Monday, August 10, 2015

Taking a break to get in the flow

One of the most interesting concepts in learning is the idea of "flow," a concept proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the state of not so challenged that you're frustrated, but not so easy that you're bored. 

When applied to game design, this makes a lot of sense. Tic tac toe is the perfect example on the too easy end of the spectrum; at some moment in time, you realize that you can either win or tie EVERY SINGLE TIME (depending on the relative skill of your opponent). I tried to explain this to my 8 year old a few weeks ago at dinner when she tried to challenge me to a match, and then went on to show her that if she played her first play in a corner or in the center each game, and she made sure to pay attention, she'd never lose. I almost felt bad, ruining tic tac toe for her, but I honestly could not be excited about playing her. It is the game equivalent of absolute boredom for me. 

Opposite for me is any Call of Duty or, more recently, Flappy Bird. Seeing as I can't get past the first or second challenge (in CoD, I have yet to make it past "training"), I give up because my hand-eye coordination is not good enough to make me successful in these games without more effort than I'm willing to invest. In other words, they are too hard and I give up, frustrated. 

What does flow look like for learning? There are metrics we can look to, such as time on task or self-reporting channels like surveys. Research on flow in learning typically relies on experience sampling to gauge engagement. When it comes to flow, it's all about the feeling. So what are those feelings? I like this definition from David Farmer (1999)
  1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating - with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
  2. Sense of ecstasy - of being outside everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity - knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
  4. Knowing the activity is doable - that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
  5. Sense of serenity - no worries about self, feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of ego - afterwards feeling of transcending ego in ways not thought possible
  6. Timeliness - thoroughly focused on present, don't notice time passing
  7. Intrinsic motivation - whatever produces "flow" becomes its own reward

In the end, flow is about optimizing what you're getting out of what you are putting in. When I think about this for learning, it's not just about the feeling, it's about the outcome. I'm in the flow when I am engaged and learning and excited about what I'm doing. I'm feeling proud of my effort and good about myself. I'm having fun. 

The past few months I've been trying to learn a few new things, but the one that has been the most challenging has been learning the ukulele. I hate to admit it. It has been hard for me. Me, voted most musical in my high school graduating class, has been struggling with the ukulele. IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE EASY, I tell myself. I get frustrated. I am definitely not in the flow. 
This is a small image of my Evelyn Evelyn ukulele
from Amanda Palmer. I love it. I need to play it. 

That's the thing about flow. People tell you to get in it, but HOW do you get in it? When you need to learn something hard, how do you get past the point of frustration to get to appropriately challenged? 

The truth is, you have to practice. You have to persevere. Eventually, things get easier and you get better. But in that point of frustration, you take a risk if you keep pushing. You can start to HATE the thing that is frustrating you. I will tell anyone who asks that I don't like Call of Duty. It's not because it's a bad game (although first-person shooters aren't really my cup of tea). It's because the day that I was trying to learn the controls to make it through the game orientation, I felt pressure. I couldn't do it. I was frustrated, and then I gave up. All of my negative feelings transferred to the game. I know that if I played again, in a less stressful environment, MAYBE I would like it, but I would have to get past my negative feelings towards the game and my previous poor performance. 

It's why people who struggle to read say they don't like to read. 

It's why girls who are told they aren't as good at math don't go into STEM careers. 

It's why women who go into STEM careers have a hard time staying when their work environment is gender biased. 

When we can't get into the flow, it's hard to love something. It's hard to want to do it all the time. We all seek flow. 

So what can you do to get past the frustration? Here are some tips I try:
  • Find a patient coach or teacher. Sometimes you just want to feel supported. Don't find someone who wants to do it for you. Find someone who wants to be your cheerleader.
  • Walk away for a little while. You may need to take a break before you jump back in. Don't let your negative feelings build up; find ways to shake off your frustration before trying again.
  • Break down the task into smaller pieces. In learning the ukulele, I needed to admit I wasn't going to start out playing a whole song. If I just practiced transitioning between chords, and practiced until I was good at it, it felt like a victorious step along the journey to playing my first song. 
  • Decide if the effort is worth it. Sometimes, it's really ok to walk away. I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything because I never learned how to play Call of Duty or because I never scored higher than 4 on Flappy Bird. Some things just aren't worth the effort or frustration. 
The ukulele is worth it. I'm still working up to my first song :)


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Raising a generation for the world we want, not the world we have

A few months ago, after experiencing a particularly discouraging incident of gender bias, I came home crying and frustrated. How can people not see this? I thought, probably asked out loud to myself. How often is this going to happen before people will call it out as wrong? How long until everyone, EVERYONE, stops discriminating based on gender? 

