Category Archives: general

Figuring Out Podcasts

The path to podcasts, for me, began when I wanted something to occupy my brain while gardening. My brother had a big portable old school radio, and I’d listen to NPR. Back before Trump, on the weekends, NPR would be fairly apolitical, or at least no worse than a typical neighbor in my area.

But then Trump happened, and NPR just got unbearable. Before that point, I’d occasionally listen to bloggingheads interviews while working after school, and it occurred to me that I could just hook up my laptop to some old speakers. That worked so well I ran out of bloggingheads interviews before summer gardening ended.

Before the pandemic, I would sit in Starbucks or other coffee shops and write, but Twitter and other reading attractions were distracting. I suddenly realized that my phone came with a headset and that the headset worked on my laptop. So I plugged them into my laptop and listened to songs on youtube. Usually albums, so I didn’t have to change. No, I don’t have spotify or pandora or even pay youtube. Just whatever I could find: old albums (writing to the Carpenters Greatest Hits is very productive. Don’t @ me),  classical music, anything that would distract me just enough to focus on writing rather than flipping around websites. Somewhere in the last few years I started transferring pictures from phone to laptop via Bluetooth and realized that my rental cars on roadtrips also had Bluetooth which might be useful during the many hours when I was out of radio station range and Sirius had nothing to offer. Believe it or not, I used my laptop in my car to listen to podcasts I’d downloaded for about a year then suddenly, Rich Lowry’s regular reminder “it’s easier for you and better for us” to listen to the podcasts from a service finally sunk in as relevant information.  For the past….six months? year? not sure, I’ve been using Stitcher with inexpensive wireless earphones in rental cars, on walks. My own car was destroyed by a massive bus (sob) and when I get around to buying another it will support my podcast habit. I’m still pretty cheap. Not a big electronics person. And speak to me not of Apple.

Anyway, I’ll share my favorites and occasionals, and if anyone notices a pattern and has other suggestions, let me know.

Top Two:

Mickey Kaus and Bob Wright: These two invented bloggingheads, but then Mickey dropped out because his decision-making process unerringly directs him to choices guaranteeing the least visibility. I was delighted when the two decided to do a regular weekly show to discuss the pandemic. Guys, please don’t give it up. You can tell Mickey is worried that he’s made a choice that might be successful, as he constantly protests a commitment to anything long term. These guys are great. I love the lack of focus, the interruptions, the dispassionate assessment, and their obvious affection for each other.

The Glenn Show: Glenn Loury is a genius, a marvellous interviewer, and a guy who, like Mickey and Bob, should have a much higher visibility in today’s discourse. I’ve written about two episodes before. Eclectic, fearless, and ruthlessly analytical. Always worth listening to, particularly the “black guys at bloggingheads” series with John McWhorter. Other favorites are Amy Wax and Robert Cherry.

After these two clear favorites, it’s categories:

 Weekly or daily roundups

Ricochet Podcast: Rob Long, Peter Robinson, James Lileks. This was one of the first podcasts I began listening to in the garden. It’s very funny, very wry, and a nice mix of geography, political opinions, and personality. Peter Robinson sounds like ChooChoo on Top Cat and boy, does that make me sound old. They’re all interesting, but while Peter Robinson is by trade an interviewer, Rob Long, who began life as a comedy writer, is a pretty thoughtful analyst. Lileks is an op-ed guy.  They alternate between interviews and conversations; I generally prefer the conversations. I wrote about a particular podcast.

NRO’s The Editors: Rich Lowry and Charlie Cooke, with Jim Geraghty and Michael Brendan Dougherty alternating. I actually liked this podcast better when Luke Thompson was a regular, but I’m figuring he was terminated for boldly predicting that Joe Biden was a corpse knocking against the side of the boat.  Never showy or terribly memorable, it still always keeps me interested. I also confess a fondness for Rich Lowry, who would gun Sonny down on the causeway in a minute, because it’s just business. Dude’s a shark.

Commentary: John Podhoretz, Noah Rothman, Abe Greenwald, Christine Rosen. In their recent 500th episode, John Podhoretz mentioned that the Commentary editors moved to a daily podcast when the pandemic began, and that their listening audience tripled. Bingo. I had listened to them occasionally before, but when I walked a couple miles each day to get coffee, Commentary kept me from running out of podcasts.

It’s a very New York City sounding group. Hmm. I would like to be clear I’m not using “New York City” as a proxy for “Jewish”.  I mean that even though one lives in New Jersey and another in DC, the conversation has an extremely New York City sensibility. Like, when they are discussing the riots, they all talk about their neighbors and how they banded together, and I’m like who knows their neighbors?   They all seem to live in apartments. And so on. Maybe people do that in Chicago, too.

Reason Round Table: The libertarian politics are rarely front and center, while deep skepticism for political and media figures is. I like everything except the entertainment recommendations in the last 10 minutes.

GLOP: Jonah Goldberg, Rob Long, John Podhoretz. I used to like this a lot better than I do now. But at its best, it’s a fantastic pop culture show, and Rob Long’s insights into the entertainment industry are excellent (like why Burt Reynolds couldn’t get hired).  They’ve gone down to a show every two weeks; that and Jonah’s occasional Trump rants have dropped it down a notch. Still, I listen faithfully.

London Calling: James Delingpole, Toby Young. I don’t listen to this all the time because the issues just go right by me. But these two are hilarious. They used to do a podcast on Game of Thrones and their ignorance was a treatBack in February, Toby Young did a story about an 8 hour trip to the emergency room and a Chinese-loooking man who said he had corona virus, the memory of which still makes me chortle. I need to remember to listen to them more.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Kevin Williamson and Charles Cooke. I can’t stand Williamson. He’s arrogant, hates America, and has very little interesting to say. But for some reason the podcast passes the time adequately, possibly because neither of them live in New York or Washington DC.

Dropped: Left, Right, Center when Bruenig left. The new leftist is horrible. I Tell You What, with Dana Perino and Chris Stirewalt dropped off my list, more for Chris Stirewalt, also way left and really annoying.  I like Bret Baier’s show, but it’s too short.

Never considered: The Bulwark, Beg to Differ, any of a large variety of really smug Never Trump shows.

Interview shows. In general, I choose interview shows for the subject, not the interviewer. But these folks all choose interesting subjects. Note–the best interview show I’ve already mentioned, in the #2 overall slot above.

The Remnant: I gripe about Jonah Goldberg but it’s worth remembering I’ve been listening or reading him for 20 years. He’s a guy who really valued his relationship with his audience, and the Trump rise shattered that relationship, and the audience. He’s never really recovered psychologically from that blow, and he blames Trump and his followers. Fortunately, he had a lot more going on, so all that happens is periodically he breaks into a rant about Trump or his followers or what they say to him and it’s really boring. The rest of the time, he’s still Jonah and keeps interviews moving and fascinating. He tends only to choose people he agrees with, and knows real well, so it sounds like old home week.

The Reason Interview with Nick Gillespie: For some reason his stuff doesn’t show up in my feed, and I have to remember to go find him. Very good interviewer, keeps conversations interesting and funny.

Conversations with Bill Kristol: Another Never Trumper I despise who nonetheless puts together a decent interview show, provided you can keep him away from Trump. (In other words, the Mike Murphy spots are unbearable.) Also, his website of all the interviews is unintentionally hilarious: Hi! Are you a white guy expert over 60? Boy, is this the place for you! The Christopher Caldwell talks are excellent, and the interview with John Podhoretz on the movie industry is one I listen to about once a year.

The Dispatch:  Steve Hayes interviews only. Understand, the Dispatch podcast roundtable with Hayes, Sarah Isgur, Jonah Goldberg, and David French is not on my list at all. It’s basically ok until Jonah starts going down the Trump rabbit hole, and horrible whenever French opens his mouth. Disclosure: I loathe French.  And I hate his voice.

However. Steve Hayes does a very nice interview, and Sarah Isgur isn’t bad. So whenever it’s an interview with just them, it’s worth a listen.  The interview with two young conservative Dispatch staffers was so good I almost subscribed, but then David French was an asshole on Twitter, and the impulse evaporated.

Analyst Shows:

I used to like political analysis more than I do now, as most of them have gone way left. Amy Walter is intolerable. Five thirty eight is far too woke for me anymore, although I still have it on my feed.

I still give Josh Kraushaar a listen, depending on his guests. The Sean Trende discussion was fantastic–and speaking of guys who should have podcasts, Sean?  Henry Olsen, one of the few Trump friendly analysts, does a good interview even though his voice grates on me. I also like his ad analysis.

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Here’s something ironic: Almost every show I listen to has a moment or three, sometimes each week, in which someone takes a dump all over teachers. And if you point that out to them, they say exactly the same thing: We don’t dump on teachers! We dump on teachers’ unions! Please. In the Thomas Sowell interview, Rob Long called schools “sclerotic”.  John Podhoretz routinely says “in those horrible awful teacher union public schools”. Kevin Williamson routinely writes broadsidesagainst the profession. mentioning teachers four times and cops once. They all want to “fire bad teachers”.  Newsflash: if you say teachers unions are responsible for America’s low scores, you’re attacking teachers, not unions. And America doesn’t have low scores, which you’d all know if you knew better.

Whenever I point this out, people think I’m bitching or whining and I’m not. It’s just that my god, conservatives and Republicans and libertarians, get up to speed.  The 90s called and they want their education policy back. Republicans who aren’t directly involved in public school policy have absolutely no idea what’s been happening, and have no idea how to successful promote an education policy that hasn’t already failed miserably.

