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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Bridge over Academic Troubles

Next Friday at midnight ends a first half-of-a-semester class for fifteen fledgling Medical Assistant students. Their next seven-week class, Health Care Customer Service, begins the following morning at 8 a.m.. That gives them, I reminded them in class yesterday, a whole eight-hours to kick back and take it easy until we meet again.

They smiled, but did not complain.

This group of students, a mix of ELL and Adult Basic Education students, are enrolled in a Career Pathways Bridge program. The Bridge is a class that offers low-level students supplemental instruction concurrent with a real-live program course. While I don't teach the content of the class, I do team teach with a state-certified Medical Assistant instructor who does do content. My job is to stay out of her way, assist when I can, and help Bridge students work on basic skills such as reading, writing, computer fundamentals, study skills and motivation. In some courses, I even teach a little math.

Low level students and English language learners struggle in a traditional classroom because they have not had the academic background of traditional college-bound students. So Bridge planners, curriculum writers, and faculty -- like me-- try to adjust the traditional schedule and give the students little extra help -- like me -- to give them the chance to be successful. Most of the time, that is all they need. My college has successfully implemented this pathway strategy in nine separate programs and dozens of courses in business, trades and health sciences. The curriculum is not changed in these courses. That is an important point. There is no difference in course competencies between a Bridge Health Care Customer Service class and traditional Health Care Customer Service class; we just help out a bit.

Fortunately, motivation is usually not a problem for Bridge students. They know that hard work and overcoming academic and personal obstacles are the pathway toward success. Their hunger for education is inspirational and reminds me of a story reported by NY Times columnist, David Brooks, some years back about a speech given by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at the Jack Kemp Foundation's Leadership Award dinner.

First a little background: Sen. Rubio's parents came from Cuba in 1956 and worked their way up to a middle class life: his mother as a maid, cashier and retail clerk; and his father as a convention banquet bartender. The night of 2012 Kemp speech, the service staff, remembering those stories, gave Sen. Rubio an honorary hotel name tag which said, "Rubio, Banquet Bartender."

Success and dreams, Sen. Rubio later told the dinner crowd while applauding the work of the service staff, "starts with our people: in the kitchens of our hotels, in the landscaping crews that work in our neighborhoods, in the late-night janitorial shifts that clean our offices. There you will find the dreams American was based on. There you will find the promise of tomorrow. Their journey is our nation's destiny. And if they can give their children what our parents gave us, the 21st-century America will be the single greatest nation that man has ever know."

For my Bridge students, their success and dreams articulated by Rubio, continues at 8 a.m. next Saturday morning. I expect to see them there early, eager and ready to work hard.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Average White Bread Definition of Equity

I have lived a Joe Average life: an ethnic mix of German and French grandparents, Caucasian with a bit of Menominee, blue-collar from my Green Bay west-side upbringing, raised Catholic, more cousins than I can count, public school graduate, Packer fan since forever, married to one lady for many happy years, home-owner, two cars, two televisions and four computers. Just an average white bread guy, a bit puffed in the center, found on the middle shelves of any local bakery.

Thinking about this, I realize I have been living an idyllic Northeast Wisconsin version of midwestern life described in the Saturday-night narratives of Garrison Keillor. I am very fortunate to have found a comfortable place and, until recently, I had not given my ethnic, racial, economic or cultural privileges much thought. Why should I? Everywhere I looked, I saw people who looked like me and lived in a place where, as Keillor famously says, "All the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." And all our faces are white.

What could change?

During an Equity 101 session in our 2014 Fall Inservice Days, Jennifer Higgs, Green Bay Area Public School District Equity Coordinator, burst my self-satisfied bubble. She reported that people like me (that is, white) are still in the majority in the local schools, but not by much: 51-percent of public school students are white, while 49-percent are not. The mix of non-white populations is 26-percent Hispanic, 8-percent Black, 7-percent Asian, and 4-percent American Indian.

Breaking down the figures by grades shows a steady advance of students of color through the grades. In Green Bay Area elementary schools, 49-percent of the students are students of color; in middle schools, 49.5-percent; and in high schools, 43.5-percent. Compare that to the classrooms where I work: according to 2014 NWTC demographics only 12-percent of students self-report as students of color. This gap between the K-12 system and my college rosters predicts a steady increase in the number of students of color enrolling in our classrooms. Change is coming. Am I ready for it?

My college, obviously, is preparing me for the changes in the student population coming from the Green Bay Public Schools. Diversity/Inclusivity classes have been put in place in order to help everyone understand and work with the minority/majority who will be seeking our services in the coming years. And, to guide our staffing and student planning, the college drafted its own definition of "equity" this summer that asks all staff (support, faculty and leadership) to meet "all students where they are and remove barriers to student success so they can achieve course and program completion and attain a career."

In past semesters, my students have been a mix of white faces and students of color. This year, while teaching supplemental instruction in entry-level Medical Assistant and Electrical Systems classes, I find that I am one of very few white faces in the classroom. Before the Equity 101 presentation, I had not given that much thought: a student was just a student to me. Now, I wonder if that is still a valid instructional point of view?

Should I treat students of color different than I treat white students? I could be wrong, but I don't think the college is asking me to do that. What it asks is that I acknowledge that the world that these student come from is not the Wobegon-world that I have grown up in. Students of color face barriers that I know nothing about and shouldn't pretend to understand. I can't know what it is like to grow up and live in a community dominated by people different from you and your family. White pretense around diversity issues seems a little insulting to me. I think all I can do is re-double my efforts to treat each student as valued customer with unique needs, wants and abilities.

While working toward student dreams for program and career success, differences in race and ethnicity are not forgotten -- how can they be -- but can be set to one side during school time. My students, white and of color, hope for the things that every student hopes for: fairness, honesty, inspiration, knowledge, understanding, patience, rigor, professionalism and the chance to succeed. We have that bond in common if nothing else. When I look into the faces of my students, what I see are not others who are a different color than me, but a reflection of myself not that many years ago, as an aspiring student in the classroom. That, I do understand.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Autumn Colchicum

We moved the petunia pot a little to the right in order to see the star spray of petals beneath it. Oops: we forgot that we planted the bulbs in that spot. A half dozen rosy purple Colchicum, a sort of fall crocus on steroids, hovered only six inches above the ground among the leaves. It didn't care that we had forgotten it. It was just happy to appear during the early hours of a glorious fall morning.

It's always a surprise when the Colchicum blooms because the flower emerges quickly and in full force suspended from a single, almost translucent stalk. I've seen the flower grace late season gardens and pop up in the middle of lawns where a corner garden once lived. Once established, the bulb will stubbornly return year after year. Because the Colchicum flower is not clothed in supporting leaves, a common name for the plant is the Naked Lady and so she is. Surrounded by a carpet of Kentucky Bluegrass, the bloom boldly shows her charms to new homeowners who wonder where the botanical Godiva came from.

Colchicum autumnale (its official botanical name), a member of the order Liliales (thus the slender leaf shape), is said to be the only species of its genus native to Great Britain. I wonder how they know that, though demeanor of the species does seem to be in sync with the Brits' national temper. Most of the time, the Colchicum quietly builds up strength beneath the surface, hidden from the limelight, and bides its time before the spectacular day that it chooses to appear. Then, it's as subtle as a ribald Christmas pantomime.

I learned in my herbaceous classes that all parts of the plant are as deadly as arsenic, so it's not the sort of plant you choose for the garden of a young family. The toxic chemical of the plant, called colchicine, was once used, I assume guardedly, as a herbal remedy for inflammation. That caught the attention of a group of cancer researches at the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire, UK, a few years ago who were looking for a "smart bomb" to destroy cancer tumors. After an initial flurry of publicity and notes in the Cancer Journal, I have not heard much more about their progress.

Perhaps the researchers were not able to make the flower palatable to the human body, its toxicity overwhelming its usefulness. Perhaps it was not as effective against the deadly cancer as it was once hoped. Or perhaps, it is just too early to judge the effects of research or clinical trials. Perhaps the autumn lady is just waiting, quietly, patiently to reveal her benefits to medicine in her own time. We should never underestimate, overlook or dismiss the benefits that lay all about us in the natural world. One never knows when a forgotten treasure will pop up.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

RLCs: Start Small. Go Anywhere.

I pity the poor NWTC delivery van driver. His weekly route is east and north, west and north and then, north and north, and north. The NWTC District is large, ungainly and spread out over the rural and wooded northeast corner of Wisconsin with the cities of Green Bay and De Pere anchoring the bottom of the map. Think of the thumb and first two fingers of your right hand, palm up. That's our District.

The main Green Bay campus sprawls over the old Larson Orchard site on the southwest side of the city, just north of West Mason St. There are satellite mini-campuses in Marinette an hour north of Green Bay, up the first finger, and in Sturgeon Bay about 45-minutes north north-east just over the Bayview Bridge on the thumb of the Door Peninsula. Regional Learning Centers fill in some of the spaces between: Luxemburg-Casco, Niagara, Crivitz, Oconto Falls, and Shawano. In addition, NWTC regional managers and central planners extend our classes into local high schools and community and job centers. We've got the District covered.

Up to now, I have split my time between the West Regional Center in Shawano and the Northwest Regional Center in Oconto Falls (thus the name of this blog playing on the title of the 1959 Hitchcock movie: North by Northwest). Either center building could fit inside the gymnasium of the Green Bay campus with parking spaces to spare. But size does not indicate amount of learning that's happening at each of these small sites every day.

Though the buildings are modest, both of  "my" sites schedule full-grown programs in business, health science, ag and general studies. On any day (or night or weekend) in-person and video-conference classrooms at either site run concurrent classes in Nursing Assistant and Healthcare Business Services as well as Accounting, Leadership Development and Human Resources and other courses. This is in addition to a full schedule of General Studies courses transferable to 28 other four-year colleges, including the UW-system.

Our students, especially those in trades and other lab-intensive courses know they will eventually have to travel to take some of their classes in Green Bay, Marinette or Sturgeon Bay. Car detailing and phlebotomy just don't work on VC. Until that time, however, students at the Regional Learning Centers experience college on a small scale, but with no less rigor. I give credit to the leadership who has spread a strong network of student success west, northwest, north, east and central. I may be a tad biased, but I give even more credit to the RLC staff and part-time faculty (formerly called adjuncts) who are key to the success of the regional centers. They are the front-line faces of post-secondary education for many students of the district.

When you serve a District that spans half a hand, and a couple of tanks of gas, it's important for both economic and political reasons to provide equal opportunities for certificate, vocational diploma and associate degree programs across the entire area. NWTC students, all 42,000 by last count, are confident that wherever they go -- main campus in Green Bay or auto tech classes in Wausaukee -- they will receive consistent, quality education. Your zip code shouldn't limit your dreams. As our billboards put it, "Start Here, Go Anywhere."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Talking Them Down from the Ledge

The chilled reality of the new fall semester settles in when students (especially adult students in school for the first time in many years) turn to the back pages of the syllabus and see a long list of readings, exercises, worksheets, papers, presentations and projects they will have to complete in order to successfully complete the course. Vision blurs and their eyes take on a vacant look as they look up at you but through you, the whiteboard and out past classroom walls toward a dread of failure. It's a kind of academic shock.

The problem is that these students base their fear on the totality of the course as one unpalatable slab that has to be digested before breakfast coffee in the morning. Then, to escalate alarm, they realize that they have four other course schedules just as daunting. "Do I belong in a college classroom?" they ask themselves.

Students need instructors to provide context and support in those first moments. Students have 15-weeks not one day to plan and work and complete all the assessments of the semester. Sure, instructors will make students work a bit -- you need to earn the learn -- but we are not going to make college impossible. What would be the point of that?  Sometimes, I wonder if we shouldn't hide our expectations a little to ease the shock and then issue a new 2.0 version of the syllabus a month in: "Surprise! There are four papers due in this course not two." Well, maybe not.

So, many instructors, like me, spend quite a bit of time that first week in the classroom, through emails and during office hours, talking students down from the ledge, as one of my colleagues puts it. We help students plan a study schedule that makes college doable whether it's through a planning app, a student planner or a week-by-week email reminder. Planning is important, but during the initial days of the semester, I just want students to start breathing again.

I look for determination, dedication and discipline from students during those first weeks, not despair. I need them to trust that I will get them through the first days, weeks and months. Past that, they need to drive. Planning is critical to carving the semester into reasonable chunks. But so is common sense. How do you eat the elephant that is a semester of work, the parable asks? One bite at a time -- after you climb down from the ledge.