student, here is some information you need to know regarding the expiration of Oklahoma's Promise, which Ashlee brought up in our interview:
"Once you start postsecondary education (any education after high school), your five-year time clock starts ticking. The year that you do not attend will count against your five years of scholarship eligibility; however, you can use Oklahoma's Promise again until your eligibility expires. Please contact the Oklahoma's Promise office for an exact date of eligibility expiration if you are unsure. (Limited exceptions to the five-year limit can be considered only if the interruption is due to certain hardship circumstances such as illness, injury, military service or other extraordinary situations. Please contact the Oklahoma's Promise office for more details. In no circumstances may an Oklahoma's Promise student receive benefits beyond a cumulative time period of five years.)"--from OKHigherEd.org
For the last few posts, I've basically been sharing ideas that I wish someone had shared with me when I was young. But here's the thing, you're not a one-dimensional person--like a Flat Stanley or a line--and neither am I. I have muchos intereses and muchas actividades that take up my awake-time, and I'm sure you do too. So I want to introduce you to a current one.
Meet Logical Me
I've been teaching a short 6-week computer class to Upward Bound students. The thing is though that I don't have a degree in computer science. Actually, I don't have any training in computer science, and frankly, I'm not that interested in computer science either. I mean, I can use a computer, but "networking" is a foreign word to me and if you asked me to hack something, I'd get out a butcher knife.
I Have a Big "But"
BUT I am "teaching" a computer class this summer anyway. :-) Luckily, as a former librarian and a non-idiot, I am resourceful enough to find teaching materials online, so my students and I are using Codecademy to learn to code using the Python computer language.
I don't know anything about computer programming, mind you (maybe I mentioned my computer illiteracy before?), and huge portion of what I'm "learning" in Codecademy doesn't make a darn bit of sense to me right now. But I have managed to make a simple game using Python.
Presenting "A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Libs World"!
Okay, so maybe you're not familiar with Mad Libs. It was pretty popular back when I was growing up in the Pleistocene epoch (alongside mammoths and saber-toothed tigers). Here's how it works: you create a story (or use a pre-made template) with several words missing. You have to figure out what part of speech (noun, adjective, adverb, etc.) would make sense in each of the blanks. Then, you ask people to give you a word that goes with those parts of speech. Finally, you use their answers to fill in the blanks, and you read their new, hilarious story.
An Example to Un-confuse You
Here's how I would make "Mary Had a Little Lamb" into a Mad Libs:
Me: Name an adjective.
Me: Name an animal.
Me: Name a body part.
Me: Name an adjective.
Here's your Mad Libs version of "Mary Had a Little Lamb":
Mary had a fun chimpanzee.
Its earlobe was stripey as snow...
Hahahaha! And everyone rolls in the floor with laughter and/or bewilderment!
A Link To Mad(Lib)ness
Here is the Mad Libs game I created. To start it, click the word Run with the little triangle next to it. Then, type in an answer to each question and hit "Enter" on your keyboard. Finally, read your ["Give me an adjective." "bizarre" "Give me another adjective." "slimy"] story that you created (i.e. Then, read, your bizarre, slimy story that you created).
Now It's Time to Say Goodbye...
So I'm out of time for now, kiddos! But in my next post, I will show you how to create your own Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Libs World so you can join the novice-geek squad. Until then, seeya, sucka!
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Recently I had a coming to Jesus talk with a high school student (well, more like a coming to the real world talk). He's a sleeper and a goofer-offer (yeah, I'm pretty sure that's a word). He doesn't apply himself even though he's intelligent. Yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, you know the type I'm talking about. These are the kinds of kids who make me bash my head against the wall (I'll show you the bumps on my forehead if you're interested ;-).
So I asked him what motivates him. He said he only does work that is fun or that he's interested in. I asked him if the thinks that everything in life is going to be fun or interesting. He said his dad makes tons of money, owns his own business, and has fun every day. Needless to say, the young man made it quite clear that if something isn't fun, he doesn't think it's worth doing.
So what do you think? Do you think that you should avoid everything that isn't "fun" and that if you do so your life will turn out okay?
