"For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin, real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles WERE my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness IS the way." Alfred D. Sousa
Jedi Knight's middle school band has, for some years, carried on a tradition of performing each December at one of the northwest's coolest performing arts centers. It is right downtown and Plantboy and I have seen some wonderful performances there...big names like Yo Yo Ma and Jerry Seinfeld, as well as shows like Wicked and Riverdance. It is an awesome opportunity for these kids, and paid for with a combination of grants, community support and ticket sales. We are the only middle school in the region who gets the chance to do this.
The four bands at his school maintain a long tradition of excellence. The jazz band band, especially, is quit remarkable and as I heard the various soloists last night I had to keep reminding myself that they were only eight graders. The choirs were a bit more painful. With them I had to keep reminding myself that they were only kids and it was cool for the weaker performers to be there as well as the good ones.
It was rather long but we dragged all the minions...er...kids to it and one out of two did admirably. As for the Youngling? Maybe a sitter next year!
Last Thursday, Jedi Knight and Plantboy went on a school field trip to watch the salmon spawn. They enjoyed their trip so much (and the sun finally came out) that on Saturday we did a repeat with the family. We got to hike a little, and Plantboy gave me an early Christmas present in the form of a very cool coat I've had my eye on for some months.
They really do die after they spawn. I've heard this so many times before, but until I saw the stream littered with their half decomposing carcasses I just didn't really believe it, you know. My mind for all things evolution was spinning like crazy during our trip.
I had two distinct impression in this regard on Saturday. The first is that it is a cruel thing that makes these fish starve and fight their way upstream for months in their old age, only to pass on what they can to the next generation and die. It is easier for me to put my faith in an evolutionary system than to believe that my benevolent Father in Heaven designed a system so cruel. My second impression was a bit more sacrilege. It was that when the God of the Universe observed the way the salmon were evolving He said something like, "Well, how odd. Let's just see where these tenacious creatures will go with this."
It is hard to get pictures of them in the water, but much of what they do is just tread against the current and try not to get pushed back. Every several minutes, in a herculean effort of will and muscle and drive, they will jump and splash and push through very shallow water, sometimes gaining as much as ten or twenty feet of river. Only to rest and rest and tread water and try not to get pushed back. No doubt there is a metaphor there for human life too.
These next shots are of a very large female surrounded by 3-4 males. Every few minutes, we would see her white underbelly as she flipped and struggled to dig her nest. Near her, the males kept fighting each other (and the current) in order to prove that they were the fish for the job at hand.
Here we are hiking and enjoying the sunshine. Don't let that bright ray fool you . . . it probably wasn't even forty degrees! We also passed areas where the sun hadn't hit in a few days and the ground underfoot was white and crunchy and covered with a thousand leaves that will be food for the forest next spring. There are supposed to be some old growth forests near where we were, but I think we went the wrong direction. In the spring we hope to go back and find the really big trees with the rhododendrons and ferns in the understory.
These pictures are from Veteran's Day. Our weather has been pretty bad this month. October was beautiful and then the rain settled in for about three weeks starting on Halloween. Thursday this week it finally cleared up . . . but hasn't really been about 40 degrees since and nights are freezing! Yes, yes, I'm sure the weather where you are is worse (unless it is Southern California or Houston where you still have 90% humidity), but this has been an unusually bad spell for us. Usually the fall is long and slow, drifting lazily into winter-like conditions. Our rainy season is usually in the spring.
Still we have tried to find ways to keep each other from going crazy. The little boys' after school club is good to send them out unless it is just pouring, so they get quite a lot of physical activity still. Jedi Knight has karate a couple of afternoons each week. Still, opportunities like the one below are great because we get to be together and outside. My middle boy was working on a little nature journal for school; they were supposed to find animals in your urban area. Because we have a lot of green space in our city, this is actually not that difficult. Padawan is also working on an animal report and chose the Blue Heron. So we went to find some.
It is just possible that there is a sign around my neck this week or above my door that reads like this because it sure seems that I've had a lot of confidences shared this week. At home. School. Friends. It is both satisfying and exhausting and worrisome. I'm looking forward to a whole week off at Thanksgiving. And I will try very hard to have at least a few days where I don't work at all!
