Sunday, November 23, 2014

Personal Days

Okay, so there's a school district that has set aside Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as teacher work days. Students don't have school. But teachers do. I don't know what to call these anymore: staff development, in-service, work sessions. Who knows. Recently, those teachers received word that no requests for personal days would be honored for Monday or Tuesday. So, I'm wondering, why? 

a) because the district can
b) because there's worthwhile stuff for teachers to do
c) because it somehow saves money for the district to say no
d) because it creates some semblance of equity or fairness

I really have no clue. Would be intrigued to know the answer. 

Six. Six weeks now. Six.

A whirlwind weekend ended today. That weekend included a sixth consecutive week at church, on time, too (but we ran out of time to pick up the donuts). Readers might want to see what all we did.

Friday night: hosted some family over before seeing my nephew in Once in a Lifetime.

Saturday: ran a 5k, saw a friend in a play, took in the Lansdale Mardi Gras parade (yes, in November), ate out

A bright sun made a good selfie impossible, not that that stopped me from taking a selfie. I posted a pretty good time: 7:50 per mile, which is a minute-per-mile less than the 5k I ran in March.

I actually finished in the first sixty. I was more than a little surprised. 

I even tried to sell this car in between events this weekend.
Okay, so this selfie didn't turn out too bad. I loved that Hatfield Quality Meats brought out the retro delivery van. 
Sunday: attended church, performed in a concert.

Dads who Cook

My wife is a better cook than me. She is a superior baker. However, I'm the primary cook of the household. It's been that way since 2000 when she switched to a new employer and started getting home from work later than me. Though we both grew up in households where our moms were the primary cooks, this arrangement hasn't seemed at all strange to us. I therefore appreciated this New York Times article regarding the phenomenon of men in my generation becoming the primary cooks in the household.

I don't pretend to be the caliber of cooks mentioned in this article. I can cook decent food from decent recipes, but my kids (2/3 of my clientele) prefer quick and simple meals. It might, therefore, be more appropriate to call me the household's short-order cook. As a consequence, I don't think my children will grow up remembering my cooking for its quality as much as they will remember it as a symbol of how I was there and how their parents acted as a partnership.

Sherry and I were fortunate in that we were raised in households characterized by parents who were there, who were involved, and showed us what a partnership looked like. Of course in the 1980s we were closer to 1950s and 1960s definitions of gender roles than we are now. Also, I think cooks (for our generation, usually moms) had at least a little bit more time to prepare meals. Also, they had fewer gadgets and toys (I don't remember microwaves coming to the kitchen until the mid-1980s), a fact that both necessitated and incentivized a higher skill level at the stove. So, I think Sherry and I will continue the tradition of showing our kids what a marriage premised on partnership looks like but will not pass down as powerful a legacy of good cooking as we enjoyed.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Cold War Roadshow

PBS recently aired an episode of American Experience entitled "Cold War Roadshow." It chronicled Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the U.S. in 1959. The story is an intriguing one about misunderstood motives and unintended outcomes. At times neither the Soviet leader nor American citizens behaved at their best. The short film is filled with all sorts of video featuring the pale color or grainy television broadcasting of that era, the sort of video that gives me historical chills. This shouldn't surprise my readers, given my disposition to play boardgames for hours on end depicting the Cold War. In fact, I could think of a few cards to add to Twilight Struggle based on scenes from "Cold War Roadshow."

The plane Khrushchev flew to come to America in 1959 apparently exists at a museum in Russia. That would constitute another bucket list entry. 

My idea of a good time involves swapping cards like this across a table with a friend on a weekend afternoon. 
We often talk about heroes and legends who bring about great moments in world history. The video made me think of a stumbler who brought about something great in world history. Khrushchev was clumsy. So clumsy he was essentially fired as the Soviet Union's leader in 1964 (and lived to tell the tale). So clumsy, he almost precipitated a nuclear war when he directed his missiles to Cuba. Thank goodness we had a fairly sure-handed president who defused that crisis (after he had stumbled earlier with the Bay of Pigs). In fact, there is a narrow period of the Cold War characterized more by stumbles than steps: the late 1950s and early 1960s. It's somewhat remarkable there wasn't loss of life, or loss of human civilization, as a result of such missteps.

"Cold War Roadshow" interviews some historians who make very good points about how Khrushchev may have unwittingly brought about the end of the Cold War. First, by denouncing Stalin in 1956 he precipitated a significant decline in the ideology on which the Soviet Union was founded. That decline couldn't be reversed. Second, interactions with common American people (the leaders he met often angered him) during that road trip might have disinclined him from ultimately giving the order that would push us into war. He met too many Americans to not understand our common humanity. Those sentiments, the one historian argued, tempered Khrushchev during the turbulent misunderstandings that began with the shooting down of the U-2 up through the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It might be helpful for us to consider the role of stumblers like Khrushchev though it seems more simple to look at the sure hands who are more often given credit. Ronald Reagan was the smooth communicator. Mikhail Gorbachev was the precise engineer. These two are most often given the credit for ending the Cold War. I appreciate American Experience's interpretation that its end wasn't quite so intentional or sure-handed.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Another Squandered Day

Since I began teaching Macroeconomics in 2011 I've instituted a tradition of shutting down the class one day per semester* to play economics board games. All of the games, being economic in nature, implicitly convey opportunity cost. Over and above that, the games can also teach about . . .

Comparative advantage and specialization (Pandemic)

The importance of investment to productive possibilities (Ticket to Ride, Agricola, Settlers of Catan)

The value of trade (Settlers of Catan)

Injections and stimulus measures (Kuhhandel)

I take great joy in watching 12th graders spend an hour or so learning a game they've never even seen, get involved in disputes over livestock and cars, and walk out of the room figuring out how they'll pool their resources to buy their own board to play again.

*Usually, at students' request, there's a 2nd day near the end of the semester.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Five, I meant five!

Yikes! I'm getting lazy in updating this blog. We made it to church last week too. It was for a Saturday service, seeing two good friends baptized, an event that made our day.

I'll be blunt: I had misgivings for much of my first couple of years at our new church home. We joined in 2009, when the church was going through a prolonged version of the dreaded "t" word: transition. It's a large congregation, at least by Lutheran standards. I'm glad we gutted it through, because it's good to have a spiritual home and Trinity has become that for us.

One of my happier moments in the last couple of weeks was seeing my son's reaction to the pair of classes we attended on reading the Bible. Sam will be presented with a Bible next week, something our church does for 3rd graders. I loved the invitation offered to my son that he write in his Bible, that he interact with it. And I'm glad it's a behavior I've been modeling for him all this time.

Some day I need to write about the mess that my Bible is.

Trinity has become a home for us. It's a place my kids know. It's a place where we have another shell of friends and acquaintances. It's a place where I've learned about tolerating imperfection and appreciating patience.

Five weeks in a row. Half way to the Big Kahuna.

Another Sign My Teaching Has Changed

I granted my 12th graders 90 minutes to work on a research paper due Wednesday. I pretty much stayed out of their way, rotating through to deal with individual issues regarding citations and organization. I gave some instruction about some methodological issues and made some materials available they might find useful. But generally, I let them work. And they worked. The conversations I overheard consisted mostly of peers checking with one another on how to cite a source, or how they'd recommend structuring an argument. The talk and work, the hum of activity, showed me that they came prepared.

Today was one of many signs that my efforts to create a the culture I've wanted with these seniors has largely paid off. 

There was another sign. I called one of my students aside to congratulate him on earning a perfect score on Friday's test, a test I'm returning to the class later this week. A smile beamed across his face. "Hey, that's the first unit that I read the chapters for!"

I exercised my discretion by not reminding him of the dangers of ending a sentence with a preposition. 

I don't doubt that it was the first exam for which he adequately prepared. I've approached the economics course I teach in something of a casual style. There is no point value for homework completion or for quizzes. The only grades that matter, really, are for exams and projects. I permit students the freedom to evaluate the costs and benefits of spending their time to prepare for class. They can conclude whether or not they were satisfied with the grades coming forth from their efforts. Teaching this course has given me the humility to know that despite the best of my efforts, some of the material will come more easily to some than to others. My understanding of the nature of kids is that they need to experiment with cutting corners and taking risks. 

Some might say that I'm irresponsible for not requiring reading and homework, for not demanding more of a commitment from my students. Yet I consider myself privileged to be in a position, due to my experience and credibility, to offer my students the chance to take risks and figure out what they want. It's an over-programmed world, a world in which kids are accustomed to adults making the major decisions for them. AP Macroeconomics is a forum in which I can let them dabble with responsibility and irresponsibility, and let them figure out what they're capable of doing, even if doing that means learning from the lessons of underperforming. 

I'm learning a lot this year about fostering the atmosphere that I want to foster in my high school classroom. An atmosphere for learning about what's interesting, about cultivating curiosity, about how to model the way in which adults and adults-in-training work with one another. I'm learning a lot about engaging with kids who have a lot in front of them and a bewildering amount of stuff going on around them. I'm laughing a lot, and modeling what it is to be engaged with the news, real life, an academic discipline, and with intelligent, interesting people.

I'm also learning how one cannot conduct a classroom in a manner inconsistent with the values of the discipline one teaches. Economics often leads us to the conclusion "it depends." Economics teaches us that we can give our best efforts to make something more likely, but a lot of stuff can intervene. It's a different kind of humility than the discipline of history, the discipline in which I have my formal training. And, sadly, it's a discipline that commands such a different outlook on how I should engage the learner that I might become unsuitable for teaching history.