Saturday, August 30, 2008

Potty-training boot camp

Posting here will continue to be light, despite the long weekend. . .

. . . because we're having potty-training boot camp. Day 1 went as well as can be expected, and by the end of the day, Lucas was telling us when he needed to pee, although typically he gave us about 2 seconds' notice. We'll work on that tomorrow.

If you have any tips from the trenches, I'd love to hear them. We're using the method described by Dr. Sears in his big baby book--basically Lucas is running around bare-bottomed in the backyard or in underpants in the house, potty always nearby. We reward him with stickers and wind-up toys.

BTW, in one week, Lucas will be 3 years old. Unbelievable. I'll try to post some photos soon.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

RBOC, highlights and lowlights edition

First, the lowlights:

  • The flash has stopped working on my Canon Rebel XT, and all the fixes in the help forums aren't helping. I don't use the flash much, but it's frustrating nonetheless. I really don't need to be spending money fixing an otherwise great camera right now.
  • It's getting hotter here. The weekend and early this week was beautiful. Now we're firmly back in the 90s, which makes bicycle commuting considerably less fun.
  • The new dog has just begun to smell like wet dog. Ick. Obi also chewed up my favorite, best pair of Ann Taylor slacks. They were sitting in a pile of clothes to go to the cleaner's, so it's partly my fault for leaving them on the floor, but damn, I'm pissed. Neither the local Ann Taylor factory stores or anyone online is carrying them in the same color and in my size. Grrrrrr.
  • Last week Obi, right in front of me, pulled the only bell pepper from my bell pepper plant. It was about halfway to being ripe.
  • We seem to have cultivated in Lucas an addiction to Pixar films, particularly Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc., though he also appreciates the Toy Story movies and, with parental assistance, The Incredibles. Lucas largely ignores branding, however, when it comes to movies. He calls the Muppet movies "froggy" (because of Kermit), Babe is "piggy," and Finding Nemo is "fishies." He also enjoys watching Superman cartoons from the 1940s, episodes of the Johnny Cash Show, and a particular Bruce Springsteen concert DVD. I still worry sometimes that he watches too much TV, but Mommy needs her sanity, you know? Plus he's playing outside, and inside he spends time with puzzles, Play-doh, glue, crayons, pens, watercolors, books, and Tinkertoys. I think we've struck a balance that works for both him and us.

Now, the highlights:
  • The dog's behavior is improving, albeit sloooooowly. And he's amazing with Lucas. Obi occasionally knocks the boy down as he runs crazily around the house or yard, but for the most part they play well together. And while Obi will sometimes nip at, gnaw on, or jump up on Mr. Trillwing and me, he never does so with Lucas. Still, I see puppy kindergarten in his future. Words Obi knows: Obi, treat, sit, muzzle. Obi's instincts tell him to be underfoot, nip, fetch, and get soaked by the hose. Methinks he has some herding dog and Labrador retriever in him.
  • In the garden, I'm having lots of luck with eggplants and teeny tiny cherry tomatoes. And while last summer I planted three tomato plants and grew zero tomatoes--just a lot of stems and leaves, this summer the bigger tomato plants have finally started fruiting. On the three plants right now I have about 20 tomatoes. Yay!
  • I just noticed yesterday that I have some baby watermelons, ranging in size from half an inch to about 3 inches across. Last summer I had one watermelon and it split before it was mature.
  • The two kinds of small-leaf basil I planted have been terrific. I planted them in the raised bed right outside the back door so that I can easily pull off a few leaves when I need them. Now only if I could get the eggplant and basil to hang around long enough for the tomatoes! (I'll try to remember to post garden photos soon.)
  • I'm hoping to find some broccoli to grow during the fall/winter. The gardening maven in the local paper says it's time to plant broccoli starts, and she's always right on in her advice for this region.
  • I'm taking Lucas down to see my parents for several days. Mom and Dad are kind enough to watch him for two full days while I attend a couple of work-related workshops elsewhere in Southern California.
  • At work I'm collaborating with two of my favorite colleagues on a short course (12 hours total) for some visiting Japanese science faculty who want to learn more about incorporating interactivity in their teaching. It's been a blast. There's the possibility of us going to Japan in 2009 to collaborate with another Japanese university on the same subject, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to make the trip--our little family needs a lot of care and feeding right now.
  • Had lunch with Fantastic Mentor today--always a pleasant experience.
  • I booked a whirlwind trip to Vermont in October to visit a good friend and colleague and collaborate with other colleague-friends in an extended weekend retreat. I'm very much looking forward to the trip--I only wish I could stay longer.
  • Lucas is a joy. He's such a fabulous kid. And he's so lucky to have Mr. Trillwing as a father. They're an amazing pair. They spend a full weekday together every week--the other days Lucas is at daycare--and I'm so happy they have this time together.
  • Not sure if this is going to be a high- or lowlight, but we're going to have potty training bootcamp over Labor Day weekend, just before Lucas's third birthday.

