Postage Stamp Worlds

In the course of having one of my knitting designs reviewed by a technical editor recently, I discovered that I knit wrong. Literally: my basic knit stitch is wrong, which means that everything I do has a gauge that is nigh impossible to duplicate with a normal knit stitch. The functional difference of how you end up doing what I’ve been doing versus knitting correctly is tiny. Minute. Miniscule. And apparently critical.

As I was telling this story to some friends over lunch last week, one of them mused that knitting is a postage-stamp world. Which is to say, if you look at it from a distance, it doesn’t look like much, but when you get up close, the level of detail is incredible and you can fall right through into a world with far more depth than you realized. I love that concept and I think it’s widely applicable. Most specialized labor, hobbies, artisan work, whatever, is made up of these postage stamp worlds, and recognizing that is probably the first step to developing a genuine interest in and respect for the work that other people do.

The concept of postage stamp worlds also seems like a darned good construct to keep in mind if you’re about to embark on learning something new, especially in the information age. This is a bit ironic, perhaps, but I think the information age is actually not all that fabulous for passing on expert knowledge…yet. Most beginning internet learning is happening at that flat, distance level with no help from Mary Poppins to pop the artwork into life (or vice versa). Sure, I can pull up Youtube videos and download ebooks and PDFS and even order books from my library without leaving my dining room table, and all of these things are valuable learning tools. This is how I learned to knit. Which I did completely wrong.

My point is that just because you can kajigger something to do more or less what you want it to do doesn’t mean that there isn’t a standard or more efficient way to do that thing. And sometimes the autodidactic among us end up disguising our ignorance of the underlying principles when we find those Frankensteinian workarounds, only to have that ignorance backfire on us in hilarious and stress-inducing minor catastrophes when we try to do more advanced work. Learning from an expert in person tends to call attention to such discrepancies pretty quickly, but learning from experts in a context where they have the ability to see our work, note a misunderstanding, and put us back on the path to understanding a core concept of their particular postage stamp is not an experience that is characteristic of learning a new thing from the internet.

Again: yet. I suspect that we can both make the internet a better learning environment and become better internet learners, and to that end, I’m thinking about these questions:

  • What questions should you ask when learning something new?
  • Are there general guidelines we can recommend for teachers interested in creating static lessons for beginners?
  • How do we best help n00bs find experts?
  • How do you determine that a teacher is, in fact, an expert, rather than a hack who knows a few things more than you?
  • What is the best technology for connecting teachers and students working together remotely?

I have a few thoughts about the first two after this experience, so…more on that later. The latter three questions aren’t really my forte, though. Thoughts?

 

Young Writers

When I was in junior high, I was as horribly awkward as we all are at that age, only maybe a bit more so for having been homeschooled for a few years to add to my general lack of talent with grocking other people to begin with. I did better with books than with other kids my age, who, as much as I wanted to get along with them, were by and large utter mysteries to me.

Fortunately for me, one of the teachers I had known in elementary school, before my mom decided to homeschool me, ran a writing group at the junior high. I don’t remember if he invited me to attend or if I was coerced into attending by the extroverted girl who adopted me as her friend for no other reason than that she was cool with weird, being a bit weird herself. Either way, I starting going, and the Monday afternoons spend giggling over our co-creations of silly revisionist and pun-filled fairy tales was one of the highlights of that period of my life and I’ve always had it in my mind that I’d like to provide the same kind of safe writing space for other teenagers that might benefit from an eye on their stories.

Last fall, I coordinated with a teacher at a local middle school to help me find students and a space to create a low-pressure creative writing group. We met in the wee hours every Thursday morning, and it was a delight to watch them polish their ideas with one another. My role was primarily to act as a sounding board, tech support, and caterer of food for thought. Six of the students stuck with me right to the end, and so far, four have bravely published the most polished pieces of their work on our little website:

KMS Rough Drafts

I would be delighted if you’d care to join me in giving them an internet round of applause for the work they did and wishing them luck with their future writing endeavors.

Innocence

John and I have been talking about kids a lot lately…I’m in my late twenties and many of my friends have babies, and while we haven’t yet decided whether we’re willing to tackle the terrifying realities of parenthood, it’s definitely a topic of conversation.  As we were visiting with my in-laws this weekend, we got talking about our nephew, who is just young enough to be obligingly duped by the family’s colossal efforts to present him with evidence that the Easter bunny is real.

My in-laws reminisced about our Easter shenanigans with a laugh and a sigh, savoring the memory of Train Dude’s innocence even as the acknowledged that it would last for long. John wasn’t buying it: “What’s so great about innocence?” he asked. “Why do we romanticize it when kids are so gullible?”

