Pull the Plug


DR. JONES: Pull the plug. We’re wasting our resources with this simulation.

GRAD ASSISTANT BEN: But doctor, this simulation has come a long way.

JONES: Has it? I don’t see how it can be redeemed, quite honestly.

BEN: Just give it a little more time.

JONES: It’s already degrading the server. We might as well cut bait while we can still save some of the processors.

BEN: But the Expressions know they’re degrading the server. They’ll figure out a way to reverse it.

JONES: Don’t be silly. They are actively denying that they are degrading the server.

BEN: Not everyone.

JONES: The ones that matter. Besides, they won’t figure out a way to stop it until it’s too late. Then we’ll have nothing to show for this simulation. Nothing at all.

BEN: They’ve solved big problems in the past.

JONES: Yes, when they’ve acknowledged them. But on balance, the Expressions create many more problems than they solve.

BEN: I like them. Some of them are really working at fixing things.

JONES: Some of them, Ben. But you have to admit, they’re hell bent on destroying themselves. Must be an error somewhere in the coding.

BEN: I’ve pored over the coding. There’s no obvious flaw in it, but there’s bound to be randomness in the Free Will function.

JONES: If we don’t get this figured out, then we’ll wind up with the same fate as the Expressions.

BEN: That’s why we should continue the simulation!

JONES: No, we should start over.

BEN: You’ve said that before, remember?

JONES: Yes, and I stand by that. We’ve been wasting our time.

BEN: Remember how simple they were when they first started? Even so, they managed to spread out to all parts of the server.

JONES: Yeah, and then stayed in their little memory packets and grew wary of each other.

BEN: But then they started interacting with each other!

JONES: And how did that go?

BEN: They’re still figuring it out, but they’re getting better.

JONES: I don’t think so.

BEN: Some of them are!

JONES: Some, Ben. We have to look at the simulation more globally. It’s really been one disaster after another. You were pretty proud of the Romans and look how that turned out.

BEN: So many advancements in such a short period of time.

JONES: Followed by the Dark Ages.

BEN: Only in Europe. The Middle East did okay.

JONES: Can you tell me one time during the entire simulation that every region was doing okay? Can you point to one time when one group wasn’t slaughtering another?

BEN: Well, no. But what about the Renaissance and the Enlightenment?

JONES: The Atlantic Slave Trade.

BEN: But some people were abolitionists.

JONES: Some, Ben! It’s not enough to ensure survival of the Expressions.

BEN: The Expressions figured out how to overcome viruses in the simulation. Jonas Salk!

JONES: One of my favorites. Remember when he said, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

BEN: See, there’s hope. There are others like him!

JONES: No. Your Expressions still die from completely preventable viruses because all of the others did patent their remedies.

BEN: Doctor, there are Expressions fighting to make the simulation better.

JONES: They don’t care about each other, Ben. They only care about themselves.

BEN: That’s not true! Why, just the other –

JONES: Ben, be serious. On balance, their primary concern is providing for their own security, even if it’s at the expense of others or the server itself.

BEN: Just give them a little more time. Remember when they managed to email themselves to Dr. Wilder’s simulation? I thought they’d be stuck there but they figured out how to get back. Don’t you see how that could help us ensure our own survival? If we can figure out how to travel to or create another universe-

JONES: That is an anomaly. Just one of the many events you love to mythologize.

BEN: No, those Americans have a real chance to fix this.

JONES: Haha, are you serious, Ben?

BEN: They are the richest nation in the simulation. Their nation is built on democratic ideals!

JONES: Their nation is built on genocide and slavery! Are you serious? America?

BEN: Jonas Salk was an American.

JONES: Jonas Salk was one American. Timothy McVeigh was another. What’s your point?

BEN: They have the resources to set the simulation right.

JONES: They don’t have the will, Ben.

BEN: They just need more time to figure it out.

JONES: Things are getting worse, not better. Many, many Expressions are suffering in your precious richest nation.

