I Do Dumb Things. Ban Technology.

A video posted to my Google+ profile. I didn’t notice. It’s gone now, no use looking. It was me staring down my webcam for about 20 seconds. No makeup, terrible hair, stained shirt–frightening. I was playing with settings for a Google Air hangout. Apparently I sent it live…happens to the best of us. Good thing I was behaving, even if I was looking Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 6.55.42 AMpretty ragged.

It reminds me of a time long before Google. I was at work in my first cube-based career. We had a ten-line Simplex system which allowed transferring calls from cube to cube without identifiers. This created a ton of crank calls. Three of us were new. One co-worker always cranked called us in an outrageous foreign accent. I think he thought it was Indian. I thought he needed to take a couple more engineering classes to get it right.

“Hello, I would like to report a claim,” he’d say. We, the new people, would get sucked in every time, and answer fake accent guy. Finally, I learned. I’m good at languages, dialects, and accents. I can spot a fake from four cubes away. My phone rang.

“Hello, I would like to report a claim,” the voice said.

Fool me once, forgivable. Fool me ten times–I just wasted a lot of money on college. “You have to talk to Steve about that,” I said. A couple of people noticed my not usually assertive tone, stopping behind me.

“Okay,” said the voice. I paused, waiting for the usual burst of laughter and the loud slam from across the office.

“Hello?” said the voice on the other end of the phone.  The crowd behind me grew.

“Yes, I’m going to transfer your call.” I smiled. Steve was getting good. Very, very good. Not a single guffaw or snicker. He was really polishing the accent.

Long pause.

“Okay, I am ready for you to transfer my call.” Soon, everyone was behind me, waiting for the end of the joke. Including Steve. I threw the receiver and ran to the bathroom. I never knew what happened to the man on the other end of the call. I hope Steve helped him. I felt guilty. I want to teach this man’s kids so I can make it up to him in the cycle of life.

I was recently asked about digital citizenship. It’s an area of concern for teachers, IT people, and educational leaders, many of whom block, ban, or avoid technology in the classroom because it might not be used appropriately. It’s a problem I’d like to solve.

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 6.56.47 AMHow do we make students responsible citizens so we don’t have cyberbullying, crime, hate, cruelty, bad grammar, pranks, and general negative vibes in the universe?  Tech definitely gets a bad rap on this one. “Bad” occurred before the Internet. It will occur long after something better’s invented. We all make mistakes–case in point that Google Air video. We can be rude with or without the Internet. That phone call is a fine example. Improperly used, technology can detract from classrooms, like devils advocates say. I think back to every teacher I ignored in favor of writing, folding, and passing notes in class when the only technology I had was a pencil.

If I teach kindness and good manners universally, paying attention to what I model, tech should be okay. I teach these lessons to my students. I show them a few profiles of mine on the spot. They’re always hoping for dirt.

“If you’re looking for a picture of me drinking a 40-o wrapped in a paper bag on a street corner singing a-capella, you won’t find it,” I say.

“Why?” asks a kid.

“Because it doesn’t exist.” It’s the punch line of the lesson. “You need to behave, in writing, on the Internet, and in life, like it’s being broadcast. Because one day, it might just be.”  If my life were broadcast, it’d be the cure for insomnia. I should patent it.

I found a picture of Declan piling blocks on me. It self-posted to my Vizify. Then, of course, that video of me staring down the world on Googe+. I look like someone who’s applying for a makeover show, in need of rehab, or a costume designer for a horror set. Hideous, but harmless.

That’s the risk you take, I guess, in the 21st century.

Bottom line is this…we misbehaved before we had tech. Good teachers mitigated misbehavior with motivation. I didn’t pass notes while sitting on the edge of my seat. It’s our responsibility to get students ready for real life. Real life includes technology. If I leave that part out, I’m not doing my job.


[images: shutterstock.com and acclaimimages.com]

Why I Can’t Teach Elementary School

I can’t discuss the day I had yesterday…not because I don’t want to…because of confidentiality. I never discuss things that can be pegged to individual students unless they are positive shout outs. It was a Class-A challenging day, filled with the crises I get from time to time teaching high school. It used to rattle me, but now each emergency of scale winds its way to my doorstep. I return each serve, and take the day in stride. In between, I manage to teach, knowing I’ve helped a kid or two in the process. I try to remember to smile.

