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Re-evaluating My Role as Educator

Something wonderful happened in the biology lab this past semester.  Stressed students began to laugh.  The shy felt comfortable asking questions.  They sometimes challenged my explanations.  This spurred curious debate and conversation, and a willingness for us both to explore beyond the lesson plan.  I shifted from a teacher of content to a facilitator of learning.

Post-secondary teachers are trained to be experts in their field.  Yet how do we provide a suitable framework for learning?  Many instructors, including myself, are put before students with scant preparation, our only model the example by which we were taught.  Knowing the photosynthetic chloroplast mechanism in intimate detail may be important; understanding the best method for engaging students with this complex organelle is vital.

Students complain that their classes are boring, that teachers teach from the book, that they are overwhelmed by essays and exams.  They complain because they are not inspired.   The central role of the educator is to provide an enriching—and perhaps transformative—learning experience.

I am fortunate to work in an open-lab environment, which maximizes one-on-one time with students.  Even so, it took nine years for me to embrace this new paradigm.  I needed to learn five key lessons.

Provide a safe container.

Students need a voice.  Some will be readily vocal, others hide behind a shell.  A safe container is one in which students feel respected and able to contribute.

Building this container takes time and trust.  Start on day one.  Learn student names.  Invite questions.  Avoid long lectures with little interaction.  Check in with their progress.

I reinforce this reciprocal foundation every week.  Within this open and inviting environment, students begin to trust themselves.  They feel empowered and rely on their own questions.  As they come alive to the process, they are no longer content to sit back and listen.

When I started nine years ago, I was the nice teacher.  Now I readily challenge students.  And they challenge me, without fear of judgement.  The tone set and container provided permeates all levels of learning in the classroom (or in my case, the lab).  If we want students to participate—and let’s face it, their participation is just as important, if not greater than, our own—we must open the door for their involvement.

Be present.  Engage.

The act of being present is the single most important identity of the educator.  To be present is to involve and inspire students.

Proceed with passion.  My level of enthusiasm often influences a student’s level of interest and commitment to a topic.

A two-hour lecture, offered in the same manner semester after semester, serves the student no better than a powerpoint presentation uploaded to the course website.  Engage with the student, not the content.  Whether working with one individual or an entire class, follow the basic fundamentals of good communication.  Always face learners.  Make eye contact.  Use their names.  Listen as well as you speak.  Too often, these simple necessities are overlooked.  At all times, be approachable.

To ensure the classroom is engaging, open up a dialogue as often as possible.  Act as a fellow participant rather than an authority figure.  The parcels of information we present to students is secondary to the process by which they are received, discussed, and disseminated.  At the end of the day, choose purposeful conversation over static content.

Be transparent.

Standing in front of the classroom, with students facing you in rows, immediately sets the stage:  they are to listen, and you are to be heard.  Tear down this fabricated and pedantic barrier to learning.  Move around the classroom.  Better yet, sit in a circle.  This can be daunting for both student and teacher, but it encourages direct involvement and interaction.

I try not to hide my fallibility.  If I am transparent in what I say and do, students are more inclined to be open.  They speak to uncertainties, voice difficult concerns, and are confident enough to make mistakes.  And it is these mistakes from which we best learn.

“I don’t know.”

It took me years to say this without discomfort when a student asked a question whose answer, well, I did not know.  Rather than act defensive, I now take this as an opportunity to explore.  We have a conversation.  By this example, students focus less on right and wrong, and more on the journey toward discernment and comprehension.  In other words, critical thinking.

Let the student lead.

Students are the captains of their education.  We are merely guides, or occasional mentors.  As a teacher, my primary responsibility is not to impart information, but to inspire learning.  I may want to be in charge, and have control over the learning process, because shouldn’t I know best?

Weekly quizzes may keep students on task, but they may also build resentment.  Students are not paying enormous tuition to have us implant concepts and definitions.  (This bears repeating:  students are paying us for a service, therefore we are obliged to provide an educational experience that they enjoy.)  They want to be inspired.

Consider oral presentations over essays.  Let students have input into project topics and class discussions.  The path may deviate from the lesson plan.  Resist the temptation to pull them back to the main track.  Instead, look for the points of intersection.  Allow for cross-pollination by connecting a diverse range of ideas.  Unity of variety is fundamental to both science and creativity.

