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Spring cleaning - should it only be stuff?

With temperatures in the low 60s this weekend and no pressing writing deadlines, it was the perfect time do do a little spring cleaning. 

When I think of spring cleaning, it's not washing windows or dusting knickknacks. I love tossing stuff out. On Saturday I tackled my home office and pitched old professional books, innumerable cables - mostly ethernet and phone, and old tax records, properly shredded, of course. Sunday was cleaning the garage and shed of unused tools, no longer needed furniture, and, well, just junk.

There is an old rule of thumb that says if you haven't worn an item of clothing in two years, you may as well give it to Goodwill, because odds are that you will never wear it again. My guess is that rule holds true for a lot of other things as well including tools, furniture, and sports equipment. (I haven't used satellite service in five years, but the old dish was still taking up space.) It's the rare book I'll not give away - and I realize that of the 10% I keep, I'll still only re-read 10% of those. I tossed my print dictionary this weekend - gasp - since it's been at least three or four years since I cracked its spine.

So here's my question: am I as ruthless about discarding my old beliefs, values, assumptions, and goals as I am about scrapping broken toys, obsolete electronics, and unworn sweatshirts?

It's very easy to recognize the antiquated practices of others. (Really, she still lectures all the time?) Outdated views are fair game. (He still believes standardized tests are the best way to determine student abilities?) And the reluctance to adopt to new realities is soooo obvious in others. (He still has kids put their personal devices in a bucket by the door instead of using them as a part of instruction?)

There's an old saying from scripture that reads "Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" which makes me wonder if people can truly recognize the beliefs that should be part of one's professional spring cleaning each year.

If we could, wouldn't we change?

How do you know what to keep and what to discard from your professional practice?


BFTP: Fathers, children, and The Element

A weekend Blue Skunk "feature" will be a revision of an old post. I'm calling this BFTP: Blast from the Past. Original post, February 21, 2009. 

When people close to you discourage you from taking a particular path, they usually believe they are doing it for your own good. – Sir Ken Robinson in The Element

Many readers of educational blogs are already aware of Sir Ken Robinson through his TED talks, especially "How Schools Kill Creativity" If you've enjoyed his presentations, his book The Element is well worth reading. And even if you haven’t see him speak, read it anyway.

With sly humor and readable prose, Robinson describes how people who have been successful in the arts, sports, education, and business have found their "Element." This wide variety of fascinating people, many who have overcome great odds to do so, have all found a way to make their livelihood from a passion or enriched their lives through it. Identifying one’s Element may be as easy as asking, “If left to my own devices - I didn’t have to worry about making a living or what others thought of me – what am I most drawn to doing?”

Robinson’ describes The Element as the “meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion.” He sets the stage by arguing that there are nearly as many “intelligences” as there are individuals and that standardized tests, and thus success in school, only measure a narrow range. He believes we should not asking if people are intelligent, but how they are intelligent. The Element flourishes when one finds his “tribe” of others with similar passions “who tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their talents.” One often needs to overcome the obstacles of both a personal, social and cultural nature. People who find their Element are often considered lucky, but tend to make their own luck through attitude. Mentors and teachers are important to most of the interviewees. – people who see “something in us we don’t see in ourselves."

Happily one does not need to be young to find one’s passion and does not need to pursue it full time. (Is this why we see many happy retired teachers who have not retired at all, but have pursued other interesting careers?) In fact, Robinson concludes that for writers maturity can be an advantage given that our “insights and sensitivities deepen with age.” Take that, you young techno-Turks.

Robinson criticizes our factory model of education, writing:

But too many graduate or leave early, unsure of their real talents and not knowing what direction to take next. Too many feel that what they are good at isn’t valued by schools.

and cites the U.S.’s growing drop out rate as proof. He argues that schools do not need to be reformed – but transformed – by personalizing education so that it will build achievement on the individual talents of each child.

The part of Robinson's book that struck a real chord with me talked about how parents can either help or block their children finding their Element. Permit me a personal reflection...

