Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Environmental Trail #1

My first big steps down the trail of environmental consciousness were through the book "Serve God, Save the Planet," but really I was preparing for those steps throughout my life. Appreciating the beauty, fragility and interconnectedness of nature as a whole has long been a part of my life through early camping trips with my family, campouts with the Boy Scouts, and then adventures planned by my friends and me. So if you really wanted to follow or just understand the process that brought me here, to my current thoughts, you really need to start out there. Go walk in the woods. Go float a river. Fly a kite. Watch birds. Sleep under the stars in your backyard. Visit a national park.

I think that going to these places, experiencing these "outdoor" type things, is more than just appreciating the beauty of the world around us, although that is a very good reason to go do those things. Instead, I think the importance comes more from the act of remembering that these places foster.

When we live in cities, in suburbs, we forget that we are actually dependent on the nature around us for our very survival. Food does not magically spring up at grocery stores. Gasoline does not condense out of the air into the fuel pumps. Electricity does not spontaneously and naturally flow through the wires that run to our houses and places of employ. Everything we do depends intimately on the natural world. Everything we see, whether a house, a car, a pair of Nike shoes, or the fajitas you ate last night for dinner, all of it comes from Nature. Someone mined the metal, harvested the grain, raised the beef, cut the trees...whatever the base product might be.

The processes that companies use to give us our modern conveniences affect us in myriad ways. The electricity that runs a factory comes from coal that was strip mined out of hills - probably in West Virginia or other Appalachian states. Many of the machines that mill, stitch, or assemble require some kind of cooling...which usually comes from our streams and lakes. This water is fed in, and used to cool down the machines, making the water hot. It goes back into the source from which it was drawn. And that is the most benign interaction with the local water ways. Chemicals might be added in order to dye or treat fabrics, to wash products, to make a special finish. This chemical water solution will often be dumped back into the rivers and lakes. Heat and air and vapors from chemical processes are also loosed into the air, floating on air currents to surrounding areas, or countries a world away.

These interactions are found just in the creation of a product. Our air, our water, our land is forever altered by each and every thing we create.

So when I read "Serve God, Save the Planet" I already had a sense of this interdependence. SGSP serve to take that interdependence and make it tangible. I had numbers - quanities of waste, cost of electricity. I had stories - devastating increases in environmental diseases and the damage they wrought on families. Most importantly, I also had solutions - I had actions, choices, presented in such a way that my own impact, while small, was still significant.

I began to conserve.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I'm Back!

So my epic travels are currently over, although the next Big Trip is never far from my mind. If you missed it, my buddy Nick and I traversed the United States in my 2001 Toyota Camry, logging 9000 joint miles, and 11,400 before I was back in the hot, friendly confines of Houston. You can check out some ridiculous videos that we shot of our exploits at our other blog.

Along with huge amounts of driving, hiking, and beauty intaking, I also did quite a bit of reading this summer. The end result of this reading is a drastic shake-up of my lifestyle. Let's call this...oh, I don't know...maybe Breaking the Mold? Perfect.

My previous mold is now in pieces on the ground, and I am trying to make sense of a new world with words like "Organic", "Sustainable" and "Environment" taking center stage in its formation. I plan on laying out the entire progression of my current mental journey over the next couple weeks.

The beginning of my journey came when I read "Serve God, Save the Planet" by J. Matthew Sleeth. I blogged about this book here and here. You can find it at here.

A couple months after reading that book and subsequently loaning it to everyone I know (who in turn, have told me they loaned/purchased it for everyone they know), I was told to watch this video, called "The Story of Stuff."

The video looks at the manufacturing process beginning all the way at material acquisition (i.e. digging up some bauxite that will be...), and ending at disposal (eventually turned into an aluminum can and thrown away or recycled).

Watching this video I was struck by a couple of points:
  • What is out of sight is generally out of mind - Since it isn't my backyard being dug up, I don't care. At least, that is how I have operated so far in my life.
  • I don't pay attention - Really an extension of the first, but even for the things that are in my sight, such as having 24 individual Gatorade bottles packaged in a bigger package, I don't even recognize how much I am wasting.
  • I do have power - Capitalism is based on supply and demand. When a demand exists for a product, a supply will grow to fill it. If I do not demand (as shown by my buying habits) triple packaging, but prefer a minimalist approach, that supply will grow.

Friday, June 20, 2008


I don't imagine anyone even checks this anymore, as I have been so tardy with posts.

For the summer I will be taking a break to drive all over the country, and if you have any interest in driving or trips or national parks or horrible beards, you can check that out over at America Clockwise. I will resume posting here in August.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Somemore Vocation

I honestly don't have any updates on what my vocation actually might be, but for the moment I do have an answer for my next step. I still think that teaching might be my road, but not middle school.

I accepted a high school math position at YES Prep NC.

I am actually really excited about the job. First, I get to teach high school. Second, I get to teach at YES, which is just an amazing place to work. The faculty is fun, and completely focused on getting the kids to college. The kids want to be there. They work hard and are friendly. Secondly, my course load is sweet; 2 sections of Alg 1, 2 sections of Alg 2 and 1 section of Robotics. Yep. I get my own robotics course.

So I am staying in Houston for at least another year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


I have this student. W. He is a squirrel job.

I mean, he totally acts like a squirrel. He is out of his seat. He is in his seat. He is picking things up. He is putting them back down in different places.

He's squirrely.

Anyway, he used to frustrate me all the time. Although I found him relatively amusing, he took a lot of time out of class. But then he made me a picture. And then I started thinking "maybe he acts so crazy because he is really excited and doesn't know what to do about it..." I don't know. Maybe I'm reaching. But the pictures are great.

Picture #1

So in this one, W is laughing and I'm telling him to "Get out, go, go, go out in the hallway now."

I have a blair suit. I don't know why.

I have a magical shave button. This is what happens when I use sarcasm. "Did you shave Mister?"
"No. I pushed my magical shave button, and the hair sucks back into my head."

Notice how small Mr. Farber looks next to me. Ha.

Picture #2

Yes. I'm called the Blair-o-nator.
Yes. It says "Crazy with education."
Yes. I have a Do First Cannon that shoots 50 sheets per second. That's a rate in case you were wondering.

Picture #3

So, now I'm a ninja. Or more accurately, a shogun blairator.
I think that's a kind of blender actually.

The motivational quote says "The speed of true power...the speed of education!!!!!" I think that our school district should adopt that as its slogan.

I also have a meter stick sword and a clipboard.

All of these pictures show me with a six-pack. I don't have that yet. But I am definitely that much bigger than Mr. Farber. And I do have a Shogun suit. And a Blairsuit (that's trademarked.).


One of the ways I motivate my students is with this giant wall tracking chart. At the beginning of the year each of my classes chose a class name, and then students submitted illustrations. The best ones (chosen by class voting) went up on the wall.

Once the classes had a name, competition naturally ensued. For each unit, objectives are posted on the wall, and class results are recorded. Blue means "We met our goal", Green means "We are close to our goal", and Red means "We kinda sucked it up on that one." Okay, really Red means "We are far from our goal".

Things have really been heating up lately, because the classes are all really close. I add fuel to the fire on quiz days by saying helpful things like "First period doesn't think you can catch them today. Actually, they said there is no way you catch them ever. Are you gonna let them get away with that?"

