Just Coolin’ — First Impressions

Just Coolin

With everything going wrong in the world right now, it was a pleasure to salve my frayed nerves with the never-before-released 1959 studio album by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Just Coolin’, available today for the first time. The personnel comprising this edition of the Messengers features a Philly-area-heavy cast: Lee Morgan on trumpet, Hank Mobley on tenor sax, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on the bass. Lee Morgan is the real draw for me here, and I couldn’t resist purchasing the album on iTunes on the first day it was available.

The first track is “Hipsippy Blues,” one of three Mobley compositions on the album. It is a proto-soul-jazz number with a loping pace. Mobley takes the first solo, followed by Morgan who is urged on by Blakey. Lee Morgan liked to build drama in his solos early in his career, and you hear him telling a story that builds in intensity on this track, but it ends about a chorus too soon. In fact, that’s my primary source of disappointment with this album: all of Morgan’s solos feel like they end before he really gets cooking.

I enjoyed the uptempo “Jimerick” which is the third track on Side 1. All of the musicians seem to thrive on this blazing romp, and it is one of the better examples of Timmons’ playing on the album. You can hear a little bit of Ahmad Jamal and Red Garland in his solos on this album. Interestingly, the producers don’t know whom to credit as the composer of this number. None of the tunes are credited to Morgan; I wonder if this is one of his?

The second track on Side 2, “M&M” is the one that speaks to me the most. This Mobley composition features a typically Jazz Messenger-y horns-in-unison melody. Perhaps the title refers to Mobley and Morgan together? Mobley leads off with his finest solo on the album. He sounds less like a pre-bossa Stan Getz (which is very noticeable on “Close Your Eyes” and “Jimerick”) and more like the Mobley of the ‘60s on this tune. Morgan’s solo is a fine one, too, and he shows off his variety of skills, from the incandescent high notes to the funky smears. This is the only track that features trading fours before restating the melody at the end. The order is Mobley, Blakey, Morgan, and this sequence is one of the better moments on the album.

Other than the fours on “M&M,” we only hear Blakey solo on two tracks: “Jimerick” and “Just Coolin’.” On the one hand, I appreciate it as a jazz fan when drummer-led sessions don’t feature too many gratuitous drum solos. On the other hand, I found the two drum solos to be among the best solos on the album, and it is joy to hear Blakey in his youthful prime.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t consider Just Coolin’ to be one of top Jazz Messengers albums, but that’s not really a fair measuring stick since there are so many, and featuring such an incredible cast of revolving young talent. Jazz Messengers albums tend to be snapshots in time and not conceptual pieces pushed as would-be masterpieces. In the future I’m more likely to reach (digitally speaking) for Free For All (1964) than Just Coolin’, but in the dog days of summer during a pandemic, you won’t regret buying this lost bit of jazz history.

Remote Teaching this Spring

I was a very techy teacher back in the 2013-15 era before I stepped out of the classroom to be a fulltime administrator. Back then, I was having my students blog, use Twitter, live audience polling, post video, and so forth. I was a flag-waver for the #edtech revolution, and so I find myself feeling unthreatened by the current remote-learning model. That doesn’t mean that I’m throwing a lot of fancy tech at my students in an attempt to recreate what we used to do in our physical classroom, though.

Louis Kahn taught us that materials speak to us about what they want to be. A brick wants to be an arch, for example. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, what does remote English teaching want to be? Every teacher might find a different answer inside themselves. For me, remote English teaching wants to be about quiet reading and personal writing with an authentic audience to provide feedback. That means that blogs should be at the center of the practice.

For our occasional synchronous classes, I’m keeping things simple and not leaning heavily on video chat. I like the peaceful calm of posting a classwork activity, sending students off to work on it, then regrouping to share what we learned or did. Most of this can be done just by posting text or media in a channel in Teams. I know that many of my colleagues are becoming Zoom ninjas at a blistering pace, but I’m resisting going in that direction. As an administrator, I’ve been participating in Zoom meetings with vendors for years, so this interface isn’t an exciting new toy. And as a devotee of Susan Cain’s “Quiet Revolution” I’ve been trying to stop punishing my introverted students for years. I miss the real world, face-to-face discussions in the classroom, sure, but they were flawed. One third of the class does 80% of the talking, and that’s only referring to the available space left after I fill much of it with my own hot air. In this asynchronous model, each student receives an equal claim on my attention, and their extrovert-introvert trait is filtered out. (Teachers everywhere must be alert to equity issues at this time, however. Do all the students have equal access to technology, wifi, protected time, safety, and security?)

Right now, we are barely past the one-week mark in our new paradigm. The students’ blogs (mostly on Google’s Blogger platform) are private, and I am the only audience for each. As they post more substantial work, I plan to ask them to expand their audiences – slowly, and in a curated fashion. First invite one classmate to be a peer editor. Then invite one family member to react to your writing. In this fashion by the end of April, the students will hopefully have three levels of audience for their blogs (teacher, peer, family), and we might be able to invite some other members of the English department into the walled garden, too.


Summer Reading ’19

Last summer the conditions were perfect for me to get a lot of reading done. This summer was much more challenging. My older child has dropped his afternoon nap, and the new baby needs constant attention. Not surprisingly, I dropped from nine books last summer to four this summer, and it was a stretch for me to get even that little reading done. Nonetheless, it is a point of pride for me to set a good example for my students; especially since I am teaching ninth grade English once again this year.

Here’s what I managed to complete:

McCracken, Elizabeth. Bowlaway. I thought it would be fun to read a well-reviewed novel in which candlepin bowling is a key topic while up at our place in Vermont. (Candlepin bowling is a New England regional variant of the game.) As all multi-generational novels do, this one introduces characters only to kill them off as the reader travels through the years. I’m afraid that I found the first generation of characters in this novel to be the most interesting, so after McCracken kills them off, it is all downhill.

Wilkinson, Lauren. American Spy. I see that President Obama has this novel on the summer reading list that he just published, so as usual, Barack and I have much in common. Just two Columbia alums putting up their feet and reading some good stuff in the lazy summer months, right? American Spy is an engrossing read, but I wish that it had a more satisfying ending. Regardless, this LeCarre-esque spy thriller told from the point of view of a black American woman is something you haven’t read before. As a parent of young kids, I sympathized with the narrator as she addresses her tale to her sons.

Brodesser-Akner, Taffy. Fleishman is in Trouble. I gravitate towards New-York-Jewish-comic novels, but I have read few that turn out to be as smart as this one. Not only is the author a keen observer of human behavior, but the very assumptions of what you think you are reading begin to shift on you as you move into the second half of Fleishman is in Trouble. Is the protagonist actually the person you thought was the protagonist? Is the Fleishman of the book’s title even the Fleishman you thought it was?? I can’t use a book that is so sexually frank with ninth grade students, but it would be a pleasure to read the critical essays it would inspire.

Hammett, Dashiell. The Glass Key. I wanted to end the summer with a palate cleanser that wasn’t recently published and which would be a change of pace from contemporary fiction. While I’ve read all of Raymond Chandler, heretofore The Maltese Falcon was the only Hammett novel I had read, and I have been meaning to get to his other famous novels one of these days. (Hammett’s fiction supplies the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle with a lot of material, and that keeps reminding me to read his stuff.) I can’t say that I loved The Glass Key, but its journalistic narrative style, in which the protagonist’s thoughts are never expressed, only his actions, was quite a change of pace.

I look forward to learning about the summer reading that my students completed. I hope I’ve got some avid readers who cranked through more than I did this year!

Using Watson to Analyze REACH Leave Data

When our deans’ office decided to move to a paperless, digital sign-in and sign-out system (“SISO”) three years ago, we had a number of goals in mind. Of course we wanted to reduce friction in the process, and we were sold on the idea that event-specific permissions were better than standing permissions, and we were conscious of keeping up with the Joneses, too. But for me, the most exciting prospect in going digital was the data.

Before we partnered with REACH, our students signed in and out for day trips on a clipboard, and they filled out carbon-paper forms for overnight trips. This system was in place for decades, and it generated tons and tons of useless data because no one had the time or proclivity to hand enter all of that leave information into a spreadsheet. With REACH, we can pull up leave data with a couple of clicks, refine that data with some useful filters, and export it to Excel in seconds. To get a year’s worth of data in one file, I needed a little assistance from the team at REACH, but once I had my hands on it, the ideas started sprouting.

Brad Rathgeber has written about the steep rise in demand for student services at independent schools, and that demand is affecting boarding school dean’s offices particularly strongly. There are no easy solutions, but moving SISO digital and learning from the mountains of data that it produces might help point us in the right direction. I’m especially interested to see how we might reconfigure our staffing and structures to focus on areas that represent the greatest risks to our students, and maybe ease off a bit in areas where the data show us we can coast.

