Monday, December 15, 2014

An article from a local paper

A friend of mine found this, and passed it along. Since he doesn't blog, he thought my readership would appreciate it.

Local Residents Given Dose Of Holiday Cheer

December 14, 2014 - Far Hills, NJ (AP) - In this Somerset County community, long known for its annual Far Hills Meeting Race, and for its lovely, gracious homes reflecting the affluence that makes it the third-wealthiest community in one of the wealthiest states in the country, some residents are experiencing something new for the first time this Christmas season:

People of slender means.

"I've been astonished," says Eliza Sutterthwaite-Brown, of Gladstone Road, standing on the veranda of her modest, 8000-square-foot home on 25 acres. "They sing so well."

Dr. Sutterthwaite-Brown, a noted neuro- and plastic surgeon whose practice is on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is referring to a novelty in this quiet, bucolic hamlet. A dozen hardy souls, whose homes are in North Plainfield, approximately 17 miles south and east of Far Hills and roughly $55,000 lower in annual per-capita income, have decided to show their appreciation to the Far Hills community by going door-to-door in the time-honored tradition of Christmas caroling. While Somerset County, the third-wealthiest county in the state, is home to Far Hills, it is also home to North Plainfield, a considerably less affluent city.

"We felt it was important," said John Smith, the leader of the group, "to show our appreciation to the most valuable citizens in our county - heck, our country because they are the ones, after all, who create the many minimum-wage jobs so many of us work at. They create the wealth that trickles downward to those of us less blessed by family means. They, through their ability to donate to politicians, run our state and federal governments. Without them, we would be lost."

Dr. Sutterthwaite-Brown agreed.

"Yes, I think this is a lovely gesture on their part. After some confusion between members of the Far Hills police department and the carolers - and who could blame our police, really; we just don't see a lot of those kinds of people here - everyone has been lovely. Their renditions of 'Silent Night' and 'Good King Wenceslas' are as good as any I've heard at the Met. And their leaving of Crate & Barrel gift cards for us has just been an added, and welcome, fillip."

Mr. Smith, a PSE&G linesman and Wal-Mart greeter on weekends, said of the cards, "It was a nice touch, thought of by one of our altos in the choir - Ms. Jones suggested it, and we just all pitched in. I worked a few extra hours at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving night and all day on Black Friday and Saturday so I could contribute. My wife definitely supported it too - she dropped off the kids with a neighbor while she took some extra shifts at the Stop & Shop in Watchung to help out."

Mr. Smith and his merry group of carolers then began their long walk down the 300-foot driveway to go on to their next house, confident in the knowledge that they were spreading some Christmas cheer to people who are truly deserving of it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

In faith, for hope, with charity

I tweeted this out on Wednesday I. suppose most of this is unsurprising; for those of you who have spoken with me, we've probably talked about this sort of thing a hundred times before. But I wanted to elaborate on my last "in faith, for hope, with charity" tag a bit more. Someday I'll write more on "why educate", but not today.

A bit of back story: My interest in education originally stemmed from my belief that I was good at math & science and that I'd had good teachers, so therefore I should become a teacher myself. I spent probably the first 12 years of my career talking to people about mathematics education, getting ideas, trying a few things, and flatly rejecting others. I have continually tried to improve my craft - and what it's gotten me is an ability to explain things in such a way that most students understand them while I'm telling them, but not an ability to always make that knowledge stick and/or transfer. There's a lot more I have to learn about doing that - that's the much, much harder part. I admire tremendously people who focus on knowledge "stickiness" and transfer & who help others learn how to help their students do that also (for a good starting point to find such people, just search for the hashtag #MTBoS on Twitter).

But I get easily distracted, and have lost interest in the "math education" discussions over the years by and large. They seem to be the same conversations repeated endlessly. Over time, I started wondering about the (mathematics) content itself, as conveyed by most curricula: was it what students need? What should "educated people" know? I thought back to my own experiences, and concluded (based on a sample size of, well, 1, which is never good) that a LOT of it was irrelevant to a good life by any measure.

But here's the catch: I love mathematics and physics. And I GENUINELY love teaching soon-to-be-adults in all of their confusion and messiness and silliness and, more often than many adults would give credit for, maturity and wisdom. I would not want to give that up for anything, because even if the material I'm responsible to teach them may not change their lives, perhaps the conversations we have together will. Perhaps they'll believe that they can appreciate math, even if they never "do" it. Perhaps they'll see that there are a vast array of lenses through which to view the world, and that it's important to understand that they are just as entitled to a good look at the world through the mathematical (or, I prefer, quantitative) lens as any "math genius" they know.

I have faith that this can happen - sometimes.

I live for the hope that I'll see it happen - more often.

