Monday, November 19, 2018

Self-Help Pushback (Because These Were Not Written for Moms Like Me)

My work as a freelance writer often takes me down interesting research rabbit holes. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time reading and listening to some of the top self-help books in the fields of productivity, motivation, and time management.

This genre has always fascinated me, and even before I took on this particular project, I was a frequent listener of the podcast Simplify, which interviews different authors of books about how to live your life better and then pulls out some of the key ideas. (My favorite was this one with David Allen, and I really did get some great tips from him!) 

I think the reason I am so interested in the self-help genre is that it does so much more than just give advice. It also highlights our collective values and assumptions about what success looks like. Because no matter how much an individual self-help book might couch itself as edgy or subversive, at their core, these books operate on a very normative definition of success, and it's typically one built on accumulating wealth, minimizing the amount of effort put into the daily tasks of employment, and getting to pursue individual activities of pleasure. 



I'm not knocking any of those things. (In fact, I'd take those. Who's got some to spare?) But I am kind of side eyeing the entire self-help genre at the moment. 

After getting eyeballs deep into dozens of self-help adages and "systems," I'm feeling pretty left out. See, the advice from these gurus tends to pivot in a pretty small circle around a stable pillar of accepted truths. Sure, different experts might dress it up in different flavors to make it more palatable to a particular audience, but, all in all, the advice stays about the same. 

And none of it is applicable to my life right now. 

If I said that to any of these gurus, I know what they'd say. "You're making excuses." "You're keeping yourself stuck." "That's your faulty life script trying to keep you from reaching your potential." They'd tell me to believe in what I can achieve and push through those boundaries.

That sounds motivational and all, and I know why they have to say that, but it doesn't change the fact that most of their advice has very little to do with the life that I live, and it's not because I don't want (or deserve!) riches, leisure time, and world travel.

It's because my time is not my own, and self-help too often ignores that a lot of us are carrying the emotional, physical, and logistical labor of more than one self. 

Let's take a closer look at what I mean. 

Advice Pillar #1: Do Not Multitask 

Where You've Heard It: Everywhere. (No, really. It's everywhere. Like, everywhere.)

The Basic Scoop: Ambitious people often have a lot of responsibilities. Naturally, they want to find a way to tackle these responsibilities more effectively. They'll turn to multitasking to try to maximize their time, but psychology shows that multitasking doesn't actually exist. We may feel like we're doing more than one thing at a time, but what we're really doing is rapidly shifting our attention from task to task, and the end result is a scattered brain, a lack of focus, poorer work, and no time savings.


Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: No, I'm not going to argue that my brain defies psychological realities. I'm absolutely sure that my attempts to grade papers while watching Gilmore Girls and responding to messages in my Facebook chat group are bad ideas that make me do all three of those things more poorly than I would if I just picked one and did it until it was done.

But what I am going to tell you is that I multitask every single day, and I do it well. Because here's the thing about all of those self-help gurus' demonization of multitasking: they're assuming that all of the tasks you do require your mental focus. Guess what? I do a lot of shit every day that requires no or virtually no thinking, and I do a lot of tasks that are partially automated. 

If I put in a load of laundry before I sit down to grade a batch of papers, then by the time I am ready for a break, it will be time to put the clothes in the dryer. Then I can return to the papers and finish them up. When I'm done, the clothes are ready to fold. I can fold them while watching Parks and Rec for the fiftieth time, which is a necessary unwinding after grading all those papers. 

If I didn't put the laundry in until after I finished the papers, though, my whole day is going to get wrecked. This automated task can easily be happening while I am doing something else, but it requires conscious multitasking on my part to get done. 

Some other things I multitask throughout the day? I braid my daughter's hair while we talk about the book we're reading together for her homeschool literature class. I listen to podcasts while I clean the counters in the kitchen. I feed the cats while my son's oatmeal is heating up in the microwave. 

The advice to stop multitasking annoys me because it ignores the fact that not all tasks are intellectually equal tasks, but that doesn't make them any less necessary or any less difficult to fit into my day. 

Advice Pillar #2: Take Control of Your Mornings

Where You've Heard It: Hal Elrod's Morning Miracle and Morning Miracle Millionaires; Tim Ferriss; articles like this one

The Basic Scoop: The specifics of the system might vary from source to source, but the general idea is that taking control of your morning sets up your whole day. The advice that I've read usually tells you to do some combination of meditation, exercise, eating a healthy breakfast, and goal setting while avoiding social media, email, and really any distractions from the outside world. 

The idea is that by being able to intentionally take charge of your time in the morning, you set the tone for the day as a whole, and you can choose where you put your energy throughout the day instead of careening from crisis to crisis without any say in what you do next. 


Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: I really do believe this is great advice. I think that if I could take the first forty-five minutes of each day and exercise, meditate, and set my goals for the day, I would definitely get more done and feel better doing it, so I'm not actually criticizing this advice. If you can do this, you should do this, but I can't do this. 

Again, this isn't because I'm making excuses. It's not that I'm refusing to get up forty-five minutes earlier to make it happen. It's that I literally cannot do it.

Several experts tell me to make my bed first thing in the morning. I can't do that because, if I get up early enough to do all these other things, there are still people sleeping in it. Yes. People. Plural. My husband is probably still in bed for one. There's also a real good chance that my toddler has climbed in there at some point in the night, too. If I make my bed, they're waking up, and if the toddler is up, I can kiss that quiet meditation goodbye. 

In fact, I can probably just kiss that quiet meditation goodbye anyway. I can creep out of my bed as quietly as possible and maybe even manage to get out of the room and go somewhere else to try to meditate, but my absence will be felt. Kids have more than five senses, and the ability to tell that mom is getting close to peace is one of them. 

Even if everything went perfectly well, my morning isn't just about me. These "morning rituals" all seem to assume that the only person I am responsible for getting focused, meditated, and happy is myself. That is not the case. That is never the case. The cats are going to meow at me incessantly until I feed them. Then the dog is going to need to go outside. The kids need to eat. There are boots to find and coats to zip and diapers to change and spills to clean up. 

My mornings are not my own, and the only way to make them my own is through out and out neglect of the living beings who depend on me each day, and I can't do that because their mornings are important, too. (And, completely selfishly, if their mornings go badly, my day is going badly, too. I don't want to clean dog poop off the floor because I didn't let the dog out. I don't want to deal with a toddler who didn't get to eat breakfast. These things are important.) 

Advice Pillar #3: Work Uninterrupted 

Where You've Heard It: Francesco Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique; Donald Knuth (who refuses to answer email and suggests working in "batch mode"); Tim Ferriss (again); articles like this one 

The Basic Scoop: Say no to distractions like meetings or email. (In the extreme forms, some of these experts have literally stopped accepting requests for their time and deleted their email addresses to make themselves unreachable). The Medium article linked above even starts out by describing focused work as a "monastic" lifestyle of "near-total seclusion." The idea is that you should say no to the calls on your attention so that you can put your attention where you really want and need it to be focused. 



The Pomodoro Technique does this through setting a timer for 25 minutes before taking a 5-minute break. After four rounds of this, you get a 30-minute break. I downloaded a Pomodoro Technique app, and the default goal is to do 12 separate rounds. That's 5 hours of focused work with just short breaks in between each set. 

Why It Doesn't Apply to Me: Again, I'm not actually criticizing the heart of this advice. I use the Pomodoro Technique whenever I am alone and have a project to focus on. It works. You should give it a try. 

But if these experts are right that seclusion is necessary for success, then success will just stay out of my reach for at least the next 16 years or so. Parents don't get much seclusion. I know I'm not saying anything groundbreaking here. After all, Virginia Woolf knew the importance of a room of one's own quite some time ago. 

Maybe this is why this kind of focus is called "monastic." And people who are able to dedicate themselves to that kind of seclusion for the sake of reflection and purpose-seeking are certainly laudable. But I do think it's interesting that monks are known for their seclusion while nuns are known for their service to others (through teaching and nursing and being present in communities). 

The advice to say "no" more often is good advice that I am working on taking myself, but if I have to be secluded to win this game, I don't get to play. There are, as I've explored at length above, too many other living beings who I am beholden to for that to happen. I can't say "no" to these responsibilities. I can't tell my kids, "Sorry. Mommy deleted her email account. You don't get to request bedtime stories tonight because that's not serving my greater purpose." 

Also, can we just talk for a moment about the hidden supports making these success stories possible? Professor Knuth (the one who refused to take email) had his secretary printing out emails for him so that he could respond to them by hand at his leisure. So it wasn't that the task wasn't getting done. It was that it wasn't getting done by him. Similarly, Tim Ferriss has a whole section in his famous book The Four-Hour Workweek about finding your hourly value and then outsourcing tasks that cost less than that value. Again, this means that someone else is picking up all that labor. You didn't eliminate the labor by saying no to things that didn't matter. You shifted the labor onto someone else's shoulders. You got your own success by making someone else's success (if this is the definition of success we're using) further away. 

