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23 October 2014


Over at Bad Girl Chats, Nicole Hollander wonders if personal experience is the only way conservatives can develop compassion. She cites Dick Cheney's support of his lesbian daughter and her grandchild. Most of us make exceptions for family, but I confess I was impressed that Cheney could. He has never struck me as a particularly compassionate person. And I value compassion.  

I think having a personal experience can open any person's eyes to the pain of others facing a similar situation. The challenge is allowing that empathy to inform your entire world view in a more generous manner. 

This transference doesn't always happen. 

I have former students who have experienced and overcome substantial challenges of poverty, neglect, and abuse, who managed to grow up with the attitude that if they could overcome their past, everyone should be able to. And I have other former students who have experienced none of that and assume that such issues are either nonexistent or the fault of others. Either way, others' troubles are not their problem. 

This is at least partially a peculiarly American attitude derived, seriously, from the American Dream that we can be whatever we aspire to, and that those who fail have no one but themselves to blame. Culturally, we are not so generous as we like to paint ourselves. We would rather punish failure than prevent it to begin with. 

A rather unexpected example to me was the revelation that it would cost taxpayers less to make public universities and colleges free than to fund them through the grants and loans system we currently use. I find a common response response to this news is: "People won't value what they don't have to pay for." Yet, in order to be admitted, public school children have spent years in a free system, doing the work and earning the grades to qualify for admission. 

Let them suffer. Suffering is good? 

Our prison system is another example. We would rather spend money punishing criminals for crimes over their entire lives than rehabilitating them for a life as decent citizens. They deserve it, we say. 

Let them suffer. 

Those of us who wonder what would have happened to such failures lives if, way back at the beginning, we'd supported their parents in providing better guidance, safe and comfortable housing, healthcare, education, a living minimum wage, and so forth, are bleeding heart liberals. 

Anyone in American can be anything they want, the saying goes. Do people really believe this? Research proves overwhelmingly that it's untrue. But the myth persists. A educator, who should know better, gave me that line the other day: The poor should work harder and get out of poverty—they deserve what they are getting. As if a five year old could "deserve" her suffering. 

Raising the minimum wage would remove any motivation for gaining an education and pursuing a "better job," she argued. I wondered if she'd ever done one of the really hard jobs in her life when she had no opportunity or hope for a different future? That teacher kept telling me how she worked herself up from poverty, but the truth is she had family support while "working her way up" and her family had a second home in a tropical location, so excuse me if I have doubts that she actually understands about poverty. 

My students who work in kitchens and change beds to get by will tell you it's not something they would continue to do if they had a choice, even if it paid better.

And of course, the kitchens still need staff. The beds still need changing in local hotels. It seems heartless to me that in addition to asking people to do menial, physically exhausting work, that they should be punished for it. 

Let them suffer? 

I don't think the attitude is purely the prerogative of either end of the political spectrum, but it is home grown.

This notion of punishment over support is at the root of many American problems, it seems to me. 

I have gone rather far afield. Maybe it's true that I see that attitude of "they made their bed, let them lie in it" too often on the right. …and there is the complication of the all-mighty American dollar. We forgive terrible crimes if the result is enormous financial gain. The pursuit of wealth can excuse cheating, lying, and danger to the public. We have little sympathy for "mistakes" made in achieving any other goal. 

It is possible to move from feeling another's pain to wanting to do something about it. That's compassion, what you feel when your child fall down and hurts herself. What many of us feel when anyone's child falls down and hurts herself.

21 October 2014


The other day, I received an email from a teacher I don't know well. I could not understand what she was asking me, since I am sick, have been sick for three weeks though I am now on medication that is not making me well fast enough. I finally emailed back to ask what I could do. She responded very kindly that she was merely venting and I should go back to sleep. 

We all need to vent sometimes. She has over 120 middle school students, a lot to track. I have not quite that many high school students (113, I think) plus my 18 Study Lab kids who I only see twice a week. One year I had 205 students all told, and thought I might die by Winter Break. I cried in the principal's office in January. I was advising yearbook that year too, but had just quit coaching Xcountry. My mother was ailing. I was pretty much a basket case. The amazing thing is that my yearbook students I worked with closely had no idea it was a hard year for me. I can't believe I didn't look shattered every single minute of every day. It's how I remember feeling. Ha! Teacher-powers! 

