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Hope for the Holidays

Totally vegged out tonight on episode after episode of “The Office” with my husband and daughter in the cozy living room, by the fire and lit holiday tree. Consuming the entertainment to excess, with chips, dark chocolate, and apple cider. Back of my mind says, still not writing? Answer, don’t have nothing to say. Do–what about what’s going on with school and stuff–that could be something. Or just get one word down after another, maybe prose, maybe a poem. So just before I head off to bed at an appropriate time, though not tired because of the latte I made myself a few episodes ago, and not doing anything to get myself tired–no exercise, no anger or frustration, and very little conflict, I opened up the blog of a writer I know and respect, and there it was, all these layers of experience as a teacher laid out in words, with the passion, the doubt, the questions, the commitment. So I opened up my own blog to get to work.

Swim meet today, watching my youngest son alongside my husband and two of our adult children, also both swimmers, feeling so full, proud, glad, to see youngest part of a team, with every reason to believe he’ll make some new, important friends, gain confidence, experience success, along with all the character lessons the experience will bring. Glad that his siblings are a hundred percent behind him, care about each other, and we can all enjoy being together, with lots of good conversation. Because it’s tough sometimes with us–getting offended and being insensitive being part of us too. Just not today. From yesterday, even, when my daughter, who always comes to the airport, and I picked up our oldest son. No, from last Sunday, when I called him on his birthday and we talked about teaching, learning, social change, philosophy, spirituality, growing up, feelings and thoughts and how they serve and lead us.

Whenever I share stories from my teaching, my son listens with great interest and makes comments that show he really gets why I love teaching, and that he could possibly head that route too, even if it means a pay cut from working in software. Not that he’s had much pay yet, graduation being still five months away and no time to work, being a full time students and college swimmer.

Feeling cautiously optimistic in regards to my second daughter too, who is making a great effort to share with me her plans for a road trip she has decided to take with a friend and two dogs down to Oregon and back. She’s hoping for some extra funds from me, as usual, but asking nicely and providing an itinerary is new. Still, I want to install a cell phone disabling device before she goes, to cut down on temptations to use the phone while driving. Couldn’t get the account to work when I tried it out on the other daughter’s phone, so it’s stuck for now, and when I ask for Daughter Two’s phone to install it there, I dread the conflict it will bring up, as she sees it as overly controlling. She would not be moved by the claim on the package, “if you are opening this box, someone care for you very much.” Still, I am persistent, too.

All these grown children being still pretty connected to us made us finally make the decision to buy a hot tub, hoping it will provide a good place for building community among us (as well as helping out with aches and pains). It comes in five days and there’s a lot to do to get ready–electrical, and laying down the base. I never really wanted one, because I rarely feel like soaking in hot water, but the last year I have wanted just that, a place to get the chill off, the tension out after a log day, and knowing that all six of us have strains and -“itis”es and tightness from this or that condition or injury. Several other families told us it was a blessing for them, bringing members of the family together, and sometimes the kids’ friends around. That’s what we’re hoping. We might even try some of our sons’ role-playing games in there, with a floating tray for rolling dice. It will be cool to look up at the night glory as we float there, get out of my head.

 

 

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Goodbye to the house with no driveway

I went to my bedroom earlier than usual this evening, disappointed over another property I was urged to let go of, and wanting to process this in writing, or maybe just to escape into a Father Brown episode. That kind of repeated disappointment deflates me like balloon. That’s what it felt like to send the email to let our realtor know that I did not need to view it tomorrow after all. Then I cried a little.

The little house, built in 1889 and a half hour’s walk from our current one, was well within our budget, and a potential investment as well as office and getaway/rental. But like the blue vinyl cafe (the one I sort of fell for a few weeks ago), it just isn’t the one for us, apparently, because who wants a house without a driveway, or one where a driveway, if deemed allowable despite the designation of the hillside as critical area, would require a geo-engineer to sign off for permitting?

I say, if the old lady who lived there since the ’60s didn’t need a driveway, that neither do we. I say, I’ll just bike up the hill with the salt, cheese, and coffee, and let the food come from the soil and the henhouse. I like the idea of no driveway–a real paradigm-shifter whose time has come. But banks do not agree, as they have to be concerned with a quick sale should the buyer default on their payments, and partially paved paradise seems to be part of the preferred package.

The house had a bow window facing south with a view of the mountains, overgrown fruit trees, evergreens and bird habitat, all on a third of an acre. Just up from one of our favorite walking streets, for its funky, friendly, neighborly feel and abundance of trees and gardens. My daughter and I dreamed ourselves in it–an office for the business, and she and her older brother living there and keeping it up, and sharing the place with a third roommate to help pay the mortgage. It had a porch nestled up against a pine tree for shelter from the rain and head, for conversations. My daughter lit up when she realized that there, she could have a cat, safe from the Siberian husky we have at home. The house was old, and she hoped it had that “old” smell. The carpets in the downstairs bedrooms were shag in primary colors–in the photos, the south light streaming in the windows onto them made it look like a college party was in progress.

It was not the dream house, not the dream property. Whatever that is, anymore, besides impossible to agree on–too many variables. But I thought, why not just buy something small, a fixer-upper, for casual use and let it appreciate ($30,000 up in assessed value over the four years isn’t bad), knock around the house and property for fun? Seems better than putting more money into an IRA invested in the stock market. Real estate is real. You can plant a garden there, and come in from the rain. Frankly, I don’t believe my mate will ever be ready to take the big step of buying a more expensive place to replace the one we own now. Every time we have come close, he realizes how much risk we’re taking on, when as a contractor, his job could go away next week. Puts a damper on most dreams–a reality check. I get that–I don’t want him to be tied to a commute and high-stress work that he no longer has the heart for, and as a new teacher, I couldn’t afford it on my own.

We all need more space, and the idea of a project (not too big or urgent, or involving living in the garage or under a canopy on the patio–this time) excites us. That blue vinyl-sided house from a few weeks ago could have been an office and rental, even a little coffee house for locals (another dream I had). I’d help the kids at the nearby elementary school with their garden, and buy what they grew for my salad specials, let them meet their math tutors and mentors over home grown mint tea, on the house. There were several outbuildings for workshops and other uses. A finished attic for office space. But its sale was already pending, and it’s one now.

I suppose I can see this process of wanting, planning, dreaming, the letting go as a kind of growth opportunity, or a process to clarify our priorities. So I do, but my priorities haven’t changed, though my circumstances have. I want sunlight, neighbors, a kind of homey, old, Charlie Brown Christmas tree house that I can nurture and not be out-classed by, some land for a garden, space to work with tools and materials, both indoors and outdoors. Room for visitors, this time, would be nice, but with the four kids grown or almost grown, that will be a given most of the time.

I want a kitchen table without a wall looming so close over the table I leave it bare so it won’t look even smaller. I want a house with the TV way out back or downstairs or even in a separate building, not in the living room, the only other place to sit inside other than at the kitchen table (with the wall looming).

So I drink my turmeric tea, listen to the quiet slosh of the dishwasher and some drops of rain splattering from the trees onto the stove vent hood on the roof. The bread is rising for the buns I’ll bake tomorrow for Thanksgiving. My daughter and her friend helped knead while I made up some coleslaw from the two cabbages I cut this week. We’ll drive south to join nine other family members on my husband’s side. There are three new babies in the family, and all my sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces, nephews, and mother- and father-in law are well. My parents, brothers, and sisters are all doing okay too, too, though I see them seldom. My husband and four children are healthy, and successfully navigating life. Who’s to say whether I should be wanting anything? Still, next week I’ll call the back and get another pre-approval for a loan, just in case.

 

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School Managers Versus Visionaries – A Teacher’s Perspective

Two things that helped me get centered as a teacher-person this week. One was hearing a CBC radio piece about fidget toys–those little spinners kids are bringing into classrooms all over. On the one hand, the sellers were claiming they helped students focus and de-stress, even could mitigate the effects of hyperactivity, ADHD, even autism. But there wasn’t any science yet on that, it was noted. Most teachers disapproved of the gadgets, and were confiscating them right and left. One interviews said she thought they were “kind of ridiculous.” A school psychologist said, basically, that all items brought into the classroom for the purpose of supporting student learning ought to be part of a carefully crafted and documented plan created by the team of education professionals. That struck me as ridiculous, that a kid couldn’t even bring a cool little toy to class because was unauthorized. It spoke to me of a culture of micromanagement, especially promoted by those with a agenda crafted away from classrooms, away from daily contact with individual human personalities. Like teachers and others are in some kind of tug-of war for the students’ attention so all of their other interests must be snuffed, especially if they take the form of something that can’t be easily turned into a gradable essay, science activity, or math assessment.

