Monday, October 6, 2014

Once upon a time, my son asked me to tell him a story.

Pop quiz, hotshot: Your three-year-old son asks you to tell him a story. What do you do?

Normally, for most parents, this would present nothing but a normal episode in a developing child's imagination. They would spin some yarn that began with "Once upon a time" and they would end it happy, with the bad guy being defeated by the prince or king or princess or queen. And then there would be the ice-cream. 

But for me, the request takes on a monumental profundity. You see, dear reader, I consider myself a writer (or Writer, depending on the context). I have intentionally put words together with the hope that anyone reading will "get something out of it." Said differently, I arrogantly consider my word-strings to be worth something. Others feel like my writing is "good" or maybe even profess that it is "fun to read." They encourage me to keep writing, to finish the snipits I have let them read, or to continue with a project that has begun but that I am afraid to finish. 

For me, my writing is simply a way for me to control something and perhaps make a point that isn't made in my daily operations as a human. And therein lies the profundity: my family is my world, and my writing is (maybe) something that is of value to me. So when my three-year-old son asks me to tell him a story - one that I make up and not that is read to him - I feel an incredibly ridiculous sense of responsibility. So, pop quiz hotshot: What do you do? What do you do?

I started with "Once upon a time," and he sat down straightaway, criss-cross-applesauce on the hardwood floor with his sippy cup of milk tucked in his lap, a crooked smile that I would recognize if I looked at it in the mirror spread across his face. The moment was electric. I had to perform. 

"Once upon a time, there was a young prince named Drake." His smile widened as he recognized the structure of the story and the name attached to one of the protagonists. The story continued with the young prince encountering an evil witch who was trying to take over the kingdom. With the help of his older brother Prince Tristan, the two were able to defeat the evil witch by outsmarting her: they pretended to eat some enchanted candy and when the witch wasn't looking, overran her and made her take back the spells that she had cast on the great King Dada and Queen Mommy, who were asleep after eating enchanted ice-cream cones. 

"What happened to the evil witch?" my son asked. 

Another challenge - the denouement. 

"Well, son, she was asked to go away for ever and ever, and was commanded to cast only good spells that would help people." 

He didn't like that ending, so I chose another:

"And when she didn't obey, the royal family tracked her down and turned her into a pumpkin."

Both kids laughed at this one. I now realized that my oldest son was not necessarily completely engrossed in his homework, but rather was listening in on my story. More pressure, but a pressure that was relieved with his smile. 

I continued: "And then, after she was a pumpkin, we all took out her insides and cooked them and ate roasted pumpkin seeds. And then we carved a funny face into her, put in a lantern, and put her outside on the porch for kids to see when they came for trick-or-treat." 

Giggles from the youngest: a chuckle from the eldest. Then, the youngest suggested that maybe we cut off her nose and ate it, and the story devolved from there with tales of the guts tasting like Jello-O or peanut butter or snot. Both kids were involved; the plot line was destroyed; a happy father witnessed the imagination of his sons. 

Three "Once upon a time" stories later, each with the same starring cast of Queen Mommy, King Dada, and the earnest, brave, dashing, and handsome princes Drake and Tristan, and it was time for dinner (after I realized the gas burner side of the barbecue was out of gas and had to resort to the broiler for finishing, which added at least two of the remaining stories). Queen Mommy came home, we shared a meal, and the night progressed as usual with some bad TV, some personal iPad time, a bath, and a glass of wine. 

This night will stick in my memory like the peanut butter to my son's face every morning after he eats a PBJ sandwich for breakfast. I shared a piece of myself - spontaneous words in story form - with my sons. My youngest son showed me that he was willing to listen - nay, he was eager to listen to the story I had to tell. As for the eldest son, he showed that he, too, was willing to listen and to get a kick out of the obvious plot developments that contrasted with the slight alterations of the classic tales. Ear buds in, iPad open, he still looked over at us and smiled, and chimed in with the perfect balance of middle school humor that only he and I would understand. 

Tonight was a special one, and it began with my son's request for a story. Does anyone really want to argue the "purpose" behind reading literature and developing a sense of story and plot and character and the interconnectedness of all things human and supernatural? Bring it. I'll tell you a story that will bring you to your childhood, and that will remind you of the power of story. And I'll begin it with "Once upon a time..."

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

I'm getting the blog back together.

