Black Rock High School—The Canary in the Mine

My daughter Jeanette, who inherited my fondness for documentaries, just turned me onto The Bad Kids. Like Frederick Wiseman, The Bad Kids filmmakers don’t narrate their film, instead the participants’ unfiltered stories are told through video close-ups and dialogue.

If a documentary’s value hinges on whether it provokes fresh thinking, The Bad Kids succeeds. An alternative public school for struggling 11th and 12th graders in the SoCal desert, Black Rock students play a self paced game of credit retrieval, which appears to consist of reading textbook chapters and then answering some questions or writing essays. The principal has the perfect mindset for the place, she’s fearless and fierce in loving the kids unconditionally, but even she describes the curriculum as a game.

Among the lessons of BRHS. A principal and teaching staff, even if relentlessly optimistic, can’t compensate for a caring parent or two. Too much damage is done by the time they’re 17-18 years old. The students don’t struggle as a result of distracted parenting, they struggle because their parents have been an overwhelming negative presence in their lives. The parents abuse alcohol and drugs, they fight violently, they allow partners and extended family to harm their children, and they crush their dreams. What would be surprising is if the kids didn’t struggle with alcohol, drugs, and anger. And to top things off, the parents usually require them to move out at age 18 if they haven’t resorted, like Joey, to sleeping in bus stations already.

The premise of the principal and others seemed to be that everything will be much better if the students just retrieve enough credits to graduate high school. As if a high school diploma is going to undo the years of disastrous parenting and enable them to find a job that pays a livable wage. Globalization means there are far fewer manufacturing jobs. Increasingly, automation means even fewer jobs, especially for people lacking strong math and engineering backgrounds.

Among other things, Black Rock High School is a story about parents harming their children. I’m interested in the sequel. What will become of the “Bad Kids” in the next 5-10 years? Poor parenting has knocked them for a loop, but now they’re about to deal with the effects of globalization and automation and the widening gap between the rich and hopeful and poor and hopeless. High school diplomas or not, will they end up homeless, incarcerated?

Until the school district provides BR students meaningful vocational education and until WAY more of California’s public education resources go to strengthening their bodies and minds, the endearing students featured in the film and, in some cases their infant children, will likely add to the homeless or prison rolls.

Poverty has been done to these kids, it was not of their own doing; as a result, if we truly believe in equal opportunity in life, we have a responsibility to do more than hope a heroic principal can work miracles on them. Nearly all of them need the same two things, to distance themselves from their parent(s) and to find a safe and secure place to live. Which got me thinking about this young couple.

Granted, a Tiny House based curriculum, emphasizing math, sustainability, and a series of construction-based trades and skills, would take considerably more resources than California’s property taxes generate. Which means convincing super wealthy philanthropists to invest less in Ivy League students in order to invest instead in Black Rock High School’s much more vulnerable young people. Land, supportive zoning changes, infrastructure for the tiny homes, and materials are all needed. If Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and their peers could buck the trend laid out in “The Problem With Modern Philanthropy“, and form democratic partnerships with the poor young adults in this film, we’d have reduced drug addiction, violence, homelessness, and prison populations, meaning a safer, more secure, more vibrant democracy.

The Credential Conundrum—Limiting Whose Qualified for Which Jobs

Recently I wrote that I’m lucky that my work as a college prof affords me ample opportunities to learn about myself and become a better person. That doesn’t stop me from daydreaming about other work.

Depending upon the day, I’d like to be Dustin Johnson’s caddy, write a newspaper column, be a subsistence farmer, have a radio talk show. The alternative work that loops the most in my peabrain is money counselor by which I mean a hybrid of a financial planner and a financial therapist. I enjoy managing money a lot and I’m always intrigued by people’s disparate thinking about money’s relative importance and how those differences complicate partnerships. Most of all, I’d enjoy helping people reduce the gaps between what they think about money and how they live their lives.

I didn’t know shit about investing thirty years ago when my parents gifted me some money to save on their federal taxes. Somehow, as a modestly paid school teacher, I knew the gift was an exceedingly rare opportunity to build a little bit of a financial cushion, that is, if I didn’t blow it. So I started reading John Bogle’s books, the first step in my personal finance self education. Today, I’m a good money manager for at least two reasons—my independent studies and I internalized some of my dad’s self discipline.

