Framing: Beautiful Microbe, Beautiful Molecule

Before I started down the health science path I studied communications. In communications, there’s an idea called “framing.” Framing is a theory that’s often applied to the media and how it shapes public opinion about certain topics. The concept is that how you talk about a specific topic (ex. healthcare)—such as the tone you use and the details you include (or leave out)—can shape other people’s perceptions of the topic.

I’ve noticed that several of my science professors use framing as a teaching tactic. And, despite knowing exactly what they’re doing, I still fall for it.

I’m currently studying microbiology and organic chemistry. There’s a lot of new information to learn and for organic chemistry there are a few new thinking skills I’ve been practicing—such as being able to think about molecules in 3D. It’s an interesting challenge to train your brain to be able to rotate different molecular structures using only your imagination. I’m lucky enough to find microbiology and organic chemistry fascinating, but still it’s hard work. That’s where the framing comes in.

My organic chemistry professor introduces particularly complex or tricky molecules as “beautiful molecules.” “This is a beauuuutiful molecule,” he’ll say. He’ll also start a new chapter by saying “This is an important chapter. This is very cool…let me tell you why.” And, somewhere in that explanation of how awesome the challenging topic is, he’ll make a few comments about needing to practice the skills he’s about to show us. “But I will teach you how to…” he will conclude.

My microbiology professor does the same thing. I always know when he’s preparing to introduce a particularly complex metabolism, process, or cycle used by bacteria because he’ll pull up a picture of a microbe and say “This beautiful microbe…”

Those are current examples, but my general chemistry professor did the same thing. His word for hard concepts to learn was “interesting” rather than “beautiful.”

So what’s going on with this inappropriate use of descriptive words? Framing. Why? Because it works. As absurd as it sounds, it’s way easier to fight with a beautiful molecule than a molecule that’s “annoying” or “difficult” or “challenging” from the very start. I don’t think microbes are necessarily beautiful, but I approach them with much more interest and forgiveness when they are presented to me as “beautiful” rather than “ugly” or “evil” or “bad.” And, when trying to complete long chemical equations, it is a lot easier to complete the “interesting” problem than it is the “hard”, “tricky”, or “terrible” problem.

What’s my long-winded point? Before I dove into science I heard that it was “hard” and “confusing” and “dry” and “boring” and many other potentially negative adjectives. Sometimes I completely agree. But, most of the time, I do think it’s amazingly interesting. I think we’d do a lot of young people thinking about their future (and older people looking for something new) a service if we framed science as something wonderful. Sure, there is plenty about it that’s hard, and even monotonous, but most of it (all of it maybe) is not beyond most people’s reach. We’ve just conditioned our population to think science is either too complicated for them or not something they’d find interesting by describing it as scary, trying, and a thing that only geeks and brilliant people do. It’s worth a frame-shift around science. Why? What better way to find answers to medical questions, renewable energy questions, etc. than having more people researching and exploring those topics?

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Teaching Sex Ed

I never imagined myself teaching sex education before Paraguay. But since late August sex education, focusing on HIV prevention, has been the center of my work world. And, it is some of the most gratifying work I’ve done in my ever-elongating life. What I enjoy most is watching how my students giggle more knowingly rather than awkwardly and show greater confidence as we work through sexual health topics. During my first class, my students wouldn’t say words like “penis,” but now they can tell me exactly how and for what one uses a condom with only a slight smirk betraying underlying tension.

Just like in the States, many families and schools in Paraguay skim or entirely skip sex education because adults are embarrassed or don’t know how to discuss the topic with youth. As a result, “sex education” is learned through experiment. It’s not that experiment is entirely bad but when it comes to sex, experiment without some basic knowledge and protection can often lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Because I’m using a program that focuses on HIV prevention, I talk about condoms a lot. As you know, they are the only form of birth control that prevents pregnancy and STDs. Just like in the States, condoms are under utilized in Paraguay even though they are widely available and often free. You might ask, “Why?”

Unlike in the US where there is a poisonous link between condoms and religion in some circles, the officially Catholic country of Paraguay, for the most part, does not view condoms as a negative thing. Myths and mistaken beliefs about condoms are one reason many Paraguayan men are reluctant to use condoms. Myths like one can not feel pleasure during sex when using a condom. Another, and perhaps more important reason, is that many people, both genders, are too embarrassed to talk about sex or get information about how to protect themselves that they just go for it. It takes confidence to get a condom and then ask your partner to use it. And, that’s where I think sex education enters the picture.

