Category Archives: Education

How to Be the Best New Employee Ever

I like writing about the workplace, things like interviewing, asking for and getting raises, and as of this week, how to be the best new kid in the office. It’s not that I think I’m an expert, but rather that I enjoy the mental exercise of trying to articulate what worked (or didn’t) about my own (limited) work experience.

I’m on Persephone Magazine this week with tips for making the most of your first week on the job:

Related Post: Are millennial ladies quitters? Not really…

Related Post: Why women should stop apologizing

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So What Do You Do Exactly? Presidential Library Edition

For the second time ever, the featured interviewee of my jobs series So What Do You Do Exactly? is a dude! Yay for diversity! This is Kevin. Kevin works at the JFK Library Foundation in Boston live-tweeting things, writing things, planning things, and trying to understand why people are so fascinated by JFK eating an ice cream cone.

What’s your actual title? Communications Associate at the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation

What would your title be if it actually described what you do all day? Something like Communications/Development/Events/Research/ Administrative Assistant. We have a ton of things going on as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the JFK Administration, so we have a lot of cross-departmental cooperation

Describe a sample day: My days can vary greatly depending on the type of project we’re working on at the time. Last week I got to work at 6:45 so I could shoot photos and video of Freedom 7, the space capsule that carried the First American into space, as it arrived at the Library. In general, I usually kick off my day by doing a quick email check, creating some content for our social media pages if we don’t have any saved, and getting administrative tasks — writing thank-you letters to donors or filing meetings notes, for example — out of the way as quickly as possible.

Beyond those everyday tasks, it’s hard to say what each day will hold. In the past few weeks I have spent afternoons building invite lists and coordinating RSVPs for our event at the DNC, writing press releases for the Library’s upcoming programs, editing our monthly newsletter, and live-tweeting a Q&A we held via satellite with two astronauts currently living on the International Space Station. In short, I’m either preparing for major events, or handling the events as they happen; but the events are so varied, I’m always finding new ways to be engaged in my work. I might interview the son of a former Soviet Premier next week, (hint: last name sounds like “crew shave”) so I spent my afternoon today writing some interview questions — and may or may not have stolen a few of yours.
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What is the purpose of a Presidential Library? What role does it play in society? Seems like a relic…Though other Presidential Libraries have fallen by the wayside, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum has thrived not only as a collection of artifacts from the president’s life, but as a cultural institution devoted to carrying on the Kennedy legacy of civic engagement and social consciousness to future generations. (OK, that sounded pretty PR, but it’s true.)
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Other presidential libraries have stayed small and local, which suits them just fine. But JFK Library has the benefit of being located in a thriving cultural hub like Boston, and can therefore plan programming for a large audience. We had an event in Charlotte this week featuring Deval Patrick, David Gregory, Chris Hughes (Facebook co-founder), and contributors from the New York Times and CNN. We house an incredible collection of Kennedy memorabilia, as well as the largest collection of Ernest Hemingway’s works in the world (donated by his wife Mary shortly after his death). The MFA, ICA, Museum of Science, Gardener Museum, and nearly every museum in Boston reach new audiences by celebrating the past while embracing the present. That’s what the JFK Museum is all about.
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How has social media/technology changed museum culture? Has JFK embraced this stuff or shied away from it? Technology has only enhanced the Library’s ability to bring exhibits to the masses. We recently began a digital archival project, preserving nearly every piece of Kennedy media we own. We’ve used film restoration companies to restore audio and video of Kennedy speeches from unusable to crystal-clear quality.

