Thursday, December 24, 2015


I was driving down the street today. The weather was unseasonably warm but humid and basically gross. As I approached the corner I saw a woman on the sidewalk, waiting at a bus stop, old her phone over her head so she could stare into it, make a strange face and then put the phone down. She was taking a selfie at a bus stop.

I hate selfies, especially of me. I hate most pictures of me but selfies more than that. They smack of narcissism, a lack of compositional subtlety and narcissism. I also don't like how I look.

I know that selfies aren't a new idea. Artists have been drawing self portraits for a while now, and some of the early photos were of the photographer (I had a student write a paper on this a couple of years ago). And yes, I once, way back in the days of 35mm film cameras, aimed at myself and opened the shutter. The resultant picture of the top third of my face was not one I kept for posterity. But when an artist or an experimental photographer took an image of himself he was trying to say something. He had a significant point to make -- his art or picture was a window into something more significant that simple image. The teen ager who takes 14 pictures while at the water fountain in the library has nothing to say with those pictures. They don't catalogue and important moment or experience. They are not special expressions of self because the scarcity principle no longer applies. Back when a photo took time and money, or a drawing was rife with impression (or at least a show of skill) the rare self-image gave unique insight. These pictures are no longer unusual so we lack any adjustment time which would allow the next picture to provide something new or different to craft a deeper appreciation.

What makes standing at a bus stop important enough to be memorialized in a photo? Even more so, what makes it so special that it needs to be shared. Have we no private moments that can be held in a personal and not communal memory? And then people make "stories" out of a series of pictures, as if my sending you my picture isn't good enough -- I have to write the captions so that you have a full idea of my experience of eating grilled cheese. We are living vicariously, through the mundane experiences of others that are imbued with sacredness by the fact that they belong to someone else. And worse than that, we are living through other people's experiencing our experiences. I want him/her to see me at the bus stop and I need the feedback: what was it like to see me at a bus stop? My vicariousness needs a vicariousness.

So if we are so hell bent on having others stretch their voyeuristic muscles and see us when we brush our teeth, why do we get surprised that people share inappropriate pictures? Is it really that much more of an extreme? And when those pictures are then passed around, or when people hack into phones and take "private" pictures can we really be shocked? Haven't we cultivated this culture of all-access by sacrificing our private identities on the altar of virality?

We don't make stupid duck faces because our college chums want to see us like that. We make faces which accentuate our celebrity or try to emulate what we imagine important people do in pictures. Then we get indignant when others comment, manipulate or otherwise refuse to honor us through our pictures. We put our egos out there to be stroked and get upset when someone kicks them instead of loving them.

The next time you are shopping and decide to share with all your friends every stop you take in the mall, consider how you are devaluing your own uniqueness, how you are flooding the market with the product that is your identity and how you are making a live conversation with you, an actual interaction, superfluous.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How to teach good

I have seen teachers, good and bad, and I have read books purporting to instruct people how to be more effective in the classroom. I haven't been impressed. I think I run a pretty OK class so I figure it is incumbent on me to give the low-down, the real truth behind how to be a good teacher. Not a great one, mind you -- I have gone on record as saying that a teacher can be taught to be good or better than he is, but greatness is something that is inborn. Not saying I have it, but just that it can't be quantified or taught.

Also, my advice about how to teach good is not the end all and be all of what you have to do to be successful. I can't tell you how to modulate your voice, grade papers, control your body language, sharpen your hearing and peripheral vision, determine a suitable amount of homework or empathize. I can tell you about the actual teaching part. These should no longer be secrets. Maybe they haven't been, but if they were well known, then why aren't they being abided by?

Step one -- make sure what you are teaching matters. That's a huge step and, truth be told, I'm not sure how many math and science teachers contextualize their work in a way that makes it matter. And I'm not talking about the content for a strong honors class who would take notes if you lectured about shoe size. Those students like to learn for the twin reasons of "earning a top grade so as to get into the best college" and "intellectual curiosity." Mostly the first one. I'm talking about working with a class lower than the very top, where students need to be drawn in. Don't expect the material to be self-apparently important or useful. Spell it out. And make sure that they know that you are constantly learning it along with them because it still amazes you and matters. This might mean taking a long hard look at what you teach and challenging yourself to be able to justify what you are doing. I defend what I teach as falling into some broad categories, such as:

a. cultural literacy
b. transferrable knowledge
c. transferrable skills

but I make sure to remind students of the relevance of each during the lessons so that they don't forget that there is a reason to do what we do or read what we read. I can make a student care about Shakespeare by pointing out that the story is universal, or that the lines are well known, or that the exercise of close reading will make for stronger thinking in other contexts. Or some combination. Whichever I chose, I have to be honest and transparent about it. Tell the students that none of this is easy for anyone and there are no shortcuts, but that there is a reward of sorts. If I don't think it is useful, or can't find a reason for them to learn it, they can tell and won't connect. And, yes, in the right relationship, the following suffices: "Because I don't want you going out there and sounding like an idiot -- that would make me look bad."

Step two -- teach the material without regard to buzz words and "best practices." If you can't get up in front of a room, and drive the content delivery by force of your own presence, in the absence of technologies and bells and whistles, leave the classroom. If, and I have said this before, your pedagogy is prioritized higher than your content then something is wrong. A good teacher should be able to walk into a room with a single idea or topic (or even less) and walk out after 45 minutes having had a great class. I am not advocating not prepping, but teachers plan and students ignore (paraphrased from the Yiddish).

Step three -- check to make sure that they are getting it. I don't care if that means looking at their eye contact, asking low level questions to ensure that they heard you, giving homework or quizzes. I care that I can ensure that a student says "yes" when I say "do you understand?" and can be pushed to respond in a salient manner when I follow up with a question about content. Tell them that the next class will cash in on what you are doing today so they should review it so that they can excel tomorrow. Make sure they know that problems on a Tuesday don't magically disappear so Wednesday's material will make sense. Good teaching is about building. Weak foundation? No building. Elicit questions from them so you know what they know, what they need and if they care.

Step four -- if it isn't working, decide why, and react accordingly. Is the content useless? Do the students not understand why the content is useful? Is the delivery not clear? Are the students preoccupied for good reason (life is happening to them, no matter how great your content seems to be)? Are there other variables you didn't consider? Get louder, softer, more passionate, more mysterious, angrier, friendlier or whatever it takes and hope it works. Repeat.

Step five -- realize that any and all methods are just possible resources and what worked yesterday might tank today, or in 5 minutes. Change constantly. Go home tired because you had to be everything to everyone and had to make each student think he or she was the only one in the room and you knew exactly what he wanted and what he was thinking at all times. If you aren't a step ahead, then your are falling behind.

Step six -- realize that success is measured in loads of different ways and on many different scales, all dynamic and variable.

So tell every story, leverage every resource, see any content as either useful or useless all based on what you can do to make it vital. Go home exhausted, crashing from an 8 hour adrenalin high as you walk on a tightrope carrying the futures of a hundred young people. Tomorrow all credit is erased and you have to start all over again.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Deal me out

In this the holiday season, I wish to take a moment to discuss a timely issue: that of gift cards. When one does not know what to buy another in celebration of the darkest days of the year, the trend is to buy a card which commits the receiver to spending time and energy in a particular store. The logic is "you like stuff, right? Well, I went into a store that sells stuff, and basically told the guy there that you can come in and take 10 dollars worth of stuff for free." Nice gesture. Instead of my buying you stuff you don't like, I am letting you choose your own stuff. I'm awesome for freeing you up to buy something in a store you might not otherwise frequent.

This morning, I stopped on the way to work so that my daughter (whom I love dearly) could buy a Starbucks gift card for her classmate. Because what else would a 16 year old want for the holidays but a cup of coffee? Parents rejoice -- Juan Valdez has supplanted Kris Kringle! I shan't waste your time complaining about coffee for youngsters, the difference between a pour over, an Americano and a goddam cuppa or an order which takes 5 minutes to recite and has fractions and foreign words in it. And she has to buy it for the Jewish equivalent of a secret Santa. I didn't know that a Jewish version was necessary, but here we are and I won't belabor this point. I'm here to discuss gift cards.

So the child returns to the car a few minutes later. She had trouble picking between gift cards because they have become fashion choices. She went for the basic white, with no pictures of winter scenes and no loving sentiments emblazoned on it. I applaud this choice -- why worry about the design when the goal will be for this to end up in a landfill as soon as possible? So I asked, "How much is the card for?" (when one speaks with today's youth, it is considered "cool" to end sentences with a preposition or two) She told me, "Ten dollars." "OK," I responded coolly, without questioning whether ten dollars worth of coffee is enough or too much, "How much did it cost?" "Ten dollars," she replied.

So she went into a store and spent ten dollars on a gift card which gets the other person ten dollars. I asked her, "Why didn't you just give your friend 10 dollars, then?" She sighed. Apparently, I just don't get it.

Here's the thing and I don't think I'm wrong on this one: either the gift card should reward the purchaser, allowing me to buy 10 dollars worth of coffee for under 10 dollars because I have gone in to the store, and am encouraging others to go into the store (which should, in the long run, increase foot traffic and sales for them) or reward the receiver, with the purchaser paying a surcharge to cover the convenience and overhead while the receiver doesn't worry about this but gets the amount on the card. Bottom line, either it should have cost her 9 dollars or 11 dollars, depending on the economic model in play. The one thing it should not have cost was 10 dollars. So that's how much it cost.

This makes no sense to me. This is why I hate the holidays.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


The Brandeis community is up in arms again, protesting to strike a blow against the evils which Brandeis is guilty of (including, no doubt, ending sentences in a preposition). Brandeis' most recent sin? A lack of diversity.

I say again -- a school in liberal New England, with a history of social justice lacks diversity and therefore, a sit-in is required.

Attention Brandeis students who are protesting: You are idiots. My children will not attend Brandeis so I feel no need to sugar coat this. But before you protest my calling you a name or threaten to sit on my lawn until I apologize, let me explain.

a stupid person.
synonyms: fool, ass, halfwit, dunce, dolt, ignoramus, cretin, moron, imbecile, simpleton;

I hope that that clarifies things.

