I took my boys to see Alexis Ohanian at UMass recently. They both read Reddit and were persuadable to go. He gave a good presentation: in equal parts funny, insightful, and inspiring. He also interviewed a UMass alumnus, Steve King, who has worked at a lot of internet startups. There was a lot I would agree with, but I was also left with a number of questions.
Are generation times decreasing? There's already a generation gap between Alexis and the students in the audience. Alexis talked about geocities websites and other early internet technologies that most of the people in the audience probably had never heard of. The world has already moved on.
How remixable really are newer mobile technologies? Reddit was created in a time when it was possible to inspect the protocols different layers of technology more easily than it is now. I worry that as the internet gets more complicated -- and subject to greater corporate control -- it raises barriers that previous entrepreneurs didn't face.
What role does luck play? The entrepreneurs talk of how you need to fail to succeed and you only need one to succeed and that's all well and good as a rationale for why you need to try. But what if none of your ideas succeed? In the end, it reminded me quite a bit of the advertising for the lottery: "You can't win if you don't play!" Like the demotivator says, "Quitters never win, winners never quit, but those who never win AND never quit are idiots."
Workload has been a contentious issue at UMass since I first got involved with the union. When I first arrived at UMass, the union did not much concern itself with non-tenure system faculty. There weren't very many and the Union was focused primarily on trying to make sure there wouldn't be very many more. When it became clear that we were becoming a substantial part of the faculty, the leadership had the vision to actually begin organizing us and advocating for our interests. That's how I got involved.
One of our first concerns was workload. There have always been disparities of workload among departments, but some departments were more unequal than others. In particular, some were hiring non-tenure system faculty to teach an excessive number of courses (as many as five -- or even more) and still calling them part time (less than 1.0 FTE). One of our first achievements was to establish a floor: We established that a 3-credit course would represent no less than 0.25 FTE. Some in the University saw this as license to begin routinely hiring non-tenure track faculty with a 4/4 load (four 3-credit courses each semester). And, with the recent switch to 4-credit Gen Ed classes, some in the administration would now like for non-tenure-system faculty to routinely teach four 4-credit classes per semester.
This all assumes that a faculty member does nothing but teach. If you're teaching four classes, that's your full-time job. If you're paid only for teaching full time, you don't have any opportunity to engage in either scholarship or service. Or faculty governance. I don't think that's a good idea either for the faculty member or for the University.
An engaged faculty must be involved in governance. For shared governance to have any meaning, all faculty ought to be able to serve on some committees, like the Personnel Committee, which oversees all of the personnel actions in the departments. Or the Faculty Senate, which has primary responsibility for academic affairs. Creating dis-empowered contingent faculty benefits no-one. It's not good for the faculty member to be so disconnected from the life of the University, but it's also not good for the University. We need engaged scholars that are invested in the life of the University -- not just freeway faculty.
In the last round of bargaining, I made this case to the administration and was unsuccessful in making any headway. Bargaining is about to start again and I'm hopeful that this time we might get some kind of agreement that as a 3-credit class is 0.25 FTE then a full-time faculty member must teach less than 4/4 in order to devote some part of their professional effort toward governance.
I'm going to be speaking on Saturday April 12 at the Science for the People Conference: Community Television, Free Software, and Maker/Hacker Communities: Aspirations of Freedom
Growing corporate control of media, software, and consumer products over the past 50 years has led to three largely separate movements to preserve the ability of ordinary people to access the means of production of mass media, computer software and, most recently, the technological hardware of modern culture. The movements share an aspiration that transparency and community participation are fundamental to democracy and an egalitarian society. Understanding their history and the reactions to these movements can provide insight into current and future efforts to secure freedom.
I wasn't a member of the original Science for the People organization. But the theme of science being coopted and misused is one that resonates with me and I'm looking forward to participating in the conference.
On Friday, we had the first drop-in session for the Amherst Media Maker community. Around 10 people came and we spent most of the time in a far-ranging discussion. Some of the people had come to the initial workshop, but several were new. It was a great conversation that I hope will be a model for how we move forward. There was a lot of excitement and positive energy.
