Monday, May 30, 2016

May you have a reflective Memorial Day. Ponder days gone by and heroes lain to rest. We had a shortened Memorial Day commemoration at Mount Vernon today. We cut it short as a storm front loomed on the horizon and we broke ranks just as it started to rain. The lightning strikes were what really prompted us to cut it short but we also had concerns about our new sound system getting rained on.
The ceremony was well attended as always. I didn't count but I'd have to guess that about 200 Mount Vernon residents attended in addition to the MVHS Band and Choir. I'm saddened that we had to cut the ceremony short and weren't able to hear all of the planned music, but I had numerous people approach me later and thanked me for the sound judgement of curtailing the service.
I was able to give my speech and had a few compliments on it too. Here it is as I presented it. I wanted to stress the importance of community and that of service. 

Good morning, Thank all of you for being here today. I’m Mike Woods and I live here. Mount Vernon is my home.
It is said that, “ a soldier doesn’t go to war because he hates what’s in front of him, but rather he loves what is behind him.” I would have to say that this is still true. On this Memorial Day we pause to remember those brave people who gave up their tomorrows so we could have our today. None of them intended on sacrificing their lives but accepted the possibility that it might happen.
They sacrificed not for gold or glory but rather out of a love for their community. That is what makes their loss all the more painful for those they left behind. Parents, spouses, children and friends all have to carry on with a ragged hole torn in the fabric of their lives.
As for me, I left Mount Vernon shortly after I graduated in 1977 to join the army. I became a career soldier and served almost 22 years in uniform. I started out as an airborne infantryman – a paratrooper in the 82d airborne division and I later passed the test to become a Special Forces NCO – a Green Beret. I had some of the finest role models a soldier could have, men like 1SG Cold Steel Crews, LTC Keith Bonn, SFC Robert Williams, SGM Rodolfo Teodosio, Cedar Rapids native Colonel "Smoking Joe" Rozak and Lieutenant General David Fridovich.
Along with these mentors and role models, I have also had the good fortune of meeting two of my three heroes over the years. I never got to meet my boyhood hero John Wayne, a patron of Special Forces in his own right, but I did get to meet Lieutenant General James Gavin of the 82d and Colonel Roger Donlon of Special Forces.
General Gavin was the commander of the 82d Airborne Division during World War Two and later the US ambassador to France. Colonel Donlon was a Green Beret and the first Medal of Honor awardee of the Vietnam War. Both men were very gracious and respectful, both of them had lives well lived beyond the military, and placed greater importance on service to their communities than their military service.
Many of the veterans I've encountered at the VA hospital and elsewhere have similar regard their communities. Most of them shared their war stories with great relish, but they were more proud of their accomplishments after the service and those of their children or grandchildren -- their military service little more than a footnote in a life well lived.
However, there are others whose service remains quite vivid and to the forefront of almost every waking moment either through physical or psychological trauma and we should do our best to care for them. People don’t make those kinds of sacrifices for personal gain, but rather out of love for their community.
Two years ago at our Memorial Day ceremony we embarked on a journey to build a new veterans memorial. Our fundraising efforts to date have brought us over halfway to our goal and have allowed us to begin construction of phase one of the project.
We have over 400 names on our cemetery roster with at least one veteran of the War of 1812, a few from the Mexican/American War, there are 58 civil war veterans and we have veterans from every conflict since. We have fathers and sons, Mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters buried on this peaceful piece of land. I encourage all of you to walk through the older section of the cemetery where you will find tombstones that have become unreadable over time with names and legacies slipping into oblivion. That in part is what we hope to prevent, by etching veterans’ names into our memorial we hope to preserve the memory of people who sacrificed so much for their community, state and nation.
The construction you see before you is a part of a legacy and of a promise. The legacy has been handed down from generation to generation by people have touched our lives by their military service and service to our community, each sacrifice adding to the ones before them until we have a community with a strength born of freedom.  Hahn-Howard Post 480 has assumed the responsibility of building a memorial that befits the sacrifices made on our behalf and fulfills the promise that we shall never forget.
The response to our mission has been overwhelmingly positive. The city of Mount Vernon has assisted us both financially and logistically by preparing the site for construction – city crews removed the flagpole and moved the small memorial stone to its new location at veterans’ memorial park. Other civic organizations like the Masons, the Rotary Club and the Lions have all been very generous with their gifts. Local businesses have sought us out to offer their support including architect Jim Baty and Contractor Chad Kelly. Then there are the people of the community who continue to generously make donations to build a memorial that will properly recognize the sacrifices made in our name.
Some people ask, "but why a memorial?" Societies have built structures to honor the dead for millennia. They provide a focal point for commemorations like this that allows our community to gather together to honor the sacrifices that were made on our behalf. Memorials are also places of quiet individual reflection, a place that provides an opportunity to mourn, but also to celebrate lives well lived.
This memorial will also have a feature that is unlike most others. We’re planning for an educational aspect that will allow the visitor to see our community’s part in regional, national and international events. To that end we’ve asked local historians Richard Thomas, Bob Meeker and Richard Peters to lend their talents and knowledge to the task that we hope to finalize in the near future.