Teaching high school is easy. I get to be a real person, flaws and all. Kids pick off flaws if I try to hide them, anyway. I wish I were an elementary teacher. Elementary teachers are magical. They don’t have flaws. They never lose their cool. They always smile. They dress really nice, and they have panache. I don’t have panache.

homeworkI leave my school and go home to Elementary Boy Declan. He likes bad words and fart jokes. I imagine his elementary teacher smiling as she tells him this is “inappropriate.” I try to raise him right. I don’t teach him bad words and jokes…but things get away from me. I help him do his homework. He procrastinates.

“Mommy, rub my shoulders.” I do.

“Oh, that feels really good. Way better than when I say ‘crap’ a thousand times in a row.” He tries to hide his bad words. He goes to his room saying, “I need privacy. I want to have a conversation with myself.” I listen in. “Shut up, shut up, shut up, crap, shit.” Should stop this or let him work through this developmental moment privately? What would an elementary teacher say?

“You know, saying bad words isn’t nice. You’ll grow up and have no friends.” That’s what I say. I know it’s untrue. An elementary teacher would never say this. I continue, “You’ll get bad karma.” He bumps his knee on the chair. He cries. “See?” I say, “Bad karma.” He growls. He tells me he’ll turn into a dinosaur and eat me.

“It’s NOT bad KARMA!” I tell him it is. You never know when karma is coming…

For now, I accept his compliment in the interest of finishing homework. Mommy, you make me happier than saying the word “crap.” That’s a big endorsement. I tell him not to say “crap.”

In my high school classroom, “crap” is passé. Even the “f” word gets a quick check for the first offense, “Um, language alert.” For repeat offenders, “I’m sure I can find you a hundred or so nice ‘f’ words to write about…” Hint: I’m about to make your day inconvenient. Knock it off.

My son wants to be “inappropriate.” He thinks it’s fun.  He’s received some positive reinforcement in this department. What I call “fresh,” and “obnoxious,” was relabeled “entrepreneurial,” “visionary,” “renegade.”

“That kid’s going places,” I’m told. Yeah, straight to bed. Or time out. Or the gypsies…

deskI went to open house last night. I sat in his teeny, tiny chair. There, on the desk, was a star chart. One of two star charts in the class. In teaching land, that’s not good. Where I’d give a student “the death stare,” Miss, knock that off. You can’t do the ‘death stare.’ You don’t have it in you. I just laugh…[“Well, I got you to stop, didn’t I?”], elementary teachers give encouragement. A star chart.

This means that Declan needs to behave. Last night, I received appropriate elementary strategies meant to encourage. I can’t smile that much while I encourage, though. Elementary teachers never seem to rattle. They impress me. The charts, graphs, stars, and incentives are amazing. I sat in the tiny desk thinking of what I could steal and repurpose in my classroom to “encourage.”  I’d have to white out all the smileys, frogs, and apples, though, or it would encourage students to laugh me off the planet. My charts can’t smile. Maybe I can design charts with avatars wearing sagging jeans or something. If the jeans on the chart sag, that’s not good. Students get to pull up the jeans on their avatar as they achieve more and more.

I try to encourage. Probably not so well. My elementary educator friends tell students to “make good choices,” in the face of inappropriateness.  Teaching high school, I encourage my students to do listen, or they can encourage themselves to some grave penalty.

“You like to throw paper? Awesome! You can throw paper for three hours after school. I’ll let you aim at the basket. I’ll send your stats to the NBA.”  Nobody usually chooses my offer, probably because I tell them I am a nerd, have no life and can stay till six to help their paper-throwing jump shot if need be. They pause. They decide it might just be true. They cease and desist.

Elementary teachers never lie like that. My friend Amy tells me I can’t design punishments I can’t carry out. “You can’t take away computer or TV from your son forever…” 

Maybe she’s right. I’m not sure…she is far better than me in this department.

I tell my son it’s time to go to bed, no more negotiation, he’s not buying a company or anything. Finally, I get him to bed. He only turns into a dinosaur once to try to eat me before he is fast asleep…without saying one bad word.

My Mailbox

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 9.04.11 AMThe Teacher’s Mailroom. It’s a relic from the past. Boxes that serve as a repositories for things better ignored via email. Every once in a while the cluttered box proves its worth. I get a special treat from someone like a thank you note or a card with a candy bar attached. It keeps me checking my box. Like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Not today. No candy with a note. No thank you card. No good news. I strike out. Just a bunch of dead trees I’ll probably toss on my desk and forget to read when the first student starts to discuss the day.

