One More Hill

My dad took up bicycling in the 1970s.  Biking with 10-speed bikes.  No one biked with 10-speed bikes back then!  I was a swimmer, so ever since I was ten years old, I was always in good enough shape to go for a thirty-mile bike ride.  So my Dad would take me.   We’d go on Saturday rides around the great state of Arkansas with other wackos who were part of the biking world back then.  I loved being with my dad, and I liked the bike riding.  But we often went past forty miles, and I will say, I was not always happy when we did.
I have great memories.
  • I remember coming into a country store around lunch time looking for a sandwich.  The store didn’t sell sandwiches, just groceries.  But the owner opened up a loaf of bread and a package of bologna and a bottle of mustard, and charged us for the portion that she used.  Pretty cool.
  • Our family of six (four kids – ages 16 to 11) went biking for three weeks in Ireland, camping half the time and staying in B&Bs half the time.  It was a lifetime experience that warrants its own set of stories.
  • The last time I took a big trip with my Dad was about 20 years ago, when the two of us went biking in the San Juan Islands.  It was a fantastic trip where we camped the entire time.  Once again, my Dad was in better shape than I, but he dragged me along.  That’s us below.
One of many memories of biking with my dad is one that occurred quite often.  We would be biking in the afternoon of an all-day ride, somewhere in the Ozarks.  The Ozarks are beautiful and certainly not as high or steep as the Rockies or Sierras.  But I will tell you, there is a lot of uphill.  I would be grinding up a hill and ready to take a break, when my dad would say, “Mike.  I promise you.  This is the last hill.”  There is something about hope that gives you strength when you did not think you had it.  I would plow to the top, only to see nothing but hills, hills and more hills on the road ahead.  I would say something angry to my dad, who would say something like, “I said that this is the last big hill.”  OK, it was a lie.  But you know what, it made me get up that hill.  I could have chosen to stop at that time (I’m not sure how I would have gotten home), but I always chose to go on.  Being pushed and pulled towards greatness is an essential ingredient of improving and achieving greatness.
San Juan Islands MDM
Peter Senge called it “Creative Tension.”  Liz Wiseman has her “Rubber Band Theory.”  Steven Covey had it in his goal setting and “saw sharpening” activities.  When we are being pushed to improve, we are at our best.  It’s why people have a personal trainer.  It’s why I swim in a master’s program.  I would be very happy swimming a mile in the pool at my own medium pace.  But for the last 15 months, I have been in a pool with people much faster than I am, where a coach pushes me to swim two miles at paces much faster than I want to.  You know what has happened?  I am stronger and faster.   I now look for the hills on my bike rides and I look forward to swimming difficult sets, because they are beautiful, they are challenging, they are different, and because they make me stronger.
I hope we as educators view things similarly.  Although it is comfortable to keep swimming the same evenly-paced mile or keep biking the same relatively flat and short path, we do our best when we push ourselves, or when we have colleagues or mentors who push us to try new things, or push to improve.  We are better teachers when we do not settle for most of the students learning the material, but we insist on doing what it takes to help all students to learn it.  We do better when we treat every lesson as a chance for greatness.  It is why I believe so much in professional development.  We are in the learning business.  If we as teachers are not constantly learning, we are serving our profession poorly. Believe me, I know that teaching is hard.  Teaching is a full time job without adding any time for professional development.  But so is being a doctor.  We have to make time for learning.  We have to push ourselves up the hill.  We are better teachers for it, and more importantly, our students gain tremendously.
And I would say it’s impossible to do it alone.  For me, throughout my life, my father, my mother, my mentors and my coaches have pushed me to being better today than I was yesterday.   And I love it.  And sometimes,when I think I cannot go on, I love that I still choose to believe it when someone says to me, “This is the last hill.”
Thanks for reading,
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

Reading: Screens or Paper?

