I Can’t

“Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.”              Richard Bach, Illusions

Helen Keller was a blind, deaf, mute little girl who acted like a wild thing at the table, and could do nothing to care for herself.  Her parents hired Annie Sullivan to teach Helen to dress and feed herself properly.  What if Annie Sullivan had followed Helen Keller’s parents’ instructions to the letter, and only taught her those two skills?   If she could learn to eat properly at the table, and dress herself, well – wow!  What an accomplishment!

But Annie Sullivan saw, behind the blind eyes,  an active mind full of potential, and we know about Helen Keller today because Annie Sullivan did not see Helen’s limitations as insurmountable obstacles.  She saw them as challenges that could be overcome to reach a goal far beyond dressing and eating.  The saying “obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal” is appropriate here, because Annie didn’t look at the obstacles.  She looked at the goal – to give Helen vision through learning, to broaden Helen’s life, so she would not live in empty darkness.

Christy Brown could not walk or talk.  He had cerebral palsy;  the only part of his body under his control was his left foot.  Christy’s mother was always encouraging, but his father was not.  However, when Christy was ten he used his foot and a piece of chalk to write the word “Mother” on the floor.  Observing this, his father, too, became a strong supporter.  Through one severe hardship after another, Christy and his family survived; when his mother finally saved enough to get him a wheelchair, Christy was able to go to a school for cerebral palsy patients.  Christy had already begun to paint with his left foot, and Dr. Eileen Cole persuaded a friend to hold an exhibition of Christy’s paintings.  Eventually Christy wrote a book: My Left Foot, in which he describes his life’s struggles and his art; the book became a film.

When Ruben Rios, a former student of mine, reconnected with me on Facebook, we had a couple of message exchanges.  Another former student wrote to say, “Ask him about his paintings, Miss Rubin.”  So I asked, and he sent me some pictures that were very impressive.  I wanted to know if he was in any galleries, or showing anywhere.  He wrote back, “I am a member of the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists.  “Okay,” I wrote back, “time for e-mail and a longer explanation.”

Ruben and some friends were en route to a high school dance in his senior year when words were exchanged with men in another car at a stoplight. Ruben and a young man from the other car got out of the cars; the young man fired a shot.   The bullet went through Ruben’s neck, severely damaging his spinal cord;  he was paralyzed from the neck down.  He spent months in rehab and recovery.  He was taught to use a mouth stick, very much encouraged by his mother, and later began painting with a paintbrush.  Ruben has been able to support himself through his art, and believes that “…everyone can share something they have learned to help someone else.”  You can go to this web site: http://www.mfpausa.com/ and look up Ruben Rios to see his work.  He is also associated with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and has done art work for them.  As I write this blog Ruben is very ill and in a coma.  All of his friends are praying for him, and hoping that things turn out well for him.

UPDATE:  Ruben passed away about two weeks after this post.  He was a rather amazing man, and left a legacy of pride, endurance and strength.

The title of this blog is “I Can’t” – but from the examples I’ve used, it’s pretty obvious that I just don’t put a lot of stock in those words.  There is no question that the three people mentioned above had every reason in the world to say, “I can’t.”  But each of them, with the support of those who loved them and believed in them,  showed that their limitations could be overcome.

Most of the limitations we believe about ourselves or others are simply untrue.  Yet we manage somehow to trap ourselves, telling ourselves that we can’t do things.  There are so many ways we manage to stifle potential – not just our own, but others’ as well.  And it often seems that the people who have not succeeded themselves are frequently the ones who want to convince others that they won’t succeed either.

Now, before I go any further, let me be clear: I am a realist.  I would not expect or encourage Christy Brown to head for stardom as a basketball player.  But I also would not say that he should just sit in his chair and do nothing, because he was too handicapped.  I believe in the power of spirit, and spirit trumps matter every time.

As a new teacher I was very conscious of the fact that a lot of people simply wrote off many of the students who were not successful academically.    But there was an administrator in that school who was a shining example, because she believed that all the students could learn, and I believed it, too.

In my first year at Decatur Junior High School in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, I was assigned to classes 6-1, 6-2, 6-5, 6-6, and 6-8.  The higher the number, the lower the academic achievement in that subject.  I taught English, which was mostly reading and writing. 1

Class 6-8 was my biggest challenge, and I wanted to let them know from the beginning that they were not going to be doing a bunch of busy work, copying out stuff to put into an exercise book.  And I wanted them to believe in themselves.  So I talked to them about one of my favorite people in history – Helen Keller.

I told the class about her being deaf and blind, and why that meant that she was unable to speak.  And, after talking to them about how difficult things would be for her, I told them about Annie Sullivan, her teacher, and a hero of mine.  They learned that Helen Keller, in spite of all her inabilities, ended up writing, speaking, and being an example of how much could be accomplished if someone did not look at how hard something was, but instead focused on a goal.

I told them that in my class, they could say, “This is really hard,” or “I don’t understand this” or “I’m having a lot of trouble, Miss Rubin.”  The only thing they could not say: “I can’t.”

My final words in my little speech – which I used again and again over the years in many classes – were these: If a girl who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t speak can graduate first in her class at the top woman’s college in America, there is nothing I will ask you to do  in this class that you cannot do.  And the most important thing was, I believed it.

Now, over the years I have seen a bazillion ways in which we give children excuses for why they cannot learn.  The alphabetical “ailments” abound.  “ADD”  is just the beginning.  There are many challenges young people might face, but the biggest challenge to them – and their teachers – is to overcome the enabling that happens when we label them with all sorts of disabilities.  While the school districts get money for these “disabled” students, the students themselves are robbed of the belief that they can succeed.  They become crippled by an “ailment” which becomes fostered by the very people who are there to teach, to encourage, to demand of them their very best.  Their “ailment” might be a reason why things could be more difficult for them, but it should not excuse them – or the schools – from doing their best.

What is also sad is that frequently the “disability” is used to explain why they’re not learning, and the attitude of many educators is the equivalent of accepting Annie Sullivan’s teaching Helen Keller to dress and feed herself, and nothing more.  After all, if you can teach them just a little you’ve done a great job.  And I say poppycock!

Difficulties are not an excuse.  They do not excuse you from doing the best you can, or from excusing your students from producing their best.  The moment I give  a child a grade just for putting his name on the paper, what I am saying is: “I know you can’t do any better than this.”  Which essentially says he’s a loser who can’t accomplish anything.  And that is wrong, wrong, wrong.

When I began teaching drama, the same rule applied: “Do Not Say ‘Can’t’ “.  One of my students had a brain tumor; she went to St. Jude’s every three months to have it drained. Another student in another class, another year, had just wakened from six months in an unexplainable coma.  She woke, and was re-learning how to walk, talk, use her lungs.  Both of these young ladies did the work, learned lines, and did the best they could – which was actually quite good.  But the most important thing is that they walked out of the class knowing that they could hold their own, and were not pitied for their difficulties, but encouraged to rise above them.  So they really knew, when they finished, that they had truly accomplished something. (Think about how you might have felt as a child when you beat someone in a game, and then overheard the person telling someone else that they let you win.  There goes your sense of accomplishment, and maybe even your belief in yourself.)

I think the trend towards giving young people excuses for why they can’t accomplish things has been dangerous and demoralizing.  In effect, it’s telling them they can’t, even before they start.  They might seem at first to feel pretty cool about getting out of work, or not being too challenged, but I believe with all my heart that behind all the attempts to avoid work are children who want to be challenged, to meet the mark, and say, “I did it!”  This, and not trophies or grades, is what helps them to earn self-esteem and believe in their potential for future success.

Parents as well as teachers need to take heed, and not accept the idea that a child cannot succeed.  I actually once heard someone say, about her teenage daughter, “This is who she is.  She’s ADD.”  Notice – the child no longer was even described as having ADD.  The child was ADD.  Which then also became the excuse for her outrageous obesity, also encouraged by mother, who liked to eat.

It isn’t just the schools who are responsible; parents have to encourage, and help their child to see their abilities.  This takes love, caring, patience, attention and belief in the child.  It takes kindness, compassion, and a steel-like intention to help a child succeed.  Not easy, but do-able.

Our educational system is severely out of whack.  We need to focus on abilities at all levels, high and low, and make sure all students can succeed to the best of their ability.  But that means not short-changing them by dropping expectations when someone labels them with an alphabetical mishmash. Back to my original point – do we just want to teach Helen how to dress and eat, or do we want to open her mind to the world?

1.  A note here.  This was a time, in the 1960’s, when classes (at least in NYC) were all grouped according to ability.  This is called “tracking.”    At some point it was decided that this arrangement hurt students’ self-esteem, because they felt bad being in the slow (“dummy”) classes.  So then we came to heterogenous grouping, where high-, middle- and low-achieving students were all in the same class.  How exciting.  Imagine how much “self-esteem” a child will have when most of the students know the answers, and he sits there confused and embarrassed.  And imagine how challenging it is for a teacher to have to teach to several different learning styles and three or more ability levels.  At least in homogeneous grouping all the students are at about the same level, and a good teacher can bring them all along together, and raise their abilities, which, incidentally, – surprise, surprise – raises their self-esteem.  And note – a GOOD teacher means someone who believes the students can learn, and who knows how to teach.

I loved my “slower” classes, because when they learned something they lit up.  They were so impressed with what they learned, and they came to realize that the more they learned, the more they could learn.  Some of them weren’t slow at all, they were just behind a bit, maybe due to illness, parental neglect, or simply poor eyesight.  When they got to a certain point in their learning, where they were starting to accelerate at a fairly good clip, they could transfer into a higher class. I was so full of joy for them I could hardly contain it.  Okay, this was supposed to be a note, and it’s getting to be another blog.  Enough!

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I know – it has been WAY too long since my last blog.  My only explanation is that, while I am perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, I do not seem capable of going through an “art push” and writing at the same time.    However, I wrote down about a dozen ideas for blogs, and am ready to work again, so another post should be coming fairly soon after this one.

The dictionary defines a miracle as a wonderful happening that is contrary to or independent of the known laws of nature.  Many people equate miracles with magic, something appearing out of nowhere, or disappearing for no reason.

While I certainly go along with the “wonderful happening” aspect, I’d like to look at the idea that miracles are contrary to or independent of the known laws of nature.  For the fact is, there are a LOT of things in nature that scientists explain;  they fit into the “laws of nature,” but in truth we really have no idea how they happen.

Most people would probably say that miracles are rare.  But I would have to disagree with that; in fact, miracles abound, but we don’t see them,  because we do not look closely.

Take, for instance, the circumstance of two cells meeting and joining.  They divide, so that the one cellular body they have formed multiplies to become two, then they multiply again, and again, and again, and so on, until there are billions and billions of cells.  This is in itself miraculous.  Scientists can tell you what they see happening – but they really cannot pinpoint exactly what it is that triggers this phenomenon, or what keeps it going.

After the continual multiplication of cells has occurred a sufficient number of times, groups of cells seem to “decide” to change, so they are no longer part of one homogeneous mass of cells.  Some cells become an ear, or skin, or a toenail, an eyeball, a kidney. Scientists have a name for this: cell differentiation.  But they don’t really know what makes it happen.  Not only do the cells do this, but they do it in such a way that a coherent, fully formed body is created, covered by skin, with organs in assigned places, toenails at the end of toes, eyelashes emanating from the eyelids, and blood running through arteries and veins.

And yet the greatest miracles are yet to come.  Eventually, a small group of cells begins to pulsate; they start to beat to a rhythm: lub dub; lub dub; lub dub.  We have no idea what triggers this to happen.  But when it does happen, life pours through the body, blood begins to flow to all the other organs, including the brain, and the body continues to form.

Scientists will explain;  but they don’t know why this phenomenon takes place, what triggers this to happen.

But wait – there’s more!  Within this miraculously formed body is a code.  Every single cell is encoded with all the data necessary to tell the cells what to do, how to function, not only as an individual cell, but as part of a group of cells known as an organ. And further, they are coded to interact with all the other cells, which are also differentiated into organs.  And they acquire, through this encoding, the ability to function like a perfect mechanism.

Every living thing on this planet is a miracle.  I plant a little seed no bigger than a speck.  The seed sprouts, grows roots, and a sprout of a plant pushes up through the earth (a miraculous feat in itself) and soon a creation of color and beauty and unique shape will grow.

Did I say every living thing is a miracle?  Well, even things we might not consider “alive” are also full of motion and life.  Stone – solid, stolid, still – is actually made up of particles that are in constant motion.

Flame.  Now there’s an amazing miracle.  Light a candle and look closely at it. Think about it – our universe is made of flame.  All the stars are gigantic flames.  But what is flame?  What is light?  We really don’t know.

Everything we take for granted as part of our lives – fire, water, leaves, grass…

We are surrounded by miracles..  We are miracles, you and I.  So the next time you want to see a miracle, don’t go to a magic show, or wait for a shooting star.  Just look in a mirror.  Look into your eyes, and you will see the miraculous.

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Art Website

A friend put out a piece of promo about our upcoming art show.  Unfortunately, she referred people to this address to see my art.

My art website is www.davinarubinart.weebly.com   Sorry for the inconvenience.  But you can read my blog while you’re here, if you’d like!


PS  Painting for shows means I can’t even think about my blog…I will return soon with more to say on various topics.

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Bad Language

I gave an assignment in class one day to finish a story we’d been reading.  I had taken off the ending, and told the students they had to be the authors.

Hands went up.  “Can we use bad language?”  Students all looked to me, hopeful.

This topic  was not part of my intended lesson, but the question provided me with a teachable moment, and I was not going to let it slip by me.

“Ah,” I said, “let’s talk about bad language.“  They settled in, figuring I was going to give a lecture about how terrible it was to use bad language, or else telling them which bad language they were allowed to use.

“Okay,” I continued, “when we talk about bad language, first of all we have to understand what it actually means, and why you should, or should not, use it.  That will help you decide whether it’s useful.”

“You know,” I explained, “in many western cultures, we use two kinds of words that we consider ‘bad.”  We use sex words and bathroom words.”

A hand went up.  “What d’you mean?”

