Sunday, January 26, 2014

Photo Finished

For thoroughbred horse enthusiasts like me, this time of year is when we begin to think about the 3-year-olds.  Having just had their birthday on January 1st, the fantasy turns to the ultimate dream: the Kentucky Derby.  Of course only 20 of the thousands foaled three years ago will ever get the chance to run for the roses, but the dream will flourish until it becomes final who will enter the gate and who will not.  That's why I focused on a colt named Cairo Prince who was heavily favored to hit the Derby trail after his run in the Holy Bull Stakes yesterday.  He certainly looked the part.  He ran like it too.  A fairly easy win that left his rivals in his wake.  OK that's where this takes a departure.  Hopefully Cairo Prince will stay healthy and continue to improve.  I hope he gets his shot at the triple Crown.  But at the end of the day, when I Googled the name Cairo Prince I was struck with how quickly his winning photo appeared online.  And why would this be such a shock?  Here's why.  The technology makes a beautiful color photo available and suitable for publication instantly.

     25 years ago, as a working turf writer, getting a photo for publication in a weekly magazine took at least 2 days.  It was a 48 hour process on a good day.  The photo had to actually be flown on an airplane to its destination.  Hard to believe we've come that far in so little a time.
     When I covered a Saturday stakes race for The Blood-Horse, the article was written Saturday and the accompanying photo was taken the the airport first thing Sunday morning.  My beat was Northern California, so we're talking Bay Area to Lexington Kentucky.  I don't think the photo, safely tucked in a mailing envelope, actually sat on a seat in the Delta jet.  That's no so outrageous because the price of the flight was $125. back then.  The astonishing thing was how the editors readied magazine for publication all on a Monday.  Photos from the four corners of the Monday evening, that weeks edition went to press.
Computers changed the writing and digital photography changed the publication of photos.  48 hours turned into 1 or 2 hours.  And the turned into an online publication.  Nobody waits for news anymore.  They don't have to.  But as I cut and pasted the photo of Cairo Prince last night, I couldn't help thinking about all those rainy mornings I hit the freeway at 5:00 a.m. in order to get a photo to Kentucky in time for publication.  I certainly don't miss it, but that process actually served to enhance the sense of satisfaction when the work was done.  There was a bit of satisfaction when I saw the article and photo in print a week later.  All the pieces came together and the miles were actually traveled.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Between the Pages

One of the unfortunate things that comes with the wisdom of age is the realization that some things will never change.  The bad news here is, of course, that poverty and political high jinks, and greed continue along at their unaffected pace.  The good news, however, is that some things, albeit very few, do actually change.  Witness the rapid impact of technology on all things in this culture.  I'm constantly reminded how kids in the high school classroom have never lived in a world without computers and cell phones.
     Recently, I've noticed that the shift in technology has moved into my dream life, with cell phones and now smart phones making appearances in the theater of the night on a regular basis.  Like older motifs, I find that the phone becomes suddenly inoperable, or crumbles in my hands.  On other occasions, I can't find the numbers for keys, and now and again I don't know my number or the one I'm trying to reach.  I keep thinking to myself during these dreams why didn't I write them down.  Of course, that's the new reality, we don't write things like phone numbers down any more.  I'm sure there are more than a few folks out their who don't even know their own phone number any more.
I've already taken a stand for books.  I like their feel and smell and the color of their covers.  I like using bookmarks and occasionally finding things I've stuck between the pages.

