Learning How to Learn

The doors, or gates to learning are shutting down in your head. You are so freaked out because some lazy teacher made you feel stupid, and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. Stop it!

Advertisements

My daughter is studying for her SAT—her college admissions test. I never took the SAT because I got a D in Algebra in high school, twice. I took the class again, to advance to geometry, but got the same grade, forced to take it from the same teacher that didn’t explain anything the first time. No, it isn’t “just the way it is,” Mr. Mulvaney. Even algebra has a reason for why it works the way it does.

I didn’t take the SAT because I was afraid I’d fail it with no math background. In fact, every time I even thought of math, I felt anxious. I was a failure, stupid if I didn’t get it, as most of my classmates seemed to. I couldn’t apply to a California university, or any four year college worth attending without taking the SAT. Instead, I attended Jr College for two years before transferring over to CSUN. I studiously avoided math classes, as they were not required after high school.

Fast forward 5 years, and I want to apply to graduate school to study Education. Not only will I have to take GRE, which will have math, but before that, to apply to the best colleges, I have to have teaching experience, in a real classroom, which will require I pass the CBEST, which has math. Panic. How was I supposed to pass any standardized test when I never passed algebra, and never advanced to higher levels of math that was sure to be on these tests?

Enter my friend, Bert. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll teach you algebra, and geometry, and any other basic math you need. You’ll pass the tests.”

He had to be kidding. “I failed algebra twice! I’ll never be able to learn all the math I need to pass these tests.”

“Don’t be absurd. You are one of the smartest people I know. Of course you can learn math.”

The familiar terror was choking. Did he not hear me. I FAILED IT TWICE, and never advanced. I’m just not a math person. “I suck at math!”

“Not likely,” he said with confidence. “More likely, you got turned off of it by some careless teacher, and the gates in your brain shut down. All you need to do is get out of your own way. Open your brain back up, so you can learn what you need to know.”

“I’m an artist, a qualitative person, not quantitative. I hate math.” I was trying not to kill his delusion that I was smart.

“But you need to know it to pass these tests, to do what you want with your life. You have some worthy goals. Make them happen. I’ll help you.”

I didn’t want his help. I didn’t want to learn math, or, more likely not learn math, prove to him, and myself, how stupid I really was. He was being so kind it was impossible to keep defending myself. But I still did not believe him. I knew I wasn’t smart enough for advanced math.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, when I didn’t jump at his offer. “Remember the show Get Smart?”

Ok…“Yeah.”

“Remember the opening? Max enters that hallway with the thick metal doors that slide open one by one as he approaches them. And each slams shut behind him as he walks down the hall?

“Yeah.”

“Well, that’s what your brain is doing when you think of math. The doors, or gates to learning are shutting down in your head. You are so freaked out because some lazy teacher made you feel stupid, and you bought it, hook, line and sinker. Stop it! You’ll make a great teacher, or professor, or whatever you want to do with education. Learn math, and move forward.”

“You make it sound simple.”

“But it is. You just have to open the gates in your brain that make it possible to learn, well, anything.” He smiled. I did too, couldn’t help it. With his words, he’d just introduced hope.

We were sitting at Jerry’s Deli, in L.A., at the time. Bert takes the pen the waiter left to sign for our bill, and an unused napkin, and writes out a quadratic equation. I frowned, felt anxious. Here we go. Now he’ll see how stupid I really am.

“I can see by your face, you’re already freaking out.” He laughed. I scoffed. “This is good!” He was clearly excited. I felt pissed off, embarrassed. “Let’s explore that feeling. Talk to me about it, what does it feel like?”

“I feel scared, and stupid.”

“That’s your first two gates. Big, thick, metal doors shutting you out of learning. So, let’s start with feeling stupid, because that’s likely why you’re feeling scared, that I’ll see you, or you’ll see yourself, as stupid.”

“OK…”

“Do you think you’re stupid?”

“With math!”

“Our brains don’t work that way. You can’t just be stupid in one area. Either you have a functioning brain, or you don’t. Most of us have functioning brains. Are you telling me you don’t believe you do?”

I thought about that. Of course I have a functioning brain. I graduated college. I got good grades, even in high school, except for math. “I have an OK brain, I guess.”

He laughed. “So, there goes your first gate. Poof! It’s gone. It was bullshit anyway. Good riddance. Every time you think of math, or we work on equations, notice how you feel. Pay attention to how your brain is operating. Examine the messaging it’s feeding you, and the bullshit it’s telling you. Qualitatively break it down to check if it’s right. Every time your brain says, “I can’t do this. I’m not smart enough,” call BULLSHIT. YES, I AM SMART ENOUGH! Then go back to the problem, and work at figuring it out.” He took a sip of his tea, and smiled at me. “Work at it long enough, and hard enough, and you will.”

The gates in my brain…I could literally feel them all of a sudden. Bert was right. Every time I even thought of math the gates in my brain shut down. And not only with math. Every single time I found it hard to learn something, anything, I now could see it was me, getting in my own way, allowing my brain to convince me of bullshit. All I had to do was examine my own feeling more carefully, embrace the ones that supported my success, and reject those that didn’t.

I learned algebra and geometry in a three week refresher course offered through the CBEST testing program. I passed the test, and subsequently my GRE, and though I never followed through with my graduate degree in education, as my career, and having kids became my priority, I now teach at some of the top universities on the planet.

I now know, with enough hard work, I can learn, well, anything.

Thanks, B, for giving me the gift of learning how to learn!

TEENS off to College?

This is the TRUTH about their upcoming college experience, with some special words of WISDOM about MARKETING and COMMUNICATION! Watch this! It’s brilliant!

Letting Go of Our Kids

Heavy sigh as I drove away, watching him in my rear view mirror struggle with his gear and then disappear into the school.
And quite unexpectedly, I burst out crying.
My son was growing up. He needed me less and less.

Our son went on a camping trip with his 5th grade class last week. He was gone four days, spent three nights bunking with eight of his classmates and a high school chaperone. They shared a cabin (with heated floors and a private bathroom), one of many scattered around Camp Arroyo, nestled in the eastern foothills of the San Francisco Bay.

High drama days before he left. Lots of spontaneous hugs. He’d grab me on the stairs, or in the kitchen while I stood cooking at the stove, wrap his arms around my waist, bury his face in me and say, “I’m going to miss you, mom.” And, of course I returned the sentiment, which seemed to sate him, and me momentarily. I put on a brave front, but as his day of departure drew nearer I dreaded how much I’d surely miss him.

Other than rare sleepovers at local friends, my son’s first overnight experience without mom or dad was the previous weekend on his first Boy Scout campout. He didn’t seem all that enamored with camping. Dirty and tired when he got back (after less than 24 hours away), he endlessly repeated, “It’s so great to be home.”

My son was not the only kid feeling nervous about the 5th grade campout. Two of his friends admitted feeling scared, one never having had a sleepover anywhere but relatives. Several parents laughingly confessed to feeling anxious about missing their kids over the four days they’d be gone. Many had yet to be away from their children for more than a weekend at most.

I, too, felt apprehensive. My child wouldn’t be safe at home where I could watch out for him, be there for him if need be. A long time ago, when I was in my late teens, my mother told me she never fell asleep all the way until her kids were safely ensconced in their beds at night. Only then would she be able to rest. At the time I figured she was trying to guilt me out for coming in late a lot. But as I helped my son pack for camp the night before his departure, I anticipated three restless nights without him.

Dropped him off at school the next day like any other morning, except for the sleeping bag and pillow he put down on the curb so he could hug me goodbye. He held me hard, and long, which was weird right in front of his school and classmates like we were. I hugged him back, tried to transfer my love without too much drama and left. Heavy sigh as I drove away, watching him in my rear view mirror struggle with his gear and then disappear into the school.

And quite unexpectedly, I burst out crying.

My son was growing up. He needed me less and less. As he moved into his teen years we’d naturally separate, until he’d no longer be completely immersed in my life. We’d been bonded for 11 plus years and I could feel it coming to an end. And sadness consumed me on my way back home, but only for the first block from the school.

