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Friday
Aug192005

Picking Your Fights

A coach was the keynote speaker at a banquet I recently attended. Is it just me, or do coaches speak only in clichés? This guy had forty-five minutes worth.

He did tell one joke that I had not heard before. It’s on the slightly blue-side, so if you are easily offended, stop reading now. Here it goes:

On his way into the saloon, a runty little cowboy passes his horse and notices that somebody has painted its testicles bright pink. He storms into the bar and shouts, “Where’s the low down dirty varmint that painted my horse’s testicles bright pink? I’ve got something to say to him!”

From the back of the saloon comes a giant, mean-looking cowboy who stands right up to the little cowboy, towering over him. He looks down and says, “I painted your horse’s testicles bright pink. Now just what was it you wanted to say to me?”

The little cowboy gulps, then squeaks, “Just thought you might want to know the first coat is dry.”

The point of the story, said the coach, is that we should pick battles that are big enough to matter, but small enough to win.

Now that is not bad advice, but no one ever goes on to explain just how a person determines a battle’s size or importance. I know more than a few librarians who seem to fight very hard about some very trivial issues and others that feel pretty much responsible for and try to change everything that happens in the entire world.

While I am by no means perfect at picking my own fights, I’ve gotten better at it as I’ve gotten older. One concept that’s worth thinking about is the relationship between one’s “Circle of Influence” and “Circle of Concern” described by Stephen Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Most people’s Circle of Concern is far larger than their Circle of Influence. (I am concerned about global warming, but my ability to stop it is relatively small.) Covey states, “Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on the things they can do something about. “

Now that seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Spend your time on the things you can actually do something about. If I am worried about funding for my library program for example, I just might allocate the time I have available to work on this issue as follows:

  • Building budget: 90% Working with my principal, site team, library advisory commitee, and PTA to create a building library budget and to prioritize the building’s budget. Serving on the interview team when selecting new administrators. Working with teachers to build units that require library resources.
  • District budget: 5% Serving on a district library committee. Speaking at school board meetings. Working for the election of library friendly school board members.
  • State budget: 3% Lobbying for state dollars for libraries and the general education formula with teacher and library organizations. Working to elect state political leaders friendly to education.
  • National budget: 2% Working to elect national political leaders friendly to education.
  • Global economic policies: 1%: Staying informed. Donating to “causes.”
How do you know if the battle is too small? That’s easy too. If the issue impacts only you as a librarian with no direct negative consequences your students or staff, it’s too small – period.

So how do you determine which battles to fight?

Thursday
Aug182005

This I Believe

If you haven’t been listening to or reading National Public Radio’s series This I Believe, do. I submitted my statement yesterday. Try writing one. It’s fun - but tough to stay within the 500 word limit!

I Believe in the Innate Goodness of Libraries

I believe in the inherent goodness of libraries – that their value is above opinion polls, research studies and empirical data.

I came to my love of libraries growing up on a small Iowa farm. The endless soybean fields that needed to be hand-weeded and the remorselessly filling hog barns that needed to be emptied were about as far removed from the oceans and mountains and adventure I yearned for as any place could possibly be. But a small Carnegie public library on the hill overlooking Main Street provided me with a route to adventure. It was the first place I headed whenever we came to town and the librarian knew me well. I still count among my finest moments when she informed me that I read every book in the mythology section. Somehow walking the beans was more bearable when it was a “Sisyphean” labor or when the hog barn was the Augean stable.

In my high school library I found new adventures as I traveled with Heinlein’s spacemen, Tolkien’s Hobbits, and Crane’s Civil War soldiers. In university libraries I found adventurous ideas in the writings of Hayakawa., Postman and McLuhan. By then I’d left the farm behind, but now I was released from the prison of blind ideologies as well. Libraries made that escape possible.

But libraries have another role as well - one I learned as a school librarian. One that a Nigerian boy named Chinedu taught me. Big for his age, talkative, and relentlessly cheerful, he drove his fifth grade teacher and classmates crazy. As a result, Chinedu was often sent to the library for a little timeout where, to be honest, he was still a pest. His silliness could be a real bother to everyone in the library, but he also liked to work. I kept on hand a Chinedu –do list of jobs he could perform. Things would go smoothly for weeks and then Chinedu would do something outrageous like dumping a cart of books just to get attention. I’d go home wondering why the library should suffer his presence.

But late one afternoon, Chinedu reminded me that libraries are not just escapes, but refuges as well. Out of the blue, he approached my desk, grinned, and in his melodious accent declared, “Ahh, Meester Johnson. Dees library. Eet is my hoom away from hoom.” And I was taught that libraries are often the only place in a school or community that is comfortable and welcoming for many people.

Like shade trees, chocolate, and summer afternoons, libraries really need no hard-reasoned defense. I can, of course, dig up research that “proves” libraries improve a community’s workforce and students’ reading skills. But then, with enough persistence, I can find research that supports any point of view.

I’m afraid I don’t use libraries as much as I once did. My impatient nature makes bookstores and the Internet increasingly appealing. But my belief in not just the value, but goodness, of libraries is stronger than ever.
_________________________
Believe in anything strongly enough to put it in words?

Tuesday
Aug162005

The Lazy Person’s Reading Plan

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! —Henry David Thoreau

At heart, I am a lazy person. Nothing suits me better than to veg out and loose myself in a mindless potboiler full of sex, violence and dubious plot twists – the reader’s equivalent of staring glassy-eyed at the television screen.

But, alas, I am a sluggard with some small professional conscience as well - damn whatever gene caused that! So I am compelled to read things that are good for me – my intellectual vegetables. Therefore I’ve developed a “mental exercise” plan that seems to work.

It’s pretty simple. I alternate between “snack” books and “healthy” books. For every Daniel Silva or Michael Connelly or Dan Simmons, I read a work of non-fiction or something called “literature.” (Listening to a “healthy” book on tape also counts.)

I’ve done this for years, and found surprisingly, that the healthy books can be nearly as enjoyable as the “snack” books.

One of my long-range plans to create a list of important books in my life that somehow bring to mind Thoreau’s quote above. I created a short, eclectic list in my book Machines are the Easy Part; People are the Hard Part:

1. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Neil Postman.
As good as when it was written over forty years ago and even more critically needed today. Remind yourself why you went into teaching.
2. Language in Thought and Action. S. I. Hayakawa.
How language controls us.
3. School’s Out. Lewis J. Perelman.
The educational, structural, and political changes Perelman predicted are coming true. Just more slowly.
4. Punished by Rewards. Alfie Kohn.
The most compassionate education writer alive explains why extrinsic motivation harms students.
5. Savage Inequality. Jonathan Kozol.
Explains the difference between schools for the governors and the governed. In which do you work?
6. Failure to Connect. Jane M. Healy.
Computers being used badly in schools. Tell me it isn’t so!
7. Future of Success. Robert B. Reich.
Readable exploration of work as our students will know it.
8. The Mac (PC) is Not a Typewriter. Robin Williams.
One read through this and your printed work will look good.
9. Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Donald A. Norman.
Bad engineering and design is behind the frustration with technology that many normal people feel.
10. Results. Mike Schmoker.
An intelligent, practical approach to the power of educational measurement and accountability.

Happily, I’ve discovered a couple other books this summer that will make my “important” book list. The first is Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat about global economics and its impact on the workforce. The second is nearly a companion volume, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind that argues the successful people in a global economy will be those who exercise their right brain skills. (Not quite finished with this one yet.)

So what books are you reading that may “date a new era” in your life?

Oh, feel free to adopt the Lazy Person’s Reading Plan if you feel it will work for you.