Sep 29, 2012

Like: My Favorite Things about Facebook

I like Facebook.  I know it's not fashionable to say that these days.  What is popular is go gripe about how awful it is and how we hardly ever go on there anyway (even as we update our status).  But I'm going to buck the trend and say it loud and proud.  I enjoy Facebook.

I first joined Facebook about a week after my oldest son was born--in the early fall of 2008.  A former student of mine, Aya Sato, had been encouraging me to join for quite some time, but I'd not gotten around to it.  I've never been what you'd call an early-adopter.  The bandwagon is usually pretty full by the time I jump on.  But on that Sabbath afternoon, Elijah was sleeping in the downstairs playpen, his mother was upstairs getting some much needed sleep as well, and all of a sudden, and quite unexpectedly I found myself with nothing to do.  "What the heck, might as well join Facebook" I said to myself. And so I did.  And I found I liked it.  Much better than Myspace, which was on the brink of entering irrelevancy at that time.  I liked the clean (some might say boring) look free of busy wallpaper and other flashy touches.  I liked that it seemed more geared for adults rather than kids.  I liked the open news feed and the absence of adolescent features like the "top eight friends."  So for the past four years I've been a pretty regular Facebook user.

There are many negative things I could say about Facebook, I'm sure, but in keeping with the inability to dislike anything on Facebook, this post will focus only on the things I like.

I like it when people post infrequently  and only when they have something witty, entertaining, interesting or thought provoking to say.  Heck, I like people who post frequently and always have something witty, entertaining, interesting or thought provoking to say.  The witty, entertaining, interesting, and thought-provoking is the important part.

I like the news feed.  It's where I almost always go on Facebook.  I rarely look people's actual profiles (which is perhaps why I don't hate timeline the way some people do, and why my own profile remains unenhanced under the new timeline feature).

I like being able to provide real-time updates to people who care. I really took advantage of this during our last 8th grade class trip to New York.  Many of my students parents were Facebook friends of mine and I was able to post pictures and status updates throughout the trip so that the parents could know where we were and what we were doing throughout the trip.  I generally don't friend people very often, but I think I'm going to friend as many of my 8th grade parents as I can so that I can do the same thing this year.

I like getting likes.  I think everyone does and I believe it's one of the reasons that Facebook is so popular. It is an engine of affirmation.  No matter what one says on Facebook, there invariably will be a string of "likes" and comments to cheer one on.  Try it sometime--look for someone to say a mean word on Facebook--you'll be hard pressed to find one (and when you do it will probably be by someone under the age of 16).   Despite the news reports about Facebook bullying and such, I find it to be by and large a positive place--certainly more so than the rest of the internet where downright ugliness often prevails.

I like staying in touch with old friends.  It's nice being able to feel like I still have a connection--however tenuous--with people that have meant a lot to me from my past.  College, high school, and even elementary pals. A host of Saipan loved ones, former students and colleagues.  Church members.  They are all there and it's nice to "see" them in this little way.  Sure there are few people who are Facebook friends but who are acquaintances at most in real life (Even though I don't friend very often, I'm reluctant to decline a friendship request unless I really have no idea who you are), but I'd say most of my friends are exactly that. . . my friends.

I like getting to know people through Facebook.  This doesn't happen very often since as I just said, most of my friends are real-life friends too, but there are a few exceptions and they've proven quite rewarding. One in particular is my cousin Dee Johnson.  I don't know my dad's side of the family very well, as my parents split when I was quite young, and I admit to being rather incurious about that side of my family for many years.  But Dee fascinated me.  He friended me very early in my Facebook years and for the longest time I couldn't figure out who he was.  I knew he was related to me but I didn't know how.  But I found his life fascinating--living and raising his kids in Sweden, for example. Posting hip tracklistings from Spotify.  Sporting some cool dreads.  The whole American abroad struck a chord with me, as I too knew the rewards and pleasures (as well as challenges) of living outside the U.S. mainland.  Eventually through talking to my grandmother, Uncle Antoine, and Aunt Adrienne I was able to discover that Dee was in fact my cousin (as was "Joe Polo" another mystery friend with a Maycock connection).  It turns out we even met when we were both very young.

