What Would Captain Kirk Do?

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My first experience teaching an ITV (Interactive Television) class was terrifying. The idea that there was a group of students in another class, in another campus, in another town, relying on me to press all the right buttons, adjust the microphones, adjust the cameras, and, I almost forgot, teach a class. This was surely unfamiliar territory for me. Just days before my first ITV class, I had a very quick in-service about what does what, but that first day of class, you become that Captain Kirk at the podium, plotting your course, making sure everything is turned on;

Boldly Going Where No Teacher (at least this one) Has Ever Gone Before.

As the screens light up and the images of students on the Prescott campus appeared, I thought, I got this, what’s the big deal. The clock struck 3:30pm and it was show time.  I began talking and I could hear the students on the Prescott campus stating they couldn’t hear me well. I fumbled with the volume controls for a few minutes until I realized I forgot to turn on my mike. Since I joked about feeling like Captain Kirk before class started with students, a voice echoed from the back of the classroom, “that’s Ok, Captain Kirk was only human too.” Compassion in the classroom, you got to love it.

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Back on course, the rest of the class seemed to go without any more incidences, but I was beginning to realize a big challenge teaching an ITV class, the lack of mobility. I like to walk around the classroom unless I’m using the whiteboard during class. During class discussions, I walk around, getting closer to the discussions floating around the classroom. Students don’t seem to mind and for me it’s became part of how I delivery a lesson.  In an ITV class, this becomes impossible.  You must remain in the camera view.  I found I needed to adjust how I delivered a lesson staying in one spot. Another adjustment I had to make was, I couldn’t clearly see the faces of the students in the remote classroom. I mean, to really see their faces. I began to realize how important that was. To see students’ reactions, body language, all those cues we get in the classroom that tells us if they’re bored or really listening and understanding the material.

Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, but even with all the advantages it provides us in making our lives easier, it does present challenges.  One of the biggest challenges has been getting to spend face to face time with my students. This is why I decided that with my ITV class that meets twice a week, I spend one class meeting on the Verde Campus and the other class meeting on the Prescott Campus. This has made not only a tremendous difference in my interaction with students, but students appreciate the opportunity to have that face to face with their instructor.

I believe that challenges make us better at what we do. The more adjustments we find in adapting to something new, usually we gain a better perspective in what we are trying to accomplish. I think the challenges I faced in teaching in an interactive video classroom has made me more confident as an instructor and continues to challenge me in developing more effective ways of delivering a lesson in an ITV environment.

So stayed tune for the continuing voyages of the SSBuffo traveling through space, virtual space that is. 3131004-5453052638-67712

Oh, I almost forgot…live long and prosper…

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My Brain Is Full

A student walks into the classroom and seems somewhat distraught. She quietly sits at her desk waiting for class to begin. I look up and greet her and ask her how she is doing; “I’m doing OK, but sometimes I feel my brain is so full of stuff, it’s getting hard to remember everything.”  This reminded me of a Far Side comic by Gary Larson of a student coming to class who has an exceptionally small head asking his instructor to be excused since his small brain reached its limit and was “full.”

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Our brains consist of about one billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections. If each neuron could only help store a single memory, running out of space would be a problem. You might have only a few gigabytes of storage space, similar to the space in an iPod or an ISB drive flash drive.  Yet neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.

But the way we use ours brains today is much different compared to how we used our brains 100 years ago.  The digital informational age we live in today has radically changed how we think, retain information and communicate with each other. The interlinking of humanity began with the emergence of language and now has progressed to the point where information can be transmitted to anyone, anywhere, and at the speed of light.  We hear more and more about the global network, linking the billions of minds together in a single system. It’s beginning to sound more like our planet (Gaia) developing her own nervous system.  The parallels between this global brain and the evolution of our own brain hold many similarities.

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The WWW, has become the repository for all human knowledge. Data is not located in any single place, but is distributed among tens of millions of host computers across the planet.  There are many similarities in how the WWW and our brains function.  A link on the hundreds of billions of pages on the web will call up some or associated page , just as human recall may take the form of a thought, a visual image, a sound, or some other modality, a link on the web may call up a text, images, sounds, video, or some combination of them.

So what does this have to do with a student who claims their brain is too full to learn anything else?  Well, it not about not having enough memory to remember things, but it may actually be the inability at times to process excessive amounts of information presented in this technological world due to lack of learning how to use more effective memory skills.  Early studies showed that people could remember a lot, but it was assumed that we did it by remembering abstract descriptions without too many details, but given the right setting, the human brain can record an amazing amount of information.  Remembering details becomes more effective when conscious reminders are given. Telling a student to actively try to remember details and giving them familiar examples which draws upon their previous memory or understanding reinforces memory and promotes more learning. Like the computer which relies on semblances of information, so does our brain.  To prove this in the classroom, I give students a simple memory exercise. I display 20 random objects on the projected screen and give students 1 minute to memorize all 20 objects displayed.  Most students remember about half of the objects shown and seem disappointed in the results. I then instruct the students to make up a story for the next different 20 objects shown on the screen and see if their memory improves. Most students are able to remember the 20 objects with 80% to 90 % accuracy. It’s the ability to draw from our own experience and associations that our memory relies on.

emotions01Yes, technology has changed the way we live, communicate, and learn, but equally important, technology has changed the way we think. The notion of how we develop more effective learning skills and how we can expand our memory may be in our in our understanding of how technology is creating what some refer to as “The Global Brain.”

Just where this digital revolution will take us is up for discussion. Let’s remember that just 15 years ago when the WWW was just starting, no one realized the impact it would have on human society. Yet today we are able to see the changes it has already made in our world. As we encourage our students to learn and think for themselves, synthesize information and form new associations, let’s not forget this is what technology should support and we as educators should apply this technology knowing it will affect not only our students, but teaching as a whole

The Joy of Mapping Storms

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The term brainstorming always seemed odd to me, the truth being; I love a classroom that’s in that brainstorming mode.  You’ve got to admit, it’s  pretty cool, ideas being generated, creative thinking in an unstructured manner and lots of participation.

The goal of brainstorming is to generate many ideas in a short period of time.  One of the key elements in brainstorming is a term I recently learned, “piggybacking,” or the use of one idea to stimulate another idea. Not only are ideas being tossed around, but you can feel the energy in the classroom change and there is almost this electricity that’s gets people restless in their seats. During brainstorming sessions, it important to record all ideas on the board, having no idea disregarded or criticized. When I began writing everything down, it was sometimes difficult to keep up with the students and I realized I needed to find a different and easier way in documenting those sessions.  I began using Mind Maps and the more I used them the easier and visually effective they became.

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Mind Mapping involves putting ideas in the form of a visual map that shows the relationship among these ideas. You start with a main idea or topic, and then draw branches off the main topic which could represent different parts or aspects of the main topic. A topic may have four or as many needed branches (sub-topics) and each of those branches may have branches and, well, you get the picture.  As the brainstorming progresses and ideas are being added to the Mind Map, a visual map and if you want to really be creative, a very colorful and cool map covers you whiteboard. Not only do I like the creativity of Mind Mapping, but how it easily brings in important attributes which are associated with creative problem solving skills.  Such as:

  1.  The ability to generate a number of ideas which then brings an increase of possibilities.
  2. The ability to have a different perception of a problem, yielding other possible solutions.
  3.  The ability to add or build off an idea.
  4.  The ability to create new ideas
  5.  The willingness to be brave…suggesting something out of the norm

We know that most students retain information and have better retention if learned by both visual and verbal presentations, but having students be part of the creation of the Mind Mapping, becomes not only effective, but fun.  Also, students that may have learning challenges benefit from this type of visual aid.

So, I’ve become a map maker, charting  today’s lesson and creating a path as I go.  It’s true, “it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters.”

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Intelligence…What does that really mean?

During a discussion in my PSY 245 Human Growth and Development class about intelligence and how we measure it, I asked students to share their feelings about the notion of IQ testing. Many share their thoughts about the need for testing and what does it really mean to have that magic number that tells everyone how smart we are. When students were asked what intelligence meant to them, many expressed that intelligence was deeply ingrained in their own thinking, we are brought up with the idea that we can learn new things and the more we learn, the smarter we get. Then a voice from the back of the room blurted out, “having a high IQ is like having a car with a big engine.” Hmm, good analogy, but is bigger better?  I ask the question, “does higher IQ predict success like the cars with the biggest engines, does that guarantee winning the race?  Is it the car or the driver that wins the race?”

I decided to run a little experiment in the classroom; I took a short survey and asked these two questions.

–         If we have a certain amount of intelligence, can we really change how we think?

–         If we learn new things, are we changing our intelligence?

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Interesting that many of the students felt that intelligence was for the most part fixed and inflexible. Everyone seemed to agree that learning was important, but did just learning make them smarter? As the discussion progressed, a student suggested that maybe it wasn’t the notion of intelligence, but more importantly, our thinking skills, how we perceive and apply cognitive skills and problem solving skills that are the components that really define the notion of intelligence. So here is that “Ah ha” moment that we teachers live for, the notion of intelligence is alive and well in the classroom; thank you.

It seems like a basic concept, yet a difficult one for many. The idea that intelligence is not how much you know, but rather how you use what you know and your ability to modify how you think about what you know.

