Monday, August 22, 2016

Successful Education Systems: An Unorthodox Approach in Finland

High School in Valkeakoski, Finland

Since I have decided to become a part of the education dynamo that perpetuates the learning of our children in the United States, I have continued to hear how broken and ineffective our system is compared to other models in the world. Changes are being made, though. We are moving away from the Common Core Standards that have been in effect since the George W. Bush administration and have set up different guidelines. For my state, the Missouri Standards are now the curriculum to implement in the classroom. 

I do agree that we need to continue to make improvements to our education system in a few major areas. Learning assessment, classroom management, and student engagement are at the top of this list. This article will present some of the issues that lie behind the scenes for these three areas in the United States. Then, in the context of Finland's educational environment, a few unorthodox strategies will be revealed as to how they have advanced these very important aspects. 

One of the most important tools of teaching is to have one or more mentors who help educators make better decisions. Perhaps the top leaders in the United States' education system should follow this same advice. I would encourage them to, in the least, give successful programs like Finland's an honest consideration. Please, let go of the destructive bureaucracy. Our students need be released from the chains of bad policies and misguided leadership.

The Learning Environment

Here in the United States we still have a tendency to lean toward the outdated Industrial Age classroom, although thankfully that is changing. Finally, we are recognizing the realization that sitting forward in a chair and regurgitating spoon-fed information is not the path into the future. We am seeing more diversification in the classroom where students have choices of where they will read, study, and learn. They can choose the traditional chair or maybe they want to pull up a beanbag. When once only the center of the classroom was used for instruction, now the entire parameters are incorporated to help students in how they best can learn. The environment has become more friendly and students can feel a little bit like they are at home. This is important.

Despite these positive changes, there is still the strict adherence to standardized testing. Yes - parents, teachers, and administrators must have some means to evaluate students. But perhaps the traditional fill-in-the-bubble sheet or the mixture of multiple choice and short answer tests are not the only answer. I think many teachers know this to be true, but they are employees at the same time, and so their hands may be tied. Here is where the country of Finland is very different. 

“Finland’s historic achievements in delivering educational excellence and equity to its children are the result of a national love of childhood, a profound respect for teachers as trusted professionals, and a deep understanding of how children learn best.”

This statement sets the tone for Finnish education. One of the biggest differences between teachers in this country and those in Finland is how they are treated by the government and society as a whole. Only educators with Master's Degrees from one of their 11 elite colleges are allowed to teach. They are deeply respected and trusted with running the learning environment - from curriculum creation, classroom management, assessment, and so much more. Finnish teachers are encouraged to try new things to test whether or not their ideas are more feasible or simply work better. In Finland, the people who are working at ground zero with the children make the decisions, not the bureaucrats. Doesn't this approach make common sense? 

When it comes to ascertaining how well a student has mastered the learning curriculum, the teacher decides how he or she will be evaluated. There are no state tests. There isn't any government evaluation that predicts how much money a school will get. There are little criteria that explicitly state if a teacher can get his or her students to perform higher on the testing, then they will be given a bonus. Schools are not run like corporate businesses, driven by the power of the dollar. Instead, they are treated as the educational environment should be - with the student in mind. Teachers are paid well and they are fully trusted with the assessment process.

Managing the Classroom

Discipline is handled a bit differently in this Slavic country. When students are being disruptive or chattering, the teacher continues forward with the curriculum. If the incidents are too involved, then the teacher will quietly speak to the student after class and ask how this issue(s) may be resolved. The focus is on student engagement, not reprimanding bad behavior. 

Flickr -  Mika Hirsimaki
It is asserted by some teachers that Finns in general are shy people and so if there were strict boundaries between the student and teacher, then students would not contribute or ask questions. This context suggests that behavior management is defined by cultural boundaries. These cultural boundaries also carry over into the curriculum, as teachers may cover the same material in a 4 week time period that would be covered here in the U.S. in a mere few days. Slowing down the advance of the curriculum boosts student engagement, which will be discussed in a moment.

All classrooms are fully-integrated with all types of students. There are some small concessions for special needs and some students are equipped with IEPs. But overall, students are expected to work with one another, despite any differences in learning styles, levels of proficiency, or behaviors. For students who may be more proficient in the subjects they will be given extension tasks as a means of compensation. These are assignments that are built around the class activity which require a little more in-depth work to complete. This prevents boredom from surfacing while other students are focusing on the core assignments. 

The mixed ability philosophy and behavior models seem to work well for Finnish educators, although at first glance it would seem they would not. One of the most successful aspects of this philosophy is their sophisticated support system. 

"Special needs teachers... help to support students who need it in class, and also run small group sessions in certain subjects to give students a boost when they need it. Students' needs are tracked carefully by the form teacher, who meets with a multi-disciplinary team in the first term of each year to discuss each student.... Solutions discussed here address the needs of the pupil as a whole, rather than addressing only the particular thing that is causing a problem at the time." 

Capturing a Student's Full Attention

Inspiring students to want to "own" their education experiences can be quite a challenge for teachers here in the United States. Their hands are bound by some degree to the state and government policies that are in place. It is within the context of an environment that they do not have complete control over where they must work the learning miracles. Many teachers have exited the field because educating students has too many hoops to jump through and the mounting frustration eventually overwhelms them.