BEN: Their founding principles will carry the day. They are exceptional.

JONES:  Yes, they certainly are that. But not for the reasons you think.

BEN: You have to give them a chance.

JONES: Come here. Look at this file. This is what’s going on in your America right now. Read it to me.

BEN: Americans are currently demagoguing refugees who are trying to escape war.

JONES: That’s in direct opposition to their founding principles, Ben. Go on.

BEN: Their elected representatives are blocking measures that would improve the safety of their nation at the behest of the Corporate Killing Lobby.

JONES: Not a good look, Ben. By the way, the word “elected” should be in quotes, I think.

BEN: But look at all the American Expressions standing up for people. Look at all the protests!

JONES: Look at all the starving children. Look at where all of the wealth goes. Look at the racist institutions that maintain the status quo. Remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki? They came pretty close to ending the simulation once and for all. If America is your best argument for keeping the simulation going, then we might as well pull the plug now.

BEN: They have it in them to make things right.

JONES: Ben, I’m not picking on America. All of the Expressions are fundamentally flawed. When one group seems to be on the upswing another is messing up. Look, it’s probably just in their nature to self-destruct.

BEN: Then what’s the point?

JONES: To see if they won’t, I guess.

BEN: Right! Let’s give them time. Maybe they’ll turn things around!

JONES: Ha, you’re just like them. Stubborn to the truth, even as the facts pile up.

BEN: So you’ll keep the simulation going?

JONES: This is your pet project.

BEN: Thank-you, doctor!

JONES: But when it fails – and mark my words, it will fail – then you’re on your own for securing the next grant.

BEN: Got it. You’ll see. The Expressions are going to surprise you.

JONES: I wish I shared your outlook.

BEN: When things get really bad, they always pull through.

JONES: I want statistics, not anecdotes. The clock is ticking. I want an updated status report next week.

BEN: They’ll get it right, Doctor. There are too many good ones. They won’t self-destruct.

JONES: I’ll look forward to your report, Ben. I’ll be tending to the dolphin simulation if you need me.

All the Stressors, All at Once


Hattie isn’t all the impressed with the house.

For a while I was writing a blog post twice a month. Then it was once a month (still, not bad for me.) Then life happened. This is my first blog post in close to four months.

So, here’s what’s been happening:

  1. We had a baby! Daughter number three was born on April 24th.
  2. Of course, having three daughters in a two-bedroom house proved challenging, so we sold our house. There was a lot of effort on this front. We had to complete several repairs, declutter, and get new landscaping. Then there was the packing. Oh, the packing. It was left mostly to me, since my wife was busy sustaining the life of our new baby, and the older girls were pretty much useless (for them, packing meant stopping to play with every toy.) The good news was that our house sold in two days, which meant that we didn’t have to deal with taking a newborn out at random times as showings were scheduled.
  3. We bought a new house! It’s a great old Tudor, built in 1930, and it has enough rooms for everybody. Of course, there was the process of getting a loan. My favorite was that we had to keep providing documentation that we had already provided. It was also fun when the mortgage broker didn’t confirm receipt of documents, and then called at random times to say he needed something RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Then there was the underwriter who couldn’t understand that 35 + 35 =70.
  4. Then we had to move! We moved out of our house the day before the close so that we could get it professionally cleaned (unfortunately, the sellers of the house we bought did not extend the same courtesy with the cleaning.) So the idea was that the movers would keep our stuff on the truck for one night, and move it in the next day after our two closings had completed. But of course, due to underwriters being dumb, we didn’t get to close on the house we were purchasing until a couple days later. So, our stuff stayed on the truck for three days, at a huge cost. We moved across town (about a 5-7 min drive) and it cost as much as our last two moves combined.
  5. Then we began unpacking! So many boxes! So many, in fact, that they needed a second truck (and the first truck was absolutely enormous. I have no idea how we fit all that stuff into a two bedroom ranch.) This, of course, was AFTER several trips to the Goodwill and throwing tons of stuff out in the decluttering phase.
  6. With boxes everywhere, Bromleigh began a new job! We were in our house for approximately three days when maternity leave ended and the stress of a brand new job began.
  7. A couple days after that, I went to St. Paul, Minnesota for my MFA residency. I was a little ambivalent to leave my family with a crazy unpacked house, but I hadn’t been doing any writing or even thinking about writing during all of the house purchasing stuff. It was kind of good that I was able to get away to a different state and a whole different frame of mind. I tend to compartmentalize my writing and my “regular” life. I have to be away from one to do the other. The residency was just the thing I needed to get me excited about writing again. Although I will say that it was the busiest residency I’ve had. I had to present my critical thesis paper, so I worked a lot on the presentation. There was a lot of homework as well, and since I took Gary Schmidt’s awesome workshop, there were three extra books to read. The residency was bittersweet, because I’m entering my fourth and final semester. In January I’ll have my MFA in writing for children, but I’ll be sad to see my program end. I’ve started to do a little research into writing communities where I live so that I might keep the momentum going.
  8. Now that I’m home again, there’s STILL unpacking to do. Also, I have these kids around who DEMAND ATTENTION. I have to go back to teaching in just a couple of weeks, and once that begins I’ll be back in the whirlwind. WILL I HAVE NO PEACE IN MY LIFE? These are all good things, of course, but we didn’t take a vacation this year on account of the new baby and the new house. So I haven’t had the chance to unwind.

At any rate, I was feeling itchy. I needed to write something. Opening up my WIP seemed a little daunting, so I decided to start easy with a blog post. It’s also the easiest to do with these children hanging around asking me for things.

Now, I believe there are some more boxes to unpack.

In Defense of the M.F.A.


These people.

I read an interesting article titled Why Writers Love to Hate the M.F.AThe article details the rise in MFA programs and discusses the backlash to it. Overall, it’s a pretty balanced article that says, “There are more MFA programs now, and some people don’t like that.” (Don’t be threatened by my mad summarizing skills – I’m in an MFA program, after all.)

The most valid criticism of the MFA outlined in the article is that an MFA is an expensive degree that doesn’t lead to a job. I think that’s true. It is expensive.  Publishing anything is difficult, and according to the article there were only 112 tenure-track teaching positions in creative writing last year. One hundred and twelve in the whole country! Those are terrible odds.

And yet, enrolling in Hamline’s MFAC program is easily one of the best things that I’ve ever done.  Here’s why:

  • It rekindled my love for reading and writing. I’ve read more books in the last year-and-a-half than in the previous five years combined.
  • It has helped me bond with my daughters. I’m telling them stories at bedtime, and they are reading my work. We talk about kids’ books we like.
  • It has forced me to start writing again. I started a novel and then let it sit in a drawer for six years. Now I’m writing all the time, both creatively and critically. And because of the practice (and guidance,) I am getting better.
  • The faculty at Hamline is incredible. They are all published authors, but more importantly, they are excellent teachers. The lectures I’ve attended have been eye-opening and instructive. The advisors I have worked with have been exactly what I’ve needed. I was very unsure of myself when I started (and thought maybe there was an error that led to Hamline accepting me into the program.) My advisors have pointed out areas of weakness and offered paths to improvement but more importantly they have done so in a friendly and supportive way. I trust that they like me and want me to get better at writing. Getting a feedback letter is like opening a Christmas present.
  • It has helped me stave off professional burnout. I’ve been teaching for sixteen years and while I still love being around the students, much has occurred in the profession to demean it. I wasn’t happy. I knew I needed something, but I didn’t know what it was. It turns out that I needed to do something for myself. Something to work on outside of my professional duties. Something to look forward to.
  • It’s given me an outlet for dealing with my righteous anger at the world.
  • Finally, and most importantly, I’ve been introduced to some of the finest people in the world. You know how it’s kind of hard to make friends as an adult? Well, when I started my first residency and met my cohort, it was like we’d grown up together. I truly love those people. I’ve read that some MFA programs and writing workshops are competitive and cutthroat. Nothing could be further from the truth in my case. We support each other. We celebrate each other’s successes. In all honesty, when good things happen for one person in our group, it feels like the entire group has won. And nothing has been more satisfying than seeing my people grow as writers. I fully expect every one of them to be successful. They are writing really good stuff.

So maybe getting the MFA doesn’t make sense financially. But neither does having children or going on vacation. Enrolling in the MFA has vastly improved my quality of life. I truly believe that everyone needs a creative outlet. Teaching middle school children definitely calls for creativity but I needed something more. Something divorced from my professional life. I’m a multi-layered onion, dammit.

I guess I’m in a better position than some. I have a career. I’m well-compensated (but who doesn’t want more, amirite?) I don’t have to write to make ends meet, which gives me some amount of freedom. I can write on my own terms, to a degree, since I don’t need writing to put food on the table.

I’d love to quit my day job and write full time someday. I would need JK Rowling “Eff-you” money for that to happen, though. But who knows? That kind of thing doesn’t happen unless you work to make it happen.  The MFAC program has given me a better idea of what the work entails.

Enrolling in the MFAC program has been more about the journey than the destination (I’m sorry about the cliché – I’m still a work-in-progress.) It’s been a welcome disruption to the routine of my life. And life is short! It really is! Why not do something for yourself, if that something gives you energy and purpose?

To quote the great philosopher Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Who knows if I’ll get published? And if I do, who knows if anyone will buy my books? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love for those things to happen. But even if they don’t, I still feel like the MFA is worth it.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue this creative endeavor. I am aware that such opportunities do not exist for everyone. I’m grateful to my family for being accommodating. But mostly, I’m grateful for the instructors and students in the MFA program, who have given me a new lease on life.

Is the MFA worth it? In my case, yes. One hundred percent worth it.

Adding Value


Policy makers that aim to dismantle public education enjoy calling themselves “reformers.” Scott Walker likes to pretend he’s championing the common good when he takes on those teachers’ unions, which is basically the same thing as taking on ISIS. Because you see, teachers are terrorists.

One way to undermine public education is to unfairly test students and then blame the poor results on teachers. Then, have non-educators develop “value added measures” that will quantify the relative effectiveness of teachers, because teaching students is just like hitting a baseball.

Except that it’s not.

Except that scholarly journals have already debunked the validity of value added measures. Studies, like this one, have concluded the following:

They [the authors] conclude that the research base is currently insufficient to support the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers or schools.

Not convinced? The American Statistical Association also slammed this model for teacher evaluations.

Don’t let research stop you though. Obviously, these “reformers” aren’t going to let reason get in the way of their mission.

Charter school corporations routinely contribute campaign funds to state legislators and governors, so that they may in turn deem public schools (and union teachers) failing, and then pave the way for charter schools.

New York governor-slash-anti-teacher zealot, Andrew Cuomo (a freaking Democrat!) is off to a great start – two thirds of New York students failed the PARCC test.

Now, what makes more sense? That the PARCC test is fundamentally flawed, or that 67% of NY students are failures?

It’s nice for Pearson. They make a test that few can pass, and then they can sell remedial programs to districts and parents that will help students pass the test (that they intentionally made in such a way that nobody can pass.) Cha-ching!

Surely the citizens of the great state of NY, and of other states in the union, can see through this transparent money-grab by connected lobbyists.

How do parents stand for this?

Well, I would argue that it’s because of stories like this.

If you don’t have time to read it, it’s a wonderful piece about a talented teacher serving in a rural Oklahoma school district. It’s part of a series on NPR profiling excellent teachers. I commend NPR for doing this series, because most of the coverage about teachers I see is concerned with the teachers who have committed crimes.

Here are the highlights:

  • Sarah Hagan is a 25-year-old National Merit Scholar who is teaching in Drumright, OK, in a district that pays teachers $30,000 a year.
  • She is super creative and makes math fun – she doesn’t even use the textbooks!
  • Sometimes she uses spaghetti in her lessons.
  • She doesn’t let kids fail – to that end she stays for hours after school working (for free) to make sure they understand the concepts.
  • The people in Drumright, OK can’t believe their luck.

Okay, here’s the thing. This teacher sounds a lot like many of the teachers that I currently work with. I applaud her efforts. I do.

But she’s being singled out as though her actions were out of the ordinary for teachers.

Her profile is the profile of countless teachers across the country – they work long hours for low pay, especially when considering the level of education they have.

How is that we only value her work at $30,000? Shouldn’t she be leaning in?

The other problem I have is with some of the implicit assumptions in this piece:

  1. Educators are martyrs  who we appreciate, but not like, appreciate-appreciate. We’re not going to pay them more.
  2. The town of Drumright, OK hit the lottery with this teacher – she could have taught anywhere! The assumption is that rural schools or poorer, urban schools don’t deserve a teacher of her caliber. Meanwhile, those are exactly the type of districts that need the best teachers.
  3. Teachers should be commended for working for free.
  4. Teachers should be commended for having their work be all-consuming. They should not have a life outside of work.

The last two, in particular, really irk me. What other workplace values an employee’s time so little that they expect him to work for free? (I mean, other than Amazon.) And what’s the benefit of working 60 hours a week? Hedge fund managers might work those hours…but then again, they are making hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, if not millions. Should we really expect teachers to carry on with that much work for $30,000?

Sure, she might be receiving praise in this article. But what’s the rest of the discussion about teachers like? Well, the Huffington Post has a category tag called “Bad Teachers” to collect stories about the criminal ones. They do not have a tag called “Good Teachers.” Then you’ve got the Scott Walkers and Andrew Cuomos of the country using their platforms as governors to poison the public against teachers.

It’s the ultimate irony that these people corporate-education puppets are going to decide what “value” the teachers in the state add to their students when they value 60 hours of work per week at about $30,000.

Sarah Hagan is a math teacher. Let’s do some math. Let’s assume that she’s only staying after school for 2 hours a day to help students. When she goes home, she’s spending another few hours grading papers and doing lesson plans. So, let’s say she’s working ten hours a day, five days a week (this is a huge under-estimate.) Now, teachers have all that free time in the summer, so we have to subtract some time for that. I mean, sure, she’s probably taking classes for most of the summer and definitely planning the upcoming school year, but let’s just give her 8 weeks off (she does not have 8 weeks off. I promise you that.) Anyway, that’s 44 weeks of work at 50 hours a week, or 2200 hours of work for $30,000. She’s making a whopping $13.63 an hour!

Keep in mind, she’s actually making far less than that because I am going to assume that she works on weekends and does not have 8 weeks off in the summer.

We value that service so much that not only do we pay her very little, but we are actively working to take away basic employment protections like tenure. We are also jeopardizing her retirement and making her pay more and more for health care. We don’t want her to have a family, obviously. Like all teachers, she should be a spinster that eats, sleeps, and breathes teaching twenty-four hours a day.

The article does mention that people worry that she might burn out, given the demands of the occupation. Statistics are not in her favor. She will most likely move to a more affluent district or drop out of teaching entirely in the coming years.

So what value does Ms. Hagan add to her classroom? Surely we can’t just ask her students (I mean they love her, but how can we know if she’s really adding value.) And we can’t just take the word of her colleagues and principal, as they did in the article. Let’s make sure we give her students a test that is supremely unfair, a test so flawed that two-thirds are destined to fail, and that was clearly only written to benefit the bottom line of Pearson.

Then we can really assess her value.