Conclusion 

At the end of the day, I will probably keep dipping my toe into this genre because I do find it interesting and sometimes helpful and engaging. More and more, though, I am feeling excluded from not just the advice, but the conversation. I can't find myself in these discussions, and I don't think it's because I have written myself off from success. I don't think it's because there isn't advice that could help me and the people like me. I just think that no one is talking to us. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Leaves that Won’t be Made: Hard Truths of “Having it All”

“The cost of maintaining these defenses come out of the tree’s meager savings that were intended for happier uses: each drop of sap was a seed that didn’t happen; each thorn a leaf that wouldn’t be made” (Jahren 28).  
These lines come from the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, and the author is here reflecting on a tree familiar to her in childhood. These words really stuck with me in an unexpected way. I wasn’t reading the book for personal inspiration. I was reading it to assess its viability as a high school composition spine. The relationship between myself and the text was expected to be professional. I didn’t expect to find a personal connection to this ill-fated tree (which would be unceremoniously chopped down shortly after this passage). 

But this passage clicked with me. Jahren, a botanist and passionate researcher frames the life acts of trees as choices—even “mistakes.” She repeatedly reminds us—through the perspective of a tree—that mortality makes us fragile and thriving is statistically rare—rare enough that even a scientist could be forgiven for seeing it as miraculous. 



In this particular quote, Jahren touches upon the finite nature of our resources. In the tree’s case, this is the energy created and stored as sugar that fuels all of the tree’s actions. But the reserves are not limitless, and so, influenced by the environmental factors pressing upon it and the millennia of programmed code coursing through its genes, the tree makes choices about how to use that energy. As Jahren makes perfectly clear, each action taken is the choice to not take another action. It is a zero-sum game—for the tree full of limited sugar but also for me and probably also for you. 

“I can make more money, but I can’t make more time.” 

I remember saying this to an equally frazzled friend as I explained the mental gymnastics I had done to justify outsourcing some overwhelming household chore. Unlike the tree, my primary concerns are not daily survival. I take it for granted that I will have food to eat, water to drink, and shelter from the elements. The tree and I are not so different in these needs, but the privilege of collective successes and ingenuity has brought me a measure of security that allows me to ignore that similarity. Barring unexpected medical or environmental crisis, I am typically not made conscious of my very real mortality and the work that goes into delaying its inevitable conclusion. 

Instead, I spend my energy on the task of seeking fulfillment and purpose beyond those biological needs, and the finite resource that underpins all my choices is not stored sugar, but time. 

Every choice I make—every book I read to my child, every freelance gig I accept, every dinner I prepare, every class I teach, every television show I watch—is as much a choice made as a dozen, a hundred, a thousand other choices not made with that same slot of time. Wrapped up in those moments is the ghost of all the things that could have been done with that time that are now eliminated as options. 

After all, there is only so much time. 




Later in Lab Girl, Jahren discusses a Hawaiian monkeypod tree, boasting a huge gorgeous canopy filled with flowers and captured by tourists in photo albums and coffee table books. Jahren makes this observation: 
“From the tourists’ perspective, this tree has achieved its perfect form: they do not see a tree that is less than it might have been . . . If [it] were to be cut down, we could count the knots and see the buried scars of the hundreds of branches that it has lost during the last century of its life. But as of today the tree stands, and while it is standing, we see only the branches that did grow and do not miss the ones that were lost” (79). 
Are we trees forced to constantly examine the limbs that did not make it? Instead of wearing our scars until we are whole again, are we doomed to constantly prod them like the gaping hole of a lost tooth? Maybe trees, too, feel these losses, invisible to the passersby, these possible-but-not-quite realities. Should we take a cue from them and hide the gaps by growing a thicker exterior, forever pretending we are whole when we are really not? Really cannot be? Really can only ever hope that the final set of choices and lost branches balances out to a kind of survival we accept?

I’ve been wondering some version of this a lot, lately. I even wrote about wondering if I was wasting my Ph.D. by giving in to the call on my attention as a mother for my local City Moms Blog. What branches am I losing? Will I notice them when they’re gone?
            

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Success at What Cost? (Reflections on Disagreeable People and the 4-Hour Workweek)

My family went to watch the big Independence Day fireworks display downtown this weekend, and after a week-long heat advisory, we were granted a reprieve in the form of breezy mid-70s weather on Saturday evening.

