FETC 2013 | Profile

Connecting With Students

It's the little things that can help a teacher connect with every student in the class, according to author Lynell Burmark: A good place to start: Show the image first, then use the words.

FETC presenter Lynell Burmark says that if she were asked to name her innate gifts, the list would be topped by "just caring about other people reaching their full potential." That translates these days into helping teachers learn how to connect with their students.

Burmark said knew she was going to be a teacher from the time she was 4 or 5 years old. She'd organize kids in her Tacoma, WA neighborhood and teach them the "topic du jour" and encourage them to be more than they thought they could be. "It just seemed natural from the get-go," she recalls.

A high school teacher inspired Burmark to pursue a major in French, which allowed her to spend months as both a sophomore and a senior in college in France. A master's degree in education earned at Stanford University gave her a teaching credential, and a master's degree in French gave her the drive to go after her Ph.D. in French language and literature.

Along the way she proved that those early experiences as an instructor weren't just kid stuff. As a graduate student in French, her time as a teaching assistant in an all-French-speaking classroom taught her ways of communicating beyond the direct use of language.

"Everything became very dramatic, very visual, with a lot of music, which carries memory with it. So I really learned all the pedagogy for good instruction by doing it myself and seeing what works." That included putting on skits and plays and holding conversations that would fully engage her students. Among them was poet and former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia, who "jumped up and down" with excitement during a reunion decades later when he had the chance to introduce his former French teacher, "Mademoiselle Burmark," to his wife.

Lynell Burmark

Burmark, popular presenter and author of several books (most recently, They Snooze, You Lose) will be presenting three sessions at FETC 2013, which starts Jan. 28, 2013 in Orlando, FL:

  • Rockets in Their Pockets: Launching Learning Potential;
  • Making Education Stick: Veni, Vidi, Velcro (I came, I saw, it stuck); and
  • The Naked Truth about Full-Frontal Presentations.

In these sessions, Burmark tackles, respectively, the use of the iPad in the classroom, how to offer instruction that makes learning "stick," and how to give presentations with impact--in the classroom or elsewhere.

Burmark's style left an impression. Stanford instructors and fellow students voted her one of the earliest recipients of the institution's newly endowed Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching. (an assistant professor of political science named Condoleezza Rice subsequently won the same award.)

Burmark moved back to Washington state to teach French and English as a second language, and that experience confirmed the power of the image.

"When you have a room full of Vietnamese refugees who don't speak one word of English, you can talk louder, you can talk slower--it really doesn't matter. They're not going to get it. You have to use visuals."

A return to Northern California, where she still resides, allowed Burmark to continue her language work, this time running a county Vietnamese multilingual program. But after a few years, the state dollars to fund that initiative dried up, and layoffs were in process. Burmark went into her supervisor's office and suggested that she be laid off, since a friend at Apple has said he could get her a job as a writer. The supervisor looked at her and said, "I was sitting here banging my head on the desk, wondering who to put in charge of the new technology grant. You're it."

Earlier that year, for Valentine's Day, Burmark's husband had given her an IBM PC. The new job started in June. In between those months, however, she had figured out that she and the PC just weren't going to bond. "I don't mean to be judgmental," she muses, "But the way it was back then, it was not user-friendly. There was no WYSIWYG. It was very left brain. And I have to get a passport to go visit my left brain."

Then Burmark met her first Mac, and "that mouse became part of my hand," she said. "The first day I sat down at a Mac, time took on a new dimension. I must have been there five hours, and it felt like five seconds. They were turning out the lights in the building, and I realized it was time for me to go home."

That tech job turned out to be one of her all-time favorites.

"We didn't know what I was supposed to be doing," she says. "We got a pile of money. I had a desk and a phone and a budget."

Burmark was in charge of 19 school districts in two counties that were just thinking about buying their first generation of computers. Burmark lined up 15 people she knew she could trust as trainers capable of staying "one step ahead of the people they were training." (Among their ranks: Jerome Burg, who later developed Google Lit Trips, a Web site that offers free downloadable files that mark the journeys on Google Earth of characters from famous literature.)

In its first year the training program she ran taught about 3,500 people. "It was almost missionary zeal to train people when we were given the opportunity and given the money to do it. I actually got paid to do good," she declares.

Burmark also became a presenter at education and technology events. David Thornburg invited her early on to join his team at the Thornburg Center, which consults on emerging technologies and their impact on learning.

It was during a Saturday night presentation to share her ideas about visual literacy at an ASCD event--where attendees "had their choice to go to the free drinks or come to my session"--that the next chapter of Burmark's career was sparked. "We were taking bets whether there would be three or four people who showed up," she recalls with a laugh. "And actually the room was packed, overflowed, out into the hallway, people standing in the doorway." One of those standing-room only people was an acquisitions editor from ASCD, who asked her if she'd consider writing a book on the topic of visual literacy.

The result was Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn, published in 2002 and updated in 2006. The publication of that book segued with a shift in the classroom to greater use of computers, wider availability of the Internet, and a bigger emphasis on personalizing each student's educational experience. The goal: to fully engage the student.

The biggest mistake she sees teachers make in the classroom is to think that "the teaching is more important than the learning." As she explains, an instructor may have prepared a lesson that is "stellar." But somehow, when it's delivered in the class, "people are looking out the window and yawning and futzing with something in their pocket, which shall remain nameless." In other words, the lesson hasn't connected. "Have you succeeded? No. The minute any lesson is not engaging, that's the point to stop and say, 'OK, what's not working here, and how can we make this into something you care about, kids?'"

Burmark recommends that teachers stop thinking of teaching as a linear activity and instead prepare more than they'll need. "I'll have some tricks in my bag or up my sleeve, so that if something isn't working, there are branches I can go out to. You may have a kind of end in mind, and you have a path laid out, but there are going to be a lot of detours, different shortcuts, or different ways to get there depending on the people you're traveling with."

One of Burmark's popular presentations among educators is "The Naked Truth about Full-Frontal Presentations." A big recommendation from that: Stop using bullets; start using images. She gives an example. A friend--an art instructor--had invited her to attend a session of presentations by students with the goal of providing feedback that the instructor could pass along to the presenters. "Everyone did a PowerPoint slide with all kinds of text as their first slide. Their second slide showed the artistic thing they had created," she said. When her friend asked for advice, Burmark responded, "For starters, flip the slides. It was so obvious. It cost nothing."

That "Naked Truth" session is full of practical advice that any teacher "hopefully only needs to hear once and they'll change their practices," noted Burmark. She knows it works. "I have people coming back to me a year later and saying, 'I did what you said, and now kids are lining up to get into my classroom,' or 'I was teacher of the year last year,' or 'I was going to quit teaching, and now I'm going to do it until I retire or die.'"

Ultimately, Burmark points out, "It's just little things that really make a difference with teachers connecting to students."