Things I Know 327 of 365: The sweet spot is in the browning, not the burning

A life lesson from baking.

Yesterday’s cookie recipe included the following direction:

To make icing, melt the butter in a skillet over low heat and swirl the pan over the heat for about four-five minutes until butter begins to brown. Be careful, you don’t want to burn the butter—you just want to brown it! It will happen fast and when it does, immediately take the browned butter off the stove and pour into a mixing bowl.

My beliefs about butter were challenged. I’ve whipped butter, cut it in, and melted it. This is to say nothing of the more pedestrian spreading of butter. To my mind, I’d pushed butter to its limits.

This was new.

Melt it, heat it, take butter to the brink. The key, don’t burn the butter. Watch for the line separating making something new and making something useless.

That idea appeals to me.

Think differently about what can be done, what things and people are capable of, but remain mindful of the burning. For Icarus, the lesson came with flight. For me, it came with a cookie recipe.


Things I Know 271 of 365: Innovation takes both less and more

Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

– Plato

While the reading in grad school is just as ridiculously intense as promised, if I time it properly, I can still be curator of at least a small sliver of my reading diet.

This morning, heading out the door, I picked up a copy of William Glasser’s The Quality School. I’m not sure where I got it, but it was on my shelf.

Early in the book, Glasser writes, “We should keep in mind that the power of innovation is not that it increases the number of innovative people but that it gives the effective people we have a better chance to demonstrate their effectiveness.”

The quotation struck me as tweetworthy (and given the tonnage of reading I’ve been doing, that bar is high).

Joan Young responded, “That quote makes me wonder how many innovators lie dormant in settings that don’t foster creativity. Thanks for making me think.”

John Spencer jumped in, “I agree. And yet creativity often thrives because of the limitations, barriers and restrictions of a context.”

The conversation turned to the allowances afforded by limitations. Young commented she had arrived at her most creative solutions when confronted with distinct limitations.

This makes sense to me. It echoes the sentiment of last year’s EduCon Friday panelists.

Innovation, the panelists seemed to contend, comes from the intersection of necessity and limitation.

I don’t contend this is untrue, but it can’t be the only path to innovation. Or, they aren’t the only necessary ingredients.

When I think of spaces where creativity and innovation can thrive, I think of the playgrounds of my youth. Before everything was safety-coated, they were spaces of steel, wood and gravel. If you squinted, they looked like residential construction sites.

For my friends and I, they were castles, pirate ships, mansions, and underground lairs.

Our resources were certainly limited. I’d also argue our excess stores of energy necessitated building some sort of imaginary worlds.

There weren’t the only pieces that let the playgrounds become whatever we wanted and needed them to be.

Two other factors cleared the way for our imaginations.

Our parents were nearby, watching from the periphery in case someone got hurt, but otherwise refraining from interference. They needed to be their for their own piece of mind, and we needed them there in case we got in over our heads.

We also needed one another.

These were our first moments of collaboration. We were writing the rules of the game. Where I saw a castle, another might see a space ship.

Because of our limitations of space, our necessity of play, the safety provided by our parents’ watchful eyes and the want to play with another, we settled on a space castle.

And that was the beauty of the recipe. We didn’t know what we couldn’t do, so we did it.

Gradually, our parents increased their perimeter and we became more responsible for ourselves. Unfortunately, this also led to access to more resources. While they weren’t castles or space ships or space castles, they were new and shiny.

I sometimes wonder about the guy in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” I’m certain, after seeing the light and the forms of things, he had to wander back home. With all he’d seen, I still imagine him working some cave Thanksgiving to see what his family saw dancing across the wall.

“Oh, look at that fernodan!” someone must have said.

“There’s no such things as a fernodan,” I bet he said.

How they must have laughed at him.

Things I Know 238 of 365: Small schools’ve got moxy

Results showed that smaller, more personal learning environments and strong, caring bonds between students and adults can increase graduation rates dramatically.

– Bill Gates, Jr.

Growing up, I never thought of myself as attending a small school. We were country, sure, but the 50-some members of my graduating class and I were never cognizant of our small school status.

Though the Shadow Secretary of Education has lost patience with small schools, I’m still in this fight.

In the end of whatever the fight may be, it’s the small schools that will be around anyway.

Small schools are scrappy. Small schools are nimble. And, small schools see kids. In the interest of avoiding any claims I’m making a molly coddler’s case, we’ll ignore the idea of seeing kids as being key to strong and effective schools.

Let’s don our navy blazers with brass buttons and talk all business-like for a few moments.

Small businesses are scrappy. They run on lean budgets and are driven by market forces to find the niche demands of clients.

Nestled away in a side street here in Cambridge, is a shop the shape of a hallway that sells goods of India – fine textiles and curios among other things.

And they’ve been their for years, connected to and dependent on the other shops around them, offering something their peers cannot – filling a unique need.

Small schools do this too. Built around a magnet program, a unique pedagogy or a partnership with a local institution, small schools can build an infrastructure of school choice and specialization unmatched by lumbering industrial schools.

Small schools do not lumber.

They are nimble.

Howard Hughes’ infamous Spruce Goose flew only once and then at only 70’ for less than a mile. After that:

A full-time crew of 300 workers, all sworn to secrecy, maintained the plane in flying condition in a climate-controlled hangar. The crew was reduced to 50 workers in 1962, and then disbanded after Hughes’ death in 1976.

Such is the case of most industrial schools. Built in times of great conflict, many flew only once, if that, and then never as high as was hoped.

In each of the small public schools I’ve taught in, moves to adjust to the needs of both students and teachers were quick, exact and effective.

A student causing problems across classes was discussed among a teaching team, suggestions were made, and a plan was put in place. Rather than falling deeper and deeper into the chasm of neglect present in many industrial school, students were caught early and supports were put in place.

When school-wide reading strategies were the identified need, teachers read the same texts together, discussed what they found and began implementing – comparing results along the way. The resulting shared language around curriculum found its genesis in the examined texts, but was shaped by the school community to build a coded language of literacy owned by all faculty.

Busy meeting the needs of all wings and factions, industrial schools are constantly preparing for takeoff, let alone worrying about how they might turn, should the course be wrong once they’re aloft.

Small schools are imperfect. Resources are often at a scarcity. Faculty members often juggle several roles.

Still, their scrappiness, nimbleness and ability to more clearly see the children in their care make them better places for learning.

In an network of small public schools, proponents of school choice who often bemoan the lack of options would find the answers and educational affordances for which they are searching.

Let’s build those.

Things I Know 217 of 365: Textbooks are killing me

A people’s literature is the great textbook for real knowledge of them. The writings of the day show the quality of the people as no historical reconstruction can.

– Edith Hamilton

It’s been a while since I’ve bought a textbook.

For the online master’s, the textbooks were part of my scholarship. They showed up at my door, pre-paid and ordered for me.

All publications of Person or one of its imprints, the texts amounted to free books to gather dust on my nightstand as they were remarkably outdated when compared to the research I could find and access online.

This semester has turned that model on its head.

In an attempt to savvy it up, I tried to find as many workarounds as possible.

I made my way to the COOP, Harvard’s central student bookstore (a B&N-owned property) to see how deeply into my pockets I’d be reaching to study this semester.

With only three of my courses confirmed, the tab came in over $200, and I noted the likely fourth class called for 6 more texts. Altogether, books were about $300. That was minus the recommended texts for my stats class in which the professor advised us he’d be supplying us with all the handouts we could need. Had I acquired the recommended, we’re looking at a total of approximately $400.

But the fun doesn’t stop there.

Three of the four courses (stats is the winner, again) also require course packs of journal articles and selected chapters for the semester. Those three totaled $200.

If I’d purchased all the texts, my outlay for reading materials would have been around $600 for the semester.

I should stop here and note some things:

  1. I realize students in other disciplines are spending much more on many more texts.
  2. I appreciate and accept the need for reading materials for class. I’m not advocating a text-free approach to classes.
  3. I get that this is the way things are done, and thereby, part and parcel of higher education.

Since collecting all of these texts, I’ve been thinking of how we might shape a new model of for texts that might lower the materials cost of higher education and thereby make it more accessible who find it cost prohibitive.

Certainly, I realize tuition far out-paces course materials as an item on students’ higher ed budgets.

Still, every bit helps.

Some steps I took:

  • I downloaded Amazon’s student app and used it in the COOP to scan course texts for their partners. Where the Amazon texts were less expensive, I added them to my cart. (This was the case in all but two instances.)
  • When I got home, I compared the items in my Amazon cart with used versions available through amazon. Whenever possible, I chose the used version.
  • I took advantage of amazon’s offer of 6 months of free Amazon Prime membership for students. This secures free 2-day shipping and other as of yet unknown “deals.” (When selecting used texts, I only purchased those qualifying for Amazon Prime.)
  • When it was possible, I purchased the Kindle version of texts. I’ll be reading them on my iPad, but I’d take advantage of the new Kindle Cloud feature if I didn’t have a Kindle or iPad.
  • I opted against texts that were recommended but not required (with the exception of the APA style guide).

As a result, my possible costs of $600 ended up at around $450. That’s a chunk of rent or more than a month’s worth of groceries.

Still, though, the course packs linger as a confounding problem. The readings are required and weeding through each course’s syllabus to find out which texts are in the course pack/available online would be a tremendous time suck. This is not to mention the fact that packs are purchased in all-or-nothing style.

I know the answer lies somewhere in movements like the Flat World Knowledge project and other open-source options, but they’re not quite there.

Teachers and professors know what they want their students reading, and I’d imagine the course packs are a result of culling the available scholarship for specific texts. As such, any project attempting to replace the usual way of doing things is going to struggle to reach critical mass until it can offer all or nearly all of what’s available to those with appropriately-sized budgets.

So, there’s the conundrum with which I’m dealing.

It seems to me there’s a better way, that the tools and channels already exist to cut this as a burden to students.

Someone have this million-dollar idea.

Things I Know 148 of 365: I have an idea to save Philadelphia’s kindergarteners

Give a year. Change the world.

– City Year

How about we don’t cut full-day kindergarten?

Instead, what if we saved money, innovated the system and began a trend of civic responsibility for young adults in Philadelphia that could serve as the national model.

I’m as big a fan of scare tactics as the next person, but what if the School District of Philadelphia worked to look more like a leader in the time of fiscal crisis, rather than a college freshman signing up for every credit card offer to arrive in the mail?

Cutting half-day kindergarten is a bad idea. It sounds inherently bad when you say it aloud to those with no obvious ties to education.

Then add to that to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s report that we know full-day kindergarten is better:

Research has shown that children in full-day kindergarten demonstrated 40 percent greater proficiency in language skills than half-day kids, said Walter Gilliam, an expert on early-childhood education at the Yale University School of Medicine.

Combining clinical evidence with that feeling deep in your gut should be all you need to realize cutting full-day kindergarten is a bad idea.

This still leaves the shortfall of $51 million as a result of Gov. Corbett’s elimination of a $254 million blacken grant.

Here’s where the innovation comes in.

We cut Grade 12.

To those seniors who have earned enough credits to graduate and/or passed the state standardized test, we allow for the opting out of G12.

Though I couldn’t locate exact numbers by grade, the School District of Philadelphia reports 44,773 students in its high schools.

According to School Matters, SDP has a total per pupil expenditure of $12,738.

Now, if 5,000 of the roughly 45,000 high school students in Philadelphia opted out of their senior year, it would save the district $63,690,000 – almost $12.7 million more than the block grant cuts.

I get that the math is hypothetical, but bear with me.

Not every student is ready for college at the end of their senior year. Even fewer will be ready at the end of their junior years.

Enter the gap year.

Shown to provide students will helpful life experiences as well as a sense of direction once they enter college, a gap year between high school and college would benefit Philadelphia students.

Rather than setting students free to wander aimlessly for that year, the SDP could partner with AmeriCorps, City Year and other organizations to help place Philadelphia graduates around the city in jobs that will invest their time in improving Philadelphia.

The standard City Year stipend would apply, though I’m certain City Year hasn’t the budget for a sudden influx of volunteers.

The SDP would need to show a commitment to sustainable change and invest the money saved by the opt-out program into helping to pay for volunteer stipends.

Ideally, those same graduates would be placed in kindergarten classrooms around the city, helping to reduce student:teacher ratios, providing successful role models and perhaps inspiring more students to move into the teaching profession.

Once students completed their one-year commitment, they would be eligible for the AmeriCorp Education Award to help pay for college tuition.

The idea is admittedly imperfect.

It is not, however, impossible.

It could save full-day kindergarten, reduce costs to the school district, move graduates to invest their time in their city and help lessen the cost of college for Philadelphia graduates.

As an added benefit, such a move could turn the negative press the district’s received for proposing bad policies for children into positive press for creating positive, community-enriching change.

Things I Know 75 of 365: Today I ran nowhere in particular – for an hour

We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.

– John Hope Franklin

Today, for my run, I put 60 minutes on the clock and ran wherever for an hour. I did the same thing yesterday.

Pace and distance didn’t matter; I was worried about the run. Both days, I ran routes I’d hesitate to call straightforward. Yesterday’s, in particular, included more staircases than I’d ever knowingly include in a route were I planning for distance.

Yesterday, though, I came to some staircases and understood they would be part of the run.

I wasn’t trying to solve the problem of how far or how fast. I knew I would be running and let that happen.

This is the same reason I like Star Trek. No matter what problems they faced episodically, the missions of the crew from any iteration of the Enterprise was to boldly go where no one had gone before.

I wasn’t exactly hitting warp 9 on my runs, but I felt kindred.

This is the same reason I asked the instructor of my newest grad school module if I could forgo coming up with a problem statement for my course project and focus on trying new stuff. My instructor told me to message him separately after explaining we needed measurable goal lest my work appear to be innovation for innovation’s sake.

It was all I could do in that moment not to reply, “I’m a fan of that.” Instead, I told him I was worried about getting lost in a deficit ideology about education. I wanted to try something new.

When I was younger, I called it play.

I didn’t sit with my toys in front of me and think, “Now, what’s the problem I’m trying to solve here?”

Sure, kid life must have been full of its fair share of dilemmas, but I didn’t play for the purpose of solving them. I played to play.

I’ve no doubt I was able to solve many of those problems because of play – because of the time away from my problems that playing involved and because playing in a non-problematized world let me develop skills without worrying about transference or application.

In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing, Rob Lowe’s character Sam Seaborn is explaining to Chief of Staff’s daughter why it was important for the government to send a probe to Mars.

“Why?” she asks.

His answer is why I decided to run nowhere in particular and what I’d like to guide my course work:

‘Cause it’s next. ‘Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.

I want to solve the problems in my classroom. I want to improve my teaching. I also want to remain passionate about ideas and where they can lead. I want always and forever to have the freedom to ask, “What’s next?”