Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Social Action and Guilt

So I was back in church on a Sunday morning for the first time in a month, as I've finally cleared my schedule of trainings, conferences, and assorted things which wanted to take over the first morning of the week. It was good to be back, though the fact that the old people that irritate me so who sit behind me finally know my name is upsetting for a whole variety of reasons.

The sermon was the second part of one two weeks ago, and since I hadn't listened to the podcast (Sorry pastor!) I felt a little lost. I was posting a couple of my pastor's quips on my Twitter feed when the folks whom I follow started to comment on points from Pete Wilson's sermon at CrossPoint Church in Nashville. Jonathan Acuff then tweeted the following:

"26k kids starved to death yesterday & I got mad emails cause I'm in a Taylor Swift video? Christians are bored" 

Now, I have to say that I really like Pete Wilson and his book Plan B. However, the tweet didn't sit well with me, so I immediately shot back a response that I thought the comment was begging to receive.

Just to play Devil's Advocate, but 26k kids starved while he was in a Taylor Swift video. Statements like that can backfire. 

Before I go on, I think I should toss some caveats out there. First of all, I had to google whom Taylor Swift was (No, you're not surprised). Second of all, it's not that I disagree with the entire statement per se, as I think that Evangelical Christians are world-famous for majoring on minor issues and blowing them all out of proportion. However, the tone of the statement smells suspiciously like it's meant to elicit a response via guilt, which just rubs me the wrong way. Because I didn't hear it firsthand, I'm going to err on the side of caution and assume it sounds a lot better in context. However, that won't stop me from using it as an excuse to talk about social action and guilt, which is something I had to deal with the past couple of weeks.

In the past decade or so, Evangelical Christianity in America has moved with society in general to be more interested in social causes than it used to be, which is in no way, shape, or form, a bad thing. It's really encouraging to see young people get fired up about working in the community and abroad to make a difference instead of solely blindly consuming the latest in Pop Culture. Unfortunately, this raised awareness has created an army of people who are so driven for their causes that they are literally incapable of understanding that someone cannot be as obsessed about said cause as they are.

In Evangelical circles, I blame this solely on Francis Chan and his book Crazy Love, which essentially said that if you weren't spending your entire life trying to help the poor or in some sort of social action (preferably abroad), you don't love Jesus, and if you don't love Jesus, that, my friends, is a Very Bad Thing. Of course, after polemicizing for 200 pages or so, he backtracks at the conclusion that maybe we're not all called to treat foot fungus in Ethiopia like one of his examples, but apparently I'm the only person to have noticed this comment when reading and discussing this book. 

Having sat through two (Two!) studies of this book, I admit I groaned silently and rolled my eyes as either the book itself or a wide-eyed ideologue lectured me on how because I don't spend every penny and every waking moment helping the poor, hungry, disadvantaged, oppressed, etc., I'm either some baby-eating non-Christian or some soulless corporati. Of course, in the latter's case I didn't help things one bit by slipping into a rich vein of passive-aggressiveness and began singing the praises of unfettered corporatism and consumerism. But what can I say? No one's perfect.

I think it goes without saying that this view on life is flawed to say the least, and people who want to guilt you into following their pet social cause with the same alleged intensity runs into trouble. First of all, if I'm going to take your cause as seriously as you want me to, I need to quit my job and sign up at the nearest monastery, as that is the logical conclusion of your rhetoric. And with all due respect to my Catholic friends and readers, the last thing a monastery needs is for me to show up to join their order.

This leads to the point that when someone is this fervent about the totality of their cause, and is busy guilt tripping you into aiding their cause, it makes it easy to poke holes in their arguments. For the angry ideologue, I asked why he was sitting at home playing video games instead of solving problems abroad. For the quote from Wilson, I merely asked what taking a part in a country music video would do to help the 26k kids who starved while he took part in said video. Is pointing things like that out a bit out of taste? Yes. But then again, guilt tripping people into helping your pet causes isn't exactly great either.

I'm pretty sure by now you're sitting smugly in your seat wondering if I actually do care about anyone but myself. Well, if you want to be honest, I have a real soft spot for helping out gifted kids in pretty much any way I can. Yes, it isn't helping people with foot fungus in Ethiopia, but to blow off gifted kids' needs is as callous as I'm often accused when I don't swoon over the latest cause in need of my assistance Right. This. Minute. As events in the UK showed this past week with the mysterious murder of a GCHQ cryptanalyst, gifted people often grow up into solitary individuals that people look at quizzically, only to remark that they are "extremely polite and amiable" without doing much else. As someone who tends to have people look at me and say that I am "extremely polite and amiable" without doing much else, I see needs that I have a unique understanding and toolkit to take care of. Does that make my cause less important than starving kids 3/4 of a world away? For some people, yes, but for the rest of us, we know better.

To sum this all up, we can't save the world all by ourselves no matter how hard we try, but instead of trying to get as many comrades-in-arms for our cause-du-jour via guilt and peer pressure, let's just realize that some people are busy saving their corner of the world so you don't have to also.

Until next time.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Burden of Command

I was going to make this post about my first two weeks of school, but rather than focusing on my classroom, events today are making me think about my responsibilities outside the classroom and how I need to deal with them.

I must say up front that I am not shy about taking charge of something for better or worse. If there is a power vacuum, I tend to fill it. If there is an ineffective leader in charge, I pressure them to improve or outright take over. It's not because I have delusions of becoming a tinpot dictator or anything, but I'm a pretty meticulous person, and I like things done correctly. So if I'm not in charge and it's not getting done correctly, that drives me batty to no end. For most of last year, our team leader was trying to dump the job on my lap because it was obvious that she couldn't do it and I could. As you've read on this blog, I was kind of too busy taking classes and figuring out how to teach to take the job, but when she declared to everyone that she was not coming back, I volunteered for the job.

It's not a hard job per se, but it's a bit of a petty bureaucratic feel to it because I'm essentially the liaison between the administration and my fellow seventh grade teachers. The most tedious part of it is heading up our daily team meetings. With a good team, it's a breeze. If you don't have a good team, it's like pulling teeth. Thankfully, this year's team is like the former instead of the latter, and my fellow teachers have done a great job of taking on roles that I wanted to delegate. What I'm left with is essentially being the face of the team and the person who can spin anything that needs to be said to administrators either at the school level or above.

So today we came into teaming and I was looking to finish up a lesson for my Honors class the next period. In walks a Central Office employee to complete an inservice on drug abuse. I had another activity planned, and was caught flat-footed. My principal looked at me quizzically and told me that this was on the weekly announcement e-mail. I responded by smirking and sheepishly admitting that even though I've been there for over a year, I still don't get school e-mails due to not being assigned to the school by the e-mail server. The COC employee looked at me strangely, but my principal started laughing and told her that this is really a shame since I have pretentions of being a good team leader and best of all, I am the school's technology lead teacher, after all. I could only fake a shameful look and talk about the irony of it all. I then apologized to the COC employee about being clueless about her coming, and she sweetly brushed it off, calling it all a part of being in charge of something.

And you know what? She is completely correct. Leading is really a series of unexpected situations that not even the best planning and bureaucratic paperwork can prepare us for. Though this was a pretty amusing example of dealing with unexpected events on a moment's notice, it pales in comparison to the daily fun of being our school's technology lead teacher. That position is essentially the technology resource person at school who is in charge of professional development for technology, writing the school's technology plan, and most mundanely, doing basic troubleshooting of our school's PCs and assorted hardware, and putting wha can't get fixed on our HelpDesk. Our last TLT was our curriculum facilitator, who has since moved on to being an assistant principal at a school on the East End of the parish (Jerk. [Not really. I'm quite happy for her, but I miss her so.]), and I filled in the position (See a trend?) with the expectation that I'd get to do some neat professional development using technology and use my deep knowledge of technology to help my colleagues.

Instead, I spend my free time (and some of my teaching time if it's an emergency) making printers work, "fixing" e-mail, and crawling under desks to reconnect cables that were somehow disconnected. I could already write an article about how silly some of the problems were, but that would be unfair to my colleagues since a lot of them just aren't anywhere as immersed in technology (Much less knowing a handful of programming languages like I do) as I am, not to mention it wouldn't be very nice.

Suffice it to say that sitting under a desk spraying canned air to clean out a filter and reconnect some cables can really show you what leadership and the burden of command really is: your subordinates look to you to solve their problems because you've shown the aptitude to be placed in charge--and their faith in you and your abilities can really be quite high. I could easily get perturbed that a student asks me to hurry to their class to save their teacher's technology crisis while I'm teaching a lesson, but I've decided to take it as evidence that they wouldn't be asking for my help if they didn't think I could fix it right then and there. It's the burden of leadership that I'm more than willing to carry--even if it means embarassing myself by being the only teacher to not be on the e-mail server list despite being in charge of technology.

Until next time.

Monday, August 23, 2010

And So It Begins (Again)

I oftentimes quip to others that I'm a sad, sad geek with no life. Those others tend to nod their head sagely in agreement with me that I am indeed a sad, sad geek with no life. However, it stands to imagine that I am perhaps the busiest geek with no life in existence. After all, how else can I explain the fact that I've been doing so many things that only now, after the ninth day of the school year, do I actually have time to make a blog post.

