Reading about isolation

What is it about isolation? There is something both frightening and mystical about being alone. Being forced to be alone, the classic time-out, is used to punish everyone from children to condemned criminals. Seeking to be alone can be seen as either a cry for help or an enlightened search for truth, depending on who you are and what you are looking for. Either way, being alone is a universal experience, perhaps our most common bond, right up there with birth, death and falling in love.

Whether you find yourself alone by choice or against your will, being cut off from the rest of the world is never easy, and only in the most extreme or cruelest cases do individuals actually find themselves completely alone without any human contact at all. By now, for example, most of us have learned that Thoreau’s self-imposed isolation at Walden Pond was never really far from civilization. (In fact, he probably had some interesting neighbors really close by). His, was an intentional retreat against the burgeoning industrialized world, and as such, he lived and experienced his time at Walden through that prism, making certain to heighten his awareness of what was “happening” … around him and within him … but he wasn’t in any real danger.

Other times, loneliness and isolation become one of the obstacles, one of the dangers in our lives. Here are five books for high school students where loneliness or isolation act as one of the antagonists:

  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. One of the first books I remember reading where the protagonist finds himself alone for a long stretch, I had the illustrated classic edition of this novel. By today’s standards, this book’s portrayal of “the other” falls short, but it should be revisited and reread for the classic that it is. Part travelogue, part survival manual, Robinson Crusoe blended truth and fiction into interesting entertainment. You can find a no frills, free version of this novel at the good ol’ Gutenberg Project.
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. This short, but compelling book retells the story of Chris McCandless, a twenty-two year old from Wisconsin who decides to travel alone to Alaska instead of going off to college. By trying to retrace the final fatal decisions McCandless makes, Krakauer invites the readers into reflections about his own past, and the decisions he made. The novel was turned into a film in 2007, which only fueled the fascination people had with McCandless’ final journey. Writer Diana Saverin reports in The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem, how the bus has become a place of pilgrimage for some, continuing the cycle of searching for self out in the world.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Another one of those “classics” that everyone is forced to read in high school, and fortunately, it is short enough to read in a sitting or two. Written in the middle of the twentieth century, this book reflects the pessimistic, zero sum attitude that still pervades the culture today, without the snark or ironic humor we have added to the recipe. The grim outlook that Golding had about human nature, though, has been proven wrong on more than one occasion, including this true-life account of six boys which you can read about here. IRL, the shipwrecked boys survived #aloneTogether for 15 months on a tiny uninhabited  island. They took turns doing different jobs, including keeping their central campfire going. No matter what else happened, someone always kept the fire going.
  • Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. This true-life adventure story recounts explorer Heyerdahl’s 1947 voyage via raft across the Pacific Ocean. The journey was the author’s attempt to show that the Polynesian islands could have been colonized by ancient navigators, a theory widely dismissed at the time which has since become mainstream. Accompanied by five others, Heyerdahl successfully navigates the small, hand-made raft from Peru to the Polynesian Islands. Besides cataloging the struggles at sea, the book is a testament to one person’s obsession with an idea that everyone else calls “crazy”.
  • Diary of Anne Frank. A classic for so many reasons and one of the first books that made me cry. I remember having to stop every few pages to stare at the black and white pictures included in my illustrated version, unable to believe that the little girl in the photos was dead. The young author of this work was writing to herself, keeping a journal of the world around her as it turned upside down, but she did it with such innocence and insight that it has endured. There have been film and stage adaptations made of the book, and finally, a graphic novel version is also available. I have not yet read this latest version of Anne Frank’s diary, but the reviews have applauded the graphic novel for sticking to the young author’s own words.

I hope you and your loved ones are safe during this pandemic. Remember that all things pass, even when we can’t quite see the end. In the meantime, pick up any of these books so that you can be reminded of how incredible the human spirit is. We have been through much worse, sometimes even throwing ourselves straight into the line of fire. What we leave with is usually another chapter testifying to our wit, our will and our wonderful ability to adapt.

Thank you for stopping by and I hope to see you soon.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

Recommended Reading, Disaster Edition

Good day to you. So, here we are still in isolation. I hope that wherever you are in the world, you are safe and well, and that you have at least some good company available to you. For me, these days in isolation have allowed me to catch up on one of my favorite activities: long form reading.

