The following snippet of information was printed in the “CHEERS and JEERS” section of the AARP Bulletin back in March of 2016 and was recently unearthed from my pile of clippings: “CHEERS . . . to the new SAT test that will focus less on obscure vocabulary.” The press release said: “The abstruse vocabulary words of the SAT have engendered prodigious vexation in millions . . . . The new SAT will be more trenchant and pellucid, and the format will no longer pertinaciously reward students who punctiliously engage in the antediluvian praxis of committing idiosyncratic words to memory.” While the above passage smacks more than a little of something written with tongue firmly planted in cheek, it underscores (for me) that the words we use can be a big impediment to communication. How many times have you found yourself on one end of a conversation feeling like a cartoon character with a thought balloon containing a large question mark dangling over your head?
If you were there and remember the 1960s, you probably came across one of those posters that encouraged one to “THIMK!” (and no, this is not a typo on my part). It was a message with multiple meanings from ‘proofreading is essential’ to ‘did I read that right?’ while leaving each person free to find their own interpretation. The ‘THIMK!’ poster always inspired me to come up with different ways to make my students analyse their world: look for the obvious clues and find the simplest solutions to complicated problems. In my world, “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (or KISS) was never meant to be an insult. When they tried to make it a kinder, less harsh sounding reminder by dropping the last ‘S’ (so no one would feel bad), the phrase lost all of its punch.
Former colleague Mark Bobula taught me that even ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers can give one pause to think. At some point, I adopted Mark’s habit of answering a ‘no’ question while nodding my head in an up and down (the classic ‘yes’ motion) while saying ‘no’. The ears heard ‘no’ while the eyes were seeing ‘yes’. The idea was to get the student asking the question to go back and determine if a) they had asked the right question or b) had the ‘askee’ not understood what was being asked. It was a tool employed to slow them down and loop back to the beginning of the problem solving process. I don’t think I ever thanked Mark for this great teaching tool. I know it drove a lot of my students nuts, but it was a very effective way to get them to think.
As undergraduate college students taking the required “Fundamentals of Teaching” class, we were offered many tips. Of course, a lot of them were forgotten when we ventured out to our first teaching jobs, only to resurface as we learned the art of communicating with our students. One of the biggies was, “Don’t make your points by raising your voice. If you start loud, you will need a megaphone to be heard by the end of the first semester.” Boy, did I miss this one by a mile. Having always been blessed (or cursed) with a loud voice, this newly minted teacher simply solved the problem of student inattention by raising my voice. My first year in the classroom, I had five large classes of seventh grade students and a mixed grade study hall of over one hundred. By Christmas break, this habit of raising my voice had me going home hoarse many days. I returned after the holidays vowing to find a different way to conduct business. I still raised my voice too much, but I also began to see the easiest way to get a rowdy class to pay attention was to stop talking altogether. Once they realized we were at dead stop and settled down, I would dial it back to the point where they would have to ask me to speak up. Simply crossing my arms and waiting became the signal that they had crossed the line. When a few of the students would tell those around him to shush up, I knew I was on to something.
It took some time before I realized the acoustics in the old high school turned junior high didn’t help matters. The high ceilings did funny things to sound. A room full of students talking sounded like a tornado or a hive of angry bees, yet when it was just me talking at the front of the room, my voice wouldn’t carry to the far corners unless I amped it up a bit. By the end of that first year, the number one note to myself for the next year was ‘do not raise your voice until the second semester’. When we finally moved the JH classes into the ‘new’ school building on Parker Avenue, it took me a couple of years to adjust. The lower suspended tile ceilings gave those classrooms entirely different acoustics. The new surroundings hit home when a student actually asked, “Why do you talk so loud?” I was never afraid to use my big voice when needed, but I eventually learned that louder doesn’t necessarily make for better communication, especially in a room with good acoustics. ‘Loud’ became a ‘when needed’ tool in my bag of teaching tricks.
The late Helen Toivonen taught me one of the most effective ways to communicate with students. Being pretty much the same from Helen’s area in the vocational business classes to mine in the science areas, some students would always complain that they were being given too much work. Helen’s tactic was to, as she would say, “Give them what they want: ‘Oh, you don’t want to do the assignment today? Okay, never mind!’” As strange as it sounded the first time she told me this, I decided to give it a try. Before I knew it, the kids were begging me to give them their work when I told them, “Oh no, you guys are just overworked. You probably don’t need to do any more work to pass.” Soon, they were pleading for their assignments, some even demanding that I give them the day’s work. Even after Helen retired, she would smile ear to ear when I shared my latest tale of getting my students to work harder by refusing to give them assignments when they complained about having to do so much.
Another ‘less is more’ lesson in communication came when I realized that some students would often ask questions so they could simply write down the answer without thinking about it too much. Having spent too much time being the ‘answer man’, I finally learned how to answer a question with a question. The one frequent complaint I got from parents at conference time was, “My kid says that you won’t answer their questions!” Initially they were surprised when I replied, “You are absolutely right! I do not answer all of their questions.” Once the reason was explained (not answering questions they posed to get a shortcut around finding answers or solving problems), parents were usually fine with what was going on. Showing students how smart you think you are is not the key to providing them with the skills they will need to get by in life. Being a source for ‘instant knowledge’ is not a substitute for learning how to dig for information. This is why the current state of technology scares me more than a little: ‘Googling’ has begun to elbow out ‘thinking’ and even if it can be a great tool, it makes for lazy learners.
I am not a technophobe or a luddite. Keeping up with changes in educational technology has always been part of the job. I began my career adding grades up long hand before moving to a hand held calculator and eventually a computer based grade handling system. When computer labs were installed for student use, I always found ways to incorporate this new tech into my lessons. Before the labs were built, we only had one or two computers in our classrooms so one had to find ways to rotate students through a few stations one or two at a time.
When Wikipedia was first unveiled, it was prone to spreading misinformation. As an ‘open source’, entries were often edited by people who didn’t do a great job checking their facts. I steered my students away from that source but over time, the fact checking improved. Up to my retirement in 2018, items students found on Wikipedia (and other sources) were still often wrong. I spent a lot of time teaching students how to verify facts and claims during my teaching years. When my later students already had the skills to use the technology at their disposal, the lessons became more about how to identify good sources and spot fraudulent material. It is so easy to access information today that we find ourselves overloaded by more data than we can actually absorb. Anyone who uses modern communication technology with students must spend time teaching them how to filter the good from the bad and the ugly (not to mention the ridiculous). If one believes everything they hear or see on a digital platform without a critical eye toward being scammed, then we are all in serious trouble.
Here is a timey example. As I was putting together the last paragraph, my phone rang and I got what was obviously a pre-recorded message: “Hi. This is Jacob. I forgot to mention one of the benefits that you are due in our last phone call. Please press 1 and we can discuss this valuable benefit that you will be missing out on.” Okay. I have never had a discussion with anyone by the name of Jacob about anything dealing with benefits for any program. The bait here is ‘the valuable benefit’ that I am missing out on. The scam alert sirens went off immediately when he didn’t identify what the benefit was or what company I supposedly had an earlier discussion with. They think I am old and confused enough to assume that I am indeed missing out on something of value if I don’t press 1 right now! These people disgust me to no end.
Communicating via misrepresentation and fabrication of the truth is vile. Targeting older folks who may not be so tech savvy is even worse. My father, the former detective, was well into his eighties when he got a call from my sister’s ‘daughter’. It was the typical, “Grandpa, we are on vacation in Florida and got a speeding ticket. We need $XXX to get our car out of impoundment and I am so scared.” Luckily my brother was handling the folk’s money affairs at the time because he saw through the scam instantly when dad called asking him for a money transfer to help out his stranded granddaughter. When dad couldn’t quite believe that someone would try to pull this kind of scam, brother Ron said, “Call Jessie and see if she is home.” A simple solution. Once he confirmed that it was a scam, my dad was alternately embarrassed and outraged that someone would target older folks. We assured him that these scams target anyone who scammers feel are vulnerable. He wasn’t the first and would surely not be the last person targeted by scammers.
Again, I am not anti technology. I choose to not have a magic box in my home to do simple tasks for me just as I choose to not subscribe to Facebook, Twitter, or the like. If preferring to get my information from printed sources is old school, then I am old school. Do I use the internet and a cell phone for research and communication? Yes. Do I feel welded to it? No. My new phone is ‘smarter’ than the first computers I ever owned, but there are days that I don’t bother to turn it on.
Certainly I pay for not checking my email on a daily basis, especially when I am catching up with the stuff happening at WOAS-FM. As a retired volunteer who goes in periodically to keep things moving along, I find that my email will have somewhere between 100 and 200 messages waiting for me every two days. When I apply my own brand of filtering (“these need attention, these go straight to the trash”), it usually leaves me with 20 to 25 items that need to be dealt with. Do I break out in hives if I miss a message from two days ago? No. When my phone jangles as I am driving, do I feel the need to pick it up so I won’t miss something? Absolutely not!
There is danger in being part of this ‘need to know immediately’ age. Being distracted from an important task like ‘driving on public highways’ by this insane idea that communication devices need immediate attention can have deadly consequences. WOAS-FM has collected $6,000 in grants from Michigan’s ‘Strive 4 a Safer Drive’ program over the past six years. The local Public Service Campaign our student volunteers conduct is called ‘Don’t be Distracted’ and takes dead aim at those who insist on driving with their phone in hand. The fact that we have already been granted a S4SD grant for the seventh consecutive year tells us our work isn’t done.
Technology marches on, but in many ways, I kind of miss the days when we didn’t even have an answering machine. I believe my dad had the right idea: when we built the first version of our camp on Huron Bay, it had no phone. Dad waited until after he retired to put a phone in and that was only because he didn’t want to have us worry about them when they were there. It also made it easier to coordinate who was coming out to visit. He never did put in an answering machine there. I still have not embraced the idea that my brother has installed a dish antenna for TV and internet service at The Swamp. In all the years we spent vacationing there, we never worried about what we may have been missing back in the civilized world. I am firmly convinced that it would be good for the body, mind, and soul for everyone to take an ‘unplug the phone and computer’ vacation periodically. Try it and see if it lowers your blood pressure a couple of notches.
Top Piece Video: Led Zep offer their take on Communication . . . breakdown, that is!