An Open Letter to High School Teachers

During Saturday morning’s 16-mile run, the high school princiPAL asked me to write his faculty about what they can do to increase the odds that their college-bound students are successful once at their universities of choice. Happy to, but I should note from the outset that I’ve massaged the request by focusing more exclusively on how to help the college bound improve as writers—a critical component to succeeding in college.

A confession. The following typology of first year students who struggle with the transition to college-level writing is an exercise in pre-writing, an incomplete, initial draft. Consider this a sneak-peak at my process. In the final draft, which needs to be framed positively, I’ll focus on what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Some background. I was a high school social studies teacher for five years—four in Los Angeles and one in Ethiopia. I teach graduate pre-service teachers and first year writing seminars. It’s my Writing 101 teaching that informs what follows. More specifically, I’ve taught first year writing seminars at two liberal arts colleges over the last two decades on changing themes of my choosing including: Globalization; Reinventing the American High School; The Challenges and Rewards of Teaching; and currently, The Art of Living.

Here are five first year college student types that often struggle with the transition to college writing:

1) “Inflated Sense of Skills” student—This predicament is most common among students who graduated from high schools marked by serial absenteeism; unfinished, late student work; and missing assignments. Quite often, given the informal “not everyone can fail” grading curve at work in these schools, students who complete their work on time end up receiving very good marks without much attention to the quality of the work. These students develop identities as “A” students; consequently, it’s disorienting when they receive lower grades on their initial college papers. It’s difficult for these students to quickly adjust from being ahead of their high school peers to being behind their university ones who attended more rigorous high schools.

2) “Five Paragraph, Standardized Essay Exam” student—These students, who tend towards concrete-sequential thinking, have committed the standard five paragraph essay form to heart. They have become so adept at the five-paragraph essay—a thesis, three main points, three supporting details—that they think of writing as a “fill in the blanks” activity. As a result, their writing lacks voice and fails to engage readers.

3) “Grade Fixation” student—These students view writing like everything else school-related, as a no holds barred competition. The single-minded goal is to earn the highest possible grade on each individual paper. They resist the notion that writing is a process requiring continuous editing and they have an aversion to feedback. Continuous improvement is less important than earning “A’s”. These students tend to dislike writing.

4) “Narrow Repertoire” student—These students let it be known early on that they “love creative writing” and “dislike doing research papers”. Or less often, “love doing research papers” and “dislike creative writing”. Preferred forms are completely understandable, but these students’ sensibilities about their writing strengths and next steps are far too fixed.

5) “Interpersonally Challenged” student—These students struggle to interact thoughtfully with their classmates. They don’t listen attentively to others and/or maintain consistent eye-contact with whomever is speaking. Sometimes they talk over others and dominate discussions to the point that the other students eventually tune them out. As a result, these students fail to earn the respect of their classmates and don’t fully benefit from peer editing.

Stay tuned. By reflecting on this typology I’ll come up with what high school teachers might do to help college-bound students succeed in writing intensive courses.

Sayonara Ichiro

On Monday afternoon Ichiro switched lockerrooms and traded his Mariners uni for pinstripes. Wins for losses. Unless you’re a Pacific Northwesterner or serious baseball fan, you probably don’t know that veteran Mariners don’t fade away, they just sign with the Damn Yankees.

I’ll never forget one of Ichiro’s first Mariner games when he threw a guy out at third from deep right. The “laser beam”. The best throw I’ve ever seen (at 3:52).

Despite having played 11.5 years in Seattle and being a future Hall of Famer, most Mariner fans have an “it’s about time, don’t let the door hit you on the way out” attitude towards the trade. When Griffey was traded to the Reds in 2000, M fans were crestfallen. Why the dramatic difference?

Here’s the alleged rap against Ichiro:

• he’s selfish as evidenced by his singleminded pursuit of a record number of hits at the expense of working counts, getting walked, and creating even more havoc on the bases

• he’s selfish as evidenced by his keeping to himself and providing zero clubhouse leadership despite being the team’s best player throughout most of his M career

• he was a diva—as his salary skyrocketed and his skills declined in recent years, coaches couldn’t move him in the batting order, rest him, or (until Monday) trade him because over the years, the team’s Japanese owners, his agent, and him yielded more power than the team’s shorter-tenure GM and coach

• he was duplicitous, speaking English in private while using a Japanese interpreter in public

To muddy the water even more, reporters that covered the team in the 90’s describe Griffey as difficult, surly, impersonal. Maybe the dramatic difference is the result of one, or a mix, of three possibilities.