To sum up my summer activities, I essentially killed myself going to class every day in order to finish my teaching certificate a year early. It wasn't all grueling work, as I spent my June class ignoring what the professor said as I watched the World Cup during class. Having said that, taking classes meant I had to miss the summer camp I usually work at (The last time I missed was in 1997... back when I attended as a camper) as well as the MLS All-Star Game which was held next door in Houston. I was a bit bummed to miss it, but I made up for it by seeing Theirry Henry's debut in MLS that next weekend... after the end of classes.

When I wasn't in class churning out gristle in the form of writing assignments, I was feverishly trying to land a very nice science position at an elementary school here in New Iberia at a school that's generally regarded as the best elementary school in the parish. I chased the job down, and finally got an interview. I blew the interview away as only I could, but was passed over for the other person who interviewed--a lady who came in with a single-page resume and not really dressed for the occasion.

That obviously meant that I'm back at my school teaching Reading. I can't say I'm 100% thrilled about it, but this year is off to a bit of a flyer. The kids are well-behaved, the Promethean gadgets are all up and running, and even my struggling students are happy to be in class. Harry Wong would be happy with me as I leave at the end of the day full of energy, whereas my kids are a bit worn out from a long day's work. And that's a good thing, as I'm our Seventh Grade Team Leader, on our school's School Improvement Plan Committee, our school's Technology Lead Teacher, and most important to me, I start the road to my Master's Degree in Education of the Gifted. Needless to say this year will be packed to the gills, so that means there will be plenty for me to opine. As it stands, this semester looks to allow for a Monday-Thursday-Friday/Weekend posting format, so that's how posting will be for the time being. Feel free to drop a line and give your opinion on matters. Otherwise it'll look like I'm sitting here on my lonely online perch whining about the world--which isn't why I blog.

Until next time.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Teaching on Mars is on Summer Vacation... Kind of

So I haven't posted for a month and I received a couple of e-mails from people wondering why. Simply put, I've been on a summer vacation that's consisted of me taking two college classes and being smack in the middle of our church's big children's drama that starts on 18 July. I should be back into the blogging swing starting in the beginning of August, so until the you folks have fun while I, erm, kill myself trying, ironically, to better myself.

Oh, and to the folks who've come from Throw Mountains as a result of my article on being a single guy (Yes, I managed to get one article done in about 90 minutes of downtime.), welcome! Check out the place and see if you like it. If you do, come back with the rest of the handfuls of people in a couple of weeks when I'm back up and running. You won't regret it. (I think.)


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Life as a Soccer Missionary

I've been trying really hard over the past couple of weeks to get into a rhythm of working on classwork and blogging. Considering I'm in a class that shrinks a semester's worth of work into four weeks, my work is cut out for me. What makes things worse is the fact that the World Cup is this summer, and that means that for hours at a time a significant portion of my focus is on the match at hand... even if it's between teams like Paraguay and Switzerland. The quadrennial festival of football is truly a sight to behold, and the prospect of watching three matches a day for almost two weeks straight is true delight for a football supporter like me.

However, living in a semi-rural part of the United States means it is often quite a lonely exercise. Soccer and I have been joined at the hip since an early age through both playing the game and being a spectator. My younger years were pretty much dire, but our local public broadcasting station played ancient reruns from the brilliant series Soccer Made in Germany got me well in touch with my German ancestry, so when my teammates were busy trying to pick daisies out of the midfield, I was busy trying to be south Louisiana's own Karl-Heinz Rummenigge... and usually failing miserably because I was even shorter than he was. The growth of the spectator side of the sport in the 1990s allowed me to finally follow my teams in Holland (PSV Eindhoven), Germany (Hamburger SV), and England (Arsenal) from my home over satellite television. However, like a lot of things in my life, it was merely tolerated by my parents mainly because they wanted to be nice to me and didn't (really) want me to be seen talking to myself, even if it was about the majesty of Dennis Bergkamp.

Fast forward well over a decade, and with a good-paying job and spare time, following the game now is really easy--just like spending lots of money on it. I'm currently investing in some World Cup scarves and a couple of posters to go in my classroom to accompany my Arsenal scarf so when people walk in they will know for sure which sport I follow--as if the PSV Eindhoven polos, soccer books from Europe, and German men's national team lanyard my ID hangs off of isn't any indication, that is. When my students ask what I watched this weekend, I'd pull out the English Premier League highlights online and show them the best goals of the week, much to their consternation.

On Saturday I headed over to Lafayette to watch the England-USA match at a local eatery. I was astounded to see the place packed to the gills with folks wearing kits from over 20 countries and a good 10 club sides. With nowhere else to sit, I plopped down at the bar between an Englishman and a loud-mouth American that knew nothing about the game despite claiming to have played high school soccer for four years. When the US scored off of Robert Green's horiffic error, the place exploded with cheers, including myself in a rare case of openly cheering when watching a sporting event. When it was over, I left satisfied in a good time, but wondering where all of these supporters came from, because whereas I wear my club allegiances pretty openly, I can count the number of non-rec soccer kits I've seen in the area, apart from the Mexicans and their innumerable Chivas and Club America kits. There was that one guy I saw wearing an Aston Villa shirt with Gabriel Agbonlahor on the back, but apart from that, I'm all alone.

It's weird, but in some ways I'm just one of an ever-growing number of soccer missionaries preaching the good news of the beautiful game to this nation of uncultured savages. Of course, I say that with my tongue firmly in cheek, but there is something that, despite the ever-growing status of the game in the American sports scene, makes Americans scoff and act a smidge hostile. Despite the scenes across the country like I experienced on Saturday, people frowned at the fact the England-USA match ended in a draw, much less the fact that there was celebration for a draw, and typical complaints about a lack of scoring, and a general "lack of action", and whined that they were going to have to put up with this nonsense for a month. Of course, some people have found the secret lair where I get my marching orders, and blamed this all on the liberal media, which I find most amusing considering where I stand when it comes to politics.

I don't think I'm too offencive of a missionary. I mean, compared to some of the American football shrines some of my colleagues have, my scarves and books are small time. When the New Orleans Saints were on their Super Bowl run, the mad dash to get on the bandwagon was startling, as was the garish amount of black and gold everyone wore, not to mention the kitsch people plastered on their walls, windows, and sides of their automobiles. I think best of all, I don't sit there and constantly carp about why football games on TV last over 3 hours, referees never call basic penalties in basketball on star players, not to mention the fact that cheating and our national pastime have quite the symbiotic relationship. Oops.

Regardless, I think a big frustration in my soccer-watching life is that, apart from being the only one around here that follows it like I do, is that a lot of US sports fans don't want to give me the same consideration that I give them. I'm not expecting them to quote Jonathan Wilson of the Guardian and Inverting the Pyramid fame, or comment on the game like folks on Zonal Marking, at least they could attempt to wrap their heads around facts like you might not need constant scoring to have an exciting game, sometimes it's OK to not have a winner if the result of the game isn't life or death, or even getting kicked in the shin still hurts a lot... even if you jump right back up after rolling around on the ground for a couple of minutes. Well, a man can dream, eh?

Until next time.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Teaching Post-Mortem- Planning

Well, after a crazy two weeks of getting ready for the summer session of college where, after pleading with a department head, I managed to get a screw-up on the university's part fixed, enabling me to get my Alternate Certification program completed this summer as I had planned, as opposed to the worst-case scenario where I would have to spend another year to complete just two classes. Now that I am in the class, I am doing the logical thing when presented with the case of being in a class where the content is literally what I did every day for a year: blog!

As I stated in my last post, I wanted to look back at the school year like any responsive professional and reflect on what I did with the purpose of taking those lessons learned and apply them to my conceptual fram... Er sorry, got a little too eduspeak-ey there for a second. In normal language, by talking about what I did this past year, I could figure out what went wrong (and right!) and fix those problems in preparation for next year.

Simply put, this year was horrible for me planning-wise because I was only five days before school started to teach in a subject area that I'm simply not qualified to teach, much less have a clue how to teach reading to students who are up to five grades behind where they should be as readers. The day I was hired I sat at home looking at all of the material that was given to me and felt totally lost. Thankfully for me my school board created a 180-day calendar for teachers to follow, so at least I could use that to get going. The next four days I spent, not planning, but simply getting my classroom ready for the impending school year. As a result, I was flying by the seat of my pants for the first two months of the school year just trying to figure out what I was doing teaching Reading. Of course, once I figured out what I needed to do, things began to go a lot smoother, but the issue remains that I'm teaching something I haven't the foggiest as to how to do what I'm supposed to do.

I think that this is going to plague me as long as I teach this subject. I am a Social Studies/Science, and even to an extent Math teacher. I look at the subject materials in those subject and know what and how to teach without too much effort. Reading? Not a chance. Even though I had the assistance of our consultant getting me up to speed, I was still spending eight to ten hours a weekend working on lesson plans, only to spend over an hour a night looking at my lessons trying to change them since everything went wrong. By the end of the year, I was in a rhythm of lesson planning.

Looking to next year, if i can continue to plan deliberately once I got going in the school year, I'll feel a lot better about the planning aspect of the job. However, I still feel like I'm still behind the 8-ball because I don't feel as though I'm adequately prepared to teach students who, frankly, need someone who specializes in teaching struggling readers. I wish I could say that I can turn it around this next year and really become an effective reading teacher, but I know better and am tempering my expectations... and hoping I can get an assignment at my school where I have a better chance of utilizing the teaching talents that I have.

