Egon, Print is Not Dead

Image result for images of egon spengler from ghostbusters

In the original “Ghostbusters” film (1984) paranormal scientist, Egon Spengler, proclaims, “Print is dead.”

I hesitate to contradict the venerable Dr. Spengler–clearly the superior intellect of the ecto-slime crew. But a trip back to the future would have shown him that though it has jumped from the page to the screen, print is alive and well in the twenty-first century.

Print: We create it. We receive it.  We share it.  Sorry, Egon. The reports of print’s death have been exaggerated.

We use words now more than ever: texting, tweeting, emailing, posting on the internet. Words still matter. Image result for images of electronic print

With a click or a tap, users access what they want to read. Books. Newspapers. Political opinions. Movie reviews. Sports statistics. Presidential tweets. On December 12, President Trump tweeted 91 times before noon. Even at 140 characters a pop, that’s a lot of reading.

Image result for images of students wondering clip art       Reading still satisfies our curiosity: Hank Aaron’s lifetime batting average. Jim Morrison’s resting place. The actor who played the Cowardly Lion. The year the first music video premiered.

From the comfort of our couches, we can conduct scholarly research that once demanded presence in a library and/or that magical medium: microfiche.(Try explaining that to college freshmen!) We can brush up on literary criticism–what would Wordsworth do?  JFK’s Inaugural Address is there in black and white–“Ask not what your country can do for you!” The history of the Apollo program is forever afloat in cyber space.

Image result for images of e books  If you want to read it, likely you can pull it up on your screen.

 

But… there is always a “but,” right? Though readers can easily and quickly locate info on almost any topic, caveat emptor.

Image result for images of old time reporters …In the stone age, in my previous life, I was a journalism student. We scrawled on spiral notepads and sometimes slung bulky 35 mm film cameras around our necks, operating on the this acronym: FACT. Fast. Accurate. Concise. True. Among the Fordham faculty, accuracy and truth took precedence over speed. However, truth is less true today and accuracy is too often an afterthought.  Readers today beware: what you read may or may not conform to past standards.

Access to information morphs at warp speed, and readers, too, must adapt. As educators, the responsibility to manage technology weighs heavily on us.  Because we have access to so much material today, being able to read critically is more crucial than Dr. Spengler could have imagined. And this is why must continually remind our students–and ourselves– about healthy skepticism.  Evaluate sources. Look for bias. Demand credentials.  Just because it pops up on our screens fast and is concise doesn’t verify it as either true or accurate.

And if we must shift gears as readers in this age of print overload, as writers we have even an even heavier responsibility to remember that words matter. But that is another post, for another day.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Learned On My Summer Vacation

Disclaimer: I know this is late, very late. But stuff happens. Like family. Like work. Like dead car batteries. 

But I digress. Let me take you back to August when the days were longer and the leaves were lush. Let’s go back to summer.

Summer vacation isn’t all Utopian perks: sleeping late, espresso at four, binge trash reading.  Well, maybe it mostly is about this.

But there can be some real learning happening, too.  Like karaoke is best enjoyed as a spectator sport. Or there is such a thing as too much kite string on the beach at night.  Or SPF 100 isn’t all that effective on the kitchen table.

It has been said that the best lessons are those that occur spontaneously, unexpectedly. In no particular order, allow me to share five unexpected take-aways from my summer vacation.

Respect the Earth

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

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A visit to Walden Pond linked past, present and future. No exaggeration: it changed my life. The pond–actually a lake–and its protected woods reminded me of the undeveloped beauty not just in this park, but in so many local places we take for granted. Beyond sustenance and shelter Thoreau discovered, there are spaces for reflection and for recreation.

In this setting, the enormous responsibility of stewardship weighed heavily. Thoreau would likely be horrified at aspects of modern life.   Waste. So many unnecessary plastics: bags, bottles, packaging.  Unbridled consumption.

I am on it. Small steps to be sure, but on it none the less.

