Thursday, December 08, 2011

National Novel Writing Month and Homework

Hi guys,
I feel like I haven't posted anything in quite a while and wanted to quickly update on two things which I hope sort of explain my long silence:
1. I have slain the beast that is finishing NaNoWriMo! For those of you who aren't familiar with it, National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words (in a novel) in the month of November. I started work on my novel, Truth and Beauty, five days into the challenge and managed to finish a couple days early (out of necessity, since I was leaving on a trip to Colorado and California for two speeches). Oh yes--the speeches should also help explain the silence on here :) I will post more about my travels once I have finished the second thing, which is
2. Catching up on homework. I have a feeling I will have stuff left over to do on Winter Break. Mostly AP Art History stuff...writing 12 art criticisms in one night is no mean feat (although definitely not specific just to me--pretty much everyone else does exactly the same thing) a biology test tomorrow, AP US History, AP Lit. and Comp., Geometry, and French. Yeah, I will definitely be doing work over Winter Break too.
I'd love to hear your opinion on homework and testing. I had the thought as I started studying for my tests coming up that tests don't necessarily test authentic learning--more realistically, they test how much studying you did the night before. However, if we don't use bubble-ins, how do we get results for data and research purposes? Better assessment was quite a hot topic at both of the two education conferences where I was presenting this week.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Social Circles

If you're an adult, I want you to think for a moment about your childhood; if you're a kid or teen, I want you to think a moment about your experience growing up and in the present day.

Ask yourself: who were/are my friends? Where did/do they come from?

As in--did they all go to the same school as you? Perhaps take one or more of the same classes with you? Hang out with your friends?

I'm guessing that most of them were, in some way or another, in your "social circle." My sister, Adrianna, is in high school. A lot of her friends are "Questies" (a reference to the "Quest" program for gifted students back in junior high). Her social circle, if I'm not much mistaken, mainly includes friends she's made in orchestra, Japanese class, and through mutual friends. She has 745 friends on Facebook; most of them go to her high school.

I have slightly more friends on Facebook (789). But of those friends, the overwhelming majority aren't local. I have friends from England to China, the United Arab Emirates to Indonesia, Mexico, Canada, etc. Some I've met at various conferences, others through blogs or shared advocacy groups (for instance, a lot of my friends are involved in education reform efforts).

If you think about how people make conversation, it's often by finding commonalities--the same hometown, the same favorite sports team, the same class or teacher or language studied. But I wonder: if most of your friends live within a fifty-mile radius, what does that say about you and your ability to connect with people, no matter how different they may seem?

When I think about it, many of the most awesome people I know are far-flung across the nation or the world. TEDxRedmond's speakers live in all corners of the US. Recently I caught up with Brigitte Berman(who spoke at TEDxRedmond last year about bullying) when I was in Boston. When I head to California for another TEDx event I'll be seeing Alec Loorz (environmental advocacy) and Jason O'Neill (entrepreneurship).

And my friends Line and Boushra Dalile (two sisters who are champion golfers, TEDxAjman speakers, and excellent writers) are from the United Arab Emirates; I had the chance to meet them in person when I went to Dubai earlier this year.

I've only met Brigitte twice, and Alec and Jason, Line and Boushra once each. I don't see them in the hallways every day at school, I don't say hi to them at the local library, I can't call them up to hang out or party. :) But I can remember having amazing conversations with them all--whether what we had in common was a conference, a goal, or a love for writing. 

Being able to connect with people regardless of "social circle"--transcending the usual measures we use to evaluate if someone is "like us"--is an invaluable skill. Think of how diplomats and businesspeople and the chatty person next to you on the plane do it. I found my own skills tested when I went to Sri Lanka as part of a field visit with the World Food Programme--an amazing organization which I'm proud to work with (you can see my blog post I wrote about that trip here). Visiting their school, I was more than a little nervous. What could I say to these kids, whose experiences seemed literally a world away? Tarp-roofed shacks that could be swept away by floods in the next rainy season. Kitchens without electricity or even running water. School lunch being a lifeline, not an object of complaint.

But despite their environment, so removed from the affluence I see in my home of Redmond, and the necessary trickiness of interpretation, there were still things to talk about. I tried teaching a bit of English, and simultaneously tried my best to comprehend Tamil. (I definitely failed). When I visited a maternity center, a joint program of the WFP and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, I sampled homemade foods from the new mothers in attendance. Appropriately for a field visit with the World Food Programme, conversation usually began with food--how school lunches were helping kids, etc. You see, when you're seeking ways to connect with people, you realize that commonalities may be right in front of you. On this trip, it was something basic: food. We all eat (though, as I saw firsthand, some obviously more than others).

The skill of being able to move between one "circle" to the next, with grace and fluidity, is important--not letting ourselves be defined by one term or one group or one organization/school--"Redmond High School" "Harvard" "Microsoft" "Republican" "Democrat" "black" "white" "nerds" "jocks" "geeks" "hipsters" "Questies." Sure, you might say that you have friends within a fifty-mile radius because really, it's hard to make friends outside of school or church or neighborhood. But even within the organizations you belong to--are you sticking inside just one social circle? Don't let commonalities trap you in a fishbowl.

So--try introducing your school friends to your music friends to your lacrosse friends to your education-reform-on-Facebook friends. Let those circles overlap. :)

And perhaps, at some point, we can forget about having firmly set social circles altogether. Because all that a circle does is keep some people in and all the rest of us, out.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


I'm writing this at 11:52 PM mainly not because I have a particular burning desire to write a blog post or even that I have a strong passion on the topic of productivity, but more (fittingly) because I feel like I need to produce some sort of written work today. :)

Admittedly, I did spend a good portion of the morning emailing TEDxRedmond speakers ( youth event I'm organizing), working on a document about TEDxRedmond for potential sponsors, communicating with organizing committee members, and taking a SAT Literature Practice Subject Test for fun during commercial breaks on the evening news broadcast (FYI, my scaled score was 760/800--hoping I can do better without the news as a distraction next time--and yes, to folks who disagree with testing, I was seriously doing it for fun), as well as taking a walk to the grocery store with my sister and mom. When I list what I've done today off like that it sounds slightly more "productive" but all the same I feel like I haven't done much, because not mentioned in that list are the minutes I spent skulking around after breakfast, how much time I spent just not really wanting to do much, etc.

