‘Teaching with Heart’

Teaching with Heart, a collection of student poems introduced by teachers, is inspiring, writes John Merrow.

He especially likes Alexis Rotella’s Purple:

In first grade Mrs. Lohr
said my purple teepee
wasn’t realistic enough,
that purple was no color
for a tent,
that purple was a color
for people who died,
that my drawing wasn’t
good enough
to hang with the others.

. . . In second grade Mr. Barta
said draw anything;
he didn’t care what.
I left my paper blank
and when he came around
to my desk
my heart beat like a tom tom.
He touched my head
with his big hand
and in a soft voice said
the snowfall
how clean
and white
and beautiful.

Teaching with Heart

Leatha Fields-Carey, a high school English teacher in Smithfield, North Carolina wrote about the poem: “I first ran across this poem when my enthusiasm for teaching was waning.”

It reminded her “that the most important part of what we do is building and healing human beings, one at a time.”

“So many times students come to us wounded—by parents, by former teachers, by peers, by the system, by life,” she writes.  

After reading the poem, she placed a sign on her desk: “See the snowfall.”

From near-death to Silicon Valley CEO

As a 22-year-old Marine in 1984, Ramona Pierson was hit by a drunken driver while running. Her body shattered, she spent 18 months in a drug-induced coma. When she woke up, she couldn’t walk, talk or see. Without any family, she was shuttled through VA hospitals, then sent to a senior citizens’ home in Colorado.

Pierson is now a Silicon Valley CEO, reports the San Jose Mercury News. She sold her first startup, an educational software company called SynapticMash, for $10 million. Investors have put more than $5 million into her new company, Declara.

Pierson’s comeback started at the retirement home, where the seniors helped her learn to speak and walk. It took three years. Still blind — after 11 years, a corneal transplant restored her sight — Pierson enrolled at Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely. She went on to earn a doctorate in neuro-clinical psychology.

Declara’s “radical collaboration” engine uses a “very powerful cognitive map” to help teachers connect with other educators trying to solve similar classroom problems.

Designed initially as a tool to connect educators to information and analysis about how people learn, the software was shaped by Pierson to mimic her own experience, particularly her years in the old folks home. “I think that helped me see these elders as experts,” she says, “and that’s where the radical collaboration came from.”

The technology is in wide use in South America and Australia. Pierson hopes to expand in the U.S.

Learning whimsy instead of writing

When Katharine Beals’ son was in high school, his writing textbook was all about creativity, she writes in Out In Left Field. Learning to write apparently didn’t require practice constructing sentences or paragraphs.

These days, many believe “creativity means suppressing the logical, analytical left brain, and, thereby, unleashing those novel, right-brain-driven associations between prompts and ideas,” Beals writes.

What people forget, however, is that this is only one step in the creative process. Nor is it even the first step. That flash of insight, as it turns out, has preconditions. (Researcher John) Kounios’ studies of the split seconds leading up to creative insight show a momentary reduction in the brain’s flow of visual information, which allows the brain to turn inwards and notice those (initially weak) associations, which, in turn, allows certain ones of these associations to pop into consciousness as sudden bursts of insight.

“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Kounios quotes Louis Pasteur as saying.

Centuries before neuroscience, the philosopher John Locke distinguished between wit and judgment, she writes. “Wit allows you to think up wild new ideas, but judgment tells you which ideas are actually worth keeping.”

These days a better word for “wit” might be “whimsy,” Beals writes. Too often our approach to writing and other creative arts “mistakes whimsy for creativity.”

Most creative geniuses “work ferociously hard,” according to Temple Psychology Professor Robert W. Weisberg. “You have to immerse yourself in a discipline before you create in that discipline,” he says.

To learn writing — creative or otherwise — students need less whimsy and more revision, Beals argues. Teachers should focus less on “inspiring prompts,” and “more on the art of sentence and paragraph construction, sentence and paragraph rearrangement, and revision, revision, revision.”

“Schools talk a lot about learning styles but refuse to acknowledge that some kids don’t find artsy projects fun and would rather write a proper report,” notes Mom of 4 in the comments.

Auntie Ann’s son “was graded down because he really, really wanted a project to be in black and white and the teacher insisted he had to color it. Very little of the grade ends up being actually learning or content based.”

If I Were a Black Kid…

Despite being kicked out of high school for assaulting a teacher, Ta-Nehisi Coates is asked often to speak to predominantly black schools, he writes in If I Were a Black Kid…  in The Atlantic. Teachers, including his mother, hope he’ll be able to inspire their students.

What I generally try to do is avoid messages about “hard work” and “homework,” not because I think those things are unimportant, but because I think they put the cart before the horse. The two words I try to use with them are “excitement” and “entrepreneurial.” I try to get them to think of education not as something that pleases their teachers, but as a ticket out into a world so grand and stunning that it defies their imagination.

Black kids often are told to pursue education so they won’t get shot or go to prison, Coates writes. That’s not enough, he thinks. They need to know that “every subject they study has the potential to open up a universe.”

A senior editor at The Atlantic, Coates is the author of The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood.

Teaching physics — and the power of love

As a physics teacher at a Kentucky high school, Jeffrey Wright is known for exploding pumpkins and lying under a nailed board as students use a sledgehammer to break cinderblocks above him. Most of all, he’s known for his annual lecture on raising a severely disabled son who taught him “the meaning of life, love and family,” reports a New York Times blog.

A former student of Wright’s at Louisville Male Traditional High School in Kentucky (it’s been coed for nearly 60 years) made an award-winning video, Wright’s Law.

“When you start talking about physics, you start to wonder, ‘What is the purpose of it all?’ ” he said in an interview. “Kids started coming to me and asking me those ultimate questions. I wanted them to look at their life in a little different way — as opposed to just through the laws of physics — and give themselves more purpose in life.”

One day, Wright realized his son could see, play and think, he tells students. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”

In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “. . . “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”

“Love,” his students whisper.

Students are looking for purpose, “the purpose in your heart,” to answer the question, “who cares?” Wright believes.

He hopes to inspire students to pursue careers in science and genetic research. “We might be able to come up with something we can use to help Adam out one day.”

‘Wock and woll’

Inspiration: