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Entries in learning (3)



I was always very arrogant about how "smart" I was. And as a friend recently pointed out, I've recently gone the other way, falling into extreme self deprecation, pointing at myself and saying, "me not so smart after all." He actually chastised me about this, telling me, "God has blessed you with intelligence. Don't demean that by tearing yourself down." I'm paraphrasingthe conversation went on for a while.

So here's where I stand: I believe I'm pretty smart, and I believe I have been pretty arrogant about that in the past. And I believe that God has blessed me with a talent and an ability that, until now, I have used selfishly and foolishly. I'm a learner. I'm a grower. I'm a son of God, and I'm trying to be humble without demeaning the gifts God has given me.

What about you?

I think a lot about you. Most of you, I don't even know. I've never met you, and we've never corresponded. But I hope you realize how much I love and respect you, and appreciate you for being in my life. I thank God for you, because you are strength to me. You are a source of energy when I need it. I write this blog for God's glory, but the goal is to reach you and help you and show you what I learn as I learn it. And I also want to learn from you. I want us to interact and be a strength to each other in God's name and under His eye.

What I'm curious about right now is, what is the talent God has blessed you with? What is it you bring to the table, that you can learn to hone and improve? How can you maximize the potential of what God has given you? 

I am constantly working on improving myself and my life. I want to learn and grow. I do this because I want a better life, but I recently discovered that I can accomplish my goals better and faster by helping you learn and grow as well. In that pursuit, I've discovered a trove of treasures that help me meet my "learn and grow" goal, and I want to share some of these with you now. Use them to start your own journey.

  1. Pray for change. Ask God, every day, to create change in your life. It can be a simple prayer: "Lord, change me." You'd be surprised how far this, alone, can take you! 
  2. Pray for wisdom. God blessed you with a mind, and it is amazing. Has anyone ever told you that before? Do you believe it? You should! Think about all the things you've learned to do in your life! Now pray for increased wisdom, every day. Ask God to show you truth in everything you study. Learn to look at everything—from books to television shows and movies to conversations with friends to everything you encounter in life—with your "discerning heart." Pray about everything you encounter and learn, and ask God what you need to take with you from the experience.
  3. Pray for increased faith. Did you know this was possible? I didn't. I always worried that my faith wasn't strong enough. I wasn't seeing miracles in my life, because I didn't believe enough. But then I read in Luke 17:5 that disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, and suddenly it hit me that faith, like anything else, is something we can ask for and nurture for growth! So pray, every day, that God will increase your faith. 
  4. Pray to be filled with the Holy Spirit. When Christ went on to bigger and better things, He told the disciples that another would come and be their strength. The Holy Spirit, the third person of God, is God's agency on Earth. He is there, waiting for you to acknowledge Him, to let Him roll up His sleeves and get to work in your life. But He won't take over uninvited. You have free will. So you have to constantly put yourself in check, and ask the Holy Spirit to take the wheel. Surrender, and let the Holy Spirit act where you would have tried on your own before. Ask, every chance you get, to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
  5. Read, study, listen, learn, grow. I've never understood why people felt such dread about learning. We do it every day anyway! If reading isn't your thing, try podcasts. Watch documentaries and indie films. Watch television programs on a topic that interests you. Have a conversation with someone about a topic they know more about than you do. King Solomonwho wrote the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, and who is considered to be the wisest man to have ever lived—studied more than just the writings of his faith. He studied works from Egypt and other cultures. He studied everything he could get his hands on, hungry to learn something new. And he applied his "discerning heart" to it. He viewed every new fact through the lens of his faith, to see how it lined up with the truth he knew about God. We humans all learn in essentially the same way—we connect what we're learning to what we already know. That's how learning and growth happen. So go out, learn something new, and think about how it connects to what you knew yesterday!

Here's a prayer you can pray every day to help you keep all of this in mind:

Lord, change me. Increase my wisdom and increase my faith. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Give me a discerning heart, so I can learn and grow and glorify you in all I think, say, and do. Amen.

That prayer, or some variation of it, can be your mantra in daily life. It can be your road map for personal growth, and for Christian growth. 

And as you grow, share! Sharing what you learn with others is a sure way to cement it within yourself. Others will test you, debate you, argue with you. They can also support you, give you more information to consider and use for growth. Take it all.

When approached with debate that you can't answer, say, "That's interesting. I have to look for an answer to that. Thank you!" And then go look for that answer. Don't just pay it lip service.

When approached with new and additional or even contradictory information, say, "That's interesting. I need to think about/read about/watch something about that and learn more. Thank you!" And then go learn about this new thing! Every new piece of information is a chance to grow and change your life.

And be sure to share it with me! I need it! I need to hear from you, to learn what you learn, and to grow as you grow. We'll support each other, because that's what God wants for us. All for His glory.

We're all brililant. Just like God intended us to be.

So ... chat with you soon?




Sometimes there's a whole lot of tough stuff hitting you at once. Money gets tight just when your air conditioner breaks down, and your mother calls to tell you her apartment is flooded and she needs a place to stay for a few weeks, and one of your cats gets injured and has to go to the vet, which ends up costing more than a house payment, and while you're coordinating all of this you get a flat tire. For a nice cherry on top, while trying to find a parking spot at the grocery store, someone zips in ahead of you without so much as a wave. 

I've always handled things like this very poorly. I get mad. I say things (paint-peeling things that could make a sailor blush). I make rash decisions and take stupid actions. More than once I have hopped out of my truck to confront the jerk that just cut me off, or the one who won't back up and let me get out of a parking space, or the one who was just minding her own business but happened to be in my way on a very bad day. 

Not good. Dangerous, even. But beyond that, so outside the scope of what God wants for us it's unbelievable. 

Here's a news flash—bad stuff happens. It's like it happens all the time, am I right? 

It's true. Even when we are fervently praying that nothing bad will happen, something always seems to go wrong. Scary stuff that makes us feel like we're alone here, like no one, but especially not God, is looking out for us. We're on our own.

And it's true. We really are on our own. 

What ... you expected something different?

Here's the truth—when we are focusing on the things that scare us, that make us angry, that make us worry, we are on our own. God is there, of course. Always. But he's more or less hovering just a bit away, waiting for you to realize that you're thrashing and struggling and trying to stay afloat in a situation in which you have no hope of surviving.

I like the lifeguard analogy.

I heard this from my pastor, Mark Hartman, at Sugar Creek Baptist Church in Sugar Land. Lifeguards are trained to scan the waters for danger, for swimmers who are struggling. And when they see someone, they leap into action. They grab their rescue board and dive in, they swim to the person who is struggling and drowning and then ...

They stop.

Whazzawhozitnow? Stop?!? Hello! Drowning victim here! Struggling, barely keeping my head above water, trying desperately to hold on to something, anything that will keep me firmly in the "living" category! And you choose now to take a break?!?

The thing is, if a lifeguard immediately rushes over and grabs the person who is drowning, panic will cause that person to resist and struggle even harder. They'll grasp onto the lifeguard, clinging for life, and end up dragging both of them down. There's a greater chance that they'll both drown out there if the lifeguard doesn't stop, assess, wait just a beat, and act only when the person has stopped struggling.

That's God. He sees us struggling, he knows that we're drowning and that we are scared, but until we stop the struggle He's going to wait. Until we realize that there's nothing we can do—that it was us that got us here in the first place, that if we could swim our way out we would have done so already—He's just going to wait, just out of reach. 

We can swim toward Him, of course. That means that we've calmed down enough to be rational. We're focusing less on the struggle and the danger and more on the positive things in our life. We've realized that our struggle is getting us nowhere, and if we don't get a grip we're going to go down. We can move toward God, and He will open up His arms and take us back to shore.

