If Ralph Waldo Emerson had been bullied...

We give such awesome advice to our students about bullies, don’t we? What to do, where to go, what to say. Yet, as is often the case, we don’t follow our own advice. Teacher, it's time to teach thyself.

What if good ol' Emerson had been bullied? What would he have said or done? In this review, we’ll deal with the more coercive bullying type found in the workplace--the critics. (No doubt Emerson had his fill of critics).  They are described as:

--constantly nit-picking, fault-finding and criticizing things of a trivial nature. The triviality, regularity and frequency betray their bullying. Often there is a grain of truth (but only a grain) in the criticism to fool you into believing the criticism has validity, which it does not; often, the criticism is based on distortion, misrepresentation or fabrication.

(Source: Bullyonline.)

You know these people. They are a non-stop flow of negativity. We strive to avoid them whenever possible, but they still find us. Here’s where Emerson might help us transcend a little or, at least, help us staunch that flow.

A great man is always willing to be little.*  
Most of us will probably chime in on bullying from the bottom of the totem pole as a target. However, where we land hierarchically has less to do with our actual jobs than our attitudes. 

Should you find that you feel victimized, evaluate your bully. Consider the source. Is this person’s constant criticism, nitpicking, and threatening indicators of a “great” person?  Does this person possess qualities that are admirable in any way? 

If no, then you’ve found your desirable attitude: this person isn’t worth my time, but I will seek to understand him or her. Just remember, you may have to kneel down to do that.

Cause and effect are two sides of one fact.*  
As a target, you know the effects:  fear, shame, guilt, the “why me?” stuff. What’s tricky is realizing the size and depth of the fact. That miniscule “grain” of reality that the bully has overblown may ring true, but how “big” is it, truly?

Once you’ve figured out the validity of the fact, you may want to ponder the cause, which isn’t the bully, usually.  That is:  the bully didn't cause you to feel bad. 

Like most teachers, you have a well--if not over--developed sense of responsibility. The cause of your shame and so on, is you. Thank yourself for having that sense of responsibility because it indicates a person of integrity who wants to do what’s right.  

Always do what you are afraid to do.*  
Confrontation of anyone, bully or no, can be terrifying. Ours is a culture of confrontation-avoidance and passive-aggressiveness and political-correctness and every other-hyphen-ness. 

Be better than you think are and take this step to discuss your thoughts with this person about the specifics of his/her criticism.  

Do whatever it takes to build up your nerve (talk to positive, supportive friends, take a Benadryl), but do it. You will feel more empowered by the time you’re through, if only because you did something you thought you couldn't. 

A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.*  
Your goal is to blow your bully’s mind. You can do that by tripping them up with either acknowledging their position or their person. Armed with your “facts” that the bully was so keen to point out and criticize about you, start the discussion with: 

“I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I appreciate that you noticed that I was ___. I’m looking for some ideas to overcome that. What would you do in the same situation?” 

Turning the tables of criticism over to the bully startles him/her. They are so used to people just ignoring them or reacting defensively, that they will be momentarily disarmed and probably, just a bit nicer than usual. (Most workplace bullies are looking for validation of what they perceive to be effort, so this tactic may be all you need for every encounter with this person.)

Every man I meet is in some way my superior.*
Listening to your tormentor is going to be difficult, but not more difficult than assertively taking control of the situation. Even though his or her message may be sandwiched underneath layers of negativity, there will be a message in there somewhere. If you think you hear one, rephrase it positively, for example:

 When you say don't…, do you mean…? 

Rephrasing the message in a positive way will not only reinforce how you wish to be treated, it will also jab your bully just a bit in, hopefully, the right direction. 

Nothing external to you has any power over you.*
This is a tough nugget to chew on because fear seems to have power over us. Fear of losing our jobs, homes, cars. We accept our victimization because we want our children to have health insurance. While these fears may seem rational and justified and worth the hassle the bully brings, they’re not. 

Your children would receive a better life-lesson if you live happily than they will if you live out of fear.  I would have happily done without new clothes, toys, etc. to have my father home to play with me in the afternoons than a man so stressed working three jobs that he was an alcoholic. Make sure that you understand:  only you have power over you.    

Nobody can bring you peace but yourself.*   
Should you decide to remain at your current school, consider how you’re going to create  peace with the bully. More than likely, after building some rapport and acknowledging them as people you’ll have a better shot at peace. 

