Sometimes, the Old Way is Perfect Just the Way It Is

My grandpa passed away yesterday, at 87 years old. He had colon cancer and a number of other heath issues that he kept private up until two months ago. So while his death was sudden to my extended family, it was not to himself and my grandma. Upon reflection, my family and I notice the small affairs he put in order in the last year or so was really his expert planning. He used excuses that didn’t alarm anyone, but accomplished his goals.

My grandpa led a full life in his 87 years. Even in his passing, he planned it expertly. He passed at 1:45pm, giving the family the afternoon to grieve together. We went through suitcases of mementos and photos. He served in the Navy, fathered four children, and was married to my grandma for 64 wonderful years. He served as mayor of a small town, worked at AAA, and made beautiful wooden toys.

He did not understand technology very well. He and my grandma loved to go antiquing every chance they could. He only got rid of his rotary phone when he could not call Medicare customer service without a touch-tone phone. He did have a flip phone cell phone…for calling long-distance. He did embrace DVDs, but mostly to watch his favorite old TV shows.

As my family and I went through the suitcases, someone commented about how people just don’t make photo albums anymore. I thought about that for a bit. We take photos of everything and upload them to Instagram, Facebook, Google, or whatever site is the newest “it” thing. We keep “backup” copies on cloud storage, external hard drives, or just on our computer hard drives. And looking around at all the photos in my grandpa’s old suitcases, I realized that as wonderful as having digital copies are, they really do not replace physical copies of the important photos.

Through all the “noise” of a thousand digital photos, do you have favorites? A silly photo from the beach, a formal family portrait, or a touristy photo from a trip abroad? Print them out, organize them in an album, toss them in a shoebox or make a scrapbook. You don’t need to go to the craft store and buy tons of different papers, stickers, and cutouts, just something with acid-free paper where you can write some notes and glue a few pictures. It may not be something you want to look at for a while or at all, but others might. Alternatively, create a digital album of favorite photos, but make sure the information to get to it is left somewhere (i.e. leave passwords and directions to it in your will).

Unexpected or not, we all will pass away. There will be people who will want to celebrate your life. Make sure you lived in the moment, kept a journal of thoughts on important days of your life, took a few pictures, and put them all in a memory box outside your head and heart.

Technology enables us to do so much more and gives us access to so much more information, but my grandpa’s passing has reminded me that technology does not always mean better. Sometimes, the old way is perfect just the way it is.

Rest in Peace, Kenneth Roy Oates, 1926-2014.

Complex Texts: Are Students Too Dumb?

Recently, the National Council of Teacher Educators (NCTE) posted an article to their Facebook page that was published by ASCD in 2011 with the attention-grabbing line that students were “too dumb for complex texts”.

Really? Students are too dumb for complex texts? The last time I checked, the human brain had not changed its mental capacity in the last 30 years in order to render it incapable of comprehending complex texts.

While I agree that complex texts are a struggle to teach in English classes, students being “to dumb” is not the cause. The most common reasons are: (a) lack of time due to the volume of content that must be studied, (b) the lengthy re-teaching of concepts that were not fully mastered in the prior course, (c) the frequent preparation for standardized testing, and (d) the numerous standardized testing dates. Add in some useless days before a break when everyone has cabin fever and other school functions (including several snow days in the cold states), there really is not much time to whittle away at the content in outdated books.

Intrigued by the author’s conclusion, I skimmed the ASCD article to figure out by what measure the author, Mark Bauerlein, used to establish “dumbness” for complex texts. One example that really jumped out at me was that of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, since I recently taught an excerpt from Walden shortly before the holiday break.

Bauerlein stated that students do not take enough time to thoroughly read texts, to digest them, and ponder sentences. In fact, he believes, “readers may need to sit down with them for several hours of concentration.”

Really? Hours of picking apart sentences…for what purpose?

While I do agree that his often-quoted lines should be examined, after all, that is why we still read Walden, I question Bauerlein’s conclusion of hours. What value is there in reading the entirety of a near stream-of-consciousness text written in the mid-1800s by a recluse who may have needed a little bit more human interaction?

Is there a better way to teach the meaning in classics without forcing students to sit and read through pages of old grammar structures, out-dated vocabulary, and fluff to find the 5 minute nugget of information that is still valuable?

Do we read Walden because we “should”? Because it has been deemed a “classic”? Or do we read it because it is applicable to students’ lives and will help them become productive members of society? After all, that is the end goal of public education…to invest in all youth so that every person has the ability to become a positive member of society.

There are too many students who are failing their English classes because they cannot recall facts or apply concepts from Pride & Prejudice to their current life, let alone their future. Students who legitimately want to be a productive member of society, but find that school is teaching them that if you can’t memorize the names of the major characters along with three facts about each one of them, well then, why bother with learning at all? You might as well be in a gang.

Why are students having so much difficulty comprehending difficult texts? Is it because they are “too dumb for complex texts”? Is it the fault of embracing technology? Or, as one commenter in the ASCD article pointed out, the fault of short passages in high-stakes testing? Bauerlein cites technology and skimming text to find essential meaning (just the bullet points) as the cause of “screenagers” being too dumb understand complex texts. However, I think it is not the method of transmission that is the problem, rather the problem is the content itself no longer has a value and purpose in the classroom.

I mean really, how often do you use the knowledge from studying classic literature in your everyday life (professors aside)? In other words, how well did reading complex, classic fiction (and a little non-fiction prose) prepare you to read and digest complex business contracts like lease agreements?

I bet your answer was “very little” or “not at all”.

Guest Post: Tips For How To Teach Someone The Basics In Programming

Guest Post Written By: Joshua Harper

Computer programming is a very valuable tool in the modern world given that it helps a user develop analytical and critical thinking skill that can be used to tackle all sorts of complex computer problems or even start a new career. In fact, it’s fascinating to point out that programming languages can inherently change the way a user thinks about a particular problem. Computer programs are developed using programming languages that are usually written so that humans can understand.

However, which is the best way to introduce an average user, particularly someone with no previous programming experience? The main problem with teaching programming boils down to the fact that the programmer has to imagine the execution of the program without seeing any data. Nonetheless, here are some useful tips to help you teach the basics in programming more efficiently.

Tip #1: Clarify the value of learning programming

This is one of the most important steps that you should always consider, especially if you would like to teach the basics in programming to your kids. For instance, you need to emphasize that nearly all best-paying and interesting jobs will involve the use of computing skills, and countless will often be in technology start-ups involving some form of computing at their core. In other words, remind your learner how he/she can be the digital cathedral-builder of the future.

Tip #2: Prepare your student

Preparing the person you would like to teach can make it easier for him/her to grasp the most important basic computer programming ideas. This will help create a fundamental shift in the overall attitude a learner has towards computer programming. You can start by recommending certain books that suggest programming languages to your student. However, you should ensure that the programming language suggested in the book is very simple and easy for your student to learn. My choice is Ruby on Rails because it is the most productive way to build web applications and that application may be hosted on the web for free.  Also, encourage your student to read the book.

Tip #3: Combine ideas to form a working program

Basically, the best way to teach someone the fundamentals computer programming is by combining ideas to form a simple working program. For instance, you can start with simple programs like currency converters that use simple programming languages, and walk your way up to more complex programming languages once the student has learned to actively program using simple languages. It is important to remind your student that programming is a constant learning process that mainly involves learning new languages, and most importantly designing programs.

Tip #4: Co-relate your teaching to real-life examples

Technologists and mathematicians find it easy to teach their students using practical examples of how certain mathematical aspects, for instance, are applied in the real world. Therefore, you should also try applying the same idea when you’re teaching someone basic programming skills. As much as it’s quite evident that programming does not exist in isolation, you should correlate your teaching to real life examples, but in context of other scientific domains.

These tips will certainly help you teach someone the basics of computer programming, especially your kids. However, you should be aware of the current scientific developments to make your correlation to other scientific domains relevant to computer programming. You can use a compiler/interpreter for the programming language used by the books to help convert the written programming ideas into a machine code, so that your student can see how a program works.

Teachable Moment: George Zimmerman Verdict

It is no surprise that people have been glued to media coverage of George Zimmerman’s trial. Zimmerman had been charged with the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin. It became a high-profile case due to two facts: Zimmerman and Martin were of different races and Martin was unarmed. On July 13, Zimmerman was acquitted.

I’m not going to analyze the trial, nor am I going to say if the jury was right or wrong. Why? Because I have no authority to speak on the trial. I am not an expert (lawyer, criminalist, judicial journalist, etc.), I was not in the courtroom during the trial, nor was I present at the scene of the crime.

Technology has enabled people to learn about anything at any time. It has connected people and enabled physical distance to not be so important. It has empowered people. Unfortunately, the anonymity provided by technology has been the perfect breeding ground for passive-aggressive behaviors.

In the hours and days following the announcement of the verdict, people took to social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, to share their emotions. Those who felt Zimmerman was guilty were angry a murderer was walking free. Claims of bias were cited most often, from what I read.

We have a jury system for a reason. There was a reason we stopped public hangings. There is a reason that one person cannot be judge, jury, and executioner. That reason is: people had been found to be innocent after they’d been executed. In other words, the jury system is the best system we have created so far.

The take-away is this: respect the process. And if you don’t like it, do something about it.

This is exactly why I became an educator. I respect the field; I respect those who are members of the field. But, I felt there were some teaching methods that were outdated and I had ideas on possible solutions. And instead of passive-aggressively tweeting and blogging about them, I pursued a path which gave me authority to speak about and influence the field of education.

So if you don’t like the jury system, or anything really, and have a better idea, pursue a path that will give you the platform to change it. Otherwise, stay out of the conversation. As the old saying goes, “if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem”. So, do something about what you feel you could improve and be a part of the solution, not the problem.