I’m Not Looking for The Yes Man

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 6.01.58 AM“Tell me how you liked the book.” We sat in the professor’s parlor–about ten or twelve of us, a small history cohort. The professor was an old-style academic from the Midwest, who had completed his masters’ degree at the university where I’d been an undergraduate. He held class in his parlor, like Socrates would have done. With coffee, not hemlock.

“Well, I thought the insight he showed into the presidents was very intriguing,” said one student. He went on to outline the amazing revelations he received from the book in unabridged detail. I was confused. Did he accidentally read the Bible?

“It was good,” said another. “I thought last week’s was better, but I enjoyed it.” No further details.

We went around the circle, a few saying little or even passing on their turn, a solid handful giving adulations. Others shifting in their seats.

“And what about you, Dawn?” I hesitated. I had a very different experience with this book.

 

“Um,” I looked around the room. Half a dozen pens and notebooks were at the ready, as they tended to be in graduate school before we had laptops and iPads. “I thought this was the worst book I’ve ever read.”

Silence.

“Go on,” the professor said, his face without emotion. It was too late to put the top back on the can of worms. I continued.

“Well,” I said, “The author doesn’t seem to have any academic credentials in this field–I researched him–but that’s not my issue. I might’ve still enjoyed it.” I looked around the room. The one kid seemed ready to revolt. To throw tomatoes. I looked for tomatoes in his hands. Relief–just a pen. And a notebook. With angry notes.

I bent down and extrapolated the offending manuscript from my bag.

“Look,” I said leafing through the circled text and notes in the margin. “Spelling errors. Editing errors, and I’m not sure this event,” I opened to the page, “ever happened,” noting one historical event in question.

“Also, what’s his thesis?  I couldn’t find it….he spoke in vague terms. I couldn’t nail it down. My mind drifted. Sorry. I just didn’t like this book.” I listed a couple of others I did like, historians that gave me deep insights into the dead presidents.

Silence. Pause.

“Congratulations. You got the answer!” he exclaimed. “THIS…is a good example of a really bad book.” The professor excoriated the book for us all. “Sometimes you need to look at the worst of the worst to appreciate the best.” We’d just learned a lesson as historians.

It’s true for life as well.

 

I do this to my students. I give them a passage, video, or assignment that requires they examine something that stinks worse than a grocery bag of meat forgotten in the trunk of a car in July. I let them debate, argue, and kiss up. Then, I lay on the truth. Sometimes, a kid stands up for his or her belief in the face of everyone else “loving” the passage to seek my approval. That’s the kid who’s going to get through the system and be great.

You see, it’s not about a bunch of minions reading my assignments, and obeying my instructions. It’s about developing keen minds and confidence where students research, connect the dots, and refuse to be the yes man. And can back it up. These are the students who will innovate and iterate the solutions for the future. If you don’t give them things with flaws to examine, then they don’t see anything that needs to be interpreted or fixed.

“A good example of a bad book.”

That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in school.

Ever.

 

 

[image:  nibiryukov.narod.ru]

Advertisements

The Lost Boys

They roam around school–freshmen. Lost. Their first day.

“Miss,” they say, “where’s…”

“Miss, how do I get to….”

“Check your schedule,” I say. “If there’s an ‘A,’ you stay.”

Half leave.

Energy from last year’s student, texting under the desk, scowling, finally cracking a smile–replaced by a boy from year’s crew.

They like that I hate textbooks. That I told them I’d know their names almost immediately. And I do.

They stand up. Introductions. You have to stand to show confidence.

“No one will laugh at you here…we will have fun. We will make friends. You will learn.”

A quizzical look. An expression of doubt.

“Who hates school?” Hands high in the air. “Who hates social studies?” Hands.

“My job’s to make you hate both less.”

I tell them stories. Maybe three. Five minutes, tops. They laugh. They whisper about me. About this class. They don’t know I can read their lips. They might begin to trust, to open up. Their best sneakers shine like the expressions of hope on their faces.

“See you tomorrow.”

They leave, smiling. Happy customers. For today.

“Miss, which bus?”

“Beats me,” We walk outside. “They’re all yellow. That one looks nice.” The bus driver answers. Kids get on. Doors close.

A big new school. A big day.

Don’t worry–you won’t be lost for long.