Originally I had to make up all the goading statements, but now my students are really getting into it. One of my classes is the Bananas, (thank God they don't sing that Bananas song "Go bananas, B A N A N A S"...I would have to leave.) and third period rolls in an JM goes "MISTER! Tell 2nd period I eat bananas for breakfast!"


My friends threw me a surprise birthday party. It was awesome.

I think that everyone should have a surprise birthday party at least once in their life, and probably more than once for good measure. Since asking someone "have you ever had a surprise party?" kinda gives away the fact that you want to have a surprise party, I think I will just start setting up surprise parties all the time. Maybe I will get a business card.

"Spontaneous Surprise Parties"
We throw one hell of a shindig.
On a moments notice.

But then people would start expecting me to throw surprise parties for them. And that wouldn't be a surprise anymore. So then I'll have to show up on their birthday and say "Surprise! I didn't throw you a party! But I know it's your birthday and that's cool. let's go eat cake."

They might be a little let down, but that would keep them guessing, which is what makes life fun.

Back to my party. So I really like rock climbing. I've been going to this gym called Texas Rock Gym about 3 times a week all year. I know quite a few people there, since I've been going so much, and I'm getting pretty good. When I started, I couldn't even climb a V0 route, and now I can climb V2. My goal is to get to a V4. That would be really cool stuff.

Anyway. My friend's rented the party space at Texas Rock Gym (TRG) and all showed up and climbed! And my parents even came! They didn't climb though.

Monday, March 24, 2008


I was talking with one of my buddies from Purdue when he mentioned that I sounded depressed. Well, not "sounded" depressed, but that my blog made me seem like I was depressed.

I am not depressed. Currently, I am facing a vocational crisis, and it is consuming a good amount of my energy. Luckily, my pal Thomas Merton arrived just in time. The chapter on "Being and Doing" just ended, giving way to chapter 8: "Vocation." Hallelujah (or in other words: it's about time).

So here is a little soothing balm for anyone who is also suffering a vocational crisis.
Each one of us has some kind of vocation. We are all called by God to share in His life and in His Kingdom. Each one of us is called to a special place in the Kingdom. If we find that place we will be happy. If we do not find it, we can never be completely happy. For each one of us, there is only one thing necessary: to fulfill our own destiny, according to God's will, to be what God wants us to be.

We must not imagine that we only discover this destiny by a game of hide-and-seek with Divine Providence. Our vocation is not a sphinx's riddle, which we must solve in one guess or else perish. Some people find, in the end, that they have made many wrong guesses and that their paradoxical vocation is to go through life guessing wrong. It takes them a long time to find out that they are happier that way.

In any case, our destiny is the work of two wills, not one. It is not an immutable fate, forced upon us without any choice of our own, by a divinity without heart.

Our vocation is not a supernatural lottery but the interaction of two freedoms, and, therefore, of two loves. It is hopeless to try to settle the problem of vocation outside of the context of friendship and of love. We speak of Providence: that is a philosophical term. The Bible speaks of our Father in Heaven. Providence is, consequently, more than an institution, it is a person. More than a benevolent stranger, He is our Father. And even the term Father is too loose a metaphor to contain all the depths of the mystery: for He loves us more than we love ourselves, as if we were Himself. He loves us moreover with our own wills, with our own decisions. How can we understand the mystery of our union with God Who is closer to us than we are to ourselves? It is His very closeness that makes it difficult for us to think of Him. He Who is infinitely above us, infinitely different from ourselves, infinitely "other" from us, nevertheless dwells in our souls, watches over every movement of our life with as much love as if we were His own self. His love is at work bringing good out of all our mistakes and defeating even our sins.
- Thomas Merton. No Man Is an Island. Pgs 131-132.


From January until spring break, I was not too excited about teaching. In fact, I was not excited to the point that I adopted a behavior that had never before existed - I began hitting the snooze button.

Regardless of how I arrived in that low place, nor what I ought to do as a result of it (in terms of life, vocation, etc.), I decided that 2 months of dreading work was just not something I was prepared to accept when I could take steps to change it.

And so, steps were taken.
I purchased a projector. For my classroom.
And for watching movies with a 17.5 foot diagonal screen in our living room.
But mainly for my classroom.

Today was the first day teaching with my new projector. My kids were excited. I was excited. I am still excited. I am actually planning right now (well, not right now).

So, if you ever get to the point where you are hitting the snooze 3 times a morning because you don't want to face the day, all you need to do is visit your nearest electronics retailer or and purchase yourself a projector. Guaranteed to boost morale, or your money back.

Of course, having a week off helps too.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


I attended a sunrise service this morning. Setting my alarm for 6 am after not setting it and not getting out of bed before 9 all week was difficult. The service was moving.

The pastor started the service by reading Genesis 1 - the creation story. When he finished, he did not go into any sermon or anything, but instead, he sat down. Thirteen other passages were going to be read, but volunteers from the church body would come forward to read. The second passage was Psalm 46. Then came Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac. Then Psalm 33. Then someone began to read Exodus 14.

I have heard Exodus 14 before. I have read it. Groups have studied it. I am familiar with the story. Moses is an Israelite, but gets adopted into the royal family. He discovers his heritage, murders a slave master and flees. God meets him in the desert. God calls him to lead His people. Moses goes back. He performs miracles. The people leave. Pharaoh chases. The Red Sea gets parted. Pharaoh's army gets swallowed by the sea. The Israelites wander in the desert for 40 years.

I know the story.

But today, as these words were read:
"As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" "
- Exodus 14:10-12
I realized just what the Israelites were saying. They were yelling, demanding, complaining with Moses and with God. They were wishing for the past days, the days when they were slaves.

So I thought, "Wait...they want to be slaves?"

I was surprised. It was almost one of those Loony Toons, eyes out of your head, awooga awooga surprises. How had I missed this? How did this make any sense? I mean, for the first time in their lives, these people are free! Why would they ever want to be slaves again?

The conclusion I came to, that now seems to make sense, is that they were free, yes, but they were immediately faced with a reality of freedom in this world. They found that "In this world you will have trouble." (John 16:33). They found danger and uncertainty and fear and a God who could do amazing things but who still asked for faith.

I think that this story is my story. I think that God frees me, offers me these amazing and beautiful things saying, "Look, you're free! Now follow me!" but instead of looking around with joy and following immediately, I look around and see danger and uncertainty. I step right back into the bondage because it is familiar and known, and faith is oh so scary.

It is like the story of the POWs that I heard once. The heroic soldiers break-in, knock down the door, letting light stream into the room. They whisper, "Come on! You're free! We are here to rescue you!" but all the POWs do is huddle on the floor. They don't even look at the open door. They don't even look at the faces of their rescuers. They are too broken. They have lost all hope of anything other than their captivity.

So the soldiers try and pick them up. It doesn't work. There are too many. They plead. They urge. They shout. Nothing works.

Finally, one of them lays aside his gun, and gets down, and huddles with the POWs. He becomes one of them. Only then do the POWs realize that this is not some trick of the guards. The guards would never deign to become like prisoners.

I think that I don't know what to do with freedom. Even when it slaps me in the face. I am like the POW. I am so used to my captivity, that even with an open door, I do not have the ability to walk out of it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I am Good

My friends came home yesterday.

Being a teacher, I am afforded an amazing opportunity to vacation. Just like a kid, I look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas and Spring Break with an eager anticipation that can only be described as liberation. Last year I went to Big Bend National Park for spring break. The year before that I went to Great Smokies National Park. This year, I stayed home.

My friends went down to Port Aransas for 5 days. They rented a house on the beach, and had crazy adventures like going on a casino cruise boat during a tornado warning, not bringing any cash, having credit machines go down in the storm, and being trapped, sea-sick, with nothing to do except watch other people drink and gamble (because they couldn't get any money). I stayed home.

My friends asked me to come but I declined. I was feeling very single. Three couples were going on the trip, and, well, I just didn't want to deal with it. Looking at them, thinking about being in their company seemed to highlight things that were not (I am not in a relationship. I do not know what job I will have. I do not know what I want.) instead of the things that were (My friends love me. They enjoy my company. I love my friends). So I stayed home.

During the time they were gone, I bummed around. I rode my bike. I climbed at TRG. I watched movies. I read books. I didn't cook. I thought about my future.

Thinking about the future is dangerous for me. I start thinking, and the thinking just spirals outward, ever outward. Figuring out the future is hard because it hasn't happened yet. And I don't want to mess it up. Those two governing criteria make success pretty difficult. Especially because I am not that great about Today, and shoot, I'm doing that right now.

Take teaching. I guess I am an okay teacher. I am not great. I am not bad.
Take engineering. I am an okay engineer. I am not great. I am not bad.
In fact, there is a list that could extend across multiple pieces of paper listing the things I am okay at.

And this fact also adds to the spiral of future thinking. I don't know what I want to do. I look around at people around me, like my friends, and I see qualities that I want to emulate. I see there not-singleness. I see there plans. I see their passion. I see their success. And those things stand in stark contrast against the corresponding abilities in me; the only difference being that I find my qualities to be lacking.

I've been reading a chapter called "Being and Doing", in Thomas Merton's No Man Is an Island.
Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?

We cannot be ourselves unless we know ourselves....We cannot begin to know ourselves until we can the real reasons why we do the things we do , and we cannot be ourselves until our actions correspond to our intentions, and our intentions are appropriate to our own situation. But that is enough. It is not necessary that we succeed in everything. Am an can be perfect and still reap n o fruit from his work, and it may happen that a man who is able to accomplish very little is much more of a person than another who seems to accomplish very much."
- Pg 126

I think this is very true. When Jesus called his disciples, they were not Torah rockstars. They were not rich, successful people. They were fishermen. They were the people who were not good enough to make the cut to be disciples of Rabbis in the regular Jewish culture. And they messed up. They messed up a lot.

Right after Jesus was crucified, he appears to the disciples and he has a conversation with Peter. Peter was one of Jesus' three closest friends, but Peter lied about this friendship 3 times while Jesus was imprisoned. He had messed up. But the conversation is not about the betrayal. Instead, Jesus comes to Peter and asks if him if he still wants to follow, if he still wants to take part in Jesus' work. Peter doesn't respond with joy. He doesn't even respond with guilt. He responds with, "Well what about HIM? What about John? What are you going to do with John?"

I think that I too often act like Peter. I too often "strive to be something I would never want to be" because I see it in other people and it seems to be working so well. But I am not made that way. Currently, I am an okay teacher. And that's okay. It is not okay if I stay here, if I do not try and improve, but for today, it is okay.

There are other things I can do. I can cook a meal for my friends. I can bless them by providing that for them. I can combine tastes into something amazing that makes you pause as it shouts on your tongue.

I am good at that. And that's okay. For today.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


My dentist is awesome. She is from Bulgaria or Estonia or one of those Eastern European nations that all blend together to me because I am so poor with geography. She has a pretty heavy accent, and regularly takes breaks while cleaning my teeth to ask my accusing questions like, "Do you drink the soft drinks?!"

When I answer that "No," I don't really drink soft drinks ever, she nods in dubious approval, and responds with a "Soft drinks are very bad. 80 grams sodium in each can. Bad for your heart. And caffeine! Ah! Soft drinks bad for teeth too."

I like her because she gives me information on every single thing she does. She asks about every aspect of my oral health, and then describes, in detail, how that will contribute to either bliss or my imminent demise. Well, she doesn't actual link flossing to my death or salvation, but it seems that way.

And she is extremely thorough. Since most people go to the dentist every 6 months, but rarely go to the doctor, she has taken it upon herself to take heart rate and blood pressure readings upon every visit. Apparently, there is something wrong with me, because in 6 months, my blood pressure went from "Really good" to "You are in the danger area. Do you smoke? Drink? Do you sleep? Ever?"

I think it is stress. For good or ill (and at this time, it seems ill) I have taken the TFA mantra, "I am the instructional leader of my classroom" to the nth degree. One of my roommates, who has a poor opinion of our public schools, says "You can't worry about them (the students). They choose to screw around, so you can't make them learn." Part of me knows this to be true. The whole, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink" phenomenon.

But then the other 90% of me, the part responsible for my high blood pressure, says, "Yea, but isn't that why TFA accepted me? Because I would work relentlessly, I would continuously improve and do all the other rah rah stuff necessary to motivate and inspire and coerce (if necessary) my kids until the do learn?

And so I am stressed out. I am completely wound up. I am getting wound up just thinking about it. My kids need to pass the state test. They need to do well. They need to learn all of my material so they can enter 8th grade on level for a change.

But then I read this passage by Merton:
A simple intention rests in God while accomplishing all things. It takes account of particular ends in order to achieve them for Him: but it does not rest in them . Since a simple intention does not need to rest in any particular end, it has already reached the end as soon as the work is begun. For the end of a simple intention is to work in God and with Him - to sink deep roots into the soil of His will and to grow there in whatever weather He may bring.

A right intention is what we might call a "transient" intention: it is proper to the active life which is always moving on to something else. Our right intention passes from one particular end to another, from work to work, form day to day, from possibility to possibility. It reaches ahead into many plans. The works planned and done are all for the glory of God: but they stand ahead of us as milestones along a road with an invisible end. And God is always there at the end. He is always "future," even though He may be present. The spiritual life of a man of right intentions is always more or less provisional. It is more possible than actual, for he always lives as if he had to finish just one more job before he could relax and look for a little contemplation."
- Thomas Merton. "No Man Is an Island." Pgs. 72, 73.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What Next?

My commitment to Teach For America, and to my original placement school ends with the school year. My friends are all eagerly discussing their applications and interviews, cheering acceptances and morning rejections. I have applied to one position. I was rejected.

But this is not a post about rejection. Yes it sucks, but it does not control my life. It happens, sometimes a lot, and we have the choice to learn or not, try again or not. My thoughts are not on "what did not" but instead on "what I should".

I am envious of people who have a plan. I still remember the cutting words of my friend B., a pivotal person in my spiritual growth, who said, "What are your plans? You don't know? I've been telling boys I know that they should Be a Man, have a plan." It is one of those pithy sayings that makes one's spirits immediately sink. I fear that what was true for me then is still true now; I am big on dreams, pretty light on plans.

I have friends who tell me that I am good at finding opportunities, going or doing things that are out of the ordinary course. My mother says the same thing, which makes it definitely true. But even if I am good at finding opportunities, my current hang-up is on what opportunities I should find. What dream should I turn into a plan.

The normal things are guiding me. I want to get paid. Hopefully, enough to eat, have a place, take some trips, have Internet. I want to meet new and exciting people. I want community. I want to grow and learn. I want to see and live in the outdoors. I want to meet a girl before the questions from my family become to frequent and I stop wanting to visit as a result.

But more than these things, I want to be challenged and I want to know that what I do matters. My application to TFA was centered on these two ideas. Of course I got almost all of the other things as a bonus, but I was seeking a challenge, and significance in my life. And I don't know where I can find that again.

And it is not that my current job lacks significance all of the sudden. Or that I am some amazing teacher and it is no longer a challenge. Maybe I just want more...excitement. Maybe I just want the new car smell.

I guess this post kinda lacks a conclusion. Well, I don't have this figured out. If anyone does, please let me know.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Long Time

I haven't posted in three weeks and five days. Life has been...*head shaking* lately.

I don't know about other people, whether they get in these patterns of behavior like mine. At a bible study a couple weeks ago we talked about how our immediate surroundings make us think that one thing is true, like when you are in the ocean and the waves roll, and you are in a trough and can't see beyond those waves to your immediate right and left. Everything else in the world is blocked from your sight. That's how I get some times.

I was reading something, I think it was this eulogy for a dead high school athlete. The father of the dead boy gets up to speak, and he just can't make it work, but from somewhere, strength musters, and out pours this story. And he talks about how gang violence took his son for no reason, honestly no reason, because his son never put a toe out of line. And he talks about how gangs are this horrible thing and how the community needs to step up to make them not have power in the neighborhoods. And that was all moving, and true, if somewhat cliche. But the father doesn't stop there, for he recognizes this short-coming, and says what I found particularly poignant.

He says, the kids joining the gangs, they are joining for the wrong reasons. But for them, for these kids, its the right reason.

That's how I feel, looking at my life of the past 3 weeks and 5 days. I look at it, and see the lack of...any type of desire, and know that this languor is completely pointless and useless, and yet the reasons seem right for me.

See, I have been kind of riding solo of late. And I am fine with that; I am not the type of person who freaks out if there is no one around. But everyone needs community. And when I feel (note: it doesn't have to be true, it just has to seem true) that my community is absent, I start retreating. I retreat in. And in. And in. And in.

And it seems natural. And then before I know it, I have spent 2 straight days of not talking to anyone, not moving anywhere, not even going outside. And my heart feels like it is dying. Then someone calls and asks how I am, or tells me to come to lunch, and I come, and I remember how much I love my community, and how vibrant and fulfilling it is. At that time, I will look back at myself, and wonder how I could possibly retreat so far, make those choices.

It was the wrong reason, but it was the right reason for me. Which is why I need God.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More Heavy Merton

I have been slowly working through "No Man Is an Island" by Thomas Merton. I've been trying to read this book for something like 3 years now, as I keep starting and stopping. Each section is so much for me to handle; I usually have to re-read a one page section a couple times to really understand the points. Then once I have understood it, I need more time to look at my life through the lens of that particular section.

Since we are in the season of Lent, it is fitting that the chapter I am currently working through is entitled "Asceticism and Sacrifice". Below is an excerpt from the section I read last night.

No matter what our aims may be, no matter how spiritual, no matter how intent we think we are upon the glory of God and His Kingdom, greed and passion enter into our work and turn it into agitation as soon as our intention ceases to be pure. And who can swear that his intentions are pure, even down to the subconscious depths of his will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen!

In order to defend ourselves against agitation, we must be detached not only from the immediate results of our work – and this detachment is difficult and rare – but from the whole complex of aims that govern our earthly lives. We have to be detached from health and security, from pleasures and possessions, from people and places and conditions and things. We have to be indifferent to life itself, in the Gospel sense, living like the lilies of the filed, seeking first the kingdom of Heaven and trusting that all our material needs will be taken care of into the bargain. How many of us can say, with any assurance, that we have even begun to live like this?

Lacking this detachment, we are subject to a thousand fears corresponding to our thousand anxious desires. Everything we love is uncertain: when we are seeking it, we fear we may not get it. When we have obtained it, we fear even more that it may be lost. Every threat to our security turns our work into agitation.

So this section basically punched me in the face. I think I will need at least a week to sort through it. The detachment section...geez. The reality is that as I am currently thinking about what to do next, yes I am praying "Thy will be done" but at the same time I am thinking "Hmm, I want some place with lots to do, that has mountains and water, that is warm. I want a place with a job that gives me lots of time off, but is meaningful, and uses all of my abilities. I want it to pay a lot. I don't want it to be too stressful. I want a community who will appreciate and validate me. I want I want I want."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Will you be my nephew?

On Friday, I attended a celebration party for my friends Mr. B and Ms. G. The cause for celebration (and general merriment) was the recent engagement of these individuals.

The event itself was simple; there were about twenty people, about twelve bottles of wine, and various hors' dourves including
  • 20 avocados worth of guacamole
  • pico de gallo
  • handmade tortilla chips
  • mixed berries
  • fresh mozzarella pizzas
  • baguette with various cheeses
So we sat and chatted and laughed and reminisced and teacher vented.

And after some time passed, Ms. G saddles over and sits next to me on the couch.
"Mr. Blair, I have something serious I need to tell you."

I giggle. I tend to laugh at things I find ridiculous, and that statement was very ridiculous. First off, Ms. G and I have never had a truly serious conversation; they always include random absurdities. Second, Ms. G has bright red hair, and an ever-smiling face, so when she sat down with this earnest "I have something serious to tell you" face, I had no choice but to giggle.

"Ok," I respond.
"I have nephew," she begins, drawing me into her narrative with it's simplicity.
"I have a nephew who is just like you. He is tall, like 6'8"..."
"So he's taller than I am. But not when I have shoes on."
"Oh okay, well he's tall, and athletic and he was going to be a priest, but then he got married instead..."
"Oh yea I did that too! Oh wait, no...I didn't. But I could, that sounds cool."
"Shh! And he is really nice and smart and just a very honest person. And every time I see you I think of him, and every time I see him I think of you."
"But that isn't the serious thing. The serious thing is that since I always think of him, I really want you to be my nephew too."

Now at this point, any potential for giggling is completely removed. I laugh. Full belly laugh. Guffaw even.

"I secretly want you to call me Aunt G. and come to family reunions and stuff. All my sisters are married already, but I have lots of nieces who are nice. You met one, and the entire time you were talking with her Mr. B and I were talking about how cute you looked together and plotting to get you to be my nephew."
"I can tell you have put a lot of thought into this. I'm flattered."
"So basically, I want you to marry one of my nieces and have lots of babies."

I'll get right on that.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Conservationalism Again

I loaned "Serve God Save the Planet" to a friend of mine, so it was out of my possession for a couple months. During that time, I talked about it on various occasions with a diverse group of people. I made choices for my house as I could make them. The call to be stewards became one always near the forefront of my mind, imposing itself in the periphery of my daily life.

Now that it is back in my possession, I was thumbing through it, recalling different aspects of the challenge that it offers, when I came upon the following passage, taken from one of the giants of Christian theological thought.

Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let hi so feed on its fruits, that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits it to be marred or ruined by neglect...Let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. - John Calvin

This last, "Let every one regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses," represents an idea that has been moving me during this school year. Just like in the parable of the talents, where the master rewards the servants who worked hard with the amounts they were given, so every single gift, ability, possession is given me that I might be a blessing to others with it.