More often, though, we can't seem to get out of the struggle. We're focused on everything that's wrong about the situation. We can't find our footing, we can't find anything to grip on to, we can't seem to calm down enough to even out and take smooth, steady strokes, to follow a pattern that will get us back to safety. In those cases, God waits. He's not going to let us down ... He's still there, still cares, still knows exactly what to do. And eventually He acts to save us, because He loves us.

Of course, some of us keep strugglng for a long, long time. We've been treading water for so long, we have no idea how to stop. We're so afraid of sinking that we expend massive amounts of energy resources to keep our head above water. And it seems like it's working for a time. From the outside, from anyone swimming nearby or walking on the distant shoreline, we may not even look like we're struggling. "I'm OK," we say. "I can do this. I can keep kicking, keep paddling, keep struggling until I suddenly fly out of the water and glide safely to land on a cloud of my own making!"

Get real.

This is the kind of swimmer I've been for years. I struggle, but I largely keep it hidden. God sees me, though. He knows the truth. He's a trained lifeguard, able to see all the signs. And he's just waiting, waiting, waiting. Immortal, omnipotent deities seem to have way more patience than we mere mortals do, am I right?

If you're facing struggles in your own life, it's OK. It's OK that it bothers you. It's OK that it scares you. It's OK that you don't know what to do or where to turn. God's there, waiting. He won't let you down.

Sometimes we lose the things we're trying to hold on to—our home, our job, our pets, our family, our health. That's going to happen. Everything has its time in our lives, and when that time is over we have to deal with the grief of loss. God is there, too. He's waiting for you to come to him for comfort. We can't always understand the "why" of loss, but we can have faith that there is a reason for it, somewhere, somehow, and that it's tied to the love God has for us.

Our child playing with something dangerous—it could be fun for the kid, and it could hurt their feelings if they lose their toy, but we take it away for their good, whether they know it or not.

A student is punished for cheating on a test and has to miss out on after-school sports—no fun, and they don't get the benefits of being part of the team, but when they have to retake the test they learn and grow in a way they would have missed out on before.

A drowning man, struggling in the waves as a lifeguard floats nearby—he's afraid, panicking, and not thinking clearly, but someone is there to rescue him, once the struggling stops.

Lots of things happen that aren't pleasant, and that seem to bring no good at all. In the end it's about our perspective. What are we capable of understanding in that moment? Not much, really. That's why faith is so important. We have to know that God is aware of our struggle, and beyond that He knows how to use our struggles and pain to make us safer, stronger, better. 

Believe that, and act on it in faith, and the things that you struggle with become less frightening. Look for a way to learn and grow from every experience, and count all of the good that you have in your life, even during the hard times, and you will live a fuller life with less fear and pain. That's the point. That's the plan God has for you. Accepting it takes a leap of faith, but living it makes for a grander life than you ever imagined.


60 brilliant people

Of all the things I do, I think teaching Developmental Writing is the most fun.

That's a bizarre statement to see on the screen, primarily because I would never have thought I'd say (or write) anything like that. First of all, back in 2003 when I was laid off from a high school teaching position, I swore I'd never go back to teaching. The heartache of investing so much of myself in the students and the school, only to be let go because of budget concerns, kind of put a bad taste in my mouth. Plus, I wasn't a fan of the miles of red tape and the ever-shifting politics inherent in the public school system.

Second, of all the classes I ever thought I *might* enjoy teaching, "Developmental Writing" was never on the list. Creative Writing, sure. Survey of 21st Century Literature, OK. Graphic Design or Advertising Essentials, absolutely. But Developmental writing ... no way.

All of that changed after the first time I stepped into the classroom.

I took the gig because it was a way to get a bit more classroom time, and to try out some of the things I have learned and discovered about the way humans learn. It would be my learning laboratory, as it were. I could experiment, compare traditional teaching techniques to some of my fancy new theories. I've mentioned before, I have an interest in education, but I also have an interest in human potential. So I was trying to answer the question, "Can I take even the most basic subject and use it to improve the lives of my students?"

The answer is "Hell yes."

