This is something I have been trying to process for awhile, so I’m just going to write it out in a short post here to see where it takes me.
When I woke up this morning, I saw this article in the Omaha World Herald about the Millard South Principal who is accused of assaulting a student. My first thought at seeing his face and name in the article were, “His life is over.” If I, as a teacher, were accused of something like this, it would be hard for me to find a job ever again. Even if I were later found innocent and the chargest against me were dropped, the image of me in the newspaper with my name against that headline would be enough to discourage many future employers. I am not condoning what this guy did or is accused of having done, so please do not think that.
I found out that not all media works this way. I had my students perform translations of crime stories, and I noticed a trend. None of the stories had names. Here is a quick example from the Baltic Times. Notice that it does not include the names of the suspects. This is not an accident. My students pointed out that in Latvia, you are innocent until proven guilty. So journalists do not publish the names of the accused, but only of the convicted.
How simple is that idea? In the United States we claim that people are “innocent until proven guilty”, but as we have seen, the court of public opinion is a much more powerful force than perhaps even the justice system. It moves quickly to convict those who are accused as soon as a face and name are shown on the local news. Reporters go out of their way to dig up dirt on suspects and, if the story is sexy, they will milk it until it bleeds.
I really do not have much more to say about this topic other than the simple and clear point of how wrong it is in our American journalism to convict those on trial before a jury or judge has a chance to. I wonder if it has always been this way, and if there is any way to turn the clock back to make it so that suspects are given at least some rights? Why is it that I only had this notion after leaving the system and seeing that it could be done another way? It always makes me wonder about how many things we just assume are done a certain way… and thinking that this is the right way… only because we have never seen anything else.
If you know me at all, you know that I am no mechanical genius. However, I have come to terms with this in my own way, and I am able to fix most things around the house. I grew up with no understanding of tools. We had a screwdriver, and we had a hammer, so we were in good shape. I thought screws and nails came in different shapes and sizes, born of a can in the garage. A butter knife was as good as any flathead screwdriver, and for everything else, there were duct tape and pliers.
Since then, I have learned that the right tool for the job is the simplest response to most household crises.
But here in Latvia, the rules don’t necessarily apply.
Last night, we had some guest over, and they asked me about the difference between living in Latvia and living in the United States. My reply, somewhat to the dismay of my Latvian friends, was that everything in Latvia seems to take three tries or three times as long to get right. I used some of my bureaucratic quests to illustrate my point.
Today, I set off to change the inner tube of my bicycle which had developed some kind of leak as I was riding home the other day. The tire and tube are almost brand new. I bought a set of those little plastic levers and a new tube from my favorite store, Depo.
I have changed many bike tires in my time. The process, sometimes frustrating, usually takes about ten minutes. My bike has quick releases, and I had thought that once the tire was off, everything would go pretty smoothly. As you have already probably guessed, this was not the case.
First off, I thought I bought a presta valve tube, but it was some kind of weird hybrid that looked like a presta but was as wide as a schrader. Luckily, it fit into the hole of the wheel. I had to figure out how to inflate it a bit before replacing it in the tire. So far, everything went pretty much as planned (aside from dropping things and fumbling a few times). But then, when I tried to get the wheel back on, I could not coerce it into place. I had to go back upstairs to find this wonderful video that even had the same brand of tire as mine! Wire bead. I had never encountered this before, but with some determination, I was able to get the tire on and inflated.
Now came the hardest, strangest part. Normally, this would be easy. Just put the wheel back on, tighten it up and hook the brakes up. Done. But for some reason, this bike makes nothing easy. The wheel would not go back on. I had to completely remove the quick release for it to fit back into the slots. Then, I had to really coerce it to get it to sit properly. Then the brakes were too tight, and the tire kept rubbing on the fender. There just seemed to be no way to properly balance the wheel in place, and every adjustment I tried to make, only made it worse.
After 20 minutes or more of making tiny adjustments to the fender, wheel, and brakes, I got it back together, but nothing would completely eliminate the slight rubbing sound coming from somewhere.
