Unplugged

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I had zero access to the Internet this week.  I had a little access to cell service, which I basically used to settle arguments after dinner.  When we couldn’t remember actors’ names or who said what when or what words really meant, I went to my phone to look it up.  I also used it for a couple of recipes, but otherwise, I was offline.  I brought my iPad but only because I had books to read on there.  I also had an audio book on my phone.  I read three books while at the beach.  I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam Grant, and Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.

I liked them all and would recommend the first two to any teacher.  I think there’s a lot of insight to be found in both about teaching and how to reach students and how to interact with colleagues.  I wish Give and Take had been available years ago as I think I would have found it useful to make it through some difficult times and to work with difficult colleagues.  What I liked about both books is that they don’t just offer a look at things as they are, but also offer ways to change things to be the way we want them to be.  So, if you want to be more giving or create a giving culture at work (or in the classroom), there are things you can do.  Similarly with Drive, there are practical ways to tap into your drive or to help others tap into theirs (like our students!).  In fact, I had a couple of truly aha moments while reading both books that will change some things about how I approach and think about work and in my teaching.

There’s more reading to do this summer, and there’s more insights to be had (I hope). Today I go back to my “work” schedule to try to get some things done. Mr. Geeky said something about the summer being nearly over on the way home. I said, “Speak for yourself! It’s just begun!” But it does feel shorter than it should be. Sigh.  I just have to make sure to be restful when I can.

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Hitting the books

I tweeted this a couple of days ago

I’ll write a little more about my frustrations with my MOOC, but I thought some of you might be interested in the books I turn to.  I have a stack of Python books.  Every time I see one that looks promising, I pick it up.  I use them not only to learn from but to get ideas for assignments and projects.  Not having programmed for a living, I often grasp for ideas that students can tackle.  Most of my students are good about coming up with ideas themselves, but there are always a few who need some direction.

My current favorite Python book is The Practice of Computing using Python. I like the way the material is presented and there are plenty of exercises and projects to practice on.  I often reference it when I forget how to do something.  I also just got Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner, 3rd Edition, primarily for assignment ideas.  The material in it is also presented quite nicely and the examples are fun and appealing (less math, more games!).   I have a few others, but I don’t pick them up that much.  I’ve got my eye on a couple of other books I’d like to look at.

What I like about books as opposed to MOOCs is that I can flip through them and look at what I want.  I can go back and forth however I want.  There are indices I can look stuff up in.  If I don’t like one project, I can do another.  There are usually 10 or more at the end of chapters. And yes, MOOCs, in theory, allow you to do similar things, but they’re not as good.  The discussion forums are no match for an index and a thorough explanation.  I use the Internet a lot–Googling how to do things that I’m stuck on.  I often end up at either stack overflow or the python documentation.  Both are useful, so I’m not knocking technology completely.  It’s just that it has its limits for understanding a concept.

Books certainly have their limits, too.  They’re slow to update.  They often have particular ways of doing things. They’re expensive.  But there are great things about them and many of them are taking advantage of online publishing and online supplements to make them more useful in the digital age. What books and MOOCs are both missing is a good feedback loop.  At least with programming, I can tell when something works or doesn’t, but in many other subjects, you don’t always know if you’ve gotten something right or wrong and why.  For that, you need a teacher.

Reading list


I need a reading list.  I’ve read some weird things lately.  The Big Roads, for one, which I liked and I like that genre of book. I’d love some books like the one to the left, which came across my radar this morning.  I like reading about how people learn.  I’m not much of a fiction reader, really.  I prefer non-fiction, but I’m open to fiction as an escape.  So, any suggestions?

Mindset

So I’ve finished Mindset.  Mostly, I liked it.  What Now had mentioned in a comment that Dweck didn’t have the style down quite right, and I think that’s true.  She doesn’t quite read like Gladwell or Shirky or some other writers who are well-educated but who also spend a lot of time writing for the general public.  Still, I think Dweck did a good job of not lapsing into purely academic prose.  It’s just that the writing felt stilted at times.