Just one example: Thomas Sowell wrote a book celebrating Success Academy and charter schools that was just flatly a bunch of bullshit, and was interviewedon Ricochet. Lileks, Long, and Robinson were all gaga with praise and astonishment. None of them mentioned Robert Pondiscio’s book–probably because they have no idea it exists. Not a single conservative in education policy would ever be so idiotic as to brag about Success Academy. They know how SA achieves the numbers. They know it’s all a lie. The only thing they debate about is whether or not the lie can be rationalized or not. But none of this came up. Complexity, something they enjoy in other topics, vanishes entirely when conservatives start talking education.

Notice, too, that there are no education podcasts on my feed. Reformers are too irritating, progressives are too progressives. I do occasionally listen to Nat Malkus, who is at least an honest broker. Conservatives listed above would do well to listen to him, particularly The Shifting Politics of Charter Schooling and Success Academy Charter Schools with Robert Pondiscio.

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So I just thought I’d toss this together, in my “write more” phase, and ask for recommendations. Specifically:

  • a good left of center podcast that won’t annoy me. I just heard Jesse Singal had one, so will check that out.
  • another culture podcast that discusses movies, ideally not just new ones.
  • a good comedy podcast. I tried Conan’s, couldn’t get into it. I like Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, if that helps.
  • Other good shows in the categories above.

Also, is it possible to review shows in Stitcher? I am a very popular reviewer, Yelp assures me.

 


Life During Lockdown

I am living my best life.

I sleep in until 8:00. In the early days of the shutdown, my beloved Starbucks abandoned me. Only two little independent coffee shops were open through March and early April. One is just around the corner and serves cornbeef hash made from scratch. The other is a mile away with a fairly generic menu. So every morning I go on a two mile jaunt for coffee to avoid the thirty pounds I’d gain eating that cornbeef hash every day.  The walk gives me plenty of time to chat with the dozens of others out on the sidewalk, something I rarely have the opportunity to do when commuting every day. The rest of the morning in and around coffee is Twitter, the news, water the garden, maybe make a trip to the hardware or grocery store. Nothing intense, just little tasks. At 10:30 I start my first “office hours” session, working on zoom calls until 2, occasionally scheduling a later session for working students.

I don’t offer “classes” per se. I just assign work, tell students to show up a couple times a week in Zoom sessions, and let them choose when.  Timeshifting isn’t usually an opportunity granted teachers, much less the ability to work from home.  While I love the flexibility of office hours, remote classes narrow the entire act of teaching down to one mode. Explanation has always been my strong suit, but there’s so much more to teaching.  I miss the variety. I miss my job.

Ninety percent of my students were regular participants for the first month, eighty percfent the next, but those numbers will fall. Like most district and union shutdown grading agreements, ours is a spectacularly stupid policy. 1) Grades are credit/no credit only. 2) Students who were passing on the day the schools shut down are guaranteed a credit grade. In short, students with a D or higher in mid-march don’t have to do a thing and the district is legally committed to give them a passing grade.  It’s amazing we have any students at all.  On the other hand, the participation and learning I see my students achieving leaves my original expectations in the dust. The bureaucrats are doing a great deal wrong. My students are doing a great deal right.

After my last zoom call finishes up, once Starbucks finally reopened, I take another  mile and a half trek for an iced espresso. Sometimes the late afternoon is spent in my garden, which is the entire backyard: tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, watermelon, cucumbers, peppers, lettuce, basil. Weeds are a problem this year; I’m mulching with my stepdad in a couple days.

I am running an “after school” club activity that I dreamed up to give interested students  some experience planning and managing a donation project. This takes a couple hours of every day, either creating products or buying supplies. Add to that the  few hours a week spent driving around to student homes, delivering materials to assemble various products that we’re donating.  Mondays or Wednesdays I usually head into school just to see the place, talk to my tech guy about various issues, collect any supplies I need.

My favorite restaurant has as much respect for pandemic laws as I do, and allows regulars to dine in. I stop in at least once a week, often bringing a friend or colleague, or maybe my brother.  A few other restaurants are open on the same basis: the barbecue joint up the street, the pho shop I frequent, and the Vietnamese sandwich shop. The liquor store beer bar I love is still open, but Bart left the state to teach while living with his girlfriend, so I don’t go as often as I used to.

Almost every day, I walk to one of three stores for dinner groceries. On Friday and Saturdays, my nephew hangs out with us;  we cook a big dinner and have movie night. I try to keep up on grading while watching TV.

My maid service comes every two weeks. Every six weeks, Lyle the stylist, as he insists on being called, comes by and does hair–mine, my brother’s, anyone else who hears he’s coming. I’m starting up acupuncture pretty soon. As is probably clear,  I follow only those pandemic laws that would put a business or employer in jeopardy if they were caught allowing the behavior. I’m fairly scrupulous at school and extremely cautious in any student interactions. Most of the time, I blissfully abstain from virtuous pandemic theatrics.

My life is great. Like, Tony Tiger grrrrreat. The luxury of time, meaningful occupations both professional and vocational.

Another piece of good fortune: no one in my family is financially at risk. Parents are retired. My sister and her husband are wealthy enough to be semi-retired, although my sister still sells diet products for another five figures a month. My grocery manager brother is busy and respected in the community, regularly working with city managers, nursing home staff, and so on. My other brother spent a couple weeks unemployed but is back at work. My son is in sales, but  the shutdown hit when he was at the top of a cycle and he took unemployment too. He’s enjoyed family time at home with his wife and two kids, feeling very lucky for the opportunity, and just went back to work.  If all that good fortune isn’t cause enough for celebration, my renters are employed.

So my life, which I already found deeply satisfying, has improved in almost every way by being forced to work from home–the only exception being the work itself.

But my easy living barely compensates for the fury. I am aghast at the utter waste and devastation caused by this needless national shutdown. I’m furious at the media which openly advocates for policies rather than trying to inform the public.   Disgusted at governors who caved to the media.  Incoherently, snarlingly hostile to people who see nothing wrong in placing their (or others) peace of mind above the well-being of children and young adults.  I try not to rant about it and in real life, anyway, I succeed. Most of the time.

At least the people in my community share my disdain, whether they say so or not. Surveys say my neighbors support the shutdown laws. Observations say otherwise. The parking lots are full.  Stores are crowded. Lines are long. Apart from rush hour, traffic is pretty heavy. Mask wearing is barely what’s required by law. No one’s huddling in their houses. It’s a deep deep blue region. People will starve before they give Trump the satisfaction of a protest. But random, frequent conversations reveal I’m not alone in my annoyance and anger.

It’s Twitter and the media, the outside world, that flummoxes me with the constant reminder of the mindsets that got us into this mess.  The other day, mild-mannered Damon Linker said, without apparent shame, that schools should be closed as long as need be to ensure that children don’t infect vulnerable adults in their family. When I asked how long he was planning on locking kids down, preventing them from living every day life, he asked angrily who would console his children if they infected him and his wife both of whom are in high-risk categories. Now, I don’t want Damon Linker’s kids to feel guilty, but wouldn’t it be much less catastrophic if he just kept them home? But no, he feels that since many others have the same vulnerability, schools should stay closed. That’s a whole level of entitlement I don’t get. I do not take the thousands of deaths lightly. Neither do the many other people who find this lockdown unnecessary.

I remind myself frequently of my tremendous luck and fruitful, happy life in lockdown, to keep my mood as balanced as possible.

The disconnect between my comfortable circumstances and my anger at the decisions that forced this life upon me can be disconcerting. Were I younger, I’d probably spend all my time fuming and none just enjoying the freedom. But I was self-employed for twenty years, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel a shiver of the economic devastation the pandemic would have brought down on me had it hit  had the pandemic hit during one of my earlier careers.  So I enjoy the sun, the walking, the neighbors, the coffee, the garden, the time spent with students. I try not to obsess about events–now, see, don’t get the wrong idea. I obsess all the time, but mostly about my own life. The world I leave for others to worry about, usually.

Anyway. While reviewing this piece about my terrific lockdown life, I suddenly asked myself if I could do anything to feel even more productive and happy.  And the answer came back instantly:

I could write more.

 

 


Bob, Gwen, and Lines of Best Fit

I have no excuse for this article. Except the new Fosse/Verdon ads are showing up. Also, consider “lines of best fit” a descriptive, not technical, term.

“Hey, Gerardo. Take a look at this.”

Gerardo, my new TA, reluctantly removed his air pods. Like all my graders, he’d been my student for three classes before asking if I could take him in third block, but the rest of my TAs were chatty folks. Gerardo grades with fantastic efficiency, but the rest of the time he’d really rather be somewhere else working on his English essay.

“What the hell…heck is that?”

VerdonFosse1

“Well, this is an image from a famous dance. I took some images from it and started comparing movement lines for fun.”

Gerardo shot me a look. “Fun? You’re so weird.”

“Yeah. But it beats grading. So take a look. What do you notice?”

“You mean, what are the red lines telling me?” Gerardo did look, and think. But shook his head. “I don’t see anything.”

“Who’s taller?”

“What, that’s a trick question? The guy is.”

“Yep. The guy is Bob Fosse, one of the most famous choreographers in history, and Google says he’s 5’8″.  The woman is Gwen Verdon, his wife, and she’s 5’4″.”

“So what does….wait a minute. Gerry looked again. ” You’ve got the other lines at their butts and knees.”

“Yep.”

“And they’re, like, the same.”

“Exactly. So what does that mean?”

“She has to have really long legs. Yeah, I see it now. Look how far below her shoulders are. Her body’s a lot shorter.”

“Good! Try this one.”

VerdonFosse2

Gerardo was interested, now. “Okay, I get this. Her hips are way, way out. His aren’t. But what’s the line for…oh, I see. You have the lines right on their hips, and there’s all this space between her body and the line. But the line goes right through his body. So that means…he can’t push his hip out as far.”

“Nice. Now here’s two at once. What do they have in common?”

FosseVerdon3FosseVerdon4

Gerardo was hooked, now, leaning into my desk closely. Ideally, my trig students were getting some work done, but we were pretty intent on this.

