Monday, November 14, 2016

The power of a question.

As I struggle this week to understand what could drive anyone to cast their vote for someone whose words and deeds I find so utterly toxic and dangerous, I have found this interview (conducted shortly before the election) with Kathy Cramer, a political scientist and author of The Politics of Resentment extremely illuminating:

Cramer conducted hours of interviews with rural voters in Wisconsin and what she found goes a long way toward explaining the results on Tuesday. It’s a nuanced and compelling argument that I won’t try to explain here (read the interview or, better yet, read her book). What it drove home for me, though, is that, no matter how well-intentioned, the tactics currently employed by those of us committed to challenging injustice, questioning privilege and empowering all people are only working to further alienate the people in Wisconsin Cramer interviewed. Something simply isn’t working and it’s not because most people in rural Wisconsin (or North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, or Florida or California) are racist.

I’m reminded of a story in The Children, David Halberstam’s account of the Nashville Student Movement of the 1960s:

At a lunch counter sit-in in Tennessee, James Lawson (by Halberstam’s account, a relatively unsung hero of the era) faces off with a white counter-protestor, who spits in his face. In response, Lawson quietly and calmly asks the man if he can borrow the man's bandana to wipe his face. Stunned, the man grants his request and soon finds himself in a pleasant conversation with Lawson about his love of motorcycles. 

Two things stand out to me about this account. First, Lawson was not passive in his response to injustice — he was actively engaged in civil disobedience aimed at dismantling the repressive and violent system of segregation. But the second thing that strikes me is that he was able to diffuse a potentially violent confrontation, not by telling the man that what he was doing wrong but by asking him a question, a question that reminded the man of his own capacity for kindness and generosity.

As an educator and a parent, I consciously and deliberately try to avoid the use of shame as a means of addressing  behavior. I say try because I’m sure that I’ve probably failed at this in both arenas numerous times. But I try very hard because everyone has that memory of a time when they were called out and shamed by a teacher. Those memories still burn years later, like radioactive fallout. Shame might work in the short term but it’s painful and, in the long run, it erodes trust and breeds resentment.

Instead, what I try to remember to do when I find myself in discord with my students or my children is to ask them a question. Questions are invitations for dialog. Questions create opportunities for me to listen. Questions allow me to discover the need underneath the behavior.

How do consciousness-raising efforts based on eliciting shame contribute to the perception that urban dwellers and educated elites do not respect their rural, working class fellow citizens?

How can questions reveal the concerns underlying the positions of those we disagree with so as to remind us both of our common humanity?

How can we use questions to reduce the number of unconscious actions that reinforce inequity?

How can we foster meaningful dialogue so as to bring about positive change in our culture?

For Cramer, this change can only come by "spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective." She concludes, “you can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.” 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Moment of Reflection, August 29, 2012

What follows is the "moment of reflection" that I shared with my school today to begin our first Community Meeting of the year.

In late August, 2005, my wife Jen (who was my fiance at the time) and I were living with our two cats, Sam and Willow, in a condo that comprised the right-side half of a yellow house in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. At the close of the workday on Friday, the 26th, we were just beginning to feel the buzz of speculation and mild anxiety that builds in coastal communities whenever a tropical cyclone has entered the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It being a Friday evening in New Orleans, however, our attention was focussed mainly on good food and good company so we did not notice the National Hurricane Center’s updated forecast track that placed the Crescent City directly in the path of a storm named Katrina. The reality fully dawned on us the next morning , however, and we spent all of Saturday in the grips of the agonizing process of deciding whether to stay or to evacuate. We gathered some essentials, just in case -- including an ivory wedding dress, wrapped in a sheet -- and secured what we could of everything else but we kept changing our minds about whether or not to place those essentials into our tiny, two-door Honda Civic and abandon the first home we had ever owned to the more capriciousness elements of nature and humanity. When at last, at 10pm that evening, a friend and New Orleans native whose family had never once evacuated informed us that they had decided to go, we finally made up our minds to join a caravan of friends departing at dawn on Sunday. It was just seven weeks before our wedding.

