Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In Memoriam of Ganas in Education

Jaime Escalante died today. He was 79 years old. For those who don’t know, Jaime Escalante was made famous through the 1988 movie Stand and Deliver, which recounts his creation of an AP calculus program in Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

In the movie and, as I discovered later, in real life he comes across as brusque, irreverent and completely intolerant of the political necessities of teaching, but his uncompromising belief that all students, no matter what their racial, social or economic background, can succeed at academically demanding course work when they are properly prepared and motivated touched me in my core as a young aspiring educator. His incredible and hard won success at Garfield raised public consciousness about what it took to be a great teacher, and reaffirmed the truth of the statement that children will rise to the level of the expectations placed on them.

“If you don't have the ganas, I will give it to you because I'm an expert.”

The concept of ganas he popularized is one I hold to closely in my practice as an educator. Simply put, ganas is desire, but the term implies more than just want. It implies a willingness to do what is required to realize that desire. It took Escalante 10 years to achieve the successes at Garfield that are depicted in Stand and Deliver, and there were a great many fights, setbacks and pitfalls along the way. That he never wavered from the goal speaks volumes about his views on what makes success.

He also believed strongly in the value of doing the basic really well. “You become ‘gifted’ from practicing,” he was quoted as saying once. “Practice assures success. I give you a simple equation and you do it and do it over and over and you store that information.” I believe this is an absolute truth, and it has informed my teaching from my earliest days. He was willing to give incredibly of himself to see that the truth of this statement was borne out in his students’ success. I aspire to do as much.

“It goes like this: Teaching is touching life."

One of the things that has always struck me about Jaime Escalante is the length to which he would go to help his students do amazing work. I think that, to him, there was very little difference between his teaching and any other area of his life. It is much the same for me. I value first and foremost the relationships I build with my students. It is through these that I am able to motivate them think beyond themselves, to challenge them to do more than they might otherwise and to realize that they are capable of doing incredible things -- if they would only choose to do them. He was not shy about reinforcing his belief in his students’ intrinsic potential, as well as the importance of choice: "One of the greatest things you have in life is that no one has the authority to tell you what you want to be. You’re the one who’ll decide what you want to be. Respect yourself and respect the integrity of others as well. The greatest thing you have is your self image, a positive opinion of yourself. You must never let anyone take it from you."

Edward James Olmos, who received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Escalante and who remained close to him, told the New York Times in an interview once, "He had three basic personalities: Teacher, father-friend and street-gang equal -- and he would juggle them, shift in an instant. . . . He's one of the greatest calculated entertainers." I have always loved that depiction of his teaching style, and it’s one I try to emulate. Escalante was a consummate performer in class. He was always cracking jokes, rendering impressions and using all sorts of props, from basketballs to wind-up toys to meat cleavers, to explain complex mathematical concepts. I don’t know that Mbungo is as cool, but I hope he does the job as well.

I mourn Jaime Escalante’s passing today. He had a tremendous influence on me as a young and idealistic teacher. Escalante’s energizing style of teaching and for his staunch defense of the highest standards of teaching and achievement were a principal force behind my own practice at a time when I needed just that kind of professional role model, and continue to be a source of inspiration even today. I believe my profession was made much the greater for his contributions.

An article about his professional journey is available [HERE]. I don’t know that it’s of interest to everyone, but if you watched the movie or knew of the man, perhaps it will add to your understanding of who he was.

[photo credits]

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

10 Things Tuesday--Spending Spree?

With the tax refund checks due any day, there’s gonna be a lot of money going out the door here at Wayfarer House. Here’s some of the “to buy” list that has to do with me:

1. Jeans. I’m down to two pairs of Levis. They’re all I wear, essentially, so it’s good to have enough around to go between the weekly doings of laundry.

2. A coffee pot. My current one has a fitty on/off switch. I’ve jury rigged it once, but I don’t think I can do it again. It’s a shame, really. It makes a pretty decent pot of coffee. I’m still researching a possible replacement.

3. A TV. Our Bush era television is fine for the colorblind guy, but Wifeness says the color just isn’t right anymore. I can’t argue with that. The one she’s found to replace what we have is the largest that will fit in the cabinet (the television is our house goes behind doors when it’s not being watched--out of view, out of mind).

4. A front rim for my bike. I put a warp in it last tri season, and it wobbles a little too much. I’ll keep the old one as an emergency backup for the long trip in August, but it’s no good for racing anymore.

5. Running shoes. My current ones have long past their limit. I really need to go to a store and look around for something that really fits. I haven’t been fitted for shoes in a long time.

6. A printer for the house. The old HP 722C we have now is not supported well in Windows 7, and Karla’s computer can’t print to it. It’s time to upgrade. Suzanne found one she thought met all our needs. I’ll have to find the link.

7. Stone to build a frame around the tiny vegetable garden in the back. The wood frame I built for it 3 years ago had a tree branch fall on it, and then it rotted out. It needs to be replaced with something more durable.

8. Linoleum for the upstairs apartment. We have the money to finish that project for our tenant. Now to find the time!

9. A better raincoat. I have lots of windbreakers, but nothing that does more than delay the inevitable. It’d be nice to have something that actually kept me dry for longer than 10 minutes.

10. Tickets to Clash of the Titans and Kick-Ass. Anyone want to go?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Monday Meditation: Grades?

I have a lot of other things to meditate about, but the topic of grades is most timely because I just finished narrative reports. In particular, I'm thinking about some quotes I'm reviewing as part of my contribution to my school's review of its grading policy. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on them:

"Schools use grades because it's one of those things somebody once decided on and now everybody just goes along with it." (Littky, 2004)

"Students see their schoolwork as a game they play for grades." (Winger, 2005)

"Grading and reporting student achievement is a caring, sensitive process that requires teachers' professional judgment. (Cooper, 2007)

"A profound cultural transformation [would be] classrooms in which both students and teachers focus on learning, not grades." (Shepard, 2005)

I don't have a problem with any of these. In fact, I accept them as fact, based on my own professional experience. The one that follows, however, really has me pondering because it implicitly suggests something many teachers, parents, students and government officials fear to consider:

"In a perfect world there would be no grades--at least as we know them now." (Brookhart, 2004)

So, why are we so tied to grades? What might a student's classroom experience be like if there weren't any? What choices would schools and people have to make in order to create a viable learning and system without grades as we know them? What are your thoughts?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Week in Quotes

It seemed like most of the quotes this week had to do with language stuff. I guess it just rolls like that...

