A New South

Watching the riots in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd have led me to put down some thoughts that I’ve had for awhile.

For background, I’m a white man in my early 50s. I’ve lived in Alabama just about my entire life.

A few years ago, a man came to speak at our church. He was a white man on staff at a small church in the middle of an urban, inner-city Birmingham area church. He told us about some of the struggles his church and his members (predominantly black) were going through and how we could help.

Later, I had coffee with him to find out more. He told me “before you start, I want to give you some homework”. This surprised me a little, but – OK. He asked me to read a book, “Divided by Faith”, and watch a video documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

The documentary was hosted by Henry Louis Gates. I knew he was a professor and had been in the news a little before over an incident that resulted in the “Obama Beer Summit”. I’ll admit that based on what I had heard about that incident – I had a slightly negative opinion/perception of him.

I’ll also admit to being pleasantly surprised at the documentary. I think I was expecting to be lectured about “white privilege”, but it really wasn’t like that. I found it very educational.

It was also disturbing. Since one of the topics was slavery, this isn’t surprising. While watching, I had a thought which really made the evil of slavery hit home for me.

A few years before (in 2009), America was shocked to find out that Jaycee Dugard, who had been kidnapped at the age of 11 in 1991, was still alive and had been in captivity for 18 years. She had been raped repeatedly and had two children whose father was her kidnapper.

As awful as that was, when the public and law enforcement found out about her – she was rescued. What occurred to me while watching the documentary was that slavery was this same crime, but instead of a shocking outlier – it was a “protected-by-law” institution. Imagine Jaycee Dugard escaping and when the police found her, returning her to her captors. That (over and over) was slavery.

I mentioned I’ve lived in Alabama almost my whole life. I did go to college in Boston for a couple of years. I’m embarrassed now to say – for part of that time a Confederate flag hung on my bedroom door like a poster. It was an ignorant, insensitive act with no malice intended. In my mind, it was a “Southern pride” thing – part of a friendly regional rivalry with some of my Yankee friends. (I was very outnumbered.)

Despite our protests that the Confederacy was about “states rights” and “regional pride”, I feel safe in saying that – for our black brothers and sisters, it means “you are not as good as us, and you are not part of us”.

I think that Birmingham’s mayor did the right thing by telling the protestors and rioters who wanted to tear down the Confederate memorial “Let me handle this” and he did. It was time for it to go. Now it’s time for a lot more things to change.

I still like the idea of Southern pride, but one that all of us – black and white (and any other color) – can share and be a part of. Confederate imagery divides us. Let’s come up with some “New South” imagery that we can all display proudly.

Offline Mode

It’s Week 4 of “social distancing” mandated by COVID-19. During uncertain times (a bit of an understatement for our current situation), it’s easy to worry about the future.

In our connected world, our computers, phones, and many other devices have Internet connections. A lot of them have an “offline mode” to be used when we’re on an airplane or no connection is available. Offline mode isn’t as good as being connected.

A few days ago, during a moment of worry – I said a quick prayer and was struck by how quickly my outlook changed. It occurred to me that my default setting with God was “offline mode”. I connected occasionally (church on Sundays, devotional time, etc.) but was offline most of the time.

1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us to “pray without ceasing”. A modern day paraphrase of that could be – “switch your default setting to connected mode”. Connected mode is better than offline mode.

So What?

A lot of our current education is based on answering either Who, What or How:

  • Who was the seventh President of the United States?
  • What is photosynthesis?
  • How do you factor this polynomial?

I think we would benefit from spending more time on Why, as in “Why do I need to know this?” Or to be more concise – “So What?”

I’m not recommending that students are disrespectful to their teachers. I’m suggesting that the adults need to spend more time asking these kinds of questions about our curriculum.

As I write this, we’re in week three of “social distancing” due to COVID-19. Many schools are about to come back “online” in remote learning mode. It seems pretty obvious to me that – at least at first – this isn’t going to be as efficient as the in-person methods we’ve been using for over 100 years. This is a good time to focus on the material that we think is really important for students to learn.

I suspect we’re going to learn that the curriculum starts from “How many days are in the school year?” as opposed to “What’s important to learn?” I don’t think this is on purpose, but I think inertia has brought us pretty far down this road.