Ostensibly, I went there to work on Node Red. Before the meeting, I had installed Node Red on my Raspberry Pi and could at least demo it. But we mostly talked about other stuff.
Christine Olson came because she's interested in studying the launch of Makerspaces. Stephanie Jo Kent came to talk about hacking community engagement to build resilient communities. A student from Hampshire came to talk about developing a curriculum for teaching electronics. It's great to see the Maker community becoming a home for so many interesting perspectives.
We talked about a vast array of interesting ideas: gamification, building environments to foster collaboration, providing space for self-directed activities, the distinction between Maker and Hacker, models for organizing the community, and future plans for the space.
We did look at some technical stuff. I briefly showed Node Red. I brought one of the Galileo development boards I got recently which we passed around and discussed. We worked, again, to try to get the servos working: the ones we received with our kits have been problematic and we've been working with the supplier to figure what's wrong. It was all good.
It looks like the time will work going forward. There was interest in meeting again next week. Several people said they could come every week. I'm not sure I can attend every week, but I'll come when I can.
One year, while attending the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP) General Membership luncheon, an elderly faculty member joked to me drily that he was there for his $700 lunch — implying that the luncheon was the only benefit he received for his annual dues. Of course, this year, a full-time faculty member will pay ~$900/year in union dues to belong to the MSP.
In point of fact, more than half of the membership fee ($486) is actually the dues for the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). You might well wonder what you're spending all that money for and question its value. If so, I invite you attend the MTA Annual Meeting (May 10-11 at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston) to find out what it buys.
The MTA fights for public education. They are opposed by well-funded and well-organized lobbying groups that have been working for a generation to defund state government; to undermine and destroy public education; and to roll back benefits to state workers -- your benefits. The MTA has been on the front lines trying to defend education: to stop ballot initiatives that would eliminate the state income tax or tie teacher evaluations to high-stakes testing. And this is a special year to attend…
This year, Barbara Madeloni, a UMass Amherst faculty member, is running for MTA President. She has been at the forefront resisting the privatization of public education. She is pushing for the MTA to shift from fighting a rearguard action to limit losses, and to articulate a vision of public education based on values of social justice and democracy -- a vision that respects the expertise and dignity of teachers.
Part of your MSP dues go to support a team of delegates to the MTA Annual Meeting. If you go, the MSP will pay for your hotel room and buy you a nice dinner out. And in return, you have an opportunity to see the budget of the MTA and to account for every nickel of your dues to them.
No-one who attends the MTA Annual Meeting is unmoved by the experience. If you believe in the mission of public education -- and the role of public higher education in that mission -- you owe it to yourself to see what you're a part of. And learn what you can do to help win the fight.
(Written for the MSP Chronicle)
I grew up listening to the Almanac Singers. My family had a record of their Talking Union album and as a kid I used to sing along with Union Maid and You've Gotta Go Down and Join the Union. Pete Seeger was a founding member in 1941, during the dramatic growth in unionism in the 1930s and 40's after the passage of the Wagner Act.
Pete Seeger was there for the wild ascent of workers as they leveraged a fair wage from the plutocrats who had wrecked the economy during the Great Depression. And then Taft-Hartley was passed and, little by little, the labor movement has been chipped away at until today it is a ghost -- a mere vapor -- of its former self. And we have a new crop of plutocrats and robber barons who've wrecked the economy. Pete Seeger watched it all from the beginning to the end.
I wonder how it must have felt.
Through it all, Pete never seemed to lose hope. He never gave up. And, in the words of the immortal Joe Hill, let us remember to not mourn but, instead, organize.
The closing event of the Mass Municipal Association annual meeting was a review of gubernatorial candidates. The moderator asked questions that had been derived from the audience. Each candidate was given the opportunity to make a brief opening statement and then asked a series of questions related to unfunded mandates, whether to tie unrestricted aid to increases in state revenues, the deficit in local transportation budgets, and contributions to retiree health care.
