Tuesday, January 17, 2017

There & (mostly) back again

You know the investing disclaimer about past performance being no guarantee of future returns? Well, check out this slice for a nearly literal off-label application.

With my newish knee ligament and the connected parts getting stronger, I've stepped back on skis of the Nordic variety the past two weeks. Six pristine inches of snow and the federal holiday Monday encouraged me to hop on a nearby multi-use path for a shushing jaunt. The outbound journey went a deliberate 2-3 miles. Fairly wet snow and old, neglected skis meant I sometimes had to pause, scraping from the ski bases clumpy chunks, harshing on my meager glide. A small headache, I figured, given the passable ground coverage that meant I could keep skiing. I made even quicker work after turning around to head downhill. That is, until about a mile into my return when first I saw ominous tread tracks; then the surface changed texture:
Turned out, since I'd last passed, all that coverage had been swept aside by a go-getting municipal employee who'd plowed well beyond the sign that threatened (promised?): "End of city maintenance." I milked the soft shoulder for all it was worth before I had to resort to my two feet, clicking on concrete, for the last several steps home.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Slice of someone else's life

Turns out it's a lot easier to stop writing than to start. That's one reason I'm glad I met this woman at the bus stop today.  Actually, she was standing 50 or so feet away from the bus stop when I politely squeezed past her on the sidewalk at 5 p.m. She walked along with me, commenting how she'd just realized she'd misplaced herself. We made small talk, awaiting the bus: weather, of course. In a show of boldness, she asked what I did. When she learned I was an English teacher, she asked if I wrote. "Informally, amateurly," I stuttered, "to model for my students." "Not to get published?" she asked. I shook my head. "For my own reflection, really." She said she loved to sing and write songs; in fact, she was headed to a music rehearsal. She admitted that she would never let her dreams die. She'd dreamed for a long time of a life in rock and roll. She'd lived itinerantly.  Before singing tonight, she needed to attend an AA meeting. Her laughter rang like wind chimes. Turns out I never know what might re-start my writing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

On fragmenting & fragments

I love to read. I love to foster students' excitement about reading. I love when students who claim they don't love reading maybe, just maybe, start to change their minds -- a little. For these reasons and others, I champion independent reading as a classroom priority.

It's not all peaches and cream, though. I also notice downsides of independent (vs. shared) reading. For instance, our classroom community does less connecting and thinking together about books. It doesn't have to be this way; lately, it just is. Some student feedback at the end of this semester has me thinking about that and subtly different approaches we might take in 2017.

Mean time, I'm using this space (increasingly) to share slices of what I'm reading. A few powerful quotes are sticking with me from the book I just finished, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. This space seems like a good one to park them, along with a few related thoughts...
  • On why Kalanithi pursued a career in medicine versus one in a more abstract realm like literature or philosophy: "Moral speculation was puny compared to moral action." (43) I take this as a reminder, when teaching, not to get too bogged down in analysis when brisk action might be key.
  • On the doctor/patient relationship, crystallizing a stance I aspire to take with students: "Here we are together, and here are the ways through -- I promise to guide you, as best I can, to the other side." (88)
  • On growth mindsets by way of math metaphor: "You can't ever reach perfection , but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." (115)
  • On death, dying and the calculations science make: "The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability." (135) This dynamic has analogs in education as many students and their families, and school systems even, equate failure with a killing blow.
  • On seeking connections in service of learning: "Human knowledge is never contained in one person. it grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete." (172)
Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Five slices of Breakout EDU life

It's the last week of the semester where I teach. From today through Friday, I meet each class for one 90-minute block to put a proverbial bow on four months together. That could be an opportunity for an exam (final or otherwise), a culminating project, or a mid-year course evaluation. Instead, I'm opting to introduce students to Breakout Edu. Here are a few observations from round one...
  • DIY'ing the materials is well within reach, thanks to the open-source nature of the project. Just as there are many ways to skin cats, there are equivalent ways to break out. Both actual and digital.
  • With a minimum of direction and the game afoot at eight this morning, most of the 27 students... They. Just. Started. Doing. Stuff. This was simultaneously exhilarating and frightening for the part of me that's a professional control freak. As events proceeded, I often found myself wanting to interject and, you know, teach. I resisted this temptation (my tongue still hurts from all the biting). I see now how being less helpful made space for students to help themselves and each other, not to mention sit with frustration.
  • Just because the design is open source doesn't mean it's easy or fool-proof. Last night, I managed to lock myself out of the directional lock on my first attempt changing the combination. (Imperfect gift for the holidays: Master-Lock paperweight?) Chagrin eventually gave way to problem solving when I decided to create a digital lock instead via a Google Form. Even better: a knot of students broke out in delighted shouts when they cracked it. And likely best of all: turns out the lock opened thanks to the creative know-how of one eighth grader who found a side door, not the way I had intended at all.
  • For the record, the second lock gave way under similarly unorthodox pressure, though not of the physical variety. I may need to rethink puzzle design, which feels like my own refreshing learning.
  • Not breaking out need not be a failure -- at least, not a lasting one. Students opened two of four locks in 45 minutes of play; then, we debriefed. That conversation invited students to notice both productive and counter-productive ways they approached problems. Students unpacked both group and individual dynamics, what they'd want to do again vs. what they'd rather avoid. One equanimous eighth-grade soul even reminded us that (I'm paraphrasing) experiences in life can surpass the outcomes if we let them.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Sound of one butterfly wing flapping

Part of this is a slice of life, and part is me reeling kaleidoscopically. Let's start with the slice.

On Monday, I started each of five classes by theatrically pouring out a box of stuff I had collected around the room the prior week: books and writing utensils abandoned at work stations, water bottles, empty drink cans, paper (whole and scraps), gum and candy wrappers, other detritus adolescents (among others) are prone to leave behind. Students mimed horror; a few gasped. I pointed students back to our self-study of design thinking to start the year and asked, "How might we improve this situation? How might we care better for the space we share?" Students offered a mix of ideas and excuses. Among the moments that made me smile: the sixth grader who offered wonderingly, "I guess we just need to be more aware."

The kaleidoscope started twirling on the drive home. I heard a radio interview with an author about "what it means to be a futurist" (transcript here, for the curious). The part that stuck with me and sent me deeper down the rabbit hole of my own thoughts was the writer's reference to meteorology professor Edward Lorenz who originated chaos theory. That particular idea I likely know best from this film:

Back in front of a computer, my next click brought me to a synopsis of Lorenz's work, including his finding that "small changes can have big consequences." Lorenz contrasts his view with deterministic ones in which "only one thing can happen next" based on whatever prior conditions led to a particular point.

While Lorenz unfolded his thinking from experience with weather models, his notions resonate for me in education. I crave (and sometime cling to) deterministic views of learning with their tidy causes and effects, even when I'm regularly confronted with messiness and unpredictability. Sometimes, as shown in the last week, that messiness can even be literal.

Monday, November 28, 2016


I live near a library and enjoy grazing the shelves in search of serendipitous reading opportunities. This M.O. led to me spending Thanksgiving with George Plimpton's Paper Lion, a literary journalistic account of the author's try-out with the NFL's Detroit Lions in 1963. (The book was reissued this year with other Plimpton titles.)

A passage I came across today on page 230 provided grist for blogging -- not to mention my first foray into the nascent world of #booksnaps. Here it is:

(Fret not, book protectors, I didn't mark up the library's copy; that's all digital post-production.) Plimpton writes these paragraphs as scene setters. He's about to take the field, following weeks of practice, to quarterback five actual plays in a Lions scrimmage in Pontiac, Michigan.

Reading this, my teaching sensibilities tingle. It's the precise feeling I want my students to kindle in themselves. Even as they harbor doubts, I crave for them to feel like great readers and writers: looking and acting those parts; committing to their preparation; faking it (if they must) en route to making it; belonging, ultimately.

For his part, the author of Paper Lion makes an inauspicious gridiron debut (-29 yards of offense in just five plays). He does, though, learn plenty about himself and stretch beyond any conceivable comfort zone. That's a Plimptonic ideal to which my students and I ought to aspire, I figure.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Multi-level marketing, Madoff, & me

Turns out I can and can't put a price on good health. Over the past nine months, I've had a close-up view of medical care that -- knock on wood! -- I've largely been spared to this point in my life. I'm now doing some accounting at (what I hope to be) the end of this process; or at least the end of this particular knee-ligament reconstruction. Here are the ledger's broad strokes as I've gleaned them...

Since March, my employer has paid $4,608 in insurance premiums. I've been responsible, meanwhile, for $3,357.03 in co-pays and co-insurance. A digital deluge of explanations of benefits has kindly reminded me that, without insurance coverage, all this recent medical attention would've set me back $35,707.11. The insurance folks also let me know their negotiated share of the bills has been $7,685.65 -- effectively, $3,077.65 if we subtract my employer's premium-based contributions.

Bottom line: I should visit the HR office and thank my employer. It's been purchasing my health insurance for over a decade in which I've minimally tapped those contributions for preventive care. Which leaves me wondering: What, if anything, separates this system from a pyramid scheme? Is it the group buying power that negotiated down the full-tilt costs?