A school like Brandeis has certain priorities and one of them is an academic standard. In fact, academic standards are often a primary deciding factor in the admissions office because the level of rigor and intellectual expectations help define the school and craft the approach of faculty. As such, students who score lower on certain tests, or have lower grade point averages, or demonstrate a lower level of achievement in many different areas simply don't apply, and those that do, hoping that good looks and a proclivity for oboe playing and mountain climbing will pave the way, either are not admitted because they don't pass academic muster or are admitted and should receive lower grades or fail out. Unless, of course, we lower our academic demands. Is that what is being requested? I forget.

If we put race, culture, color, geography or any other criterion ahead of the academic skill (or at least potential) of a graduating high school senior, then sure, we can have diversity, but we will have a very different school, and not one which a student could be proud of being accepted to (damn those prepositions). Brandeis was founded as a haven for Jewish students but not because it would accept them all -- but because it would not outright reject them DESPITE THEIR ABILITIES simply since they were Jews. To establish racially (whatever that means) based quotas when considering applying students is to betray the opportunity for success afforded all qualified candidates historically. If, in next year's applicant pool, only green-skinned Zoroastrians apply and they are all qualified based on the various metrics by which Brandeis has historically assessed incoming students, should the university lower standards to accept blue-skinned Raelians? Should it solicit applications from Raelian districts and ensure a percentage of Raelians can then be admitted thus shortchanging those who already applied and are otherwise precisely what Brandeis is looking for? Note what the President's letter says: "the number of diverse students accepting our offer of undergraduate admission has been in steady decline during the same period." Those under represented minorities have chosen not to come to Brandeis. The school's overarching atmosphere attracts certain people and not others. It always had. When accepted to 5 schools, a student uses a variety of elements and can't say "yes" to 4 of those schools. I looked for a school with a suburban feel, and the schools' greenery might have alienated students who like a city feel. Should they protest and have the school change its topography and landscaping? Is Brandeis supposed to change what it is to attract a particular audience? If so, then the school's entire character runs the risk of changing, the pendulum will swing, and in 40 years, the group which is now a majority will be, as a minority, sitting in and demanding that the school change what it is to make this new minority grow in numbers. Harvard is what Harvard is because it demands that applicants excel academically. Should it lower academic standards to ensure a demographic breakdown considered "diverse"? Wouldn't that be a form of racism -- expecting different attributes from different groups based on race?

The parallel demands for demographic diversity and alignment with the student community in the construction of departmental faculties is similarly asinine. To wit: "Increase the percentage of full-time Black faculty and staff to 10 percent across all departments and schools, as well as adding curriculum that promotes racial awareness and inclusion". One cannot control who chooses to go into a particular field and I would hazard a guess that a different group of nascent academics goes into the study of Near Eastern and Judaic literature, history and development from the ones who self-select to study African art, literature etc. If so, the department should be populated by the best and most qualified people with NO REGARD for any other characteristic. Does each department have to have in it a sampling which serves as a microcosm of the overall community? How can it unless, again, the standard for hiring is no longer the intellectual fitness and strength of the applicant. And requiring adding to the curriculum? I recall taking a class in music theory. I took one in the philosophy of math, and another in intermediate Talmud. Demanding that the syllabi of these classes expand to reflect irrelevant ideas is just plain dumb. And by the way, asking for the creation specifically of "tenure tracks for Black faculty across ALL departments and schools" would then require that there be tenure tracks specifically for each race, religion, creed et al in every department, unless the protesters don't truly believe in equality. I'm sure there are tenure quality Buddhist midgets who should be hired and retained in the Latino Studies department.

Now, on to this statement from the president in her response: "strengthening our pedagogy and curricular offerings that increase racial awareness and inclusion". I am an educator. It has taken years for me to accept that about myself, but, alas, it is true. And as an educator, I can say that that statement is unmitigated horse hockey. Whether or not pedagogical methods need revamping, review or reassessment is a separate discussion, and the question of if new or different approaches can make any difference in the overall learning process is certain worthy of debate. But the thought that pedagogical methods have anything to do with racial awareness and inclusion is just plain sad. During my time at Brandeis, I had a few gay professors, including a Gay Male of Color, some strong women, some people of a variety of religions and nationalities, and John Burt who (I say with all respect) defies categorization. Through all these classes and their varied methods and approaches, the particular ethnic background and racial makeup of the class and/or instructor was never an issue. I don't mean that as a New York Jew I didn't see it. I mean that as an educator who has reviewed and analyzed the teachers I had on the level of educator, race, religion, color and gender (among others) simply had no part of the structure of the class. Good teaching is good teaching. It is not created based on diversity unless the demographics of the class demand a different approach, and a good teacher makes these shifts not as a matter of policy or departmental mandate, but because it is part of being a good teacher.

By the way, I feel much the same way about any other attempts to change the reading canon to include a more diverse pool of texts. If those texts stand on their own as quality then, sure, we can expand. But if we include other texts simply because they are by a variety of authors or represent the experiences and values of other cultures, regardless of their merit as teaching tools (be it in the pursuit of literary analysis, or the sociological understanding or historical insights they can provide) then we are similarly foolish.

Another unbelievably immature and ignorant demand reads, "Employ additional clinical staff of color within the Psychological Counseling Center in order to provide culturally relevant support to students of all backgrounds." So when you go to a therapist, you only feel comfortable going to someone whose culture meshes with yours on the basis of skin color. Clearly, a black from Zimbabwe can, by dint of pigment, empathize more with a Comp Lit grad student from Haiti than an Asian with a background in Comp Lit. I have been a to a number of therapists in my time. Religion (and race) never seemed to come up because my issues had NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE. The assumption here is that a person can only be supported through the lens of culture and race. Also, the broad range of cultures on this planet would demand a clinical staff in the thousands, at least. God forbid I sit in session with an Ashkenazic Jew from Lithuania. I'm from Poland. How will he ever be a competent and trained professional?

There are 2 other items on the demand list which are similarly stupid. The first demands a wage increase of 15% in salaries. It is admirable, but why stop at 15%? Why not 30? And what will the reaction be when tuition is raised to pay for these increases? And why only for "hourly paid university employees"? Do Black professors not deserve a raise? And wouldn't this also help out white employees who are hourly paid? Some of them might even be Jewish! Can't have that...

And the apology to Khadijah Lynch? You are kidding right? She gloated over the death of two police officers. She publicly stated a lack of sympathy at the death of two other human beings. All the vice president did was say that attitudes like that, like, you know, laughing at the loss of life, are not consistent with "our institutional values.” Is he supposed to say, "Sorry -- you were right...Brandeis stands for hatred and celebrating death."

So here I sit, as an alum married to an alum and child of 2 alums, ashamed to tell people where I went to school. These "demands" are not of the ilk which drove protesters on campus in the 60's and 70's (and yes, even the EARLY 80's). These demands are selfish, shortsighted, ignorant and offensive. I have no closing joke other than

"the state of Brandeis University today"

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why I shouldn't be allowed to have free time

I have this block of time right now -- about an hour and 20 minutes with very little to do but watch the clock. Sadly, this means that my brain kicks in (as opposed to kicks out, I guess) and, unfettered, begins to dredge up all the questions I have been mulling over for years. So, in an effort to keep myself busy, I am now going to present something which has been bugging me for a long time. Now, I did a very quick and cursory Google search to see if anyone else has dealt with this. I found a site which might have but all the relevant forum posts were experiencing "database errors" which looked to me more like they had all been deleted. I speak today of the chronological illogic of The Blues Brothers.

Just for the record, I love the movie. I think it is one of the prime examples of modern American cinema, nigh on perfect. And I speak not of the overall time line (those fateful 5 days in August). My problem is with the events on the final evening.

I will lay it out from memory, and with the most generous math I can muster.

The movie leads up to that one amazing show at the "Palace Hotel Ballroom" to be found “up north on Lake Wazzapamani". It is the kind of place which, if filled can make you 5000 bucks, easy, according to local entertainment figure and booking agent Maury Sline. I can't find anything definitive but let's assume that the show starts at 9PM. Often shows start at 8 around here but there is no announced opening act so I will assume 9.

By 9, the show has not begun. The Blues Brothers have run out of gas. Cut to the crowd getting restless. Eventually, Cab Calloway steps in. At what point would the crowd, having paid 2 dollars a person for a band they didn't know, start to stomp and shout for the band? I guess 30 minutes, tops. So at 9:30, Cab gets on stage and does a rousing rendition of Minnie the Moocher. The song clocks in at around 3 minutes, magical realism included. The time is now, at best 9:35.

While this is happening, Jake and Elwood show up, park and sneak in. They give Cab the high sign and he starts the intro. How long? Maybe another 15 minutes total, because I'm in a good mood. The boys end up on stage at around 10. Does that seem fair?

Song number one -- Everybody Needs Somebody to Love. How long? Three and a half minutes including applause. They move right into Sweet Home Chicago. Now before we discuss how long this song is, I should point out that they scoot out at about 2:51 of the song. Then the car chase begins. While the song is playing, they have to get to the car, outwit Carrie Fisher and start driving. The song is still playing -- the youtube version has it total at 7:52 but I found reference to a 20 minute version from another band. So by now, it has to be about 10:30 at the absolute latest. Now wait, you say -- maybe they played other songs in between and there was an entire show! Well, the Blues Brothers played a complete show in 1978 at Winterland -- 50 minutes. The Blues Brothers Band played a show in 1990 at the Montreux Jazz Festival which ran to 59 minutes. Great, put the time at 11:30 -- remember, I'm being generous here.

When they reach the car, we hear the immortal line, "It's 106 miles to Chicago we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, its dark and we're wearing sunglasses." One hundred and six miles. We know that they don't drive straight because they go the wrong way on a highway at least once. We also know that they exceed the speed limit (in downtown Chicago they drove over 100 miles per hour), but let's slow them down. Sixty miles an hour, door to door. One hundred and six miles total. Up it to 150 because they had to take detours. Heck, let's bump it to 240 which was written in one draft of the script!

Assuming they leave at 11:30. Assuming they drive 240 miles. Assuming that they stay at 55 MPH, their trip takes them 4 and a half hours. The time is 4 AM. On that fateful Thursday morning, the tax assessor's office opened at 8:30 AM!

But not only does dawn break during their trip (even though, on August 9, the time of dawn is 5:22AM), not only is it broad daylight by the time they get there, not only is the office building open and bustling, and the tax assessor's office open, but the guy working there (played by Steven Spielberg), was already taking a sandwich break. Sandwiches are generally NOT breakfast food.

There is no way that, even with the moment of silence for the car, the stopping to ask directions, the pauses to barricade the doors, the elevator ride and all that, the time is at all after 5:30 AM.

If not for this one fact, the movie would be without flaw. Well, that and the fact that, y'know, the phone booth flew in the air and crashed, but they were unhurt. I'll leave that analysis to a physicist or an aerodynamics engineer.

OK...only 45 more minutes to kill.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mets Fans Validated

As Kansas City supporters partied late into the night celebrating their franchise’s first World Series win in many years, New Yorkers walked away content in knowing that their cynicism was placed correctly, and that their team did, as predicted, lose. The team drew over 45,000 screaming fans to their feet as they chanted, "We told you so!" and waved towels in celebration of the loss.

Fans in Flushing, who knew the Mets were going to let this series slip away because, hey, they’re the Mets, rested assured that the universe was as it should be and that their refusal to believe in their team’s chances was the right move. One longtime season ticket holder said, “I don’t know why anyone got any hope up any way – I mean, we all knew that they didn’t stand a chance.” He held up a foam finger and chanted, “I hate this team!”

Experts attributed New York’s failure to four basic causes – a lack of hitting depth off the bench, the inconsistency of the bullpen, the media’s calling the team one “of destiny” and ultimately, their existence as the Mets. Manager Terry Collins, in his post-game interview explained, “We left all of this on the shoulders of two hitters and you can’t win a series if you don’t have contributions by everyone. And of course, we are the Mets, so there’s that.” Vegas bookmakers had changed the odds from “I dunno…maybe this is the year” to “Are you even staying up for the game? You know they always lose - I can't watch that team anymore” as soon as Rolling Stone Magazine ran a short article two weeks ago entitled, “This could be the Mets team that Takes it All.”

Fans’ hopes additionally took a hit when it was shown statistically that the Mets fielded a superior team both offensively and defensively. “That was pretty much it – once you show why the Mets could win, they didn’t stand a chance. The Royals are lucky they didn’t have to play the Dodgers or Cubs, teams that weren’t doomed by their own identity” wrote Bob Klapisch in a piece in the Bergen Record. “As the losses mounted, each player contributed to validating fans’ sense of dread. With each blown save or strikeout in the clutch, the Mets stepped up and showed the world why they, year in and year out, lead the league in disappointments per inning (DPI).”

Other factors, such as fans not following the precise pregame rituals and alter viewing habits which had allowed the Mets to avoid bad juju and reach the series in the first place also came into play. According to news coverage, fans changed seats, wore different socks and, according to one unconfirmed report, actually held out hope that the Mets might secure a World Series victory. Mets management released a press statement saying, "This is unacceptable. Our fan base must be aware that if they start to buy into the fiction that we can do whatever we set our minds to, they are no longer welcome at Citi Field. Those who did anything as egregious as talk up our team as 'having a chance' have shown themselves to be Yankees fans." When asked about the frequent "You gotta believe!" signs, starter Jacob DeGrom responded, "That has always been ironic. Did you people NOT get the memo?"

Faithful Mets supporters greeted the team after the game with placards that read “You Suck, but we Knew that!” and “You might be losers, but you are OUR losers” which players acknowledged by tipping their caps and waving. Infielder and team captain David Wright smiled at the crowd, “We have the best fans in the world,” remarked Wright, “I mean, we all know we were going to lose, but they come out to watch it happen so they can show everyone else that they were right in predicting we would lose. That’s dedication!”

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dear Emmy,

Dear baby Emmy,

By the time you read this, odds are, you won't be a baby, unless you are one of those really special babies that can read. That's cool, though, if you become one of those. If so, put this down and come back in a few years when you aren't a baby. Good, thanks.

Dear Emmy,

You aren't a baby anymore. I can't promise how old you are, but if you followed directions, you aren't a baby anymore. So let's talk, why not? I just got to see you for the final time before you move to Israel. Tomorrow, you, your mom and your dad (whom you probably have some cuter name for) will be boarding a flight to Israel. You are making aliyah. I hope to see you in January when I come to visit, and I asked you this evening to know me when I see you again. After January, things are up in the air. I am not making aliyah right now. So you are going to go through a long spell without your bestest great uncle. Tough, I know. I'm going to become a name you hear bandied about when all the awesome stories are told. Maybe I'll be a face on a computer screen which you have no interest in seeing for more than a minute, just peeking in to attach a name to a face in some dutiful attempt to respect your elders.

I figure I'll become the great uncle who shows up to some simcha in 12 years (or 20 years) and you see me smiling and have to whisper "Who IS that guy?" to some relative (probably in Hebrew). You will have to be reminded when you review the pictures or video or holograms or whatever you young people use in the future. Then I will disappear into the recesses of a guest register to reappear at the next family event. You won't know me, and that's OK. Your family is doing something wonderful and taking you to a home -- a house and a homeland. But I'll miss seeing you.

So let me fill in some gaps so that you know who I am. I am your grandfather's younger (and awesomer) brother. I am 2.5 years younger and infinitely cooler (assuming that by the time you read this, Google Translate knows what to do with the word "cool"). As of now I live in New Jersey, USA and have my own kids, one of which is your first cousin once removed, Maddie. You know her, but the extent of your knowing her is based on her own decision as to whether she will move to Israel or not. My other kid is a bit more of a mystery to you. She's my Tali, distinct from your aunt of the same name. She is funny and brilliant and I sense that by the time you read this, I will owe her a lot of money. My Mrs. (your great aunt Julie) is a doula and about 17 other things, and tops in each and every field. She is the one in the pictures with the wild hair. Yeah, her. I am (as of this writing) a teacher. I also have rabbinical ordination, but I expect that in your neck of the woods, most people do (and by the time you read this, I include women, puppies and lamp posts in that estimation). I hope, by the time you read this, to be a 4 time lottery winner and super astronaut-rock-and-roll-baseball-player. Chances are slim, but the world is a magical place. In my spare time I pine. It's a thing.

The Mets are on television right now. It is October and this probably won't happen again before you read this so let's take a moment to relish this. Aaaaah. Better.

I first met your mom when she was born. We were introduced before that, but the handshake was super awkward. I met your dad a bunch of years later. Strangely, the handshake was similarly awkward. You have a great family on both sides -- loads of aunts and uncles who think the world of you and want you to be safe and successful. Personally, I want you to be famous because everyone in the generation before you has let me down, and not been anyone I can sponge off of, so step up and present the coat tails for my riding.

I like the Beatles and other classical music; my tastes in art are unpredictable so don't feel the need to buy me any. I collect coins -- I currently have 500 separate pennies which are collectively worth 400 cents. But someday...someday! I like living in the United States because we have certain luxuries like tuna fish and screen doors. I am a righty but I often change the channel with my left hand so I have mad skillz. I watch movies and television shows where fake people do things that make me laugh, or who explode, or both. I wrote poetry in my youth, took pictures when I went traveling and learned to cook because I really, really like to eat. Now, in my middle age, I read the closed captioning on TV because I don't know how to turn it off, look at pictures because I don't like to travel, and still like to eat.

I can sense the sincerity in the eyes of a child and completely appreciate when children cry as I approach. I take it as a compliment because I'm too dim to take it any other way. You didn't cry this evening. Then I bit your head and left, so you might want to email me and fill in the gaps.

Bottom line is, I am sad that I will miss out on much of your growth but I know you will become great. I am sad that I will be little more than a picture in an album (and a faceless blog post every now and then which you will pretend to read), but you will be surrounded by a holiness, a joy and a community which make me jealous. So breathe in Israel, enjoy growing up, and teleport over occasionally so we can play space catch or whatever.

Yours en croute,

Great Uncle Daniel

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Thoughts on reading the Torah. Again.

And with a flourish, the yearly cycle of Torah readings begins again. We come out of the holiday season refreshed – forgiven of our sins, overflowing with the joy of celebrating the Torah and ready to make this the best year ever with all the mitzvot and smachot and all the opportunities for joy in our religion which lie at our feet.

We come to shul on the first Shabbat after Sukkot and hear the words “Breishit bara” and we’re off. As we listen to the bal koreh retell of the 7 days of creation, we look through the commentaries and remind ourselves of the classic questions and answers which enrich our understanding. We see that Rashi asks why the Torah has to start with creation, instead of starting with the communal mitzvah of sanctifying the new month given later on. His answer, which ties the creation to the later claims that the Jewish people are not interlopers on land is very nice, but I think it misses the point (no offense there big guy) unless we understand the whole thought process differently.

The Torah, straight through, and the first book especially is not a history book, or a law book, but a compendium of some of the most ridiculous and stupendous failures ever made by human beings. Think about it – man is created…and screws up. He has kids…one of them screws up. The people develop societies…and screw up. Noah is saved…and screws up. This book is a schedule of one bonehead move after another and the stories we celebrate are those which, at some point in them, show our ancestors to be grade A doofuses (I am not sure if that is the proper plural; maybe doofi).

We have just been singing and dancing with the Torah, holding it high up for all to see, but this is what we are showing off to the world? A text which details all the times those we look up to got it wrong? We will read about a father who is tricked, brothers who sell a brother, a leader who makes a life changing mistake and a people who never stop whining! The stories are not about how we succeeded or even all about how God made everything work out, but about how we continued to take a good situation and make it worse through our own stupidity. This is what I am supposed to look forward to every year?

Maybe Rashi’s question was more along the lines of “Why can’t we at least start with the part in which we have codified ways of getting things right – commandments which we still follow in order to highlight how we aren’t complete morons all the time?” In Hebrew it would sound so much classier. Maybe Rashi was asking “Why do we have to start be showing generations of people who, for the life of them, can’t step away from making the worst choice at any given opportunity?”