Joseph Avellone (D) is a former doctor and health-insurance executive. His primary focus was in controlling health-care costs and he leaned heavily on his previous experience as a Selectman. I would never have guessed he was a Democrat based on anything he said and kept thinking, "If it walks like a Republican and sounds like a Republican…"
Charlie Baker (R) is a Republican. He's another former health-insurance executive who served as a policy wonk in a previous Republican administration. He seemed comfortable and tried to project an air of competence: "I'm good at it! I have a track record with that". He, too, reminded the audience several times of his chops as a former Selectman. Some people thought he seemed arrogant, but I could see voters liking him.
Don Berwick (D) seemed both the most wonkish and most visionary to me. He is the former head of Medicare/Medicaid under Obama and similarly focused on the need to control health care. He advocated for single-payer and infrastructure renovation and increased revenues to pay for it. I liked him, so he'll probably get forced to drop out before the primary, perhaps due to some errant scream or something.
Martha Coakley (D) underwhelmed me again. She seems flat and unpersuasive. She was practically the only one who mentioned education, but she talked about it in platitudes: children need the best education we can provide for the state to be competitive. I'm pretty convinced that the way the Democrats lose the election is to put Martha up against Charlie Baker. Just like when she ran against Scott Brown, I don't see her building the necessary excitement or enthusiasm to win.
Evan Falchuk is running as an independent, having created his own party. He was more credible than I expected. He talked about making fundamental changes in how state government works, for example creating multi-year funding initiatives. That sounds like a wonksh, technical detail, but it is a fundamental limitation in how state government works. If you knew funding would be reliable, you could take out a loan and do a big project in 2 years, instead of spread out over 10 -- and gain huge efficiencies. Keep dreaming.
Mark Fisher (R) is an unabashed tea-party member. He started out sounding vaguely reasonable ("I want to bring common sense to Beacon Hill"), but then wandered off into crazy land. He talked very calmly about zero-funding communities that voted in favor of sanctuary laws for illegal immigrants. Or that wages should be entirely a function of the "free market", as if the government doesn't use monetary policy to influence the unemployment rate or something. Sheesh. I don't see him as a credible candidate, but he might shift Baker far enough to the right to do him some damage.
Steve Grossman is a former state treasurer and a classical politician, horse-trading one thing or another. I found his leaps of "logic" to be largely incomprehensible: Tax the internet to fund transportation! Aid, aid, aid, lottery! Perhaps to insiders, that kind of logic makes perfect sense, but I found it jarring and orthogonal to my plane of reality.
Juliette Kayyem has a background in homeland security. She's relatively young and this is her first shot at an executive position. She's been somewhat unconventional: she's been using twitter to reach Democratic activists and has some fresh ideas. I definitely want to know more about her. I'm not sure she's ready this time around, but I think she'll move the race in directions it needs to go.
I'm hopeful to see some interesting candidates. I've been disappointed that the Democrats in Massachusetts seem only too willing to give the nod to the candidate with the strongest ties to the Democratic machinery: they picked Shannon O'Brien rather than Robert Reich for example -- which is how we ended up with Mitt Romney as governor. Let me say that again: we had Mitt Romney as governor. I always hope that the Democrats will pick the most interesting, dynamic, exciting candidate with the best ideas. But it rarely happens. Still, there's always a chance.
The Joint Task Force for Resource Allocation at UMass created a draft set of guiding principles that included language about incentivizing. This is my reply:
I read the JTFRA draft guiding principles with interest and would like to offer one recommendation: reword to avoid creating incentives.
Creating incentives is always a mistake. There is extensive research that shows that rewards don't work -- See Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" and Daniel Pink's "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" for two recent examples.
Incentives try to shape behavior by encouraging people to aim for the reward rather than to do what they think is right. It's worth thinking about that. How much time do we want people to spend trying to get rewards rather than trying to do their job as well as they can?
Using rewards and incentives also encourages perverse behavior. It undermines honesty and candor because people try to manipulate the data and appearances to increase the likelihood of receiving the reward -- and to undermine people around them, with whom they are competing.
Finally, the statement "incentivize excellence" is meaningless. What does "incentivize excellence" even mean? Only do things we can do excellently? Just as "something worth doing is worth doing well", it is equally true that "something worth doing is worth doing badly". It's often better to do something badly than not to do it at all.
