Monday, November 30, 2009

Learning: The Burn-out Antidote

I happened to find uplifting the comments of a public school teacher, Louise Abrams, writing in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, November 3, 2009.

Her brief letter bears reading again and again, but I'd like to quote two of her sentences here:

The interdependent relationship between teaching and learning is a priceless labor of love and a joy that must be experienced to be believed.

Show me a teacher who actively pursues through love the art of learning, and I’ll show you a teacher who will never burn out of the teaching profession.

In the first quote Abrams is referring to the dynamic of 21st century learning and how we teachers can find relish in the sometimes unsettling realization that we can learn from our students especially when it comes to technology, and that they have much to learn from us especially when it comes to technology.

The second quote reminds me of my college methods supervisor, Hilda A. Kring, doubting that there was such a thing as teacher as well as their students can never, ever burnout. Of course there are many mitigating factors--supplies, funds, bureaucracies, misunderstandings, societal ills--but some of our best teachers come from schools where supplies and funds are low or bureaucracies and other ills run rampant. Or said another way, perhaps a burnt out teacher is one that has ceased to learn.

Image created at

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Darnedest Thing About Multitasking

Kids say the darnedest things. They say they can multitask. For a decade, as they grew up in the digital age, we adults thought "kids these days!" and believed them. I believed them, too. In fact, I envied them.

But then I read Brain Rules, by John J. Medina, a molecular biologist, who points to research that shows our brains and our students' brains don't work on two things as at a one. Like the computers we created in our own image, we are binary thinkers. We sequence. We this then that.

So multitasking is a myth. Stephen Henshaw, Chair/Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkley, correctly names the activity of processing more than one media at a time as quicktasking. His comments are part of a new video feature at Common Sense Media. While quicktasking may be useful at times, constantly moving from one thing-task-idea to the next leaves our students without the skills of concentration and focus.

Two tips offered by Common Sense Media include:

  • Limit distractions, turn off the electronics
  • Encourage more reading

What makes this multitasking myth more insidious is the fact that it seems as if it's not a problem. Kids (and adults) think they are doing just fine. The National Academy of Sciences finds that heavy media multitasking students lack focus, understanding, and retention while trying to attend to two or more activities at one time. Time seemingly gained by doing or learning two things at once is actually lost if they are not able to be recalled later.

A study at Stanford University, showed that multitaskers were the worst at multitasking. By frequently multitasking, students are not only suffering when it comes to focusing on one thing, but are less able to focus on anything whether there's one, two, or more things. They scan but do not internalize information presented, perhaps because they treat all information with equal attention and do not focus, prioritize, or otherwise sort it out.

As much as I love to revel in our media world and the creativity it invites, I'd shudder to think that my students live a life without getting lost in a book for an hour or two or sit and write a journal or a poem without interruption. Beyond these romanticist ideals, as a teacher, I am concerned that our students are not able to "turn it on" when focus could mean the most. It is not an enviable situation. Focus, concentration, and retention are benefits too important to be winked at.

The darnedest thing is our students don't know what they are missing.

Image credit: Reformatted from"Multi-tasking." By Atonal. 27 Nov. 2007. Flickr/cc.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ready to Explore

One of my longtime laments is that most film documentaries are too long for classroom use. Fifteen minutes is a maximum usefulness of a video that I'm trying to fit into a 40 minute period, and I tend to get excited by a good 30-minute film. So when introduced to Explore with a variety of high-quality films designed "to champion the selfless acts of others, " I was pleased to find varying lengths of clips from 2 minutes to 48.

These films, found at, are developed under the leadership of Charles Annenberg Weingarten with the support of the Annenberg Foundation. I have long been a fan of Anneberg Media's American Passages, Literary Visions, and Voices and Visions online features for Americna literature at
My first impression of the site's concept--films deal with particular individuals in specific nonprofit pursuits around the globe--was that this site was going to be too esoteric for classroom use, but I was mistaken. Although each short film does feature an individual, this approach presents an engaging human element to the topic. The focus is not on the individual so much as the individual's passion. His or her passion sheds light on some cultural, political, and ecological aspect of our world.
The documentaries are arranged by geographical region. As a teacher of world literatures I am especially drawn to the 2-to-8-minute short features that enrich my students' study of a culture. They can be viewed from the site or streamed through a class website or wiki and launch to a full screen view. Unfortunately, they cannot be downloaded for more remote use, and I don't see any mention of DVD options.
Several of documentaries have printed transcripts of the interviews with experts that can be downloaded and there are online viewable files of dramatic and instructive scenes from the documentaries.
I use shorts on Indian Dance with Bhagavad Gita, on Blue Mosque with poetry of Rumi, and Caligraphy Master with Chinese Philosophers. And I'm signed up to get updates when new films are added. On my wish list: Mexico, Norway, Greece, Iraq, Japan, Peru.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Idealistic, Content, Disheartened? (Or Burnt Out?)

"I don't know whether I believe in teacher burn out," my college supervisor Hilda A. Kring, Ph.D. said to me more than twenty years ago. She called herself a "realistic idealist" when it came to most matters, including the topic at hand. One of her proteges, I would say the same of myself, and as for her comment, ditto.

A recent comment by a reader prompted my consideration about this idea of "burnout." He suggested that I get out of teacher if I'm burnt out. Agreed, but I'm still not sure about the idea of burnout. (And if you're wondering, I don't think I am nor in denial.)

While I was thinking about this, I see a recent study by the Public Agenda has released a report on a related topic: Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today. The study sheds light on what makes teachers feel valued and less likely to quit. It mentions things like:
  • offering career paths in education,

  • ensuring technology is available to aid instruction,

  • and increasing teacher salaries to levels of other professional jobs such as lawyers and doctors.
More interesting to me, the study separates the 890 teachers surveyed into three groups: contended, disheartened, and idealists. When I heard the three monikers, I instantly thought this made sense. Don't we fall into one of the three categories?
Well, in the study 40% fell into the disheartened category, 37% contented, and 23% idealist.
I've already tipped my hand. You know I fall in to the minority--which brings me back to my wondering if there is burnout. Maybe there is such a thing--and dishearteneds are the best ones to ask about it, 77% of those studied who have been teaching for more than 10 years. But this realistic idealist can't see it.
Although I'm "way older" than most idealists teachers recorded in the study (77% of idealists identified by the study are Gen. Y'ers with fewer than 10 years in the classroom), I'll find a path for my career (36% of idealist teachers said this would be in education but outside of the classroom for them), a way to get the tech, and take whatever raise my union can muster.