Exhausted. Busy week. Last week of quarter. Student interest in grades suddenly heightened a notch.
Ran two meetings for third- and fourth-year teachers. Had a book club in Barrington on Wednesday night with some of the nicest and smartest readers I’ve encountered.
Began a unit on sensation and perception, which always seems unmanageable. Too much to show and explain. How do we see? That simple question leads down paths that have no end. Toward biology and physics and philosophy. All quite interesting. And exhausting.
Covered subliminal messages. Science has more or less discounted the power of these messages. Their influence is minimal at best. Yet students are fascinated, and as a result, I feel an obligation to share the “fun” material: the backmasking messages in music, the hidden images in Disney movies and in ads. All this no longer intrigues me, but I put on my game face and allowed the material to lead, and yes, students are fascinated. Why all the satanic references in backward lyrics, they want to know. Mostly, they’re not there. The discovery of such lyrics were the result of manic searching during the 70s—and then again in the 80s and 90s. If you’re looking for satan, I told them, you’re going to find him.
I’m more interested in vision, which, once you examine the process, seems miraculous and impossible. Why, for example, doesn’t the world become disjointed every time we blink?
I wish I could use coarser, more incendiary language to describe the inanity of mass testing in schools. But that would be in poor taste. I do urge you add any street words you know to this summation: a colossal waste of time. This week we had what amounted to a day off because of, get this, a practice ACT test for juniors. Non-juniors ran through a shortened schedule of 25-minute classes, and then all students were dismissed before noon so they could, presumably, rush home, complete homework, and attend College Night, which wasn’t even held at our school but at another school within our district. Oh, and on the day before, students had a late start because of biweekly teacher meetings that ultimately result in not even a blip in students’ lives.
It came as no surprise then when I saw this screaming headline on the front page of the Tribune this Thursday: “11th-Grade Scores at New Low.” Whether the drop in scores means anything is debatable, but let’s take the scores at face value for a minute. Here are a few possible explanations. (1) Practice ACT tests in the middle of the week! In October! Months before the actual test. Which translates into less classroom time for students. (2) Test fatigue. From too many [street slang] tests. Remember the term shell shock? You should see students lined up row after row in the gym, pencils in hand, in battle positions. An Orwellian fog permeates the room. That’s how it felt this week walking the halls too. (3) Test apathy. Hard to get excited about filling in bubbles on the proper use of conjunctions.
I ended the week by giving my students a test on the brain. Ironic, I know. But, at the risk of sounding defensive, my tests are different than all of the above. (Did the phrase “all of the above” cause a brief ripple of panic from your old testing days?) Here’s the difference. My students and I have immersed ourselves in the material. We’ve read, played games, asked questions, applied the material to our lives. We’re all working together toward a goal of understanding and mastery. There’s certainly a bit of fatigue that sets in before the test on all this, but it seems to me an earned fatigue. Mass tests, on the other hand, are disembodied and lifeless. One can prepare for these tests (rather than studying), but the preparation involves concentration not on any particular subject matter but on the tests themselves, or on testing. On strategies to “beat” the tests. On tips. On probabilities. It’s like preparing to increase one’s odds at a casino. Some of this preparation is dedicated to subject matter, of course, but it’s still a craps game rather than a devotion to learning. (For the record, my students aren’t quite “devoted” to learning; it’s not a calling; it’s not religious zeal; their lives don’t revolve around knowing the difference between the amygdala and the hippocampus. But I bet they can tell you the difference, now and in a month from now, and they’ll have fun doing so.)
To give you an idea of the contrast between mass testing and my own, here’s how we reviewed for the brain test. I divided my class into eight teams and randomly seeded each team into a bracket. Throughout the room, one team competed against another by presenting mini-lessons to freshmen whom we’d invited to class. The team that did a better job—clearer explanations, more creative props, better preparation—advanced into the championship brackets. The real learning took place the day before while “lesson planning.” I was proud of their hard work and insights, and I think they were a little proud of themselves too. They discovered what all teachers know: the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Finally, this week students heard a bit of good news: the ban on Halloween costumes was lifted. A few dumb costume choices five years ago—use your imagination—led to that ban. We’ll see what happens this year. I can’t wait.
I met with a book club last night to discuss When the World Was Young. I’ve been doing this for years, and you think it might get old, but it doesn’t. It’s a little like teaching. A new group brings its own insights and questions and personality.
What last night had in common with most other books clubs: women, wine, cheese, laughter, loudness. About nine in all. There were a couple of quieter ones, which is typical, and who reminded me of myself. It’s a mix that works well.
There was a husband on the fringes. Very nice guy. If he’d read the entire book, he might have joined us. But I think he had that wise husband sense of If I join them now, I may to actually join the club. I do wish men would genuinely share in such a discussion. I mean, we talked about some deep issues, and men’s insights, well, we have some things to say. Maybe.