“It’s not an apple. It’s more like a plum. It’s an applum!” (Jill).

“Papa, I’m ready to get into the shower and I’ve already brushed my teeth and hair.” (SiSi, who realized immediately after this statement that half of her prior toilette was about to be rendered redundant).

“It’s, like, not like like, but more like love like, like, you know?” (Shaitia, on the meaning of “querer” in Spanish).

“Bien-ish” (Hannah, after I asked her how she was in Spanish).

“Wow! The ‘S’ makes all the difference!” John, after the realization that the magic of pluralization

“The Orange are really stroking the rock!” (March Madness television commentary)

“I think the tournament beard is coming off soon.” (Colin, at halftime during the Syracuse-Butler game Thursday.)

“Can I have classroom objects?” (Makenzie, after getting her question on verbs during a recent activity in class.)

“Do it in Welsh!” (One of the students in my MCAS group, trying to challenge my ability to read their test instructions using different accents.)

“They’re beautiful!” (Mush, about words that end in –eau in French)

"Il est présumé que cet œuvre soit choquant et puisse, d’ailleurs, tracasser la plupart des lecteurs dans une certaine mesure." (From Kestrel’s upcoming short story. It reads : It is assumed this work will be offensive to certain individuals, and may indeed trouble most of its readers to some degree).

“Papa, I just saw the MOST AWESOMEST MOVIE EVER!” (NiNi, exploding into the bedroom immediately upon her return from the matinee showing of How To Train Your Dragon--abruptly and prematurely terminating Papa’s nap in the process).

“You know stuff.” (Edmund, giving me one of his understated compliments--grazie, bello).

“I get out of control when I hang out with them, too!” (Ani, confirming that my children’s enthusiasm for her is returned--enthusiastically).

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Midterms Are In

My school reports out on student progress 6 times a year. For each semester, we write a narrative at the midterm then, if necessary, we send out a not about ¾ of the way through to alert parents that their student is at risk for not earning credit for the course, and then the final report. The process of grading work before I write narratives takes about a week. The act of reviewing grades, writing narratives and entering everything into the system takes about 10 hours for most people. Not for me, though. I cheat.

Well, I don’t know that it’s cheating. I think of it more like using technology to be more efficient. I should explain.

Several years ago, I made the decision to keep all my grades in Excel. I know the program well. It’s easy for me to set up spreadsheets that allow me to keep track of all manner of student information: Grades (obviously), tardiness, volunteering, extra meetings, preparedness, homework submission rates, special project parts, and more. It doesn’t take as much time to enter them into my computer as you might think and, once it’s in there, I have a whole lot of data upon which to base a quality narrative.

This is where the efficiency comes in.

When it comes time to write the narratives, I go to a spreadsheet that takes all the different data I collect on my students, and organizes it into strengths and weaknesses. I can then see the trends of a student’s performance over time. For example, I can see that a student really works hard to get her homework in on time, but there are often things that need to be revised in her submissions. She is an active participant in the class, but never comes with a pencil. The information isn’t quite that detailed, actually, but my memory can fill in that part without being inappropriately subjective if I need to do that. On that same spreadsheet are a collection of sentences for each of the major categories, based on the strength of the category. For example:

… not only comes prepared to class, but helps others to be ready, as well.
… comes prepared and ready to go every day.
… sometimes forgets to bring things to class.
… often forgets to bring what she needs to participate in the class
… relies on others to provide her with basic materials

You get the picture.

I built a small set of formulas that put all the individual sentences get together automatically (with conjunctions and punctuation, no less), so that they read like a narrative paragraph, and I built a macro to copy and paste them into my word processor, with the student’s name attached. An example is below:

”Wayfarer has lost some ground this semester. He is having a worrisome amount of trouble with practice work, and his exams this term are demonstrating only a weak understanding of the material. His participation in class remains good and he engages in the class appropriately, though I still need to prod him to stay focused. He also seems to struggle to make effective use of independent study time, which suggests strongly that he isn’t spending enough time with the material outside of class. It will be important for him to reestablish a habit of daily practice if he is to stay on top of his upcoming coursework obligations, and he will need to start taking steps to review past material so he can revise or retake his exams.”

Et voilà! The process of creating, reviewing and adjusting these automatically generated narratives takes about 3 hours. Add to that another hour for entering them into the system, and I’ve saved six hours of my life--four times a year--over what I’d have to give to do grades. That’s a full day every year!

Tomorrow, I'll use some of that time to help Karla put up a bookcase. I also intend to go for a nice, long run. And a nap. Of course.

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Unique Kind of Helper

Mbungo and a student working on French

I have two classroom assistants that are rather more anthropomorphous than living, breathing animate people. Mbungo, pictured above, works with my first-year classes. He doesn't say much--in fact, he's rather brusque at times--but he's an important part of my students' experience in introductory language. He's their example to use for describing what people look like, what they might be doing or wearing (he often takes clothes from the school's lost-and-found) and lots of other things. In fact, he just finished a tour of the school as part of my class' unit on describing where things are. He's not always center stage but, as you can see, my kids are certainly happy to involve him in their daily goings-on.

He's a hit with a lot of them! One of my Spanish students, seeing he was cold one day, decided to knit him a Harry Potter scarf.

"What Hogwarts house do you think he'd belong to?" she asked.

We couldn't decide, so she made him one of each!

Although the students in my classes are used to him, he does make other (usually grownup) people nervous sometimes. Our school's Executive Director generously allows Mbungo to hang out in his office from time to time, but he asks that Mbungo not actually face his desk.

