Summer Reading: Theft by Finding

Book three is on the lighter side, David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding.  This is a collection of diary entries from 1977-2002.  It reads differently from his other work in some ways, but as a long-time fan, I could see where the ideas for much of his work came from, and by the end, could hear his distinctive voice.

The book begins in media res, so to speak, unlike a memoir, which might cover childhood, etc.  Instead, we’re thrown into a time when David is hitchhiking and unless you do the math, you’re not sure how old he is.  The early entries are filled with interesting observations of people and places, but also tales of his own harassment by others, his drinking, doing drugs and being broke frequently.  I was glad I knew how things turned out for him because if I didn’t, I’d have been worried.

Though Sedaris has always downplayed his ambitions, you can see glimpses of it even in what looks like pretty desperate moments.  He knows how much he needs to save to get to New York.  There are brief mentions of writing he’s working on.  You can tell he wants to get somewhere, and that’s why the story doesn’t end in tragedy.

As always, there are some really funny moments where I found myself laughing out loud.  His thoughts are so weird and yet, somehow, not that different from our own weird thoughts. I found myself thinking simultaneously, wow, that’s odd and oh, yeah, that’s exactly how I’d feel.

I always find myself thinking after reading books like this, that detail how people live their lives, that I should do more.  I think I should travel more, write more, go out more, etc.  If a memoir/diary has ended up in print, generally the person’s life isn’t boring–or at least the slices we’re shown aren’t boring–and so then I think my own is boring by comparison.  Of course, I’m writing this from the porch of a beach house, so my life isn’t that bad.

Summer reading: Everybody Lies

I heard about Everybody Lies from listening to the Freakonomics podcast where Seth Stephens-Davidowitz was interviewed about the book.  I absolutely love data.  I’m not necessarily good at evaluating it as I don’t have the same toolkit as many modern data scientists, but I do often turn to data to answer questions I have in my life.  This book didn’t disappoint in answering some really interesting questions–about racism, sexism, poverty, sex, and more.

The main points of the book, I’d say, is that our intuition about things is often wrong and that we have enough data at our fingertips and the tools to dig into (in the form of computing power) to answer some really big and important questions that might make life better for lots of people.

Stephens-Davidowitz is also a really good writer, so while the book is about datasets and regression analyses, it’s not at all dry.  And the insights the book reveals about human nature are also compelling.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • While we talk all the time about implicit bias when it comes to race, search data reveals that racism is not as implicit as we think it is.  It’s really explicit. People just hide it well.  They’re not unaware that they’re racist, as implicit bias would have us believe.  They just don’t share their racism with others.  But they share it with Google.
  • Parents display a lot of bias against their daughters. They assume she’s not smart, that looks are more important, and that ugliness is a very undesirable characteristic to have in daughters but not necessarily sons.  (I found this nugget particularly interesting given my interest in girls education).
  • The Internet is not as segregated as one might think.  Most of us bump into people whose opinions are very different from our own very regularly.
  • People say they’re going to do one thing — like watch a documentary and not the chick flick — but they do something else entirely.  Which is why Netflix and Amazon and other Internet sellers pay more attention to what you actually do (watch the chick flick) and not what you are projecting you’ll do (because you added that documentary to your queue).
  • Sometimes data doesn’t give you the whole picture, so you need human intervention. Test scores, for example, don’t tell you everything you might need to know about how effective a teacher is in creating student success. Test scores, student surveys, and teacher observations (the last two qualitative data from humans) taken all together give you a really solid picture.
  • Also, the size of a horse’s left ventricle is a big indicator of whether that horse will win a lot of races.

And those are just a few of the cool things I learned.  But the other cool thing about the book is that it’s also a story of data itself, of how much we have (even us regular people), of what kinds of things scientists are investigating and discovering from all this data, and the untapped potential that’s there.  I actually think I’ll be applying some of what I learned from this book pretty immediately.  And that’s cool.

