Tuesday, June 18, 2019

#Brain Why It Pays to Increase Your Word Power

The September 2017 issue of Reader’s Digest is titled “Genius Issue – Secrets to a Sharper Mind.” The article “Why It Pays to Increase Your Word Power” on pages 66-73 begins with a question.

“How many hours did you spend reading books last week?”

In 2016, researchers at Yale School of Public Health began analyzing data collected from 20,000 people every other year since 1992. They narrowed the focus to the 3600 respondents over 50 years of age. Included in that data was an answer to the above question gleaned from over 20-years of data collection.

  • “People who read books—fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose—for as little as 30 minutes a day over several years were living an average of two years longer than people who didn’t read anything at all [emphasis mine].”

Other research included suggests that 

  • “[C]hildren as young as six months who read books with their parents several times a week show stronger literacy skills four years later, score higher on intelligence tests, and land better jobs than nonreaders.”

The article goes on to discuss the benefits of reading in adults. Summary

  • Reading books is more beneficial for adults [maybe everyone] than reading newspapers and magazines.

  1.  Brains build many connections and pathways when keeping track of chapters and storylines. This doesn't happen when skimming headlines, as is common with newspapers and magazines.
  2.  Empathy and emotional intelligence scores increase after reading even only a part of a chapter in a story.
Another concept discussed is “cognitive reserve”—your brain’s ability to damage. More reading, more ability over a wider range of damage types. 

Shocking to me was

  • “This [cognitive reserve built up by reading] could explain why, after death, many seemingly healthy elders turn out to harbor signs of advanced Alzheimer’s disease in their brains despite showing few signs in life.”

The article takes a turn in its story arc for the last part. Benefits of bilingualism are presented. That's another blog, someone else's blog.

Chances, if you are reading this post, you are a reader. There’s a different level of probability involved with you being an author—but you might be one of those, too.
  1. If you’re a reader, you should be fired up by the above content—especially if you read books.
  2. If you’re an author, I hope you’re inspired by how you are contributing to more than just the list of books in print.
  3. I suspect that writers' brains have good-sized cognitive reserves.

I taught high school and college biology for 39 years. From what I know about brain function
  • An author’s brain must build connections while determining the plot, fleshing out characters, and developing a plausible setting—while writing.
  • The number of those connections must be at least as many as a reader builds while following those plots and characters in that setting—while reading.

Writing and editing are disciplines. 
  1. Accept that discipline is required to write a good story.
  2. Don’t rush to finish a story.
  3. Do all that you need to do to produce a story that sucks readers in.
  4. Disciplined writing helps readers develop healthier brains.
Write on!
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Monday, June 10, 2019

#Graduation Pomp and Circumstance Part 2

Most schools graduated in late May, graduated last week, or will graduate this week. Welcome to part two of a two-part post on graduation ceremonies "as I see it." 

I encourage you to read last week's post before this one. The only hint I'll give you about how I got to this point is...

I enjoyed being the "door monitor" for graduation robes after the ceremony for two reasons.

First, when Pat Carroll was principal, his goal was to finish the entire graduation ceremony—from the time Pomp and Circumstance ended until they tossed mortarboards—in 30-minutes. 

  • MV averaged around 500 graduates each year. 
  • There was an invocation, the Pledge of Allegiance, acknowledging the Honor Graduates, and a student speaker each year. 
  • After all that, they called every student’s name over the P.A. system as they walked across their half of the stage and received their diploma from one of two dignitaries. 
  • It required two dignitaries because one side of the graduates entered from stage left and the other from stage right. 
  • It was a quick-moving sight to behold. 
  • After two 40-minute ceremonies, he managed a 35-minute one. 
  • Those of us on “robe recovery detail” anxiously awaited his final graduation—the year he retired. 
  • Thirty minutes and forty seconds after Pomp and Circumstance, mortarboards flew like Frisbees. 
He’d done it!