Sex education is partly explaining how things work, like how to use a condom, and telling what resources are available, like the different forms of birth control. But, I think almost more importantly sex education is a time to clear the air and help young people become more comfortable talking about their bodies. I like to think that my students don’t only learn how to protect themselves from HIV, but also become self-advocates so that if faced with a partner who asks them to take a sexual risk they don’t like they can stand up for themselves. One can know about all forms of protection and the ins-and-outs of sex, but if one is too nervous to say what he or she wants in the moment it does no good.

 

The Sly English Teacher

Now I’m happy to teach English in my community, but I was against it in the beginning. I am acutely aware that there are many more pressing things for youth in my community to learn than English, from reading Spanish well to using a condom correctly. And, even if I were the best teacher in the world (very doubtful) my students could not master English studying just 1 or 2 hours a week. Language just doesn’t work that way. But, English lessons are one of the things people in my community want; and I’m here to serve them.

So, then, the question arose: If I have to teach English and my students aren’t attacking it with the tenacity necessary to become fluent, how can I most effectively use our time together? Some volunteers turn to games. Games are a good solution, but I struggled with them.

My solution came when I realized that I was looking at teaching English all wrong. My English classes aren’t about English. (But, I like to think they will give those kids who choose to pursue more English study later an advantage.) My English classes are about mentoring and sharing my culture. Defense: We also discuss English grammar and vocabulary.

How do I start the cultural sharing? Music. In my English class, we usually listen to a song in English, talk about what it means, and pronounce the words. Listening to music is a good language-learning activity, but that’s not actually why I do it. I try to pick songs for a reason. Half the time I just pick a song because I know my students will like it, but the other songs I choose because they have an interesting cultural message. “Dear Future Husband” by Meghan Trainor was a successful choice—the youth even like the song. Most of my students are young women. It was neat to talk about how women don’t have to fall into the stereotypical role of “the perfect wife” when they marry.

“Hard to Love” by Lee Bruce was a silly chance to talk about how we should say “thank you” to people when they do things for us. Most women in Paraguay are expected to clean and deal with food while men (not all!) sit and watch. I’ve seen young men get up from the table, leave their plate as a disaster for some woman to pick up, and not even say “thanks” for the meal (rage almost not repressed). I also used “Hard to Love” to talk briefly about the differences between how Christianity is practiced in Paraguay and the US.

As I get to know my students better, they feel more comfortable asking questions about the States or about my life. Sometimes the questions make me laugh: Is it true that people in the States wear their clothes once and then throw them out? Bit-by-bit I think they are forming a more realistic notion of the States, and at least they are opening their eyes to the idea that not all people do things the same way.

In the end, English class isn’t just a time to talk verbs and articles. It’s also a chance for my students to talk about life. It’s an open space that encourages learning.

Anatomy of an Average Classroom

Since coming to Paraguay I’ve done a lot of teaching. I passed 100 classes a while ago. Though 100 is a humble number for a professional teacher, it’s a huge feat for me, as someone who never thought I’d teach (officially) in a school. Trying to teach 32 8th graders—or 20 unruly 11th graders—has given me a new appreciation for my teachers from 1st through 12th grade. I do sincerely believe anyone who teaches 8th grade for more than a couple of years should be sainted.

I think I get better with every class I teach, but who am I to judge? However, I am certain of one thing: Classes have personalities just like people do. The personality of a class depends on the parts and their ratio. Here’s my summary of the average class’ anatomy.

  • Front Center: Type A’s. They want to help. They want to participate, and they help control the other students.

  • Front Side: Students that come off as type A’s, but on second glance are just good at hiding their distraction. They’re interest and will participate, but it’s easy to lose them.

  • Middle Center: Reserved, quiet types. They are probably paying attention, but it’s hard to know because they’re almost always too shy to participate.

  • Middle Side: Students that are quiet and slightly distracted—typical cell phone users. It’s questionable as to whether or not they are paying attention.