Well, you can probably guess that I don't think so. (Hey, I'm an old person. We're meant to rain on your parade--and if you don't know what that saying means, then I must be REALLY old :-)
Imagine this. It's 200,000 years ago and you're a naked early human on the plains of Africa. Life ain't easy. You have scars on your body from run-ins with big, toothy animals and all those times you stepped on sharp sticks and rocks. If you don't hunt or find food, you starve. In fact, you've lost a lot of people in your tribe over the years because they got eaten by hungry lions, they got sick and died, or they starved to death. You are constantly on the move, constantly on guard. You even keep your ears wide open when you're asleep and are only able to rest in fits and starts. But since you're so alert all the time and because you ultimately prevail over so many challenges, you are well attuned to your environment, you're smart, and your brain is really well developed.
So I'd like to reiterate that last part--because you face so many challenges (I mean, if you don't, you end up as some predator's lunch, right?) and succeed, you are smart and your brain is really well developed.
I believe that the only way we grow as humans is by facing challenges, not avoiding them, and by solving problems, like algebra equations and stuff (oh, and maybe other important problems, too, like global warming and child poverty). It makes us smart, and frankly, it just makes us better people. Or as your old grandpappy with only two teeth left in his head likes to say, it builds character.
Life is like that. Without challenges, life is boring. Whether it's a ninja were-rabbit in a video game or a leaky shelter on the plains of Africa, people need challenges to make life more interesting and to keep their neurons (brain cells) firing.
As opposed to the African plain scenario above, imagine this: you live in a white cube. All the walls are white. The floor is white. The ceiling is white. Everything is white. You don't have any windows. All you have is a white couch to sit on and sleep on. The temperature is always set comfortably, neither too hot nor too cold. Meals are delivered to you periodically, and you have a restroom area. All of your primary needs--food, water, shelter--are taken care of. So you have no problems. You don't have to struggle for anything, and you face no challenges.
Oh, except for that one problem, maybe--boredom.
Does this white cube scenario sound better than the one on the African plain? Yes, you may answer, because you get to sleep all the time. Well, I've had the opportunity to sleep a lot, and believe me, it gets really boring after a while.
The problem with the second scenario is not that there isn't anything fun to do; the problem is that there are no challenges to engage your brain. Let's put it a different way. If you're playing a video game where your character just walks around and picks up things, the game is going to get boring pretty quick. If there are no bad guys to defeat or treasure to find, what's the point?
Life is like that. Without challenges, life is boring. Whether it's a ninja were-rabbit in a video game or a leaky shelter on the plains of Africa, people need challenges to make life more interesting and to keep their neurons (brain cells) firing.
So, yeah, you may say, but what about the challenges I have to face that are boring, like doing homework or cleaning my room or listening to my teacher drone on and on about nothing?
Well, here's the thing. You want to be an adult someday, I assume, if you aren't already, right? Adults have to do stupid, boring stuff all the time. We have to wait in line at the grocery store, listen to old people talk about their health problems, do our taxes every year, pay bills, et cetera and et cetera and et cetera, ad nauseam.
Just because something is boring doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Here's what doing the boring stuff when you're young does for you--it mentally prepares you for the boring stuff you have to do later in life. It allows you to tolerate boring stuff and gives you the ability to overcome it.
Doing dumb, boring stuff in school prepared me very well for the challenges of life in the so-called real world. I remember when I was in high school I took home economics (now called Family and Consumer Science). We always had these boring tests where we had to list boring information, and if we didn't memorize all the boring information, we didn't do well on the test. So I was one of those annoying kids who had to get A's in everything, and I would memorize those completely useless lists--not because I cared about all the different ways you could cook a chicken or whatever; no, what I cared about was getting an A. And what I gained from that experience was not the information from the class; it was the ability to work on something dull, master it, and go on to something else.
That's what a lot of the stuff you're learning in school is for. Do you think I use the slope intercept formula in my day to day life or that I suddenly start spouting the Gettysburg Address? No, of course not. You'd be hard pressed to find many adults who do. But what learning those things did for us was to get us ready for all the crap we would have to face in the grown-up world. Because in the post-high school world, it's not just about tasks and assignments, it's about missing your flight and being stuck in Pittsburgh for three hours. It's about ripping up your carpet because it's been destroyed by a water leak. It's about exchanging insurance information after you accidentally rear end the car in front of you. It's about eating your Aunt Mildred's milk toast casserole even though it is as bland as pencil shavings. Yes, sitting in that boring geography class learning the rivers of South America actually prepares you to face challenges like these and rise to the occasion.
So next time you're stuck in geography class (or whatever class is your nemesis) remember that what you're gaining is the ability to survive, to get your neurons working, to face challenges and succeed, and those are what will make your life turn out not just okay, but better than okay.
Here are some websites with information from boring, old people like me on how to get boring stuff done:
"How to Get the Boring Tasks Done"--This article gives several techniques for how you can get those boring tasks done without losing your mind.
"Why Boring Tasks Are Important...And How to Get Through Them"--This article gives great short-term and long-term solutions for the problem of boring tasks.
"7 Ways to Make Boring Tasks Bearable"--The author lists seven methods she's come up with for tackling boring tasks.
"Six Ways to Stay Motivated during Hideously Boring Tasks"--The author offers six tips for how to make boring jobs a little less boring.
If any of these links are broken, please let me know in the comments section. And if you need more articles like this, try googling "how to do boring tasks."
And if you are looking for your good deed to do for the day, you could click the "like" or "tweet" buttons below and spread this article to your friends. Please and thank you, dah-ling. :-)
Here's a confession I am embarrassed to admit: I am a terrible teacher. Yes, I admit it. I am one of those teachers students hate to have, one of those ineffective teachers who deserves to be fired.
At least, that's how I started out, at the age of 25 when I was tossed to the wolves and told to turn these classes of 9th and 10th graders into Spanish speakers.
I knew nothing about teaching. I didn't get an education degree, unlike all my college friends who did. Instead, my degree was in English, not English education. I didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to be a college professor or a writer. I wanted to do something prestigious and important. But when I lost my enthusiasm for the world of academia, I reverted to something I thought I could do. Hey, I said to myself, I have a minor in Spanish and speak it fairly well. I'll become a Spanish teacher.
And so I did. Well, at the very least, I stood in front of a classroom and pretended to be a teacher. But I didn't know anything about getting students to participate, about getting them to behave, about allowing them opportunities to learn. I had no confidence in myself as a teacher, and I was clueless.
I was also a failure.
In the many years that have passed since I began the experiment of teaching, I have learned A LOT. I have tried repeatedly to diagnose my problem. Why was I such a terrible teacher? What did I do wrong? That's why I've been reading so many books about education lately.
My most recent is Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone) by Elizabeth Green. Her premise is exactly what the title implies. What does it mean to be a good teacher, and can that knowledge be transmitted? The first question is difficult, but the second is easy to answer. Yes! Teachers can learn to be better teachers!
And that hearkens back to a conundrum in America--the belief that teaching is an innate ability. You either got it or you don't. That's how I saw teaching and how I was taught to see teaching. You see it in movies all the time. A teacher starts out in a bad school with students who are not only uninterested but downright hostile, and somehow, through sheer force of personality, she turns that ragtag bunch of losers into scholars. That is the American narrative of teaching, and it is what a lot of people buy into. But not only is it wrong; it is dangerous to our kids and our teachers. It tells teachers that no matter how hard they try, they can't improve and that if they don't do well at first, they might as well give up. It is the same problem we have with education in general. Either you get math, or you don't. Either you're a good writer, or you're not. There's no way to fix it.
But in truth, yes, you can "fix" it.
People have to learn how to be teachers just like they have to learn to be any other profession. They have to learn the tricks. We see teaching as an individual endeavor. The teacher goes into her classroom and shuts the door, and she's on her own to swim or sink. That was my experience. I had a mentor assigned to me, but did I get any mentoring? Um, no. Sure, teachers have "professional development" opportunities, but a lot of that is virtually worthless. Many school districts treat professional development as a box to mark off on a checklist, not as a true learning opportunities for teachers.