“Okay, so the top red line on this one is about their height…it’s the same. How is that happening?”

“Good catch.”

“Their knees are lined up, their heads are lined up…wait. Their…what, hips? His is lower!”

“Look at his feet.”

“Oh, wow. He’s got way more give in his feet. So he’s using his feet to push up while his knees are bending down. Oh, you have it circled in the next one. So he’s able to bend down to her height on his toes using only his knees.”

“It’s unusual, because she’s clearly more flexible than he is in the hips, but he’s got very bendy feet. Try this one.”

fosseVerdon6

“Okay, those vertical lines are showing the distance.”

“Yeah. Later on I do slopes to show the difference.”

“What, you’ve got more?”

“You could always grade.”

“No, no. But on this one, I can’t figure out what it means. Her leg is straight up and down. His is all bent forward…oh, I see. He has to bend forward, to do that thing with the shoulder. But she can keep her whole body straight.”

“Neat. Next up.”

fosseVerdon5

“Oh my god. How does she do that with her leg? And she’s almost straight up. She is straight up. He’s kind of tilted just to try and get his leg up nearly as much. Not that I could lift my leg more than an inch.”

Despite his complaints, Gerardo had moved far in to check out the pictures.

fosseverdon7

“He’s way higher.”

“Yep. Fosse was a jumper.”

“But the other lines show his leg is below his waist. Hers is above…hey, she’s lower than he is in the air, but her leg is higher–not just relatively, but like higher than his. ”

“How about this one?”

FosseVerdon8

“These are getting easy. She’s standing straight up, while he’s having to bend to get the same results. And this one, she’s got the flexible hip thing going, while his is straight.”

fosseverdon9

“Here I was trying to show that she is turning faster. But I honestly don’t know if that’s a problem, if they’re supposed to time it perfectly, or what. I was just trying to show the turn.”

FosseVerdon12

“Yeah, you can see he’s barely started when she’s halfway around.”

FosseVerdon13FosseVerdon15

“So he’s having to bend to get the same positions that she can do standing straight up. What part of the body allows that?”

“Hips, definitely. Knees? Good question. Here’s a sequence of three that probably look strange, but it’s like a fake exaggerated run.”

FosseVerdon16FosseVerdon17FosseVerdon18

“Jeez, her leg is at 90 degrees, and her body is tilted over. What is she holding herself up with–just her foot?”

“And some pretty impressive legs and abs, I’m thinking.”

“He’s solid on that one, too. But in the next ones, her body is practically an L.  He’s balancing. Like throwing his weight forward to get his leg up. In the last one, he has his leg up as high as hers but tilts over a bit to do it.”

“Well, keep in mind that on relative terms, she outranks him. Gwen Verdon was probably the best dancer ever seen on Broadway, and the rest of the best were trained by her. In her prime, no one was better at that time. Fosse was a groundbreaking choreographer and an excellent dancer, but not in the same league as a performer or star. I know nothing about dancing, so I can’t tell you how the two of them are rated by others, nor do I have any clear idea of who was “better”.

“So this was a long time ago?”

“Yes, Damn Yankees is sixty years old. Try this group of pictures of a sequence of two jumps.”

FosseVerdon19FosseVerdon20

“He’d have been a damn good basketball player.”

“I know, his vertical jump stats had to be amazing. ”

“You know what else? And you didn’t red line it, so maybe I’m getting good at this. He’s the one who’s straight up. She’s the one bending to balance and get more flight.”

“Whoa. I didn’t catch that. You’re right.”

“Unless maybe the middle picture is just her on the way down?”

“No, I caught the first two on the way up and the last one, after they’d switched sides, at as close to peak as I could. That’s another sign that he’s much more comfortable at jumping than swinging his hips.”

“Well. As it is for most guys.”

“Ha. True.”

FosseVerdon21

“This is obvious. She’s got a straight leg, up and down, and then just a tilt of her body. He’s tilting his body one way to get the hip out, then the other way for the…whatever you call it, the show. Hey, you know, this really is a good use of slopes.”

“Thanks.”

“What the fuck…oh, sorry. What is happening with her leg!”

FosseVerdon22a

“I love this one, because it’s related to the reason I became fascinated with this dance.”

“But man, look at it! He’s at his highest point and she’s got a whole additional gear yet!”

“And the funny thing is it makes Fosse look almost clumsy, which he wasn’t. Not many male dancers could do anywhere near as well.”

“How come you got so interested in this dance you’re breaking it down image by image?”

“My interest was first.  I made the images for math class, but much later.   I was watching a documentary once years ago where Gwen was talking about this dance and how Bob Fosse was always yelling at her to jump! because she can’t fly like he does.  I’ve been watching musicals my entire life, but I never really considered comparing dancers. When I was a kid, I always wondered why Cyd Charisse was brought in to dance with Gene Kelly…”

“Who?”

“Remember that movie we watched with Princess Leia’s mom at Christmas?”

“Oh, and then  she died! Yeah, the musical about silent movies. That was good.”

“So you remember how in the big dance number at the end, it wasn’t Princess Leia’s mom?”

“The brunette lady with the legs.”

“Exactly. I used to wonder why they brought her in. But when I grew up, I realized it was because Debbie was a  movie hoofer, while Cyd Charisse rivals Verdon as the best there is. So when I found the dance on Youtube, I analyzed the whole dance and noticed differences that went both ways.”

“You do that with a lot of dances?”

“No. Most famous dances with men and women aren’t doing identical steps–and most of the ones that do exist are tap dances.”

“So you made these pictures?”

“I was having trouble sleeping one night and  watched Cabaret, which he directed. That got me thinking about this dance, and wondering if I could capture their differences in a way a student could analyze.”

“For class?”

“Yeah, maybe. It was just a whim.”

fosseverdon23

“How does she hold that balance? Even for a second? I mean, he looks good, but normal.”

“Here’s another spin. This time, it goes from a spin into her going on the floor into a goofy tug and him pulling her by the leg. I should say that some of their spins were perfectly synchronized. I was more curious as to what it meant.”

FosseVerdon24

“Ha, I like that little arrow you put! He just jumps like it’s nothing.”

“Wanna see the actual dance?”

“Wait. That’s all the pictures? You mean, there aren’t like, five hundred?”

But Gerardo watched the clip closely, despite the clear implication that I’m a tad, oh, obsessive.

“OK, I get it now. If I’d watched this first, I’d say they were completely identical. But looking through those pictures lets me see the differences.”

“Thanks. Now. You’ve been a really good sport, but can you do me one more favor?”

Gerardo looked warily skeptical. “What?”

“These pictures are from a recreation of that dance from a new show coming out on their lives. I don’t have any red lines drawn, but do you notice anything?”

FakeFosseVerdon2

He snorted. “Yeah, right, like I’m going to see any  differences…wait a minute. Their hips and knees aren’t even. She doesn’t have the long legs.”

“And?”

Gerardo sighed, but complied. Suddenly he leaned forward, and smiled. “Got it. He’s the one dipping his hips! She’s holding them straight.”

I startled him, and the class, by thumping my desk. “I am justified.”

“What?”

“That’s the whole reason I asked you to look through those pictures. Because when the new trailer came out, all I could think was hey, they’ve got it backwards! and I wanted to have someone else know. Thank you, Gerardo. I’ll give you an A.”

“All TAs get an A. Is the guy a better dancer than the lady, or just more flexible?”

“Well, they’re both actors, not dancers. But Sam Rockwell, who’s playing Fosse, has danced in almost all of his movies and you can see he’s really loose-limbed, with hip action. Michelle Williams famously recreated one of Marilyn Monroe’s dances and got nominated for it, but it may or may not be significant that they cut away during a lot of the dips and weaves. Or maybe these few seconds aren’t representative, of course.”

(Note: I didn’t bore Gerardo with this picture, but hey, this is my blog so I’ll bore you. Here’s one example:

MichelleMarilyn

Williams, on the right, has to turn her entire body back to kick backwards. Monroe, who had been well-trained to use her body in dancing, can turn her head and neck, kick her leg back–farther, no less– while keeping her body straight.)

I’d like to tell you that Gerardo then asked me dozens of questions about movie lore, but instead he went back to modern music on his air pods. But I felt better for the validation, and got some grading done. While I told the story uninterrupted,I did take some time for student trig questions, pesky though they were.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, “Who’s Got the Pain” is a throwaway number from “Damn Yankees”. For years, it was considered a time-waster and often cut out of TV broadcasts. But dancers and choreographers treat the scene like the Talmud, studying it endlessly. And over time, “Who’s Got the Pain” became known as the only time Fosse and Verdon danced together in a production movie number. Definitely watch the dance all the way through if you’ve made it this far into the read.

 


The Students of My Christmas Present

“What..?”

On time for once, he trudged into the class pulling a small pine tree behind him, a stand in his other hand. His chin was set. His curly hair braided in two plaits instead of flying all around his head added to his air of determination.

“It’s a tree.”

“I see that.”

“I wanna make it a Christmas tree. I want a Christmas tree with lights and decorations. I want to know what it looks like, and see it looking pretty every day.”

“So you’re taking it home?” He rolled his eyes in my direction, and I grinned apologetically. “Just checking. I guess it’s haram?”

“Extremely haram.” Faisal has most of the brains, four times the looks, but far less of the focus and drive of his older brother Abdul, now in his sophomore year of a top 50 university.  Not unknown to the administrators for all the wrong reasons, Faisal nonetheless has held onto a 3.5 GPA and, barring a last semester senior catastrophe, a decent chance at a good college.

And so I acquired a tree.  I showed Faisal how to put the tree in the stand, and we steal some water from a classmate.

“The vendor across the street gave it to me for free! He’s Yemeni, maybe that’s why.”