Irish Blessing for Teachers (God Help Us, Every One)

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 6.28.26 AMI need a prayer to inspire the first day of school–a prayer useful to the religious and secular alike. I took a philosophy course on a bet once, learning about the nature of prayer in the process. My friend, the future electrical engineer, said he was smarter than me–that engineers, moreover, were smarter than liberal arts majors.

My major was Russian–it was an amalgamation of history, bad economic forecasts, political upheaval, and really long depressing literature–it’s the reason I make people cry with my emails, having earned the nickname “Madame Tolstoy.” I’m improving–wouldn’t trade my academic path for all the engineering salaries in the world. The spirit of the Russian people taught me a lot about teaching–about creativity, making something from nothing, about getting the job done without a lot of resources. Russian philosophy is a little like zen, but with a despot lurking in the background.

For our bet, we chose a neutral class.  The academic DMZ. Philosophy 101. He skipped class. I learned about how to spend an inordinate time fixating on the smallest detail, the meaning of God, what constitutes a pile, and other useful things. For example, if you have one piece of hay, it’s not a stack. If you have two, it’s not a stack. If you have a stack and take a piece off, it’s still a stack. At what point does it become a stack or lack of a stack? You can use this in life. Just substitute manure. If you’ve got a bit of manure in your life, it’s not a pile. If you add a bit more, it may not be a pile, but at some point, it becomes a pile. You have to shovel it away. Farm wisdom that can help you transcend the day-to-day BS in any career and still smile.

The second thing I remember was about God. Many people believe in God and many do not. If God exists, and you messed up on earth, that’s an epic fail. You’re going into the inferno forever. If God doesn’t exist and you were good just in case–well, you don’t go anywhere for eternity but you make people smile in your time on the planet. Is that so bad? It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis.

My friend won the bet. He is smarter than me. He showed up for two classes–the midterm, and the final. He smoked me. I got to learn about the great Western philosophers, the nature and philosophy of prayer, and earn my first C-, my only low grade unless you count Calc, which I dropped twice before finally getting a “just go away” C, escaping higher-level mathematics forever.

Without further adieu, the prayer, “The Irish Blessing,” in its original form and it’s adaptation for education: The original is in italics.

May the road rise up to meet you. May you not get a flat tire on the way to work, and may the potholes not wreck your oil pan.

May the wind be always at your back. May you avoid hurricanes, storms, and floods that force you go to school until July.

May the sun shine warm upon your face; Likewise with snow days.

the rains fall soft upon your fields Don’t drink too much, because there’s no bathroom nearby. You’ll have to wait till 2:11 to pee.

and until we meet again, I won’t see you for 180 days.

may God hold you in the palm of His hand. May the school year not kill you. God help us all. 

May we have the best school year yet. May we do the greatest of things.

Google Can Get Peach Salsa Out of Your MacBook Pro

The phone rang. I don’t use the phone for calling much anymore–it’s sort of a mini dictator that chimes and pings, commanding me to do certain things–answer you, be amused by your blog post, watch a video, work, attend something, look at photos of your kid, submit something…As I get sucked over to the dark side of tech and more and more dog-trained, I use the phone part of the iPhone less and less. Eventually, Apple will name it the “iCommandCenter,” or the iBigBrother because it knows what I’m doing before I do.

Which is why I wish iBigBrother could have predicted that I’d be startled when the actual phone app rang at the exact moment I was testing out a bowl of my freshly made peach salsa, sending salsa sailing out of my hand onto the right side of my keyboard. I swished it off immediately, but it was liquidy salsa–salsa needs to set awhile after it’s made.  Peach salsa and electronics are bitter enemies.

Screen Shot 2013-08-25 at 2.36.37 PMI started to Google “spilled peach salsa on Mac.” Google knows everything. Google is my friend.

“Wait!” I thought. “Won’t typing squish salsa into the keys more?” I reached for my iBigBrother who’d predicted this all along.

“How can I help you?” asked Siri.

“I spilled peach salsa on my MacBook Pro.”

“You’re stupid,” she replied.

“No, Siri, I need to clean it, what do I do?” This is important!

“Cry. You just fried it, idiot.”

“Isn’t there anything I can do?” This is SERIOUS! School starts MONDAY!!! Answer!!!!!

Siri mocked me. “Nope,” she said, “You’re screwed.”

Google. Google won’t let me down!

