Thursday, January 10, 2013

"To Sell is Human" by Daniel Pink [Review & Lesson Ideas]

"The salesperson isn't dead. The salesperson is alive. Because the salesperson is us." --Daniel Pink in To Sell is Human.  

Accepting Daniel Pink's premise that we're all in sales now in his new book To Sell is Human (2012) is an idea easy for me to embrace. I've worked in retail, as a waitress, as a telemarketer. Each of these jobs required me to "move" the customer in some way, whether selling customers fashion, desert, or a phone service.

Nevertheless, the most difficult selling I do is in the classroom. Teaching, arguably, is the ultimate selling profession, what Pink calls "non-sales selling," which means that while I don't sell products, I do sell ideas, specifically the idea that a literate student capable of reading and writing at a college-ready level benefits him/herself and all of society more than one who can't read and write well enough to succeed in college.

What surprised me most about Pink's analysis of 21st Century sales? Simply, Pink advocates using improvisational theater as a way to hone one's sales techniques. Pink tells about Palo Alto company Palantir's requirement that all new hires read a book on improvisational theater. That's because rather than the ability to stick to a canned sales pitch, in today's world, a salesperson needs flexibility. Improvisation teaches both flexibility and the listening techniques necessary for developing that flexibility.

Indeed, those in sales no longer have the informational advantage they did prior to the internet and the plethora of online networking sites where customers hold sway and can either promote or pan both products and ideas. Pink illustrates this idea and others through narrative, including weaving the history of the last Fuller Brush salesman, 75 year old Daniel Hall, into the text.

Teachers and administrators and education reformers, especially those who attempt to cram a traditional business model of one size fits all on students, would do well to heed Pink's admonitions, particularly about "Ed-Med." As Pink notes, in education and health care we ask individuals to give us "time, attention, and effort," but how do we accomplish this, especially given the current challenges.

Pink turns to the amazing Larry Ferlazzo. As in health care, moving students from point A to point B is what we do. Ferlazzo tells the story of a student who refused to complete an essay assignment. Instead of giving up, Ferlazzo interviewed the student and learned about his interest in football. Thus, instead of having the student write about natural disasters (the assignment), Frelazzo allowed the student to compose an essay about his favorite football team. As Ferlazzo explains, teaching is

about leading with my ears instead of my mouth. It means trying to elicit from people what their goals are for themselves and having the flexibility to frame what we do in that context.

We teachers can either irritatie or agitate such a situation. Irritation, as Ferlazzo describes it, focuses on what we want students to do while agitation attempts to move a student to do what s/he wants to do. In the case of Ferlazzo's student, he wanted to write about his favorite football team. The outcome still met the objective of honing his writing skills.

Many years ago a colleague from another school told me that I need to determine what I want others to do and then figure out the best way to get the other party to do what I want. That sage advice has served me well on many occasions, and it's the point both Ferlazzo and Pink make.

Indeed, To Sell is Human offers numerous ideas that teachers can put into practice immediately. Among these Pink includes six ways to "pitch" an idea, all of which have application in English classes, whether through book talks or as a quick reading check. I'll be using these techniques in my speech and English classes for a variety of discussion purposes. For example, instead of having students present a traditional book talk, I plan to experiment with having them use a "Pixar Pitch." Pink provides one from Pixar and one of his own to illustrate.

Already, I've had students play both the "Yes, but" game as well as the "Yes, and" game. Two improvisational acting exercises designed to promote listening and to demonstrate how we can close and open conversations; that is, how "yes, but" works to polarize us, and "yes, and" leads us to compromise and to finding common ground. In the dual-enrollment communication class I teach, students practiced the games with their argumentative speech topics, which helped them see both ideas that support their claims and refutation of their contentions.

To Sell is Human works well as a companion piece to Pink's A Whole New Mind, in which he argues that creative minds, those nimble enough to adapt to a changing business environment, those capable of creative thought, those left-brained artistic individuals whose skills can't be outsourced shall inherit the job market in the new millenium.

The book also functions as a natural extension of Pink's phenomenal book Drive: The Surprising Truth about Motivates Us.  Indeed, just as sticks and carrots don't motivate, neither can sellers expect to move people with selling techniques from the 20th Century.

While I enjoyed To Sell is Human and give it high praise, I almost didn't read the book, a sample of which I downloaded on my Kindle. I found Pink's opening a little off-putting, a bit disingenuous. Pink claims that he only realized he's in sales after closely examining his personal calendar and appointments. Really? Pink's own website describes him as a "bestselling author." His previous careers include lawyer and speechwriter to Al Gore. For Pink to claim he only a year ago realized he's a "salesman" seems implausible.

Secondly, Pink misses an opportunity to address burgeoning problems in education. His inclusion of Larry Ferlazzo's expert opinions notwithstanding, I wish Pink had done more to take to task those pseudo-ed reformers who work tirelessly at narrowing the curriculum while pushing to the sidelines the most creative parts of the curriculum. A good salesman knows to anticipate those who would question his product. As a teacher, I want more about how teachers sell from Pink and why the voices of educators like Ferlazzo's should be heeded.

Educators know what the public needs to know and which Pink articulates in such a pleasurable way:

[W]eve'd moved from a world of caveat emptor, buyer beware, to one of caveat venditor, seller beware--where honesty, fairness, and transparency are often the only viable path. 

I just wish those who spend the public money and trust, those who hold and control the purse strings in education would take heed.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Dear Authors: I Won't Buy Your Books If...

Dear Authors:

You are my heroes. Seriously. If not for writers, I would have been a lonely child, and I wouldn't have much to talk to students about either. Many of you give selflessly to students and teachers. 

Just this past summer, Kate Messner devoted most of her time to mentoring teachers in her Teachers Write online workshop. A whole plethora of writers joined in, offering free books, teaching ideas, and time, such an important commodity. Every Friday, Gae Polisner hosted Friday Feedback on her blog, taking the time to respond to my amateurish scratchings and enlisting her network of writer friends to do the same. Jo Knowles honored us with a Monday morning warm-up, and responded to our submissions both via her blog and Kate's. Many other writers also selflessly gave. 

A whole host of you Skype with students, read and respond to teacher and student letters, travel to NCTE and ALAN and sign hundreds of books so we teachers can bask a little in your celebrity. 

Many more talk to us on Twitter and even follow us there and on Facebook. The prolific John Green has even created a whole YouTube channel called Crash Course devoted to speaking directly to students and sharing stories about life, school, etc. I love how he focuses on two of my favorite classic texts, Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby in "How and Why We Read: Crash Course English Literature #1: 

The only way I know to thank you for your commitment to students, teachers, and literature is to buy your books, place them in the hands of students, encourage others to do the same via my blog, f2f conversations, and other online forums. Really, it doesn't feel like enough given your generosity. 

If you have read this far, you might be wandering what the title of this post has to do with the conditions that make me say, "I won't buy your books if..." Simply, I am making a conscious decision not to purchase the books of writers who make disparaging remarks about English teachers, particularly MS and HS teachers. 

This morning I read a blog post on The Nerdy Book Club blog in which an author confessed that she was a reluctant reader during her adolescence and for most of her twenties. Here's what she said about the cause of her reluctance: 

My reluctance was born at the typical time: about middle-school, and more seriously in high school, when required reading became part of my vocabulary. . . .I didn’t like any of the books I was reading (and also, I was very busy trying to be cool). Confession time: I cheated and watched the movie instead of reading the book more than once. Sorry, teachers…

This anti-reading attitude continued into my twenties, when I didn’t read a single book...
Well, I've been teaching thirty-two years, and when I read a comment like this, it hurts. So I did what I do best when my feelings get hurt: I hunkered down in bed and I cried. 
I'm a tired old teacher who spends hundreds so dollars on books for my classroom library. Do I really want or need to purchase books from a writer who blames teachers like me for her decision not to read in MS or HS? 
Over on Facebook, where I posted a comment in response to the NBC post, I received this response back:
I don't think it was the author's intention to offend secondary teachers. I think most educators can voice the reasons for required reading with older students. I think her point was not to lose sight of the value of choice with young readers. As adults, we get to freely choose most of what we read (and some choose whether they read at all). I was talking just this morning about a book "everyone" loves that I'm trying to read - and I just don't like it. I get to choose if I will finish it - and I cherish that right to choose. I think it is important that students have time and space to read the sorts of materials that appeal to them as we'll as the texts we (or our curriculum) choose for them.
Perhaps. Yet the writer states she was a "nerdy" reader until MS and became even more of a reluctant reader in HS. How then should a teacher such as myself, a teacher who **GASP** assigns students classic texts to read while also offering students choice reading interpret these words? 
As I have shared many times, I attended school during a time the classics were eschewed. Instead, we had a smorgasbord of trivial language arts courses, the content of which is now vague in my mind. I do, however, remember that I did not read the classics as part of my required reading in HS English. 
In junior high, my teachers had students nominate and vote on books we'd read. Thus, I read popular fiction that includes many books now considered classics and now assigned by MS teachers, including: Sounder, The PigmanThat Was Then and This Is NowThe OutsidersThe Witch of Blackbird Pond, and The Island of Doctor Moreau. I also read Willard, the story of a boy's friendship with a rat. 
I loved all the books listed above, yet they are books I was required to read as whole-class reads, and I had to pay for my own copies, too. Granted, this approach to required reading bears little resemblance to the approach of selecting books from the book room. 
Recent years have put teachers in the unenviable postion of society's whipping post. We literally get blamed for nearly all of society's ills. Now we have to worry about getting verbally scolded by our heros. It's just too much to bear at times. 
Were I not to offer students a taste of the classics in their literary diets, I'd miss out on some of the most joyous conversations I've had with students, and more importantly my students might leave school deprived of the nourishment that comes from the joy of these books, too. 
Recently, a student said this about Frankenstein: "It's so much better than all the rewrites and movie versions."
Another student said this at the end of the first trimester: "I'm glad we read Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Macbeth. Otherwise, I probably never would have read them, and I really liked them all, especially The Canterbury Tales."
These days I feel like a relic of a bygone era, an era in which we acknowledged the value of both classics and choice in reading, an era in which we teachers built bridges rather than binary relationships, an era where I'd never imagine a writer criticizes teachers for assigning her to read classics. 
There was a time when teachers, by virtue of our profession, received academic freedom and respect. While I will continue to offer students the best of both choice reading and required classics, I'll also choose to support those authors who honor my profession and respect my expertise with the words they choose to use. 
To that end, dear authors, I won't buy your books, nor will I put them in the hands of students, when you make me cry by blaming me and my colleagues for your choice not to read when you sat in our classrooms. I need better from my heroes. 
Thank you for your time and responses,
Glenda Funk