Recently Checkmated

Last week I learned how to play chess. Actually, it’s more accurate to say last week my friend Rob attempted to teach me to play chess.

He did a great job of explaining the layout of the board and the various mobilities of the pieces. He showed me the little ritual for deciding who goes first. And even though he won that phase, he offered the first move to me.

“No, that’s cool, you lead off, man,” I said.

“That means you’ll be on the defensive.”

“That’s alright. These black ones look pretty sleek.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t go easy on me,” I said. “I need to get destroyed a few times in order to learn.”

Rob accommodated my request. The game was over in like five moves.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

By the end of the next game, I had a rudimentary understanding of chess and a new appreciation for Rob’s patience. I enjoyed the experience so much I downloaded a chess app for my iPad when I got home. It’s less pleasant than contending with Rob, though. The computer doesn’t pause to pretend it’s studying your array before annihilating your queen. It flashes the word “blunder” across the screen every two moves or so. It’s a real jackass.

Despite their differences in teaching styles, I owe both the computer and Rob gratitude. The good cop/bad cop combination of their methods familiarized me with the game enough to more fully appreciate sitting in the open air mall in front of the specialty barbershop where we were on the waiting list to get my son’s first hair cut the other day.

Normally, I would have killed time wandering with my wife through the farmer’s market that was getting underway. But I was burdened by crutches and a knee-brace, trophies of an unglamorous injury that reinforced the importance of stretching before any strenuous activity. Like pruning waist-high plants and putting the trimmings in a garbage bag.

Immobilized, I had no choice but to wait by myself and observe the activity around the over-sized chess board in front of the children’s barbershop.

It was a weird place for an over-sized chess board.

It was a weird place for me to be sitting alone.

A mother of three exuded suspicion and contempt at me as her two oldest children—a boy of about six, a daughter of about four—arranged the pieces in an alternating black and white sequence around the board’s perimeter. Their unity of effort did not last long.

“The white horse is the mommy and the black horse is the daddy,” the little girl said. She picked the white horse up by the neck to move it closer to the black horse. Black knight. Her exertions knocked over two pawns and a bishop.

“That’s not how you play chess,” her brother said.

He was right. I knew this with certainty. I knew it thanks to my chess app and my evening with Rob.

Around this time, their mother liberated the youngest daughter—probably about three— from the baby backpack thing that had restrained her. The little girl toddled toward me wielding a coquettish smile I interpreted as transparent manipulation to get a sip of the watermelon juice my wife had left on the table. I granted the little girl a nuanced expression that communicated two principal themes:

  1. You are very sweet.
  2. Get away from my juice.

I learned this expression from women I approached in bars throughout my twenties.

The kids continued knocking over the chess pieces and circling my juice for a few more minutes until their mom herded them elsewhere. Her contempt dissipated in the soft breeze. I finished my juice at my leisure.

I rose and limped to dispose of my cup in a receptacle of other recyclable materials that are probably now in a landfill. Another group of kids assumed control of the chess board.

These kids knew how to play chess. More or less. There was some dispute over which piece was king and which was queen. I interpreted this as evidence of our society becoming more gender-fluid each day.

The oldest of these kids was probably thirteen and the youngest maybe six. But they knew how to play. And by play, I don’t just mean play chess. They got a highly complex game going under their own initiative, gracefully compensating for the lop-sided number of five participants. They conducted themselves with decorum. They tolerated Oliver.

“Oliver, stop it.”

“Oliver, you can’t do that.”

“Oliver, put that back.”

Oliver looked like a pretty fun kid. He reminded me of my friend Rob. The guy who introduced me to the ancient, sophisticated choreography of chess.

Game of kings. Symmetry of strategy and tactics. There it was, in a thoroughly bizarre place, cultivating the minds of children while they waited for haircuts.

After forty five minutes, the barbershop texted us. We took my son inside and selected the chair that looked like a fire truck.

He held onto the steering wheel and didn’t cry.

When they were finished, he didn’t look like a baby anymore. Soon he’ll be beating me in chess.

An Antidote to Darkness

I am a cautious consumer. I rarely buy new products or gadgets I have spent the entirety of my life living without. However, I have recently surprised myself by considering the pragmatic advantages of owning a pair of night vision goggles.

The first obvious application for night vision goggles is to strengthen my marriage. My wife and I both read in bed, but she falls asleep first, and she has trained me to understand that my own happiness is proportional to how well-rested she is. I use a Kindle to minimize light pollution in our bedroom, but Kindle editions are often poorly edited and cumbersome to navigate. Whenever I read physical copies, I use an LED clip lamp, but its intense, focused beam straddles the edge of overkill. If I drift off, and the book slips from my grasp, my wife awakens to the visual equivalent of a welder’s torch hovering in her face. We have ruled out a sleeping mask for her, so night vision goggles have become the most viable solution. The only drawback I anticipate is in having to fumble with straps to dab at my tears each time I finish The Return of the King.

I first began considering the night vision option a few days after hanging the camera for my son’s baby monitor. Although I contend the baby monitor is overused in our household, I admit I am impressed by its quality. If we hear my son stirring, we can observe a high-resolution image of him blinking into the dark with huge, luminous eyes, like an experimental hybrid of a raccoon and a squid. We cringe at his contorted efforts to fall asleep. We intervene when he has gotten both legs stuck between the crib slats. But rescuing him is a blind process of trial and error. In his vulnerable, semi-conscious state, it must be both uncomfortable and humiliating for him to be dragged around in the dark and have every orifice of his head prodded with a pacifier. I do not know the sum impact on his psyche, but it cannot be good. Again, night vision goggles are an enticing solution. They will secure a happier future for my son.

The issue reaches its moral apex when I take my yard into consideration. A burrowing animal is destroying it, and much of the damage is done at night. I am not sure if it is a mole or a gopher or ants, but the patch of grass off our patio is looking more lunar each day. An exterminator could solve the problem in one afternoon, but I am uneasy about this course of action. I believe I should have to look my enemy in the eye before I call in a drone strike. If I set up a hunter’s blind next to the barbecue and don my night vision goggles, who knows what I will discover. Maybe I will be touched and inspired by the gopher’s industriousness. Maybe there are baby gophers involved. Or maybe it will just look like a rat is digging holes in my yard. If this is the case, his hours might be numbered. Regardless, an informed and ethical course of action is only possible if I have some way of seeing in the dark.

A stable marriage. Well-adjusted children. A modest piece of land. These emblems of adulthood resonate across cultures and time, but few technologies are versatile enough to promote all three. Night vision goggles are less than two-hundred dollars on Amazon. I am inclined to believe they will soon be an indispensable tool of 21st century living.

 

 

 

 

A Presumptuous Mayan

I suffer from a compulsion, though I suspect not a rare one. It has annoyed and alarmed my wife on many occasions. It has almost gotten me thrown out of concerts and sporting events I paid good money to see. It has raised the eyebrows of airport security in multiple countries.

The irrepressible urge is this:

Anytime I enter a large structure built by modern humans, I am compelled to reconnoiter areas designated off limits to the general public.

Malls. Hotels. Museums. Hospitals. Courthouses. Aquariums. Decommissioned aircraft carriers.

On days off I dress in neutral colors and take public transportation downtown. I select a skyscraper and enter the lobby with an air of manufactured casualness, as if I routinely have business in skyscrapers. I nod to the security guard. I pretend to cross-reference information on my phone and the directory map. Then I board the elevator.

Somewhere near the top floor, I step off into an empty hallway. I wind my way through the hive geometry of the corridors, and after negotiating a few blind turns, slow down to regard a sudden font of natural light in the hall a few yards ahead.

The illumination issues from a door propped open to ventilate an office lobby under remodel. I creep closer and determine that the painters are on their break.

Suppressing the sound of my footfalls, I cross the threshold. A few more feet to skirt the vacant reception desk, and then I’m indulging in a view only a few of us in this metropolis will ever see. This vantage will cost someone a lot of money. It costs me very little.

If anyone confronts me, I have to improvise.

Receptionist at Architectural Firm: May I help you?

Me: I think I made a wrong turn. I was looking for my insurance agents.

RAF: Mills and Fellini?

Me: Yes.

RAF: They are on the 40th floor.

Me: What floor is this?

RAF: 41st.

