Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Vision

Toward an ecology of peace 3/24
     The writing teacher

We cannot shove others toward peace. We cannot send our youth to peace the way we might send them to the store for milk. Instead, we need to invite them into the peace we have found. To find it, we need to realize that it is not found in some utopian absence of conflict. Peace is the supreme achievement of human intelligence precisely because of the powerful oppositions that it brings into balance.

Peace is an energetic engagement with trouble more often than it is trouble’s absence. We understand the goodness of the great works of peace that are among us–good hospitals, good schools, productive factories, active charities–because we have experienced illness, ignorance, poverty, and harm. As we labor and organize to mitigate our trouble, we feel peace when we feel a certainty that, as in a Shakespeare play, evil has limits and as long as good people place their lives in the balance it will not prevail. We are at peace when we sense that our efforts, however small and feeble, will be enough, and that forces larger than we see are working with us. Like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, it isn’t necessary for us to be big and powerful--it’s just necessary for us to be good.

We learn we need to be good as we come to sense that we are up against something that wants things torn down, wants nations at war, wants families in turmoil, wants friendships to fall apart, and ultimately wants us dead. The forces of destruction, decay, and disorder that surround us are nothing so puny as to be escaped or destroyed. They are built into the fabric of our existence.

And yet, we also learn that lashing out at what frightens us often makes things worse. Learning to do good is part of how we get free of fear. One of the trickiest patterns in a tricky world is the way that the urge to destroy evil–meeting it on its own level then getting trapped there–can often become evil’s most powerful tool. Eric Hoffer noted in True Believers that the worst evil in history has been accomplished by people who believed they were righteously engaged in destroying evil. Hitler gloated that totalitarian systems were invincible because they forced their opponents to imitate them.

Seeing how the fight against evil so readily becomes a form of evil itself, some people have tried to evade the dilemma by opposing the concept of oppositions itself, hoping that conflict can be resolved philosophically, by abandoning belief in such dualities as good and evil.

But it doesn’t work.


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©2009 Michael L. Umphrey

New planning: segregation by values
     social engineering by the market

The Washington Post covers the segregation by values that is emerging in the real estate market. A marketing survey from a new planned community, Ladera Ranch, in Orange County asked predictable marketing questions, such as whether people wanted ballfields or trails. Then came a section titled ‘values.’ ‘Please check the box that comes closest to how you feel most of the time,’ it began, and asked people to rate how strongly they agreed with various statements,” including “We need to treat the planet as a living system,” “Abortions should not be legal unless there’s a threat to life,” and “I have been born again in Jesus Christ.” Other questions dealt with corporate greed, divorce, the merits of foreign travel, and so forth—and the result are different sections of the planned comunity: “Covenant Hills” for folks who identify with Christian cultural traditions, “Terramor” for those who want photovoltaic cells and bamboo flooring.

“These things have always happened organically,” said Robert Lang, a demographer at Virginia Tech who studies the exurbs. “What we don’t have experience with is a contrivance of this, where it’s engineered. . . . You target people, you catch a niche of preference in lifestyle, and it creates a community and intensifies the inward focus of the niche, like an island.”

Reason discusses the ways local government has been increasingly privatized. He sees an emerging “postmodern political order”:

We’d have a world where the size and functions of local government would be determined by a trial-and-error process of competition. Different institutional forms would contend with one another; rather than following a central administrative plan, the nature and tasks of local government would be determined by a private market. The “governments” themselves would be more private than public, facilitating a routine flow of mergers, breakups, divestitures, and other organizational rearrangements.


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©2006 Michael L. Umphrey

Computer games and the future of schooling
     Virtual worlds allow real experience and real learning

The computer gaming industry has already grown to a $10 billion-a-year giant, according to researchers in Wisconsin. It has eclipsed Hollywood box-office sales and will soon surpass the music industry and home-video rentals. We know two things: kids are going to play computer games, and the games they play shape their cognitive, emotional, and moral development. The important question for parents, teachers, and all citizens is who will create the games young people play, and for what purposes. Gaming is likely to be “the next big thing” in education--one of several emerging technologies that will have profound effect on how people learn. People who think digital technology and the internet will not shake schooling to its foundations are a little like people in the first years of the twentieth century speculating that automobiles had far too many drawbacks to ever replace horses.

