Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Change Agent #9: Keep learning about teaching to change lives.

Recommended books:

Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility, by Thomas Lickona (Bantam Books, New York: 1991).

Character Matters: How to Help Our Children Develop Good Judgment, Integrity, and Other Essential Virtues, by Thomas Lickona (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2004).

Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Instruction to Life, by Kevin Ryan & Karen E. Bohlin ( Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 1999).

Also see our collection of articles at and share your ideas and ask questions on our new forum.

The Character Education Partnership has a blog that many people contribute to. Join the discussion at and click on “Join the Discussion on Performance Values” on the left column.


Everyone can be a life-changer. Here’s an example that I wrote for an inner city group:

Who Could Tame George Foreman?
(Or, Security Guards, Hippies, Lunch Room Ladies and Other Life-Changers)

Younger people may know his name from advertisements for the George FOREMAN Grill. Older folks remember him as one of the greatest boxers of all time. In his remarkable lifetime record, he fought 81 times, winning 76 times, 68 of them by a knock out. (1)

At age 19, he fought his way to an Olympic gold medal. In his early 20's, he defeated the seemingly invincible Joe Frazier, knocking him down six times in four rounds to become the heavyweight champion of the world. In his first fight to defend his title, he knocked out his opponent in under a minute, the fastest-ever knockout for a heavyweight championship bout.

Later in life, he needed to raise money for his youth center and decided to show everyone that middle-aged men weren't over the hill. Few believed that he could fight seriously against younger fighters, but he stunned the world by winning fight after fight and finally knocking out the reigning champ at age 45.

Yet, his incredible career may have never gotten off the ground had a few people not believed in him. You see, it wasn't easy to believe in George as a youth. He grew up in a poor home in a poor neighborhood and lived by the law of the jungle, constantly getting into fights to try to prove himself. To get money, he'd mug people on the streets. His friends were so bad that he thought of himself as one of the good boys. After all, he never knifed any of his victims. But anyone who looked at him wrong had better run away fast, or they'd get a taste of the FOREMAN fist. He was was a big bully with a terrible temper. (2)

Fortunately, George ran across people who cared. As a teenager, he moved from Texas to Oregon with the Job Corps, a government program to give young people a chance to work and learn a trade. While he was there, Doc Broadus, who worked with security, saw potential in him as a boxer and helped him to begin training. A fellow Job Corp worker, a hippie from Washington state, shared his Bob Dylan music with George, encouraging him to think about the lyrics, exercise his mind with reading, and to learn to engage people with his words rather than his fists. His teacher reinforced his new zest for learning. For the first time, George fell in love with reading, opening his mind to new worlds. (3)

Then there was Mrs. Moon, the lunchroom lady. You might think, "What kind of influence could a lunch-room lady have on a mean, tough bully? Surely only a tough coach could get through to a person like him." But you see, George had grown up hungry. His mother was so poor that she couldn't afford to give her children enough food. He was too embarrassed to tell anyone and ask for a handout. So back during his school days, he would often blow air into his brown paper sack so that other students would think he had something to eat. If the sack held anything, it might be a mayonnaise sandwich.

So you can see why food was important to George. And the lunch lady controlled the food. So when she told him to straighten up, he listened. She noticed what foods George liked and scooped out a bit extra into his plate. She smiled at him and talked to him. She even invited George home to eat with her family, once a month, every month for six months.

How did this make him feel? According to George,

"Mrs. Moon just made me feel that I was special. She liked me for me. ... Her words echoed in my ears: 'You watch that temper.' The way she said it, smiling and cheerful, I believed she knew something I didn't. And I wanted to do as she said. Most of all, I wanted to please her." (4)

In the final paragraphs of his autobiography, after his huge early success in boxing, establishing a youth center to help young people, and regaining his title late in life, he looked back to remember Mrs. Moon:

"As vividly as if it happened the day before, I remembered the look on Mrs. Moon's face that first time I passed through the lunch line at the Oregon Job Corps center. She smiled at me. That was the moment I decided I was special." (5)

So never say, "I’m just a lunch lady,” or “I’m just a literature teacher,” or “Nobody cares what I think around here.” You never know who's waiting for someone, anyone, to show that they care. A few caring students or staff are today smiling at someone who needs a smile, and in the process are inspiring the next George Foreman or Albert Einstein or Martin Luther King. Never underestimate the power of kindness.


1) Wikipedia on George Foreman.
2) George Foreman and Joel Engel, By George: The Autobiography of George Foreman (Villard Books, New York: 1995) pp. 3-24.
3) Ibid., pp. 25-41.
4) Ibid., pp. 27-29.
5) Ibid., p. 262.

Change Agent #8: Choose texts that lend themselves to life change.

Here’s a good source:

Books That Build Character, by William Kilpatrick and Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe – Three hundred books, from elementary through the teen years, that are especially useful for instilling character.

Change Agent #7: Develop a class culture of caring.

In one survey, only one in four students thought their teachers and fellow students cared about them. Developing a culture of caring models character as well as creates a fertile learning environment. Here are some helpful articles on our site about developing a culture of caring in your class.

Fifty Ways to Show Kids You Care

Article on improving the school climate:

Article on developing compassion in students:

A specific way to show caring is to avoid overtly or subtly putting up the “A” students and putting down the “D” students. Some studies show that if you believe your students are smart, they tend to make better grades. The key here is to realize that all kids are smart in their own ways. Some act disinterested and detached because they don’t learn well in an academic setting. Thus, being peer-driven, they’ve got to decide, “Do I continue acting like I’m trying, but keep making poor grades, thus proving that I’m dumb? Or, do I act disinterested so that I might be perceived as smart, but just unmotivated?”

In the final analysis, we don’t really know what those students will become, do we? Dr. Stanley found that most of his highly successful businessmen and accumulators of wealth had a “C” average.

Discussion: Why?

  • Perhaps they have a higher emotional IQ, which is an asset to any business venture. Thus, many of them major in extra-curricular activities.
  • Perhaps they are more “outside of the box” thinkers, which is not generally rewarded in education.
  • Perhaps they are more independent thinkers. They don’t try in a class just because a teacher said it’s important and their parents say it’s important. If they can’t see the benefit of understanding irony in classic literature, they might rather spend the time programming their I-Pods.
  • Perhaps academics for academics sake is simply not their interest. In school, my son Benji was singularly unmotivated, constantly pleading sick, always late, etc. But once he began studying auto mechanics he made all A’s and upon graduation from tech school, went to work at Acworth Automotive promptly at 7:30 each morning, working 55+ hour weeks and then on his own car, making big investments with his paycheck. Just because he tended toward being a slacker in school said nothing about how he would perform once he found his niche.
  • Perhaps they have styles of learning that don’t work as well in an academic setting. Here’s a scary thought. Dr. Keisha Hoerrner, a personal friend and a professor here at KSU, told me that in a graduate course for educators at UGA, they took a test to discover their learning styles. Interestingly, they discovered that they all shared the same style of learning. That’s more than interesting; it’s scary. It means that they’ll tend to have difficulty understanding people who learn differently.

So let’s rethink our use of the word “smart.” It seems to me that the language of smart hasn’t kept up with our understanding of smart. We now know that “emotional IQ” is very different from the IQ we typically measure, yet is perhaps more important for a successful life. We also know that some people can be great memorizers, and thus perform well on tests, but have little ability to apply those facts to real life.

Example: Paul Orfalea, the founder and driving force behind Kinkos is both dyslexic and hyperactive. Because of this, he never learned to read. Yet, he refuses to think of his learning style as a “deficit.” He sees it as an asset. His incredible appetite for getting ideas from his stores, his customers, the competition and wherever he could find them proved to be a successful learning style to run a successful business.

Here are some of the people I graduated from high school with:

  • “George,” the biggest goof-off. He’d yell “Wake up!!!” in the hall during class. He seldom did homework and came to the school dance drunk. Now he can speak four languages and has been doing humanitarian work in sub-Sahara Africa for the past 25 years.
  • Deborah, just another “flag” in the band. She went into broadcasting and has been host of the Today show and since 1995, Inside Edition. She’s a two-time Emmy award winner and has authored three books so far.
  • “Bart,” the biggest hippie. Last I heard was designing helicopters with NASA.
  • “Ted,” the biggest nerd. Today he’s with a big-time law firm in Atlanta.
So to build a compassionate classroom, avoid mentally dividing the class between winners and losers, smart and dumb. We really have no idea where each of these students will end up.

