How can I help? — Frequent Questions

Q: How can I help?
A: Pick an issue and dive in.

It’s no secret: the challenges our country and our world face seem to be multiplying faster than rabbits. Or, to update that analogy to the 21st century, faster than malware-infected bots.

The only way I know to counter the human malware operating in so many people these days is by making personal connections and broadening people’s frames of reference. By talking, and listening. Educating.

Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, told an interesting story on this Monday’s episode of “Pod Save America.” She was speaking on a C-SPAN show one day last year and a viewer called in with an unexpected question. He was scared of black people, he said. How could he deal with this? McGhee, who is a woman of color, gave him some action items (among them: read history; change your news outlets). He embarked on a project to broaden his own horizons, reached out to McGhee via Twitter to thank her. And they struck up a friendship. Who knows how many minds he will change?

Of course, not every racist is open to a conversation like that. Some need a little more overt direction to change. And that’s one of the things the Southern Poverty Law Center does so well. In its 46-year history, it has fought for equity for people of color, LGBT people, students, you name it.

Help — for the Southern Poverty Law Center & for yourself

helpSo when my colleague Emily Levy said she wanted to put together a fund-raiser for the SPLC, I only had one question: How can I help?

She’s gathered together a group of coaches and consultants to offer VIP Days to their clients and pledge a earmark portion of the proceeds for the SPLC. I’m offering two VIP packages for the cause—with a potential donation of $1,200 to help this vital organization continue its work.

Click here for more information about my VIP Day package.

And check out the other offerings here.

Book your package by September 15th and schedule your VIP Day by October 31st. You’ve been meaning to spruce up your creativity, your business, your life. Now you can get the help you want and benefit an excellent cause.

Any questions?

TriUMphant — Song for a Sunday

I smile every time I sing the word “triumphant.”

Okay, it’s not a word one encounters very often in song. But it was a central word in the School Song I sang on special occasions between seventh and 12th grades. (sorry)—between Class VII and Class XII.

Our music teacher, Miss Havey, instructed us to hit the second syllable with extra verve: triUMphant. Because triumph is, y’know, supposed to sound happy.

Now whenever I encounter the word—I guess it pops up in a hymn every now and then—it is triUMphant. And I smile.

Miss Havey retired long ago—has probably gone on to that great Teachers’ Lounge in the Sky—and yet when I went to the official school reunion in April, women from graduating classes from the 1930s through tokay sang triUMphant. I would have giggled if I hadn’t been slightly teary-eyed.

The fact is, I do give “triumphant thanks” for my six years at that school. Without a doubt, they changed my life. But that’s a story for another time. I gotta get back to the reunion now.

The Young People’s Concerts — Song for a Sunday

Have you heard about Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”? They were legendary, and I recently came across a discussion of them in a fairly unlikely place: Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate.

Okay, maybe it’s not such an unlikely place. Duarte’s subject in Resonate is creating memorable presentations. And Bernstein was nothing if not memorable. And he did it all before PowerPoint. Can you imagine?

Bernstein taught his tiny audience—well, a large audience, but of mostly tiny humans—about relatively simple matters like the different sounds of the instruments in the orchestra. And about more complex things like just what the heck the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was doing up there on that stage.

My piano teacher led an expedition to the Young People’s Concerts three times a year. My father helped her out by chaperoning the trip. I can’t help thinking I would have taken in more information if I’d been wearing less formal dress, more comfortable shoes, but that was how one went to the Philharmonic back in the day. And my father brought along special butterscotch candies for me, which went a long way toward canceling out discomfort.

I may remember more about the Callard & Bowser’s butterscotch than I do about the concerts, but Maestro Bernstein was a compelling presence, a Star. Duarte quotes Variety’s description of him as having

“…the knack of a teacher and the feel of a poet. The marvel of Bernstein is that he knows how to grab attention and carry it along, measuring just the right amount of new information to precede every climax.”

Duarte points out how Bernstein explained the complex concepts of symphonic music by comparing them to everyday concepts we children would be familiar with. 

“How does development actually work? It happens in three main stages, like a three-stage rocket going into space. The first stage is the simple birth of an idea. Like a flower growing out of a seed. You all know the seed, for example, that Beethoven planted at the beginning of his [fifth] symphony, “dunt dunt dunt duuuunt.” Out of it rises a flower that grows like this [plays piano].”