During this time of crisis, I have been watching the news to try and get information regarding the pandemic. Of course, I understand that this novel virus presents some serious challenges to the doctors in the field and to the journalists trying to make sense of the information as it rolls in. One of the things I hate hearing from our leaders though, is the idea that no one could have seen this coming. That notion is simply not true. In fact, all three of the books I recommend reading deal with the idea of natural disasters and the impacts they have had on human history. Needless to say, every writer is quick to point out that what has happened in the past, may reoccur in the future, if we don’t pay attention.

Plagues and people, by William McNeil. Published way back in 1976, this book is still worthy of attention as McNeil chronicles the impact of plagues many of us only thought of fleetingly in history class. In fact, this book remains so relevant to today’s situation, that just two weeks ago an article in History News Network recounted how McNeil had warned that a “mutated virus” could cause a future pandemic. Considered by many to be among the first historians to fully understand the impact that diseases had on the course of human events,  McNeil revisits the black plagues of 13th and 14th century Europe, typhoid in China and smallpox in the Americas, to demonstrate the back and forth relationship between us and our tiny invaders. By now, other writers have acknowledged and chronicled the influence of natural forces on human history, but it was this book that first introduced a general reading audience to such a perspective. Interestingly enough, McNeil added another chapter in the 1980’s that addressed the advent of the AIDS epidemic, when there were still many more questions than answers. Where this book leaves off, our next one picks up almost perfectly, as if it were a sequel.

Deadliest Enemy: our war against killer germs, by Michael Osterholm, PhD and Mark Olshaker. This fascinating book, as stated above, picks up where Plagues and People leaves off, with the first cases of a new mysterious disease afflicting otherwise healthy young men. Having lived through the advent and spread of the AIDS epidemic, I can tell you that there were tons of misinformation circling back then. All of it was fueled by fear, ignorance and prejudice, lessons we still have not learned. One of the other cases covered in this books is the SARS outbreak of 2009. Although this is a work of nonfiction, much of it reads like a suspense novel, as we follow the outbreaks as reported in the news first, and trace them backwards to discover where they originated. Perhaps the most dire warning that comes from this book is the idea that we will continue to face pandemics in the future as we draw closer to ecosystems that have up until this point in history been virtually isolated from human populations.

After reading the book, I discovered a video lecture posted in 2017 from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health featuring Michael Osterholm, one of the authors of the book. It is over an hour long, but is a sobering and informative discussion about the future of pandemics … a future we are living through because “no one could have seen this coming”.

 

The Big Ones: how natural disasters have shaped us (and what we can do about them), by Dr. Lucy Jones. Unlike the other books which focused on diseases and their impact on people, this book examines how natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like) have altered the course of human history. Dr. Jones revisits many famous disasters, from Pompeii in 79 AD all the way to the Great Japanese earthquake of 2011. Besides recounting the disastrous effects that these events had on people, Dr. Jones also talks about the lessons that were learned from each disaster. She is also quick to point out, however, that even when we are prepared for the worst, nature’s power for destruction is exponential and often incalculable beforehand.

You might be asking, “why would I want to read about such disasters while we are going through something terrible?” The truth is I had these books on my short reading list before any of this started. In retrospect, however, I’ve realized that reading these kinds of books has encouraged me in a few ways. For starters, disasters of any kind always call forth the best in some of us. Anytime something bad is happening, all you have to do is look around to notice that there are others trying to clean up the mess. Heroes are born from hardships. Reading about these disasters and deadly epidemics also reminds me how fragile life really is, as cliché as that observation seems. We get so caught up in our routines, our daily habits that they become meaningless. We forget how much work it actually takes to bring something as simple as a steaming cup of coffee into existence. Until something knocks us out of our “normal”, we are blind to how fortunate we actually are.

Lastly, I’d like to make one final observation. Reading about how many ways the universe conspires against us to end our fragile little lives, it really saddens me to contemplate how much of our existence, how much of our time and energy we use to organize ourselves against each other. As smart and ingenious as we are, both as individuals and collectively, you would think that by now in history, we would at least agree that life is so short and precious, that violence between us is never acceptable.

Stay safe. Be well. Read more.

Thank you for stopping by.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

Distance Learning Resources

While the sudden move to online education has caught much of the nation by surprise, the truth is that we have been slowly moving in that direction for at least half a century. In a past post, I wrote about a 1966 report called Learning by Television, which summarized its findings as, “Whether measured by the numbers of students affected, or by the quality of the product, or by the advancement of learning, televised teaching is still in a rudimentary stage of development”.