As a teacher, I quickly realized that children who developed a passion for something early in life seemed the happiest. Whether it was an interest in horses or music or science fiction or sports or cartooning or whatever, somehow these lucky kids sort of knew who they were and spent less time thrashing about looking for identity. This is why I found the role of librarian so appealing. No matter what the interest, I could help students engage in it more deeply. If I could match the research project with a personal interest, the work was always better. It’s also why I liked directing plays and coaching speech students far better than classroom teaching - many coaches of any activity feel the same way.

For those of you who are parents, you know that one of the most difficult things to accept is that what makes your children happy may not be the same thing that makes you happy. While my daughter always seemed to be on the familiar collegiate track that was my own route to career and fulfillment, I did worry about my son.

Brady was not a reader. Did not find school of interest. Had an obsession with video gaming and moviemaking and cartooning instead of reading and writing which his old man thought of more value. So my suggestion that he look at a career in speech therapy went pretty much unheeded and he went to technical college to learn the art of filmmaking. He is now working in Wellington, New Zealand, just to be close to Peter Jackson's WETA studios. Perhaps he will be an orc in the Hobbit movie being made. Or the next Peter Jackson. [2014 update: Brady will finish his BA in graphic arts from the local university this spring.]

I worry. I suppose worrying is a dad's job. There seem to be a lot of starving artists in the world. But I helped Brady acquire both his video making equipment while in high school and his schooling in how to use it. My pragmatic rationale is that if he gets tired of being hungry, he can always go back to college to become the speech therapist. And should he become a rich and famous film director, a high quality nursing home might be in my own future.

As I think back, I am sure I caused my own father a good deal of anxiety as well. He was a farmer and crop duster who had an oldest son who lacked any mechanical ability or interest in farming. (Actually I was just disinterested in the physical labor part of it.) I still wonder if he felt the same concern when I went off to college driving a $50 1954 Rambler station wagon with no brakes and a new wife that I felt as I watched my son head to NZ with a couple buddies and a suitcase full of video games. What goes around, comes around.

Every teacher (and parent) should be aware of and open to how she can develop the true passions in her students and even serve as mentor. There could worse legacies than knowing one has helped another human being find his Element .

Oh, have I found my Element? I am writing this just for the just plain fun of it.


A pathetic list of reasons for paper books 

Perhaps it's just depression over losing our sub zero temps here in Minnesota, but little things have been annoying me lately. Here's one.

In 10 Things a Kindle Can't Do That a Hardcover Book Can, Connie Francis* lists:

  1. Finding a mate
  2. Making friends
  3. Judging people
  4. Impromptu blocks (propping up table legs)
  5. Pressing flowers
  6. Completing a costume
  7. A weapon
  8. Impromptu toilet paper
  9. Bug killer
  10. Making friends with author 

These were listed after the usual "Ooooh, I just love the feel, smell, taste, etc of printed books" rhapsody. 

Really, we should keep buying paper books just in case the stall is out of TP? Print lovers, judging by this list, you're getting desperate. Ms Francis, if this were written tongue-in-cheek, you were far too subtle for me.

Now compare the list above to my friend Vicki Davis's 11 Reasons E-books Can Improve Your Life:

  1. Highlights and Notes.
  2. Search.
  3. Portability.
  4. Shareability.
  5. Connectedness.
  6. Organization.
  7. Readability.
  8. Learning.
  9. Availability.
  10. Price.
  11. Opportunity.

Wow - actual educational benefits. Ms Davis, I would add to your list privacy (my classmates can't see what I am reading) and security (I can lose the reader, but the book will remain in the cloud).

One of the major challenges our district will face in being able to take full advantage of e-books is acquiring the physical devices needed so all students have 24/7 access to them. We'll be testing cheapie Android tablets this spring to see if there is a workable alternative to a $300 iPad.

Oh, you can smash a spider with your Kindle. Just do it gently.

* Not sure if this is the "Where the Boys Are" chanteuse or not.

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