What I’m Learning

Reschooling, East Coast Style

This will be a quick update, because my eyes are glazing over and I’m keeping my friends up by blogging so late. I’m currently in historic Concord, Massachusetts, visiting my college roommate and her new baby. I’ve enjoyed a bit of reschooling in the past few days by doing some culinary things I’ve never done before:

– Trying blood sausage and intestine at an Argentinian restaurant. I chewed tiny bits of each quickly and then chased them with onion rings. The textures were respectively too spongy and rubbery for my tastes, but I was pleased that I tried them.

– Prepared a whole chicken for cooking: rubbing salt, herbs, and lemon juice under the skin, dropping onions and garlic into the cavity, and partially filling the pan underneath with broth and water. The chicken turned out moist (apparently the salt is the secret), flavorful, and delicious.

– Learned how to make applesauce from scratch, peeling and chopping apples and cooking them in a bit of water.

– Used a deep fryer to make French fries, some of the best I’ve ever had just because they were so fresh.

Turns out cooking from scratch is simpler than I make it out to be. I’m looking forward to more food-related learning this weekend, as my friend Charlotte is one of the best cooks around and makes everything from fresh, organic ingredients. Mouth-watering descriptions of her meals are sure to come.

Reschooling Yourself for Survival

With all the troubling news about the state of the economy, Darren and I talk a lot about learning survival skills. At the risk of sounding like crackpots, we want to be prepared in case something crazy goes down. Today he sent me 10 Skills to Have in the Post-Financial Apocalypse from The Consumerist. The list includes learning to cook, keep a simple budget, and fix things, and I would add:

1. Learn basic survival skills.

Know how to find and purify water, start a fire, build a shelter, and grow or hunt your own food. My friends Chris and Wes learned these things through a survival course offered by The Tracker School, and they’re the guys I’m running to when the looting begins.

2. Learn how to make stuff instead of buying it.

My friend Elena knows how to make clothes; Jonah can build an oven out of found materials; Blair made his own shoes out of old tires. I’m not saying you have to trade in your Manolos for Goodyears just yet, but it’s good knowledge to have on the back burner. Make Magazine, and its Maker Faire (San Mateo, CA in May; Austin, TX in October), is a great resource for do-it-yourself ideas. It’s a good idea to make your own food, too — I make my own yogurt, and I have friends who make jam, sausage, soy and almond milk, wine, beer, or cheese.

3. Pool your resources.

To minimize costs and live in community, various friends and I hope to settle on the same property one day, in separate houses but with shared spaces. From a music room to a costume closet to a wine cellar, the possibilities are endless. We could also share cars, childcare, and basic services like internet. If you can collaborate with certain people without going nuts, it’s in your economic interest. Check out the Cohousing Association of the United States for ideas.

If you want any other ideas, you’ll have to track me down in my secret underground bunker. All I can say is that it’s fully stocked with water, blankets, and 100 pounds of dark Belgian chocolate (like dual-purpose sandbags), and if something goes down, I will be hard pressed to share.

Politics: A Whole New Can of Worms

Politics is part of my reschooling trifecta, along with personal finance and technology. These are areas where my lack of knowledge has limited me — in conversation, in attainment of my goals, and in self-confidence.

I’ve never identified myself as “political,” though I’ve chosen friends since college who took a particular interest in what was happening in the world. Through them, and by absorbing snippets from passing headlines and TV satire, I developed a passable knowledge of who was who (from Kim Jong Il to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) and what they were up to. I went through phases where I’d listen to NPR or BBC news for weeks on end and then burn out, burying my head in the sand once again. I felt overwhelmed enough by my own issues and those of people close to me that I chose not to take on those of strangers.

This approach has kept me protected from feeling outraged every time I open a newspaper, but it has also limited me. I’ve felt ignorant more times than I can count when talking with people who assume I have a basic background in world affairs. When traveling abroad, I’ve met many foreigners who know more than I do about the history and politics of my own country. I’ve largely relied on the opinions of my informed friends — or publications I trust — when voting. Ultimately, my unwillingness to stay informed has disempowered me. If I want to make positive change in education, which has always been my passion, I need to be aware of who makes the rules and how they do it. Even more, as someone with the privilege of being an educated, middle-class American, I feel the responsibility to work for social justice and must start by becoming socially conscious.

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Exchanging A’s for Cash Money

I’m feeling a bit queasy after reading the ABCNews.com story “Some D.C. Students to Be Paid for A’s” from 8/26/08. Here’s an excerpt:

Will middle school students hit the books, show up on time and be on their best behavior if they’re getting paid?

As Washington, D.C. students start back to school this week, that’s the thinking behind a new program just launched in the district. As early as October at 14 of 28 D.C. middle schools, students will get paid to perform as part of a pilot program that rewards kids for good grades, attendance, and behavior.

