Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Alchemist and Louis L'Amour

By Alexandre Baron
Last weekend I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho for the first time. Yes, I know it is not new by any means and I would guess that many of you have read it long ago. There are many layers that one can read into the story but I would like to point out two that struck me.

I think most people would say that the overall theme of the story is pursuing one's passions and dreams. The obvious question to me is "do we allow space in schools for pursuing dreams?" It seems to me that we are too busy covering curriculum and meeting standards. I am sure that I have said it before, but I hate standardization. The reason is that standardization drowns out passion and crowds out dreams.

The thing that struck me most about the book was about the channels of learning in the book. Santiago learns in many ways: reading, from experts (the king Melchizedek, the gypsy, the crystal shop owner, the Englishman, the leader of their desert caravan, and finally the Alchemist), from experiences, from following his heart, but most of all from nature. He learns from watching his sheep and camels. He learns from the desert. Contrast Santiago to the Englishman who primarily learns from books. I think the Englishman represents Western text-based learning whereas Santiago is a more ancient, Eastern, holistic learning from nature. Santiago learns by living life and observing life and nature everywhere. Western schools need to be more like Santiago.

Santiago also reminds me of my favorite childhood author, Louis L'Amour. He was a western writer and I loved his stories. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, L'Amour details his "education." Much like Santiago he left home when he was 15 and explored the world. He had jobs as a boxer, sailor, lumberjack, elephant handler in a circus, skinner of dead cattle, assessment miner, a tourist guide in Egypt, and a tank officer during World War II. He sailed the world and was shipwrecked in the West Indies. The other thing that L'Amour did was read-all of the time. Let me share some quotes from his memoir:

This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office. or even a newsstand...

Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance...

this book is about education, but not education in the accepted sense. No man or woman had a greater appreciation for schools than I, although few have spent less time in them. No matter how much I admire our schools, I know that no university exists that can provide an education; what a university can provide is an outline, to give the learner a direction and guidance. The rest one has to do for oneself.
If I asked what education should give, I would say it should offer a breadth of view, ease of understanding, tolerance for others, and a background from which the mind can explore in any direction.
Education should provide the tools for widening and deepening of life, for increased appreciation of all one sees or experiences. It should equip a person to live life well, to understand what is happening about him, for to live life well one must live with awareness...We can only hope they come upon an issue they wish to pursue.

By Sandy Redding

To me this is another example of how all of our ideas to "change" education are really not new. Leading thinkers understood this years ago before computers even existed. I can't help but think that L'Amour would find even less use for schools as they still exist today with the easy access to knowledge through the internet. Lous L'Amour was a self-made man in many ways, but he understood that learning is available for anyone who passionately pursues it.

My favorite quote is his reasoning for dropping out of school and leaving home: I left for two reasons, economic necessity being the first of them. More important was that school was interfering with my education.

He goes on to explain how the factory model of school would not let him skip basic classes and take higher classes that he was more interested in. So he dropped out and pursued his own learning. He later says, that dropping out is a good option only for those who are willing to read hundreds of books on their own. Certainly does not seem to be watering down learning, does he?

How can we create a climate that encourages students to dream and pursue passions rather than "interfere with their education?"

PS: I was very surprised to hear my pastor tell this story to close his message today. It sounds to me like "The Alchemist" used this as the basis of its plot.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ode to Concrete

Note this post is for the National Day of Writing. It is being submitted to Bud Hunt's gallery in the National Gallery of Writing.   It has nothing to do with education or technology or does it ....
my school sidewalk
Ode to Concrete

To most people concrete is grey, cold, sterile, and under their feet. It is hard, rough, practical, taken for granted, and ugly.
To me concrete is the greatest material in the world. It is the ultimate in tensions.

from Andrew Carr
Concrete is natural. It is aggregate(sand and stone), cement, and water. It is earth. It was invented by the Romans and it is the only thing left from the ancient world not built of stone.
Concrete is technology. It is man-made and full of chemicals: fly ash, water reducers, superplasticizers, accelerators, and retarders. There are complicated mix designs for innumerable applications. It is chemistry and science at its finest. There is even translucent concrete now.

Concrete is hard. It is sidewalk that scratches knees.

Concrete is soft. It is like pancake batter or chunky soup when mixed. It changes form. It is fluid and then very solid. It is a shape-shifter that adapts to any container. It can be formed, molded, carved, or engraved.

Concrete is strong. It is
walls that hold back earth, foundations that hold up massive skyscrapers, and bridges that hold thousands of cars.

Concrete is weak. It shifts in cold climates and always cracks. It requires steel inside for tensile strength. When designed and placed improperly it crumbles under earthquakes and kills thousands.

Concrete is ugly. It stands for industrialism and urban landscapes that are bleak with no life: the concrete jungle.

Concrete is beautiful.
It can be formed, molded, carved, engraved, ground, polished, and stained. It can be personalized with embedded objects. It is my art and I love it for its flaws and imperfections.
Concrete is a lot like me.

PS Here is a slideshow of some of my concrete art.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No one is "Waiting for Superman"

No one knows about or cares about Waiting for Superman Really.

I have not seen the movie, but have read many blogposts and newspaper reviews about it. I feel fed up with the negative portrayal of teachers just like many others. But does it really matter?

Very few people are going to see this movie or even know about it. Probably more people saw the "commercial" for it on Oprah than will actually see the movie. Jackass 3-D was the number one movie this past weekend and Superman fell two places to 18th on the list of movies viewed.
With just over 2.5 million in total sales at $10 a ticket that is only 250,000 people. If we double that to half a million people to count for free viewings and cheaper tickets (I am being overly generous here) that is around 1 out of every 700 Americans.

Try this quick quiz with some people you know in real life:
  1. What is Waiting for Superman?
  2. Tell me everything you know about it.
  3. Who is Michelle Rhee?
  4. Tell me everything you know about her.
  5. Who is Joe Klein/Geoffrey Canada/fill in your favorite "reformer" here?
  6. Tell me everything you know about them.
You can add any fun questions you want to this list. Ask your spouse, neighbors, or friends. I am willing to bet you will get responses like this:

Now ask your colleagues at school. Did you get better answers? Again I bet probably not. So if no one watches Superman and no one knows about it then how dangerous is it really? I think for the average American it is as important as this is.

PS: Of course, I know that it matters that we debate this stuff at many levels, but I think edubloggers are over reacting at the effect of this movie on the average American.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


So Binary Day is a cool day. It is a lucky day to the Chinese to get married. Why not have a baby?

You may have to click to my post to see the video. It is not showing up in my Google Reader.

Turns out locally (story) that one couple has had a baby each of the last three years. The birthdays are 08-08-08, 09-09-09, and now 10-10-10. An interesting story and the first thought I had are what are the odds of that?

I think this leads into an interesting problem/ discussion. I would ask students: "How random was this or do you think that they cheated?" Students could decide if they were "aiming" for these dates and if this is a truly "random" problem.

What do you think? Is this worthy question for your class and how would you use it?