This past semester, two cell biology students created a crossover of the light reactions of photosynthesis and Super Mario Brothers.  Sunlight was a power-up, electrons were mushrooms, and Bowser powered the proton pump.  They had a safe place to explore this metaphorical project and were excited to bounce ideas off one another in order to bring this abstract concept to light.  This student-led experience cemented their understanding of thylakoid membranes and electron transport chains.  My role was to encourage from a distance.

Studies show that the more a student is involved, the more they retain.  Creativity, movement and opportunities to speak (remember, having a voice is vital) are not only beneficial to the learning process, they are essential to student empowerment.  A lone teacher standing at the podium does not inspire involvement.  The more I sacrifice control, the more students take ownership of their education.

Be mindful in your expectations.

Every student is unique.  Some are auditory learners, others visual.  Some need structure, others thrive in self-guided projects.  To expect students to perceive, interpret and express ideas one particular way is like wearing blinders in a snowstorm.  Learners, by the very nature of learning, invariably surprise me.  A facilitator—I prefer this word to teacher—adapts to the needs and wants of the students at hand.

Students provide us with ample opportunity for frustration.  They mix up words, give ambiguous half-answers, take shortcuts, and, at first glance, otherwise appear incompetent and unprepared.  Yet such hasty conclusions are unfair and damaging toward any relationship.

I remember doing an evaluation where I pointed to a model of the kidney and asked for the name of a specific structure.  “Penis,” was the student’s response.  Not what I expected.  I could laugh, now or later, with my colleagues over this penile faux-pas.  However, my mandate is not to ridicule but to help bridge the gap in a student’s understanding.

Why did he mistake kidney tubules for a penis?  Well, the model’s oversized nephron does bear a vague resemblance to the male sex organ.  Plus, the urethra is included on the model, which, of course, passes through the penis, at least in those of us with Y chromosomes.  In this way, the student’s confusion and potential source of embarrassment becomes a dialogue.

Expectation is the seed of disappointment.  Be mindful to the path the student provides.  Explore the unpredictable, and find alternate paths to assimilation.  As an educator and facilitator, I am constantly learning from and evolving alongside my students.  The change I see in them is reflected back at me.

Forget the way you were taught.  Teach the way students learn best:  engaging, experiential, and open to possibility.

My Journey Across CMS Platforms: From Blogger to Drupal, Radiant to Wordpress

Over the last several months I bought my first Mac, dived into Drupal, toyed with the Mac OS Terminal, wrestled with Radiant, coded my first CSS, and tried not to pull out my hair (good thing I have a lot).

The PC-to-Mac switch proved relatively easy, and sensible.  Simple, intuitive, more stable, nearly virus-free, with quality hardware and design.

Now I want a new website.  For me, web design began a long time ago in a program far, far away called Microsoft Frontpage (easy to use but impossible to follow web standards).  Then I jumped ship for Adobe Dreamweaver (steeper learning curve but better-looking results).  I also threw the odd blog onto Blogger (straightforward but limited in scope, and often excruciating to implement the basics).

This time around, I want my CMS (content management system) to be powerful and open-sourced.  Drupal looked promising:  fully customizable, updated by a worldwide community, with more options than a jailbroken iPad.  Heck, even the White House uses Drupal.  But the more options I explored, the less I really needed.  So I shifted to the lean animal that is Radiant.

Now, to learn Radiant you need to be multilingual in technospeak.  Use short form like cd, ls and pwd in the Terminal.  Know what a ruby is, not to mention rails, Github and Heroku.  Oh, and don’t forget CSS and XHTML.

Some definitions may be helpful here:

A command line interface, through which you can tell your Mac to do things it normally does, and some things it won’t do without using the Terminal.  It reminds me of DOS on my old Windows 3.1 PC.

A free content management system that allows you to create websites or blogs.  There is no visual design interface; therefore, you must learn some code.

A coding language.  Said to be easier to read and write than other programming languages.

Rails (or Ruby on Rails)
An open-source web framework written in Ruby.  It’s supposed to make programming web applications easier, assuming you have some experience in this area.

