Too Precious

Back in the 1990s I had an idea. Actually, I can trace the early origins of the idea to 1980 when I lived in New York City. At that time, whenever I went out to dinner with friends I’d order a hamburger. Partly this was due to my limited cash resources. A burger was generally the affordable and filling option. I used to explain to my friends that a burger was a barometer of a restaurant’s quality. If the chef treated the burger as if it held a legitimate spot on the menu and put a decent expression of this humble meal on the table, it was a good sign that this restaurant was committed to good food.

In the 90s I encountered a book written by a friend, Don Knuth. His book 3:16: Bible Texts Illuminated posited that one could understand the whole of the bible by reading the sixteenth verse after the start of the third chapter of each book. His theory that a common sample of many texts could prove illuminating, revived my interest in the burger theory. Over the years I collected some notes on favorite burgers, and from time to time I flirted with writing a book about burgers, how they capture a chef’s humble side, and explore the theory that you can really know a restaurant’s gestalt by tasting its burger. I’m not convinced there’s an audience for such a tome, but I have a hard time shaking the urge to order burgers when I eat out.

Three years ago I decided to commit to a vegetarian diet, and to be completely honest, the most challenging part of this commitment was giving up hamburgers. I enjoyed being a vegetarian (pescetarian, actually) not only because I felt great, but also because there are lots of healthy vegetarian foods I enjoy that I ate more frequently. The draw of burgers was strong, though, and a few months ago I gave in. I still eat meat rather infrequently, and when I do indulge, it’s often for a burger. And I’ve revived my interest in exploring restaurants by their commitment to this simple sandwich.

Recently, Anna and I shared a meal at the new Umami Burger on Franklin Street in Oakland. Umami is a chain which has its roots in Southern California. I thought it would be fun to sample their fare so we stopped in early one evening for a taste. Before I describe that meal, I want to provide a little context about my burger preferences.

I have a few favorite burger places in the Bay Area. Trueburger in Oakland is one of my top choices. Their burgers are simple, straightforward classics, perfectly portioned and cooked juicy. Just enough of a bun to make eating possible without overpowering the sandwich. Trueburgers are made with quailty beef, ground on site. They are cooked to order, but prepared quickly. No pretense here. If you don’t want a tomato on your burger just say so. They’re happy to give you what you want. A trueburger is also a decent value. At $5.15 it’s as cheap or not much more expensive than burgers at various greasy neighborhood burger stands (Kwik Way, Ahn’s, Giant Burger). A real deal.

When I’m working in the City, I often grab a quick lunch at Super Duper Burger. Like Trueburger, this is a classic, straightforward burger. Lettuce, tomato, onion, and a small tasty Niman Ranch patty, cooked crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. This is a two-napkin burger. I order the mini, which is a quarter-pound patty, priced at $4.75. This is a very tasty burger. If you visit Super Duper during happy hour you can get the burger, a beer and fries for $9.25.

Trueburger and Super Duper are essentially fast food joints. You order at the counter and the food comes out a few minutes later, on a tray. You find a spot for yourself in the dining area — bus your own tray, please. But the burgers are very satisfying and prepared with attention to detail, and a good value.

If you want to sit, order, and have your meal delivered, you can’t go wrong at Barney’s Hamburgers on Piedmont or College in Oakland. Barney’s isn’t much more expensive than Trueburger or Super Duper, and it’s also a decent alternative when you’re dining with a group. Burgers are around $7 to $9 — still a decent value. Barney’s offers lots of variations on a burger, and the Niman Ranch patty is a bit bigger than a Trueburger or Super Duper Mini burger.

So when we came to Umami, our expectations were shaped by a fairly positive experience with local burger restaurants. I should start by saying that we enjoyed the flavors of our Umami burgers. Anna had some sort of Turkey burger. I ordered Umami’s “Manly Burger.” I can forgive the fact that the burger was overly salty — several of the ingredients were contributors: the salty onion strings, and the bacon lardon contribute sodium, and I’m sure the cook salted the burger patty as well. The taste wasn’t unpleasant, but it was a very small burger, it’s diminutive size emphasized by the fact that there was nothing decorating the plate. Just a small burger surrounded by a sea of white porcelain. This was a $10 burger, small by comparison to Barney’s options, and not even as tasty as a $4.75 Super Duper Mini. (The Mini might actually be a little more filling than the Umami burger.) Anna and I shared a very small kale caesar salad, each of us had a beer, and we each had a small burger. The check was over $50. We didn’t even have fries with our burgers.

What made the evening especially interesting, though, was overhearing the conversation at the table next to ours. Our server turned to our neighbor to take his order. He asked about the Beer Cheddar cheese which was served on the burger that he wanted. He told the waiter that he didn’t drink and would like to substitute a different cheese. She initially agreed and went to the kitchen to turn in the order. She was back in a few minutes with the bad news: “No, the kitchen will not be able to switch the cheese on that burger,” she said and then offered some sort of explanation about the integrity of the menu and the chef’s wisdom about pairing cheeses, bacon, and other ingredients into a subtle symphony of flavors that was the essence of an Umami burger. She held her ground as the patron redoubled his effort to make the change, finally suggesting that the chef leave off the Beer Cheddar on the burger he was ordering, and then he ordered an additional burger with the cheese he wanted, so that he could scrape that cheese of the second burger and put it on the burger he intended to eat.

Anna and I were blown away. This is a hamburger restaurant! And unless I’m totally uninformed, Umami doesn’t have a Michelin star. I realize that there is a faction in the food industry that treats preparing and eating food as high art, but there’s a point where taking yourself too seriously wanders into the realm that another friend, English professor Dave Crowe, calls “too precious.”

We won’t be going back to Umami.

UPDATE: Here are some other interesting thoughts about burgers.

4 August 2013, 18:34 — Mark —


Bold Italic: A Beginner's Guide to Oakland

Bold Italic: A Beginners Guide to Oakland
The Bold Italic has put together a clever A Beginner’s Guide To Oakland which helps San Franciscans who wish to move to the warmer, laid back climes of O-Town make the transition. It’s a list of great places in San Francisco that have an equivalent (or sometimes better) expression here in the East Bay.

