Wednesday, 25 June 2014

OAME 2014: How Educators Inspire

So I've been pecking away at my recap of May's OAME 2014 conference - in my non-abundant spare time. Upon reaching Saturday morning, I realized this session had to be a separate post. Partly because it has both teaching and writing applications. Partly because it made the biggest impact on me. But also in light of the teaching situation in the province of British Columbia right now - inspiration is key.

I don't claim to be a photographer.
Selamawi (Mawi) Asgedom. From his website: "Mawi now only speaks twenty times a year to make time for his writing and online leadership programs." So kudos to the OAME organizers for getting him. He's an Ethiopian refugee who graduated from Harvard. He started his talk by putting on a fake accent, playing with audience expectations. Thinking I kind of like this guy.


Mawi's first slides looked at doodling as having a positive side. You begin with a blank page: No powers. A dot signifies you are ready to take action: I can do it. Goals and dreams around this beginning help to form a line. But you can only get so far with your own line - others can help it to evolve into a square. Expanding that square comes from meeting challenges, forming a cube. If we stick with it... we get the power of a hypercube.

"We all have our own story. The only reason my story has meaning is if it connects to your story." Mawi followed this remark with his 'sandwich rule': If you run into him in an airport, he will buy you a sandwich if you tell him how his talk 'made a difference' rather than just 'it was good'.

He then acknowledged that there's so much research out there, it gets overwhelming. You can't read 200 page reports when you're already busy. "Navigating the research and lexicon can be a daunting task. ... I'm going to boil it down for you so it becomes useable." With a simple model to inspire students. It connects to a story.

"Everyone loves stories." (ASIDE: I feel like this comment links directly to his earlier remark about stories needing to have meaning. Hence why non-fiction stories may resonate more with an audience, particularly if you know the participant(s)... I'm thinking of Andrea's remark on my earlier blog post. So fiction stories may need an extra genre hook beyond the author themselves - I'm speaking from experience there.)

Mawi told us a story about "negative english", aka when someone speaks just enough of the language to get them in trouble, but not enough to get them out of it. His father, not knowing that much about Western culture, had this experience when he "asked" for some help at a store. (Mawi tells it better.) Mawi said one of his biggest regrets was he "didn't have the confidence to go into the store and say 'that's my parents, but there's nothing anyone can do to make me feel ashamed of who I am'."

How a child processes: Takes the "different" things and puts them in an "enemy" bucket. That is, those things are a personal enemy. The "friend" bucket contains only those things perceived by others as "typical" or "normal". (ASIDE: "Wait But Why" has an interesting writeup on historical reasons for why we tend to behave this way.)

Back now to that simple model to inspire students. Let's return to a time when ancestors relied on stories to pass information on (because people couldn't read). There's one story told again and again, it's Joseph Campbell's monomyth or the "hero's journey". The plot goes like this:
1) There's a situation in the land (or with people) where something has gone wrong. A challenge presents itself.
2) A young person ventures forth to solve the problem, going on a quest (into the unknown) in the process.
3) The youth returns with new insight - IF there's a MENTOR character along the way who can guide them. Yoda was referenced as being that character in the "Star Wars" version.

This acts as a metaphor for the way our world works. Often challenges are so big that youth can get crushed unless adults stand up and say "I believe you can do this ... you need my help." That help can be as simple as that BELIEF, but likely extends to the wisdom that comes with experience. The point is how YOU DO play a role in that journey. As the adult. As an educator. It can be easy to forget the larger story of why you became an educator, of whatever passion it was that brought you to the occupation.

"You can never forget that larger story, or you've lost a lot of your power." Most recently, this made me think of why teachers in BC are on strike without pay, against a government that is actually breaking the law. For more on that larger story, go on twitter to see the hashtag #ThisIsMyStrikePay (a lot of the good ones were the weekend of June 14th).


At this point in his keynote, Mawi went into "The 5 Powers of an Educator", which is also the title of his latest book. The first two boil down to having belief in yourself, and building a relationship with students. The other three levers are: Mindset ("I can do it"), Skill ("I know how to do it") and Voice ("I want to do it"). Each of these was covered in more depth.

Nothing to sphere, but sphere itself.
MINDSET: "We take for granted a lot of the things we've mastered already." For instance, the ability to sit in a chair. Everyone has a "circle of mastery", a core set of things they can do. Beyond that is the "circle of growth", the things we cannot do. When you TRY, the circle of growth expands. "Failure is when you do nothing to expand your circle of mastery."

When you try something new, there will be frustration. Do NOT back off from that moment - to become successful, you must plow ahead. Because success is any time you try to grow. The only failure is in doing nothing. But kids (and adults, and writers...) will put barriers in their own heads that aren't there. You may have to repeat your belief in someone else MANY times for them to get through those barriers. After all, people develop on their OWN timeline, not yours (and not those of a curriculum).