I’m not a professional data scientist. I’m basically an English teacher who grew up and became a dean. (Full disclosure: I have a BA in Art History and an MA in English.) My wife, who teaches AP Statistics, is far more qualified to perform serious analyses of all of our leave data, but for better or for worse, this is my project. How then to go about making sense of all of this data? How does one take a spreadsheet with 3,153 rows and eleven columns (after some pruning) and extract real insights?

The most recent update to REACH’s system built in a quick and dirty data visualization tool, and I imagine that it could be very useful to any of our dorm heads, for instance, who want to look at a week’s worth of leave data for the students in their dorm. A sample looks like this:

REACH chart snip

But REACH’s built-in data visualization tool can’t produce useful charts for the size of the data I wanted to work with. Excel can do it, but when I use its “recommended charts” function, it strikes out and comes up with nothing. If I know what I want my visualized data to look like in advance, I can hammer away at Excel and, after a lot of work, get it to spit our some decent data visualizations, but that’s not the process I’ve been craving. What I really want is to have the computer do the work for me and tell me things I don’t already know. That sounds like a job for AI.

Back when I was building my chatbot for the deans’ office three years ago, I became aware that IBM gives free access to a lot of their tools. Why not upload our leave data into Watson, which is theoretically one of the most advanced AI systems in the world? (Importantly, the spreadsheet I uploaded includes no private student data that could be a liability in a data breach. There are no SSNs, phone numbers, addresses, etc.)

When you upload a lot of data to Watson, it immediately spits out visualizations (“insights”) that it thinks are interesting to you. Since Watson doesn’t know much about boarding schools and what a dean of students does, most of those insights are useless. I’m not interested in calendar year-over-year changes, for instance. (But I am interested in school year-over-year changes, and I may get around to looking at that data one of these days.) And I’m not interested in the lovely charts Watson spits out that tell me things that everyone at our school already knows. (e.g. How many dorms are there?) But as I poked and prodded, and cleaned up our data, and followed promising breadcrumbs, eventually I was able to coax Watson into producing data visualizations that are spectacular.

Watson Slides tiles

[Slides are intentionally low-res to protect student privacy.] 

Watson effortlessly produces a bar chart that shows how many leaves have been produced by each dorm, stacked side by side, with colors within each bar that indicate the different “leave types” that we offer as options to our students. (e.g. Weekend Overnight – home, Day trip – student driver, etc.) It would take me ages to produce this same chart using Excel, and it wouldn’t look as professional and elegant if I was successful. This chart allows me (and anyone else with a decent understanding of our school’s reslife structure) to see at a glance differences between the behaviors of the student populations in the different dorms. This prompts all kinds of interesting questions, such as: Which dorm populations are behaving in a riskier manner? And why do two dorms with nearly identical populations evince such different leave behavior?

The most fascinating charts that Watson produced for me are the ones that took the most raw computing power. These are scatter charts that come out looking like heads of broccoli and which show things such as which destinations are the most popular with which dorms, or which transportation types are being used the most by which dorms. At first my non-data-scientist brain failed to grok how useful these scatter charts really are, but the longer you stare at them, the more the layers of visualized data begin to speak to you. Once I realized how cool they were, I felt inspired to go back to the raw data and do the data hygiene work necessary to eliminate the garbage-in/garbage-out problem and make the charts really sing. I told myself at the start of this process that I would never have the patience for that, but my desire to get the most out of these analyses overpowered my distaste for Excel tedium. With the data cleaned up, the scatter charts prompt all kinds of interesting questions, such as: Do we have the right levels of permissions set up when students go to the most popular off-campus destinations? Or, why is Dorm X such an outlier?

After playing around with Watson for several weeks, I came to understand that I wanted it to give me day-of-the-week specific analyses. I’m curious about this because I want to be able to see at a glance what the busiest times of the week are for our office, and to track how that changes during different seasons. But the spreadsheet I fed into Watson had dates without a day of the week column. Cut to a scene of me watching an hour of YouTube tutorials about how to add that column to an Excel spreadsheet. As of this writing, I’ve succeeded in adding the column (it takes about six clicks in Excel), but I haven’t yet coaxed Watson into visualizing the data the way I’m hoping to get it. Still, Ben Franklin wrote, “He that can have patience can have what he will.” I believe in time I’ll be able to make this work.

