Saturday, November 19, 2011

Challenge 18: Decisions

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#79. Explain why and how you would, if given the opportunity, change a decision you made in the past. (Salisbury State)

3 a.m. thoughts

If I could change a decision I've made in the past, I wouldn't have eaten at the Tavern last night. I woke up about an hour ago, stomach in turmoil. I've now been to the bathroom twice in the last hour. Why do I insist on going there for a Friday dinner and drink? The food usually makes me sick, but I keep on going back. Live and don't learn. Evidence that, like most people, I make a mistake, swear I'll never do it again, and then promptly forget my promise and do it again.

At present, this is the only mistake I've made in my life that I would change. And I've made plenty of mistakes.


When I was 17, I had a part-time job at a jewelry store. It was about two miles from home, and I would usually take a bus or walk to and from work. One night a snowstorm hit just as we were closing the store. One of my co-workers, an older woman, offered to give me a lift. At first I refused -- she lived in the opposite direction -- but the thought of walking in that blowing snow and ice persuaded me to accept. About a block into our journey, a car came speeding out of a side street, and we crashed. My co-worker's car's front end was completely smashed. Worse, the offending vehicle sped off, so we were left with no one to blame, no one to pay for the damage.

I felt pretty guilty about it. If I had not accepted the ride, she would have driven off in the opposite direction and would not have gotten into the accident. The next day at work, my boss took me aside. "Don't feel bad about it," he said. "You're both OK, and the car will be repaired. That's what insurance is for. And anyway, you never know what would have happened if you had not been in that accident. Maybe she would have been driving home in the opposite direction and gotten into a much worse accident. You never know. She might have been killed. So this accident might have saved her life. The point is, you can't go back and change it, so don't worry about it."


The trouble with changing one single decision is that, really, you are probably changing your entire history. I'm trying to think of something stupid I've done, something small and meaningless that weighs heavy on my mind. I remember a test that I failed during freshman year of college. Psychology class. I slept through a part of that test. I remember the guy sitting next to me nudged me a couple of times to wake me up. How stupid. I ended up with a D in that class, almost ruining my college life before it really began. And here's why I slept through that morning test: I worked for the campus radio station, DJing from 2-6 a.m. twice a week. So naturally I was tired. If I could change a decision in my life, maybe I wouldn't go to the radio station that night. I would find a substitute and stay home and study. Pass the test. Do well. Make something of myself.

However, if I had done that, I probably wouldn't have moved up to better time slots at the radio station. The DJs who always showed up, who showed commitment, were the ones who got promoted. If I didn't get noticed as one of the guys who really cared about the station, I probably wouldn't ever have become the program director. Connected to that, I probably wouldn't be inspired to work equally hard at my other part-time job on campus, at the student newspaper. I probably wouldn't have spent equally long hours there. I probably would always put my classes before my hobbies and interests. I probably would never become an editor. Then, after graduation, I probably would never have gotten a job as a journalist. I then wouldn't move to the East Coast, would never work at a Vermont newspaper. And ultimately, I would never have arrived here at this place in my life. Who knows. Maybe a parallel universe exists, where the guy who did well on that psychology test lives. Maybe that guy is better off. Maybe he has a better job, a better life, things I don't have. But that guy isn't me.


Another time while still in college, while I had a steady girlfriend, an opportunity with another girl presented itself. I was torn. The new girl was absolutely gorgeous, and she wasn't interested in a relationship, just in some fun. No strings. A friend -- who was a couple of years older -- offered this advice: "Go for it! You'll eventually break up with your current girlfriend, and then you'll kick yourself about your missed opportunities. In life, you never regret the things you do, you regret the things you don't do." I didn't listen to him. I remained faithful. But eventually my girlfriend and I did break up. And in a way, my friend had been right. When I look back on life, I realize that the things that I haven't done are the ones I regret.

Here's one: One summer, I visited Ecuador. It's an amazing country -- small, but major changes in topography and climate. You can ski high up in the mountains in the morning and lounge around on a tropical beach that night. (Well, with proper transportation.) I decided to see as much as I could, staying in the capital city for a few nights, in a cloud forest for a few, and on a beach for a few more. One thing that many visitors to Ecuador end up doing is going to the Galapagos Islands. It's quite expensive and takes some planning, but the point is, it's Galapagos! I thought about it for a few days and finally decided, no, I'll come back another time. So I didn't go. I was in Ecuador and I didn't visit the Galapagos Islands. Now, it's a few years later, and all I can say is, I regret that decision. Sure, I can still go, there's plenty of time. But just getting to Ecuador is hard. And there are so many other places I want to visit. Maybe that's a decision I would change. Then again, maybe not, because I have no idea where I would have ended up had I gone there. So, I'll just live with the regret.


I guess it comes down to this: It's the middle of the night. I'd rather be sleeping. But maybe it was a good decision to go to the Tavern last night. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have thought about any of this. So if I could re-do last night and change a decision, I wouldn't.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Challenge 17: iTunes

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#141. In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun. (U of Chicago)

My question: What do the ten most-played songs in your iTunes library reveal about you?

1. "Does This Mean You're Moving On" by Airborne Toxic Event

This is a clever and upbeat rock song about a break-up. Some of the lyrics:
From the balcony, you call my name
I see you standing in the rain
Your words so dry, your face so wet
Said I broke your heart,
But it hasn't happened yet
I'll bet, your friends all hate me now
I get the strangest looks,
From that bitchy crowd
And though, they must think
They have every reason to
I guess I'm still not quite yet over you

When the words are wrong
And you're hanging on
Another guy's arm
Does this mean you're moving on?
What does this say about me? More than anything, this band and song hit my iTunes library at just the right time. There's no way of tracking my playlist from my vinyl, cassette, or CD days. But when I bought this MacBook and filled it with music, this is one of those bands that I listened to non-stop for a while. I guess I still do. I like to think that I listen to fairly obscure bands, that I'm one of these hipsters that listens to the cool stuff before it's popular. In fact, I'm pretty sure I was the first of my friends to listen to TATE, as they're known. But my coolness is fading -- I'm losing my edge. My brother just recently emailed me about seeing these guys back in Chicago, said it was one of the best concerts he's seen in the last five years. Living in the hills of India, I haven't seen a proper show in years.

2. "Nickels and Dimes" by Social Distortion

I love the wordplay in this song:
I'm a loaded gun pointed at the mirror
A drugstore cowboy whose end is near, yeah baby
I'm a big time skater with broken down dreams
I'm a derelict rebel without a cause
I ain't the cat with the sharpest claws, no baby
'cause sometimes life just ain't what it seems

I'm chasing nickels and dimes
The rest of the world passes me by
I'm just wasting my time
This is the band that temporarily turned me into a writer. Back in college, I worked in the pre-press department of the daily student newspaper during my freshman year. We literally cut-and-paste all the content of the newspaper onto pages which were then photographed and plated and sent to the printer. I desperately wanted to write for the paper. I got to know the editor responsible for the weekly arts-and-entertainment supplement, and I suggested a new column about music. I was also a DJ at the campus radio station, so I thought I knew about the newest, coolest bands. The editor agreed, and soon I was responsible for the "Alternative Beat" column. The very first piece I wrote was about Social Distortion. A couple of years later, I was a daily columnist and editor at the paper; one day, someone came up to me and said, "Hey, you wrote about Social Distortion once, didn't you? Thanks so much for that!"

