What’s That When It’s At Home?

DSC_0742Dear Readers:

I will be back in a few weeks with my yearly “Best Books” and “Top Posts” lists, but otherwise, Classroom as Microcosm will be on hiatus from now until the end of January.  I hope you’ll consider, in the interim, subscribing to my personal/homestyle/living blog, What’s That When It’s At Home?

This new blog is in its infancy.  I originally took a stab at it as a Tumblr blog, but Tumblr is not working out so well for me, so I’ve migrated it back here to WordPress.  My plan is to post a few times a week over the winter in order to get things up and running, and to launch it fully next spring.

The blog will treat subjects related to being at home – cooking, cleaning, home improvement, taking care of plants and pets, etc. – as well as reading, television, knitting, exercising and other things I love to do in and around my house.

The driving question of the blog is similar to that of Classroom as Microcosm: what does it mean to be committed?  At what point can one safely say one is ready to commit?  Classroom as Microcosm has explored my commitment to my job; WTWIAH will explore my journey, over the next few years, toward committing or not committing to my house, and to home ownership in general.

You will find a brief resume of the blog’s intention here.

So please come by and subscribe!  And in the meantime, have a great holiday, and stay tuned here for seasonal updates and a return to twice-a-week posting when the new semester begins.


Things I Learned From Buying a House #3: Demystification

My husband and I are taking a home repair class, because since we moved into our brand new very old house, we’ve been paying people a lot of money to do things we could probably do ourselves.  The class defies some current wisdom about what makes for “good teaching.”  And it’s great.  And I’m learning some things about myself as a teacher.

This home repair course involves almost no hands-on practice.  Our teacher tells us things.  We take notes.  We ask questions, and he answers them.  Last week we actually got to do some stuff for the first time – he had a friend come in to show us about wall construction, and we got to drill in some screws and apply a bit of plaster.  Otherwise, the best we can do is ply him with the details of our own roofs, toilets and hairline wall cracks and ask for advice.

You wouldn’t think this was an ideal format for a skills-based class.  Nevertheless, we are learning TONS.  We now know the basics of how a house is constructed.  We know what the insides of faucet fixtures look like.  We know why the walls of our bathroom look like they are running in rivulets even when they’re not.  We know the difference between caulking and grout, and which we should apply around our windows.

Perhaps most importantly, we know that we probably shouldn’t panic about the things that make us panic.  Things like: how can I put up a shelf without puncturing a pipe?  What do those little fissures on the foundation wall mean?  How can I stain my deck properly? If my house makes noise, does that mean it’s about to fall down?

A huge part of learning is about demystification.  Our home repair course is mainly about that: a house is just a thing, and it has a lot of parts that are pretty easy to understand.  It will get damaged, and then you need to fix it.  Pipes will break, ceilings will fall in, roofs will need to be replaced.  You just do it.

Of course, ideally, the demystification is not just intellectual.  Drilling a fourth screw into a mock-up wall, because the first three went in cock-eyed, makes drilling a screw into your own wall much less scary.  You get to know how it feels when the screw meets its mark, so you’ll know that feeling next time.

Nevertheless, hearing how something should work can be a good first step.  Then you can go home and try it, because at least you know the basics.

Is there an equivalent phenomenon for more “intellectual” skills? I’m learning a lot about home repair without getting much practice in the classroom.  Is it possible to learn a lot about English without practicing reading and writing?  Are there ways to demystify these activities for students so that they’ll be more likely to take the plunge into doing them on their own time?

Maybe it helps that my home repair teacher is hilariously entertaining, making jokes about how “water is the anti-Christ” and “What does Ikea mean in Swedish? Divorce.”  If I were funnier, would that make my subject matter less intimidating so my students would learn better?

Have you ever been scared to do something until someone taught you it wasn’t so hard?  Have you ever found that a little knowledge takes the terror out of trying something new?  How do you demystify your subject matter for your students?

Image by Melodi2

Things I Learned From Buying a House #1: I Can Do It

You can do things you don’t think you can do.

For most of my adult life, I said that I didn’t want to own a house.  It was too much responsibility.  I was willing to “pay someone else’s mortgage,” as people kept describing it, if it meant that someone else had to call the plumber when the drains stopped working.

