Monday, April 29, 2013

Faculty Meetings

I’ve been reading two books lately, Brain Rules – 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, by John Medina and inGenius - A Crash Course On Creativity by Tina Seeling.  I recommend them both.  Oddly enough, they’ve gotten me thinking about faculty meetings. Not, lest you jump to conclusions, as hotspots of creativity.  As a veteran teacher, I’ve sat through more of them than I care to count.  Mostly at one school, but not entirely. A few thoughts come to mind.  The first is that faculty meetings seem to be structured and run the way many classrooms are. The organization and the presentation are about as original as what goes on hour after hour, day after day, in many, many schools.  The “sage on the stage” is the principal, division head, or whatever other titled person is leading the event.  The faculty is arranged in orderly rows.  The leader is the adult/teacher, the faculty is the youth/students.  Everyone slides neatly into his or her role.  The faculty is talked at, given all the “vital” information, anecdotes, and instruction they require. In short (or long), a lecture. Question and answer, or “discussion” follows, linearly, hands rising for recognition like needy fifth graders. Everyone plays their role:  class clowns clown, good students ask for a review of the facts, head nodders nod, people with off the wall ideas get looks of scorn, emoters emote, note takes take notes, note passers pass notes, the devil’s advocates advocate, the peacemakers pacify, some whisperers pretend engagement, the tired strain to stay awake or nod off, poor listeners ask questions that have already been asked, and everyone sighs deeply when the long-winded drone on.  Eyes are on the clock. For years I have been at a loss for words as to how so many smart people can convene at a meeting and collectively become so dumb.  Little, if anything is changed, except by administrative fiat. Herewith, a stab at wrestling with this conundrum, inspired afresh by Medina and Seeling. I claim no particular originality.  These thoughts have to have occurred to many of my colleagues sitting in a meeting at one time or another – when they were supposed to be paying attention!

Medina’s first chapter is titled “Exercise”.  What if people were encouraged to move around a bit, before, during or after meetings?  Watch the leaders at the front of the room.  They get to stand, roam, gesture, and move about as they see fit to help deliver their message.  The people who need the oxygen to help stimulate their attention and thinking, are asked, even required, to sit still.  As noted above, faculty meetings are much like classrooms. How much time do faculty get, or are encouraged to take to exercise during a meeting?  During the day?  Assuming, of course, they are permitted to leave the building. What if a meeting began with five minutes of dancing?  Simple yoga?  A chance to just stretch and breathe?   

Medina rightly points out we don’t pay attention to boring things.  “Before the first quarter-hour is over in a typical presentation, people usually have checked out.”  I can’t remember how many years ago I checked out on topics like dress code, gum chewing, attendance taking. Vital pedagogical issues, to be sure, but too much information on these or any issue leads a brain straight to the check out counter.
I’m NO fan of PowerPoint presentations, especially those that are simply cue cards for a speaker.   That said, a few pictures might save time and get a message across.  Got a dress code? A few pictures of violators might illustrate the point quickly.  A couple of shots of gum under desks, squashed into rugs, tacked on a wall, might be a more forceful reminder to address that issue. It could even become a community response by asking students to generate a dozen or so gross shots of “gum pollution” to share with faculty.  A public service project for a photography class perhaps. Use music, use food, use a prize – some hook to help presenters to make their point (if they must) short and to the point, and then move on. In a not so subtle way I’m encouraging leaders here to consider TEACHING, not as a task their underlings do, but as something they can do to model for those they collaborate (?) with. Including recognizing that we learn with more than just our ears and putting that knowledge into practice.
When do faculty meetings occur?  At the end of the school day when Medina describes what he calls “the nap zone”? Not just a cute name, but a time identified by sleep research.  Medina couldn’t be more explicit when he says, “If you are a public speaker, you already know it is darn near fatal to give a talk in the midafternoon.”  Or perhaps your school schedules meetings before the regular school day, bringing grumpy, underslept faculty to the gathering, before they head off to encounter grumpy, underslept adolescents.  Sleep, healthy sleep, especially for adolescents, is an issue worth discussing at...a faculty meeting? Now there’s a dilemma worth tackling.  When do you schedule the sleep issue meeting?

It’s also worth asking how stress intersects with faculty lives.  Medina suggests that individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over a problem – you are helpless. I refer back to my point at the beginning.  Classrooms and faculty meetings can be indistinguishable.  Especially in the current testing environment where teachers and students are being asked, no forced, to teach, learn, and regurgitate on terms dictated by others, up to and including our president.  It’s worth questioning whether a meeting will add or reduce the stress in any teacher’s life. Or any student’s life?  How can a meeting add to rather than reduce a teacher’s sense of professionalism?

I fell asleep recently (in my own bed, not at a faculty meeting) musing on a suggestion of Tina Seelig’s, “ask questions that start with ‘why’”.  Children do this all the time.  How many times did my children ask me, “Why?”  Why is this meeting necessary?  Why is it necessary to present information in this way?  Why now?  Why will this meeting make school life better?  The point of asking why, of “reframing” as Seelig calls it is because, “’why’ questions provide an incredibly useful tool for expanding the landscape of solutions for a problem.  Of course, this presumes that the point of a meeting is indeed to engage a faculty in solving problems, finding solutions, creating new ideas.  Just like they do in their classrooms. Or not.               

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Sprout To Gardener

I was lucky enough to stumble upon A Crash Course on Creativity taught by Tina Seeling at Stanford University.  I've read and seen some of her work before, but a fortuitous glance at Twitter told me about the course and I enrolled.  Lucky me.  First assignment for me and my 17,000 or so classmates: "...create and share the cover of your autobiography, including the image, title, subtitle, and a 200 word bio." I set about it like an anxious schoolboy.  Had to get some help with design on the computer from the very talented Thomas Holton.  I knew what I wanted but not how to execute it.  Then I got to witness yet again what working with a real professional is like working with a dexterity I can only dream of.  

Here is what I wrote, my 200 words:  In the most basic way, I make my living as a storyteller.  I delight in being told, dreaming about, reshaping and retelling the tales that make our culture; tales that outlive their tellers.  I spend much of my time with theater students learning to decode, compose, illuminate and narrate these tales.  My great good fortune is in getting to play alongside those I teach.   I’ve repeated the exercise of putting together a play many, many times.  In many places.  It never ceases to delight me. 

I am happiest in the rehearsal hall and in my upstate New York garden.  Both allow me the chance to meditate, to dream, to ponder, to contemplate life, to form it into a more satisfactory vision.  My life has not gone by without ample opportunity to ponder.  Life has posed challenges to health and happiness, to the head and to the heart.  The theater and the garden are sanctuaries where I repair to take up against the world.

A high school history teacher taught me the price the gods demand at the Gates of Excellence is sweat.  The garden, the rehearsal room and the classroom are where I pay my dues.
And here is the cover of my autobiography:


Pax William

When our son, William, died in early December 2012, my good friend, Barry Walsh, spoke at William’s memorial service.  Here’s part of what he said:
“ You know those Googlemap videos when the shot starts with the entire planet and zooms into a town, a street, a specific house? Imagine it in reverse, with it going from William to humans in New York, to the entire state, to the country, and then expanded to the entire globe.
“And beyond that to those in this generation, and then to those over the past thousand years, and even on to our entire 200,000 years as humans on the earth.
“In the big picture - the lifespan of all those humans: some are stillborn, some live to age 5 or 24 or 75 or 113. In the big picture those ages aren’t so different. 5, 24, 75, 113. Some burn on and on until the lightning flash of the verb to be is extinguished after 100 or so. And some die at the mere age of 24. Some are stable stars in the pantheon; others are shooting stars that burn bright and flame out early.
“Burn on, William. Many will carry your torch. Many will strive to challenge addiction in all its pathetic, sad, furious, twisted, noble, fierce yearnings. Some good will come of this; it will be found and seized and planted.
“Good bye as your father calls you, “beautiful boy.”

Pax William, I mean it.”


This short video, Powers of Ten, is an example of what Barry talked about.  I encountered it while taking Tina Seelig’s Crash Course in Creativity.  Somehow the video and the course give me hope about William's continuing to “burn on”. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Business as Usual

Found this article on The Bowdoin Daily Sun.

How Industry Influences The American Classroom

The absence of a centralized or national curriculum, such as those used in the U.K., France and Germany, leaves the U.S. education system open to the influence of business leaders and philanthropists (witness Bill and Melinda Gates). Smithsonian magazine takes a closer look at how what’s taught in the classroom has always been informed by American industry in its special report, “The Business of American Business is Education.”

