Archive for December 2007

A Merry Lego Santa Claus Family Portrait

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Familiar friends at the Lego store The first 15 minutes of the Lego® Store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago is fairly entertaining; anything beyond that becomes a form of Chinese lead torture.

It’s what they love now, Legos®, and both Evan and Colin arrange much of their living space around the mighty investment into the building brick sets. Evan counted up how many pieces are dedicated to the Lego® Star Wars® sets and the number is approximately 11, 561.

We have a lot Legos® in our house.

And I think we can justify the purchases on the idea that both Evan and Colin still play with the Legos®. They might rebuild the set or might morph together sets and create new vehicles for Luke or Yoda or Darth Vader to do a flyby over Luke the cat. And as parents we like the idea of the boys creating stuff from bricks; it’s the good stuff of play. And it’s really hard to break the little things and no batteries are required.

But they do burn…or melt as I found out in 3rd grade.

The story is sometimes still in dispute, and is probably as controversial as the fire alarm story. In the fire alarm story (and I’m not kidding, my brother who is 5 years my senior and I still “discuss” it) I am the victim of a coercive brother. In the fire alarm story (it’s amazing how much of our childhood had some type of pyromania in them) Mike and I are at Yulupa Elementary School and it’s summer. And we’re roaming the hallways of school and around the corner from the water fountain by the bathrooms was a red “Pull for Fire” object about 4 feet up the wall. I’m watching Mike and he says (at least from my version of the story) that nothing happens when you pull it and he pulls it (or at least it appears that he has) and nothing happens. Then he says, “Now you try it.”

You cannot turn off a school fire alarm by banging your shoe against it. Apparently you need a key. Also, it is difficult to run across an uneven field and across a busy road with a shoe on your left foot and the other shoe in your hand: it just isn’t efficient in trying to make a quick get away when you hear the fire trucks coming to the school where you have just pulled the fire alarm. Lastly, it’s amazing that you might know that your brother has tricked you into doing something bad, and yet you still will be at his beckon call when he tries another stunt on you.

But that wasn’t the case with the Lego® house that we built when my mother was away. It was a group project: Mike, Steph and I are digging through the basket of Legos® and we’ve decided we’re building a mansion. We use the large green plate pieces for the foundation and then begin the two-story structure. We give up a strict color scheme on the second story when we run out of red bricks, but we’ve finished the house. It has windows, a door and a chimney.

See where this story is headed?

Again, I maintain that it was Mike’s idea, but perhaps we all wanted it and Mike lit the paper that we stuffed through the top of the chimney and I think I remember running for some reason (as if that would save me from the nasty burning Lego® house that was all of one foot high). The fire (or smoldering) was put out and we quickly cleaned up the mess and I even think we did the cartoon whistle-with-hands-behind-backs strolling about the house toward the door to the back yard.

Mom was not happy when she found out. It wasn’t the melting plastic from our realistic Lego® 2-story, but perhaps she even swore something silly when we sat down to eat dinner sometime later (that day or week or perhaps a month) and she saw the burn stain in her beautiful oak table.

Later, I was playing with the Legos® and found that some of the melted pieces didn’t make it into the garbage. I might have even used the evidence against Mike or Steph, but more than that, I didn’t have enough pieces to build whatever structure I was making at the time.

My sons haven’t discovered the wonders of fire but their lives do encompass Legos® and building and creation. I’m sure (and I know…I’ve heard it) they try and make their creations real: through battle sounds and often tossing the plane or ship into the spinning blades of their bedroom ceiling fan.

The big guy and the family And it continues to amaze me that when we go to the Lego® Store in Chicago around Xmas that we will inevitably stop by the Lego® Santa Claus, in his sleigh, with his reindeer. We will gather around the big guy in Red Suit (lots of red bricks) and get a picture of our entire family much like a family picture during Thanksgiving in Schamburg or during the summer in Pennsylvania.


Coffee Stains: The Five People you meet in School

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

I’ve just finished emailing a former student and saying that I couldn’t attend her wedding reception in a few weeks. And it’s got me thinking about a previous comment that I’ve made to a student when they asked “Do you like all of your students?” To which I replied simply “No.” And I think that conversation then pushed the limits of typical classroom scripting when the same student asked “Are there teachers here that you don’t like?” And I simply said “Of course.”

And you can probably see where the script goes from there…well actually this is more improv stuff as we’ve strayed from some point about Sentence Patten 2 and making sure that the verbs are in the same tense to create balance. It’s the stuff I like about school: the unscripted things.

