Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.

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What if…?

I am a worst-case scenario kind of girl. You know all those things we spend time worrying about? I can worry with the best of them.

In fact, my worrying started when I was just a tot. We would take a weekend drive in my father’s jeep out into the country and onto back roads that time forgot. They were rutted dirt roads that wound through the woods, over hills, and along streams. To my eyes, they were little more than hiking trails. I would often pipe up from the back seat, “Where are we gonna turn around, Daddy?” My tiny little worried mind couldn’t see how we could ever get back home.

But we always did.

If I let my imagination run wild, it can create situations that even the best imaginations would pass up as impossible. Not for me. Everything is worth worrying about because what if [insert worst-case scenario here] happens?

But what if it doesn’t?

What if I just stopped worrying? What if I recognized that many things are out of my control and worrying only makes me anxious, stressed, and robs me of the ability to enjoy where I am and what I am doing. Right. Now. What if I just stopped, took a breath, and let all the worry go? What if…?

If I were to stop worrying needlessly about things I can’t control, I would be able to enjoy the present moment. I could think more fully about the here and now. I could be present in and part of my own life. I could be a better role model for my children. What if I stopped worrying and was willing to let it go?

What if…?

Time for Action

Dear Elected Officials,

Today is Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar and also Valentine’s Day. It is a day to celebrate renewal, rebirth, and love. The perfect confluence of holiday and holy day.

And yet, here we are, once again shocked and bewildered by a mass shooting in a U.S. high school. We are listening to horrific accounts of students scattering to escape gunfire; hearing parents’ fear as they talk of receiving panicked texts from their children; watching the post-shooting press conferences as law enforcement officials talk of casualties. Here we are. Again.

And there you are, sitting on the floor of the House and the Senate, collecting your donations from corporations and organizations promoting their agendas. Lining your pockets with blood money. Living out your days of public service in affluence at the expense of our most vulnerable—our children—while you refuse to consider that the real problem with our county might just be a government that is sponsored by corporate interests.

Senator Chris Murphy stood on the floor of the senate, visibly shaken by the most recent news, and delivered a brief message before he moved on to business. He said you are all responsible, but then he ended with the statement, “We will hope for the best.” What?

Seventeen more lives lost, and you are going to “hope for the best”? Seventeen young people who will not make their contributions to the world. Seventeen what ifs. These were young people with their entire lives ahead of them, young people with great promise. They were everything to their families, just as your children are everything to yours.

Perhaps one of these students was to be the  brilliant mind to find a cure for the very cancer that could now take the life of your grandchild. Another of the victims would promote an innovative and workable idea to create lasting peace in the most intensely war torn regions of the world. One could have developed a system to recycle and purify the Earth’s dwindling water supply. And another would figure out a way to reverse brain damage.

We will never know what might have been. We will never see what these young people might have contributed to our society. Because they didn’t make it to their high school graduation.

Yes, Mr. Murphy, you and your colleagues are responsible. You cannot “hope for the best” while you sit on the senate floor and do nothing. In this case, “hope” is not an action verb. “Hope for the best” all you want, Mr. Murphy, but hope without action is for cowards.

It’s time, Senators and Congressmen, to take on the work of the people who elected you to office. It’s time to protect the right to life of the children already born. Risk the disdain of those around you and take some action. If you step out of your comfort zone and do rather than hope, you might just change the trajectory of our society.

{photo used with permission of my talented daughter}

Painfully Obvious

Yesterday morning, I awoke from an odd and somewhat unsettling dream. At first, I wasn’t really aware of what was unsettling, only that something wasn’t right. The dream was one in which I was interacting with people—one, a friend from childhood who I hadn’t seen recently, and the other, a woman I knew of but had never met.

I was sitting between the two of them. The woman to my right was wearing a bright sweater—striped in bold blues, yellow, and teal—and I noted that it was knit from the same yarn I had used to make a scarf. This fact intrigued me, and I got stuck on the bold colors and the coincidence. I listened as she talked, and I responded, but through our conversation, I never looked directly at her. Somehow, I just knew who she was.

As I looked back on the dream, I realized that I was unable to look at either of these two people, unable to see their faces. It wasn’t that they didn’t have faces in my dream. It was that I couldn’t look at their faces. This one small but important fact made the dream very unsettling.