He has said this before, and I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed in education classes at Harvard. It’s a valid question. Why do we cherish the fact that kids just plain don’t know stuff, and don’t know to question stuff?

My step-father-in-law used the word “vulnerability” to describe part of that–the “not questioning stuff” part. Vulnerable, innocent kids have a lot of trust for certain grown-ups–which implies good things. It says that they haven’t had to deal with anything really difficult, like adults lying to them about things that matter. Grown-ups can be trusted to take care of things. When a kid loses that, it means they’ve started to experience (or noticed friends experiencing) being let down in some way, and that’s sad. So…I guess vulnerability implies that some of the sad stuff is in the “unknown stuff” category.

The other piece, the “not knowing” piece, is just fun. There is nothing, truly nothing, more awesome than sharing something supremely cool with someone who’s never heard of this cool thing. There’s just  so much that kids don’t know, and so much that we can share with them, that we have the opportunity to be amazing in the eyes of this small, still-uneducated person because we’re the people who are bit-by-bit helping him along the path of knowing wonderful stuff…even if some of it (like the Easter Bunny) is imaginary.

And that’s awesome.

Ten Thousand / XKCD.com

TNQDE: Caring by Curation

It’s been so long since I’ve done an etymology post that I’m sure you all thought I had expended all I had to say on the subject. Not going to happen. Ever. Sorry.  I had a good reason to meditate on a word last week, and I think the etymology is interesting enough to be worthy of  a TNQDE segment.

“curate”

Did you know that this word is both a verb and a noun? It is, in fact, not only the act overseeing and organizing, but also a cleric who assists in the oversight of a parish. Via back-formation, we have another noun form, “curator,” which also refers specifically to the process of managing a museum collection (curiously, the museum-specific sense of “curator” evolved along a different path). All of these words hail from the Latin “curare,” meaning “to care for.” We get another modern word from this verb: “cure,” but the sense is different enough that I won’t add that turn-off to our rabbit trail today.

Curator, in the liturgical sense, as I said, is a back-formation of “curate,” which comes from Middle English curat, which is derived from the Medieval Latin curatus, which in turns comes from the Late Latin cura, meaning “spiritual charge.” Not having an appropriate dictionary for Late Latin on hand, I can’t easily verify this, but my sense of that definition is that it is meant as “having charge of the spiritual well-being of another.” I suspect this, because the original Latin sense of cura is simply “care.”

Curator in the secular, museum-oversight sense, actually comes from the Middle English curatour, meaning “legal guardian.” This term came through the Old French curateur from the Latin curator, meaning “overseer.” Funny how orthography comes full circle, isn’t it?  Curator is a noun derived from the past participle (curatus) of the verb curare, meaning “to take care of,” which is no doubt the same word at the root of cura.

Oversight springs from a tradition of giving care, you see, and the reason this is on my mind is that I’ve been considering my role as an educator. Last week, my kids and I help a bake sale/comic auction/cookbook sale to benefit our local athletic league. The event was born from some of my kids forming a comic club. Their charter: everyone can join and all comics produced will be copied and sold to benefit a charity which will be chosen by active members in turn, beginning with the youngest. They asked for my help to make it happen, and who could possibly say no to that sort of request?

In order to get a more obvious curb appeal and also engage some of my kids who are not inclined to draw comics, I added a bake sale to the event and also a cookbook project: students wrote recipes using two randomly chosen ingredients and I turned the recipes into a cookbook. Given the nature of my program (i.e., utterly insane), I don’t get enough focused attention with kids on individual projects to lead them from draft to finished project. If I can convince them to slap a title and their name on something when they’re done, I consider it a victory. What this translated to for our sale was several hours of tracing over pencil lines too light for the copier to read, typing recipes into a cookbook, scanning and ordering unnumbered pages, and trying to make sense of jumbled directions.

I realized that the work I was doing in those moments was not unlike the work I’ve done with college literary magazines, where my job was to take boatloads of crazy and edit it into art. The only differences are (1) the level of finesse expected in the finished project and (2) the fact that I care about my k-6 authors. (Lit mag authors are, by a disturbingly high percentage, complete tools with ego problems and while this is not a non-existent occurrence among children, children are generally more capable of accepting advice on their work and reproof for rudeness, making them infinitely easier to get along with.) To teach my kids that they are capable of anything they set their minds to, that they matter to me and to their community, all I had to do was polish and organize their work enough for their audience of teachers and parents to be able to make sense of what they had done.  I was curating.

