Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I am not in a codependent relationship with my muse. 

I saw a Ted talk in which Elizabeth Gilbert (who wrote Eat, Pray, Love -- the Little House on the Prairie star is Melissa Gilbert -- yes, I want to mix them up in my mind, too) described the creative process from the points of view of several writers, herself included.  The talk depressed me because it was so obvious from her delivery that Gilbert was completely freaked out that her muse would leave her and never return.  She told the story of one writer who likens her muse to a huge storm that comes upon you when you are hiking on a moor.  You have to run fast so that you can avoid the storm and get inside (in other words, get as fast as you can to a keyboard) before it rains on you (before the muse decides you're not worth the effort and hightails it on out of your mind).  Gilbert was almost out of breath as she described this feeling; it was like watching a very insecure woman venting to her girlfriends about the particularly narcissistic and fickle lover with whom she was irredeemably smitten.  Reader, it was not pretty. 

I, however, have no such fear that my muse will abandon me.  Sometimes my muse arrives when I am cooking and there is water boiling.  I just have to say, "Muse, I just don't have even a second."  Sometimes she replies with an, "Okay.  Do you mind if I hang out over there with a magazine until you finish?"  Other times she gets haughty and leaves with her nose in the air.  "Well, if you don't have time for me then I'll just go find another writer to inspire."  Imagine her a self-important neighbor like Phyllis on the Mary Tyler Moore Show (Cloris Leachman -- I don't get her mixed up with anybody -- she's one of a kind). 

I just don't do the drama with my muse.  There's no thunder and lightning.  There's no sturm und drang.  There's no despair when I forget the Xanadu of my imagination when the postman comes to the door.  She tries to engage me but I can say to her, with courage, "Hey, I don't always have to be there for you.  I've got a job.  I've got friends.  I have a life of my own.  And I know who you are."

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Professional Development

I've been thinking a lot about the state of American Education. I have a lot to say about it. It really needs to be reformed, but not the way our President, his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, or our legislators think it needs to be reformed. I will go into greater detail in a later post. For now, what follows is one, minuscule but important piece of how education needs to be reformed.

I came to these ideas when I read the November 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review and first learned about Peter Drucker. Back in the 1950s, Peter Drucker coined the term, "knowledge worker." As I read about Drucker and did some extra investigation about knowledge workers, I realized that teachers are knowledge workers and that teachers manage knowledge workers -- students. Really, this shouldn't have been a revelation. But what made it so shocking to me is that I am not managed the way Drucker thought knowledge workers should be managed. Nor am I encouraged to manage my students as knowledge workers.

Knowledge work can ultimately be judged on whether or not three things occur:

1) When something successful that never existed previously, is now up and running;
2) When something successful that existed previously has been improved or expanded; or
3) When something unsuccessful that existed previously has been stopped.

The productivity for achieving one of these things can be judged based on the speed with which it is accomplished, and the cost required to finish the job.

The following lists illustrate the difference between manual work and knowledge work.

Frederick Taylor on Manual Work
Define the task
Command and Control
Strict standards
Focus on quantity
Measure performance to a strict standard
Minimize cost of workers for a task

Peter Drucker on Knowledge Work
Understand the task
Give Autonomy
Continuous innovation
Focus on quality
Continuously learn and teach
Treat workers as an asset not a cost

Source: Reinvent Your Enterprise

Teachers are routinely allowed to understand the task, have autonomy, and are encouraged to innovate continuously. However, we manage 150 students a day which minimizes the cost of us as workers, and emphasizes the quantity of students that we teach over the quality of teaching. We are evaluated on a checklist.

We relate to our students by defining the task for them, giving them little latitude for autonomy, encourage them to think inside the box. We evaluate them by using a rubric -- a checklist.

Here are two more relevant lists.

Manual Work Productivity
Work is visible
Work is specialized
Work is stable
Emphasizes running things
More structure with fewer decisions
Focus on the right answers

Knowledge Work Productivity
Work is invisible
Work is holistic
Work is changing
Emphasizes changing things
Less structure with more decisions
Focus on the right questions

Source: Reinvent Your Enterprise

Teachers' work is invisible, holistic, and changing. However, school boards, superintendents, and legislators tend to focus on running things, build more structures so that the classroom teacher cannot make autonomous decisions, and ask us to focus on the right answers.