As for social media, I’ve had a lot of fun getting to know our audience, and what kind of material appeals to them. It seems that posting archival material from the 1960s has been more successful than our present-day stuff. People just love looking at photos of the Kennedys or reading inspirational quotes from JFK’s speeches — we even have a Twitter account devoted solely to re-living the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy Administration day by day, and people love it. I spent last week trying to get our social media audience excited about our International Space Station event, but they were more interested in a photo of JFK eating ice cream. A photo of JFK and Jackie in Hyannis Port would trump a forum with Obama, Elvis, and the ghost of Henry Clay.
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In a tough economy like this, why should people donate to a museum given all the other deserving non-profits out there? The mission of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation was first articulated by Jacqueline Kennedy, who, when describing the yet-to-be-built library, envisioned it as “a vital center of education and exchange and thought, which will grow and change with the times.” There will be ups and downs in the economy, but cultural institutions are crucial for a society’s growth. It’s hard to argue that the Library is more deserving than any particular charity, but given the drastic cuts in education funding and marginalization of teachers striking for a fair wage, I think any institution continuing to make an impact educationally and culturally should be celebrated and supported.
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Which is the best Presidential Library? Having been to none of the other ones, I can say unequivocally that ours is the best. I’ll give the Reagan Library second place because my Uncle works security there. And I’ll give the Coolidge Library third, because whoever works there is going to be really excited when they get their first Google alert in 3 months. (Kidding, of course. They don’t have internet at the Coolidge Museum.)
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Kevin would also like you to know that, “like a drunken sparrow, he tweets and tumbls. He also co-runs a TV blog he’s hoping to update before this interview gets published so he doesn’t look bad.”
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Related Post: SWDYDE: Ambika is a social strategist
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Hushpuppy

I left the movie theater Wednesday night exhausted and a little weepy. I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about the movie we’d just seen, Beasts of the Southern Wild, but I knew I felt something. All I was certain of was that the star 6-year-old actress, Quevenzhane Wallis, is the most photogenic child on the planet.

The plot, if you are unfamiliar, is simple. Beasts follows a girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in an off-the-grid Louisiana community called the Bathtub. Sparse of dialogue, lush of scenery, the plot follows Hushpuppy and her father through a few short days surrounding a Katrina-like storm.

I think it’s a movie that grows on you, a movie that digs into the little pockets of your brain and takes root. Images from it keep springing up, unbidden, like Hushpuppy hiding under a cardboard box after setting her house on fire to spite her father. She draws with charcoal, marking her story for future excavators like the cave people she has just learned about. Another scene, in a hospital after the flood, shows the girl stripped of her usual dirty undershirt and shorts and forced into a pretty blue dress, her hair combed into braids.

At Salon (via LA Times), Kelly Candaele argues that Beasts presents this community of misfits with a sort of irresponsible glee, as if their poverty and disconnection facilitates joy and spontaneity that the rest of couldn’t achieve:

Viewers are asked to interpret a lack of work discipline, schooling, or steady institution building of any kind — the primary building blocks of any civilization — as the height of liberation. “Choice,” even the choice to live in squalor, is raised to the level of a categorical imperative. There is no inkling of the economic and social history of the region that had limited these “choices.” We are left with a libertarian sandbox, with a rights-based life philosophy gone rancid.

The film does open up a whole bunch of cans of worms, none of which have I been able to re-close since I’ve been mulling it over. Lots of big questions about community building, about the right to live as you see fit, about parenting, about infrastructure, about nature, about education. There are big questions about the obligations of the state and how far it should go to “assist” marginalized populations. Should they evacuate people who don’t want to be evacuated? Should they force medical care on people who don’t want it? Is there something fundamentally wrong with the upbringing Hushpuppy has, so wrong that the state needs to intervene?

Education, for me, is the hinge on which all of these other questions are resting. Hushpuppy is precocious, inquisitive, imaginative and self-sufficient. She’s everything that most teachers would want in a student, but how much of her curiosity and creativity is fueled by the neglect she experienced and her subsequent self-sufficiency? With formal education and support, she could be anything, but the film portrays formalized assistance as stifling and intrusive. Surely there’s a middle ground, somewhere between turning her into the blue-dressed doll and letting her explore her surrounding for days on end, unsupervised and uncared for.

This is a self-indulgent post, so mad props to you if you’ve stuck with me. I didn’t know what to make of it in the immediate aftermath, but the next morning I chatted my movie buddy and said, “I think I liked that movie” and she said, “I think I did too.” And then we talked about it for a while, so that’s something. If you’ve seen it and can parse out this mess ‘o thoughts into more articulate questions or arguments, I’d love to hear your take.

Related Post: The last movie I loved, The Queen of Versailles.

Related Post: Why I think “higher order thinking skills” are important.

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So What Do You Do Exactly? Think Tank Edition

Hearty welcome to Michaela, today’s interviewee in the ongoing jobs series, So What Do You Do Exactly? Michaela works at a think tank in D.C., doing think-tanky things. Actually, a big portion of this interview was trying to understand how think tanks work and why. Read on!

What’s your actual title? Program Associate at a conflict and research non-profit (aka “Think Tank”)

What would your title be if it actually encompassed what you do? I think “Program Associate” works for its very non-description. Maybe “Director of Things Analysis-ful and General Manager of Internal Resources”.
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When I picture “think tank,” I always envision people strapped up Matrix-style to an actual tank. What exactly is a think tank? That is exactly what happens at a think tank. We’re waiting on a shipment of upgraded pods right now.
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Think tanks are usually a bunch of people who had fun researching and writing papers in school, and have now found an excuse to keep on doing that professionally. However, we pick topics that have “so-what” value and make an effort to say something new, which is a lot more than I can say for the papers I wrote in college…
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Who hires your organization? Do you choose a topic and then write? Or do you get a commissioned study? We’ve been hired by a pretty broad range of clients, but in general they’re looking to better understand the conflict dynamics active in a given region. So for example, we’ve emerged in the past couple of years as one of the best DC sources on Somalia – so we’ve written a chapter on Somali piracy report for a major INGO, consulted for other research organizations looking for more complete data or context on the situation, provided policy recommendations to US stakeholders, etc. When we’re not maxed out by paid work (or I guess even when we are…), we also pursue projects that are just of interest to us internally, like this incredible genealogy of Somali clan lineages going back to Qureish.
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Somalia is definitely our bread and butter right now, but we also have a little niche doing original-language research on Chinese foreign policy perspectives and internal political dynamics, and we’re expanding our capabilities in West Africa as well, since that’s a powder keg no one knows a whole lot about. We focus on sort of “emerging and nontraditional conflicts” and try to stay out of the crowded big-money topics like Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Where do you get your information? What kinds of sources go into your research? It depends on the project, but as a general rule we use original language, local media, and local people as our sources to whatever degree possible. It’s time-consuming and intimidating but totally worth it to learn an area like crazy. Information can seem credible, but what are the interests of the source? Who might have a different perspective on that information? If I keep hearing a consistent narrative about an event, even if it’s unverified, how do I understand its underlying implications? It’s also really important not to ignore big boring datasets – there’s a lot of exciting stuff hidden away in those if you know how to look at them.
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How do you measure the success of a project? Persuasion metrics? I guess it’s hard to measure success, particularly since the market for information and analysis is so heavily dependent on the mood swings of so many different budgets. Our Somalia project generated interest but not contracts until fairly recently, but we knew we were doing some pretty unique work.
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How does a think tank like yours–security and conflict–negotiate the partisanship of DC? I guess we just try not to play that game. As long as you’re faithful to reality you can mostly avoid overlap with the political narratives of a conflict…
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Give me a sample day in your life. The more specific the better: Get in about 9, go over my to-do lists. I have a like master list in a notebook with everything, and a smaller pad for today’s tasks that I keep in front of me in lieu of an actual attention span.
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A normal day might mean creeping toward a target word count for a report, reviewing internship apps (ohmygod please proofread your stuff), tinkering with software, reading the new UN Monitoring Group report. Checking in with the interns on their projects. Catching up on my Google Reader and news while I eat lunch at my desk. Trying not to fall asleep at my desk after lunch. A quick trip out for coffee with a colleague or intern. Pretending I don’t have to respond to emails and gchatting while I wait for the caffeine to hit. Getting my shit back together eventually. Probably a conference call. Going back over my outline, realizing it’s all wrong, drawing up something better on the whiteboard. Heading home around 6:30 or 7 after having finally worked the new structure into the damn draft.
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Do enjoy the broad range of subject matter in your job? Or do you look forward to focusing on a more narrow expertise? I like to be able to sink my teeth into something and get a really solid grip on it. Nothing like being able to call an expert out on his bullshit to make life worth living! That said, I do think it’s valuable to be forced to expand your competencies; there’s overlap where you might not have expected it, and the injection of fresh material to your perspective can do some good things to it.
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Should there be more think tanks or less? Different ones? I think a lot of the organizations that exist need to raise the bar on the quality of their work. There are people doing some pretty fantastic stuff out there, but it’s disappointing to realize how many scholars and experts just aren’t. I certainly understand the compromises that have to be made – when a client pays for a 15pp report, you really can’t write a dissertation. But you can have higher standards for the rigor of that report.
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If it were up to you, how do we get Americans more invested in global affairs, instead of the latest sex scandal? It seems like people simply don’t understand how to go about tackling complex problems – sex scandals don’t require much from you intellectually, and nobody actually cares about these things so they’re much less intimidating. For this balance to change, I think critical thinking should be the ultimate goal of education. Math, reading, writing, science, art – all of these are, in my opinion, different and valuable tools for teaching children how to think critically and intelligently about the world
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Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly? Model UN edition.
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Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly? Photography edition.