The place was packed, and when we arrived an hour and a half before sunset, most of the hillside was already packed with picnic blankets and lawn chairs as people staked out their prime viewing spot.

We found a good spot and tried to keep our two kids entertained while we waited for the sun to set and the show to start. As the first bursts of light filled the sky, I heard a voice behind me firmly say, "Sir! You need to sit down! People have been waiting here for hours to see, and you are in the way. Put your butt on the ground like everyone else!"



I turned to see a woman approaching a man who was standing in the middle of the seated crowd, cell phone in hand, taking pictures of the fireworks. He sighed loudly and walked up two rows (now parallel with me) and continued standing. The people behind him muttered and yelled "sit down!" He didn't move until someone approached him from behind, tapped him on the shoulder, and asked him to move. At that point, he moved up two more rows and slightly to the left and continued to stand.

The man in front of me could no longer see, and his wife went and again asked the man to move. He moved all the way over in the same row, still standing, and there he stayed the rest of the show, most certainly blocking the view of many people who had waited for hours. He obviously knew he was in the way, and he was the only person standing on the hillside as far as the eye could see. He didn't argue or fight with anyone who confronted him, but he didn't let their displeasure have any impact on his actions, either.

I'm sure he got a couple of pretty pictures of the fireworks.

Should We Be Agreeable?

I was recently listening to Malcolm Gladwell's podcast Revisionist History (which I love and highly recommend). One of his recent episodes gives his "12 Rules for Life," which is really only one rule (and I'm about to spoil it, FYI.) His one rule for life is to "pull the goalie," by which he means to do the thing that makes the most logical sense even if it upsets social norms and causes social discomfort. 

Gladwell admits this is a challenge for him, but he looks up to people who do not have this struggle. He identifies them as having a low score on the "agreeableness" spectrum, a psychology term that measures how much people care about upholding social norms. 

Gladwell spends much of the episode exploring how an ability to set aside social expectations can help us make better decisions because, often, social expectations run counter to the smartest, most effective thing to do. 

He speaks of disagreeable people with a kind of awe, as if they have a superpower he would like to possess. How freeing it would be to not care what people think of you and simply act in the way that gets you the best results. What kind of achievements could you reach if you had that kind of free reign? 

Success Without Scruples

Gladwell's thought experiments on agreeableness are interesting and worth considering. After all, social pressure (especially for women, who are socially conditioned to be demure and accommodating) can cause people to miss great opportunities or not receive credit for their work. 

But Gladwell leans a little too hard into the power of disagreeable people because he doesn't follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion. If you maximize your own success without any regard for social consequences, you can end up in a kind of sociopathic hedonism that is destructive and horrifying. 

I got a chance to see this kind of roadmap for success firsthand when I picked up a copy of The 4-Hour Workweek on a whim. See, I've been reading and listening to productivity experts because I think that they're an interesting window into our cultural values (a topic for another day). Timothy Ferriss' best selling book promises in its subtitle to let you "escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich." 



I have only thumbed through the book so far, but what I have seen left me absolutely shaken. This is a best selling book. Ferriss gets referenced everywhere and has followers and fans who promote his methods to success. This is a cultural touchstone of sorts. 

How does Ferriss provide access to this elusive life of luxury? Well, he is certainly promoting disagreeable qualities. His book's premise is that you should trick, swindle, lie, and exploit your way to leisure. 

The book is ambitious in scope and covers a wide range of topics, but the theme that seems to underly them all is that you put yourself first and any social consequences of your actions out of your mind completely. 

For example, Ferriss recommends creating false contact profiles for your fledgling business to make it appear to have multiple departments when it's really just you and you alone. He also recommends outsourcing as many of your daily tasks as possible to underpaid laborers without any concern for how his exploitation might factor into their own living and working conditions. He talks about examining rules for loopholes and proudly boasts about winning a Chinese kickboxing competition by dehydrating himself to weigh in three weight classes under his actual weight and then winning by technical knockout by simply exploiting a rule about falls to make his aim knocking his opponent over rather than actually learning the sport. 

The Relativity of Ethics

Ferriss' methods are the logical conclusion of Gladwell's well-meaning advice, and my firework-watching friend is a prime example of this mentality in action. 

