Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Coaching Services

If you are interested in receiving coaching for triathlon or swimming, please don't hesitate to contact me. You can email me here.

A brief athletic resume:
Collegiate swimming for 2 years at the College of William and Mary
Triathlete since 2010
Multiple time USAT age group all american.
Competed in the ITU age group world championships in Edmonton, Canada
Member of Team Every Man Jack
Podium finisher at every distance competed in (sprint to half ironman distance).
Coaching experience in triathlon, swimming, cross country, and water polo.

Training plans available for sprint, olympic and half ironman distances. In person and online coaching services available. Contact me for rates.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The 37 Steps to Becoming an Adult

One of the perks of being a high school teacher is the opportunity to interact with students as they are undergoing dramatic changes in their awareness of what it means to be a functioning member of society. While at younger ages, they are learning vital lessons such as "no, don't kick the bouncy ball at Suzy" and "Yes, you must share the colored pencils with Mark", in high school, students realize that there is more to the world than the playground that surrounds them. With that added world comes added skills that need to be learned. As you learn more and more, the definition of what it means to be an adult changes.

There are numerous books and resources out there on what it means to be an adult. There are legal definitions, and those get murky too. A google search for "steps to being an adult" comes up with lists with 5, 9, 10 and 468 steps. I say that there is one true definitive step.

Despite what Napoleon Dynamite would have you believe, one of the steps of being an adult is not being able to bake a cake.

While cake baking is a good skill to have, it won't necessarily win the ladies over, and doesn't make you an adult.

In considering what it takes to be an adult, some lists would include being 18, having a driver's license, voting, moving out of your parents' place, having a kid, paying bills, and others.

In place of that list, I offer one thing that you need to do to be considered an adult: own furniture.
It doesn't matter where the furniture is from- it can be from your neighbor's garage sale, a high end retailer of fancy futons, or from a swedish superstore. 

As mentioned in the previous post, my roommate moved out, and he owned all the furniture. This meant that if I didn't want to sit on the floor while I watched the warriors games, I had to do some shopping.

Owning furniture gives the implication of possessing other qualities, possessions, and characteristics that can deem one to be an adult. These include, but are not limited to the list outlined below:

1) Having your own space. This allows some privacy. As a kid, you never knew when your parents would swoop in, demand that you clean your room and take out the trash. With your own space, you can have it be as messy or as clean as you want. And furnish it how you want.

2) Having a job. If you can afford to have your own space and possess furniture, then you probably have a job.

3) Having close friends.

While you could call upon professional movers to carry all of your stuff, your friends will work for less than what you would pay a mover. I called upon three of my friends to lift a heavy couch 15 feet of the ground onto my porch to fit it into my apartment because it wasn't going to fit through the front door. It took us three hours to move it from San Francisco to Oakland. As my friend put it after I thanked him for his help, "we did epic shit. I should be thanking you."  I am very grateful to have friends like this. 

So while you may be 18, have voted, had an alcoholic beverage, you've done nothing until you have owned a coffee table.

After a few trips around the bay area to various stores, and buying items off of craigslist, my apartment now looks like this:

And that is Mr. John Savage to you.

On a side note, if you know anyone that needs a roommate, send them my way.

Friday, February 12, 2016

3 years, a domestic partnership, and the law

In sharing the saga of my time spent with my roommate of three years, some of my friends suggested that I write a post about it. With their prompting, below is my experience.

Brief synopsis: lived with a guy for three years, he tried to add his boyfriend to the lease without my knowledge, I said no, landlord sided with me, they moved out.

For the full story:
After moving back to California, I lived at home with my parents for a few months while I coached the high school water polo team. After the season when I had more time to look for a place and had saved a little bit of money, I put an ad out on Craigslist looking for a roommate. Quite conveniently, someone I knew found me. Dave (name changed) was the manager at the pool where I coached the team, and was also in need of a roommate. Through a quick exchange of emails, we agreed to look together.

We checked out a few places, and then found a place that was five minutes from both of our workplaces. We walked in with the deposit checks and first month's rent in hand, and signed the papers that day. And despite the warnings of living with someone you met on craigslist, things worked out.

As I had been a nomad up to this point, moving every year from house to house, I didn't own any furniture (or silverware, or really anything besides clothes, books, plateware, and bikes). Fortunately for me, Dave had everything- tv stands, couches, tables. I guess that is what being a real adult is all about. We moved in together, and life was good.

