A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

National Writer's Block

Courtesy of Center for Exceptional Smart Briefs, here's a link to an article about the poor performance of students with disabilities on a national writing test.

Professor Roger Slakey, one of my English professors at Georgetown University, used to say that sloppy writing is a reflection of sloppy thinking. I was in a 7th grade English class recently, where I witnessed sloppy thinking firsthand. Instead of clearly responding to a question, for example, "Johnny bought the Parrot because he was lonely, the majority of group reading responses went something like this, "Because, he was lonely." Somehow, the concept of always including a subject and important details in a sentence never sunk in during the primary and upper elementary grades with many of these students.

While coaching my son Joe over the summer with his summer reading project, The Alchemist, I was appalled at the low level of many of Joe's responses. Fortunately, I was there to ask penetrating questions that forced Joe to elaborate and think about what was missing from his sentences. Fortunately, I knew that Joe has always been a classic under performer, someone with far more ability than he often demonstrated. I've seen enough flashes to know better.

Why are students performing poorly on writing assessments? Following Slakey's logic, sloppy writing is a reflection of sloppy thinking. Considering Dan Pink's recent observations about the core human needs that have been overlooked in Motivation 2.0, -- Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose -- perhaps the pervasiveness of sloppy thinking reflects a pervasive lack of motivation among an entire generation of students. For young people like my son Joe, who much prefers Minecraft to his studies or even to baseball, education has been sold as a pathway to "good jobs," as opposed to being naturally good.

For those who can write, the power of the pen is the ultimate form of autonomy: with my blog, I am my own boss. Even though my blog generates zero cash, I get to share my observations with very few restraints. For most students, on the other hand, writing is boring, and the quality of thinking is often not carefully evaluated beyond lower level remembering or understanding responses. Forget about the upper levels of Bloom!

Dan Pink observes that mastery is difficult. Having studied the violin under Ellis Chasins, a 30 + year concert master of the Arlington symphony, I experienced the benefits of practicing scales and doing bowing exercises at a very young age. Natural talent led to a rapid ascent, but it could not get me past middle school, when practicing and doing boring drills became a chore. I made a series of incredibly poor decisions, and squandered a promising musical career. At 49, I am left to wonder what might have been. Dan Pink cites the same 10,000 hours to become a master at anything number I have seen in numerous writings on neuroscience. Writing in school has become a little too closed-ended to allow students the freedom to develop the skills to respond creatively, which may be at the root of the poor writing performance seen in recent testing. Here's a thought: maybe if students actually wrote more, with higher level questions with which to wrestle, students might get better at writing, provided teachers were actually holding students accountable to 6-trait writing rubrics, instead of low level multiple choice writing assessments.

For Dan Pink, the third leg generally missing from Motivation 2.0 is purpose. Teaching to the test is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Zig Ziegler once described people with low motivation as "flea trainers." He said that if you put fleas in a jar and close the top, the fleas will become accustomed to jumping a little lower than the height of the jar; when you unscrew the top, the fleas will have conditioned themselves to not be able to achieve their maximum potential. When I think of purpose, I think of my mom sitting in a library inside an internment camp at Topaz or Tule Lake reading the entire library. I think of my grandfather, an orphan living on a small island in Yamaguchi prefecture, who earned money at age 9 by writing letters for people who couldn't read. When I think of purpose, I think of a 4th grader, who floored me with a passage she wrote about being carried across a river by her father, who cried every day before her SOL, because her father was about to be deported, then earned a perfect score. When I think of purpose, I think about promise that my mom made to me that if I became serious, I could go to Georgetown University with free tuition. With just a pen, a powerful writer can change the world. A good writing teacher can make a difference. That is why I continue to put up with the abuse that comes with trying to become established as a teacher.

Monday, September 17, 2012

AMP: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Some time ago, I posted a link to a Dan Pink You Tube Clip on motivation. Needing to restore my sense of motivation, which has taken a bit of a beating recently, I went to the library to pick up a DVD entitled, The Joy of Mathematics. Seeking therapy in the form of an audiobook, I browsed the audiobook collection, hoping to find a CD of Napoleon Hill's sometimes plagiarized Think and Grow Rich, one of two books Jim Rohn recommended as a much read, along with Mortimer Adler's How to read a book, which I purchased last year from Max Weissmann's organization. I came across a copy of Dan Pink's Drive, and ripped and synched it to my little ASUS626 handheld immediately after coming home, so that I could listen to it while mowing the grass. In Drive, Pink presents a highly lucid, evidence-based challenge to what he calls, Motivation 2.0. Motivation 3.0, or a system based on intrinsic motivation, is presented as a software upgrade to the form of motivation which has predominated in schools and businesses since it was codified by Frederick Taylor in the early twentieth century and expanded upon by B.F. Skinner.

The "bugs" in Motivation 2.0, A.K.A., Behaviorism, have surfaced widely in workplaces and classrooms, according to Pink, because Motivation 2.0 fails to account for three fundamental human needs, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, which must be accounted for in the 21st century workplace, which demands creativity, over rote procedural compliance. Throughout my journey in education, I have struggled to reconcile "behavioral" techniques rooted in Skinner, which predominate in probably most schools, with a feeling that, perhaps, intrinsic motivation was a far more effective approach to helping students want to become lifelong learners.

During the first week, I substituted for an Instructional Assistant in a local Kindergarten class, where I met Kimmy, a strong-willed 5 year old Korean American who had never been in a gym before. When the class filed in along a black line, Kimmy was feeling overwhelmed by the huge open space. She began to cry, "I do not want to play, my parents said that I do not have to play." All the other students followed the gym teacher's instructions to get into their color teams except Kimmy, who just bawled more insistently and louder. Despite his best efforts, the PE teacher was unable to calm her, so he asked me to take Kimmy out of there.

I walked her back to her classroom, and since her teacher was having a meeting with one of the specialists, I walked her back toward the gym. I told her, "You won, you let the adults know that you did not want to be there, and you got your way. Nobody can make you go. You are a tough girl and your parents must be very proud of you." I asked her about whether she had ever had PE. She had not. I confided that PE was my favorite thing to do in school and shared that I thought it might become her favorite subject too. When we got back to the gym, I asked the teacher if it would be okay if Kimmy could just watch the other children as they did their running activity. While she peered in through the door lite, I asked Kimmy how she thought her friends felt about PE. Noticing how much fun her friends were having, Kimmy became more curious. Finally, the PE teacher asked if she wanted to try. She was not ready yet, but she was willing to sit down with her team after the running activity, and agreed to join in the next time. Later, as her class was lining up to go, the teacher asked one more time if she wanted to run across the gym by herself. Kimmy ran from one end of the gym to the line on the other side and then ran back again. Her gym teacher gave her a high 5.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Elephants and ice cream sundaes

From a motivational standpoint, the use of data can either help, hinder, or do nothing to aid progress. Pictures are probably the best way to make numbers meaningful. Pictures tell a thousand words, and when I get my Fitlinxx summary in an email, my weight and calorie numbers are communicated with pictures.

During August, my total workout hours and calories trended slightly downward. Bottom line, my weight has plateaued between 168-170 pounds, which is still 15 pounds from my goal. Lifting 3-4 times per week has virtually eliminated the daily shoulder pain from which I suffered for probably 20 years. The tingling in my fingertips went away after I took a half week off late in the summer. The tingling fingers I experienced in July and early August were probably workout related, not diabetes related. Julie had noticed on more than one occasion that I may have been over-training (not surprising for someone with a type A personality).

I need to improve my approach to cardiovascular conditioning. Julie from Audrey Moore Recreation Center suggested that the best way to overcome a plateau is to vary the workout. During August, most of my cardio time was spent in hour-long sessions 2-3 days per week on an eliptical trainer. She recommended that I include more "interval style" training into my routine, short bursts of high intensity. I was attempting interval training, but I had a high blood pressure scare in August, and I was concerned that perhaps I was doing something wrong and raising my heart rate up too high and too long.

When I asked Julie about how interval training is done, she explained that the high intensity bursts do not have to be for 10-15 minutes, which I had been doing. My concern was not knowing what would be a safe target heart rate, how intense, how long, etc. This is an area where I need to do a little research, and if I can earn a little money, I would love to get some coaching from a personal trainer.

Another way to get more variety into the workouts -- boredom is a huge issue for me -- is to possibly add mountain biking into my routine, as there are great trails all around me. Unfortunately, I killed Joe's motivation to bike when I pushed him too hard when he was little, so he unfortunately does not like to ride with me. He couldn't keep up with me anyway at this point.

Joe's personal training sessions with Jerod, unfortunately ended. Joe made nice improvements over his 6 sessions, and I wish we had the money to continue sending him to Jerod. Although Joe is not nearly sufficiently self-motivated enough, he is happy with his increased bat speed, as measured by the radar which we received recently, and by his improved performance at the plate during batting practice. At this point, Joe continues to hope for rain instead of looking forward to batting practice, which is a byproduct of his gaming addiction -- I don't know whether such a clinical diagnosis exists, but I know addiction when I see it. Hopefully, I can drag Joe to the gym this afternoon when I go to do a cardio training session. If I could only get Joe addicted to working out at the gym ...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Master Plan

In Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist, Santiago, is a young Spanish shepherd who wants to travel. Santiago decides to become a shepherd after his father tells him that he can travel from town to town if he becomes a shepherd. His father gives Santiago some gold medallions, which Santiago uses to purchase his flock. While herding his sheep from pasture to pasture and town to town, Santiago is bothered by a nightly dream. He visits a fortune teller. The fortune teller tells Santiago that if he travels to the pyramids in Egypt he will find his treasure. Instead of charging for her services, she insists that Santiago must promise to pay him one-tenth of his treasure before sending him on his way to seek his "Personal Legend." Santiago encounters numerous hurdles on his way, but at each obstacle, the "Universe conspires" to help him do whatever he needs to do to achieve his Personal Legend.

After a night where Santiago sleeps under the stars with his sheep inside an abandoned church, Santiago has a chance encounter with the King of Salem, who teaches Santiago how to interpret omens and instructs Santiago to sell his flock to pay for his passage to Africa. The King takes one-tenth of Santiago's flock as payment for his information.

Liberated from his responsibilities to his flock, Santiago arrives in Tangiers and wanders into a bewildering, noisy market place, where trade is conducted in Arabic. In a bar, Santiago meets a boy his age who promises to take him to the Pyramids, but instead of purchasing a camel for the journey, the young thief disappears into the crowd with all of Santiago's money. A resourceful fellow, Santiago offers to dust off the crystal in the window of a crystal shop in exchange for a bite to eat. While Santiago is dusting off the crystal in the window, customers are attracted to the shop and buy some crystal. The owner offers Santiago a job as a salesperson with a small salary and generous commission. Since Santiago does not want to forgo his quest, he hesitates to accept, but the shopkeeper explains that Santiago will need considerably more money to pay for a journey across the desert to reach the pyramids, so Santiago agrees to work at the crystal shop. Santiago enjoys considerable success as a salesman and the business prospers, Santiago never loses sight of his Personal Legend, and within a year, he earns enough money to continue his journey. While at the crystal shop, Santiago learns about the difference between the owner and himself: the owner is comfortable where he is, whereas Santiago is driven by the need to seek his Personal Legend, so Santiago finds a caravan and continues his journey ...

The other day, dad offered to speak with the president of a building supply company that is one of his clients. I also noticed in the paper that the company needs a kitchen cabinet sales person, a  job that I know something about and could easily do, but like Santiago, I don't want to get stuck there. While speaking on the phone with my good friend Ricky, who spent the summer painting our house, Rick told me that I should go get the job at the supply house, which happens to be five minutes from my house, and that I could advertise tutoring services on Craig's List after I secure an income stream. Like Santiago, I am extremely hesitant about working for another supply house customer of my dad's, because the last time I did that, I ended up the company for 16-1/2 years.

Today, I heard that over there were over 30,000 applicants to the county to which I applied, for about 1,000 jobs. The fact is, had I been better prepared, I should have gotten one of those jobs. Having stopped feeling sorry for myself, I have dived back into my professional development projects, so that if an when another opportunity presents itself, I will be better prepared the next time.


Every morning, I would sit with Alan, a 3rd grade student with ADD in Mrs. Lowery's class . Alan arrived every morning smelling like a cigarette. He would sit at a table outside the room  in a catatonic state, eat his breakfast, wait for his meds to kick in, then work on problems from an SOL workbook. Alan's  routine had been established to prevent his disrupting Mrs. Lowery's 3rd grade class as it was getting ready for the day.

Both Mrs. Chinn and Mrs. Lowery always had a kind word to say to Alan. Every word and gesture communicated the expectation that Alan would complete his work and be a good citizen in his class. Mrs. Chinn had developed a positive, caring relationship with Alan, so he tended to be compliant with her.

When I worked with Alan one-on-one one morning, on the other hand, I was taken aback by the venom directed at me: "Your face," "you're ugly," etc. I had not expected such venom from a 10 year old child. Mrs. Chinn was quick to identify the source of the problem and made arrangements for Alan to get his medication.

I took turns reading The Lion King with him for the 20 minutes while Alan remained at the clinic, waiting for his meds to kick in. For a short-time while listening to a favorite book, Alan seemed like any other angelic 10 year old. When he returned to his class, which was working in the science lab, he quickly settled back into his normal self, on the surface compliant, but beneath the surface an angry child who had internalized a lifetime of verbal abuse.