Leave those kids alone

It’s time to leave those kids alone. This is an excerpt from a post that just came across my Facebook feed. It’s a common complaint I see coming from the 50+ crowd,

“We don’t need yet another generation of entitled brats who think everything’s about them because their obsessive parents gave them awards just for showing up.”

I often wonder if these cranky old bastards have children in school now or if they actually associate with young people. Those “participation trophies” stop after maybe the second grade and give way to years of tyranny at the hands of teachers frightened to lose their jobs, and volunteer coaches, and high pressure after school activities, high pressure “projects,” which the parents end up doing, and even worse, which the school teachers reward. And when the kids are not busying solving for “x” in the second grade, their teachers are cramming geometry down their throats.

By the time kids reach high school they’ve been tested, sorted, and most thrown on the heap of mediocrity, which in today’s world is the loser pile. There’s a rather crass joke about Asian people that goes something like “Do you know what an A- is to a tiger parent? An “F.” There are tiger parents in every culture and you know what, the kids don’t need their tiger parents to tell them they are “losers” when struggle to get “C”s or “B”s. Message received.

And when they get to college, a few “C”s on an otherwise outstanding transcript puts them out of the running for the better grad schools, which in turn puts them at a disadvantage when competing for jobs. And if you think that doesn’t matter, ask any recent graduate of a third or fourth tier law school. Mostly report they cannot get work as lawyers or if they do, the firm expects them to work for free in exchange for a desk and conference space and a share their profits. And that’s all while paying back hundreds of thousands of dollars in school loans. All while trying to get along in an anti-union, “gig economy” that does no longer provides health insurance or fixed benefit pensions.

So yeah, they have iPhones and Air Jordans, and yeah the lucky ones have parents who can afford to enroll them in after school activities and advocate for them while wending their way through the obscene obstacle course of high stakes tests and pressure filled sports, and extra curricular activities, which if they don’t do they won’t get into decent schools, and yeah they are often not required to do chores around the house but that’s because they spend all of their time in a pressure cooker competing with all the other kids for the choice spots in everything.

Unlike my cranky-ass peers, I put off starting a family until later in life. My son is still in high school. Just this past summer he applied for a counselor-in-training job at the  summer camp for gifted kids which he attended from the fourth to eighth grade.  There were literally only 12 positions available. He competed with a pool of several hundred “gifted kids” to get the job. There was a waiting list of 50 kids who were only less qualified by the equivalent of hundredths of a second. Even though he is working for the camp, as opposed to taking the courses, we still have to pay the full amount. We made the last tuition payment a day late and they assessed a $25 late fee. When we questioned it, the camp operator said fork it over in two days or he loses the spot.

I’m pretty sure every 14 to 18 year old I know would love to have the adolescence I had. The only standardized test I took were the Regents and the SATs. The former was optional and outside of NY had no real effect on your life. I shot hoops with my friends after school, had a part time job, played every sport with a ball, figured out how to get in and out of trouble, went cruising in my parent’s cars on .50 a gallon gas, did marginally well in high school, stumbled in my first few years of college but still gradated from one of the top colleges in the US with a decent GPA and still landed a full ride at the number 16 graduate school for my discipline. And I started my post college life owing just $2500–and that’s because my father died in my senior year.

How about we look in the mirror. It is us 50+ adults who think we are entitled. It is we who created the world as it is. We’re the ones who fucked the banking system, killed the unions, wrote the laws that made it more profitable to send our businesses off shore, who allowed the credit card companies to become legalized loan sharks, who changed the bankruptcy laws so that it is now essentially impossible to recover from a financial misstep, unless of course you’re a rich asshole like Donald Trump. We’re the ones who hired lawyers to sue everyone for everything, and so on and so on.

Want to “straighten out” the kids? Let’s do what we can to right the ship before we die instead of leaving it to our kids with holes in the hull and a broken bilge pump.

An opinion about data driven decision making

I read a quote today attributed to W. Edwards Demming (yeah I know it’s Wikipedia, so what) which says, “Without data you’re just a person with an opinion,” to which I replied “With data, you’re just a person with an opinion on what the data means.”

That’s right. Data driven decision making obfuscates the opinions and leaves the meaning in the hands of people who almost always have an agenda and who almost always either cherry pick data or start with their answers and work backward.

But even if absolute intellectual integrity were possible, the observer effect and the unique and complicated  lenses through which each observer views the information, results in inferences rather than glimpses at absolute truth.

