signing off

As I’ve alluded to in the past several blog posts, the school year is drawing to a close. Summer is only a couple of finals away. One of the most salient takeaways from this successive series of blog posts is the importance of habit. You would think that with two posts each week over the better part of nine months would be difficult to forget, but you’d be surprised how easy it was to let blog posts slip. I’d get home on Fridays, be ready to start a weekend, procrastinate for an evening on all homework, and Saturday night I’d open my binder for the first time and realize that, for the hundredth time, I was past due for a Friday blog post. Having a more solid routine would have helped me get and stay on top of journalism assignments.  Another lesson exemplified by our blogging adventures is the importance of creative thinking. Your topic seems like a pretty good idea in September, but right around Thanksgiving break you’ve completely exhausted your supply of blog post ideas, and you have a large expanse of future months of blogging to fill. I overcame “blogger’s block” by drawing on current events, as it were—I found it helped to try to relate my posts to some current happening in the academic season, such as AP tests. I also made mental notes of things I ran across that could be potential blog material. Any interesting comment in the classroom about how students think was a good idea for the blog. Thanks for reading and see you next year.

strong finish

It’s that time of year where students spend most of the school day moving from class to class doing nothing. Classes are typically free study periods, or unrestricted socialization time. Sometimes the teacher will play a movie in the background. If you’re really lucky, the class will organize itself enough to coordinate some kind of effort to bring food. Point being, the school day involves a lot of talking. Eating. Signing yearbooks. Maybe sleeping.  A lot less of the more conventional classroom activities, like studying. Note-taking. Testing. That’s pretty far from everyone’s mind.

Except finals. Finals loom over these last weeks of schooling, weighing down the idyllic mirage of unfettered freedom like an anchor. Trouble is, how do you ward off spring fever enough to maintain focus? Studying for finals is hard, not necessarily because the content is challenging (although it may well be) but because the actual act of coming back down to Earth and cracking open a textbook is hard. Everyone’s so ready for summer. The students are. The teachers are. The staff is. And when you’re at about that one-week mark, when finals are imminent enough to be pressing but distant enough to be ignored….motivation slips to an all-time low.

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So how do you keep up the fight? I’m not sure there’s a secret to success. My advice is just to bite the bullet and start reviewing your notes or whatever. Maybe set aside like an hour a day for finals prep. Cross the finish line strong.

Brace yourself

I enjoy running quite a bit. Unfortunately, that means I’m often at a high level of risk for injury. A few summers ago I twisted my ankle pretty badly on a run. I was able to walk and everything, but even a full year afterwards I was never far from a precautionary ankle brace lest reinjury strike. The problem with the brace, however, is that while it offers adequate support to the ankle when the ankle cannot do so itself, it also prevents the ankle from strengthening itself. It’s a crutch, a crutch you’re not supposed to depend on for the rest of your life. Eventually I had to discard the brace and let my ankle strengthen and heal on its own. That endeavor has been by and large successful.

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I think the brain functions in a somewhat similar way. We’re often too quick to rely on technological aids like spellcheck or online dictionaries or search engines.  There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with this, but when you repeatedly rely on your internet connection and not your own memory, your own thinking skills atrophy. Thanks to spellcheck, for example, I’m now a pretty atrocious speller. It’s better to try and make a concerted effort, at least some of the time, to see if you can pull an answer out of your own head before turning to your phone. If you do, you’ll often be surprised by what you can accomplish—and you’ll be less dependent on unnecessary aids.

spring fever

AP tests are over, seniors are graduating soon, yearbooks are imminent, and forecasts are sunny. One by one classes are started to wind down, and schoolwork is retreating into the background of the adolescent life. Many are afflicted by the senioritis’s close cousin, spring fever. With summer on the horizon, it’s hard to keep academic motivation from dropping like a brick. What are we to make of this phenomenon?