Maybe I react so to that management frame of mind because I’m not really able to get my head around it, have always had difficulty with the “management” part in some ways. Not that students are out of control in my classroom, but they are definitely out of my control, and mostly in their own. I don’t “run a tight ship” in that sense, though I think that there’s a pretty good culture aboard, and a sense that we all need to make this group thing work while each individual makes their own choices. Despite the fact that a few students have chosen not to respond positively to being trusted, I want to continue to extend that trust. In planning lessons, I assume that, like me, every student will find some part at least of what we are covering fascinating. If not, if something else, such as a spinning toy, is more engaging, surely I shouldn’t be annoyed and offended. Surely I should show sympathy with his or her fascination and delight, and give space (and guidance if necessary) while he or she figures out the appropriate place of such an object in the flow of the lesson. I might make an effort to discern the student’s real purpose in using it; I might try to co-opt it to replace something I had planned, or I might ask myself, is there any way I can teach in a more interesting way?

The second thing was a conversation with a mom who has a few of her older kids in our school for the first time, seeing how it goes, so she can juggle the home education of her younger ones and some health problems too. I ran into her at the grocery store, and she shared how tough it as for her son and daughter to “catch up” after a trip, and in the midst of extracurricular activities. I asked her how the school experience as going so far, and she shared that one of the unpleasant surprises was the typical “schoolishness” of it all, despite the fact that we served homeschoolers, and the fact that the principal and several staff had homeschooled their own children. All the stress, rush, and testing and all. Why did it have to be that way, she asked? Why couldn’t people just pool their money and create a school that did things differently?

That’s what schools are, though, I admitted. The more established they get, the more standardized, the less flexible and integrated with the rest of life. This push and pull between freedom and accountability is especially pronounced when homeschoolers and public schools get together. We get money for each enrolled child, and they get classes, and a resource library, and certain consumable materials (non-religious only).  We have to log progress (as measured in various ways, currently pretty flexible at our school), and train them to do their part of the paperwork for the auditor, so we get to stay open. They get to graduate their kids, but the kids have to make the grade, and we decide what that is. Schools will always tend that way, I told her. But you’re the boss, the person ultimately responsible, and you don’t have to buy the whole package. Even graduation (I was tempted to lower my voice) was not the be-all for every family, whether college-bound or not.

She and her spouse are very pro-active and purpose-driven parents, and their kids are lovely human beings. Not all our parents are taking it as such a privilege and opportunity to manage their children’s education in partnership with us. Some are using our school as a shelter, where there’s a high percentage of conservative Christian families, and nice, small classes. Some just need a break from the kids a few days a week. Others sign up because there aren’t classes every day, and so on “home” days, they have a free babysitter, or can have the kid work on building houses for the family firm or milking the cows on the farm. Every time that sort of thing comes up, usually in the form of our concern that these students aren’t keeping up in academics, I’m torn. Such job experience and training n in practical skills are valuable and hard to come by for young people. We do give school credit when possible, but the balance is tough, and who’s to say that getting a C or above in Geometry or American Government is up there with keeping the milk flowing into the tank for daily pickup, or learning house framing or interior finishing?

Often I feel it’s us that are out of touch, that schools are trying to keep up with a culture that has no understanding of the skills that it really takes to survive and prosper long term on this planet. We have no vision, our leaders no will of their own. It’s all about being “college & career ready,” and that’s not a vision, any more than I have to dress warm today because it’s cold outside, or I have to strip and hose down the prisoner because he’s next in line and I’m on a schedule.

People good at organizing schools are management types who want a smoothly running machine that has good photo ops. They are not prone to sustaining the purity of a beautiful vision. The visionaries are either inside classrooms, and, if not frustrated, might be allowed professional freedom to flesh out that vision. Or they connect with multi-billionaires who have the bucks to bypass the political process, and want a project and a legacy, and, of course, in the end, skilled workers for its market share in the global economy.

 

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There may be no right or wrong answers, but I’m not sure the unopinionated life is worth living

I don’t hear much talk any more in education about “values clarification,” in which teachers are supposed to facilitate discussions around personal ethics, keeping strict neutrality and never advocating for any particular point of view. One can, however, still obtain plans for classroom activities which “emphasize that there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions” (a direct quote, including emphasis, from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org). Thank divinity or non-divinity there are only opinions, and that although majority opinion rules, majority opinion can easily be manipulated so we can have some sort of progress, which is all we really need. And opinion can’t really hurt anyone, again thank divinity or non-divinity, or economic progress, or whatever.

So in Civics class, for example, we can teach kids how many reps and senators there are and how municipal, state and federal election campaigns and voting work, and encourage everyone to vote (whether they are informed or thoughtful or not). But if we see kids blindly following the voting preferences of their parents, or of their culturally accepted talk radio or news station, and bringing strong opinions into the classroom, we will make sure that “no one will be put down for having (by inheritance or cultural osmosis or guess-and-check, or whatever) a different value than others have.” Not put down, as in “You are stupid/ a redneck/ a flaming liberal” such phrases being always off the table in our schools, but also not, “You are wrong/ misguided/ misinformed/ short sighted,” etc. Who can say who’s wrong, when there are no right or wrong answers, only opinions?

