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Changing Education One Post At A Time


Enjoying Florence

Posted by Tim under Personal

After leaving Assisi, our group headed north to Florence.  Florence is much different than Assisi, not only because it is a large city (approximately 600K), but because it is a booming trade city.  Florence had no choice in the matter, really.  Several centuries ago, the Medici family “invented” marketing.  They decided to make Florence an attractor of fine art, and that has stayed true ever since.

We arranged to meet as a group around The Duomo, a large dome cupola located at the rear of the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flowers.  Curved roads and tall, narrow alleyways lead from square to square, each with its own purpose.  We had a lot of free time to explore in Florence, and it was a great decision.  We were each able to pursue our own interests.

Florence-91The Cathedral sits across the square from the Baptistry.  The Baptistry is generally placed inside the church, but the church was still young in Florence when the Cathedral was built.  As a result, they were baptizing many adults as well as infants.  Baptisms only occurred twice a year.  Those baptized would walk out the “Doors of Heaven” (named by Michaelangelo, built by Giotta) and across the square into the welcoming arms of the Church.  A symbolic act of both new life and community.

As a side note, it is the rituals of the Catholic church that hold such a place of awe for me personally.  It was something I came to appreciate while spending time in England.  And the thought of the Church, the family of God, Christ’s body here on earth, welcoming new believers into its arms in this fashion was not lost on me.

As a group, we took a guided tour of downtown Florence that led us through the streets from the Cathedral to the Old Bridge and back.  Every time we turned around, something new and exciting was standing before us.

We walked the Old Bridge on the Arno River, the only bridge not destroyed by the Germans in WWII as they tried to cut off the tanks of the American troops.  Looking downstream we saw the Ponte Santa Trinita Bridge.  This 14th century bridge was destroyed by the Germans in WWII, but was later rebuilt by the people of Florence who dredged the river, pulled up all the original stones, and put it back together like a puzzle.  An amazing feat!

One of the highlights of the trip, of course, was going through the Accademia Gallery in Florence where the statue of David stands.  Perhaps the greatest sculptural creation of all time, it was certainly ahead of its time.  Originally hired to create a work of art for the Duomo of the Cathedral, the church leaders expected a statue of David standing in triumph over Goliath with Goliath’s head in one hand a sword in the other.  What they got was the idea of Goliath’s impending death with David’s sling over one shoulder and a stone in his other hand by his side.  What they also got was a statue of David in all his glory, and the church leaders refused to place it in the Duomo for that reason.  Instead, it stood outside the Old Palace of Florence (a replica stands there now).

A large part of our group decided to take the 463 stairs to the top of the Duomo.  An interesting trek to be sure, but well worth every effort to crawl up stairs in one of the most claustrophobic areas ever.  The views were spectacular (as the picture with this post can attest).

We stayed at the PLUS Hostel of Florence.  As hostels go, it was a really great place to stay.  The bed was comfortable.  The shower was hot.  Our breakfast was rudimentary.  But the wifi was horrible. (Priorities, right?).


Assisi and the Wonders of St. Francesco

Posted by Tim under Personal

Yesterday we were in Assisi for most of the day before boarding our bus and heading farther north to Florence.  It was a fantastically beautiful day!

A few of us started the day with a quick walk to the Papal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.  It was only about 15 minutes from our hotel.  The Basilica was absolutely beautiful outside, but inside was even more amazing.  Inside is the original chapel built by St. Francis (Francesco).  It is just big enough for an altar and about 12 Brothers to sit in desks (six along each wall) that look remarkably like our old wooden school desks from decades ago.  St. Francis is so beloved in Italy (and especially Assisi) that they built the entire Basilica around the chapel.  You have to walk around the chapel to get to the main worship area.  At 6:30 AM the bells rang a call to Mass, and we were privileged to listen as a traditional Latin Mass began.

Like all of the churches we entered in Assisi, there is no photography allowed inside.  One of the main disappointments of my day!

Later, we took the bus up the mountain to the city gate for old Assisi.  We began our guided tour with the Basilica of St. Claire.  St. Claire (or Chiara in Italian) was very close to Assisi.  She was a noble woman who wanted to start her own order of nuns.  She took on the “privilege of poverty,” which was a statement totally out of character for both someone of nobility and a woman in those times.  When the Pope gave them his blessing, he added that they would be a cloistered group of nuns.  To this day, the convent stands next to the church, and the nuns who enter stay inside their entire lives.

When St. Francis died, they brought the body near a window of the convent in order that St. Claire might kiss his body one last time.  Now, each year as they celebrate the death of St. Francis, a gate is opened that leads into the convent and the nuns come to kiss the statued body of St. Francis as it passes through their Basilica.  After that, it is closed for another year.

The story of St. Claire, and her great love for St. Francis, brought tears to the eyes of many of us, myself included.

After leaving the Basilica of St. Claire, we walked the streets of Assisi to the Basilica of St. Francis.  Again, a totally amazing adventure back in time.  In American we think of St. Francis as the Patron Saint of Animals.  This is largely due to the fact that before he was granted to permission to preach, he would preach to the animals in the wild and ask them to carry his message to the Church.  But in Italy, this is not how they think of St. Francis.  Here, he is the Patron Saint of Italy itself.

At one point our tour guide apologized for talking so much about Catholicism.  She said she was not intending to offend anyone who was not a Christian, but in Italy it is impossible for them to separate their culture from their faith.  This struck me as particularly poignant in our current political climate.  Many in the Evangelical movement have don’t just that, and that is quite sad to me as an Evangelical.

The tour through the Basilica of St. Francis was another amazing journey through time.  After his death, artisans from all over Europe came to work on the creation of the Basilica.  In fact, part of the town we walked through were the original houses built for the artisans to live in while the shrine was completed.  It is a beautiful hue of pastel colors throughout; something not seen before in religious works if I understood correctly.Assisi-43

There is a painting that was pointed out to us in the basement of the Basilica.  It was of Mary with the infant, Jesus.  To the right is the Apostle Peter.  To the left is St. Francis.  It was interesting for two reasons.  It was the first (or one of the first) times that Mary was depicted in her maternal role of the infant rather than at the cross of her Son, the Christ.  The second is a detail that is up for interpretation.  There is a look in Jesus’ eyes as if asking a question.  The question could be, “Which of these two is the greatest?”  Mary holds Jesus with her left hand, and with her right she has her thumb extended toward St. Francis as if to say, “He is.”  (Our tour guide was quick to point out that as an Italian mother, she liked the notion more that Mary was pointing back at herself saying, “I am your mother. I am greater.”

Our time in Assisi was a wondrous experience as we walked through buildings from the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries.  It is a place to which I hope to return some day.  I have made a connection with St. Francis that is deeper than ever.  His prayers for peace have made Assisi the global home for peace, as it hosts religious leaders from all faiths each year for a conference on creating peace in the world by creating peace between religions.  It is a noble goal.


When in Rome….uh, Amsterdam

Posted by Tim under Personal

Well, our trip has taken an interesting turn for the 30 or so kids, parents, and teachers on our flight.  We left Atlanta knowing we were going to be too late to make our connection in Amsterdam.  Sure enough, we did.

image_1 (1)We are sitting here in a fairly deserted part of the terminal. There are many fairly deserted parts of many terminals here in Amsterdam.

We were supposed to leave at 9:55 local time and arrive in Rome around noon.  Now we are leaving Amsterdam at 4:25.  Not really certain what that means for meeting up with our other two plane loads of people yet, but it’s going to be interesting.

There is still about a 2 1/2 hour bus ride after we get to Rome.  We will miss our scheduled dinner time as well.

image (3)Oh well.  It is what it is.  Everyone has adjusted well.  No one is complaining (well, I may have a bit, but I’m over it).  I feel a little like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

As a result, I went to find some authentic Amsterdam coffee.  Turns out Amsterdam coffee looks just like Starbucks.  At least in the airport.

At least I’m getting the opportunity to get some steps in and synced to my FitBit.  It is about a half mile back to the shops area.  And while there are moving walkways to help with speed, there are no trams or shuttles from one terminal to another.  That means I walked from somewhere around D42 all the way to B31 only to find out I should have stopped at T2 to get my transfer ticket and then go back to D83, which is our new gate.

Yep.  Fun times!


We’re Off!

Posted by Tim under Personal

3:30 PM –

We have successfully navigated our way out of Knoxville. Well, almost all of us anyway. Sarah’s plane took off about 30 minutes ahead of mine. Just as we were boarding the one of the teachers who planned the trip came up to tell us their flight from Knoxville to Philly had just been cancelled.

image (2)As I’m writing this at 17,000 feet, I’m not sure what their status is. I do know that our tour company, EF Tours is not new to these setbacks and will figure out a way to get all of our group to Italy…eventually.

The 35 minute flight to Atlanta is nearly over. I’ll update more while we are waiting at the airport for our International leg to Amsterdam.

4:45 PM –

We are at our next gate waiting on our flight to Amsterdam.  Already exchanged some dollars for Euros.

Got word as we landed that our group whose flight was cancelled was able to get another plane and will be arriving in Italy on time as planned.  Woohoo!

The kids on the trip are pretty excited about the possibilities of all they will see and experience in Italy.  Looking forward to a week of fun and learning (and fun learning!).


Today is the Day

Posted by Tim under Personal

Today is the day.  Our tour group of nearly 70 students, parents, and teachers will board 4 separate planes and take off for the magical land of Italy.  It still hasn’t quite hit me.

While each plane has a different route, we all arrive in Rome sometime tomorrow.  My flight leaves Knoxville a little after 3 today.  Our trip goes through Atlanta, then to Amsterdam, and on to Rome.  Sarah will head to Washington, DC, then to Frankfurt, and finally to Rome.  Our flights are scheduled to arrive at exactly the same time.  Fingers crossed!

And what time is that?  Oh, about noon. That’s 6 AM here.  Fifteen hours of travel.  But we’re not done yet!1024px-Assisi_San_Francesco_BW_2

Once in Rome, and all bags and passengers are collected, we board a bus and head almost 2 1/2 hours north to Assisi.  Not at all certain what we are doing on Tuesday, but Wednesday morning will see us on a guided tour of the Basilica of St. Francis.

This walk through such a beautiful place in an even more beautiful location will be slightly marred by the fact that 7 months ago the Basilica was damaged from an earthquake.  Watching news reports on YouTube it is believed the structure might not be able to withstand another.

All in all, it is going to be a great trip.  We will learn a lot, experience a lot, and create lifetime memories both for ourselves and our students.

Today is the day.  Buckle up!


Packing for Italy

Posted by Tim under Personal

In 24 hours from the time I’m writing this post, Sarah and I will be in the car driving up to Knoxville to wait on our flights to Italy.  We are both extremely excited!

Packing LightAfter my walk-about, Megabus trip to DC and Philly last year, I realized even then I was overpacked.  So I have attempted to get down to the bare necessities for this trip.  One carry-on for clothing.  One for camera equipment. One is not necessarily larger than the other.

In this photo you can see how I’ve tried to pack.  A couple of pairs of jeans (in addition to the ones I wear on the flight), a couple of button down shirts, a sweatshirt for cooler evenings, several t-shirts (a couple with our school logos), and an extra pair of shoes (not pictured in the top photo).  Add to that various toiletries, and I’m good to go!

I purchased a new carry-on with 4 wheels instead of 2.  They seem to go through airports easier, and I won’t be hitting the back of my heel from the short handle that forces the bag too close to my long strides. And I should be able to just keep it with me on the plane, so no chance I will lose my luggage.

I guess we’ll see how it works in a few days!



10 Days

Posted by Tim under Travel

Ten Days.  I board a plane, one of three, with parents, students, and teachers for a Spring Break trip to Italy.  And I am especially excited to have my youngest daughter traveling with me! What an adventure lies ahead!

We arrive in Rome, then get whisked away to Assisi.  But the bulk of our trip will be in Florence and Rome.  The artwork.  The food. The architecture.  The food. The history.  The food. The people.  The food.  After several months on the Paleo diet, I am allowing myself to switch to a Mediterranean diet for a week.  (I’m committed, but I am not stupid).

I’ll try to be a more faithful blogger for the purposes of this trip.  And the three or four of you who read it can keep up with where we are and what we’re doing.

Some other things you might want to be aware of:

A lot of my pictures will be posted on my Flickr account.  I’ll post a link directly to the albums as they are created.

Some of my pictures (hopefully) will wind up on my Fine Art America account for purchase if you are interested (shameless plug).

You can get more information on some of the places we are going on my Pinterest account.

If you don’t follow me on Facebook yet, you can do that here.

If you don’t follow me on  Twitter yet, you can do that here.  Who knows, you might find some Periscope videos popping up here and there.

And if you just want to follow the trip one bite at a time, check back here.  I’ll do my best to post a daily recap.


Every once in a while I like to write a small review of a movie I’ve seen.  Since Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now the fastest movie to ever reach $1 Billion worldwide, it seems fitting to write a little about my feelings about the movie.  If you have not seen the movie yet, this is a good time to click over to another site, because it is littered with spoilers throughout.

Still here?  OK.

First of all, this was a good movie.  It was entertaining, included great special effects, and harkened the older viewers (like myself) back to 1977 and our first visions of the Skywalker clan.

And yet, I came away feeling the hype was way over blown, and my friends who thought this was the greatest movie ever somehow got it wrong.  It took me a bit to process it all, but it came down to this: I was watching more of a 1977 remake than a franchise reboot.  And that disappointed me.

We see these same kinds of scenes played out in both movies:

  • Luke Skywalker is an orphan raised on a desert planet riding around on a hover car and desperately wanting to get off the planet.  Rey is an orphan raised on a desert planet riding around on a hover motorcycle-looking contraption and desperately wanting to leave the planet, but afraid to do so because she hopes her parents will return someday.  Granted, from there the two characters diverge radically.  Luke is a whiny teenager prone to temper tantrums while Rey is a valiant, no-holds barred, strong character who evidently knows a lot more about mechanics than she could ever have learned picking over old ship debris.
  • Although he didn’t need the mask and voice manipulation, Ben Solo takes on a persona reminiscent of Darth Vader with his black helmet and flowing black clothing.  They both talk to holographic images of their dark lord leader.  Darth Vader feels a disturbance in the force when Luke is nearby.  Ben feels one when Han is nearby.  Again, their characters diverge hugely as well.  Darth is strong-willed and confident in his role within the dark side of the Force.  Ben…well, Ben is the equivalent of Luke Skywalker’s snot-nosed, little boy tantrum, self who has no real identity of his own other than some teenage rebellion that never really got out of his system.
  • Princess Leia has a really weird scene in a bikini with Jabba the Hut.  In this new movie the spy for the bad guys is a prostitute in a bikini next to a Jabba type character.  Did we really need reminding as badly as that?
  • Darth and Luke meet on a catwalk for their final light saber duel before Luke’s hand is severed.  Ben and Han meet on a catwalk for their final time before Ben runs him through with his light saber (like we didn’t see that coming).
  • One has a Death Star.  One has a Death Planet. Its odd, because with all the technological advances necessary to build the Starkiller in 30 years or so, none of the military weaponry has advanced at all.

And then there is just simply the bad parts of storytelling.

  • Out of the hundreds of thousands of stormtroopers, there is only one, Finn, who still has a conscience.  Is he the son of Lando Calrissian?  I’m not really sure we care.  He has great heart, but he’s not courageous the way Rey is.
  • When Han is killed, Leia knows.  While she has some connection to the Force through her own lineage, this just seemed contrived to me.  It would have been so much better for someone to return and tell her.  The way it was portrayed there is little drama associated with her feelings.  Something was lost for me.
  • People can walk for miles and miles in the space of about 2 minutes.  Just before the Starkiller is set to explode, Rey and Finn have walked at least a mile in 2 minutes flat.  Even in space fantasies we shouldn’t have to suspend ALL of our disbelief.

And let’s not forget the ONE thing Disney left out that would have made the entire movie better:

  • When Han and Leia finally talk about their feelings for one another in the original trilogy, Leia tells Han she loves him.  Han replies, “I know.”  It would have been SO cool during their reunion in this movie for Han to tell Leia that he loves her and have Leia respond with, “I know.”  What a missed opportunity.

Of course, with all of that, it was still a very good movie.  It opens us up to questions we all want answered.  What happened to Luke?  Did he go into self-imposed exile because he was afraid of going over to the dark side himself?  And who is Rey?  Someone online has speculated she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter.  It would explain why she has such a powerful understanding of the Force before receiving any training.  Will Ben Solo ever really grow up to be a true villain?  They need one.  In this movie he wasn’t really it.  And, of course, the question all of us want to know, will we ever see the Ewoks again?

Your thoughts?  Feel free to comment below.



Posted by Tim under Personal

Steve01Today marks the 2nd anniversary of my brother’s passing.  Steve was 6 years older than me, so I know he must have gotten tired of me as a “hanger on” younger brother when we were kids.  But I don’t remember him ever showing that to me.  He left home right after high school graduation to play piano for a Southern Gospel trio.  I had just left the 6th grade.

After a stint with the Gospel circuit, Steve wound up at Lee College (now University) where he was popular (I’m told by his friends) and was most known for performing “Colour My World” by Chicago at student events.  After it was suggested that he leave the college for playing piano in nightclubs to make extra money, he started on the road to stardom, a path that proved to be elusive and slippery.

