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Learning

Welcome back… I’m glad you decided to hang with me for at least one chapter…. hope I don’t screw it up.

         When you ask high school kids why they think they should go to school what do you imagine their reason is?  Friends, right?  Of course.  Lots of times when we talk with students who have dropped out of high school they will confide that they don’t miss the homework but they do miss hanging with their people… their friends.  A student athlete once told me that if he hadn’t had sports to enjoy he would have never finished school.

         When you ask teachers why kids need to be in school there is usually some kind of a ‘professional’ answer, like students need to prepare for the workforce and all that.  I mentioned that idea already… remember 4 years to prepare for 40 years. 

         It’s not that either one of these two reasons is bogus.  They both are important.  But we are going to begin our discussion with a simple question: At the very core, what is the primary reason students attend high school? 

         The answer I’ll give every time is: To Learn.  But immediately there is a problem with this ‘it gets dark at night’ answer.  Years ago when my son, Mikey was five years old he wanted to learn how to tie his shoes.  His mother and I showed him lots of times, and for some reason Mikey just could not get it.  Finally, one July morning I remember showing Mikey one more time how to tie his shoes and he did it.  Yes. 

         For the next few days Mikey was a “demon shoe-tier”.  Everywhere we went he had to make sure he could still tie his shoes there.  We are at the mall and where’s Mikey?  He’s behind us, sitting at the fountain tying his shoes.  Ha.

         But wait a second.  You will tell me that Mikey “Learned” how to tie his shoes.  At one point the kid couldn’t do it, and then ‘all of a sudden’… he learned.  But now the question I will ask you is the question that I have asked lots of really bright scientists and they all have to give me that same “beats us” look: What happened in Mikey’s brain that at THAT particular moment on a July morning, he learned?  Why then at THAT moment?  And what changed in his brain chemistry that allowed him to do this thing we call learning?

         It always makes me smile that in the end some really bright people have to admit that they are not sure about the real causes for learning… it’s a mystery.  We have lots of ideas about what we think might have gone on in Mikey’s brain when he learned how to tie his shoes… but are you ready for this… no one really knows why and how we learn stuff.  Amazing isn’t it.  Especially since I have said that the number one reason you are in school is to learn.  But in spite of the fact that we are not sure about all the things that happen in the brain when we learn something, we do know that we can learn.  Mikey learned to tie his shoes. 

Let’s talk about what it means to learn stuff in school by first talking about what it doesn’t mean.  If you have spent any time in school you know that learning stuff does not mean memorizing stuff.  You know those students who can memorize lots of information and ‘vomit’ it up on an exam, but two days later give them the same exam and they will bomb it.  Am I right?  I’m not saying memorizing stuff will hurt you in school. It’s one of those necessary skill sets.  All I’m saying is that memorizing lots of junk is not learning, as we will define it. 

         When we talk about learning we will mean the following:

 

Learning is anytime I can connect or relate new information to old information.

 

         What does that mean?  Well if I’m trying to teach you some new idea, some new process, and while you are trying to learn the idea or process you suddenly look up at me and say, “Oh I get it, this thing you are trying to teach me is kind of like this other thing I already know how to do.” That’s when we will call what you are doing… learning.  Another way to say this is: Learning is getting information that you can actually use, or getting information that actually means something to you.  Why do so many of us hate math word problems?  Because teachers like to point out that while we might have memorized a process to solve a problem, that is not the same thing as learning the math concept.

         I shared this word picture with Allison, a student.  Imagine a basketball hoop as the prior knowledge you have about a certain topic.  The new stuff they are trying to teach you is the ball that you shoot through the hoop.”  Allison said to me, “I think I know what my problem is in calculus.  It’s not that I was dropped on my head at three and so I can’t do math.  My problem is my hoop of old math knowledge is like one of those small Nerf hoops we used to put on the back of a door to dunk on.  And the ball of new information that I’m trying to shoot through the hoop is the size of a beach-ball.”  I asked her what her solution was to the problem and she said, “I have to go back and relearn some concepts so I can grow my hoop of old knowledge just a little bit.”

         Do you know what is really cool about this connecting of new information to old information?  We all do it differently.  No kidding.  There is no one right way to do this learning thing.  The key for you is to start to pay attention to the ways that you can connect new stuff to old stuff.  In chapters 2 and 3 we will look at ways you can learn in your reading, and learn in your writing.  The key to being a successful student is to understand HOW you learn, HOW you connect new stuff to old stuff, and then ‘grow your basketball hoop’.  I hope that makes sense.

