Tag Archives: teaching

Cows Come Home

Kids and cows are subject to the charms of soft summer days, the seduction of lush green pastures, the hypnosis of eternal rhythms, and the freedom of room to roam. It grieves me to know that few men remember this and fewer boys ever learn it; and it grieves me that we eat cheese from cows never privileged to share the experiences with barefoot boys.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

Cows are creatures of herd habit, products of millions of years of evolution that cannot be erased by thousands of years of genetic modification of domestication. But, domesticated they are, and milking cows have the need to be milked routinely, which means that by late afternoon, it is time for the cows to come home.

On hot, dry summer days, they may come home early for water. Cows cannot make milk without lots of water. Our pasture was the part of the farm unsuitable to plow, the hill too steep and the marsh too soft, but it contained no stream or pond of water, so they had to come home to the barnyard tank.

On the soft summer days, though, when the grass was lush with moisture, the sun not too hot, and the air not too dry, time slipped away from us. The rhythms of the day were conducted by the buzzing of working bees, the frequency of butterfly wings, and the stirring of leaves in gentle breezes. Only the fences kept us from getting lost in time. Funny how fences can grant us the mental freedom to roam within reason.

And so it was that one of my earliest responsibilities as a boy was to go get the cows on days such as this, on days when the herd got lost in the natural rhythms. I miss the feel of bare feet on soft dust of well trod cow paths passing flat cow pies raisining in the sun. I miss the adventure of stalking a Tiger Swallowtail or evading bad guys hiding behind rocks and trees. I miss the freedom of time and space within protective fences. I miss the relevance of having an important job, a job I understood even at the age of four years.

It wasn’t that hard. Rawhide and Rowdy Yates notwithstanding, all that is necessary to get cows to head to a barn is to circle around behind them. A lead cow will head for home and the others will follow. Then I really had the freedom to wander in my mind because all I had to do was follow them and we all knew where we were going.

Most days it was even easier than that. When the lead cows saw me coming, they knew what to do and started for the barn. I didn’t even have to work my way behind them. My very presence commanded the herd to move as one. What a palpable feeling of power for a small boy. Yes, I looked forward to the days when the cows failed to come home in time for milking.

Sometimes adventure came my way when the cows came home on their own. We let them into the barn for milking and one was missing, one that had not been milking for a couple of months. Dad would say, go find her. I loved it, perhaps because of the uncertainty and element of danger—but mostly because it meant there was a new calf and another of my jobs as I got a bit older was to teach the calves how to drink from a pail.

When cows had their calves in the summer pasture, they often went a bit feral and stayed with them at the far reaches of the domain where the calf could be hidden. It was a hunt, and I have always loved a good hunt.

I learned early not to crowd a cow with a new calf. They can get very protective, even mean, so the method was to get behind them, talk to them, and persuade movement. Sometimes I failed and had to get my big brother with more persuasive skills.

I also loved finding the new calves. There is something about the miracle of birth, of new life where there had not been life, that still fascinates me. I wouldn’t doubt but this kind of experience contributed to my interest in Biology.

And I loved teaching them to drink by allowing them to suck milk off my fingers, gently lowering their noses into the pail of milk and slowly removing my fingers. There is great accomplishment in teaching and I still thrill at my hand in the learning. We can lead the calf to water but we can’t make her drink. Ah, but I can entice her to learn. Yes, some learn much quicker than others, some are more stubborn than others, but sooner or later they all learn to drink.

Sometimes there was a medical reason a cow was missing. On one occasion, I found the new mother lying flat on her side, holding her head up as though looking back at her udder. The veterinarian came and gave her a bottle of intravenous calcium solution after which she stood up and walked home as though nothing was wrong. “Milk Fever” he called it, a sudden drain of calcium from the body to make milk which resulted in a life threatening condition. I saved her life by finding her. Yay for me.

The University of Wisconsin did not have a Veterinary School in my time or I very likely would have gone. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like. Mostly, now, I am comfortable with my place in time and the life I have experienced. I guess I am glad UW did not get the vet school in time for me or I might not have been a teacher. I was a lucky boy.

Teaching Love

My students have always been my greatest teachers. Here is how I learned something about love from a student teacher.

It was a familiar discussion among student teachers and supervisors, that of classroom discipline. When this young lady read my letter of recommendation, she said that she hoped they wouldn’t think she was too nice. It is common to see a conflict between being nice and being strict. (My former students may understand.)

That conflict is a mirage, an illusion of landscape created by the beliefs of the mind.

“For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines….” (Hebrews 12:6)

Here I learned the conflict—within our definitions of discipline. Originally it meant, “to teach.” That has been corrupted to mean to punish.

That is a naughty definition, but it does serve to help us learn about teaching and love, for too many of us see teaching as telling which is analogous to discipline as punishment. I find the resolution in leadership.

This soon-to-be teacher is clearly a nice person. That is readily apparent to those around her as she treats others with quiet respect. The concern she expressed is that being nice and discipline are somehow mutually exclusive.

She is a lovely person, caring deeply for and respecting her students. Her concern is that school administrators may see this as weakness which may lead to lack of discipline in her classroom. I see her respect as a strength, as a model of her self-discipline, as love in practice.

