Friday, March 22, 2013

School project

This week, my son Jonathan was required to write a five paragraph essay about an ancestor of his, someone further back than grandparent.  Tim and I both got a little excited and started describing some of the weirdos the boy is descended from.  After hearing a few options, Jonathan decided to write about my great grandfather, his ancestor who went into the resort business in the 1920s.  He chose to write about this man first, because it's cool to be descended from the guy who owned the place everyone wanted to visit in the 1920s and 30s -- at least everyone who lived in Hick County.  And second, because Tim was going to be out of town when the report was due, so Jonathan decided he'd better write about someone on Mom's side so she could help him.


On Monday night, I had him read about 20 pages of stories written by my grandfather on what it was like to be a kid growing up at a lakeside resort.  My grandpa describes roaming the halls of the hotel, crawling under the floor of the dance hall, watching bats fly out from under its roof late at night, and learning to swim and dive.  There is a story in Grandpa's memoirs about how Uncle Bun earned a whopping $25 on the 4th of July by pulling on a gasoline-soaked suit, climbing up to the high dive, and then being lit by a match and diving, flaming, into the pool below.  He writes about the pet bear that performed tricks for the guests until it grew too big and dangerous and had to be put down.  The old resort had what they called a toboggan slide -- attach your sled to the tracks at the top, swoop down to the bottom, and find yourself cruising out over the lake.  The stories are fascinating.

But Monday night, Jonathan was in tears.  "There aren't any facts in here.  How can I write an essay about any of this?"

Tuesday night I dug up a history of the second resort my great grandfather purchased, written by another distant relative.  The history contained facts:  names, dates, quotes from advertisements in local newspapers.  A 1932 ad invited the locals to "Swim in drinking water!  Gents 25 cents, ladies 10 cents".  The history also included information about renovations to the park and pools.  My great grandfather installed an amazing sand filtration system, one of a kind, allowing him to brag back in the 1930s that his pools were so clean, you could "see the bottom from almost anywhere".  Under the older system, pool water had been cleaned and changed only once per week.  (Yuck!)

Tuesday night, Jonathan was in tears.  "This is too much!  How can I put this into an essay?"

Wednesday night, we talked about outlining, and giving each paragraph its own topic.  He needed to write five paragraphs.  That was only five topics!  "What five things would you like to write about?  How do you think it should start?  How should it end?  And then what sorts of things can go in the middle?"

Wednesday night, Jonathan was in tears.  "I don't know.  I don't know what to write about."

The assignment instructions specifically said that parents could help with research and pre-writing.  But not the actual writing.  We spent a long time pre-writing.  I coaxed and coddled and pulled from his mind possible paragraph topics.  "What resort did he buy first? Why did he buy it?  Don't you think that would make an interesting paragraph?"  (Hint hint hint.)  I pulled out all the articles again, and marked in pink pen some of the things that he could put into the essay, a small arrow and a few lines here and there around the masses of his enthusiastic yellow highlighting marks.

I had him reread the assignment instructions for some inspiration.  The instructions said he should follow the guidelines for writers he had been learning about in school.  "What guidelines have you learned?"

"Um... Each paragraph should have five sentences?"

So after we came up with topics, we brainstormed five things he could say under each topic.  Five sentences each.  And then finally, finally, he sat down on his own and wrote with pencil and paper a first draft.  Even after we had talked about each item for each sentence, it took him over an hour to craft those twenty-five sentences.  Twenty-five perfect sentences.

When he was finished, I read the essay through with him, and it was very good.  I made a few suggestions -- parents could help with editing, the assignment sheet said.  This afternoon he typed it up, hunting for letters on my keyboard with a pair of index fingers and a concerned squint in his forehead.  In total, he spent well over the three hours the assignment sheet had suggested that students devote to the project.

And I learned a lot more than he did.

I learned again about my great-grandfather, and his resorts.  But mostly I learned that writing is Hard.  HARD!  Even when you have all the facts and all the stories, it is Hard to organize that into paragraphs, and still hard to organize that into sentences, and still hard to organize that into words.

And I think that Jonathan really really needs another five paragraph essay assignment again very very soon.  Because now that we have spent all this time talking about organizing information into topics and paragraphs and sentences, he needs to practice that over and over again, and learn how to pre-write on his own, and learn not to be afraid of blank paper and Facts and Stories.  How will he learn these things if he does not get to practice?

And how in the world do his friends learn this stuff, the ones with parents who can't help their children with their school work?  This project was so different from anything he had been doing (worksheets... multiple choice reading comprehension... short fiction writing), that he needed one-on-one tutoring.  Is that what it takes to learn to write?

Or did I help too much?  Should I not have been moved by his tears?  Should I just have left him in flames at the top of the diving board, to find his own way into the pool?  After all, he only had to jump.

But I don't know.  I worried that if his hair got too singed this first time, he would be less inclined to jump the next time.  And then how would he ever learn the thrill of jumping?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


There is a huge difference between 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 55 degrees Fahrenheit and 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Last week, in early early March, the temperature (nearly) reached 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  The following day, the neighbor child walked to school in shorts and a light jacket. (It was 37 degrees and yeah, he was pretty much purple by the time we reached school, but no, he wasn't cold at all.  Nope.  Not at all.  Really warm, in fact.)  In spite of the neighbor boy turning blue in the cold, the world did smell like mud and pine and living, growing things.  Spring is coming!  And then summer!  It's almost summer!  At 55 degrees!

But in September, when the temperature drops from 80 degrees Fahrenheit to 55 degrees Fahrenheit overnight, the neighbor boy comes dressed in long pants and a heavy jacket.  That evening, we pull out our sweaters and start a wood fire in the basement fire place.  Winter is coming.  Because the temperature dropped to 55 degrees.

