Winter Reprieve

Happy 2009.

Tomorrow I’m ringing in the new year by flying southeast from one corner to the other to visit mother-dear in FL and thaw out. In addition to catching up with mother-dear, I look forward to reading, writing, and running on the “world’s longest continuous sidewalk.”

I always get a kick out of how the locals dress for their chilly, 60-something degree, early morning runs: hats, tights, gloves. If you’re in the hood, I’ll be the shirtless guy representing the PNW.

The new year is a natural time to plan so I’m curious what you’re interested in me writing about this year. Dean remembered I have thoughts on church life and leadership that I’ll get to sometime this year. Friday’s post, “Fitness Year in Review” is dedicated to Travis who has not been timid about his interest in fitness topics. Other 2009 education or related requests?


Out and back, sans hills.

Out and back, sans hills.

Shirking Responsibility

I wonder, is it within your nature and my nature to shirk responsibility?

Educators often complain that students don’t take sufficient responsibility for their mistakes. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re slow to accept responsibility for some of our unflattering actions. Too often, instead of admitting fault and applying ourselves to resolve problems, we expend energy trying to pin mistakes on others.

Example one. A friend’s son’s team lost a close football game this season “because the ref threw the game” as a result of a “vendetta” against the firey head coach. As the poor calls built up, the other coaches and my friend went nuts, and no surprise, the players complained mightily about the outcome long after the final whistle. Youth learn more from what we do than what we say, but in this case is was a combination of what was said and done. I told my friend the coaching staff taught a powerful lesson that day. When things don’t go your way, pin it on others. 

What if they had said, “Refs are human and make mistakes. Usually they balance out. If we had played as well as we’re capable, the game wouldn’t have been that close. We will not be the type of team that pins losses on the refs. We will take responsibility for tough losses. Now go congratulate the other team and remember the lesson of this game: if you let the other team hang around, anything can happen.”

Example two. Recently some college presidents have made noise about suing the investment teams that are managing their shrinking endowments. Here’s what I’d like to ask each of these presidents. Are you kidding me? These are the same investment teams that the presidents were praising the last few years for their double digit returns. News flash, markets go down. The lesson of 2008, sometimes a lot. Unless some of the investment teams were from the Madoff school of investing, and guaranteed annual gains, the presidents need to accept endowment losses without blaming their once golden money managers. 

Example three. From a distance it appears as if the gay marriage backers who opposed Prop 8 in California didn’t like the outcome and want a do-over. I know this controversy is white-hot and complex. What I don’t understand is how can any state allow propositions of questionable constitutional quality onto the ballot in the first place? Didn’t the state election commission ask “If the proposition passes, will it run afoul of the constitution?” Assuming the election commission was competent, I believe the opponents of Prop 8 should accept the fact that 52% of voters supported it and focus their energies on reversing the decision in the next election.


Somehow seemingly everyone already has a beef with President Elect Obama (P.E.O.) Pick your poison, Governor Blogo, Rick Warren, which type of dog to get. Add me to the list. Wish I had turned away before seeing the clip of him at the driving range in Hawaii. It was irresponsible of CNN not to forewarn the audience with a disclaimer like this. “The following footage is not appropriate for those who fancy themselves golfers. Side effects may include queasiness and an immediate spike in your handicap.” The only nice thing I can say about the P.E.O.’s swing, it’s a little bit better than Charles Barkley’s. Here’s hoping he sticks to hoops.



Choosing a College 4

In his “Choosing a College 3” comment, Dean was spot on in playing up the “real world” juice that’s often present at community colleges.

My teaching career has evolved to where I mostly teach at the graduate level. I like it a lot in large part because the students—many of whom are parents, retired military, former business people—bring so much to the table. The lack of “nontraditional” students is definitely an opportunity cost of attending a highly selective liberal arts college.

In simplest terms, Dean was describing the value of “age diversity,” and by extension, “life experience diversity.”

In my experience, even the most happy undergraduate students sometimes grow weary of spending nearly all of their time with people their age.

Of course there are ways for traditional undergrads to break out of their narrow age/life experience band. One simple inexpensive way to broaden one’s worldview is to read a daily newspaper. I could be wrong, but my sense is VERY few undergrads do that. Watching Jon Stewart doesn’t count.

Here are three other ways to broaden and deepen one’s college experience.

• do an internship or two in the community

• instead of joining a campus-based religious group, commit to a religious community off-campus

• study abroad

Gender Head Fake

Truth in advertising. This is a “Plus” post that doesn’t have anything to do with education.

I was introduced to a website recently that analyzes blogs and then determines whether the author is male or female. Although I’m skeptical of the method, I couldn’t resist playing along. The verdict? “We are 57% sure that the author of ‘Education Plus’ is male. In general, ‘Education Plus’ is a ‘gender neutral’ blog.”

When I shared that info with the fam, J suggested I write more about “football and beer.” Instead, she will be disappointed that what I reveal here may single handedly erode the 7% male margin.

One of my favorite spots in the world is my bathtub.

My favorite times to soak are after Saturday morning winter runs, but some nights I imbibe before bed. Yes, TMI, but now that the water is out of the spigot, I have to provide the details. The water has to be HOT, not warm. I almost always read and on Saturdays I listen to CarTalk. Our house backs up to beautiful woods that have been saved by the recession. Talk about silver linings. From the tub, I have a killer view of a majestic 70′ tall pine. That tree means a lot to me.

Today, I alternated between reading the newspaper and watching snow fall against the pine. The last time we had this much snow. . . 1955.

I find the tub the perfect place to shave my legs. Just kidding, I fibbed on that to throw the gender website developers for a loop. And after the water drains, time permitting, I paint my toenails. Again, just playin’ with the web geniuses. 

Truthfully, I find the tub the perfect place to warm up, freshen up, relax, read, and think. While showering, the best I can do is three and a half or four of five.

Before you join J in thinking I’m too girly, you should know that Churchill took a nightly bath. While soaking, he dictated speeches to a series of stenographers from about 11p.m. to 3 or 4a.m. Yeah, that Churchill, the one who said “F” you to Hitler, chained smoked cigars, and beat back the Third Reich. Nothing girly about Churchill.

Churchill wouldn’t want me to appease the women in my house and surrender the tub. 

Rest assured Sir Winston, I will not appease them and I will not surrender the tub.

Manly by association.

Schooling versus Education

I appreciate the fact that recent comments, like T’s “education is overrated” one from today, keep provoking additional thoughts.  

I’m guessing T was thinking more about schooling than education. If I’m right, I wholeheartedly agree that schooling is overrated, in part because of how little time we spend in school. K-12 students are in class for about 6 hours a day for 180 days a year. If you take the other 10 hours (allowing 8 for sleep) and multiply them by 180 and then add 185 times 16 hours, you discover students spend about 23% of their time in school. It would be less if we adjusted for time spent at lunch, between classes, at sports assemblies, and in classrooms where teachers struggle with classroom management. 

Let’s round down to 20%. The remaining 80% is sometimes referred to as the “societal curriculum” or the positive and negative things students learn from the media, travel, their families, their extracurricular activities, their part time jobs, their religious youth group activities, their summer activities, etc.  When I use the term “education” I’m referring to schooling and the societal curriculum. 

T is a state trooper extraordinaire. My guess is his schooling at the academy was helpful, but his trooper education really began once he got behind the wheel with veteran co-workers.

I’m also guessing T’s critique of schooling would involve far more than how little time is spent in school. He might argue lots of people who learn how to “do school” well lack some combination of mechanical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, financial discipline, real world with-it-ness, and integrity, and I would wholeheartedly agree.

One example among hundreds. Mid 90s and I’m observing a student teacher in a Greensboro, NC high school. Fifth period, standard or remedial English. A student from my intern’s first period Honors English class enters to deliver a note. While handing over the note he asks, “Mr. T, what are you guys studying?” My intern replies something like, “We’re just working our way through the third chapter of Catcher in the Rye.” To which “gifted” student brazenly replies, “Oh man, we finished Catcher in the Rye last week.”

I immediately thought to myself we refer to that student as “gifted” only if we use the narrowest of definitions. That student seemingly read texts much better than he read group dynamics. Of course we want young people to learn to do both, but one could argue reading people well is at least equally as important as conventional reading comprehension.

Swim Meet Addendum

At the Rudolph’s Plunge swim meet I also won the 50 fly, 50 back, and 50 free. The 13 year old girl who touched me out in the 50 breast looked like she was on the juice. And she left right afterwards before any samples could be collected.

I’m just sayin’.

I also was the only person disqualified in an event (200IM),  and I did it with style, actually earning a double DQ. Apparently, you’re not allowed to roll onto your stomach during backstroke turns. My excuse was I’m a triathlete. I thought I had won a Dairy Queen coupon.

Despite my victories, I was not the swimmer of the meet, not by a long shot. That honor had to go to Evelyn a 90 year old dynamo who did the 25 fly, then the 25 back, then the 25 breast, then the 25 free, then to cap it off, a 100IM. She’s beyond inspiring. Best of all, she had to leave right after swimming to get up to Seattle for a dance competition. Her partner is a young man in his early 70’s.

Evelyn is intelligent, personable, and friendly as all get out. Longevity, we’re talking triple digits, runs in her family. Given her present physical and mental health, her fitness routine, and her joy, I expect her to continue rewriting the Masters swimming record book for years to come.

Keep moving.

Damn, where did that old lady come from?

Damn, where did that old lady come from?

Natural Order Restored

You may recall that in October my 16 year-old daughter shattered my 500 yard free time (6:21 versus 6:28). Last weekend, at the Third Annual Rudolph’s Plunge, I attempted to reclaim the title that is so integral to my identity: family’s fastest distance freestyler.

Uppity daughter couldn’t fathom that possibility so she finagled an invitation to a Seattle concert. Fortunately the other two members of my posse were among the thousands (or tens) packed into the Water Cube (or Briggs YMCA) as I stood on the block.

I am not a talented athlete by any stretch of the imagination, however, I have developed a reservoir of endurance as a result of consistent training over the last 15 years. Another asset is an intuitive feel for even pacing. Case in point, the Seattle Half Marathon. The marathon website provides three pages of stats for each runner based on their timing chip. One graphic said that from mile 6.2 to 13.1 I passed 233 people and 6 passed me. I ran 7:20’s for the first half of the race and 7 flats for the second, hillier section. The art of the slow build.

Oddly, my Rudolph’s Plunge 500 may have been the worst paced race in my life. I don’t know why, but I went out WAY too fast. Long story short, I faded big time over the second half, but still finished in 6:17.5. L said at one point the announcer said I was on a 6:02 pace. Opps. It’s no fun going into oxygen debt and then not being able to recover.

Reminds me of a Prefontaine quote, “The only good race pace is suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die.”

I thoroughly enjoyed posting a 6:17 sticky note on A’s mirror that night before retiring.

And at the end of a quiet circle in Northwest Indiana, my sister just shook her head in disgust.

Even though A was recently named co-captain of next year’s team, I suspect she’ll just quit the sport now that the natural order has been restored and the family record is out of reach.

New and Improved

But still the same price. Sorry for the inconvenience. Hope you’ll update your bookmark, forward links on occasion, and keep reading. The plan for 2009  is to focus more on schooling and education while sporadically reflecting on fitness, finance, and family life. My goal is to consistently, informally, and clearly pose questions and communicate insights gleaned from a life spent teaching and learning.

Choosing a College 3

Thanks to one of my college roommates and my wife for their “Choosing a College 2” comments which inspired this post.  

My roommate wrote, “. . . my sense is that right from the beginning, that a small private school is more personal and less bureaucratic. You feel more looked after, e.g., you meet with your academic advisor and discuss what classes and teacher would be good for you to take and its done, and the effort to speak to a teacher is a lot easier when you have a freshman class of 25 rather than of 250. It (connecting with profs) can be done, but it takes more work inititative.”

My wife wrote, “I would like to remind people of the community college choice. For some, even public institutions mean getting into debt, while some community colleges offer a fine start to a four year education at a lower price and are often overlooked.”

I agree that students receive a lot more personal attention at small, private liberal arts colleges; however, sometimes personal attention compromises self initiative and personal responsibility. I think I was better off finding my way without any hand holding. And I developed what I think of as “bureaucracy literacy” or the ability to successfully negotiate a large, relatively impersonal institution. As just one example, in order to save time and energy, I learned to buy my books at the end of each term before leaving town instead of at the beginning after returning. 

Instead of having a conversation about different possibilities, too many of my advisees expect me to tell them what to take. In part, I suspect that’s the result of parents doing far too many things for their children for far too long (also known as helicopter parenting). Case in point. I had a call the other day from the parent of a prospective masters student. She was calling on behalf of her daughter. She was worried her grade point average might not be high enough. Here’s what I wanted to say, but didn’t, “Her g.p.a. is less problematic than the fact that you made this call on her behalf.” 

Granted I’m a sample of one, but at my large public I grew up quicker than I otherwise would have. It wasn’t easy, but that’s my point, the obstacles forced me to find my way and mature. My first quarter was especially tough because I didn’t get on campus housing. I lived in a university apartment building five miles from campus. One night during dead week, the shuttle didn’t run late enough for me to attend a review session so I rode my bike. The SoCal skies opened and I got literally drenched. I was proud of myself for gutting it out. It would have been easy to skip the review session, but truth be told, I was afraid of failing and knew I needed every edge possible.

Therein lies another insight, choose a college where initially you might be in over your head. Then spend the first year cycling through rainstorms to catch up to your peers.

Onto the community college suggestion. No doubt they are about to be inundated with students who are unable to afford four year colleges and universities. Here’s a quote from a recent Chronicle of Higher Education study of enrollment trends, “Mirroring trends in retail sales, students are trading down. Those who might have attended pricey private colleges are looking more seriously at public universities. Those who might have attended state universities or regional public universities are now going to community colleges.” Community college enrollment is up 8% in 2008. 

I wonder though whether the least expensive option is the best. Conventional wisdom suggests teacher quality is the key variable in educational excellence and I agree in part. What’s always overlooked though is student motivation and what might be referred to as “classroom juice or energy.”  Classrooms are organic and the more curious, engaged, and ambitious the students, the easier it is for the teacher to create positive intellectual momentum.

Put differently, the best teachers are orchestra conductors who create the conditions for students to thoughtfully interact so that they learn from one another and the sum equals more than individual parts. My college bound daughter just received a packet of information from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I don’t know about her, but after reading it, I want to enroll. Smallish school with students from all 50 states and 92 countries. 

Cynics will say that stat is just a part of an ongoing, giant, selective liberal arts college public relations competition with little bearing on campus life. I’d beg to differ. What better way to infuse global perspectives throughout the curriculum than attract students from all over the world. Even better if you can attract enough to avoid the pitfalls of tokenism.

Some curious, engaged, and ambitious students choose community colleges with a plan to transfer to a four year college or university, and they follow through, and they should be applauded. I just don’t know what percentage. Also, those students commute, so the opportunity cost is the substantive learning that continues well after class in four year schools with vibrant extracurricular programs. 

In that context, here’s a paragraph from the website of another college A is interested in. 

The quality of campus discourse at X, formal and informal, is an extension of the academic quality of the students we attract and admit. Conversation here is usually challenging and thought-provoking, invariably civil and well-informed. Every X student is exceptionally strong academically. But nonacademic achievements—from crusading to save a local wetland to making music with a punk-funk band—make for a lively campus, too. That’s why, in selecting each incoming class, we look beyond the stereotypical “well-rounded student.” Instead, we look for those who bring a mix of passions, eccentricities, and ambitions to create a well-rounded campus community. If there is a single characteristic that sets X students apart from other highly talented students, it is their tendency to excel in more than one way.

I suggest A and her friends pick a college where the educative potential of the informal educational opportunities complement the formal. Put differently, look for  late night juice. I remember sitting up late with my college roommate sometimes watching Saturday Night Live, but at other times comparing and contrasting the lives of Jesus and Freud. I was studying the early Christian movement, he was studying psychology and psychohistory. We learned a lot from one another. 

Pick a college where a majority of people are sober, well rounded, intellectually alive both in and outside of class. The first of those three is not that easy and probably deserves a separate post.