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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lasting Impressions

The following story appeared widely a few years ago. While probably apocryphal, it nonetheless provides an example of an unexpected yet simple solution:

According to a radio report, a middle school in Oregon was faced with a unique problem. A number of girls were beginning to use lipstick and would put it on in the bathroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror, leaving dozens of little lip prints.

Finally the principal decided that something had to be done. She called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the cutodian. She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the crew that had to clean the mirrors every night. To demonstrate how difficult it was to clean the mirrors, she asked the cutodian to clean one of the mirrors.

He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it into the toilet and then cleaned the mirror. Since then there have been no lip prints on the mirror.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Do Some Ideas Survive While Others Die?

One reader made the excellent suggestion that I summarize the six keys to "stickiness" discussed in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Dieand then actually use those six keys as tags for my posts. That idea sounds just crazy enough to work!

In a nutshell, Chip and Dan Heath say that an idea is memorable if it is Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and told with a good Story. The authors admit that the resulting acronym SUCCES is a bit corny, but memorable nonetheless. As teachers, we need to build our lessons upon these six basic criteria.

But rather than discuss these critical traits individually, let me provide an example that utilizes them all.

The Charles Atlas bobybuilding ads which first appeared in the backs of pulp comic magazines sold millions of Atlas products. Why? Because they promised to turn a zero into a hero. And more importantly, they were incredibly memorable and persuasive.

First and foremost, the ads were simple. In most versions, half of the page features the tale of the 97 pound weakling who becomes a man, told in comic book format. Charles Atlas and collaborator Charles Roman knew that their young readers would immediately connect with the hybrid language of the comic strip. On top of that, the ad promised these miraculous results in just 15 minutes a day!

The unexpectedness of the 97 pound weakling's defeat of his nemesis is not unexpected at all, if one is familiar with Joseph Campbell's Hero Myth. But for our pimple faced comic collector, the mere daydream of such an act would be enough to funnel precious dimes and quarters into an envelope in hopes of a similar triumph over foes (real and imaginary).

How do we know Atlas can help us? Well, just look at him! The results are incredibly concrete and his claims, by every measure, are credible. He doesn't seem to even want our money, because he's offering the book for FREE!

And the story, of course, appears in those simply drawn frames. (As a reader of the comics, I will shamelessly admit to you that I spent as much time reading that ad as I did the super hero adventures which preceded it). It's rewarding to learn that the 97 pound weakling "story" is cited by Atlas himself to be chiefly autobiographical and true (see Charles Atlas Body and Soul).

Some 80 years and six million sales later, Joseph Gustaitis, writing in the September 1986 issue of American History Illustrated, explained the ad's real success. He stated that the original ad campaign created by Charles Roman had resounding success because Atlas "did not pitch health or larger arms, he sold manhood. When you signed on with Atlas, you did not enlist for fitness alone, you bought courage, self-reliance, and sex-appeal--and you got the goods to deliver them." In other words, along with the promise of the physical benefits were the emotional.

So if this one simple ad can so easily incorporate all six elements of "stickiness," then imagine what is possible with one well-designed lesson.
Have you taught a really sticky lesson? Please email me and let me know!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Picture This!

I've finally launched my picture book blog called Teach with Picture Books which will feature a new picture book every other day. Picture books are a fantastic tool for teachers at all grade levels, from pre-K through high school. The right picture book can activate student schemas, set a purpose for learning, build background information, illustrate discrete literary features, provide models for writing, and create a common literary culture in the classroom.

In addition to the featured picture book and its summary, teachers will find related themes, links, and cross-curricular extensions for each book. I absolutely welcome book sugestions for review, as well as guest reviewers!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Are You Teaching with This Much Passion?

Rock and Roll Kindergarten sounds like a follow-up to Jack Black's School of Rockbut it's actually a web site created by kindergarten teacher Kurt Schwengel. This site begs the question, "Are you teaching with this much passion?" And for old veterans like me, "Did you ever?"

Whether you're a kindergarten teacher or a 12th grade AP Physics teacher, check out the man in action and be inspired.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Our Deepest Fear

I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for those emotionally saturated inspirational speeches which seem obligatory in any film about teaching or coaching. Or waging war, for that matter (draw your own conclusions here).

Too often, of course, these speeches are heavy on rhetoric and light on reality. "Forty Inspirational Speeches in Two Minutes," for example, was an instant hit video, in that it lets us play detective as we try to name all the movie clips featured. At the same time, however, it's truly hilarious, since the collective "words of wisdom," when seen in transcript form, express absolute gibberish.

That's also why you have to love a truly inspirational movie clip, which even divorced from its context will still ring true. "Our Deepest Fear," a widely circulated poem which is actually not a poem at all, is one of these inspirations. The excellent feature film Coach Carterroughly paraphrases the words from A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles by Marianne Williamson.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves,
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine,
we consciously give other people permission to do the same.

As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

For teachers, these words could not hold a more profound truth. Too often we are quick to bash our fellow teachers who make an effort to really make a difference. We think to ourselves, "What is he trying to prove? What is he trying to do, make us look bad?" And we worry about how we'll pale by comparison when scrutinized by parents or administrators.

Well, those of us who have felt that way about our colleagues have it all wrong. And conversely, those of us who have willingly chosen to be mediocre for fear of standing out or making our peers "look bad by comparison" have it all wrong as well.

Teachers, your playing it small does not serve the world, nor your students, nor your own dignity and integrity. Instead, let your own light shine, and give permission for your peers to do the same.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Making the Abstract Concrete with Word Clouds

Wordle is an online app for generating “word clouds” from any text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text (in other words, they make 'em bigger). The resulting images can be tweaked with varying colors, fonts, and layouts, and then used as you like.

I recently used Wordle to create a title slide for a session on summer camp staff training for the Salvation Army. I reconfigured that slide three times to illustrate some of the options the site permits.

After a couple false starts, I recommend you cluster your words in a Word document first so that you can easily spell check and save them. If you attempt to use the back button to add to or edit your word cluster, you’ll sadly discover that the site did not save them. Some additional notes:

  • The more times you repeat a word, the larger it will appear. So if the topic is Love, and you want that word to appear 5 times larger than the rest, then you will need to type it at least five times.

  • Words you would like to stay linked must be connected with a tilde (that shift character that appears to the far left on the number row and looks like this ~). So “role model” would need to be “role~model.” The tilde will disappear in the final project.

  • Once your project appears, using the Randomize button lets you see many possibilities you may not have considered.

  • If you want a certain word (say your largest) to use a specific color from the palette that you’re using, go to the Color tab and choose Recolor. That will switch which words use each color, without changing the palette, font, shape, etc.

  • To save, you must print as a PDF, or easier, click on Ctrl and PrtScrn. This saves the whole screen as a screen shot which can be pasted and cropped to be used elsewhere. (Click Ctrl, then Prt Scrn. Nothing will appear to have happened, but when you right click in a Word doc or Power Point slide, you'll be able to paste the entire screen shot there. Then use the Crop feature from your Picture tools to trim to size).

You do NOT have to send it to the gallery to get the screen shot. Realize that anything sent to the gallery is for public viewing forever. That's especially important to remember if you're using this application with students and prefer their work to remain private.

Possible uses?

  • creating title slides and program covers
  • brainstorming ideas
  • designing "me" poems (based upon interests)
  • summarizing thoughts from a collaborative session
  • turning random ideas into art
  • crafting "found poetry" using original words or text selections (for example, several paragraphs from a novel can be entered, insignificant words can be marked for deletion, and the remaining key words will be formed into a word cloud)

I recently used the app to create custom Valentines for my students. The site offers a gallery of completed projects which might to spark your imagination.