Want Isn’t Need  Image result for thoreau images

For me, want vs. need is usually about footwear: I want a new pair of boots. But I don’t need them.

I am no Kondo-maniac, but there is merit in simple living.  Thoreau knew this.

I picked up this lesson when fellow travelers– in a souvenir-fueled feeding frenzy– randomly seized tee shirts, shot glasses, jewelry that may or may not already be lost in space. All out of  momentary want not from need.

I may not be able to exist as simply as Thoreau did, but I learned I don’t want my life characterized by conspicuous consumption.

 

 Walk in someone else’s shoes

Image result for thoreau images  Or boots. Or sandals. Just walk. Look through a new lens.

On a bus tour of Nassau in the Bahamas, we walked in the opulence of several all-inclusive resorts. Strolling in those shoes–Jimmy Choos and Louboutins– , on glistening marble floors among high end shops was a momentary walk in privilege.  The last stop on the tour, a Bahamian neighborhood of  makeshift food stands and grocers, was a bare-foot trek into the reality of poverty and strife, thatched roofs, dirt floors.

Even as it shrinks, the world is a huge place. None of us are at its center.

Hiking someone else’s trail yields multiple perspectives and evolving empathy.

 Listen more. Talk less.

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Thoreau had three chairs in his cottage: one chair was for solitude, two chairs were for friendship, and three chairs were for society.  Solitude has its place, but we need one another, too.

Everyone has a story. Everyone.

This summer, we tried to hear the stories that define people. The story of a Canadian woman whose challenged son was initially written off because of his disabilities, but who went on to earn an MS in engineering. The story of a newly wed couple from Pennsylvania. The story of a bartender from California. The story of a grandmother from Long Island. The story of the man wearing two different shoes.

Listening changes you. It changes how you see others, how you see yourself. You may feel gratitude. Envy. Pity. Hope. Joy. Faith.  But mostly, you feel connected to humanity.

We need more time to use two and three chairs.

Device detox

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By necessity, we had to look up from the phone, close the laptop, step away from the tablet.  Inconvenient at first; wonderful in the long run.

Technology has its place. It’s true: you can’t get news from your doctor or close out a utilities account without going on line.  Sharing photos and experiences bridges miles that separate us.

But escaping the relentless bells and whistles of instant communication brought me profound peace, in a small way, like how Thoreau must have felt at Walden, secluded from the nineteenth century buzz of Concord.

 

Though Thoreau never said this, I will: better late than never.

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Educational Inequity

Image result for black and white images of books    The Pre-K-8 district where I last worked had its flaws, but demographically, it was public education at its finest.

A mere blip on the map of one of NYS state’s wealthiest counties, our district served both the most privileged kids and the neediest. Our students learned–from one another–about Ramadan, the Holocaust, immigration, civil rights. Every kid–regardless of status–had the same direct access to a highly effective, trained, dedicated faculty and first class facilities on a lush campus.   One of the perks of working here was my small role in this cultural and socio-economic ideal. Image result for images of ideal

Ideal may be the operative word, however.

 

 

Kamala Harris’ and Joe Biden’s recent–and incomplete– discussion about busing reminds us that education in this country remains unequal. Awkward attempts to find balance have largely failed.  Racial segregation, poverty, and geography are only three of the forces that continue to fuel a system that apparently neither promotes cultural exchange nor provides instructional equity.

Related image   High school grads possess the same credentials signifying their achievement. Because of where they attended school, though, these graduates don’t necessarily possess equal skill sets.

 

That the issue came up in the recent Democratic debate, is a good sign. A very good sign. Equal access to quality education is perhaps one of the three most pressing problems facing us as a nation. Education is at the heart of a functioning democracy and a prosperous economy.

And here’s another thought: it will be educated kids who will find solutions to the other two pressing problems facing us: climate change and world peace.

That the issue came up via a two-candidate personal skirmish, however, is not such a great sign. We need candidates to own this challenge, not just for an evening or a sound byte. We need candidates with vision, a plan.  The proposal doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be a start.

By the way: I love the idea of free community college for students who qualify. Kudos to Elizabeth and Bernie. But success in college calls for prerequisites.  For some students, by the time they reach college age, it may be too late.

Kids who haven’t had the benefit of a quality K-12 experience will be underprepared for collegiate demands. They may be under-employed, too. We have to commit to starting earlier, giving every kid a chance to successfully and equally participate in free college.

I don’t know how to fix this; I am merely a simple retired school teacher. Money is surely a huge component of any solution. Cultural understanding and racial respect will play a role as well.

I do know that everyone benefits when our populace is educated. I also know–from experience– how well equity works in the context of a school.   I think it is time we demanded some potential answers from the people who are asking for our vote.  Image result for vote images

My Year In Community College

When I earned my MS in Teaching in 1993, my husband and kids gave me a sweatshirt bearing a shiny red apple and this now tragically famous quote from teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe “I touch the future; I teach.”  Image result for images of apples and teachers

It’s safe to say that I have been professionally fortunate. (I have been personally fortunate, too, but that’s another story for another time.) 25 years in public education allowed me to “touch the future.”

When restlessness set in just a few months after cashing that first pension check, a bit more vocational luck prevailed. I landed a part-time position at our local community college in the Writing Center.  Image result for black and white images of students writing

Though it seemed a perfect fit, I was nevertheless prepared for a learning curve; there was so much I didn’t know. I expected it would take time to find my way in a new learning community.

What I didn’t expect was how inspired I would be by the students I have met on the first leg of this journey. In a single academic year, these students have given me so much.

Yes, most of our students are young adults, fresh from local high schools. They bring us idealism and excitement. Their visions of the future are filled with hope for us all.

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But this campus also serves so many adult learners, men and women returning to school for a variety of reasons, people who have not had seats in classrooms for years. Some have served in the armed forces; our school has been officially designated a “Veteran Friendly Campus.” Others have been occupied with the unending business of raising families or have spent years in jobs they didn’t like. The challenges of starting over might be intimidating, but adult curiosity and experiences give them an edge their younger classmates don’t have.

Many students–young and old– hold down full time jobs and still find ways to master challenging course work across the curriculum.

Image result for black and white images of students writing  Students on this campus speak 49 different languages yet they are reading James Joyce and Toni Morrison, conducting academic research and writing business proposals all in English. Working with these students is at once exhilarating and humbling.  Think about writing a persuasive essay in Croatian or describing a microbiology experiment in Spanish when English is your native language.

I have been moved to tears–the people who know me I am not the crying type–by  stories of adversity and triumph, of resiliency and determination, of kindness and generosity.

Image result for images of apples and teachers   My year in community college has been a learning experience. With a mix of gratitude and humility, I am so happy that I am able to continue to “touch the future.”

 

 

 

 

The Price of Over-Parenting

Image result for mistakesRemember that time you waited until the last minute to study for the algebra test? What about shouting in the hallway? Ditching softball practice? Forgetting homework at home? Spending your entire allowance impulsively and having nothing left for the movie you had planned to see?

Of course you do. Because we have all done that, been there. But, when you recovered from these minor mistakes–as we all do– you also learned the value of picking yourself and getting on with things.

Sometimes messing up yields a better lesson than succeeding.

Yet most teachers I know are spending more time convincing parents that age-appropriate mistakes are not only OK, but essential for personal and academic growth. Parents want so much for their kids to be successful that they are willing to shelter them from any experiences that potentially–and yes, ironically– lead most often to success: failure.

It is always a tough sell. Always.

Image result for sad face images   No one wants to see his/her child unhappy. I get that; I have kids, too. Both as a parent and as a teacher, however, I know that kids need their “oops moments.” No, we don’t want them making mistakes that could endanger themselves or others. But one bad grade after blowing off test prep? One day on the bench for missing practice? These are cause and effect learning events.

