It’s not the teaching, it’s the learning

  • Education

One required class in my online degree program is CSS106, Succeeding in College. It’s a single credit hour, and the course is a very straightforward series of modules designed to help students discover enough about themselves to develop a tailored toolkit for learning, both in and outside a school setting. A couple weeks ago, I submitted an essay (reproduced below in lightly edited form) and then promptly crashed through several layers of mental exhaustion. I find myself scrambling to catch up on coursework and struggling to maintain focus at all. It wasn’t my intention to foretell my own academic doom, but it’s also sort of right there in the text. I suppose the assignment was an object lesson in advance. Here’s hoping I learned something!


I was excited to sign up for online courses, even though it’s been a long time since I attended college in any format. I was a full-time university student in the early 1990s, but never completed a degree. About 10 years later, I took Russian language courses—not as part of a degree program, only the 101/102 and 201/202 classes—to enhance my communication skills. At the time, I had a full-time job and many of my coworkers were Russian or Ukrainian immigrants; taking those classes was an attempt to meet them halfway when it came to our common language barrier. I did well and was able to improve workplace communications. All my previous college experience was in-person, including occasional adult Continuing Education classes over the last several years.

All my life I have been a visual learner. This includes watching someone perform the steps of a new task or activity before attempting it myself or reading an instruction manual as I try it myself. Taking online classes seemed like a perfect fit for that preferred learning style. My early assumptions about the coursework were quickly proven wrong, and I was not prepared for the rigorous demands of time and attention that would be placed on me. I also found the frequent use of online discussion and multimedia learning modules to be jarring. (In short, it seems that I had completely forgotten what school was like.)

As we conclude our second week of classes, I’ve developed concerns about my ability to stay focused and set aside the necessary time for all my coursework. I find myself having to re-learn the basics of time management and note taking so that I can blend class time into my work and home life. Understanding my preferred learning style is only the beginning; I must also provide a stable learning environment for myself. This is worrisome because I can be easily distracted, whether at home or a local café, which is where I’ve done most of my coursework so far.

In her YouTube video “What Learning Style Are You? And Why It Doesn’t Matter!” Elise Williams of The Pocket Mentor provides a short quiz to help students determine their preferred learning style. That quiz, along with the “Visual, Aural, Read/Write, Kinesthetic (VARK) Questionnaire” offered by VARK Learn, Ltd., gave me a better understanding of learning styles in context.

Having a preferred style of learning doesn’t mean that I am deficient in other modalities. As Williams notes, the reason “it doesn’t matter” is that multiple learning styles can be employed together for a more robust and successful learning experience. Having a preference simply gives me an idea of where to start. Williams suggests that by incorporating different learning styles into their study habits, students can improve their chances of retaining knowledge gained in class. One example would be for me to read a study text aloud and replay the recording to myself. There are also opportunities for aural learning when watching videos for class; this requires listening attentively and taking notes. For visual learners, Williams proposes using multicolored writing to more easily organize key concepts, and to include diagrams to provide visual prompts for recall.

Another way to improve learning skills is to further refine one’s preferred learning style. The Open University, a distance learning institution based in the United Kingdom, offers some insight into developing core learning skills. One useful skill is active reading, which involves directly engaging with something to “understand and evaluate it for its relevance to your needs.” Examples include highlighting key words and phrases and making annotations using my own summaries, questions, or challenges to the material. These are contained within the well-known technique called SQ3R, which stands for “skim, question, read, remember, review.” More about SQ3R is available from Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center: SQ3R Improving Reading Comprehension.

I believe the most important strategies for addressing my concerns are to identify one or two dependably quiet study spaces, create a consistent study schedule, and expand my active reading techniques. VARK Learning does note that “going against your preferences is not likely to be motivating.” It wouldn’t be productive to try improving my use of my least-preferred learning styles. However, my wife and I love to discuss our interests and hobbies. By talking to her about my school studies, I could develop an auditory method to reinforce what I’ve learned visually. Cultivating a multimodal learning style—while still honoring my preference—could be a major key to success.

Walkabout

  • Health

A week ago, on something of a whim, I signed up for the Cornhusker State Games 2021 CSG Walk, which was held yesterday morning. In this volkswalk-style event, participants were given a choice of two routes and a window of time to complete their walk. (You can learn more about this type of non-competitive event at the American Volkssport Association.) I chose the longer route—pictured below—and started out just before 7:00 AM. We had good cloud cover making the morning temperature bearable. But the humidity was off the chart from my first step; even if I were in better physical shape, I’d still have been flop-sweating within the first mile.

