Monday, November 13, 2017

Festival del Maiz

Spanish language and Latin American food and culture took over the Land School last Saturday

The incredible potluck was essentially the whole festival. Each family introduced their food and talked about their food traditions and then we had a great meal with great conversation.

Felix and Adrian demonstrating how to eat an arepa.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Maybe an old dog CAN learn new tricks

by Andy

My current "Personal Odyssey" is to learn French, Italian, and German at the same time. For the first Farm Stay Jen brought an idea from our experience with Marin Montessori's Junior High. It is called a "Personal Odyssey," and each semester each student chooses one thing they want to learn or do just for themselves. They work on it all semester and then present on the last week. Jen modified that so that our Farm Stayers got to choose one thing for the 18 days, and she put the emphasis on the daily practice of setting a goal for yourself and dedicating time towards that goal. I chose to play along with a goal I had already set for myself: learning languages. 

I think the biggest thing that has held me back from learning anything during my life is discouragement. Discouragement about learning certain things is a pattern of thinking that I must have taken on early in my life. It was a seemingly useful pattern because it protected me against the pain of failure, by telling me that if something seemed hard to learn or do at first, then I probably wouldn't be able to do it. So why even try? I got it into my mind early that I was good at some things and not good at other things. I don't believe that any more.

I love being back in Wisconsin and working at the Land School. But I also miss my life in California, and I especially miss the staff and students of Marin Montessori School. One of the things I miss is that at MMS, the farm is at the school itself, so as Farm Manager I got to be part of the daily life of the Junior High community. In addition to supervising the farm, I was able to teach Science classes, Book Groups, PE, and more. One of my jobs that I loved was to support the graduates in their speeches. The speeches were all beautiful and poignant in their own ways, but one young man's speech has kept me thinking.

In his speech, Josh talked about how during his sixth grade year he had a hard time. There were things going on in school and life that seemed overwhelming and insurmountable. In his classroom they had a blue guitar. He was drawn to play the guitar, and he was given the time to explore this desire. He played the guitar for at least 30 minutes almost every day. Eventually, wise parents supported this passion with lessons and guitars at home as well. Josh's speech talked about how playing his guitar helped him to heal his hurts and center his life, and then he played "Blackbird," by the Beatles. I had seen Josh play guitar on other occasions and he plays like a prodigy, fingers dancing on the fret, lost in the moment of the music. His performance on the night of graduation was no exception. It got me thinking about learning. Here was young man who was able to learn in one year how do to something that I have thought about being to be able to do for my whole life. Either he was naturally gifted or something else was going on. As teacher, I know that something else is going on. It was his daily attention and the his intention that worked like magic.

When I was in Honduras in the Peace Corps, I thought that I might try to learn to play the guitar, so I had one made for me, and I found a friend to teach me. It was hard at first, and I got frustrated that I wasn't instantly able to do what I have seen others do. Within a few weeks, the guitar sat untouched gathering dust in the corner of my room. Discouragement and a belief in my lack of natural talent told me I never would learn guitar. So I gave up. It was a nice guitar that I eventually sold to another volunteer. But even today I am stuck with this question. Why did I give up?

I grew up in a culture and in schools that continually told me I was "good at" some things and not "good at" other things. There were tests that reinforced those beliefs, but I could also just look around and see that some people just seemed better at some things. Lucky for me, I was told that I was good at math, reading, and other academic things. I internalized that and mostly fulfilled those assessments. That was a good belief system for me because when things got hard academically, I knew that I could do those things eventually, so I was able to keep my attention there. I was not "good at" art, music, shop, and some athletics. After being seen as a smart person for the other subjects, I felt uncomfortable with my initial incompetence when trying new things. Without trying to, I focused my attention on things I was already good at and I spent the minimum amount of time on activities that left me feeling uncomfortable and discouraged. This is too bad, because I made these decisions based on what I now see as a poor understanding of the learning process.