It won’t be long before every school that is using a digital SISO system such as REACH employs AI to extract insights. Those insights will help us keep kids safe and maybe, if we are lucky, lessen the workload in our dean’s offices. The beautiful data visualizations are important in their own right. These charts communicate truths about what is going on at our schools, and our senior administrators and board members would be better equipped to make strategic decisions for our institutions if they receive reports featuring data presented this way. Watson is the tool with which I’ve been working, but I’m looking forward to seeing what other schools do to tackle the big data output available thanks to REACH.

Back from Paternity Leave

Today is my first day back at work after a nearly seven-week paternity leave. This was my second paternity leave, and, I expect, my last. As I wrote the last time, I am very lucky to be able to take such a long leave (though the folks in Silicon Valley are taking much more time off), and I’m grateful to the colleagues who picked up my work while I was gone. Because I live and work at a boarding school, I was never truly absent from the community, so I got the best of both worlds: the time off to focus on my family and the loving arms of my colleagues/friends. Every time I left my apartment to walk to my car, I passed a half-dozen colleagues who wanted to know how the baby was doing, how my wife was doing, etc. Fortunately, we’re all doing very well.

A parental leave isn’t meant to be a time for self improvement projects, but there is some (unpredictable) down time, so I did a little reading and a little professional development. Michiko Kakutani’s NYTimes review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf was published shortly after my leave began, and I was sufficiently intrigued to purchase the book on a rare foray outside the house. What with the lack of sleep and such, it took me a whole month to read it, but it is a fascinating fantasy world that Marlon James has constructed. I feel like I  need to reread it in order to go back and try to understand things in the first 100 pages that make better sense after reaching the end, but I don’t know when I’ll ever get around to that. In the NYTimes podcast, James said that this will be the first book in a trilogy that tells the same story from the points of view of three different characters, so maybe if I read the next two installments I’ll be able to put it all together.

While on leave I got sucked in by an ad on Facebook (never a good idea!) so I did some business coursework on the Smart.ly app. They tempted me with a come-on about a tuition-free MBA, but there is a legit admissions process for that, and I don’t really need an MBA. Anyway, their basic Accounting units did teach me some things that I had never learned, and the repetitive exercises helped hammer into my permanent memory fundamentals about balance sheets that I’m glad to have digested.

I also decided to avail myself of a month of free access to LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com). I found this to be a great resource, and I might pony up for an annual membership. There are tons of useful videos to improve one’s skills with Microsoft and Google software, so I learned some things about pivot tables in Excel and did some basic project management coursework. I’m excited to play around with Microsoft Flow, and I want to make another attempt to get my colleagues in the deans’ office to use Microsoft Planner. (It integrates with Teams well.) When you complete courses on LinkedIn Learning, you can automatically post those skills to your LinkedIn profile. This feels a little disingenuous, since watching a ninety minute video on project management doesn’t actually make me a skilled professional in that field, but the behaviorist carrot still led me to want to watch more and more videos. Because parenting makes it harder for me to get away to conferences, having this bottomless learning resource that lives in an app on my phone and iPad seems very convenient. They could improve the UX, though. I found it hard to get back to videos in progress if I had to interrupt a session, and other online video portals have that figured out. (YouTube and Netflix, for instance.)

Now the hard part begins: working full time while also being a dedicated parent to a three-year-old and an infant. I’m going to miss lots of developmental milestones in my daughter’s first year of life while I’m at work, but spring break is coming up soon, and summer vacation not long after that. It’s tragic that so many parents don’t have half as much time with their children as I do.

Teaching Shrew during the Kavanaugh confirmation

Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew has been a cornerstone of the ninth grade English curriculum since before I came to work at George School thirteen years ago. This year marks my ninth year teaching the text; I taught ninth grade for my first eight years here, then took three years off to be a full-time administrator, and now I’m back teaching just one section of grade nine.

It is a pleasure to get to teach Shakespeare again, but I returned to this particular play this autumn just as the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee (now justice) Brett Kavanaugh was dominating the headlines. I took an informal poll of my students, and some of them keep up with current events and were following the confirmation process and its controversies, but many of them were not. Fourteen-year-olds typically don’t follow politics and world news very closely, but nonetheless, the backdrop of the Kavanaugh hearings has forced me to attend to issues within the play that I often deemphasize with my students.