The list does include one entry that strikes a personal note for me. Writer Sarah Verena Kleinman notes that the Brown Sugar Kitchen is a suitable substitute for Brenda’s Soul Food. While Brown Sugar does produce a mighty fine breakfast (and we have always enjoyed eating there) our older son Justin works weekends serving food at Brenda’s and we are just not ready to give up the occasional trek to the West Bay for Brenda’s beignets, cheese grits, and tasty Bloody Marys.

Do yourself a favor and hop over to the Bold Italic for a really fun list.

2 January 2013, 12:05 — Mark —


Taking Stock of 2012

I haven’t blogged much in the past year, and what I did write was not totally focused on Oakland. But I do want to get back to blogging about Oakland as the year wraps.

I love Oakland. From where we live we can look out our windows and see Lakeside Park and Children’s Fairyland, the Port of Oakland, the Oakland hills, San Francisco Bay, and our immediate neighborhood, Adams Point. From our vantage point, sunsets over uptown are beautiful, casting a glow on the city that masks the gut-wrenching reality that visits so many of Oakland’s neighborhoods. Anna and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary a couple days ago, on a day that Oakland experienced it’s 128th, 129th, and 130th homicides of the year.

Oakland is praised by the New York Times for our emerging foodie culture while Bloomberg reports on Oakland’s high crime, loss of police, and bad financial dealings with the Oakland Raiders. We have a mayor who was elected by getting the most second or third choice votes. Our school district is struggling with shrinking enrollment. Port directors are accused of partying with hookers on the city’s dime. And yet, when people ask me where I live, I’m proud to report I live in Oakland.

So many good things have happened here in the last year. A twitter friend, Rebecca Saltzman, @RebeccaForBART, won election to the BART board, and I’m hopeful she’ll help make the system more accessible and economically sustainable. My good friends at Great Oakland Public Schools have been working to influence Oakland’s school leadership in a positive way. The restoration of the Lake Merritt walking path and the restoration of the lake’s connection to the estuary continues. The A’s pulled ahead of the Rangers on the last day of the season to win the pennant. Producers Associates theatre staged its 46th season of musical theatre in a jewell of FDR’s WPA, the Woodminster Amphitheater, dedicated to California writers. The redwood forests continue to stand in majestic beauty.

As the year ends and our country continues to grapple with the plague of gun violence, I feel compelled to share a few things I learned from my students earlier this month. For some children in Oakland, gunshots are a percussive punctuation to the rhythm of life in their neighborhoods. Some of my students laugh when they talk about how quickly they hit the floor or start to run when they hear shots around them, but I know the laughter is put on to mask their real fear. When I was sitting with one of them the other day, he asked me if I had ever seen or been around a shooting. I admitted that I had not. He looked at me seriously and quietly for a moment before saying that it was something that made him deeply afraid and he hoped he survived long enough to escape his community.

After the shootings of first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, several students in my classes shared their feelings of frustration over what they perceived as a disproportionate reaction to those killings. “Everyone is sad because those were rich young white kids,” said one. “Why don’t we have a moment of silence for the people who died here in Oakland,” asked another. It’s true that the terror of a mass shooting catches the national attention in a way that the killing of people on the streets of Oakland doesn’t. Five times as many people were murdered in Oakland in 2012 as died in Newtown on that day. Oakland is a place where breathtaking beauty meets heartbreaking reality. As we begin a new year, I hope our community can find ways to break the cycle of violence.

On a bittersweet personal note, 2012 is the year I say goodbye to my colleagues at Edna Brewer. While I loved being in the classroom and building relationships with the students who I served at Brewer, I found the bureaucracies of the school district, the teacher’s union, and especially the special education department increasingly frustrating. My plans for a new approach to serving special education students at Brewer were scuttled at the last minute when PEC (OUSD’s special education department) re-assigned me to two sites just days before the first day of school. That reassignment was rescinded, but only after it was too late to follow through with my plans. Frustrated by this and other idiosyncrasies of working for a department that seems out of touch with its primary mission, I chose to accept an offer to return to my work in software design and development. This new position combines my previous experience with my newly gained interest and experience in education. I’ll be working on staff for Teach For America, developing tools for teachers to track and foster student achievement. Fortunately I’ll be able to remain in Oakland, and able to stay in touch with the students who deeply impacted my life.

29 December 2012, 12:18 — Mark —


Certified Letters

I got a pair of certified letters last Saturday transferring me to two school sites for the 2012-13 school year. It wasn’t a complete surprise. Ever since someone in Oakland’s special education department (called Programs for Exceptional Children) made a multimillion dollar accounting error, PEC has been frantically trying to solve its budgeting crisis by reducing its human resources. The first response was to fire all of the program specialists — a group of teachers who work outside the classroom to provide support to the school-site special education teachers. Most of them were rehired a few weeks later.

The second response was to reassign and expand the case-loads of a bunch of resource specialists — teachers who provide services to students in the special education program who primarily remain in general education classes but who need additional support to be successful in their classes. In many cases (like mine) the reassignment took the form of splitting a teacher’s week between two schools instead of one. About a third of OUSD’s resource specialists were sent transfer notices like the one I received on Saturday. Now, instead of just being responsible for students at Edna Brewer, I’ll also need to serve students at Westlake Middle School. Last year there were four resource specialists between these two school. This year there will be three, and I will shuttle back and forth between the sites.

What was bizarre about the letter was the rationale that was given: “As you are aware, student needs change, and we must ensure that we meet their needs promptly and fully.” It’s certainly true that student needs change — every day is a new challenge for many of the kids I serve. But the issue that triggered this transfer has nothing to do with student needs, and everything to do with the massive, avoidable, accounting error made by PEC administration.

It’s absurd to claim that my transfer will ensure that the district is better able to meet student needs promptly and fully. The students in the resource program at these two schools will now have three teachers instead of four serving their needs. That’s a 25% reduction in resources. The aide who supported students at Edna Brewer last year will also be split between the two campuses — another 25% reduction in available resources. PEC is disturbingly confused about how to “promptly and fully” serve student needs.

