Hamlet in Prison

This American Life Hamlet in Prison, screenshot

Jack Hitt’s hour-long report  for This American Life on Hamlet performed by prisoners, originally broadcast in 2002, has inspired me all week with its deep insights about Hamlet and encouragement for my own students, a few of whom have come from prison.

Nobody points out the ex-cons in my classes–I wouldn’t know that detail if they didn’t confide in me themselves. A couple have broken my heart by returning to prison or to the streets, but most are determined to take their second chance and become a blessing to their families. Like this reporter, I don’t necessarily want to know what they’ve done in the past. For me, their life begins here and now.

And I’d love to have all of my students think of my class-as one prisoner/performer said of his experience with teacher/director, Agnes Wilcox–“For a few hours a week, we get to feel human again.”

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

How to Succeed in American Business

Teaching in a multicultural environment often includes overtly explaining American business culture and helping students practice that language. For starters, there’s the direct eye contact, the body language, the smiling, the small talk, the willingness to let people know you’re accomplishing something–while not crossing the line into boasting.

In “Looking at the Bamboo Ceiling,” NPR’s Melissa Block and Michele Norris interviewed Wesley Yang, author of “Paper Tigers: What Happens to All Of The Asian-American Overachievers When the Test-taking Ends?” and Jane Hyun, author of Breaking The Bamboo Ceiling. Both write about “Asian-American students’ over-representation in almost every index of achievement in education . . .  and under-representation in corporate leadership.” They describe the adjustments they have made to be as successful in business as they were in the classroom. They’ve learned to share achievements, and to connect socially through the nonverbal cues.

Hyun tells the story of working on spreadsheets while a colleague seemed to waste a few minutes every day, chatting with the boss. Hyun’s background had taught her to put her nose down, work hard, all alone at her desk; no one taught her that building relationships would also matter.

Yang explains that in many places in the world, if you went around smiling all the time, “you’d be perceived not as a friendly person, but as a crazy one.” He finds it handy to use his “Asian poker face” at times, and jokes that he hasn’t learned to smile, but notes that “the United States has a different expectation, and if you don’t meet that expectation, there will in many cases be a barrier to trust and acceptance . . . your whole life on the basis of something that seems so trivial and . . . can be changed.”

Just as Americans need to learn new communication styles when they work internationally, many of our own students require bicultural fluency to be successful. I tell students from backgrounds where direct eye contact is considered rude that staring at someone’s nose looks exactly like eye contact without being quite as uncomfortable for them. And I encourage them to retain the gifts of their own cultures, and to continue to use their cultural nonverbal traditions at home, while learning to speak “American business” at work and school. These additional cultural ideas make all the difference in American career and social success:

  • The American business sense of time requires punctuality and a full day of work all day every day.
  • You’re required to communicate. If you can’t come in, or you’re going to be late, you call your boss and make a new agreement. You don’t wander off early without letting people know what’s happening. (You also take the loss on your timecard if you’re hourly, or let people know how you’ll make up the work if you’re on salary.)
  • When you make a mistake, you apologize and learn out how to correct it or improve next time. Neither ignoring a mistake nor treating a correction as an attack on your honor will help you work things out.
  • Smoking won’t entitle you to extra breaks and won’t be socially acceptable in most workplaces. According to a 2009 Center for Disease Control report, high school dropouts smoked at a rate of over 28%, while those with graduate degrees were down to 5.6%. Yes, that would probably be the toughest adjustment you could make, but you wouldn’t be the first person to quit, and every organ in your 60-year-old body would thank you.

All of these learned behaviors are challenging, but possible. If someone offered you an extra $10,000 a year, or $100K, would you do it? That’s the invitation. You are officially invited to the ball. Feel free to dress up, put on your American business manners, and shine.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Friday Flick: Music with Shining Eyes

If you’ve never loved classical music before, give Ben Zander twenty-one minutes to change your heart. If you’ve loved it already, share this with someone who could use a little healing. Ben conducts the Boston Philharmonic and speaks about his transformative experience with Landmark Education–a beautiful combination. This is Benjamin Zander’s TED talk.

Benjamin Zander at TED: Music with Shining Eyes
Benjamin Zander at TED: Music with Shining Eyes

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Image YouTube screenshot

If You Ask Advice from an Author

If you ask 22 author friends for advice, they’ll write you a whole book!