  • Back Corner: Rabble rousers. They talk over the teacher and their classmates. They run around the classroom. They throw things at each other. They will participate, but their participation comes at a high cost.

  • Back Center: Aggressively abstinent. They will not participate no matter what. They won’t speak in class. They won’t do individual work. They don’t contribute when there is group work.

Motivation

Che kaigue,” means “I don’t have the motivation or energy to do anything.” Che kaigue is almost always an acceptable excuse in Paraguay, and it is neither positive or negative. This phrase has been on my mind lately.

The general idea of kaigue bothers me. Not in the context of culture or Paraguayans, but in my own life. I recently hit a roadblock in my Paraguayan life and felt devoid of the desire to continue working. I fell into the dangerous trap of wondering if what I’m doing is actually worth the effort, and questioned what exactly I’m doing with my life.

Now pondering purpose and meaning of life is beyond the scope of kaigue, but none-the-less they are connected in my mind. And they are connected by the simple question: Where does motivation come from?

As a volunteer my main purpose is to prompt others to act. I inspire my counterparts to work with me. I incentivize my students to listen and learn what I want to teach them. I motivate my community members to include me in their already full lives. I energize my friends and family back home to (emotionally) support me even though I’m thousands of miles away. I do so much cheerleading for others, I sometimes forget to cheer for myself.

Where does motivation come from? If the answer to that question were simple, public health would be easy as pie and teaching my students smooth sailing. But, it’s not easy. Worse, it’s just as hard to think about one’s own motivation as it is to think about motivating others.

I’ve taken some time to think about the origin of my desire to do things and then my ability to follow through with those desires. There is a distinction between the things I want to do and the things I actually do. There is an endless list of things I want to do, and a finite number of things I achieve. Why is there such a big discrepancy? Hint: While time is a limiting factor, it’s of little importance in this discussion.

You might have guessed: Motivation. For me to be motivated to do something I must have a strong, tangible reason for doing it or it won’t happen. I also need to feel like I am successful—even if it’s only a hope for future achievement. I will not actually do things if I don’t have a clear reason for doing them or a hope for success.

Let’s look an example of how I applied this understanding of my own motivation to banish kaigue from my life (mostly).

Since March I’ve been teaching 10 sections of life skills to grades 8 through 12. Life skills to me means doing activities that help my students identify their strengths and weakness, communicate well, take an active role in their communities, take charge of their lives by feeling good about who they are, understand their health, and understand how to navigate life challenges like relationships. Our first topic was abilities: What do my students know how to do? How can they galvanize their strengths? How can they learn new skills? What can they do with their abilities? My second topic was leadership: What is a leader? What do leaders do? How do my students’ personalities relate to their leadership styles? What can my students do as leaders to improve their communities? Looking to the future, I will discuss sexual health, and specifically HIV and STI prevention.

I think those topics are pretty flipping awesome and darn important. Don’t you? Well, try telling that to a bunch of adolescents—ha. The point is this. I believe down to my toes that the skills my students could gain from my classes could help them make their lives happier someday. So, I have a good reason for doing the work. Check.

So, why didn’t I want to go to class anymore? Because I didn’t feel like my classes were achieving their objectives. It’s disheartening to go to class after class and have something like 20-30 people ignore me. I found myself wondering, daily and often, if my students acted out because my classes sucked or for some other reason. Regardless, my classes always go better when I start them with a positive attitude and lots of energy. That’s why my growing kaigue-ness was detrimental to my work.

My solution to motivating myself again was to do some self cheering. Self cheering began with identifying what I have done well. I have achieved something with some of my classes. Those groups that are finishing up the last class about leadership are doing better work than they once did. My students are learning to think for themselves; at least they’ve stopped asking if they should copy things. I very much dislike classes based entirely on copying other people’s ideas, which is the most popular class format in my school. My students are starting to find self reflection easier. I know this because they are doing it with less hesitation. In the classes where most or all the students give me the time of day we, my students and I, are winning. They don’t know it but they are reaching my goals for them.