One of the least well-known facts in the painful history of Hurricane Katrina is that the evacuation for those who had the means went extremely smoothly. For those who had the means. We were lucky. By the time the Mayor issued a mandatory evacuation order for New Orleans residents, our little crew of five humans, three dogs and three cats had flown over the Twin Span bridge and made use of highways that had been reversed on one side so that all traffic was directed away from the coast, unimpeded by the countless others from more Southerly communities who had been evacuated in orderly stages prior to our departure. I don’t recommend you attempt to discover this for yourself but the reflectors on highways actually shine red when you drive in the wrong direction. By sundown, we were in a Super 8 motel in Canton, TX, holding our breath with the rest of the country, watching the incessant news coverage and fielding calls from nervous family and friends.

“Yes, we’re safe. We’re in Texas. We’re hoping it passes to the east. Yes, the east side is the bad side.”

We breathed a sigh of relief on August 29th when the storm made landfall and initially missed the city proper but then gaped in horror as first one levee and then another failed and flood waters filled the streets. When it became clear that we could not return home, we followed our caravan to Birmingham, AL and hunkered down in the childhood home of one of our companions to wait. And wait. We oscillated between devouring every scrap of information we could from the 24-hour news networks and the internet -- trying desperately to learn how high the waters had reached in our neighborhood -- and retreating from all contact with the outside world, too overwhelmed to handle anything more complicated than clutching one of the dogs.

As I said before, though, we were lucky. When the waters finally receded, our home was damaged but still standing. We were able to keep our wedding date, albeit with a change of venue, thanks to an outpouring of support from the people in Jen’s hometown of Goleta, CA. Countless others, though, including some of my co-workers, lacked the resources or the support networks to leave. One was rescued by helicopter from the roof of a neighbor’s house after her own was swept off its foundations by the rushing waters. Another endured unspeakable misery in the Superdome where food and water soon ran out and sanitary conditions rapidly deteriorated. My next-door neighbor, Mr. Elton was rescued by boat off our front porch and taken to the Convention Center with his wife, only to get separated from her later when he waded back through the floodwaters on foot to rescue his dog. It was weeks before he heard from her as she was evacuated by bus to Arkansas and he to Houston. Thousands were not even as lucky as this, the flood taking all that they had in the world for some and, for others, taking their lives.

Today, as another hurricane batters the region on the seventh anniversary of Katrina, I’d like you to join me in a moment of reflection for those who were lost, for those who survived and for those who still live in the most vibrant and unique city in which I have ever had the fortune to live. Despite constant threat at the hands of nature and repeated disappointment at the hands of imperfect human beings, those who remain strive even to this day to keep the spirit of New Orleans alive. In the silence that follows, I ask you to hold your applause and reflect on not only the frailty of this thing we call life but also its resilience.


Thank you.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Five Essential Songs

The AP Language teacher at my school has this great final assignment for after the big test where she asks her students to choose five songs that have "staying power" in their lives. The "Five Essential Songs" assignment rounds out the year and serves as an apt point of reflection for the students, all graduating seniors. As I have taken a new job in California and am going through a commencement process myself, I thought it would be fitting for me to join with the seniors and submit my own list for inclusion in their collection.

The first thing you should know about my list is that it was nearly impossible to choose only five songs. I actually first started thinking about this nearly a year ago when the 2010 AP Language students presented their lists. A first pass through my music library yielded over 500 "drop dead, desert island favorites." Like Rob Gordon in "High Fidelity" I had to come up with some kind of criteria for narrowing it down.

First, I tried choosing one song from each major period of my life: childhood, high-school, college and young adulthood, marriage and, finally, starting a family. But this left out too much -- musically and emotionally. Next, I tried to pick songs for five pivotal moments in my life but, at the risk of sounding emo, that definitely skewed the list toward the dark and heavy. I finally decided that I would choose songs that, if you had never met me before, would give you a pretty good sense of who I am. That made it easier for me to weed out songs that I couldn't live without but that didn't have much to do with my experience of life on this planet (i.e., "Folsom Prison Blues").