Ultimately, I gave up trying to make it perfect and instead accepted the repair for what it was. Complete but imperfect. I am sure this has some deeper philosophical resonance, and I should learn from the experience. I have always just wanted to be a person with a system, who could do things the “right” way, but very few things I do are completed with perfect, precise, professional results. Instead, things are thrown into a pile, rearranged, and I hope that the chaos comes to some kind of final order. Perhaps I should stop hoping for change, and just accept this life that I have chaotically created. After all, chaos ultimately trumps order, so why fight it?
If anyone could follow me and record my exploits for a day, you might not believe it. I think when they made up the phrase, “And that’s why we can’t have nice things,” they were thinking of me.
Today, my goal was to go to the ministry of foreign documentation to get started on having them recognize my teaching qualifications… yes, something I should have done a long time ago. I just needed to unpack my printer, so I could print my translated transcripts (Thanks Rita Treija)!
When I plugged the printer in, it didn’t work. I thought it was the printer. Turns out, the printer didn’t like the voltage and blew out the power to the house. We have two sets of breakers. One in the flat and one on the stairs. Robert Brase could have helped us today.
So I went in search of a 230-115 voltage converter because those things you buy at the airport only convert the connector…. not the voltage. I learned that the hard way when I tried to use my rice cooker, and it got so hot, the rice cooked in five minutes and most of it just burned to the bottom of the pan.
No luck at any of the nearby electronic stores… Depot, Euronics, RD… so I asked the keymaker (the one thing I got done today), and he suggested Argus. Miles away. Before I went there, I called, and Martins needed to know how many watts I was going to be converting. Who knew? I swear I had a dream about this whole thing once.
So I rode my bike to Argus for a 1000W converter, which we figured would power my computer and printer and a few other incidentals as needed.
As I rode, my bike started to fall apart. It was making this whistling noise, and clinking and clanking. Those cool-looking, yellow plastic shields were submitting to the rough streets of Riga, and I had to tear them off. It was a sad day, but sometimes you just have to let go of ornaments. Move on with your life.
Finally, I found Argus which was a challenge because the signage is pretty not easy to read, and nothing is just in a place where it says it is on the map. It’s all an adventure.
Martins spoke excellent English and helped me find the right converter. I paid him a bunch of fake money (they call them ‘Euros’), and he boxed it up. “Will it fit in your bag?” he asked, looking at this big box and my little bag. “Probably not, but I can put it on the back of my bike. I have a rack.” I said as Latvia completed their domination of Russia in basketball.
The box fit perfectly on the rack, and the built-in elastic straps seemed to be made for the job. They divided into two, so they could wrap around the corners of the box. It seemed like a match made in heaven. But bumpity bump bump, and the box was gone! Or so I thought. I turned around, and it wasn’t on the rack, but upon further inspection, it had slipped to the side.
I carefully restrapped it and merrily rode, but I could tell the box was not happy on the rack. For some reason, it just wanted to slide to the right and try to fall off. I hate gravity… have I mentioned that lately? Everything falls. Everything I own just falls down all the time. Pants, glasses, hearing aid batteries… (don’t even get me started on those)… everything.
So I got to the bike lane on Barons street, and I stopped to start seriously strapping this thing down. I planned to use my lock to force the straps together so they could not possibly come undone. As I was carefully manipulating the universe to bend to my will, I heard a honk… the nice blond lady in the car I was blocking wanted to get out of her parking spot. No problem, universe. I will not be thwarted by a horn!
I moved to the sidewalk and carefully secured the cables and cords and chain and lock… snap. The deed was done. The box was secure. It would not move. I could not fail.
Then I rode on another trek to find this used Swedish furniture shop because I have no furniture… and it was the hardest place to find. I won’t go into detail, but Riga, seriously… signs. Get some signs. Street signs. Signs for your businesses. It will really help make life better for everyone. Unless it’s all a big secret. Maybe that’s your game, Riga. I don’t know. I will figure it out.
The furniture shop was a bust. The guy, who spoke almost no English, just pointed up the stairs. I looked around and found some things I wanted, but he never came to help. I even called out, “Help? Help!” but he wouldn’t help. Another lesson from American retail, “Can I help you?” You’ll get way more business if you ask me. I swear.