There’s a lot of reasons to fill up teachers’ mailboxes…schedules, mandates, notices, rules. I grab them and go. I intend to I read them on the way up the stairs, filing them into three mental piles…”do this,” “consider this,” and “you seriously killed a tree for this?” I mean to read every last word, but the truth is I lose focus. I’d rather talk to students about the game or their bad fashion.

Even email’s tough now…now that I’ve been properly dog-trained to send short ones and get to the point. The constant stream of “reply to all” violations and epic novels so prevalent in education…the daily updates about programs and events…it’s all bad karma beating me down for the email diatribes I produced in my former lives.

And that is why I want someone smarter than me to invent a something useful irradiate this problem. Maybe a chip or sensor I can embed into my coffee cup or implant in my arm. It’ll use some kind of electrical impulse to read my latent neurological response to email, highlighting the ones it knows will interest me, just like Amazon and Facebook know what kind of adverting will get me to respond. Hardly seems like advertising anymore.

It’ll recognize excessively long, boring emails that contain information critical to my day. It’ll distill them  into a single tweet providing me with an executive summary of everything I really need to know to survive and act intelligent.

I have a friend who doesn’t read.

“What do you mean you don’t read?” I asked him.

“I don’t read. When you finish your book I probably won’t read it.”

How can you be so successful and read so little?”

“Easy,” he replied. “I bullshit.”

This is the essence of what I want to invent. On a good day, I’ll feel briefed like the President of the United States. On a bad day, I’ll at least be able to throw down the bullshit card. I’ll sound intelligent. I had a friend in a prior career that used to carry papers around all day. That’s all he did. I asked him how he got promotions when people like me did all his work.

“Oh, I look busy all the time. I carry a file around and pretend to copy things. You should try it sometime.” Indeed I should.

I think the upgrade to this chip could be some kind of sensor that could work in people, predicting conversations I didn’t want to have.

I’m not sure how to make this, and I don’t have the skill or energy for this endeavor, but I’d pay money if it existed. I hope someday it does.

And the rainforests would sure be glad.

A Little Like Christmas

There was a box from Amazon at the door. I forgot what I ordered. I opened it up. Coffee. Another one came two days later. A carrier for my lunch tin and copies of my friend’s book. Cool.  I don’t buy a lot of stuff, but when I do, I forget it’s on the way–the immediate decision being over and done with, item filed into memory. It seems a little like Christmas when the package arrives.

That’s exciting.

“But you bought and paid for those items. What’s Christmaslike about that?” you might ask.

The American culture is so built on immediate gratification that when there’s a break in the chain of events one of two things happens. First–we forget about stuff and decide we don’t need it. That’s the usual path to simplicity. But if I buy something, I usually need it. I’m not an extravagant person. The passing of time is just enough to make me feel like I got myself a gift.

That got me to thinking.

“Can I get myself a gift without spending cash?”

The answer is always yes, in focusing on the simple things, and in doing good.

Every time we invest time in doing simple things and doing good, really make it part of the fabric of our existence, we’re shopping for our future. This year, I’ve spent time doing many things–enjoying a new home with my family, trying my hand at being a homesteading poser, meeting rock stars in education and technology, writing, learning, working toward balance, being healthier, avoiding insanity, and…yes, shortening my emails. All good things.

I’ve noticed something. The wait time speeds by. Three months pass. Six months pass. A year passes, and suddenly I look up and there’s a package at my door. Instead of it being a new lunch tin for school or a package of coffee, it’s a gift from me to me. Better writing. More knowledge. Friends who have become central to my life.

Society spends a lot of time on resolutions, habits, self-improvement. We read books, go to the gym, eat lettuce… sometimes we spin our wheels and expect results.

“Hey, I’m your scale…stop stepping on me and go eat a carrot.” We fixate on the impossible forgetting that one good thing done today is really the critical investment in our long-term goals. Doing one small thing usually isn’t painful. Today, eat a carrot, six months down the road while making a carrot salad, you notice. You say, “Wow, I eat healthier.”

A year later, it’s, “I’ve balanced my life and job by putting aside work for an hour or two a day and doing fun things with my family.”

It’s like paging through snapshots in a photo album–easy to see the journey and the results. A pleasant surprise–the realization that the path to happiness is no more than one smile issued today.

It seems amazing, “I didn’t know I could do all this.” The cliché turns out to be the truth. A journey of a thousand miles really does began with a single step…before you know it, you’ve traveled to the top of the mountain.

It’s a little like Christmas. Without all the greed.

Gardening is Like Gambling: Cut Your Losses

brussel sproutsI pulled out the last of the Brussels sprouts without brussels. I’d been watching them, waiting. I asked the farmer when I saw them getting cabbage worms.