However, if your bully is a die-hard victimizer and you want to stay, weigh and balance the positives and negatives.  Create your own path to peace with this person, and should he/she reject it, move on, knowing that you have done all you can.

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
Victims sometimes forget to look at their individual integrity levels because the noise of the bully’s criticism drowns those levels out. Know what and when you’ve done well, even when no one was around to see. Revel in that.

Embrace those moments as moments you know you’re a good teacher, and no matter what anyone else has to say, you will carry on. 

Here, if nowhere else, is where many victims lose the fight. Don’t lose the sacredness of what you know to be true, right, and just. Wear it as your armor against those who are unable to fathom the same. 

* All quotes attributed to Emerson.


Love to Hear the Robin…

Recently, I joined the Twitter crowd(@MindyKellerKyri, here), fully prepared to burst forth with elegantly concise, precise, brevity of thought. I began following a few political and educational twits twitterers, and in a matter of moments, an opportunity for me to debut arrived in the form of a debate:

Creativity is a natural ability of all people. Wisdom is not.     
 Discuss. #edchat #education
Challenge accepted! I began to fill in my box. “Don’t forget to include who you’re sending it to,” advised my so helpful, technologically-inclined husband, “and you should include the hash tags, too.”  

So, I diligently erased what I’d written, including these parameters. “Awww, c’mon! These take up like 20 characters!” I whined. 

Nonetheless, I was determined to state my position articulately.  Each time, I ran over the word count. 

What’s the matter with me? I know what I want to say. Why can’t I say it in fewer words? 

Stumped, I stared at my cursor, which was mercilessly winking at me in the white-cold bareness of its blue-lined box. 

This wasn’t so different than my often-offered advice to students (particularly on doctoral dissertations) to make something clearer and more concise. I wonder how many of them would be able to use the confines of a tweet to help them arrive at the significance of what they were trying to say in five sentences that could better be stated in two.

Then I wondered at the possibility of using this “box” thinking for struggling readers who have a really tough time with main idea, especially implied main idea. What if I asked them to “tweet” that main idea? Would that help move them closer to understanding how the brain takes in details and arrives at a connection between them?

In no more than 140 characters, including your teacher’s twitter handle and one relevant hash tag, state the main idea of this article. 

Or perhaps helping students understand the nature of a thesis as a concise overview of their entire paper? 

And, while we may not be able to have students follow us on Twitter, we can still use the thinking behind it to perhaps move them closer to where they need to be. The haiku of their generation? Maybe. 

Whatever it is, let’s grab onto it in the hopes that we reach at least one student that we might otherwise not reach. 

Just in case the title didn’t tweet with you (or even if it did!):


"Mistah Kurtz, he dead." *

  • This has been such a great discussion on teaching and performing! I'd like to follow up on these points in response to "Of Masks and Myths":

    Some subjects are not so interesting. If you don't perform, your efforts will only be propitious in nature. Also, teachers aren't always feeling well. They must put on their best performance if they are to reach even the most despondent of students. 
    If you aren't enthusiastically passionate about a given topic, your students won't be either.   

     I think the science part of teaching is in the content and design of a lesson. The delivery of the lesson is an art, a performing art.
Maybe the purpose behind performing is where I struggle with its use in connection to teaching. 

A performer’s purpose is to entertain. A teacher's purpose might better be defined as to motivate others to gain knowledge and understanding.  We could say that effective teachers possess the ability to explain things in an entertaining manner, when it best serves the topic and purpose of the lesson (e.g. an overview of the Holocaust versus explaining the parts of a cell.) However, that alone doesn't make them performers because the objectives differ.

I’ll concede that elementary teachers, in particular, need to be animated and expressive—the younger the student, the more animated one would need to be, perhaps. 

However, that same level of animation won’t fly in a high school class, and I should have been specific in the previous post: effective high school teachers don’t need to be good performers. (Apologies for not clarifying!)

I’ll concede that all high school teachers need to be passionate about their subject. Also, I realize that passion can be attributed to a performer or performance.  However, the purpose of the integration of that passion is different when performing and teaching.  It’s used for different things.

In performance, whether in dance, music, or theatre, passion is used to convey emotion based on the music or script, and through movements, lyrics, dialogue. It's an explicit use of passion. 

Teachers use personal passion for their subjects to positively motivate students to learn the material in those subjects that they might not otherwise desire to learn. It is, hopefully, an inherent use of passion.

I must ask, though: If the subject matter is somewhat dry and uninteresting but nonetheless absolutely valuable, rather than putting a sparkly performance all over it, why don’t we acknowledge its dryness and uninteresting…ness?

