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.