         Think about the discipline of math.  The learning is cumulative.  What do I mean?  Well my youngest daughter Ayni used to like to jump down the stairs in our house.  She would go the fourth stair and jump to the bottom.  One day I challenged her to jump not down but up.  I said, “If you can jump down four stairs why can’t you jump up?”  It was so funny (at least to me) to watch her try to do the impossible task.  But every year in math there are students who try to do a similar impossible task.  They do okay on chapter 1 in math, but then they decide to take an intellectual holiday, don’t do any homework and they bomb the tests for chapters 2 and 3.  Then, after maybe a hard talk by their teacher or their parents, they decide they are going to get back to work.  So for chapter 4 they are ready to get serious again.  But they struggle.  Why?  Because… most learning is cumulative, which is to say, it builds on itself.  What the student didn’t learn during those previous two chapters now makes it very difficult to continue.  The student might have to go back and relearn material missed from chapter 2 and 3 before heading into chapter 4.

         There is this college math instructor who loves to find college students who say they really hate math.  She pays them to visit her room for an hour lesson on math.  They only do it because they are getting paid.  She opens the lesson by saying that she wants to teach them simple 5th grade fractions.  They all groan.  Most of them never ‘got’ fractions.  Some of them try to leave the room, but she shames them into staying by saying they are going to work on a 5th grade fraction worksheet.  This woman is an amazing explainer of math, using lots of great word pictures.  It does not take the students very long to realize they can learn fraction theory.  At the end of the one-hour lesson she says, “Now that you kind of know a little more about fractions, let me show you this really cool thing we do in algebra.”  The students leaving the lesson always report two things.  First, they say it was really easy to learn this information.  Second, they always say how mad they are that all these years they just thought they were dumb and couldn’t do math.  Sad.

         A number of really bright people have discovered that instead of talking about a single intelligence, it’s much ‘smarter’ to talk about multiple intelligences.  Just because you don’t like to read or write does not mean that you are not intelligent.  If you are a great athlete or you love to listen to music or play music, those are also forms of intelligence.  Check out this very cool website where you can take a little survey and learn more about just how amazingly intelligent you are. 

 

http://www.literacyworks.org/mi/assessment/findyourstrengths.html

 

         There are two parts to being a good student.  I call it being a ‘warrior and a scholar’.  First you have to be honest enough to admit that you have academic deficiencies.  Some of my students like to say that they don’t care about their academic weaknesses.  They want to hide from their academic problems by acting like it’s no big deal. 

         Poor reading students often report that they remember in 5th grade when it was silent reading hour.  The teacher gave the assignment and they sat there pretending to read their book, moving their fingers over the pages like they were some kind of a super-hero fast reader.  They would slam their book shut to let everyone know they were finished before everyone else.  They fooled everyone… but deep down inside there was one person they could never fool.  By high school for many of these poor readers, it was already too late, and they struggled to read almost anything.  How sad.

         Talk to some student who has decided to start smoking.  Tell her that it’s a dumb idea to put that crap in her lungs.  Listen to her say, “I don’t care.”  Come back to visit her in thirty years when she has breast cancer, and guess what?  She is ready to fight to save her life.  Why?  Because she cares.  We ALL care.  I have said for years that students who say, “I don’t care” are really saying… “Help.”

         But… but… but admitting your academic problems is not enough.   I know students who love to talk about how bad they are at math.  It almost becomes a badge of honor they wear around.  “Look at me… I suck at math.”  So honesty is not enough if you are going to be a warrior and a scholar.  You must be honest enough to actually start to fix your academic weaknesses. 

         You can’t fix an academic problem until you know it exists, until you admit that you have a problem.  But to fix the problem will demand courage to get to work trying to be a better reader, a better writer, or a stronger math student.

         Let me share a story with you that will help you think about this idea.  I knew this guy, who was having a great life… right up to moment he was told that he had a lump in his neck.  Bryan is a real joker most of the time.  He’s the guy who loves to make us all laugh at the party.  But he said that he was not thinking of any jokes as his doctor told him he had only a few months to live.  But then Bryan tells me that his doctor decided to play the joker.  She asked Bryan about the cancerous lump in his neck, “Would you like to take that lump out?”

         Later, telling me the story, Bryan couldn’t help but laugh that his doctor would even ask him that question.  Imagine Bryan saying to the doctor, “What?  Would I what?  Oh no… that’s cool… leave the cancerous lump that’s going to kill me in my neck.  I saw this movie once about this guy who had two months to live and I always wanted to know what that would be like.  Leave in the lump.”  Ha.  Of course Bryan said he wanted the lump out.  His doctor said that she had to ask because it was going to be a very dangerous surgery that might leave him without a voice or might even kill him.   Bryan said that he never knew true fear until that afternoon he was being wheeled down that hospital hall, holding on to his wife’s hand, waiting for the 8-hour surgery.

         Bryan survived and now lives a full and happy life.  But you know while he was telling me his story I immediately got an idea.  You see, I teach students every year with this lump in their neck.  For some students, they are weak readers.  For some, they struggle to write well.  For others, they are so disorganized they can’t survive school.  One of them comes in my room 303 at the beginning of the school year and says, “Dr. McGee… I just want you to know that I hate to read.”  I respond, “Okay… well here’s a book to read.”  They look at me incredulously.  “No… Dr. McGee… you clearly didn’t hear me… I REALLY hate to read.”  So I say, “Oh… well in that case… here are two books.”

         You see, this is the heart of what it means to be a warrior and a scholar.  Admitting that you are a weak reader is not enough, just like Bryan admitting that he had cancer in his neck was not enough.  You have to have the courage, just like Bryan did, to take the lump out of your neck.

         A few years ago this mom showed up for parent teacher conferences.  She was blown away by the progress she saw in her son.  She asked me, “What have you done to my son?  He actually comes home now and sits down and does an hour of homework before he even thinks about turning on the TV.”  I assured her that I had nothing to do with her son’s newfound focus.  I said, “Your boy has this thing in his neck… his reading weakness… and he’s working to take it out!”

         What’s really interesting about how Bryan’s story ends happened after his surgery when he had to visit the cancer ward for treatment.  He showed up not knowing what to expect.  Some complete stranger walked up to him and she asked, “Where’s yours?”  At first Bryan didn’t know what she was talking about but then it hit him… he was in a cancer ward, and everyone in this place had cancer.  He didn’t have to fake like there was nothing wrong with him, like he had learned to do when talking with people outside the cancer ward.  He pointed to his throat and she pointed to her chest. 

         Here’s the point.  School ought to be like that cancer ward.  We ALL have things in our necks.  We ALL have academic deficiencies that we have to work on.  School is the place where you get to work with your teachers and your pals to take the thing in your neck out.  You don’t have to act like you don’t have anything in your neck anymore, and you don’t have to pretend like you don’t care.  Of course you care.  Now… it’s time to get to work taking the lump out.

         Why is learning new things sometimes so hard?  I think there are one or two things we have forgotten about learning new stuff.  Let me end this chapter with a story I have told many times.  My oldest daughter Ashli was five.  She wanted a new bike.  I brought home her pretty pink bike with the pink streamers coming off the handlebars.  When I pulled the bike out of the back of my truck she was so excited… right up to the moment that she saw the training wheels.

         “Get those dumb looking wheels off my bike!” she cried.  I explained to her the value of the training wheels.  She approached the bike, got on, and as the bike began to lean she thought she was going to fall.  Ironically she held on even tighter to the handlebars.  But when the training wheels caught her, she was a believer. 

         My Ash was an amazing bike rider after a few weeks on her new pink bike.  A few weeks later she came to me while I was watching a ball game and she said that she was ready to learn how to ride her bike without her training wheels.  I didn’t say much to her, but the next day there dad was standing next to her bike… minus her training wheels. 

         Ash looked worried.  She was scared.  I asked her what was the problem.  She said that she didn’t want to learn how to ride her bike without her training wheels today.   I asked why not.  She said, “I’m afraid that I’m going to fall down and it will hurt.”  I said, “Oh honey, you are about to go for a ride and fall down and it’s going to hurt really bad… let’s go.”

         Here’s the key to understanding learning.  When you start out learning anything new there is always the chance that there will be fear and pain.  Remember my son Mikey learning to tie his shoes.  He was really frustrated with the fact he couldn’t learn how.  That’s just the way it is when we learn new things.

         Ash and I made our way out to the street.  She looked at her pretty pink bike like it was a foreign object.  I stood on her left side, maybe like the person who taught you how to ride a bike, and I held the left handlebar and my right hand was hanging onto the back of her seat.  I whispered to her that everything was going to be fine and she was going to do great.  I took several steps and then I realized that she was not peddling.  I told her that I was not going to push her around the block.  Ha.

         My Ashli started to peddle and all of a sudden she was doing it! Yes!  It was so amazing.  I let her go and off she went, her little piggy tales bouncing with each pump of her legs.  But… but… but… right… you knew this part was coming didn’t you.  Now let’s get one thing clear right now.  Ashli saw the curb… she knew it was there… and yes… she knew how to use her breaks.  When she hit that curb, her wreck was awesome… over the handlebars and to the cement sidewalk.

         By the time I got to Ashli she had kicked the bike off of her and she had pulled her scrapped knees up to her chest.  She was mad.  She was NOT mad at the city engineer for putting that curb right in that spot.  She was NOT mad at herself for forgetting how to use her breaks.  She was mad… at ME!  Right… she was mad at me for taking her training wheels off and making her try to learn to ride her bike without them.

         I was so excited that she had actually done it, she had actually made it a good way before the wreck, I said excitedly, “Oh honey that was awesome… let’s try it again!”  Ashli spat out the words, “Stupid jerk dad.” and went in the house.  A day or two later she was ready to try again and for a period of a few days it looked like my daughter had been in a war zone… scrapped knees and elbows.  But I remember the afternoon Ashli ‘got it’.  Off she went, those piggy tails just bouncing along.  No dad could have been more proud. 

         Now what’s the point of a story like this?  I think we too often forget that most learning requires overcoming fear and pain.  We don’t want to fall, and we don’t want it to hurt.  But that’s the only way to learn new things.  You have to be willing to take the risk that you might fall and it might hurt.  Just like I was saying a while ago about learning to snowboard.  You can’t learn how to snowboard without falling down.  It’s part of the rules of learning that somewhere along the way… there will be fear and pain.

         For example your instructor at school will give you an exam.  You will try it and fail.  She will come ‘running’ up to you after you have ‘wrecked’ and say, “Great job… now let’s try it again.” and you will be mad.  You won’t be mad at yourself for lack of proper study to perform on the exam… no… you will be mad at her.  Don’t worry; your teacher understands that this is the way children are.  They have to blame someone for their failures and it can’t be themselves.

         But think about this for a second.  If you want to know when you have become an adult… when you are ‘all growed up”… it’s when you don’t need a parent or a teacher to remove your training wheels.  You have arrived, you are a warrior and a scholar, when you have the courage to remove your own training wheels.  Once you can do this, then you will be ready to start helping others remove their training wheels, and let me tell you… there are few things that compare with that honor.

         It’s possible that you want to hear that there is some kind of gimmick that I can share with you to get better grades.  I already told you how to get good grades if you are looking for the easy way… cheat and don’t get caught.  But you can understand what I mean when I say that cheating is riding with the training wheels on, and never learning to ride without them.  I once said to a student I caught cheating, “Seeing you cheat is like watching you try to ride on a bike made for a five year old… training wheels included.”  He knew what I was saying.  When we cheat we really cheat ourselves of the fear and pain necessary to truly learn.

         All of life is about meeting your fears head on and dealing with them.  Developing this skill set is really what school is all about, not only in the academic domains but also in the social and activities domains as well.  When I said that school is the place where you go to learn, I meant all kinds of learning… not just academic learning. 

         But one more point before we go.  My Ashli back in those warm summer days when she learned to ride her bike… she never came to me after she learned and said, “Thanks for teaching me dad.”  You see, she understood that it was my job as a dad to take her training wheels off and help her learn to overcome her fear and pain… to help her learn to ride her bike.  I had this senior student who was a great volleyball player.  She signed up to help coach the little kids volleyball league.  After her first practice she told me it was like herding cats.  She couldn’t believe how hard it was to coach them.  She said that it hit her half way through the first night that long ago when she was 10 years old she had a young high school girl who had coached her.  It made her sad to think she had never even said thanks. 

         Maybe it’s time to say thanks.  The next time someone at home makes a meal for you and you eat it, don’t just push yourself away from the table and run off to your room to Facebook.  Instead look the person who made the meal for you right in the eye and say, “I know I have not said this very often and I’m sorry, but I’m really thankful for the meal you just made for me.”  It is one of the true signs that you are maturing and your training wheels have actually come off when you can be humble enough to say thank you to those who helped to take your training wheels off.

            So where to next?  Well let’s try to answer this question: How can I learn through my reading?