I followed my GPS back to Krasta Iela where I now live (the post about this is coming soon… I swear!), and stopped at a little store for some ice cream and Coke. Today calls for some junk food. It might be the only thing keeping me alive right now. The hope that I have some junk food waiting for me once I finish this post.
Oh, the box. So the box made it almost all the way home, but somewhere on the cobblestones of Maskavas iela (probably crossing the tram tracks), it once again slipped to the side of my bike, and I just let it stay there until I got home. I was too exhausted to fight. If it wanted to fall, screw it. Fall. FALL YOU STUPID BOX!!!
It did not fall. I made it home, and fired up the voltage converter, and I am the proud parent of my iMac once again!
Side note: This youtube video won’t play right. I had to go back and reedit the post to add spaces between paragraphs because it was adding spaces to each paragraph every time I hit the Return button. What is wrong with my life? I do not know. Nothing works.
I suppose that one of the interesting topics to write about is how Latvia is different from the United States. Since it is a part of the European Union, I’m sure that some of the differences will carry over to other countries you might be interested in visiting, but I am also even more sure that every country has its quirks that you will have to figure out on your own.
Money is different in so many ways, that it would take a long boring post to explain all of it. First of all, for those of you who do not know, Latvia is a part of the European Union, and they have adopted the Euro. Right now, Euros are worth just a little more than a dollar. I think that’s good if you have Euros.
Some things are cheaper here than they are in America, but so far, I haven’t found many of those things. I was trying to buy a simple dish drainer like this, but they are harder to find than you think, and when I finally found one, it was €21! I’ll just use a towel for now.
My experiences with rental cars has been nothing short of a nightmare. My “Enterprise” car rental in Italy charged me €250 on top of the very expensive price to begin with because I changed the flat tire. Because. Something. And in Riga? Remember my parking nightmare? I emailed the Sixt to make sure they got the car back, and they informed me that the car is fine, but I will be getting a €55 parking ticket because apparently I wasn’t parked in the right place. These nightmares and anxieties I have are real. I don’t make them up!
One thing that is pretty cheap is the bus from here to Riga. I can get to Riga and back for about €3 on a nice comfortable bus without worrying about traffic or parking. If I get a job (an interesting “if” at this point), and I have to go back and forth to Riga, that could get a bit pricey, but it’s still better than trying to find a parking spot.
I opened up my bank account, and of course, this unicorn ran into some issues with that. While working with the wonderful woman at SEB Bank, I had to call Ansis and Rita to try to get things figured out. They needed some evidence of employment and this and that in order for me to open a bank account. I also had to give my American Social Security number. Curiously, I was just reading about how Paul Manifort may be in trouble for not doing that with some of his offshore accounts. I didn’t know it was the law, and I certainly didn’t know that I had anything in common with Manifort! I always find it so strange how people seem to be able to get away with doing all these illegal things. When I try to do them legally, I can barely make it work. And then, when I tried to deposit cash, she told me to wait until I get my bank card because it would cost €5 for her to deposit my money at the counter. I also paid 30 cents to use the bathroom at the mall. Seemed like a fair price at the time.
In general, it seems that food and services are a bit cheaper than in America, but technology, electronics, and even clothes are as expensive or more expensive. Beer is pretty cheap. A big bottle of beer at the local shop is about 70 cents. Speaking of the local shop… the other day, I went in just as she was closing, and the cash register was off. I bought €5.24 worth of stuff, but I didn’t have change, and she didn’t want to break a bigger bill, so she took my name and gave me credit. Old school cool, right? I went in the next day, and a different lady working there knew who I was right away. “Divdesmit četri?” she asked. I gave her a quarter and said, “Keep the change.”
I got cellphone service here through Tele2, one of the top 3 cell phone providers. I’m doing a pay-as-you-go plan. They call their regular plans “tariff” plans. I have no idea why, but unlimited calls, text and data will cost about €24 a month. That seems pretty good to me, but Ansis says it’s still too expensive. I just added 2 GB of data to my phone for €5.99. I have no idea if that’s a rip-off or not. I just know I confused the guy behind the counter when I tried to explain what I needed.