I think my teacher-friend was looking for advice about what to do when her workload was hopelessly backed up. In times when I have been fully pressed and felt most students had completed a particular assignment that I absolutely did not have time to grade, I might give them all full points (though make the assignment worth fewer points). It is an act of desperation and I probably have not done this for seven or eight years, though for the first ten years of teaching I allowed myself to do it probably once most years. 

What I do now when I am in trouble with grading is: review quickly and mark a portion of the assignment and then plan better for next year. That doesn't help in the year, but it might make things better the next year. I train my students to peer edit, which saves me now and then. Not so much at others if students think telling one another "great job" is more useful than the truth. Anyway, these strategies don't always apply.

That's not much help for my own workload at the moment. Since I've missed four days of school, the work piled up. I had several senior research papers (done), three sets of exams (only one is done), a partial set of make-up quizzes (just about 15—done), and a set of essays to grade (soon, maybe). There is no shortcut for any of this and although I have responded to parent and student emails and posted on FB and shared education and literature essays and revised and printed off scoresheets for the research papers and corresponded with colleagues who have issues with my department or questions about assignments, these are relatively mindless tasks completed from bed with a laptop. I don't have to do much or think too hard, or even make measured judgements. It's like writing here—mostly rambling and I can set my laptop down and come back two hours later after a nap to update my progress and continue where I left off. Maybe someone has a secret for how to do that with essays or essay-exams? I have never been able to stop in the middle when grading papers. I have to complete grading an entire class's assignments in one go to maintain consistency. There might be a way around that, but I haven't found it. Once I start scoring essays, I read and mark them all in a row. 

Actually grading demands high energy and fine attention that I haven't had in the last week, which is how I got behind. Tomorrow I will have 27 more six-page assignments I must mark and hand back the next day. Maybe. That one is actually the least of my problems since I only have to mark them up, not grade them. Grading is such agony at times. 

Open Library will keep me at school for twelve hours tomorrow to help with students and Parent Conferences are the next day until 8pm. Parents are understandably expecting current grades, and most of my classes are a week behind because I don't have the stamina to catch up in time. By Friday I will be in bad shape. 

A friend was going to visit from Seattle this weekend and I've had to cancel. No time for company. I will be scoring student work all weekend. That's how it goes. It's not an excuse, but it's all I've got.

20 October 2014


The tea party on Saturday.
Years ago, poet and novelist Marilyn Chin told me I was "the most driven writer" she had ever met. I took it as a compliment. 

Maybe not. Sometimes I do not know how to stop. I do not know how to rest. I am always trying to accomplish something worthwhile. Nothing huge, I am not capable of huge things, but little things. A long list of little things. When people ask me how I get so much done—I think they do not want to do it the way I do. They do not want to be so driven. 

I scoot back down in bed, put my head on the pillow and rain patters on the skylight. Downstairs I hear Ruby trotting from room to room, the harmonica, she sings and Gary tells stories, Gary yells at the cat, the cat yells back. I have only had the half hour each evening before her bedtime when we watch an episode of Fraggle Rock. Gary has done the rest all the past week while I went to work and then came home to bed. I think of the things I should be doing, all that should have been done this week while I pretended I wasn't sick. How I measure the worth of my days. 

Something must be accomplished, it seems to me, every day. Whether I make the list in my journal or not, each accomplishment is ticked off in my brain. Even tiny things warrant recognition. The past two weeks and more, I have been sick, with all the symptoms of a cold or the flu, mostly just in my head. My temperature is below normal at 97° and something, my sinuses are infected. I hurt all over. 

But I still wish to get things done. 

In the past three days I wove for a few minutes sitting at my loom and then I had to lie down. I posted blogs that existed already as drafts. I am writing this now. I read the last two chapters of a collection of essays. Students have called and emailed with their questions and I have answered. I wished happy birthday to a dozen friends on Facebook, clicked "like" and whined about being sick, and reposted articles, including a couple I struggled to finish before falling asleep again. Ruby and I watched our show each night. I made a tea party for her on Saturday because I'd promised her I would. She does not seem to have caught my cold.

I have not completed the homework I brought home with me—SRPs, class essays, two sets of exams I need to post before Parent Conferences on Thursday. Something else, too, that I can't remember. In the past few days I've received two emails from people who clearly know me and are continuing a conversation I began somewhere with them. I can't remember who they are or figure out what they are asking me. Maybe when I am well . . .

The letter of recommendation I promised three weeks ago is finally done. This was for a former student who I greatly appreciate, and the writing should have been a pleasure, but I had to send it four times before I got it right. I hope it's right. My head aches from the effort. 

