Monday, June 30, 2014

Local Bounty and Local Spending

Living in the Willamette Valley and teaching at a rural school have provided me access to a number of delicious goods. Why pay Safeway $4 for a dozen eggs trucked up from California, labelled and branded "organic," when I can spend $2.50 to get eggs (some laid that morning!) from a student.

But summer is the best. A student of mine has a very small organic blueberry plot. Last year I bought $100 worth. I forget how many pounds that was, but it lasted me literally until a week ago. Today I just picked up 15 pounds more. 

Driving in the countryside this time of year is like some modern Eden. Fields of wheat, perfectly arrayed vines, hops growing tall. During summer I almost cut grocery stores out entirely. There is local everything. And it is all cheaper than the imported stuff.

I'm a huge supporter of voting with my dollars. In fact, there are few things we do in our lives that cause a bigger impact than where we spend our money. Leaving all the politics aside, my choice is to put my money into the pockets of my students and local farmers over some big agri-business. I don't want Oregon to be like Nebraska or Iowa with endless fields of corn or soy.

What we pay for, we endorse.

If I want people around here to grow a variety of crops for local consumption, there needs to be some local consumers. 

If I want to save small farmers, I'd better buy from them. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Smaller is Better

My flight lesson got cancelled today due to rain. So I'm forced to stay indoors and blog while my dog look at me with accusing eyes, asking when we'll go play fetch.

The idea behind our American republic is awesome. We don't have a king who rules us just because his father did. We elect leaders to enact the laws and policies we want to see. And during the time known to historians as "the Good Old Days" we rubbed shoulders with our elected representatives regularly and shared our views in the market, at church, or even in the latrine. Colonial New England is most celebrated for having this remarkable familiarity between elected representatives and their constituents.

And their timeless fashion sense.

That whole mechanism of representative government gets a little distorted, especially at the Federal level. We only see our federal politicians on TV or in the news so its hard for them to really hear our voice. That's part of the reason why we so dislike our federal leaders most of the time.

But at the state and local level, you can still sometimes get a taste of how it used to be. The other day at a local festival I saw my state representative Vic Gilliam walking around. He is probably my favorite politician, though he has a different party registration than me. Not only does he respond to every letter my students ever wrote him, he shovels the poop after our town's annual pet parade.

I went up and said hello, and introduced him to my father who used to be involved in state politics. While I felt bad for taking his time, Vic Gilliam seemed to just want to chat (maybe that's why he is a politician). Best of all, I got to ask him what he thought of open primaries, which I would love to see happen here in Oregon. He told me what he thought, said he'd really been considering them, and thanked me for sharing my opinion.

It was a little thing, but it felt great to have a voice. So many of us feel so helpless and disenfranchised by what happens at the national level, but we have so much more access at the state and local level. More and more, I think that's where real change happens, and where the average citizen can make the biggest difference.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014


In one month I'm moving to Panama City, Panama, and have to decide what to take, what to keep here, and what to sell and throw away. When I recently was unable to toss a queen-sized air mattress that leaks badly, Stuff reminded of the very powerful hold it has over my life.

We work hard to acquire Stuff.  We cherish it, guard it, care for it. We get mad if its broken, stolen or misused.  Sometimes we are so worried about Stuff we don't even use it for its intended purpose, lest it suffer some harm.

Here's an anecdote.  I know a well-to-do man, very wise with his money.  He bought a nice used car for $10,000 cash.  Not a Mercedes or Lexus, think Honda or Toyota.  He was telling me how nice it was, and how he got such a great deal on it.  I noticed it was in his garage.  So I asked him,

"Do you drive it to work?"

"No" he said, "I drive my old beater.  I don't want the wear and tear."

"Do you take it on trips?"

"Not during the winter, I don't want it to get chips."

"So you bought a $10,000 car only to drive it on long trips on the summer?"

The irony hit him, then he tried to hit me, but I skillfully dodged his blows. But I'm just as guilty of having the same mindset.