I also took my kids into the computer lab and felt like I really used my master's degree (instructional technology) because of the assignment I wrote for them. They worked at their own pace, used technology as a tool for learning instead of just a word processor and most of them really liked it. They were engaged and when I helped students I was able to zero in on exactly what each kid needed. Exhausting work letting the computer be the teacher. I got my annual big hair on (it was bigger 12 hours ago). It is hard to tell from my picture, but it is purple too. I wore my zombie shirt. I'll confess--Plantboy loves the big hair.
On the downside, I have one that refused to trick or treat once he saw his brother looking like this:
He then started thinking about all the scary things and people and costumes and started weeping into his ravioli. Then, very quietly, "I don't think I'm going to go."
And it wasn't my youngest.
Dear Middle Child. How can I love thee better? Rather than outgrowing fears he seems to be adopting them tenfold. It is keeping him from embracing so much that is sweet about life. It is keeping him from unlocking his potential. And I'm not talking about trick or treating.
The smell and sound of raked leaves when you ride your bike through them. The crisp sound and taste of a fresh apple dripping juices down your fingers. A delightful breeze blowing across your face and a sky so blue you could swim in it. The bright orange counterpoint of pumpkins in dead and dying fields. The savory smell and herb-filled taste of every soup recipe in the box tried in a single week.
October isn't always so lovely; but this one is one for the ages.
One of my Young Women got married today. In the temple. It was a delightful, small and peaceful wedding. I remembered marrying my own sweetheart and thought about my own boys one day doing the same. I also thought about a friend who should have been there with us, but wasn't. The bittersweet, however, was more sweet than bitter and I felt a great measure of peace.
The next time I go to the temple will be to take my 12 year old to do baptisms for the first time.
I have really enjoyed writing for AMW, and when I read their other writers I am really amazed that I was even invited--both in the quality of writing and the wealth of experience from the other contributors.
The monthly deadline thing has also been really good for me; it helps me to see that sometimes part of the creative process is just sitting down and working, even when "inspiration" doesn't seem to be ready to strike.
The title of this piece was probably my favorite quote from conference. I am grateful to Elder Uchtdorf for acknowledging that people leaving the church is not a simple situation and for recognizing that asking a lot of questions can lead you both out of the church as well as in to greater truth. His counsel was beautiful and timely; I wish some of my friends had stuck around long enough to hear him . . . but maybe it wouldn't matter. I know many people who are proudly embracing their doubts at the moment. As if to do so makes them smarter or more savvy or more sophisticated. I pray for the humility and wisdom to doubt my doubts and embrace my faith instead.
Well, our school had some FTE left over and I was given another section of class to teach! This moves my preparation hour to earlier in the day (every other day; our school in on an A/B day). However, because this extra prep hour is before lunch (instead of after like before) I effectively need to be in to school by 10:00 instead of 12:30. I can still put my kids on the bus, but very little else and my mid-week lunch dates with Plantboy are at a sad end.
On the upside, most days I was on campus that early anyway . . . now I'm just getting paid for it. I think. I was asked to teach the class, but I've yet been asked to sign another contract!
It was a busy, crazy week (lots of grading, prepping and picking up the new class) and Plantboy has been out of town all so I cannot say with 100% certainty that I'm loving being a working mom, but it has definitely had some perks.
Best corn chowder ever . . . Especially after all the goodies we put on top! The lovely yellow comes from a generous shake of turmeric, not that nasty canned stuff called cream corn. I basically made a cream soup base using bacon grease for part of the fat and then threw in potatoes and a bag of frozen corn. (Celery and onions helped make up the roux.) seasoning was white pepper and salt. Toppings are bacon, sharp cheddar, chives and sautéed red peppers. Thanks to Plantboy for potatoes, onions and chives.
Some years back I was hired to teach 7th grade science at a school frustrated by its low test scores in the arena. Despite it perfect-community-school demographic, the school was scoring dead-last city- wide in its end-of-level science scores. I was hired for a number of reasons, but I think two really stand out. I'd been accustomed to teaching science on a full-year schedule; the school was on a semester rotation with all the kids filtering through one teacher in large classes. They needed somebody with the background to expand their program out curriculum-wise. The second reason for their decision to hire me, I think, was that I was coming from Texas. I knew a LOT about standardized testing. Within one year, our school went from last to first in the rankings. It wasn't just me, of course. The school made many good choices that year. They offered more sections of science, making the classes smaller. The expanded year teaching ensured that each child had science education up until the time of the test. Science became less about study guides and more about hands-on experiences and labs as we expanded our curriculum. So yes, smaller classes and more seat time, what the teachers always tout as the magic elixirs of education absolutely worked. However, I would also submit that my colleague and I became committed to teaching the standards to which the kids would be tested. We pored over them exhaustively and adapted our curriculum accordingly, hitting each vocabulary word and concept with renewed vigor. Our renewed commitment to the best pedagogical practices we knew, in the end, were largely driven by a need for improved test scores. If this sounds like I'm of two minds for testing then you are reading this correctly. The parents are right, more local control is needed--in that classroom teachers need more autonomy, not that school boards should guide classroom content. The teachers are right. We need classrooms of no larger than 24 students and the resources necessary to make student learning up-to-date, relevant and dynamic. The politicians are right. All of this money spent should MEAN something measurable. I do think that when a child graduates from high school, the diploma should mean something. An "A" should not be handed out because a student did enough extra credit by taking stats for the track team when the coach/teacher was in a bind. Teachers have traditionally allowed for a lot of crazy stuff totally unrelated to an understanding of the subject to count for "points." In the end, you have an arbitrary bundle of meaningless grades, kids teacher-shopping for the most grade-friendly instructors, and diplomas that aren't worth the paper on which they are printed. Standards keep teachers focused. Good assessments keep them honest. And by honest, I don't necessarily mean truthful. I mean honest with how their class time (read: taxpayer dollars) is spent. There must be a system of accountability in place for both teachers and students. Having said that, however (you all know me well enough by now to know there is nearly always a however coming), the idea that education can pour in children as culturally, mentally, ethnically, and economically diverse as any you will find in the world into a machine and churn out the an ideal learner with the same set of skills is not only unreasonable, but it might not even be desirable. When we insist that each child be tested to an identical set of standards with no wiggle room then we are stifling creativity, individuality, joy, curiosity. Many of our important innovators, thinkers, writers and artists have had very unconventional paths to greatness. To attempt to put every child on some kind of standardized or "normal" path is to shoot ourselves in the proverbial foot as far as the future is concerned. And to quote Princess Leia (or paraphrase), the tighter we grip, the more students will slip through our fingers. As for Common Core. Each state has developed curriculum standards for all levels of education. In some states these are very good. In some states these are just terrible. A curriculum standard is harder than you think to write--it must be sufficiently vague that you aren't just giving lists of facts and vocabulary for students to memorize and regurgitate, but also sufficiently specific that it can be measured. The Common Core grew out of an effort to try and align the states in some kind of cohesive standard. This part of it is not so bad. For example, it is ludicrous that a group of highly conservative people in one part of a state can mandate through lobbying money or floor votes that certain scientific concepts (thinking most immediately of global warming and evolution) not be taught. Or that history be taught properly--from the viewpoint of the vanquished as well as the conquerors with a critical and thoughtful eye to our own not-always-gloried past. Common Core is, in part, an attempt to stop local school boards from willfully keeping children ignorant of the larger world and the facts that help organize and define it. This is one reason why conservatives are becoming increasingly vocal about Common Core. They fear that the standards (actually fairly vague; everyone should read these before freaking out) are an attempt to brainwash their children into skepticism and liberal thinking. In truth, Common Core standards are an effort to help children learn to think. Period. If their faith traditions cannot stand up to all this "thinking" and "choice" then what possible good are those traditions, anyway? The more adversarial conservatives make school (vs. religion too often) the more children will be lost either to critical thinking or to religion. This false dichotomy, I am convinced, is a trick of Satan. The idea that deep intelligence and faith are mutually exclusive denies the very nature of God. Ahem. Back on track. So while I think Common Core standards