Until next time.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The End is Here


After almost ten months, 180 school days, and almost 900 individual classes, this school year finally came to an end. Unlike my growing up, the end of the school year came with a whimper and not a bang. When the final bell rang, my students went out of the class just as they normally do, and I plopped down into a chair in my empty classroom and realized it was all over. For over two months there will be no super-early mornings, dull commutes, classes with students who are not terribly interested in the subject matter, bureaucratic headaches, and everything else that makes school school for a teacher. Instead, I'll be taking a couple of classes to finish off my teaching certificate, assessing where my career is going, and hopefully get that done in time to have more than a week's notice in preparing for the next school year.

Over the summer I'll be blogging in the usual format, looking at the school year in retrospective, look into how I'm planning for next year, the world around me, and some other subjects that interest me than hopefully you'll find the same. So until later this week, I have some personal business I need to finish off.

Until next time.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Ode to Secretaries

With the end of the year approaching, everyone is counting the days until summer vacation begins. With less than a week to go, even someone like me is simply out of fuel and looking to wrap things up. And with wrapping things up means that teachers assume their duty as accountants as they categorize and label everything in sight in preparation for school to go into its annual hibernation. At the centre of this operation is our school secretary, for whom this is just another series of checklists in a lifetime of checklists and forms. When you think about it, a school secretary has its own niche in the school ecosystem. They're not teachers or administrators, but without them the school grinds to a halt.

So today I was doing my Obsessive-Compulsive best to finish up my textbook count to turn in to our secretary. My back bookshelf had all of my textbooks catalogued into my own little system, and I was sitting in the dark (My not-so-subtle hint to people to leave me alone when I'm in my planning period) writing down the names and addresses of the students who did not turn in their books, as well as the names of the students who damaged class copies of my textbooks. Because the sheets were due at the end of school, I felt particularly hurried, and rushed to the office to turn it in. When I did, the secretary was obviously unamused by events happening, but commented that I was the only teacher to do my bureaucratic duty thus far.

When I plopped back into my chair in my dark classroom, I began thinking about our secretary and the rather fantastic job she does. At a school I used to teach at, our secretary frankly was not very good and it showed. Everything was a mess and even simple things got screwed up when it came across her desk. She was unmistakeably kind and friendly, but if I learned anything in my first year teaching, it was that I should become as self-sufficient as possible because relying on the secretary was a crap shoot.

Fortunately, our secretary is about on the opposite end of that spectrum as one can get. It still doesn't stop me from being as self-sufficient as possible, mainly because I don't like imposing on other people. I could go on about how secretarialy our secretary goes about her job, but that would bore you like counting paper clips. Instead, I'll just say that her sense of humour is simply outstanding, and to see her just shrug her shoulders at some bureaucratic nonsense and let loose a macabre one-liner always makes me grin, as well as how she is able to sweet-talk a central office employee on the phone, and immediately put one of our seedier students or parents in their place with a glare or statement without a blink of the eye.

I know it's a bit late to talk about how awesome secretaries are considering the day for that was a month ago, but with the school year winding down, I couldn't let the school year end without complimenting our chief paper pusher/receptionist/impromptu nurse/greeter/disciplinarian of students we don't have time to deal with. Oh, and for my colleagues who haven't turned in their textbook lists, please do so lest she comes to your classroom and demand it herself. You've been warned. ;^)

Until next time.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History Bee Post-Mortem

Growing up I always wanted to be in professional sports. When I was young I dreamed of lifting the Stanley Cup after scoring the winning goal in overtime, or lifting the World Cup after hammering home the crucial penalty in front of billions on TV. For all of those dreams, I was pretty much doomed to only dream, because when you're small and not very athletic, you're never going to reach those heights--especially when you don't ever play those sports in an organized fashion until high school.

As a result, I figured coaching was more my style since I was one more for brains than brawn. I always saw myself prowling my technical area during the Champions League final staring down Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson as my players executed my plan to perfection. And when they shocked the world by giving PSV Eindhoven or Arsenal the trophy through their victory, I'd give my counterpart a sly smirk and a wink as I shook their hand, letting them know I had out-thought them and my players had outplayed theirs. Well, at least it worked that way when I played FIFA 09, that is. Since that won't happen either, I've been looking for other methods of venting that competitive spirit.

In the parish I work at, we have an annual quiz bowl program that is recorded on a local TV station dedicated to social studies. It's called History Bee, but it operates like your regular quiz bowl. The six public junior high schools compete along with the Catholic school in Franklin. In all reality, it's a small-time operation that's fairly straightforward, but it's good fun to have, not to mention a way to compete outside of the athletic realm for once.

Last year at Franklin, I volunteered for the coach's position since they did not go to the previous year's event. I took my writing students and drilled them every day for two months. We even got out buzzer sets and a video camera to practice being on TV. We got the schedule, saw we would be playing BEBMS, and began plotting our strategy against the perennial champions from Berwick in the semifinals, since the first round match would be a cinch. When we got to the studio, my players immediately got stage fright, and I sat in horror as my well-drilled players got smacked across the stage by BEBMS and their cocky little captain that answered every question. I ended up covering my face because I didn't want them to see how terrified I was by their performance. By the last round, they had recovered, and promptly proceeded to trounce BEBMS. Unfortunately, it was a bit difficult to come back from being down 78-12 with a quarter to go, but the 84-36 final score made us feel only slightly embarrassed, though the proceedings at the Taco Bell after the match showed that for the players, the hurt was only skin deep.

Fast forward to this year, and I'm at BEBMS armed with our cocky little captain and the rest of the team. They lost a close game to Berwick in the semifinals and were out for revenge. I carefully crafted my team, blending experience with new players. I drilled them for two months, but this time we kept our sights low, since we were drawn to play the perennial finalists from Hanson in Franklin. Having said that, we knew that if we beat Hanson, we could get to the final because we'd be playing Franklin, and since I was their coach last year, they wouldn't have someone obsessed with winning a competition--not to mention the fact I only had eighth graders on last year's team, so they would be no match for my squad.

We went to the studio, and took our places. I sat in my same seat as last year, fully expecting to relive the horror from a year ago, but trying so hard to hide that. We took early control and stretched the lead to 20 points going into the final quarter. Despite having a team that played well the previous year, they were in shock that we had taken such control of the match. However, in the final quarter they found their legs and came charging back. Our lead suddenly shrunk down to a whisker, and I felt the pain that only a parent or coach has when they want to jump in and save the day, but can't because they did all they could as a coach. When the final buzzer sounded, I knew we had thrown away our lead and lost. I was gutted--plain and simple. I got up to shake the opposing coach's hand, only to hear him congratulate me for my team's talent and toughness for pulling out the win. I looked over and saw we had won 68-64.


We won.

My kids came and gave me a big group hug chattering excitedly about their chances against Franklin, and a possible rematch with Berwick, who had beaten Morgan City by over 100 points in the first round, in the finals. That afternoon, we found out Franklin wouldn't be sending a team, so we advanced to the finals.

On Friday, we arrived at the studio to watch the semifinal, and observed Berwick slug their way uncomfortably to the final, though they ended up winning by 50+ points. I was visibly nervous, and took my seat for the match for the trophy and the glory, knowing it was up to my kids since I took them as far as I could. We came out strong in the first quarter, but folded in the second, falling behind by 40 points at the half. We swept through the third quarter and pulled within 12. I kept on gesturing to my kids to keep it going since we had them on the ropes, and could win it in the last round if we continued. We promptly folded again, and the match ended 104-77. I got my team captain's chin up, and we shook hands with the opposing team, and their coach who was duly impressed with our performance in comparison to their previous opponents, and we went on the stage to receive the runner's-up trophy from the president of the local bank and our superintendent, smiles and all. Upon leaving, the president gave my team a cash prize for their performance, and another compliment for their play. Right before we left the superintendent shook my hand and complimented me for my students' job and my job personally, as my school had never been in the finals before, much less play so well throughout the tournament, and that caught his attention.

Looking back at the competition, I really got a good look at the difference between being a player and a coach. Though my kids felt the weight of the competition in their own way, I felt a completely different weight than them. Had I been on the stage as a player, I could have single-handedly mopped the floor with any of the teams in the competition because I know American History so well. However, that's useless since my job is only to get my students ready for the competition, and leave the rest to them. I have to admit that there were few times in my life where I was as stressed and helpless as I was during the final quarter of the Hanson match, where our goal of a finals rematch with Berwick felt like it was slipping away.

Now, you may be asking why I would get so worked up over a silly game that no one cares about, much less watch on TV during the summer? Even ignoring my competitiveness, History Bee is a chance for my school to show its academic prowess. Though our reputation isn't quite as subterranean as Franklin's is, I believe that we are chronically undervalued because all of the struggles a lot of our students have. It really drowns out the fantastic work a lot of our students do, and frankly our top tier students could go toe to toe with any other school in the parish. So, being one concerned with such big things, doing well in History Bee was my way of showing the parish that we can hang with the rest of them, and aren't quite worth our reputation, even if it's on an afternoon in a TV studio.

I think that's the thing that separated coaching from playing: you see the big picture and plan accordingly. Just like Arsene Wenger has to be concerned with more than just the activities on the pitch, but also how his club measures against the rest of the Premier League and Europe in general in so many categories, even if it's in a relatively small venue. The fact that our superintendent knows enough about our school and the competition to make note of the fact we did something that had never been done before as a school means that even though we lost in the finals, it was a major victory for the school, even if the trophy doesn't quite say that.

As great as all that sounds, second isn't good enough for me. I want everyone to see what we're really capable of, so I'm planning on lifting the trophy with my captain next year... and not on a TV screen playing FIFA either. BEBMS: 2011 History Bee Champions. You heard it here first.

Until next time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When is Criticism not Criticism?

Criticism. We all dish it out, but loathe taking it. We tell people all the time what is wrong with them, yet we get rather indignant when someone mentions our flaws. When we see someone criticizing, we often chastise them for being critical. Someone who doesn't criticize often has a lot of friends because they are never rude enough to. Simply put, criticism is something we think about and deal with every day.

Once upon a time, yours truly was a master of giving criticism, yet never being able to take it. When you are almost always making perfect scores on tests, at the top of every academic list for achievement, and never get in trouble for behaviour, you tend to think you have all of the answers, and you often feel free to dispense it to those lesser souls whom you feel are in need. On those rare occasions where I did receive criticism, I didn't know how to react, and usually simply collapsed into an emotional fit, which usually consisted of me being pouty and moody.

Over the years, I got a little better at handling criticism, but where I really stepped up my efforts was in how I dished out criticism. On one hand I discovered that I actually did not know everything, so I limited my commenting to stuff I actually knew about, that way I wouldn't be considered a hypocrite. After all, everyone hates hypocrites. On the other hand, I really discovered the depths which I could shoot at folks through sarcasm and snark, and I got very good at that--much to the chagrin of people in my sphere.

Once I started teaching, I began to look at criticism in a completely different manner through two realizations. Over the past two school years, I've been scrutinized through informal observations at least once every two weeks, and had to sit on meetings where everything I did in the classroom was commented and critiqued upon. It was all done in a professional manner with the goal of making me a better teacher. Rather than get upset over it, I took it for what it is and I am now an exponentially better teacher than I was before.

The other thing that changed my view of criticism was how, through teaching, I began to notice that I stopped criticizing as much as I began to observe things--both right and wrong in everything I taught. I noticed that for all of the ink I spilled all over tests and projects that failed, I was spilling equal amounts of ink pointing out the things I liked in what I saw. Since I was spending the same amount of energy doing both, as well as the fact I was doing both without much compunction or bias (e.g. the positive and negative comments came without a care as to whose paper it was, which shocked a lot of my lower-performing students would find positive comments... and vice versa), I found that I had turned criticism into observation--and I have to say I liked that very much.

Recent events have made me wonder if I'm all wrong about this. As most of you know, I use Twitter all of the time, and I've begun tweeting what goes on in my local church service. I have to admit that I absolutely love livebloggings/livetweetings of events mainly due to the amount of wit and humour most bring, especially ones like the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports of football matches. I admit I try to emulate it in a certain fashion, but I find making my opinions really known to be hazardous to my mental health, so rather than be critical, I decided early on to just make observations, and leave their meaning to be found by the reader. For example, a couple of weeks ago, during the sermon a woman put on her sunglasses and started brushing her hair. Now, I could have tossed the lady under the bus, but instead I just mentioned it and asked the reader to make of it what they would. Some would laugh, others could complain about the distraction the lady was making, or I was making by sitting in the back corner of the sanctuary, or by not being 100% focused on the pastor, or any other thing I could come up with.

The problem is, of course, most people don't see things that way. I had an interesting conversation with someone on Twitter who was saying I was far more critical than I seemed. I must admit that I was impressed by the discussion because it wasn't a reaction per se, but rather an honest investigation of my motives and a friendly set of observations rather than pointed bickering and angst. Simply put, it wasn't pointing out flaws, it was just making an observation. Like I said, this has had me thinking for the past couple of weeks about it, and I think I've come to a consensus (at least to me) about what I view as criticism vs. observations.

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary (UK Edition), the dictionary of note for yours truly, I've looked at some definitions, and I found them to encapsulate my ideas pretty well.

Critical, by definition is (1) expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements. [sic] (2) expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.  

Criticism, by definition is (1) indicate the faults of in a disapproving way. (2) form and express a critical assessment of (a literary or artistic work).

Observe, by definition is (1) notice; perceive. (2) watch attentively; monitor. (3) make a remark; say. 

Observation, by definition is (1) the action or process of closely observing or monitoring. (2) the ability to notice significant details. (3) a comment based on something one has seen, heard, or noticed. 

So, having laid out these definitions, I think I can make a case for there being a rather distinct delineation between criticism and observation. The definitions clearly state that criticism means you're looking for negative things whereas observing requires you only to notice something, regardless of its positiveness or negativity. Even though people don't believe me for a second, in the end, that's what I'm wanting to do. I just want to see things and pass them along without passing judgment. Being a teacher, I'm finding that I have an obsession with observing but not criticizing because since most people mistakenly conflate criticism with emotional feelings toward someone, I want them to know that I am being as unbiased as I humanly can so they can see that I am trying to improve them in every way I can--regardless of whether I find their personal life or conduct pleasing to me.

Having said all of this, you can feel free to drop by in the comments section and tell me how deluded I am, how even though I "observe" things, I'm still only observing negative things, as well as how I did all of that research just to put a fig leaf over my critical spirit. You're perfectly entitled to do so, and I wouldn't mind if you did (OK, I wouldn't mind if you commented, not being a tool just for giggles). However, I went through all of this thinking in an attempt to make sure how I see things in both my job and personal life are in as healthy of a view as possible. I find it especially pressing as tomorrow I will be going to my year-end evaluation and hope my bosses will summarize all of their observations of me in this past school year with an equal eye for observing and not simply criticizing. Or if anything, be less critical of me than I was on my self-evaluation. There was very little observing going on on that sheet of paper, let me tell you!

Until next time.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why Walmart Makes me Hate Teaching

A good Internet friend of mine is a lawyer by the name of Yale Hollander. He writes a weekly column for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat that takes a rather whimsical view at news in general. His column this past week covered the realm of Internet friendships, but he and I get our kicks recounting our tales of adventure when we head over to Walmart and observe humanity at its most abnormal. People may sneer at the retail giant, but I find the sociological implications of a visit to be generally highly entertaining. However, there's days like today where I loathe Walmart for the same reason.

I dropped into a local Walmart to pick up some lunch items, and as I was pondering whether to buy sliced medium cheddar cheese or the sharp variety when someone I went to high school with literally bumped into me. When they apologized, they realized who I was and commenced to catching up on lost times. I have to admit that I was ambivalent at best, but I was polite. It went a bit like this:

Old Acquaintance: We're taking our kids out of public schools after this year. I don't know if you know, public schools are getting bad. Worst of all are the teachers. They don't care about their students' well being; all they do is try to brainwash them with nothing but nonsense! What kind of people would do something like this.

Me: *nods politely*

Old Acquaintance: But enough about me, what have you been up to?

Me: Erm, I'm a public school teacher.

Old Acquaintance: Oh. Well. Erm... I wasn't talking about you, obviously.

Me: Of course not.

Old Acquaintance: Well, I've got to run. Nice meeting up with you!

If there's one thing that really eats me alive, it's how my fellow evangelicals love to throw us public school teachers under the bus for everything. As far as they're concerned, we're a bunch of godless Commies whose only goal in life is to brainwash everyone into a bunch of atheists. Never mind the fact they base this on half-truths and worst case scenarios, not to mention there are plenty of teachers who go to their own churches. Then when you mention the fact you're one of those horrific creatures, they don't know what to say.

The other incident was when I was headed to check out. Because I live a good distance from where I teach, I rarely see my students out in the wild. So to see one in a Walmart so far from their home was a bit surprising. I saw them down an aisle, so there was no way for them to recognize me. However, what I saw absolutely broke my heart, as I saw their mother absolutely verbally undress them in front of everyone in the store. I couldn't quite figure out what it was for, but the tone was nightmarish, and the vocabulary used was even worse.

As I stood there for what felt like an eternity, a couple of things passed through my mind. The first was that this is what I hate about my school to no end. This was just another reminder that a lot of the problems my students have stem from what they go home to every day. No matter how much some of them get under my skin to the point I want to tell them exactly what I think of them and the decisions they make, I would never verbalize these feelings, much less use such obscene and crude language to get such an ill-thought point across. It doesn't take much of a leap to think that this was far from an isolated incident, and my students have to put up with this on a daily basis. Considering the damage that I've had to fight through and currently walk with just from some innocuous statements said at some bad times in my life, I can only imagine the kind of hurt my kids walk with into my classroom.

The other was the fact I wanted the old acquaintance I just met up with to hear what was going through my head at this time and dare them to tell me to my face that teachers do not care about the students under their care. Even if I didn't want to, the homes my students come from compel me to care about them because no one else will. If I don't care for them, their chances of making something out of their life becomes almost nil, ensuring another generation of children being subjected to continuous hurt and humiliation. I do what I do because my students deserve something better than what they have--no matter what some people may think of what I do.