“Should I spray?” I didn’t want to spray. I wanted to be organic. Spraying would make me no better than the chemical companies I was trying to avoid.

“Listen, if you see worms, it’s too late. You have to do it ahead of time. We don’t want to spray, but if we didn’t you’d be hungry.”

Proactive. Not reactive. It’s a philosophy that works well in life, not just on Brassica. Epic fail in failing to thinking ahead and being too holier than thou to spray.

Still, the things grew and grew. Bean stalks perhaps? I left them. No brussels appeared.

“Google, when should these brussel?” I searched.  Nobody told me what to do when my Brussels sprouts didn’t brussel. There was no support group, no help. I asked my friend the garden guru.

“Pull them out,” she said. I obeyed. It was a sad moment. I’d invested a lot of time, space, and love into these barren stalks.

Pulling them out wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. There wasn’t one sprout I could eat as a consolation prize. If you haven’t seen Brussels sprout plants, they’re huge. Quite an investment in garden space. It’s probably why I let them go so long.

When investing in something that’s going sour, the temptation is to let it go another day to see what happens. It’s no different from being a gambling addict…everyone’s always hanging on to win the jackpot…the casino knows most people will play one more game tomorrow. I was playing with Brussels sprouts, but the endorphins are the same. Spinning the roulette wheel one more time. I came up short and the table cleared. No return forthcoming.

I ripped up the Brussels sprouts and took out the browning cornstalks for good measure. They’d produced two-inch twisted baby corn, then met their maker. I bundled them up and converted them into a “decoration,” next to a pot of unbloomed mums. They looked sad. The mums turned completely away, protesting, refusing to open until deformed corn was removed.

corn“Those are the sorriest excuses for corn stalks I’ve ever seen,” said my husband. “They look dumb. Mums are nice, though.” The stalks bowed over, sad and ashamed. They knew I’d given them an awful lot of space and they didn’t deliver.  I’d waited “just one more day” for them,  too.  One more spin of the roulette wheel. Nothing

Lesson learned. Sometimes things don’t produce. Things that don’t produce have to go.

The moral of my stories is generally the opposite. I discuss education. I talk about student success…flowers blossoming in their own time… Not today. Sometimes it’s best to realize things aren’t going to come to fruition. A policy won’t change, a student won’t be interested in graduation despite my very best efforts, or a collaboration won’t work out.

At some point, it’s time to change direction. Waiting for things that won’t happen is not useful. I could have done something far more productive with garden resources. Nature doesn’t force a bloom. Nature also corrects for things that don’t work out. It’s not a bad thing–everything ends up doing what it’s supposed to in its own time. But that doesn’t mean I should sit around and wait.

I pulled the eggplant with no blossoms, and took out the dried beans.

“Even Jesus wiped out a fig tree that didn’t bear fruit,” I thought.

The sprouts and corn are gone. Finally. Should’ve done that months ago. I could have been eating a great fall crop of broccoli or lettuce right about rather than waiting for stuff that I sensed would never come to pass.

Could this be a life lesson? Something useful for the classroom, too?

Maybe I should let students make their own path without judgment or not go crazy at work trying to solve all the problems of the universe. Who knows. Today, I’m just ripping out the veggies.

I’ll let skilled philosophers figure out the rest.

Frugal Is a Lie

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

Yes, it is an awful lot of work to can tomatoes.

I’m canning. Canning everything in sight, actually. Somehow, in the process of doing all this work, I live under the illusion that I’m saving money. It’s a lie.

It’s a lie I refuse to confront as I swim up to my chin in tomatoes, wash, and get ready to switch modes to apples. Somehow, returning to the arts of my grandparents seems the right thing to do–modern-day victory gardens, quasi-homesteading, shopping at the farm, foraging, DIY sewing projects, making cheese from scratch…living a simpler life.

But is it cheaper? Am I really the baroness of frugal that I pretend to be?

“Did you ever calculate how much you got from your garden and how much it cost?” asked my husband earlier in the season.

“No,” I said. I left it at that. The real answer is “No, because I’d have to confront the truth, which is ridiculously stupid.” I read “The $64 Tomato” just like every other wanna be urban homesteader. Then, I was ready to move to the country.

Frugal was easier in some respects when we lived in the city. There were coupons. The stores were four feet away in any direction. I got a ton of stuff free–I don’t think I paid for toothpaste for four years, and I just used the last bar of soap from my double-coupon-match-the-sales-free-soap-victory-extravaganza a very long time ago.