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First of all, it’s important to remember that the school year is not actually quite over.  For those of us with classes that maintain the vitality to dish out rigorous homework, this advice is taken quite easily. Some courses still boast a final unit test or a grandiose finishing project — or, the most dreaded weapon in academia, a cumulative final—thereby refusing to allow students to drop form. For students with classes that have by and large worn out all curriculum, the few assignments remaining approach more stealthily. Stay on guard enough to not let these last few projects fall wayside. Keep writing in your planner or whatever you do to stay on task. It’s hard to not get carried away by the liberating impression of a relaxed summer schedule. And in a few short weeks, that schedule will be a reality. Then your days are free to be spent exploring other productive interests in your life. For the present, however, that impression is not a reality. Stay strong and breathe deeply. Summer is almost here.

Present

The content is only part of a presentation.

Granted, the content is relatively important to the overall draw of the piece. One year for a health class I had to do a presentation about asparagus, and I’m not sure there was any way to rescue a presentation like that. I mean, I did what I could. I put a picture of Junior the Asparagus from Veggitales on the fun facts slide.

Regardless, even if the topic of a presentation isn’t all that thrilling (or, conversely, even if it is) the ultimate audience perception of the presentation has a lot more to do with the way it’s presented. We’ve all suffered through long, monotonous videos that emphasize clarity over style. True, it’s hard to miss a single word, but if a presentation is too uninteresting, an audience member will stop trying to follow it. Inflection, passion, energy, and thought-out correlation between text, speech, and images make a presentation a lot more engaging. An epic multimedia moving graphic about asparagus is going to engage the audience a lot more than reading the same information off a couple of notecards. On the other hand, you can go the other way and overwhelm the audience with too much stimulation. That’s not great either.  In my experience, audiences react best to presentations that are engaging without being distracted. Ideally you can incorporate a blend of images, sounds, and motion to appeal to multiple learning styles.  That way the audience will stay with you more.

Who am I classic

In about the seventh grade I decided that I’d written too many “who am I” essays in my life. Students generally have to write one for the beginning of every health class, which works out to about four by the time you’ve finished your combined middle school and high school careers, and then one at the end of every English class. Sometimes you’ll get a bookend assignment, where you write one reflective essay in September and then another in May to reflect on how you’ve grown in regard to reflecting. That makes eight or nine personal identity essays, no sweat. I hit a point where I decided I really didn’t like writing essays with any kind of personal pronoun in the title.

Now that I’m starting to look at filling out college applications, guess what kind of essay prompts I’m looking at? I’m looking forward to hammering out six or seven short reflective essays about my personal identity, my cultural heritage, and my perception of who I am as an individual. Plus it’s the end of the year, so I’m also writing a personal reflection essay for English class. This lead me to really consider, for the first time, why the entire academic community is so hung up on writing personal reflection essays. I actually realized that, when you put genuine effort into them, they do have quite a bit of merit. Sort of the same way sketching every step of a math problem out on paper forces you to concentrate more eon it, writing out thoughts, even if you already realize them, generally helps you focus, clarify, and sharpen your thinking. The best way to learn—and therefore act on that learning—is to pause  and sharpen your insights. Hence the personal essays.

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experience as a teacher

Sometimes the best way to learn is by experience. For years I had trouble understanding the technical meaning of the phrase “begging the question” as a logical fallacy. Rather than simply inviting a question (“I found a stray dog in my house today” does not beg the question of “where did it come from?”), “begging the question” makes a claim based on grounds that the current argument has put in doubt. Say what? To me, as an abstract hypothetical scenario, “begging the question” didn’t really make sense. It’s a lot easier to grasp, in my opinion, through example. For example, “How do I know you two are trustworthy?” “Don’t worry—I can vouch for both of our characters.” Or “How do I know you’re not a liar?” “I’m an honest person who always tells the truth.” See what I mean? Both replies depend upon accepting claims that the first inquiry doubts. I don’t think I ever would have gotten that without some examples. In my experience, it’s almost always easier to fully comprehend a topic if you engage yourself and consider a specific example. To me, complicated mathematical formulas are abstract and pedantic until I work through a few problems—or better still, work out how the formula is derived. All of a sudden, the scholarly abstraction is reduced to the good work of common sense, and you feel comfortable knowing your way around the topic. Specific examples and concrete experiences are a great way to make stuff stick in your brain.