I had heard through my "kiddo grapevine" that one of my kids was not a feminist, or at least he had been saying negative things about feminists. My heart literally was in my stomach. He is MY kid! How could he NOT be a feminist? Hadn't he lived with me his whole life? I was in complete disbelief and that night at dinner, I asked him about it directly.

Here's how the conversation went:

Me: "I hear you've been saying negative things about feminists."
Him: "Well, yeah. I mean, I don't get how they want to be treated better than men." 
Me (seeing red, freaking out inside): "Feminists don't want to be treated better than men, they want women to be treated equally to men."
(at this point my husband and other kiddos made some excuse to leave their half-eaten food at the table...) 
Him: "I don't understand. Women ARE treated equally to men. These feminists want to be treated better."  
At this point, I totally broke down into a rant about how women are NOT treated equally, citing numerous examples of bias and discrimination of women in general, but also bias and discrimination that I've experienced personally. I then continued on to point out all of his privileged statuses (sex, gender identity, race, class, geography, able-bodied, apparent sexual orientation...he's at the top of the food chain, I made sure to point out...). My son sat there wide-eyed and in silence, finishing his tacos.  
I believe I ended with, "I can't believe you're MY son, you live with me, and you don't know that gender discrimination exists."

I've been thinking a lot about that conversation, and specifically my son's opinion of the world, since that conversation. The truth is, he's a really earnest, sweet kid and he'd be the last person who I would think would be perpetuating bias against anyone. When I thought about it, I realized that he wasn't. He HAD lived with me his whole life, and what he learned from that has been that women are equal to men. He TRULY, HONESTLY believes that. He couldn't comprehend what feminism is because in his world view, women are already equal to men and he treats them that way.

It was this same kiddo who, when he was five years old, got into a verbal argument with a cashier in a department store because he said, "I like your brown skin." and the man said, "I'm not brown, I'm black." My kiddo responded, "I can see your skin and I'm pretty sure it's brown." The cashier was NOT happy about it, and I had to explain to my 5 year old on the way home why the man was upset with him. I felt the same way, full of sadness and frustration and worry, explaining to him the meaning of and reasoning behind feminism.

I feel disheartened because my son sees the world the way I wish it actually was: where skin color is just a color and everyone is treated equally. I've shown him that through my example, through what I've modeled in my own behaviors and attitude. And now I have to teach him that's not what the world is really like. While the lessons have been heartbreakingly easier around race and sexual orientation because of tragedies and recent victories in the news that lend themselves to discussion at the dinner table, gender discrimination continues to be mostly invisible. It's not, of course, but besides catcalling, discussions of campus rape and sexual consent, and GamerGate, there aren't big news stories. It's just the everyday-ness of discrimination and bias that continues and continues and continues.

Even though I know I have to start pointing out reality, I wonder what it would be like for a generation to grow up taking for granted that people should be treated equally regardless of their sex. What if we succeeded in teaching our kids that all people should be treated equally and with respect? If all little boys were raised believing that girls could do anything they could do, how would our world change as they grew into adulthood and challenged and then changed organizational and cultural bias? I want to live in my son's world where we don't need feminism. I hope by showing him the world we live in now, it doesn't cloud his view of the way things should be and how he has already been living in this world where he is more likely the exception than the rule. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Holding your breath

Yesterday I saw this article posted on Facebook: Breath-Holding In The Pool Can Spark Sudden Blackouts And Death

I thought about how much I've been holding my breath lately. 

