Building Electronic Bridges

Monday, 6. April 2015 20:37 | Author:


Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast event featuring speakers from an organization that brings together high school aged Jewish and Arab young people in Israel for dialogue and activities. While the program and the talks were nice and went much as expected, it was a tiny interchange at the end of the morning that really struck me as transformational.

A girl, I assume of roughly high school age, ran up to the Jewish girl who was speaker. They spoke for a few moments, and then the local girl handed the other her cell phone. The young Israeli girl typed in her number, handed it back and the two hugged.

I'm not the one to be emotionally overwhelmed, but I actually felt a shiver go up my spine. I saw more about connectedness and communication between young people in that gesture than in everything else said that morning. We are quick to mock the use of digital devices by the coming generation, but in reality they have more ability to connect and maintain friendships over physical and cultural differences than any previous generation. It is possible that these two girls will communicate with each other, learn from each other, and help each other in ways that I never did with persons sitting next to me. Maybe both of them will enlarge their perspectives through electronic communication.

Now, I can quickly jump back into the old man stance, recognizing that these same tools are often used for evil purposes, or even more disturbing, trivial purposes. But that morning I saw a moment of hope that would not have been possible in a pre-digital age. An exchange of addresses would very seldom result in follow through, and frankly they didn't have the time to do this. It was just a moment, a bridging moment.

As always, I welcome your comments




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Give Me Strength!

Thursday, 2. April 2015 21:39 | Author:

I enjoy it when there is a convergence of thought between myself and something that I read or hear. It helps me to feel like I am on to something.

I was reading the book StrengthFinders by Tom Rath as preparation for a departmental retreat. Connected to the book is a personality inventory designed, much the same as Myers Briggs or other such tools to identify one’s five main strengths. Loath as I am to take these types of assessments (though for some reason I have no problem determining which Disney Princess I am on a Facebook quiz), I completed the inventory and received five strengths. Whether these are my actual strengths or not, they certainly correspond to my perception of my strengths.

  1. Ideation
  2. Intellection
  3. Strategic
  4. Futuristic
  5. Input

As offensive as I find the lack of parallelism in form of the categories, I think that they nailed me pretty well (of course many years ago I took The Color Test and found the results equally compelling). Likewise there was a disconcerting horoscope-like feel to the description of each of the terms (when I worked at the bookstore so many years ago, I walked by a young woman looking at an astrology book and remarking to her friend, “Oh, I am SO Libra!”). But again, it was generally on track, I knew, for example, that writing regularly in my blog would not turn up as a strength.

But it wasn’t the strength descriptions that struck me, but the introductory chapter. The author remarked that the general American reaction to any assessment is to note weaknesses and work to “get better” in these areas. This assessment takes the opposite approach, suggesting instead that working extensively on weaknesses is not as productive as developing strengths. Rather, one should focus on areas of strength and pursue paths that work well within these. Within our lives and careers (hmmm, interesting distinction there) we should also build complementary relationships with those who have strengths that fit well with our own.

I remember presenting this six years ago during my first major workshop for teachers. I talked about the different personalities within a successful technology infrastructure, that to be successful a plan needs visionaries, planners, technicians, maintainers, and teachers. Few (if any) educators possess all of these areas of strength, and without complementary relationships, a program will fall in the the area of weakness.

In looking at myself, I am clearly a visionary (without any of the overly positive connotations). I am a pretty good planner, and I am a good teacher. However, I have severe limitations in the area of technical planning (I know how I want things to work, not how they work), and I am a terrible maintainer. I lose interest in projects almost as soon as they roll out, and I’ve moved to something else.

The traditional approach would be for me to focus on getting better at the two weak areas, but the reality is that I likely will never get very good at either, and the effort used there could have better results if directed toward areas of strength. Rath puts it nicely that results are ability x effort. High effort in areas of low ability improve the score but do not make as much impact as high effort in areas of high ability. I need to find people to join me who have strengths in the areas I lack or build systems that take care of these parts themselves.