Of course, that was before the advent of home computers, the internet, broadband and so many other technological advances that have come into existence over the last fifty years. At first, schools were slow to adopt any of these tools into the classrooms, but eventually the technology became so ubiquitous (and user friendly) that schools were forced to adapt to the sweeping cultural changes. Whether we liked it or not, cell phones and wireless technology made it possible for everyone to carry with them their own personal entertainment/ communications systems in their pockets.

This was a double-edged sword, of course, given human nature. Sure, this new technology made it possible to communicate instantly with anyone on the planet, listen to the brightest minds lecture on their fields of expertise, learn independently via videos and gather reliable information from the most respected and reputable think tanks on the planet. It also ushered in the era of phone apps, cat videos, six second Vines, Memes, emojis, a Presidential Twitter account and the resurgence of flat earthers … all contributions of dubious worth.

I write all this to say, the technology is not what matters, but how we use it. Especially during our time in quarantine, it will be up to each of us as individuals to decide what we do with the time we spend in front of our screens. For my fellow educators, I hope that you are not drowning, trying to reinvent the wheel. I recommend that you use the resources that are already available online to help you shore up your lessons.

With that in mind, here then are three places you can go for help and/or ideas, along with descriptions lifted straight from their “About” pages:

  • What Works Clearinghouse: The What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) reviews the existing research on different programsproductspractices, and policiesin education. Our goal is to provide educators with the information they need to make evidence-based decisions. We focus on the results from high-quality research to answer the question “What works in education?
  • Annenberg Learner Foundation: As part of its mission to advance excellent teaching in American schools, Annenberg Learner funds and distributes educational video programs – with coordinated online and print materials – for the professional development of K-12 teachers. Many programs are also intended for students in the classroom and viewers at home, with videos that exemplify excellent teaching.
  • PBS Learning Media: is your destination for direct access to thousands of classroom-ready, curriculum-targeted digital resources. … Resources are aligned to Common Core and national standards and include videos and interactives, as well as audio, documents, and in-depth lesson plans.

Good luck finding useful resources and thank you for stopping by. Stay safe.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

Weekend reading

One thing you should have while in quarantine, is time to do some in-depth, thought provoking reading. During my time as a librarian, one of my greatest laments is that people of all ages have given up reading newspapers and magazines. Unlike televised reports, which rely on sensationalism for attention, highlight information in bullet points for efficacy and tend to focus more on the personalities involved, written articles can be more nuanced and in-depth, giving us a better understanding of the complex issues that dominate our times.

Let’s just take for example the Coronavirus Pandemic that we are all confronting right now. This one news story alone is about a virus, how diseases are transmitted, economics, health care, social infrastructures, government preparedness, international politics, personal isolation, and much more.

Nowadays, most students instantly turn to Google when doing “research”, but this strategy may lead them to online resources that are questionable at best, and/or propaganda at worst. One thing I have adopted over the years is to be sure I name my sources for my students when I am talking about something. This is especially true when I am talking about information I have read in a newspaper or magazine. Many young people today have very little experience with or exposure to print sources, and so they can’t be blamed for not knowing the names of reputable magazines.

You don’t have to be a subscriber to have access to many quality articles from print magazines that offer their content online. Some sites use cookies to limit you to four or five full access articles per month, but many are also available without such restrictions. While you might be tired of hearing about Coronavirus or COVID-19, below I offer a handful of articles that offer a different perspective on what we are dealing with.

Take a moment this weekend to read. And stay inside.

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you find something useful.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

March Quick Hit: Quarantine Edition

Hello Hillie Nation. It has been several months since I last posted. Before the state-mandated shut down, I had been out on sick leave dealing with medical issues, which are now on hold due to the Coronavirus Pandemic that has taken over the planet.

During my time away, (two and a half months, so far) I have basically been in quarantine, since my family lives in another state and my wife and two boys were in school during the day. While some of my energy has been devoted to my physical therapy, I would say much more has been focused on maintaining my mental well-being. This doesn’t make me an expert in dealing with any of this, just an expert on what has been working for me. Here are six things that I have found useful during my time at home:

  1. Keep a schedule; it does not have to be set in stone, but you should try to have some regularity in your day-to-day life. Don’t ignore the power of habits during this time away from your “normal” life. Depending on what you are dealing with, you may already be in your new “normal”. It’s going to feel different, even uncomfortable, but you’re going to have to find a way to build a life around it, so start now.
  2. Keep a journal/ notebook: maybe this is just one of those things I always do anyway, but I find that writing down how I am feeling or what I am doing is really useful for tracking changes, and growth. Especially when day-to-day changes are minor, it is difficult to feel like you are accomplishing anything or advancing in any way. A journal or notebook allows you to pick up on little things that are changing. It also gives you a place to write down your “To Do” lists and keep a track of your routine.
  3. Do for others; the worst part about my own medical hardship is that it limits my ability to help others. As a father, husband and teacher, so much of my identity and feelings of self-worth come from my helping others. While my medical condition has severely limited my mobility, this makes it even more important for me to do the little things I can still do for those I love and care for. It also takes my mind off of my own struggle for the time being.
  4. Accept the bad days; especially during times that are drawn out and painful, it is impossible to remain optimistic and sunny all the time. I don’t care who you are, you are going to feel beat some days. That’s okay. You need to cry and kick and scream. You need to be able to express the grief and anguish that comes with dealing with hardship. It’s why the myth of Sisyphus still resonates with us today.
  5. Reflect on what matters; not to get too philosophical, but sometimes life has a way of interrupting our regularly scheduled programming. It’s a reminder that we are not as in control as we like to believe. It is during these times of crisis that we learn about our own character. Embrace this as an opportunity to realign yourself.
  6. Keep growing intentionally; whatever else may happen, you are going to have to make a life of it. Change is the only constant in life and with it can come growth. But don’t be passive about it, especially now that you are forced to stay at home. No one is going to come and shake you out of your Netflix binge or your video gaming marathons. You are going to have to direct yourself and make sure you are learning, practicing or mastering some useful skills.

During the shutdown, I will continue to post weekly. I have over two hundred past posts with over a thousand links to articles and online resources. I will try and highlight online tools available to students and teachers, as well as updating links to current information regarding the Coronavirus, our response as educators and more.

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you stay safe during this crisis.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2020. All rights reserved

On Thanksgiving and book orders

First of all, let me wish everyone a very happy Thanksgiving. No matter what the origins of this holiday are, for me it has always been about two of my favorite things; food and family. I hope that whoever and where ever you are, you have plenty of both of these during this holiday.

Whatever else Thanksgiving may mean to you, it is about getting together with family and friends to share a good meal, reflect on what we’re grateful for and perhaps, even get into a discussion about a controversial topic or two. Most heated discussions usually center around politics. Whether or not you agreed with someone’s political views used to be a matter of how you interpreted the facts. That was of course a past when we were all getting our information from the same media outlets.

Nowadays, there are so many places available for us to get information, that we really live in a fractured landscape of disparate facts. According to some experts, social media is at the epicenter of how we get our news nowadays. No longer are television, radio, or newspapers our primary sources for information. And don’t even get me started about books, which seem to have disappeared from the hands of young people everywhere.

This year because our book orders were a little late, they arrived just as we were going for Thanksgiving break. Needless to say, I could not wait to unpack them and begin preparing them for addition into our collection. While checking in the books, I started to notice a trend in some of the nonfiction titles I had ordered. See if you can spot it:

I try to be balanced about controversial issues that may exist. But I don’t pretend to be neutral about anything. I am honest about what my politics are and how they shape my thinking and my worldview. While reviewing the books that I ordered for our collection, I noticed that there were quite a few books that discuss America’s ugly past. It is not because I have some sort of anti-American streak in me. In fact, I ordered these books because I love the United States, but I don’t pretend that we’re awesome and I don’t want people to forget how we got here … or how far we are from getting things right.

The U.S. is no utopia, it never has been, especially for certain segments of her population. In the age of Trump, where a slogan like “Make America Great Again” conjures up some idyllic past in the minds of some people, I feel it is important to shine a bright light on that past, to reveal the details that a nostalgic mind will often forget or intentionally overlook. Worse still than nostalgia is propaganda intended to create friction between factions, and monsters out of men. We are at the mercy of our minds, and media outlets have gotten a hold of the master key. But in order for real growth to happen we must be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and be honest with what we see, who we are. If that makes us uncomfortable, then so be it. Growth demands change, and change is always uncomfortable.

I am thankful that I live in a country where I can still purchase books that try to wrestle honestly with the brutal ugliness of our yesterdays. “What’s past is prologue”. Boy was Billy right.

Thank you for stopping by and I hope you found something worthwhile.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2019. All rights reserved.

November Quick Hits

  Every once in a while I find a bunch of interesting things that aren’t necessarily related, and I don’t think I can write a whole post about any one of them, so I bunch them together and share them as my “Quick Hits” post.