Ask. Create opportunities. Invest. Don't incentivize.
A colleague on the Rules Committee recently shared a message that included the statement "we are all better off when education thrives". I wrote the brief reply that follows:
Let me play devil's advocate for a moment:
Universities were constructed in a time when you needed a place to contain the accumulated knowledge of humanity (educated people and their books, journals, etc). Now, the information mostly resides on the internet and it's easy for people to access it directly. A kid with a smartphone anywhere on earth already has access to more-and-better information than the most powerful, richest person on earth had 20 years ago.
This isn't to say that education has less value, but the nature of that education needs to change. Education used to be about "knowing things" and transmitting that knowledge. There are still a lot of university classes that are taught (and assessed) as though that's what education is. That kind of education now has little value. We need to demonstrate that we're providing a kind of education that does have value.
It also is much less clear that people should have different phases in their lives (ie, one where they "learn" and then a later one where they "do"). We need to start life-long learning much earlier and have people start "doing" in kindergarten, even as we have people continue to "learn" throughout their careers. It's not clear that our current educational system supports either effectively. But it's becoming clear that education is not our generation's key challenge.
It's becoming clear that our current economic system is simply breaking down. Robots and computers can already do many of the things that people do, only better. Soon that will be "most of the things that people do". We need a new economic model that will ensure that the fruits of such a system of production are equitably shared. No kind of university education will help you much in the kind of hellish kleptocracy our society will become without economic reform.
We need more than platitudes like "we are all better off when education thrives". We need to ask questions like "what kinds of education?" and "education for what?"
Someone Phil was tutoring at Lernu recently asked him who his brother was (after he'd mentioned consulting me about something). Phil crafted this nice biography of my Esperanto life, which I share here with his permission:
My brother, Steven Brewer, is also known as limako various places (at Lernu, for example; also @limako on twitter, etc.). He's been active in the Esperanto community for years. He was the webmaster at Esperanto-USA, and also a board member there. He's been published on paper in Literatura Forio and Beletra Almanako and on the web at Libera Folio. He's also been publishing a series of books of Esperanto haiku under the imprint Atlatl Studios. He's attended Esperantaj kongresoj all over the world. He's a fluent speaker, and a big hit at Esperanto parties. If you do twitter or read blogs you should follow him, and if you're at some Esperanto event that he attends, don't miss the chance to meet him—he's very easy to talk to in Esperanto.
Now I feel warm all over.
I had a great weekend running the Maker event. At the same time, several other things went south. On Friday, as I was trying to finish up work before the Maker event, I got a call from Alisa saying that my mom had reported that something was on fire at home!!! She picked me up and we rushed home. It turned out it was my linux box: the molex-to-sata power connector had shorted out. I spent the whole rest of the weekend wondering whether any of the components had survived, but was too busy to get a replacement cable and try hooking things up. Topping everything, this morning, the washing machine overflowed and we realized the main drainpipe for the house wasn't working. We spent much of the day waiting for the tradesman to arrive and then clear the obstruction in the drain. Then I finally had time to get to the store and buy a new power adaptor for the hard-drive. After replacing that, I was pleased to find that everything else seems OK and my computer is back up. Whew.
In mid-September, Don Blair and I got together for coffee and chatted about the idea of setting up a Makerspace in Amherst. We have both been advocates of the potential for technology to enable individuals to create -- Make -- innovative solutions for themselves.
Don and I go way back: he was a BCRC staffmember when I first arrived in the Biology Department. We reconnected a couple of years ago talking about open hardware and software as he worked to launch Pioneer Valley Open Science. Last year, we had a nebulous series of discussions about Makerspaces: we talked about Turners Falls or North Star as places that might be a good fit. When I was interim IT Program Director, I talked to a number of people as well. Tony Maroulis and I chatted about looking for a home downtown for a Makerspace. But when I met with Don in the fall, I'd had a realization. There was already a perfect place for a Makerspace.
