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I’m over halfway through my 7 week class. It’s been hard to read much. In fact, the only things I’ve read are my textbook (which I don’t care for) and some things for work. One of which is Callings, a StoryCorps collection about work. We’re considering it at my university as a common read for the freshmen. Other than the subtitle, which includes the word “passion” (I told my freshman student success class that I think “follow your passion” is crummy advice), I enjoyed it. Like other StoryCorps books, it’s a collection culled from the interviews people submit.

There are actually several examples in the book that fit the advice I prefer over “follow your passion” — follow opportunity and try to be happy where you are. A number of people interviewed discovered things about themselves by taking jobs they needed but didn’t necessarily want. Or their career took a turn in a direction they never expected and that became their life’s work.

An example I really loved was Rev. Eric D. Williams of Kansas City, Missouri. He talks about being asked to hold a funeral for young man who died of AIDS, because his own church wouldn’t have it. Rev. Williams didn’t want to either but he listened to his heart, which was telling him that being rejected by your church when your kid has died is wrong, and he needed to help. After that he realized his community wasn’t talking about AIDS, and that he could educate people about it, to help end the fear and prejudice.

What he said that really got me was this: “I came into this work kicking and screaming. I just didn’t want to do it. But my heart was pulled. Everything good that I’ve been able to accomplish in ministry, has started with some kind of burden, and AIDS burdened me.” I find that really interesting. I’m not even sure what to make of it. Burden as a breakthrough . . .  I really want to ponder that.

What Rev. Williams, and many other people featured in Callings, did was ask themselves questions about their life and the world and the work at hand, and take action for themselves as they answered those questions. The other book I recently read (albeit very quickly; I hope to go back and spend more time with it when I can), was Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions  by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. Over on Nocturnal Librarian I blogged about coming across the work of the Right Question Institute in an interview about the Question Formulation Technique and librarianship. I decided to read Make Just One Change so I could try QFT. It’s a good guide to the technique and has helpful examples of real life applications. But I wasn’t sure when I’d try it.

Well this week, I used QFT with my Student Success class. This is a one credit year-long course all freshmen at my university take, and I’m teaching a section of it this semester. We’ve had a few weeks to explore the idea of vocation — not an easy concept for anyone, let alone 18 year olds, to wrap their heads around. After a week where there wasn’t much discussion and a fair number of bored looks, I decided to shake things up a bit. I asked them to read the rules of the QFT (Ask as many questions as you can; Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions; Write down every question exactly as it is stated; Change any statement into a question) and then come up with questions using this question focus: 

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.” Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

(No, I haven’t yet read Let Your Life Speak but I’ve read excerpts)

Once they had questions, they looked at which were open and which were closed (could be answered with yes, no, or another one word reply). They practiced changing questions from one kind to the other, and thought about what the pros and cons of each kind of question are. Then they prioritized three of the questions they chose and wrote down why those were their priority, and thought about how they might use those questions. Finally, they reflected on what they had learned about asking questions, what they had learned about the question focus, and what they would do with what they learned.

It was fabulous. I had split them into groups of three, and each group came up and talked about their question creation and analysis, and I could not have been happier. When I handed out the papers, one of my peer mentors had already said she didn’t get it and didn’t think they would, and I had enjoyed (not really) a moment of panic that the whole plan was going to flop miserably. But they got into it — conversation was livelier than it had been in weeks. And, they came up with some really good questions, like “How will I know if my life is speaking?” and even “What is life?” and they had amazing ideas about how to use what they learned, from asking questions in order to study for hard exams (many in my class are nursing students) or using the questioning method we had explored to look hard at issues in the world around them.

If you’re an educator or leader of any small group, I highly recommend you give it a try.

Of course this means I need to come up with something really good for our next class, which is also our last. We’re talking about service, and I have a surprise field trip planned, so there isn’t going to be time for a full QFT, but I will remind them to use what they learned as they write a reflection.

