Busyness Is Not A Badge Of Honor

No Stone Unturned

After devoting the vast majority of my writing and thinking to education-related issues and other publishing platforms in the past year or two, I’ve decided to revive the ‘Stew!

Out of curiosity, I used Medium to post my latest effort.  Thanks for reading!

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Wealth As Community, Time, and Freedom

No Stone Unturned

I’ll be the first one to admit it: I value financial security and material comfort, I save for retirement, and I sometimes worry about finances.

But after reading Ben Hewitt’s book Saved: How I Quit Worry About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, I’ve been inspired to blog.  Like Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, the text challenged me to ponder just how unsustainable the modern paradigm of constant corporate and economic growth is, urging us to examine what it means to be wealthy.   Let’s consider community, time, and the freedom to think and act outside the realm of money as undervalued measures of wealth.

Community

Valuing wealth based on massive accumulating of material goods and services is a historical anomaly for most of the world’s inhabitants, yet it has become the norm. Hewitt writes:

Of course, the economic and social arrangements we know today have scant historical precedence, and it was not long ago that our investments were not primarily fiscal in nature. We invested in property, to be sure, but also in less tangible assets, like trust and community. We understood that we could not stand separate from others in our communities, nor from the natural world that provided the foundational essentials for day-to-day survival.  

If this doesn’t echo Wendell Berry, I’m not sure what does. Berry writes in The Agrarian Essays, “A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members – among them the need to need one another.”

Community membership offers measures of wealth, of course, that are vastly different than accumulation and six figure bank accounts. If you can trade handmade material goods or services with a neighbor, is that not a form of wealth? If you can strengthen relationships with others by borrowing tools, or counting on someone to feed your pets while away, is that not wealth? Hewitt contends that to be wealthy is to maintain interdependent relationships that allow us to skirt the impersonal transactions of corporate America.

Time

We are all offered 24 hours in a day. No more, no less, no matter our lot. I consider myself wealthy in this regard, despite the fact that I have a demanding job as a high school teacher. I take active steps to ensure I work efficiently and have ample time at home, hours spent bow-hunting in the woods, and time to simply be, to relax, to read, to write. Hewitt writes, “Given the egalitarian nature of time, not to mention its scarcity, the capacity to choose how we spend out time could be viewed as the ultimate expression of wealth.”

I thought about this quote the other day, as I sat in the school cafeteria for an extra three paid hours for parent-teacher conferences and department meetings. Most of my colleagues said they’d rather be with their families, pursuing a hobby, or simply choosing how to spend their time. I was in complete agreement.

Thinking/Freedom

Hewitt’s most interesting idea regarding the modern wealth paradigm of material consumption is that it can detract our ability to be more mindful about the world around us, to be critical thinkers, to be artists, to feel unburdened from thinking about bills and acquiring more stuff. Consider this: if you spend all of your time working to earn money, then worrying about how you’ll spend, invest, and save your money, how much time is left over to think about other things?

“We tend to think of freedom in the context of flesh and blood, but of course our thoughts can be shackled too…How often, I wonder, do we deny ourselves the pleasure of offering our gifts to others, be they intellectual, artistic, or of pure toil? I can’t afford that, we say, and we believe it…” Hewitt continues.

This post probably doesn’t do these ideas justice, but I’m hoping to hear from y’all.

Is someone wealthy who has a 4,000 square foot house but is a slave to their mortgage payment, having to work 60-hour weeks to make house payments and fill up every room with furniture and gadgets? Is someone wealthy if they have a huge nest egg, but hasn’t been able to–or chooses not to–pursue hobbies or take vacations? To what extent do you value the aforementioned ideas as wealth? Is the old maxim “time is money” problematic in any way to you?

What Do You Do Without A Screen?

No Stone Unturned

I’m not sure when I realized a determination to continue to learn and do things that do not actively require a digital screen.  

This desire to be present and hands-on could have been fostered at an early age; I remember putting on a plastic hard hat and hammering away on rocks, shards of stone rocketing off into the grass, while my uncle fixed the foundation to our barn.  I remember constructing forts out of plywood and potato guns out of PVC piping (sorry, mom).  My friend Chris once allowed me to borrow his stick-shift Honda Accord for a week so I could learn how to drive a manual.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

With each passing year and new gadget becoming the latest rage, it’s far too easy to let convenience, leisure, and screen time consume all waking hours. I’m victim to bleary eyes from staring at a screen, checking my phone too often, and defaulting to mindless internet browsing.

But I check myself. I don’t feel good if I fail to step away from technology on a fairly regular basis.

While I’m an active Twitter user and blogger, my students don’t understand what I do when I’m not teaching.  “Do you have a life?” they inevitably ask, when I tell them I haven’t seen the latest viral YouTube clip, or TV show, or haven’t heard that a pop star has gone into rehab.  I’ve got hobbies, I tell them.  I like to try and build things, cook, brew beer, hunt deer (although this past season was my first shut out, to my dismay).  They shake their heads.  They are truly perplexed, but they don’t do much questioning when I tell them I’m glad I grew up right before the smartphone revolution. 

Is it becoming a norm in society to not know how to do anything of disengaged from digital connectivity? Is it the norm to pursue as much leisure and convenience as one can?

Sure seems like it. Effort becomes devalued, as does work, in favor of instant gratification, a point Wendell Berry makes in The Art of the Commonplace: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.”

With Berry’s quote in mind, I suppose a lot of what I like to do might be considered work or not worth the effort. But here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this. I wonder if, at some point, they’ll have their own epiphanies and start to engage themselves, with others, and the world around them in different ways.

What do you take pride in being able to do without a screen?  What are some pros and cons to the relentless onslaught of technologies that promote leisure and entertainment?  How well would you cope without your phone or internet for 48 hours?

Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug

No Stone Unturned

While strolling around a village about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, my wife Rebecca and I got inevitably lost amongst the dry rice fields, the occasional passing motorbike, and dogs popping out of every other driveway to inspect each flourish of activity. The landmarks on our hand drawn, photocopied map–phone booths, wood carvings, fish pond–provided little guidance.

But there was no reason to worry, as our overall experience in Thailand confirmed what many people had told us: the Thai people are almost otherworldly with their hospitable and friendly nature, putting most Americans to shame in this department.

Within minutes of standing at a junction that was supposed to have four turns, instead of three, two cars stopped by, asking in halting English if we needed help. No, we’re fine, I said, determined that my normally sound sense of direction would prevail. It didn’t, and after about ten more minutes pondering where to go under the shade of some banana trees on the side of the road, we flagged down the next person we saw.

The man on the motorbike didn’t stop speaking an incomprehensible blend of Thai and English, but he determination to return us our rustic guest house was clear, so we meandered around the local villages, two unlikely passengers clinging on to each other while balancing on the scooter.

The list of firsts and memorable experiences from our two-week long honeymoon expedition is lengthy, but writing about travel is tough. How can I encapsulate a trip that will provide us with a lifetime of joyous memories? Should I review places  like street food vendors (eat the Khao Soi  noodle dish in Thanin Market, Chiang Mai),  guest houses, and temples? Should I try and convince others to travel to Southeast Asia?

For me, reading The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti provided a spark. In the book, the author embarks on a personal quest to uncover the story behind one of the world’s greatest cheeses, produced in a tiny village in the Castile region of Spain. He meets Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, and becomes entranced by his powerful personality and the village’s ancient way of life. Paterniti eventually moves his family to Guzman, Spain, in order to fully unravel a compelling mystery of the cheese’s rise and fall, but the tale ends up being about more than curds and whey–the writer reflects and finds his place in the world. It’s a delightful read, a tale of idealism, adventure, and local food customs.

More than once in Thailand, Rebecca and I imagined packing up and moving abroad. How could we not choose to live in such a hospitable, enchanting, affordable place? When would be a good time for us to pack up and leave the United States for a stint in Thailand or another place? Rebecca imagined being home with a child (one that doesn’t exist yet) while I worked as an English teacher.

Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.

We ate many delicious meals for about 30 Baht, or one dollar, took advantage of public transit that cost between 10 cents! for a train ride to five dollars for a two hour van taxi, and I possibly overdosed on cheap massages. We saw thousands of Thai lanterns lazily rise and dance in the sky over Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve. The only sign of aggression or discord from any native was a man in the village who slapped his dog after it barked at us; everyone else we encountered seemingly smiled or assisted us in some way. Heck, even most of the animals were friendly.

But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language.  And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)

“What am I doing here?” Paterniti finally writes in The Telling Room after realizing he’d never feel truly at home in Guzman. “It hadn’t occurred to me to try and tame the “madness” of American life rather than tame it, to bring the lessons of Castile back to American life.” I reread those words while sitting on the porch of a hut at the village guest house, and I shared his words with Rebecca.  We wondered aloud about what insights or behaviors we might bring back with us to the United States.

