Monthly Archives: November 2015

Twenty-first is just a number. The previous one was twentieth, and the one that follows is twenty-second. So what?

Twenty-first century education: more use of digital and web-based technology such as game based learning and online curriculum, more “accountability” in the form of testing, more top down decisions about what is taught at what age, a focus on getting everyone why do we always assume that means we should get on board?

Let’s get all excited about getting ready for all points beginning now, or at least beginning at graduation. The invisible vector of the future starts now. We have to be more ready than they are. We are behind in getting our children prepared.

It’s like a fear-driven secular version of Left Behind. What is it, at the root? And why won’t anyone publicly question the direction in which we’re headed? As far as I can tell, it’s a global economic competition in growth, growth, growth.

Economic growth is an increase in the amount of goods and services produced per head of the population over a period of time. While deftly avoiding all consideration of the ecological and cultural repercussions of economic growth, it’s held up as the ultimate goal of every nation.

Heard an interview on CBC last week with Hal Niedzviecki on the advertising industry’s heavy use of the temptation we have to obsess about the future. How the hurry to get to it and establish some kind of position of advantage costs us the present, and even the possibility of a sustainable future. ( Reminded me of that hollow ring of the oft-repeated call to “prepare young people for the twenty-first century.” Makes me especially suspicious when the path to that furture is strewn with the remnants of fine arts, home economics, and shop programs, when it fails to incorporate ambitious, eclectic reading lists featuring the best of classic and contemporary fiction, and when the students on the path are whipped along by fears of not being able to compete for a spot or scholarship at the best colleges, by teachers who are “accountable” for test scores and not much else.


Diane Ravitch
Education Historian; author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System, says:

Diane Ravitch

To be prepared for the 21st century, our children require the following skills and knowledge: an understanding of history, civics, geography, mathematics, and science, so they may comprehend unforeseen events and act wisely; the ability to speak, write, and read English well; mastery of a foreign language; engagement in the arts, to enrich their lives; close encounters with great literature, to gain insight into timeless dilemmas and the human condition; a love of learning, so they continue to develop their minds when their formal schooling ends; self-discipline, to pursue their goals to completion; ethical and moral character; the social skills to collaborate fruitfully with others; the ability to use technology wisely; the ability to make and repair useful objects, for personal independence; and the ability to play a musical instrument, for personal satisfaction.

As I engage with the ideas presented in the Project Based Learning movement and feel myself inspired by such models as Dan Diego’s charter school High Tech High, I see behind the curtain, perhaps meaning well and certainly generous with their money, social entrepreneurs whose main goal seems to be, essentially, to fill their meeting rooms and cubicles and conference rooms with “innovators” who can make them lots of money. How do wise educators keep that goal from superseding true education? How does a community cling to its right to collectively and wisely envision the future, rather than yield that visioning power to those who pay the bills? Are we naively looking forward to a free lunch once again?

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Posted by on November 29, 2015 in Culture & Society, Education, Ideas


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Bright Friday

This coffee shop reeks of pungent soap suds as the floor gets mopped. I think that was going on last time I came here, too–3000 miles ago on the odometer. I commented on it then too, hoping this customer could always be taken as right, and they’d buy some less offensive soap. Still, the shop also reeks of humanity, and intelligent good humor. Every time I sit here clicking away at the keyboard as the techs renew my Honda’s fluids, that strikes me—that the customers (and their dogs) are called by name, news is exchanged in specific terms, the baristas don’t deal in the fluffy generic “how’s your day going,…(consulting credit card)…Bill?” hoping he’ll just be glad to get a friendly glance from those long lashes and leave a nice tip. A young man with Down’s whom they know from down the road comes in for some signatures, and is treated as neighborly as anyone could wish.

Savoring the clear skies and winter sunshine, trying to envision living in that house on acreage. Today we laid out a print of the aerial view and sketched over it on tracing paper what would have to be fenced for the dogs, the garden, the future livestock, where the shop and barn would go. My husband wants a donkey, like the one we saw being chased around a pasture by bigger cousins the other day on our walk. I’d like to raise a dairy animal or two, an annual beef steer, and chickens for eggs and meat.There’s lots of room for space-loving crops like corn, pumpkins, dry beans and green manure crops, as well as a handy kitchen garden.

This is the stage where it would be painful to hear that the house was under offer by someone else, so we should probably limit such specific planning, or put our money on the table. The conversation has become more balanced and peaceful, as we consider what would be getting traded–this for that, the possibility of these for the certainly of those, and so on. Our youngest son is all for it, oldest two are open, and younger daughter is the only one who pipes in to object—citing her beliefs that this or that unpleasant consequence are sure to follow, that it will not be an improvement. The three years until she graduates seem so long to her, the prospect of one year having to commute to her high school, or switch, so significant. But she has the most to gain, we think—the house is a few blocks from the community college where she’ll spend two years and also from the barn where she rides almost daily. We listen, acknowledge that change is always hard and that this will be no different, but subtly communicate that this is about our long term plan as a family, and that everything will work out for her. I think she’s reliving her childhood memories of the stress she went through when we moved to Israel, and forgets that this would be a comparatively mild transition.

Out there there is a frantic day of shopping going on, but this coffee shop is away from all that. Sure is nice not to receive the local paper on this day in particular. No one has managed to communicate the urgency to us this year of hitting the sales. Seems, and this could just be an effect of the lack of ad flyers–that the Black Friday idea is losing appeal, as people realize that if they don’t shop now, they can always watch for a sale later, or even make presents of give Heifer International livestock to families trying to make a living in some tougher part of the world. Or that they don’t really need anything much anyway. Is that why all the car ads today promise up to thousands in “cash back”? Really? Is that what it takes now?

Still, sometimes I feel that irrational urge to buy, the call of the sparkling new things that just might brighten my life, make someone else cheer up, symbolize some kind of renewal as the days get darker, or tide me over the darkest. I manage to pass by the exit into the local Fred Meyer, as the sky glows with its last golden light behind the blink of red tail lights and green for go. Picturing the snow about to fall. It’s definitely a season-induced feeling. The catalogs are arriving, the UPS trucks stop and go around the neighborhood more frequently, and at home I do my best to resist the urge to shop online. Maybe just a little, since Amazon will set aside a certain percentage for my chosen school… Now that’s what it takes.


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Posted by on November 28, 2015 in Culture & Society, Places & Experiences


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Thoughts from subbing a year ago

Sine wave of confidence in myself at a low right now. Many factors contributing–a talking-to here, a piece of someone’s mind there, a few more failures to be as good a parent as I aspire to be, and I end up (after the first reaction of anger or irritation and self-justification) weary, feeling small, with no one to dry those tears. Who was I kidding, that I had the nerve to aspire to be a teacher? Looking back on the moments in which I had nothing to offer but a hoping for the best, and a sense of knowing I don’t know much.

After a few days of thinking things had gone well during my eight days of subbing, I took some days off, thinking I deserved a break. Turned out to be four, to be around for my kids who are opting out of testing. Now I’m feeling irresponsible, for not adding to the finances as much as possible, and at a time I should be trying to reinforce my commitment to teaching and making a good, memorable impression on administrators so I have a shot at a job in the fall. Plus when I’m adrift around the house these days, I lose some of my groove–the home projects don’t fulfill like they used to, and the kids don’t need/want my leadership in the same way, naturally. The role of housewife is stale, especially in the awareness of my having fallen short in the area of training the children to co-manage with me.

Failures at home carry over into a sense of insecurity about my worthiness to teach in a formal setting. Even if I have proven myself in some ways, got the stamp of approval or requisite number of stars, what about that other thing? If I get to the short list of candidates for the science positions available, say the screener or principal decides to do a quick internet search on my name? Up come two letters to the editor  in which I advise parents to opt out of testing. Just before the wave of student opt outs in our three high schools, as if I was maybe some kind of adviser behind the scenes. Which I would have been proud to be, I guess, though that was not the case–I met no one and sensed no rumblings of a local opt out movement when I made my move. But what concerns might an administrator have about what kind of employee I might be if hired? Insubordinate? Overly independent? Or courageous in the cause of educational ideals and democratic process, a good example to the young citizens under our care? Will I get the chance to explain that I did this in the role of parent, that if I were a full time teacher I would be agreeing to abide by professional protocol and remain neutral? Not mentioning, of course, that my version of neutral includes providing options and full information as to the nature, quality, and reliability of tests, and student/family right to choose.

At first I felt that my classes last week went well, considering the diverse needs and low motivation that I’d been warned about. But am I deluded? In two classes it felt like I was stringing beads on a thread without a knot at the other end, in my efforts to find ways to help student focus on and see the point of and value and accomplish the tasks laid out for them. Meanwhile one to two sets of table groups are completing them without much need for me at all, except to find out what to do when they were done. One table was all English language learners, and without knowing their particular language, I couldn’t even distinguish the ones who simply needed translation from those who had trouble with math in any language.

I walk around the classroom with my high ideals, seeing the value for all of these activities they are supposed to do–working with speeds and times and rolling carts, then doing the math, but I’m dragging them along through glitch after glitch and, what was the point, again? Connection with environmental science, again?

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Posted by on November 26, 2015 in Education



Don’t fence me in

Do you know why I love this job? Because I’m stretched every day, yet I don’t seem to break or snap as often. I guess I’m made of tougher sinew now, comparing myself to the twenty-eight-year old who carried so much strain and stress and insecurity that first year of teaching, took everything personally, always felt inadequate. The other part is the creativity that I have to draw on, and how essential it is to connect with each student and do some pretty serious (long term) mentoring in life skills. Sort of why I was drawn to working in a middle school rather than a regular high school. This is a good combination of the two, in a way.

Though I was concerned about my energy level, working every day, I’m so mentally and emotionally charged up in class and have so much to think about outside of work that my body seems to be learning to draw on new channels of ATP. A brisk half hour swim before work, when I can fit it in, does wonders for slow release energy.

Right after the last student leaves, I sure need a bit of quiet, and my mind sort of lets go of any threads of organized plans I’d had for getting things done. If anyone breezed in and said “What did you do today,” (or “What do you have planned for tomorrow?”) I wouldn’t be able to say. But the drive home wakes me up again, and I just want to get back at the papers and plans and books I’m trying to get ahead in so I can extract readings for the next units. I’m tickled that, for now, this is my reality, feeling glad I am where I am. Fully expect it won’t always feel that way. Only cloud on the horizon is the fact that I can’t seem to connect in the way I want with the para educator who works in one of my classes. I think it’s just personality differences–something girlish, in a grown up form, she has, that I never did have. Most other girls mystified me, I never felt like one of them, though I adopted some of the accouterments up to my freshman year of college. Most of my buddies, the ones I could really talk to then, being male (including my dad), and the rest, women with no frills and a strong intellect, even an edge of some kind. The para is not girly in a fluffy way–runs every marathon she can, has a straightforward, no-nonsense manner, is very organized and confident, but I feel that same sense of not being of quite the same variety. And the sense of fun and lightheartedness I saw in her during my interview hasn’t shown up since. Oh well. She sure is a big help in my class with eight or more kids who have IEPs.

It was an extra short day today, each period only a half hour long, and about a third of the students didn’t show. After the quiz I’d promised, I shared my idea of doing the big class project, the one with some kind of physical interpretation of biology/environmental science principles, on the chain link fence outside the classroom. We did some low key brainstorming about what techniques could work–weaving, attaching painted work, pages in plastic protectors, stained glass, ribbons. One boy suggested we dig a pond, another plant flowers. Then time was up and there were wishes of Happy Thanksgiving as they went out into the sun and wind.

I shared the concept with the principal, asked about the fence possibility, which he said could work as long as it looked nice, that being the side where people walk and bike by to other destinations. Another reason for choosing it in my mind, besides being able to admire the work from inside the classroom. Fence at the back also a possibility, facing a warehouse, or the one around the picnic tables.

I perceived that I had partially been trying to impress, with my eagerness to apply what I’d been learning about Project Based Learning (PBL). I was glad to have the response, though. On the way out i ran the idea by the art teacher–a kindred spirit, though she is only around on a very part time basis. She said she looked forward to hearing more. I think I need to get at this while the “Most Likely to Succeed” film is fresh in my mind, but I sense that there are a lot of ways this idea could fizzle, or just get choked out by the traditional resources I’m drawing on as I sink or swim in this first year with the courses. Still, I now know that there are as many ideas as would fill the entire fence around the whole school. As for looking nice, my daughter commented that it looks like a prison camp now, so anything would be an improvement. And since the whole place will be torn down next summer to make way for the new campus, permanence need not be a goal.

Hung with the family for a few hours, discussed with my husband again whether we are serious about the house with 4.5 acres, a pretty heavy conversation for some reason that sort of thing always turns out to be—I’d want the garden here; no, he wants that to be a lawn. We’d need a rec/overflow room, but where? Would we actually get around to building it anyway? What about finishing this one off–what did that seem to drag on so long? A reminder not to get stuck in the “this is my dream” mentality and stay flexible about how our place would be set up, to be thankful to have the option and opportunity. Saw the girls off to their walk down to the historic district, did some chores with my son, then I headed off to buy sweet potatoes and afterwards to do some writing at the coffee shop by the sea–violet water, sky greenish and melting into blue space and the beginnings of stars. Waves lapping, and a bright, friendly space inside where I could be alone.

The WiFi being too loaded to use, I opened my project ideas notebook and started sketching fence panels. The ideas just kept pouring out—energy flow, patterns and order, change, adaptation, cycling of materials, diversity, feedback, interrelationships, communities, biomes, epigenetics. Panels with images, scan codes leading to a student blog, interviews, the story of the project. A panel with a giant feed/energy flow web, another mounted and hung with things that showed wind patterns or captured weather data. A solar panel. All slowly decaying, being bleached by the power of the sun, and in some places, growing up, out, and around. Places for the contributions of passersby. How could they not get excited about the possibilities? I know the idea of doing something different appeals to many, and though it’s meant to be a group project, no one will be obliged to work in a groupish way, just to make their own contribution, whatever that would be. This was an assurance I gave to my “I only work alone” student, who wants to do the writing part.

Also in my notebook I made a list of roles that different students could play–director, scheduler/manager, writer/editor, photographer, craftspeople, community/school liaison. Wondering what roles will be picked up by whom.

I’m getting really curious whether this process is similar to that of others who do these things, and I’m wanting more training. Including training in how to drive this to happen within our constraints and with our potential resources, but keep out of exactly how. Also, how much time will this take, and will it have to expand into after school?



Posted by on November 26, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


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Seeing dimly

Only took a day to realize I haven’t yet entered the promised land of project based learning or authentic learning or whatever you want to call it. Maybe this molecule is too non polar, too big to get across that membrane, and I’ll need the help of a transporting protein, and a good dose of ATP to motor me through. The day after my paradigm-shifted lesson, I went back to reading from the numbered list, feeling nervous about being perceived as incompetent by the para, sensing the difficulty of going both slowly and carefully enough for some and rapidly and in depth enough for others, mentally flailing about for something real to offer. What, do I have to watch that film again to get in the mood? I didn’t even have the guts to do another version of the same thing–this time with salt and water molecules, so I just showed them the dyed gelatin cubes, gave them the numbers, and walked through the math.

Still, I remember the faces from the day before, certain faces–one girl, always sour and reluctant and critical, usually talking through the lesson, but this time so much not knowing what to make of things and with others involved that she kept her nose in a book through the whole diffusion role play. Another, the boy in the hoodie quietly explaining what had to be done from his corner of the room. The girl who asked not to be called on, who has an ADHD diagnosis, up and trying things and telling fellow students who needed to move where. And the fact that just about everyone got past that “What?” stage and got to figuring things out on their own, moving others with their ideas, making mistakes and then getting it right.

So I’ll have to be patient with myself. I said something like that to each class as I explained how I wanted to learn to do things differently. It’s cool that when I bare my soul to these kids, they really listen, and though one might think they haven’t proven to be founts of wisdom so far in life, they have a lot to offer. In kindness, too. Like several, at various times, coming up to me after class to apologize for someone else’s attitude. Or the girl freshly back from a drug violation who, at some reaction I had to some crazy stuff, guffawed and said, “I just want to say that I like you.” Which I shall store in my inner cupboards, the dry ones where swelling is less of a problem.

The girl who has posed the most challenge from day to day will be in conference with staff and parent tomorrow–our feedback, as her teachers, having been solicited. As the principal said, if it’s her or three other students who are on the verge of dropping out of classes because of her, it will have to be her. I told him that I like her and hope she’ll be able to stay, but I admit that I’m a little out of tune with the strain she’s apparently placing on several of my students, one of whom asks to leave sometimes because of things the other is talking about on the other side of the room. Certainly she will have to be moved next to someone less susceptible to being fascinated, and I have an idea whom.

My solution to the problem of needing to provide meaningful content each day is also part of the problem–I plan out the details too much. When I center down and go by my gut, from a place of confidence and moral courage (strengthened by the vision of colleagues and others), I am a better teacher, less in the way of the students’ authentic learning work. I’m trying to concentrate on internalizing big principles–of biology, of environmental science, and thinking of starters that will hook the students into learning not only the most important stuff of science, but how to work together, communicate, create. It’s a distant vision, but it’s driving me.



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Stealing home

You wake up to the silvery light of a November dawn and the hollow boom of the air vent as the first wave of air is sucked up into the flames of the gas furnace. You stretch under the covers, waking the cat, who also stretches, preparing to signal his desire for breakfast. The habitual anticipation of a long weekend morning is with you as you dress, sense of being the first up and ready to accomplish something. You pull on socks against the chill of the wood floor, swing out and head down the hall to the kitchen. You take up your station in front of the sink and look out the east bay window toward the garden. Juncos and sparrows are already at the feeder, and it’s almost empty already. You wonder if this is love or interference, to invite them to breakfast this way. Maybe it’s just a kind of easy art installation, the therapeutic kind you gaze at in delighted distraction–so alive, so right. Still, there was that paragraph on how bird feeders affect birds’ evolutionary trajectory. So be it. Not a problem to mimic the feasts and famines of nature, either, you not being very regular in feeding habits. The birds go away, you miss them, they survive on other things, you fill up the feeders, they come back.

You collect last night’s plates and stow them in the dishwasher–not enough yet to start a load yet. That has changed over the last year. Before it was a challenge to keep the machine running often enough, and still the counters and tables were always littered with more. When the eldest comes home, there will be three loads a day again, for a while, and you’ll try to make more effort to use the table for meals instead of just a place for mail, groceries in transit, and school work.

What was it you wanted to accomplish? Your mind scans over the possibilities. Pick the Brussels sprouts? Later when the sun comes out. Do some sewing? Too little space. Lesson planning?

You hear someone in the living room, and the t.v. clicks on. Why does that always take you by surprise? Oh yeah, we have a TV. There goes the atmosphere. It steals at all, dominates, wants not only viewers for the game, but for several hours of pre-game drama, and post-game analysis. finally the game is over, and, well, look at that–it’s another game. The seasons melt one into another and there’s never a break, except to sleep and go to work, until the power of summer weather can’t be denied. It’s not even real, you think. Not even useful, not even about admiring excellence in athleticism and strategy. It’s about viewership for selling ads. And there’s nowhere in the house you can tune out.

What can be done—what? What? Not another coffee shop—you want a place of your own.


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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Places & Experiences



Glad to be an organelle inside this semi-permeable membrane

Went in early as usual to tidy up plans, by messy corner, and maybe my mind. I enjoy the quiet atmosphere of the class on before my prep starts–the Spanish teacher is soft spoken and they kids listen and work away. Still felt scrambled, couldn’t quite muster my fighting stance for teaching as usual, after yesterday. In the shower I’d been relaxed enough for ideas  to flow, ones I could get excited about, conversations I’d like to have with students, individually and as a class. I got the traditional lesson organized, a continuation of a lab that didn’t really work out due to a missing chemical, but using theoretical results in order to illustrate the concept of surface are to volume ratio in the life of the cell. Keeping those other thoughts in store in case I felt centered enough to share–some writing from the night before, my motes from the “Most Likely to Succeed” film.

I willed myself to relax, reminded myself that this first class had gone really well yesterday and I had nothing to lose by doing some of Plan B. So I brought up the film, told them about how the system they’d been locked into for the past decade had been designed a hundred years ago to fill early industrial jobs and was now proving to be a killer of creativity, initiative, and leadership in most, tended to neglect opportunities to teach what young people really needed no matter what they ended up doing–the ability to collaborate, create, manage time, learn new skills, reflect. How there was no connection between passing tests and having a long term store of useful knowledge. How since knowledge of all kinds was easily accessible, why not have education focus on providing opportunities to do authentic work for a real purpose. How I had an idea that we could create something big around big ideas in biology–maybe the cell. They were intrigued. I asked them to make a note on the index cards I’d been using of personal info, on what their strengths and skills were. Told them if they didn’t know, that was okay–I saw them in every one, and it would be revealed in time.The two girls who were the sassiest said they didn’t have any strengths–I contradicted them, said I saw a quality very important to have–strong will, willing to speak out and stand up to people who seemed to be out of line. Asked one what she though was the corresponding weakness, since all strengths had those. Yeah, she got it.

There was such a sense of attention and engagement–I stayed sitting down, stopped talking every time someone started to, told them I’d assume they felt they wanted to contribute and we could take turns. The ones who usually talked out of turn either shushed themselves or were shushed by others. I said I was planning on letting them work those things out themselves, I could wait–wasn’t me style to be an enforcer. That if anyone felt another student was out of line, would they please respectfully let them know.

Then I passed around paper and had each student write their name and pass to another so they could jot down on each others’ papers the  strengths they saw–rules being no double meanings or subtle put-downs. They did one for me, too.

In the second class I went to the next level, thanks to an empowering chat with my supersecretary, set up a new seating arrangement: a big U with everyone facing in. They all said, “What?! as they came in (except the quiet guy in the hoodie), and found a seat. After sharing about the film, I went over diffusion and osmosis basics and told them I wanted them to demonstrate, with their bodies, what would happen to a cell (inside the circle of tables) in pure water. Then sat and waited. they looked around, a bit dazed, just like the freshmen in the film who were asked on the first day to set up the tables in a certain way. Then, slowly, there was movement, some took initiative. Others waited, all were totally paying attention. Pause, false starts, getting over the expectation that I’d be intervening (which I didn’t, though i sent out a few signals to encourage quiet students who understood to take the lead).

It was so, so cool. I learned more about individual students that session than the rest of the month. And I’m pretty sure they got the concept. I let them mimic bursting the cell membrane by partially tipping over the tables to make sure.

I wasn’t easy to sit and wait. But it felt so right. I could tell it wasn’t easy for the para educator either, but she’d seen the film, too, and knew what I was up to. Though she hinted I should help them. I said I knew several students knew what to do, if they’d just swing the others. In one class it was the quietest boy of all that brought the concept home. In another it was the girl who has an ADD diagnosis and forbids me to call on her.

This is the way our school is going, and it feels so natural and right. I get to study up on ways to deliver or find resources on what they’ll need to know for the big project (as well as the end of course exam in biology), define the basic parameters, and let them at it. I confessed to them that it was kind of scary, and when I felt tense or stressed I’d tend to fall back into my old, familiar, teacher-directed patterns, but that I was really looking forward to seeing what they could do.


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Posted by on November 19, 2015 in Education


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