The Teenager’s Use of the Present Participle

Teenagers, or perhaps just my teenager, appear either not to have a grasp of what the present participle means or to have a far more expansive view of the present than I do. In our household, the teenager regularly proclaims “I am doing X” when she is patently not doing X nor even remotely in a position to start doing X. Thus, either the teenager does not understand what it means to “be in the process of” doing something OR, and here is where I think I may have made a breakthrough in my understanding, the teenager’s conception of time is fundamentally different from mine.

For her, the present in the present participle is an expanded horizon which clearly has concentric circles of “doingness” thus allowing her to be “doing X” even though she clearly not even considered it yet. This is the outer circle of “doingness”, the one in which the world, possibly a parental unit, has pushed an action into the awareness horizon, but it is so far away, the circle so distant, that any particular awareness is not yet triggered until the world, which may or may not be the parental unit speaking a bit more urgently now, has registered a second request — because what more can the world do but request? and it should be happy that you are even feeling receptive this fine day.

This is a fuzzy boundary to be sure, one in which an action can be considered not to have actually have an existence yet since it is available to be negated by the simple rebuttal of “I didn’t hear you.” But whether the request if the first or the second, or perhaps is now made manifest by the parental unit suddenly appearing directly in your view, perhaps even blocking your way so that, no, you cannot continue to “vibe” to your current favorite song, the incipient action has perhaps moved more centrally in that it is now something you are considering and your consideration is, in fact, a form of doing. And, really, shouldn’t the peons, and by that you mean the parental units, be grateful for that? I mean, honestly, you’ve done quite a bit and you are exhausted by this processing of the request to “do X” and so maybe now is a good time to do something else…


This is one of those stories that parents will recognize and will re-confirm for adults smart enough not to become parents the wisdom of your choices. This is the story how your day can go sideways for, yes, the right reasons, but still sideways.

As many of you know, the girl has been battling a badly torn ligament in her right ankle, as in almost completely torn back in May. She’s been in physical therapy since then, and she played in nationals in July, and, while she didn’t hurt the ankle any more, she did set her recovery back. A month later, school underway, she was back playing club soccer and we were at a tournament in Texas, when suddenly her hips felt like they just wouldn’t work and she was in a lot of pain. The tournament trainer gave her some relief, doing some pretzel things to her body, and told her both that this often happened with leg joint injuries: they travel up and down the body. Do your exercises, keep up your PT, and you’ll get better, because, he warned, this could just as easily move into your back.

Fast forward a week and the girl starts having serious back pain. Okay, we said, this was not unexpected. Rest and ibuprofen will see her through. By Wednesday, it was so bad that she said she couldn’t sit still in her classes and indeed when she came home, she couldn’t sit to do homework. Okay, okay … but, as you all know, back pain goes deep into your being and by evening’s end she was both in pain and in tears.

Thursday, yesterday, morning, I called her pediatrician, who is great and we had an afternoon appointment. I get the girl from school a bit early and we get to the doctor, who just saw her a few weeks ago for her annual, so she has a baseline in her memory. She checks Lily out, asks lots of good questions, gets a handful of reasonable answers from the teenager, and concludes that it’s 99% the case that it’s muscular and just an unfortunate convergence of physical and emotional stress from both the injury and school. But, she says, let’s make sure it’s not something skeletal, so let’s get you an X-ray and let’s get that today so we have something before the Labor Day weekend.

It’s 4 and we dash to the nearby Children’s Specialty Center. Nice registration people, but their system is incredibly slow. We’re checked in by 4:30, but … they are short staffed and they have to send us to the main hospital for the X-rays. Okay, we say, we’ll just drive it: you don’t have to have us ferried by security. Oh, thank you, they say.

So we make the short drive to the hospital across a series of hot parking lots, find a spot, and walk in. We head to the aquarium where we were told to go, and not ten seconds later a tall woman comes bustling in to escort us to X-ray. Oh, she says, we’re going to go to ER. ER? We ask. Yes, she says, their system is better and faster and we can get you on your way — because the girl’s brow is furrowed deeply worried about homework.

And she does. A half dozen images of my child’s spine, not covered by Blue Cross’s co-pay but part of my deductible — oh, thank you State of Louisiana for our great insurance options — later, and we are in the maelstrom of 5 o’clock traffic headed home.

We are home by 5 and the doctor calls to say the X-rays are clear and proceed with PT and the course of super naproxen and muscle relaxants she prescribed for the girl. Yung-Hsing braves traffic to go to the nearby CVS pharmacy, which is swamped, but everyone is in a reasonable mood — one person tried to start a singalong apparently but couldn’t remember any songs. The pharmacy tells Yung-Hsing they’ll text her when it’s ready because they are so far behind. So she leaves to return home.