I cannot embed a video for you, but find some butterscotch candies, click on this link, and revel in the power of metaphor—and the power of music.

Ben Franklin’s sister: when women were an afterthought

Ben Franklin's sister Jane has a lesson for us todayToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday. This fact was drilled into me from a young age—long story. But let’s look past the Great Man and pay some attention instead to Ben Franklin’s sister Jane.

I first encountered her in the pages of The New Yorker, in an article by Jill Lepore that combined personal reminiscences of her childhood with stories of Jane Franklin Mecom, a woman all but forgotten by history. And she might have remained forgotten were it not for her relationship to one of our country’s founders.

Lepore notes:

“No two people in their family were more alike. Their lives could hardly have been more different. Boys were taught to read and write, girls to read and stitch. Three in five women in New England couldn’t even sign their names, and those who could sign usually couldn’t actually write.”

Jane owed her above-average skills to brother Ben:

“Benjamin Franklin taught himself to write with wit and force and style. His sister never learned how to spell. What she did learn, he taught her. It was a little cruel, in its kindness, because when he left the lessons ended.”

Ben ran away from home when Jane was 11; four years later, she married a man named Mecom and began the work of having and raising children. She would bear an even dozen altogether, with 11 surviving to adulthood—a far smaller brood than the one she and Ben grew up in, the two youngest children in a family of 17.

“If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”—Jill Lepore

We know remarkably little about the life of Ben Franklin’s sister. She recorded the births of her children in a “Book of Ages” and we also see her handwriting on a copy of one of Ben’s books that he gave her. Other than that, she exists in her correspondence with her brother. Or, rather, in his correspondence with her—her letters did not survive.

As Annette Gordon-Reed wrote in an article about Lepore’s book:

“The very thing that tethered Jane and Benjamin then—their letters to one another—gives the greatest evidence of the gender-based chasm between them. Benjamin’s letters show his erudition and ease with the pen. Jane’s letters show the physical struggles of putting pen to paper and forming letters.”

What Ben Franklin’s sister has to teach us today

Jane Franklin Mecom was unusual in her time—not because she lacked education but because she had a brother, seven years older, who took care to teach her the rudiments of literacy.

How unusual would she be today? Gordon-Reed reminds us:

“Universal public education—amazingly enough, reviled in some quarters—has given girls the same educational opportunities as boys. Who knows? Had she lived today, Jane Mecom could have been a printer, scientist, revolutionary, ambassador and all around-know-it all. Her brother could still have been all these things, too.”

We take “universal public education” for granted in this country. But will we keep making the investments required to make sure it’s good education? I’m not willing to bet on it.

And certain elements around our incoming administration (dear God, I hope they’re fringe elements) seem to want to remove women from the workforce and consign us to the kitchen and bedroom again. How many generations does it take to transform a nation in which women receive more graduate degrees than men to a nation of 21st century Jane Mecoms?

That’s a question I hope we never answer.

Lepore reminds us of one of Jane’s brother’s famous quotations:

“’One Half the World does not know how the other Half lives,’” he once wrote. Jane Franklin was his other half. If his life is an allegory, so is hers.”

Many women around the world remain just as illiterate today as Ben Franklin’s sister was 300 years ago. That’s why my 5×15 Writing Challenge benefits Room to Read, a global nonprofit supporting girls’ literacy. The next challenge starts Monday January 23rd. Join us.

Managing the Class

After I’d plunked down tuition on my first training class at NYU but before I had actually begun said class, I had the opportunity to spend a day shadowing a trainer who was doing exactly what I wanted to do – teaching writing in a corporate setting.  The writing session was a one-day component in a weeklong training for up-and-coming businesspeople who had just been promoted at their company.

You’d think they’d be eager to hone their skills so they would be able to perform at the higher level required by their newly elevated status.  You’d be wrong.

These 30-something professionals were as sullen and uncommunicative as a roomful of high-schoolers.  Sitting in the back, I could see them web-surfing and working on spreadsheets. They stirred to life a bit when the trainer broke them into small groups, but snapped right back into inattention at the end of each exercise.

It didn’t take long for me to wonder just what I was getting myself into.  By the time lunch rolled around, I was the proverbial deer in the headlights.  And all I had to do was sit in the back and listen to the class.  Why in the world, I wondered, had I ever thought about leading one of these things?

