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Posts Tagged ‘education’

When it comes to race and race issues, I believe a lot of people would rather not talk about it.  It’s better than it used to be, so why can’t we move on.  I think one of the problems is the lack of experience with racial issues.  Yes, this is another blog about race.  It’s OK, it won’t make you feel bad, but might enlighten you to something that happens on a regular basis.

I’m writing this blog from a hotel.  I got upgraded to a suite.  My suite is not relevant to the blog, I just wanted to say, “my suite”.  The reason I am at a hotel is because I was invited to lead a day long workshop on inclusiveness in the classroom.  A group of professors are interested in making sure that their classroom is a safe learning environment for all students, especially students of color.  I give the university credit.  They looked at the data, and found that the students that were unsuccessful, especially in the science classes, were disproportionately underrepresented minority students.  Faced with this data, they chose to do something about it, but did not know what to do, so they called me.  That last sentences was a bit hyperbole.  I’m not a Ghostbuster, but I think I have a few good things to say on the subject.

I hope the workshop went well, but that is not the point of this blog.  The point of this blog is what happened over lunch.  Our group broke for lunch.  We ate at the institution’s cafeteria.  A group of PhDs, all white, except for me.  While ordering my food, a person behind the counter asked for my ID.  I told her I didn’t have one and I was a guest of the university.  She proceeded to ask for more information and a contact that she could call to get the appropriate account to pay for my meal.  I said I didn’t know the account, but here is the name of the person that is hosting me.  She gave me my food and I went to sit with the rest of the group.

During lunch, I asked if anyone else got “carded”.  Everyone said, no, they did not.  As one of the professors pointed out later, “You are a PhD and still being accused of stealing lunch.”  Yup.

During the second half of the workshop, this began our conversation.  If I, as a 45-year-old professor can’t get lunch without being harassed, how will your students feel in that environment.  But was I “harassed”?  Was it really that big of a deal?  You might be reading this, and think that it was a small, innocent mistake.  Maybe it was a small, innocent mistake, but it might be the 500th time that small, innocent mistake has happened to me.  To me, one of the biggest disconnects between people is their lack of experience with these types of events.  For the professors in that room, they got to experience this little incident indirectly through me, possibly for the first time.  But this has happened to me so many times, it has become my new normal.  If something small like that has happened to me hundreds of times, would you blame me if I lost it on the 501st time?  It would make sense to you to think I was overreacting, but not when you realize how often stuff like that happens.

I was happy on how affected the other professors were by this event.  One professor asked, “What do I do if instead of you it was my student?  And that student was spending the first 20 minutes of my class thinking about the harassment they just received?”  Exactly.

My workshop may have been useless, who knows, but getting to “experience” what it is like to be a minority in a predominantly white institution probably taught more lessons than I could have ever given.  Perspective and experience, we need more of it.


Insert bad transition here …

I have so many blogs that I need to get to, but there is not enough time in my day.  At some point I am going to blog about several questions I have about people.  For example, how common is it to pee in the shower?  Do only guys do it?  This question and more, I would love answers to.  Until next time.

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So, just completed a successful family vacation. I should blog about it, because I have so much to say, but more on that later. Today’s blog is about my oldest son’s Individualized Education Program, or better known as IEP.

An IEP is basically the school’s mechanism for dealing with a child’s special needs. It is not exactly Special Education as many are aware, but more like … individualized education. In my son’s case, it involved his delay in speaking and his struggle with understanding multi-step instructions. It also involved his social awkwardness. For example, he struggles to look people in the eyes when speaking and he rarely, if ever would engage others in conversation. It is a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture.

The biggest problem for me was when he was younger. You see, everyone had an opinion to what is issues were. Some said he was autistic, others said he was just delayed, and others just thought he was dumb. For example, in first grade, he was recommended to be completely removed from the classroom to be enrolled in Special Education. Luckily, he had a very good teacher that year and could support our opposition to that plan.

