Friday, October 31, 2014

Facing down the dragon...!

I was on the freeway driving north  for my first  BAWP presentation – the year was 1985.  Me presenting! – me absolutely scared to death!  I was scheduled for a two-hour presentation to a group of Oakland High School science teachers on using reflective writing to help kids make sense of newly learned  concepts. 

Me in my laboratory at the time with a pond water infusion
The whole sequence of events that led me to this moment just kind of evolved.  I suppose the process began for me when I was selected to attend a series of staff development programs in the local county office on “Critical Thinking”…we had release days once a month to attend and heard a variety of speakers.  This was a powerful learning experience for me!– Up until that time I, like more high school science teachers had assumed that our job was to present the facts of our subject for our students to memorize and then test them of what they had learned.  I saw students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with the knowledge that I had to impart. 

Me lecturing on comparative anatomy - this is a horse skull
In this series I learned a new paradigm – that of putting emphasis on helping students to develop a series of learning skills, in addition to learning the critical concepts and facts.  The goal was to enable students  to become life long learners in this world of rapidly expanding knowledge.    One example of what I mean can be seen in Blooms Taxonomy – a hierarchy of teaching formats that engage higher more complex thinking skills:  Take a look:

Me explaing a fine point of anatomy to a student

Within this new way of thinking– I experimented with my own classes – I tried several ways of helping kids to go beyond mechanical memorization to include more learning skills.  I was also influenced by lunchtime conversations with other teachers in my school– particularly two English teachers who introduced me to the idea of reflective writing. 

Tolman Hall - C Berkeley

Then I received an invitation to go up to Tolman Hall at UC Berkeley for an interview with Bay Area Writing. ( I think my assistant principal was involved ).  BAWP is a grassroots group with the motto “Teachers teaching teachers”.  If there is a school that wants to improve the skills of the teachers, they contract with BAWP  for an 8 or 12 part series – The host school decides what specific skills they want to promote – then the staff of BAWP selects from their group of skilled presenters to provide a once-a-week series at that school site. I took samples of my students work and met with the BAWP staff to explain what I was doing.  Apparently they found it interesting that I as a Biology teacher was experimenting in this area. (Most of their presenters teach English.) 

Non traditional writing activity: Student assignment to make a diagram with explanation to show how the addition on colors is different from the subtraction of colors.  It is not permitted to copy anything from books or internet sources.

So they signed me up for the month long summer training session.  I met with a group of about 20 other “new guys” and we talked and wrote and reflected on the art of using writing as a tool for facilitating concept learning.  It was great fun and I made good friends.

But now the 'rubber was about the meet the road' – and I was being sent out to “do it”…. You have to understand – teaching kids is one thing – but standing up to a group of crusty old experienced Bay Area science teacher peers was daunting.  By nature I was rather shy and happy to be more of an observer than in the center stage.  In short, I was terrified.  I went in well prepared with three hands-on activities. 
Free writing assignment: Write in your own words:  What environmental conditions would be most likely to support the evolution of each type of bird beak? Support your answer with examples.
For each,  I first described a process and then had the group participate. I provided time to ask questions and debrief the experience.  After arrival, I set up the show – and then as I often tell my young teachers - I attempted to take on the identity of someone who had done this 100 times – I projected positive ‘body language’ – I attempted to ‘practice what I preach’ as I connected with each participant with my best confident voice.  I was bluffing.
Using this diagram as an example explain in your own words how a virus infection is different from a bacterial infection.
The session went well – I had good response – and now I felt relief – but more than relief – I experienced a ‘presenters” high… I loved it.
Over the next several years I gave over 80 presentations to teacher groups – and every time I felt a certain positive tension before I began.  A violin does not make beautiful music unless there is a proper tension in the strings. But the satisfaction was also there afterward. 

Cut 6 cells from this diagram ands glue in sequence of cell division - then explain in your own words what events are taking place in each step of the process.

My BAWP involvement was one of the great formative experiences of my life – Overcoming a great fear and moving beyond it was life changing for me.  Now only did it reshape my approach to teaching – but I was the most fortunate one - I learned so much from my participants in each presentation. – and I learned that I not only could – but I enjoyed- speaking to groups of adults.