This weekend I have to read a pre-pub novel for Kirkus, but I hope to be back to pleasure reading very soon. Only three more weeks of adolescent development class!

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In my new library job I am doing some copy cataloging, which is great fun. It also contributes to my “to read” list, because I inevitably see a book on my cart that interests me. That is how I found The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for HAPPINESS (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools by Susan Engel.

I LOVED this book. I’ll grant that I was primed to — longtime readers of bookconscious know that when I started the blog, it was about what my life learning family was reading. Back then, neither of our kids had ever been to formal schooling. John Holt had a lot to do with that. When I first learned about home education (by helping a library patron find books on the topic when I was pregnant with our older child), Holt’s work was life changing. What Holt wrote about is that children are born learners, who don’t need educational bureaucracies, metrics, curriculums, or even schools necessarily. What they need is adults who take them seriously, who respect their interests, and who give them the time and space to pursue those interests.

In The End of the Rainbow Engel quotes Holt and other educators and philosophers who embrace these ideas about children and how they learn. And she does something I wasn’t expecting — paints a very clear picture of what these ideas would look like in a public school. Any public school. In towns or cities, urban or rural places, with rich or poor kids. I quoted the book on Litsy as I was reading: “A premium on conformity and obedience has left little room for teaching children something much more powerful: the ability to find activities that are compelling, or to find what is compelling in a task, and thus find a way to be deeply absorbed.”

Engel’s call is to stop valuing conformity and start letting kids live their naturally learning-centered lives. She posits that if our education system was aimed at producing happy, well adjusted adults capable of thinking and pursuing ideas, rather than uniformly prepared workers ready for the workforce, both school and society would be better off.

One thing I hadn’t thought of until I read this book is that school is distracting — we actively encourage kids to change the subject several times a day, to move on whether something is done or not, and to work quickly. All the talk of our national inability to focus? Maybe it’s partially caused by school itself. One of our library liaisons heard faculty recently lament in a meeting that college students just want a rubric so they know what effort they need to make for an A, B, or C, and that they don’t try to think. I think Engel’s perspective might be that many college students have dealt with nothing but rubrics for the twelve years prior, and they’ve never been invited to think about doing things any other way.

Engel suggests that rather than standardized tests, which she notes have not been proven to be useful, schools could use many of the tools developmental psychologists employ to observe children’s (and their schools’) aptitudes in several key areas that would promote well being and a successful transition to adulthood. Such tools would include observing classrooms via videotape at random. Her “Blueprint for Well-Being” would ensure every child can have conversations, read for pleasure and information, collaborate and cooperate, investigate, “be useful,” “get immersed,” “become an expert” at something, and “know and be known by an adult.”

Most schools would have to change to allow these skills to be paramount. Engel notes that making room for teaching such attributes would mean simplifying school days, being intentional about schools as communities (including ensuring adults actively and positively engage with children so that they learn how to treat each other, and how to depend on one another so that differences become less important), allowing both teachers and students some autonomy, and ensuring teachers’ well being and happiness in their work, so that they have the energy and enthusiasm necessary to promote these attributes in their classrooms.

What an amazing world we’d have if every kid had these experiences! Some of the examples of classes she observed, both horrible and wonderful, made me want to start a school that embodies all of these principles and goals.Looking around at the pain society is experiencing right now, I wonder the kind of schools Engel envisions, places where competent, caring adults affirm and uphold the humanity, dignity, and natural curiosity of every child couldn’t just be the seismic shift we need? But could we get there with so many adults who are products themselves of our current school system, which Engel notes contributes to the mistrust many adults have of their own ability, each other and authority?

The End of the Rainbow is an amazing read, full of big ideas and thoughtful consideration of what society should want for it’s young people, interesting and important stuff even if you don’t have kids in school. Engel’s writing style is very persuasive. I’m grateful it was on my cataloging cart!

