Career, community, Learning, Purpose

Showing Up for Public Research

Frank Morrison A Student

One of the many benefits of working in higher education is easy access to learning opportunities. On any given day, a dozen activities show up on the calendar. Anyone on campus, and usually community folks too, can drop in on brown bags, seminars, conferences, performances, or dissertation defenses. Cost and distance are taken care of, so the only limiting factors are motivation and time.

I don’t take nearly as much advantage of this abundance as I could, but does this surprise anyone? I’m guessing others out there don’t read poetry or clock enough hours of sleep, both of which gratify a tired soul. As often as not, we fail to act as champions of our own happiness. Sometimes laziness leads the charge. Halfheartedly, of course.

Continue reading “Showing Up for Public Research”

Career, Change, Learning

Teach As If

Classroom Active

The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.


John Dewey

If only we still believed students were containers. We could pump them full of data and deposit them, ready to perform, on the job market. Our task would be so much easier. We could rely on the old models. We could stand at the front of the class and, through sheer force of will, hold court on subject matter we have mastered.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that because our professors taught us in the traditional models and we managed to learn something, our students should be able to do the same. Even as we try to convince ourselves that we can coast on familiar habits, we know better. We know too many students who have fallen through the cracks. We see students able to perform problem sets but unable to function on a team. We notice how they arriving at the end of a semester having somehow missed the skills they most need to flourish as professionals, creative thinkers, and contributing members of our communities.  Continue reading “Teach As If”

Living in the Moment, Outdoors, Things I Can

97. Things I Can Redraw: The Boundary Lines

resistance

I remember to look up. The reason I remember is because I have been so busy looking down.

Down, yes, but looking as in actually seeing.

Vision is an unexpected discovery, like a forgotten scent stirring in a place of dead things. Like yesterday when I caught myself singing as I ironed my purple shirt for work. I’m gonna let it shine. . . The silvery thread of music startled me to a shiver.

My song. Still here. My sight. Always, again.

I have been looking down and so noticed for the first time the thick ropes of roots pushing up the sidewalk. This is why I’ve stopped and let my gaze slide up the gnarled skin, up and up into the turning leaves.

“What?” Bug says. He almost plows into me. Then he too peers skyward. Cars rip past us on the clogged road. His is an all-wheel-drive school. Walking is forbidden because keeping the children a safe distance from these thin-lipped, texting, whiplash drivers trumps community concerns about obesity levels and global temperatures.

It’s rare these days that this stretched-to-splitting mama has the guts or gas to rebel. Oh, but it is a tasty little thrill when she does. Because sometimes we have to step right out in front of absurdity. Sometimes we even have to let it run us down. How else do we keep the winners from winning it all?

Once in a while when the train arrives two minutes early or the traffic parts like the biblical sea two blocks from my neighborhood, a gash opens in the choking press of late hurry go more go hurry late. It is a bright gust, it is mountaintop air.

It is opportunity.

I get to flout that stupidest of stupid policies.

I get to walk.

And here we are doing exactly that. Bug is wearing his backpack and his first sweatshirt of fall. I’m wearing my Wellies. Hurricane Joaquin in bearing down on us and we are taking the slow route home.

We gaze up together.

“Have you ever noticed how big this tree is?” I ask.

He considers it. “Big how?”

“Look at these roots. The whole sidewalk is a hill. It’s growing right under us.” We nudge our toes at the knobby knees pressing through concrete. “It probably goes all the way across the road.”

Bug lifts his gaze again to the towering branches far above. “It would be hard to climb.” We circle around it and take in the grade of the sloping grass. Then he peers across the grounds of the hulking telecom sales center that abuts our neighborhood. “That one.” He points to a drooping, naked thing with one arm. “That’s a good climbing tree.”

We cut across, striding right through the chain of “No Trespassing” signs. Bug tosses his backpack on the soaked ground and gives me a sly grin. “You first.”

I consider my twinged back, the slick bark, a throbbing current of sleep deprivation. Oh, the warm couch waiting. Then I shrug. “Okay.”

I shimmy and slide, hooking my knee over a knot and swinging myself up. Bug tries but his shoes keep slipping. He peels off his sweatshirt and ties it around the trunk. “If it’s dry, maybe I can get up.” This is an imperfect plan. After his third try, he leaves the jersey limp and tethered like an abandoned prisoner. He races off towards another stand of trees. “That one!” He cries and leaves me to collect our things.