My grandmother shared this photo with me when I saw her at the  NAD teacher's convention in Nashville in August.  I'm in the striped shirt in the center sitting on my grandfather's knee.  Dee, is in the yellow top on the far left (If I remember correctly).

I like funny on Facebook.  I appreciate those who brighten my day with a laugh, whether it's their own original brand of humor (Rey Descalso, I'm looking at you.) or those funny, snarky e-card things

I like people who are positive without being sappy or cliche.  This is no easy task and I admire those few who pull it off so well.  Kristen Jarnes Browning, an aquaintance from college who regularly posts her gratitude lists comes to mind..

Facebook gets a lot of flak these days. Flak about privacy concerns, flak about oversharing, flak about political postings and the ensuing squabbles, flak about the supposed evidence of rampant narcissism in it's social media landscape, but to me Facebook is what you make of it.  And what I've made of it, I like quite well.

Straight Talk about Telling It Like It Is

or Telling It Like It Is About Straight Talk

Normally I like to choose my words carefully with a great deal of consideration as to how they'll be received and their potential effectiveness.  But today I'm going to dispense with the niceties and cut to the chase.

Telling it like it is is often highly overrated.

Problem: When people are telling it like it is most of they are really only telling it like they think.  We fancy ourselves as great truth-tellers but in fact we've merely exalted our own opinion to the level indisputable fact. This is why this kind of attitude crops up more often in arenas like religion and politics, areas where indisputable facts are much rarer than we'd like to think but where it's easy for deeply held beliefs to feel absolutely true.

Problem: It doesn't usually work.  Think about it.  When was the last time you were convinced to change your viewpoint or way of life because someone gave you some so-called straight talk.  We like to tell ourselves "someone needs to set that guy straight."  But when have you ever been "set straight" by someone else?  How often does someone say "Wow, thinks for completely laying bare each and every way that I'm in the wrong"?

Problem: Usually when we're telling it like it is, we're not trying to change anyone else's mind.  Instead we're doing it for the enjoyably smug feeling of being right.  If we know that someone is unlikely to change from a browbeating or verbal smack down--you know the kind that makes onlookers go "Oooooh" like school kids responding to an especially snappy put-down--it's clear that there are other reasons for straight talk.  Primarily letting everyone else see how clever we are.

I'm not saying there's no place for straight talk; that only diplomatic talk has legitimate value, but here's a couple of things to keep in mind next time you're tempted to indulge in some feel-good smacking-down, some righteous reprimanding.

It's usually time to give it to 'em straight if you are reluctant to do so.  This is a pretty good indication that what you have to say isn't to gratify your own ego, but because someone else really needs to hear the truth. If you can't wait to "set that guy straight",you probably should keep your mouth shut.

If you've earned the right to speak, you have a duty to do so.   If not you probably won't be heard.  When you have a close relationship with someone, when that person knows you care for them unconditionally then not only are they ready to hear the truth from you--they are counting on it.  Because while we may shut out the self-righteous bloviating or smug false concern of those who don't know and care for us, we need to hear the truth from those we know are in our corner.  But you get to be that person not by being right but by being a friend.  Sadly sometimes it the people who are the in the best position to tell it like it is that fail to do so.  Elvis, Michael Jackson and other sad cautionary celebrity stories of those who surrounded by yes men had plenty of critics, but those critics spoke their truths from a distance and were never heard.  It was the responsibility of those who had earned the right to be heard to speak.

If your goal  is not to change the mind of the person you are talking to, but to warn others than it's time to speak hard truths.  Your speaking up may put your own reputation, livelihood  and even personal safety at risk.  Most times when we're in a hurry to tell someone off, there's no cost to ourselves.  But when someone poses a real danger to others, it often means they pose a danger to you as well.  Jesus presents a good example of this; he had strong words for the religious leaders of his days--brood of vipers, white washed tombs, hypocrites--and he didn't sugar coat the truth.  Not because he expected to correct these men but because they were leading people astray and had to be called out for the sake of those who would be deceived by them.  If like me, you're having a hard time thinking of similar situations in your own life, that should come as no surprise.  Opportunities for this kind of truth-telling are rare in deed.

So there it is, my unvarnished take on shoot from the hip straight talkers.  I offer no apologies to those I might offend.

After all, I'm just. . .you know. . .telling it like it is.


Sep 22, 2012

The Best Year Yet

Three of my 8th grade students raise the flag on the first day of school while the rest of  Columbus Adventist Academy looks on.

For the first day of school this year I put together a brief PowerPoint slide show that I set to play while the kids were coming in that morning. The show contained instructions for the day, some choice song lyrics from the two songs--"Lifetime" and "Set the World on Fire "-- that played along with the show, and a joyful welcome that promised this to be "the best year yet!"  That was the plan, that was the goal, and so far that is the reality is I've plunged into my fifteenth year as a professional educator.

The best year yet first began to take shape weeks before classes began at the North American Division teacher's convention in Nashville, Tennessee from Sunday, August 5 to Wednesday, August 8, 2012.  Every six years the Seventh-day Adventist church brings together all of its teachers in a massive gathering to teach and inspire:  big-name keynote speakers from the world of education, a dizzying array of breakout sessions to give teachers "use-it-now" ready to go out of the box ideas for the coming school year, exhibitors from all over hawking all manner of pedagogical products, and worship sessions designed to give us the spiritual fuel to go with practical tools.

Facing Math vendor in the exhibit hall. I bought a bunch of these books that combine art and math into a single activity.  They make great  practice activities.

 This was no ordinary skip-the-seminars-and-sightsee convention.  The four days I spent in Nashville were rich and invaluable on every level.  The Highlights:

A view of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention center where we stayed and where the  convention  was held.  The venue itself was a highlight!  In the months leading up there was much discussion about who would stay in the Gaylord this year (apparently six years ago the entire Allegheny West Conference was farmed out to lesser hotels nearby and the teachers had to commute to the convention events).  I didn't really get what the big deal until I saw the Gaylord for myself.  The place is amazing--the Disney World of hotels.  I was indoors for three days straight--never left the building.  But it didn't feel that way with acres of indoor space dotted with trees, fountains, quaint shops, taverns, and cafes, and even a winding river where visitors could take a boat tour of the resort  The vast glass ceiling let in the natural light adding the illusion of being outside.  Walking from seminar to main session to my room to exhibit hall I felt like I was outdoors on a cool autumn day (I can't imagine what the electric bill for that place must be, with the amount of air conditioning it takes to keep all that indoor "outdoor" space comfortable)

Life-changing general session:  Todd Whitaker's "What Great Teachers Do Differently."    I first came across Whitaker's ideas during principals meetings in Hawaii four years ago where his seminal book What Great Principals Do Differently was the organizing basis for the principal's in-service.  What I thought then, was confirmed now:  this guy is a genius.  He upends some of the most common assumptions in education--"lectures are bad", "always start with something positive" among others--with the kind of commonsense wisdom that is both revolutionary and so simply true you can't believe you didn't see it before.

A sample of the practical genius Todd Whitaker has to offer:

If you're a teacher or a principal, I strongly urge you get his book right away.  Click on the links above.

Revolutionary Seminar: Tom Clark,the founder of VideoText Interactive completely destroyed and rebuilt how I teach math in the space of about an hour and a half.  He delved into the "whys" behind a lot of the concepts I've struggled to get my students to grasp.  There are concepts like why multiplying two negatives equals a positive that I always accepted as true but never understood--or could teach--the reasoning behind until that seminar.  I'm still processing what I learned in that seminar.

