Pairing the Past with the Future

history_2It’s been nine years since I retired from education but I have continued to regularly work with students. I can state without hesitation that they are learning mathematics at a much higher level and faster pace than any program that was around when I was a student back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. They are seeing quite advanced material but I’m always a bit concerned that there are still too many who are struggling for mastery of the concepts. I fear that we still operate from a one size fits all mentality when it comes to the pacing of our teaching when we still have students chomping at the bit to move forward and even more struggling to keep up with the flow of information. We seem to have made a race of the learning process rather than tailoring it to the individual needs of each student.

Part of the problem that we have is that as we progress there is more and more material to cover within any discipline in the same amount of time that there was over a hundred years ago. This becomes a particular problem when it comes to and subject but particularly with history, whether it be about the state, the nation or the world. Choosing what to cover and what to leave out has created well known problems with the historical knowledge that young people possess after finishing the required coursework in school. When I was a student the curriculum essentially ended with World War II, leaving more time for in depth emphasis on critical topics. It’s been more than fifty years since I formally studied history and so much has happened since then that needs to be presented and discussed, but what has to go to make room for more recent events?

I suppose that if I were to suggest one very major change to the general education programs in our school it would be to have history be an integral part of every single year of school rather than providing a bit here and a bit there as it now is. American History should be taught in the the fourth or fifth grade, again in the eighth grade and for two years in high school with World History being given at least that much time as well. Courses such as psychology and sociology are certainly interesting but they are not as essential as learning about the past and understanding its impact on both today and tomorrow.

We need a better educated population not just in the STEM subjects but also the social science of history. There is great wisdom in the old saw that history helps us to learn from the mistakes of the past. It furthermore helps us to make connections that provide us with tools for analysis of the present.

I sometimes shudder when faced with the ignorance of history that I encounter with far too many of today’s young. I recall talking with a group of students who knew little or nothing about the political differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson which lie at the very heart of the arguments dividing our nation even today. They were unaware that we live in a republic rather than a pure democracy and have no idea what that fact implies. They were unsure of what actually happened in the holocaust and new virtually nothing about the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. They seemed to get most of their information from dubious sites on social media and much of what they did know      was either limited or outright wrong.

While we certainly need our mathematicians and scientists to combat our the problems that plague us, we also should demand that our young graduate from high school with a clear understanding of where our world has been and we must insist that the knowledge that our teachers impart is done so without a tinge of propaganda or editorializing. History is best taught from primary sources that demonstrate the differing points of view that led to decisions that influenced events. Students should be able to see how and why such choices affected outcomes. They need to learn that none of us ever operates in a vacuum and that how we react to events is almost always determined by the worldview of our own time in life.

I studied English grammar and literature in college along with mathematics. I learned that analyzing language or writing requires an understanding of the times in which a tract was written. It is far easier to understand characters of a story when we have a concept of what it was like to be them in a certain time and place. History is as important to the study of the great artistic works of writing as knowing literary devices. Our human experience as portrayed in art is dependent on the times in which the works were created and we will never fully understand them if we do not have some knowledge of history to guide us.

Education has essentially been done in the same basic manner for some time now with only a bit of experimentation here and there. We’ve had a kind of revolution with the teaching of mathematics and science that emphasizes both theory and practice using abstract, visual and concrete examples. It’s time that we rethink the scope and sequencing of history classes as well to allow enough time to study events and ideas in depth. It’s a challenge that we seriously need to undertake as overwhelming as it may seem. We owe it to our children to adequately prepare them for the future and the key to doing that well lies in understanding the past.   

Finding Joy In Work

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When I was a little girl I kept my toys sorted in cardboard boxes that I found at the grocery store. One carton held board games, another had all of my dolls and their clothing and a third container was filled with items for playing school. I generally had a difficult time recruiting volunteers to pretend that they were in my classroom because nobody wanted to do extra work during time away from the real thing and I was notoriously strict as an erstwhile educator.

