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Topic: self-determination

I was a crazy course shopper

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

After four years of Arena Scheduling at my high school, I had some serious experience designing my own schedule and customizing my education.

I’d taught myself French and trigonometric functions over the summer to skip ahead. I’d gotten high school credit for apprenticing with an orchestra and performing in a professional play. I’d created an independent study for Advanced Placement 12th grade English so I could get credit for being in the Folger Shakespeare seminar for high schoolers.

I was prepared to make my education my own.

So I was pretty disappointed my first semester of college when I ended up with an ineffective music theory teacher, an unhelpful French professor, and a modern dance instructor who didn’t seem to notice that no one could perform her combinations.

I was not going to let this happen again.

For the rest of my college career, I used my mad scheduling skills to spend the first two weeks of each semester (before the add/drop period closed) trying to ferret out hidden jewels and find people who could really help me learn. It was extremely instructive.

I’d thought it would be great to learn Hindi to help me with my Indian music studies, but the class I visited seemed completely ineffective. I thought Yoruba language skills would be useful for my project on Yoruba drumming, but the class did not seem to actually exist when I tried to track it down. I wanted to take a self-defense class for women, but the one offered consisted of running in laps around the gym, which was not going to give me the skills I was looking for.

Instead, I ended up working with an encouraging, helpful Francophone French teacher. I found good Spanish instructors who prepared me for my trip to Cuba. I got to work with an incredible professor of eastern religion who helped me contextualize my experiences with non-Western music.

My search for great classes even led me to shop at other schools in the Boston area for classes I wanted that weren’t offered at my own university. It’s true, I had an exceptionally flexible advisor!

The beginning of every semester was chaotic, but definitely better than wasting my precious college credit hours in situations that weren’t going to help me learn. Whenever I heard a fellow student complaining about a poorly designed curriculum, a disinterested instructor, or a negative classroom environment, I knew it had all been worth it.

Related posts:
I was a t(w)eenage (scheduling) gladiator
A cosmic imperative to customize
What a Balinese dancing queen taught me about praise and encouragement
When learning feels like a forced march

Topic: self-determination

Self-Taught Heroes: William Kamkwamba, the boy who harnessed the wind

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Community facing a protracted, draught-induced famine? Family struggling to subsist on one meal a day? Forced to drop out of school because your parents can’t afford the $80/year school fees?

Build a windmill.

That’s what William Kamkwamba did at the age of fourteen.


After surviving a five-month famine, Kamkwamba was determined to find a solution. Inspired by a picture on the cover of a library book, Kamkwamba built a windmill out of trash and scrap metal–even though he had barely any resources, his community ridiculed him as a crazy man, and there wasn’t even a word for “windmill” in his language. His windmill brought electricity to his village and powered an electric pump, allowing his family to consistently irrigate their fields and squeeze and extra growing season—and an extra harvest—in every year.

What makes Kamkwamba’s story so exciting is how he figured out his windmill totally by himself. But I wish we all learned in school how to make sustainable energy sources out of trash!

On the other hand, I wonder if Kamkwamba would have built his incredible windmill if he hadn’t had to drop out of school. It seems like that period of “empty time” really gave him space and drive to explore his dream.

That said, I am thrilled that Kamkwamba is now getting an awesome education at the African Leadership Academy, a pan-African high school in Johannesburg.

You can read all about Kamkwamba’s truly awesome triumph of persistence, determination, and self-education in his book, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

Also, Kamkawamba has a great sense of humor that doesn’t always come across on the printed page. You can get a little taste of how funny he is in this clip where Jon Stewart interviewed him on the Daily Show.

Related Posts:
Ana Reynales Earns Her BA at age 82!!!!!
Encouraging Independent Problem Solving (Subliminally?)
Solo Sailor Inspiration
Self-Taught Hero: Pearl Fryar

Topic: self-determination

“On Being Yourself While Doing Math” – Guest Post Alert!

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

That’s me–wearing a solar system dress and boots with three-inch long blue fuzz while multiplying binomials

I am guest posting about being yourself while doing math over on Sam J Shah‘s blog, Continuous Everywhere but Differentiable Nowhere.

Sam is one of my favorite math bloggers, and I’m honored to be a guest poster on his site! In fact, my guest post today was inspired in part by a post of his about rethinking the “you have to dress up to have authority trope,” “Don’t Judge a Book By…”.

My post starts out focusing on the clothes I chose to wear in my role as a teacher and my different students’ styles. But in the process of writing it, I realized what I was trying to describe wasn’t really about fashion–it was about being comfortable with yourself and asserting your own choices. Moreover, this attitude can totally help us solve math problems!

I really appreciate Sam’s comments at the end of the guest post, especially, how it’s not just about clothing “if you look at it from a slightly different angle.” (Plus he uses the words “bricoleur” and “holla!” within a paragraph of each other!)

Related Posts:
Be Yourself, Do What You Love, Wear What You Want (Coder Barbie/Ada Lovelace/Mashable followup)
My Favorite Math Teacher Is a Woman
Encouraging Independent Problem Solving (Subliminally?)