Spiritual Mountaintop:  There were many.  Pastor Carlton Byrd's powerful call to higher ground on the opening night for example.  And Pastor Dwight Nelson's incisive and insightful devotionals each morning (As a result of his talks I've revamped my private devotional practice once again, returning to the first principles of "A New Way to Pray" that I first learned from Pastor Nelson in the spring of 1994).   But for sheer spiritual uplift it was hard to beat the concert by Committed on Monday night. It started out as an ordinary showcase of the a cappella stylings that made them champions of NBC' The Sing-Off.  But when they shifted to a time of praise and worship, the atmosphere was electrified as we all joined our voices with theirs.  It was one of those rare times when you feel sure you can hear the angels singing with you.  The rest of the concert was nothing short of heavenly.

I left Nashville energized, fired up, and ready to go into the year full-tilt; ready to make this the best year yet.
Old friends Kevin and Vicki Wiley who I hadn't seen since 1998.  It was funny, they didn't recognize me at first until I said "You were at our wedding!"  For both Kevin and Vicki that seemed to do the trick. An added extra-curricular highlight of the convention was seeing long-lost friends.  There were so many people I knew there.  It is no exaggeration to say you  walk from one point in the convention center to another without every five minutes bumping into someone you hadn't seen in years.

Jeanie Drake (now, somebody else. . .I didn't catch the new last name).  She was one of our first  friends when we moved to Saipan in 1998.  She taught 3rd/4th grade at Saipan SDA School and was our next-door neighbor.
Kathy Stair Anthes, another Saipan teaching alum from the 2000-2001 school year with her husband and son.  As a student missionary in Saipan, Kathy taught kindergarten and co-founded REAL Christian Theater with me and Aaron Knowlton.  In fact, the name REAL was her idea!  It was so great to catch up with the legendary K-Stair.

My grandmother and me.  Several of my family members from my dad's side of the family including my Uncle Antoine, Aunt Adrienne, and my grandmother drove up from Huntsville on Tuesday, August 7 to visit me and another cousin at the convention.  I spent a pleasant afternoon catching up with them.

The first day of school set the tone.  It was probably the best first day I've ever experienced in my teaching career.  Our principal had the idea that we should welcome the students with a kind of red carpet experience complete with cheering fans and paparazzi photographers.  So we got a couple of eighht graders to come early to act as greeters, lined up at the front door with our cameras in hand and gave the students and parents a first day welcome they'd never forget.  It was so much fun, and you could see on the faces of each person that arrived what a special experience it was for them.
Awaiting the arrival of the students.  Our red carpet was hardly big enough to roll out, but the love behind it was more than big enough.
Welcome back everyone!
One of my 8th grade stars, "The Voice" makes his entrance.

Hamming it up for the photogs

One of my heroes this year, the ever-faithful Ms. Pat arrives

This year marks the culmination of a four year journey with my 8th grade class--a journey towards a different way of classroom management--one that asks the students to take ownership and responsibility not just for their behavior in class but for their lives as a whole. Since they've been fifth graders I've been working in fits and starts with this class to empower them.  I've incorporated elements of Jim Roy's Soul Shapers and Stephen Covey's "Leader in Me" (which our school is seeking to make part of our school culture this year) among others.  Some methods have worked, others haven't, and for others the jury is still out.  We've spent more time in discussion--instead of me telling students what they've done wrong and what the punishment will be--we talk it out, and they tell me.  I've urged the students to think about "changing the culture" of their classroom, and by extension the school and setting a high standard for themselves, and by extension for the younger students coming behind them.

This year all of my students are involved in some kind of classroom leadership--much of the classroom tasks I used to do, I've passed to them.  I have an IT supervisor who checks out all the electronics for student uses and sets up the computer and projector for class presentations.  I have a secretary who does the daily lunch count, classroom managers who keep the room clean and organized, and even a praise and worship team that leads song service every morning (and often presents the entire worship program for the day).  I can't say for sure whether it's "working"--after a pretty solid first three weeks some of the old problems and issues began popping up again.  Bu at least t they're not any worse with the changes I've implemented,  than they've been before.  One thing that helps is that I have hard-won relationships with these kids, relationships that I've worked for years to build.  The kids know me, and I them, and there's a deep level of trust and good will in place even when it comes time to deal with disciplinary issues.