Yesterday, Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover was released and took social media by storm. I held my breath, waiting for the transphobia and hate, because that's what you do when you have a kid who is gender non-binary. You hold your breath and hope that the world gets better and more loving and understanding. You hold your breath and hope that there are way more of us, allies and advocates, than there are of them (I'm looking at you Drake Bell and Fox News). 

I hold my breath, waiting for the transitions to shake out at work. Hoping that my work is noticed, that my passion is valued. 

I hold my breath when I travel, knowing that inevitably one of my kiddos or one of their schools will call me and I won't be there to fix it. 

I hold my breath as the side project I've been working on takes off like a jet, article published in TIME magazine and big meetings with important people that could mean big, big things. 

I hold my breath so my husband doesn't hear me wheezing the last few nights. He does anyway and knows that this cold I'm trying to ignore is kicking my butt. 

I hold my breath when I see a text from one of my sons. He is unhappy but fixing it would mean conflict and there's nothing he hates more than conflict. I hold my breath waiting for him to tell me he's ready for it. 

I hold my breath when I step out of my office building at the end of the day and the air is like breathing oil. Since the oil spill in Santa Barbara a couple weeks ago, there are times when the fumes are still so bad where we live that you can't ignore it. We shouldn't ignore it. 

There are so many other times I hold my breath. Sometimes I find myself taking a deep, gasping breath and realize I've been holding it in. 

When I saw the headline yesterday, I wondered if blackouts and sudden death were only symptoms from holding your breath under water. I worried. 

Today I listened in to a session at work with Matthieu Ricard, the "World's Happiest Man." I tried to follow his meditation exercise at my desk, but I couldn't stop worrying about my breathing. I thought about how I tell my bionic boy, when his ADHD overwhelms every cell in his body, to take a deep breath and he looks at me like, "mom, you really think that's going to help?" and I make him do it anyway. I even do it with him, trying to model deep breathing. 

Holding my breath is more than deep breathing: it's ultimate mindfulness, forcing to a halt my body's automation. Being still and not even letting the ebb and flow of air in my lungs distract me. It is ultimate focus. And it can only be temporary...until it's not. 

I used to have contests with my sister in my grandma's pool to see how long we could stay underwater. Sometimes we would race to see how far the length of the pool and back we could swim without coming up for air. Sometimes we would sink to the bottom and be still, feeling the burn in our lungs as air ran out until we finally pushed to the surface. I always won. Now I find out every one of those contests was inviting sudden death. I not only could hold my breath the longest, but I could also out swim the Grim Reaper. 

I think maybe all of this holding my breath I've been doing will not lead to sudden under water death but slow, above water tempting of fate. 

How do you practice NOT holding your breath? Isn't that just...breathing? 

I am thinking that instead of holding my breath with each challenge that, like lamaze for life, the important thing is to feel everything and still breathe through it. Maybe that is mindfulness. Maybe it's intention. I think it's better to not hold your breath. 



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Brave new world of color

Growing up, my dad had to have my mom or me or my sister help him pick out socks. He is severely color blind, and normally it didn't interfere too much with daily life. My dad didn't really talk about it. I knew that his favorite color was yellow, because he could see it.

When I had my first son, Jackson, I noticed that he, on rare occasions, colored his sun green instead of yellow. It was hard to tell if he was color-blind, because he could read very young and so picked out the crayons by name to color things what they were supposed to be. It wasn't until Kindergarten that we had him tested and found out that I had passed down the color blind gene to him.

Fast forward a few years...I meet John. Some of our early conversations as we started dating and falling in love made me realize how much I focus on color. John could barely see anything. Where my dad and son had limitations, John had a complete block on seeing most variations. I had to work to reframe how I referred to almost everything; I couldn't use color as a descriptor anymore because John couldn't see it. I joke that he's got dog vision; I imagine his world has always been seen through a sepia lens, with anything orange, green, brown or red pretty much looking the same and blue and purple indistinguishable.

It hasn't been easy for John and I think being around me made it worse, his longing to see the world as I see it growing with every sunset we watched on our beach and every road trip we took through the beautiful California mountains. One night, we took the kids to get frozen yogurt and his universe ripped apart. He asked me what color something was, and I replied "it's kinda tan, brown like peanut butter." He froze for a second and asked, "Peanut butter is brown? It's not green?" And he reeled because he had thought peanut butter was green his whole life.