The second reason I enjoyed being “door monitor” was my “position” at graduations, I got to see every graduate. I am proud to say that more than a few took photos with me. 

Top Row: Ph.D. Grad. MVHS as “door monitor” in 1984 w/ Babi Scott.
Middle: Doug and me “on the field” after his graduation in 1998.
Bottom Row: Emily Marsh and Julia Wright in 1993. Bobby T at GOHS (keep reading).
Hmmm.  It doesn’t look high school males were “in the mood” for photos after graduations!

I was on the field for one MVHS graduation ceremony after my “police” boycott. Because my son was a graduate, they allowed me—in my regalia—to hand him his diploma in 1998, two years after I left to take a faculty position at Point Loma Nazarene University.

I was on the field for two graduation ceremonies at Great Oak High. The first is the only time I broke tradition and asked if I could sit with a student for her graduation. Her name is Baharak Tavafifard. I’m working on a blog about her, so I’ll leave it with this anecdote: 

As a sophomore, I asked her why she never—and I mean NEVER—displayed any outlook except positivity. She looked befuddled, but only for a moment. “Why, Dr. Downing, being happy is a choice. I make that choice every morning when I get up.” 

The second GOHS graduation was because a specific student asked me to attend. I was ready to storm the podium when one speaker went off-script and needed to be shutdown. I took admission tickets or was part of security for the rest of my GOHS graduations.

Graduations at PLNU were mostly painless. Once you got past the students who wanted to wait until the last minute to line up, things went smoothly. I opted to supervise one of the first two rows because we got down to the floor of the Greek Amphitheater early and my charges had little room to do much beyond wiggle.

I attended my daughter-in-laws Ph.D. ceremony on May 20, 2017. I was hot, but they had a huge video screen so you could see each graduate receive the diploma . . . and a VERY longrepetition of Pomp and Circumstance (20+ minutes).

The next high school graduation I will attend will be my granddaughter, Hadley’s . . . 13-years from now.

In one of my first three years of teaching at Monte Vista, one of my students asked to talk with me. She was very nervous. I waited for her to begin.

  • She talked with significant emotion about how, as far as anyone knew, she was the first person in their extended family to graduate from high school. 
  • “People are coming from Oklahoma and Arkansas. This is very important to my family. I hope I don’t mess up.”
  • After I choked back a tear, I assured her she would do a fine job.
Then it hit me.
This graduation ceremony is the major event in this young lady’s life. No one has the right totake that away from her and her family.
That was the first year I gave “the speech” to every one of my classes on the day of the second semester final exam.

I told them about the young lady I described above. Then I added,
“For many of you, this graduation is just a bump in your educational road. You’ll graduate at least once more, and some of you will graduate two or three more times. It’s tempting to blow off this graduation ceremony.”

I paused and put on my best “serious teacher face” at this point. My students all knew that “the look” that accompanied the serious face meant they’d better not only pay attention but do what I told them to do.

“You might be planningsome prank or goofy act for the ceremony. If you, or any of your friends, do that, you will ruin what might be the biggest day in someone’s life. Your fun is not important compared to being the first in a family’s entire history to graduate from high school.”

To the best of my knowledge, none of my students were involvedin any disruptive acts. I had several thank me on their way out of class after “the speech,” because they would use it on people they knew were planning something.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

#Graduation Pomp and Circumstance Part 1

Graduation at Point Loma Nazarene - 2019
Most schools graduated last month, will graduate this week, or will graduate next week. This is a two-part post on graduation ceremonies "as I see it." 

The recording of Edward Elgar directing Pomp and Circumstance Marche No.1 is the “go to” music for just about any school graduation. I don’t know why?

The rest of this blog has nothing to do with marching. However, I will reference P&C again.

I started teaching high school in 1973. Protesting was the national pastime for many students. Graduation ceremonies, even high school graduation ceremonies, were targets. While many of the protests were ideological in theory, many were times for people to do things they “had the right to do”—even if they didn’t have that right.