Fortunately, history, social studies, sociology and civics teachers who as college students used to argue late into the night their political, social, ethical viewpoints have been transformed through a process of becoming paid a tax-derived salary into objective, impartial, value-free adults able to fairly facilitate the values clarification process in their students, if indeed they wish to touch on values at all. Leanings, if any, are toward the restoration of balance, which in our town involves emphasizing the contributions of indigenous, Arab and Muslim cultures, female perspectives, the LGBTQ community, and so on. Thank goodness for the big, benevolent edifice of curriculum designers, on whom we can rely to create learning materials that are values-free (other than a a value for domination of the market, which is tough when you can offend anyone but have an economy of scale. All the helpful advice from all the interest groups who indicate their objections to this or that type of angle or literary selections of images reminds these publishers on which side their bread is buttered.

I recently read a treatise by educational historian Diane Ravitch called The Language Police in which she traces the growth of self-censorship by curriculum and standardized test companies because of pressure from interest groups from all over the spectrum. Each of which have very valid points: Don’t portray women mainly in subservient positions. Don’t teach using texts that include violent or destructive behaviors. Don’t show the disabled as lacking abilities or needing assistance. No portrayal of people of color in prison or disadvantaged conditions. Equal numbers of able and disabled, whites and non-whites, males and females, and secular and religious dress in illustrations of  extreme sports, professions, and all other situations (but go light on the LGBTQ for now, as the corporate cost outweighs the benefit still. Except nurses should mainly be male, doctors female and preferably of color, machine operators likewise. No lewd language, no stories in which parents and other authority figures are shown disrespect (or excessive respect, unless they are veterans or progressive-minded elders), no criticism of the American government or its actions throughout history, or portrayal of any attitude that may undermine American patriotism or a belief in the capitalist market economy. When it comes to literature, this essentially boils down to: no literature from before 1970 without revision and/or heavy commentary. And when it comes to appeasing groups with mostly irreconcilable differences, the resulting literary passages and historical accounts are so bland as to be ineffective for igniting any real interest or sense of identification with the characters of the story.

All districts, I believe, have some sort of policy relating to what constitutes acceptable curriculum. Our district commits to:

Curriculum Bias BPS Policy document clip

I’m not sure we came up with this after thorough discussion of our community’s needs, and vision, and the implications to the “elimination” clause–does “instructional materials” include literature from before 1970, for example, and will we be taking out our black markers on the rest, or just having a book sale and buying the specially selected and abridged color textbook versions from Pearson? No, the guideline is borrowed language—a web search makes that clear enough. But I suppose one is entitled to use one’s own interpretation of “bias,” and that professional discretion by teachers allows for the use of “biased” materials in an “unbiased” way.

One could argue that local districts have a right to define that according to local values, arrived at not merely by conservation of past values, but dynamically, face to face, in community as communities evolve. The top-down, paternalistic approach whereby government dictates, beyond the dictates of the Constitution, that is, does not serve a valuing of diversity but opposes it.

I’m not trying to reawaken the complaint against “political correctness” we raised in the eighties and nineties, crying foul when we were called to tolerate all except the intolerant (those who don’t tolerate all), to ostracize and marginalize those who have standards (a.k.a. discrimination).

There are only opinions, but apparently there are also “ground rules.” And if not, “it might be useful to spend a few minutes getting [discussion group participants] to set some,” says the Advocates for Youth website, and the “Creating Group Agreement” lesson helpfully suggests ten, based apparently on natural law, though as a biologist I have not observed nature really supporting such tolerance and inclusiveness. Any decent teacher of course being able to facilitate the adoption of these rules and making the youth feel that they have developed them by their own consensus. Subtly handling student proposals to choose champions to duke it out on the playground to determine outcomes, to roll dice, or to ask someone in authority so the group remains “on track” (a track they do not even sense their wagon wheels are attached to).