Can you imagine if everything you thought about the world was filtered through a lens, only allowing certain information through? I imagine it must be like how Roddy Piper felt in They Live when he put on the glasses that let him see the subliminal messages aliens were using to control humans. What if everything you thought you knew was wrong?

A couple weeks ago, John found this video from Valspar and their Color For All campaign. They have partnered with EnChroma, a company out of Berkeley who have developed glasses that allow color blind people to see color. When John started reading about it, I could tell he was excited. Nervous, but excited. We read that the glasses only work for 80% of people. John took a color blind test that said his chances were actually worse, only 50/50 that the glasses would work for him. I told him to buy the glasses. He hesitated. At $400, they aren't super cheap. I told him to get them for my birthday (still extravagent, but still...) and my present would be watching a sunset with him. He still hesitated.

The next day, after he had posted on the Color For All page about his experience of being color blind, he IM'd me, excited. Valspar was sending free glasses out to some of the people who had posted on their message board. He waited a few days and was disappointed that he didn't get picked. I told him to just buy the glasses. He didn't.

Then last week, he IM'd me again...Valspar had contacted him. He had posted again on the message board and this time they picked him to send glasses. As excited as he was, I could tell he was nervous. What if they didn't work? What if he got excited and ended up disappointed? How would he deal with that, his dream of seeing color unfulfilled?

Earlier this week, I had a meetup with some friends at our house after work. John came in later; there was a package there for him. My friends were leaving around 6 and John casually mentioned that the glasses had arrived.

I freaked out. "Let's go to the beach! The sun is setting!" John was doing some dinner prep and seemed in no hurry. I all but pushed him out the door. We drove to the main street in Carpinteria and I realized that he wouldn't see as much if we just went to the beach, so I parked a few blocks away so he could walk and see more colorful shops and flowers before we saw the sunset.

This is John when he first saw the world in color.

The first look
Fascinating shrubbery



I don't know what I expected. Watching John look around, I realized that his brain was trying to process everything he was seeing. He didn't talk. He just stared, somewhat in shock. Definitely overwhelmed. He stopped to look at bushes and plants that color-abled people walk past every day, not impressed by their variation of green and red leaves.


He stared at a brick wall, literally, examining the differences in brick color. He saw orange flowers in someone's yard, and said, "I think those are the most beautiful flowers I've ever seen." But mostly he was quiet, wide-eyed and staring. Just like a baby that just found her hand, John was fascinated and curious and intensely concentrating.

Looking at a reddish succulent, he asked, "Is it always that color?" And I said yes.


We finally made it to the beach. It was really windy, but luckily there were some clouds to decorate the sky. It wasn't the prettiest sunset I've seen on our beach, but it was by far the best. John just sat and stared. He said he liked the blue of the sky the best, the brightest blue he'd ever seen. He looked really deeply in my eyes, seeing the weird green/blue/yellow swirl that they are.

 


Before sunlight was completely gone (the glasses only work in daylight), we walked back into town, stopping to take pictures in front of that shrub that John was impressed with. He kept the glasses on as we drove home, eeking out the last of the daylight. He'd been so quiet that as we approached the traffic light, I jumped when he yelled out "Holy shit! Is that light green!?!" And we laughed because everything in the world is brand new and miraculous, seeing it through John's new glasses.

I remember what it was like when Vardan got his hearing aids and could hear S and H for the first time. He was little, but he was wide-eyed with wonder. And now, my husband is as well seeing the world for the first time. I can't wait to let Jackson try them too (although I think he's going to need his own pair!).

It's going to take some time for John's brain to make sense of all of this new color information. It will take some time for him to take it in stride. I love this part, this intense learning and excitement and curiosity. The world is brand new. I want to see it all with John.