“What teacher or teachers don’t you like?” he asks and before I can answer he says, wisely: “You said we can ask anything…you said that you are looking for us to ask honest questions…”

(I hope you can envision that smiling, smart alecky senior boy, trying to use the teacher’s words again him). It’s a double-dog dare moment and I still answer him truthfully in front of the class.

Nope, not going to tell you my response because you didn’t ask the question. But I think it may be safe to say that teachers are as much students in school as the students are.

My mom tells me that she simply couldn’t find me and that the office would call her and say “Mrs. Judson, your son is here at the school. Will you be picking him up?” The son was me and I was 4 years old. I wasn’t in preschool and I wasn’t enrolled. And here’s how I remember it:

When my mom wasn’t looking, I would simply walk down Washoe Court, turn left on Neotomas Ave, cross Tachevah Drive and walk across the amazingly large field to Yulupa Elementary school. You’d run into the original playground first (the one with “all things metal-tubed”: monkey bars, balancing bars, swinging bars and lots of kid-smashed sawdust). The community chipped in a couple years later (I think the National Guard even showed up) and built a huge playground to the southeast out of recycled tires. Anyway, from the playground you crossed the blacktop and headed through a corridor and I decided to turn right and opened the door in the corner.

No one saw me slip in and so I waited a moment, closed the door and saw that several classes were spread out this enormous open space (California was still playing with the open classroom concept). I scouted the groups, found one that seemed interesting, and simply plopped myself indian-style (as we called it then…now it’s “criss-cross apple sauce,” so my sons tell me) and listened to the story being told.

I’m not sure how long it took, but eventually (I think it was about an hour) I was asked a question by an adult (such as “So what is your name?”). And I remember her looking at me with that look. I think the expression was a cross between the look that Julie Vogel gave me after our first kiss and the look that Lois gives me when I say something in which I am trying to cross a social line. And I think it was my response that prompted the look, because, I’m told, I had a speech problem. Apparently, as my mom reminds me, I was inarticulate and what came out of my mouth sounded more Chinese than English.

[Insert way-too-obvious student quip here such as: “Not much has changed, eh?”]

The adult then walked me to the office (sort of that “lost boy in the big mall thing” scene) and I was greeted by soothing and understanding tones (yes, I could understand English…I just couldn’t speak it very well). The secretary (that’s what we called them back then) called my mother while I got to do “real school work”: color. Mom arrives, nervous smiles/apologies/thankyou’s, driving away in the 1968 Ford Galaxie.

I don’t think she yelled at me, but I think I remember some type of “You had me worried” thematic explanation. What I do remember is that I couldn’t wait to go back…and so I did–a year later–sort of legally. My mom’s gift to me was to sort of fudge my birthday date so that I could be in school a bit earlier than originally planned. And that was okay by me, because I couldn’t wait.

And I have to say, most days I still can’t wait to get to school. And I find that what I like and hate about school is about the same as when I was a student. Under the “Things I like” list, and at the top, is one of the reasons why I keep coming back. Sorry, it’s not students. They’re probably second or third. But really, it’s the same reason why students come to school: their friends. I like the people I work with. We drink coffee and occasionally go out to breakfast and, yes, we might even sit by the same people at lunch. We have stuff in common and we know each other and they let me hang around with them. Yes, students are a big part of my day, but frankly, you people don’t stick around for very long. I’m not sure if you realized this, but we get you for maybe an hour or two a trimester and then you’ve graduated. The constant in my work are the people I work with and that’s what brings me back.

Ah, I can see the smart alecky kid ready to ask about the things I hate and to that I will list the usual suspects (and, btw, some of these are fairly universal along many career lines):

  • A seemingly endless amount of non-classroom things-to-do that simply lack cohesion, for the purpose of trying to show something that the organization is not. (Busy work)
  • A loss of vision of what we are really here for and in its place check lists from outside experts who are not even practitioners of education. (Vision)
  • A underlying, smirky and patronizing attitude from the people that make the decisions– that don’t acknowledge the teacher as professional. (Respect)
  • A society that has given into the notion that one can effectively, efficiently, and accurately quantify learning. (People as numbers)
  • A belief that all people learn the same way and the same pace and that a moving target called a “benchmark” is the trump card for whether a student passes or fails. (No achievable goals)
  • A notion that education is the magic bullet for all of societies ills. (“We can always do better”)
  • A belief that students are simply not as smart as they were back when and that schools are simply watering down the basics of a good education.
  • And, my favorite: A “commonsense” notion that education’s purpose is to turn out better workers in society (say nothing about living and thinking).

I simply hate and abhor those things; some are out of ignorance and most are simply not true.

And I take a look at the list of things that I like and the things that I hate and I think “Not much has changed from when I was a student.” I have about five or so people that I really like and, I have control issues. And, I still sometimes show up in the classroom simply speaking something Chinese…oh, that’s for next year.

Stikkit to Lesson Plans

Friday, 7 December 2007

(And my apologies to Stikkit for the lousy title).

I’m as interested as the next teacher who likes the technology stuff to get organized. Lesson planning is no exception.

Most of us began our scripting of beautiful lesson plans with those really nice spiral-bound Lesson Plan books that even gave us some overview of the basics of a lesson plan and perhaps, a refresher of Bloom’s taxonomy. And so, each year, I would faithful chart out my beginning days of the trimester during the beginning of the year meetings and feel good that I had “planned out” or “organized” my classes. I had a plan and I had a book to keep those plans in.

Then, like many other types of organizers, I would miss a day and then a week. I would scratch down an outline of the day in my composition book or on a sticky note only to neglect my faithful Lesson Plan Book.

Enter the power (and distraction) of the computer and the internet and now we’re faced with countless possibilities in managing the shape of how our classes will look, feel, act, and move. Many mimic the paper version of the Lesson Planner Book that we grew up with; others will add lots of Standards-based features. In the end, I really could not take any of those programs seriously.

Most of last year, I used Dave Winer’s OPML editor. In a sense, I used the outlining feature because it was simple, fast and very flexible. It was fairly transferable to other programs and was very easy to create sub plans. I really liked that there were both a Mac and a Windows version of the program so that I could work from home and at school on my plans.

But because of some glitch with my computer, I really couldn’t use the OPML editor this school year. So, I went back to the paper Lesson Planner Book, but still longed for an easier way to keep track of my day-to-day plans (for I would sometimes forget to update the plans in the book). I found myself writing daily plans on sticky notes.

Because I’ve listen to Merlin Mann on other podcasts, I checked out Stikkits awhile ago and then didn’t see the value for yet another sticky note metaphor. A week ago, when trying to decide to organize my student publication class, I returned to Stikkit and decided to take it for a spin in organizing my stuff through a favorite metaphor (who doesn’t love the sticky note? Sort of a twitter on a piece of paper).

And though I went with a wiki for organizing my student publications class, I found that Stikkit is really smart and cool and easy to use.I won’t take much time explaining how to use the site as I would encourage to start playing around and look at the online help; create some Stikkits and see what happens to those notes.

Stikkit Lesson PlanningI like Stikkits for lesson planning because it does remain flexible and “thinks” through some of my items and cross references certain items to todo things or time-sensitive stuff. I have an overall shape for my classes (the big picture) along with the pacing of the weeks (what I want to accomplish). Lesson plans, as I see it, are the outline to carry out that shape or intent of the day–it’s a set list that you may have for a gig; it’s the songs with a few transitions and key changes and perhaps a few words to help move the performance along. For me, it’s not necessary to mark down all of the details (that seems to come in other documents); for me, the plan is enough information that I or someone (such as a sub) could work their way through the class. (If I’ve done my job right, students already have an idea of the pacing of my class).

So I’ve using Stikkits for that past few days and I think I’ve found my lesson planner. From this example, I list my classes and use the todo key term (-) to indicate something to check off. The rest of the example is enough information, in an outline form, to help prompt me through my classes. Some feature that I really like are the tagging feature (which, for right now, I just put at the bottom) and the Discussion tab, which I use for my own reflection on the day or ways that I could use Stikkits more effectively.

My only misgiving with the program as a lesson planner is printing: it’s not very clean and there’s extra stuff (the side bar, for example) that shows up on the printed page. The only really reason why I need to print out my lesson is in case I need a substitute teacher. In that case, I plan on doing a copy/paste into a word processor for formating prettiness (and clarity for the sub). (Update: I’m ill today and I tried this, and it works great: I just copied from Flock [a Firefox-based browser] and pasted into a new OpenOffice doc and the result was very pretty: all formating transfered as it should).