With younger children educators are more honest. These are our rules, they say, in order to have a safe place of learning, and they train the children to obey them. Obedience to rules is indeed necessary for any sort of group to accomplish set objectives. It’s not/should not be the teacher’s desire to perpetuate control of the masses that leads to the teaching of raising one’s hand, asking to go to the bathroom, and lining up to wash hands and go to lunch. I accept these rules as appropriate for group management. I’m glad elementary teachers know how to train their kids in behaviors that enable crowds of kids to learn together safely. But I also expect that by the time students have reached middle school, they are well along are in the process of self-governance and taking reasonable consequences for their choices. I have only a few rules: 1) Be kind. 2) Do quality work. I try to teach them , when necessary, in an organic, personalized, collaborative way, and try to avoid the usual clamping down on everyone when a few make irresponsible choices. When I ask older students to raise their hands and wait to be called on, I explain why, and hope that a more natural pattern of courtesy will evolve. I’m a little embarrassed when a student asks is he or she can go to the bathroom, even though I know it can be important to keep an accurate running tally of those present or missed instruction time. I’d much rather teach the principle of choosing appropriate times to move around and talk than always requiring permission.

The other day, I asked one of my classes what usually happens when a few people take advantage of their freedom to be destructive, irresponsible, or hurtful. They knew–the leaders get more controlling. At least in our small school, with small classes full of students from families who understand interpersonal responsibility, I am very hopeful it will never need to come to that. Even more, I hope that we as a whole community can restore harmony if their’s disruption–not mere conformity, standardization, obedience, but dynamic harmony. That’s a value worth standing up for, in my opinion.

 

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2017 in Education, Ethics, Relationships

 

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Cassette of memories takes me back

My daughter has got into using the cassette player in the ’93 Accord, and also found the portable player I keep in a dusty cupboard. She wanted some tapes, so I took out a case of cassettes from the ’80s, some homemade live, others compilations. One brought back one of the best summers I had in Halifax, living with two roommates between college years. Marge of the wild cloud of untameable red hair and rich, husky voice, Lisa of untameable blonde hair both of Celtic origin for sure, and the most fun people to be around, without the need for any of the vices of youthful women (of that time and place) such as a propensity to drink too much, sleep around, and curse a lot. It was a cassette I could enjoy with my daughter, just funny interviews and role plays. One was Marge playing Large Marge of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, which then I had to show to my daughter on YouTube. We laughed about what cooked beets do to a white sauce, and sang dumb songs. That we were roommates was rather by chance–I knew of Marge’s sister through a friend, and played volleyball with Lisa in high school–she was two years younger–and then again in college. She had this great laugh, and I recall a van trip from Halifax to Florida for volleyball, and we all laughed the whole way–purged any depression that angst that might have been lurking in the corners of our psyches.

I went to a small college, attached to a big one–both public, as pretty much all universities in Canada. My community was in the quad, my academic life in the Life Sciences building, and only a little snow to cross, the years I lived on campus. My college mates, the ones I shared dining and most of my social life with,were students of the liberal arts, journalism, classics, and other humanities, with a smattering of languages, political science on the way to law, and sciences on the way to medicine. A few became teachers like me. So many smart people and a close-knit community–I was fortunate.

I got started with open mics at he college pub, getting up the nerve to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and Bernadette with a shy, bookish, baritone, bearded classics major. Halifax is a nice, small city, too, with a good night life and lots of arts, music, and culture. There were buskers, the main group known as “The Guys at the Library,” lead singer Alex…his name is somewhere in my memory. You could get a juicy, late night donair or order of fries and sit on a low stone wall and listen. I started busking my third year, which gave me pocket cash and confidence. I remember once I was singing Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds,” and a professionally-dressed man stopped to listen in the shelter of a maple across the street, then left forty bucks in my case. I liked how people can listen or not, and any positive response is a bonus.

I also made pocket money by–maybe I’ve written of this before, I don’t know–giving haircuts and patching jeans. When I was doing my teaching degree at another university, the one my son attends now, it was baking and selling cookies and cheesecakes from my dorm kitchen. The smell would waft upstairs–always chocolate chip cookies and bittersweet chocolate truffle cheesecake–and the study moles and nappers would line up. I raised money to go to a leadership conference in the capital (university student Christian fellowship) on my way west. And here I am, twenty-four years later, still with all that inside.

 
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Posted by on November 8, 2017 in Places & Experiences

 

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Poem for my crotchety neighbor

That’s why I called her,
To pre-empt her from texting me with the usual
“What’s wrong with you people?
You don’t live on twenty acres!”
I said to her, “Pam, would you pah-lease
get those crows to cut out that racket at seven in the morning?
and your cyprus is shedding all over our pergola.
What do you think this is, a public park?”

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2017 in Arts, Poetry and Music

 

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Ten second poem based on a discarded package

You’re the 70% cocoa of us
He’s the Kraft Dinner
But I? I’m the pickled beans.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2017 in Arts, Poetry and Music

 

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