For the last few years I have been hearing the words "growth mindset" versus "fixed mindset." These are useful terms which have entered our lexicon thanks to the work of Carol S Dweck, Ph.D.  There are books and workshops on the growth mindset, and this way of thinking has transformed many people's lives. Of course, this is the same thing that Maria Montessori observed long ago. We are all born intelligent and wanting to learn. If we encounter a prepared environment where we can put our attention on our work, and we find work that meets our developmental needs, then we learn on our own. Human brains are flexible. Learning is a natural part of life.

So this brings me back around to my desire to learn languages. I know Spanish and English, and I have studied some German and some Chinese. But I have always felt intimidated by French. The words seem to come very rapidly and unlike Spanish, there are lots of letters that don't get pronounced. I thought French would be a good test of my new growth mindset. I was inspired by another of my students. Aliya chose to learn Italian for her Personal Odyssey. It looked like fun. So I downloaded a couple apps and I started doing lessons. I accidentally started the Italian course instead of the French, so I kept at both. I added the German course, because I did many years of German in high school and college and I might as well brush that up.

Here is what I have learned so far:

1. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. When a lesson seems hard and I make lots of mistakes, I need to stick with it and try to complete the lesson. Then, if I come back to it the next day, it won't seem so hard and I will make fewer mistakes. It is as if something magic happened overnight. There might still be some issues, but it is always easier when I come back to the lesson the second time. Maria Montessori noticed that children will repeatedly work with the same materials until somehow they come to completion with those materials and then they move on. We, as a culture, can over-value forward progress and always feel like we have to keep moving on to the next thing or lesson. With language-learning especially, repetition is essential. The language apps use repetition to reinforce the learning process, and this is working for me. The hard part for the algorithms to get is which lessons I need to repeat and which lessons I have already internalized. But they try, and mostly the repetition is working well for me.

2. Daily practice becomes a good habit. I have goals for my learning and I am able to stick to my goals because I have developed a habit of doing my lessons. Habits can hard to stop if you have a bad habit. But you can also start a good habit, simply by forcing yourself to do something every day for a couple weeks. At first it might be hard, but soon it just becomes your routine. You don't have to expend energy anymore forcing yourself to do something. Instead it becomes as easy as remembering to brush your teeth. I made it my habit to do my lessons every night before I went to bed, with more on the weekends. It worked.

3. Intention. I want to learn these languages and I chose to set my intention on the project. If I didn't want to learn them, I know I would have given up a long time ago. I think that might be a big problem with traditional school. There is so much concern that young people learn their lessons that schools have set up elaborate systems of rewards and punishments (grades!) to entice them to learn. Schools have also decided that young people cannot be trusted to choose what to learn, and instead have prescribed curricula that tell children what to learn and how much to learn in order to receive the reward or avoid the punishment. The problem with rewards and punishments is that they only work as long as they are in place. You can force young people to learn something in order to gain approval or avoid disapproval, but then they will only learn as much as you ask them to learn. Instead, because I want to learn and there are no grades and no one is telling me to stop, I will sometimes do many many lessons in one day. I don't have to do it. I want to do it.

4. I like mistakes. Well, I still don't actually like mistakes, but at least I am comfortable with mistakes. Since no one is grading me and it is my own project to learn, when I make a real mistake on my lesson, it doesn't feel like a judgement on my essential self-worth. Instead I just take it as information about where I need to put my attention and learn. Mistakes are useful to me because that is how I learn. If I were not making any mistakes, then I would not be at my learning edge. I want to always be learning new things, so if I can do a lesson quickly and perfectly, then I need to be working on a different lesson. Mistakes are my friends. This is a radical departure from my own experience as a student during junior high, high school, and college. Mistakes were to be avoided at all costs because in the "fixed mindset" world, a mistake was evidence that I didn't measure up. There was shame for me, especially in publicly visible mistakes like when I would raise me hand and confidently give the "wrong" answer. Yikes!! The shame of making mistakes could make a person not even want to try. Even in Montessori adolescent programs mistakes can cripple a person's ability to learn. At MMS I was able to give feedback on many, many five paragraph essays over the years. I always enjoyed giving feedback by reading the essay aloud with the student and attempting to engage their own ears and brain to have them hear how it sounds. I would challenge them to clarify and develop their thinking in the second or third revision. By the time we were done looking at their first draft, it would be covered with pencil or pen marks. This is why I liked going over the drafts with the student present, because out of context those pen marks could be horrifying and shameful to a fixed mindset point of view. If your goal is to get a good grade and complete your work, then those marks are proof that you were found lacking and your did not complete your work. If your goal is to become a better writer, then those marks are proof that someone cares and has taken the time to give you feedback. There is a big difference. Montessori has the concept of "control of error," wherein a Montessori material contains within the material itself a sort of self-correction which functions to give the child feedback. There is a logic to the material, which functions much better than a teacher's "corrections."