The thing is, these "tricks" and "advantages" only work as long as you, the person using them, are surrounded by people with more scruples, stronger moral compasses, and more shame. If everyone decides to weigh in three weight classes under their actual weight by dehydrating themselves, then it's not an advantage anymore. It's just a stupid sport where everyone tries to knock each other over instead of displaying any actual skill. If everyone decides to stand while watching the fireworks, only the people in the front row (or those born unusually tall) will get to enjoy the show.

Our sociopolitical systems operate with the underlying assumption that most people will adhere to a general set of ethics most of the time. Obviously, a lot of those assumptions are falling apart in today's society. Trump's crass, abusive, and vulgar comments from the position of President are often held up as the source of this ethical unmooring. As much as I am appalled by his actions and words, though, I am beginning to see that he is a symptom, not the cause. 

Our definitions of success and our worship of capitalism and individualism have created this landscape, and it will take an intentional, meaningful, and probably painful reflection on our humanity and collective values to counteract the results. 

I just hope we don't have to get all the way to everyone standing up at the fireworks before we start doing that work.  

Thursday, April 12, 2018

What Happens to a Community Disrupted? (The Rise and Fall of Blogging)

I started this blog almost exactly eight years ago (April 19, 2010). I was a graduate student who was a few months pregnant with my first child, and I was terrified because everywhere I looked there were articles and people telling me that there was no way to balance a professional career and the demands of motherhood without sacrificing the quality of one or both beyond repair. I blogged anonymously. It was truly just a diary at first, but then I made this post about my feminist hopes to mother a feminist. It was written as a response to blue milk, one of my favorite "mommy bloggers" at the time. She had posted (more than two years before I responded) a list of ten questions about feminist motherhood.

That post ended up getting me clicked into an amazing group of women who were all blogging about the things I was thinking about. We started connecting, blogged on each other's pages, left comments on each other's posts, and generally became a community. Then we kept going with our lives, and eventually that community (or at least the tiny corner of it I was inhabiting) drifted apart, sometimes gently prodded by the natural current of the ocean of  daily motherhood, sometimes violently disrupted by the stormy period of tragedies like divorce and child loss.



"Old-Fashioned Sense of Community"

I literally teared up remembering this long-ago community while I was reading Emily Matchar's book Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity the other day. Matchar penned this book in 2013, which is right around the time that I was at peak "mommy blogger." I was attending blogging conferences, knew my Klout score, tweeted with all the right hashtags, felt connected to the big discussions in this particular niche.

Matchar writes about finding "lifestyle blogs" and feeling connected to a world full of decorators and cooks who opened up a door to domesticity that challenged its anti-feminist reputation and gave young Millennial women like me the chance to embrace the domesticity that was naturally becoming a part of our lives as young homemakers, wives, and mothers without feeling like sellouts who were turning our backs on our mother's hard work to gain equal rights. Blogs, Matchar explains, were a key part of this transformation:
Homemaker 2.0 blogs have become online versions of the knitting circles and quilting bees of preindustrial America, which were themselves created to stave off the loneliness and isolation of pioneer life. Online, women swap skills, tips, and recipes; give advice; offer emotional support. Women whom Technorati defines as 'mom bloggers' are significantly more likely than other bloggers to post comments, to link to other blogs, and to say they enjoy interacting with readers and other bloggers. In our supposedly isolated Bowling Alone culture, blogs have created a frankly old-fashioned sense of community. 
In 2013, I have to tell you, that felt completely right. It felt like we had found a way to build a community without the bounds of geography. We were able to connect with other mothers who were going through exactly what we were going through, and we were able to feel valuable and meaningful as part of this group.



I don't know that I can say the same thing in 2018. It's not just that my daughter got older (though that definitely does take a toll on the "mommy blogging"). After all, my son is the same age my daughter was at this blogging peak. I also don't think the community is gone. Mothers need that connection and space to lean on one another as much as they ever have, and there are still plenty of spaces online that fill that void, but I know that I have never been able to recreate the blogging magic that I felt five years ago.

What Happened?

Google Reader was discontinued in June of 2013. Did Google just have its finger on the pulse of the reality and jump just ahead of the crash, or did it steer the ship into the iceberg? I don't know the answer to that.

At the time, Google was hoping to make Google+ a thing that could truly compete with Facebook, and (as we can all see with our perfectly honed hindsight) that didn't happen. Instead, Facebook's "groups" feature is now the place that seems to get most of the activity that I used to see in blog comments.

