About masfiction

So, just who or what is masfiction? If you speak some Spanish, you'll know that "mas" means "more". In some ways, that's not so far from true. masfiction is the nexus point for a spousal writing team. An aside here: we like the term spousal writing team as opposed to the more traditional 'husband & wife'. Spousal correctly describes our relationship as a whole and how we write - as equal partners. Our guiding principal is "The person with the best idea leads." We live in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest on a modest parcel of wooded ground with two big dogs and a very spoiled cat. Our interests and pursuits are as varied and eclectic as the posts you'll find on this blog. Wait! We forgot to answer the first question. Thank heavens the proctor hasn't told us to down our pencils yet! MAS stands for Michelle Annalisa Scott - our pen name or, for those of you with more erudite sensibilities, our nom de plume. (That's really a nod to our friend Richard who hails from just outside Paris.) MA Scott writes a lot of things but right now she's working on a Steampunk retelling (re-imagining?) of Jane Austin's Mansfield Park. What fun to take a classic epic and 'punk' it up!! WARNING! So now you've been warned. Follow this blog for random thoughts about life, language, pets and how they lower (raise?) your blood pressure, cooking (Caution! We like spicy things!), beading, gardening and roses. Yes, roses are a separate category from gardening. We'll introduce you to hugelkultur as time goes on. Go ahead, Google it now! It's fascinating!

OF ALGORITHMS & INSTANT INFORMATION

Isn’t it interesting how epiphanies occur around clusters of events or stimuli? It seems that I sometimes ‘discover’ something I’ve been aware of for some time but have never really ‘known’ until that moment of revelation. Perhaps that’s why I’m so tempted to give credence to Jung’s concept of synchronicity.  

image courtesy of pbrnews.com

image courtesy of pbrnews.com

As you’ve probably guessed by now, there has been a recent ‘event’. The catalyst was applied today as I turned  on my online music streaming service (no names please!).  I have a channel named “Harlem Nocturne” for when I want a deep, retro blues sound. Somewhere toward the beginning of the queue it served up a piece played by Roy Buchanan. It was a long, languorous, smokey piece filled with glorious improvisation. Because I loved it so I did something quite unusual for me – I ‘liked’ it. The change in the usual mix occurred almost immediately. It was as if Pandora’s algorithm was as anxious to anticipate and please as our golden retriever usually is.

This isn’t a complaint. Merely an observation. And that observation  combined with two articles I read this week lead me to that “Aha!” moment. One of the articles had to do with how our reliance on technology may be affecting our long term memory. The other how we’ve lost the fine art of (and spontaneous wonder to be had at) getting lost due to the profusion of GPS enabled devices.

image courtesy of hespiritscience.net

image courtesy of hespiritscience.net

This episode of synchronicity caused me to realize how much we’ve traded a lot of self reliance and learning to deal with the unexpected for a bit of convenience. Moreover, it frightened me to recognize how much this anxiousness to provide us with exactly what we want, all the time is narrowing our experiences and viewpoints at a time when it’s critical to have a broader, more diverse outlook.

Consider the experience of getting a gift that initially seems inane or useless which then become eminently useful or even treasured. Or on your way somewhere, you turn down the wrong street, aisle, or whatever and discovered something wonderful that you would have missed had you proceeded flawlessly to your initially intended destination.Not only that, when we’re so focused on adhering to the electronic instructions, we lose all awareness of our surroundings and the surprises they may have in store for us.  And what if you forgot your mobile device and needed to call someone? Wouldn’t there be great joy and pride in being able place the call without having to look it up?

image courtesy of usatoday.com

image courtesy of usatoday.com

Make no mistake, we’re not technophobes or Luddites. Quite the opposite. But this epiphany has caused us to reconsider or use of and reliance upon data devices. We’re resolved to work harder at recalling information without recourse to Google and the like. We’re breaking out the old paper maps and occasionally relying on them instead of our GPS devices. And, we’re working especially hard at getting lost now and again so we can experience the excitement of discovery.

WHAT’S IN THE BAG?

I’m an inveterate fan of the social science commentator Shankar Vedantam. His stories center around the things we do and why we seem to do them. They are all backed by
research findings and help us understand the deeper meanings and motivations behind our actions and choices. Today’s commentary was on the apparent contradiction in the
behavior of people who carry their purchases in reusable shopping bags.

That got me wondering. How did something as prosaic and ubiquitous as the disposable shopping bag come about anyway? I found a surprising number of sites with information about the history of these indispensable aids to modern consumerism.

