school ain’t your business

Comparing school with business is bad business.

There are huge differences between school and business:

  1. Learning is personal
  2. Learning is messy
  3. Learning is abstract

 

Learning Is Personal

One of the most chilling moments in The Godfather is when Michael reveals his talent for strategy and his cold objectivity when it comes to the political pros and cons of killing in revenge: “It’s not personal, Sonny, it’s strictly business.”

Education is the exact opposite. Learning isn’t business, Sonny. It’s personal.

Learning Is Messy

We need to preserve the humanity in education. Being human is sometimes messy. That’s not only OK, it’s beautiful. Our mistakes and our emotional subjectivity are sustainable advantages that create opportunities for understanding and growth.

The biggest mistake is to ignore our humanity and pretend school is like business. It’s not.

Business success is defined by static, objective outcomes that are easily measured. There are only so many ways to account for inventory, profits and losses, and they are all subject to forensic review and analysis.

Learning Is Abstract

Education is about dynamic, subjective processes that are abstract and ambiguous. For decades we have tried to validate and replicate instructional and assessment tools and techniques, but evaluating skill and intelligence — especially as they evolve — remains an elusive goal. We can tell what a respondent answers on a test, but we don’t know why.

You can evaluate a business by the bottom line. Most of what we call “learning” never shows up in the box score.

In Conclusion

Once upon a time, it made sense to “administer” schooling in a one-to-many broadcast of lectures, textbooks, and dittoed worksheets.

But today we have the tools to customize the learning experience. We can account for differences between learners and even differences within each individual learner over time.

Please pay attention, because our options have changed.

This may be monitored for training purposes.

No, I haven’t surrendered writing this post to AI — but I do think we’ve gotten used to some mechanized ways of thinking that focus on order and efficiency. I’d like to see more schools embrace the messy, lovely experience of human learning.

trigger warning (redacted)

I wrote a 1500+ word post for this week that was motivated by the news of the six-year-old who shot his teacher. It’s a good piece and I think you’ll like it. But it’s also edgy. My family depends on the consulting income I earn from schools and I can’t afford to get canceled this week. So here is my offer to you, dear reader: Ask and ye shall receive. If you’d like me to personally deliver a camera-ready draft of this week’s blog post to your Inbox, please email me: david [at] davidpreston [dot] net

If you’re feeling efficient or lazy, you can copy/paste this message:

Hi David, I’m super curious about this week’s blog post – please send me the draft! Your #1 fan, [your name here]

When I receive your message I will reply with a handcrafted draft of the post. Then you can tell me whether you think I made the right call. See you back here next week!

dp

new year’s resolution to finish what I star

I constantly look for new beginnings. Every culture has rituals and traditions for ending and beginning chapters, and I celebrate them all.

But we don’t really need a calendar reminder to be our better selves. Today* (*whatever day you’re reading this) is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself. Do that thing or practice that quality you always admired. Be that person. Start a habit. Stop a habit.

I grew up around people who made New Year’s Resolutions. The results were mixed. It turns out that setting and achieving goals can be a complicated thing for people who don’t take the process seriously. It’s actually not that hard. Stop listening to your inner chatter and put that drink back down.

Your success begins with the way you see the world. To learn more about the connection between vision science, cognitive research, and motivational psychology, check out Clearer Closer Better: How Successful People See the World by Emily Balcetis.

However you see things, I wish you a peaceful, prosperous, and personally rewarding 2023.

All the best,

David

 

writing is dead long live writting

Over the last few days I received notes from friends and colleagues expressing concern that ChatGPT will be the end of writing.

These are intelligent, caring people. I can’t imagine any of them ever outsourcing their expressions of thoughts and feelings to an AI Chat Bot. Each considered the issues and wrote to start a conversation with me. That’s the main reason I read their emails.

I want to reassure these fine folks, and you, dear reader, that ChatGPT will have about the same impact on writing as sex toys have on sex. It’s an interesting novelty and potentially a useful augmentation in some circumstances. It’s just not the same as the real thing.

Here are five reasons why:

  1. Writing supports connection.
  2. Imperf3ction is a brilliant teacher.
  3. The argument is not about the argument.
  4. School sucks.
  5. Communication skills grow from human needs.
  6. Utopian dystopia.

Reason 1. Writing supports connection.

As writers and readers we agree on shared meanings for basic units of currency, like the letters I’m using to construct the words in this sentence.

This agreement about language and meaning brings us together. It allows us to share the rest of our humanity through a medium that, when you think deeply about it, is nothing sort of magical. We write to understand and be understood.

The defining qualities of humanity are interdependence, a shared sense of imperfection, and the unifying power of story. These ideas are all write* (*right) their* (*there) in the very first words of our Constitution, the story we learn, and try to live by, and teach our children about our nation: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…

Take another look at the imperfections in that last paragraph. Not just the homonyms I included as dorky examples of human error, but at the capitalization in the text of the Constitution. The framers made a style choice to capitalize order and union for emphasis. No self-respecting (that’s a sentience joke, I’ll get to that topic later) AI software would do this, because there is no grammatical rule in the English language that supports or validates the practice. In fact, any English teacher would be well within their rights to ding a student for capitalizing common, abstract, uncountable nouns in the middle of a sentence.