One of my favorite things about Stikkits is that I find out how dang simple it is and yet how that simplicity can be very powerful; I learn something new almost everyday. I could see how I really don’t need GoogleNotebook nor GoogleCalendar because through the strong sticky note metaphor, I can keep all my notes in one place. And, if you’ve done some GTD stuff or training, then you will find how Stikkits fit right well in managing tasks.

I’ll give up an update in a week to let know you know what I’ve learned (and, if I’ve kept up with Stikkits).

Coffee Stains: Bet your bottom dollar

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Annie was my second cassette purchase; The Muppet Movie, the first.

Sure, I had owned several LPs (mostly from the soundtrack genre), but when we got our first tape recorder, our view of music changed forever. We could, you see, record one of our records onto the tape and then hit the REWIND button and listen to that song or songs whenever we wanted. And this gave way to the concept of making a tape for someone. I did it for my friends and later for Lori when we were courting.

I think we still have the tape and…well, hold on for a few moments, let me get it (I think it’s in the impossible-to-open drawer below the built-in china cabinet thing). It might be… (Oh, and by the way, “It’s a hardknock life” is playing..yes, it’s the Annie soundtrack). Be right back (Oh, now she’s singing “Tomorrow“…warm feelings…”clears away the cobwebs and sorrow”…and “say, oh!”)

[Steps away from the eMac for moment]

Okay, I’m back and I couldn’t find it: I think it’s upstairs. I did find the following tapes: My Songs: Evan (one of those tapes where the singer inserts your name in the song), American Pie (Don McLean–1988), and Lori’s first cassette tape: You Light Up My Life (Debby Boone–1977). We get into these conversations when remembering the good old days of our music, often. Recently it began with my telling Lori about my trip to Martin’s:

“So,” I say, ” I got the creamer and coffee and the sandwich rolls and then made my way over to the Starbucks.”
“Did you get me anything?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “I thought you wouldn’t want anything.”
“Oh,” she responds.
“Anyway,” I ,because I want to tell the punch line. “So, the bartistaperson is making my latte thing…I know, I wanted something different. Guess what she’s humming?”
“No!” she says.
And then I hum, which isn’t a super reliable way of getting music across to another human being, but for some reason that’s the mode I went with…and she got it.
“Yep! Uncanny, eh” I say and then we start singing/humming the words/tune of “Maybe” from Annie.

Then I remind Lori that my second cassette purchase was the soundtrack to Annie; The Muppet Movie, the first. She mentions the Debbie Boone tape and perhaps she sings (with great emotion, mind you) “And you, LIGHT up my life…

We both like music, and I wouldn’t claim that we’re eclectic (which is a common response to “what kind of music do you like?”); no, we’re pretty predictable. She was listening to the radio during the early ’80s while I was amassing quite a soundtrack collection (which was started with The Muppet Movie and Annie). And so, it’s no surprise that I would make Lori a tape for our first year anniversary of courting (yes, I know it’s dating…courting sounds a bit more formal).

It’s roughly 90 minutes of my favorite songs of that time with commentary between each song (yes, it is dreadfully painful to listen to…simply cruel to anyone who hears it). And I think Lori listened to the whole tape once (until we found it 10 years later and abandoned the tape’s second listen). The title of the tape: “365 days with Lori Bickel.” And no, I will not digitize the thing; it really needs to be put out of its misery–or ours.

The tape recorder that evening in a dorm room in Winona Lake, Indiana was my way of creating a thing for Lori. And back in the 1970s when we got our first Panasonic Tape Recorder (it was red plastic with a black handle) my sister and I would create a wide variety of stuff. Most were silly little skits that always seemed to end with some guy falling off a very high cliff into a very deep valley floor (I think it was usually the Grand Canyon…we’d seen the two-part Brady Bunch vacation enough times to know what it looked and sounded like…though no one fell off the cliff).

And here’s how it’s done:

You’d start with a high pitch “Ahhhhhh” and slowly descended to a lower, more intense and louder “Ahhhh” and a the last moment you’d take you thumb and “squish” the built-in microphone. It was a really cool sound and we really thought that’s what a body impacting the Grand Canyon floor sounded like. We were suckers.

And we all are, aren’t we: suckers? We’re predictable as much as we say that we are “an individual.” We will hum some silly line from some silly Disney film or some silly Broadway song. And sometimes I have to catch myself, because I might just enjoy the moment too much. Someone might see or hear my silly humming song, that might break out in a full-blown “The sun will come out, tomorrow!”

Okay, well, I need to pick up the boys. Looking forward to listening to the “Xmas Music for the Van, volume 2.5” CD.