Thursday, February 18, 2010

Teaching Math on Planet Camazotz


There really is a Planet Camazotz.  Really, there is.  I know this because I have been assigned to teach two math classes there for the next 10 weeks.

For those of you not familiar with Camazotz, the existence of this Planet was brought to our attention back in 1962 through the wonderful writings of Madeleine L'Engle.  Her book, A Wrinkle in Time, took us on an unforgettable journey to Camazotz through the experiences of Charles Wallace, Meg and Calvin.  If you have never read A Wrinkle in Time, I highly recommend it.  If you have read it, read it again.  It's a book you never outgrow.

Like Camazotz, the college where I will be teaching for the next 10 weeks was not always like this.  In the past, things were different.  But "the darkness" has finally covered the college.  The teachers there in the math department are finally under the control of "It".  No, "It" is not Internet Technology.  Oh, if only it were so.  How different things would be.  But alas, "It" is actually the paralyzing fear of technology.  Recently technology showed itself as an opportunity to make learning more engaging and enjoyable.  But alas, it was a stranger on a Planet already mostly covered by "the darkness".  And so instead of being able to embrace the benefits of technology, the members of the math department ran back into their homes, stifling their screams of terror, and slammed the doors shut behind them.  What resulted was a department that was far worse than what anyone could have possibly imagined.  Because once you allow "the darkness" to completely surround you, and you believe the lies of "It", you become something worse than you were before with no hope of ever going back.

So for the next 10 weeks, we will be performing our teaching tasks in flawless synchronicity.  We will all read off the same teleprompter script, teach the exact same lesson at the exact same time, and use the exact same pre-written quizzes and final exams with the exact same questions at the exact same moment.  And most importantly, we will do all of this without any technology.  A policy has now been instated that, at this time, no technology whatsoever is allowed to be used.

As with the residents of Camazotz, the math department faculty members have bought into this robotic routine hook, line and sinker.  As in the land of Camazotz, they pride themselves on how well they can perform these tasks that look so real, and yet are so lifeless.  They do not realize that it is a heartless routine that is being performed and not really they themselves that are teaching.  Much in the same way that the residents of Camazotz did not know what living really was, so the math department faculty members have lost sight of the fact that teaching can be so much more than this.

And me?  Yes, I'm going along for the ride also.  I know, I know.  It lacks integrity.  But recall how on Planet Camazotz the success of "It" came only after he had exhausted his victims.  Remember how in the beginning they tried to resist by speaking in a different rhythm?  Remember how you could remain truly human only for as long as you did not get caught in the cadence of the Planet around you?  Well, I tried.  I tried very hard.  For a while I spoke in a different rhythm in an attempt to allow those around me to see that great enjoyment in teaching can be found in the variety that technology has to offer.  I tried a unique cadence; one that offered hope by trusting the teacher and the students together to find a unique rhythm for each class.  But the lifeless, synchronous arguments around me proved to be too much for me.  And at last I too fell exhausted in the clutches of "It".  I have no resistance left.  So I printed out my script and my pre-written quizzes and tests.  I am looking forward to the next 10 weeks with dread.  But at least I'll get out alive.  Or at least that was what was indicated to me if I could manage to keep my mouth shut.  We shall see...

Oh well, look at it this way:  At least I know exactly what tests to teach to.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Google: The Filene's Basement of the Internet

Filene's Basement at Downtown Crossing in Boston.  Nothing like it in the world!

There's really no amount of explaining that could do it justice.  You just would have had to experience it for yourself. (Sort of like using Google products)

The sights, the smells, the crowds, the sound of the subway rumbling just a few feet away, the excitement of Boston... It was all there.  But the store itself... Oh! The store itself! What a wonder!  You could find anything there. (Sort of like using Google search engine)  And it was all top quality stuff.  And with the right amount of patience combined with shopping savvy, you could get a bargain of a lifetime - only there you could find one every week.  Take a look here to get a history of Filene's Basement and a feel for the place...

But along with the high quality items at low, low prices came the chaos for which Filene's Basement was famous.  There's really no explaining that either.  You would have had to experience it to understand. (Sort of like trying to get a handle on Google Wave)

But perhaps to give you an idea of why it was such a popular place, let me tell you a story:

I got married in 1994.  At the time it was not unusual for women to be spending a couple of thousand dollars on a wedding gown.  However, you did have the option of going "cheap".  There were places you could still get a gown for "only" $800 - $900.  Well, (as those who know me well can testify) I'm not big on the idea of spending $1000 for something that will be used for only two or three hours.  So I went to Filene's Basement in search of a wedding gown.  I found one.  It was a beautiful, winter white, velour gown with a short train.  It originally cost $750.  I paid $25 for it.  Correct, I said $25.  Got the idea?  Actually I ended up buying two gowns.  The second one was a gorgeous satin gown decorated with beautiful lace and sequins.  I paid $25 for the second one also.  Correct, I said $50 total for two wedding gowns.  Now no one needs two wedding gowns.  I bought two because the first one was sort of plain, so I bought a second one that was decorated rather fancy.  Then a friend of mine, who was a seamstress, took some of the decorations off the second gown and sewed them onto the first gown.  Oh, and while I was at "The Basement" with my maid of honor, she found her gown for $50.  And we took some more of the decorations off of the second wedding gown I bought and also decorated her gown with them.  So there you have it.  The bride and her attendant attired in beautiful gowns for a grand total of $100.  So now you understand why people went to Filene's Basement.

And it wasn't just wedding gowns.  You could buy fabulous men's suits there, women's suits and dresses, casual attire, undergarments, household items....  Anything, and I mean anything, could be found in the "The Basement". (Sort of like using Google)  

So if you didn't mind the ride on the subway to get there, it was easy enough to find.

 But once there, the chaos began.  (Sort of like trying to figure out Google products, or getting a Wave invitation)  First there were the crowds.  In addition to the serious shoppers who went there, Filene's Basement was also a tourist attraction.  People came from all over the world to shop in Filene's Basement.

  So for one reason or another everyone made their way there. (Sort of like Google's popularity)  Some people loved it right from the minute they stepped in the door.  (Sort of like Google)  Others went there because they had been brought up going there.(Sort of like today's Digital Natives) For others, like me, it took some getting used to. (Kind of like the experience I'm having with Google products)  But it only took you getting hooked in once, and you were an addict.  Once you experienced Filene's Basement and found it satisfying, you went again and again. (Sort of like Google fans) 

But there were some downsides. As I mentioned there was always the chaos.  Then there was the biggest issue; No Privacy Whatsoever! None! (This would be where Google Buzz hits the scene) You went to Filene's Basement for practicality, not privacy.  There were no dressing rooms there.  So we would strip down to our underwear in the aisles.  Correct. That is exactly what I said.  If you wanted what Filene's Basement had to offer, you put privacy aside and, in front of hundreds of people, you stripped down to your underwear and showed the world what you owned. (Sort of like having Google Buzz in your email)  Hey, you want a $40 bra for $3?  Gotta try it on, right?  Want to know if that dress fits just right for that special occasion?   Gotta try it on, right?  Everyone did it and no one thought anything of it. (Sort of like today's Digital Natives)  In "The Basement" all bets were off. (Sort of like living in a digital world)  Want to know how that $800 wedding gown looks on you?  For a $25 bargain, believe me, you didn't mind taking off your clothes.  Heck, we even stood half naked in the aisles and held up signs of what size we were looking for in case someone else nearby had found it first! 

   Most people didn't pay any attention.  Half the time they were standing there naked too. (Sort of like the people who have no idea how much information is out there about them and how easily accessible it is - mostly thanks to Google)  So hey, what are they gonna be looking at?  For the most part, it really wasn't a problem.  But back in the days when there were only stairs and no escalators that went into "The Basement", it was a popular pass time for some people to hang out on their lunch hour on the steps and get an eyeful.  (Kind of like digital stalkers)  But, oh well, it was just all part of the Filene's Basement experience.

I haven't been to Filene's Basement for years now.  Actually, I'm not sure if the Downtown Crossing store is even there any more.  They had closed it for a while because of renovations being done to the above ground area, and I'm not sure that it ever opened again.  (Anyone reading this know that?  Let me know.)  But the memories are priceless.  Thanks, Google, for reminding me. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ode To The Driving Instrutor (since they are teachers too)

Feet pumping an imaginary brake, and knuckles always white;
Surely there is more to life than gripping dashboards tight.

I should have listened to my friends when they said, “Teach a computer class”.
Instead I’m stuck here in this car just sitting on my ass.

I could have clicked a mouse all day, or typed my fingers on the keys,
Showing people how it’s done, while I talk “computerese”.

What I wouldn’t give right now for an office to go to,
Or perhaps sit in a faculty meeting, just munching on some food.