Many Latvians leave to get decent jobs in other EU countries, which is a sad fact of globalization. Everyone warns me not to get a public teaching job because public employees do not make any money at all. At this point, I don’t really care about salary, I would just like to be working somewhere. It is so weird to fill out a form (like at the bank) and to realize that for the first time since I was 16, I don’t have a job to put down on the application. Weird.
In order to pay people, most Latvians just use bank accounts. Businesses post their bank accounts right on the front page of their websites so you can send them payments. Apparently, credit cards haven’t quite caught on. So in order to attend this Latvian Association of Teachers of English (LATE) Conference next week, I need to pay with my bank account that doesn’t have any money in it… yet. I find myself giving out personal information like it’s nothing, where in American, we guarded that information and kept it close to the vest. I haven’t found anyone here who is shy to ask, “How much did you pay for that?” or “How much do you earn?” On the other hand, they are super serious about security. To log into my online bank account, I need to use my special coded username, my 9-digit password, and then they gave me this funky card with 56 alpha-numeric codes. I need to match the code to the number they give me online. It’s kind of like I am in some Mission Impossible episode every time I log in!
When I bought that used bike, I thought I was getting a good deal. But when I tell others how much I pay, they kind of cringe about the price. It’s so hard to tell if you’re doing the right thing. I just know I suck at renting cars. It is not my strong suit! And let’s not forget gas… it’s about €1 per liter, which is about €4 per gallon or so. That’s pretty high, but natural gas is only 50 cents a liter, and there are many cars here that use it for fuel. Even Ansis had his minivan converted to use natural gas.
Everything will be fine. I didn’t come to Latvia to become a millionaire or anything, so learning all of this is just a part of the grand journey!
Let me know if you have any questions about this stuff. I find it fascinating! Sorry for the lack of photos… not much to tell.
What a day! Sometimes these days seem to last and I do more than I ever thought possible… I am sitting in my lovely little cottage with wi-fi (story to follow) on a Friday drinking a Tērvete beer and getting ready to watch some Netflix before I finally fall asleep. I will wind down by writing because this calls to me.
Doesn’t this photo speak to you? Read on!
Today was Riga day with Monta and Ansis. We left early and ran a few errands including returning a bicycle to Darta’s friend in Ķekeva who had an angry barking dog! Then I was dropped off at the Latvian Immigration building near the big cemetery and a tram stop. “Go! Do!” I was told, as they sped off in their red minivan leaving me in the dust.
I walked in to the office, and was immediately confronted by a guard who spoke no English. It took only a few seconds for us to both realize I was in the wrong place. “Other door,” he pointed. He may have said something else, but I knew what he meant. The metal detectors were not for me. Thank goodness.
Once I was in the right place, the kind woman at the main desk took my paperwork and asked me the questions I knew she would ask. No one seems to believe that an American would be emigrating to Latvia (or is it immigrating? I don’t know), and they are all pleasantly surprised when I show them my passport proving that I am, indeed, a citizen! But they don’t know what to do with me. Ansis and I both believe that I am a rare species, and special care must be taken with this unicorn.
I was led to a chair in a hallway and told to sit and wait. The man in the office walked by and let someone else in as I sat, looking perhaps a bit glum. Then a kind blond woman led me to her desk, and with the help of her brunette interpreter, they asked me the same questions over and over. “Did you fill out the form?” She asked, holding the form in her hands. I pointed, “That is it!” She looked again. “Passport?” Of course! Surprised looks all around. The unicorn showed his horn! Then, I think as a joke, she said that I needed a photo to attach with my paperwork. We were in an office that prepares passports. There are several photo machines all around. But she told me that I needed to go somewhere else, get a photo, and bring it back. I felt like the knights in Monty Python in search of a shrubbery!
When I told Ansis over the phone, he was a bit angry at the whole thing… disbelief even. But I met Rita for coffee, and she found me a nearby photo shop that could get me a picture within 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, Monta and Ansis were at a meeting somewhere doing some business, and I wasn’t going to be able to find them, so I made the executive decision to hang out with Rita, do a bit of planning, and find my own way back to Sēlieši on my own! Go Džefs!
Rita wanted to show me where she bought her cool vintage bicycle; the place is VeloDepo (“Velosipēds” means “bicycle”). You walk in and there are just a crazy amount of cool old bikes at decent prices. I had no plans… but while at the shop, I kind of fell in love with this Koga touring bike with some updated pieces and parts. I didn’t think I was going to buy a bike today, but darn it… I was going to get one eventually, and when Rita said I could store it at her apartment, so I’d have a Riga bike… I was SOLD! The parts and pieces just look so nice. I bought an extra-heavy duty chain, so hopefully it won’t get stolen too soon.
Now on our bikes, we crossed Riga together. She showed me the camera shop, and then went her own way to run some errands. I had my photo taken, then (with help from Google maps) rode to the Immigration Office by the cemetery and tried to drop off the photos. Earlier, the nice woman said I could just drop them off at the front desk. But, of course, the wonderfully patient woman at the desk had no idea what I was talking about and told me to just go somewhere and talk to someone else. So, the unicorn stepped boldly into the office and went up to the desk where the kind blond woman once sat only to be told that she wasn’t there, that wasn’t her station, and no one even knew who she was. Weird? Yes. Unexpected? No. But, the lovely lady who seemed kind of busy but very curious about my situation made a phone call, wrote my name down, took the photos and said, “That is it!” Doubtful, I left. I’m sure they are all laughing about it over drinks tonight. Silly American!
I rode my bike back to meet Rita at the supermarket, Rimi, where we discussed how I would get back to Sēlieši, and we had a nice ride around the neighborhood. I can’t figure out why more Rigaonians… Rigans… Rigettes… Rigaers… whatever… don’t cycle more. The streets are flat, there are big sidewalks, it is easy to get lost… it is a perfect city for biking! We found a place to stow my bike, and then I took the trolleybus (big bus hooked up by electrical wires) to the Central Station, and took a little minibus, number 6779, back to Sēlieši. On my walk from the road to my house, I saw a lovely sunset. I tell you, Latvian skies are magic.
But that is not the only magic!
After I returned, and Ansis served a lovely meal of fish, potatoes, mushrooms and salad (with some wine for fun), Monta showed me videos of her trip to London. Apparently they like to ride bicycles in the nude there!
Then, Ansis bought a few items for us to figure out. We had been trying to get the wifi to work in my cottage since I got here on Wednesday, but no luck. I have never really had to do anything with networking or ethernet cables before, so I was a bit in the dark. With some research and some intention to do no harm, I started splicing and dicing my share of RJ-45 connectors. I think I have something a little wrong with my brain when it comes to meticulous work—despite the fact that I was looking at photos and trying really hard, I put the wires in backwards at least twice. And my sloppy cutting and splicing efforts would make any hardened tech person cringe.
Ansis bought some new connectors and a real ethernet tester, so I could see what I was doing wrong. After a test, I started to carefully strip and prepare one more set of wires for crimping into a brand new RJ-45 plug. My hand was cramping, and if you know me, you know that I shake when I’m nervous. The wires were just over my head, so I had to hold them steady, shining a flashlight… stripping, collecting, clipping… trying to make sure that this time I would get it right. Luckily, Ansis showed up (scaring me half to death) and came to the rescue! I asked if he had steady hands, and he said, “Yes, but I am color blind.” Shit, I thought. So I carefully arranged the wires while he held them and clipped them and trimmed them and pressed them and perfectly, meticulously put them into the connector. I crimped it with the crimping tool, and the connection looked good! We tested it, and all but one set of wires was okay. We had one error, but it was better than anything that had happened before.
Now, all we needed to do was plug in the wifi router, and voila, I would have at least some internet. No. We waited, but the router was not sending a signal. Up to this point, the Bite router had worked flawlessly. Even without an internet connection, my phone and computer could find it as soon as it was plugged in. IT HAD NEVER BEEN THE PROBLEM… until now. Now that we finally had an ethernet connection, the wifi was failing us! Why? I don’t know. How, still can’t say. But Ansis insisted that we test it in the garage where he knew the internet worked.
So, we went in, and plugged it all in. Nothing. Nothing. Then he asked, “Do you know any magic words?” I said, “Abracadabra!” Still nothing. Then he said, “In Latvia we say Krex, Brex, Fex! Then we laugh!” And we both laughed. Then I practiced saying it a few times, and we laughed, and voila! The router lit up, the wifi signal came on, and it worked! What?!
Then we took our good fortune to my cottage, plugged everything in, said “Kres, Brex, Fex!” Laughed, and… wait for it… wait for it… the router lit up! Wifi came on! I tested with my phone and… WE HAVE INTERNET! WE HAVE INTERNET!!!!
So now, it is 11:11 p.m. in Riga, Latvia, and I’m writing this from the privacy of my cottage bedroom. For the first time, I’m coming to you live! We had a toast of Black Balsam to celebrate our victory over technology. What a day it has been! Immigration! Bicycle! Public Transportation! AND!!! TEAMWORK! Latvians and Americans can do amazing things together!
I ask you… this cottage needs a name. The big house and property are called “Sēlieši” and Ansis said it is named after one of the tribes of Latvia, the Selonians. So what can my little place be? I can make a little sign and put it outside.
the internet is still not perfect. I get disconnected now and again, but it is better than nothing! I still say Ansis and Jeff 1, the forces of evil 0.
Photos (Including the Grave of one Janis Grinbergs!)
I decided to quit Facebook… again. This will be my third attempt to get this social media monkey off my back. I knew I had a problem when I found myself checking my phone for updates, posting all the time, and just sifting through posts that I had seen more than once before. “Show me something new! Show me something interesting!”
Today, I woke up in a bit of a funk, and it has taken me all day to realize that it’s because I haven’t checked Facebook. I have tried to satiate my addiction by looking at Twitter… which is kind of like methadone or something. It’s okay; but it’s not the real thing. I even made a couple posts on Instagram just to feel alive for a minute, but no one responds. There are no reactions.
So here I am, just kind of lulling through my hump day trying to figure out what all my “friends” think of Trump firing Comey? Or how they feel about the Omaha election yesterday. What happened to Mello?
Ultimately, Facebook doesn’t really matter. I know that intellectually. But I also know that I am feeling this withdrawal as sure as I can feel the rain on my head.
I realize the irony here is that this blog post will make an appearance on Facebook. And I think that’s the point. If you read it, just ask yourself if you’re being mindful. Are you on here because you want to be… or because you’re addicted?
NETA stands for the Nebraska Educational Technology Association, and it is an organization that promotes the use of technology in teaching. I have been attending the conference off and on since 1998. I remember the first year it was at some high school in Lincoln. I attended as an AmeriCorps representative. I had no idea what it was.
After becoming a full-time teacher again, I attended while teaching in Ashland, and now, while at Westside, I have gone almost every year either as a representative for our high school or as a representative with the Nebraska Writing Project.
Each year that I attend, I take away too many ideas to deal with, and I have to whittle down my takeaways to a few items that I can actually use without being overwhelmed.
The idea that stuck with me the most was the concept of Taking Time to Notice that was introduced by the first Keynote Speaker, Dr. Robert Dillon (@ideaguy42) on Thursday morning. Last year at NETA, Dan Boster and I gave a presentation on mindfulness and technology. This keynote touched on many of the same concerns that we shared. The basic idea that technology makes life more complicated and less effortless has been a running theme for me. I took delight in getting permission to take notice of everyday things, and to think about all that we miss because we are too focused on technology. This same theme has been coming up over and over again in my life.
Coincidentally, I visited an old friend the evening after NETA, and luckily I was there to capture one of the most beautiful sunsets that I’ve ever seen.
Ironically, it took the technology of my iPhone to capture the images and then this blog to share them with the world. Does that make it better, worse, or indifferent?
For most of the conference, I was working at the Nebraska Writing Project booth inviting people to learn about the single greatest educational professional development that I have ever been involved with. I watched Jodie Morgenson’s presentation on blogs which inspired me to get back to mine!
On Friday, I watched both keynotes, but was less affected by them because I was concentrating on my own presentation on Goobric and Doctopus later that day. It’s hard to just sit back and enjoy sessions when you’re anxious about presenting!
I did attend an informative presentation on Google Forms which I use regularly. In the session explanation, it promised to explain how to use Sections and allow answers to lead to different parts of the form, which is something I’ve always wanted to try, but have never taken the time to learn how to do. I was disappointed because most of the session was simple review of Google Form basics, and it wasn’t until the very end that I learned what I wanted to know. After the session, I had to ask the presenter for help because the sections weren’t working, but we got it figured out, so now I have attained that new skill.
The best part about NETA is not the sessions or the keynote speakers, it isn’t even the vendors and the free stuff, it’s all about NETWORKING. I was able to get in touch with dozens of new people and make contacts with all sorts of interesting professionals across the state. This type of collaboration is so valuable because sometimes being a teacher feels like you are working in a vacuum.
I was checking all day on the sched website to see how many people were coming to my session. Having done sessions in the past on Friday afternoon, I was expecting no one to show up. I actually had over 100 interested, but only half of them came. That’s still more than I’ve had before, so that was cool.
I stood at the door welcoming people as Cat Stevens played in the background. When my session began, I started with a little joke that came to my mind as I was welcoming my teacher friends. It’s been said that there are two truths, Death and Taxes. But there are really three. The third? Teachers love free stuff.
I used that to frame my presentation on Goobric and Doctopus. I asked everyone to follow along and give my steps a try pointing out that it would take three times of going through the steps before they would become internalized.
I had practiced the presentation with Brenda at our NeWP booth earlier in the day, and it went well, but I wasn’t sure how well a mass presentation would go. When I showed people at Westside, I lost most of them. The good news was that most of the teachers in this room already used Google Classroom and knew how to make assignments.
I took them through the steps and I was finished in about twenty-five minutes. So I had twenty minutes at the end of the session to troubleshoot, answer questions, and try some experiments. We tried to see if we could combine the power of Doctopus and Flubaroo, but it didn’t work.
I got three or four Twitter responses to the presentation, so that’s cool.
Overall, the NeWP sessions were well-attended, and I ended up winning a pair of Skull Candy headphones and a t-shirt. It doesn’t get much better than that!
This year was special for me personally because it was the first year that the Nebraska Writing Project partnered with NETA. This meant that we had 3 presentations and a table. Brenda Larabee of Stuart, June Griffin of UNL, Dan Boster and I all presented. I have to admit that I was preoccupied by both our presentation and helping to get the table set up and keeping it personed throughout the two day conference.
June Griffin’s presentation on using oral
feedback via Google docs was very informative. I wasn’t able to attend Brenda Larabee’s presentation, but I heard the accolades after she had finished. Dan and I had a small crowd, but we had a solid discussion about choices that teachers make
when they use technology.
In addition to the table and the presentations, I also attended both Keynotes and multiple sessions. The hardest thing about NETA is choosing sessions. Sometimes the names are deceiving and the descriptions don’t help much. I chose to observe sessions about Google since our school, Westside High School, adopted Google as our email server this year. I learned about Google maps and lots of add-ons and extensions. It was a bit overwhelming.
The new venue was wonderful. It was easy to navigate, and everything was easy to find. The only complaint I had was that our “discussion” thread presentation was in a regular room, so everyone was sitting in the back and in rows. It wasn’t very complimentary to what we had planned, but I think it was successful.
Most people seemed to really enjoy George Corours’ keynote @gcouros. He spoke about our online footprint and how active we are through technology as teachers. I was glad to hear him talk about getting an online presence and sharing it with students and parents. I have been working on curating student work for years, but it is still an uphill climb.
My persistent question (which I tweeted during the keynote) is that if I write a blog, but there is no audience, then what is my purpose? Am I doing anything worthwhile?
And I submit this blog as a reference to my time at NETA this year. I know that at least one person will be reading.
I think it has been a long time since I made a blog post, so allow this to be my reflection on the year 2014 as a teacher. Forgive me as this turns into a treatise on education and technology.
The biggest change I have made this year is that I am no longer an adjunct at Metropolitan Community College. I had been teaching one or two classes per semester both on campus and online since 2008. I severed my relationship with them for two reasons. The first issue was financial. I am now in a position that allows me to work only one job and still survive. I realize this is a luxury in today’s world, so I am thankful for this.
The second reason involved a disagreement about a student who failed my Composition II course. This student did not complete the basic requirements of the class or final paper, and because she complained, I had to go through a rigorous defense of my teaching methods. I felt as if I were being persecuted because this student did not do the work she was assigned. After I was asked to drive to campus for another face-to-face discussion about this grade (following dozens of emails, a few phone calls and one face-to-face meeting), I decided to simply resign. It felt like the right thing to do.
Through this process, I learned a few things about teaching, and especially teaching online courses. The main issue with teaching anything online is that it is virtually impossible to develop a real relationship with students. Anyone who tells you anything about teaching will say that relationships are the number one factor in successful teaching. I have worked hard as an online teacher to maintain and build relationships through multiple technologies including Angel mail, chatrooms, forums, and google documents. However, for some people, accessing and using multiple online tools is a challenge in and of itself. The more we add to our online arsenals, the more we may be able to communicate, but we also add layers of complexity.
This complexity also came up in a recent discussion that our English department engaged in. Westside was in the process of eliminating Blackboard as one of the online tools we use for sharing information with students. This year, we moved to Google as our main online tool. All students and teachers have official Westside google accounts @westside66.net. (email@example.com). This was an effort to eliminate FirstClass (yet another tool) and to streamline the whole system. However, the launch was a bit premature perhaps, and many teachers and students were confused. There were growing pains and lots of fits and starts as we spent much of the first few months of the school year dealing with wi-fi issues. So the normal transitional process was made even more complicated by the hardware issues.
In our staff meeting, we were asked to offer feedback about the removal of Blackboard. Many teachers were angered by yet another change in our system. I have been at Westside for eight years, and each of my classes has a Blackboard site with folders and units so that students can access most of my content in one place online. While I have already been in the process of moving to Google Classroom, many teachers were still using Blackboard as their main and only online option. Ultimately, the powers that be determined that they would keep Blackboard for another year. I guess the uproar was enough to change their minds.
One teacher in our meeting brought up the point that students and parents are asked to log into so many different places, and it is true. Right now, I have my google account, my Blackboard account, I still have my First Class account because some email still goes there. I also use an online forum with my students through the Nebraska Writing Project. We use turnittin.com. The school has servers Sometimes I use Todays Meet for backchanneling. I am trying to come up with a comprehensive list, and it is already exhausting me.
Each year, more and more gets added. I have at least fifty online logins and passwords that I keep track of on an old-school spreadsheet. This teacher sent the point home that each of these students may have as many as nine teachers. If each of their teachers has a new website they want to use, that’s nine more places that students need to go online to use technologies. That may be nine new logins, nine new passwords on top of the school-issued logins. It is almost maddening to think about how complex we are making the system for everyone.
Login fatigue. That’s what I want to call it. As an employee, I have a login and password to check my payroll checks, to call in for a sub, and to complete my employee records. I have another login to complete senior letters of recommendations using Naviance. I am certain there are others.
My year in review has become a laundry list of all the online tools that we have access to, and it sounds more like a complaint than anything else, but I don’t want it to be.
I now live in a three-generation household. My 87 year-old father who was born in Latvia has moved in with me. He watches me and my daughter use technology and he is fascinated but fearful. He has no idea how any of it works, and his fear is that he may break something. His constant complaint is that he is “too old” to make any sense of it. He is a reminder of how simple life used to be. There were a few important life items to keep track of, and the remainder one’s memory could be dedicated to other more important things. Now we are confronted by one complication after another. The layers of complexity jumble and tumble over one another until what? What is the end?
Where do we go with educational technology? Where are we heading and what is the end game? Is there ever a place where we can say, “This is good enough. We are successful?” If we are constantly adding, then we have no time for reflective practice or skill building. How do we filter the wheat from the chaff?
My dad told me a story about how in Latvia on New Year’s Eve, people would gather in the old threshing barns with floors of brick, tables laid out and covered with food and drink. You never knew who would show up. Neighbors would dress as the ghosts of those who had died the previous year and travel from barn to barn. If your barn was left empty, that meant that not many people thought very highly of you. There is a good metaphor in that story for modern technology. I think.
Happy New Year and may the ghosts visit your table in 2015!