When we lived in California, I remember distinctly those long rainy winter months, and that the average high temperature, day after day after day, was stuck at the bitter cold value of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  I was so cold, and so tired of winter.  I longed for warmer weather -- for spring.  Warmer than 55 degrees.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sore gums and important people

I had another appointment with the dentist this week.  I knew it wouldn't go well.  That's because for the last few years, the amount of pain and swelling I feel in my gums has been a pretty good indication of the amount of stress I'm feeling in my life.  And actually, interestingly, lately the soreness in my gums has been the first thing to awaken me to the fact that I'm feeling pretty stressed out.  Again.

I really have no good excuse to be stressed out.  My family is safe and healthy and well.  And yet....

Last week, two important people came to visit our department, and to speak in the seminar I organize.  They were invited to visit primarily by Dr Jim Famous, who just retired from G.O.D. University but who still attends seminars.  Working with Dr Famous, we picked a convenient week and found travel funds to bring in Dr Important and Dr Impressive.  I took care of the details, because I am the seminar organizer, and because Dr Famous is retired, and because Dr Important was my PhD advisor and Dr Impressive was one of my postdoctoral mentors.

For the record, Dr Important and Dr Impressive are both delightful men, and kind.  But because they were my supervisors during times in which I felt small and stupid, now when I am around them I remember how small and stupid I can be.  And I feel a deep desire not to be stupid in their presence.

I am smart.  I am professional.  I am a delightful person, and kind.  But alas, I am frequently stupid.  Luckily, Dr Famous was the guy who would be hosting these important visitors, and so while they were visiting, he would be the one to show them around and help them be happy and I could hide in his shadow with a professional-looking smile.

Anyway, the travel was arranged, the talks scheduled, advertised, planned.  Dr Famous took a quick weekend trip with his wife to visit his grandchildren in rural Texas, assuring me he would be back on Monday.  And all was well.

On Monday, I emailed our seminar group to remind them of the important visitors, and to organize a post-seminar dinner.  Prof Famous mailed back:

"Dear everyone,
     I am snowed in, in a farmhouse 30 miles outside of Lubbock. If the flight hadn't been cancelled, we wouldn't have been able to get to the airport anyway: snow, winds 35-45 mph with gust to 60. The flight has been rescheduled to Thursday. I am sorry to miss all of you wonderful speakers and seminar members. But... it's nice to be with family, warm and comfortable...unless the electricity goes out. - Dr Famous."

And suddenly, I was the only one on the ground to host Dr Important and Dr Impressive.  And even though they are both delightful men, and kind, by the next morning my gums were feeling tender and sore. 

But you know, I survived.  And the talks were well attended, and the seminar luncheon and dinner were enjoyable.  And I spent a couple of hours with each visitor, talking about my research ideas, and I was not struck dumb with stupidity.  And the guests were even polite during the inevitable instances in which I was stupid.  In all, it was a lovely visit, just as I knew it would be, even if Dr Famous missed it entirely.  And if Dr Important and Dr Impressive are reading this, then I want them to know that I very much appreciated having them come.  Their seminars were excellent and the entire department enjoyed the visit and learned from it.

But Tuesday morning, when they were gone and I was trapped in that reclining chair at the dentist's office, it was clear that the visit had affected me.  As the hygienist gave my gums a thorough hyper-sonic scrubbing treatment, recommending ibuprofen for the pain I was sure to feel the rest of the day, she asked if I had ever tried yoga for its calming abilities.

No, thought I.  But next time I am stressed, I believe I will visit rural Texas.  I hear that the farmhouses there are warm and comfortable.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Expanding, 2013

For four years in a row now, I have volunteered a Saturday at the Other large university in my metropolitan area, running workshops for middle school and high school girls on mathematics.  Today was the day, and I was up and dressed and out the door long before I like to leave home on a Saturday morning.

The girls were all up earlier.  One group took a bus from a tiny town somewhere in the rural south; they left at 2:00 in the morning.  Others were up at 4:30 or 5:00 am.  My 8 am departure was not noteworthy.

Why were they all up early?  Over 1000 of them this year?

The program is called Expanding Your Horizons, and is part of a national effort, first started in San Francisco in 1974, to encourage girls to study math, science, and engineering.  The national website proclaims that such conferences are now held in 31 states.  In our case, girls from all over the state, and even the native Americans in the northern part of the adjacent state, come to the University of All People (UAP) and spend the morning attending workshops of their choice in one of 45 different areas, learning about possible careers and opportunities in science, engineering, health care.  The math workshop has never been the most popular, but we had about 55 girls total come through, and each one built a couple of cool fractals.

One thing I did right this year was invite one of the other female faculty members from Good Old Dude University to help me out.  Not only was Dr E interested in helping, she wanted to come up with the main presentation.  She hadn't done anything like it before, but knew it would be a great learning experience.  I was in the same place in 2006 in Texas, invited to run a general-audience workshop, and finally ready to put in the time to come up with something fun and related to my research.

Dr E's research area involves applications of fractals to applied problems, and she found a few fun activities for the girls involving paper triangles, marshmallows, and toothpicks.  The girls loved it.  As they assembled their creations, they pulled out their phones to take pictures of the final projects, which looked something like this:

And like this:

(Neither image is of our kids or their projects, they're both pictures from the Fractal Foundation, in New Mexico.  But you get the idea.)

It was really fun to wander the sides of the room as the TA this year,  helping to pass out papers, scissors, supplies, answer questions, and clean up in between sessions, but to leave the presentation to Dr E.  Last year, and the year before, and the year before, I did all of it alone.  Much less fun.

And one of the best things ... Dr E mentioned saving some of the presentation supplies so she could do this again next year....

It is nice to volunteer, but nicer to volunteer with nice people.