I’m not a fan of graduation ceremonies. I remember 
My 8th-grade graduation (1964) more from photographs than from RNA pathways. It’s probably because I got an award.
My high school graduation (1968). I was the closer on a 5-part valedictory address.
My college graduation from San Diego State (1972) in Aztec Bowl—now a parking structure—for two reasons. 
  • First, Pauline Frederick was the speaker. Her speech was anti-Vietnam War biased and did not go over well at a university in San Diego, California. 
  • Second, my wife came down to the field after the ceremony. I split as fast as I could because there was nobody between me and my car. Since cell phones were sci-fi then, she didn’t know I’d left, and I didn’t know she’d come down. Forty minutes later, my parents pulled into our driveway and asked where Leanne was. I hot-footed it back to SDSU and found her waiting on the sidewalk with a kind passerby who waited with her.
I remember the graduation ceremony for my Ph.D., only because I got to wear a snazzy outfit known as regalia.

Faculty attendance at Monte Vista High School graduations was optional in 1974, 75, and 76. We had a nude motorcyclist speed around the track at one of those, but nothing else of consequence happened that I remember.

In 1977, beachballs and tortillas filled the air during the ceremony. The administration requested that all faculty members sit with the students to, “emphasize the academic nature of the event.”
“You mean, you want us to be police,” I said.
They held to the party line. 
“When you admit that we’re police, I’ll go down on the field.” 

For the next 18-years stood at the top of the stairs next to what was then “the wrestling room” during graduation ceremonies. I was the “door monitor.” Students had to return the robes because the school rented them for the occasion. 

My job was to keep students from entering the wrestling room with the robes on because, once inside the room, they had to throw the robe in a cardboard box and pick up their diploma. Disrobing in the room would have seriously disrupted the flow.
End of the graduation ceremony at Monte Vista High - 1984
Principal Pat Carroll is to the lower left in a sport coat and tie. More on him next week.
I enjoyed doing that for two reasons.

I talk about those reasons and finish graduating next week.

Monday, May 27, 2019

#MemorialDay Memories Owen Downing, my dad

My dad was a career Senior Chief Gunner's Mate in the U.S. Navy.
On the right is a classic "era" pose.
On the left is a photo that was on the front page of the San Diego Union-Evening Tribune during Fleet Week around 1957.
He was proud to serve his country. He served it well.
Rest in Peace, this Memorial Day, Chief.

Re: September 21, 2002 (the day my dad went home to heaven)

You didn’t argue with my dad. I never saw him hit anyone, but he was a physical presence. He umpired softball—adult male fast-pitch and high school girls—for over 30 years. He also was a volleyball referee for a long time. I know players and coaches didn’t always agree with my dad’s calls, but they knew he always hustled to be in correct position to make a call, so they rarely argued.

During his life, my dad donated well over 30 gallons of blood. He had to stop donating when he turned 80. While there was no age restriction. The problem at 80 was leukemia that commonly manifested itself in males of his age group.

Before, during, and for some time after WWII, my dad cleaned the 5"/38 caliber guns on his ships with benzene—now a known carcinogen. In addition, nearly all insulation on the ships was asbestos. Dozens of other now-banned chemicals were in common use during most of my dad’s active duty.

What ultimately caused my dad to go to his doctor was a combination of what the blood bank told him and his fatigue. He started a regimen of blood transfusions. Over time, he required the transfusions at shorter and shorter intervals.

I would go with my dad, mom, and sister to Dad’s oncology visits. I knew more biology than any of them, and I wanted to ask a question or answer a question once we got home based on what I’d heard.

What happened at Dad’s last visit to the oncologist is worthy of reporting.
  • Dad’s oncologist was a retired Navy doctor. He always called my dad Chief, although Dad retired 40 years earlier.
  • “Chief, you’ve got to make a decision.”
  • My dad nodded.
  • “We can put you in the hospital and give you chemotherapy treatments. If we do that, you’ll die in the hospital from the treatments.”
  • My mom inhaled sharply. My sister looked shocked. My dad leaned forward, ready for the next option.
  • “Or, you can go home, not take any treatments, and die there, in a place you know and with people you love and who love you around you.”
  • While the reactions of my mom and sister remained pretty much the same, Dad’s whole body relaxed. He sat back, and an almost visible cloud of peace settled over him. There really was only one choice in his mind.

The last time my dad left his house was Labor Day, 2002 when he, my mom, sister, and brother-in-law grilled on my patio. We helped my Dad to the car.

The next week, Hospice came by. Within days, they delivered a hospital bed to the house. Finally, on September 21, a young woman whose family had unofficially adopted our as their own, asked if she could come and sing a song to Dad.

She was singing the third verse of “Thank You (for giving to the Lord)” when he became agitated. The “adopted” family left then. 

Soon thereafter, with the nuclear family gathered around him, my dad gave a deep sigh. What is dubbedthe “death rattle” followed.

I checked for a pulse, but I knew he had died.

At Rosecrans National Cemetary on Point Loma
in San Diego. Memorial Day 2008

Every living thing has a life span. Some are very short—only hours in a few species—https://themysteriousworld.com/top-10-shortest-living-animals-in-the-world/. Trees like the Bristlecone Pine have documented lives exceeding 1500 years.

I hope your take away from this blog is a sense of comfort or completeness. Do I miss my dad? You bet! Nature recycles all organic material. Therefore, without death there can be no new life.

Do I enjoy seeing my mom, now 97 years old, lose her mental capacities. I do NOT! Memory is a magnificent gift. And, as I watch my granddaughters playing, for that I am very grateful for newlife and memories both new and old. 

Please don’t feel sorry for me. I have faith that if I continue in my relationship with Christ, that I will see my dad again.

Blessings on you and your family this Memorial Day.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

#Nostalgia: #Encyclopedias and other wonderful books

Sputnik 1. Game changer in the role of science in the USA.

The USSR’s Sputnik launch in 1958 was the catalyst for changing science education in the USA. That’s an understatement of the impact of that event.

Prior to this date, my family had two sets of “encyclopedias.” One had a kind of reddish binding and looked very academic—I have no recollection of EVER using that set for reference. The other set was from a grocery store as a giveaway for certain dollar amounts of food purchased. It was colorful. 

The pictures from the grocery store books ended up in just about every report my sister and I did in elementary school. However, neither of those sets of encyclopedias was enough to help us catch and pass the Communists in the space race.

So, in 1958, my parents bought The World Book Encyclopedia from a traveling salesman to help their children keep up with new information. My mom had that set—complete with useless maps containing countries that no longer exist—and about fifteen “yearbooks” to keep us updated on crucial events until she moved into a senior care facility. Today, my nephew has them in his home.

My sister and I—and my parents’ grandchildren—used those World Books all the way through school.
Besides the encyclopedia set, yearbooks, and dictionary, my parents had books of the month on a wide range of topics. Some were from a series named “All About Books” from Random house.

Other volumes contained classic fiction pieces like Babar the Elephant. Of course, there were lots of Dr. Seuss books.

What I remember most are the books on dinosaurs, famous archeological expeditions, and the solar system. These are the volumes that fueled my love of science.
I used this phenomenon as an example of unexplained science during all my years of science teaching.
I sat and read about Howard Carter and King Tut’s tomb—and became Carter as he moved through the various passages and rooms.

Back when the Brontosaur was an accepted name, and all dinosaurs were “cold-blooded and very stupid,” I imagined their size and was astounded. When the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park (now Safari Park) presented a temporary exhibit of mechanical dinosaurs in the 1980s, my astonishment increased by a factor of ten. This links to a YouTube video of a permenant dinorsaur exhibit.

The park had set up the exhibit on a spiraling trail up a small hill. They had done an excellent job of landscaping so you really couldn’t see any of the animatronic dinos until you were almost on them. However, the absolutely most spectacular reveal was at the top if the hill.

