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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Making Magic with Chris Van Allsburg

Having enjoyed the benefits of 10 years of research and practice, when doing a read-aloud, I have become a master at building up to a "cliffhanging moment" and stopping abruptly, a technique that I have consistently leaves listeners hungry, literally begging for more. Television executives know a little something about building anticipation for the next episode -- nobody did it better than the creators of 24, despite the fact that the general story line was fairly predictable: Jack Bauer was sabotaged by his superiors, betrayed by his trusted associates, falsely branded as a criminal, tortured, and brought to the brink of death, but everyone knew that he would still manage, somehow, to anonymously save the world from total annihilation.

Based on his clinical practice as a neurologist, as well as reading and personal experience, which runs both broad and deep, in The Tell-Tale Brain, Dr. V. S. Ramachandran has extrapolated "nine laws of aesthetics"  that follow from a "neurobiological view of aesthetics." (Ramachandran, pp. 200-201, 2011). The idea of a "science of aesthetics," as Dr. Ramachandran calls it, sounds like an oxymoron, but the possibility of applying nine principles for attracting and holding student attentions, in order to be more successful in my efforts to maintain student attentions long enough for them to process required content, captured my imagination.

The other day, instead of reading Chris Van Allsburg's Probuditi! from cover to cover, instead of losing the attention of half the class of Kindergarten students along the way, and wondering why, why, why had listeners been such a rude and unappreciative audience, like a maestro, I led listeners to the moment of climax, casually paused, reviewed the build up of tension in the story, connected the conflicts of the major characters to their own personal experiences of sibling rivalry, then elicited predictions about what everybody thought might happen next. Instead of slogging through to the end, as I might have done as a new teacher, I launched into the mini-lesson about the sight words, "was" and "that," energetically modeled how students might use each of these two sight words in a different sentence, briefly illustrated the story, (straight out of Lucy Caulkins,) then promptly sent students off to their seats to write their sentences. As I quickly sent students tiptoeing to their seats, several students wondered when we could finish the story. "After we have finished our work," I replied coyly.

That day, I was not consciously tapping into the principle of Peekaboo, i.e. "making something more attractive by making it less visible," (Ramachandran, p. 227, 2011), when I left students wondering what would happen after the birthday boy, Calvin, tried out hypnosis on his little sister, just like Calvin had seen a magician hypnotize a lady in the audience in a show earlier that day. Subconsciously, though, I was tapping into everything I know about the short attention spans of 5 and 6 year old students, avoiding many of the pitfalls I stumbled into as a new teacher.

When I first started teaching, a little over 10 years ago, my expectations about what students could do were skewed by my own personal experiences with reading. I had learned to read at age 3. I had tested in the 99th percentile nationally in reading during elementary school. As a new teacher, a career switcher in my forties, trained in literary analysis as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I found it difficult to understand how anybody could struggle with reading, since my mom had force-fed me Hop on Pop to the point of tears at age 3. The example of my mom, who had taught herself to read behind the barbed wire fences of Internment Camps during World War II, made it hard for me to understand why anyone might avoid reading.

I can still visualize my mom taking me to Central Library, where I listening to Babar in the children's section. I can picture the little bookcase in my old room, packed with books of a variety of levels and genres, including Green Eggs and HamWhere the Wild Things Are, FerdinandStuart Little, The Golden Book of Mythology, LaRouse World Mythology, and Chronicles of Narnia. I had books on the human body, mathematics, as well as ready access to classic Peanuts and Mad Magazine. I had biographies of my favorite sports heroes. Sure, I loved to watch I Love Lucy!, Get Smart, Hogan's Heroes, Star Trek, and sporting events,

When I started teaching in Title I Schools, as a career switcher, I had neither the personal experience with any reading difficulties, nor any depth of understanding of the needs of children who had not been raised in in a print rich, literary environment, or even one rich with dinner conversations. My personal biases colored my expectations, which led to my frustration that students were not giving enough effort. Plus, I lacked the research basis to back up my "counter culture" views that the love of reading was being beaten out of boys because most of the books we provided them were boring -- boring, boring, boring!

Instead of cleverly using "the other child" strategy when correcting students, ten years ago I tended to embarrass students by confronting students misbehavior directly, which had the effect of shutting students down. Today, everything I do has a purpose, which is ultimately to engage students in the learning to the maximum extent possible.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Updates to my website

Since I am a practical person, everything I do has a purpose. Even when I blog, usually my purpose is to solve a problem.

If you check out the sidebar, you might notice several revisions. The main revision has been to my virtual classroom. I have been working on my Mr. Kurland's Classroom website for several hours. It's far from perfect, but the outlines of a usable site began to emerge, after I resolved several problems caused when I tried out a new "change site layout" tool. Some of the resources that I have collected are pretty good.

Online collaboration is one of my ultimate goals, so I am in the process of testing various alternatives, many of which are included in the sidebar, while some exist only within my chrome browser.

Playing with fire

As an extremely private and protective person, my mother is worried sick about my defiant response to her recent discovery that You Tube automatically associates videos with related key words, which I suppose, might give somebody the false impression that I might engage in inappropriate behavior with students. Instead of backing off my decision to post my innocent Bad Hair Day Videos with the unfortunate You Tube keyword associations that I had nothing to do with, that were automatically generated by a computer, since I did nothing wrong, I decided instead to directly face the unfair perception just like I would face any bully. Instead of backing away, I decided to share my experience with what was, potentially, a life altering situation that I experienced a few years ago, an experience that boils my blood whenever I think about it -- I refuse to back down.

Mom is concerned that my decision "to be real," defiantly so, is akin to committing career suicide. Education has, in my view, become a female dominated business where risk-taking and blunt talk are often considered liabilities, but after 10 years, during which I have payed my dues, both literally and figuratively, and have put in the time and study needed to master the core skills needed to be an effective teacher, I have come to the realization that my decision to play it safe in interviews has not been working, probably because those evaluating can easily spot the incongruity with my true, far bolder personality. Lately, I have purposefully been adopting a more "manly approach," one that is more congruent with how I view the world, since proceeding in fear and worry is no way to live, no way to teach, and sends the wrong message to students, who when they smell and worry fear devolve into ravenous beasts.

Instead of recoiling in fear from interview questions about difficulties I have had to overcome in becoming a master teacher, I have decided to be more upfront about the formative experiences that have shaped my approach to classroom management, my concerns about the appropriateness of subjecting certain students to certain assessments, my insistence on evaluating students for developmental readiness, my experiences with collaboration, both good and bad, and my conviction that any new teacher needs to be supported by a strong team, particularly in the identification of appropriate instructional resources. A quiet, humble, and perhaps fearful approach has never worked for me in the classroom. If you were a fly on the wall, and if I were totally unaware that I was being observed, I might be caught using highly expressive story telling, which frequently leads to belly laughter, surprising shifts in intonation, pregnant pauses, controlled gestures, as well as a call and response rhythm to my delivery, all with the purpose of getting students engaged, all intended to emphasize critical attributes and essential knowledge.

While I am blogging today, as this blog is like an "artists sketchpad," what I am actually doing is preparing to update my applications with various school systems. For those who find their way here, I am pulling back the curtain a little, sharing my thinking, living a little dangerously.

Meanwhile, I am trying to figure out a way to embed videos without the use of You Tube, which I intend to work around from now on, because I do not like the way my videos were associated with content I find highly objectionable.

Although I still have not found what I'm looking for, here is a site that lists 47 Alternatives to Using YouTube in the Classroom. Now it is possible to embed Picasa videos within a Google Site, which I did with my Google Site. I just have not found a way that I like that will enable me to embed video on my blog. Maybe the problem is that I am cheap, and lack unlimited time to explore at the moment.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is measurement instruction measuring up?

When students are introduced to measurement in elementary school, I have too often observed teachers not intentionally linking to prior knowledge, i.e., their life experiences with how and why we measure things. Or, too often, I have observed teachers fail to offer a preview of how students will be using measurements as students and in their daily lives, i.e., why we measure things. Thus, opportunities to introduce students to a critical life skill in a connected way are frequently wasted, through rote, unconnected activities.

That was, partially, not the case with a 1st grade class, in which the teacher tasked me with reading aloud a selection from Measuring Penny before I sent students off to their math centers. In the case of the 1st grade class, unfortunately, I did not see any measurement activities connected with the story in any of her centers, despite the evidence of her excellence as a teacher, reflected in the problem solving proclivities of her 1st graders. Thus, an opportunity to reinforce important concepts modeled in this classic math children's book, such as various ways we can use standard and non standard measurements, was lost for this particular group of 1st graders.

Dr. Usha Rajdev, my math methods professor at Marymount University, would have applauded the use of a story. In addition to the story, however, Dr. Rajdev would have insisted upon a historical connection, a kit of activities that incorporated manipulatives, procedures that prompted meaningful responses, sometimes including Math Raps, always including pictorial representations, and a bulleted list of resources, as well as a rubric for assessing student understanding.

Recently, I did a body measurement lesson with a 3rd grade GT (advanced academic program) class. Somewhat surprisingly, although I had no idea that this was an advanced class until the end of the day, after I met with the teacher, this particular advanced class had a handful of students who were not quite feral, but chronic offenders, third graders who lacked body control, a filter for their comments, and the habit of maintaining respectful attitudes, three essential factors for promoting a healthy learning environment. After I learned from the Instructional Assistant (IA) assigned to some of these students that the measurement lesson from the previous day with their teacher had devolved into utter chaos, my jaw squared, my eyes squinted, and I channeled Clint Eastwood. Before sending students off to do their measurements, I sat the students at the carpet to engage them in a brief conversation about expectations of how mathematicians and scientists do their work.

To set up the students for a success, I stressed emphatically to students that they would be working with math tools, not toys. Students were asked to share ways measurement tools might be used inappropriately. Students were easily able to come up with a number of problems that might occur, including safety concerns and off task behaviors. Also, I modeled a 2' voice, instructing students that if I could hear them, they were too loud. In general, students had no trouble explaining the difference between productive math talk and its opposite, although I was sensing troubling behavior occurring below the radar, and had to redirect the group more frequently than I would normally would have to do.

Those who I noticed demonstrating self control at the carpet picked first from the partner picker bag (a nice innovation of their teacher which I had never seen before). Despite our conversation, during which, I elicited meaningful contributions from many of the students about reasons why we needed to behave like mathematicians and scientists while collecting our measurement data, and why we should not see anybody playing around, one student, Louis, a chronic disrupter, was unable to handle normal transitions, such as choosing a partner, in a calm, businesslike manner, and was unable to refrain from disrupting other students in the classroom as we transitioned. After two quick warnings about voice and body control, on the third strike I sent Louis to another classroom so that others could learn.

During the lesson, the class continued to need frequent reminders about voice levels, but most seemed to be using their math tools appropriately. Throughout the activity phase of the lesson, as I engaged with students throughout the room, I would stop the entire class to focus on a measurement procedure, and with a second teacher in the room, the class was able to collect the needed data efficiently.

During our introductory math talk, a few students had shouted out that one of the girls had been reading a book on Ancient Rome after I raised the question about how measurement might have been used by the ancient civilizations. The connection to ancient civilizations seemed particularly relevant considering that students were being tasked with first collecting body measurement data, then reflecting on proportional relationships which could be found in the data afterwards. Instead of criticizing the highly engaged little girl, I asked for permission to use her book in our discussion. I held up pictures of statues and architecture from her book as I repeated the question about some of the ways measurement might have been used by ancient civilizations, which generated a marked increase in the volume of student responses.

After 20 minutes of data collection, when it came time to reflect about proportional relationships in the data that students could discover in the data, for example, that the diameter of the neck is about 2 x the diameter of the wrist, I referred back to the pictures of statues and explained that the Ancient Greeks had discovered relationships in body measurements, and that we could discover them too. I modeled how, in several cases, the we might discover the generalization that diameter of the neck is about 2 x the diameter of the wrist. Unfortunately, our reflection procedures had not been well thought out. Difficulties students might encounter in discovering relationships in the data had not been properly anticipated.

Unfortunately, our method of sharing measurement data lacked an obvious and consistent way for students to discover these amazing relationships. Thus, an opportunity was lost to awaken a deep passion for mathematics and scientists that might lead children from an early age, on the path to becoming doctors, and engineers, chemists, or neuroscientists, as it was awakened in Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, from a very early age. Instead, a number of the students, who as 3rd graders might not be developmentally ready for algebraic thinking, were left confused when unable to process how and why we make data comparisons and feel the thrill of gestalt, the flash of insight, when we discover patterns in the data.

Later, during the read aloud of "Davy Crocket," from American Tall Tales, by Mary Pope Osborne, which I used to launch independent reading, I asked them to compare Davy Crocket's supposed weight at 8 years old, 200 pounds, with their weight as 3rd graders. One of these days, I am going to have to start recording read alouds, because my manner of expression, the way I channeled the boastful character's expression as he told tales, had the majority of the children hanging on my every word. Before sending the children off to independent reading, I stopped just before the climax, to leave the students wanting more. The class was as quiet as church mice afterwards. I was able to continue my reading of Kurzweill, generally undisturbed.

Late at night, after my 2 hour workout at the Audrey Moore Recreation Center, upon further reflection, I began exploring the possibility of using Google Forms as a way for a class, using a Smartboard as a central data display site, might collect measurement data collaboratively, in a manner that would have enabled the class to discover averages, and relationships between body measurements which had so fascinated mathematicians of the ancient world.

In that search, I stumbled upon Moodle, a site dedicated to sharing open source educational resources. Perhaps, when I am done, I will be able to share my Google Form on Moodle, to offer a more guided procedure for the reflection phase of the body measurement lesson.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Phd quality insights on technology

A warning to college profs from a high school teacher | Voices in the Feminine | Scoop.it

I just discovered a tech tool I like now that I get it: Edmodo.  The professional community is posting high level insights on the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom.

Now here's one I don't like: the keyboard on my Smart phone kept trying to substitute Eduardo for Edmodo because the new word didn't compute.  With Ray Kurzweil,  who pioneered voice recognition algorithms,  as described in How to Create a Mind, maybe Google might invest some resources in handwriting recognition or better keyboards.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A feature of YouTube that I truly hate

For a teacher, particularly a male teacher, any perception of inappropriate behavior, real or imagined can be the kiss of death. Rule number 1: never be stupid enough to be alone in a room with a student, always keep doors open, and remain visible.

I know. A few years ago, I was falsely accused of "inappropriate touching," and was utterly unable to defend myself. For several weeks I was left totally in the dark, and nobody would even tell me what it was that I was being accused of doing, was treated as though the rule of thumb was "guilty until found innocent."

Dealing with a false accusation felt as though I had entered the Twilight Zone. I was only exonerating after meeting with the lone Investigator in the school district after having waited several weeks for the gentleman to return home to the U.S. from overseas, and thoroughly investigate the matter, i.e., interview all the witnesses, take photos, talk with all the students, get a statement from the other teacher, who was 5 feet away having a conversation with me during the entire time of the alleged incident, and vouched for me, etc., during which time it was impossible to find work, and it felt like the world was caving in on me. That was nearly the straw that broke the camel's back. I was just about done with teaching after that.

After my name was cleared, my next call I got from within the school system was from a school with a Kindergarten teacher who was about to have a baby, who had actually had her baby the day before school started. On virtually no notice, I launched a Kindergarten class, despite never having taught Kindergarten. Launching that Kindergarten class, thanks to all of the support I received from teachers and parents alike, restored my confidence, and rekindled my desire to keep going, so much so, that I was inspired to enter Marymount University's Professional Development School.

Thus, when I innocently utilized the movie creation feature of Picasa to display student work from an art lesson I did, entitled "Bad Hair Day," then shared the footage YouTube, the last thing I expected was for my presentation of first grade art to be associated with inappropriate sexual innuendo, simply because I had used "Bad Hair Day" keywords.

When my Mom called tonight in a panic, telling me I needed to "take it down, take it down," the first thing that came to mind in my bewilderment was that my account had been hacked. I rushed home from walking Mabel, or rather from dragging her along the path, since Mabel had turned her body 180 degrees so that she could engage with dogs that were behind us, researched the issue, and even sent feedback to Google.

Here's what I learned when I got home: YouTube automatically associates other videos that contain the same keywords, whether or not the the content is objectionable. Ergo, "guilt by association." Therefore, I am currently exploring alternatives to using YouTube to record, store, and distribute audio and video content via the cloud, because the inability of individual users like myself to control associated content  is extremely troubling to me. YouTube is not a monopoly. I will find other alternatives. For now, I will leave the post as it is and let readers judge for themselves whether I did anything wrong.

See for yourself what excited my Mom so much, who was bawling after we left the Investigator's office, just a river of tears. It was horrible, horrible.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Digital (Electronic) eWord Wall Template

I finally figured out how to create an online digital (electronic) eWord Wall! Here's a link to the Google Doc ... Feel free to share! I don't care! La! La! La!

Where is Superman?

Thanks to dad for sending me the following link: Winning Words After School Program.
It's worth taking another look at Mortimer Adler's The Paideia Proposal, since Adler's educational philosophy is behind the teaching described in the article above. This proposal remains on my reading list, but I have had difficulty finding the motivation to focus on it, because I have more immediate concerns closer to home.

A facility with the mechanics of classroom management, as opposed to a propensity to teach habits of mind in the tradition of Cardinal Newman, i.e., the classical tradition, is the primary lens by which new teachers seem to be evaluated in my experience. Therefore, teachers who are thinkers, in my view, are undervalued, unappreciated, and many are probably driven out of education before they can secure a toehold and gain the practical experience needed to become master classroom managers. Students may not immediately respond to a teacher who is a thinker, who might teach "over the heads" of his or her students, especially an inexperienced teacher, overwhelmed by too many meetings, too much observation pressure, and too many problem behaviors. For late bloomers like myself, it has taken years of failure and reflection to learn what does not work with students and upgrade my classroom management practices.

Last night, I stayed up past midnight watching Waiting for Superman, in which one leader of the charter school movement described how lousy he was as a teacher for the first two years. I can relate. Lately, everywhere I go, other teachers have been noticing my expertise in classroom management, a set of skills that I have been trying to master for 10 years. While I lack the patience to implement Chris Biffle's Whole Brain Teaching Methods, when I prompt students to tug on their ears, or rub their belly, or pat on their knees if they want to respond, there is method in my madness -- I am copying elements of Whole Brain Teaching that are easy for me to implement. In calling for an unusually high number of student responses, I am able to grab and hold student attention long enough to utilize my talent for humorous lesson delivery. After 10 years in education, I have become a master at linking to prior knowledge, writing, explaining, and reinforcing the instructional focus in kid friendly language, pacing activities for maximum learner engagement and differentiation, providing wait time so that students have time to process, and pausing periodically at key moments of a lesson to stimulate reflection and lesson closure. And I'm nearly "broke."

The generally accepted view is that a teacher makes all the difference, and to a large degree, I totally embrace that responsibility. Recently, I subbed for a 4th grade class and came away totally convinced that Chris's class would easily have been a total disaster under the guidance of a less masterful teacher. Chris's class had the best eye contact and firm and friendly handshake at the door I have ever encountered. Chris even took the time to leave his meeting to explain to his class the need for empathy when students "purchased" student created books with their "Dillon Dollars," prompted students to reflect on how they would feel if nobody "purchased their book." He left as little as possible to chance. That is purposive teaching! I wonder how long it will be before Chris burns himself out ...

Despite being, perhaps, the most effective teacher I have ever observed, Chris's 4th grade students did not immediately know the meaning of "agriculture," which was problematic, as this highly diverse population of students was being asked to reflect on the western and southern migration of Virginians after the American Revolution, which had been fueled, to a large degree, by a desperate need for lands, caused by adverse effects of tobacco farming on the soil. Young students, who often fear how others will perceive them if others know they do not know an answer, often neglect the deep questioning process described in the article my dad sent me. Given excellent teaching materials, such as an interactive notebook that is probably used county wide, given my teaching experience, I was able to teach in a highly effective, highly engaging manner, and prompt for deep questioning, so I have a high degree of confidence that what I taught will stick. Given lousy teaching materials, given my inexperience, and given a similarly difficult population when I taught a 4th grade class inn my last full time teaching position, I wasn't nearly as effective or engaging, although I did have a few 600 scores on the Social Studies SOL, so I must have done something right.

The next few months represents my final push for a teaching position, as I suspect that Principals have classified me as one of the "lemons" to be avoided, as described in Waiting for Superman in the section entitled, "the dance of the lemons." Shortly, I will resubmit my application to various jurisdictions after rewriting key elements to address the matter of my teaching experience, and the lemon perception head on. The two principals who sponsored my Cohort stressed the importance of "being real" when I interview. Being real is something I have struggled with over the past 10 years; I have always started by explaining how difficult it has been, because that is being real, but I have had difficulty getting past the negative state such thoughts tend to engender.

I'm late to the gym, and late to my errands at Kohl's, where I need new tennis shoes, and Walmart, where I need to purchase fishing gear, consistent with an effort to bond with Joe later this Spring, and placate my wife Karen. I spent the first part of my morning arguing with Joe about the need to show up to his baseball tryouts dressed professionally, as Coach Chuck Hoyle, Joe's hitting coach had instructed him to do. Joe didn't refused to wear his baseball pats, he refused to wear his baseball hat, all because he feared how others would perceive him if he was the only one wearing pants and a baseball hat, but I was able to persuade him to bring his pants and hat, just in case. When we arrived at the field, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was wearing baseball hats and baseball pants, so I pulled away and demanded that Joe put on his baseball pants. Although he changed his pants, he adamantly refused to wear his hat. When I picked him up, Joe acknowledged that only one "donk" had shown up without baseball pants and a hat; he even reflected that it would have helped to have worn his cleats, and acknowledged, "I get the point."

Similarly, in the classroom, students typically do not know and do not know they do do not know, so conflict between the adults in the room and students is inevitable. During my last full-time position as a 4th grade teacher, my AP, Julie, suggested that I yell at my students if they continued to act up, so I told her I would try that approach, "Couldn't hurt!". Later, after somebody complained that I had raised my voice when addressing my students, she pulled me into her office. As she was dressing me down, Julie sighed and exclaimed, "I knew you were going to bring that up ..." From that point forward, I determined to never again stray from my core principles.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pokes and Prods for Creative Input

My 78 year old Mom often calls to correct me on the inaccuracies of my posts, so the other day, I asked her for the umpteenth time, "Why won't you comment directly on the blog." Recently, I explained to a group of 4th graders about the importance of, citing references in their research writing. Blogs are notoriously unreliable if one is looking for "reliable information." For accuracy, academic journals and certain publications can be relied upon, blogs cannot be relied upon for factual precision, especially one with entitled "Poetic License," which I view as a sketchpad as opposed to a finished product. Mom's reason for not commenting directly: "I am too private." Sounds like an excuse to me! While I hope to correct any inaccuracies eventually, possibly in a book form, if somebody will pay me, my more immediate goal is to generate responses because I enjoy engaging in conversations.

Hopefully, through these asynchronous thoughtcasts, the purpose of which have always been to poke, prod, and cajole others to respond, similar to the way I attempt to continuously poke, prod, and cajole students to respond continuously in the classroom, I might eventually persuade her, at the very least, to make an effort to record her stories using Evernote on her IPad. Currently, mom is more interested in exploring how the light falls across objects as she photographs her garden, a spectacular garden that incorporates elements of shade and open space as well as any professional garden I have ever seen. Truly, mom's little patch of paradise has been her labor of love since my family moved to Arlington in 1967. The family home in Arlington is the first place my mom was ever able to really call "home," considering the way she was so rudely uprooted as an impressionable 7 year old, when her world as a spoiled little rich girl was rocked by the men in the black suits who came in the middle of the night to take her father away.

When I captured mom's animal stories on micro tape in the late 70's, as a zit-faced high school student, I never anticipated how empty I would feel when I tried to retrieve them years later from the attic, only to find they had been erased by the heat. I felt like the Sybil must have felt when somebody opened up the door just as she was getting ready to bind up the knowledge of the world, which she had written on leaves, only to have the leaves scattered to the winds. I felt as though I had just witnessed the sacking of Timbuktu by the terrorists. I felt like Milton in the middle of the night, grasping for an image as it disappeared into thin air. Poof! History dead, history gone, pounded to dust. Having set up camp in the Library of Congress, having immersed myself in the the audio history sections on the web, it pains me that such a wonderful story teller would be "too private" to share her experiences openly. For many years, I have wanted to record mom's voice as she describes, with great expression, the look on her mom's face when, as a little girl, she returned home only to discover that her pet, a wild bird, which flew freely around the family "cottage" at Tule Lake, had electrocuted itself and died after tugging on an electrical cord.

Mom called to correct me about my Fishing Trip post, in which I mixed up some important facts concerning her father's tuna canning operation -- in this case, the truth is actually far more entertaining than what I was able to come up with in my rough sketches. As I heard somewhere recently, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Actually, mom's primary concern was that I stress the importance of water safety to my teenager, Joe, to which I replied, "I am the water safety nazi," but I allowed the conversation to meander until mom began to bring up my job search woes, at which time I conveniently remembered that I was late for my appointment with an exercise bike. I hope that mom responds with her corrections, because she has a story to tell, and she is, in fact, a "primary source," in some cases, and a "secondary source" in others.

One of the central themes that I am noticing in both How to Create a Mind: the Secret of Human Thought Revealed, by Ray Kurzweill, as well as The Tell-Tale Brain, by Dr. V.S. Ramachandran is the unparalleled capacity of people to immediately identify patterns, as opposed to our capacity for computational precision, which is a digital, as opposed to biological advantage. In defining the genius of Shakespeare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously described Shakespeare's ability to generate in his audience that "willing suspension of disbelief" which constitutes poetic faith. Had Shakespeare allowed himself to be bound by the rules of reality television, his audience and future generations would have been far poorer in their understanding of human nature. In Shakespeare, where all the world's a stage, and plays within a play abound, every element is connected in a Great Chain of Being, since in the Shakespearean world view, we live in an analogous universe. Shakespeare was able to recreate in miniature, and broadcast universal, timeless patterns of thought, which now are being mechanically encoded in DNA computing algorithms.

In the reductive environment that the business of education has become, where genuine academic rigor has suffered ever since No Child Left Behind resulted in a misplaced emphasis on computational precision and factual recall, computational precision too often gets in the way of learning. Tasked with developmentally inappropriate requirements, many students give up the quest for understanding before ever getting started on the journey. Had mom not self-educated herself, reading on a dirt floor just likeAbraham Lincoln, had mom been held to the 5 finger rule by teachers whose number one rule should be, "do no harm," she would have never picked up Origin of the Species as a child, she would have never quoted Nietsche in applying to the University of Nebraska, despite having only 3 years of formal education, she would have allowed the men in the black suits who took her father away in the middle of the night to define her.

Mom hated Japan, which having read Embracing Defeat, I only came to understand as an adult. Her singular goal, from the minute she stepped ashore in Japan, was to get back to America and a way of life which had been taken fro her. Her path to America was through education. Having restored her little Garden of Eden, I challenge her to find the courage to share her story because it is worthwhile.

After I reached my nadir as a 9th grader at Williamsburg Junior High School, what I discovered about my family history saved my life. Without any respect or appreciation for my family history, I had been on the path to an early death or a life behind bars, not on a path to an appreciation of what Kurzweill and Ramachandran are revealing about the human brain and the implications for beneficial changes in national education policy.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bread Crumbs

As an aspiring soccer star riding in the backseat, with soccer moms frequently prying about what my dad did for a living, I learned how to weave and dodge socially, because, frankly, I felt that being asked about what my dad did for a living was a little embarrassing. Unlike other backseat soccer stars, I had no simple answer to offer those who were kind enough to give me a ride to a game, such as "fireman," "policeman,"or even "lawyer." At a young age, I discovered the benefits of a stock reply. I became a pro at editing-out, perhaps, more accurate job titles, such as Revolutionary, or Institutional Design Scientist, which my father had recommended, but which would have attracted unwanted attention. All I wanted when being driven to a soccer game was to be left alone to dream about the rippling of the net!

Molly Chesire's 56 minute YouTube, which lays out many of the ideas and projects my dad has been proposing since the early 1960's, like the books displayed on the round table in her video, has fallen on deaf ears. Based on what I have been reading about remarkable advances in brain research, I suspect that a phenomenon Dan and Chip Heath have labeled, "the curse of knowledge," helps explain why this YouTube cannot compete with superficial messages such as Gangum Style. Honestly, my attention was held by Molly's video for no more than 30 seconds. I felt totally overwhelmed.

Having recently listened twice to the audiobook, Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, which led me to purchase a hard copy, and which I am hoping to find time to dissect so that I can apply its many insights about communication in my classroom, I recently proposed a short question and answer audiocast format consisting of 2-3 minute audio-only posts called "Bread Crumbs," that my 83 year old dad might use to market his ideas of Binary Economics and Capital Homesteading. Through my proposed "Bread Crumbs" OwnCast format, my vision was for my dad to leave a trail of audio bread crumbs leading 1,000,000 listeners, in Pied Piper fashion, to an event to be held at the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, D.C., in 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Through "Bread Crumbs," I hoped to help my dad use social media to attract 1,000,000 people, hungry for social and economic justice. I even stayed up one night last week until 2 a.m., and used Google Docs to collaborate with my dad and a few key members of the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ). In the Google Doc, I explained the concept, and drafted a series of 4 questions that he might use to launch the weekly series.

My purpose in proposing a "Bread Crumbs" format was to help bridge a canyon of abstraction, a gap of shared background knowledge that exists between my dad's Einstein-like paradigm shifting concept and a potential global audience, which remains unaware of a simple, but revolutionary idea that dates from the 1950's, which I feel could heal our economy like penicillin, but is in danger of going extinct after my father eventually gives up the ghost.  Fresh with insights from the Heath brothers, and everything I have been able to weave into my teaching philosophy from my initial two "readings" of the audiobook, "The Tell-Tale Brain," by V.S. Ramachandran, I hypothesized, in order for my dad's slogan and logo, "Own or be Owned," to go viral, the tightly wound, elegantly elaborated system for "Own or be Owned" needs to unwound for a  popular audience in simple, short, surprising, practical, engaging stories that a million uninitiated listeners might consume, designed to leave the listeners always hungry for more.

While my dad and others felt that "Bread Crumbs" was an intriguing concept, I have my doubts that the initiative will ever get off the ground, largely because my dad insists that the project be "managed professionally," complete with a production schedule, and launched with a series of 20 questions gleaned from Molly Chesire's interview. In my opinion, it would be far easier to create "Bread Crumbs" posts asynchronously, i.e., without a strict production schedule, or the need for a professional manager.

Since "Bread Crumbs" OwnCasts would be converted to a universal MP3 format before distribution, and since each file, given its small size, would be so manageable, my dad's OwnCasts would be ideally suited for repackaging by professional aggregators after the fact\. Memorable graphics could be incorporated as needed.

The files in audiobooks are always limited to 2-3 minutes. Advertisers limit messages to 30 second spots. The marketers of Bud Light have learned a few things in the marketplace of ideas. Certain ideas stick. Others die. I hope that I am wrong about my assessment that the "Bread Crumbs" will probably never get off the ground, in one form or another, because productive collaboration is such a difficult thing to do.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Fishing Trip

My dad never took me fishing. I never realized that I was missing anything.

Dad grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a self-styled "street punk," who was always getting in trouble for fighting. Dad didn't have a positive relationship with his father, Ruben, who was abusive towards my grandmother Lena. After my dad was 13, after his father hit Lena, dad never spoke to his father again. Dad moved in with his grandmother, Ruben's mom, Fanny, who was the matriarch of the Kurlansky clan.

I once saw my grandfather, Ruben, from across the room at a party at my Aunt Sylvia's house in Easton, Connecticut, many years ago. The resemblance was striking, but dad is nothing like his father. Obviously, Ruben never took my dad fishing fishing. Dad once told me that the thought of going fishing bored him.

Karen's dad, Bob, on the other hand, used to take her fishing when she was a little girl. She has fond memories of the times her dad took her fishing, and she has asked me to take Joe fishing for years. I have always wanted to take Joe fishing, but I have little experience with fishing, other than the few times I have went with friends, plus the time I was taken  a charter boat, fishing for Rockfish, which was in the Spring of 2001, not long before Bob and Gene retired from Allied Plywood. My old diving pal John once invited me to his family's cabin at Kerr Lake when I was in high school, where I caught a catfish using a bobber. Last summer, I dropped by John's house in Arlington. John is so committed to fishing that he has a specially designed canoe with foot pedals that allow him to sneak up on the fish in shallow grassy areas near shore where the fish like to hide. John often takes his one-man canoe out on the Potomac River near Chain Bridge at the crack of dawn. When I talked with him, John was coaching at American University, and one thing he loved about his job was the flexible hours, which allow him to go fishing whenever he wants. My brother's wrestling buddy from high school, Rick Z, has taken my brother's kids fishing, but like me, my brother Mike is not much of a fisherman either.

My mom's dad, Yunoksuke Tsuchitani, who was born on Iwaishima Island, came from a long line of fishermen. Family records in Yamaguchi Prefecture go back as far as the Gengi-Heike War, where one relative was presented with a scroll from a Samurai, who had been rescued from the sea by my ancestor, a fisherman. When I was in high school, my mom told me that before World War II, after labor unions in California forced her father to sell White Star Tuna to the company that became Chicken O' the Sea, he owned a sports shop, from which he sold custom fly-fishing lures, and hand crafted fishing poles.

A few months ago, while I was walking Mabel, we ran into Larry, who was walking his beloved boxer Dixie. Mabel and I have run into Larry and Dixie in the Accotink woods on a few occasions, and we have struck up a few conversations and gotten to know each other a little. I had been walking awhile with a new friend Susan, and her new pup, Reilly, I think, and somehow the conversation shifted to Larry's investment in a property in Canada called Rideau Resorts, which according to Larry is one of the best fishing spots in North America -- his grandchildren catch 20 fish per day right off the docks, and he pays them $5 per fish. Larry worries that a way of life is dying out, that there just are not as many people who have grown up fishing as there used to be. Larry's wants to pass on a way of life to future generations. I raised the question of how social media might be used to share that legacy and attract a new generation of customers who know nothing about fishing. Larry was intrigued with the idea of a story-teller sharing fishing tales from the property, and offered to pay me to write about my experience -- I told him I would do it free of charge, because it seemed like a fun story, but he was serious about paying me for my time.

Tonight, with Karen's request that I take Joe fishing over Spring Break freshly revisited, I finally called Larry back. We discussed my problem of how to introduce Joe to fishing, given my inexperience. Larry told me about how, as a child, he used to go fishing with a friend at a power plant on the New River in North Carolina. His dad never took him fishing, either, but it became a hobby, which he has introduced to his children and grandchildren. Larry offered some suggestions about where to buy fishing equipment, including K-Mart, Dick's, and I think it was the Bass Pro Shop in Annapolis. He suggested a number of local fishing spots, including Fountainhead, and surprisingly, Accotink. He told me that it made sense to start with a bobber and inexpensive equipment, then as we became more experienced, we might graduate to lures. As a final suggestion, he suggested that I go to local fishing holes and ask what others are using.

Fishing is all about father-child relationships, generational bonding, respect for the environment, and finding peace and joy in the natural, as opposed to a violent virtual world, a dark dim basement unconnected to the tug and pull of another life, where disrespect and killing sprees rule, fresh air and sunshine don't matter, and death is cheap.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Withings Smart Bodyscale

I finally opened up the Withings Smart Bodyscale, which had sat unopened since I bought it for myself for Christmas. Setting it up only took about 15-20 minutes -- very easy. When I step on the scale, it automatically uploads data on my weight, bodyfat % and, BMI to my Withings and MyFitness Pal accounts. Bodyfat% How does it measure that?

The scale cleverly uses electrical resistance to measure bodyfat. The result: despite working out consistently since a trip to the doctor and a blood test revealed 6 months ago that I had developed diabetes, my bodyfat % is at 27.3, which is in the obese range. Yikes! An excellent bodyfat % is in the teens.

Procedures for getting accurate measurements are clear. Needed lifestyle changes are not so clear, but getting the facts and the charts have been a wakeup call.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Unknown, Unseen, Unheard, Gone

The Sad Story of an Unknown DC Sports Legend

Alex Prewitt's feature article in today's Washington Post Sports section is an example of great feature writing -- I was bawling -- but a couple of donkeys are pummeling the writer for exhibiting a little poetic license. One critic concluded that the young man who didn't get the recognition he probably deserved was "nothing special." If you like something specific about Prewitt's writing, and feel that we should pause and reflect upon the passing of an unknown sports legend, please comment. Many people who suffer from a condition Dr. V.S. Ramachandran described as metaphor blindness, seem to want everybody to see the world as dull and grey as they see it, and would shout down anyone who sees life differently.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Creepy crawlers, our bodies are covered with microbes

From the Kurzweil blog, here is a video about a project to map all the microbial biomes that cover every square inch of the surface of our bodies and are spread throughout the insides of our bodies. Microbiomes have been shown to affect digestion and mood. For under $80 dollars, anyone can get a kit.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mom’s Love Good for Child’s Brain

Mom’s Love Good for Child’s Brain
The other day, E.B. from the Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan was Tweeting while driving to his repair shop. He was in a hurry to get to a dinner to celebrate the debut of the Junkies new show, Table Manners, which is due to air on Comcast. When E.B. later Tweeted that he had arrived, my initial reaction was, that's exactly the kind of post that I never wanted to see. Who cares?

Then, having come to know a little about E.B. from listening to him on 106.7 The Fan for all these years, I considered that it made sense that E.B. might want to promote the debut of the Junkies new television show, Table Manners. I quickly forgot about the annoying posts and went about my day.

The idea that people would post the mundane events of their boring lives was exactly my perception of Twitter when it first came out, and why I was so slow to get on the Twitter bandwagon. E.B., a genius when it comes to marketing, played upon exactly that perception, leading listeners down the primrose path, only to later surprise listeners with some incredibly funny radio. My good friend Ricky, the handyman, who was disassembling engines when he was in 9th grade, often joked about Twitter this summer while he was fixing all of the holes Joe had made in the wall while playing video games, fixing the crack in the ceiling that I had promised my wife that I would fix, oh about 17 years ago, unclogging the drier vent, etc.

The next morning, after being "pummeled" by his fellow Junkies, E.B. explained that he had been Tweeting while driving on the beltway with defective brakes, because he had been too impatient to wait for AAA. Thanks to E.B., who has been promoting Twitter ever since it came out, I finally understand the power of Twitter.

Twitter takes advantage of what Dean Buenomano described as cognitive Priming in his book, Brain Bugs. Think of priming as cognitive foreplay, in which seeds for future associations are subtly planted in a way that cultivates cognitive schema. Any good marketer knows intuitively understands how people use priming to marshal all the associations surrounding a word or concept, so that new information will "stick," and be memorable. Priming, or linking to background knowledge, is the first thing that a teacher needs to do before beginning a lesson, or little or no learning will take place.

Here is a humorous example from Brain Bugs:

Answer the first two questions below out loud, then blurt out the first thing that pops into your mind in response to sentence 3:
  1. What continent is Kenya in?
  2. What are the two opposing colors in a game of chess
  3. Name any animal.  
 Roughly 20 percent of people answer "zebra" to sentence 3, and about 50 percent respond with an animal from Aprica. But, when asked to name any animal out of the blue, less than 1 percent of the people will answer "zebra." (Buenomano, p. 20, 2011)
The fact that we can nudge people into thinking of a zebra by evoking thoughts of Africa and black and white is not only because knowledge is stored as a network of associated concepts, but because memory retrieval is a contagious process. Entirely unconsciously, activation of the "Africa" node spread to others to which it is linked, increasing the likelihood of thinking of a zebra. (Buenomano, p. 33, 2011)

Twitter makes it easy for me to "follow" feeds of highly summarized "tweets", and categorizes people I might want to follow according to my interests. Since I am interested in neuroscience, sports, and enjoy getting a boost from motivational speakers such as Les Brown, and Dr. Wayne Dyer, my Twitter feed quickly summarizes and provides links to what I want to know and people  with whom I would enjoy having a conversation.

The article referenced in the link at the top of this posts about the effect of a mother's love on a child's brain is from my Twitter feed. It provides further evidence that a loving family structure increases the likelihood of long-term academic success. The "Mama factor" is analogous to the Matthew Effect in reading, described by Keith Stanowitz, discussed in earlier posts, which I learned about in Dr. Ball's class on Diagnostic and Corrective Reading. In a cognitive sense, children primed for success, are able to pay better attention when necessary, making it more likely that they will be able to meet state mandated instructional objectives. From an RTI (Response To Intervention) standpoint, successful interventions require considerable advance planning, and effective collaboration between everyone concerned about a child who is not meeting grade level standards, hopefully including parents, but sadly, sometimes despite them.

Buenomano, D. (2011). Brain bugs: How the brain's flaws shape our lives. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Top 10 Best Kinect Hacks

Top 10 Best Kinect Hacks

One of the first things I thought about when I saw a 3D printer at an elite high school, was how the tech department might partner with the theatre and drama and art departments to create masks. That flight of fancy led me to wonder, how would students program in a new design? Wouldn't a 3D digital scanner make the job easier? Then, I wondered if Xbox's Kinect framework could be configured to operate as a digital scanner. Apparently, someone else already thought of that ...

We are artists

Today, we often glorify expensive and complex artifacts of science and technology, physical things like computers and new facilities, while celebrating abstract computational ability, mental velocity, and social status. Given the way educational leaders seem to congratulate themselves every time they bring the gift of new technology to the unenlightened, the power of simple and inexpensive tools for creative expression like paper and pen seems under-appreciated. Less glamorous things such as imagination, reflection, and social justice seem to have lost their luster. Meanwhile, vast sums of money and large blocks of instructional time have quietly eroded from the "non-essential parts of the curriculum, such as the arts. Despite all of the money and technology flowing into science and technology these days, and away from the arts, why then, is there such a shortage of homegrown engineering talent? Perhaps, whether due to secondary gain, mental laziness, or simply a herd mentality, policy makers have been overlooking simple, but critical questions? What is the purpose for all this technology? How will people use it? Who will ultimately benefit?

Occasionally, the opportunity to teach something creative like writing or drawing, or do a dramatic read-aloud,  presents itself. When the spirit takes over and I am able to somehow awaken artistic potential of an entire classroom before their minds have been permanently corrupted by a culture of superficiality, I forget for a while how corrupt the business of education seems to have become, forget about financial pressures, and teaching becomes fun again. Recently, I had one of those days.

I had done the "Bad Hair Day" / "Expressive Line Drawing" Lesson with some or all of these 1st and 3rd grade classes a few months ago, but like a favorite book, students did not mind revisiting this classic.

Here is what some of the 1st graders produced:

Here is what some of the 3rd graders produced:

Throughout the lessons, intermittently, I took opportunities to pause and celebrate the awakening of artists, as they explored different line types, and created value with contrasting line qualities. I celebrated their discovery in a fun way. I would find a student exploring a new type of line, hold up his or her paper for the class to see, ask the student to arise, holding up his pen, and ask her to repeat after me, "I am an artist." Soon, I would find another student exploring a different kind of line, and ask other students in the room to stand up and point their pens at the student and say, "you are an artist."

Since the students were all so engaged, it was difficult to get the students to stop and reflect, but I explained to them that art is about both the heart and the mind. and pointed to the reflection guidelines their teacher had posted on the board. In closing, I read to them The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds, which is about a little girl who has a blank page at the end of art class, who sadly tells her teacher that she just can't draw. The teacher persuades the child to start with a line or dot, and invites her to "see where it takes you." Then, the teacher asks the child to sign it, then frames it in a golden frame. I pointed to an exemplar on a bulletin board, in which the artist Roy Lichtenstein had used a variety of lines, as well as value, just like they had done, and explained to the children that he had signed it because he was an artist. "Why do you think the teacher asked the little girl to sign it," I asked.

"She is an artist," they all replied.

After I finished the story, I had them stand and repeat after me, "I am an artist." I concluded, "Turn to a partner and them them, 'you are an artist.'"

One of the major themes in The Divine Comedy is the limits of reason. Dante is led, spiraling leftward and downward down through the 33 levels of The Inferno, and emerges from the bowels of Hell spiraling upward, rotating rightward through the 33 levels of The Purgatorio guided by Vergil, an embodiment of the virtue of reason. However, when Dante reaches the gates of Paradise, Vergil is unable to ascend with Dante into Heaven, since reason has its limitations, and a new guide, Beatrice, who represents Caritas, the virtue of divine love, takes over to guide Dante as he ascends into Paradise.

One of Dr. V.S. Ramachandran's  primary themes in The Tell-Tale Brain is the neurobiological differences of the human brain which make homo sapiens unique in the universe, and significantly different than all other apes, despite a common origin, despite a preponderance of virtually identical brain structures. Dr. Ramachandran wryly observes, "any ape can reach for a banana, but only humans can reach for the stars."