Now that I'm not directly in the teaching field*, I am spending more time learning how to teach. Ironic, isn't it? And most of that learning is coming from podcasts and books.
Green has lots of good ideas about teaching, but they are not her own. She doesn't pretend to have any sort of innate knowledge about teaching. She's actually not a teacher at all; she's a reporter. So she went to the experts to find out about teaching.
She starts with the Japanese. And as I have seen discussed in other books, in Asia, skills are seen as something that are learned, not innate (unlike in America, which I described above). And great teachers learn to teach by COPYING EACH OTHER. Yes, that's right. They copy one another's lesson plans, down to each little detail. And they have time to learn from each other. It's built right into their schools and, indeed, into their culture.
In the U.S. teaching is a private ordeal. My experience was that I was "observed" once or twice a year by someone who was no expert in my field, usually the principal, and then given a grade. But in Japan, it is not unusual for teachers to have spectators in their classrooms studying their methods and learning from them. It's called lesson study, and I think it's a great idea.
Some American teachers would balk at the idea of replicating someone else's lesson plan. They would want to be "original," to have "autonomy," to be "independent." To them, I say, "pshaw!" If I had had someone walk me through the steps of exactly how to teach conjugating verbs in Spanish, I would have bought that person a beer...or a Coca Cola...or a sparkling water, whatever she preferred.
Green devotes the first third or so of her book to a discussion of the teaching of math in Japan and how we do it wrong in the U.S. The odd thing is that the Japanese teachers she interviews say that they learned these methods from American educators, specifically from the work of John Dewey and George Polya. These ideas went to Japan, but Americans failed to adopt the same principles.
The specific method Japanese teachers use to teach math is inductive reasoning. They don't start by telling the students the big idea. Instead, they give the students a problem and let them theorize how they can solve it. The students throw out ideas, and the teacher cultivates the ideas that ultimately move the students toward the correct mathematic principle.
In the U.S., on the other hand, teachers teach the principle, and then students practice it over and over again. They don't really get why the principle is so; they just know this is what you have to do to solve the equation.
That was definitely my experience in math classes. I learned the steps I needed to take to solve a problem, but I didn't really understand what any of it meant. It didn't seem to have any real meaning.
The American way of teaching math is through deductive reasoning, which Green calls the "I, We, You" approach. Here is how she describes it:
"After checking homework, teachers announced the day's topic, demonstrating a new procedure . . . (I). Then they led the class in trying out a sample problem together . . . (We). Finally, they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a worksheet. . . . (You)" (118-119).
Green uses the phrase "You, Y'all, We" to describe the Japanese inductive approach:
"They began not with an introduction, but a single problem that students spent ten or twenty minutes working through alone . . . (You). While the students worked, the teacher wove through the students' desks, studying what they came up with and taking notes to remember who had which idea. Sometimes the teacher then deployed the students to discuss the problem in small groups (Y'all). Next, the teacher brought them back to the whole group, asking students to present their different ideas for how to solve the problem on the chalkboard. . . . Finally, the teacher led a discussion, guiding students to a shared conclusion . . . (We)" (119).
In the end, the Japanese students have a firm understanding of the "why?" behind the mathematic principles. American students don't.
Green next tackles the issue of discipline, or as educators like to call it in their euphemistic way, "classroom management." She looks at charter schools and their zero tolerance policies, intended to tackle the small issues so that the big issues won't crop up.
Like the Japanese teachers, who turned teaching into an art form, complete with blueprints, Doug Lemov, a charter school entrepreneur, created a taxonomy of good teaching, which he shared with educators in his system and wrote a book about. Basically, he looked at the behaviors that successful teachers exhibited and broke them into categories. One of these behaviors is explained in a bit of detail in the text, and I think it could be useful.
I had trouble with kids being kids during class. Not paying attention, talking to their friends, talking over me, etc and etc. And I would call them out on it. Well, I was doing it all wrong.
As a teacher, whenever you call a student out in front of his or her peers, you are inviting a showdown. That kid can't comply with you because that would be losing face. So oftentimes the problem escalates because the kid won't back down. So, as a teacher, it's better to avoid the situation altogether.
Here's how "expert" teachers do it. They don't name the kid who's acting up. They get more creative than that. For example, one teacher named in the book counts aloud the number of students who he needs to pay attention with statements like, "I need two more sets of eyes on the book." Another teacher used hand gestures:
"Two fingers to to her eyes--that meant 'track the speaker,' code for paying attention to the person talking, usually another student. The fly swat, applied to a raised hand, meant 'I'm not taking questions right now.' And the prayer sign reminded students to get into the attentive position that no-excuses schools called SLANT or STAR, a back-straight pose tied off with primly clasped hands" (183).
The teacher "had created the gestures . . . so that she could subtly correct students' misbehavior without interrupting the flow of her lesson. At the beginning of each year, she taught the three gestures explicitly. For the first few weeks, every time she used one, she would say its name too" (183).
In his taxonomy, Lemov describes another form of discipline as "positive group correction":
"By positive, Doug meant constructive--describing the desired behavior, rather than the problem. 'We're following along in our books,' a teacher could say, posing the statement like self-evident narration, even if it also contained a hint of aspiration" (185).
Lemov called level five in the discipline taxonomy "lightning-quick public correction." This is one of the few in which a particular child is named. Lemov describes it this way:
"'Andrew, I need you with me, just like Jeremy and Anne and David. Now we're looking sharp!" Doug modeled at the workshop. 'So I corrected Andrew publicly,' he explained, 'but I did a couple of things. One, I instantly diverted the gaze from him to someone else or something else, and, when possible, that something else is much more positive. So if I said, 'Andrew, I need you with me,' then you're all going to divert your gazes to Andrew, and we're in that situation where I have to win, it's all public, and then I can't afford to lose.' Instead, he let Andrew take the stage for half a second before quickly moving on to Jeremy, Anne, and David and the idea that 'we' (read: everyone, even Andrew) were now 'looking sharp'" (187).
The thing that impresses me about these levels of discipline is that the teacher is not focusing attention on any individual child. Thus, the child doesn't have to feel that he or she has to defend him/herself and save face.
Confession: I was terrible at discipline.
Toward the end of the book, Green finally gets to the subject area that is of interest to me--teaching English and writing. This is a briefer section, but it has some good information as well.
Green describes how good English (composition) teaching flips the formula for math teaching. While math teaching should be inductive; English teaching should be deductive:
"In math . . . the 'You, Ya'll, We' lesson popularized in Japan . . . made sense for structuring investigations of big ideas, like the meaning of fractions of negative numbers. In English, meanwhile, where students needed to learn specific reading and writing strategies . . . the 'I, We, You' pattern of modeling followed by guided practice was much more appropriate" (276).
She describes how an expert English teacher, Pam Grossman, gave her students "stock responses" in order to facilitate class discussions of texts. These are like sentence templates. For example, a student might say, "According to the text . . . I believe that means . . ." or "I agree with what . . . says, and I would like to add . . ."
Another teacher, Yvonne Divans Hutchinson, gave her students anticipation guides to prep them for the text they would be reading. She also asked them to write level one, two, and three questions about the text to facilitate classroom discussion.
One of the best things a teacher can do in a discipline like English, according to Green, is to model good discussion skills. One of these practices she calls "uptake":
"A teacher practiced uptake when she listened to a student's contribution and then repeated it in some way, by summarizing the idea . . . , elaborating on it, or pushing the student to do the same" (271).
In a couple of places Green also describes how teachers study their own thinking to determine how to teach a skill or idea to someone else. The teacher needs to break down information and processes into all its mini-steps and examine his/her thoughts about how a concept is done. What is the thinking behind a concept? What are all the steps a person must go through in order to work through a concept? Teachers then develop lessons to help students go through those steps.
So, will any of these make me a better teacher? Perhaps. Or I might never step foot in a classroom again. If I do, I will certainly be better prepared than I was 12 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long ago?). In the mean time, I will continue reading, listening, and learning.
*Footnote: Actually, I still teach, but it's an online class, so many of the skills I've learned about teaching do not apply.