We are a reading family. It’s been that way since the words of Goodnight Moon and The Big Red Barn echoed through the house as our children were young. One of my favorite memories of reading is in 2007, when the last Harry Potter book came out. My son Ryan could not wait. He was, after all, a classmate of Harry Potter. He and Harry were almost the same age as Harry went through Hogwarts and Ryan went through Malibu High School. Ryan turned me on to Harry Potter after I witnessed him read the first book for the fourth time. “What is this book you keep reading?” I asked. “Only the greatest book every written about the greatest wizard ever,”answered my son. I read it and was hooked too.
We were on vacation in Arkansas when the last book came out. We had a big day planned on the boat at Greers Ferry Lake. But on this day, reading was going to be part of our lake experience. We were in Wal-Mart at 6 AM on the day it came out, and Ryan started reading immediately in the back seat as we drove toward the lake. He finished around 11:00 AM and handed the book to me. I finished around 6:00 that evening, and we talked the rest of the night about the book. Yes, it was a little odd that we had our noses in a book in the midst of heat and beauty, but we took breaks, water skiing and swimming throughout the day. But to share a book, love a book, and talk about a book is one great example of a life well led.
Since I received my first iPad on Father’s Day 2010, I have become a digital reader as well as a paper reader. I believe there are advantages to both, but at this point, I primarily read digitally. My consumption of books has doubled since I became a digital reader. My consumption of information has increased multiple-fold. OK I’ll say it, I love reading on my iPad. It has been a game changer for me. I get that it’s not for everybody. My younger son is a 12 year-old who loves paper books and his digital to paper ratio is probably 1:10. I don’t judge. I do question why the heck he thinks that way, but I have let it go. For now. The bottom line is : we all have personal preferences.
Naomi Baron recently published an article in the Huffington Post, Why Reading on a Screen is Bad for Critical Thinking. It is based on her Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World book. It’s an aggressive title on a critical topic. The world of digital reading is still relatively new, and we have much to learn. We are absolutely correct to study and learn about it.
Sometimes, critical reading is not at all necessary. When I am reading about the Dodgers, reading a thriller book, or reading my Twitter feed, I certainly do not need to read critically all of the time. Scanning, reading for understanding, and then moving on is perfect for digital reading. I don’t think anyone would question that.
But when I read for deeper understanding, there are certain actions I must take, whether it be digitally or with paper. I cannot read for understanding without writing while I am doing it. When I am reviewing a dissertation, or when I am reading a book on leadership or learning, I want to make sure that (1) I truly understand what is being stated, (2) I think about how that impacts my learning and my life and (3) I remember what is most important in that reading selection.
Sometimes I will print out the document, and go at it with a pen in hand. I am underlining, circling, taking notes, writing questions and completely engaged with the text as I read it. When complete, I scan the annotated document back in to my Evernote account to make sure I can access it at any time. So even when I read paper, I am at my best when I can access it digitally.
But more often, I will use digital platforms that support highlighting and annotating. Highlighting could not be easier digitally. You have a multi-color highlight set with you at all times. Annotating takes a little practice, but again, it works beautifully in the right platforms. If I cannot highlight or annotate easily (like with the Kindle or PDF Express apps) then I cannot read closely using a digital device. But if I can, and in 90% of the cases I can, then that is what I most often do.
The biggest advantages for digital reading for me are that (1) I can access a massive amount of information on demand, and (2) I have access to everything I have ever read, the text, my highlights and my annotation, anywhere,anytime. That to me is a dream come true and I love living that dream.
If E-reading had existed back in 2007, the story of reading the last Harry Potter would have been a little bit different. We would not have had to go to the store. We could have woken up and purchased it immediately. We could both be reading at the same time, stopping to discuss as we read along. We could have shared ideas, both finished by noon, and played together the rest of the day, intertwining our play with conversations of the half-blood prince. It was still a great day, but it could have been even better.
The questions asked in Naomi Baron’s article are spot on. I wish the title could have been:Challenges in Reading on a Screen When It Comes to Critical Thinking. The point I will most certainly concede is that if you cannot stay focused on digital reading, and you treat reading an important book or piece like you treat your Twitter feed, then book reading is the way for you. I believe it takes practice and discipline, and I believe that ‘mere mortals’ are more than capable of achieving that discipline.
I don’t judge either way. I do have a strong personal preference, and I know the way the world is going. If we don’t learn to read critically using digital devices, then we are going to be in trouble. Let’s acknowledge the challenges, and find ways to address them successfully.
Thanks for reading,
Mike Matthews