The policies inspired by Education research are case-in-point. If I had nickel for every time an academic or an administrator or a politician proclaimed their ideas and policies were research based, and therefore unassailable, I’d have enough to start my own school and fund it in perpetuity

Leaving aside my very dim view of the results and rigor of education research, how the hell are policy makers supposed to make sense of the research when people look at the same numbers and reach different conclusions?

Netiquette for squares

Netiquette advice usually focuses on affectations and proscriptions considered vital to your success in the digital village by well-meaning web hipsters. They offer advice like: DON’T USE ALL CAPITAL LETTERS that’s shouting. You will needlessly provoke your readers and they will RESPOND IN KIND, or like an unapologetic capital-boy I know from the great state of Missouri, become the butt of jokes and an object of derision  Do not top-post. In other words, remove the text from the previous email when you hit the reply button unless your response necessitates context. This is a practice that can keep you out of trouble when you gossip. I know of several government officials from my days as an elected official who regretted the habit. If quote you must, keep it to a minimum or risk being labeled a profligate waster of precious bandwidth. Along the lines of saving bandwidth, do use common short cuts like lol (laugh out loud) or btw (by the way) or my personal favorite WTF. Doing so also saves precious bytes of data and identifies you as a member of the cognoscenti. 😉 Do use emoticons like the one preceding this sentence, which is my way of telling you that I’m being (playfully) ironic. Emoticons are a sub-genre of common short cuts used to express nuances of tone. On-line writing is utterly bereft of non-verbal communication cues. Remember people who divide their attention into nanoseconds (millionths of a second) read it. They type faster than you too. Slip up and you’ll find yourself embroiled in a “flame-war” (a cyber-steel-cage death match). Before you know it, the world has suffered yet another catastrophic loss of bonhomie. lol, ;-), rofl, %-), etc.

The on-line world has produced a new sub-culture with its own folkways but ultimately, there are only two substantive differences between analog and electronic communications: the medium upon which the thoughts are recorded and the speed at which the message can be delivered. Beyond that, the same rules apply to both. If you don’t follow the usual rules for writing and civil conversation in the “real world,” you are extremely unlikely to find greater success in the digital village.

Writing on-line: The purpose of written communication is to convey ideas between people and the basic act is media-agnostic. Therefore, the tried and true rules apply. Failing to write clearly and succinctly invites confusion. Failing to respect your readers’ feelings and intelligence creates barriers between your words and your message. Forgetting that once you write it, readers own the meaning,will result in sloppy writing.  If you’re not careful all you end up doing is assembling a collection of words no one will read.

For me, netiquette means thinking about what I’m going to say before I say it. It means giving the same care to electronic communications that I give to something I would submit for publication or to a teacher or a boss. It means keeping it short and sweet. This is all the more so important when you consider the average person spends less than 10 seconds on a web page before hitting the back button. That reminds me of another rule, if you need to write more than three lines in an email, set up a meeting or pick up the phone. That way, there’s no permanent record of the conversation–especially if you’re a bomb thrower like me.

Good Situation Bad, Bad Situation Good

Students build their success upon a foundation comprised of environment, curriculum, effective classroom teachers and personal motivation. Family and culture are given ingredients, the others variables.

Effective teachers work with the variables. We help students master the curriculum by modeling enthusiasm for the subject, nurturing their natural curiosity and creating an environment that rewards good work habits and creative thinking.

Natural selection in the traditional academic ecosystem favors students’ ability to sit in a seat all day long and receive knowledge. Most teachers and students focus on test taking and grades. Performance research strongly suggests emphasis on grades and data-driven evaluation does not equip students for success in college or in the workplace. Most high schools send their kids to college able to take tests but without the tools for creative problem solving.

Work ethic and constructive failure are the tools necessary for lasting success. The apocryphal myth about the light bulb comes to mind. Edison is supposed to have conducted over a 1,000 experiments before finally succeeding. When asked about the failures he said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a light bulb.”

The moral of the story is failures are teachers not the last word on a subject. Life rewards consistent and persistent individuals, qualities which can be taught and nurtured. Evidence for this exists in the stories we tell about successful people and in modern research of people like research psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Self-control.,” he writes, “Proved to be a better predictor of college grades than students IQ or SAT scores.” (LOSING CONTROL, Baumeister and Tice )

Work ethic is synonymous with self-control. It’s the practice of showing up every day prepared to work and sticking with a task until it’s done. There’s nothing natural about choosing an English composition over playing a video game or hanging out with friends or pushing beyond the first solution that comes to mind.