This is not to say that people cannot improve (nor am I saying, Toni, that I can’t get better at keeping the house clean, just because it doesn’t come naturally to me!), but it does point out the primary importance of developing strengths, even over improving weaknesses.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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Try to Remember

Friday, 9. January 2015 5:12 | Author:

When discussing the changing face of education, I often start with the given that instruction will be based much less on the rote memorization that most of us associate with school. The ubiquity of Internet attached devices provides a portable “extra brain” where we can easily and quickly access most facts. Instead the focus on education should be accessing this information and more importantly using it in effective and creative ways. I agree with this change completely , and I'm not particularly sympathetic with those who extol the past “skills” of reciting long chains of facts learned in childhood which are never used except as a parlor trick, not significantly different from an educated horse that always picks the right number.

Dropping the sneer for a moment, however, leads to a more fundamental question, and one which those involved in the Ed-tech revolution should be aggressively addressing. Given that students don't need to memorize endless strings of mostly useless data, is there anything they do need to memorize? As we develop new standards and curricula, we need to know this and make sure that it is integrated at appropriate age levels. We don't want to make a clean sweep of memorization only to discover that students are functionally handicapped as they move into adult life. I do think there are some things that should be memorized by every educated person, not for the sake of memorization, but to be the most effective human possible.

Let's start with some things that don't have to be memorized. Unfortuntely, too much memorization is based not on need, but on testing (an artificial need). Educators have students memorize and regurgitate facts because these are the easiest type of test question to create and to grade. In this age of hyper-scrutiny by parents, it is also the least susceptible to criticism, for evaluation is black and white. One cannot argue that the golden poppy isn't the state flower of California (and even though one could argue that one doesn't really need to know this, virtually no one ever does). I put several lists into this category. Does anyone need to have the capitals of all the states memorized when this information is used very seldom (if at all) in life and is readily available on maps? There is a lovely pneumonic to learn the table of elements, but that's why we have a table. I'm sure reflection on subject curriculum will uncover many of these sacred cows that very much need to be slaughtered. I once heard of a teacher who had her elementary students memorize the state mineral of the 50 states. Enough said.

So how do we define a “needed” memorized bit of information? The key goes back to a term used in paragraph 1, function. Children need to memorize facts that help them to operate and function in work and in life. The best example of this is the times tables. Rote memorization of these building blocks allows free operation in many areas, and to do basic multiplication on a calculator all the time would be a needless inconvenience. Likewise there are many spelling cases that must be memorized because without them, communication suffers (but not learning rules like “I before e,” a chestnut that actually has almost as many exceptions as examples). With the list of sacred cows, there is memorized prime beef.

Using this rule, it is possible that many people might add additional memorizations based on life specializations. A scientist might function far faster with the periodic table memorized; a statistician might improve with stare capitals memorized; memorization of state minerals might benefit…well, that doesn't really benefit anyone.

A tougher case for me is the memorization of texts from literature and vital civic documents. While this usually doesn't fit into my rule of functionality, it does serve as ornament. I still can recite from memory:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would

Though I've never been called in my job to recite Edna St. Vincent Millay, I have impressed a few people with spontaneous recitation, and I am very happy to have this and others in my arsenal. Where this type of thing (show off memorization) fits in, I don't know. Perhaps someone can help in comments.

Likewise I'm not sure how to respond to the argument that memory has to be developed, and these exercises are not about useful information but memory development. I don't know if this works (and I don't know that it does), it should be labeled as such and memorization for practice should be separated from memorization for function. There are many of the older generation who disparage younger people for lack of memory skills, but at one point in history, Homer could recite the entire Odyssey and Iliad from memory. I don't see a push to remaster this once vital skill that was made unnecessary by the technology of the written word.

So, as progressive educators, we cannot look only to how technology can assist and supplant older skills. We need also to consider what “traditional” skills and knowledge are as vital as ever. Just as we cannot do what we do just because we have always done it, we cannot not do something for the same reason.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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Day 24: And to all a good night!

Wednesday, 24. December 2014 22:29 | Author:

It's finally that time. Decorations are done. Things are wrapped. Baking and pre-cooking is finished. The only thing left is waiting to see if the promised Amazon delivery arrives on time. Later there will be Mass, a quiet dinner and trying to figure out where I put Baby Jesus when I set up the rest of the Nativity set.

I like to end this now yearly tradition with my own Christmas wish for anyone who reads this (heck, it's Chritsmas, I'll wish it for those who read it or not). Last year I wished that we might listen to the angel's word and not be afraid. This year I turn again to a hymn pray that all will sleep in heavenly peace. I hope that you, that we, will get significantly more and better sleep in the coming year ahead.

Never has there been a more sleep deprived people than modern human beings. Whether it is for work or pleasure, or some combination of both, we stay up very late and get up ungodly early. Even in casual banter, if one is to go a step further from “fine, how are you?” We usually jump to “tired.” This suggests that not only is this condition acceptable for all, it is more or less expected. Would anyone in casual conversation reveal that she or he had an embarrassing medical condition? What's more, a person who talks of regularly gets enough sleep, may be looked at with suspicion, “You get enough sleep? What are you lazy?”

This is also an area where technology has few, if any benefits, and contributes greatly to the problem. Our smart phones encourage an “always on” mentality, as often we read things well outside of the work day that disturb (or cancel) sleep. I sleep with my iPad close at hand so I can read if I wake up in the night, so I know I'm part of the problem. We still are learning how to disconnect in any meaningful way.

I suppose I chose the worst time of the year to encourage extra sleep. My wife and I were reminiscing about when we both worked as church musicians when our daughter was young, and Christmas meant Midnight mass at separate churches, followed by doing last minute details at home, followed by early rising to have a few family moments before tearing out for the daytime masses. Those with small children are absolved from this wish.

But let's hope that even they (and all of us) may find a few extra hours for uninterrupted and guilt-free sleep. If you are lucky enough to have Friday off, let's make it a national sleep in day. No matter, I will, and I hope you will too make it a resolution for the next year to treat yourself to more sleep. Sleep in heavenly peace.

Merry Christmas!




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Day 23: Penultimate Joy

Wednesday, 24. December 2014 8:12 | Author:

Tomorrow, I have a topic I've saved for last, so on this next to last day, I want to make some closing comments.

Among the main observations of this 2014 “24 Days of Blogging” (trademark applied), is how late most of the entries were written. This will be the second time that I've skidded in under the tag and right into the next day. While I wish this were a reflection on how much I was honing each entry late into the night, on most of these occasions I didn't sit down till right before bed. This was usually because I was still desperately searching for a topic, which is, of course, is the artificial challenge of an artificially imposed writing schedule, matching the writing requirement to a sometimes limited inspiration. Though this is a good discipline, I'm happy that it only comes once (or twenty-four times) a year.

I was under the impression that I wrote fewer “meaty” pieces this year, significant thoughts on education or life developed into a larger, more polished, essay. However, when I checked back to last year, the balance between solid and “filler” pieces was more or less the same. Happy (or sad) to realize that the Muse hits on a similar schedule. I have been surprised by the number of comments about some of the entries that I didn't like, which shows that I don't know anything.

One thing that I enjoyed in my review of previous years was re-reflecting (would that be flecting?) on some of the greatest hits from the past. Some of the predictions have come true, others less so. Some of the strongly held opinions are still at the forefront of my agenda, others less so. It would be a great post (which is only occurring to me now as I am finishing) to do a comparison of Greg '14 with Greg '13 or Greg '11 (didn't do this in '12)

I wrote only two entries in Starbucks this year. I don't know if this is a comment on my writing discipline or my coffee consumption.

I am profoundly aware of the limited audience that enjoys/endures these posts. I remain convinced that this practice would still have value if I were writing for an audience of self. However, to those of you out there who read or comment, please know of my humble gratitude and complete mystification that you go on this path with me.

Sometimes I've spun gold out if straw, sometimes straw out of gold, and sometimes I've suffered from hay fever.

Enough…can't wait to see what I'll talk about tomorrow!

As always, I welcome your comments.







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Day 22: A Mall and the Night Visitor.

Tuesday, 23. December 2014 6:37 | Author:

imageIn my efforts to complete Christmas shopping today, I went to the Main Place Mall, and I ran face to face into a changing reality. Through my college years I worked in Brentano’s bookstore in South Coast Plaza, the west coast Mecca of the shopping mall. I remember the utter chaos of shopping in the days before Christmas, a full parking lot, lines from one end of the store to the other, store workers besieged by customers.

Today I faced some traffic getting in, but there were empty parking spaces on both sides of my car. The mall was crowded, but many stores were empty. When I went to ask a question of a store employee, I found three talking together. Perhaps most emblematic of the quieter atmosphere was Santa sitting quietly in his chair with no line of children waiting.

Even the mall was a very differnt place from what I remembered. Of course we no longer have the long gone anchor stores of Buffums, Bullocks, May Company, and Broadway, but even the structure is different, with more and more small stands in the middle of the aisles. These tiny boutiques give the entire mall a feeling of a swap meet.

Finally, there was me. As I marveled at how different everything looked, I realized that it had been over a year since I had visited this mall…or any mall. From someone who would go regularly to do regular shopping in malls, I’ve become as unfamiliar as the out of towner marvelling at the big city. There was I time I went to a mall just to go…now I virtually never have a reason to go.

To anyone who doubts that significant change is coming, I offer up the shopping mall. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, no one could ever picture that the mall wouldn’t be the center of the shopping universe. Today, however, most malls have long since lost this favored status as they struggle to remain relevant. Things can (and do) change.

Oh, and to quickly conclude my story, I couldn’t find what I wanted, so I took out my phone to order it on Amazon. 1 click and it should be at my house by Christmas Eve.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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Day 21: Winter

Monday, 22. December 2014 4:47 | Author:

I'm sorry about this one. It came out far more dark than I intended. You might want to skip.

Today is the first day of winter, or at least that's what the calendar says. It seems that we make mental changes of seasons long before the earth is suitably aligned. No matter, somehow we got here.

Where I live, the chief characteristic of winter obviously isn't snow, or (unfortunately) rain, or even significant cold (according to my phone, it will be 79 degrees tomorrow). The chief way to know its winter is darkness. No matter the weather, come 4:00 it's well toward dark outside. Although these short days are frustrating for biking, no time after work and just too cold in the morning, I love the early dark and couldn't celebrate the season any other way. Clearly I could never live in Austrailia.

Christmas is a season of darkness. So much of what defines the season are lights whether on my house, on the tree or the four candles on my Advent wreath (which I successfully lit for the first time in ages). Without darkness, these lights have no power or beauty. Even the pre-Christian roots of this celebration were about the day conquering the darkness of night.

But I think there is more than this, I think in many ways during this time of year we confront darknesses in our lives. Fears, loneliness, loss, all feel more intense at this time of year. Even more than New Year we feel the quick passage of time, where we are relative to where we were a year ago, who's no longer at the table. Along with comfort and joy, Christmas is a time that can reveal glimpses of the fundamental sadness of life (oh my goodness, clearly the season is not the only thing in a dark place tonight).

I've yet to write about A Christmas Carol this year. Last week I watched four different versions, focusing this time on the Christmas yet to come segment. This is always the darkest portion of the story with most scenes at night in low light. The takeaway is always that it is the darkness of Scrooge's life that caused this dark future. “Are these the shadows of things that will be, or may be,” he bargains with the spirit. As we all know the story, Scrooge does make the change and rewrite the future…somewhat.

The funny thing is that many things do not change. “Tell me I may sponge the writing from that stone,” he begs. Though the stone disappears, transforms into his pillow, the writing waits there for him just the same. We are happy to discover that Tiny Tim did not die…immediately, but unless the cure he received was that of immortality, even he will succumb with time. Though the universal joy at Scrooge's death might be transformed into fond sadness, eventually the world will go on nonetheless. The yet to come segment is truly facing the darkness that is at the heart of all of our lives.

The victory for Scrooge is his willingness to bring light into the darkness. Though not changing the fundamentals, with love and generosity, he lights a lamp.

In winter we look at the darkness, and if we are lucky we can see (or light) the lights.

As always, I welcome your comments.



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Day 20: A Good, Old-Fashioned Christmas Miracle

Sunday, 21. December 2014 8:45 | Author:

…and then there was the time that he got so engaged with other things that he forgot to post. And when he finally did remember, he looked at the clock to see that it was PAST MIDNIGHT.