Me: (feigning embarrassed perplexity) Wow. How stupid do you have to be to push the wrong button in an elevator?

RAF: (with visible restraint, refrains from comment)

Me: I’m not going to tell my agent I can’t operate an elevator. My premiums will go up.

RAF: (almost smiles)

Me: Have a nice day.

RAF: You too.

And we never see one another again.

I suppose an interaction like this could be construed as manipulative, but in my view, the means justify the ends. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t steal anything. And I just got a view of the world that, in the eons of human history, was unthinkable until just a few generations ago.

The Egyptians, the Greeks, The Incas. Few of the structures they erected rival the scale and complexity of our office parks. And an airport? How is it possible that such a thing even exists?

There is no telling which feats of our engineering will endure for future archaeologists and tourists to puzzle over. They will wish they could ask us what it was like to live in our times.

I elect not to be like the Mayan whose labor helped raise a pyramid complex, but who was not considered wealthy or holy enough to enjoy a moment to himself inside what we would call a wonder of the world.

And now I have an affable accomplice for my explorations.

Hospital Security Guard: Sir, what are you doing in here?

Me: I think I got turned around. I’m looking for the family bathroom.

HSG: This area is off limits.

Me: I’m sorry.

HSG: Please exit this way. There’s hazardous material in this area.

Me: (holding nose and pointing at child suspended in Baby Björn) There sure is.

Tuning Back Up

I live on a dead end street in a southern suburb of San Diego. Every house in the neighborhood is painted the same color. There is a man-made duck pond a five-minute walk from our driveway. Sometimes teenagers park their cars and smoke weed at the mouth of the service road for the brush canyon that runs behind us. Those kids are the best and the worst feature of my neighborhood.

The other night when I opened the garage for an outing to Costco, there was a steady trickle of young women filing down the hill toward the cul-de-sac. It was not easy to estimate their ages.

I wrestled with two contradictory impulses: The first was to avert my eyes. The second was to ascertain the terminus of this unexpected parade. As my wife buckled our seven-month-old son into his car seat, I projected an aura of nonchalance primarily achieved by not grunting as I loaded the stroller in the cargo hold of our economical SUV.

When we got home from Costco, a train of parked cars occupied every inch of curb space on our street. A clump of human activity boiled in the driveway a few houses down from us. The most identifiable member of the cohort was wearing a bass guitar that dwarfed his physique. The accessory was justified by the half-circle of smiling young women in his proximity.

I have enough life experience to know that if someone is hanging out on your street wearing a bass guitar, the odds are high you will soon be hearing an approximation of music. In this case, the noise commenced just as the street lights were coming on. For the most part it was a low end throb that made our windows buzz a little. But any time the side door to our neighbor’s garage opened, the higher frequencies washed out over the roofs and poured down the canyon. Cheers of authentic appreciation punctuated the end of each song.

It had been a while since I’d heard live music. It’s more accurate to say it had been a while since I’d heard any compelling live music. But the music coming from my neighbor’s garage did compel me. It was sloppy. It was simple. It was people playing through mistakes in front of an enthusiastic and forgiving audience. I hoped no one was Snapchatting it.

My kitchen garbage was not full, but I took it out anyway to get closer to the energy of the show and the optimistic voices in the street. The wood and wheels of a skateboard ground out another breed of music as someone else attempted bold feats and failed at them. People were laughing, flirting, making plans for later. The conversations were identical to those I’d participated in 25 years ago.

I was not satisfied just hearing the gathering from behind the fence where we keep the garbage cans. I wanted to see what was going on out there, but feared disturbing its pristineness. I crept out my front door and edged along the hedge at my property line. However, the motion light over my garage has a long reach and betrayed me with literalness, revealing me as a man in his forties peering at teenagers from behind bushes. How to explain the context and nuance of my predicament if I were spotted? I melted back into the house.

Still, much more inspired than ashamed, I climbed the foyer stairs and disinterred my guitar from where it resides in the spare bedroom. To my surprise, it was almost in tune. I carried it into my son’s bedroom, where my wife was drying him after his bath.

“I’m going across the street to show them what rock looks like,” I said.

“No, you’re not.”

My son rolled his head back to eye me from his supine position on the changing table. He had a hand in his mouth. I strummed a power chord, which made him grin and kick his legs with impressive violence.

