Wednesday, August 29, 2012

You Cannot Tip a Cow

For years, I have been listening to people perpetuate the urban legend of "cow tipping."  Where the idea originated is anybody's guess, but it probably began as a way for city and suburban kids to mock and ridicule country kids.  The basic idea would have been that there is nothing to do "out in the sticks," so rural teens spend their weekend nights, driving around drinking, and then they head out to the fields to "tip cows" for fun.

The stated premise - or reason that this can allegedly be done - is cows are incredibly stupid and top heavy and they sleep standing up.  So, in theory, a few people can "sneak up" on the cow and tip it over.  However, there are numerous flaws to this "theory," and I've spent countless conversations try to convince people otherwise.  Having grown up near rural areas, and knowing numerous people who own cattle, I can unequivocally assert that "You cannot tip a cow."

Of course, people amazingly argue this to ridiculous ends.  It's most often my students - who have heard that I say it can't be done.  Inevitably, they ask about it, and then at least one kid will claim to either have done it, or to know someone who has.  Often they swear it can be done because their father has done it, and has told them about it.  And, sadly, I have to tell the kids, "No offense to your father - I'm sure he's a great guy.  But he's lying to you."  Occasionally the stories start to shift a bit - and kids will say "it was a baby cow."  But again.  They've been lied to.

You cannot tip a cow.  Here's why:

  • Cows weigh 1,000+ pounds.  Get that?  1,000 - 1,500 pounds.  They're half a ton.  No one - and I mean no one - is just tipping that over.
  • Cows don't sleep standing up, and they are incredibly light sleepers.  No one is just sneaking up on a sleeping cow and tipping it over.  They might "doze" or "nap" while standing, but they don't sleep that way.
  • Cows are incredibly skittish and afraid.  And, if you are not the cow's owner or caregiver, you are not getting anywhere near that cow.  And if you could and started pushing on it, it would move.  Quickly.  Or it might just kick the shit out of you.  Ask someone who's been kicked while milking one.
  • They weigh 1,000 pounds.  Did I mention that yet?

So, even if you could get near them, they wouldn't just let you tip them.  And even if you got them to hold still and brought an NFL defensive line up to push on them, they are not so top heavy that they are going to fall over.  And regardless, no one is talking about those conditions.  People are continuing the myth that drunk teens can sneak up on a cow and tip it over.  But they can't.

I usually end conversations by encouraging them to find proof, and I urge them to check it out on YouTube.  If it could be done, there would certainly be evidence.  But there's not.

So, feel free to prove me wrong.  But you'd look like a fool trying to do so.  Because you cannot tip a cow.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Great Food Truck Race 2012 - Aussie Babes Out

In the second installment of the Food Network's 2012 Great Food Truck Race, the Barbie Babes from Australia didn't make the cut in beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona.  Unfortunately for them, they were not exactly the lowest earners that week - a distinction that went to Pop-a-Waffles.  The Waffle boys, however, won immunity this week with the food challenge to cook a local delicacy - cactus.  I was a bit surprised by their win, as they simply made a cactus salsa - and the judge criticized some other trucks for not doing anything special.  I guess their salsa was just better.  Thus, they survive another week, and Momma's Grizzly barely stays in despite making the huge rookie mistake of closing up early.  The winners of the week were the Korean guys from Seoul Sausage for the second week in the row.

The days in Flagstaff were fairly entertaining, as Tyler Florence let the trucks get right to work.  I did think it was an interesting dilemma the Atlanta crew got into by heading to the kite festival and being denied for a lack of permit.  The man on the screen told them it "was a city event, and thus they could only allow certified vendors."  But if that is the case, how were the trucks able to set up on the streets of Flagstaff?  Obviously, I'm missing something.  And the issue of licensing food trucks is becoming more significant as the industry grows.  Clearly, Flagstaff is OK with trucks just pulling in from out of town and setting up shop.  And, if not, the Food Network should be on top of that.

Overall, it was a fun week.  Though, at this point, I don't have much connection to any of the contestants.  And I'm not feeling it like I did in seasons past.  Hopefully the show will kick it up a notch.  Not that I just want drama.  But I enjoyed the whole food truck experience more in the past.  Perhaps that was because they were skilled food truck operators.  We'll see.

Of course, now it's off to Amarillo, Texas.  It will be interesting to see whether Seoul Sausage can stay on top in a place like Texas.

Competency-Based Learning in Adams 12

Despite the endless diatribes from Arne Duncan about the need for "a longer school day, a longer school week, and a longer school year" for all, the idea of more tailored education meeting the individual needs of students is growing.  I've long opposed and argued against the idea of mandated "seat time," as declaring 1080 contact hours necessary for mastery or even competence is ridiculous.  Certainly, standards should exist for time in school - and Malcolm Gladwell reminds about the 10,000 necessary for mastery.  But the notion of "seat time" is changing, and districts are becoming innovative in terms of moving kids to mastery on a more flexible schedule.

For roughly three years now, Adams 12 District in Colorado has been operating on a competency-based education model.  Students move up in grade levels based on mastery of skills and content, not number of years or days or "contact hours" in school.  The plan appears to be working, as the students are showing improved performance in this notoriously low district.  A teacher's view has always been that if it works, it's good policy.  And it appears moving students at their level of mastery instead of a set yearly schedule is effective.  Certainly, there are downsides to this system, and it could be a logistical nightmare.  Yet, the benefits of moving kids based on competency are pretty clear.

Some downsides would be the challenging system of measurement and the logistics of scheduling.  And, of course, just because a student can come into my class and write one effective essay does not mean he won't benefit from the practice of writing ten more.  Mastery is built up over extensive hours of practice.  And the time spent in class discussion is every bit as valuable to our education as being able to display a measurable skill on demand.  Certainly, a minimum amount of class time is mandatory.  However, as students move up the levels, the specifics of seat time become less significant.  And, allowing students to move on to a higher level math whenever they're ready makes a lot of sense.  At the age of nine, my son was already "upstairs" at his school taking the middle school math classes simply because he was ready.  Of course, he was also emotionally mature enough to handle it.

The competency-based model of student advancement is certainly worth investigating and developing.  It has seemed to work most effectively at the lowest and highest levels.  Kids who struggle work at their pace and focus on accomplishment - not just getting by.  Kids at the top levels can take AP and CE classes to begin working on higher level education and even college degrees when they are ready.  Wherever it works, it should be implemented.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Business & Government

Interesting thoughts from Barton Gellman in his cover piece, "The Mind of Mitt," in Time Magazine.  Much has been made of Mitt Romney's business credentials, but I have always been skeptical that such a background qualifies someone for political office, especially the Presidency.  For, there is very little evidence that good businessmen make good presidents.  And, as several analysts have pointed out about Mitt's pledge to "create jobs" because he knows how to do that, his background in finance and private equity was never about creating jobs.  Private equity in no way has a goal of job creation - and it usually works in reverse.  Thus, I continue to be skeptical of the business background argument in relation to elected office.  In reality, these are two entirely different fields.  Business is not governing, and government is not a business.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Effective Diction and Editing

Teaching students the importance of effective diction and language choices is an integral part of the English classroom.  The French call it le mot juste - the right word.  And, an effective and fun classroom activity - which can work at all age levels - is the Three-Word Poem.  For a deeper explanation, check out my latest entry on my English blog.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Health Insurance is Not Like Any Other Insurance

At the age of forty-two, I have carried auto insurance for two and a half decades - and I have never made a claim.  That situation is the same for most Americans, and it pretty much holds true for their homeowners insurance and their life insurance and their personal items insurance ... and everything that is not health insurance.

That's the difference.

As a holder of a group insurance policy with my employer and a purchaserer of an individual private health care policy for my family, I am well-versed with the insurance industry.  And the health insurance industry has literally no connection or similarity to any other insurance business. And, that is why I simply cannot support the Republican Party on any discussion of health care reform. They like to believe that the government is the problem in health insurance, and if we simply treated it like auto insurance with people buying individual policies across state lines, the free market would fix the problems.

Not gonna happen, people.  Not at all.

In the most recent edition of Time Magazine, Edward Hudgins of the Ayn Rand Atlas society is quoted in an article about Paul Ryan as saying, "He's been explicit that he wants to save Medicare .... we'd like to see the private sector handle this the way it handles auto insurance."  Clearly, Ed Hudgins - and probably Paul Ryan - is so disconnected from reality that he should be making no policy decisions about health care.  Medicare cannot be handled by the private sector because seniors are simply not profitable.  They are quite expensive - which is why Medicare was necessary in the first place.

Now, whether we should expect seniors - and all Americans - to be a little more health conscious to avoid the ever-increasing Medicare costs is a good question.  But expecting the private sector to handle Medicare the way it handles auto insurance is incredibly naive - and actually quite dangerously stupid.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Robert Irvine & Restaurant Impossible Teach Quality of Life

From a teacher's view, Robert Irvine and his show Restaurant Impossible on the Food Network is one of the best television shows available for educating people about how to live.  Having watched the show fairly regularly for the past year or so, I am so impressed with how effectively Irvine teaches people not only how to run a restaurant but how to manage their lives and see the world as ripe with opportunities to simply be better.  The key for the show is its emphasis on quality, and the basic premise is to encourage not only the restaurateurs but also the audience to not settle for mediocrity.  This country is really filled with just so much .... crap.  People are willing to eat practically anything out of convenience or habit, and they have no expectations of quality or service or sanitation or really anything.  And it's truly shocking to see and hear what people are willing to accept.  Yet, Irvine and the nearly magical crew at Restaurant Impossible are able to show them the light ... with $10,000 ... and roughly forty-eight hours.

This evening Robert Irvine and Restaurant Impossible celebrated their fiftieth show by taking a look back over all their episodes and experiences.  It was quite the retrospective, especially with Irvine returning to some of the more interesting - and notorious - restaurants.  As a testament to the value of what Irvine does, he revealed that nearly nine out of ten restaurants they refurbish actually remain in business and profitable.  That's a remarkable success rate - and it speaks to Irvine's ability to teach people a better way - and most importantly leave them with the skills and knowledge to do it on their own.  Of course, many are critical of Irvine's style, especially his tendency to steamroll people and spare no feelings.  Certainly, it is a version of tough love, and he is committed to making his budget, deadline, and goal.  Thus, sometimes people need to be dealt with .... sternly.  Yet, ultimately they appreciate it in the end, as evidenced by the "Revealings" - those moments when owners and workers see the remodeled restaurants.  There's rarely a dry eye.

Robert Irvine is really the Dr. Phil of the restaurant business, and his show Restaurant Impossible really reflects and develops a teacher's view of the culinary world.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Great Food Truck Race is Back - Food Network

Now that  the Food Network has found its next Food Network Star in Justin Warner, it's time for the third annual Great Food Truck Race, which premiered last night with Tyler Florence returning as host.  The Food Truck Race has been a nice complement to the Food Network Star show as it features teams of food truck operators competing against each other in various cities - with certain challenges - as they "race," or travel, across America in a quest for $50,000.  The standard reality show elimination process is pretty simple - as the food truck who earns the least amount of money each week goes home.

This season, however, there's a twist.

Previous seasons of the Great Food Truck Race have allowed current food truck operators from around the country to compete - and get some great exposure - while touring the country.  This season, a group of food truck owner wannabes are competing for "a new food truck."  The contestants are people who aspire to own their own food truck - and who hopefully have the culinary chops and the market savvy to win the competition.  Additionally, the winners will receive the same $50K as before.  Now, that's a sweet deal.  I am quite impressed with the Food Network for finding eight contestants with food truck aspirations and a business model.  However, I am actually amazed that the Food Network has sprung for outfitting eight trucks with each specific food "point of view." I'm sure they had sponsorship cover it, but that wasn't cheap.  And some trucks will only be used for a couple days.  Potential foodsters include Barbie Babes bringing tastes of Australian BBQ, Coast of Atlanta serving up southern seafood, Pizza Mike's, and Seoul Sausage with some Korean BBQ.

The most heartwarming - and heartbreaking - story came from the competitors Under the Crust.  Hannah, along with her mom and a friend, are [were] hoping to make their way a "mini-pie" food service on wheels, featuring sweet to savory small tart-size pies.  This idea was apparently the dream of Hannah and her fiancĂ© who passed away from cancer eight months after diagnosis.  I was pulling for them from the moment I teared up.  Alas, the pie dreams were not to be fulfilled as Under the Crust struggled too much on the first day putting together their menu.  And, I was doubly sad because I love pie.  The pie idea sounded fantastic - though I'm not so sure Hannah and her culinary school friend could really bring it.  They did film some good feedback from customers - but it wasn't enough.  Hopefully, Hannah gets another shot someday.

Early favorites seem to be Seoul Sausage - three Korean friends trying to avoid "a real job" and Pizza Mike's - an older gentleman who ran pizza place for years until it burned down.  He's not ready for retirement though, and the food truck opportunity could be just the ticket back.  Momma's Grizzly looks like a weak idea - and it brings up bad memories of Wasilla, Alaska.  And while the waffle guys have a good idea, I don't think they have the culinary skills.  Last year's winner was Korean BBQ, and it looks like "Seoul food" might be just the ticket again.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Can "Spoiled" Millennials Make the Workplace Better

We've all heard the stories about the whiny young workers of Generation Y - or the Echo-Boom or the Millenials - who complain about the demands of the workplace and how it interferes with their quality of life.  Generation X and the Baby Boomers and the retired Silent Generation look with contempt on these spoiled youngsters who simply need to "suck it up" and put in their time and earn their privileges.  That seems pretty reasonable - it is "work" after all.  And you can't start in the corner office.  However, freelance writer Emily Matchar poses another interpretation of these "spoiled, coddled" children and their complaints about the workplace.  Perhaps these kids are on to something.  And maybe their complaints can help improve everybody's lives.

The reality for this generation is that they are never going to "get over it."  That's not the way they were raised.  They've come to expect better - and they are certainly a generation who has been taught that fairness is of primary importance.  And, of course, after seeing their parents work themselves crazy - and still ending up divorced and unhappy in middle age, the Millennials might be right to complain.  The reality is - according to Matchar - Generation Y "is right to complain about the workplace ... because the modern workplace frankly stinks, and the changes wrought by Gen Y will be good for everybody."  Certainly, the struggles of the middle class are well documented, as American productivity increases while wages remain stagnant or even regress.  Americans work longer hours, take fewer and shorter vacations, and have decreasing benefits every year.  And this is not good for society.  And, it doesn't appear that organized labor is going to do anything to improve the conditions of its workers.  Union membership is at an all-time low even as the auto industry recovers and companies like Caterpillar and GE are sitting on record profits and paying executives lavish salaries and benefits while boosting stock prices and dividends.

Generation Y is determined to "get theirs" and not make the same mistakes - or suffer silently - like previous generations, and that might just improve society overall.  CEO's like Howard Schultz of Starbucks and John Mackey of Whole Foods seem committed to creating a new paradigm for workers in which the responsibility is to the consumer and the employees - not Wall Street.  That sounds like a nice place to be.  As a teacher - from a teacher's view - I've always been impressed with the tolerance and good will of the younger generation.  As such, I've hoped that these future CEO's and executives would be more committed to making the world better at the same time they are making their own lives better.  That flatter view of the world and the workplace is what led MTV to determine that Generation Y - the Millenials - could be called No-Collar Workers.  Now, certainly we will continue to see divisions based on the value of the work and the level of education required to do it.  But Gen Y is right to ask "Why we have to meet in an office cross-country when we can call in remotely via Skype?"  

That said, Generation Y can be a bit much - with stories of their parents calling their bosses and asking for raises.  Really.  But the ideas that the workplace can be more convenient and comfortable and efficient and productive and well compensated are not entirely wrong.  And I'd encourage any and all to always advocate for something better.  It can't hurt to ask.

FOLLOW UP: For more on this topic, you might check out the news on firms and corporations who are starting to bend and give in to the demands of Generation Y.  The reality is employers are either finding some agreement with the younger workers or they are realizing it's fruitless to argue with them.  That's an interesting paradigm shift, and, again, it just might be good for America.

Monday, August 13, 2012

On-line Classes, Coursera, and "Real Learning"

The news about online learning continues to grow, as do the opportunities and the criticism.  With information spreading about the opportunity to "take classes" online at elite universities such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford, people are beginning to wonder what the actual value of attending these schools really is.  In essence, if a student freely can access - and satisfactorily complete - all the coursework in engineering at MIT, then is he as qualified for work as a student who attended the university full time ... and potentially paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition?

The rise of of "Massive Open Online Courses," also known as MOOCs is changing the way we think about accessing education - or at least about accessing information.  It began certainly with colleges like Westwood and Phoenix, but gained a serious bump and considerable credibility a couple years ago when professors at Stanford began offering open access to their course through portals such as Coursera - an online learning platform which coordinates access and materials.  Coursera quickly became a game changer - and others moved to replicate the model.  Other options include platforms such as EdX, which calls itself "the future of online learning, and Education Portal about which I've posted before.  And, these are just the college classes - for the Khan Academy is opening up new opportunities in K-12 learning.

Is this the future of education?

Not so fast, says UCLA philosophy professor Pamela Hieronymi  in a commentary for the Chronicle.  Professor Hieronymi is worried about our fascination with the internet and the danger of "confusing technology with college teaching."  Anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time in the classroom at the higher level - or anywhere really - understands that much of education comes from the conversations and the human interactions.  It's not just about looking up and reading information on the computer.  That "Google" approach to learning might help us find information.  But sifting through and synthesizing that information and moving to knowledge and wisdom is what education is really about.  And that takes feedback and questioning, most efficiently coming from human interaction.  The learning process unfolds in a much more fluid form, and class discussion simply cannot completely be replaced by "discussion boards."

Certainly, the efficiency factor is important.  And I love the access to information that MOOCs provided.  But Professor Hieronymi has reasons for us to pause before declaring a "new model" for education.

Friday, August 10, 2012

It's the Students, Stupid ... or the "Stupid" Students

After twenty-five years in public education, teaching in Utah's schools, Teresa Talbot has concluded that the problems with public education aren't about "what is taught, where it is taught, how it is taught, or by whom it is taught."  Instead, the problems are students who refuse to do work.  Laziness in students and a failure by parents and students to care enough about their education to demand success are the root cause of failure in public schools.

Well, that ought to generate  some serious flack.

The Myth of the Myth of the Myth of America's Failing Public School System

For years now the American public has simply accepted as fact that its public school system is "a failure" - this despite the overall satisfaction with their own schools and their own education.  Thus, of course, it's not surprising that we have a "failure" in perception about our "failing public schools."  The conventional wisdom is always drawing from shocking statistics and disappointing standardized test scores, as well as comparisons of schools to other nations.  This "truth" by comparison is the most troubling, and it seems to never end.  Thomas Friedman mentioned it again this week in the New York Times.  The problem is the validity of the comparison.

However, recently some education writers have been parsing the data and challenging the notion that our schools are "failing" or that "we have  fallen behind the rest of the world."  And that has unleashed debate about whether America's schools are "failing" or whether that's a myth.  As I've noted before, Mel Riddile of the National Association of Secondary School Principals NASSP was the first to parse the poverty data - and argue that international comparisons are flawed and, minus our high poverty schools, the United States actually leads the world in test scores.  As Riddile points out, America has much higher poverty than the leading nations like Finland and Singapore, and when we remove the scores of high poverty schools to more accurately compare conditions, America's test scores actually top the list.  Interestingly, then, when our bottom thirty percent of schools are taken out of the equation, we have the best  schools in the world.

Michael Lind took up the case as well this week of "America's failing public schools" in an article for Salon that argued again that this failure is a myth, and that a culture of poverty is the root of the problem.  In following up on Riddile's research, Lind argues - accurately I'd say - that our school system is not  "failing" because our poorest and most disadvantaged kids are  not succeeding.  Certainly, we can not be proud of these conditions or accept them.  However, if 70% of kids are doing well, going to college, and posting reasonable scores, it's  tough to argue the public education system is a failure.  I argued this years ago after Sean Hannity indicted the entire system.  Systemic failure is simply not true - for if the system had been failing for  all these years then the effects on the nation would be profound.  And America is not failing.

Granted, the explanation is tough to accept, and it seems to be a cop out to say that  kids  are simply failing because they are poor.  And education blogger Marilyn Rhames challenges Lind's position by arguing about the lack of opportunities and poor  schools for the bottom 30%.  She is not  wrong about the poor state of these  schools - though she is a bit mistaken when she blames the school, as opposed to seeing a school  as a reflection of a much larger problem.  Certainly, all kids  can achieve, and the most  disadvantaged  actually need the most  education.  However, she cannot deny that  successfully educating  poor, disadvantaged minority and immigrant children is literally the toughest task in education.  It's just not  that easy to overcome all the barriers to success.

And, of course, education seems to be the only field where 100% success is the standard and the only acceptable result.  Thus, the issue is more complex than any of these  writers makes it.  But, Lind and Riddile are correct in asserting the successes of the system, even as Friedman and Rhames have points in challenging the failures.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

In a World of "Text"-ing, Teach Kids How to Write

Walt Gardner opines in EdWeek that in a world obsessed with STEM skills, schools are neglecting to teach kids the important skills of reading and writing.  Making insightful observations about the gap between "grammar skills" and fluent writing, Gardner notes - and laments - the receding writing skills associated with kids immersed in a world of text messages.  This point was aptly addressed in a recent LA Times commentary.  The loss of writing skills is negatively impacting the business world and the ability to being to access the jobs and lives they desire.  Importantly, Gardner reminds us that being an effective writer is intrinsically linked to being an effective reader.  It's not enough to assign kids reading and writing.  English teachers at all levels - including college - need to teach kids "how to read" and "how to write."

Special Education Blog Posts

Occasionally, Online University offers their list of "50 Best Blogs for Teachers," and if you're interested, it's always worth checking out to see who is saying what.  The most recently updated list is the "50 Best Blogs for Special Education Teachers."

Monday, August 6, 2012

Financial Advice for New College Students

I still remember my first trip to my dorm mailbox during my freshman year at the University of Illinois (twenty years ago).  I could barely open the mailbox door from all the credit card offers which were jammed into the little box.  Luckily, growing up in a family of responsible credit - and having a card since I was probably eleven - I didn't fall prey to the offers of unlimited cash.  However, thinking about that reminds me of the important challenges faced by college freshman as they move out of the nest for the first time.  Some of the greatest challenges come outside the classroom - and they require astute financial literacy and self control.

That said, the Denver Post Lifestyle page has a great feature today on financial advice for college freshman - and as we head into August and the minivans are packed, parents should consider having "the talk."  That is the discussion about not digging a financial hole during their first step into adulthood.  Among advice the Denver Post offers:

  • Keep a budget and track your spending.
  • Avoid using credit whenever you can, and seek out discounts, especially on those common college expenses like books, hoodies, and ... late night pizza.
  • Drink water - for financial AND physical health.
College should be a great time and an educational experience - both in and out of the classroom.  America's financial literacy is not in great shape these days.  Hopefully, the next generation of adults will - with some advice - learn to make better decisions.

"Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorious Has No More "Advantage" Than Others

South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorious - who just  happens to be a double-amputee who runs with prosthetic "blades"- made history this week by running in the Olympics, not the para-Olympics.  Though he failed to qualify for  the finals after he placed seventh in his semi-final heat of the 400-meter race, he actually made history by even competing.  Making it to the semi-finals was a bonus beyond anyone's wildest expectations.  Oscar's story is one of the incredibly inspirational narrative that we only understand when events like the Olympics bring them to light.  It is a feel-good story that wouldn't seem to have a downside.  However, people never cease to amaze.  Perhaps the more disheartening side of the story is the struggle he went through - not all his life as a double amputee but - when some athletes and countries protested his initial inclusion in the Games because his prosthetic blades gave him an "unfair advantage" over  athletes running on two legs.  I know, I know.  It was certainly baffling.  Obviously, the loss of his legs as a child should certainly outweigh any "bionic" advantage the blades give him.  Alas, the man who has become affectionately known as "Blade Runner" fought through even more adversity for the right to compete, and has given the world new perspective on the idea of disability.

However, the controversial issue of Blade Runner's alleged "advantage" got me thinking about how to gauge and measure that very concept.  In reality, countless athletes from "advantaged" nations have advantages and benefits that allow them - and their countries - to excel at the games.  Isn't superior coaching based on national - or private - funding a huge and instrumental "advantage" in athletic achievement?  Consider the physical and emotional advantages gleaned by middle class suburban American kids who can have paid coaches and well funded athletic programs from the time they are six years old.  That is a nearly insurmountable advantage over smaller - and less well funded  - countries.  Can anyone deny the advantage that money plays in American and Chinese dominance in swimming and gymnastics?  And, what about the role of adequate - or even exceptional - health care and nutritional opportunities?  Michael Phelps was supposedly on a 12,000-calorie diet during his rigorous training regimen.  That opportunity doesn't exist for many aspiring Olympians - especially in places like the Ivory Coast or Guatemala or Sri Lanka.

Clearly, the athletes of the most highly developed and well funded nations - especially the USA - have considerable advantages over others.  Thus, parsing the issue to challenge the right of Oscar Pistorious based on his "advantage" was really quite ridiculous.  Instead, congratulations and accolades are due for Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorious who has enabled us to redefine our ideas about what is possible.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

USA vs. Chinese Athletic Models - No Contest

By now the news is out that Chinese diver Wu Min Xia's family kept secret from her the deaths of both her grandparents, as well as her mother's long battle with breast cancer, until after she competed in the Olympics and won a gold medal.  This story has sparked discussion and outrage from parents across the western world - and even generated criticism among some Chinese - about the Chinese government's - and Chinese "Tiger Mom" culture's - model for winning at all costs.

At what costs?  Just a child's humanity.

For a country and a culture so steeped in the traditions of family, this mindset is not only rather disheartening, it is also fundamentally wrong.  Having lived in Taiwan for five years, I am familiar with the nature of a culture that is incredibly driven for success - sometimes to the point of neglecting basics of childhood and humanity.  Teaching English there, I knew the enormous pressure these kids faced to pass an English test to "get into" a college-bound junior high school.  Certainly, the Taiwanese students excel academically.  However, they are so hyper-focused in narrow models of achievement that their students don't attend schools with numerous sports and art and music and clubs and activities and student government - all the components that Americans prefer as part of a well-rounded education.  When Taiwanese (or Chinese or Japanese or Korean) students show an aptitude for something valued by society - like math skills or athletic talent - they are enrolled in programs to pursue it full-time.  That's what led Wu Minxia to pursue diving full-time from the age of six in pursuit of Olympic gold - to the exclusion of almost all other aspects of life - including family.

Contrast that model with new international swimming superstar Missy Franklin.  Missy Franklin is an Olympic medalist and an international sensation.  She still lives in the community of her youth, going to high school and swimming for her high school team and the Colorado club that she has been with since childhood. She still has her original swim coach, and she has turned down opportunities to move to "a swim state" like California and train full time with professional coaches in national Olympic development programs.  Her parents - and she - explain that moving away from Colorado and leaving her friends and family would simply not make her happy. And it certainly wouldn't make her a "better swimmer" with a better chance for success.  She's already at the top of her game.  Thus, Missy Franklin and her parents chose quality of life - family, friends, community - over winning at all costs.

Missy Franklin and Wu Minxia are both superstar female athletes.  Both will be considered among the top female athletes of all time.  Both have won Olympic medals.  Yet, Missy Franklin is incredibly close with her family, still living in the community of her youth, swimming for her high school team, going to prom and the mall, dancing with friends before events, and living the life of a suburban team.  Missy Franklin still shares fond memories of swim meets at her neighborhood pool where she and her close friends would play cards while sitting on their towels between races.  She has turned down millions in endorsement money, so she can still swim with her high school team and join a college swim team, experiencing another step in "growing up."  Wu Minxia, by contrast, was taken from her family by the age of six for daily training in a diving facility, and she moved permanently into a government athletic institute by age sixteen.  She was so far removed from her family - physically and emotionally - that she knew nothing of the deaths of her grandparents and illness of her mother.

Which model would you choose for your child?