Fragments of a fall

It culminated in glory.


Yesterday Grace and I strung the magnolia and arbor in the front yard with solar LED lights and some glitter balls and gold pine cones we bought last year. Fingers are crossed on the lights charging up today for a show tonight.

The glory, though, is the big final event for one of my favorite classes to work on at MIT, in mechanical engineering: 2.009 Product Engineering Processes. The name of the class might not arouse excitement — it could even evoke an image of a conveyor belt, which the word “processes” always does for me — but the experience of the class, students, and creativity does. Over the term, teams of 16+ students brainstorm, model, test, and prototype an innovative product. This year’s theme was “outdoors.” My two teams, Red and Silver, respectively developed a portable cookpot for campers heated by an exothermic chemical reaction (no flame!) and an innovative hand truck with treads to improve the ergonomics of delivering filled beer kegs from a parked truck to the basement storage areas of bars and restaurants.

If you are curious, you can watch the final presentations for Red’s Heatware and Silver’s Clydesdale by going to the course website (link) and clicking the links in the upper right corner.

Students don’t write formal reports in this class, although there are other writing tasks that I and other communication instructors can advise them on, such as surveys of potential customers and text for a product brochure. There are diverse presentations at milestone reviews that punctuate the development process, and we coach them on those. We also are members of the team, along with lab instructors, and that’s the best part — attending weekly meetings, lurking in the lab as they design and machine parts, and asking the kinds of questions that gets young people to think more critically about their original work. It’s socially rewarding too.

Red Team, Final Presentations, 12/10/2012 -- you didn't know MIT students were adorable, did you?

Red Team, 12/10/2012 — you didn’t know MIT students were this adorable, did you?

And the conclusion is like the last day of summer camp, or (as adults) the week-long writing or arts conference that you loved, and filled to the brim with every emotion: fatigue, worry, friendship, achievement, and anticipated loss. There is relief, but we do miss each other when it ends.

Way back in September, I had tried to schedule my semester to lighten my load for the final two or three weeks so I could give 100% to the product design class. I even jiggered the deadline for a final proposal in another class so that I could read them all before Thanksgiving. (I thought this would be good for the students, too.) That made November packed. Here’s an image of my at-home Homework Center, working alongside Lydia and Grace at the dining room table. It was a grind, but at least we were together.


The autumn wasn’t all schoolwork. There was Thanksgiving at my sister Sally’s house with everyone. There was a wonderful, compressed trip to Orlando for a so-so conference and a few vacation days tacked on, which included a day at the Magic Kingdom and a day with the manatees in Crystal River (link). There was the cool fall day I replaced the rotted pieces on our kitchen porch, having gotten advice and help from the mechanical engineering lab director. Very satisfying labor and accomplishment.


And there were of course high points and engaged students in my other three classes, in biology, nuclear science engineering, and measurement and instrumentation for mechanical engineers.

Some things didn’t get done. There has been very little blogging or writing of any kind that wasn’t a review of student work. I made my peace with that as I was fixing and painting the porch over Thanksgiving weekend, and I realized that, to really do well at a task that is important to me, my motivation cannot be split across different ones. It only creates frustration, and not the productive kind, to be doing one thing and wishing you were actually doing another thing. I did think about writing — I wasn’t all “in the moment” — but it was without that inner torture of feeling as though time was slipping away. I said to myself, “I will come back to it.”

This happened also with skating. Some weeks I practiced only one time. Still, the lessons and progress continue. I recently signed up for a USFSA skills test on February 3rd, and I plan to skate at least three times per week over my winter break to get ready for it. I want there to be meaningful goals without anxiety or self abuse.

Recently, my friend Betsy and I were talking about our lives at midpoint, and what we have learned. We agreed that there is a kind of liberation to letting go the could-have-beens and to narrowing our focus on the parts of life most important to us. We recognize the limits within and without, and we see the tremendous space inside them, especially when the could-have-beens are carved away. I am parent and teacher first — maybe at my core I am a nurturer and steward of children and young people — and other strong interests often seem fitted to those or impossible without them. For example, three writing projects that are simmering on a back burner have something to do with children and the contraries of raising them. Central to my marriage to Jimmy is our shared devotion to, as well as shared burden of, parenting. (Interesting how devotion and burden are often intertwined.)

