Sunday, January 18, 2015

GED2014 Panic After Year One

Kristina, our front desk mainstay, quickly walked by the open classroom door and glanced in. A moment later, she retracked her steps and came into the classroom. Not a good sign.

"I've been looking for you." Also not a good sign. I had been talking with another instructor at the time. Our inservice days had just started so colleagues like us were reconnecting and getting up to speed on the schedule and needs for the new semester. Kristina had left her General Studies desk to find a GED instructor to be interviewed by a local television station. "The TV station wants to talk about how hard the new GED is." Uh-oh.

I knew there had been a number of national wire and magazine stories in the last week about the difficulty of the new GED test. The test had been in operation for the past 12-months and reports from GED classrooms highlighted gloom and doom among BE programs: lower attendance, less confidence in curriculum, and a dismal pass rate. According to some, the pass rate was 20-points less than the old test. Sure, the new test was probably two to three grade levels higher than the old test, and, sure, a student couldn't just walk in unprepared and expect to pass it. Few remembered that the typical student couldn't do that with the old test either.

During the television interview, our Chief Test Examiner explained that the Green Bay testing center had been one of the more successful centers in the state last year and so far this year we had more test takers than any other site, including the megalopolises of Madison and Milwaukee. Our passing rate was a healthy four passes out of five. From the instructional point of view, I pointed out that the new GED test mirrored the increase in rigor of high school program. The old GED test was written more than fifteen years ago -- of course it was easier. Why are there fewer students? We spent 18-months clearing the student files of potential GED test takers before the end of the old series in December 2013. Anyone who could complete the series, did. Student numbers will return.

To quote an MVP Quarterback, GED programs need to just "R-E-L-A-X."

The new test has forced our own GED team to completely revamp the curriculum and the way we deliver GED instruction. That's not a bad thing. We want our students to pass the new test at the same rate as those who passed the old test. What worked in the past, will not work now. Instructors knew that when we previewed the new test in the Fall of 2013. I can't speak for other programs, but our team took this as a challenge.

The past year has not been easy for anyone, but our new curriculum makes success more likely if students do choose to work with us in the classroom -- always a good choice. Because of the test change, our program is stronger, more creative and better prepared to help students not only pass the GED 2014 test series, but also to be successful in the college classroom beyond. As an Internet scribe promises, "I'm not telling you it's going to be easy. I'm telling you it's going to be worth it." And, it has been and will be.

I look forward to answering questions to the follow-up interview a year from now talking about our ground-breaking curriculum and incredible successes with GED students. Kristina, I'll let you know where I am at that morning.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Five Best Books of 2014

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
West by Northwest book of the year.
Last January I began recording the books I read at the encouragement of number of book club friends.  The list measured my reading habits, and I thought it would be fun to use a post to review and reflect on the authors that I spent time with during 2014. My listmaking rules were simple: I included any book that I finished. I give most authors 100-pages to prove their words are worth my time before the book goes direct to the library donation pile. These partial reads (maybe another dozen) were not included in my list.

From the list of 32 books that I did complete, seventeen books were memorable. Fifteen lesser titles were interesting enough to pass my 100-page rule at the time but did not bring about lasting change in my life. Some, a half a year later, bring back no memories at all. The seventeen that did stick include such staples as Aldo Leopold ("A Sand County Almanac"), Edward Abbey ("The Monkey Wrench Gang"), Karen Armstrong ("The Spiral Staircase"), Neil Gamon ("Ocean At The End Of The Lane"), Raymond Chandler ("The Long Goodbye"), and Edgar Allen Poe (Collected Works). As you can tell, my reading choices span fiction and non-fiction, genres and years. A good read is a good read. Other authors on the 2014 list are less well known but no less enjoyable: Reza Aslan ("Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"), Kate Atkinson ("Life After Life"), Andy Weir ("The Martian"), Diane Setterfield ("The Thirteenth Tale"), Tom Standage ("The Neptune Files"), and Sylvia Nassar ("A Beautiful Mind").

From those seventeen, I was able to select my personal five best books of the year. My favs tend to be non-fiction rather than fiction which follows my reading preference for history, science, nature and education/psych theory. Truth, I usually find, is often stranger and more entertaining than fiction.