In my Developmental Writing course, I'm going over all those fundamentals you would think were firmly embedded in every kid at around fourth grade. You'd think that, but you'd be wrong. I can draw up a roster of about 60 young adults over a one-year period who would be willing to confirm for you that they did not, in fact, get the essentials of writing early in their academic careers. Forget the complicated stuff, like when or where to use a semicolon (hell, even I have trouble with that one), or whether or not it is OK to end a sentence with a preposition. These folks couldn't define "preposition" to save their lives. In fact, they didn't even have a working definition of "sentence."

Now I'm being a little harsh here, I think. First of all, most people don't have a definition for "sentence" at the ready. We know what a sentence is, when we see it, but if we had to describe it there would be a bit of stumbling as we came up with the right words. Try it. Do you have a definition of your own? Probably not. And if you do, kudos.

But for the purposes of my course, here is the definition I give them:

A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought.

That's it. Simple, right? Elegant, even.

OK, we start there. And believe it or not, that's most of DAY 1 of this course. Defining what a sentence is, and getting that definition stuck in the heads of the students, is a full day's worth of work.

To be fair, I do go a little further than that definition. For example, I will add, "A sentence contains a subject, a verb, and a predicate." At which point, I will have to spend time defining "predicate." And, believe it or not, I will even have to spend some time defining "subject." For some reason, "verb" gives us no trouble.

From subject, verb, and predicate we typically move on to parts of speech. They known "noun," thank God. And, of course, "verb." I give them an "object" lesson, which more or less goes over well. And then we enter Adjective and Adverb country, and the whole thing goes to hell for a day or two.

In fact, by the time we manage our way into adjectives and adverbs, we are already into at least week two of the course. Somehow the mere act of describing nouns or describing adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs is so complex and intimidating, it can't be learned readily.

The first time I came across this roadblock, it really threw me. I couldn't understand what was happening. This was basic stuff, after all. Very basic. Like atomic structure compared to the complexity of the Universe basic. And yet, somehow, these guys not only missed it the first time around they treated it as unfathomable babbling.

I thought about this for a long time, talking it over with my wife, Kara, and some of my friends. And I think I've figured out at least part of the problem here: These people never learned how to learn.

Here's a funny historic note about our education system: It was originally designed by Plato. Well, more or less. Plato put together an education system that consisted of an elementary education, followed by a secondary, and completed with a university education. His position was that students would get the foundations of learning from their elementary education, and then dig deeper into specific subject matter on general subjects during their secondary education. At the university level, they would specialize more, and choose their particular fields of study, in which they would become experts and professionals (as the terms applied in those days). This setup may sound familiar, since it is the basic model of our current education system, and the most logical way to structure that system.

But somewhere along the way, things kind of fell apart.

Suddenly, elementary school became the place where facts were crammed into the brains of young people. Facts, but no system for connecting those facts to each other. Instead of giving students a foundation for later learning, they were suddenly expected to leave foundational schooling with an active and complete education. And then, in secondary school, the process would start all over again. They would get more facts shoved through their ears, nose, and other orifices, and then they were forced to regurgitate those facts (and ONLY those facts) on a test designed to measure how close they could come to the arbitrary "average." In this system, no real attention is paid to exactly how the student learns best. No attempt is made to connect new information to old information in a meaningful and useful way. And absolutely no attempt is made to teach the student how to make up for any gaps in their learning.

So, after 12 years of inadequate education, paid for by our tax dollars, those students with enough gaul and ambition to actually enter the university level will often do so with a woefully inefficient and inadequate educational foundation. They end up having to spend a great deal of money to learn those things that should have been built into their brains before they ever left elementary school.

And that's when I get them.

You're asking yourself, "When is he going to get to the 'life changing' part?"

When I first started teaching Developmental Writing, I figured it would be best if I stuck with the basics of writing. My goal was to get the students from choppy, poor sentences and paragraphs to semi-polished prose. When I discovered that I couldn't even start working with sentences and paragraphs, because the students had no concept of parts of speech much less a working definition of a sentence, I had to change tactics. I started giving them the foundation they were missing, from all those years ago.