Google is your friend,” said the voice in my head. If Siri isn’t my friend, kiss up to Google. I hold no malice toward Google for being a mind-reading megabrain selling my information to the highest bidder. Google’s free. I use it in my classroom. I’ll sell my soul to anything that’s free and not blocked in the classroom. That’s the truth.

I had to act fast. I could hear the computer translating the salsa into Spanish, playing Mariachi music on the way to circuits frying.

Time to learn a new skill. I picked up iBigBrother and Googled. “Unplug your Mac IMMEDIATELY.” Immediately had passed. I went for ASAP. Unplugging complete. Salsa seeping through the keyboard. “Invert your Mac.” Despite the fact I didn’t have enough common sense to unplug a liquid-deluged electronic device, I had turned it upside down until salsa stopped dripping. I sopped up the keys.

“Clean the keyboard.” Every time I wiped the keyboard I felt the sticky ooze under the letters and numbers.  The speakers crinkled. Turns out it wasn’t fried speakers, just an old “I get chicks” Barry White song popping into R’dio unsolicited. Phew. Not frying yet.  Turning off the computer–good idea. Easier said than done when there are eighty apps  open. A week’s worth of WIP (works in progress) leading my machine toward RIP. It finally went black.

“Take off the keyboard. If possible, take out the battery.” More Google. Praise God for the half-hour video teaching how to rip off keys with parts smaller than the IQ of someone who dumps salsa on the keyboard in the first place.

A couple of keys were different. Panic. Deep breath. There was no one around but me–and Google. It was my moment of truth. Dive in–if underpaid children in China can do this, so can I.  Two swears and an “I wonder if I need my F-12 key” later, the keyboard was reassembled, any remaining liquid deep in the recesses of the machine. Time for prayer. And more Google.

“A classic newbie mistake is trying to turn the machine on after an hour or two. Leave it for 24 hours minimum. 48 or 72 is better.”

I had a premonition about this last week, “I’m not properly backed up.” Backup was last week’s project. This week’s–to spill salsa on it, making the backup worthwhile.

I’ve finished canning the salsa and peaches. If the computer works, I’ve learned a new skill, thanks be to Google. If not, this is the most expensive peach salsa I’ve ever made. Sixteen jars divided by the cost of a new computer breaks down to a total cost of $93.75 per jar.

Put in your orders now.

What Would You LIKE to Learn?

I’m writing my “Welcome Letter” to students. It’s going to a blog post this year. I’m trying to save trees–it’s a pain in the ass to get more paper when I run out. I have to requisition paper just to make the forms to get the paper, and I can’t really afford a virtual assistant. So, digital, here I come.

When I start the school year, I think of my most difficult customer. The kid who doesn’t want to be looking at my ugly face for 180 days and prays for a snowstorm or natural disaster to relieve him of that obligation. I don’t target nerds like me…they show up politely whether they like me or not. If I can convince school haters, I’m golden.

So, within the first day or two I’ll ask a question, “What would you like to learn?”

Life is about learning. The problem with education isn’t that policy’s bad, teachers suck or kids are stupid, it’s a failure to provide an intersection point.

Screen Shot 2013-08-24 at 9.16.15 AMImagine a graph–any graph. There is generally a point where the two lines meet. On a supply and demand or pricing graph, you have a bunch of people trying to not pay for stuff and a bunch of people trying to overcharge. Depending on the amount of stuff in circulation, the lines meet and you get a dot in the middle. If the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product.

I wasn’t good at math. I had to go to the Psych Services tutor in college to understand this stuff. She told me, “You’re okay, take a deep breath.” The guy in the next cube over was being treated for his fear of spiders.

Anyway. A graph is a graph. Right now what we have in education is a graph where the lines don’t always intersect. We have one group of people deciding what will be taught and evaluated, another teaching, and a third wishing they could learn something else entirely. Lines that don’t meet. When the lines don’t meet, that means you didn’t sell your product. My product is education. Not just education, but the LOVE of education.

When the lines meet, you get a dot in the middle of the graph. You need the dot in the middle of the graph. The dot represents the place where we all come together and agree on something. Cost effectiveness. The price we’re willing to pay. The salary we’ll take. Work efficiency. Break-even point. The willingness to teach and learn. It’s all the same. The lines need to meet.

