Great TED Talk for Critical Thinking

I like to think of my classroom as a place for solid infotainment, to steal an idea from television news.  Students need new content to dissect and discuss constantly.  Like it or not, we live in a fast paced society, and that lifestyle has found its way into the classroom. Better to embrace it and adapt then to “fight the good fight” to the bitter end.  The fact is, students need teachers to look for many different ways to facilitate open communication and expose new college students to a wide range of ideas.

Which is why this talk comes in handy during week one.  Why People Believe Weird Things from @michaelshermer is the perfect antidote to the clock-watching and smartphone searching that begins in earnest as we start the fourth hour of class together.  It’s funny, moves from point to point with purpose, and uses so many cultural references (UFO’s, drugs, music, religion) that almost anyone can find a part to enjoy.  I particularly love the backward-masking section because in high school, we actually studied how to find all the hidden satanic messages in heavy metal 80’s rock.

The title gets people talking. Students come to understand the joke in the title…what we consider weird is usually a matter of perspective. What I think is normal; what you think is weird.  Five weeks of critical thinking will cure most of that illness.  A video that makes people laugh, makes people think, and provides dozens of discussion topics, is certainly worthy of any educator’s attention.

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Let’s Get to Work

In the Introductory Course Sequence, my students and I face reality head on. We do not leave our families, our jobs, and our fears-hopes-dreams behind when we cross the threshold and enter the class environment. This is no day spa where we can forget our troubles and catch up with friends. It’s no cone of silence – our needy cell phones and responsibilities check in on us constantly.

Reality? Attending classes at night, before or after a full day of work, students tell me it feels like they’ve taken on a part-time job. For nearly every student in this situation, it is a job that only pays at the end of the project…if that project gets completed. Statistically, many don’t make it to payday. Who Doesn’t Make it? For our purposes, way too many.

Meaning? It means the environment matters. The way we construct and safeguard our class space – consider the technology we choose, to relatively sound-proof rooms, even the trashcan must be considered – creates the desired head-space so we can all think critically, write clearly, and plan effectively.

Those colleges that choose to be the best, to be the college of choice and not the college of last resort, will put a priority on productive space.  I’m saying the classroom environment is very much a work space.Let’s get to work is an apt phrase, precisely describing our space and collective attitude. A good work space seeks appropriate light (more natural=more better), places to stand and sit (and options to move seats and tables quickly) and cool air when it is hot/hot air when it is not.

Making good use of the clock counts big. Having more than enough activities and discussion topics and exercises shows respect for the work space. Students deserve engaging content.  Colleges must create and deliver on this requirement to survive.

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The Big Why

I teach freshman because I believe the first few classes in college set the tone and level of academic rigor for both the student and the thousands of people working in the college. I want to be someone that makes a difference in the lives of others. Their successful completion of their academic goals IS my purpose and why I wake up (almost) every day excited about what I will learn if I ask the right question.

Teachers, and I use the term broadly since teaching does not only happen in a four walled classroom, must keep why at the top of their vocabulary list. As we teach, we share our beliefs, opinions, upbringing and biases with our students. Accepting this is a good practice to incorporate into our mentoring and teaching opportunities.  We are products of our environment and our environment is not always neat and pretty. And that is great. Nature has purpose and order, but that purpose and order comes from a place that can be chaotic and dirty and hard to grasp without a larger focus. Our mission and our students’ goals provide that larger focus.

Don Quixote and Sancho with Cervantes watching

Don Quixote and Sancho with Cervantes watching

While building the foundations of an effective writing practice, I drill home the value of answering why.  Why are you writing this paper? Why are you taking this class? Why should your reader pay attention to the points you make? In my experience, fulfilling the why is more important than your actual point of view or argument. In writing, justification (the why) is what matters. You can say anything. But if you don’t bother to state why you believe something or how you developed a conclusion, you are wasting everyone’s time with your words.