Though smaller than their grocery bag, this is very similar to the first mass produced bags introduced by the Wolfe brothers in 1852. - image courtesy of judyspostcardsplus.blogspot.com

Though smaller than their grocery bag, this is very similar to the first mass produced bags introduced by the Wolfe brothers in 1852. – image courtesy of judyspostcardsplus.
blogspot.com

Although the first recorded use of a paper grocery bag reaches back to around 1630 CE their real popularity and practicality took off after the industrial revolution. Before
then shopping was either carried by hand, in baskets, or in canvas bags with straps or handles. Of course there was no such thing as modern packaging. Most goods at the time, if packaged at all, were generally wrapped by the seller in paper and tied with string. The porous nature of the packaging along with physical pressure of carrying all one’s goods along with one’s groceries generally lead to unhygienic results. Additionally, there was a lack of understanding about microbial contamination. Public sanitation particularly well developed. These factors combined with the lack of ready facilities for easy washing meant that most items used in the daily transporting of goods were quite literally biological time bombs just waiting to go off.

A fine example of Margaret Knight's square bag. - image courtesy of librarycompany.org

A fine example of Margaret Knight’s square bag. – image courtesy of librarycompany.org

Around 1852 a Pennsylvania school teacher named Francis Wolfe and his brother invented the first practical paper shopping bag. It was subsequently improved upon by Margaret Knight who, while working at a paper bag factory, invented a machine which allowed bags to have a rectangular, flat bottom to them. By the 1870s paper bags were quite in evidence and generally looked upon as a very desirable hygenic substitute for the traditional canvas bag. They were so desirable that initially, retailers charged customers for their use.

The next evolutionary step came shortly after the turn of the 20th century when the owner of a small Minnesota grocery store named Walter H. Deubener sought a way to improve the volume of sales in his establishment. He noticed that people tended to limit the volume of their purchases to what they could carry in their arms. His genius idea was to make bags reinforced by string which also formed convenient handles. Each one of these new bags could safely hold up to 75 pounds of groceries. Needless to say, this was not the genius part of the idea. No, it was the fact that the bags, now equipped with string handles, allowed shoppers to carry more than one bag in each hand.

The string handled shopping bag, still found today but which started with Walter H. Deubener. - image courtesy of lombard.com.au

The string handled shopping bag, still found today but which started with Walter H. Deubener. – image courtesy of lombard.com.au

The familiar sight of modern shoppers everywhere. - image courtesy of hipkingdom.com

The familiar sight of modern shoppers everywhere. – image courtesy of hipkingdom.com

Since wood pulp, string, glue and water were all cheap commodities in the early to mid 20th century, the paper bag in that iteration reigned supreme for a half century or
more. However, by the 1950s wood pulp products were becoming increasingly expensive. Retailers did not want to return to the days of limited buying so they cast about for a ready replacement. Enter the plastic disposable bag. It was lighter, cheaper (due to the low cost of oil as compared to wood pulp) easier to manufacture, and easier to store. The major retail and grocery chains of JC Penney, Sears, and Kroger were among the first to introduce plastic shopping bags in 1975. Which pretty much brings us to the current day.

Like everything else, there are both benefits and consequences to every action or invention. In less than 40 years since its introduction, the disposable plastic handle bag has given rise to concerns about its possible detrimental effects on marine life, wildlife, landfill volume, oil consumption, etc.. A growing movement for the return of reusable bags gained traction. Now we see retailers giving a reusable bag refund to customers. Several cities have outlawed the use of single use plastic bags. There are even some ‘reusable’ heavy plastic bags given out by a limited number of retailers. Of course, there are displays of low cost reusable bags near the check out stands in most major grocers as well as several smaller vendors.

The oft maligned but enduring reusable shopping bag. Nylon or canvas, it has managed to make a resurgence. - image courtesy of parade.com

The oft maligned but enduring reusable shopping bag. Nylon or canvas, it has managed to make a resurgence. – image courtesy of parade.com

And so the wheel has turned full cycle. Fortunately, we now understand the role microbes play in illness and we have ready methods of regularly cleaning and sanitizing our bags. But time has had its ironic joke on us. We’re back to where we started over a century and a half ago. We’re putting our purchases into reusable canvas bags. Maybe that’s the true lesson of progress.

TRENDY AND LIKING IT

image courtesy of - thetruthaboutguns.com

image courtesy of – thetruthaboutguns.com

We’re not usually ones to follow trends and such but, in this particular case, we’re really glad we did. We have developed a true passion for African keyhole gardens.

