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Archive for the category “Living in the 21st Century”

Alexa: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time?

pexels-photo-266176.jpegI confess, I was nervous when my daughter and son-in-law gave us the Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas last year. I was fresh from reading about IOT (Internet of Things), the capability of innocent-seeming objects embedded with Internet capabilities, including toys, to respond and react to/with their owners, as well as reporting these interactions to some database on an unknown server (somewhere in Uzbekistan?) for analysis and use in marketing or who-knows-what. Consequently, I was reluctant to set it up. I wasn’t excited about having a device in my home that literally listened to everything that went on in it and could report it to anyone else who wanted to listen.

But my other two tech-savvy daughters were so excited about theirs and all the wonderful things it helped them do, that I finally gave in. I deleted my phone app where I kept my grocery list by manually entering the items I needed, and allowed Alexa to take over the job. I could call her by name and ask her to add something to my list. She would politely inform me that she had added orange juice to my shopping list, and sure enough, almost immediately orange juice showed up on the new Alexa app on my phone. Cool! Okay, that’s not so bad, although I realize that if the Echo Dot is syncing to my phone, my grocery list is probably on some unknown server somewhere waiting on some algorithm to analyze my planned purchases and email me coupons.

I tried out a few other affordances of Alexa. I asked her to play some Elvis Presley and some Beethoven. Her choices weren’t always mine, but I could always say “Alexa, stop!” and she obeyed with alacrity. I refused to use her to buy anything, which would entail revealing private credit information, but occasionally she would waken on her own and let me know about wonderful bargains I might be missing out on. I just ignored her.

Then I discovered her timer capabilities. That was a real plus! Setting a timer while I was cooking involved putting down whatever was in my hands, wiping or washing

them, and punching the buttons on the timer on the stove; handy it was not. But with Alexa, I could use my voice. “Alexa,” I would say to get her attention, “Timer, thirty seconds.” Thirty seconds later she played a cute little tune to let me know thirty seconds was up. “Alexa, stop,” I tell her, and she complies. Loving this timer option!

Recently, my older daughter and I were having a discussion on speech recognition (SR) software. As a teacher of special ed students, she had been experimenting with using it to support her students in their writing. Although their writing seemed to be improving, she was wondering if somehow using SR was cheating them from learning to spell on their own. I shared with her an article I had just read where these issues were discussed both positively and negatively. The authors came down in favor of SR, with caveats, suggesting that as long as the students re-read and recopied their writing, they were getting much needed practice in spelling and decoding words.


Reading the article helped me make the connection between SR and Alexa. The Echo Dot and other similar devices are built on this technology. The improvement in SR

technology over the last decade has been phenomenal, but let me tell you, it isn’t perfect! Example en pointe.

For supper this evening, I was looking for something quick and easy. I decided to heat up some frozen quesadillas. It wouldn’t take much time to do, according to the directions, but it was a little involved. First, I had to put one frozen quesadilla on a plate and thaw it for one minute and fifteen seconds in the microwave. Then I was to transfer the quesadilla to a hot frying pan, heat for two minutes and thirty seconds, turn it over and heat for another two minutes and thirty seconds. Seemed pretty straight forward, but I had four to heat, so I thought I could heat one in the microwave,

transfer it to the skillet and cook the first one while I put another one in the microwave. I could use Alexa to time the skillet cooking. It should work like a charm, right?

The first round went well. I actually forgot to preheat the skillet, so I had two thawed out in the microwave by the time I was ready to have Alexa start timing. “Alexa,” I said, “Timer, two—“ Before I could complete my instructions, Alexa said, “Timer. For how long?”

“Two minutes, thirty seconds,” I answered. “Timer, two minutes and thirty seconds starting now,” Alexa said. Two minutes and thirty seconds later, just like clockwor

k, Alexa played her little tune.

“Alexa, stop,” I told her. She did. I turned the quesadillas and then said, “Alexa, timer, two–”

Again she interrupted me. “Timer. For how long?” If you’d just listen until I finish talking, I was thinking.

“Two minutes and thirty seconds,” I said.

“Timer, ten minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”

“Alexa, stop!” I cried and tried to start over. “Alexa, timer, two—”



Yes, she interrupted me again. “Timer. For how long?”

“Two minutes and thirty seconds.”

“Second timer, two minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”

I give up. Maybe I should just go back to using a watch or an egg timer until Alexa can tell the difference between two and ten. That will certainly be safer…


Memories of Decoration Day


imagesMy ancestors lie on a wind-swept hill just south of Billings in north central Oklahoma. My parents, one set of grandparents, three sets of great grandparents, and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins of varying degrees slumber there awaiting the final trumpet sound. This is hallowed ground to me, as you might imagine.