A screenshot from an mobile exercise tracking app showing a city map highlighting a 5.5-mile walking route, in the shape of a lopsided figure-eight, through residential areas in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Cornhusker State Games 2021 CSG Walk. This was the longer route offered to participants; the other path was approximately two miles. (Screenshot from the Map My Walk mobile app provided by Under Armour.)

This part of the city is a tree-shrouded older residential area, including some of the fancier Country Club streets. Passing through the neighborhood surrounding the golf course, I encountered a fluffy black cat lounging on a garden path, a gaunt red fox carrying a breakfast catch, and a City Council member out for a (personal) morning jaunt. Other foot traffic was light, even counting the joggers and dog walkers who shared the route.

The walk was lovely, though the long route pushed me towards the edge of my endurance. Exercise walking is something I just haven’t been doing, and it shows. But with some focused stretches, good socks and shoes, and a judicious application of ibuprofen, I recovered from the exertion easily enough. (A late-morning nap with our cats also helped.)

Several years ago, I was jogging 5K routes. Since then, I’ve fallen into a routine of constantly having to re-form basic exercise habits. I can almost trick myself into believing that’s the same as actually keeping those habits—but no. Committing to yesterday’s event without overthinking it is probably what got me through it, bypassing my uneasy brain. Maybe that touch of managed recklessness is the habit to develop first, and the rest will more easily follow.

Back to school

I’m entering college―again―and this week I submitted some transcripts on a day that also was a multiple-of-ten anniversary of my high school graduation. At this age, nostalgia for that long ago time feels peculiar to me, as though I’ve been deep-sea diving and risk serious harm by surfacing too quickly. It’s a strange mix of memory lane and forward progress, but enjoyable just the same, especially as I return to an organized learning environment. Let’s just consider the previous misfires (putting it mildly) as part of a continuing education.

Prepare to die, obviously!

  • Movies

I had the pleasure of watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in an empty theater yesterday, and it was every bit the “epic of epic epicness” that I remember. The film has an amazing cast with easy chemistry, and the story of a deceptively non-heroic protagonist still seems relevant—it almost feels more germane now than it did ten years ago. Reviving the movie for a slightly delayed anniversary celebration brings welcome exuberance into 2021.

Elective service

We held our city primary a month ago, and this week (on Star Wars Day, no less) conducted the general election. I worked again as a precinct inspector, which is an official term for a supply runner. Many election workers receive a two-year posting to a specific precinct; others, like me, serve in a backup role—covering gaps on demand. Sometimes I think it would be nice to receive a permanent posting, but working as a reserve inspector means that I rarely work consecutive elections at the same place. We have polling places in churches, schools, apartment complex clubhouses, union halls, and so on. Being an election official is an easy way to be a tourist in my own city.

Local elections are typically the slowest of all; this week’s turnout was just below 30%. One point of interest: the number of absentee ballots cast was almost double the in-person turnout on Election Day. I was relieved to see that, because early voting is what led to the election of my favorite at-large City Council candidate. His taking office represents a dramatic shift in the composition of the council, even if we did just swap out white men.

Since this country will never be done with COVID-19, the sanitation measures that we put into effect for last year’s presidential election continued this year. Everyone is well acquainted with the dance: out of 114 voters in our precinct, we had two without masks, and one dubiously tied bandana. Election workers are practiced at sanitizing voting booths, work tables, ballpoint pens, ballot sleeves. I imagine that—despite our hopes to the contrary—some version of this protocol will persist into next year’s midterms. That’s fine with me. As a precinct inspector, I feel as though my biggest problems involve policing all the small talk that happens as we’re moving voters through the line. The environment is homey and cordial, but often lacks what I would consider an appropriate level of professionalism for the job.

For the past few election cycles, I’ve been thinking more about whether or not I’ll continue working in this capacity. Election Day is exhausting. It has all the joys of retail customer service with the added benefit of enforcing state law. (And don’t get me started on arguments over electioneering.) But the work is rewarding. I feel an immense sense of pride every time, and being part of the election return is a special sort of high. By the time next year’s primary rolls around, I’ll probably be rested up and ready to do it all again.

Once more unto the breach

  • Meta

Well, I managed to come back around to the blog in less than a year—that represents a certain sort of progress. Let’s just say it took 51 weeks for me to recover from transcribing Ben Sasse’s atrocious graduation day speech and move on, shall we?