Kids and “Screen time”

            CNN’s Kristen Rogers’ report, “US teens use screens more than seven hours a day on average”, was an eye-opening review of the 2019 Common Sense Census; a report of 1,600 eight to eighteen year olds and their use of computers in all forms and formats. Anyone can download the full 70-page report for themselves here, which includes the questionnaire used to gather the information. For me, the most salient line in Rogers’ article is,

            “Despite the creative opportunities technology offers, young people devote very little time to creating their own content. No more than 1 in 10 in either age group say they enjoy ‘a lot’ activities like making digital art or graphics, creating digital music, coding or designing or modifying their own video games.

            In my experience, I find this to be true. Even while the number of tools available to students continues to expand, I don’t see many students incorporating them into their school work. Nowadays, a slideshow presentation, for example, could easily include embedded videos, audio, three-D models, a livestream connection, and various other media instead of the static, poorly cropped images students still use.

            I also find that students never pick up a newspaper or magazine even though I have them prominently displayed in our library at the circulation desk. In fact, we get twenty free copies of the Haverhill Gazette daily and the only time any student looks at it, is if they happen to be on a team at the school, and there is a story about them or the team.

National Geographic, WOMEN: A century of change

            When I was a kid, the yellow bordered magazine was always a favorite of mine. Stories are told in long-form narratives, interspersed with pullout maps, and rich, beautiful illustrations that show cutaway and multi-level views of exotic places or ancient civilizations. National Geographic continues to be a visual treasure that often features pictures that become icons in the culture.

            The November 2019 issue is dedicated to chronicling the ongoing story of more than half the people on the planet. Full of both archival and contemporary pictures, the issue is also a patchwork of quotes and profiles of women, young and old, changing the planet.

A little from online, a little from print

            While we are on the subject of magazines specifically, and reading in print in general, one of the tables that caught my eye while I was reading the 2019 Common Sense Report is on page 15. This table breaks down how students read nowadays, whether electronically or otherwise. According to the self-reported data, students claim to spend about an hour and eleven minutes each day reading books in print. From my personal experience, I find this hard to believe, unless students are reporting time in class spent reading from textbooks or handout materials copied from textbooks.

            Having observed students’ reading habits for the last two decades, I can state confidently, that their sense of what constitutes legitimate information has shifted radically online and has all but abandoned what we once considered traditional or mainstream avenues. Unfortunately, one of the casualties of this shift has been print magazines, many of which still offer insightful, intelligent and reliable reports.

            Recently, for example, I overheard a health teacher talking to her class about viruses and the curious position they hold somewhere between complex organic chemistry and living organism. After class, I shared with her a link to Journey to the Microcosmos (even though they don’t have a video about viruses) and PBS EONS’, “Where did viruses come from?”. A few days later, I was flipping through the July/August 2019 DISCOVER magazine, “Everything worth knowing about …” Issue, where they cover a variety of scientific and technological ideas, including a three-page spread on viruses! Of course, I shared this too, with our health teacher, and reflected on how great the information available to students nowadays is.

Edward Snowden on Joe Rogan

            One of my guilty pleasures is the Joe Rogan podcast. For those not familiar with Rogan, he is a standup comedian and was the host of Fear Factor, as well as being an announcer for some MMA events. On the side, Joe Rogan has also become one of the most popular podcasters with guests ranging from his comic friends (Eddie Bravo, Joey Diaz, Bill Burr) to actors (Edward Norton, Dan Ackroyd) and a variety of others (Whiz Khalifa, Alex Jones, Rob Zombie, Mike Tyson, Reggie Watts) including serious scientists and thinkers like Brian Greene, Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Dr. Cornel West and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

            Recently, Rogan invited Edward Snowden to his podcast, and he accepted. Whether you consider Snowden a traitor or a patriot, he is a thoughtful and insightful individual who knowingly risked his freedom to follow his conscience. The three-hour podcast is mostly Snowden talking about his backstory, relating how he got to be in the position he was in at the NSA and weaving together both personal anecdotes and historic court cases to reveal how the world got to where it’s at. (Not in a good way).

Earth Currents

            Finally, the last thing I will share this week was passed on to me by science teacher, S. Niraula, who in turn got it from science teacher, C. McQuaid. It is another example of what can happen when information gathered by our public science institutions such as NOAA and NASA are turned into tools available for free to the public. Using the tools available, one can monitor and track ocean and air currents, carbon dioxide hotspots, and dust storms. Users can decide what layer of the atmosphere they’d like to see by changing “height” and they can change the “projection” style for the map displayed (Conic equidistant, orthographic, equirectangular, etc.). Click on the map below to go to the link. Worth exploring.

Thank you for stopping by, and I hope you found something useful.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2019. All rights reserved.