What I’d like to do for an alternative living is listen to individuals or couples talk about their dreams, their finances, their greatest challenges and then help them clarify their priorities, adjust their spending, restructure their portfolios, and enjoy more open and honest communication about money. There’s gotta be people interested in that doesn’t there?

There’s only one problem, to do that work I’d need a long list of personal finance and counseling licenses and certificates. Absent an alphabet soup of credentials, my self education and life experience don’t count in the formal economy.

Licenses and certificates are required in many sectors of the economy. They are designed to help consumers know they can trust that the holders of the licenses and certificates are competent. Take my work with teachers-to-be. Often people bemoan the fact that a Ph.D. can’t teach elementary, middle, or high school without first completing a formal teacher education program that typically lasts 1-2 years, not to mention passing related requirements including content area exams and a student-teaching based performance assessment.

Similarly, if you want to work on people’s nails or hair, you can’t simply rent a space and hang out a shingle, beauty schools offer formal training that culminates in licenses that enable you to “join the club”. Sometimes, when work is complex and requires specialized expertise, the Credential Industrial Complex contributes to public trust. Other times though, when the related work isn’t terribly complex, like working on nails or driving a cab, they can be used to limit competition.

Money counseling is on the “complex, requiring specialized expertise” end of the continuum, but wouldn’t it be nice if our job gatekeepers, the credentialing officials, devised intelligent ways to give some credit to individuals for self study and life experience. Absent that, everyone has to start from scratch, meaning people on the back nine of life, like myself, are less likely to switch things up.



• Two years ago last week, Mother Dear died. She was a writing mechanics zealot of the first order.  If she were still living, last week’s unedited “Rethinking Work” post would’ve killed her. I’d like to blame my central Ohio editor for being asleep at the wheel, or the fake media, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I cannot. Live, learn, and edit more closely before pressing “publish”.

• For the last 45m I’ve been half listening to my wife talk to an Apple software tech about her laptop’s virus and malware. I’m guessing his name is Job. The wife, “You are very patient.” I couldn’t make out Job’s reply, but it was something to the effect of “Well, I want to make sure you’re completely good to go.” This is what I imagine The Good Wife would say next if I wasn’t home. “Are you seeing anyone?” That would be understandable. I’m not very patient. There’s nothing to suggest this convo is anywhere close to ending. She’s finally going to leave me, isn’t she? I just cleaned the gutters, doesn’t that count for anything?

Postscript: The wife, on the clean gutters, “I could find someone else to do that.”


Rethinking Work

My favorite 21 year old is graduating college this May and “launching” shortly thereafter. A college friend, a 56 year old retired SoCal fire fighter, was just accepted to a Physician’s Assistant program. This is for them. And everyone in between.

Our work tends to be the result of our personal interests; compensation considerations; and though we may not want to admit it, the relative prestige or social status associated with our chosen occupations.

More specifically, we choose among possible jobs not just because they pay the bills, but also because of the particular activities associated with them-we become teachers instead of accountants because we enjoy interacting with young people in classrooms more than we like crunching numbers in cubicles. A person attends seminary rather than law school because they want to make a tangible difference in their community without any pressure to maximize their billable hours. A person becomes a landscape architect rather than a golf club professional because they like plants and the outdoors more than they do beginning golfers.

Additionally, my fire fighter friend, if he’s typical of other fire fighters, probably partly chose his first career because of the unique work-life balance it afforded with a positive mix of twenty-four hour shifts and more than normal days off each month. I’m sure the excellent salary and benefits, service-orientation, and built in station-based community probably factored in too. A pretty great job altogether, apart from the extreme occasional danger.

Here is what even my daughter’s very good, vocation-oriented career placement center probably won’t tell her when she inquires about different possible jobs. Think about more than pay and primary activities. Talk to people doing the work about the less visible and less obvious activities, and the culture of their workplace, meaning the nature of their relationships with all of the people they regularly interact with. For me, as a university professor/administrator, my relationships are with faculty colleagues in my department and across campus, students, and numerous staff and administrators. Don’t fixate on the relative appeal of any job’s primary activities, instead, carefully reflect on the personal qualities each particular work culture is likely to cultivate.