It is not unlike a parent giving toys to a child. The parent does not start off, unless they are foolish, by just buying a $3000 entertainment center or drum set or roller blades. First, the parent will get a simpler object, an introductory object, which will satiate the child's desire, but at the same time, will serve as a test to see just how interested, how serious, the child's original request was. The child's actions bear out true intentions; if the child cares for it, uses it, is willing to share it, then they were earnest in their request and a further investment would be prudent.

This idea is one of the causes of my current career struggles. I feel pressure, now that I know I ought to be sharing whatever I can do, to invest in all my abilities. I feel somewhat like a failure because I cannot come up with some brilliant idea that utilizes all of my personality quarks, each of my skill sets, and at the same time is a service to God and man.

I mean, I spent all of college honing my mind in the rigorous problem-solving structure of engineering, and teaching simply does not utilize that kind of technical aptitude. And a traditional engineering job denies my athletic nature and my social nature; I cannot sit in a cubicle all day.

So I think I finally came up with the perfect job. I am going to travel by foot (running, cycling, walking, hiking) from place to place, and clean the areas I go, while doing some sort of rigorous environmental study, and then show up in some place and have an amazing kitchen waiting for me where I will cook gourman meals for people I meet and design custom engineering devices. Oh and I am going to get paid for this. Who will fund this enterprise I have yet to iron out, since I just made this up.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A thought

I have Bible studies on Wednesday nights. This week we talked about sacrifice. While I was preparing material for that lesson, I came across this passage in Hebrews.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

I paused over "unswervingly" and "spur one another on". I like both those images. The first moves in my mind a person walking in darkness, with dim lantern in hand. The lantern gives just enough light to see two steps in front, and the walker continues to trust the path through the night.

The second phrase creates this image of a runner. His muscles are tensed, veins wide, sweat filming his body, and his eyes have the far-away look of a man who has retreated inward, away from reality. Step after tired step continues to move his body forward, but no longer is it actually a choice, instead it is momentum. Then friends, family, loved-ones step up to the side of the course. The shout, they cheer, they smile encouragement. They offer water, some even run a little way with him. At first, recognition eludes the runner, but slowly, eyes begin to draw back to focus, calves begin to flex on the planting step.

I pray that I might be the first traveler, the racer and the supporters.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Green City

So Abu Dhabi is constructing a green city. This article in the BBC details the project. Stats from the article boast of 25% of power consumption and 60% of water consumption of a similar sized, non-green community.

This is ambitious and amazing. My question, however, is why is this happening in Abu Dhabi?

I mean yes, the oil nation has plenty of disposable income, and an image problem due to its excessive carbon foot-print, but I don't think those should be strong enough reasons in and of themselves to justify a 22bn USD investment. The world community does not exert enough pressure for carbon excess (yet) to make that much of a motivator, and money can always be used to make more palm-frond islands or islands to represent the globe.

I am going to assume that the leaders of UAE are somewhat rational, and by that I mean that they have their own best interests in mind when they are using their money. As a result, the two reasons I can come up with for the construction of this green city are publicity and technological investment.

Publicity is not hard to grasp. If the country makes headlines with the crazy islands, with a green city, maybe people (from Europe or the US or wherever) will want to go there and spend money.

Technological investment is pretty straight forward as well. I think that pretty much everyone believes that at some point we will need sustainable energy apart from fossil fuels, and the only question is when. Note that this is not an argument about global warming or even pollution in general, but instead an argument about consumption of a limited resource and the increasing cost linked to its increasing scarcity.

My question again, is why is this happening in Abu Dhabi?

Why is the US not taking the initiative on a technology that obviously be at the forefront of the global economy down the road? Economically speaking, private enterprise will shift to sustainable energy when it is cost effective, but our energy is not taxed as heavily as Europe and the social cost (social pressure) is not as high as well. This means that places like the UK, France, Germany, or even the UAE will be years ahead of the US in development of cost effective, large-scale solutions to the energy problem (not involving ethanol since that diverts food stuffs and demands so much geographic area), that even with the huge amount of intellectual capital that the US has to expend, I just don't think we would be able to make up lost ground.

The US currently is a world economic leader because of its innovation, its technology. If we are not pressing forward on such an obvious technological front, I think that our position in the global economy will weaken.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Why the Balancing Act?

This earlier post talked about two sides, schools of thought, on education.

Here is a summary from one of the education blog reel I read. It emphasizes the human quality of teaching including the following:
I’m concerned with the jobs my students get - especially with the jobs my special education students get. But I’m more concerned with the sort of people they become. And what of the minimalist approach that looks at children and teenagers and thinks first (or only) about their place in society’s economy? I find it insulting to core. It makes me want to heckle public speakers and defend the values I imbibed as a student of the liberal arts.
- Dangerously Irrelevant Blog

For another view on this topic, this blog post by another TFA alum argues for national assessments.
Won't this just take teaching to the test to the nth degree?
Teaching to the test happens when the test doesn't reflect what otherwise should be taught. If teaching to the test becomes teaching students to pass a vital, standards-based, focused assessment each week, isn't that just teaching with a test?
- from the t.f.a. trenches Blog

I do not mean to set these two articles up as mutually exclusive. Instead, I have noticed in my own teaching experience that I struggle to strike a balance between the ideas of giving character and life type education and more formal skill and knowledge type education. There is a finite amount of time in the classroom, and every decision I make moves my students toward some end. With data in front of me and always at the forefront of my mind, I tend to get caught up in how far my students have to go, and how much we need to focus on skills. I forget that there is more to life, more that my students need to experience to be successful.

This is especially true in middle school. I guess my conclusion is that we need national assessments. We need the accountability. Our students are supposed to be receiving a service, a product, and only assessment gives the nation or the public or the consumer/student feedback on what that service actually amounts to. In this push to provide an excellent product, an excellent education however, we educators cannot lose sight of the fact that an excellent education is more than just making a growth goal or making a mastery number for the year or passing an exit exam. We educators must also make choices that provide opportunities for providing decision making abilities, ethics, communication, social structures. We must make instructional decisions that make life possible in our classrooms.


I have been inspired by Haywood and all his music posting. First, I have been slowly listening to his music recommendations. But that is not the important part of this post.

The important part is Pandora.

Pandora is a website that lets you create radio stations. The site creators spent three or four years characterizing music by lots of different attributes or genes, and then formed a 'music genome' that allows comparisons between different musicians. So you go, type in a band you want to listen to, and it creates a station that has other artists that have similar qualities.

I have had huge success with the station. I type in something I feel like listening to, and I get a whole station of new music, mostly artists I have never heard of, and all of it is really good.

You can even give feedback on the other songs they are playing so that you can stream-line the station.

The only drawbacks to the site is that you can't control the music flow. You can advance to the next track, but you can't choose a specific artist or track at a particular time. You also can't go back and replay a song. It will come up again, but it is random.

So the lack of control is kind of lame. Okay, it is really lame. But, as far as giving exposure to new music, the site is awesome. So use the tool for what it is meant for. Go discover some new music. Then download it, buy it, or whatever you do so that you can listen at your convenience.

Pandora Station Recommendation: The Fugees

GourMAN, Mark III

News on the GourMAN front.

The movement is building. I have independent confirmations from Michigan, Indiana and Texas that the word is getting play.

In an effort to build the cause for widespread use of "gourman", I created an Urban dictionary entry for it. Ha! Go check it out and click the thumbs up to give it more credibility. Grassroots is the way to go. (I accidentally created two copies because I am an idiot. And I can't delete one yet. I'm working on that.)

Here is an account from my buddy in Holland, MI:
"i used the word gourman last night. :) people received it well!"

Here is a picture of the GourMAN meal that we made last weekend.

We had grilled pork chops, seasoned vegetables (mushrooms, yellow squash, zucchini, and red onions), and sweet potato wedge fries. Serious shout out to Ms. T for the sweet potato fries idea. I had them at her house, and have since incorporated them into my arsenal. They are a solid performer.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Balancing Act in Action

This post is wrapping up my teacher-talk on planning and NCLB. When last mentioned, a question about "What Ought to be Taught" loomed on our collective horizon.

This question has two sides, as I see it. The first, I shall term Accountability. The Accountability side of the debate centers on, well, accountability. "We need accountability for students, for teachers, for administrators and for schools, and shoot, while we're at it, we need accountability on the policy-makers and politicians setting this whole system up too," might be the call to arms for the Accountability Camp. They might take issue with what exactly should be assessed, but some assessment is better than no assessment, and let's be honest, this is a work-in-progress folks, so they will take the TAKS test, they will take the NY Regents, they will take the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, they will call for greater state-to-state alignment and national standards. They will call for merit pay because we should reward teachers who actually, well, teach...well. They will call for high expectations; high expectations for student learning, high expectations for teacher performance. The end game for Accountability is an excellent product; in this case, graduates that are capable of doing anything and everything and contributing to society (I assume.)

The somewhat-opposing view I will label as holistic (Note: I am completely making this stuff up. I am trying to put to words the sense I have of how things work, and I don't know how well it conveys the true nature of things.). This view is that students are Individuals, people. They have desires, needs, dreams, and education should lead them to self-actualization so that they can choose for themselves the path for their lives. As a teacher then, my role would be to help students to understand the world and their place in it, to help them learn to ask and answer questions that they themselves pose, to give the skills they need to relate to the world. Testing does not really fit into this structure.

I don't know that I have ironed out exactly what my view on the role of education is, but I know that Pure Accountability makes me feel empty when I teach, while Pure Holistic denies the reality of the system and gatekeepers that students must pass to advance into college or whatever.

A couple of weeks ago I had a lesson that did a pretty good job of balancing these competing purposes.

The lesson was the first of three or four dealing with the equivalence of rational numbers; this idea that fractions, percents and decimals all communicate the same amounts, parts of a whole, but are written in different forms. The objective for the lesson was for my students to see that all the numbers work the same way, and that we can compare them.

The lesson started with a situation.

"You just got a graduation gift of money. How much money do we have?"
Answers would range from $100 to $600. Surprisingly not one class went crazy on this.
"Okay, we have $500 dollars. We are going to put it in a bank account. Does anybody know why we might want to do this?"
Answers included so that we can write checks, to get a credit card, to save it for later. Roughly 20% of my students knew that bank accounts actually pay interest.
"Well, banks actually pay us to put our money there. If we leave our money in the bank, it will get more money for us and we don't have to do anything. So we have three banks to choose from. They have different savings rates. Which one should we choose?"
Kids knew that they wanted the most money possible. That was easy.

So, I conveniently changed the savings rates to easier numbers (none of this 0.32% crap), and made each bank use a different form of the rational numbers. As a class we went through and computed the first banks interest. As a table (group of 3ish), students did the second bank. As individuals, students computed the third bank. This took about 20 minutes.

"So which bank should we put our money in? Oh yea, Bank 3 gave us the most money! Cool. So let's review. We had a fraction a decimal and a percent, but they all gave us about the same amount of money. Hmm. We just spent 20 minutes figuring that out. Do you know we could have figured it out in 2 minutes?"

Groans echoed through the room. "Mister!" came the call from exasperated students.

I now introduce the idea of comparing rational numbers by changing them to the same form. We change them all to percents in 50 seconds, and have the best account in 70.

It was an early release day, so class was over at this point, but my students left knowing something real about the world (saving money in a financial institution helps me not to spend it AND it pays me money) and the saw something true about problem solving (there are many different ways to solve problems, just some are faster than others) and something content-wise (to compare rational numbers I need to have them all in the same form).

I felt extremely satisfied at the end of that lesson.

Monday, January 28, 2008

GourMAN Additions

I am slowly but surely developing a GourMAN MANifesto. We already have categories for presentation and serving size (hence forth called Amplitude, because that is a sweet word), but some new categories that are edging in are Cost to Awesomeness ratio and Food Group Diversity.

I received a heart-warming email from my buddy K on this topic, which is the epitome of GourMAN:

Hey Man, I wanted to let you know that I made a GourMAN meal Friday night in your honor. First, I made a pasta dish with tortellini in a goat cheese cream sauce with peas and cherry tomatoes. Secondly, this is where the GourMAN part comes in, I made pheasant. This isn't store bought pheasant. My good friend Rick shot it, that's right shot it with a gun and brought it to my house. During the preparation process we found a few leftover pellets lodged in the meat and a couple more during mastication. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that your new cooking style has inspired me. I would like to author a chapter in your upcoming book "GourMAN: A Man's Guide to Gourmet". Chapter 9: GourMAN goes Organic!

K has it right. Anything that has been shot, trapped, caught, grown, harvested etc by your own hands immediately gains huge GourMAN points.

We also had a GourMAN meal this evening, but sadly, we destroyed it before any pictures could be taken. In fact, I think I ate so fast that I didn't even breathe. We had two pounds of Atlantic Salmon, a pot full of Royal Blend organic rice, two pounds of steamed broccoli and a large bowl of salad. Bam. Top that Emiril.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Landscape

Nick wrote:
"Which begs the question, should that be the goal of teaching? A standardized test. Or should it be about "learning". In practice, very few students would learn just because that is what education is about. Those are probably already the top students, such as a Mr. Blair as a child. Do the standardized tests help the laggards though? Probably not, nothing probably helps. So you have this middle group. Does it help the middle group? This is not a simple question, and one that I think we can all have opinions to but no right answers. I have teacher friends who loath No Child Left Behind (I have not discussed with Mr. Blair). I don't have a real opinion about it, but I can say with confidence that there was a reason it was created."

I feel so lucky! I have had people actually posting comments on here, and not only that, but the comments are actually thought provoking and interesting and the beginning of a conversation. Granted, pretty much all the comments are coming from one person, who just happens to be a friend of mine, so really I could take this as a sign that we don't talk enough about "important" things...or I could just be glad I have comments.

So. The Goal. Of teaching. I think Nick has been pretty perceptive already with his breakdown of standardized testing; Standardized testing is not (IMO) meant to focus/motivate/assess individual students. It is meant to compare bodies of students. It is like any data metric; an average cannot tell us what is wrong in particular, but it can show the symptoms. I would view standardized testing's role as accountability and information; the tests hold teachers, schools, districts, states, and yes students, accountable for the materials that is 'supposed to be taught' in a given time period. It also gives information about student groups that are being under-served, specific weaknesses in content.

The problem is not that the tests exist. The tests ought to exist. The problem is in their use. First, they are used as a control device by the federal government. Schools are not a federal power, so the only way that the federal government can meddle, or attempt to meddle, is through money, whether bribes or threats. So the tests are attached to money. And this is where the problem comes in; as a teacher in a Title I school, our autonomy and our jobs hang in the balance if our students to do not perform well. If they do poorly, the government brings in oversight, pays for a program that we are forced to follow (this is how you raise your hand, this is what you say at 12:31.4 this is what you should ask, this is your homework), and then they will eventually cut all positions and restaff if it gets bad enough.

That creates a culture of fear and gives power to the test. Also incorporated in this is the very real nature of the tests as an individual gatekeeper; if the tests are being used for accountability, the students should feel some of that accountability as well. Hence we now have pass to advance in (I think) 3rd, 5th, 8th, 11th. Our kids are tracked (somewhat) based on results. More power for the test. More fear.

These are the things that are going on. I know the things my kids and I are accountable for. I know the level of depth we must reach. I also know where my students enter my class; they enter behind. We need to catch up.

As a result I am always balancing competing desires as I write a lesson:
  • The desire for my kids to know the material
  • The desire to honor and dignify my students as people
  • The desire to not bore myself
  • The desire for my students to do well on the TAKS test
I might also include on this list "the desire to not spend 100 years planning each lesson", which is something that I feel is both justified and at the same time somewhat lamentable.

There are times when I focus too much on TAKS, and I get fed up, because I am doing a disservice to my kids. And there are times when I focus too much on just knowing the material and having real-life applicability (honoring my kids status as People) and then we have a TAKS question and it is worded weird and my kids can't answer it.

What should teaching be about? Probably 90% the first three and 10% the last one. But my kids just do not cross-apply knowledge well. I don't know why. I can't remember if I had trouble with that or not. So I have to teach TAKS to some degree. The degree is always varying.

Next time: An example of this balancing act in action.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Backwards Design - Planning

Since Nick got me going on Test Creation, I thought I would continue to unleash all of my incomplete knowledge of planning. I aspire to be a cautionary tale, so hopefully this ends up helping somebody.

Here is my current planning cycle:
  1. Beginning of the year: Look at all of the objectives that the State of Texas suggests 7th graders ought to know. These are found in the list of TEKS.
    1. I then group these objectives into thematic units based on synergistic skills. So I put percents operations together with proportions because I plan on teaching percent operations using proportions.
    2. Next I organize the units into a general order so that most basic skills are taught first. This insures that students have all the prior knowledge necessary for whatever unit they are starting. This is called my (cue theme music) "Long Term Plan".
  2. During the year: Before each unit I read through all of the test materials and book materials for the learning objectives contained in that unit.
    1. I go through the test creation cycle described in my other post.
    2. I create quizzes that are very similar to the tests, differing only in their length and scope. They still scaffold from ground up to TAKS, but they will only cover 1 or 2 skills, and be limited to 4 or 5 questions total.
    3. I look at my Long Term Plan to figure out how long I have to teach the unit. I break out my calendar and fit my test and quizzes onto it.
    4. Before I put the rest of my lessons on the calendar, I break down the objectives into all of the skills and knowledge that my students will need to obtain in order to be successful on the tests and quizzes that I wrote.
    5. Using this list of skills and knowledge, I fit them into general lessons and assign them to the remaining days on the calendar.
  3. During the week: For each day I review what my students need to learn to be on track for the upcoming test/quiz, and review practice materials, previous lesson plans, exceptional lessons (from NCTM or other EduBloggers for example), and textbooks.
    1. Knowing what my students need to know for a given day, I write some sort of assessment for that day. Sometimes it is the homework, sometimes it is just a question at the end of the class. Whatever it is, that is the daily progress to goal measurement.
    2. With the daily 'assessment' written, the rest comes out in whatever it comes. Sometimes I will have a good idea of the practice I want to use. Others I will have an idea of the Introduction of New Material (the actual teaching) section. The important thing here is that I build gatekeepers into the lesson between INM and guided practice, guided practice and independent practice so that I know my kids will be able to handle the next step of autonomy without wasting a bunch of time.
So that's the process I've been running with this year. I definitely don't stick to it all the time, even though I should. Some units don't get all of the Unit Plan completed before we start; learning suffers as a result. I didn't start adding quizzes into my up-front planning until the end of November, so that would have helped earlier units. I didn't planning the INM to GP to IP gatekeepers until the end of October, so that definitely hurt instruction.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Backwards Design - Test Creation

Nick asked about assessment. He opened Pandora's Proverbial Box of Everything, so blame him when you start reading this and get bored. In an effort to save all you poor souls from reading, I will give the short answer here, and the long answer in a second post.

"This is interesting. How did you create a target quiz/test score from a needed score on what I expect is a different type of test entirely. Unless these test/quizzes are in the same format as the TAKS examine. Not questioning your methodology. I just wanna know how it was done, so I can use it in other applications." - Nick

There are four released TAKS tests. I also have textbook materials from 4 different publishers that are supposed to be aligned with the TAKS test, although any given learning objective has many interpretations, so there is a fair amount of variability between publishers. With these examples, I know what a specific learning objective looks like (in terms of assessment) for any of the 34 or so that my kids are supposed to know by the end of the year.

For any instructional unit, my assessment will have questions that scaffold from basic knowledge based questions up to the level that TAKS requires. I will have usually 4 questions per learning objective, with at least half of them being TAKS (literally off the TAKS test) or TAKS equivalent questions.

An example:
I have an objective: 7.1A compare and order integers and positive rational numbers.

My students need to be able to compare:

  1. Fractions with fractions
  2. Decimals with decimals
  3. Percents with percents
  4. Integers with integers
  5. Fractions with decimals
  6. Fractions with percents
  7. Decimals with fractions
  8. All 3 at the same time
  9. All 3 with integers
So I might ask 1 greater than/less than question for the first 7 items. These will be easy, low-level. Then I will ask maybe four questions with #8 and four questions with #9. Probably 6 of the 8 questions would be TAKS or TAKS equivalent, with 2 being "put these in order from greatest to least".

The end grade doesn't exactly match with the TAKS test because of the easy questions, but it does give an accurate view of how well the student knows that particular learning objective. And really, the goal is not, necessarily, to predict how the student will do, since the type of questions on the test change almost every year. The point is to see what areas the student knows and doesn't know so that I can give targeted remediation to sub-groups of students so that they have the tools to be able to pass regardless of questions.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tutorial Groups

Yes this is another education post. Be warned.

The second nine weeks ended on Friday. My kids have a four day weekend, so they did not have to come in while the teachers rolled up their grades and made plans for the third nine weeks.

The third nine weeks is pivotal as it leads into the most dreaded time for students: Standardized Testing. Last year did not go so well for my kids (read: "sucked"), and almost all of my efforts this year in planning, in organization and in instruction have been focused on having my students prepared to stomp the TAKS test on April 29th.

Since I want as many kids to pass as possible, and to do well as possible, at some point it becomes necessary to offer some extra practice to certain students that just aren't making it in the regular class time. Therefore, I welcome, tutorials (cue ominous music).

Grouping for tutorials has been particularly hard. I have about 30 kids who are currently not on pace to pass the test, but of that 30, I have 10 who even with the most intense help won't be able to do it this year. Based on where they came in to my class, even if they grew by roughly 10% (I made a growth goal for each of my students this year, based on standardized tests, and then backed out a target percentage for each quiz/test) they still would not pass. So what do I do with them? I decide not to use tutorial time with these students.