The fact that this decision was made without teacher input and announced a few days before the beginning of the school year also meant canceling the program that I have been designing for my students and I intended to launch this year. I had been planning to create a class that would have targeted students who need a program that draws on their existing skills and interests. Many of the students in our program have struggled in school for so many years that they have lost their enthusiasm for learning. The program I had designed, with input from my students, was intended to help rekindle their curiosity and reinvigorate their love for school.

Katy Murphy wrote about this situation on her blog yesterday, and several teachers have left comments. My situation is not unique, and in some ways, less disruptive to student needs than some of my colleague’s situations. It’s extremely disheartening to treated like a widget. PEC’s decision, made without regard for the relationships and programs that exist at many schools, is disrespectful of resource teachers, students, and of the staff at the affected school sites.

The school board meets tonight, and I think a few resource teachers will be attending in hopes of sharing our frustration over PEC’s ham-fisted handling of their self-inflicted crisis. PEC has a new director, hired over the summer to replace the director who presided over the accounting error. If this is an indication of our new director’s leadership style, we’re in for a rocky ride.

UPDATE: I just got a third copy of the certified letter. I guess they really want me to know they’re serious.

UPDATE 2: I went down to the school board meeting to ask politely to have my transfer rescinded. When I got there, three of my colleagues were already there. They read a letter which many of the staff at Edna Brewer had signed. I was so grateful. Perhaps there is hope — apparently many of the transfers have been rescinded over the past couple of days.

22 August 2012, 07:20 — Mark —


A Modest Proposal for the Improvement of Public Education

I was sitting with a few other teachers a couple of weeks ago. We were discussing the difficulties of finding common ground in the conversation about how to best educate the children of our country. A big part of the problem, we agreed, is the vilification of anyone who has a different idea than yours.

“Corporate reformers” are despised by teacher unions and Diane Ravitch. Michelle Rhee hates teacher’s unions. Charter schools are criticized for siphoning public dollars into a kind of quasi private system that cherry picks better behaved public school students. Teach For America is undermining the whole system by bringing in inexperienced teachers who will flee their classrooms after two years in search of high paying positions as lawyers and consultants. Politicians point to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as their contribution to making education better, while most serious observers agree that these initiatives are unlikely to address any of the causal issues of educational inequity.

I’m not sure public schools are really as bad as some critics say. Neither, however, are they as good as they could be. So how do we find common ground?

A primary problem with public education in America is that it has become so organizationally complex. The essential contract between student and teacher is no longer at the core of our system. In trying to rid our schools of “bad” teachers we’ve become zealots for accountability. But in our preoccupation with standardized testing, we may not be holding teachers accountable to the right metrics. Standardized tests may not be the best predictors of long term success. We seem to have lost sight of one of the most the most important things we know about teaching: that “people learn from people they love.” (Quoting from David Brooks’ TED Talk.)

If the best predictor of a student’s success in school (and life?) is the child’s relationship with his or her teacher, why don’t we prioritize school budgets to maximize that relationship? The perceived economy of scale that comes with the creation of large, comprehensive schools is offset by the redistribution of resources to central administration. This, of course, is necessary if the whole system is predicated on the idea that teachers cannot provide a quality education without the accountability of standardized testing and significant administrative oversight. Small schools are not a panacea, either, at least not within a system that still features a massive administrative structure.

“Cut out the middleman” is a mantra for economy and efficiency in business. Middlemen add complexity and complexity has significant cost. Public education is a stronghold for middlemen. In California, the average school district spends about 60% of its budget on direct classroom costs. Oakland Unified has typically spent less — in 2009-2010 it spent 54% on direct classroom costs. 46% of the budget for education in Oakland is going to middlemen. Can’t we do better?

There must be a simple alternative to the complexity of administratively top-heavy public school systems. If we want to prioritize the student outcomes and accomplish meaningful education reform, we need to start by streamlining the school district’s central administration. We need to rid our districts of the cruft of multiple layers of bureaucracy, and create a system that maximizes the relationship between teachers, students, and their families.

What I proposed to the teachers I was chatting with a couple of weeks ago was a this: When a student is 6 years old, he or she is paired with a teacher who will guide her/him for the next 12 years. Each teacher will have a cohort of 12 students. The teacher’s salary and the class’s expenses are drawn from $10,000 or so allocated per student per year. In Oakland that would leave about $1,000 per student per year for central administration. A teacher’s salary and benefits would be between around 60% of the cohort’s budget. The rest would be used for class activities and resources (computers, books, trips, etc.). Classes might occasionally meet at a “school” but much of the real estate currently dedicated to our school factories could be sold or redesigned for other community benefit. A teaching career might consist of two cycles of teaching, or 24 years.

Most around the table were initially skeptical. And certainly the system is not without it’s challenges. Comments ranged from “this is what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about,” to, “that will never happen.” But such a design could start as a small pilot with relatively little risk. The Brightworks school in San Francisco (a private enterprise) is already doing something like this. Oakland could start tomorrow with a pilot of three or four teachers and 36 or 48 students and just see how it works. Teachers would be freed of the constraints of the factory schedule that currently drives instruction. Families who chose this program would be free to opt out of the state’s standardized testing system in favor of the holistic approach that would naturally evolve within such a system.

I suspect the skepticism of those teachers who I was chatting with may be a common reaction to such a plan. Many would question the scalability of such a system, and I suspect that it might be difficult to find teachers willing to take a risk on such a program. But nibbling at the edges of our current system seems unlikely to produce significant impact on problems like our current dropout rates or on disproportionate discipline or placement in special education.

I don’t think public schools are a lost cause. Many children are able to succeed in school and the existing process serves them well. But should we be satisfied with a system that only serves some children? We have an obligation to serve all.

14 August 2012, 20:26 — Mark —


Keeping Track

Fair warning: This post is a geeky riff about data and technology.

I just came back to Oakland from a stint in Southern California where I worked for a few weeks at the Teach For America Los Angeles Institute as the Director of Data and Assessments. It was an interesting experience. I should say right off the bat that I am fascinated by the process of keeping track of things. So this job, keeping track of student data gathered during the 5 week summer school session, was really fun for me. (Not without its frustrations, of course — the tool we used to track data was in the early development stage and had a few kinks and quirks.)

