Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Teaching Literature to Change Lives (Introduction)

Note: I presented this seminar on 3/26/08 at Kennesaw State University's Annual Conference on Literature for Children and Adolescents.)

Let’s start with the motivational question, since we’ve all got way too much on our plates already, without adding this “teach for life change” dimension.

Why shoot for life change in the classroom? (And when we speak of life change, aren’t we generally speaking of character change - from unmotivated learners to motivated learners, from slackers to sponges for wisdom, from self-absorbed to respectful and helpful?)

1. To help our students become more successful in school. It only stands to reason that if students feel safer in the classroom (that’s tolerance), feel like teachers and students care (that’s compassion), are improving at traits like diligence, promptness, love of learning, etc., they will tend to move from “D” students to “C”, “B” students to “A”, etc.

2. To help our students achieve a successful life. Isn’t that one of our ultimate goals in education? Professor Thomas Stanley studied successful business leaders, asking them to list, in order of importance, to what they attribute their success. (See his book, The Millionaire Mind.) Here are their top four responses:

Success Factors (Totals responding either "Important" or "Very Important")

#1 - Being well disciplined = 95%
#2 - Getting along with people = 94%
#3 - Being honest with all people = 90%
#4 - Working harder than most people = 88%

Having a high IQ/Superior Intellect: (Only 20% said “very important.” The typical millionaire interviewed had a “C” average.)

What do you notice about these factors? (They’re all character and life skills related.) And what does that tell us as educators? (If we want our students to be successful in life, we’d better try to instill or reinforce good character.)

Those findings were reinforced by Jim Collins’ study of successful companies in his book, Good to Great.

"The good-to-great companies placed greater weight on character attributes than on specific educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge, or work experience."

At a recent tech conference I attended on social networking on the Web, the keynote speaker mentioned recently hearing a speech by Guy Kawasaki, the early marketer of Apple’s McIntosh Computer, who eventually left Apple and now spends his days matching start-up companies with funding.

Kawasaki said that he’s noticed a great differentiator between those who come to him for funding. The ones who say “I’ve got an idea that will make a ton of money” seldom do well. But if they say, “I’ve got an idea that will help a lot of people,” they’ve got his ear. From his experience, that company is likely to make it. What he’s saying is that people who exhibit a certain character trait, the passion to give, end up doing better than the self-absorbed money-mongers.

Warren Buffet, the world’s greatest investor, arguably knows how to spot great companies better than anyone, since makes his billions by investing in them. Buffett once said,

"Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if they don't have the first, the other two will kill you.'' (From Omaha World Herald, February 1, 1994)

So, to help students achieve success in life, we’d better help shape their character.

3. To help change society. Do you remember the infamous unabomber, who methodically killed three people and injured 23 by mailing explosives? When we discovered that he was a brilliant Mathematician, a Harvard grad and former professor at Berkeley, we realized that stellar grades in the three “R’s” don’t necessarily produce a good person. In fact, if we sow only academics we may reap smarter criminals, like the leaders at Enron, who were described as “The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

4. To produce motivated, lifelong learners. This is especially important in the information age.

“In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” (Al Rogers, Global Schoolhouse Network)

This week, I’m learning Cascading Style Sheets for a redesign of the character site. Either I pay $200 for my designer to do it, and have to keep paying her in the future for that task, or I pay her a $100 one-time fee to teach me how to do it.

5. To produce thinkers and innovators rather than just memorizers. I recall speaking to a college professor who worked with graduate students from other countries. Some of these students were products of educational systems that we all admire for their stellar test scores. But they were taught primarily by rote memory. As a result, the professor said that he’d give the background of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and ask, “Do you think this was the right thing to do?” The students seemed incapable of thinking through the issue, responding, “Tell us the answer and we’ll memorize it.”

6. To make teaching more fun and fulfilling. It’s one thing to come home from school saying, “Cool: Heather finally learned the Pythagorean Theorum!” It’s quite another to come home saying, “Today, I think I just might have changed Heather’s life.”

One day, my son came home after school and said, “a girl came up to me today and said, ‘Something your dad said today changed my life.’” How do you think I felt? Once I caught fire for changing lives, I could never again be content to merely pass on knowledge. I don’t want to just teach subjects; I want to leave a legacy.

I was speaking in Holland at a seminar on the arts. A British Playwright, a graduate of Oxford, spoke of the impact of a play he’d written about a man deserting his wife for another woman and the chaos it created. A fellow playwright told him, after seeing it performed, that he was inspired to go home and work on his relationship with his wife.

The playwright was thrilled! He didn’t just want to write a popular play. He wanted to change lives.

So let’s spend the rest of our time together sharing ways to make this happen.

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