Monday, October 20, 2014

More Complex

I realize that it is not enough to simply post these dramatic and engaging drawings with nothing more than a brief explanation.  It occurred to me also that in posting these pieces here that they could easily be reproduced.  I agonized over that for a time but in the end decided that if any young teacher, given today's climate, ever reads this and can clearly see how multiple intelligence theory applies here, then it will be worth the risk.   Like thousands of former students of mine, I lost contact with James and it would be difficult to track him down to secure permission.  The drawings were a gift to me, so legally, I'm covered, but that doesn't lessen the dilemma here.  In any event, what is important now is to offer some additional comments on the topic here: visual learners.  To do this, I ask any readers of this blog to comment on what you see in the drawings.  I'll share a few thoughts and then post a couple of additional pictures.
The concepts of Adlerian psychology reflected here are wholly symbolic.  Though they don't articulate the concept completely, they do invite discussion that will do just that.  After James' group's presentation, many of the drawings were displayed around the classroom so that his classmates could look at them, think deeply, and raise any remaining questions.   This first one represents the concept of organ inferiority.  Adler believed that each person has one organ that is more dysfunctional than others and therefore impacts our personality and behavior.  For example, a bad back might explain why someone continually "backs out" of difficult situations.

This drawing focuses on Adler's importance of the mother.  The brief caption reads "Drink Up."  I leave the next observations and interpretations to you.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


One day, right in the middle of the introductory psychology class I taught, a student ran through the classroom door and then just stood there.  I recognized him as an autistic Special Ed. student who was usually accompanied by an aide.  My class recognized him too.
"Hello," I said, "welcome to our psychology class."  He said nothing, but instead ran over to a small bookcase behind my desk in one corner of the room.  My students and I were spellbound.  After a few minutes, he selected a small pink volume from the top row of the shelf.  Without a word, he ran out the door.  I recognized the book as Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings.   Thinking I'd better check with the Special Ed. teacher a few doors down I reached for my classroom phone.  Just then his aide came in, quickly apologized and left.  I never mentioned the book and my students were asking if I ever expected to see it again.  "Guess, we'll find out one of these days," I said.
What followed was a spur of the moment class discussion about autism and a few related things.  More proof that teaching "moments" are unpredictable, happen randomly, and often take their place among the most memorable experiences in an otherwise routine school day.
I think one of the reasons that my class was so responsive and "chill" throughout this little incident is that a few Special Ed. students were sitting right there too.  The introductory psych classes were de-tracked, like most of my schools classes, and composed of the widest variety of learning abilities and learning styles.  As an elective, the students were engaged and eager to share their own experiences and perspectives. The wanted to be there. Typical groups in that class might be composed of students who were headed off to Ivy League schools or the local community college.  Students who would be first generation college students and others whose parents taught at nearby U C Berkeley.  National Merit scholars and students who were headed to the military or the workforce within a year or two at most.
Working with this kind of class really taught me some remarkable lessons on how kids learn within the confines of a typical classroom environment.  It's hardly the same way, as you might expect.  Students learn concepts and skills that never make any textbook or set of standards too.
In one of the aforementioned psychology classes was a student who was a classic visual learner.  He was in my classroom right about the time computer art was first becoming popular.  An immigrant from China, James was the son of a Chinese woman and a British ex-patriot.  His parents were older, if not elderly and he'd spent most of his time in the U.S. as a Special Ed. student.  James enjoyed psychology but his Asperger's necessitated sitting near the front of the room where he felt safe near the teacher.  Over time, I began to see some of James' art work.  He began spending his lunch period in my classroom using a computer or just making ink sketches.  He seldom talked with his peers. Until...they began to see some of his computer art.  He made new friends.  many pieces fit neatly into the Fantasy genre so popular with teenagers.
What was particularly fascinating about this art was its complexity.  It was abundantly clear that James had a fine mind, even if he couldn't always represent his knowledge in conventional ways.
Later on in the semester the class was studying personality theory in groups.  Each group was assigned a theorist and the task of teaching the class, through a group presentation, about that particular approach to personality theory.  Using a case study the class had discussed thoroughly gave students an opportunity to apply the new concepts learned for each subsequent theory presented. James was working with the Alfred Adler group.  His work for the group's presentation remains, in my view, an excellent example of visual intelligence.  Though he could barely write a cogent paragraph, James displayed incisive knowledge of Adler's personality theory through the drawings he made to illustrate the various concepts his group discussed.

These concepts included Adler's Inferiority Complex, his ideas on the importance of the mother, and his views on organ inferiority. Nobody told him what to draw.  The groups simply read and discussed their assigned theorist's ideas and decided on how best to convey them to their classmates.
Here are a few of the drawings:

Oh yeah, one more thing.  About two weeks after that little book disappeared, the student who "borrowed" it returned.  Saying nothing, he placed it on the top shelf exactly where it had been and then walked out the door.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

An Invitation

The legendary oral historian and raconteur, Studs Terkel, once concluded that "your work is your identity."  This, of course, came after completing the wonderful collection of interviews that comprised his book Working.  Stands to reason that when we change jobs or retire, we often have to deal with an identity crisis.  For teachers, this is all too common. Who will I be when I am no longer Mr. Greene?
Guess what?  If my experience is any indication, you will be Mr. Greene.  Maybe not in deed, but certainly in idea and inspiration.  I no longer arise at 5:47 (that's right) and teach a full day.  I no longer experience the anxiety that accompanies a new lesson or parent conferences or grading or even the weekend.  But I do still discuss the direction of the profession.  In fact, I do it too much.
It's all to easy these days to engage others in an exchange of ideas.  Whether it's social media, or just casual talk in the grocery story or coffee shop, people want to share their ideas.
Everybody went to school, so everybody has something to say.  We are all experts on our own experience, right?

It doesn't take long to get into a spirited conversation, whether it's teacher bashing, union bashing, single parent bashing, of Oregon's favorite targets...public employees.
Half the time we are preaching to the converted, but occasionally the art and skill of sharing your ideas involves being true to yourself without alienating someone with whom you completely disagree.
I've noticed that when I get extremely frustrated with an opinion particularly vitriolic or uninformed, I issue an invitation.  I'm fond of inviting people to join me for a first hand trip inside a classroom. My hope is that I might be able to provide some insight into what and why many teachers do what they do. They never accept.  I expect that.  Something more than sitting in anonymity would be just too much to ask.  Here's another way of looking at this dilemma.
Imagine a clean white linen tablecloth that's suddenly lost its luster with the presence of some unsightly crumbs.  The next course won't come until the crumbs are removed...only there is no one willing to do the honors.  Why should I have to clean up after myself in a restaurant? goes the internal message. All parties have the option to remove themselves and often do.  Game over.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Rufus Rastas Johnson Brown" (Von Tilzer) Ragtime song by Arthur Collins...

Middle (Named) Child

There is an old, American, popular music tune about a character called Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown.  That name alone should tell you a couple of things about this song.  It was popular in the early part of the 20th century when records were of the 78 rpm variety and the music industry was new.  It was a time of elaborate vaudeville-type recordings and a time when racism was about as overt as it could be.
"Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, whatcha gonna do when the rent comes round..."
This genre was dubbed the "Coon song"  for obvious reasons.  Collectors of Black Americana today have assembled a variety of this type of sheet music as well.  It's always shocking, always disturbing, often accompanied with graphics that are too.  When we look at the dates, it's not all that long ago, is it?
The Jim Crow Museum uses this type of artifact to educate and remind us about this difficult time in our history.  True, the stuff continues today in more subtle, if not sophisticated forms.
Save that for another time. (See next post above to listen to the original 1903 recording)

I got to thinking about people with more than one name.  Seems like one name is all the rage today.  Rhianna, Pharrell, Madonna, Usher, Seal.....
But what about people with three or more names?  Will that be next?
I have some Latino friends with multiple names.  Of course the mother's maiden name is often incorporated into these lengthy monikers.  When both the mother and father have the same name (i.e.Gonzalez) it makes for an interesting repetition.  Jose Luis Martinez Gonzalez Gonzalez.
Some folks agonize over what middle name to give their children.  They try to honor a grandfather or great grandmother, or aunt, uncle or sibling.  Given most of them will never have enough children to cover everyone, I say give your kids as many as five middle names.  They can then choose which they want to use or change them up just to be different.
I always thought if I had a son, I'd name him Ben after a grandfather I never met.  I can throw in Joseph for my other grandfather and perhaps Woody, Willie, Patchen, Rilke, Casy,(Preacher) Paul, (Klee) and Sonny Boy (Williamson)
Say hello to Joe Ben Woody Paul Willie Casy Greene.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Two Paper Towels

One of the realities about teaching that seldom gets any attention is the role of parent that accompanies the job.  As a culture we acknowledge that the classroom teacher wears many hats, from instructor to cop, nurturer to protector.  Parents are usually our allies.  We partner with them in the same way we partner with administrators and other community members.  But playing that role to 35 at a time, and 150 a day can sometimes take a toll that seldom gets discussed in all the well-meaning reform conversations taking place these days.
Often this role involves what Dr. Phil calls "a safe place to fall."  Teacher as advice giver, as listener, as role model.  Sometimes it's more like first responder.
Certainly in the spate of recent school shootings, we have seen teachers and other school personnel rise to the occasion and play the protector/defender role with selfless courage.  And then there are those physical emergencies.  Actually that seems to be a euphemism.  The emergencies aren't physical, they are health oriented.  Kids in pain, kids under the influence of a controlled substance, and certainly the least favorite kids getting sick...sloppy, disgusting, messy sick.
I still recall some of the specific occurrences I witnessed as my classmates lost their cookies during the lesson of the day.  From kindergarten while at the easel doing watercolors to my 7th grade Art elective (hey I see a pattern here) there were a few memorable upset stomaches and their consequences whose memories never faded with time.
When I look back on my 33 years at the helm I recall a few instances where I played the role of care giving parent.  From fainting to the crippling pain of ovarian cysts, I have knelt in hallways trying to reassure a scared adolescent that this too would pass. Lots of Kleenex for tears...a panic attack or two, and certainly many, many fistfights that saw blood trickle or clothing torn or, the worst injury of all, a bruised ego.
But one incident stands out from all the others because of the response I received.  During my year teaching middle school,  I  experienced what could only be called an underwhelming response.  My 7th grade class was reading silently.  As I often do, I was glancing around the room to observe their reading behavior.  How they appear while reading, whether they are focused, or restless.  I chanced to glance in the back corner of the room and noticed Fernando, usually quiet, rather squirmy.  Then his head went down.  I thought about walking back to see if he was OK but decided instead to just keep my eye on him.  Within a minute his head rose and his face was olive green.  You know what's coming, yes he puked all over the table in front of him and thensome.  36 twelve year olds reacted, as did I.  Opening the windows on the opposite side of the room, I told the class to face me and I would call the custodian and see that Fernando went to the school nurse.  There was relative calm.  I seemed to be in control and sensitive to the embarrassment that Fernando must have felt.  I called the office and asked them to send the custodian because a clean-up was needed at once.

I marveled at the composure of this class although the odor in the room was beginning to make the kids uncomfortable.  Nobody reading now.  While waiting for the office to respond, I conjured up visions of my beloved elementary school custodian Mr. Herrick.  A hard-working German immigrant, Mr. Herrick could do anything.  His well-worn kakis were always a welcome sight.  I recalled too, how in situations like this he arrived promptly with a bucket of sawdust that absorbed everything.  He swept that up with a few quick strokes and then mopped with a cleaning solution.  The room was clean within minutes.  Reading resumed.  While congratulating myself for navigating this difficult situation there was a knock on the door.  When I opened it an extended hand offered me two paper towels...then walked away.  Official response.
I want to end here, but I won't.  here's what happened next.  My anger and astonishment quickly turned into action and I had the class move into the hallway.  I asked my colleague next door to watch my class as I went to the closest men's room and grabbed the entire roll of paper towels after wetting a few.  Mildly enraged, I cleaned up that mess in about 5 minutes and the class returned to the room.
We read a little longer that day.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


I was reading an article by a woman called Julia Galef about a new teaching strategy called Surprise Journals.  The thinking here is that we get locked in to our opinions and beliefs and then seek affirmation from those with similar thinking.  She writes:  "Many behavioral psychology and cognitive science studies demonstrate that humans find it difficult to change their opinions.  In what is known as the "bias blind spot," it is much easier for us to see other people's biases than our own. The "confirmation bias" reveals that we seek out feedback from people who are likely to agree with us: We read newspapers and watch TV talk shows that are probably going to tell us things we already agree with. Galef says that there is much more research about how biased humans are than how to change these biases. "I really wanted to get better at changing my mind...This is not a perfect solution, but it has gone a long way to making me more open and less defensiveness about when I'm wrong."
 The writing technique asks us to note down the times/circumstances we fall into this trap and then challenges us to change our thinking, especially when we must go counter to people or institutions that we don't usually disagree with or that whom we respect so much that we couldn't possibly imagine being of the other side of their ideas.
It's easy to see this "bias blind spot" all over our culture these days.  From TV stations that are slanted to our deepest thoughts about public institutions like schools and political parties, and law enforcement.
The photo here shows the teaching strategy as students write potential Surprise Journal entries on Post It notes.

The Surprise Journal helps us change our mind about things and argues that it's healthy to do that.  So what would be some of your first entries in a Surprise Journal?  What assumptions, I keep asking myself, do I make about things I assume to be true but are probably not?
Recently I nixed a move because I felt the new place was just too small.  I was adamant.  I may also have been wrong.  At least I was decisive, I kept telling myself.  But I now have the option of allowing myself to be surprised by this assumption and can work to change my thinking.
It's easy to see how this would work with something of real significance, too.  We all assume things about the important people in our lives and our skills and abilities.  Any surprises there when you stop to reconsider?
In the end, this is all about opening our minds even further than we think they are.  Many surprises to follow.