Sunday, July 4, 2010

TFA Update, At Institute: Living on Reds, Vitamin C, and Ephedrine

That is how I feel and look after some days at Institute.

TFA's summer institute is demanding, to say the least. I've finished three weeks of teaching and I'm steadily improving. There's so much to say regarding institute, that I'm uncertain where my point of departure should occur. Emotional? Physical? Intellectual?

From the moment you arrive, you are fed into TFA's logistical leviathan. Besides a few hiccups, I'm bowled over by the streamlined processes that ensure this five week program's success and the uniformity of their approach. (It's no coincidence that most of the comment boards have pluses and deltas.) The folks who staff institute seem largely on top of their responsibilities--a few exceptions notwithstanding--and are here to assist. Staffers know the stresses of institute and meet us where we are to help mold us into teachers in five weeks. No mean feat.

Regarding my school, it's best for me not to discuss it or my students. I'm teaching kindergarten in Phoenix in a collaborative group (referred to and pronounced as co-lab) with three young women. Yes, the gender balance is tipped decisively in favor of women in TFA as a whole. I've been forced to reorient my mind to teach minds that require different needs. And while I knew this before leaving, it's another beast entirely to encounter and adjust on the fly when you've taught highly functioning college students. I am apprehensive as to whether I should be teaching K. I selected early childhood as one of my highly preferred areas and I'm committed to seeing it through with earnest toward succeeding in this role. Nevertheless, the past few weeks led me to realize the full breadth of my content knowledge in what is typically grouped as social studies.

This isn't a pleasant five week vacation. In fact, an eighteen hour day with little free time is not uncommon. I did not come to grips with the demands until we were thrown into the fire. I don't know if it's feasible for CMs to adequately grasp what's coming at you until you've descended into the breach. Someone might roll their eyes at my choice of language, but there are times when institute strains even a strong person's abilities to fight simultaneous emotional, physical, and intellectual fires.

Part of me wants to quip about being institutionalized and mulling over a speedy departure. After a few weeks, a few lingering doubts remain. Diane Ravitch's comments about TFA and the forces it champions doesn't ameliorate those nagging concerns. To be frank, I am uncertain if TFA as an organization privileges team player cohesion over expressing dissension in order to operate smoothly and train (and at times discipline) us to enter this world. Quite possibly this is how they manage to function, and part of me realizes that as a body it must push in this direction in order to thrive and survive. Staffers have always allowed me to state my misgivings. Whenever I have raised some concerns, I cannot accurately gauge the reply and subsequent interactions. Further, I dislike referencing my age and experience as a way to distinguish myself from some of my colleagues, but at times it's painfully obvious as a night out with a few CMs reinforced. Regardless, I have a profound respect and admiration for the staffers I've interacted with, especially my CMA, and I have found some impressive people to chat with and who share some of my viewpoints and personality. I elected not to mention any names, and I think it's the best course of action to allow many people to remain anonymous.

So where do I stand? Anyone who knows me can well understand that flagging certainty and muddled pride are my MO. My academic training has led me to be suspicious of my activities and my personality traits reinforce that skepticism. These comments were carefully articulated and I think my concerns will dissipate once I leave this meat grinder and actually begin teaching in my own classroom once I have my style and experience fixed. The welter of emotions and push-pull factors of home and normal life leave me with mixed judgments. I remain steadfast in my belief that I can foster a great deal of good in the classroom and young people's academic paths. That unites me with my fellow CMs and TFA's vision, and those bedrock similarities bring me into the fold, however reluctant I may be.

Monday, June 7, 2010

2010 Garden

In my hustle to wrap up any lingering tasks or responsibilities, the garden was one of my priorities. Kate will shoulder the burden of watering, weeding, and watching this year. I cleared a bit more area and expanded the plot slightly. The dimensions are 12'x6' for the larger and 5'x3' for the smaller. The increased space allowed us to distribute the tomato plants better so that we do not encounter the bedlam of last year's close proximity growing. My indoor beet seeds were a miserable flop and we may sow beets, kale, and spinach seeds mid- to late-summer. For now, the garden consists of the following starters we purchased from City Floral:
Basil (2)
Cauliflower (6)
Tomatoes (1 Abraham Lincoln, 1 Big Beef, 4 Cherokee Purple - all heirlooms)

We also planted two rows of beans and we plan on a large yield if past performance is a guide. Here are some photos of the process from start to finish.