"He kinda creeps me out." he says.

I think he just doesn't understand.

I'm setting things in place to do a full rewrite of my first- and second-year course materials. I've asked some of my students to help me with this, and they're already talking about how Mbungo figures into things. I'm sure he's excited to be included.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What is a real man?

This question was posed to me by a student rather out of nowhere during my Homework Support class and the first thought that came into my head was that the question seemed loaded, so I asked for some context. It took a second for the real reason emerged. Apparently, this student had been poked and prodded by another student to such a degree that he just lost it and ended up punching the kid. Administratively, this led to a stern talking to, but more important to him was the effect the event was having on his friendships.

“They’re all keeping their distance,” he said, sullenly. “I don’t know what to do.”

We talked a while about the whole situation with the punching (I was only vaguely familiar with it through rumors) and I said that, although I totally sympathized with his situation, this was a classic example of how one can win a fight, but still lose.

A real man, I said, is one who understands this and works to avoid such situations and, perhaps more importantly, does his best to make things as right as he can when he realizes he’s lost.

I suggested he approach one of the people in his group of friends whose opinion he particularly values. He mentioned this one girl whom I know fairly well. I suggested that he ask to take a moment of her time to explain the following:

He understood that his actions made her and others feel uncomfortable,
He was sorry,
He valued her friendship,
He hoped they could work together to mend their relationship.

I told him that it was entirely likely that she wouldn’t know what to say to all that in the moment, and not to force the issue. All he needed to do is say his piece, be respectful and say thank you, then let things happen as they will.

He thought I was crazy.

Then he came to me just before I left for the day.

He asked me to help him set up a meeting between him and his friend.

I’ll report what happens tomorrow.

What do you think? What does a real man do here?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ten Things Tuesday, but not mine…

I got swamped today with paperwork and email, and didn’t really have the chance to post anything of substance. Fortunately for me, Chili has inadvertently come to my rescue. She posted about 10 reasons she is “unapologetically pro-choice” and, accordingly, there is a good discussion going over at her space. I’m deferring to her post for the following reasons:

1. It is a good example of how people who don’t necessarily agree on a topic can engage in lively, yet respectful debate.

2. Chili views haven’t come out here yet, so reading them will put anything she adds to the conversation going forward will have some context. The posts Kizz published really helped me to understand what she was saying in her comments to my posts in a far deeper way than I would have otherwise.

3. I appreciate Chili’s ability to support her thoughts in a way that makes sense to people. Her justifications have given me good things to consider as I make my way through my own though process.

4. Chili’s readership is far broader than mine, and it is my hope that the discussion there will encompass a wider range of views as a result.

5. I hope to have the help of Chili’s readership in considering pros and cons of ideas as they come up later in my own processing.

Take a trip over to her place and read what she and her readers have to say. I'll do my best to take my own thoughts forward in a couple of days or so. I have midterms coming up, though, so things my have to be put on hold until my professional obligations are satisfied.

Thanks, Chili, for your perhaps unwitting help!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Monday Meditation, Backward

I said the other day I’d give a personal example of Backward Design as a goal setting tool. Seemed in keeping with the theme of the day to start the process here (plus, there was a call to continue the Week in Quotes series yesterday).

I put in my goals for this year to create each month a list of goals for the Community School project. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to proceed with this in a way that will lead to something tangible by the end of the year, but this is just so vague and, in more ways than one, a little daunting. I listed several concrete items in the other post that I thought would represent progress toward the end goal but, really, the end goal itself lacks a certain substance. It’s not, in and of itself, representative of anything except creating a list. Why am I creating the list? What am I expecting to have achieved from putting that list together? What will I be able to do? I’ll be honest: I don’t have good answers to those questions. Well, that’s not true. I really have way too many answers, and what needs to happen is that I need to put them into some sort of focus.

That’s the work of the day for me. I’m spending time taking all the things I want for this project and picking out a single one that will epitomize progress toward the realization of this endeavor. I’m going to try to have something to share for tomorrow, but I don’t want to promise anything. I’ll post it as soon as I have it, though.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Week in Quotes

“Erase it all... No, not all of it!” (Mush.)

“I really like biking!” (NiNi, at start of her first around-the-block ride of the year.)

“I hate biking!” (NiNi, after crashing into the back of a parked car during her first around-the-block ride of the year.)

“You should start a Facebook group.” (Advice to my father about how to promote his latest cause.)

"Why is it OK for a black person to tell a joke about a white person, but it's not OK the other way around?" (somone calling in to a radio talk show.)

“At least they made a really cool sound.” (Spencer, upon realizing the following:)

“Oh, good God!” (Sisi, at the beginning of a modest kissing scene during a recent movie.)

“The fans really like to see them last the full 5 days.” (A commentator expressing popular sentiment about the ideal length of international test matches of cricket.)

“Nobody’s schedule has brakes. The best you can do is put it into neutral and wait for it to slow down on its own.” (wisdom from a colleague.)

“Is this enough?” (SiSi, inquiring about the pressure she was trying to pump into her bike tire by putting her entire body weight on the pump handle and bouncing up and down--it turned out not to be.)

“Stupid instructions.” (H, halfway through the installation of his children’s playset)

“It's a GAME! It's supposed to be FUN! It must be a testosterone thing.” (Jenn, on her boys’ conflict and posturing during Wii.)

“I’m giving you your packet, and you’re going to like it.” (Julia, determinedly refusing to rewrite her assignment on separate paper, so she could keep the packet to study from.)

“It smells right.” (A Home Depot employee, on the arrival of spring.)

May it smell right for you, wherever you are!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Art of Assessment

Today was a staff-only day at school. We met as a full staff initially, but spun off into smaller groups to do most of the work of the day. Today was about thinking, not doing, and our work was centered around assessment. Specifically, we spent the thinking about how the term is distinct from grading. We’re planning to revise our grading system soon, and this exploration is central to the discussion we need to have about how to look at individual pieces of student work and how we as a school communicate on students’ progress to parents and colleges.