We get some dinner and the girl starts trying to do homework, but she can’t think very clearly so Yung steps in to be a bit of an anchor for her. I hang out, but soon it’s after 8 and the pharmacy hasn’t texted and I decide just to go because, surely, after three hours they’ve had time to fill it.

I get to the CVS and they have filled the naproxen but not the muscle relaxant … because they don’t have it?

  • You don’t have it?
  • No, sir.
  • Why didn’t you call us to tell us?
  • Well, if you had left your number, we would have texted you.
  • My wife left you her number but you didn’t text her.
  • Oh.
  • Where else can I go?

At this point, the pharmacist says she’ll call a nearby CVS to see if they have it. They do. Oh, good, I say, let me have the prescription and I’ll head there. Oh, she says, I’ll enter it for you from here. Type type beep. Type type beep. Ten minutes go by of type type beep. It won’t go through. They keep telling me to go ahead and go, but I am not leaving without the prescription or the assurance that the transfer has gone through. (And why, oh why, CVS, can one pharmacist not simply tell another over the phone what’s needed?) You should just go. They close at 9.

It’s 8:40 according to my phone. I decide, against my own better judgement, to go. I get in the truck and head up Camellia to the CVS on the corner of Camellia and Johnston, and, for once, I speed up the boulevard. If a copy wants to clock me, he can follow me into the damn CVS parking lot. I am getting that muscle relaxant and my child is going to sleep.

I arrive at 8:50. I get to the pharmacy counter. They know why I’m there, but the order won’t show up in their damned computer system. I keep standing there. I keep thinking “Why can’t you call? Why can’t you call? What matters more: your system or the well-being of a child?” But I keep my mouth shut.

It’s 8:56, the pharmacy tech is clearly closing up chop, when something beeps. Here it is, announces the pharmacist. She quickly fills the prescription, the tech checks me out, and I bee line it out of the second CVS and third medical facility I have visited today.

And when I step into the muggy, evening heat of the parking lot, Yung-Hsing texts me that she got the text that the prescription is ready. Yes, really.

And that is what happened to four hours of my life yesterday.

App Camp for Girls

[This]( This is what I want to do with/for my daughter. I have a few years before she is old enough, but maybe if we start building the infrastructure now in our little city, we might be ready for her and her cohort. (What would it be like to make Lafayette *the* place for women coders?)

80 … 110

My daughter thinks about math, and, sometimes when she thinks about math she reaches interesting conclusions. As in: “Guess what, Daddy? If you are counting to one hundred and you miss the eighties, you can just count to one hundred ten.” Then, demonstration.

The Wind

Back in December 2012 my daughter’s class received the assignment that had two particular dimensions: first, they had to write a paragraph personifying something and, second, they needed to use ten verbs. My daughter doubled down on the challenge: she wanted to use ten verbs in a single sentence and she wanted to use something that could only be described with verbs, the wind:

> The wind whistled through the trees, looking down on the silly, helpless, people. She rippled, swirling, soaring, swinging, sailing, bouncing, skipping, tumbling, rolling, flipping, darting, flitting, fluttering, and dashing. High in the sky she flew above the birds, kites, and even the tallest redwood trees. Slowly she turned to a breeze, softly strolling along her daily path. She could hear the wishes, dreams, and hopes of all the children. The trees waved to her, their long fronds swaying this way and that. Stretching, she reaches and grabs at thin air. Now it is a game, her body always following her arms that hold an invisible grasp. She stops and perches on a tree branch. Now all is still. Even the trees do not bend under her weight. All is quiet.

Raising a World Builder

In the car this morning on the way to school I commented to my daughter that the rain had made driving a bit more difficult than usual and that I would have to make sure to keep two hands on the wheel. It was, for me in that moment, simply a metonym for paying attention, and, I confess, a way of letting my daughter know that her dad may not be paying as close attention to our conversation as we both often enjoy. We have, over the years of our morning commute that gets her to school and me to work, enjoyed a wide variety of conversations, and sometimes they run sufficiently wild, especially at her end, that I have to remind her, as a way of reminding myself, that driving is the highest priority.

A little too often my reminder really comes out more as a chide, which I always regret, unless of course she simply performs some conversational judo on it, which she did, by responding, “What if you had three hands?” Her first thought was that I could drive and wave to drivers nearby, but quickly she spun the idea out into a variety of possibilities before settling down into playing a variety of instruments with three hands: there was a three-handed piano piece, then a three-handed guitar melody, and then a three-handed trumpet call. The sounds grew wilder, weirder and her laughter built from giggles to squeals.