5. I am never really done with learning. In the world of traditional school, the goal of completing one's work is really big. "Did you finish your work?" is a refrain I know quite well. I remember wanting to be sure I was done with my homework during junior high and high school. I remember completion of homework to be of such importance that I would sometimes come in early and have a speed session of Calculus (or whatever) in the school's cafeteria. We would all sit around racing through the problems and copying any answers that we hadn't figured out ourselves. Now we refer to that as collaborative learning and we might encourage it, but I'm pretty sure my Calc teacher would have thought of that as "cheating." If your goal is to learn something, then "cheating" in order to complete a task is only cheating yourself. I now think completion is a two-edged sword. In school we like to give students limits to our expectations in order to protect them from working too much. We give an "assignment" that has an end to it. But that limiting of when to stop might discourage people from doing more work and engaging their own brain to decide when it feels right to stop. It is important that children find satisfaction in meeting their own expectations, and not the external expectations of a teacher. In the real world, the feeling of completion for learning is elusive. We need to develop our own stopping points. And we get to remember that although we might complete a task, the learning can continuous. My language apps keep giving me lessons, under the assumption that I want to keep learning. Which is true!

6. It is okay not to learn everything. When I started my language learning process, I decided to learn all three languages at once. In addition, I downloaded an app for Chinese. I was already familiar with Chinese from living in China during college, but I was seriously out of practice. So I added Chinese to the mix. It was fun in the summer, but once the school year started, I discovered that I really did not have the time to do all four. So I focused on French, barely kept up with German and Italian, and set Chinese aside for later. Setting my own limits is part of self-care. Traditional school discourages children from setting their own limits. This is probably because there is the erroneous belief that if left to their own devices children would not want to learn. So the teachers decide how much to assign. Often that is an arbitrary number of hours of homework for the average person. Advanced students are not served, because it is not challenging enough. Students who are "behind" are not served because it can be overwhelming. The problem is that once the teachers start setting the expectations, the students do not have time to set their own expectations for themselves. They are spending all of their time meeting the expectations of others. While this might be a good preparation for working in the capitalist system, it is not very good for actual learning.

7. Get over the wall of "I can't" or "I'm just bad at this" or "I'm stupid." Learning French has been much different than learning German or Spanish was for me, because I had an initial "wall of stupid." I have seen this with my students sometimes. It is as if they cannot see what is on the page in front of them because they expect not to understand it. Sometimes this manifested as just guessing at an answer to a math problem without doing any visible work or writing "IDK" for a test answer. The problem in front of them is like a nut that they need to crack open to get at the meat. But all they see is the shell. The shell is made of all of the discouragement that they have ever had with similar problems. The shell says "I can't" before they even try. Instead of words, they see a wall. I saw a similar wall. The wall was made of my history of radically mispronouncing French words that I tried to say over the years. Jen would gently give me the correct pronunciation,  but over time I built up the impression that I just couldn't pronounce French. It was exactly the sort of discouragement that caused me to give up guitar before I even tried. It takes persistence to crack this nut or scale this wall (choose your metaphor), but it mostly just takes a belief that it is possible. It takes recognizing early failures not as proof of a fixed stupidity or lack of talent, but rather as indictors of where you need to put more attention. A belief that something is possible is key to doing anything. We all know the story of how no runners could do a mile in less than 4 minutes, until Roger Bannister did it in 1954. Once he did it, others soon followed. Some suggest that once people saw that it was possible, then they could believe that they could do it themselves too.

Well, this is about it for now. Because I am never done learning bout learning, there may be more to come.

Here are some resources for you: