Thank You

Most bloggers, like most people, are motivated by social status and wealth. I get contacted all the time by bloggers who want to teach me how to monetize my blog in three easy steps.

I write because we are social beings and writing is one especially beautiful way to deepen relationships and create lasting community. Like the wannabe Stoic that I am, I try to write twice a week immune to the humble blog’s statistics. But I’m only partially successful. I like peeking at the changing number of visitors  and where all over the world readers live. Truth be told, even worse, my blogging enthusiasm ebbs and flows in part based on the vagaries of your reading preferences.

Thank you for visiting this calendar year. I wish it didn’t matter, but it does. Thanks to everyone that took time to comment through the year. And thanks to Don for being my editor extraordinaire. And most importantly, thanks to everyone who is able to tell me in person that they have read a recent post. That’s the most positive encouragement I receive. It’s one thing to look at a bar graph with “page views”, it’s a whole different thing to see individuals behind the numbers. I wish my motivation was completely intrinsic, but I imagine that will remain an elusive ideal. Your participation matters, so thank you.

My goal for 2014 is to stay the course, by which I mean share insights about families, schools, and communities that illuminate and inspire. I hope you achieve whatever is most important to you and yours in 2014.

I was going to recreate this vid, but I couldn’t find a tutu that would fit or a white horse. God bless the carnies.

Churches of the Future

I grew up a seven mile bike ride down Chapman Avenue from Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Recently, Schuller’s evangelical Christian ministry declared bankruptcy, conducted its last worship service, and sold the Cathedral to Orange County’s Catholic diocese for $58m.

Jim Hinch, a reporter and columnist for the Orange County Register does an excellent job explaining the Cathedral’s decline in the context of the changing landscape of religious life in the United States in 2013.

Hinch grew up in SoCal and studied English literature at Berkeley and Oxford. I find his analysis more insightful and convincing than some of his other readers.

Here’s a key paragraph from near the end of his American Scholar essay:

In a few years, perhaps a decade or two, religious America will catch up to Orange County’s present. There will be a shrinking number of evangelical megachurches, gradually aging and waning in influence. There will be numerous small, eclectic, multiethnic evangelical congregations whose emphasis on spiritual commitment and social service is unlikely to attract a large, mainstream following. And there will be surging numbers of immigrant Catholics, Pentecostals, and Muslims. The political influence of evangelicalism will decline. America will not become like Europe, where ossified state churches proved unable to compete against the inherently secularizing forces of market capitalism—and where immigrants’ faith expressions are often met with hostility. America will remain exceptionally religious. But traditional evangelical Christianity will no longer be a dominant presence in that religiosity.

Describing the heyday of the evangelical  movement, the 70’s and 80’s, Hinch writes:

As the boomers’ youthful political activism evolved into the suburban libertarianism and mistrust of government that propelled Ronald Reagan into office, evangelical megachurches offered their own spiritual blend of social conservatism and entrepreneurial innovation. Pastors emulated the corporate managers who often filled their pews. They researched their audience, introduced new products, marketed their offerings, and measured success by growth in membership and budgets.

Then Hinch describes the demographic shift which will make the United States’ majority population nonwhite in roughly three decades. Church attendance numbers prove that shift hasn’t been kind to suburban evangelicalism. He writes:

Orange County is dense with Vietnamese pho joints, boba tea shops, Asian shopping malls, halal markets, Mexican swap meets, punk-rock nightclubs, and art galleries. Corporate-style megachurches seem bland by comparison.

Hinch’s analysis of evangelical Christianity’s decline probably applies to mainline Protestant denominations who are also experiencing significant declines in membership.

My church experience may be symbolic of these larger trends. Much to the GalPal’s chagrin, I don’t enjoy my Lutheran church’s worship service as much as I do our adult “Sunday School” class between services. During the services, everyone listens passively while one or two people take turns speaking week after week, month after month, year after year. By lunch on Monday, 90% of people would do poorly on a quiz on the sermon’s content.

In contrast, adult Sunday School encourages active participation. We’ve been studying the early Christian Movement which has prompted people to rethink some of their biblical assumptions they’ve always taken for granted. It’s far more engaging because it hinges on dialogue, more specifically, people share contrasting perspectives on important questions of faith. Complexity is honored as topics are explored in more depth. Consequently, for me, the experience is more meaningful and memorable.

[thanks to SMW for the link to Hinch’s article]

Best Of 2013

Most widely read Pressing Pause blog post—What Engineers Get Wrong. Thanks to a pissed off A-list blogger who linked to it.

Grooviest place to blog from—my current location, Tenth Floor of the Seattle Public Library.

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Endurance sports tweet—Will Farrell via Bonnie Ford, “Pretty sure nobody would run marathons if they were never allowed to talk about running marathons.”

Novel—Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Nonfiction book—Blaine Harden, Escape From Camp 14.

Best under the radar book by Blaine Harden—A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia.

Investment—Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund.

Television moment.

Adult television series—Breaking Bad.

Netflix original series—House of Cards.

Application—Pressreader—The world’s newspapers at your fingertips. They’ve renewed me for another three months. To quote Kurt Warner after his SupBowl victory, “Thank you Jesus.”

Song—Passenger, Only When You Let Her Go (I was late to that party, a 2012 creation.)

Film—12 Years a Slave.

Text abbreviation my students taught me—tbh (to be honest).

Lunch my sister will still poke holes in.

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Pope of the Year—Francis.

Worst excuse for losing a race—the other guy spent more on his bike—Black Hills Half Iron.

Workout—solo ascent of Mount Saint Helens with new friend.

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New friend—Cervelo R5.

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Salinger Documentary (2013)

A bevy of blockbuster movies are premiering, but I recommend an under the radar mindbuster. Salinger is an intriguing meditation on literary genius, fame, privacy, and mental illness.

About midway through the lengthy documentary, I became convinced that Salinger was mentally ill. The filmmakers convincingly argue that his WWII military service had an indelible impact on his psyche and his writing. If he knew what the first 48 hours on the ground would have been like, June 6-7, 1944, I wonder if he would have volunteered. He was fortunate to survive the first two days. 

Salinger’s was not a dangerous or violent mental illness. The truth be told, no one is “normal”, most of us suffer from mental abnormalities or quirks of some sort. Salinger’s imaginary characters and families took precedence over his living, breathing family and friends. He only harmed people who competed with his imaginary characters for his attention. When they interfered too much, he banished them from his life.

One form our mental illness takes is thinking accomplished artists or athletes owe us more than their art or public performances. Oddly, more and more people are following public figures on Twitter. Receiving tweets directly from celebrities seemingly deludes people into thinking they’re in some sort of relationship with them. After reading The Catcher in the Rye, many people so identified with Holden Caulfied they felt entitled to know everything possible about his creator. Sometimes to the point where they’d drive to rural New Hampshire and knock on Salinger’s door.

Maybe because people are so desperate for notoriety, they’re offended when someone like Salinger consciously rejects fame. Salinger practiced Zen Buddhism for many years and became an adherent of religious teacher Sri Ramakrishna and Vedanta Hinduism. Fame was another intolerable distraction from the imaginary, literary world he greatly preferred.

How should we live with present and future Salingers, single-minded geniuses whose work isn’t just the most important thing in their life, but the only thing? By leaving them mostly alone to write, to compose music, to draw, to sculpt, to fulfill their specific life purpose.

One additional thought. It was fortunate that Salinger never needed to teach writing at a University because he never could have controlled his affinity for women decades younger than him. He would have kept a few university attorneys employed all by himself.

Relational Teaching, Coaching, Parenting

While visiting my favorite first year college student in Minnesota in early November, I thought about the ones I teach in Washington State. My daughter’s friend was exiting their dorm as we were entering it. “How did your advising meeting go?” my daughter asked. “Pretty terrible.” “Why?” “She got pretty mad at me. Told me to come prepared next time. I had five different schedules written down, but I was just too scared to show them to her.”

Too scared.

Fast forward to the end-of-semester conferences I had with my writing students last week. One of them, Tori said, “I appreciated your stories because at first I was intimidated by you. I mean you said you did triathlons.” Academics intimidate students through formal titles, academic language, dress (including academic robes), and rituals such as convocation and commencement. And in my case I guess, by swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

Similarly, some coaches routinely intimidate athletes and some parents routinely intimidate their children. They argue that intimidation breeds fear and fear breeds respect. But when they have an athlete or child get in serious trouble they often ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?” The answer is obvious. Too scared.

Teaching excellence takes many forms. The intimidation—fear—respect model probably works well in the military, but I believe intimidation impedes learning because it contributes to students bullshitting  their way through school. Instead of developing authentic voices, students say and write what they think their teachers want to hear and read. The technical term is “grade grubbing”.

It’s not enough to say what my teachers-to-be always do, “I want to be more than just a teacher. I want to be a role model, someone students can come to and talk about not just class, but life.” Most students are so intimidated, any teacher that wants to be “accessible” has to be intentional about adopting a less formal, more personal professional persona.

One way to do that is to tell short, personal, self-deprecating stories. Ideally short, personal, self-deprecating stories that relate to the day’s content. Students aren’t interested in the details of their teachers’ personal lives. Save those for a friend or therapist.

Pope Francis is a great example of someone intentionally passing on a built-in pedestal. In part, his tenure has started so positively because he’s foregone the traditional perks of the position, including the Mercedes and posh Vatican digs. Compared to his predecessors, he travels and lives in ways that more people can relate to.

Most likely, my daughter’s friend couldn’t relate to her advisor for a litany of reasons. Reasons I doubt her advisor will explore. Many academics, just like some coaches and parents, prefer the view from their lofty perches. Teaching, coaching, and parenting is far less messy from above. Just not nearly as effective.

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling