In my dermatillomania post, a commenter linked to this art installation that I just had to share:

In 2003 a building housing the Massachusetts Mental Health Center (MMHC) was slated for demolition to make way for updated facilities. The closure was a time for reflection and remembrance as the MMHC had been in operation for over 9 decades and had touched countless thousands of patients and employees alike, and the pending demolition presented a unique problem. How does one memorialize a building impossibly rich with a history of both hope and sadness, and do it in a way that reflects not only the past but also the future? And could this memorial be open to the public, not as a speech, or series of informational plaques, but as an experience worthy of they building’s unique story?

To answer that question artist Anna Schuleit was commissioned to do the impossible. After an initial tour of the facility she was struck not with what she saw but with what she didn’t see: the presence of life and color. While historically a place of healing, the drab interior, worn hallways, and dull paint needed a respectful infusion of hope. With a limited budget and only three months of planning Schuleit and an enormous team of volunteers executed a massive public art installation called Bloom. The concept was simple but absolutely immense in scale. Nearly 28,000 potted flowers would fill almost every square foot of the MMHC including corridors, stairwells, offices and even a swimming pool, all of it brought to life with a sea of blooms. The public was then invited for a limited 4-day viewing as a time for needed reflection and rebirth.

Make sure to check out the rest of the photos and the interview with the artist here. I’m absolutely in love with it. Mental health problems have so much stigma attached to them. It’s wonderful to reframe the issue as being about rebirth, growth, and brightness instead of something bleak, deranged, and evil. I think this reaction from someone who visited the exhibit summarizes it perfectly:

“I walked through Bloom with a close friend of mine who has spent a great deal of time inside similar hospitals. He was close to tears and repeated said he felt the desire to jump into the flowers, sum bold for the freedom and the celebration of his own growth and healing. We recognized that Bloom brought beauty and wonder to what has always been an inherently taboo subject matter.”

This is post 33 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Dermatillomania therapies

In my previous post about dermatillomania, Robert B asks:

“Do you mind sharing what kind of therapies were tried?”

Sure! When I first met with my therapist, I made sure that she used cognitive behavioral therapy, since that’s one of the approaches most supported by scientific evidence. I also made it clear that I was an atheist to make sure she was okay with that (PS – check out the Secular Therapist Project if you’re looking for a secular therapist or want you current therapist to sign up).

The main therapy we did was “mindfulness,” which is pretty much how it sounds. She encouraged me to pay close attention to when I started to pick. For the first couple of weeks I wrote down every time I started picking and what was going on around me. This was partially to see if any specific events triggered the picking, though that wasn’t too enlightening to me. I already knew I picked when I was either very stressed out or very bored, and that’s about what I found.

But it did help me realize how much I picked. And since paying attention to my picking was on my mind, I was much less likely to start absent-mindedly picking during a lecture or a movie. Or if I did start picking, I would realize what I was doing and try my hardest to stop. It didn’t totally solve the problem, but I did pick less. And since I picked less, I had less scraggly skin available to pick, which in turn made me want to pick even less.

The problem was it was really easy to fuck up once, and that derailed the whole process. If I happened to go crazy picking while spaced out and watching a movie, or if an exam was coming up and I went to town, I basically had to start the process all over again. mindfulness worked for a couple of months until it…well, just wasn’t on my mind anymore. It’s hard to constantly think about.

The other thing that was suggested to me was just finding a hobby that could keep my hands busy instead of picking each other. I’ve found random twitchy iPhone games to be great for making me not pick while riding the bus, and that still works reasonably well. The main problem is idle work situations, like sitting in a lecture. She suggested I take up knitting since that’s fairly socially acceptable to do in a lecture hall, but I just never got around to it.

But overall, the treatment for dermatillomania isn’t really well understood. There are a number of proposed drugs that may help (including SSRIs), but we never discussed that option.

This is post 32 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

What should we call grad school?

I wanted to share one of my recent favorite things with you, especially since I know I have a surprising number of readers who are either in grad school or have been in it. I present to you the tumblr “What should we call grad school?” Here are some of my favorites:

“How I feel when I answer all the questions during my presentation”

“When I realize the talk is on computational biology”

“My audience when I tell them my data is trending on significance”

“When someone tells me they want to go into industry”

“Trying to pass my dead end project to someone else”

If you don’t get any of the jokes…well, then you’re probably not a grad student.

This is post 30 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

How will marijuana legalization change popular culture?

Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in a number of states, including my current place of residence (Washington). It’s probably no shocker since I’m a dirty liberal, but I’ll be voting in favor of legalization. It’s ludicrous that we have such tight regulations on a drug that’s less harmful that alcohol. Heaven forbid if some people want to sit around watching Blue Planet while eating ice cream! But even beyond that, it’s ridiculous how much money is wasted on the drug war, and how it disproportionately affects people of color.

Marijuana may not get legalized by states this year, and even if it does national laws still need to change. But it’s going to happen eventually, and I’m really curious how popular culture will change when it does. In Seattle, marijuana is de-criminalized, and I’m fascinated by how different the culture is here compared to Indiana. No one gives a fuck if you smell weed while walking down the street. Accomplished, productive people smoke, which totally destroyed the stereotypes I had grown up with about all pot smokers being lazy losers. Medical marijuana dispensaries are everywhere.

But how much more will culture change when it’s totally legal? Will pot smoking bars pop up along bars that serve alcohol? Will you be able to order a pot brownie for dessert at major chains just like you can order a beer? Will there be massive mediocre national brands (the Bud of Bud?) with local, pricier, artisan weed? Will there be specialized gourmet restaurants were every food item in infused with THC?

I’m honestly curious. When I’m 80 and telling small children “Back in my day, pot was illegal!” how shocked are they going to be? Is it going to be seen as a normal, integral part of culture by then, just like alcohol?

What do you think?

This is post 29 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Fixing Math Education – or – How I Learned to Stop Lecturing and Love the Common Core Standards

This is a guest post by Mark Webster, continuing his tradition of guest posting for me during Blogathon. He is a graduate of Purdue University from the School of Science in the field of Mathematics Education and is currently a High School Mathematics Teacher in Indiana.

Please note that the author is representing general trends and personal experiences of a trained educator combined with popular evidence-based practices.  By no means is this exhaustive.  Please do not be butthurt. If you have evidence-based practices that conflict with anything I have said, please feel free to leave a comment.

There has been a lot of discussion on the problems in education, in general, but never do you hear a bigger cry for change in any other subject than you do in Mathematics.  Perhaps it is time to analyze the problem and line up some solutions.*

Who are the problems in Math Education?

Teachers are certainly not the only problem, but when deciding to figure out the problem, it’s always best to start inward.  In this post, I will be looking at what teachers need to focus on.

In our schools, there is still a lot of passive learning going on.  What is passive learning, you may ask?  Let me answer your question with another question:

When you imagine a math class, what do you think of?

Probably something like this:


A teacher, facing the board, not interacting with his students.  Many of us, myself included, have had experiences like this.  No teacher-student interaction. No checks for understanding.  No eye contact.  Perhaps, even more pernicious, there may not even be an analysis of the learning and long term progress of students.

Direct lecture-style math classrooms create an environment of passive learning.  The teacher says a bunch of words at the front of the board; maybe, if he is a more dynamic teacher, waves his arms around a little bit; and then throws quizzes and tests at you. (Multiple, if you’re lucky—on the college level, there is rarely regular assessment…but that is neither here nor there.)

Even worse, the math classroom suffers from a lack of student metacognition and critical thinking—an ailment in a math classroom that baffles me to no end, particularly because that is, more often than not, the go-to excuse that teachers trot out when a student asks them “When are we going to use this?”

Rarely is the question asked, “Is our children learning?”, the answer to which is, more often than not, either “No.” or “Not well enough.”  Now it is time to move beyond that question to “How can we help them to learn?”

How will the Common Core Standards help?

One of the country-wide initiatives that will be taking hold in the coming years, the transition to which will be complete in 2015, is called the Common Core Standards.  While there are standards for Math and English, for obvious reasons (Hint: I’m a math teacher) I will be only talking about the Math standards.

1. Stricter Math standards for the USA.

If you look on the national report cards, you might notice grades for the states are changing. Of the 50 states, only six of them have not bought into the common core standards.  If you or your children are students in any state besides Washington, Alaska, Texas, North Dakota, Nebraska, or Virginia, you will have (hopefully) heard of the change.  A common set of standards across the country will mean that students are learning with the same level of rigor and relevance in Indiana as they are in New York or Mississippi.

2. Increased focus on Critical Thinking

In my professional development and my own personal research on the PARCC exams, I’ve come across the same thing over and over:  The standardized tests of the past will not go away, but they will be refocused.  Instead of fifty “Math Problems” on a test, the student may be given five or six “Math Tasks.”  These tasks may involve, on the elementary school end, explaining the purpose of a step within a problem that they have completed for you, finding errors in simplifying a problem down and explaining what the error is, or even taking a newspaper article and analyzing it to take a position, using evidence.  Instead of focusing on finding an answer, the test will be concerned with how they can apply math to that answer.  How wild!

3. Broader, more targeted learning objectives

Most state standards and assessments have, in the past, been far more focused on students simply demonstrating their knowledge of a process, i.e. “Plot these two points and determine whether the slope is positive or negative.”  Common Core standards are far more broad and far more targeted.  Much like the National Counsel of Teachers of Mathematics standards, the Common Core standards concern themselves with specific domains of learning and applying them to metacognitive tasks.

Now, instead of plotting those points on the exam; they may, instead, be given a question that asks them to analyze, display, and track profit margins for a company and take a position on whether or not they will be able to afford to stay open in five years.

The accountability is changing from teaching mathematical processes to teaching thought processes. I approve of this, but does this really address the problems that we have seen above? I don’t think so.

So…How Do We Do This?

There are many champions of new processes within the Math Education community.  Many of you have heard of Salman Khan and his famous Khan Academy, fewer of you have probably heard of Dan Meyer***—some Math teachers even haven’t (A fact which breaks my heart.), and I’m sure even less of you know about the conflict of pedagogical styles that lies between them.

Let’s break them down:

Dan Meyer’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as WCYDWT? or What Can You Do With This? and has slowly morphed into something he calls Any Questions? is designed as a student-centered, inquiry-based, generally collaborative effort to force students to lead the discussion and gain ownership of the material by creating the payoff in the medium used to teach the material; and, instead of spoon feeding them concepts, force them to push through a mathematical task and create the demand for the material.

Salman Khan’s pedagogical philosophy, a project that began as a series of youtube videos, has become a website, and some might say a school, of its own.  The Khan Academy allows students to develop on their own, facilitates continuous improvement for the students at their own pace and on their own terms, and allows for constant pedagogical moderation.

Math teachers and parents alike have raised concerns about the methodologies that these two men have created.  Dan Meyer critics fight him because they believe his philosophy creates a lack of rigor.  Salman Khan critics fight him because his videos do just as much lecturing as one might see in a classroom, and do nothing to enrich and create ownership of the material.

Even with the miles of space between their two philosophies, it is worth the time to compare them and see a similarity:

These philosophies depend on a consistent foundation of what has come before.  The genius of Dan Meyer’s method lies in the students being able to work through the tasks because they are absolutely prepared to tackle it.  The utility of Sal Khan’s method is that because students get to a topic on their own terms, they are prepared to see it and they can meet it head on.

Without constant analysis and moderation of our students’ learning, we cannot teach to our fullest potential.  If we leave students by the wayside because we don’t know where they are, we have put a student in a hole that they may not be able to escape from.

*I’m by no means the first nor am I the most qualified person to look at this.  We’ve been overhauling since before I started teaching, but one more eye on the problem can’t hurt. Even if I’m not saying anything new, informing new people can’t hurt. Right?

**×270.jpg  Disclaimer: This picture is not necessarily an indictment of this teacher.  It is a photo that I found on the internet with a teacher that had his back to the classroom.  The fact that it took me about five minutes to find one is encouraging to me.

***Full Disclosure: I worship the ground upon which this man walks. The classroom ideal he has created is my personal mission.

This is post 28 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

A dermatillomania update

Last year I wrote about my experience with dermatillomania, also known as compulsive skin picking. It’s part of the OCD spectrum of behaviors, where I have the compulsion to pick at the skin on my fingertips and lips, often until they’re bleeding or scarred. It’s worse when I’m nervous or stressed because I oddly find it soothing, but I’ll also do it absent-mindedly. If you want to learn more, check out my original post.

So why am I talking about it again? Well for one thing, people often ask me about it. I’ve had so many people coming out of the woodwork saying “Holy crap, I do that too!” Mental illness has so much stigma that it helps to remind people that “Hey, I’m not totally right in the head…but that’s perfectly fine.”

But I also want to mention it because someone (who also suffers from dermatillomania) knew I was seeking treatment, and they asked me if it was effective. Honestly…not really. That doesn’t mean no treatment for dermatillomania is effective. I was going to my university health center, which doesn’t specialize in this particular disorder. I really liked the therapist I ended up meeting with over the summer, but she had never tried to treat someone with my condition before. I’d likely have better luck controlling my compulsion if I went to a specialist, but honestly my problem isn’t bad enough to shell out the money.

Talking to a therapist about my dermatillomania did help me out in one important way: I no longer feel guilty about what I do. And the guilt was one of the worst things about it. I felt terrible trying to explain my scarred fingertips to someone who happened to see. I felt ugly and unattractive after chewing on my lips too much. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t control my own behavior.

But talking to a therapist reminded me that it was okay to not be in control sometimes. People with cystic fibrosis or nearsightedness don’t get told that they should just control themselves better. We accept that they have health problems that they didn’t choose to have. I’ve now accepted that I didn’t choose this mental health disorder, and it’s okay if I have a hard time dealing with it.

This is post 26 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

No, I won’t be going to TAM

Time to open up a can of worms!

I’ve been getting sporadic questions about if I’ll be attending TAM this year. No, I won’t. I apologize to any readers who were hoping to see me there! But contrary to what some people believe, it’s not because I think TAM is a cesspool where I’m going to get instantly raped, or that I think inappropriate behavior is more frequent at TAM than at other cons. I’ve never said such things. My decision about TAM was a long process that has gradually changed over time:

  1. After TAM last year, I was determined to come back. I had a great time. I told myself that even if I wasn’t invited back as a speaker, I would save up enough money to go. Travel plus registration can easily go over $1000, but I thought it was worth it to treat myself.
  2. I realized I’d be traveling in Europe soon before TAM. As much as I wanted to go, I was a little wary of taking additional travel time off. But I had so much fun that I told myself I’d just work extra hours to make up for the time.
  3. Greta Christina receives misogynistic vitriol and threats from a TAM attendee…and DJ Grothe, President of JREF, tries to defend the remarks and doesn’t take Greta’s concerns very seriously. I’m really disappointed in how DJ handled the situation, but I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he’s just being a little clueless about this particular incident.
  4. The speaker lineup for TAM is announced. I click the link with glee, but then I’m disappointed. TAM is lacking its usual star power. Sure, there are still great people speaking – but I’ve seen them before, and no one gets me particularly excited. There was no Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye equivalent. But I’m a unique case as a speaker – I go to way more events than most people. By now I’m leaning toward not going, but I hope others will have fun.
  5. The “please have anti-harassment policies at cons” discussion begins, and DJ Grothe blames feminist bloggers like me for TAM’s decrease in female attendees. Not the economy. Not the timing. Not the fact that many people spent their yearly skeptical allowance attending the Reason Rally. Not the speaker line-up. Not his botched PR with Greta. He blamed me and my friends for daring to speak up and say “Hey, we don’t want to be sexually harassed anymore.” This is despite my previous love for TAM, and for the fundraising I did for JREF during boobquake. Why should I pay a four hundred dollar registration fee to fund an organization that’s randomly blaming me for its attendance issues? This is where I decide I’m done.
  6. Though I’ve already made my decision, DJ’s further comments make me certain that I’ve made the right one. Stephanie Zvan has the full summary. DJ says there has never been a report filed for sexual harassment at TAM…which is false. Upskirt photos taken by an individual that JREF was formally warned about? How do you forget that? DJ’s story keeps changing as more stories come to light. He could have staved off this whole PR disaster by initially saying “I’m so sorry you experienced that, I’ll do everything I can to make sure you never experience that again and that TAM is a safe space for all of our attendees.” But nope, he decided to blame those uppity feminist bloggers.
So why am I not going to TAM? Not because of women speaking out about how sexual harassment should be improved. Because of money, because of time, because of personal preferences about speakers…but most of all, because DJ Grothe had repeatedly shown himself to be more concerned about the image of his organization than about the concerns of its female supporters.
I’m not calling for a boycott of TAM – hell, I may go next year if these issues are resolved. But for now, my conference splurge of the year is going to be Skepticon, which has always made me feel welcome.

This is post 25 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

What video games are you looking forward to?

I’m absolutely itching to play the new Civilization 5 expansion, Gods and Kings. I’m such a fan that I’ll buy almost anything Civ craps out, but I’m legitimately excited about  this expansion…because it brings back religion.

I know, I know. It’s a little ironic for me to be excited about religion. But I love winning the game through peace and manipulation instead of all out warfare. I just find wars tedious and not as fun as developing my nation’s culture and infrastructure. Religion is a great way to spread culture, make money, and manipulate other countries into being your friends (or enemies). And this time you get to customize the traits of your religion to fit your needs, instead of all of the different religions being effectively the same.

I’m also dying for Skulls of the Shogun to come out, but who knows when that’ll be released. I played it at PAX last August and it’s still not out!

And while this isn’t a new game…I’m newly addicted to Tropico 4. What can I say, I love strategy games. Not to mention it has one of the best soundtracks ever. I’ve caught myself humming the songs all the time.

What video games are you looking forward to or currently addicted to? Do you have any suggestions for a new game my boyfriend and I can play together? We’ve beaten just about everything there is to beat in Dungeon Defenders. …Well, except that stupid Genie expansion level, because seriously, fuck that level. It’s not even Fun Hard…it’s just stupidly irritating.

This is post 24 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.