“Well, we have the ‘s-word’ and the ‘f-word’ and a few others.  When you were young, you might have called someone who annoyed you, or made you angry, a ‘doody head.’  Now that you’re grown up, you’d call him an ‘s-head.’  And what, really, does that mean?  ‘S’ is your poop.  So if you’re upset or angry, you describe his head as looking like poop.  I’m not sure if this makes a lot of sense, but we do it.”

They were giggling – and nodding their heads and…thinking.

“So, now let’s take the whole idea of being ‘po’d’.  I mean, really, guys, what does that have to do with being angry?  You were so upset that you peed on yourself?  Or off yourself?  What?”

Now they were really laughing.  But they were also getting some idea of what I was getting at.

“Okay, so that’s two bathroom words.  Let’s look at sex words.  The big sex word – the ‘F’ word.”  This was really interesting, because it was very obvious that some of them really did not know the relationship of “the F-word” to sex.  Not joking here – several were puzzled, and they were not only the “nerdy” types, either.

I explained to them where the ‘F’ work came from – which is probably apocryphal, as there are similar, possibly more accurate derivations, but is still a good way to introduce the topic.  I told them what I had heard, which is that in medieval times, when people married, they had to get the consent of the king to have sex.  Another word for “having sex” is fornication.  So when people broke the law, and had sex with someone other than a spouse, they were put out in public, and tied (later in Puritan times in America, they were put into stocks) and their transgression was printed on their foreheads.  “Thief” is pretty easy to write on a forehead, and so are “cheat” or “liar.”  But “for unlawful carnal knowledge” is pretty difficult to write on a forehead, even with small writing, so instead the abbreviation of F.U.C.K.” was used.  (Which I immediately erased from the board.)

“So,” I continued, “someone does something you don’t like, or gets you angry, and you say,  “F off!” which is actually like telling him to go have sex.  Or, even worse, you accuse him of having sex with his mother!  This really does not seem to make much sense.”
Well, at this point the class was in an uproar.  It was patently clear that once you begin to think about these words they actually didn’t say anything about how you felt, but only gave a reactionary response.
I did not let up.  I held up my pinky and asked, “Does this bother anyone?”  They didn’t really respond..my pinky was not a problem.  I held up my index finger.  “How about this?”  No big deal.  I held up my middle finger, and said, “What about this?”  They literally recoiled – some laughed, some were horrified.

“Okay, look at your response.  You act as if I’ve just done something terrible – which, in our society it is.  It’s a terrible insult – and it means ‘F you!’  But it’s just a finger.  Really, it’s just something people agreed upon centuries ago to mean something insulting.  But it’s just a finger.

“So a person is driving along on the freeway, and someone cuts him off.  Not polite.  Not nice.  Or maybe just unconscious, worried, on his way to a friend’s hospital bedside.  And what does the person do?  He sticks his middle finger up in the air and yells, ‘Sex You!’ ”  The fact is,  when you have to resort to using such language, you are not even communicating any more.  You’re just automatically reacting.”

They got it.

This was the first time I taught this lesson.  When I went home, I wrote down notes about it, and taught it every year for some time.  It was very effective.

I made it clear to students that, yes, in writing, we want to make sure that the dialogue is real, and so using words like the ones we discussed would reflect the behavior and attitudes of the characters speaking in their stories.  But I asked them to work around it, use other words that show frustration or anger.  (The scenes in my drama book contain no “foul” language, but they do convey a range of emotions.)

But the larger question grew in my mind, which is, “Why do we use such shortcuts to express our anger, frustration, indignation or upset with things or people?”  Maybe if we took the time to really say what’s on our minds, or in our hearts, we’d be a lot better off.  But maybe if we say, “I’m really angry about that,” then we might have to look at what that anger is about.  That takes time, emotional investment.

An aside here – I’m not saying that these words are not expressive.  Yes, I KNOW that if you say “F#&* you!” that you’re upset.  But it doesn’t really go very far to communicate what’s actually going on.

The example I gave my students was “What if you asked someone to copy his/her homework, and (s)he said no.  If you get angry, you can say, “F-you!” and walk off.  But if you explain that the refusal makes you angry, then you might have to look at why that made you angry.  “Well – because I wanted you to do something that I know is wrong, but I wanted you to do it because I didn’t do my work, and I’m upset, and worried, and I’m making you responsible for helping me, but you won’t.”

The thing is, if we use, “F*&# you!” then we don’t really have to confront the fact of our anger, and the cause.   The more we react, rant and rave, the less we are actually looking at why some behavior or response had the impact on us that it did.

And so, as with many of my lessons, there was a reverberation into my own life, as I looked at what it meant when I just instantly reacted, whether in excitement or something more negative.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t at times still instantly react; it does, however, mean that I often look at my response, and reflect on it, and give myself the time and space to perhaps form a different response, one that’s more fitting, and more personally honest.

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Who’s Looking at Your Mind?

As a teacher I did some rather bizarre things in my classes at times.  Tap dancing on a desk so students could hear the difference between certain sounds (click, tap, slap,) and know which words matched which sounds.  Having “ten second yell” at the end of the day, so students would get all their pent up energy out, and then be ready to go downstairs and out the door.