What was different. I got the sense that this was a tightknit group of friends who weren’t timid about speaking their minds and who could be reflective and emotional one minute and raucous and hilarious the next. I had a great time. Thanks, girls.
Tonight I got to hang out with a room full of librarians. The Illinois Library Association held their annual conference in Rosemont, and my good friends at the Palatine Public Library sponsored a table for dinner and invited me as their guest. I’m humbled by this generous gesture and most appreciative. I thought I might have to say a few words when they introduced me, but all I had to do was stand. If I was asked to say why libraries are important to me, this is what I might have said. When I was growing up, we didn’t have any libraries in the neighborhood. They never filled me with wonder or nostalgia or awe. I never gave them a thought because they were absent. Ah, but when I started my own family in Lombard, my daughter and I used to take long strolls to the library and slip through the aisles and trudge home with an armful of books. One time they sponsored a sleep-in, and we lugged our sleeping bags and spent the night, surrounded by stack after stack of those fragrant books. So yes, libraries have taken on a fondness for me that I hold dear.
Michael Cunningham was the featured speaker at dinner. He spoke of the first book he wrote when he was seven and why stories are so essential and how the writing of a novel is mysterious and magic. All pretty enthralling. After, as he was signing his book for me, someone pointed out to him that I was a guest writer, and he turned to the bookseller and immediately bought my book and had me sign it. Quite a gracious gesture. And definitely not typical. He had no knowledge of me or my books but just wanted to lend his support. Really touching.
Tallest Man Who Ever Lived
I’ve adopted a theme song for myself. Actually just a line. From a John Mayer tune: “I’m bigger than my body gives me credit for.” The only time I feel tall is when I visit my parents. My dad is five-feet two, and my mom is well under five feet. So at a towering five-feet six, I shouldn’t complain, I suppose, even though society seems to proffer privileged status to those of elevated stature. Within limits.
This week we discussed the endocrine system, which highlighted why we should be satisfied with the normal glands with which we’ve been blessed. The photo above illustrates what happens when the pituitary gland goes haywire.
I had a reading this week at the beautiful Des Plaines Library. Across the street is Square Deal Shoe Store, which has on display the size 28 shoe of the infamous Robert Wadlow. I took this picture. The shoe on the bottom is size 8.
Before he died in his early twenties he wore a size 37 shoe and grew to 8 feet 11 inches. In class, we measured this height, and to walk through our school hallways, Wadlow would have had to slouch considerably.
We also dissected the nervous system. Not literally. I’m all for simulation when it comes to that. The “dissection” consisted mainly of me drawing an enlarged neuron on the chalkboard and having students role-play the different parts, which never fails to instill in me an absolute awe of the workings of the human body. I mean, how the hell does the brain know that a particular area on my calf muscle, for instance, has a light scratch? A pain impulse reaches the brain, sure, everyone gets that, but the precision of our awareness is remarkable. Countless signals need to occur in concert. That we remain largely unaware of these little miracles that happen continuously—they’re happening now—is a miracle in itself. That we take the miracles for granted is okay, I think. I don’t need to be constantly reminded of the magnificence that is me, contained in this glorious, tall enough, five-foot-six frame.
Got some exciting news yesterday. The Normal Mailer Writing Center has writing contests each year, and I entered the high school teacher category and was selected as one of five teachers in the nation to recognized. Pretty gosh darn cool. The entry was based on the first few chapters of the sequel to When the World Was Young. If you go to Upcoming on this site, you can hear the first chapter of that.
I had a great time reading and talking with some nice people at the Des Plaines Library tonight. Thanks for your hospitality and thoughtful questions and insights. You could have stayed home and watched reruns of Three's Company, but you ventured out and discussed books and culture and food. I hope it was worth it. Thanks.
When I was learning to hold a pencil as a kid, my old man would see me using my left hand, frown, and correct me. In Italian, left-handedness is called sinistra, or sinister. As soon as he left the room, though, I returned the pencil to my preferred left hand. I don’t know how many times we battled like this, but apparently I won because I am now a lefty. When you ask people if they’re lefties or righties, most find this to be an easy question. But if you examine the thousands of gross and fine movements we make in a single day, you might be surprised by the nuance. This week we began a unit on the brain, the first step in the realization that this wonderful organ is both exquisite and maddeningly stupid. We’re born with a dominant motor strip, sure, which controls all our movements, but you’d think there’d be another part of the brain that would suggest, “Hey, kid, no big deal, write with your right hand like your old Pop wants. You’ll get better in no time.” Imagine the advantages, especially in sports, of tackling the world from both sides. But the brain usually takes the easy route, falling into patterns that are both useful and limiting.
You might be interested in taking the quiz I used. Simply answer L, R, or N (for No preference). A high number of R’s means you have a dominant left motor strip, and vice versa.
