Nature: Still Weirder Than Pokémon

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What is this?

Yesterday I went walking around our local university campus for a smidgeon of Pokémon Go (I’m an adult, and I get to decide what that means). I bumped into a woman I had bumped into on campus previously, who was also playing Pokémon Go. This woman, in her forties, told me that she had lost a whole lot of weight in the past few months but started to flag and gain it back the past couple of weeks. At the urging of her adult children, she downloaded Pokémon Go and started using it to get herself to walk more out of the house.

Well, this time she had a buddy with her — one of my former students! Now a fifth grader, he started going for walks with his neighbor, her for the exercise, him to play Pokémon Go. I dig that system! I joined them for a bit, my former student and I telling each other our favorite pocket monsters.

We started noticing weird bundles of leaves dangling down from some trees — one, two, three. One dangled down far enough that we were able to get a really good look at it. It was some sort of caterpillar with its head poking out of a cocoon. (Not a chrysalis, I assured my spouse later — it was definitely a structure separate from the caterpillar and not its hardened body.) Not only did it have a cocoon, but it also used leaves from the tree to graft onto its cocoon. How peculiar! My former student wanted to believe it was a monarch, but I suspected otherwise.

I tried taking pictures, but the wind blew it around and I couldn’t get it to focus. I ended up taking video, which was also mostly out of focus, but I was able to screenshot one very clear half of a second.

Then, when I got home, I tried using search engines to figure out what it was. Alas, “caterpillar cocoon dangle tree leaves” is not a specific enough to get the results I wanted. I tried a bunch of other keywords, but the fact is, I do not know enough about creepy crawlies to have a useful and effective vocabulary for online searches. The Internet would not be enough!

So today we went to the local nature center, which is affiliated with the same local university, to hopefully ask someone who knew more than I did. I leafed through some of their materials before I took out my phone and showed the screenshot to someone in the know. Lo and behold, they recognized it — a female bagworm. This one would have been tricky to figure out online even if I had better search terms. Bagworms make their bags covered in the leaves of the tree they live in — in this case, sycamore — so when you look up images of them, they all might look very different from each other and it’s hard to tell whether it’s really the same thing. Additionally, the person I showed the picture to could tell it was a female bagworm because female bagworms never turn into moths, only males do! The females create and then live in their bags, eventually laying their eggs inside them before they die.

However weird those Pokémon get, never forget — nature is weirder.

“Ghettoside” and Charles Kinsey: A White Teacher’s Developing Reflections on Race

Let me start by saying that no one needs my hot take on anything in current events. Not individually, anyway. On the other hand, need to add my voice to the conversation. Not because the conversation needs me, but because the conversation needs many.

Secondly, it’s a conversation I find difficult to enter. I am a white woman who is not directly, personally affected by racism. But it does affect me, like dominoes. My students and their families are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My friends are affected by racism, and so it affects me. My family members are affected by racism, and so it affects me. I struggled with finding a point of entry into the conversation without speaking over someone else, without co-opting someone else’s narrative, without making it about me. So up til now, I’ve mostly been sharing links and retweeting.

But now, two things: I have been reading Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. I am not yet done with this book, but I do have a lot of reflections on it so far. I was waiting to write anything about it until after I finished it. Then, this morning, I checked Twitter to read that yet another unarmed black man has been shot by police. Charles Kinsey was not killed, but he was injured while assisting a client of his, an adult man with autism. He identified himself by his role and complied with all directions. As I commented to a friend on Facebook:

I watched this and wondered, if I were in the exact same position, what would have happened? I would have behaved the same way — complied while explaining. I would have spoken in the same volume and tone. I would have said the same words. Would I get the same wounds? No. What exactly is the difference between me and Charles Kinsey? I’m a white woman. He is a black man. And that difference puts a reticle on him where there isn’t one on me.

Charles Kinsey is just another black, male victim of a police shooting, and for me, the most relatable yet. And that’s a problem. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Again, I haven’t finished Ghettoside, but it’s already given me a lot to think about. The author’s intention is to focus on the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of “blue before black” L.A. homicide detective Wally Tennelle. But the entire first portion of the book attempts to give context. The author has, so far, discussed:

  • statistics and history on black-on-black crime, locally to Los Angeles, calling it a “plague of murders.”
  • the personalities and histories of individual detectives who work in the predominately black neighborhood where Tennelle was killed.
  • the overall culture of the police (and how the individual detectives may differ in their philosophies).
  • aspects of the culture of the community of the neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, and the things that shape it like stereotypes, and lack of media coverage for major crimes.
  • numerous stories of families affected by homicide investigations.