I used some of my father’s books for my lessons and meticulously created practice examples and comprehensive tests. I graded everything in red ink of course and gave each of my somewhat unwilling students report cards at the end of each session. Needless to say I always had to search for new victims each time that I decided to open my classroom but I had enough sway over my brothers that they grudgingly went along with my role playing. I suppose that it was almost a certainty that I would one day be a teacher, but in truth I fought against that idea until I was in my early thirties.

I am a woman from the pioneering era of equality for women. The trend for my peers was to eschew the customary female occupations for positions in traditionally male roles. I was encouraged to become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, an accountant, anything but a teacher. The word on the street was that those who were unable to do anything else became teachers and I was a bit too proud to channel my intellect into a job that was rapidly losing its luster. I changed my major so many times that I finally took a sabbatical so that I might clear my head and contemplate what I really wanted to do with my life, not what everyone was telling me to do.

No matter how much I meditated on my ultimate role in society I kept circling back to the idea of teaching. Ultimately I became determined to follow my heart and I returned to college to finish my degree. The second time around I encountered the most incredible professors who encouraged me to use my talents in what they deemed to be one of the noblest of professions. I channeled all of my enthusiasm into learning about the science of teaching. I soon realized that there was way more to the profession than just bending students to my will. I became an eager advocate for the profession that would become an integral part of my life.

My first job was literally a Godsend. There happened to be a glut of teachers in the Houston area due to an economic downturn in the oil business and my fellow graduates and I were having a difficult time finding open positions anywhere. I submitted applications all over town and finally got a call from a private Catholic school only minutes away from my home. Surprisingly I landed a job teaching mathematics to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, something that I had never intended to do. I had to create lesson plans for six completely different classes as well as sponsor the school newspaper and head a committee taxed with purchasing computers for the campus.

I don’t think that I have ever worked as hard as I did during that first year but I enjoyed every minute of the experience. My students were delightful and I found out that I was fairly good at my chosen occupation. I was surrounded by other teachers from whom I learned how to improve my craft and the atmosphere at the school was one of kindness and optimism. I was certain after my maiden voyage as a teacher that I had found the perfect fit for my interests and my talents.

My determination to be an educator was solidified by that initial foray, but I wanted to have experiences in different settings so that I might define both my strengths and my weaknesses. Before long I set my eye on working with economically disadvantaged students in elementary school. There I had to plan for lessons in every single subject including art. It was an incredible challenge because my students were often riddled with home problems which often showed themselves in bad behaviors at school. It was time consuming to prepare for each day of school and I was challenged by both classroom management issues and methods for conveying knowledge of every conceivable kind. Each day I was responsible for twenty seven little souls who ranged from brilliant to learning disabled, well behaved to difficult. With the help of an amazing principal I learned much and became more confident than ever that I had made the right choice in deciding to be a teacher.

The rest is history as they say. I returned to an upscale private school for a time and then agreed to work in a public school filled with gang members. By then I understood that kids are kids and they all struggle to get past the angst of adolescence and teen years. My specialty became understanding where they were and starting from that reality to encourage them to move forward. I found myself loving every single one of my pupils and every challenge that I encountered with them.

I ended my career as a Dean of Faculty. By then I was working with the teachers, understanding the problems that they faced and doing my best to encourage and help them the way others had done for me. I never regretted a single day that I spent in the teaching profession. I felt that I had found my true purpose in life and I still get great joy from helping young people to learn. Our society may not have much regard for the teaching professions, which is unfortunate, but I learned that only those who can, teach. It takes dedication, long hours of hard work, physical and mental stamina, and a true heart. I’m glad I followed mine and found so much joy as a teacher.

We Must Provide the Heart

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Way back in the nineteen eighties my husband, Mike, came home bearing a big box with almost childlike excitement. Inside the cardboard container was a computer from Radio Shack, an early rendition of the TRS 80 that ironically earned the nickname “Trash 80.” We were very much on a budget at that time, saving for college for our children and working at jobs not known for their generosity in salary. We carefully watched our purchases so it was unusual for Mike to spend what was then a rather large amount of money without discussing it with me. My initial reaction was to be a bit angry but Mike countered my protests by claiming that computers were going to change the world and our family needed to become intimately familiar with them. I was somewhat unimpressed but decided to just humor him since he rarely bought anything for himself.

Our first family computer, if you dare to call it that, was driven by a tape deck and seemed to be operated by a turtle. It did little more than provide Mike with an opportunity to explore a couple of primitive games and learn new ways of incorporating it into our daily activities. If I touched it more than once or twice I don’t remember. It gave Mike something to do after work and so I mostly ignored it.

It wasn’t long before computers were becoming a bit more sophisticated. Inventiveness in that arena was moving quickly and Mike soon enough wanted a bit more power than our machine afforded. In a sweet bow to me and my profession the next model that he brought home was an Apple II of the kind that was showing up in classrooms across the country. It operated with a floppy disk and our model had two drives. Since there were already several educational programs in use in my school I was able to find some practical use for it in my work. Our daughters took interest in the possibilities of the model as well and before long it was a center of family activity. 

My eldest daughter and I learned how to actually create programs for our Apple II but it was Mike who took an understanding of its power to a new level. He found ways to use the machine far beyond games and word processing while dreaming constantly of the possibilities of a technologically driven home and work life. It was as though he had become obsessed with the idea of making the world a better place through the use of intelligent machines. He constantly cornered other aficionados of computing and picked their brains about the future of a brave new world.

I soon realized that Mike was willing to drive a car until the wheels fell off but he was not content with keeping a computer past its prime. Again and again he would suddenly arrive home with the newest and most powerful model of computing and we would learn the ins and outs of the enhanced mechanisms. Before long I was incorporating the technology into every aspect of my work as a teacher. I even had a specially designed spreadsheet for keeping student grades. I got permission from my principal to replace the old style handwritten grade book with copies of my computerized system. It allowed me to keep a running average for each student at the instant I entered a grade. It was tied to a word processing program that gave me the ability to send home a weekly progress report to the parents. I became more and more convinced that Mike had been prophetic in his certainty that those machines were going to change our lives.

Of course things just got better and better in the world of technology. I now hold more power than all of the computers used to send a man to the moon in a tiny laptop that I can carry anywhere. I use technology on a daily basis to get the latest news, communicate with businesses and my doctor, keep up with friends, write my blog, do research, make purchases. The list of how my computer has changed my life is almost endless, and it has enabled me to do more in any given day than ever before. It’s difficult for me to even imagine the world as it was before and yet there are indeed times when technology drives me to the brink of frustration.

It’s quite difficult to communicate with a real human being when conducting business these days. I have to jump through a series of computerized hoops before finally hearing a human voice, often from a continent away. I have so many passwords that I sometimes  become annoyed by the task of having to retrieve them from my memory. I’ve been hacked and had to spend countless hours repairing the damage. I have had to create a routine of checking email and messages on my phone because important information is always coming in electronic form. Almost every type of business in which I engage relies heavily on the internet, which may or may not be up and running when I need it most. The frustrations of our modern conveniences have created their own form of stress including a toxic political environment and a haven for bullies.

For the most part I am in awe of the conveniences that I enjoy as a result of the continually improving technology that I use. Nonetheless I see its flaws and they are dramatic. As a society we have yet to understand the implications of instant communication around the world. We have a power that can go terribly wrong if we are not careful. Our inventiveness is moving forward so quickly that we barely have time to understand it before it changes. The lessons we teach about it are often years behind. It is a power that is both truly wonderful and frightening.

There is no doubt that today’s technology has improved life for millions. I can attest to that on a very personal level. We just have to be careful in how we use this great gift. We must be aware of its dangers and not rely so heavily on it that we become paralyzed when it fails. In the end we have to remember that we are dealing with machines that have no heart. We must be the ones to provide the human feelings.

What We Need

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There were horrid things happening across the globe before I was born. There were horrid things happening across the globe when I was a child and a teen. I have witnessed horrid things happening as a young adult and now that I am in my seventies I still see horrid things happening both near and far. For a cockeyed optimist like myself it can be quite distressing to admit that there is something in our human natures that is sometimes violent and cruel. I always wanted to believe that mankind has been slowly evolving into a better version of itself, and I still think that is indeed true, but sadly it is such a slow process that it’s difficult to define the progress at times.

On a more personal level I see goodness in each of my friends and family members, people striving even sacrificing to be kind, loving, wise. Each individual has small moments of imperfection but on the whole they are grand examples of what mankind might aspire to be. They give me hope for the population at large because I do not believe that they are the aberrations, but rather that it is in the hateful and violent members of society that we find the outliers. Normal is good, abnormal is an unusual data point removed from the cluster of morality that defines most of the people in the world.

There are those who believe that the current times are somehow worse than other eras, but I would urge them to more carefully and thoughtfully study history because there is little that is actually new in the ways of our relationships and our politics. People have been lead astray by demagogues and tyrants for all time whether it be in a family, a friendship, a neighborhood, a town, a state or a nation. You would think that we would be more circumspect given all of the information about past troubles that we have, but in truth most of us are busy taking care of ourselves and those that we love. We tend to only have time to react rather than to reflect. Besides, with so many ideas and ideologies being thrown at us at once it is daunting to determine what is actually best. Instead history has often been a vast experiment of trial and error with some decisions enhancing mankind and others being dangerously abysmal failures. All too often hindsight becomes our teacher.

We can indeed learn from past mistakes but even then it’s important to realize that we are different from our ancestors. Times continually change and we are influenced heavily by our environments, what we love and what we fear or even hate. Making choices that will affect us and the people around us can be a gamble. Because each person on earth is unique there is no one size fits all way of educating or governing and yet we try even as we know that it is impossible to exactly meet everyone’s needs. Someone always seems to feel left out, abandoned either by family or nation. Such is the conundrum of our human attempts to make sense of the world and the reason why it is so difficult to enact solutions to the problems that plague us.

Freedom is a word with many meanings. Taken too far it can lead to trouble. Constricted too much it creates hostility. The key to a healthy person and society is providing just the right dose of fairness which may mean that the balance will sometimes seem unequal. Even within families a wise parent understands that no two children are identical, not even twins. So too it is with societies that attempt to be fair and just. It is difficult to know the best course of action.

As a school administrator I learned that some of my teachers wanted to be free to be themselves without much direction while others actually desired to have precise sets of rules by which to guide themselves. The trick in working with them involved crafting individual plans that took their specific needs into account. Allowing for differences sometimes created tensions because there were always those who insisted that everyone had to be treated exactly the same. The trouble with that logic is that it does not consider our human uniqueness and sounds good until it is executed in a real situation.

I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the urge of various forces to make us all think and act the same. We become enraged when we witness someone deviating from the thoughts and actions that we find the most appropriate. We harangue or shame those who disagree with us in the false hope that we might force them into submission to our way of looking at the world. Such has become a national pastime with celebrities being lauded or ostracized based on what they believe. In truth it is a kind of nationalized bullying that we need to abandon. We should be extremely careful that we are not ruining people’s reputations based solely on a desire to force agreement to our individual thoughts about how things should be. 

Propaganda and unwillingness to allow freedom of speech is growing all around us. Such efforts to control beliefs has been tried throughout history but it has never worked. We should be wary of those who would insist on conformity and resistance to divergent ideas. Right now we have people on both the far left and far right attempting to shut down our freedoms. What we need is for those who treasure liberty to lead by example which means acknowledging that we must make more efforts to consider the needs of each voice, not just our own. We must curb the outrage and find ways to understand and respect the very natures of our humanity. In doing so we might find the common ground that we both desire and need. As long as we keep censoring one another we will escape from the current cycle of outrage.

A Practical Approach

NXA841_open.jpgMy mom was a member of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. She was proud of the fact that nobody in her family ever missed a meal even though their food intake was heavily rationed. Her mother and father owned their home because they had built it room by rooming, paying cash for each addition. They had also turned their backyard into a vegetable garden and they bought a cow. Those things kept food on the table along with my grandfather’s job at a meat packing plant.

My mom often spoke of her mother’s ability to stretch a few items into a decent meal for the ten members of the family. According to my mother my grandmother usually waited until everyone had been served before she took her portion of the dinner. Sometimes that meant that she got her nourishment from sucking on the bones of the roast or eating the head of a fish.

After my father died my mama prided herself in being able to provide us with food on an unbelievably thin budget. She told us that she had learned all of her tricks from her mother and a home economics class that she took in high school. We might have egg sandwiches in our lunch bags or a bowl of pinto beans for dinner but we never went hungry and our menus were healthy. Snacks and sugary items were a grand luxury.

As each month waned our refrigerator would grow more and more empty, sometimes threatening to be devoid of any possible ingredients for dinner. Somehow my mama was a miracle worker who never once failed to come up with something delicious no matter the circumstances.

I never recall seeing a fully stocked pantry or refrigerator in our home. Mama purchased the basics and enforced a firm rule that we were not to eat anything without permission lest she had intended to use it to feed the family. I suppose that’s why I have never forgotten a scene that I saw in the movie Goodbye Columbus in which the main character, a poor college student, opens his wealthy girlfriend’s refrigerator to discover a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and meats filling every corner of the appliance.

I saw that film with my husband Mike when we were still dating. When I mentioned how stunning I thought that scene had been he did not understand. Upon finally visiting his home I realized why it had been so meaningless to him because his own refrigerator was just as well stocked.

In our first days of marriage we struggled to stay financially afloat and I was happy that like my mom I had learned how to stretch our food budget to the max. With the help of both my mother and may mother-in-law who often brought groceries when they visited I got us through our early years without starving.

Once we had both graduated from college and were working at good jobs I was able to fill the shelves of my refrigerator with better and better quality items. Today if one were to open the door of my appliance they would find apples, oranges, berries, tomatoes, avocados, asparagus, squash, cauliflower, broccoli, eggplant, peppers, and a host of other healthy fruits and vegetables along with chicken, fish, eggs, and cheese.

We live in a place where there is a remarkable bounty of food at affordable costs, a luxury that few other countries in the world enjoy. On a recent journey to England I realized that so many things that we take for granted were unavailable in the grocery stores where we shopped. The same was true in Austria and Canada. Our country’s proximity to Central and South America provides us with an almost endless supply of lovely produce. Our own farmers grow the rest.

I have heard of visitors from other countries marveling at our supermarkets. The variety of items that they hold almost overwhelms them. We had a German friend whose mom always wanted to spend time walking the aisles of Randall’s, Kroger, and HEB whenever she came to town. She was like a kid in a candy store.

Sadly there are still those even in this country who don’t have enough income to fill their larders. Like my mother and my grandmother they have to make do and hope that their dollars will stretch far enough to keep everyone fed until the next payday arrives. Sadly they don’t always possess the knowledge about food like my mom did or how to keep things healthy without breaking the bank. They don’t own their homes like my grandparents or have a cow. Nobody has taught them about budgets or nutrition or even how to cook and that is a travesty.

We spend a great deal of time in classrooms teaching our children about things that are interesting but not necessarily useful. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we educate our young. They need lessons in budgeting, shopping for healthy items and learning ways to prepare meals inexpensively. There really is a kind of science to running a healthy kitchen that fewer and fewer people understand. I think that a bit of practical knowledge would not only be well received by students but might also change their lives. We should not take for granted that such things just come naturally.

It would be wonderful if everyone had access to a refrigerator filled with the cornucopia of the one in Goodbye Columbus but since that will probably never happen maybe it’s time we at least gave everyone some guidance as to how to live better with what they have. My mom and my grandmother would have been in the one lowest economic levels but somehow they had the wherewithal to make their meager incomes work. Let’s teach everyone how to do that rather than just assuming that they will figure it out on their own.