The truth was, though, I just didn’t think I could do it.  I didn’t think I could take care of everything that owning a house seemed to require: not just calling the plumber, but dealing with the bank, having the roof redone, mowing the lawn, finding an electrician, lighting the gas furnace, choosing the right insurance.

Turns out, pretty much anyone can do these things.  I have yet to learn whether I like doing these things, or at least whether owning my own house makes them worth doing.  But I can ask for advice, look up YouTube videos, and tighten bolts.  I can learn how to paint a bannister properly and how to care for a birch tree.  It’s a lot of work.  Nevertheless, I can do it.

I find myself resisting tasks.  I don’t want to put up shelves in the bathroom.  It’s too much work.  Then I realize that the work is not the problem – somewhere, buried deep, is the belief that if I put the shelves up myself, they will fall down.  My husband seems to have the same conviction about his shelf-mounting abilities.  Can we afford to hire someone to put up shelves?  No.  Sooner or later, we will have to go to YouTube and learn how to put up shelves that won’t fall down.  Until we convince ourselves that we can learn to be capable shelf-putter-uppers, my toiletries are going to sit in an ugly cardboard box on the bathroom floor.

When my students don’t do their grammar exercises, don’t turn in their essays, don’t show up for quizzes, even don’t do the required reading, it’s sometimes because they are lazy or have other things on their minds.  Sometimes, though, there’s a deeper problem: they don’t think they can do it, and I’m not showing them they can.  More and more, I find myself breaking tasks into smaller and smaller steps and having students practice example after example, not so that they can “learn” the skill better, but so that they can see, “Hey, this isn’t so hard.  I can do this.”

The problem of self-efficacy may be the biggest in education.  This is not at all the same as self-esteem – you can feel great about yourself in general while still having a nagging low-level conviction that you can’t handle certain things.  I do not suffer from low self-esteem in the least, but when it comes to re-caulking my shower, I have yet to persuade myself that I have, or can acquire, the necessary skill set.

Saying “I can’t do this” is, in many cases, what prevents us.  Now that I have the house, I have no choice.  Unfortunately, my students can’t turn to YouTube to learn how to be skillful readers, and copying an essay from the internet is not the same as learning how to write one.  That’s what teachers are for.

On that note, if anyone wants to boost my self-efficacy by teaching me how to level a concrete basement floor, you know where to find me.

Image by Lajla Borg Jensen

Things They Should Teach In School

The Husband and I have just finalized a deal to purchase a house.  (To read about one of the more dramatic  adventures of our search, go here.)  In the process, we’ve had to do all sorts of things that we’ve never had to do before.  We didn’t have the faintest clue how to tackle some of these things: how to best negotiate the terms of a mortgage, or what to look for in a real estate agent, or how to read a co-ownership agreement.

Along the way, someone said to The Husband, “Buying a house is one of those situations where you have to become an expert in something that you might do once, maybe twice, in your life.”  And this is true.  But there are some simple and not-so-simple things that most of us are going to have to do in life that we don’t learn about in school.

For example, the house that we finally found – a house that we totally love – is old.  It has some problems that will need to be fixed.  We will need to call an electrician, and a mason, and a contractor.  The electrician and the mason – well, fine.  But why is it that we feel the need to pay someone to install gyproc over the exposed insulation?  Surely that’s a fairly straightforward task?  For heaven’s sake, I was even talking about paying someone to paint.  I’ll have plenty of time to paint – I’ll be on summer vacation – but I wasn’t confident I could do a proper job.  I’ve come around on that one, but not because I’m sure I can do it right.  I’ve come around because I should know how to paint walls, and woodwork, and bannisters, and so I should practice.

Why don’t we learn things like home repair in school?  I know, there’s woodshop or industrial arts or whatever it’s called these days, but it’s not the same.  Beyond that, why don’t we learn the principles of designing a kitchen or tending a garden?  Most people will own homes at some point.  Most people would be better off if they could install a faucet or properly deal with a musty dryer (a task we found ourselves faced with this weekend, as though the universe is prepping us for the days ahead, when we won’t be able to call the landlord about ANYTHING.)

What else should be taught in school, but isn’t, at least in the schools you’ve attended?  Things that immediately come to my mind: meditation, cell phone etiquette (etiquette in general, for that matter) and how to counsel a troubled friend.  What do you wish you knew that no one ever taught you?

Image by Sanja Gjenero