Why do we love our stuff so much?  I don't know. Perhaps our possessiveness of our possessions is some evolutionary vestige. Stuff was once very difficult to acquire because it all had to be made by hand. That's different now. Industrialization and globalization has made stuff so cheap and plentiful that 1 out every 10 families rent space to store their extra junk. It's a 22 billion dollar industry.

How we see all the crap we've collected.

How the world sees all the crap we've collected
The Woodburn Auction I've written about here and here and here provides a stark reminder on the true value of our possessions. Often you find all the worldly possessions of some deceased soul, divided out into little brown boxes for all the world to see and finger through. It can be a little haunting. All the trinkets, souvenirs, dishes, drawings, pictures that they cared enough about to keep all their life end up going for $2-$15 a box.  So there's your answer. Most of your stuff is worth about $2-$15 a box when it's all said and done.

All those things we own own some little part of us. If I can't throw away a leaky air mattress, that air mattress clearly has a hold on me. Just typing that made me feel stupid. An air mattress has a hold on me?!  All possessions should be judged on one thing only: their utility. 

If you have a car that can't be driven, or a carpet that can't be walked on, a bike to expensive to use... then why do you have it?

Paring down my life recently has brought a sense of freedom and clarity. I'll only be taking to Panama the things I really need, and only keeping here the things I really love (mostly my bike and snow shoes). If something has outlived its usefulness to you, sell it, give it or throw it away. Keep the things that are truly sentimental, but if you can buy it at a Wal-Mart, it's probably not that special.

Friday, June 20, 2014

You Aren't Special

In my pursuit of an examined, well lived life, I've set up ideas as guideposts and protective barriers for the choices I make every day. "Anything worth doing will be hard." "Your health is your best investment."  "Money is a tool, not a god." to name a few.

Good intentions aside, I often lack the self-discipline to follow my own advice. It's easier to watch an episode of Family Guy than work on the story I'm writing.  Sleeping in beats working out more often than it should.  Rather grinding to do something really well, I've dabbled in get-rick-quick ideas like real estate, the stock market, and even a run as a blackjack card counter that made everyone rich but me.

Ambition is good, it inspired us to do great things. Ambition without work ethic and discipline is fatal. Part of that is the society we live in. From the second we are born we are told how special we are. That we can do anything we can put our minds to, and on and on. So everyone grows up wanting to get famous, be rich, be known, and we expect it to happen quick and easy. That explains all the get-rich-quick schemes on TV. Or look at the pop culture starlets whose only claim to fame is a sex tape. But how many of us really have the talent, combined with the work ethic to produce something great? Very few.

I'm victim to that mentality as much as anyone else. I'm a victim to wanting greatness, wealth, and fame but not the work required to acquire those things. But a sobering fact has slowly dawned on me.  I am not special. At all. I am just a very ordinary guy. Most of us are in that boat.

Does that mean our lives are doomed to mediocrity and blah-ness forever? Not a chance  In fact, when we stop flitting around chasing superficial things like wealth, fame and recognition we can plow our efforts into pursuing passions, deepening relationships, and making a difference in the world.

A long time ago I heard a sermon that has applied to so much in life. The gist was, no matter how far away you've traveled the wrong path, you are always only one step from God. That's true for you and I living our best life. No matter what you've done wrong, or mistakes you've made, you can live your best life right now, starting today.

Start by pursuing your passion with all your heart. Sacrifice for it. Make time for it every day. Find those that are better than you at it and learn from them.

Stop idolizing, stop comparing, and stop misusing your money. Money is a tool to provide for your and your family, and help others. That's it. When you die, it does you no good. Get a budget, get out of debt, and start helping others. Incidentally, if you truly start chasing your passion, it's much more likely to turn into something that makes you money than anything else you do.

Instead of valuing money, value your relationships and the moments that happen each day. Every day I live there are moments that could not be any more enjoyable if I had a billion dollars. "Billionaire Moments" I call them.  Last night I went fishing with my girlfriend and dog. We didn't catch a thing. The whole time a bald eagle was soaring over head, and two ospreys were splashing down in the water again and again and pulling out trout. It was unbelievable.

And give. Giving is the greatest joy, and giving leaves a legacy greater than anything you'll ever do. Give until it hurts. Give your time, your talents, and your money until money breaks its hold on you.