Her first move displayed the power of divergent thinking, something which has been explored quite a bit over the past few decades in creativity studies, but her next move was to dwell in a particular domain, to immerse herself in a world, and to play with the possibilities there. For the time being, I would like to call that immersive thinking. It is surely related to that kind of thinking that we sometimes call rich mode or right brain thinking, but I am not sure how.1

World-building is like a reflex action for my daughter. From the time she could speak, she spun out stories. She usually enacts the stories, dramatizing them with props and costuming if she is a character or animating a wide variety of objects, some of them more obviously meant for such use and others not. I can’t, for example, count the number of times objects at restaurant tables have come to life and led complex, social lives when adult conversation became uninteresting to her. My wife and I have seen utensils be sisters, salt and pepper shakers be parents, and a tented napkin become a home.

It’s an amazing thing to watch, but as many creative individuals know, such an ability does not come without its penalties. While her school has labeled her a “deep creative,” they really have been unable to come up with a plan on how to make a space within which she can learn and grow to suit her own abilities and interests. Don’t get me wrong: she does well in school, but that’s largely because we have lobbied hard at home for her to adapt to the regimen at school. And so she gets high marks but those marks are regularly accompanied by comments from, well-meaning and really nice, teachers that she does not pay attention as well as she should, that she is “daydreamy” or that “sometimes she just phones it in.”

One could perhaps fault the teachers, but I rarely find individuals are the problem in these circumstances. More often a system is at work. In this case, I think it’s fair to blame a larger educational ideology that has come to rely upon standardized tests as one of its central metrics. In a moment that resembles the classical economics parables about unintended consequences, what we are facing as parents, as the paroxysms of our own child, is an entire educational system which many believe is headed precisely in the wrong direction for what looks like reasonable, well, reasons.

Indeed, an entire cluster of industries have arisen around the wobbling of the educational infrastructure in our country. The technorati favor two flavors that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first flavor is that articulated by Ken Robinson who argues that our schools are stuck in the industrial age, anxiously trying to turn out uniform widgets in a moment where standardization couldn’t be less useful — the assumption being that things are changing more quickly and more predictably than ever. I don’t subscribe fully to this latter notion, but it’s not hard to see that the current context for businesses favors only a few large incumbents with stability, but employment with those incumbents, as two decades of layoffs and jobs moving from one part of the world to another have provied, is not stable. In other words, institutions have stability, but only individuals at the top of those institutions get to enjoy the fruits of that stability.

Outside of those narrow mountaintop retreats, there’s a whole host of changes taking place as industries transform in the face of an amazing amount of computing power. My own industry, higher education, is facing such a transition, but think about even the way manufacturing is changing as building components becomes less about removing metal by mill and lathe work or stamping and cutting but more about “printing” them by building up a part molecule by molecule. Suddenly, economies of scale matter less and sheer imagination matters more. (Well, you’ll still need quite a bit of capital to have such a “printer” at your disposal, but that’s a return to a history we have seen already — i.e., the original printing press!)

We are, we thought, paying the difference between a public school education with two dozen kids in a classroom and a private school education with only a dozen kids in a classroom as a way of giving our daughter’s particular abilities, and inabilities, greater attention. She needs to adjust to the conventions of the world, but as the world itself seeks to explore differences more for the value those differences contribute, we think there is also a place for her differences within any given curriculum. (More on this difference between a teacher-centered and a student-centered pedagogy another time.)

Here’s the short of it: our daughter is a geek.

She has all the classic geek traits: she prefers to be fully immersed in a problem or project or world and she oscillates between wanting external affirmation for her accomplishments and not caring what others think. Most geeks I know are like this. Many of them truly believe they don’t need anyone’s approval, and for a few of them that may very well be true. I also know, speaking as a geek (I think) myself, that, yes, sometimes a nod from someone you respect is not only all you need, but it is something you really want.

A lot of curricula which have high geek probabilities have switched to more project-oriented pedagogies. We are seeing more of it engineering, and it has always been a prominent part of architecture. I’m less sure of it in the sciences, but the sciences have always had really cool laboratories and other kinds of experiences at the upper levels — plus their upper-level ranks thin out and they can spend more time one-on-one with the students. (Some of it comes down to self-selection: people often find the curricula which suits their own learning preferences. More on this later, too.)

But what to do with our little geek, our world builder?

