Month: July 2017

Slow Walking

During the days that I stayed with my parents this week, my main activity was taking care of my father while my mom had an in-patient cancer treatment in Baltimore.  Each day, my father and I headed out for walks.  When the heat of a Washington summer reaches its peak, my dad and mom will walk the long corridors of their apartment building.  This week, though, has been cooler, mostly in the eighties, so we’ve been able to venture outside. It has taught me some lessons.

Today we decided to go on more of a nature walk.  About 500 yards from the building’s front lobby, we turn off the sidewalk onto a paved trail through the woods.  We walk at a pace that’s only slightly faster than the Tim Conway “oldest man” character from the old days.  It’s a stark contrast to the walks I take with my wife and our dogs.  In those, we’re trying for exercise.  This is different.  My father’s walk is not vigorous.  It barely raises the heart rate.  In some ways, it’s more of an exercise in patience, but it does give us a chance to be together, enjoying the space around us. We can point to all of the trees that neither of us can identify.  “What species is this one?” I ask.

“I’m not sure.  I used to know,” my dad replies.  Nonetheless, we speculate, marvel at the heights of the trees in the midst of this heavily populated area, and slowly move on. Street noise is replaced by the buzzing of cicadas, and the air cools noticeably.  We pass dog walkers and women with strollers.  To be clear,  we don’t pass anybody unless they’re going the opposite direction.  A creek flows through the woods, and we can spy houses through the branches.  It’s not an extensive trail, but it gives my father a chance to wander without the danger of cars and without getting too winded.  Looking down at the path, I spot a twig  with a few leaves and an unusual fruit and suddenly realize I recognize it. It’s a tree that we used to have in our backyard when I was a kid.  My dad looks at it and sighs, “Tulip.”

“Right,” I agree.  I had forgotten all about tulip trees.  “We don’t have those in Connecticut, We just have the tulip flowers.”

“Too bad,” he says.  “You’ll have to keep visiting us to see them.” He smiles.

When we emerge from the woods, we head up a sidewalk that leads to the little community center.  There’s a fountain and a small plaza.  My father informs me that there’s a farmer’s market in this plaza every Saturday.  As I turn back toward the fountain, I notice a very realistic sculpture of a woman sitting on the ground sketching the community center.  I’ve passed this little plaza many times, but I’ve never noticed the woman before.  I stop to take a picture and check out her sketch.  Suddenly it reminds me of a photo of one of my students.

Each fall, I take my fifth grade class on a trip to Storm King Art Center, a spectacular outdoor art gallery on 500 acres of rolling hills, fields, and woods,  Yes, it also has amazing sculptures.  Before our trip, I try to prepare my class by letting them take a gallery walk in our classroom, stopping to sketch when something catches their eye.  I implore them to slow down, not trying to see it all, but trying to know a few things well.

This walk with my father gives me a chance to heed my own advice.

Mindful Moments

I have to admit, I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of the mindful moment. I’m fully comfortable with the idea of becoming more observant, aware, alert, and attentive to the world around us.  It seems, though, like such a personal thing, that I sometimes have trouble with the idea of a large group setting aside one small block of time to be  mindful together.  I feel the most mindful when I’m alone, not concerned with the people around me.  In groups, I easily fall into self consciousness.  Today, I’ve retreated to my father’s study after a day spent in silence and conversation with him.

My dad is 86.  He doesn’t hear well.  That’s a condition that I’ve become  accustomed to.  It is still frustrating at times, but I’ve taken to pulling out my tablet and using it like a white board.  I write what I have to say.  He responds orally.  It’s slow, but it works.  Now, though, the challenges have grown.  He’s becoming more and more concerned that his mind is deteriorating.  Tomorrow we’re heading to the doctor for his physical.  I’m accompanying him, partly for safety, partly for comfort, and partly to listen and interpret.  My father has some questions he wants to ask.  My mother wants him to ask as well.  The questions have to do with Alzheimer’s.  My dad has noticed his memory failing.  He has trouble retrieving some words.  In my denial world, I’ve developed several rationalizations for that phenomenon.  For one thing, my dad is bilingual, having grown up in Sweden, but having lived in the U.S. for almost 70 years.   He still reads the Swedish newspapers every day on the computer.  This has meant that for all of the time I’ve known him, though, he has sometimes had to think longer about the words he chooses. He lives in a more challenging word-retrieval world than I do. Two file drawers through which to search.

The other rationalization has to do with his hearing loss.  As a result of this disability, he has retreated more and more from the social interactions that he always used to have. He was a very good conversationalist in his hearing days.  I grew up in a family that had debates on every imaginable subject nearly every night at the dinner table.  Without the ability to hear the other side, though, my father became more reserved.  Eventually, he really retreated from most interactions.  I think this meant that he didn’t really have to exercise the word retrieval part of his mind as much.  There seems to have been a sort of atrophying effect.  He continues to read, but I think that’s a different process,  receptive, rather than generative.

Whether my rationalizations have any merit, it’s clear that my father’s mind is not as acute as it once was.  Our conversations are slow and mostly factual, not very deep or abstract.  He worries that he can’t do simple math like figuring a tip.  “I can’t hold the numbers in my head from one operation to the next.”  I’m not an expert, but this does sound like things that people have noted in Alzheimer cases.  Clearly he’s afraid.  I am too.  I worry about my father, my mother trying to care for him, and my sister who lives in the same building.  It’s a lot to be mindful about, not just for a moment, but for every moment.

Wednesdays Without Work or Waste

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“Why do we have to have homework?”  This persistent question from a student in my class led to an experiment this year that had some unexpected outcomes.  This student pointed out that some of the most effective schools in the world didn’t give homework to students in elementary school.

I told him that I was aware of that.  I had read quite a bit about schools in Finland, where homework was almost non-existent.  I had seen their schools profiled in “Where to Invade Next?” the Michael Moore documentary that came out in 2016.  I mentioned to this particular student that I was pretty sure that the students who were benefitting from this free time were not spending their afternoons and evenings playing video games.

“I don’t play video games…much,” the student replied. I knew that he spent a lot of his free time in front of a screen.

After quite a bit of back and forth, we negotiated a challenge.  I would eliminate homework on Wednesdays, but there was a catch.  I wanted students to discuss the new arrangement with their families.   I also wanted to make sure that the new “free” time would be used in a healthy way.  This was our deal:  students would get Wednesdays off, but they needed to make a plan for how they would use the time, and the time needed to be as free from electronics (and fuel consumption) as possible.  I asked them to write a plan for their time and have their parents sign the plan.  I wasn’t trying to take the fun out of the experience;  I just wanted the afternoons to be as healthy as possible.  The goal was for students to play, explore, relax, make choices, get outside, do something healthy for themselves and for the world.

Almost all of them responded with enthusiasm.  They didn’t take this new freedom for granted, and they really had discussions with their parents.  One family started a tradition of cooking together every Wednesday.  Another went so far as to have Salad Dinners so that they didn’t use the oven or stove.  Some students used the time to read or practice their musical instrument. Most just played in the neighborhood. Others started projects.   “Every Wednesday I have to wait around for my brother’s Tae Kwon Do lesson to be over.  I used to just play on my iPad the whole time, but this time my dad and I went out on the street and picked up a load of garbage.  We decided we’d do that every week.”

Several students used their evenings to read with their parents and then go to sleep early.  They said the extra sleep in the middle of the week was really helpful for them.  I had emailed parents about the plan, so they were aware of the goals.  I had mentioned that I didn’t think it should be an opportunity for sleepovers or anything to wear them out more than usual.  At around this time, one of the families decided that the the electronics moratorium was so positive that they were going to expand it to the whole week (Monday through Friday).  I worried that this might turn that student against this plan (“Now look what you’ve done!”), but the reaction was the opposite.  The parents said that it was actually their son’s idea.  He hadn’t been sure that he could do it, but the Wednesdays proved that he could.  He spent most of his free afternoons reading or building with his previously-neglected Legos.  This was a student who had seemed to have attention and listening issues.  All of us noted that he became much more focused and interactive after these changes in his routine.

I’m eager to try this experiment again.  It won’t be as organic as  it was this past year.  It will probably need to start with me, but maybe I’ll just wait for the first person to ask the perennial question.

I’ll have my answer ready this time.