Changes are, of course, being made and a few new approaches are currently in practice. The use of technology may perhaps be the best way to get students engaged in their learning journey. Just yesterday my high school son could not stop talking about a horribly disgusting video he watch on YouTube in his health class. The teacher chose this footage to make a lasting impact on her students and it worked. 

Finding ways to incorporate social media into the curriculum is also a great way to engage students. English teachers might present a Facebook challenge where a student would create a poem on whatever subject he or she chose. Then it would get posted on a classroom page where students and other Facebook members could "Like" the poem they think is the best. The flurry of activity from this assignment would certainly get students more involved than they would from monotonous in-class readings. 

Research has shown that there are three criteria that need to be present.

"To be engaged, students need to have high levels of interest, skills, and challenges." - Linnansaari

Finland has gone to great lengths to try and understand the core reasons behind student engagement and how exactly it is figured into the education equation:

"Most recent studies of student engagement treat it as a predictor of academic achievement, inferring being disengaged, or disaffected from school, causes poor academic achievement. However, the theoretical literature argues that is low achievement that causes students to withdraw from school, or that engagement and academic achievement go hand-in-hand." - Willms

Final Thoughts 

There is a great amount of information coming out of the education system in Finland. Keep in mind that a majority of its members hold Master's Degrees and spend an extensive amount of time researching and trying out new ideas in the classroom. Their work is revolutionizing the field of teaching and it would behoove the country of the United States to take some good notes. 

I believe that we need to do a type of cleansing in our educational hierarchies by removing all of the money-hungry avarice that tends to settle in its governmental ponds. For our students, many of the policies that are currently in place serve better as scum on the surface of the water than in being the life force they should be for our children. The bottom line is - for our education system to truly work, students and teachers must be the highest priority.

Works Cited 

Linnansaari, J. Finnish Students' Engagement in Science Lessons. Universitetet i Oslo. 2015.

Willms, Jon Douglas. Student Engagement at School: A Sense of Belonging and Participation, Results from PISA 2000. Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Challenge of Information Processing for Students: Two Technology Solutions

In the learning process students can take basic information and process it in their own way – whether through rote memory, placing the material into a story, or by watching a video. It is quite helpful, though, to put this information into a compare/contrast form so that they can identify the similarities and differences with the information that they are trying to absorb. There are a few ways that teachers can approach this technique.

In this article I wanted to offer up a couple technology solutions that can help with this task. Each of the following websites have a purpose they serve. The first functions as a data collection and analysis tool and the other is designed as an organizing and brainstorming software.


Data can be collected in a myriad of ways such as polls, online questionnaires, scientific studies, or just simply by collecting the facts around an event. The means by which the data is collected is not as important as with how it is presented to students. It has to be easily viewed and the differences and similarities should be apparent. 

Here is where spreadsheets come into the equation. Spreadsheets will list the information in column form and then the sheet can be fed into a chart format. When I first thought of collecting information in this manner I thought of history class. In the course of history class students are inundated with a mountain of statistics, dates, and events that they are expected to sort out and keep in their memories for future testing. In my middle school classroom this scenario would certainly be a reality.

I found a website that would work well for this application. It is called Infogram. With this tool teachers and students as well can plug information into spreadsheets and then the results will be displayed in the format of choice. With this site you can create visual representations of data using any of the examples you see in the photo above.

Infogram can be useful in the classroom for all other subjects as well. Any information that can be plotted into spreadsheet can be useful on this site. Along with charts or graphs, Infogram offers infographics or reports and the use of maps as well. Creating visual tools for students to see the similarities and differences with an abundance of facts can help disseminate the material and see it in a new context. This site might also move you into the direction of video infographics like this one:


When it comes to organizing and brainstorming software there is a long list of possibilities available. True, as a middle school teacher I could use a simple Venn diagram to illustrate the differences and similarities with a chosen topic. 

They are, ideed, very effective tools for accomplishing this goal. However, I am an educator in search of something more involved and on the edge of innovation. I want my students to have the most effective tool available to capture their ideas and to flesh them out in an expanded form. Here is where the software of MindMeister makes its debut. This tool has a wide range of versatility and it can create mind maps like this one:

This is a simplified version of what this site can do with ideas that need to be developed and expanded upon. The maps can not only reveal your choice of photos, but they can also be embedded with videos and interactive tools to bring the brainstorming map to life. The website states that “MindMeister has been positioned as the number one mind mapping and online collaboration tool available today” and when you begin to navigate through the site, you can see why. 

My students will be able to work on projects together and do so in real time because there is that collaborative option here. The information can be shared on all of the major social media channels with the presentations being sleek and attractive. This will motivate my students to really explore MindMeister and see how far their creativity will take them. If they wish to present their mind mapping ideas to the classroom (or maybe that would be my assignment), it can be done in a number of ways with floating topics that represent the keywords, a live broadcast with a slideshow on the website, or an even cooler way is to use their iPhone or iPad to wirelessly present mind maps on a larger screen. 

