09 September, 2013

Draft for Item #6: Photograph Important to Me. . .

When most of you are 60 years of age, you will have far more pictures to review than I have simply because your all are constantly taking pics: if your doubt this assertion, simply look at this ad for an iPhone:

Think of the thousands and thousands of digital pictures you will have to survey for a task such as this one.

However, I am from the non-digital generation. For many, many years, I depended on 35 mm film which took time to develop and house in cardboard boxes or photo albums or scrapbooks. So it took me some time to find a photo that was important to me. Here is the one I selected from the far fewer I have to go through than you ever will:

This is the picture I selected. It is important to me in ways that may be difficult to articulate, but I will try. 

Let me explain the context first: this photo was taken of my wife and myself at Disney World in Orlando in December 2005. My wife had been saying for years we needed to take the girls to Disney and circumstances came together in early fall for this pre-Christmas trip for five of us.  

This particular picture was taken on our second night at Disney. The picture was taken in the area where there were old store-fronts and Christmas lights--millions and millions of them--were strung everywhere. As we came into this area, mock snow was falling and the loudspeakers were playing a mock radio show of Christmas tunes. At the very point  we were asking one of our daughters to snap this picture of us, Johnny Mathis' song, "The Christmas Song," started playing over the loudspeakers. I hugged my wife, kissed her deeply, told her I loved her, and this picture was made.

Keep in mind that this picture is really important to me: I have used this picture in this blog, and I have used it as my desktop picture every winter from 2005. So I hope this convinces you of its importance to me. But now I need to explain why this importance is a fact for me.

I believe one reason this picture is important is that song I posted for you above. Johnny Mathis--both in general--and specifically with this song--reminds me of Christmas, home, love, and all those others values we associate with that "special time of year." I believe I make this association with Mathis because my mom was a huge Mathis fan. She would play his Merry Christmas (1958) album continuously from Thanksgiving until New Year's. I vividly recall those time when the four of us: mom, dad, my younger brother and I would gather in the living room, play canasta, and listen to Johnny Mathis. 

My mom died of cancer in 1980 when she was only 53 years old. This song and the memories of her live on in me and this picture of my wife and myself bring these memories of my mom rushing back.

Another reason this picture of my wife and I speaks to me is that I believe it was the end of my youngest two daughters' childhood. Marissa and Natalie are 14 months apart ("Irish Twins" the fortune teller at the Renaissance Fair told my wife). And this trip to Disney was really the last time they were "with us." We have had family vacations since 2005, but nothing was as memorable for them or for their mother and me as this trip. I attempted to replicate this time in 2006: I got a great deal online for us to go back to Disney the very next year and about the same time. However, my youngest two daughters were now a year older and they were distraught about missing a band concert in middle school. This picture brings to bear that bittersweet time of their youth giving way to their maturity. That fact explains the significance of this picture.

A last reason that comes to mind about this picture's importance is the flip-side of the previous one about my daughters: tho' I love my daughters and wish them joy and happiness in their lives, I am married to the woman beside me in this photo. We had a life before our daughters and I am eager for us to return to that life together. This picture--with all of its bitter sweetness of memory--offers something else: a promise of the future for just my wife and me. I long for time when we don't have to worry about band, when we have Friday nights just for us, when we can go on vacation and just sit on the beach together and watch the tide rushing in and pulling out. For the last 18 years, my wife and I have had the girls as a significant priority in our lives, but this picture promises a day for just the two of us and I cannot wait!

So: here is my picture and the reasons it is so important to me. There may be more reasons and I may edit this piece somewhere down the road as this reasons come into my consciousness. But at this point, I believe I have made my case and challenge those of you with children: don't you yearn for a day when you are truly free, too?

01 February, 2013

My Class Responds: Today's College Students

I am teaching a course called "Transfer Readiness" this spring.  A standard task I have asked students to consider is to look at things such as
After looking at this three things, I put my class in teams, and tell them: create you own video that has the faculty at the university to which you plan to transfer as your audience. I give them a week and they bring the videos to class and share them.  Here are the videos from this Spring 2013 class:

06 December, 2012

"Why Am I Here?"

On 6 December 2012, Traci Crisco from the Adult High School/GED area of the Davie Campus asked me to visit her students and talk.  I have visited with Traci and her students many times and am always eager to visit with her, so I arrived and planned a few activities for the students. One of the first things I did was create a wiki (click here to see the wiki) and asked the students to ask me any question and that I would answer their questions at the wiki. However, one of the first questions I saw was this one: "What are you here for?" This blog entry is my initial reflection on the nature of this question--"Why am I here?"

 My first response to this question had to do with the multiple ways I could read this seemingly simply "What are you here for?" I could read it directly, e.g. "Why are your visiting us today?" Or, I could read it as a little more pointed: : "What the hell are you here for?" I also could read it philosophically: "Why are you here on this planet?" or I could have read it ironically: "Yeah--why are you here?" I believe that part of the reason of my "being here" is answered with this brief reflection on ways to read the question: I love language and the potential nuances language carries. So this first reflection is part of my answer.

 I have to concede that another reason "I am here" was to do with my parents. My dad was a veteran of WW II

Arnold Lester Branson circa 1941

He had been a POW of the Germans for about nine months (early September 1944 until May 1945), returned from combat, married my mom, and went to work with Western Electric making telephones.  He had what was called a "piece rate." This term means that he could potentially earn extra money if he exceeded his base rate. By 1953, because he had meet and exceeded his piece rate, I was born.  Thus, another answer to the "why am I here" traces to my parents and their lives and the choicest they made.

Another aspect of this question--certainly appertaining to my visit to Davie--is what I wanted to accomplish with the students that day.  I listed three things on my Prezi that were my goals for that class time:
  • You may choose to read more
  • You can demonstrate that you better understand the reasons for reading
  • You may be able to demonstrate some fundamental critical thinking skills
I believe I accomplished these goals and here is the evidence: I have invited several students to join my wiki, which will guide them to read (and I hope write) more. I asked them several questions--from naming movie allusions from a comic strip to reasons why Scrooge gave the Cratchit family a turkey for Christmas (think about it: turkeys are indigenous to the New World and it had to be expensive to offer a turkey as a gift in the 1840s).  Students eagerly engaged in the responses and I believe both have deeper understanding of reading and were able to demonstrate some critical thinking.  As one faculty member noted as I was getting ready to leave: "[The presentation] made them think."

Since I do have my PhD, I also have to reflect a bit on the "deep" reading of the question: "Why am I here?"  I believe I am a teacher because I simply have the genes.  Where they came from, I do not a clue. But I do recall helping my neighbor with US history--the neighbor was in high school and I was in junior high.  I was able to guide his thinking way back in the mid-1960s and I vividly recall his mother commenting on how I was going to be a teacher.

I believe I am at a community college because of my passion for teaching, my commitment to students, and my general optimism about the future. Our young people are our future. And I compelled to have a hand in that future thru guiding students today.

I need to take a break now and get back to the wiki--but this piece is my first run at the question: "Why am I here."

29 October, 2012

Reflection: Curt Cobain and Sir Ken Robinson Speaking Truth

If you have seen my Moodle website--or about any educational web I have posted since the mid-1990s--you have seen this epigram from Kurt Cobain's "Smells like Teen Spirit": "Here we are entertain us." When I heard this lyric in the early 1990s this line resonated with me in terms of my career as a college teacher and my growing awareness that today's students are different from me when I was in school.

Students from the mid-1990s up thru today are clearly not me:
  • These students are digital natives--I am, at best, an early "digital immigrant."
  • These students are bombarded with information coming from numerous personal devices all at the same time.
  • These students have access to multimedia beyond my keening: at least 100 TV channels; their own mix of music--not what is released in the album or CD; their own movies thru multiple access points--Hulu, Netflix, YouTube. When I was their age, I had access to three TV channels, vinyl albums that I could not take with me, and movies only at two or three theaters where I had to pay to enter!
  • These students are collaborators and inter-dependent. My experience was simple: I was in it alone and had to be independent.
  • These students are capable to unimaginable creativity; my generation learned quickly how to play the game and to develop the survival skills within the game to be "successful."
  • Education--for my students--is not only a right--it is an entitlement; for me, education was something I had to have for my path out of the blue collar life of my father's and grandfather's.
In mind, Kurt Cobain's pithy, "Here were are, entertain us," seemed to coalesce all of these differences and I worked hard to, indeed, "entertain."  However, I misread Cobain's lyrics and it took Sir Ken Robinson to show me how he and Cobain are really speaking about the same thing--not just entertainment, but the theatrical relationship actors and audiences have.