 

Watering

 

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I’ve been walking my dogs, Boo and McGee every morning this summer.  I have to walk them separately, since their tandem behavior borders on ferocious.  This is odd, since both dogs are really quite docile in most of their actions, but when they walk side by side, they apparently think they can kick any dog’s ass.   This would be comical, except that they apparently say some dog words to that effect, even when they encounter very imposing creatures.  Dangerous behavior.  Separately, they keep the trash talk internal.

Today, as McGee and I strode through the neighborhood, I was struck by how much watering was going on.  Naturally, McGee was doing his part, and I tried to discourage him from killing the beautiful mailbox flowers at the end of so many driveways.  For some reason McGee disdains the traditional marking spots, the fire hydrants and the telephone poles.  He loves the flowers, and (I’m really sorry for this one) car tires. Fortunately, he distinguishes between moving and stationary tires.

But really, this wasn’t meant to be a description of my silly dog’s bathroom habits.  I was struck by the human watering, and how misdirected it seems to be.  I mean this literally. There were so many lawn irrigation systems that were doing their irrigating business but missing their target. When I ride my bike on a really hot day, I sometimes appreciate the misguided sprinkler.  I coast through it and find it very refreshing, but really, it’s such a waste.  No matter how much you water the asphalt, it rarely “greens up.”  I wondered if the people whose lawn was getting cheated realized the problem.  Maybe they had already left for work and never knew that so much water was being poured into the street.

I also wondered at the craziness of lawns themselves.  Most of these homes had big backyards with lots of attractions, like swings and pools, lacrosse goals and decks.  The front yards probably never get used.  Why then, do we need these manicured carpets of turf, these green lawns that nature cannot support?  I’m not speaking from a position of superiority, here.  I have a lawn that I take pretty good care of, though I happen to have a variety of grass that doesn’t need much water.  It’s just odd, I think, that when we travel to places to experience nature, we rarely see lawns, and no, I don’t count a golf vacation as “experiencing nature.”  We see forests, meadows, and rocky outcroppings, and we admire the beauty.  Why then do we go home and feel that we have to have an almost artificial green carpet in front of our house?  It matters so much to some of us that we have our yard dug up and pipes laid beneath the turf so that we can automatically water our streets every morning.

It’s almost as weird as McGee.

Greenbelt vs. Green Day

This is not a debate about musical groups.  It’s actually a struggle I’m having with the way to make things better with my writers’ workshop.  There are more than two sides to this struggle, of course, because there might be many different solutions to a problem, but I’m wrestling between two options that seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. One says that, just as a city creates a green space within a crowded and developed area, so we should create a space in our crowded school day where we can allow kids to write freely, naturally.  On the other hand, some say that we should revise our writing curriculum (again) to remedy the overdevelopment of our rigorous (college-prep) elementary curriculum.  I’m trying to figure out which way I lean.

Truthfully, I know which way I lean.  The real question is, “What’s the smart course of action?”  In my heart, I know that the writing curriculum that I have been asked to teach is not a curriculum that immediately speaks to the typical fifth grader.  This past year, after an initial unit on writing personal narratives, our students had to run this gauntlet of daunting units:  feature articles, argument essays, literary essays, and historical research reports.  We finished with memoir.  As an adult, I see the value in all of these genre.  I actually had fun writing my own pieces during these units…but I already like to write.  Also, I’m a bit more patient than the typical ten-year-old.  Furthermore, I actually spent several years in college writing lots of literary essays.  I also see clearly the way that the work we did with argument essays actually helped my students understand how to build a civilized and balanced argument with statements backed up by facts.  How refreshing, considering the current tendencies among some “adult” leaders in our country. Still, there aren’t too many kids who would call that kind of writing fun.  There aren’t too many kids who would say, “Now I’m going to go home and write my own literary essay.”  Most importantly, I fear, there aren’t too many kids who will look back on fifth grade and say, “That’s when I became a writer.”

Plenty of my students found success in each genre, and there are plenty of kids who now have stronger skills, both as writers and readers of other people’s writing, but that’s not enough.  I don’t want to be that teacher who says, “They may not have liked it, but they’re better off for having done it.”  That seems like what we say after we force kids to eat their vegetables, or after we give them their nasty-tasting cough medicine.

