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Saturday, August 10, 2013

How to be a Big Guy (On Leadership)

Recently I received the sad news that my friend's father had passed away.  Mr. Tango wasn't just my friend's father.  In all the seasons of baseball I played (through college), he was one of my best baseball coaches (he was my coach when I was in 7th grade for our in-town youth league). I was doing some driving around the hills of northeastern PA the day I heard about it and I began to think what made him a great coach.  What did I learn about coaching from him?

1) He never gave up on us.  

He took an AWFUL team (we only won ONE game of the first 10) and brought us to within one game of the championship.  He did not let us remain the league's doormats, he didn't belittle us for losing, but he kept positive, kept smiling, and kept working to improve us.

2) He trusted us.

One of the reasons we turned our season around is that he allowed us, the kids, to coach the game (lineups, switches, the bases, everything).  Maybe he was trying to figure out a way to keep us interested while we were losing, maybe it was because our assistant was being tossed out of every other game.  But when we became empowered, winning meant more to us than before..and we began to win.  Some of the strategies and ideas that my teammates and I figured out that summer I use in coaching baseball today.

Leaders can take two roads, one is to create & nurture leaders under your charge and the other is to create a hedge around yourself based upon your insecurities that someone underneath you might outshine you.  Choose road one if your focus is build success in others.  Choose road two if it's all about you.

3) He knew each player had their own strengths and weaknesses.

Our assistant coach believed that the way to get out every power hitter was throw high, inside fastballs.  Mr. Tango disagreed.  He pointed at me and said, "It won't work with him".

He knew that there wasn't just one solution to every problem.

So one practice they decided to see who was right.  I stood up at bat and our best pitcher took the mound and was told to throw the balls up and in on me.  He threw the first pitch by me for a strike.  The assistant said it proved his point, but Mr. Tango reminded him that it was only strike one.  I hit the next two deep down the left field line.

(To the pitcher's credit, I did have a HUGE advantage over him. I knew where the pitch was going & what type of pitch was coming.  A middle school kid who can throw three straight pitches in the same location just shows how good he was).

You cannot use a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to leading people under your charge.  You need to figure out their strengths and weaknesses (btw, mine in baseball were curveballs on the outside part of the plate)

4) He communicated both passion and knowledge.

I had coaches who knew more about the game than Mr. Tango.  A coach I had in high school possessed the most knowledge of any coach I ever played for, but was the worst motivator of people. Don't get me wrong, Mr. Tango knew the game, but more importantly, he could convey & instruct what he knew.  And he always did it with a smile.  We knew he had our best intentions at heart.  He made us want to listen.  He made us want to do well.

Some of the smartest people on a subject are awful teachers because they fail to make a connection with their students.

Some of the smartest administrators are awful because they cannot communicate vision and direction to those under their charge.

5) He treated us according to the potential he saw in us.

Mr. Tango's nickname for me was "Big Guy".  Physically, this wasn't the case.  I was average height for my age and VERY thin.  Yet, he always called me the "Big Guy" and I went on to have one of my best seasons in baseball and the confidence I gained helped motivate me to continue to improve my skills.  I played up to the expectation that he saw in me.  I wish more leaders would motivate those under their care positively, based on what they can be, rather than to berate and belittle them so they play just well enough to keep the "coach" of their back.

When I was in college, I stopped by my friend's house and saw my old coach relaxing on a chair in his family room.  He said he wanted to show me something. He walked out of the room and returned with a baseball that the team had signed as a gift at the end of the season.  Great memories flooded my mind when I saw the names on the ball.  He told me to look for my name.  There were two words underneath my name and I said them audibly "Big Guy"?. (I had forgotten I wrote that on the ball.)

He said to me, "Yea, Kev, You were our Big Guy".

6) We were motivated to go out of our way for him.

Signing the baseball was not the idea of our parents (as gifts are many times in the realm of middle school boys).  We WANTED to get him a gift.  I remember a group of us riding our bicycles to a small sports shop in Clark (about 5 miles from our house), to buy the baseball for the team to sign.  It takes someone special to get a group of middle school boys to give up a few hours on a summer's day to go out and buy with their own money buy a baseball to give as a gift.

7) He Cherished the Memories

As I paid my respects to Mrs. Tango the night of the wake, she began talking of the baseball we signed, and how it remained in a case on his dresser all these years.  She said their grandson (my friend's nephew) who himself is a baseball player, asked if he could keep his grandfather's baseball.  I was introduced to the boy's little sister by her mother.  I told her I played baseball with her father and uncle.

Her mother (who I grew up with as well) added it was the team her grandfather coached.  The granddaughter's eyes grew big and she said, "Is YOUR name on the baseball?"

"Yes, my name is on the baseball." I laughed as I said it.  It was as if we were major leaguers who had signed that ball.  By sitting on their grandfather dresser all those years, Mr. Tango's grandkids recognized the high esteem he held for that team.  It was as if we WERE all major leaguers.

Mr. Tango gave me one more lesson in how to be a "Big Guy".