I’m a writer–I don’t generally write about graphs.  But the truth is the truth whether I like it or not–the dot in the middle–the point of intersection–is the truth in all things. In math or relationships, we need that common ground.

One student put this in perspective, “You write a lot of curriculum. Teachers meet for this. Why don’t students meet with teachers and write it? ” Brilliant. Especially at the high school level where students are my customers. They express what is useful to them. Then, I guide them on paths to the top of the mountain.

So, this year, I’ll be asking “What do you want to learn?” We’ll decide together.

“Casey,” you might say, “How will they know what they need?” You’d be surprised. Given guidance and an objective, they soar. When I get customer dissatisfaction in the ranks, I say, “Here’s what I was aiming for. How can you achieve this to show me you learned?” Most of the time, they do far more than I’d have assigned.

Learning isn’t top down. I learn from my students.  This year I learned from the world. I’m a better writer, a better person…I have the type of friends who push me to be great. I push my students to be great. Better than me. Students often ask me a question.

“Miss, why are you teaching?” You see, everyone views teaching as the job you get if you can’t get another job. It’s a perception I’m trying to change.

“I’m here because I love you guys. I want you to be better than me.” It takes a while for that answer to sink in. When it does, when students believe this truth, we learn great things together.

This year, I’ve learned things I love–things I wanted to learn. Why would my students be different? That is why we will start with the question, “What would you like to learn?”  

And then, we’ll accomplish that goal.

[image: investopedia.com]

“Grandma Cut Off My Ear”–A Lesson about Resistance

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 7.45.17 AM“She poked me!” Declan cried. We’re getting his hair cut. Declan hates haircuts. He cries and resists.  If I were our hairdresser, I’d accidentally cut out his tongue.

I dread taking Declan for haircuts. He makes a big, loud fuss. Our hairdresser recently moved to a spa-salon where everyone takes their beauty very, very seriously. No six-year old boy belongs in a spa-salon where everyone takes their beauty and fashion very, very seriously. Heck, I don’t belong at a spa-salon where everyone takes their beauty and fashion very, very seriously–maybe he inherited the no-fashion gene from me. But at least I don’t cry and scream, disturbing women relaxing with their facials and manicures.

“Remember when Louie the Barber scared me?”

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 7.41.52 AM“Yes.” I said. “You were two. He scared you. You’re fine now.”  When Declan arrived at the stage of toddlerhood where his gender became unclear and I started confusing him with a dirty sheep or sandy breed of French poodle, it was time to get a real haircut. My limited skills would no longer do.

My husband said, “No hairdresser. Let him go to the barber with the men.” My dad was going the barber. I asked him to take the poodle along too. I went for support.

The barbershop was small, with enough hair piled on the floor that an 80’s metal band must’ve been the last set of customers. There wasn’t a canister of antiseptic in sight. The band probably drank it after running out of Everclear. The barber was a real old-timer. The medicine pole remained from when they really did do surgery in this specific shop.

The barber found a booster seat, swinging Declan into the chair. Declan screamed. The barber, undeterred, held him down, snipping away. Declan screamed and thrashed, but the barber continued, only narrowly avoiding a stabbing, mullet, or mohawk disaster.

Declan’s hysteria lasted weeks.

“Aren’t they supposed to disinfect the scissors or sweep the hair?” I asked my dad. I didn’t know, I’m not a guy. Girl places are pretty particular about these things, but maybe guys don’t care about infections, germs, gym socks, or dirt. We didn’t return. I resumed the hair cutting duties a while longer.

Then, Grandma intervened.  She’s always been good at haircutting. Declan wheeled his head around. She stabbed his ear.

“AHHHHHHH!” Grandma did not get a good review on Yelp that day.

So, now, we are at the hairdresser. This total saint of a woman is much more of a psychologist than stylist.

“I don’t need a haircut,” Declan informs her. She tells him he does and asks him about dinosaurs and upcoming first grade.

“Remember when Grandma cut my ear off?” He responds.  She checks for signs of van Gogh.

“Grandma did not cut your ear off. It’s still there,” she says. “I won’t cut your ear off. I’ll be quick.” He cries. Spa customers watch. The one nearest says, “Oh, my grandson…” I think the lady in the leggings just shot us a dagger. Declan is still crying and there is a strip of hair cut down the back of his head. It will not do to leave now. Our hairdresser promises she will cut his hair in ten snips. It takes twelve. He tells her.

We escape, I tip, probably not nearly enough. I will bring a gift when I go next week.

I take the boy for ice cream.

“You only cried once today,” I say. “But you’re six now. Next time you won’t even need to cry at all.” A little neurolinguistic programming never hurts. Best to start setting up for the next haircut now.

Amazing how such little things from our past build up so much resistance and stagnation in our lives. The smallest things spiral into bigger and bigger problems and fears until we become incapacitated. This resistance makes us push when we should be pulling, avoid when we should be tackling, and judge when we should be seeing the full picture.

This isn’t only a six-year old’s truth. Often times it’s true for me as well.

I think that means I get some ice cream, too.

 

 

[images: doblelol.com, pxleyes.com]

 

End of Summer Blues: Things I Failed to Accomplish

Teachers–ever feel that you need a vacation to recover from summer? That’s how I feel today.

I had a list, “Things to Accomplish This Summer.” Nothing is done.

First, I promised my friend Claudia I’d finish “The Book I Wonder if Anyone Will Read.” It’s not done. I removed spelling mistakes, inserted paragraphs and line breaks so my other friend won’t cry, and added a ton more sarcasm. Progress.

I planned to clean out the cellar. Also not done. In the spirit of good intent, I rummaged through a couple of boxes, consolidating and repacking them. I see a small dent in the pile. The size of dent that’d require the “f” word if a carriage dinged your car, but wouldn’t cause you to fix it.  There’s a path to the holiday decorations. Progress.

I failed to do my canning and preserving. To be fair, some of this was Mother Nature. The B-grade (irregular shaped, end of season, cheap) produce conspires to be ripe when I’m back in school. Something about harvest season which cannot be changed, even with the addition of global warming. School starts Monday. I’ll be moonlighting making your jams and salsas. I’ve contacted my farmer at least. Progress.

Some other things I didn’t do this summer: I didn’t see my sister’s new house in DC or visit my brother in Virginia. I wanted to, but I was tired. Not running around the universe seemed like the better deal. Teachers never listen to the urge to rest–there’s always 26 hours of work that must be done by tomorrow. When the calendar appears to give us a break, we insert something else. This summer, at the risk of being a bad family member, I didn’t travel much. Cutting down the schedule…progress.

Declan rides a stegosaurus.

Declan rides a stegosaurus.

We did fun, local things like Dinosaur Park in Connecticut. It has dinosaur statues, a water sprinkler park, maze, and a playground, and gem mining if you mortgage your house. Grandpa paid because he lost a bet to Declan, something about “You won’t eat a string bean.”  Never bet against six-year old in a high-stakes bet. This was a classic “house always wins” for Declan. Not that he’s eaten a string bean since. Eating veggies, having fun…progress.

We came back, driving under the biggest full moon I’ve ever seen. Turns out, it was a blue moon, a rare occasion–a concession from Mother Nature apologizing for the fruit delay. I unloaded the car, blue sky fading into black outlining the silhouettes of the trees, bats circling overhead. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a bat, other than the ones that live in my own belfry. Stopping to enjoy nature…progress.

Bats were always a favorite of mine. For four years, we lived in an old Victorian with a cracked attic window, where bats slept out the day. I enjoyed watching them hang upside down an inch from my nose. I love watching them fly more. Flying bats remind me of…me. Never flying in a straight line, they always look like they’re going to crash into something. They flit from place to place, in a zig-zags, and circles, avoiding trees. I wonder how they can survive. They look so scattered.

Yet, like me, they seem to get everything done–they eat, they fly, they sleep. Nice to see them flapping around at the full moon preparing for Halloween like a stock clerk setting out pumpkins and witches for the American consumer long before Labor Day.

Kripalu Center, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. You should go there.

Kripalu Center, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. You should go there.

I accomplished one thing on my list–another Kripalu yoga retreat. The retreat helped reconcile my failure to accomplish everything else with the true meaning of life.  Just as not accomplishing my summer list is an annual event, a yoga retreat to forgive myself will become one. Cyndi Lee presented “Strength, Stability and Clarity,” three things I can use in life.

I have three days to finish everything on my list and contemplate the beginning of the school year. I’m filing this under “Not gonna happen.” What will happen–I’ll take a minute to contemplate balance, so I can better understand the blessings my family, friends, and students bring to me, and save the extra time for them. Progress.