Over the summer, I joined the board of Amherst Media. I had wanted to get involved for years, but I was too busy with Esperanto and other interests. My older son and his friends (especially Josh Wolfsun) had used Amherst Media to launch Riverwolf Productions: filming several movies, a news program, and a sketch-comedy program. They recently won the Jean Haggerty Community Engagement and Social Change for their work. When I stepped off the board of Esperanto-USA, I decided I could probably find time to serve on the board of Amherst Media instead. I floated the idea of a Makerspace with the Director who was enthusiastic.
Jim Lescault immediately saw the connection between Maker culture and the roots of the community television work that he's been doing his whole career. Community television grew out of the concern that television was increasing being controlled by corporations and that regular people were being excluded from using it to reach an audience. Jim recognized the potential interactions and synergies that building a technology center or Makerspace focus could do and committed the organization to helping launch the project. That brought Nick Ring, the technology director for Amherst Media, into the project.
Finally, we copied in Charlie Schweik on our first email. Charlie has been studying the collaborations around open source hardware and software for 10 years and has been tirelessly trying to network and organize people to work together around these ideas. His Knowledge Commons project at UMass had brought a number of folks together who ultimately contributed to the volunteer effort and provided the nucleus of the outreach effort.
Our first challenge was to pick a date. I thought Intersession might be a good time, but for the past three years, I've been swamped trying to organize Drupal Camp. As these efforts were happening, however, Kelly Albrecht was pitching the idea of transmogrifying Drupal Camp into the NERD Summit and pushing the date forward (originally to March, but now October 3-5, 2014). That freed up the last weekend before the Spring semester, and by early October, we had begun reaching out to communities we though might be interested. Ultimately, as the project came together, more and more people joined in the organization -- too many for me to remember and thank individually. It was incredibly gratifying to see everyone working together to pull off the event.
Charlie put us in touch with Nick Harrison, a technology teacher at the Middle School, who immediately joined the effort. Don organized a registration system via EventBrite. Charlie put together a flyer. Nick Harrison distributed the flyer and we did a minimal amount of publicity, and the weekend was full -- indeed oversubscribed almost instantly.
What we ultimately did was pretty close to my original plan:
We propose a 1-2 day workshop on building interactive
devices with Arduino.
On Friday evening: A public presentation, reception/ice-
breaker, and install fest for people to get help
installing the arduino IDE on a laptop or computer that
they'd like to use for the workshop.
On Saturday Morning: Intro to arduino programing starting
with blink (to light up an LED) transitioning to a simulation
of a six-sided die with LEDs.
lunch (offer a box lunch? or catered lunch?)
On Saturday Afternoon: Students will use a temperature
sensor and a row of LEDs as a visual indicator.
On Sunday (optional) Open Exploration. Participants can
work on projects independently with support from workshop
Originally, we looked at purchasing the parts and constructing kits that just had the parts we needed. I discovered, however, that there was a pre-built kit that cost only little more than what buying the piece parts would and that included everything we needed — and more: more sensors and parts and wires. So we purchased those kits instead.
On Friday, we weren't sure how many people would ultimately show up for the opening session. We had opened it to the public and told participants that it was optional. We started with seating for around 30, but the room quickly filled up and we started getting out more seats. In the end, we had nearly 70. Parents, middle-school kids, presenters, and Maker enthusiasts turned up to see a series of lightning talks that outlined a vision for what we hope our Maker community could become.
Nick Ring had done yeoman's work to set up a display table with two large screen TVs and a document camera, so presenters could show the screen of a computer at the same time as an Arduino or other small device. In addition, cameras filmed the presentations and a photographer walked through snapping pictures.
The presentations were a compelling vision for a Makerspace at Amherst Media. As people arrived, Justin Leone ran a Makerbot in the lobby that people could watch as they waited to check in. Jim Lescault and Nick Ring welcomed everyone and discussed how the project fit into their vision for Amherst Media. Charlie Schweik provided an overview of Maker culture and I did a quick demo of an Arduino and outlined how the weekend was going to be organized. Don Blair showed a bunch of Arduino based projects and parts focused on various real-world applications. Nick Harrison discussed the challenges of bringing Maker approaches in the public schools and the need for extracurricular opportunities for students. Paula Rees demonstrated lilypad-based e-textile projects and parts that could be the basis of future Maker events. Rui Wang, a UMass computer science professor, described
SquareWare SquareWear and Raspberry Pi based projects that he's using as the basis for a local startup. Alex Schreyer showed another Makerbot and demonstrated making a shapefile and sending it to the printer. Scott Payne and some students demoed an Occulus Rift that a Maker group at Amherst College had been hacking to show protein structures.