What? You want me to calculate the value of my time and add it into the equation, then tell you how much I saved?

Back then, it wasn’t much, because it was the height of the Recession. The world was crashing. I had time, but cash was at a premium. Matching the coupons, running around to the sales, keeping track of all the cluttery nonsense… it was effort, but it paid off in the end. It was a part-time job, to be sure. I got paid in free toothpaste and ten-cent shampoo. Money would’ve been more convenient.

I ended up with bags of free stuff. I brought the extras to the shelters. I enjoyed getting resources where they need to be. But I’m done with that clutter. Living out in the sticks, I’m not near a bunch of drug stores that let me run around matching sales. Cows don’t take coupons. I do it differently now. Use less, waste less, get better stuff.

My coupon life has come to an end. I think I’m I still frugal. I’ve worn that like a badge of honor. I hope I don’t have to give it up…to admit I’m more bohemian boutiquey than frugal after all. Maybe even a frugal poser. This is getting worse by the minute.

Let’s think. First, I buy the mason jars. I give stuff away. Then, I buy more jars. To make my jams and apple butter this year, I used fair-trade organic vegan sugar, local B-Grade maple, and local honey. Not frugal. The opposite of frugal. What I lack in frugal, I make up for in taste, I rationalize. But can I still qualify for frugal status? It means a lot to me. I’ll run the math.

Today, I’m canning tomatoes. I got 60 pounds for $25. If I pay myself $10/hour for this arduous kitchen task, that’s $80–a pittance for someone of my talent. I could be making at least $12.50 at the fast-food joint in town, and I wouldn’t even have to can the tomatoes–I’d just open last year’s vaccuum-sealed packs.

Back to the math. Running the stove for about 4 hours–a pound of propane is a bit over $6. That’s $24. The mason jars are around $7/case. The total cost of today’s project–approximately eight hours of my life (small pots mean two batches)–for a grand total of $136. I made 12 pints of sauce. That’s roughly $11.33/pint if I don’t factor in the actual cost of my time or the opportunity cost of my having done something else.

Frugal is not frugal. It’s a lie. But it is quirky, and I’m a pretty darned good cook. I’ll cut costs somewhere else.

Please return my mason jars.

On to the apples…


Why Study History?

I found the following question on Quora. I had to answer.

Why do schools teach history instead of something more practical? When and why did the governments across the world decide to add history as a subject And why does it have to be history instead of some other social science like political science or sociology?

For me, I can’t separate those areas to begin with–I never know where dividing line between the disciplines start and finish. In real life nothing lives in isolation. Neither should it in my teaching.

This was my answer:

Yesterday, a student posed a question. It was a good question about a (insert random country here) location about which no student cared. I said, “That’s a good question.”

I told a few stories, and posed a few questions for them to discuss. We made some analogies that ranged from a fight in the cafeteria, to a broken treaty between the State of Connecticut and the Mashantucket Pequots, Japanese internment camps in America, the present-day situation in Israel, decolonization in the world and the effects of hegemony on various immigration patterns… by the time we wove the tale, we had discussed several seemingly unrelated places over a period of a couple thousand years, integrating some key themes and players.

We touched upon things. We related things, we analyzed some questions. Before class ended, I’d sketched graphs and charts on the board–even one had a limit on it, which I introduced as such. “Stick with me…this is college math…what does this mean?”

The subject of what we should teach–which subjects are the most practical–is an important one. It’s not what is taught, it’s how it’s taught and with what goal. History, done well, integrates with all other subjects, sparks curiosity, and helps students to research, analyze, posit, predict, solve, and speak out.

As an undergrad, one of the greatest lessons I learned was from a conversation with Dr. Larry Hudson–a British professor of American history of African descent. His take on the American Revolution was certainly not the one I’d heard in every American textbook–could history be…open to interpretation? That’s no small realization for an 18-year-old. Call that historiography, or research analysis… it’s all in what you do with it.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 5.52.10 AMThe second valuable lesson I learned was from a mentor in grad school, Dr. Bob Cvornyek. He researched everything from chain gangs to labor to…baseball. When I tell students “I know a man who gets paid to write about baseball,” it’s a whole new game. History becomes something that motivates them. “You can study anything as long as you back it up.”

Through history they learn to integrate material, conduct and present research, identify quality sources, create, debate… any number of skills you’d be grateful to have in a quality employee, successful entrepreneur, or even interesting person on the street.

History, done well, isn’t about dead guys. It’s really the key to life.


[image: tbedu.blogspot.com]