Monday, September 1, 2008

Lessons from a Beer Goddess

 Yesterday, I met a beer goddess. Isaiah and I were supposed to work from 10-6 in the water booth at the Taste of Colorado. When we arrived, we were told water was a slow venue and we would have lots of opportunities to wander around, see the booths, etc. About 15 minutes into our shift, Nicole, the tattoed, nose-ringed, purple-haired beverage supervisor and beer goddess,  informed us that the other family from our high school had not shown up, and someone was going to have to help at the beer station.

Let me back up a little bit. I hate beer- the smell of it, the taste of it, everything about it. In high school, when keggers were the big thing, I would go, take a couple of sips to look cool, then carry a warm beer around in my hand all night, just to look cool. In college, everyone told me I would acquire a taste for it. I never did. I don't think I've poured a beer since college. 

That's not entirely true. Two weeks ago, I had to work at a Bronco game at Invesco Field. I was a cashier, but the cashiers also had to pour beer. I was terrible. I tried to follow the directions on the "How to Pour a Perfect Beer" on the wall, but my beers foamed, overflowed, spilled. My 15-year-old food runner spent half, maybe even more than half, his time, mopping up beer spills.  Afterwards, I emailed the person in charge of our Invesco fundraiser and said I was willing to help again, but could I please, please, please be a cook, or dishwasher, or anything but a cashier/beer pourer.

But there were no beer pourers, and we were responsible for that booth, so I became a beer pourer. Nicole looked a little dubious, when I told her I was not very good at pouring beer. "Carol," she said, "let me show you. It's not really that hard." She adjusted her cigarette, and flexed her tattooed arm. "First you open the tap. Let it run until the beer hits the bucket. Then stick the glass underneath. Keep it tipped so the beer hits the side of the glass.  The beer doesn't like to go far, so ya gotta keep the glass close to the tap. Now, when it starts to fill up, close the tap. See, ya got it. The perfect beer. Now you do it."

I remembered my experiences from Invesco. Didn't think I really could pour a perfect beer. Really wanted to go back and hang out at the water stand. But I tried it anyway, while Nicole, cigarette dangling, watched. I opened up the tap. Stuck the glass under too soon. Got a glass of foam. "No," said Nicole, shoving the glass away. "Remember, the foam has to come out. Let it hit the bucket, then stick the glass under. "Just throw that one away," she said, as I attempted to redeem a glass that was three-fourths foam. The next beer, I concentrated on one thing- sticking the glass under at the right time, and sure enough, it made a difference. 

For the first few customers, Nicole poured the beer. I watched, and thought about opening the tap, and keeping the glass close because the beer didn't like to go far. Then Nicole said, "Can you grab this one for me?" And I did. And it worked. And I poured beers for eight hours straight. Hundreds of them. No breaks. And a few were foamy, but most were ok. Nicole had a seemingly endless stream of friends, who all had as many tattoos as she did, who showed up at the booth every 30 minutes or so. Every time a friend showed up, she would take a break. And I poured beer. By myself.  And did just fine. 

So what is  a post about beer pouring have to do with teaching kids to read and write? A lot I think. 

1) Teachers have to be learners. We have to learn something new, I used to say at least once a year, but now I'm thinking every few months. We have to know the scariness of learning something new.

2) Teachers have to learn something outside their comfort zone. This blog has been a learning experience for me, but it's not a totally new thing. I already know how to use the computer. I am already a reasonably proficient writer.  That gives me a safety net. Yesterday, in beer land, I had no safety net. And it was scary.

3) Teachers need to experience failure regularly, so we can understand the hearts of kids who come into our classrooms that history. Yesterday, as I walked over to the beer stand, all I could think about was how bad I had been at Invesco, and how embarrassing it had been. I really didn't want to try again. I suspect there are lots of kids in our classrooms that feel that same way.  Then we wonder why they act out or shut down.

4) For some learners, information needs to be presented in more than one way and more than one time.  The "How to Pour a Perfect Beer" poster on the wall at Invesco, had step-by-step pictures and explicit directions. I read the poster. I tried to follow the directions. I still couldn't do it. 

5) Explicit verbal directions can act as a mediator for behavior. But not too many. Nicole was very explicit. Very concrete. Very succinct. Let the beer hit the bucket. Hold the glass close. Tip the glass. I repeated those directions over and over to myself, for about the first hundred glasses of beer. They worked. 

6) It's ok to start over. My first glass was 3/4 foam. Nicole pushed it aside. "Just put that one down. We'll throw it out. Here, try again." Sometimes I think we work too hard to redeem a failed piece of writing. Sometimes, it would would be better to just start over. 

7) Quick success is important for struggling learners. I knew I couldn't pour beer- I  had experienced eight hours of continuous failure two weeks earlier at Invesco. I don't think I had the ego to fail many times yesterday.  Nicole stood right there. Watched me. Monitored. I experienced success on the second glass. If I had failed more than a few times, I don't think I would have lasted at the beer booth all day.

8) Struggling learners need to feel needed. I was willing to try pouring beer was because there was no one else  available. In our classrooms, that's not true. There is usually always someone around who can read or write. Struggling readers and writers don't feel like they are needed members of the community. I need to think more about how I can address this.  

Everything didn't go smoothly yesterday. The taps ran out and spurted beer more than once. At one point, there was too much air in the lines, and nothing anyone, not even Nicole the Beer Goddess, did, could get a decent beer. We ran out of glasses. But the day went ok. I survived. I poured beer. I'm ready to go back to Invesco for the next Bronco home game.  And I will be  a better reading teacher tomorrow, thanks to today's lessons from Nicole the Beer Goddess.


Karen said...

I love your reflections on how being a beer goddess was good for you. I have to say, 30 years after getting my teaching degree, I still find myself learning, and therefore, in discomfort many times.
Great analogies!!

AMY T said...

i heart this post. great, great stuff. thank you for not only writing some nice reminders and new ways of thinking about our teaching work, but for also showing us how writers can spin memorable metaphors in the most quirky and unlikely corners.