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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

I added a new page.

The new page, as you may read in the author's note at the beginning, is a children's story that has a fairly obvious metaphorical link to education and learning in the public school system. At least, I hope it's fairly obvious. A parable isn't any good if it's not very obvious. Anyway, feel free to check out my work in progress. 

This is terrifying, by the by. I've not yet posted any creative writing of mine for the world to see. I've only published to friends and family, and to the inevitable rejection of some writing contests. Change, as I've mentioned, is constant. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Change is constant, and other paradoxical nonsense

Someone far wiser than I said, and I'm paraphrasing, that change is the only constant in life. I love that idea because it is deliciously paradoxical. If things are changing, by definition they're not constant. But if things are always changing, that becomes a consistent element. That's neat.

Another neat paradox: This sentence is false. Chew on that one for a while.

I understand that sometimes change can be annoying.  The relationship between change and comfort has to be acknowledged here. If your life is always changing, it's really hard to become comfortable. It's difficult to get in a routine and really get a firm grasp on what's happening and what you can do about what's happening. It's like you can't ever get your feet under you, solidly, and feel secure in that footing. It reminds me of The Enchanted Forest and the crooked house from the fairy tale. That's what living with change can seem like - walking in the crooked house. Sure it's fun for a few steps, but when vertigo sets in and your stomach flips on itself and your knees weaken and you bump into a wall or a corner, it's not so fun anymore - and you're only in the front room.

Yes, changes can annoy you, if you let them. Just like classes can bore you if you let them, and drivers can infuriate you if you let them, and chores can burden you if you let them. Change can also challenge you if you let it, just as music can inspire you if you let it, and friendship can steady you if you let it. We can all let life happen or we can live it. I've found that the more challenging the situation, the more I learn about myself and, to blatantly pilfer some words from Thoreau, the more marrow I can suck out of life. A steady hand and a steady mind in the face of a tempest is one of the most powerful traits we humans can posses. (That's a metaphorical tempest mind you. If you're actually in a hurricane or a tornado or a monsoon, please seek appropriate shelter. It's okay to run from a natural disaster. If it's an earthquake, though, running might be difficult. See the previous paragraph.)

But just like most aspects of life, moderation is helpful. If you don't do well with change, and you understand that it is inevitable, find something in your life that is comfortable, something that give you peace of mind, peace of soul, maybe a piece of German chocolate cake. That comfort can help steady you amidst the consistent change of our lives.