And then I thought, "I have this wealth of knowledge about how people learn, and how to streamline learning. It's a shame I can't use that here."

Why not? Why couldn't I? After all, these guys were so far behind, they couldn't possibly be worse off if they left my class with more knowledge about how to learn than how to structure a paragraph, right?

But I felt too guilty about it. I couldn't focus on learning foundations when they had paid for Developmental Writing. They needed to know how to write a sentence, a paragraph, and an essay.

So why not combine Developmental Writing with Learning Foundations?

The class I teach is typically two to four hours in length. The two-hour classes are broken up over two days in the week. The four-hour classes happen on a single day. Both give me more than enough time to talk about the basics of writing, with room to spare. So, I broke each class up into two components. For the first half, I would teach Developmental Writing. For the second, Learning Foundations. And I would bridge the two by showing the students how to use the second half to better understand and remember the first.

I started with memory techniques. I taught them about "location memory," and helped them to learn and use "memory palaces" to remember long lists of things in order. I also taught them how to encode abstract information so it would be easier to store. All of this came in handy for remembering terms and definitions that they would need in order to move beyond the developmental level.

I taught them basic logic and reasoning skills for problem analysis and problem solving. I started with basic concepts, such as "If all subjects are nouns, and all adjectives describe nouns, then what do we call these terms that are describing our subject?" It sounds rudimentary, right? That's because it is. It was also completely lacking for these guys up until now.

Slowly but surely, my students were starting to get the hang of these things. I taught them how the brain works when it stores information. I talked to them about working memory versus long-term memory. I taught them about synapses and the physical connections formed in the brain during learning. I taught them about the power of visualization to help you encode and remember facts. And in the end, all of these things led to some pretty interesting results.

There are three types of questions I will ask any given student at any random time. These three questions are based on the memory exercises and the definitions that we have worked on together. For the first memory exercise, I gave them a list of 20 random items that included terms like "goal post" or "cigarettes" or even "voting booth", and taught them to recall all 20 in order (or even out of sequence) even weeks after they first saw the list. For the second memory exercise, I taught them how to remember a list of 10 random items on a "shopping" list (which could include items such as "gorilla fingers" or "flesh-colored body suit," as well as "peanut butter" or "banana peppers"). And finally, I taught them the vocabulary of developmental writing, with terms such as "adjective," "adverb," and "predicate, as well as their definitions.

Then, at random times during class I might ask questions like the following:

"What is number six?" (The answer is "gun")

"What is on the couch?" ("gorilla fingers")

"What describes a noun?" ("adjective")

And the funny thing is, this group of students who couldn't get into English 1301 because of their placement test scores can quote back to me, word for word and in order, every single term, item, and definition without once referring to their notes or their books. They can also tell me how the various parts of speech interact in a sentence, and that a sentence should always be "simple and clear." They can tell me how to determine something as abstract as the "main idea" of a sentence or paragraph. They can reason out that a sentence is logically incorrect, and the best way to fix it.

For many of these students, this is the first time they've been able to do something that made them feel "smart." And I praise the hell out of them for doing it. They feel so accomplished, so brilliant, that when they leave my class they go and use these same techniques in their other classes. They are quoting from memory the bones of the body and the list of U.S. Presidents. They are figuring out how to determine whether X is equal to Y. They are relating new facts to what they already know, and making them memorable through visualization. They are, essentially, building on their foundation.

It's such a small thing. It's a semester's worth of teaching, for four hours per week. And yet, I honestly believe it will take them places in their lives that they might never have suspected they could go.

So, I admit it. This is a fun experience. I may not teach this course forever, but I am really glad I did have the chance to teach it. I learned as much from it as they've learned, I believe. And maybe I can take what I've learned and help shape how our education system works. Or maybe not. Who can really say? The whole thing is a mess. But at least I can be sure of one thing:

There are 60 brilliant people who are preparing to start moving about in the world.