In the academic or the personal lives we lead, helping those around us know the why of our decisions can build a movement people can support. Knowing why the chicken crossed the road is more important than knowing the type of chicken or GPS coordinates of the road.  College is about developing minds to incorporate a wide variety of opinions and facts and experiences. Those who work with students to create a positive First Year Experience do better when they take the time to know the why of their work. Isn’t that why we chose to be right here, right now, in the first place?

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Your Career Memoir

Going into the final weeks of my University Studies course, career development gets some well deserved attention. One of the skills a successful student (and student of teaching) must have is intrapersonal intelligence.  For me, it’s the ability dial in your GPS career coordinates in the now.  Then, look back to understand the motivations, people, and circumstances that brought you to this moment. Then use that data to glimpse potential futures.

I’ve had my fair share of juicy plot twists along the way.

I worked for my first employer from ’86 to ’96. In ’93 I had my first son and took three weeks vacation to be home with him and my wife. Result? My old-school boss wrote me up for “lack of dedication” to my job. Human Resources helped my boss understand that the world had changed since he worked for Sterling Cooper.

Lesson learned? Take nothing for granted – not your legal work rights and certainly never assume your employer has your best interests in mind.

In 1996, I cashed in my 401(k), left the only company I ever worked for, and joined the entrepreneur-class. I was a third generation printer; what could go wrong? Eighteen months later, I joined the ranks of the failed business owner. I even sold my car to keep the business alive a few more months.

Lessons learned? One, don’t go into a business just because you think it can make money. I did not like printing but it was all I knew. I probably would have failed in another business though because I also learned…I prefer to work for other people. There! I have outed myself. In this vague period of self-directed and self-employed and completely empowered version of work we see today, I say “no thanks”.

I like being part of a group, I like not having to make all the decisions, and I really like a dependable paycheck!

The rest of the 90’s and early 2000’s were various sales jobs. Good jobs sure, but the limited jobs available to a person with hustle, the ability to wear a tie, and NO COLLEGE degree. So just like in 1992, when I realized how much more career advancement was possible in an office vs a production line, I leveraged my relationships and experience and vaulted onto a new path.


My volunteer efforts landed me an interview for a Director of Career Services job with a 9-month certification school.  I was not qualified but got the job anyway (see previous paragraph, re: Hustle). This was six months after earning my English degree. Then I did some calculated jumping, similar to what James Citrin advises in his blog, How to Move From Job to Job.  My goal? To get a job at a degree granting college.

Over the next ten years, I stayed in the same role (Director), in the same field (Career Development) in the same industry (Post Secondary Education). But I learned about the many ways education is delivered. I worked at nationally accredited colleges, market-driven colleges, and a state college. It was not always pretty, but I also was fortunate to serve a similar student cohort everywhere I worked – first generation college students from Inland Southern California.

So, flipping to the last chapter, I gear up to break into a new career in Summer 2014. My gift arrives, just at the top of the story arc, 3 days after Christmas: An interview to teach first year college students full time. I get the job! How? Patient and deliberate (somewhat) planning. It was the culmination of my effort and intentions over the last two decades. It was setting up a SMART goal. It was using the tools at hand.

I wrote, revised, and edited that story for years.  Lots of blank pages left. Time to get to class and write some more.

What’s your career story? Ready to tell it? Better yet, are you ready to live it? If not, today is a great day to start.

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Using the “F” Word in First Year Student Experience

Like the other popular “F” word, feedback can be used in many ways during a college students’ first year. A mindful conversation about how to make the most of this complex word may improve the classroom experience.  Contextual feedback fans a burning interest in the material. Timely feedback provides encouragement to keep going! But specific feedback improves the lives of students and faculty members in equal measure.

My students and I just completed week 4 of our 7 week University Studies class.  We use the time in class to get to know each other. A variety of in class assignments provide chances to craft and deliver a message that engages the learning and listening styles of your audience. Learning about the styles is one thing. Putting them into practice is a true achievement that furthers the goal to earn a Bachelor degree.


Learning curve item of the week – Weaving reminders of what was covered in class into the written feedback to students may improve retention. For example, instead of saying something bland like “Good progress on applying the learning styles to your note-taking“, a better sentence may read –  “When the tech support person came into class to help us hook the laptop to the projector, creating the chart of the steps she used is an example of Visual-Spatial Intelligence.”