One Size Fits None

As I’m writing this, we’re in Week 2 of the COVID-19 “social distancing” phase. All the schools are closed and trying to transition to online instruction. I feel like this time will help us evaluate separately the different services that schools are providing in society. This crisis has really brought attention to the fact that schools provide, in addition to education, child care services for working parents and meals for students in need. (It’s also the hub of social interaction for most kids and teenagers.) I think these are all needed services, but I feel like our current “delivery mechanism” evolved without much of a plan and this may be an opportunity to evaluate and improve.

This year, I got to volunteer to help teach a Computer Science class at a local high school. There are more than 20 students in the class, and I’d guess that about 4 are interested in being there and learning the material. The remaining students are there because they need a credit and have to be somewhere during that period. These students have needs that aren’t being met by sitting a class that they have no interest in, and – their presence is reducing the effectiveness for the 4 who could benefit from it.

There are a students for whom high school is effectively a minimum security prison term and they are just doing their time until its over. I’d argue that – once you reach about 16, if you’re not getting anything out of school – you’d be better off getting a job. I’d love a world where older teenagers could get some “life experience” but then had the ability to easily re-enter an education system once they are motivated to learn. (Also – I’m guessing we lose a lot of good teachers who thought their job was to teach, but become disillusioned after realizing that their students aren’t interested in learning and they really just need to keep them out of trouble and from being a disruption. )

Remote learning has the potential to provide an unlimited course catalog of subjects to offer, which increases the likelihood that students can learn about something they are actually interested in. It also has potential to help us transition to a culture of lifetime learning, not just until you’re 18.

There are plenty of needs for local schools and personnel, but maybe some teachers move into more of a “mentoring” role, helping older students navigate the process as opposed to providing actual instruction (that may be delivered via YouTube).

I’ll be the first to confess that I don’t know exactly how this would work, but – while we’re all disrupted, this may be a good time to begin the conversation.

Lost

No Stupid Questions

People always say “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”, but most of the time – the people they say that too don’t believe them and decide “I’m not going to ask that because I’ll sound stupid”.

I think that most of the time, when someone “doesn’t understand” – it really means “I’ve come up with a mental model of how this works, and the new information you’re giving me doesn’t fit into that model”. The best way for a teacher to help get you on track is to understand your current mental model. The best way for the teacher to figure this out is for you to ask questions.

It’s like being lost and calling and asking someone for directions (before we had GPS and mapping apps). They can only give you directions if they know where you are coming from. If you tell them “I’m looking at a Dairy Queen right next to a Taco Bell” (and they’re familiar with the area) – they can say “Oh – you turned left instead of right. Here’s what you want to do…”

If you just keep saying “I’m lost” (or worse, not saying anything) – it’s much harder for someone to help get you back on track.

Remote Learning

As I’m writing this, we’re about a week into the “social distancing” phase of the fight against COVID-19. At this point, pretty much every school and college in the country has been shut down and either has or is trying to transition to remote instruction.

Even though this transition (like everything) is chaotic right now, once we get this going – I can’t help but think that we are going to realize that remote instruction is a valuable “arrow in our quiver”. I’m not saying that this will work for every situation, but this is the perfect opportunity to put in place the idea of transitioning in-person lectures to YouTube videos.

Instead of the same information being delivered thousands of times across the country by different teachers with different presentation abilities, let the best lecturers present the material and let local teachers answer questions and help students process and apply the information. Khan Academy is just one example of an online resource that has many great online lessons. (This isn’t an original idea. This is one of the many interesting ideas Seth Godin makes in “Stop Stealing Dreams”. Video here, manifesto here.)

Don’t misunderstand. We still need local teachers and local schools. We just don’t need them to do the same thing they’ve done for years.

You can lead a student to class but you can’t make them learn

Horse water drink
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Borrowing from the old proverb about forcing horses to drink, I think that all too frequently – this is exactly what we’re trying to do in education.

As soon as you think about it like this, I think it’s pretty obvious that force feeding knowledge to uninterested students isn’t a path to success.

I’ll confess, as a parent – I’ve frequently gotten frustrated with some of my son’s teachers. This year, I’ve been volunteering with TEALS to teach Computer Science in a high school and I have gained some empathy with teachers. It’s hard to teach – much less inspire – students who have absolutely no interest in being there.

When kids are younger, I think they will “learn” out of obedience. Some (a minority, I’m guessing) become genuinely interested in subjects and learn because they are curious. I think the rest reach the point of “I’m bored and I don’t care” at different ages. (Personally, I hit this point in college.) Could we transition from our current “drink from this firehouse until you’re 18” model to more of a “work for awhile, then learn for awhile” model?

It’s odd that we spend of so much money, time, and effort on compulsory education until students are 18 (when most of them have no appreciation or interest in what they are being taught), but once you’re an adult and have “been out in the world” and have a better feel for what you’d like and need to learn, it’s a bit of an uphill climb to obtain education at that time.

In general, I’m not an advocate of government spending. In this case, we’re already spending a lot of money and I think it’s worth asking if we could “spend smarter”. I’m also not suggesting this would be easy. Making changes to the idea of “high school” – an institution that’s so embedded into our culture – would be a huge shift and unintended consequences are a very real risk. But – the more I think about it, I can’t help but feel “this is broken”.

Un-college

A couple of years ago, I was attending freshman orientation with one of my sons, who was just starting college. In the parents’ meetings, they described the health center, the counseling center, the health club, the dining halls, etc. It occurred to me that a lot of this infrastructure had nothing to do with academics, but was all about the fact that there were a lot of 18 to 22-year-olds living here.

In our society, people that age are not kids anymore, but they’re not quite adults yet. This is a time of transition and many of the facilities and services provided by colleges are supportive in nature, as opposed to academic.

It occurred to me that there are a lot of people that age who either don’t want or can’t afford to go to college but who would still benefit from this kind of infrastructure.

It gave me an idea of an “un-college”. At this point, it’s still just an idea – but I’m trying to figure out how to bring this to life. My mental image of it looks something like this:

An un-college won’t have:

  • Accreditation
  • Degrees
  • Grades
  • Traditional Classes

An un-college would offer:

  • Training in job skills
    • Hard skills (mostly technology related)
    • Soft skills (how to make yourself “hire-able”
  • Residence Life
  • Social interaction with other people of similar age
  • Mentoring
  • Connection opportunities with potential employers

The cost of college continues to rise. I think it’s inevitable that more people start to re-evaluate the attitude of “you’ve got to go to college to get a good job”. I think technology skills offer an alternate path. In my experience in the technology field, if you can do the more – most people don’t care if you have a degree.

Look for more information about this here going forward. If you’re interesting in discussing ideas, I’d love to hear them.

P.S. I know that careers in the trades are another alternate path. I think that’s a part of this discussion, but I’m a technology guy so I’ll leave that to others, like Mike Rowe and https://gobuildalabama.com/

Dip your foot into Continuous Deployment (CD)

DevOps is a big deal in software development right now. Continuous Deployment (CD) is a big part of this trend. (Not to be confused with Continuous Integration, or CI.) You can find more technical definitions of Continuous Deployment, but it’s really about automating the process of getting new code onto your production servers after it has been built, tested and approved. The goal is make this as automated a process as possible, because when people have to manually copy files and change configuration settings – mistakes happen, no matter how many checklists you have.

If you are a ASP.Net developer (Framework or Core) and you’re using Azure App Services to host your application – your App Service can build your Azure DevOps pipeline for you. What’s a pipeline? Here’s a good introductory video:

Azure DevOps is the re-branded Team Foundation Services and I think it’s really good. (It’s free to setup an account for 5 users, so – if you’re already using Azure, why wouldn’t you try this?)

In the video, he demonstrates setting this up in the DevOps console. If you start from your Azure App Service console and go to the Deployment Center – it will create a starter pipeline and release for you. (Azure DevOps isn’t the only one it works with. I’ve used the integration to GitHub and more are listed.)

It just takes a couple of minutes and you should have a working pipeline. If you’ve been publishing from your development computer’s Visual Studio, you’ll want to delete the publishing profiles to remove the temptation of pushing directly. Now that you have the pipeline, always deploy using that.

Grace

One of our family cars slid on a wet curvy road and took out someone’s brick mailbox. (Everyone is fine. No one was hurt.)

Talking with the affected homeowner, she said that was about the 8th time that someone had had some kind of wreck in her yard. I know she had to be thinking “Are you kidding me? Again?”

But what she did was offer a hug and say “I’m so glad that you are not hurt.”

She’s probably facing a couple of weeks of hassle to fix something that wasn’t her fault, but I was blown away by the grace she offered us. I would love to think that I would be as graceful as she was to us if the roles are reversed, but I’m not at all confident that would be the case.

At a moment when she had every right to yell and complain, she made a bad night a little better than it could have been by being human. It was really humbling and inspiring.

Grace is a really wonderful thing, if you can manage it. I hope to be able to pay it forward.