Well, things worked out for almost three years. About halfway through the third year, he started dating somebody, and his boyfriend (fictional name of Scott) started spending more and more time at the apartment. At first, I didn't have a problem with it, but it slowly progressed to Scott living in the apartment-he moved clothes and other possessions into the apartment, Dave gave Scott a key, and access to the parking spot.

An image search for "roommate from hell" brings up an image of Buffy. If I was a vampire, then yes, she would definitely be a roommate from hell.

I didn't say anything until Christmas, when they received a card addressed to both of them at the apartment. While I had been a push over up until this point, the arrival of the card with both of their names on it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. I sent Dave an email saying that his boyfriend couldn't live there any more, and we would need to discuss living arrangements if he anticipated Scott staying over.

Dave and Scott were out of town celebrating the holiday together, so Dave replied that we would talk when he got back. Not a problem- I was heading out of town too, so it would be about a week. All texts/emails up to this point were cordial.

While out of town, I tried to set up my DVR on my phone to record the bowl games and Warriors games, because it was expected that my attention be elsewhere while on vacation with my girlfriend.

After attempting to a few times to set up the recordings, I realized that my roommate had canceled the cable in retaliation (cable and internet was in his name)! AH I WAS SO ANGRY. Not really, but I was displeased. It meant that I could not waste 10-15 hours on the couch watching the games that I already knew the results of!
How I wanted to spend the following days after vacation. Without a functioning DVR, how was I going waste so much time on the couch!

When we both returned from our respective vacations, Dave and I sat down, and I asked some questions- what is Scott's living situation? Is he or has he been paying rent?
On the inside, I was fuming about the cancellation of cable and the other issues outlined above, but I forced myself to put on a calm face and be cordial. 

Dave avoided the questions, and said that he and Scott had entered a domestic partnership, and had contacted the landlord, who had approved an addition to the lease, so Scott's name was going to be added to lease. I congratulated him on the partnership, but in my mind, the wheels started turning about what to do. The conversation ended with Dave agreeing to ask Scott to pay rent, and then a further discussion would take place.

After we talked, I emailed the landlord, and then my legal counsel (my parents). My parents gave me more advice (both legal and otherwise) than I knew what to do with. Apparently Dave and Scott may have broken the law by having the landlord change the lease without my permission. A lease is a legally binding document, and can't be altered without permission of all parties. Terms like "intentional interference with contractual relations", "failure to act in good faith", and "liability for future damages" got thrown around, and various tracks to pursue were discussed.

Before pursuing some of the messier tracks, emails were exchanged between Dave, the landlord, and myself. Through emails with the landlord, he was under the impression that I had moved out since I wasn't cc'd on any of the emails asking for the addition to the lease, and for this reason, had approved of the subtenancy of Scott. When the landlord found out that I was still living there, he said he would not approve the change. Dave, when he got wind of this, countered with he was in a domestic partnership with Scott, so the landlord must approve the changes to the lease. The landlord initially capitulated, but when I prompted him to provide the legal reasoning for the change, the landlord came back with this:
Your lease calls for 2 people. But marriage and partnership is a state law that supersedes the lease

Only SF has adopted an ordinance to allow for more than those named on the lease to become sub occupants. Oakland still upholds the lease as the deciding factor in "occupancy". 
Boom. Winner winner chicken dinner. In the absence of any ordinance allowing for the change of the lease, the only people allowed to live in the apartment are those named on the lease, namely (pun intended) Dave and I. While I had enjoyed living with Dave, and Scott for that matter, I did not sign up to live with both of them. I wasn't going to move out because I couldn't afford to move out. If you haven't heard, rents are stupidly expensive in the bay area, but the apartment is locked in at the rate at which we moved in. The rent controlled apartment is an asset that both Dave and I wanted, and without being able to add Scott to the lease, Dave had one less piece to try to push me out.

I let Dave know that I had no intention of moving out, and that Scott couldn't be living in the apartment. Within three weeks, Dave told me he was moving out with Scott.
WOOOO! I had the place to myself! So much room for activities! Especially since I don't own any furniture!