When I got home, my attention turned to the process of getting ready for the coming school year, and I started to think about how I am going to mine the data in our school district’s centralized database and cross-reference that data with the information in special education database to find the names of the students who will be my responsibility in the coming year. OUSD, you see, keeps track of students in separate databases. These applications were made by different developers, using different data schema, and using different database systems, so they don’t speak to each other. The process of finding my students requires a lot of typing, clicking, hunting, and guessing.

I know that our information technology and special education departments are aware of the problem, but it seems to be an issue that just hasn’t captured the imagination of anyone who is in a position to actually solve the problem. Quite reasonably, my access to the databases is limited — no one wants a special education teacher poking around in the database with tools that could potentially make a mess of the data. So what’s a guy to do?

I’m at a fork in the road. Part of me wants to forge ahead, stop worrying about things outside my locus-of-control, and just do the best work I can in the classroom. But part of me wants to dig in and solve the data problem. Not everything we need to know to do good work with students requires a well designed student information system, but having such a system is crucial. And having a bad system reflects on how little value we place on having an accurate picture of the students in our schools.

At Edna Brewer I need to use three separate tools to track student information, none of which interact with the others. Teachers use the district’s central system for taking roll, tracking discipline, and recording grades. Because we also print paper progress reports for each student every week, we use a second system for entering progress data which is then printed every Wednesday. Naturally, the data in the progress report system is not automatically entered into the main grade book. And I manage a couple dozen IEPs using a third system. Much of the information about each student is duplicated in those three databases, so if a family moves or changes phone numbers the data needs to be updated three times. (Guess how often that actually happens.)
There are a couple of other pieces of software I use for my own personal record keeping, since none of the mandated systems does a great job of handling the data I want to track.

Data management is hard. Building elegant solutions is not easy. But that’s what is so alluring. I’m not an expert database designer, and I am surely not the worlds greatest application developer, but I have a few years experience working in the application design space. My passion for problem solving is heating up, and I’m weighing the impact I can have as a teacher in the classroom against the impact I might have if I utilize my design skills to make a streamlined and meaningful interface to school’s student information systems.

I believe a well designed system is a reflection of the institution that deploys it. OUSD has many fronts on which to demonstrate its commitment to improving her student’s education environment. A well designed student information system is not enough, but it’s a piece.

10 August 2012, 16:42 — Mark —


Riding BART With My Dad

onboard bart

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. I’m a big fan of BART, the Bay Area’s rapid transit system — I appreciate how convenient and economical it is for us to get to San Francisco to visit our son, fly out of SFO, or go to a show or dinner in the West Bay. [Aside: When my parents, my brother and sisters and I first moved to Oakland in the late 1960s we became friends with Harre Demoro a transportation aficionado and reporter. Through Harre and his connections we got to ride on the prototype BART trains before the system opened. When the Transbay Tube was first completed, he took a group of us on a short walking tour of the Oakland terminus of the tunnel. Harre’s passion instilled in me a love of trains and public transportation that continues to this day. My decision to make a four-day, cross country rail adventure back in 2010 grew from the seeds Harre planted in the 60s and 70s.]

My dad loves to ride BART, and I suspect he was infected by Harre’s passion, too. Dad also likes to remind us (nearly every time we enter the system) that one of his parishioners at First Lutheran Church was an engineer who helped design BART. After my siblings and I abandoned our childhood nest, my parents packed up and moved to New York City where they lived for almost 20 years. They lived in Washington Heights, very close to the NYC Subway system’s revered A Train. Because of dad’s late-in-life battle with the long term effects of polio, his dependence on a wheelchair made it difficult to navigate the pre-ADA New York Subways. So when they moved back to Oakland a few years ago, he was delighted to be living in a community that took accessibility seriously. He rides the bus on in his wheelchair, gleefully sharing his opinion about the best routes to take to get to IKEA or Piedmont Avenue from our Adams Point neighborhood. He and my mom still fly around the world to pursue their eclectic interests, and they almost always prefer to book flights out of SFO due to the easy access via BART.

A few weeks ago Anna and my folks and I decided to take BART to Zina’s gallery opening at Adobe Books in the Mission district. We set out on foot, dad in his chair, for the 20 minute stroll/roll to the train. The elevator to the 19th Street station is located on Broadway, tucked into an alcove between to The Community Bank of the Bay and Selix tuxedos. The elevator drops you at the mezzanine level of the station, where a passenger in a wheel chair needs to enter the station to process his/her ticket, then exit again to get in a different elevator to the platform. The elevator to the train platform is outside the paid area of the station on the mezzanine level, so for visitors to Oakland—or any first time user of BART, it would be easy to inadvertently get on the train without  "paying*" to enter the system. Dad is experienced, so he knows he needs to take this extra step. He wonders why BART doesn’t install a ticket reader in the elevator so that disabled riders don’t need to make this extra loop through the turnstiles before proceeding to the platform?

dad and anna Once our tickets are processed (on the honor system) we drop to the train platform and wait for our ride to the City. Getting on and off a train in a chair is pretty easy, and every car has a space where wheelchair-bound riders can jockey with bicycles for a spot near the door. In our several excursions with dad on BART we have never encountered a cyclist who wasn’t extremely polite and accommodating, always moving to make room for this endearing, talkative man in his chair.

When we arrive at the 16th and Mission station we get off the train, and the longest part of our hike within the station begins. Inexplicably, the elevator for disabled riders is at the opposite end of the platform. We pad the length of the station to reach the elevator and ride upstairs to the mezzanine level, only to find that the exit turnstiles are at the other end of the station. To top it off, the elevator from the station to the street is located halfway back down the length of the station towards the end from which we walked to go through the turnstiles. I kid dad about the fact that the parishioner who attended his church didn’t think through the location of elevators when they designed the system. Why on earth, I wonder, did they set up the station so that a passenger with mobility issues who enters the system at 19th Street in Oakland and exits at 16th and Mission needs to travel the full length of the station two-and-a-half times, just to get from the platform to the street? (That added nearly 7 tenths of a mile to our round trip that night.)