If you haven’t read it or heard about it, the main idea of the book is that we all fit into two mindsets, the fixed mindset or the growth mindset.  With a fixed mindset, you basically believe that intelligence is a fixed thing and that it can’t be changed.  This idea often applied to talent (i.e. in sports or music) as well.   In the growth mindset, intelligence (and talent) is something that can be improved, mostly through hard work.  Many fixed mindset people feel that if you have to work hard, it means that you’re not really good at what you’re doing, while growth mindset people believe that working hard leads to success.  There’s a handy chart near the end of the book that lists things like how each mindset reacts to criticism.  Fixed mindset people ignore it or get defensive.  Growth mindset people use it to improve themselves.

I have to say, I see traits of both mindsets in myself, and looking back over the years, I see reactions that reflect both mindsets.  For example, I mostly feel that I can always improve myself.  I can work hard, learn new things and get better at something.  That’s certainly reflected in my career path, which has taken me from poetry writing to programming.  It seems on the surface like a huge leap, but it really a gradual process of learning one new thing that led to new insights.  So, for example, a part-time job scanning in my professor’s poetry book led to another job laying out and writing a newsletter and laying out a proceedings and then I started thinking about writing and its relationship to technology and using technology to write and thinking about how technology changes how we write, how we think.  And then I shifted focus to the technology itself and using it to solve problems and then to teaching those problem solving skills to kids via technology and programming.

But then, there have been moments along that path where I’ve thought that I just gave up.  Like when I didn’t finish my MFA.  When I look back now, I know that part of my decision was that I felt untalented compared to my peers.  But I did know, even then, that I needed to work a lot harder, but I still looked at it as I have to work harder because I’m not as talented as the others are.  But that wasn’t true.  They worked hard.  That’s *why* they were talented.  Even now, I know that some people think that writing comes easy to me.  It doesn’t.  I may have more practice than a freshman in college, but I still work hard on everything I write.

Besides lots of helpful tips about how to become more firmly in the growth mindset mentality, the book offers insight into the way many fixed mindset people behave.  I recognize among some of the stories she tells people that have given me grief in the past.  And she confirms that fixed mindset people can be quite difficult to work with.  The cool thing is, you can change your mindset.  Dweck considers herself a reformed fixed mindset person.  tShe still struggles sometimes with fixed mindset moments.  She offers advice to teachers and parents for how to cultivate the growth mindset in students and children.  Simple things like encouraging them to set goals and work toward them.

Overall, the book is a worthwhile read.  I’d especially recommend it for parents and teachers and if you suspect you might be working for a fixed mindset boss, it can help in that area, too.

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Update 12: Books a Million

FYI: I think soon I will drop the update numbers.  I plan, hopefully, many updates as I approach the school year and into the school year.

As two academics, we have a lot of books in our house.  Plus our kids have a lot of books.  We generally like them.  But we’re running out of space to keep.  Frankly, many of the books we have are not ones we need or want to keep.  But there’s that whole social thing about books–you know, it’s like decor.  It says something about who you are.  Which would be true for us except none of our books are in places that any guest can see.  So I’ve been purging.  I posted a few on Paperback Swap.  I sold a couple on Ebay, where the money went directly to my walk.  And now I have a few listed on Half.com.  I think I’m going to list another stack on Ebay before moving it over to Half.com.  I need to do more purging.

Because we don’t have a lot of space but because we really like books, I’ve been considering an e-reader.  I have issues with all of them.  With my physical books at least, I can give away or sell my books when I’m done with them.  Granted, I’m not going to make a ton of money (and that’s not the goal in getting rid of books for most people), but I can do with them what I want when I’m done reading them.  I often give good books to friends or family.  With e-books, that’s not possible.  The Nook, Barnes & Noble’s e-reader, however, is testing out a loan program.  Of course, your friend has to have a Nook.  I don’t know anyone with a Nook.  I probably buy as many books at the physical book stores around town as I do through Amazon, so I kind of hate the idea that I’d be tied to a particular retailer.  What if a book I want isn’t available via whichever e-reader I’ve committed to?  I have a tendency to go with the underdog, but how much would it suck if the e-reader service went belly up.  I’d have a $200 paperweight.

And then there’s the iPad option, which I’m even less fond of.  Mr. Geeky has one and I’ve played with it.  While it’s certainly slick, I can’t imagine using it primarily as an e-reader.  Each book is an app.  The whole page turning thing is just a little too fancy.  And I already have an iPhone.  Who needs a larger version?  I have a laptop and a desktop.  I just can’t see that an iPad would do anything that I can’t currently do with one of those.  And as a reader, bleh.

Still, I might invest in one soon.  Something about going through all these books physically has made me tired of having them around.

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Ignore Everybody

Over the weekend, I read Hugh MacLeod’s book, Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity. He also blogs at gapingvoid.com. It was an interesting book, quite simple and direct and refreshing. There’s nothing in it that I don’t think you couldn’t figure out for yourself, but sometimes we forget the most obvious things. One thing that comes through in the book quite clearly (as you might guess from the title), is the idea that you should have the confidence to pursue your ideas without worrying about what other people think of them.

My years of academic training, even in Creative Writing of all places, taught me to worry about what other people thought constantly. People talk about writing articles that will get published not writing articles that have good ideas. People talk about pursuing paths that are more marketable than others, not pursuing a path that you love. Your work is under constant scrutiny, such that it is difficult to erase that inner voice that’s your adviser’s or the review committee’s or the book publisher’s saying this isn’t going to work, it’s not good enough or original enough and by the way, you’re not smart enough. Now I know some people in academe escape that and just pursue an idea for the love of it. But I think that’s actually pretty rare these days in a very tight market.

I’ve broken some of Hugh’s rules, like quitting my day job (sort of). In part, I did so because I had become part of what he calls “the watercooler gang,” the people who’ve been around for a long time, have become mediocre at what they do, hate what they do, and complain about it with whoever will listen. Being a part of that crowd was soul sucking, but the job itself had no creative outlets for me and I had few outside of the job, so I think Hugh would agree that quitting, for me, was the right thing to do. And, of course, he suggests not following anyone else’s advice anyway, including, presumably, his.

It’s a fun read, and certainly gave me hope about my own adventure, however it may turn out.

And the following cartoon had to be my all-time favorite, because it is so. damn. true.

What I’m reading

My interests are at once focused and all over the place. I have books that are languishing and books I’ve raced through, but here’s what’s on my shelf right now:

A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence by Patricia Hersch. This is a study of teenagers that is now over a decade old. It is, in many ways, a heartbreaking study where kids are alone and lonely, going through quite difficult transitions without much adult intervention. Hersch is a sympathetic observer without being judgmental. She tells the story of adolescence in the mid-90s through the individual stories of several teenagers. I keep wondering what the advent of gaming and Facebook and IM’ing has meant for teenagers. On the one hand, it may fill a hole, providing a relatively safe way for teens to connect with each other without adults always looking over their shoulder. On the other hand, it can also provide the opportunity for misbehavior, bullying, etc. I’ve been testing the ideas in the book by asking Geeky Boy about them. I’ll let you know what his verdict is, too.

Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts. I’m having trouble with this one. Bennetts’ tone is condescending and annoying. I’m not very far into it for that reason. I’ve written about her work before and perhaps I’m already biased.

Opting Out?: Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Homeby Pamela Stone. Do you see a theme here? I’m almost done with this one but, it’s argument is kind of tired for me. Basically, the workplace is unfriendly to parents, especially if you’re in the high-powered kinds of jobs the women profiled in the book are. Their husbands are also in high-powered jobs and can’t or won’t take on childcare and household responsibilities. The women can’t figure out how to make it work, even with paid care and household help, without feeling completely stressed out. Stone tries not to blame the husbands and talks more about the workplace. I’m still on the fence. Maybe when I get to the conclusions section, I’ll be more definitive.

I Wear the Maternity Pants in This Family by Susan Konig. A fluffy collection of personal essays. I must say, I didn’t really like it. And that’s all I’ll say.

I’m trying to use the library more, but it’s not as well-stocked as I wish it were. I have ordered books when necessary, but sometimes it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

The Black Swan

I just finished reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. It is, as Kevin Drum notes, an odd book to read. The tone makes you want to not trust Taleb, and he almost tells you not to trust him, but then his ideas make some sense. He seems prescient about the current financial crisis, as his whole book suggests that financial institutions are generally blind to outlier events such as the mortgage bubble and ensuing stock market crash because they use models based on the bell curve rather than a power law. His argument is basically that black swan events, those that no one predicted, happen more often than we think, and that our models of prediction are terrible at predicting even smaller versions of these events, much less the seriously catastrophic (or conversely, seriously beneficial) ones.

Taleb has equal scorn for academics and bankers. Academics are too insular, having never been in “real” decision-making situations. Bankers are in real decision-making situations but don’t think critically about those decisions. They check their brains at the door. Worse for him are bankers who use tight mathematical models from academics to predict risk.

Interestingly, when searching the blogosphere to find what others have said about the book, I mostly found commentary on Taleb’s hedge fund that is based on his ideas. Some have claimed it’s not doing well–because his strategy is to lose small amounts of money 90% of the time and win big 10% of the time–while others have touted its brilliance. I don’t care much about applying his ideas to finance, even though that’s his field. I think it’s more interesting to consider the idea of the black swan, both positive and negative in more general terms. He says to be open to opportunity, to be generally open-minded about what might happen. Try as much as possible to think outside the box. People are not predictable; society as a whole is even less predictable.

I remember being a kid trying to imagine how my life would turn out–what kind of job would have, who would I marry, would I have kids, where would I live–and it always felt like this black hole. I was not, back then, one of those people who planned much past the next few days. I had friends who were already planning to be doctors or lawyers and were planning their classes and colleges based on those plans. I just figured some unexpected event might occur that could change any plan I made. I was right. Just thinking that something unexpected might occur helps you deal with it. It doesn’t mean that when a good thing or a bad thing happens that it doesn’t impact you. It just means that you can take it in stride. You can just start doing what you need to do to minimize the pain or take advantage of the opportunity. Rather than, as I sometimes do now, worrry about what might happen, and conjure up all the most horrible images, it makes more sense to live from day to day. It’s harder than you think.

Geeky Mom Reviews: The Trouble with Boys

One of the things I did this weekend was to finish this book. I have about 4 books going at the moment and this is the one that kind of stuck. As most of my readers know, I’m struggling with Geeky Boy’s school difficulties and I picked this book up in hopes of gaining some insight or finding a good solution. The book is very well researched and Tyre doesn’t shy away from including some controversial positions, especially in the section on brain research. She doesn’t give those controversial positions a break, either, pointing out, for example, that one proponent of an educational program directed at boys that’s based on brain research is not a researcher himself and doesn’t even have a degree in anything related to brain science. The real scientists are very circumspect about what their results have to say about differences in learning between boys and girls.

The book covers a lot of ground, starting with preschool and going all the way through college with a few detours here and there. My own son was not one of those typical fidgety boys who always needed to be running around so the early chapters don’t apply to my personal experience, though I certainly know boys who fit the descriptions in the book. Some of the personal stories are just heartbreaking. Boys at the age of 6 or 7 who come home dejected and tell their parents they’re incapable of being good, where good is defined as sitting still for long periods of time. In the early years, Tyre covers such issues as recess and ADHD, pointing out that programs like NCLB have meant in some schools the elimination of recess, which ironically makes it harder for boys to focus. She shows how many more boys are diagnosed with ADHD and that teachers themselves often push parents to get their boys diagnosed (even though it’s unethical for them to do so). She criticizes teachers who have no tolerance for the energy of boys and at the end of the book, calls on them to leave the profession.

Her point about school in general is that it favors girls all the way through. From the early years, when sitting still is important to neatness and organization in the middle to working harder in high school, girls do better at the game of school. I’ve seen many signs of this throughout our school years. In second grade, at our very first parent-teacher conference here, Geeky Boy was chastised for his handwriting and his lack of organization. I laughed this off at the time, assuming that he wouldn’t be writing much past elementary school anyway. In our very first year of middle school, however, his teacher again criticized his handwriting and even had the whole class (predominantly boys) practice handwriting for a week. I yelled about this, saying that I didn’t think it was appropriate and that the kids should be learning content. Her response was neatness counts for the final grade. It really just made me mad. In middle school, too, being organized is hugely important and very few boys are good at it. From the book:

‘Eleven-year-olds go from having a single nurturing teacher to having six teachers with different personalitites and different expectations. Then there’s the paperwork. Every teacher gives handouts, requires you to bring certain textbooks or workbooks to class. Each one assigns homework, and each assignment has a deadline.’

It’s more organization than is required of most paying jobs. And it’s required for 11-year-olds. Geeky Boy still hasn’t mastered this. And unfortunately, his parents aren’t much help here. We’ve developed our own coping mechanisms, but we’re don’t naturally keep our lives organized. I, personally, have been working on this since I was about 12! Geeky Boy aces almost every test that’s given to him and he actually talks about the things he’s learning. It’s clear, for instance, that he’s totally into his history course and that he’s getting a lot better content in it than I ever got in school. But he fails to turn in assignments because he forgets to do them or forgets to turn them in and his grade gets dragged down. It’s distressing to think that a smart kid like him isn’t doing well and could, in fact, miss out on opportunities down the road simply because he hasn’t come up with a good way to keep up with all his responsibilities. And, sadly, as Tyre points out, this is exactly what happens to many boys. They miss out on upper level and AP classes in high school, which means they aren’t as good candidates for college.

One chapter that was hard to read was the one of video games. Tyre does not outright condemn them the way many parents do, and even goes so far as to say that there is little evidence to support that video games, even aggressive ones, cause violence in kids. What she does say is that games can be addicting, in part because they fill a void caused by school. Video games offer boys an opportunity to socialize and to be successful. If they don’t feel successful in school, they can feel successful in a game. She tells a couple of stories of young men who get so caught up in their gaming that they end up in rehab programs and/or dropping out of college. This was a hard chapter to read in part because I don’t know if I buy the idea of Internet addiction. On the other hand, I know it’s hard to keep my own son away from the video games. And I worry that he may head down a road where gaming becomes more important than life. At the moment, I’m trying to model this for him, by setting limits for myself and only playing when I’ve gotten my work done. Currently, thanks to his poor grades, he’s banned from gaming anyway. Sigh.

Tyre’s book is full of good information and I would actually recommend that not just parents of boys read it, but parents of girls as well. The book is, however, short on advice for parents. She recommends changing the whole system, a tall order for any one parent to contemplate. Although I’ve had some success in explaining to teachers how telling my son he’s failing because he can’t write neatly leads him to be discouraged in areas that he is actually doing well in, I find the school system so daunting that I don’t interact much with it at all. Tyre would probably advocate that I be a little more active and stubborn about the situation. That idea terrifies me. I will say that knowing it’s not just my kid and that school is stacked against him, I can do my best to help him cope. And that’s pretty much where we are now–coping–and biding our time until high school, where we hope we will begin on a better foot.

Geeky Mom Reviews: Click

One of my areas of interest is network theory, especially as it applies to the Internet and while this book may not be about network theory specifically, it’s certainly a good demonstration of some of its principles. Bill Tancer works for Hitwise, a competitive intelligence company, meaning they look at available data and try to help companies take advantage of that data to grow or become more competitive. In this book he takes search data and clickstream data and analyzes what that data tells us about ourselves in ways that just weren’t possible using survey or interview methods. One stark example of the different results one gets through this method is in looking at what people are afraid of. Surveys tell us that people’s top fear is of creatures–bugs, mice, snakes, etc. Looking at search data, however, using terms attached to “fear of,” the top fear is flying. Flying doesn’t even rank on the survey list. Often Tancer sees a phenomenon in his data and then digs further to figure out why. Or who, as in the case of who watches porn or gambles online.

The second half of the book is about what you can do with the data, how to be proactive–like being able to predict the winners of American Idol based on the popularity of contestant names in search results. I wonder if he could have predicted our current financial situation by seeing an increase in terms such as “how to get out of debt” or “default on mortgage.” He also looks at finding the tipping point for new music groups, comparing traffic to the band’s MySpace site to their official website. Someone could watch the data and know when a band is going to hit it big.

At one point, Bill tells us that he loves data. I, too, love data and this book was a fun ride through various bits of data that told an interesting story about different aspects of life and business.