First, we should give you a bit of background. You would think that, living in the Pac Northwest, gardening should be as easy as sticking a seed in the ground and jumping back so that the instant sprout doesn’t hit you in the eye as it comes up. Now, that’s true is some areas but not ours. You see, we live along what is euphemistically referred to as the Hood Canal. It sound so much more romantic than “the leftover path of a long since melted glacier” – but that’s exactly what the Hood Canal is. This contrasts sharply to the alluvial plains found in Thurston, King, Snohomish and Pierce counties. There the dirt is rich, black and wonderful. Here – well we say – if you dig a one cubic foot hole you’ll get two bushels of rocks and a cup of sand. On the plus side, this makes for great drainage. Oh wait, plants need water – maybe that’s not as much of a plus as we’re trying to make out.

Anyway, we’ve tried several methods of vegetable gardening. We’ve tried it in the soil after adding tons of organic matter. We’ve tried raised beds. We’ve tried container gardening. Our best success has been with Hugelkultur, a method of gardening developed on the dry plains of eastern Germany and western Poland. We have mutant junkie sized chives and roses with this method so we decided to give it a go for vegetables as well.

Now, digging a pit three to four feet deep and measuring twelve feet across in this soil should have been one of Hercules’ labors. But, since the ancients probably didn’t know that Washington State was there it got left out of the list. (NOTE: I am not masochistic, stupid or Hercules) so, off I went to see our neighbor whose tractor has a backhoe attachment.

After finding out that I dug the first rose bed by hand over a week’s time, he very kindly made it available to dig the other Hugelkultur rose beds. Thus, I had every hope that he would lend it for the current project. And he would have, except the backhoe attachment was broken. He’s the same generous soul who had provided us with a bunch of old, broken concrete to use as a retaining wall for the new garden. (ANOTHER NOTE: The site we chose for the new garden is at the top of a small rise. Our plan was to excavate down into the hill and then build up a retaining wall on the downhill side.)

So, here we sat with a pile of concrete chunks and no hole for it to retain. For one brief, insane moment, I did consider tackling the project by hand – well, by spud bar, pick, and shovel. Fortunately, after a glass of Irish Whiskey (if you like whiskey, you really need to try Trader Joe’s SINGLE MALT Irish. It’s amazing! Sweet, full bodied, and very satisfying – but, as usual, I digress).

As I was saying, after a glass of ambrosia, I came to my senses and Colleen began to research alternatives that were less likely to result in my having a heart attack. (She DOES care! Amazing!). Her sister Judy, who was having imense success with a tiered garden, suggested that we look into African keyhole gardens. (HINT: Guys, women talk to each other about EVERYTHING. It’s part of the way they get things done. So, just expect that all her sisters and most of her friends know a whole lot more than you wish they did!)

Well, we tried them. There are some wonderful sites and several videos to help neophytes like us get started. It took about three days to break the concrete, excavate the water trap, stack the concrete, and fill the garden. It was a lot of initial work but now that it’s going, the garden is virtually effortless to maintain. Suffice it to say, we’ve never had results like this before. We’re sold and we encourage all of you to take the plunge. It’s fun, it’s attractive, and it’s very water efficient.

Be sure to check out the videos and links below the pictures. They’re the ones we found most helpful in our efforts.

The initial layout of the keyhole garden. It gets its name from the shape of the indentation combined with the round compost receiving hole. Seen from above they resemble the hole for a skeleton key.

The initial layout of the keyhole garden. It gets its name from the shape of the indentation combined with the round compost receiving hole. Seen from above they resemble the hole for a skeleton key.

Second course of broken up concrete.  It's starting to come into clearer focus now.

Second course of broken up concrete. It’s starting to come into clearer focus now.

The finished height of the garden. It stands about 24 inches tall and is 6 feet across at the widest part.

The finished height of the garden. It stands about 24 inches tall and is 6 feet across at the widest part.

Here's the moisture trap. This layer of rotten and old wood collects and holds water. The trap provides  improved soil moisture and helps conserve water that runs through. It's derived from the Hugelkultur experience.

Here’s the moisture trap. This layer of rotten and old wood collects and holds water. The trap provides improved soil moisture and helps conserve water that runs through. It’s derived from the Hugelkultur experience.

Next step, the compost tube. This is just a tube of wire mesh which measures 1 foot in diameter. I inserted a cardboard liner so that, when we filled the garden bed we would keep the dirt out of the compost tube. Also, notice that we've lined the bed itself with cardboard.  You see the alternating layers of green compost, brown compost (dry hay, straw, shredded cardboard, paper, sticks, twigs, etc) and dirt.