In the past days, I did not finish the weaving or grading or the fancy sleeves for Ruby's dress. I did not make a new costume for the red-haired Esmerelda doll. I am now a week behind in grading. This weekend I did not write a chapter of the memoir I am working on, as I have tried to do each weekend for months. I have not started reading a new book—it was too hard to finish the last one. The Netflix video went back unwatched. I haven't gone for a walk or cooked one single thing, not even the waffles I make most every Sunday morning. Too much undone. 

I managed to make three sandwiches for Ruby's picnic in the "cat room". I managed a trip to the walk-in clinic but forgot what I was doing in the pharmacy. I stayed awake and coherent long enough to write lesson plans for my sub and to forward the mess to the school. I hope it's not a mess. 

That is not enough. I am not so sick, not quite, that I do not reproach myself for failure to accomplish all that I should. I do not feel I deserve to rest. I write a sentence here and then close the computer. I open it again and add more words. I imagine perfection I cannot achieve. 

Some of my students are writing idylls, descriptions of peaceful places they have been to only once when they were seven or where they hide from the world every afternoon. The happy place. This assignment is one of my most successful. I write a new one myself most years. Last year mine idyll described the tideline of this coast—the place I escaped to mentally when I was high school student myself. This year I am writing about weaving. 

Students write about floating out past the waves, waiting for a set to surf; riding home on the bus from a game; scouting deer trails with their grandpa when they were little; their older brother's treehouse; or on stage before a performance. They write about sitting on a log watching the sun sink into the sea and about walking in the woods. Their idylls are as individual as they are themselves. 

One year, at least twelve years ago, I wrote about having the flu. I lay in bed that long ago afternoon with a cup of ginger tea in my hands. I was too congested to smell it. I was so very sick that I didn't care anymore what else went on in the world or whether my sub was doing a good job with my classes. I didn't care about anything but the hot cup warming my fingers, the steam flowing across my forehead.

I am not quite that sick today, not sick enough that I no longer care. The NP promises I should feel better by Tuesday. I hope she is correct.

Milk curdles in Red Zinger tea.
The last sandwich. (The bears belonged 
to our sons when they were small.) 
The animals did not use their napkins.
And Ruby's pumpkin! I never carved her pumpkin for her. Gary says he explained that I was too sick, sleeping upstairs all day, and she said, "Okay." 

19 October 2014


The newest episode of Moyer's & Company, "Keeping Faith with Democracy," aired on my birthday, but I went to bed early that night and missed it. 

This afternoon I found the interview by Bill Moyers with Robinson, which was initially designed to celebrate her new novel, Lila, which rests on the shelf behind my head. But Moyers, like me, was more interested in speaking about morality and compassion and American than a single book. He cited several times from a recent book of her essays, When I Was Young I Read Books, which I also read and loved. 

Here's a piece from near the end of the interview where Moyers wonders how the impulse to do the best, to be the best, turned from people to money?

BILL MOYERS: "And you make the case in, When I Was a Child I Read Books, you make the case that after generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage and equality under the law, those values are now under siege."

"ROBINSON: They are. These voter identification things, you know, the whole public education, these attempts at reforming public education that seem to me to be designed to model people into a kind of productivity again, making them useful for other people's purposes rather than making their education an end in itself. You know, I went, I'm a proud product of public education until college.

"It was probably a very eccentric little establishment by most standards. But I was taught very optimistically in the sense that people always conveyed the idea that they were giving me something really of value, something that would make me richer no matter what I did, you know, in life.

"That, you know, giving me my mind, you know? And I think that this is a spectacularly efficient model of education. I think that these assumptions that, you know, making everybody teach to a test, and so on, is valuable in some way. We're just destroying what’s the best impulse, the most successful impulse in our educational system."

". . . What do I fear? I mean, I fear for, there are things that I, you know, obviously I fear for democracy, for example. I don't know. You know, the oddest thing happened. I became 70. And I realized that in order to be 70, you have to have had basically 69 years of really good fortune and that, you know, what I mean?

"I don't feel as though I can lose much. I don't think I can lose much at this point. I've had a good life and a long life by world standards, you know. And this neutralizes many kinds of anxiety for me. If I can fail now, it will be a minor, minor event because I have such a short time to experience the fact of failure."