We are a creative bunch at my school, and so there was a lot of processing of the topic through media other than simple conversation. A couple of my colleagues consented to share their spur-of-the-moment artistic attempts to describe the relationship between the two terms.

First, a poem:

A dot in space,
Not as vast as the sky.
Grades, the end of a long assessment process.
Students want a grade so desperately.
The grade is hollow unless it is filled.
As a canvas, with useful feedback.
Assessment is the filler.
Grades are the final details in the
Watercolor of assessment.

Then, a doodle on a lunch plate (demonstrating that good, creative thinking can happen anywhere, on anything)

The text reads, "ongoing assessment, including students in their own grades".

Finally, a simple equation that sums up beautifully how we as a staff view the process of assessment:


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Life and Learning, Backward

I took a day away from the classroom today to hear Jay McTighe speak. Jay is the creator of a curriculum design process called “Backward Design”, where teachers are asked to think about what they want students to know or be able to do first, and create classwork that determines where they are right now, then takes them to the goal.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

You’d think that all teachers would do this naturally, but it is in fact an incredibly rare practice. Teachers are often so focused on the factual knowledge and skills that students need to learn that we put those things first in the process of figuring out how to teach.

I’m seeing some real connections in this paradigm to living life with purpose, but I’m still chewing on them so it’ll be a bit before I feel like I can write about them. In the meantime, I offer the following as something to think about:

The “Backward Design” approach consists of three general stages:

1. Consider the goals for what students should know or be able to do.

2. Determine how we will know if students have achieved the goals.

3. Plan learning experiences and instruction.

If we tweak the language a bit, we might use this same approach to think about how to get anywhere in life, generally:

1. Consider what goals you have. What do you want to achieve for yourself? What do you want to be able to do?

2. How will you know you’ve done it? (this seems like it would be obvious, but there are many ways to determine success)

3. Plan out how you might get from here to there. This is often the hardest thing to do where real-life goals are concerned. If you’re thinking of a big or long-term goal, it might help to think about smaller interim goals that, all together, get you where you want to be over time.

I’ll share a personal example this weekend. In the meantime, what was the first goal that popped into your head? Did you have trouble coming up with one? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

10 Things Tuesday—Signs of Spring

How do I know spring has sprung? In my world the following are sure signs that we’ve arrived.

1. Students are outside throughout the day at my school. Teachers often hold class outdoors on nice days, and many go out to sit and work during study time and homework support, if they can. It’s ironic that they simply aren’t as productive in my class when the sun is shining on them, but I still try to tailor activities for them that allow for some frolicking in the grass from time to time.

2. It is not pitch black when I come back from my early morning training. With DST in effect, we’ve lost some ground in this regard, but it will not be long before I won’t have to wear reflective clothing when I run or ride.

3. My children come in at the end of the day sweaty and dirty. It’s kind of gross how they get when they’ve spent time playing in the dirt, but I’m glad they enjoy being outside.

4. When people come in or go out of the house, they leave the door open. Related to this, when kids go in and out of the school, they often prop the doors open behind them so they can get back in. The fact that both habits waste energy is somehow less irritating when it’s 60°F outside.

5. Frisbees are flying everywhere at school. Seriously, you need to be paying attention if you’re anywhere out of doors!

6. Softball gloves, bats and balls come out at home. SiSi has misplaced hers, and so we’ve been playing with one borrowed from school. I’m sure it’ll surface when we do The Purge.

7. The insidious garlic mustard infestation in our back yard starts to perk up. We have this weed that, if left unchecked, will spread all over the place, including the small vegetable garden we have. Last year, it didn’t get too far out of control, but I’m hoping to actually decrease its footprint this year. We shall see.

8. Discussion with our neighbors changes from when the next snow event will occur to when to pull the plastic off the windows (we haven’t yet).

9. College basketball takes center stage, European soccer is in its final push and baseball is right around the corner. For anyone who cares, Syracuse will win, Portsmouth will be relegated and Dice-K will (or at least should) be traded for anyone who’s got an arm.

10. I think about just how long it will be before I can take my bike down from the trainer, drag out the grill, set up the hammock and trade the snowblower for the lawnmower. In order, the answers are 3 weeks, any day now, not till April and whenever the rest of the snow is gone.

What marks the change of season in your world?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Meme

No meditations to share today. Instead, a meme boosted lovingly from Chili who boosted it lovingly from Tense Teacher.

1. Are you currently in a serious relationship?
I’ve been married to my darling Wifeness for 15 years. We take our relationship seriously, but we have a lot of fun in the process!

2. What was your dream growing up?
When I was in elementary school, I used to imagine I would want to be a lawyer. My first day of high school, I knew absolutely that I would be a teacher. I cannot explain why this knowledge was so absolute, but it was (even when I was not actively engaged in teaching).

3. What talent do you wish you had?
Despite a fairly successful career as a graphic designer, my freehand artistic skills are shameful at best. I have always wanted to be able to sit somewhere of indescribable beauty and sketch in charcoal what I see. That I cannot communicate well in that medium makes leaves me feeling wholly inadequate sometimes.

4. If someone bought you a drink, what would it be?
Well, I’d appreciate most it if it didn’t have vodka in it (I’m ruined on the stuff now), but if you’re buying me a drink, I will accept it gladly and say, “That’s very kind of you! Thank you so much! ”

5. What was the last book you read?
I finished Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. Wifeness recommended it to me, and I love that she knows what I like so well! I really did enjoy both the writing and the rich detail with which he describes the world of Kvothe and the mechanics of magic and arcanum. It’s only his first book. I’m eagerly waiting to read more!

6. What zodiac sign are you?
Leo. So very Leo. But there’s a lot of Pisces and Libra in my full profile, which I hope does a fair job of complementing my lionesque tendencies.

7. Any tattoos and/or piercings? Explain where.
None of either. I wouldn’t reject getting either, but I’ve never really had the true desire to do so.

8. Worst habit?
Not doing what I know I want to do. It’s not procrastination, necessarily. Procrastination is to delay. Sometimes I do that, but sometimes I also just choose the other path.

9. What is your favorite sport?
In terms of team sports, soccer is, without question, my favorite sport to play and to watch. I enjoy listening to the Red Sox on radio during the baseball season. Of individual pursuits, I really like watching mixed martial arts--not for the violence, but because I really appreciate the practical side of what martial arts can do. In terms of actual individual competition, I have to say I really love triathlon for its uniqueness and variety. There’s really nothing else out there like it!

10. Do you have a pessimistic or optimistic attitude?
I am an idealist, but quite pragmatic in many ways. I believe that, if it can be imagined, it can be accomplished, but I recognize that to simply dream a thing can be done does not mean it can, or even should, be done. I think that’s mostly optimistic.

11. Worst thing to ever happen to you?
It is simultaneously the worst thing and the best. I nearly died from a necrotic gallbladder. It’s the best thing because I didn’t, and I’ve been so much healthier ever since.

12. Tell one weird fact about you.
Hmmm… One that not everyone knows… Ooooo! I know! I once hit the grand prize on a slot machine in Las Vegas--to the tune of half a million dollars. Great! Except that I had only put in one quarter instead of two (two were required to actually win the prize).

13. Do you think clowns are cute or scary?
I don’t ever think they’re cute. Funny, cheerful or captivating perhaps, but not cute. I’ve seen scary ones. The one from Harry Potter 3 that Parvati created from the boggart? Scary.

14. If you could change one thing about how you look, what would it be?
I’d like to be rid of my chub around the middle. It’s going away, but not fast enough or consistently enough for my liking. I’d also like to have eyes that don’t stick out quite as much. I don’t have any control over that, though.

15. Would you be my crime partner or my conscience?
I can easily be both. Indeed, that runway light up in my office didn’t come from nowhere!

16. Ever been arrested?
No. I’ve been drawn on before, though. Thanks, Bubba, for that moment of excitement!

17. If you won $10,000 today, what would you do with it?
I think it’d great to invest it in something that would help start the Community School. I’ll have to think about what that would be. Any ideas?

18. Where’s your favorite place to hang out?
Locally, I like spending time with Wifeness at either Hope and Olive or The People’s Pint. If I’m by myself, there’s a Panera nearby where I will on occasion spend the day drinking coffee, reading, writing and thinking. Worldwide, I think it has to be the Champ de Mars, in Paris. I’ve had some wonderful moments with my wife and my students there, and I always smile when I think about just lying in the grass and watching life happen there, just as the sun is setting.

19. Do you believe in ghosts?
In spirits, certainly.

20. Favorite thing to do in your spare time?
Number one on the list has to be napping. There are lots of other things I could do (sometimes too many to know which to do first), but I always consider first whether a nice, quality siesta might not fit best.

21. Do you swear a lot?
You really already know the answer to that.

22. Biggest pet peeve?
Spin. People often spend so much time and energy trying to make things work for their own ends that they don’t stop to consider whether those ends have any lasting value or purpose.

23. In one word, how would you describe yourself?

24. Do you appreciate romance?
I do, but not so much for myself. I don’t really need to be courted. I recognize that it’s important to my wife, though, and I’m sorry I’m not as mindful of it as I probably should be.

25. Do you believe in God?
Not in the western, biblical sense, no. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in power greater than myself, or that I don’t revere and respect the greatness of the Ten Thousand Things. Quite to the contrary, I work hard to express both in the course of living my life. The paradigm of your belief is not important. That you are doing what you can to realize your potential as one of God’s creations and supporting others in doing the same is what matters most to me.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Week in Quote

“You want a cough drop?”

“Oh, no thanks. I’m not supposed to have them. I’ve got lycanthrope.”


“Yeah, It’s kind of a pain.”

“I bet. How’d you get it, anyway?”

“From my girlfriend. She bites.”

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Only Position? Part II

I’m sorry it’s taken longer than I said it would to get this out. I’ve been fighting fatigue from sinus pressure and an indignant back. I still have these, but they’ve mostly lessened in intensity. Plus, I slept in from training this morning. The sleep helped. I feel like I can properly talk about all this now.

Part I of this topic is [HERE].

Thank you for your comments both on and off the blog! I appreciate your support in allowing me to put this very complex question on the table and, in the process, call beliefs into question.

I started this next step originally by thinking about human rights. In researching the idea of rights and the idea of liberty, however, I quickly discovered that there exists a dichotomy. Allow me to explain:

Imagine you are driving to an interview for a job you want very much. You come to an intersection and turn right. For the record, and to avoid any appearance of underhandedness, let me make clear that there is no other traffic and there are no detours or police roadblocks--the point being that nothing was preventing you from going left or straight ahead, instead of right. As a driver, you appear to be completely free, right? Well, perhaps not. The situation looks quite different if we add that that the reason you turned right is that you're addicted to nicotine and desperate to get to the convenience store before the interview. You’re very nervous, you see, and smoking calms your nerves. Rather than driving, you are being driven because your urge to smoke leads you to turn the wheel to the right, even though you’re perfectly aware that doing so means you'll be late to the interview. You wish you could be free of this irrational desire not only because it’s bad for your health, but also because you recognize that it’s getting in the way of your doing what you know you want to do.

This story contrasts two ways of thinking of freedom. On the one hand, one can think of freedom as the absence of external hindrances. You are free, in other words, if nothing is stopping you from doing what you want to do. In the above story you appear, to the person observing you from the sidewalk at the intersection, to be free. On the other hand, we can also think of freedom as the presence of control on the part of the person. To be free in this sense, there must exist some manner of self-determination--that is to say, you must be able to control your own destiny or act in your own (presumably best) interest. If we consider the story above in this light you appear to be “unfree” because you are not in control of your own destiny; you are unable to control a behavior (one you would undoubtedly prefer to be rid of) which is preventing you from realizing a decision that you recognize to be in your best interest. We might say that while the first view of freedom is about how many doors are open to you, the second is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.

Isaiah Berlin, a Russian-British philosopher, called these two concepts of freedom negative and positive respectively in his work Two Concepts of Liberty (1969). The idea of negative liberty (I’ll use the terms "freedom" and "liberty" interchangably, for the sake of this discussion) refers to freedom by the absence of something (barriers, constraints, interference). Positive liberty, by contrast, requires the presence of something (control, self-mastery, self-determination). We might also distinguish between the two concepts by saying that negative liberty is subject generally to external factors, where positive liberty is subject generally to internal ones. Thus, the dichotomy I mentioned earlier is created.

Is this making sense so far? It took me a couple of days to wrap my brain around this, but it proved to be really helpful in terms of what follows.

All this research led me to look for a single definition that synthesized both positive and negative aspects of freedom. What I found was put forward originally by American legal philosopher Gerald MacCallum (1967).

MacCallum’s basic concept of freedom is a relation between three things:

1. The “agent” (I was tempted to say “person”, but I don’t want that to get misconstrued later);
2. Any obstacles, hindrances or preventing conditions;
3. The agent’s own intent to do or become.

It is important to point out here that this concept of freedom consists not merely of the possibility of doing certain things (because there no constraints on doing them), but in actually doing certain things in certain ways (because one is engaging in self-examination or is thinking critically and making well-informed decisions). This idea is rather broad, but it works well because it emphasizes that liberty is not simply license. In other words, the right to do something does not come without obligation.

In taking this concept of freedom and applying it to the corollaries in Part I, I am confident that there are no incongruities. People should have control over their bodies, but that freedom must include taking responsibility for the decisions they make. People should be able to have sex free from outside constraints, but that doesn’t mean that people should not exercise constraints individually on their sexual practice. Politically, we’re tempted to examine the idea of reproductive rights simply through the lens of negative liberty. What rules, constraints, limitations are proper to impose on what people can do when left to themselves? This question often frames the discussion of human rights (and, especially, reproductive rights). It seems like looking at the question of human rights in light the obligations implicit in the paradigm of positive liberty seems, at best, an ineffectual philosophical undertaking without any practical value. Yet, I cannot escape the thought that a consideration of human rights from the point of view that freedom must include a positive element of control would help to bring about some compromise to a contentious abortion debate.

I’m going to explore that more in the next post.

What do you think? Should freedom come with obligation, or does freedom equate to license without restriction? Is MacCallum’s concept of freedom flawed? As always, your respectful thoughts are welcomed.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Long day, made more so by a stuffy nose and residual chiropractic pain. Must train, though. Then bed. More tomorrow. Sorry!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A longer post, delayed...

I made the announcement over at Kizz’ blog that I would be adding to the discussion on reproductive rights today, but I just haven’t had the chance to finish the post. It doesn’t help that today was a long day at work for me, and that I’m fighting a stuffy head (thanks to the several of my students and children for giving me your runny noses!)

I’ll try to work more on it tonight, and post it tomorrow.

In the meantime, I’d like to point you over to the Community School blog for an article Wifeness found. It discusses the question of whether educators be educated about how to educate. While not strictly apropros to starting a school, I think the article provides some interesting fodder for discussion about student learning as well as training people who are not first and foremost educators. I’ll elaborate on this more in the other space later.

I’m going to bed to lay on my side in the hopes the snot rolls down enough for me to breathe through at least one nostril. Gooooo, gravity!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Another Example of How Looks are Deceiving...

Snow remaining in our front yard (isn't it cute!).

Snow remaining in our neighbor's back yard (not at all cute).

Winter's not done yet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Monday Meditation: Caras y Corazones

Verne has a mullet. He’s rather unkempt and his teeth are, to be polite, not what you’d see on your local othodontist’s office posters. His clothes might best be described as threadbare. He sports an extensive tattoo collection on his forearms that you would hesitate to call art. He drives an old, yet pristine Trans Am with a bumper sticker that makes clear his support for the Second Amendment. He talks with a drawl that suggests a childhood below the Mason Dixon line. He does not use big words. He smells like wood and gasoline, and his fingernails are more dirty than clean. He’s married an eastern European woman nearly 10 years his junior. She came to the country illegally.

In your head, thanks to my description, you have an image of this man and, with that, certain attitudes about how he acts, what he believes, and the likelihood that you would associate with him on any personal level if you had the choice. If you were alone and saw him on the street, you might avoid him. You might say hello if you next to him in line at the store (we all like to think we’re at least that polite), but conversation might not go very far beyond that. If you saw him changing a tire in a parking lot, you might not offer to help and, if the reverse were true, you might refuse it if it were offered. You would have these preconceptions and perhaps others, and many would be valid because, whether we like to admit it or not, such judgments are part of our survival mechanism. If you acted on these judgments, as many of us would, you would be following instinct. In following our instinct, however we would become blind to the more complex truth of who Verne is.

Verne is the father of two young boys. They are well-adjusted, and very clearly love their father. He works long hours and is sometimes gone overnight. Even so, he always makes time for his children. He takes them hunting and fishing with him, and plays catch and tag with them while they’re waiting for the bus. He treats his wife (whose name I never determined) with respect and is unflinching in his commitment to helping someone who needs it. Without spending undo time sharing how I came to meet Verne, suffice it to say he is a good example of the Spanish proverb Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos (Faces we can see, hearts we don't know).

I’m meditating on this proverb today for two reasons. First, I caught myself in a moment of judgment and was reminded that I must always be on guard to avoid allowing such instinctive behavior to get in the way of knowing people as people. Second, I caught myself initially resisting (perhaps out of fear) an interaction with Verne. I forgot that, in order to know people as people, I need to let go of my sense of self and instead focus simply on the question, “How can I be of service?” This question is bound in the thought that the very nature of a human being is complete and unadulterated. When I remember to approach my interactions with other people as though they are pure in essence, I am much more able to see beyond the surface, to the truth of who they are.

“We prefer humility in others -- and if we prefer it in others -- we can also prefer it in ourselves.”

Buddhist Axiom

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Week in Quotes

“I need help with my whatzit.” (Anna-Kaye, who didn’t understand the inference of her question.)

“This is a conspiracy!” (Rebeccah, after the third time spinning the Wheel of Fortune, and coming up with Lose a Turn.)

“No, you didn’t either!” (Jessica, in response to Brendan’s “I-1” during a game of Battleship.)

“Ana is a @$#%&!!” (A student echoing the clear consensus of her class that the story they’re reading in Spanish cannot be finished soon enough.)

“Seriously, a conspiracy!” (Rebeccah. After hitting the Lose a Turn for the fourth time in a row, I not-so-surreptitiously hit the wheel so it landed on 350. Everyone else in the class saw me do this but her. She asked for a letter, and guessed one that wasn’t in the puzzle.)

“It’s because I’m distracted by your love.” (Wifeness, explaining why she so often causes me physical pain when she flirts with me.)

“That’s such a Quaker Party School.” (The oxymoronic quote of the day for Friday.)

“My restrictor plate’s workin’ pretty hard here!” (Matt, on wanting to say something grownup, while little kids were in the room.)

“T-U-N-O-M-B-R-E.” (Calvin, responding straight-faced to my question “How do you spell your name?”)

“Lisa 1; malware 0.” (Facebook post that gets a happy face.)

“Louisville 78; Syracuse 68.” (ESPN post that gets a sad face.)

I'm so sorry these are so late!!! (Faith, who missed her deadline by a grand total of 5 hours.)

“This is MY decision.” (My school’s Executive Director, spinning his confirmed departure at the end of the year.)

“Jamais trop vieux?” (Edmund, translating from the newspaper headline recounting his recent win at the U.S. Nationals XC Ski Championships--at 78 years of age. The quote reads, “Never too old?”)

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Diminishing Returns?

50 degrees of Fahrenheit,
5 kilometers of run,
90 minutes of nap,
0 children for
5 hours,

Friday, March 5, 2010

Got Chiropractic?

I’ve been suffering from a pretty painfully maladjusted back for the last couple of months. It’s in the spot where all the scar tissue resides. The scar tissue is the result of a cycling accident back in 1992 in which I landed directly top down on the hood of a car (he blew through the stop sign) and severely compressed my spine. It took several years of regular visits to the chiropractor to get things back to relative normal. I will always have a constant low-level sort of ache, but it isn’t but every once in a great while that the scar tissue will press on my spine enough to really make it hurt. It’s been a long time since it’s been this bad; usually it’ll be irritable for a day or two, but I’m able to stretch it out or self-adjust it back with exercise and careful stretching. Not so this time. I’ve tried everything I can do myself, but all I succeed in doing is popping it (which relieves discomfort only for a few minutes) and shifting the pain around to other nearby parts of my back.

The thing that’s most irritating about this particular kind of back pain is that it’s getting in the way of my training. It’s affecting my lower back and hips to the point that I can’t really open them without things popping and snapping. Twisting from the waist is harder now. Even lying prone on an exercise ball makes things twinge. I can work through a lot of general discomfort, but when I can’t run well because I’m compensating for a sore back, it’s time to go get some help.

The earliest I could get in to see my chiropractor was the 11th. That’s a week away. To be fair, the problem is that I don’t want to take time away from the classroom to see her, so I asked for a late day appointment (3:45 is about the earliest I can get there). She only sees clients that late in the afternoon one day a week. Fine. I’ll manage. Hell, I put up with a necrotic gallbladder for a lot longer than that!

What aches and pains do you have to deal with? How'd you get them? Do they ever get in the way of things you want to do?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Only Position?

Kizz posted recently about (among other things) a recently passed Utah amendment which allows homicide charges against expectant mothers who induce a miscarriage. I was confused about why this was an anti-choice bill, so I asked for some clarification. The discussion is on her blog [HERE] (it’s in the comments, too) and an earlier post from her on the topic is [HERE].

First, a gigantic thank you to Kizz (and Miflohny) for making clear her (their) point of view on choice! I realized after reading information about the Utah amendment that I did not truly understand the American pro-choice position on reproductive rights.

From their explanations, I was able to do a little bit of research on my own. I wanted to do this because I wanted to make sure I fully understood all the points of view on the issue, and also because I’m not convinced of the inevitable truth of the statement posed originally by Lynn Paltrow on the RH Reality Check (view the entire article [HERE]

“[That human rights attach at birth] is the only position that ensures that upon becoming pregnant, women do not lose their human rights.”

I’m devoting some time to this issue so I can think out loud about it, and so I can get some public feedback about those thoughts. I want to make clear that I’m not about proselytizing here. My own opinions on the topic of reproductive rights are not fully formed, and most certainly are not staunchly defended. I am opening this conversation up to allow for some safe, respectful thinking to go on. Keep that in mind, in case it matters.

In reviewing some literature about abortion and reproductive rights, it seems to me that the issue of abortion from the pro-choice point of view is not about the procedure at all, but instead about one of equal rights. The statement above certainly supports this thought. From the pro-life point of view, the issue is also not about the procedure exactly, but rather about respect for the sanctity of life. (I would pause briefly here to ask anyone holding to these viewpoints who disagrees with this to please feel free to elaborate or correct me here. I’d like to make sure I’m on the right track).

When I consider these two points, I’m left with a question: Is there a position to take that promotes equal rights, but that also respects the sanctity of life?

I’ll admit that I haven't found one yet in any readings on the issue. As I was digging, I wondered if I hadn't found one because everyone talking about reproductive rights has simply kept to the clearly defined boundaries of “pro-choice” and “pro-life”. I also wondered if, perhaps, considering the question from a different place in the reproduction cycle might not yield such a position.

So, in that light, I’ve begun to consider reproductive rights from the procreative angle. I’ve only really started thinking about this, but I have the following thoughts I’d like to put forth for consideration:

A) Can we accept the principle that all people should be viewed to have innate worth, inalienable rights, and valuable ideas and talents to contribute to society?