Which is to say that classroom management skills were high on the list of things I wanted to learn when I began my training program.  Several classes in, I no longer felt like a deer in the headlights.  And then I encountered this strange beast called the online class.

Given the experiences I’ve had in this, my first taste of synchronous online learning, I would say that the greatest challenge in classroom management is that there is no classroom, there’s only technology.   And if the technology fails, as it has done to some extent in every one of the four sessions we’ve had so far, it compromises the classroom experience.

Where an instructor in a live classroom has a number of ways in which to corral students whose attention begins to wander, an instructor who is booted out of an online classroom due to technical difficulties loses the students entirely.  For how long depends on the duration of the tech blackout and the patience level of the students.

If I had not already amassed a reservoir of goodwill for my current teacher – based on two experiences with her in live classroom settings – I might have left the class long ago.  But not every student in an online class will have that background to draw on.  So “technology failure” has officially replaced “student apathy” as my biggest teaching-related fear.

An obnoxious story about learning by experience

When I was a toddler – I don’t think I had started Kindergarten yet – I taught myself to count by twos.  I didn’t actually know that was what I was doing, or even that it was a valuable skill.  I was just playing a game I made up, counting playing cards while dropping them on one side or another of a picture frame on my grandmother’s living room table.  When a card dropped on the far side of the frame, I would say its number out loud: (one), TWO, (three), FOUR, etc.  I didn’t attach any significance to my game until sometime later, when I was in the car with my mother and one of her teacher friends and the friend said something about when (at some later point in my schooling) I would learn to count by twos.  I declared, “I already know how to count by twos” and proceeded to demonstrate.

Is that an obnoxious story?  Forgive me if it is, but this week’s assignment is to write about “learning by experience” and that’s my earliest memory of doing so.  My mathematical prowess did not survive into adulthood; I grew up be neither an astrophysicist nor (to my abiding regret) a champion poker player.  But to this day, if you need to count something by twos, I’m your gal. 

 Looking back, I see that “doing” has always been my favorite mode of learning.  Sometimes this has happy results (the card game) and sometimes not (my first experience of riding a bike with hand brakes left me with a broken tooth in the front of my mouth until a dentist friend repaired it decades later), but I’d still much rather (as Nike says) “just do it” than spend hours reading about it first. This correlates moderately well with my learning styles profile: My card game was “solitary” (the adult Elaine scored 13 out of 20 on that mode), and “aural” (14), but I’d have to say it was also “physical” – which was one of my lower scores (8).  Perhaps toddlers learn by physical means because they are less developed verbally?

 Of course, learning-by-doing has its limitations.  It’s fine to dive in and write a speech when you’ve never really written one before; less fine to dive in and perform brain surgery under the same conditions. (Fortunately, I’m not a doctor – though I have written speeches for them.)  As a speechwriter who learns by experience, I read a great deal – and not just business books.  And I analyze well-written speeches, see what makes them work for me – and where I think they fall short.

In the movie Groundhog Day, the Bill Murray character relives the same day over and over again, until he learns the things he needs to do to grow as a person.  People who learn by experience have to be careful to take in a range of experiences and inputs, or we risk rehashing what we know over and over again.   This might work well for someone in a factory, who repeats the same action every day; but knowledge workers must recognize that the world’s store of knowledge increases daily, and unless our personal stores of knowledge follow suit we will render ourselves obsolete.


Who teaches? Who learns?

My journey to teaching writing in a corporate setting continues: For the next month or so I’ll be blogging occasionally about issues related to designing and teaching courses online.

Most of the online training I’ve had so far has been very passive – clicking through screens full of text for hours on end (okay, maybe half-hours, but it sure seemed like hours) and answering the occasional multiple-choice question.  In that kind of asynchronous web-based training, the “teacher” remains invisible – the Great & Powerful Oz behind a curtain of html.  Web-based training was not a particularly rewarding experience for me as a student; I’m not a passive person. And it’s hard for me to imagine that it’s rewarding for the instructor/designer/creator (or if we’re sticking with the Oz metaphor, the Wizard).

One of the things I enjoy most about training is collecting feedback from the students.  Since all of the training I’ve done so far has been real-time, real-world-based, that feedback has come from seeing the light dawn on a student’s face or hearing well-reasoned answers to my questions.  So far, no applause.  But I’m still hopeful.  But Oz, our web-based trainer, will never get to experience those things.