When we stop assuming that we are special and focus on the things that really matter in life, maybe we'll become what we wanted to be all along.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I Haven't Shaved In Over a Year* (Except Once)

Men, if you want one tip to immediately make your life better, stop shaving. Shaving sucks on so many levels. Lets list a few.
  1. It hurts. 
  2. It makes us bleed. 
  3. Razors are expensive. 
  4. It's time consuming.
  5. We have to do it frequently.
For all those reasons, this year I stopped shaving. I didn't go all mountain man. My principal would have disapproved. And after seeing the Rocket's James Harden flop all over the court with his hideous beard, I never want to look remotely like him.
Not the man you want teaching your kids.
Instead, once a week with my handy $20 pair of clippers, I would trim the growth back to that nice stubbly phase that you see very handsome dudes wearing.

It was awesome. I saved tons of time and money. My face never bled. And for the first time in my teaching career, someone wrote graffiti in a textbook not insulting me, but praising my physical appearance. 

Some strange sense of professional obligation did lead me to shave once around January. I felt weird. I looked weird, like turtle out of his shell I thought. Worse, the disapproval from my students was unanimous. They confirmed my early feelings by telling me "you look weird" so many times I lost count.

So guys, give it a try. Might be the best decision you make this summer.

(Women, I know you have it worse. But I am in no way comfortable or qualified to offer you any advice.) 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Back to the Auction

Yesterday was my first official day of summer. I celebrated in grand style by going to the Woodburn auction like I did almost every Tuesday last summer.

Last year at one of my first auctions I bought a box of some trading card game for $10 that ended up being worth $600. That put the thought in my head that I could accomplish that feat every week. Instead I got a garage full of collectible plates and purses and a few trips to the Goodwill store.

I did end up making a little bit of money every week. But just a little. The time invested was not worth the pay out. The auction moves very slowly through boxes and boxes of mostly junk, so sometimes the items you want to bid on take hours to reach. Also, it smells bad there, and their bathroom is the most God-forsaken stink hole in Oregon. Then there is the hassle of selling all the junk on Ebay. For awhile I thought sets of plates were the way to go, but it is very, very hard and expensive to pack plates so they don't break.

I came to realize the Woodburn auction will never be a part time job for me.  Still, it's fun to go.

Yesterday I went with only $25 bucks in my pocket, and bought four paintings for $2 each. The auction remains an interesting mix of young and old, white, Mexican and Russian, all brought together by the love of junk.  I saw random pieces of splintered wood their yesterday. I also saw this disturbing thing, so vile that I have to blotch most of the picture out to keep the blog kid friendly. Worst of all, it was used.  On second thought, I won't show that. Instead, here are two of the nice paintings I got.

Ahhh, water colors. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Three Miracles on Friday the 13th

Today was the last day of school. It's always bittersweet, but this time more so because I'm leaving my school for two years to teach in Panama.

I'm not sure what my favorite part of the last week was.
  • A 6th grade girl giving me a thousand paper cranes strung together like a wind chime for good luck. She said it took her a month to make them all.
  • Addressing my 5th grade class as they left for the last time, "Well, you were really a pain in the butt at the start of the year, but you got..." and getting mobbed with hugs before I could finish.
  • A scrapbook my 8th graders gave me.
  • All the little talks with parents.
  • The reaction of the students at the final assembly when my principal announced I was leaving.
Our last day of school was Friday the 13th. This day has been considered unlucky ever since the King of France purged the Knights Templar monastic order on that day back in the 14th century. But yesterday, apart from being an emotional last day of school, three miracles happened.

1.)  A dead cactus came back to life.
The Lazarus Cactus
This cactus was given to me four years ago by a 5th grade boy who seemed right out of a Normal Rockwell painting (freckles, cowlick). This year when I came back to school in September, it was dead. Apparently even cacti can't survive three months without water. Intensive rescue efforts failed, and though it had perished I was unable to throw it away, sentimental guy that I am. All year it sat on my window sill, a testament to my forgetfulness, and a reminder that even the hardiest creatures are mortal.

Then yesterday, as I got ready to finally throw it away, I noticed something. It had sprouted. From death, new life.

2.)  I saw the girl who wrote me this note again.
This girl knew she was moving to Nevada at the end of last year, and was very sad at the thought of leaving her friends and even teachers. When she gave me this note, the simple uncomplicated emotion behind it struck me as one of the things that makes working with kids so great.

Well, surprise surprise, who did I see at the school picnic yesterday? This girl. A little older, but the same sweet kid who still loves the Walking Dead. She said she missed her old school very much. I'm glad her note was wrong.

3.)  The sun came out at just the right time.

This one is a stretch, but I needed three miracles. A rainy day suddenly turned to sunshine right as the end of year school picnic started.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ode To Penny

Tonight's blog falls under the category of "things I've never told any living person before." So why not blog about it?

At trivia tonight a question was, "What was the name of Inspector Gadget's niece and dog?"

Hi kids! Don't think too hard about how I store all this stuff in my head, or you'll figure out I'm a terrifying robot.

The dog I couldn't remember (Brain). But his niece I knew right away. Penny, my first love.

Blonde and Brainy.
My first crush--my first kiss--was a cartoon. Penny had everything a 2nd grade boy was looking for. Penny was smart, beautiful and sweet. She always knew how to read the clues her bumbling uncle couldn't. My young heart never stood a chance. I went through a phase where I would occasionally sneak kisses from the TV screen. I don't think anyone ever saw me.

I forgot about Penny until tonight, but she still holds a special place in my heart. So I wrote her this ode.

Mystery solver
Problem dissolver
With a cool watch I wanted to have

I kissed you sneaky
On a boxy old TV
Thank God my parents never saw that

Monday, June 9, 2014

Playboys at the Garage Sale

"To know one's self is wisdom, to not know one's neighbors is genius."

The random smattering of humanity that lives near me is a mixed bag. Like humanity, it's mostly good. Having so many neighbors is new to me. Growing up in the country, I never lived in a neighborhood until recently. Before neighbors meant the kid who lived a field over. Now it means the creepy guy who just lopped 6 feet off my bay tree without asking.

By and large though, the little social interactions that have started developing are awesome. There's the lady who brings her giant German Shepard puppy over to beat up Winston. Or the couple who always invites me to watch Duck games. That sense of community is definitely a thread in the tapestry of a good life.

A few houses down is an elderly retired couple. They'd always commented on how handsome my dog was when I'd walk by, and before long I'd find myself stopping by their house for beer and toaster strudels. I've loved being around old people ever since I was a kid and my dad took me to the retirement home where he worked. Old people just love you, because so many of them just want company.

Over beer and a toaster strudel the old guy tells me about his myriad health aliments. How he's died three times. And how much he likes wolves and bears. His sweet wife tells me how much her husband complains and that she gets bored in the mornings because he sleeps to 11. Mostly though, they just ask about me.

This couple is a pair of high school sweethearts who made it all the way to a golden retirement. They are about as old fashioned as it gets. The kind of couple that makes girls get all girly and say "I want that."

So you can imagine my surprise when walking by their garage sale Saturday morning, I see "Playboy" listed for sale. And sure enough, in a box, there are old issues of Hugh Hefner's rag. And the man tells me about them matter-of-factly "You should check them out." And his wife is smiling at me as sweet apple pie.

Now if I had Playboys (which I don't), I sure wouldn't sell them at a garage sale. I'd feel guilty, tear my name and address of the cover, and try to secret them away in the dead of night.

The guy selling Playboys at his garage sale is never the one you expect. Lesson learned.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Monday Morning Read: Make Them Move

This is the last week of school for me, and probably many of you. I hope it's been a happy year full of lots of learning and laughing.

My 7th year has definitely been my best. Half of teachers drop out of the profession before five years, but if you make it far enough, there comes a point where you stop surviving the very demanding requirements of the job and start thriving. Classroom management becomes easier, lessons plans go through multiple refinements, and you actually know what to say to parents once in a while. If you're been teaching long enough, you know what I'm talking about. If you're new and still struggling, stick with it. You're almost there!