Over this whole saga, I learned a lot- what the law states about domestic partnership (there are two different types in California), tenancy law, and human behavior. The biggest takeaways were:

  1. If possible, have the lease only be in your name- it allows you to control the apartment. If one of the roommates starts to be annoying, you can kick them out. This can be complicated for a variety of reasons, and may harm your roommates if you move out and the lease is under rent control.
  2. If you have to live with someone else, have everything be in your name. It gives you leverage and control over the situation, and allows you to stake a claim to the place.
  3. Always know what your nuclear option is, and make sure you understand all the cards that you have to play. If you go into an argument and you don't know your breaking point, you can get dragged out. But if you are aware of how hard you are willing to push, it makes things easier. I never had to reach that point here, but from advice from my counsel and friends, I had a plan.

While annoyed, I came out in a better situation, and now Dave and Scott can live together without being bothered by a spandex wearing beer drinking sports watching couch sitter.

Now, I have the place to myself, and an empty apartment with no furniture that I am in the process of acquiring. More on that in a future blog post.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Standards for thee, but not for me

In an earlier post, I commented about how I don't typically fit in with the assumed herd mindset of teachers. I will do so again here.

I am in favor of standards, and standardized testing.

This topic is so controversial that John Oliver spoke about it on his show on HBO, and testing reaches the pages of the local paper with some frequency. You can watch the clip from John Oliver's show here. I won't address his statements, as many of them are blatantly false or misconstrued, but it is mildly entertaining if like things to be oversimplified and/or glossed over.

My reasoning behind supporting standardized testing is simple: there are expectations and standards for goods and services provided, and students should be able to prove that they can meet those expectations. It is expected that when you get your oil changed, or your toilet fixed, or a filling put in a tooth, that the person doing it is competent. Why don't we expect that students meet published standards? As noted in a previous post, there is a lot going outside of school that can influence student success. We still, however, expect most, if not all students, to meet these standards.

A teacher friend of mine posted this to facebook. There are obvious limitations to testing, but at the end of the day, if you can't pass the driving test, you shouldn't have a license. 

When looking at websites of school districts or schools, they have statements saying that they focus on "high academic achievement" with goals of"100 % Graduation Rates". These mission statements or goals obviously touch on other topics beyond these, and frequently include flowery, unmeasurable objectives such as "helping students fulfill their potential" and "prepare students for satisfying and productive life".

Not directly related to these objectives, but still expected of schools, is that the students learn something. Like what are the three branches of the federal government. How to various levels of math. How to read and write. These are more easily measured (yet still not without controversy). If a student graduates high school and can't do various forms of math, write an essay, or analyze statements for accuracy, that's a problem. In fact, only 23% of eighth graders are considered to be proficient in civics. This is a problem.

Below are some outlined reasons in favor of testing:
1) Informs. When a student comes home from school and is asked how his or her day went, the usual response is "ok". If a parent gets anything more than that on a regular basis, I would be surprised. When report cards get sent out, there is not much more information available to the parents. With standardized testing results, parents are given significantly more information on what their student is capable of doing.

For a teacher, it can provide invaluable information. While the teacher may glean some information from assessments given in class, it is difficult to know without experience how his or her students stack up to the expected standards.

Within a school district, it can provide information to administrators and the school board. It can be difficult for administrators to make informed judgments from observations. They have to piece together information from a variety of sources to determine teacher efficacy: observations, reports from parents and students, and test results. The first source, observations, can provide the most information to the administrators, but they don't happen with any frequency. From my five years of teaching, I average about 3 visits a year from the administration, and I consider myself lucky to have those visits. Reports from students and parents can be biased for a variety of reasons. A collection of test scores (with the appropriate lens through which they are viewed) can provide some indication if learning is occurring in a classroom.

2) Provides metrics, and goals. With standards, the classroom can be a focused place. The teacher has direction for a particular class, the students know where they are going, and there are measurable standards against which student work can be compared.

3) Standardizes testing. This is one of the strongest points. When you think about ways of measuring student knowledge, one can look at GPAs, SAT scores, and AP scores (and obviously other metrics). GPAs are typically considered to be subjective; earning an A at one high school might not be as challenging as earning an A at another.  It is also known that grade inflation is rampant at colleges. Recent research also suggests that it is happening at high schools too.

These tests, given nationwide, provide some semblance of measuring how a student in Florida compares to a student Wyoming. Armed with this information, colleges, employers, etc can make informed decisions about applicants.

There are many arguments against testing, and I will attempt to debunk some of them:
1) Testing is not learning: Consider the following headline from the National Education Association:
This is the most the statement that I disagree with the most. The statement is obviously false. As mentioned above, teachers and administrators, students, and families can learn a lot from the results of the test. Teachers can learn whether or not their methods were effective, what content their students performed the best on, students can determine how well they know the material, and families can see if their children are learning and if the school district is doing a satisfactory job teaching their children.