So, clearly, I lean toward the side that says we need to revise our curriculum.  If nothing else, I think we need to interrupt this barrage of pre-college units with some units that give kids a little more sense of adventure and play.  For example, a fiction unit might replace one of the essay units.  A poetry unit might also give students a chance to do more exploring and experimenting.  In earlier days, I asked my students to build poetry anthologies, and the writing they did included their own poetry, the poems of others, as well as writing that reflected on techniques or themes that they were exploring.  The anthology had elements from other genre, but those elements didn’t dominate the unit. This spring, four former students of mine returned to our school as high school seniors.  Three of them talked about how the writing they did in fifth grade changed their attitude towards the written word.  They were stunned to find out that I didn’t do a poetry unit anymore. I shrugged, looked down,  and said, “It’s not in our curriculum anymore.”  At that moment, though, I felt ashamed of my assumed powerlessness. This was not something to be shrugged off.

Those promoting a greenbelt alternative seem to be saying, “Be realistic.  The Common Core isn’t going to disappear.  The old days of a more organic and eclectic writers’ workshop are in the past.”  They see this as a more of a process, and the first step is to squeeze some of the fun writing into other parts of the day.  Doing this, they say, will give us a chance to experiment, to gather samples and reflections, and THEN to lobby for some incremental changes.  I see the wisdom of this thinking.  It’s practical and expedient, but it’s not without some traps.  For one thing, I think it pits the two writing times against each other. One feature of the greenbelt writing is that it’s free, experimental, or feral, as Ralph Fletcher puts it.  He suggests that teachers step back and refrain from teaching during these times.  That hands-off approach will certainly take the pressure off the kids, but it also might make the contrast between the two writing situations even more stark.  It’s like putting ice cream and broccoli on the table and saying, “Which one do you prefer?”  I think it might become even harder to teach the literary essay, when students have the greenbelt writing as another part of their day.  I also think it makes this distinction:  there’s fun writing, and then there’s serious academic writing.  What I always enjoyed about a poetry unit, for example, was the fact that it was both fun and rigorous.  Kids could play with words, and teachers could give constructive feedback.  The fact that most of the writing was short, made it easier to zoom in on specific techniques or craft moves, but it also made it easier for students to accept the suggestions.  Revisions were less intimidating.  I like the idea of a workshop where students feel invested, in charge, inspired, and challenged.  I worry that the greenbelt writing and the serious writing won’t be seen as related.

I guess that’s my challenge, to find a way to help students see that the serious writing informs the playful writing, and vice versa.  The dovetailing of the two parts will become my challenge this fall.  One possible way of working on this is to find mentor texts (or write mentor texts) that reveal someone having fun while writing in these “academic” genre.  I want my day to be more green instead of just trying to insert some green minutes into our overdeveloped day.

The Mismatch

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One of the tv shows I used to watch as a kid was a comedy called The Odd Couple, about two recently divorced men who were forced to share an apartment.  I say forced, because they could not have been more different in temperament, style, cleanliness, and interests.  Remarkably, though they often wanted to strangle each other, they maintained a genuine friendship.  I just got back from a road trip with my brother-in-law, and I felt that I might actually have been in a remake of the show.

We drove from Connecticut to Baltimore so that we could get together with one of our nephews and his dad, another brother-in-law. The rendezvous attraction was a baseball game at Camden Yards, or, the greatest baseball park in America.  I welcomed the chance to spend time with my relatives…and to see my beloved Orioles, the team I’ve faithfully supported since the early 70’s.

The weekend was full of mismatches, however, so it was not exactly the  wild, exultant Blues Brothers road trip I might have envisioned.  Before the trip, some of our personality differences emerged.  My brother-in-law who also  lives in Connecticut, called me numerous times in the days leading up to the trip.  Call one:  “So, I’m thinking about the baseball game, and I’m wondering about…bug spray.”   This came as a bit of a surprise to me.  I had never considered bug spray.  My question had been, do I bring my baseball glove, or is that weird for someone over 50?   Steven proceeded to explain his train of thought:  “So, I was looking at Weather dot com, and I saw that the game time temperature was likely to be 90 degrees.  That seemed to indicate shorts would be in order, but shorts led me to the image of exposed legs, and that led me to consider the prospect of bugs.” I told Steven that while I could see the logic of his thinking, I had never found bugs to be a problem at a baseball game.  Maybe the smell of beer works as a repellent.

Call two:  “So [Steven begins every conversation with “So.” It’s as though there has been a first half of the conversation, and he’s just now reaching the conclusion],  I was wondering if you’d mind driving.”  I said that would be fine, but in my head I was puzzling over the request.  Steven is a very good driver, loves to drive (fast), and has a really nice BMW sports car.  Usually, if we do something together,  it’s assumed that he’s driving.  Then I remembered one of our five phone conversations from last month, as he struggled with the question: which hotel?  I was voting for cheap and close to the park, since we’d only spend about 8 hours there…and we’d be sleeping.  Steven, however, read reviews, consulted maps, checked prices, looked for deals, and scoped out parking. Right, parking.  It turned out that the hotel with the best price, reviews, restaurant, and location, did not have its own parking garage.  Now I understood.  Steven was not so sure he could leave his baby in a public parking lot, and certainly not on the streets of Baltimore. No worries.  There was a reason I had bought a used car this time and designated it “the dump run car.”  This was our time.  Still, I made a mental note to vacuum my car before Steven arrived.

The next day I received call three (ten if you count the five hotel calls and the two calls about which section of the stadium we should sit in).   “So, I’m wondering about head wear…”   I informed him that baseball caps were the  headgear of choice for the fashion conscious baseball fan. The fedora, beret, or stovepipe hat were not that common these days.  “Duh,” he said.  “I only have a visor (Steven plays tennis) or a Red Sox cap, and I thought that might not be appreciated.” I offered him my collection of Orioles hats, apologizing that some of them were a bit well-worn. (My wife said there was no way her brother was going to wear any hat that had sweat stains on the inside. She saw only two in my collection that even remotely stood a chance).  Steven thanked me and told me he’d found an orange shirt so that he’d fit in with the Oriole faithful.

He arrived the next morning wearing khaki shorts and a peach polo shirt (he insisted it had a hint of orange, and reminded me that he knew a lot more about colors than I did, which is true), and he chose the most tasteful and understated of my caps. I sported the brightest orange Orioles shirt I could find.  He shielded his eyes and said it reminded him of the color that hunters wore to keep from being shot.

Thirty minutes into our ride, he slapped his forehead and said, “I forgot the tickets.”  Seriously?  This from the guy who obsessed about bug spray, hotel amenities, and the correct head wear?   I may not have remembered a change of underwear for the next day, but I certainly wouldn’t have left without the damn tickets.  At this point I should mention that Steven had traveled about an hour to get to my house.  Turning back would require 90 minutes to get back to his place and then another 90 minutes to get back to where we were.  This was not a good option.  “You printed your own tickets, right?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“So, you must still have the email.  Can you find it?”  He could not.  He found an email reminding him about the game and wondered if that would be proof enough.  I thought not.

For the rest of the trip, Steven distracted himself by learning the wonders of the Waze app.  I know many people realize the benefits of the app for avoiding traffic snares.  In our case, the wonder of the app was that the passenger could become totally engrossed in spotting hazards, disabled vehicles, and speed traps…or debunking false reports by the unreliable clowns in the crowd-sourcing crowd.  He found that he was racking up Waze points by the minute.  Every half hour or so, he’d blurt out, “Woah, there’s another one of those green pac man guys!” This total absorption in the nuances of the app helped to keep Steven from critiquing my driving, my lane choices, my speed, my route, etc.  Once, it even took us on a helpful detour to avoid an accident. Thank you Waze.

Since I titled this entry “Mismatch,” I should mention that the other meaning had to do with the baseball game itself.  We did finally get into the park, after Steven downloaded the MLB Ballpark app, phoned home to have his wife find his Apple ID, created a new password for the forgotten MLB password, and then found our missing tickets in his account.  By the fourth inning my Orioles had managed one measly hit, while the visiting team, the World Champion Cubs had already scored eight times.  Furthermore, half of Chicago had invaded Baltimore (partly to see the greatest ballpark in America…but also to see their mighty Cubs beat down the sorry Birds).

After the 10-3 destruction, none of us felt like going out to a bar. “They’ll all be full of Cubs fans anyway,” my nephew groaned.  We said our good byes, headed back to our perfectly-situated hotel, slunk through the glitzy lobby, trudged past the raucous bar, and headed up to our well-appointed room. I chucked my baseball glove and cap on the floor, slung my bright orange shirt over the desk chair and flopped onto my bed.  Steven changed into his nightwear, brushed his teeth, set out another pair of khakis and a neatly-folded polo (a pale blue this time), and said good night.