My imaginary really productive day for me is one where I wake up early (well, my version of early is more like 9 AM), finish a speech, create a presentation, make a YouTube video, write a few short stories and poems, answer all the emails lingering in my inbox, do some math and science, write a blog post, and then sit back and relax and watch a movie or an episode of Arrested Development on Netflix instant play at night with my family, or read a new book. In short, cross everything off my to-do list and feel sufficiently accomplished to reward myself. :)

Of course, I've never had a day quite like that. I've certainly had days with elements of that, but most of the time I'll end up slacking off. I'll mark the email as important and then forget about it, or skip the math in favor of re-reading a Harry Potter book.

I joke to my mom that I envy kids who had to be coaxed into reading, whose parents give them treats for reading twenty minutes--my parents are the opposite. You see, I have to make deals sometimes (usually when I'm supposed to be preparing for a trip, going to sleep, or otherwise engaged) to read an extra chapter in a story.

It's been that way since I was little and my mom would try to coax me to go play outside instead of read yet another chapter book. When I was six my mom had to do the same in order to get me to stop typing up short stories on my laptop, and come eat dinner. A lot of my peers have parents shouting at them to do SAT practice when, yeah, I was doing the Literature practice test for fun (does that sound incredibly nerdy? I'm a big fan of literature and I'll tell you, the SAT practice subject test is better than mindlessly watching ads on TV during commercial breaks).

No, my personal definition of "productivity" is something closer to a ton of blog posts (I wish--I really need to update more), TEDxRedmond issues neatly squared away, maybe a masterpiece novel, and--this is really unlikely--me producing a properly shaded drawing (my tortillion-wielding skills need work). Other people's definition of productivity might mean de-bugging systems, making a certain amount of money, efficiently finishing homework, etc.

The really strange thing is that sometimes one person's leisure is another person's work (not quite a trash v. treasure thing, but I used the saying's structure). That is, my reading a couple novels--what I consider a break from, say, emailing people about TEDxRedmond or preparing a presentation (both perfectly enjoyable, just not things I want to do all the time) could be someone else's version of one-more-thing-on-the-to-do-list. It's an odd thought.

As I'm heading off to brush my teeth, now at 12:15 AM, somewhat satisfied with what I've done today, I have to wonder: should we be forcing ourselves to be productive in the first place? How far is too far? What's your personal definition of "productivity?"

PS, to everyone worried about my psychological health and about to comment that kids should totally have free rein over the summer, my version of free rein is pretty much exactly what I did today. :)
Yeah, I'm just really into organizing events.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Three favorite books about international characters

Dawn by Elie Wiesel
I read this a couple years ago and picked it up from the library to re-read recently, then had my mom read it as well. Thanks to the conciseness of its 80 pages, this novel is approachable to most readers. The plot is seemingly simple--the thoughts and reflections of a Jewish Israeli freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on your viewpoint) on the night he is condemned to kill a British soldier in retaliation for the execution of a fellow Israeli fighter.

Though fictional, I think this story lends more insight to the Israeli vs. British fight for a Jewish homeland than the passing mentions the conflict is usually given in American history textbooks. As a book comprised of the main character's reflections, it is moving and raises important questions about the ambiguity of good and evil; Dawn is a book that explores the inner workings of the "gray area" of black and white.

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (series) by Alexander McCall Smith
This heartwarming, cheery series about the proudly "traditionally built" Botswanan self-made detective Precious Ramotswe makes mystery both realistic and readable for easily scared folks like me. The series (thankfully) features no Agatha Christie-style nail-biters where people are getting murdered left and right; no, the problems Precious Ramotswe solves have more to do with people, feelings, and culture--whether stolen cattle or unethical witchdoctors, wayward apprentices or soon-to-be-married couples.

Nobody ends up getting killed and best of all, McCall Smith writes a perfect balance of interesting plot and beautifully lyrical details of the Botswanan landscape. The books give us a great gift of seeing Africa outside the lens of what we typically see in the news--famines in Somalia or protests in Egypt; shifting our focus away from the tragic or dramatic and painting a picture of the everyday and the beautiful. (Oh, and McCall Smith's other books are awesome too--I love the Sunday Philosophy Club, Irregular Portuguese Verbs, Corduroy Mansions, La's Orchestra Saves the World, and all the rest). :)

Aria by Nassim Assefi
While it's arguable that the main character in Aria, Dr. Jasmine Talahi, lives in Seattle and is thus not an "international character," the book--told as a series of letters and narratives--follows the Iranian-American woman around the world in her odyssey--both tangible and intangible--to find peace after the death of her five-year-old daughter. While the main character's Iranian heritage plays strongly into the novel, providing an un-sensationalized insight into Iran (much like Ladies' Detective Agency for Botswana and Africa), it is not the sole subject of the book.

The complexity of the protagonist's own struggle with the meaning of loss and mourning, an epistolary tug-of-war between supporting characters pleading with Jasmine to come back home, and the slow revelation of Jasmine's past over the course of the book, and you have a novel that is at once a mental reflection and a physical journey.


There you have some of my favorite books with international characters! I've found that reading fiction is an excellent way to broaden one's horizons about the world from a more first-person perspective.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Do We Treat History Like a Dead Language?

Originally published on Huffington Post:

A sweltering parking garage filled with wand-wielding Harry Potter enthusiasts (all waiting in line for the midnight premiere of HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 2) may not seem like the most obvious place to quiz one's sister's friends about current events, but it was still an hour until the theater doors opened and I was bored. So I started a trivia game and out popped a question that I was dying to see if anyone could answer:

"Who's Betty Ford?"

It actually wasn't such a random question. Mrs. Ford had passed away only a couple days before. It had been all over the news -- radio, television, the Huffington Post. That said, I wasn't expecting much. My mom had asked the same question to two of my sister's friends the day before to receive blank stares.

"Uh ... related to Henry Ford?" was the response.

I felt it my duty to clarify who Betty Ford was (the trailblazing First Lady who de-stigmatized treatment for addiction and breast cancer) before we moved on to the cheery topics of biology, Latin American dictators, and (eventually) Harry Potter as we finally filed into the theater and grabbed our 3D glasses.

Along with the memorable Molly Weasley vs. Bellatrix Lestrange showdown and the fervent thought that I never want to see Voldemort's face in 3D again, the response to that simple question -- Who's Betty Ford? -- stuck with me.

It seems we're not only uninformed about our present, we're ignorant of our past. The "Nation's Report Card" -- the NAEP, or National Assessment of Educational Progress -- revealed that only 13 percent of high school seniors who took the test in 2010 scored "proficient" or higher.

If we can't even demonstrate basic knowledge about our country's beginnings, why should I care that a sophomore Honors student doesn't know who Betty Ford was? Maybe because someday our grandchildren will look at us and say, "Holy cow, Betty Ford died when you were a teenager? Boy, Grandma, you're old!" just like I stared at my grandpa in awe when he said he watched Robert Frost -- that Path Not Taken dude we read in freaking HIGH SCHOOL LITERATURE! -- on TV at JFK's inauguration in 1961 (and oh P.S., that started the tradition of the inaugural poet).

History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. Paying attention to not only the biggest headlines -- Osama bin Laden; or the saddest -- the tragedy in Norway.

Not just the Casey Anthonys and Real Housewives of the world, but the end of the space shuttle and the creation of South Sudan. The death of Betty Ford, the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the famine in Somalia. Don't these things deserve at least as much attention as Rebecca Black's new music video, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, or even -- gasp -- the stuff we study in high school US History?

And that's where I see a big problem -- the lack of emphasis in school on the fact that history isn't all dead people and finished wars, it's Boehner vs. Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan. I would love it if we made more comparisons between current issues and issues of the past. Maybe we'd realize that sometimes, "current issues" and "past issues" are one and the same. Our world's people still fight over natural resources, kill in the name of religion, occupy regions and give them up -- just as we did "so long ago."
When I was younger, I had a tutor whose entertaining (if at times alarming) anecdotes on the Founding Fathers and modern politicians helped shape my realization that history is meant to be spoken about, not only read. Today, my parents still ask me to update them on the happenings of the world that day, and are more than happy to discuss -- or debate -- with me. I'd love to see such an environment echoed in our nation's public schools. If only we could start talking about the serious side of news with our friends, as easily as we bring up Snooki's latest exploits...

I'm not saying there's no hope. As a HuffPost devotee and a thirteen-year-old, I know that being a teenager and being an avid news-watcher are not mutually exclusive roles. Once I logged onto Facebook to be greeted by the cheery sight of a spirited conversation about the debt ceiling debacle. The wall post, by my sister's friend Airin, read: "I don't get it... How is reducing taxes and reintroducing tax loopholes for the super-rich going to help reduce our deficit?" The part that made my day was the link underneath -- "View all 62 comments."

Those comments -- hitting the same points Rachel Maddow does in a typical commentary -- were all written by high school students. The two writers doing most of the commenting debated the merits of trickle-down economics, criticized Republicans for using the term "job-creators" to describe wealthy individuals, advocated for the Gang of Six debt plan, weighed the pros and cons of economic benefit from oil companies versus environmental damage, protested deregulation of American business (Airin writing as a supporting example, "In India, Union Carbide was allowed to escape regulation. It poorly informed its Indian employees about the dangerous chemicals they were working with [...] As a result, 8000 people died from a gas leak. The governor of the region took the CEO into custody [...] but the US intervened and he went completely free" -- an incident which many other American students -- or adults -- might not know about).

Whatever your politics, I hope you can at least agree with two statements posted on this politically charged comment thread. The first one, saying "I'm obsessed with this entire conversation" and the follow-up, from Airin, saying "I'm glad we high school kids have obsession-worthy conversations. XD"

Eyes-crossed-out-from-laughing-so-hard-smile indeed (yes, that's what an XD is). We need to start more conversations that get students (and adults too!) commenting back and forth with the same enthusiasm and well-informed opinions that we see on modern music stars. By bringing current events into the classroom, everyday discussion, and social media, maybe we don't need to wait for our grandchildren's questions to remind us we should have paid more attention to current events. History is made every day. On a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, in the halls of Congress, and yes, in the millions around the globe clutching our Harry Potter glasses.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Somewhat Haphazardly-Organized Thoughts on Girls and Leadership

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave a TED Talk a while back, which I watched; I was impressed with her poise and interesting opinions (but then again, which TED speaker doesn't have those qualities?)  Her talk helped answer a very important question: why we have too few women leaders.

I would like to challenge, however, the widely held idea that since girls aren't becoming leaders as a result of naturally being less boastful, entitled, and commanding than most boys, girls need to start assuming those qualities in order to become CEOs. (That's paraphrased). This does, however, seem to be the idea-- girls don't speak up enough, take the lead enough, boast enough.

As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out, when girls try to be commanding, it's called bossy. When a girl boasts about her personal appearance or her latest work, it's being a show-off, etc. (This is all speaking in very general terms, mind you. If you haven't already watched Sheryl Sandberg's speech, do, otherwise the rest of this will be confusing). So we need to stop criticizing girls for the qualities we praise in boys.

On average (according to Sandberg) most men tend to brag about their own accomplishments and negotiate for raises far more aggressively than most women (I can tell you about people for whom this generalization does not apply, my parents being essentially the reverse of that description); when asked why they are successful, men (keep in mind the generalization here) will say that it was because of their accomplishments and hard work, whereas women will say they got lucky or they were helped along by amazing coworkers, etc. And society tends to dislike women who will buck the trend and assertively negotiate for a raise.

This is all statistically supported and that is the general trend. So what is it that I disagree with in Sheryl Sandberg's speech?

The problem I see with this is that I felt the underlying message is that women need to be more like men in order to succeed in what is still a men-dominated area (business). It needs to be okay for women to brag, to ask for raises, to be aggressive. Sandberg focused more on making society accept women when we do those things; rather than changing our expectations of what a CEO should do.

My thinking? Don't we need more CEOs who don't fly out the window with a golden parachute?

Don't we need more people in the world to stop talking about themselves and start thinking about others?

Don't we need more people who thank others profusely?

