Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Off the Beaten Path

From: bangalore.citizenmatters.in
When faced with choices to make or dilemmas on which way to go, or career options to follow,  or even how to proceed or achieve a particular goal in my life, Robert Frost's The Path Not Taken inevitably comes to mind (usually with a smile) as it conjures such nice memories for me - both personal and professional.

The Road Not Taken  (1916)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
As a teacher, I LOVE teaching this poem because it embodies decision making and critical thinking, particularly because of the challenge Frost gives us in his comment about the poem:
"It's a tricky poem - very tricky."
I will leave what is tricky for you to decide (and can add it in the comments - let me know).  What I want to discuss is how to encourage occasional departures from the mainstream and the consideration of "paths less trodden"  because as Frost notes, it can make "all the difference." And, teaching our kids to take these weighted risks CAN make all the difference for them - be it in school, with friends, or later in life when faced with even more complicated choices.

The trick is raising kids to critically evaluate choices, especially the less obvious ones, and to feel comfortable taking the occasional calculated risks. Being open to options is important for many reasons:
  • It helps us lose the negative effect of labels - the closer we look at other people, placed, things, and other options, the less meaning the superficial labels have.
  • Considering paths 'off the beaten track' trains a more flexible mind.
  • By looking for diverse options we can navigate less congested paths to similar outcomes - be they physical destinations, or professional goals.
I see so many applications here for this:
  • Daily life - in clothing choices, leisure choices, choices in friends, etc.
  • Travel - can be SO interesting and informative when you visit places off the beaten path.  I have found gems doing this - no lines, no wait, super food, super products, or super cool interesting people.  Try it!
  • School projects - diverging from the obvious makes learning for everyone (student, teacher, classmates) more interesting and meaningful.  Sometimes that means brainstorming and creating projects, book reviews, writing assignments that are different or relate a more obscure topic. Go online and have fun researching, planning, and constructing unusual topics.
  • School choices - This might mean different schooling options (i.e. changing schools or homeschooling, or attending specialty schools instead of a liberal arts college).  In one of the schools I worked at there was a really popular third grade teacher who'd been teaching there 30 years- all the parents knew of her and wanted their child to be in her class. But the thing is, her projects and curriculum were old and stale.  The newer third grade teacher had exciting options in his lessons that for many proved the better class.
  • College - You may want to rethink HOW you're applying to college (i.e., essay topic selection or writing / presentation style), WHAT colleges to focus on, or IF college is even the best choice. For some of us, college means loans - loans often greater than the value of our homes.  Is it worth it?  (Go to the following website: http://www.collegedropoutshalloffame.com/h.htm for a fascinating list of famous achievers who never attended or did not finish college.)
NOTE I am NOT encouraging kids to drop out of school or not go to college.  I went to college and graduate school, got A LOT out of them, and I am happy that my kids went to college as well.  My two who finished (my last is still in school) learned a great deal in college and were lucky to find jobs in fields of their choice. I do, however, think too many of us feel an unnecessary need to go to college. In fact, research now shows that many college grads do not gain greater knowledge (although they may gain greater networking ability).  My point is to think and explore less-trodden options to achieve long and short-term goals.]

How to facilitate the discovery of options that are off the beaten track:
  • Begin early. As toddlers, my kids only wanted us to read their favorite book, and one only wanted to wear green for a while, another always wanted to wear the cap of her 'Flash' pajamas because she would run around the house 'racing' time.  Encouraging different choices even in the clothes they wear or the books you read is a nice start.  [Granted rereading books is actually a good thing as kids learn to anticipate and 'read' familiar words and rhymes, but that is fodder for another post, and diversity is important as well.]
  • Talk, read, listen, smell, attend to new and different things all around you.  Make it a point to do this with really new things every so often.  When shopping try a new fruit, read a new book, check out new exhibits and museums, etc. Go hunting for books with unusual covers or the word "slime" in the title, for example.  In short, explore the 'uncharted'.
  • Model by doing unusual things, visiting unusual places, driving to familiar places using different routes.
  • When going on vacations select one or two visits that are off the beaten path, or simply walk with no guide around a new city or neighborhood.
  • Go online, go to the library - search books, magazines, and newspapers for alternative ideas. Read different genres and formats of stories.
  • Talk about how fictional and real-life figures might approach an unusual topic or problem.  Be creative in the figures and topics you decide to discuss.  Have FUN with this.  Laugh, be creative, be extreme.  In the process you may uncover some pretty cool approaches. Below is YouTube video marrying Mr. Bean with hiphop. It's fun.  Come up with your own wild combinations together.
  • Talk with people about anything/everything.  You'd be surprised what type of ideas an unexpected conversation might yield.
  • Look at trends new and old.  Compare and contrast what did and didn't work.  See if one trend or part of a trend can be applied to something different (or tangential).
  • Brainstorm options (for large and small decisions) and really encourage kids to take alternative approaches.