For example, I have many issues with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Ugh. I’d just rather eat dirt than read it again. However, I know that it’s a rich text for AP Lit students, and I don’t want to deny them the opportunity. 

Rather than work through the pretense that “isn’t this just the bestest most wonderfullest, most interesting book ever” (i.e. “perform”) and try to muster up enthusiasm and passion where none exists, I was open and honest about my evaluation of it.

“I have a real issue with this book,” I’d begin, “I find it a very slow, boggy read.  Have any of you ever experienced that with a text?”

What would follow would be a powerful entry discussion into a school of literary criticism:  reader response.  As a marginally proficient actor, I probably could have “faked” it, extolling the virtues of this book's structure, but why?  

Why lose out on a more engaging and authentic discourse for the sake of making something seem interesting when, maybe, it isn’t?

I’ll also concede that lesson delivery—if you’re up in the front of the class delivering information—entails good public speaking skills (eye contact, vocal inflection, articulation, appropriate emphasis, and the like).

However, if you view lesson delivery as a performance, you put students in “passive audience” mode because the goal is to present an entertaining explanation. It’s a directive method as opposed to an exchange of ideas.  

Why not explain something to students in the context of their currently held beliefs, experiences, and ideas  of a topic instead of through presentational prowess?   
High school students don’t need us to be entertaining. They need to see our intellectual curiosity of the material and what others think about that material.   

They don’t need us to perform through an illness; they need us to “let them in” on our state of being, to be authentic and frank.  “Guys, I’m not feeling well, today, so bear with me!”

Despondent students don’t need to see any more artifice than they already see day in and day out. They need to see and hear what a mature adult does to cope when things aren't going well.

They need to see the best of who we already are. : )

* From T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"


Of Masks and Myths

Recently, my co-authors and I were guests at a roundtable discussion (a radio show) on effective teaching.  The host and I fundamentally disagreed on one point:  that teachers need to be good performers to be effective. 

His theory was that in order to keep students engaged in the material, the teacher had to be able to present it in an interesting and somewhat entertaining way. 

As an actor, musician, and vocalist, I can tell you:  the skill set is completely different. Performance skills are personal, internal, more "inside" for lack of a better explanation. Teaching skills entail the depth to which one can motivate others. It has nothing to do with me. It's comparing apples and...lettuce.

We derive part of this myth from media. If you do an image search for “teaching”, you’ll see that most of the images include a person in the spotlight, standing at the front of the class with an attentive group of children listening. That’s a performer and an audience. 

That might be teaching, but is that effective teaching?

An audience, even in an audience-participatory piece, never lets go of that sense they are
watching, not doing. At any point, the audience member can disengage. That shouldn’t happen within a class. Thus, one shouldn't perform at all.

Even if the teacher must demonstrate for purposes of a lesson, which entails some watching, the time spent in demonstration should be minimal. The goal is to get the students to “do”, moving the teacher from the spotlight to facilitation, which is where the learning happens.

Authentic, ingrained, mastery learning doesn’t happen when we watch someone else do something. 

Another part of the myth is derived from teachers. While I’m sure most of you would heartily agree that the ability to perform doesn’t equate to effective teaching, I challenge you to gauge how much time you spend in the spotlight in your class.  Ten minutes? Twenty?   Thirty?

If your standard approach to lessons entails presentation of information followed by student-regurgitation of some sort, rethink it. How can you create a lesson that hinges more upon students “doing” as opposed to “watching”? 

“But, what,” you may ask, “can I do if I really have to explain something? Besides, they won’t do anything on their own!” 

One lesson I particularly enjoyed was teaching Oedipus to ninth graders. (My justification was that since they were required to read Antigone in tenth grade, this would help them out.) And as is the case with ancient Greek plays, the most difficult aspect of the play was dealing with the Choral Odes. The concept of a Chorus, even with the analogy to the mice in Babe, is rough for 14 yr-olds.  

Rather than cope with the Choral Odes while reading the play, we “jumped” over them. (Blasphemy!) However, after reading the play, student groups dove into the text to determine what the Chorus was supposed to be and do. From there, they worked in groups to analyze a designated, particular ode, based on its location within the play—bonus, they had to read some of the play again. 

After analysis, they then had to work up how the chorus might have presented this ode at this point in the play. Complete with masks, they used their voices and bodies to become the Chorus of Theban Elders.  

Did they “get” the function of the chorus? You bet. Memorable? Yeppers. Me as performer? No way.