How do we get a marshmallow into a piggy bank? In a way, it is like asking how many counselors does it take to change a person. Only one, of course, but the person has to want to change.

A marshmallow is similar to a balloon, and I used to demonstrate how to get a small water balloon into a gallon jug. I simply encouraged the gallon jug to want the balloon inside. I did that by dropping a burning match inside, heating the air, and then placing the balloon on top. As the air cooled (I might help it with a cold water bath), the balloon would be sucked inside. For fun, you might try to figure out how I got the balloon back out.

We cannot teach by shoving facts inside. We must educate (meaning to draw out). We do this by lighting the fire inside. Not the fire of ire, but the fire of inquiry. Actually, the fire is already there, as natural as breathing for young people. We only need to fan it from time to time. We do that by showing our fire, our sense of wonder for our subject (aka, our discipline).

For a person dedicated to being nice, teaching others to be nice is a challenge. It means constantly questioning personal and professional decisions. It means holding a tongue that feels like lashing out. It means expecting respect from others by showing them respect, first.

That is discipline. That is teaching by example. It is leadership. Yes, it will mean being strict on some classroom rules. It will sometimes mean punishment. But it is not inconsistent with being nice. It is love, and it is a wonderful thing to teach our young people, our future parents, leaders, and teachers. It is what this young student teacher taught this old teacher, and she did it by living the discipline of her personal conviction.

Wouldn’t you like her teaching your children and grandchildren?

Joy of Science

I have followed my passion. From that almost forgotten day in my high school teen years when I thought I would dedicate my life to understanding the universe, I have lived inquiry. I have sought answers and meaning to life’s big questions—and have found some. Science is the way I have traveled.

If you have not studied science just for fun, you may not understand my meaning. From Latin, the word “science” means “to know”. It is both an assembly of what is known and a process of coming to know, a process of rigorous inquiry. No, there is not one “scientific method”, but there are some general principles that span the breadth of physical and life sciences, quantitative and qualitative research, and visible and invisible domains.

My Genetics Major Professor used to say, “If you look for something, you will find something.” One hard lesson of science is that what we find may not be at all what we think we are seeking. I find joy in that. Not everyone does.

The Agronomy Professor that hired me as a freshman kept a note tacked to his bookcase above his desk, “It is what we think we know that prevents us from learning.” I enjoy knowing that.

I have said since high school, “Nothing can be proved except that nothing can be proved.” I would enjoy your attempt to prove me right or wrong to a standard of science.

My Educational Psychology Minor Professor claimed, “Science is a form of rhetoric.”

I find that less than completely true. Certainly, coherent and valid argument is a requirement of this special epistemology we call science; however, more is demanded. Some form of empirical inquiry is necessary to move from question and/or hypothesis to conclusion. We have to look (or otherwise observe).

Life was my initial passion, and I chose Genetics because I loved its central relevance, its logical beauty, and the freedom of choice it gave me as a major. Chemistry and Physics were only necessary for me to understand life (I came to love them only as a teacher). Earth science grew on me later, also as a teacher, as I became more committed to understanding the ecological relationships of Earth’s biosphere.

Psychology turned me off. As some former students were quoted, “It’s either bull shit or no shit.” That is not what turned me away. The contrived attempt to make psychology appear scientific through abusive studies of Behaviorism (Stimulus-Response studies) left me cold. I still maintain B.F. Skinner set American education back a century. So, I studied it. I went back for my doctorate in education because I found no educational psychology I could believe. In gratitude and joy I claim to have found some.

I studied the hyphen. “Hyphen psychology” was actually a derogatory term for people trying to investigate what happens between the stimulus and the response. Thinking is what happens, what we call “cognition”. In my mind, interesting things happen between the stimulus and the response where perception, cognition, and volition live. I would enjoy reading your comment if you find any references to such a claim.

Even spirituality is not beyond my scope of science. Yes, I believe I know how to research it and have even done some of my own guided inquiry. Perhaps we will get to that much later (a year or two). I hope so because it is the great joy of this old man.

My focus for 2012 is on learning as a process of recovery from disease with the specific example being Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During our little blog holiday, I made the personal commitment to focus on PTSD recovery for myself and to share my progress here. I will blog at least weekly (~Wednesdays) and perhaps more frequently when I cannot contain myself. I call the line of inquiry “Beyond DEROS”. The acronym stands for Date Eligible to Return from Overseas, the most important day in the life of any reluctant combat troop. Mine was 1 Nov 1970.

Here is the premise: Combat PTSD is a syndrome of behavior learned in response to traumatic stressors of combat through Classical (and, perhaps, Operant) Conditioning as studied by Skinner and the other Behaviorists. Recovery is also a learning process, but definitely not through conditioning. We learn our way to recovery through perception, cognition, and volition.

When asked how his Aborigine friend found his way in the dark, Crocodile Dundee replied, “He thinks his way,” and so do we.

You probably know a combat Veteran who is, this day, suffering from PTSD (although he or she may not believe it). We can help. Love can help. Experience of others who have been to the wilderness and back can help. Cognitive psychologists can help. Will you help me to help our brave troops who bear invisible wounds? That would bring us joy of science.