3. "Into Action" by Tim Armstrong

This is number 3 on iTunes but probably number 1 on my iPod. Tim Armstrong fronted the punk bands Operation Ivy and Rancid, but this is from a solo project that's mellower and ska-influenced. For at least a month, I listened to this song every single day on my walk to work -- it woke me up and put me in a good mood.
We're gonna dig dig dig in deep hold our sacred ground
When the music come playing then you jump up, jump down
If you hook up the speakers, man, we'll bring the sound
And the music will be heard from miles and miles around
We got songs of redemption, songs of war
We got songs like this that can pack the dance floor

Let's get moving into action
Let's get moving into action
If your life's too slow, no satisfaction
Find something out there, there's an attraction
If you hesitate now, that's a subtraction
So, let's get moving girl into action

4. "Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above" by CSS

The lyrics of this one aren't important. In fact, I don't even like CSS so much recorded. They are simply the best live band I have ever seen. I saw them at the Pitchfork music festival in Chicago several years back. Purely by accident, while waiting for the next band on the main stage to come on, I walked into the small side-stage tent where CSS were playing. A girl band from Brazil, Cansei de Ser Sexy ("I've grown tired of being sexy" in Portuguese) had everyone in that tent bouncing and sweating for their entire set. I'll never forget it. This, by the way, appears to be the only female act on my list -- wonder what that says about me.

5. "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" by Eddie Spaghetti

This is a Tom Waits song, also covered by The Ramones, but I can't stop listening to Eddie Spaghetti's countrified version. The lyrics say it all:
I don't wanna have to shout it out
I don't want my hair to fall out
I don't wanna be filled with doubt
I don't wanna be a good boy scout
I don't wanna have to learn to count
I don't wanna have the biggest amount
No, I don't wanna grow up

6. "Bad Time" by The Jayhawks

Sometime around my fourth year of college, a friend who worked at a record store brought over the Jayhawks new CD. We popped it in the stereo, popped a couple of beers open, and sat there listening to the CD on repeat. I often wonder how many hours I've spent just hanging out, listening to music, talking about whatever. This is the one songs that really stands out.
I'm in love with the girl
That I'm talking about
I'm in love with the girl
That I can't live without
I'm in love
But I sure picked a bad time
To be in love, to be in love
7. "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" by Granddaddy

Another fairly obscure California band, Granddaddy was just cool. This song has a cheesy synthesizer opening which brings back memories of driving on Lake Shore Drive with one of my buddies back home. I was in a particularly good mood and started imitating playing the synthesizer on my dashboard. We laughed so hard I almost crashed.

8. "Spending the Day in the Shirt You Wore" by Poi Dog Pondering

I saw these guys play a tiny room on my university campus, back when they still lived in Hawaii. They were touring around the mainland, playing small venues, trying to build up a following. They ended up playing for almost three hours, half of which was the 10 members of the band experimenting with songs and sounds. They said they were having a great time, and so were those of us in the audience that night. The best way to describe their music is: it's pretty. Here's one entire song:
Oh the days of wine and roses and the rubbing of noses
Bare feet, new sprouts, and garden hoses.
Skipping stones, while skipping home...
"Look at that tree, it's got a brand new leaf!"
Candlelight, candlelight -- for no reason
Eating fresh fruit when it's in season.
Take an aimless drive behind a motor wheel
Sticking fingers on paintings to see the way they feel!
Spending the day in the shirt that you wore
I can sense your presence from the day before ...
9. "Big Romantic Stuff" by Bob Geldof

When I was in high school, my hero was Bob Geldof. That's because I loved Pink Floyd, and Geldof played the role of Pink in their movie The Wall. I later learned he was the singer of the Boomtown Rats, so I liked them (and that's probably what got me out of my classic rock stage). I ended up really liking his solo work, which had an acoustic Irish sound. The lyrics are full of melancholy and longing.
That French song playing on the radio at noon
The singer's name was Jean Michel and he's singing 'bout la lune
And she shivers as she comes awake
And remembers how to think
And she shakes the hair out of her eyes
But the daylight makes her blink
And the song it whispers in her mind like a half forgotten sigh
Of times of love the longest days and youth and endless skies
And ooh la la la
ooh la la la

Did they never tell you 'bout it baby
Did they never say it's tough
Are you never going to give up on that
Big romantic stuff
10. "I'll Follow the Sun" by The Beatles

I'm quite surprised that The Beatles made it into my top 10. For the longest time I refused to listen to them, thought they were too old or poppy or British or whatever. But everyone, I guess, eventually grows up. Maybe some day my entire top 10 will be filled with these guys. For now, it's a great way to end this list.
One day you'll look to see I've gone,
For tomorrow may rain so I'll follow the sun.
Some day you'll know I was the one,
But tomorrow may rain so I'll follow the sun.
And now the time has come so my love I must go,
And though I lose a friend in the end you will know, oh ...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Challenge 16: Box

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#69. One of Ramapo’s goals is to increase your capacity for learning and to teach you to think “outside the box.” Describe an experience that has had a significant impact on your intellectual development. (Ramapo College)

During my first year at my new school, I was asked to teach drama. The idea scared me, considering I knew nothing about the subject and had never acted in a play; in fact, I suffer from stage fright. Compounding my worries was the idea of directing the drama productions each semester. But I wanted the job, so I agreed.

I bought some books and scoured the internet for ideas on how to teach the subject. I could take an academic approach and have the students read and analyze plays. Or I could try to teach them the way many people learn to swim: by jumping in. I was saved on my first day of class when one of the students asked if he could direct the fall production. "Let me think about it," I said but secretly cheered -- yes, I could learn to direct by watching a student do it!

The play was a success. The student director secured a cast of 30, ranging from squirrely elementary students to surly seniors. He figured out how to make the main characters fly. He had elaborate sets designed, including a pirate ship. He created the lighting and sound effects. And every step of the way, he came to me for advice, thinking that I knew what I was talking about. My advice was, if anything, common sense suggestions and ideas for working patiently with people.

Along the way, when he was especially freaking out about some glitch, my common refrain became: "Don't worry about it. You're doing fine. And anyway, I'm around, so I'll make sure nothing goes completely wrong. Plus, think about it this way: If the play succeeds, all of the credit will go to you. If it fails, well, it'll be my fault because I should've known better."

As I said, things went well. And he got all the credit. And I was happy about it.

The experience taught me more about teaching than any education class could. I realized that, more than any other way, students learn by doing. Give them responsibility and they'll manage. Support them behind the scenes and they'll succeed as leaders.

The second semester, I directed a series of one-act plays. The event was also a success, and the students in the production certainly learned a lot. But what did I prove? That I -- an adult -- could direct. I thought about the first semester and realized that it's so much more fulfilling when a student or group of students prove that they can do something. Schools belong to students, after all, and they should be pushed to take the lead.

I think that a lot of educators talk about creating student leaders, but I wonder if these are just empty words. Having students actually take full responsibility is scary and difficult. There is always the concern that they might screw up. There is always the thought, they're just kids, and adults know best.

Since then, I've pushed for more student-led events. Some have succeeded, some haven't. Each time there has been resistance from other teachers and administrators. But also each time, the students have learned more than they ever would have if they had just followed someone's instructions.

(Here is an interesting side note: Just now, as I was finishing this post, a couple of students walked in to ask me for advice on creating a charity concert. I got excited about the idea, and then they got even more excited, and left saying, "Wow, what if we end up starting a new tradition? That would be so cool." I hope they do.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Challenge 15: Conversation

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#22. Tell us about one of the [most memorable] conversations you have had. (Stanford)

"Most Memorable Conversation" recipe

Prep Time: 10 minutes, Cook Time: 2-3 hours, Remembered: forever

Serves: 1

2 best friends
1 dark evening
1 empty park
6 inches of fresh snow
1 leather football
2-3 lazy hours
1 discussion topic: our futures
0 interruptions