However: that first line of the Constitution sets the tone for one of the most important, most highly regarded documents that human beings have ever produced. Apart from the howling freaks on the far right who make even less sense than English grammar rules, who would dare step up and mark down the Constitution?

rEason 2. Imp3rfection Is a Brilliant Teacher

I taught undergraduate and graduate communication studies, education, and management courses at UCLA for eleven years. Then I taught high school English for fifteen years. I taught nearly every English course in the California state curriculum for grades 9-12, from ELL to AP. My students wrote thousands of assignments, essays, blog posts, research papers, and related projects.

They were never perfect. Frequently students would write writting instead of writing, or use the wrong there, they’re, or their.

Each imperfection in a text is valuable information that offers insight. Some errors are manifestations of recognizable cognitive deficits, cultural misunderstandings of idioms, or gaps in secondary language acquisition. Every letter and punctuation mark reveals the author and provides a useful tool for evaluation, reflection, practice, and improvement.

Still, teaching writing does sometimes make you think twice about whether or not students should really use their own words.

Spoiler: They absolutely should, for the same reasons I occasionally invent a word, or split an infinitive, or start a sentence with and or but, or end with a preposition. Or throw in a dependent clause. But mostly because using our own words is a conversation starter that invites inquiry. If you see a mistake in this piece, or something you find curious, get curious and ask me about it. I found that conversation was the best way to expand and improve readers’ and authors’ thinking. Plus, the evaluative benefits of conversation obviate the concerns about AI. If I’ve spoken with a student even just a couple times, I can immediately tell when they are writing in their authentic voice. I can also tell when they are trying out unfamiliar words, and when they are plagiarizing.

(Sidebar: Imperfection is beautifully human, especially in the way it contributes to the suspense, tension, and even conflict that make stories worth following. Sports would be so dull without the potential tragedy of human error costing your team the big game.)

Writers of all ages teach us through their imperfections — and sometimes their perfect execution of imperfect intentions. Mark Twain’s use of the N word 200+ times in Huckleberry Finn is powerful evidence. But of what? That question is an opportunity to explore history, culture, economics, empathy, and so much more. A person’s writing — and occasionally writting — is a window into their understanding of ideas and the thought process through which they express themselves. You can learn a great deal about a person from their diction and syntax.

Besides, imperfections aren’t limited to textual examples. They include ethics and decision-making. You can also learn a lot about a person when they cheat, lie, or use an AI Chat Bot to produce an essay.

reAson 3. The Argument Is Not About the Argument

Let’s put this AI thing in historical context. We’ve been here before.

Oral historians didn’t like scrolls.

People who enjoyed scrolling (for real, a couple thousand years ago) didn’t like all that recto and verso funny business of the codex.

(“They said there would be no math!”) My seventh grade algebra teacher hated the calculator. She hated it even more when I did the assigned problems in my head without a calculator and STILL didn’t show my work.

Hunters and peckers don’t like the keyboard.

Fountain pen aficionados hate ballpoints.

Generations raised on encyclopedias don’t like Wikipedia.

The list goes on and on, and sometimes with good reason. A thing isn’t necessarily better just because it’s new or even more efficient and easier to use. For example, I type faster than I write. But the practice of handwriting develops memory, creativity, and capacity for mindfulness more effectively than tapping on a keyboard. You can probably identify some good reasons for all of the above arguments, if you’re inclined to look, just as you can find undigested berries in skunk poop. (I digress. More on stream of consciousness below.)

However, history teaches a valuable lesson about innovation. It’s not the thing itself that matters. Books didn’t ruin things for everyone who still wanted to remember stuff they were told or scroll through the written version. E-books didn’t ruin books. Calculators didn’t ruin math education, at least not all by themselves.

What we are really talking about here is the value of reading and writing in our culture, and the fact that many people feel that academic writing assignments are a steaming pile of time-consuming nonsense.

They are not entirely wrong.

reaSon 4. School Sucks

School requires adherence to state-approved curriculum that hasn’t changed much since the 19th century, when it was adopted to get white males into Harvard so they could enter the professions. I doubt that memorizing the quadratic formula and dissecting frogs on Taylor-esque Carnegie Unit schedules helped everyone back then, and I am certain that it doesn’t now.

One problem with school today is that students’ futures are not predictable. We have no idea what elementary school students will do for a living when they graduate high school or college, or what the economy — or the geopolitical landscape, or even our physical environment — will be like just a few years from now.

We should be curious about everything, including emerging technology like ChatGPT that invites us to question the roots of our practices.

However, with rare and wonderful exceptions, the institutional culture of school is not curious. It is hidebound and defensive. Be on the watch for people who use that classist, racist, and ugly phrase “academic rigor.” It’s a tell for dangerous self-preservationists who would destroy your child before admitting that the system that validated their existence never made any meritocratic sense in the first place.

School takes the most interesting parts of life and makes them so excruciatingly boring that children run as far as they can from learning and critical thinking. How else can we explain voting behavior, the popularity of fast food, or the fact that January 6 happened at all?