Git & Github
Git is a version control system.  Github is a public place to store and share source code, a kind of social network for programmers.

A cloud-based hosting service popular with users of Ruby on Rails.

Cascading Style Sheets are used to define how pages are displayed on a website.  CSS is essential in separating content (use HTML for this) and design (use CSS).

Extensible Hypertext Markup Language.  Use this to determine how text looks, add images and links, and all variety of markup.

With the help of these youtube tutorials (uploaded by a kid probably half my age) I soon felt comfortable–and humbled–in the DOS-like shell of the Terminal.  Now I can delete files or folders that the Finder gets stubborn about.  So far so good.

Next up:  I need to put (or push, in Radiant terms) my site onto Heroku.  This means confronting–and subsequently googling–error messages like:

lib/active_support/dependencies.rb:55: uninitialized constant
ActiveSupport::Dependencies::Mutex (NameError)


heroku[router]: Error H10 (App crashed) ->
GET dyno= queue= wait= service= status=503 bytes=

Bear in mind, these are simplified versions of sometimes hundreds of lines spat back at me by the Terminal when I typed something it didn’t like.  Fortunately, posting on the Radiant CMS google group got me past these road blocks.  I even managed to install Github and get my site up and running in the local environment (i.e. on my computer), then fiddled with the CSS (which is not as complicated as it looks, until you look closer, and then it is).

I take pride in getting this far, despite taking (or perhaps because) two frustrating months.  This also satiates my curiosity to look behind the web’s curtain and explore the raw machinery that powers the internet.

Then I tried to update my assets ruby, and got another error.  Three hours later, and no progress made, I decided to stop juggling so many balls.  I am a serious writer, but only a casual techie.  Storytelling–not code–is my creative outlet.  Time to focus on content.

In other words, time for the easy way out.

Where do I turn for help?  My Blogger days are done.  Tumblr and Weebly are, respectively, too flashy and too basic.  Posterous appeared hopeful, yet it advertises itself as “the simplest publishing platform on the planet.”  After the flexibility showcased by Drupal and Radiant, I wanted more control. seemed an obvious choice.  It’s popular with writers, and offers reasonable customization.

So here I am, with a new space to share my words.  And yet, a part of me yearns for the freedom I left behind.  I don’t like using a template, but being unique bears a cost:  you have to pay to modify the CSS (for this reason, perhaps is a better choice.)

Someday, my obsessive curiosity will woo me back to Radiant and her seductive code.  For now, I’m going to work on content first, and design second.  But I will finish reading Jeffrey Zeldman’s Designing With Web Standards.  That way, I’m still peeking, at least a little, behind the web’s curtain.  And the more I know, the less confined I want to be.

How to Declutter and Find New Homes for Your Old Stuff

We live in a culture of excess. Clothes, food, books, and floss are necessities. Files, gadgets, decor, bobbleheads, Windex, hello kitty false fingernails—not so much. We are compelled to buy more, when we should spend less.

The past two years, my wife and I have sorted through every closet, box, and storage area. The result? Half our possessions set free. The experience is a cathartic—if arduous—process: choice after choice that ends in exhaustive relief. I kept certain items for decades in hopes of using them in the future. Instead, they became stale relics of my old self.

The five steps below, spoken from experience, help ensure each item in our house holds purpose.

Step 1: Take Everything Out

This step is vital. Move your possessions out of their usual place, extract them from where you think they belong. When I decided to cull my book collection, my wife suggested I take them all down. One by one, with great reluctance, I removed each reverential tome from its sacred space. Turns out I kept hundreds of books for years in hopes of reading them someday; I was astounded by how many books and authors no longer resonated.

If it’s your wardrobe you want to downsize, pull out every last pair of socks and underwear and throw them on the bed. To choose with a discerning eye, separate your stuff from its habitual space. This may feel like pulling gum from the bottom of a table: things get sticky when they stay in one place too long.

Step 2: Have a Friend Help

Decluttering can be a monumental task. Don’t start at ten o’clock at night, as I once did with my four-drawer, legal-sized filing cabinet, aka “the beast.” By midnight, the den was a maelstrom of paperboy receipts, first drafts (and seconds, and thirds), school papers on iguanas and cheetahs, and cards from ex-girlfriends. Needless to say, I stumbled into bed overwhelmed by all the things I did not need.