As suddenly as I started crying, I stopped. The next four days I didn’t have to stop working at 2:30 p.m. (and 1:00 p.m. every Wednesday) when he came home from school. I didn’t have to be the constant nag, reminding him every other minute to study, practice guitar, do his homework or his chores. The dinner menu didn’t need to be altered to my son’s particular tastes. Sushi was a distinct possibility since our daughter was generally open to trying different foods. And best of all, I didn’t have to play ref or break up their petty sibling rivalries.

The four days my son was away with his 5th grade class passed in the blink of an eye. I published two new articles, finished the second chapter of the final, final, final…etc. draft of my second novel, finished the French screens I was building, found and set my daughter up with a great new 2nd grade math program, and shared with her some of the best Japanese food ever—turning her on to a brand new cuisine. There were no sleepless nights while my son was gone.

He hugged me when I picked him up from school after his trip last Friday. His embrace was warm, and tender as usually, but over quickly. He pulled away, looked around and then picked up his stuff. I carried his pillow to stop him dragging it along the ground as we walked home. He told me about his time away, but I had to prompt him a lot, and though he insisted he was just tired, I felt a contextual difference between us, a distance imposed by him, or me, or both.

We were quiet for quite a bit of the walk, but it didn’t feel awkward. He seemed introspective, more grown up than little kid. His youth, like much of our time together was passing, as it should be, but none the less, there is sadness in this. The upside is as my son moves on, I get to as well. As he embarks on life on his own, I can get back to mine—the life that became secondary when my kids arrived on the scene. From the day they were born they’ve been my first priority, and though perhaps they always will be, their daily demands are getting less as they become more self-sufficient. And as we all grow and mature, I find I no longer fear, but accept, and even welcome the separation occurring between us.

On Being Cool

Cool means Popular when you’re 11, and I suppose even for adults, too. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. It’s why we buy iPhones…

Had a meltdown on my tween son when he asked, yet again, for an iPad at breakfast this morning.

Before the iPad he wanted a laptop. He insisted he needed my old HP the moment I purchased my Toshiba, though could give no reason why he had to have it since he had a powerful PC with an enhanced graphics card for gaming in his room. After weeks of needling me I finally gave him my old laptop to share after backing up [mostly] everything. He loaded the same games he had on his PC and played them in bed on the laptop for about a week, until he inadvertently downloaded a virus which destroyed every program, every file including seven years of my labor. Between ‘mostly’ and ‘everything’ backed up turned out to be the Grand F**king Canyon.

Prior to the laptop he needed an iPhone. He’s had a cellphone since the 5th grade, when he started walking the quarter mile home from school. In the two years he’s had it, he forgets it at home most of the time unless I remind him to bring it with him. More often than not the phone has no charge because he doesn’t remember to charge it. Though all his friends have cellphones, he’s exchanged numbers with no one, and this seems fairly typical among his contemporaries upon inquiry.

Before the iPhone he had to have a video camera, which he got for his birthday. He used it a few times to tape episodes of Sponge Bob off the TV so he could view them later through the camera’s viewfinder. That lasted about a month until he tired of it and he hasn’t touched the camera since.

An iPod was before the video camera. I use his iPod when I’m recharging mine since in the four years he’s owned it he’s used it maybe 10 times collectively.

He sat at the kitchen table this morning eating his cereal telling me how badly he needed an iPad. They are so cool, he insisted, giving me his puppy face, and good for school, he assured me, though was unable to define how since a home PC with internet access was all his middle school required. He kept at it throughout breakfast, bargaining away all other gifts for his upcoming birthday in exchange for just one iPad2.

And I blew a gasket.

He wanted too damn much! He asked for too much with no purpose. What the hell was the point of all these things when he didn’t even use them?

To be cool, mom, he said through tears.

His palpable shame was a knife through my heart. At 11 years old, crying had ceased to be acceptable except in tragic situation, and me yelling at him wasn’t one. I sat down at the table adjacent to him and stared at my son, fighting tears from overwhelming me as well.