Here lies the nexus between personal responsibility and teaching. Teachers, who create an environment that rewards consistency and creativity over test scores and regurgitation, help their students develop work and thinking habits that will serve them for a lifetime.

How students are held accountable makes all the difference. For example, my daughter is a sophomore at King Philip High School. Her English teachers writing assignments intended to teach “the writing process.” They teach various brainstorming techniques, show students how to outline; they require students to write multiple drafts, they incorporate peer editing into their pedagogy and they allow students to rewrite their papers to improve the grade. On the surface that paradigm seems fair and roughly approximates the way writers work.

Peeling back the layers reveals serious pitfalls. Prewriting, outlining, and rough drafts are graded for style and grammar instead of effort and improvement. Failing the interim work guarantees an F for the whole project regardless of the quality of the finished product. Likewise, rewrites, though required in failed papers, cannot raise the grade to passing. The terms brainstorming and rough drafts loses their meaning when teachers grade the workproduct rather than the work-process.

Writers cannot produce genuinely creative work well when they have to worry about being evaluated for anything but effort and improvement during the pre-writing and rough draft phases. According to another apocryphal story—this one about the creators of the Looney Tunes cartoons—the writers met for weekly brainstorming sessions. They had only one rule. No one was allowed to say anything negative. This encouraged everyone to turn off both personal and group censors. Often non-sequiturs and outrageous statements led to productive ideas.

Rough drafts followed consensus. Critical editing led to the finished product, until finally Elmer Fudd stalked across the screen lisping, “Qwiet. I’m hunting wabbits” as Bugs Bunny snuck up from behind, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “What’s up Doc?”

To be sure there are objective impediments to a grading model that rewards effort and improvement as well as the finished product. But anything less undermines the lessons taught by the process paradigm.

The preferable rubric gives full marks for demonstrable effort during the pre-writing and rough draft phases. It also rewards improvement through the drafting phase. Finally second chances should be meaningful. Why would anyone put in a final effort if he or she could not ultimately achieve a satisfactory result?

Developing good work habits and durable problem solving skills are far more important than things like spelling, MLA formatting, and whether they know literature and grammar jargon. This area is where teachers can have the most meaningful impact.

Zen Mind, Writing Mind

I struggle with my writing. It’s lonely, painful, and frustrating to the point of Prozac–actually generic Zoloft but that does not alliterate. Don’t get me wrong, I am not without skill or talent neither do I always struggle. I have had my successes. I spent three years in a Ph.D. program at Stony Brook University on a teaching fellowship where I taught composition and literature classes. I’m a self-taught technologist and worked at a technical writer for many years. The first piece I ever published was in The Boston Globe. I wrote for them frequently on adventure sports and travel during the early part of my writing career. They even offered me a job in the Sports department.

Anyone who knows anything about Boston and sports, knows getting offered a staff gig at The Globe is a pretty big deal. What did I do? I said no thanks. Feature articles and books were my future. For some reason writing has always been karmic ground zero. I must have slept with editor’s wife in my last life.

Stumbling hard over my first bout of writer’s block in the third year of the Ph.D program and turning down the full time gig, according to some, are prima facie evidence of my issues with success. As in, if there’s a way to sabotage my work, I will find it.

I should have known better. In the longhand days, back when I was a fresh faced undergrad, I procrastinated until the last possible minute and then hung out with OCD. Rough drafts could not have cross-outs or mistakes. If they did, I’d have to go back to the beginning and start over. Then I would rinse and repeat until the deadline overshadowed compulsion.

The word processor freed me of that particular neurosis with no intervention from the Pharmaceutical-Industrial-Complex, which led to a number of productive years during which I wrote academic papers and poetry and kept company with other aspiring writers and scholars like my former best friend Bruce Bawer, who has gone on to become a prolific writer.

Then along came perhaps the most noxious writer’s nemesis, the inner critic. Nobody, including my wife of 28 years, knows me better. He knows just how to bring my writing to a halt. If he were a real person instead of a manifestation of neurosis, I would have given him the Bronx Beatdown years ago, like every other bully who made the mistake of picking on me.

In fact, he just cracked open a bottle of self-doubt and started pouring it on my ideas. That stuff works like acid. It quietly consumes the surface and little by little turns to a rolling boil until eventually there is a hole where once was an idea.

Sometimes, like this moment, my intentions are strong enough to give that guy a big eff you. It sort of works. Ever adaptable, he switched gears and said, “Since you can’t shut up, get to the point. And it better be good.”

Zen moments are when you see things exactly as they are. When there is only doing. With writing I experience these moments of clarity. My mind quiets down and the keyboard disappears. My karma slips away leaving only words and emotions and ideas.