I’m probably continuing to idealize, but being in Thailand provided a great reminder that the American way of life–striving, attempting to make more money to buy more things and bigger homes, to accept 40 hour-plus workweeks as unbending–isn’t the only paradigm out there. Being in a place where Christianity isn’t the dominant religious was eye-opening, too. What affect does Buddism have on a place where, for the most part, people seem so accepting and calm (recent political riots, notwithstanding).

We’re now back in Kentucky, braving the frigid temperatures, readjusting back to our busier lives. But our travel bug is solidly reestablished, as is the possibility that someday, somehow, we could choose to live abroad. It was entirely refreshing to visit a place so different and yet so great in so many ways. The world may be shrinking in some ways due to digital technology, but there are still countless places out there where we’re reminded and challenged–wherever we come from–that there is more than one way to live our lives.

How about you?  How you you write about travel?  What eye-opening moments have you had in domestic or foreign places? When you travel, what do you seek?  Relaxation?  Adventure?  Escape?  Experiencing different cultures?  Thanks for chiming in.

Maintaining a Blogging Presence, Catalysts, and Inspiration

No Stone Unturned, Techculture

As much as I love being online, blogging, Tweeting, and the like, I don’t like how demanding it feels sometimes.  How, if I don’t write a captivating post or send out X number of Tweets, then I’m somehow falling behind.  How, if I don’t read and respond to some loyal Stew’ reader’s posts, then I’m giving them the short end of the stick.  How you might feel like you’re missing something if you’re not checking your Twitter feed.  Sometimes, I’m excited to publish a post–I just know it will resonate with readers–and then there is marginal response.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather "sparks" for new writing.

Blessed to have the opportunity to study in Europe this summer, I had plenty of time to observe, reflect, and gather “sparks” for new writing.

Maintaining a blog is a challenging endeavor, and I don’t recommend it if you’re not passionate about the writing process and discovery of new ideas.  The process of finding, refining, and revising my place in the real and digital world is what keeps me blogging.  If readers comment, great.  If readers don’t comment but I’ve enjoyed the process of composing a post, I’m cool with that.

For new bloggers out there, take heed: Melissa over at Freeing Imperfections blog has some solid realizations for new bloggers.  Here’s what she wishes she’d known when she began blogging.  Highlights include:

1. Blogging is not easy and it’s incredibly time-consuming – at first.

10. Not everyone will care that you have a blog. But if you care, the people who want to read your blog will follow.

14. Social media is good for blog growth. Before I started my blog, I thought being on it more would be a bad thing. Without social media, my blog would still be in the dark with no readers, reaching no one.

I’m conflicted, at times, over how much time I spend in front of a screen; this concern has appeared here and here and here in Mindful Stew.  Regarding Melissa’s point about social media, I don’t like to feel obligated to promote blog posts on Twitter or Facebook, but I do enjoy ensuing dialogue when folks leave comments.  It’s exciting to know that something you put out there strikes a chord with readers.  And now that I’ve dropped my number of posts to three or four a month, I try to be deliberate about publishing.

I want to write about what matters to me with a connection to more universal ideas and experience.  I want to write on Saturday mornings over several cups of coffee, and I want to write after experiencing an idea itch when I witness something out there in the world or online, whether it be a quote, a visit to the Farmer’s Market, or a news blurb.   I’m always fascinated by what great bloggers and writers out there like Caitlin KellyAnnie Murphy Paul, and Terry Heick encounter as catalysts for their own posts.

Soon, the school year will begin and I’ll have a deluge of new experiences and faces to provide sparks for reflection and analysis, and my own desire to balance digital and “analog” life will be put to the test.

I know I’ll have students who are constantly connected–many seemingly addicted–with their iPhones and Androids.  Part of me wants to tell them to disconnect, to observe the world around them and slow down their thinking, without mediating life through a screen. Another part of me knows it’s my job to help students navigate and use the digital world more productively.  

Although it’s not a new calendar year, the start of the school year marks a major shift for writing/blogging educators out there–we might have a ton to say, but finding time is tricky.  I look forward to continuing blogging on the ‘Stew, in addition to a blogging gig over at the Center for Teaching Quality.   Happy blogging, everyone.

