The Perfect Letter

When was the last time you received a handwritten, just-to-you letter, on pretty, even perfume-scented stationary? I don’t remember the last time I did. I have received beaucoup email, text messages, Facebook post responses and other e-messages. But hand-written letter? Nada.

When I was a kid, I had a number of pen pals and I relished writing them long, juicy, letters about all the things in my world, which of course, I thought were magical and creative. I talked about my adventures in grammar school. I wrote about my Barbie and Ken and their latest antics at my hand. I told about my horseback riding lessons and the pizza I made with my mother. And when I got their letters back, I loved every word and every minute of reading about the small and delightful things in their lives.

I remember trips to Scrantoms, the stationary and office supply store in the city and sadly long gone. A trip to Scrantoms was like Christmas. I’d pore over the boxes of multi-colored and decorated letter paper until I came across just the right one. Then, the pen – it had to match, and Lord knows Scrantoms had a huge selection. Finally – sealing wax – do you remember that? The seal, the color of the wax, all critical elements of what just had to be – the perfect letter!

The letters were an investment in these friendships. They took time, effort, and pleasure in their writing, and handed great glee in their receipt and reading. Somewhere I have a box of stationary around. It is old, but that’s okay. It’s time to bring it out and let some people how much I truly care.

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The Mighty Mt. Vesuvius

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Mt. Vesuvius – when we traveled to Italy last summer, I became totally obsessed with Mt. Vesuvius and the once-buried city of Pompeii. It was a magnet against which I had no control. It is a magnet that is active, that is full of magma at some deep level, and that hisses and emits plumes of hot steam near its base. The word from experts is not “if,” but “when” it will one day repeat its spectacularly horrific performance over Pompeii.

The infamous eruption that buried Pompeii occurred in 79 A.D. The city had experienced a series of preceding earthquakes with a major one in 62 A.D. that did considerable damage to the city’s quite advanced infrastructure. As the time for the major eruption neared, seismic activity in the area increased, but having been used to their ground regularly shaking, most citizens went about their business as usual.

On an August day, it was after the noon hour that all hell broke loose and a huge cloud exploded into the sky while the ground shook, and poisonous gases and ash spewed all over the city of Pompeii. Many people gathered some belongings and escaped while others decided to hunker down and wait it out. The ones who waited literally smothered to death.

Visiting the city of Pompeii was like walking on sacred ground where the ghosts of those who died whisper in the bakeries, bathhouses and brothels that remain crumbled in the ruins. Most haunting are the casted remains of those who died in exactly the positions in which they died. When the ash came, it encased the bodies and when it cooled, it made actual casts of the bodies as seen in the photo.

Vesuvius has had a few belches since 79 A.D., including one in 1631 that destroyed the city of Naples which lies at its base, and one in 1944, during WW II. No one was injured in the latter eruption, but lava and ash ruined bomber military planes and other equipment that were stationed at the Pompeii Airport. Since then there have been many small earthquakes.

Now comes the issue of “when.” As the only active volcano in Europe, the city of Naples has precariously draped itself in an area surrounding the volcano’s bottom. Scientist Michael Sheridan of the University of Buffalo says Vesuvius is due for a major blow as catastrophic, or even more so, than the one that destroyed Pompeii. The city has designed emergency plans for an eruption, but these plans don’t cover the magnitude of a Pompeii-style one that could completely destroy this thriving port city.

So, what if? What then? The answers are out of our control. And those in Vesuvius’ shadow can only respect their mighty neighbor and bear witness to the havoc she may one day wreak upon them.

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A Solution to the Rising Cost of College Textbooks

Would you believe that since 2006 the cost of textbooks for college students has risen an astronomical 73 percent? For some students, this equates to a yearly bill of up to $1,200 just for books! What do they do? Many students lasso some of their financial aid, which is really meant for tuition as well as room and board – the things that enable an education in the first place. Others take time away from studies and work! It’s estimated that a student must work 28 hours to buy just one textbook. (Ethan Senack, advocate at Public Interest Research Groups as told to NBC). And some take their chances and don’t get the book at all.

So, what’s with the high cost of these books? First, the academic publishing industry is run by just five publishers who control 80 percent of the market. Second, in most cases, professors decide what textbook is required for their courses, which means students have no choice but to pay whatever those books cost. There are two issues regarding professor choice. One is that some professors do not know the cost of their chosen text and second, some professors know and simply do not care: not an acceptable approach in today’s high-pressure, exorbitant academic expense (let’s not even begin to talk about tuition!) world.

Is there a solution to this dilemma? The answer is a resounding yes. Enter Open Education Resource, a rapidly emerging approach of incorporating academically sound, free digital materials into instruction. I volunteered to take my class materials online when an opportunity arose and after my first go-round, the course received the highest student evaluations of any time I have taught it using traditional texts. Of course, part of the rave reviews was the fact that the students didn’t have to pay $125 for the book I had been using. But I think the main reason was the true fun associated with exploring new and varied resources to support the learnings in class.

So, if learning is more effective and the students actually have fun, why isn’t OER more widespread? Here’s why: it’s hard! Putting together an array of materials that matches your teaching goals and objectives is just plain arduous whereas teaching from a textbook is comparatively easy.

When I volunteered to convert my course, a cadre of librarians joined with me in the hunt. The process was enjoyable – like a treasure hunt, seeking the perfect resource for a given objective or activity. We discovered, we discussed and we designed, using some things, and discarding others. The bottom line: all the resources were free and were easily either transported into or linked to our learning management system. Voila! Free, quality resources.

What are the real benefits of OER? According to William Blick and Sandra Marcus of Queensborough Community College, they are as follows:

  • They lessen the college cost burden for students
  • For faculty, there is far more freedom in choosing sources than if texts are mandated
  • The assembly of materials adds to the greater academic pool of knowledge on a given topic

As I look towards my fourth semester of using OER, I am excited because based on changes in business communications methods and technologies, it’s time to engage in another hunt for the exactly right resource for the topic at hand. Let the hunt (and fun) begin!

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College Classroom Behaviors

speakers-414562_960_720The semester is over – almost. Usually I experience a letdown at the end of a semester. Not so this year. Let me tell you why.

I enjoyed most of the students, with “most” being the operative word. But what I experienced more this semester than in my 25 years of teaching was attitudes of self-righteousness. And those that exhibited it were almost militant in their demands and brash in their behaviors. They showed a disrespect for me and their fellow students that was astounding.

Here is an example: I had one young man whose hand stayed up in the air for the entire semester. He had it up to answer every question I asked, to make a multitude of comments, some relevant, many not, and to respond to one of the other poor souls who dared venture out from under the shadow of his hand. Not only did he do these things, the hand was perpetually raised regardless of whether I was in the middle of a lecture or another student was speaking. Because of that hand, the other students mostly shut down so the semester set out to be the “Lionel” (not his real name) show. His other disruptive (to me) behavior was a constant current of facial expressions with furrowed brow, unnerving, to say the least.

It was time to get my class back!

I did. Here’s how. When his hand went up and the rest of the class sat silent and stoic, I called on one of the others who in fact seemed happy to participate. Of course, I still called on Lionel (as a good and fair teacher I could not ignore this hand forever), but more often I “volunteered” the participation of others and things seemed to balance out.

Now, you may ask, why didn’t I speak with Lionel about his hand and behavior? Mid-semester I did indeed. Things improved … for a week. Then it was as if we never spoke.

For years, I have had an item in my grading rubric called professionalism, which gives me a tool for addressing things like lateness, inappropriate in-class behavior, late work, and disrespect for peers and professor. This year, Lionel’s wasn’t the only professionalism score to suffer significantly, and in fact, I doled out more poor scores than ever before, so I set about to ponder why.

Entitlement. For many of today’s students it’s all about “me, me, me.” In addition to the hand, which clearly did not care about the remaining 20 hands in the room, I had two students who came in late to class, and I mean 10 to 15 minutes late, nearly every day. Then there was the issue of the cell phone and incessant in-class texting. I’ve decided that they think if they put their heads down and behind their computers they can’t be seen. It’s the “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me” thing.

So, I will spend my summer thinking about how to improve my classroom atmosphere, handle this increasing attitude of entitlement, and give all students a better experience.

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Please Pick Up the Poop, People


Abandoned Dog House

It happened again today. My spitfire puppy, Rosie, and I were off for a pre-rain walk when my foot suddenly slid as I took a step into something squishy. Instantly I knew.  The pooper-scooper had not found its way to this part of the block – an all-too-frequent occurrence in this, our quiet suburban neighborhood.  What’s worse, there are multiple pooping culprits based on the variations in size and color of the many poops scattered about. Let’s face it, most dogs poop when they’re on the beloved leash for a walk, and there are those owners who religiously clean up after them. I am one of those owners. However, there are those owners who simply don’t. Are they lazy? Careless? Believe in the ultimate “let nature be nature” approach?

Ugh, I for one am sick of hopping home and having to turn on the spigot outside to remove the by then malodourous crap (literally) from my shoe. What’s a step-in-poop soul supposed to do?

One answer is to be hyper-vigilant about every footfall I take on my walk. This is not ideal for me because I miss much of the enjoyment I get from walking my precious pups. On the other hand, looking down might help control my other walking issue which is the frequent trips of one who is not graceful.

Another idea is to call the local animal control folks and complain. Scratch that thought.

Educate by example? Unfortunately, it is a rare occurrence that one of my dogs’ poops within close proximity of one of the offenders, so scratch that one, too.

The one I think about often is this: I know two of the worst offenders who get this, have two dogs they take on mile-long treks twice each day. Their pups’ poops have decorated the entire town. I will have to stage this, but I am thinking of catching up with them one day with one of my dogs, a blue poop bag in hand, and asking them what brand of poop-scoop bag they use for their dogs!  And of course, I’ll go on to tsk-tsk about all the unpicked-up poops scattered about and what a terrible nuisance, not to mention health hazard, they are. <grin>

Result? Will I succeed in shaming these two into picking up the poop or piss them off so they make sure their dogs always poop on my lawn. Oops – never thought of this.

Guess it’s back to the pooper drawing board.


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Semesters, Cell Phones and Ghosts



It’s grading time, and I mean HEAVY-DUTY, all-day, into the wee-hours grading. It’s the most frustrating, anger-provoking thing I do as a teacher.  It is all these things because the more papers I read, the more I think I have been a phantom standing unseen in front of my classes, and that the volumes of resource materials I have posted must mysteriously disappear from student view somewhere in the course of the course.

Yes, I know. I am generalizing. I do have those consistently stellar students who make it all worthwhile. I also have those surprise students who manage to emerge from the back of the pack and surge forth to finish in the top percent. These students also make it all worthwhile.

But the discouraging part arises from an increasingly disengaged age group who wants to coast along the surface while expecting everything to be handed to them. Give them a book and most say, “What’s this?” Give them a cell phone and they are off and running in the opposite direction from the finish line. It’s called. “what is social media doing to our educational systems, our students, and ultimately, our culture?”

Consider: the average teen sends and receives a median of 50 texts per day, while 3 out of 10 deal with 100 every day.  Also, according to William Tatum, a research neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, the intensity and frequency of texting actually alters brain waves, partly because of the high degree of concentration texting requires.

My students admit to feeling terrible anxiety if they don’t have their cell phone next to them on their desks during class, and though I catch them looking at the phones periodically throughout class, most are never outright rude and actually start texting.

Do I have consequences for cell-phone usage? Yes. Actually, I include a category called “Professionalism” in my grading rubric which includes all those immeasurable things such as respect, teamwork, and earnestness, and that is precisely where cell phone use and abuse fits in.  For those abusers, I have a cozy little chat during the semester and tell them just how much their choice of using their phone in class will lower their grade, a message they don’t like to hear.

I don’t (necessarily) blame texting and social media for this new breed of college student, but it sure makes sense that their immersion in a cyber-cell world thwarts attention paid to class, coursework, and assignments and makes one professor consider coming to class covered in a white sheet.

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Are Children Suffering From Their Parents’ Use of Cell Phones?

General Icons-15Last week I had a chat with one of my students who is also the assistant manager of a day care center. We had just completed a unit on digital media and she described to me an ubiquitous activity that occurs every day among a majority of her parents when dropping off or picking up their kids. You guessed it – talking on their cell phones.  They talk on their phones to the exclusion of finding out about their child’s day or otherwise communicating with the child’s teacher. This really handicaps the staff at the daycare responsible for taking care of the kids. Did something happen at daycare that the parents need to know? Is the parent forgetting to tell the teacher that their child can’t have milk because of a medication she’s taking? You get the picture. Communication regarding their children takes short shrift.  Sad and scary.This affected me so that I decided to root around and see what I could find about how extensive a problem this cell phone use among parents indeed is. A multinational study last year of kids ages 8 to 13 found that “32 percent of kids felt unimportant when their moms and dads were distracted by their phones.” In addition, over half of these kids believed their parents spend far too much time on their phones. On the positive side, 52 percent of the parents agreed with the kids’ responses. The question is, were the parents who agreed the same ones attached to their phones or the ones who put communication to and about their kids first?

The day after I had this discussion with my student, I was in the Target parking lot walking toward my car when a young mother with a baby in a shopping cart was unloading her purchases. Guess what, she was on her call phone while the baby sat quietly. I then heard a kerfuffle and turned to see the cart rolling away from the car and a young man running to intercept it. A case of “distraction by device.”  and truly a potential disaster.

I would have expected this mother to be embarrassed and horrified by her irresponsible behavior but she was all smiles and acted as if the entire incident was no big deal. Had it happened before and this was simply a rerun?

I feel like I am scraping the proverbial surface of a problem that appears to be reaching epic proportions. Are we sculpting a society where children are relegated to non-importance when the cell phone rings, or is dialed?  And what then does this mean for our future?

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