Thursday, October 29, 2009

Career Switcher by Robert Boucheron

When it comes to recessions, architects are the canary in the coal mine. We know, before anyone else, when oxygen is being sucked out of the economy. Construction projects are put on hold or canceled, billing decreases, and the layoffs begin.

I specialize in residential projects, so as early as 2006, with the decline in real estate sales, my practice started to dwindle. My employees left one by one, and I saw that I too would have to leave. I found a job as clerk of the works on the construction site of a new elementary school.

Then I heard about a program called Career Switcher, one of the state-approved programs that provides a fast track to become a public school teacher. I applied and was accepted. Phase One would last sixteen weeks, the fall semester, followed by one year of supervised teaching. If all went well, I could then apply for a regular Virginia state teacher's license. It sounded too good to be true. And in my case it was.

Tuition was 3000-plus dollars. The program was mostly conducted online, through the Virginia community college system. Six Saturdays were scheduled for a long video conference, connecting all students and instructors, at nine sites throughout the state. My site was Blue Ridge Community College.

The first video session, in August. Was rife with technical difficulties. None of the instructors knew how to operate the equipment. The program director dominated what discussion took place. The printed agenda was ignored. In our information packet, the pages were misnumbered, which turned the search for information into a scavenger hunt. The instructors, many of them former middle-school teachers, introduced themselves as "flunkies."

The assigned reading appeared to be a mixture of educational theories, platitudes, pseudo-scientific jargon, federal laws such as No Child Left Behind, and the Virginia Standards of Learning. The essay questions were riddled with poor grammar, and were vague. An example: "What must you know and be able to do to be an effective teacher?"

A favorite text was "Tools for Teaching," self-published by a man named Fred Jones, and illustrated with cartoons. Jones claimed to have devised an infallible technique for classroom management, compete with slogans we had to repeat. No dissent was tolerated. Students disappeared from the roster without comment...

After eight weeks, the halfway point, I received an email saying that my Career Switcher grades were less than 80% which was defined as failure. "How can that be?" I wondered. My bachelor degree is in English, from Harvard, and I have published many articles, short stories, and book reviews. I was told I had made negative comments.

Meanwhile, cutbacks in public school budgets meant that teaching jobs were becoming scarce. The placement rate for the Career Switcher program this year shrank below 50%, and will probably fall next year. Given the quality of the instruction, the message to me was clear: The game is not worth the candle.

My architectural practice may yet revive, or I may find another job. But the larger issue that worries me is that I wanted to be a teacher, and yet the patch my becoming one seemed more like a con than a good teacher-training program.

Robert Boucheron is an architect living in Charlottesville

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Here, Now by Alex Sharp

a diggable era of digits and sound waves; wavelengths, think-tanks and online banks.
An era of innovation, information and instant gratification,
where the artificial and imaginary become Real.

The reality is that nothing is Real.
There is nothing more human than artificiality:
cyberspace, satellites and cell service, DVDs, MP3s and HDTVs;
we are cloaked in Technology.
It is everywhere.
It sits on our nightstands and dressers and desks and wrists and ears,
and in our pockets and in our cars, and in our houses and kitchens and bathrooms.

We are running out of room to roam free.
The only roaming I know is far from free.
We are turned on and tuned in at all times.
Constantly connected. In continuous contact. Calibrated but comfortable.
Confined but content, we cruise the Web for hours on end.
We are Facebookers and Googlers and Youtube-aholics.
We crave wall-posts and friend requests and celebrity breasts.

Give me a plastic guitar with 5 buttons and I’m satisfied.
Give me an iPOD and two earpieces and I’m at Peace.
Give me a cell phone with unlimited texting and watch my fingers fly.

What’s our attraction to distraction?
MTV, VH1, XBOX, Comedy Central, HBO, TiVo, Playstation III, Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto,
Halo, Flavor of Love, Tila Tequila, iTunes, MySpace, Instant Messenger.

It’s all around us. It’s inescapable – and I need to escape it all.

Gonna MapQuest Peace and Quiet, hope it’s not too far away.
Gonna get in my car and drive there, even if it takes all day.
Gonna leave an Away Message on my way out the door:

“Gone off to the Mountains. Not sure when I’m coming back. If you need me, send smoke signals.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Appalling Mandate by Margee Greenfield

So I ask you, what career were you considering when you were 12 years old?

I ask because the commonwealth of Virginia has decided to require all seventh graders, to create an academic and career plan—including career goals based on academic and possible employment interests. Students, parents and school officials must sign off on the plan.


Having spent 25 years as an academic and career advisor and as a current middle school teacher, who teaches a career exploration class, I am appalled. Seventh graders are 12 years old! Their career choices are typically based upon the careers of their parents, relatives, or real or fictional heroes – with almost no consideration given to their as-yet-undeveloped skills, interests and values. There are a gazillion careers of which these students have never heard. There are a gazillion more that don’t exist right now but will exist by the time they graduate.

Here’s my own mind at work on this, at 12-years old. I grew up in a city with a famous Shriner’s hospital for children with physical disabilities. Every year, the city held a 24-hour fund-raiser telethon for this hospital. Local celebrities performed, and many of the children that had been helped by the hospital, were brought to the stage by physical therapists, to be interviewed, as the monies poured in. At age 12, I volunteered backstage, helping with the children. I met a physical therapist who was young, perky, and funny and all of the kids from the hospital loved her. I decided, at that moment, that I wanted to be a physical therapist: you get to play with really cute little kids AND you get to be on television.

From then on, when anyone asked about my future, I proudly said that I would be a physical therapist. Then, my freshman year in college, I had a head-on collision with a course called Medical Anatomy and Physiology. And I didn’t want to be a physical therapist any more.