Steve Silberman had been reporting on professionals with autism/Asperper’s and became an expert on such neurodiversity, so naturally, it’s time to write his book. The process of turning a 4,000 word article into a 100,000 word tome was intimidating, so he asked for a little help from his friends. It might take him the first month to digest the advice and select which parts to use, whether adjusting his scheduling, process, outlook, or technology, but it’s a great collection:

Neurotribes Blog

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Rhyme Time

Children’s book editors conventionally whine about rhyme. It’s so hard to write tight in rhythm and rhyme, they’d rather not brave it. Then they have children of their own, and discover how much fun great rhyming can be. And any elementary school teacher could tell you how important rhyme is for reading readiness.

Editor Allyn Johnston said, “My feelings about rhyming picture books really did change after our son was born. I used to be a complete pill about how much I disliked them, and then my husband and I spent endless hours reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Dr. Seuss books and The Seven Silly Eaters and Time for Bed and Hattie and the Fox (and other young Mem Fox books), and I saw how much fun it was to laugh and cuddle and repeat goofy stanzas with Eamon–and I became a convert. We still have rhymes we say to each other in silly moments from those early years. So now I feel that when rhyme is great, there’s nothing like it to engage very young children with books. (Mem’s adult book Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children will Change Their Lives Forever includes lots of great info on this topic.)” (More with Barb Odanaka’s SkateboardMom.com interview.)

So there are times to rhyme. The summer between high school and college, I hadn’t received an acceptance from my university’s honor’s program so I could register for classes. To nag politely and humorously, I inquired about it in several stanzas of verse. And as soon as I mailed it, I about died. What a stupid freshman thing to do. Now they’d change their minds and reject me for sure.

The reply must have been sent by return mail. It was an apology, acceptance, and welcome, all in verse, saying that even if I hadn’t already deserved a place in the program, my verse would have won the appeal. Better yet, when I arrived on campus, I was interviewed by the author of that reply, the president of the honors students and a handsome, single, senior guy majoring in economics. If I hadn’t felt so young by comparison, I’d have had a crush.

I do side with the editors who cringe when the rhythm or rhyme is forced and overthrows all sense. It’s usually a hard-won skill to do it well, but anyone can play with it. So try rhyme sometime. There are plenty of rhyming dictionaries to aid and abet you, but I love Mathew Healy’s simple and elegant rhyme sublime tool at WriteRhymes.com:

WriteRhymes screenshot

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

College Endeavor

NASA Chuck Tintera Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011
For NASA by Chuck Tintera: Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011

With the final landing of Endeavor, this shuttle chapter of space exploration will be closing soon. At the moment, I’m closing a college quarter and identifying with NASA. I have advantages over NASA: my physical life in adjunct teaching is only occasionally at risk, and I do know where I’m working for the summer.

But like NASA, this is also a career more celebrated than funded. Our institutions depend on our intelligence, passion, tolerance for uncertainty, and ability to make course corrections. Our circadian rhythms are rarely consistent, and even off-duty, our creative and critical thinking processes never end. When the project ends, evaluations are only beginning. Like NASA, we reclaim spare parts, including engines, for future study, and possible reuse.

And this time, some of my students are graduating. May they be happily and successfully launched.

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Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © NASA by Chuck Tintera: Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011

My Favorite Kind of Payday

In my introductory college skills class this quarter, a student told me about repeatedly sabotaging his final Naval promotion because at that level, he’d be required to write reports galore. Writing terrified him. This week he submitted his report on this quarter’s learning–one of the best reports I’ve ever received. It was thoughtfully written, and formatted and illustrated with accuracy and artistry. Here’s my favorite paragraph: “This is how I learn best: learn, then apply, then do it all over again. When I was in school, I felt like the teachers asked me to put a bike together that had tons of bolts, screws, and nuts and only gave me a fork and told me to put it together in the dark. Now I have the tools and I can see.”

I cried. Now that’s a teacher payday! This is why we do it, so these beautiful, brilliant people can see what we see in them, and achieve what we know they are capable of.

The student must show up and submit to the work, and it helps if that student arrives humble and scared, but willing. Once again, I’ve seen the proof that writing is a learnable skill. And got to feel like the miracle worker. (That would be the student, really, but I did show him how.)