Being cool isn’t about what you have, I reminded him gently. Cool is about what you are, who you are, what you do that makes you special, separates you from the crowd. He was a straight A student, in advanced at math, played electric guitar, but every accomplishment I pointed out just made him cry harder.

None of that matters, he insisted. No one cares about that stuff. And being a nerd might pay off later but right now no one his age knew or cared who Bill Gates was, he said, throwing my refrain back at me.

Your dad would ask why cool matters, was the lame response I came up with. I knew cool mattered, even to me, but especially for a kid becoming a teen.

It just does, my son assured me. And I’m not, he added shakily, unable to stop the new round of tears.

My heart in my throat and struggling to swallow back my own tears stopped me from lecturing, but I again reminded my son that iPads and iPhones and video cameras are tools, nothing more, and possessing them doesn’t make one cool.

Yes, mom, he patronized me. But an iPhone is still cool, and so are iPads. I felt him lighten before I saw him grinning to himself.

They are cool, undeniably, which makes the engineers who invent Apple’s products cool, but not so much the people who use them. I needed to be sure he understood what cool really is, and perhaps remind myself as well.

Michael has an iPhone and an iPad and he’s totally popular, my son insisted. Everyone likes him. He has tons of friends and no one picks on him, ever.

Cool means Popular when you’re 11, and I suppose even for adults. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. But I knew Michael wasn’t popular because of his iPad and went about trying to enlighten my son without losing his attention. I spoke of Michael’s extensive involvement with his church, attended by many in our area. I pointed out Michael’s rather jovial demeanor, and reminded my son that his friend was also an avid sportsman, into soccer, basketball, baseball…etc, the ultimate key to cool for boys in school.

Perhaps Michael’s popularity had nothing to do with his iPad, I suggested. And to further my reasoning I asked, If Evan had an iPhone or iPad do you think he’d be more popular?

Evan is a jerk, my son proclaimed. He’s mean and rowdy, and he has an iPhone, mom. His eyes seem to sparkle with awareness of his own words. Then he smiled. He got it, and I smiled, too, for about a second, until his expression darkened again. But I’ll never be like Micheal, do what he does. I’m not discovering religion any time soon, and I suck at sports and don’t really care about ’em, and I’m not exactly what you’d call upbeat.

And I’ll never write like Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury, or John Fowles—

Who are they?

Famous authors you’ve obviously never heard of. Forget it. Tell me, who else is cool, dude? Name five, other than your friend Michael. Anyone, doesn’t have to be one of your contemporaries…

Greenday, he looked to me for approval.

Okay. Who else?

Death Cab [for Cutie] (another rock band). Thomas Edison. Einstein. And Jason, at school. All the girls really like him.

I laughed. Why?

I don’t know. He’s short but kind of buff already, I guess. He’s on the track team and the basketball team and he tells everyone he lifts his dad’s weights. He’s really into working out.

And what do all five you just named have in common?

He fiddled with the remainder of the Crispex in his bowl as he pondered my question.

They’re all good at something.

And how do you get good at anything? yet another of my canonical refrains.

Practice.

You bet. Find something you love, that turns you on, and work at it, my beautiful son. Practice your guitar more and become a great musician. Invent a new video game instead of playing someone else’s creation. Learn how to program and develop apps, show us you need an iPad as a tool to create with.

He brightened, smiled at me. I had his full attention again, my reason for slipping in the iPad comment.

Owning an iPad is easy, my baby, and meaningless, just one of many who do and more who will. Creating with one is cool. Cool is as cool does, kid. Pursue a passion and you’ll be engaged, entertained, and so enraptured in the process you won’t notice or care if you’re popular. And how cool is that! ; – )

Raising Atheists in a World of Believers

I didn’t stop to consider the religious leanings of the San Francisco suburb we chose to raise our kids. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because our beliefs don’t fit in with the neighborhood.