Next step, the compost tube. This is just a tube of wire mesh which measures 1 foot in diameter. I inserted a cardboard liner so that, when we filled the garden bed we would keep the dirt out of the compost tube. Also, notice that we’ve lined the bed itself with cardboard. You see the alternating layers of green compost, brown compost (dry hay, straw, shredded cardboard, paper, sticks, twigs, etc) and dirt.

It's really filling up now. Finally! A productive use for garden waste, tree trimmings and especially the ubiquitous and annoying Oak Ferns that take over everything around here.

It’s really filling up now. Finally! A productive use for garden waste, tree trimmings and especially the ubiquitous and annoying Oak Ferns that take over everything around here.

Here you can see that the compost tube is filling at the same rate as the garden bed. The trick here is to continually alternate layers of green and brown compost in the bed proper and cover each one with soil. We also added a whole bucket of dissolved worm castings (that's a nice word for poop) at this point. It smelled VERY agricultural and captured the attention of the otherwise bored dogs. However, the smell went away with the next layer of soil.

Here you can see that the compost tube is filling at the same rate as the garden bed. The trick here is to continually alternate layers of green and brown compost in the bed proper and cover each one with soil. We also added a whole 2 gallon bucket of dissolved worm castings (that’s a nice word for poop) at this point. It smelled VERY agricultural and captured the attention of the otherwise bored dogs. However, the smell went away when we covered it with the next layer of soil.

After the garden is filled to the rim, you continue piling up soil until it meets the top of the compost tube, about one foot higher than your wall. This gives you an incredible amount of 'plantable' space.  From now on you just dump your kitchen and yard waste into the tube. It breaks down very quickly. Ours goes down about one an a half inches a every four to five days - and it's fertilizing the garden as it does!

After the garden is filled to the rim, you continue piling up soil until it meets the top of the compost tube, about one foot higher than your wall. This gives you an incredible amount of ‘plantable’ space. From now on you just dump your kitchen and yard waste into the tube. It breaks down very quickly. Ours goes down about one an a half inches a every four to five days – and it’s fertilizing the garden as it does!

This is how the garden looked on May 25, 2015. We were so excited and it looked so good to us then.

This is how the garden looked on May 25, 2015. We were so excited and it looked so good to us then. You can just barely see the pumpkins on the back side of the mound. That green topknot is a basil plant from Trader Joe’s.

This is the same view of the garden three weeks later. Granted, we added two pepper plants, a Thai basil which you can't see behind the Sweet 100 tomato plant. but still, it's just phenomenal how quickly things grew. That green wall on the back side is made up of the pumpkins which you could barely see in the preceding photo.

This is the same view of the garden three weeks later. Granted, we added two pepper plants, a Thai basil which you can’t see behind the Sweet 100 tomato plant. but still, it’s just phenomenal how quickly things grew. That green wall on the back side is made up of the pumpkins which you could barely see in the preceding photo. And look at the Trader Joe’s basil! We take off a dozen or more leaves each week and we can’t even see where they were!

Here's a shot of the pumpkins. We've had to build a netting out of concrete reinforcing mesh in order to keep them off the ground. On the far side of the pumpkins are two lemon cucumbers which will share the netting. As of today, we're going to have to get another piece of mesh to extend the platform since the pumpkins have almost outgrown it already.

Here’s a shot of the pumpkins. We’ve had to build a netting out of concrete reinforcing mesh in order to keep them off the ground. On the far side of the pumpkins are two lemon cucumbers which will share the netting. As of today, we’re going to have to get another piece of mesh to extend the platform since the pumpkins have almost outgrown it already.

http://www.inspirationgreen.com/keyhole-gardens.html

http://www.hgtvgardens.com/raised-garden/keyhole-gardening-tips

THAT – AHA! – MOMENT

Image courtesy of sq-deal.com

Image courtesy of sq-deal.com

We’ve been blogging about education quite a lot lately. It’s an issue that we see as critical to our society. So, with apologies for being somewhat single minded, we are sticking with that theme in this post as well.

To begin with, we’d like to digress a bit. Our digression takes us into the realm of what might be thought of as ‘working assumptions.’

First Assumption: Human beings are, for the most part, egocentric creatures. That is to say, we tend to think that our viewpoints; our experiences; our situations is generally similar to those of the people around us. We also tend to believe that there are certain common experiences and values based merely on being citizens of this country but we’ll come back to that in our fourth assumption. Certainly, we recognize differences between ourselves and say, millionaires or the homeless, but we tend to think that everyone in our immediate circles such as our neighborhood, our school, our workplace has a relative degree of similarity to ourselves. Those who are radically different from ourselves we are tempted to view with envy, admiration, veneration, revulsion, contempt or indifference; depending on where they fall along continuum from wealth to poverty.

