Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Getting the best gift ever....again!

The best gift ever, part one:
In the summer of 1995, my Aunt Jen and Uncle Pete gave me what became my very favorite of all my high-school graduation gifts. As I opened the gift, at first all I knew was I was getting my first "real" camera. You can see me opening the camera cover and lens care kit in this snapshot; the box with the camera body is barely visible in the frame, bottom right.

The camera Aunt Jen chose for me was a Pentax K1000, which I was soon to learn was the renowned "workhorse" of sturdy, solid 35-mm manual-everything cameras. The only thing on it that required a battery was a through-the-lens light meter, and its long-lasting battery required only one replacement in my long relationship with that camera. With some practice, I learned the basics of manual focus, aperture, shutter control, and using available light instead of relying on flash. Though I never learned wet darkroom techniques, I played around with shooting both color and black-and-white film, and have had quite a lot of fun with that Pentax.

Things changed, as they always do. Throughout graduate school and early adulthood, I moved several times; physical "things" became more inconvenient at the same time that prices for their digital counterparts began to fall. I began to rely more and more on digital media for everything. No longer content to relegate my pictures to shoeboxes under the bed and physical albums collecting dust, I started to avoid shooting film (at first without noticing the insidious digital slide), not just because of the processing fees, but because more and more I was enjoying the ability to do my own "digital darkroom" tweaks and desktop publishing from my point-and-shoot digital camera.

And yet... I missed the ability to choose how I wanted to focus a shot, without scrolling through endless "soft menus" and having a camera eat batteries like tic-tacs.

The best gift ever, part two:
During the holiday season of 2008, it finally happened. My wonderful husband looked at me and said: "I don't know what you want for a gift." I put down the book on digital photography I had been longingly leafing through and sighed: "What I really want is a digital, single-lens reflex camera." He blinked, shook his head slightly in disbelief, and said, "Really? You know what you want? You want a camera?" I showed him the book, which had diagrams of cameras, sample pictures each model could take, and specs. The prices were easily four times what we could possibly afford. Fortunately, the copyright date was about 4 years old.

So the story has a happy ending. As had happened when I was in graduate school, prices for digital cameras had come down, this time for the digital SLR's, both prosumer models and the true-pro models. A local retailer was able to set us up with a Pentax *ist, which is the best gift ever, part two.

As you can see, it makes me smile just playing around with it. Here I am at a local nature conservancy, trampling around in the ice and snow. That wonderful husband of mine took this picture with my "ol' reliable" Nikon CoolPix P2. He did a beautiful job, didn't he?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Seven Books I Purchase Again and Again...

Having grown up in a home with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves spanning long, long upstairs hallways and built into most of the other rooms, I am wary of the habits of book-collecting and book-hoarding. Whenever possible, I borrow books; I buy them used; and give away any books that I suspect I will not read again. This makes it easy for me to know when a book is important to me: I find myself purchasing that title again and again.

At the turn of the year, in prime gift-giving and gift-getting season, I am in full-on possession-shedding mode, and hearing many of those around me set long-term objectives (more fashionably clothed in the language of "New Year's Resolutions"). These seven books I part with readily when a loved one, friend, colleague, student, or client needs it more than I do, but I keep coming back to them, time after time:

1. Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity. David Allen (2001). The principles behind this book are also a staple of such blogs as and; I have frequently given this one away and told the recipient, "This book can improve your life today, and you can spend the rest of your life perfecting the whole of it." Available without ordering in most brick-and-mortar bookshops and very inexpensive at the Amazon Marketplace.

2. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie (Original copyright 1936, numerous editions since then). You know what this is. If you haven't read it, read it. If it's been a while, refresh yourself. For maximum benefit, follow -- yes, actually follow! -- the directions he gives for using the book as a manual. Read it slow, repeat it at intervals. He tells you how to do it, so give it a try and see if it works for you. Available with and without ordering depending on the volume your neighborhood bookshop does; various years can be very inexpensive at the Amazon Marketplace.

3. Nurturing Resilience in Our Children. Robert Brooks & Sam Goldstein (2003). Not just for parents, but for anyone who deals with children: for teachers, coaches, therapists, and childcare providers, this book is a clear-headed and kind-hearted read. It's especially good for starting conversations among faculty at small schools. Many local bookshops will have to special-order this title, but you may be pleasantly surprised; ordering online through the authors' sites supports further program development.

4. The Power of Positive Parenting. Glenn Latham (1990). For anyone who ever thought, "I didn't want to do that... again" or "I didn't want to say that.... again" in dealing with a student, child, or even a supervisee, this book just might do it. Achieves many similar aims to Nurturing Resilience in Our Children, with a few more "cookbook" type suggestions. This one is almost exclusively a special-order, whether at a store or online; the good news is, it's still in print.

5. The One Minute Manager. Kenneth Blanchard & Spencer Johnson (1981, 1982, 1994). This was the Who Moved My Cheese from before people were mice. Tiny little allegory; quick and gives three crucial skills to working with others. These skills are based in part on the interpersonal styles advocated in Carnegie's How to Win Friends & Influence People and the behavioral principles described in books like The Power of Positive Parenting. Frequently hard to find in regular bookstores, but quick to order.

6. Unless you are a professional behavior analyst (working in a school setting at that!), you may not want or need the two books I'm collapsing into the same recommendation here. However, by my lone criterion of "Purchasing Again and Again," I must mention two books whose titles I refer to only by their TLA's (three-letter-acronyms) in my everyday life. DTS & VBA are books I purchase and give away on a near-constant basis. DTS stands for Designing Teaching Strategies: An Applied Behavior Analysis systems approach (2002) by R. Douglas Greer. VBA stands for Verbal Behavior Analysis: Inducing and Expanding New Verbal Capabilities in Children with Language Delays by R. Douglas Greer & Denise Ross (2007). For my previous reviews of each, see the pages for each title on Neither is ever available on a shelf at anything but a college bookstore; both order fairly speedily if required, though.

7. I'll Stop Procrastinating....When I Get Around to It (Richard W. Mallott & Holly Harrison). Congratulations on persevering to the end of the list; now what should you have been doing as you've been browsing this blog? If you're serious about putting any of your new long-term objectives into play for 2009 and have had mixed success in the past, this "course pack" is probably just the thing for you. Unfortunately, this is one that you wouldn't find without a tip. Point your browser to and follow the instructions. You will have to call a work-study student in Michigan and order the text in a rather unusual way, but it's worth it!

Happy reading!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Out, Standing in our Field

Recently, I have started to think that one of the main projects I worked on as an undergraduate and graduate student might just have qualified for the "Out, Standing in A Field" type of certificate. You know, the ones that imply not greatness, but loneliness. Typically they picture a single person, usually in business attire, standing alone in a vast expanse of tall grass. If these can be awarded far after the fact, I think a project from the 95-2002 or so probably qualifies for such a notation.

For several years I worked on college-sponsored electronic portfolio projects. The projects were ambitious, aiming to improve student connections between the relevant licensing or professional standards in their chosen fields of study and their academic preparation to work. The colleges meant to use the portfolios as an outcomes assessment, while the students could use them as interviewing aids.

It was a great idea, but before its time: we did not yet have any of the authoring software that made it practical (does anybody who remembers MS FrontPage 98 not grimace now?), had little idea of how to secure intellectual property, and hadn't worked out how long schools would host student data into the future. We did try out many ideas that were worthwhile, including juried portfolio exhibitions, places for reviewer comments and threaded discussions, and the like. Unfortunately, it was ultimately unsustainable for both schools. Marymount College, Tarrytown eventually closed. Columbia University, Teachers College let the project come to a stop slowly, through its own inertia.

With the inevitable slow-down that comes with days-off for the holidays and the resume-review that comes with economic hard times, I have spent some time on sites like Linked-In and CareerBuilder. That's when it occurred to me: looking at Linked-In in particular was a glimpse "back to the future." No sooner had I created my own profile than I realized: this new-fangled thing contained most of the elements of what had been termed the "display portfolio" in the old programs. A little biographical information, some work history: like a resume with hypertext, footnotes, whatever. There it all was. The only thing it lacked was a place for a philosophy statement and rationales for "why" certain items were included: but then again, these pieces were often ultimately omitted from presentation portfolios.

Shazam! The principles of the old Career Achievement Portfolio, live in hypertext. All the old problems solved. It just took an additional decade to get it done. And not by us. But it was pretty nifty to see. We may have been out, standing in our field back then, but we're in pretty good company now.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


A dear friend of mine frequently says, "Experience is what you get, when you don't get what you want." That's certainly true. Negotiating with difficult co-workers, driving in perilous road conditions, and restoring data from a terminally frazzled computer all gave me "experience" straight from the "this isn't what I wanted!" department.

What is also true is that when you get what you want, look out! It may be more than you bargained for. As folks who are wiser than me so frequently say, "be careful what you wish for, you just might get it." When I was a brand-new graduate student studying early childhood special education, I really wanted a public school job very close to where I was in graduate school. Even though my teaching certificate at the time was for high-school biology, I got the job I wanted, and I spent two years in one of the most challenging settings in special education. So perhaps, experience is what you get, whether you get what you want or get what you do not want.

But what is "experience," and what does one do with it?

One thing experience has been, for me, is a stock of "war stories." I can say to another person, "I was there." These stories are sometimes entertaining, sometimes poignant, and frequently help others identify with me. After swapping stories, a speaker and a listener seem to be more likely to be able to connect"and do whatever work must be done in a collaborative manner.

Another thing experience has given me is a reference for what does and does not work in certain situations. In my field, we call this a repertoire of contingency-shaped behaviors. After enduring a few fire-drills in a few different settings, it becomes easier and easier to know what to do in any fire-drill, anywhere. With experience, you begin to know "what to do when you don't know what to do."

Possibly the most important thing experience continues to give me on a daily basis is humility. The more I see and the more I do, the more I learn from others. This reminds me how much I still have to learn -- there's a wide world out there, still to be experienced.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Firm Grasp of the Obvious

One of the most dismissive evaluations my mother dispensed (to me and to others) was, "that one has a really firm grasp on the obvious." Loaded with derision, this comment was never meant as a compliment. Rather, she meant that the object of her scorn failed to meet her standards of perceptiveness or abstract thinking.

More recently, however, I have come to think that having a "firm grasp of the obvious" is not as common as I once thought. And you know what else? It's probably not such a poor quality to have in a person.

When we are around people with a firm grasp of the obvious, we learn that the king has no clothes, not new clothes. We may learn that the alarm is not a drill, and we should in fact leave the premises immediately. Obviously, a firm grasp of the obvious isn't such a bad thing after all.