It's been a while since I wrote in this medium. But I've been writing.

Since I last posted on this blog, I've written 13,287 emails, each one carefully constructed so as to convey exactly the write information with exactly the right facial expressions.  (That number is totally bogus - but I bet it's pretty close.)

Since I last posted on this blog, I've written 178 pages in a journal. Okay, it's not one journal. It's more like a hodgepodge of Google Docs, spare notebook pages from old journals, yellow legal pad pages, and words I threw up on the Notes application on my phone that is synced with my computer(s). (That number is also totally bogus, but I bet it's pretty close.)

Since I last posted on this blog, I've written about 3 pages of a story that I'm working on with a dear friend of mine, something on the side. This side project has us both jazzed and has us thinking that we actually might have something unique that we can contribute to the world of people who read. (That number is spot on.)

Since I last posted on this blog, I've written text messages to my son and my wife and my friends and my brother and my father. These are a mix of witty repartee, completely factual and informative correspondence, preparative planning, and just plain old "Hey, howzitgoin'?" (I didn't actually write that one, but I've written in short-cut lingo just to dazzle my friends and family with the fact that I might actually send something with short-cut lingo. The layers are manifold.)

Since I last posted on this blog, I've thought 339 times how much I liked it when I was regularly posting on this blog, and that I should probably do it again. Soon. The first of the 339 was about a week after my last blog post. The last was just before I typed "It's been a while since I wrote in this medium. But I've been writing." (That number? Bogus.)

The point of this blog post? Simply to post something on the blog, punch the keyboard a bit and see if the three people out there who were reading this blog might read it again. The point, as I've mentioned in a previous post, is to continue doing what I need to do, what I need to find time to do. I need to write a bit now and then. And so I write a bit. Sometimes the words have profound meaning, and sometimes, like now, there really is no meaning aside from my need to fit words together. So there it is: A new blog post. Perhaps in the next one I'll have something to say, besides "Howzitgoin'."


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Some words for the end of the term


Work hard.


Those are my words for the end of the term. Remember, work hard, and learn. Allow me to explain:

Merriam Webster dictionary defines "remember" as a word that doesn't need a dictionary definition. Seriously, though, you should all take some time at the end of the term to remember what has transpired this year. Students, think back all the way to August when you were going through Arena Scheduling for the first time. Think about the new West Campus building, and about the teachers you had and about the classes that you took. Remember that silly dance that your teachers performed for you, and how that will never happen again. Ever. Think about the friends that you made and about the work that you did, and about the learning that you demonstrated with that work. Fellow teachers and staff, remember how fresh and new the beginning of the year was, how full of inspiration you were, how full of drive and determination to make this the best year yet at RPA. If there are parents reading this, you, too can remember. Remember how many questions you had and how those questions were (hopefully) answered or at least addressed. Remember how your child was at the beginning of the year, and then, naturally, remember the child many years ago. How fast it all goes. How very, very fast. 

Seniors, you get a special note here, for your remembrance will be especially poignant. Remember the first year of high school, whether it was here or somewhere else. My guess is that you all have a vague recollection of who you were then. Remember how awkward it all was, how strange and how new. Remember the learning that happened (or didn't) and the work that you did (or didn't). Remember how big and impressive the seniors seemed to be, how strangely grown up. Now you are the senior, and you give off the same impression as they did. Remember, then, the rest of the years. Some of you were at a different school and were going through the "normal" paces of high school. Some others were here, safely entrenched in the spirit of RPA. Regardless of where you came from, you are here now, and you are about to graduate. Remember who you were, and realize who you are, and then think about how fascinating it is to know who you will become. Always remember, though. Our memories are our surest weapons against Time. 

Work hard: 
This phrase seems a bit silly, if you think about it a certain way. If it's work, then it's hard, right? If it's easy, then it doesn't really qualify as work. Regardless of the type of work in which you are engaged, whether it be school work and studying for that last final or preparing for that last presentation, or grading papers and final assessments and planning for June-Term, or making sandwiches at Subway, or pouring lattes at a coffee shop, there's no reason to work easy. If you are engaged in a thing, you should work hard at it. This doesn't mean that it will be unpleasant, mind you. It simply means that the work you do will be done with vigor and with life behind it. Hard work doesn't have to be unpleasant. You make it pleasant just as you make it unpleasant. The work is there to do, and you get to decide how to approach it and how to finish it and how to think about it. So work hard.

Of course, the sappy teacher is going to bring up learning. At this point, you're probably thinking that I'm going to admonish those who did not learn what they were supposed to learn this year and came up short in demonstrating their proficiency in certain areas and subjects. Nope (although I kind of just did...). What I'm going to say is that at the end of the term, as you reflect and as you work hard, you should rest assured that you are learning whether you like it or not. Each day you spend on this earth provides you with an opportunity to learn, and if you dismiss that opportunity, that in itself is learning. Sure, there is learning to be done with reading, and tests, and assignments, and did I mention reading? You need to be learning about functions and how sines relate to cosines, and how to get your parents to co-sign on a car loan; about English grammar and essay writing and made-up people who teach us about real people; about the troposphere and chemical reactions and stoichiometry and how stoichiometry is nothing like Geometry and how a Geo Metro is nothing like either of those two; about throwing pots and about overthrown governments and about how to save someone choking on their own throw up (sorry about that - I was looking for another use of the word "throw"). That's the school part of the learning that you should be doing, and it is all valuable. Trust me: it is. But there's more. 

There's learning who you are when "things" are easy and who you are when "things" are hard. There's learning about your goals and your drives and your dreams and how your past can shape your goals and drives and dreams. There's the learning that happens naturally as you grow and the learning that happens in a more contrived manner. Ultimately, there's learning about learning, and if you commit to that learning now, you will find that the other types of learning come quite fluently. 

Hopefully this hasn't been too cliche. If it has, then remember to work hard at learning why writers sometimes use cliches and why, sometimes, life really is like a box of chocolates - or a highway - or a many splendored thing. 

I hope you have been enjoying my words. There might be a word or two published over the summer, so stay tuned, you four or five wonderful people who have actually read this silly blog. Like as not, though, I'll realize I'm just an old man yelling at the sea to take its waves back, and this blog will recede into the ethereal place where blogs go to die. 



Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What's going on next door?

Ray Bradbury wrote a wonderful short story called "The Pedestrian" in 1951. In the story, the protagonist wanders the streets of his dystopian society and is met with the muted flashing lights of TV screens projecting the latest shows. The idea is that no one has a personal connection with anyone else. The screens have taken over, and people do not interact with real people - they only interact with the two-dimensional ones on the various screens. He wonders as he walks, “What’s going on next door?”

While I could at this point launch into a diatribe about how Bradbury totally called it in 1951, how our society is starting to resemble the dystopian world created by Bradbury in this story (and in Fahrenheit 451, and in other stories), instead I'll talk about a different world altogether. It is my world at school. (Groan if you will, but I haven't posted on a topic like this is a while, having been completely consumed with finishing a story about a squirrel.)

So what's going on next door in my world? I love teaching at this school because the walls are so thin. On Tuesday morning, I can hear my good friend Mr. K talking about criminology next door while I blather on about media literacy and digital communication and bias and truth. Criminology sounds fascinating. The criminal element has been around for quite some time (forever, I think is the term), and so the study of criminals - the state of criminality, the people who become criminals, the system that deals with criminals - is absolutely important for our understanding of how part of our society functions. 

Later that day, after switching classrooms, I can hear two sets of voices. Mrs. K is enthusiastically informing students about Calculus (or Algebra 2 or Trigonometry or basic arithmetic, I can never tell the difference). Knowing that the universe can essentially be explained with math, especially the higher orders of the discipline, makes me wish I could sit in and watch the show, tinker with numbers (rarely) and letters (more often) and symbols (quite often), figure out the universe.

Comingled with this voice is the voice of yet another colleague, Ms. B. She’s talking about childcare and about human development and about the psychology and physiology of children. I cannot think of anything more intriguing than learning how we have all travelled through the same stages of development, but we have all done so uniquely and with a different result – us. She takes her students to schools and preschools and has young people at one end of the development spectrum work with other young people at the other end of the development spectrum. Youth informing youth: beautiful.

I go upstairs. There, I see students working independently on various online curricula. Some students are huddled around a single computer and are collaborating and learning together. Others are simply using the computer for purely social reasons and taking a break from learning. (Again, I could launch into a rant about how long that break often lasts, but I won’t. Yet.) A teacher, Mrs. M, works with individually with another student who is having trouble with a particular mathematical concept. Here, one can almost hear the hum of students’ brains, or maybe it’s the lights overhead and the screen and the printer/copier.

In another office upstairs, our director is busy captaining the ship – sometimes meeting with the crew, sometimes with the harbormaster, sometimes with the customers who fund our little expedition. In my own office, I sit and unpack my computer and continue working as I eat lunch. My officemates come in and we have a conversation. We talk about work, of course, but we also talk about our personal lives and about our mission and about our country and our society and our world. We are intelligent people and we talk about intelligent things, until we don’t. It is inspiring and challenging and comfortable.

Still later on this typical day, I descend the stairs once again to class and through the wall I hear Mr. H. He discusses journalism and the school newspaper and then he discusses issues that are tangentially related to the newspaper but have real meaning in the lives of the students. They laugh. Everyone laughs in this classroom, now that I think about it. He stays in that classroom as I stay in mine for the next class, wherein he discusses drama and the art of creating life on a stage from the words on a page. If that isn’t some sort of magic, then I guess we’ll have to rely on Hogwarts after all.

This is just one day. The next day, while I hack away at my blog and read my students’ thoughts, I hear the projected voice of Ms. B again, mixed with the distinct vocal delivery (and laugh) of Mr. Mc. She teaches first aid and CPR, while he teaches about the history of our country. In another room in the building, someone is administering a science lab and helping students experience the learning that so often stays up in the abstract regions of the brain and soul.

All of that occurs in only one building of our four. Down the block, a teacher holds court in the art studio, and is peels open the creative genius that has been dormant for many years in so many students. Here, another form of magic exists, the art of visual composition in various media. In the same building, but in a separate room, another teacher incongruously provides instruction and facilitation in Geometry. What strange building mates these two make, until one sees the art of geometrical shapes reflected in the photography and the sculptures and the painting and drawings of the art studio.

What’s going on next door? Allow me to completely cheese out and say that Life happens next door. Nearly every facet of Life is represented through the walls of this school if people will listen. Students move from class to class, just as teachers do this year. What happens in those classrooms, what happens next door is just as important as what happens outside. We are not mindless screen-watchers content with flashing lights and images. We are the wanderers of Bradbury’s story. We walk the nights and seek out the experience and the knowledge. And we fight against the ending of that story by noticing the people and engaging them in our wanderings.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Like the Energizer Bunny, it's still going...

I've taken a bit of a hiatus from these blog posts, primarily because I've been working on the parable. It's nearly finished - or rather, the story has almost finished revealing itself to me as I write it. After the story is written, the fun part of writing begins, that of revising and editing, proofing and, well, more proofing. Once I come to some kind of conclusion with that project, I'll take up the random ramblings of this other format.

I know you're all waiting anxiously for more of these wise words from the Silver Fox. (That's a quasi-facetious nickname I just gave myself because I always liked that nickname and I'm kind of a quasi-egotist.) Please be patient and check back in a few years - I mean weeks.



Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Standardized tests, or an exercise in false analogy

It's silly, really, to expect everyone to take the same test, and then to expect everyone to pass that test and show minimum competency. We are all different, and we all learn differently. What works for one person, might not work for another. One person may be able to demonstrate knowledge on one test, and another might struggle with that same test, even though both know the same material. One person might feel at ease in a testing situation, and another might freeze up. So why do we ask all people to take and pass the same test, especially if there are no added bonuses for excelling on that test? The person who earns a barely passing score gets exactly the same benefits as someone who aces the test. There is no incentive to learn the material well, just to learn enough to pass. This creates a culture of mediocrity.

Another issue: the lasting impact of the test. I'm pretty sure that the results of this test will not influence my ability as an adult in society. I'm not going to get a job doing what the test evaluates, so why do I have to show my competency now? It's a bit ridiculous to expect everyone to learn material that will only translate into jobs for an incredibly small percentage of people. In fact, I'm not sure any of the people who take the test will ever go into that particular field as professionals. If someone has expertise in an area, they probably will not even need to demonstrate minimum competency, because their advanced mastery will open all the doors they need to pursue their career. A stupid test isn't going to change anything. 

Finally, there is the relevance issue. I'm reasonably certain that the material in the test is not how things are done in the real world. What the test evaluates differs significantly from the day-to-day application of the skill set. Sure, there are the basics that everyone should know. But beyond basic functionality, why should we learn the details? All those details!

For these reasons, I humbly submit to you all that the State of Oregon needs a new way to evaluate its...


There's the false analogy. The standardized tests that we are administering this week at school (OAKS) are not like the test for your driver's license. Let's identify all the differences.

1) Most people WANT a driver's license. (And we all know that most people DON'T want to demonstrate minimum competency in the core subject areas.)

2) Driving can be dangerous if people don't know how to do it, so we NEED to make sure everyone has at least the basics covered. (But it's totally safe to have an under-educated citizenry.)

3) People can choose not to drive if they want to, so it's not like we're MAKING everyone take the test. (That's true. I don't really have a good come back for this one because if someone chooses not to take the state tests, then all that happens is the school looks bad and the student might not graduate. We ARE making everyone take the state tests.)

There are, I'm sure, more differences. And I'm sure there are people out there (the three who read this blog) who could find additional logical fallacies in this argument. I just thought someone should stick up for these poor standardized tests because they get beat up all the time. Are they a perfect method for evaluating students' skill levels? Of course not. They are flawed, just as everything in life is flawed if we look closely enough. There are real issues with standardized tests, but, believe it or not, people try to address these issues and improve the tests. The fact remains, though, that sometimes a test needs to be taken, and a test needs to be passed. This primarily applies to the world of academics and education, but there are other tests to take in the "real world." Our relationship with tests doesn't need to be as fractious or combative as it sometimes is. The glass isn't half full, nor is it half empty. It's just half a glass. The tests aren't fabulous, nor are they stupid. They're just tests. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sainthoods and holidays

Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, a holiday that conjures up visions of red and pink crinkly paper wrapped around boxes of chocolate, cellophane-encased stems of cost-hiked flowers, and stuffed animals with sewn on hearts. It is also the day most elementary students feel the first pangs of crushes or, more likely, suffer through reading cootie-laden notes with awful-tasting heart-shaped candies taped - or worse, glued - to the construction paper missives. When I was a kid, it became a competition to see who would get the most Valentines, and who could purchase the most trendy cards. Inevitably, a name was misspelled. Inevitably, someone's feelings got hurt. Inevitably, the experience of the day dropped well short of the expectations. 

Later in my life, say through high school, I grew to detest the day and all it stood for. After all, rumor has it that the holiday exists because one religion didn't like the traditions of another, and so usurped the Ides of February in the name of sainthood. We didn't like the whole dip-the-hide-in-blood-and-parade-through-town experience or the throw-all-the-ladies'-names-in-the-pot-and-draw-the-year's-mate thing, so we decided to come up with something completely different, something more aligned with the idea of romance. The most "romantic" story of St. Valentine for me, and one that was not all that romantic when I thought about it, was of a priest who secretly married couples because the hegemonic powers decided bachelors made better soldiers than men with families. What says romance better than secret marriages and martyrdom?

As a bachelor, my ire deepened, as I saw the materialism of the day flourish. One could not simply profess one's love for another. One must purchase goods to substantiate the profession. I had not only to find someone who was receptive to my professions of "like" (love was pretty much out of the picture), but I also had to buy something - a bunch of dying flowers, some unhealthy sweets, a dinner that I did not make. And then, the day passed and it was February 15th and everything was back to normal. While my literary mind conjured the fairytale stories of a magical Valentine's Day escapade that blossomed into something really special and lasted for the rest of my life, I'd soon raise my eyes from the paper I was writing on, and realize it just wasn't going to happen. 

Now, as an older man with graying hair and an acute sense of reality, I see that Valentine's Day, like many of the other holidays is simply a day to remind us all that we should be doing something we're not currently. Valentine's Day reminds us that romance and love and devotion are important and that we need to profess our love to those who have it. We shouldn't do this once a year, though. We should do this throughout the year, every day, in small measures and in grand gestures. Name a holiday, and I'll bet that same sentiment can apply. Now, as an older man with graying hair, I see that the love I have for my wife is not something to be represented by a candy, a cliche, and a card. It is much more important than that, and I try very hard to let her know that each day because everyday is Valentine's Day.

But my wife does like chocolate, and she likes flowers, and she likes to go out to eat. So I'll probably go shopping later today and go out to eat tomorrow evening. Thing is, I'll do it again sometime later in the near future because, well, because my wife likes chocolate and she like flowers and she likes to go out to eat.

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.