Inside a sheltering arc of boughs he ranks them, 1-2-3, from easiest to hardest. I go first again, contorting my limbs to fit. I haul my mass onto a branch and perch there under a damp canopy. He gets partway up too before we both sort of spill off. I laugh and show him my hands. Mud has worked its way deep in. Laugh line, love line, all in bold. He holds up his grimy palm and I give him a high five.

Near our heads dangles a bulbous seed cluster we notice now for the first time. From tumorous, split husks gleam half a dozen cherry-red zombie eyes. They look like they might actually blink. We step back and decide to forgo a deeper investigation.

As we circle the parking lot for the shortcut home, I glance up again. “If the hurricane does come, we may lose all these leaves before they even change.”

Bug kicks at some that have fallen. He stops at the edge of a cracked tree whose branches on one side are entirely bare. The other side is draped in rust foliage.

“The rain is coming,” he says.

“How do you know?”

“Feel that,” he says. “There’s a gust.” He lifts his face. I do the same.

“It’s darker too,” I say. “Storm dark.” We both watch the steel sky churn.

“Whenever there’s a gust, it rains,” he tells me. “The rain is probably like 30 seconds to 5 minutes away.”

“We’d better get home quick.”

“Okay,” he says. “And we can make a fire and wait for the flood.”

Image from the Cheap Art collection of the Bread and Puppet theater in Glover, Vermont

Learning, Mindfulness

Step into Space

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. – Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

The theater seats over a thousand. It isn’t full but it’s come pretty close. We sit together in near silence for a minute with our eyes closed. Inside this collective pause, we pull back from what Tara Brach calls “tumbling into the future.”

This is not a spirit circle at a Zen retreat center. This is parents, teachers, and students packed into a public high school auditorium. At the threshold of something new-but-not-new, the moment tilts. Surreal. A congressman from Ohio takes the stage and tells the story of finding his breath. He is one of several voices reminding us that snapping at our kids to pay attention doesn’t do any good until we teach them how to attend. As always, we’re on the hook to show what we tell.

As the parents, teachers, and neighbors of the kids who walk the halls here every day, we have to be willing to learn. A churning stress and a “trance of unworthiness” keeps us doing, striving, reacting, and fighting. It is up to us to release ourselves from it so we can show our children how to have a say in drawing the map of their own minds.

In a county whose schools always ranks near the top of any performance rating and in a region whose inhabitants are among the most highly educated and overcommitted in the nation, this breath is a call to action.

Or inaction, as the case may be.

Any kid that hasn’t learned the pressure is on by second grade figures it out when they go through the Advanced Academics Program screening. The test determines the quality of their schooling for the next six years and no doubt well beyond that. This workshop, Managing Stress Through Mindfulness, is the first of its kind here. Overdue, of course, and also right on time.

Our children struggle as we do. Our children learn to place their attention as we do (or don’t). It is possible that we don’t need to keep ourselves in the hot grip of imagined success and looming failure to drive us to a good life. We strain towards illusion and flee fear and get nowhere right. Caught in a Chinese finger-trap, we strive ourselves into a kind of frenetic paralysis.

The first step in cultivating creativity and possibly even a sense of belonging in this world is a not forward or backward. It is a step into space.

Over the edge is a place between stimulus and response where the pause quietly waits.
 

Co-Parenting, Family

If you Stop to Put Out the Fire, Turn to Page 8

My eye keeps tripping over the red square on the Google calendar. It says “Class Assignment Surveys Due” but I can’t recall if it’s for work or Bug or something else entirely. While I’m trying for the fourth time to re-arrange the month of June, my weary brain gives me a nudge. Remember? Yes. The survey is an annual collection of parental insight into our kids’ quirks and métiers. These descriptions supposedly help the school determine class assignments for the coming year. Our perspective is mere garnish on the overfull plate that our precious darlings serve up to teachers and playground monitors every day, but it must add some texture to the mélange.

I get on the horn to call Tee. “Surveys are due next Friday,” I say. “I think we have to pick them up at the office.” He doesn’t recall the email so we bounce around about the details before finding the PDF online. I ask Tee if we could each jot down some ideas and then combine them to submit to the school. He hedges before asking, “Why can’t we each just fill one out? I’m sure they won’t mind getting one from each of us.”