This time of year I think about that cemetery a great deal. Monday is Memorial Day, or as it was called when I was growing up, Decoration Day. The annual trek from Edmond to Billings on Memorial Day was a tradition in my family. My mother would get my brother and me up early to get there in time to help Grandma cut the flowers from her garden and place them in coffee cans filled with water. I vividly remember the smell of 122692804the lilacs and the dust on the road out to the cemetery. My grandmother already had a husband, a son, and parents buried there, and once we arrived, she and my mother carefully arranged the cans of flowers on the graves. Then Mother would take us around the cemetery showing us the graves of various family members, being very careful not to step on any of them. Perhaps it sounds a bit morbid, but it truly wasn’t.

If other family members weren’t already there, they would arrive soon. My grandmother was one of twelve, and the aunts, uncles, and cousins stood around in the cemetery chatting. They would be gathering later at Aunt Gladys’ or Aunt Lizzie’s for a family dinner, but the talk was always non-stop.

At some point (my memory is not clear on the exact hour), they would join the rest of the community who had gathered at the cemetery in observing a ceremony honoring the deceased veterans buried there. Back then, it was mostly veterans of World War I; my great uncle Wayne wouldn’t join their number for many more years, but he is there now. There were a few veterans of World War II who had died in the fighting; now there are many more, including my dad, my Uncle Holly, my mother’s cousin J.C., and others. The closing of the ceremony was always marked with the playing of taps and a 21-gun salute.

As a child, the noise of the guns frightened me. I didn’t understand much of what I was experiencing. It was only much later as I grew up and gained an appreciation for what the ceremony was about that it took on new meaning in my mind. This whole event was a way for the living to honor those who had been a part of their lives and were no more. Many of the dead in that cemetery were not veterans of wars, but were pioneers who had braved the elements to break the sod and establish homes and communities in a somewhat less than inviting landscape. They deserved to be honored and remembered for what they had done, and decorating the graves was how the community chose to do that. Moreover, this observance provided opportunities for the young to make connections with those of the past whom they would never know but who had impacted their lives in powerful ways. I know that the way the Billings community came together in this effort made a lasting impression on me.

So this Memorial Day, I will be in a cemetery, in part to honor the memory of those earlier Memorial/Decoration Days. As we have for the past two years, my DAR sisters and I will lay a wreath at the flagpole in the Veteran’s Section. 10294318_10152195724754611_3404137821886909062_nWe will say a prayer and sing the National Anthem. I wish there could be someone to play taps and offer a 21-gun salute.

And so my thoughts come to this: Maybe it’s time to become more mindful of our cemeteries and those who rest there, to restore them to their rightful place in our communal thinking. Maybe it’s time once again to pay homage for what the inhabitants of these cemeteries accomplished in their lifetimes, whether on the field of battle or simply the field of living, to express gratitude for the benefits that we enjoy now without a second thought. My wish for you this Memorial Day is that you spend some time in a cemetery.

More thoughts about roses and names

In my latest post, I discussed how some of the leadership roles in education are misnamed. Still in that frame of mind, another misnomer reared its ugly head—and this one is no fragrant rose. The term is “achievement gap.”

If you’ve been in or around education in the last 45 or 50 years, you’ve heard the term achievement gap repeatedly. It was coined back in the 1960s to refer to the difference in educational performance between whites and non-whites. It came to be documented clearly on the periodic NAEP assessments, first administered in 1969. The term became standard fair in any discussion of perceived problems in American education and eliminating it became the goal and rallying cry in many quarters. No one likes the idea of an “achievement gap” in the education of a country supposedly committed to educating all of its students.

Just prior to the organization of the board that developed NAEP, another event occurred which I remember well. It was Sputnik. This was the first satellite ever sent into space by man and it was put in place by (horror of horrors!) the Russians! Anyone who was not alive at that time cannot appreciate the abject fear this induced in the American people. The knee-jerk reaction of many was to look around for someone to blame, and guess who they found. Yep, you guessed it—education. It had to be that schools weren’t producing enough graduates who went into science! Congress passed legislation to address the perceived problem, including low interest National Defense Student Loans for college students. I was the beneficiary of one of those early loans.

The fact is, however, that education was not to blame. The blame belonged on the American people who, after World War II, were focused on consumer goods provided by a booming economy, and on investors who saw money to be made in those products rather than in space, and in a government that refused to believe that Russia was willing to commit itself to being first in space. But blaming schools was much easier, so our leaders decided we needed to develop NAEP to keep tabs on these “failing” schools. And so was the “achievement gap” discovered.