Kids could rake in up to $100 per month, getting paid every two weeks through the program.

Behind the program is D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who’s getting a lot of press for her new approaches to old problems. I’m all for new approaches, if they happen to be better than the old ones. Here’s the comment I posted on ABCnews:

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A Fat Guy By Any Other Name Would Still Be a Dicker

What a dicker.

What a dicker.

I think I just hit a goldmine. It will be a boon, at least, for those who want to make fun of my last name not just in English, but in German as well.

For me, this discovery is the most amusing reschooling in etymology, foreign language, and genealogy that I could ever want. Tonight I felt inspired to look up the German translation for “Dicker,” my last name, after reading my future brother-in-law’s blog post about Andy Dick’s recent arrest. Dick accosted a 17-year-old-girl and urinated in public outside a buffalo wings “emporium,” which sounds like a classy joint for a classy guy. The incident just provides further evidence for what I already know: Having “Dick” as part of your name may correlate with a life of crime (Exhibit A: Mr. Cheney). Before you know it, you not only have profanity on your birth certificate, but you also have a permanent record and “Dick” as the fitting caption beneath your mug shot.

My sister Gill and I are proud of our dad’s German heritage and family. We are also staunch feminists. However, since we were little girls, we have dreamed of the day we could get married and change our name to something a little more….humane. Next January 17, Gill will achieve that dream and become a Burgess. I, on the other hand, expect to relive the playground teasing and the “Is that really your last name?” disbelief as Reschool Yourself takes me into the upper grades. (When substitute teaching 4th grade years ago, I found that the kids were still innocent enough to turn my last name teasingly into “Miss Sticker” or “Miss Tigger,” and nothing more. I just about hugged them.)

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IDEC: Headspins, Helado, and Hineys

Democratic Educators: We so crazy

This is your brain on IDEC.

I’m back from the International Democratic Education Conference 2008, my head still spinning from seven days chock full of energizing workshops and conversations. Here are my relevant stats:

  • Average hours of sleep per night: 5
  • Mosquito bites: 6
  • Guest bloggers for Reschool Yourself: 7+
  • Servings of dessert: 20?
  • Blog posts composed in my brain: 25?
  • Workshops attended: 33?
  • “A-ha” moments: Beyond number

Here are a few topics for upcoming posts:

  • The FAQs of Democratic Education: If kids aren’t required to go to classes, won’t they lurk around on MySpace all day? Does this type of education work for kids from unsupportive homes, and how possible is it in public schools bound by government regulations? Won’t kids go all Lord of the Flies on us if unchecked by a firm authority?
  • The coolest alternative schools and programs you probably didn’t know existed
  • A list of online tools that make me marvel at the powers of the Interweb
  • The IDEC “Kids’ Table”: An introduction to my all-star cast of young rabble rousers who are gonna shake things up in education, big time. And they’re fun to have a beer with, to boot.
  • Why I now trust myself to raise kids one day and not screw ‘em up TOO badly. (I said one day, after a bonsai, a kitten, and a puppy have all survived on my watch.)
  • More “Reschooling Reasons” and a new series of posts called “Reschooling Tools”

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Reschooling Reason #1: Cure Impostor’s Syndrome

After 28 years on the planet, there is a lot I do know. I know how to make gourmet breakfasts in 5 minutes flat. I know when to use “who” versus “whom,” and how to offer constructive feedback to others. I also admit that my brain cells are being used to store all the lyrics to Young MC’s “Bust a Move” and dialogue from the movie 3 Ninjas.

Then there are the myriad things I don’t know. When Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, I had no idea who she was, nor who her father was. For a long time, I was embarrassed not to understand the sub-prime lending crisis. If I happened to get lost in a forest, I would be eaten by wolves before I could navigate my way out or build shelter. I imagine that I could learn these things if I just dedicated a bit of time, but it never seems to materialize.

I am a firm believer that knowing where to find the answers is much more important than knowing them cold. That said, it’s tough to sneak a Wikipedia search on my Blackberry when the crisis in Darfur comes up in conversation. I would feel a lot more self-assured if my knowledge exceeded the Tarzan level: “Global warming: bad. Civil rights: good.”

My familiarity with many subjects reminds me of a Woody Allen quote: “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” A friend of mine calls this “Impostor Syndrome”—knowing just enough to appear informed about a subject, fearing that at any moment someone will ask a question that reveals your ignorance. In a recent radio broadcast, This American Life called this charade “Modern Jackass.”

Instead of thinking, “I wish I had time to learn more about __________” (salsa dancing, the African Diaspora, designing web pages), as I have done for years, and constantly feeling ashamed at all the things I “should” know by now, I am finally going to make the time to learn them. I imagine that you have your own list, and I hope that you’ll join me in seeking a cure for Impostor’s Syndrome and ridding the planet of another modern jackass.

This post is part of the series “Why Reschool?”

Plugging In

plugged inI refer to the years from 2005 to 2008 as my “dead zone.” Prior to 2004, I had subscribed to the daily San Francisco Chronicle and the Sunday New York Times, watched a couple of films each week, kept up with the latest TV shows, and read celebrity gossip magazines as a guilty pleasure. In 2004, when I began the process of starting a nonprofit organization, my contact with the world outside my immediate circles began to dwindle. In 2005, the year Spark started running programs, communications ceased altogether. The program launch coincided with my moving to an apartment with no cable and no newspaper. I think I watched just a handful of movies that year and read an article or two online. I just got out of the habit of keeping current and didn’t have much time to spare.

Things only worsened as Spark began to grow. My brain grew so full of work-related logistics — student histories, school site details, strategic plans — that when presented with even the most innocuous information, it freaked out. My brain didn’t want to hear about the general election in the UK or protests in Uzbekistan. When it also ignored the Ethan Hawke-Uma Thurman breakup and the birth of Britney Spears’ first baby, I should have had reason for concern. But I just chose to stick my head further into the sand. When people would ask if I’d heard about a current event, I shrugged and said, “I haven’t been following the news lately.”
brain
“Lately” grew into “during the last few months,” which somehow grew into “for the last three years.” Now, in July 2008, a month after leaving Spark, I’m finally beginning to make room for new information. I’ve slowly let go of most of my responsibilities and even my work laptop. I now actually have the mental bandwidth to hear a new song on the radio instead of listening to the same CD on loop for the 50th time (I’m not joking), and I can glance through the news headlines without my mind shutting down. It’s as if my brain were a computer hard drive previously at maximum capacity. Self-centered as it may have been, I just didn’t have the mental energy to care about anything outside the people and events in my immediate experience. Once I started purging old and outdated information, however, there was suddenly space for the new.

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Top 10 Things On My Radar This Week

Throughout the coming year, I plan to share the variety of things I’m learning and doing. Here are the top items that I’ve been introduced to or have been thinking about this week. Here they are, in no particular order.

1) Online To-Do lists may finally rid me of my crumpled Post-It collection.

crumpledI’m notorious for scrawling countless To-Do lists on everything from yellow pads to napkins, and it adds up to a whole lotta crazy. Today my sister tipped me off to Tadalist.com, a free site where you can create lists of tasks that you can check off as you complete them. I admit to adding “eat breakfast” and “watch 27 Dresses DVD” just so I can feel accomplished. One day I will graduate to more advanced project management software like Base Camp with milestones and file sharing and other fancy pants features.

2) Though it’s not advertised, compost can go in the yard debris bin.

In San Francisco, the city picks up compost bins in addition to garbage and recycling. Sonoma doesn’t — but they do have one for yard trimmings. Turns out that any organic material besides meat and dairy products can go in this bin. Eggshells, coffee grounds, and fruit pits are fair game. It makes me very, very happy to know that my banana peels will be fertilizing grapevines instead of being held captive for hundreds of years inside a plastic bag.

3) Technobabble isn’t all that scary when you have a secret decoder ring called “The Google.”

Who knew that the solution to most tech issues floats freely about the Interweb? From a quick Google search, I learned that you use an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) site to store files online and transfer them between computers. I learned how to change the look of my blog (you’ll notice the makeover) and how to edit bits of HTML code to adjust text and pictures. You can usually find a forum or article dumbed down enough for young children and technophobes to understand.

4) My most productive work hours are often between the hours of 4 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Midnight

Now that I’m doing freelance writing, I’ve been frustrated that every day I stay up and get up late, exercise, catch up on email, and suddenly it’s gettin’ on to 5:00. Most people have gotten in a full day’s work, while I’ve only brushed my teeth and found three new Facebook friends. I’ve begun to give myself permission to putter around in my pajamas until the afternoon, since I know that I’ll be on my laptop until the wee hours of the morn.

5) A lot of my friends have blogs that rock, and I’m not just sayin’ that.

Heather keeps a blog about her devoted foodie-ness. Her husband Grant posts about everything from sick and twisted gingerbread houses to musical ESP. My sister, Gill, writes about planning a wedding without losing her soul by reading Modern Bride. Her fiance, Brian, shares what it’s like to be stationed on a military base in Iraq. Kathleen is documenting her quest for U.S./E.U. dual citizenship, and Katie is writing about moving to Chicago and starting a new life. This is not to mention the hilarious Chuck, Lisa, Keane, and a few others who will remain nameless because they keep their blogs a secret. (Hint: Find them in my Blogroll.)

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