Some Thoughts for a New Year

New Year Sunrise

Although I’ve always thought September 1 would make a much better New Year’s Day, western society has decided today will be that largely artificial dividing line. So, here we are in the year designated as 2018.

So, how will today and the ones that follow be different from the 365 that came before? Unless you came into a big inheritance when the calendar clicked over, I suspect for most of us the answer is not very.

However, after the chaos of 2017 in the US (which spilled over into many other parts of the world), something needs to change. As I wrote in any earlier rant, resistance to negative change can only take you so far. If successful, it really only maintains the status quo. Even with the small positive steps that occasionally pop up.

In 2018, we can continue to complain about what has happened in the past. Or we can plan and work to improve the future. Only one of those is worth the time and effort.

I hope we can find good people to run for leadership positions, at all levels, not just Congress, who understand this. Because real progress is only going to come from clear, creative, positive ideas for improving government and society. Not from trying to scare people. Not from asking for support simply because “I’m not that guy.”.

Maybe in this new period of time known as a year we as a society can move forward instead of ranting in place.


The picture is of sunrise over the Potomac River as seen from the Alexandria waterfront, New Year’s Day, 2012. As I recall, the temperature was much warmer that morning than it is currently.

Your New Curriculum?

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most take the format of an intelligent conversation between two or more people, or someone telling a good story.

icon for tell me something i don't know podcast

Then there’s the program called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which the producers (who also do the more conventional but also excellent Freakonomics) describe as journalism wrapped in a game show package.

On most segments, they have a panel of three very smart people and a general theme. Audience members (often experts in a specific field of study) are then invited on stage to tell the panel about something they may not know related to the theme. The panel gets to ask any questions they might have and, after all the stories have been told, they decide who did the best job.

It’s all simple, very nerdish fun.

However, as I was listening to a recent episode, it struck me that this is very much what school should be.

Stay with me.

Currently, in most classrooms, a teacher stands in front of a group of students dispensing information. Or at least they direct the distribution of that knowledge in some way.

So, what happens if the teacher walks into the classroom and instead challenges the kids to tell me something I don’t know?

There would have to be some structure, of course. I’m pretty sure teenagers could reel off a whole lot of trivia they consider interesting that would baffle most adults. But the show itself provides some of that organization.

The rules of the game are that the IDK (short for the “I don’t know”) presented must be something we truly don’t know, something that is actually worth knowing (which may eliminate everything on the E! channel), and something that is demonstrably true.

Ok, there are probably more than a few details that need to be worked out before anyone puts this idea into practice.

But what better way to get students to look at learning in a different way than to ask them to choose a topic they find interesting, immerse themselves in the details, and then put the material they find into a compelling form for a live audience?

Accessible Animation

Your students probably don’t know who Monty Python was. You may not even know who they were.1

But certainly one of the very memorable parts of the essential British sketch comedy programme from the 70’s and 80’s were the amazing interstitial animations created by the only American Python, Terry Gilliam.

In this video from 1974, Gilliam demonstrates his relatively simple process, using illustrations cut from old books and magazines, mixed with a lot of imagination, to tell short, funny stories. Or just be very silly.

This is often called stop motion animation and the technique is still being used in 2017, most notably by the animators at South Park.

It’s also a process that is very accessible for students in telling their stories.

It starts with illustrations that can come from a variety of sources, and then requires only a camera like the one that’s probably in their pocket and one of many video editing apps.

Something fun to start the school year.

Ending Math Phobia

An engineering professor at Dartmouth College wants you to stop telling kids you’re bad at math. Excellent suggestion.

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math? Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading. Our country’s communal math hatred may seem rather innocuous, but a more critical factor is at stake: we are passing on from generation to generation the phobia for mathematics and with that are priming our children for mathematical anxiety. As a result, too many of us have lost the ability to examine a real-world problem, translate it into numbers, solve the problem and interpret the solution. [my emphasis]

Of course, we don’t really teach math that way, so it’s not at all surprising that most people don’t leave school with that ability. They never learned her process in the first place.

Maybe if we taught math as a tool for problem solving, instead of asking students to memorize a long series of meaningless rules, we would wind up with fewer math phobic adults.

Just a thought.

3-2-1 For 12-4-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Still thinking about Cuba. This story of a filmmaker who created a documentary in the country without permission is a reminder that the steps to restore relations with the US over the past two years are only a small start. The Cuban people still have no right to speak freely and live in fear of their government if they try. (about 4 minutes)

What happens when a Finnish teacher takes a job in an American school? This article in The Atlantic received a lot of notice on social media but in case you missed it, the story is a good contrast between national educational philosophies. Bottom line is that Finland trusts their teachers to make instructional decisions, unlike most districts in the US. (about 6 minutes)

In a wonderful post, Chris Lehmann reflects on a recent trip and suggests that we are often “tourists of our ideas”, spending too little time and effort to “fully and intentionally plan for change”. “And over and over again, we are shocked when the ideas don’t fully take hold.” (4 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

The US exports all kinds of products all over the world, including cowboy culture to Russia. This Planet Money segment is an interesting story of how that country is trying to develop a cattle business by bringing in American consultants, complete with a traditional rodeo. (18:16)

And one final item about Cuba (promise!). In these two segments about the country, On The Media talks to an author about New York Times coverage from 1957 that shaped the world image of Castro before the revolution, and then looks at how media covers Cuba today, complete with the usual cliches. (13:00)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

The movies of Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and my favorite The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) are definitely an acquired taste. Enjoy a free sample of his style in a sweet, funny, and very quirky holiday short film. Ignore the sponsor splash pages at the start and end. (3:52)