But I’d never considered anything else.

So, please, let’s not ask our 12-year olds to commit, even tentatively, to a career. Instead, let’s include a career EXPLORATION component in courses at a variety of grade levels. Employers today are pretty specific about skills they want to see in hirees: Oral communication, written communication, technology, and team skills. Let’s make sure our students understand and acquire these skills. Let’s make sure they leave high school launched on a career training program or working toward a college major that they will love. Let’s NOT have them make and potentially lock themselves into an immature decision.

When students feel that they finally have an answer to that eternal question, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” the blinders go on. There is no more motivation to continue to explore options. Let’s, instead, teach them to be open to serendipity – to be available to that exciting, unexpected opportunity that might be waiting just around the next corner.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Celebrating Fringes by Devan Malore

Here in Lexington the city ends and the county starts somewhere on Rt. 11 at a bridge crossing the Maury River.  As someone who lives by that river, I don’t live in Lexington, as much as I live on the fringes of Lexington

 I have a blue metal medallion on my travel bag that says in rough letters, “Fringe.” I got it years ago at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in Philadelphia—a celebration of the fringes in art performance that goes on annually around this time. For two weeks, everyone from naked tuba players to young fit dancers in hammocks swinging from ceilings of old industrial buildings come together in unusual performance venues scattered around the city.

Whole tribes of us fringe folks are marginalized by choice, or by some act of nature. We live on society’s edges, often can’t get a mortgage, so deal with the underground economy of borrow, barter and creative salvage—which is itself trendy now.  Sometimes the fringe life seems to come from being born in the wrong place, wrong time, wrong family.

There’s a story in Hindu mythology that says we know times are changing quickly when more people get born into families they don’t feel they fit in. More freaks emerge to challenge those who can’t see what odd challenging times they live in. Darwin might say fringe dwellers are simply adapting well to change and challenge.

     I have affection and curiosity for city fringes and fringe folks.  Really interesting rusting machinery gets abandoned on city fringes. Even cars, parked as if they were sacrifices to the earth. Fringe flea markets and yard sales give out treasures cheaply. And, fringe folks often live in interesting living spaces.

Fringes are, for some, places to visit, but not to live in. Like middle class white guys wandering into jazz clubs during the Harlem Renaissance. You’re fine going there, having fun, seeing how the other half lives, breaking a taboo. But at daylight, you’re glad to go home and dress for work in an office.

Living on the fringe is risky, but nothing new. There’ve always been struggling artists, eccentrics, religious nuts, manic depressives, intellectuals ahead of their time, computer nerds before there were computers. Thoreau in his tiny cabin, Zen Haiku poet monk in his hut, Bill Gates or Nirvana out in the garage. Most sages, artists, eccentrics, I imagine, don’t get acknowledged. No one knows the name of the guy who invented toilet paper either, something we now can’t imagine living without.

It was great finding the Fringe Festival and exploring it. My faith in the creative potential of  human nature was reinvigorated  God bless the fringes and the freaks. May more of us explore the fringes and may freaks become friends. And please, give us odd artists and dreamers some money for our work!

Some day current fringes may be mainstream. Then, you’d able to say to your kids, “I was part of making change when things got a little rigid, boring, too serious.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Clean Coal" Technology by Sue Gier

Currently, power plants that use coal to generate electricity account for more than 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. The phrase “clean coal technology” fosters hope that scientists will find a way to take harmful elements, especially carbon, out of coal. We would like to believe that with clean coal technology we could provide the nation with much of the energy needed to power our nation into the future—and be environmentally responsible, as well.

The question is: Can coal be clean? Coal is a fossil fuel. All fossil fuels contain carbon which is released as CO2 into the air and adds to the warming of the earth thereby contributing to climate change. Scientists have worked for decades to make coal clean. Scrubbers have been put on electrical power plants, successfully preventing the release of much sulfur. They have also found ways to capture CO2, but not to store or sequester it safely on a large scale. Some coal plants are experimenting with saline aquifers deep in the ocean, and other companies are considering returning it to the mines from which coal has been removed. But, there are unanswered questions about safety including water contamination, harm to aquatic life and long-term stability.

And then there’s the problem of coal ash. Right now, this non-combustible by-product of coal processing is contained in surface ponds. Federally-mandated coal scrubbers have made our air cleaner but they have also led to higher concentrations of pollutants in coal ash, including arsenic, lead, mercury, thorium, and uranium, all of which are currently storied in these “wet dumps.” Last December’s coal ash sludge spill in Kingston, TN—when over 1 billion gallons of sludge surged over 400 acres of watershed—illustrates of the danger these surface ponds.

So how long will this research take? The best estimates of time are ten to twenty years. The coal industry wants to build more plants now, betting that all problems will be solved by the time the plants are constructed. But what if they’re not solved? Dominion Power is currently building a coal-fired power plant in Wise County that, according to an article in Time Magazine, “will emit 5.3 million tons of CO2 a year, roughly the equivalent of putting a million more cars on the road.” (Time/11-17-08).

Those of us representing the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley, a group of concerned citizens in the Shenandoah Valley, know that coal is not clean. The technology exists to harness wind and solar power but not produce enough alternative energy to meet our society’s needs. We in the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley believe money and resources would be better spent on this type of research, rather than on clean coal research. We are urging Congress to act swiftly to promote renewable energies that are truly clean. Jobs in the coal industry could be replaced by jobs in clean energy. Because we must sustain our planet, we must choose clean energy—and that’s not coal!


About Me

I write for lots of different venues, so this blog provides links to those places. Plus, occasionally, stuff that appears no where else . . .