The Bay Area Writing Project went on to be copied in every state of America – there are similar “Teachers teaching teachers” groups exploring the use of writing in all grade levels and subject areas not only in all states, but the concept has been adapted into thee languages of several European countries… notably the Scandinavian countries, England, Germany, and also in the US Military base schools around the world.    All of this can be traced to the idea of the founder – James Gray – an English teacher at San Leandro High School.
It is gratifying to say that as I visit Bay Area schools today, when I observe my interns and student teachers, that many of the approaches we were advocating in the “early years” are now accepted as accepted widely used classroom teaching methods.
Team of 2 activity:  Given this Venn diagram of the 5 kingdoms in life - write an essay to explain the cell differences in each kingdom.  You can use your textbook as a reference, but all explanations must be in your own words.

This last Saturday was a reunion meeting of the old BAWPers at Tolman hall.  I love a good reunion – lots of hugs and stories… plus good food.  Many of my old friends are now retired from their teaching careers - but many continue to be involved in some aspect of education.  
Student lies on 'butcher paper to trace outline - team of 4 draw in and label bones ( using text as reference).
Each student must explain in his or her own words the sequence of events involved in the transfer of force by a heavy weight held in the arms of a standing person to the feet.

Here is BAWP today:  Here you will see two dates for free Saturday workshops next semester – When you attend , you will find a "smorgasbord" of available workshops to choose between.  Just show up,  and you can experience in one morning two  examples of teacher workshops: “Teachers teaching teachers”.  The presenters will share with you hands on learning opportunities that fit your interests...You will also catch their passion and enthusiasm.

Highly recommended "don't miss" link of the week:

Friday, October 24, 2014

"You believe that!?"

When I was a kid I knew who I was – I was a Presbyterian (and not Catholic).  I was  Czech (and not Irish).  I was male (and not female).  I was a Republican (and not Democrat).  My identity was what I inherited from my family and from my community.  Each one of these beliefs was like a fence by which I delineated who I was, and who I  wasn't…

Your beliefs can be like fences that surround you. You must first recognize the existence of such barriers - you must see them or you will not even realize that you are not free, simply because you will not see beyond the fences. They will represent the boundaries of your experience. Jane Roberts Seth

In the whole limitless range of what might potentially be possible; my family, my culture, and my time in history defined my identity... what I was to believe and what I didn't.  Thinking about this made me wonder about the beliefs that we all form, and how they influence how we live our lives.

My beliefs have changed since childhood – Now I see myself as liberal in my religious beliefs  and I have also become more respectful of other belief systems than my early childhood led me to accept.  The national origin of my family ancestors is somewhat interesting to me– but not a major part of how I see myself today.  

Arrival of immigrant people in America- my Zlatnik ancestors
I have come to find all human cultures to be interesting.  The beliefs and practices of us humans is generally  an outcome of our  environment and seeking ways to comfortably adapt to it.  I enjoy my life as a male – but I have grown to appreciate the challenges of women seeking equality and justice in this world often dominated by men.  Politically I have come to believe strongly in the principles of social and economic fairness for all – not just programs that benefit the rich and powerful.  I have moved my fences… and in some cases replaced high stonewalls for  flexible fences, free to be adjusted as I experience more of life.
Another way of being human

How do beliefs develop? How does one kid decide that he want to be a ‘macho’ tough guy and another boy makes the decision to become a doctor, while another wants to make beautiful music? ( 0f course one's idea of what is 'beautiful' varies a lot by culture)

The culture that we experience as a child shapes us. But that is just our starting point…Most people continue to change all their life long.  Our friends have a major effect on the identity we develop.  A kid growing up in a touch guy culture finds it easiest to ‘bulk up’ his body to appear tough, adopt the language of other tough guys, and to do what it takes to project that image – woe to the kid who strays from that behavior pattern… Another kid living in a different society may respond to new ideas and new experiences.  We all are influenced by key individuals or key experiences and will say – “Oh yeah – I want to be like that…” My Mother’s mysterious box of mementos from her years in China set in me a desire to travel and see far away places.

Ah Wilderness! (North Peak)
My Uncle John exposing me to the joys of adventuring in the high Sierra introduced me to a lifelong love of wilderness and wild creatures.  A college class in cultural anthropology opened my mind to approaching all human cultures with an open mind.    My encounter with the books of Marcus Borg allowed me to see my religious beliefs in a deeper more progressive way. .

As I have lived I have seen inequality and greed around me, the injustice of poverty, and have grown to support politicians who work for justice and fairness for all in our society.