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Peter Drucker

Audrey Watters and others have chronicled school’s deranged use of technology in ways that do many wrong things more efficiently. Educators have misused everything from Alfred Binet’s test to laptop cameras. We should remember that this is a people problem, not a tool problem. As I pointed out in a TED talk I gave what feels like 738 years ago, a scalpel in the hand of a doctor can save a life, and the same sharp piece of metal in the hand of a criminal can take a life.

This is about context. People have created conditions in which some tools and practices (ChatGPT) are perceived as more attractive and useful than others (pencils and spiral notebooks).

School favors control. As journalist (read: writer) Glenn Greenwald put it, “Surveillance breeds conformity.”

The classroom is bad enough, but during the pandemic schools widely misused technology to spy on students at home. The results were predictably bad. Students with darker skin and students who don’t have the luxury of peace and quiet were punished by algorithmic bias.

Students wouldn’t feel a need to game the writing system in school if their teachers — in person or online — would simply get to know them well enough to recognize how they speak. Or engage them in conversation about their writing.

Demanding that young people write five-paragraph essays about ideas without much apparent value is a recipe for ensuring that no one wants to write. High school students experience essays as pain.

reasOn 5. Communication Skills Grow From Human Needs

AI doesn’t need anything. It is not sentient. It has no emotion, no sense of urgency.

We human beings do.

Writers write because they want something. They want to get an idea or a feeling out there where someone else can read it. They want their reader to … Know. Understand. Laugh. Get angry. DO SOMETHING!!!

Apart from our emotional needs to connect, we are practical, interdependent social animals. We need to share understanding in order to make transactions, collaborate, form social bonds, procreate, and do just about everything else in our daily lives.

The elements of interpersonal communication are the most important skills a person can develop. The more these elements must stand on their own, the more artful and specific they must be.

A written message doesn’t have the luxury of using facial expressions, tones of voice, or slamming the door as it leaves the room to create the effect its author intends.

Writing for understanding is difficult. When Montaigne coined the term “essay” to describe his attempts at capturing his thinking in writing, he commented that it was a “thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind.”

Let’s honor that. These skills require more than meets the eye. Reading is more than sounding out words. Phonics are literally meaningless without understanding. I’ve watched students who pronounce words quickly and flawlessly completely blank out when I asked them a simple question about what they’d just read. They were classified “highly proficient” on the test but they couldn’t tell a takeout menu from a ransom note.

Writing is more than putting sentences together.

Writing is a time machine that connects our inner world of thoughts and feelings.

ReasoN 6. Utopian Dystopia

We human beings put ideas together in ways that don’t always appear to make sense. Take this section’s title for example: Utopian Dystopia. The two words contradict one another — when we perceive the conflict created by the contradiction, we experience stress and a desire to change or solve something to relieve the inconsistency. In the 1950s, social psychologist Leon Festinger called this phenomenon cognitive dissonance.

Our capacities for imagination and irony empower us to construct narratives that transcend our day to day reality. This is a distinguishing characteristic of our species. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens, “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.”

There ain’t no AI that can create Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Or use abruptly use the word ain’t without warning in an attempt to create a colloquial, conversation tone that puts an arm around the reader and says, “C’mon, man, this shit is ridiculous. Let’s get something to eat.”

As non-Chat Bot creator of worlds Isaac Asimov put it, “Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s science fact.” William Gibson added, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.”

So some of us have AI. And some of us still value the humanity of the written word and the way it brings us together with our deepest selves and each other.

The extent to which people adopt this tool — just like any tool — will be a function of their purpose and their understanding of the norms, attitudes, and values in the systems where they operate.

As for me, I don’t see the point in escalating the cleverness around writing. I believe in trust and integrity. Maybe that means someone occasionally fools me. But I maintain that online plagiarism detectors are for suckers. When I wasn’t sure about something I read, I asked my students questions about what they wrote.

Same with canned assignments. Busy work leads to bad product. Leave book reports in 1979 where they belong. When I read stories and novels with my students, and I wanted them to connect the text with their ideas about authors’ themes, tones, and techniques, I asked my students human questions. I wanted to know whether they thought an author got up early to do yoga or stayed out late drinking. Once they’d formed opinions, I asked them to support their ideas with textual clues from what they’d read.

The results were inimitably human. My students wrote on many topics that computers cannot understand or articulate with any real depth or emotion: broken hearts, family violence, drug addiction. Performative utterances. (When a computer talks itself into killing its uncle for sleeping with its mother, I reserve the right to reconsider everything I’ve written here.)

AI can do many things. ChatGPT is an impressive technology. But can it be whimsical? Delightful? Unexpected? Wrong? Ironic? Sarcastic?

Can it do this?

circular thinking essay bradford smith

do or do not do. there is no essay.

Before the pandemic I asked 150 high school juniors in four separate classes to think of a word they associate with writing essays. After giving them a couple minutes to think, I stood at the board and wrote down the words they called out. Here are the lists:

As you can see, the students’ feelings about writing essays were overwhelmingly negative. 

