Partially Raised by Mark Twain: Thoughts the Night Before Intersession

My grandfather was a powerful man.

He wasn’t strong in a brash, bruising or bullish way, but he was the kind of guy that people listened to. He was sharp, empathetic and encouraging. He was interested, baritone-voiced and familiar. He was learned, read and he loved loved Mark Twain. Rarely a family get-together would go on without Twain quotes booming from his deep Kentucky voice box.

“What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.”

“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals — apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.”

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing you can do is keep your mind young.”

I think he loved Twain’s cavalier demeanor. My grandfather had strong opinions and quick wit, but his kindness always kept him from being crass. Sort of like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Twain gave him a chance to adventure out of his properness. This tension between gentility and adventure was the paintbrush and palette of my childhood. A paraphrase of Twain’s thoughts echoes through our family’s history.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

Though I grew up in a family full of teachers, many of the most significant learning experiences of my life happened outside-of or even in-spite-of the traditional school setting I was enrolled in. I found immense joy in playing outside. Growing up on a small farm afforded me the luxury of space and simplicity. Throughout the open range of my “backyard” I built forts and skate ramps. I caught fish and learned to drive a tractor.

Since I began teaching at High Tech High I have cherished our tension. In many ways, the wildness of our school reminds me of home. The qualities that made my grandfather great are abundant in the work and people I see around me. I see kindness and thoughtfulness, wit and clarity. I also see the edge and wildness that he loved about Twain.

Tomorrow morning High Tech High begins our annual intersession. Throughout the school students will participate in two-week intensive courses ranging from cycling, building furniture, painting, sculpting and baking, to yoga, film critiquing, cooking and learning to swim. Teachers have designed courses based on their personal passions and fields where they might be pursuing their own learning.

For the second year in a row, my students will be exploring buoyancy before designing and building rafts that will be used to float down the lower section of the Colorado River. Floatopia! 2016 was a thrill. Much like Twain’s characters floating down the Mississippi River, our students were given a chance to be adventurers; to learn on the fly…or float. I am excited to further develop our rafting adventure with a new group of students this year. Floatopia! 2.0 is an homage to Twain’s famous comment about education being stifled by schooling and its also a celebration of the awesomeness that exists in “figuring something out.”

I feel blessed to have had people like my grandfather to guide me as I grew up. His character is still a model I hopefully strive toward. I also feel grateful to have had an upbringing that allowed and encouraged me to do wild and creative things. The little piece of me that was raised by Mark Twain is stoked about this project.

Track our progress!

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The Good Neighbors: Humanity at the Core

In 1936 the San Francisco News commissioned John Steinbeck to write a series of short essays recording the working and living conditions of the migrant labor force that had moved into California in the wake of the dust bowl. Through The Harvest Gypsies, Steinbeck guided urban and political California on a painful and irrefutable tour of squatter camps, labor disputes and the beauty of people helping each other. As is always his strength, Steinbeck delivered humanity. He went into the environment, met people and wrote with incredible truth and empathy.

From Article 1

They are resourceful and intelligent Americans who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain.

And then they have made the crossing and have seen often the death of their children on the way. Their cars have been broken down and been repaired with the ingenuity of the land man.

Often they patched the worn-out tires every few miles. They have weathered the thing, and they can weather much more for their blood is strong.

They are descendants of men who crossed into the middle west, who won their lands by fighting, who cultivated the prairies and stayed with them until they went back to desert.

And because of their tradition and their training, they are not migrants by nature. They are gypsies by force of circumstances.

In their heads, as they move wearily from harvest to harvest, there is one urge and one overwhelming need, to acquire a little land again, and to settle on it and stop their wandering. One has only to go into the squatters’ camps where the families live on the ground and have no homes, no beds and no equipment; and one has only to look at the strong purposeful faces, often filled with pain and more often, when they see the corporation-held idle lands, filled with anger, to know that this new race is here to stay and that heed must be taken of it.

It should be understood that with this new race the old methods of repression, of starvation wages, of jailing, beating and intimidation are not going to work; these are American people. Consequently we must meet them with understanding and attempt to work out the problem to their benefit as well as ours.

I grew up in a world only partially removed from Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley. The Imperial County is the poorest in the state of California. With a per capita income of $16,409, an unemployment rate of 22% and a dependence on migrant labor, the similarities are real. Even though I have been gone for over 15 years, my move to the big shiny city (San Diego), catches me feeling the tug of my hometown. I care about my people more now than I ever have before. Even sitting with my family at the dinner table tonight was pressing. My wife and I led our five and six year olds into a conversation about their great-grandparents coming to this country from far away places like India, Mexico and Poland. We crafted (on-the-fly) questions and stories about our parents growing up in Holtville, CA and Toledo, OH. Fields and factories. We both want them to care about where they come from and, in turn, care about where other people come from.

This is the heart of The Harvest Gypsies undertaking. I teach the humanities and through my 12 years in the classroom I have repeatedly encountered a defining truth for our set of disciplines: We really do need each other. We need to know the stories that produce our culture. We need to understand the paths we are on and how far along them we are. We need to realize our role as part of the whole.

Steinbeck nails this midway through his series of stories as he talks about a grassroots organization of migrant laborers in a work camp. They were called The Good Neighbors Committee. They were heroes.

Article 4

These Good Neighbors are not trained social workers, but they have what is perhaps more important, an understanding which grows from a likeness of experience. Nothing has happened to the newcomer that has not happened to the committee.

A typical manager’s report is as follows: “New arrivals. Low in foodstuffs. Most of the personal belongings were tied up in sacks and were in a filthy condition. The Good Neighbors at once took the family in hand, and by 10 o’clock they were fed, washed, camped, settled and asleep.”

Like Steinbeck, artists and professionals throughout history have found their skills flourished most when applied to a human dilemma. No matter the era, we have always needed writers, thinkers, inventors, politicians, business owners and educators to meet their market with an ear first and an offer second. Our system is as broken as ever. What may be worse is that our solutions are decreasingly passionate, personal and human-centered.

We need to join The Good Neighbors Committee and we need to spread word about other Good Neighbors when we meet them.

If you are a teacher like me or an “anything else” join me in listening longer, facilitating more intentional sharing of our heritages and histories and designing work that makes life better for everyone. With attention and intention we can change things. Many movements are happening. Worldwide, industries and their think-tanks have developed methods for reaching and affecting the human element. Initiatives like IDEO‘s Human-Centered Design are attempting to match technology, innovation and social need. Let’s all be a part of the solution.


Some Links:

 

 

Drowning the Puppies

“She slang her pups last night,” said Slim. “Nine of ‘em. I drowned four of ‘em right off. She couldn’t feed that many.” -Of Mice and Men 

Every year its one of the most difficult and exciting days in my classroom. My students have been reading and wresting with John Steinbeck for weeks and have finally arrived at the dark and foreshadowing moment that turns our ongoing conversation into an argument.

Slim drowned the puppies.

Utility is a new and rich theme for high school freshman to consider. In my class we often use Socratic Seminars as a means of organizing our conversations. My protocol looks like this:

  • Students are given a specific selection of reading to cover and annotate (1-3 days)
  • Students are asked to prepare a “launchpad”, a question or comment meant to accelerate or redirect the conversation
  • Students are paired with a partner that is going to observe their participation during the seminar
  • We create a large table in the center of the classroom
  • One partner sits at the table and the other sits in an outer circle
  • The conversation begins with a volunteer sharing their launchpad
  • Once the conversation has slowed we switch partners and repeat

Our seminar for this section of Of Mice and Men was deep. Students politely argued the value of animals as companions and as free/living creatures and we discussed at length the rights of a person to take the life of another creature because of perceived value. The conversations eventually led to humanity.

Steinbeck uses the dirty, sickly and seemingly useless dogs as a tool to show us how insignificant we can sometimes make other people. This scene from the film adaptation of the novella shows the same struggle with Candy’s dog:

 

The utter frailty and simplicity of his characters’ lives are what make Steinbeck my favorite. They all come from a mess, are living a mess or are headed for a mess. They aren’t villains or heroes. They are real, and sometimes real people might not have utility; might not have a whole lot of “worth” beyond their human rights, but we can’t simply say they have no value.

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Intersession 2016: Floatopia!