Until next time.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Goodbye, Video Games

I had my brother over for the weekend as we went backpacking at Chicot State Park on their backpacking trail. We hiked about half of the 19-mile trail, and had a rather decent time, all things withstanding like extremely muggy conditions in the evening, deer flies that hunted in packs, and our compatriots that canoed back to the starting point... and arrived three hours later than expected. For my brother, as much fun as the trip and bonding with his older brother was, the real priority lay when I woke up on Sunday morning to get ready for Church, as he was busy playing my copy of Call of Duty 4 online. Being 15, he is fully in the swing of loving video games, though his Internet connection at home is rather slow, meaning that he can't scratch his itch unless he's at my house.

As I was sitting in my rarely-used recliner watching him hunt down terrorists with the glee that only a young military history nerd can have, I realized that I had not touched the game, or any other one for a good four months now, and really haven't noticed. It was in my rarely-used recliner that I realized I had finally given up a big part of my Twenties, and in coinciding with discovering some grey hair, brought home the fact that I'm not getting any younger, and whether things that I'm going through are related to this.

As I've stated ad nauseum, I grew up in a very sheltered household. One of the things that was simply banned was video games. When I was six and afflicted with one biannual bouts with tonsilitis, my parents decided to fork over the money to rent an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System with RBI Baseball and 1942. After about six straight hours of playing both games, my parents fears were realized and never again would a video game system come into the house. Sure, I got to play games at my friend's house, but a couple of hours a week compared to what most of my peers played simply leaves me clueless when they get all nostalgic over Bad Dudes.

By the time I got to college, I got a PC and dove into PC gaming with seeming intent to make up for lost time. Of course, it didn't help my entire dorm floor played Half-Life's Counter-Strike, making full games as easy as a round-up down the the hall. When I moved home, my parents disapproved of my enjoyment of video games that involved me mowing down people, but they tolerated it due to the fact that I was an adult. I responded by keeping my gaming within the realm of realistic military shooters, and delving into strategy games that allowed me to play armchair general to my heart's content. I used gaming as a conduit to make friendships and get the social networking that I had trouble making in the outside world. After all, it's far easier to meet and befriend people who have essentially the same interests as you do.

By the time I moved off to Franklin last year, I fully considered myself a gamer. I read the magazines, participated in discussions on the big websites, and bought the paraphernalia of my favourite games, especially VALVe's Team Fortress 2. To me, gaming was part and parcel of who I was. I played video games and looked at the nooks and crannies of the plot of the story, and became interested in the social interactions of the multiplayer environment. I thought of myself as a cultured, if not outright snobbish gamer because I eschewed the popular gaming consoles for my PC, which sheltered me from the festering immaturity that infests game franchises like Halo, Call of Duty, and Madden. On Internet forums, I found myself to be the elder statesman in many ways because I was in my later twenties whereas the rest of the population was either in high school or just getting into college. I saw myself in these fellow travelers, and I found myself passing along my views to another generation of gamers.

Then, it all kind of fell apart.

I guess it's a part of the tectonic shift of priorities in my life that's been happening over the past six months, but I just stopped being a gamer full stop. I quit the forums, stopped reading the websites, and essentially divorced myself from the entire subculture (I still wear the odd t-shirt though.) I can't tell you what made me just give up a major portion of what I thought was myself, yet I still did it, and don't really feel like going back. As I watched my brother play Call of Duty 4 on Sunday, I could see myself playing as he was, but there was no desire to play alongside him or even after he was gone. When he shut the program down, it will remain unused until the next time he comes because I won't be touching it.

I've been wondering what exactly caused me to do this, and all I've come up with is that gaming was just a hobby that worked for me in a particular period of my life, and as I'm seeing in a lot of other things in my life, I must be on the verge of a very different period of my life that requires me to give up a lot of the things I found to be normal and interesting to me. I find it a little disconcerting because so much stuff that I held onto as things I enjoyed and was interested in suddenly look so grey and boring, but I've as of yet to have found something to replace them. As a result, I spend a lot of my time sitting down contemplating where I am now with my life and how I got to this point. Not really finding any answer, but the time is being used up just the same.

Until next time.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Downside to Being an Intelligent Teacher

Our ever-so-late Spring Break is winding down, and when it's over it'll be an 18-school day sprint to the finish line and we'll put another school year in the books. Of course, on 27 May when we hand the students their report cards and disperse for the summer, it'll probably feel like we've stumbled across the finish line than anything else.

This Spring Break, I haven't done much of anything apart from catching my breath from the previous week where I presented at a conference and took two Praxis exams. I've been spending some time with pretty much my closest friend and his wife, mainly because I haven't found anything to do. This evening I was looking at my bookshelf and realized the sheer paucity of books I've read this year thus far. Normally I'd down thirty books a year, but nearing the halfway point I've only read ten or so. This really concerns me because this a symptom of the biggest problem I've had teaching middle schoolers--I feel like I'm not learning when I'm teaching them.

I know it sounds a bit oxymoronic to learn while teaching, but I personally get my kicks when my brain is fully engaged and I'm learning and discussing. In these three years that I've been teaching middle school, I feel like I'm not being mentally stretched because the content I'm teaching requires very little mental effort to teach the content itself. After all, what I'm teaching is really ground-level skills, so I'm really only teaching what I've learned long ago. Simply put, the subject matter bores me because it's not challenging me. On many occasions this school year I've found myself literally daydreaming when I was teaching. Sure, my kids and even my observers didn't know it, but the mundane tasks of discussing simple plots, making sure students acted like normal civilized humans, and keeping students on task simply bored me.

I think this is the biggest hurdle that a middle school teacher who has a mastery of the content knowledge they teach has to master. When I taught high school, especially upperclassmen, discussions often strayed into territory that was not covered by the textbook, and I got a real kick out of pulling out something I read recently or some old research to bolster the discussion or activity. Even with my really bright students, questions that extend from our reading are really simple. So since there's really no need to stay sharp, my learning and reading has decreased--and that's not good by any stretch.  The last thing I want to be is someone who feels as though they've arrived in terms of knowing the content that they teach. If I were to do that, I would instantly stop being a good teacher.

I see too many of my colleagues, especially when I go to conferences, fall into this trap. They teach a fairly easy subject and decide to rest on their content laurels, instead focusing on new tricks for their classroom. Not that there's anything wrong with the latter, but if we're teaching a content area, I think we as teachers should continue our learning in the areas that we teach so we can bring new information to the table if need be. And to be honest, a lot of teachers need to be hitting the books so they can be at least a bit more competent at their subject field than the teacher's edition than they're teaching out of. We as teachers are our subject's ambassadors, and why would our students care about the subject we teach if we can't show them that we love the content of what we teach enough to have the knowledge to answer their questions with confidence, rather than shrugging our shoulders and saying that we don't know, only to change the subject.

In a perfect world, I'd get a phone call tomorrow from a principal begging me to teach honors and Advanced Placement (AP) social studies at a high school, but that isn't happening. However, I took the Praxis exam for Science as a step to getting an add-on to my certificate in Science, and I'm thinking about making the jump to teaching science in the near future. It's a subject that is near to my heart since, though I have a degree in history, I began college life as an aerospace engineering major and took six science classes in high school (As opposed to only four social studies!). Even if I don't quite get a job in a high school in the immediate future, middle school science offers me avenues to not just use knowledge I already have, especially in the field of earth science, to teach kids, but also give me subjects that I could read and increase the depth of my knowledge in. I've been dying to find some reading material on the history of Dutch land reclamation efforts as well as the science of flood protection, and becoming a science teacher would give me the proper itch that reading about that stuff would scratch.

Until next time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Going Mad over Mad Men

I have to admit that I'm not really one for television, even though I pay $70 a month for digital cable. In reality, I spend all that cash to watch soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse. I'm not a terribly big fan of a lot of today's dramas mainly because their topics either don't interest me, or they're a LOST clone where the scriptwriters make the narrative complicated for its own sake because that guarantees a cadre of people with obsessive-compulsive disorder that will bicker and fight over every easter egg in the show--real or imagined. However, there are three shows that I do watch, mainly because I find them entertaining and they tell a good story.

Of late I've been rewatching AMC's Mad Men, and have found it entertaining and thought-provoking. The show is set in the early 1960s, and through the story of an ad firm on Madison Avenue in New York, explores the changing social mores in that timeframe in addition to the lives of the story's main characters. Having watched the previous three seasons a couple of times and having just finished the first season again, I've come up with some observations about various things. Needless to say, if you're obsessed with not seeing spoilers, well, don't read the rest of this article, or any article I write for that matter. Revealing spoilers is a matter of course for me.

Five Things I've Picked up while watching Mad Men 

(1) The show really nails the visual feel of the 1960s.

One of the draws of Mad Men is really how they nail the visuals of the 1960s. My grandparents' house was built in 1961, and the interior of the Drapers' home is virtually a carbon copy. Their dress? Couldn't have done it any better. Pete Campbell's haircut? Everyone wore that back then. And the office furnishings look straight from the era. Simply put, it looks like the show was filmed in a community that was tossed in a time capsule in 1960 for use at a later date.

(2) If you lived in the 1960s, you smoked like a train and drank hard liquor like a fish.

I think I've damaged my liver and upped my risk of lung cancer by at least 10% just by watching this show. In virtually every scene on the show, the characters are lighting up cigarettes, drinking hard liquor, or both. Sterling Cooper (the ad firm in the series)'s apparent response to anything positive to happen to them is to break out the glasses and the decanter. I understand that times have changed and that I'm completely clueless as to actual people's drinking and smoking habits in general since I do nor have ever done either in the past, but the drinking seems a little more excessive than what I would expect. However, knowing how attitudes toward smoking were in the past, the amount of smoking displayed isn't too shocking.