He alternated between playing solo as a “piano man” much like the one Billy Joel sings about and working in various groups and just as many genres.  My favorite memory of those days is going to Atlanta to see him play and sitting around the grand piano with a bunch of drunks (I didn’t drink at the time) singing “I’ll Fly Away” and other songs from our old Red Backed Hymnal days.  My least favorite?  Getting asked to come on stage by Cortez Greer (an opening act for Bill Cosby) to sing because I was Steve’s baby brother.  The sound was so incredibly loud that I couldn’t find my pitch and was horribly off key.  But Cortez was kind about it as I recall.Steve02

Steve may not have achieved the fame and glory he sought as a musician, but that did not diminish his talent or the love and admiration of those that knew him.  He has two beautiful children, two grandchildren, and his music as a legacy.  And today, two years on from his departure from a life of constant physical and emotional pain, he has been on my mind.

For those that did not know Steve, you can learn a little about him in the links below.  If you knew him, may these bring back the fondest of memories.  Please feel free to comment in the Comments section if something touches you.

Steve03Steve can be seen briefly in this YouTube video from American Bandstand when Dick Clark interviewed Paul Davis.  I used to have the performance uploaded to my YouTube channel, but Dick Clark Productions made me take it down years ago.  You can see his performance on Solid Gold with Paul Davis on my Channel here.  It has now been viewed 135,000 times.

For Steve’s own music, he wrote and performed love songs like I Love Loving You (mobile) and Loving You Makes It All Right (with a little piano improv) (mobile).  He wrote songs of pain such as I’m The One Alone (mobile) and So Alone Without You. (mobile)

It wouldn’t be a Steve tribute without his rendition of Floyd Cramer’s Last Date (mobile) either.  Or a look at his more funky side with She’s Mine (mobile).

But I think my favorite song of his has to be Looking for a Light (mobile).  There is a cassette somewhere that has him and Paul Davis doing this as a demo duet.  Its so hard to tell them apart at times.  I remember a female artist put it on an album she made that Steve produced, but I can’t remember who that was.  I would love to record it sometime as my own tribute to Steve.

And if you are looking for some simple, elegant Christmas piano music, feel free to find his album in this folder.

We miss Steve terribly.  But he left a legacy that can be passed along for years and years to come.


BF Skinner wrote the book, literally, on operant conditioning.  And while there are many reasons not to offer extrinsic rewards in an education environment (students should want to learn for the sake of learning, right?), there are ways in which we can utilize the approach in, perhaps, a productive manner.

RewardsIn his interview on the Curious Minds podcast, Nir Eyal mentioned this idea of random rewards as it relates to marketing and creating habits among buyers or app users.

In an early study on operant conditioning a chicken was placed in an environment with a target on which to peck.  When the chicken pecked on the target, a food pellet dropped out.  Whenever the chicken was hungry, it pecked.  When it was no longer hungry, it stopped.

Then they changed the conditions.  Now when the chicken pecked on the target, the food pellets were dispersed randomly.  Sometimes they got a food pellet.  Other times they did not.  There was no order to the dispersement.  It wasn’t every 10th peck, or every 3rd.  It was random.

The result?  The chickens who received random rewards pecked more times on the target.  They worked harder for the reward.

When you tie this to the IKEA Effect mentioned in my last post, you get a very powerful way to create a habit of work.  We are more satisfied with things we make ourselves (IKEA Effect), and with random rewards we will work harder.  Could it be that we would be more satisfied as well?

Random Rewards does not equate random consequences.  If a student misbehaves in class, the behavior needs to be addressed quickly, fairly, and consistently in order to bring order back to the possible chaos.

But rewards.  That’s a different story.

Recently, in a faculty meeting at my school we had this discussion.  Some teachers felt that they needed to grade everything they assign.  Without a grade, the student would not be “conditioned” (my word, not theirs) to do the work.  They would let it slide.  Other teachers felt this was just making the burden too hard on the teacher.  Not everything, they argued, needed to be graded.

So, what if we did Random Rewards for grades?  What if they never knew which assignment would receive a grade?  What if grade book input happened in a totally random fashion?  I’m assuming here, of course, that the assignments would be equal in value, so you wouldn’t randomly choose a 20 point quiz over a 100 point test.

What if we did Random Rewards for the bulletin board?  Totally random.  Not just the best work.  Not everyone’s work.  Draw a circle on the floor, throw the assignments in the air, and put up only the ones that fall inside the circle.  Or use a random number table.  Would students be more apt to do better work knowing that, at some point, what they turn in will be seen by the entire class?  Or, perhaps, by the world if your bulletin board is a class blog?

Are there other ways the Law of Random Rewards could benefit your students?  Your class?  Your own sanity?

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