In other news, I started therapy again for the first time in years. The last time I had therapy of more than three sessions was in early 2001, so it was time to check in my with mental health. I feel less engaged with the world and less organized than I used to be, and I want to figure out why. (We already know I have dysthymia, which we're treating pretty successfully with antidepressants.) I met with the new therapist yesterday and I like her. She's pretty funny, too.

The problem I run into with therapists, I think, is that compared to many of their patients, I'm very high functioning. For example, yesterday I told New Therapist everything I'm up to these day--working full time, teaching museum studies in the fall, being a parent, blogging hither and yon, gardening, dealing with the chaos of an overgrown puppy. She was impressed rather than concerned. But I'm not as organized or on top of things as I used to be. She pointed out that kids can be really draining, but even during Lucas's early months I was more organized and engaged than I am today. I did laugh when she said, "I know I'm not supposed to argue with my patients. I went to therapy school, so I know I'm just supposed to take notes and say 'uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.' But you're doing amazing things."

I'm hoping therapy won't just be about getting me to lower my expectations for myself. I'd really like to get my shit together and reengage with all aspects of my life.

What's up with you these days?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Obama's education plan: visionary or delusional?

(Cross-posted from BlogHer)

Late last month I looked at presumptive Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain's education plan and found it lacking. Now it's time to examine the education plan of his presumptive opponent, Democratic Senator Barack Obama. As always, I encourage you to read the plan yourself; you can see an outline of Obama's plan and download the full versions of his K-12 education and college affordability plans.

First off, I'm impressed by the Obama plan and encouraged by the thoughtfulness of the reforms his campaign is proposing. That said, these reforms are extensive and will require a lot of local oversight from already resource-strapped districts. To move several of Obama's initiatives from pie-in-the-sky plans to reality will require both a substantial influx of money and other resources and additional creative, committed leaders at the school and district levels.

Here are the primary proposals in the Obama plan:

Reform No Child Left Behind

From the plan:

Obama believes we should not be forced to spend the academic year
preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests.

Amen. No Child Left Behind has effectively removed opportunities for many teachers to enrich their curriculum with the arts, sciences, history, and quality literature because they must "teach to the test." I like Obama's proposal to perform formative assessment--meaning ongoing evaluation that allows teachers to measure students' individual progress and make adjustments in their education plans as necessary rather than planning for high-stakes tests.

That said, the Obama campaign hasn't yet provided details on exactly what these formative assessments might look like--nor explained how teachers might best learn to apply them. Evaluation--of students or courses--is definitely a learned, and in many cases difficult, skill; it's not something that can be intuited. It's an interesting proposal, but I want more details.

Invest in zero to five early childhood education

This is a huge part of the Obama preK-12 education plan because Obama believes (very) early investment in education will have big payoffs later on. It irks me that the campaign doesn't provide the source for this statistic, but it's an interesting one:

For every one dollar invested in high quality, comprehensive programs
supporting children and families from birth, there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system, and better health.*

In short, the Obama plan promises to provide challenge grants to states, increase Head Start eligibility and funding, provide universal access to preschool, provide affordable and high-quality childcare for working parents, and create a presidential council to facilitate interaction at local, state, and federal levels. Combined, these programs will cost the country $10 billion a year. That's a lot of money, but it's chump change compared to what we're already spending on military activities abroad. It's important to invest at home, too.