2) Too much money is spent on testing. It depends on what your definition of "too much". It is estimated that $1.7 billion is spent annually. For all money being spent on education, it makes up less than one quarter of one percent of all money spent on education.

COUNTER POINT, that no one mentions:
At the same time this money is being spent on testing, increasing amounts of money is being spent in different ways. For example, since 1950, the number of administrative positions has grown at four times the rate of student population growth. This means money is being spent on management, not teaching.

In addition, school districts are hiring personnel to work with special education students at a faster rate than regular classroom teachers. When comparing the number of full time staff employed within high schools in a particular East Bay school district, every high school had more staff working in their special education department than their science and math departments. Mind you, this does not include individual aids who may work one on one with students which are frequently not listed on school websites (they are not for the district that I work in).  School districts have made the decision (or the decision has been made for them by law) that money needs to be spent on particular populations of students and not others.

This is a diagram from a school district of staff working on "Programs for Exceptional Students". Names have been blacked out. Almost none of these individuals work with students themselves. If you want more insight on how much money could be saved, or spent elsewhere in education that would directly impact students, I highly recommend you click on the link in the paragraph above. Money could clearly be spent more wisely on larger budgetary items.

If you are super interested, you can find the salaries of any public employee in California by searching this site. And by any, I mean any- a janitor in the UC system, a guard in a correctional facility, a 3rd grade teacher in San Diego, me, etc. The data hasn't been updated in a few years, but it is accurate. 

3) Too much time is spent on testing and test prep, and teachers are only teaching to the test. For every subject and grade level, states and sometimes districts have published standards that students are supposed to reach. Linked here are the California standards (within it are some common core standards if you are interested), and here are the standards for a particular school district. The standards typically ask the students know a particular body of knowledge and be able to do a particular set of skills.

Assuming that the test is reflective of the standards, what does it mean to that too much time is spent on test prep? That teachers are teaching the content? That they are giving them reviews? As long as the test matches the standards, then I find this argument flimsy.

4) It increases student stress. This is true. Students have lost sleep, thrown up, broken down in various ways due to the stress. Should we avoid all stressful situations for students? No. Is there a way to make this easier? Not sure.
People are exposed to stress all the time. At a certain point we expect them to face it. But for elementary aged students? A tougher call. 

4) Standardized tests paint an incomplete picture. This is clearly true, and can be used to describe any form of measurement. Your ability (or lack thereof) to write a brief for a law firm, cook up a dish for a restaurant, or change the oil in a car does not determine whether or not you are a good human being. But if you are a lawyer or clerk, a cook, or a mechanic, and you can't do those things, then you probably should choose another line of work. For students, we rely upon SAT scores, AP tests, and other sources of information about a student to determine future opportunities. Standardized tests are a part of that picture.

I am not arguing that the current model is a good one. Not all standardized tests are created equal, and new (hopefully improved) ones are being made all the time. Over the past few years, AP tests for the sciences have changed dramatically (in my opinion, a little better than the past tests), and changes are coming for the other subjects. Teachers, by and large, have embraced these changes.

When a person does a poor job changing your oil, there is a consequence for that person. Why is it not the same for education?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Framing the Question

The inspiration for this post comes from the books Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left and The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. The books both discuss issues within education, and attempt to provide insight into how education can be "fixed".

Is this a false premise?
It is difficult to go a month without hearing about the latest invention or pedagogical style that will help students learn. During the past ~15 years, we have gone from a bipartisan bill to pass No Child Left Behind (with a vote of 91-8 in the US Senate and 381-45 in the House) to a near universal denunciation and condemnation of it, to Common Core and the Next Generation of Science Standards and the controversy these changes are bringing. In addition to managing the changes that are coming with the new legislation, many school districts are implementing major changes themselves by purchasing laptops, ipads, and chromebooks for their students. (For an interesting scandal happening currently, see this article about the Los Angeles USD wasting money on iPads.)

Didn't kids use books to learn about this before? 

But why the constant changing of curriculum and demand that teachers use different pedagogical skills? If you follow education, one of the rationales for this constant shifting is framed as this: When comparing scores on an international standardized test known as the PISA (The Program for International Student Assessment), the United States ranks below average. For this reason, we need to change to become more like higher performing countries. We are told that if we want to compete in the international market, we need to be more like South Korea. Or Finland, or Hong Kong, or somewhere else, where they do things differently.

