Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Do the Math

Let’s say a guy makes a big pot of spaghetti on an average of once a day, every ten days, for sixteen years.  That’s 584 pots of spaghetti.  That’s 876 pounds of pasta and 1,168 pounds of ground beef and pork.  That’s 1,479 gallons of water.  That’s 584 loaves of bread because he always makes garlic bread.  I’m not including the garlic bread numbers.  That’s 876 tablespoons of olive oil.  That’s 584 onions.  That’s 876 cloves of garlic.  That’s at least 1,752 tablespoons of various Italian herbs and spices, fresh in the summer, store bought in winter.  I say at least because he never measures.  That’s at least 1,752 ounces of catsup.  That’s also 584 twelve-ounce cans of unsalted tomato sauce and at least that many fresh tomatoes.  Don’t forget salt and pepper, also unmeasured – probably an ounce each batch.  That’s 876 hours of effort in the kitchen.  Never mind the shopping and never mind the dirty dishes. Whoever cooks doesn’t have to do dishes – house rule.

These numbers are translatable to something more meaningful and relevant.   But I’m lazy and don’t do that.

Point is, it's epic.  I do epic things.  So do you.  But the forest for the trees and all that…  Stay inspired and heroic.  Do things for others.  It adds up.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

At Tuesday Practice

          At Tuesday practice, a girl named Brianna, with a baby fat face and braided pigtails hanging down to just below her ears, picked up a smaller girl named Alexis.  Brianna weaved her hands under Alexis’ armpits and then locked her fingers at the chest.  She heaved and spun around twice before setting Alexis down hard in the matted grass in front of the goal.  “Shut up,” she yelled down.  “You shut up.  I’m the goalie!”
            Coach saw this out of the corner of his eye just as earlier he had heard Brianna’s sister Brea tell another girl, “You be quiet or I’m going to tell you to shut up.”  He was busy setting offence and had kept walking downfield towards the goal.
            Alexis got up, brushed the grass from her backside and asked him, “Coach, where am I?”
            “I want you as goalie,” he told her and then motioned with his hand and head for Brianna to step out on defense.
            Kaitlin’s mom, whose daughter was the one Brea almost told to shut up, had enough. She saw the whole thing.  She pivoted out of her lawn chair on the sidelines and walked to the coach.  Uncrossing and re-crossing her arms, she told him what happened and about what her daughter told her at drink break.
            He nodded several times and promised, “Ok, I’ll talk to her mom after practice.”
            Brianna heard everything that was said about her sister.  Brea was ten months older.  All the girls were in second grade at the same school.  Some of them had different teachers.  Of course they were on the same soccer team.
            After practice Brianna was first to her mom.  She ran across the field towards the parking lot, yelling, “Mom, mom, Brea got in trouble.  Mom, Brea got in trouble by Kaitlin’s mom.  Mom, she went out on the field and talked to coach.”
            Brianna’s mom, surrounded by other moms and talking because it was also the night of the book fair and they only had twenty minutes to wait, watched her daughter run closer and then asked, “Uh-oh, what did she do?”  She smiled and swiveled her head around to the other moms. They smiled back.  Some of them started different conversations, just beyond Brianna’s account.
            “She told Kaitlin to shut up and Kaitlin’s mom heard it.”  Brianna reached for her hug, pressing her face against her mom’s bulky sweatshirt.  By the time Brea kicked the ball from the field to her mom and the cluster of other women and children, coach was just a few yards back. Brea’s mom reached down to her older daughter and put her hands on either side of her head.
            “What did you tell Kaitlin?”
            “What?” was all Brea asked.
            Brianna still clutched the side of her mom’s thigh when Brea was pulled in for her own big hug.
            Coach told his own daughter, who was also on the team, to take the water bottles and help pick up the orange cones and to then wait in the truck.  He spoke pleasantly to the women assembled on the blacktop, telling them about one more game this coming Saturday and yes he would be glad the season was done and that the team had done well even though they lost most of their games and that the real thing was to learn and to have fun.
            Kaitlin’s mom and Kaitlin walked along the edge of the parking lot and about midway between their car and Brea’s mom she told her daughter that, “The next time she says that to you you just tell her to deal with it.  We aren’t going to put up with that anymore.  It’s been all season.”
            Kaitlin’s mom used her loud voice.  She said this at the same time coach was talking about how if it rained a little they would still have the last game but if there was a lot of mud or any thunder at all then the game would be cancelled and how they would just play it by ear and he would be sure to call if the game was postponed in any way.
            He continued chatting until sensors on the lights in the parking lot detected the sunset.  The lights buzzed and flickered and clacked on.  At first they hummed like giant cicadas.  Eventually they stopped humming.  His daughter rolled down the truck window and yelled across the parking lot, “Dad, can we go?”
            Kaitlin and her mom were gone.
            Coach left Brea, Brianna, their mom, and all the other moms and all the other children because he wasn’t going to the book fair.  When he was gone they agreed, coach was a very nice man.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Those Doggone Kids

For fourteen years I worked in the IT industry.  I started as a technical writer, went on to software testing and then as a manager of a help-desk.  Later, as a consultant I worked with Fortune 500 companies, mostly in the Midwest, though I managed to get to the west coast a time or two.  When the office downsized I was a practice manager with a dozen direct reports.  After that, I did some independent work in the field but the bubble had popped and soon after I found a teaching position at a community college here in Central Illinois.  I’ve been there nearly six years.
I say from experience there is something wrong with our public schools.  For example (and there are many examples), a little child, say six or seven years old, wants to know everything.  ‘Why’ is always on their lips.  Their desire to know and to see how things work, to determine why things are the way they are becomes incessant a times.  Then, twelve years of public schooling later, that same child has been drained of innate curiosity.  The ones who arrive in my classes don’t want to know anything.  That’s a broad brush stroke but almost without exception it is true.  The next time you talk with a nineteen or a twenty year old ask them what they are curious about, what they want to discover, or what’s going on in the intellectual parts of their brains.  If you are an employer think about why the new hire demonstrates so little initiative.
We say we live in the information age.  The internet allows us to teach ourselves ancient Greek or how to change brake pads.  We can learn basic wiring or how network routers work.  This costs as much as an internet hookup.  Most of the accumulated knowledge of mankind resides at the tips or our fingers.  But when I ask the recent high school graduates, “What do you want to write about?” there’s only a blank stare.  Early in the semester we spend two full class sessions to create a list of five topics they want to investigate.  Some students can’t come up with three.  What happens to curiosity? 
I am not saying there are classes on how to not want to learn, but there is something endemic about public education that teaches this lesson and it teaches it well.  This is one symptom of many.
It is equally fascinating how few basic writing skills the students possess.  The community college offers an array of developmental reading and writing and science and math courses for those lacking the necessary skills to succeed at the college level.  And of the students who test into English Composition, not developmental, a full one third have difficultly writing a complete, coherent paragraph free of basic usage errors.
These students have been through twelve years of schooling.  That’s over a decade of their lives.  They study and practice writing in one form or another each of those years.  They graduate high school, are awarded diplomas representing academic accomplishment; they meet the minimum educational standards set by the state of Illinois and some of them cannot write a complete sentence.  Some cannot recognize a variable in basic algebraic terms.  Illinois is not unique.  This is another symptom.
At this point we will, I suppose, mobilize the usual way.  When someone has the audacity to mention things like these, people run for their preferred trench.  Teachers jump into the educator trenches, administrators to theirs.  Parents go to the defensive heights of their encampment and the students who bother to be concerned to theirs.  And from these positions we fight it out and talk of school reform and who does what and where is the money and so on and so forth.  The groups are suspicious of one another, have been for some time.  This seems how we approach problems these days.  When there is something wrong we run to the friendly group and attack the others.  The tribal meme works well for warfare but does little for progress and solving shared problems, but at least it occupies our time.
As I understand it, forced (or mandatory if the word forced makes you wince) public schooling as we think of it has been around since shortly after the Civil War.  I’m not certain of the specific dates but dropping literacy rates shows when it really began.  We are dealing with mature, well protected systems.  There’s a lot at stake and here I am not talking about the students.  There are vested interests all around, jobs and titles and positions and, dare I say, entitlements.  That’s why people get protective and suspicious.  We can talk all day about doing things for the children, but be honest enough to admit there are other influences involved and some of these influences take precedence.  Systems like to preserve themselves.
Here is a question:  how can significant percentages of students attend school for twelve years, be granted a diploma representing academic accomplishment, and yet remain mostly innumerate, very close to illiterate, and in possession of few skills with which to feed themselves, while at the same time possessing no interests other than a vague notion that they have to go to college to obtain the fabled, ‘good job’?
Now please, in answering this question, don’t start shooting in the direction of the other trenches.  Don’t devolve into merit pay or teachers’ unions or funding or parental involvement or how kids are these days or use any of the other rhetorical ammunition we typically fire.  The answer is more than these things.  All that is really about protecting what is already in place.
What’s happening has been happening so long we don’t dare mention it and the answers are uncomfortably close.  We have these unique markers called fingerprints.  We are individuals.  We come from unique families and from unique hometowns, different communities and different influences.  Yet how do we ‘do’ school?  It comes from on high, does it not?  The individual student is to fit into a pre-cut slot of the educational system.  He or she is a little piece and is placed at a young age into a great old machine; placed via testing and class rankings and competency scores and hundreds of other subtle positioning mechanisms.  Twelve years later the student is spit out the other side.
Students learn to obey buzzers and bells.  The seven rules for walking down the hall are enshrined on the walls and random bits of information are presented to them in increments of forty minutes if everyone behaves.  If it is a favorite class about something a student really starts to enjoy it’s too bad because time is up and they have to change the channel and go to the next thing.  When a student reads too fast they are warned not to read ahead.  If a student reads too slowly they receive a nice life-long label.  They march through the system, highly regulated for years and are then told go to college and continue to figure out what they want to do with their lives.  When, truthfully, interest in anything relevant was drummed from them a long time ago.
Schooling is not tailored for the individual.  It is tailored for the school.  Schooling is not fit for the neighborhood, the larger community, or even the hometown. Instead, it comes from above.  It is the state mandate which, in turn, receives pedagogy from an even higher authority – the Federal Government.  But what would someone in Springfield or in Washington DC know about what students need in a place like this?  Ask that question too loudly and you will never become a superintendent.
Imagine if this particular apple cart were purposely tipped.  Think of the layers upon layers of regulators who make decisions for children living hundreds or perhaps a thousand miles away.  Whatever else would they do to otherwise feed themselves if they could not mandate and regulate and measure results they, themselves, handed down as important enough to mandate and regulate and measure?  Do we appreciate the billions of dollars made by the text book industry each year and how that industry might have a vested interest in keeping the current system in place?  There is, I am told, a similar industry devoted to standardized testing.  That word should draw our concern.  Whose standards are being tested?  And why?  The point is that there are hundreds of suppliers dependent on keeping things the same and they employ lobbyists and influencers who work from the halls of Congress all the way to the local school board.   Look and you will see them.  They system runs the students through the system that is fueled by the costs incurred to run the system.
With a broader perspective we need to ask:  are things done that are beneficial for the students or for the powers running the schooling?  It is one thing to be educated.  It is another to be schooled.
There is a different way to do it.  It’s out there, somewhere.  Maybe we can’t imagine it fully because we’re products of that system. Maybe too much energy is used sniping at one another.  Maybe we’re bailing water on a sinking ship and don’t have the time.  But what we have isn’t working.  The system is preserving itself and is as healthy as ever.  The end results, however, look to be more by-product than product.