Friday, September 19, 2014

"It's all in the family"

There is a special bond between blood relatives… Be it the sharing of DNA, of shared history, or faces that look alike .  Families inherit certain ways of talking, behaviors and mannerisms. Learned prejudices, animosities, and expectations can ripple through many generations.  ( Its curious to think that some of my own ways of thinking and doing things have probably passed down from earlier generations long ago…) I know of families that dearly love each other and I know families so torn with conflict that Thanksgiving dinner is a conflict zone. I know of husband and wife families that have been together 60 years, and complicated families with complicated merged families. But when its all said and done the family connection remains.

The universal family

Sunday family dinners were a frequent part of my early childhood  - either with the family of my fathers brother or the family of my mothers sister, often including other non relatives.  I remember these gatherings with pleasure – family stories told and enjoyed, talk of current politics and world events, laughter and sharing of good times. There was cousins to play with, usually a special meal and good dessert… Sometimes in the late afternoon we might make ice cream together or gather around the piano to sing together – especially with my Mothers sister and husband…  
Make a family tree!
There were aunts and uncles from far away who would come to stay for a few days – with the touch of the exotic about them – they might be from Nebraska, Idaho, or far off California.  That was special.  Both my father and mother came from large families which led to a lot of relatives to keep track of.  Letters from far away were read to the whole family and discussed.

Today I feel blessed with close connected with my wife.  my two sons, and my sister... thank goodness for electronic communication with those who live at some distance.

Over my life, with moving and deaths, other  family relation groups have ebbed and flowed. At times, it was easier to meet regularily with some individuals – and more distant once less often.  In some cases there has been no real break in communication – but certain people drift away and after a while it is difficult to know how to reconnect. People change – different beliefs, political parties, social identify… and then it can become a challenge to know now to begin again.

At the present moment my closest extended family isn’t even blood related.  My wife’s extended family  lives mostly on the west coast– but we see each other often.  They may not be genetic kin, but I like them and but they like me  – we are most certainly family.  The people in my church community – people of all ages – form a shared relationship group that has much in common with a blood family.  We care for each other and support each other in times of joy and difficulty.  We share a close relationship that has grown over the years.

Extended family

Still I miss the special bond of the large extended blood relatives that used to gather Sunday afternoons in my youth.  There is something quite remarkable about those who are kin – who know the same people and places, who know the same family stories, family history, family photos.
Phone calls and e mail are a boon to maintaining connection. Facebook is great too.  I greatly enjoy my frequent phone chats with my first cousin who lives near the family farm in Kansas.

My country grade school
He is my only living connection with the people and land where I grew up – I love being reminded of the people that made up my life as a child.  We can both remember his mother's fried chicken and gravy, the story of Uncle John using dynamite to get past cap rock when digging a well, the storm that blew over the big cottonwood tree, picking mulberries from their big tree... and so much more.

Uncle Joes farm - storage buildings where I played as a child, when we visited
Country Post office where my father had a rural delivery route
This last year, thanks to the internet.  I made connection with two distant relatives – in both cases – their grandmother and my Zlatnik grandmother were sisters…. ( I could compute how much DNA we have in common but it would make my head spin to do so…).  I think we are second cousins of some sort… One woman lives in the Czech Republic, the other lives on the East Coast of the US – and they did not know of each other.  Its funny when I made the connection I felt an immediate connection with these two women – because . after all. “they were family”.

Like my family tree

In the texture of my life – I value my family connections.  Whether we agree on every issue or not there is a relationship that matters.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

"Its scary and wonderful to start something new."

Entrance into Mills - springtime!
The new academic year began a few days ago.  I work with two programs that train college grads to become effective teachers.  This week I will talk about Mills College in Oakland.  (The undergraduate programs at Mills are for women only, but the graduate schools are coed.)