5. "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" (2012) by Stephen L. Carter. I have read many Lincoln and Civil War biographies and was interested in this alternate theory of what would have happened if Lincoln had survived John Wilkes Booth's attack.  Carter presented the defense of Lincoln's extreme actions during the war and subsequent Reconstruction in the form of a legal brief by a defense team defending the President. The plot and characters stretched credibility, and the ending disappointed, but the legal and historical discussion was quite interesting. It all could have happened. Or most of it.

4. "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House" (2013) by Peter Baker is another defense of an administration against critics, but this did happen. I don't usually read recent political histories since they often seem superficial or have an obvious agenda. The President came off a little better than the Vice-President in this book but I never felt like I was being bludgeoned by bias. The excellent detailed onslaught of reporting by Baker bombarded me, a former journalist, with feelings of "shock" and "awe." The writing was unpretentious and narrative entertaining. You could not make up these characters.

3. "Thordarson and Rock Island" (2013) by Richard Purinton is a locally published collection of letters and local history that I bought at Peninsula Bookseller in Fish Creek. Chester Hjortur Thordarson was a Chicago inventor and businessman, and a proud Icelandic descendant who bought most of Rock Island, just off Washington Island in Door County's northern tip. Purinton tells Thordarson's story through decades of correspondence. With very little commentary, the letters carry the narrative and reveal the complex personality of Thordarson, his friends, family and foes, and his dreams of his Door County retreat. The use of letters tells the story through the pen of Thordarson rather than the author -- an interesting technique.

2. "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation" (2013) continues Michael Pollan's immersive exploration of the world around us. I have been a fan of Pollan's since "Second Nature" (1991) and "A Place of My Own" (1997). "Cooked" continues Pollan's new-journalism exploration of how we use food prepared through baking, barbecuing, brewing and booyah. Stories, information and inspiration keep each of the four sections of the book readable and entertaining. It's technical information with a spoonful of sugar.

1. My top read of the year is: "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" (2006) by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. I was introduced to this text while taking a course in an alternative strategy to teaching math -- I would say Common Core, but don't want to scare readers. Dweck is an optimist who preaches that everyone can improve by adopting a Growth Mindset rather than a Fixed Mindset. A Growth Mindset person is always looking for new ideas, new techniques, new ways of doing things, new ideas to adapt to a changing world. She provides examples, exercises and encouragement to change not only the way you do things, but the way you view and interact with the world.

You are what you read and this is what I have been during the last year. I look forward to new volumes and pages in the year ahead. Pardon me while I go to my reading chair, for as the quip goes, "So many books, so little time."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Friends and Family Graduation Plan

One of my favorite moments during a graduation is toward the end of the ceremony. It's after the speakers have spoken, the graduates have shaken the hands of dignitaries and faculty, and after tassels have been moved from the right to the left signifying graduate status. The President of the College asks the graduates to stand, turn and face their audience of friends and family and applaud those people who have made it possible for them to be where they are.

Anyone who has gone back to school -- especially those who have gone back after a long time away -- knows that that moment gives you goose bumps. Up to then, the spotlight has been on the graduate. That's the point of the ceremony, really. The community celebration of academic achievement is an ancient tradition that purposely ties the current crop of graduates to a long line of other graduates through the robes and regalia, the solemn march to "Pomp and Circumstance", and even the particular order of speakers and dignitaries. It's as if each school has a secret ritual sequence that cannot be disturbed or altered without invalidating the post-secondary credential.

Up to that point, the focus has been on the front of the auditorium where the graduates and dignitaries sit. Now, at the behest of the President of the College, attention shifts to the balconies, the seats along the aisles and even those standing in the back waiting to present the new graduates with roses, helium balloon bouquets and graduation baskets of goodies. Very few students complete a certificate, diploma or degree without help and support from those who stand behind them.

These are the people who have supported the students day in and day out through semesters of classroom work, in long hours of study, though moments of self-doubt, and now, in this final celebration of academic success. These are the people who offered to babysit, who drove the student to class when the car didn't start, who loaned them a few dollars to cover the cost of books and supplies for the semester. These are the people who pushed, pulled and persuaded grads to see the work through to this completion.

