Monday, April 23, 2012

How to Make Any Lesson Interesting

for Mark

It doesn't matter if you're a teacher, a parent, a child, a neighbor, or a friend: at some point, all of you are going to wind up having to teach someone else how to do something, from potty-training your toddler to teaching your parents how to download apps onto a smart phone. You may be tasked with helping your spouse learn the correct resting position of the toilet seat. It may fall to you to explain to Grandma about Facebook.

Or you may actually be one of those dear souls who explains things to others professionally. That's right: I'm talking about Professional Educators. At best, they spout their accumulated knowledge and insightful thoughts to a group of fascinated students who are eager to catch every pearl of wisdom that drops from their lips. At worst, they function as crowd control.  More generally, teachers invest hours in study and research, then hold forth in front of a distracted audience whose members fall in varying degrees along the Continuum of Ambivalence regarding the topic at hand.

Whether one teaches professionally or not, most people could stand to learn a few tips regarding how to make any lesson interesting. Believe me. I've heard people try to explain very simple procedures to one another, and most of them are not very good at it.  (Bless their hearts.) 

Before I launch into the following points, I should mention that one of the prerequisites to making lessons interesting is to come at each lesson from an unexpected angle. To that end, I will be adapting five concepts from Sun Tzu's The Art of War.1


How to Make Any Lesson Interesting:

1. Remember that reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness.  It doesn't matter how much you know about the topic at hand if 1) your target audience doesn't give a flip about what you are trying to teach, or 2) you have taken on the tone of a mindless drone who is more interested in hearing himself sound impressive than in making the concepts clear. Let's be honest: we've all been on both sides of this equation at one time or another. With that in mind, it is incumbent upon you to be sure that your lessons have immediate practical value. Want your dad to understand the navigation app on his smartphone? After explaining to him the basic features and stressing the importance of remembering how to use them, boot him out of the car a few miles from home, leaving him to find his way back on his own. Want your students to understand the inner workings of a freemarket economy? Using value-earned tickets as currency, make them pay rent to keep their desks each week, evicting students who can't pay up. If you want them to understand government subsidies, provide Section 8 benches at the back. If you want them to understand socialism, make them share desks.

2. If you reward your men with spoils, that will make them fight on their own initiative.  Don't get me wrong: I'm not encouraging daily prizes and weekly raffles. What I am encouraging is an  understood system of rewards that has very little to do with tangible goods.  When the students participate well in my lessons, I award them all manner of gold stars and various pins, all of which are purely imaginary and often invented to suit the occasion. I award these verbally much like the teachers from Hogwarts award points to the House teams, with the two differences being that 1) instead of saying, "Very good, five points for Ravenclaw,"2 I say "Excellent observation. You win the Meditation Medallion for the day!" and that 2) instead of my words causing colored stones to fly in and out of a display case in the Great Hall (which our school does not have), I accompany my verbal awards with the physical action of flicking the imaginary pins, points, or medallions through the air at the students, who are then free to pin the invisible award anywhere on their person that they see fit. An endearing number of them actually do this. I also grant the Elbow Touch of Wisdom from time to time, but this is one of the most elusive of the awards.3

3. Maximum force means shifts in accumulated energy and momentum.  Whatever you are tasked with teaching, I've found that if you come at it with a sort of manic enthusiasm bordering on an almost deranged excitement of energy, you will be hard to ignore. You will find that while engaging in this sort of wild verbal and emotional repartee, your quarry will find himself  hard put to look away lest he miss the moment in which you spontaneously combust. But then, just as quickly, you must turn on the edge of a knife, falling down to a soft, almost seductive whisper which carries its greatest emotional impact only after a fit of wildness. You must be very, very careful not to make yourself laugh during this process.

4. Remember that orthodoxy and unorthodoxy are not fixed, but are like a cycle.  The world of education seems to have two types of teachers: those who rigidly follow self-imposed classroom routines from which not even dynamite could hurl them, and those who seem never to have heard the word routine in their lives. The second group's downfall is that they are so unorthodox and scattered in their methods, that although their lessons may be stimulating, invigorating, and refreshing in their unorthodox take, the overall course in general lacks the rhythms and routines that make long-term education effective. The first group's problem is that they cherish their routines so strongly that they do not allow for the dramatic impact that only flashes of unorthodoxy can produce. Case in point: days that I take my students out to the field to experiment with movement in poetic form; days that friends from overseas Skype into my classroom as guest lecturers; moments during which I fall out of the lesson for a few moments in order to perform a few lines from a musical or an opera, then fall right back into the rhythm of the lecture as if nothing untoward has occurred. The very reason that these experiences stand out depends on the overall development of orthodoxy, routine, and rhythm within the classroom.   

5. Victory in war is not repetitious, but adapts itself endlessly. Although a fair amount of repetition is needed for learning, no lesson should be taught the exact same way twice.  The burden of making the lesson fresh and relevant is upon you, the teacher.  Study opposing theories; research corollary arguments; discuss the matter with teachers from other disciplines. Explain the matter to your five-year-old nephew and then have him explain it back to you.  If it is a skill you are teaching rather than a concept, reconnect yourself with the difficulty of initially learning the skill by attempting it with a self-imposed handicap, such as a blindfold. (Unless, of course, you teach Driver's Ed.)

6. Be unfathomable. One of the best keys to keep people listening to you is to upset their notions that you are predictable and that they are able to infer what you are going to say next.  Make it a point to include in each lesson a small point or comment which, though related, is totally unexpected.

Whether you are a professional educator, a lay Sunday School teacher, or one of the millions who find themselves in unofficial teaching capacities, implementing the six strategies above will go a long way to ensuring that you will be able to make any lesson interesting.  

If these steps should fail, you could always try--as a last resort--releasing a small swarm of yellow jackets into the classroom during the lesson. 

That's bound to make any lesson interesting. 

1. I first read this as a new teacher because someone recommended it as a good foundation for classroom discipline. Indeed, it is. I took this to heart and have attempted to make it mine: "His plans are calmly and deeply hidden, so that no one can figure them out. His regime is fair and orderly, so that no one dares to take him lightly."  
2. Comma splice intentional as a tribute to JKR's seeming fondness for them. *pushes up glasses*
3. The Elbow Touch of Wisdom is exactly what it sounds like: when a student makes an especially keen observation, I walk to him in a stately manner (with great pomp and circumstance), and allow him to touch the tip of his elbow to mine.  For some reason, this seems to make a great impact, especially on those ages twelve to fourteen.

Monday, April 16, 2012

How to Survive the Toilets of the World

for Mom

It should come as no surprise to any of us that toilets can be really dangerous. After all, Elvis Presley died on one.1

Anybody who has done any amount of traveling will be quick to back me up on this: while it's true that sometimes the toilets of the world can come with delightful surprises--from the completely automated toilet-seat covers at the Chicago O'Hare airport to the brilliant commode-side view from the bathrooms in the tallest skyscraper observation deck in the world at the Shanghai World Financial Center--more often than not, the toilets of the world offer surprises that are somewhat... less than pleasant.

The truth is that the toilets of the world can be very, very dangerous.

Based on my vast amount of experience (mostly gained through unfortunate situations of trial and error), I now humbly offer you a list of suggestions as to how to survive the toilets of the world.

Toilet 1: The Truck Stop

The Good: There probably won't be a line for this one. And if you're desperate enough to go so far as to consider using a classic truck stop bathroom, the lack of line is something to be glad of. Perhaps the only thing to be glad of.
The Bad: The only light comes from a feebly-flickering electric bulb which periodically buzzes and shorts out. There is no toilet paper--just a roll of paper towels which someone has dropped lengthwise onto the mucky floor, where it has partially unrolled and (by the looks of the boot prints across it) has been stepped on multiple times.  If you're lucky, the room will carry the musty smell of clogged drains. If you're unlucky, it will smell of ... other things.
Your Best Bet: Hope that someone from Hogwarts is along with you and is willing to perform a hover charm (Wingardium Leviosa!) on you before you enter the bathroom. Barring that, it's time to do everything within your power to ensure that you can do your business and get out without actually touching any square millimeter of yourself or your clothing to any surface of the room, including the sink.2

Toilet 2: The Squatter

The Good: Spending a lifetime using squat toilets often ensures that the elderly of certain regions (Asia, the Middle East, etc.) maintain a remarkable level of flexibility into their old age.
The Bad: If you haven't been raised using squat toilets, chances are very high that as an adult, you're going to find yourself making lots of rookie mistakes. And the bathroom is not a place in which people our age prefer to make rookie mistakes, if you know what I mean.
Your Best Bet: 1) Watch your step: it does not do to let either one or the other of your feet slip while positioning yourself over the squatter. 2) Don't look down, especially if you happen to be wearing sunglasses on the top of your head at the time. (In the event that you forget this piece of advice, remember that some things which are lost are not meant to be recovered. Ever.) If the squatter is a pit-toilet variety, you do not want to look down for obvious reasons. If the squatter happens to be an open space directly over the railroad trestles of a fast-moving moving train, you especially don't want to look down lest you lose your equilibrium.  3) Have a plan in mind for the proper handling and keeping-out-of-the-way of all of your articles of clothing during all stages of the squat-toilet experience. Remember that if you don't have a plan, the squat toilet will. And his plan is to make use of the combined forces of gravity, disorientation, and nervousness in order to overwhelm you.   4) Above all, remember to TAKE YOUR TIME. Although it may be difficult sometimes given the urgency of the business as hand, slow and steady wins the race in this case.

Toilet 3: The Vanishing Toilet

The Good: There is nothing good about a Vanishing Toilet. You know the type I mean: the type of toilet that, for one reason or another, isn't where you expect it to be. Perhaps you've remembered the layout of the theme park incorrectly. Perhaps in your haste to reach the bathroom before the moment of crisis, you've mistaken one hallway for another.  Or perhaps, as I experienced once, a wildfire has recently swept down the freeway and burnt the bathroom where you expected to find relief completely to the ground.
The Bad: By the time you've realized your mistake, it may be too late (especially if you're dragging a panic-stricken child by the hand).
Your Best Bet: Pray.

Toilet 4: The Great Outdoors

The Good: There are fewer experiences in life more soothing than taking care of some of life's most basic needs under a canopy of the sky with only God and the clean, fresh outdoor breeze for company.
The Bad: There are many downsides. First, you may not be as alone as you think. (Horrors!) Second, although the inherent dangers may sound amusing on paper--accidentally squatting on a cactus, unwittingly using poison sumac leaves as personal wipes, angering a family of demented badgers by infringing on their territory and then having to resort to a humiliating, pants-around-the-ankles stumbling run for freedom, etc.--the fact remains that using the great outdoors can be downright dangerous, if not outright deadly.3

Toilet 5: The Toilets of Japan

The Good: Japanese toilets are wonders of modern technological engineering. While basic models come equipped with standard features such as automatic lids, heated seats, blow dryers, water jets, and massage options, advanced toilets also include the ability to play games and music, and (best of all) release air deodorizing, anti-bacterial mists with each automated flush.
The Bad: These can be very confusing to foreigners. There's also a persistent rumor that a Japanese man was electrocuted by his Super Toilet, but I've been unable to find substantial support for this tale.
Your Best Bet: If you find yourself in Japan, you can either have a Japanese friend draw you a diagram or give you a quick tutorial before your first foray into the world of Japanese Super Toilets. Otherwise, it's just you, your plucky sense of adventure, and a dazzling array of buttons.

The truth is that even though I like to think that I have come equipped with a plucky sense of adventure, and although there is little doubt that I love many aspects of travel, I've become convinced that when the following iconic words were penned in 1823, John Howard Payne was probably thinking of his own private water closet far, far away:

Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.

Or, as I foresee it in his first draft:

Mid pleasures and palaces down yon gold road
Naught shines e'er so bright as my own, dear commode.

1 - Okay, so... maybe, maybe not. Everyone's best guess seems to be that the combination of hard living and too many peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches was just too much for his poor heart. But the point is that he was found in the vicinity of the toilet after he died. And while George II of Great Britain did indeed die on the toilet in 1760, it was a heart condition that killed him, not the toilet. The 14th-century Bohamian king named Wenceslaus III was murdered while in a toilet chamber, but again, it was a javelin that killed him, not the commode. But still. You get my point.
2 - It's no doubt with these sorts of bathrooms in mind that our mother puts bottles of hand sanitizer into our Christmas stockings each year. Thanks, Mom. This one's for you.
3 - See Ghiglieri and Myers in Over the Edge: Death at Grand Canyon for actual statistics on how many people have fallen to their deaths in their attempts to pee into the largest and most glorious of outdoor commodes.