Monthly Archives: February 2015

I am opting out of having my child do the new state assessments. Won’t you join me?

The new tests aligned with Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are coming to our district, namely–get this title–the Smarter Balanced Assessments. If only a name created reality. They should have been called Seven Hour Experiment in Collecting Student Data.

I haven’t received notification about the tests from my kids’ school yet, but since I’m a substitute in the district I got the testing information letter from the district superintendent. It’s a good letter, emphasizing that there has often been too much emphasis in our country and state on testing, that the tests are only one measure we use, and that our district vision for students is much broader and addresses the whole person. I heartily agree, and think our superintendent is right on. But he also is constrained to administer testing, because if we didn’t, as he says, “We would be at risk of breaking the law and losing millions of dollars of funding that is used to hire staff and support students.” And that really is the issue for us and so many other districts across the country that believe these assessments were shoved down our throats and are part of an inferior, corporate sponsored educational agenda that will hurt students. We need that money, and this is the hoop we have to jump to get it.

The letter includes FAQs, including what to do if parents ask about opting out. The superintendent advises teachers to “tell them [our district] is participating in the Smarter Balanced testing. And acknowledge that we may have parents who choose not to have their children participate. Also to say “that you understand that some parents are using refusal forms to apply political pressure to state and federal lawmakers. This isn’t likely to solve this issue, but some parents see it as a way to voice their opposition to lawmakers.” No link provided for opting out, but that’s easy enough to find online.

Here’s where the federal government tries to tighten its grip on families and schools: students who opt out of the test are recorded in district records as failed, though in student records the term is “not tested.” Schools with insufficient numbers of “proficient” scores lose federal funding. So the way I see it, it’s either cave in, or build a big enough and smart enough opt out movement that the results of the tests become meaningless as federal funding criteria, and the federal government realizes it has overstepped its bounds in bribing states to do things its way. This would also send a message to the corporations who profit from testing, grading, and creating curriculum, software, training, and even personnel that they promise will improve students’ test scores.

I printed off the opt out form and filled it out, ready to go to my sixth grade son’s teacher when the time gets nearer–I hope there’s a warning about when the tests will actually start, if it’s not anything actually scheduled on the online school calendar. Last year the high school did a switcheroo, telling parents their test was a certain day, then giving it a day early, which was not very honest, and came across to me at least as a tactic designed to catch kids who’d been planning to stay home. It wasn’t even a real test, though, only a practice, so I felt it was an extra big waste of time. My daughter happened to be sick that day anyway, so I didn’t have to make any particular statement on testing that year. I wasn’t really ready then, anyway.

On the line for my reason for opting out, I wrote, “I disagree with the process by which the CCSS and assessments were adopted and believe that they are inferior to previous Washington State standards. I am sufficiently aware of my son’s academic progress without these tests, and can obtain further details by communicating with his teachers or conducting informal assessments. I plan to engage my student in alternative education activities during testing times.” So no sending him to some boring study hall of shame if I can help it.

My eighth grader is another story. She likes tests and thinks they’ll help her know where she is academically. I gave her the choice, on the condition that she allow me to explain why I think she should not participate. She knows I’m concerned about the access to student data that testing companies and their affiliates will have, but I told her that the main reason is the undemocratic and borderline unconstitutional manner in which the CCSS and tests were foisted on school districts all across the country. I totally understand why she wants to go ahead, and know that at this point making a political statement is not her line.

When I filled in the opt out form, I felt like I was about to stick my neck out, and wondered if I had the courage to follow through. But the more I work at articulating my reasons, and synthesize my months of research into these matters, the more I feel that this kind of grassroots effort, preferably broad based and grounded on clear understandings and civil communication, is the most effective means of changing the Race to the Top educational funding criteria that takes away states’ flexibility in how they educate their young. Though I’m proud of teachers and administrators who have pushed back and refused to test or at least openly communicated reasons parents might opt out, I think the main responsibility lies with the families of students, who are the direct clients, who do not risk losing their jobs, and who are the only ones with the right to risk their children’s education, i.e. what that federal funding provides, to fight this battle.

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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in Education


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Familiehemmeligheter–that’s Norwegian for family secrets

That poem about everyone lying at my funeral–it wasn’t very nice, and I apologize. I think that everything you do say will be true, just as the nice things I say about you at your funeral will be true. Death, ironically, helps crystallize the love and appreciation we are all capable of having for one another. I suppose even in some cases when some abusive, selfish asshole takes leave of us. We can always say, he made me learn that I am a strong person, that I can overcome, and to be tender and understanding toward others in pain like I was. And maybe he was, in the great cycle of reincarnation, actually in a state of spiritual progress from a much darker soul, so who can judge?

I think it’s just as well that I won’t be around for the occasion, so you can say what you like without swelling my head. I never was very good a receiving praise anyway, at least beyond age eleven, when I discovered that believing the compliment most frequently conferred on my golden head was the epitome of conceit. Hearing “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon brings that moment back like it was yesterday. So I stopped believing compliments, unless received second or third hand, and even those I view as disinterestedly as I can. When I turn fifty I intend to absorb compliments like a sponge once again. I’ll be starting a Prezi file, in fact, so that the organizers of my funeral can get a head start on something to put up on the screen as folks mill around the reception room. Don’t you just love to have something to look at when you don’t know anyone at a funeral, and the food lineup hasn’t formed yet? Except I’ll ask some boisterous friend to announce, “Come on, everyone, the mayonnaise will spoil if you don’t dish up!” If my mother could be around then, I know she’d do it.

Turns out the family tree I married into has its dark secrets, and it’s now the time to talk about those from several generations back. Years ago I attended the funeral of the relative in question, and the man was decently honored–for his musical ability, his athletic accomplishments and physical strength, his brilliant blue Nordic eyes and charm. Hearts went out at the suffering he endured in his end of life sickness. I never heard from his daughter-in-law any word of criticism. But on the way home from the funeral of the wife of one of his grandsons from another branch last week, I heard the low down from the granddaughter, who had talked to some others that knew, in order to better understand the legacy of pain that came down into the next generations. Knowing the things he did also highlighted for me the turn toward the light in my husband’s parental line, thanks to a spiritual revival in the ’70s, and lots of prayer and church support as their kids grew up. “We didn’t know how to raise kids,” my mother in law explained, “so we prayed a lot.”

My in-laws recently announced their intention to pay for a trip to Norway next summer for their three children and their spouses (which would include me), to visit the Norwegian branch of the family in hopes of helping more connections form in our generation. Oddly, I was more interested in that than any of the three in the blood line. One even thought the Norwegians might not want to welcome the descendants of someone who, years earlier, had committed some kind of assault when he was in the neighborhood. There are also concerns about leaving our kids, who are the youngest, and my pregnant niece, so we’re not sure if everyone can go. Might be able to pop away to visit other places too–I’d like to see Scotland, for one.

Meanwhile it’s time to read up–nonfiction as well as Norway-related literature and poetry. I hope we can go. We’ve never traveled all together, we eight, and, judging by what I learned on that five hour drive to the funeral with my sister and brother-in-law last week, the journey should be pretty enlightening, a good chance to get to know my American family cohort better at the very least. And I hear that the central Norwegian landscape is beautiful, and that most everyone put in indoor toilets for the previous relatives’ trip. I expect to experience some similarities between lifestyle there and that of my own family line in Newfoundland, who also know about long, cold, winters and love their fish for breakfast. And how about those fjords!


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Can’t always avoid those religious fanatics.

After she got home from the church youth retreat, she told me how much she appreciates her friends, how she seems to be past the stage when they seemed shallow and insincere. Yes, they have their flaws, but she accepts them as they are, and realizes that who they are is really amazing people. She’s very thankful to have friends like that. Four in particular who are genuinely and intentionally kind all the time, fun, able to be goofy and serious, who look out for her, stay connected, and like to do similar things for enjoyment and growth. Good values, good influences, and accepting of herself as maybe more of a skeptic than they. One to whom her heart also goes out due to a rough family situation—who is now living with the family of the other friend. That family always having extended hospitality to anyone who needed it, on top of raising and home schooling their own seven children.

Contrasting these four friends with the youth leader by whom she was accosted at the retreat. Who asked her, “Can I talk with you for a bit?” Then proceeded to ask her pointed, personal questions about her beliefs, one after the other. When the she answered honestly, the leader told her “No! That’s wrong, because the Bible says…” She was stunned at being so treated, and retreated into a standard, toneless response of “I don’t know,” and a masked expression. Hoping the  leader would get the message, that she wasn’t going to repent and weep and ask to pray the salvation mantra, repeated line by line. But the inquisition continued, so she simply said, “I’m going to the bathroom,” and left. Stayed in there for a half hour so the leader would be well away. Almost ruined her time there, she said. It took her two hours to feel normal again. Thank God for women’s bathrooms.

It’s a testament to her resilience and good sense that she shook it off and went and enjoyed the rest of the retreat with her friends, and wasn’t completely turned off from associating with that particular church group, or wary of Christians in general. She heard that this leader was also viewed as a problem by others. I wondered whether I should go in and talk to the head youth pastor, just to add another report to the no doubt growing file. Picturing this woman actually spoiling for a fight, some kind of confrontation, so she can consider herself persecuted, suffering for Christ, find some texts to prove it, and move on with righteous indignation. We figured she might have a personality disorder.

The main youth leader seemed safe and harmless by comparison. Though, she said, he had a habit, during prayer when all  heads were expected to be bowed and all young souls opening up to the Spirit against a background of soft worship music in the dimly lit room, of asking, if you feel…(as if you are in this or that place in life)…then raise your hand.” Which, though probably meant as a way for people to request prayer, seemed like an invasion of privacy, since she wasn’t really personally connected with said leader. And she found herself resistant to yielding to the soft strains and the warm safety that the staff were trying to create. Just sat there head bowed and feeling ambivalent.

Most of the time she pretends to be uninterested in spiritual or philosophical things, to make sure I don’t bring it up, I suppose. But she has such insight, such intuitive understanding, that I know her journey will leave her onward and upward. Safely navigating the shallows of Christian pop culture and the simplistic interpretation of the Christian life favored by those focused merely on winning souls (and reporting the score). I like her clear sightedness, her questioning, her discernment of motives in others, combined with patience for people and the ability to roll with the punches. I hope we haven’t overdone the training in critical thinking, such that, when her divine encounter comes, she will still doubt and not be able to yield.


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The environmental hazards of sixth grade

I took last week off from substitute teaching to finish up yearly tax stuff, and I missed being in the classroom. It kind of surprises me that I enjoy being there so much, after I decide to go back and pick up three or four days of subbing, stress about it, and head out hoping for the best. It’s not the crazy passion or energy or drive for thrills or adventure of youth, but the sense of purpose and enjoyment and reasonable confidence that I have something to offer that’s so sweet, along with getting paid and feeling appreciated. A net effect, after subtracting the effects of being on the cement floors all day and sometimes straining my voice or sometimes having to be just a delivery person / sitter—in goes the video or out goes the quiz. And subtracting the “bad” days, when I feel out of my depth. Like the day I had about three too many students with “behavior disorders” and not enough support, or the fourth grade class in which the kids were used to being ruled by an iron hand, so when I came along with softer skills, a critical portion of them went wild–no self control at all, and, maybe, no wonder. Compared to my first year of teaching, during which I felt like I was running on empty, reinventing the wheel, barely holding things together, and barely tolerated by the tougher kids, it’s more than a relief to feel this way. There wasn’t a day that went by then that I wouldn’t have been glad to have had school cancelled because of holiday or snow. I loved teacher trainings, because I could sit and listen and make a comment now and then, and be listened to. Though going back after a break was worse. But I almost never called in a sub, because it was too much work to come up with a plan when I was feeling sick. And I was aware that the main sub that would come in was the jolly young woman over whom I’d been hired but knew how to be fun and entertaining and loveable, which I didn’t–at least not with more than half a dozen students at a time and not inside a room.

Last week I was in a 6th grade math class in a new school across town. Good atmosphere, somewhat diverse group of students–more of Sikh extraction, for example. I had to talk almost all day, and keep the kids’ attention on what I was saying to the whole class, which wears out my voice. It’s hard for sixth graders to sustain that attention, too–certain younger boys, especially. They had no more than five minutes of individual work and the rest was me going homework and quizzes as a class, handing out and gathering in papers. I inserted some stretching, breathing (I did five deep breaths while they watched, which had a curiously quieting effect on them), a riddle, and an introduction to how to circle hands in opposite directions, and what’s happening in the brain when one tries.

One thing that impressed me in the two classrooms I was in last week was the clean, non-cluttered, minimalist environment. A simple desk with only a few drawers containing essentials, in and out trays for assignments, tiny podium containing essential daily supplies, few cabinets or shelves or posters. It was refreshing for me, and probably for the students. It was a new building, well designed, carpeted with big windows and good furniture, so it didn’t feel empty or plain, just simple. I know it would be a challenge for me not to have long counters on which to spread out papers and resources, but it might be I will need to impose discipline on my materials management that could transfer to more mental efficiency. I’ll probably do some kind of seasonal variation between a profusely resource rich classroom and a paring down and culling, or at least rotation, of books, decor and materials.

Eleven and twelve year olds get a sense of security from following their usual routine, and show their discomfort if I make any changes. I try to be sensitive to that, but of course I’m often coming in partially blind as to routine–only some teachers mention those little things in the plan. Students notice when I write the plan on a different part of the white board than usual, when I ask a different person to take the attendance record to the secretary, when I hand out or collect materials or correct work in a different way. And they tell me. If I’ve remembered to warn them before class starts that I can’t know all the details of how they teacher does things, and invite them to both help me out and be flexible, things go more smoothly. But even then, and when I remind them that different ways can work too, it’s funny how often I find it’s just prudent to give in and honor what routines and habits I can. so as not to cause undue stress.

If I can master that process of setting and maintaining healthy routines, along with helping students try new things and evolve, I think I can do well as a sixth or fifth grade teacher. Still, I gravitate toward the kids in developmental stages where there’s a natural tendency to bust out, try new things, and challenge the way things are usually done. Maybe I felt I never fit in and feel that once kids, at least some, decide that it’s too demeaning and exhausting to be constantly trying to navigate the world according to what’s socially acceptable and institutionally convenient, they can become themselves truly. And get on with that, since it takes some of us decades, with plenty of fits and starts.

Hard for teachers to do much justice to individuality in the classroom. Or if we do, it’s by continual, pro-active, mindful intention in the face of our still experiencing the class as a mass entity to be managed, swayed, brought along as a group, kept on task and on schedule. You know the effect of looking through some kind of ocular device that can focus near and far? You look at the big picture, then you zoom in, blurring everything on the way, and then, WHAM! there’s in individual flower petal that was there the whole time, but there was no way to notice it until then. It’s like that sometimes when I am as guest teacher, when I suddenly notice the kid who doesn’t otherwise attract notice, often some quiet girl, or any kid who’s not continually drawing attention by asking or answering lots of questions, roaming about during work time, or asking a million questions. Sometimes I talk to myself out loud about that, about how I regret that some people aren’t getting the acknowledgement they need and deserve because of the higher activity/visibility of other students. Also about the difference between extroverts and introverts, and how so much is going on inside some people and it’s so valuable to connect with them and see what they have to contribute, but a big classroom full of people prevents that being an option. Once I looked down to a face at the table just in front of me, where big eyes were looking up at me in understanding and relief.

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Posted by on February 5, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


Supersaturation causes precipitation, mitigation comes through consideration, contemplation, ending in provisional aspiration

Retreated from the house after trying to referee the three way argument about who hogged most of the recent ice cream purchase and who wasn’t sharing the bananas and popcorn. I tried to stimulate the oldest daughter to rise above the intense and emotional approach of the little brother and sister, to stay calm and take responsibility. She says if they’re acting like little kids, what do I do, act thirteen? I say how about aiming for that. She’s hurt, ends up her smirking at my brittle attempts to be the authority figure, and turns her music up loud. My anger is out of proportion and it’s all I can do not to express in revenge the tearful fury rising up into my sinuses. I add a five dollar fine to her growing debt record on the wall (for hogging ice cream–had that coming), consider cutting off the deposits into her college fund, locking the freezer, somehow cutting off all her worldly pleasures. I manage to send her to her room, where she locks the door and blasts her playlist.

The second daughter does not acknowledge any responsibility in the argument over ice cream, only my many imperfections as a parent, and leaves the room. The youngest apologizes for over reacting about the bananas, tells me he loves me. Still too hot and bothered to respond appropriately, I pack up my laptop bag and tell him keep up the good work on being the big boy and apologizing. I’m still seething, feeling that disconnect between my hoped-for home comforts after a long day, and the reality of three teens who still need me to be at my best for them after their long days. Fourth too, when he gets home from his workout and hits the books again.

“How was your day?” asks the barista.

“Too much time with teens today, I sigh, and now no T.A., P.A., principal or SpEd support.” No janitor or cafeteria either. Tired, so tired when I got home I lay back on my bed, feet up, blankets over my legs, feeling the heat come back into my bones. Not drained, just tired, knowing a power rest should do it. The cat climbed up and lay down on the center of my torso, purring loudly, tentatively extending claws for a contended knead through my too thin layers of protection.

