This week, I’ve been listening to Malcom Gladwell’s, Outliers on audiobook, and he discussed an idea that really clicked with me. In a chapter explaining the success and lack there of of two incredibly similar individuals, Gladwell offers that their background, specifically their social class, has a lot to do with it. Both of the men described in the book were incredibly intelligent by all conventional standards. But only one had achieved conventional success. Gladwell attributed this to the stark difference in a lower class upbringing and a middle class one. Those from lower classes are typically taught to defer to their elders and authority; those from middle or upper classes are taught to advocate for themselves, asking questions, even to those in a position of power.

This immediately struck me as one of the factors which perpetuates the cycle of inequity in our schools and society. I am consistently struck by the level of respect and deference students show me when I walk into a local Title I school, but I honestly didn’t put a lot of weight on it. But when considered from the perspective of empowering individuals to ask for what they need and forge a path for their own success, this skill seems far more critical. The challenge is that this is deeply embedded in culture – of families, schools, even authority figures within each community. In many of these communities, a youngster speaking up for themselves would be met with punishment, not a reward, so we cannot merely teach the students these skills and expect them to be successful. Which leads to a much deeper question of what should we be teaching (either students or families) when it impacts the culture of the community?

A Non-Visual Photographer

Thanks to my time at Montessori, I have always been a relatively self-directed learner. I like to gather information, solve problems, and have extensive knowledge on any subject that I find fairly interesting. And yet, when I introduced myself in the Beginner’s Photography class I enrolled in with a friend, I had no choice but to admit that I bought my DSLR camera three years ago and have yet to understand or use any feature that didn’t come pre-programmed into it.

While somewhat embarrassing, this reality is more confusing to me than anything else. Why? Because I am a person who can learn a lot from a book. I’ve taught myself Excel, Access, and much of what I know about education from books. But for some reason, this has not worked with photography. I have had access to plenty of materials to learn how to use the camera, but I simply could not get into them. The instant my friend mentioned the course, I knew I wanted to be there, because I knew it was the only way that I could commit to learning more about my fancy toy.

Class 1 1Class 1 2

As I considered this after a fascinating class of light painting and learning how to use our cameras to (nearly) overexpose someone sitting in darkness, I’ve settled on two possibilities for why this struggle has plagued me despite a great interest in photography.

1) Photographers are visual people; I am not.

Why does this matter? Well, aside from the potential for truckloads of terrible photographs, it means that many of the books written about photography are designed for visual people. Our instructor mentioned this as he cushioned a book recommendation with “don’t worry, it’s mostly pictures and diagrams, not too many words” and I found myself thinking that I should skip that particular purchase. My love for diagrams stems only from the elation I feel when I realize I can skip most of that page in a homework assignment. I once convinced a teacher to let me write stories instead of drawing pictures for a weekly vocabulary assignment. Faced with a book full of diagrams and pictures, I am lost.

2) The learning was not contextualized. 

I believe my lack of visual skill contributes to this lack of internal motivation, but when I consider the other how-to books I’ve used and enjoyed, my mind is filled with screen shots, charts, and figures that actually proved to be very useful. And then I think back to why I had those books in the first place – to help me solve a particular problem that I was facing at one job or another. Sure, I went through each chapter (my Achiever rarely gives me any other choice), but any time I came across something I thought might work for my actual problem, I stopped reading and gave it a try with the real thing. The need to solve the problem motivated me to learn the relevant material so strongly that my brain acclimated to a hated learning style. With photography, I have yet to reach a point where I am so unhappy with what my camera ‘s automatic features produce that it became worth it to make it through the how-to books.

How is this class going to fix either of these things? It won’t. I am already wondering if my entire perception of a ‘good’ photo is about to crash down around my shoulders or if I’m going to become insufferable to friends as I try to set up the perfect shot (once I finally learn how to do that, of course). But, because class based learning is not nearly as much of a stretch for my brain, I’m willing to try it. More than anything else, this illustrates the importance of meeting different learning styles as we work with students. While it may seem tedious, impractical, or unnecessary, at least in this case it’s the difference between learning and not learning, which looks like a win to me.

When Homework Isn’t Homework

I often tell the students that I work with that they will know they have found the right field when their assignments stop feeling like assignments. This morning, a colleague was sharing about a large research project that feels less like a mandatory component of degree completion than it does a chance to explore a solution to an issue she is passionate about. Naturally, I found myself remembering the first time I had this feeling.

Studying abroad in Mexico ignited in me a deep interest in Latin America, so shortly after my return I picked up a Latin American Studies minor and a whole bunch of classes to fulfill the requirements. My Introduction to Latin American Studies professor, a PhD student who could only be described as crunchy, shared a passion for the region that inspired all of us. Our first assignment was Chapter 1 and 2 of Paulo Freire’s, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

The experience I had reading (let’s be honest, somewhat struggling with) this assignment will forever remain in competition for the pinnacle of my nerdiness. The language challenged me, but as I dissected meaning, I found myself pounding my fists on the desk in agreement, scratching impassioned notes in the margins, wiping at the tears welling in my eyes, and frantically searching for someone who would discuss with me. Before the night was over, I was so inspired I had printed out multiple quotes from the work and posted them around my room. I would carry these with me through each of my next four moves, and one of the quotes ended up on my master’s graduation cap.


Freire’s description of the banking model of education perfectly explained so many of my feelings about the education system. His characterization of our current approach as oppressive, while fiery, felt entirely appropriate. I had never read anything that called out the system, and his words moved me.

After reading those two chapters, I knew, and promptly announced to anyone who would listen, that Latin American Studies was the place for me.

Yes, I completely misattributed those kindred feelings, assuming that if Latin America was producing brilliance like this, it was where I needed to focus my attention. I would later realize that this notion wasn’t exactly true, but this assignment was the first in my college experience that felt nothing like work.

I continue to search for those experiences that bring so much energy and positive stress to my life as I find them to be the best indicators of where I should be heading. I find them consistently in curriculum writing, facilitating, and working with students as they work to develop and inspire others. I count myself lucky to have so many. And yet, there are times when I imagine days filled only with this feeling, and I know I’m not quite there yet.