Clearing and trimming back vines and weeds

To everything turn, turn, turn (what a wretched song)

We spread four total cubic feet of compost, one of which was a mix of cow and compost

The plants

Compost added and graded for planting


Top shot


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Oklahoma Joe's BBQ and the Best Ribs I've Eaten

My appreciation for bbq often borders on obsession. That's why a trip to the Middle West was rerouted and replanned to meet my fix. We dined at what is considered one of Kansas City's best bbq restaurants, Oklahoma Joe's. Anthony Bourdain numbered OK Joe's number thirteen on his list of 13 Places to Eat Before You Die, which is an awfully strong compliment or burden to prove. (Of note, Hot Doug's also appears on this list.) They are closed on Sundays and in an already crazy trip to see family, what's wrong with supplementing the jaunt with a stop at a place with such lofty reviews? Turns out, nothing wrong at all.

OK Joe's original KC location is housed in a BP gas station. The unassuming front reveals an inside that is largely occupied by the immensely popular eatery. We waited in line and a nice woman answered Kate's questions about the menu. Kate selected an order of ribs (approximately six total), pulled pork, and an order of onion rings. I went for the brisket, pulled pork, and slaw. Add two drinks and you have a total of thirty dollars and high expectations. I'll start with the most disappointing: the brisket. When you have a plate of amazing bbq, not everything can be perfect and the mind easily settles into a comparison of relative quality. The meat was dry and seemed overcooked. It was well seasoned and wasn't insipid. From my eyes and taste buds, it missed a rather crucial element to brisket in general, fat. With that being said, my life would be better--and my waist line wider--if I could locate similar brisket in Denver.

Now on to the stunning. We loved the pulled pork and it was the best I've eaten, bar none. The ribs were the jewel of the plate and the menu. Along with the pork, these are the best ribs I've tasted in my life. The meat is tender without falling off the bone (aka a mess and a half), not drenched with sauce (aka sauce masks bland or absent flavor), and an even blend of smoke and seasoning (aka perfect). They are not to be missed and any deviation from our trip was worth the side trek. Anyone who disparages bbq does not comprehend the time, care, and attention to flavor that the folks at OK Joe's (and many other restaurants) expend on cooking these specimens of beauty. Despite entering with empty stomachs, we could not finish all of our pork, brisket, and onion rings.

By the time we left, the line was approximately thirty people deep of families and singles patiently waiting for some of the best bbq I've had the fortune of eating. On the table, they offer two basic sweet and spicy sauces and a third vinegar, Carolina sauce, sits nearby. Locals flock to OK Joe's and, as we learned, highly recommend the Z Man sandwich. A healthy pile of brisket (which is probably better on a sandwich than as an isolated entree) is topped by provolone and onion rings on a kaiser bun. If I'm fortunate enough to return, I will enter the restaurant famished and proceed to order the Z Man and some ribs to share.

Kate and I forgot to bring our cameras, so, alas, no photo evidence.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

TFA Update: Don't Fear the Reaper

In one month, I will be preparing to leave for five sunny (read: blistering) weeks in Tempe. I'm applying to schools and my anxiety is growing day-by-day as I shift nervously in my seat updating the Denver Public Schools (DPS) site. There are contingencies if I do not secure a position. I am endeavoring to remain optimistic and taking comfort in the knowledge that positions will continue to open. And, no, it's not dissimulation. My next few weeks remain busy as I conclude any responsibilities with K Plus and prepare for induction and institute. Induction begins on 8 June with a week of packed administrative and team-building activities for new corps members (CMS), including dinners hosted by current CMS and a Rockies game on the last day.