I was struck by the patterns. “Stress” is on every list.  “Anger,” “crying,” and “dropout” showed up multiple times. I tried to imagine what writing must be like for the student who contributed “shaking.” Shaking

When I showed one of the lists to another teacher, he said, “What’s wrong with those students?”

It was a loaded question that made me reflect on the ways adults stereotype those lazy, complaining teenagers, and how teachers often rush to defend a system that rewarded them with degrees and jobs but doesn’t work the same for today’s students.

There is definitely something wrong here — but why assume it’s the students? Especially when four different classes of 36+ students answered in the exact same ways?

Writing as Trauma

In our culture, the person who names a problem risks being identified as the problem. Too often we blame the victim. An employee who points out a legitimate issue at work may be targeted for having a “bad attitude.” Even victims of rape and violence are forced to endure ridiculous questions and sometimes even direct accusations, as if they had anything at all to do with the horrible thing that was done to them. No wonder people are so often reluctant to come forward.

The students in these classes trusted me enough to be honest. My first response was gratitude. I thanked them. I acknowledged the courage it took for them to speak up. No one likes to admit that something is this awful, especially when they’ve been told repeatedly to get over themselves because it shouldn’t be a big deal and everyone else can do it and they should too.

My second response was to ask the students if, when they thought of the word “essay,” they were describing an experience that involved:

  • hard-to-understand instructions
  • to write a long thing
  • about a harder-to-understand text or idea
  • in a too-short time frame
  • to be returned with scrawled comments
  • like ‘need clearer thesis’ and ‘fix your conclusion’
  • and a letter grade
  • which made them feel badly
  • so they crumpled up the paper
  • and eventually lost it
  • wherever things go
  • after they escape
  • the bottom of the backpack.

The students became animated at this point in the conversation. In every class. They nodded and said, “Mmhmm. Yes. That’s exactly it.”

In that moment, the expressions on their faces were so open. Their eyes were wide. There was energy in the room. I get to know my students pretty well, but I was reminded that there is so much more to these young people than they usually show in class. You could tell they were surprised to hear their lived experience described so plainly and accurately by a teacher. One student even said, “Thank you for offering us some understanding.”

The Hawthorne Effect

As I watched the students take notes (i.e., as I watched the students write things down without being asked) I started thinking about the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Works was a big factory in Illinois where thousands of workers made telephone equipment and consumer products. In the 1920s, the company commissioned a study to learn about productivity.

During the study at The Hawthorne Works, every single change, like making the lights brighter or making the lights dimmer, seemed to increase employee productivity.  What kind of sense does that make? I get how making the lights brighter made productivity goes up — but then how did dimming the lights also make productivity go up?

The real insight wasn’t that productivity increased because of the actual changes that management made; it was that when management was sympathetic, willing to listen, and able to keep their promises, the employees put in more effort.

This is an excellent place to start in the classroom. Getting any kind of honest feedback depends on trust, and trust is earned. At this point in our culture, trust also has to be modeled, because many young people simply haven’t seen a working example in practice. 

TRUST Your Audience

I made it a practice to demonstrate trust on the first day of school. Every year, I gave students choices and invited them to decide how the course would run. Then I walked out of the classroom and closed the door behind me so they could talk freely.

First impressions are nice, but they are easy to create and trust takes time. Students saw me repeatedly honor my word. They watched me make mistakes and openly admit to each one. They observed me listen and help without getting frustrated with them.

These are some of the reasons why students trusted me when I asked an open-ended question about a touchy subject. After I recorded the first few contributions without judgement, they began contributing more openly and enthusiastically. This is no small thing. Outside of feeling self-conscious in class, students are often experiencing multiple levels of trauma of their own.

Trust YOUR AUDIENCE

According to studies published by the American Psychological Association, anxiety in our culture has increased so much in recent decades that “typical schoolchildren during the 1980’s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950’s.” One of the studies’ authors said the trend is likely to continue, and she linked anxiety to depression: “The results of the study suggest that cases of depression will continue to increase in the coming decades, as anxiety tends to predispose people to depression.”

Fast forward to present day. Students’ lives, experiences, and feelings are complicated and intense. Our bizarro culture now includes mass shootings and active shooter drills at school.  Students navigate a challenging maze of opportunity (which they have to find) and danger (which finds them). School is a game even the winners often don’t like playing. And the prize? Graduation (read: escape), followed by toxic student loans and other financial instruments dressed up and marketed as essential opportunities.

Still, the students show up. There they were, courageously expressing their feelings about writing essays. So I told them about Montaigne.

The O.G. Essayist

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne lived in France from 1533 to 1592. He worked as a government official and he was also a winegrower. Most importantly for us, Montaigne popularized a style of writing that changed the western world.

Instead of writing about his personal achievements or historical events, Montaigne wanted to express exactly what he thought and felt. Readers over the years have commented that reading Montaigne’s writing is like seeing their own thoughts and feelings in a mirror– they feel amazed that someone else seems to share inner experiences that they thought were unique to them and unknown to anyone else. 

In this way, Montaigne created a connection between writer and reader that continues to transcend space and time. Montaigne wanted to create value based on a shared understanding, a bond between the writer’s inner world and the reader’s inner world. This isn’t easy. Montaigne himself called it a “thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind.”