I almost named my daughter River. Much like the words of Herman Hesse found below, I often have found myself feeling encompassed by the power and fleeting nature of massive moving water.

“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?” That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

Over the last couple of weeks our school has held a nine-day intersession. Students were given a fair amount of choice between intensive courses designed by teachers. Options for students included experiences with cooking, art, building, gardening, sci-fi, camping, machining, and astronomy. Over the course of my eleven years here, intersession has become one of my favorite times.

This year I decided to take an aside from my usual fishing course and focus on a more audacious aquatic experience. During my Floatopia! course students were commissioned to design and build rafts out of 55 gallon barrels and simple lumber. They had to calculate buoyancy, plan weight distribution of their crew and gear and organizing camping materials for a 15 mile float down the Colorado River. Fun.

The course began indoors with raft prototypes and materials testing. Many of the students had not worked with power tools and very few of them had constructed on such a large scale.

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Early construction of rafts. We had to build indoors because San Diego was receiving record rainfall. Rafts began as a deck construction sitting on top of 55 gallon barrels.

 

Once rafts were close to completion we took each vessel out to San Diego Bay to test their stability and functionality.

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First testing of a barrel-construction raft with a group of sophomore boys.
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A group of 9th and 10th grade girls test their raft (and slide) on San Diego Bay.

At the start of the second week we made our way out to the Colorado river at Picacho State Recreation Area. The views of the river and sunset were alarmingly beautiful as we pulled into the campground. The students setup camp, hiked up rocky hills to watched the stars and sat around camp stoves and fires with their tent-mates. When we woke up the next morning students completed re-assembly and maintenance of their rafts before we “cut lines” and set off down the river.

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Summer ’15: Teacher Vignettes from the Woods Pt. 3 The effect

“I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.” Meriwether Lewis

Like the floor of some amazing carpenter’s workshop, the rivers and lakes beneath the Norther Cascades flow constant with the dust of its prominent peaks. The glaciers, as they creak and crawl, carve fine and seemingly infinite rock flower from their towering trails. The powder, once met with the reflections of sky and deep forest, glow brilliant aquamarine. The effect seems artificial.

Beautiful landscapes inspire. The few moments where I have found myself in both amazing atmosphere and immersed in “teacher” thought have produced some of my most inspired lesson plans and project ideas.

My son in full adventure at Ross Lake in Northern Cascades National Park.
My son in full adventure at Ross Lake in Northern Cascades National Park.

Summer ’15: Teacher Vignettes from the Woods Pt. 2

“The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

Waist deep with feet spread to hold me against the current, I carefully released line into my back cast. Making sure to avoid my daughter as she hopped to and from shoreline rocks, I swung the rod hard to dry my fly. After four or five overhead motions I set the floating lure down in gentle water next to a slow eddy. After a couple of moments I pulled the line away and set it again with all softness.

The Skykomish burst to life. A blitz of silver and iridescence arched out of the water, bridled itself to my hook and pulled my fly down into the clear and crashing water. Without any grace, I slipped from my perch on the rock and the waterline rose to my shoulders. The steelhead was on.

With as much patience as a freezing river and euphoria would allow, I angled the fish toward shore. After several powerful and nerve-wracking runs the animal slowed and finally submitted to the lift of my rod and the bottom of my net.

There is something very special about catching a fish. Over the course of my life I have had family and mentors teach me the patience and technique needed to be successful. I learned to fish the desert for largemouth bass and flathead catfish, fly fish the Sierras for golden trout, and troll the Sea of Cortez for billfish. The species I have caught, the places I have experience and the delicious meals I have eaten are all part of a lived journal of learning, trying, failing and succeeding.

Kids need these feelings. They don’t have to learn to fish, but they should have a “lived journal of learning”. I hope that my class provides some of this during our time together this year. I hope that sometimes they see me Like Hemingway’s Santiago (The Old Man and the Sea), a man who tries to be real and commits to an ideal while still being able to reflect upon his mistakes. I love that Santiago loves the boy so very much that, even though he needs his help, he wants the boy to be more than a simple fisherman. This was the hope of my father while he taught me to read and write and play guitar. This was the goal of my grandfathers while they taught me to tie a hook to fishing line and to read the water and shoreline to anticipate where a fish was hiding.

The school year is rolling and I am thrilled to turn kids’ eyes toward those things that amaze us.

Year 12…The Opposite of “Senioritis”

The Thinking:

Every year feels like a new grade level. In some ways I feel like I am about to enter some absurd year of my own learning. The 28th grade, or some thing like it, is upon me and right now I am captured by its possibilities.

For all the repetition that each Fall brings, this academic year has a different feel to it. I am teaching the same grade level (9th), the same subject (humanities) and in the same classroom, but my hopes for this year are more exciting and nerve-wracking than usual.

I want to be better.

I want my classroom to be better. I want my reading assignments to be more valuable. I want my writing assignments to be more interesting and inspiring. I want my projects to be more integrated and authentic. I want my conversations with students to be more positive and formative than ever before.

The Action:

In an attempt to push my practice I am trying a few things.

  • A new classroom layout that opens the room for me to move throughout the students and makes it easier for me to keep things clean and organized.
I hope that fewer tables will allow me to interact with my students more fluidly and to keep my floors and furniture more clean and organized.
I hope that fewer tables will allow me to interact with my students more fluidly and will help to keep my floors and furniture more clean and organized.
  • Project-specific workstations where students have access to tools that will be necessary/helpful to the project we are working on. Instead of the tools moving I am hoping to treat our graphic design, music and other tech tools much like tools in a machine shop are treated. The students will have time at each area when they need it.
iMacs ready with Logic Pro X for multi-track recording and producing soundscape recordings from field trips into nature.
iMacs ready with Logic Pro X for multi-track recording and producing soundscape recordings from field trips in nature.
Large format scanner setup for scanning original artwork and designs for digital purposes including online portfolios, laser-cutting and digital revision.
Large format scanner setup for scanning original artwork and designs for digital purposes including online portfolios, laser-cutting and digital revision.
An HP Sprout setup to experiment with tablet tracing and 2D/3D modeling.
An HP Sprout setup to experiment with tablet tracing and 2D/3D modeling.
A vinyl cutter with design software installed on two PCs for stencil cutting, precision marking of paper/thin sheeting, and other applications.
A vinyl cutter with design software installed on two PCs for stencil cutting, precision marking of paper/thin sheeting, and other applications.
  • Making stronger connections between my passions and my vocation.
    • My thinking has been pushed by the experiences I’ve had over the summer, which I discuss in a few vignettes beginning with Vignettes from the Woods Pt. 1. I love that I work for an organization where my passions and pleasures and escapes are all fuel for what will happen in my professional life. I can’t wait to challenge students to live and explore and take in the beauty of the world with intentionality.
  • Diversifying the reading required for my class to include more short stories and essays and fewer non-fiction articles or papers.
    •   I have been reading some amazing short writing that I’m anxious to share with my students (Muir, Asimov, Emerson etc.). I’m hoping that using shorter writing pieces and taking more time to work our way through them will help me identify struggling students and will allow me and our support staff to intervene before anyone falls too far behind. Multiple short pieces also make comparative activities between pieces more accessible.

Tomorrow is the first day. Let’s go!

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Summer ’15: Teacher Vignettes from the Woods Pt. 1

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” -John Muir

Though each step seemed to demand a certain mustered discipline, we were ascending steeply and  steadily. With full backpacks we scrambled three quarters of a mile up a boulder-lined waterfall, balanced our way 2 miles across mountain peak shoulders and came to the foot of our final ascent. The climb was incredible. Seven hundred feet of class 3+ ascent beginning at an elevation of 11,200ft. As we reached the crest our weary faces morphed at the sight of the new and beautiful basin below us.

Hurd Peak Shoulder
Our final ascent up Hurd Peak. Notice the steep and unstable terrain…and ice!
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Exhausted, joyful and relieved at the top.
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View of Treasure Lakes, where we began our final climb.
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Bishop Pass Trail…the other side of the mountain.

Only a day earlier we were at sea level, departing San Diego for a few days in the Sierras.

Sometimes I need reminders like this. I need to be shown (not told) that amazing endeavor and adventure are always within reach. I can’t wait to share experiences like these with my new group of students. My hope is that they find value in doing “hard things”; that they accept challenges that will bring out the very best parts of their character and our human nature.

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