Monthly Archives: September 2015

Middle school, the reality: this is a test

The middle school bell rings, and students start coming the classroom. Most sit down, but three or four continue roaming around, and mess around a little. You ask everyone to settle down; you are about to start, and two of the remaining sit, but one keeps throwing and re-throwing crumpled paper toward, and missing, the garbage can. You approach, and, a bit more insistently, tell the student to sit down, please! You don’t know names yet, and the seating chart isn’t much use. A good number of seated students are watching with interest, and some of those who had sort of settled down are now starting to get restless, and even get up to move around, sharpening pencils, trying to borrow erasers, and so on. Others have seen there’s a distraction and have taken out their smart phones or started new conversations among themselves.

It’s test day, and this time the test is for you. You are not automatically in charge, and without some fast and creative thinking, it could get out of hand so that it’s tough to get on the track of helping students learn.

I’ve felt that distress and frustration, that sense of personal offense. Why won’t they behave? What is one to do? At that point, you’ve probably stopped using the most creative and intelligent part of your brain, so the options you can think of are limited: yell, threaten, whine, shame, make an example of someone, call for assistance.

But we teachers talk about test taking strategies, and during a test, you’re on your own. All the questions are flooding at you at once, and you have to keep you footing and your head above the water. It’s a rush.

Here are some of the questions on this test, in the voice of the students:

  1. Are you confident in your right to be in authority over us?
  2. What’s your style of authority? Are you chill, strict, somewhere in between, or inconsistent?
  3. How do you handle stress?
  4. Do you have a sense of humor?
  5. Do you respect me and my classmates?
  6. Do you let me help you?
  7. Do you have emotional self control?
  8. Do you know what I need?
  9. Do you like me?
  10. Are you worthy of my respect and support?
  11. Can I learn something worthwhile from you?
  12. What are the boundaries here, and are they reasonable?

These questions are not just in the minds (at least subconsciously) of the main testers, but also in the minds of the rest. Though the latter may not have the desire, creativity, or confidence to “act out,” they can still take advantage of the opportunity to learn about you. The overall question here is, “Who are you, and can I work with you? Can you work with us–all of us?”

Even when I was failing these tests many days as a first year teacher and beyond, I felt there was a legitimacy in this kind of testing. Yes, I would take things personally, get riled, get frustrated, and exhaust myself because of my lack of experience, but I could never really blame the “testy” students for being hard on me. Even the sympathy of more experienced teachers and their willingness to make me feel less responsible didn’t really work, though it was well intended. I still see this process as a necessary part of establishing students’ relationship with the teacher, especially a new one. Although I’m not averse to students giving me automatic respect and complying with my plan, I know that’s not realistic, or even best in the long run for either party. Or maybe because I’m not the kind of person who automatically accepts authority (in my heart), I get it.

Fortunately–you could look at it as fortunate–if you fail the test, you get a re-test. And another, and another, and another. If you fail part of the test and pass another part, you get a retest. And you get frequent reviews to keep up your skills. It will happen so many times, eventually you’ll learn not to take it personally, and how to both respond to and sometimes even preempt the test questions, in your own way.

A boy I met a few months ago keeps coming to mind. He’s boisterous, physically active, highly participatory, and, so I heard prior to the start of class, troublesome–it was in my sub notes, and I was also told by a teacher next door. In that he doesn’t sit down, he speaks out of turn, he does things to entertain and distract his classmates, and sometimes, apparently, he loses his temper and has to be removed from the classroom.

He’s also full of fun, and since after all these years I’ve become better at taking a joke, even one on me, it worked out okay between him and me. He got used to me after the first few days I subbed there, and as long as I could do that strange dance, things went well. The other students helped make it work, and the boy himself consented to the dance steps. Yes, he’s out of his seat, talking out, interrupting, but we keep doing our thing and don’t stop for the show. When I can, I have him do the demos, hand out the papers, even demo some of the math, once I find that he’s capable of it.

Why is there a show anyway? Why does he want to strut around, call attention to himself, do anything but sit down and try to do math? He’s a class clown, a born entertainer, possessed of charisma and confidence. And he’s one of the kinds of people we need in this world. Can you picture him grown up? He’s the life of the party! He meets the shy newcomers at the door and makes them laugh in the first thirty seconds. He moves around the room and figures out what’s going on in the big picture. He’s the MC. Yeah, in the course of his years at school, he’ll have to learn to let others have some peace and quiet, to listen and not just talk, and to keep calm when people disagree with him or he doesn’t get his way. But meanwhile, we’re the mature ones, and we as teachers need to nurture nature, not create assembly line workers, molding and cutting cookies, grading samples and sending the culls down a different hatch for quality control.

The way teachers and authority figures deal with these full-of-it kids can really sour them in the long run. I’ve met some alternative high schoolers who probably had a similar way of being in their fifth grade classrooms, and they’re all grown up. Still loud, still walking and talking, still engaging with anyone and anything around them. But also tense, angry, and carrying around a cumulative file full of disciplinary infractions, records of interventions, and numbers that just don’t qualify as ready for college and career ready. You have to wonder if they’ll survive, what they become. Some are positively creepy.

So can we ask ourselves: how do we save the life of the party, instead of creating a monster? Yes, it’s environment, family, circumstances, but what do we do with these students while they are with us—testing, testing—for one hundred and eighty days per year for years?

Intervention should not just be an event. It should be subtle, every day, in the context of community. So you nip all the criticism in the bud that reinforces the “troublemaker” self image (see this post, and instead call it a different name: Lively. Unique. Enthusiastic. No nonsense. High social intelligence. Curious. Be preventative and pro-active (see this post). Solicit help from more mature fellow students–to set an example, ignore attention-getting behaviors, show patience. Catch them doing something right (broadly interpreted). And, as I used to tell my kids when they’d be unkind to one another, keep your heart soft, and be patient. These things take time.



Posted by on September 29, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


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Will it be the hot water bath or the pressure cooker? Or hung out to dry?

Will it be the hot water bath or the pressure cooker? Or hung out to dry?

An uncle in my husband’s family, now deceased, made it his mission to collect all the family records, photos, and news, and organize them into albums. Now and then my mother-in-law would forward a request from him–she was the one most in tune with my husband’s branch–for current photos or dates of significant events. It pleased me that someone was taking the time, and that he extended his attention to anyone grafted in to the branch of the family he had married into (he was probably keeping records of his birth lineage also). Someone might want this information some day, even need it, and he didn’t want it to be lost.

I am in the thick of preservation of a different kind this fall, as the tomatoes, plums, and apples pile up and I boil up sauces and jam and pack and boil the jars, slice and array fruit on screens, bunch herbs to hang from the light fixtures, roll seeds out of their crackling pods and blow off the chaff. As well as putting food by, I am preserving the tradition of my parents, who did this kind of thing. Instead of settling in the suburbs and shopping and the superstore, though their children tried to drag them into the late twentieth century where life looked so much more socially acceptable. For some reason the subsistence of my dad’s parents on rabbit, fish and salmon from the Gander River watershed never left him traumatized and clamoring for economic progress and a “higher” standard of living. He still had Shakespeare and art, and the salty bay to swim in. My mom’s folks weren’t exactly subsistence, but living by the river with a teacher mom and a journalist/gentleman farmer dad, she caught on to the handwork that makes a home from scratch, and being a hardworking, creative person, used it as a creative outlet. Said the best wool for dying and hooking into rugs came from her dad’s old stump socks. Living in the sticks between the St. Nicholas River, she still picked up Acadian French culture at the hardware store and overheard interviews her dad conducted in the living room with the reel to reel, heard the clacking of the typewriter on the roll top desk. It was all a kind of free range parenting, I guess.

Because of my parents’ decision not to get a television–it really hinged on that, which makes me very skeptical now of the rush to get all children “connected,” I picked up a few things too. Not so much through being formally trained, but because I saw that using the sewing machine, paint, pen, wood and whatever, was a way to get things done–to create, capture, produce, build, get a meal without getting a ride into town. And other than being coerced into helping with weeding or grinding or winding wool now and then, I was free range, too.There was school, but homework wasn’t demanding and could be done on the bus, and sports was floor hockey or touch football with the principal and vice principal before the late bus came, so it didn’t take up much time. Time, a world of books and the outdoors, free of so-called twenty-first century essentials, was for the mind of a child like warm, damp compost to worms.

In the old days, seasons came–fishing season, planting, haying, harvesting, hunting, storing away, and winter trapping, and someone was around doing similar work and able to lend a hand—neighbor, spouse, child or uncle. Now, when anyone an be anything they want to be and we lean on a college education and the world economy for our livings, seasons are interchangeable in the global economy, and there’s always something more fun and entertaining to do than hoe the garden, weed, pick berries, shell peas, or make apple sauce. So I’m often alone in the garden and in the kitchen. Alone experiencing the satisfaction of accomplishment and sense of security and good sense (as I add up the savings in grocery bills and fuel costs, and possibly health costs) of a job well done. Here’s to home economics and shop.