The halfway point is a great place to provide feedback. Since feedback must be timely, it is a good thing we started the practice of feedback on Day 1. That way, the feedback now can be compared to last month and progress can be clearly measured. Two encouraging signs at this point:

1. Students are modeling in class behavior to the reading and activities. Many have written plans of study and as a result, assignments are getting in on time and properly formatted.

2. The feedback they give me is also contextual, timely and specific! What they are sharing with me shapes how the next 3 weeks will go.

Returning to the title of this post, overusing the “F” word, both of ’em, makes communication boring and less effective. Being mindful of when it is time to speak, when it is time to listen, and when it is time to act improves the first year experience significantly.

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Speaking of the First Year Experience…

Whew! I just completed week 3 of my first 7 week course as a full time faculty member.  Teaching University Studies, University Writing, and Critical Thinking to students just starting their college experience – or perhaps back from an extended break – is a true joy and privilege. Over the next year, I intend to share my experiences here. I will leave the data crunching and success metrics to the experts at University of Phoenix.  What I wish to share are impressions, interesting anecdotes, and light advice for anyone interested in the college experience, particularly that fraught first year.

My first piece of advice?  Work in a community you care about. I am fortunate to say I have been able to serve students from Inland Southern California (aka – Inland Empire, aka – Inlandia, aka “that place east of LA”) since 2004.  I tell my students the first day:

“Listen, I’m here for selfish reasons. As members of my community, if I help you finish your degree, you will likely be happier with your career. That career happiness translates into economic improvements for where I live. Which in turn improves revenues which can be used to improve schools, services and infrastructure.  I help you, my community wins, I win!”

My first observation? The less I talk, the more they listen. When I start the discussion and pass it off to them, they pay attention to each other.  Here’s how they helped me build MY faculty schedule. At the third hour of a four hour class!

larry's schedule

My first lesson? Set your expectations high. I erroneously assumed that since I would be teaching freshman, they may not be well prepared and need MANY HOURS of work just to get them up to speed. I have found myself in the enviable position of seeking out advanced activities to bring to the classroom to keep them from becoming bored! Thanks to the book, An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi (free plug, I am not a paid hack – I know that was the logical fallacy of a Hasty Generalization. Thanks Ali!

I could go on, for pages, but will stop here. Thanks for listening!  Next week we are discussing learning styles, study habits and ways analyze and discuss the writing of others.  Any suggestions to help those topics? Most welcome!

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Look Down! You are Standing on Someone’s Shoulders


I’m in heavy training mode these last two weeks thanks to my full time faculty position with University of Phoenix. I get the pleasure of working with first year students to support their career and academic success. What I am learning is too large to put into a list…but I have dozens of PowerPoints and Word documents at my disposal!

What is clear, from all of these resources and the excellent Wiki page the faculty and staff have put together, is a structure that has been built over decades – and I get to stand on it and say – LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!  Hopefully I will do more than that. My hope is that I will be able to add a wall, or a floor, or even a curtain to a window of this amazing and ever changing structure.

What I see all to often in my professional career are folks who just never look down. Perhaps it is fear, perhaps it is hubris, perhaps just bad training or not enough hugs as a kid, these people forget their history and think they need to destroy or radically alter the city-scape they inherit in order to “leave their mark”.

In short, those people are wrong. We all know these people. We also know that they typically do not last. Their lack of vision and limited growth potential make them poorly equipped to do much useful for an organization. The employees we need to hire, train, value and care about are the ones that know they stand in greatness only because of the greatness of those who came before them. And they understand the obligation to continue that good work.

It is better to be part of something larger that will last for decades. Anyone can bring down those around them to stand tall for a minute, but the quicksand they spread all too far and wide will eventually bring them down as well. In parables from business, religion, history, or politics, our systems work best when built by caring hands who intend to grow what is in front of them and conserve it for the ones who will do the work when they are gone.

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