Then there is a group of kids who are supposed to make Commended (90%) on the test this year, and for whatever reason (read: boys/girls, sex, hormones, drugs, gangs, home-life, personality clash, boredom) they are not on track to get close. Should I offer them tutorials? They will probably pass already, but I don't want to just leave smart kids behind where they should be either? I decide to make one-day a week a Challenge Group.

I also have a group of kids that are right on the bubble of passing. They will probably pass, but I don't want any surprises. I could take kids that are just below the cut-off or just above. I decide to take just below, which is another 10 out of the original group of 30. This group will also be once a week.

Finally, the last 10 out of the original 30 are shown by their performance this year to be really low, but based on their goal, should be passing. This is my final group. They will need tutorials twice a week.

So how I broke it down:
Monday and Thursday: Remediation Group
Wednesday: Bubble Group
Friday: Challenge Group

Then I have to decide which kids actually get in. There are a lot of kids who could use it. There are a lot of kids who will hate it. Should I take the ones who need it most, even if we don't get along? Will I hate my life if I put one of these kids in the group?

I haven't decided what to do about that yet. Maybe this weekend will bring some clarity. For now, I need to go fix my Xbox360. My life satisfaction has dropped significantly without Guitar Hero 3.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is that Gray Poupon? No, it's GourMAN.

I've created some extraordinary meals of late.

Normally, I shy away from anything (or anybody) that would label my cooking as gourmet. I feel like the word gourmet, and really, a person who might be called a gourmet (yea you can use it like that, I checked) usually connotes a general priggishness, and a large case of stick-up-the-butt-itis in particular.

I don't really know what turned me off to that whole side of the culinary spectrum. I would say the emphasis on presentation, but I know from my teaching experience that presentation is crucial to any sort of digestion. I mean, take Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup, put it in a wood bowl with a wood spoon and you could charge $14 for it at some inn in New England. Shoot, I'd pay the $14 bucks, and not even feel bad about it, because of the presentation.

Okay that was a lie. I'd feel bad about it. But I would pay $8. And that's my point. Presentation gets you to all the way to that $8.

I think part of the problem is the small portions. Maybe I am uncultured (not much maybe about that one), but if I leave the meal and want to go make a sandwich because I'm hungry, I get upset.

So I am going to coin a new term, right here in this post. The term is "GourMan". Basically, I took the word Gourmet, cut off the end, and added the word Man. Oh. You got that part?

Well, then the meaning must be somewhat obvious. You take all the good stuff about Gourmet food; the presentation, the complex yet subtle flavors, the variety, the love. Then you take away the weak-at-the-knees, I-can't-finish-this-bowl-of-chili-because-it's-too-hot-ness and add "Give me another bowl of chili, I'm going to go cut down a tree because I can, and then use it to build a baseball bat to hit a home run with (even though I don't like baseball)".

That's Gourman.

My meals are all, by definition, Gourman. Feel free to spread that term around.

Tonight, we ate Bison Burgers, macaroni and cheeses and steamed green beans. Ms. A brought over no-bake cookies. That is a Gourman meal.

Below is a picture of a Gourman meal the men of Essex shared a couple weeks back. Here we have Sirloin Steak, Boiled Red Skin Potatoes and Baked Vegetables (squash, onions, mushrooms).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

I So Fly: A Guide

So a student tells me today, “Mister. You need to get a grill.”

Naturally, I can’t understand this student clearly. And I want to play coy, so I respond, “I need to get a girl or a grill?”

Student: “Well, both. But first the grill. And a new look.”

Me: “I need a new look? I changed my hair this week!”

Student: “And you need some rocawear jeans.”

Me: “What’s that?”

Falling out of seat with laughter
Student: “You don’t know Rocawear? You haven’t seen this symbol?”

Shows me symbol
Me: “Nope.”

Student: “Oh man, you need those.”

Me: “Well, make me a list of all the things I need.”

Student: “Okay, I will.”

On the way to lunch the student drafted a list of improvements to the Mr. Blair persona. What follows is the actual contents of the list. The only changes are spelling. (he spelled Mohawk mohak for example).
Here’s the list:

  1. Get a Mohawk
  2. Get a chain that hangs low
  3. Find a posse
  4. get a girlfriend or buy one
  5. get a grill
  6. get a new look
  7. buy new Jordan's
  8. get a belt with your name on the buckle
  9. get bigger pants that’s Rocawear
  10. get a polo shirt
I don't know whether to be pleased that I am so far from being cool or disappointed. I know that #11 is simply not possible, so I guess super-flydom is simply unattainable, but still, I could pull the rest of this off for less than $300. That's a small price to pay for street-cred via fashion.

I think I am somehow going to use this list to my advantage. Something along the lines of "I will do all of these things if we average an 80% on the TAKS test" might be in order.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

More on the Wire

I was reading Pop Candy, a USA Today blog about pop culture, and stumbled across this interview with the head-writer for The Wire.

The interview is pretty long, but I found it very interesting where all the material came from, and the history of the show.

I also liked how he explained the structure of the show:
" But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It’s the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no decent reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millennium, so to speak. Because so much of television is about providing catharsis and redemption and the triumph of character, a drama in which postmodern institutions trump individuality and morality and justice seems different in some ways, I think."

Amazing how he puts words to the desperation, the tunnel vision, the tightness in my chest that I feel at the culmination of every season, and nearly every episode. These structures feel omnipotent in their reach, directorless in their decisions, and uncaring in their affects.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Guitar Hero 3 and The Wire

I purchased Guitar Hero 3 on Friday. I had a gift card, so the $108 price tag was reduced to a reasonable amount, but after playing it for about 10 hours since purchase, I think that I will at least get $108 worth of enjoyment from it.

First, there is a new wireless guitar with GH3. The wireless guitar is a huge step up. The range is very good, the buttons are more responsive than the GH2 guitar, and it comes with stickers. So now I have some flaming monkey heads on my guitar. Sweet huh?

After the guitar, and really, the whole reason for the game, is the set list; the set list for GH3 is excellent. There are selections from lots of big names such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Who and Guns N Roses, as well as lots of classic songs that everyone knows the words to.

We now have 2 guitars, after purchasing GH2 and GH3, so we also have the opportunity to play co-op songs. This is a lot of fun, and a ridiculous show for any other people that are not playing. I always do my best to have a solid rock pose, make good facial expressions, and generally make a fool out of myself.

I just finished watching season 4 of The Wire. If you have not heard about or seen The Wire yet, you owe it to yourself to check this show out. Basically, the show is about the American Inner-City and all the forces that converge there for money, power, fame, influence, life, love, whatever. Season 1 followed an individual drug crew, season 2 focused on the docks, season 3 focused on politics, season 4 on the education system. Season 5 starts tomorrow on HBO, and focuses on the newspaper.

A small group of police officers form the central characters to the show across all the season, with a couple other floater characters that consistently pop up. Basically, I think that the Wire is the best television show I have ever seen. It has deep characters, great writing, and lots of moral ambiguity. All the 'good guys' make mistakes or have demons in their closets. They are faced with no-win decisions and just try to make the best of them. The 'bad guys' generally hold to some code of ethics that in many times trumps that of the police or politicians. Throughout, I find myself reevaluating concepts of right and wrong, and thinking about what I would do in similar situations.