Meet best friends after dinner in the neighborhood park. It's not so late but dark and quiet -- the freshly fallen snow has hushed all city sounds. Imagine yourself in the countryside somewhere, even though you've grown up in the city and can only imagine what the countryside is like. Stand in the center of the park and survey the unbroken snow. Realize that it should be colder than it is, but an inner happiness keeps you warm. Make small talk, maybe about eighth grade graduation, which is about six months away, maybe about that cute new Mexican girl Kim; everyone's in a good mood, so no one argues about who will ask her out. Remember the football one of you brought and take turns practicing passing, receiving, and tackling. Throw long, spiraling bombs. Dive for the ball. Trip and knock down the guy with the ball. In this powdery snow, no one gets hurt. After some time, stand around in the center of the park again. Ask the question on everyone's mind recently: What do you want to do with your life? Make bold predictions. I will be married by age 21 and have children by 23, named after grandparents I've never met. Thoughts linger on Kim momentarily, but, no, only a Polish girl will do. And career? I will be a firefighter, or maybe a lawyer. Remember the nearby apartment building that burned down recently, the terrifying flames and smoke, the noise and confusion, and decide to be one of the men that make everything right. Dad is pushing for law, but he doesn't realize the years of school that would take. More than anything, you want school to be over with. You were impressed when an older kid spit on the school building and kicked it on the day after his graduation. I'm gonna do the same thing, you declare. Once I'm done with school I will never set foot in one again. Your friends laugh, agree. Everyone also agrees that nothing can separate us, that we will never leave this city we know so well. More snow falls, a steady flurry that'll cover up our tracks before the night is over. If this keeps up, maybe school will be cancelled tomorrow. As you and your friends separate and you walk up the block towards home, you pray for the first time you can remember. You start with some bargain with God -- if we have a snow day tomorrow, I promise I will be good.

Nutritional Information
This is a harmless little memory, lacking in detail and clarity because it's such an old one. A classic! What's noteworthy, however, is the absolute simplicity it reveals. At age 13, I was wrong about everything. I thought I knew it all, of course. I was especially confident in my future. But every prediction was off-target. I moved away from Chicago soon after college graduation. I became a teacher. I took almost twice as long to marry as I thought I would, and I ended up with a brown girl after all. Even these two best-friends-forever have been replaced and forgotten. What I thought would make me happy -- or who I thought I would be when I was older -- was wrong because, really, I couldn't predict the future and I didn't realize that the future me would be a different person, with different thoughts and opinions based on subsequent experiences. What will remain forever -- maybe -- is the memory of that long-ago day when everything fit so perfectly in place.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Challenge 14: Water

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#66. Pick a story of local, national, or international importance from the front page of any newspaper. Identify your source and give the date the article appeared. Then use your sense of humor, sense of outrage, sense of justice—or just plain good sense—to explain why the story engages your attention. (University of Chicago)

A few weeks ago, I chaperoned a school trip to the Indian city of Dharamshala, home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. While there, the students and I met Hollywood heart-throb Richard Gere and participated in an art event where people had a chance to walk on soil that had been smuggled out of Tibet. A couple of days later, I saw stories about both Richard Gere and the art event in The Times of India newspaper. The art event seemed particularly important; one activist was quoted as saying something about how China would have to take notice now that there were exiled monks and nuns and old people walking on their home soil. Somehow, this event would change public opinion, create an outcry, lead to a free Tibet.

On Oct. 25, I logged on to the New York Times website to see if there was anything about this event. Was this really an international news story? Were the Chinese reconsidering their takeover? There was nothing on the site about Dharamshala; instead, there was a business story that made me realize just how little the Chinese government cared: China Takes a Loss to Get Ahead in the Business of Fresh Water. The Chinese, it seems, are investing heavily in desalination technology. It's a money-losing proposition, but it is seen as "economic strategy." According to the article, "the government has set its mind on becoming a force in yet another budding environment-related industry: supplying the world with fresh water."

The article explores "plenty of reasons for China to want a homegrown desalination industry, not the least of which is homegrown fresh water." Demand for water is growing, and the government is looking for ways to supply the country's future needs. More important, however, are the export possibilities: "The global market for desalination technology will more than quadruple by 2020 to about $50 billion a year, the research firm SBI Energy predicted last month, and growing water shortages worldwide appear to ensure further growth." Ultimately, it seems that China is pushing for new technology that will make it a world leader in the near future.

Reading this article, I was reminded of something I learned many years back in an Asian history class. American policy decisions, my professor had said, are based on predictions for the next three to five years. The Chinese, on the other hand, look to the next several decades or even centuries.

And so, do the Chinese even care that a couple hundred Tibetans walked on some soil? Most probably not; they're too busy planning their world dominance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Challenge 13: Quit

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#11. If you were to describe yourself by a quotation, what would the quote be? Explain your answer. (Dartmouth)

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no point in being a damn fool about it." --W. C. Fields

Some answers need no explanation. This is one. This is one quotation that tells you everything you need to know about me. But the prompt tells me to explain my answer, and so I will try.

This quote begins by letting you know that I do not always succeed. In fact, I am often a failure. I admit that I've failed in life. But that should also inform you that I try difficult things, things that are not easy. And so I sometimes do not succeed. But when I meet failure, I try, try again. I pick myself up, brush myself off, and try again. Not everyone does this. First of all, many people do not even try anything new; they just go with what they know, they do what they can do. Not I. I try. And when I fail, I don't give up. But eventually I quit. I'm reasonable. I know when enough's enough. There's no point in doing the same thing again and again. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Actually, this essay is going nowhere fast. Let me start over.

W.C. Fields was an American original, one of the first leading men of Hollywood. A comedian and actor, he invented the persona of the hard-drinking funny man. Without him, John Belushi and Jack Black would not be possible. In fact, when studying early films, one sees that Fields belongs in the league of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Groucho Marx. His quote about trying again but not being a damn fool about it is a classic example of his humor: start with a cliche and turn it into something new and funny. Some other famous quotes of his include: "If a thing is worth having, it's worth cheating for." "Whilst traveling through the Andes Mountains, we lost our corkscrew. Had to live on food and water for several days." This second one alludes to his alcoholism, which became his undoing. Some quotes attributed to him reveal a keen common sense: "A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money." "Never try to impress a woman, because if you do she'll expect you to keep up the standard for the rest of your life." And then some things he said were just hilarious, revealing a biting sarcasm: "I am free of all prejudices. I hate everyone equally."

This essay is still going nowhere. What does a brief biography (mostly copied from Wikipedia) about a dead comedian reveal about me? Nothing.

I once read that great business leaders first failed at a business concept or two before finding the idea that really clicked. They learned from each failure. But each one knew when to quit, when to move on to the next idea. Although W.C. Fields seemed to be kidding, his advice makes sense in the world of business. I, however, am not really interested in business, so I guess this has little to do with me.

Let's see, this quote describes me because ... because ... oh, never mind.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Challenge 12: Practice

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#48. Name one book you have read in the past year, describe your reason for considering this book significant and what you gained from reading it. (Lewis and Clark College)

In the last couple of weeks, a debate has raged among teachers at school: Is six hours of practice worth it? The fall drama production is being staged this weekend, and the cast has been rehearsing until at least 9 p.m. every day; crew members have stayed until 2 a.m. a couple of times, preparing the lights and sound. The director asked teachers to go a little easy on the kids in the play this week, and the head of school even asked if the cast and crew could have a day off from school on the Monday after the play. Some teachers scoffed at these requests, wondering if the production deserves so much time and recognition. At the end of the day, it's only a school play, they said, so is six hours of practice really worth it?

The answer, according to Malcolm Gladwell's recent book Outliers, is yes. Six hours of practice is worth it if we want our students to become truly excellent. "Achievement is talent plus preparation," Gladwell writes in a chapter called "The 10,000-Hour Rule." He cites a study of violinists at a top music school. The students were divided into three ability levels and asked to count how many hours they had practiced over their entire careers. The researchers found that all students practiced the same amount at a very young age, but eventually a split occurred.
The students who would end up the best in their class began to practice more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine, eight hours a week by age twelve, six­teen hours a week by age fourteen, and up and up, until by the age of twenty they were practicing—that is, purpose­fully and single-mindedly playing their instruments with the intent to get better—well over thirty hours a week. In fact, by the age of twenty, the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice. By contrast, the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.
Gladwell reviews the young life of various masters—from Bill Gates to the Beatles—and concludes that all of them "practiced" for about 10,000 hours before they were recognized as excellent. Gladwell cites another source who claims, "In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, mas­ter criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. ... It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery."

So, yes, six hours of practice for the play is worth it. It's worth it if these students—or at least some of them—discover that they truly love this kind of work and continue amassing thousands of hours of practice in the coming years. Alternately, some of the kids in the play may have discovered that this just isn't for them, that going to school full time and then really working for six more hours is torture, not fun. In either case, the kids have gained something.

If I think about my own talents, I realize that Gladwell is correct. I remember the thousands of hours I spent in my college newsroom, and I can understand why I'm pretty good at writing. When I look back on all the books I've read in my life—and the many hours that I spent reading—I can understand why I'm a strong reader.

Gladwell's book gives me new ammunition when trying to convince students to read and write more. If you truly want to score higher on the SAT or AP exam, if you truly want to succeed at university, you need to read and write right now. A lot.

But, really, Outliers is about more than succeeding on a standardized exam. It lays out a recipe for becoming successful at anything. Start with this question: What do you find yourself doing when you don't have to? Whether it's music or a sport or hobbies like dance or photography, what is the one thing you can spend hours doing without getting tired? Maybe it's worth pursuing. Maybe you can make millions doing this thing when you're in your 20's, but only if you put in the time and effort now.

The trouble, I think, is that not enough students are committed to any one thing. There are too many distractions, but also, there are so many minor commitments that take up time. Some students spread themselves too thin. Others get stuck in front of a computer all weekend. The very best, though, have one or two activities on their minds at all times, and they simply ignore everything else.

It comes down to proper guidance from adults. We're the ones who wasted our youth and have the benefit of hindsight. Even without reading about the 10,000-hour rule, we know the amount of dedication required to succeed. The director of this play is the one who insisted that the kids needed this much practice; more importantly, she dedicated her own time to the task and rounded up a group of willing teachers and staff to help out. The rest of the teachers at the school, instead of questioning the worth of six-hour rehearsals, should think about how they can help students pursue their passions.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Challenge 11: Reverse

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#142. Don’t write about reverse psychology. (U of Chicago)

This writing prompt makes me think of one of my all-time best friends, Colin -- a fellow ESL teacher in Japan, an alcoholic from Liverpool, a guy who could curse in a dozen languages. I only knew him for about a year, but I still count him as a true friend, someone I miss.

I remember a random Sunday morning. The two of us were wandering around Numazu, the city we had just moved to. We were both new to the job and had been paired up as roommates at the Ooka City Plaza by our employer, a large language school. We were going nowhere in particular, maybe just walking off hangovers, maybe just checking out the city, maybe just looking for something to eat. Everything that morning was funny. One of us would point at a tiny car driving by or a grandmother on a bicycle, and both of us would burst into laughter. At one point, Colin pointed at a vending machine full of tiny canned tea -- I wish I had a picture of it -- and we realized it was the funniest thing we had ever seen. How can a vending machine be funny? I don't know, I'm sure it can't, but we laughed. We stood there laughing for a good five minutes, doubled over in pain we were laughing so hard. I looked up and saw our Japanese manager driving by, giving us a strange look. We thought we'd be fired the next day. The thought of being fired made us laugh some more.

I have no idea where Colin is today. We lost track of each other when I still lived in Japan, and that was more than 10 years ago. He truly was an alcoholic, perhaps the one true alcoholic I've ever really known. We got paid at the beginning of each month, and he was broke within two weeks, having spent all of his money on beer and o-sake. I would lend him cash to get him through his two-week dry spells. Some mornings, I'd go to the bathroom and see four or five beer-bottle labels stuck to the wall above the bathtub -- Colin used to take long baths and drink the night away. The drinking didn't drive us apart; even the unreturned loans didn't. I was transferred to a school an hour away and we each found new drinking buddies.

Colin had a way with words. You could tell him a phrase in a foreign language -- like I did with Polish -- and he'd remember it. Forever. His brain soaked up words the way his liver soaked up alcohol. He'd try to pick up girls, usually unsuccessfully, in English, Polish, Japanese, but also French and Mandarin and Hindi. He'd also go on these ridiculous rants. "If the opposite of insane is sane, what is the opposite of invert? Vert? And what's the opposite of incognito?" he'd ask some unsuspecting soul. "If the opposite of undercook is overcook, what's the opposite of understand? Overstand? If it's misunderstand, is the opposite of undercook really misundercook?" And because he was good with words, he'd ask about a slew of negative words with no positives: disdain, disgruntled, dismayed, disrupt, as well as nonchalant, nondescript, and nonplussed. This kind of wordplay always cracked me up, but I could never keep up, could never think of an opposite that he hadn't already mentioned.

I played one of my all-time greatest pranks on Colin one night. We were out at an izakaya, a type of bar that serves big drinks and small plates of food. With us was a couple we had just met -- an American guy and Japanese girl. At one point, maybe because he was out of money, Colin left. The couple and I stayed for another round, then decided to go back to the Ooka City Plaza to hang out and listen to some music. When we walked into the apartment, Colin was lying passed out on the floor in front of his bedroom. It looked like he had sat down to untie his shoes and then just fallen over. I thought of a brilliant plan: I asked the girl to lie down next to Colin -- she did -- and I took took a picture with my Polaroid camera (you know, the kind that instantly develops a tiny, square photo). I taped the photo to Colin's door -- a photo of him "cuddled up" on the floor with some random girl. The next day, he almost had a heart attack. "I swear I remember the walk home, and I was alone," he said. "Well, I don't really remember walking up the stairs, but there's no way I met some girl between the entrance and our door." When I finally told him the truth, all he could do was shake his head and say, "Well done." We laughed about that photo for many weeks.

I have no idea where that photo is today. I think I kept it, but I don't know. The thought of it still makes me smile. The thought of my long-forgotten friend makes me smile, too. If I ever do run into Colin again, I'll finally have something to add to his string of ridiculous questions: "How can a person not write about reverse psychology?"

Friday, November 11, 2011

Challenge 10: Hero

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#31. Tell one story about yourself that would best provide us, either directly or indirectly, with an insight into the kind of person you are. For example, the story can simply relate a personal experience, or a humorous anecdote; it can tell about an especially significant academic encounter or about an unusual test of character. The possibilities are unlimited (well, almost so). You choose. Just relax and write it. (Princeton)

For one academic year when I was a college student, I wrote a daily opinion column for my school newspaper. My opinions weren't always well-informed or rational, my writing often bordered on incompetent, my humor was only sometimes on the mark. Still, I count this as a major achievement. I was a full-time student, was the program director at the campus radio station, was the editor of the newspaper's weekly entertainment supplement, and I still managed to find the time to write 700-800 words a day on topics of my choice -- politics, pop culture, local news. (And in case you're wondering, yes, I did have a girlfriend, so no "loser" jokes please.)

A few experiences relating to my column stand out from that year. One of my happiest was receiving a letter in the mail (an actual letter, not an email!) from one of the top feature writers in Chicago, who wrote, in part, "You're pretty weird, but I always read your column." (Those were his exact words; I'll never forget.) One of my most humbling was when a group of advertisers demanded that I be fired because I had written something sarcastic about their town. (This was a paid job, and our newspaper earned most of its revenue -- my salary -- from ad sales, so this was a real threat, but luckily the editor in chief and staff adviser were calm about the whole thing and reminded the advertisers that my piece was just an opinion and this was, after all, America.)

The incident that stands out the most, however, had little to do with my actual role as daily columnist and budding humorist. It was a time when I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Almost all the editors were out of town for three or four days to attend a writing conference. For some reason I wasn't able to go, so I stayed behind to supervise the entire news staff in creating the Thursday and Friday editions. Wednesday evening went fine, and the Thursday paper looked good. (I should mention that the other editors had done most of the work before leaving on Wednesday, so I just had to stick around to make sure everything went OK before the paper was sent to the printer at midnight.) On Thursday morning, however, I received a phone call that made me think, momentarily, that I was in a movie (although I wasn't sure if it was a comedy and someone was making fun of me or if it was a tense, political drama).

I was in the office at 9 a.m., blowing off yet another class because of this darned job. The phone in the editor's office rang, and I thought, "Hmm, I'm in charge today, I guess I should get that."

On the other line was a man, whispering something about plans to fire the university president. I had no idea what any of the information meant, so I asked him to slow down, to explain.

"The Board of Regents is planning to meet this weekend in secret," he said, "and they're planning to fire him."

"Is this allowed?"

"No, what are you stupid? Of course this isn't allowed."

"Then how can they get away with it?"

"Because no one knows about it!"

"So ...?"

"So you need to write about it! This is the newspaper, isn't it?"

I asked him for his name; he refused to give it. I asked him for some more details; he gave me names of people I might call. Then -- like in any movie where someone's on the phone and someone else walks in the room -- he hung up.

Was this a joke? Was someone just messing with me? I wasn't sure. The irony in this situation was that it was I who had received the information. I was known on campus as a great hater of the school president. Without ever really having a reason (other than not having anything else to write about), I often made fun of the man and even once suggested that he be fired. But ... if the anonymous source had been correct, the president was now going to be fired in an illegal power move by the Board.

Ultimately, I didn't know what to do, or if this was a hoax or not, so I called up the editors, interrupting their conference. We worked for the rest of the day on the story, and I designed an amazing page one for the next day. The article caused an uproar, the president's job was saved, and I was a hero. No, actually, the first two things happened, but I never received any credit for any of it. In fact, the president never even called to say thanks, and I soon went back to writing sarcastic opinion pieces about him.

But something did change that weekend: I went from a snot-nosed young writer to a proper journalist. Despite my personal opinions and biases, I was able to work on a story that pursued the truth of an unfair situation. This, I realized, is what journalists do day in and day out. This, I thought, was the job for me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Challenge 9: Ch-ch-changes

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#118. Reveal your personality by naming all the positive and negative features you possess. Which of them you'd like to get rid of and which you'd like to promote and enhance.

I am extremely annoying, often annoyed, blameworthy yet blameless, a cantankerous contrarian, doubtful, deliberate, enthusiastic and engaging, funny and flirtatious, greedy, grumpy, helpful and hurtful, interested but ill-equipped to answer this question, at times a jerk but also a jester, a kindly kidder, a lazy liar, mostly motivated, nearly notorious, openly opaque, pleasant but perturbing, questioning and quiet, reasonable and relaxed, scandalously sexy, terribly truthful, ugly, very withdrawn, xenophobic yet zealous.

I also know my ABC’s. And I guess you can say that I am something of an immature smartass.

I do think that most of my list is accurate. I am those things – and more. But I’m having trouble deciding which of my particular features I'd like to get rid of and which ones I’d like to promote or enhance.

However, more and more, the one personal feature that I would like to eliminate is my age. I’m getting old, damn it. This never used to bother me – in fact, this is something I used to look forward to – but as I walk around this morning and my knee aches for some unknown reason, I think about my aging body and wonder if I could trade it in for a younger model.

But what to do. One cannot turn back the clock or stop this thing called time. It’s useless even thinking about it. Perhaps it is equally useless thinking about all of one’s qualities and considering which to drop.

I am all of those things, but every personal quality, even age, is relative. Sure, I feel old and my knee hurts, but am I as old as the 20-year-old bulimic who has damaged her organs beyond repair? I've been around the block a time or two, but do I know as much about life and death as a child soldier in Rwanda or Sierra Leone? I've got problems, sure, but are they as troubling as the teenagers sitting in prison for drug offenses?

Maybe the best thing to do when contemplating one's positive and negative features is to put life into perspective, to embrace one's flaws and imperfections as well as hold onto one's core values.

At my core? The refusal to take certain things seriously. I'll end by quoting "Synthesis," a song by Frank Turner, a former punk rocker/current folk singer:
All your friends and peers and family solemnly tell you you will
Have to grow up be an adult yeah be bored and unfulfilled
Oh when no one's yet explained to me exactly what's so great
About slaving 50 years away on something that you hate,
About meekly shuffling down the path of mediocrity
Well if that's your road then take it but it's not the road for me.

And I won't sit down
And I won't shut up
But most of all I will not grow up!

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Challenge 8: Freshman

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

6. If you were to look back on your high school years, what advice would you give to someone beginning their high school career? (Simmons)

Do something. Don't just sit around, wasting evenings and weekends, doing the same old thing or nothing at all.

Yes, you've heard it before and you'll hear it again, but the point is simple: you're only young once; when you leave here, it'll be too late; no matter how much you hate it now, you'll miss it when you're gone; like just about every graduating senior, you too will cry on the high school ramp on the day you leave this place.

And why will you cry? Simple: Because saying goodbye to your home and friends is hard. But also, that's when it'll hit you: You'll never walk these hills again, you'll never roam these halls again, you'll never be here -- in this place at this moment -- again. It will be the death of this phase of your life.

I was checking college football scores the other day, logging onto student newspaper websites to get the flavor of the games from their perspective, when I came across an interesting article about an MTV show I've never seen. The guys from "The Buried Life" had visited campus, and they talked to students about fulfilling their dreams, about creating a bucket list and making it happen. The student reporter said that the presentation, "though buried itself in excessive T-shirt giveaways and excessively bad dance music, was surprisingly heartwarming."

Surprisingly heartwarming. Fulfilling dreams can be heartwarming. A bucket list, I thought, was for old people, a to-do list of things to accomplish before dying. But here were college students, gathered in an auditorium on a weekend evening, talking about their own bucket lists. Some students said they "wanted to have fun and live for the moment." The "overwhelming majority" of the students' stories and bucket lists, however, "were extremely noble and selfless." The reporter quoted one student whose main goal in life right now is to open a school in Guatemala, a project that began five years ago and then stalled.

My advice, then, is for you to create a bucket list for each phase of your life. You're in high school now. Sure, there are rules and regulations, possibilities and impossibilities, requirements and mandatory activities. But there's still time in the day. You still have energy and curiosity and passion. You'll be here only a few short years, and then these opportunities will be gone, forever.

I don't know how much longer I'll be here at this school, either. So here's my personal bucket list:

Watch more Hindi movies and Korean music videos. Play soccer on the basketball court, but also try rock climbing and volleyball after school and squash and running before. Run to Happy Valley and walk to Everest House. Pick ferns. Go white-water rafting on a holy river. Help put out a forest fire. Finish the library project in a nearby village. Watch the sunrise from different vantage points. Help write and illustrate a children's book based on locals' stories. Camp out on Flag Hill. Take 50 more photos of the sky. Dance in the street during some random local celebration. Crash a wedding. Walk down to Midlands Stream. Make momos at home.

Some of the items on this list are specific to this place and cannot be done elsewhere. Most cannot (or should not) be done alone. Hint-hint.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Challenge 7: Study

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#122. What would you like to study? Describe your academic interests.

I recently watched a Discovery Science program about the most fascinating experiment: Researchers had test subjects rank how funny cartoons were; they wanted to see if the subjects' brains could be tricked into thinking something was funny or not. And they proved that, yes, the brain can be tricked. Here's how they did it: All of the subjects had to read cartoons and then check responses while holding pens in their mouths; half of them held the pens between their teeth, and the other half with their lips. In effect, the people holding pens between their teeth unknowingly forced their face into a smile; they found the cartoons funnier and ranked them higher than the other group, who had forced their mouths into a frown. In other words, this experiment shows that how people respond to outside stimuli depends, in part, on whether or not they are already smiling.

I am interested in studying why this is true, and what the implications of this may be.