The closer you got to the top of the spiral trail, the louder the roars of some dinosaur became. As you made the final turn of the trail as it opened into a clearing, you were staring up—and I mean UP—into the massive open mouth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex

The head of the beast was as big as a car. The teeth looked like railroad spikes. The roar was enough to knock you backwards.

As I drove my family home that evening, I thought back on the book about dinosaurs. The next day I pulled it from the shelf where my mom kept the volumes that degraded over time. I sat on the davenport and turned the pages with care so I wouldn’t damage them.

The black and white drawings on the thick paper sheets that filled the covers of that book were no match for the animatronic creatures I’d seen the day before. 

But, it didn’t matter.

For about twenty minutes, I was Howard Carter, John Glenn, and a prehistoric reptile all wrapped into one.

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Monday, May 13, 2019


My title for this photo is "Pig Frenzy." It's a shot of the lab at Great Oak High. It's after school. These are AP Biology students who sacrificed free time to make sure that their lab team was up-to-date on their pig dissection. It illustrates my point, probably better than anything you'll read below.

This post is a refinement of a Facebook post from May 8, 2018. That day was designated, possibly by Hallmark, as Teacher Appreciation Day.

I am in favor of the concept and implementation. I have hundreds of comments from students of mine over time that express their appreciation of my teaching in a number of ways. 

Thanks to you all!

In this post, I'm going beyond "thank you" and instituted... 
STUDENT Appreciation Day!

If you were my student, you had many classes that were easier then my class. I suspect you had few that were more difficult in content, expectations, or process than biology, AP Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Coordinated Science, or Global Science. 

I now know about the horrific family situations and catastrophic life events that many of my students faced every day. In addition, other classes my students took required copious amounts of time.

In spite of those circumstances, many, many, MANY of you made my class and its associated "make you think" assignments a priority. 

A small sample of the quality of the creative tasks I assigned. In fairness, the art piece with the pig was for another class, but it's me! 
The percentage of assignments turned in by the students in my classes exceeded 90% EVERY YEAR. 

Those assignments demonstrated hard work and thoughtful presentation more often than not. 

I'm proud to call you "my kids."

Even after graduation, a significant number of you have remained in contact. Several of you traveled a long way to come to my retirement party. The photo below shows a portion of the 100+ Great Oak High School students that hung around after school for "Story Time with Uncle Chuck" the week before I retired. 

Click on the title of a video of a story at this event to see the "real deal."

I'm welcomed with open arms at reunions. I get an occasional card, message, post, or email. I'm humbled by those gestures.
There are more student photos below. In all honesty, I don't remember the vast majority of names of those shown. For that, I apologize. 

So, to all 5000+ of my former students, know this:

Coach, Mr. Downing, The Chief Chuckaroo, Dr. D

From My Photo Archives

A "Coincidental Meeting at the Murph." That's a euphemism for "let's all go on a non-school sanctioned trip to a Padres baseball game in Jack Murphy Stadium. This was an annual event for my AP Bio classes for several years. This might be spring 1983. If you're in this, let me know the year.
Great Oak High. 2011-2012. My last year teaching high school. I left the poster for my colleague, Jen Mosley. She promised to keep on making kids listen and think!
Homecoming float for the club with the name on the banner. Keep checking in. I'm working on the "The Complete History of Al Spagonawitz" blog post.

The original Chuckaroos, the name they chose because 
I wouldn't let them call me "Chuck." I did allow "Chief Chuckaroo!"

Photos at graduations. The middle photo is at my son, Doug's graduation from Monte Vista. 
That photo and the lower right-hand corner are two of the few times I was "on the field" during a high school graduation ceremony. 

December 1981.
First photo a Bio II-All Kazoo Marching Christmas Choir. 

Pig dissection gets the same reaction at Point Loma Nazarene University as at MVHS and GOHS.

