Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You Know I Will

It's back. The back to school week. The advertisements, the news stories, the letters, the editorials, the ads, the photos, the films, the ads, the sales, the interviews, the ads, the specials, the feature stories, the meetings, and the resolutions.
A colleague of mine shared his new mantra with me: I will not become emotionally involved. I'm going to try that one. Anyone who knows me will no doubt find that in a few weeks it will change slightly: I will not become emotionally involved...NOT! Some things never change.
Already there is a burgeoning new parents movement to opt out of standardized testing. This time it might gain a bit of traction because as one observer has noted, "parents can't be fired." Amen.
I'll be supervising a handful of beginning teachers and mentoring a couple of first year teachers as well. I've noticed that when I work with novice teachers I'm careful not to get either too emotional or too cynical. I really do believe that there is still joy in teaching no mater what the ill-conceived messengers of school reform think or do. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that there always will be because when the bell rings and the roll is taken, it's still teacher with class. The well-meaning reformers come and go, just like the principals, the superintendents, the "revolutionary new ideas" the cynics, and the insincere. Unfortunately,some of the potentially excellent new teachers go as well. Recent studies show that as many as 50% leave the profession in the first five years.
My role now will chiefly be to insure that those statistics don't ring true. It can be such a lonely existence filled the the worst kind of self-doubt. Funny thing is that even the best, even the most experienced, even the proven, award winning, veteran, most innovative professionals have self-doubt. The testing frenzy feeds on it. But it too will pass. In this age of encroaching technology and lightning communication, those that care will learn the complexity of educating a human being.
If we can bail out our car-makers, our financial institutions, our windswept, flood-soaked cities, our deteriorating infrastructure, then we can fight a war that liberates our teachers and does a better job at providing an equal education for all our kids.
So here we are, 57 years beyond Brown v. Board of Education and our schools, for the most part, are just as segregated as the were in 1954. Here we are, having difficulty reaching consensus on what matters most, a standardized test for the most unstandardized entity of all, the human mind. Have we learned nothing? We certainly have learned...a good deal too. We know about learning styles and multiple intelligences. We know that many of the systems and countries we constantly compare ourselves falling short to are trying to do what we do best. Encourage critical thinking, take risks with project based curriculum, reflect on our own practice, read the research, try to enjoy the totality of educating people.
But I will not become emotionally involved...for a few weeks.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Double Hurricane

I thought that Katrina had made a difference. Perhaps people wouldn't entertain the notion that it's an enjoyable experience to ride-out a hurricane. Perhaps it's that rugged individualism we're so famous for working again. People don't like to be told what to do. Therefore they sometimes die. We see it again today as Hurricane Irene hits the Eastern Seaboard. A few scattered souls taking long walks on the beach, tempting the gale force winds to blow them around, or, as in the case of the news reporters, making some memorable television. It's a damn shame they don't listen. Or is it because they have no idea. Maybe they don't watch the news, catch the weather report, or even bother to look at whatever electronic device they tote around talking and texting, and otherwise fondling. Rather ironic that in this age of technology, it makes no difference for some people. In the Northwest, we see a simple phenomena with the local lakes, rivers and mountain ranges. People are forever falling in or coming up missing. They usually don't wear life jackets or have any food, or aren't dressed properly for the drop in temperature that almost always happens in the Cascades. They conveniently forget that when the temperature is 90 degrees, the water in our beautiful rivers and streams is ice cold. Those salmon and trout like it at about 45 degrees. Snow melt is snow...melted.
The technology really does separate us from one another doesn't it. We appear to be more connected, more informed, more aware, but seems to me it's an illusion. We certainly aren't more cordial to each other if conversing in chat rooms, or discussing comments on a news article, or replying to an editorial is any indication. Some folks thrive on the anonymity of it all. It gives them license to say what they'd never put their name next to,or sign.
I often saw thin phenomena when I was experimenting with team journals in my classroom. Not revealing your name can be empowering, but it works both ways. Some people just adore making snide remarks. With no name...fewer consequences.

The other day, I heard the latest from Beloit College. They are the people that comment at the beginning of every school year about the frame of reference of the latest class of college seniors. The class of 2011 has some particularly fascinating attributes. Just imagine, there has never been a Soviet Union in their lifetime. Sputnik must sound like a new band or the color of their Nikes. Let's hope they have heard of Mother Nature. If you're on the East coast and were born after 1990, stay inside this weekend and check Wikipedia under "Cold War." It'll keep you warm and safe. Here are some of the most interesting items on Beloit College's list for this year:
2011 List

What Berlin wall?
Humvees, minus the artillery, have always been available to the public.
Rush Limbaugh and the “Dittoheads” have always been lambasting liberals.
They never “rolled down” a car window.
Michael Moore has always been angry and funny.
They may confuse the Keating Five with a rock group.
They have grown up with bottled water.
General Motors has always been working on an electric car.
Nelson Mandela has always been free and a force in South Africa.
Pete Rose has never played baseball.
Rap music has always been mainstream.
Religious leaders have always been telling politicians what to do, or else!
“Off the hook” has never had anything to do with a telephone.
Music has always been “unplugged.”
Russia has always had a multi-party political system.
Women have always been police chiefs in major cities.
They were born the year Harvard Law Review Editor Barack Obama announced he might run for office some day.
The NBA season has always gone on and on and on and on.
Classmates could include Michelle Wie, Jordin Sparks, and Bart Simpson.
Half of them may have been members of the Baby-sitters Club.
Eastern Airlines has never “earned their wings” in their lifetime.
No one has ever been able to sit down comfortably to a meal of “liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”
Wal-Mart has always been a larger retailer than Sears and has always employed more workers than GM.
Being “lame” has to do with being dumb or inarticulate, not disabled.
Wolf Blitzer has always been serving up the news on CNN.
Katie Couric has always had screen cred.
Al Gore has always been running for president or thinking about it.
They never found a prize in a Coca-Cola “MagiCan.”
They were too young to understand Judas Priest’s subliminal messages.
When all else fails, the Prozac defense has always been a possibility.
Multigrain chips have always provided healthful junk food.
They grew up in Wayne’s World.
U2 has always been more than a spy plane.
They were introduced to Jack Nicholson as “The Joker.”
Stadiums, rock tours and sporting events have always had corporate names.
American rock groups have always appeared in Moscow.
Commercial product placements have been the norm in films and on TV.
On Parents’ Day on campus, their folks could be mixing it up with Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz with daughter Zöe, or Kathie Lee and Frank Gifford with son Cody.
Fox has always been a major network.
They drove their parents crazy with the Beavis and Butt-Head laugh.
The “Blue Man Group” has always been everywhere.
Women’s studies majors have always been offered on campus.
Being a latchkey kid has never been a big deal.
Thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time.
They learned about JFK from Oliver Stone and Malcolm X from Spike Lee.
Most phone calls have never been private.
High definition television has always been available.
Microbreweries have always been ubiquitous.
Virtual reality has always been available when the real thing failed.
Smoking has never been allowed in public spaces in France.
China has always been more interested in making money than in reeducation.
Time has always worked with Warner.
Tiananmen Square is a 2008 Olympics venue, not the scene of a massacre.
The purchase of ivory has always been banned.
MTV has never featured music videos.
The space program has never really caught their attention except in disasters.
Jerry Springer has always been lowering the level of discourse on TV.
They get much more information from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert than from the newspaper.
They’re always texting 1 n other.
They will encounter roughly equal numbers of female and male professors in the classroom.
They never saw Johnny Carson live on television.
They have no idea who Rusty Jones was or why he said “goodbye to rusty cars.”
Avatars have nothing to do with Hindu deities.
Chavez has nothing to do with iceberg lettuce and everything to do with oil.
Illinois has been trying to ban smoking since the year they were born.
The World Wide Web has been an online tool since they were born.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has always been debilitating and controversial.
Burma has always been Myanmar.
Dilbert has always been ridiculing cubicle culture.
Food packaging has always included nutritional labeling.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

You Fool

Crows can be scary. Perhaps that's why a large group is called a murder of crows rather than a gaggle, as in geese. But even though they can be intimidating, especially in large numbers, they really are quite entertaining. Very intelligent too.
Every night around dusk, a rather large number of crows begins to settle in. They spend about an hour circling some large elm trees in my neighborhood. They squawk and caw all the while, until a decision about which tree and which branch will do is made. Then with the dark comes the quiet. They rise early too. Sometimes, when I arise before 6 a.m. I hear them begin their day. It's not quite like their evening routine, but they're easily heard.
Throughout the day they continue to entertain. In my neck of the woods it doesn't help that one of my neighbors feels it her duty to throw crackers and bread all over the roof of her garage from time to time. They descend fussing with each other, taking off in all directions with mouthfuls of these doughy scraps. Often they drop half of what they originally had. The squirrels are waiting below and quickly police the area. I've noticed they coexist nicely. It's a regular scene from Bambi on occasion.
From time to time a rather new-agey woman wanders through my neighborhood talking to the crows. She tells me she knows them all by name. Her names? I know they recognize familiar faces because I've read and seen news stories about the University of Washington study a researching professor did wearing ugly Halloween masks. They knew and trusted his face and when we wore the masks they went nuts! A crow voicing displeasure is a thing to behold.
Yesterday, I saw two crows land on a telephone wire outside my window and nestle up to one another. Then they kissed. I don't know what else to call it. I know a kiss when I see one.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