Thank you EnChroma. Thank you, THANK YOU, Valspar. What a gift to give my family. What a gift to give the world.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Make a game of it

Today I led my first service at USSB; the theme was how games can help heal brokenness. I led the congregation in a spirited round of massive multiplayer rock-paper-scissors. Below is my reflection, where I included mentions of Sid Meier, Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman, Jane McGonigal and Raph Koster. It was a really fun morning for me & from the conversations I had with people after the services, it sounds like I helped people to think differently about the value of games. And Unitarians proved they are seriously into rock-paper-scissors :)

Here is my reflection:

My family had just moved to a new town at the beginning of my 6th grade year. A few weeks into the school year, the entire 6th grade had a pizza party at the local Little Caesar’s restaurant. This was back when Little Caesar’s had restaurants, and this particular one also had a bar with a huge dance floor where the locals hung out on Friday and Saturday nights. But on this particular Friday afternoon, my entire 6th grade class was having a pizza party. And then a dance contest.

I had no intention of dancing. I really hadn’t made any friends yet. When a boy that I recognized from my math class named Kevin asked me to be his partner, I was so shocked that I said yes.  He pulled me out into the center of the dance floor and the music started.  The contest rules were simple: keep dancing until a teacher taps you on the shoulder, indicating you are “out.” The song for the dance contest was “I can’t drive 55” by Sammy Hagar. If you have ever heard this song, you’ll know that it’s not exactly dance contest material.

As it was, the song choice didn’t matter. I didn’t know that my dance partner was a 12 year old dance prodigy. To be honest, he could have probably won the contest on his own.  He was dancing so enthusiastically that I couldn’t help but try to match his clearly superior moves.

Something happened as I tried to keep up with my partner; I forgot all about the people watching us. I didn’t notice the teachers tapping the other couples’ out. I was focused on dancing. I was having fun. And for the 6,000 times they played that song, I wasn’t a shy 6th middle school girl who was trying to make friends in her new school: I was a dancing queen.

When the music finally stopped, Kevin and I were standing alone in the middle of the dance floor, sweaty and triumphant. The kids surrounding us cheered and patted us on the backs; Kevin grabbed my hand and held it up in victory.

Now, I was a very, very shy 6th grade girl. I had ended 5th grade as a social outcast in my previous school, shunned and bullied by my best friends. I was honestly relieved we moved to a new town for middle school, even though I didn’t know anyone.  And then a few weeks into the school year, my shyness and relative anonymity were blown to bits in the middle of that dance floor at Little Caesar’s.

Our brains are quirky, funny organs. Brains are super pattern collectors and recognizers, constantly seeking out meaning amidst chaos. We delight in finding patterns where none should exist, like when we see a cloud that looks like a bunny, or we see the image of Jesus in a piece of toast. Our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the world, to get better and better at recognizing patterns and anticipating cause and effect.

The funny thing is, when we are presented with a new or unexpected pattern, our brains are not very good at dealing with it right away. It’s like our brain goes into shock, yelling “This is not what I expected! What do I do?” It can send us into a state of paralysis, or it may prompt you to make a decision you normally wouldn’t, like participate in a middle school dance contest.

In order for our brains to learn a new patterns to better anticipate cause and effect, we need to practice recognizing the pattern. We know that practice is how we learn. Need to learn an instrument? Practice. Need to learn how to do algebra? Practice. We know that practice is the path to master a skill.  

When we are young, we practice navigating the complexities of life through play. We learn to negotiate and argue and apologize and make new friends all within the context of make believe and games that we create our own rules for.

At some point, though, we flip the expectation that play is the catalyst to learning and growing and begin to see play as a waste of time, a form of entertainment with little other value. As we stop valuing play, we deprive ourselves as adults of a safe place to practice and fail and learn how to navigate new, complicated situations. Our brains haven’t changed: we still are constantly struggling to learn and recognize new patterns. Just because you’re 16 or 36 or 86 doesn’t mean that you know everything you need to about relationships or about yourself.
I face issues every day that I don’t know how to respond to. Sometimes I think it would be great to sit down and have a tea party with my 8 year old and try to work through them, but I’m pretty sure her stuffed animals aren’t as experienced with working through the nuances of my adult relationships with my parents or how to deal with gender discrimination at work.

Still, there’s something to be said for play as a way to make us better, stronger and more confident in navigating the world around us. And games are the perfect way for us, even as adults, to play and learn and grow.

What is a game, really? Sid Meier, who is the famous designer of the Civilization computer games, defined games as “a series of meaningful choices.” This definition has always rung true to me, although probably a little too broad: couldn’t life itself be defined as a series of meaningful choices?

Another definition from game designers Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman says that a game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome. I like this definition, particularly because of that last piece, “a quantifiable outcome.” This is what differentiates play from games. In a game, there is an outcome, usually a score that tells you who won and who lost. Those outcomes, whether successes or failures, serve an important purpose: they provide you with feedback. Are you winning more, getting higher scores? You’re learning and improving. If you aren’t getting better at the game, what do you need to differently to improve? What are others doing to win that you can learn from?

Games, really, are patterns that we learn to solve. The simple ones, like tic tac toe, are fascinating to kids who are just learning pattern recognition. But one day after a couple years of practicing tic tac toe, you realize that you can win or tie every time depending on the skill of your opponent, because you have learned every pattern possible in the game.

My uncle was so good at solitaire that he could tell after only a few minutes of play whether he was going to win that hand or not. I was not that good, and I would get so frustrated watching him for a few minutes and just as my mind was starting to get into the game, he’d fold the deck and deal a new hand. How do you know? I’d ask him. And he’d say, I’ve played this a million times. I know.

In 2009, I attended the annual Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco and saw a presentation that changed my life. Jane McGonigal presented a session on how games can change the world. She had recently launched a game called “Top Secret Dance Off” with one goal: to make people happier. The game was simple. You went to the game website and joined a team. Once you were on a team, you could start completing dance challenges. For each dance challenge, you needed to complete 3 steps: 1. Assume a secret identity. 2. Video tape yourself completing the dance challenge in public. 3. Upload the video to the game site. Once you uploaded the video, other people could vote for your dance  - the team with the highest vote total for their dance videos “won.” The website still exists and if you visit it today, you can still see the amazing and hilarious videos of people in disguise dancing in public.

What was the pattern that Jane wanted people to recognize in this game? Simply that dancing makes you happy. Even watching other people dancing makes you happy. In her talk, she proposed a noble purpose for games: games can be designed to elicit lots of different types of emotions and develop different types of skills. What if we designed games to help make people better and, even grander, to change the world for the better?

I knew that what she was saying was true. A decade earlier, I had made of game of eating using Weight Watchers points and over the course of a year had lost 75 pounds. If I could make something super hard, like losing weight, into a game that I could play and win, why couldn’t that same idea be used to solve even bigger, more complex real problems?

Two years after I saw Jane McGonigal speak for the first time, she published her first book, Reality is Broken. In it, she expanded on her idea that games can be a catalyst for growth and change, for individuals and for the world. Her idea was catching on. A game called Re-Mission helped kids with cancer understand how chemotherapy and radiation worked and let them play along fighting cancer cells during their treatment. Another game, World Without Oil, challenged people to go through their day without using oil products and to journal what alternatives they used in order to help other players facing the same challenges.  There were games addressing subjects as complex as how to most efficiently rescue survivors during a natural disaster like a typhoon or hurricane or how to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Even more powerful than the games that were allowing people to work through complex problems were the real issues gamers were being asked to solve.  In 2011, gamers were able to solve a virus enzyme structure in 3 weeks that scientists had been unable to solve for over a decade.  In the same year, gamers were able to identify cross-species DNA segments that geneticists were unable to identify using computers.  All by making a game of science.


We, humanity, prove over and over again that our brains are the most incredible pattern recognition systems and problem solvers. And it’s not just that we’re capable of doing it. We think it’s fun.

Fun is a loaded word. Raph Koster in his book A Theory of Fun defines fun as “the act of mastering a problem mentally.” I like this definition because mastering a problem mentally defines fun as an active state, which differentiates it from entertainment or enjoyment or delight. Koster further defines fun as learning in a context where there is no pressure.

Learning in a context where there is no pressure. This is why games matter.

This is why playing games, at every age, is important. If we are constantly in a state of brokenness, then we are always in a state of repair. When we don’t know how to fix a situation, we must learn. How better to learn a new pattern, a new cause and effect, a new way to look at the world, than in the safety of a game where we can practice and learn and get better, step by step? How better to make ourselves and the world better than in a game where we can have fun doing it?

When I look back now, I can see why winning that dance contest in sixth grade meant so much to me.  It was the perfect game for me to play at the perfect time. I needed to learn how to make friends in this new environment, but there was no pressure in that dance contest: I didn’t know anyone and I had nothing to prove. But I learned that taking a risk, putting myself out there and trying something new COULD be the catalyst for friendship and success.  It’s a pattern that I have recognized and repeated throughout my life, from starting my own business, to meeting my husband on a blind date, to joining this congregation.

Any challenge can be made into a game, just by approaching it in a playful way. My daughter makes something as simple as walking down the street a game by trying to avoid the cracks (and sparing my back from breaking).  More complex challenges like exercising more, I can break down into smaller challenges and reward myself for achieving milestones along the way.

What challenge are you facing? How can you make a game of it?


Thursday, February 26, 2015

I am surrounded

Watson & Sherlock
I'm writing this post surrounded by dogs: Sherlock laying next to me, wearing a cone because his eye infection is creeping back and I need to keep him from making it worse before he sees the vet. He is grumpy. Watson is my headrest; his poodle coat is too long and woolly and it heats up the back of my neck. He really loves our new couch because he can lay along the back cushions again. Darwin is chewing on a piece of dirty, knotted rope on the other side of my lap. He's chewing noisily and won't stop moving, shaking the whole couch and annoying the other two. He's a giant pit bull that thinks he's a little dog.

The house is quiet, except for Darwin's chewing and the faint sound of Sallie singing in her bedroom. She's home sick today with a fever and various other complaints. In a little while, I'll ask her if she's hungry and she'll chat all the way through lunch, telling me about some scenario playing out in her room with her stuffed animals.

I love being alone. I love quiet. I don't have music or a movie playing in the background on days like today when I work from home; I don't usually have the radio on in the car. But it's rare that I'm ever actually alone. Dogs. Kids. Work. Church. The only time I have to myself anymore is when I'm driving to pick up or meet someone, or sometimes in the bathroom (although kids and dogs aren't always respectful of a closed bathroom door).

My husband John knows that I'm an introvert, although I try to fake otherwise. I hate labels like that, "introvert," but I do acknowledge that labels help people understand complex dynamics quickly, so sometimes I'll use it to explain why I avoid social hour in between church services, or why I don't want to be the one to call for takeout, or why I am completely exhausted after I speak at a conference and need to decompress.

I find myself tired a lot now. Exhausted, even. John and I both work full-time, manage the schedules of our 5 kids with us in California and figure out how to stay present in the weekly routine of the 6th one who is back in Pennsylvania for most of the year. He's never out of our thoughts and we're constantly planning trips and phone calls and Skype conversations, the planning of all these things tempered by the difficulty of negotiating them. Daily life isn't just us, the kids and the dogs...it's all of the kids' other parents, too.

And work. There aren't a lot of jobs in the world where you can work by yourself, and I don't have one of them. It's funny because I intentionally chose a career path that focused on helping people learn. I love it. I'm passionate about it. And it, by design, surrounds me with people.

Beyond family and work, I'm still surrounded. I'm on the Worship Committee at church and work to create worshipful lay-led services to support our ministers. I need the feedback of my committee members and the members of the congregation to be successful. I am constantly working on new start up ideas, seeking out other entrepreneurs and experts to collaborate with, networking and building relationships. People, people everywhere.

I am surrounded. I fantasize sometimes about just driving someplace quiet, alone. Maybe reading a book. Maybe just listening to the ocean, or the sounds of the mountains. I think about what it might feel like to not be responsible for or to anyone but myself. What a relief that would be. I think about when I read Eat Pray Love and how selfish I thought the woman was, and how absolutely glorious it still sounded to me. What a luxury, to be free of commitment. How light that must feel. Nobody to make dinner for or pick up from somewhere, no deadline I need to meet.

I'd probably be so incredibly, incredibly lonely. No one to tell me something funny that happened to them at school. No one snuggle with at night. No one to hear my favorite part of the day. No one to waggle their whole body in excitement to see me when I come through the door. No one to tell me I look beautiful today. No one to giggle with about a goat who sounds like he's saying "mom." No one to hear singing in the shower. No one to ask me for a hug. No one to be devastatingly proud of as they perform on stage.

Darwin is snoring
Sometimes when I'm feeling suffocated, overwhelmed and buried, I think about what I've surrounded myself with. All of these people and animals...I might not always be able to handle all of them. I shouldn't think I have to. Being surrounded can be a lifting up, not a holding down. Because it's love, all of it is love. I chose this life, all of it. My family, my pets, my career, my friends, my spiritual community...even my Facebook friends. It is love, not responsibility. They challenge me and make me think and reflect and grow. It is love, messy and crowded and busy. It is love, loud and yes, sometimes overwhelming. I am surrounded by love. And right now, love sounds like a pit bull curled
up next to me, snoring. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Common Core Conundrum

You know the old saying, if you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail?

This is the analysis that I can't help but apply to the Common Core assessment battle emerging in states across the country. 

I've been introduced to Common Core as a former teacher and now as a parent with kids in elementary, junior high and high school. I've read all the perspectives on Common Core from teachers in social media, I've read the informative literature provided by my kids' teachers, schools and school districts. I've seen the type of assignments and questions asked of my kids change. I get what they are trying to do and frankly, despite the challenges that inevitably come with change, I support Common Core. I want my kids to become critical thinkers, not spouters of facts. I want them to be problem solvers and understand the why, not just the what. I want them to think creatively and deeply and I'm encouraged that school might be a place where that is encouraged and fostered. I think it's a noble cause and it makes that longing to go back into the classroom a little stronger. A survey of teachers find that most of them feel the same way I do:



And then I hear about the testing

It is going to be a shame if Common Core is protested, abandoned and ultimately fails because we can't reconcile our desire to encourage critical, creative thinking with a scalable assessment of those skills. We already know that standardized tests are biased and don't represent student success or achievement. They are not used as a measure of student progress; they are only used as a measure of comparing schools. They aren't even used as a measure of teacher effectiveness in most cases (and rightly so). 

Standardized tests are really good at measuring how well students can complete standardized tests. If we're trying to move our educational system to measure critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, design thinking...do we REALLY think more expansive standardized testing is going to give us the information we are looking for about the impact of Common Core on student success?

Sadly, I think we're at risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Common Core curriculum and Common Core assessment should be viewed as two different things, different pieces of the same puzzle. While I think the curriculum changes are encouraging, my encouragement is overwhelmed by my disappointment on the emphasis on using the same old standardized assessment. I've been trying to ignore or combat the various Facebook memes of  anti-Common Core ranting. But with these new, expansive assessments looming, I find myself siding with the Common Core protesters. No, I don't want my children sitting through 10 hours of testing that will have no bearing on their learning, forget about all the instructional time dedicated to "test prep." No, I don't believe standardized test results will show the impact or benefit of Common Core curriculum. 

How can I support Common Core and not support Common Core standardized testing? How do you support the strategy and vehemently oppose the tactics? How can you support teachers and schools in trying to meet the modern needs of their students when the government assessment of student education is stuck in the 80s?

It's time to break free from the hammer of standardized testing. Common Core is not another nail. Students are not all the same. If K12 education is changing to support different skills, then assessment must evolve, not expand. We don't need more standardized testing, we need a different kind of test, a different kind of skill assessment. 

I'm passionate about immersive learning, but even more so about immersive assessment. Let's stop assessing knowledge...let's let students apply their skills. What if assessments were games? What if we structured assessments like Odyssey of the Mind, or Math Super Bowls, or science fairs? What if we made assessment challenging and engaging and fun? What if we made assessment real?

I've never had to take a standardized test at work to measure my competency. I show my value in the work that I produce, the ideas I contribute, my participation and passion and ability to see problems on the horizon or find the root cause of problems that already exist. If we want students to develop those skills, let's find meaningful ways to assess them. It is possible. Let's use those creative problem solving skills that Common Core is developing to create better solutions to assessing our real capabilities.