After the more formal presentations, participants were invited to share their perspectives and ideas for organizing the community. Alex Chan talked about entrepreneurship and the upcoming visit of Alexis Ohanian. Megan Briggs Lyster and Roxy Finn of Hampshire College described efforts to organize a Makerspace via Five Colleges. John Caris from Smith College described a Smith College group that has been working with various kinds of drones and copters for collecting aerial imagery. A few local groups had been able to participate, but were remembered to the audience: the Belchertown Hackerfarm the Geek Group of Springfield, and several other regional groups have complementary goals and we'll want to work with them going forward.
In the end, there was strong support among the participants for some kind of ongoing Maker activities at Amherst Media. The exact form these will take will probably evolve over time, but a few points seem clear: there's a great need for such a space where parents their children, and college students can interact around building things. We hope to organize some form of weekly opportunities for Maker activity with additional presentations by people to demonstrate particular technologies or to direct projects. There was also a consensus to use the group to accomplish specific aims that students work on. Some students will want to work on independent ideas, but others would rather be part of an organized project and the group should support both modalities.
On Saturday, the 35 participants who had registered came in and got to work. Some picked up the kits they're pre-ordered and some were matched up with others. Some borrowed a few of the additional kits we had purchased (of whom a fair number ultimately purchased the kit). People dove in and accomplished "blink" quickly. And then simply charged ahead. Several groups had already accomplished everything before lunch that I had hoped to get through during the whole day. I spent the first several hours constantly circulating, checking in with groups, and helping to solve problems. After lunch, we had a shared session for the kids that wanted to shared what they'd accomplished. Wow! Impressive!
We went into the workshop with a lot of questions. We weren't sure how many people would bring laptops and how many would want/need to use one of Amherst Media computers. It turned out that most people brought a laptop: we ended up using only one computer lab. We weren't sure how many parents would drop their kids off. It turned out that every kid either had a parent, or came with another parent/kid pair. We weren't sure how many people would want a structured versus unstructured curriculum. It turned out that few people wanted a structured curriculum, and those who wanted the structure were happiest working through the book. I wasn't sure whether the parents would get frustrated -- I wasn't as worried about the kids. But everyone seemed very happy. Finally, we weren't sure how many people would come back on Sunday for the day of open exploration.
Sunday was very informal: we just opened up the space and then helped people who asked for help. More than half of the students returned for another morning of hacking. A few were dropped off, but they worked diligently and I spent a fair amount of time writing, in addition to helping people debug wiring and code. One student wanted to play with a Raspberry Pi he'd brought, so I helped him set up a monitor and keyboard. By mid afternoon, the participants had left and we wrapped up with a great far-ranging discussion of where we want the project to go.
It's obvious that this idea has legs and several ideas emerged from the discussion. First, we're hoping to organize weekly drop in sessions after school -- there's a huge need for that. We also see that on a regular schedule, we could run a presentation combined with a workshop on a whole range of topics and get good participation. We also see that there's a need for both open-ended exploration and the opportunity for students to collaborate on larger, authentic projects where their work will have value. We have several ideas already along those directions. It was an incredibly auspicious start and I'm confident we'll be doing more of these in the future.
I wrote this letter to my boys today:
I enjoyed our far-ranging conversation this morning.
I was reading something today that mentioned Cardinal Newman.
You probably don't care about that, although the statement attributed to him right at the end was interesting:
As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself.
You might not be aware that we have a Newman Center just down the street from my office with a statue of Cardinal Newman at the entrance (which is also a portal in Ingress). I didn't know who he was, so I looked at his wikipedia page and was intrigued by his educational philosophy. I particularly liked the quote by those criticizing him:
The discipline introduced is unsuitable, certainly to this country. The young men are allowed to go out at all hours, to smoke, etc., and there has not been any fixed time for study. All this makes it clear that Father Newman does not give enough attention to details.
