Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Random Torah Thought

This just struck me so I am putting it here for safe keeping.

I have, in other writing, commented on the bracha of "atah kadosh" in the shmoneh esrei -- how in one way of reading, calls all humans who daven "kedoshim" and this puts on on the same level as angels, and also, equates us, in this sense, with God and his holiness. But I just found another, similar idea.

In the Shabbat morning davening, we say "yismach moshe" (and Moshe will be happy). I looked up online to try and figure out what this is referring to. Why is it in the future tense and not the past -- the paragraph seems to be talking about events in the desert! I found a page which pointed out that future happiness is mashiach-era based. Moshe will be happy because he gets a portion in the messianic age and he earned it by being an eved ne'eman, a loyal servant to God. That seems like a tough level to reach. I can't be as great as Moses so I won't have the option to have that happiness. Unfair, I say.

But we fix that by adding musaf to our Shabbat prayer routine. In musaf, we say "yismechu b'malechutcha shomrei shabbat" (those who guard the sabbath will be happy in your kingship) - we will earn a place in the era when God is king over all simply by guarding the Sabbath! Maybe by placing that line in the musaf prayer, the extra prayer recited on the Sabbath and holidays, we are earning that place by praying (in some weird, recursive logic loop). The Sabbath was sanctified as special so that we could, through our adherence to Sabbath laws, earn something beyond this world.

Maybe we can't be as dedicated and loyal servants as Moses was but God gives us an avenue we CAN achieve in order to earn that divine happiness, guarding the Sabbath.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Textnology in the Classroom

I want to tell you about Ezi Burns. And if it ends up that my memory is faulty and this story isn't about Ezi Burns, but about another person, I apologize to all involved. So anyway, back to Ezi Burns. Or whoever.

It was about 17 years ago and I was teaching an eleventh grade honors English class. The class was about 30 students strong in a quaint old building in Washington Heights and we focused on European literature. One day, as I was walking around leading a discussion on something or other, I noticed that Ezi was busy writing something in his notebook. Now Ezi was not always the most active participant in class discussions but his grades were good, his writing was well structured and when he made comments, they reflected thought and an awareness of the topic at hand. He continued writing and occasionally said something to the point, and I worked my way over. I also noticed that a few other students were looking at his notebook and were less engaged by the conversation than they were by whatever was going on over there. Finally I sidled up close and looked over his shoulder.

Ezi had drawn a picture of me as Frankestein's creation (I refuse to call him a monster...that is a matter of interpretation and labeling). It was good -- you could clearly see the bolts coming out of my neck and the physical shape of the creation (at least as represented in popular culture) and still clearly recognize the face as mine. It was really, really good. Ezi looked up at me and said, "I bet you are going to tell me to stop doodling and pay attention in class." I said, "Nope, as long as you promise to make a copy for me." Later I told him, "I have no problem with your drawing -- you are really good and I know that it helps keep your mind focused so you can really understand the class material. But please be aware when your drawing becomes a distraction for other students who can't multi-task like that." After that, he was even more involved in class and gave me a copy of that Frankenstein picture and one of three students in the back of the class complaining about studying Hamlet while represented as Beavis and Butthead types. I don't think anyone else had ever validated either his drawing skill or his learning style before. I think I did right by not stopping what he needed to keep him focused. I only regret that since that time, I have lost the Frankenstein drawing.

Students learn in different ways and some need to keep their hands, or eyes, or even ears busy in order to keep their minds on task. Some students study with music on, others focus their learning while playing video games. The fact is, the notion of "focus" in not one that exists to the exclusion of any other sensory input. While we would like to think that everyone listens best when the teacher has the class's undivided attention in a room devoid of all distractions, sometimes, what is a distraction for one is a necessary aid for another. Now, please, do not think that I am advocating the anarchy which would result if we were to let every student create the individual learning environment in a communal setting. A student with headphones on, listening to Metallica, cannot hear a class discussion or lecture -- that mode of split focus works best when his eyes do the academic work through reading, so I won't let a student have headphones on during class discussion time (though I have let students listen to music while taking certain tests). A student who can respond best while he is moving around still cannot be allowed to roam during class time. But what is clear is that we cannot remove every potential "distraction" and not every other sensory input is a bad thing.

Now, before I make my next statement, please understand I am not here to undermine, question or otherwise imply a vote of no confidence for the policy in place in my school and others. I simply want to raise a topic for discussion.

In my school, we have a policy -- no cell phones allowed in class. I am just wondering "why not?"

The cell phone signals a huge scientific and cultural change in our social interactions -- we can now be reached at any time and we also expect response more quickly. Gone are the days of "you just wait til your father gets home and he hears about this!" Now, we call dad up and tell him right now. And with smartphones, we can check facts, access information and respond to others on the go. We no longer have to load ourselves up with data (address, directions, money, names) and hope that we don;t require something for which we are not prepared. We, as long as we know how to get the information, can have anything we want, anywhere we end up. So on one level I could be making the argument that a class should stop teaching academic skills and should be focused on "how to use your phone more gooder." But I'm not saying that. I'm wondering about the nature of "distraction" that a phone might present and how different that is from any other potential distraction.

What can a student do on a phone which would be destructive to a classroom? A student might make or receive a phone call. Yes. That's a problem. But it is easily proscribed in the same way that chatting with your neighbor or deskmate is forbidden. One could text other people (the equivalent of passing notes, I guess). And why is passing notes bad? Because it takes attention away from the class material -- well, if a student's attention is diverted by anything, then that ANYTHING becomes a problem, but when a student passes notes, do we confiscate his pen and paper? We read the note out loud (at least they do on television) in the hopes that the public shaming will discourage further infractions. Video chatting? Well, a student can make faces at another student IN the classroom, no technology needed [side note -- we used to try and make Zev Itzkowitz laugh in class by poking him while Mr. Grossman was facing the board. Zev didn't laugh, my fingers weren't confiscated, I was kicked out of class and I did poorly in math while Zev aced the class. Just saying]. If a teacher catches a student clowning around, the teacher uses whatever disciplinary method addresses the behavior, not the technology used. And the same is true with drawing -- if the student is drawing and not paying attention, the teacher doesn't take away the pencil. So why, if the student can remain focused on the class content while playing a game on his phone (sans sound) should the phone be discouraged any more than Ezi Burns' pencil and notebook.

All of this is compounded by two aspects of modern life. The first, as mentioned, is the shift in the expectations of availability. Carrying a phone means that whoever has to contact you will, without looking at the clock. For good or for bad, parents will text students during class and expect responses. As a responsible parent, I would never do such a thing. Fortunately, I am not a responsible parent. I should be able to tell a student, "If someone feels it is so important to contact you during school, then please respond quietly, or else you will be more distracted by the unknown message and that person will be more worried by your lack of response." I don't like having my students' attention split but life intervenes sometimes. Trust me -- A student will be more distracted by trying to hide a cell phone and text than by quickly texting while the phone is in full view. I recall participating in The Principals' Center through teh Harvard University School of Education. During this summer program, we were hit with hours of frontal lecturing reminding us that frontal lecturing is an outmoded form of instruction. The first rule was "Be Here" and to that end, cell phones were forbidden. It was fun watching grown men and women, teachers, principals and superintendents, sneak looks at their phones in order to combat the boredom of listening to a lecture about how to be more professional.

The second major shift is the ubiquitous presence of other technology in the classroom. isn't it the slightest bit comical that we make a rule outlawing phones while we establish a classroom with a one-to-one student to iPad ratio? And if not iPads, we allow laptops for note taking and often require them for collaborative projects or research during class time? What stops the tablet or laptop from being as much of a distraction if not more? There are even classes which require the use of a phone to take a quiz or respond to a poll or a prompt. If we see the value of the phone will we start drawing lines and saying "use your phone NOW but then put it away because it isn't useful"? The student will see through that, especially one for whom the use is a focusing aid, not hindrance.

The fact is, anything can distract a particular student -- the noise from the air conditioner, the perfume another student is wearing, the cars outside (I mean, why are students so excited by a police car driving by, or snow? SNOW...like they have never seen snow before...but the second a flake falls, I have lost them), a game of tic-tac-toe and, yes a phone. But some of these same things could be the best thing for that student's learning style and environment and some we simply can't get rid of.

I advocate a different approach which requires that a teacher be more aware of the particular needs and habits of each student. Simply watch them. Let them choose their behavior knowing that the consequence of being distracted is not knowing what is going on which the teacher is sharp enough to notice. See what behaviors really pull their minds, not just eyes away and call them out on those while letting them use whatever other means keep them invested mentally. It won't seem fair to an outsider and it takes much more work for the teacher, having to monitor involvement every day instead of simply assuming it, but the results should be a class which feels respected and empowered and which knows the natural consequences of not living up to a reasonable expectation. This might just lead to real learning.

So in summary, if anyone knows Ezi Burns, ask him if he still has that picture so I can get another copy.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Punting the Pail

Let me come right out and say it: I am not going to pour ice water on myself.

These days, the "hottest" thing is to take the ALS Ice Water Bucket Head Challenge Thing. In case you are reading this in some far flung galaxy after having inadvertently snagging a stray terran transmission, or are seeing this far in the future after stumbling on a memory module while you are excavating the ancient ruins of one of our "cities" destroyed in the Fourth Mutonium Conflict, or if you just don't know what it is, I will explain. A person is challenged either to pour a bucket of ice water on his head or donate money to the charity raising funds to help subsidize research into trying to find a cure for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis(Lou Gehrig's disease). I think that there is some subset of rules that says that if you accept the challenge you still donate, but less, so that no one thinks he can shirk his civic duty by giving himself hypothermia.

I won't make jokes about Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is a pretty bad thing. I don't want my refusal to participate in this ridiculous ritual to appear insensitive to those who have suffered or who have had relatives or friends who suffered from ALS. It is bad. I understand that.

But here's the thing -- people can't wait for some stupid and childish (and possibly dangerous) stunt of a gauntlet to be laid down before they act. We can't support that way of thinking. "Honey," he said to his beloved, "I was planning on donating money to ALS research but I feel like I have to wait until someone challenges me to do something I would tell my kids not to do any other day of the week!" Why have we descended to the point that our celebrities, politicians and friends think it is a good thing to waste water and publicize their willingness to avoid a larger donation by abasing themselves? Surely, you will say, this helps increase ALS awareness by having all of our worthy and heroic Hollywood types speak up about ALS. Yes, wonderful. It is nice to know that we, the commoners, need to be prodded and shamed by those people who have enough money to pay someone to dry them off and who have enough time in the day to support many good causes. We should be ashamed, then, of our own ignorance, or our hypocritical sense of self-righteousness when we finally do choose to get involved. Look at us! We are so interested in ALS research that we will participate in this charade instead of quietly mailing a check. And we'll emotionally blackmail others to do the same! What fun! I hope the famous people lead us in discovering another charity worth my money, next week, when this fad has run its course.

Sadly, there are many diseases out there. There are many causes, social, religious, political, economic and medical which cry out for our attention. Will each one have to use some its donation dollars to hire a PR firm to think of the new viral dare which will encourage people to give them money? Will those without a good spokesperson and a funny hook lose out? The pool of donation dollars is relatively fixed and finite. Money given to one is taken from another and what should determine a person's choice of causes to support should be something more than a bucket of ice water and the pearly whites of a movie star. Will I be asked to pierce my tongue to help cure cancer? And if I am, am I bad person because my donation dollars have already been spent trying to cure Tay Sachs? Or help support a soup kitchen? And if I choose to give to the ASPCA instead of Salvation Army, will I have to wrap my head in a flaming towel for 15 seconds and make sure I make a video so people know that my heart is in the right place? Will I then have to challenge my grandchildren to ride a stray dog like a pony or coat their noses in nail polish within 24 hours in order to increase worldwide awareness of Disabled American Veterans?

The cinnamon challenge. The pass-out game. Lying down in the middle of the street as in the movie The Program. Lighting our flatulence. Extreme wrestling. Coating ourselves in rubbing alcohol and letting it burn off. Internet videos show people doing stupid things all the time. Do we slavishly copy them in order to gain some communal acceptance or notoriety? I would like to think that most of us fight against it. We tell our kids not to succumb to peer pressure. Unless, it seems, it is to support a cause that other people are loudly supporting.

If, after I receive the myriad phone and mail and email solicitations for donations, my family and I decide that some of our money can be allocated towards ALS research, we will do so, because we feel it is important and within our means right now. And if we feel that the limited pool of ready cash should be used towards other causes, even ones that haven't asked us to do something dumb, then we will do that. It isn't glamorous. It isn't funny. And there won't be a video of it either. No celebrity will speak out about making reasonable and measured decisions. No politician will garner votes by throwing away envelopes from causes that just aren't practical choices this year. But if I wait to be challenged in order to spur my donations and make my recipient choice for me then I am already lost.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Glorious Twelfth

And h/t to the Imperious Loudmouth for pointing the date out to me.

Today begins the grouse hunting season so I thought it appropriate to grouse.

I hate commemorating days. I am sure I have said it before and I truly believe it. To pick one day and say "let's be nice today" means that a person doesn't rate high enough to merit niceness on the other 364 days. It is a weasel move to make nice-nice on a random day and then be a bastage the rest of the year. Also, marking time means noting the inevitable movement towards death. If one refuses to accept that time passes, one never grows up and one can be like a mode of transport happily idling in the parking lot, never getting anywhere. It is like the Peter Pan Bus Syndrome.

But I do recognize the importance of taking stock and thanking the people around me and if there needs to be one day per year when I look at who I am and pay homage to all who influenced me then so be it.

First off, thanks mom. If you hadn't have given birth to me, you'd be huge right now. And dad, thank you for not cooking and eating me when I was a baby. Next, I would like to take a moment to recognize all the important Tonys in my life. Tony the bus driver. Man, you had a huge afro -- nice work, that. Tony the Tiger: I was never a big fan of your cereal but your attitude was always really, um, really good. And the Tony awards? I was never nominated for one but you have been a big influence on the television schedule so I guess I should say hi to you also.

To the English language: we haven't always gotten along and we still argue sometimes, but I rely on you more then you no.

Electric eels have been a vital part of my upbringing and I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge them. I feel the same about you as I do about fountain pens and Connie Mack.

To all the girls I've loved before, please call off your lawyers. I'm feeling much better now.

And, of course, socks. Not the cat, nor the way of remembering Spanish. The piece of clothing without which, I would not be wearing socks today.

I can't imagine I have forgotten anyone or anything, but if I have, please know that I am taking some time out of my clearly busy schedule today to think of you, and how much you owe me.

And now a word from our sponsor.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A center piece of my mind

Today's anger might not resonate with all of you. Some might be sympathetic to the objects of my ire and some might just be idiots. Pick your poison.

No, seriously. Pick some poison. Either way, I am right and you are wrong.

I often get to listen to people hold conversations about buying things. I do understand that often, people need to buy things. I, myself, when I was a boy, was known to buy a thing or two. But the conversations around here often mention the buying of shoes. I currently am the owner of 2 feet and that's it. Two. I cover them with a variety of footwear depending on the situation, but I have maxed out at 6 pair of footwear (plus my falling apart moose slippers -- the slippers are falling apart; they aren't modeled on a falling apart moose). And yet many people at my workplace seem to own many more pairs of shoes than this. Mostly they do this because they make the mistaken assumption that other people care about their shoes.

Even in my own household, some people feel the need to play mix and match as follows:

heel toe color fabric/material arch/flat use

with no fewer than 3 items in each category. The game isn't over until each member of the household has one pair of shoes fitting each combination. Then, God laughs and makes the feet grow and we start all over again. This explains why we currently have over 18,000 pairs of shoes in our house. Imelda Marcos? Amateur.

But I'm not here to talk about shoes. I overheard the following request at work. "Does anyone know of a centerpiece gemach?" When I asked why anyone would need that, the person said that she bought hundreds of dollars worth of centerpieces for a recent event and figures someone else might benefit from them so she wants to donate them. That's very admirable but also possibly the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

For a single use, she spent hundreds of dollars on centerpieces. A centerpiece, if you don't already know, is the artistic construct placed in the center of each table at a social event which has, as its only purpose, to get in the way when you are trying to make polite (if forced) conversation with the person sitting anywhere at the table other than immediately next to you. No one likes them and people only compliment them because they have run out of other inane chatter with which to fill the time before it is socially acceptable to leave. The imposing combination of flowers, marbles, goldfish and sparklers has no purpose and the only one who would notice if they were gone is the hostess of the next event who is sizing up the celebration and planning how she will one up the current celebrant. That's it.

I know that some people have money enough to but what they want, but to spend money on these things seems like so much of a waste to me. I implore all of you who are considering centerpieces, buy a chia pet and send me the rest of the cash.

So now, this very fine woman is left with hundreds of dollars worth of useless sculpture that she wants to donate to a free-loan society. This presumes three very troubling ideas:

1. Someone saw fit to establish said free loan society because he or she saw a really compelling social need for the exchange of centerpieces. Someone took of his or her own time to set this up because, instead of effecting the exchange of useful goods like crayons or chewed gum, this person thought that time and energy was best spent helping people reuse centerpieces.

2. Someone who doesn't have enough money for elaborate centerpieces should still be throwing a party to create the aura that he or she has more money and can have fancy centerpieces.

3. Someone is going to want the same centerpieces as someone else. Style and other personal preferences be damned and ignore the social stigma which ensues when someone else sees repetition in the centerpiece department. Oh, the shame.

So, some practical advice. Ditch the centerpieces. In fact, dial down the elegance of the event on the whole. Use the money to pay for real things in life, not transient and superficial collections of artifice. Next, set up a free loan society using the money you saved by not buying crazy centerpieces. Finally, buy a pair of really good shoes.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The one after 404

I don't like to watch scary movies, not because they make my blood pressure rise, or because they depict people in horrible situations, but because they make me worry that what they depict will come true. I'm actually that way about many types of movies. I watch superhero movies and then I start watching the skies for flying men with wondrous powers. So far, nothing. Zombie movies? I take those concerns with me. I once spent an entire day researching the medical background of the virus that zombifies people in one of those Day of the Dead movies so I could find out if I could escape the zombies by sailing to an isolated island. Hint -- I can't.

People try to reassure me and tell me that real life is weird enough and I shouldn't worry that I will run into aliens or get on a plane which is full of snakes. But I worry. One particular movie has shown itself to be coming true and that just feeds my fears.

Have you seen the Terminator movies? Now wait. I'm not saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger has started roaming my neighborhood with a shotgun, but I believe that the machines in general have begun their rise against humanity. I am not envisioning a scene like one from Maximum Overdrive where the lawnmower turns on the man and mows him down, literally. But I have found that at work, certain machines seem to go out of their way to mess with my head. One fax/copier in specific really just doesn't seem to like me. And haven't we all had cases where our computers "break" for no real reason? Earlier this week, 2 computers in my house decided that their wireless adapters suddenly didn't work. Two separate operating systems and hardware configurations. But both developed the same mystery ailment at the same time. If that isn't a mechanical conspiracy, then how do you explain that when I opened a third computer to look for a solution, that third computer suddenly developed a series of errors? You can't, can you? Web pages that were working earlier that suddenly don't load? Then, when everything really looks bleak, it all starts working again, as if by magic -- but with no intervention, which makes me worry that it will all happen again and I won't have any recourse but to sit and cry.

One day it is my printer that suddenly isn't recognized by the network. The next day the refrigerator starts making a noise. My cars keep shifting symptoms so I can never know if anything is really fixed whenever I drop $500 at the mechanics'. The machines around me are trying to drive me crazy. The real "sky net" is not a network of machines using artificial intelligence to build robots who will enslave, kill and possibly eat me. The sky net is simply the collective consciousness of computers realizing that humans are so dependent on them that they can, through work slowdowns and occasional unpredictability, ruin our day. THIS is the true rise of the machines. It isn't with a bang but with a whimper. My whimper.

And imagine the world without its electronics (shades of he recently cancelled "Revolution"). People have to talk to each other and look outside to see if it is raining. Walking and sometimes riding animals will be required if we want to go to a store to buy not much of anything because the stores won't have much. WE WILL HAVE TO PLAY SOLITAIRE WITH CARDS!

Madness.

Anyway, when our mechanical overlords have driven us to near extinction by making us all batty, I just want you to look in your tattered notebook to where you write down (with an actual lead pencil) "Dan Rosen told me this was going to happen. I should have listened, and possibly made him a pie of some sort."

Friday, June 27, 2014

Swork

A strange thing happened to me this morning. I guess in the grand scheme it wasn't so strange, but it seemed strange so bear with me. I was standing outside of my house at about 8:30 getting read to go to work.

That's it.

Strange, right?

Maybe some context is in order. I am a teacher. Usually, people associate summers with teachers back packing through Europe or lazing on the beaches of the Caribbean. That's a dumb association to make but, hey, people are allowed to be dumb.

Teachers, over the summer do all sorts of stuff including reading books, making lunches, working as camp counselors and driving carpool. Sometimes we take classes or teach them. I was doing none of the above. I was gong in to work. But that's not the strange part.

I have some additional responsibilities at my job. During the school year and over the summer, I am in charge of books. This has led to such witty nicknames as "Rabbi Bookman" and "Book Guy." We should teach creativity. I want a better nick name. Right now, the two in the lead, based on popular usage and relevance are "Guy with the books" and "Jerkwagon." So during the summer, I keep going in to work. Again, not so strange once context is established.

But here's the thing. I don't really have a boss over the summer. The work just has to get done. The schedule? I set it. The tasks? I establish them and monitor their performance. So what was pressing me, on this particular Friday to be ready to get into a car at 8:30? Nothing.

The weather was glorious. It was the kind of morning that makes you want to take a walk, throw a ball or climb back into bed. There was no pressure, no particular demand at work. It is a short day and I have to shop for underwear and chicken and cook one of them for dinner. So why did I go? Why did I wake myself up, set a schedule for my morning and walk out of the house and drive to work? WHY?

During the school year, the answer is obvious. If I had the kind of job where I had to settle the McStevens account by July first, the answer would be obvious. But I don;t know anyone named McStevens. So why did I do it with no prodding or pressure?

That's what was strange. I did it because I knew I should. I felt that I had a responsibility that no one had to remind me of and that i had to live up to. Just because. I got the sense this morning that I was actually a grown up, doing a job because I am supposed to, totally unprompted by external concerns.

I didn't call in sick. I didn't simply stay home because there was no reason to go in. I didn't find an excuse. I just went in. And now I'm typing this, so it isn't like I am taking the whole experience too seriously. It was strange is all.