Theory One. Griffey’s passionate style of play, his prodigious homeruns and willingness to run full speed into the centerfield wall to make a catch, more than compensated for his own interpersonal limitations. Also add into the mix the way he came up, starring immediately, with his dad in the lineup. The Kid.

Theory Two. Griffey was beloved in part because at least half the time his M’s won. The M’s lost for eleven of Ichiro’s twelve years. His popularity suffered as a result of management that wasn’t willing to spend enough to build a team that could compete. Just as Griffey benefited from positive winning vibes, Ichiro paid the price of mounting fan frustration.

Theory Three. Admittedly, far less flattering. Instead of seeing Ichiro as one, especially introverted person, many M fans didn’t understand or appreciate the cultural differences he had to deal with daily, and ultimately ended up resenting his foreignness. Given the stark contrast, I can’t help but wonder if the Grif-Ichi public sentiment chasm is at least partially explained by xenophobia.

Any of these resonate? Have another theory?

Before

After

How About a Vehicle Mileage Tax?

To deal with population growth, traffic density, and global warming.

From Slate Magazine.

Looking for a way to raise money for roads and public transit, San Francisco Bay Area transportation officials have decided to look into a novel idea: Taxing drivers for every mile they drive. The hypothetical tax—which at this point is only being studied as part of a long-range plan—could run from as little as a penny to as much as a dime per mile, perhaps depending on the time of day, according to the Associated Press.

The VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax, the thinking goes, would not only bring in new revenue but encourage people to drive less. The San Jose Mercury News reports that small pilot tests of a VMT tax in cities in Oregon and Washington have shown “encouraging” results, with drivers reducing their total mileage to save money.

Sure, but how does the government propose to keep track of the number of miles that every driver drives? Under the idea being studied by the San Francisco-area Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the Mercury News’ Mike Rosenberg explains, “Drivers would likely have to install GPS-like trackers on their cars to tally travel in the nine-county Bay Area, from freeways to neighborhood streets, with only low-income people exempted.”

Oh but don’t worry, the government would never dream of using these tracking devices for anything except tallying the total number of miles you drive. “The last thing we’re interested in is where you go and what you do,” a commission spokesman told the AP.

Here’s how a free-market, true believer, business friend of mine responded to the idea in an email:

Now there is a great plan – lets get people to drive less so more businesses can fail.  Oh, if more businesses fail that mean less tax collections, and therefore leads to higher unemployment.  But wait, we can raise taxes on the successful companies and the people who buy from them can be taxed higher also….I am sure the idiot who proposed this plan, failed Econ 101.  Government can not collect more from a soft economy without slowing it down further.

That same friend often tells me I don’t know shit about business, but even as clueless as I am, I can’t help but wonder why the correlation between miles driven and economic growth is so obvious in his thinking. The pilot studies show people actually save money as a result of driving less. And can’t we presume they spend most of their savings? Albeit at places like Amazon.com. And would the miles driven/economic growth correlation, whatever it might be right now, weaken if urban planners designed more walkable and bicycling friendly neighborhoods, if people began carpooling, or taking public transportation, and/or cycling, and if people purchased even more of what the need and want on-line?

 

Why Are You Preoccupied With How Others Perceive You?

The real question of course is why do we care about how people, in many cases whom we don’t even know well, think about us? Odd how often we willfully hand over how we feel about ourselves to the vagaries of total strangers.

Kraznic has an excellent chapter on money in Wonderbox. He writes eloquently on how status anxiety begets mindless consumerism. We all suffer from status anxiety in different ways and to different degrees. I’m convinced we all suffer from it more than we realize or are willing to admit. Who me? Status anxiety?

When Sixteen spends half an hour on her hair before school, her status anxiety is easy to detect. And developmental psychology helps us understand the normalcy of that, but I will probably never fully understand women and their hair. I realized this anew after receiving an email from my sissy about my mother whom she’s helping move into a new apartment building for seasoned citizens. Today Mother Dear was getting her hair “done” for the first time by the new apartment building’s stylist. And my sissy provided the long distance play-by-play:

Mom is sure the girl will be horrible. We had R take photos from every direction of her newly done hair last week, put it on the iPad and I just showed the photos to the hair girl. She has been doing hair for 42 years so we’ll see.

Picturing the picture taking and thinking about my mom’s anxious pessimism made me chuckle, but then just as quickly they made me think about how we never entirely stop caring about our status.

What are others going to think about me when they see my hair? What about the lawn? How does it compare to the neighbors? The car? The wardrobe? The size of the ring? My waistline, muscles, curves, complexion? The kitchen countertops? The gas grill? The cupboards? The whole damn house? How about the social calendar? The number of friends? The friends’ status? The job title? The salary? The vacation destination? The long-distance triathlon finishing time? The blog readership? The children’s athletic success, academic success, college choices? Their job titles? Their salaries? And the beat (down) goes on.

Madison Avenue is genius at playing on our status anxiety, but it’s too simplistic to blame advertising execs for the sum total of it. There’s something deeper at work, something rooted in human nature. In prehistory, I imagine there was fire envy. “Damn, just look at that family’s raging fire. Yeah and their spears are insanely sharp and hella lethal.”

The goal isn’t to not care at all, it’s to care much less especially about what anonymous others think. When Nineteen was seven her second grade teacher asked me to do a guest lesson on China which I had recently visited. Knowing Seven’s social life was hanging in the balance, I planned a meticulous lesson based on three open-ended questions and some slides from which her classmates and she could deduce answers. Afterwards I bent down and asked, “How’d it go?” And I’ll never forget her words because they were the highest praise I’ve ever received as a long-time, successful educator. “You were perfect Dad.” I want my students to like my courses. And I want my Saturday morning running friends to laugh at my ribald jokes. But I care most about what my wife and daughters think about me.

Tonight, when fifteen other cyclists and I hit the base of Bordeaux in Capitol Forest, and the climb is on in earnest, all we’ll hear is one another’s heavy breathing. The prize for being the first one to the top? Status as the “King of the Mountain”. The same game I lived to play in construction sites forty plus years ago. Everyone will know who the biggest badass is on the return into town.

If I start providing other examples of how I routinely succumb to status anxiety, this post would be my all-time longest, and no one wants that. So let me end with a twist on status anxiety just to illustrate how irrational its grasp can be at times.

I wrote once before that, in 2008, I bought a seal gray Porsche Cayman. It was beautiful and drove entirely different than any other car I’ve ever owned. Mother-Dear says, “You can’t love something that can’t you love back,” so suffice to say, I liked it a whole, whole lot. Originally, that is. Over time, I grew self conscious, increasingly uncomfortable about what other people thought of me when they saw me in it. Did they think that I thought I was better than them because my car was way faster, more expensive, and stylish? A lot of people probably buy Porsches exactly for that reason, but I couldn’t shake the self consciousness. And so I sold it. To a German Microsoftie.

Why did I care so much about what people at church or work thought about what I drove when they don’t really know me? [Dear Microsoftie, I’d like a do-over, a Porsche-based exercise in overcoming status anxiety. Make like Carly Rae and Call Me Maybe.] Ultimately, why do I care about what anyone outside of my family thinks about my (amazing) hair, my (splendid) kitchen counters, my (now completely forgettable) car, or my (still-to-be-determined) triathlon time?

Recovering from training with la ultima status symbol—Australian labradoodle extraordinaire.

The Great Marriage Divide

The GalPal and I enjoyed a fun-filled 25th anniversary last Wednesday. We celebrated by bicycling the Burke-Gilman trail in Seattle, kayaked on Lake Union, took in the King Tut Exhibit, ate at the China Outpost as directed by the Principal, and swam in Lake Washington. More fun than a couple should be allowed to have in one day. Congratulations to my best friend for putting up with me for a quarter cent.

Speaking of marriage, sobering sociology compliments of the New York Times.

Primary point—Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed.

Key excerpts:

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans . . . are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women . . . are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides . . . . Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women . . . who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Whether and whom to marry are the most monumental of decisions, yet most people make them when they’re young and aren’t entirely sure about what they want to do for a living, or how to manage personal finances, or solve conflicts peacefully, or parent.

And through a steady stream of romantic comedies, Hollywood promotes the idea that love and marriage are equal parts physical and emotional. In nearly complete contrast, the New York Times journalists imply love and marriage is a practical partnership, one where two incomes and two parents are needed to successfully manage a household and reliably raise children with promising life prospects.

The stats are depressing and another reason I suppose to go to college. Of course though, finishing college and then marrying is no guarantee that anyone will make it twenty five years. That takes perseverance, commitment, bicycles, and kayaks.

The Burke-Gilman trail

A Work in Progress

I need a personal motto.

A recent headline from Yahoo Personal Finance (YPF) read, “Apple Rebounds to $600, Time to Buy?” For the love of investing fundamentals, someone please alert the knuckleheads at YPF that the objective is to buy low and sell high. “Apple Plummets to $400, Time to Buy?” would make a hell of a lot more sense.

Unless of course Apple is headed to $1,001. Which leads to another recent YPF headline, “Top Analyst Thinks Apple Could Hit $1,001″. “Top Analyst” is code for really smart dude who knows way more than you and me. So I guess we should believe him. Wait. He’s also referred to as a “market pro” which means we HAVE to believe him. Thank you top analyst market pro. Since each of my APPL shares is about to go up $400, I think I”ll buy that Cervelo R5 bicycle I’ve had my eye on. More evidence of his intelligence—he covers his ass with “Could”. Here are some other “Could” headlines:

• Relative Unknown Ron Byrnes Could Win the British Open

• The Seattle Mariners Could Win the American League West

• Presidential Candidates Could Take the High Road

• Despite Barely Passing High School Chemistry, Ron Byrnes Could Cure Cancer

Then there’s “Dr. Drew” who received $250k to promote Glaxo’s antidepressant drug. Of course Double D never revealed anything about the payments. Most egregious, he repeatedly used his television pulpit to say it helped cure problems that exceeded what the FDA approved it for. Another doc (among many) was paid a cool $2m to promote the drug.

Daily reminders to read between the lines and remember things aren’t always as they may appear. Reminders too to get some splashy adjectives or a personal motto for yourself.

Cable news networks do it. CNN is “The Most Trusted Name in News”. The Supreme Court rejects health care mandate. Opps! Fox News is “Fair and Balanced.” Opps! And regular people who make wild-ass stock predictions do it. Top analyst, market pro. Another recent YPF headline read, “Goldman’s ‘Rock Star’ Gives His Market Outlook”.

Maybe I should follow suit. The examples illustrate an essential element of moniker or motto making. They don’t have to be true. Repeat them enough and create a hypnotic effect. So aim really, really high.

I’m thinking something like “Ron Byrnes, rock star blogger, friend of small animals, a tribute to humanity.” On second thought, it’s probably unwise to alienate large animals. A work in progress.

No doubt, that right there, “a work in progress,” is what my wonderful wife of 25 years (this week) would recommend for my personal motto.

A More Gentle Pace

I recommend Roman Krznaric’s “The Wonderbox“. From the book flap:

There are many ways to improve our lives: we can turn to the wisdom of philosophers, the teachings of religion, or the latest experiments of psychologists. But we rarely look to history for inspiration—and when we do it can be surprisingly powerful. Uncovering the lessons that can be learned from the past, cultural historian Roman Krznaric explores twelve universal topics from work and love to money and creativity, and reveals the wisdom we’ve been missing. There is much to be learned from Ancient Greece on the different varieties of love; from the industrialising British on job satisfaction; and ancient Japanese pilgrims on the art of travel.

I just finished Chapter Five titled “Time”. I appreciate your making the time to “read me,” but my guess is you won’t follow the book link, let alone read the book because you don’t have the time. Here’s one pgraph from Chapter Five to give you the flavor flav of the book:

My adventures with time are not simply a rejection of the clock, but an embrace of absorbing the world at a more gentle pace. When I got to an art gallery, I try to visit only two or three paintings. Each morning I walk in the garden and search for something that has changed—perhaps a bud that has opened or a new spiderweb—which helps bring a stillness to the beginning of the day. I attempt to eat slowly, savouring the flavours. Almost everybody laughs at my tiny diary, which give each day a space half the length of my little finger. As it is so easily filled, it helps keep down my number of appointments. Artificial? Absolutely. But it works for me. The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.

Krznaric doesn’t wear a watch, programs his phone and other gadgets so the time doesn’t show, and covers the built-in clocks on his kitchen appliances in an effort to resist modern society’s all encompassing artificial demarcations of time.

You may do the same a few days or weeks a year when on vacation. There’s nothing much more liberating than, temporarily at least, disconnecting from time.

Most people equate minimalism with decluttering and that’s an integral part, but planning fewer activities may be even more essential to living more slowly and simply. My North American, upper middle-class suburban peers are particularly susceptible to over planning because they fear their children will be disadvantaged if they don’t participate in nearly every extracurricular activity including sports, music, theater, religious youth or service groups, and family travel.

Chock-full family calendars, found in most suburban kitchens, are testaments to hyper-activity. Consequently, most children really don’t know what to do with “free time”. Especially, screen-free free time.

An insight worth repeating. “The best way I know to have more time, to feel less rushed, and appreciate life to the fullest, is to plan fewer activities.”

The audacity. Slate’s Rachel Larimore disagrees with Krznaric and myself. In Defense of Busyness.

How ’bout you?

Slowing to a complete stop recently on the Deschutes River in Sunriver, Oregon

The GalPal’s morning “to do”—sit by the river.