The computer gaming industry has already grown to a $10 billion-a-year giant, according to researchers in Wisconsin. It has eclipsed Hollywood box-office sales and will soon surpass the music industry and home-video rentals.

We know two things: kids are going to play computer games, and the games they play shape their cognitive, emotional, and moral development. The important question for parents, teachers, and all citizens is who will create the games young people play, and for what purposes. Gaming is likely to be “the next big thing” in education--one of several emerging technologies that will have profound effects on how people learn. People who think the internet will not shake schooling to its foundations are a little like people in the first years of the twentieth century speculating that automobiles had far too many drawbacks to ever replace horses.

Computer games are not just mindless entertainment. They hold tremendous potential for education. The U.S. Army realizes this, and has become a major user of games as training tools. They even released the free game, America’s Army, as a recruitment tool.

Researchers at the Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Center (University of Wisconsin--Madison) say that games allow players to “step into new personas and explore alternatives.” They can create powerful opportunities for people to “try to solve problems they’re not good at yet, get immediate feedback on the consequences and try again immediately.” They are also “more engaging than textbooks or lectures.”

For a good introduction, you can read Video games and the future of learning.

Even better, watch a streaming video of the conference in Madison Thursday, where three of the top researchers in the nation talked about what’s coming (the video didn’t work here, but the audio was fine, and it was just three speakers). It’s an hour and a half (with questions), so pick a time when you want to relax and enjoy a tour of the near future.

Better yet, listen to it with a class of students and share with us what they say about schooling and computer games. I’m especially interested in hearing what the boys say. I’ve heard several comparisons of boys’ interest in computers today with the interest young men had in cars in the 1950s--their lack of interest in school and their interest in the digital revolution, at least one researcher says, will profoundly change education as we know it.

Update: Beck McLaughlin at the Montana Arts Council sent me information on a great resource: Theory of Fun for Game Design. This is a book by Ralph Koster, Chief Creative Officer for Sony Entertainment.


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Writing for the ages, Part 2
     Talking our way home

Few things are as educationally powerful as assisting young people in researching and writing about their family heritage. Family elders are often an ideal audience for young writers, drawing out the best that they have to say. At the same time, in coming to see more clearly how that elder was once young, students develop their own historical consciousness, sensing better what they themselves are becoming.

Sometimes creating a persona is creating a prototype identity, which is work all teenagers face.

In order to do a good job of either, we need to do a good job of imagining our audience. By “doing a good job” I mean both that we need a vivid and realistic sense of other people and that the other people we envision are the sort of people who bring out something good in us. We have trouble finding something to say or a way to say it when we have no sense of who might hear us, but who we imagine hears us affects what want to say and what we think we can say. One of the ways teenagers get to know who they are is by noting how others respond to them, and one of the ways any of us might go badly astray is to badly imagine who notices us.

Who are you, really? That’s a question writing teachers should pose, in dozens of ways, to every young person. The answer often depends on who is listening, or who they imagine is listening, or who they want to listen. Speech is social. Who is a teenager living in Terry, Montana, or Sutherlin, Oregon? Who will hear him? Who will care what she says?

It’s interesting to consider that, since what we send to the internet may last forever, much or most of our audience may be people who are not yet born. This is even more intriguing when you note that teenagers who have been introduced to family history get excited to find a page or two written by their great-grandparents. This suggests that the most attentive audience for much of what today’s teens are writing may well be their own children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Reminding them of that is a way of slowing things down. I’ve just looked at several blogs where the posters seemed frantic, wild for something to link and comment upon. They reminded me of gamblers in Reno dropping quarters in a dayless glitter of hope for the jackpot that hovers forever just out of reach. Slowing things down strikes me as quite wonderful.

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Writing for the ages, part 1
     Students should be taught their words may last forever

Teaching writing can be a powerful way of helping young people think about what sort of people they want to be. We don’t need to criticize them as people, but we can help them see the way the persona they are creating comes across, how audiences will understand that persona, and what techniques can be used to strengthen the message that would be most effective in whatever particular situation the persona evokes. The best rhetoric teachers have known for centuries that this needn’t lead to the sort of manipulative sophistry common among politicians. Generally, the most credible and trustworthy persona will be the most effective. The sound of goodness is persuasive.

Forever is composed of nows.
Emily Dickinson

Blogging and the same old same old

I’ve been visiting blogs lately, to see what’s happening and to think about implications for teachers. Much of what’s going on truly is exciting. Now that publishing is as simple as clicking a “submitâ€? link, lots of people are re-thinking what writing and publishing are for.

And yet, much of what is happening seems caught up in the same old same old.

Some blogs give me the same feeling I got at a university MFA program--too much desperation. The MFA program sometimes reminded me of those infomercials that run on late-night television--feeding on people’s desires to lose weight or make lots of money or quit smoking. Most people enrolled in the MFA program because they wanted to be famous poets. Could the professors teach anyone to be a famous poet? Of course not. They liked to claim that the value of the program was that it created a community where aspiring writers could find and support each other.

Maybe that was true. Pretty costly support group though, even if credentials were included.

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What Montana should do with Education Technology
     U.S. Department of Education recommendations on track

Secretary Paige and other officials presented the plan, ”Toward a New Golden Age in American Education:  How the Internet, the Law, and Today’s Students Are Revolutionizing Expectations.” The plan was developed with input from thousands of students, educators, administrators, technology experts, and organizations.

The plan includes support for lots of good ideas that are already being developed. The resources that are here and those that are coming are going to wreak fundamental changes on schooling. This is because the choices that students and parent will have will be too good to turn down. If Montana’s public education system doesn’t incorporate these changes, it will be left behind, as it should be.

Tuning in to a high tech broadcast

Today I tuned into webcast of U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige rolling out America’s National Education Technology Plan. Though I have an enhanced DSL line, the broadcast was sporadic--I would get the feed for a couple seconds then it would break up for 30 seconds or longer. I gave up.

“Promises, promises” might be the theme of those (including myself) who urge a real commitment to using new technologies to improve education. I spend a lot more time fiddling with software and hardware than I would like, trying to fix things that didn’t work as well as I dreamed they would when I bought them or downloaded them. Last week, Bill Gates couldn’t get Windows Media Player to work for his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Convention in Las Vegas. He needed to re-boot twice. Host Conan O’Brien asked, “So who’s in charge of Microsoft, anyway?”

Still, early auto enthusiasts didn’t give up just because trying to hand crank a Model T to life on a cold winter morning was sometimes hopeless and never fun. We need to keep a healthy sense of skepticism about promises, and we need to keep moving forward.

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Montana’s future: the movie
     What destinies can teens imagine?

Epic, 2014, a flash movie, presents a vision of a possible future, one in which the New York Times no longer exists because of personalized media and disintermediated journalism. The 8-minute movie was put together by Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson.

The movie is qutie effective, though the techniques it uses are well within reach of high school students. I would love to see a series of such films imagining possible futures for Montana, made by high schoolers.


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America’s future depends on us
     Feeling young in eastern Montana

Ed Marston makes a point I’ve talked about before. The Rocky Mountain and Great Plains states are related to the eastern states in somewhat the way the American colonies were related to England in, say, 1770. Those who feel they are at the center of power feel we are rustic provincials. Marston suggests that nonetheless it might be up to us to decide America’s future:

. . .in the end, of course, the scorned, cultureless colonies triumphed and came to dominate the English-speaking world. They succeeded because the colonists had, in addition to several million square miles of land at their backs, aggression, pride and a genius for politics.

A couple summers ago I put on an institute for teachers, and all our speakers from out of state commented on the sense of desolation they got driving through the eastern part of the state. If you judge Harlowton or Chester by the standards of a Portland strip mall, it might seem to be lacking. But when I’m out there, my overwhelming sense is of a young world, full of possibililty.

When I visit Portland or Seattle, my overwhelming sense is, “My goodness. It’s too late.”


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Thinking about Montana’s future
     Where do we go from here?

There are many ways we can get students to adopt the role of teacher. In the Heritage Project, high school students have written books, conducted programs, and made videos for younger students. They have also done many programs aimed at the larger community--publication parties, heritage evenings and fairs, and community forums, where students report back to the community information they have garnered from interviews with community members and organizations. One such forum focused on water and reported findings from local irrigators, state agencies, and tribes.
The future of Montana and of particular communities has also been the subject of important work, notably in Chester and Libby. 

Thoughts lead on to purposes; purposes go forth in action; actions form habits; habits decide character; and character fixes our destiny. Tryon Edwards

The main failure of education is that it has not prepared people to comprehend matters concerning human destiny. Norman Cousins

Every people should be originators of their own destiny. Martin Delany


Several things seem notable about the present state of education in Montana.

First, we have lots of information. The challenge for teachers does not consist of getting information in front of students. The challenge is getting them involved in ways of living that make using this information important.

Second, the simplest way to do this is to invite students to speak. We all want to be heard, by somebody.  Once we think we have an audience, it’s natural to want to look and sound good. A young person who knows she’s going to present before an audience of fellow students or of interested community adults or of both will want to do a good job. Science fairs have been demonstrating this for decades. Having your work on display before the public, and having the chance to stand beside it and explain what you did, regularly leads to a tremendous amount of learning that wouldn’t have occurred if you had only been getting ready for a test.

Asking people to teach is far and away the most powerful teaching strategy and it should be used more than it is. When we need to organize a body of knowledge and communicate it to others, we think about it much more deeply than we do for most other purposes. This is why “teach” is the culminating process in the ALERT approach to organizing instruction.

There are many ways we can get students to adopt the role of teacher. In the Heritage Project, high school students have written books, conducted programs, and made videos for younger students. They have also done many programs aimed at the larger community--publication parties, heritage evenings and fairs, and community forums where students report back to the community information they have garnered from interviews with community members and organizations. One such forum focused on water and reported findings from local irrigators, state agencies, and tribes.

The future of Montana and of particular communities has also been the subject of important work, notably in Chester and Libby.

We all think about the future, and the younger we are the more we think about it. Young people have to be concerned about the future because that’s where they’re going to live most of their lives. For all of us, what we anticipate about the future powerfully affects the choices we make. Though much of the future is unpredictable (who knew a tsumani was going to occur in the Indian Ocean), much of it is very predictable (who did not know natural disasters would continue to occur, as they always have). Wisdom has much to do with seeing what things are always true, so that we aren’t duped by change.

This is the thing that seems most notable about education in Montana today: our future depends upon citizens taking advantage of emerging possibilities without losing sight of the unchanging principles that govern change. We are not in position to coast. The things we value are threatened by economic, cultural and political changes. We can close our eyes and hope for the best, or we can examine our situation critically, talking with our young people about our prospects.

If we invite many people whose work doesn’t normally include teaching to join us in teaching young Montanans about this place and how we live here, we will give them an opportunity to learn and to think more deeply by giving them the chance to teach. And by devoting time to discussing Montana’s future, teachers can direct some of their students’ natural interest in the future toward an interest in research and presentation at the same time they help students think more powerfully about the state’s future and their own, and of the ways thieir own destiny are linked to Montana’s.

One place to start is to see what others have said about the topic:

Here’s something I wrote on that topic.

John Baden believes that a good future for Montana depends on three strategies: “First, protect wildlife habitat, our scenery, and amenities. Second, stress education and infrastructure. Third, enact policies that foster entrepreneurship.”

Economist Larry Swanson says Montana’s future lies mostly in its urban areas. “Montana’s cities are sized right to capture the job and income growth in medical, professional and service-related fields that have fueled the economy throughout the Intermountain West.”

Ranch manager Ray Marxer believes that “Fisheries and ranchlands are both important to Montana’s future,” he explains. “It’s beyond argument that ranches provide significant undeveloped areas that define the landscapes under the Big Sky. And now, whereas fishing was once looked on as a frivolous thing people did when their real work was done, both the economy that fishing provides and the role it plays in the life of many of us are being realized for the true assets they are.”

Karl N. Stauber begins thinking about the future of rural places by examining the historical and economic reasons they now face trouble. He believes the keys to the future of rural America are ensuring a robust middle class, reducing concentrated poverty, and maintaining a healthy natural environment. His recommendations for the future go beyond the usual rural development plans which, he says, “are designed for the past, not the future.” Among his suggestions: (1) replace land grant colleges with information grant colleges, (2) focus on value-added agriculture and technology that create rural competitive advantage, and (3) encourage entrepreneurial immigrants from Central and South America and Asia to relocate to sparsely populated areas.

Readers: Please use the “comments” link below to post additional resources dealing with Montana’s future.


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