The author focuses on Los Angeles, but there were several ideas and facts that came up that made me feel like this was also relevant to other communities. To my community.

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The poster on the left was made in response to the death of Eric Garner, but could apply to any number of homicide victims mentioned in Ghettoside.

Okay, so, there’s a lot to sort through here. The first part of the book discusses “black on black” violence, admitting that it is statistically higher than with other demographics. But then it dives deep into the tangle of reasons that may be.

First, I want to express my emotional response to this book so far, as a teacher. The author works hard to delineate between “the police” and “a police officer” and so on. What I mean is, the institution and the individuals who make up the institution are different entities. When the detectives go out into the neighborhoods, they represent the institution rather than themselves as individuals. So when residents accuse them of racism by saying things like, “You don’t care because he’s a black man!” they don’t take it personally. They realize the person is referring to them as police and not individuals. Privately, they may even agree with this perspective.

As a teacher, I felt very affected by this. I am also a public servant who represents a larger institution. And there are definitely instances where my personal philosophy diverges from the one embodied by the institution I represent. I have been accused of racism before, and in the contexts where it has happened, it’s not necessarily wrong. I may, through my job, be asked to enforce an inherently unfair policy, one that was never intended to be racist, but in following it through, it is. One example on a large scale I can think of is standardized testing.

As a teacher, I also related to the description of the allocation of resources, and the workarounds the detectives use. The leader of the department asks for, and is repeatedly denied, things that would make the detectives’ lives easier and help ensure the safety of members of the community they serve. “His requests seemed pretty reasonable for a department that ran its own helicopter fleet,” the author writes on page 68, “Again and again he was turned down.” Resources are not distributed according to need.

I also related to the part where the author discusses some prevalent attitudes in policing policy on page 58 of the hardcover edition:

Cops were told they were supposed to “be proactive,” focus on “suppression,” or practice “crime control.” Showered in such nonsensical orders and jargon, they couldn’t really be blamed for struggling to find purpose in their work… It could feel quite pointless. It didn’t help that even as they were supposedly held to high standards and expected to display the skill and initiative of trained professionals, many so-called innovative policing strategies tended to reduce them to cogs.

I defy any public school teacher to read that and not see yourself and your colleagues in it.

These details did not constitute the bulk of the first part of the book, merely part of it. There are narratives of specific homicides and their investigations. The author discusses some major barriers to homicide investigations in neighborhoods where “the shadow system” of law is more pervasive than the formal system. Witness intimidation. Distrust of police. The author discusses how programs and policies meant to address these issues, well-intended as they may be, fall short.

On reflection, it feels very easy to blame black people for their own circumstances. “When your business dealings are illegal, you have no legal recourse,” the author writes on page 79. “Violence substituted for contract litigation.” But on the very next page the author describes how gangs, “pointlessly self-destructive” as they may be, form. Banding together for mutual protection is a normal human response to the vacuum of legitimate legal authority. “Fundamentally gangs are a consequence of lawlessness, not a cause.”

But Ms. D! you say. There are police in these neighborhoods! People just don’t respect them! Ah, well. The police department, as an authority, undermines itself when it hyper-focuses on small infractions and fails to follow through on the appropriate response to serious, community-destroying crimes such as homicide. “Street hustlers would make it clear that they would rather have formal justice if given the choice: they’d call 911,” the author states on page 83. “Skaggs learned to think of his job as persuasion: selling formal law to people who distrusted it and were answering to another authority — shadow law.”

And the author discusses the struggle between what you experience in your job and what you want to believe in your heart. From page 65:

No one in the wider world wanted to talk about it, but black residents, to many officers, seemed more violent than Hispanics. Their own eyes told them so. Statistics backed them up. Few officers wanted to believe that black people were somehow intrinsically wired for violence.