What shifts have you experienced in maintaining your digital presence?  What tips would you give to beginning bloggers?  What are your “go-to” sites, experiences, or observations that often spark your own blog posts?

Classrooms Without Borders

Room 137

Imagine a 30 by 30 room, with students sitting silently in rows, ostensibly listening to lectures, text messages covertly being sent inside hoodie pockets, and whispers here and there.  Eventually, completion of multiple choice exams at the end of an instructional unit measures learning.  Sadly, this probably sounds familiar.  While there is a time and place for extended direct instruction and lecturing, the majority of kids do not benefit from this type of instruction, as it does nothing but increase the chance for more disengagement, failed tests, and I don’t care about anything at school uttered from freshman to seniors.

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One reason why I teach and enjoy my current position is possibility.  The possibility to redefine what teaching and learning looks, sounds, and feels like.  The possibility to forge community partnerships to give students models of successful adults in various roles.  The possibility to give students chances to unearth passions and shift their perspectives.

At the end of February, I was fortunate to travel to the Navajo Nation with students and teachers Brent Peters and Joe Franzen from Fern Creek Traditional High School.  Today, the collaboration continues as a Navajo delegation arrive in Kentucky.  WFPL’s Devin Katayama produced this story about the exchange, a tribute to possibility and passion in public education.  

The more teachers are allowed to blend personal passions with instructional standards, the better.  Peters, a former chef, and Franzen, an avid urban gardener and sustainability leader in the community.  They are collaborating to teach Food Lit. at Fern Creek, a hybrid junior English course.  Interdisciplinary instruction is endless–when you talk about food, you’re talking about biology, storytelling, ecosystems, the environment, health issues, history.  Students have met with local farmers and chefs, worked in the school greenhouse, explored family traditions, and written editorials about Asian Carp.

Break out of the 30 by 30 box, letting an exchange of people, activities, and ideas permeate the classroom.  On my end, I’ve partnered with WFPL’s Katayama and Kertis Creative, a local media strategy and production company, in my digital storytelling class.  

If you teach science, why not use Skype with biologists or university professors?  If you teach art, why not contact local art associations and galleries to set up student art shows?  If you teach PE, why not invite college athletes and fitness trainers in to design exercise programs and share them with the community?  You get the gist.

If you’re a principal or building leader who shuns innovation, community partnerships, and dynamic uses of technology, you’re short-changing hundreds of students in your school.  I could care less if your test scores increase.  Your school may look effective to some, but what about the students?  Can you look them in the eye and tell them you have done everything you can to prepare them to be productive citizens in society?  Do your students toss their graduation caps in the air, excited to continue pursuing a project or idea learned in school?

We educators–especially those of us at “struggling” schools–are still under immense pressure to increase test scores.  But that doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice the pursuit of possibilities for redefining and creating successes for our students.

How about you?  Did you have a teacher with a creative approach who embraced possibility?  Should more schools strive to build partnerships with community members and experts?  What was your most powerful learning experience?

No Stone Unturned

If you watch one TED Talk this week, check this out. So many great nuggets of wisdom:
“Growing your own food is like printing your own money…gardening is my graffiti, I grow my art…you’d be surprised if you let the soil be your canvas…gardening is the most therapeutic thing you can do…and you get strawberries…if kids grow kale, kids eat kale…but when none of this is presented to them, they’ll blindly eat whatever the hell is put in front of them.”

What do you think of this presentation?  Should food studies be part of the curriculum?  Do you garden?  Why?  Any other inspiring food stories you’d like to share?

Ekostories

I really like TED talks. I not only enjoy being exposed to ideas worth spreading, but I am also rejuvenated by seeing the passion people have in their work. But it takes a lot of skill to do TED talks  well. It doesn’t matter how exciting the ideas themselves are: One has to convey them in a way that captures the imagination of the audience. The story is not enough; one needs to also be a good storyteller.