Students' work is also invisible, holistic, and changing. Nevertheless, teachers must evaluate them as if what they have learned is always visible, specialized, and correct.

This post was long and was written in a lot of passive voice. However, future posts will attempt to provide concrete examples and to identify all of those currently passive actors.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Student is More Important Than the Teacher

I think that a teacher can get the best teacher training by taking classes -- especially in a subject that is unrelated to the field that we teach. I believe this because we are the experts in our disciplines and in our classrooms. We know where the lesson is going. We are capable of answering most of the questions. Research in our fields is second nature to us. But it isn't for the student.

One of the reasons I loved law school was because I got to see how other people taught. I got to compare and contrast my teaching style with theirs unencumbered by an expertise on the subject. I got to see how long it took for me to grasp a concept, and what had to happen in the classroom and in study to get me to understand it.

I love yoga for that same reason. Whenever I go to class, I learn something about teaching and learning. I started out doing yoga at a yoga school. Lately, I've been going to yoga at my health club. The teaching is so different! What's interesting to me is that the teachers are the same teachers (there are only so many yoga gigs in Denver, so a lot of my teachers at the yoga school moonlight at the club). The difference is the student.

The yoga school is strict and disciplined. You go and the expectation is that you practice and advance. No one is easy on you because you are afraid to go up into handstand. You come to the school prepared to do what the teachers tell you to do. You have to abandon ego when you get to the school. You come to the realization that shape-shifting is a life-long process.

The club is lax. People take yoga at the club because it is popular, not because they go seek enlightenment. The club people want a fast-paced, muscle-burning workout. They have no patience for the emotional and spiritual challenge of yoga. Maybe they are on the way to enlightenment, but don't see it. In class the other day, the teacher demonstrated handstand for us and then asked us to work on it. Next to me, a woman immediately went up into headstand. She didn't even try what the teacher wanted.

To me, the difference between the school and the club is that people go to the school to learn, and people go to the club for recreation. The club people complain when a class goes too slowly, or the teacher talks too much, or focuses on what seems like a minor detail about extending the skin on the side of the foot to pull back the little toe. They come with a set idea of what the yoga experience should be, and then they want it recreated for them.

The school isn't like that. It's emphasis is on precision and alignment -- on "working deep into the pose." The student who wants that precision goes to the school and submits to the practice. B.K.S. Iyengar tells a story of his yoga training. His teacher told him that he needed to learn a posture correctly, and he wouldn't get dinner until he did.

The New York Times ran a piece on April 23 called, "A Yoga Manifesto," about a group of yoga schools that de-emphasize the teacher in the learning process. Instead of being able to choose your teacher, as other schools allow you to do, the school simply sifts you into the next available class. It does not even publish the names of its teachers. The idea came to the schools' founder, Greg Gumucio, from his teacher, Bikram Choudhury. When Gumucio complained that he didn't like taking class from one of the teachers that Choudhury employed, Choudhury responded, "'You are your own teacher....You are responsible for your own experience.'" Choudhury went on to explain that it is easy to concentrate with candles and music, but it was important to "'Try being calm and peaceful in your car when some one cuts you off.'" Yoga is about embracing life, not escaping from it in a dark and hot little room with a teacher who comforts and coddles you.

Of course, I have known for a very long time that we are the major factors in our own learning. Class is really only an introduction to ideas and skills. True understanding, mastery, and application come with practice away from the classroom, often years after the final grade has been posted to your transcript. I still ponder questions from college that perplexed me. occasionally I formulate an answer. Occasionally, I formulate several -- over the course of several years. Learning is about struggling with an idea, an activity that is, by definition, not comfortable.