A couple of days after the December 10th final presentations for 2.009, that wonderful product design class, I went to its farewell dinner and talked to many students and staff. One student asked me if I had observed that the course professor had seemed choked up a bit when he was on stage during the students’ tribute to him, and if I had any thoughts why that might be. I couldn’t speak for the professor, but I did speak for myself and explained that, if you really love teaching, as I do, at some point during that night in particular there may be a moment when you think to yourself, “I have the best job on earth.” You see young people at their best, after weeks and weeks and weeks of work at times creative and at times tedious, and you feel great hope for the world. To be part of something greater than one’s self — so great it may even obscure one’s individual contribution — is transcendent. Tears leak out.

On December 15, Lydia hosted an outdoor skating party for about 100 students from the high school. Back in October I put the deposit down on my credit card and signed the liability paperwork, and she advertised it via Facebook, collected money from kids, and made the playlist. We bought a sheet cake. Jimmy and I were the only designated chaperones, although a couple of teachers came, too, and Eli and Grace also came along, and so did my brother-in-law and niece. I skated, of course, and secretly desired to act out my someday fantasy of being an ice rink guard. Lydia had cautioned me to be almost invisible and not to say anything. I bit my tongue therefore and resisted the temptation to give unsolicited tips to the absolute beginners.

It was not my night. It was theirs.

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

skaters, Brookline, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

the three mighty Gutermans, Dec 15

And now I’m back.

Credit for Red Team photo goes to 2.009 Red Team, Fall ’12, courtesy of Brigitte Morales.

Imagine the luck of her future second graders

Grace and I have been bitten by the organizing bug, and we are culling our collections. I took four boxes marked “Jane’s Junk” and got them down to one, and Grace has stripped her closet down to the essentials and tackled her desk drawers. Last night she came across a list made five years ago when she was in the second grade. Knowing I like to save the textual artifacts of childhood, Grace handed it to me. You can click on the thumbnail to see the scanned version in full size or read the transcript below.

From the handwriting, it looks like Jimmy and I took turns at dictation. I asked Grace, “What was this list for?”

She replied, “When I was in second grade and thinking about becoming a teacher, I thought it would be neat to be able to tell my second graders some day what I was like when I was their age.”

This is what she was like, as reported on November 15, 2007:

When Grace was in 2nd grade, she

  • was an artist
  • gave affection to all
  • swam on the JCC swim team
  • had experience as Ms. Aibel’s student and “teaching assistant”
  • could make her own French fries
  • watched Zoe 101
  • loved to snuggle
  • was a Brownie
  • had an electric toothbrush that played a song by Jesse McCartney
  • wore her hair in two braids every day
  • loved the comfort of yoga pants

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Grace, or Eli or Lydia, became a teacher? Then there would be three generations of us: my father, my mother-in-law, I, and one of the kids. Now that would be a family legacy.

The agony of writing comments on student work

That’s me, sitting at my desk at home, which is really the dining room table, where dining rarely happens. We usually eat in the kitchen unless company comes, and then I put away my laptop, power cord, scratch paper, and pen.

Lydia took this candid photo with her phone when I wasn’t paying attention to her. The draft of a report by a student was diverting me from my own students, aka children, and their homework.  Sometimes Lydia and Grace spread their books and worksheets on the same table, and we homework-it alongside each other. Let’s hope this gives me credit someday for being an involved parent.

The past two weeks have been all about final papers and final presentations, and I have been meeting with students, helping them rehearse talks and improve slides, and reading submissions. Have I worked on my own writing? Not really. I have thought about it.

In a recent column on her writing habits, Anna Quindlen, who writes every day between 9am and 3pm — “an elementary school schedule” — argues that a writer must lead “a humdrum life” and not “write other stuff.” If you have a busy life, and you are writing other stuff (like, I infer, comments on student writing), “you won’t write it.”  Here, the pronoun it stands in for all that glorious self-authored work a writer is destined to do, unless responsibility gets in the way.  Too many lunches, Quindlen adds, also get in the way.

She invokes her Barnard writing professor, B.J. Chute, who told Quindlen and her classmates “not to take jobs that involved writing of any kind because there was no chance we would then go home at night and take up our own material.”  Very good point. I do wonder, though, how fiction writer B.J. Chute managed to get her teaching done without writing on student work. Continue reading

The pitfalls of self-selection

soldiers affixed to wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

This morning I went to the free lessons provided to members of the MIT Figure Skating Club, which I joined this year. The teaching is professional and attentive, and groups are small. Weekly attendance varies, though, and there is sub-par continuity.

Today Esther, the club founder, announced the start of lessons at 9:30am, and she directed absolute beginners to one teacher, beginners to another, the “somewhere between beginners and intermediate” to two teachers working together, and the intermediate to the fifth teacher. I swizzled over to the group with a lot of room for in between, where I consider myself.