Many cops fell back on a rhetoric of “choice,” that some individuals choose violence. That way they didn’t have to make uncomfortable generalizations of black people as a group. But if people choose violence, then they also can be blamed for violence. “And since blame also served as a satisfying distancing mechanism, officers ended by blaming not just suspects but victims.” And when many cops carry that attitude, it becomes easy to distrust all cops, because you can’t tell just by looking at someone what they think of you and how they’re likely to behave. As reported by Psychology Today:

The tendency to classify our experience into categories is a fundamental and universal aspect of human cognition. We create concepts in order to make sense of the endless complexity we encounter in our environment. This is a necessary part of human thought, allowing us to process information efficiently and quickly… In social categorization, we place people into categories. People also reflexively distinguish members of in-groups (groups of which the subject is a member) from members of out-groups. Furthermore, people tend to evaluate out-groups more negatively than in-groups. In this way, social categories easily lend themselves to stereotypes in general and to negative stereotypes in particular.

And that’s also why it’s problematic that I see Charles Kinsey as a “more relatable” victim. The author writes on page 33 how a particular detective learned to view all homicide victims.

“She ain’t a whore no more,” he said. “She’s some daddy’s baby.” Wally Tennelle loved that philosophy. Whatever the wider world’s response, the homicide detective’s call was to treat each victim, no matter how deep their criminal involvement, as the purest angel. The murdered were inviolate. They all deserved the same justice.

Many words are devoted to describing attitudes towards the black residents of Watts; conveying that “gang member” is the new “n” word when diminishing the value of a black male’s life, for instance. How some police officers felt that “the whole culture of the black community is crime;” “they love selling drugs;” they “could better their lives, but they don’t.” “I like to think it is a choice,” says one gang detective on page 65. “Even in this environment, you have a choice!” A different detective, one set up by the author as a protagonist, has a different perspective described on page 88:

Skaggs had concluded that many residents connected to Watts murder cases were ordinary people, trapped by conditions of lawlessness. Coercion and intimidation lay behind much of their apparent “acceptance” of violence, he thought… Skaggs also saw that many victims had no role in provoking the attacks that killed them. His colleagues insisted that Watts had no real victims.

It’s important to point out that the focus of Ghettoside is not police brutality or the misconduct of police officers. It’s focus is the fact that there is a “plague of murders” affecting a community that the media largely turns a blind eye to. Jill Leovy, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, wrote the book with the knowledge that her employer was only covering about ten percent of all homicides in the city. But it does shed light on attitudes and on policy, both in policing and in society at large, that could stand to be scrutinized and reformed. #BlackLivesMatter not only in terms of police interactions, but in terms of media coverage and our prevailing attitude towards black on black crime.

My thoughts: when we call on the black community to address these problems, we overlook and diminish the ways in which they already are addressing these problems. And we, as white people wearing the blinders of privilege, make it harder for the black community to make positive differences. Our attitudes change at our convenience, not upon real conversion. We derail discussions when we respond by saying, “All Lives Matter!” And while we may follow through as far as arguing that point on social media, we fall short of demonstrating that all lives matter to us when we fail to challenge policies that maintain inequalities and preserve discrimination. If all lives truly matter, than we need to act like we matter to each other.

So, white community, what if we use our white privilege for good? Acknowledge the goodness within individual police officers while addressing problems with policing, such as resource allocation and training — problems that also plague public education. Ask our government to study gun violence as a public health concern. Acknowledge that these issues are complicated and part of larger issues of prejudice that can’t be solved with hashtags alone. Listen to the points made by those most directly affected. Educate ourselves before joining the conversation. Understand that examining our own prejudices may be individually painful in the short term, but will be beneficial to our communities in the long run; it’s worth doing. When I choose to help dismantle institutional discrimination that benefits me directly, I’m actually being selfish, because I know I will reap benefits later on when my students and their families begin to experience the positive effects in their lives.

Update 7/23/16: According to NPR, the officer who shot Kinsey had actually meant to shoot Kinsey’s client.

The Power of Patty Compelled Me

At a recent family event, several of my sisters were discussing how much they enjoy raunchy sitcom Broad City. “I don’t like it,” my eighteen-year-old brother said, “but I understand it wasn’t made for me.”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“I’m not the target audience,” he explained. “So it doesn’t really matter whether I like it or not. I’m a young, white male. A lot of things out there are made with me in mind. Broad City doesn’t have to be made for me, too. Clearly, it was made for my sisters.”

Which brings me to my thoughts on the latest Ghostbusters movie.

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I understand that many people have emotional attachments to the Ghostbusters franchise of the eighties. I recognize that those feelings may complicate one’s experience with a new Ghostbusters movie. I acknowledge that the new Ghostbusters movie has some flaws.

But. But. But. The way I feel about this movie is the opposite of how my brother feels about Broad City. I feel like this movie was made specifically for me, and I love it for that.

I have felt this way about Paul Feig movies before. Bridesmaids made me laugh and resonated with me on an emotional level. Spy made me feel like, well, I had been spied on, because not only did it include fantastic British comedienne Miranda Hart (of Miranda and Call the Midwife), it also included one of the most over-the-top acts of recent Eurovision Song Contest history. Literally every other American I know who has any knowledge of the Eurovision Song Contest has it because I told them.

For this movie, Paul Feig must have asked himself, “What specifically will make that one crazy Midwestern schoolteacher nerd like my next movie even more? Oh, I know – I’ll include her favorite SNL cast members, and especially let Kate McKinnon be super weird and really awesome!”

And that did it for me.

I loved it. Sorry if you don’t. But, clearly, it was made for me.

Pokémon Kept GOing

The biggest thing in my planner today was how I needed to take my car into the shop so the mechanic could give it a check-up. What a perfect opportunity to keep playing Pokémon GO like the ridiculous human being that I am!

I have leveled up in my gameplay, and experienced broader play elements now.

Firstly, my spouse and I took over a gym, extremely briefly. It took several fights to do so. To take over a gym, you have to lower the gym’s “prestige” first. It’s like you’re chipping away at the hold another team has over the gym. Failure is a common and arguably even necessary part of this progress. It is definitely easier to take over a gym when you work together, and possibly easier to hold onto it, too. This part of the game is better with a buddy!

Secondly, the game really encourages walking. No wonder that’s the most-talked about aspect of the game on social media! You can get closer to many spots and gyms by walking than you can with a vehicle. Also, driving in a vehicle, even at 35mph, takes you past most spots too quickly for you to have an interaction with them. Also, you hatch your Pokémon eggs by walking. Even a little bit at a time helps. It occurred to me that I didn’t mind parking a little farther away from a destination if I had my game going. That’s a tenth of a kilometer closer to hatching a Jigglypuff, dudes! My deepest hope is that this will inspire more people to return their carts/buggies to proper locations at the grocery store, which is one of my biggest pet peeves.

Thirdly, I wonder whether this game might help us teach our children how to talk to strangers. “Stranger danger” and “don’t talk to strangers” is a deep-seated but misguided attempt at keeping children safe. I wonder whether Pokémon GO can help us teach children when and where and how to interact with people they don’t know. When I see kids playing the game, I usually see a parent with them or very close by. This could be an excellent opportunity for modeling a lot of positive, safe behavior. It could be as simple as asking another player what team they picked to start a conversation. Of course, you want to look out for “tricky people” playing the game, just as you would in any context. Real life rules still apply.

Related to that, parents also have the opportunity to model how to cross streets safely, how to look out for traffic, and so on. City kids might know that stuff intrinsically by now, but not everyone does.

There does seem to be an imbalance between areas of high interaction (having Pokéstops and gyms) and areas of low interaction. At least in my city, the historically less privileged part of town is severely lacking in interactive spots. The park there doesn’t even have a Pokéstop, much less a gym! The local university is lit, though. My understanding is that the map was largely ported from a previous AR release. So the dearth of spots in one neighborhood vs. the glut of spots in another probably speaks to the demographics of who played that other game. Also, many landmarks are outdated. On the left is how one Pokéstop appears in the game. On the right is how it actually looks as of now. Where did that sculpture go?

Like Minecraft, the game itself doesn’t give you all the best details on how to play it. This forces players to either learn by trial and error, or seek out resources. Those resources might be other people or online searches. These days, there are a lot of Minecraft books in the library kids can use too. I wonder whether Pokémon GO might head in this direction, inspiring kids to pick up books and read more about something that interests them.

For what it’s worth, I have always enjoyed video games, from a very young age. Pokemon was a big thing when I was in middle school and high school. (It wasn’t cool to like Pokemon in high school, but that didn’t make me like it any less at the time.)

Pokémon GO? Oh, I Pokémon WENT

Last week a free-to-play augmented reality mobile game called Pokémon GO became available. I didn’t hop on the bandwagon right away, but I wanted to try it sooner rather than later. I have a reputation as a video-game-liking teacher that I need to uphold come the fall. If Pokémon GO was going to be the big deal my Facebook feed led me to believe, I figured I better at least be familiar with it.


I like to learn about the things kids like — shows, games, hobbies, etc. — because it makes kids feel like their interests have value. Also, sometimes something really popular gives you another avenue of language to explain something. For instance, I can’t begin to list all the math concepts that I have explained using Minecraft examples. So as I played Pokémon GO this morning, I wondered how it might lend itself to classroom discussion, lessons, or activities.

Firstly, I think Michelle Obama might secretly be behind this game, or at least supporting it, because I walked four miles this morning… which is about four miles more than I did yesterday. If you stay in one place, you are not going to get the full experience of this game. You have to keep moving to find more variety of Pokémon, and to interact with locations designated as Pokéstops and Gyms. I also spent almost all that time outside, so I’m glad I slathered on the sunscreen first!

Secondly, the game’s interface is a simplified version of Google Maps. It is not super detailed, and your avatar is disproportionately large on it. As you roam the neighborhood, you can randomly encounter (and capture) Pokémon. Twice I came upon Pokémon that appeared on the interface to be across the street from me. Luckily, I did not need to cross the street to capture them. This was on two separate, busy streets in my city, and I’m an adult who knows better than to step into the street. You may want to review basic safety and alertness with your child before trying this game, even with supervision. The potential to get an injury exists. But, I think it is the responsibility of the gamer to stay aware of their surroundings — just as you must remain aware of your surroundings if you walk and read a book, or listen to music, or chat on the phone. I realized as I played that, while I walked, I could simply hold my phone and feel it vibrate to tell me there was a Pokémon nearby, rather than looking at my phone while I walked, which made me feel safer. I also made a point of not using headphones so that I could always hear cars.

Probably the best place to hunt for Pokémon this morning was a local university campus that is close to my apartment. School is out of session so it was nearly abandoned except for half a dozen other people who I suspected were also playing Pokémon GO. Additionally, there were lots of memorials and statues and such that are designated Pokéstops by the game. Pokéstops are places you can pick up free items like Pokéballs (needed to capture Pokémon), potions (needed to heal Pokémon), and revives (needed to revive Pokémon who have fainted). Finally, because of the nature of this particular campus, there were not a lot of cars driving through, and any that did drove really slow. I imagine that would be a good place to let your kids run around pretty safely. I will be checking out a park later today too; I suspect it will be a good spot as well.

So far, the most talked-about aspects of this game (at least on my Facebook feed) are that it gets people outside, and it gets people moving. But I think there are additional aspects that are good, too. For example, a player can make choices about transferring Pokémon, or powering them up. If you have limited resources, you are forced to make choices. Sure, players may end up making choices they regret, or agonizing over their choices. But ultimately a game is a low-stakes environment for choice-making. And kids don’t learn to make good decisions unless they have the opportunity to make some bad ones. Of course, the game does support in-app purchases, so make sure your child steers clear of that unless you’re willing to shell out for Pokécoins.

Another aspect of the game is that it gets players to engage in their communities in ways they maybe hadn’t before. For example, I have walked through the local university campus many times. But only this morning did I realize they had a statue of Abraham Lincoln near their information center. Funny enough, there was a Nidoking also admiring it. Park pavilions and churches come up as gyms. Luckily, you don’t have to enter a location to interact with it, otherwise the folks my local fire station might get very confused!

I did try playing it in a variety of locations — meaning my aunt’s neighborhood, and my mother’s rural house — and I did not have as much success as I did closer to home. I don’t know if that’s because location or because servers may have been down. (Actually accessing the game the past few days has been hit and miss for me due to server issues.) But my understanding is that, the higher the foot traffic in a given area, the more opportunity for interaction.

There are aspects of the game I can’t speak to, because I don’t have much experience in them yet, such as battling with Pokémon at gyms. But, I imagine that kids who want to know more will be able to find out more information with a few well-chosen search engine keywords, plus carefully evaluating sources and articles to determine how far they can be relied on. Besides, I look forward to learning more! Just waiting for my phone to charge before I coat myself in another layer of sunscreen and run off to my local park. I noticed the gym there changed hands from Team Red to Team Blue and I’m curious to know more.

Snap ‘Em Outta That Funk

On Not Always Right, a submitter tells the story of how they turned a cranky regular into a smooth customer. The submitter, who works at a sandwich shop, admits from the start that she “pretty much hates” the customer, who frequently snaps and groans. But one day when she sees him coming, “instead of bracing for the worst, I physically relax myself and put on a big, tired smile.”

“I’m glad you’re the next customer… you’re pretty low key when someone messes up because you totally get that it’s not on purpose… I’m just glad I’ve got a pleasant friendly face to deal with right now. You’re one of my easy customers, and I appreciate it.

The submitter admits she is lying, but her words have the desired effect anyway. “Every other time after that he came in, he WAS, FOR REAL, the most low-key, pleasant customer I had.”

She changed the customer’s attitude towards her by telling him that he was low-key, friendly, and pleasant. The customer then saw himself as low-key, friendly, and pleasant, and changed his behavior to match his new perception of himself. It’s a case of the Benjamin Franklin Effect in action.

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The title of the story on Not Always Right is, “It’s a Retail Thing,” but I would argue that it’s an education thing, too. I can’t be the only teacher ever to turn a disruptive student into an trusted one by giving them extra responsibilities around the classroom. Or to help a struggling student keep going by telling them how impressed I am with their persistence.

How have you used the Benjamin Franklin Effect to help you out in your classroom management?

Teaching & Learning in Lunarbaboon

Lunarbaboon is an ongoing webcomic that explores parenthood, particularly fatherhood.

I was catching up on it the other day and came upon one titled “Learning.”

Firstly I want to comment on how the dad in the comic teaches. When the child asks a question, the dad doesn’t state the answer. In fact, he never indicates that he knows the answer. He responds with “Let’s find out!” or “Count!” indicating that the child should seize the opportunity to learn for his or herself instead of rely on someone to tell them. The dad is also willing to model finding out. As a new teacher, this was one of my struggles initially. I wanted to demonstrate my expertise and display my own knowledge at every turn; I mistakenly believed that would establish my authority in the classroom. Besides that, I equated knowledge with learning. Silly me, knowledge is only evidence of learning — and only one possible piece of evidence, at that! The father’s method is far superior. It encourages learning as a skill in addition to learning in the pursuit of knowledge. It also builds the relationship between father and child.

Secondly, that punchline! “But I want to keep learning…” I get you, kid. I get you. As a teacher, one of the most frustrating things is that teachers don’t have a lot of choice about what we teach, and students don’t have a lot of choice about what they learn. I understand that there is information and skills that we all need to know in general; I don’t disagree with that. But in school, we don’t learn for its own sake, the way the child wants to. We learn to earn a grade, to earn a score, to pass a test. To see how we measure up against others and with our past selves.

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As much as I enjoy my career, I also feel very frustrated by it. I feel much of what I do as a teacher is not teaching. I train, instruct, manage, serve, assess, discipline, counsel, proctor, advise, plan, and also learn myself, among so many other things. I don’t believe all of those things to be equally important. But the very structure of school, where learning is the supposedly the highest priority, sometimes quashes it instead — or at the very least postpones it while I have to step into a different role. Yet current educational reforms don’t propose actually transforming schools. They move traditional educational models to the web and dust their hands off. Or they move students from one school to another and say, “This will be enough, probably!” Or they make more and longer checklists of things that students and teachers should accomplish, along with making us responsible for keeping records.

I might not have complete control over the setting where I work, but I can work towards bettering my community; building relationships, and making decisions such as voting to hopefully enact positive changes that will ultimately make my job (and my students’ jobs) easier. And I can control my attitude.

But that may not be enough. Parents, educators, and members of the community — support your schools. Learn about the issues that affect them and the challenges they face. And act on what you learn. As Lunarbaboon shows us, knowledge without action can be unhelpful!