that states adopt or at least align their own standards to is a good thing; I have a much harder time with Common Core assessments. Two examples to help explain this. At my current school we are supposed to be aligning our assessments with one another. There are five of us teaching the class I'm teaching, three of us with fairly strong opinions. While we have all agreed on the standards, each of us are teaching them in slightly different ways based on our own personalities, interests and gifts. As a result, we feel to emphasize different things in our testing, as well as the nature of our tests. One of the teachers has a standard that I would say is much higher, but he gets frustrated when the kids don't already come to his class with a skill set he thinks they should have. However, my teaching philosophy is much more geared to meeting the kids where they are at and then scaffolding them to greater learning, understanding, interest. Is my class a little easier? At least initially, probably yes. But in the end, I think my students may stand a better chance of actually meeting the burden of proof regarding our standards. I don't know; I can't say at this point. In other words, five teachers cannot even agree entirely on a common assessment to give our kids; Common Core assessments work from the idea that thousands of teachers will get on board with what is being taught and tested. Second anecdote--back to the same school I began this piece with. My colleague and I prepared our kids very carefully according to curriculum standards with particular attention to vocabulary so that the students would know how to "speak" the language on the test. The curriculum standard regarding heredity was quite thorough, but also left off the term "DNA" in regards to heritability. You can actually teach a lot about genetics without ever talking about the specific biochemistry of your cells. And for 7th graders, this is quite appropriate. You can save the technical stuff for high school biology. We carefully avoided any mention of DNA so as to not confuse the kids and to save a week's worth of time when we could be focused on the core. Test time rolled around. Sure enough, one of the heritability questions used the terminology "DNA" in one of the questions. I was deeply frustrated. The question, if reworded to reflect what was actually in the standard, could have been answered by nearly every one of my students and still shown a very thorough grasp of heritability. As it is, I bet many of my kids saw that unfamiliar acronym and just guessed on the question. In other words, the danger of common assessment is that it will still be a small group of people writing the assessment. There is no way for me to teach to a test (not a horrible thing by the way--I'll end on that note in a moment), that I have never seen before and which may or may not align to the curriculum standards the way I'm reading them. In addition, to assume that this test written by somebody else is the BEST possible measurement of the learning taking place in my classroom is to discount my own learning and expertise. When I structure a class from the ground up, I look at objectives provided by the state (Common Core based in Oregon) and then I "unpack" them--extrapolating my own course objectives (in student friendly language) based on these standards with a vocabulary list for each standard. Then I write a test. What do I want the kids to know? do? understand? explain? analyze? calculate? etc. etc. Then I build my content around helping them meet these goals. Parents and too many teachers are becoming increasingly critical of "teaching to the test" but I prefer to look at it like teaching to the objectives . . . students should look at it like learning to meet their goals. Teachers should be allowed the autonomy in their classrooms, if not to design their own learning targets (there should be some consistency across schools, after all), then at the very least to build their own assessments (at least in part) and certainly design their own assignments. If there is only one right way to teach, assess and learn, then we should just plug them all into headphones and show them videos of master teachers all day with tests afterward. In short, I think that states should align their standards with some kind of common core, but I am very much against nationalized, standardized testing for individual courses or subjects. I think that the Department of Education should function like the National Science Foundations--as a granting agency that provides money for schools and districts (not even states) that show innovative ways to teach; the efficacy of which are yes, measurable by some local or even state standard. Each state has their own way of training and retaining teachers, as well as conferences and standards for teaching. The structures already in place allow for better dovetailing of standards and assessment. Schools were given to the states; they should be allowed to stay there. Now I've covered everything. Almost quite literally. See what you get after a long silence? I'll stick to pictures for the next few months. Then we'll talk about how much good could be done for education in my state if the army chose to build ONE less plan next year to the tune of 500 million dollars. What if it built fifty fewer planes? How much good might we do in a single generation if we truly started funding schools in a way that matches our rhetoric for how important education is?
I was indexing this morning before church. They were passenger lists from the late 1800's. One woman, no age given, listed her occupation as "spinster." Ten minutes later I found another "spinster." This second Irish lass, however, was the ripe old age of 19. They called 'em young back in the day! Also, I can't help but wonder if there was a shortage of American spinsters in the 1800's, so we had to bring more in?