1. With which hand do you write?
2. With which hand do you throw a ball?
3. When dealing cards, which hand doles out the cards? (Notice that the thumb of the less dominant hand does a skillful job of edging each card off the deck. Try dealing with the other hand to help you appreciate this.)
4. Which hand for scissors? (This is a fun one to play with if you’re a righty. Find a pair of steel-blade scissors—not shears—and try to cut something using your left hand.)
5. Which foot kicks a ball? (If you’re a soccer player, you know how the weaker foot can become about as strong as the dominant one.)
6. Which hand on the toothbrush? (Wouldn’t N make the most sense here?)
7. Which hand loops a belt? (Yes, you can be a lefty or righty belt-looper. A demonstration would help here, but this ought to be clear enough: if you push the tongue of the belt across your waist to the left, answer R.)
8. Which hand holds a hammer?
9. Which leg goes into pants first? (Try this tomorrow morning!)
10. If a pair of your shoes are side by side, which one do you slip on first? (This is a great example of the dumb brain. Why should we have a preference for this? There’s no advantage. None. Just feels right.)
11. Clap. Do it again. More hearty this time. Which hand is on top? That hand is the dominant one. (Next time you’re with a group, let’s say at the Thanksgiving table, ask everyone to clap, then ask them to all switch at once so that their less dominant hand is on top. The difference in sound is striking.)
12. Which arm goes into a jacket first? (Try this. Pay attention. Then try slipping on the jacket with the less dominant arm first. You’ll feel like a kindergartener again.)
13. Which hand holds an apple? (Hard to believe that we have a preference for simply holding something, but we do. Try the other hand, and you’ll see.)
14. Which hand to sprinkle salt?
I encourage students to pay attention throughout the day and to come in with their own examples. If you’d like to try this yourself and comment, I’d love to hear. One righty student has taken this a step further: she’s been writing with her left hand for several days now.
We discussed the functions of many other sections of the brain, but the most fascinating was the role of the thick bundle of nerves that connects the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum. In some rare cases, doctors sever those nerves to prevent seizures, and the hemispheres then operate independently. Two brains. One brain has no idea what the other brain knows. Devastating. Life-changing. Yet the resilient brain, or brains, somehow adapt, able to make sense of a divided world.
You’d think that the rest of us, with our unified brains, could learn to be so accepting of differences.
I hate teaching from Powerpoint slides, which is why I rarely do. I certainly use Powerpoint from time to time, but mainly as a visual tool. I hate the process: showing a bullet point, reading the bullet point, waiting for students to write down what they see on the screen, briefly discussing the bullet point, then clicking to the next bullet point. I’m sure some teachers have success with this routine—I can think of two in the last 31 years—but I am not one of them. I hate the waiting while students write, the interruption of the flow of ideas. (I hate being in the audience during Powerpoint presentations too. One’s brain moves at a different rate than the speaker, I think. And turn those lights off for longer than ten minutes, and I’m gone.)
What brings this to mind? We finished a unit on social psych. Students did very well on the test. But we didn’t proceed through the unit in any sequential, orderly manner...one bullet point after another. I can’t do it. It’s not the way I think. Students do complete an extensive study guide that provides guidance, but I may highlight pages 8-9 of the study guide one day and pages 13 and 19 on another. Over the years, I’ve asked students for feedback of course, and no one has ever asked for more order, more bullet-point slides, more sequential in-class notes. But now I’m curious if I’ve been driving students crazy with my relatively frenzied approach. To clarify, the frenzy is always painstakingly organized, I know exactly what I want to cover during a class period (which sounds contradictory; am I orderly or not? I am. I’m not. I am.), but the push forward each day is more art than science. One of the greatest compliments a student can offer: “Mr. Romano, do you make lesson plans?” I love this because the hours spent preparing seem effortless, as it should be.
I’ll offer two examples of the controlled chaos that happened this week. We watched a 12-minute clip of the latest Batman movie, the scene in which the joker gives a detonator to a ship full of prisoners and another to a ship full of ordinary citizens. After watching, students had to find examples of concepts we’d been discussing these past two weeks. I didn’t know what they would identify exactly, but I had questions to prompt them, and as always, those bright young minds answered the questions insightfully and thought of angles I hadn’t considered.
Example two. I’m proud of this little review game I concocted during a bicycle ride one day. (Bicycle rides and long walks can be quite productive when trying to generate ideas.) We invited a panel of four freshmen to the front of the room. My class was divided into five teams. Each team had written down concepts on little cards, and they had to persuade freshmen to “exhibit” the concept in 40 seconds. The freshmen didn’t have to guess the actual concept on the card; they simply had to express the idea. For example, if my students, like prosecutors, could lead a freshman to agree that all politician are the same and to list some of the ways in which they’re the same, my students could turn over the card they were holding, with stereotype written on it, and gain points. There were some other little twists, but that’s the main gist. The game created mayhem, but it was focused mayhem. And not a single bullet point to be found.