Be patient. Conversely, if you're on the receiving end, remember, you can never WAIT for the right mindset. Doing does drive thinking, and confidence comes from gaining mastery.

SKILL: "It's good to pray, but sometimes, you need some skill." The self-esteem movement (of the late 1990s) is now seen as damaging, because it can make people think they are "not as smart as other kids". (ASIDE: Or are "smarter", and must maintain that at all costs.) The reality is you should NOT accept that you cannot learn. It may take you a few more training sessions than it does for someone else, but you CAN do it. Moreover, additional confidence and resilience comes from acquiring skill.

Mawi told a story of his grade school english teacher, Mrs. Countryman, who had this advice: "If you want to do well on tests, study what you do not know." Sure, review a couple problems on things you've done, to keep it fresh, but put your effort towards what builds new skills. If it helps, focus on small actions. For instance: "When X comes up, I usually do Y... this week I'll do A."

VOICE: "There is some power in human beings that can only be tapped when we're feeling passion." The lack of voice is what drives parents crazy: The student can do it, and knows how to do it, but simply won't. How do we motivate and excite this person, to tap into their abilities?

Consider giving students choice and power. (Possibly with a lesson formed like a 3-act problem.) You can also appeal to someone through their desire to make a difference. Show the context of a larger vision. (For instance, a teacher at my school has high school students create computer programs for students at one of our feeder schools.) Showing your own passion can also help to spark it in others.

Mindset, Skill and Voice - three key items that teachers (and mentors) have the power to activate in others.

Or click here if you're a fan of the remake.


To this point, you've read a nice recap, maybe clicked on a few links. Time for me to tell you a bit of my story.

If you know me at all, you know I'm good with organization and routine. I'm not prone to deviating from a plan once I've made it, and I need time to process changes. On this day though, I was late for my next session because I decided to buy (an advance copy) of Mawi's "The 5 Powers of an Educator" book. Then I lined up to get him to sign it. I don't remember what I said exactly as he did, somehow thanked him and said his talk resonated with me. He came back with a very good question: "What part?"

At the time, I just got choked up and said I wasn't sure. And I cried a bit. Which is also very out of character for me. I've had a bit of time to think since then, and I'll go into a better response below. (ASIDE: What I haven't had time for is reading the entire book -- I flipped through it at OAME. There are stories in it too. I started it earlier this month. But, school. It's on the reading list for July.)

At any rate, within my first week back in the classroom, I took a few minutes to show the "mastery" circles model to all of my students. I said it applied in general, but I pulled it specifically into a math context, with the mastery circle being the things they knew coming into the course, and the growth circle being what the curriculum said they should know going out.

Pictured: Parabola!
I emphasized that even if they don't reach what the course "says" they need to know, as long as they've grown, that's success. If the growth is a personal goal of 80, but you only get to a 70, that's not a failure - we can't all learn on the same timelines. Moreover, the growth gets harder as the mastery expands, because area of a circle is a quadratic relationship! (Parabola shoutout, heyo!)

I threw in a bit of Jo Boaler's OAME talk at the time too, to the effect that you grow synapses by failing, rather than by using the links that already exist. (That talk will be in my final OAME post, coming this weekend.) And I repeated the whole argument a few days later for a student who had been away, and was feeling down about not achieving at the same level she had been in previous years. My hope was that it would be in some way inspirational.

Back to "Which Part?" At first, Mawi's earlier quote, "The only reason my story has meaning is if it connects to your story" had resonated most strongly, as I connect it to reading blogs and fiction stories as well. But I think it had more significance at the time because I was in the process of halting my web serial. Going deeper, here's what I've come up with.

Last summer, in the post "Why I Teach", I concluded the following way: Because I want to push people forwards, into places that are beyond my reach. This talk gave an added layer of meaning to that desire, linking it to the mentor story. It also gave me a tool to use, in describing the mindsets. And in doing so, it helped me realize that I may already be achieving my goal of pushing people forwards, even though it's not possible for me to really know. (After all, how can I know where my students will ultimately end up when they're my age?) And from that realization, I draw some comfort.


We're all different, with different backgrounds. While this post leaned educational, I hope that by reading this far, you've taken away something worthwhile. If not, but you know of someone else who might benefit - pass it along. It just feels SO important right now to remind people of the good that they do, even when (as in BC) it seems like there are no immediately tangible results from our daily struggles.

Finally, I suppose I can reverse apply this entire "growth" philosophy back onto myself. I'm still not good with groups, or remembering names, and I'm lousy beyond belief as far as marking/grading goes (another post that's forthcoming). But as I make progress... I suppose I need to acknowledge it. I'll try. You try too.

Check? Check.

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