For example, people think of teaching almost exclusively as what goes on between a teacher and her students during the middle of the day within the four walls of an individual classroom. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Ignored are the hours spent planning daily lessons; the hours spent alone reading and responding to student work; the hours spent teaming with colleagues to plan, problem solve, and respond to student work; the time spent continuing one’s teacher education; the time spent being a part of the school’s extracurricular activities. Conventional wisdom about teaching might account for about a third of a teacher’s weekly activities.

Every job comes with a distinct work culture, some work cultures cultivate more socially redeeming personal qualities than others. Working at Chicago’s Newberry Library is probably similar, but not the same as working at Northwestern University’s Main Library. So it’s a two-fold learning process, learning about library culture generally, and a particular library’s variation on “what’s typical” more specifically. How to do that? Talk to people at the library about the culture, what’s rewarding, what’s most exasperating, why. When, at the end of your interview, you’re asked if you have any questions, ask about the work culture, what do employees say when asked what’s the best part of working at x, what are some commonalities that prove most challenging.

Most people think about work in terms of how they’ll benefit/change the people they work with, giving little to no thought about how their work will change them. Every job you do for very long will change you, for better or worse, probably more than you’ll change anyone at work. Ask people doing the work you’re considering, “How has being a landscape architect, nanny, teacher, engineer, nurse, journalist, changed you as a person?” What personal qualities does the work cultivate? In what ways, if at all, are you a better human being as a result of doing this work?”

If they can’t answer that question positively, cross it off your list. Be bold. Don’t obsess about the obvious activities, the pay, the benefits, the perceived prestige; instead think about work as a context for self understanding and self improvement. Don’t think about work as an end in itself, meaning don’t fret about how your job or career compares to your peers; instead think about work as a means to becoming a better human being.

I’m fortunate that my work culture values good, open-ended questions, but my comfort with ambiguity can exasperate more concrete sequential, literal-minded people. And I’m fortunate to work with people, teachers-to-be, who are more altruistic and socially conscious than average. Their idealism and service orientation is a nice counterbalance to my cynicism and selfishness. I’m a better person because of their optimism and vitality. When it comes to the other two-thirds of my work, it’s mostly about conflict management, which provides daily opportunities to become a better human being. More specifically, I’m convinced my success resolving workplace conflicts depends almost entirely upon my ability to carefully, actively, and sensitively listen to others.

It’s cool that being a decent husband, father, friend, and citizen depends almost entirely upon the same thing. And for that reason, I’m fortunate to get to do the work I do.

Sentence to Ponder

From Donald Trump, Hiding in Plain View:

“In all, Souza took more than two million photographs during his eight years following Obama, and many showed the President looking tired, frustrated, or concerned—revealing other dimensions beneath the veneer of cool that Obama projected in public.”

I don’t know whether, even if Jeanette Byrnes AND Suze Felton tag teamed it, they could maintain that kind of pace. 2,920 days x 10 hours/day = 29,200 hours/2m pictures=68-69 pictures per hour. That pace would require working a 70 hour week 416 times in a row.

Imagine the hard drives.


Why are Parents Surveilling Their Young Adult Children?

How much Mario Batali, famous chef, and father of two college age sons, do you have in you? Batali in a national newspaper recently:

I still pay for my son’s phones, so they use the “Find My Friends” app, which allows me to track them no matter where they are. If they turn it off, I give them 15 minutes to turn it back on or I turn off their phones. ’Cause if you’re somewhere you don’t want me to know about, maybe you should pay for your own phone.

It’s amazing to me that Batali is not the least bit self conscious about surveilling his sons, meaning maybe you find my reaction more surprising. But before this phenomenon becomes the new normal, let’s “press pause” and think about it a bit.

Some questions for the Batali’s of the world. Why so little trust in your adult children? Was your parenting that bad? How would you have liked it if your parents had used global positioning satellites to keep track of your every move when a young adult? When a young adult, did you have ample freedom to make some important decisions by yourself, including where to go and when? And did you learn anything important from poor decisions? In the end, were you better off as a result of the pre-gps autonomy you enjoyed?

