Thursday, September 26, 2013


According to a new article in Scientific American, people lose civility when they don't talk to each other eye to eye.  In fact, the popular magazine with impeccable credentials is going one step further by eliminating the Comments section form its online publication.
Who among us has not engaged in a simple act of sharing ideas with someone we don't know and possibly don't agree with...Online.
We call them trolls, but these angry responders who feel empowered with their anonymity, are everywhere.  For many, this is a new phenomena.  Not so.  There have been few but definitely other opportunities for the exchange of ideas without revealing one's identity.

About 15 years ago, in our pre internet savvy world I chanced to come upon an idea that would allow students in a classroom to exchange ideas with an anonymous identity and hopefully extend an exchange that moved far beyond the confines of a classroom.  I heard about something called anonymous team journals from a friend and colleague in the Bay Area Writing Project.  She had been teaching a Native American studies class at UC Berkeley and noticed that her students who were Native American, as opposed to those who were not, rarely participated in discussions.
Simply put, the class was divided into teams and invited to write entries in journals (spiral notebooks) that might comment on topics that came up in class or personal experiences.  In fact they were required to do so.  The Indian students felt that many class discussions were  akin to "game shows" where people often spoke in a glib or entertaining manner rather than from the heart.
Now we know that some students are extroverts who love to share ideas with anyone who will listen.  Those students often silence others by accident or design.
Needless to say, I decided to give this a try with high school juniors.
The journals themselves were fascinating artifacts in themselves.  I assigned each team member a day for them to write a new entry or respond to a previous entry.  Of course I wanted my students to discuss big ideas or the literature we read, and often they did.  But trolls emerged, especially near prom time.  I wondered if this would happen and was a bit naive at first because many of these kids were "Honors" students who were supposedly emotionally mature.  Not all.  It only takes one inappropriate or smarmy remark to bring down an entire discussion.  Much like what we see in online publications today.
It's the anonymity stupid!
Yes it was, but I think there is much more here and Scientific American is beginning to shed some light on what happens when we don't talk to people directly.  I see this as a developing challenge not only for educators but human beings.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Listen Up

It sits calmly in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet.  Not sure how long it's been since the electricity has brought the small black box to life.  It's outdated.  Another example of how the new technology has replaced what once was state of the art.  It's a small portable tape recorder.
For the better part of three decades, this was my teaching tool of choice.  Funny how in a culture that is so visually oriented, there is much merit in hearing only sound.

I wonder now if this is something to be concerned about or another inconsequential thing to simply let go.  Seems like something that impacted my students lives in so many ways deserves better treatment.  Oh, I know that You Tube and Pandora and many other web sites have everything you need, but I can recall a few techniques/strategies that just can't be duplicated.
When students are asked to simply listen to a voice or a piece of music, it helps them focus.  It requires attention, it demands no outside distraction.  It's not multi dimensional.'s something that a group of people can do all at the same time.
That tape recorder played works of literature often read by their authors.  It brought "Death of a Salesman," the original stage play, to thousands of young readers.
A Depression era farmer explained his plight to every class that read Steinbeck.  When he recounted how corn was down to -3 cents he started weeping recalling how "it was cheaper to burn it as firewood."  Sometimes I detected a tear or two in a listener's eye too.
That little Sony recorder showed thousands how to interview.  With a powerful tiny lapel mic activated, it could pick up everything in that classroom.  Therefore, silence prevailed, less one's personal habits or conversations be preserved for all to enjoy.
One way I learned to engage students with media, is to let them make programs themselves.  When an International Relations class requested to learn about the Vietnam War, that tape recorder was front and center.  "Our fathers and uncles fought in this war, yet we know very little about it," one student  said.  It was in the mid 80's and video tape hadn't become available for all quite yet.  We produced a radio show with script, sound, and first hand interviews.  That recorder did it all.
Then there were the talk shows.  Back before our current tabloid culture took firm hold of the media, there were programs that attempted to discuss big ideas rather than spending hours on who is the baby daddy.  Phil Donahue comes to mind.  He did shows on Tourette's syndrome and nuclear power.  His guests often presented opposing viewpoints.  What a great model for students to have a reasoned dialogue.  Attach a larger microphone with a wind screen to the tape recorder and you are in business.  Students would research a topic like Is intelligence inherited? and take the roles of panelists/ audience questioners/ witnesses,  I'd usually play Donahue.  With a large extension chord I could roam the classroom and record the program.  Then as we listened to ourselves, and fully enjoyed that, we were reviewing all the concepts, arguments, and data relevant to the topic at hand.
These things are not done any more.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  But radio survives, for some.  That tape recorder seldom let me down.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Cloudy Day

Small complete poems go through my mind,
When I'm without pen or keyboard,
Driving my truck,
Navigating a lake,
Walking in a river.
Like wispy clouds, once formed,
They dissipate overhead,
Never formed quite the same again.