Students doing group work (cell analogy) in room 1011. However, they will not all get the same grade!

These are students from APU in one of my methods classes for their teaching credential. These are part of the 180 teachers I pray for by name every weekday during the school year. Although they're now teachers, I put them here to represent the several hundred teacher credential candidates I've been privileged to work with.
Back row: Katie, Jackie, Nick, Alex.  Front Row. Emily, Juli, Kelly, Baily.

A Professional Writing class. These are RNs working toward a BSN. Notice the names on the photo. It only took me three years to figure out that plan for calling students by name.
Final Photo. Above is the cover for the science fiction book that the students listed on the back cover wrote. The school is in Ramona, California. Their teacher, Debbie Ray is one of the best. These students worked hard, and they learned a lot. Click here to see the book on Amazon. The students still collect royalties through June 15, 2018.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Science Guy’s Almanac #1: My First Computer Re: 6/19/1983

A Science Guy’s Almanac #1: My First Computer - Re: 6/19/1983

July 6, 2015
Re: June 19, 1983

When I first started teaching, grades were hand-written in a gradebook. Then, at report card time, we used a manual calculator (we always had an electric one at Monte Vista). The machine added and subtracted. You took the final total, determined the letter grade by hand dividing by the total number of points possible. 

On Progress Report days, you called each student up, one at a time, and hand-wrote the academic, conduct, and effort grades on the yellow top sheet of a two-sheet document with carbon paper in between the original and the copy. You could also write a comment in the space at the end of each line. Today, having a last period preparation period is kind of a perk. Back then, however, you wanted to have a last period class because you got to have the students tear the report cards apart and collect the copy with the carbon paper. 

Free carbon paper—now that was a perk!

Owen Miller, my closest colleague, and I went together and purchased a KayPro computer in June of 1983. It used a CP/M based operating system. Memory was 64K RAM and 195K storage on each of two floppy disks, although the A-drive was where you put the software disk. 

The computer itself was a metal box that housed the actual computer and a 9” green screen. The keyboard was attached to the front of the box and had to be unlatched to be functional. The back of the keyboard was placed under the box to provide the proper viewing angle for the green screen. But it had a handle, so it was a portable computer. The total cost for this technology was almost $2100, but we did get dot-matrix printer with cable and a box of 5.25” floppy disks in the deal.

Our software was “perfect”: Perfect-Writer, Perfect-Calc, etc. The software was based on old mainframe software, so you had to write command codes for whatever you wanted to do. @B{text} was the code to boldface any amount of text. If you neglected the closed parenthesis after your selected text, the rest of your document, from that point onward, was bolded in the printout. 

Owen and I both went to the word-processing class. I was chosen to learn the spreadsheet and Owen went to the database class. I learned less of the database than Owen learned about the spreadsheet. However, it is amazing how much I learned from Perfect-Calc transferred over to Microsoft Excel and other spreadsheet programs later in my computer-life.

The effect of having computer-calculated grades was both immediate and astonishing. We would post grades by student-generated codes about every other week, something no teacher I knew at the time would have considered because of the intense manual labor involved in all grade calculations. We expected that the ability of students to track their grades would be one of the results of our computer. 

What we did not expect was the second effect: Kids almost completely stopped questioning grades. I guess they figured if a computer calculated it, the grade must be right. They were blissfully unaware of the reality of operator error at that time.

Because of the blind faith of students when it came to computer-generated grades, I found myself checking my accuracy more often than ever. While that was easy, it was a pain. So, once, for an assignment in one of my better classes, I just put random numbers in as scores with absolutely no basis of fact, past history, or current grade. 

It took a couple of weeks before one student finally wondered how she got such a poor score, when the paper she had gotten back had only positive comments and a higher score than on the printout. I apologized for my “mistake” in recording her score and changed it to the correct number. As others came forward, I decided to “fess up” and told them of my plot. From that time onward, I admonished all my students to keep all returned papers at least long enough to check the recorded score on the grade printout.

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