The effective teacher steps out of the spotlight. 

Mindy and some of her former students recently published Transparent Teaching of Adolescents, a discussion of effective teaching strategies for high school. Join the conversation!


A Kinesthetic Lesson for Teaching the Introduction

Teachers have done an excellent job providing students with strategies for planning the essay body and thesis preparation for timed writing assessments. However, the intro, where free-flow thinking begins, can throw the bodily-kinesthetic learner into a tailspin, leading to choppy, disconnected attempts to “get” to the thesis and body.   
We can help them draw upon physical mnemonics to ease the stress they encounter in these crucial beginning thoughts by creating a connection between body placement and their hands.

1. Provide this prompt to students:  Describe our class and its significance to you.

2. Students should copy the prompt a notebook, such as a composition book or spiral notebook (something they can easily carry).  For homework (or as a starter activity), ask them to create just a thesis for this essay. Nothing else. Just the thesis.  

Here’s a potential model (although I’m sure you’ll be more creative with it!):

    Prompt:  Describe our class and its significance to you.

    Questions:  How would I describe our class?  In what ways is it significant or insignificant to me?

  Model thesis:  Our class is like a flower ready to open, and that sense of readiness inspires me to teach.

3.  Explain to students that your focus lesson today will be on how to “get started” on an introduction for this essay.    

 4. With notebooks and pens/pencils in hand, walk the students outside of the class and face the door.  Explain the analogy of the body of the essay as being inside the class.  The thesis, then, (indicate with your thumb) is just outside the door.  

Holding your thumb up, say, “My thumb thesis is the door to my essay.” Have students do and say the same.

5. Now walk students outside of the building at a point where they can see a majority of the school building.

6. Explain that they have some things to do before they can “walk” into that door to the body of their essay. Hold your pinky up to indicate a “hook”.  Say, “My pinky is the outside hook.” Have them repeat with gesture.

Garner some responses as to what they might say about the school that houses their class.  Ask: What’s special about Blah blah High School, in general, before we move to the focus of our English class?

Students write a rough draft of their thoughts in the notebook.

7. Walk students to a logical point just within the building.  Hold up your index finger. Say, “This finger is more specific."  Have students repeat.  Ask:  What can we say about Blah blah High School a little more specifically?

Have students write a rough draft of this first bridging thought. Take them to a closer point to the class.

8. Hold up your hand, keeping your middle finger and ring finger together. (Expect some silliness here, be prepared.) Say:  “These two fingers are significantly connected.”  Students repeat.

Ask: What is a significant connection between Blah blah High School and our English Class?

What can move us even closer to the significant connection between BB HS and our English Class?
Students write rough draft of these two thoughts.

9. Take them to the outside starting point again, repeating gestures and talking points:

My pinky is the outside hook.

The ring finger is more specific.

These two fingers are significantly connected (index/middle finger)

My thumb thesis is the door to my essay.

However, this time, they’re going to read their rough draft ideas aloud (simultaneously). Yours might resemble:

Blah Blah high school is a powerful community of students and teachers. We pride ourselves on our collaboration of ideas and our rapport.   In particular, we’re willing to work together try out new approaches to understanding literature and composition. It’s very exciting. Our class is like a flower ready to open, and that sense of readiness inspires me to teach.
As you read your intros, walk to the points where you were before, stopping and repeating.  The first step might resemble:

Holding up pinky and saying: "My pinky is the outside hook." Blah Blah high school is a powerful community of students and teachers.

and so on. This part of the lesson should have a very quick, energetic feel to it, not unlike a sped-up Bennie Hill comedic episode. Don’t stop and explain. Walk, say, and do.

10. If you have time, consider having the students finish the essay. If not, then take the few remaining minutes to have them evaluate the lesson. Did it help them better understand how an introduction works? Why or why not?  How?

11.To test the effectiveness of the strategy, a graded follow-up activity should be giving them a more difficult prompt, and preferably, allowing them to walk through the steps (from outside to inside).   Then, have them compare a previous introduction to the one using the strategy to determine if this is a method that will help them out.

One nice thing about kinesthetic strategies, particularly in more traditional courses, is that all students seem to enjoy them.  The opportunity to do something different is always appealing… even for teachers! 

You'll probably come up with much better things to say and probably a better prompt. You know best for your level of students! 
Have fun! Let me know if you try it out and/or if you want to share an enhancement! Together, we can help our bodily-kinesthetic learners succeed! : )