Archive for December, 2016

Wonder Woman vs. The Filter Bubble

December 26, 2016

Actors Gadot and Carter pose for photos during an event to name Wonder Woman UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls at the United Nations Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York,

Much to my boys’ consternation at times, I’m an “NPR in the car” parent.  If we’re going somewhere they need to get pumped-up for, say to a sporting event or a workout, I’ll let them pop it on music, but mostly they’re regaled to the lilting tones of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

On Sunday mornings, we toggle between acoustic sunrise (kids in a bad mood so I know they’ll complain) and the TED Radio Hour (got enough sleep and not thinking about Monday just yet).  Last week, TED won out, and I got a chance to listen to a great story on a 2011 talk by Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser.

His was a sobering talk about the advent of “Filter Bubbles,” our new algorithmic masters.  The talk is less than nine minutes and very much worth your time.  In short, he decried how the most ubiquitous ways we get our information, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flipboard, are all “personalizing” what you see based on clickthroughs and user information.  This used to be only for ads, which I personally never saw as an issue, but now it filters everything from search results to friends’ posts.  The result is that the online “world” for us becomes a proverbial bedtime story; gently rocking us to sleep with warm, comforting words.  I believe that makes us as a people more self-righteous and thinner-skinned whatever your political slant.

Our outgoing President would seem to agree.  Again owing to my NPR-nerd side, Obama spoke in a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with Steve Inskeep, he had this to say about the advice he’s given to his daughters about political dialogue:

“… my advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that’s insulting, feel free to say to that guy, “You know what? You’re rude” or “you’re ignorant” and take them on.

But the thing that I want to emphasize here though is, the irony in this debate is often-times you’ll hear somebody like a Rush Limbaugh, or other conservative commentators, or you know, radio shock jocks, or some conservative politicians, who are very quick to jump on any evidence of progressives being “politically correct,” but who are constantly aggrieved and hypersensitive about the things they care about, and are continually feeding this sense of victimization, and that they are being subject to reverse discrimination.”

I think Obama’s point is a valid one.  There’s a delicate, yet vital line between disagreement and insult, and I think we have, collectively, strayed too far as a society toward conflating the two.  But what I would add to the President’s insight on this is that while we shouldn’t be looking for insults, we should be actively looking for disagreement.  Testing (and sometimes disproving) our assumptions helps us to be better people, parents, and for me, a better coach.

So, to give myself a little pat-on-the-back, one thing I’ve been doing for a while to get out of my filter bubble is that I’ve chosen “Conservative News” as one of my interest areas on Flipboard.  I noticed over time that because I was choosing to read more progressive than conservative stories, the Flipboard algorithm was bubbling away and that the conservative stories in my main feed were dwindling down to nothing.

So rather than go to the main feed, I always spend at least a few minutes going directly to the conservative news section.  Now, I’ll fully admit, most of what I see I have a hard time getting past the headlines on.  Here are a couple of examples of stories I really had to force myself through:

  • Islamist Terrorists Continually Slaughter Christians’: Trump Says What Obama Refused to Say: The whole “Call it Islamic Terror” thing has been a terrible dog whistle, and this article has nothing new to say on the matter. There a reason why ISIS is delighted Trump won the election, as they yearn to be taken as the No. 1 threat to Western civilization.  So good on ya for playing right into that propaganda.
  • Freakout on the Left: I can’t even begin to tell you how much I detest the deflection on the fact that Russia actively hacked into our election process. This kind of editorial backslapping is so filled with misstatements I can’t even begin to go through them all.  The larger point I feel being missed by most isn’t the fact that Russia hacked for Trump, but that it hacked at all, and succeeded.  That’s not just a past threat, but a pernicious future one that is tremendously worrisome.  Articles like this make it that much more difficult to find common ground on what should be universally accepted: it is not good to have foreign powers use covert means to destabilize our democratic process.

But while the lake runs deep with articles like these that make my blood boil, there are ones that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen that stretch the gray matter a bit more.

An article from The College Fix (“Original.  Student Reported.  Your Daily Dose of “Right Minded” News and Commentary from Across the Nation”) posted a challenging article on a black teaching in Milwaukee who was suspended from his job for giving his 7th Grade students a persuasive writing assignment to defend the KKK.

The article is, to my mind, fairly written—not overly defending the teacher or the parents.  The suspension came down over the fact that 7th Grade was too young to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of a hate group, but coming off reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the notion of seeing the perceptions of even the worst of people seems to me a challenging and appropriate assignment.

As a teacher, I could easily see myself making that choice, as arguing for the worst of people is often the best way to understand and ultimately undermine their arguments.  Perhaps 13 is too young and perhaps the assignment could have been couched better, but I find it hard to think that a teacher trying to create a challenging and thought-provoking assignment should be suspended.  There’s that line between disagreement and insult that Obama was talking about.

As I continued to wade through, I ran across an article that was a nerd’s must-click.  This one from The Blaze, best known as Glenn Beck’s online home, emblazoned, “Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman responds to UN giving her character the boot as ambassador.”  The flap, for those who aren’t aware, is that Wonder Woman was given a ceremonial ambassador for women’s rights with both the original TV Wonder Woman Linda Carter and current inhabitor of the character Gal Gadot celebrating the long history of the character championing women’s rights.

The Star-Spangled spandex and the animated version’s impossible body-type inspired a petition to remove the Themysciran princess from the UN-appointed roll.  Gadot, who has embraced the chance to play Wonder Woman as the roll of a lifetime, was less-than-impressed by the rationale behind the protest.  From the article:

“There are so many horrible things that are going on in the world, and this is what you’re protesting, seriously?  When people argue that Wonder Woman should ‘cover up,’ I don’t quite get it. They say, ‘If she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy.’ That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?”

I had to say I was behind the sentiment of the article, but I do take issue with the article’s subtext.  Note in the headline the choice to say “Israeli” first.  The notion of “cultural imperialism” that some of those protesting WW’s inclusion has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.  Indeed her citizenship is entirely irrelevant to this particular story the way it is written.

Until…

At the very end of the article, as an aside, there’s this tucked away:

Gadot has come under attack in the past from social justice warriors for her background as an Israeli national, an Israeli Defense Force veteran, and a denouncer of Hamas.

Look how the article bookends anti-Israeli innuendo into a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  To me, this is perhaps the worst traditional journalistic practice—the “wink-and-nudge” editorializing within a solid piece of reporting.  To me, it undermines an excellent, thought-provoking point about the need to look past labels (or the spandex) and see the value underneath.  Indeed, I dare any one of the protesters to sit down and watch the wonderful Independent Lens documentary Wonder Women! and not see the immense and complex contribution to the world that this character has to this very day.

So while I was disappointed by the way The Blaze decided to cover the story, there was still room there for agreement.  Indeed, the best defense for Wonder Woman came just days later from Eli Pariser’s Upworthy (wonderfully written—well worth the read).  And when the two ends meet, to me that can be the place to burst the bubble and start a real, productive conversation instead of a label-throwing fight that simply puts us once again in our ideological corners.

So whatever place in the ideological spectrum you are, go hop out of the slowly warming pot of water that is the filter bubble.  For the more we seek disagreement, the easier it is to find the space for common ground.

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“They’re Not Jewish”

December 16, 2016

national-menorah

It’s one of those memories that burn.

23 years ago or so, I took a girl to an Indian restaurant in Adams Morgan.  She was friend’s with my roommate, and from the first time I met her, I knew this tall, beautiful woman could talk, drink and think circles around time.  If she ever actually liked me, I knew immediately this had the potential to be much, much more than just a hookup.

And so I took a chance, and on our first official date, I said something that I knew might make her run the other way.

“I really like you, but I value our friendship.  And I think there’s real potential in our relationship.  So I just want to tell you up front that one thing I need is to have my children raised as Jews.  If that’s not something you’d consider, we should just stay friends, as I don’t want to lose that.”

I remember her saying she appreciated my honesty.

And I also remember at that moment I thought I had just tossed the best thing I ever had out the window.  The strains of Tevya’s “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof strained in my mind’s ear.

But it wasn’t.  She asked if that meant that she needed to convert.  I said absolutely not.  Not long after, we were roommates, and a few years after that, engaged.

That’s a wonderful memory, but it’s not the one that burns.

As we decided to start our lives together, one thing we were looking at was the right fit for us, and our future children, was a synagogue.  I was brought up in a conservative household, and still enjoyed the rituals and traditions and underlying philosophy of Judaism—particularly the notion of Tikkun Olam; the notion that we are partners with the almighty to assist in the perfection of the world.  My work, my coaching, and my writing are entirely infused with that concept to this day.

But despite my background, I was a skeptical about taking our interfaith relationship in that direction.  Intermarriage is something of a “crisis” to many conservative Jews, and I wanted Kirsten to feel welcomed for who she was.  But I didn’t rule it out, either.  And one of our synagogue shopping stops was the largest conservative synagogue in the D.C. area, Adas Israel, was only a couple of Metro stops away.

And so I called to ask about whether we could attend a service and talk to the rabbi.  A woman with a distinctly New York accent got on the line.  I remember her name was Tobie.

I told her our situation, and what we were looking to do.

“So how do you practice?” Tobie inquired.  I was a bit taken aback as I didn’t expect this to be about me.

“Uh, I light candles pretty much every Friday,” I stammered back.  “I attend services on the High Holidays, and I’m always home for Pesach.”

There was a pause.  And then there was a sentence I will never, ever forget.

“That isn’t Judaism.”

Stunned, I mumbled, “Uh, okay.”

Then she started rambling.  Something about my needing to invest more in the rituals and how important that was, and reconnect with my Judaism in a meaningful way.  None of that mattered, as she had already lost me with that most insulting of phrases.  It wasn’t that her opinion was better.  Not that she was more connected to the Jewish community than I was.  It was that everything I felt and believed was invalid.  I did not have the right to believe or feel the way I did.

That isn’t Judaism.

That’s what burned.

I do not now nor did I then believe that was the way that Adas Israel itself wanted to speak to young Jewish kids like me, and I don’t hold it against the congregation.  But I will never forget that, in all my life and among the many anti-Semitic jabs taken at me over the years, I have never felt as insulted as a Jew as I did that day.

And then I got a chance to read about our prospective new Ambassador to Israel.

To quote from today’s New Yorker:

“Finally, are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no,” Friedman wrote in Arutz Sheva. “They are far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

Asked about this piece of wisdom recently at the Saban Conference, in Washington, Friedman doubled down. “They’re not Jewish,” Friedman said of J Street, “and they’re not pro-Israel.”

They’re not Jewish [epm. added]. This is a calumny of the most disgusting order. But hardly a new one. Netanyahu, in the hope of solidifying his conservative and religious base, was once overheard whispering in the ear of the Sephardic leader and rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, “The left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.” The question of Jewish identity has for centuries been a matter of debate and halakhah, Jewish law. It has never, to my knowledge, been a matter of bankruptcy law.

Friedman’s view is Tobie on steroids, and taken now to a global scale.  He goes beyond disagreeing with those that dissent from his viewpoint, and goes even beyond dismissing those viewpoints.  He delegitimizes.  And not only the viewpoint, but, like Tobie did to me, he delegitimizes the people behind the opinion.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is excruciatingly complex.  I’m not going to get in to the details here but for anyone who wants to get a flavor for just how tenuous a lasting peace was even at its zenith of hope, I highly recommend Dan Ephron’s excellent work, The Killing of a King.  There are sides-within-sides-within-nuances-within-conundrums.  Those that try and make this simple on either/any side is doing a tremendous disservice to their own argument.

But this is about something beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and beyond Israel itself.  To elevate a man who chooses to question not the validity of the argument, but the validity of the person, is someone, and something that is beyond question an insult to governance, regardless of issue or viewpoint.

Both America and Israel built their democracies on disagreement.  It has helped to check direction, strengthen argument, and create enduring institutions where the voice of the “other” had to be heard.  The selection of David Friedman is contrary to what is best in both peoples.

I AM a Jew.  I AM and American.  As “real” as any other.  And the minimum I expect from those that govern is to acknowledge those fact, regardless of my viewpoint.  The fact that this is actually a matter of debate at this moment should give every American and every Jew, regardless of their viewpoint, pause and cause to leap past politics and understand that there is something truly dangerous to free society afoot.

It’s Not Fake News – It’s SPAM

December 15, 2016

spam

Back when I was with the Union of Concerned Scientists, I ran a nice little feature called the Hybrid Timeline as part of our (Webby Award-winning — yep, still bragging a decade later) HybridCenter website. In an effort to combine both issue and consumer advocacy, we looked to give folks the most up-to-date information on how the hybrid car market developed, what was on the market currently, and what looked to be coming down the pike.

As we wrangled with EPA folks and Congress over the minutiae of weight-based fuel economy rules and whether pee-based technologies could be an effective particulate matter reduction technology for Diesel engines (I kid you not), it was actually quite nice to take a bit of a mental break and just surf the Web for news of a cool new car that might push the Prius off its perch atop the fuel-efficiency world.

At one point, I found a news story that sounded really exciting.  Toyota had made a concept hybrid supercar and it looked sweet.  Most concept cars never see the production line, as they are more intended to show what the technology could do, rather than be something that gets the full production treatment.  But this one site had a story saying that Toyota decided to go ahead with the car, nicknaming it the “Priapus.”  Now, this was before Tesla really even got off the ground, so the idea that a carmaker was going to go high-end with a hybrid was extremely exciting.  So much so for me that I posted it on our website without giving it a second thought.

After a few months, one of our engineers was perusing the site and said, “Uh, Scotty, have you actually taken a look at the site for the “Priapus?”  I think it’s actually something like The Onion.  I went to the site, and sheepishly saw that it did say “satire” in the header.  That said, I reread the article, and despite the fact that it was from a satire site, didn’t really find anything particularly funny about the article.  Perhaps, I thought, the author mixed in satire and fact.

So I went to the author and asked whether, perhaps, this was true, and if so where he got the information.  He responded quickly and succinctly, noting that anyone who might take the name “Priapus” seriously must be someone with, shall we say, special needs.

I think he was being satirical.

That was my first real experience with what we are now calling “Fake News.”  What it showed me was how much I personally was willing to look past in order to reinforce my own hopes, and how easy it was now in the age of the internet to see anything on the screen as potentially legitimate.

My mistake was pretty innocuous, all things considered.  I admitted my mistake and removed the Priapus from the timeline.  Not even once did it cross my mind to arm myself, drive to Toyota’s headquarters, and self-investigate as to whether the Pripus was really heading to market.

But that’s where we have evolved.  A few years back, we all got a giggle out of when the Chinese government would confuse an article from The Onion with actual fact.  But now, what we are calling “Fake News” is a cottage industry, going beyond cherry-picking of facts and gross exaggerations to creating outright lies.  And whether the end game is political or financial (from articles I’ve read, the latter seems more often the case), this phenomenon is now a common and disturbing part of our dialogue.

Now, there are far better places than this to get excellent information about the sources, motivations, and impacts of so-called “Fake News” than this blog.  I bow to the expertise of excellent investigative journalists and technology experts who are covering this, some of whom I’ve linked to in this post.  What I want to talk about is the fact that I think we are already losing the war of words with the term we have so far chosen.

To be blunt, “Fake News” just doesn’t cut it.  It is overly simplistic, implying only that what you are reading is not true.  Jon Stewart would often call his program “fake news.”  As noted, satire sites have been doing this for years, occasionally tricking the random dictator or clean car advocate.  Grouping in those who plant false and conspiratorial stories, sometimes even using false major network headers to hoodwink the public, have essentially been grouped into the same aggregate.  That both confuses and lessens what has become a growing, serious threat to discourse in our society, particularly our kids.

Worse still, the term “Fake News” has already been corrupted.  Donald Trump has cited major news sources being wrong about the election result as another example of Fake News.  Of course, this is in no way the same thing, but it has allowed those that profit and are ideologically strengthened by the propagation of lies-as-news to not only co-opt the term, but help to further erode confidence in genuine investigative journalism by branding it with the same brush.  And, sadly, the media itself has been complicit in reinforcing this muddled perception.

In the old days when print mattered, it was fairly easy to get a sense of what was real and what was fake.  Print cost money, so the difference between, let’s say, a thoughtful-yet-conservative source like the National Review was easy to discern from the tinfoil hat crowd, who published amateurish pamphlets in far smaller numbers.  But in the age of the Internet, it is now much harder for even a discerning reader to tell the difference.  Frankly, most mainstream news sources these days just look like filler for the sea of click-bait ads that generate the revenue.  This reinforces a false equivalence among sources of information.

And so with that, I would ask those concerned about this phenomenon to end the use of the term, “Fake News.”  We need something that better, and I believe we already have a term in our online lexicon that covers it:

SPAM

What we are seeing with these stories are nothing more than a new wrinkle on the Nigerian Prince just needing your bank account information to send you his riches, or that irresistible erectile dysfunction treatment just begging you to click through to virus-land.  Whether it be clicks-for-profit or malicious political tampering, we’re just seeing folks looking to dump crap online for the purpose of their own gain. That is a big difference between a satire site, or ideologically-driven commentary that might cherry-pick facts to suit their world view.  The latter IS an issue, and a significant one, but it is distinct in both its problems and its impact.