How do you do this and encourage this for yourself or with your kids?  Let us know in the comments.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Nature of Nerds and Neutralizing the Bullying

I'm a nerd, my husband is a nerd, and our kids our nerds.  We have lovingly joked about it with our kids for some time - even through middle and high school, when it was a bit painful.  The humor and love seemed to help us relieve the pain and create a more cohesive unit.

A few weeks ago our family 'nerd-hood' was relived when my daughter's friend, Daniel, gave me an essay by Paul Graham, "Why Nerds are Unpopular"  (http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html) which started me thinking.

Two weeks ago (http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/10/labels.html), inspired by Graham's essay, I addressed the effects of labeling in and out of school and in adult life.  Today I return to discuss the essay more directly.  It is a powerful, provocative essay I strongly recommend you read. In it, Graham ruminates why nerds are nerds, and why they are so often persecuted by their peers.

The Nature of "NERD":

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nerd):
The stereotypical nerd is intellectual but socially and physically awkward...Stereotypical nerd qualities have evolved in recent years, going from awkwardness and social ostracism to an allegedly more widespread acceptance and sometimes even celebration...
Why Nerds are Unpopular - Graham sites several reasons for this:
"One argument...the smart kids are unpopular because the other kids envy them for being smart...[But] in the schools I went to, being smart just didn't matter much...Intelligence counted far less than, say, physical appearance, charisma, or athletic ability."

"Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular...but they want even more to be smart.  [But] popularity is not something you can do in your spare time... it takes work to be popular.

"The main reason nerds are unpopular is that they have other things to think about...books or the natural world, not fashions and parties... Few smart kids can spare the attention that popularity requires....
    Graham then takes this issue and looks at it from a socio-anthropological lens:
    "Around the age of eleven...[parents and family take a back seat] kids create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters... Kids persecute nerds to make themselves feel better...People unsure of their own positions will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below...
    "But ...Popularity is only partially about individual attractiveness.  It's much more about alliances...By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids...create a bond between themselves.
    From: facebook.com
    What We Can Do To Help:

    This is where Graham's essay becomes really interesting.  He blames schools for often turning a blind eye to abuses, and for creating vacuums of empty time and work - all of which leave kids to their own devices - in search of meaning and identity.  He notes that,
    "Bullying was only part of the problem...we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity.  And all the work we did was pointless [his emphasis], or seemed so at the time... More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability... And there was no way to opt out.  The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college..."
    He then continues by comparing teens today to teens in the Middle Ages.  There was no high school or college - just apprentices. They were not left relatively unsupervised to create their own societies - they were junior members to adult activities and societies.
    "Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn...Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers...[And] the real problem is the emptiness of school life.
    The truth, anger, and sadness in these words were quite moving for me and I think we need to take Graham's words further.  For many kids there's often an emptiness in family life as well.  We as adults often have so many hoops to jump through that as our kids become teenagers, we are there less for them.  We are working two jobs, we're busy networking on our electronic devices, we can't find a common time to eat dinner and talk together, and we as parents often rationalize that our tweens and teens are fine on their own.  And maybe we are, but the family unit is fragile and even though our teens need to become independent, they also need a family unity solidly with behind them, continuing to shape boundaries, rules, and identities. 