I’m not winning in all of my classes. Part two of self cheering was realizing that it’s okay to give up sometimes. That’s a new conclusion of mine. I hate, yes hate, not completing projects I start. And I hate not starting something I say I’m going to do. But, life is complex. Part of my process of re-energizing has been allowing myself to say goodbye to the groups of students who don’t want to work with me. Rather than beat myself up by the clear failure of some classes I’ve come to accept that I can not motivate everyone I want to work with to work with me. Further I won’t make people work with me, so if I can’t motivate them we are at an impasse. Clearly, the classes where fewer than half the students listen or do the work have something demotivating them. I haven’t managed to figure out what that is, but I don’t have to let that negative energy devalue all of my work and affect the classes that are going well. I now teach 7 classes of life skills. I struggled to keep all 10 afloat, and I lost 3 times out of 10…or, better, I won 7 out of 10.

The example of my life skills classes is one of many motivation explorations that have robbed my sleep and filled my mind these kaigue weeks. I did the same exercise of flushing out my motivations and influences with my English tutoring, studying for the GRE, exercising, planning for my future, and other projects. Today, I accept that kaigue is a feeling I’ll have from time to time, but I refuse to let it be my state of being.

Teachers’ Day

Traditional Paraguayan dance

Traditional Paraguayan dance.

In early May, Paraguay celebrates Teacher’s Day, and it’s no small thing. In fact, in an almost ironic way, schools have the day off. The school where I work also got the day before off—because we held a celebration for teachers. In the morning of the celebration, students performed skits, dances, and poems. The school recognized one teacher who retired last year after 30 years of teaching. Then, there was a lunch for all the teachers. We had cake, danced a little, and sang traditional Paraguayan songs.

When my school invited me to participate in the teacher’s lunch not as a special guest but as a teacher it hit me: I am a teacher. I never thought I’d be a teacher. There were brief moments in high school when teaching, the profession, crossed my mind. My Peace Corps projects have brought me back to high school (I teach grades 8-12 primarily). My days, in Paraguay, are filled with life skills classes, English tutoring, and sometimes helping with communications class (Yes, I am helping with Spanish homework even though my students make fun of me for my errors in Spanish when I speak. It stems from the fact that I’m good at literary analysis, and that’s a challenge for many in my community).

Even if my role as a teacher wasn’t formalized by my work in the school, I still think my main project in Paraguay would be teaching. Whether I mean to or not, I push the people I interact with in my community to expand. First, they have to put in a good effort to understand me—which is not just a lesson in active listening, but also clear communication. Second, and more profound, we have different cultures and understandings of the world, and together we are helping each other grow.

It is easy to forget or demean the importance of exposure to people different from yourself in the grand scheme of life and Peace Corps service. But, in the end, that’s the core of it. Peace Corps volunteers do a range of work that can be reported—lectures, classes, building things, camps—but in the end the only sure things that change are the volunteers and the people with whom they spend the most time in their community. I can’t summarize personal growth neatly in a report. But, many things that are worthwhile are hard to quantify—love, friendship, goodness, happiness, kindness, respect—that’s what makes life so damn exciting.

A Sure-Fire Way to Spur Education Reform

Stick everyone who could make education reform happen, who is blocking education reform, or who isn’t interested in improving education in a classroom with 30 or more eighth graders. It would make waves. Of course this idea came to me as I started teaching again this school year. I have two classes with more than 30 students, and one happens to be eighth grade.

I’ve been thinking a lot about learning environments recently, and specifically how learning is significantly imperiled by each additional student you add to a class after 15. In my experience, 15 students is a golden number. Fifteen students is just enough to create some diversity of opinion, but not so big that students can easily hide from participating.

Before I started teaching in Paraguay, I was aware of the class-size discussion. Student to teacher ratio was something my parents sometimes discussed. It was something I was told to look at when picking a university. A low ratio of students to faculty members was something I touted when I helped recruit for my college. But, now that I’ve taught myself, I have a better understanding of why it is important to keep a balance between teachers and students.

Here are some of the differences between my classes that have around 15 students and my classes of around 30 students:

Around 15 Students

Around 30 Students

We finished all the planned activities in the allotted time.

We finish about three-quarters of the planned activities and go over time.

Students listen to the directions and ask questions when the don’t understand.

Students chat in groups and don’t bother to say if they understood the directions or not.

There is time to talk to each student individually and answer their questions, offer encouragement, and provide feedback.

Time is spent trying to maintain a semi-focused work environment and only very disruptive students and students who approach the teacher get a fair allotment of the teacher’s attention.

There are a lot of elements that go into making an environment optimal for learning. There are a lot of factors that make a teacher effective or ineffective. But, the short and long of it is that if the structure of the classroom itself is set up to falter, even the greatest teachers and the most studious students are at a disadvantage. I’m not saying that all students who are part of a large class aren’t learning. I’m saying that they deserve better. Ensuring that classes are an optimal size shouldn’t be debated. It should be an integral part of education infrastructure no matter where a kid goes to school.

Success: End of Summer English Class

I taught a summer English class. We met 3 days a week for 2 hours. I didn’t realize until the end that I should have been impressed with my students for just coming—6 hours of language class a week isn’t pocket change—but I didn’t need that realization to think they are hard-working and awesome…because they are.

My original syllabus was way too ambitious. But, when all was said and done we covered the basics: possessive, present, past, articles, and a few other things. Some of my students improved over the course of the class. Others still asked me on the last day what “I am” meant, I mean we only talked about “to be” in the present tense every day of class.

There are a lot of ways to measure success. I could talk about my students’ ability to complete homework, about their markedly better scores on exam two compared to exam one. Yes, I guess I could talk about language capacity, but in my eyes that all is icing on the cake.

The real success came when 12 out of 17 of my students, plus some parents, showed up for the end of class party in the pouring rain. They came and they brought food, a full banquet was added to the chocolate and banana cake I’d made with two of my students the previous day—empanadas, sopa paraguaya, sandwiches…and more.

The smashing part of the success was the enthusiastic attendance in the pouring cats and dogs rain. Just in case you’re not aware, basically nothing happens in Paraguay when it rains. Rain is a classic excuse for staying in your house and sleeping all day.

I handed out certificates and exams. I had a productive conversation with students and parents about how they want to continue English once school starts. I gave a little speech, nothing fancy. Then, we feasted and chatted. It was fabulous. I say that myself because I wasn’t the one who made it a joy, it was the students and parents who honored me with their slightly damp presence. What a nice close to one year of working in Paraguay.

Sacrifice and Hardship Mark the Path

Recently the volunteers in my region organized a career/college fair for high school students. During the event we had activities to help youth think about their future and set goals. We also had a wonderful group of Paraguayan professionals join us to share how they got to their current positions of success.

The Paraguayans that spoke with us had amazing stories.

  • The youngest woman on the panel, an accountant, talked about how difficult it was to leave the home of her parents to study. In Paraguay, it’s common for children to live with their parents until (or even after) they are married and leaving one’s community is uncommon. She talked about how hard it was to live with people who weren’t her family for the first time. She worked all day, attended class at night, and studied from evening until early in the morning.
  • One woman is the director of a university, has a doctorate, and is earning another degree. She’s achieved this despite losing her mother at 9-years-old and navigating a childhood with a less-than-loving stepmother.
  • The one man on the panel is the owner of a hostel in Asuncion that is popular among Peace Corps volunteers. He talked about how he’s always wanted to be his own boss. His love for travel inspired him to open a hostel. Before he was able to open the hostel he used to work 12-hour, sometimes 14-hour, days at other businesses. He is now successful enough to hire people to help him run the hostel, but when he started he was on call 24-hours, 7 days a week.
  • Another woman left her family, the countryside, and everything she knew to study to become a professor at what many call the best university in Paraguay. She worked from early morning to afternoon, went to class in the afternoon, and studied in the evening. She was forced to go against her beliefs and sham support for the dictator as part of her admittance into the university—she noted how this was one of the most difficult parts of her studies for her.

These Paraguayans had inspiring stories and they also had good advice. They all recommended that youth find work about which they are passionate because, “work doesn’t seem like work when you love it.” They talked about making goals and sticking with them—even if it takes years to finally achieve them. They talked about finding inner motivation and strength to push through any obstacle.

One thing struck me, however, as I listened to them. They talked a lot about sacrifice and hardship. The warning of sacrifice and hardship is a familiar yarn to me because that’s what first my high school teachers, then my college professors, and then my bosses talked about when giving me advice.

It’s not bitterness that made these Paraguayans and all of my mentors focus on the sacrifice and hardship that got them to where they are. They forewarned that the path to personal success is bumpy and hazardous because they wanted to help prepare youngsters for the journey. Listening to the tale of challenge being told to the next wave of aspiring youth I had doubts.

We all must make sacrifices and face hardship in life. As someone in my childhood used to say, “If life were easy, it would be pointless.” But now being the listener, not just the sapling trying to soak in every drop of wisdom, our emphasis on hardship gives me pause. I don’t think youth need warnings or cautionary tales. They already know life is perilous. They need inspiration and encouragement to find their strength. We can tell our stories without giving them a tragic edge.

The matter-of-fact stories of my great-grandmother come to mind. She was born in 1907 to parents only several years settled in the US, having come from Germany. She lived into her 90s—almost 100 years of history that spanned 2 world wars, the Great Depression, and countless other moments that made history. Her stories never talked about sacrifice or hardship, they talked about life. Things happened and she survived them, and by telling her stories she implied that us (the listeners) would survive life too. She suggested, with her smile, that we would probably not just survive, but we might also give life a good run for its money.

Life is sacrifice and hardship. Even the happiest children know about challenge and disappointment. But, what we (adults) know that maybe youth don’t know yet is how to survive, even when the hurdle is more than dropping your ice cream cone. We’ve had more years of trouble and yet we haven’t lost sight of happiness.

When we tell our stories we can’t just focus on the events. We should share our thoughts and emotions. We should tell the greens what we learned and what made us smile and laugh despite everything. Youth want to know how we found the light because they’re still in the tunnel. They don’t want to just hear our take on the tunnel.

The Classroom

When I say I’m teaching in the school here’s what it means. The class is filled with 20-30 students. There aren’t desks for everyone, and if it’s the first class of the day some students inevitably have to wonder off in search of a chair. The chairs have seen better days—they’re covered in graffiti, their desk arm is broken, they’re a little crooked.

The classroom door won’t stay closed, so if I want to reduce distractions I have to prop a chair against it. All classrooms have chalkboards—they don’t always have erasers, so sometimes I use a broom. My school has a projector, but I haven’t worked up the courage to try it yet, mostly because I worry its setup will take half the class period. Between transitions in the school and holidays and any number of activities that get in the way of learning time I don’t want to lose time—it’s a useless obsession of mine to attempt to have no wasted time in my class, but it’s one of those unachievable goals I strive for anyway.

There’s always a group of students in the back who hardly (or won’t) participate. In the younger grades those students do their homework for the next class, and in the older grades those students listen to music, send texts, and crack jokes. There’s usually one student who wants to help, one students who simply disappears, one student who looks utterly confused, one student who looks on the verge of sleeping, and one student who looks vaguely interested. The rest of the class falls into those categories too.

Before Paraguay, I’ve heard it argued that teaching is a gift or that teaching is something you learn. From my time in the classroom I’ve come to a hybrid conclusion. The mechanics of teaching well is something you learn—through a somewhat painful process—and the ability to find the nugget that makes any subject interesting is a gift.

Each class I teach I think is better than the last. I haven’t got the teaching thing down flawlessly, but I have plenty of time to get there. I’m getting better because I’m seeing first hand what my students like and dislike. I’m also uncovering my own limitations. Language is a problem, so I’m learning what kinds of things I can explain and which ones are just beyond me right now. Not a class passes without me wondering if and how much better the class would be if I was fluent in the language.

I don’t see any value in fighting my students. My desire is to find a way where my interest in the topic of the class is contagious. I’m getting closer. The students are starting to get used to me—I wouldn’t say that familiarity is translating to greater respect but it is crumbling some of the barriers they put up between us when I first entered their classes. I keep telling myself that I have next year. I focus on listening to them. I want to know what makes them tick. I want to know what drives them. I reflect on every class and think about what worked and what didn’t work. I’m reading about classroom management. I ask other volunteers about their teaching experiences.

Looking back, I’m mystified how my high school teachers were motivated to enter their classrooms day-in and day-out for years. There is a wonderful energy that emanates from the youth in my school, but it doesn’t always make up for the hours of preparation and grading. I keep telling myself that I never know how I’m impacting my students. I like to think that something I talk about will stick, will make a lasting impression, will have a positive impact. But, I’ll never know.