First off, the title of this book is a misnomer--The Smartest kids in the World. Maybe it's irony, something tongue-in-cheek, because as Ripley points out, this has nothing to do with how smart kids are, but it has everything to do with the school system that educates them and the culture they live in.
Covering educational issues as a reporter was a heeby-jeeby experience for Ripley, replete with opinionated adults and wild variations between schools and even classrooms, so she fled the U.S. and began to study other school systems around the world. She decided to focus on South Korea, an educational powerhouse for years, Finland, which dumbfounded the world and itself with the meteoric rise in its test scores, and Poland, in the midst of an educational turnaround of its own. But she didn't just want to talk to the adults in these systems who has their own opinions. Instead, she turned to the real experts--the students themselves. Specifically, she focused on three American exchange students visiting these countries for a year in order to get their in-the-trenches view of what the school systems in their host countries are doing as opposed to their home schools.
What she found might be surprising to some but probably shouldn't be. First off, throwing money at schools doesn't work. The schools in countries other than the US are downright shabby in comparison, located in aged, utilitarian buildings completely void of the educational gadgets so common in American classrooms. Yet the students these schools produce make American students look like they suffer brain damage in comparison.
In addition, Ripley takes a direct shot at sports in school and the fact that it is of such grave importance in American schools and mostly absent from foreign schools.
Another importance difference between American schools and other schools around the world is the teachers. In Finland, for example, the country quickly injected both rigor and quality into its schools by closing most of the educational colleges that churned out a surplus of teachers, thus narrowing the supply chain, and increased the qualifications a person would have to meet in order to be accepted into a teacher training program. In other countries as well, the teaching profession is seen exactly as that--a profession of professionals, and thus, something to be viewed with respect.
All of these steps point to something sorely lacking in the US--a respect for education. In so many ways, young people get the message that education is not something they should take seriously, that it is not something worthy of respect. As a person who spent nine years working in the public school system, I saw this particular problem every day. But it was something all too apparent when I myself was a student back in the nineties.
One of the more interesting aspects of the book to me is the argument that the reason American students do so poorly on international tests is because of the counterproductive narrative of intelligence so often cited in the United States. The oft-repeated idea is that academic achievement is a direct result of a person's intelligence level, that academic ability is something innate and cannot be changed. You either got it or you don't.
In high-performing countries, on the other hand, the cultural message is that academic performance is directly related to hard work. This is especially true in Asian countries, such as South Korea, where education occupies kids' every waking moment.
As an American raising a child in the US, I've already begun to see this narrative of "the smart kid" playing out with my own daughter. And she's only three years old. Repeatedly I hear adults praise her for her accomplishments by telling her she's smart. I grit my teeth and turn the compliment around by telling her she's hardworking or a "big girl" instead. So for me, the idea that this narrative permeates our culture is quite (and disturbingly) apparent to me, and I want to fight it as best I can. Adults don't realize the damage they are doing despite their good intentions.
I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in education and especially to parents with kids in school. And to my colleagues in Oklahoma, I recommend this as an outsider's view of what does and (mostly) doesn't work in the Oklahoma education system.
"Hi, Adolfo"! said Jordan. "Methinks I doth liketh thine lederhosen much".
Adolfo replied, "Thine appreciation maketh mine heart floweth gladly"!
Okay, in addition to the weirdish lingo between Jordan and Adolfo, did you notice where the punctuation was? That's right! Outside the quotation marks. What, are we angry at punctuation? Do we want to vanquish it, excommunicate it from the church? Does it have cooties? Poor punctuation! Why are we expelling it to the outer extremities of the universe, or, eh, the sentence? The punctuation belongs all nice and cozy and squishy right inside the quotation marks so that it can stay nice and warm.
Jordan added, "Thine beret ist also much attractive but verboten, for this ist not French-land."
Adolfo cried out, "Blast ye rigors of fashion, countrymen! I shall wear what fitteth me and be happy!"
He wracked his brains 2 times and ended up knocking 3 gerbils and 4 muskrats loose.