Whatever the case, I know that I personally never found a way to keep up with blogs the way I did with Google Reader, and I made a concerted effort to find a comparable replacement. I imagine there were plenty of people who just didn't find it worth the effort. This Atlantic piece sings the praises of Google Reader and explains that since its demise, content creators have started to focus more on creating a single piece that generates "likes" rather than creating a bundled sense of identity in a blog that acts as a cohesive whole.

That also rings true to me. I remember a time when I made silly, short posts that were just bursts of thoughts. We posted "Wordless Wednesday" posts that were just pictures from our day. I wasn't worried about making every piece stand on its own because, for my readers (who were my friends, not my "customers" or "leads"), they didn't stand on their own.

Sure, a single piece could end up getting shared widely in unexpected ways, and that was sometimes fun (or, just as often, terrifying. I remember the shudder that went down my spine every time Reddit showed up in my traffic referrals), but I didn't think about individual posts the way that I do now.

Kids These Days and Their Newfangled FaceGramSnaps

Maybe I'm just old. Maybe the technology of my yesteryear just has a nostalgic feel for me, and it's no different than my parents keeping reel-to-reel movies in the basement for decades.

But I'm 32. And this was five years ago. So if I am just "old," then the pace of these changes has ramped up considerably from previous generations. And I don't seem to be alone in trying to figure out this technology change/midlife crisis/growing pains/what is happening mess. Take a look at this post from the New York Times about the previously "secret" Facebook group for women over 40 that took on a life of its own and is now the center of the creator's book and website.

Where Does a Community Go?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I'm not even really sure what questions I am asking, but I know that the change in the platform has not changed the need in the people who create the communities in the first place. We come together because we have a genuine need to find people who understand and to make us feel connected and heard. The messy tangle of giant corporations selling our data to advertisers, our own entrepreneurial desires to make a living through our writing and creations, and the inevitable mess that a group devolves into once it hits a certain number of participants will continue to complicate this attempt to find and keep a community.

What do you think? Are you still mourning Google Reader? Have you found a community to call your own? Do you fondly remember the blogs of yesteryear? Will you answer these questions somewhere I will never see them?


Monday, March 12, 2018

The New Pro-Choice Movement: What is Betsy DeVos Talking About?

By now, you've probably seen at least portions of Betsy DeVos' mostly incoherent, completely embarrassing 60 Minutes interview in which she seemed to be utterly unprepared for hard-hitting questions like "what is a school?" 

In fact, the whole thing could have just been deleted scenes from this parody video and made perfect sense. 


Despite all the incoherent rambling, there is a theme that can be pulled out from a close look at the transcripts, and I'd like to take a moment to try to figure out what's going on here. 

DeVos doesn't seem to be able to answer any questions about her plans to improve schools, her understanding of what problems schools face, or what exactly her job is, but there is one topic that she speaks about with more clarity than others: she's pro-choice. 

No, no. Not that kind of pro-choice. She's pro school choice. Let's take a look at her own words to try to get some idea of what that might mean to her. 

Here are some parts that really stood out to me. 
"we should be funding and investing in students, not in school — school buildings, not in institutions, not in systems." 
"I hesitate to talk about all schools in general because schools are made up of individual students attending them." 
In response to questions about anti-discriminatory practices to keep minority students from being disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts: "Arguably, all of these issues or all of this issue comes down to individual kids."  
When asked if a false rape accusation and a sexual assault are the same: "I don't know. I don't know. But I'm committed to a process that's fair for everyone involved."
Okay. The woman is a horrendous speaker who can't keep a sentence straight to save her life, but setting that aside, there are some themes that have come up again and again. She promotes "choice," which is her shorthand way of pointing to a voucher system, one where public school dollars are allowed to be used in other ways. Not all school choice advocates believe in the same things, however. As this article explains:
"The choice movement is not monolithic; all choice supporters don’t support all forms of choice and all do not have the same motivations behind their advocacy. Choice critics are not monolithic; some, for example, accept some charter schools but not other forms of choice. A key fissure is between the free-market believers who want very little regulation — who are mostly libertarians and Republicans, including DeVos — and those who believe in heavier regulation and more accountability, and tend to prefer charters over vouchers. The latter includes some Republicans and many Democrats, including former president Barack Obama."
DeVos' brand of "choice," as evidence by her excessive use of the term "individual" during her rambling, is one that demonizes public institutions. The narrative is that public school teachers are lazy, overprotected by unions, and committed to an outdated system rather than individual student success. As this piece from The Atlantic explores, though, throwing our hands up on public education is a dangerous way to try to "fix" our educational problems:
"Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous."
I'm a homeschooling mom whose public schools did not meet her child's needs, so you might think that I would be invested in DeVos' notion of "choice." Sure, being able to reallocate my tax dollars into building my private home library might sound nice, but what's the point in educating my daughter if there isn't a world worth sending her into?

Public schools are at a moment of transformative crisis. And here I mean crisis in the original Greek sense. A krisis was a turning point, a moment of decision. Our public schools are trying to face a very difficult challenge of meeting the needs of an unknowable future while simultaneously battling a war on many fronts for their very existence.

I wrote recently about diverging paths in education, how elite members of society are opting for schools that look very, very different from our public schools. I wrote then that this is a troubling sign for me. While private education has always had more resources than public education, the drive to turn private education into a completely different philosophical endeavor seems especially sinister as we sit at the cusp of a technological revolution that is likely to disrupt entire economies and possibly even what it means to be human.

When DeVos talks about individuals and turns her back on "institutions," on "systems," what she is really saying is that those who already have the means should climb while those who do not should be damned to fall not to the lowest rung of the ladder but off the ladder entirely.

And this woman is the head of our educational system. This would be like the person running the hospital saying that she doesn't believe in allowing greedy doctors to operate in an institution of healthcare and that we should instead shut it down and be allowed to individually spend that money stocking our own medicine cabinets. All you could afford was a band aid and some cough drops? Too bad. Hope you stay healthy.

Individuals matter. They matter a lot. But systems exist because humanity is more than the sum of its parts. We have become the species that we are not as a series of individuals operating in successive boxes but because we overlap, learn from, and grow with one another. That requires institutions and shared knowledge. That requires intermingled value systems that, yes, are messy and sometimes undergo painful transformations.

I believe we are at that moment now, and it is that vulnerability that has allowed someone as patently unqualified as DeVos to sit at such an important position at such an important time.

No matter how disenchanted you may be with public schools, no matter how alluring the siren call of "individual choice" may sound, please remember that we are all in this together. There can be no winning the game if the board is thrown in a dumpster fire.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Diverging Paths in Education: Someone Else's School (Part 2)

I recently wrote about the converging trends in education that make it seem increasingly likely that we're on the edge of a major shift in educational philosophy. I want to jump off from that point to look at how all those trends converging together to make a change seem to be leading to two divergent paths becoming visible.

As many public schools seem to be doubling down on standardization (especially using technology tools to get lots of standardized data on students), those who have access to elite private education seem to be moving in not just a different direction, but one that is diametrically opposed to these trends.

Consider some of these trends:

  • Reading Levels- Many public school kids are being told that they can't read anything outside of "their level." Schools use standardized tests to determine a child's "Lexile level" and then force children to read only within that narrow band. This is despite the fact that "Lexile levels" aren't particularly good at gauging the appropriateness of content and that evidence shows reading both below and above reading levels is important for developing solid reading habits.
     
  • iPads Replace Teaching- Many public schools are also turning to online, standardized curriculum like Moby Max to provide "individual" instruction. This Louisiana school boasts about its lower costs and higher standardized test scores as a result of switching to a Moby Max curriculum. Moby Max itself brags that the site is in use in 73% of public K-8 schools. Anecdotally, I can tell you that my daughter was enrolled in a "hands-on, project-based" public charter school that handed her an iPad (often with Moby Max on the other side) multiple times a day, even during "sensory breaks," which she got to combat her ADHD symptoms. Yes, they handed my hyperactive daughter a screen during the time she was supposed to be getting rid of excess energy so she could focus on learning. Even at the college level, automation is becoming a common trend with companies like Pearson offering instructor-less general education classes.  
  • Class Size- Public schools are under pressure to do more with less money, and that means larger classes. For elementary schools, the US average is 21 students per teacher, with some states getting over 30. We get report after report about how sitting still isn't conducive to learning, but what is a teacher who is responsible for 30 elementary-aged kids supposed to do? 

Meanwhile, let's take a closer look at how the other half* (*way less than half) lives:
  • Class Size- Private school class sizes are significantly smaller than public school. The US average is 18 students per teacher, with some individual types of private education averaging as few as 14. 
  • Technology Limits- While public school kids are getting an iPad shoved in their faces even during their "sensory breaks," many among the elite are opting for tech-free or tech-limited educations for their own children. A Business Insider article recently headlined the fact that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both raised their own children with strict technology limits. Many of the parents working in Silicon Valley have chosen a Waldorf school for their own children, a philosophy that avoids technology use in the classroom. Elon Musk said that schools were teaching "to the tools" rather than teaching how to solve problems, so he started his own school for his kids.
  • Freedom for Some- Other experiments with educational freedom are popping up. The Sudbury model is a democratic experiment where there are no teachers or grades and students get to participate in creating the rules through democratic vote. Then there are a growing number of people like me, people who are homeschooling for non-religious reasons. Most of us are doing so because we couldn't find affordable educational settings that met our children's needs. Still, homeschooling is a position of privilege, and it's one that many people cannot afford (literally) to undertake. 
The trend is clear. While public schools get more and more standardized, churning out cookie cutter educational outcomes that allow students to score well on multiple choice tests while struggling to think outside the box, private schools are focusing on curricular choices that privilege creative thinking and creation, problem solving and freedom. 


I cannot help but think that the timing of this divergence is telling. Most experts think that automation will take up to 800 million jobs in the next 10-15 years. Among the most vulnerable jobs are those that are the most standardized. The safest jobs are those that require the very skills that the elite are seeking out for their children's educations: creativity, human interaction, and problem solving. 

There have always been deep inequities in private and public schools, and these have at times been codified in our educational practices. However, since the 1960's or so, we have at least paid lip service to the idea that education should be equal and fair, that everyone deserved the best education available. While we have never been able to deliver on that promise, I fear we aren't even going to try to deliver on it in the future. The trends don't look good. 

Photos: Jens LelieJehyun Sung 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Adventures of a Planner (Why I Can't Get My Life Together)

Follow my blog with Bloglovin Perhaps it is a side effect of my anxiety and the tendency to project multiple possible intersecting outcomes into the future, but I am a really organized person, and nothing brings me calm like looking at my multi-colored electronic Google calendar.


It makes sense, then, that when I was plunged into insurmountable uncertainty by abruptly losing a job I thought I would have the rest of my life the first thing I wanted was a really complicated planner to fill up with goals that could be methodically crossed off. There's a very thin line between the illusion of having control over your life and actually having control over your life, and I planned to walk right down the center of it. 

After reading some reviews, I headed over to Plum Planner (this isn't a review or an affiliate post. As you'll see in a moment, I haven't even used the thing, so I can in no way speak to its quality or impact on my life). I spent some time clicking through the plethora of options to customize it to my exact specifications. 

Even that customization was a little traumatizing. What categories do I want? Who knows? I have no idea what my life will look like. Will I be working at one place with some kind of stable schedule, or am I going to be hopping from freelance gig to freelance gig with no sense of what day it is? 

Eventually, I picked some key categories I knew I would need to address each day and left a couple of them vague. I hit "Submit" and was told that I would have my shiny new planner by the second week of January, perfectly timed to start with going back to teach for my final semester. Filling out all those neat little boxes would be a welcome distraction from the pain, anger, and frustration that a semester spent as a "dead woman walking" would bring me. 

I got the shipment confirmation and clicked to track delivery. All was looking good. It made it to St. Louis (where I live). It should be there any moment. Then the tracking started doing something weird. It was being bounced around from post office to post office in the city. I couldn't figure out what was happening until I looked closer. I had, in my bleary-eyed-haven't-slept-might-be-having-a-breakdown-cause-I-just-got-fired state typed in the correct street number but my old street name in the shipping information. 

I tried everything. I called all the post offices where it had been. I emailed the seller. I placed a hold on the package. I secretly hoped it would show up at my old address even though the number was wrong. I waited and waited and waited.

About two weeks after it was supposed to have arrived, the shipment activity said it had been returned to the sender, so I contacted them, paid for shipping again, and waited some more. 

My planner vanished. Talk about a metaphor for your plans not going the way you thought they would. Somewhere between leaving St. Louis and arriving back at Plum Planner, the package fell off the face of the earth. I emailed them again, and they, obviously seeing the desperation behind my words, took pity on me and reprinted the entire thing and shipped it again. 

Well, ladies and gents, after several mis-deliveries, wrong turns, and lost ways, it's here.

Will this be the turning point? Will this be the moment when my attempts to juggle homeschooling, teaching, and launching a burgeoning freelance career come together in one beautiful tangle of ink, hopes, and best laid plans?

I don't really believe that a planner is the answer to all my problems, but I do think that the patience I was forced into finding as it was delayed over and over again was a nice little reminder that I don't necessarily have to get my whole life back together in a single day.

It will come . . . eventually, and maybe to the wrong place a few times.