These are the people who believed, with the grads, in a better life beyond the status quo. This shared belief is what George Eliot described in the quote, "It is never too late to be what you ought to be." When the President asks grads to applaud fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends, family and neighbors, graduates often cheer, wave their caps and strain to see over the shoulders of classmates to catch a glimpse of the people who have been most important to them. Giving friends and family credit at this moment seems both right and just, and long overdue.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ten Questions To Measure a Wonderful Life

While I was clearing out data folders files, my life fell into place so to speak. I came across this short January 2012 article by Geoffrey James writing in Inc. Magazine. James argued that success and happiness are not measured by your bank account, length of yacht or number of awards on your CV. Happiness, he said, is measured by your day-to-day relationships and memory-making.

In order to gauge your success/happiness, James suggested you ask yourself ten questions each day. Your answers determine the advance or decline in your own DowJones Intentional Happiness Average. James's questions are:
  1. Have I made certain that those I love feel loved?
  2. Have I done something today that improved the world?
  3. Have I conditioned my body to be more strong, flexible and resilient?
  4. Have I reviewed and honed my plans for the future?
  5. Have I acted in private with the same integrity I exhibit in public?
  6. Have I avoided unkind words and deeds?
  7. Have I accomplished something worthwhile?
  8. Have I helped someone less fortunate?
  9. Have I collected some wonderful memories?
  10. Have I felt grateful for the incredible gift of being alive?
These sound like something the angel Clarence might ask George in "It's a Wonderful Life". James not Clarence writes, "These questions force you to focus on what's really important (pictures of dead presidents have never made anybody happy). Take heed of them and the rest of your life, -- especially your work -- will quickly fall into place."

I don't know why I haven't used this list of questions before or why the article was stored five folders down on my flash drive -- hey Clarence, ask Joseph about that. Perhaps, I was just waiting for the right moment or the right season or the right reason. Perhaps I was just waiting for right now. Today is a good day to make a change.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Day After 0-59

My Badger flag flies at half mast after Wisconsin's 2014 football dreams were mashed into the seams of the artificial turf at the Indianapolis Dome by the Ohio State Buckeyes. Pre-game prognosticators thought that the Big 10/14 Championship between Ohio State and Wisconsin would be a classically close match between two midwest football powers. The prognosticators were wrong. Dead wrong. After three tough wins against Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota, Wisconsin had nothing left against a suffocating defense and 6'5" third-string quarterback.

The only good outcome of the night was surprise selection of Ohio State over TCU into the four team college playoff. A close win over Wisconsin and the Urban Meyer would be kicking the sidelines of the Inconsequential Bowl. Now the league has a player in football's final four. Baylor had a better argument over TCU anyway.

Sure there will be one more Wisconsin game. The Badgers will be selected for a bowl game somewhere because Badgers travel well with a large alumni following, the band is awesome, and everyone wants to see one more 200-yard game from the phenomenal Melvin Gordon III. It will be a nice curtain call and final season polls may adjust. But the season is over.

To those who hang their heads longer than this weekend, I say, "Hey folks, this is college football, Saturday afternoon entertainment, an colorful expression of loyalty to your alma mater, not something really important, like, say, a Packer game." I and other Wisconsin alumni had a good season following the team. It was fun, but it was just entertainment and doesn't have much lasting importance win or lose.

I will take the Badger flag down tomorrow and replace it with something representing the holiday season, I suppose. It's that time of the year I am told. Good will toward men, even Buckeyes, and stuff like that.

Life does go on, even though the Badgers won't.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Winter is Coming

Snow covered the back deck. It wasn't snowing at the time (the time was about 3 a.m. -- no, don't ask), so all that remained of a passing flurry was a light, even, undisturbed layer of pearly white snow reflecting an overcast city-lit sky. It looked like beach sand after the tide receded or sugar crystals sifted onto a floured surface. I thought of the verse from the Christmas carol, Silent Night, "Sleep in heavenly peace, slee-eep in heavenly peace..."

