The Art Of Conversation

In the middle of day three of the Central Oregon 500 last week a lethal trifecta of The Varsity, a headwind, and rollers popped a few of us hacks off the back and we formed a mini peloton of the Truly Spent.

Now that we had sufficient oxygen to talk a bit, Boeing Ed from Seattle said that Boeing was requiring employees to take some forced release time. From the context, the fact that he lives on Mercer Island, already has 32 days off a year, and knows what the CEO paid for his road bikes, I deduced that Ed is upper management.

“Is the forced release time due to the 737?” I asked, before adding, “That seemed like a real clusterf$ck.” I anticipated a spontaneous reply along the lines of, “Yeah, we need to own those very unfortunate mistakes.” Instead I got a one second pause, which was more than long enough for me to realize I had unintentionally offended him so I instantaneously inserted a comma in the conversation before adding, “Or has the press mischaracterized things?”

What a recovery, because BE said something to the effect of “Yeah, they do, if you don’t make safety you’re most important priority you don’t even have an airlines.” I immediately thought about how work cultures can become all encompassing, making employees susceptible to groupthink.

Had BE been a friend I might have busted his balls a bit, asking for specific examples of hyperbolic or inaccurate coverage of the problematic plane, but as an acquaintance I lobbed him a slow pitch right over the plate. Which he clearly appreciated.

Why did I wuss out? Because we have no foundation on which to dig deeper. No shared history meaning insufficient trust that despite awkward differences of opinion, there’s still ample respect for one another. That’s the difference between talking to acquaintances and friends. With acquaintances, who we see only sporadically, we often need to finesse things, to keep things copacetic. In contrast, conversations with friends should be characterized by more honesty and depth.

My split second salvaging of that brief conversation at 20 mph had nothing to do with our current preoccupation with analytics and algorithms. It was based entirely on intuition and feel. Art not science. I was able to quickly rebound because my preferred teaching methodology is discussion leadership and after three and a half decades of leading group discussions I’ve learned to read not just people’s spoken words, but their pauses, sighs, eyes, body posture, and general frames of mind.

Can that sort of thing be taught? I’m not sure. If someone were serious about seeking feedback they could definitely improve at it, but it innately comes more easily for some than others.

Adolescent Literacy

Felt nostalgic for Europe I guess and took the train to PDX for a workshop on adolescent literacy. I WANT to be a train person, but Amtrak is making it hard. It’s bad enough the train takes longer than driving. My Squeeze and I planned on eating an early dinner in the big city and then returning on the 6:15p. Workshop ended an hour early and so we decided to take the 4:20p and eat at home. Headed to the iMax at 3:40p. At the train station we learned the 4:20p was delayed about an hour.

Long story short, it never arrived, something about a tree on the track. Instead of a romantic dinner, we took a walk and then sat in front of the station reading in the setting sun eating pistachios. The 6:15p originates in PDX so it would have to leave on time. . . right? Longer story shorter, we walked off the train at 7:40p, exactly four hours after leaving the hotel for home. Something about a broken brake line they couldn’t fix. The man sitting in front of us asked if we wanted a lift home, he was bailing on the train, taking the iMax to his car in Clakamass. He had a morning business meeting in Seattle. What a life, or at least, nightsaver.

But I digress.

Stanford research prof was the main presenter. Excellent researcher I’m sure, but how can I put this nicely, his presentation skills were not as well developed. Here’s what Dr. Stanford Expert and his co-presenter, a much better teacher from The U of Utah, recommended.

1. Strengthen adolescent reading fluency, vocab, and comprehension through scientifically researched (read quasi-experimental and other quantitative studies) teaching strategies that have been proven to be effective including explicit vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion of texts.

2. Explicit instruction involves three steps: I do it (modeling). We do it (guided practice). You do it (independent practice). If teaching a complex literacy skill like summarizing, the three steps may take an entire week. Teachers inevitably rush the steps.

3. There are three elements to classroom discussion of texts: 1) efferent (the who, what, where, and why of what was read. . . what did the writer say); 2) analysis and interpretation; and 3) evaluation. . . how did you feel about it, how convincing was the argument or engaging/illuminating the narrative. Research suggests teachers slight part one which low achieving students benefit the most from. Dr. SE made it clear he had “absolutely no interest” in evaluation/students’ opinions.

It was alternatingly interesting and exasperating. Throughout the day there was no discussion of the purposes of literacy; there wasn’t a single reference to digital, electronic, or multimedia texts; nor was there a single reference to the societal curriculum. Nevermind that adolescents are in school 22-23% of the time and outside it 77-78%.

Here’s an alternative, admittedly less scientific, more sociological perspective.

Immerse children and young adults in rich literary environments for long periods of time. Surround them by interesting reading material. Unplug more and read in front of them. Talk about what you’re reading. Demonstrate a love of reading in your daily life. Repeat year after year.

Here’s a related math literacy, or “numeracy” example. One Sunday morning, when seventeen was two or three, she crawled into bed and snuggled in between mom and dad. Dad started counting. “One.” She squeaked, “two.” And thus began Sunday morning math. Overtime, we counted by twos, threes, fours, whatever we felt like. We never called it multiplication. My hunch that my daughter’s success in math is in part explained by those Sunday mornings would not impress Dr. SE one bit.

I was impressed with how candidate Obama talked eloquently about parents being their childrens’ first and most important teachers. I wonder why he’s abandoned the Bully Pulpit.

The teachers and school leaders in the workshop politely and passively accepted the “literacy and numeracy as a teacher-centered science” way of thinking as if there are no alternatives. Few probably realized with that paradigm comes a narrow emphasis on technical skills, test scores, and national economic competitiveness.

Research and what happens in school matters, but magic can happen when young people are immersed in rich literary environments where word and number play are daily activities.