As I moved through my day trying to process this strange dream, I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed Smartphone addiction and its effects on us and on our children. Sherry Turkle, a social scientist, “found that children now compete with their parents’ devices for attention, resulting in a generation afraid of the spontaneity of a phone call or face-to-face interaction. Eye contact now seems to be optional” (Popescu). If we are not making eye contact, if we are not looking at the people we are interacting with, we are not fully experiencing the moment, the conversation, the relationship.

And this article brought me back to my dream. No doubt, the dream emerged from the stress of adjusting to the hectic schedule of a new teaching assignment added to my other responsibilities. The need to juggle so many different pieces often takes away from my ability to be in the moment, experiencing interactions and relationships as fully as I might. This juggling ties me to my computer and keeps me connected to technology.

If we pay attention, our dreams can tell us things we didn’t already know, but sometimes they hit us over the head with the painfully obvious. The other night, I had one of those dreams and I woke up confused, but as the day wore on, I began to see how this dream fit into my life and the message I needed to gain from it.

I am a creature of habit. I do things because they work in some important way. Or maybe because they have worked at some point in the past, in some other iteration of my life. Perhaps, if I were to really examine what I have been doing, these things might not be addressing my current needs. They might not be feeding my soul. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate and restructure in important ways that will permit me to grow with the changes in my life.

And maybe it’s time we all recognize that by not interacting with others—over dinner, over the phone, standing in line, etc.—we are doing our children a disservice. It is up to us to teach them how to interact with us, with each other, and with the strangers they will encounter on a daily basis. Perhaps it’s time we recognize that technological connection is minimal and human connection… it’s everything.

Positivity Post: Lack and Limits

It seems more and more that society has a distinct focus on “lack.” So many people focus on what is lacking in any given situation that they look right past all of the good and positive things about life. The focus on lack spreads and begins to permeate all aspects of our lives, and we end up living a life in which we are merely skimming the surface of what is possible.

Society is caught up in consumerism, and as we look around at what other people have, we see what we don’t have. In an effort to keep up with others and maintain social status, we feel a need to go out and buy the things that are missing from our lives. The more we have, the more we need. And while we think this “stuff” will fill the void we feel, ultimately, it only adds to the problem.

I believe this is how we are getting it wrong. If we begin to open our eyes to what is around us, we will begin to appreciate what we have and be more available to live in the present moment. For example, if we focus only on how cold the winter is or how short the days are, we will miss the beauty of the snow and the colors of the first morning light as they dance with the gray scale of the winter landscape.

 

As we focus on material possessions, lack begins to spill into other areas of our lives, affecting our very ability to be happy. We bring that focus to our work, our home life, and our relationships. If we focus on all the things that are missing from our lives, we will not be happy. Friends and family members are unable to be who we want them to be; our job is not fulfilling; our location will never be as urban/rural/warm/cool [fill in the blank] as we want it to be. In short, we cannot be satisfied with what we have because we are too focused on what we don’t have.

As an agent of positivity, I am putting forth a challenge. For one week, work to stifle your focus on “lack” and begin, instead, to focus on what is present in your life. Take the time to really look around you. What is working? What is happy? What do you consider to be your blessings? What are you grateful for?

Start there. Focus on the good. Tell people how much you appreciate them by focusing on their good traits. Take a few moments to play with your pets. Recognize the beauty in the little-kid hand prints on your refrigerator. Really study the variations of color in the sky as the sun goes down at the end of the day. And reflect on what was good about the day.

Perhaps if we take time to really see what we have—all we truly have around us— and be present with our blessings, we will not have to search so hard for some elusive who-knows-what. And with all that extra time and positivity energy, the possibilities that open up in your life may just be limitless!

Kindness

We all have stories we tell ourselves. I have stories that I’ve woven into my reality that have been created to serve some purpose or other. Sometimes, the stories allow me to stay in my comfort zone. For example, lately I have been telling myself that once it warms up outside, I’ll start walking. If I tell myself this story, I don’t have to push myself to step out into the cold. In the winter, I like being warm, and even though I should go out and walk each day, it’s cold. And icy. And the wind will cut through even the heaviest of winter jackets. Winter is not the time to exercise outside, even though I used to do it all the time back when I was younger and more tolerant of the extremes in weather.

Sometimes, the stories I tell myself are designed for self-protection—i.e. so I am not disappointed about something that isn’t likely to happen. I might tell myself that a story won’t be published or that I am not good enough to be included in a group or accepted into a coveted program or opportunity. These stories are woven specifically to protect me from disappointment. Because after all, if I don’t get my hopes up, I won’t be let down, will I?

But the worst thing is the constant self-talk in my head. I can be brutal—constantly chastising myself for the things I say, the things I do, the things I don’t do. I have a whole series of conversations and monologues that I run through my head that focus on the worst about myself. I don’t think I am an anomaly in this respect. I think it is something that women, especially, do on a regular basis. Why do we do this? Why do we convince ourselves that we will never be enough?

Recently, I saw this video by TruthBomb Mom on Facebook in which she spoke with other women about their self talk. They admitted that they are harder on themselves than they should be. When the host then produced a picture of the woman as a little girl, she asked if the woman would say the same things to this child. And so, I took out a picture of myself as a child. Would I tell her the things I tell myself? Perhaps what we all need to do is be a bit more gentle on ourselves.

The next time I am tempted to criticize myself for every little thing I do, I am going to think of this girl. If I think of her, I have an inkling I am going to be just a bit more gentle, more patient, and more kind with myself. Because I am a work in progress, and deep inside my soul, this little girl is still a big part of who I am.

Advice to My Younger Self

Watching teens go through their various challenges is one of the more difficult parts of parenting. I always thought it would be great if I could somehow spare my children the trauma of middle school and high school. These are the years when kids are jockeying for some kind of ridiculous social position. They want to be seen as the best, the brightest, the funniest, the prettiest, the most popular, the most athletic, etc. The “senior superlatives” celebrated in the local high school speak to the role such competition plays in the lives of teens.

And yet, competition—being the best athlete, having the most friends—these are not the things that are the most important in life. The most important things in life are how we treat other people and how we treat ourselves.

By channeling my younger self and tapping into some of the challenging experiences I remember, I can offer some advice to my teenage self [which is actually thinly veiled advice to my teens…].

Mind your own business, and don’t get involved in other people’s drama. There may be situations that look enticing, and times when it is tempting to step into someone else’s train wreck. And there is no reason not to step in with a sincere offer of help. Otherwise, drama is always good to avoid—your own, and that of others.

Set your goals high. The higher your goals are, the farther you will go. If your goals are easily obtainable, you will not have a reason to keep pushing yourself and keep growing. As a wise teacher once said, “If you are not growing, you are dying.” Setting your goals high will give you a reason to keep growing.

Find your own internal motivators. You have to find meaning in what you do, and that meaning has to come from you. No one else can make sense of your life and your activities. No one else can give you reason to complete tasks, to earn good grades, and to pursue your goals. That meaning and sense of purpose has to come from you.

Walk away from those who don’t treat you well. Keep walking and don’t look back. There are many people who use others, manipulate them, control them, etc. These people, they will get what’s coming to them. It’s called karma, and it really does exist.

Don’t let other people define your limits. Other people are always quick to tell you what you can and can’t do. For example, You shouldn’t pursue a career in [insert creative endeavor here] because you won’t be able to make a living. When I was in graduate school, my advisor—who had met me moments before—looked at my proposed plan of study and said, “You can’t take that many courses. You won’t be successful.” I wanted to say, Watch me! Instead, I just nodded and said these were the courses I would take, thank you very much. Sometimes, people tell you things because they want what’s best for you. Sometimes, they don’t want you to be disappointed. However, only you can determine what’s best for you. And that leads to the next point…

Find your passion and pursue it. If you love to write, find a way to incorporate that love into your college program or your career path. If you are passionate about biology and music, be creative about how these two pursuits might fit together into a career that will feed your soul. If you can’t figure out how to form your passion into a career, at least continue to pursue the activity in a way that is meaningful to you.

Always be true to yourself. You know who you are and what you stand for. Don’t compromise your values or yourself to fit another person’s idea of who you should be. Be you because that is the best and most viable choice you can make.