Change Agent #6: Use character and life skills resources to tie literature insights into real life.

Typically, values education (or, character education, or life-change education) tries to move students through three steps:

Know the good
Desire the good
Do the good

Pointing out a trait like “kindness” in a character in literature helps students to identify or know kindness. Showing how its positively impacted your life and others helps them to desire the good. Giving specific action points and opportunities to live out kindness helps them to do kindness. Through repetition of these acts of kindness, it becomes a part of their lives.

After reading a novel that touches on integrity, you might ask students: “So you think that person’s integrity allowed him to come out on top in the end. Do you think that’s typical of real people?” Students may well respond, “No. It’s the businessmen who lie about their products and lie on their resumes and step all over the small people who get to the top.”

By bringing in outside stories or research, you might respond, “Well, I used to think that as well. But there’s strong evidence to the contrary. When professor Thomas Stanley studied people who were successful at their businesses and accumulating wealth, he asked them what characteristics they attributed their success to. Here’s what they put up at the top….”

In this way, you’ve reinforced integrity with another line of proof, hopefully moving students closer to “desiring the good.”

So where do you find information like this – stories and facts that motivate students to pursue various traits? I have a vast and growing collection at . Sign in, choose an alternative payment (not credit card) and say that you were in my seminar. I’ll activate your account free of charge. Take it free for a year. Download what you want. We’re a not for profit. We’re just trying to get the information out there.

Change Agent #5: Open your life in appropriate ways.

Don’t try to be perfect. Both you and your students know you’re not. My pastor is great at pointing out his own imperfections. People love it because they know he’s in the process like the rest of us.

If you’re discussing a character trait, admit times you blew it that hurt you. Then tell times you did it right that helped you. Sometimes it won’t take but two minutes. But adding your personal stories can be powerful. (Just don’t share personal information that you wouldn’t mind your supervisors or the student’s parents hearing. If they story’s good, it’ll probably make its rounds!)

Two ways to use personal stories:

a. Tie them seamlessly into the literature.

Example: In today’s assignment, the protagonist was caught lying. Let me give an example of a predicament I faced in my own life….

b. Have a weekly “success moment.”

(Why speak of “success” rather than “character”? Because “success” is more of a felt need than “character. And if they’ve seen character education done poorly in the past, they might turn it off.)

One of my graduate school professors, Dr. William Craig, was a great model for me in this area. In a "History of Philosophy" class, the brilliant professor (two earned Ph.D.'s) would devote 5 minutes at the beginning of class to a sort of real-life moment. I don’t recall if it was every day or once a week or every now and then. But I’ll never forget one day, when he began class with this nugget:

"You know, you can make A's in my class, while flunking in real life. I remember a time when I was struggling with balancing studies with my marriage. I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Munich, Germany. The academic load was overwhelming. My main professor would keep pulling out books in French and German that he said were must-reads for my dissertation.

So I talked to a professor about my struggle with balance and he advised me, 'Look around you. People around here with Ph.D.'s are a dime a dozen. But how many people do you see who have a really great marriage? Whatever the cost, don't neglect your relationship with your wife.' It really put things in perspective for me."

Well, that was 25 years ago, and I'm not sure how much I remember today about Kant and Hegel. But I'll never forget that simple life story from a teacher who cared as much about my life as about my passing his class.

Change Agent #4: In analyzing literature, allow for reflection on real life.

Educator Dr. Howard Hendricks complained that so much of education was simply transferring a set of notes from the teacher to the student, without going through the minds of either. (Teaching to Change Lives, by Howard Hendricks)

To avoid this with any given text, prep students with ideas like this:

“As you read this book, think about your own life and jot down ideas and questions.”

