Saturday, October 10, 2015

Fall Harvest 5K in College Heights, Reading

I don't run 5Ks very often--I like longer distances and trail races, typically, where I don't feel so bad about plodding along at a slowish pace, stopping to pee or eat something, or walking up a steep hill. But this weekend there was a 5K less than a mile from home, so I figured why not jog down the hill and give it a shot. My wife, Yuriko, said she was game, too.

Injury #1: I wanted to jog that .7 miles to the start in order to warm-up (racetime temp was a chilly 47 degrees), but Y wanted to save her energy, so she planned to cruise on over in her Smart Car. On her way to the driver's seat, however, she was stung by a bee. FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HER LIFE!! Sure, it's unlucky to be stung by a bee before a 5K (though not as unlucky as stomping on a yellow jacket nest a few miles into your first 50K), but it's pretty darned lucky to make it [wife's age redacted] years before your first bee sting.

Turnout: No one showed up for this race. I mean, we were there, and a handful of other people, but turnout was super small. I'm bad at estimating crowds, but I'm most? You know what that means: easy award!

Course: The course started at the corner of Hampden Blvd and Rockland St, just barely within Reading city limits, and headed down Rockland, wiggling over to 13th Street. This initial downhill made for a fast start, as we lost 100 feet of elevation in the first 2/3 of a mile. Then it was a steady, gradual incline as we headed south on 13th Street, past Albright College, toward Reading High School. The incline continued as we made a sharp left on Hampden Blvd, heading northeast, back toward the start. The extended incline was about 130 feet over 1.3 miles. Then it was downhill again, as the course turned left onto Bern Street and wrapped around the Albright baseball field, back over to Rockland, and up the hill we ran down to start. I think it was about 200 feet of gain total.

The Competition: Two fairly fast runners showed up--one man, one woman--and they pulled ahead of me pretty much right away. As the race progressed, the man pulled away from the woman, and the woman pulled away from me. She wasn't catching him, and I wasn't catching her. Didn't see what happened behind me, but nobody passed me. Pretty boring, I guess, but I liked it--I had never been in a race where no one passed me. Nor had I ever finished top 3. This wasn't my fastest 5K ever, but it was my 2nd fastest (22:21, official time). Afterwards, the two runners who finished ahead of me were talking about how hilly the course was, which I found hard to believe. For a trail runner, one 70 foot hill and a gradual 130 foot incline is pretty damned flat.

Wife's PR: Yuriko doesn't love running, but she's been trying to get into it for awhile now, mostly because she's super sweet and wants to share in everything that is important to me. So she usually runs/walks these 5Ks, but this was definitely her fastest (35:15), and I think her first in which she averaged under 12 min / mile! All after the first bee sting of her life!

Injury #2: After I finished, I jogged back along the course to find Yuriko and be her "pacer" for the last 1/2 mile or so. Right before the finish line, I turned off the road (since I had already finished), but tripped over the curb and scraped up my leg. (Trail runner will find a way to bleed!) Nothing a little witch hazel can't clean up.

Goodies: Nice burgundy t-shirt. Pretzels and apples. Cash hot-dog-bar ($1 per), which we did not try. Pumpkin carving. Pictures with the Reading Royals mascot.

Critique: A little uncomfortable running on 13th Street and Hampden Blvd without any traffic control. Not many runners.

Award: I won 2nd male overall. Yuriko just missed an age group award.

Up next: Marine Corps Marathon, 10/25/15

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

School = Prison?

You've probably heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, but this week, my students will be reading and blogging about an essay that argues school (at least how it's currently conceived) is itself a kind of prison. Perhaps people who have spent time in actual prisons would object to that hyperbole, as well as fume over the unappreciated opportunities of those who have access to quality schools, however pedagogically flawed those schools may be. But still, I think Peter Gray, author of "School Is a Prison--and Damaging Our Kids", has a point. For most of us, school involves a lot of discipline, a lot of coercion, and not very much freedom. And generally speaking, that's not an ideal environment for learning.

Gray argues that the school environment is not only poorly designed for learning, but that it also causes "serious psychological damage" to many young people. Not only does it arrest their creative development and curiosity, by emphasizing conformity, obedience, and standardization, but it creates endless anxiety about individual performance--a perpetual fear of failure, an aversion for risk-taking, a constant questioning of one's self-worth. The obsession with test scores and grades results in students who feel relentlessly judged.

I am in complete agreement with Gray about the danger of using points and grades as motivators for student learning. By the time students make it to college (and let's not forget that many, many don't), they have internalized the idea that grades are all that matter. Some students are obsessed with doing whatever they can to get an "A", while others are focused on doing only whatever is minimally necessary to pass. But if any activity or assignment isn't linked to a grade, the conclusion for either student is that it's irrelevant.

In this troubling scenario, learning becomes "that annoying stuff" that one needs to do (or fake) in order to get the desired grade. That's a pretty toxic attitude to have about one's education, but I think it's a pretty normal reaction to a system that is so reliant on using grades as rewards and punishments.

What does Gray suggest would be a better way? Let students take control of their own learning. Let them choose what they study. Give them back their freedom. If students are motivated to learn about X because X is interesting to them, we won't need to use grades (or extrinsic motivators) in order to get them to learn.

The objections are pretty standard: some kids need more structured environments; some kids are naturally lazy and wouldn't choose to learn anything; kids' curiosity isn't enough to guide them to the things they need to learn to function in the real world.

Maybe some of those objections are valid. Maybe not. I'm interested to hear what my students have to say.

I do know, from my own experience, that "forcing" someone to learn how to write better generally ends badly. For my students who generally associate writing with tedium, harsh judgment, and arbitrary rules--which is most of my students--I try to remind them of the pleasure that can come from writing when you actually have something to say, something that you care about, and an audience that is willing to listen, and to listen generously. When that happens, it's not about the grade. It's about the power of language. It's about being heard. It's about connecting with people. And that's so much more.