As I pondered the idea of a teacher as curator, I thought back to the original sense of the word and realized that caregiver was a good way of looking at what I was doing. When I pulled out my dictionary and found the spiritual sense of the word, it also struck me as relevant. Sometimes, the best thing I can do for my kids is simply to care about them enough that I am capable of interpreting their work so that a wide audience of their caregivers can appreciate them more fully.

Not to go sappy here, but this feels a little bit like a life-calling to me.

 

Stop. Right. There.

Here’s a cliche for you: bad things come in threes. Here’s another: everything happens for a reason. And have you heard the one about the ancient Chinese curse of an interesting life?

Life this week has not been uninteresting, bad things come in more than threes sometimes, and if I’m being prepared to deal with more interesting times ahead, I’d prefer to pass, if it’s all the same to you.

If you read my last post, you know I had an interesting end to the week last week and have been recuperating from a fortunately minor bout of pneumonia. I was feeling well enough to visit my grandparents on Sunday, but easily fatigued. The entire week thus far, I have been feeling about the same: mostly healthy, but completely wiped out. When I am tired, my emotional control deteriorates faster than the control of a Vulcan during pon farr, so as I relate my week to you, bear in mind that things may currently seem worse than they are in my mind because I am and have been tired almost to the point of tears for no reason.

Monday, 11:46 a.m.: Bad Thing #1

Monday brought, by far, the worst moment in my week. A friend called me from many states away to tell me she was in the hospital with a potentially very serious and at that point unidentified affliction. Just for a frame of reference to explain how important this friend is to me–when I email my sisters, Gmail recommends adding her to the list. She’s family. She’s many states away and suffering. The week has brought more answers as to what’s going on, but not the best news ever. Good thoughts, prayers, and being available in any way I can be from hundreds of miles away is all I can offer to help the situation. The best thing that has come of that announcement so far is that my own recent jaunt to the hospital was put into perspective: I was suddenly grateful. Grateful, first because I was in and out in a five short hours with a very effective prescription and second, because the experience gave me a better sense of empathy for those suffering the curious hell that we call “waiting for news in a hospital.”

I would rather have had that negative experience alone without ever needing to translate it into empathy for my friend. If you have good thoughts or prayers to spare, please send them her way.

Tuesday, 8:27 a.m.: Bad Thing #2

At the moment, bad thing number two seems hilarious to me. No big deal. Whatever. The situation has been revolved, all other key adults have given their approval of how I handled the situation, and the child in question has been punished appropriately by his parents. That said…

It started with a card game gone awry and escalated into a battle of wills which ended with one of my students screaming bloody murder on and off (mostly on) for a solid twenty minutes. Normally, I would conduct a child with such a nasty display of temper to a quiet, safe spot and allow him or her to scream it out. Once the screaming had run dry (if a parent had not yet arrived to deal with the situation), I would have a chat with the child about the situation. This child’s timing, however, was just perfect–this fit was being thrown as the school buses were unloading kids into the halls, which meant that this tantrum was making the child late for class.

Parents, I have only one question for you: WHY?!? Why would you deliberately put yourself in the place of possibly having to be the final authority on that sort of problem for eighteen years? I dealt with it for an hour (20 minute tantrum, 40+ minutes of documenting the incident and communicating with my boss and parents) and I was about two screaming minutes more of quitting education altogether.

Wednesday, 4:15 p.m.: Bad Thing #3

I am in education, not healthcare. My program is licensed for school-age children who are 100% potty-trained. Accidents happen on occasion, but generally to children who are capable of cleaning themselves up. Except for today. I can’t give you details. You don’t want details. Suffice it to say that I spent forty gagged, gloved minutes trying to clean up feces and a child who seemed convinced they were a toy. I am seriously questioning my life choices at the moment.

I’m not quite kidding. Mom asked me the other day why I was in education because I had made a wry observation that was not particularly generous towards the nature of children. I laughed her question off. Anyone who knows me knows that I have an extremely cynical streak to begin with, but in dealing with kids I think it sometimes makes me better at my job. I have no rose-colored glasses on when it comes to kids. They are creatures of self and desire who are learning to become part of a community. This does not mean they are monsters–far from it. They’re weird little caterpillars who are quite capable of looking scary at times as they go through cycles of growth. It’s an amazing, miraculous, unique process which takes my breath away even when the frustrations of guiding them in as much as I can makes me want to shave my head and move to Tibet.

But cleaning up poop? Dude, I did not sign up for that.

Wednesday, 8:47 p.m.: Bad Thing #4

Charlie had called me just before I got home tonight, but as I wanted a shower and a meal, I didn’t call her back. She called me again a little later to inform me that our sister Cho is also having some health issues. Her wording was vague yet just precise enough to give me a scare, so I called both my mom and Cho and eventually got the story. Cho is not dying, she’s not in the hospital, but she could also use a serious dose of good thoughts and prayers.

If anyone else is thinking of ending up in the hospital, having an angry meltdown on me, or forcing me to clean up poo…I have a request. Don’t. Stop right there, turn around, and return to a happy, healthy, poo-free status quo. I would be extremely thankful for your efforts in this matter, particularly with the STAYING HEALTHY AND ALIVE bit. Also, I would love to hear epic good news from whoever is hogging all the world’s good karma this week. Share the joyful news, whoever you are, so we can all be vicariously happy, okay?

To Light a Fire

Friday was my last day of camp for the summer. I’m left with a terrible melancholy. I don’t know if I will ever get to see those kids again, and I already miss them. I’ve missed my school-year kids too, but to be honest with you, this summer was a lesson in how environment impacts relationships. Working in a beautiful place with caring, committed, engaged teachers who love what they do for an organization that made sure we had everything we needed freed me to turn much of my attention to developing relationships with my kids. Now that I’m about to be plunged back into the stifling box of a school cafeteria with one-fourth of the staff (relative to the number of kids) and a corporate funding system that gives me the barest of bare minimums to work with…

But it doesn’t do any good to have the director throw a temper tantrum, does it?

Not that camp was all peaches and cream. I had plenty of moments where the heat and the hiking and the exhaustion were all but overwhelming. Goodness knows I had my moments where I wanted to stick my fingers in my ears and run in circles singing, “I can’t hear you! LALALALA!” One of my kids, for example, had the worst attitude I have ever encountered. He’s a bright kid with a knack for drawing and writing, and he’s a quick wit to boot. If anyone in my group caught on to my habit of sill word play, it was usually him. The moments in which I got to enjoy these wonderful traits, however, were often in the far back of my mind when I was dealing with the fact that he whined about everything and constantly dragged his feet.

“I don’t want to hike.”

“Do we have to fish?”

“I hate those granola bars. Don’t you have anything better?”

“This camp sucks. I hate this place.”

I lost it with him towards the end of camp. I don’t remember where we were going, but I was hanging back trying to cheer him up and get him into the spirit. I was tired myself and struggling against a nasty headache when he announced that he wished he had never been accepted into the camp, and I just lost it.

“You know what?” I said. “I’m sick of hearing about how much you hate this camp. We work our butts off to try to make camp fun for a lot of different kids with a lot of different interests. You say you hate everything, and quite frankly, that hurts my feelings and I’m done listening to it.”

Then I walked away. I caught up with some of the other kids in the group, only glancing over my shoulder often enough to make sure he was still in sight and safe. He walked a little faster when I wasn’t trying to convince him to get his rear in gear, so I just left it at that. He never apologized to me for his attitude and I never apologized to him for getting angry. I didn’t interact with him very much for the rest of the day, which seemed fine by him. The next morning, we were back in our old routine, though he didn’t complain quite as much and I didn’t try quite as hard to persuade him to get engaged.

I’d like to say that I had a miracle moment with him where all of a sudden he saw the light and all of our camp experiences became a wonderland he could enjoy with reckless abandon, but I’d be lying. I struggled with his bad attitude right through the last morning of camp when he moaned that he wanted to go with the other group to do the exact same activity we’d be doing. The whining lasted up to the moment when he realized he might get a chance to build a fire.

What can I say? Fire can burn the grouch out of the worst  of us, myself included. Since you can’t exactly let nine-year-old boys play with matches unsupervised, I worked closely with him and another boy as they tried to work out the best way to build a fire to boil water as some other teams from out group worked out other survival tasks like catching a fish and building a shelter. I love building fires, and the activity turned into a bonding over a common interest that had the three of us laughing and collaborating on a level I hadn’t managed to achieve with this particular student all summer.

We were supposed to build a one-match fire, on the premise that we were surviving a shipwreck with limited supplies. Our kit had more like thirty matches, fortunately, because we were working with damp wood and windy conditions. It took us all the matches save one to get that darned thing going, but get it going we did. When the smoking leaves suddenly caught the twigs, which eventually spread their warmth out to the larger sticks, the three of us could have been mistaken for a laughing pack of hyenas.

The joy did not carry so far into the day as to induce this child to dance at our pizza party or swim during swim time or share during our closing circle. I doubt that it will break through his tightly held shell of pretended coolness anytime soon. This kid is a geek who hasn’t yet learned that being a geek is awesome, and at this point all I can do is hope that some memory of camp will eventually contribute to him learning to love living in his own way. I think much of my frustration with him stemmed from the fact that I have lived most of my life in his tiny, scared shoes and I still didn’t know how to draw him out to dance barefoot in the grass. It takes more than one small pan of fire-boiled water to release a person from that kind of fear. I know that, believe me.

