Thoughts on learning …

At the Educators Connect Conference at USM in 2015, I was given a short book called The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain by Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek. The book is written for students and was a quick, easy read, even though it is grounded in substantial cognitive science research. I recommend it, especially to any student who wants to study smarter, not harder.  Below are a few points that really stood out to me. If you read the book, you’ll find others I’m sure.


  1. “…New learning requires a considerable amount of practice and a meaningful connection to other information in order to become a permanent paUnknownrt of memory” (p.13).  “Only when you practice, read, write, think, talk, collaborate, and reflect does your brain make permanent connections. Your teachers cannot do this for you” (p. 13).
    • I am shocked by the number of students who take 21 hours of coursework in a semester.  USM estimates that students should spend 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour spent in class. You do the math; there isn’t enough time in the day to really learn when students are stretched so thin. When you add work, long commutes, extracurriculars, and any semblance of a personal life, integrating new knowledge from class is challenging. The problem is that nobody can make someone learn. I can create an environment in which learning is likely, but a student can still choose not to learn. I hope my students will consider how much time they can realistically devote to their studies and plan accordingly. I also hope they will find peers with whom they can collaborate and problem solve.
  2. “Sleep is when the brain clears the hippocampus of unwanted information so that it is ready to learn new information the next day…  Sleep deprivation is harmful to learning and memory” (p. 31).
    • I have taught many students who come to class sleep deprived because they’ve stayed up all night studying for an exam or putting the finishing (or first?) touches on a project. They walk into class because attendance is required, but mentally they are like zombies. Students often talk about being sleep deprived with pride, as if they’ve won the competition for getting the least amount of sleep. I know sometimes sleep deprivation is inevitable, but we have to do a better job of spacing out our work. I tell my students all the time that they must make incremental progress on projects, in part because sleep deprivation is so detrimental to learning. I’m guilty too of waiting until the last minute (especially when it comes to grading), but as I’ve aged, I’ve begun to develop strategies for making incremental progress on larger projects.
  3. “Getting exercise is the best thing you can do to improve your learning… The neurochemicals serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are released in greater amounts during exercise, improve your ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate. They also improve motivation, mood, and self-discipline” (p. 43).
    • When you feel better about yourself, you learn better. My wife tells me all the time how much better she feels after exercise. I’m not sure I have that same high, but I’m convinced that the absence of a healthy lifestyle is part of the reason learning is sometimes difficult. Students notoriously fill up on Doritos, Cokes, and other vending machine quick fixes, sometimes during class. I would challenge anyone to simply monitor what they eat and then track how they feel afterward. Without fail, I can hardly stay awake after eating Cane’s or Chickfila, both of which I love. When we combine a poor diet with the lack of exercise, it is easy to understand why paying attention in class or persisting when confronted with challenging tasks is difficult.
  4. “Don’t take classes back-to-back. Postexperience rest is important in creating memories for recent experiences” (p. 82).
    • I typically teach a Tuesday night classroom management class from 6:30 to 9:15 pm. I have students every semester in this class who literally take classes all day on Tuesday.  They start at 8:00 am and are in class or a music ensemble until my class at 6:30 pm. By that time, their brains are exhausted, and they sometimes lack the mental capacity to process what we’re doing. I get that scheduling is an issue and that sometimes taking classes back to back is unavoidable, but we should avoid this pattern whenever possible, mostly because we need mental breaks to learn effectively. Sometimes sitting on a bench or taking a walk for 30 minutes is the best thing a student can do to improve learning.
  5. “Elaborate information to improve recall. The more ways you practice new information, the more memory pathways are made for recalling it” (p. 82)
    • When I was an undergrad taking tons of advanced history classes, I used to type out my handwritten notes. I did so because I wrote so much during class and wrote so quickly that it was important for me to clean them up afterward. I also tried to organize the notes more clearly, adding structure, and sometimes even adding questions I needed to ask the professor. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was doing was elaborating on my learning. When I would study for exams with friends, we tried to anticipate questions the professor might ask. Doing so, again, forced me to elaborate on the information I had learned. Some students get this principle instinctively and so devote substantial time to making sense of what they are learning. Others seem to assume learning occurs by osmosis. Learning something new is hard work, sometimes even painful work. Like I tell my daughter all the time, the people who she sees succeeding around her succeed because they put in the work, not because they are smarter.
  6. “Don’t shift tasks when doing tasks that require thinking or energy. When it comes to learning, your brain is at its best when it is doing one thing at a time” (p. 82).
    • This one is my favorite. The current generation of college students, who have grown up with mobile devices and persistent notifications on every app, believe they can multitask. The truth? Multitasking doesn’t exist. Instead, the brain is task shifting. Every time students look at their phones during class, or during an online module, they’re shifting attention to something other than the learning that they should be doing. Such task shifting leads to more errors and saps more energy. If the shifting occurs while studying, the studying will take longer for it to serve as effective preparation. I try to take a very pragmatic approach with technology in my classes, but the struggle is real. I hope students will think carefully about ways to reduce task shifting so that their brains are at their best. Personally, I have found it helpful to close my email, silence my phone, and to put the program I’m using on my computer in full screen. Doing so helps me to cut out distractions and helps me be more productive. Of course, I still do have those days where every knock, email chime, and text seems to be conspiring against my productivity. At least now I recognize that it is keeping me from being productive.

I hope my students will pick this little book up and read it for themselves so that they can learn ways to learn and study smarter. We know a great deal about how people learn, and this book is a really helpful and readable introduction to many of those ideas.

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Studying Civil Rights in Mississippi – Summer 2017

I was accepted to attend an NEH Summer Institute for college and university faculty at Jackson State this summer.  The Institute is a 3-week seminar with faculty from across the country.  The institute’s purpose it to place Mississippi in the wider Civil Rights narrative.  It will include trips to the Delta, Memphis, TN, and Claiborne County, MS. My hope is to use this online space to gather my thoughts and to share what I’m learning.  If someone benefits from my thoughts or is encouraged to reflect as well, all the better.  I thought I’d start by sharing some of my application essay.  It should give you a glimpse of why I wanted to do the seminar in the first place. I’ve excerpted it down to just the parts I think someone else might find of interest. I am really excited about the opportunity.


Why I’m Applying

In the fall of 2003, my wife of two years told me she wanted to adopt her half-sister. Born to my wife’s mother, a Caucasian female, and an unknown Black man, my daughter came into a world that would daily confront her with questions of identity and race. Having spent the past twelve years watching my adopted daughter wrestle with her place in the world, I have grown more aware of the role of race in our society and of the increasing importance of knowing our shared and often violent history.

In 2014, I moved from Auburn, Alabama to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to accept my first academic appointment as an Assistant Professor of Secondary Education at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM). I immediately recognized and appreciated the institution and surrounding community’s long struggle with race, racial justice, and racial reconciliation. From the White flight that has occurred to West Hattiesburg following school desegregation to the city’s often racially-tinged electoral politics, Hattiesburg and USM face significant challenges in uniting people. Wanting to understand these problems more, I devoured histories of my new community, histories that have helped me begin to place Hattiesburg in the larger historical narrative. Moreover, having started work with the Executive Board of the Mississippi Council for the Social Studies (MCSS), I came to know and admire many who have devoted themselves to the work of racial reconciliation. Otis Pickett, a Mississippi College historian and President of MCSS, for example, inspires me by his efforts to teach Civil Rights history to ethnically diverse classes of prisoners at Parchman.

I am applying to the Hamer Institute’s NEH-sponsored Civil Rights project because of a confluence of influences, including questions deep within me and a growing desire to be a part of efforts to unite people. Learning more about Mississippi’s role in the Civil Rights Movement will equip me to understand my neighbor more deeply and to become a peacemaker in my community. I am eager to take what I learn back to my college classroom and influence the future teachers that I teach to see the struggle for civil rights and democracy as an ongoing one that does not continue if we leave the work to others. I am also confident that I will form relationships that will impact me both personally and professionally for years to come.

My Background

As a graduate assistant at Auburn University working on a Teaching American History grant-funded professional development project, I had the privilege of helping to lead thirty-five social studies teachers on a tour of the Selma to Montgomery March.  I came to understand how shared experiences around questions of freedom and justice can powerfully unite people and create within them a commitment to reconciliation and progress.  Tours of the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, and the Lowndes County Interpretive Center are seared in my mind. More importantly, the conversations with a racially diverse group of social studies teachers that ensued brought me to a place of deeper empathy and compassion.

I hold a Ph.D. in Secondary Social Studies Education from Auburn University.  As a doctoral student and now assistant professor, I have conducted professional development with 4th, 8th, 9th, and 11th-grade history and geography teachers. I have published in the Journal of Social Studies Research and Social Studies Research and Practice. Currently, I am conducting lesson study research with six middle school geography teachers. We have developed and implemented research lessons grounded in problem-based geographic inquiry, an instructional framework that pushes students to weigh evidence from multiple perspectives before making reasoned decisions about the social issue that frames the inquiry.

What I Can Contribute

Lesson study, mentioned previously, involves researchers, teachers, and content experts designing, implementing, and reflecting upon instruction, but lesson study is most beneficial when a true collaborative community develops to support the work of instructional reform. As someone who is routinely trying to facilitate the development of a community of practice, I appreciate the complexity of uniting a diverse group of people around a common goal. I pledge myself to that endeavor.  I am not afraid to contribute to large groups or to voice my views. As a teacher of teachers and husband to an introvert, however, I am also sensitive to those individuals who are reluctant to speak. I am conscious of dominant voices in conversations and routinely work to expand the voices that are heard and appreciated, a personal goal that likely reflects a larger one established by your project.

What I Hope to Accomplish 

Personally, I hope to deepen my understanding of and appreciation for the Civil Rights heroes who worked tirelessly to bring about justice and equality in Mississippi. I want to understand those contributions and sufferings so that I can pass it on to my daughter as she seeks to navigate her life in Mississippi. I also want to develop relationships with diverse individuals so that I can understand where I fit in Mississippi and how I can help bridge divides in my community.

Professionally, I want to expand my knowledge of Civil Rights era history, particularly in Mississippi. As human beings and Americans, we face persistent questions whose resolution can be aided by understanding the Civil Rights Movement. Questions such as, “When are people justified in resisting governmental authority?” and “What strategies would best achieve the expansion of human rights?” remain relevant today. As a social studies researcher and teacher educator, I am motivated by these fundamental human questions. Reasoning about such issues is near impossible, however, without sufficient knowledge and without ears to hear others’ stories.  I have no doubt that participation in your project will open my ears to hear. At USM, I teach courses in our alternate route teacher certification program and our undergraduate secondary education program.  Within these programs, I teach courses on curriculum, management, and policy. All of the courses have diversity components within them that are informed by my understanding of the Civil Rights era and by my emerging understanding of continued racial injustices, particularly in Mississippi. I have taken a keen interest, for instance, in trying to understand the school to prison pipeline and its disproportionate impact on young, Black men. I have also taken an interest in culturally responsive pedagogy, an approach that places cultural understanding as a first aim.  I have no doubt that your project will inform my efforts to expand students’ appreciation for diversity. I also know that my experience will sharpen my ability to create community in my classroom.

 

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Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Today, many elementary schools and students celebrated Dr. Seuss’ birthday. In memoryoh_the_places_youll_go
of Theodor Seuss Geisel and his legacy of literacy and creativity, I’d like to honor Ms. Elizabeth Irvine, my 9th and 11th grade English teacher at Shaw High School in Mobile, Alabama.  Other than my major professor, Ms. Irvine is the teacher who impacted my academic career most.

Ms. Irvine was a wonderful teacher who managed to balance her desire for cultivating creative written expression with an unabashed and unapologetic expectation that all students would write with proper mechanics.  Ms. Irvine taught English thematically through the use of weeks-long projects that required students to author and assemble multiple pieces of formal and creative writing in a form worthy of publication.  She organized units around poetry, genealogy, and short stories to name a few.  Within those instructional units or in between them, Ms. Irvine hammered away at proper mechanics.  If I have any ability to write today, I credit Ms. Irvine for expecting me to work hard but also for creating instruction that provided a motivating and authentic context to improve my writing.  I looked forward to her class every day and looked forward to the challenge.  With some teaching experience of my own, I can now appreciate the time and energy she expended preparing for class and evaluating our work.  I have held onto every product I created in Ms. Irvine’s class; they mean that much to me.

A few days before I graduated from high school, Ms. Irvine invited me and two of my closest high school friends (Ian & Ben) to her room for a special presentation.  She had us sit on the carpet in front of her as her class of 9th graders looked on.  Ms. Irvine then read from “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss as if we were children in an elementary classroom.  With tears running down her face, she spoke each line directly to the three of us, imploring us to be courageous. “Congratulations!  Today is your day.  You’re off to Great Places!  You’re off and away!”  “Today is your day!  Your mountain is waiting.  So…get on your way!”  Once concluded, Ms. Irvine handed each of us a copy of the book (pictured above) and sent us out to conquer our awaiting mountains.  Inside the front cover, Ms. Irvine wrote: “Dear Jay, Go with God.  Shalom, Elizabeth Irvine.” – wise words from a wise woman who taught me how to write, how to care about my work, and how to care about my fellow man.

jayirvineianben97

From Left to Right: Me, Ms. Irvine, Ian, & Ben

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