    Potential Solutions: 
    From: photobucket.com
    • Help all kids comfortably define who they are - what their strengths, weaknesses, and passions are, and what their pursuits might be.  We have to accept their gifts and embrace their differences, and help kids think out of the box.  Maybe we have to remove the box entirely.  [That is what many are doing with homeschooling - quite successfully.]
    • Set aside family time - even though they need independence, they need the structure of family time and family rules.  Eat meals together as often as possible, but at least once or twice a week with no television, no phones, and no outside distractions.  Talk, laugh, support each other.
    • Create opportunities and diverse environments in and out of school with larger masses, where even the smallest minorities can achieve a critical mass.
    • Help bullied kids find and create 'safer' communities in and out of school.
    • Model tolerance, acceptance, and self worth. 
    • Help schools become safer havens for our kids - maybe creating parent monitors walking outside the school at arrival and dismissal times; make sure there are teacher monitors during lunch and recess.
    • Teachers need to make learning more fun and meaningful.  Reading texts and teacher generated lectures must be balanced with group and individual projects, and multi-sensory, multi-media presentations.  Many teachers ARE doing this already.  They are bringing graphic novels into their reading lists, generating meaningful project units that integrate leadership and social skills with learning about our past and present world.  They are relating subject matter directly to their students lives, and are even having kids act out events in tableaus or tableaus vivant ("living pictures") where kids mime events by acting in 'frozen scenes' of history. 
    • Help kids, teens in particular, find meaningful things to work on - in and out of school - be it through community service or meaningful, possibly community related school projects:
      • Visit sick in hospitals - create songs to sing or scripts to perform (can be school project where the songs and scripts are related to a particular subject unit)
      • Volunteer in community food shelters - or have the school offer (occasional) healthy, cost effective menus (through math, social studies and science projects)
      • Organize charity drives
      • Create and/or clean up parks and playgrounds
      • Have the school / class visit with a responsible city official - talk about critical issues facing kids in the city - brainstorm as a class and create community relief projects.
    The point is to add meaning in and out of the classroom, to create large diverse communities in and out of school; help all kids find their voices, their identities, and their intrinsic value. Help kids realize that they're not losers - point to Steven Jobs,  Bill Gates, President Obama and other major players and contributors to our society who were (and still are) nerds.  And enjoy Pop Culture's answer to nerds with Revenge of the Nerds, Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Peter Parker and Spider Man.

    And most of all, reassure them...It does work out.

    And, for some lighter fun... check out:  How nerdy are you?  at:

    As Graham puts it in his essay:
    "Nerds aren't losers.  They're just playing a different game, and a game much closer to the one played in the real world.  Adults know this.  It's hard to find successful adults now who don't claim to have been nerds in high school....It's important for nerds to realize, too, that school is not life.  School is a strange, artificial thing, half sterile and half feral.  It's all-encompassing, like life, but it isn't the real thing.  It's only temporary, and if you look, you can see beyond it even while you're still in it."

    Tuesday, October 11, 2011

    Making Memory Work...Mnemonics

    When discussing memory, there are three types of memory psychologists look at:
    1. Active-working memory is where our brains  hold information while we work things out.  Active working memory allows us to stream information as we decide whether we want to work with it immediately (to compare or contrast, to decode or encode, for example), whether we need more 'work space' and send it to short-term memory, or whether we want to ignore it.
    2. Short-term memory is where we take incoming information (from active-working memory and /or from long-term memory) to actively manipulate chunks of data.  It is our memory's work table.  This is where we evaluate, compare, contrast, brainstorm, critique, create.  Short term memory, however, has a limited capacity.  Research has shown that on average we can hold 7 (plus or minus 2) bits of 'data' in our short-term memory.  So IF there is more information than we can comfortably handle, we need tricks and means to effectively work and remember.  Tricks include chunking, rehearsing, and mnemonics.  IF the product of our effort is deemed 'valuable' it will be stored for longer periods (often with some more help from chunking or rehearsing) in our long-term memory.
    3. Long -term memory is our brain's file cabinet.  This is where we store information for long periods of time (such as important dates  important facts we have to learn in school, important telephone numbers, procedures we must follow, where we put our keys last night when entering our homes). Long-term memory can store relatively large quantities of information for a potentially long time (for many we hope a life-time).
    This past April, I posted a blog (http://departingthetext.blogspot.com/2011/04/memory-what-memory.html) that illuminated how much a school day demands of memory and gave some (hopefully) helpful hints on how to help kids boost memory through:
    • Repetition and Rehearsal
    • Visualization
    • Rhyming
    • Building Associations