Try

The difficult things in life are often the most worthy of our effort. Once I made a sign and hung it front and center in a classroom: There is glory in the attempt.  I liked the idea because it emphasized the process over the result. 

I put the sign right next to Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” quote, which is still one of my all-time favorites.  These ideas motivate me. The people I respect most give a damn and try hard. 

Try, try, try just a little bit harder

Janis Joplin

I’ve learned a great deal about courage and motivation from people in many walks of life. Sometimes I’m struck by how these universal ideas transcend culture. Just recently I learned that Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Glory lies in the attempt to reach one’s goal and not in reaching it.”

Long before Gandhi or Roosevelt or Wayne Gretzky, when Shakespeare was only 8 years old and hadn’t yet imagined Hamlet or “To be or not to be,” Montaigne understood that you can’t win if you don’t play. No one will understand your mind or your heart if you don’t consider and express them carefully in words that you write to the best of your ability. Trying is everything. 

Montaigne really wanted to try and make sense out of his thinking in a way that readers could understand.  That’s why he called his book by the French word that means attempt or try. The French word for attempt is…  Essay.  (Also spelled “essaye” or “essai” in Middle French.)

“Think about this,” I said to the students.  “Whenever you’re trying to get your parents or your boyfriend or your manager to understand you– every one of those moments is an Essay.  So really, when we write an essay, all we’re trying to do is make sure the reader understands us.”

Peace Love & Understanding

Which is really a gift.  We are so well-trained to write for a grade, or to get people off our backs, or to be louder or clearer or [whatever] because we’re used to feeling frustrated when people don’t understand us, that it’s easy to forget that people WANT to know what we’re thinking.

Writing an essay the way Montaigne intended it, as an attempt to create understanding between writer and reader, is a win-win.  The reader feels good when an idea or a feeling contributes to her experience, and the writer feels good when she knows something she wrote got through and made a positive difference.

Students began to respond as I described these ideas. One of them said out loud, “OK.  I’ll try.”  (I loved that.  Without knowing it in the moment, what he said was, “OK. I’ll essay.”)

However satisfying that moment may seem, it wasn’t enough.  I flashed on what Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back:

Montaigne didn’t try to write. He wrote. All in, he wrote 107 essays, on subjects ranging from death to women to politics to whatever else ran through his mind. Although psychologists and authors wouldn’t know what to call it for another 300 years, Montaigne developed a style that has become known as “stream of consciousness.”

Stream Your Consciousness

The task before us is clear.  Our job is to connect.  Our job is to understand others and, in turn, to make ourselves understood. To do that, we must heal whatever trauma we associate with the idea of writing an essay — because now we understand that’s not at all what Montaigne had in mind or what school should be doing to us in the first place.

One of Montaigne’s essays was entitled, “Of the Education of Children” and he ended it by writing:

To return to my subject, there is nothing like alluring the appetite and affections; otherwise you make nothing but so many asses laden with books; by dint of the lash, you give them their pocketful of learning to keep; whereas, to do well you should not only lodge it with them, but make them espouse it. 

Montaigne believed that we learn best when we love what we do.  When we can choose how to direct our curiosity, our passion, and our effort.

We may not be perfect.  We may not even succeed in making ourselves understood.  But in honor of our deep needs for connection and mutual understanding, and in the tradition of Montaigne and the millions of writers (from famous pros to Instagram weirdos) who have attempted to share their thoughts and feelings with us, we must practice in order to become better.  We must write.

In the End

It’s time to heal and forgive the past.  We have reclaimed the essay and our power to define what it isn’t, and what it is. The essay is not a five-paragraph insult to our intelligence or a cynical exercise in getting a grade. The essay is our attempt to participate in the grand human conversation, one paragraph at a time. It will be messy, and it will be beautiful, and ultimately it will be ours. There is glory in the essay. I look forward to reading yours. In the meantime, thank you, dear reader, for spending some time thinking about this one.

The OSL Making of an Ironman


The meaning of life is to give life meaning.

Viktor Frankl

Everything I do means something to me. At 3:45 on Sunday morning I pulled into the parking lot of the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens and I did something I’d never done before.

I wrote a prayer. I wasn’t asking for anything, I just had a strong, clear sense of gratitude and I wanted to remember it word for word.

None of us really does anything alone, but in today’s world it’s easy to feel alone. That’s why I included Civic Fitness (how we operate in the context of social systems) and Spiritual Fitness (how we operate in larger contexts that we can’t always observe or understand) in Open-Source Learning. Orienting ourselves in the big picture is a skill for which there is no GPS, no sign that says, “you are here.” Like any skill, being part of something bigger than yourself takes practice.

So, in that moment, I took a deep breath and quietly remembered everyone and everything that brought me to that moment in my life. I do this from time to time, especially when I’m about to embark on something big.

Here is what I wrote:

Then I turned off my phone, got out of the car, and spent the day completing my first Ironman triathlon. I swam 1.2 miles. I bicycled 56 miles. I ran 13.1 miles – half the distance of a marathon.

