Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Formula for Success

One teacher’s insight and leadership led to a turnaround at Brockton High School in Massachusetts. It’s the largest high school in the state with 4,100 students. Ten years ago, only 25% of the students passed state-mandated exit exams, and a third dropped out.

The turnaround at Brockton is attributed to a renewed emphasis on reading and writing in all disciplines, including gym. The emphasis is on teaching students to think, speak and write clearly and logically. Susan Szachowicz recruited fellow teachers to meet voluntarily on Saturdays to brainstorm how to incorporate reading and writing lessons into every class.

The refocus was methodical and done without alienating the teachers union. The monthly two-hour teachers meeting was recast as a training session to help teachers gain additional tools. The school’s fortunes began to turn around quickly, with sharp improvements in test scores. In the long term, only one holdout teacher was dismissed after due process. The others had jumped on board as encouraging results began to surface.

Recently, Brockton has outperformed 90% of the schools in Massachusetts despite the bias that small schools perform better. The key to success can be boiled down to a few key teacher tenets:

1) A shared focus on reading, reasoning, speaking and writing with training to support that focus.

2) A commitment to do the hard work over the long haul and continuous encouragement and training to maintain engagement.

3) Raising students’ horizons with college goals and generous praise and acknowledgement of students’ milestones.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

We are Family

My father’s parents came from China in the 1920’s, leaving behind two young sons, permanently. Uncle No. 1’s youngest son, First Cousin Cheuk Seang, whom I have never met, still resides in the family village of Shalan near Guangzhou (formerly Canton) in the province of Guangdong. Everyone in the village is a Lee. All our first cousins bear the name Cheuk as our generation name that precedes our given names. I am Cheuk Gin, and my brothers are Cheuk Mon and Cheuk Kin.
Cheuk Seang writes understandable English in emails, and we have recently begun corresponding. Cheuk Seang tells us Shalan Tong is neglected, with the able-bodied seeking jobs and fortunes in Chinese cities and abroad in Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. Only the elderly, women and children remain in a once prosperous village that supported generations of our family.
Global warming has impacted the monsoons, increasing their duration and devastation. Where Shalan Tong once had land that could be used to sun dry crops, there now exist worn roads that are breeding grounds for mosquitoes. So, Cheuk Seang, an entrepreneur who runs a small handicrafts factory in his home, has embarked on building a road to move his goods to Chinese markets and to provide a place for drying the crops.
Cheuk Seang has reached out to all the Lees, in the village and abroad, to pay for this road. My American first cousins and I have all responded, sending money to our ancestral home, because we are family.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Appearance and Self-Worth

Are cosmetics really “cost-metrics”? An expensive system of make-up products designed to pronounce worth based on appearance? An AlterNet article pointed a finger at the eye-popping profiteering of cosmetics companies whose marketing budgets explode with celebrity hucksters.

Women in stores often comment on my facial skin and how smooth and young-looking it is. They inevitably ask about my skin care products and beauty regimen and are amazed when I answer “None.” I use soap and a cheap, nice-smelling, drugstore astringent, because I like feeling clean.

My attitude towards makeup is that it should be fun and feel good on my face, just like my choice of clothing should be fun and comfortable to wear. I have preferences about the texture of makeup, but it shouldn’t break my budget. I’m not trying to look like someone else, and drugstore makeup works great. Let’s face it:  none of us gets to Photoshop our faces before stepping out.

When I was in my 20’s and 30’s, in the throes of my corporate career climb, I succumbed to designer styles. I was less secure in my skin and more involved in others’ opinions. I still admire sleek designer clothes, but I choose not to buy them anymore. Today, comfort is my priority followed by a penchant for fun with artistic flare.

When I taught budgeting to displaced homemakers, my advice was “Splurge small to treat yourself. Buy a lipstick or nail polish, not a dress.” It’s still solid advice for both ego and pocketbook.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pray for a Season of Healing

Herb and I arrived in Brussels on Thursday morning, leaving Boulder early Wednesday when the Fourmile Canyon fire was still burning. There was smoke in the air, although it was too dark to see the airborne ash flakes. It’s tough to leave on vacation when your neighbors are in extremis over loss of homes, livelihoods and life as it’s been. We’ve anxiously followed the news and learned almost 200 homes have burned. The fire is not yet contained.

We’ve also followed the story of the Gainesville “pastor” and his hate-filled “Burn the Quran on September 11th” plan. General Petraeus, Secretary Clinton, President Obama and the Archbishop of Canterbury have all weighed in. We gladly read that the idiot has recanted and now strongly admonishes others not to replicate his canceled plan. I have no doubt that powerful people communicated with him unequivocally. I am saddened the damage has already been done.

The news that twelve American soldiers face charges of being a “kill team” in Afghanistan that murdered civilians and collected body parts as souvenirs adds to this season of sadness. These soldiers are teenagers and 20-somethings. War is hell on earth and evil incarnate, corrupting all participants and begetting more evil. I am ashamed for these soldiers and sorry for their victims and the families of victims and guilty soldiers alike.

So, you’ll understand if I’m not chirping about my vacation just yet. Lord, have mercy on us all. Pray for a season of healing. We need it.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Give Yourself a Gift!

I had a delightful dinner tonight with a friend I haven’t seen in several years. Life happened, and we drifted apart. I’m grateful that she reached out and invited me to reconnect. From our first words exchanged, it was like no time had passed.

My 25-year old daughter is very good at reclaiming and maintaining friendships. I’ve watched her network grow and mature since high school. Occasionally I’m even invited into her network and encouraged to Friend a Facebook friend.

In today’s environment of home, school and work separated by miles and even states, it’s no longer everyday happenstance that we encounter our friends at the butcher, the baker or the local Starbucks.

While it’s true that social media like Facebook and Twitter facilitate quick, easy exchanges of Status – here’s what I’m doing right now, Photos – check out whom I’m with, and Activities – look what I’m reading, supporting or boycotting, it’s equally true that you must be intentional to have real relationships. The sheer volume of Facebook and Twitter posts can bury you under updates. Friends who don’t post often simply fall out of sight.

Staying connected is about seeing each other regularly, whether it’s seeing the actual person or the virtual person online. It’s about having an actual conversation rather than just bumping into each other in passing. Connection is about engagement, and engagement is about spending the time to learn what’s really going on with the other person.

Reach out and renew a friendship. You’ll thank yourself!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Political Cartoons

A political cartoon depicting the Mexican flag with the eagle lying on its back in a pool of blood, riddled with bullets, is raising protests among many Mexicans. They object to this symbol of patriotism being used to reference the drug wars in Mexico that have contributed to rising murder rates.
Political or editorial cartoons have a long history of effectiveness in making strong statements about people, events and conditions in the public arena. Such cartoons typically use stereotypes and caricatures to make their points, often without the addition of text. Easily recognizable symbols are used as metaphors to establish a cartoon’s context.
When does a political cartoon go too far in its use of stereotypes, caricatures or iconic symbols, becoming a form of violence against the people being depicted? Are there symbols, such as flags and religious holy books, that should be exempted from use as political fodder?
A politician is generally fair game to be caricatured and made fun of, even humiliated, for her positions on legislation. But a cartoon showing a caricature of a politician’s race (e.g., slanty eyes on an Asian candidate) is clearly racism in the guise of free speech. The former attacks the politico’s opinions while the latter attacks the politico’s personhood. Maybe I’m na├»ve or overly polite, but my gauge for distinguishing between the two is, “Would I say that or show that if I were a guest in the other’s home?” I’d ask the same question about flags and religious holy books.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Breaking Through Anxiety

Anxiety is that gut-clenching feeling that makes you want to scream in frustration, because there doesn’t seem to be any escape from the present predicament, be it about money, institutional morass or broken relationships. Remaining anxious leads to a downward spiral of increased anxiety, physical and mental ailments, anger, bad behavior and despair.
Changing the current context is critical to opening up one’s thinking to enable forward movement. Until you get a grip on your anxiety, it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to see opportunity when it comes your way. When you’re anxious, you are the opposite of an opportunity magnet.
For me, what works to break through anxiety is stepping back from the crevasse, breathing deeply, calming myself and taking stock. Practitioners of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) refer to “break state” as the act of changing the current emotional or physical context to enter a neutral state from which possibilities have the spaciousness to be encountered and developed.
Stepping away from your present state and turning in a new direction are essential first steps. That might mean going out for a walk or to a museum, writing haiku or baking bread. Learning something new builds neural connections. Refresh yourself like you refresh your computer screen.
“You've got to accentuate the positive
 Eliminate the negative
 Latch on to the affirmative”
Those words crooned by Bing Crosby capture what’s needed: Count your blessings and focus on possibilities versus enumerating your losses and reliving your disappointments. Look up and out. That’s where life’s possibilities exist.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My Top Ten Pet Peeves

Recent Facebook and Twitter posts cite things that annoy people.  Here’s my top ten list, not rank-ordered.
  1. Lying to me like I won’t catch on. I might be polite and not call you on it. I will definitely think less of you.
  2. Talking down to me like I’m stupid and uninformed. I already know you have privilege and you’re arrogant. Don’t rub it in my face.
  3. Not wiping off sticky containers before putting them away. I don’t like handling sticky containers or cleaning up after you.
  4. Eating and drinking straight out of serving containers and then putting them back. You’re being selfish, and you’re lazy. It’s unsanitary, and it grosses people out.
  5. Backtracking whether it’s driving or in group decision-making. That’s why I have triceps tats of forward-pointing red arrows. Always go forward; never go back. Refresh anything you revisit.
  6. Belittling someone in public. You’re a jerk, and I will call you on it if I can do so safely and without harming the object of your scorn.
  7. Manipulating me to do something. Just ask me directly. I like saying Yes. I also have exquisitely honed resistance responses.
  8. Hurrying me up when I’m not through . . . eating, talking, watching, reading, etc. I’d wait for you. Please wait for me. Exercise patience.
  9. Talking during the film in theaters. I will shush you firmly.
  10. Rudeness and bad manners. Life can sometimes be tough. A little courtesy goes a long way.