Tag Archives: teaching


I feel so privileged to be a teacher. This going through cancer in the family has made me feel that even more deeply. Yes, I wish I could quit and spend more time with my husband and children, have more quiet for my soul, more time to write and work in the garden. Especially since my husband is starting to get me better and wants to take more part in what he calls my special spirituality. Which is less about going up front to ask for prayer, and more about taking deep breaths as the sun rises, stopping at thickets full of chickadees, and growing seedlings. He said he’ll let me teach him how to start the different types of seeds in pots tomorrow. I loved being a house mom/wife. But what I do at work is very, very special in terms of what is possible, what might happen, how I and my colleagues might affect some young people. We get to find ways to communicate that they matter, that there’s hope, that if they want to, they can. All in the guise of teaching math and science.

One of my favorite times, as I have said before, is the twice-a-week morning homework help drop-in, two and a quarter hours long. More students are coming now, for the math, yes, but that is definitely not the whole deal. There’s something going on I can’t put my finger on, a dynamic that connects from person to person as one gets a problem, another gets stuck, someone jokingly teases another, another one brings up something unrelated to the math, but important to life.

One girl might, just might, be starting to see her self-defeating attitude for what it is. Another might, just might, believe that even though Geometry continues to be extremely difficult for her, all the extra work she puts in is making her mind stronger and more capable. Another might, just might, believe that there’s hope for a young farmer and a good life that builds up the soil, meets new market demands, and is sustainable, and that the most important quality about a man is not the power of his truck. That one is still a longer shot, but today I saw a certain openness in his eyes.

I think I might need to shift the tables around, though, There’s this one section where everyone sits together, and a few newer attendees sit apart and alone. I need to get a new zone going, a branch of the community. The two new girls will learn to ask for help, I hope, not just wait shyly until I come over to see how it’s going. I want them to connect with each other –both are still on the edge of that, for different reasons.

As I consider what the role of teachers is in preventing violence such as the recent Florida school shooting, I think that part of it, for sure, is to simply be kind–deeply kind, not just professionally courteous and friendly, but to communicate the “I see you” that can help heal those ragged edges. I think of two of our students–both obese, academically passive, socially awkward, and obsessed with guns. They are lucky–we are lucky, and who who knows who else will be lucky–that at our school, they will not fall between the cracks and end up bent out of shape by the system–not if we can help it. My lead teacher is a real inspiration there–as problems seem unsolvable, she just ups the commitment, ups the connection, ups the support, sometimes making up for what a dysfunctional family doesn’t even know is missing in terms of parenting.

I think about how nice it would be to have fewer preps and work closer to home, but today our whole staff came in to my room an hour and a half after quitting time just to say they were all rooting for me and my husband, that we’d be in their prayers, and to let them know if there was anything I needed. Gave me a card full of sweet words and several hefty grocery store gift cards so I could buy the special foods my husband can eat. I’m at the right place, that’s for sure.



Tags: ,

The long way, home, or not, I don’t know

I’ve been spouting off a lot about evolution by natural selection, and interpreting everything I can through that lens–social behavior, religion, crime, politics, everything. Sounds a bit fanatical to be always on about it, but I’m going to try to explain why, because I’m not done. But I want it to be known that even if I become satisfied that evolution does explain everything, including what Dawkins called the God Delusion, I still plan to try to build a bridge back to faith. It will have to be using completely different materials, though. Faith itself will also mean something different. And it will be a rough road. What’s hard is that I can’t, and don’t want, to take anyone with me. I know this blog is just a curiosity, a hobby, and any of my traditionally faithful friends and family won’t even be reading it, let alone be led astray. If they knew my path, they would pity me and lovingly pray for me. Like I did for my young professor at the graduate unseminary, when he admitted that the more he studied the Hebrew Scriptures and understood how the process of interpretation, canonization, and Bible politics works, the less faith he had in its divinity and so-called infallibility. He seemed melancholy, so I tried to comfort him–comfort him!–with some pablum of an assurance that I was sure he’d figure it out, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit! He must have begun to feel very lonely at that evangelical school, as he came and went on his motorcycle. Wanting to teach and be honest, but knowing what he had begun to know, and being around so many who he just couldn’t be honest with, for so many reasons. Such as getting asked to move on, after the leaders’ prayer meeting in which God led the admin on who was called to the school’s ministry and who not. Such as, in case he undermined that faith that, even though he was losing it, still seemed precious, in a fragile way, in others. Not to be challenged before its time. And a humble man wouldn’t assume he was in the right, enlightened and needing to disillusion everyone else, anyway.

My niece graduated from, and now works at, another Christian college, which is now trying to strike an impossible balance between loving and accepting all people while asking them not to engage in relations outside of heterosexual marriage. It’s tough to hold together a school like that. Half of your critics say you’re too liberal, and the other half, too conservative, she said. How can you even be honest with yourself? They’d got over some conservative hurdles–my niece said that they affirmed that gifted and called women should be teaching and preaching along with (gifted and called) men. I told her, that’s very liberal, because it’s reinterpreting Scripture, going against specific apostolic instructions because they don’t feel true today, and so you can’t then say that gay marriage is unbiblical in the next breath (which this college does). You have to be honest and admit that you are evolving due to adaptation to the current environment. Women are not expected to sign an agreement to cover their heads while at the school, men keep their hair short, and Americans cut out the part about obeying the King centuries ago. So why draw the line here? Was it really about Scriptures, or something else? Maybe just part of the gene pool, that part that has driven the population explosion so far and doesn’t yet acknowledge the population tipping point, that can’t abide a non-reproductive kind of love.

Today in our semi-weekly math study hall, someone brought up Elton John, his music being the focus, t first. Someone hadn’t heard of him. The first student was aghast. I pitched in the he was Sir Elton John, even. From another part of the room came a quiet, “I hate him. He’s gay.”

“Whoa, I said, you hate him, just like that?”

“Yup.” Another student, though also raised a conservative Christian, also took issue, saying you shouldn’t be so quick to judge, should give people a little room. The hater said a few other things, but because he his speech is impeded by a birth condition, I couldn’t understand it all.

“That’s a bit harsh. Maybe you should learn a bit more before you hate people,” I said. I asked, “Do you think he’s talented?”

“No. he can’t be.” He was looking scornful and shaking his head.

“Well, I guess that’s not the conversation we need to have right now,” I said, and went back to helping him with how to use the Distance Formula to prove lines congruent. People were quiet. I think that student’s openness showed something up in its rawness, partly by being so in contrast with his amiable nature, in a way that wouldn’t have happened if it had been uttered by someone already known to be redneck, and proud of it.

So some of the sweetest people are homophobes, that’s for sure, just due to their imprinting. Because this guy is incredibly sweet, funny, loved by all. And tough. The one who, when we were talking about aches and pains, said, briefly, ” I don’t even think about pain–I just suck it up.” I hadn’t even been aware, hadn’t thought, about all the pain he experiences daily, especially with the physio he has to have just to keep his muscles flexible and his spasticity under control.

I wouldn’t even start to try to persuade him. If at some point a real issue develops, say with a new gay student, that will be really difficult for us here, maybe. But maybe not–friendship and proximity has a way of melting hard hearts, doesn’t it?


Tags: , , , ,

I feel it in my gut.

Tonight I welcome feelings of bloat and stomach ache, because it means that likely my husband, who’s had something like it for weeks, probably doesn’t have any serious condition after all. He’s getting checked out anyway, despite being told his suffering was probably due to fasting (the PA didn’t believe in it), or gluten, or sugar, and things being complicated by his starting a purchased herbal cleansing.

I’m not a worrier. At least, not about things like this–I was just waiting, trying to field with thought and objectivity my husband’s questions about what might be happening with him. I don’t pretend to be expert, but he still asked me, and I guess I felt it was just a particularly uncomfortable set of symptoms of a bug that was going around. He’s not a patient patient, and I rarely get sick these days, so I guess I have become less reactive to his complaints. My unfeelingness was even a concern to me. Do I feel no sympathy for any particular reason? Suppressed emotion? Resentment? I’m even less likely to want to pity someone if they complain, though intellectually I know everyone has a right to state their ills, and have people care and want to relieve them.

Maybe I can view my relief at, as I said, my own gut-ache, as a sign of a soft heart somewhere. I do know my feelings of compassion and concern exist, just about different things. I worry about people who suffer ignorance, injustice, purposelessness, confusion, apathy, inability, lack of vision.  Also about people who haven’t found a way to contribute to society, or worse, who injure society. Such as by ignorantly perpetuating the consumer economy that is so destructive, that will, must inevitably lead to so much suffering.

Here’s how I see it. Natural selection will have its way. If we live beyond the boundaries of the ecosystems that sustain us and cause their collapse, most of us will die–that’s the way it works. Unlike with minor disruptions of stability such as war, natural disaster, famine, and so on, the rich and privileged won’t be able to capitalize in any real way, insulating and enriching themselves–the “fittest” will be those who, like the “leavers” in Daniel Quinn’s books, melt off into the jungle with survival skills, seeing the hollowness of present ways, returning to their mammalian mostly hunter-gatherer roots. Even these will be rather randomly selected, I suppose from the peoples who happen to live farthest away from sinking, storm- and flood-drowned lowlands, baked deserts, collapsed ocean fisheries, highway-dependent food systems. It will be impersonal and somewhat random. That’s best case scenario. Worse would be some kind of engineered destruction, like in the movies–by germ warfare, engineered addiction, genetic chemical, or psychological, manipulation but smart but morally degenerate (but who’s to judge–just another means of natural selection?) players who see it coming and manage to come out on top. The could live to pick up the pieces.

Looks like I won’t get to teach environmental science next year. The state, and the colleges, don’t view it as an essential science. Biology, Physics, Chemistry are the core, they say. It’s such bullshit. Even if all my students wanted to be biochemists and engineers, I still think they need to make room to learn how the planet works and how to live here properly. Who are these decision makers, that they don’t see this as a priority, now at least? I want to find, found a consortium of teachers, leaders, scholars who fight to get environmental science in the top three. I’ve tried to argue for it to my principal and lead teacher, but their hands are tied. I can teach a lite version on Fridays, maybe, but in a religiously conservative community like this, the name Environmental Science is suspect. I might teach kids that owls are more important than jobs.

Still, I did get to teach one Environmental Science last year (their way of enticing me). And I’ve managed to work in some themes this year–in Food Science we looked at food production, water and food waste; in How not to Starve we’ve looked at the history of agriculture and the effects of industrialized production on the environment, health, and culture. Naturally, although this town is surrounded by farmland, not many families are farming, because of the past consolidation of small farms, so I’m trying to inspire them to become a new kid of farmer, even used the terms pasture raised, local, animal welfare, and organic. My upcoming class called Science Debates should be rich in opportunity, and Marine Biology will include ecological themes for sure. I feel the privilege of getting even to decide on these classes–who gets to do that? And maybe, after all, I can integrate what I care most about into Chemistry, the core class I’ll be teaching next year.


Posted by on January 23, 2018 in Beautiful Earth, Education, science


Tags: ,

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 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.


1 Comment

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


Tags: , ,

Grasshopper snacks and paper maché

So, so tired, and glad that next week we have a teacher work day. I’m putting in too many hours again, not sure where I could cut down, sure I need at least to be more efficient. I’m trying to simplify grading, for one. My colleagues are helping me with that, showing me ways to create a tighter assessment loop, with more frequent, smaller chunks. I like the moving away from any big tests, and checking for genuine understanding of essentials only instead, combined with meaningful deeper assignments where I look at progress in process-type skills.

Today was a high planning, no grades day. In my Not Starve class, I cooked up some freeze dried grasshoppers and live crickets with chili powder and garlic, and the majority of students had some, as did I. A few had more, one a small, quiet fifth grade girl who told me, with quiet pride, “I had fifteen.” I printed out a large grasshopper drawing with the number she’d eaten and took a photo. Then I sent a pair of students around to share with the staff, and later my principal took them around again, and even got the second grade teacher to eat one. She was surprised at herself, but also proud.

I also served rose hip and haw tea, berries from the garden, and warm, cooked beets.

In Science Art, I mixed up a recipe of ultimate paper maché and we started making armatures out of crumpled grocery bags and masking tape. The requirement was that they make living organism forms or parts with uncomplicated shapes. I have some students who have a hard time with self control, and even though I specified safety & courtesy guidelines, a few still had to be warned and separated. Still, everyone had a good time, though the armatures look pretty rudimentary.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 6, 2017 in Education



Go ahead and teach grit, but not by dishing out gravel.

I haven’t read the book yet, and I’m sure it’ll be well written, full of insight, and helpful in my practice, just like Mindset, the other contender for the staff’s summer book choice. But as I confessed to the principal when I picked up my copy of Grit by Angela Duckworth, I don’t like the language. Grit is what gets in your teeth from poorly washed salad greens, or in your pants after visit to the beach.

I feel that same distaste for with that other trendy word, “rigor.” The dictionary and I associate it with mortis and other highly unpleasant experiences.  Rigor is now to be seen as something we should purposely provide in our classroom experiences. In order to foster grit, I suppose.

Yes, I know the value of perseverance, and the need, now more than ever, in an age of instant gratification, to help students push through difficulties, work patiently over the long term, face as much boredom as necessary to discover their creativity. But what I object to is emphasizing only the negatives–life is hard, school isn’t always fun, what doesn’t kill you, etc. To less skilled, less all-in, less creative and hardworking educators, it might justify expecting students to put up with crappy classes in the name of growth, and give the impression that enjoyable experiences are to be, if not entirely avoided, then minimized as a necessary evil. I can hear them now: “Students, you don’t have to like me; you don’t have to like math; you might just hate this class; but you have to show GRIT, ’cause that’s what its’ all about!” I expect to hear about the opening of a new school with “Boot Camp” in its name any day now. It will attract a certain type of person.

What ever happened to delight-directed learning? Okay, so that wasn’t ever much used in public education circles, but I sure heard about it a lot as a homeschooler, thought about it, and tried for it. I tried to have a basic “table time,” for math and handwriting, and sometimes things I as an adult thought were important, such as memorizing poetry, but then it was, “Run along and find something interesting to do until chore time (and if you can’t come up with anything, chore time starts now).”  Some of the most meaningful experiences my kids had were while pursuing their own passions and interests, because they wanted to persevere trough the difficulties they encountered (The rest came through chores, some of which can also have their satisfactions).

I hope I can still make a place for delight in the way I work with students in public school. The rigor, challenges will always be available–I don’t believe in avoiding those, and students will often need to grow in grit, perseverance, but let’s start with delight, enticement, wonder, enthusiasm, and confidence that what we have to teach is worth learning, is inherently interesting. Whenever possible, let’s kindle fascination, vision, desire—the drives that will create the momentum to drive through those challenges and not give up. And along the way, the more happy memories associated with learning math, science, art, whatever, the more likely students are to continue learning when no one’s giving a report card.

More on annoyingly trendy lingo: Rigor, Grit, Collaboration

1 Comment

Posted by on June 26, 2017 in Education


Tags: , , , , ,

Something’s not right – this is too easy.

It’s not about the hours in preparing lessons for ten different subjects, crafting new interactive assignments on paper and in my mind. Not about grading piles of papers, or the challenge of appropriately customizing assignments for those that need that. Not about calling parents or attending meetings, dealing with a down WiFi network or stuffy, windowless classroom with too few electrical outlets. That sort of thing would be a given no matter where I’d teach.

What’s not quite right is that these students make me feel like I’m good at this, when really, it’s just that they are extraordinarily non-diverse and conformist, unusually trusting, loved, and supported by their families and community. So all I have to do is be reasonably creative, cheerful, energetic and organized, and things come off pretty much without a hitch. What a good teacher I am. They even give me birthday cards and presents, and a giant teacher appreciation poster at the end of the year. At the close of each class, at least two students say thank you. The principal leaves little treats in our mailboxes and brings muffins and fruit to staff meetings, and parents believe what I tell them about their kids and thank me for all my efforts.

It’s not natural.

After my year at the alternative school (having survived to want to fight on), I was exhausted, but also fired up to get out there and use what I’d learned. I wanted to get out there and make a difference, share the incredible burden teachers take on of trying to meet the educational needs of a diverse, broken culture whose youth are experiencing loss, racism, abuse, the reverberations of childhood trauma, culture shock, mental health issues, and family dysfunction. AN in addition to all that, the worst thing of all, a sense of not being visible or valued. I

All the staff and most of the parents at my school are nice Christian people. Even the guy who I would say isn’t part of that culture must have mentioned God eight times in the graduation speech, because he knew that was how to relate best to these grads and their families. There was also a giant “Jesus” sign behind him only partially hidden by green and gold balloons. A prop of the congregation whose building we rent, but at any other school, it would have been covered up in case anyone complained that one religion was being emphasized in a school event. In this town, it’s covering it up that would cause problems.

Other than three Latino kids, who are adopted, one or two of slight Asian lineage, and a good number of (white, Christian) Russian families, the students are pretty much Dutch Reform Evangelical stock. Two of the female staff do have husbands of color, most likely they got aquainted out of town. Which just goes to show, one can’t make a lot of assumptions about viewpoints, only about demographics and related cultural norms.

I like an easy job as much as the next person, don’t long to be in an uphill battle all the time, but I want to have the wind in my face sometimes, to have someone to stick up for, and against, to feel useful in a bigger way. I gravitate toward the students who struggle, who irritate others, who resist, don’t fit in, need something more.

I told myself, and my family, I’d give it three years. By that time I’ll have set down some good routines and organizational strategies, become more efficient with my time and energy, and accumulated some good lesson and project plans in three levels of math and at least three sciences, as well as teaching experience from elementary up to twelfth grade. Then we’ll see. I’ll probably run out of room for the cute little presents that will come my way all that time. I just hope I haven’t got stuck in my groove, and forgotten why I’m in this profession.



Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Education, Places & Experiences


Tags: ,