On the surface, my preparation for this event began in June, when I started my training calendar.

ironman-training-calendar-2022

 

Or did it start back in May, when my neighbor started making noises about doing something bold to inspire himself to get into better shape?

The truth is, I’ve been training for this my whole life.

THE HAND I WAS DEALT

I was sick as a kid.

As an infant I had scarlet fever, asthma attacks, and allergies to everything from dust to pollen to a surprise, severe reaction to Penicillin. I was even allergic to citric acid. When my family got pizza for dinner I couldn’t eat the tomato sauce so they passed me the crusts. I learned early that tomorrow, and pepperoni, is promised to no one.

In elementary school, my best friend Preston (!) had a slumber party for his birthday four years in a row. But Preston also had a cat. I was so allergic that I couldn’t breathe in his house.

I went to the doctor every day after school for an allergy shot. Eventually I got to mow the lawn, but I am still allergic to cats, and I never did get to go to Preston’s parties. Four years in a row.

When I got asthma attacks at night my mom would shove me out the back door so the cold air would shock me into breathing. She did this out of love and it did the trick. When it didn’t we went to the ER for breathing treatments.

I had to sit in the front row of the school bus because less pollen blew in the front window.

During the smoggy 1970s in Los Angeles I spent recess in the office, listening to my friends outside on the playground.

I’m not complaining. This is just how it was.

But I was a kid, and when you’re a kid these things matter. I got frustrated. Eventually I got angry.

THE BET I MADE

People respond to life’s circumstances in different ways. I steer into the skid.

I responded to my physical limitations by doubling down. I pushed myself harder to participate in sports. Sometimes I succeeded, like when I made the soccer all-star team, led the baseball league in home runs, or became a lifeguard. Other times I failed or got hurt.

Back then I didn’t know about stoicism.

What stands in the way becomes the way.

Marcus Aurelius

But the ups and downs definitely seemed related.

My mom, my teachers, and even some of my friends thought I was too intense, too serious, too hard-boiled. They weren’t necessarily wrong.

I broke my back on the soccer field when I was 12. My mom saw me limping and yelled at the coach to pull me out of the game because she saw that I wanted to keep playing. When we got to the hospital, the doctor told me that if I’d stayed in, and my vertebra had slipped another couple millimeters, I would’ve been paralyzed from the waist down.

I got off with a lesser sentence and had to wear a hard back brace for a couple months. I felt like a turtle. Kids teased me. That came to an end when I stepped to the school bully and dared him to punch me in the stomach, which he did, breaking his wrist.

Three years later I sent a letter to Cleveland High School basketball coach Bobby Braswell, who had “a reputation as being a tough coach,” telling him I intended to join his city-championship team.

What a sight I must have been. The scrawny white nerd running the stairs and lifting weights and suffering through conditioning with hood rats and future NCAA and NBA players. Those were the days before dehydration and concussions were a thing. We practiced for weeks without seeing a basketball. Sprints, drills, and stairs in the late summer San Fernando Valley heat. More sprints. If you threw up or passed out, you were cut. After a month of conditioning I was exhausted. My mom had to talk me into taking my uniform to school one last day before I quit. That was the day the roster came out. My name was on it.

OVER THE YEARS

My great grandfather survived the Holocaust and got his daughters out of Germany. He loved paying taxes because (a) he loved being American, and (b) it meant he had enough money to pay taxes. He said things like, “If you don’t have shoes, be glad you have feet.”

I wish my Opa could see how I took on challenges that made me stronger, how I drew inspiration from my ancestors and my mentors, and how I try to use everything in my own experience to help others.

My heroes have always been people who overcome adversity and obstacles. Ten days before my tenth birthday the Pittsburgh Steelers played the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV. Everyone was amped up about the star players and the Steelers winning their fourth championship. I didn’t care about any of that. I watched the players who proved everyone wrong just by showing up: Pittsburgh’s Rocky Bleier, who made it back to football after getting blown up in Vietnam, and LA’s Jack Youngblood, who played the game with a broken leg.

I began to understand that my life is defined by the way I respond to it. My freshman year at UCLA I was bringing the ball up the Dykstra Hall court at full speed when I planted my foot to change directions, caught my toe in the cracked asphalt, and my foot stayed straight while the rest of me turned 90 degrees to the right. I shattered all the bones and ligaments in my left knee. Everyone froze: the sound echoed off the dorm building like a rifle shot. I got up slowly and limped what was left of my ACL to the medical center. Two hours later I reported for my graveyard shift as a security guard in a full leg brace. A few weeks later I had the first of 11 knee surgeries.

In my twenties I spent the night at my parents’ house in Northridge when the earth quaked and the walls of my childhood bedroom collapsed on me. The epidurals and back surgery came later. The months of healing.

The week after I was cleared to get back to life, I was sitting in the back seat of my parents’ Oldsmobile on our way to celebrate with a rare dinner out. My Dad slowed for a red light. There was a loud crash, broken glass everywhere, and I was suddenly doubled over, my head folded into my lap by the heavy, hairy stench of alcohol. A drunk Harley rider had failed to stop, rear-ended us, and launched himself through the back windshield onto my shoulders. The police later reported that his Blood Alcohol Content was three times the legal limit. They estimated his speed on impact at 45 mph.

in my thirties I was surfing Old Man’s in San Clemente when an actual old man barged into my wave and sliced my head open with the fin of his board.

Whatever. The list goes on. Saving my then four-year-old daughter on a ski lift and tearing up my shoulder for the first of three rotator cuff repairs. Food poisoning. A lousy first marriage and a bunch of other crap that happens to everyone and isn’t worth mentioning.

TOMORROW IS PROMISED TO NO ONE

I am painfully aware that everyone has a list like this, and everyone – maybe even you too – has very good reasons to be disappointed, or angry, or sad.

But the thing is, the universe doesn’t care. It doesn’t owe us a thing. I’ve found a tremendous amount of freedom and power in realizing that I get out of this life exactly what I put in. Nothing more, nothing less. I wanted more. So I started putting in more.

People know about Open-Source Learning, and Academy of One, but it’s the before and after hours stuff I’m talking about here.

20 years ago I signed up for the Arthitis Foundation’s weeklong bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Then I went out and bought a bike.

In 2004 and 2005 I ran the Los Angeles Marathon with sixth graders from Haddon Avenue Elementary in Pacoima.

In 2009 I ran the Big Sur Marathon just before my daughter was born, even though I was getting over pneumonia.

In 2020 I walked into Bobby Maximus’ gym.

TODAY I AM AN IRONMAN

I’m a month shy of 53 years old. I wear glasses and it’s been a long time since I could slam dunk a basketball.

When my neighbor first mentioned the Ironman, it seemed like a lofty, intimidating goal. I get what he was doing, trying to puff himself up like Hamlet getting the nerve to kill his uncle. Big talk can pay off. That is why I took it on and told people what I planned to do. I wanted to be accountable. I wanted to push myself to the next level.

And that’s exactly what I did over the next five months. I trained. Week in, week out. I did the work. My neighbor was suddenly nowhere to be found. It didn’t matter. I put in the miles. I did practice triathlons in Malibu and San Diego.

I met some truly amazing people along the way who I am now both proud and humbled to call my friends. I’ll introduce some of them here in future posts.

In the end, I did it. I earned the right to put my arm around that sick kid, that injured, surgically-repaired youth, that battle-scarred, caring man who worries about the world, and say with integrity: “You got this. You are an Ironman.

Thanks for reading. Whatever you’ve got on your plate in life, I hope you pick something rewarding, something meaningful, and get after it. Put in the work. Suffer for it. It will pay you back. I promise.

“I never learned to read!”

About 15 years ago one of my brightest, most articulate students told me that she hated to read. I was shocked. She went on to describe reading as a painful chore she associated with school, something she was forced to do on threat of punishment. I looked at the assignments and assessments through her eyes and I saw her point. So I decided to change things up. I invented different ways to assess reading skills. Recently I sat with some students who somehow managed to make it nearly all the way through high school without learning to read – or even caring whether they learned to read – so I’m bringing this one back. Please feel free to share it with the learners and readers in your life, and try it yourself! dp

This was originally published on a high school English course blog, long before the pandemic and the shitgibbon…

You know, as much as we talk about reading, it’s easy to overlook the fact that some of us didn’t grow up with books and occasionally have a hard time with the basics.

Consider poor Wayne:

So, how do you know how well you can sound out words and get through a text without mistakes?

Here’s how:

1. Watch the video below;
2. Get a copy of Fox in Sox by Dr. Seuss;
3. Set up a phone or a camera (or get a friend to help);
4. Read the book as fast and as well as you can;
5. Record your time and the number of mistakes you make;
6. Compare your numbers with mine.  Don’t forget to count my mistakes–I just learned that I’ve been mispronouncing the author’s name my whole life!
7. Post your video and your stats on your blog under the heading I CAN READ!

UPDATE

In reply to questions from the email bag…

  • If you’re having trouble finding the book, here is the text without the pics.
  • My reading was a one-take job, but yours doesn’t have to be. You can practice all you want before posting your best effort.
  • To earn course credit you must publish your post (title: I CAN READ!) by 11:59 P.M. on [date]. Bonus for additional renditions with friends/relatives 🙂

thank you

The Thanksgiving holiday has a troubled history that remains our troubled present. Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation was a patriarchal, overtly religious, plagiarized lie intended to distract Americans from genocide, slavery, and race rioting.

Here we are, 159 years later, still dealing with some of the very same issues.

Today I am putting all that aside to make room for gratitude. I want to celebrate Thanksgiving just because I love feeling thankful.

When I taught high school English, I would end every year’s blog with a post that said something like this:

As I think about it, I want to thank you right now. Seriously. Thank you. You could be doing anything in this moment. I appreciate your giving me the chance to share a couple thoughts with you.

A Useful Reminder

In 2018 I was invited to speak at the MIT Media Lab. The talk was scheduled for the week before my wife and I got married. We made the trip into a prenup honeymoon. It was awesome. We ate clam chowder, visited all the famous historical sites, and saw the Red Sox play the Yankees in Fenway Park.