Ask someone for support and supervision. Have them lounge on the bed while you tear through your closet. Get them to ask questions like:

“When is the last time you wore that? Is it multi-functional?”
“Do you feel fantastic wearing it?”
“How many pairs of shoes do you own? Are any pairs redundant?”
“Do you love it? Do you need it?”

This support person is not here to tell you what to keep and what to toss. That’s your job. They are here to provide a mirror for what you are trying to hide. To keep you on task, and to make sure you don’t cheat.

Step 3: Avoid Excuses

Do not skip over any item. Consider them all. I have tried the easy solution.

This drawer of electrical stuff? Oh yea, I definitely need all that.

My wife called me on it. Twenty minutes later, I went from two hundred to twenty feet of wire and cord. Not because she told me to get rid of ninety-percent of that drawer. Rather, in careful evaluation of each item, I realized how much was redundant. Clarity is key.

The worse and most pervasive excuse?

I’ll keep this for now, because I might need it later.

Unless you have a specific need for an item, and you know when this need will arise, do not fall prey to your biological imperative to horde. Let go of anything that you will not use during the next year (or ideally, the next month). Of course, there are exceptions (e.g. snow shovels or the Valentine you got in grade five from that girl you had a huge crush on). But most things are not exceptions. And guess what? If you get rid of something then find you need it, you can always buy it again, this time with more intention.

This process can be exhausting. To help, I often sort items into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. In this way, I can examine the whole picture, and better grasp what needs to stay and go. A further option is to keep your maybe box around for a month, in a place that you’ll see it. If you use something, take it out. After thirty days, change the label of the box from maybe to no, and move on to step 4.

Step 4: Use Craigslist and Freecycle (aka Get It Out of the House)

Deciding what to get rid of is important. Getting it out of your house is mandatory.

People want your stuff. Keep it local, and put it on Craigslist. Be specific in your post. Attach as many photos as possible. I always indicate what flaws are present, as well as the item’s age and condition. Be honest. Earn good karma points.

You might make money. My last three purges each earned me an average of $900 through Craigslist. But then, I keep good care of my stuff (even the stuff I don’t need). For specialty items, Ebay may be a better choice.

Be friendly. People like to hear the story of your stuff. If it has a history, a theme woven into your life, then it transcends being a static object. I treasured my Kurosawa deluxe box set, complete with Kurosawa’s personal storyboard paintings and foldout shoji screen. I owned this box set for nearly a decade, and looked at the contents maybe three times. With my excited buyer, I shared my love for the sansei of cinema, and, like someone having to give up a cherished pet, I was assured this new home was right.

Purging can be an emotional journey. I do not long for my Kurosawa box set, because I am confident it is being appreciated. Letting go of material possessions is a letting go of the past. Alternatively, as the family historian, I fiercely cling to the family heirlooms–the stories held by these items imbue them with monumental meaning.

On Craigslist, try to respond to every person who inquires. They took the time to write; you can reply in seconds, even if to tell them it’s no longer available. Take down your post as soon as you sell the item.

Be safe. If you are a single woman, you may not want to give a stranger your phone number and address. Meet them in a public place, or have a friend with you.

Use Freecycle if you want things gone fast, and don’t care (or don’t think) your possessions are worth much. After our latest purge, my wife and I advertised the remainder on Freecycle and Craiglist. I put up a big list of what we were giving away (over 500 items), and we lugged everything out to the end of the driveway. The locusts arrived early. By the end of the afternoon, every single book, record, poster and toothbrush was gone. I don’t know if they went to good homes, but any home is better than the dump.

Take the rest to the thrift store. Clean every item first (yes, you are obligated, because you got them dirty by keeping them so long). Find out what time the thrift store takes donations. No midnight deliveries!

Step 5: Repeat as Needed

You may need to repeat this process several times, over a number of years. Be intentional in your spending habits, and avoid unnecessary purchases. Don’t buy just because something is on sale, or five cents at a garage sale. Spending less reduces waste. Shopping is poor comfort food. Cut the fat and leave the lean muscle.

And don’t make yourself crazy. We all have our quirks. I own Gandalf’s sword. It has a name: Glamdring. And I keep floss in five different places, including the car—I get away with this because I use them all.