Writing might be a kind of karmic chemotherapy. Cancer patients subject themselves to a regimen of poison under the theory that healthy cells are ever so slightly stronger than the cancer. If all goes according to plan, the malignant cells die and the healthy ones repair themselves.

Since I am a survivor of sorts and have devoted my entire life to the karmic struggle, I want to share the lessons I have learned by teaching writing. It is a sort of pay it forward thing for my old undergrad Shakespeare professor Norman Burns. He pointed me in the right direction when I was completely lost. Paraphrasing one of my favorite cinematic protagonists Elwood Blues, I’m on a mission from Norm.

Teacher applications are curious beasts. Beyond the usual CV data, many of them ask for a statement about the applicant’s teaching philosophy. How this helps administrators pick one prospective teacher over another, I’m not sure. But apparently I have to have a philosophy of teaching.

Before I explicate my “philosophy,” I want to paraphrase of an old Zen teaching story related at a Dharma Talk by given by Kwan Um School of Zen founder Zen Master Seung Sahn, and which appears in his book The Compass of Zen.

Dok Sahn was a famous Buddhist monk who lived long ago in China. During his career, he was regarded as the greatest sutra master (scholar of Buddhist scriptures) and the foremost expert of the Diamond Sutra (an important Buddhist text). He spent his time traveling from temple to temple throughout China challenging the best and brightest monks to debates about the sutras. Being highly learned and adept in dharma combat, he never lost.

One day, Dok Sahn learned about a Zen temple in the south of China where it was reported that the monks just ate, slept, and sat in meditation all day and in so doing became enlightened.

Enlightenment without the many years of studying the sutras was inconceivable to Dok Sahn; therefore, he resolved to find this temple to and correct their mistake.

After many weeks of travel, he came upon a teashop run by a devout Buddhist laywoman. It was lunchtime so he stopped in to inquire about both the menu and the whereabouts of the Zen temple.

Dok Sahn was a famous figure. The laywoman immediately recognized him and greeted him in accordance with the customs of the day and the respect due to so lofty a personage.

She showed him to a table and politely inquired about his business. Dok Sahn replied he was looking for a temple in the south where, “The monks just ate, slept, and meditated,” and added that he intended to set them straight by hitting them with his teachings of the Diamond Sutra.

The laywoman smiled and replied, “Wonderful! You are a famous sutra master. You understand all of the Buddha’s speech. You understand the Buddha’s teaching. May I ask you a question?” She continued, “If you answer the question correctly lunch is free. If not, you must pay.

The teashop owner’s impertinence angered the great sutra master because implicit in the question’s format was a reversal of roles. After an awkward pause, he collected himself and agreed to the bargain.

The laywoman asked, “In the Diamond Sutra it says, ‘It is impossible to keep past mind, impossible to hold on to present mind, and impossible to grasp future mind.’ With what mind will you eat lunch?

Dok Sahn paused. He consulted his vast store of learning. He reviewed the 84,000 sutras, which he’d memorized, compared that against his writings on the Diamond Sutra, went over all he’d learned about the Buddha’s speech–nothing. He couldn’t answer the question.

The woman laughed at him and said, “You don’t understand the Diamond Sutra’s true meaning. You don’t understand anything. How are you going to test the Zen monks in the south?

The laywoman hit Dok Sahn’s mind and stopped it dead. “From whom did you learn this teaching?” he inquired.

“Nobody,” she said. “Everyone already has it inside of him.”

Humbled, he paid for his lunch and continued on his journey to seek the Zen temple, only now with the intention of learning the Zen style of practice.

Dok Sahn’s mistake points directly to my approach to teaching writing. The correct answer was to do something in that moment. The correct answer was to say nothing and pick up the food and eat it. Why? Because when you eat, just eat. Teachers’ speech and academic knowledge without frequent practice are like a picture of a meal, not much use to a hungry person.

How does this apply to my classroom and my teaching philosophy? Duh. Have you not been paying attention? Writers write. (And they read too, but that discussion is for another piece).

What are you waiting for: go turn on the computer and fire up your word processor (note: this space is available for a product placement from a certain software company in Redmond).

Take 45 minutes and write a 250 word piece about a person who has just resolved to take an action–you pick it. And for God’s sake forget about the grade! Set a timer and do not write for more than 45 minutes, no matter what. Deadlines are a fact of life and your writing will never be perfect. Get over it now and when when your inner critic cracks open his bottle of self-doubt, you can tell eff off!

With what mind will you write?