“But the world is a more dangerous place today,” the Batali’s will say, “then when we grew up.” But social science data strongly suggests otherwise. So rampant parental anxiety about their young adult children’s well-being isn’t rational, it’s emotional, which begs a few more questions for the Batali’s. What is your greatest fear? Is it, as I suspect, that your adult children are going to be physically harmed, maybe even die?

How will your technological tethers prevent random bad things from happening? My guess is, and tell me if I’m wrong, the Batali’s can’t quite accept the fragility of life, theirs, and especially their children’s. If we want to truly safeguard our young adult children, we have to ban them from getting driver’s licenses, not allow them to go away to college, and preclude them from being outdoors in public. In addition, we need to strengthen our technological tethers so that we can detect blood alcohol, THC, and nakedness from long distance.*

Last but not least, a suggestion for the Batali broheims and their watched over peers. Scrape together enough money for your own phones. Tell your parents to take their “Find My Friends” apps and shove them. Lovingly of course. Because life is fragile.

* I hope no one in Silicon Valley reads this.

How Not to Teach Math

Kathy Liu Sun, a former high school math teacher who is now an assistant professor of education at Santa Clara University says too many teachers are having their students work on computers for the entire math lesson.

She writes:

Proponents argue that computer-based lessons allow students to go at their own pace and expose students to content they might not otherwise have an opportunity to see. But these benefits come at a high cost.

One of the most pressing problems is the content and focus of these digital lessons, which are often simply digital replications of traditional lecture based math lessons. (You remember these: teacher at board showing you example after example, followed by practicing a similar problem with different numbers twenty times over.)

Whether delivered digitally or in person, this type of instruction sends the wrong message about mathematics. It teaches students that mathematics is about mastering a set of procedures, rather than viewing mathematics as a creative subject that is about problem-solving and sense-making.

Research has shown that such an emphasis on mathematical procedures is not supportive of student learning and fails to help students to draw connections between key mathematical ideas, think critically, and problem-solve. These skills are particularly important for 21st Century citizenry and long-term achievement outcomes.

While your seventh grader engaging in digital math lessons might be learning pre-calculus procedures, she may not have any understanding of the underlying concepts that will be critical for future success.

Liu Sun may as well have been talking about my 13 year old self. Thanks to my Old School parents, meaning unending hours with flashcards, I had all the necessary math facts etched into my cerebral cortex. Consequently, I could solve equations with the best of them, but I didn’t understand the underlying concepts when the road kicked up. As a result, even my final math class, Algebra 2/Trig, proved difficult.

Liu Sun continues:

. . . consider how technology might genuinely support mathematical sense-making and problem-solving. A recent study conducted at Stanford University found that students who played a game that focused on the relationship between numbers, rather than memorized math facts, led to better learning outcomes.

Good educational technology, implemented at the appropriate time, can enhance math learning. Here are a few things to look for when examining technology to support mathematics learning:

  1. Exploration: The technology should provide opportunities for students to explore by conjecturing, testing out different ideas, and making mistakes. We should avoid digital learning programs that focus only on memorization or funnel students’ thinking

  2. Multiple Solution Strategies. Identify technology applications that have more than one way to solve the problems. For example, rather than using digital flashcards such as 3+4 = ?, we can identify apps that ask students to find pairs of numbers that add to 7. The latter question has many solutions such as 1 & 6, 2 & 5, 0 & 7 and supports students to understand how one whole number (in this case 7) can be broken into parts in multiple ways.

  3. Connections between concepts and procedures. Good educational technology supports students to focus on relationships, not discrete facts. Rather than choose a digital program that solely focuses on doing the same procedure over and over, identify a program that supports students to understand why the procedure works. For example, with regards to the earlier problem 3+4 = ?, a digital program that includes other representations, such as images of objects that students move around can better support to develop meaning of the procedure. Digital math games that focus solely on procedures should only be considered after students have strong understanding between concepts and procedures.

Like a wannabe Maggie Z, humble blog loyalist and middle school math teacher extraordinaire, I’m only going to assign Liu Sun partial credit for her blog post because she stops short of identifying any specific technology applications that check the three aforementioned boxes.

Thus proving blogging is harder than it looks.