We have come to this juncture so many times, the page is coming loose from the binding. If you disengage, turn to page 47. If you try to collaborate, turn to page 82.

Continue reading “If you Stop to Put Out the Fire, Turn to Page 8”

Children, Learning

Polynomial

“Do you ever have nightmares?” He is soaking in a too-hot tub and hasn’t yet worked up to dunking his head under.

That’s easy. “Yep. Rising water.” I trail the washcloth across his knees.

“What was the worst one?”

I remember it too well. His blonde mane disappeared under the surface of a brown lake and I couldn’t get to him. My hand plunged down and I tried so hard, his hair slipping out of my fingers. “It has you in it. Do you want to hear?”

He shakes his head. “No. The worst one about you.”

I describe leaping off the bow of the ship into the open ocean before realizing my folly. “It’s not really about drowning,” I say. “Drowning is a metaphor.” We’ve talked about analogies often enough but he still gives me a blank stare.

“Remember? You and I rushing out the door in the morning is like stepping on firecrackers.” He nods and returns to poking his fingers up through bubbles. I try to explain that the dream of water probably has something to do with feeling like I have too many chores and I can’t keep track of everything.

The shampoo is a blue jewel in my palm. His hair a gold fish slipping past. He buries his eyes in a dry towel. “What’s your second worst dream?” He mumbles through the terrycloth.

“The test,” I answer without a beat. That endless, infernal, always-on-the-brink-of-failure test. Exam time, class I forgot to attend, no studying, clock ticking, panic mounting. . . How many decades of this? How many millions of us? I laugh as I describe the dream. “When you get older, I bet you and your friends are going to talk about having the exact same dream.”

“What’s the test?” He dunks his washcloth all the way to the bottom and lets it float up under his knees.

“Algebra II. Always with the Algebra II!”

“What’s that?”

Damned good question, my son. Here is the sound of evasion: “Well, it’s a class I failed and had to take over. Get this.” I reach back to a basket of magazines by the door and pull out an old Harpers. “This guy Nicholson Baker has a whole story in this famous magazine that even your grandparents read. It’s all about how hard Algebra II is and how it’s taught so badly people all over the world hate it.”

I open to page 31 and start reading about the elegance of mathematics lost to a global loathing for the subject. Baker sums up the misery and bafflement of generations of students by quoting a middle-aged college professor who admits to taking algebra unsuccesfully three years running:

I have no idea, to this day, why I find math, and algebra in particular, so excrutiatingly hard, but I do. I admire those who can learn it, but I could no more master algebra than I could leap off a roof and fly. The experience of being made to reenact your inability, over and over, is deeply warping. . . If you continually ask a one-armed man to play guitar, he’ll either come to hate himself or hate you.

The piece goes on to explore curriculum reform of the early 20th centry, the rise of New Math, and the push to place even stricter requirements on schools and students. Baker implicates the arguably misguided, myopic advocacy of such “Standardistas” as Arne Duncan and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Instead of making math more accessible and enjoyable, they support the expanded reach of such texts as the Algebra II Common Core which Baker describes as a

highly efficient engine for the creation of math rage: a dead scrap heap of repellant terminology, a collection of spiky, decontextualized multistep mathematical black-box techniques that you must practice over and over and get by heart in order to be ready to do something interesting later on, when the time comes.

Baker makes a strong case for revising the standards and adapting instruction to make math simpler, more applicable, historically richer, and fun. Introduce everyone to the basics, he argues, and allow those students who are so compelled to explore it further. Stop requiring Algebra II for college admissions.

Forcing every child to suffer the Iron Maiden of an advanced mathematics they are very unlikely to need doesn’t create a numerate citizenry. Quite the contrary. It produces one generation on top of another of innumerate citizens who despise and fear all things quantitative. They will assiduously avoid all through their long lives any endeavors that may require math, no matter how compelling or lucrative those endeavors, because of a firmly planted perception that they are genetically incapable of understanding it.

This issue of Harper’s has been in the loo for months but this is the first time I’ve given it more than a cursory glance. As I flip through, a flood of relief rushes over me. Their bellies may have had stars, but I wasn’t the lone Sneech with no stars upon thars.

