Monthly Archives: July 2012

Iron Kids


Sometimes, I feel good about myself. I’m not talking about that general satisfaction that comes with not being an ax murder. I mean feeling like I’m unusually good person.

This feeling usually comes when I decide to simply throw away the milk jug that has been left on the kitchen with the top on it trapping nasty milk gas inside, instead of yelling at the culprit, or when I let someone merge in the lane ahead of me. It doesn’t take much to give me a puffed up sense of myself.

This woman doesn’t have to worry about milk gas. Isn’t she lucky?

But even my greatest feats of patience and neighborliness cannot compare to Conner Long, who is eight years old. His brother, Cayden, has cerebral palsy and cannot speak or walk. While most children Conners age would completely ignore the brother who cannot communicate with him using language, Conner is different.

He wanted to do something with his brother. So, he decided to race with Cayden.  Conner and Cayden signed up for a children’s triathalon in Tennessee, their home state. Conner pulled Cayden in a raft during the swimming portion, pulls him in a trailer during the biking part, and pushes his six-yea-old brother in a stroller for the last leg–running–of the race.

They almost always come in last. But despite his parents urging, Conner will not race without his little brother.  Conner says it just wouldn’t be fair.

This video, from ESPN, says it all

It’s worth the ten minutes by the way.


The Hidden Brain: Part VII


I am in a super secret book club.  We are reading The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam.  It is about how “our unconscious minds, elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives” (Subtitle)  I will post a response after each chapter because, let’s face it: I love pretending I’m still in college. If you feel like being difficult, please do not comment. If you have an insightful thought, please comment.

Chapter 7 explores the other side of terrorism: the terrorist. While I would be tempted to go on a rant about the people we think of when we think of terrorists (the 9/11 hijackers), Vedantam primarily explores this chapter through the lens of a group that is much more relatable to the reader: the People’s Temple cult, and specifically Larry Layton, an American. He was the man whose mission was to crash the plan carrying congressman Ryan and the 15 or so defectors from People’s Temple as they were leaving Guyana.

Vedantam states that “if the victims of terrorist attacks are unconsciously influenced by the psychology of large groups, the “peer pressure” of strangers, [he believes] the perpetrators of such attacks are unconsciouly influenced by the psychology of small groups” (Vedantam, 143).

Suicide bombers and terrorists are not brainwashed, nor are they crazed lunatics, nor are they religious zealots.  These explanations are what our conscious brains come up with in order to make sense of why someone would kill himself/herself.  Scientists find that not only are the terrorists not brainwashed, they give rational responses as to why they are behaving the way they are. Scientists find that not only are terrorists not crazed lunatics, but that they show a smaller percentage of mental deficiencies than the general public.  Scientists find that not only are the terrorists not all religious zealots, but many are atheists.

So. How DO leaders like Jim Jones and Osama bin Laden get normal, thinking people to do abnormal, illogical things? As Vedantam says, these future terrorists enter “the tunnel.”

* In the tunnel, you can only see straight ahead, not what is going on around you.  Leaders do this by separating their followers from the outside world. Jim Jones did this by building a commune. Al-queda does this by playing violence non-stop on the news.  The tunnel is so real and physical that intermarriage is very common and “investigators regularly find that the wedding videos of terrorists provide excellent information about potential collaborators” (Vedantam, 152). Wow!

* The tunnel is an exclusive club. While most people, including myself, would naturally think that these leaders yelled out “Who wants to do something dumb?!” and see what morons stepped forward, it is quite the opposite.  Groups establish a cause (like blowing up Americans, or committing mass suicide to escape the CIA), and then begin to separate “heroes” from the “ordinary people.” After that happens, groups have a line of volunteers.  Vedantam cites a quote by Marc Sageman, a terrorism researcher who says, “People want to be suicide bombers because they are the rock stars of militant Islam” (Vedantam, 155).

*The leaders in the tunnel degrade an individuals self-worth and decision-making skills so that the followers can only look to the leader for direction. In the People’s Temple, Jim Jones regularly castigated members for their sins and then slept with his/her spouse in order to “redeem that persons sins.”  When Jones would rape a follower, he would tell the group that the follower had forced himself/herself on Jones. The rest of the members would jeer the follower and criticize him/her for taking up the leader’s time for his/her own desires. (*Side Note*:  When we give sex education to teenagers, most people list the consequences of unprotected sex.  That’s a good thing to mention, if it is mentioned at all. But, one of the major reasons that we don’t want teenagers to have sex is because sex is powerful, and can really mess up your brain if it is used as a tool of coercion. I wonder how we could communicate that fact clearly to teenagers, and if understanding that many cults use sex to create followers, teenagers might be more prudent)

*The leaders in the tunnel create “psychological points of no return,” in which terrorists boast about their accomplishments to the group. After Larry Layton told cult-leader Jim Jones that he wanted to kill the defectors and Congressman Ryan, Jones had him tell everyone in the commune what he was going to do. Now, if Layton decided to go back on his plan, he would be labeled a coward. Terrorist cells have suicide bombers make videos as evidence.  Bombers rarely back down.

The Olympics are Here!


Months of anticipation have crafted this day: the beginning of the Olympics!

Normally, I am a 5 out of 10 on the patriotic scale. I am your average patriot who brings out the red,white, and blue for major holidays, says the Pledge of Allegiance with no argument, and knows the words to the star-spangled banner.

I get more time than the average person to talk about my patriotism because I teach first grade, and learning about our country’s symbols and values is a big part of that. I even get to talk about how great America is.

But, when the Olympics come, I rocked up to an 8.75 I’m reserving anything above 9 for Jack, who goes bananas for the Olympics. We listen to Stars and Stripes Forever, plan our schedule around watching Olympic events that we have even a casual interest in, and talk about it constantly. During the winter Olympics, Jack and I were still in the dorms and we would race back to our rooms each day and turn on the games. 4 p.m. was almost always curling, so we’d get warmed up with that sport and then move on to the really popular stuff in the evening.

But we learned something interesting a few weeks ago: not everyone does this. We were talking to someone (an American, if you can believe it) and she said that she wasn’t really interested in the Olympics. I don’t remember why because I stopped listening to her meaningless dribble once I heard she didn’t like watching the Olympics. I was shocked. I really was. WHO DOESN’T LIKE THE OLYMPICS?!

The only part of the Olympics that I don’t really enjoy is the opening ceremony. I’m not sure why you would take time that could be devoted to trampoline, or archery, or pole vault to an over-exposed presentation. But, that’s the way they’ve always done it, so I guess in the Olympic spirit I should be OK with this.

I know you’ve been scouring the web, looking for a complete Olympic watching guide. Search no longer, I have found one. It lets you know what is playing on each possible Olympic channel all the time.  If you come to my house, you’ll find me glued to the television…just as soon as the opening ceremony is done.

The Hidden Brain: Part VI


I am in a super secret book club.  We are reading The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam.  It is about how “our unconscious minds, elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives” (Subtitle)  I will post a response after each chapter because, let’s face it: I love pretending I’m still in college. If you feel like being difficult, please do not comment. If you have an insightful thought, please comment.

Chapter 6 discusses the mob mentality, and our hidden brain’s desire to seek conformity.  It begins with a heartbreaking story which reminds me very much of the Kitty Genovese story from way back in psychology class. A woman named Deletha Word was tortured and eventually jumped off the Belle Isle bridge  (and subsequently drowned in the bay) in order to escape her attacker. All while dozens of onlookers watched, stuck in their cars in traffic on the bridge.  Almost all the observers had cell phones. The ordeal was more than 30 minutes long. Not one person intervened in the attack. Not one person called 911. Not one person tried to stop Deletha Word from plummeting to her death.

Vedantam argues that if even one person had stepped forward in some capacity to intervene, all the dozens of people out there that night would have done the same. But, just as when the fire alarm goes off, we do not look inside and think “What should I do,” we look at the people around us an observe what they are doing.

This phenomenon also explains why some people died in the North Tower on September 11, 2001, and some did not.  After seeing the plane hit the South Tower, those in the North Tower had a decision to make. While in 2012, folks would immediately exit a building en masse, it wasn’t so obvious then. But, people who were working alone in cubicles, near doors, and had little group influence working on them, walked to exits and descended the towers safely, for the most part. In fact, scientist could find only one man who behaved the way disaster models predict people do. He saw the plane hit the tower, grabbed his sneakers from under his desk, laced them up, then ran as fast as he could.

Those who worked in large groups stood at the window and watched the smoke and flames pour out of the South Tower.  There was a law firm that practiced on two floors of the building.  Those on one floor almost all died, while those on a consecutive floor almost all survived. Why? These floors were filled with the same kinds of people, doing the same kinds of work, with the same knowledge of safety. It is because on one floor, a man yelled, “Everyone get out of here!” And, like a flock of sheep, the people on his floor obediently followed the group.  On the other floor, all people saw were their friends watching the smoke.

No matter how much their conscious brain was saying, “You’re 80 stories up! You should evacuate!,” the hidden brain’s hearkening back to the knowledge of “There’s safety in groups” overrode those original impulses.

Again, I feel a grave responsibility as a teacher because my kids aren’t going to be looking around to see what everyone else is doing. All eyes will be on me. I will have to make the call. And Vedantam and the scientists are absolutely right. If something weird happened, the first thing I would do is go to my partner teacher’s room and ask her what we should do. It would be a decision based on consensus, not on my conscious brain’s calculation of the situation.

Something new to try


Last night, I tried something new for dinner, and it turned out well. So, I thought I would share it with you. It is from Mark Bittman’s cookbook: How To Cook Everything. I made a half recipe, since it is just Jack and myself.

Lentils and Potatoes with Curry

  • 1 cup brown lentils, washed and picked over.
  • 3 1/2 cups water, coconut milk, or stock, plus more if needed.
  • 1 T curry powder (instead of halving this to make it 1/2 T, I just added a teaspoon since Jack and I aren’t curry crazy)
  • 2 medium starchy potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper (Jack and I always add our own at the table, so I didn’t add any in)
  • Yogurt for garnish (we didn’t)
  • Chopped cilantro leaves for garnish (we didn’t)


  1. Combine the lentils, liquid, and curry poder in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium-low so that the mixture bubbles gently, cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils start to absorb the liquid a bit, about 15 minutes.
  2. Add the potatoes and cover the pan completely. Cook undisturbed for 10 minutes or so, then stir gently and check to make sure the lentils aren’t too dry. (Mine were drying out after 10 minutes) If they are, add a little more liquid. Add salt as the lentils become tender (As I said, we don’t until after)
  3. Cover and continue cooking until the lentils are soft and beginning to turn to mush and the potatoes are tender at the center, another 5 to 10 minutes; add liquid if necessary (I needed to again) The mixture should be moist by not soupy. Add lots of black pepper (I didn’t), stir, then taste and adjust seasoning and serve, garnished with yogurt and cilantro (I didn’t, and it was delicious still)

I toasted some whole-grain bread to add a crunchy balance to the yummy curry mush

And, voila!

I took this right after Jack had his first bite because I forgot to take an artistic picture. You can see that I have my little McCormick curry jar on the table in case we wanted as much curry as the recipe called for, but we didn’t.


The Hidden Brain: Part V


I am in a super secret book club.  We are reading The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam.  It is about how “our unconscious minds, elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives” (Subtitle)  I will post a response after each chapter because, let’s face it: I love pretending I’m still in college. If you feel like being difficult, please do not comment. If you have an insightful thought, please comment.

Chapter 5 focuses on gender bias.  Here are some facts…

*Researchers told two separate groups about a potential boss. Group 1 heard “Subordinates have often described Andrea as someone who is tough, yet outgoing and personable. She is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” Group 2 heard “Subordinates have often described James as someone who is tough, yet outgoing and personable. He is known to reward individual contributions and has worked hard to maximize employees’ creativity.” 75% of the people in the groups thought James was more personable than Andrea.

*Women make $.79 to every man’s dollar. And, if you control for maternity leave, asking for more time off because of children etc. woman make $.89 to every man’s dollar.

The fact that gender bias occurs all around us is not news.  But, it’s hard to translate these facts to specific cases, because we can’t have people relive their lives as the other gender and say, “Ah…this lack of a raise was due to my inferiority as an employee, but that insult was due to the fact that I was a woman…”

But, according to Vedantam, we can get close by examining the lives of transgender people. According to Kristen Schilt, who tracks the changes in prestige, income, and professional life that comes from gender reassignment, transmen overwhelmingly report being treated better than when they were women.

Here’s another fact:

*Men who become women can expect a decrease of 12% in their income.  Women who become men can expect a 7.5% increase in their earners

Ben Barres, a professor at Stanford, who used to be Barbara Barres before gender reassignment surgery gave a presentation. Afterwards, someone in the audience told a friend of Bens that he “gave a great seminar today, but, then, his work is so much better than his sister’s” Ben does not have a sister. And we know that Ben did not become a better researcher after a surgeon sewed a penis onto him.

The difference was in people’s perception of his intellect and authority.


I’ve known this a long time, and have taken several classes that address this issue head-on as it relates to creating non-biased educational environments. But I have one personal story that I think is worth sharing.

Our first year in college, Jack and I were in his dorm room. I was doing work for my educational psychology class and Jack was working with another physics student.  I was telling Jack’s friend that I was in elementary education, and I really liked teaching math and science. His friend said

If you weren’t dating Jack, I would have thought you were a sweet, stupid person

I was stunned. Jack was stunned. I don’t think this friend realized that he was being sexist. I think he thought that he was complimenting me. He acknowledged that I wasn’t stupid despite the fact that I am an elementary school teacher. The thing about elementary school teachers, and secretaries, and nurses, I believe is this: These professions do not need less intellect, and are therefore populated by women. I believe it is the reverse: because they are populated by mostly women, society assumes they require less intellect.

And UT has many programs like “Women in Medicine” and “Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day.”  I don’t think there is anything wrong with these programs, and I think they should continue (so don’t yell at me in the comments!) but I think that in a subtle, sneaky way they reinforce in girls’ minds: you’re different.

The Teacher’s Pet In Me



In Texas, teachers need to get 150 hours of professional development every 5 years in order to maintain their certification.  Fortunately, the principal at our school gives us many opportunities to earn credits and even pays for them!

I decided to take a summer school class about helping struggling students to succeed without lowering content standards. It might sound boring to you, but I was fascinated by the topic and eager to get started (See what I mean about being a teacher’s pet? I can’t help it!)

I was working on a lecture on Friday.  As the professor was talking over the internet, I was studiously taking notes about whatever she said. After the lecture, we had to write three short reflections and then take a quiz.  As I was taking the quiz, I came across this question:

Waiting for students to fail before you intervene is one of the most __________________ stances a teacher can take.

I remembered this from my notes, so I selected the word: passive


I was so disappointed! Not only was I disappointed because I got one wrong, but that I was almost sure I was right. Now most people would finish the test, rejoice that they passed, and get over the fact that they misheard something.

But not me. No siree!

I went back to that lecture, found the part where it talked about waiting for students to fail, and behold! In text on the video screen it said, “Waiting for students to fail before you intervene is one of the most passive stances a teacher can take.”

Ah ha! I was right! That would have been plenty for the ordinary teacher’s pet. One could walk away with a distinct feeling of superiority for knowing something the computer didn’t know.

But not me. No siree!

I got online and wrote an email to the woman in charge of the program complete with screen shots of the lecture and of my test.  I felt a teensy weensy bit sheepish for doing this because, as I said before, I passed the test. But this was a wrong that needed to be righted.

And the woman was very kind. She didn’t call me a trouble maker or kick me out of the class, and even gave me a direct email to someone in case I found more errors! She also hoped that I found the class otherwise satisfactory.

In closing,

  • Sheepish feeling:  -10 mood points
  • Being a bother: -30 mood points
  • Being right: +240 mood points

So, overall it was a good day!