Encouraged by his response, I improvised an aggressive riff. I don’t remember how it went, but you have to take my word for it that it absolutely shredded.

My son redoubled his kicking and gurgled.

“Don’t get him excited. He needs to sleep,” my wife said.

I assumed a limber, athletic stance, pointed the headstock of my guitar at her back, and sped up the riff. My wife did not bother to turn around, so I retreated down the hall to make good use of the closet doors that double as full-length mirrors in our bedroom.

On a typical night, I feed my son his last bottle before he goes to sleep. While he eats, we listen to French surrealist composers or Gaelic folk music. I’m not trying to turn him into any kind of elitist, but that music is relaxing. It’s the sound of a baby falling asleep in your arms when you have a little whiskey on your breath. But the night the band played down the street, we just listened to those kids and all their mistakes. I told my son his daddy used to play in bands like that.

When I was nineteen, and my friends and I rattled our neighbors’ windows with our amplified errors, was there some guy listening to us as he fed his baby?

Maybe.

Maybe our shaky attempts made him feel a little more alone, but also a little more like himself. Maybe he kissed his son and promised him a guitar. Maybe he had been afraid a smothering, conventional life had finally ensnared him.

“Nope. Not yet.”

Maybe he said that.

Data Junkfood. Is Your School Eating It?

If you live on the west coast and you are in any way connected with education, you know of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. As an acronym, we see this in our written communication as SBAC. When we speak of it, we say Ess-Back, which manifests in my mind as a coiled, hissing snake, or perhaps a maligned Harry Potter character, embittered by years of living in ostracized seclusion with a painful spinal disfigurement.

The SBAC is a bit of a shadowy figure. I have taught in two states and internationally. I have attended and given workshops in dozens of venues and with hundreds, maybe thousands of colleagues from around the world. Daily, I read literature on the subject of education. But I cannot recall ever meeting someone who admits to working for or on the SBAC. Which is weird, considering that nearly every single student on the west coast, over the course of several grueling days, takes the SBAC exam in the spring. Weird, considering that the federal government has threatened to retract millions and millions of dollars in federal funding from the states, districts, and schools who opt out of the exam. Weird, since almost all of our professional development is carried out with SBAC results in the backs of our minds.

When the stakes are this high, it would stand to reason that teachers and administrators have a voice in, or at least a rudimentary understanding of how the data is collected and calculated. After all, the numbers will publicly reveal holes in our credibility as professionals and later guide the mandatory professional learning we pay for with our time and energy. However, when I look closely at my students’ data, as summarized by this one-shot test administered long before the year is even over, I do not feel like I have learned much that will help me improve as an educator. If anything, I might even feel a little bit messed with.

Here’s what I mean specifically:

student-a

What you just looked at in confusion is a page from my student roster report, courtesy of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The colored numbers represent each student’s overall score on the exam. Trust me, there are some red numbers on other pages. That aside, I think most of my colleagues would agree that within the first six weeks of the school year, any mediocre teacher can predict, with about a 90% degree of accuracy, the number that is likely to accompany each name on the roster when we receive the results the following year. However, good teachers are interested in why each student earned the score that they earned. If trends emerge over time—gaps in particular standards, for example—maybe we can work with that information to improve our craft in the long run.

The SBAC sort of breaks things down for us. Notice the four categories of reading, writing, listening, and research/inquiry in the roster report above. That’s almost helpful. But what about the fact that Student A and Student B performed identically within each of the four categories, yet received two different overall scores?

I understand that small variances in performance in each category can lead to a difference in overall scores. But if this is the case, I might expect Student A to be hanging precariously close to a 2. And I might surmise that Student B had a good day and punched above weight towards a 3. But if we zoom in closer, we see this is not the case at all:

student-a

Student B.png

Student A was quite a distance from a 2. Student B is actually closer to a 1 than a 3. But as far as the roster report tells me, these students have nearly the same score across the board in reading, writing, listening, and research/inquiry. I understand that a 2 and a 3 have different ranges, blah, blah, blah, but this is annoying to me. It is confusing. The data actually makes me understand these students less than I did before attempting to analyze it.