TFA structures the five weeks in Phoenix to challenge CMS with an intensive schedule and work load that harnesses their driven, committed tendencies to mold them into teachers. At some point, I will be teaching an early childhood education (ECE) or elementary classroom. My preference remains for ECE even though the realities of the job market may compel me to find a position as an elementary teacher. I received the recognition of excellence from ETS for scoring in the top 15% of test takers for the Praxis II 0014 for elementary education. Part of me dreads the possibility of retaking the Praxis or Place if my endorsement advances from ECE to middle or high school.

My goal now is to post reviews of institute when time permits. TFA has not shared information of institute beside the readings and tasks in the pre-institute readings, so I'm at a loss for specifics. Kate will visit me over the fourth of July weekend for a side trip to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. At some point I will explore the greater Phoenix area when I can wedge time in to what I am led to believe is a demanding period where CMS encounter heaps of work. The dorm experience is entirely new to me. The only remote point of intrigue are the pools and an unlimited meal card. The pools for obvious reasons, and I always found a meal card fascinating since I attribute a fair amount of spending to food.

Oy. My e-mail digest from CO TFA informed me that I need to ready seven copies of my transcripts for licensing in Colorado. Between the readings and activities, I will have a busy month. I wish my allergies would let up so I could find some excitement and motivation rather than this all-encompassing fog that settles on my mind.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism [Kicking Ass]

Joyce Appleby, emeritus historian at UCLA, tackles a mammoth subject with a history of capitalism, and she treats it well in the 436 pages. She tries to restore contingency and insert culture into the rise of capitalism with the logic that "capitalism is a cultural force and not simply an economic one, it cannot be explained by material factors alone" and a capitalist culture could ascend only after wearing down pre-existing/medieval norms pertaining to commerce, land use, and social relations (26). In arguing this cultural and contingent interpretation, she dispatches, to varying degrees, three titans: Smith, Marx, Weber. What follows is a thorough explanation of how capitalism ingrained itself and triumphed by adaption to whatever circumstances arose as it shifted from its origin in England to the US and, one presumes based on the final chapter, China.

England's agricultural revolution--while not necessarily a direct antecedent to its more famous industrial cousin--altered society in a crucial manner by boosting harvests, detaching families from the land (sending them across the seas and itinerantly chasing labor in England), commercializing land, and producing wage labor with an attendant and subsequent appearance of consumption as a robust form of economic activity. From that initial burst, capitalism speedily conquered medieval forms of intellectual, social, and cultural stratification within England that stood as a roadblocks to its dominance. The United States and a unified Germany slid into place when England's capitalist star dimmed, with the American form exploding in a super nova that positioned it as the world's leader before World War I and piloted the unknown growth from the 1950s until stagflation signaled its death in the 1970s. After 1975, she enters mushy territory and powers through much of the 1980s to preach the gospel of the internet and globalization before wrapping it up in hurried fashion with a description of China and India. I presume she tacked on the final chapter "Of Crises and Critics" as an afterthought when the house nearly folded in 2008.

I skimmed a couple of reviews that credited her for a balanced approach that grants equal time to proponents and antagonists alike all the while shedding a triumphalist tack. That's not the book I read. In fact, it celebrates capitalism and its innovators without dwelling on those who stagger under its weight without benefiting from its liberation. Then why, you might ask, do Americans cling to this economic system? In her words, "the American public has resoundingly supported capitalism and its demands on society in part because they have not been exposed to the withering commentary of critics" (311). I would agree with that statement, and bolster it by saying that works such as Relentless Revolution contribute to that trend by neglecting capitalism's critics by portraying a flowery history that precipitated national greatness.

I wanted to like this book and spent far too much time reading it closely. The book closes with two pages answering my questions in cursory fashion on capitalism and democracy, its own inherent democratizing tendencies, or it as an economic and cultural system. I would have enjoyed a bit of theorizing on capitalism in place of the oft encyclopedic chronicling, and I cannot rip Appleby too hard for not writing the book I desired when it wasn't her intention. I am, however, able to target her cheerleading of capitalism and its adherents and innovators. Relentless Revolution would have been better had she explored the duality of capitalism (especially during and after American capitalism's efflorescence in the mid-twentieth century) that provides opportunity and pitfalls instead of dry descriptions of currency, financial innovation, and similar tedious insight into the levers of capitalism.

Appleby made one mistake between that caught my eye, even though I'm sure there are more buried in the text. It's Thorstein Veblen, not Thornstein Veblen, and the quote that follows on 188 is mistakenly attributed to Joseph Schumpeter's Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy in the end notes and not Veblen's Theory of Business Enterprise. In fairness to her, writing 436 pages is a task that most people could not accomplish and mistakes are bound to result.

Appleby's narrative is well known but written with accessible prose, even though it elides the negatives in favor of a sunny retelling. I'm glad I finished the book and I appreciate her infusion of contingency and culture into this discussion. Would I recommend it to friends? Most likely not.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Listening is an Act of Love

Dave Isay, ed., Listening is an Act of Love: A Celebration of American Life from the Storycorps Project.

Thanks to my mother-in-law, we received a copy of Listening is an Act of Love recently. At first blush I was unfamiliar with the book's contents and the NPR program. I don't drive often and I'm nervously connecting my ipod once I am buckled in rather than skipping around the radio pre-sets and settling on NPR. I can almost hear the gasps dripping with condescension "you don't listen to NPR and have this committed to memory?!?!" Despite that, the stories contained within Listening is an Act of Love reached my ear during the fleeting instances when I kept vigil at 90.1 FM, and I was pleasantly surprised that I had absorbed more of these vignettes than I previously thought.

The Storycorps Project is a stunning endeavor that recorded memories that run the emotional gamut from stirring to joyous to painful. Dave Isay edited a plethora of stories that range in quality and duration. He winnowed them into a tidy 270 pages based around five thematic chapters: Home and Family, Work and Dedication, Journeys, History and Struggle, Fire and Water. The book is, as the subtitle claims, a celebration of American life in all of its manifestations, be they ugly or verdant.

The subjects volunteered their time and recollections in traveling and fixed recording booths across the US that digitally captured an exchange between the subject and a facilitator or friend/loved one. The Library of Congress' American Folklife Center houses the Storycorps' recordings, along with a catalog of inestimable value and depth. Oral history, one could contend, is an example of appreciation for an oral tradition whose sinews connect us to our earliest ancestors and their transmission of history. From the WPA interviews to contemporary projects such as the Storycorps, Americans largely celebrate oral history and Listening is an Act of Love taps into this desire with aplomb. The stories are so disparate that they defy a simple review that I would compose in this space.

I walked away from Listening is an Act of Love with an improved appreciation for oral history as a methodological tool that charts the obstacles faced in every day life and the strategies employed to overcome the peaks and valleys. After wrapping up "Fire and Water," the final chapter covering 9/11 and Katrina, I reconsidered the lens by which I interpreted the first decade of this century for Americans. With the September 11 attacks, Katrina, and the colossal failure of the US' financial and economic system, the decade consisted of bookends and a meaty center where ruin was heaped on the United States with an attendant social cost that will be reckoned with for the subsequent decade or longer. Americans will persist and slog through the ruptures we face, and Listening is an Act of Love reinforces the durability of Americans and, possibly, a nebulous American spirit. After the past year, I'm sick of partisanship and empty-headed screeds warning of communism and socialism, and possibly these nuisances are the product of the shocks from '01-'09. I remain positive in spite of the apoplectic, frothing displays that the US will rebuild a foundation of rational centrist approaches to regulation and taxes, and that politicians will forsake short-term political gain to join a discussion of how to safeguard our country. I trust that a toxic political conversation abates in the near future. If the missives in Listening is an Act of Love reveal anything, it's the ability for Americans to harness renewal and hope to rebuild.