A week ago, I had spent a happy though short afternoon on the deck enjoying the last golden colors of a delightful autumn. Many of us commented to each other how nice the fall had been. Temperatures had been mild, colors were vivid and even the curmudgeonly oak leaves turned to deep burgundy rather than nut brown. Maybe, we rationalized, if we kept complimenting the fall, it would stay with us a little longer.

But as sure as All Souls Day follows All Hallows Eve, the midnight snow on the back deck forecast a change of season. As a native-born Wisconsinite, I understand we need the cold to prepare the land for the coming spring. I really do. Winter has a lot going for it: the holidays, snow skiing and ice fishing, snowmobiling, peppermint mocha, crackling fireplaces, and blue sky days dawning crisp and clear. All seasons are important in their place.

But what if, as in George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, a winter season lasts and lasts and lasts? What if it overstays its welcome like an unwelcome guest? Not just adding a few extra weeks of cold weather, like this year, but even more. New England poet Robert Frost, seventy-five years before Mr. Martin, wrote, "Some say the world will end in fire,/Some say in ice." A world encased in ice and snow is just as silent as one scorched by fire. Frost ends his poem saying that destruction by ice "would suffice."

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind winter as a visitor, but this year it seems a little too eager. Sure, the gardens and house are winter-ready, but now I hear that 6-12-inches of snow are expected tomorrow just north of the city and, later in the week, the forecast predicts highs only in the 20s and lows in the teens -- January temperatures and conditions about two months early. Rather than looking forward to winter, the premature forecast brings a feeling of dread, and, as I look out over the walls of my Winterfell kingdom of the north, I am not sure why.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin

"Who are our two Wisconsin senators?"

This question always stumps my class. Students answer with blank looks, shuffling feet, and checking the sky outside the classroom windows for contrails from an imperial galactic invasion. Keep in mind that these are adults I'm speaking of not fourth graders. Bright, intelligent, responsible adults with families and jobs draw a uniform blank stare when you ask them who represents them in the United States Senate. I have never had a class at any level who was able to name both. One senator perhaps, but not both.

Sad, very sad.

These students come to mind when I watch the biannual blitz to persuade people to vote on the first Tuesday in November. The founding fathers count on you, an earnest voice proclaims in public service announcements, an informed, dedicated citizenry, to wisely guide our representative democracy through your individual vote. Of course, the founding fathers were really counting on an informed, dedicated white male land-owning elite citizenry, but that's another column.

Cynical commentators say the 10-15 percent voting attendance by citizens shows the decline of American democracy. They say that vicious partisan battles have worn down the collective citizenry to such a point that most would rather not dirty their hands in this unpleasant business. Cynical commentators say that that the low-level interest in politics is a direct result of our unhappines with the antics we hear about in city hall, the Madison statehouse and Washington, D.C. Cynical commentators say we get the politicians we deserve through our indifference to the process. Perhaps the cynics are right.

Yet, perhaps they are not. George Eliot once said, "It is never too late to be what you might have been." Giving up is not American.

After my students fail the quiz about their senators, we talk about the series of unlikely events that led to the founding of this nation, to the extraordinary promise of the Declaration of Independence, to the first flawed treaty between the new states called the Articles of Confederation, and to our uniquely American expression of political compromise, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Students learn that our nation's history has not been an unbroken string of successes. Cynics of every generation have written this country off, but, somehow, what we agreed to in 1787 has survived and prospered.

Most of us do not have more than a back of the cereal box knowledge of the history of the United States. With discussion, and assignments, and projects, I hope to show my students how remarkable this country is and how the exercise of citizenship is not just a November obligation but a lifetime responsibility (I also hope that they pass the GED Social Studies test, but that is also another column).

Each year at about this time I remind the students to vote on Tuesday. I don't care who they vote for. That's not my job. I just want to remind them to get their butts to the polls while I show them how voting does matter. US history is full of such examples. Some of them do vote for the first time in many years. Others still don't. But, perhaps, I planted a seed of guilt that will grow to participation on a later Tuesday. I would consider that a success.

At the least, I hope these students remember who their two senators are.