Mills bell tower announces every quarter hour, half hour, and hours
I connected with the Mills department of education while I was teaching - I had Mills student-teachers placed in my classroom many times and I found that I was much in agreement with the Mills philosophy.  When I retired it was natural to take on a different role - that of a visiting field supervisor regularly going into the classrooms of my supervises, affirming the good methods I saw, and offering suggestions when needed.  I also participate in weekly seminars.

Mills hall
Each year a 'cohort' of college graduates travel together through the year long program - taking courses, meeting for weekly seminars to share their successes and ' rough edges'.  By the end of the year the group is united  together into a firm supportive community - joined by the challenges they have overcome together and ready to 'move out into the world'.  The program, MCMS (mid career math and science ),  is focused primarily on training teachers to be effective inner city schools teachers.

Mills education buiding
Many of our trainees have worked in a different profession for a number of years and are returning to receive trained in the career of high school science or mathematics teacher.  We have had several lab technicians who discovered that they hated being stuck in a cubical lab all day - they craved interacting with people... We have professional people who feel that their previous work doesn't have the social impact that they are seeking, some come after years of training in one profession to find that they really dont like what they are now trained to do, some come from  the military... seeking a different sort of career.  The different backgrounds of the participants add to the richness of our programs.   I feel that I am among old friends was I work with the Mills community.

Classroom Daily focus - Notice that learning target is written in the person  of the student
 Many MCMS candidates go on to work in the inner city schools of Oakland.  In many large districts, inner city schools attract the least support, have the most extreme turn over rate of faculty, draws students deeply affected by poverty, injustice, and social instability.  Inner cities also draw the most newly arrived immigrants.  The Oakland school system is generally attempting to create positive schools that address the needs of students.  The Mills program seeks to prepare teachers for making the best use of their time and resources to work effectively in classrooms and create positive learning communities for all the kids.  We want our folks to be change makers but not burn out by trying to do the impossible.

Motivation poster on the wall of a classroom

 At Mills I have heard  the mantra – "good teaching is a political act" . Good teaching prepares students to go beyond rote memorization to become effective critical thinkers, prepares them to understand fairness and respect for themselves and others.  

8th grade end of period summation activity in Chemistry - a lot of fun!
We hear a lot about equity at Mills – The goal is to build awareness to meet the goal of  equal opportunities for everyone in the classroom:  women and men, for people of all cultures and races.   Mills seeks to change the fact that historically many classrooms in America have been male oriented. 
Kids of European ancestry have often had an advantage over black, latino, and asian kids. Being aware of equity imbalances is the first step.  Students with special needs need to be supported in accomplishing all that they are capable of doing.  When teachers have respect for their students (sometimes its challenging), students have respect for the teacher. 

Warm up activity - posted on the overhead  when students enter the room - they are to immediately take our paper and begin thinking of their  answer - later there will be group discussion before getting into the work of the day
Simple fact learning or even concept learning still has its place in schools – but today more than ever we have to realize that information is developing so rapidly, new research in leading to new ideas and new approaches … so in addition to learning the basics we recognize how important it is for young people to learn how to deal with new information. To learn how to be an effective self learner… where to access new information and how to assimilate it into our working knowledge.

A class discussion of how magnetic forces and electrical forces are alike and different, and what they have in common
Ideas are belong drawn from the class
At Mills we often  hear “There are lots of ways to be smart”.  True – the traditional “smart” that most of us know about is  based on memorizing processes and facts and then demonstration that we can recall that information back to mind (at least long enough to complete the examination).  Howard Gardner of Harvard has identified seven distinct intelligences. According to this theory, some people are extremely capable in ways that are not usually recognized as intelligence.  What a difference to teaching and to the lives of students to recognize the contributions that kids with differing skills can bring to the classroom.  To read more go to:

Sign on the back gate posts at Mills
Taking responsibility for teaching an actual class is good - working with an experienced master teacher is good, learning the theory of modern education that changes your way of seeing the classroom is good,  having a field supervisor that gives useful feedback is good. being supported by your cohort can be life saving! 