And I also hope that my students will be charitable to me in years to come, understanding that all I ever wanted for any of them was to see a large part of human knowledge in a way that they generally do not see.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

On creative competence

Listening to an episode of the Buddhist Geeks podcast, an interview with the digital artist Scott Snibbe, these words leapt out at me:

SS: I hate introductory-level classes, you know? So I found this computer graphics lab when I was in, like, the first year in college, and I just went to it, and I was like, "This is what I want to do," and it was all graduate-level stuff, using big workstations. But the guy who ran the lab, Andy van Dam, was totally egalitarian; he'd been in a concentration camp when he was a kid, and he was just like, you know, "All doors are open!" So he's like fine, no problem, the first day he's like "Go to this lecture!". So I go to this lecture, and it's some thesis defense, like a graduate thesis defense, on some really obscure topic, and I must have understood 1%. But I had a lot of confidence from the way my parents raised me; and I was just like "Oh, cool! I understand 1%!"... Fine, I understand 1% - well, gradually, it'll be 2%, 3%...
Some thoughts:

1) If you listen to the entire podcast (it's quite good!) you'll learn that Snibbe's childhood happened in a setting of unusually high freedom and possibilities for creativity; his parents were both artists, and he and his siblings were using complex tools (such as power saws) at an early age. Drawing, painting, sculpture surrounded them. Immersed in creativity and with a background that leads naturally to self-confidence in one's own ability to learn, he's able to say when challenged by new material, "I understand 1%! And tomorrow it'll be 2%! And the next day, and the next...". That's amazing to me, and I try to imagine what it'd be like to have a school full of people (teachers, students, parents and administrators) who felt that way.

2) Given that 99.99% of young people will not grow up in such an environment, HOW can we help them get into the mindset of "Oh, cool, I understand 1%! And then 2%! And then...?" rather than giving up?

3) One of the biggest things I worry about in education is how quickly we tend to categorize things to make them easier to manage. We segregate students by age (de jure) and by race/class (de facto); we create artificial boundaries between "subjects"; we create categories of "performance" reflected in letter grades. To be truly creative in education, it seems to me, means to identify the categories that exist in the current system and figure out how to exorcise them. If we are hoping that education will create good people, which to me is the basic goal, then we ALL have to become creatively competent. To change education, it'll take hard work to change 1%, then 2%, then 3%...

Addendum at 9:48 PM on October 11, 2014: I just finished reading the post titled "A veteran teacher turned coach shadows 2 students for 2 days - a sobering lesson learned" at Grant Wiggins' site. We have a long, long way to go.

I have a long, long way to go.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reflections on the past week (9/22 - 9/28/14)

Random thoughts from a very long (but interesting) week:

  • So proud to see be able to see my friend Chris Lehmann awarded the McGraw Prize in Education on Tuesday. So deserved and such a testament to him, his colleagues, and the students at SLA. 
  • I had the great opportunity also to observe two classes at Newark Academy last week: Theory of Knowledge 1 and Theory of Knowledge 2. They are International Baccalaureate classes, required for the IB Diploma but open to all students, and they were superb. The students were thoughtful, the discussions were interesting, and my goodness, WHY DOESN'T EVERY STUDENT GET TO TAKE A CLASS LIKE THIS? I would have killed for a real "introduction to the philosophy of knowledge" class like this in high school.
  • Apropos thoughtful students: I went to NA's Gay-Straight Alliance meeting after school on Wednesday. I am optimistic for the future if those kids are going to be in charge someday, because they get it. It's about humanity; it's about empathy; it's about respect for each other.
  • Met with many of my kids' parents on Saturday morning (we have a Parents' Day on a Saturday, as opposed to the usual back-to-school night). Really nice to have had the chance to meet them, and looking forward to building relationships going forward.
  • Clubhouse-building yesterday afternoon, and apple-picking today. Exactly what a September weekend should be like.
  • Finally, one of the best essays I've ever read on ed-tech and its future (or not), by Audrey Watters (who's written probably 99 of 100 of the best essays I've ever read on ed-tech) came out yesterday. She asks the difficult question "Can we foster liberatory educational practices with and through and alongside education technology?" which, to the best of my knowledge, none of the conventional ed-tech "gurus" have even attempted to address. Because, as she says, what if the answer to that question is "No"? She is working on a book, and I CAN'T WAIT for it to come out.
Here's to what October will bring!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The beginning of autumn

is at 10:29 PM EDT, tomorrow (September 22) night, in the eastern United States.

What's that mean?

For many, time to finally feel OK about wearing sweaters.
Time to pick apples.
Time to clean chimneys for the winter ahead.
Time for walks in the woods to watch the leaves and their colors.
Time for pumpkins.

Time for reflection on the year thus far.
Time for an assessment of where one's been this year and what is left to do.

Time for a deep breath and the realization that the sun will be overhead for less than half the time until next March.

We are an amazing species, that we can understand why equinoxes happen. We can look at the sky and see light from stars that might be dead right now. And we can understand that too.

We are an amazing species, that we can love each other and fight and make up and think beyond our own lives, families, towns, states, and (if we try hard) even countries.

We are an amazing species, that we can show gratitude and mercy. That we can forgive, that we can listen and empathize, that we can be present for each other in innumerable ways.

We have so much to offer each other if we'd only take the time to do it.

Friday, August 29, 2014

And so it begins

On Tuesday morning at 8 AM, I will meet my first group of Newark Academy students.

I will meet my advisees, all 10 of them. Seniors, one and all, who will (I'm guessing) have college admissions uppermost in their minds. They won't know me, and I won't know them, and we will work it out.

Shortly after that, I will walk into my classroom (the state of which is a story for another time; let's just call it a work in progress), and meet my multivariable calculus students. We'll talk about coordinate systems in three dimensions, what various equations represent, and so on. They won't know me, and I won't know them, and we will work it out.

Then a break.

Then I will meet two groups of Algebra 2/Trig students. We'll talk about what equations are, what expressions are, what they can do, how you work with them, and so on. They won't know me, and I won't know them, and we will work it out.

Wednesday, I will meet (almost) all of the rest of my students. I should mention that we run on a block schedule, so I won't see every class every day; factoring in the elective I teach, I will have met every one of my students at least once by the end of the day on Thursday. They'll have started to know me, I will have started to know them, and we will work it out.

This I know for certain, in spite of all of my other uncertainties: relationship-building matters at least as much as content. I have spent this week meeting many, many of my new colleagues, and they have uniformly been great to work with - helpful, friendly, patient, and professional. I'm going to really enjoy getting to know them better. But the critical relationships are the ones that start on Tuesday.

I. Can't. Wait.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Three of my senior students in calculus (thank you Kelly, Marissa, and Maria!) gave me a mug as part of a going-away/thank-you present:

It has the hashtag #StayPublic on it.

I have spent the last three weeks in a whirlwind of end-of-year activities: last tests, final exams, faculty dinners, department meetings, room cleanup, moving stuff out and home. It's been weird to think that it'll be over here soon.

But that mug, with that hashtag...

I have a confession. When I started teaching, in public schools, 15 years ago, I assumed that I'd do it for a while (maybe 10 years) and then go train teachers - help them get better at their craft. Such arrogance on my part! I learned very quickly that (a) teachers learn best from other practicing teachers, not from ivory-tower academics, and (b) there was NO WAY I was going to know enough about being a teacher after 10 years to be in any position to "train" teachers. Hell, I (now) know that even my choice of the word "train" was wrong, but that's a subject perhaps for another post.

So on I went, learning, growing, hopefully getting incrementally better at dealing with the things that we teachers are supposed to be experts in. Supervision/administration didn't interest me much, and as the required paperwork from our central office, Trenton, and Washington DC continued to grow, any interest I'd ever had in being one lessened. But public schools were where I was teaching, and where I thought I'd teach forever.

When I talk with people about moving on, I'm asked "why leave?" a lot. I'm struggling to understand for myself why, as a kid raised in a good, rural public school system, with parents who went through public schools, and as a parent of a child in a good public school system, I would voluntarily exit it. A few of the reasons I can come up with:
  • I miss physics, thinking about it, and talking about it with students on a regular basis, and I have a really cool opportunity now to do so.
  • I am frustrated by the regulations, rules, and mandates placed on public schools by people who have no experience with, nor interest in, making schools more humane, engaging, and thoughtful environments.
  • I am frustrated by my own inability to help ALL of my students. There are some students, every year, I simply cannot reach, and every year it gets harder and harder to see victories instead of defeats.
  • I am saddened to see the teachers in my school being portrayed as the intransigent opposition during very contentious contract negotiations. If public schools - and their teachers - become something that a town views as a cost center rather than an integral part of the community, I fear for the future of public education.
  • Relatedly, I am tired of being told "tenure protects bad teachers"/"unions have destroyed public education"/etc. I'm tired of the national discourse (or lack thereof) around public education and teachers. It seems to span the entire range from "get rid of all the teachers and replace them with shiny new TFA recruits and we'll have educational success" to "get rid of unions and tenure and then we'll have educational success".
  • Finally, I know that the pendulum of education swings back and forth. CCSS may come or go, PARCC may come or go, anti-teacher sentiment may come or go, but life is short, and I'm not really interested in waiting 10 years to see what happens next.
I'm not Peter Greene; bless him and all who stay. I'm also not any of the thousands of great teachers who soldier on in public education, pushing for changes that we all know need to happen. 

What I am, at the end, is a guy in his mid-40s who is blessed with an amazing wife and daughter and who desperately needed a change of scenery. I'm lucky to have found it and can't wait to get started.

I always thought I would #StayPublic. But sometimes, life gives you that tap on the shoulder and says it's time to make a change. So here we go.