The lecture on intelligence was sounding more like a lecture on perception and philosophy, and rightfully so.  Intelligence has this quality of either you have it or not. It doesn’t take into account our learning is based on experience and how we perceive the world we live in will vary with our individual perception of it. Helping students become more aware of their thinking and their own personal perceptions should always be at the core of how we assess their level of understanding. Information can be memorized, but learning how to become more aware of what we learn is directly connected to our perception of it.  Heightening a student’s perception is where the thinking process begins. We know in early childhood, children need to be challenged and engaged in their discovery of the world. Learning is lifelong and the same rules apply as we get older. It’s not how smart we are, but our awareness of our own thinking and our willingness to question the world we live in. Maybe the question we should be asking our students is not how much do they know, but what’s their perception of the problem and how did they come to that understanding. If we encourage students to be divergent thinkers, than we should be willing to become divergent in our teaching as well.

A Reminder from the Universe

Why is it that when things go bad in the classroom, it usually becomes the best thing that could of happened?  Let me explain… I tend to spend a great deal of time refining and tweaking my lectures. My wife reminds me, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” , but I’m driven at times to constantly modify, change and deliver my classroom presentations in hopes of  making it more interesting, not only for my students, but for myself as well.  As I was preparing to start my Counseling Skills class (which is an ITV class), a mysterious force in the universe seem to have other plans for the day.  It started with the ITV connection between the Verde classroom and the Prescott classroom coming on, but the sound was not working from the classroom in Prescott.  OK, I’ve dealt with this before and after getting assistance from the IT staff we had it up and running, but I was beginning to sense, after the 10 min delay in getting started, my students were feeling frustrated with the delay.  I then pulled up my revised power point “The Importance of Identifying our Clients Values” and just when I was about to begin, the large projection screens began to flicker. When I had the camera in the instructor mode, it worked great, but when connected to the computer, you need a dose of Dramamine if you were to continue viewing it.  At this point I directed the camera back to me and announced to my students, “it appears that the universe is directing me to forget the planned power point lecture, so let’s do something different, let’s just talk about the importance of values not only with our clients, but within the helping profession as well”. I then directed the students to put away any writing utensils and close their books. As I began discussing the importance of values in the counseling relationship, I remembered activities I used to do when early in my career as a therapist facilitating groups. These activities were based in values clarification exercises, and were activity/experiential activities.  As we began doing these exercises, it began to generate a great deal of discussion and enthusiasm in both the Verde and Prescott classrooms.

As the hour progressed, students that never uttered a word since the start of the semester began to dominate the conversations and the energy in both classrooms was amazing.  I found myself facilitating discussions that were both exciting and pertinent to the subject at hand. You could feel the interest and enthusiasm. When the class came to an end, several students commented on what an interesting and fun class we just had.  I had to agree, I was a great class.

Needless to say, I will always look for better ways to teach, but the lesson I was reminded of was the need for facilitation and active learning.   Remember all those good things we were taught about effective teaching styles? One came to mind was the work of Lev Vygotsky who said that the role of a teacher is to facilitate and guide students, not to direct and mold.

So I continue to review my lectures and modify them, but instead of adding on to what I already have, I’m learning to make them shorter, more to the point and allow time for more interaction with students, allowing them to direct the conversations and share their ideas.  In this process, I am learning to redefine my role as teacher and sometimes learning to trust what the universe is teaching me as well.

What music taught me about teaching

As summer came to an end and although I had taught two summer classes, I was still feeling the need to regroup, refresh, and rethink about getting my Fall classes in order. What can I do differently to make the classes more interesting, not only for the students, but for myself?       As educators we should always be looking for ways to improve our teaching. Repetition could sometimes be the death of us.  Years ago, entering my teens I began studying music. Played in school bands, and eventually began playing in a jazz quartet, which continued into my adult years.  Learning music, I found was very similar in learning to teach. In the classroom, finding our rhythm is crucial. It’s the pulse of the class that we as educators must tap into.  Like in music, the rhythm in our classrooms defines its moods and climates. We are the conductors of orchestras of students, both big and small, helping to keep pace in their learning and understanding. As in music, rhythm and tempo is important for us to remember in our delivering new information to students. Let’s not forget that as teachers, it’s important to slow down and make sure our students are still with us in a lesson.

Our voice is the link between our students and their auditory learning.  In our voice we hope to convey a sense of strength, confidence and warmth. As in music, our tone, pitch and volume play an important part in this. This may be the notion of finding your own voice.  Like in music, melody and rhythm are only successful when one compliments the other.  Finding our voice in the classroom occurs when our students are in sync with the lesson and we find ourselves in flow of the class.  I know this is easier said than done, but the practice of finding our rhythm and voice in our classrooms seems essential for our own personal development. Teaching should be fun, inspiring, creative, and, melodic. Yes, I said melodic, like a tune with words, rhythm, and melody that all come together we can make our teaching experience into a great song. You know the kind of tune that gets us right in the heart, that place of our passion, teaching.

An old musician friend once said to me:  “You know we practice not only to play better, but we practice so when we sound better, we actually feel better about ourselves… now that’s important.”