I really like what I see with this software in regards to organizing material and presenting the flow of ideas through mind mapping. MindMeister has even catered to those who like to use emoticons in their presentations because that option is also available within its formatting tools. I think this software will bring smiles to my classroom and provide a great tool for intrinsic motivation. :)

Any Thoughts?

The two websites presented here are by no means the only ones out there. Technology is still in its infant stages when it comes to bring education to the classroom or to a home-school environment. I believe we are just beginning to understand the importance of these tools and just how effective they are in getting our students to "own" their education and learning experiences. I see complacency with traditional methods of teaching as being perhaps the biggest reason behind why students find school to be boring and disengaging. I hope these suggestions can help you in some way.... as I too look forward to implementing them into my classroom someday!

If you would like to share your thoughts, I'd love to hear them! Just type them into the comment box below or on any social media site you find this article and.... thank you!!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Teaching Philosophy

“An Amalgamation of Styles Intent on Breaking New Ground in the Field of Education”

Just as you cannot see the sun rising in the photo above, so too do many in the field of education not see the great changes that are breaking the horizon. We now live in an era of massive potential and innovation in the course of teaching our children. Philosophical avenues will be opened that will challenge the very foundations of education and may be labeled as being completely absurd. Technology will continue to transform the mediums we use to teach, think, and create. In time, educators and administrators will either need to embrace these challenges, these “absurdities”… or be left behind.

The above statement is intended to be a summation of my teaching perspective in a neat little nutshell. No where in these statements do I state exactly how these innovations will transpire and, in many ways, I only have small clues at this point of how this will happen. But there is one thing that is certain – I am determined to join the pioneers in these phenomenal changes and to do my part - for the sake of our children. Here are a few of my ideas.

Starting With the Basics

Essentialism, one of the five approaches to teaching, attempts to keep things the way they have always been in the American education system. The Anglo-Saxon core-standards base of this philosophy is rather outdated and for those who still advocate it, in my opinion they are akin to the residual product of the centuries-old patriarchy that has ruled this country. Times have changed. What has worked for centuries is no longer effective. It is time to step down.

The latest product of essentialism comes from our past president George W. Bush. He still believes in essentialism, which guided him to create our current mandated No Child Left Behind policy. In many ways this policy has been ineffective and I believe the reason for this is that this approach is outdated and lacks pragmatism. In my philosophy I would take a few of his ideas and use them as a foundation from which to build a new approach. Rather than scrapping the entire program, let us glean what we can from it.   

The Classic Approach

The perennial approach, although a brother of essentialism, has a couple aspects that I think are useful, one in particular being very essential. Studying the Great Books does give students the opportunity to learn some of the underlying timeless themes about humanity, although I think we need to find books that fit the context of this day and age. War and Peace is ridiculously long and The Iliad is far too complex. Students will never stick with these sources of literature because they are too challenging and will not hold their interest. I do firmly believe that consistently reading books and other publications is critical for lifelong learning and this ideal will be embraced in my teaching philosophy.

The most critical aspect of perennialism that I firmly believe students need is the teaching of values and moral principles. I see this country as a whole heading in the wrong direction with its extreme egocentrism, disrespect of others and their property, and the phasing out of professionalism. All of these traits – including lying, cheating, and even the slavery of consumerism – stem from undeveloped, immature values and moral principles. I will be finding any way that I can to weave values and moral principles into my teaching approach. Students are our future. The pathways of their minds and how they act upon their thoughts will shape the continued direction of our American and global societies.

Student-Centered Approaches

Progressivism, Social Reconstructionism, and Existentialism are more oriented towards the student. It is within these three realms that I intend to forge the core of my teaching philosophy. The progressivists have a wonderful focus on pragmatism which essentially means that if an idea works in the real world than it has merit. One of the greatest disconnects that I see students struggling with is that they do not see how the things they are expected to learn are going to be useful after they graduate. And, I must admit, I agree with them.

Our current system tends to push the essentialist agenda and assert the reasoning that this approach is the best way to learn. In some ways, as well, hands are tied with the state testing. Outside of reflecting school performance, students do not see any real tangible motivations for them to do well in school. Let’s face it – what kid really gives a crap about the statistical testing results of a school? Progressivism moves away from this ineffective approach and builds “the curriculum around the experiences, interests, and abilities of students, and encourage[s] students to work together cooperatively.” (Sadker, 255) I like this aspect of progressivism.

Many of the deepest and most concerning issues that our society faces are centered around racism and sexism. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye to these topics when they have such a heavy impact on our daily lives. I think to a large degree the social injustices and inequalities that occur in this country stem from a simple lack of education. Teachers and leaders alike are shying away from the hot-button issues because they are either afraid to breech the subjects or their school administrations/parent organizations will not allow certain curriculum to be taught in the classroom. I believe that when students are given opportunities to create projects around race and sex issues they gain an understanding and empathy for the people who have been negatively affected by society as a whole. This makes them better citizens and neighbors. 