So call it SPAM News.  Or Social SPAM.    Or just plain SPAM.  Or, hey, come up with a better term that encapsulates not only the outright falsehood, but the malicious nature of this phenomenon—I’m all ears.  But I believe the longer we call it “Fake News” the more we turn a pressing problem into more white noise on the web.  This is an issue that needs more than identification, it requires stigmatization.

And so I ask all you readers, posters, and writers out there to please help not just educate, but change how we converse about SPAM in the news.  Because if we hope to have any chance to have a real dialogue about real issues, we cannot be entitled to our own facts.

Get That Bat on Your Shoulder!

December 6, 2016

bryce-harper-bat-shoulder

Anyone who has ever broiled or shivered through their child’s t-ball or coach pitch season probably has a PRSD (that’s post-repetition stress disorder) event hearing this phrase:

“Get the bat off your shoulder, [PLAYER NAME]!”

Lord knows I’ve used it plenty of times myself over the years.  The idea is that we want the hitter to have “active hands” so they can generate power and quickness, rather than simply drag the bat off their shoulder, drop their hands, and make a loopy swing toward the ball.  Those are the swings that usually ram the bat right into the tee, spilling the bucket of balls all over home plate.  You scramble and the kids giggle (okay, PRSD moment of my own there).

Indeed, “bat off the shoulder” may come in a close second to “stepping in the bucket” for the most used/overused phrases for youth coaches.  I developed the “ear bop” technique part of my Ninja Hitting program to reinforce the notion to my young hitters that their hands should start high, by their ear.  It’s the way I was taught.  It’s the way I’ve seen it taught.  And my kids looked more like your prototype big leaguer with that advice.

But a good coach isn’t just always teaching.  A good coach is always learning.

I remember hearing a story a couple of years back that Mike Matheny, now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals told about his mentor, Tony LaRussa.  They were sitting in the dugout together, and LaRussa turned to him and asked, “Mike, about what percentage of the game to you think you know?”  Matheny thought about it for a moment.  He’d played the game all his life, and enjoyed a long Major League career as a catcher, one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions on the field.  He retired and went immediately into coaching, and now was on track to become LaRussa’s successor as a MLB manager of one of the most storied franchises in the sport.

“I’d say about 80 percent,” Matheny responded, as while he was a baseball lifer, he knew that there was always something new to learn.

LaRussa nodded his head silently.

“How about you?” Matheny replied.

LaRussa, considered one of the games great masterminds and a lock for the Hall of Fame, simply replied:

“Oh, about 35 percent.”

Despite his 2006 Cardinals upsetting my Mets in the NLCS, it is a story I still love to tell, and remind myself of.    And this year, that lesson really hit home with the ole’ “Bat off your shoulder” axiom.

It started this spring, as I was chatting with the Dad of Ford, one of my Aces.  As it happens, Ford’s Dad is another “Coach Scott” as he had been coaching his younger boy’s travel team, so we both spoke from a place of knowledge.  I asked how Ford was doing in the house season, and he said that he was making contact, but not really hitting with any power.  This was something we had seen with Ford in the previous travel season and had trouble figuring out.  My Nationals were going to play his Red Sox, so I told Other Coach Scott that I’d give Ford’s swing a look and see if I saw anything new.

Ford’s stance looked perfect.  Nice high hands, wrists waggling ever-so-slightly to keep those quick-twitch muscles from getting stiff.  A solid and early stride to the ball, good hip rotation, and….a grounder to second.  He squared it up, so what went wrong?

So I really looked closely his next time up, and, finally, it was the “Ah-Ha!” moment.  As he began his swing, those nice high hands dropped down to his shoulder, where the bat rested for just a split second.  He then pushed the bat off his shoulder and into the hitting zone.

For Ford, my “ear bop” advice was not the solution to his hitting issues.

It was the problem.

How could this be?  I’m CoachN, dammit!  I’m supposed to be right about this stuff.

That next day, I did something I hadn’t done in a while—I hit.  I went into the backyard, just me and the tee.  I pictured Ford’s swing in my mind’s eye and attempted to emulate it.  So, for the first time, I not only saw the issue, I felt it.  With his hands that high, there was no place for them to go but down.  And with his early step, the bat would naturally find a resting place on his shoulder as he approached the ball.