 The Rise of Snow Plow Parenting

Enter snow plow parents, the moms and dads who refuse to permit their kids to experience disappointment that accompanies everyday gaffes. Snow plow parents have displaced helicopter parents and are hell bent on clearing the road for their kids. They push away all obstacles and clean up the mess that is childhood before their kids can even make their own awkward stabs at independence.

Though this behavior arises out of the best of intentions, snow plow parenting hinders kids, preventing them from learning from mistakes and finding the confidence that evolves from seeing they can recover from errors. Kids need to know that mistakes don’t define them, that success resides in how we respond to our failures. They can only learn how to do this if we let them.

The goal for us as parents and as educators is to foster independence. To help our kids find their own strength, their courage, their resilience, we must craft our own obsolescence.  When toddlers learn to walk, they fall. We keep them safe and tend to the minor scrapes, all the while understanding there is no other way for them to find their feet. That process continues throughout life when kids forget homework, blow off practice, sass a teacher. As much as we might want to clear the road for our kids, we have to be willing to let them fall a few times.

Community College: Higher Education’s Best Kept Secret

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According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more than 1,400 community colleges in this country, serving over five million enrolled students.  Some pretty successful people are community college grads: an Oscar winner, an astronaut, a governor. My husband earned a community college associate’s degree in electrical technology, the initial accomplishment in a professional adventure marked by achievement and public service.

Familiar and Local

On my daily commute, I blew by the main gates of our local community college, a carefully manicured campus integrated into the state university system. The fact that it is in our own backyard may have led us to take what happens here for granted. You know, the old saying about familiarity.

However, many of the middle and high school students I taught landed here, some by choice, others by default. It seemed a safe a place for kids who were unsure of their futures. And having retired after more than 25 years in secondary education–a little unsure of my own future– I am here now, as a senior tutor in the Academic Services Center.

Opportunity and Support

Image result for black and white images of students writing What I have discovered is that community college truly is higher education’s best kept secret.

Beyond the gates I glanced at every day, students have access to first class faculty and facilities. Classes are demanding and varied offering experience and knowledge that transfer to both the workplace and four year schools. And it is that secure place where every student is respected and has the chance to become (apologies, Mrs. Obama!). One of the students I worked with last semester put it this way: “I love it here. I am just learning how to be in college. And it’s like everyone really cares.”

A Community and A College

Related imageAs a tutor, I see first hand how hard these students are working, how important school is to them. A significant percentage juggle full time jobs, family obligations and transportation obstacles with rigorous classes to fulfill the promise of the American Dream: personal and professional success.  Their professors challenge them to find their voices, their confidence, all the while wholeheartedly supporting the effort this entails. Students find campus niches through athletics, clubs, cultural events, and service opportunities.  And tutors, available in almost every discipline, provide individual feedback and content area support.

Image result for black and white images of dollars and centsIt’s Affordable

Community college remains a bargain by higher ed standards. A NY resident can attend full time for less than $3,000 a semester. There are countless opportunities for aid, scholarships, work study and even transportation stipends to further reduce the economic burden on students and families.  But wait…there’s more. When a student is done here, he/she leaves with something tangible for time (and money) spent: an associate’s degree and/or a professional certificate.

Lucky Me

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I feel fortunate to have found a role here.  It is energizing to revisit literature I loved as an undergraduate English major: Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Joyce. It is exciting to read what’s new in English education.  It is inspiring to be among students to whom education is paramount. My part is small, a walk-on, but nonetheless, the powerful play goes on and I am privileged, at this stage of my life, to contribute another verse (more apologies, Walt Whitman).

 

 

Empowering Kids

Image result for black and white images of school  By the time kids strut, slink or otherwise traipse into middle school classrooms like mine, the social tiers are mostly set and the stratification we see is often neither pretty nor kind.

Middle school might be Ground Zero for the lonely heart, but the battle for social control starts much sooner.