To Those Who Wait

Is there something that you really want to do? Is it a something that you do not have complete control over because it takes more than just will? Do you sometimes think, I hope this happens before my time is gone?
For me, that something became a reality yesterday. Exhale now because we're not talking about world shaking events here. Not even what most folks would call significant or morally uplifting, or even mildly important. No, none of these. But for me, all of them.
Yesterday I caught a brown trout. Actually I caught two. First time for me. As a flay fisher, I have always wanted to complete the cycle and catch all four kinds: rainbow, cutthroat, brook and brown trout. The brown trout has eluded me all these years. Probably because you have to go where they are and even then, as always, there is not guarantee.
OK good for me...I did it. But there is more. The reason I'm overjoyed is that this accomplishment carried with it a few other things. Here's what happened. I went on a fishing trip that m local Trout Unlimited group put together. Even though there are hundreds of members in this national conservation group, only a few go on these outings. It's difficult for many to get away in the middle of August on a weekday. This particular trip was to a small lake in the Cascades. To reach it you must travel on no fewer than 4 different Forest Routes. Those narrow dirt or gravel roads the Forest Service uses to get around and to fight fires.
I was apprehensive, to say the least. Once there, I declared the day a success because at lest I did one thing right and didn't get lost. It's only a 90 acre lake, a real little jewel nestled in the middle of pine and fir trees. There is a 1/2 mile hike in which can be taxing if you have a float tube strapped to your back and you are slightly out of prime shape.
Having completed all that, I was not too dismayed when after five hours of casting and retrieving a number of different flies, all I had to show for my efforts was a 6 inch brook trout who, while very pretty to look at, wasn't too bright. Or was he? Some people say the little ones are even harder to catch. I don't say that.
Long about 2:30 I thought about calling it a day. When a few fish started rising to another very prolific mayfly hatch, I decided to switch tactics. The older man at the fly shop nearest me told me that his favorite mayfly imitation didn't have to sit on top of the surface. I tried that and within minutes...bam! my first brownie. A 13 incher that I photographed and returned to his home beneath a log in the nick of time.
A few minutes later, I tried another fly the old guy sold me, and my second brown trout came to the net after a voracious grab of the little floating mayfly. This one measured about 16 inches and put a smile on my face I haven't been able to wipe off yet.
For me, it's about being patient. That's what I love about fly fishing. It makes me patient and helps me be in the moment. There are a lot of moments in five hours.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Teacher Time

My writing group is called The Guttery and it's aptly named. We really cut and slash. Everyone in the group, myself included, would tell you it takes a thick skin but that in the end, we are all better writers for the process.
Last night I submitted two poems. The feedback went as expected. Both were re-writes and one was much more appealing than the other. I think with a few minor adjustments, my poem for my father-in-law's caregiver, Aster, is ready to meet the world. It's the other one that's problematic.
About six months ago I decided to write something from a teacher's point of view. I wanted it to be something that was both literary and provocative. So I decided to write a sestina. You may know that a sestina is a particular form of poetry that has repeated words or ideas and adheres to a precise rhyme scheme or form. Should have known that wouldn't work for me. Still, I persevered. I took some key words to express key ideas that focus on the assault on public school teachers, the preoccupation with standardized testing, the lack of critical thinking skills in some recommended curriculum, the the corporate attempt to apply a business model to education.
In recent months, after following the discussion centering around the film "Waiting for Superman" and the media's continually getting it wrong, I proceeded. Mindful of the propaganda about charter schools, online schools, and private schools...mindful of what most of the data really says about the meaning and effectiveness of scripted and test driven curriculum, aware that young teachers continue to leave the profession at alarming rates...I proceeded.
Caveat: don't alienate people. Lots of folks will bristle at an air of self-righteousness...they don't understand the teacher's point of view for a myriad of reasons so don't turn them off before you have a chance to win their approval.
That's where I may have failed. Yes, teachers can fail. My piece is angry. Or so my group tells me. My piece makes even the two teachers in the group feel "scathed."
But wait...maybe I succeeded. I don't want to hide my anger. Actually I'd like to see a whole lot more outrage from teachers I know. Like the current criticism of President Obama, I think it's time to get pissed and think carefully about yielding to any more pressure.
I want teachers to find their power and use it. The costs of not doing so, in my view, are too great.
I call my poem Civil War Address because there is a real division in this country now. We do seem to be fighting ourselves and in a civil war, nobody wins. I have elements of Lincoln's Gettysburg address in my poem because I wanted to use the phrase of the teacher, by the teacher, for the teacher. My poem is for and about teachers. I don't think my group got that. They advised me to make it of for and by the student. I've got no problem with that, but this is a poem about teachers. Teachers who need to be very certain of how they feel about all this. Besides, some of the biggest hypocrites in education will always tell you, "I do it for the kids." Guess what, we all do. Time to do something for the teacher.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Too Fast

The horses at Portland Meadows are slower than most. But they kick just as fast and just as hard. Perhaps that's a comforting thought because Charlynn Takeda never knew that morning would be her last. She never knew her death would be as quick as Secretariat could run the Derby or Native Diver could spread out a field in his wake.
She was just standing there by the hot walker when that loose horse blew by. A loose horse on the back side of a race track is sheer terror. If she'd known he was running unbridled, I wouldn't be writing this now.
But she didn't and her death was one swift kick and ironically, painless.
Portland Meadows is sad enough without this happening. And Jerry and Charlynn were the hardscrabble kind in a most unforgiving sport. They loved the life and now have paid the ultimate with death.
We don't know the name of the horse. We only know that Jerry insisted he not be put down. Jerry feels badly for the owners, the trainer, the groom. He's just that way.
Hard to say what happens now. If he started to drink heavily no one would blink. Jerry has to keep on...has to muck out the stalls, work the trainees, pay the bills, be the 24 hour caregvier. He has to do it alone now. It's what he knows and oddly it's what he loves. Like his wife, Charlynn.
Time for a few time-warn adages. The track has the highest highs and the lowest lows. Gotta pick yourself up and get back on...Things will be better tomorrow. But today, the clouds are a little darker over the track.
Hey,did you see that big 2-year-old that came in last night? He can run a little bit.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Must Be the Season

I've been traveling across Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana for the past week. On occasion, I pick up a public radio station, and keep in touch with what's going on. Quite a week. The economy stumbles again, then goes all amusement park ride on us, 31 Navy Seals die in one helicopter crash, people become lost and found in the wilderness, a group of Bonnie & Clyde siblings still on an unbridled rampage, thousands more children in what's left of Somalia starve to death. Ironically, this is the month of Ramadan. It's traditionally a month of starving. The images become paradoxically baffling...double difficult to swallow.
The weather continues to baffle. 39 straight days of 3-digit temperatures in the dried to a flaky crust Southwest, and heavy flood runoff still swelling rivers and streams in the Midwest. And in London...fiery outrage about what? Police brutality..unemployment frustration?
Is this what folk/pop singer Donovan called a "Season of the Witch?" Seems like it.

My fellow teachers picked the wrong weekend to march on Washington. Ah but planning anything is always such a crap shoot. Too bad it had to coincide with the debt ceiling fiasco in Congress.
In Montana, I saw many many flags, veterans license plates, and way too many "Private Property" signs. It's still Frontier land, but quite beautiful. There is a wisp of diversity in towns like Missoula and Bozeman. I wanted to ask some of the more conservative, chauvinist/patriots just what they mean when they say that those Americans who have died in Afghanistan are protecting out freedom. How is our freedom related to an unwinable land war in Asia. Where are the lessons of Vietnam when we need them most? If Afghanistan goes the way of Vietnam, we'll be buying carpets in Ikea and Wal-Mart in 10 years and all those who gave their young lives on the supposition that they were protecting our freedom will be forgotten. Freedom to do what? Freedom from what? Oh, I know it sounds sounds morally correct, but is it?
Recently I saw a film on the life of folk singer Phil Ochs. If you don't know the name or the body of work from his tragic 35 years on this planet, then you've got a real treat in store. Ochs once wrote and recorded a song called "Love Me, I'm a Liberal. One of Och's friends interviewed in the film makes the point that if you replace the President's name (L.B. Johnson at the time) with Obama, (or Clinton, Carter) the song is just as accurate and just as relevant today. We vote for one thing and get something else.
Today, after 2000 miles on the road, I arrived back in Portlandia, took a shower, and turned on the news to catch up on the crumbling economy. On CNN, I caught the end of a piece on education. The reporter referred to Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, as the "top educator" in the country. Top educator is someone who never taught a day in his life.
Washington...we have a problem.
On the last night of my stay with my sister in Bozeman, the sky turned a silvery black and spit out some thunder and lightening.  Ominous end to my attempt to drop out for a week.  In a few minutes, the ever-changing landscape offered up a rainbow.  I ran for my camera.  I've photographed a few rainbows in my time.  Mostly the trout variety.  But this one I really wanted to capture.  Just a reminder...just a reminder that it's not over till it's over.