For years, I have "known" that the brain can be tricked, or that the brain can trick the rest of the body. For example, I have observed in myself the following: When I feel cold or flu symptoms coming on, how I respond determines whether or not I actually get sick. If I stay positive and think, "I cannot and will not get sick" (maybe because the weekend is approaching and I have awesome plans), I end up not getting sick. If, on the other hand, I think, "Darn it, I'm going to be sick, I just know it," I end up bedridden the next day. This is not a fluke, I don't think. General health -- I'm talking about day-to-day stuff, not necessarily major diseases -- can be influenced by a person's attitude and outlook. (And maybe I'm writing this now to remind myself, as I've been hit by flu symptoms in recent days, and I need to fight biology with psychology.)

We've all heard "mind over matter" and that "laughter is the best medicine." I think it's true, and I want to study the power of laughter, not just in medicine but in other fields as well. I read once that students who laugh during a lesson learn more than those that do not. So, when I taught ESL in Japan, I tried to make my students laugh. I tried to be funny. (It was quite easy; just act like a fool and they'll laugh; it's much more difficult in a high school classroom.) I'm pretty sure they had a good time, but I don't actually know if they learned more than if I had been serious. This is what I want to study.

The fields of neuroscience and social psychology are expanding, and superstar scientists like David Eagleman and Dan Gilbert are reaching out to the masses with best-selling books on what goes on in the brain. I am unsure which exact branch of science I wish to study, but I would one day like to join the ranks of Eagleman and Gilbert with some new information on how and why laughter affects the brain the way it does.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Challenge 6: Hiking

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#117: Hiking to Understanding

Team sports in the park, cycling along Lake Michigan, weekend white-water rafting trips in Wisconsin: I've always been an outdoorsy person. So when the opportunity arose to go on a week-long trek into the Himalayan range with a group of tenth graders, I signed up. It led to some major understandings:
  • What's the secret? Drink lots of water. On the first day, I didn't listen to our guide, and this resulted in fatigue and sore muscles. The next day, I drank at least five liters and felt fine.
  • Mountain stream water is cool, refreshing, and completely tasteless, unlike whatever that is that comes out of the faucet back home.
  • If the school offers a trek called "the sprained ankle hike," it will involve 10 km of walking over rocky terrain and an elevation increase of at least 1,500 feet per day.
  • Students who sign up for the "sprained ankle hike" will complain about walking. At least one will sprain her ankle.
  • It gets cold quickly after sunset. Your wool hat will help, but not you; usually, it'll warm up a student who lost his hat.
  • Do not let anyone tie a shoe while wearing a pack. It's funny watching someone stumble backwards while trying to get up. It's less funny when that person gets hurt and then you have to carry the pack.
  • Walking sticks help. Well, at least they make you look cool.
  • Tenth graders think the word "stick" is hilarious.
  • It's impossible to teach teenagers to bury their toilet paper. Some prefer to throw it into the trees.
  • It's tough to help others when you're so out of shape that you can't breathe.
  • Camping in a field covered in cow dung makes you feel dirty.
  • Sleeping on the cold, hard ground is possible if you're tired enough; ever being comfortable is impossible.
  • No shower for a week, or jump in the freezing mountain river? Sometimes, a choice is not really a choice.
  • Crawl out of the semi-warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night, or try to hold the bathroom break until the morning? Treks seem to be full of lose-lose choices.
  • I guess I don't really need a beer after a long, hard day. But there's a huge difference between need and want.
  • Ultimately, wants are more important than needs.
  • I don't need to ever go on a trek again. I don't think I want to, either.
  • I love nature, but I guess I prefer the city.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Challenge 5: Direction

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#113. Talk about how a person can change his direction.

"Life is a highway, I wanna ride it / All night long. / If you're going my way, I wanna ride it, / All night long." -- Rascal Flats

My very first vehicle was a Big Wheel, which has been the "King of the Sidewalk for 40 years," according to the manufacturer. The Big Wheel is a plastic tricycle that rides low to the ground, with pedals attached to the oversized front wheel. My friends and I would spend hours on our Big Wheels, racing around the block onto another street of less familiar houses. The coolest feature -- used expertly by advanced riders -- was the hand brake on one of the rear wheels: going at top speed, you would pull up on the brake and the entire machine would go into a 180-degree spin. Changing direction was easy and fun, and we'd do it whenever the mood struck.

My friends and I soon graduated to the world of bicycles. Suddenly, the Big Wheel was too childish, and a proper dirt bike -- with large handgrips and colorful handlebar padding -- was on everyone's front porch, ready for adventure. We'd jump over those curbs that previously held us back, weave around parked cars, and tear up and down the hills in the nearby park. Those not cool enough to have a proper bike, or too slow to keep up, were left behind. Everyone could go in the same direction, and keeping up only meant pedaling harder. Making a hard turn meant pushing back on the pedals and going into a slide.

A few years later, a few of us got more serious about cycling. We got the larger frames and multiple gears of the 10-speed. We'd head out on weekend mornings to the lakefront or the forest preserve, where long, winding paths awaited. We'd race. We'd be gone for hours. We didn't wear helmets. At top speed, turning was a hazard. Sure, weaving around slower riders was easy -- just turn the handlebars slightly and lean -- but a complete turnaround was almost impossible without first coming to an almost complete stop.

And such is life: You join a pack, leave some people behind. Changing direction becomes hazardous, so you go with the flow.

My first car was the family Buick Regal. Big, comfortable, roomy, it could seat six at most, as we'd cruise the streets after dark or drive to school in the mornings. Certain former friends got left behind. Others got their own cars. Driving around town, changing directions was often a pain. With so many one-way streets, a turnaround required a trip around a block or two. The U- and Y-turns, which we had learned in drivers education class, were impossible or forbidden on most city streets.

At some point after high school, most of us moved on to a two-seat sports car -- or we may as well have. Life was a fast-moving highway, to be shared with one special person. Not enough room to share this life with others, not enough time to slow down and enjoy the scenery. The passenger seat, however, was not always occupied by the same person. Changing direction simply meant pulling off the highway at the next exit.

I don't know how the next part happened. But I have finally found myself driving an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck. Getting this thing to go full speed takes time and effort -- zero to 60 in ten minutes, it seems. At my side is my partner-for-life. In the trailer are our families and friends; we're responsible for safely getting the whole load to our destination. We're on a crowded, slow-moving highway. A complete change of direction seems impossible -- not that I can imagine wanting to. Even changing lanes takes coordination and patience. Better is to keep moving forward, to keep riding on the highway all night long.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Challenge 4: X

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#135: Find x. (U of Chicago)

This is a revision of something I scribbled in 2008 while proctoring a two-hour advanced mathematics final exam.

Mathematically Impossible
Even if you examine the remainder
in a question of division,
when multiplying rational roots,
some results remain irrational.

If you get to the end of the equation,
examining all possible angles,
following parallel points and lines,
certain answers refuse to equate.

And when constants amount to nothing,
all functions become dysfunctional;
when greater becomes less than,
all probabilities lose their possibilities.

Some multiple-choice problems
follow neither logic nor formula,
and there can be no correction
for this subtraction.

So even if you think you know the how and y,
having double-checked the evidence,
it remains forever indefinite
why she's your x
and not your infinite one.

OK, OK, just so you don't think I was being cheesy or sentimental that day, I also wrote this (as you can imagine, proctoring an exam can be quite boring):

Snot Good

The boy sniffling a lot,
Blowing into tissue a lot,
Looking and sounding like he's about to die
a lot,
Isn't wearing socks.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Challenge 3: Place

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#59: Discuss how a specific place can be used to help illustrate your personality.