     One of the things I used to do regularly as a college student working in the research library at UCLA was re-shelf books.  With some particularly interesting or old volumes, it was not uncommon to find things left in these books by readers from times past.  I once found a pocket calendar from 1929 with an illustration of a Union Oil gas station and a wonderful depiction of a fancy car waiting for service.  But of all the things, the one I recall most fondly is a dried fern pressed between the pages of a thick book.  It had turned completely white.  Like lace carefully hidden out of sight and away from light it remained for years.  I later framed it with a poem I'd written and gave it to an old flame.  Wish I had kept it now.  Hopefully, it's mystery still burns brightly somewhere.
     It's the music thing I have the most difficulty with.  Not because I can't figure out how to download something or avail myself of wonderful web sites like Pandora or I-Tunes.  What bugs me is that I don't seem to go to a particular place to listen to music or handle the records or disks anymore.  Oddly enough, most of the music I enjoy these days plays while I am driving.  That's not too bad.  Yet, I find when I'm at this keyboard, I don't seem to be listening to as much music.  Shakespeare warned about the reality of not having enough music in our lives.  Me thinks I'll put more energy into finding a way to make that happen.
   I may never be around to draw any meaningful conclusions about what and how this rapid technological shift will all play out, but I do see some writing on some walls.  I wonder too if the day will come when we actually say let's go back to the old way of doing this.  Last week I could see the advantage of writing on a board...a white board because chalk boards are rare these days... I used to think it's like having a massive billboard in your classroom.  Lots of possibilities too with brainstorming, having kids get up out of their seats and participate, and, of course writing and spelling words and putting sentences together and drawing diagrams and all the other spur of the moment things that can go on a board.  The blackboard..chalkboard...white board...will one day be the virtual board.  It's already happening.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I Got Nuthin"

Been thinking for the past few days about my little experiment back in the classroom.  I, like many educators I know, was always fond of saying, "something happens when you leave the classroom...something that inhibits your ability to identify completely with other teachers."  It's so true.  That's why I eagerly welcomed the opportunity to model a few lessons and let one of the beginning teachers I work with see me in their place.  That means seeing how I deal with the myriad of things that arise daily.  How I make myself vulnerable, handle frustration, where I succeed and where even my 30+ years experience can't get me out of a jam, or a blind alley, or prevent an emotional response from leaking out.
In retrospect, I think the lessons went well.  I was able to come across as knowledgeable, comfortable, and easy going.  I wondered, beforehand, how much change I'd notice in things like attention span, or ability and willingness to share ideas with others, (speaking out, reading their writing to others) and my ability to remain relevant with examples I use to illustrate all manner of things from pop culture icons to music references to my ease with new technology.

Kids today look differently than they did 20 to 30 years ago.  They wear sweats and basketball shorts.  Girls mostly wear pants, once taboo in public schools.  More often than not they wear Navy blue, gray and black. Kids carry large backpacks rather than binders with covered books.  Textbooks today are often electronic.  Boys wear sports team logos of all colors.  They all carry pods and pads; smart phones, cell phones, and the cords to charge them.
But some things remain remarkably the same.  There are drama nerds who read with strong emotion or wear sport coats and bow ties or thin solid color ties daily!  There are sullen teenagers who's involvement spans the gamut from putting their hoodie up to occasionally sharpening a pencil or turning around to talk to someone about an unrelated, completely off task matter.  So it goes.
I asked these kids to do a couple of writing exercises with me and for the most part they delivered.  We explored writing "voice" and "point of view" together.  But there were a few kids who, in the time provided did little writing.  Occasionally they wanted to share their ideas verbally...a kind of "what I was going to or would have written."  Fascinating.  It means they were engaged in the spirit of the assignment, but still something is preventing them from keeping pace with the entire group.  Another notable result involved content.  On one piece of writing we did there was plenty of room for students to express empathy.  We wrote in 3 different voices about the loss of a neighbor's dog.  When writing to a 5 year old about the event, most kids wrote with appropriate sensitivity.  Some didn't.  I want to know what's behind that.  Perhaps if I were their teacher full-time, that would become apparent, in time.
For now, these issues and the always evident conundrum of the student who does no written work; just comes to class to vegetate, will continue to be the source of additional processing, reflection, and concern.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

One More Time

It's been about eight years since I retired from full-time teaching.  Eight years since I ruminated about a lesson, made some notes on a little background research just in case a question comes up, and eight years since I realized that, yes, a typo can get through a spell check easily.  So, when I went into a high school sophomore English class--actually three of them-- to model some lessons for a first year teacher I'm currently mentoring,  had a few concerns.
     I was making jokes about my "teaching chops," or whether I still had "it."  But what I was really wondering was what will these students be like.  They are, on the surface, very different from the student population I worked with for so many years.  Thee is a lot of water, and many more bridges between Sandy, Oregon and El Cerrito, California.
     I labored for three decades in the East Bay; sandwiched between Oakland and Richmond, Ca.  10 minutes from Berkeley, 20 from San Francisco, and definitely an urban environment.  Sandy, Or is a small community at the foot of Mt. Hood about 30 miles form Portland, and 30 miles from Timberline Lodge.

     Not surprisingly, many of the kids were remarkably the same.  They wear lots of dark blue and black.  They have pants closer to the ground than their waist.  They carry all manner of electronic devices and have an inordinate amount of drama in their lives.
     But in the last decade they have changed a bit.  many seem tethered to their devices no matter what the rules and regulations say.  Some appear to have shorter attention spans.  There are many, however, that are all too familiar.  You know who...the nerds, the hyperactive, the angry and the special needs kids.  There are drama cliques, and athletes.  There are quiet, thoughtful types and the totally verbal who do no written work.
I had a great time.  I resurrected a couple of writing lessons on voice and point of view I think my mentee can definitely add to her repertoire.  In helping them find their writing voices, I found my teacher voice , once again.  A friend of min, also a retired teacher, says it's like riding a bicycle, you never really forget.  A conditioned response, I guess.  That certainly was my experience.
     Of all the things I got from teaching these classes over a two day period, the one that resonates the most is being able to identify with the teachers I now mentor.  It's one thing to stand or sit back and observe and then pontificate,  It's quite another to get up there and make yourself vulnerable all over again.  The conversation that will follow will be as rich as the experience.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Let's Split

Guess it's just that time of year again.  The time to think about new beginnings and a few what ifs.  But as 2014 is being born, so too are a few other ideas about what the future of this century holds.  For those of us born mid last century, any year that begins with a 2 was always going to be the future.  As children, we knew that there would come a day, in a new century, when we'd see so many things differently.  That time is now.
Yes, this includes all the advancements in technology, the myriad forms that a computer takes, the advancements in health (note: not health care) transportation, and the general ease with which people spend their days. Yet, all is not Utopian in this advanced world we have long expected.  The fact is that we're a much more divided nation now than ever before.  We really are, as a culture, on a few different pages when it comes to core values and the principles and ethics with which we'd like to live our lives.
Just a soft peek at the issues that divide us and it's apparent that the polarization that divided us is built on value conflicts about the right to life and death, the role of government in our lives, church and state, our changing climate, and bits and pieces of everything from what we call entertainment or sports, or music...Maybe it's time to stop asking why we can't all get along.
Just as a point of departure, I was wondering what would happen if we decided to try something different.  Something radical...something like dividing into two or possibly three different countries where people could live under the laws and values that they truly think are most worthwhile.
Oh, I know the reality of all this, but just indulge me for a second.  The purpose of all this change would be no so much to see which society would succeed or fail, but rather to see what it feels like to live in a world where most of the people you live and work with share the same vision as you do.
Would it be less interesting, less stimulating?  Would it necessarily be better?
What about immigration?   Would there be great value shifts that people would exhibit with age?
Lots of possibilities here.

I'm reminded of that "Letter from the blue states to the red states"  that was so popular a few years ago. Based mostly on political and social values, the blue states announced that they were seceding from the red and taking with them such wonderful resources as the Napa Valley, much of the Pacific Northwest, many of the National parks and, of course the progressive centers and cities like NYC and San Francisco.
When you look at this scenario, it's certainly amusing.  But when you look at it within the context of our current malaise, it just might be more desirable than most folks care to admit.