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We Have to Go Deeper Than Gun Control

I grew up with a psychologist for a father. From a very early age, we heard stories about mental illness and substance abuse (the overlapping occurrence of which was his specialty) at the dinner table.

We learned early on to think about mental health treatment as a toolbox, a long list of therapies, programs, medications, incentives, and support mechanisms that seeks to ease the burden of mental illness even when it can’t eradicate it. Psychology and psychiatry were never viewed as magic pills or a perfect solutions, only as the best bets for improving the quality of life of people who were suffering.

In the wake of James Holmes’ killing spree in Aurora, I saw this cartoon, and I thought about my dad. He has worked with many violent people over the years. People who made threats to themselves, their families, even to their therapists.

Cartoon by Nick Anderson (The Houston Chronicle)

Mentally stable people don’t murder a dozen movie-goers. That seems obvious, but much of the post-Aurora conversation has been centered around gun control and how Holmes’ crimes could have been prevented with better gun laws.

I do absolutely believe in restricting gun access in about a zillion different ways, but we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the James Holmeses of the world wouldn’t find other ways to carry out their plans. Gun control is addressing one very small slice of the problem, a problem whose roots, in my opinion, begin with mental health.

And David Brooks agrees with me, so I must be on the right track:

Looking at guns, looking at video games — that’s starting from the wrong perspective. People who commit spree killings are usually suffering from severe mental disorders. The response, and the way to prevent future episodes, has to start with psychiatry, too.

Yes, we need to limit guns. Yes, we need to make it as hard as possible for the wrong people to get them. But much like getting guns of the streets of Chicago doesn’t solve deeply ingrained sociological inequalities, limiting gun access doesn’t undo years of untreated mental illness and psychological distress. If we believe that healthy, stable people with options don’t seek to commit violence (which I do), the we have to be addressing the causes of instability, not the tools with which people express their outrage and frustration.

Related Post: How I defunkify myself when I’m feeling funky.

Related Post: My thoughts on some of Chicago’s violence issues.

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So What Do You Do Exactly? Model UN Edition

Kelly and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice

This is Kelly. She works for the United Nations Foundation coordinating Model United Nations (MUN) conferences for thousands of middle and high schoolers, many from low-income schools, around the country and world. Watch this tear-jerking video about what kids take away from the experience. She is the subject of today’s edition of my jobs series, So What Do You Do Exactly? 

What’s your actual job title? Senior Associate, Education Programs at the United Nations Foundation

What would your job title be if it actually described what you did? MUN Guru and All-Around Make-It-Work Badass

How many events do you run a year? I personally run six full-on MUN conferences a year, ranging from 200 to 2500 students each, plus a few smaller workshops here and there. I manage a couple hundred volunteers, mostly university students, and I’m in regular communication with another couple hundred teachers. I’m expected to know the names and faces of all our teachers and volunteers and be able to discuss details of their schools, interests, and previous experience with the program at any time (note: this is expected of me by them, not by my boss, but I do it anyway).

People think MUN is a bunch of over-achieving teenagers banging gavels and such. Does it actually serve a higher purpose? Ouch. To be fair, that’s what MUN used to be. Our program was founded 13 years ago with the goal of diversifying the MUN community, and we’re succeeding. We now work primarily with Title 1 urban schools (see below). Our conferences are a testament to that; we see kids from the Bronx hanging out with kids from Phillips Exeter and becoming fast friends.

It’s also a great tool for engaging students in a more interactive way. Aside from the obvious social studies content, students are learning research and writing skills, making inferences and thinking critically. They practice understanding and representing someone else’s views, working in a team to build consensus and compromise, and engaging in debate that’s constructive instead of cruel. These are amazing tools for conflict resolution, especially for kids, like the ones we work with in Chicago, who face violence every day.

What’s a Title 1 urban school, and how does that type of school impact your job? A Title 1 school receives federal funding because 40% or more of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Everything we do is tailored to teachers in these settings and making our program a benefit to them, not a burden. When we implement new ideas, we’re always looking at how they fit into the work teachers are already doing, using the resources they already have or providing new ones at no cost. For example, we try to focus our global topics in each city to things that are actually relevant to those kids. In New York we had “Sustainable development of Megacities” and “HIV and Young People”. In Miami, we had “Migration in Latin America and the Caribbean” and “Partnerships to Address the World Drug Problem.”

If you could make one change to our national education system (regarding the teaching of a global curriculum or otherwise) what would it be? This is an incredibly hard question. We keep talking about testing as a measure of teacher effectiveness but forcing teachers to a set curriculum makes them so much less effective. Students develop broader cognitive skills and a greater curiosity and investment in learning when they’re engaged in genuine content that they have the time to explore as fully as they need to. Teachers who have the freedom to develop interactive, smart, and multifaceted lesson plans, and who can take the time to get students interested in the real questions they’re exploring, are so much more successful. For you education buffs out there, we need time to hit the DOK 4* mark in a few crucial areas, rather than trying to float by at the DOK 1/2 level in everything. This will only happen if classrooms are integrated across subjects, teachers are supported, and schools have the freedom to do what works for their students.

What do you think actual diplomats could learn from MUN? MUNers, especially the middle schoolers, are so optimisitic and creative! Students are so hopeful and willing to try new things before they get bogged down in what is and isn’t “possible.” Also, when you’re not overly steeped in historical precedent, you’re much more willing to trust and be less offended by perceived slights. When the delegate from Syria tells the delegate from Uganda that his idea is flawed, Uganda is not going to take it as an insult to his entire country.

How does your job and your office related to the actual UN?  The United Nations Foundation (UNF) was founded when Ted Turner wanted to give a billion dollars to the UN. At the time, there was no way to donate directly to the UN and its work, unless you were a government, so instead he set up a foundation to support its initiatives. Originally the foundation just funneled donations directly into UN programs, but now we support UN intitiatives in a more partnership-based way. For example, UNF spearheads the Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child Initiative.

Kelly (center), while Ban Ki-Moon observes

Who are the coolest people you have met on the job? Obviously famous people are pretty cool (Ban Ki Moon, Susan Rice, Monique Coleman, Michele Bachelet, Ted Turner…) but it’s usually the people who are really good at what they do but aren’t so high up yet that are most interesting. They’re fully engaged in one specific thing and just kicking ass at it. People like Jimmy Kolker (Chief of the UNICEF Aids Dept) and Special Agent In Charge John Gilbride of the DEA.

*DOK = Depth of Knowledge, a metric for rigor and complexity

Related Post: So What Do You Do Exactly?  Soft Diplomacy Edition

Related Post: How not to teach the history of slavery

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What is My Body For? How Title IX Change My Life and Other Dramatic Statements

Last week was the fortieth anniversary of Title IX. All of you ladies with pictures of yourselves at age 5 in dress-length jerseys picking your nose out on a soccer field or softball diamond know what I’m talking about.

Parents think sports are important because they foster teamwork, sportsmanship, dedication yada yada yada. And they are, of course. But for girls, there’s the added and essential benefit of formalizing the idea that your body is awesome because it can do things, instead of just awesome for looking nice to other people. This is the subject of the Title IX appreciation essay I wrote this week for The Good Men Project:

Also, if you haven’t seen this outstanding Nike ad with Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi and some adorable and badass little girls, watch it right now.

Related Post: I will not be joining your gym.

Related Post: Don’t take my picture! Come on, you’re at the beach!

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