Every day, I walk my dog to Mt. Hermon Flat. It's quite easy to find (although, really, I hope you won't bother): Walk out the back door of Oakville Terrace and through our backyard; turn left (don't forget to close the gate so the cows won't come in) and walk up the road for about 40 meters; make a sharp right past the gate that announces the "Winterline Centre [sic] for the Arts" and make your way up the steep and rocky path; and as you reach the top, look around you: behind you is Mt. Hermon, an old missionary home/former student dormitory/current staff apartment (don't worry, the residents can't see you from there, and they are rarely outside anyway so you won't see or hear them either); below to the right you might see, through the trees, our house, smoke drifting out the chimney; ahead of you is a rectangular open space about 15 meters wide and 40 meters long; to the left is a wooded valley, some hills, and off in the distance, peaking through the morning gloaming, are the peaks of the Himalaya. The deodar trees above sway gently in the breeze. Further up is the clear sky, punctuated by one star hanging on. In the grass near the edge that overlooks the mountain range is a small clay cup and saucer -- the cup has some flower petals inside and the saucer some sugar and a coin. Try not to disturb these. Someone has been here recently to do a puja ceremony to the local deity. The deity, by the way, must be around you, surrounding you, overwhelming you, but don't expect to see a small altar or flashing neon lights.

You might think that "Flat" is an odd name for this place. There isn't much flat space. If you walk ahead, the ground rolls around you; you take three steps up a small embankment and are surrounded by new trees and scrub; you skip over a boulder and watch your footing on the narrow gravel path, or you may tumble down a very steep khud, down the steep ravine.

There is so much for the dog to investigate. His tail curls high above him and his nose rarely leaves the ground as he scampers from tree to rock to fallen wood rose. What does he sense? What was here last night? Certainly no humans; this is one place that is relatively free of footprints and litter. Perhaps a leopard? You've never seen one, but you hear stories. Perhaps jackals? There were two on the path in front of the house last week. The dog freezes, paw up, pointing, before charging into the brush. An explosion of feathers startles you; three mountain quail take flight as the dog yelps in excitement. Or perhaps it's distress; he so desperately wants to catch one. You can't help it, you laugh.

You can pause here on Mt. Hermon Flat, watch the mountains absorb the morning light, reflect on the possibilities of life and beauty. It's a solitary spot, yet it's so close to home. Whistle to the dog and the neighbors can hear.

I hope you don't ever visit. I don't want you to spoil it. But I do want to share this place with you. I want you to experience the beauty and tranquility. Perhaps tonight? You don't want to miss seeing the clouds around the mountains burst into color -- from white to pink to many shades of red to gray. It lasts a few minutes. Don't bother bringing a camera; you can't capture this. Any of it.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Challenge 2: Invention

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#18. What invention would the world be better off without, and why? (Kalamazoo)

It has never been easy being a leader. Look through the pages of history, and you will see that every great leader has been second-guessed and vilified by critics and opposition parties, by his own people as well as foreign powers. But the great leaders have endured, have held on to steer their nations through the rough waters of troubled times. Through intimidation, suppression, as well as sheer willpower and overwhelming force, the great leaders have always successfully crushed the voice of dissent.

Until the invention of social media.

When I look at my brothers in our neighboring states – Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Moammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia – I cannot help but think that they would still be in their respective (and rightful) seats of power if it had not been for Facebook and Twitter. According to Voice of America, organizers of protests in these autocratic strongholds have used these social media tools to mobilize supporters. And therein lies my concern – or should I say, the concern of every strongman living and ruling today in the Middle East: Leaders of these uprisings have used “the power of social media as a tool for political change.” For this, they are thankful; because of this, the great political families of Morocco and Algeria, Syria and Yemen, must live in fear or in hiding.

When one sees how these modern hippies and revolutionaries have reached out to the masses and have given courage to the voiceless, one can see that the world would be better off without Facebook and Twitter.

However, now that it is here, how can one person – alone in his palace of gold – completely eliminate this evil known as social media? Perhaps it is impossible. Instead, tactics must be employed. It is possible, I am told, to shut down the Internet during peak demonstrations, cutting off protesters' access to online resources. As the great Chinese leaders have censored online content and slowed down Internet connections, so too can we. One may also use fire to fight this fire: I say, use Facebook user accounts to shadow and capture members of the opposition. If activists want to use this new tool “to accelerate political and social change,” the rightful authoritarian regimes should use the same tools to stifle that change.

The West intends to spread that spirit of democracy in the Middle East. We must do what we can to stifle it, or our next Facebook status update may as well be :`(

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Challenge 1: Advice

I have challenged my students to write a college application essay of at least 300 words every day for 30 days, working off a long list of essay topics. Below is one of my attempts. (Note from the future: Out of about 50 students, 22 actually completed it. I tried but gave up after 18 days.)

#3: What is the best advice you ever received? Why? And did you follow it?

During my senior year at university, one of my professors took me aside after class one day and said, “I really don’t think you’ll make a good teacher.” I was an English education major at the time, and she taught one of my education classes, so these words were somewhat hurtful. She didn’t let me off lightly, either. “You will never understand when students struggle with writing,” she said and suggested that I turn to other pursuits. My immediate response was that I would prove her wrong. I created this grand plan in my mind: I would be named teacher-of-the-year sometime soon, and I would send the original certificate to her.
The next year, midway through my student teaching semester, I realized that my professor had been right. I did not understand students, and I did not know the first thing about teaching. “She was right, she was right, she was right,” I kept repeating as the weeks piled up and my lesson plans only got worse. When the semester mercifully ended I declared, “I will never step foot inside a classroom again.” The advice had been spot on and I would follow it.
I landed a job at a newspaper and won some awards there. I did not send those certificates to anyone. I moved to another state and found a job with another newspaper. I would be a journalist for life, I figured. It wasn’t always easy, there was always something to learn, but journalism was exhilarating; my colleagues and I thought we could change the world, one word at a time.

Then, for some reason, I decided to move overseas. I didn’t care where or what I’d do, I just wanted out of the United States for a while; I guess I didn’t want to be one of those Americans who doesn’t know anything about the rest of the world, and I didn’t want to wait until later in life to travel, to really experience other cultures and places. And so I packed my bags and landed in Japan, where my only job possibility was as a teacher of English as a second language.
I didn’t consider this really teaching: I sat in a small cubicle with one to four students of varying ages and spoke with them. Sure, I corrected their errors and sometimes made suggestions for improvement, but there were no lesson plans to write or papers to grade. Eventually, a handful of students told me I was the best teacher they ever had, and they asked for homework. I started planning.

Three years later I returned to Chicago. Jobless, I thought I’d try substitute teaching for a while. I ended up at a school that I quickly learned to love and found myself begging the principal for a job teaching English. She had none to offer but suggested I take over temporarily for an algebra teacher who had quit suddenly. So I taught math for almost an entire semester. And that’s when I learned how to teach. I had to struggle along with my students.

Journalism gave me a few years of experience and maturity. Japan gave me confidence. And algebra gave me insight into my students. I don’t think I’ll ever win teacher-of-the-year, but these days I’m a competent teacher, thanks in part to the kick in the pants from that professor many years ago.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

30-300-30 Challenge

Starts: Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011
Ends: Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011

Basically: For 30 days, write 300+ words each day, spending 30 minutes each time.

How: Respond to a different College Essay Topic (list of 100+ topics are here) each day.