Below is Sir. Ken Robinson's video that enlightened me:

Robinson begins this excerpt with his reflections on Peter Brooks and theater.  He reduces all of theater to two key elements: an actor and the audience and the relationship between these two.  He goes on to add that education is similar to Brooks' construct in that all education is reducible to a learner and a teacher. He expands this comment to the notion of "back to basics": if we as a culture were serious about "back to basics," we would really focus on "teaching and learning"; however, in the politicized world of education today, "basics" means a return to focus on subjects--either academic or utilitarian and NOT to the irreducible aspect of "learner and teacher."

And at this point, I believe Robinson and Cobain are echoing one another: learning is about relationships between two people and, as a minimum, we need to assure that there is engagement on both sides: entertainment.

I know that many will think it strange that I have juxtaposed Kurt Cobain a depressive, early 1990s alternative rock star with Sir Ken Robinson, who has talked extensively about students and the changes required in education today. Yet, I am convinced that these two individuals do resonate with one another. If nothing else--consider the video setting of Cobain's, "Smells like Teen Spirit": he chooses a high school setting with cheer leaders and students!

Tho' some commentators tend to cast "Smells like Teen Spirit" as anarchical (certainly the logo is on the teen cheer leaders' tops), I think Cobain is challenging us just like Ken Robinson: we must change education before it is too late and chaos does ensue.  And certainly, I disagree with one commentator who asserts that one way to read the refrain is teenagers are"absorbed in the most passive form of entertainment ever invented, TV" (see the link by clicking here). I believe that our reactions to TV, movies,--video in general--is NOT passive and DOES entertain and engage just like Cobain and Robinson are "arguing."

Sir Ken Robinson is speaking from an enlightened "Baby Boomer" perspective (born 1950). Kurt Cobain was looking at education from his 1967 Gen Xer point of view.  Both are telling us education has lost its way.  Both are telling us the political "double speak" of "back to basics" is missing the point.  Both are telling us that the success in education is a simple equation: learner + teacher + entertain/engage = success (for everyone).

12 September, 2012

A Balancing Act: Where Do We Stand on Our Freedoms?

Wednesday morning's High Point Enterprise noted that a book was being debated by the Guilford County School Board. There is a list which promotes reading literature for students (an issue I will explore in another blog post) and a title on the list, The Handmaid's Tale, has stirred the ire of at least one parent and some members of the board.  The article points out that Catherine Barnette and other parents have "complained" about the novels "graphic sex scenes and violence." I have five daughters and confess there are something that I have shielded them from.  For example, I did not watch the classic 1982 film by David Lynch, Blue Velvet, with my oldest daughter until she was in college. But let's step back and consider: what are the reasons we may have as parents or teachers to have books available and what are the reasons for, essentially, banning books.

The most obvious reason supporting access to books comes the the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment guarantees NO action from the government can abridge the freedom of speech or of the press.  As we have seen with the advent of the Internet and the Arab Spring: information liberates people.  The framers of our Constitution wanted to make it abundantly clear that the role of government in the United States is to assure access to information, not prohibit access.

Teachers (and I would hope, parents) certainly have the role of encouraging critical thinking from our students.  One way to assure critical thinking is going on is to challenge the assumptions students bring with them to the classroom.  Sometimes, this challenge emerges from reading controversial material. The Handmaid's Tale certainly requires students to critically think about many issues:
  • What is the role of women in a post-women's movement world?
  • What is the relationship between men and women?
  • What is the role of religion?
  • How does religion shape our values about one another and about ourselves?
These are just a few questions I believe Atwood is exploring in this "fable." And these are important questions that certainly teenagers are wrestling with in high school.  What better environment for a discussion of these issues than in the safe environment of school and home?

Another reason for allowing access to information is simple: try to hide it and teenagers, specifically, and others, in general, will want this "prohibited" information even more. I bought a privately published edition of D. H. Lawrence's controversial novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, many years ago.  The reason it was "privately" published was that the novel was considered "obscene" by some American perspectives in the 1920s. Yet the book still made its way to our shores and subsequent court decisions upheld the legitimacy of this work. The bottom line: tighter the attempt to control ideas, the more ideas get out into the world!

On the other hand, there are reason for curtailing access or "free speech."

Consider, for example, the Supreme Court's actions many, many years ago that a person cannot stand up in a theater and shout "FIRE!"  The curtailment of "speech" seemed reasonable to the Court simply because of the potential injury of those who panic. Ordinances have supported this decision across the land and we, by and large, live with this source of constraint on our speech.

Another issue, as a parent, has to do with my assessment of where my child is in her maturity to be able to process information.  As I referenced above, I "censored" access to Blue Velvet to my daughter: the language is raw, extremely raw; there are scenes of extreme violence; there are passing images of sexual behavior.  I just did not believe my daughters were capable of processing this film that I believe is one of the BEST ever made in the 1980s until they had more experience with the world.

Lastly, one possible reason for limiting access to information can be the standard established by the Supreme Court many years ago: that standard is defined by what is acceptable within the community.  Certainly, in large urban areas around the country, there are more things young people are exposed to simply walking the streets in contract to your people in more rural areas.  As parents and as a community, we have values that I believe we wish to uphold.  Thus the way to assure the values are perpetuated from one generation to the next is linked to what I allow my children to see or to read or to listen to.

Here is a case in point: an art faculty member took off points from a student's description of a religious painting because as the student described the work (a work which features Jesus as a significant element in the painting), the student would capitalize "His" (e.g. "to His left is the disciple. . . .").  The faculty member's goal is to show how the "real world" picks on issues--such as capitalization--and rejects those pieces of writing.  The student, on the other, working from her religious conviction, believed she had an obligation to capitalize "His" since it refers to Jesus, the Son of God--and religious names are always capitalized.

Ultimately, the Guildford County School Board's action was to do nothing.  The article reports that the board "did not challenge or change how the book got on the list." The interesting aspect for me--both as an educator and as a parent--is where we are, here in the 21st century, still wrestling with competing values: embracing and celebrating the freedoms we hold and assuring the our personal values are carried forth through our children and grandchildren.

Nivens,  David. "Board Debates Book List." The High Point Enterprise. 12 Sept. 2012, 1f. 

11 September, 2012

ENG videos: The Mindset for Davidson County Community College's Freshman Class

For some time now, I have asked my students to do a simple activity:

I show them the "Mindset of Beloit College" (both a couple of different videos and the lists from as far back as 2002).  I then organized them into groups of four or five, given each group a "Flip camera," and told them to come back in week with a video directed to the faculty here at DCCC about their "mindset."  They are free to show us individual, group, or generational perspectives.  Here are some from this year:

It Isn't Easy: Baby Boomers and a Snapshot of their World

Trivial Pursuit: Game for Boomers!
Professionally and personally I have been interested (some may say "obsessed") by generational differences for over 10 years.  My first experience was a professional development on Davidson County Community College's campus and I recall using generational metaphors to underscore differences in values and perspectives.  In March 2012, I co-presented with Jody Lawrence on generational differences and leadership succession planning in Philadelphia.

I share this background to illustrate my opening: I have a long history of looking at the four generations living and working together in the US today.  However, as a Baby Boomer (I was born in 1953), my focus in my speaking about generation differences has been to illustrate TO Baby Boomers the differences they are likely to encounter in Gen Xer's and ME's.  Since my audiences have primarily been "Boomers," I was able to gloss over our perspectives.  Now I believe is the time to explore for my ME audience who we "Baby Boomers" really are.

One way to understand "Baby Boomers" is the simple demography: this generation was born from returning veterans of WWII.  My dad was a POW in Germany and he returned in summer 1945.  He and my mom married in 1947 and I was born in 1953--which is the mid-range of this "boom."  My brother was born about 18 months late in December 1954.  My mother could not carry any more children and our "nuclear family" was in place.

There are others ways to understand "boomers." For example, we can understand them through their interests in popular culture (did you notice the card above?).  Television was becoming increasingly accessible into homes across the US throughout the 1950s.  Both the standard of living and the technology itself were drawing the parents and their children.  Early TV included the "nuclear family" shows: Ozzie and Harriett (1952-1966), Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963), and Father Knows Best (1954-1960). Each of these shows perpetuated a myth of the "standard" family of being a heterosexual couple with 2.5 children (the Andersons, for example, had three).  This myth about the American family still haunts us today even though the "nuclear family" never really existed in American culture.

Another aspect of TV and popular culture has to do with values.  Look, for example, at this opening clip from the Adventures of Superman (circa 1952):

The values of this Superman are clearly and proudly stated: "Truth, justice, and the American way" are the values proclaimed at the end of this opening.  Not only are these values openly stated, note that there is no doubt that these values exist "out in the world" and that  anyone can readily see and embrace these values.

Contrast this clear values statement and the location of these values "out in the world" with the values from this video by Five for Fighting, "It's Not Easy (Being Me)" which is a song from the TV series Smallville (2001-2011):

Notice the differences between these two depictions of the SAME character! Listen carefully: the speaker in the Five for Fighting song is clearly the iconic Superman, but his values are extremely different from the 1950s character.  He is "in silly red sheet" and he is "More than a bird. . . more than a plane/ More than a pretty face beside a train."  The imagery here--tho' it resonates with the 1950s Superman--is twisted to show both different values AND the location of those values.  

[NOTE: I am leaving this right now so you can see how I am approaching this topic.]

06 September, 2012

Writing: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly or How to Be Successful in College


I have to confess that I have always had a penchant for words, so it seems reasonable that writing would also be simple for me.  I was the weird kid in junior high who would come home from school and READ the dictionary.  So when I look back at my public school experiences in Forsyth County and when I assess where I am now, what are the things that I see the helped me and what would I either add or ask for  a "do-over."

The first "success" I have concerning my success in college and in writing I need to attribute to my parents: they made sure there were lots of books in the house as I was growing up.  My mom took me to the public  library and read voraciously in elementary school.  By the time I was in 7th grade, I was reading Gone with the Wind--all 600+ pages!  I saved my money from birthdays and from my first part time job (when I was 12 years old, I sold cantaloupes door to door and earned $12 for my efforts) and then bought books at the school's "book fair" ( I still have a few of these books on my shelf: Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Mysterious Island, Verne's sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). I continued reading throughout junior high and high school and have to point to this experience as critical to my effectiveness in writing.

The second "success" was that I studied.  I know this seems strange but you need to remember a couple of things: I did not have a TV in my bedroom until I was in high school and they TV only picked up three channels: ABC, CBS, and NBC. So TV did not distract me like it certainly does my daughters today.  Also, my parents were working class: my mom worked until I was born and my dad was a POW in Germany in WW II and he was insistent that develop the skills to be successful in college because, "by god," I was going and I'd better do well! I remember sitting in my room for hours, listening to the radio and pouring over my books.  This habit, I believe, had a profound impact on my college-life and beyond.

A third "success" in high school was being encouraged by my teachers to write.  I still have the journal my senior English teacher required us to keep.  I was drafted in my senior year to write a parody of Chaucer's "Prologue," using the students in the English class as the "pilgrims" and revealing something about them as individuals and their direction after high school.  I was asked to write research papers from eighth grade on, and in the nineth grade--even with my arm in a cast from my hand pass my elbow--I had to produce a library research paper. The support and encouragement of the faculty certainly contributed to my college success.

On the other hand, there are some things that I wished I'd had access to which, I believe, would have sky-rocketed my academic performance at college.

First, if I'd had access to the resources of today: OMG what could I have done!  We still had to go to the library, take our notecards, match them with bibliography cards, and read and take notes.  Very labor intensive!  If I could have been in my room, with internet access and a computer, my writing would have improved exponentially!

If I'd had the option, I would certainly NOT spend lots of time reviewing grammar which is how ever year started in public school as far back as I can remember.  We were drilled on subject verb agreement, pronoun agreement, spelling and vocabulary development, punctuation drills (I still believe a writer can live a fully successful life and NEVER use a semicolon), and on, and on, and on!  I was a native speaker of English! Why did I need all this drill (I have sense learned why this practice is still in play today, but that would be another blog for me to post)?  I believe that this grammar experience is certainly something I could have lived without.

Speaking of grammar: the third thing that I believe was a waste of my time was diagramming sentences!  I remember agonizing over the process in junior high and in high school.  Having all the lines going in the correct direction.  Having the modifies subsumed under the correct part of speech on the baseline.  Having the dotted lines connecting coordinate conjunctions, while having sloped line with subordinate conjunctions. I never could fathom why we had to do this activity, particularly when it did not preserve the inherent quality of the sentence!

William Faulkner said, "Read, Read, Read. Read everything-- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it."  I certainly read everything I could: the dictionary, GWTW, Frankenstein, every Perry Mason novel I could find, Ian Fleming, Leon Uris. . . . the list goes on and on. So this message would be to any one planning on college: read, read, read and you will find college writing and college in general more likely a success for you.