Second Assumption: Fairly recent research shows that as affluence increases, compassion tends to decrease. We believe that this is probably closely linked to the identification/ envy/ revulsion principal cited above.

Third Assumption: We live in a highly categorized, image driven, appearance dependent society. Given that, our responses seem most generous to those who are either most like us or those whom we see as able to best benefit us.

Fourth Assumption: All of us must recognize the role of cultural dissonance in policy making and implementation. To clarify, the word ‘cultural’ does not refer only to say the difference between national, ethnic or racial groups but between concepts like ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ as described by Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens. (By the way, if you haven’t read this book, you really should. It’s packed with things to think about, whether you agree with Harari’s premise or not.)

Now, with our working assumptions clearly defined, we’d like to move on to an experience we recently had. As writers in the modern world, we need to self promoter through vehicles like this blog; our alternate history blog; and social media. Recently we’ve been very fortunate to see a sharp rise in the number of followers on our @masfiction Twitter account. For whatever reason, a large number of the followers seem to be young adults of either high school or undergraduate age. It was one of those recent young adults who gave us a real ‘Aha!’ moment in one of his tweets.

USA, California, Los Angeles, Portrait of teenage boy (14-15) with smartphone - image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

USA, California, Los Angeles, Portrait of teenage boy (14-15) with smartphone – image courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

This young man was discussing the temptation and antics that arise whenever his teacher leaves the classroom for a moment. In the tweet he implies that the momentary absence took place during some form of test or quiz. At the risk of betraying our age, our assumption was that, most likely your pal; the cute classmate who has ignored you until now; or the class bully would whisper something like, “What’s the answer to number 7?” Apparently, that is a VERY antiquated viewpoint. His tweet dealt with the temptation to quickly whip out the old smartphone and look up ALL the answers in the intervening moments between the instructor’s departure and return.

Candidly, wasn’t even on our radar as a possibility because, when we last went to school, smartphones were imagined, not real. The current ubiquity of mobile devices which connect instantly to the internet causes us to forget that the first iPhone was released for sale less than eight years ago on June 29, 2007!

Toddler with a tablet - image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

Toddler with a tablet – image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

Since that time, mobile computing and mobile access have rocketed forward at a breakneck pace. What is more, the saturation of these devices is increasing even more. Our friend gave his “old” tablet to his three year old granddaughter. She wags it around with her everywhere and knows pretty well how to make it work. She also knows how to contact her grandparents and other relatives using her mom’s iPhone. This child is one year away from entering pre-K; two years from entering kindergarten; and only ten or eleven away from entering high school. That’s just barely longer than smart phones have been around.

Back to those assumptions made at the beginning of this rant. Remember that we said that we are all egocentric creatures and that there are certain common experiences and values based on the fact that we are all raised this country? Well, it’s here that we think the policy makers may be missing the boat. Most policy makers, whether they are from privileged backgrounds or the ‘poor kid who worked hard and succeeded’ background were educated long before the internet let alone before the profusion of mobile devices which now connect to it. Realistically, whether they went to a private or public school, the instructional methodology and base assumptions were very much the same as they were in the 19th century. Believe me on this one. I went to both private and public schools. I also went to good and not so good public schools. The simple truth of it all is that the methodology of instruction was almost universally the same despite the fact that resources, class sizes and such might vary widely, . There was a teacher, who not unlike Socrates, was seen as a reservoir of knowledge and the were the students; those empty vessels into which that knowledge was poured. And this may very well be the problem.

We are formulating curricula based on this antiquated assumptions. If our friend’s three year old granddaughter can use a tablet and a smart phone already, can we really see her as a completely empty vessel? If a high-schooler knows how to access the answers to test questions via the internet but struggles with the moral implications of doing so, is he too still part empty? And, realistically, how many times have we seen or heard that old trope of parents or grandparents asking their younger relatives for help learning how to use a computer, smart phone, or any other new technological device?

We live in a world where an 17 year old just won a $75,000 prize for inventing a low cost, easy to install, usable on existing aircraft, ventilation system which increases the flow of fresh air by 190% while reducing the number of pathogens in the cabin air by 55 times their current level. It’s a world where, in the same competition, an 18 year old won $50,000 for inventing “a better containment enclosure that should allow undersea oil wells to quickly and safely recover after a blowout” while also preventing “the formation of methane hydrate that could potentially clog the pipes”.