Existentialism, the fifth philosophy, is the most challenging approach to tackle. When I first heard about students not studying if they chose not to or that the school’s central role is to provide students with options and choices, I balked at the ideas. But, in hindsight, I believe that this approach has the most potential even though it may be the most rejected. I also believe that pioneers create seemingly absurd ideas that later on make sense to everyone once they have been fully implemented. Existentialism is so far removed from our current teaching approaches that, for the most part, it is alienated and written off as absurd or irresponsible. I intend to research this approach more thoroughly, as I feel it is on the cutting edge of the education field. It is within the “cutting edge” that I intend to forge the core of my teaching philosophy.

Oh, the Traditional Methods

Teachers, as we already know, have been the single driving force in our educational system since its inception. Standing before their students, they bird-fed their pupils the knowledge they believed advanced their learning and give students the edge they needed to survive in the world. Children were expected to sit straight in their seats, face forward, and recite the daily lessons. This teacher-centered approach worked well in an Industrial Age classroom as it produced smarter and more productive workers. This is not to say that certain aspects of the 20th century classroom cannot be utilized today, because they can. The seating arrangements of the classroom need not be in strict rows, but I do believe that the teacher should be a strong focus in the learning process. Teachers possess the knowledge and the processes required to achieve comprehension and application of the academic material. These skills are imparted to the students so that they can “take the torch” and run with the knowledge as they see fit. Our students are the next generation of teachers.

When it comes to assessing student performance, the age-old methods of testing are quickly proving themselves ineffective. It is a shame that our government bureaucracy is consumed with outdated modes of assessment, but I look at it as a starting point. We live in a society that wants tangible results and testing gives them something on paper to shake in the face of progress. The problem is, standard testing no longer works. I believe that in time the alphabet grading system also will be phased out.

We are beginning to see some fundamental changes with teachers promoting digital portfolios as a means of assessment. The portfolios allow students to use any technology or any medium they choose to flesh out who they are, what they know, and all that they have learned. Portfolios are a great start, but the question still remains – how can we accurately assess student performance without having them sit at a desk and regurgitate test questions?

I would assert that the best way for students to be assessed would be to have them show us what they have learned. Projects and presentations are great ways of accomplishing this goal. It gives students the opportunity to reveal how they can apply their acquired knowledge in the real world. This is one of the biggest issues with students, in that they fail to see the value of the curriculum, and using a perfromance as an assessment tool tears down this enduring barrier. As I move forward in my journey to become a teacher, I hope to have a better, more tangible idea of how to accomplish all of my ideas.

Our children need us to be bold and stand up against the status quo. The time for major change has arrived….

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Drones: The Latest Technological Surge

I've been perusing the internet quite a bit lately on social media sites like Reddit and Digg and I am finding a lot of articles on drones. Most of us think of the military drones that fly over Afghanistan or Iraq either collecting intelligence or zeroing in bombs on potential enemies. The one pictured above is from the United Kingdom.

These types of drones have been very effective in the war on terrorism and in monitoring strategic areas throughout the world. I am sure that many soldiers' lives have been saved with the development of this technology. Countless civilian lives have been saved as well because the cameras mounted on these drones are able to see close up who is on the ground or if any innocent civilians are potentially inside of target buildings.

In the Hands of the Layperson

It seems that the general public is quickly embracing drone technology. Over the past summer in California a firefighting plane had to abort a fire retardant dump because someone was flying a drone in its airspace. The owner was just shooting curious footage, however, his interference had a huge impact in the tough battle of containing forest fires. The questions of airspace violations and privacy rights begin to surface with this incident. The questions also arise of whether the average American should be able to fly these drones wherever they deem fit.

Farmers have begun seeing the wonderful benefits of drone technology. There are a couple models currently in production that are able to fly over crop fields and monitor water levels in plants, reveal where higher concentrations of pests occur, and provide very area-specific information of which areas of land are more fertile than others. This allows a farmer to pinpoint exactly what is needed to produce the highest yields and where this focus needs to be centered.

This YouTube video kind of gives you an idea of the early stages of drone technology that has already been fast developing outside of the U.S. and is now being adopted here on our soil. These types of drones can be highly beneficial because they promote the highest yields of food production possible and can reinforce good safety standards previously unable to be achieved through timeless conventional methods.

Breaking the Law

In general, the use of drones are having a positive impact in environments where they are responsibly used. But, just like any other technology, there is always someone who wants to use something for ill gains. This, of course, drives controversy and opens up new doors. Breaking the law using a drone isn't exactly something we have ever heard about, however, local police forces are tapping into this new technology. Here is a video that begins to give you an idea of what to expect in the near future:

It would certainly make sense for police departments to invest in drones because it has a wide variety of benefits. The use of expensive helicopters flown by one or two people would no longer be necessary and it would save a lot of money. If a suspect can be constantly followed and monitored then this increases the safety of officers. And the obvious benefit, as well, is that the lawbreaker will not escape as easily as he or she might while running from a police helicopter.

Some Things to Think About

Although I am completely supportive of any technologies that will help police officers do their jobs more effectively and safely, there are some issues to consider which I believe will arise from the use of drones.

Simply as a starting point, officers have already been using K9 dogs for many years and they have been very effective in fighting crime. Many illegal drug busts have been attributed to the keen senses of these dogs and they have been fierce protectors of their owners. Deep relationships have developed between officers and their dogs so much so that K9 dogs are fully recognized as police officers themselves. It is deemed first-degree murder to kill one of these dogs and any fallen comrades receive full funeral honors.

Just as K9 dogs have been a strong asset to crime prevention, so too will the use of drones. A computerized robot controlled by an officer with an Ipad-type device will be able to "sniff" out potential suspects or follow confirmed criminals with ease. The portable "eye in the sky" will prove invaluable in the success rates of law enforcement. The questions I would propose for your contemplation are:

  • How much authority could a drone achieve?
  • In time, would they not be given the exact same rights to function as police officers just as K9 dogs already do?
  • It is not too much of a stretch to think that these drones will someday soon be mounted with either guns or some sort of debilitating weapon to stop potential suspects or criminals?
  • And, in light of the events in Ferguson, Missouri and other places like Dayton, Ohio, how will police force be reexamined when it is performed by a drone instead of a pistol in the hands of law officers?

I believe each of these questions bring up legitimate points for discussion and debate. We will have to address these issues as citizens sitting on a jury in your local governments. Technology can be great, however, everything has a price and boundaries do need to be set.

A Brazen Look Into a Scary Future

I want to finish up this article with a glance into a very real future. I think by now most people have already seen the movie Minority Report starring Tom Cruise. I'd like you to watch this video clip as either a reminder of what this movie portrays as future law enforcement, or, if you've never seen the movie...well, check this out and see what you think!

I invite your comments in the box below, as I am always looking for different points of view. Thank you for your feedback, I value it dearly.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#Ferguson Crisis: What's Really Going On Here?

The events that have unfolded over the past week, which is less than 10 miles from my house have, of course, been very disturbing. Residents all over the metro area have been worried whether or not they live in a safe neighborhood.

I think many people who have always thought themselves protected are really reconsidering this assumption. Gun purchases have soared and businesses have been very proactive in closing down even if there has only been a hint of potential violence.

This uprising was initially started with Officer Darren Wilson responding to a theft and assault 911 call and has escalated into so much more than the shooting death of Michael Brown. I do offer my deepest heartfelt condolences to the Brown family. I cannot imagine the grief of losing one of my sons to such a tragedy.

What I do hope is that his death was not in vain and that we all can learn something about ourselves and the issues that are continually shaping the communities in which we live.

The Many Faces of Injustice

Burned buildings like this Taco Bell represent the oppression felt by certain communities throughout the city. Here the incident was the L.A. riots of 1992 where the injustice on Rodney King unleashed a billion dollars of property damage and resulted in 53 deaths.
All of this stemmed from the police officers getting a slap on the hand and then released. It only takes a spark to set off the flames of rioting and looting in the name of justice. But was there any justice served by committing these acts? Not really.

Here in Ferguson we have the same rationale behind the QT burning and all of the looting of businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with the incident. Throw in the fact that nearly everyone committing the crimes and inciting violence either don't even live in Ferguson, are registered criminals, or are just a bunch of young men looking for any reason to thug up the town like mobsters.

There are so many stories being told about this incident that no one really knows the truth. The fault seems to lie on both sides. The local police are sending mixed messages by allowing looting to go on right before their eyes and doing nothing about it. This then becomes a clear message that the looters are winning this war. And it is a war.

There are ground zero accounts of police shooting gas grenades into peace gatherings simply to incite violence. There are those who swear that some of the incidents are staged to create an even worse environment than what is being created. They are setting traps and the young men are falling into them.

At the same time the a couple of bad cops don't make the entire force the enemy. I am certain that to some degree law enforcement has and continues to help these communities. Working for any police department is insanely difficult work and I do not envy their jobs. In fact, I pray for them.

The Tragedy of Injustice

A well known fact is that shootings within communities by members of the communities happen everyday and death has become an accepted way of life. I have worked alongside many coworkers who have shared their story of a loved one killed either maliciously or with a stray bullet. Tears stream down their face as they stumble to get the words out. It breaks my heart every time I hear about one of these incidents. And I've heard a lot of them.

Should justice be sought? Damn right. But there is a smart way to go about finding answers. It is not through a blending of traditional Malcolm X style leadership. It is through emulating and embracing the messages of Martin Luther King Jr.

My greatest fear is that Officer Wilson will be given a slap on the wrist and released. If this happens, the L.A riots will rise from the ashes and burn again somewhere here in St. Louis.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Storage Wars: The Evolution of Excess

When A&E premiered the first airing of Storage Wars in December 2010, I'll bet the producers thought they would have a smash hit. And they do. The show is now in its fifth season with plans for a sixth, hosting some of the old faces and a few new ones. Do you like the show and, if so, who is your favorite buyer?

Cast of Real Characters

The oldest member of the show, and my favorite, is Barry Weiss, known as "The Collector". He is portrayed as perhaps having the least amount of money to work with, but he's willing to take chances. He searches for that one oddity that will at least break him even. Brandi and Jarrod bring their unusual relationship to the show as "The Young Guns". They always seem like they're on the verge of ending their partnership with continuous disagreements and Jarrod's signature cross-armed stance.