Synchronous instructor-led online training offers slightly more feedback for instructors: they can see and hear the students and interact with them in something close to real-time (though the magic of technology can’t eliminate the awkward pauses of dead air in between speakers).  In instructor-led online training, instructors function in much the same way they do in classrooms: as facilitator, expert, authority, resource, coach.  Additionally, they are able to personalize instruction to clarify confusions or suggest additional resources.  And students are able to ask questions and enrich the “classroom” discussion with their own thoughts and insights.  These things are not possible with an asynchronous, web-based program.

Any Questions?

I have always believed that I am terrible at asking questions.  Yet I’ve had many people tell me that I’m great at it – that I ask interesting, thorough questions; even that it was the best interview they’ve ever had.

So where’s the disconnect?

I think – and I realized this in class today – that it’s all about my goal. When I’m working, I gather information with a very specific purpose in mind, whether I’m writing a speech or a profile or an essay. It’s a purpose outside myself and that somehow makes asking questions “okay” for me.

Outside a professional setting – when I’m meeting someone socially, for instance – I generally don’t have such a clear purpose, so I’ll come away from the meeting lacking key bits of information that seem obvious to others. “Where did she grow up?” I don’t know. “Where does he work?” Sorry, forgot to ask. Actually, I’ve gotten better at this over time but it’s still a very mechanical process for me – almost a checklist I go through in my mind.

I had assumed that my (self-perceived) question-asking deficit was going to be an issue for me as I learned to be a trainer.  I mean, sooner or later you have to stop lecturing and ask a question.  How would I know what to ask, and when?

So I approached the Constructivist theory of education with extreme caution: drawing the knowledge out of one’s students cannot be accomplished via a lecture, after all. Questioning – by all participants – is integral to the process.

And yet, when we did a brief teaching exercise in class today, I heard my voice advocating that my group teach in a Constructivist style. And as if that weren’t strange enough, I actually formulated some of the key questions we would ask. Wouldn’t ya know, it was fun.  Not only that, but the class seemed engaged (even in the very banal task we were assigned to teach).

That’s why I grabbed a Constructivist for my final presentation. No doubt in my mind that this is a theory I need to learn more about.  If I can find the joy in asking questions and watching my class create the answers…well, that will be positively Transformational for me.

What theories of education are you drawn to? And why?

Quiet, Please!

So the last time I was in school, I learned things – many of which turned out to be useful – and I thought thoughts – some of which turned out to be intelligent.

I’m doing both of those now, too, but what’s interesting to me is that the times I’m learning the most – the times when I swear I can actually hear my mind expand and feel the rush of air and light through the newly opened space – are the times we pause for reflection.

The “Moment of Silence” turns out to be a teaching tool, one way of breaking up a long lecture into 15-minute chunks to keep the students involved. I understand this principle: When someone expects one of my clients to fill an hour at a conference I tell them they’re going to get a 20-minute speech followed by as much Q&A as the room wants. No way I’d let someone talk for any longer than that!

Once, early in my career, I had to write a two-hour speech for a famously grumpy executive to deliver in Japan. We questioned, we even protested, but the organizers insisted it was a cultural thing: the Japanese audience would be highly offended if he spoke for even a minute less. Two hours of simultaneous translation later, my famously grumpy executive and his unfailingly polite audience were all sick of the sound of his voice. I’ve had a 15- or 20-minute limit ever since, and nobody’s culture seems offended by it. (My personal culture is most offended by speakers who talk too long.  But I digress.)

So the Moment of Silence. It serves a mechanical purpose in the classroom. And at yesterday’s class it also helped me, somewhat miraculously, synthesize what I’m learning with why I’m learning it. It allowed me to remind myself of my strengths, which I don’t often do.

Now, I’m used to doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t directly look like work. I believe it’s important for my creative process, and often I’m right. When I need an idea, I’ll do some background reading on the subject I’m tackling and then go do something else, like take a walk, and let the ideas ferment in my head before I sit down to write. But fermenting is not the same as reflecting. In the fermenting process I am deliberately NOT thinking directly about a thing; the Moment of Silence offers time to confront a question head-on.

So as of today, there’s a new policy here at Bennett Ink: the daily Moment of Silence. I have a pile of things I’ve set aside to think about – including but not limited to this – but I’ve been too busy “doing” to think. Now I see that thinking is an important thing to do, all on its own.

Are you thinking about anything in a new way – or for the first time? How is it helping you?