“How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough sounds like a strange title for an adult educator to be reading. The book is about how Education has long overlooked character development in favour of academic achievement and how that may be a disservice to students and society in general. It’s true that the focus is on children and teens but there are some lessons for an adult high school teacher as well. First off, many of my students are not far out of high school age. Most are somewhere in their twenties so aspects of the book still apply. More importantly the main thesis that “character matters” remains true at any age. Developing character strengths like persistence, reliability and self-control I believe are truly teachable, for most people, if you place a premium on them the way places like KIPP schools featured in the book do.
One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is from the opening chapter. Tough lays out the connection between early childhood trauma, allostatic load (how our bodies respond to repeated stress) and learning. While I was reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think of the many stories my students have told me over the years about their childhoods and their lives. Violence and death permeate. It is a very different world from mine. The constant stress of daily life since they were young can only have a detrimental impact on how they learn.
“Stress physiologists have found a biological explanation for [problems in school]. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive” pg. 17
The prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functions in the brain. These functions process and manage new information, impulse control and working memory (how we sort and retain new information). All obviously related to learning and scholastic achievement. I see problems with working memory on a daily basis. For example, a big academic skill I want students to work on is putting things into their own words. Some students can’t keep the information from a short paragraph they just read in their heads while also trying to rewrite it on paper. This makes synthesis that much harder.
The good news is, according to Tough, the prefrontal cortex is one part of the brain that retains its plasticity into early adulthood (pg. 21, 48). My next steps are to find out what I can do as a teacher to mold the prefrontal cortex in such a way that mediates the damage done by the heavy allostatic load many have been burdened with. There is a lot of neuroscience underpinning this and best practices that I will need to explore.
The other big lesson from the book for me is the clear value non-cognitive skills have for success in life. “Character building” is such a loaded term. Just using here I feel paternalistic. The examples the book use from KIPP Schools and Riverdale Country School in NYC make explicit that it is not moralistic character, subject to one’s own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, that we should be interested in. But rather the kinds of skills and attitudes your grandfather was referring to when he said, “It builds character”. It’s the kind of character developed through hard work, perseverance and the buzz word of the book, grit.
“The value of these [non-cognitive skills] did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics but from their practical benefit – what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them.” Pg. 59
That is the heart of the argument for developing non-cognitive skills in school. It’s their practical benefit. I want my students to gain more than just the learning outcomes as prescribed by the curriculum. I want Adult High School to develop all the skills actually needed to be successful (both financially and generally), not just the academic ones. We tend to think that adult high school is only about picking up missed credits, like that English or Math course someone didn’t finish has been the big problem for them and society all along. To this end I make attendance (i.e. reliability) a prerogative. I make taking pride in your work a priority. I value self-reliance and perseverance. It is difficult to just hand in the work for credit in my classes (so much as our “individual system of instruction” education model allows for) because I don’t care about that one learning outcome as much as I care about the long game, big picture. I would like to see more emphasis on non-cognitive skills program wide. Jeff Nelson, the executive director of OneGoal, a college prep intervention program in Chicago says in the book,
“Non cognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college. And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system” pg. 168
Adult high school students have been failed by the education system. There would be no adult high school if that weren’t true. In my experience it isn’t the difficulty of high school academics that leads people to not graduate. It is non-cognitive deficits that have caused most of the problems in and with school. Complicated lives in many ways have contributed to both poor academic performance and left school as a low priority. We should be explicitly teaching and promoting non-cognitive skill development as part of the diploma and not just providing pathways to earn purely academic credits. If we really want productive and happy adult high school graduates we should focus on those things, as Jeff Nelson and so many others in the book do, that truly level the playing field and give the best chance at lifelong success.
My last guitar lesson of the year is on Tuesday. Looking back on the three and a half months I feel like I’ve made some real progress. It’s a lot like trying to lose weight. You start exercising and watching what you eat and it’s hard and it’s frustrating. The worst part is you don’t notice any changes at first. For a long while it feels like you must be doing something wrong. It’s only after a couple of months when you compare where you are now to where you began that you really see the differences.
One big improvement is that I use a pick now. Before I only used my fingers to strum because it was quieter (I had roommates and thin walls on my first attempt to learn guitar). It also covered up a lot of sloppiness. Using a pick makes the chords so much crisper and isn’t as forgiving so it forces me to practice technique. Another sign of progress has been incorporating a new finger formation for the G chord into my repertoire. I still prefer the old way but it is coming along and I do use it when it is clearly the better way to change to or from a G. The most obvious measure of learning is that I can play a few simple songs well enough to try fooling around with other people. That’s something I want to do in the new year. So far the only other person I’ve played with has been my teacher. It’s time to start including some peer instruction. Overall, I feel more confident picking up the guitar. Sometimes when I’m on a particularly good roll it’s like I’m a real guitar player.
My students had their last class on Friday. I hope they can also look back and see their own progress. I certainly can. I like to point out to my chemistry students when they begin to start talking about chemistry casually and conversationally. Things like, “How many electrons does Oxygen need [to fill its valence shell]?” and someone replies, “2” without batting an eye. In late August no one would have understood the question let alone the answer. I also see differences in my Science classes. For example, one student used to snack on cookies and candy throughout the day and then switched to fruit after completing her “Healthy Change” project. A small thing like that speaks volumes as to what she learned about health and nutrition and it has nothing to do with a mark, it’s a personal change.
The semester is over and now I’m starting to think about January. I hope my students and I will be able to look back on the journey from here to June and see growth and improvement again.
My teacher was excited when I suggested learning a song. I think he was hoping I would ask. After discussing the possibility with him I went home and spent the week trying to decide what to pick. I narrowed it down to four choices and brought them in. In the end we went with Billy Joel’s “Allentown” since he knew that song best. (The others were “Althea” by the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and “Ginseng Sullivan” by Norman Blake). I had just watched “The Hangover 2” the weekend before and Ed Helms plays an acoustic version of “Allentown” in the movie. I’ve always liked the song so I looked up the chords and printed it out.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on it. Some parts come easy. The opening line, “Well we’re living here in Allentown…” Is just Em, A, D, relatively simple chords. So naturally I play that part and other easy sections over and over again. It is so satisfying to hear familiar music and know that you are making it. I’m sure there are endorphins released. However, this is a problem. I see it in my classroom as well. Project Based Learning is large in scope and multifaceted by its nature. Some parts come easy to the student whether it’s because of prior knowledge or high interest. There are always some things in the beginning that students eat up. The problem is the hard part that comes after that: the tedious stuff like referencing, the boring stuff like correcting mistakes, the time it takes to dig deeper.
So now I’m practicing the hard parts I can’t do. Zero endorphins released. It’s repetitive and frustrating. I’m tempted to just play and sing the verses I can for an hour and call that practice. The non-cognitive skill I am very aware of at the moment is discipline. Discipline is high up on my list. I ask my students to show discipline in their dedication to the program and the quality of their work. Of course it’s hard. Of course it’s no fun. (I’m not a rote method teacher but there are things such as balancing chemical equations that you just need to practice to get good at.) Regardless of talent or skill, discipline increases your chances of success.
I feel like it is going to take a long time to get the entire song down. There’s some fast strumming and switching between F and G in the, “Every child had a pretty good shot…” part. I can’t even play it slowly. There’s also the end of verse section, “and it’s getting very hard to staaaay…” that involves several chords and is tricky strumming. I’ve been trying to be disciplined and practice just those sections over and over again. Because it’s hard I also find I’m slipping back into making my G’s the way I used to when I first learned guitar. My teacher asked my on my first lesson to try forming G with a different fingering. When a song gets hard I subconsciously switch back. This adds another layer of complication since I can sometimes solve my switching chords problem but cheating on how I form the G. All of this points to the simple truth that practice makes perfect, and practice requires discipline.
P.S. On another note the, choice of “Allentown” for this project is somewhat ironic. The lyrics of the second verse are not kind to education. “The promises out teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved. So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all, no they never taught us what was real; iron, coke, chromium, steel.” It’s a cautionary reminder to me about what a student should leave school with. I make those promises. Adult high school students (and some administrators and teachers for that matter) sometimes mistake the piece of paper that is the diploma for the goal. It’s true, owning that piece of paper opens some doors but it’s useless if you don’t know how to walk through them.
I need a project. I have been practicing the basics and learning theory (more than I thought) for almost 2 months now and I feel like it’s time to start applying that to a more holistic guitar education experience, namely I’d like to learn to play a simple song. I still want to go in the direction my teacher is taking me but I’d like to work on something that puts it all together.
I’m a big fan of project-based learning. It is student driven and personal. I give lots of choice and encourage students to think about their interests and goals in both the topic they choose and how they want to present their learning. In my Science class I’m trying to create an environment as close to an emergent curriculum as I can within the confines of the learning outcomes and available resources. This necessarily means I step back and put the student in the driver’s seat. It’s freedom. Freedom to explore, freedom to create, freedom to connect. Unfortunately, the reality is that often students act like the animal that stays in its cage after the zookeeper has forgotten to close the door. It frustrates me and I want to say, “Run!”
That’s why my own reaction to the thought of a “guitar project” is so surprising to me. After realizing that practicing a real song is what I need to do, my first inclination was to ask my teacher to pick one for me. I started making excuses to myself as to why it would be better for him to pick it; “He can judge my abilities better than I can and therefore pick a song of appropriate skill level”, “I don’t know what I don’t know”, “There are probably ‘good’ songs to begin with”, etc, etc… I’m sure these are all good points but they start to look like the bars on my own zoo cage. The door is open, the bars don’t matter. It’s just a stupid song but my fears and insecurities are keeping me from taking control of my own learning. I don’t want to be judged for my choice or musical taste. I don’t want to have an awkward conversation about why it’s not a good song and I don’t want to find out in a month that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. These thoughts seduce me into preferring the comforts of my pen.
When I go to my lesson on Tuesday I’m going to present this idea to my teacher. Maybe I’m not ready and I will respect his judgement and expertise. If this is something we can agree on then it is up to me to choose. I will want my teacher’s feedback but I need to lead. In my own classroom I need to be more mindful of the bars my students see when I present them with their freedom.
The party is over. I’m taking these guitar lessons as a way to relate to my adult students better. I have no illusions that guitar lessons are even remotely the same as returning to school all day and taking science or chemistry. I know that playing guitar is a hobby, something fun and enjoyable whereas chemistry is not. I’ve been putting in a lot of practice and finding the time to pick up the guitar everyday (I try to practice at least ½-1 hour every evening) all the while keeping up with my job, the gym, home responsibilities etc… and that is where I see the parallel. The commitment to learn, putting in the hours, going to the lessons, juggling everything else is an exercise in the non-cognitive skills required to be successful in school and life. So far I’ve been practicing the scales, strum patterns and new chords as I’ve been asked to by my teacher. I’m sure that anyone, if given the choice between practicing those things or studying for a chemistry test would choose the guitar. There is a certain satisfaction from hearing “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do” or the familiar classic rock sound of strumming G, C and D in a row, even if it is poorly done and the exercise is repetitive. But my latest assignment brings no satisfaction. It’s as tedious as chemistry nomenclature and has the added bonus that it hurts. It physically hurts. The exercise requires me to stretch my fingers across 4 frets on the bottom string (I think in guitar lingo it is actually the “top” string but I’m going with “bottom” being closest to the floor). I then alternate between plucking that string and moving each finger up to the next string (B string) one at a time, playing it, then moving the finger back down. Once I’ve cycled through every finger I keep them all planted on the bottom and repeat up the strings of the guitar. This is boring and a recipe for a cramp in my hand. The idea is to promote finger independence and dexterity. It is no fun.
The non-cognitive skill here must be persistence and delayed gratification. In the end I’ll say, “I’m glad I practiced that,” but that day seems far away.
Tonight was my fourth guitar lesson. I didn’t want to go. School is in full swing and at this point it is like summer never happened. I have a test and a quiz to give tomorrow. I have marking and planning to do tonight. I have six classes tomorrow with no prep time and this afternoon we had a staff meeting when I would normally be getting ready for tomorrow. I’m tired and cranky and I’m already looking forward to the weekend, just to catch up if nothing else. Tonight was a slog to get to the lesson. I was very tempted to skip it. I’m still enjoying playing the guitar and the lessons themselves but the novelty is wearing off. With that goes my enthusiasm as well. I suspect my students are having similar thoughts.
“No, I’m not the instructor.” I’m sitting in the waiting room with my guitar, anxious to meet my teacher and get started. The room is pretty full. I’m the only unaccompanied adult. Most are children also waiting for their lesson to begin. I’m uncomfortable and feel awkward. I don’t know what I expected but for some reason I completely forgot that most people who take music lessons are 12 and under. No one really asked me if I was the instructor but I felt like at any moment someone might. Or, even worse, a bored parent might want to chit chat about our kids and their musical progress. Needless to say I was relieved when a bearded man about my age stuck his head out of one of the many doors surrounding the waiting room and called, “Andrew?”
We quickly got down to business. He asked about my experience with guitar and if I could play him something. I couldn’t so I showed him a few chords I could remember. Right off the bat he told me I should play the G chord differently. He explained that it will be easier to switch chords once I’d mastered the new fingering. Even the things I thought I knew I didn’t. G is one of my standbys, one of the first chords I ever learned. I told him I needed to work on my rhythm. He showed me a few strumming patterns and wrote them out for me to practice. I’m to get a pick and a notation book, the name of which I’ve already forgotten. I enjoyed the lesson and meeting my new teacher but left knowing I had work to do before next Tuesday.
My adult students have their first day of school next week. They’ll have their own waiting room experiences and there will be things they think they know that will need to be finessed in order to progress properly. They too will have a lot of work to do. How well either they or I do will ultimately depend on how well we handle that work and how we handle our own hang ups about returning to class. Signing ourselves up was the easy part.