For a couple of years I did an exercise in my classes I called, “Who’s Looking at the Cat?”  I told the students to close their eyes, and picture a cat.  Have the cat do something, like jump on a table, or just sit quietly.  Then I told them to have the cat leave, and when he was gone, they could open their eyes.

Some took longer than others at this – but eventually they were all sitting with their eyes open, staring at me expectantly, with an “okay, so what is THIS going to be?” attitude.

I asked them if they had all pictured a cat.  Then I asked them, “Where was it.?” At first they said things like, “It was on my bed,” or “It was in the kitchen.”  I got them to understand that they put the picture of the kitchen there as well, but there was no kitchen in the classroom.  So where was the cat?

“In my head!” a student would answer.  Others would nod in agreement.

“Really?  You had a cat between your ears?  Didn’t your brains hurt?”  Laughter, and confusion.

“Okay, so the cat you pictured was not a physical cat we could all see.  Only you could see the cat you pictured.  So think about this again.  Where was the cat?”

Eventually someone would say, “I imagined it.  It was in my mind.”

“Yes! “ I would happily agree..  And then I dropped a larger hunk of confusion into the room.  “So, what’s your mind?”

Now, bear in mind, these were 8th graders.  They were 12 or 13 years old.  Nobody asked them weird questions like this.

They sat, they pondered, they looked at each other.  I told them to talk it through with each other.  They really struggled, but finally we came up with some sort of working idea of what a mind is: “ It’s the place that has all your memories and thoughts, and all the things you imagine.  It’s a recording of all the things that happen to you all the time.  It’s what you use to think with.”

So then came my next question: “So, who was looking at the cat?”

Voices popped up around the room.  “I was.”

“Exactly.  But your eyes were closed.”

Dead silence.  What?  Uh…what?

I let silence reign in the room.  I told them to think about it, or demonstrate it with their vocabulary demonstration kits, or talk it through with someone.  They had the idea, but they had no words to express it.

Eventually there came an answer that began the exploration.  “Well, it’s me, but it’s not my body part of me.  It’s…me.”  More talking, discussion.  What I finally said, before the bell rang, was this: “You are absolutely right.  YOU were looking at the cat.  So what this means is that your body is not you, the way you might think.  Your mind is not you, because you were looking at something in your mind from outside of your mind.  You have a body; you have a mind.  But who you are is that part that is able to look into your mind.  You are the one who can see your mind.”  I told them they could spend more time pondering this idea over the weekend, and we were able to do more discussion when we read A Wrinkle in Time, which is a timeless book about cosmology and truth.

I am amazed I didn’t get calls from parents wondering what the heck I was teaching their kids.  There is a part of me that has always believed that the students in my classes always knew when they were learning something that was special or different, and I don’t think they ever told their parents about what they learned in a way that would threaten my position.  And I wonder about that, and about whether what they learned really affected them, or whether it was just a “really cool, weird lesson” in the long year. I like to think that somewhere out there is one student who really got it.

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This blog posting is excerpted from an article I wrote which was published in “California English” Magazine in 2003.   It’s not like my usual rather personal topics, but I think it’s an important thing to consider.

Several years ago I was assigned to create a remedial project focused on a    specific group of students, namely the ones who were “not making it.”  These were not totally unsuccessful students, but those who were in that zone of test scores which, if brought up just a little, would change the test profile of the school. So the purpose for the program was not only to help students, but also to make the school’s statistical profile look better to the State.

While my personal belief is that teaching for testing is a rather unsavory academic notion, it was my belief that these students could use help in their academic lives; it was my hope that they could be helped. So I devised a curriculum which would be both helpful and interesting for them.

Though there were records from many standardized tests the students had taken, they did not reveal just where these children fit into the testing picture. How did they test? Was it testing skill they lacked?  Information? The test scores told me the result, but nothing about the process each student went through to arrive at the result. What the test scores indicated was that these students were not able to understand material which others at their grade level did.

The first task was to give them a test with a vocabulary component and a reading section. The vocabulary became progressively more difficult through the test, with words ranging from first to twelfth grade level.  The reading passages were arranged similarly. This gradual change in complexity would enable me to chart each student’s level on a computerized scan sheet.

The plan was to have the students take the test, and then get them to go over the test to see why they had made errors. Lack of knowledge would definitely be one reason, but I was also interested to see how much of the difficulty stemmed from a lack of knowledge about test-taking itself. And so we began.

First came the vocabulary. In this section there were few surprises.  Most students scored fairly well on the first half, but on the second half the results were considerably lower. Overall, the scores were in the fourth and fifth grade range, with a few much lower and some higher.  There was no question that the vocabulary of these students was lacking, which of course was bound to contribute to their lack of understanding. The reading comprehension scores were also quite low for the whole class.

