Sunday, January 31, 2010

It’s a dangerous (cyber)world out there...

I spent the morning up at Bessie’s helping her to reset her computer after a malicious virus attack. For her, the fix was straightforward, but I thought I’d take just a minute to share some recommendations on safe computing practices. Those of you with Macs will find some of these don’t apply to you.

Keep your operating system up-to-date. This does not mean jumping from, say, XP to Windows 7 (this is considered a major operation, and should not be undertaken without consultation), but it does mean making sure that you have the most recent version of the OS you have. If it’s XP, it should be Service Pack 3 (May 6, 2008). If it’s Vista, it’s SP2 (May 26, 2009). For other versions, see [HERE]. If you use a non-standard OS like Linux, I suspect you know already where to look. I don’t know that this is necessary for Mac users.

Make sure your computer’s firewall is turned on. Do not buy it flowers or give it romantic compliments. Instead, click [HERE] for a handy fix-it tool for Win XP or [HERE] for one for Vista. There’s a switch in Windows 7 under the Control Panel. I don’t know how to do it in any other OS, but if you need help, ask. I’m sure I can figure it out.

Install and regularly update antivirus software. I use AVG Free (download [HERE]) together with SpyBot: Search and Destroy (available from their site [HERE]). Both are free and, together, to an excellent job of keeping my system free of adware, spyware and viruses. I have a routine of updating them and running checks once a week (I set them to run in the middle of the night on the weekends, while I’m asleep). How you set your own software up is entirely a matter of personal preference, but if you don’t have it, you run the risk of infecting your machine--and everyone else’s--every time you connect to the Internet or download or copy a file from outside your system.

Use safe email and data security practices. Immediately delete any email you know to be fraudulent, or that has attachments you don’t recognize. Especially, do not click to open any attachments unless you are absolutely certain both of the source and the content of the message. Think before you share information you receive via email from unfamiliar sources (you guys with Macs are responsible for keeping people safe, too). Log out of networked computers when you’re done. Enable password protections (and keep the passwords secure). Do not use unsecure WiFi networks if you bank, buy or send private information over the web. Safeguard your personal information!

Be safe, be careful, be responsible. Help others to be the same.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blue Lights and Cell Phones

I was sitting at a traffic light on my way to school yesterday when a member of the local constabulary passed by in a cruiser. He had his blue lights on, but was driving at the speed limit, and he had his cell phone pressed to his ear.

Massachusetts has pending a law that makes it a ticketable offense to talk on a cell phone while driving, and it also has pending a law prohibiting texting. I mention this not to pass judgment on the officer for doing something that research has shown is dangerous. He may have had perfectly valid reasons for doing so, and the fact that I don’t know them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. I bring it to light to demonstrate that, despite the fact that we all hear regularly of the dangers of driving while we’re distracted, we all--even those who are expected to model safe behavior--continue to engage in the practice.


I propose the following as reasons why we might do so, even when we know the risks:

1. We are habituated to answering our phone when it rings. So habituated, in fact, that it is instinctual in many cases for us to reach for it.

2. We believe that there are times when we don’t need to pay close attention to our driving, such as when we’re on the highway in light traffic or at a stop light, and that these times are more common than those when we must pay full attention behind the wheel.

3. We find it irritating/impractical/time consuming to pull over or find some other completely safe means of using the phone.

4. We believe there are times when the need to communicate takes a higher priority than the need to engage is completely safe driving practice.

If we accept these reasons as real (whether or not there are others), is it reasonable to expect that passing legislation prohibiting the use of cell phones or other distracting behavior is going to change the likelihood that it’s going to happen?

Friday, January 29, 2010

What keeps you busy...

Life at Wayfarer House is always busy. People are coming and going, playing and working, learning and sharing all the time here. We all have stuff we’re working on. Some of it is collaborative, some of it is individual, but all of it is important and valuable.