“No, I’d guess his generosity is due to the trunk bending sharply forward before it goes up.”

“Do you have the..the lights? The things you hang on them?”

“Ornaments.” I looked sideways.  “You are expecting me to decorate?”

Faisal has a charming grin.

The tree was an instant hit with all my students, even sitting in the corner unadorned, as it did for a week. Someone noticed that the tilt kept pulling it over, so we snuck outside and grabbed some painted tiles from the garden to weight the stand down.  Students volunteered from their water bottles to keep the tree hydrated. I took three days and a weekend to bring in lights (one day to find them in my garage, one to pull the box down, one to sit by the door to be forgotten, weekend to put them in my car so I couldn’t forget them), another two days to bring in the ornaments.  Then one day four top students finished a quiz early and I assigned them “light” duty.  I have a huge collection of gorgeous ornaments, some hand-blown glass, others hand  made, some just utterly beautiful, that they all oohed and ahed over. Faisal got to select his favorites.

The vocational cooking teacher teased me for taking nearly a week to complete the tree, but she readily agreed my end product was far superior to the one her student put up in 30 minutes–and I still had it done two weeks before break. Each morning, I turned the lights on to twinkle cheerily throughout the day. Very festive. I have these old plastic window coverings, one with Santa peeking around the corner, one with bells, and on impulse taped them over my door windows, where they hung, unmolested and unbroken, for the better part of two weeks, the kids carefully closing the door without tearing them.

Four of my nine ELD students are either Muslim or Hindu, and they haven’t been here that long. I carefully explained “secular” as opposed to “religious”, reassuring them that the tree was in celebration of the former.  The other half of the class is Catholic, either Guatemalan or Filipino, so were surprised to learn that not everyone celebrated Christmas as a religious event. My math students needed no clarification. Our school is wildly diverse, but that’s never stopped us from openly celebrating Christmas. The kids sell mistletoe messages and Christmas wreaths through December.

I regret not capturing a picture of the tree at school, completely decorated. I’ve learned that it made any number of appearances on Snapchat and Instagram, as my students bragged about their Chrismassy room.

My family of origin has always centered celebration on Christmas Eve. For 45 years, December 24th means cheese, beef, and occasionally chocolate fondue.  When we were kids, we’d then go to bed and have Christmas in the morning. But once we hit our teens and late 20s, we’d just open presents Christmas Eve so we could sleep in. As we grew up and moved out, we turned Christmas Day into family unit, keeping Christmas Eve for fondue with everyone.

My ex and I did Christmas big. We both loved the holiday, both bought each other lots of gifts, bought other family members multiple presents, shopped together and separately.  I love presents. But it wasn’t just the presents. We had a party once, I remember, and always made plans to see friends or do something fun.

We divorced when our son was not quite three. Because of our fondue tradition, my son always had Christmas Eve and morning with me, then went to my ex’s for two or three days. So on Christmas Day, I was alone.

I wasn’t miserable. I still loved the Christmas holiday, even if the 25th was always a bit of a letdown.My son and I would always decorate, get a tree.  We’d drive around looking at lights, go to see It’s A Wonderful Life or Wizard of Oz at the revival theater. But after the divorce, I always felt as if I were watching others experience Christmas, rather than experience it myself. A good chunk of my loss was simply the presents. I’m not materialistic the rest of the year, but by god I like people buying me presents at Christmas. However, the larger sense of loss was due to the realization that while my family of origin is big, my own family unit was just two–and when my son was gone, I didn’t really have a family unit at all. Just me.

The post-divorce change in Christmas was as nothing compared to its utter disappearance after my son finished high school.   Before Faisal dragged that little scrubby pine into my room, I hadn’t put up a tree since 2005. My son would still come to fondue, we’d still have Christmas morning, but without him around during the lead-in, what was the point?

That amputated Christmas threatened to disappear entirely once he moved three states away with his girlfriend and eventual wife. I once had fond notions of visiting for Christmas and opening presents with my grandkids, but my ex and I have spent no small amount of time commiserating with each other about the truth of the maxim “A son is a son till he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life”. I am truthfully not bitter about this, although I would certainly have it otherwise. My son has a woman he adores, an excellent job he enjoys, two beautiful, loving children , a mortgage, and a marriage certificate (acquired in that order).  I have done my job well. Peace.

My son’s absence forced me to stare down a (hopefully very long) telescope looking towards old age wondering was this it? I’m going to be someone who doesn’t do Christmas? Will I just start peeling away holidays as I have fewer people to celebrate with? I’m still blessed with both parents and family of origin nearby, but the disintegration of my Christmas Day–now getting perilously near why-bother status–made me realize that I had to change my mindset and perhaps my practice as I move towards a time when family will be fewer and farther away.

So for the past few years, I’ve made a point to experience Christmas as a family unit of one. A married couple I’m close to often invites me over for dinner, where I have a wonderful time even though, god help me, she’s a terrible cook. I can dress up a bit, talk to people, drink wine, and mark the year’s passing. Sometimes I’ll go see the holiday film at the revival theater. I often go to a Starbucks, write, talk to people at the store or on the street, seek out a neighbor to chat.

I resumed putting up outdoor lights three years ago, slowly finding uses for the big pile of lights I’d acquired earlier, and then actually buying more. I love Christmas lights so much. And they’re outdoors, so it felt more like contributing to  neighborhood spirit, rather than decorating an empty nest. For three years now, coming home and seeing the house all lit up has been most cheering.

While I expected my new “experience” of Christmas to be limited to outside lights and activities,  Faisal and my students have reminded me of all the happy ornaments locked away in my garage, sitting there unused and unenjoyed. I have treasured the shared cheer of my classroom tree. If I ended my Christmas tree practice because there was no one to share it with, well, then, why not continue to have a tree at school for the season? So I will. When I told my students, they applauded.

I wonder if Julia Ioffe can possibly conceive of a Muslim Palestinian American  begging for a free tree, lugging it into his most familiar teacher’s room, simply because he wants to be a part of one of the best holidays ever created. Would she demand that he, too, see Christmas entirely in terms of Christ? Could she not see it as assimilation of the best sort, appreciation for what American culture has to offer?

I received an additional gift of recognition, one that involves the second best Christmas Carol. The finest is, of course, the Alistair Sim version, which you should run out and see right away, before Christmas season officially ends. But Patrick Stewart’s version holds its own very well.

One scene in particular has always resonated with me, and only recently have I understood why.  I’ll try to show it with pictures, but the difference is easier to see in action. Here’s Ebenezer before his transformation, sitting in front of his fire:

sadalonescrooge

His body language is all crunched up, his face is tense (granted, Marley’s said hello). Here he is after the three ghosts have visited:

happyalonescrooge

He’s alone both times. But in the second, he’s not eating dinner, shoveling it down as a utilitarian act, scrunched and sullen. He’s just sitting, enjoying the fire, with a nice drink. He’s experiencing Christmas, alone and happy.

I wasn’t Scrooge before, or now. I’m just an introvert who is perfectly content to be alone most of the time, but didn’t know how to celebrate Christmas if I wasn’t part of a  big family unit. I faked it–and faked it well–for a long time, but I’m learning how to keep the day in the spirit I’d like.

Faisal’s determined desire for a Christmas tree, and my students’ happy participation in creating one,  had one more surprise in store for me. When school ended for the year, I carefully took off all the ornaments, wrapped them up and put them back in the box. Next was the lights..but I stopped. I’d planned to put the tree in the dumpster but instead wrapped up the cords and carried the whole tree, lights and all, to the front seat of my car. I only felt a little bit silly.TreeatHome

I’m looking at it now, shining brightly in the front window. Maybe next year I’ll have two trees–one for school, one for home.

This year my friends had to delay their Christmas dinner until Thursday. So my brother and I ate standing rib roast, which cooked to rare perfection, and I made lemon meringue pie for dessert.  I’ll be rewarding myself with a hot toddy (Makers Mark) when I finish this.

I always give thanks for my students, past and present, and am grateful I’ve got many more students to enjoy in years to come. But this year, to students present, I thank you all for showing me how to bring back one more piece of my favorite holiday.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 


On Depression and Not Suicide

“I’ve told mine, now go tell yours. “–Kirsten Powers

I had two close friends in high school and on into my twenties; I called them The Jays. Jay One was quiet, often withdrawn, fought depression constantly, and routinely considered suicide but always decided against it. Jay Two never mentioned depression, but at the age of nineteen made a serious attempt at suicide.

Both of the Jays would–and did–unhesitatingly agree that by any objective standard, I won the Whose Life Sucks the Most? contest. Both of them lived in middle class stability with functional families. In contrast, my family and social life had dysfunction, humiliation, misery galore. The Jays knew of enough of these events that they felt lucky.

After I learned of Jay Two’s suicide attempt, I spent a good bit of time wondering why the hell anyone would deliberately seek out death. My fear of death is–I think–healthy and normal? But being a good and proper depressive who masks anxiety with obsession, I worried about death, usually through one focus point. When I was four or five, up through eight or nine, I would lay awake at night convinced that I’d heard a “burglar” coming to rob the house, who would kill us all, and practiced holding my breath so that the bad guy who would look at me and go “Hmm. This one’s dead already.” and move on to my sibs. Then I’d feel bad, because I’d be the only one alive and they’d all be dead, so I told my brother that if the bad guys come, he was to hold his breath. My brother, two years younger, agreed this was a good strategy.

This fear carried me through to age eleven, when a real-life traumatic year or three in school forced me to put aside imaginary horrors.  When that episode finally ended, and I got back to worrying, I was old enough to realize that the “burglar” of my night fears was more properly described as  “serial killer”, who would just wait to see if I started breathing again, so I better make sure I had an exit strategy for my bedroom. For years I avoided plugging in any electric device–both my brother and sister would plug things in for me without even teasing. In my early twenties, it became air travel, a phobia which has stayed with me. Mind you, I flew. A lot. I was a consultant for much of that time.  I’d just convince myself, a la Warf, that today was a good day to die–which stopped working once my son was sitting in the seat next to me, so then I had to go back to worrying.

Prior to Jay Two’s attempt, I understood that suicide existed. Hemingway had done it. Hitler and all his Nazi friends. But it had nothing to do with my life. By twenty, I had three events in my life that, had I committed suicide in today’s media-saturated environment, would have made me a  poster child for one cause or another. Yet I never even conceived of slitting my wrists as Jay Two had.

In no way could I have been considered  a happy-go-lucky, optimistic cheerful soul. An aunt once told me that I’d look back and consider high school the best time of my life.

I said, “Jesus. Shoot me now.”

Nor was I one of those  “shake the dust of this miserable town off my feet” sorts. While my psyche was in terrible shape, my life had many bright spots. My family was dysfunctional and damaging, but also loving and fun. I had no visions of conquering the world, no specific goals, and a self-esteem that was in the toilet.

My twenties saw the same pattern continue–I wasn’t setting the world afire, but was quietly, modestly successful given my upbringing, with a personal life filled with dysfunction that I spent years trying to fix or end. But my son was born, and that changed everything, including my willingness to tolerate insanity. At a certain point, I realized it didn’t matter if this was all my fault or not.

Life in my thirties did get better. I went to a therapist, which was very helpful in smoothing out my life and developing strategies to cope with craziness. My  original diagnosis was dysthymia. I didn’t feel depressed. My therapist had quite a time figuring me out; I used to joke that our conversations were a series of my “bumping into lists”–diagnostic lists, which would serve to determine if some casual comment had actually revealed a deeper issue.

One of the lists I bumped into  while talking about “daydreaming” led my therapist to determine that I’m “O without the C”, or obsessive without compulsion. From that point on, whenever I mentioned “worrying”, I’d hear “You don’t worry, you obsess,” a distinction that made utterly no sense to me for five years until suddenly one day it occurred to me that worrying didn’t mean spending every single waking moment outside of conversation thinking about….something. Whether I’d get another contract. How I would pay the bills if I didn’t get a contract. Whether I was a bad parent. Remembering a book or a movie. Reliving a prior conversation. My brain is in constant motion, and a lot of that time is spent reviewing and rethinking and future-tripping, but when I have a real concern, the one issue grabs every single minute of my conscious time. And the only way I knew to get out of that cycle was avoidance–literally not opening mail, not returning calls, not going to the bank, not doing bills, refusing to think about it, or I’d get into a cycle that never stopped.

Once I figured this out, I learned, over the next year, to time my obsessions.  When possessed with a fear,  I’d allow myself to “worry” for five minutes every thirty minutes. When I felt the thought grab me, I’d check the clock…no, wait ten more minutes.

Over time, my obsessions were less able to grab every waking moment, which paradoxically left me vulnerable to unmitigated depression. In my late 30s I experienced a major depressive episode, one in which my therapist had to contact my doctor, to my considerable annoyance, one in which I was constantly offered medication, which I rejected.  While there were a few triggering events, the overwhelming sense of cycle was what defeated me. This is my life. It will always be a struggle. I am Pigpen, attracting troubles and craziness like dust.  I won’t have calm certainty, serene upward progress, happiness. I’ll have craziness spiked with terrific highs and lots of disappointment and inexplicable defeats. There would be no end to this.

I am a high functioning depressive who talks a lot and most of my small group of friends knew my pain. One pal told me, “You always seem completely in control, never in need of help. I don’t know how to give you a hand.” I found this very perplexing, since one thing I don’t have, never had, is any sense of control.

I resented the fact that others who felt this way could consider and reject suicide–or consider and accept it. They had a choice. I had none. I don’t mean this in any noble sense, much less a religious sense, simply that the deepest grip of this dark time, I’d still agonize about air travel, still hear a  bump in the middle of the night and freeze, thinking great, I’m horribly depressed and will get butchered by a sick madman. Suicide meant death. I was absolutely incapable of even envisioning taking action to cause my death.

Except once.

I was driving along my favorite highway, trying to figure out how to escape this intense sense of exhaustion and despair at my nothing of a life and suddenly wondered if I could just drive into a wall. If I hit the accelerator, hard, faced a curve, or a wall, or a train, then no airbag could work well enough and I’d feel….nothing.

I felt it. I felt in that minute, the blotting out that death might bring.

But I didn’t have time to consider whether that feeling was attractive, because literally the second the sensation arose, I could feel my son’s devastation.

All throughout this huge depression cycle, people would tell me, look, you can’t give in to this. Think of your son. I would always shrug that off because they didn’t understand, I couldn’t commit suicide, so I didn’t have to consider my son. But for a split instant, I managed to think of a way  that I might fool myself into dying, and got an equally split second to consider my son’s reaction. No. I couldn’t do that to my son.

That realization didn’t lessen the depression, but now I was relieved instead of annoyed that suicide was not an option. And eventually, that major depressive episode ended. My life since then has been…fun. I still have dysthymia. I’m still  obsessive but, as my shrink said, on a scale of 1 being mild worry that you left the oven on, and 10 being visually tracing woodgrains for hours on end, I’m at a 7–which is much better. Over the years I’ve trained myself to stop avoidance, which has done much to stabilize my finances.

I’ve realized that the ideal lives I thought everyone else was leading were…not so ideal, that trade offs I thought were unconscious were, in fact, active. I’ve been more consciously making life choices than I give myself credit for.  Like joking that teaching was something I just stumbled into, when in fact I realized my skill at tutoring, sought out that occupation, then applied to ed school. And so the wonderful career I have is not just fortunate happenstance.

In no way am I suggesting any moral superiority or strength of character.  My experience in my thirties taught me that I’m fortunate to hate the idea of death, that my mental anguish didn’t force me to daily make a decision to live, to pick my son and my future over ending an existence that didn’t seem to have much to show for the struggle.

But my experience with the Jays taught me that suicide does not correlate with objective misery.  And  my experience with fear has taught me that others have far less tolerance for discomfort than I do.

Everyone assumes suicides are faced with unrelenting pain and depression. But in fact, 54% of suicides are not related to known mental illness. And certainly not everyone fears death to the same degree.  It’s not only possible but likely that millions of people face terrible anguish and horrible life  circumstances and never or rarely consider suicide, while other people kill themselves over minor setbacks. Still others combine a lack of fear with a lack of consideration that genuinely seems spiteful to those left behind. Yet the public reaction to suicide is to unquestioningly accept that the murdered person was tortured and desperate, that this pain led to the decision.

That’s simplistic. Leave aside a painful and immediately terminal illness, dementia, schizophrenia. Absent these conditions, choosing to die is a multi-factorial glitch in the system, a combination of personality, circumstances, and genetics. Those of us left behind don’t have to hold ourselves responsible for others’ choices, whether by blaming ourselves–or  our culture, as Kirsten Powers does.  Not that this makes dealing with their choice any easier.

But having children should put certain choices out of reach. All these celebrations of Bourdain and Spade overlook or barely mention their daughters.

Leaving a child behind with a conscious suicide is not, perhaps, unforgivable, given years of retrospective.  But it’s a choice violates the  fundamental parental creed.

And Spade’s note to her daughter is an obscenity.

 

 


The Things I Don’t Write

For someone who struggles to write four essays a month, I do a lot of outside work for my blog. Much of it goes nowhere-I can’t package my thoughts, I can’t find the data I want, I get overwhelmed, or I realize that it’s all going back to the one big idea I have about education which is OH MY GOD YOU PEOPLE ARE DELUSIONAl.

For example, in the last two weeks, I’ve:

  • read three books on various educational topics
  • determined how many immigrants, legal and otherwise, live in each state
  • collected and analyzed the third and fifth grade test scores from Illinois for the years 2001-2006
  • Tried to figure out how to run a regression analysis that I could make sense of. Robert Verbruggen even helped, but I threw up my hands and said alas.

In previous years, I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out the precise development of our modern math curriculum, which I almost have nailed, but not quite. I’ve looked up the demographics of 50 cities on Money’s Best Places to Live list. I’ve spent hundreds of days almost writing things, and then abandoned the effort.

Sometimes I’ve gotten an idea at 11:30 pm and written all night because I know that if I stop, I’ll never get back to it. Other times I’ll write all day and then sudden stop, depressed, knowing it’s going nowhere.

So right now I have 98 drafts in my WordPress account. A lot of them are nearly blank, with a few sentences and a link. Some are considerably more.   And since I spent so much time this week researching, I had a thought–why not just talk about the work I don’t finish?

I couldn’t bring myself to publish the draft posts. That feels like too much of a commitment. These pieces aren’t ready. Instead, I created PDFs of snipped pages. That’s weird, I know. Stop looking at me like that!

Memory: January, 2014

I’d just written Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me, another piece I did a great deal of research for. When I finished it, I really had something more to say, so I promised a part 2.

But part 2 never gelled. I wanted to start by making people think about different things that memory means, and I still like the four anecdotes. But I instantly knew they were too long, too distracting. I left them in and kept plugging away, because sometimes I get focus and put things together in ways I hadn’t originally intended. Then, a second problem–the issues with memory are so directly related to curriculum, to skills vs. knowledge. So I felt I had to discuss those issues, and man, by that time it was just a mess. Each individual part is interesting, but it’s about four pieces.

Today, I’m much better at seeing that, at chunking off pieces and limiting my scope. But back then, I just gave up. So here it is: Memorize What, Exactly?

It’s a big mess, but I do like the four anecdotes, particularly the Game of Thrones one. I was disappointed in my failure to finish this, and for years, I ignored the published essay. But a year ago I revisited it and am really pleased. Certainly the research wasn’t a waste. I talk to my students about episodic versus semantic memory, echoic vs. iconic and they always enjoy it.

