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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

After a 100-Year Drought

After A 100-Year Drought

This year the huisache blooms its greetings to the new season in wild cascades of dusty, mustard orange, strands of tiny tufts, like waterfalls of puffy Crayola clouds waving in the Hill Country breeze. The fields are festooned with loud clumps of shrubs and trees, calling all the honey bees. The huisache is the most beautiful among the many beautiful this spring. The heavy branches, draped in a blaze so bright, like 3-M's neon traffic caution signs, call out to the screaming green, almost iridescent mesquite and the mysterious, blackened-green cedar.  Then, sliding in, the gentle humidity, the clouds in the distance, the tiny drops of water falling on each of their fronds and branches, and tiny leaves, like little fingers dripping and floating in the breeze.  The carpet of bluebonnets beneath them. What colors we have. Que de colores.  What colors this land presents as it opens the new season. From the drought we emerge in new clothes to welcome the possibilities.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Third Quarter in the Game

Only about half the players came suited up for the right sport. Some wore hockey jerseys, others their tennis togs, but the game for ten percent of their final grade was not for playing those sports. True, about half came to class prepared to play, pumped up and yes, their grade was earned in full.

Creative controversy is an activity that is multi-part. Students are assigned the viewing of the Academy Award nominated documentary "The Most Dangerous Man in America" (available on Netflix). The two-hour film is about the life of Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon analyst, the secret report about five American presidencies and our policy in Vietnam, and the New York Times v. United States, the landmark first amendment case. Students watch the film, then we discuss Ellsberg's personal journey and the developments in the story. Then they are asked to read accounts of the trial and to extract from these readings the reasons given by the Supreme Court justices for voting the way they did, 6-3 in favor of the New York Times.

Finally, with the notes from their readings, they begin the oral presentation section of the 'creative controversy' exercise. They first are shown a brief but important exchange between people on opposing teams. It is the "This is me, this is my idea" exercise:

Each of a pair of students has a piece of paper with the words "This is Me" written on it. Each then writes on another sheet, "This is my idea". Students are reminded that while we may have different or opposing ideas, those are still different than who we are as people. We can dislike an idea while still remaining respectful of each other. One student says "This is Me" holding the paper to their chest, while holding out in their other hand the paper that reads "This is my idea." The other student repeats the process. The first student then says "I like you, but I only like half of your idea," reaches to the other student and tears her sheet with "This is my idea" written on it. The second student is usually, and naturally, in mock shock over this, but does the same to the first student. The third step is the most important. The students place their torn 'ideas' sheets together, and together they twist them, saying "If we sit down together, talk and work hard on this, we can come up with options and alternatives to 'your' idea and 'my' idea."

The students are placed in groups of four, with two teams of two each, prepared to represent either the pro or con side of the Pentagon Papers case in timed, two-minute presentations. The selections of students and pro or con are random. One team, a Pro Veteran and Pro Rookie stand and face the opposing team, made up of a Con Veteran and Con Rookie.

The Pro Vet student speaks for up to two minutes, uninterrupted, using notes, giving the best arguments he considers for the government's side of the case. No personal opinions are allowed. Then the Pro Con student speaks rebutting with the best arguments she has extracted from the decision and accounts of the case. The Pro Rookie then rebuts for two minutes, followed by the Con Rookie who rebuts with his best arguments.

 The teams compare notes for a few minutes then the Pro team becomes the Con team, and the Con team becomes the Pro team, and the process begins again. After the teams complete their second round of presentations, they sit and create sets of alternatives and options to the Pentagon Papers case in the present year, with existing, current technologies, such as the Internet. Their experience has seen them in the shoes of opposing sides, and their understanding of what was at stake in the case is now more clear than if we had simply seen the film and discussed it. They suited up and fought for the ideas just as the lawyers in the case had, and their arguments were from the court's written decisions.

The case is interesting for many, many reasons. From the standpoint of journalism, the government's position on national security, the issue of prior restraint, and more. The justices who sided with the government couldn't reach agreement on why they were siding with the government, one focusing on the hurried time-frame, another on the powers of the executive branch. I like for my students to see that there's even disagreement in agreement!

I'm proud of the teams that presented and the students that truly came prepared got more out of this activity than nearly any project I can think of. To the students who came unprepared, I gave an alternative project earning 50% of the points available. They were assigned a written project to be submitted online about the same topic. They were asked to prepare their work in the library (downstairs) during the class period the others presented in their two-minute arguments in 'Creative Controversy'.

As a teacher, you do your best to think of all your players, and their strengths and skills. I hope those that did the written assignment got at least half of the value of the lesson that those who prepared well received. I'm sorry they missed the experience, the huddling, the prompting, the new arguments rapidly jotted down while listening, the adrenaline and the pleasure of performing and competing in a safe place about issues that real justices on our nation's highest court couldn't find agreement on.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Confidence and Courage

Last night I was watching the two Brene Brown Ted Talks videos back-to-back. Her 2010 Ted Talk on her research into shame and vulnerability was a huge Internet success, and listening to her follow-up lecture is insightful on several levels. Check out the second talk, just up this week on the TED site:

I was taken with Brown's humor and honesty. She describes the word courage as a word that comes from the Latin word for heart, and that when the word first entered the English language it was used to "tell the story of who you are with your whole heart."

When I first saw the magnificent David while visiting Florence a few years ago, I was struck by the nearly palpable presence of the young and courageous David as he steps forward to approach the giant, Goliath. The tension and movement is amazing contained in a piece of large, static marble. I was telling a good friend about my experience and I remarked, "What was so clear was his courage!"