Mr. Tango, it takes a "Big Guy" to teach someone to be a "Big Guy"

And you were a "Big Guy"!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Slaying Boredom & the Baseball Hall of Fame (Dear Katie V2 #7)


Dear Katie,

As you know, your grandfather, brother, and I took a trip up to Cooperstown to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I LOVE Baseball.  I can spend days in that museum.  You NEVER can see all that is in that building in one day.  The uniforms begin to fill out as I imagine the games in which they were worn.  You can "take in" the smell of leather radiating from the gloves behind the glass.  The pictures of players, stadiums, and fans pull you into the moments depicted.  Tradition permeates the whole building, and a sense of reverence overcomes you as you enter the hall with the plaques of the Hall of Famers.  The sense of wonder transforms me into a kid again.

It also gets me thinking about my classroom.  Many people (your aunt, my wife, included) find (found) history to be a boring subject.  My motivation for the past 21 years has been to change that perception.

How can I make my classroom come alive just as the baseball mementos behind that glass?  How do I create that enthusiasm for a middle school Social Studies course?  Of course, I am not naive enough that I can recreate the emotions that overcome people in the Hall of Fame, but not trying is sure failure.

I used to refer to my classroom as the World Geography Experience.  That is what I want my students having in my class, an experience.  I want my classroom to come alive for students.  I want there to be traditions that they can discuss with their siblings and friends in other classes and in other years.  Hopefully these layers serve as a hook to the lessons and themes we learn in class so the students retain ideas and skills to use later in life.

Learning is solidified in minds when linked to memorable experiences.

Last year I created a baseball theme that I use as a motivational device.  Groups are "teams", classes are "leagues", they begin each marking period creating a team logo and flag.  They compete in review games and other challenges to earn either wins or losses and hopefully win the pennant.  This year I am looking to expand upon what I started.

Yes it seems like fun and games, but who said you can't learn through games?  Why does a teacher have to stand in the front of the room and dictate notes?

Baseball team, like all sports, have nicknames that typically identifies a feature of the city in which the team plays.  What nickname would the students give to your classroom?

And where did this baseball idea come from?  My pilgrimage to the "Baseball Cathedral" on the shores of a lake  in Cooperstown, NY last summer.

When teaching is your passion, everywhere you travel should fill you 
with ideas for your classroom.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lecturing on Lectures (Dear Katie V2 #6)

Dear Katie,

There will be two types of education courses you will be taking in your undergraduate studies, the practical and the theoretical.  In your educational philosophy class you will read and discuss words like "constructivism" and names such as "Vygotsky".  You will be encouraged to make your lessons hands-on because people are able to know and understand stuff they "construct" for themselves.  The popular catch phrase you will hear is...

A teacher should be the "guide on the side", not the "sage on the stage".

As you have witnessed in my classroom, I have attempted to create an interactive, participatory classroom.  So you can attest that I am no anti-constructivist or necessarily disagree with the quote above.

Your uncle is not a  Luddite!

However, there is a place for the lecture in the 21st classroom.

Wait, what?  Lecture--21st century classroom?  Isn't that a contradiction?  I mean, come on, with the proliferation of digital devices in the classroom, a student can just pull up a video or "ask Siri" to get the answers that a teacher can provide through a lecture.

A lecture models logical thought and critical thinking for your students.

1) "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

For education that means a time for lecture and a time for project based learning.  Some of your students will be auditory learners and will catch the information better when you verbalize it.  Your Aunt will attest this being true for her (and she's pretty smart).

2) The problem with lecturing isn't the lecturing, but the lecturer.  

Some of the most knowledgeable people cannot explain what they know to others.  Other people miss the mark because it is not delivered at an age-appropriate level.  Others offer no opportunity for those in the audience to ask questions.  Combine the lecture with back channeling (students use a website like Today's Meet can post thoughts & questions about your lecture that can be displayed on a monitor) so students can interact with the information you are providing. 

3) "We all need, the human touch" -Rick Springfield

The availability of video instruction is awesome, however, a student cannot stop the video and ask a question.  The popularity of TED videos only shows that lectures are not dead.  However, as we begin to be absorbed more into the digital age we cannot become so consumed that we lose out on "face to face", real time, same locale human interaction.  We cannot buy into the idea that only people who appear on the TED stages have something of value to share.

4) Quick & easy is convenient, but just touching the surface.

How one gets to the answer is more important than the answer.  We live in an instant gratification world, where what is called "debate" is won and lost more on style rather than substance.

When I taught at Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, CT, I was fortunate enough to share a classroom for two years with one of the smartest men I have ever known, Jim Bair, the Harvard educated English teacher.  Working in the back of the class listening to him lecture the class about Shakespeare didn't just help me to understand the Bard's work better, but guided me in developing logical arguments.

I had students that had us both as a teacher come up to me and say, "Why is it every time I time I ask Mr. Bair a question, he never gives an quick answer, it's always feels 5 minutes long?"

My response was always the same and was based on a similar feeling when I first began asking Mr. Bair questions.

Listen not just to the answer, but how he is answering it.  

He is offering a logical, reasoned opinion.  You're just not going to know the answer, but WHY it is the answer.  Students would come back a week later with a better appreciation of Mr. Bair's long winded answers.

A lecture models logical thought and critical thinking for your students.

Okay, time for me to get off my soapbox and allow you time for you to digest and implement what you have learned.

Uncle Kevin