These teens are the contemporaries of the young man who resisted the temptation to take out his smart phone in the teacher’s absence. None of them are the empty vessels that they are assumed to be by policy makers. We contend that education needs to undergo a paradigm shift if we are to improve the performance of students in this country. Certainly, there is basic information which needs to be imparted. Fundamental principals need to be taught. But the children in school today and who will enter school soon are no longer empty vessels. They come to school with varying levels of skills and knowledge but it far exceeds the level of knowledge which we, as adults and policy makers, attribute to them.

Teenager using a computer at the San Francisco Public Library - image courtesy of sfpl.org

Teenager using a computer at the San Francisco Public Library – image courtesy of sfpl.org

Kids from impoverished neighborhoods have smart phones. They have access to all kinds of information. Homeless children, even those not attending school, have internet access through shelters, libraries, and friends. They are not ignorant because of their circumstances. They have a very clear picture of our modern world. Perhaps a picture that is much clearer than the one that we have. Their parents don’t aspire for them to remain in destitution. They, like we, aspire for their children’s lives to be better. But policies which shunt funding and talent away from poorer areas perpetuate rather than alleviate the problems. Increased class sizes and over stretched resources only exacerbate the problems. We would do well to remember that the acclaimed and brilliant botanist George Washington Carver and the inventive and innovative Thomas Alva Edison were both from poor families. Edison was even referred to by his teacher as being “addled”. These great America scientists found access to knowledge despite being poor; despite being shunted aside because of race and disability.

Students today also have found access to information outside of the school room. What we must do, if we are to maximize the potential of all our future Carvers and Edisons, is find a way to help them channel that knowledge into inventive, productive, and ethical channels. We need the empathy and compassion to reach out to them and help them up. We need to look past appearances, biases and superficialities to see that the mind which holds the key to the next quantum leap for mankind may very well reside in a poor home or no home at all. We must recognize the culturally dissonant fact that the least among us may have the native intelligence to become the first, to the benefit of us all, if we just recognize that he or she deserves a fair shot at getting there.

SYNCHRONICITY, THE ACTOR, & THE SCHOOL

image courtesy of  collective-evolution.com

image courtesy of collective-evolution.com

Sometimes it’s funny how synchronicity rears its disturbing head.

It happened to me last week. On Monday, I became aware of the hoopla about Ben Affleck asking PBS to omit any reference to a long dead relation who was a slave owner.

Then, on Friday, I read an article in the Oxford University Press Blog about an Australian grammar school that is teaching its Third Years using Positive Education.

The dichotomy of these two stories struck me with the force of a thunderbolt.
Mr Affleck, who is, for all appearances, a tireless worker for human dignity, human rights, and forward thinking was so fearful of the potential ‘taint’ over this accidental of fate, that he inadvertently set this tempest in a teapot in motion.

Another article today in CNN asked, “Seriously, who in their right mind would want to be tarnished by the sins of an ancestor you had no connection to other than a remote bloodline?” Really?

When are we going to stop digging in the muck of the past and focus on the very real issues which so desperately need our attention today? Here we have a man who uses his celebrity to foster and promote good works in a dizzying number of causes. And his concerns are not limited to our nation. No, his concern is for humanity. His interests and efforts span the globe, seeking to bring dignity, equity, and opportunity to millions
of people, regardless of their ethnicity, creed, politics or whatever.

image courtesy of  www.salon.com

image courtesy of http://www.salon.com

Ben Affleck is NOT his ancestor. He is a moral, upstanding man who happens to carry a scintilla of DNA from another person, in another time, and from a very different world. He should not have to worry about some narrow minded muckraker trying to use his accidental relationship to a long dead man to create their own 15 minutes of fame or percieved moral superiority. If you think about it, many of us might have less than savory antecedents. Anyone of us could be related to a truly reprehensible character of one sort or another.

Taking this line of thought a step further, it’s important to consider that slavery is an ancient institution. From the time that one person could impose their will upon another there has been a form of, if not actual, slavery. It is not an institution born of this nation. It’s taint has touched every corner of the globe at one time or another and still touches many of them today. We can know of Ben Affleck’s ancestor because the records relating to his activity were, by chance alone, preserved. But many of us could very well carry the same connection to former slave owners whether our roots are in America, the Middle East, Italy, Russia, China, Brazil, or wherever. It’s simply a caprice of fate that the records of our own “tarnish”, as the CNN writer called it, are unknown to us and the world.