I noticed that they referenced his book The Idea of a University), which is available via Project Gutenberg.
I thought I might undertake to read his book. And perhaps you would like to as well.
For the holidays, I spent some time taking a road trip to the midwest to see family. I'm lucky to have my mom living with me, but my brother lives in Illinois and my father in Michigan so I don't get to see them very often. Generally, I've avoided traveling during the winter, due to potential vagaries of the weather, but this year we got a new 4-wheel-drive car and I thought we'd give it a try.
I knew Lucy would jump at the opportunity to visit her other son, but I was rather surprised that both of the boys wanted to come too. We left as soon as Charlie was done with finals, although he worked on a paper in the car as we drove there and finished it the morning after we arrived.
In my youth, I tended to drive straight through when I had a long drive. When I worked for MobileEd I occasionally had long drives between engagements: once I did a show in Toledo one day and was in Red Bank, New Jersey the next: I drove all night and arrived just in time for breakfast. Once, I finished my last show of the tour just south of Boston and drove home to Michigan overnight, stopping only briefly at a rest stop to take a quick "power nap".
More recently, however, I've generally divided long trips into two days of driving. In recent years, Lucy and I would stop in Kent, Ohio for the night. The last time I brought the boys, we stopped there overnight and I took them to see the memorial for the Kent State shootings.
But now Charlie can drive. And he was eager to just push on through, so we did. Coming back, we did the same: There was a storm moving in, so we left Michigan, drove through Illinois to pick up Lucy, and then drove all the way back, arriving home after 22 hours on the road. Pretty epic.
Time on the highway in the dark can seem dull, but the enforced proximity also has a positive side. With our hyperconnected lives, I've sometimes found it hard to find time with my boys for deep conversations: they and I are always on the go and rarely connect for long enough to get past the day-to-day topics.
We had a wonderful, far-ranging conversation during the drive home. It was an opportunity for reflection on important topics: their childhoods, my parenting, and our shared lives. I learned a lot about them and how they're coming to see the world. They're both fine, upstanding, thoughtful people. It's a memory I will treasure.
When my kids were little, I was torn about public schooling. I believed in unschooling and other, more radical, kinds of educational models. I half-seriously considered trying to start an alternative school that would have an emergent curriculum, if not entirely self-directed and that would be project-oriented, with students doing Work — real work — that would benefit the community. I envisioned having multi-age student groups create public service announcements, running political/publicity campaigns, organizing public events, etc, as a means to explore not just reading, writing, and 'rithmatic, but social issues, communication, and analytics.
At the same time, as a good liberal, I wanted desperately to support public schools. I mostly didn't believe in the factory model of education even then. But I did believe in the idea of the public schools as a shared experience — one of the few that remains — that binds our society together. And when we moved to the neighborhood by Marks Meadow School, the only small, neighborhood school left in Amherst, I was satisfied that it was a good decision for my boys. Although, watching them over the years — and watching what has happened to education generally — was very disquieting. The vilification of the teaching profession, driven first and foremost by the testing regime and standardization of the curriculum, has devastated public education.
It was painful to read this interesting and thoughtful essay about a parent who's child decided first to opt out of standardized testing. But then decided to opt back in, out of a sense of loyalty to the school. The school feels compelled to walk a line between doing what they believe is right for the children's education and engaging in duplicitous exercises: the school
offers extra credit points for attending CST prep sessions; that the school promotes a ‘CST Spirit Week’ with games and prizes; and that claims are made in school communication that imply the children should subscribe to the belief that high API scores offer the school a competitive advantage to other public schools
The author argues passionately that he is "a strong supporter and ally of the school". But how much longer than one feel that way? Some people are just giving up. But not everyone.
Some people are digging in for a fight. Barbara Madeloni came to public education just as things were getting bad: when she started working in teacher preparation she found herself on the front lines of the battle to privatize public education. When she encouraged her students to resist, her contract was not renewed. Now she's running for president of the Mass Teachers Association. The election takes place at the MTA Annual Meeting in Boston. I'll be there.