The tide goes out just as quickly as it had come in. All that’s left is a little eddy of regret. It’s far too easy to become blind to the elegance of mathematics because of some noxious residue that clings even decades after clawing out of that 10th-grade hell.

The road to math conversant is a rutted and unmarked. It is especially tough when you’ve bitten your tongue raw trying to shape a grammar the blackboard neither translates nor palliates. But I’m not mute yet. Defiance and a little luck has created a world in which Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea resides on my bedside table. On a good day, I can almost hold up my end of a conversation with an engineer who happens to be smitten with the Fourier Series.

I realize now you don’t have to suck at something or master it completely. You have every right to mess around with any art or science that strikes your fancy. Knitting? Tantric poetry? Give ’em a go. History of fertile crescent? Read up. Hydroponic tomato farming? Dig in. It is possible to enjoy a subject as a dabbler without dragging six extra tons of emotional baggage into every encounter with it.

Which is why at this moment I stop reading out loud.

I glance over the steam-wilted pages at my son who is now regarding the whorls in his fingertips. Bug really doesn’t need to hear about a mass aversion to any area of human experience. My job is not to help close doors. Bug’s fondness for the puzzles of mathematics has pretty strong roots. I hope they are more stubborn than mine.

Into the pause he asks, “What is algebra?”

I show him one of the equations on the page. “Like that stuff your granddaddy is always writing.”

“But what is it?”

Geez. Fine. I close the magazine and punch through the wall of resistance into the place where learning cobbled together some kind of a permanent residence.

“It’s like this: the letters are called variables. They mean something else.”

This is also that.

His hair is a silk drape caught on a current. His eyes are the wall of a cresting wave.

“The letter stands for a certain number. Let’s say X equals 2. What’s 2X?”

Bug thinks for less than a beat.

“Four.”

“Exactly!” We both break into wide grins. “Baby, you are on it. If X is 2 and Y is 3, what’s X plus Y?”

“Five,” he says. “Duh.” He tries not to smile.

“Yes it is.” I hold up my hand and he slaps me a wet high-five.

I help him from the tub and wrap him in a turqouoise towel he’s about to outgrow. I used to lift him to the mirror after baths and we would look together at the little pointy hooded face peeking out. “You are a blue fairy. A red caboose. An ice cream cone,” I would murmur.

“What else?”

“A butterfly. A galaxy.”

“What else?”

“You are a kitty cat. A mountaintop. A blind cyclops. A book.”

“And?”

Every time, we ended there: A kiss into his damp hair. A whisper, “And you are my beautiful little boy.”

This is that.

Solve for X.

Math is magic. Algebra is pain.

The variables do not remain constant.

You are your story.

Metaphor is fate.
 

“Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II” by Nicholson Baker can be found in the September 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
 

Children, Friends

Trick of Light

The Boy who Refuses to Smile sits down on the low wall next to the girl in purple tights. He leans into her and she into him. She wears sequined high-top sneakers and sparkles like a star. The third child climbing onto the bricks is a nameless shadow, near but in a different frame, on another block, in someone else’s story. The Boy pastes on the requisite grin and stays still for one, two, three cameras. He angles towards her glitter. Their knees touch. She tilts her head and smiles like a diva.
 
“Oh, so that’s Bug,” the girl’s uncle says. He steps closer to me and introduces himself. “We hear your boy’s name around our house all the time.”
 
Tee and I grimace at the same moment. I brace for the kind-yet-careful description of our son’s latest wave of schoolyard tyranny. The aunt laughs. “Nothing like that. I think there might be a crush.”
 
Bug slides off the wall and darts ahead before turning and coming back for her. “Star, come with me!” She runs after him. They clomp up the steps, peering into an offered cauldron and digging for some just-right wrapper. When they hustle back down through the cluster of Iron Men (three of them) and princesses (countless), Star’s pumpkin swings from Bug’s forearm. Star pauses to beam up at the assembled adults.
 
“He’s carrying my candy for me because it’s so heavy.”
 
Bug races forward and doubles back yet again, calling into the little girl’s face as if from across a moor. “Star, this way!” He points to foam webs slung from the railing and plastic swords dripping like stalactites from low branches. “That house is for sure open.”
 
“Okay!” she cries, sliding the pumpkin back off his arm. He waits while she does this. They break into a run towards the orange lights flickering against dark faces, a glass door opening to greet them.