Start small. Focus on one shelf or drawer. Who knows? That first step may inspire you to tackle the garage.

I Do

I commit
   to buy us a house
      with a magnificent mortgage

I shall work
   seven days a week
      to help pay the cleaning lady

I will take
   bank loans
      so we can holiday
         in the hill towns of Tuscany

I will earn
   the money we need
      to put the kids in daycare
         before their first birthday

I guarantee
   that 6:45 to 7 pm
      every second Sunday
         will be reserved for our time

I will hire
   a secretary
      so I never forget
         our anniversary

I sincerely vow
   in richness and in wealth
      to secure us
         a divorce

Old Lady Lee

We arrive at the height of raspberry season.  Great Aunt Helen beams at us from the front stoop, her toothy smile at once knowing and mischievous.  A feisty five-foot-three, hers was a force to be reckoned with.  Our family’s annual expedition to Penticton—six long hours on the windy, river-hugging road—promised water slides, lakeside fireworks and long, lazy days under the radiant Okanagan sun.  And yet, my fondest memories belong to Aunt Helen’s charming turquoise home and garden of towering sunflowers and immaculate rosebushes.

Despite my shy adolescence, Aunt Helen always greeted me with the same vim and vigour.  My self-appointed job?  To pick as many raspberries as possible.  Three generations of family sat down to share vanilla ice cream with freshly-plucked berries.  The very essence of summer.

I got a letter from her once.  As I unfolded the single piece of paper, scrawled in oversized cursive, I checked the signature:  “O.L.L.”, short for Old Lady Lee.  Since Aunt Helen married into the family, we don’t share a blood relation, but we do share Lee:  being my first name, and her last.

Old Lady Lee wrote letters to everyone.  Well into her eighties, she remained determined to do it herself, even if she dotted her I’s two letters late, and the loop of her lower case G’s hung down like nooses for unsuspecting letters on the line below.  “Congratulations on your graduation,” she began.  “Life is full of the unexpected, isn’t it?”  She filled the remainder of the letter with a zany anecdote, quoted Shakespeare’s “a light heart liveth long”, and concluded with five words of wisdom:  “Eat your veggies and swim!”

Not long after, at the insistence of her daughter, she reluctantly moved to Calgary, where she became the city’s oldest woman to buy a house.  I didn’t see Aunt Helen as often.  But I heard stories.  The time she demanded to board her cancelled flight to China, despite the tanks in Tiananmen Square.  Or the time in Hawaii when she decided to emulate her wave-jumping great-nephews.  As she tumbled head over heels in the rollicking surf, a concerned tourist rushed to the rescue and carried her to shore.  “Let me be!” was her indignant response, and she marched right back into the ocean.  These tales confirmed my vision of her:  a fiercely independent, white-haired world traveller.  Not your average old lady.  If she had one fault, it was her ability to drive family crazy with her plainspoken advice.  She once remarked to her teenage niece at a dinner party:  “Betty, when you put all that makeup on your face it just makes your pimples more obvious!”

Aunt Helen was 97 the last time I saw her, now living with her daughter.  She didn’t recognize me.  I was all grown up, and she had lost that sharp mind of hers to age.  As I tried to explain who I was she mistook me for my father, and proceeded to tell me how I was such a very good man, and how once, confined to a hospital bed for weeks, my mother came to visit her every single day.  “That was so kind of Dorothy, I’ll never forget that,” Aunt Helen said, more than once, with an almost heartbreaking affection.  In fact, I lost count of all the stories she retold.  Her family behaved apologetic toward her forgetful repetition.  Yet I knew she was speaking with loving appreciation, and I cherished every word.  This woman, who for years carried her prize-winning day lilies to the seniors’ home, despite being older than most residents, truly understood the nature of giving and gratitude.

Aunt Helen died soon after.  Sadly, her grape arbour is now a carport, and the garden has lost most of its colour.  Yet the way I remember Old Lady Lee is at home, napping in her favourite chair, a large-print Agatha Christie flopped on her lap.  There I am, camped in the backyard amidst a minefield of predawn sprinklers.  Up on the vine, ripe and proud, shine countless bright red raspberries.