The student teachers undergo a year of intense hard work - along the way they receive a lot of support... but come to crunch they are the ones that grow the most in this process...

Saturday, September 6, 2014


We humans are so adaptable! – yesterday I talked with an ex student of mine in Niles (the part of Fremont where we live) ) who is Vietnamese.  Afterwards,  I marveled over how it is most likely that his grandparents probably came to America at the end of the Vietnamese war – perhaps even as ‘boat people’ refuges – and now he is an electrical engineer,  a graduate of a major California University working in product design– confident, perfect English skills, creative in his job. Quite amazing! He carries his grandparents genes but he has become himself.

San Francisco Chinatown - First American home to many
Then I thought of my own history – my grandparents came from a Czech enclave in what is today the Ukraine… farmers who still used a horse drawn plow, harvested their grain with a sickle. And in two generations I have a career teaching modern Biological concepts,  and now, work training new science and math teachers.  I drive a nice car, have travelled extensively, and am comfortable navigating the internet.  I carry my grandparents genes but I have developed into someone with a very different identity.

Farming in my grandparents day
There are many places in the world where the life and experience of a person is in fact much like the life and experience of their grandparents.  Often the son and grandson practiced the same craft or work learned from the parent.  It is still common in many parts of the world to see farmers today plowing with oxen, with a heavy wooden plow,  as has been practiced for generations. The crafts of woodworking, metal smith, potters, jewelry makers are traditionally passed on. 

A traditional culture of Masai in Tanzania - now facing change...
I like the German word 'zeitgeist'- ‘the spirit of the time‘.  The word refers to the pattern of thought   typical of the culture during a particular period of time.  Think how our way of seeing the world and human relationships is different now and during the time of Victorian England.  I suppose that there is a different 'spirit of the time' in every cultural location on earth.  If you live in the rainforest of Ecuador, with no contact with the outside world, the zeitgeist is constant over many generations – but if you live in Silicon Valley it changes yearly or even more frequently . 

A Zapotec village in Mexico where the zeitgeist has changed little
This makes me ponder that we don't inherit who we are – but it is learned from our environment or choosen.  I was born and raised in Northeastern Kansas and from my teen years lived in California.  If I had continued my development within the cultural context of Kansas I would be a different person today than the person who grew up influenced by the cultural context of California.  One is not better or worse - only different.  Strange to think who I might have been with different influences.

My hometown in Delia - our family farm was just down the road and through the woods
Our identity, who we are, is largely influenced  by our social and cultural surroundings.  It’s amazing and a little scary to think how malleably the person we are is formed…and continues to change as we adapt to new ideas in our environment

My science training changed my world view
So – is there a core ‘person’ who doesn’t change…?  Most people carry a memory of who they were growing up. For some, change from an unproductive childhood, brings freedom and a new life – there is no desire to turn back.  For others an epiphany gives a new direction and new vision for a richer life. Even those who grow up in a rich happy childhood often change appreciably due to the influences that unfold in their lives.  So I am left to believe that who I am today is partly due to my changing zeitgeist and partly due to chioices that I make. 
Mills College, Oakland - What I have learned here working with new teachers has changed me!

I am currently reading a book on Peter the Great - which I highly recommend!  It is a wonderful book! Among other things it tells about how one autocrat changed the entire culture of Russia in 1700 from a medieval mindset into a more European viewpoint.  The people resisted but he insisted.  Through history there have been others. Kemel Attiturk in Turkey did the same.  Look at the cultural revolution in China for another example. Currently in the Arab Middle East we are viewing a confusion over identify - between returning to traditional cultural roots or moving forward...stay tuned to see how it turns out...

Pre revolution China - China is now one of the leading producers of goods for the world

In our country we have a somewhat similar national conversation at the moment - between accepting and utilizing the knowledge of science, psychology, and sociology ... and  moving on  ...  or attempting  to hold on to the world view of the past.  The past is known and comfortable to many - while adapting to the  new unknown...  involves risk, change, and new world views.  One leads to life the other leads to stagnation.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Help! I'm caught!