AP agony

Is everybody excited for AP tests? I know I am. This is the exciting month of the year where AP students confront the climactic challenges of their various college-level courses in the space of a couple of weeks. Some students, judiciously, select only one or none AP test classes to deal with. Others are now worried about two or three or even four or five. That leaves students frantically studying English linguistics, calculus, and German in one week-end to prepare for a series of relatively grueling examinations. Soon the AP student will find himself or herself in a gymnasium, surrounded by the restless breathing and scribbling of several dozen other kids, holding only his or her wit, knowledge, and a blue-or-black-ink pen against the faceless bleach white pages that hold final sway in AP classes. While all that’s going on, students have to make sure not to fall behind in their other classes, too, which are of course moving merrily along without regard for scheduling discrepancies. That being said, I don’t think of AP tests as an inevitable failure. First of all, there’s kind of a unique thrill in the atmosphere of the AP gymnasium; the sort of vibe that only comes from dozens off students relentlessly fighting against an exam. AP tests also foster a sort of inter-student mutual sympathy even though the tests are graded on a curve. I think the most important key to succeeding on a high-stakes test is to not freak out. Don’t cram the night and hours before, snack smart, stay rested, and succeed.

Why call a rose

I’ve never quite identified with the linguistic zeal of English teachers. You know, how they decided to major in English and get a gleam in their eye when they talk about Shakespeare.  And I’m not totally into analyzing literature. At some point, a rose isn’t a powerful symbol of youth and naïve innocence to me; it’s just a rose. If you want to talk about one, talk about one, but if you want to talk about the other, talk about the other. Don’t go mixing things up by pretending to talk about two different things at once. That being said, I understand the English teacher philosophy in that I really appreciate language.  I think linguistics and the way words work together to produce a meaning is really cool. Connotations fascinate me—I’ve always thought it’s really interesting how two words that mean essentially the same thing can evoke such different reactions. I know a lot of people really aren’t into that kind of thing, but to me, it seems like a fascinating and really relevant subject.

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I think most people are the same way in some area of study. I’ve said a few times that I’m not much into math. But some people find math really exciting. They love the mathematical way laws and equations line up to produce unforeseen yet totally logical results, which can be transplanted from the world of the abstract to practical applications. Such people geek out on math the same way I do over linguistics. Point being, find your academic passion. It makes learning stuff seem a lot cooler.

calculatrice

So this year I’m taking a math class, and I’m also taking French. It’s been a pretty busy year academically and I often feel pressed for time. Particularly for French, I started looking for ways to integrate studying into day-to-day activities without setting aside precious blocks of time to sit down with a review book. I wondered if there was a more efficient way to study both disciplines simultaneously. Solution? I put my graphing calculator in French.

I’m still not sure that was one of my best ideas, but for the most part it’s actually fine. Most of the translations are pretty intuitive, and I have actually learned some really interesting vocab that way. (I cracked up the other day when I realized that “box-and-whisker plot” in French is “boite a moustache,” which translates roughly to “mustache box”. Maybe that’s only cool to people who like obsess over linguistics, but I think it’s worth a shout-out.) Sometimes the language barrier (as it were) makes a little difficult to master unfamiliar operations, but I can usually figure out. I mean, hey, math was already a foreign language to me.

Math aside, I think my calculator experiment has been a remarkably useful exercise. Being forced to transfer one set of subject skills to a completely foreign environment encourages the sort of mental flexibility that educators rave about these days.  It’s made me a lot more confident in my ability to handle French, and it makes the more structured French activities seem a lot less daunting

flashcards!

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For the past three years, and probably up until, say, November of this year, I wouldn’t have dreamt of sitting a French quiz without making a good solid set of flashcards to review the vocab with. I think the habit started when my French I teacher announced that a full set of flashcards would earn points for extra credit. I’d sit down with a vocab sheet, write out all the French words on one side of an index card, and scrawl out the English equivalent on the other. I’d go through and quiz myself one or two times, but usually the act of writing them down was enough studying. And I tended to do pretty well on my French quizzes.

This year I’m having a good day if I think to do some studying at lunch. I’m pretty much just winging the French quizzes and relying on habitual memory, ingenuity, and blind luck. We worked with the words in class enough that I at least absorbed some of the material. I can find a vocab packet or something to flip through after I finish my sandwich. Believe it or not, the strategy is working better than you might think. Nevertheless, my French grades are no longer quite at the same caliber as the notecards era.

The point of this little anecdote is that flashcards are an effective study tool. Can you survive without them? Yeah probably. If you take the time to do them, will they help? Probably yes.

Tutoring

I think you understand something really well when you can teach it. There are several degrees of knowing your way around a concept. If you know absolutely nothing about a given topic, you are going to be a lot like me in math class—that is, pretty confused. You feel totally lost when the teacher’s talking—kind of like being out in the woods without a map or something. Eventually, you gradually begin to know your way around, at least along the simplest paths. There is still a lot of unfamiliar stuff out there, and you certainly wouldn’t qualify yourself as a guide, but with luck you can get from point A to point B. As you start to mull the subject over in your mind, you reach like the verge of understanding—you can tell everything makes sense somehow and it’s about to click. I think the mark of when you totally got is when you feel comfortable guiding somebody else who is totally lost along the paths you’ve discovered. Not only does this mean you know what you are talking about, but also the process of teaching somebody else will force you to speak out loud and maybe try to explain stuff from a new angle that you had not thought of before. So ironically, teaching is probably one of the best things for your learning. So if you are looking for fresh ways to learn a subject, try looking for somebody to tutor.

Spellcheck ??

In general I’m a pretty big fan of spellcheck; it catches a lot of otherwise embarrassing mistakes and makes everything I type look a lot more professional. The one problem is that I can’t spell anymore.

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In elementary school I had this spelling stuff down pat. We took a lot of spelling tests, I worked hard at writing everything out, and I knew how to spell most of the words I could pronounce. With that in mind, spellcheck seems like a logical convenience. You know what you meant to say; the computer can just go back and edit the letters you missed for you. In fact, you don’t have to spell the word correctly at all—you just have to be pretty close, and then spellcheck takes care of your worries. No harm in taking a two-second shortcut.

If that’s the case, why did my spelling capabilities peak in seventh grade? That miniscule little shortcut  actually has tremendous impact over the years.  Doing a small, repetitive task over and over again—like spelling a word out, for example—is pretty tedious, but it really cements a concept in your brain. On the other hand, cheating just a little bit, even when you totally know something for sure, makes it surprisingly easy for something to slip out of your mind. Little things like spelling, mathematical notations, etc. are actually kind of important to write out every time. Otherwise you end up like I am today. I mean, if its five letters or under, I can probably spell it out, but words like “definitely”? “restaurant”? “neighborly”? I don’t have a chance.

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

Have you ever tried to remember the first words you said in the morning? You can probably make a pretty good guess. They were presumably something along the lines of “good morning” or “I think I’ll have toast”  or “what time is it?”. But nine times out of ten I can’t remember for sure.  It’s almost frightening how quickly our brain loses track of small details we don’t think to take special notice of, even within only a minute. Granted, it doesn’t help that you’re half-asleep in the morning and like most teens you don’t reach full mental capacity until around 10:30. Even when alert, however, the human memory is a tricky thing to keep track of.  What’s going on in your head?  Your brain misses small things like casual remarks, visual details, and sensory details.  Sometimes you can completely fabricate a memory and be absolutely sure it’s right. Like I’m sure you have that one family story nobody can agree on, right? “I’m sure that guy told us the wrong directions to the gas station.” “No, it was the rest stop, because we got a flat tire on the way there, remember?” “No, we got the flat tire on the way out of the city the next day.” You’re sure your memory of the event is right, but memory is often far more subjective than we realize. Unless you make a point of knowing something concretely (i.e. sitting down and studying), it’s surprisingly easy to warp things in your brain.