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Cheers and Bombs

Monday, April 15th, my tax extension safely in the mail, I accepted my friend Mark Shanahan’s invitation to meet for a beer and discuss life as we sometimes do. We joined up a little after 9:30 at the Broadway Dive, a familiar and convenient haunt for us on the Upper West Side, the kind of place “where everybody knows your name.”  Most nights multiple silent television screens at the Dive carry sports action from near and far.  And indeed, games were still on view, including a continuous loop of the Masters playoff from the day before.  Mark and I concurred on the artistry and sportsmanship of Angel Cabrera, then talked about what was happening in our own lives, all the while following another continuous loop:  a bomb exploding on Boylston Street in Boston, a fallen runner with people hastening to his aid, first responders rushing in to pull away flags and barriers, a young couple fleeing the scene with the man pausing to reach down and pick up an object, victims being wheeled off on gurneys and in wheelchairs, police directing traffic and stringing tape to cordon off the bomb site, followed by a silent newscaster at safe remove elsewhere in Back Bay. Then back to the top, the explosion, television marking time with what little was known in the hope more details were soon to come. 
Years ago, when I first graduated from college, I drove a cab in Boston.  Had I told Mark about that?  “Thousands of times”, he reassured me.  Then, as another shot of a reporter on a quiet street came up, Mark hastened to say that he had lived for a while just down the street from where the reporter stood.  Mark’s an actor and he’d worked in Boston with the Huntington Theatre Company. His housing was just off camera, nearby.   
Our discussion rambled through Boston memories, work, the 2013 Yankees and a 1981 Mets retrospective airing on a screen next to the disaster, until Mark pointed out a patron sitting at the very end of the bar in the Dive.  The man looked remarkably like Norm from Cheers.  Cheers, the Boston bar just down Beacon Street , used for external shots for the television show.  Cheers, not very far from the spot where some of the reporters were parsing the events of the day, sorting reality and fiction.  In New York, a Norm look alike nestled on a corner barstool chatting with friends.  But for the fact that the Dive is smaller than Cheers, or at least the Cheers set, this “Norm” could have been in the middle of shooting a scene.  On the screens above, the news loop continued, far from the norm, a new Boston Massacre.
We continued to study “Norm”, the uncanny resemblance.  He’d aged a bit from when I’d last seen him...on the air, to be sure.  Mark had seen his doppelganger, the real actor, more recently, in Houston.  The actor being George Wendt.  Mark was performing at the Alley Theatre in Houston, when a 2007 tour of Twelve Angry Men played at Theatre Under The Stars, also in Houston.  Mark had made the time to see that production and spoke highly of George Wendt’s performance. We finished our beers and continued our speculation on Norm.  Overhead the Boston bomb exploded again and again, and Angel Cabrera continued chipping to three feet on the 18th.  While the Mets’ retrospective moved to the 1986 World Series with Mookie Wilson stepping in against Roger Clemens, we got up to leave.  
Norm/George was catching some fresh air outside the bar talking to a friend.  As we passed, to my surprise, Mark interrupted to tell George how much he’d enjoyed George’s performance in Houston.  I was unaware when exactly Mark’s conversion to conviction had taken place, but he was right.  George Wendt was every bit as at home at the Dive as Norm was at Cheers.  A few pleasantries passed, we said goodnight, and Mark headed uptown.  I turned back to go downtown and interrupted Mr. Wendt again, to ask about an actor he and I both knew.  Out of curiosity I asked what brought him to our “home bar” on the Upper West Side.  He couldn’t have been more gracious. He’d been doing a play reading and stopped in with some New York friends. Not wanting to intrude any more than I already had, I turned south toward home.  (When I got home and told the tale to my wife, she quickly reminded me that Mr. Wendt was currently appearing in Breakfast At Tiffany’s on Broadway.) Monday night, a dark night for his show, provided time for a reading and a chance to relax with friends at the Dive, where not everybody, but indeed somebody knew his name.
As I said good-bye to George/Norm, I turned and looked down Broadway.  Six or seven blocks downtown, right outside what looked to be my building, flashing lights from all sorts of emergency vehicles flared over Broadway.  I hurried on toward home. I was relieved to discover the activity was cordoned off a block below our building.  Broadway was closed off in both directions between 95th and 97th streets. The scene was filled with ambulances, police cars, fire engines, and emergency services vehicles.
For all the bright lights, the scene was remarkably silent.  I suspected a possible situation at the 96th Street IRT station.  I asked a fellow bystander what he knew.  He gave me a brief explanation before he aimed his camera at a bomb squad technician advancing on a suspicious package near the side of the island dividing 96th Street.
This was not a set for a television series.  I’ve seen plenty of filming in my neighborhood. This was not Boston.  Or was it?  I was in the same position as the news people in Boston, thrust into sorting reality from fiction.  It was a swift sort.  I left the scene, electing not to watch a bomb technician do his work from less than a block away.  I went home and watched from two blocks away and five stories high.  I watched until the yellow tape was taken down, watched until the lights went off and the emergency vehicles headed off, watched until traffic moved up and down Broadway again.  Then returned to my living room to watch, yet again, a bomb explode on Boylston Street in Boston, a fallen runner with people hastening to his aid, first responders rushing in to pull away flags and barriers, a young couple fleeing…unreality that was all too real.   

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Jennings & Williams Gang Up On Watson

Trivia whiz Ken Jennings has made a career as a keeper of facts; he holds the longest winning streak in history on the U.S. game show Jeopardy. But in 2011, he played a challenge match against supercomputer Watson -- and lost. With humor and humility, Jennings tells us how it felt to have a computer literally beat him at his own game, and also makes the case for good old-fashioned human knowledge. (Filmed at TEDxSeattleU.)
Ken Jennings holds the record for most consecutive wins on the classic American trivia game show, Jeopardy. He also makes a case for the rules of the game in the future.

At the time Jennings took on Watson, I issued my own challenge to Watson.  Listen to his talk and then compare my challenge.  We share some similar thoughts.  I’m still ready to take on Watson. Or offer Watson my challenge.