Profiles in cowardice

On Saturday, U.S. Senator Ben Sasse delivered the commencement address to Fremont High School’s Class of 2020. (Sasse himself graduated from the school in 1990.) No longer content to be America’s hip negging Dad, the senator has launched into a desperate grab for relevance as the world passes him by.

I transcribed the speech just to overcome my disbelief. I won’t waste energy wishing that Sasse could forever be disqualified from public service, but I will marvel at his craven display for a long time. (If you must see it to believe it, the link above contains an embedded video of the entire ceremony; Sasse’s remarks come in the first eight minutes.)

Anyway, the transcript:

“Congratulations, graduates! This is a big moment.

Not on graduating high school, but on making the journey down the stairs from your bedroom to the living room, and putting on something slightly more formal than sweatpants. Your grandparents are proud of you; we’re all proud of you. It took a lot of effort. We want to recognize your sacrifice.

Congratulations, parents, teachers, and coaches! Not that there’s really any meaningful distinction among those categories anymore at this point. If you’re a parent, you’re a teacher. Thanks a lot, China.

We’re all teachers now. And let’s be honest: at the start of this, most parents thought we would be visionary math teachers, changing the world—but after about two weeks, we all just decided to default into gym teachers. I’m kidding; my dad was a gym teacher. I’m serious. He used to teach English and Social Studies but he always aspired to get to gym so he didn’t have to put on formal clothes everyday, and he could wear the same sort of sweats that most of you are wearing from the bottom half down anyway.

But anyway. I know, Dad, gym is important. If you’re watching, Dad—as if he’s watching—uh, my children aren’t at his house, and like all grandparents, there’s no chance he can get Zoom to work without my children there to do it for him.

Graduates, adults don’t tell you this, but once or twice a week in real-world life, someone’s going to ask you to climb a giant rope. No reason, just climb the rope. Sure, every now and then the rope is a metaphor, but most of the time, it’s just a big rope, and you have to climb it.

If you don’t get that joke, talk to your mom and dad. Back in the day when we were a lot fitter than you people are, we used to have to climb ropes all the way to the ceiling of the gym all the time. So, gym teachers: those of you who chose to do it as a calling, and those of you who’ve been forced into it as a calling, I salute you.

So here we are. We’re in your living room. I’m on a laptop, you’re on a couch, because 2020 is a heck of a year. I know I’m not supposed to say this, but you’re not missing out on that much, because honestly nobody—and by “nobody” I mean nobody—remembers anything about their high school graduation. In fact, a lot of us spend a lot of our lives trying to forget as much about high school as we possibly can. You know what I mean; you remember sophomore year. You don’t want those memories to be defining for you.

Read More »Profiles in cowardice

Voting in the time of COVID-19

This week our state held its 2020 primary election, complete with in-person voting. Voters were scarce, though—nearly 400,000 mail-in ballots were counted statewide.

I served as a poll worker for the first time since November 2018; this week I was an inspector, overseeing two precinct sites based in the same church. State election officials had refused to postpone the primary or switch to an all-mail format as other states had done. Our county election commission scrambled to develop additional sanitation procedures and to acquire the necessary equipment. Some examples:

  • Wearing masks and gloves for reduced contact with voters
  • Providing masks to voters upon request (most wore their own)
  • Issuing ballpoint pens (non-returnable) for marking ballots
  • Wiping down voting booths and ballot sleeves after each use
  • Maintaining social distancing as much as possible

Voting booths for both precincts were set up in one common area but spaced several feet apart. We never had more than four people voting at once, which greatly simplified crowd management, much to our relief.

Overall voter turnout, including absentee ballots, was around 39%. I suppose we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see whether it was a successful test run for managing an election during a pandemic. (Side notes: between Tuesday and Wednesday, there were around 700 new COVID-19 cases statewide. There was a corresponding spike in the number of tests conducted on Wednesday. And for the past two weeks our state has been reopening: barber shops, tattoo parlors, massage therapists, churches, restaurants, salons… all with social distancing guidelines and increased occupancy restrictions.)

All of this to say I have no idea which of these configurations—wide open or tightly controlled—will win out for the November election. I suppose I’ll be there either way.

Test for echo

  • Meta

“But how can I tell,” said the man, “that the past isn’t just a fiction designed to account for the discrepancy between my immediate physical sensation and my state of mind?”

—Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe