Building Empathy

I turn to repair books and online forums for help when I’m working on my VW Bug. The web is full of predators, but I don’t think too many people working on Beetles are mean spirited – most intend to help.



The same can be said of the people on pinball forums. Their responses are very useful, but I can get lost after a few words. It is hard to make the jump from reading classic literature at school to reading technical writing at home.



Here is an example. I couldn’t figure out a problem with the drop targets on my Royal Flush pinball machine, so I posted my question on the EM Tech forums. I was hoping for, “There’s a wire that needs to be plugged back in.”



This is what I got instead:



“When a drop target switch closes, it activates (energizes) the X relay. A switch closing on the X relay activates the G relay (which is the Hole relay; the drop targets score the same as the kickout hole value). A switch closing on the G relay causes the score motor to run. Since the continuous scoring also has the score motor running, then first need to confirm if it is the G relay causing it. The X relay is locked on (stays energized) via a switch on itself, and a switch at score motor position 2B. When the switch at motor 2B opens, X should de-energize. The G relay is locked on via a switch on itself and another switch on the score motor…”



It is great advice, but it assumes a level of understanding that does not come easily to me. It is frustrating to admit I need help. Triple that frustration when the help creates new problems – that response actually made my head hurt. But after re-reading it, slowly, 15 times, the words began to sink in. I have not completely fixed that drop target problem, but I am much closer to a solution. I will get it.



The upshot is that these types of problems can make me a better teacher, odd as that may sound. I often work with “reluctant readers and writers” who struggle in school. I also have many students that are learning English as their second language (ELL).



When these students find my instructions or my assignments confusing, I need to remember that pinball advice I was given. I am sure the gentleman who wrote that information thinks his words are simple to understand, and they probably are if you live in his world. But I’m not from there. Understanding the words of a language does not guarantee understanding.



The same goes for my students. I have to remind myself that they do not live in my world, and my words might not make any sense to them. They only visit once a day, and I should be a good host. I need to slow down and find ways to make my words more accessible. I will work on it.



I know some people who think that working on old cars, old bicycles, and old pinball machines is a waste of time. I think it is amazing what these projects can teach me.



Brent Monson teaches Language Arts at Urbandale High School. His wife, Daphne, teaches instrumental music at Urbandale Middle School, and his daughter is an Urbandale second grader. Go J-Hawks!