She wants to do well, but she can’t when the system is rigged to work against the way she thinks, the way she processes information. Let me give an example from recent experience — and it’s not to pick on any one teacher — but it grabbed my imagination and I think it provides a useful contrast:

Our daughter is in the school choir. Every year the choir puts on a musical — last year it was_Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_; this year it is The Wizard of Oz. Every year students have to audition for a role in the play. Now, how do you suppose that audition takes place? Does it come after a few weeks of watching the film version or reading all or parts of the book? Does it come after listening to some of the story’s most famous passages and songs? That is, does it allow an immersive thinker an opportunity to do what they do best, get inside a world and look around, elaborate it, play with it? No, the auditions are songs from some place else, handed out the week or so before the auditions. Students are told to practice the songs, do their best, and decisions will get made.

Now, that approach works if a student is procedurally-driven and understands the necessity, or already desires, adult approval. It doesn’t work at all for the student that needs to live and breathe inside a thing, to get a sense of it, to find their excitement there.

Fundamentally, this comes down to the difference between teachers as the center of a curriculum and students at the center. As a teacher myself, I know I can’t be all things to all students, and in a post to follow, I want to think more about how education might be made better for more kinds of learners than it currently is. In fact, I worry about one recent trend in particular: the rise of the master teacher and what that means for learning differences — here, learning differences are meant much more broadly than they are in the education industry.

  1. The classical conception of the different ways the brain works are that it possesses primarily two modes of operating, linear and rich. The linear mode, popularly known as left brain, works well with language and other sequential kinds of processing. The rich mode, aka the right brain, processes information through patterns. We think of it as intuitive, that years upon years of experience and practice have so layered any sequence with so much richness that it feels somehow magical when we can discern dozens and hundreds of possible steps and can calculate what the best possible next step is based upon those layers. That is, intuition seems to be an example of the two modes operating really well together. 

Early Storytelling

This fall I am teaching a course on games and storytelling for the first time. One of my goals for the course is simply to provide participants with useful concepts and terms for talking about things like stories and things like games. Finding a good introduction to narratoloy suitable for undergraduates is not as easy as it sounds, and the same goes for a book that introduces game theory — this is a university course after all, the ideal is to give them really great theories with which possibly to work. One of my goals here, for example, is to give them an opportunity to avoid the sloppy use of “story” to describe *wayyyy* too many things.

Having laid out some definitions that I hope will not only be useful for participants in other arenas but also act as a way to clear space in the arena of the course, I want to provide participants with an open space to explore the interaction between the two domains by giving them the option of coming up with their own project. Some will go with stories about games, a la _The Castle of Crossed Destinies_, and some will go with games with stories, a la Myst.

But some will come up with a genre/medium that I cannot even anticipate. One of the ways that I hope to encourage this kind of thinking is actually to show them my own daughter at play, both on her own and with her friends. There is something really interesting that happens in their play, which they sometimes call a “game”, that I find really interesting. If I were to try to delineate it, I would say that they begin, early on, with world-building, or at least a negotiation for the foundation of the framework within which they are going to play. Having done that, they begin to unfold some sort of dramatic scene: a mission or conflict or sometimes just a collection of characters who proceed to interact in some fashion.

What fascinates me is how they often they will recur to the frame itself as something to be refined in relationship to the story. In most adult games, this kind of revision of the rules is unheard of. You can’t change the rules to Monopoly in the middle of the game, nor do the rules of physics, or the basic scenario, change in the middle of a game of _Call of Duty_. But kids do it all the time, and, now that I think about it, one of the things that we work very heard to “teach” kids when we introduce them to “our” games” is that reality cannot be re-negotiated.

I talked about this with my daughter this morning, and I was on the point of asking her if it would be okay if I filmed her and a friend playing when she piped up to say, “We could come talk to your class.” See. Right there. It happened. A re-negotiation of reality. And so now I plan both to show my class children playing as well as have two children come to class and talk to them about playing, about storytelling. That, I think, will be a *game changer*.

We were looking over our daughter’s homework with her this afternoon. It’s an exercise where they review the previous week’s work, see what they did well and they did less well, and then evaluate themselves. One of her assignments was to write a paragraph. Our daughter wrote four. When we pointed this out to her, she protested that the first paragraph didn’t count:

> That’s not a paragraph! That’s a prologue.

We paused, and then we burst out laughing.

LED Throwies

Because sometimes you really do have a bunch of cheap LEDs lying around. And sometimes this is exactly what your daughter wants to do with them. And sometimes being a parent really is a way to have a second childhood. [Directions are at Instructables.](