A few years ago, after Marilynne Robinson's second novel Gilead came out, we drove to Seattle to see her speak about it at the Richard Hugo House. The drive was worthwhile. Like Robinson, I feel I have been fortunate to live so long, and I am grateful for my life. I haven't started reading her newest novel, which Gary gave me for my birthday, but I continue to be impressed with the humanity of this writer.

18 October 2014


The Canada geese are all over every open field of lawn—the football field, the empty park—and dozens of elk have taken up residence in the far fields at the edge of Tillamook Head. They are seeking shelter from the weather. 

"Thank you for not killing us," one student wrote on the card. "We like living." She drew a grinning face. Another assured me, "It's all good." I received many messages yesterday, wishing me joy, wishing me a good day. It was a good day, a marvelous day, extraordinary. I worked all day, but that was part of the sweetness, that I have this work I prize so highly. There were even cupcakes! (The maker said she loves the class "even if it makes me cry.")

I heard from former students, the kind and forgiving ones who wish me joy. Thank goodness. 

Friends I know only online and some I have known nearly the whole of my 62 years wished me well. 

"Have a great day," people wrote to me on Facebook. 

I did. I did!

Thank you all. 

Above: Leakey did not appreciate the selfie concept, the camera flash at six in the morning. It was out of line, that flashy thing. This is the only one where she didn't move. 

17 October 2014


I wish, just once but actually every single time, when I am asked to do something stupid required by some new and frightful law, that instead of putting a good face on it, administrators would just call it out for what it is. Most days when we work on the new standards I want to just walk away from my job (and I love my job). Here's an example: when I am introduced to the new SBAC (Common Core test) and find that the first sample question has no correct answer, or am told "I don't know" for the third time in a row when I ask for clarification from an administrator who has spent hours in meetings supposedly learning all this. I keep telling myself it won't be that bad, that I will adjust, that I will be allowed to continue doing my job… but it isn't true. Sometimes it just isn't true. I am not allowed to do my job. I am not allowed to set goals that have significance and meaning. I am going to have to teach to and model and practice for and proctor these blasted tests, and because of that there will be other, more important things I cannot do. I am already seeing it. 

Not everyone thinks the sky is falling:

"As a teacher, I can see good and bad with the Common Core. The good is that we have a set of guidelines that can be shared every school. No longer should I have students transfer into my class from another school who haven't been taught fractions because all of us are teaching the same things. Our district went even further and selected a smaller number of common core standards to make into priority standards so instead of a giant number of standards I am expected to teach that number has been narrowed down. This is also a good thing. That doesn't mean we don't teach other things, just that we hold students accountable for learning the priority standards. The 'data mining' that people are concerned about is me and the other teachers in 5th grade taking our tests and sitting in a circle going over a list of kids who 'get it' kids who almost get it, and kids who need more intervention in order to get it. This has made me a better teacher because I am forced to differentiate my curriculum more to meet the needs for all the kids in my class. So, I see that there are bad things in Common Core but don't necessarily see them in the trenches. As far as being a One Size Fits All approach, I get that it appears that way, but in my class it doesn't look that way. Yes I hold all kids accountable for the standards, but how they get there may be totally different from the child sitting next to them."—from another teacher I've never met

You know the teacher writing above is doing a good job. You can tell because she cares and is concerned and knows the difference between skill and testing. I'm glad she isn't discouraged, because a lot of teachers I know are discouraged. Many, if not most teachers do a wonderful job with students because they care about them and work hard.

When I asked my English department chair, soon after I was first hired to teach English, "What should my students be able to do when they leave my room?" her answer was disappointing: "Let me know when you figure that out." 

I could tell her now. I've spent my professional life answering that question. I answered it for myself soon after I asked it. I have to understand where my students are going in order to be an effective teacher. I have to understand how what I teach will impact them later. I think we all need to do that. So since some teachers have no idea what their students should know and be able to do, I agree about having shared standards. It does provide a framework that I would have appreciated having back in the day. On the other hand, I understood from the beginning that what I teach will impact the future of my students. How could I not know that? 

That's why I took education classes and student-taught before my first job teaching. It's why I have spent the 38 years since I completed my teaching degree designing curriculum. It's why I teach.  