Summer reading: Pitch Perfect

I finished book two of my summer reading project.  Pitch Perfect was about how to speak more effectively, in many different situations, from formal presentations to conversations at cocktail parties.  A couple of years ago, I read The Well-Spoken Woman, in preparation for a TED-style talk I had to give.  I think both books are helpful.  Communication is one of the most important things we do, and we are constantly sending messages with what we say and how we say it.  It’s an area I’m working on all the time.

The message from the book that I found most helpful is that you should always be prepared, no matter how often you do public speaking or how confident you feel.  Speaking well under any circumstances takes preparation and practice.  That’s comforting to think that everyone needs to prepare.  So I don’t feel stupid for going over things in my head before I say them or thinking through what I might say in a meeting, even if I’m not the one running the meeting.

The book is broken down into seven basic principles, which I’m going to paraphrase for my own sake: Get to the point, tell stories, keep it short, slow down, convey confidence, be curious, change/control the conversation.  Many of these you’ve likely heard before, but McGowan’s specific stories and examples drive these points home, giving you some very specific places to start.

I’m looking forward to putting some his tips into practice, both for myself and for my students.


Feedback via observation

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about classroom observations.  One of my roles is to oversee the evaluation process for faculty and classroom observations are a part of that.  I’ve felt ambivalent about our observations.  Sometimes they work well, sometimes not.  Typically, teacher and observer arrange a time to observe a particular class.  The observer writes up the observation and then the teacher and observer have a conversation about what went well, what didn’t with the idea that the teacher improves in areas that she feels she needs to.

Most of the time, that’s precisely what happens, and sometimes the teacher invites the observer back in to see how things are better or the observer sets up a revisit and there’s further conversation and things are good.  But that’s best case scenario.  Often there’s not a revisit for another year by which time whatever was discussed before has been forgotten.  This is especially true when the teachers are already pretty good.

I’ve been in conversation over the past year, and especially the last few months with our division directors and department chairs (who do most of the actual visits) about shifting the focus of our observation process from something we do as part of the evaluation process to something we do to improve teaching.  In order for that to happen, we need two things.  One, we need more frequent observations.  Once a year is not enough.  And two, we need them to not be planned.  Not everyone plans the. perfect. lesson. for observation day, but many do, and then you may or may not be getting a clear picture of what’s happening regularly in the classroom.

We’re still working out what this will look like for us.  There are a number of models out there, but we want to find the one that works for us.  Interestingly, as happens when you’ve learned a new word or something new, suddenly that word or concept is everywhere.  This morning Matt Reed writes about observations at the college level, highlighting an article by a former colleague of mine.  And last week, on Connected Principals, Sam LeDeaux writes about successful completing a challenge to visit 500 classrooms during the school year.

All mention the trickiness of separating the feedback from observations, which can be very valuable, from evaluations.  I think that’s easier at the higher ed level than at the secondary level.  We can’t employ our students to observe our classes as Cook-Sather, in the article linked above suggests.  Seniors may be ready for it, but I don’t think most faculty would be open to having a 14 year old provide feedback.  I could be wrong about that. But it seems like a real challenge.

Another route to go would be peer, not supervisor, observations. We want to implement peer observations and many faculty already do this informally.  In my mind, I’m thinking requiring a couple of peer observations that are shared only between the teacher and observer would be valuable.  The only requirement is that they get done, and we just have to trust that the feedback is productive.  The problem there is time.  Unlike professors, our teachers’ time is much more compressed.  They’re in class, generally, most of the day, and when they’re not, they’re grading, in meetings, working with students, or prepping for class.   It’s why observations tend to fall to administrators.  While they’re busy, they’re not tied to a class schedule, so can more easily get into classrooms.

There are other ways to separate, potentially.  One thought we have is to try to observe each teacher at least 10 times.  We could say that only 5 of those count–maybe two from early in the year and three from later (when presumably if improvement is needed, that improvement has happened).  The basic idea is to get faculty to trust that yes, observations are connected to the evaluation process.  They are, after all, evidence for how well a teacher is doing their job.  It can’t all be self reporting or a single data point.  But they need to trust that our main goal is not to find ways to ding them, but to help them grow, to celebrate their hard work.

I recognize that I’m a glutton for feedback–positive or negative–and not everyone else enjoys feedback the way I do.  And they don’t trust that the feedback is not just in the school’s best interests, but theirs as well.

Managing Humans

Cover of "Managing Humans: Biting and Hum...
Cover via Amazon

First book of the summer down.  I started with Managing Humans by Michael Lopp.  It promised to be funny and yet meaningful, and connected two of my favorite areas of study together, geekery/software and management/leadership.  It did prove to be an interesting read, although I started to skip a chapter here and there toward the end that were more specific to software engineering contexts than anything else.  But most of the book is applicable no matter what your industry.

The basic premise is for managers to not think of their employees (or themselves) as cogs in a machine, but to understand our own humanity, and how we tick so that we can all do our jobs better (and feel happy!).  Lopp, in fact, begins the book by saying that a manager’s most important job is to understand the needs of the people that work for him/her and to meet those needs. It’s harder than writing software.

There were lots of good tidbits in here, but one of my favorites was the Rands Test.  It’s a series of questions to determine the health of your team (or whole company).  The questions include things like “Can you say ‘no’ to your boss?” and “Do you have time to be strategic?” Or my favorite “Are you actively killing the Grapevine?”  As Lopp puts it, “In the absence of information, people make shit up. Worse, if they at all feel threatened, they make shit up that amplifies their worst fears.”  This is why, he explains, those who fear losing their jobs come up with conspiracy theories that confirm that fear.  Often leaving you the manager to try to explain that no, you’re not going to lose your job, and that theory is quite a doozy.

Lopp also explained the conflict between the Old Guard and the New Guard in a couple of different places, which I found interesting and enlightening.  And while Lopp is talking about the Old Guard being the company founders and the New Guard being those who come along after, every place I’ve ever worked has this dynamic.  Those who’ve been around the longest lord it over those who have been around for less time.  The New Guard often wants to clear processes in place while the Old Guard doesn’t see the need to.  Lopp explains that the Old Guard essentially embodies the culture of the company, but doesn’t articulate it effectively to the New Guard.  Instead, they just argue with each other.  The Old Guard needs the New Guard because there’s no growth without them.  It’s an interesting dynamic, and made sense to me in a variety of contexts.

Finally, toward the end of the book, he discusses how to leave and what to do about employees who leave.  Some of this I’ve always known.  When an employee gives notice, they’ve often been thinking about leaving for a while.  It didn’t start in the two weeks before.  It might have been a few months before.  The idea of leaving often begins with a small thing that bothers them, something said in a meeting that went against their values or what they believed to be company values, a lack of follow up somewhere, a desire for growth that isn’t cultivated.  Whatever it is, managers must try to prevent them.  It is far less costly to work to keep someone happy and productive than it is to hire bring another person up to speed.  I say this out loud pretty often.

So this book didn’t knock my socks of, but there were some good tidbits.  I would recommend it to anyone working in the tech industry, for sure.  A lot of the details are directly applicable there.  I would also recommend it to anyone who is not a manager, but is frustrated by their management.  It’s a straightforward account of how management typically thinks, and the many things they’re juggling.  So if you want that insight, and to maybe have a better relationship with your boss, pick this book up.

I need time to think

Thinking is one of the things I neglect most often.  I don’t mean the kind of thinking one does in the moment to solve a problem at hand.  I mean the kind of quiet contemplation that leads you down paths you didn’t know were there. In most jobs, there’s just not time to think, unless you make that time.  One thing that’s nice about summer when one works in education is that, in theory, you have time to think.  But you still have to make time.

I said to a colleague today that I thought summer was supposed to be less busy. I’ve spent the last few days tying up loose ends and plowing through to-do lists. It doesn’t feel less busy.

But I spent some time in conversation, reflecting on the past year and really thinking about what went well, what didn’t and why. I’ll admit the caffeine hadn’t fully soaked in yet for that conversation, but I thought about parts of it throughout the day and am still thinking about it.  And that’s the kind of thinking I need to do.  It’s “chess thinking” and “daydreaming” together.  Chess thinking because I’m taking a step back, assessing, and looking at next moves from a broader perspective.  And it’s daydreaming because I can dream a little, ask myself a few “What if” questions and see if any of them play out.

Everyone, really, should take time to think more deeply, whether it’s about their work or their personal lives.  Too often, we just plow through the to-do list without thinking about why we’re doing those things in the first place or what we might be doing instead.  Summer might grant me more time to do that, but I need to seize on it before it passes.

About graduation

One of my favorite pictures of Geeky Girl (right) from graduation week.

So it’s true.  Geeky Girl graduated.  In theory, we’re empty nesters, though Geeky Boy boomeranged back home, so . . . not.

Because I work at the school that Geeky Girl graduated from, I was part of the graduation ceremony.  We all wear our robes, process in.  It’s a really nice ceremony.  When diplomas are handed out, faculty, staff, and trustees who have daughters in the graduating class are invited to the stage, and get to hug their daughters after they receive their diploma.  It’s very cool.  A fellow teacher and I sat together.  And we didn’t cry.  Because we were worried about doing it wrong.  Crying happened the day before and will happen later.

There was lots of hugging after as well. I know so many of the girls not just as students, but as friends of Geeky Girl.  I hugged the parents and the girls.  Colleagues hugged me and congratulated me.  Lots of hugging.  Which reminded me of how awesome the community is.  We had all been in this together–parents, students, colleagues–and here we were together at the end.

And this plays out every year, not just at the main graduation for seniors, but at 8th grade moving up, and 5th grade moving up.  Across the school at the end of the year, we all stand back and feel a sense of pride.  Yep, we say, that kid there, and that girl there, they grew up a lot.  They aren’t shy anymore.  They are great at math now.  They are a school leader.  They’ve become a great runner.  And that girl there, she faced down challenges most can’t imagine, and we were there to help.  At every ceremony, that’s what I feel.  It’s what teachers around me feel.  That they had some hand in getting every kid on that stage to this point, directly or indirectly.

I said to my colleagues gathered before graduation, that I had cried the day before, during an interview, as another colleague talked about how wonderful the students we had in our charge were.  It wasn’t just about my own daughter.  It was about all of them, about missing them, yes, but also about the ones still there, and the work still ahead, and how wonderful it is to get to be part of that work.  The tears weren’t sadness so much as an overwhelming sense of joy, an overwhelming sense of how lucky I’ve been to be part of something this special.

Summer Goals

Today is the first day of summer for us.  Thursday, we graduated the class of 2017 including my daughter (more on that in another post).  And Friday, we had a day of professional development.  I came in this morning to a quiet building, and a pile of papers on my desk as the last couple of weeks have involved throwing things on my desk and running to the next meeting or event.  Today it’s time to regroup and think through what I want to get done this summer.

Someone asked me a while back what I do in the summer.  Every teacher and professor hates this question because the implication is that we don’t work.  I’m on the clock unlike teachers and professors, but it’s still a mystery, I think, as to what needs to get done over the summer so that the school year is off to a good start in the fall.

I would group my goals in three categories: professional strategic goals (things that move forward ideas for larger goals), professional tactical goals (just stuff that has to get done and for which there’s no time when school is in session), and personal goals.  My professional goals are in flux and somewhat complex at the moment.  Here I’ll just mention what I’m up to personally.

My biggest goal that overlaps personal and professional is to read a book a week.  I’ve already got a list of 8-10 books.  Most of these are non-fiction, related to leadership and/or education.  I am hoping to blog these as I finish.  Both Mr. Geeky and I hope to finish up some house projects.  I might have a yard sale soon and we have some small and big repairs to do.  And now that Geeky Girl will be off to college, Mr. Geeky and I have some thinking to do about next steps for us.

First on my list at work is simply to get things organized and set up some systems that can carry into the fall.  This means going through files (both physical and digital) and bringing order to the chaos.  We’ll see how that goes.

I Don’t Believe in Talent

The field of Computer Science is filled with people who believe there’s some sort of CS or programming gene.  Some people have talent for computing.  Others don’t.  I don’t believe it.  I don’t believe it for CS, and I don’t believe it for anything else one might pursue.  If such a thing existed, if people were born with a talent for say, biology, what would we need schools for?

I believe, as many psychologists, educational researchers, and neuroscientists do, that skill in a field comes from practice and hard work.  I would say I’m pretty good at writing.  I’ve been practicing since I was 8 or 9.  I wrote stories and poems in my spare time.  I read lots of books (which are models for writing), and even now, I still read and write a lot.  I ask for feedback on my writing from others, so I can improve.

I approach teaching and mentoring the same way.  I never look at someone and think, “they can’t do this.”  They may not want to do what I’m asking them to do.  They may not put in the work and practice necessary to get better, but I always believe that if they did, they could get good at anything they wanted.  The hard part is figuring out how to practice effectively and being motivated to do so.  For a teacher, this means putting the right kinds of activities in place that will truly build skills, and it means having activities and incentives that motivate students to put in the work.  While, yes, the student bears responsibility for putting in effort, the teacher needs to figure out how to structure a class such that the student sees the pay off fairly clearly.

When I’m on the learning end of things, I find ways to motivate myself.  Games often work for me.  Or gamification.  Structured work like telling myself I’m going to do something for x amount of time and then have a cup of tea will often get me through things that are challenging.  Applying what I’m learning to real things is also motivating.  If I can take something I learned and use it almost immediately, I’m compelled to learn more.

There are certain things I’ve never been good at because I’ve never tried to be.  But there are lots of things that I’ve gotten a lot better at because I work at them.  We may all have different skills, but it’s not due to natural talent.  It’s due to hard work, and saying it’s talent devalues the work that we all put into building our skills.

Utter Exhaustion

The last week or so I’ve been flat out beat.  I’ve been coming home, putting my feet up and digging into ice cream and/or wine.  It’s not healthy, I know, but it is what it is.  Earlier this week, the whole family was gone for the evening, so on the way home, I picked up a BBQ sandwich and a six-pack of beer.  I came home, set myself up with my sandwich and a beer, put the tv on what I wanted to watch and just chilled out.  I was asleep by 9 or 9:30.

The next morning, I got up, got dressed, headed out to the car, and noticed that it was unlocked. Weird, I thought.  Then I looked down, and my keys were still in the console.  That’s how tired I was.

It didn’t help that I had a cold last week, but mostly, I’m just plowing through all those things that have to get done at the end of the year.  My colleagues are feeling the same.  The teachers are knee-deep in grading final papers and projects and are headed into exams.  Plus, they have other things to wrap up for the year.

I didn’t plan as well this year as I had wanted and it’s been busier than I expected, so a few things that I had wanted to wrap up earlier I’m just now getting to.

And that’s just the work stuff.  In a little over a week, my parents (both sets) and Mr. Geeky’s parents will show up to celebrate Geeky Girl’s graduation.  The house situation is not good (See ice cream/wine situation above).  I’m planning to dig in this weekend and I’m taking a day off next week to work on some things.  Keeping house has never been my forté (or Mr. Geeky’s), so when big events come around, we both go into a bit of a panic.  It’s not pretty.

June 12th it will all be over, and I might get some respite.  Until then, I’m just plowing through as best I can.