Author Archive: mjdicker

Ohhhh, back to school….

I’ve had the little ditty from Billy Madison stuck in my head all day. (If you don’t know it yet, don’t worry — you will.) Tomorrow is the day I’ve been waiting for: my return to kindergarten at my elementary school.

I’ve got my lunch packed up: veggie & cheese fritatta, an organic peach, and half a piece of tomato bread. (Darren: “No one’s gonna trade you for that!”) It’s in a brown bag with my name on it. My mom offered to put a little note inside like in the old days.

I’ve had a lot of memory triggers today that gave me a taste of what’s to come over the next few months. I had to drive into Petaluma today on my old route to high school, and I popped in a random mix tape, circa 1996. It included:

  • “Lovefool” – The Cardigans
  • “Just a Girl” – No Doubt
  • “‘Til I Hear It From You” – Gin Blossoms
  • “Alone” – Lisa Loeb & Nine Stories
  • “Female of the Species” – Space (Are they really saying “more deadlier than the male”?)

It’s crazy how the lyrics have taken up permanent residence in a corner of my brain, which I probably could be using to remember what 12 x 9 equals. But then I’d miss out on belting out the Blues Traveler while cruising down Adobe Road, feeling like a 16-year-old.

Another blast from the past today was catching up by phone with an old classmate from high school who works for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. We hadn’t spoken since graduation but talked as easily as if we saw each other every day. Our 10-year reunion is approaching in a few weeks, and we’re both looking forward to sharing the evolutions of our teenage selves that are light on the zits, heavy on the sass. I’m hoping to track down classmates from all my old schools and see how we relate to each other as grown-ups. (more…)

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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Recess all day?

Imagine a school where you could choose what you learn and how you learn it. Imagine having an equal vote, whether you’re age 5 or 17, on decisions like which teachers are hired, or what rules students and staff will follow. Imagine a school day where you could write a letter to the local newspaper, curl up and read your favorite novel, explore the woods, or create a computer program.

It wasn’t until my last year of college that I found out that schools like this exist. I came across the book Summerhill, now revised and published as Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, about an English school that had been around since 1921. I mentioned the book in a class that I shared with Andrew Chen, and we began a friendship that drew us both — through a chain of events that now seems almost fated — into the world of democratic education.

Summerhill Students

Summerhill Students

If you’re not familiar with democratic education, it’s a philosophy and practice whose essence is “People of all ages have input into the decisions that affect them.” It seems like a common-sense idea, but most schools and families don’t operate this way. The adults make most of the decisions, and the kids have more input as they grow older. On the other hand, adults and kids at democratic schools (also called “non-coercive” or “free” schools) decide together how their schools operate, meeting regularly as a community and normally having a democratic system for decision making and conflict resolution. Students are in charge of how they use their time and direct their own education from a young age. If schools exist to prepare kids to participate in a democracy, this kind of education is crucial.

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Pardon Our Progress

MechanicFor the next few days, Darren and I will be making major changes to the website: switching servers, implementing the official design, and adding new features. If the site gives you any hassle, know that we’re just giving it a tune-up and will have it out of the shop in a jiffy.

Reschooling Reason #3: Start with a Clean Slate

SlateI’m spending the week in Jackson, Mississippi, visiting my boyfriend. Darren is a graphic designer and one of my sister’s best friends from Loyola University, New Orleans. If you’re wondering how we met, we hit it off in February at Mardi Gras. Nothing spells romance like applying eyeliner to a pirate in a pink bandana while he whines, “Agggh! It feels like you’re drawing on my eyeball!”

One of my priorities for this visit — besides consuming all the buttery delicacies that the south has to offer — is for Darren to help me revamp the Reschool Yourself site. Lucky for me, he can understand language like, “The objective of the WP-SuperCache is to make the site static and not run any PHP” — yet has never memorized pi to the 100th digit, or attended a Star Wars-themed wedding.

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Reschooling Reason #2: Be a Grown-Up with No Regrets

WitchesI have a confession to make: Like a fairy tale witch, I secretly long to steal the youth of innocent children. When I see kids running about, carefree and laughing, I don’t think, “How wonderful, to be young!” Instead, I’m wildly jealous. These kids don’t have any debt, or much emotional baggage; they’re able to enjoy whatever they’re doing at the moment without dwelling on what happened yesterday or what will happen five years from today. They speak and act freely without concern for what others will think. Their instincts are intact, and their futures are wide open.

We grown-ups, on the other hand, have often made choices that limited our options. We may have mismanaged our money, failed to reach our potential in our schooling or career, or had kids of our own before we’d had enough time to be kids ourselves. These choices may have made us less playful and imaginative, and more stymied and fearful.

I expect that I’d be less jealous of kids if I could have a completely fresh start, putting any limiting experiences behind me and reconnecting with the optimism and self-assurance that I had as a child. I would like to return to square one and begin again, living my life completely on my terms without regrets or complaints. If I succeed in doing this, maybe I’ll become content with the grown-up life I’ve chosen. At the least, I hope to avoid becoming Old Lady Dicker, the resentful hag who throws rocks at the children who pass by her rundown shack.

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

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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Cutting Ambition Down to Size

GinsuMy Facebook status update for today is: “Melia wants just one moment without ambition.” What would it feel like, I wonder, to be completely content with something that’s merely good, rather than great? I honestly can’t imagine. When faced with any task, I feel compelled to do it as well as it can humanly be done, and I’m constantly surprised when it ends up making me unhappy. Here are just a few pieces of evidence.

Exhibit A: Girls’ Dinners. My girlfriends and I have regular dinners where we take turns cooking for each other. When it’s my turn, a simple idea like “Spanish food” grows into a culinary tour through the regions of my beloved España. The meal might begin with a three-cheese plate served with a baguette and red wine from the Penedès region, followed by a tortilla española and sautéed spinach with toasted pine nuts and plump raisins, culminating in a dessert of flan drizzled with caramel sauce. As you’d expect, I always run out of time and end up ignoring my friends while rushing to prepare this type of gourmet meal on my own. I use every dish in the house and most likely end up flipping the tortilla onto the floor, blackening the pine nuts, and realizing too late that the flan needs to be chilled for an hour before serving. Then I proceed to pout throughout the meal while my friends assure me that it’s delicious. ¡Que aproveche! Bon appetit!

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