I think it’s far more important that we look at who Ben Affleck is. Today. Here. Now. He is the antithesis of his ancestor. We cannot continue to define others and ourselves by what went before. We would do far better to ask ourselves who we are and who we are becoming. If we find failings then it is in all our interests to remediate them.

image courtesy of  www.ggs.vic.edu.au

image courtesy of http://www.ggs.vic.edu.au

This is where the contrasting OUP Blog comes in. The Geelong Grammar School in Australia is working to teach its Third Year students in a positive way. Granted, it’s a posh academy but their approach bears examination. An up coming overnight class activity can seem pretty daunting to 8 and 9 year olds. So, in anticipation of this event, the school is bending the thrust of its curriculum to build excitement and confidence. Studies are not only talking about the animals and plants the students may encounter but also about how they have adapted to their environment.

Students are also tasked with thinking of and relating times when they have faced frightening challenges and come through them. The school is helping them learn that many of them have faced anxious times and either learned new skills (adaptation to their environment) or successfully passed through them. Either way, they are focusing on who the children are becoming; not who they were. The article’s author, toward the conclusion states, “Character strengths such as gratitude, curiosity, forgiveness, leadership, and spirituality, provide an underpinning framework for Positive Education and help to bring core learning to life for members of the school community of all ages.”

Shouldn’t we all be using the ‘character strengths’ of people like Mr. Affleck as examples for our own growth rather than creating false failings to make ourselves feel superior?

CREATIVITY IN EDUCATION

This rant was spurred by the conjunction of several recent news items.

  • Our state is currently under court order to improve education which means our legislature is wrangling on how to fund smaller class sizes, improve instruction, etc.
  • Then there’s the whole furor over the efficacy of the national standards of achievement testing. Is it truly a measure of learning or is it merely a measure of how well we’ve prepped students to take the test?
  • There’s a never ending battle over teacher pay, tenure, seniority and how to determine what constitutes a “good teacher”. (HINT: It’s probably not the result of a customer satisfaction survey. Sometimes, the people who cheese you off the most are the best teachers.)
  • And, how do you fund needed educational reforms? Budget cuts? Salary cuts? Tax levies? Charter schools? Never mind what needs done about an increasingly outdated or even dangerous infrastructure.
image composite  Shuttle courtesy of springfieldnewssun.com - mule team courtesy of yooda.soup.io

image composite
Shuttle courtesy of springfieldnewssun.com – mule team courtesy of yooda.soup.io

All of these things cause my head to ache – a lot! I keep remembering a friend who (quite some time ago) described an organization’s approach to similarly complex problems as, “They’ve got the space shuttle hitched to the 40 mule team and are ready to pull onto the information superhighway.”

Now, our beliefs and opinions on these thorny issues are not the thrust of this blog post. Rather, we want to raise an issue that has largely been abandoned in the rush to demonstrate competency, performance, reform, fiscal responsibility, and more.

image courtesy of dealiciousmom.com

image courtesy of dealiciousmom.com

With all this focus on measurability we’ve lost sight of the vital role of creativity in education. We don’t mean figuring out new ways to convey information. We mean the including the arts as integral parts of an educational curriculum. Art is often the catalyst which make self expression and self confidence possible.

In public education (and let’s be honest here, public education still comprises the majority of preK – 12 instruction), arts programs have been consistently diminished over the past few decades. After all, you can’t measure the benefits of creativity in fuzzy pursuits like painting, drawing, collage making, woodworking, music, etc. Unlike subjects such as science, mathematics or even reading and composition the arts just have too much room for subjective interpretation.

But a recent article on cnn.com suggests that there could be long term benefits to be had from creative pursuits. They may actually help preserve memory. While the article specifically discussed this possible benefit as it relates to staving off Alzheimer’s disease, we can’t help wonder if it might not have broader implications.

image courtesy of greenbrook-montessori.com

image courtesy of greenbrook-montessori.com

Think about this for a moment. If you are a crafter, gardener, woodworker, artist, or whatever – don’t you find that as you are pursuing your creative endeavor, you frequently mull over issues, things you’ve heard, or problems? And just as often, don’t you find that new opinions, thoughts, and solutions present themselves when your subconscious is free to work on them? The mind benefits from cross training as much as the body.

Consider the possibilities for opening new avenues to difficult subjects which might be available through teaching the arts. Music is mathematical. That is a given. But painting can open the door to the chemistry of color or the physics of light. Woodworking and the properties of different woods can lead to inquiring about forestry, agriculture, soil chemistry, environmental effects, climatology, and so forth. Sewing, beading, and crafting can lead to questions of surface tension, material composition (geology, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc), or even to social science issues and the exploration of diverse cultures and communities.

image courtesy of weareteachers.com

image courtesy of weareteachers.com

We don’t intend this rant to be exhaustive but rather suggestive so we’re cutting it very short. However, as we weigh the issues of how to reform our approach to basic education, we would all do well to consider how much we are giving up by leaving creative education to privately funded sources or the “after school clubs”. The caprices of private funding and the economic and logistical limits of clubs may be robbing some of our best and brightest of the opportunity to shine through.  And, in the long run, that may be just as perilous as failing to improve performance in core competency subjects.

