Brain mush: Mind odysseys

"Paper Clips!" by Tyler Howarth

Got 10 minutes (in addition to the ones you were going to spend reading this post)? Make a list of everything you can do with a paper clip. No, seriously. We’ll wait for you here. Then read the first footnote.* (You should also know, in the interest of metablogging, that I threw this in here after completing the rest of the post, to justify the image.)

Udeitha: “I don’t think blogging is going to make you any more coherent.”

Yes, well, I don’t think another four hours of reading case studies and industry analyses will, either.

Work was a bit of a struggle for the first half-hour today; I was working with a student one-on-one on a draft of a short story that’s due Thursday — a story she’s been actively not writing for the last two weeks. We’ve made a ton of progress lately on varying sentence structure and incorporating more details, but for 30 minutes as I was working with her on fleshing out her main character, she become borderline nonverbal.

“Why is she going to miss her friends?”

“Because she likes them.”

“Why did she like them?”

“They were fun.”

“What makes them fun?”

“They’re not boring.”

“OK, think about your best friend. What’s your favorite thing about her?”

“I’ve known her for a long time.”

“How does that make you like her?”

“She’s fun.”

(I’ll let you guess what makes her fun. We finally broke out of tautology fun time after we discovered that the main character’s hobby was photography. She takes pictures of “everything.” Because it’s there. She takes pictures of leaves because it’s pretty.)

This is a 13-year-old who can correctly define words like “sardonic” and “impecunious,” but says “That’s weird” about everything. I have taken to saying “new adjective” every time she says “weird,” and we’ve probably cut usage by about 80 percent (down to 2-3 times/hr).

As a word junkie, I found today’s session excruciating, for myriad reasons,** and beyond doubting my abilities to engage youngsters, I was more than a little concerned with whether we (the education system, society, a not-quite-bibliophilic culture) are hampering our collective and individual abilities to articulate ourselves. As I worked in journalism and attended conventions of varying levels of nerdiness (ACES wins, on so many levels), I had the pleasure of hearing multiple experts remind us that readers have short attention spans. No one has the time or inclination to read complex analyses of issues. Lies. All lies! Everyone within a culture actively contributes to it, and pandering to shorter attention spans also creates them.

During my walk home — which was lovely, since I was heading west as the sun was tinging the clouds and contrails pink — I also started worrying about whether public education (or culture, or visual media, or whatever else) squashes creativity.  My friend Jessica, who works at the same academy, mentioned that her second graders freak out when presented with free-writing time. I loved free writing, and one of my favorite memories of elementary school is being part of an Odyssey of the Mind team in the fourth grade. I can’t remember what the activity was called, but we did a warm-up at some of our sessions where an adult would hand us an ordinary object, and we would pass it around the circle making up different explanations of what the object was. (Think “Props,” one of my favorite improv games.)

Now I’m wondering if I love improv, logic problems and lateral thinking puzzles*** because I’m just that type of nerd, or whether I was just inculcated with a love for challenges as an impressionable child. (And if that’s the case, if that’s possible, I am a complete advocate for breeding it in all children.) When I was about 7, my mother went back to Taiwan for a few weeks, leaving my older brother and me under the care of our engineer father, and I distinctly remember him tucking me in at night and asking me logic and math problems in place of bedtime stories.****

I suppose I’m a little anxious about the future and kids these days, as the prematurely old coot that I sometimes am. More than that, though, I’m disappointed, because I’ve seen the tremendous capacity for creativity that young people have, especially when they are given the opportunity to express themselves and placed in an environment of high expectations. We aren’t doing enough to foster divergent thinking, and it’s weird.

Update (completed about 20 minutes later): Speaking of creativity and the need for innovative solutions, I just read about this program: “Wash and Learn” stations student-teachers in laundromats in low-income neighborhoods to encourage young children to read or get homework help while their parents do laundry. (The student-teachers also gain one-on-one teaching experience, the parents get a little bit of quiet time, and the laundromat owner gains added value.) Also, this quote is just awesome:

For example, when Rodney Pearson, 6, walked in with a shy demeanor and a pair of drumsticks, Mrs. Smith asked him if he wanted to come over and read and he shook his head no. Then, as the boy was walking away slowly, she asked if he wanted to read about dinosaurs. He pivoted around and was soon sitting on a lap, lost in a tale of meat- and plant-eaters.

* I first heard of this exercise at a corps member-led CY session about rethinking public education, also how I learned of RSA Animate. (Watch this video of Sir Ken Robinson discussing new educational paradigms; it’s awesome.) Nick wanted to kick of the session by having all of us consider divergent thinking. Researchers did a longitudinal study, asking different groups to come up with all of the possible uses of a paper clip. Kindergarteners are able to come up with hundreds of uses, and as you move upward in age brackets, people come up with fewer and fewer responses. As Nick put it, highly divergent thinkers are less likely to restrict themselves by limiting the size of the paper clip — it can be a giant paper clip statue! I had my copy editing students (about 25 19- to 21-year-olds) start with this exercise last week, and the majority had fewer than 15, with only two who had more than 20. (It was earlyish on a Sunday, and they stopped trying after about 7 minutes.)

** Such as, for example, my student nonchalantly drawing on a textbook cover with a pen. (It’s hers, she had to buy it, so that makes it OK! I suggested that she resell it, but her dad donated last year’s books back to the tutoring academy … because he’s weird.) She was also manhandling a paperback against the edge of a table, until she realized I was cringing at her. (I just spent a few minutes trying to find that FoxTrot strip where Paige uses a paperback as a spitshield because her mother is raving about literature, and Andy stops, wipes her mouth and asks “Did you break the spine of that book?” That will be me, future children.

*** The childhood Christmas present I remember most clearly was a set of three books of lateral thinking puzzles.

**** He did also tell bedtime stories, for the record. There was an amazing one about an animal sneezing into an over-peppered bowl of noodles, which ends up as a wig on a hippopotamus — I guess you had to be there.

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3 responses

  1. That Wash and Learn program sounds sounds sooo cool! What else do you do while doing laundry -and- it doesn’t have that “oh you see a tutor” stigma.

    Also your story writing ordeal sounds exactly like me and my fifth graders where I simultaneously want to sit down and cry because of the education system/ect. or just throttle them.

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