A couple of days later, a bunch of the Aces were watching a High School game, and I sat down with Ford.  I explained what I saw, and something came out of my mouth that made the T-Ball coach in me squirm.  I told him that maybe he should actually try to start with the bat ON his shoulder, and as he loaded for his swing, make sure his hands were moving up and then out to the ball.  “We want up-and-out,” I told him, “not down-and-around.”

Now, Ford is a hard-working, strong, smart, and just really good kid.  So perhaps I am taking a bit more credit than I deserve, but, boy, did that correction really seem to work for him.  He was a line-drive machine not just for the rest of the house season, but was one of the most consistent hitters on the Aces all summer (when he wasn’t getting run over by his coach, but that’s another story).  And it took was getting the bat on his shoulder.

As I dive deeper into middle age, I find one old axiom to be true: the more I learn, the more I realize just how much I don’t know.  I think that’s what Tony LaRussa was imparting to Matheny.  As a coach, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a president, it can be very easy to simply sit back and rely on the safety of assumed expertise.  Knowledge can make us powerful, but it can also make us lazy.

So with this one swing, I learned a lot of lessons about myself as a coach (and maybe a few about myself as…myself):

  • Really see the player before you coach the player: While some skills are more one-size-fits-all than others, see a player’s natural abilities from the ground up. Don’t be too quick to put a player in a particular mold.  Find her/his strengths and build off of those.
  • Understand each player’s challenges are unique, and often contradictory: Sometimes, a player needs to start with the bat on his shoulder. Hey it’s worked for MLB players like John Olreud and Bryce Harper!  Sometimes they need those hands up high.  “Systems” are great starters but they cannot and should not be the end-all-be-all in teaching.  Be flexible and see that the challenge of your player, or the strength, may actually teach you something new as well.
  • Understand that why they are trying to do is hard: While some people are naturals, most are not—be it hitting a baseball, fixing a transmission, or completing an equation. Really acknowledging the challenge helps to keep both the player and the coach focused on the positive.  It’s also a reminder that trying hard things and even the small successes breeds a worth ethic that can last a lifetime.
  • Try it yourself: I’m reminded of the move The Doctor with William Hurt. He is a famous and narcissistic surgeon that has his life turned upside-down by throat cancer.  In his fight, he starts to see things from the patients’ perspective, and forces all his residents to be patients as a lesson in empathy.  I really couldn’t fully get Ford’s issues and suggest a solution until I picked up a bat myself.  Indeed, my current swing is now totally different than the one I used back in school as I started to incorporate everything I’ve learned in coaching to my personal approach.  Practicing what you preach help keeps your mind open, and keeps you humble.  I now work on my own game every chance I get for just that reason.
  • Don’t be afraid to get it wrong: Baseball, like life, is a game of adjustments. Indeed, numerous studies are showing that for academic assessments, learning from wrong answers actually leads to better retention of correct answers, leading to rethinking about tests more as a teaching rather than an assessment tool.  So as a coach and a player, it’s incumbent on us to be open and try new things.  Sometimes getting it wrong is the only way we’ll ever get it right.  And what’s right now may not be right later on.

So, get out there, get that bat on your shoulder (or not) and try, try again.

Night at the Museum

December 2, 2016

night-at-the-museum

I’ve run some pretty spectacular birthday parties in my time, but Indiana Jones and the Museum of Mystery was my opus.  I turned the National Museum of Natural History into a giant scavenger hunt for my boy and his mini-Indy-hatted bunch, completed with a weathered-bag hung from a totem pole in the foyer containing a 10-pound anatomically correct Belgian chocolate skull.

It was an amazing experience.

And in all the time I’ve gone to museums or to the zoo, that’s the way I’ve always come out, thinking about the “experience.”  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Museums are places to spectacle at our past, and our culture, and who we are as humans in this seemingly infinite multiverse of space, time, and emotion (which I would argue is a universe unto itself).

Indeed, I never saw a thing inherently wrong with all the times that I took my boys on the school trips to the Smithsonian.  Be it preschool trips to Natural History (indeed, that’s what inspired the party) to the annual elementary trips to the National Zoo, I found them a lovely way to take advantage of our proximity to the Nation’s Capital and give the kids a chance to get out of the classroom for a while.  On the bus ride back to school, I would always throw out some of the interesting facts we learned with the kids in my group.  I’ll admit there was a little of the CoachN in me, as I just can’t help trying to make pretty much anything into a learning experience.  Just ask my kids after we go to the movies: I’m insufferable…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Kirsten and I did something that radically altered my perception of the museum “experience” and its place in our children’s lives.  We are contributors to the Smithsonian and often get (and dismiss) invitations to special events.  Busy people, busy lives and all.  But before summarily tossing another invite into recycling, Kir noticed that this invitation was to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  A special dinner event after normal museum hours.

My wife passes by the new museum every weekday on her way to the office, and even as early as 7am she has seen lines crawling around this gorgeous addition to the Mall as people seek the very limited number of same-day tickets.  The waiting list for advanced tickets now stretches into the summer.

And so we leaped at this opportunity.  Ole’ CoachN managed to dust-off and fit into a suit, and we headed for an evening on the town.  After a lovely meal of African American-inspired dished prepared by celeb chef Carla Hall, we snuck away from the speaker as we wanted to maximize our time touring.  As we headed down the elevator, Kir and I were chatting with the operator.  “You’re really in for something.” He said, his voice almost bursting with pride.  “Just remember that you’ve only got a couple of hours.  It’ll be easy to get lost and never make it out of the first couple of rooms if you’re not careful.”

“You mean we can’t get it all in tonight?” I said half-jokingly.

“No,” he deadpanned.

He could not have been more spot on.

The very design of the museum helps to tell the story.  Starting down below, we begin in narrow, dark corridors speaking to the origin of the slave trade.  I was spellbound by a particularly dark enclave with remnants of an actual slave ship, interspersed with both art and writing of the time of the misery and depravity of the trade both from the perceptions of the slavers and the enslaved.

The upward arcing story moves through emancipation and civil rights up until this very day, the swathes of artifacts, hand-written letters, films, music, and dynamic interactive features (the “lunch counter” computerized feature was particularly fascinating—a “choose your own ending” on topics such as bus boycotts and the Black Power movement that compared your answers with others attending) so rich that each small corner felt like its own separate lesson.

And that’s when it hit me.  Instead of thinking about a museum as experiential, what if we instead thought of it primarily as an educational device?  Yes, I do recognize that the two are wrapped up together, but from my time in museums and zoos, while the students might come away learning something, we think about how it was as a whole.  The learning is secondary.  Indeed in our rush to “cram it all in,” I believe we deprive younger students of true immersive learning.

Right now, the Arlington County Public School system is engaged in thinking about “re-imagining the classroom.”  Trying to think out-of-the-box about what education should look like.  My time in the African American History museum tore through that box and even the brick-and-mortar of the school itself.  Even more, it belied the growing obsession with “personalized learning” – a good concept based in the fact that students have different needs, but a danger in looking toward an increased reliance on technology in the classroom as its primary solution.

While I am in no way against iPads and laptops, I believe that technology further removes the student from the tangibly real.  That simply compounds the initial problem that a classroom is in itself a prism that instructs on reality of the world around us, but it is walled off from it as well.  Technology enables a more organized, diverse, personalized, and deeper box, but it’s still a box inside a box.

Museums are by their nature interactive.  At the very least, they require people to move from piece-to-piece, rather than having the pieces paraded before them in pages or on a screen.  They are three dimensional.  They are tangible.  They are real.  So instead of simply having a “day the museum” what if schools actually integrated topical segments into their established curriculum?  So, for instance, instead of trying to work through the entire Museum of African American History, the students spend time only on slavery.  All the students could go through a specific tour, or students could be broken up into groups and come back and report to the rest of the class on what they learned.  Then perhaps lunch and an hour to tour the rest of the facility as they’d like.  In-depth education with a little experiential on the side—essentially flipping the usual usage model on its head.

In this increasingly screen-centered world, we need to keep making tangible connections so that our kids might not only learn about our world, but to be reminded that our world truly exists.  Those connections are increasingly crucial as our online universe stovepipes information to an extent that facts and truth become disturbingly relative.

So what, Scott, are we going to bus kids to the museum every day?  That sounds ridiculously expensive, unrealistic, and only beneficial to children close to them.  What kind of pie-in-the-sky, lefty liberal solution is that?

Well, I have an answer for all of that, but involves something that has long been a struggle for the education system in America—integrated learning.

Next on this thread, a modest proposal.