At breakfast, my wife Judy asked what I thought about selling some of our stored “stuff” – stored away in closets and garage – at the great Niles Flea Market this Sunday (August 31)

Main street - Niles Flea market!
My first reaction was.  “Well, some of the things we bought in exotic foreign markets are nice to bring out once in a while and be reminded of where we bought it.”  Judy responded that “anything we haven’t looked at in three years could be sold and we wouldn't miss it.”  Hard to argue with that logic.
I think in this world there are “keepers” and “givers”.  I suspect we all have some measure of both tendencies. I grew up in a small Midwestern town where many attitudes were formed during  the depression … My family and neighbors lived by the rule that “you never know when that will come in handy”. So they kept wrapping paper, and string, nuts and bolts, tools and furniture that needed to be repaired, old clothes, books that had been read and been sitting on the shelf for years unread, old copies of National Geographic,  and empty coffee tins… "You never know how you could use that...." So I was raised with these tendencies and have had to combat them all my life. 

Internet photo - not our garage (yet)
In the case of the flea market, I agree that if the unused items can be turned into cash to benefit a good cause that makes sense.  Still, I will probabily hold on to things that evoke a special memory.  When I  take our a wooden figure carved in an African village it brings back a flood of mental pictures… also I love to hold a small pottery incense burner from Oaxaca made in the style of the early Aztec people.  I like to run my hands over the intricate design in a bronze bowl made by a Turkish village craftsman.  None of these items have great monetary worth – but they have the ability to bring back images of past adventures.  I can part with stuff with no special emotional tie – but some things I would miss.
Craftsman in Oaxaca making Alebrijes:
There is a story told in many variations in different countries of the world that deal with this issue:  The story is “How to Catch a Monkey’
“A hunter takes a jar with an opening slightly larger than a monkey’s hand. He ties a rope around the neck of it, which is a cradle of the rope around the jar.  The hunter places a nut or other favorite monkey food in the jar.

My trapped inner moneky
The monkey reaches his hand into the jar, grabs the food, making a fist with his paw. Now, the monkey’s dilemma:  the monkey cannot get his hand out of the jar unless he drops the food. The neck of the jar is simply not wide enough. Of course, the monkey could drop the food and easily get his hand out, but it won’t. Despite having at his command the means to escape, it does not — it holds his hand grasping the food until a hunter throws a net over it, capturing it.”
This guy is in conflict

I can so relate with that monkey – not only holding onto material things but holding on to thoughts, ideas, and values that no longer serve a purpose.  Is all seems so valuable and necessary that I can't turn loose of them – but if I could, when I do… my mind is freed of having to maintain and protect that thing or that idea.  

In the Buddhist version of the story it is told that "to be free in our mind all we have to do is let go…”  We all have experienced this at times in our lives – but it is hard for me to do. 
Yesterday's junk - I like that
Another example of the same message is in the Bible 
“A rich young ruler asked Jesus, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus answered, ‘Sell everything you have and give the profits to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow my way of life.’ But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. “

I often choose the hard way, when the easy way is 'letting go'
I have had a hard time dealing with this reading.  I don't see many practicing Christians giving away everything they have, and I don't think that needs to be the message of the reading – I think that we are called to free ourselves by letting go of our superfluous posessions and connections... and to do a better job of  'seeing' and responding to the needs of those around us.  By freeing my tight grip of control I can free my mind too.

As the twig is bent so grows the tree...

In our travels in third world  countries,  we have been surprised by the hospitality from poor people who freely share what little they have, possessions, food, water, hospitality… It seems that 'rich' people are often so concerned about acquiring more or preserving what they have that for many it's become quite easy to now see the needs of people in our midst.  I must add that I can think of powerful exceptions to this statement - some wealthy people have preserved and practice great outreach to the poor.  

Maybe I had better take another look at what I can part with and sell in the flea market...