This takes students beyond “the intention of the author.” It forces us to think and transform knowledge into wisdom. Here are some sample questions that move into life-examination:

Romeo and Juliet

1. What were the names of the feuding families? (Montague and Capulet)
2. How might this story have ended differently had these families been tolerant and forgiving rather than feuding?
3. Although we don’t know from the story, how do you think that this feud might have begun?
4. Do you think the feuding would stop after the Romeo and Juliet’s death? Why or why not?
5. Imagine that you were a member of one of the families prior to Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. What could you have done to stop the feuding?
6. What makes our prejudices so hard to overcome? (Pride, inability to forgive, repeated acts of unkindness by the other party)
7. Imagine that this story was retold about a girl and guy on our campus (or in our city). What two feuding groups might they belong to? (Hispanic versus White, White Versus Black, Band versus Jocks, Alternative versus Preppie, Rich versus Poor, etc.)
8. What kinds of consequences could take place down the road if these feuds aren’t put to rest?
9. What can we do personally to help bring peace among these groups?

(Two example lessons based on literature: , members section, see Romeo and Juliet and Twelve Angry Men.)

Benefits of “life questions”:

1) It pulls in the practical students who are motivated by “why should I be studying this?”

As a professional researcher and writer, I’ve never fallen in love with words. Instead, I fell in love with wisdom and reading was simply one of the easiest ways to find it. Besides reading, I’m also liable to ask a good mechanic how he learned his skill or the radiologist, “what does that tube thingy do?”

Questions like these can pull in the practical students - those who aren’t into reading for reading’s sake, but will read to get information. That’s me. If you say, “Steve, you’ve just got to read this novel, it’s captivating!” I won’t read it. If you say, “Steve, this author uses the best analogies I’ve ever seen!” I’ll read the first five pages to observe and understand her technique. But if you say, “This book takes the latest scientific studies of learning and applies them practically to helping learning disabled and unmotived to achieve,” I’m all over it.

So for learners like me, you’ll inspire me by telling me, not that Jurassic Park had a cool story line, but that “it warned me very specifically about how things can get out of hand when I ignore wise counsel.”

2) It pulls in the creative, outside of the box thinkers.

Some of these students don’t “get” the grade thing. Perhaps these are the “C” students, identified by professor Stanley in his studies of successful entrepreneurs. This group of students might relish taking knowledge from one area and applying it to real life.

Hint: Have them write it out answers before discussing, or discuss it in a small group first, to get more class discussion. Many aren’t good at coming up with comments “off the top of their heads.” Others are scared that they’ve misunderstood the question and are afraid of looking stupid. So giving them some time to get their thoughts together makes it safer for them to discuss in front of the group.

Change Agent #3: Keep a list of traits in mind.

Until you get used to thinking in terms of character, it might be difficult to figure out what character traits are being touched upon by any given book. So you may want to familiarize yourself with some good lists of traits. Make a copy and put it up near your desk or study room. Here are four:

  • The list of character traits for Georgia. Valuable for comprehensiveness and grouping.

  • Dr. Thomas Lickona’s list. Valuable for its universality.

  • Benjamin Franklin’s list. Valuable for its practicality. (See under “Activities, Discussions and Questions”)

  • Professor Stanley’s list. Valuable for its connection with success.

Caution: the over-achievers among us might try to hit all of these character traits in a semester. But if you try to cover everything, you can’t give serious attention to any one trait. A better approach might be to take these lists and circle the traits you’re most passionate about. Concentrate on them and the ones that come up most frequently in your choice of literature. Those will probably be the traits you’ll be most effective in passing on to your students.

Change Agent #2: Get to know your students.

It’s trite, but true: students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Even when I do a one-time lecture on search engine positioning for Web sites in a New Media class at KSU, I’ll begin by asking the students what they aspire to do for a living. That way I can apply the material to their specific set of interests. One girl got so excited that after class she called her husband and said, “Today this guy told us how we can make our business successful!” Hmmm…excitement about a class on search engine positioning?!? But I got to know her goals enough to apply my lecture to her point of need.

How does that apply to your class? You might begin it like this:

For our first assignment, I’d like to learn something about you: your likes and dislikes, what excites and bores you. Why? Because knowing your interests and goals helps me to lead discussions that address these interests and goals. I’m grading this first assignment on completeness, not neatness or grammar. If you answer all the questions completely, you get your first “A”. Please write down these questions:

1 – Things I enjoy doing. (Please be specific: fishing, watching baseball, playing guitar, etc.)

2 – Style of music I enjoy and favorite musicians.

3 – Favorite celebrities.

4 – Things I’d like to be good at. (Weightlifting, school, baton, band, Halo, World of Warcraft, etc.)

5 – People I most admire and why.

6 – Some vocations that interest me.

What am I doing here? I’m taking an interest in my students. It’s not all about me increasing the test-taking ability of my students on standardized tests. It’s all about them and making them successful. And if I take an interest in their lives, maybe they’ll take an interest in my life and my subject.

Knowing my students gives me ammo I can use all semester. I can keep bringing up vocations and interests that are of interest to my students.

Dale Carnegies’ classic work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, has several principles of life influence that apply here. (I revised the wording to apply to students.)

  • “Become Genuinely Interested in Your Students.”
  • “Be a Good Listener. Encourage Your Students to Talk about Themselves.”
  • “The Big Secret to Dealing with Students” = “Give Honest and Sincere Appreciation.”

    You might ask, “But how can I show appreciation to students who aren’t even trying in class?” I think if we look carefully, there’s something in every student that we can legitimately appreciate. If your having trouble finding something, I’d suggest to go back to the last two Carnegie points and get to know your students.

    One day I was visiting Frey Elementary, where my own children attended. At the entranceway, I met the exceptional principal, who was carrying a bouquet of flowers that he’d apparently just picked from the school grounds. He explained, “one of our students was in a community play this week. I wanted to congratulate her.” Now I have no idea what kind of student she was at Frey. But I’ll bet you anything that after the principal presented her with flowers, that she wanted to do even better.
  • “Talk in Terms of Your Students’ Interests”

Your ideas for getting to know your students and appeal to their interests?

Change Agent #1: Add "Life-Change" or "Success" to Your Class Goals

Let’s look at the Georgia State Standards for Literature. (Put a portion here.) Now I’m not belittling this document. I understand that it must be written in terms of testable content. But let’s say I follow it to the letter and do what it says.

So I take Moby Dick and discuss diction, plot and structure. I note the creative use of analogy and description. That’s fine, and it’s all good to know, especially if your students aspire to teach literature and possibly if they want to become writers. But that’s a small percentage of our students.

When you think about this standard, doesn’t it sort of remind you of a dissection in Biology? You start with this beautiful lively frog. Then you put it to sleep and explore its wonderful structure until it’s dead. Isn’t it possible to do the same with Moby Dick?

Listen, the reason we’re into literature is that there’s life in great literature. Great teachers help students discover that life. Others kill it by over-analyzing it.

Now I don’t have a problem with what the state standard says. I do have a problem with what it doesn’t say. Standards don’t typically address the larger purposes of teaching literature.

It says nothing of developing a love for great literature. It says nothing about helping students achieve success in their lives.

I think the State would respond, “But that’s a 'duh.' Of course that’s what we’re up to here!” But I’d respond, “If so, let’s put that in our personal standards or goals for our class.”

Here's the practical outcome for this point. Someone who wants to simply “comply with state standards” may start the first day of class like this:

“This quarter we’ll read some great literature and learn to identify such fascinating bits of literary technique as symbolism, setting, mood and irony.”

And then we expect students to shoot up their hands saying, “Please, please! Do ‘irony’ first!” “No, no! I want ‘symbolism!’” until finally you intervene:

“Class, I know you’re all eager to understand the structure of literature, but you’ll have to wait patiently for the appropriate section.”

Why do we not see this response? We’ve done nothing to meet students at their point of need. They enter the class with no felt need to understand irony in literature. And they have no clue as to how putting effort into this class will possibly make them happier and more successful. As a result, students who aren’t motivated by grades will decide that this is a good class to catch up on the sleep they missed the night before playing Halo.

A person who understands our ultimate purposes in education might start the class this way:

“Students, my hope is that during this class you’ll discover some practical ways to live a more successful life. Right now you may see yourself as a little girl living at the end of a dead-end street, preparing to live a dead-end life. But you’ve got your entire life before you. And great literature reveals to us how people outside of your cul-de-sac lived their lives – some ending in great success, others in tragedy; some deliriously happy, others with huge regrets.

By reading great literature, you can find characters you identify with. You might find great ideas to live and die for, traits you’d like to adopt, places you’d like to live, something you’d like to accomplish, the type person you’d like to marry, the kind of friends you want to attract (and avoid).

You see, students, literature isn’t just about plot, structure and symbolism. It’s about life and how people live it. Sure, we’ll learn the elements of good literature. But more than that, I hope you’ll learn something specific that can change your life.”

Now isn’t that totally different than the first introduction? Don’t you think it will pull in more students than the former? You could continue this way:

“So, after you’ve read the first chapter of “Huckleberry Finn” for tomorrow’s class, don’t just think about structure and style. Think,
  • “How do I identify with Huck?”
  • “What do I like about his life that I could adopt?”
  • “What disgusts me about his life that I should avoid?”
I don’t just want to know that you’ve read the book. I want to know that you’ve thought about it, reflecting on your own life in response to your reading. If you do, it just might change your life.”

So there’s a radical difference between the “life-changing teacher” and the “merely complies with state’s standards” teacher. So as a teacher, when you’re preparing your lesson plan for tomorrow’s class, I challenge you to ask the question, “How can tomorrow’s class impact a life?”

Any ideas from you on how you motivate your class from the start?

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.

Monday, March 24, 2008

On "The Language of 'Smart'"

Following up on my last post, I recall an incident that helps me to understand those with learning "disabilities." During my college days, a professor and his wife were attending a Sunday School class. One of the members, noting that the professor read biblical passages rather haltingly at times, asked the professor's wife if he had trouble reading. "No," she responded. "He's just translating in his head from the original Greek."

Isn't this sort of like the misunderstandings encountered by typical dyslexics, who often must process (translate) letters and words differently from others? The effort it takes to read in their own language must be akin to that of a translator. No wonder the reading is often halting and seldom smooth. But the difficulty reading doesn't say anything about the power of the intellect that lies behind the "translation."

So let's remember that fluency in reading doesn't prove intelligence in other areas any more than difficulties in reading prove deficiencies in other areas of intellect. So rather than passing judgment by one indicator, let's look for strengths in each of our students that we can encourage.

Dyslexia, ADD and Other Assets

That's right - "assets." Or so claims Paul Orfalea, the founder and super-successful CEO of the Kinkos chain. In his book, Copy This!: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic who Turned a Bright Idea Into One of America's Best Companies, Orfalea refuses to call his unique learning styles "disabilities." Growing up in a time when Dyslexia wasn't understood by most educators, he didn't receive needed help and had to navigate school without ever learning to read.

Yet, reading's just one way to learn. Orfalea mastered the arts of thinking outside of the box, capturing ideas through observation, and disseminating ideas through voice-mail rather than e-mail.

What does this have to do with character? Everything. Many teachers, either subtly or overtly, perpetuate in the classroom the dated concepts that quick-learners of textbook and lecture material are "smart," while slow learners in the same arenas are "dumb." Some have actually separated the "smart" from the "slow" in seating, ostensibly to inspire the slow learners to catch up and be allowed to sit with the "smart" crowd.

Other teachers who wouldn't dream of such overt profiling nevertheless say in the hearing of others how "smart" one student is (who scored 100 with little effort), not realizing that in proclaiming this student smart, the other students may very well be categorizing themselves as "mildly dumb" (who scored 80-89), "dumber" (scores 70-79) and "dumberer" (under 70).

It would appear that the language of "smart" hasn't kept up with science of "smart." We now know that people learn in many different ways. So while Einstein may have been gifted in theoretical Physics, he struggled with languages and was labeled slow by many teachers. Some have a high emotional IQ, but struggle with academics. Author and professor C.S. Lewis struggled with Math, but excelled in literature.

Interestingly, some successful writers flunked English. Apparently, a prerequisite to writing a thrilling novel isn't the ability to label all the parts of speech in your sentences.

One professor told me of a graduate level class she took, in which all the students took a test to determine their learning style. All of the students were training to be teachers. The result of the test? Every one of them had the same learning style. And that makes sense. People who learn well in an academic setting would have fond memories of succeeding in that arena. No wonder they wanted to go to college and later teach. But it's as frightening as it is fascinating. Can the typical teacher truly understand students who learn differently?

The practical outcome? Our present school system tends to lead one category of learners to think they are smart, and all other learners to assume they're dumb. By keeping this fact in mind, perhaps we can avoid actions and words that put down those who learn differently, and help them to recognize their strengths.