(3) There's a little too much presentism going on in the show.

On one hand, I do understand that one of the pillars of the show's plot is to show the changing mores of society during the early 1960s, but it seems to be a little hard to believe that Don Draper comes in such close contact with a civil rights activist (Paul Kinsey), two closeted homosexuals (Sal Romano and and a short-term ad executive named Kurt), some beatniks (Midge, one of Don's mistresses, as well as her friends), and an alleged friend of Ayn Rand (Bert Cooper) within such a short period of time, especially for being a guy with no more than a high school education. Like I said, I understand why it's done within the context of the story, but it still feels shoehorned into the plot. It would have been a little more believable had Don interface with perhaps the hipsters, and some of his coworkers have some brushes with the other groups mentioned, rather than Don having personal contact with all of them.

(4) Mad Men does storytelling right.

I absolutely loathe what LOST has done to dramatic storytelling. In their quest to make an immersive story experience, the screenwriters seem to have the idea that a plot that's complicated for complication's sake is somehow better than your normal narrative experience. To their defence, it's done well for them as people with no life and an obsessive-compulsive disorder have duked it out on Internet message boards for years over the minutae of the series and what they may or may not mean. However, I think it's pretty dumb to be honest. I much prefer how Mad Men tells its story. The narrative is rather straightforward, but the characters are written in a way that allows the viewer to not just see the characters operate, but also use them as a mirror to view their own lives and analyze their decisions and motives. Perhaps the best example is character of Pete Campbell. Sure, Pete is an obnoxious corporate ladder climber, but once the story explores Pete's motives, you find that Pete's motives are more for showing his family and his in-laws that he is his own person; not so much climbing the corporate ladder solely to make a name for himself and boost his ego. If I had a literature class that was mature enough to deal with the themes, I would gladly use Mad Men as an example of good plot development and characterization.

(5) Don Draper's lack of introspection is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire series.

Don Draper has the perfect life. He's the partner in an ad firm on Madison Avenue, has an attractive wife and two (now three) children, owns his house, and truly is a self-made man, since he took on a new identity in order to escape from the Korean War, after all. However, this secret proves too much for him to bear, and in the process he throws all of his perfect personal life away through an ever-increasing series of affairs. By itself, Mad Men proves to be a compelling investigation of how people throw away everything through completely illogical self-destructive behaviour.

However, I think something that hasn't been explored in depth in the series thus far is exactly how Don Draper feels about this. Why does he think that the best solution to expunging his past from his present is to sleep with a wide variety of women, after all? What does he expect to gain from his unfaithfulness, a couple of hours where he could just forget about his problems? A way to have control over a situation that he feels is becoming less and less under control? If the latter is the case, what caused him to want to be unfaithful in the first place? It's questions like these that I would like to see discussed in the next season of Mad Men, because it is something I find fascinating.

Maybe it's because I feel that I'm missing those things in my life that I find Don Draper's actions so reprehensible, but at the same time, I also realize that we as humans are never really satisfied with our situations no matter what. I'm sure my more evangelically-minded readers will immediately jump to the conclusion that Don Draper needs to become a Christian and all would be well, but I tend to disagree. In looking at my own life, I am by all measures a mature Christian, but I'm not satisfied with my current situation in the least. I've always thought that I would be in many ways complete  once I was a husband, father, and schoolteacher. Even though I only have one of those checked off, I don't think for a second once I check off those other two objectives that I will feel satisfied, as each of those provide new challenges, and to be frank, opportunities for indigestion for me to deal with. We're always striving to improve and refine our situations, and I don't think there's ever any true solution to this, much less a nice, neat solution that only takes a sentence to state.

So there you go. Those are my observations from watching Mad Men thus far. Considering I'm off of school this week, and there's not much going on educationally wise, much less anything for me to complain about at church to catch some flak, so I figured some media discussion would do nicely. Hope you enjoy it, and feel free to tell me how wrong I am in the comments section.

Until next time.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

LMSA Post-Mortem

So after a really grueling week of studying, presenting, and testing, I'm really looking forward to this coming week without school. Of course, I still have college school work to take care of, but I'm over the hump of some heavy duty stuff--which makes me very happy. This past Wednesday-Friday I attended and presented at the Louisiana Middle School Association's annual conference in Lafayette. I had a much better time than I did last year, especially since people actually presented things that interested me. So here we go, these are the things I learned:

(1) Men are an Endangered Species at Conferences.

One thing that really stuck out while I was there was that, well, I stuck out for the single reason for being a guy. It was like the inverse of when I was at LeTourneau where there were nine guys for every gal. It wasn't threatening or anything; just different. The biggest sign women were the primary target of these conferences? The peddlers selling kitschy jewelry and home decorations outside the presentation room. I could feel the testosterone draining from me every time I got near them.

(2) Attending Conferences by Yourself Stinks.

It's true, especially when you tend to get a bit overwhelmed in unfamiliar crowds like I do. I went to my sessions like a good little conference attendee, but did little talking to anyone in any way, shape, or form. It's a bit hard to do when (A) you can be a bit awkward at social situations at times and (B) No one would want to talk to you anyway because they're too busy talking to their colleagues. Worst of all was the opening session, where I ended up being tucked in a corner with no one else sitting at my table for eight. I was tempted to carry sign that said "LEPER! UNCLEAN!" after that, but decided not to. Regardless, having a sidekick would make making snarky comments in some sessions a lot more fun.

(3) Lots of Teachers don't know the Content Knowledge in their Subject.

Yes, this is one of my pet peeves. Yes, I know I am the massive exception to the content knowledge rule because I scored two 200s on my Praxis II exams for Social Studies. And yes, I know nothing I can say will change the situation. That still won't stop me from being perturbed at how little my colleagues know about the subjects they're teaching. My top three moments were as follows:

  • Having to explain to the session presenter and the rest of the attendees that the reason the example of a diary entry of the girl from around Gettysburg was so blase about the battle as opposed to the Confederate diary entry was because the Confederacy only made two incursions into the North: Maryland campaign (Ending at Antietam) and the Gettysburg Campaign. OK, so the details may not be known, but to hear a teacher tell me that they didn't know the South actually invaded the North was a bit unsettling.
  • In a session on astronomy, I was the only teacher out of thirteen earth science teachers that could point out the Big Dipper, Little Dipper, Orion, Canis Major, & knew that the centre of Orion's sword is the Orion Nebula, Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky, and that Polaris is a circumpolar star. Considering that discussing the night sky and the constellations is an entire chapter of earth science textbooks, at least someone pointing something out would have been nice.
  • In a session on Science in the News, an earth science teacher asked the presenter why Iceland has volcanoes. I literally facepalmed myself.
(4) There's a lot of Teachers Presenting Cool Stuff.

Now that I vented at the general incompetence of several of my colleagues in the profession,  allow me to point out that the sessions I went to were well done and I got several ideas on doing some really cool stuff--especially if I teach science in the near future. I really enjoyed the reflection lab that used laser pointers to hit targets around obstacles with mirrors, the floor map with strings and cardboard, and the session that took us outside and taught us how to have a functional class outdoors teaching traditional topics.

(5) Always have a Plan H, Just in Case.

My session that I presented at our ShareFair in January was a modest success by my low expectations, and I expected similar for LMSA. However, it still ended up being a bit of a fizzle, mainly through technical problems. My session was immediately after one involving making large maps of the world, and the class was packed with fifty people. By the time I was ready to roll, there were five people in the room, including myself and the two presenters who would go after me. As you can guess, I was rather deflated.

My PowerPoint presentation went along just fine, though I lost my hardy band a couple of times. When it came to the demonstrations, my products made by ESRI, which were the cornerstones of my demonstrations, refused to work, and crashed. I internally panicked, but on the exterior I blamed it all on bad luck, and opened up Google Earth, showing some things you could do with regards to drawing polygons that I had used in my reading class. I then showed off the Night Sky, Moon, and Mars functions of Google Earth, and all five of us were wowed. The crowd thanked me for the presentation and said they were impressed with my quick thinking. However, I was embarrassed by the fickleness of the programs and how unprepared they made me look.

As an aside, let me throw the LMSA under the bus by mentioning the fact I had to pay $32 for Internet access for the day. Why? Because they refused to buy wireless Internet access for the conference and didn't let anyone know until the day of registration. Good thing I shelled out the cash, because I would have been sunk otherwise. Real small-time move by LMSA that should not happen again next year.

(6) Even Though your Session is a Miserable Failure, you don't have to Mention that on your CV.

Because all that matters is that you have this to put it on your CV.

OK, I may be am a bit vain (They forgot to give me my presenter ribbon at first, so I wrote it on my tag), but I put a lot of work and heartburn into making sure I got that little ribbon attached to my name tag. :^)

Until next time.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Programming Note

Just a quick programming note here: I've been trying to get into a routine of posting three days a week, but for the next week I probably won't be able to keep that commitment as I am preparing for my presentation at the Louisiana Middle School Association convention on Thursday as well as two Praxis exams (PLT and 7-12 Science) two days later. Needless to say, as much fun as it is to blog, those things are a little more important. If you're dying for my irrepressible wit, just follow me on Twitter.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

With iLEAP testing in full swing, there's not too much to do with regards to being a teacher apart from reading directions aloud from a testing guide verbatim, wandering around your classroom aimlessly, and envisioning your school's SPS plummet because your entire class completed the maths portion of the exams with a full two hours to spare. So, I'm sitting here in the back of my classroom writing this blog entry instead of dying of boredom.