It's time we stop saying that girls need to change, and adopt those behaviors; it's time to say that boys could learn from girls. CEOs of top companies could probably use a dose of not-asking-for-raise behavior and less self-entitlement, rather than us trying to change girls in order to fit into the common mold of what we think a CEO looks like. I give speeches quite a lot about how often negatively-portrayed behaviors common to children (i.e., impulsivity and naivete) may be positive behaviors in some situations, leading to unfettered imagination and problem-solving.

Maybe these often negatively-portrayed behaviors statistically common to women are positive things. We all love people who give credit to others for their success. Companies would probably do better with CEOs who didn't blow their own horn and ask for ridiculous salaries and new yachts every year.

In her talk, Sandberg shared an anecdote of her college European Intellectual History class, where her classmate Carrie avidly read the original works in Latin and Greek and attended all the lectures; Sandberg read them in English and attended most of the lectures; and Sandberg's brother read one book out of twelve, went to a couple of lectures, and received last-minute tutoring from Sandberg and the highly studious classmate before taking the test.

After coming out of the test, they asked each other how they did. Carrie, the undoubtedly most prepared of the three, said (quoting from the speech here), "Boy, I feel like I didn't really draw out the main point on the Hegelian dialectic." And I [Sandberg] say, "God, I really wish I had really connected John Locke's theory of property with the philosophers that follow." And my brother says, "I got the top grade in the class." "You got the top grade in the class? You don't know anything."

To me, Sandberg's speech went on to emphasize why society should make it possible for girls to have "I got top grade in the class" behavior.

My point is that the bragging brother should take a dose of humility, instead.


By the way, I totally agree with Sandberg's point that we need to stop demonizing girls for taking the lead in business/political/etc. situations. I'm not saying that girls shouldn't be confident. However, I'm saying that we need to change our expectations for CEOs (aggressive, assertive, etc.) from the current definition to one that more closely matches the best qualities of girls and boys. So--let's stop trying to get girls to change. Let's focus on changing our society.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

TEDxRedmond not receiving support from local school district (at least not easily)

TEDxRedmond, the event I'm organizing with fellow youth (for the second year), is all about learning, inspiring, and doing good, from the unique perspective of young people. In response to the question, "Why attend TEDxRedmond?" we've heard amazing responses from attendees, like this from an 11-year-old: "I really, really enjoyed TEDxRedmond last year.  I loved that everyone there is trying to make the world a better place. Since last year I have been very busy trying to do the same.  I have been volunteering my time with the Riverview Youth Council,  I am the youngest in the group, most of them are in High School and I'm 11.  We work on teen suicide prevention, preventing tobacco use, and other healthy choices.  I also have been volunteering to serve food at tent city and helping the local women's shelter and sponsoring people on Kiva.  But the biggest thing I have been working on is anti-bullying.  I am working to help create a safe and bully free school. My dream is to be standing on a stage one day at TED talking about how I made a difference and inspiring someone like me to do the same."
One 13-year-old said: "I think of myself as a 'learner.' I constantly ponder over issues that affect my world and, thereby, me. TEDxRedmond is the perfect forum for young learners like myself. I wish to share in the intellect, the views, and the questioning spirit that makes TED so significant to our generation and beyond. I would like to be a part of the larger objective of creating an aware and accountable epoch in our world."

School districts presumably work every day to try to get students thinking of themselves as learners, getting young people to start grassroots change against negative behaviors like drug abuse and bullying, etc. Yet I somehow doubt that our school district (which will remain unnamed) has heard responses like these at Spirit Day or the school dance (I have a feeling that, in a school situation, you'd get laughed at for even saying 'creating an aware and accountable epoch in our world,' as this 13-year-old did), but dances, Spirit Days, and football games, are among the officially school district approved events, held on school district facilities without a problem. TEDxRedmond, on the other hand, is not.

Why do I care so much? Well, as one of the largest performing arts centers in Redmond (where we hope to host TEDxRedmond) is owned by this school district, we had to apply to use it. As the majority of our youth organizing committee comes from this school district, I thought it made perfect sense that we could rent the building without paying upwards of 2000 dollars, since, with our students mainly coming from this SD, it would be a school district-related event.

You'd think the school district would jump at the chance to host a non-partisan gathering of hundreds of highly motivated youth discussing grassroots change, doing good for the world, education, the environment, charity, etc. As I've unfortunately learned, it's not nearly so easy. In response to the group letter we sent from all the members of our committee who attend school in this district, we were told that the performing arts center was not designed for a "group of students" to use.

It makes you wonder who schools were designed for in the first place.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Supporting TEDxRedmond

I wanted to let everyone know about the youth event I'm organizing again this year (along with an amazing committee of fellow students): TEDxRedmond. An independently organized TEDx event (TED is a prestigious nonprofit and conference dedicated to Ideas Worth Spreading), TEDxRedmond's goal is to promote youth voice on important issues ranging from education to the environment. You can watch videos from last year's conference on the website, and read about why people are signing up to attend this year. We've received phenomenal feedback about last year's event--young people, inspired by TEDxRedmond, have been building bully-free schools, raising money to fight disease, joining boards, and simply taking action to help others. 

We are struggling to find a major funding sponsor this year, unfortunately, which limits us in terms of how many people we are able to bring in from out of state. There are many amazing youth who live in California and the East Coast whom we would love to fly in. If you or your company has the means to help us with these event costs, please contact us at to start the conversation. 

Even if you don't live in Washington State, you are more than welcome to participate in TEDxRedmond by watching our online webstream, "liking" the TEDxRedmond page on Facebook, following TEDxRedmond on Twitter, asking any questions you have about TEDxRedmond on Formspring, and reading our newest updates on the TEDxRedmond blog. Thanks so much for your support!

Monday, July 04, 2011

New Short Story "Cartography"

One of my favorite parts of traveling is a rather non eco-friendly one, I'm afraid (although I always do recycle or have someone else reuse them)--I absolutely love using paper maps to navigate through a city's streets. While I'm not quite the younger "Ellie" in the story, the reasons for loving maps are pretty much all mine. This short story was inspired by my recent trip to Philadelphia, where I used maps a great deal. Hope you enjoy!