The two teachers for that group, Susan and Alex, suggest we divide into two sub-groups: “If you can do the backwards crossovers well, skate with Susan. If you’re still working on them, skate with Alex.” I skated over to Alex’s circle. We warmed up by practicing forward moves around our circle.

At Alex’s signal, we switched to backwards crossovers. I practiced haltingly, stopped to watch the others, practiced some more, and watched some more. I looked over occasionally to Susan’s circle, too, to watch their attempts. (Often I can learn as much from my slightly better peers as I do from the instructor.)

Here’s one thing I noticed: every single skater, but for two in Alex’s group, was struggling with the crossovers in some way. The self-selection into groups, therefore, was according to a criterion that could be too loosely interpreted (if you can do moves “well” versus “still working on them”). Except for the two skaters who had (wrongly) sorted themselves into Alex’s group and who could do the backwards crossovers very well, we were all still learning, practicing, working.

Nothing bad came of this. We all got excellent instruction, including 1:1 coaching, and plenty of practice time. Still, perhaps the self-sorting could have gone better if Susan had said, “Skate with me if you can do the backwards crossovers in a fluid motion and are now working on the second push; skate with Alex if you haven’t gotten to the second push yet.”

This is recreational skating, so there is little at stake. However, think about how this happens in other educational contexts or at work. People are asked to volunteer if they are (self) perceived as “good” at something. “If you can draw, sign up for the graphic design committee,” or “If you have leadership experience, we need some committee heads,” or “If you’ve finished the homework, come work with your classmates who haven’t.” In every case, it’s possible that some not-very-qualified people who overestimate their own ability will end up in a high stakes position in which they’ll flounder. It’s also true that some very-qualified-yet-humble people will not volunteer for a role in which they could make a huge contribution to the group.

Last semester, for example, in one of the classes I teach in with students organized into project teams, I said to a student whose work I had seen, “We need you for the presentation slides. You have a sharp eye and a real sense of visual design.”

“Me?” she balked. “Oh, I just learned this stuff in a class last year.”

“Yeah, but it’s good.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she continued to protest.

Another student chimed in: “I’m good at graphic design. I’ll do it.”

The team elected the second student, who chimed in with great self-assurance, to design their presentation. It turned out fine; it was workmanlike. But did it pop? No.

This is an age-old problem: the egotistical will typically overestimate their abilities and the modest will underestimate (or under represent) them. As teachers or administrators, though, we must come up with more precise language and criteria to improve self-selection. We could also ask for examples and demonstrated skills.

more toy soldiers on wall, MIT's Infinite Corridor, 12.14.2011

No middle, no satisfying end

Last night, I drove to Kendall Square to meet my friends Betsy, Sue, and Brandi for dinner at Miracle of Science. It’s the holiday break, so I haven’t been to MIT for several days. Through email, I have been staying in touch with colleagues, and I even heard from one of them that a recent student of ours had been killed on his bicycle at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Vassar Street, an intersection I know well and cross on foot at least twice a day. It’s busy; every vehicle and every person converges there.

I drove up Vassar Street around 5:50 pm and past the garage I typically park in. I approached the intersection, thinking of course about the accident and the student Phyo, who had been in the communications module of a chemical engineering class I’m involved in every fall. I thought about the last time I saw him, shortly after his graduation in early June ’10. He was still on campus, raising money for Camp Kesem by selling popcorn and doughnuts in the Stata Center. He had a warm, sparkling smile, and we enthusiastically talked about other grassroots ways of raising money — like selling popsicles on hot days —  and about his new job, which was about to begin.

“I wanted to tell you and Lisa and Professor Hamel that my presentation for the class helped me get the job!” Lisa was my fellow communications lecturer on the course, and Professor Hamel the engineering professor. That fall, we had a small and closely-knit group.

“Great! How so?” I asked.

“In my interview, they asked if I had any presentation experience, and I told them about my final presentation for the class, and they asked me to come back and do it for them. I did, and they liked it, and they offered me the job.” He looked happy and eager. Admittedly, he always did, and this was one of Phyo’s gifts.

I had the green light at the intersection, so I couldn’t stop and sit in the car for a few seconds and contemplate the accident. On the corner, I glimpsed a memorial: a white bicycle and some candles. I parked my car nearby so that after dinner I could walk back to the corner and stand closer to it.

From across Vassar Street, Dec 30, 9:30 pm

After a long dinner and dessert and walk with my dear friends, we embraced and parted. Over dinner, I had told them about the accident. As the three of them got in one car, parked on Mass Ave closer to Miracle, I said I was headed to the memorial. Brandi asked, “Should we go with you? Are you safe?” I smiled inwardly, not afraid of the neighborhood, and thinking it was ironic to be worried about strangers when trucks were a proven hazard.