I remember to this day that she spoke in a low, calm tone and said, "It was not his courage, it was his confidence that you saw." I was surprised and asked her to explain the difference. "Courage would mean that David faced his fear and overcame it to fight the giant. What David had was confidence, meaning 'with faith'. That's what confidence means, literally." I remembered the Spanish word for faith, "fe" as in Santa Fe,  or holy faith.

Brene Brown's talks remind me that we do well to consider and study the ideas of courage and vulnerability and to hope we have the confidence to be our whole-hearted selves facing our own Goliaths.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Right Brain and Left Brain Thinking 

One of my favorite colleagues at Northwest Vista College is psychology professor Dr. Don Lucas. He is one of the most humorous people I've ever met, and he's also one of the most intelligent.

He's written a book on a subject that he's researched for many years, happiness.

Dr. Don is a gifted educator and also a friend who will tell you when you are on target, and just as comfortably, will also tell you when you are not. Isn't a friend like that amazing?

A few weeks ago I asked for his help, as I've done many times prior, including during my dissertation processes. I wanted him to weigh in on my project-based learning approach to teaching my Introduction to Mass Communication courses. Sometimes when I feel like I'm out on a limb, a good friend like Dr. Don can be helpful in regaining my balance.

During our most recent sit-down visit Dr. Don helped me understand that social research, such as the kind my students are engaged in most of the semester, can adequately employ social media to explore and probe questions in ways that are as important as those questions explored in quantifiable, scientific research. Don took a book from his library, 'A Whole New Mind' by Daniel Pink and loaned me the book, urging me to read the latest research on right brain and left brain thinking.

This morning's chapter, Story, was particularly interesting as it compliments Simon Sinek's work, and his ideas on approaching writing with the goal of reaching the part of the brain that sniffs out truth and trustworthiness: the "why" part of the idea.

In "A Whole New Mind" Pink reminds us of the importance of story. He writes about the notion that as facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. Supply and demand, once again. "What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact."

This is a call to rethink the importance of storytelling in communication, in education, business and even the sciences. What is the difference between a fact and a story? To paraphrase E.M. Forster's famous observation, a fact is "The queen died and the king died." A story is "The queen died and the king died of a broken heart."

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Crisis Mexico is Currently Ignoring

San Miguel de Allende may have more American residents than any other city in Mexico. I wish I knew if the American colony there helped put together the TED San Miguel conference held there recently.

I just saw a video posted on TED Talks about the crisis Mexico is currently ignoring. At least that's the take of the speaker, the son of disgraced ex-president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas Gortari.

I admit to a serious case of skepticism over the speaker's credibility, but young Salinas shouldn't be blamed for the sins of the father. In any case, the talk left me frankly perplexed. In the first place, I was left with the impression that lynchings taking place in Mexico are being done by vigilante citizens who take the law into their own hands in an attempt to combat the narco traffickers. That's not what has happened in Nuevo Laredo, certainly.

In the second place, I see no evidence that standing up to kidnappers with or without the backing of a town is the right course of action. I would hock my last possession to see my loved ones returned safely. I hope I never have to face that horrific situation; yet many, many in Mexico have had to not only face it but live through the personal horror of seeing their loved ones murdered with or without ransom.

That young Salinas has started such an international conversation in such a forum is good.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Visit From Colette and Ruminations on the Internet

Students at the college are hard at work. They are completing their media presentations, designed partly on Michael Wesch's "A Vision of Students Today" video.

Their addition to the model from Wesch's class is to explore their research question in the library's data bases and to see what facts and statistics exist about the topic they are exploring.

As we head towards student media presentations this week, I think of the weeks of hard work they've put into their projects.

Groups of 4-5 students, often in smaller groups of 2-3, each selected a topic they wanted to explore. They next wrote a research question avoiding bias, such as Wesch's "What is it like being a college student today?" They then researched the topic, and created a listing of 10-12 facts they learned, such as the number of U.S. students who die from suicide each year due to cyber bullying. Students then posted their research question to their social media, gathering responses to questions from friends and even people who they don't know, which they collect and analyze to include in their 4-6 minute media presentations.

So much of the project is based on technology. From the research to the collection of data and the presentation, including up-loading to Youtube, the work is all done online. No paper.

Yet, I notice most of the students are still struggling with video, Powerpoint and Prezi, and for all the mileage under their belts with the Internet, most are still novices at doing any research using our library's online proprietary databases.

Educator Marc Prensky famously posited some years ago that our students are digital natives, and we teachers are immigrants. Yet, because of the ever increasing rate of change and additions to technology each day, with new apps, programs and 'what-not' connected with computers and cell phones, I'm inclined to say, even for the young folks among us, that we are all of us immigrants to this new world of communication.

It's more than just new ground for us all. It's new ground with tremendous potential and promise. I've been reading Seth Godin and have just finished Hugh Macleod's fine treatise on creating a job for yourself in this digital era, "Ignore Everybody and 39 other keys to creativity." "Ignore Everybody"

Both encourage writers to blog and be witnesses to their own truths and discoveries. I celebrate our human urge to share of ourselves.

I don't know where she came from, but in all this rumination over the Internet, I was visited by an old friend, Colette, the French writer who died the year I was born.

I loved her stormy life and her contribution to letters, and remember the difficulties she faced as a woman writer. I ask myself just what would have Colette done with the very writing tools that I have before me today, computers and Internet and a way to publish her work aujourd'hui? 

Some things change, and others stay the same. Here is old Lucky, enjoying the warmth of the hearth and grooming his Maine Coon fur, carrying on the tradition of accompanying his well-trained owner-writer as she picks and pecks upon the alphabet.