It was early December in 2001, three months after 9/11, when I went down to the end of the cul-de-sac to meet the new neighbors. We had just moved into the seemingly family friendly San Francisco suburb a few months earlier ourselves. It promised good public schools, and a safe environment in which to raise our kids. Several others from our block were hanging out with the new neighbors that afternoon, sharing beers and casual conversation, watching their children play together. I joined them, introduced myself, my 1 year old daughter and 3 year old son, who both ran off to play with the other kids.

The new neighbors asked me about my children, their ages, where we had moved from, and the like. Then the woman asked me to repeat my last name.

When I told her again she said, “Oh, you’re the Jewish couple then? I heard that there was a Jewish family that had moved in recently.”

It was clear that she was tickled by the idea of living near Jews. Unlike L.A., or New York, the Bay Area has little Jewish population to speak of. Suddenly, the three other couples standing there plugged into our conversation. Though our last name was often mistaken for Jewish, it’s derivation was German, and isn’t always a Jewish moniker. The woman’s assumption was ignorant, but typical, especially in an area where Jews were such a novelty.

“Actually, we’re Atheist. We don’t practice any religion.” I tried to sound casual.

Blank stares. Total silence. It was like I had just said that we were registered child molesters. My words hung like lead in the dead air until one of the neighbors we’d previously met broke the silence.

“You know,” she tried to sound casual too. “I heard this broadcast on NPR the other day about Atheists. They’re actually very non-violent, friendly people. The Atheist on the air pointed out that you never hear of Atheists blowing up buildings.”

The vacuum that followed her comment made it clear that the new neighbors would have preferred we were practicing Jews, or Mormons, or even Muslims at that point. “You mean you don’t participate in the holidays?” the new neighbor asked, mystified. “Not even Christmas?”

“No. Not even Christmas.”

“Well, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday.” As absurd as her comment was, I hear it all the time. I refrained from reminding her that Christmas celebrated the birth of Christ, the very foundation of Christianity.

“We have five nights of winter presents which compensates quite nicely,” I explained. “And we celebrate birthday’s, special occasions, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and so forth.”

She bobbed her head up and down, but I could tell I’d already lost her. I was the anti-Christ, the infidel, the soulless she was so afraid of. And though her fear was unwarranted, there isn’t a religious person I can recall that I didn’t get the same bounce from when I revealed I was an atheist. No God? No values. It’s common wisdom, right?

I didn’t set out to set myself apart. My brief stint in Sunday school was forced upon me until I was 13, when my parents had to acquiesce to my unshakeable conviction that there was no God. My mother spent the next 30 years convinced that I would come back to religion when I grew up, got married, had kids. But the certainty of a godless universe, one ruled by entropy, not empathy, still resonates with me.

Moving in months earlier, I noticed several of the families in the cul-de-sac had adorned their front lawns with small cement statues of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. They were subtly placed, though clearly visible in clumps of bushes and at the base of towering Redwoods. Christmas lights went up weeks before Thanksgiving on most of the houses in our neighborhood.

I expressed my warmest welcome to the new neighbor, then excused myself from the deafening silence, called my kids and went back home. Since that first encounter, the new couple has gone out of their way to avoid our family. She and her children ignore us, even my kids casual waves in passing are met with blank stares, or outright glares. They do not acknowledge us at the store, in restaurants. The other neighbors do not include our family in their neighborhood parties, nor have they asked my husband to join their Sunday golf group.

When we choose to move here, I didn’t stop to consider the religious leanings of the community. As an atheist, in a monotheistic society, wherever I live I’m on the fringe. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because of our beliefs. In allowing them to define their own spirituality, I fear I have inadvertently set them up for rejection, condemned them to the fringes, which is a very lonely place to live. But I do not foresee bringing religion into my home. I cannot teach them what I do not believe.

This last holiday season, in a brief lapse of reason, I thought of throwing a Hanukkah party and inviting the neighborhood. If they needed us to be something, we could pretend to be Jewish. But, the thing is, I am proud of who we are and our spiritual choices. It’s unfortunate, as an American, where we are free to practice any religion, or none at all, that that freedom is often an illusion, challenged by ignorance, and tainted by blind prejudice.