Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Mental Construct

I said good-bye to someone I recently met.  I said good-bye because this person no longer exists.  She was completely in my mind.  The image, and all that went along with it, were based on misconceptions.  Here's the context.
A few weeks ago I began to mentor a couple of first year teachers.  Since one of the two was someone I never really met, and didn't know well, I assumed I knew she was.  That assumption came from a memory I had when we were actually in the same room together at the beginning of the previous school year. It was an orientation meeting where all the new student teachers meet their supervisors for the upcoming year.  Somehow, I held on to this image as if it existed. So here we are, a year later and this person is now a first year teacher assigned to me.  We spoke on the phone a few times, and I've gotten to know this young teacher in these early attempts to build trust and learn a little about each other.  That kind of trust and knowledge is essential if my efforts and her interest in them are to continue.

So last weekend, after a handful of failed attempts, we decided to split the difference in miles between us and meet face to face. I drove the 50 miles to a coffee shop in Salem. A different person showed up.  She was not who I thought she was.  She looked completely different from the image in my mind.  Maybe there is another teacher I actually did meet once a year or two ago that fits the image I have.  But I was way off.  Off in age, appearance, and demeanor.  The voice was the same, rather hoarse, but the rest of the person was completely different than I expected.
The immediate response I had was one of overwhelming relief.  I'm not even sure why.  perhaps tis revelation brought with it the chance for a new beginning.  It got me thinking, though.  How many times do we construct images and personalities of people based on seemingly reliable information? If we do this, and we do, what are the consequences?
Maybe this isn't a big deal at all.  Maybe it's just a reminder that people are always much more complicated than we think. That, and we are often misled by our mental constructs.
My mistake was an honest one.  I'd met a roomful of young teachers a year ago, thought the one I'd been in contact with was an image I retained from that meeting, and then found out it wasn't.  Sp why the tremendous relief?
I can venture a few guesses.  I realized the instant the face to face meeting began that everything I previously thought about this persons personality and ideology, her values and level of commitment, was subject to change.
What if she experienced the same thing regarding me?  That's certainly possible because all we really knew about each other in terms of personality or ability to work with others, or even our teaching styles, we got from other people.
I was reminded, from this experience, how it applies to interpersonal relationships like dating.  Ever meet someone through a phone call?  Images in the mind abound.  Then the day of reckoning and the person that shows up to the first face to face meeting either fits the image or doesn't exist.  I think the latter is often the case.

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, or...one 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.