Directors can take Shrew in many different directions depending on how they choose to stage the physical performances of the actors. The play can feature virtually no physical violence or abuse between Katherine and Petruchio, or it can feature comic violence/abuse that amuses the audience but does not shock it, or it can feature upsetting violence/abuse. That last choice makes the play very much about a man who alters an “ill-behaved” woman’s behavior through physical torture. Because Shakespeare left us few stage directions, there is no one, true interpretation, and like all of Shakespeare’s best plays, each generation can find in the text the play that they most need.

I have always highlighted the multiple ways the play can be understood for my students, but I have tended to focus on issues of feminism and misogyny minus the concern for actual assault. The Bard has left us many clues that the play isn’t meant to be understood superficially, but instead many of the characters’ utterances are ironic, and Katherine’s grand final speech is best when delivered archly. I work with my students to help them understand that the play actually derides the idea that husbands can control their wives. We should ultimately come to believe that Katherine, the shrew of the play’s title, is the most interesting and admirable character in the drama. She isn’t a conformist, she’s courageous, and she’s smarter than everyone around her.

But this year the play feels different. The hinted-at abuse in the play (e.g. Petruchio starves Kate and denies her sleep. Petruchio emotionally abuses her by keeping her away from her family.) can’t be so easily ignored or brushed aside as “just comedy” during a national debate about the responsibility a man bears for drunken sexual assault. I continue to use the American Conservatory Theater’s wonderful 1976 production of the play as the go-to video to share with the class as we grapple with the text, but it is a performance full of broad physical comedy and slapstick violence, and I feel uneasy making excuses for that violence as we watch it. (In truth, I know of no better performance to use as a teaching tool with this play, and the director William Ball made many interesting choices that lead to great discussions in class. The moment in Act 2 when the actress portraying Kate ogles Petruchio’s derriere is divine.) The ACT production carefully balances the comic violence between Kate and Petruchio; she gives as good as she gets, so the audience doesn’t feel like it is witnessing a vulgar display of domestic violence.

My students aren’t naive, though. When we watched the ACT video of Petruchio forcing his first kiss on Katherine in Act 2 (“And kiss me, Kate.”), students called out that the kiss was non-consensual! How right they are, and how uncomfortable it feels to grapple with this text in 2018. While earlier audiences might have accepted the logic that Kate, through her “curst and shrewd” behavior was somehow deserving of this forced kiss (if it leads to a good marriage, anyway), our adolescents today are trained to reject those stereotyped gender roles. Candidly, we hope that they would report such a forced kiss in our community to a trusted adult.

Is Shrew becoming, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a corner of the canon that is just so dangerously close to radioactive topics that we will have to lay it down and stop teaching it? Are we less capable of processing and deciphering satirical content today? There really are no “safe” Shakespeare plays, after all. Every day in class I have to make chancy decisions regarding the sexual innuendos and double entendres in the play. Do I point each one out to my students and risk a swift descent into giggles and loss of focus? (There are no fewer than three penis jokes in Act 3 scene 1 alone!)

For me, the correct answer is to take the plunge, teach the risky text, and address the issues head on. Expect maturity and sophistication from the students, and make class a safe place to discuss adult topics. High school is a bridge between childhood and adulthood, and ninth grade is a bridge between middle school and high school. I’m proud that we set the tone by teaching Shrew in the fall, and I’m not ducking the ugly side of the play this year.

[And if you’ll excuse the brief commercial message: George School is now in its third year of collaboration with The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, and we’ll be welcoming their actors to our campus for a weeklong residency later this month. They take over teaching the entire ninth grade for a week and teach the play from the performing artist’s perspective. I’m proud that we teach the play two ways: as a text in an English class, and as a living script for the theater.]

Four approaches to mobile devices in the classroom

Last school year I dedicated a lot of energy to a project in which a colleague and I rewrote our school’s mobile device policy.  The new policy was approved by the faculty and is adopted for this school year, and it permits greater freedom for individual teachers to allow the use of mobile devices in class.

While I’m relieved that the new policy is in place instead of the old “no-phones-ever” policy, I feel a little guilty that I’ve handed my colleagues a new chore. Most of them will want to write an additional mobile device policy specific to their classroom (or even a specific class, if they are teaching multiple subjects and multiple levels) so that their students will have a clear set of expectations. They don’t have to, per se, as the overarching policy plus our major school rules (no harassing, no academic dishonesty, etc.) cover the needed bases, but I think most of them will want to.

To assuage my guilt, I’ve written four sample policies that represent a spectrum of practices around mobile devices in the classroom, and I’ll be sharing them with my colleagues at an upcoming faculty meeting this week. But anyone reading this can take a look now by clicking this link.

I’ve broken down the four policies on a spectrum as follows:

  • “Cell phone hotel approach” — This is for teachers who never want to use mobile devices in class and who don’t trust students to have them within reach. The idea is that the students place their devices in a receptacle at the beginning of class and retrieve them at the end.
  • “Keep them stashed approach” — In this approach, teachers ask that students keep their devices out of sight during class, but they are in a pocket or a bookbag near to hand if the teacher wants to ask that they be used for some specific purpose. (e.g. “If you want to take a picture of what’s on the board as you exit class, go ahead.”)
  • “Put them face down on the desk approach” — For teachers who anticipate asking students to use their devices often, but who want a degree of control over when they are being used, this approach is a common one.
  • “Techno-futurist-I-have-the-Twitter-logo-tattooed-on-my-posterior approach” — In this approach, students have access to their devices at all times, and they are expected to check their own behavior with few prompts from the teacher.

All four of the policies I wrote have nearly identical language that instructs students to stash all of their mobile devices (phones, tablets, smartwatches) during quizzes and tests so that they are out of sight and will not tempt anyone in the classroom to cheat. We have occasional academic dishonesty situations with gray areas of uncertainty because a teacher noticed after a test began that a student has their phone out. It would be best if they were all just out of sight completely at those times. (Well, my actual conviction as an educator is that it would be best if assessments were so authentic that using a mobile device was a natural thing to do because the assessment is un-cheatable and mimics they way real professionals in the field go about doing their work, but these sample policies were written for a more pragmatic reality.)

I hope my colleagues find my sample policies useful and either pirate them verbatim (with my encouragement) or adapt them to suit their needs. If you have feedback for me, please leave a comment or reach out via Twitter @EricAfterSchool.

A Little Summer Reading

I try to use my summers productively and get a lot of personal reading done. I want to model good reading habits for my students, and I genuinely yearn to escape into some good books in the summer when I have more time to myself and don’t have the constant interruptions that come with work at a boarding school. Of course I am parenting a toddler, so I mostly read when he sleeps, but that still permitted me lots of quiet time over the past two months.

It’s become my habit to start the summer with a Google search for “best books 2018” and “best books 2018 so far.” I read some articles with lists of books recommended by critics, and then selected books that appeared on multiple lists, or which just sounded like the kind of thing that appeals to me. By coincidence, I seem to have read a number of books by young(ish) female novelists this summer. Unlike in past summers, I enjoyed almost every book I picked up this time around. There wasn’t a clunker in the bunch.

A word about media: In an ideal world, I would enjoy the slow pace of the summer and read nothing but traditional, paper books purchased at the wonderful independent book store in the little town in Vermont where I spend my summers. And about half of the books I read this summer came to me that way. However, I also read about half of them via download to the Kindle app on my iPad, which is cheaper and gets your next book into your hands immediately. The app synchs across devices magically, so if I am stuck in my son’s room at 2:00am because he isn’t sleeping well, I can read on my phone for a while without it producing too much light. Nothing beats the reading experience of a real book, but don’t be too quick to sneer at the convenience of ebooks.

Here’s a rundown of what I read, in order.

Krakauer, Into the Wild — I picked up an abandoned paperback copy of this contemporary classic that some student left behind at the end of the school year in the building where I work. I had just noticed that the movie was on Netflix, and I had wanted to watch it, so I thought I’d read the book. Needless to say, it is stunning, and very literary non-fiction. After reading the book, the movie didn’t hold my attention at all, and I gave up on it after 30 minutes or so. Into the Wild made me want to go back and reread the Jack London classics that I haven’t read since I was an adolescent. Perhaps that’s a project for my upcoming paternity leave later this year.

Crosley, Look Alive Out There — I love following Sloane Crosley on Twitter (@askanyone), so when her new collection of essays got great reviews, I was quick to pick it up. It’s a fairly light confection, and although Crosley’s observational eye is very astute, I can’t say that this book has stayed with me after the heavyweight literature that I read afterwards. Still, it was a good way to wake up my reading brain early in the summer.

Kushner, The Mars Room — All the critics seem to have adored The Mars Room, so it was the first of the books I read after scanning all the “best of the year so far” lists. The book doesn’t disappoint, but it does seem to be riding on OITNB‘s coattails a little bit. I enjoyed the unsentimental tone of the novel and the ways in which the protagonist feels like a real person and not a stereotype, but the stories of the incarcerated women seemed to echo too many things I’ve seen on OITNB.

Benjamin, The Immortalists — This was one of my two favorite books of the summer, and I recommend it highly. The book ponders interesting questions of fate, destiny, and self-determination that are rather Sophoclean, but the stories of the four siblings who take turns as protagonists are lively and keep you turning the pages. Unlike several of the other things I read this summer, Benjamin builds towards a satisfying final act, and the book feels complete when you finally put it down.

Greer, Less — This was a departure from my “best of 2018” plan. The publishing world — bookstores, Amazon, Goodreads, etc. — seemed determined to force me to read this comic novel, and my resistance was gradually beaten down by the attractive cover and my weakness for comedy. In truth, the book is fantastic until the final twenty pages or so, which felt like an unsatisfying ending.

Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant — This novel has received tons of critical acclaim, but I found myself comparing it to The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang, which I read two years ago for similar reasons. They are completely different novels about contemporary Chinese-American families, and I suppose I just enjoyed the zany fun of The Wangs a bit more. Li’s examination of the lives of the humble, long-tenured waitstaff of her fictional restaurant is something I haven’t read before, and it has resonated with me ever since I put the book down, so read Number One Chinese Restaurant and The Wangs vs. the World. You’ve got time, right?

Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation — Along with The Immortalists, this was my favorite read of the summer. The book revels in its misanthropy so unapologetically that you just have to go along for the ride. I think the author has succeeded in creating a book that is therapeutic for the reader in a fashion somewhat akin to the catharsis that we are supposed to experience upon watching a tragedy. Just as Harold Bloom has argued that we are forced to become Macbeth as we watch the play, we become Moshfegh’s privileged, self-centered protagonist as we read her novel, and . . . we like it. We feel guilty about it, but we really, really like it. As with Less, the final twenty pages or so feel like a letdown, but the book is so wickedly fun that I can forgive.

Hummel, Still Lives: A Novel — With my hoity-toity BA in Art History from Columbia, I mostly avoid/roll my eyes at “art history mystery” books, but this one got great reviews, so I said, “What the heck.” I’m glad I took a chance. The novel is both right on the money regarding the art world and a good mystery at the same time. Although most of the action takes place in LA, there is a bit of it that takes place near Burlington, VT, and that was a fun coincidence for me since I was reading it in Vermont.

Powers, The Overstory — Full disclosure: I am only halfway through this one. I started reading it right before I left Vermont and returned home to begin my school year, and the book is very long. I actually posted a request for book recommendations on Facebook, and of the many great ideas, this was the one I chose. Every time I pick up The Overstory I get swept away by the beautiful short stories that come together to form one larger narrative (the full extent of which one would only be able to observe if one was as long-lived as a tree, which is the point). I don’t know where it is all headed, but the writing is beautiful. A lot of it reminds me of Ferber’s So Big, which is a novel I read a few years ago because it is a frequent answer in the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle, and I like reading early 20th century novels that are famous yet which no one from my generation has ever read.

There you have it. I look forward to discovering what my ninth grade English students read for pleasure this summer. Perhaps they will have some recommendations for me. Please feel free to tell me what you enjoyed reading this summer in the comments or via Twitter.

At the Brattleboro Farmers’ Market

If you are in Southern Vermont on a Saturday in the summer, it’s worth a trip to the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market. The market is a lost world of hippie charm, a vibe that is accentuated by the total lack of cell service and wifi. Like a lot of farmers’ markets, the vendors are fairly evenly split between eateries serving food for right now, farm stands selling produce to take home, and folksy craftspeople selling their wares.

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My family visits the market at lunchtime every summer Saturday unless there is heavy rain. We put together a lunch of Thai and Indian food, crepes, and whatever treats pop into view. Then we buy vegetables to take home that will serve as the basis for several meals in the week to come. There is always live music in the center of the elliptical campground that forms the market, and there is a big sandbox that is very popular with the preschool crowd. It’s not uncommon to bump into long-lost friends at the market, since just about everyone traveling across Southern Vermont on a pleasant Saturday gets pulled in by the market’s tractor beam.

The market is, for me anyway, the apotheosis of the Vermont lifestyle with all its glories and imperfections. If you go, bring cash and your own cold beverages. They’ve increased the number of picnic tables this year, but folding chairs or a blanket to sit on might come in handy, too.

Things I got done this year

After a challenging 2016-17 school year in which I was pressed into duty as Interim Dean of Students, this year I was able to get back to my regular gig as a mid-level administrator. From this perch I am able to work on projects that are important but not urgent; the sweet spot in the Eisenhower Decision Matrix. Here are some projects I completed this year of which I am particularly proud.

Mobile Device Policy The school’s antiquated Cell Phone Policy has been in place since right after 9/11 when the school realized that it needed to permit students to carry a phone so that they could contact their parents in the event of an emergency. But the old policy was hindering academic innovation by decreeing that phones must be off in classroom buildings. Teaming with our Academic Technology Integrationist, Howard Glasser, we wrote a new policy that addresses mobile devices, not just phones, and permits classroom teachers the flexibility they need to employ mobile technology in their pedagogy if they so choose. The new policy also allows students the latitude to use their devices to stay organized and consult the LMS (Canvas). Since this is a boarding school, we also provided new guidelines for our evening study hall and late-night dorm use. You can read more about the new policy in my last blog post, here.

Endangerment Rewrite Going back to last year, I had been working on a revision to one of our major school rules, “Endangering the Safety of Others.” The language in our handbook was frustrating me because this is a large and important category of behaviors that the deans worry about, but the current policy seems only concerned about the dangers of incendiary devices. I also have grown concerned about dangerous driving, helmetless skateboarding, and students providing each other with tattoos and piercings in unsafe ways. The new policy language I wrote addresses these concerns, and it also has changed the name of the rule to the simple “Endangerment,” thus placing equal weight on behaviors than endanger oneself, not just others.

I should note that it took me two attempts to get this policy revision approved by the full faculty. I trust our Quaker process, and my first attempt didn’t provide enough time for discussion. I am very thankful that my colleagues ultimately gave the revision their blessing.

REACH things My role as the REACH admin here in the deans’ office took up a lot of my time and attention this year. While we nominally rolled out REACH at the end of the 2016-17 school year, this was the first full year that we used this digital sign-in/sign-out software. I’ve written about it on blog elsewhere, but I will note that there is an exciting software update coming in August, and it may lead to everyone here liking REACH even more. It has taken time to figure out all the best ways to configure the software to meet our needs most fully, but by the end of the year we were using it to replace our old system of collecting vacation travel information, so we are really converts. If the mobile apps become faster and more pleasurable for the user, then the students and dorm parents will have fewer complaints, and I’ll be able to take advantage of even more of the capabilities in REACH. You can read more about REACH in my blog posts here and here.

Attendance System 3.0 This project was a major undertaking for our IT department, and I can’t claim much credit. I have served as a spokesman for the deans’ office and what we want to see in the functionality of the new system, and I am the dean who most directly supports our attendance supervisor, who is the most important end user. Our new attendance system, which is completely homemade, is now offering a host of new options for students. They can clear cuts and lates electronically without needing to take a piece of paper to a teacher, and their advisor can look over their shoulder and help guide them. The faculty can now pull dynamic info about who is out of school on a given day instead of receiving a static report once per day. (But they can click a little button and subscribe to the report, and then they get an email like the one they used to get. I love the way the new system feels comfortable for users who don’t like change, but offers better visibility to power users.) This big project isn’t done yet, and when the new features for parents are rolled out the whole thing will be far more automated than before. Just as REACH (ideally) takes busywork away from the deans so that they can do more high level, critical thinking tasks to keep kids safe, the new attendance system will ultimately take busywork away from our attendance supervisor.

Network Restricted Lists Gaming addiction is a major story in the NYTimes this week, and we are dealing with it in boarding school land, too. Our old school policies, which forbid students to have televisions in their dorm rooms, haven’t been updated to respond to streaming gaming, “Netflix and chill,” etc. I approached our committee of dorm heads to ask them to collaborate with me on new policy language to address the concern, but they basically came back at me and said, “Why don’t we just shut off the wifi for kids with a problem?” So that’s the approach we have taken. We’ve created two new network access levels (whether a student is on the school’s wifi or wired network) that grant more restricted hours of use. The second, stricter list also denies access to popular gaming, entertainment, and social media sites and services. The hope is that we will not need to use these new tools very often in the coming years, but if we have kids under our care who cannot moderate their own device use such that they are not getting satisfactory sleep, we can temporarily assign them to one of these lists to support them.

Again and again, the story of these projects is one in which open-minded collaboration with colleagues leads to better outcomes than if I just apply executive force. I don’t always get exactly what I want, but (if I try sometimes) the school gets what it needs. Happy summer vacation, school people!