That’s not the only station where this situation occurs. When traveling from 19th Street to the Coliseum station (Anna and my folks and I rode BART to an A’s game a few weeks ago) we encountered the same situation. We got on the front of the train where the elevator dropped us at 19th Street, only to find that we needed to navigate the full length of the significantly narrower platform at the Coliseum station to get to street level. (Because the platform is narrow, navigation in a wheelchair is difficult because the clearance between various structures and the yellow safety stripe at the edge of the platform is very limited, especially when there are people waiting for trains.) Again, the elevator drops one outside the paid area of the station, so we needed to take our tickets back to the station agent to get them processed. There’s a non-functioning ticket reader set up halfway between the elevator and the agent’s booth at the station where a disabled passenger could presumably process a ticket, but it wasn’t working when we were there. And its placement is downright odd: if BART can set up a random reader for this purpose, why didn’t they put it next to the elevator where it would be readily accessible to the people who needed it, rather than in the middle of a crowded area where it’s not easy to find?

BART is an appealing system, and in comparison to some older systems, very accessible to the elderly and those with mobility challenges. There are some quirks that make accessibility less than ideal. Solving some of the bigger problems (the odd placement of the elevators) may be too expensive and require extensive retrofits to be feasible. But there are a few things that might be easily solved, like putting ticket readers in the elevators that are outside the system. In November we have a chance to elect some bright, progressive BART directors who will consider some of these issues. (Go Rebecca!)

 

  • BART passengers actually pay when leaving the system, but a ticket must be processed upon entry so the system can determine the appropriate fare. back ^

28 May 2012, 12:12 — Mark —

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Why I'm Running for OEA Executive Board

“It’s a bike lane,” shouted the cyclist as he rushed past us on Grand, near El Embarcadero.

“F—- you,” shouted one of the two joggers who were running, two abreast, in the bicycle lane!

“F—- you, too,” came the cyclist’s immediate and impulsive response, just as he sped through the red light at the intersection.

It was an exchange of words that left everyone, including me — the innocent passerby, angry and hurt. No meaningful ideas were shared, no useful arrangement was made for the future. Instead, the joggers felt a distrust and anger towards the cyclist, and the cyclist clearly felt no love for the joggers. Future interactions with other joggers and cyclists by the parties in this exchange will be forever tainted by this interaction.

This cyclist does not speak for me, but I fear that the joggers may feel that all cyclists are jerks because their experience with this one cyclist was so hostile. And clearly the guy on the bike in this story regards joggers in the bike lane as his enemies. (Passing them forced him to swerve into a lane usually filled with cars — although at 7:00am on this particular Tuesday the lane was empty.)

As I continued my ride to school, I started thinking about the fact that this exchange is symbolic of the way the teacher’s union in Oakland sometimes interacts with the administration of the school district. And while each side may feel their anger is justified, the [all too typical] heated exchange between the two sides isn’t building common ground on any of our shared issues and concerns.

The bike rider and cyclists in this morning’s exchange chose to fight one another, using the language of conflict and anger, and neither acknowledged the mutual need for safety from cars. Each side felt that their position was just and righteous, and each felt that the other was wrong. Neither took the high road. As a biker, I could easily see biker guy’s point — having to swerve into traffic to avoid the joggers is a potential risk. But from the jogger’s perspective, biker guy’s over-the-shoulder hostility is an unkind and unwelcome assault during an early morning jog. Lost in the exchange was any sense of dignity, humility, or common civility.

The first step the Oakland teacher’s union must take in building a bridge of understanding and mutual respect is to start a conversation with the district that recognizes our shared goals and agenda. Of course both sides may have different views on how to create a fair and mutually beneficial contract. Using rhetorical tactics like biker guy used with the joggers this morning, though, won’t lead to a successful outcomes. We need to employ language that invites further conversation, not rhetoric that offends and creates distrust.

It’s no excuse for our union to argue that the district hasn’t always acted in good faith. If we are a professional union, a guild of teachers committed to the civic good, we can’t blame others for our failure to improve the nature and content of the conversation. When we, members of the teacher’s union speak, we need to use a voice laced with dignity and respect — we need to be accountable to our best ideals, not held hostage by our basest instincts.

My reason for running for the OEA executive board is to join a caucus of board members who feel that the time for the tired rhetoric of anger and division has passed. We look forward to being part of a union committed to raising the quality of conversation surrounding the issues that lead to better conditions in our schools for teachers, for students, for families, and for every citizen of this community.

Visit (and tell your friends about) my campaign site — »

17 April 2012, 04:00 — Mark —


Bloom's Taxonomy

I was looking at a collection of images of Bloom’s taxonomy today and realized that I wanted a simple but more apt drawing that would capture my beliefs about how the taxonomy relates to learning. I had recently read some interesting thoughts about the fact that the taxonomy was not strictly conceived as a hierarchy:

Bloom et al. discussed at length their decision to apply an Aristotelian categorization method in their taxonomy. The choice was significant, because an Aristotelian method creates distinct, bounded categories ordered by complexity without the hierarchical assumption that higher-level categories always entail instantiation of those lower in the taxonomy (e.g., when evaluating, it is not always necessary to first apply and synthesize). Moreover, Aristotelian categorization emphasizes that these groupings are closely related and difficult to tease apart. . . . however, the division of the taxonomy of educational objectives into classes representing lower order … and higher order thinking … has prevailed in research.
Found at Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott McLeod

What I came up with for myself is this simplified diagram.

Bloom's Taxonomy

This captures more-or-less my thoughts that students can access learning by entering the taxonomy anywhere. Think about the Suzuki method of learning music, where children are not first introduced to the knowledge of the system of reading music, but instead are given the opportunity to create music. Or about Montessori schools where experiential activity that could be called creativity precedes knowledge.