This is a picture from a hagwon in Korea, where students spend hours after school studying more. 

When considering this rationale, and the desire/demand for the US to become more like higher scoring countries, several questions arise:

What are these countries doing differently within their schools?

Do these differences actually result in different educational outcomes for their students?

There are obviously other topics to discuss. But what if the fundamental reasoning is flawed to begin with? What if the framing of the question inhibits an appropriate understanding of the test scores themselves?  Are students in the US really performing worse than students in other countries?

Consider the following headline from the Wall Street Journal: US High School Students Slip in Global Rankings. Then consider the following headline: Majority of US public school students are in poverty.

Whoa. Could those two headlines be related? Are the educational outcomes of students dependent upon their socioeconomic status? According to the American Psychological Association, lower SES correlates with lower levels of literacy, chronic stress, health issues, increased dropout rates, and more. Notice the use of the word correlation. Students obviously can succeed under many conditions, and there are other factors related to student success beyond their current or previous economic conditions.

With that line of thinking, a further analysis of data is warranted. When comparing different SES groups within the US with countries that are made up of similar SES groups, how does the US stack up? Mel Riddle, of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, provides some analysis here. 
Here is some selected data taken from Mel's page, who is using data from the 2009 administration of the PISA:


Poverty Rate

PISA Score

United States












United States









United States









This data is obviously incomplete, but the trends are obvious. When comparing school districts in the US with countries that have similar SES makeups, the US consistently outperforms these other countries.

So are our schools as a whole really failing? It really depends on how you frame the question. For school districts that have low poverty levels, the answer is clearly no (if the basis for failing is rated by success on an international standardized test). Whatever these school districts are doing (or what is happening outside of the schools in the homes) is working. For districts that have higher rates of poverty, are they failing? Maybe. Will changing what happens within the school by implementing Common Core and other changes improve the outcomes for these students? For all students? That is a more difficult question to answer.

For higher poverty school districts to perform at the same level as other school districts, research suggests that school districts may need to take on non-traditional roles. Changes in pedagogy and resources may help, but as noted earlier, outside factors such as socioeconomic status and level of parent education play large roles in the success of students. Many of the reasons that students struggle are not directly related to what is happening in the classroom, but are related to stress from a variety of sources, poor nutrition/health, family issues, etc). Research suggests that these outside factors may have four to eight times the impact on student achievement than what occurs in the classroom. So what role can school districts play in ameliorating the condition of their students?

Before getting into a list of actions schools can take that are outside of their traditional roles, here are things that they can do now:

1) Keep experienced, talented teachers, and remove ineffective ones. A good teacher can improve a student significantly, providing percentile gains of 29-45 points.

2) Encourage teachers and administrators to continue with professional development.

3) Allow for time for teachers and administrators to collaborate and EVALUATE each other. Teachers need time to learn from each other, and receive feedback to improve.

4) Support teachers with needed supplies.

Related side note: Programs such as TFA are a bandaid, and may contribute to further problems within a school for a variety of reasons: teachers improve as time goes on, TFA teachers leave the profession at a higher rate than traditional teachers, and with them leaving, it creates further instability within the schools and for the students.

And a list of actions that are outside of the traditional role:

1) Identify students who are in need of mental health services. It is estimated that only 20% of students with mental health issues are identified and receive treatment. The numbers are lower at higher needs school districts. The behavior of a few students can impact a whole class and disrupt a learning environment. Identifying and helping these students will improve the classrooms of all the students.

2) Actively promote a consistent, positive, rule enforced environment. Students in these schools may be lacking an environment that supports healthy social development, but can gain it at school.

These lists are obviously incomplete and could go on and on. A safe environment, where students have access to everything they need would be ideal. But notice how none of the suggestions have anything to do with implementing new curriculum, buying ipads, or changing standards and new standardized tests. Some of the changes require increased funding (such as resources for teachers, helping identify students with particular needs and providing those services), and others are within the normal budget of hiring and firing teachers, promoting a positive environment, etc.

I am not saying that improving education is an end game. What I am suggesting is that maybe, just maybe, people need to chill out. Students have been learning, and teachers have been teaching for a long time. Education has improved. But there is no need to hit the panic button.