For me, the turning point was year four. I had always worked hard to make good lessons plans and provide timely feedback (read: grade stuff quickly), but in year four I felt a certain sway and control over my content and class I never had before. Sometimes I felt like an artist painting a canvas.

One of the best things I picked up that year was from a Marcia Tate workshop titled "Worksheets Don't Grow Dendrites." Her's was the best professional development I'd ever been to. It provided the science behind a lot of stuff I already knew intuitively.

Doing worksheets are boring, and they don't retain anything.

Talking for too long is boring, and they don't retain anything.

Answering questions out of the book every day is boring, and they don't retain anything.

For whatever reason, they older kids get, the more lame stuff we make them do. Think about kindergarten. It's full of songs, movement and hands on activity. The wiring in our brain eats that stuff up! I'll prove it. Can you remember the first song you ever learned? No? Say the alphabet. We all say it in that same sing-song we learned in our earliest days.

After that PD I set out to add lots more motion to my lessons. We all want to be fun teachers, and we all want kids to like our class. So make it fun! Here's some of the ways I use motion in my classroom:

In 5th grade we use hand gestures and sayings to remember a key characteristic of two of each of the 5 regions of the United States. For the Midwest we rub our bellies and say "Mmmm Bread Basket."

In 6th grade we play a medieval West African trading simulation where in order to cross the Sahara you must hire a Berber caravan and say "Berber, Berber, Berber" as you cross.

In 7th grade we play a Feudalism Simulation you must kneel when taking a fief from your lord and shake saying "Land for Protection," emphasizing the basic feudal contract.

In 8th grade we use a series of hand motions to help remember key parts of the Declaration of Independence. When talking about our three unalienable rights we say "life" and put a hand over our heart. "Liberty" while spreading our hands wide. And "Pursuit of Happiness" while reaching to the sky.

The results are amazing. Movement really makes learning sticky. Those points aren't forgotten. Kids remember those key points throughout the year, usually with giggles. Try it this week. Find one key idea you really want to reinforce and make some sort of movement to hammer it home. I'll bet they remember it in the fall.

Let me know how it goes.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sad Goodbyes are the Best Ones

Tomorrow my 8th graders graduate. Today I suffered the requisite bout of sadness and nostalgia. I get downright depressed at the close of the school year. The thought of not seeing my students' smiling faces almost brings me to tears.

Then summer comes, the sadness vanishes and I wonder what brought me so low.

"Graduation goggles" (coined by the TV show How I Met Your Mother) accurately describes the rose-colored glasses we sometimes wear during big life changes. When a stage of life is coming to an end, we tend to view everything and everyone in the best light.

Teachers live in a rhythm of goodbyes and graduations. Every year I say goodbye to students I've developed relationships with over four or more years (I teach at a K-8). Students who I've watched transform from children who arrived in my class in 5th grade, to young adults leaving in 8th. This year its worse because I really liked these 8th graders. They were particularly kind-hearted and selfless, and excelled in my class.

Maybe I'm more nostalgic than most male teachers. Since I was little, the finality of the passing of time struck me as deeply somber. Each moment, day, year, only happens once and takes me a little closer to the inevitable end. So I find myself trying to hold onto all the moments, little and big. I blog and keep a journal sporadically. I never delete emails no matter how banal, and have kept every letter, note or card I've ever been given since elementary school.

As I've gotten older, I've come to realize that if I'm really down about something ending, it means it must have been pretty great. Sad goodbyes are the best ones because that means that period of time really meant something.

I'll be sad tomorrow. And it's a good thing. I love my job. I love teaching social studies. The constant stream of positive feedback and praise from students and parents boosts my soul. Being a teacher is part of my identity. It's tough to see it end.

Until summer comes and the graduation goggles come off. I'll find interests and hobbies old and new to pass the time. And I'll be sad all over again when summer ends and I have to start getting up early, grade papers, and deal with students plagiarizing Wikipedia and thinking I won't know.