I freely admit that I haven't blogged too much about my school lately because, well, my classroom experiences have been a bit mundane. After all, it wouldn't be too exciting to have a pile of articles with the topic of "Student Who Never Does Anything in Poor Grades Shocker." The only real item of note was the fifth fight of the school year in my seventh period class that, in all reality, was more amusing than violent. But enough of the usual; here's some good news about my school for a change!

(1) Our Chess Team is Flippin' Awesome.

Due to the diligence of our school's counselor and one of our social studies teachers, we have a really thriving Chess Club. It meets every Thursday after school, and averages about 40 students on a very consistent basis. Last weekend, they attended the district middle school meet, and completely dominated. They won individually first place in the K-6 category (Won by the social studies teacher's son--a Kindergartner), first and third in the K-8 category (two of my history bee members), and won the overall trophy. The state meet is in a couple of weeks, and though it will be tough competition, I won't be surprised when the come back with trophies.

(2) We had a Program That didn't Stink for Once.

Face it, most school programs are terrible. The topic is uninteresting, the teachers are miffed class time is being interrupted, the student are bored, so they search for ways to get into trouble, and the administrators and speaker are shocked that this is all happening. He had a speaker earlier this year who did a Huey Long impersonation. Long was definitely an interesting human being, but this guy was boring, muddled in his focus, and talked over virtually the entirety of the student body's heads.

A reward for a recent fundraiser was a traveling BMX show. Kids who sold enough stuff got in for free, and everyone else paid $5 for the honour of attending. All that was there was a ramp, so my skepticism was naturally high. Thankfully, they put on a show that dazzled our students, and proved my skepticism wrong (for once). The guys were former X-Games participants, and took time out after the show to talk to the students. Having met some similar folks in my days of playing Paintball, it was nice to see these guys living the best life one can have: getting paid to do what you love to do.

(3) One of Our Teachers is presenting at a Conference.

In a sign that our faculty does not rest on their laurels--rather continually seeking to learn and share with other what they learned with other professionals, one of our own is presenting at a professional conference. Who is it? Why it's me of course! I submitted a proposal for a session at the Louisiana Middle School Association's annual conference, and on my first try it was accepted! The session will be on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the Middle Schools, and I will be talking about what GIS actually is, and showing how to use GIS tools in all subjects in middle school. As you know, I presented at our parish's Technology Share Fair earlier this year, and it was my first session I did solo (I rode shotgun for one the year before). Considering how successful it was, as well as the fact I enjoyed doing it immensely, I decided to step up to the plate and share with fellow teachers what's been percolating in my head about the profession. If I manage to not screw it up, I'll take the really big step and apply to present at this December's LaCUE conference in Baton Rouge.

So there you go! As amazing as it sounds, there's actually positive things going on in schools these days, much less in the circus that my school tends to be at times. Hope it (slightly) restored your faith in the American educational system.

Until next time.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Of Multi-tools and Spud Wrenches

Aaron Eyler, my favourite educational technology blogger, made a tweet yesterday about differentiated instruction and standardized testing. He said "It is hypocritical for any educator to advocate celebration of ind diff and standardized testing simultaneously (You heard that [DoE Secretary Arne] Duncan?)" I think it's an interesting statement, to say the least, because both seem to be on polar opposites of the pedagogic discussional spectrum (See what I did there? New buzzword!) at the moment. What I want to talk about isn't exactly the merits or flaws of that statement, rather the line of thinking I took when pondering the tweet, and specifically differentiated instruction. Now, I'll freely admit in advance that what I'm talking about isn't based on any sort of real research or anything, but rather something I was thinking about. As a result, you can put your stones down... for now.

I must admit that I'm a bit divided on the whole differentiated instruction/multiple intelligences bandwagon, mainly because it seems the only folks who seem to really buy into it are educators, and cognitive psychologists pretty much have thrown the theory into the dustbin. On the other hand, I do see how students tend to respond better to certain types of assignments that are out of the ordinary paper-and-pencil type. I can see how providing a variety of assessment types can be beneficial to all students, but I think the concept of really differentiating our instruction to meet all students may have unintended consequences.

Simply put, the idea that a student should only be assessed in the manner which he does best seems a bit disingenuous to the concept of truly assessing a student, because we are merely providing a path of least resistance to a grade, rather than focusing on the content that they are being assessed upon. Related to that, I've found personally that most methods of assessing student work outside of objective test instruments (e.g. anything that needs a rubric) tends to become subjective very quickly, no matter how detailed the rubric or how extensive the professional development. Maybe it's the analyst in me, but if I want to see how something is performing, I want a datum that is as objective as possible. At times I've just had trouble wrapping my head around the concept of assessing students' knowledge of the Great Depression by allowing one student to create a collage since they were a visual learner, whereas a traditional learner pumps out a term paper or a test on the same topic. I might be wrong, but I just don't think they provide the same rigor and ability to extract objective data, no matter how many hoops you make the visual learner jump through.

What also piques my curiosity are two implications of differentiating instruction. The first is that the real world, which educators are constantly stating that we are preparing our students for, is remarkably non-differentiated. No matter what field you work in, from sales to construction to IT, the fact of the matter is that if you can put your thoughts down in a logical fashion that is readable to your audience, you're going places. Even in the visual learner's paradise, graphic design, the ability to write and demonstrate competence in a "traditional" manner is very important. So, by constantly assessing students in ways that come easiest to them as opposed to the unpopular idea of leaning on "traditional" methods will end up crippling our students when it all comes down to it. You may be a mean collage maker in high school, but if you can't write a good resume or introductory letter, you're going to come in second-best to the one who can--no matter how much better you are to them at the job.

In addition to this, I find it very worrying that we as educators are pigeon holing students into these differentiations at a younger and younger age, and even if not intentionally, we are doing a lot to determine their academic future to possibly their detriment. By telling little Kelly that she's a kinesthetic learner from Kindergarten onward, and focus our efforts on teaching her in that manner, with only token measures of teaching in other ways, we are severely hampering her ability to become a well-rounded learner, not to mention a person in general. I find this most disturbing in the fact that we label so many students as "visual learners" and do so much to teach them through images and visuals. As a result, I think we're creating a generation of people who will see and believe anything they see because that's the only way they know how to gather and process information. In the quest to ensure that all students can do their best, we're creating people that are the cognitive equivalent of a spud wrench: great at doing one thing (removing a flush valve from a toilet), but completely useless at anything else. Rather, we need to be creating multi-tools--tools that can tackle a wide variety of jobs within a single package.

In other words, let's create people with the ability to gather, process, and create knowledge through a variety of means, not just in the method that's easiest for them. I know I am far and away the exception to the rule, but you can't tell me someone who's a very good visual learner who's really good at what they do is better off cognitively than someone like myself who always pegs out learning style inventories in four to five categories. It defies logic to think otherwise because knowledge comes in so many formats that even though I might not be as strong in visuals as other people, but I can easily gather visual information, fill in the cracks through learning in other formats, process it all, and create new knowledge in whatever format I need to present it in.

Let's stop funneling students' capabilities into the path of least resistance, especially when that path is crippling their ability to function at a level below their capability in the real world. Let's make more multi-tools and less spud wrenches. They'll be better off for it, even if the grades don't always show it initially. The human brain has a remarkable ability to adapt and learn when giving challenges that are off its traditional operational paths; if we push our students to excel in new and different ways, they might just surprise us with their versatility.

Until next time.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Teaching on Mars Vlog

In a fit of insanity, I decided to sit down and create a vlog in response to the post last week of Groupthink. For being a teacher, I sure do have a problem being on camera as it took a good two hours of takes in order to get it down the way I wanted. I apologize in advance for not meeting your expectations in what you had in mind in terms of yours truly (Especially the preview image for the video. Crikey!). Hate to tell you, but you're far from the only one. Enjoy! (I think.)

Teaching on Mars Vlog, Episode 1: Tone from Loren C. Klein on Vimeo.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How to Create a Buzzword

I've been tinkering with a response this week to my last post, which hit me with some vitriol, albeit fully expected by yours truly. I was wanting to make it a direct successor to the post, but in the end, something whimsical came up on Thursday evening that will allow for a bit of a decent buffer, not to mention allay the fears of the teacher crowd of my blog's fandom (All two of you!) that I've forgotten about talking about what I actually do for a living.

I'm taking a course offered by the Department of Education entitled "Effective Instructional Technology." It's the first of a series of courses that, when complete, will allow me to add on to my teaching certificate certifications in Educational Technology Facilitator and Educational Technology Leadership. The course I took was pretty much a introduction to utilizing technology in the classroom. As with all things dealing with education, there were plenty of opportunities for reflection, and at times I was growing tired of saying the same things over and over and over (and over!) about using technology in the classroom. My first efforts to break free and really speak what was on my mind were rewarded with lower scores than everyone else who was posting, apparently.

Being one obviously to take the concept of sticking to my opinions to heart, I was at a loss as to how to attack the assignments for the remainder of the class. I did not want to sit there and mindlessly parrot the party line with my reflections, but I wanted to make sure I scored well in a way that truly represented the work I put in to the assignments. The obvious solution was to post using vocabulary that served extra helpings of educationese that made my points, but also used the appropriate verbiage to the point it became a parody. Simply put, I decided to be subversive in my work, something that is a hobby of people like me.

The work received its desired effect, and in an instance of sweet, delicious irony, I think I created what could be the Next Great Buzzword™ in Educational Technology. In a discussion on how to use technology in the classroom to maximum effect. I chimed in with a comment about how the teacher could maximize the use of technology. Throughout the entire course, I was making the point that perhaps the key to maximizing technology's effectiveness in the classroom was to stop treating technology as some neat trick to get the students' attention--rather to utilize it like any other tool in the classroom. So in a fit of insanity, I unleasshed a message that claimed that claimed that the key to success when it comes to using technology in the classroom would be for it to become an "organic instructional component."

Organic. Instructional. Component.

What? I don't even know what that meant!

The response from the moderator stunned me even more than the fact I couldn't even figure out what I said. She complimented me on my comments and singled out that statement for particular praise due to its creativity in merging biology, technology, and pedagogy into a perfect comment. I thought that there was no way that in the process of trying to be a bit silly I created a brand new phrase. So I googled the phrase, and alas, it had never been said before. I sat there scratching my head at all of this, then it dawned on me that this is how buzzwords are created. Some fellow is sitting there at his desk trying to sound impressive and creative for a presentation, and he throws a bunch of ostentatious words together, and Presto! A buzzword is made. I have to say I was a bit proud of myself for not just pulling the wool over some educators' eyes with some high-sounding language, but also I had managed to accidentally create a buzzword.

Of course, I usually go through the more direct route of creating a buzzword when I'm in the mood, but it was amusing to see how far a little bit of frustrated imagination took me in a mundane assignment. So, if you're stumped in your presentation and need the perfect phrase to sell your clients on your training product, tell them that it's the perfect vehicle to provide an organic instructional component to their enterprise. I won't even ask for a slice of the profits--consider it a free gift.

Until next time.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Groupthink is Bad: Part 1

In case you haven't noticed, I'm one to think for myself, and events this past week did nothing to stop reinforcing this for me. No, not the fact we had a gun incident at school, but something else. I'm using it as an excuse to begin a semi-series on Groupthink and how it's a bad thing.

This first installment involves Groupthink and the Church. Now, I know the fact I just mentioned the C-word is about to send away about 90% of the six people who read this blog, but I'd think of all of the posts in which I've shared my faith, this should be one you should hang around for. After all, I'm probably going to say things that you agree with 100% and will be shocked an Evangelical is actually is saying these things. But enough about that.

Just to lay out what I think Groupthink is, I think a good definition is the tendency of a group to have a common set of ideas and opinions that are accepted without criticism, and the group's tendency to enforce this line of thought within the group. Apparently the term dates back to 1952, when journalist and urbanist William H. Whyte said in Fortune that it was "...a rationalized conformity—an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well." Since then, it's been well-researched and accepted that groups of people who group together based on a set of same beliefs will extend the conformity to as many sectors of life as possible and those who choose to not conform in all areas will be ostracized if not outright rejected by the group.

I observe this in my school all the time, but I'm going to play with that in another post. What I am going to talk about is Groupthink in American Evangelical churches. The Groupthink that I am discussing is not regarding the theology itself, but rather the culture and worldview that has been constructed around the theology. Growing up, I always found the Evangelical subculture to be a bit odd. Even though I could barely watch TV, movies were pretty much verboten, and if my family had any semblence of music appreciation, surely no secular music would be appreciated, I always felt like something was amiss with all of this.

I never rebelled against my parents (Apart from that box of Cookie Crisps, that is.), but in my high school years, there were plenty of instances where I butted heads with the administration at my Christian school over ideological issues. Everything had to have a Biblical support, no matter how little the issue had to do with morality, much less the Bible. When I had the temerity to suggest a particular issue could be resolved without theological debate, I had to have a counseling session with the pastor because apparently I wasn't being a good little Christian. As you can probably guess, that didn't go too well when I started quoting Edmund Burke, Abraham Kuyper, Konrad Adenauer, and Benjamin Disraeli as planks of my political beliefs that came about not through the method that was preached to be the way to do politics, rather completely through my own reading and thinking. The fact they were close to what they themselves believed was superfluous. I was thinking on my own, and that was no good.

According to psychologist Irving Janis, who did a series of research efforts into the 1970s on Groupthink, my behaviour ran afoul of five of his eight symptoms of Groupthink. Those are:  

  • Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group. (Whatever we say is right, 'cause we believe in what the Bible says!)
  • Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group. (If you don't agree with X because of Y, you're a liberal/commie/atheist/etc.)
  • Anyone who questions the facts held by the group is branded as disloyal (or, more appropriately, secular, or worse, liberal).
  • Ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus are censored by either banning their viewing, or disassociating with people who have anything to do with it (No kids, you can't play with Johnny; he doesn't go to our church!)
  • Self-appointed members of the group who shield the group from dissenting information (We're protecting you from the evil that's out there--whatever it is!)
What was odd about all of this was that I did it, not out of any sort of rejection of religious tenets, which is what often happens when one runs afoul of Evanglelical Groupthink, but rather a realization that just saying that I believed something "'cause the Bible said so" wasn't going to fly with people who didn't believe in the Bible. So, in order to entrench my beliefs, I sought out alternative sources that I could use if my beliefs were challenged. I found them, and in the process found wiggle room which I could change some things I found to not exactly compute within the conventional wisdom. What ended up happening was that I broke free of that conventional wisdom and became someone who thought for themselves.

Since high school, I've had various scrapes with the Groupthink, mainly in the realm of politics. I've never associated myself with any American political party, and if you put a gun to my head, I'd admit to being a socially conservative Christian Democrat in the mold of the Bavarian Christian Social Union or the Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal. So, for someone who doesn't even consider themselves to fit within the traditional American political framework, any comment of any sort on American politics is asking for trouble when dealing with fellow members of their church, who are convinced that the GOP stands for God's Own Party.

Last Sunday, during our church service, our pastor launched an attack on the Health Care Bill from the pulpit, without a lot of scripture to back up opinions. I felt extremely uncomfortable sitting there, and when I had had enough political punditry, I got up an walked out of church. The subsequent firestorm on Facebook (via Private Messaging) I received was surprising, even after all this time. Essentially, walking out made me a godless Obama supporter, and one to grab the Red Banner of Socialism. Never mind the fact that no one bothered to ask me what my opinion was (If you really want to know, peek around on the Internet. It's out there.), my rejection of what I thought to be an improper use of the pulpit was seen as proof that I had rejected the gospel and was backslidden into dirty liberal secularism. To top it off, when I plopped into my place this morning, the annoying old lady behind me who hates the fact I use my phone to post comments on our church service on Twitter tapped me on the shoulder and bluntly asked if I was a Democrat since I walked out of the service. I looked at her, rolled my eyes, and told her that I didn't know voter registration cards were required to attend the church, but to quench her curiosity, I was a member of the Christen Democratisch Appel. That sufficiently confused her.

That doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what goes on within Evangelical Groupthink. I've been burned over the years by people shoving the latest fad in Christian living books in my face, and telling me that because I didn't read and do what they said, it was proof I was a lukewarm Christian, or worse, backslidden. When I retorted with questions to the tune of if they had checked out the contents of their fellowship's theology, much less, you know, the Bible, I usually received cold glares and statements that I was proving my hard-heartedness.

This annoys me to no end because, to me, when I became a Christian and decided to live according to Christ's precepts in the Bible, He promised freedom to me. Freedom from sin, guilt, and most of all, the freedom to be the person God created me to be. Now, I'm no theologian, but after doing a lot of reading, praying, and thinking, 1 Corinthians 10 is, to me, a systematic declaration of thought-independence for the Christian. After all, Paul was telling the Corinthians that being a Christian did not require them to adhere to the old Jewish covenant with God, which consisted of strict rules that covered all facets of life, for it was taken care of through Christ's death and resurrection, so as long as it didn't contradict Jesus' teaching and what God was laying on your heart, you were free to partake in it. To me, the key verse is verse 29:
It might not be a matter of conscience for you, but it is for the other person. Now, why should my freedom be limited by what someone else thinks? (New Living Translation)
Best of all, The Message says it this way:

...I'm not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I'm going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. (Emphasis mine)
Needless to say, if we say that we believe in the divine inerrancy of the entire Bible, and that it is all inspired by Him (2 Timothy 3:16), then it sure sounds like that when we become Christians, God gives us the freedom to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions to things, and not rely on others to tell us what to think and reject us if we are not in 100% agreement with them. So you know what? Think for yourself. Be free to disagree with the culture of American Evangelicalism. Sure, stick to what the Bible says and stand on that when you need to, because that's what it tells us to do, but otherwise, put that brain He gave you to some use. Christian (and for my purposes Protestant) history was shaped by people who thought for themselves and rejected the Christian Groupthink to find the freedom God has for them. Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, E. N. Bell, and so many others who led the way for people like me to find that freedom for myself.

Phew. That was a lot of stuff percolating in my brain all of this time needing to get out. Until next time.