It's nice to finally be back in my groove again.  After having to start all over again when I arrived at CAA three years ago, I finally feel like I know my way around--that the kids know me and that my reputation once again precedes me--doing a lot of the work for me of establishing the classroom tone that I used to have to do myself.  This year may not be perfect in the classroom, but so far it does appear that it will be the best yet.

Teacher worship in the morning continues to be church in the best sense of the word. Our time of reflection, praise, and prayer is shorter than last year as we've committed to being at our doors when the students arrive--but more powerful than ever.  The deep sense of camraderie as strong as ever, and our new 5th/6th grade teacher, Tamaria Kulemeka, replacing the irreplacable Renee Lee, has blended seamlessly with our team.  Each morning is a rush of Spirit-filled energy, and there have been days when we've been moved literally to tears by His presence.

CAA teacher's pray over the desks of the students on the afternoon of the second day of school.

In a larger sense I feel like I'm in a really fertile time in my spiritual life.  There's more vibrancy in my journey with God than there has been in many years.  There have been many things that have fueled this spiritual re-awakening--the aforementioned teacher's convention and the worships with the teacher, and also an inspiring seminar on prayer by Ron Halvorsen that Babs and I attended last month in Dayton. But life itself has presented numerous opportunities of late for me to learn to trust Jesus more.

When we returned from our summer trip to Oregon, we found a letter in the mail from our son's preschool abruptly informing us that the CAA discount on tuition for our son had been reduced from 50% to 15% off the regular cost.  Suddenly preschool had become completely un-affordable.  This was the first several events that led to some serious economic challenges for our family.  For the first time in a very long time--perhaps the first time ever, we were facing a household budget deficit--more month than money.  That might seem like an odd time to consider that Barbara stop working, but ironically it was these financial challenges that led us to the radical notion that we get Elijah out of regular preschool and at home with mom.  My friend J's wife Evelyn stopped working to stay home with their son when they moved to Chicago, and when they came to visit while J and I went to Nashville, Barbara got to see what such a life might look like up close.  And it didn't look bad at all.

Things moved quickly during the month of August.  Opportunities arose and evaporated as quickly as they came.  We were on a roller-coaster journey that gave us the choice: either be terrified out of our wits or sit back and enjoy the ride.  We chose, by the grace of God to trust in Him, and enjoy the ride.  And what a ride it's been!  Babs' last day at her job at the preschool where she worked for almost three years was September 14.  Elijah is home with her now and their days are busy with visits to the library, free classes at the Columbus Metro parks, trips to COSI, and gymnastics class plus the little art, language and math lessons she prepares for him at home. She also has a new job teaching art one and half days a week at my school and at Worthington Adventist Academy.  I've also taken on some private after school care in my classroom watching a pair of students  after the school day is over until their parents can pick them up around 5:30 or 6.  Together we have been able to replace Barbara's old income and even increase by a little more.

It gives me great joy to know that on most days my son and his mother are together doing something wonderful, and I'm always excited to hear about the day's adventures.  And I'm so happy for Babs that she gets to do something she really enjoys.

Babs and The Feller come out to wave good bye to me each morning when I leave for work.  I love the new family traditions we have now.  I get up early with Elijah every morning while Babs gets a little extra sleep.  I make breakfast and we all sit down to eat breakfast together.  Then we have a short family worship together before I leave for work.

The ends aren't quite meeting yet, and we still don't know what we'll do on vacations and next summer when our income from our little side jobs will disappear.  We're also still sorting out exactly where Elijah will go when Barbara teaches (The latest roller-coaster drop was when the plan we'd had for him fell through the day before Barbara's first day of teaching--he ended up coming to work with her that day, but that clearly won't work for the long term).  But if I've learned anything in these past two months it's that God is in
control, and that we can never go wrong trusting in Him.  I've spent most of my life trusting more in the gifts than the One who gives them.  If I can learn to reverse the focus of my trust, I will achieve that peace that passes all understanding, peace that exists independently of circumstance and cannot be shaken.  If I can trust God at that level. this truly will be the best year yet whatever the future holds.

