Making Life a Metaphor: Filing and Finding the Pieces of Life and Learning

By Peggy Wuenstel — As I began the process of returning the Christmas décor to its assigned totes, hung new gifts in the closet and tried to close the buttons and zippers challenged by the plates of holiday goodies, my mind went to the means by which we organize our lives. That of course leads to musings about the ways in which we organize our thoughts.

There always appears to be more information than will fit in the available storage space. One of the challenges of modern life is finding a place to store all our “stuff”. Oh, how I miss George Carlin. The makers of organization products and closet systems have certainly capitalized on this trend. The same is true of the way we store concepts and vocabulary. Just as an organized filing system allows documents to be retrieved in an efficient manner, the ability to categorize, group and combine the information we need is essential. The ability to organize, personalize, and customize the way we deal with new information becomes even more important when the volume of data we deal with grows at the rate that it does today.

The more paths one can take to get to a destination, the more likely successful completion of the journey. Proper nouns, including the names of people we have met or places we have visited are much harder to retrieve than other kinds of info because there is only one correct answer. Categorization skills maximize the chances that we will find just the information that we are looking for. Culver’s is a fast food, hamburger, frozen custard, restaurant with a drive through and a blue and white sign out front.

There are visual thinkers, auditory learners, experiential learners, and I am an analogy thinker. I am always looking for the way to explain my world in relationship to things I have already read, heard, seen and experienced. It has been an invaluable tool in my teaching career, to be able to say to students, “This will remind you of …” or ask “Do you remember when we…?” It keeps my mind incredibly active, looking to make, or create connections in the material being presented. Sometimes this takes the form of traditional mnemonics, sometimes in visual representations. It uses visual representations, finds patterns in the sound, rhythm, or structure of language. It uses popular culture, reinforces what we love about our lives, and relies on our relationships to each other. It creates multiple ways to access the material that we file away in that file cabinet that we call the brain. The more ways that things are flagged, the more likely we will be able find them in the future.

Dr. Anthea Bojar from Cardinal Stritch University described the brain as a “Lean, Mean Pattern-Making Machine” in a seminar I took several years ago. This revelation truly changed the way I approached supporting children in learning, retaining and retrieving information. As the amount of information that we deal with grows exponentially over the next generation, we have to shift our focus from the content we teach, to the organization of the facts, figures, and opinions that we are presented with in traditional and non-traditional ways.

It is almost counterintuitive to realize that the more connections that we create, the speedier the retrieval process will be. Usually when we add examples, we have to wade through them to find the exact one we are seeking. Apparently this is not true with our thoughts. The richer our neurological landscape, the more likely we are to find what we are searching for. There are theories of early memory and retrieval that posit that the reason we cannot recall our infancy and toddlerhood is not that our brains are ill-equipped to fashion memories, but that we have no experiential base to anchor them to. This may also explain why individuals from stimulating environments tend to have better memory and retrieval skills and why new learning does so much to stave off memory loss in older adults.

I have purchased the wonderful book, Magic Trees of the Mind by Dr. Marian Diamond for friends with a similar passion for learning and the brain, because her guidance in creating new dendrite branches by enriching the lives and worlds of the children that we bear or that we teach. There is a special urgency when we serve children with limits such as poverty, transient lives, absent parents, sensory or learning challenges, or low motivation and engagement with the world. If we can connect them to things they already know and love, we can help start them on the most important journey they will ever take, the one into their own memories.

I created this piece to remind me and prospective speech/language pathologists to keep looking upward for the beauty and diversity that they will find there.

 The Snowflake Metaphor

Kids are like snowflakes.
They are all made out of basically the same stuff.
And most of that is good old H2O
They only form when conditions are just right.
The coming of some is predicted well in advance.
Some arrive totally unexpectedly.
They have basically the same structure,
But there is infinite variety in the way we experience them.
Some are delicate and shapely and detailed.
Some are heavy and clumped together.
Some cling to you tenaciously.
And some you couldn’t catch if your life depended on it.
Some stay in your lives for a very long time.
And some are gone in an instant.
Some make you bundle your coat tightly around you,
And some make you spread your arms wide to the heavens.
Some float silently and gently.
Others bluster and demand our attention.
Some need our immediate action,
And others are best left on their own.
Alone, they are almost insignificant,
But together they can stop a country in its tracks.
Or they can cover the world in a bright and shining blanket that invites us all to watch the snow fall.

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