Data like this is terrifying to those teachers whose evaluations and salaries are tied to these ambiguous and flawed results. Many of those teachers will not be in the profession much longer. They are already leaving in droves.

Data like this is also terrifying to good administrators. They are under immense pressure from politicians to look at these numbers and develop plans of action that impact thousands of students. But what good is a plan if the data that guides it is so questionable?

And maybe this data should be disconcerting to you, even if you are not an educator. Your tax dollars are paying for the design and implementation of the test, including all of the technology infrastructure and personnel required to implement it in every school across your state.

But let’s back up for a moment. I am not here to rant against the Common Core Standards or against standardized testing as a whole. I think both can serve as powerful tools that will improve instruction. And maybe the people in charge of the SBAC are decent humans who have learning rather than profit at the core of their beliefs. Maybe someday I’ll meet one of them and I can find out.

But in the meantime, I feel it is my duty as an educational leader to identify a problem, which I think I have done, and then to propose some possible solutions. So here are a few solutions:

Students: Your teachers know the exam can be frustrating, tedious, and painful. However, please do your best. And please behave in a way that allows the people around you to do their best too. Think of that teacher or coach who has gone out of their way for you, even if it just offering you a kind word when you needed it. Dedicate your performance to them. Forget about that teacher who you think is kind of a jerk. In fact, maybe have some empathy for them. They have been pitted against you by the system, been told they are failing you in every possible way, and as a result, many of them go home and cry. Then they work until they fall asleep.

Parents: If you opt your child out, you are actually just causing more problems for everyone. Administrators and teachers have to figure out something to do with your son or daughter while he or she is not taking the test, which means they will probably end up sitting in some holding pen while supervised by an overworked secretary. Obviously, we know this is a terrible scenario, but we are not sure what you expect when every teacher and administrator in the building is occupied with proctoring the high-stakes exam you just opted out of.

Teachers: We need to draw the curtain away to see who pulls the levers that operate the fireballs and smoke that are pouring out of the machine at you. Maybe the SBAC people have good intentions but are just tragically misguided. Or maybe they are draconian profiteers who need to be exposed. In the meantime, support one another and keep learning. We don’t need to be perfect at what we do, but we can be better at what we do.

Administrators: We need to help construct a culture that allows for Professional Learning Communities. Effective ones that produce usable data. This might mean we push harder for a restructured school week with sufficient time built in for teachers to plan, collaborate, and analyze data. One hour a day is not cutting it anymore. This also might mean we need to get in there with teachers and use the tools they are using with the students they are interacting with to see the reality. As school leaders, many of us left the classroom before No Child Left Behind and before the technology revolution that completely transformed instruction and feedback. We are unforgivably out of touch. We have become the mouthpiece of politicians and massive corporations, when the information should be flowing in the other direction. Let’s remember whom we are here to support.

Superintendents, School Boards, and all other Politicians: Look closely at the budgets. Really closely. Factor in the technology costs. Factor in the training costs. Factor in the flawed data. Factor in the toll this process is taking on everyone else’s morale. Factor in the looming teacher shortage that is the inevitable result of these practices. Factor in that we have systematically forced many visionary and vocal leaders out of our organizations to start their own charter schools. Factor in how history is going to remember us. Factor in your conscience.

Does the money the federal government threatens to withdraw exceed these costs?

Those of us down here on the ground have been scratching our heads and wondering for a while now.

How Working in an Entropic Hellscape Prepared Me for Teaching

Next time you are near a convergence of a bunch of high voltage lines, look for the nearby monoliths adorned with porcelain antennae and cooling fins. Those are electrical transformers. They are filled with tons, literal tons, of copper, aluminum, steel, brass, porcelain, cardboard, and carcinogenic oil.

From the time I was 17 until I was 22, I worked for my Uncle Ray. He ran a shop where we disassembled electrical transformers and scrapped the components.

I should be clear about how this was achieved, and my role in the process.

Since I was the smallest in stature on the crew, it occasionally fell to me to peel open the steel housing of the dead transformers with a plasma cutter and a pry bar. Then I would climb inside with a can of Raid for defense against the yellow jackets and black widow spiders that make such environments their home. After grueling, filthy contortions to loosen all the nuts and brackets within, I would emerge, smeared with traces of grimy, blue corrosion and drenched in rank oil. We would then lift the core out of the can with an overhead crane.

The pay dirt was the copper. However, we could not harvest the copper until we purged the paper and cardboard from the massive, tightly wound coils of it. So we loaded steel pallets full of the unwieldy, poorly balanced cores into an industrial oven and bathed them in flame, sometimes for as long as 8 hours. Out of curiosity, I once put a 120-degree mercury thermometer on a rail near my workspace. When I checked it a while later, the mercury had shot out the top of it, like something out of a Daffy Duck cartoon.

With the aid of a forklift, finessing the precarious loads into the massive oven was relatively easy. Extracting the pallets, while unnerving green flames licked the drooping cores, and as ash flew in the exhaust fans like a blizzard, was not so easy. And stooping over the pallet and straining to lift, with my poorly protected hands, the layer of thick, high quality outer wire from the still-smoldering spool of inner wire, and then fanning it all out on a grate and blasting it with a pressure washer, effectively transforming the environment into a nightmare of fire and ash and murderous green smoke and hissing steam, all a rich recipe for the pitch-black loogies I hocked up each day at the end of my shift. This was all very hard.

But it was way, way, way easier than teaching.

This is not to say I am not enjoying teaching right now. I am. Three years ago, I made a move to middle school after ten years at the high school, and it turns out that most of the horror stories you hear about that level are myths. Last year was the most pleasant of my career, in fact, once I realized how miraculous it is when a 7th grader’s hormone-soaked brain has managed to retain any thing resembling prior knowledge. I have adjusted to this reality accordingly. The experience has made me a much, much better teacher and reminded me how rewarding it is to learn.

But over the years, as I have moved from experience to experience, both internationally and in multi-state public education, I have come to realize that working at my uncle’s shop prepared me for being an educator much more than any training packaged by higher ed.

I end with a short list of things I learned in my uncle’s hot, noisy shop, and which still influence my practice and professional relationships in education. Perhaps I offer these observations as advice to new teachers, as they are about to enter this grueling, yet oddly addictive profession:

  1. Build a system that controls the workflow and minimizes the mess or soon you’ll have a bunch of garbage lying around.
  2. The tool you need for the job you’re doing does not exist, so be prepared to improvise something.
  3. Never let your ego get in the way of an experienced colleague who has taken pity on you and offered to make your life easier.
  4. You are not going to survive in this environment unless you find something to laugh about.
  5. It is often a good idea to wash your hands before you go to the bathroom.
  6. Even though you’re on your feet all day, you still need exercise.
  7. If your job is always physically and emotionally safe, your job is probably also very boring.

 

 

The Conspiracy of You and Me

It was not just racist cops who killed Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. It was not just deranged snipers who killed police in Dallas. Those answers are too easy.

If we leave all the blame there, historians of the future will have a heyday with us. They will marvel at how we ignored the obvious perpetrators, the real murderers: You and me.

It’s you and me that outsource cheap labor to meet violence and despair in our streets and classrooms. We poke a starved bear with a thin stick and blame the bear and the stick when they snap.

It’s you and me that fault the media for drenching our screens with blood and bikinis. We go on clicking and then lament the candidates we tailored for ourselves.

It’s you and me that mask fear with bravado. We speed to the car lot or comments section to ward off what threatens us.

It’s you and me that ignore cries for help. We don’t want to believe there are people less lucky than we are.

It’s you and me that have never had passports. We have long looked at the world through flat screens and rifle scopes and lost sight of freedom.

It’s you and me that let our appetites define us. We finish our burgers then soak our hands in anti-bacterial gel.

It’s you and me that merge democracy with narcissism. We weld misspelled convictions between pictures of us with our dogs.

It’s you and me that mistake coliseums for schools. We make fan and alumnus into synonyms.

It’s you and me that cling to stale customs and culture. We don’t see that what we preserve is not culture at all, but the absence of it.

It’s you and me that rub our hands together when something like this happens. We know it will energize the base.

It’s you and me that will watch it all happen tomorrow. We are looking for scapegoats everywhere but in our own apartments.

The victims are gone. The guilty will go free. All laws, all prayers are futile against this conspiracy.

This conspiracy of you and me.