May, 2014: Common Core Curriculum?

Paul Bruno was one of my favorite bloggers, one of the only teachers I knew of who cared about policy. (Alas, he cared about policy so much he left teaching and is now working on a PhD, last I checked.) He wrote a piece on Common Core that triggered a longstanding beef I have with the curriculum folks–namely, their peculiar belief that standardized curriculum have any sort of meaning in  a world outside France, which apparently teaches exactly the same thing every day in every school. I can’t even imagine.

Anyway, I wrote one of many different attempts to state how insane it is to care about what textbook we use, at least at the high school level. We all customize. And at some point I went oh, lord, why bother? I have no evidence other than that of my own eyes. So I put it aside.

Common Core and Curriculum

July, 2014: Taking on Andrew Ferguson

The Weekly Standard has three of my favorite writers: Matt Labash, Andrew Ferguson, and Christopher Caldwell. (My tweet on this point neglected to mention Caldwell, but only because I thought he’d left the magazine.)

In 2014, Ferguson wrote this stunningly awesome piece on the Common Core lunacy, shredding what anyone familiar with the landscape would call the reform side of education policy. But then, in two paragraphs, he slimed the progressive side of thing–teachers, ed schools, unions, the like–without the slightest acknowledgement that he was now attacking the opponents of those who inflicted Common Core among us. Imagine reading an article ripping the NRA apart as “gun nuts” and then casually spending two paragraphs mocking the people who want to ban assault weapons–and calling them “gun nuts”, too. That’s what Ferguson did.

I spent a week trying to explain why this was crazy. But then I remembered that Republicans are just utterly ignorant of the educational field of play. Despite his brilliance, Ferguson wouldn’t even care about the distinction that rendered his article almost meaningless. Why spend time and energy criticizing one of my favorite writers who would just shrug me off as a stupid teacher?

Oh, No, Not Andy Ferguson!

May 2015: Why Isn’t the GOP Looking for Popular Education Policies?

The GOP and/or conservative inability to update their priors on education policy has plagued me for a few years now, so a year after I abandoned the Ferguson essay I tried again.

There’s a riot in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Kevin Williamson all basically blamed white female teachers for problems that, best I could see, involved white male cops and their black male victims. All of this would be solved by choice, they assured us.  Good lord, guys, the 90s are calling. They want their ed policy back. Mainstream conservative punditry and GOP politicians haven’t updated their rhetoric in 20 years. The actual reformers have. They’re in mourning about the utter trouncing they’ve taken both in the political and public arena.

But I get worn out by this, too. So one more essay bites the dust. Here’s the skeleton: Education Policy: Restricting the Range

In retrospect, I wonder if conservative blindness about education policy is linked to the general blindness they all had about Trump. That is, they had GOP voters locked up without any alternatives, so no need to cater. They never really understood how unpopular their ideas were with the GOP voters because no one was providing an alternative. Trump figured this out on immigration, trade, and political correctness. I await the day he grasps reality on education.

September 2016: Fixing Schools

This came about after my August road trip, when I was driving all over the Northwest listening to NPR or conservative radio, whatever reception allowed, and left or right, everyone was talking about our failing schools and what to do about them. So I wrote up my own plan: How to Fix a Failing High School

This one’s actually pretty good. I should get back to it.

October 2016: Popular Cities and their Demographics

I spent at least a week looking up demographics for that Money’s Best Places to Live 2016 piece because I was incredibly annoyed at the stated elimination criteria: we eliminated the 100 places with the lowest predicted job growth, the 200 communities with the most crime, and any place without a strong sense of ethnic diversity (more than 90% of one race). (emphasis mine). My mind can’t even conceive of 88% white being granted standing as a place with a “strong sense of ethnic diversity”.

It followed, naturally, that the selected cities would have very little mention of race, which made me curious. I knew, of course, that none of the cities would be majority black or Hispanic. But how many of the chosen were heavily Asian? Or even more interesting, to me, how many were tilting in that direction?

“What our town needs is more black people” said no Asian. Ever. Recent Asian immigrants have next to no use for African Americans, and value Hispanics only for their cheap labor. Hispanics and blacks don’t seem fond of each other; I think New York is the only city that’s managed to grow a Hispanic population while still maintaining the same levels of African Americans, and that may be due to African immigrants.

Few non-majority white diversity levels maintain for the long haul. Three exceptions I’ve noted–remember, all of this is anecdotal.

First,  70-30 Hispanic white high schools persist, perhaps because a good chunk of the Hispanics are multi-generation American and self-identify as white. But a school that’s 50% Asian or black  and the other half majority white will in a few years be 80% Asian or black.  Whites don’t hang around for blacks or Asians, in my experience.

Next, whites do tolerate genuine racial diversity well, probably because there are fewer cultural distortions that arise with both Asians and African Americans.  I can think of a number of 30-30-30-10 schools that hold on to those numbers for a decade or more.

Finally, Asians and Hispanics seem to co-exist without toppling over in one direction or the other.

The idea was that white folks are everyone’s second favorite race–if Asians, blacks, and Hispanics can’t have a majority school of their own race, then they want the majority to be white. At least, that’s what their behavior would suggest.

But then, I realized I could turn it upside down. Whites may be first choice of second favorite, but Hispanics do pretty well at not causing extinction-level flights by any race. So maybe they’re not second favorite, but including Hispanics might be key to maintaining diversity.

I can’t find any data on this, which is why I dropped the piece: Everybody’s Second Favorite.

April, 2017: Thoughts on Gifted

I thought Gifted was a sweet little movie that gave public schools more than their due.  I ended up using a piece of this in a later essay, but my son’s second grade teacher deserves her due:  Gifted and Public Education

*************************************************************************************

So there’s a sampling. I left several pieces off because by golly, maybe I’ll write about them some day.

I’ve been writing now for six years, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the attention this blog has gotten, and the body of work it represents. But given I have a day job, I waste too much time and energy on pieces that don’t go anywhere. Perhaps I’m letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough, but that’s not an attribute I display in any other area of my life. This just seems to be how I make decisions about the best way to spend my time.


2016: Five Years On….and then Trump

Having done three posts in a week–no small task for this slow writer–I was going to abandon a retrospective post this year. My traffic is down, and while I’m not concerned, I thought eh, no reason to write about it.

But I’ve written a retrospective every year. I started this blog on January 1, 2012 as a New Year’s Resolution, and when the anniversy went by I instantly felt a nagging sense of guilt and duty–and so, a retrospection. But not really on my blog.

For the first thirty years of my  working life, I played mostly at the edges of occupations. A friend once introduced me as someone who does “obscure technical things” and that was when I worked at a large corporation. For many years, I made a decent living doing things few people cared about, or thought you could make a living at like, say, tutoring. Teaching is a mainstream, non-niche profession if ever there was one, but I was reminded that my opinions are still niche when I tried to write about my career.  Getting any publication interested in my experiences or observations was a total non-starter. I occasionally got nibbles, but the intersection between what I could write about in 750 words and what someone was interested in publishing was almost non-existent–and I gave up trying rather easily.

And so the blog, with this resolution. I could focus on what interested me, not what was fashionable, and build an audience writing on topics as they occurred to me, not on what was timely. I could maybe start getting my audience to look at education as I did, or find like-minded folks, or both. I achieved more success than I ever dreamed in the first year and every year since has been better.

Then this year, this year that so many in the media rather provincially declare a gruesome annus horribilis, because they’re a bunch of narcissistic puppies who demand we share their misery. But I had a simply splendid time and for reasons directly related to the biography above.

I love politics, but as a spectator sport. My life is as niche as my careers are (custodial divorced parent, first generation college graduate, low six figure income, white, English major working in technology OR teaching math–pick three and you still have trouble forming a club,  much less a political action committee. Heads of households who make too much for the Child Tax Credit: not a big interest group.)

So since I never expected politicians to speak to my interests, I became very interested in determining who politicians were talking to, which eventually led me to realize that politicians were weren’t talking to. Broadly, I realized that politicians were flatly ignoring an important interest group: working people making less than, say, mid-six figures. Note I said “interest group”. Many vote ideology, just as I do, despite their income level and best economic interests. Politicians seemed to be taking this for granted. They were running on issues largely ideological terms, both left and right. But they were ignoring areas that clearly affected and interested wide swathes of the electorate.

I came to this realization via immigration and education, two areas that I’ve been watching and reading about for thirty years. I was unaware of the depth of disaster done by China to manufacturing in this country, but it plays to the same failure to speak to the public’s interests.

So even before Sean Trende pointed it out, I was wondering why no one was making a play for white voters. This realization is one of the issues that led me to notice the great Steve Sailer in the early oughts. Like Steve, I’m not a white nationalist–in fact, I believe that implementing the “Sailer Strategy” would ultimately result in more blacks and Hispanics coming to the GOP. But white voters were a large enough group to make zeitgeist defiance a worthwhile risk. From there, it’s a short step to understanding that the GOP was just giving lip service to immigration and cultural issues because, in part, the conservative elites shared the same values as the media and liberal elites and had no plans to change anything.

Like many others, I’ve long believed elites were engaging in an effort to shut down opposition to these key values. The left and right both brought about political or economic doom for those who went against the grain–no donors to run for office,  shaming, job loss,  whatever was needed to achieve an apology or social and economic obliteration. That’s….not how our country is supposed to work. I have a close friend who said, years ago, that the only person who could break through would be a really rich person who didn’t give a damn about winning approval. I went further than that: I was certain that many in the country were deeply disgusted with the media’s enforcement of the canon, whether or not they called it The Cathedral, and were longing to see someone take them on–and that person, yes, would have to be really rich and already famous.

Enter Trump, but this isn’t about the election. It’s All About Me.