At first he was very disturbed by this terrible break of the Christmas chronology, wondering if his lapse might throw off everything. Would there be turtle doves on day four or (more disturbing) would something displace the rings and destroy everyone's enjoyment of the song forever? Would Christmas Eve be the true celebration, and most people feel that Christmas was over at the stroke of twelve (wait, that already happens)? Would anyone ever bring him some figgy pudding?

And what happened next? Well in Whoville they say…. Christmas is a time of miracles, and after being visited by ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, he wrote a brief entry, nothing too deep, more a gimmick actually. Sometimes when you have no gift to bring, you just have to pound your drum (pa-pum-pum). As he pushed the send button at 12:45, something truly amazing happened!

During the next day, and on all days after that, anyone who read that particular post, never noticed the date and time of the posting! Now, whether this was because virtually no one ever looks at posting times, or because they were overwhelmed with visions of sugar plums, no one ever knew.

And I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight, “as always, I welcome your comments).





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Day 19: It’s the Most Wonderful Day of the Year

Saturday, 20. December 2014 0:33 | Author:

Today is the last formal work day of 2014. Though no one is really off any more with email, cell phones, and texts, after today I won't be coming in to the office or keeping a regular routine until January 5.

I've worked in education all of my adult life, so with the exception of a couple years when I had jobs outside of school, I've never worked in an environment that didn't have Christmas vacation. I am very aware of the fact that many don't have this privilege. I was talking to someone at a party and asked whether they had time off for Christmas. “Yes,” she said, “I get Christmas Day and I'm taking Christmas Eve and Friday as vacation days.” I had no response to that, as I quietly hope she would not ask about my two full weeks.

I'm not saying that I deserve this or that education is somehow so much more difficult than other professions that additional time is merited. In reality, it's just the way things work out. I do know that it is wonderful having this time, that it enhances the celebration and makes everything easier. Even before my wife began teaching and she worked at a secular job with no Christmas vacation, I was able to get things done on the days she was at work. So our life has been blessed by this schedule.

And for today, as I leave work, I'm just going to be happy for that.

As always, I welcome your comments.

Image: Self on the Shelf



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Day 18: Zeno’s Paradox

Friday, 19. December 2014 0:21 | Author:

Technology (when used properly) can and should make life easier and tasks faster. However, getting to this point can take forever.

We are currently trying to create a master calendar for the entire campus. For years departments have made individual calendars, but there has been little to no way to compare information, communicate to others, and to detect conflicts. When I used to do this at the high school, everything was paper based. I sent out a paper form for people to fill out with their events, and I sorted through these to enter information. As I sat down today to start working on a new procedure, I figured with the power of technological tools available to me now, this antique process should be a piece of digital cake.

Until I started to work on the form. I used Google Forms as tool, and almost immediately I started to hit roadblocks. How do I ask the questions, so they are understandable to anyone? How do I use the limited response formats to collect the differnt types of data that I need. Will the resulting form be so difficult that people won't use it? Will the collected data be in a useable form in the end?

I worked on this (ultimately) 10 question form for over two hours. Once I was satisfied, I picked a few knowledgeable people to try it and give me feedback. Only one of three very intelligent people filled out the form in the way that I expected, and all three had questions. The clarity that I saw was based on the entire thought process that brought me to the question…not necessarily the question itself. I could not rid myself of ultimately knowing what I wanted.

So back to the drawing board, and I've made some progress. The second pass had far fewer confusions and errors, but it still wasn't there yet. I keep saying to myself, “This will be so simple once it's done that everyone will appreciate it.” However, I suspect that there will still be some who find it confusing and many who would much rather just put the information on a piece of paper. Such is the reality of living in changing times.

As I was working, I remembered one of the paradoxes of Zeno, the Greek philosopher. He stated that in order to get across a room, one would first have to get half way across, and to get halfway across, one would first have to cross half of that, and half of that, and so on. Since units can be divided infinitely, and a person cannot cross an infinite number of units, movement is essentially impossible.

Everything that is easy today was made possible by someone who worked and worked to figure out how to make it easy. My hat is off to those people today. OK, here comes the next feedback…let's see where we go from here.

As always, I welcome your comments.




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