I love summer and always will, but I hope I'm always sad at graduation. I hope I keep my graduation goggles. Because if I didn't care, it wasn't worth it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Some Days

Some days I feel like a good teacher, and then there are days like Monday. Even the best laid plans go awry, and so they did. A primary source reading on Machiavelli that I thought would be awesome drew blank stares. I copied the wrong map for my Renaissance simulation. And I sadly came to realize that while I'm not yet ready for the end of the school year, many of my students are.

The great thing about teaching (and life), is that each day is a new day. A bad day used to make me despondent, but now I know there is always tomorrow. In honor of my slightly naughty students, I have prepared my list of top things that I'm wishing for this summer.

Things I Wish for Summer:

  1. That George R. R. Martin will hurry up and publish the Winds of Winter. I devoured books one through five of A Song of Ice and Fire (otherwise known as Game of Thrones to HBO viewers), and love the amazing detailed and dark world he created.
  2. That my current regime of eating healthy and moderate exercise will have me end up looking like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
  3. 2A. That I grow the ability to make claws stick out of my hands too
  4. That the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow is actually as awesome as the trailers look, and not lame like Mission Impossible II. And I really hope Tom Cruise isn't sprinting in it. He's always sprinting.
  5. That I actually write a book and it becomes as famous as The Fault In Our Stars by my hero John Green.
  6. That my dog learns how to tug on a rope on command, so I can tie it around the refrigerator. Then I will teach him to bring me beer.
Please, leave another suggestion for me. Summer is coming.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Monday Morning Read: Wikipedia, Friend or Foe?

Note: Starting this week, I'm going to begin a blog segment called the Monday Morning Read. It will be some short tidbit for teachers that gives you something to think about to start your week, or something you can use in the classroom.  

Most social studies teachers have a love-hate relationship with Wikipedia. On one hand it is an exhaustive resource with up-to-date information on nearly every subject imaginable. On the other hand, it's cloud-sourced knowledge, meaning anyone can write anything. As I blogged just last week, a few years back I encountered a Wikipedia article that swapped out King Leonidas of Sparta for the fear-inspiring King Poopypants.

Single handedly stopped the Persian invasion and saved Western Civilization

This dichotomy makes Wikipedia a dicey source at best. But I do tell my students it can be a good one with a caveat: you must check the citations! To their credit, Wikipedia does a great job of requiring citations in their articles. I've even used Wikipedia to help teach students about citations.

But what happens when some miscreant writes errors on a Wikipedia entry, which is then read by an undiscerning journalist, who writes an article that is then used as a citation to prove the original mistruth? A raccoon turns into an aardvark, that's what.

"Call me whatever you want, just give me some bugs to eat."

This excellent piece in the New Yorker lays it all out. Above is a coati, but a while back some snot-nosed New Yorker edited its Wikipedia page to say "also known as the Brazilian Aardvark." Which it was not. Yet, if you google "Brazilian Aardvark" now dozens of entries come up.

Disturbingly, it appears newspaper reporters do exactly what my students want to do when told to research something: 
  1. Get on a computer, 
  2. Type whatever it is into Google
  3. Click on the Wikipedia link
  4. Write down whatever comes up 
Once that reporter wrote an article calling the Coati a Brazilian Aardvark, someone on Wikipedia linked that article back to the original error on Wikipedia, making it seem credible. The Wikipedia lie became a truth.

The article makes a great point. With any crowd-sourced knowledge platform, if enough people believe a lie, it becomes a truth. Think about all the funny, fascinating, or sad beliefs that people have held throughout history:

  • The Romans and Greeks believed a giant river named Oceanus surrounded the world.
  • Medieval Europeans though urine could help cure the Black Death.
  • Around the time of Lewis and Clark, many Americans thought Wooly Mammoths lived beyond the Rocky Mountains.
So, if Wikipedia were available at that time, we can imagine that the articles on Oceanus, Black Death cures and zoology of the West would have been authoritative and error filled.

While ignorance is one thing, in the coati's case the author willfully entered an error, that became cited so much it made its own truth. It's an invaluable case study for students to understand the limits of Wikipedia, and the potential of any source to be inaccurate purposefully or not.