Instead of playing my usual role disengaged but passionate political observer, I was watching a neophyte politician with a genius for stagecraft promoting exactly the ideas that I thought were necessary to win disaffected white voters, using exactly the unapologetic, flagrant violation of media expectations I thought it would take. I had skin in this game. I wanted Trump to win the GOP nomination. I hoped he would win the presidency.

Not only was I fully engaged, but I had genuine understanding and insight into the forces driving the greatest and most shocking presidential campaign in our history. No longer niche, baby.

This mattered to no one but me. My Twitter engagement numbers exploded, but as mentioned, my blog traffic was down. Moreover, I’m not a predictor. I didn’t make any Ann Coulter or Scott Adams calls early on, didn’t go out there like Bill Mitchell and confidently call the election. I’m all about if-then. In fact, while I expected Trump, my hope for his victory was an if-then:

What I valued about the experience isn’t increased fame or respect (“strange new” or otherwise). I cherished the opportunity to really participate in an earthshaking event. When you’ve spent your life in niche issues, reading about politics but not caring terribly who wins or loses,  playing on the main stage, even as one member of a huge choir, is exhilarating.

I watched the whole thing happen. Unlike the vast majority of conventional thinkers that populate the airwaves and web, I understood most of the events. I understood Trump’s popularity. I understood why the media’s anger and outrage only helped him. I understood why he didn’t apologize, didn’t back down, struck hard when attacked. I understood why his voters wanted this.

Thanks to Twitter, I got to voice my disdain of the experts (who often answered, if only to block me), as well as my considerable outrage that cable TV, in particular, gave little time to Trump voters, while over-representing Never Trumpers. (My concern was not for equal time, but for the very real probability, early on, that the Never Trump folks would undo the primary results without giving the opposition a fair hearing. Fortunately, polls intervened.)

Best of all, I found kindred spirits, people who were watching the election with very similar insights and hopes. Ed Asante and David Pinsen were , like me, were  “ordinary” people who happened to support Trump (often referred to as “sane Trump Twitter supporters”), and I thoroughly enjoyed agreeing with them throughout the year.  Media folks Mickey Kaus, Michael Goodwin, and Mark Krikorian also viewed the election through the same lens of media skepticism and enthusiasm for the ideas of Trump, if not necessarily the imperfect vessel himself.

I don’t know if I can adequately convey how much sheer fun I had actively participating, being “on point”to others  unless you, too, are an introvert whose concerns, professional and personal, are usually shared by perhaps a dozen people. Maybe a thousand or so nataionwide. And suddenly, the single biggest issue in my interest area was shared by millions.

I even learned something. While I still believe immigration won Trump the primary, I’m leaning towards the notion that trade was essential to putting him over the top. If it’s true that many Obama voters in the Big 4 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio) voted for Trump this time round, then that has to be trade, not immigration that moved them. However, Trump couldn’t (and can’t) back down on immigration, because he can’t let down the GOP base.

The campaign period was not without difficulties, but they were all the struggles of any Trump voter: reading your favorite writers express utter disdain for you, never mind Trump, getting blocked early on by conservative writers who simply couldn’t grasp what was happening to their beloved party, feeling outraged at the media’s utterly unhinged misrepresentations and open bias. Nothing to dim the joy I felt.

I don’t know if I’m going to feel more vested in political events going forward. I’m going to enjoy finding out.

So. That is my retrospective on the year.

Blogwise: traffic was down, but I still had more “big” pieces than 2014, which is still my highest traffic year. I’m down from 2015, when I had 11 pieces over 1500, this year I had only 5. The midlists were off–I had no essays with 2000 pageviews, and a ton of work that usually hit 1000 plus views didn’t make it that far. I’ve been looking at the quality and topic of the pieces, and don’t see a huge difference. Given the disconnect between my twitter growth and my blog page views fall-off, I’m thinking it might be a falloff in my teacher readers. I hope not.

But it might just be that haven’t been promoting my work as vigorously. I’ll try to do better.

I set my sights on 48 essays. Hahahahaha. I did make 37, one more than last year! I shall try again for 4 essays a month.

Essays written this year with over 1500 page views:

Title Date Views
Notes from a Trump Supporter: It’s the Immigration, Stupid! 01/31/2016 5,147
Defining the Alt Right 09/05/2016 3,499
Citizens, Not Americans 06/16/2016 3,264
The Many Failings of Value-Added Modeling 05/20/2016 1,968
The SAT is Corrupt: Reuters Version 03/29/2016 1,903

Pieces I think are quite good:

Happy Teacher Stories–I think you need to be a skeptical cynic to really deliver in this genre, so I’m born for it:

  • Citizens, Not Americans (above), is one of my favorite pieces ever; I was pleased to see it do well. I have a good friend who is a highly-esteemed professor of education, who was devastated by Trump’s win. When we go to lunch, he asks about Dwayne, Chuy, and Omar. And if you want to know how they felt about Trump’s win, check out Celebrating Trump in a Deep Blue Land.
  • Graduating My Geometry Class: I taught roughly 75% of my school’s class of 2016, including a group of freshmen four years ago in the first class of my (and their) first year.
  • A Clarifying Moment: a student comes back to visit. By the way, Hui brought me some insanely amazing baked goods for Christmas.

Classroom Action

Pedagogy

Teaching Issues–you know, these are all interesting aspects of teaching that most people don’t think about and got little traffic, so pass them on.

Education Policy:

Finally, one piece that may become more viewed in the Trump era: Arizona’s Experience and the Tale It Tells, about the Wall Street Journal’s report on Arizona’s illegal immigration law.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, my nephew got the same excellent grade point average at the  local community college. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans eighteen months earlier. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit, and my sister, the twins’ mom, balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them, and aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense of paying a bunch of liberals to attempt to indoctrinate their children wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t entirely disagree, but as I told my sister, well-heeled parents  should buckle the hell down and pony up the funds for the top tier schools that accept their high achieving, hard working children.

After chastising my sister, I educated her and my niece about the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. (Update spring 2018: she’ll be graduating in May.)

So when my nephew explained his lackadaisical thoughts for his next steps, I invited him up to my section of the state and  took him on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system. After he was utterly wowed by the campus, we stopped by the transfer admissions office, where a counselor informed the young man he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier.

My nephew went home, scheduled a meeting with his community college adviser. The text I mentioned above was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country–one several tiers higher than the one we visited. (Update: he’ll be graduating in December).

The cool thing about my work with the twins, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

For example, Ysenia was one of my favorite students at my last school. Before I knew her, she’d a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes. His special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, had asked me to advise him because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.


2015: Turning a Corner. Maybe.

This chart may be complicated, but since these retrospectives mostly function as my diary, I’ll not worry about that.

blogpageviewcomparison

So here’s the last three years: Year 4 (blue, 2015), Year 3 (yellow, 2014), and Year 2(green, 2013). The last set of columns shows the cumulative traffic for each year. So Year 3 saw slightly higher traffic than Years 2 and 4. In 2015, I saw about 214K views compared to 215 in Year 3 and 223K in 2014, my high point.

If I wanted to, I could be bummed and think man, I’ve had no increase in growth over the past two years. But that’s why the jaggedy lines are there, to cheer me up. They remind me that if I want people to read me, I have to actually write. I put out a grand total of 5 posts in May, June, and July. Five posts! I only got two out in November, too.

Since I get a minimum of 200 page views just by actually posting, those three months cost me a lot of traffic. And since I’m not really in this for the overall traffic, it means I shouldn’t fuss about the lower overall number, and I won’t. Except to remind myself that I need to write more.

In 2014, I set myself the goal of writing 72 posts, and only managed 46. This year, I just managed 36. THIRTY SIX. That’s ridiculous.

Before I go onto the brighter side of last year, I want to write this down, to document my change in productivity. I wrote 108 pieces in my first year. Year 2, 2013, I wrote 61 essays. It’s like that math activity where the kids bounce balls and measure the height. My essay output is a decaying exponential function….Output year=.75 * Outputyear-1.

What the hell have I been doing with my time since? It’s not that I’m lazy, or that I did less research back then. Some of my best, most popular pieces were written in 2012, including 5 of the 18 pieces that saw over 1500 views just this year–or 6 of the top 20, if you prefer that method, but I don’t because it doesn’t allow like to like comparisons. Admittedly, many in that first year were short teaching stories I don’t do anymore (short? Me? Let’s all laugh.), but that just makes it more astonishing. I did some major research and throwaway posts. How?

I’m not out of ideas. I am more than occasionally frustrated by the utter nonsense I see bruited about confidently, by people paid huge heaps of money to be experts. But instead of writing about it, I get bogged down. That’s the problem. I try to do one big piece and cover everything. I need to create bite-sized chunks. The problem, alas, lies in my knowledge of the likelihood that I’d do the next chunk rather than move on to something else.

The problem isn’t the writing. I can knock out essays in relatively little time when I need to. I did On The Spring Valley High Incident in an evening (a very late evening, though), because I wanted my thoughts to be in the mix so timeliness was essential. I got the five political proposals and their bookends done in a month, a magnum opus of focus. (I suspect hocus pocus. Sorry.) The problem is in the organization and structuring, identifying the goals of the piece.

And yet, this studied consideration is often a strength. I spent nearly a month mulling the “explaining your answer” discussion and came up with the first “math zombie” piece, which contributed much more to the longer term discussion than whatever I would have written in the first week. Except, alas, I couldn’t get beyond thinking about it and so didn’t write anything else that month, killing the momentum I built up from August through October.

I read a P-J example in a Myers Briggs book somewhere. The president of a hobbyist club asked for a volunteer to put out a monthly newsletter. The volunteer who responded put out a charming newsletter, filled with fascinating and useful information, a real pleasure to read—but always put out on the third, rather than the first. In frustration, the president took it over herself, and put out a brief, functional newsletter right on time. Or the test question: “Do you think a meeting is successful when everyone leaves knowing what to do, or when every issue has been thoroughly explored?”

Which is not to say that everything done to task on time is always dry and boring. Mickey Kaus quotes someone else (I forget who) saying that he writes faster than anyone who writes better, and better than anyone who writes faster.

I will put more emphasis this year into improving my essay entry procedures, to stop putting off the challenging task of structuring a piece so that I can write it. Moreover, I was once able to write more than one piece at a time, putting out something simple and descriptive (say, on curriculum) while working on a larger piece. I need to get back to that.

I’m going to try to get back up to consistently four pieces a month. Wish me luck.

Now, on the bright side:

While 2014 saw the most consistent traffic, year 3 was also a relatively unpopular year. Of those 42 pieces, only 18 of them saw over 1000 views that year. My usual benchmark is 1500, and only eight made it over that mark.

This last year was much better. A full 24 of my paltry output of 36 pieces saw traffic over 1000 views; 11 made it over 1500. The most popular essay in 2014 was 2,800 views; this year my international SAT piece saw over 6,000 hits. My college remediation piece and the one on the gaokao got over 4,000.

These numbers are nowhere near my average essay popularity of 2013, the year of my all-time popular piece on Asians, as well as my Philip K. Dick piece on IQ, both of which went over 6,000–and that was just the start. I did some good work that year, and I’m pleased that 2015 was at least in the hunt.

So even though 2014, year 3, was the high point traffic wise, my new work received much more attention this year.

Some highlights:

  • My seven essay series on unmentionable education policies, most of which topped the 1500 mark–the rest just missed. I’m most proud that I gritted my teeth and followed through, devoting the entire month of August and not giving up.
  • What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao highlights my ability to go deep and make a whole bunch of information digestible by the casual viewer–and got lots of traffic for my troubles.
  • I did carry through on my vow to write more about math, showing different aspects of my teaching and writing. Illustrating Functions is a nice pedagogy piece, while functions vs. equations sparked some tremendous discussions throughout the math community. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Jake’s Guest Lecture and The Test that made them go Hmmmm is an accurate representation of my classroom discussions. The zombie sessions with my private student capture my strength as an explainer. I also contined to build my series on multiple answer math tests, and what I can learn from the student responses.
  • I was offered a chance to write an op-ed in a major media outlet about my college remediation policy! I had to turn it down! The downside of anonymity. Although really, is it so terrible a newspaper publish an anonymous op-ed? They use anonymous sources and expect us to believe the journalists have used their judgment. (cough). So why not op eds? But still, it was great to be asked.
  • My Grant Wiggins eulogy—and may I say to Grant, wherever his spirit is, you’re sorely missed.

The pieces that didn’t get as much attention, but should have:

On a personal note, my granddaughter has a new baby brother! My next generation is expanding. And while I like to beat myself up for not writing more, I didn’t waste the time. I had a wonderful year of travel that took me to amazingly beautiful sights, multiple, happy family get-togethers necessitating time spent preparing fabulous food, and oh, yes, I taught a grand class or two. It was a fun year.

So let’s see if I’ve turned the corner on the productivity slump for 2016. Wish me luck.

Below are the pieces that had over 1500 hits.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 10/08/13 6,948
The SAT is Corrupt. No One Wants to Know. 12/31/14 6,329
Homework and grades. 02/06/12 4,491
Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation 08/01/15 4,360
What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao 01/18/15 4,325
On the Spring Valley High Incident 10/27/15 2,948
Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics 07/31/15 2,944
Evaluating the New PSAT: Math  04/16/15 2,866
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/19/12 2,717
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 09/14/12 2,699
Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools 08/02/15 2,253
I Don’t Do Homework  02/15/15 1,799
Education Policy Proposal #3: Repeal IDEA 08/07/15 1,708
Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal 05/26/13 1,629
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/17/12 1,616
Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only 08/16/15 1,582
Kicking Off Triangles: What Method is This?  11/12/12 1,572
Functions vs. Equations: f(x) is y and more 05/24/15 1,514

Strange Happenings of the Everyday

A few weeks ago, the principal’s voice broke in on the loudspeaker.

“Okay, the lockdown drill begins now. Please proceed.”

I don’t know if all teachers do this, but even without the reminder of a school shooting, I periodically go through the “what-ifs” for my particular room. This one has two doors and really doesn’t offer a good line of fire to someone standing outside the room, since I sit my kids in groups. If a school shooter ever did show up and took it into his head to use my students as sitting ducks, I’d have some reaction time.

I’d told the kids of the drill the day before (as we were supposed to). This was the small class, and the boisterous contingent interrupted my explanation some 30 times a minute until I finally made them put their heads down and just listen. But they all went into motion as we’d discussed.

Kyle got ready behind the bookcase, waiting for me to open the left door and do one last check for any outside strays. As I shut the door and hit the left light off, he pushed the bookcase in front of the door. Elliot and Ahmed pushed some desks in front of the right door and, at my direction, switched the right light switch off. Kyle, Elliot, and Ahmed sat in the back middle, between the two doors. Ali sat behind the closet on the far back left, out of range. The other ten or so students moved to the front right of the room, creating a small barricade of desks and a huge table. I went back to the front left of the room, turned off my monitor (has a 2 minute sleeping time), and ducked behind the desk.

Within 30 seconds of the call, we were all sitting on the floor in the dark. I wondered briefly if I’d locked the door, but remembered that we were required to now. Our security team had been through training and learned that school shooters don’t usually try to break down doors, but rather try doors looking for open ones. So we have to lock our doors constantly, which is a drag because I have to stand by an open door as my students enter the room each block. Some people call this “creating a welcoming environment”. I call this a waste of five minutes.

“I have to pee.” Naturally, Mohammed. Giggles. “Can I get a pass?”

“No.”

“But I really have to pee. I’ll have to go on the floor.”

“Then you’ll clean it up. And I won’t give you any paper towels.”

“What would I use?”

“Well, your pants would already be wet. You could just be a Mohammed mop, swishing around on your butt to soak up the excess.”

“Or I could take them off.”

“You take off your pants in this room I’ll throw you outside and let the shooter get you.” No, I didn’t say this. I just thought it. Dre said it.

“Whaaaaat?” This shut Mohammed down, as he likes attention but not when the class is laughing at him.

“Okay, class, who starred in Die Hard?”

“Oh, I know! Bruce Willis!” Dylan, one of the quiets, spoke up.

“Who sang Bohemian Rhapsody?”

“QUEEN!”

“What’s the ratio for the sine function?”

“Oh, that stars the Hawk guy, from The Avengers!” Elliot.

“Opposite over hypotenuse,” from Amanda, another quiet one.

“How many Hunger Games movies are there?”

“Two!”

“No, four!”

“They aren’t out yet. It’s just two!”

“The third one is coming out.”

“Yeah, but it’s part one.”

Fortunately, they don’t ask me to adjudicate, since I had no idea how many Hunger Games movies there are. I thought they’d tell me. While they debated the issue, I wondered how my colleague was doing. His huge room has no windows and a heavy door, also windowless. His next door neighbor, with an interior adjoining door, teaches the severely autistic students who can’t tolerate sitting in the dark–or indeed, any sudden change. So when the drill went off, she just brings her students into his pre-calc class. Sudden change, just not sitting in the dark. Hope it went well.

Just then, my email bell went off and the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker.

“Students and teachers, a local school is experiencing a security alert and we are now in lockdown alert mode, although we are in no immediate danger. The lockdown drill will continue. Thanks for your continued response.”

Pause.

“The hell? I thought we were in lockdown already,” from Dre.

“Does this end the drill and we can turn on the lights?”

I turned my monitor back on and read the email, which largely restated the principal’s message. No parenthetical about how we were nesting a real lockdown inside a lockdown drill. Huh. I turned the monitor off again. “Real” lockdowns are issued during local security alerts, requiring us to keep all the kids in the room with a locked door.

“What’d the email say?”

“Nothing helpful. There’s probably a security alert somewhere–a bank robbery or power line down. So we’ll just keep going.”

“That’s weird.”

“I’m sitting on a dirty floor in a pitch black room with fifteen teenagers. Weird left the building five minutes ago, shaking its head at our wacko ways.”

“You funny.”

“Would you save us if the gunman came?” from Elliot.

“Yeah. I’d try to. Whatever door he tried to come in, I’d throw desks and white boards and books at him as long as I could, distracting him best I could, and hope you guys could escape out the other door.”

“But he might see us.”

“Yeah. In that case, we’d stay in. Either he stays out, and we’re relatively safe in here, or he comes in and you all leave.”

“Or maybe we could all attack him.”

“Except Mohammed, who’d be mopping up his pee.”

“No way, I’d throw pee at the shooter. Burn his eyes.”

Principal’s voice came on again. The lockdown was over. Elapsed time: 15 minutes. We turned on the lights, put the desks and bookshelves back, and went on with class.

We passed the drill with flying colors, which is not always the case. At one school I participated in a fire evacuation procedure that made Arnold’s first attempt in Kindergarten Cop seem a paragon of efficiency, and got us a stern talking to by the district. The “real” lockdown inside the drill had been called because of an armed robbery nearby. Sorry for the confusion, they said.

I was reading The Secret Lives of Teachers, an essay at Larry Cuban’s blog (by Steve Drummond), one in a series about teachers when they’re at home and the varied lives they lead. Somewhat implied is the contrast with the sameness of our jobs at school as the kids and the public perceives them: grade papers, make copies, hang out at the luxurious faculty lounge and, occasionally, teach. But then we all go home and really live the lives that fuel our passion, or something.

I’ve always thought our work was pretty interesting. Besides, every so often we get to sit in the dark with our kids and pretend a deranged adolescent is trying to kill us.