    Today I want to focus on mnemonic devices we can use to help us chunk and store information.

    From: facebook.com
    Mnemonic devices refer to rhymes, images, and chunks of data that we 'creatively' put together to help us expand and sharpen our short and long term memory capacities.  There are two basic issues in setting up mnemonics.  They have to be meaningful and 'chatchy' enough for you to remember them! Furthermore, what works for some people does not work for others.   It gets back to what is meaningful and catchy to you.  As a result, there are tons of rhymes, images and songs for the taking!

    Speaking personally, the long verbal chains and sentences were not much of a help to me, because I could not remember the sentences - especially if they didn't make sense.  Everyone is different and part of the trick with mnemonics is finding what works best for you.  Sometimes it helps singing songs others have created, and sometimes it means creating your own.  You and your kids should experiment!   I have included some of the more popoular/traditional mnemonics below, but would love to hear what your favorite mnemonics have been in the comments (why constantly have to re-invent the wheel).

    Here's what I've collected:
    Verbally Based Mnemonics:  Many mnemonic devices are verbal and involve short poems, acronyms (a word or phrase with the first letter of things we are remembering) or songs to remember lists of related things:
    • "30 days has September, April, June and November; all the rest have 31 except for February"
    • Acronym: "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain"  or...ROY G. BIV (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet)  = the colors of spectrum
    • Acronym for the Great Lakes:  HOMES (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior)
    • Acronym for the nine planets (when you include Pluto): "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pancakes" or "My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines" (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto). Here's what Stephen Colbert does to remember the planets (although he does have a Pluto dilemma):
    • To read music:

    Visual Mnemonics:
    • Color codes (many of our internet boxes and TV's for example have color coded nodes to help us 'connect').
    • Charts, graphs, and diagrams;
    • Using your knuckles and the dips between them to remember which days of the month have 30 or 31 days:
    • The ABC song
    • Pinky and the Brain with parts of the brain
    • Animaniacs with the US Presidents (they also have one for countries of the world but the links I found were poor quality).
    There are so many mnemonic devices I cannot possibly list them all.  I'm hoping you'll help.  Please list your favorites in the comments and hopefully this can serve as a resource to us all ---old and young, who need the occasional memory boost!  In the meantime, here is one of my kids' favorite mnemonic songs from Pinky and the Brain, for remembering parts of the brain:

    Thanks for your visit... and...Don't forget to leave your favorites in your comments!

    Monday, October 3, 2011


    Labels have their use.  They help us store and sort information.  Be they clothing labels or social labels, they help all of us in our fast-paced lives quickly sort through data and make "order" out options, possibilities, and stimuli that are constantly bombarding us.

    They also have their limits. The problem is that labels also limit our horizons and skew expectations.  They empower groups to make 'justified' decisions with little research or thought, they empower groups to often feel better about themselves.  They limit growth or even exposure to growth options and possibilities, and they often hurt kids, teens in particular, who are struggling with 'identity' and critical thought.

    This past weekend, my daughter's friend Daniel forwarded an article to me (about teenagers and nerds in particular) by Paul Graham he though I might like (and I did). I found it provocative, sad, and a MUST READ for parents and educators:  http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

    Paul Graham is a programmer (he designed List, co-founded Viaweb, invented Bayesian span filters), a venture capitalist, essayist, author, and painter. One of the things that was so powerful in his essay was the pain he relays the "nerds...retards...and freaks" felt through middle and high school.  His article "WHY NERDS ARE UNPOPULAR" was written December 2005, and while just short of six years old, still rings true.

    Graham's essay focuses on the harsh brutality of the teen years of middle and high school: the cruel cliques, use of labels, the abuse of one group upon another, and his perception of the cause and effect these labels and groups have.  He also discusses the nature of 'nerdhood' (which I will discuss in two more weeks - for the letter "N").

    In this post I focus on the nature of the labels. 

    Labeling Theory and Why are our kids "LABELING" others:
    From: clickformula.com

    Emile Durkheim (visit http://www,emile-durkheim.com for more) suggested that labeling satisfies society's need to control behavior.

    Our kids label because we as adults label others.  We label ethnic groups, religious groups and political groups all the time.  Granted one might ask, are we doing this as adults because we learned it as kids?  This is a 'which came first the chicken or the egg' question and not of great consequence here (in my humble opinion).  The fact is WE label and our kids see this.  And, as I pointed out, we label to help sort and/or to control. 

    Graham posits other reasons. 

    He begins by noting that labeling is a way of making sense and creating their 'teen' world - separate from a kid's world and separate from the adult world:
    Around the age of eleven, though, kids seem to start treating their family as a day job. They create a new world among themselves, and standing in this world is what matters...

    The problem is, the world these kids create for themselves is at first a very crude one. If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn't get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.
    He then notes that once labels are given, a hierarchy is developed to 'help bolster' self-esteem and 'assure the vitality' of the group:
    Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better. When you tread water, you lift yourself up by pushing water down. Likewise, in any social hierarchy, people unsure of their own position will try to emphasize it by maltreating those they think rank below.
    Like a politician who wants to distract voters from bad times at home, you can create an enemy if there isn't a real one. By singling out and persecuting a nerd, a group of kids from higher in the hierarchy create bonds between themselves. Attacking an outsider makes them all insiders. This is why the worst cases of bullying happen with groups. Ask any nerd: you get much worse treatment from a group of kids than from any individual bully, however sadistic.

    Graham paints a particularly disturbing picture, and one that, unfortunately is accurate in many schools.  He goes so far as to say that,

    Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.
    In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn't want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.

    Graham hints at a solution, however:
    Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.
    I have been a strong proponent of mandatory community service between high school and college - but maybe I got it wrong.  Maybe we need to create meaningful communities, opportunities, and activities for our teens - as individuals and in mixed groups as early as middle school.

    The road to salvation - as I see it:
    • This was written in 2005 and I do think schools and adults have become more sensitive to labeling and bullying - in school.  WE still need, however, to be more sensitive in how we use labeling in our lives, in front of our kids, on our televisions, in our movies, in literature and the media. I am not sure the media will comply - but this may be a wonderful discussion point to bring up.
    • Discuss reasons for labeling and consequences of labeling with your kids.
    • When labeling, make sure it is not derogatory.  Make sure it is not a 'judgement' label. Make sure it is not done through a need to control or feel superior.
    • While "Zero Tolearnce" programs are problematic at best, their intent is not.  We should not tolerate bullying or name calling. 
    • When you notice yourself or your child labeling, or you notice labeling in the media or books you read - talk about it.
    • Schools should foster a strong sense of "community" outside of school teams and athletics.  This has to be done in and out of the classrooms:
      • There should be community charity drives
      • Community service through the schools - visits to hospitals (reading, recitals, etc.), retirement homes, food kitchens,  animal shelters - to name a few.  Each grade or each class should have its own project.  This builds community on many levels and everyone benefits.
    • Classroom work should be inclusive.  
      • Classroom discussions should be 'safe' for everyone to participate in;
      • Group work should not be student picked - in cliques and groups, but should be teacher generated - mixing up different strengths, preferences and opinions in each group.

    From: cartoonstock.com
    Labeling DOES have its benefits, but we all have to aware of how and when we label others.  Labeling DOES help us sort through a world chock-full of information, but it can limit and restrict horizons as well.  What do you think?  I'd love to know.