Obama also plans to expand the child-care and dependent tax credit. Republicans could criticize this move as more social welfare spending, but more generously construed it's a reduction in taxes for those who need it most. And in light of studies (see footnote below) indicating that investment in early childhood education (in this case in the form of tax credits for parents of preschoolers) reduces crime later on, it seems this is a plan that red, blue, or purple voters could get behind. Toss in Obama's plan to improve the quality of early childhood education, and voters of all stripes (except perhaps the most militant of the child-free) should have reason to support at least this part of Obama's initiative.

The early childhood initiatives are the most fleshed-out of Obama's plan, so definitely go read the plan for yourself to get more details.

Recruit, prepare, retain, and reward U.S. teachers

The Obama plan provides funding for improved teacher education and certification programs, ongoing professional development opportunities, and service scholarships for teachers who commit to spending four or more years in high-need districts and neighborhoods. He also encourages mentoring of new teachers as well as building in more time for teachers to collaborate with one another.

Already there are programs--such as Teach for America--that train new (albeit frequently uncredentialed) teachers to work in America's toughest schools. Those programs have a mixed record of success. I hope Obama's initiatives will allow these schools, as well as new teachers, to achieve at higher levels. I'd like to see more details of his plan. The last thing I want to see is a lock-step teacher prep program that follows the pattern of No Child Left Behind: standardized teaching to match standardized learning. I would like to see programs that reward creativity, individual teacher initiative, and leadership.

It appears the Obama plan provides for more rewards than punishments, which makes sense to me. Imagine two scenarios: (A) Spending all year teaching to a nationally standardized test only to find your school's students fail to meet their externally mandated improvement goal for the year and your school is sanctioned as a result. (B) Principals and local leaders who encourage teachers to tailor educational plans to individual students and then reward those teachers whose curricula improves student learning in ways that are measurable but make sense within the context of the school and region. Surprise: I'm all about option B.

Support strong school leaders

We have to be careful with this one. There's leadership, and then there's bureaucracy. Innovative, resourceful, and flexible principals and mentor teachers are essential to any K-12 school's success. But politically motivated school board members who are masquerading as "strong school leaders"--but who are advocating for the dismantling of science and health education by promoting intelligent design and abstinence-only sex ed curricula--can do incredible harm.

I have mixed feelings about Obama's proposal for "state leadership academies." In the best-case scenario, such spaces could become hotbeds of innovative, student-centered teaching. In the worst-case scenario, such academies could serve as sites where teachers are trained in state-mandated methods rather than listened to. Academies that draw on teacher experiences and successes and encourage viral professional development (a term I borrow from Jen at Injenuity) are a more promising alternative.

Make science and math education a national priority

As the Obama plan points out, U.S. students rank rather dismally in math and science tests compared to our industrialized peers. The Obama plan focuses on improved science curricula as well as recruitment of talented math and science teachers. It also takes a decidedly different tack from NCLB's bubble-form approach to assessment:

Assessments should reflect the range of knowledge and skills students should acquire. Science assessments need to do more than test
facts and concepts. They need to use a range of measures to test inquiry and higher order thinking skills including inference, logic, data analysis and interpretation, forming questions, and communication. High-performing states like Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, use an assessment that calls for students to design and conduct investigations, analyze and present data, write up and defend results. Barack Obama will work with governors and educators to ensure that state assessments measure these skills.

That's a promising approach: expanding what already works.

I'd also like to see an expanded focus on cultural studies, and history and literature in particular. Too many literacy curricula eschew the rich tradition of American literature in favor of more inexpensively produced texts by publishers' in-house or freelance authors. The college students--and even graduate students--I teach are largely culturally illiterate outside of the pop culture realm. While it can be fun to open these students' eyes to American historical events and cultural patterns, the teaching and learning in my classrooms would be so much enriched if these students came to college with a better understanding of the broad spectrum of American literature and culture.

Help our most at-risk children achieve in school

Obama proposes lengthening the school day and/or school year to bring it in line with the daily and annual patterns of a 21st-century workforce, whereas the current system makes sense in a more agrarian society. He also wants to reduce high-school dropout rate by focusing during middle school on students at risk of dropping out.

Most exciting for me in assisting at-risk students is the Obama plan for redesigning the physical spaces of schools:

Many schools have been redesigning the way the operate so that they are more successful in teaching all students, by rethinking the factory-model that we inherited from reforms a century ago and creating schools that allow teachers to work in teams, personalize instruction for students and collaborate together to create a more rigorous and relevant curriculum. These efforts include the development of small schools and small learning communities in secondary schools. Well-designed models have improved school safety, increased attendance and sharply reduced dropouts. Obama will support federal efforts to continue to encourage schools to organize themselves for greater success by developing stronger relationships among adults and students, a more engaging curriculum, more adaptive teaching, and more opportunities for teachers to plan and learn together.

Again, I'd like more details, but this is a promising approach--far more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Educational researchers are recognizing the huge influence that even subtle changes in learning environments can have on students. It would be terrific if an Obama administration drew heavily on this research in providing schools with templates they might adapt to their local contexts.

Enlist parents and communities to support teaching and learning

Community and parent involvement is essential to student success. It's disappointing, then, that this section of the Obama plan relies on tired rhetoric about turning off the TV, limiting access to video games, and contracts between schools and parents. Yes, such measures will have an effect in many cases, but I'd like to hear some new ideas. How can we get community members involved in the schools, much in the way that Obama proposes that students undertake community service?

Commit to fiscal responsibility

How will an Obama administration find the $18 billion needed annually to fund such measures?

Barack Obama’s early education and K-12 plan package costs about $18 billion per year. Obama will pay for this plan without increasing the deficit with a portion of the savings from his plan to cut wasteful and unnecessary spending. This includes reforming and reducing earmark spending, reforming federal contracting procedures, using purchase cards and the negotiating power of the government to reduce costs of standardized procurement, auctioning surplus federal property, and reducing the erroneous payments identified by the Government Accountability Office, and closing the CEO pay deductibility loophole.

Invest in what works

The Obama plan includes funding not just for education, but for research into and development of educational tools and methods. The campaign points out that

While we spend roughly $400 billion annually in this country on public education, we spend less than seven tenths of one percent of that – $260 million – figuring out what actually works.

As a scholar, I appreciate an emphasis on research and evaluation of educational theory and practice. In my observations--first-hand or through the news--of public school districts, there seems to be--to build on my earlier metaphor--an awful lot of rearranging of deck chairs without asking if we really need to be thinking about chairs when the entire ship is sinking. Making too many dramatic changes in a school--for example, redrawing neighborhood attendance areas, instituting school uniforms, extending the school day, segregating classes by gender--in too short a time period makes it difficult to measure the impacts of any one initiative. And yet I've seen these measures put in rapid-fire place in too many schools. Further research into education--or even a thorough reading of the vast existing literature--is crucial to the success of schools at any level.

Put college within reach

The Obama plan for putting college within reach opens with some unsettling statistics:

• College costs have grown nearly 40 percent in the past five years
• 60 percent of all college graduates leave college with debt.
• The average graduate leaves college with over $19,000 in debt
• Between 2001 and 2010, 2 million academically qualified students will not go to college because they cannot afford it.
• Only 12 percent of Hispanics and 16 percent of African Americans eventually earn a bachelor’s degree – compared with 33 percent of White students. The rising cost of college is a factor in this disparity.

Obama plans to make college more accessible by reforming financial aid systems, expanding the Pell Grant program, ensuring students understand they need to start preparing for college prior to 12th grade, and helping community colleges better prepare their students for the workforce and/or four-year colleges.

In the blogosphere

Here are some thoughts on the Obama plan from around the blogosphere:

Kelly at Generation Cedar worries that there's too much emphasis on infant education. How early is too early?

Sara Jenkins suggests to the Obama campaign that teachers in training should spend a full year, rather than part of a semester, in a classroom with a mentor teacher.

YBJK at Yer Sweet Chimneys points us to a comparison of Obama and McCain on key issues related to education.

What are your thoughts? What would you like to see in the education plan of any presidential candidate?

*Despite the lack of specific citation in the proposal, other studies, such as this one (PDF) conclude that there can be a significant return on investment in early childhood education.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The museum is not a classroom

(This post is one I wrote for Museum Blogging, a blog where I occasionally post musings aimed at museum professionals, and particularly museum educators. I thought this post, however, might have resonance for many readers of The Clutter Museum, so I'm sharing it here.)

This blog has gone too long without any new posts. It's not that I haven't been thinking about museums--far from it. But I have been thinking about museums from outside museums, from affiliated--or potentially affiliated--institutions rather than as a practitioner within the museum field.

In my ideal job, I would muse about museums all day long, tinkering in the intersections of exhibits and education, of theory and visits. And I'm very fortunate in that for part of each week for part of the year, I get to teach a history and theory class in a graduate museum studies program. Even better--this year, I'm overseeing the master's theses, so I get to witness a dozen and a half students--some of them with lots of museum experience, some of them with a bit less--emerge into the profession, their first big academic project under their belts.

The rest of my time, I occupy myself as a teaching consultant at my local university--meaning I help faculty be more thoughtful about their teaching of undergraduates. My days could easily degenerate into a series of canned workshops on grading tests, using the university's course management system, or lecturing. Such workshops typically draw few people. And at a university with thousands of instructors, it gets pretty disheartening when only three people show up to a workshop.

Instead, at our teaching resources center, we're taking a different approach. While it is important that faculty know how to write a test (how else can you assess students in a course of 750?), it's also important that they see one another as resources. Instead of weekly workshops, then, we're trying something different. Here's a sampling:

Every Friday during the academic year, between 15 and 30 faculty come to hear their peers talk about innovative strategies they're trying out in their classrooms. An ecologist recently spoke about how he's using technological tools to make his 500-student course feel smaller. A geologist talked of how she records four-minute-long videos revisiting a key concept from her lecture, then posts the videos on YouTube. A physician talked of how he uses online simulations in the continuing education of doctors throughout the state.

We publish a monthly newsletter, The Electronic Envelope, that brings faculty up-to-date with not only what we're doing at the teaching resources center, but also alerts them to the hot issues in pedagogical discussions today. Many of our faculty are very much caught up in research agendas, and they don't have time to keep up with the latest and greatest in undergraduate instructional practice. So we write short articles--almost like blog posts--on such issues as reading among Gen Y students, digital literacies of students and faculty, and strategies for improving visual literacy.

We offer quarterly More Thoughtful Teaching (MTT) symposia, each comprising three hours of presentations, workshops, and conversations. Each MTT takes a different form and supports a different strand of undergraduate instructional practice. Our most recent MTT focused, for example, on fear and anxiety among faculty and students. We had the director of the university's student mental health center give a talk on student mental health, and then over lunch we sat at themed tables to discuss anxieties we and our students feel over such subjects as technology, copyright and intellectual property, and this passage anatomy and cell biology Professor Tom Marino of Temple University wrote in 2000:

“I knew why I liked the safe humanistic classroom now. It was the classroom I have always wanted but was afraid to try. Yes, I too was afraid, and fear was not only part of my students’ classroom it was part of my classroom too. So what could I do and how was I going to do it?

I was going to make my classroom a safe place. A place where students did not just learn about the facts but also learned about each other and the implications of the facts they were learning. It was important no for me to begin to create a place where my students felt free to explore and grow along with experiencing the subject they were studying. In my safe, humanistic classroom, my students will be learning as much about themselves and their relationship to the subject and their colleagues as they are about science facts. We will all be working together to learn.”

Why am I telling you all this? What does this have to do with museums?

Plenty. All of our activities are aimed at helping faculty interact with and help one another. We put forward questions--and the opportunity to ask questions--and listen and moderate as faculty answer those questions in ways that make sense to them depending on their disciplines and where they are in their careers. We're providing a "third space"--not the home, not the classroom or lab or office--where faculty can exchange ideas about teaching--where they can learn to take risks that will likely improve their instruction. If we can reach even 100 faculty members each year--and we are in contact with far more instructors than that--we can impact the lives of thousands of undergraduates, as well as graduate students who have these faculty as mentors.

Similarly, the best museums--through exhibits, outreach, and other educational programs--seek to meet people where they are, and help them take the next steps on their journey toward making their communities a better place. This gets back to the post on museums and civic discourse I wrote back in March. Funding issues aside, many museums are ideally positioned to serve as these "third places" where people can be changed and be inspired to effect change in their communities.

I spent a couple years working for a small science center, first as an educational outreach specialist and then as an exhibition developer. In both roles I was called upon to tailor our exhibits and lessons to meet the needs of classroom teachers--that is, I needed to make explicit in the appendices of our teacher guides exactly which of the state's science standards our programs met for each grade level. The science center's assumption, then, was not only that classroom teachers needed help meeting the standards because they didn't have the temporal financial resources to teach these subjects in their own classrooms (which was true), but also that the state's standards of scientific literacy by grade level made sense.

Such an assumption troubles me. Yes, Americans in particular could benefit from supplemental learning opportunities that boost their scientific and historical literacies. That said, should we let the state dictate the content of our exhibitions and education programs? I'm considerably less interested in making sure that a fourth grader understands the basics of electricity and magnetism and can build a simple compass than I am in getting that fourth grader to think through the hard choices we have to make about the sources--coal, wind, petroleum, solar, geothermal--of the electricity that powers her home. I'm more interested in helping a seventh grader and her parents understand why it's not safe for a huge school bus depot to be sited in their neighborhood--and helping them combat rising rates of asthma among urban children--than I am in having that same girl understand the finer details of how the cardiovascular system functions.

Let the schools teach students to make compasses and diagram bronchioles. Our job as museum professionals is to provide the learning that students frequently can't get in schools because of conservative school boards, high-stakes standardized testing, or for myriad other reasons.

But to get to the community--to those youth and adults most in need of this kind of advocacy and information--museums need to partner with institutions they don't normally court. In my previous post on civic discourse, I mentioned supermarkets as one space for advocacy about foodways. But there are plenty of other spaces as well.

For example, say you're doing an exhibition on AIDS or HIV, and you've seen these stats:

Black people have come to bear the greatest burden of AIDS in America. They represent 54 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases in America, 70 percent of the new cases among American youth are Black, and nearly 67 percent of the new HIV/AIDS cases among American women are Black, and 43 percent of the new cases among men are Black. Most importantly, the majority of those still dying from AIDS in America, totaling more than 18,000 last year, were Black.

Why wouldn't you partner with local African American churches as well as correctional facilities where African American men are incarcerated in numbers out of proportion to their representation in the United States? If you work for a science center, you can reach out to churches, even though in the U.S. we tend to see science and faith as oppositional.

Another example: Increasingly, Americans are growing food in community gardens, in abandoned lots, in their backyards, and even in their front yards. After more than five decades of waging war on weeds in their suburban front lawns, citizens are realizing that lawns can be an environmental nightmare. Add to that a dawning realization that our food sources are insecure, and you have an increased interest in urban agriculture. (Did you know there are people farming in the increasingly abandoned Detroit suburbs?) Whether your institution is dedicated to history, art, or science, there are myriad opportunities to connect with local communities around growing food: tours of local suburban homesteads, workshops on how to grow tomatoes--even on an apartment balcony in a hanging basket (and don't forget to give away tomato plants), classes on how to compost, quasi-guerrilla gardening projects in underutilized public or private spaces, or contests to see who can grow the biggest pumpkin or the tallest sunflower in each neighborhood in your city or town. Set up a sustainable garden on your museum grounds, demonstrating how to safely recycle "gray water." Write labels and install educational signage in your town's communal gardens. Showcase how people historically conserved, transported, and used water and food in your region. Hire some local artists and horticulture experts to collaborate on an art garden, where the beauty is in the garden itself but perhaps also in sculptures made from "freecycled" objects.

The earth is dying, our educational systems are in many ways dysfunctional, and Americans' health is declining. Museums can't afford to be apolitical in the face of such challenges. We don't need our exhibit labels to express radical political beliefs, but our actions and partnerships need a radical overhaul.

What museum-community partnerships do you find exciting and inspiring change in their regions?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Starting over--a high-stakes learning opportunity

(reposted from BlogHer)

I'm addicted to starting over. I like things to be new and fresh. I love learning new things on the job (or off). My husband? Not so great with the starting over. He once commented that "It's only a rut if you're looking down into it. When you're inside it, it's a groove. And yet it's time for my husband to shake some of the dust off his career, and for me to consider where the heck mine is going over the next few years.

Here's the deal: as many of you know, Mr. Trillwing is in newspapers. Remember those? The satisfying thud of a large newspaper on your front walk? The inky smudges on your fingers? Your one-stop source for local information for a mere 50 cents?

Newspapers today are facing a crisis: print advertising is becoming less popular. Subscriber numbers (and therefore readership) are falling. Paper costs are rising. So newspapers are literally thinning down--they reduce the width of the paper on which they're printed, they cut or combine sections, they lay off writers and designers and ad reps. Increasingly, newspapers are outsourcing their production to workers in India and elsewhere.

Oddly, Mr. Trillwing has plenty of work. In fact, on behalf of two newspaper companies, he produces five newspapers and three websites from an office in our spare bedroom. But he works 60 hours a week at least. And he is not paid as well as he should be.

If I found myself in this situation, I'd land on my feet. There will always be more people seeking learning experiences. My Ph.D. and the skill set I've acquired over the years would serve me well in a number of contexts.

My husband is not so lucky. Although Mr. Trillwing is incredibly bright, he is not a student; he barely graduated from high school, and at age 46, he's not anxious to go back to school to remake his career.

In short: he's overworked and undereducated in a very bad U.S. economy where most people have little leisure time for learning. Most of the job ads I've read mention a college degree as a requirement.

I'm a huge advocate for college education. After all, I teach in higher ed, and I consult with faculty on improving their teaching. That said, employers are short-sighted when they expect everyone to have a college degree. The U.S. university, as currently conceived, is antithetical to the way many people learn (and to the way some people teach).

Oddly enough, Mr. Trillwing and I find ourselves in similar places in our lives. He's undereducated and is in need of opportunities to learn new skills in an informal atmosphere, on his own time. I've educated myself straight out of the system--I have a Ph.D, which means unless I want to enter an entirely different professional field (e.g. law, library science, or medicine), I'm finished with my formal education.

We're both suddenly in need of learning experiences. His career and industry have gone stale, and my job is one that people typically hold for 5-7 years before moving on to something else--yet in the university hierarchy, my job is a dead end; there's no clear place to move up from where I am, and yet I'm stuck very much in the middle of academia's ladder of salary and prestige. I have, in short, hit the glass ceiling of the academic who is not on the tenure track.

Learning new skills and fields excites me--I tend to take on too many projects at once. Learning new things makes Mr. Trillwing a little bit nervous; he works on a single epic project, incrementally, over several years, until he has accomplished something of real value.

So: I'm trying to learn patience. He's trying to acquire spontaneity. At the end of this month, he starts his first class as an adult that's unrelated to his career: a guitar class through the local community college. Me, I'm reinvesting myself in the garden, planning for the long term even though we rent this house and yard. I'm subscribing to the feeds of blogs like urban homestead, You Grow Girl, and Sprouts in the Sidewalk. I'm trying to get my husband to read Escape from Cubicle Nation and Shifting Careers.

But I also want to pull us away from our computers, to do that hands-on learning that is so important to children but that we forget is crucial for adults as well. We must learn to reconnect with the earth, with other people, with music, with creativity and play. We're faced with a high-stakes learning opportunity: we have many options but limited time (in our lifespan and in our daily lives). And we need to be modeling good learning and creative lives for our almost three-year-old son.

What advice do you have for us? For me--a highly trained academic who loves informal learning environments, but maybe a little too many of them too much--and for my husband--a casual learner who's navigating a midlife crisis and possible career change?