Last night when I’d finished my day of subbing, I saw a job come up for the same classroom. I asked myself (and my kids) if I should take it, or wait for something that didn’t take so much energy. Well, I know the students, I thought, and what they’re working on, and though there were “pressure passes” flying, I didn’t “dis” anyone as far as I know, so they should be okay with me coming back. At least it’s less change for them to have the same sub. So I clicked “Accept” and packed a few extra fillers and openers into my magic bag.

In the morning I bring my A-game attitude to do this job that takes all my energy, positive thinking, patience–bring it on, I think. Looking forward to the first period prep to get my thoughts in order and pull together a few excellent openings, engaging moments to take those kids for a great ride through area, volume of 3-D objects and drifting tectonic plates. But when I sign in I’m told I’m needed to fill in first period–they’re short of subs. So much for prep. I take my keys and head down for a few minutes setting up math and science, find out I have the wrong plan printout, lose more time fetching the right one, and a laptop to play a science video. Try to set up, to no avail, head up to fill in with struggling seventh and eighth grade readers, stumbling through my quick read of that plan, and BEEEEP there’s the bell, and here they come. Glad at moments like these I’m not in my first year, or would I ever get to the second?

“You the sub today?”

“Yes I am,” I smile, thinking, if I can’t do this, well then I can’t, but I think I can I think I can and the low expectations fire me up to the higher ones. I ask some questions about their usual procedure, and they muddle trough an explanation, wanting partly to have things looser and more to their liking, so why give it all away to the sub? But they can’t overcome their instinct to be helpful and hospitable and it comes out they’re group reading Bridge to Terebinthia, so we do, taking turns. A truly relaxing and enjoyable experience, including the short interludes of gaping out the window, bantering about siblings, telling them how the brain gets bored when you’re reading because it can go so much faster that the eyes and mouth, and what audiobook I’m listening to, figuring out the most doable position in which to read–standing? Sitting on the back counter? “If that works for you,” I allow. I’m able to be chill because we are less than a dozen in all, and no one gets at loose ends in those numbers. We read almost the whole hour and don’t get to the worksheet at all.

Then it’s off to the downstairs sixth grade classroom as the kids roar in, asking to go to the bathroom, running the electric pencil sharpener, scraping chairs, boys joshing each other, girls gathering in clusters, laughing and getting in a last quick visit, and there’s the settle down bell. Call to attention, I explain my pickle–no planning time, put a brain teaser on the screen and ask them to be super quiet while I take attendance and get my lesson organized. They do their hospitable best, best that a short attention span can do, and I accomplish the head count, the reminders, the consultations with those who have requests and problems, and we start in.

On through the day–two math classes, two science, and a nice quiet typing block for a breather. Ups and downs, and I’m hoping my voice will get more durable with this kind of use, but overall we keep the plan flowing. Names are coming easier, I feel less scrambled, and succeed somewhat at interfering with the well-developed habit of sixth graders to look attentive while their minds are far away. Lights on but occupant is on vacation. I will have to seriously work on that habit of attention if I get a classroom of my own. I noticed the same thing in tenth grade. I’m using the seating map I sketched up to call on participants–without that I’d be dead in the water–calling on kids who aren’t expecting it, asking them to stay with me, if I find out they’re on a mental drift. Not to humiliate or embarrass, just to create an expectation that everyone should be ready, during class discussions, to do their best. Which they seem to start to get. Hard to ignore the raised hands of those who want to answer every question, but sometimes what’s needed. Mental note, for when I have a classroom of my own, to use the popsicle stick method sometimes for randomization.

By the time I’m heading out of the house to the coffee shop I think I’ve decided that I definitely won’t try for a position below seventh grade. But after an hour of writing and quiet, I think, maybe. We’ll see what choice I have, anyway, when the jobs start to come up later this spring. Maybe I’ll just keep subbing, tutoring when needed, and start my masters.

Thanks for listening.


Posted by on February 4, 2015 in Education


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A funeral poem, by the deceased

I died
You cried
And everyone lied.


–January 2015

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Posted by on February 3, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music


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Some things never change with technology

Here’s a poem I wrote in 1990:

I’m counting out the minutes
’till my Mac comes back online
And I’m hoping I can reckon
on it printing out on time.

It has been a full ten minutes
since I last typed a command;

If it doesn’t happen soon,
I think I write this out by hand.

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Posted by on February 2, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music


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