TEACHING vs. EDUCATING

It is almost a certainty that I will incur the wrath of pedagogues everywhere but I draw a distinction between teaching and education. You may very well ask, what has prompted this sudden and possibly paraniod claim? Quite simply, it was a game of solitaire.

Huh?

Coffee. Caffeine and anti-oxidants in one! Nature's perfect breakfast food.

Coffee. Caffeine and anti-oxidants in one! Nature’s perfect breakfast food. – image courtesy of dreamatico.com

Permit me to explain. Each morning, as I guzzle coffee; attempt to sweep away the fog of sleep; and assume a state suitable for human interaction;  I engage in a meaningless and mindless activity – I play solitaire. Being of a frugal nature, I play a version on my tablet which is free – assuming that there is no cost experienced by a regular barrage of advertisements between games.

After hitting the ‘Random Deal’ button for the umpteenth time (it was a REAL foggy morning inside my cranium) an ad popped up for an app which claimed that you could get smarter by using it to get summaries of the important parts of books. Now, as I said, I was really foggy this morning but, that ridiculous claim churned around for a while until it hit me as a subject for this blog.

Back to my argument that there is a difference between teaching and educating.  Let me be clear, these are personal definitions for the terms. You won’t find them in Webster’s or even the Urban Dictionary. To me teaching is the process of conveying and ingraining facts or skills via instruction, practice, repetition, and other similar techniques. We teach children their letters. We teach mathematic skill. We even teach our pets to sit, fetch, speak, etc. Teaching inculcates the basic or desired skills. Pets aside for the moment, those basic skills become the building blocks for education.

I believe that education is the process of taking the building blocks and learning to apply them in new and diverse ways. We take the taught skills of spelling, grammar, and composition and, through education, learn to apply them in new and ever changing ways to perhaps engage in screen writing, poetry, technical writing, and all the myriad other means of written communication.

Pantyhose. From micro filter to emergency fan belt. Never leave home without them. Now that should get you thinking!

Pantyhose. From micro filter to emergency fan belt. Never leave home without them. Now that should get you thinking! – image courtesy of davids.net

To me, education is the process of learning to abstractly, critically, and flexibly apply basic skills to diverse situations or needs. Before pressing on, I want to be clear that I am not speaking merely of academic education. There are many instances where other skill sets can be applied in new and innovative ways. One of my favorite examples comes from the First Gulf War. The M1 Abrams tank had tremendous problems with sand infiltration causing breakdowns. The engineers and other academically educated folks couldn’t come up with a solution but a maintenance non com, educated in the real world college of hard knocks solved it almost immediately.  His solution? Pantyhose. They acted as micro filters not only for the M1 but also for helicopters and reportedly, even the troops. (They kept the sand fleas away from their skin.)

By now you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with that app?

Mynah bird with nothing to say. - image courtesy of flickriver.com

Mynah bird with nothing to say. – image courtesy of flickriver.com

It’s simply this; how does using an app, generated by an anonymous someone, who distributes subjectively selected parts of subjectively selected works make you “smarter”? Granted,  you might be reminded of something you once read or even learn a new quote or a clever turn of phrase but those things certainly haven’t made you smarter. If becoming smarter were that easy, all I’d have to do is teach a mynah bird to repeat, “To be; or not to be. That is the question.” and I’d have made it smarter. Uplift would be frighteningly easy; and then where would we be?

Superb reading. Anything by David Brin. Scientist, amazing writer. SciFi at its best. - image courtesy of davidbrin.com

Superb reading. Anything by David Brin. Scientist, amazing writer. SciFi at its best. – image courtesy of davidbrin.com

Becoming smarter requires work. It means reading and studying to become educated. To extract the universal truths. To look back and understand that the foibles and tribulations of our society may be reflected, as Barbara Tuchman said, in a distant mirror. By reading entire works we may learn to abstract lessons which may, in turn, serve to lift us out of a problem or envision another way to approach a situations. At the very least, we may learn that we are not alone nor the first to be subjected to the situations we perceive.

In my completely subjective opinion, if you want to use an app to get smarter, use one that provides you with complete texts. Read them. Study them. Find someone to discuss them with. Take what you find important. Share it. Defend it with logical argument. Then you’ve found an app to make you smarter.