Keeping with last week’s theme of urban renewal and gardening, I wanted to share a recent favourite TED talk of mine. It’s by Ron Finley, a guerilla gardener who is working to bring about a more hopeful, healthy and sustainable future for South Central LA:

Receiving a standing ovation, Finley’s passion for and belief in food gardening as a force for societal transformation is evident and infectious.  Like other great TED…

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From the Bluegrass to The Navajo Nation

No Stone Unturned

I remember a frying pan encrusted with the remnants of beans and pork fat, empty two-liter bottles, and cautious stares as I worked on construction projects with my church youth group from Concord, NH. I remember piles of empty whiskey bottles, outhouses, and feeling like an outsider. And I remember the leaning, rusty trailer where 18 Ogalla Sioux somehow managed to live–right here in the United States–on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Traveling and experiencing another culture, seeing how others fare day-to-day in conditions far worse than my own in the peaceful small city of Concord impacted me greatly. While students can receive a great education within the confines of classroom walls, nothing is more impactful than being in a foreign place, interacting with another culture, and learning by direct experience through the five senses.    

I’m fortunate to have just traveled with seven adults, including four teachers, our principal, a local chef, and a media producer to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. We brought eleven students from Fern Creek Traditional High School–four of whom had never boarded a plane.  

Group picture at Window Rock, AZ, headquarters of the Navajo Nation Government.
Group picture at Window Rock, AZ, headquarters of the Navajo Nation Government.

When one student from our Fern Creek delegation counted 15 restaurants he could walk to from our school, the Navajo students could hardly believe it. Roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is a vast area, sparsely populated, with few private businesses. Commutes of sixty or more miles are common to reach the nearest grocery store or school. Traveling for necessities and services isn’t the only way in which the Navajo people are isolated–the digital world surges ahead while many on reservation are left to fend for themselves to simply gain cell phone reception or internet service. As we traveled by tour bus on some of the 2,000 miles of paved roads (West Virginia has 18,000 miles), I was continually struck by homes and trailers dotting the horizon, seemingly miles from the nearest neighbor.  

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For four days, we toured, met, and conferenced with Navajo leaders, teachers, and students. A Navajo delegation will be visiting us in Louisville in late April to continue a cultural and educational exchange. It’s still all sinking in, and I’m having a tough time coming up with the words to encapsulate the power of the trip. I’ll try to let some images do the talking.

Some of us participated in The Shoe Game, a traditional Navajo game that combines storytelling, singing, and gambling.  It's only played during the winter.  For more information:http://seethesouthwest.com/3312/the-navajo-shoe-game/
Some of us participated in The Shoe Game, a traditional Navajo game that combines storytelling, singing, and gambling. It’s only played during the winter. For more information:
http://seethesouthwest.com/3312/the-navajo-shoe-game/
Conference activities centered around ideas relating to food literacy--critical thinking and discussions about what we consume.
Conference activities centered around ideas relating to food literacy–critical thinking and discussions about what we consume.
Students discovered they had much in common.
Students discovered they had much in common.
Vice President Rex Lee Jim prepares to lead a traditional corn pollen ceremony in a hogan.
Vice President Rex Lee Jim prepares to lead a traditional corn pollen ceremony in a hogan.

I’ll share some student-created digital stories about the trip in a few weeks. In the meanwhile, I wonder about your experiences traveling. Have you ever been in a place that made you pause, consider walking in another man’s shoes, so to speak?  What has been your most powerful travel experience? Were you able to get out of your comfort zone as a student and immerse yourself in a new place? What did you gain?

The Myth of the Super Teacher

Room 137

I prepared for my first teaching gig undaunted by my lack of experience.  After all, I had a literature degree from a prestigious liberal arts school, I had been mostly successful at everything I had tried, and I knew the students would appreciate my compassion and creativity.  I’d be a great first-year teacher.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As teacher and writer Roxanna Elden states in this must-watch presentation below, “In the movies, there is a short period of trial and error, and then the teacher figures out the secret to teaching, which is showing kids that you care, and this works really well, because all of the other teachers in the movie, interestingly enough, got into teaching because they don’t care about kids, and they just need this person who is brand new to set them straight.”

I remember feeling so dejected, frustrated, and run-down because I thought that because I cared so much, I’d be successful.

What I needed was more practical, honest advice.  I needed more guidance from veteran teachers.  I needed to know manageable steps to improve the next day.  I needed to detach myself from the myth that NO first-year teacher is good at his or her job.

The Myth of the Super Teacher from EdWriters on Vimeo.

Based on my own experience and observations, it takes at least three years to start becoming a consistently good teacher.  Yet many teachers, like myself, at tough urban schools, never make it through three years. It makes little sense to staff schools filled with the most needy students with young, idealistic teachers, hoping to live up to the Myth of the Super Teacher, but like many policies and status-quos in public education, it’s an entrenched and destructive pattern for all parties involved.