B) Can we accept that all people should have individual control over their choices, understanding that also they bear individual responsibility for them?

C) Can we accept that decision to engage in consensual sexual activity is not a unilateral one?

D) Can we accept that the very act of sexual intercourse is biologically designed to create a fetus?

If we accept these as valid statements, then it seems that the following are reasonable corollaries:

1) The worth and rights of an individual should not depend upon anything, including their sex.

2) People should have individual control over their bodies, and the right to make their own decisions concerning them (understanding the part about bearing individual responsibility).

3) Sex is a form of social contract. Like all social contracts, it has common law understandings, but can be fully redefined between the individuals involved.

4) By engaging in intercourse, an individual tacitly accepts the possibility that a fetus may be created.

Are any of these corollaries inherently flawed? If so, how? I’ll pause in my thinking to allow some commentary (feel free to make it anonymous), and I’ll pick it up in a couple of days. Thanks for your help!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Delicate Balance

I’m getting up at 5:15 every morning to train, in an effort to simultaneously take off 15 lbs of winter weight (and lose another 10+ of pre-existing chub), as well as get myself ready for my first triathlon in May/June. I’m also trying to spend time weight training every evening to actually make something of my core muscles which, for many years, could best be described only as gelatinous. At the same time, I’m trying to carefully change the content of my meals, which means I’m eating lighter. Add to this the standard cornucopia of things that fill my day, and I’m destined to hit a wall every so often.

Such a wall was hit yesterday. I came home from my long day at school completely exhausted so, after dinner I went to “touch bottom” (my euphemism for taking a short nap to recharge my batteries). Often, this does the trick and I’m able to work after the girls go to bed. No such luck last night. My body was completely incapable of responding to the persistent urges of my brain to go upstairs and get my workout in. I managed to read the last of my book before I was compelled to go back into the bedroom--for good, this time.

I think I do a pretty good job overall balancing diet, stress and exercise, but it is a real challenge to remember the basic habits that make it possible. I’ve been doing well at getting up when I’m supposed to in the morning, but staying up late to get grading done is becoming impossible so I have to stay on top of my work while I’m at school. I’m supposed to remember to drink lots of water (aren’t we all) and I’ve been doing that lately, but in the middle of all the distractions in my day it is very easy to forget that my water is sitting there. Hell, I often have to schedule my trips to the potty an hour ahead! I bring good food to eat during the day when I’m at school but, like the water, it’s easy to forget it’s there until I’m so hungry I start to feel sluggish. I have to remind myself to eat every so often, and to time a snack just right in the afternoon to avoid feeling so hungry by dinnertime that I am tempted to overeat. Finally, I have to keep an eye on my workouts. If I exhaust myself during the last few days of workouts, I can predict that I’m going to need to dial back for a day or two to allow my body to recover.

When things are balanced well, I am the very definition of citius, altius, fortius, but it’s a lot to keep in my brain. Some days are more successful than others. The thing is, though, it’s about the long-term goal. Every day is a new chance to move forward. Here’s to moving forward tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

10 Things Tuesday: Educational Randomness

1. I love that Jeanne is in my classroom teaching the endocrine system to her 11th and 12th students using The Magic Schoolbus!

2. Don’t complain to me that your classmates don’t listen to you if you choose to sit separate from them during group activities and offer petulant commentary. If you want them to treat you as an involved member of the class, you must play the part of one. We all get back from people exactly what we project.

3. No, we cannot have class outside. Yes, I know it’s a beautiful day. Yes, I will listen to you explain why we should have class outside. No, it will not change the fact that we won’t. Yes, someday we will get to have class outside. No, that day will not happen tomorrow, or this week, or next week. Yes, you will, too, live long enough to see such a glorious event.

4. I have a list of several resources to contact about the Dominican Republic project. The email requests will get written tomorrow during my prep period. I’ll admit that I haven’t written a letter of this type for nearly 10 years. I’m a little out of practice.

5. Who knew Wheel of Fortune could be so competitive? That what comes from offering food as prizes to high schoolers.

6. To go from the alphabet to the indefinite antecedents in the subjunctive mood in Spanish--in 30 seconds--actually made my brain hurt.

7. My lunch of choice this week is salad (no dressing) with two slices of honey ham. Simple, low in bad stuff, high in good stuff and really quite tasty!
“I want you to know how irritated I am that I’m getting, like, everything in this class right now.” (Sarah, who admitted recently to her quickly changing opinion of foreign languages.)

8. On one side of me, the African drumming group is practicing. On the other, the salsa rueda class. Such is the cacophony that is my professional world.

9. How many times do I have to tell you? It is not appropriate to tell those jokes.

10. I just got approved to buy a Smartboard®! Time to go shopping…

Monday, March 1, 2010

Monday Meditation: "You know what to do."

I’ve been thinking about the two major endeavors in my world currently: The collaborative service learning project in the Dominican Republic and the Community School project. In both of these, I’ve realized that I was stalled in part because I was feeling like I didn’t know how to proceed. I talked about this with Edmund. He gave me sage advice, as he so often does.

“You know what to do. You just need to make the calls.”

What he was saying was that, while I may not know what to do next, I know how to deal with that situation--that is, to go and find someone who DOES know what to do next. More importantly, he was subtly telling me that there was no need to take the weight of these projects all on my shoulders. He knows me well!

Today, then, I’m centering myself by thinking about how I know how to get the help I need. I know how to find the right kind of resources. I know how to trust in the strength, wisdom and experience of others and how to use their gifts to bring things about. I’m also thinking about a quote from Tricia’s blog that, opportunely, reminded me of my tendency to ignore all that is out there to support worthwhile efforts. The parenthetic is mine, but makes clear what I think is the intent of the passage:

"He who trusts (only) in himself is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom is kept safe." (Proverbs 28:26)

In what ways do you trust well in yourself? In what ways do you trust too much, or not enough?