When Hell Freezes Over

I’ve never actually read Dante’s Inferno, but I have enough 101-level cultural literacy to know that there’s 9 circles of hell described there, each one with its own individual ambiance.

I think one of those hell levels is of the frozen wasteland variety?

I am, of course, ruminating on this notion because I am writing this in glorious Indianapolis, Indiana, where the current temperature is a balmy 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and where tomorrow’s predicted high will be an even more impressive 2 degrees.

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Waiting for Harper

And so it begins. 

Winter has lots of possible beginnings: cultural (Monday after Thanksgiving), calendrical (December 1st), astrological (Winter Solstice), what-have-you. But in my experience as a newbie-Bostonian, I’m pretty sure that the winter storm season doesn’t begin until right about now. There have been exceptions to this, of course: a couple of our years here have had one biggish snowfall in December. But in most years, the first big snow dump seems to happen somewhere around mid-January or MLK day. And even in those years that had a single snowstorm in December, the rotating lineup of winter storms didn’t start until then.

And, right on time, Winter Storm Harper is scheduled to arrive tomorrow evening.

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Reasons Beyond Joy

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a clutter-hound, and that I am kind-of-perpetually trying to figure out how to get that part of my life and our house under control. (Just look at the whole Stuff about Stuff category here on JALC for a few snapshots on this theme…)

So I’ve been vaguely intrigued by the various chatter I’ve been seeing about Marie Kondo‘s new Netflix series.

I haven’t watched this show yet, in large part because I have absolutely been minimizing my TV time in order to keep a priority on my 2019 reading and writing pursuits.

Full disclosure: I’m very much on the fence as to whether I will ever watch it.

Continue reading “Reasons Beyond Joy”

Valhalla was Co-Ed

QUICK HIT: The choir season starts up again tonight, which means my Wednesday posts for the foreseeable future will have to be:

  1. Pre-written and scheduled
  2. Quick and somewhat insubtantial
  3. Non-existent in a “night off” kind of way)

Obviously, today I’ve chosen option 2. Well, not entirely obviously, since I could have pre-written and scheduled this post. But trust me: I didn’t do that. Because my life and to-do list are not currently at such a level of organization and under-controlness. I’d love to tell you otherwise, but I don’t have it in my to maintain that level of facade.

Where was I? Oh yeah: QUICK HIT tonight. In more ways than one. (Go below the fold to see what I mean…)

Continue reading “Valhalla was Co-Ed”

Going (Semi-)Viral

A funny thing happened this past week. A friend of mine shared an upsetting incident on Facebook where she experienced public prejudice against breast-feeding. Her story then went viral, earning (well-deserved) media coverage and public outrage.

That’s not the funny part. The funny thing is what happened next: I wrote a blog post about the event, and then I went viral, too.

See exhibit A, WordPress’s visitor stats summary for JALC during the last couple weeks:

stats copy

The August 12-19 stretch shows me with my customary rate of site visitors — usually somewhere in the 15-25 range, with slight upticks and down-drops depending on factors like weekday vs. weekend, if I skipped a day, etc.

August 20 is when I posted about Ingrid’s experience: you can already see the uptick to 60 site visitors in those hours between hitting “Publish” and midnight, as a few folks started sharing my post within their own networks.

The next day, August 21st was when things hit big (relatively speaking). Yeah, that’s more than 400 hits — and from there, things have dropped off until yesterday and today I seem to have re-equalized back where I started.

So, all told, this is a very mild flavor of “going viral,” as compared to Youtube videos that get hundreds of thousands, or even millions of hits. Still, it was such a disproportionate spike in attention that it feels like the junior baby blogger version of “going viral.” And the sorts of study and self-examination the experience has invited for me — well, I wonder how different these reflections would be if I were talking about 4,000 hits rather than 400. I’m thinking: perhaps not that different at all.

First: Who woulda thunk it? For the most part, my writing here on JALC has been divorced from expectations about achieving any particular readership level on any timetable. The practice for me has been a practice of showing up, of experimenting with regular, focused writing. Finding my voice again. Yes, at some level there’s the prayer of my words being read and having positive impact — otherwise I’d just be writing in my diary rather than in a blog. But I’ve maintained a pretty decent level of non-attachment from any expectations about how many readers I want to have and how quickly I want them to appear.

And if you asked child-free me what sort of post I’d predict might be the first one to get public traction, there’s no way on this earth I would have predicted it be something about breast-feeding and the mommy wars. Talk about a subject that’s completely outside of my field of knowledge! (Okay, not completely, since I do have breasts as an anatomical feature of my body. But still.)  You never know what’s going to hit a nerve and garner that flash of attention. Like catching lightning in a bottle, that is. Write something true and honest and authentic, and I guess sometimes it’ll hit a nerve, fall in with a moment of zeitgeist. But to predict what’s going to hit that zeitgeist energy? Not within my current powers, as so clearly evidenced by the disconnect between my expectations and the actual happening of which JALC post first topped 550 views.