  • A college essay should reveal something about you that isn't in your application. There's no need to write about your grades or to list all of your extracurricular activities (unless if that is what the question specifically asks you to do). Instead, focus on who you are as a person.
  • It's wise to focus on some positive personality trait or a lesson you have learned. Do not write about how you cheat on tests or love to party on the weekends.
  • Your tone can be serious or funny, thoughtful or silly, so go with what works for you. However, stay away from negativity -- your goal is to write something that will help you get into college, so you might want to avoid sarcasm, anger, depression, etc.
  • Show your reader who you are, don't tell. In other words, don't simply tell your reader that you love kittens and that you spend your summers volunteering. Instead, describe the time you rescued a kitten from a well and then nursed it back to health at the animal shelter near your home (a story like that shows that you love animals and that you volunteer).
  • Don't worry if you don't have amazing stories to tell; everyday events can be very revealing. However, if you find that you simply have nothing to write about, perhaps you should spend your weekends in the hills and villages surrounding Mussoorie -- stories await you.
  • This is not a journal of personal thoughts and feelings. Focus every day on answering a question raised, and always keep in mind the purpose, which is to create drafts of essays that might get you accepted by a university. Also, if you worry that something is too personal to share, it probably is, so choose something else.
  • Try different forms or styles. Since this is practice, take the time to experiment with narration or humor. Create a list of bullet points. Rewrite the opening of a novel. Write song lyrics. Make every sentence a question. It will not always work, but that's OK. You might discover that there is a certain way of writing that really appeals to you.
  • Read others' essays and use them as models. It's fine to try to write like someone, as long as the experience you describe is your own. Eventually you want to develop your own style, but there is no harm in seeing a good piece of writing--something that makes you smile or think--and asking yourself, "How did the writer do that? Can I construct my story to achieve that effect?"
  • Spend a few minutes thinking about the topic and your possible response. But if you are stuck for more than 10 minutes, choose a different topic.
  • It doesn't take very long to write 300 words. So you might write 600. But do not go way over, because a typical college essay is one typed page (and the Common Application now asks for 500 words). If you find that you are done in 20 minutes, spend 10 minutes editing your draft. (Your draft does not have to be perfect, but it should be something you are proud to share.) If it takes you 20 minutes to write 600 words, spend 10 minutes cutting 100 of them.
  • Remember that you are writing about you. If answering which historical figure you would like to interview, do not give a lengthy biography of that person; instead, write about why that person intrigues you--how you connect to him or her--and what questions you would ask. If sharing a story about your grandmother, make sure you spend time on what you have specifically learned from her. The same goes for any of the prompts. Ultimately, no matter what the topic, it must reveal something about you.
  • Write about recent events. It's great that you overcame some trauma when you were 5, but admissions officers want to know what kind of person you are now (or how that long-ago trauma made a lasting impact or change).
  • After publishing your post, read it on the blog. See what it actually looks like. And edit it if you notice glaring errors. Personally, if I spend 20 minutes on a post, I spend another 10 reviewing and editing. (For example, I added this point a few minutes after I initially posted; then, I walked the dog and added the following point afterwards.)
  • Remember that this is a challenge, not a competition or race. The challenge is to work on the writing process for 30 minutes daily over a course of one month. You will not "win" if you succeed; you will not be declared better than anyone; rather, you will have the satisfaction of completing an intellectually stimulating exercise. And you will be well on your way to having a college essay. And you'll get a 100 percent for November's MBA.

Important notes about the challenge: If you are participating, you will not do news articles for this month. Also, please comment below this post to indicate that you are taking up the challenge.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lucky me

"You know," I say to one of my advisees, "you guys are really lucky I'm not in charge this year."

"I know!" he says. "We were just talking about that."

We're walking up to my classroom from the library. I've pulled him out of study hall because I'm too curious, I need him to give me some details. Now. And he has just complimented me. He doesn't know it, but it's the nicest thing he's said to me all year.

"What do you think will happen?" he asks.

"I have no idea," I say, "but I know what I would do in this situation – suspend you. All 30 of you!"

He gulps. Last year, I tried my hand at administration, and one of my goals was a get-tough-on-crime approach. And I think it worked. Sure, we had a few disciplinary cases, but not a single alcohol or drugs offense. Kids either didn't party or (more likely) they hid it well.

But this past weekend 30 students were discovered to have been partying in a hotel. Six of them from my advisor group. Which means that I have, quite by accident, the cool kids in my advisor group. Their biggest crime, as far as I'm concerned, is that some of them were mixing vodka with Coke. No wonder one girl had to go to the hospital to get her stomach pumped! Their other crime, more serious, was drinking enough to get caught. When one person goes to the hospital, everyone else signed out of dorms for that event gets called in and busted.

Funny, sad, true story about the girl taken to the hospital:

The staff member who went with the girl informed the doctor that the girl had drunk a lot of vodka.

The very Indian doctor asked, "Oh. Is there alcohol in vodka?"

"Can you please help her? She's been throwing up a lot!"

And he asked, "What has she been throwing?"

I had to laugh when I heard that. And I couldn't restrain myself, I had to laugh in class.

"What's the matter with you guys?" I asked one of my classes. "I know it's Monday and all, but you all look absolutely hung over today!" This didn't get the laughter or applause it deserved. Later, some girls accused me of being mean, of bullying the poor wretches.

In another class, my advisee asked me to repeat something. "I'm sorry," I said, "I know you killed some brain cells yesterday. So ... do ... you ... need ... me ... to ... speak ... more ... slowly?" His friend laughed; nobody else did.

But my philosophy this year is different from last year. I don't need to worry about the safety of all the students and the reputation of the school anymore. I can laugh. And, really, these guys will laugh about this someday, too. Maybe when they return from their one-month suspension. (Well, that's what I would've pushed for.) Maybe at graduation. Or five years from now. Who knows when, but they will see the humor eventually.

"It's not like you guys killed somebody," I tell my lucky group of six. "So relax, you'll be OK."

But they're worried about their parents' reactions. About missing school. About losing leadership positions. About a blemish on their transcript.

"Well, you should have thought about all that when that booze came into the room. And anyway," I say, "you want to know what a college admissions counselor will say if he sees you were suspended for partying? Probably: 'Oh, he's guilty of being a teenager.'"

I don't really know if this is true, but it makes sense to me. Every university official knows teenagers drink. And maybe it's better that kids get the partying and trouble out of the way during high school. If a high school junior gets in trouble in the first quarter, and then is clean after that, well, that's a sign of growth! Of learning! Maybe he or she won't drink to excess during the first week of college life. Maybe. I don't really know anything about that (although maybe I should remind my advisees that two years ago, a group of juniors was busted drinking and they were suspended. Today, they're all in college). And anyway, I do know that I drank less after the age of 21 than before. I also know that I wasn't ever stupid about drinking, that I slowly built up my tolerance before getting completely smashed.

Well, that's not entirely true.  But the only people who really know about my first drunken experience aren't around anymore. No, they're not dead. I just don't know them anymore.

These kids today, they don't want to snitch on their friends – there's a code of some sort – so they won't reveal who provided the alcohol, and so they will probably all face the same consequences. When I tell them that their friendship rules are stupid, they are horrified. "So, what's your definition of friendship?" one of them asks.

"I don't know about definitions," I say, "but I'll tell you this: Out of my very best friends from high school, the guys I thought would be around forever, well, I don't keep in touch with them anymore." And it's true. On facebook, I'm friends with four or five people from high school, and I keep in somewhat regular contact with two. "You'll go to college, make new friends," I continue. I'm on lecture mode now. "Then you'll get a job, move, meet new people, forget about old ones. And the people you're protecting today, you'll forget all about them. Probably."

High school life, I guess, is so immediate. So eternal. With so little perspective. So everything seems like such a big deal. But they'll all survive this. They'll laugh about it. I just wouldn't want them laughing at the school, which is why I think they should get strong consequences. They need to laugh at themselves, at their stupidity, their own foolishness and naivety. But we'll see who laughs last. I'm just lucky I'm not in charge.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Must write

Comments. Must write five sentences (at least) about every single student I teach. How many different ways are there to write, "I'm unimpressed"? Just kidding; many students are actually quite good, but comment-writing always brings out my inner bitch.
Anyway, here's one way I'm procrastinating: Great piece in the New York Times Magazine called "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" It's the perfect length to forget all about unwritten comments. And the headline alone gives me an idea for my next comment: If the secret to success is failure, then your son is well on his way.

In the article, an educator looked at former students and found that "only 33 percent of students who graduated from [his] middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent."

However, "he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class."

So ...
What to teach? And when? Can "exceptional character strengths" be taught?

Maybe I should finish reading the Times piece to find out. And then start on those damn comments.