I am frustrated with the culture of no struggle. There seems to be an idea among students, parents, school boards, and some teachers, that learning should take place in an environment where nothing can harm self-esteem, or alter a student's view of himself or the world. Well, if you think that you are the brightest star in the sky and then you fail your vocabulary test, shouldn't that alter your perception of yourself just a little bit? The football team that has no injuries at the end of the year is the football team that forfeited every game.

So I think that we need to throw the ego out of teaching. Teachers need to stop playing the martyr. Often, I hear my colleagues say, "I can't take a personal day. I have too much to teach." Such a complaint assumes that the student can't get along without the teacher, and that no learning takes place except in the teacher's presence. It also enables the student. A student who can't form a thought without a teacher present to suggest one is a failure. The student has to come to class and study prepared to struggle, and the teacher has to be prepared to let him.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Bush II Administration Retrospective

As the George W. Bush administration draws to a close I have decided to list the affinities, policies or decisions of that President that I have agreed with. They are as follows:

The invasion of Iraq. Yes. I was once a supporter of this decision. However, once it became clear that Iraq had no WMDs, I withdrew my support.

Last summer's suggestion that we suspend the gas tax. It was a stupid idea, and it still is.

Dogs are cool. We both really like dogs. However, so did Hitler and the Marquis de Sade. I don't know what this says about us.*

The decision not to help Israel bomb Iran.

The creation of that huge National Monument in the Pacific.

The decision to work closely with the Obama transition team. I always thought that President Bush might be, in essence, a bully, but this recent magnanimity suggests that he might have evolved as a person.

Running. We both like physical activity.

The whole shoe-throwing incident was an insult to America, as well as to the President, and I felt a deep empathy for him. No country or person should be so insulted, regardless of the atrocities that country or person has committed.

He is the decider.

He signed legislation that prohibits discrimination against people because of the information that might be contained with in their genome.

Bailing out the domestic car industry.

We both love America.

*I confess that I like the Marquis de Sade. This opinion is based on Francine du Plessix-Gray's excellent and very sympathetic biography, At Home with the Marquis de Sade.

Celebrities, Going About Their Business

I was out walking the puglet the other day when I ran into some of the neighborhood kids. Among them were twin girls, about kindergarten age. They were both wearing large sunglasses and had their tote-like handbags slung over their forearms. The one who is usually the more outgoing of the two looked appropriately aloof, with her hair covering about one-quarter of her face. I was reminded of paparazzi pictures of actresses shopping in Greenwich Village.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

San Francisco

Some observations.

In the Haight: An upper window with the iconic Che Guevara picture in it. Just down the street is a window featuring the now iconic Barack Obama image. Barack is the new Che.

Just off Haight Street in Buena Vista Park: Two guys sharing a joint.

In the Castro: An upper window with a "No on 8" sign. Another window with a campaign picture of Senators Obama and Biden together at the DNC.

On the corner of Castro and Market: A Pottery Barn.

On Lyon Street: A "for sale" sign in front of a house. Calderoj checks his i-Phone to see how much. I guess $750,000 for the house. (I lowball). I'm close. $749,000 -- for an upper floor condo. 811 square feet.

You know you are in Chinatown when you see the laundry drying on the fire escapes. There's no gradual transition. Suddenly, you are just there. Cross Green Street going toward the water and suddenly you're in North Beach. There's nothing Chinese. Now it's Italian.

Downtown: Shoppers. All of the women wearing their skinny jeans tucked into Uggs. And scarves. Long mufflers. Lots of those long, puffy coats. I passed a woman wearing my Rebecca Taylor gray coat with faux fur collar from last year.

From our window you can see Nordstrom. For two days in a rown now there has been a demonstration agaist the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in the plaza across the street from the store. People marching with candles and Palestinian flags. On Sunday they shouted, "No peace without justice!" I couldn't make out what they shouted last night.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Local Flavor

Next to almost constant sunlight, the best thing about living in Colorado is the relatively mild weather. For example, I am sitting here on November 16 with my front door open to a 70-degree day. Down at the deli a few blocks away, three dogs, all Labradors, one black, one yellow, and one chocolate are tied to a tree, watching their masters intently as they sit on the porch and eat.