SecondYou never know what’s going to hit a nerve and garner that flash of attention. I’ll admit, however well I’ve maintained a state of non-attachment around my readership numbers where they were at a low and steady pace, that there was something sincerely exciting about seeing the bar graph keep climbing during the 21st. And when I sat down the evening of the 21st to write my first post-viral post, I could absolutely feel myself on a precipice. Feeling the demand that I “measure up” to this new level I’d achieved, feeling the temptation towards finding some other juicy topic that’d be “click bait” and that could build some kind of popularity for myself.

I walked myself back from that precipice, reminding myself: it’s like catching lightning in a bottle, that is. All I can do is continue showing up at the screen, writing as true and authentically as I can, taking on the topics that grab me and won’t let go until I say what I have to say. That’s why I wrote my post to begin with — even though I’ve spent years trying not to comment on parenting choices or the mommy wars. Something about Ingrid’s story just grabbed me, and I couldn’t rest until I wrote about it. That’s the feeling I need to keep following: I can’t rest until I write about this, rather than I think this will get good traffic.

So who knows? Maybe another post of mine will hit a zeitgeist moment a few weeks from now. Or a few years from now. Or never again. It’s all in service, however it unfolds.

I just need to keep in the practice of it. Say it plain, say it true. Stay as authentic as I can be.

Teaching, Trust and Testing

The aspirational arithmetic behind that whole “study an hour a day to become an international expert in your field” thing goes something like this:

  1. Studying/reading an hour a day adds up to you reading/absorbing about a book a week;
  2. Which adds up to about 50 books over the year;
  3. Which adds up to a whole lot of learning.

Now, obviously, by setting more moderate goals about how much “ed-reading” I’m trying to do each day, I have ensured that my own personal arithmetic will be adding up a bit more modestly. Still, I’m pleased to say I’ve finished the first book I started when I set this plan for myself. Two-and-a-half weeks ain’t so bad, all things considered.

SchoolsWeTrustCoverEven though it’s a complete non-sequiteur, the first thing I noticed about Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust was that it was published by Beacon Press. I know of Beacon as the UUA‘s publishing house, but I’d not noticed till today what a vast array of non-UU books is in Beacon’s catalog. Upon reflection, this only makes sense, or else I fear Beacon might have what they call an “unsustainable business model.” Still, I hadn’t even remotely thought of Beacon as publishing education books till I picked this one up. Now I might as well export their entire catalog over to my reading wish list as I continue my ed-reading self-study project.

But on to more substantive matters…

Meier’s book is subtitled Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, and although it was published in 2002, it still senses, to my readerly eyes, as speaking to the current state of schools and schooling. After all, who could read the following passage —

[S]ocial distrust plays itself out in education in the form of draconian attempts to “restore accountability” through standardized schooling and increasing bureaucratization.

The tragedy of this approach is that it undermines what I think is the best way to make schools trustworthy and raise standards. Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust thy are aimed to cure. Even more tragically, standardization and bureaucratization undermine the possibilities for the kind of education we all claim is sorely lacking. (2)

— and not feel its contemporaneousness?

In case you’re interested, here’s a few other reviews:

Meier arranges her book into three sections. Part One discusses different aspects of building a culture of trust within schools: teacher collaboration, parent engagement, being aware of the powerful impacts and implications of race and class differences within the members of a school community (teachers, children, educators). Meier also discusses the importance of creating an environment where children feel safe taking learning risks:

Learning happens fastest when the novices trust the setting so much that they aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or do something dumb. Learning works best, in fact, when the very idea that it’s risky hasn’t even occurred to kids. . . . No one is sorting or ranking us. . . . We’re in the company of people who are most firmly on our side, no matter what. (18)

Throughout these chapters, Meier offers concrete suggestions drawn from her own experience founding small, innovative public schools in NYC and Boston. Meier outlines 7 key qualities for such schools on pages 20-22. To paraphrase:

  1. Safety, both physical safety from violence and also safety from ridicule and safety to learn and make mistakes.
  2. A supportive “expert-to-learner” ratio, achieved by understanding that school communities can draw on other adults and older peers to create a more vibrant & effective learning community.
  3. Opportunities for students to show their own expertise and passion for a topic/subject.
  4. Flexibility in how learners can experience, explore and assimilate new content knowledge.
  5. Setting aside rigid timetables to allow “time for ideas to grow” (21).
  6. Learning that is engaging and enjoyable.
  7. A commitment to connecting school/curricular content to students’  authentic, lived experiences.

Part Three of the book addresses some customary fallacies and misconceptions about the small-school movement, arguing against the common belief that small, successful urban schools are so rare, the products of such exceptional circumstances (a superstar principal, a deep-pocketed foundation, etc.) that their  models of success could never be replicated to serve all the U.S. children in need of better, safer, more engaging schools. In fact, Meier argues, the “failures” often seen in attempts to scale up successful small schools are most often caused by city and state bureaucracies making choices that impose standardization at the cost of standards — at the cost of actual success in teaching and learning.

There’s no way to guarantee that any particular system will work, or will work forever, or will not need endless revising. But until we get over the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to schools, above all for schools that are trustworthy enough to do the job well, we won’t allow ourselves to do the difficult long-term work of redesigning the system, not just the schools. What we need is a new kind of system whose central task is to protect the public space needed for innovation. We need a lean, mean system, with a limited but critical accountability function, to be the guardian of our common public interest, but one that respects the fact that schools must be first and foremost responsive to their own constituents — the members of their community — not to the system. That’s the rub. (172-3, emphasis added)

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You may have notched I skipped passed Part Two of Meier’s book. I did so because its contents — a devastating critique of standardized testing and its primacy in the U.S. educational system — seemed to me not-entirely connected to the book-ended discussion in Parts One and Three about what successful school models could look like and how to achieve them.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Meier’s critique of big testing is powerfully on point. When I called it a “devastating critique,” up above, that was not empty praise on my part.

Quite frankly, I’m afraid to start a more detailed summary with pull-quotes, for fear I will instead try to type out all 70 pages of this verbatim. And I just don’t have that kind of time.* Suffice to say, for the moment, that Meier has added immensely to the depth of my understanding of standardized testing, as well as to the depth of my contempt for its current use in schools. Even if you’re not interested in Meier’s thoughts about school design, Part Two of her book is eminently worth reading as its own little “capsule volume.”

So, a valuable first book in my new Earl-Nightengale-inspired ed-reading project. With any luck, I’ll finish book #2 at a similar fortnightly pace and circle back here.

Now all I need to do is figure out if there’s any sort of note-taking system I want to use to capture what I’m learning and any connections I start to make. Are these “21st century book reports” enough for that purpose, or is there something else that’s worth the doing?

* Or that level of disregard for copyright and the limits of “fair use” conventions.

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Image credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Schools_We_Trust

Hashtag Feminism

#wecandoitI had so much else to say last night about that damn George Will op-ed that I didn’t have time to touch on one thread of the counter-discourse against his misinformed and misogynist rant: the hashtag conversation about #SurvivorPrivilege.

Feminist writer and activist Wagatwe Wanjuki states in an interview on Buzzfeed:

I honestly started the hashtag as a way to share my frustration with the notion that survivors have privilege. It’s one of those situations where I felt like I should laugh so I don’t cry, so I used my sarcasm to start a conversation about how difficult it is to be a survivor. I hope the hashtag will help highlight the absurdity of George Will’s column and that survivors are struggling in the aftermath of sexual violence. No one wants to be the victim of a violent crime.

If you peruse the tweets reproduced in that article, or in similar articles at DCist, Feministing, Ms., and PolicyMic — or, for the moment, if you follow the live twitter feed, though batten down the hatches for the inevitable MRA backlash in 3, 2, 1… — you will see an array of experiences that is likely every bit as heart-breaking and outrage-inducing as you would expect it to be.

For example:

Meanwhile, in another corner of the galaxy, Shonda Rhimes gave the commencement speech at Dartmouth this past Sunday. (Transcript here.) Among the customary mixture of self-revelation (“Shonda, how do you do it all? The answer is this: I don’t”) and platitudes (“Don’t be a dreamer, be a do-er”) is a passage about the importance of activism in the world:

And while we are discussing this, let me say a thing. A hashtag is not helping. #yesallwomen #takebackthenight #notallmen #bringbackourgirls #StopPretendingHashtagsAreTheSameAsDoingSomething

Hashtags are very pretty on twitter. I love them. I will hashtag myself into next week. But a hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr King. A hashtag does not change anything. It’s a hashtag. It’s you, sitting on your butt, typing into your computer and then going back to binge watching your favorite show. For me, it’s Game of Thrones.

Volunteer some hours. Focus on something outside yourself. Devote a slice of your energies towards making the world suck less every week.

(Emphases added by HuffPo.)

As part of an ongoing work project, I’ve been having some conversations with colleagues about the nature of societal and systems change.* We’ve been talking about this topic within the context of educational reform, but the core principles around creating change carry across contexts and topics — including misogyny, patriarchal structures and rape culture.

Let me distill these conversations down to a kindergarten level.  The research suggests that in order for real change to occur, real, lasting, sustained change, three pillars all need to be in place:

  1. People need to know the truth about something (especially when evidentiary truth goes against your assumptions or beyond the limitations of your personal experience)
  2. People need to care, to think that a particular issue matters and that the effort of making change is worth something
  3. People need do-able, impactful actions they can take to make individual change or influence systemic/societal change

So in one way, Shonda’s right: talk alone is not enough to “make the world suck a little less every week.” But I think she goes too far when she says “A hashtag is not helping.” Because action alone isn’t enough — or maybe action would be enough on its own if we lived in a miraculous utopia where everyone was instinctively knowledgeable about and motivated towards right action.

But we don’t live in that magical utopia, so unless people are given information to help them drop their privilege blinders, and unless they are inspired to give a shit, then nothing is gonna evolve.

In other words: hashtags help.

* There are moments my job sucks, and then there are moments when it is really-super-cool.

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Image credit: http://nymag.com/thecut/2013/12/can-feminist-hashtags-dismantle-the-state.html