20 February 2012, 17:29 — Mark —

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Missing the Forest for the Trees

One big message of Apple’s textbook announcement in New York last week was that the new iBook textbook model is going to lighten student’s backpacks by reducing the amount of paper that they have to lug around. Sure, the format has some interactive razzle dazzle, which may contribute to higher levels of engagement, but that is generally speculative with respect to how effective these new iBooks will be in the long run. (There has been some initial study about the efficacy of this new kind of interactive text on student achievement, and the early results are optimistic. The long term, large scale impact is still far from being proven. Saving trees is a worthy purpose, but is it really the disruptive feature of digital textbooks?)

There are some bloggers who are also critical of Apple’s strategy because it comes with some licensing strings attached. Books built using Apple’s free iBooks Author software are encumbered by a mandatory license agreement with Apple should the author wish to sell the book via Apple’s iBook store. This certainly reflects a company that is driven by profit as much or more than altruism. On the flip side, Apple does not require any licensing agreement to create a book for personal use. (UPDATE: Apple will distribute my book for free in the iBookstore if I want to give the book away, and doing so does not prevent me from distributing the book in other ways as long as I don’t sell it via other channels. See below for a further thoughts.) From my perspective, the ability to easily distribute books for free where the real disruption in education could gain a toe hold.

What bloggers (and possibly even Apple) seem to be missing is that the real disruption could happen by turning students loose with the iBooks Author software. I agree with many of these critics that it’s not that big a deal that publishers with massive financial resources and incentives now have a marginally better system of creating digital versions of their books. But imagine that instead of buying textbooks, students are given the opportunity to turn the learning process on its head and take responsibility for publishing their own textbooks. Books they can carry with them on an iPad and share with their peers. Perhaps students will work in collaborative teams to create these books. And rather than just books of plain text and pictures, these books can also include videos that the students make (using the iPad) capturing the skills and steps required to solve complex math problems or explain the student’s perspective on an historical event or literary text.

As the basis for these student made textbooks, teachers could use the same iBooks Author tool to create dynamic lessons that teach the concepts that the students will use in the creation of their own books. Many teachers today are creating their own teaching materials anyway. Why not create those materials using the same tool which students will use? This could foster a virtuous cycle of learning and publishing where students and teacher are engaged in a collaborative process, not in a top down model where teachers are exclusively responsible for creating materials and planning lessons. As students become more engaged in the process they could take more responsibility for planning and delivering lessons.

These textbooks could become the portfolio that demonstrate a student’s mastery, not only of the expectation that they can read and write, but also the expectation that they can analyze and synthesize what they’ve learned and communicate effectively using 21st century tools. Instead of relying on a student’s ability to bubble in the best of four possible answers to a question, we can see how well a student understands the underlying standards and concepts of the subjects of study in the books they author. In their own words with their own explanations.

This inverted model addresses some of the compelling concerns about our reliance on a factory based educational system. It brings creativity into the learning process and proposes a system of learning that leverages student’s interest in 21st century skills and tools. Imagine classrooms where students are using iBooks Author to create a text which they will update and leverage throughout their whole K-12 educational career.

Sure, there are complexities of the current educational paradigm that won’t be solved by giving students a better publishing tool. But this new tool could be the first step in truly disrupting how we assess student achievement and engage students in learning in a way that recognizes each student’s unique skills and perspectives. It may not have been Apple’s intent, but they’ve given us a tool that extends the democratization of information that erupted with the invention of the internet. I look forward to seeing how this tool changes how we teach, learn, and inform.

FURTHER THOUGHTS ON LICENSING: Apple has been criticized for enforcing a license on the output of its software if you wish to sell your work. Several people are referring to this as an ownership grab by Apple. On Mashable, Kapost says Apple Will Own Your Work With iBooks Author, quoting Sascha Segan’s iBooks Author: You Work For Apple Now. I’m not a lawyer, but think it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that Apple could ever assert ownership over your intellectual property. Clearly some aspect of the current copyright law would extend to the creator of the content, and section “D” of the iBooks Author software End User License Agreement states that you may only use the software to produce work that contains material to which you (the author) own a copyright. It does not claim in that document that your use of the software requires giving up your copyright or intellectual property. In the EULA, Apple is asserting a privilege to distribute work produced by its software, but that’s only superficially different from any publisher making a contract to own the rights to publish an author’s work. The difference is, of course, related to the means of distribution — Apple isn’t printing big paper books and shipping them around the country. If anyone should be nervous about Apple’s licensing, it should be traditional publishers. I could be wrong, but it seems there are currently very few ways for an author to publish and distribute a textbook today without the assistance of a publishing company. Apple is getting in the middle of that business. With a large distribution network (how many million iPads are there?) Apple is in a position to open a market to the independent authors.

(Disclosure: I hold shares of Apple stock in my retirement portfolio.)

22 January 2012, 12:18 — Mark —

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Zero Sum Faith

The Christmas season often heightens the already fractious conversation between people of various faith persuasions. In the pop-media this fractured dialogue is manifested in the debate over whether to use the greeting “happy holidays” or the presumably Christian greeting “merry Christmas.” Which greeting you choose supposedly indicates your degree of cross cultural/religious sensitivity. Conventional wisdom suggests that a Christian greeting a Jew or Muslim should either guess the other’s religious preference and greet them with an appropriate greeting based on what holiday that person might celebrate, or take the safe path and offer the innocuous “happy holidays.”

God forbid you encounter an atheist. The term “holiday” derives from the combination of holy and day. Imagine the faux pas of rendering said atheist offended by the accidental utterance of such a God centric word.

This whole conversation is based on a flawed conception of faith. The other day i engaged in a twitter fit with someone who was offended by the fact that Flickr (the photo sharing service) had adorned his home page on the site with Christmas lights. He was offended by this obviously “Christian” symbol. I tweeted that I thought it was absurd to call Christmas lights a Christian symbol. In subsequent tweets we battled over the issue which ended with the other person blocking me from following him. For the next couple of days I’ve grappled with that conversation and I realize it centers on the idea that in our society we have come to treat faith as a zero sum game. It’s a battle over who is right and who is wrong. This is a flawed understanding of faith, and I was wrong to jump on this guy about his feelings about lights. Instead I should have understood his struggle and nurtured his curiosity.