I had a brief conversation with his main IEP teacher from sixth grade today. I ran into her while we were placing my son’s school supplies in his locker. I asked her if she would be in charge of my son’s IEP again this year, and she said no, but gave me the name of the person who would be in charge. She then proceeded to tell me how good it was that I forced the IEP teachers to keep the bar high for my son, as towards the end of last year he no longer needed the extra teaching support. My first reaction was to admonish her and the staff for even thinking about NOT pushing my son, but instead redirected the praise toward my son for doing such a great job last year.

Here’s the thing: I have been forcing my son’s IEP team to raise the bar from day one, every year since preschool.  Actually, since before preschool.

Originally, I wanted to blame the Chicago Public Schools.  When my son was three, he didn’t talk.  So, I took him to a Chicago public school counselor.  Her recommendation was that we give him more time and let’s see “if he will grow out of it.”  Instead of waiting, I got him a speech therapist.   I moved and enrolled him in preschool in Wisconsin.  He was placed with kids that could not control their verbal speech, movements and needed strait jackets.  No exaggeration.  This is not meant as a negative on those kids, but my son could do more than they, and should have been in a class with higher functioning kids.  I requested that he be moved to a more challenging class.  They fought this, because they did not want to over stress and frustrate my son with the difficult challenges of the standard class.  He eventually was placed in a different class, after I forced them to place him in the standard preschool class.

But, then I thought, “Maybe it isn’t the public school system.”  I took him to a private therapist.  No diagnosis, but it was recommended that he focus on his strengths so as not to tax his brain with things like the English language.  Really????  Then how will he get better?  He will get better, but let’s not frustrate him too much.

We left for another Wisconsin school district and in the first grade he took his first standardized test.  According to the test it was recommended that he be removed from mainstream and placed in a special class.  Basically, according to the test, my son had an IQ of 5.  Once again I protested the downgrade of my son, but luckily, for the first time, a teacher was on the same page.  His first grade teacher joined the fight to keep my son in a mainstream class.  This was the first and last time I had an education person advocate for my son.  It turned out that my son had a problem understanding complex written questions.  In other words, he knew the answers, he just did not understand the questions.  So, for his IEP, he was allowed extra time for tests, and someone was allowed to read him the questions to make sure he understood them.  Upon retesting, he fell within normal parameters with below-average language skills (no surprise).

Believe it or not, this battle for challenging my son to rise to a higher standard continued until 6th grade.  His IEP recommended that all of his language assignments be half of what other students would be required.  Actually, in 5th grade, he was recommended to not be in the standard English class at all.  Of course, I said no.  And once again, I told his IEP, whatever the requirements placed on the other kids will also be placed on my son.  Once again, I got looks as if I was the meanest father in the world.  Which brings us to the present day, 7th grade, and my son has been scheduled without any help whatsoever, because of how well he did last year.

Why did I have to fight and advocate so much for my son?  Is this the new American education system?  We live in a world where kids are getting ribbons of participation because we don’t want them to feel bad for coming in last place.  We live in a world where preschools are handing out diplomas.  Kids that are behind are not being challenged in fear of frustrating them.  What happened to trying harder?  What happened to making it work despite the hardship?  This is even true politically.  If you don’t have a job, it’s the government’s fault.  I see immigrants every day come to this country, barely speak the language, if at all, and work to support their families here and in the country they came from.  Yet, we complain that it’s the President’s fault the unemployment rate is so high.  When did this become our America?

Do some people and kids need help?  Of course, but when did the system discourage hard work and raising the bar?  What would have happened to my son if I had waited to see if he started to talk?  What if I allowed them to take him out of the mainstream class?  What if doing half the work of the other kids was acceptable?  Then I think about the thousands, probably millions of kids that have learning disabilities and are encouraged to move slower so they are not frustrated.  In my opinion, this is a system that takes kids that are behind and not only keeps them behind, but places them farther behind.  In this country, “Tiger Mom” is a bad name, but if you go to other countries, do they have special programs to help students that are behind, or are they just forced to catch up?  You might think my words are harsh or extreme, but at least in my son’s case, had it been left up to the American education system, he would be far behind his peers right now.

