A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


In reflecting upon disengaged teenage learners, I never need to look far. Joseph, my 14 year-old son, often tells me with a silly grin that he does not enjoy reading because reading is for nerds! In particular, my son complained this morning, "I don't like thinking books," such as The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, which is required reading for his 9th grade honors English class. "No," I replied, "you don't like to think."

Every day this summer, I have demanded that Joe start his day by writing down his schedule for the day, write down his goals, and reflect about what has worked and what he needs to change (plus / delta). Otherwise, Joe would blissfully spend his entire day playing violent video games such as Halo or Modern Warfare, or non-violent, but pointless games such as Minecraft. Since I have been "watching the store" all summer, paying close attention, Joe has finished the book and has already done his word work (replacement activities for Halo), but I worry about him becoming too dependent on my watchful eye and not developing his own self-direction skills.While Joe has played tournament baseball, and is enrolled in baseball camps, plus some science camps, otherwise he has a great void of time to fill, none of which would be filled with what I would consider quality activities without direct parental intervention. An idle mind is, indeed, the devil's workshop. Max Weissman was right, ignorance is normal, and thinking isn't. I want Joe to want to become a learner, so I constantly am in search of ways to help engage him.

Today, at my insistence, Joe evaluated his teacher's comprehension questions. He immediately noticed that the questions required him to go beyond the text - nice observation! Joe had been swearing that the book was boring. I had checked out an audiobook version of The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott, the wrong  book and was confused. Joe had forgotten that he disliked reading when he read Harry Potter books. Michael Scott's version, which I am totally enjoying, has a similar action-oriented feel while paying due homage to deeper concepts related to alchemy. How could The Alchemist possibly be boring, I wondered?

To show Joe how a work of literature fits within a continuum of learning, to help him make connections beyond the text, I began showing Joe how to use Microsoft OneNote while answering his comprehension questions. Projecting 5 plus years into the future, I explained how he could use OneNote's hypertext features to construct knowledge about what he reads cumulatively as well as collaboratively, throughout high school -- the big picture, understandably, went over his head. Joe's need to play Halo tugged away at his attention. His body lurched toward the exit, but I held the cable he needed to play his video games. While setting up the OneNote page where he could take notes for the Myth of Narcissus, I asked Joe what he remembered. I was appalled that Joe did not immediately recognize this classic from his mythology book.

Perplexed, I began to engage with the text and immediately noticed differences in Michael Scott's story and Paulo Coelho's story. After thumbing through the cover and introduction, which trumpeted the fact that Bill Clinton and Julia Roberts had been seen enjoying it, it became evident that Paulo Coelho's book is about serious themes, such as a young person finding his "life's calling." The serious themes, unfortunately, seemed to have immediately turned Joe off as nerdy and preachy. I reminded Joe that his grandfather, who awoke the other day from his seven-hour lung operation ready to champion social and economic justice, has been pursuing the same Kelsonian dream for nearly 50 years -- that's someone with a calling!

Joe grinned as he made the connection that teaching has become my calling. "Ugh! You are just crazy -- beyond crazy!" he exclaimed.

"Why do you care about what people think who you will never see you again after high school?" I replied. Teens who are obviously different, like Joe, like myself at his age, sometimes overcompensate and find themselves doing whatever it takes to avoid being perceived as a nerd. "Nerd" is a powerful and destructive word.

From my Georgetown University days, often spent with my nose in Oxford's English Dictionary, and from my dad, who spent his University of Chicago Law School days with his nose in Black's Law Dictionary, I developed an appreciation for the power of words to shape thoughts and destinies of individuals and nations. The concept of reading as being something for nerds is a difficult mindset to overcome in the classroom.

During my case study, Johnny loved to smile while feeding me that same "I hate reading" misconception -- Johnny loved reading about Hercules, however, after I scaffolded the process and helped broaden his conception of what it means to be literate.

Paulo Coelho's work seems a bit didactic, a quality that frankly is not my preferred style either, but I will read it so that Joe and I can have a conversation about the book. First, I will complete The Kinds of Schools We Need, by Elliot W. Eisner, because it addresses my specific professional needs. Eisner wrote:

To speak of cognition often conjures up a bloodless form of thinking that somehow is disconnected from matters of affect. Nothing could be further from the truth... [F]or the refinement of cognitive skills to be fully developed, it must in some way be emotionalized. (Eisner, p. 8, 1998)
The serious consideration of a life's calling is as worthwhile for a 14 year old, as it is for a 49 year old. I remember when professors told students not to read Book 10 from Boccacio's Decameron, or not to read "The Miller's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Of course, these became the first books students read, because they were scandalous.

In words of Bill Gates, "Be careful who you call a nerd -- you may be working for one some day!"


Eisner, E. (1998). The kinds of schools we need: Personal essays. Portsmouth: Heinemann