Here’s my justification for the reintroduction of home economics shop into the curriculum: No matter whether robots take over our carpet cleaning, factory work,  telemarketing, and lab research, being capable of growing food (along with finding wild food) can never completely become obsolete. Nor mechanized—it’s both too complex, requiring intelligence, adaptability, physical strength and endurance, and creativity, and too simple, relying on fundamentals like sunshine, microbial life, rain and air, all of which have no technological substitute. The temptation to modernize, mechanize, and outsource is there, but one soon finds that the costs outweigh the benefits. Growing and storing food handy to the house is immensely satisfying, meeting the human need to labor and build, providing great opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth, and enhanced by team work and community. There is rhythm, change, beauty, and surprise. There is the call to be creative and innovative within the complex rules of ecology and the limits of conditions and available supplies. There is abundant life, from the succulent Swiss chard and rambling pumpkin vines to the daily visits of hummingbirds, discoveries of multicolored varieties of leaf hoppers and spiders, pollinators large and small. In this season, there’s a sense of the miracle of such abundance, as I go back again and again to fill yet another bowl or basket with produce. Then as the shadows of the trees lengthen across the yard I heat up water, slice and blend and boil and hope that this time we can get through an entire winter without buying store potatoes, frozen beans, or dried oregano. Certainly we’re good on tomato sauce and applesauce.




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Call me

Students like me. They listen, they respond thoughtfully, seem interested, respond to appeals to their better nature. The “bad” kids feel understood, respected, liked. The smart kids pick up on my being one of them, the smart asses find I get the joke, laugh with them, and don’t get offended.The ones who think school is a waste of time know I sympathize, but pick up that I’m asking them to make it count, make it theirs, come up with a better plan. The timid ones feel safe, okay to venture a word now and then. The special ed kids get a hand, the Spanish only speakers don’t feel ignored.

Teachers like me–they see I can handle things, seldom send kids to the office or for a time out or Step two or Make my Day or whatever. I understand the content, including science and math, get the lessons done, come up with things on the fly, dress professionally, have a sense of humor. I get asked back, recommended to others. Okay, so I’m not great at getting students to tiptoes down the correct side of the hallway without a peep on the way to lunch, and I sometimes forget to “do points” or give out golden tickets for behavior. I’m more than consistently adequate.

But after numerous applications sent to several districts for open positions for which I am qualified, no interviews. The kids say “You should work here!” The teachers say, “I’m surprised you’re still subbing!”

In my desire to learn, I want to go in and politely ask at district HR, what, exactly, are you looking for? Or what is in my application, or my online reputation, that gets me screened out? Is it perhaps that there are many more qualified candidates? How do you know, and what am I missing?

For now I’ll consider it an act of the Divine Will. “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” Maybe I need more time for my family to adjust to my having a career, for my third child to get her driver’s license, for my youngest to get more street savvy for walking home alone. The longer it takes for me to get a regular teaching position, the more I read and study and work out my views on education, the more styles of teaching and learning I encounter, the more connections I make so I can see my niche seems to be. I have time to sketch up my room design, plan displays, prepare my beginning of the year ice breakers and scene setters. I’ve come up with writing activities, field trips, unit study plans, lists of special speakers. I’ve written speeches to my students, planned weekly routines, visualized the development of friendships with other staff I might work with.

I got some job hunting tips from two friends, one a long time teacher who has the knack–how to link my statements with the district’s mission statement, what language to use, points to cover. No compromising my integrity there–these mission statements are good and idealistic, as am I. Another professional, a 4-H dad who happens to be an assistant principal, gave more more tips. One was be careful what I say about tests.

I think it’s my letter to the editor that’s the problem. It’s out there in cyberspace that I urged parents to opt out of state standardized tests. No, I was not being naive–I counted the cost, and felt there were enough administrators out there who would respect me for what I said, even some who agreed, and those were the ones I wanted to work for, anyway. Or they’d see that I was writing as a parent, not, as a substitute teacher, having the full rank of a district employee. I felt myself in any case to be free to speak according to my conscience.

All I ask is that they have the courtesy, the courage, to ask me the questions. I can explain–I really can. I know my obligations as a future employee, and I know the limits of my freedom of speech, more or less. I don’t wish to give up the opportunity to have a lasting influence on young people so that I can make public statements critical of the policies of the upper administration. I know there’s a huge amount of money involved in testing–money that can be withheld for failing to follow the state (federal/ corporate?) mandate. Give me a call. Ask me what I think? See if I won’t do so much more good than harm.


Posted by on September 20, 2015 in Uncategorized


Life on the rolling rock

Image result for planet earth line of sunrise
When the sun comes in I turn off the light. Amen. The round fruit is silently peeled and reflects soft morning light. Power usage drops suddenly as light switched are clicked off, across neighborhoods, cities, continents. A few variations due to mountains, valleys, tall buildings, heavy clouds, and people not paying attention or lacking windows. Exaggeration where solar panels feed direct into the grid.

At the utility, he holds his mug of coffee and sees it on the digital map: the drop in kilowatt usage all along the horizon of solar radiation. But soon the stoves are turned on, the computers, the hairdryers, and the solar rhythm is obscured again.

On Saturday a big storm ripped through and downed power lines, sending utility workers scurrying out with trucks loaded with chain saws and tools, and the customers tweeted from coffee shops across the county and generator powered devices that this was unacceptable–work was interrupted, kids could not go to school, entire apartment buildings had to be evacuated because of the dangerous dark. Please obscure our complete dependence we are uncomfortable with it. This is a developed country after all.

When a snow storm or hurricane cuts electricity to the outlets and water pump at the old timer’s house, his pulse quickens as he sinks into old home patterns. He does the circuit, fills the tub from the well, lights the kerosene lamp and a few candles, fries eggs and potatoes on the wood stove, and sits in the living room playing guitar as his wife knits in the firelight.

If I lived in a teepee or igloo I would get up as the sky lightened, do my work by the light of day, tidy up while I could still see and go to bed at dark. Except sometimes I would just start walking, listening, breathing in the sweet scents rising from the earth, seeing just enough by starlight.

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Posted by on September 3, 2015 in Beautiful Earth, Technology


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The dangers of fencing

I seem to be afraid of my neighbor. In one of the five houses surrounding our property is someone I have never talked to in the last few years except when she is upset with me, so I really don’t know her any other way. Well, once when I went over with fresh lettuce to share, she didn’t act angry, only cold, and, No, she didn’t need any lettuce.

Now it has come to pass that we had a survey done of the lines on two sides of our property in preparation for replacing the fence. My husband suspected that our property was larger than the fence perimeter indicated, and he wanted to see whether it was by enough that we could build the new fence with the old one in place so the dogs would be contained. He was right–we own several feet of the land outside the fence. Moreover, two of this neighbor’s trees are on our side, and several are on the line.

I notice in an email dated a few months ago that this neighbor responded to my information that we’d be doing a survey by saying that she expected her trees to remain intact and undamaged. The history of the trees: she planted a row of cedars while we were living overseas and renting the house out. Not a problem at first, but they have grown several feet a year since then and will soon render most of our yard virtually useless for vegetable gardening. At first I just sighed and thought, well, we’ll be moving in a year or two, so whatever. But that plan changed, and we are staying. I can’t imagine a life without vegetable gardening. But my husband and I have not yet broached the subject with her, though we’ve talked it over.

Today I sent an email suggesting that she look at the survey markers–simply that, no mention of the location of the boundary. I am still putting off the entry into that conversation. Now it seems we have not only the desire but also the right to have these trees topped, removed, or replaced, restoring sunlight to the garden.

My imaginary conversations with the neighbor begin in various ways. One, she stomps over and confronts us, angry at what that the stakes indicate, and questions the survey. She hints that we placed them ourselves. Two, I invite her over for coffee or soup to discuss things. She refuses and says there’s no way she’s going to accept this finding if it means her trees are at risk. Three, I knock on her door, more of the same.

I want her to see us as fair and reasonable, as good neighbors. But the fact is, she has yelled at me over the fence for my kids being loud and for operating a saw too early, and emailed me several times about our dogs either barking or escaped and harassing her cats. When she yelled at me, I marched over to her house and said I didn’t appreciate it, and if she had a problem I would listen to civil talk before she got so angry. The first time she admitted to having a headache and being in a foul temper, and the second time she asked that I refrain from sawing before and after her work hours. So I felt those issues were resolved, and after that she emailed in a relatively polite way.

Part of one imaginary conversation has me saying, We never talk unless there’s a problem, and you are always upset with me. Why don’t we go out for a beer (even though I don’t like beer, I think that’s the spirit) and discuss anything but neighbor problems? I would really like to see her smile, even laugh. I’d like to know her other side, and her mine.

And then I want the trees topped. I’m not a people pleaser, I just want to do unto others. And when others don’t do unto me in a way that creates an ongoing problem, I might confront them. Except this time, I can’t seem to visualize success. I’m visualizing a weary defeat in which she doesn’t offer any concessions, refuses to allow us to replace the trees with something smaller, refuses to admit that she should have checked in with us before planting the trees, demands we pay for another survey. I imagine being worn down, allowing her animosity and self-centeredness to color our whole experience in this neighborhood (despite three other wonderful neighbors with who we have friendly relations), and moving away.

Wish me luck!



Posted by on September 2, 2015 in Places & Experiences, Relationships


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