Image result for black and white images of kids in school  As early as first grade, primary level teachers report seeing the emergence of a “popularity hierarchy.” Self appointed big fish begin calling the social shots: who is worthy of a prime seat on the bus, cafeteria and recess playmate assignments, clothing assessments, the early childhood grapevine.

Our littlest ones navigating the new, vast–and sometimes scary– world of school are perhaps most vulnerable to exclusion and least able to self-assert.  It is hard enough to remember if you are buying lunch or what to pack up at the end of the day. You are learning to read, to add and subtract. Talking back to a strong, confident peer? Not on the list of things to do today.

And speaking up only gets more difficult as kids transition to the uncertainties of middle school where alliances shift between periods, where acceptance can be as elusive as an algebraic equation, where hearts seem meant to broken.

Image result for images of social hierarchy    If Abraham Maslow was correct,  immediately after securing basic physical and safety lifelines, all humans crave a sense of belonging. Everyone needs to feel she is among friends, with people who accept and love her for who she is. We all need groups where we can contribute and be valued.

Image result for emoji of power    What Educators Can Do   Image result for emoji of power

Words As Tools

Image result for black and white images of word walls  Words are power. Teachers model this every day intuitively when we choose our speech carefully, when we praise kids for effort, when we subtly reword misunderstanding to lead kids toward more precise responses. Teachers interact with kids and with each other knowing that all eyes are on us. Words can create a shared language, empowering kids to find appropriate means to self-assert. Little kids–and even not-so-little kids–are often neither fluent nor confident enough to articulate feelings. We can help them use words as tools to set personal boundaries and speak for themselves and their peers. Word Walls support content area literacy. Word Walls can also help kids say what they want–need–to say about themselves to others. Examples include common phrases of courtesy–please, thank you, excuse me and the more focused vocabulary of self assertion–I respect what you say, butI need a little more time to thinkCan you help me?…I don’t think you mean to be unkind, butthat is a great idea…      

Make Instructional Time Do Double Duty  Math, Symbols, Blackboard, Classroom, Lesson, Pie Chart

There is power in sharing ideas. Use content area instruction to simultaneously promote critical thinking and character education. Getting kids to think beyond names, dates, formulas, plot lines enriches lessons and can support their personal growth as well.  What are our responsibilities as citizens of Planet Earth? Should individuals and nations share knowledge and innovations freely for the common good?  How much courage did it require to help Anne Frank or stand up to Yertle the Turtle?   What are the benefits of genetic engineering? Evaluate Truman’s decision to use atomic weaponry. When kids consider content area concepts in personal and ethical contexts, they own the material. They also have opportunities to see the value and consequences of individual actions.

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Monitor Collaborative Activities

There is power in learning together. Through structured lessons, individuals become contributing members of groups, simultaneously developing both academic and social skills. Clearly established ground rules and roles ensure that every pupil interacts with both the material and with peers. It requires planning and foresight to create balanced groups and to uncover ways for every child to bring his strengths to the table. Continuous close monitoring prevents exclusion or domination.  Because kids cannot police themselves or each other, adults must be alert to subtle signals of marginalization or a power grab. Despite the additional work lessons like these call for, the ROI (return on investment) is great: confidence, satisfaction, acceptance, respect.

 

Create Community   Image result for images of learning communities

All of these efforts lead to the ultimate goal: a learning family created out of accidents of proximity. As in any family, each individual is an integral part of the whole, valued and also responsible to his kin. Embedded in this “family” are security, safety, and acceptance. Kids will learn more effectively under these conditions, but they will also grow into themselves, finding courage to speak up, finding confidence to explore their strengths, finding reasons to be kind, responsible, generous.

Teaching is so much more than being an expert in your field.  It is more than test scores and data. I wasn’t yet a teacher when Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future; I teach,” but in the years since, I have come see that as our challenge. Not only are we helping kids become scientists and scholars, we are creating the next generation.