The graded computer forms – which had the correct answer printed next to any wrong answer – were returned to the students along with the actual reading test. They were paired with another student, and I told them to read each of  the reading selections again.  Their task was to find the evidence in the paragraph that led them to answer the questions the way they did. In this way they could analyze their thinking to see how they had arrived at their answers. If they got the question wrong, they had to find not only the reasoning behind their wrong answer, but also locate the evidence in the paragraph for the correct answer.

The students were animated and interested. But soon there was a bit of unrest, as a rather interesting situation developed. Many of the students were not sure that their answers were wrong. They defended their choices, despite the fact that they were “wrong” according to the computerized answer sheet.

Interesting dialogues began to take place.

“Miss Rubin, could you come here?”

“Yes, Juan, what is it?”

“Well, we have a question about the answer for this paragraph. See, the guy spilled the container of cream  in the back of the truck.  They ask what would happen next,  and it says  that the answer should be ‘he went back to his dairy’.  I know that’s what he would do, but wouldn’t ‘b’ – the price of cream would go up – also be true?

“Well, what would happen immediately next?” I asked Juan.

“Oh, yeah, I can see that. He would go back first.  But the price of cream would go up, wouldn’t it, because there’s less cream to sell. Right?”

Well, here is Juan, who can reason the law of supply and demand based on a small incident in a paragraph, and explain his reasoning. He definitely understood the paragraph, yet he is scoring poorly on the reading test.

Then came Lorraine. “Miss Rubin, could you come here?”

I walked over and she presented me with her problem.

“In this paragraph about the hunter and the lion,  it  asks  what would happen next. It says that the answer is ‘the hunter shot the lion.’ But that really depends on who the story is for.  I mean,  if this is a story for grownups,  yeah, the guy would shoot the lion.  But if it’s a story for kids, the answer would be ‘c, the lion ran away’.”

So Lorraine is analyzing the paragraph with respect to the audience for which the passage was written, and, based on her sound judgment, she writes an answer which is “wrong.” Her answer is not based on a lack of understanding, and is, in fact, quite sophisticated in its reasoning.  But her answer is based on thinking which is not taken into account by the test-maker.

Many of the students had this sort of problem. Their answers were “wrong,” but not because  they had just guessed wrong, or because they didn’t understand the passage. Their answers were considered incorrect because their ability to reason was still intact, and prevented them from thinking like the test maker. They had, in many cases, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills which rendered them unable to figure out the “right” answers. They scored lower on the test because they were thinking and reasoning too much, not because they couldn’t read or understand.

So my question is this:  Why are we devoting so much time to testing students instead of teaching them? We in the United States used to pride ourselves on our ability to go beyond the automaton answers, to think outside the box.  And yet the tests we give students force them more and more to function in the box, not reasoning and examining, but looking for the “right” answer according to the test maker.

It’s rather  ironic that Japan has recently been hiring American teachers to teach children how to think and reason creatively, because for so many years they were teaching them to simply get the right answer.

Some say we are testing children for accountability, so we can see if the children are really learning. This is a reasonable thing to expect.  But does testing tell us whether students are learning, or does it only tell us if we have managed to teach them what’s on the test, and how to take the test?   Are we making our students into glib learners who can answer the questions, but really know very little? And, if students begin to pass these tests in larger numbers, is that a good thing?

Testing is based on the idea that all students should be prepared to go to college. Yet there are many students who would benefit from a vocational education which could lead to a profession in graphics, auto mechanics, welding, furniture making or culinary arts; but there is no longer a place in most high schools for them to learn what they need. And, though they might be highly gifted in designing, or drama,  or in mechanical areas,  students who are not linguistically or mathematically oriented may do poorly on tests, and thus are labeled as “underachievers,” “slow” or worse. The result – students who can’t get into college, are not really suited to college, but who are not trained or educated for anything else.

We have lost a generation of craftsmen and artisans by trying to fit everyone into the college-bound mold.  I think we need a shift in the whole vision of school and its purpose. Our schools should provide students the opportunity to develop their skills outside the academic arena. Ultimately, schools should be places in which young people learn to be good citizens, and good humans.  They do this through having a knowledge of the world, and through finding the ways in which they can best use their gifts to contribute to the world. As we test our children to assure they fit the mold, and stifle all those who do not, think how much we are losing.

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What You Think of Me Is None of My Business

I had this quotation made into a poster many years ago;  it hung in my classroom along with a lot of others.  I have no idea who said it first.  Some people attribute it to Wayne Dyer, others to the author of a book with that title.  I don’t think it was either of them, but the thing is, if it’s the truth it doesn’t matter who said it, it’s still the truth.

When you first read or hear this statement, it sounds sort of like an in-your-face, “You don’t like it – tough!” sort of statement.  But in actuality, it is a deep assertion of the awareness that another’s perceptions do not constitute or determine our own self-worth.  And that our perceptions, the only ones we can judge by, do not necessarily see the whole truth about another person or situation.

I would explain this quotation to my students.  “If on the first day you meet me, not knowing me at all, and I remind you of your Aunt Effie, whom you hate, there is nothing I can do about it.  You can hate me, or you can find out who I am, and then realize I’m not like your Aunt Effie.  The second way is easier.”

When I was very young – probably about 6 or 7, I remember wondering whether, if I liked lime jello and my friend didn’t, was it because she and I tasted the same thing, and she didn’t like the taste and I did, or was it because we tasted different things?  We can’t ever know.  And we can’t ever know what aspects of a person’s experience and current mood and life situation form his decisions regarding who or what has value.  We never really see through another’s eyes, through his mind, or heart.  We can only judge by what we see, feel, or perceive.

I used to think that whenever I encountered someone who seemed angry or upset, that there was something wrong with me, or that I was in some way the cause of their displeasure.  I also remember the exact moment when the light dawned, and my whole viewpoint changed.  I was walking up the stairs in a school I attended at night, and my friend’s husband, a teacher whom I was friendly with, was coming down the stairs.  I said, “Hi, Mel.” Mel just kept on walking, head down, ignoring my greeting.

My first thought was, “He must be having a rough time tonight.”  And then I stopped in the middle of the stairs and experienced a startling recognition – that what was happening in his universe had nothing to do with me. This was a revelation.  It changed my life, because suddenly I knew that all my self-centered ideas about what people thought about me were just that – self-centered notions focused on what people thought of me, not what was actually going on for them.  It’s significant that much of the time I assumed they were thinking negative thoughts.  Which reflected back on…uh…me, and what I thought of myself.

So – as I said, this was life-changing.  I started to see other people more clearly, to notice when they were stressed or unhappy, and I was able to be a better friend, because I wasn’t thinking about what people were thinking about me.  And I also realized that what is most important is to be true to myself, to my values, ideals and ethics, and then I don’t have to worry about anyone’s opinion.

If someone doesn’t like me, or is having trouble being around me, and a work situation or life situation is being affected, I can sit down with the person and listen to what they are experiencing, without feeling at all threatened. Sometimes just listening, and saying “thanks for telling me,” without defending myself, is really, really helpful.  (I have done this, and usually it changed the relationship, if not to one of close friendship, at least to one of acceptance.)

I cannot be what others want in order to make them comfortable.  I can only try to live my life as consciously as possible, being present and being accepting of others.  I know that if I have a problem with someone, part of the problem always resides with me; I’m responsible for my half of the equation in any relationship.  As for me – I can be what I wish myself to be; it just takes work!

I’m writing about this because I realized the other day how many people I encounter in a given day, and how much I find I like most of them.  When I meet someone who seems curmudgeonly or unkind, I figure they’re having a bad day.  I smile, and if they can’t reciprocate, at least someone thought they were worthy of a smile.

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Just a short note to let all of  you know that except for a small few (about 55) I have eliminated most of the comments on my blog.  I was getting nothing but spam from people, and it was so voluminous that is shut out my legitimate readers.  Thanks to my wonderful computer guru, that problem has been eliminated, and now all comments can go through.  I will be posting another blog shortly.

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Intelligence and Brilliance – Where Do We Draw the Line?


Yes, yes, I know – it has been a looong time since my last blog.  I’ve been busy – fixing up my house, which came just before Open Studios.  Then more house stuff, then a brief break followed by acting in  a short play, which is now done.  So I apologize to those of you who have written and asked when I would continue, and my answer was always, “soon.”  Soon is finally here…

This may be a bit rambly, because I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now, and had a lot of different angles that came up.  So I finally narrowed it down to looking at when intelligence crosses over into brilliance, and how to discriminate when calling someone “brilliant.”  A narrow topic, I know….

Intelligence, as I see it, has to do with what one does with knowledge.  You can have a lot of knowledge, or capacity, and still not be too intelligent, mostly because you don’t do anything with what you know, or with your potential.  To me the most important thing about intelligence is how it is applied, how it is used to create, to make something new, imagine a new idea.  We learn something and we build on it. That’s a real demonstration of intelligence.

Intelligence and knowledge are highly respected in this world. And in the developed world, it seems they are most respected as the means of gaining something.  Intelligence, that rare and wonderful gift humans are graced with, is often rewarded with money, fame, recognition and respectability.  Thus, it should be respected and honored most by those who possess it, and put to good use.

Lately I’ve been thinking about intelligence with regard to how we discriminate – or fail to discriminate – with regard to how intelligence is applied.  We often grant kudos to some smart people, but fail to take into consideration the effects they have created by using their intelligence.  I think it’s important that we look at this.

Take, for example, the highly intelligent (called brilliant by some) young (and some not so young) men of Wall Street, who consciously used their knowledge in order to cheat and deceive, bringing down not only the economy of the United States, but that of many other nations as well.  These men were really, really smart, but they used their intelligence and their knowledge to gain for themselves, and didn’t look once at the long term effect their actions would cause. Their knowledge was used without a thought to the destruction that would be wrought.  To me, not looking down the road at the effect one’s actions will have is not intelligent at all – it is the mark of unconsciousness.  Many people lost entire life savings, college funds for children, their homes, their futures, while these highly intelligent people were – to use their own words –  “making a killing” (an apt phrase) on Wall Street.

What a pity.  These men were – and still are, in come circles – called brilliant.  Amazing strategists.  The problem is, they were only thinking of themselves, their own gain, and not anything else. And they brought darkness into the lives of so many.  Think about what could have happened if the same very smart people had applied their knowledge, intelligence and consciousness to change the economic scene around the world for the better.  Then, in my opinion, they could be called brilliant.

I think there needs to be real discrimination when it comes to calling people “brilliant,” because brilliant to me has a completely different connotation.

What’s the difference?  Brilliance shines a light on others.  Brilliance illuminates, makes things brighter and better for everyone.  Brilliance utilizes not just intelligence, but that rare quality called wisdom.  One aspect of wisdom is the ability to use intelligence intuitively, so that the outcome is a positive one for all, not for a few.

When I think of brilliance, I think of a man like Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank.  His innovative approach to solving economic problems among the poor of Bangladesh is inspired.  And he didn’t just have the idea – he implemented it.  I think of a man like Dr. Depak Chopra, who uses his mind to illuminate the minds of others, and of architect Louis Isaac Kahn, about whom architectural teacher and critic Vincent Scully said, “Nobody ever gave off so much light.  It was a physical light that came from his imagination and the aliveness of his intellect.”

And when I think of brilliance, I also think of some of the unsung heroes in our world – those extraordinary  teachers who are so intelligent, and so bright that they shed light, not on themselves, but on their students.  The teachers who innovate, encourage, see the light inside their students, nurture it, and then send them on their way.

I know – this is probably such a narrow topic that it won’t make much difference to many, but I am really fed up with hearing people called “brilliant” when in fact they are simply really smart, but often unconscious.   I think it would be a good idea to apply the word brilliant with more discrimination, so that it comes to mean something that is tied to wisdom, and to future good.

The next time you call someone brilliant, think about whether they’re just really smart, or whether their intelligence contains within it a spark of wisdom that shines from them onto others, and whether that intelligence will affect the future by lighting the way.   Illumination is the mark of brilliance.

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Happiness and Joy

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A friend recently related a conversation with a colleague, who said, “I am so happy right now.  If only it would last.”  Well, chances are pretty certain that it won’t.

Now before you start thinking of me as a grouch, or pessimist, or simply bad-tempered, look at the comment realistically.  Life is not, for most people, a wonderful, happy, smooth ride.  There are bumps, ridges, difficulties, heartaches.  But those things happen in between the happy times – or maybe the happy times occur between the bumps.

What I’m trying to say is that happiness is fleeting – it isn’t a lasting condition.  But the good news is that sadness, difficulty, heartache and irritation are also impermanent.  And we have to remember that most of the things that occur in life are impermanent.  Storms pass over.  A day is sunny, and the next day is rainy, or cold, or way, way too hot.  Life is not a straight road.  And even in the little things – that sweater that you love so much will someday be a castaway; your close friend may move; a love changes and shifts.

So the thing is, we cannot expect to be happy all the time, though I have a sneaking suspicion that there are many who think that if they’re not happy, then something is really wrong with them. But if you remember that happiness is a temporary condition, you can also remember that the bad times are also temporary, and weather through them.

So all that being said, there is something that is permanent.  It’s called joy; it is similar to happiness, but it isn’t a temporary thing; it’s a thing of spirit.  Spirit is you.  It is not your body, not your mind, not your thoughts.  It is above, beyond, and all around you.  If you hold on to that in the middle of difficult times, you can remember that everything that is happening around you is not permanent; but you are.

In the midst of sorrow, failure, illness, distress of any sort – you are permanent.  Not the events, the outer shell of things.  Those are not permanent.  But you, and I, we are permanent.  Our bodies, the things we use to let people know we’re here, may get a bit run-down; our feelings may get hurt, or we may get angry, frustrated or feel alone; a loved one may be ill, or die, or leave.  These are events, and their effects are temporary.  But behind all that is the permanent part, the part that remains forever.

All of us live through many experiences, both good and bad, happy and sad.  And I have learned that though I may be happy at a given moment, or though I may be suffering at a given moment, I can participate in whatever is happening, with the certainty that it is temporary, and that things will change. And knowing that, being able to see clearly through all the temporary events, fills me with a different kind of peace and comfort.  That is joy.  That is spirit telling me that I will prevail through all things.

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