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My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  Here it is:

September 2014 Mindful Reader

by Deb Baker

Northeast Kingdom author Garret Keizer writes about his return, after 14 years, to teaching high school English in a small town in Vermont  in Getting Schooled: the Reeducation of an American Teacher.  Part memoir, part examination of recent trends in American education, Getting Schooled  is as beautifully written, carefully observed, and delightfully smart as Keizer’s previous book, Privacy. If you have ever wondered why things happen the way they do in a school, Keizer provides a behind the scenes – and sharply perceptive — view of both teaching and administration.

Noting contemporary educators’ (especially administrators) enthusiasm for the latest “methods” presented by consultants, Keizer admits he is doubtful himself but admires the source of his colleagues’ optimism. “The best teacher has already fallen for something  much more outlandish: the potential for magnificence in every human being.”  Rather than being cynical about this, Keizer embraces it, and his students notice.  In an essay one student reveals, “I learned that a good class with manners, respect and kindness to one another, you learn more and respect the subject more.”

Indeed, Keizer seems to spend a lot of his classroom time encouraging that kind of caring, cooperative atmosphere.  I found it telling that a junior in high school would only just be discovering that such an environment enhances learning. Keizer’s cultural observations are also fascinating; his explanation for the presence of Confederate flags in unlikely places like the Northeast Kingdom is particularly elucidating.

Keizer is thoughtful, curious, intelligent, and respectful, which is what every child deserves in a teacher. In Getting Schooled he teaches us what education, and small town life, is like in America today. He’s also one of the best nonfiction writers around, and I hope this large-hearted, clear-eyed, and thoroughly enjoyable read finds a large audience.

Accidents of Marriage, Randy Susan Meyers’ new novel, is about Maddy, a social worker, mother of three, and wife who suffers a brain injury in a car accident. Caused by her husband Ben, a public defender, driving like a maniac because he was angry.  Meyers uses this dramatic trigger to examine the details of a passionate marriage gone wrong , magnifying the many ways Maddy dealt with Ben’s anger over the years, her family and friends explained it away, and Ben himself justified it as the natural frustrations of a busy man with a disorganized wife. It’s a painful book, a bit like watching the coverage of a tragedy on the news. Meyers writes compellingly; Maddy’s recovery is detailed and wrenching, as are vivid portraits of the children’s reactions to their family’s turmoil. Maddy’s frustration, though, is the most vivid: “She looked out the window and watched the sun fall into the water, the airport, and the tiny distant skyline. Everything and nothing seemed familiar.” Accidents of Marriage ends on only a semi-hopeful note, with the suggestion that healing may be in store, but it won’t be easy for any of the characters.

Vermont author Sarah Healy’s novel House of Wonder is told from the point of view of Jenna, a single mom whose twin brother Warren is “more strange than quirky” and whose mother Silla’s house is full of  stuff she’s bought to counter the losses in her life. Jenna’s story alternates with Silla’s, a former Miss Texas whose own mother was “gone” when she was a very young child. Healy weaves together what happened then with why the neighbors are suspicious of Warren now, adding a love interest for Jenna and some drama surrounding Rose, her daughter. It’s a satisfying mix. Warren, who Jenna’s friend Maggie dryly notes is likely “on the spectrum,” is an interesting character, and I would have enjoyed hearing more of the story from his perspective.  Healy has a knack for realistic dialogue such as this exchange between Jenna and Maggie, “So . . . tell me more about Gabby’s daddy.” . . .”He’s just this guy I grew up with. . . . Stop staring at me with your shrink smile.” . . .”I think it’s great.” . . . “Maggie, it is so not like that. . . .” House of Wonder kept me reading late into the night, wondering how things would work out for these endearing characters. For fans of contemporary fiction and anyone who enjoys well-drawn characters who are much like people you know.

Randy Susan Meyers will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Sept. 24 at 7pm. and Bishop O’Connell  author of The Stolen, featured in August’s column, will be at Gibson’s on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 6pm.

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