I have a fair share of irons in the proverbial fire right now, myself. Several are continuations of projects from last year’s list, but there are a few that are fairly new and in their beginning stages. Here’s a selective list:

I’m developing a joint service learning project on the Dominican Republic and Haiti. My second-year students do a unit on this part of the world (the French kids get Haiti; the Spanish kids get the DR) that is focused on exposing them to the daily life and experience of the people there. This year, I’m trying to tie it into a story they read about a girl who realizes just how much she has as an American, with the goal of getting them to examine what they have and think critically about what, if anything, they can do to help those less fortunate. This year, one of my colleagues has been reading Before We Were Free, by Julia Alvarez, with her class. We both thought it would be fantastic if we could collaborate on something that brought our disparate classes together to share what they’re learning and organize something to help those countries.

I’m writing new stories for my first-year language classes. For the last several years, I’ve been using books by Blaine Ray (of TPRS fame, for those of you who might know what that is) as a jumping off point to practice the language they’re studying. I use them because they’re essentially the same between both French and Spanish, which is important to me because it’s very helpful to have the same curriculum for both languages. Anyway, the stories irritate the bejeezus out of the kids. They complain incessantly about the subject matter of them, and have asked me repeatedly if they can work with something different. Last year, I got some of my Spanish students to write stories themselves but, although they were incredibly creative and well-written, they weren’t versatile enough for me to use in French classes. I’m incorporating some of their suggestions and, with their feedback, I’m writing 10 small chapters for next year’s language students to play with over the course of the year.

I’m doing background for a paper linking Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple learning styles and the Five Basic Needs proposed by William Glasser’s Choice Theory. Teachers often have impressions of their students that are bound in certain (often mistaken) assumptions about what they’re capable of doing. In some cases, teachers assume that students aren’t capable of learning. In others, they assume that students should already be able to do things when they arrive at the classroom. At least in part, teachers make these assumptions because they do not have a full picture of their students as individuals. They often know nothing about them except what we see in class, and they’re discouraged from trying to learn more about them because, in the view of many, it crosses an imagined boundary of professionalism. In trying to link these two thoughts together, I’m exploring how teachers might effectively learn about their students as people and, through that, make accurate determinations about what they can do so they can support them well in learning efficiently, effectively and effortlessly.

I’m planning a bike trip to the Northeast Kingdom. The Morrison Family Reunion (part of Wifeness’ family) is held every year, the second Sunday in August. This year, it’s taking place in northern Vermont, right on the Canadian border. It’s beautiful up there, and it presents a wonderful opportunity for me to do a long bike trip. I did 400 miles to Lock Haven, PA back in 2006 to pick up my Master’s degree, but I haven’t been able to put a trip together since. A trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia in ’08 (650 miles) got scrapped for financial reasons. This trip will be about 250 miles right up the middle of the Green Mountains--an exciting challenge! I expect it to be a 3-day trip, but I might challenge myself to do it in two.

I’m organizing and hosting a Magic: The Gathering® tournament for the kids at my school. There is a solid following for this game at my school. The idea for a tournament came from a discussion I was having with some of the upperclassmen in my world, who thought it would be cool if we had something at school for the students who were competitive in just that geeky sort of way. This is my gift to them. Twenty students signed up, and they’ve been working feverishly for the last month to design singleton decks that are creative and deadly. They’ll meet most Fridays in February and March for an hour to pit their deck making skills against those of their peers. The winner gets school merchandise.

I’m training for at least two tri events and a ½ marathon. One of the tri events I want to do is in late May, so I have some work to do to take off winter weight and get my fitness up to standard. It’s proving to be tough; I’m having a hard time getting into a regular training schedule right now. I’m struggling to be patient with the weather and the training process.

I’m blogging again. I’ve been getting messages from the universe that I need to reach out to the people in my world and start having discussions and getting feedback from them. Here is where I get to put ideas out for general consumption, so I’m willing myself to stay focused on the habit of writing every day. You’d think it’d be easier than it’s been. I mean, it’s not like I don’t have enough to write about!

What have you got going on?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dusting Off a Blog...

I took the day off from school today. It was the last day of Paideia (my school’s intercession), but nearly all my students were off on a bowling trip, so there wasn’t much to do professionally. There has been rather a lot to do personally, however, and it seemed a good opportunity to take the time to shave some items off the list.

One of the things I’ve needed to do for a while (apart from dust this blog off) is review the year and make adjustments to goals. I haven’t done this since September, and my brain is rather off-kilter for delaying so long. I have learned that I don’t do well without a clear sense of purpose. I can ad lib life for a while, but there inevitably comes a point where I lose my ability to see the bigger picture and act with intention. I’ve been at that point for far longer than is healthy for my psyche.

So, today, I devoted some time to assess what I’ve accomplished, what’s in the works and what I should be looking to—a sort of State of the Wayfarer, if you will. I’m not in the mood to write a whole speech, but I’m perfectly willing to share the highlights. Here’s some of the list:

I competed in two triathlons. Although I would not declare my training season a true success, I was able to improve well on last year’s intermediate distance times (well, the bike and run legs, anyway). I also learned that there are times that I have a predictable difficulty being productive—June (the end of school) and from late October through the holiday season. Winter as a whole has proven to be a real kick in the crotch, but the holiday season, with its busy schedule and higher than normal school stress, seems to be a particularly tough time.

I completed MELA-O certification. Federal and state laws require that students with limited English skills be assessed annually to measure their proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking English. My own political views on this issue aside, I pursued the opportunity to gain this certification for two reasons:

1. It provides an opportunity to subtly share my knowledge of learning styles and foreign language teaching methodologies with other departments. There is a real dearth of training for teachers in pedagogy—that is, how to effectively help students learn. I’ve spent a lot of time in this area of teaching practice, and I think a lot of the methodologies commonly used in foreign language classrooms have solid applicability to other disciplines.

2. It allows me to support ESL students in all their classes, not just mine. ESL students are held to the same standards as native speakers, but without an understanding of their particular challenges, teachers would (however unintentionally) cause them to suffer for something that’s not their fault. I can advocate for them better, and with more awareness, if I’m part of what goes on in their other classes.

I developed an RPG system. This would, I suppose, seem a dubious addition to any list of accomplishments on the nerd factor alone, but this was not a simple undertaking. I spent several weeks on statistics research, read a small mountain of books on the subject of RPG development and reviewed at least a dozen different published systems in preparation to create what, at its most basic, is only 10 pages of text. Hell, the actual core system is only 3 of those. It’s been playtested by grownups and teenagers, and I’m quite proud of how it has performed.

I built, then turned my back on, my school’s competitive athletics program. I created the program 7 years ago and built it from a single co-ed soccer team with just 12 players to a championship winning program with 3 sports. I was proud of not just the program, but the league I helped found to support its continued growth. A change in administration 3 years ago caused support for the project to erode steadily, to the point where I was spending more time fighting with the school’s education director than I was actually doing my job. I made a stand. I told the Executive Director that he was either going to support the project tangibly, or I was going to stop working on it. I put a lot of time and energy into the program because I felt it was important (for both me and the students), but I was not going to protect it at the expense of my full-time job, especially if all it was going to do is piss me off. He waffled (for reasons I wouldn’t find out until later, he wasn’t politically able to stick his neck out for the program even though he wanted to). I took that for the sign that it was and handed in my resignation. Make no mistake, I remain incredibly sad over this. It makes me depressed every time I think about it. I list it here because it was something wonderful when I left it, but also because I stood by a principle I believe in very strongly: You have the right to make your own choices. The administration made its choice; I made mine.

Next time, I’ll talk about some of the many irons in the fire here at Wayfarer House. Till then, I’m going to bask in the glow of one more accomplishment--the first blog post in almost four months!