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.


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.

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.

First testing of a barrel-construction raft with a group of sophomore boys.
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.

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!
photo (3)
Exhausted, joyful and relieved at the top.
View of Treasure Lakes, where we began our final climb.
photo (2)
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.


My Time at the Arcade or The Problem with Drones and “Remote Killing”

I was a child of the 80’s and 90’s and, growing up in the digital revolution of Generation X, I was inevitably introduced to one of the world’s greatest entertainment innovations. Video games. I’m not writing to cast another generalizing shadow claiming that video games are wholly wrong. There are many games and platforms that might help develop some quality character traits like perseverance, critical thinking and collaboration. There are also some games that allow users to enter highly imaginative worlds where creativity and fantasy thrive. My thoughts here are focused on a specific thread of gaming evolution that seems to have become the pervasive genre. As my mom called them…killing games. Much has been said, written and about games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, but my thoughts and feelings about these games never really percolated until my students started work on our current project exploring the legality and ethics of domestic and military drones. The conversations we have had about privacy, constitutionality, policing and “remote killing” has been interesting if not disheartening. Many of my student are numbed to the destruction of a human life. I am sure that if they were faced with a “‘real-life” situation it would be different, but many of them were emotionless when talking about the taking of lives and projects like Not A Bug Splat or statistics about the collateral damage incurred during drone strike missions. I also noticed that I wasn’t as struck or repulsed as I would have hoped. I was a bit disappointed with myself and realized that I, too, may have fallen victim to the ethical novocaine that killing games can be. My history of video games dots an interesting thread from the relative innocence of 1980’s arcade games to the joystick-controlled drone warfare triggered by kids who grew up playing the same games I did. As a younger child I had an Atari 2600 gaming system. It was “high-tech” and amazing at the time, but now seems archaic and the football game I played (seen below) hardly seems to be the predecessor to Madden that it truly is. Eventually I received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. I became enthralled with the thing. Graphics were improved from the Atari, game variety was vastly increased and new accessories were available at major retailers all the time. I used the Power Glove, I shot about a million ducks on Duck Hunt and I earned amazing personals bests in California Games. I was a Nintendo kid. Mario and Luigi and King Koopa were awesome and entertaining, but eventually the culture of the games started to change. Eventually, I was part of a generation of boys who fell in love with Contra. It lured us with intense music, machine guns and ads like this: Away from home I was also being inundated by the weird allure of arcade games that offered a similar thrill. My favorite at the time was Final Fight which, as it’s own Wikipedia page describes, “is a side-scrolling beat-’em-up produced by Capcom.” I used to spend hours at the video rental store in my hometown pushing quarters into this machine: The 80’s also pushed a new gaming platform into our homes. The personal computer was great for educational games like The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers, but really captured the adrenaline of youth when Wolfenstein 3D came on the scene. As the grandfather to all First-Person Shooters, Wolfenstein 3D enamored users with Nazi enemies, big guns, secret passages and a three dimensional playing platform. Throughout the 90’s the gaming industry found a major market pushing the boundaries of video violence through increasingly realistic graphics, advancements in computing speed and internet playing options. Nintendo, Sega and other companies found themselves in a sort of gaming arms race. The Super Nintendo was met by the Sega Genesis. The Nintendo 64 was answered by the Sega Dreamcast. Sony broke onto the scene in 1994 with The Playstation, which vaulted gaming into the disc-based world that we are just now departing from. All the while the popularized games were affecting us.

Mortal Kombat made violent deaths attractive by offering bonus points for extremely graphic “fatalities”.
Another Mortal Kombat “Fatality”
Street Fighter was one of the most popular arcade and home system games of the 90’s.
A torture scene from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
A scene from “No Russian” a mission on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The user’s mission is to kill all civilians and police officers then escape the scene.

These games have made us increasingly comfortable with hitting, fighting, shooting, and even killing. Children around the world received the validation of bonus points and other extras for intensely violent deaths or beating their opponents with vicious combinations of kicks, hits and strikes from weapons. Over time a generation of gamers has inevitably become conditioned. In some ways the controller and the screen have become a portal that buffers our ethics, our disgust and our empathy toward other human beings. We aren’t as affected by killing or getting killed as we used to be and now “real war” and “virtual war” are converging.

An MQ-1 Predator Drone instructor with the California Air National Guard remotely controls his drone.
A young boy using a joystick-controlled video game console.
A young boy using a joystick-controlled video game console.