This tweeter with whom I had engaged was upset because he lives in what he perceives as a “Christian country.” He said that Christians had “won,” and lamented that he wasn’t even free to complain about that cultural dominance without being challenged. By casting the question of faith as win or lose he is caving to this zero sum mentality. He can only be right about his beliefs if I’m wrong and vice versa.

When Christopher Hitchens died a few days ago the tortured dialogue between Atheists and Christians as to what they perceive as the fundamental strengths and weaknesses of Christianity and Atheism re-erupted. Again we were treated to self righteousness on both sides of the debate, with Atheists and those of the religious persuasion insisting that the other’s view is wrong.

These zero sum positions that we stake out in the public conversation on faith are doing little to shed light on the concept of our common human experience. Much has already been written about the commonality of the three Abrahamic faiths. That Muslims, Christians and Jews all trace their mythological heritage to the same character in the same ancient mythological text is widely discussed and I haven’t anything new to offer to that conversation. Except to say that our different experiences, perceptions, and points of view of human cultural development do not negate contrasting points of view, perceptions and experiences. Taken as a whole, these differences can enrich the conversation and our understanding of faith in a life giving power.

What interests me is the conversation between Theists and Atheists. Where the zero sum solution falls short is in its failure to acknowledge the necessity of both points of view to make the other perspective possible. I can’t accept on faith the idea of a supreme, life-giving power — God, if you need a name — if the presence of that power could be proved. Neither, though could an atheist hold the position that there is no such power without a degree of faith. Many Atheists want to point to science as a method for proving that God does not exist. Again, the zero sum problem.

At this time of year I always feel challenged to grapple with my own personal way of understanding life and the human experience, and how to reconcile those views with the great allegorical explanation of life with which I was raised. I cherish many of the traditions that spring from my faith heritage. But I can’t prove that God exists. And, frankly, I don’t want to — if I could prove that God exists, I wouldn’t need faith. And keep in mind that by God I don’t mean some being who helps Tim Tebow and the Broncos win football games. By “God” I mean “why.” Science is a perfectly able to explain the who, what, where, how, and when of our existence. It can’t give an definitive answer though, to the why of things. I need some way of naming that incessant quest to understand and give expression to my belief that some essence of divine beauty and wisdom is at the core of why we were given the hearts and minds and ability to love one another and make music and art, and celebrate our shared happiness. I call that quest “faith” and the object of my faith, “God.”

Call it what you will, but I think most of us have more in common than we want to admit. Just as I can’t (and won’t) prove that God exists, my Atheist friends cannot prove that God doesn’t exist. Atheists must accept on faith the non-existence of God. (Every logician knows you can’t prove the non-existence of something.)

As anyone who has raised kids will understand, the incessant pursuit of the “why” is at the core of human curiosity. And I believe if we keep pressing for that answer to the big question of why life takes shape as it does, we are on a common journey. All of us, Atheists and theists alike. Our various ways of expressing what is at the center of our examination of life are nuanced ways of sharing a common humanity.

Merry Christmas!

24 December 2011, 15:14 — Mark —

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Standardized Tests vs. Intuition

This post is about education, but you’ll need to bear with me as i begin with a lenghty digression. I’ve been reading Steve Jobs biography. In it I’m meeting an intuitive genius who had deep interpersonal challenges. A man who valued artists and creativity. A man who could be cruel, but also a man who loved deeply. It’s compelling reading.

A fascinating aspect of his personality is how convinced and passionate Steve was about trusting his intuition. Intuition trumped engineering concerns and conventional wisdom. Apple has often been derided by its critics for a preoccupation with what appeared to some to be a preference for style over substance. The Macintosh has generally been powered by slower processors than competitor’s hardware. Often Apple made trade-offs that mystified the ubergeeks and techno-nerds that favor awesome tech specs over intuitive design and simplicity. What made the ubergeek’s device cool was sheer power and raw speed. Steve favored other qualities.

As technology has become more embedded in the lives of the non-geeks there’s been a slight shift in how we have come to collectively understand computers and other devices. John Gruber of Daring Fireball observes:

Spec-based reviews of computers and gadgets are inherently flawed, a relic of an era that’s already gone. Movie reviews are about what the movie is like to watch. Is it enjoyable, is it entertaining, does it look and sound good? Imagine a movie review based on specs, where you gave points for how long it was, whether the photography is in focus, deduct points for continuity errors in the story, and then out comes a number like “7.5/10”, with little to know mention about, you know, whether the movie was effective as a piece of art.

I wouldn’t argue that specs are “meaningless”. It’s just that they’re an implementation detail. Specs are something the device makers worry about insofar as how they affect the experience of using the device. Just like how focal length and lens aperture are something the cinematographer worries about insofar as how they affect what the viewer will see on screen. — Daring Fireball, 14 Nov, 2011

The way we look at education today is distorted by a similar flawed vision. Our national preoccupation with standardized testing and a myopic pursuit of only the subjects which can be reduced to objective standards is robbing our kids. Especially kids who are already suffering from educational inequity. We’ve reduced the art of teaching and learning to a specification driven process that places little or no value on intuition. Children are not seen as individuals with unique skills and qualities to be cultivated, but as vessels to be filled with data.

Under No Child Gets Ahead (NCLB), we measure school effectiveness by how well the teacher prepares a student to retrieve stored data for the purpose of succeeding on a standardized test. Intuition should tell us that this process isn’t likely to produce inspiration. As Gruber observes in his comment about film reviews, we can’t reduce art and experiential concepts to a bullet list of statistics and specifications. Similarly, we shouldn’t reduce education to just a fact based, objective system. Knowledge and wisdom require more than facts — students need to learn to think critically, creatively, and intuitively.

Students who learn in schools that serve socioeconomically advantaged communities have always had access to the opportunity to learn this way. Sure, these students succeed on standardized tests, but that isn’t the great differentiating value of the life they lead.

Data from charter schools is beginning to show that success on standardized tests may indeed help to get students from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities get into college. But the data also shows that those students drop out of college at an alarming rate. Many of us have believed (intuitively) that standardized testing and data driven education isn’t the full answer to the question of how to teach our children. Closing the achievement gap is not going to happen if we remain preoccupied with standardized testing.