After talking with last year’s IEP teacher, my son asked if he would be in Special Education classes this year.  I said to him, “You were never in Special Education classes, but you did need extra help in your language classes.  But no buddy, you will not be in “special” classes this year.”  And my son replied, “Then I will do my best.” Yeah he will, and every year, his best just keeps getting better.

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While at the store, a guy asked me if I knew what kind of ring I was wearing.  Dumbfounded, I said, “What?”  He continued, “Your ring.  Do you know that it is an Irish Marriage ring?”  I informed him that it is a Claddagh ring, and explained to him that it was not necessarily for marriage and how depending on how you wear changes its meaning.  As you may know, I hate strangers.  I especially hate strangers talking to me.  Quite frankly, no man should be asking another man about a ring.  Come on man!!!  You might be asking, “Why did you talk to him?”  Simple, what this stranger was saying was inaccurate.  And I hate stupidity more than I hate talking to strangers.  I’m just sayin’ …

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So, if you want to piss me off, tell me what I can’t do.   I may not even want to do it, but if you tell me that I can’t, I will have no choice but to not only do it, but do it well.  This characteristic is both a blessing and a curse. 

I not only think I can, but I know I can.

On one hand, it has inspired me to excel in a number of things, especially academics.  For example, although I did not grow up in the civil rights era, I still had to contend with teachers that automatically assumed that I could not possibly be as smart as my white or Asian counterparts.

In middle school, we had a special day with our teachers to discuss future classes in high school.   I had a teacher tell me that I shouldn’t take AP (advanced placement) classes because it would be too difficult for me.  I took AP history and calculus in high school, and did well in both.  As a matter of fact, I was given a C in AP history, despite the fact that according to my records I should have had an A.  I talked to the teacher about it, showed him my records, showed him his grade policy and made it clear to him that my grade should not be a C, but an A.  The teacher changed the grade.  After he changed the grade, it pissed me off.  How could a teacher make an error in judgment that allows him to change a grade from a C to an A?  I have been a teacher now for approximately 15 years, and I have NEVER made an error that big.  As you can tell, this event that happened to me almost 25 years ago still bothers me.  It was clear that I was treated differently than my other classmates.  Another example occurred in high school, when for one semester, I was demoted to remedial English.  Granted, English was not my strongest subject, but remedial?  Even the teacher of the remedial English class did not understand why I was enrolled in her class.

I could easily turn this blog into a social commentary on how racism is alive and well and has held many students back simply based on the color of their skin.  I graduated from high school with a 3.9, I am in my high school’s hall of fame for track & field, and I graduated from UC Berkeley, and I still have multiple stories of people telling me that I was not smart enough to do things.  What about the black students that were B students, or C students, or even D students?  If as an A student I still faced obstacles, I can’t imagine what other students faced.  But this is not a blog about race, or not just about race, but about the obsession people have with what can’t be done.

Don’t tell me what I can’t do.  I can do anything, and just because you have chosen to limit yourself, don’t dare put that small thinking on me.  But, why are so many people concerned with other people’s opinions on what they can and can’t do?  And why am I not?  The easiest answer would be my parents, as I believe strongly that they instilled in me my “don’t give up” and the “don’t you dare tell me what to do” attitude.  But I want to go a little bit deeper.  In many ways it reminds me of ‘cultural legacy’ as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’.  I actually blogged about this book in My First Book Review.  In other words, do I have this attitude because of my culture?

In his book, ‘Outliers’ Gladwell describes a famous psychological experiment by Nisbett and Cohen.  They monitored reactions of people to being insulted.  Students were asked to answer a number of questions and then walk down a long, narrow hallway where unbeknownst to them, another person who was also part of the experiment would whisper the word “asshole” as they walked passed.  The researchers found that it did not matter if you were black, or white, rich or poor, a nerd or a jock, you responded to the insult the same, except for one surprising variable.  If you were from the South, regardless of your background, you reacted strongly to the comment, but students from the North actively calmed themselves when they heard the comment.  The author suggested that the “Culture of Honor” was passed down through generations of Southerners irrespective of almost any other environmental or genetic factor.