As a writer, I'm always looking at things.  Perhaps even staring.  At people when I walk, when I drive, when I go to the grocery store.  Sometimes, while waiting for a light to turn green, the best poems come to mind.  They begin as images or little scenes that play out and the evolve into something bigger, deeper, or universal.  Then they vanish. In the turn of a color on a traffic light, or the beginning of a new conversation they disappear like vapor, like wispy clouds, drifting through and then over and then gone.

Sometimes I wonder how many of these little gems have come and gone.  There is a little trick they often play on me too.  In the minutes after I awake, before I get up, I re-play ideas, events, interactions.  Those puffy clouds sometimes reappear.  They are momentarily recaptured, only to drift away again, usually for good.  
I'm hopeful that they reside somewhere in tact.  Perhaps in the unconscious mind. If so, they just might re-appear and allow themselves to be captured.  Hope so.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sex, Religion, and Politics

Watching TV to keep up with the news is like going to a party.  Sex, religion and politics, in any order.  Those are the topics of choice.  We hear about "twerking," and are confronted with all manner of exhibitionism in local news.  Should women be wearing yoga pants in non-yoga areas.  The office, the workplace, school, church...and that's just the teachers!
Religion encroaches in all the right places.  Christian Mingle, the online dating service pops up on the screen during the grisliest of crime shows, the politician's speeches and the sit-coms so full of sexual innuendo that every second of canned laughter barely hides the grins, the gasps, the outcries, or the mindless guffaws.
So what's the message?  Are we a society and culture in decline or just rapidly changing?  Probably both.  I recall a student once coming to school with a most offensive tee shirt.  Offensive in that the cartoon image on the front made it impossible for him to be taken seriously at any point during the day.  It was simply a line drawing of a man with his head jammed up his bare rear end.  You might even have seen this image.  Appropriate?  Probably for somewhere, but hardly school.  I don't blame the student.  He probably never gave the matter a thought.  But what kind of parent sees their child leave for school wearing that shirt?  What goes through the mind of mom or dad when they drop their child off, or send them out the door?  Guess you have to see them in the morning first.  That probably never happened...I'd like to think.  If it did happen, what does that indicate?

So our politicians want to wage war because a government is waging war against its own people using morally deficient methods.  Isn't killing other human beings morally deficient under all circumstances?
We are outraged at Syria for killing it's own people so we decide to kill some of them ourselves to show that it's morally wrong to kill people.
Ouch! The truth hurts.
But war today, just like sexuality or spirituality, isn't what it once was.  Most Americans don't think too far beyond their next day.  As they cut the language down to 40 word responses, 10 second sound bytes, and unknowingly do the bidding of the 1% who own and control about 90% of everything else, they'll do it with the purist form of titillating

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Saving Our Land

While reading the morning paper (as long as there still is one, I'll read it) I came across a fascinating piece detailing a historic meeting between an official of the Ku Klux Klan and a local NAACP leader.  What made this encounter even more improbable was that it occurred in Casper, Wyoming.  Yes, there are African American people in Wyoming.  There is also a KKK chapter too.  The Klan official was from Great Falls, Montana.  Must be some kind of a regional leader.
In the photograph which accompanied the article, the NAACP president was smiling.  The Klan official was grinning too.  The latter carried an attache case and wore a business suit.
Apparently there have been some hate crimes in Casper and at the invitation of the NAACP, the Klan leader wanted to assure them that his organization is no longer committed to violence to further its ideals.

Who knows what to believe here.  I suppose it's a good thing that these two groups are talking to each other.  In an ironic twist, both are clearly of another century.  The Klan leader, according to the article, ended up joining the NAACP and even added a $20. contribution.  Membership in the KKK is only open to white people, so any reciprocal membership by the African American community was not possible.
The final paragraph of the article mentioned that the KKK's chief issue now is to achieve a separate white country in the Northwest.  (not gonna happen)  They are still all about race separation, just not using violent methods to attain it.  The last line referenced the slogan "Save Our Land, Join the Klan...
That gave me pause.  It took me back about 40 years ago, when as a VISTA Volunteer living in Houston, Texas I removed a small poster from a telephone pole in the heart of the city.  Same slogan.
Same Klan?
A few years ago, when I wrote a memoir of my VISTA experience, I told the story of how I got the poster.  I scanned it and included it in the text of the project. (
I remember thinking long and hard about whether I wanted to put that graphic online.  In the end, I did, hoping that it would never taken out of context, but knowing full-well I really couldn't control that.  I include it here, in the interest of preserving history for those who may not know.