Honestly, my feelings about Phyo’s death were almost dream-like as I walked back toward the Institute, and I was motivated more by curiorisity: What does the memorial look like? Who made it? How was it personalized? Continue reading

Flimsy, flimsy ego

rubber band heart, found by Grace on table, June 9

The ego can only bear so much.

On Sunday — skates tied, blood sugar checked (low), juice box drunk, and gloves on — I stood for a few minutes at the entrance to the Babson ice and watched the activity. There were about 8 young girls in shorts, heavy tights, cute sweatshirts, and lush ponytails jumping and turning and skating backwards with precision and verve. There were an equal number of adults in black track pants and black parkas standing near the boards, studying the girls. Occasionally, a girl would skate over to one of the adults and listen to instructions. Sometimes, the adult would demonstrate, beautifully, what s/he wanted the girl to do. The girl would do it.

And there was me. I stood there for a couple of minutes, hesitating. I had already paid my $30 to get on the ice for freestyle/practice time, and I had an appointment with Fred, who was already out there with a young girl, about halfway through the 80 minutes. I had arrived intending to practice. I stood there, losing my nerve.

As I told my friend Rosemary last week, as we stood in front of the shelf marked “Buddhism” in the Trident, my internal dialogue, for better or worse, is turned up pretty high. (I’ve heard this called “mind chatter.”) Sunday, as I stood at the gate to the Babson ice, I thought, “Why am I doing this? Nothing can come from it.”

“But I am doing this,” myself said to myself. I began.

As I skated, I was overcome with intense self-consciousness, and not of the good kind. I imagined myself getting in the other skaters’ way — the real skaters — and so I tried to stay out of their way. I imagined that one coach, a woman about my age, was giving me the hairy eyeball, as if to intimidate me off the ice.

I practiced the easy things, not wanting to make a mistake among the masters. I scolded myself. I propped up my ego by remembering something Grace once said when I was skating with her and confessed to doubts about my ambition. “Mom!” she said. “At least you’re out there and not sitting on the bleachers!” I practiced harder things.

I imagined again that hairy eyeball turned in my direction. I mentally constructed some believable excuses and apologies I would give to Fred when my appointment with him began.

Get a hold of yourself, Jane. Think other thoughts. Continue reading

How to cheat on college reading

I stood at the reserves desk in the library where I could check out the assigned reading. This was in the fall of 1985; I was a junior in college; and this was before the age when text could be digitized and placed on the web. When professors assigned readings, students had to buy or borrow a physical copy of the text to read it.

Kathleen M., a senior who was passing through, saw me and walked over. She was funny, and I liked her. “What are you doing?” she asked me.

“Obviously, I am getting ready to do my reserve reading.”

“No one does the reserve reading,” she remarked. She smiled.

“What?” Wait a minute, I was thinking. She’s a brilliant student. (Kathleen went on to a top-tier law school.) Don’t all good students do all the reading? I did all the reading. It was killing me.

“Only read what you need to, is what I mean,” she said.

To me, reading meant starting at the cover, turning to the first page, reading the first word, and reading every word until I got to the last page — all the while taking notes — and doing this for every item on the professor’s list. Kathleen explained that I should look at the syllabus, see what was coming up next in class or exams or papers, and skim what seemed most relevant to what the professor was covering. “You can kinda tell from the syllabus,” she added.

The librarian returned, and I took the folders full of photocopied book chapters back to my table. I got out the syllabus and looked at lecture topics and exam and paper descriptions. Indeed, it was all right there, a set of clues as to what to read (and what to skim or even skip) embedded in the class schedule.

I didn’t read all the assigned reading word-for-word, that night or ever again. I figured out how to read what I needed to. This was a paradigm shift for someone who (a) loved (and still loves) to read and (b) took some pride in her academic duties.

Interestingly, I became a better student at that moment because it prompted me to start managing my work, as opposed to simply doing it, and I also believe I learned more. I also started talking more in class, which helped me learn more and become more visible.

What would my professors have thought, if they knew I was suddenly reading less and sometimes skipping reading assignments altogether? As a college teacher now, I know that my colleagues and I put together our syllabi with great care and think and talk about what readings are fundamental to the course. When I taught at Simmons College, I recall one long lunch date with a political science prof during which she spoke agonizingly about her students’ failure to do the reading. “You’re a writing teacher. You must have them read stuff,” she said. “How do I get my students to read?” Continue reading

Pillars of civilization

We unloaded the two busloads of Brookline fifth graders in front of the State House. Driving up Beacon Street, with all but the gold dome hidden by trees, I had not seen the huge Bruins banner hanging from the ballustrade and down over the portico.

Massachusetts State House, June 20, 2011 @10am

Our bundle of children, parents, and teachers stood on the sidewalk as the buses pulled away and left us. I leaned over to one of the other parents and murmured in her ear, “Ah, those twin pillars of civilization, politics and sports.”

Squinting, she nodded and agreed: “Especially in Massachusetts.”

This was the first stop on our Boston architecture tour. The teachers ran it like a quiz show with points for correct answers.

Teacher: Who was the architect of the State House?

Students: Charles Bulfinch

Teacher: Which English building did he imitate?

Students: Somerset House

Teacher: Who, in 1802, covered the wooden dome with copper?

Students: Paul Revere

Teacher: Why was the dome painted black during World War Two?

To this question, there were many responses, all guesses. One student answered poetically: “It was a dark time.”

Only the parent chaperones, all in their 40s, knew the answer to this one, having heard of the wartime practice of blackout. None of us, though, had ever lived it.

It was a bright, hot day at the end of the school year. Summer beckoned. The dome sparkled. Among the lucky, we feared nothing more than sunburn, lost lunch money, and a dawdling child. Our leisurely tour through Boston history — a stand-in for the American struggle for independence — began.

Seven lessons from a middle-aged beginner

There is beginner’s mind, and then there is beginner’s body.
Around the time I turned 40, I got this idea that I wanted to become a good skater by the time I turned 50. The impulse hit me when I was at the rink in Brookline, skating with the kids, and I noticed a woman older than me who was powerful and fluid on the ice. I wanted to skate like her, and, even though her skating was more advanced, this suddenly seemed doable to me and desirable. Later, I found out she had started skating in her early 40s when her son was playing hockey, and she found herself looking at the ice and longing for it. So she began. At 60, when I met her, she was strong and graceful. This, by the way, is the first lesson in learning something new and hard: (1) Look for real-life models.  Famous athletes may inspire us but, because their talents are stratospheric, can’t really convince us that we can do it.

I had been on the ice hundreds of times — if you grow up in Massachusetts, as I did, it’s almost a requirement that you get a new pair of cheap skates every year for Christmas and spend lots of time clumping around on frozen ponds or public ice rinks — but I couldn’t  skate well. At age 40, I started taking group skating lessons for the first time. I learned a lot, starting with this basic fact that skates have edges (and if you have two feet, there are four edges altogether, or eight if you include forward and backward), and control of those is the foundation for everything. I also learned, from a teacher named Mark, that you can be afraid to do something and still make yourself do it. “You will fall,” Mark said. Being mindful of the possibility of injury makes it harder to try new things as an adult, and this fear must be managed in order to proceed. Which leads me to this: (2) Be afraid to fall, and skate anyway. I am, and I do.

You can only do beginner lessons so many times before you start to bump up against a ceiling. This winter, at age 45 and at my halfway point, I decided it might be time for private instruction. Happily, the teacher of the group lesson I was taking also teaches privately, and the transition was easy. I discovered, too, that the decision to do this was a signal to myself of the seriousness of my goal. You can’t hide in a 1:1 learning situation as you can hide in a group (and one can even hide, paradoxically, by excelling against other beginners). Another lesson: (3) When it starts to get easy, become more vulnerable to the task.

It’s a luxury to have the devoted instruction of an accomplished professional for one hour a week. (No wonder students like meeting with me alone for an hour to work on their writing.) There is an intensity to the learning experience that is different from a group experience that is a deep pleasure. The learner is also scarily exposed in a private lesson; there is no stepping to the side to let someone else skate ahead, and there is no half-assed trying just to get a little cheap credit for having gone through the motions. Continue reading

What goes into grading

By this time of the semester — classes ended, presentations watched, final paper drafts discussed — I feel as though my teaching is done.

And yet, I’m not done with the semester because I’m still grading.

There’s a lot of it to do, and it’s hard to get motivated because I feel as though the students’ attention and energy has moved on. Yeah, they are still taking exams, but they are already looking forward to the summer and perhaps to next fall. So, what is the purpose of my careful reading of and comments on their final papers? Why all this time spent on the minute calculations of the final grade? Seriously, it can take me 15 hours for each class (I have four) to read the final papers and put the whole thing to rest. Is there any relationship between that time spent and student learning? Continue reading