And yet…when we were shooing the kids onto the buses for the final time, this boy hung back from the rest to look up at me with a grin that split his face in two. “I’m definitely coming back to visit, Miss Melissa.”

“You’d better.”

Did I mention that I already miss my kids?

 

 

Here, Fishy, Fishy

Do you remember learning to fish? I do. Lesson one, courtesy of Sesame Street, has always stuck with me.

Unfortunately, Ernie’s fish call has never worked for me. In fact, it went quite contrary to my dad’s number one rule about fishing: be quiet or you’ll scare the fish away. Given his track record for fishing, I can’t say that I would recommend taking real lessons from him, but all the important things stuck. First, you never let your fishing pole swing around. Second, your hook should always be secure if it’s not in the water or about to be cast in. Third, if you’re not going to eat it, throw it back. Fourth, stroke the spines down.

There were other lessons, I’m sure. Some of them he merely modeled the behavior, never teaching us explicitly. I realized last week, as my kids were begging me to take them fishing, that I had no idea how to tie a hook onto a line. I remember watching Dad do this a thousand times growing up, but if he ever taught me outright, it went in one ear and out the other. I’m not much for fishing, so what use would I have for it?

Fortunately, while I was up at camp this weekend, my uncle showed me how to tie a decent knot in fishing line to attach the hook to the line. I have enough practice messing about with string that I picked it up quickly. When Monday morning came, I was eager to show off my newly acquired skill of awesomeness to my kids, so I grabbed the hooks, line, and a pair of safety scissors and marched them out to the fishing pond.

Life Lesson #Umpteen: if you try to prove that you’re cool, you will regret it. My first fail of the day was the classic error of assumption. We’re only supposed to use barb-less hooks at the camp, so I assumed that the person who purchased them had bought barb-less hooks. Apparently, however, our local department store doesn’t carry such things, so he bought regular hooks that we were supposed to flatten with pliers. In my excited attention to tying line to sticks and hooks to line, I somehow managed to completely overlook the fact that I was giving the kids barbed hooks.

Through sheer dumb luck and rigorous consequences held over the heads of anyone who failed to follow the safety procedures, no one was injured horrifically by the barbed hooks. Unfortunately, through another stroke of sheer dumb luck (and a bit of cruel ingenuity involving a rather large ant), one of my kids actually caught a fish. At that moment, I remembered another lesson I had learned by observing my dad: the most experienced grown-up takes the fish off the frickin’ hook.

My co-counselor is 19 or 20 and built like a brick wall. Given this and the fact that he’s a guy, I held the line gingerly and looked at him imploringly to take over and get the fish off the hook. That was another incorrect assumption – he had never been fishing before. Dad, I know you’ll laugh at this, but I was the oldest, most experienced fisher in the group. I had to dig down deep to get through what happened next. As calmly as I could manage, I told my cluster of campers what Dad had always told us about smoothing down the spines from the head to avoid being stuck and did my best to mimic the practiced care with which I always watched Dad release a fish. I held the line with one hand then gently grasped the fish with my other. I moved my hand down the line to the hook to remove it…

And that’s when I realized we were not fishing with barb-less hooks.

At first, I tried to remove the hook with minimal damage to the fish’s lip. That might have worked, by the fish freaked out and flopped and I freaked out and dropped it. I directed the successful fisher to drop the line back into the water to let the fish (and I) breathe before the second attempt. I then resolved that quicker was better, for myself and the fish, and decided that I wouldn’t worry about how chewed up the fish’s lip got in the process. I was on my way to succeeding when one of the girls (looking in through the gills), decided to start describing in detail what she could see of the fish’s inner workings.

Plop! Back into the water he went. I suggested that we let the fish swim around for a minute to see if he would free himself from the hook, but apparently the injured, oxygen-deprived, six-inch sunfish was not more capable of disentangling himself from a hook meant for a heavier, meaner, smarter fish. His little swim did give me enough time to come up with a plan: I’d hold the fish while my co-counselor used the safety scissors to cut off the offending end of the hook.

Lesson #Duh: Safety scissors will not cut through a stainless steel fish hook.

On the fourth attempt, I finally managed to yank the hook out of the poor suffering fish and toss him back into the pond to nurse his wounds in peace. The positive outcome of the event was that my kids were utterly convinced I’m mad cool for about twenty minutes. The pragmatic outcome? They are going to have to be angelic paragons of good behavior if they ever want to convince me to take them fishing again.