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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 his wife had homeschooled too. 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 then to do their part 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 they hope their kids won’t encounter the rough and tumble of the big school. Some just need a break from the kids, but not every day. Others sign up because there aren’t classes every day, and so 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–job experience and practice skills are valuable and hard to come by. 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, either frustrated, or ideally, allowed professional freedom to flesh it out, or they are turned to by multi-billionaires who have teh 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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These are the people in my neighborhood

I’m so excited that my youngest son is starting his freshman swim season shortly. Lots of happy memories of watching my son and daughter swim, and they did really well, which was a bonus, both going to state all four years. My youngest at first was not planning to swim at all, said he didn’t want to follow in those footsteps. We assured him there were no expectations, and anyway, he was a strong, athletic kid, growing fast, as well as swimming on the summer team, so he could just wait and see. Or do another sport, as long as he was pursuing fitness and had some team experiences.

Since he’s had cataracts and some amblyopia since infancy, his depth perception is probably not good enough for the ball sports, and he seems to have ankle trouble whenever he runs–maybe just growth adjustments plus being out of shape. After seeing some major improvements in swim times this summer, and encouragement from his sibs, he decided to swim in high school after all. The same coach is still heading the team, after several decades, and it will be a good opportunity to get to know a different set of kids, beyond his DND/role playing/computer games set. I’m excited for him, because that boy has some muscle potential, and a pretty good work ethic. It will be an adjustment for me–a good one–to get off work at a reasonable time to see his meets, though I won’t get there early enough to be a timer so I can have front row seats.

I’m also really looking forward to my oldest kid coming home for the holidays (he hopes to work out with his old team with his brother), and after that, back west for longer term. He graduates with his computer science degree and will be looking for work, unless his dad’s contract work picks up and we can take him on. He’s swimming for his college team aain this year, and has managed to get through school with minimum debt and, last I heard, plans to rent an apartment, whether locally or in the big city depends on work.

My younger daughter has landed her first job, working at a clothing retailer in the mall. She’s pretty pleased, and I’m sure can pull off being a fashion sales clerk as I never could (I’d be sending customers to good will). She’s also working on her tennis game with her dad, getting ready for the spring season. We’re planning on visiting colleges in the coming year–she’d had so many shifts in interests over the last few years, I can’t be sure what she wants to study, except that it will be something that will get her a well-paying job and she can stay active.

My older daughter feels like she has too much time on her hands. She’s had the promise of another job, but the supervisor just never gets around to getting her set up on the schedule, so she’s getting discouraged. She’s also not connected with many friends locally yet, and the sister company is a little rocky at times. She’s looking forward to starting at the local college in the new year, though, where she’ll major in Community Health & minor in Spanish. She’s such good company, so her being based at home will be sweet.

My husband is in that season where he’s made a good deal of money from his contract, but is getting fed up with the politics of his team, and tired of the long commute. He’d hoped to be able to work from home more, but there’s been push back. So he’ll probably give them an ultimatum at some point, and accept the result either way. I have encouraging him to get at some of the studies he’s been interested in, or even looking into the possibility of about teaching, as he’s good at that. Since he’s willing to take a cut in pay for quality of life, it seems like a good option. But he’s been a high level contractor for a lot of years, and it would be a real change.

As for me, I love teaching, but put out some queries in my own district and plan to do whatever I can to find a comparable or better position here, though hit will mean less job security. My current position was a continuing one from the start, but the local district, I think, only commits to one year at first. I’d also like to buy a small house to fix up, as an investment, possible rental/home for one of our kids if they stay, and office space for our business and my creative pursuits. My husband is not convinced. I think it’s t least as good an idea as sinking more money into the stock market.

 
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Posted by on November 4, 2017 in Parenting & Family

 

I had no idea where this was going. I remember you said it would be like that sometimes.

I drank another glass of that tangy, sparkly, just a little sweet, juice,
which was defrosted, bottled, pressed from apples and aronia–September and October,
then mixed.

Couldn’t get enough, though my gut ached, unaccustomed to filling up
After going all day on nothing but coffee, tomato soup, and roasted almonds.
Barely time to pee between classes.

I sip again, then, hands to the keyboard, keyboard on my lap,
lap on bed, shoulders propped by pillows
against the headboard.

It snowed today, five inches or more in early November.
A wet, cold, day, windy like home, except without the smell of the bay
and red sandy loam tuning the snow pink in the ruts.

This morning two of my fingers turned dead white and tingled
even inside my wool gloves, and I shifted my weight
off surfaces irritated due to the failure of certain inner hammocks.

I don’t like you any more.
It’s not your fault–it could have been anyone,
present at the failure of certain other inner hammocks
like the one held up at one end (I tied it there)
by you.

 

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