The characters who have made a real impact on the show are Darrell Sheets and Dave Hester. Darrell, "The Gambler", recently brought his son Brandon into the picture and their family is now notorious for two things. Darrel is responsible for the biggest payoff in the show's history. A locker that he purchased for $3,600 ended up containing several Peter Gutierrez paintings Darrell sold for $300,000. Also, inside another purchased locker, the body of a woman was found wrapped in plastic. The previous male owner had killed his wife and subsequently disposed of her body. Wow....

Dave Hester, "The Mogul", made himself into the man you love to hate. With his annoying "Yuuup" and his big white trucks splayed with his name in big letters, he always made a scene. And if all of that flash of ego didn't rub you raw, then his crew of 3 or 4 guys spilling out of the trucks like worker ants should have finished you off. His story, though, ends in the courtroom. Dave has accused the show's production company, Original, of staging fake lockers and providing money for bidders. He was fired from the show and his court battle rages on today.

The crew of Storage Wars represents what can happen in a world of excess. The evolution of consumerism has driven our society to be filled with metal buildings housing a bunch of valuables that have lost their value to its owner. True, there is money to be made through these auctions, since another person's trash is another's treasure. However, I believe that many Americans who own these units have lost sight of some of the core values of life. Not intentionally, though. They just need to be reminded of an old aphorism that dates back nearly 100 years and introduced to the evolution of a new way of thinking.

Stepping Back in Time

The odds that someone reading this article will remember the Great Depression is rather slim, although I am hopeful that the babies from the 20's and 30's are still able to share their stories. With this in mind, there is a lot of information out there about this tough era and what it took to survive. Judy Busk has written an essay for a website called New Deal Network where she recalls the impact the Depression had on her family.
          "Gifts were carefully opened, hands delicately loosening the tape so the wrap could be neatly removed and folded to be used again. A ball of string graced our kitchen cupboard; it was made up of hundreds of shorter pieces tied together...Cotton and wool socks were stretched over a worn out light bulb and darned to prolong their use....Printed chicken feed sacks became skirts, flour sacks became underwear."

It was during this era that the phrase, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without", became a household mantra. Although this saying was popularized during World War II, it does have its origins dating back to 1933. Commodities were extremely scarce and so anything at all that was owned by a family had to be stretched to its fullest use and beyond. Judy recounts the story of her mother getting an orange in her Christmas stocking and feeling that it was a deeply treasured gift. In fact, many Christmases didn't have gifts at all. A white-frosted cake would have been the only celebratory piece. It is so neat to read and realize that people appreciated everything, even the smallest of things, that these days we can take for granted. Over time we have lost sight of the lessons of this era and have become slowly blinded into becoming the consumers we are today.

The Rise of Consumerism

After the resolution of World War II, the American economy began its gradual turn around into the wealthy society that it is today. During the 1950's and 60's the concept of "keeping up with the Joneses" became the new trend of American life. It has served as a foundation for the surge of consumerism in this country. Americans are no longer considered to be citizens, but rather, consumers. Purchasing power is what drives our overall economy, however, in the never-ending pursuit of material things, our lives have become cluttered. We buy bigger houses so we can put more stuff in them. Many garages, which were created to house vehicles, now serve as storage units attached to homes. In some surprising ways we too have become the hoarders you can see on popular television. Except in our case, what we are doing is perfectly acceptable by the status quo because the more you own, the wealthier you are. Many times this "wealth" has to be stored somewhere else. There just isn't any more room. It is from this demand that the evolution of the storage units has risen and now permeates our landscape.

The Storage Solution

The history of self storage units has a rather interesting past. According to Ezine articles, the founder of the Self Storage Association, Buz Victor, discovered on a trip to China "that people had been keeping their personal belongings in clay pots for over 6,000 years". The concept took hold much later in Britain, but it really was Buz's entrepreneurial idea that snowballed the idea back in the states. The first facility was established in Odessa, Texas in the 1960's by Russ Williams. He was an avid fisherman and needed somewhere to keep his boats and equipment. He went and purchased several apartments and garages to suit his purpose and because he felt other folks could make use of this type of storage. The units basically sold themselves.

The idea of storage units is a good one with good intentions. It is practically impossible for some people to keep large boats, trailers, RVs, and so forth on their own properties. Our soldiers in the military, too, need somewhere to keep their belongings while off serving our country. In a culture of excess, however, this idea has blossomed into a near epidemic. Rather than get rid of our stuff, we choose to store them out of sight, which eventually means out of mind. Folks are either forgetting to pay the rental bill or realize they simply cannot afford the fees. And this is how the Storage Wars concept has turned into a multi-million dollar industry.

Some Facts in a Nutshell

  • There are more than 48,500 storage units nationwide.
  • The self storage industry in the United States generated more than $24 billion in annual revenues (2013 - estimate). The industry has been the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate over the last 40 years and has been considered by Wall Street analysts to be "recession resistant" based on its performance since the economic recession of September, 2008.
  • The industry pays more than $3.2 billion each year in local and state property taxes.
  • There is 78 square miles of available storage space nationwide, which would provide every  household in this nation access to 21 square feet. 
  • Storage units have become so popular that many are managed by third-party companies. 

So What Can We Learn?

I think fifteen years into the 21st century most Americans understand that we are a nation of excess. The Internet has given all of us the opportunity to view websites, blogs, and publications that in many ways have exhausted this subject and the many concepts tied into personal finance. At this point you have either decided to change or keep things going they way they always have existed. The real wealth of family and basic necessities is becoming more apparent as we develop into a tightly-knit global community. I see an environment of giving freely to others on Twitter as a way of developing relationships. It is refreshing to be a part of a community that seems to be, for the most part, interested in my well-being and providing help and guidance with minimal strings. These things represent the real value of life, not junk piled up in a storage unit.

Ultimately, the idea of living intentionally is perhaps the best way of breaking free from the bonds of consumerism. This concept was first introduced to me by my wife, and at first I was a little resistant to the idea. Tsh Oxenreider has published two books on simplifying your life and living intentionally. In her first book she really hits the nail on the head with her ideas that purging your house of "stuff" is actually a very liberating experience. I, like many folks, have issues with letting go of things. However, as our family has let go of many things we thought we wanted, we realize that those things were just taking up space unnecessarily. We were spending too much valuable time cleaning up all of the "stuff" that we truly have been able to do without. Let it go already.

Bringing back the Great Depression and World War II aphorism of "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" is a cycle we most certainly need to repeat in America today. In doing so we are able to return back to the roots of filling that inner void - peace with ourselves, our community, and God.

Works Cited


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Affluenza: Luxuries Become Necessities in Our Obsession for Entertainment

2012 Dodge Caliber Original MSRP $18,000
I recently was introduced to an article in the Washington Post written by Carol Morello and Scott Clement entitled "'Happy Days' No More: Middle-Class Families Squeezed as Expenses Soar, Wages Stall." It is an interesting write-up about a family of five whose household earns $90,000 a year, however, they are struggling to make ends meet. This really surprised me because my family of six earns half of that salary, but we're surviving just fine. There are the ups and downs of financial stresses that come with budgeting for any family, however, struggling on $90,000 seems unfathomable. So I decided to break the article into parts and address each issue not only in the context of the Johnsons' daily life, but also in the context of my family life and those families in my community. My goal is to take a realistic (and many times painful) look at exactly what is going on in America's middle-class families in regards to the meaning of necessity and our obsession to be entertained.

America the Theatrical

Americans must be entertained - it has become a God-given right to be upheld at all costs. Most homes have now become independent personal media centers customed designed with laptops, HD flat screen TVs, real life gaming systems, iPads, iphones, iPods, and I don't know what will be next. Every aspect of our lives has become tainted with this ideology and in many ways we are dumbing down our society because knowledge is in many ways defined either by your skills with technology or how many questions you can answer on trivia night. Furthermore, our customized worlds give us a false understanding of reality and creates a dysfunctional view of the world. People are defining their relationships through their technology (if you don't have what I own, you're not good enough) and they are quickly losing their ability to function socially because many are choosing to completely absorb themselves into their media-created "reality".

The middle class are the hardest hit when it comes to living up to society's expectations and actually being able to do so in regards to material possessions. The lower classes aspire to have the pricey entertainment, however, if it is not achieved, it isn't such a big deal. Remember, you are poor and those who surround you will totally understand. Folks making $50,000+ a year don't get the privilege of forgiveness and sympathetic acceptance by friends and neighbors. The pressure of keeping an image of affluence can force families to make decisions they really cannot afford. And if you could care less what others think, then perhaps your own drive to have the greatest and latest technology and things will still lead to poor decision-making. This is one of the biggest reasons why Americans have been racking up huge credit card debt for decades- they continually choose to live outside their means. And, for many, this is the only way of life they know how to live.

The Johnsons' Story

Scott and Robin are classic examples of upper middle-class living. They own their home, he is an IT engineer, she is an aspiring accountant, and they are raising three children on $90,000 a year. They live outside the Washington area which has a good enough school district that their children do not have to attend private school. They both have struggled in this economy with their jobs because, honestly, there is no job security any more. The ups and downs have forced them to make some lifestyle changes and, according to the Washington Post article, this family deeply suffers from their struggles. The article builds upon this pathos with Scott stating, "'I don't know how the working class, anyone below the middle class, how they can survive.'" They claim to live paycheck to paycheck and now, with the purchase of a new vehicle, they cannot even pay their electric bill. Their daughters, who are by now high school age, are looking at college options. "Robin's advice to her daughters: Study hard enough to get scholarships, because we can't help." For the Johnsons', the solution to their dilemma is simple: "'If we had an extra $60,000 a year, we'd have some breathing room. I'd like to have some extra things. Not just look at them and drool.'" This "drooling" that so many Americans get caught up in is the primary cause of our affluenza problem. We now have justified our actions to satisfy this "drooling" by altering our perceptions of what defines a luxury or what constitutes a necessity.

Maslow's Hierarchy on Needs

In 1943 Abraham Maslow introduced the world to a concept which defined how humans fulfilled their overall needs. He created a model in the shape of a pyramid with the most basic needs (food, shelter, water, air) on the bottom and running up to the top where the self-actualization needs (personal growth, self-fulfillment, personal potential) exist. In a standard representation of any human, the needs are met first on the bottom and then build their way up the pyramid. Really only 1 in 100 people achieve the top level stage, like Ben Franklin did.

With affluenza, the pyramid tends to be upside down. The needs which would normally be at the bottom somehow lose significance and the stress is placed on the upper levels. As an example, the Johnsons own 3 flat screen TVs, 3 iPads, a laptop, at least 3 personal computers, 4 cell phones, and they recently purchased a vehicle that cost between $12,000 and $18,000. They claim that because of all of their expenses that now they cannot pay the electric bill. A bit topsy turvy?

By obtaining material possessions that you cannot afford (usually just to impress) at the expense of the electric bill places their needs on the esteem level over the safety level. Sure, Scott and Robin need their technology to maintain the biological and safety levels, however, all of the other items are luxuries which they could do without. The problem lies in the fact that middle class families truly believe all of this stuff is a necessity. Is it really? It is within this kind of perception that the definitions of necessity and luxury collide and create financial despair. It's easy to blame the economy, inflation, and rising costs. But perhaps it simply comes down to money management. Not the way Mr. Obama defines it. More like Suzy Orman.

A Look at the Figures

I thought it would be a good idea to run a comparison of the actual figures it takes to run the Johnsons' household versus my own. But first, to give you a little context of how my family lives.... We embrace the couponing and money saving concepts of Crystal Paine (Money Saving Mom) and others like her. We also apply many of Dave Ramsey's guidance principles (Gazelle Budgeting) on money management. Basically, we try to live within our means and make good money decisions. My wife does a wonderful job of managing our income using a budget plan. We rarely eat at any kind of restaurant, choose not to have cable (instead the kids watch Netflix or DVDs from the library), use what we do have to its fullest extent, and keep one another from jumping onto the trend wagon. We could care less about keeping up with the Joneses and are very happy to be blessed with the richness of our marriage, family, community, and activities we do together to make memories. We believe that the reason so many families struggle in this country is simply because of a lack of knowledge on how to manage the money you do earn and what in reality is a necessity. Yes, times are tough. No doubt about that. But when your priorities are skewed, life becomes impossible.

St. Louis, Missouri and Culpeper, Virginia are somewhat similar in their cost of living according to (,+va-vs-st.+louis,+mo/). Overall it is 14.2% cheaper to live here than in the Johnsons' neighborhood. However, by looking at the expense breakdown, we find some surprising results. In Culpeper the housing expenses far exceed the costs in St. Louis - a whopping 44%. The Johnsons, however, were able to refinance their home which now brought their mortgage down to the same amount my family pays here. All of the other cost categories are either about the same as St. Louis or lower. True, home insurance and electric bills are higher in Culpeper, but again, they live in an area where their children attend public schools. Schools in St. Louis are terrible and so our family has the huge burden of monthly private school costs. (By the way, we're still raising 4 of our 6 kids, 3 go to private school). Yet, we survive just fine on half of the Johnson's earnings. So, if we were to adopt the Johnson's financial solution, we could continue to live the way we do, and then have another $100,000 left over each year to invest or whatever we wanted. Intetesting contrast, isn't it?

Concluding Thoughts

From reading the Washington Post article, I do believe the Johnsons are good people who honestly think they are struggling, and in many ways they are. No one is perfect and I know my family falls into the financial traps occasionally. It's not easy to live within your means when the status quo screams at you to join in the fun and mocks you when you don't. Money management skills are not taught in our elementary and secondary schools. When people think about a course on this subject they envision someone on a stage with a microphone hanging from his/her ear preaching to them like an evangelist. Our country is solely driven by the dollar and most companies do not want you to properly handle your money because that means less for them. Entertainment has become a number one priority. I might even suggest that it has replaced the role of God in many families' lives. But then again, money is a god or idol too, right?

The tough part to chew on is the fact that Americans have altered their perceptions of what is a necessity and what is a luxury. In my own community I see lots of examples of this behavior. One person goes to the local pantry in order to provide food for the family. That same family is sitting on the couch watching a TV that is plugged into a cable service costing $160 a month and complaining there isn't any food to eat. Another person has had the electric shut off in the apartment for two months, but still grocery shops at Whole Foods Market (currently I work in the culinary industry and we call that store "Whole Paycheck").

The newest trend I'm seeing are the families who make 6-digit salaries but claim they struggle just as much as a family that makes $20,000. They eat fast food 2-3 times a day, nearly every day. They go on shopping sprees every weekend to purchase anything from shoes to the latest phone, TV, or gaming system. They take expensive vacations regularly because these are the only times the family can connect, never mind whether or not they can afford it. Some of these families have moved back in with their parents just to maintain their lifestyles. And then when it comes to true medical or tuition expenses, they scream poverty. These folks truly believe they are struggling just like the rest of us because their concepts of necessity and luxury are deeply skewed. Managing the blessings that you do have is the key to a happy life. Don't let the status quo tell you otherwise.

What do you think?