He snored for the next eight hours.

It Should Change You

It Should Change You

 

Last week my wife and I vacationed on the Cape.  We had the perfect introvert week.  We found the most remote spots on the shoreline, set up our chairs and umbrella,  applied the sunscreen, and read.  I began with kids’ books, since I’d built up a large backlog during the school year.  I finally read Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, Kwame Alexander’s Crossover, and a new book that my school’s librarian had recommended, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary.  I loved them all, but at that point I was out of kids’ books.  I had learned not to bring too large a collection on vacation, because coming home with unfinished books might make me feel like I’d fallen short.  Now, though, it was time to actually read one of the grown-up books on my list.

I picked up Evicted by Matt Desmond.  I noticed that it included about 20 pages of footnotes at the end (I was previewing or orienting…or possibly procrastinating).  This appeared to be a fairly heavy academic book, but I had momentum and lots more beach time, so I dove in.  To my surprise, it was written in narrative form as Mr. Desmond profiled eight people in Milwaukee  as they dealt with the problem of eviction.  Desmond had spent a year living first in a trailer park in the white section of Milwaukee’s poorest area and then in an apartment on the north side of the city, the poorest black neighborhood.  Living in these impoverished neighborhoods he got to know several of the renters who were experiencing the eviction epidemic that has hit all of the major cities in America.  He also got to know several of the landlords who were forcing some of the evictions.

The stories were gripping.  I might have read the book in one sitting had I not been overwhelmed by the heartbreak and injustice.  I found that I had to pause periodically to process the stories with my wife, who had recommended the book to me.  I was shocked at how easily a tenant could be thrown out of an apartment.  I was stunned by the percentage who received no financial support for their housing (70% of the eligible renters in Milwaukee’s inner city) and by the percentage of their total income that they devoted to rent (80 to 90 percent of their monthly income).  I was appalled at the conditions he described (roaches, rats, doors off hinges, plumbing that didn’t work). Don’t try to complain to the health department, though.  The inspector will either condemn the building (you’re out), or he won’t, and the landlord will take revenge (you’re out).  When you hear someone being beaten in the apartment above you, don’t call the police.  They’ll label your building a nuisance if there are 2 or 3 disturbances there.  The landlord will be asked what they plan to do about it.  The preferred solution?  Evict the abused resident AND the one who called the cops.

I won’t spoil all of the stories, but I’ve never read a book that more inspired me to speak. Everyone in America should read this book.  Desmond intentionally wrote in a way that left him out of the story.  He tried hard to be a dispassionate observer, profiling the struggles and successes of the landlords as well as the trials of the evicted.  He took notes and recorded conversations throughout the year.  Transcribing them after his time on site, they amounted to 5000 single-spaced pages.  I appreciate his ability to boil that down in such a brilliant way.  He is a gifted writer, able to make you feel pain, hope, and outrage, but also able to explain a complex system that enables and  fosters this horror.

I teach elementary students in an affluent community.  For the most part, home is a given for my students.  Growing up, it was a given for me as well.  I know that my students have no idea that this kind of pain and upheaval affects so many kids their age in their own country.  When we studied the American Revolution this year, I had my students memorize and translate the opening of the Declaration of Independence.  In it, the founding fathers assert that we all have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Desmond points out that we have created programs designed to ensure that citizens won’t starve (food stamps), and won’t go without medical services (Medicaid), but we give no such assurance that everyone can have a home in America.  He wonders, as I do, how anyone can pursue happiness without a home.  It pains me to think that I live in a country that allows this to happen to its citizens.  It pains me to see so much conspicuous wealth around me when there is so much poverty hidden just a few miles away.  Desmond is not all gloom in this book, either.  He proposes solutions that are well within our country’s means.  It is, however, a matter of national will.  We don’t have that will right now.

It’s a truism in schools (and at publishing houses) that a good book should change your view of the world, maybe even change your life.  If more people read this book, we might find our will. It might change the lives of millions.

Please read this book.  Please visit:

Just Shelter, a web site created by Matthew Desmond