What I don't trust is three non-educators in a room devising a comprehensive plan for grades k-12. Every school district selects priority standards, and that means we are all checking off the required boxes, and that's not enough. Every teacher worth his or her salt is teaching for his or her students' future. But I've been told the elementary schools in my district spend all but 1:20 each day teaching out of a box plus pull-outs. They use scripted reading and math programs for most of the day and all the rest of what needs to be taught—spelling, social studies, writing, science, free reading, reading aloud, etc., not to mention show-and-tell, citizenship, basic manners, penmanship, and all the other little things that elementary teachers must address—all the rest must fit into the one-hour-twenty left over from the boxes each day. This isn't entirely the fault of CCSS. It's what we've been doing in my district for years.

I have an MFA in writing and that's only one reason I can say with authority that the first question on the sample SBAC test I took in August had no correct answer. Yeah, it's still in process, but these were the questions sent out to educators as a model. I despair. I have wasted too much time with all this testing when I know in my heart and from research that consistently shows testing doesn't provide reliable results. If people don't believe me, ask yourself this: Have you ever taken a test on something you studied and the person next to you, who didn't even read the book, did better on the test? I was that person. I was the great test-taker. Test-taking won't make you a better engineer or doctor or manager or electrician or parent. It means nothing. It's a skill with very limited application.

Could I teach those test-taking strategies to my students? Maybe I could. Do I want to spend weeks of time teaching them to take a glorified multiple choice test, or do I want to teach them how to write an essay? I choose the latter.

Why can't I do both? There isn't enough time. No other department in my school assigns essays or teaches research techniques. I teach literature, note-taking strategies, presentation skills, and writing. I yeah a lot of other things along the way: attention to detail, grammar, world culture and geography and religion, and also compassion and relaxation and organization and logic. Thinking. It comes along with the literature and the writing. 

Why not focus on multiple choice? I do not have space in my curriculum to teach a skill that most of my students won't need past the age of eighteen or twenty-two. 

They already waste a lot of time testing. (And I speak as one who thought the Miller Analogy Test was entertaining. A wasted hour, but fun!)

Oregon requires us to send all our sophomores for the PSAT, take our juniors to the ASVAB, and encourage most juniors and seniors to take the SAT and/or the ACT. In the coming spring all my juniors must take the new test, the SBAC, estimated to require 8.5 hours, though no one knows for sure how long it will take or even how it will be scored or what the cut score will be. We do know that they have to "pass" the tested skills to graduate in the State of Oregon.

Fortunately, for a few years we can substitute work samples to prove students have the "essential skills" if they fail proving this on the test. Who gets to decide what the essential skills are? I'm not sure I trust the governors to have known (and it was governors who commissioned the CCSS, not "educators", not teachers). They've screwed up so often in the past. And if a test were actually a worthy representation of real ability or skill or knowledge, the College Board, which has been working on making the SAT a valid measure for a hundred years, would be able to show that their results are more reliable than the grades of classroom teachers. They would like to be able to show that. They can't. They can show it's better than guesswork, though the ACT can't even show that with half their test

For another example: I have spent two in-service day already this year talking only about teaching to the test, the SBAC. I have spent hours designing goals that will not benefit me or my students, though they meet the requirements of the new standards for teachers. They will be used to judge whether I can do my job. 

In the mean time, one essential organizational process is no longer being taught at all in elementary schools in my district. Did you learn how to make a formal outline when you were in school? I did, and though I didn't like them, my classmates and I were all (ALL) in pre-algebra by 6th grade. There might be a connection since math skills, like outlining, involve sequencing and logic and distinguishing between detail and main idea. Now my students struggle in high school to understand algebra and to organize an essay of a few pages. The only students in my classes who can create a formal outline either learned it in another state or from their mother. One reason my Oregonian students struggle is because there was no time in elementary school to teach formal outlining in that one hour and twenty minutes.

It's never been on the test. If it's not on the test, we pretend it doesn't matter. 

What else isn't on the test? History, geography, world religions, psychology, anthropology, archeology, sociology—and that's just Social Studies. The test covers reading and short writing and math. Where are all the other subjects? No research. No science, no art, nothing remotely creative.

Even if everything that mattered was on the test, there is still a likelihood that the hours of testing merely waste our time. Because multiple choice/fill in the blank/short answer "essay" testing isn't what most of us actually do with our days in real life. 

16 October 2014


"The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head."—Noah Webster

We could do what profits us, or what is kind.

We could take revenge, or be kind.

We could value money, or kindness.

We could consider ourselves always first, or do the right thing and be kind.

We can always abandon hope and use that abandonment to excuse unleashing the terrible angels of our wrath and selfishness and shame. 

Or we could be kind.

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