I think about the history of African-Americans in this country and wonder if I am the recipient of a “Culture of Rebellion”.  I think about the long list adversities that black people have suffered in this country, but yet have been inspired to create music, poetry, innovation, and various forms of success in spite of the obstacles placed in the way.  Although I would never compare my obstacles to slavery, lynch mobs, nor laws of discrimination, but the fact remains, I have a strong visceral response to people trying to prevent me from doing things.  Can culture be inherited?  If you have a cultural history in which the ‘sky was the limit’ or your ancestors had many options, maybe limitations would not be such a bad thing.  But if your ancestors were oppressed and limited by the dominant culture, self-imposed limitations would be counter-intuitive and very maladaptive to an oppressive environment.  As a matter of fact, under oppressive conditions, a spirit of rebellion would be necessary for upward mobility.  Quite frankly, if you examine history, some of the greatest innovations and social movements have come out of great adversity.   Maybe it is from my parents, maybe it is genetic, or maybe I have inherited a “Culture of Rebellion”, but I am glad I have it and I hope my kids will have it too, because no one should limit their potential by telling them what they can and cannot do.

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A couple of months ago Taco Bell was sued.  The lawsuit claimed that Taco Bell was wrong for calling their beef burritos, well, beef burritos because the burritos only contained 35% beef.  Taco Bell responded to the lawsuit by stating that their beef burritos contained 88% beef.  Soon after the news of the lawsuit became public and Taco Bell’s response, Taco Bell put their burritos on sale for 88 cents.  Don’t think this new price was lost on me, what about you?  Nonetheless, I have accepted the fact that their burritos are 88% beef.  It also makes me better appreciate McDonald’s for stating that their burgers are 100% beef.  Especially since I used to think that this was as stupid advertisement.  I often thought why would they tell me that their burgers were 100% beef? 

Remember this commercial?

What else would it be?  Turns out there are other options.  But here is my problem:  I actually don’t mind that Taco Bell beef burritos are not 100% beef.  But why won’t Taco Bell tell us what is in the remaining 12%? I haven’t eaten there since.  I’m just sayin …

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So, over the Thanksgiving holiday I had a conversation with my sister about the importance of college.  It is really an ongoing conversation regarding the importance of getting a degree over starting your own business.  For example, Bill Gates is often brought up as a successful person who never went to college.  The irony of using Gates as an example is that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may give more money to help students, especially minority students, go to college than any other foundation on the planet.  He even has a blog to encourage students to finish college (http://www.gatesfoundation.org/foundationnotes/Pages/bill-gates-101011-improving-college-completion.aspx).  Nonetheless, our conversation has got me thinking what is the value of a college degree?

The focus of the conversation over the holiday was my nephew, my sister’s youngest who recently graduated from high school.  He has an interest in videography and is making plans on how to break into some sort of video business.  My sister owns her own business and has probably not worked for someone else in 30 years.  I am a professor, so it should be no surprise to my readers that I am pushing my nephew to attend college.  It is interesting, in many ways I feel as if we are fighting for my nephew’s soul.   Who will win?  The promise of financial freedom? Or the tried and true stability of the promise of an education?  Inspired by our conversations, I have decided to write this blog.  What is the value of college education?

Independence.  One of the biggest lessons I learned in college was how to live on my own.  With the safety net of home and parents limited (eight hours away in my case), I could not just run home every time I needed help or was struggling.  I was forced to figure out things on my own, and these lessons were invaluable to my development, both emotionally and spiritually.  I do not think I truly learn about MYSELF until experiencing college and being on my own.

Multi-tasking.  While in college one must study, work (I worked 20-30 hours per week), socialize, and juggle other important miscellaneous activities and still be successful.  This is a skill that I can’t stress enough to its importance.

Social Skills.  I have never met a more variety of people than I did attending college.  My experience was especially diverse at Berkeley, my alma mater.  To this day I remember having amazing conversations with my atheist friend, Connie.  We would get into knock-down arguments over God and religion and then after go for lunch or dinner.  It taught me how important it was to have friends that thought differently than me.  This is something I think most people are missing from their lives.  Trust me, it is important.  I do not want to be surrounded by people who think just like me.  It is not enriching, nor growth inspiring.

Exposure.  You don’t know what you don’t know.  One of the largest advantages to college is to be exposed to different subjects and ideas.  There is no other forum that a person can take classes and talk with others about economy, history, science all on the same day.  When I entered college I was planning on becoming a lawyer, but through various experiences at Cal, I learned that I loved animals and started the pathway that I am currently on.  Most students change their majors multiple times, but it is their opportunity to explore that I think is most valuable.

Higher Probability for Success.  The fact is that most people require a Bachelor’s degree at minimum to obtain a successful job.  Is it possible to be successful without a degree, of course, but the Gates stories are rare.  Even owning one’s own business is a risky adventure.  Most businesses fail in the first two years.  In 2008, 15.5 million people claimed to be self-employed and their median personal marginal federal tax rate was 10 percent, which is an income range of $0 – $8,025.  Only 4.1 % of the self-employed were in the marginal tax bracket of 33% or more (Taxable income of 164,550-357,700 for 2010).  The bottom line: being successful via less traditional means has a lower probability of success.

Finish What you Start.  This is my number one reason for going to college.  It teaches you to finish what you start.  The reality is that a Bachelor’s degree is not special.  It will not prepare you for a job any more than anything else, but what it will do is show a potential employer that you can finish what you start.  Think about how important this skill is.  Can you think of people in your life that don’t finish what they start?  Of course you can.  It might even be you, but this is a crucial skill.  The ability to overcome adversity to finish a task can not be overlooked or underestimated.  Having a degree says something about a person, and that’s a fact. 

And no, it doesn’t have to be a degree.  But we are impressed by people with accomplishments.  And being the best at Call of Duty doesn’t count.  So, get your degree, it is a wonderful accomplishment, but more important it will teach many things along the way.  Is it the only way, of course not, but if you find yourself not doing much these days, or wondering what to do next, it is not a bad way to go and you just might learn something.  Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

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No matter what it is that you do, I hope you love it.  Do what you love and things will be alright.  I chose Berkeley because it had the most beautiful brochure of all the college material I got.  It wasn’t till after I got accepted to I realize that it was a good school.  Probably not the most intelligent way to pick a school, but it worked out and speaks to my personality.  I’m just sayin …

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So, I am not what you might call an avid reader, but every so often I read a book that I can’t get off my mind.  The book I just completed is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  Everyone should read this book, and I mean everyone.  It was actually first mentioned to me by my ex-wife’s brother and then later by my sister.  This is usually what it takes to get me to read a book for pleasure, multiple recommendations.

The heart of the book explores how and why people become successful.  And as the title of the book implies, people who are significantly more successful than most.  Are they successful because of innate abilities or is there more to their story.  For example, many professional hockey players are big, strong and very agile on skates.  But did you also know that a large proportion of them are born in January, February, and March?  Is this a coincidence?  If you read the book you will find that it is not.  Another example, and there are many, is of Bill Gates.  Yes, Bill Gates is über smart, but had it not been for key events in his life, he may never have been nearly as successful.  Or how being Korean, and more specifically the Korean culture may have been responsible for multiple airplane crashes.

I highly recommend this book.  It has made me rethink education, pathways to success, and the role of environment and culture in one’s potential for success.   The book even has me consider why some people live long lives in spite of poor habits, such as alcohol, over-eating, and other unhealthy lifestyles.  In the vein of this book, I have considered my own story of success and whether I am a product of innate abilities, luck, or a series of opportunities that had they not occurred, I would not be where I am today.

Whether you would consider my story a successful one will certainly depend on your perspective.  Let’s consider for the sake of argument that my story is indeed successful.  I am a university professor.  I earned my bachelor’s at UC Berkeley, PhD from the University of Kansas, and held a postdoctoral position at Northwestern University.  If you know me I think you would say I was intelligent.  I am fortunate to remember things that many people forget, and often after only hearing it once.  One of the things that I believe I excel at is looking at a problem, analyzing the constituents of the problem and coming to a solution, both quickly and to the point of resolving the problem.  It is these characteristics that make it no surprise that I am in science.  I have gone to some of the finest institutions in the world.  And earned a 4.0 while working towards my PhD.  Based on this information it would be no surprise to you that I am a Physiology professor and that my story of success is due to my intelligence and academic pedigree, but you would be wrong.

Of my two brothers and sister, why am I the only one with a PhD?  For that matter, why was I one of the first, if not the only member of my extended family to earn a PhD.  It certainly wasn’t because of intelligence that is an outlier to the rest of my family.  I assure you, my family has the intellectual capacity similar to most.  But I do believe there were a few key events in my life that were unique:

1.  I went to a private Christian elementary school, my siblings did not.  My class sizes were small.  I received not only more attention than my public school counterparts, but I received specialized attention.  Upon arriving at home, my mom would ask if I had homework.  I would reply that I did, but I completed it in class.  She would ask me if I listened to the teacher while I was working on my homework.  I replied, I did not need to, I already understood the material.  My mother responded to this information by requesting I be given more difficult work.  The school placed me in a small group of students that were more advanced in the class and tailored a program to our skills.  Could this have happened at a public school?  I eventually advanced beyond small group and, again at my mother’s behest, I was advanced to the next grade.  A consequence of this decision is that I graduated high school at 16.  Two things came of this event:  One, I was in an institution that was flexible enough to accommodate my situation and secondly, my mom taught me a very valuable lesson, complacency is NOT acceptable.

2.  My parents divorced.  Now, I am not praising divorce, but this event had some very interesting unintended consequences.  My mom had to leave the house and with me, find a place that she could afford.  We had to move across town and lived in a two bedroom condominium.  For a time, my brother and I shared a room.  Interestingly, this condo was in a “poor” part of a very rich neighborhood.  We were now in one of the best school districts in the state.  I went to a high school that was only two to three years old when I first set foot in the building.  Had I gone to the junior high and senior high of my siblings, the age difference, class size difference, and environment was as different as night and day.

3.  A professor at Berkeley that taught me all about graduate school.  I walked into the late Professor Ned Johnson’s office with one question in mind, “How do I do what you do?”  He told me.  He wrote my first letter of recommendation.  He helped me obtain two more.  He helped me get my first job after college, a Park Ranger on Alcatraz Island as the Natural Resources Coordinator for the Bay District.  On Alcatraz I met a professor from the University of Kansas who invited me to become a graduate student in his lab.  He and the chair of the department at the time fast tracked me into the program on probation.  I had a 2.6 out of Berkeley and so did not meet the requirements of the graduate school.  Their argument, I was a minority with potential.  As mentioned above, I graduated with a 4.0 and later that chair became my PhD advisor.  He studied marmots.  I now study marmots.

These are just three examples, but there are plenty more, for example, my entire family is made up of people who never give up and complacency is not an option.  What is your story?  Have you considered all the things that have happened in your life that has allowed you to be where you are?  The opportunities?  Maybe even opportunities that you missed?  As an educator I now think of students not as smart or dumb, but hopefully more of people who if given the opportunity can be anything they want to be.  What you will find upon reading the book, Outliers, is that the stories of success are not outliers at all, but individuals that were given opportunities to be successful.  Kind of encouraging isn’t?

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I had a fantasy football draft this morning at Hooters.  I have been in this league for several years now, and all 12 members take it very seriously.  I was on the waiting list to get in this league.  This league is serious.  It was my first time at Hooters.  I don’t know what I was expecting, but it did not live up to the hype.  Don’t get me wrong, lots of squished together boobies, and tight clothing, and short shorts, but for whatever reason, I expected more.  Not a happy ending, but more.  Nonetheless, isn’t it illegal to not hire someone based on their looks.  There were no uggos, not one.  Not even a chubby girl.  I’m not complaining, and I am certainly not writing my congressman, but I would think there would be at least one lawsuit.  Just one chunky, mediocre, Hooters girl wannabe lawsuit.  I’m just sayin …

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