But just a few minutes after we got to Fenway, the skies opened and the rain poured down. I paid good money for field level seats down the first base line. This was a one-time shot and I worried that the game might be rained out.

Everyone left their seats for the cover of the concourse. Thousands of mostly good-natured, smart-ass fans of both teams crammed in, soggy shoulder to soggy shoulder, and drank beer and ripped each other for wearing the wrong hat and speaking with the wrong accent.

What a night for Open-Source Learning. There are about 417 colleges in the Boston area, so there is a good chance that your bartender and cabby both have advanced degrees. In that moment, everyone was a meteorologist. The truck driver next to me taught me about the doppler algorithms that derive temporal and spatial trends in visualizing precipitation. I shit you not.

My friend Rocco texted me from the North End bar where he works the door: “Give it about 17 minutes. And bring lots of napkins back to your seats because you’ll be sitting in 1/4″ of water.”

17 minutes. On the NOSE. I still don’t know how Rocco did it. But there we were, back in our seats, watching the grounds crew take the tarp off the field. It was glorious.

And then the 20-something kid in front of me says to his date, “I don’t get why I should be thankful about anything.”

Are you kidding me? In this world, you can’t find a reason to be thankful? This marvelous world of baseball and algorithmic storm technology porn? This world, where an epic downpour delays the game for only 17 minutes?!? That is just sad. I winced and thought of former UCLA Speech and Debate Coach Tom Miller, the way he’d scrunch his eyes closed, wrinkle his nose, and – just before completely obliterating your argument – say, “I can give you 263 reasons. Here are 5.”

I can give you 263+ reasons to be thankful. Here are 5.

5 Reasons to Be Thankful

  1. Grateful people feel better. A 2012 study by Hill, Allemand, and Roberts indicates that grateful people report taking better care of their health and feeling fewer aches and pains.
  2. Gratitude can help you get a good night’s sleep. Writing for 15 minutes in a gratitude journal before bedtime can help you sleep longer and better, according to research conducted by Digdon and Koble in 2011.
  3. Gratitude helps us overcome trauma. In a survey of 350 people who had lost their parents, 79% of respondents associated increased gratitude with lower depression, greater appreciation for loved ones, and an overall newfound belief that life is precious. Other studies have associated gratitude with lower rates of PTSD in Vietnam War veterans and improved resilience in coping with the aftermath of 9/11.
  4. Gratitude increases self-esteem. Do you know any really jealous, resentful people who are truly grateful? Not likely. Gratitude makes us more likely to appreciate other people’s successes – and feel better about ourselves as a result, because we’re not obsessing over what they have that we don’t. A 2014 study in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology shows that grateful athletes have better self-esteem.
  5. Expressing gratitude can make you friends. According to Williams and Bartlett (2015), “Recipients of expressions of gratitude were more likely to extend the effort to continue the relationship” with people they’d just met, because expressions of gratitude are associated with warmth, friendliness, and thoughtfulness.
  6. (Bonus!) Gratitude makes us more receptive learners. According to my admittedly informal lifetime of classroom and interpersonal observations, when people are excited about receiving, they get more out of the gift.

Happy Thanksgiving. Every day.

the right tool for the job

I originally wrote this 10+ years ago on a course blog for high school students – it applies now more than ever. -dp

______________________________

In the words of Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher whose work influenced prominent writers and thinkers from Charles Dickens to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Man is a tool-using animal. Without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.

It’s easy to mistake the use of the internet in learning as a simple way to make the same ol’ same ol’ seem a little more entertaining. What we’re doing now goes way beyond that. Today you have the ability to use multiple media in ways that most effectively communicate your ideas and your sense of self.  As you select from a rapidly expanding online toolbox, keep in mind that every tool we use has a form, a function, a capacity to be interpreted (and sometimes hacked) by users, and even a “DNA” instilled by its creators that influences the way it’s perceived and adopted.

Technology doesn’t necessarily mean electronics. If you ask any serious writer, s/he will tell you that the action on a keyboard, the balance of a pen, or the texture of paper can make just as much difference as processing speed. If you ask a musician or a craftsperson or a mechanic, buckle up and enjoy the ride, because you’re going to be there a while.

Nothing does the job like a simple, classic, well-made tool.  Here is a picture of me holding a 2 million year-old Acheulean Paleolithic bifacial hand axe— the longest used tool in human history.  It fit my hand perfectly, right down to the indentations for thumb and fingers, like it was custom-made for me– an especially rare experience for a lefty.

Apart from the perfect feel/form/function, there is something about an enduring classic that doesn’t hold true for the phone you buy today that will be non-state-of-the-art in a few months.  This is about more than craft, art, or even quality: this sort of attention to detail is the product of loving care.  It’s the difference between home-cooked and store-bought.  For real practitioners of anything worthwhile, tools aren’t just about techne, they are extensions of our humanity.  Ask anyone who plays their music on a turntable, develops their own photographs, or sends handwritten letters.

And if the last few paragraphs didn’t convince you to re-examine the tools you use and why, maybe a 39-second commercial is the right tool for the persuasive job: