Awe Inspiring…Inspiring Awe

Awe Inspiring…Inspiring Awe

One of the most useful teaching techniques I have found is using awe to inspire learning. What is awe? This word is both a verb and a noun, according to the Oxford online dictionary:

NOUN
  1. a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder:

    “they gazed in awe at the small mountain of diamonds” ·

    [more]

    synonyms: wonder · wonderment · admiration · reverence · respect ·

    [more]
VERB
  1.  inspire with awe:
    “they were both awed by the vastness of the forest”

    synonyms: filled with wonder · wonderstruck · awestruck · amazed ·

    [more]

    It is interesting to note that both of these examples from the dictionary cite our natural world! There is so much from which we can be inspired existing in nature!

I believe my interest, and initially accidental, use of awe in my teaching came from raising monarch butterflies and sharing the miracle of their metamorphosis with first my family and then my garden club students, and other community members.

Once I saw how engaging and motivating awe could be to students’ willingness to learn, I purposely sought topics that contained some element of awe. For example, did you know that the famous carnivorous plant called the Venus Fly Trap is the ONLY species of kind? And the only place it grows indigenously is the sandy, bog-like soils of the Carolina coasts in the United States? You might not realize that because, in this day of global trade, fast shipping, and unfortunate poaching, you can buy a Venus Fly Trap in any number of places…..especially at Wal-Mart in August! Of course the geographic habitat of this plant is not the only thing that is interesting. The Venus Fly Trap has evolved to trap insects to make up for growing in those poor, quickly drained soils! It is amazing!

Another example that always intrigues my students is the fact that we have a cactus that grows outdoors in Wisconsin! It is a variety of the Prickly Pear Cactus. When we talked about cacti and succulents during the garden club unit on this topic, once again, habitat was discussed, as it should be. But, who could guess that after finding out about the environmental needs of cacti, we would find one growing on the prairie or in someone’s yard, here in Wisconsin?! I further inspire awe and imbue excitement in the students by explaining that I have seen this cactus grow in many places during my travels…..Bermuda, California, New York State, and others….few of which possess desert-like conditions. After all, I don’t think you can say the side of the highway between Carlsbad and San Diego, California is a desert!

There are many, many other examples. Others have noticed the effect awe has on a human’s curiosity. You can read more about it in this article by Jake Abrahamson in the Sierra Club Magazine from December 2014, The Science of Awe.

It turns out that not only does awe inspire curiosity, it is also healthy for us to feel it! As a parent, many of us aspire to letting our children know that we are all part of a bigger picture, that the world is not only about us. What better way to convey that than through providing some awe-filled experiences? And the best part is, many of these type of experiences do not cost a thing! They are free!

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Gaze at the stars on a summer night – get out of  town and city lights for the best viewing.
  • Watch a monarch caterpillar form its chrysalis.
  • Watch a monarch butterfly emerge from the chrysalis.
  • Find out about rare and endangered species in your area, make an effort to learn about them and see them, if possible.
  • Visit a big city with little kids and look up at the tall buildings! Humans designed and constructed these structures.
  • Watch a baby being born. (Maybe, starting with an animal baby would be best!)
  • Stand on a mountaintop and take in the view.
  • Ride a bike down a volcano (Yes! This is possible! We did this in 2015 on Mt. Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii.
  • Find out how corn kernels are formed – amazing! You’d never guess all that corn silk had a purpose!
  • Grow a flower bulb without dirt!
  • Watch tadpoles turn into frogs.
  • Watch a chick hatch from an egg.
  • Marvel at the colors in a sunrise or sunset.
  • Watch an eclipse (with protective eye-wear, of course).

There are so many things that can inspire awe. What awe filled experiences have you had, personally? Have you ever used awe-inspriation in your teaching? I hope you consider adding some awe to your teaching or parenting style. I have found it not only useful, but extremely satisfying for both me and the children.

Humiliation? Never.

Humiliation? Never.

Recently, my social media feed offered a repost of an edutopia blog article I had read last year. It is one of those articles worthy of re-reading, re-posting, and re-sharing. Previously, I had shared the article with an administrator in our school district.  The reason being is that we experienced some long-lasting effects of student humiliation.  A humiliating incident in a math class last year, early in the semester, in which a teacher called my son “stupid” in front of his peers basically caused him to “shut down”.  Consequently, he did not get much out of the class he was taking, had no interest in going to this very sarcastic teacher for help, and resulted in a year-long bout of lowered self-confidence, periodic anger, and self-doubt.

Last month, I thought we were “over the hurdle” as it had been almost a year since the incident and my son seemed to be “holding his own” in his subsequent, but now current, math class. However, after having to speak to the guidance counselor about changing  an elective, the past experience with this teacher was broached again, bringing about more tears, and a renewed sense of anxiety.  I think my son was thinking, “will they ever remember me for anything other than what happened last year?” Well, the  answer to that is they have and they will, as some other very nice opportunities have been sent his way by the same guidance office. In addition, the teacher he has for this year’s class in the same subject area projects a much different attitude, has gotten to know my son, and has taken steps to individualize his instruction. It appears he is a conceptual learner and approaches new information from a big picture vantage point, rather than spiraling up with details to understand the concept in the way most students learn. It is unusual, but can be worked with by a compassionate, knowledgeable educator.

So, why do I write about this today? There are several reasons. First, it needs to be said that as parents, we are very supportive of our childrens’ education. Academics come first in our house and our boys know that. However, with that said, we also believe that our teachers must get to know their students.  This was one of the most grevous errors leading to the experience of last year. Assumptions about our student were made. They were incorrect. This particular teacher taught one way, in a manner that was not conducive to our son’s learning style. However, instead of finding ways that might help him, she used sarcasm and humiliation. This was not acceptable. I do believe she might have been willing to help him by reinforcing what she had gone over in class, but would have not done so by using a different demeanor or by approaching him without sarcasm.  He was unwilling to approach her for help because of the way he had been treated in class – with humiliation.  It is due to the inappropriate use of humiliation in the classroom that I write about this subject today.

Finally, I will leave you with a few thoughts to consider as you teach.

  1. Do not humiliate your students, for any reason.
  2. Use a variety of teaching models/styles in your presentation of material.
  3. Connect with your students. Get to know them.
  4. Think about whether your teaching style is meeting the learning styles of your students. Work to reach as many students as you can using various models.
  5. As a parent, speak up if you find something does not seem right, using the chain of command, if at all possible.
  6. Do not be afraid to remove your student from a situation in which he/she is not learning, if you feel that would be best. We did not do this, as my son did not want to be removed from this class. In hind sight, we should have, as we have seen that he did not absorb much because he could not get past his feelings toward this teacher and her classroom style. However, our district policies state the a student will receive an “F” if the class is dropped after the first two days of the term. This was also a consideration in our decision.
  7. Work to change district policy to enable fair and reasonable choices for students, not only teachers, regarding course changes.

Thanks for the opportunity to share blog posts on Slice of Life Tuesday: TwoWritingTeachers!

Grades: Do they measure learning?

Grades: Do they measure learning?

via Daily Prompt: Measure

Having students who work hard and do well in school, I always bought into the premise that grades measure learning. With years of experience in education, and the advent of digital grading systems, where every little grade book entry can be seen 24/7, now I am not so sure.

Lately, I have given much thought on how we measure growth in our students. In an earlier post, I described how our school district went to an 80/20 summative/formative grading system this fall. Each teacher had to enter grades in the digital grade book in one of these two categories, with these weights. As the year has progressed, I have noticed that many of the teachers have taken to using the “multiplier” next to the grade value to change its weight. Wow! This makes it really confusing! It also led me to wonder if the students realize some assignments are being given different weights. From what I saw in a couple of classes last term, there is a lot of play here. Some teachers are not changing the weight at all – with everything being weighted with a multiplier of 1.0 for 80% or 20% depending on whether it is a summative or formative assessment. Some, like one class my freshman is taking, had weights in the summative varying from 1.0 to 2.67! What? 2.67? Why use those numbers to measure the worth of an assignment? It seems subjective and highly variable.

Maybe all the play in the variability of grading has always been there, but with the advent of digital grading, it is there for all to see and examine on a daily basis. It has had the undesired effect of making me mis-trust and question the system. When a measure of learning is decided upon, I do not think it should be “played with”, at least not mid-school year, as is what is occurring with the multipliers. Are we really measuring student learning or something else? Are you getting the impression I am not a fan of digital grade books? You are right! I am not.

Then, there are the mis-entries. Why are there so many mistakes with the digital grading systems? At least 3-4 times a term, or half-semester, my boys have an anxiety provoking experience upon seeing a grade wrongly entered on their infinite campus gradebook page. Just last week, my freshman went to school to find out if he really got 54/80 (67%) on an exam last week or it if was an error. By mid-morning it was corrected to his reveal his actual grade of 78.5/80 or 98.1 percent. Relief! I could almost hear and feel his emotional response from him at school, 2 miles down the road!

He had been doing well all semester so it seemed like the grade we saw the day before was an error. When questioned, he expressed surprise, having thought he did well on the assessment. It was just a mistake. That’s all. Easily corrected with the touch of a few buttons on a keyboard. And, I agree that students can learn from mistakes, even grading mistakes.

But, here’s the thing. While I know teachers are human and make mistakes just like everyone else, these mistakes seem more and more common. It makes me wonder how much thought or examination is put into entering the grades. Wasn’t it suspicious that a student doing well should all of a sudden have such a poor grade? I think that might have been looked at and seen better using an old-fashioned book and pencil entry system.

These thoughts are just the tip of the iceberg in my head forming over grading policies, change in policies, how we teach, and how we measure student learning. There will be more to come. Stay tuned.

Inspired by the Daily Prompt: Measure