In closing I would like to thank all of you for coming today to help honor the fallen. Thank you to the Mount Vernon Community School District and their students for giving up a glorious day to provide the music and finally thank those who died to allow us to have the freedom to come here today. God Bless you and God Bless America.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Teaching Digital Natives

I’m glad I grew up when I did.

I was an Iowa farm boy during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, although the violence and unrest seemed to be distant problems for other people, the newspapers were filled with accounts of bloodshed, police dogs and civil disobedience. Israel fought for national survival and the war in

Vietnam raged on as protests against continued US involvement enveloped most college campuses – Cornell College was even the site of anti-war protests.

The pre-digital world seemed to come to a stop when noteworthy events occurred. Church bells rang and factory whistles blew when Doctor Jonas Salk finally cured polio. Rockets launched from Cape Canaveral were a source of national pride and a giant leap for mankind, a cause for widespread celebration.
Many of our toys mirrored the technological marvels of the era rather than the fantasy-heavy (but non-sexist, non-racist, and inclusive) choices of today - and none of them had a reset button!

There were late-breaking stories that interrupted family staples of Flipper and Mr. Ed. News icons like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley disrupted our quiet, bucolic life with reports of a President being assassinated in Dallas, a march in Selma that turned into a bloody rout for peaceful protestors by overzealous and bigoted police and Kent State, where overwhelmed and undertrained National Guard soldiers fired on demonstrators.

A news junkie from a very young age, I clipped important news articles from the paper and watched the daily news almost every day at 5:00 PM and again at 10:00 (if my parents allowed it). I began with a child’s understanding of terrorism as it began taking center stage in the world theater - an understanding that spurred further study throughout my adulthood. I knew the difference between the ANC and NVA and I knew where in the world they were focused. I wasn’t a very good student academically, but when given a chance, my passions erupted. The turbulent times we lived in demanded that you paid attention instead of remaining complacent - regardless of your political leanings.

Kids today aren’t so lucky. Despite the ongoing war on terror and widespread upheavals they don’t/can’t engage with the reality of life. They are consumed by the Kardashians and American Pickers. Apartheid and Nelson Mandela are ancient history; Vietnam is as relevant to them as the Peloponnesian War. Few teenagers have even a prosaic understanding of what civil disobedience is and how effective it can be to change unjust laws – Oh; they can regurgitate the story about Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, but only vaguely. The scary part is that they don’t really care! They would much rather play on their cell phones than actually examine a historical event even for a grade.

24/7 infotainment substitutes for real news and inundates viewers with repetitive images and hyperbole to the point that viewers frequently can't separate fact for opinion. Online "news" isn't much better with everyone trying to be the first with the most titillating headline, accuracy be damned.

From my observations, despite being “Digital Natives,” few of students know enough about computers or the Internet to get beyond Google to find something of substance. They’d much rather dawdle on Pandora or YouTube than actually do an assignment. They’d much rather tweet than read (fill in the blank).

When I first started substituting, when I still held onto the belief that I might actually get a job as a real teacher I built a very impressive “Sub box,” it contained alternate lesson plans separated by developmental level and subject matter, “sponge” activities used to help fill up the inevitable time between end of the lesson and the end of the period as well as the usual supplies that I would need during the school day – I quit carrying that years ago. I discovered much to my chagrin, that students, especially high school students, were not interested in ANYTHING that did not guarantee points for their GPA. Since I couldn’t guarantee their regular teacher would give them points – and to avoid giving the regular teacher extra work, I quit carrying them and began following the regular teacher’s suggestion of letting students talk during any extra time. Sigh.

Once, I was filling in for a social studies teacher at a 4A high school, as I was giving the assignment, a flurry of hands shot up when I got to the part about when the work was due. Every one of the questions was about getting an extension! They hadn’t even started working on the assignment and they wanted an allowance to turn the project in late!

Another troubling trend is that many students go out of their way to defy authority at every turn, but rarely when it is of importance. Although there are occasional reports of students actually taking a stand for a worthwhile cause – even some I might not agree with, it is the exception rather than the rule. They don’t like being told to sit down, in a chair, facing the front, in their chair, awake, off the phone, close the computer, stop talking, no you may not go to the bathroom, sit down, put your phone away, listen up, open your textbook, etc. Like casting pearls before swine it's usually wasted effort. But, as I’ve said on more than one occasion, “It’s your grade not mine.”

But grading seems to have become a thing of the past, too. Teachers will even “cook the books” in order to maintain a better than par average of passing students. Extra credit seems to be the order of the day, something to drag that dismal F up to a D- and the mediocre C up to a B+. I get it. It’s self-preservation, but it’s giving up because Little Johnny’s parental unit will give you no rest until you treat him “properly.” Parents don’t seem to give a shit whether their offspring can actually enter the workforce someday, only that their name appears on the honor roll and that they get to participate in the myriad of other activities that keep them out of their parents’ hair – that is IF there are two parents! Usually, it seems, it’s a single parent trying to get by and the fewer problems they have to deal with the better. We had televisions, they have the internet.

 Smart phones, computers and the internet are technological marvels that we could only dream of and by all rights should be a breakthrough in education, however, they tend more distracting than beneficial. Disinterested, disengaged, lethargic, dull, lifeless are words that I use more often than interested, engaged, energized, alert, involved when asked about many students. A good first step might be to ban cell phones from the classroom, limit online use to only what is needed and monitor their access. You might even require at least a few hard copy references for research projects.

Then there is the whole sexting thing!
Much like our generation wanted our MTV, “kids today” want instant (and continual) gratification in the form of digital entertainment. I’m writing this rant after two very distressing and depressing days “teaching” at the same 4A high school previously mentioned. I was covering for a different teacher who had three preps (taught three different classes) and I got to see a fairly broad cross section of the student body and what I saw didn’t impress me very much. The vast majority of students were obsessing on their cell phones and a large percentage of them had ear buds either continually stuck in their skulls or ready to be inserted at a moment’s notice. I’ve had to tell students that they could not listen to music while they take a test, nor could they have their phone on their desk while testing.

I’m sure some of you reading this blog are wondering “so what?” and what's the big deal? It’s troubling on many different levels, at its most basic, if students have their face buried in their phone or other device, they aren’t likely paying attention to instructions and invariably will have to have the instructions repeated to them again, and again. Multiply that times the number of students in a classroom you can quickly see how time consuming that would be. Once again, I’ll toss this education obstacle at the feet of its biggest sponsor – the parent(s). Even levelheaded and cogent adults seem to turn a blind eye to the problems they unwittingly condone with their insistence that they have instant contact with their progeny. Many parents don’t think twice about texting or phoning their little darlings during class to pass on even the most mundane of messages – messages that certainly could be delivered by the front office during passing time.

Parents and guardians can help their children by not demanding instant communication, reminding them of priorities and that extra effort on their part will benefit them farther on down the line. Although you should make sure they know they are important and they do have rights, their importance and rights to not usurp their obligation to not disrupt the classroom, get an education and to allow other students to get their education too. 

However, occasionally, and just often enough to refresh my desire to teach, I will have a student – or two become engaged, ask probing questions, take notes and generally pay attention. Until something better comes along, I’ll keep at it and hope for the best. I will keep up my end of the bargain but will you? Will they?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Stanley Cup comes to Iowa

Here is a story I wrote in 2006 about the time the Stanley Cup came to Iowa. I had been instructed to write this story for potential inclusion in a DHS periodical, however, the Jayster decided he didn't like the story. 

Nonetheless, here it is.

When United flight 1114 from Calgary developed a problem enroute to Chicago on 25 August 2006, the Eastern Iowa airport was nearest airport where they could safely divert.  After an uneventful landing, a quick once over by airport fire and rescue, passengers were offloaded so the airplane to be towed to the maintenance hanger for inspection.
With no clear idea of when or if they would be able to re-board, some passengers sought other means to get to their destination – a few rented cars, some decided to stick it out in the terminal and a few opted to transfer to another airline. One of those passengers was Mr. Mike Bolt who as it turns out, works for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada. Mike was especially concerned about getting to his final destination because of the precious cargo he was entrusted with – The Stanley Cup
For those folks who aren’t familiar with this NHL icon, it is annually awarded to the best professional national hockey team and Bolt, officially known as a “Stanley Cup Escort” had to get his cup to Lansing, Michigan ASAP. Bolt is one of three Hockey Hall of Fame employees who transport and protect the Stanley Cup as it travels almost year-round to be displayed at hospitals, charity fundraisers, NHL arenas, local hockey rinks, players' hometowns and other venues.  The traveling security unit was created in 1995 to efficiently display and safeguard the Cup.
          Prior to discovering Mike’s mission, I had happened to chat with him in the concourse as he commented that he had to get to his destination. After directing him to the United ticket counter he disappeared into the throng of travelers. 

Later, I saw Mr. Bolt in the lobby and asked him how things were going. He replied that United and Northwest were taking care of him and it was during this conversation that he revealed his responsibility. He added that he would be happy to pull “The Cup” out of its shipping container for anyone who might be interested in seeing it although Mike admitted that he wasn’t even sure there were any hockey fans in Iowa! I assured him that there were and shortly afterward, 
Soon, a large blue container was wheeled out into the lobby, from which Mike pulled the four-foot tall, silver cup from its protective container. Almost immediately there was a large crowd of passengers, airline workers, and a few TSA employees who gathered around to see and touch the fabled award.  To his absolute credit, Mike stood patiently off to the side as people posed for pictures, strained to see the inscriptions covering the trophy and a few even took a moment to touch the polished silver in hopes of getting some of its “mojo.” Cell phone cameras were stretched to their limits as passengers abandoned the airline check-in queues for a snap shot. As we stood there, the crew from the grounded plane came out from behind the counter and Bolt thanked the pilot and crew for getting him and hockey’s icon safely to the ground.
Soon it was time for Mr. Bolt to pack up “The Cup” to check-in at Northwest, and of course to be re-screened. After thanking Mr. Bolt for his patience and good humor about displaying The Stanley Cup for everyone to get a look at, he had profuse thanks for all the TSA, airline, and airport personnel who helped him get his precious cargo on to his destination. Considering that this might have been the only time in its 114-year history of the Stanley Cup visited Iowa, it certainly was an exciting moment for all of us who got to witness it.

Two Internet links of interest: