I Miss My Mom

My mom passed away yesterday. The world seems less kind as a result. Here’s a draft of the obit. Co-authored with my daughter.

Carol J. Byrnes (11.17.30 – 3.15.15)

Carol J. Byrnes liked few things more than the sun. So it was fitting she fell asleep in the sun in Tampa Florida, and didn’t wake up.

Born in Glendive, Montana, Carol enriched the lives of four children, eight grandchildren, two great grandchildren, and extended family and friends.

Carol grew up poor in Eastern Montana, but instead of complaining about life’s challenges, she overcame them with gutty resilience.

Caring and non-judgmental, Carol never forgot her roots. She had an active social conscience and was continually making friends with people different than herself. She liked fancy things, but not fancy people. She enjoyed giving time and money to Tampa’s Women’s Centre.

Carol was kind, warm, affectionate, and fun. She loved fashion magazines and the Los Angeles Lakers. This past December her conversation was peppered with frustrated commentary about Kobe’s lack of playing time, despite his injuries.

Although Carol never felt smart because she mistakenly thought intelligence required formal academic degrees, in truth, she was whip smart. In her teens, she knew that Donald Joseph, her beloved husband of 47 years, was destined for success and they made a great team. She was people- and common-sense smart, and curious about a lot of things including the nickel defense. She embraced grand jury service because she found the legal issues so fascinating. A brilliant speller, an excellent secretary, and a lover of newspapers, she was reading right up to her final sundrenched nap.

We grieve her loss, but honor her memory whenever we treat people with dignity and are generous with our time and money.

Sentence to Ponder

Governor Cuomo version:

In the light of such widespread skepticism about over-reliance on test results—and such widespread consensus about the detrimental effects engendered by teaching to the test—the governor’s doubling down on state test results to assess teachers’ effectiveness seems a questionable calculation.

Why You’ll Buy an iWatch

Because lots of other people will. Might be in two months, years, or decades, but you’ll succumb to the spell Jonathan Ive’s team has cast on our culture.

The early reviewers say what’s most remarkable about the iWatch is they hardly ever take their iPhones out of their pockets anymore. So if having to regularly remove your phone from your pocket is wreaking havoc on your life, you’re in luck. Nevermind that you’ll have to charge it overnight and shouldn’t swim with it. There are less expensive ways to improve your social standing, but not many faster ones.

I recently read a long New Yorker story on Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive. I was amazed to learn that Apple employs three people whose only job is to find and hire the best designers in the world. They typically hire one person a year. Also mind boggling, one part of the soon-to-be-opened new Apple headquarters in Mountain View, CA is a $5b “walled garden”. If it wasn’t the New Yorker, I would assume that’s a typo. Five thousand million dollars on plants?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two things—a different form of design, residential architecture, and Marie Kondo’s fame. Kondo is the best selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Kondo says you should only have things in your home that “spark joy”.

What about whole houses, a residential architecture, that sparks joy?! Very, very few homes in my corner of the country spark joy, probably because architects are focused much more narrowly on profit margins. Instead of asking, does this spark joy, they ask, how much will it cost to build per square foot and what can we reasonably expect to sell it for.

The end result of this calculus is terribly uninteresting neighborhood after terribly uninteresting neighborhood. It’s not the designers’ and builders’ fault, it’s ours for settling for uninspiring designs.

What will it take for us to challenge residential architects to design and build homes that spark joy, and dare I dream, neighborhoods that enrich people’s spirits for centuries to come? Neighborhoods filled with small to medium-sized, eclectic, energy efficient homes? Neighborhoods where art and sound economics co-exist? It will take a new resolve to stop settling for mindless designs.

There are small design and build firms out there doing beautiful work, like this one, but until buyers insist on joy, don’t expect them to scale-up their impressive work anytime soon.

When You Are Adopted. . .

says Aaron Levi, Wilt Chamberlain’s 50 year old son, “rejection is woven into your DNA.”

My family’s version of Manifest Destiny concluded on December 31st, 1973 when we arrived, via a car caravan from Ohio, at a West LA hotel. Immediately after checking in, my demented older brothers decided we had to finish our journey by driving the last few miles to the Pacific Ocean. And then become one with the ocean on probably the coldest day of the year. Running from the Pacific Coast Highway to the water, we looked north towards Pacific Palisades and saw our first SoCal celeb, Wilt the Stilt, playing beach volleyball.

At that exact moment, you could count on one hand the number of people who knew Wilt had a 9 year old son named Aaron, living in Oregon, with his adopted family, the Levi’s. Read or watch the whole moving story here.

The story is interesting on several levels. For instance, Ben Carson, long shot Republican candidate for President, is popular among social conservatives. Carson is certain homosexuality is a choice. Ben, please read paragraph six of Pomerantz’s story and then explain how Aaron Levi decided to be gay before he was 9. Maybe Carson will reason Levi asked for Mary Poppins because he didn’t have a strong father figure. Complete bullshit.

On NPR recently, I listened to a segment on why we doubt scientific findings. One guest explained how some people’s identities and worldviews determine how they interpret scientific findings. For example, individuals who reject evolution and climate change don’t do so based on objective considerations of evidence, they do so because accepting those findings would require too fundamental a change in identity and worldview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when reading how Chamberlain’s remaining sibs have refused to meet Levi. Why the flat-out rejection? Because meeting him would require them to rethink what they believe to be true about their deceased brother. His sanitized image is an integral part of their self image. Put differently, Levi doesn’t fit into their worldview.

Levi deserves a lot better. The Chamberlains should follow the lead of one of my elderly relatives who was shocked recently when he was contacted by his deceased sibling’s secret daughter, now Aaron Levi’s exact age. They met, shared histories, and now she’s a cherished member of the family.

It’s not that hard if you put adoptees’ needs to know their history before your need to maintain a fictitious public image.

Postscript—Time will probably tell, but what’s the over-under on Levi’s half brothers and sisters?

The Three Things Excellent Mentor Teachers Do

Ironically, excellent teachers often leave a lot to be desired as mentors to beginning teachers. Too often, their self-confidence tips over into an inadvertent egocentrism which leads them to think their less experienced charges should teach just like them.

And when their wide-eyed student teachers get excited about a creative and bold lesson idea they too often say, “That’ll never work.” And when a lesson doesn’t go well they tell their student teachers why.

In contrast, the best mentors know that teaching excellence takes many forms, therefore, it’s unlikely their student teacher is going to be a carbon copy of them. Consequently, they give their student teachers ample autonomy to find their way.

And when presented with a creative and bold lesson idea, the best mentors, even when they anticipate the classroom train jumping the tracks, say something to the effect of, “Let’s see how that goes.” They know student teachers learn best through trial, error, and reflection.

And when the classroom train sometimes does go off the rails, the best mentors channel Socrates and ask questions of their disheartened neophytes. In hindsight, what would you have done differently at the start of class? How might transitions have gone more smoothly? How can you make this good idea work better next time?

Because we assume mentoring excellence is intuitive, the best teachers don’t allows provide ample autonomy, allow for experimentation, and encourage self-assessment like the best mentors.

Powerful Stories of Schooling

Movie recommendations for PressingPausers who are interested in education and enjoy independent and foreign films. And who are convinced that the pendulum has swung WAY too far towards standardized curriculum, testing, teaching methods, and schooling more generally. And who know outside-of-school factors greatly impact what teachers are able to accomplish. And who believe poetry, emotion, and the arts are at least as important as Big Data. And who like authentic and inspiring stories about the challenges and rewards of teaching.

1) The Class

2) Not One Less

3) Spellbound

Honorable mention: Hoop Dreams; School Colors; High School II; The Boys of Baraka; The American Dream at Groton; Country Boys; Young, Muslim, and French; Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.

The End of an Era

It’s always dangerous when my posse can’t make a run. Like this morning when it was just Tupac and my thoughts.

The more I thought about my best work friend of all time, Mike Hillis, leaving for another job, the more sad I became. When my dad died suddenly from a heart attack at age 69, many of his co-workers wrote beautiful letters about what they most appreciated about him. It’s unfortunate they weren’t able to communicate those things to him directly.

Depending upon the department’s leadership, faculty composition, morale, and overall vibe, I’ve enjoyed some of my 18 PLU years more than others. Throughout the roller coaster ride, my close friendship with Mike has been the only constant.

We did lots of good work together—published curricula; built a grad program; taught innumerable teachers throughout the state; and more recently, provided the department with competent and caring leadership. A treasure trove of fond memories. Like being in Oslo one winter together and teaching some summers in Yakima, WA. Our Yak routine: each morning, while Mike ironed his pants, I’d watch the Tour de France until the last minute, then a Starbucks quick hit, then a co-teaching marathon, then dinner at one of Mike’s favorite craft breweries.

Except for the pleat in his pants, his injury plagued Windows PC, his inveterate reading, his gardening and home brewing genius, we were incredibly similar—introverted, ill at ease with the academy’s self importance, family-oriented, philosophical, and sports-minded. Any day now, he will again overestimate how many games the Mariners will win this year. What an irony if they make a playoff run this season now that he’ll be surrounded by Giant/Dodger/Angel fans.

I don’t know what I’m going to miss most, maybe his sense of humor. He’s a great story teller which was especially nice when we were driving around the state. In high school he was a much better running back than he was a student and his older brothers and him nearly drove his poor mom crazy. He has Jon Stewart-like antenna for hypocrisy and is quickest to laugh at himself. I shudder to think what it’s going to be like to not hear his laugh fill our office suite anymore.

Or maybe I’ll miss his human decency the most. His love of his family, his positive regard for everyone, his modeling teaching and leadership excellence.

Or maybe it’s his humility. In part, I did this to myself because I told the search committee, “He has no ego.” What a privilege it’s been to work with someone who is more focused on doing good work than who will get the credit for that work.

Or his resilience and preternatural calm. Mike’s been passed over here for promotions and came in second elsewhere. Major props to California Lutheran University for resisting a self-promoter and instead choosing humor, human decency, and humility.

Mike couldn’t be more deserving of this opportunity and he’s going to flourish if he avoids sunburn.

Thanks Mike for your friendship, with a nod to Robert Frost, it’s made all the difference.

I’ll be okay, eventually. I hope.