What is this tendency of humans to disparage people with whom we don't share a belief pattern…?  Look at the inability for individuals to communicate between different political parties, between progressive and conservative Christians, between advocate for guns and those that despise them…

Why do many feel threated when they encounter Muslims, people with a different sexual orientation, even those that disagree about American cars v. Toyotas, kids that wear their pants to low, or advocate for Macs v. PCs?  We become invested in the fences that we build.  I’m sure that I wont change someone’s mind by arguing with him or her but I am still temped to. I have a friend that loves to argue about whether climate change is related to fossil fuel use or not.  I have another friend that I can not convince about the validity of evolution… and another with whom I disagree  that parts of the Bible can be true wisdom even if they didn't actually happen as written, but reflect the culture and beliefs of that time. 

Shock at another's beliefs

I can accept that each human alive developed under the influence of a particular micro- culture, formative experiences, and that each of us struggles to make sense of our world as we form a belief pattern that works for us.  There is security in knowing who we are and what we believe... its unsettling to be challenged. I am unique as are you… I can’t convince you that my belief pattern is just right for you… and you cant convince me.  My wish for you and me is that we can at least be open to hearing each other and perhaps adjust our fences if we hear something that seems reasonable. It’s hard to do that if I am thinking of my next response instead of really listening to what you are saying.

Friday, October 17, 2014

My grand escape!

After two weeks of increasing  ‘cabin fever’ I have once more taken flight… fluttering a bit rather than swooping and diving… I must travel on my kneeling scooter for another 3 weeks… but at least I have the surgeon’s permission to travel.  I have mastered the simple task of climbing over a curb, climbing a single step (but not a flight of stairs), and the art of putting my scooter in the trunk and hobbling around with a crutch and climbing into the driver’s seat. 
You should see me zip!
Of course I can only use an automatic transmission car – Judy somewhat grudgingly traded cars with me for the duration.  (Bless her!)  Throughout all of this Judy has been incredibly patient and supportive of me – She had to do pretty much everything for me and still keep up with her demanding activities – she is a SuperWoman!
My view from 'here'
I visited my first school on Tuesday this week – and as I approached I saw an intimidating flight of stairs – and no apparent ramp – so I asked the first person I saw to inquire in the office for me – “ How can I get into the school?’  Never before in my life have issues of handicapped access been so real to me.  Even two steps in sequence form a barrier as real as a high brick wall…  In this case a custodian came to use a key to open a ‘hidden’ elevator to take me where I wanted to go – then down a hall to - whoops another flight of stairs down – so back down the hall – a different round-about way to a ramp… Then I was home free…
 I know how he feels
But the time I got to my classroom I was a bit late – and the students were all seated.  The only way for me to get to an empty seat was to parade across the front of the room.   The reaction of the kids (an 8th grade life science class) was – “Wow – that scooter is so cool!”  In the schools I have visited this week I have found friendly helpful people anxious to help me.
My conclusions from lying on the coach every day for 2 weeks: I very quickly (immediately) lost interest in daytime TV – it is a vast wasteland of innocuous drivel as far as I am concerned.  I am not much for TV anyway – but often watch something with Judy in the evening. Sitting up at the computer has been difficult because I was instructed to keep my ankle higher than my heart to assign in draining fluid from the ankle.  Every now and then Rusty the pup would leap onto my mid section to snuggle close and ask for some pets and then start licking my ear … at that I would shoo him away.  
White crowned sparrow
From my perch I could see out the window to the bird feeder which had a steady parade of finches, white crowned sparrows, mourning doves, brown towhees Also a steady steam of combative competitive humming birds coming to their feeder.  Since moving to low water landscaping (rather than a lawn) we have a much richer diversity of birds and lizards in the garden.
A tropical cousin of our humming birds

         Books were my salvation - I am an eclectic reader… First “Peter the Great: His Life and World” Robert Massie – can a book of history read like a novel and keep my interest? Yes!!  

Then I read “Blood on the Water” Anne Perry…One of her delightful ‘mystery’ novels placed in Victorian England – rich with historical detail.  For variety I next  reread “Grapes of Wrath” John Steinbeck.  
Sometime recently I heard on PBS that is now considered to be the “great American novel”.

I had not read it since my early 20’s – and I guess now I can see it from a lot more experience.  It is a remarkable book – sections of it read like poetry – The story is about the “Oakie” migration to California in the dust bowl years – a hard story – but one that raises many current social issues – highly recommended. 

Then the “Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk” – a new translation from the Czech of an old friend! It's a little more graphic than the earlier version I had read. 

Svejk as portrayed by Joseph Lada
Then the “Edge of Eternity:  Book 3 of the Century Trilogy

Ken Follett… Wowie – a historical fiction version of the recent history in the US, Germany, England, and Russia… Absolutely fantastic! And finally “Convictions:  How I Learned What Matters Most” Marcus Borg…This book is a statement by Borg on his life long journal to understanding his understanding of the world of faith.  Regardless of your belief system this book is like a breath of fresh air.

So there you have it.   Have you ever gone into someone home and by glancing at their bookshelf gotten a better profile of who that person is and what they believe… well I have just given you a peek at my most recent bookshelf.

This is just awful! - but I found it and so I'll include it

Friday, October 10, 2014


"You dis-in' me?"

Suppose your family is poor, you live in a small substandard inner city apartment with several brothers and sisters, you belong to an ethnic or racial group that is not highly valued in America, school doesn't provide much hope because you feel that you don't understand the relevance of what you are expected to learn.  

When nothing makes sense you question what you are told by the authorities
Home sweet home ... to many
Your major support group is a group of your friends ‘on the street’.  This is a fair description of many young people in America today. 
If you are one of these kids the thing that you long for most is some real human affirmation – some message from somewhere that you have worth – that you are a worthy human being.  In the language of the street this person wants “respect”. 

Suppose your kids found folks like this just ourside your front door

But how do you get respect?  Given your history and your present expectations – respect for many is gained by being stronger, bigger, meaner, ‘badder’, more aggressive, ‘street smarter’, willing to take the biggest risks, richer by whatever means (legality doesn't matter).

Inner-city environment
And the worst thing for this kid is to be “dised” (disrespected) … anything that diminishes his or her sense of value or worth…   He or she is disrespected by an insult (“Your mama is …”), making you look like trash in front of ‘your group’, the teacher humiliating you in the classroom, a shopkeeper who treats you with contempt, and a policeman who challenges you for no good reason…
Be watchful for disrespect - then respond promptly
After years of living with ‘this stuff’ many people become bitter and hyper-sensitive to being disrespected – it becomes like a hair trigger… If someone in the next car looks at you with ‘the look” of “I’m better than you” this is seen as a serious “dis”.  Add weapons to this mix and it sets up a deadly formula for disaster. Strong police response does not promote respect - it causes the rage to grow more intense.

Graffiti depicting a dead person
One of the curious things is that kids within a group, who all feel this way toward the world often playfully, challenge each other with the kind of insults that they all find so painful.  It's a kind of response that relieves their tension and also in a way inoculates them to keep going.  When a trusted friend tells the kid that “ Your mama is so fat that…” kind of joke – the response is a bigger worse insult … What they are really doing is to recognize that this is part of the world that they both share, and they are there to support each other. It’s cynical but healing. (usually) It can also go beyond playful to hurtful, anger, and violent confrontation… In the language of the street this is called “playing the dozens”.

Adapting to inner city life; " Concrete Roses"
But what about white middle class Americans – how do we deal with respect and disrespect?  We have out antennas up and out for responses from others, we know what it feels like when we hear from others that what we have done is acceptable to our peers.  Facebook is full of people seeking a positive affirmation from others in our “hive of humanity”.  I seek respect in different ways than the kid in the street – I seek to be smarter, more creative, and effective at contributing to my society, funny, supportive, more adventurious … I have found that these things are valued among people that make up my world.  If I lived in Romania or Swaziland what is valued would be different. 
Common attitude of many who life close to the street
What kinds of things cause me to feel disrespected?  When I attempt something and I fail, it makes me feel like I have “egg on my face”… I want to ‘kick myself” when I get unjustly angry with someone and say things I regret.  When I try to communicate with someone with whom I cannot connect – when we have irreconcilable differences – I know that I have no respect in that persons eyes. 

It  feels good to know that you share respect with a person
My response to the feeling of disrespect is different than the response of the kid on the street.  I have more resources and I have more sense that it is a possibility that I can get things back on an ‘even keel’...I know that my culture generally finds people like me worthy.  I have experienced that I can learn from my errors and try again to create a situation that leads to a better solution.

Where respect begins
I can realize when I was wrong and try to reconnect with the person I wronged.  I can do this because I have learned that it works.  I can accept that I can’t solve all differences and that life still goes on.  I may even contact the person with whom I disagree and ‘agree that we can disagree and still be friends'.  I realize that I can take responsibility in a bad situation and think outside of the box, insisting on "my way" or seeking revenge to satisfy my ego.

Wisdom of Cesar Chavez
These are learned skills  - I don't know where I learned them, but when I am in an painful situation, I know that the only way out is to approach it in a different way –  setting aside my selfish desires.
Do I actually do this? – sometimes – Do I sometimes wallow in my own sense of hurt and wish for revenge?… there are times…
But perhaps this is part of the universal human condition… we do the best we can with the skills and expectations we have.