Posted by: krusty505 | April 11, 2012

A Wisdom of Owls

Recently, I had an opportunity to present about what I do to a group of professional educators from across the state at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe. For those unfamiliar with SJC, it is a liberal arts college located in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Santa Fe. They also have a sister school in Annapolis MD. SJC is unique in many respects, most notably in that they teach a proscribed curriculum consisting of “great books.” There are no grades at SJC, and  teachers are called tutors. Their aim is to create truly literate students who actively engage in the thinking and learning process.

Each year SJC sponsors Tecolote, a colloquium of professional educators who get together 4 times throughout the school year to discuss readings which are centered around a specific topic. This year’s topic was “What is learning,” and I, along with my principal, Kimberlee Hanson, and several of our students, was fortunate enough to deliver the lunch-time presentation. It went really well, and there was nary a dry eye in the house, including my own. The following is excerpted from what I said. For some it will be a refresher on what I do and where I do it. For the uninitiated, it should serve as a good primer on my current job:

What is Learning?

The impetus for volunteering for this suicide mission actually came out of Salvatore Scibona’s excellent essay (click to read his essay), which we received last semester as a supplemental read.  In it, Mr. Scibona describes his lackluster high school experiences and his transformation, after attending St. John’s, into someone who is truly literate. In particular, I was struck by his concluding lines, “In retrospect, I was a sad little boy and a standard-issue, shiftless, egotistical, dejected teen-ager. Everything was going to hell, and then these strangers let me come to their school and showed me how to read. All things considered, every year since has been a more intense and enigmatic joy.”

It got me to thinking about the school where I teach and of which you just got a small taste. I, too, teach students how to read, albeit in a more literal way than St. John’s taught Salvatore how to read. If some of you have glanced through the article in front of you, you may have noticed that 19% of inmates in the U.S. are totally illiterate and 40% are functionally illiterate.

Most of my students come to me with somewhere between a 1st and a 3rd grade reading level, so I actually do in point of fact teach them to read. And I couldn’t be prouder of that fact. The gentleman in the clip you saw with whom I’m working came to me unable to write down his name on his application for school, but ironically he had acquired over 20 credits in APS, most of them in special education. I believe he had just made it to the 3rd grade reading level in the video clip. Though many of my students go on to read at a collegiate level, working with Orlando was a real pleasure for me because I could see his burgeoning literacy take root right in front of my eyes.

Before I talk a little more about what I’ve noticed about learning at GBCS, I thought I’d take a moment and “educate” you about some of the particulars of our school. Last week in tutorial, someone mentioned NCLB, and Victoria (our turtor) was utterly befuddled. I realized then that IEP, NCLB, GPA, LD, BD and 504 plans have been replaced in my life with MDC, CO, Pod, CCP, UA and PO, so I thought it might help if we all had some common terminology and logistical information under our belts.

MDC (Metropolitan Detention Center) sits on the west mesa above Albuquerque. It has a terrific view of the Sandia, Manzano, Jemez, Sangre de Cristo, and Ladrone mountains, though few of the inmates know that because they typically arrive and depart under the cover of darkness and none of the rec. yards has a view of anything other than the sky.

MDC differs from prison in that inmates there are either serving short-term sentences, are awaiting trial and/or sentencing, or are in the process of being transferred to prison to serve longer term sentences. MDC’s structure is militaristic with CO’s (correctional officers) holding ranks. There are officers superior to the CO’s ranging in rank from Sergeant to Chief.   The jail is divided into units, and each unit contains 8 pods, which house upwards of 90 inmates. Ironically, the riots in the prison just outside of this city sparked a major redesign of prisons nationwide, so instead of rows and rows of barred cells, the pods have a large open area where inmates are usually allowed to spend most of their days. One CO oversees the pod and a Sally Port (a double locked foyer) allows entrance and egress from the pod. The school classrooms are in the main corridor that forms an inner circle within the unit. There is a cadre of administrative offices deeper still in an area called the core. Our classrooms are not patrolled or manned by CO’s.

When thinking about what I wanted to say about learning for this presentation, a couple pieces of Dewey really jumped out at me. One was the section in which Dewey addresses the question the Greeks raised, that is, “How can we learn? For either we know already what we are after, or else we do not know. In neither case is learning possible; on the first alternative because we know already; on the second, because we do not know what to look for, nor if, by chance, we find it can we tell that it is what we were after.” This section got me to thinking about a third possibility and that is, when are we ready to learn. I believe that Salvatore Scibona, as well as many of GBCS’s students, were not ready to learn when they were required to be in school. We can certainly discuss and debate the why’s and wherefore’s of this, but the reality of the situation is that many, perhaps most, of my current students were not, in fact, ready to participate meaningfully in school when they dropped out.

I want to take a moment to focus on just one student whom I have worked with for almost 3 years now, and who, I believe, really embodies the concept of readiness to educate. You’re probably thinking, “Three years in jail! How is that possible?” But through some weird loop holes in our legal system and as a result of his homlessness, he keeps returning to us. All of the inmates, at least the men, get nicknames in the pod. This particular student is so identified with his nickname that he has it tattooed to his arm. I want you to take a moment and picture him with me.

Scrappy is 22. He is no taller than 5’2”, and he must certainly weigh 250 pounds. When I first met him, he has a presence and personality that only a mother could love: impulsive, temperamental, rude, easily roused to anger, aptly nicknamed. He had very few academic skills to begin with. He couldn’t read very well. He couldn’t write at all. He didn’t know his multiplication tables. He was computer illiterate. He had zero high school credits.

What sparked Scrappy’s intellectual fire was learning how to read, learning how to sort through the details of what he read, and applying those skills to a series of mastery tests based on what he had read. When Scrappy left our literacy program, he was reading at 400 words per minute, and the material he was reading was the same as what an Air Force Academy cadet reads to graduate from the same literacy program we use at our school. He now tutors students in technology literacy and reading. He has earned 21 credits with us, and he is slated to graduate this spring.

Perhaps more importantly, his outbursts have all but vanished, he hasn’t fought in months, he thinks before he acts, and if he had a home to return to, I truly believe that he would not return to MDC any time soon.

This is what I believe: Scrappy came to all of this on his own. Dewey says, “…no thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another.” In a similar vein, my guitar teacher always tells me when I have a break-through in musical theory or technique, “Chris, everyone’s self-taught.” I think we can guide our pupils, and we can model good thinking and academic processes, but everyone is in the end self-taught.

Update: As of this post’s date, Scrappy has NOT returned to MDC. This is a record for him. Though I have not seen him at out school downtown, my sincere hope is that he has finally begun to get his act together. My wish is that his “education” has something to do with his not coming back to MDC.

Posted by: krusty505 | April 5, 2012

Excuses Excuses

December 8! That’s the date of my last post… Oh, Gawd. The horror of it, and the shame. I’ve had several “readers” request that I write something, FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, and my response is always, “Oh, I know I really need to get back to that.” But in reality life i.e. work (which is usually an inspiration) has lately become a grind, play (which I couldn’t do because of lingering injuries) has become a more prominent part of my life now that I’ve learned to work within my physical limitations, guitar has become a two-meetings-a-week-with-others proposition, and home has become a veg in front of the TV until my head hits my chin and Natalie drags me off to bed.

So writing has drifted into Never Never Land. Literally.

However, I do intend to get back to the blog, starting with a post on a presentation I made at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe a couple of months ago. I’m also planning an update on my physical health for those who might be interested, and I plan to write about a couple of new toys I got (2, yes, 2 bikes!). I’m playing guitar and ukulele regularly with a couple of folks, and I want to write a bit about that, too. Finally, Nat and I are planning on killing our television, and some might be interested in how that goes, too. For those who read this, please weigh in on the best way to go about nixing the TV. We are thinking about Hulu Plus, Netflix and a Roku, but we are extremely green on the whole no TV thing, and I’m a certified TV addict, so I’m going to go through some serious withdrawal.

So thanks for pestering me to kick myself in my own a$$ and start writing and sharing again. If you read my posts through Facebook, good luck because I kissed that gong-show good-bye (I hope for good).

Stay tuned and sorry for the extended hiatus…

Posted by: krusty505 | December 8, 2011

Gettin’ Stupid Light

Another topic I want to ponder is my passion for gear, especially light weight backpacking gear. For years, I’ve wanted to get my “kit” lighter and lighter and lighter. For years, my mantra has been a quote from John Muir, “But in the midst of these fine lessons and landscapes, I had to remember that the sun was wheeling far to the west, while a new way down the mountain had to be discovered to some point on the timber-line where I could have a fire: for I had not even burdened myself with a coat.”

Years ago a buddy and I went down to the Gila Wilderness with this quote in mind and proceeded to embark on a 3 day journey with 13 pounds on our backs. Of course, we eschewed the use of both sleeping bags and fire, so we spent a frigid night leaning against a tree shivering. The next day we found ourselves in the midst of a forest fire, ironically enough, and had to hoof it out of there. Running on empty, we threw our packs into my Honda Civic and high-tailed it out of the forest, nearly running out of gas in Magdalena, New Mexico and arriving back in Albuquerque after 1 am. It was a real lesson in going too light. I am neither John Muir nor Bear Grylls.

With the explosion of “ultra-light backpacking,” there has been a symbiotic explosion of ultra-light gear available to those who want to liberate themselves from what I like to refer to as the astronaut approach to backpacking, insulating yourself from a “hostile” environment and bringing enough gear to effectively cut yourself off from the very experience you wish engage in.

I think what really fired me up about going lighter was my experience doing all 54 of Colorado’s 14ers. For the vast majority of them, I shouldered a CamelBack pack that was actually designed to be used on mountain bike rides. It weighed little, held even less, and was absolutely perfect. In fact, I still have it to this day; it is a faded bluish/purple and is rife with holes. It’s permanently stained with the salt of countless hours of sweat, yet I have found nothing that rivals its simplicity, comfort or ability to move in harmony with my body. I’ve rigged an ice-ax and crampons to it and even used it on several rock climbs.

So last year I decided to take this whole light weight deal to the next level and get “stupid light.” I shaved my “base pack weight” (all gear less consumables: food, water, stove fuel) to about 12 pounds. Pretty respectable, but not in the realm of a true ultra-lighter. I headed out to the Pecos Wilderness and had a grand time. By day three, I was feeling pretty proud of myself, until I met Champion (I shit you not; that’s his real name. Oh, the irony!). This guy was carrying 8 pounds as his base pack weight. The freaking shoulder straps on his pack were padded with his socks! I was truly humbled. Something had to be done. Krusty would not cotton to some Texan making his pack look like an albatross around his neck.

I came home with a new goal in mind. 8 pounds! 8 pound of light weight bliss. It had to be done. It would be done. After much research, trial and error, and a grip of cash, it is done. I have a spreadsheet (for those of you who know me, this in itself is a monumental accomplishment) with all my gear weights categorized and weighed down to the tenth of an ounce and to the gram, I have options for different predicted conditions, I have a stove that weighs 16 grams, I have a shelter that weights 4.4 ounces, and I’m still tweaking it all. In fact, I’m pondering the possibility of putting together a SUL (super ultralight) kit together. My goal is a base pack weight of not more than 6 pounds. Crazy? Maybe. But how great would it fee to traipse around the mountains with 6 pounds plus food and water on your back? Pretty great, I say.

I plan to use this site to review some of my choices and to hopefully convince a few people that going light is not only more fun, it’s safer, cheaper, and way more inspiring. Ok, maybe not that much cheaper…

Posted by: krusty505 | December 8, 2011

Sisyphus In Purgatory

If you read my post last week ‘O Mickle is the Powerful Grace that Lies’, you know that I had an impromptu heart to heart with two of my students about taking responsibility for the circumstances of their lives and trying to act in spite of them. Unfortunately, the population I work with often gets mired down in the details of their immediate life circumstances instead of looking at their lives more globally, and they are excellent at playing the victim role regarding their all too frequently tragic childhoods i.e. “Yeah, I beat the shit out of my girlfriend, but the DA fucked me over, so that’s really why I’m here.” Or “Well, I grew up around a lot of violence, so that’s just how I am.” Of course, this is a gross exaggeration, but there is a general truth here. Hence, though technically I teach reading and writing, peripherally I hope to teach some critical thinking skills and maybe even help them to carefully consider their life choices.

On the other hand, I sometimes think my students have placed themselves in a self-inflicted mortal purgatory of sorts. There is a tremendous amount of guilt and shame associated with not only the acts they’ve committed, but also in the awful things that happened to them as children. It’s like they are on a carousel of crime, constantly circling through a life filled with shameful and shocking acts and landing back in jail and/or prison over and over. And this self-fulfilling prophecy goes on and on through generation after generation. 

I’m not certain how my colleagues feel, but this grim reality often forces me to reflect on some of my own life choices and to consider how I’ve attempted to alter my behavior and outlook in spite of some rough circumstances from my childhood. (Those of you who know me more personally will know exactly what I’m talking about on both fronts!) I find these days that I’m loathe to judge other’s actions, and I tend toward a view of life that acknowledges the complexity of factors which make up our inputs and outputs. I’ve always felt like this job, working with people who’ve made terrible choices but who’ve also suffered tragic lives, requires a deep and abiding faith in redemption, and I’d like to believe that I qualify on that front.

With that said, today in class, the same two guys I was talking about last week came rollin’ into my room, chatting it up. The one who I really thought I made an impact on last week was talking about his mother and his childhood, and though I didn’t catch every word, what I did hear was, “Yeah, it was great living with my mom. Everyday I’d wake up to a Dr. Pepper and a bag of weed on the kitchen table.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said, “Really?! After our discussion of last week, you think it was great to start the day with a sugar and caffeine bomb and drugs provided by your mother!? Good Lord, I feel like Sisyphus!”

“Who?”

“Sisyphus. You know the Greek who angered the Gods by being a greedy and avaricious person, and whose consequence was to eternally push a huge boulder up a hill. Just when he’d get to the top, it would roll back down, and he’d have to start all over again. It’s like a parable for eternally frustrating and futile endeavors in life or I guess in Einstein’s parlance the very definition of insanity.”

“Huh?”

“Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

“I’m lost, Pauls.”

“Nevermind. I guess after last week’s conversation I thought you might consider that it might not be the best thing for you to be provided drugs by your parent.”

“Oh, yeah, well I know that, but as a kid, it was great.”

And really how could I argue with him? It probably was great.

But then I got to thinking about how maybe we are all just a bit like Sisyphus, dragging our boulders around in a futile effort to overcome life’s tragedies both big and small. But how? Do we ask God for forgiveness? Do we accept that life is suffering and deal with it? Do we try to trick the god(s) into thinking we’ve done their bidding when we really haven’t? Do we try to create meaning out of life’s seemingly meaningless randomness? Do we delve into our pasts and attempt to confront the inner demons that lock us all into a self-imposed prison of neurosis? Do we try a combination?

I say neither liberation nor redemption comes from playing the victim card. Neither comes from living out this mortal coil in some Sisyphean purgatory. Neither comes from a court mandated punishment, and surely neither comes from the belief that starting the day with a Dr. Pepper and a dime bag is some sort of grace.

Just sayin’.

Posted by: krusty505 | November 30, 2011

O, mickle is the powerful grace that lies…

I had an interesting conversation with a couple of students yesterday. For some unknown reason, the server for our reading program was down temporarily, so I dismissed all but two of my students back to the pod. The remaining students are working on a technology course we created that fulfills the practical arts credit required for graduation and also familiarizes them with several Microsoft products, so it’s a win-win. They didn’t need the server to be up, so they stayed.

Anyway, these two guys were chatting with me and with one another, and one of them mentioned that he was facing 10 years in prison with a 4 year cap. I was curious, so I asked him what that meant, and he said that his sentence would be 10 years, but he would only serve 4, and if he screwed up once he was released, he would have to return and serve the entire 10 years.

Now, I normally don’t do this, but I did ask him what he was in for, and he said DV (domestic violence). The other guy pipes in, “Yeah, I’m in for DV, too.” I figured the first guy had to do something pretty heinous to get 10 years for DV, so I sort of prodded him a bit. “Shit, man, New Mexico doesn’t fuck around with DV, but I’m not gonna lie, I beat the shit out of that crazy bitch!” One thing led to another, and the guy ended up telling me about how his girlfriend had already been married 6 times, how she once tried to cut off his testicles, how she was actually in jail right now on trafficking charges, and how if he had known his plea was going to go south, he never would have taken it in the first place. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘she sounds like a real catch!’

Both guys were really playing up the victim card, “Man, I grew up around a lot of violence. Murder and shit. Plus, I was fucked up at the time, so I wasn’t really in control of my actions.”

I said, “Listen, I would never attempt to play down the circumstances of your childhood, and I’m sure you have a heavy burden to bear, but on the other hand, at some point you have to ask yourself if you’re going to allow those circumstances to run your life, or if you’re going to act in spite of them.”

Then it hit me. The “teachable moment.” What popped into my head? Romeo and Juliet!

“You know. It’s like Romeo and Juliet. From the very beginning of that play, you know they are going to die. Their relationship is ‘star-crossed.’ It’s ill-fated, but Romeo and Juliet let their passions drive them, and in spite of the circumstances of their births, they marry, and guess what happens? They die, along with several other characters, so it’s a lose-lose for Romeo and Juliet and their families. But hey, they were just a couple of stupid, horny kids. What’s your excuse?”

Both of them looked at me like I was a lunatic!

Then, I start thinking about Friar Lawrence’s soliloquy at the beginning of Act II Scene 3 when he’s talking about how plants have healing and killing powers, so I give them a brief synopsis, and I tell them, “It’s like some plants work great with other plants or by themselves, but when you make the wrong combination, you end up with ‘the canker death’!”

“Huh?”

“You know, ‘For nought so vile that on the earth doth live/But to the earth some special good doth give,/Nor aught so good but strain’d from that fair use/Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse.’ Have you ever thought that the combination of you and your girlfriends is just a toxic potion?”

“Damn, that makes sense.”

“Yeah, it does. You should think about it.”

Do I really think Shakespeare is going to change their lives? I don’t know, but I printed the soliloquy off and gave it to them.

What do you think?

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