Thursday, March 12, 2015

(In and) Out of Africa


I learn geography by going there. It’s a hands-on approach. Africa is a big place. No I mean it is a really big place – just less than 12 million square miles it is four times the size of the whole United States (including Alaska) and it contains 47 countries. After this trio Sara and I have been to 6 – 46 (barring any new ones cropping up) to go.

First up on our latest jaunt into the Dark Continent was Zambia and a visit to American International School Lusaka - AISL.  Of course I had never heard of Lusaka until I knew I was headed there – blame that on my Eurocentricly instilled geographic education where we were told that there was this big land mass called Africa and pretty much left at that.

From what I saw, Zambia is a green lush place full of birds, color and sound. Much the same, AISL is a multicultural place full of color sound and learning. Our hostesses – Terry and Kelly the upper and lower school librarians respectively showed us the upmost of hospitality. 

I started my day with pre-K and finished with seniors – my favorite. I love getting to jump back and forth from elementary to high school. It keeps one on one’s toes to say the least. Along the way we did a couple assemblies, took a bike ride shopped in a local market after reuniting with a teacher friend, Dana, who we met a few years back and introduced us to her compatriot in mayhem Kathleen the math teacher.  We packed whole lot into 4 days – just enough to know we want to come back.

Next up on our tour was Khartoum in North Sudan a brand new country in the upper eastern portion of the continent. Life here seems pretty harsh. Searing heat, the temperatures climbed over 110 degrees Fahrenheit while we were there. It’s a dry oven bread baking temperature dusted with well, dust. One’s sweat just disappears as soon as it leaves ones body and you have to be careful to remain hydrated. Top this off with an authoritarian government and an economy whose back is being broken with US sanctions and you’ve got a recipe for misery. Instead, we found the Sudanese people to be welcoming, quick to share what they had and even quicker with a laugh.

Embodying the definition of oasis is the Khartoum International Community School. Jeanette, the upper school librarian and her lower school compatriot Laura invited us into the refreshing atmosphere of their school.  We worked on refrain poems with the little guys, extended metaphor with the big guys and then did a voluntary professional development session with the teachers after school one day – which ended up being packed. I like to think it was our dynamic presentation that brought out the big numbers – but I have a sneaking suspicion the free cupcakes and coffee played into the mix.

Next up Uganda!

As hot and dry as Khartoum is – Kampala, Uganda is moist and green, leaning its verdant shoulders into Lake Victoria from which the Nile flows. Noisy Ibis cackle and crack wise from the sky, music blares from all modes of vehicles and vegetable stands line the roadways from Entebbe airport to the International School of Uganda.

We squeezed a three day visit into two- first day working with teachers on writing across the curriculum and then the second with students in the upper school. Again – we only wish we had more time.

We were the happy house-guests of a humanity teacher named Matt  - who we had worked with several years ago in Hong Kong (these international teachers get around). ISU was the impetus for this whole journey – Sara had met the senior school principle, Lesley, at a conference a couple years back and the two had been plotting our visit for a while.  So – thanks to the scheming of Lesley and her librarian Cathy we pulled this one off!

After our work at the school we had just enough time to hit a couple markets, buy a few masks, eat a great dinner then up at 3am to begin our journey home. Our heads are still spinning!

This was the definition of a whirlwind spin through a bit of Africa.

Can’t wait to do it again – perhaps at a little calmer pace.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The unfriendly skies of United Scarelines


Travel to and in Africa is arduous but quite often one finds that good things do not come easily. So while this was one of our most trying treks it was also one of our most rewarding. Three countries in fourteen days – here we go:

First off, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Sara and me knows of our love-hate (way more chits in the hate category – in fact let’s call it what it is – a hate – hate) relationship with United Airlines. They never cease to amaze in their lack of service, customer care and willingness to take responsibility for absolutely anything. It’s definitely an abusive relationship that we just can’t seem to quit – held hostage by frequent flier miles and the old days when we were Continental fliers. (Yay deregulation!)

So we get to the airport on tickets that had been bought and confirmed seven months ago – all our flights are within United’s partnerships – South African Air – Ethiopian Air etc. It should be smooth sailing.  I called confirmed seats with South African two weeks out - so what happens when we get to Cleveland Hopkins Airport? We are told Sara has no seat aboard our first flight – the only one that is actually on a United plane. Stress level factor of oh, miss your entire trip to Africa.

What happened? Who knows United will never tell you. Could have been equipment swap – might have been a time change of two minutes somewhere. Whatever sent the itinerary into the tailspin it was headed is to remain a double secret mystery and one for, which United, will never accept any responsibility. Whatever it was it sent a ripple like the mythical rainforest butterfly flap whose consequences we would feel for the rest of our journey. Every painstakingly selected seat and confirmation evaporated like an hour’s old jet contrail.  Star Alliance Gold Status perks (hazardous duty pay for flying tens and tens of thousands of miles and spending tens and tens of thousands of dollars) poof – all gone! You get nothing! – And you will LIKE IT!

At the last moment Sara gets cleared for a seat just in time to sit and wait two hours for a late arriving airplane – why was the plane late? Who knows? The weather is fine so it’s not that – but since we are United Airline’s passengers we have no right to information. We’re never told – but we do know catching our connecting flight is going to be tough. Once the plane does show – we are not allowed to store our carry-ons under our seats in order to facilitate a quicker dash to our connecting flight – which is looking iffier and iffier. They do offer to check our bags all the way through to our final destination – having a loads of experience with their baggage handling prowess we decline this proposition.

That’s okay though – since we are Star Alliance gold and platinum members they will have a cart waiting for us at the other end to make sure we don’t have to send one of us racing through Washington Dulles while the second waits and waits and waits like a character in a Becket play for the gate check bags and then having to race the ¾ mile to the international terminal dragging both bags behind them.


Good thing we didn’t allow them to check our carry-ons, because this is when they lose the rest of our bags. But hey, we’re just going to Africa – why would we need luggage?

For the first time in my life I am the very last person on the plane – drenched in sweat after galloping through the airport I come to the gate and Sara is literally straddling the air bridge door so they would not be able to leave me behind. Those extra legroom seats we are supposed to get due to our many miles flown – tada! – They disappear thanks to the unexplained and un-apologized for glitch that United has thrown into our lives.

Eventually we arrive in Zambia. We do – our bags do not. Luckily I have come to expect very little of my airline so I had an extra days change in my carry on bag remember the one that the flight attendant so wanted me to check for free! If I had taken her up on her offer I would have been royally boned – as it stood I was merely inconvenienced – which pretty much sums up being shackled to United Airlines – an inconvenience.

Throughout our journey we have to talk our way onto plane after plane – getting supervisor’s assistance to locate our tickets, which have mysteriously become translucent due to the United portion of the ticket. It poisons our whole trip like a puss filled abscessed tooth. This was of course all “fixed” when we originally checked in – in Cleveland – we were assured everything would be smooth sailing.  So, on an itinerary in which only one flight out of a dozen was actually on a United Airlines plane – they were able to gum up the whole works. Stellar ineptitude knows no boundaries.

It seems to me the standard operating procedure at United Airlines is to first deny responsibility and then do just enough to get he customer in front of you out of your face and let the next guy or gal handle the mess which you know is going to follow the hapless patron throughout their journey.

So what happens now? We will file a formal complaint – United Airlines will throw a 300-dollar voucher our way and that will be it. No skin off their butts – their scrimping of service is paying off for them in spades as noted in this open letter to the company’s CEO from Ralph Nader. Ralph effin’ Nader! You know you’re sucking big time when Ralph finds you worthy of his time.

OY – this was going to be a blog about the schools we visited with just a mention of the travel tribulations we had (travel in Africa is rough – the time tables will beat you down like you’re dragging a snow tire behind you – the airports can be undeveloped and immigration control in some places is Kafkaesque) but when I got to thinking how United was able to make what should have only been an arduous journey into a Sisyphean marathon I just got on an uphill roll.

Oh and their new pre-flight safety video? It’s the dumbest thing ever filmed at no doubt the expense of an inch of legroom. Way to go United Airlines! Thanks for the unfriendly skies.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Anchorage City School - Louisville Kentucky

Getting lucky in Kentucky with our first school visit of 2015.

Anchorage kindergartners BEFORE poetry.
Sara and I drove down to Louisville at the invite of Mellisa Sangster to work with the K-8 building of students at the Anchorage schools.

As Sara said - it was nice to blow away the cobwebs at what is obviously a writing school. No worksheets for these students that we could see.

And we worked with just about all grade levels from K to 8. We wrote refrain poems about the playground and birds with some enthusiastic kindergartners, point of view pieces with third graders, personification with 7th and extended metaphor with eighth.

I like when we get to meet a swath of grades on a visit.

Then at the end of the second day we had a PD session with all the teachers.

A perfect way to get back into the swing of things!

AFTER poetry.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bozeman's Simplex

Your brain is keeping secrets from you – and that’s a good thing.

One of the tips I give student writers is to start with a list – to come up with a catalog of details about whatever the subject is and then to pare that list down to the most important details as we write and revise. I always start with more information than I am going to end up using is a mantra I offer.

Poetry is a natural genre for this practice of precise and concise writing – but any and all preconceived communication can benefit from editing. If I had to boil all my teaching into a single sentence I would say: it is the prioritization of information. That’s it in a nutshell – thank you good night, try the fish I’ll be here all week…

I’m a fan of brain science books; a couple of my favorites are Incognito by David Engleman and Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnman among others. Anyway somewhere along the way (most likely in one of the aforementioned books) I picked up the notion that one of our brains most important functions is deciphering meaning from the onslaught of continual data avalanching down on us from all directions. This along with the ability to learn patterns and sequences and then to internalize them into shorthand is what allows us to function in the world without being reduced to quivering mounds of protoplasm either too overwhelmed by stimuli or paralyzed by the uncountable number of steps necessary to open a jar of pickles.

Just use the important stuff.

So while details are important to good image driven writing – distilling those details to the strongest is what makes for potent communication. Get rid of the unnecessary. Reportedly after marveling at Michelangelo’s statue of Goliath-vanquishing David, the Pope asked the sculptor, “How do you know what to cut away?” Michelangelo’s reply? “It’s simple. I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David.”

Editing and revision are your friends.

There is such a thing as too much information (and I’m not talking about a Kim Kardashian video.) We do not want to overwhelm our readers or listeners minds into stasis.

But we need to have something to pare down so we have to start with a glut of information – notes – details – facts - descriptions and then winnow them down as we revise. 

You can’t pick the best option without options. Easy as that.

Remember an overabundance can be as debilitating as lack.  Let’s not infect our audience with David Lynch’s fictional malady, Bozeman's Simplex. Make sure your details deserve the space they are taking up on your page or in your talk.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Poetry Prohibition

Poetry is a gateway drug.

So – Sara and I are finally home for a couple weeks – over a month straight with no travel. We’ve been overseas speaking at conferences and visiting schools and stateside we’ve been to a couple of conferences since Halloween.  As much as I enjoy going places and meeting up with new and old friends – just waking up in my own bed for an extended period of time sure has it’s upside.

Here’s something I’ve come to realize.  People (especially those in the educational world) use poetry in much the same way folks might use illegal drugs. They pretend that they don’t.

I’ve heard every excuse for shoving poetry into the shadows – It’s too hard – It’s not relevant – it’s not in the common core – it won’t sell – teachers won’t use it in the classroom. I’ve even had a past editor cluck their tongue looking dolefully at me and say, “God knows we’ve tried”, shaking their head as if speaking to a disappointing child. To which I would reply - "Well, try a little harder."

BUT – the very same folks who swear poetry isn’t pertinent will open up a PD session with what? A poem of course! How do they teach the dreaded concept of  - dum dum dum – CLOSE READING – why with a poem! I received a tweet at NCTE gushing over the fact that a presenter was wowing the attendees in a session by performing a Jane Yolen poem to music.

Got a presidential inauguration going on? – Whip out a poem – your only daughter getting married? – Whip out a poem – Uncle Spike passed away? – Whip out a poem! Poetry is out there folks – quit pretending it’s not. It’s reminiscent of prohibition – everybody acting like nobody is drinking yet those coffee cups are just short of flammable.

If poetry is so irrelevant when are people gonna stop abusing it?

Poetry is suffering from false advertising being perpetrated by those who should be its very champions. But, like a speakeasy owner, it seems they want to keep the goods under their control – deciding when, where, at what price and who may deliver it.

Over and over again Sara and I have had rousing success using the genre in classrooms as a learning tool – when our lessons and strategies are presented they receive the highest accolades. To the naysayers I say – “You know why poetry doesn’t sell? – Because you refuse to sell it!” All these closet users of poetry have to do is recommend it.

Instead we get textbooks and lessons written by non-poets that ARE daunting or irrelevant to classroom goals. We are told poetry is a great way to express our feelings or to create cartography of our souls turning the genre into this ephemeral wisp, to immerse students in it then set them loose without teaching craft guaranteeing its literacy utility to disappear like smoke from a chimney.  When in reality almost all poetry is creative non-fiction and every single reading and writing standard ever conjured to sell a pre-packaged pedagogical program can be taught through poetry. 

All the policy makers, the curriculum advisers, the PD bookers, conference proposal panel reviewers have to do is recommend its use - poetry will do the rest. A little informed advocacy goes a long way – give it a chance to get its foot in the door and poetry will surprise even the most reluctant with its effectiveness. But, the will to take this little risk has to be there.

So think about it – do you use or abuse poetry?

Monday, November 17, 2014

I didn't see THAT coming.

I never did get a bill for the ambulance ride home.

So what do cyclocross racing, software engineers, data collection, education policy, and immovable objects in the form of telephone poles have to do with each other? Well I’ll tell ya…

Sara and I have just returned from the Young Adult Literature Association’s symposium in Austin Texas. Generally I love Austin, good food, funky town, warm weather, great place to ride a bike, All were true this time except for the weather – freakishly cold – but still better than the blizzard we left behind us in Ohio.

It was at a dinner thrown by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong – publishers of the Poetry Friday Anthology series that the germ for this blog was first conjugated.

First: Cyclocross.

Cyclocross is a form of off road bicycle racing that is kind of like a steeplechase on wheels.  There are obstacles that one must dismount their bike and hop over, sand pits, sets of steps etc. My son Frank and I have taken it up this season – a season that runs from the Autumn into the Winter. It’s a raucous sport that encourages heckling and cowbells from fans as well as beer and food. It’s the rugby of bicycle racing in my opinion.

Okay, Frank and I are doing a little training – we’ve set up a course that shares two parks about a mile apart – we complete a circuitous course around one park then book like mad down the sidewalks to the second park, run that course and then back again for a predetermined amount of laps. Between the two locations we get a pretty good rehearsal for what we might be encountering on race day.

As we add up the laps though, Frank adds to his lead on me. By our final lap he is around a quarter mile ahead of me or so. I bear down, stand up on my pedals and hope he doesn’t notice my sprinting behind him. I have an idea of my threshold exertion and I stare at my Garmin GPS device on my handlebars. I note speed, rpm, and time. I want to exert the most effort I can without bonking and try to close the gap that my wiry son has opened between us.

It was while I was collecting this data that I did not notice the singular telephone pole that was edged 8 inches more into the sidewalk than the rest of the domino line down the street.  Rather, I didn’t notice it until I hit it dead on with my left shoulder at full speed. I spun off my bike twirling like a boomerang into oncoming traffic. The air whooshed out collapsing my lungs like an empty toothpaste tube. I dizzily rolled myself out of the street onto a nearby tree lawn staring up in the sky and waited for the pain to come raining down new year’s eve confetti style. Which, it did.

I’ve often relied on the kindness of strangers:

Fortunately some concerned citizens stopped to assist me and called the ambulance. I remembered every detail of the accident, so I knew that I most likely didn’t have a concussion. Frank had circled back and looked on with concern as the paramedics checked me out. I didn’t seem to have any broken bones and my pupils looked fine so the EMS team gave me a ride home and Frank wheeled my bike home like a combat solder helping a comrade off the battlefield. I have since made almost a full recovery and even went on to race three days after the accident. But what I really want to talk about is education policy.

My mistake on this ride was paying too close attention to the immediate data in front of me and not looking up to see what was coming down the road.  This is, I believe, the same mistake our high stakes test driven education scheme is taking. We miss what is coming down the road in the long run when we teach to the test, to the point where in some districts a 4th grader can expect to spend over a quarter of their learning time just taking tests.  We’ve got our kids heads buried down and pedaling as fast as they can blind to real world obstacles to success.  We swap out short term graphing of test results for real critical thinking skills.

Context is everything:

Why? Software engineers (see this is all coming together now.) and one in particular, Bill Gates. His billions of dollars have way too big an influence on what is happening in our public schools. He was one of the loudest voices in the smaller school campaign – the one that busted large schools into smaller entities –oftentimes in the same building. Well, this idea crashed and burned in the end. Gates himself has admitted as much. So you’d think we would have learned from the lesson of taking education advice from non-educators? No way.

Now the money is flowing into test taking, data collection, and private enterprise charter schools – sounds more like a computer corporation than a school right?  That’s because data-collecting systems is what software engineers know – and when trying to solve a problem one will go to what they know right? Unfortunately what one knows is not always applicable to the task at hand.

Knowing my exact speed, rpm, watts exerted did nothing to keep me from popping like a water balloon against a utility pole. Data collection was not the route to success for me at that time. Now, had I collected the data and used it later as part of a training program instead of my sole focus during the process I might not be waking up as stiff recent mornings.

Similarly – how do you think a software writer might feel about me asking him or her to go back and rewrite the code for that skyscraper’s climate control system with an eye more toward character development and foreshadowing?  Right tools for the right job.

Just because a guy made billions in business doesn’t mean he should have a seat at the head of the table when education policy is being discussed. Kids are not lines of code and I think the there are a lot of folks messing with education policy that need to get their heads out of their – well lets just say they need to look up.