So, at long last, here are my five essential songs for submission on Wednesday:
  1. "(Nothing but) Flowers" by Talking Heads
    The narrator tells of a world reverted to pristine natural splendor, a development he once welcomed only to find that he misses the mess and machinations of industrialized modern life. I have a theory that this song is a good-natured rebuttal to "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell. In that song, Mitchell laments that "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot." In "Flowers," David Byrne retorts, "if this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower." This song speaks to my playful side and my appreciation for that most hipsterish of literary devices, irony. It also speaks to the fact that, as a technology professional, I have some ambivalence about my place in the natural world. I'm all for organic vegetables and low-impact living practices but I'm sure I would be quite useless in a world rendered free of iPods, smartphones and alternating current.
  2. "Feelin' Good" by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, performed by Nina Simone
    One of the greatest songs ever recorded. What I love about it, though, is that its meaning seems to shift with my emotional state when I hear it. At good times in my life, Simone's words spur me on, validating that everything is as it should be. Beset by tragedy, her voice sounds tinged by knowing weariness, acknowledging the gulf between how I should feel and what I am actually feeling. The amazing thing is that I can continue to hear the song both ways without losing one or the other; the irony never brings me down when I'm up, the triumph never mocks me when I'm down.
  3. "Into the Mystic" by Van Morrison
    This is the song that my wife and I first danced to at our wedding. More than that, the nautical imagery captures the sense that, high tide or low, wherever the wind may take us, together we are embarked. Morrison sings, "I want to rock your gypsy soul," and that's exactly how I feel whenever our life together takes us in a new, unexpected direction.
  4. "Lateralus" by Tool
    If I have a theme song, this is it. The music has a complex 9-8-7 time signature. Upon discovering that 987 was the 17th value of the Fibonacci sequence -- a mathematical pattern of integers where each subsequent value is the sum of the previous two -- Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer and lyricist was inspired by the spiral described by the numbers, which is often found in nature: inside seashells, ferns and pine-cones. He even arranged the syllables of each line to match ascending and descending values in the sequence. The result is a call to live a life of unexpected exploration, "drawing way outside the lines." The path of my life is not linear; if I had to pick a shape to describe it, a spiral is as apt a description as any. My interests have always been all over the map, which made it difficult to find my footing as I struggled to find a college, a major, a career. Fortunately for me, I have discovered that I do not have to follow one straight path and I have stumbled upon a field that allows me to "embrace the random." The song also warns that, "over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind," advice that I deeply value but often have trouble following.
  5. "Easy Plateau" by Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
    The downside of having a "gypsy soul" and following a circuitous path in life is that it can leave one feeling unmoored. "Easy Plateau" captures the oft-thwarted desire for stability and simplicity in my life. As my wife and I embark once again on an entirely new adventure, I definitely feel the pull to find "a place to rest my head." The line, "my head ain't full of nothing but cats and rocking chairs," is hilarious but sometimes frighteningly accurate. What's great about Adams, though, is that he knows himself well. As easy as the plateau promises to be, he acknowledges he'll only be able rest "for a little while."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Remarks to my Upper School on the Tyler Clementi tragedy

The following are remarks that I plan to make to the students in the Upper School at tomorrow's Monday assembly.


As has been widely reported in the news, last Wednesday, police recovered the body of Tyler Clementi, age 18, an accomplished violinist and a freshman at Rutgers University from the Hudson. It soon became apparent that Clementi had committed suicide, after leaving a message on his Facebook page on September 22 that read, "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."

The circumstances that have emerged surrounding Tyler's death are both shocking and deeply sad. We now know that Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate posted a series of harassing messages to Twitter concerning his sexual orientation and broadcast a sexual encounter between Tyler and another young man over iChat. Now Tyler's family has lost a loved one while his roommate and a friend are facing prison sentences.

This story is deeply important to me for two reasons. First, it is important to me because it concerns technology being harnessed by young people to hurt others. If you learn nothing else from me as Tech Director in the time that you attend this school, please take with you this lesson: use technology to showcase your best self. Technology is neutral, it can be used either as a tool to build communities or as a weapon to tear them apart. Social media make it easy to connect with people, to share information, to learn about others. They also make it easy to hide ugly behavior under the protection of anonymity, to spread lies about people, to expose and embarrass others. Technology played a terrible role in what happened to Tyler and technology can not prevent it from happening again. Change has to come through each and every one of you deciding to make good choices. Every time you are about to put something out on the Internet, ask yourself, "am I using these tools showcase my best self? Am I making the world a better, more open, more tolerant place?" If the answer is no, please switch off that camera, log out of that chat, delete that post.

The second reason this incident affected me so deeply is because I am the Advisor for the Gay Straight Alliance. Tyler's story has sparked a nation-wide conversation about the harassment and bullying that GLBT students face in our schools. According to a 2007 survey, 9 out of 10 gay, lesbian and bisexual students report being bullied in school and, according to another study, they are four times more likely to attempt suicide. This sad fact has been proven four times just this last month as young men in different parts of the country took their own lives following bullying and harassment because they were openly gay or even just suspected of being gay. In Texas, it was 13-year-old Asher Brown. In Minnesota, it was 13-year-old Seth Walsh. In Indiana it was 15-year-old Billy Lucas. And in New Jersey, it was 18-year old Tyler Clementi.

But there are things you can do to help reverse this devastating trend. Please join with our GSA to make this school a safe place for all students. Sign up to participate in Ally Week, October 18-22. Speak out if you know of someone who is facing harassment. And, most importantly, ask for help if you feel suicidal.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people age 15 to 24 and nearly one in seven high school students report that they have seriously considered attempting to kill themselves. If you find yourself in this group, please know that you are not alone and that you have options. You can speak to any adult here or call the Trevor Project lifeline at 866-4-U-Trevor.

Please be kind to yourself and be kind to others. Thank you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reflections on the Day of Silence

On Friday, I participated in and helped organize the National Day of Silence for LGBT individuals and their allies at my school. For nine hours, from 6am until 3pm, I said exactly two words--"advanced" and "lovely." I said the former when I had tried unsuccessfully to get a colleague to press the indicated button on a settings dialog. The latter escaped my lips in reaction to a report of a student making a poor choice in regard to the use of the dry erase board we had given him to facilitate his silent participation in class. Other than that one incident, however, the 34 students and teachers at my school who participated did so seriously, thoughtfully, and successfully.

I found remaining silent for nine hours a challenge, especially when providing technical support, but it was also liberating. Writing on the dry-erase board, I was able to choose my words more carefully and it made me more thoughtful about the conversations in which I engaged. It allowed me to try my hand at other ways of self-expression. When I had to explain the photography concepts of aperture and depth-of-field to my yearbook students, I had to rely on gesture, my limited skills as an illustrator, and the photos produced by my camera to explain what I would have normally expressed through mostly verbal cues. It made me more aware of learners whose strengths are not auditory/linguistic and to stretch my own learning comfort zone into other areas. Overall, it made me less wordy.

Socially, it was actually quite pleasant to sit in silence during encounters with others. To highlight the day, I set up a silent lunch table in the center of the cafeteria, where teachers and students, even those not participating for the full day, could dine together without speaking. I became aware of the tendency we have, with all but our closest friends and family, to fill every gap with words--silence is awkward. Sitting at that table with my co-workers, though, I was struck by how it didn't feel awkward at all. One of my colleagues remarked later that, by focusing on her meal, she actually ate less and was more aware of the point at which she felt full. My experience at the lunch table made me appreciate the value of mindful eating. I understand why some monastic orders take a vow of silence. I wonder if we might be able to organize the whole cafeteria as a silent space next year.

The point of the Day of Silence, of course, is not to become a better communicator or to enjoy your lunch in peace, but to highlight the silencing of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered voices in our culture and community through name-calling, bullying, and harassment. On this level, I believe we succeeded, based on the comments of the students who participated. Already, I have seen a willingness in my students involved in the school's Gay Straight Alliance to speak up when they hear intolerant or homophobic language. There were some parents who expressed that they did not agree with our efforts but otherwise our community was very supportive. I have to remember that we're never going to change someone's mind about the nature of sexual orientation but, if we can get those who do not share our views to at least treat all members of our community with respect, then that's the best possible outcome I could hope for. In the meantime, I was heartened to hear that students and teachers in the Middle School expressed an interest in joining us next year.

I am thankful for the students and teachers who participated and took the day seriously. I am also thankful for the chance to get out of the way of my own words for a while. It's something I think I would like to try more often.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Intracranial Cartography

This is an experiment.

For some time now, I've been feeling the urge to put fingers to keyboard and give form to some of the nebulous ideas that have been floating in the void between my ears. Yesterday I finished Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon and was moved by his astounding prose to finally commit to this desire.

My interests are myriad and I often fail to demonstrate the patience and persistence necessary to achieve anything approaching real depth in any single discipline or topic. The content here will likely reflect this jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none nature. One topic I am passionate about is my line of work--education technology--and the bulk of the posts will probably concern that in one way or the other. I do not consider myself a very creative person but I enjoy the technical challenge and fickle coincidence of photography so I may include my more successful attempts here from time to time. It may be a long time between posts--my commitment may wax and wane.

The name is itself inspired by one of the essays in that Michael Chabon collection. In The Wilderness of Childhood, Chabon relishes in the unfettered explorations he conducted by bicycle of the area surrounding his childhood home in Maryland, observing, "I knew the locations of all my classmates houses, the number of pets and siblings they had, the brand of Popsicle they served, the potential dangerousness of their fathers." Noting "the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine," he concludes that "Childhood is a branch of cartography." This blog represents my attempt to relearn this vital childhood skill and construct a mental map of my own world.

But The Wilderness of Childhood has also inspired me to launch my first expedition. In the rest of that essay and a following one, The Splendors of Crap, Chabon laments the dual circumscription by adults of the tangible childhood wilderness and the abstract childhood imagination as inspired by mass art. The wilderness, he observes, has been "in large part taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by" the "kingdom of adulthood." This is poignantly exemplified by the realization he has upon teaching his daughter to ride her bike that she has nowhere left to ride: the streets he once mapped as a child have been rendered unsafe by adult anxiety. Mass art, meanwhile--even that of of suspect quality (read, crap)--similarly has lost "the powerful quality of being open-ended, vague at its borders." The knowing and dazzling displays exhibited in the family films he takes his kids to today are geared to leave nothing to the imagination. "There is no room in them," Chabon decides, "for children." Whereas he and his friends once inserted themselves into the world and stories of the crappy Planet of the Apes television series, canceled after only thirteen episodes, his children "sometimes...don't seem able to operate in an imaginative world" as represented by the natural environment of their summer cabin in Maine. The implications of this tightly bound world in which our children now grow up are troubling to ponder. Chabon ultimately worries, "if children are not permitted--not taught--to be adventurers and explorers of children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?"

Enter the Internet.

See, while I share Chabon's concern and marvel at his ability to so beautifully render his concerns, I don't think things are quite as bleak as all that. There has been a lot of talk in my corner of the world lately about another wilderness and the children who venture forth into its untamed reaches. In a recent New York Times article, Teaching About Web Includes Troublesome Parts, Stephanie Clifford observes that "the first wave of parental anxiety about the Internet," which "focused on security and adult predators...has given way to concerns about how their children are acting online toward friends and rivals, and what impression their online profiles might create in the minds of college admissions officers or future employers." I do believe that these are valid concerns and, in my position as Director of Technology for an PreK-12 independent school, I often advocate for the education of students about ways to safeguard their privacy and self-image. As has been widely reported, however, in studies by the Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the MacArthur Foundation, the dangers of online activity have often been exaggerated in news stories and school board meetings while the benefits of this activity for social development are only now starting to become clear. And I can not help but notice the same urge on the part of adults, observed by Chabon in his essay, to colonize this wild space.

As the adults--parents, educators, administrators--we have a responsibility to balance the desire to protect our children with the necessity for them to be able to explore, imagine, and construct their social world free of micromanagement and minute control. We have to create spaces in which they can skin their knees, metaphorically and literally, while giving them the tools to ensure that their mistakes don't have a lasting negative impact on their future success. The challenge comes in the nature of the Internet--amorphous, public, and always changing with a knack for creating a false sense of intimacy: the dark forest of storybooks.

We're going to need a map...