I think that there is an answer, and it is a comforting one. We celebrate this litany of mistakes because of something that is shown in chapter 3, verse 21. After eating of the fruit and getting caught (brilliant move, Adam and Eve) God then makes them clothing to wear instead of letting them walk around arrayed in fig leaves. My handy dandy Schottenstein chumash cites the comment of Rabbeinu Bachya, that God clothed A and E to show that, despite their error, he still loved and cared for them. Sure, like any parent would have to, he punished wrongdoing, but he still continued to care for his children's well-being. What we are celebrating is the Torah, because after generations of getting it wrong, God still gave us the mitzvot and the Torah! That is the clothing we are provided with and that act of forgiveness, arraying us in commandments, is worth dancing about and is the essence of Simchat Torah. Otherwise, are we really just doing the hora because we are starting to read a book? Shouldn't we be celebrating HAVING the Torah every day? Why do we do so right after our repentance and right before we are going to be reminded that the greatest of our people didn't know how to follow orders given by God because we are recalling the miracle that we have the Torah despite our incessant idiocy.

We can’t start our story with the giving of the first mitzvah because we need the context – so God gives us a law. Big deal. But the fact is, and this is proven time and time again, we don’t deserve it! Humanity doesn’t really deserve God at all. But he sticks around and gives us gifts when we might not really have earned them. Rashi might have understood that we need those earlier stories, the setup of failure, to appreciate how incredible it is that we are eventually given the monumental opportunity to become closer to God through the Torah.

As we start the year, we know that no matter our best intentions, we are going to screw up again, and as we read the exploits of our forefathers, they are going to mess up again. Moses will still not circumcise his son. Yehudah will still sleep with Tamar. No matter how much we delve into these stories and pray for the alternate ending, they will end with the same failures. Watching the recorded Mets game from Tuesday, June 11, 1985 for the 100th time and wishing and hoping won’t change the fact that they are going to lose, and lose big. And after all of our dumb moves, God will still accept us back; we will go into next year being reminded that if we repent, and try to right the ship, the Torah will be there for us, God will be there waiting to give us a special gift, even though we need to try again to live up to it.

And maybe that’s why many Jews like the Mets – maybe we are in tune with stories of lovable failures who don’t deserve die-hard fans. Maybe every season seems like a rerun: we start off the year with hopes and we are generally let down, but we still believe (ya gotta), and at those few moments when we get the incredible gift, we appreciate it all the more.

May we have a year of singing, dancing and celebrating our failures and our successes, the gifts we are given and the opportunities available to us to fulfill the mitzvot, and the knowledge that even though things will probably go south, we still have a committed fan in God.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Just one more question mark.

I am not political. While I might have opinions about politics I feel woefully underinformed and naïve so I try to keep them to myself, lest my ignorance reveal itself and the world finds a new reason to mock me. Such is the lot of the middle child.

But I do think I understand a few things about human nature. So, sans any political static, I’d like to ask a few questions – these are not references to anything you might have read; these are simply questions about the way a normal human should react. Please, whoever you are, answer these honestly and without trying to picture them as part of something else -- think about them without regard to geography, history and politics. Consider them as a human, thinking about humans.

If you heard that a boy was shot from outside while standing in his house, would you be upset?

If you heard that an ambulance was attacked, would you consider that a normal course of behavior?

If you heard that a teen aged girl was shot while sleeping on her porch, would you be happy or sad?

If you heard that a fifteen year old boy was stabbed while walking through his home town, would you think that such behavior was reasonable?

If you heard that a clergy member, walking with his wife and baby, was stabbed to death on the street, the wife and baby stabbed and injured, and a good Samaritan who tried to help was stabbed to death as well, would you think anything other than how horrible this is?

If you heard that a family, while driving on the road, was shot at, the mother killed and the father, set upon and murdered when the car stopped, all in front of the faces of the 4 children, would you see that as defensible?

And most importantly, if you heard that anyone, anywhere, worked to champion any of these actions, explain, rationalize, support or celebrate any of these events, what would you think if that person? What if entire groups danced and sang, praised the perpetrators and lit fireworks to commemorate the attacks, what kind of response would you have for that group? Would you see them as the people you want to plan your future with? And what if a government, any government, took an official position encouraging the behavior? Would you vote for that government?

What if you heard that all these events took place within a 4 day span, in one country – would you agree that the country has a problem?

Would you blame the boy who got shot? Would you blame the parents driving their car, or the good Samaritan who tried to save a family? Maybe the ambulance driver?

What would you think of a person who openly took responsibility for these actions or who proudly praised the perpetrators? Does that person share a respect for life that you might claim to have? Can you stay silent when he stands up and condemns the police for killing the attacker in any of these cases?

Let’s take religion and politics out of this and just look at it as a matter of humanity. Put this anywhere in the world, make the victims any color or creed you want them to be. Is there any way to contextualize these events that they seem rewardable and not loathsome? Are they not newsworthy and reprehensible? Don’t you expect news anchors to let some of their milk of human kindness seep through and express bitter resentment that such violence should ever be condoned? Shouldn’t people of all stripes be climbing over each other to take the civilized position and condemn these events? Shouldn’t there be an outcry over the wanton destruction and senseless loss of life, regardless of the rationalizations offered?

Considered in a vacuum – in terms of absolute value, shouldn’t there be moral outrage? And do you think that there is a way to cast all of this, not in a vacuum, which makes ANY of these events justifiable? Do we really demand so little of humans that we can explain these behaviors in some way as to make them seem like an expected, accepted and predictable mode of behavior?

And if you had to live a life in which you didn’t feel safe driving your car, walking in your neighborhood, sleeping on your porch or standing in your house, would you feel sympathy for those who victimize you? How would you feel when someone came along and explained that these actions make sense because of what you did and who you are, even if you, yourself, didn’t do anything? Does that make any sense to you?

What if that was your father, out for a stroll, or your son, standing in his house? What if your cousin was the ambulance driver, or your niece, the girl asleep? What if it was your work colleague and his wife, driving home, who were killed. Does it have to be for you to see that this is wrong?

I have more questions to ask, and I have more fears about how people might answer the ones I asked already. But hey, I’m not a political person, so I’ll just move on.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Thoughts as I age on a Friday afternoon

At five she was the mysterious stranger, the subject of whispered stories, in her billowing robe. She was a hallowed visitor, a guest we cheered for and whose leaving we mourned. We sang her in and celebrated her company.

By ten, she was on the edges of my awareness, replaced by facts and figures, the myth fed children and unappreciated by anyone older. She was my parents’ friend who kept me apart from the rest of the world. When she arrived, the world took a breath, but that pause often did not last beyond dinner.

We were formally introduced when I turned 13 but by then, though I knew what she stood for, she was unwelcome in my world. She served as my ride to friends’ houses and was asked to drop me off a block away.

When I reached 14 she was the guest who imposed herself. She had to be fed and spoken to, and she was even a nice addition for a while, but then she grew tiresome and we all chose to sit, awkwardly alone. She was there but not acknowledged, the crazy aunt in the corner.

I hit college and she became the friend I wanted some of my friends to meet, on my own terms, of course. She was the story of a three year old, viewed with the assumed wisdom of an almost adult. She was a bargaining chip and a subject of bargains.

To a twenty-three year old she became the social director of my new family, the key to connecting and disconnecting. She was welcomed with insincere open arms and she showed up, asking nothing in return.

When I was 26 she became my drinking buddy, as she was more than happy to be around, in whatever capacity I would have her. I started to see her as a relief, but only slightly so. My life became hectic and she wanted me for herself, and was jealous of the outside world.

As a thirty-five year old, she was back to being the enrobed queen as I tried to teach my children how they have to cherish the time we spend together. I wanted them to see her as a beautiful opportunity, before she became a burden.

I am now forty-six and she is now my old friend, anticipated as she approaches, comfortable in our presence, and sorely missed when she leaves. She is that mystery again, but this time even willingly to me, as she ushers in an oasis of calm and love, and I try to explain to others that she is no burden and, given the chance, I would have her back more often than her schedule allows. I don’t mourn her leaving, but I think about her through the week.

She has kept me, as I have tried to guard her. She has grown in my eyes as I have grown into her. I cherish her in a way I never have before.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Agunah (non)solution -- my uninformed thoughts

OK, first off, I am no one. This is not a case of false modesty – I really am not versed in the intricacies of the laws and the rabbis involved all have my esteem and respect for their dedication to Judaism and their levels of knowledge and commitment. I have studied a little and have only a half knowledge so I write what I do with many caveats. But I just read an article about a current sub-crisis within the agunah crisis and I am moved to write some thoughts down.

An agunah, you will recall, is a woman whose husband has not given her a Jewish bill of divorce (“get”) so she cannot remarry, but who, for whatever reason, is not functionally married in any sense. Her husband might have divorced her civilly but is holding back the get for a reason, or her husband might be chaining her within the marriage and refusing to issue a get simply because he refuses to allow the marriage to dissolve. The chained woman is effectively powerless.

There have been, over hundreds of years, a variety of approaches trying to find a way to free these women, to allow them to move on with their lives, remarry and find a measure of happiness (which is especially acute when the husband moves ahead to remarry as he, under Jewish law, is not forbidden from taking 2 wives while the agunah would be biblically proscribed from remarrying and having 2 husbands). The husband cannot be forced to issue a get while a woman cannot stop him when he decides to serve her with one. The inequity is palpable and sickening.

In the past, some rabbis have resorted to force, trying to “convince” the husband to issue the get through the use of a tire iron (the Jewish court has precedent for encouraging a change of heart by means of force). Some have issued writs of excommunication, hoping that communal excision, pressure, and embarrassment will convince the husband to change his mind. Some demand pre-nups now so as to avoid later problems. Books have been written exploring the history, options, and implications of the problem. To date, there is no definitive solution.

Apparently, and according to an article in The Jewish Week ( a relatively new religious court has found a way, in many recent cases, to retroactively invalidate the entire marriage, thus obviating the need for a get to dissolve the union. In one case, they ruled the marriage non-existent based “on the Talmudic principle that the woman never would have married her husband if she had known he would act in an abusive fashion during the marriage.” This is an element in the judgment of a kiddushei ta’ut, a mistaken marriage. This approach has been tried before and is subject to much argument (see for one viewpoint and sources). This approach and the concerns surrounding it are not my focus though.

In other cases, “the court reviewed videos of the couples' wedding and found one or both witnesses invalid, thereby annulling the marriage.” In response to their actions, Rabbi H. Schachter wrote a letter in which he said, “great scholars of the generation” should be the ones making such sensitive judgments. I have a series of questions here and it is those questions and their answers which will give me a better sense of my feelings about this brouhaha.

Until then, my pronouncement is that all involved in this are acting like righteous fools. There I said it. Feel free to excommunicate me.

While you are preparing the paperwork, here are my questions:

1. (for Rabbi Schachter) is your concern simply WHO made this pronouncement? Or is there an argument to be made against WHAT was decided?

1a. If there is something wrong with the method employed to free these woman, what is it?

1b. If there is nothing wrong, could YOUR beit din simply rule identically so, at least in the short run, the limbo these women are now in would be removed?

1c. If the historic position is that we find any leniency to free an agunah, does it really matter who finds the leniency or even if it is a leniency that another court might not have thought of? If one has sources, are there leniencies which are “too lenient”?

1d. How does one attain the status which allows it to make pronouncements? Who judges that a gadol is a gadol? I am nobody and to me, Rabbi Krauss certainly has the kind of learning which prepares him to present this option. What is the yardstick which would prove otherwise? Couldn’t someone look at the RCA or any other organized beit din and say it is not equipped to judge? Is this any different from the Israeli rabbinate proclaiming that American rabbis cannot convert people, more about cementing a base of power and monopoly than judging the quality of the ruling?

1e. If the ruling of the IBD is based in halachic sources then what does their personal stature have to do with anything? Are the sources wrong?

2. (For R. Krauss) How does one find a witness invalid through a video? What does one look for which can effect such a ruling?

2a. Does this create any change in the status of the children had in what is now retroactively “not wedlock”? Though they are not mamzerim technically, could their being born not in a context of a valid kiddushin have any halachic or social implications? Does it affect, halachically, the judgment of the behavior of the couple who have been living together inappropriately, for years?

2b. Could this decision be used in a civil court to tip the balance in any divorce as it acts as a judicial finding that the marriage never existed so one could argue that the civil marriage is affected and marital events and proceeds must now be reconsidered, or bolster one side’s claim that the entire marriage was under false pretenses?

2c. Wouldn’t this be precedent for a husband to retroactively invalidate a marriage to avoid the RCA pre-nup?

2d. Couldn’t this serve as a precedent for an unscrupulous wife to invalidate her marriage and jump into a marriage to someone else at any turn (even a Kohen, as she would not be a divorcee)? Even repeatedly?

2e. Wouldn’t finding witnesses invalid in one wedding require that any other couple who later had either of the same people as witnesses get remarried with new witnesses because that one witness has been ruled invalid? Will the IBD be notifying other couples that they are not halachically married?

2f. If there is no monopoly or required central authority working to solve this in an approved fashion, then why would there have to be a central standard by which to judge witness validity? Any ad hoc beit din could go around invalidating marriages, even against the will of both husband and wife. If we allow the destruction of the underpinning of the marriage contract, then could have a larger crisis on our hands and destroy the faith we have in any halachic marriage, let alone any situation which requires witnesses.

Look, I hate the agunah crisis. I hope that a way is found within the bounds of Jewish law to make this whole thing go away. Refusing to give a Get is terrible. Exploiting religious law to torture another human being is inexcusable. That being said, I also understand (not like, not endorse, but certainly understand) how in some cases, the issue of a Get as leverage is the only way a husband can negotiate a fair settlement in civil court.

I don’t have answers, and maybe this solution isn’t an answer. Maybe it is. But the proper response, Rabbi Schachter, isn’t to shoot the messenger without considering the message, giving it its due and being transparent with the people about why it isn't the solution. And in the same way, the proper approach, Rabbi Krauss, isn’t to introduce more problems halachically by trying to exploit a potential leniency, especially without employing the same transparency of process so any and all concerns can be raised and a new process be properly vetted before it is relied on.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Just the way you aren't

Last night, the wife and I found ourselves with some alone time. One kid is abroad, the other, asleep and we weren’t quite ready for bed. So we googled everyone we knew in college, looked for them on Facebook, and judged their lives. Spoiler alert – we’re still the awesomest.

We discovered a few interesting things – first, many of our school mates are not on Facebook, or have not put any real detail on Facebook. I find this distressing. People have the responsibility to put their lives out there so that I can find them and know what they are up to without having to have any real or meaningful interaction during which I feign interest.

Next, people have chosen life paths which don’t all fall in line with what I think they were slated to become and do. The choices to have children or not, where people settled, and their careers often diverged from my personal expectations. This is unacceptable. Another thing: some of you really made quite a life for yourselves. It is admirable to see some of you rise to such heights. Why you have not dragged me up is beyond me, but you still have that opportunity.

Facebook, various alumni resources and web searches, plus a little deductive reasoning make it much easier to track down names from the past and catch up without having to catch up. They also make it much easier to obsess, stalk, judge and feel depressed, all from the privacy of my home.

So, in sum, I feel pretty good about my life and am proud of some of you. Others, I am still waiting for you to blossom and become what I have decided you are meant to be. And for those of you who aren’t putting all your details out there for my perusal, jump to it. I would prefer to decide I know your life based on snippets of information which you have selected in order to force people to think what you want them to think, rather than do so based on no facts. I mean, I’m more than willing to create a complete fiction and judge you based on it, but having just enough info to come to the most damning conclusions would be most helpful.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Maddie is Going Away for the "Year" Post

Aug 12, 2015
Hi Mad –

It is a glorious day today – I am wearing new socks, the Mets won last night (while the Yankees and Nationals lost), the sun is shining brightly, we just received a shipment of books which will keep AJ busy and quiet for a few hours and it is August 12 (shhh). Today, so far, is a good day. But mixed with that good is the knowledge that you will be headed off to Israel soon. I wanted to take a few moments to put some thoughts down in a medium which allows you no ability to respond, and I won’t know if you roll your eyes.

Eighteen and a half years ago, you changed me. You turned me from a guy who made poor fashion choices and needed a hair cut into a father: a guy who makes poor fashion choices and is balding but who understands love and worry in ways that he never knew before. I sang to you when you were only minutes old. And, much like you do now when I sing, you cried. It didn’t dawn on me way back then that you would ever have to move away, and I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the incredible person you have become.

Now, you are on the cusp of a huge shift in your life. Sure, we can still talk, email, chat, Skype or whatever it is the young people do these days, but you will be forging a new life, one which does not have me in it all the time. I have been blessed to see you at school every day. Most dads miss out on the connection we have and I thank God constantly that I have had this chance. I only hope that you carry with you the lessons we have learned together and that they inform all sorts of great decisions you make in the future, and shield you from the sorrow in the world around you even when I can’t be there to do so.

Not every day is a great day. Sometimes the Mets lose. Well, most times, but you get my point. Some days will stink and I won’t be there to pick you up. You have done and possibly will do dumb things and make bad calls, but you have to get back up and make things right. It won’t be easy, but you are strong. You are one of the strongest people I have ever met. Also lazy, but primarily strong. You can pick yourself up, and others with you. You are smart, crazy smart. You are insightful, and if you put your phone down, you are also really in tune with your world. You are part of something really big (a family, a religion, a country or countries) and you play a vital role in your world. YOU ARE NOT UNIMPORTANT AND HAVE TO RECOGNIZE THAT NO ONE ELSE IS UNIMPORTANT. You are special – to me and others. You need to wake up every morning, invested in being the special person everyone else knows you are.

So you are on your way to a war zone, to a distant corner of the round world full of challenges and experiences that I never embraced, opportunities that I missed out on and risks that I never faced. And I am proud of you. So, so proud. I am proud of the person you have become and I can’t wait to meet the person you turn in to. Will you stay? Will you come back? I honestly don’t know and there isn’t a single decision you can make which won’t scare the heck out of me. Aliyah or no, college choice, major, job, housing, relationship…every moment fills me with a combination of dread and excitement as I see you growing up and becoming this incredible adult.

I die a little inside every time you move away from me on any level but I live even more when I watch you grow. You started moving away in 7th grade and it was sad and joyous at the same time. Every day since then you have spread your wings a little more and I have been left behind to wallow in my sadness and to celebrate my sense of fascination and fulfillment at your successes. I guess that tension is what being a parent is all about: watching a child get on an airplane and not knowing whether the tears are from sorrow or joy, and the shaking from pride or fear. I will cry at the airport. It won’t be the first or the last time, but I want you to know that some of those tears are absolutely because I admire you and what you are doing. Some are because I will feel an unwelcome emptiness and some are because will be carrying onions. But most will be because I will be carrying a measure of love so overwhelming that it will try to get out through my eyes.

You are on your way to Israel (you have been on this path for many years, a path we encouraged and discouraged in even measure) and I won’t have the chance to embarrass you in front of your friends (though I may sing at the airport, just for old times’ sake). I won’t get to interrogate you about every thing you do. I won’t get to remind you to be careful and make good decisions whenever you leave your dorm. And I won’t have the opportunity to say “I love you” every morning when you get out of the car and every night before bed. I will worry during every waking moment and freeze every time the phone rings. But I will tell people with incalculable pride that you are following a dream and making a difference in the world in a way that is worth bragging about.
Remember please, as you work with those who need your help, as you love those who make your life complete and as you meet those who will make you into the new you, that you are loved by your parents and family and are an incredibly wonderful person, surrounded by people who believe in you and swell with pride when your name is mentioned.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה

I apologize in advance if anyone in particular is offended by my feelings here. It is not my intent to hurt, only to vent.

Tonight begins the Jewish fast of the Ninth of Av. It is a 25 hour fast coupled with prayer and introspection as we mourn the loss of the temples in Jerusalem, and with them, the national identity and cohesion which held sway to one degree or another, while they stood. By forcing ourselves to suffer a little (through not eating, drinking, bathing, or sitting in regular seats) we share in a tiny fraction of the suffering the people of that time went through and we remind ourselves that we are missing something in our lives. For years, I have tried to get myself to feel sad for the loss of a building, and the concomitant way of life. But even though in my prayers I look forward to a third temple and the return of a theocracy and a priestly system, I can't really feel bad. I live the good life in a great country; I practice my religion freely. I don't feel the loss and void that I am supposed to.

But today, I heard someone say something which made me feel very alone, and very sad. During prayers, we read the phrase "the four corners of the earth." The person sitting next to me, a respected community member and someone I am happy to call a friend, mumbled "I wonder what they said when they realized that the earth doesn't have corners...this is all BS." Then he continued to pray, out loud, in a lovely voice, with what looked like fervor and intent. He wasn't making a joke and if he was lashing out at his religion because of troubles in his personal life, it still hurt me to hear it. He knows as well as I that the use of that phrase need not be seen as a relic of a flat-earth world view. It can be seen as reflective of the four cardinal directions, the historical necessity and convenience of using a 2-D map representation of the world, or a literary construction not intended to present a realistic vision of the world. Instead, he looked at it as literal and let his anger show, and then kept up with what was now clear to me as a charade of practice. And he isn't alone. I am surrounded by people who practice the rituals of Orthodox Judaism because they are the accepted social conventions or comfortable vestiges of an upbringing which didn't really sink in, but who lack any actual faith. They don't seriously believe in any of it, and what they do accept is so compromised and watered down by their shame at being believers that it is a shell of what the religion could be.

Now, please, don't assume that I am a zealot. I am a child of my age, and one who embraces the world around me. I watch movies and TV, listen to decadent rock and roll music, value secular knowledge, and have a reasonably wide awareness of the world and its cultures. I am neither a luddite, nor an isolationist. But it seems that all the people who are equally comfortable with the modern world, have not compartmentalized their approaches and have let that modern rationalism destroy any deep seated faith in perfect and mysterious divinity and (for example) textual infallibility. I work hard to straddle the line between the two often opposing understandings of the world and the more I listen to those around me, the more alone I feel. I am a believer often even in the face of rational argument. And I value rational argument, because it can help bolster my belief. I am happy with the contradictions it creates and comfortable with the reconciliations of those contradictions which have, to my mind, stood the test of time for centuries and which are being expanded every day by leaders who stand on the shoulders of giants and make religious law relevant and consistent even today.

On this Tisha B'av, I mourn the widespread loss of traditional acceptance of faith and belief as bedrocks of my religion. I mourn the loss of the sense of solidarity and unity which comes from being able to share a love of religion with others who are equally idealistic about it (especially when they can be idealistic while not sequestering themselves in a ghetto). I mourn the loss of a temple for what it represented -- a central authority which was respected and which worked hard to maintain that respect. I sit on a low chair, I deprive myself and I do feel tears well up because I see that we, though numerous and economically powerful, and politically positioned, are dying spiritually and the only alternative for many is to swing to the right and deny the utility of anything not explicitly within the religious realm. The notion of "Modern Orthodox" as a group which sees value in both the religious and secular world, is not working out. People are either adopting stringencies and freezing out any innovation and evolution of the religion, or are pushing boundaries with such force because they are willing to give up central faith-based tenets which are supposed to provide limits and structure. And I feel like I am alone, stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate a middle path on my own and having to apologize and justify myself to those on either side of me.

I mourn because I see the daily destruction of the land and nation of Israel even if not physically and only metaphorically. I see the constant loss of the temple through the loss of interest in what the temple stood for. I weep for the loss of kindness and compassion which should be a natural consequence of a strong faith. I mourn a religion which will end up with as many sects as we have people because each person will decide to pick and choose and rationalize in a unique and personal way, making his vision of Judaism distinct from and even incompatible with that of others around him. I mourn because it seems that every day, more and more, we are not just "Jews" any more. We are so busy crafting our own particular paths that we fail to stick together as a people, and that's sad to me. The external threats which didn't care what we believed and just oppressed us for the label "Jew" failed. But we are succeeding because we are destroying that label from the inside. For this, I cry.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tyrannosaurus Dan

I am a dinosaur. Not the kind that makes it into movies, or into Far Side cartoons. I'm just the kind that refuses to change because change leads to things like extinction level events and the rise of mice as the dominant species. And mice, though cute, are not nearly as cool as dinosaurs.

I'm especially a dinosaur in the classroom. Now, please understand -- I'm no Azendohsaurus or even a Mussaurus. That'd be crazy. I am much more a Chinshakiangosaurus or maybe even an Ampelosaurus. [note, though probably lost on everyone but the 10 year old boys who follow my blog hoping for dinosaur references, my point is that I am not an early dinosaur, but a later one, reflecting some allowance of change and adaptation but still afraid of big rocks falling from the sky] I still enjoy school bells, I still take attendance, and often present material. I give all sorts of assessments and try to encourage my students to explore in the classroom. I'm a teacher. Sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mediator, even occasionally an observer, but always a teacher.

The issue of technology, therefore, is one with which I have had to wrestle. How much can a dinosaur embrace change in the classroom and still be a dinosaur and not some psammobiid bivalve? I know, right? So I have, indeed, adopted certain methods. I have a laptop in the room with a projector and a Smart Board (TM, no doubt). Students use computers to take notes, write essays, watch the NCAA March Madness games and shop for sneakers during class. I post homework on a website, along with salient complementary material and messages to students, and I keep an online calendar with due dates and test times. But I am still the teacher. Yes, whenever I say something, students double check my facts and then shoot more back at me. Yes, when I teach something in print, it is helpful to present audio, video and crowdsourced background to the masses so that they can ignore the text in a variety of ways. But I am the teacher.

So what's my job, that I hold on to the title so dearly? I try to effect learning. That's not so easy sometimes, and when I get it right, it feels great. So when new pedagogical models are presented I assess whether, simply put, they stand a better chance of accomplishing effected learning than I would (not than I do, just than I would).

I have written about bits and pieces of this in the past (and will resist the temptation to link to earlier can look for them; trust me, they are there) but some new issues popped into my mind. Let me start off by copying over something I posted on someone else's blog about tech in education (I will delete the parts not relevant, but trust me, they were awesome):

Learning is what it has always been — a combination of various orders of thinking to acquire facts and skills and the sense to know when and how to use or not use those facts and skills. It is impacted by interest, relevance, utility and necessity. It does not need technology to be effected. And if it is still within a system of established curriculum, standardized testing and a higher education model which seems to be working (and which parents want their children to continue in) a divergent and disruptive approach seems like so much curmudgeonly narcissism...[G]ood teaching is good teaching, and, we hope, what might inspire some measure of learning (which is, ultimately, out of our control).

Learning is about building knowledge. It is about making memorization stick and mean something. It is about turning recall into application. It is a complex process which can be shepherded through the active process of teaching. Sure it can happen without a guide especially when one of the other motivators is present, but it cannot be checked against an established norm that way. Formative assessments (formal and informal) give the teacher the ability to provide the proper guidance.

One things which therefore is not so necessary is the frontal lecture. Reciting a fixed text so that students swallow it and can spit it back is not, in and of itself, about learning. It is all about teaching, regardless of outcome on any level beyond the lowest regurgitation. Which is gross. Because I am, as I speak with my class, constantly assessing the learning via body language, responsiveness, questioning and eye contact among other things, my content is always changing. Handing the reins over to a canned lecture available online (via Khan Academy, or even a lecture which I create for my class) is still subjecting students to that lecture without the benefit of dynamic spontaneity which makes my classroom a classroom. Flipped classrooms miss out on what turns teaching into learning. Their pedagogy is no different from assigning students to read from a textbook -- no questions, no explanation, and no one making sure that the student isn't actually asleep. A computer and a teacher can teach a rule, but a computer can't figure out when it is proper, appropriate or necessary to break the rule. When I walk around through my classroom and discuss literature, I am performing 25 different classes/videos at the same time, each one changing depending on the background, momentary needs and environmental exigencies of each student and the class as a whole which cannot be predicted. That's what good teaching is.

So technology cannot replace the teacher in the class (and the bedroom/livingroom/other place cannot replace the classroom), but then what is the power of technology in terms of access to facts? Technology does present facts to students -- anything all the time. Anything. Right or wrong. Unlike students 100 years ago, our students can get misinformation, or incomplete knowledge 24/7. What a joy. Who vets the data? Who selects the data which will be useful for the class discussion the next day or two weeks later? Who selects facts which reflect a tangent the class went yesterday? Who changes the data set midstream if the student interest moves in a different direction? That's what good teaching is. Students have had access to myriad facts for a long time. We called the repositories "textbooks" or "encyclopedias". A student could go home and open a book up to a topic the teacher said he was going to cover, read the entry and all related entries and know pretty much nothing and everything at the same time. The good teacher, knowing that drinking from the fire hydrant is a bad idea, doesn't hand agency over to the technology. Do we just let the outside source be the teacher? English teachers wouldn't have to assign books, just Cliffs Notes and let them present the plot, the symbols and the characters, present suggestions for discussion, and then assign an essay. Done. The good teacher knows that a video, a -pedia entry and any thing else can't watch for signs of thinking. Yes, a website can have a quiz that can change based on right/wrong answers but it cannot watch to see the student's eyes and get a sense of comprehension; it can't know the student's mind. The good teacher can.

I think that one important notion can be imported from Jewish law. In many cases in Judaism, a person who has an obligation to perform a commandment can be exempted when another performs the action, and keeps the first person in mind. This can happen, though, when the one actually performing the action has the same obligation. Somehow, this imports a sense of empathy and a connection, bilaterally. In the same way, the most effective teacher is the one who can understand how a student learns because he had to go through the same process, himself. A person who knows his material intuitively and naturally might make a bad teacher if he cannot understand that students struggle with what he thinks is easy. He cannot break it down and re-present it in a way which will accommodate different modes of learning because he "got it" automatically. The internet is that person. It never had to learn. It just knows, so it cannot bring about learning in others unless its single more of presentation happens to resonate at a particular moment with a specific student. Very often, the most successful websites in terms of 'teaching' are the ones programmed by people who had trouble learning so the programmers/writers can infuse one dimension of empathy, anticipating a limited range of difficulties. But it still pales in comparison with a teacher or teachers who can know each student and respond in kind. In a sense, this is why taking a class in a Jewish school, and studying Talmudic texts is often called "learning with a rabbi" not "learning from a rabbi." The rabbi is an active learner at that moment also. The experience of discovery and enlightenment happens to all participants.

I was asked if I thought that the internet (and its ilk) is the biggest change in education since the printing press. I don't know -- I think that each has advantages. When the entire Talmud was printed up, it didn't mean everyone had a full copy. And when everyone had a copy, it didn't mean that people suddenly knew everything or could open it up to get the answers quickly, and on their own. If you plop a student down in a medical library, he won't find his way out after 3 years having become a doctor and yet all the data are right there for the taking. You can't drop someone off in the middle of a library and say "study what you like" and expect him to be a well rounded person able to exist with others after 4 years. You can't drop someone off in the middle of Rome and expect that after 4 years, he will be a scholar of Roman history.

Teaching isn't learning. Doing isn't learning. Watching isn't learning. Learning is a guided tour with plenty of stops along the way and effective teaching is being an active tour guide who knows when to present and when to shut up, based on insight into each person in the tour.

So, sure, I am willing to go as far as becoming a Lophorhothon and maybe, maybe, someday, be a Nimravid but this dinosaur doesn't see any computer being able to guide that tour just yet.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Today's schedule was a bit different. Instead of loading myself up with 15 different tables, presentations and session,s I set aside some time to visit the expo hall and learn about what is out there that I have to buy if I want to stay up to date in the education world. But first, this.

I guess if you have been reading this you get the idea that I am some sort of arrogant, unappreciative jerk who believes that he is right and that the rest of the world is wrong. Well, that's not a fair assessment of me. I am, sometimes, moderately appreciative. I went to this conference because my school and its administration made the opportunity available, and even encouraged me to go and be a non-adopter. They wanted me to balance out the rah-rah voices and give the cynics impression of all this stuff. So I am deeply indebted to my school, my principal, the APs and the tech people, along with the other teachers who went and who put up with me. I did learn some stuff; I did find products and services and methods which appeal to me and which I might want to pursue so I gained from this and am happy that I went. I also want to thank my wife for being OK with my abandoning her to go to this thing. It is her birthday today so I have come back so I can type this from home on her birthday.

And one other note of appreciation. There were over 15,000 teachers there. That's over 15,000 people who care about kids and education and who took their own time (and often, their own money) to learn about how to be better and how to increase the skill level and professionalism of an oft ignored or taken for granted job. I walked through the (long) halls and I had to remind myself that all the people here made a choice to go in to education and are still trying to do right by kids -- they aren't giving up, so kudos to all them, to the attendees, to the presenters who had something they needed to share, and to the organizers who put this massive undertaking together. Also, it was nice to hear that others shared some measure of my cynicism about technology and the state of education, so I'm proud of all those teachers not yet drinking the Kool-Aid.

That having been said...

Up and six, just in time to wait 3.5 hours until the expo doors open. 9:30? Really? So I joined the rush as soon as they let us in to the expo hall and I started walking around and looking at what was there. I am going to combine my notes from both blocks of time that I spent inside so that I can deal with the other 2 sessions I attended separately. I saw some truly interesting tables -- Infobase provides a set of research libraries (they used to "Facts on File") and treatments of current events to support student investigation and discussion. My only concern was that they might have too much. They have prepackaged "pro" and "con" statements for cutting edge controversies and I think that students should be generating those based on the research. But the material was quality and the write ups were sincere and accurate.

I went to another table and had someone say to me that his product will "change the way I look at classroom management software." I didn't have the heart to tell him that, since I don't look at classroom management software, he was going to have an uphill climb. Then a woman approached me and asked (in all earnestness), "Do you love data?" I asked her if that was a Star Trek reference and quickly walked away. She now thinks I'm a pervert AND a geek. At another booth for some software, the woman asked those of us assembled "What gradebook do you use?" I was a bit befuddled because I don't know its exact name, so I said, "You know, the red one with the lines and the fake vinyl cover." She was shocked that I still use a paper gradebook. Truth is, I don't -- I lied because I was annoyed at her question. My "gradebook" for the last 15 or so years has been an Excel spreadsheet and early on, the numbers were copied out of the red gradebook. Before that I just sat with a calculator and did the math. It isn't that tough.

On my first pass, I saw that very little had to do with "learning" and even less with "teaching." There was a lot of data management, resource management, infrastructure management and management management. There was a plethora of services which help deliver content via computers, organize material and save it via computers but all of that was about replacing the teacher as the source of content. I felt bad about taking all the little give-aways, like an exploiter and a user. I know I'm not going to buy stuff so I feel like I am wasting their time and money. I'm not going to keep their card or materials but, man, do I want that stress ball, fanny pack and t-shirt. There were a lot of vendors giving away pens, and even more giving candy. So I left with 50 pens of various sorts but with my diet intact. Yay will power and free pens (which were delicious). I listened to a bunch of sales pitches to earn the swag and I signed up to receive the emails and be contacted by pretty much everyone I met.

STE(A)M and IT seemed to be served really well by the various vendors. English teachers were not as served; there were two kiosks focusing on vocabulary (I took info from one and it does look interesting) and I thought one about Shakespeare but they were just using a sonnet to show how material can be shared by students and projected onto a wall. There were some great e-book purveyors (some who make the books, some which allow teachers to customize them and some which take teacher materials and warehouse them to be available for other teachers. These cards I will save and maybe even talk over with my department. Digital portfolios seemed neat and the sale women was so sincere. Also, I really wanted the cell phone stand and the mints she was giving away, so I listened. The thing is, most every skill-building, service or resource is actually addressed by 17 different vendors (there were over 2500 vendor spots) and I don't know w2hat the difference is between them. And since I'm not actually in the market to buy anything, I intend to avoid the work required to research the competing companies. There was even a cottage industry of companies whose service was making sense of all the other stuff being offered. It was recursively delicious.

Each vendor also seemed to have his own wifi signal and there were so many (all protected so I couldn't use them) that my phone could no longer find the free wifi provided for the event. So my phone dropped out of wifi and started relying on 3G. At one point, all the internet went out so all the people didn't know what to do. It was fun to watch them all scramble to find a free pen and pad of paper so that they could sketch their products for the various teachers.

I lugged my bag of goodies to two sessions today, so I will now pontificate on them for your amusement.

The first session was entitled "Move over Mr. Guttenberg" and was about a school system that was using digital texts. At least I thought that that's what it was about. it was more about a new school that decided to rely on iTunes for everything, including their lunch program and how wildly successful they are. They actually banned backpacks (truth) because all students needed to carry was a single iPad. Everything, they insist, can be done on the iPad. They also said that all class content was curated (that's the buzzword of the moment) by the teachers. It seemed like they were saying that the teachers reinvent the wheel, create all the materials and post them along so that the whole world can take their classes, thus making actual teaching completely superfluous. They really didn't talk about text books (nor about books not available on a digital platform). They didn't talk about having conversations and interacting with other humans. I guess these aren't 21st century skills. They simply worshipped at the Apple iDol. The idea of relying on a web based everything is nice if you are starting fresh with lots of money and no interest in using material that exists, because why would we assume that anyone ever had a good idea in the past? They weren't really clear about what the teacher actually "creates"; is it work sheets? is it a video which replaces a lecture? Is it a graphical organizer or a rubric? When does the real learning happen?

One speaker focused on letting students "tell their stories" instead of relying on rote memorization. But who relies on rote memorization in this day and age? Is the only alternative embracing a digital experience? What about authentic teaching and learning? There was much talk about "personalized learning" with "content" being "delivered." Maybe someday, they will realize that they are a school and not a pizza parlor. If they force their students to live on the iBad, what happens when the students go out into the world and have to do something by hand? Will they be able to? And how is this any different from the system my school uses? We have "Haiku Learning." We can use any device because this is a web based service on which we can post homework or announcements, create assessments, have students take notes and share conversations. So why are they better than we are? They say that they are "heavily PBL" but that's not a solution which demands iPads. They "rethink learning" by having a project in which students get to choose the book they read. Um...that's not especially innovative. The fact that someone had to suggest this in 2014 is shocking to me. It means that they haven't sat down to quantify their learning goals and match them to appropriate methods and assessments. It smacks of stupidity. Sorry fancy new schoolo. You are way late to the party. I'm not impressed that 2000 people around the world want to take materials from your free online course; if your materials are so stuck in the 1920's then anyone who takes them is a bigger fool than you. I left happier than ever that we use textbooks and yet have modified our teaching to have innovative approaches without claiming that computers did it.

The other session was something about rubrics and blended learning. To be honest, I haven't the slightest idea what it was about. I tried -- I really did, but they didn't make their object clear so I got lost quickly. They were talking about their school system and something about something. They put slides up on a screen and made them all availale at and their presentation seemed practical and real and probably really useful to someone who knew wat they were talking about, so look it up and let me know what I missed. They started out with a poll which required texting the answer but my phone was in the back of the room charging so I missed that. I was also surprised that in the projected slides, all the rubrics shown were actually just photographs of hand written rubrics! So much for technology. They seemed to be measures for self-assessment of the blended learning which were not technology dependent (the most jargoned sentence I have ever written). I left before they tried to get me to participate because I was sure I would say something inappropriate.

On the whole, I felt that so much of this was unnecessary (at least for me as an English teacher who already uses a few different teaching techniques and who works to get students to think and argue in person). Technology really should be the pencil which doesn't need its own conference. True, I do have to sit and write about whether learning has shifted in the computer age, or whether the printing press was a paradigm shifter in different curricular areas, but I'm just not convinced that the world of student learning has to be reinvented because I can look up Millard Filmore's birthday online instead of in a book.

January 7, 1800. Now you know, but whatever you do, don't memorize that fact. Authentically integrate it into your technologically cultivated experiential something something.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The second half of Monday (ISTE 4)

The day continued much as it had begun, as a series of long walks, and not that much great info. I don’t mean to complain. I mean to whine and moan. But complain? Not my style.

On my way to the tables, I took a quick detour through the expo room. I chatted with the Microsoft representative about tech infrastructures, then with the McGraw Hill Rep about digital and print textbooks. They were both very reasonable. So many tables were full of people selling “digital learning” but I am still not convinced that such a thing exists and that students are any different and can’t just learn.

I headed over to the tables for the 11AM group. I saw one table in which a company was selling its e-books and its websites which collect and organize research tools. The one which showed how students can publish their work as real books and isn’t that nice. I didn’t stick around to ask how their service was any different from the many other publishing options available online. I’m not arguing that self-publishing isn’t a nice way for students to see concrete proof that they existed, but they did nothing to convince me that their company was better suited to the task than any other.

The next table was the marketing division of Powtoon which is a piece of presentation software. It exists based on two important educational pillars – one, that students need to create presentations to prove they know stuff and, two, that these presentations must be on a computer at least, and preferably, online (unless you pay more for the ability to download them to your own computer so you can watch them even when the internet disappears). I then went to a table at which a teacher was showing how she used Google docs to create virtual e-books with her students. The students could take material and annotate it, color it and jazz it up and then be able to access it whenever they want and make it a resource for others. It was nice but I was struck by the fact that she wasn’t trying to sell me anything. She told me what she did. Now I have her secret. I don’t need her anymore.

I then made the mistake of making eye contact with the students from Mexico so they launched into their sales pitch. Now, they weren’t selling anything either – they made a website using Google sites and they were proud and wanted to walk me through how one creates a website. The training and practice of making a presentation is a marketable skill so there is value in that but the truth is, I know how to make a website and seeing it done in Spanish isn’t all that useful to me. But who can walk out on a Mexican 8th grader who is really interested in practicing English and showing off a web site? For my troubles, I got a free t-shirt. I only hope that XL in Spanish still means “extra large.” Maybe next year, there will be an app that teaches students how to make a presentation at ISTE.

Off to the table at which the woman presented her research about whether having a school newspaper (online or print) increases literacy. She also wasn’t selling anything so I skipped to the end and found out that, yes, it increases literacy, but students prefer making and reading print of electronic papers. The last table also showed how students can use Google docs in order to free up the writer in each of them. Apparently the secret is out.

At the same time, there were 2 other table sessions which I missed and which sounded really interesting so they probably weren’t and life will go on. I hiked over and got myself situated outside of the room in which the “Should we get computers out of the classroom” panel discussion was going to be held and ate lunch. While there, I chatted with a volunteer who tried to get me to go into a session about “redefining Learning.” I told him that I was quite happy with how it as already defined and didn’t see the need to redefine it. That bothered him. We both agree that, methodologically, skill/drill and rote memorization and spitback are not very good, useful or rich teaching styles and don’t encourage deep learning but since I don’t define “learning” as the effect of those styles, I don’t see the need to change. I also see the flaw here as one in the teaching and assessment, not in the “learning” part of it, so I’m not sure what he thinks happens when you redefine learning by changing teaching and ignoring learning. Has learning really changed? My students still seem to learn and I do things the old-fashioned way. Maybe they are lying to me and they haven’t learned a thing. Maybe they learned how to lie.

Well, win/win I guess.

Am I threatened by challenges to my tried and (maybe) true methods? Or am I rightfully and righteously angry at this phantom belief that the world and the teenaged brain has changed so markedly that we have to reinvent the virtual wheel? Is it that things are so broken that we should start over or maybe, there are parts that have ALWAYS been broken and never should have been the preferred method, regardless of the technology involved.

I will now summarize the 5 speakers at that session – I don’t have their names but they are all, supposedly, very important people well respected in the field of something or other. They have written books and, no doubt, said very important things. They all kept quoting a guy named Seymour Papert. He was, it seems, the go to guy as it relates to technology and education. I wouldn’t know – I’m an idiot who knows nothing about computers and even less about teaching.

Guy 1 (Maybe “Will Richardson” maybe not – one guy introduced the topic and then an Australian guy spoke and I don’t know the name of either) – 10.2 billion dollars was spent last year on Ed Tech and that’s dumb. Tech is viewed as a faddish cure-all and it is slapped on without looking at the real cause of education problems. We are trying to fix symptoms, not problems. If a student says that he finds Facebook more interesting than a teacher’s lesson, the teacher shouldn’t coopt Facebook; the teacher should make the lesson better. I liked this. This spoke to me. This was a high point in the conference to me, and the fact that any people clapped was heartening.

#2 (Audrey Watters) – We must give up on computers because they are no longer subversive. In fact, they are symbols of neo-liberalism, libertarianism, imperialism and colonialism. And maybe some other isms. I lost count. Computers are an extension of the government/corporate machine through which the white man controls. The networks and servers control and surveil all of us; they monitor and manage us. Computers were designed to be tools of war and should be removed not just from the classroom, but possibly from the planet. She’s nuts. I had written in my notes that she is a Luddite and then later she got up (as if by some psychic force) and explained that being a Luddite isn’t bad because the true Luddites were OK with some machinery – they just didn’t like it out of their control. Whatever. I have failed to communicate the depths of her crazy.

Third up was David Thornburg who didn’t deal with computers in the classroom. He focused on the Raspberry Pi, and Arduino. They, as tiny computers, will democratize computers in a way that the Apple II didn’t and all will be right with the world. The problem was that back then, instead of kids continuing to code new programs, companies made ready-to-use software and so kids didn’t have to learn to code. If kids code, the messiah will come. Of course, this doesn’t address the topic, but it gave him a chance to wax poetic on the Arduino. Often.

The next guy (no guess on name) – said that as a tax payer and parent, he believes computers should be out. Computers haven’t changed teaching or learning. They are supposed to give kids agency over being self-learners and they haven’t. We have, he said, “lost the conversation on learning” so no one asks why we have computers in education at all.

The last guy was Gary Stager who is a big wig and such. Whatever. He railed against computers, starting out by posting a number of quotes from Papert (who he painted as a Jesus figure who was not understood or believed in his lifetime, but whose prophecies have all come to pass and he was made to suffer for the sins of everyone) and in fact, he was simply putting them up on the screen, and reading them. Not so effective a method. He said that he has grown frustrated with ISTE because it sold out to big companies which sponsor it (he named companies and sponsors and insulted them. I try not to bite the hand that feeds me unless I am being fed by a man made out of chocolate). He said that the power is being given over to the corporate machine and the powerful get more powerful. He was starting to sound crazy. He then continued to bash ISTE as an organization, wondering what its role even is. The model of education hasn’t changed so any new technology can only support an old and failing system. His was a slightly different flavor of conspiracy theory. He did say that “any teacher who thinks he can be replaced by a Youtube video probably should be.” Nice. He also pointed out that having a conference on Education and Technology is silly because we don’t feel the need to have a conference on “Education and Pencils.” Very true but that’s be a rocking conference.

I stayed behind to ask then why, instead of “reclaiming” ISTE, he doesn’t just advocate dissolving it. He chafed at that and defended its existence. It was then that I realize that THE MAN had gotten to him, too. Trust no one!

I went back to the rooms with tables for another report on research, this time, with a student who had studied 1:1 laptop:student use. She was in Indiana so she was piped in via some technology or another which made it hard to see and hear her. All I could note was that she couldn’t get any verbal or visual feedback as part of her presentation and that made me question online teaching in general, but I’ll move on. (By the way, this time the tables were numbered but the noise was still an issue.) Her central question was If (and if so, how much did) laptop use affect test scores, attendance, GPA, proficiency and graduation rates. This was all done via a metastudy so the fact that her district was 1:1 was sort of irrelevant. Then she used her own school to research qualitative student response. Ten of her student said that they liked computers, so there you go. There was a majority of positive response: students who used computers felt more comfortable using computers and students felt more prepared to use computers in college. They didn’t like use policies. Hurray for research. [One class did work to create its own use policy so students understood why the rules were there.] She proceeded to load up slides and read them. There was a compulsory ACT program on the laptop so kids used it and felt more prepared for the ACTs and their scores went up. They liked the math program they did on the computer (it tied in with their text book and had answers). The students felt that some teachers were afraid of using and/or breaking computers and that limited student enjoyment.

She didn’t talk about HOW computers were used in the district in any classroom. But as long as they are popular, I guess.

I moved to the talk on the “Gamification of the ELA Classroom” because I teach ELA and I like gamificating things so, yeah. I had to forgo the talk on assessments, failure and deep learning but hey, games are worth it. Well, you’d think so.
The teacher identified three versions of “game based learning”:
1. Playing actual games on or off line
2. turning the class into a gamed experience, like a store, so students earn points through behavior modification
3. Making the class and curriculum into a gamed setting. This is the one he focused on.

He said that games give the opportunity to fail and try again and only move on once competence is proven. Games also give options for paths to success and they teach the right path through in-game hints. So why not do that with English class? (hint – because it doesn’t work…shhhh). In games, losing is a distinct possibility, the game play is differentiated and the levels are scaffolded. This was right around where he lost me. He created a background scenario for his students (time travelers encountering poetry through the ages in England) and allowed students to gain “Experience Points” (XP) by performing certain activities at each level and stage. He explained to the students why they were studying the material, gave them background information through videos or frontal lecture, assigned a text, had students prove that they read it, had the students create a summative creative project and then perform a more traditional, individual assessment. Totally different from a regular class because instead of grades, their success at each point was rewarded with those points which then added p to an overall rubric-based grade. But simple mastery only garners the students 85 points. So whence an A? From extra work within the curriculum or additional “badges” which are independent tasks. And if they earn enough badges, they earn all sorts of freedoms, like the freedom to choose the structure of their next assessment, and if that isn’t enough to motivate a teenager, I don’t know what is.

He decenters the class by incorporating all the buzzworthy methods of blended learning and flipped presentations, and simply employs the artifice of “game” to keep teacher and student interested. He could do the same with technology but that would just be called (his words), “good teaching.” He admitted that it was silly to have a conference on technology because it should focus on the right way to reach students, and if something is a tool, it is mentioned, not made the focus. He didn’t explain certain nitty gritty bits – if I assign a paper, how do I measure “competence”? Is it about the writing? The content? The argument? A paper is a complex assessment tool and a grade is rarely a cut and dried measure of mastery. Whatever. I left when it seemed acceptable to leave.

The last thing I went to was the “birds of a feather” meeting. I eschewed the Jewish group because I knew I’d see all the participants 30 minutes afterwards, at dinner, and I went to the “Weird Teacher” meet-up. It was weird. We didn’t have a room so I had to sit on the floor and nurse a painful back. As an icebreaker, each teacher was asked to tell something weird about him or herself. I lied and said I was afraid of ice cream. They believed me. We went through ten attributes of the weird teacher. What was scary to me was that there could be teachers who DON’T do these things. Anyway, everyone exchanged Twitter handles and I wrote “I hate Twitter.” We’ll see how that plays out. Here I am, the new Jew on the weird block and I lie about a phobia and insult their app of choice.

We returned for a dinner and another faculty meeting, and now, I have to wrap up all my stuff and prep for tomorrow.