Since the 1960s there has been a never ending litany of the chorus–“Our schools are failing!” Why Johnny Can’t Read, A Nation at Risk, the 2012 Council on Foreign Relations Report, the PISA tests, the PIRLS tests, Waiting for Superman, to name a few. The script was “our schools are not “rigorous” enough, we can’t compete economically with the rest of the world, we won’t be able to maintain our position of military strength if we don’t fix (read reform or close) the schools!” And all the time, despite bumps and dips, our economy and our military remained the strongest in the world. Hmmmm…it seems to me, if schools were as bad as we were told they were, we should be living in a third-world country by now.

But, no doubt, the achievement gap was troubling. It became the focus of numerous academic studies and think tanks. What could be done to close it, many worried. Most of those studies pointed clearly and unmistakably to a correlation between the achievement gap and poverty. While no one said that poverty prevented all students who were living in poverty from being successful in school, they were observing that a large majority of those students were unsuccessful, whereas students in affluent schools tended to be successful. Some even asserted that reducing poverty in America would have a positive impact on the achievement gap.

However, another group of influential people thought differently about the achievement gap. They decided that the problem lay with the students, who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t apply themselves. We simply didn’t expect enough of them. Or perhaps it was the teachers who were lazy and unmotivated and didn’t know how to teach or care enough to learn. The solution to everything, they determined, was to provide both incentives and punishments and demand more of teachers and students and schools. And so, Congress passed NCLB, the first untested and unproven nationwide education experiment. It was a total failure, as we all know, because its demands were unreasonable and its methods draconian. Fast forward thirteen years to the Common Core Initiative, otherwise known as NCLB on steroids. The same groups of people continue to make the same claims with the same, ratcheted-up, unworkable, inappropriate solutions.

Unfortunately the achievement gap term has played into the hands of these reformers. If it’s simply a matter of “achieving,” they conclude students can be bribed or punished to “achieve.” Thus the use of the term achievement gap seems to lend credence to the rationale of the “reformers.” Of course, this flies in the face of decades of psychological and educational research.

Recently amid much controversy, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released the 2013 school and district report cards a few days ago. One blogger took the time to plot the correspondences between schools that got Fs and schools that are located in areas of poverty. See it here. To nobody’s surprise, the correlation was high. Yet, those in the reform camp still want to claim that schools that are making As and Bs are simply doing a better job of teaching to the rigorous standards than those who got Fs. They refuse to accept that affluence may really be the determinate of educational success.

Some have suggested the use of a different term to describe this persistent difference between affluent and non-affluent students’ performance. They propose an “opportunity gap” and this makes sense to me. I believe as long as we focus on achievement in the gap, it is too easy to blame the students, as well as schools and teachers, which is a much too simplistic solution. If instead, we use the term opportunity to describe the gap, we tend to focus on other factors which are extremely powerful but over which the student has little control. It’s a real game changer.

And so we come back to names and labels. What you call it makes a big difference in how you think about it. Looks like Juliet is wrong again.

“A rose by any other name…” Did Shakespeare’s Juliet get it wrong?

The phrase that begins the title of this piece will be recognized by most Americans who took freshman or sophomore English in high school. It comes from Juliet’s encouragement to Romeo to continue to woo her, ignoring the fact that they were born into feuding families. She suggests that names are meaningless; all that matters is what you are. It’s a very idealistic metaphor that we love to quote.

I was thinking about that phrase today with regard to school leadership. Over the last hundred or so years, certain names or titles have been adopted by education, for example, the term superintendent. This term came into vogue in the early part of the 20th Century right along with the factory model of schooling. When you look up the word superintendent in, the first definition you get is the following: a person who oversees or directs some work, enterprise, establishment, organization, district, etc.; supervisor. Superintendents were common in 20th Century factories. They were responsible for the product turned out by their particular portion of the manufacturing process, including how well the individual workers performed. Their job was to see to it that the product in question was produced quickly and efficiently with high quality. We all get that, don’t we?

What we’ve learned over the years, despite the attempt to move the clock backwards by the Common Core Initiative, is that schools are not factories, students are not widgets, teachers are not assembly line workers doing a simple, albeit important job, and superintendents, in the sense used in manufacturing, don’t even belong in this equation. Individuals in what we now call the role of the superintendent should be leaders, i.e., out in front looking for and providing the best resources for teachers and students, not heavy-handed autocrats whose every whim is to be obeyed, especially when it comes to using those truckloads of test-practice workbooks he or she provided for those teachers who can’t possibly know how to prepare their kids for The Tests. Unfortunately, this kind of superintendent seems to be on the rise. I’m thinking of the Broad-trained superintendents (such as Mike Miles, currently in that role in the Dallas school district), who are trained in disruption. The theory is that a new superintendent needs to come on the scene and shake everything up, which they routinely do, undermining much of what is good about a district, and leaving it in shambles, fair game for another Broad-trained candidate. Given what we have learned about how the best leaders lead, this is clearly not what the role requires. Teachers and students need role models and support in dealing with difficult and often unexpected situations, over which their control may be limited.

So, here’s my suggestion. It’s not necessarily new, but perhaps it’s time has come. Let’s change the titles of the leaders in our schools and districts. One of the things research has shown us is the importance of the concept of lifelong learners. We teach our pre-service teachers that they must continue to learn once they leave the hallowed halls of academia. That’s what professional development for practicing teachers is all about. Isn’t that true for principals and superintendents as well? If teachers are ongoing learners (some would have us call them the chief learner in the classroom, or even the Learning Designer), shouldn’t principals be the Chief Learner of the school, and by extrapolation, shouldn’t a superintendent be called instead something like Chief of Learning for XXX School District?

As I said, this is not a new idea, but here is why I think it is important to push for this now. One thing psychology has shown us is that what we call someone repeatedly eventually sticks. If we call our children stupid, they come to see themselves incapable, even if they are in fact very capable. If we label someone in a certain way, they tend to live up or down to their names. As long as the labels we give principals and superintendents are unrelated to their major role as leaders of learning, we can only expect them to take on the attributes of the roles for which they have been named. If a person carries the title Chief of Learning instead of Superintendent, wouldn’t that encourage the person to see his or her role in a different light? I think so. I think this would help both the individual in the position, but also those in the schools and the parents and public adopt a new mindset about what the job should be, because ultimately it shouldn’t be about test scores and budgets. It should be about how well students are learning and how supported teachers feel in their own learning and professionalism.

So, what is in a name? Quite a bit, Juliet, as the rest of your play made crystal clear.

Hello world!

This is me, sticking my newly pedicured toes into the cyber-universe of blogging. My pedicure is what I would like to talk about for a few moments, because I recently, at the tender age of 70, had my very first one. My oldest daughter, woman of the world that she is, felt it was important that I have at least one pedicure in my lifetime, so as a belated Mother’s Day gift, last Saturday she escorted me to a local pedicuria.

Growing up, I got the impression that getting a pedicure was even more plutocratic than getting a manicure, and a plutocrat I am not. But it seems that over the last couple of decades, coincidentally perhaps with the proliferation of Asians in our communities, pedicures have become quite commonplace. Especially in the summer I see hundreds if not thousands of cheerfully painted toes, uncovered and displayed openly, yes, even brazenly, on thonged leather platforms that pass for sandals. So I thought, maybe it is time to join this fashion craze of the 21st Century and experience my first pedicure.

It was, I want to make clear, definitely an experience. It was difficult to tell how much English the pedicurist could actually speak. Her speech to me was limited to “Whi’ wan?” which she had to repeat a couple of times before I understood that she was asking which level of pedicure I wanted. Since this was my first and since my daughter was paying for it, I figured we better go easy. “Regular,” I told her. I think that was the last thing she said to me the entire time; everything else was accomplished with gestures or pulling and tugging on my feet.

First, of course, they had to be soaked in a warm foot spa bath. After an appropriate amount of time, the pedicurist pulled one foot at a time out of the water and attacked it with a pair of clippers. I winced a couple of times and began to notice that she kept dabbing one toe with a piece of cotton. “I’m bleeding!” I thought, with just a slightly elevated sense of alarm.

After that came the heel-scrapping. Okay, that was just downright unpleasant. It gave me “shivels” as my nephew used to call them. A little less intense scrapping followed with a somewhat softer tool. Then, she filed my toenails with an Emory board, which totally set my teeth on edge. At this point, I was beginning to question the wisdom of my consenting to this whole project.

Then…then came the foot massage, followed by a total calf massage with lotion. Oh, my! When that was over (and I really didn’t want her to quit), she wrapped my legs in hot wet towels and left them until they were cold (Okay, she probably left them on too long). By that point, I was considering apologizing for all the nasty things I had been thinking about her that I hadn’t actually said. But I didn’t, because—you know, the language issue and all.

At last she crammed the little pink foam toe spreaders between my toes and began to apply the polish. She still had an issue with the one that was bleeding, but she painted it anyway. When that was done, she put a pair of waxed paper wraps on my feet and walked me over to the round drying table, indicating that I should stick my feet under the edge of it.

As my daughter settled up the bill, the pedicurist smiled broadly and said “See you nex’ time!” Well, maybe. I think it may be a little like learning to drink coffee. When I was kid, coffee smelled so good as it brewed. Then I tasted it and thought, “How do people drink this stuff?” Then I took another sip…and another…and another. Hello, Starbucks!

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