Topic: self-determination

Self-Taught Hero: Pearl Fryar

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

A Man Named Pearl is one of the most inspiring documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. The son of a sharecropper, Pearl Fryar wasn’t able to buy a home in his small town’s white neighborhood because prejudiced neighbors believed he, as a black man, “wouldn’t keep up his yard.”

In 1984, Pearl decided he wanted to try to win the “Yard of the Month” award. With no experience, no training, and using plants that had been thrown in the garbage, Pearl taught himself topiary sculpture and created a spectacular, whimsical, and completely original three-and-a-half-acre garden in Bishopsville, South Carolina. Take that, Edward Scissorhands!

Since he began his garden in 1984, Pearl has become a leader in his own community and recognized throughout the international art world for his unique and compelling vision. Now in his late 60s, Pearl continues to maintain his elaborate plant sculptures and welcomes visitors from his garden from around the world.

I’m really interested in self-directed learning, and Pearl Fryar has got to be the ultimate example–teaching himself a brand-new skill to execute a huge solo project! As a tutor, I’m really trying to teach my kids how to direct and customize their own learning when I’m not around. Ultimately I hope this helps them to find their passions and pursue and create what they really want. Pearl Fryar’s example of self-directed learning is extremely inspiring to me.

Pearl also spoke passionately about encouraging kids, especially the ones who might not be doing so well in school. “If you tell a kid by third grade that they’re not going to achieve at a certain level—I think that’s terrible.” Pearl lives the message of, “There’s always gonna be obstacles. The thing is you don’t let these obstacles determine where you go.”

One of the things he said that really struck me was, “Horticulture people come to my garden and say, ‘You shouldn’t be able to do that.’ And I’d say, “I didn’t know that.” I love it when people come at something from a different angle and find new solutions!

As an artist, I was also really inspired to hear Pearl talk about why he started his garden—not just to express himself, but also “to inspire others to find their creativity to work hard at it.” His advice to others? “Be patient and work hard until you figure it out.” And also, “you can’t be too big.” An amazing example of the growth mindset at work!

Pearl’s own website is here with directions on how to visit (“You just have to come visit me!”) There’s a nice little Q & A with Pearl on amazon. And the DVD of A Man Named Pearl is available on Netflix. I hope someday I can meet this inspiring artist in person!

Related Posts:
Ana Reynales Earns Her BA at age 82!!!!!
Encouraging Independent Problem Solving (Subliminally?)
Solo Sailor Inspiration

Topic: self-determination

Encouraging Independent Problem Solving (Subliminally?)

Monday, April 5th, 2010

In line with Carol Dweck’s recent findings that excessive praise can actually undermine student motivation and achievement, I’ve been working on praising my students less in general.

I’m realizing that a lot of what was coming out of my mouth was praise. So now that I’m praising less, I’m also talking less overall. This has created some interesting new situations in my tutoring sessions.

Example: I was walking through an algebra word problem with a rising 9th grader, when she announced, “I think I know how to do this,” took the paper out of my hand (politely), and proceeded to confidently approach the problem in a way I’d never seen before.

I let her run with it and sat back and waited to see what would happen. When she started to get off-track, I jumped in and explained what had gone awry, and then we finished solving the problem together her way with my corrections/explanation.

After we finished solving the problem the way she had invented, I demonstrated the “math class” way of solving it. I told her that “her way” was totally valid, but I wanted her to know both ways in case her teachers only wanted to see the “math class way.” I asked her which way made more sense to her, and she said, the one she had made up herself.

I thought about this a lot after we had finished. Isn’t the whole point of learning math to become a confident problem-solver? As a Kaplan teacher, I was trained to model a fast, effective way of solving the problem, and then encourage students to recognize similar problems and solve them the exact same way.

I think that’s a great way to approach timed standardized tests, when you don’t have the luxury of experimenting. Yet without realizing it, I think I’ve unquestioningly incorporated that philosophy into my own tutoring style.

I’ve always thought that my “strength” as a tutor was my factual proficiency. But there have been times when, faced with an unfamiliar problem, I honestly wasn’t totally sure of exactly what to do. So I’d say, “Hm, let’s try this… let’s work backwards… does this match the way they did it in the example? How can we test our hypothesis?… That didn’t work, how about this other approach?…”

I only felt comfortable doing this in front of students with whom I had a mutual trust and camaraderie, and at the time, I would have preferred to have understood everything in advance. But what if that kind of tutoring, the let’s-try-this-and-see-if-it-works kind, was the most beneficial of all?

There is definitely a time and a place for jumping in and showing a student exactly what to do. I mean, what a relief, right? Algebra tears no more! But what about all those times, facing a homework assignment or even a confusing test problem, when it’s something no one has modeled for you yet? I’m starting to think that part of what I need to model is a willingness to experiment in the face of the unknown.

(Extra thanks to Maria Droujkova of the Natural Math blog for inspiring me to reflect on this topic.)

Related Posts:
Power of Praise (1)
Power of Praise (2)

I Cried Myself to Sleep Over My Math Homework

Tips on Effective Praise from Ashley Merryman