Sep 8, 2012

The President's Speech

President Barack Obama at  Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.  August 21, 2012

Two and half weeks ago I took my students to hear President Obama speak at a campaign stop on the campus of Capital University.  The opportunity came up at the last minute--I found out about the event only two days prior, and it was a mad scramble to get tickets for all of my students.

My students among the crowd at the President's rally.  You can spot them in the maroon shirts.

A small group of students met me at the school about two hours before the start of the school day so that we could get over to the venue and hold a place in line for the rest of the class.  We got a prime spot maybe two dozen people back from the front of the line, but had to wait for more almost two hours before we were let into the outdoor space where the President would be speaking.  After that we waited for close to three more hours, much of the time under a merciless sun before he finally arrived and gave his speech.

Everybody cheered when we saw what we assumed was a  Secret Service  sniper team setting up on the roof top

But it was worth the wait.  I've always believed that the opportunity to hear our president speak should never be passed up.  Regardless of one's politics, I have this old-fashioned idea that no matter who the president is he--or she--deserves our respect and needs our support.  If we don't like the policies the chief executive pursues, we can always vote him out at the next election. But while the president is in office, he should have our our prayers and well-wishes.  After all, if the president fails, we all pay the price, so how can we wish him less than success?

I had the good fortune to hear former President George W. Bush speak as well, back when he was still in his first term in the summer of 2003.  I went with Babs and her family to hear him speak at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.  We were part of a huge crowd and so couldn't see him very well.  Still it was exciting--he flew directly to the venue on Air Force One and we were able to watch the iconic 747 sail overhead as it approached for landing (and later watch it fly off again).  I don't remember much about the speech itself, but I still counted it an honor to hear the president speak, even though I personally disagreed with many of his policies.
The lucky folks at the first barricade were able to catch a quick handshake after the speech

At President Obama's rally, we had a much better vantage point.  The kids opted to sit on a set of bleachers set up under some TV lights just a little further back from the stage, but my school principal and I stood right on the second railing (There was another railing right in front of the platform but this space was for special ticket holders--I'm not sure how one gets these VIP tickets, but I'd love to get them for next time.  These people were able to actually shake the president's hand when he worked the barricades after his speech.  President Obama arrived in shirt sleeves and gave a solid campaign speech--mostly the usual election-season politicking--but of course me being more of a liberal, most of it struck a chord with me.

One of my students, who I'll call the Voice, because he loves to sing, is interviewed by a reporter from our local ABC News affiliate after the president's speech.

The thing that struck me most about our trip to hear the president speak was not President Obama himself but the people who came out to hear him speak.  There was a real sense of patriotism--lots American flags and other patriotic clothing belying the conservative trope about how liberals hate America.  Everyone was remarkably patient--there was virtually no complaining even as the heat continued to become ever more oppressive.  A few people actually collapsed and had to be taken away by medical personnel.  Still, people were uniformly helpful and positive.  The volunteers worked tirelessly to bring us free bottles of water and provided us with campaign signs we could use to shade ourselves from the sun. Throughtout, there was a mood of camaraderie among the crowd--a sense that we were all Americans and we were all in this together.

I couldn't help thinking that the mood would likely have been similar at a Mitt Romney gathering.  I can't help but believe the goodwill I encountered at the president's campaign appearance wasn't a "Democrat" thing, nor would a similar spirit at a Romney rally represent a "Republican" thing.  It's just an American thing, indeed simply a human thing.  Perhaps, as we enter the ever more hyper-partisan final stretch of this election season, it would be well for us to remember that the other side is not the Enemy--that indeed we are all Americans and we are all in this together.