I glance up at the light beyond, “Look out”, I scream, “It’ Red!”
But this kid just keeps talking on about getting his girlfriend into bed.

I say “Don’t forget your blinker”, and I motion with my hand.
(All this teenage talk of sex is more than I can stand.)

I slam my foot down on the floor for the one hundredth time today.
But alas, the brake is on his side, much to my dismay.

My poor feet! They are so tense from pushing the floor all day.
I knew I should have followed my dreams and taken up ballet.
Or gymnastics – yes, that’s it! Or maybe I’ll play pool.
My hands deserve some better task than steering for this fool.

Now he’s telling me about the first time he smoked grass.
I roll my eyes, shake my head and say, “Just focus on your task”

I dare not close my tired eyes or unclench my aching fist.
I’m going to have a heart attack – this kid makes me so pissed!
(How did my dearest dreams and I separate so far?
My hopes and goals of childhood never included sitting in this car!)

He says, “I’m gonna get my nipple pierced”, and jerks the car into a swerve.
“And then my nose”. He smiles and winks as he straightens out a curve.

Finally the lesson is over, though I’m shaken to the core.
He pulls the car into the drive, jumps out and slams the door.
I shake my head and wring my hands, my foot begins to tap.
Why do I do this for a living? Why do I take this crap?

The driving part may be over but the worst is yet to come.
Sighing I follow him to the front door – cause this jerk is my son!

~Carolyn Fish~


Saturday, February 6, 2010

17 Syllables

Do 17 Syllables really have the power and ability to tell a whole story?  Consider the following:
our paths briefly crossed
my life forever altered
you just kept walking

In thinking about the above haiku, I thought about how much I could have said, and yet, at the same time, I don't think I could have ever said it all. If I were to write about the conversations and interactions that I hold in my memory and to which I referred in line 1, it would take pages. If I were to try to sit down and write an explanation of the insight, perspective, emotion and feeling that is being expressed in line 2, it would be virtually impossible. If I were to try to write about the circumstances, tears and disappointment that is being expressed in the few short syllables of line 3, I don't think I could do it. And obviously I don't need to. Apparently, in 17 syllables, the story was told well enough that others understood exactly what I said - or perhaps I should say they understood exactly what I chose not to say.

Although it does not fit all the rules for true haiku that a haiku master would follow, sometimes I use a 5/7/5 haiku format to express a thought when I am on twitter because it fits nicely into the 140 character limit.  Often I participate in the daily twitter haiku challenge.  Sometimes I just use haiku for my own expression of thought.  I decided to put this one out on my blog since it got a lot of re-tweets when I put it out there on twitter.  It also got a really sweet compliment from @olehmannf who said that it was, in his opinion, the best haiku he read this past week.  So that, of course, made me feel good.

It is an interesting exercise to attempt to fit an entire conversation worth of thoughts into 17 syllables.  I think about how I can convey feelings and experiences into three short lines.  Furthermore, twitter is a conversation that can be read by anyone in the world.  Therefore, if you choose to express something personal, it must be vague enough so that you are not revealing any details, and at the same time powerful enough to get a message across.  It says something about yourself, and yet it lacks particulars.  It is an expression of your own experiences, and at the same time it says something that anyone else reading it can understand and relate to.  Every once in a while I put a haiku out there that gets a lot of re-tweets and I know that what I said in those 17 short syllables is resonating with other people.  Don't be deceived by the brevity of the 17 syllables; it's harder than it looks.

I sometimes use writing as a catharsis, although I do less of it now than I used to.  Sometimes my writing takes the form of poetry.  Other times I sit down and write my thoughts in story form.  Sometimes I just write down what I am thinking about to see if the thoughts in my head can be expressed in a way that would work on paper.  But all of that writing is for me.  I keep it under lock and key.  On very rare occasions small pieces and parts of it have seen the light of day.  On the other hand, hours of writing have been known to get tossed in the fire because when I read back over it later, I don't like what I said or thought.  Sometimes I use this blog as a place to express and process my thoughts.  But a blog is a conversation that can potentially be read by the whole world (although I doubt this blog is in any danger of that), so that limits what I choose to say.

There certainly are times when brevity trumps length.  Had I chosen to say more than just these 17 syllables, this would have been only my story.  By choosing brevity, in this particular case, I allowed it to be everyone's story.  Everyone has had someone in his/her life that can fit into those three lines.  In this particular instance, giving others room to fill in their own details is what gave life to these 17 syllables.