There was something inherently appealing about a fastidiously mistreated map, worn and crinkled around the edges, with concierge circles in Sharpie marker around the must-see sights. Perhaps it was the way a map folded back neatly into place, like an accordion opening and collapsing, to satisfy one’s most orderly instincts; or perhaps it was the simple joy of owning something, leaving your mark on it in the most primal way (that was, with a marker of course).
          What few understood about the way Ellie looked at maps was that she harbored a very secret dream of being a cartographer. For all she knew there were no real cartographers any more, or if there were, they were strange government scientists who worked on a very technical level, like her uncle did. She guessed that maybe computers did all the work of plotting maps out now. Now that there were Garmins and Google Maps and Mapquest, who needed someone to draft a map on paper?
          Ellie’s ideal cartographer was a romantic one who appeared in the occasional storybook: a bearded sage in flowing robes who sat in a pencil-sketched tower, looking out pensively over the world, pen hovering over a scroll—about to draw it in perfect, beautiful 2D. This was what a cartographer was to Ellie. It was not a programmer and it was certainly not a Google car with a camera on top. If this was what cartography was in the “real world” (this nasty place her mother and father often referred to) she would do horticulture instead. She had just learned how to say the word “horticulture” and was very proud of it. She also had forgotten exactly what it meant.
          Though Ellie was not entirely sure that it was realistic to be a cartographer, she knew that it was entirely realistic to use a paper map. Paper maps, despite their consistently small-font street names, were reliably openable and closeable, unlike her mother’s bedraggled GPS. She took pleasure in being her family’s savior, proudly opening up the map when the GPS failed, and navigating them back to the hotel. She often opened up the map just to double-check a route, simply for the pleasure of standing authoritatively in the middle of the street and saying, “Yes, that’s right” with a grave nod.
          Just as she opened up the map for what would perhaps be another “Yes, that’s right” moment, her reverie was interrupted by an “Ellie! Hurry up!” moment thanks to her mom. Ellie looked up to see her mother standing ahead, waving rapidly as Ellie stared into the map.
          “I was just—” Ellie said, half in protest, half in anticipation of saying something meaningful, but stopped short. She realized that her mother and her little brother would probably not understand (or care) why she looked at the map so deeply, held its edges so tenderly, in that moment.
          A map, thought Ellie, was a beautiful orderly representation of her mother and father’s “real world.” A world that was disorderly and littered and loud and smelly and small, a world that was sometimes violent, a world where GPS devices stopped without warning and emitted loud beeps in noisy streets. A map, on the other hand, was a perfect world on a page.
          For all its disreputable ties (in small print fonts on clean white lines) to the contrasting greyish gum-ridden sidewalks under Ellie’s feet, a map was still a land of someone’s dreams—a picture of a long ago someone’s half realistic, half idealistic imagination as to what the “real world” ought to be.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Apathy is defined as "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern." I worry a lot about apathy toward, or superficial interest in, world affairs. Lots of people drive a Prius, dutifully donate the occasional hundred dollars to various respectable charities, and bring cans of food to their school's food drive. Maybe they buy organic food or pay an extra couple dollars for something that says "Sustainably Harvested." This is all great.

But aside from maybe buying "green" things, how many of these people actively advocate for issues? Turn on the TV not just to watch the Heat vs. the Mavericks, but to stay informed about the goings-on in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan (really any other part of the world besides the US)? A lot of companies are capitalizing on the "coolness" factor of doing good--Starbucks is trying to get its coffee sustainable, Target is donating 5% of profits to schools, etc.--but I think something that few people have addressed is the extent of the level we care about world affairs.

Just think what typically comes up in conversation. "How was your trip?" "We should totally go shopping!" "I bet you're disappointed by the hockey loss..." When was the last time you had a conversation about child marriages in Yemen or the need for jail reform in the US? Really, when was the last time you thought of those issues? I know you must be imagining me as a strict, frowning person. I'm not trying to say that you should be puritanically informing your friends about all the problems in the world at your next party. That would be a pretty hilarious image. But when do we talk about the issues that impact people other than ourselves?

Maybe the reason politicians haven't brought up homelessness and jail reform--two very important issues--is because the homeless and convict communities don't exactly provide a lot of votes. Rich CEOs who can pay for campaign funding, on the other hand, do. This is why I have trouble with the idea that we should only concern ourselves with the things that affect us. Yet it's an idea which seems to have percolated through media and society. Why else do you think we mainly cover US news? It's news about ourselves. And ABC News has a "Made in America" series where they try to get people to mostly buy products made in the US.

That's all very well, but ABC overlooked the fact that when products are manufactured in other nations, they may help to raise that nation's standard of living. When the standard of living rises in other nations, they often buy our products--things like iPads and other technologies. We live in a globally interconnected society; the time for protectionism is past. We can't afford to think only of ourselves. Why not instead stand up to practices such as child labor, unhealthy work conditions, and low product quality by only giving manufacturing contracts to those factories that meet ethical standards, rather than making blanket statements about the ethics of goods produced in a certain nation?

This only-caring-about-things-that-affect-me attitude does not stop at manufacturing/economics. Reading the Facebook news feed (which yes, I know, is not an accurate reflection of humanity), there are generally a few people who post news articles/calls to action regarding a humanitarian or charitable topic; most of it is "so-and-so is in a relationship with so-and-so," pictures of random things, "I hate the -expletive- -insert academic subject here- homework!" etc. Sure, I post pictures of myself and random things, and I'm not going to say you're a bad person because you do too; but I just wish that people wouldn't exclusively talk about what happened at school or what they're having for dinner.

On Facebook, I see that a lot of very smart people, in gifted programs and Honors classes, whose parents are software engineers and doctors and various other high-profile professions, are posting only about self-related things. An apathy toward world affairs is not an epidemic of one class or one age or one country. It can be found, on different levels, in many different people--whether it's calling a book about women's rights in developing nations boring and deciding to read the Gossip Girl series instead, or never discussing ethical issues though you may be perfectly aware of them, or knowing every detail of a dictatorial regime because you have to make a documentary about it for class, but not discussing it in any way when it doesn't pertain to your grade.

A lot of people criticized my article on the prom tradition as being too intolerant of having a good time "once in a while." The problem is that we try to have fun all the time; we seem to naturally shy away from the unpleasant things in the world and avoid talking about problems (something I see a lot in school, as peer pressure can make it "uncool" or "weird" to discuss current events in conversation). We try to live in a bubble of Priuses and occasional donations, shopping trips to buy sustainably made forty-dollar shorts with our friends, conversations about school events and neighborhood redecorations.

We have to change our concept of "doing good" as the erratic donation or petition signature, to an awareness of global issues, willingness to take action and raise awareness among our friends, advocating for lesser-known, not necessarily "cool" issues, and overall, a deeper empathy for all our fellow humans (and animals too)--not just those in our home, school, city, state, or nation. It starts at home and at school, but by emphasizing it through society, I hope we can all realize that shifting "other people's problems" onto other people's shoulders doesn't work so well as when we all pull together.


Note: I'm by no means the only person who cares about global issues. :) There is a huge community of like-minded youth and adults who are doing amazing things for the world. The TED Conference is a great example of this ( I organized a TEDx event, or independently organized TED conference, last year, called TEDxRedmond. This year we're at it again!

The organizing committee behind this year's TEDxRedmond ( and our speakers for last year and this year show what a large number of youth want to have a voice and a platform to spread messages about important global issues. Please help support TEDxRedmond 2011 through sponsorship, participation, or by spreading the word. Hopefully this can be a first step in getting more people involved in making change. Thanks! 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Prom--Or, an American Tradition Gone Awry

The other day my family went looking for prom dresses for my sister. The first place we stopped was an expensive boutique with thousands of dresses. As I was about to step inside, Adrianna remarked casually,

“This place is really crowded with dresses.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, assuming she meant densely packed on hangers, or maybe not much aisle space.

“You’ll see.”

As it turned out, the store was a claustrophobe’s nightmare—a thin bit of waddling space alongside giant round racks of dresses zipped up in plastic garment bags, every color and style imaginable. By the time we walked out (no dress in hand), it felt like Adrianna had tried every single one of them.

She finally found her dream dress in a less specialized department store (where the dresses also cost half as much). The emphasis was on finding something that would be long enough to also wear at a piano recital.

What’s funny about my sister going prom dress shopping with the rest of my family in tow is that my parents were never that big on prom. More specifically, my dad didn’t go to his because he wasn’t into his high school social scene (or, as my sister translates it, he was a social outcast), and my mom grew up in ‘70s Communist China, where high school dance opportunities were pretty nonexistent.

The American tradition of high school prom, however, seems to have found a believer in my older sister—along with what seems like every American news organization. World News with Diane Sawyer on ABC broadcast not one, but two prom stories—the first to congratulate all the brave souls asking their significant others to go to prom with them, the second as a follow-up story on a boy who was suspended for trespassing on school property to post giant cardboard letters on the side of the school asking his girlfriend to go to prom with him. He’s now become a celebrity, having appeared on Today, Jimmy Kimmel, and others.

As a writer, I get it. Prom has all the elements of a popular story. It reeks of all-Americanness, tension, drama. It has romance. Pretty dresses. Dancing. Limos. High school. Coming of age. But couldn’t we get all that (maybe minus dancing, pretty dresses, and limos) with something that didn’t cost schools tens of thousands of dollars, students valuable hours in fundraising, working-class families worry over how they could afford dress and tuxedo shopping? Maybe an awards ceremony or gala to honor the unique in-school and extracurricular accomplishments of seniors? If you wanted, you could still dress up, invite a guest or two, roll out a red carpet, have music, call it prom...but you would be congratulating and evaluating people based on what they’ve done for others, not just how they’re dressed or who they’re going with.

The current concept of prom just seems so empty. Teenagers get dressed up to go to a dance at a fancy location. It encourages social inclusion or exclusion based on your ability or inability to snag a date. I feel like schools shouldn’t be taking a role in supporting dating this way—even for seniors. And it starts way earlier. People often start by going to their junior high dances in seventh grade, maybe followed by a formal dance (my sister’s was on a dinner boat in Seattle) in ninth, homecoming every year through high school, and of course, the jewel in the crown, prom in senior year. I mention this to people I’ve met in Europe—this system of dances and social events—and I haven’t heard of any equivalent.

So how did the prom come about? According to this interesting article from Mental Floss, the prom actually originated in the 1800s as an effort to teach etiquette and good manners to college students. It migrated to high school students with the same goal. Mental Floss described it this way: “the senior class, dressed in their “Sunday best,” gathered in the gym for tea and light refreshments, socializing and dancing under crepe paper streamers and the watchful eyes of chaperones.” It only started migrating to fancy locations in the 1950s, and in the 1980s, the prom became the giant deal that it is today, with students voting on where they want their prom to be...sometimes two years in advance. Paying hundreds—or thousands—of dollars for dresses and dinner and pictures and corsages.

Imagine if we took all of that effort, money, and thought that goes into designing a high school student’s in-school social experience, and put that into designing a student’s educational experience. There’s nothing wrong with getting dressed up and having a celebration of your high school life, whether in a dance or a ceremony or a conference...I just take issue with the American obsession that is the modern day prom.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Education Opinions Part 2: "Big" Changes

For those of you who haven't already seen Education Opinions Part 1, I recently discussed "small" changes I would make in education (school start times, recess, and lunches). Today I want to talk about "big" changes I would make in education (if I were in a position of incredible power!)--age-based grades, online learning, and authority hierarchy in school. 

Age-Based Grade Levels
I took two electives recently at Redmond Junior High. Everyone asked what grade I was in. It would go something like this:
"Adora, what grade are you in?"
"Ninth grade."
They look incredulously at my apparently seventh-grade style of dress (i.e., sweaters and shirts vs. tank tops and jackets) and say, "You're in ninth grade?"
"Yeah," I nod quickly, and explain, "I skipped a grade."

[Actually, it's feasible that I skipped two grades, since twelve-year-olds are often put in seventh grade (depending on when your birthday is) but usually I say I just skipped one, since I'm now thirteen.]

One's grade in school decides what you'll learn and the level at which you'll learn it. It decides when you'll graduate from high school and even the friends you'll make (most of your friends are probably in your grade or close to it). My question is why your age, not your aptitude, should determine your grade. I am at a loss as to the benefits of putting a group of people of approximately the same age--but of varying aptitudes--into one room where they will all learn the same thing. The quicker students will sit bored while the teacher re-explains a concept they already know from their voracious reading, while the slower students will be confused and left out by the rapid pace at which everyone else seems to be progressing.

My parents homeschooled my sister and me for many years. Why? Because the local school insisted that I, being three, should go to preschool, and my sister, being five, should go to kindergarten. The problem? You learn your alphabet in preschool, and I was already reading chapter books. At the same time, however, I was not so far along with math and science. In other words, I was not "advanced" in everything. Yet many gifted and talented programs try to put students into all-around advanced classes.

Wouldn't it make more sense to be able to take some kind of test (oral, written, multiple choice, or informal discussion with a counselor) to determine what level you would be? Maybe then I could have taken a test which would have allowed me to learn at second grade reading and history level, and kindergarten or first grade math and science.

To me, this approach makes far more sense than sorting students into grades based on when your birthday is. Would you ever tell a son or daughter, little brother or sister, "You weren't born before September 1st, so I'm not going to help you learn your alphabet"? Yet that is what our school system does every year.

Placement tests to sort students into levels would put students with a larger knowledge base into higher grades, but a large knowledge base doesn't necessarily mean a love of learning. I'd propose that honors/gifted status would then be determined by a student's desire to learn and exhibition of independent learning traits (i.e., reading a lot outside of school, tracking current events, etc.). For instance, if you're a ten-year-old who's been advanced to seventh-grade level mathematics, you'd be placed in the honors math class. The material covered would be the same as the seventh-grade level math (because honors classes would no longer have to serve only as a means of providing harder material--you'd be placed in a higher grade if you had that large knowledge base), but there would be more discussion, extracurricular activity, etc.

I personally think that there is no obvious benefit to having an age-based grade system. (Can anyone think of obvious pros?) But there are many obvious, compelling reasons why not to have one.

Perhaps I should add that age-based grades don't necessarily have to be wiped out completely (as in, you could still say, "I'm a seventh grader," "I'm a ninth grader," etc.), but that they would be mainly symbolic and would not decide the level of classes you should take.

Authority Hierarchy in School
I definitely think that students need to get involved in decision-making on a deeper level, beyond simply being on an associated student government or student council. At the TEDx conference I organized last year, TEDxRedmond, several speakers (all of whom were under 18), spoke movingly on their opinions about education and certain ways their schools had supported and/or failed them.

In many countries, schools are preparing students to participate in a democratic environment; yet schools themselves tend to be extremely autocratic, with all high-level decisions being made by adults. Let students have a voice--use online technology to have students give constructive feedback to their teachers and school administrators. Implement student suggestions. Put students on school district boards. Allow students to help form curriculum and get their ideas on which assignments work best for them. Hold regular meetings where students are invited to speak to their school officials.

Online Learning
Every school district should have an online learning framework, so that "blended learning" (partially online, partially in-person) can be an option for students. Students could read more of the fact-based lesson material online, so that when they came to class in-person, time could be used on higher-order thinking skills like experiments, projects, and the like. A lot of excellent learning takes place when students are face-to-face with each other and a teacher, yet there are situations where students may not always be able to make it to class. Should students not be able to continue doing any of their work simply because of a school flu epidemic, school staff on strike, snow days, or absences? 

Other obvious benefits of incorporating online learning:
- Teachers could post assignments, students could submit responses, and teachers could grade them, all online, without worrying about endless stacks of paper.
- Students could keep up with what was going on in class and see instant grade updates.
- Teachers could post multiple-choice tests, which can be easily computer-graded, online, and save themselves from the tedious work of checking multiple choice answers.
- Students could review materials from past lessons before a test.
- Teachers could easily post links and resources online for students to view.
- Parents could keep updated on what was happening in class.
- By using tools like Elluminate, Skype, GoToMeeting, chat, Google Voice, etc., teachers could easily stay in touch with students (particularly when students had questions).

As a student at an online public high school, I see my teachers using many of these tools. Many of my teachers have Google Voice as well as embeddable chat tools, so we can quickly get in contact.

Of course, like the "small" changes, all the "big" changes will cost money. Where will that come from?

Among other places, maybe by cutting some of the money that goes into competitive sports (could we make certain sports co-ed, for example?) They provide excellent opportunities for young people to exercise and learn, but do we really need so much expensive transportation for competitions, coaches, and sports gear? (Not to mention new research showing the dangers of certain sports, like football.) Besides, if you read my earlier "small" changes post, you'll notice I mentioned bringing back recess and making PE a daily fifteen-minute class throughout every school year, making exercise routine and not necessarily competitive.

Finally, students should take international studies classes, since it's often shocking how little Americans know about other countries. (Can you name all the provinces of Canada? Mexico's president? Capital of Denmark?)

I know this post is quite long, and because of the extreme municipal-level management of schools, many of these changes are seemingly impossible. I'm hoping that we can work toward a better school system in the coming days and years.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Education Opinions Part 1

My mom once asked me about the first steps I would hypothetically take to make a "better school." I don't claim to be an education expert, but I do have personal opinions about the ideal school--one I'd like to go to. Among many other things, I said that I would change school starting times, improve cafeteria lunches, and bring back recess. These would be good first steps because they help a lot of students a little bit. Given, they do touch the surface, but they can have wide-reaching impacts.

"Small" Measures: Starting Times, Recess, and Lunches
Starting Times
Studies have repeatedly shown that everyone, but children with developing brains in particular, need a good amount of high-quality sleep. It's difficult to get when you have to worry about waking up at 7 in the morning to go to school. Not everyone is a morning lark, and by starting school so early, not only students but also educators have to stave off yawns throughout the day.

I was at a conference where a well-respected doctor who'd studied sleep habits for many years shared information (which I've roughly paraphrased) that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 AM and end at 11 AM. Yet we're starting school at 7 or 7:30 AM. While I wouldn't quite change school start times to 11 AM (since we have to consider parents who have to go to work), I think it would be reasonable to move them to 8:45 AM or after. Then hypothetically a teenager could go to bed at 12 AM (as many often do), wake up at 8, shower and eat breakfast, and go to school with 8 rather than 5 or 6 hours of sleep.

Another step: make cafeteria lunches better. There would be a cap on the amount of sodium, fat, and calorie content allowed in each lunch. Nonfat or 1-2% milk (and in smaller containers--who really drinks that much milk?) instead of whole, no chocolate milk, no soft drinks, and no vending machines with unhealthy items. A certain percentage of food served would have to be organic and/or local. Have smaller portions to help minimize cost (we all know how much food gets dumped out). Have the school's foods classes, and maybe the entire student body, help make lunch on certain days.

This might be controversial among students, but I think it would be a good idea to have randomly assigned seating during lunch. The social division that occurs when students simply pick out where they want to sit can be hurtful and exclusive to students new to the school or children with difficulty making friends. Also, I think that teachers rarely eat lunch and converse with the students. I've learned a lot from being able to have conversations with adults. So, teachers would be required to eat lunch with the students--at least on certain days--(and really, if they really can't stand students to the extent that they can't eat with them, should they be teaching?) I don't want to sound too uptight, but it might be useful to have lunchtime (or at least part of it) double as a class in good manners and etiquette--particularly helpful for students who don't often have the ability to experience fine dining. Not to mention it might cut down on food fight incidents.

Making nutritious school lunches would be an excellent way to begin combating child obesity; another way would be to bring back recess, at all grade levels. In middle and high school you might have a somewhat more organized approach (as in, now we're going to be playing Capture the Flag), depending on students, because I could envision people simply standing around and talking to each other instead of exercising.

Perhaps instead of a dreaded required class one semester of junior high, physical education could become a fun, daily fifteen-minute vigorous game-playing time? A lot has been said about boys being kinesthenic learners, and I'm sure it wouldn't hurt anyone to move around more.


In my second part, Education Opinions Part 2 (the "big" changes), I'll be talking about changing the age-based grade system, authority hierarchy in school, and online learning.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

New Short Story

I was inspired to write this one by the recent story of the piano on the sandbar in Florida's Biscayne Bay. It's similar to another one of my stories, A Gossamer Inch. It seems like my characters lean towards old ladies. Maybe it's my alter ego. :) You can find my other short stories on my Scribd collection.


On Biscayne Bay
I heard a story ‘bout a piano on a sandbar, says the woman in line who I kind of know from someplace. They say some punk kid put it there—in Biscayne Bay. She says it like it’s a brand of peanut butter or frozen food—familiar like Birdseye or Aunt Jemima or Jif—not some place halfway across the country where the old people go for vacation once a year.
I nod, coolly, and hand the cashier my credit card. The cashier’s just a kid, maybe nineteen, maybe twenty, with whitish blond hair spiked up on the back of his head. His skin is bad on one side of his face.
          Remember, put the eggs in the bag last, I caution him as he takes my groceries, too briskly. OK, old lady, I can hear him say in his head, but he just nods politely with a Yes’m and puts the eggs in the bag—last. I can remember doing the same job when I was sixteen, nineteen, maybe twenty. Not at a big store with a supervisor and a manager and endless aisles, but the corner store on Main Street—the kind of store politicians like to bring up in their speeches. The “small business.” The “mom and pop store.” The “multigenerational family business.” They talk a lot about how these places go out of business because there’s no money or taxes are too high. They don’t give a whole lot of wordage to the idea that sometimes the next generation doesn’t want to continue the “family business.”
          Do you have a rewards card? asks the cashier.
          Do I? I think, and fumble around in my bag to find my wallet. I fumble around in my wallet to find my card, and when I finally find it, tucked behind my ID card, I just know the cashier is tapping his foot. I can’t hear it, but I know it. He slides the rewards card deftly. We didn’t have rewards cards that kept automated track of our balances and how much we’d gotten back when I worked at the corner store. We knew Aunt Ines was a good customer at the butchery from seeing her in there often enough, and that was why we slipped her an extra bag of ground beef or a bone for the dog every couple of weeks. (That was before the dog died and Ines moved to Southern California to be with her daughter, and son-in-law). By then she and I were both so old, I didn’t call her Aunt anymore. Ines’ son-in-law was about my age. I never liked him. He was smarter than me and knew it. That was why he took a bus for two hours just to take Advanced Classes at another high school, one that wasn’t out in the boondocks. No one knew what he took, but it apparently gave him enough Educational Background to be a Software Engineer. And who would want to take over their papa’s corner store when they could be a Software Engineer?
          The receipt prints out, slowly, but the young cashier with no patience rips it out and hands it to me with a pen to sign. I sign slowly. I think of the letters I never write any more and how my signature used to look. I used to write letters to Ines, and Martha, and Edith Jones, and to my daughters and cousins removed once or twice, I never could remember. I’d write “Come and visit”—but they’d write “Come and stay”—and after enough people write you enough times saying, you come live in Southern California or Iowa or Georgia or New York or Vermont, your body starts feeling dragged across the Continental United States and you want to write, None of Your Business, but that would be impolite—so you don’t write at all. And they think, stubborn old lady, there’s no convincing her to leave, so better we don’t waste our time anyhow. And they go back to their comfortably populated cities and suburbs where the nearest grocery is an easy walk and they share a ZIP code with twenty thousand other people. And I go back to my lone house off an empty Main Street and thirty-mile country road drive for groceries and a ZIP code I only share with dead Mr. Parry who still gets credit card offers.
          I get my own credit card back at the moment I think about Mr. Parry, and I hand the cashier the signed receipt. The woman behind me is only buying a carton of juice. She puts it up for the cashier to scan. As I push my cart out of the line, stiffly, because my joints are arthritic, I can hear the chatty woman I know from someplace say now to the cashier, Pretty strange story ‘bout that piano on the sandbar, isn’t it?
          And I think to myself about Aunt Ines and corner stores and Software Engineers and moving and leaving and staying and going, and I think, I’m that piano on a sandbar in the middle of my own little Biscayne Bay, even though I’m nowhere close to Florida. I’m that piano in the nighttime when the faithless birds fly off the banged-up keys. I’m that piano with its legs in the sand, a little less rooted every time, as the tide goes down and the tide comes up—and the tide comes up to wash me away.