Maybe this is not a biggie, but did you remember hearing in high school when you were learning to type on those old electric typewriters (Yeah, okay. I was born in 1901.) that you should never write out numbers less than ten as numerals? Well, you should! Write numbers less than ten as words (unless, of course, you are a robot, in which case you can use dashes and dots or ones or zeroes or whatever you want just so long as you don't enslave us in your copper and beryllium mines!).
Barney said he had three muscles in his upper arm along with two packs of cigarettes and one homemade machine gun.
He drove recklessly thru the neighborhood, which did not plz his wife, who was hanging onto the bumper.
A lot of young writers today (and old writers as well, who don't have a good excuse) use text speak when they are doing normal, run of the mill writing, i.e. college essays for college classes. This is a big no no. So don't LOL your professors or the unwitting victims of your emails, and for Jehoshaphat's sake, if you're going to go "thru" something make sure you get fries with that.
He drove through the drive thru and ordered French fries and a double martini. Oh my granola!
I would like you to: file these forms, write up a new Constitution, and cut the bunion off my foot, in that order.
Colons are good for introducing lists. They are also pretty nifty at digesting food and turning broccoli into poop. But they don't make good interrupters. If you're going to use one in your writing, make sure you know what you're doing. Colons go at the end of a complete sentence (or at the end of your stomach). If when reading a sentence, you can mentally replace the colon with the word "namely" or "specifically," then you are a-okay, Amos 'n Andy!
He did all of the things I have told you about [namely]: hit on my grandma Louise, stole vodka from a squirrel, and sang the national anthem backwards. And all for the sake of a colon!
If you go around wearing tin foil on your head, carrying a prop sword, and calling yourself Xarta, King of the Cosmos, you should expect a little social ostracism (and maybe a straightjacket and a comfortable, padded room).
So what's wrong with that sentence? Well, nothing. At least, if I'm talking to you or writing something informal, there's nothing wrong with it. The problem is when you start doing high-falutin' stuff like writing memos at work or composing papers for your English professor. Here's the thing--professional people who are in the know don't like to see the word "you" when you're talking about people in general. Instead, you should use the generic "one" or "someone" or even change the whole thing to the plural "people." Or you could just trash the whole thing and rephrase it completely.
If one goes around wearing tin foil on his or her head, carrying a prop sword, and calling him or herself Xarta, King of the Cosmos, he or she should expect a little social ostracism.
Okay, so that's a bit icky with all the "he's" and "she's" and "him's" and "hers," isn't it?
People who go around wearing tin foil on their heads, carrying prop swords, and calling themselves Xarta, King of the Cosmos, should expect a little social ostracism.
That one's not too bad. I would be proud to include it in any academic or otherwise professional treatise.
That concludes part one of my peevish pets. I'm sure there will be more in the future to bug me (and you).
I recently discovered that my high school diploma has been nullified. It seems that my high school temporarily lost its accreditation the year that I graduated, so my diploma is no longer any good.
What all this means, I am appalled and bewildered to discover, is that I have to repeat my senior year. So I have gone back to take classes again as if I were a teenager, feeling lost and overwhelmed by the whole experience. At last count, it has been eighteen years since I had a math class, leaving me ill prepared to pick up on concepts that I've spent years forgetting.
I keep finding myself sitting at a desk with a test in front of me, generally math or history, that might as well be written in Neptunian. I don't know any of the answers; I've missed too many classes. I am panicky and know that I am going to fail miserably. Senior year the second time around is hopeless!
I've tried talking to the counselor about my situation, but he (or she? not sure which) is always either out or too busy to talk to me. I sit in his (her?) audience for endless periods of time, being ignored by the secretary, and when I try to talk to the principal, try to get a copy of my transcript to prove that I have already taken these classes, everyone I run into is clueless.
I don't understand why they can't just dig out my original grades and use them, you know the grades my 17-year-old self earned. Why do I have to repeat the classes? I want to explain how ridiculous the whole situation is. I want to tell them I've already graduated college, that I have gone on to earn two masters degrees. But no one will listen. It's like I'm lost in a labyrinth of bureaucracy.
It is a nightmare scenario. Literally. It is a nightmare.
The weird thing is that I've been having versions of this dream for years. It's like I can't get over high school, and every time it appears in my sleep, it's a monster dogging me and making me crazy.
I have a few theories about the repetitiveness of this dream. Of course the whole situation reveals more about me and my fears than about the status of education in the country. I doubt there are very many high schools who would recall a 36 year old and inflict hell upon her. They've got enough problems.
Maybe the source of the problem is my master's degree in English. When I was in grad school, I dropped one of the classes I needed to graduate and had to get special permission from the department chair in order to earn my degree. Maybe it's that feeling that I cheated, that I didn't quite complete what I set out to do.
Or maybe it has to do with my fear of failure. I was actually a really good student, but somehow my fear of failure has manifested in the form of tests that I am unprepared for and tasks that I only thought I succeeded at.
I think it probably has a lot to do with my identity, which I've all but lost since attaining adulthood. When I was young, I was the smart girl, the nerd, the overachiever. I was the girl did the whole cliche "above and beyond" thing. It wasn't enough to pass; I had to excel. But now I have a regular life with a so-so job, and I'm no longer a standout. In fact, without a report card to back me up, it's hard to communicate to people that I am, indeed, intelligent, and they should believe me despite the stupid mistakes I'm always making.
It's been eighteen years since I graduated high school, yet it seems like just a blip in comparison to the amount of time I was actually in public education. It seems like I was in school for decades, centuries, like most of my life was spent in the chalkboard jungle.
High school has made a greater imprint on me and my sense of self than anything since, no matter what I've accomplished. I will always be that little nerdy girl more comfortable doing geometry proofs than making small talk with my peers.
Yes, that's me. The nerdy girl sitting at her computer, who never quite lived up to the potential she was supposed to have, a little leper girl with one foot in her mouth during every social situation.
This summer I had the good fortune to be able to work with teenagers in the Upward Bound program. They were taking part in a six week stay at a local college campus, going to classes and experiencing what it’s like to be a real college student.
I was their computer teacher (in spite of the fact that my degree is actually in English, and I don’t really consider myself to be particularly tech savvy). For their first assignment, I asked the students to create a newsletter using inspirational quotes and stories from your website www.motivateus.com. If you remember, I had called to ask if you would mind if I did so, and you gave your permission. You also asked me to let you know how things went, so I am writing this letter to tell you a little about the class.
My themes for the course were inspiration, motivation, and activism, and I tried to create assignments that catered to those themes. For their Excel assignment, for example, I used facts and figures on world poverty from the World Bank and information about blood donation and disaster relief from the Red Cross. For another assignment, they were required to research information on a cause that interested them and write to their legislators about that topic. They wrote about obesity, teen drinking, medical marijuana, health care, and a variety of other things, and in the end, I did indeed send those letters to their legislators. In addition to these and other assignments, I read to them each day from the book Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations by Alex and Brett Harris.
It is pretty obvious, as you can see, that I had an agenda. I didn’t just want to teach them how to use computer applications. I wanted to inspire them to make a change in the world and in themselves for the better. And I was pretty blatant about communicating this goal. The question is whether or not I had an impact on any of them.
Basically what I saw is that the students performed at a consistent level from the time they entered the class to the time they left. Those who worked hard did so from the time they entered to the time they left, and those that slacked and played on Facebook (yes, even in a program like Upward Bound, there are slackers) did so consistently throughout the six week period. So did I make an impact? Hmmm. Hard to say.
I will say that I made them think. And yes, I do use the word “made” consciously. I asked them questions about their beliefs, asked them how they were enacting those beliefs, asked them what “hard things” they faced, and asked them questions inspired by the Harris’ book.
Although it is difficult for a teacher to measure the impact she has on a student--especially when she sees those students for a very brief period during their young lives--I think it is important that we keep trying. At the very least, they know that there are people in this world who really do value passion, inspiration, and motivation, and I appreciate the fact that you have put your web site out there for everyone to see. Those of us who care should not remain silent. We need to communicate that message, whether through the internet or face to face.
So I would like to thank you sincerely for allowing us to use the material from your website for our classroom project. It started the class out on the right foot, and I hope that it helped inspire my students to, in a slight modification from the army’s motto, “be all they can be.”
Word and Book Lover.