Education is an art. I’ve always felt that it’s absurd to give children grades in school. It takes the art out of teaching and learning and turns it into a competition. We need to develop education policies and strategies that foster and celebrate creativity and reduce our preoccupation on grades and tests. Critics may wonder how we can measure our effectiveness and hold educators accountable without objective standards. But I wonder how effective education can ever be if we are preoccupied with test results and devalue children’s creativity, intuition, and critical perspective.

I don’t have an answer, but my intuition tells me we are marching down the wrong path today. I intend to spend the rest of my life looking for solutions.

Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. — Plato

14 November 2011, 22:45 — Mark —

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Random (Possibly Related) Thoughts

Thought One

I just read a column by Nick Kristof about John Wood, the founder of Room To Read. Back in the late 90s I designed the logo for Room To Read. My dear friends Chris and Martina are friends of John’s and asked me if I would be interested in doing a little pro-bono work for a startup focused on literacy. At first the little startup was called Books for Nepal, and the logo was just a type based thing. When things got going and Books for Nepal expanded, first to Vietnam, John decided to rename the operation Room To Read and asked if I would redo the logo. I did. A few years ago I nearly fainted when Anna was watching Oprah and she was interviewing John. One of the images they flashed on the screen was a book which had been published by the Room To Read publishing group. On the book was my little logo.

Thought Two

I woke up a couple of times last night, and each time I caught myself in the middle of a dream about the words “why” and “what.” I have been wrestling with how to better engage the students in my classes in meaningful endeavor towards life-changing insight. (Not the easiest thing when you are teaching fundamentals of math.) I realized the other day that these students, many of whom struggle with learning disabilities, are preoccupied with “what” (as in “what’s the answer?”) when I want to lead them to engage with “why?” I came to this realization when I was sitting in a restaurant the other day with Anna. We were eating Mexican food and at a table near ours was a little girl having dinner with her dad. She was engaged in a long conversation about what had happened during her day at school, and the conversation was peppered with “why” questions, almost equally distributed between the girl and her father. Children who benefit from school the most are those who come with a healthy and vibrant curiosity about everything. From the conversation I observed (and from my memory of my children’s early lives) I came to the conclusion that curiosity is a cultivated habit. How then, I wonder, can I plant the seeds and cultivate this curiosity in my students, while honoring the Department of Education’s demand that these children are to be driven towards a single goal: the ability to choose the correct answer from an array of four options on a standardized test? This preoccupation with standardized testing seems to be an antidote to curiosity, driving children and teachers everywhere to be myopically focused on finding the right answer to “what” to the exclusion of “why.”

Thought Three

When I was thinking about John Woods (see above) it dawned on me that he is to philanthropy what Steve Jobs was to technology. Woods initially tripped over an issue and its solution while trekking through Nepal. He could have devoted his life to working through existing channels to address the problem of literacy, instead he took off on his own and revolutionized the process of dealing with an obvious problem that much bigger, well funded institutions have failed to effectively address for decades. In just a few years he had transformed the lives of thousands of children. He was driven by imagination. Like Jobs, Woods can see beyond the limitations of current reality. He isn’t preoccupied with what “can’t” be done, he is focused on what he needs to do. That’s the kind of leadership and vision required for our national system of public education. We need to stop trying to solve the wrong problems. We’re fighting the wrong battles and spending our resources on fixing the wrong things.

Implicit in Kristof’s column(s) is the idea that the value of spending more of our resources on education today, is that we won’t be spending so much of our treasure later on things like military, security, and jails. Jobs didn’t spend his time trying to build a computer to incrementally improve on what he and Wozniak had done with the Apple II or what IBM was doing with the PC — he was trying to fundamentally change the our conceptual model of a computer (“a bicycle for our mind”). Woods is trying to change the world by bringing more people into the conversation about all things by building literacy, one child at a time.

We need the same kind of visionary to guide the conversation about education. Right now I see a lot of really smart people trying to solve the problem that isn’t the most pressing issue. Disruptive institutions like Teach For America are trying to address educational inequity by focusing on teachers. Charter schools are trying to address the problem through a variety of strategies, but share a focus on teachers and improving student’s scores on standardized tests. These are well intentioned efforts, but they aren’t likely to be transformative in the long run because they don’t challenge the existing paradigm of K-12 education. There are some prophets in this wilderness but they don’t seem to be gaining much traction, most likely because the entrenched interests in the world of education are so powerful. We need a Woods or a Jobs to emerge and confront this issue with imagination and creativity.

6 November 2011, 11:26 — Mark —

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The Heartbreak of Violation

I went to get onto my trusty bicycle this morning for a quick trip to the hardware store. As I unlocked and helmeted I noticed that the headlight that was on my bike was missing. Racking my memory, I recalled using the light on my way to work on Friday, and my bike is locked in a cage at school during the day, so the light was definitely on the bike when I locked it up in our garage on Friday evening.

I had been warned at the bike shop when I was given the light that it wasn’t completely secured to the bicycle. It was held on with just a strip of velcro and a rubber loop. I should take it off the bike, Chris said, when I parked it somewhere that wasn’t secure. I assumed that parking in a secure garage with the other residents of my condominium was “secure.” This morning, though, the light was gone.

The value of the light is not significant, I suppose. But it was a gift, given to me by the owner of the shop who sold me the bicycle. (Aforementioned Chris of Cycle Sports on Grand Avenue.) What really hurt is that the light was taken by someone who lives in my building, possibly another bicyclist. My sense of security was violated by someone with whom I may have a passing acquaintance, someone with whom I may share an occasional elevator ride or a brief conversation in the lobby or on the sidewalk. The bonds of trust that are naturally present in a small community were violated over the value of a small, relatively inexpensive object.

What’s heartbreaking is not the loss of the headlight on my bike. What breaks my heart is the sense that someone who lives in my small community has violated my trust and taken something of mine. There’s something in the symbolism of the theft of a light that makes me even sadder.

30 October 2011, 10:46 — Mark —

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