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30 May 2010

WHAT’S WORTH DOING

I began running in 1994, before I turned 42. I’d never been a runner before, but I set out a plan and promised myself that I would continue running and gradually build my distance until either some part of my body gave out (my knees?) or I could run a mile or so. I started running as much as I could of a half mile and walking the rest, every other day. By August I could run six miles without walking. I was never once sore from that sensible every-other-day routine, pushing a bit beyond what was comfortable without hurting myself.

This week there were minus tides and I was eager to spend the whole week running on the beach. (Often we have to run roads when the tide is wrong.) Normally we go out Tuesday and Thursday before work, and then both mornings on the weekend. But after a 4-miler on Thursday, the low tide was still calling on Friday so we went out for a short 2 mile run—not even enough to fully warm us up. Yesterday we ran three miles and again this morning. The bald eagle flew by both days, and this morning we heard the call of a baby raven from the pair that have nested in Arch Cape for the past several years. It made a distinctive, raucous cry calling for its parents that were hunting overhead.

Ravens have limited responsibilities as babies—stay put, eat, sleep, talk to their parents. They have to learn to fly and avoid certain dangers, to find food for themselves, locate a roost, and eventually to mate and raise their own young. They have to be able to accomplish each of these tasks perfectly or they will die trying. As babies, many of these skills are learned through play, under the protection of their parents. And there are play skills that they will indulge in their entire lives which they do not need to perform perfectly—chasing and rolling through the air, hide and seek.

My students are like raven youngsters to the extent that they have skills they must learn to perform near perfectly, but they will also learn many, many skills imperfectly. They do not need to know how to play football or the trumpet with anything like perfection. Trigonometry and MLA form are not required for existence. Neither is cooking, sewing, dancing, reciting The Preamble of the US Constitution or the periodic table of elements, and so forth. These might be handy skills. They might be desirable or entertaining, attractive or useful, and even necessary to certain occupations, while irrelevant to others. Their lack is not fatal in the way that, say, an inability to fly would be for a raven.

Reading and writing, basic mathematics and biology, honesty and responsibility, an understanding of the rule of law and the rights and obligations of citizens, and common courtesy—these might be deemed essential for any American. Survival skills. They aren’t enough to guarantee a living wage in our country; they aren’t entirely marketable, but they will point us in the right direction. Add the habits of persistence, hard work, flexibility, a sense of fairness, and the abilities to cooperate with people and learn new skills and ideas—we’ve gone a long way toward making ourselves desirable employees, not to mention spouses, neighbors, and citizens.

Beyond that, we play football because it’s fun, and the trumpet because it feeds our soul, study Trigonometry and MLA form because we have ambitions beyond minimum wage, read books and attend plays and concerts to become more interesting adults. We pick up knitting or dancing because we choose to, not because they are essential to life. We learn all these things and study history and botany and anatomy and sociology and literature because these subjects are our human heritage. Without them we are not developing beyond that baby raven who still sits in the nest screaming to be fed. We learn to feed ourselves. And in the human diet, feeding the mind is essential to life.

We don’t need to perform all of our skills perfectly all of the time. Once in a while we can choose to do less than our best, committing 80% of our energy rather than 100%, let’s say. There were classes I took in college where I made the decision not to do my very best. I was working part time to pay my way and my major was time-consuming. I could study and earn a B in Physical Anthropology, and that was enough. I attended every day and I mostly worked hard, but I worked hardest in the classes that mattered to me most. It was necessary because while I didn’t have time to perform perfectly all the time, I didn’t think I needed to be perfect all the time either. No one does.

But doing the minimum, stopping short of capacity, sitting like a lump, failing to complete work—this are distressing habits I see too often in my students. I’ve come to call them “60 percenters”—those students who will perform at the absolute minimum necessary to get by. Some of them are capable but in an Honors class they will earn a D—in an easier class, even a much easier class, they will still earn a D. They don’t earn a D because they are incapable or because they can’t do better, they earn Ds because that’s their choice. They have chosen second rate.

What happens once these 60%ers are out of the nest? What happens if for eighteen years they’ve fought against the expectations and standards of others without ever setting useful and meaningful expectations and standards of their own?

I don’t want to be married to a person like that, who will always do the minimum and rely on me to do more; and I don’t want such people as my neighbors who will probably expect me to complete my share without having to do it themselves; I don’t want such slovenly people voting in elections, and I certainly wouldn’t want to work with them.

There’s an old saying: If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That doesn’t mean that if we can’t do it well, we don’t have to do it at all—it means giving it a good effort and persisting until we can do it well. It’s worth doing well even when it’s difficult, even with it’s uncomfortable or frustrating or weird or embarrassing or awkward or lonely. Maybe we don’t all need to be first chair trumpet players, but if we play we owe it to the orchestra to know our part and play it well enough not to disrupt the music. Unless we are still babies, cawing for rescue, most of us understand eventually that adulthood is more than legal drinking and smoking and buying a tattoo. Being an adult means doing it, all of it well, even if not perfectly.

No one tells me I have to run before school. I choose to do it. I set standards and schedules for myself, and on Friday when the tide looked tempting, I could have sat in the dining room drinking my tea and admiring the view. But I’m all grown up now, and I understand that after the run I will feel better than before it, that pushing myself makes me stronger and happier and more useful, at least for myself, my family, and other people who depend on me to do more than the minimum that would get me by. I choose to do many things, and always expect to do them as well as I can.

23 May 2010

GIRLS DATE STUPIDLY IN HIGH SCHOOL

When I was in school—way, way back—people dated. I went out with a lot of boys, even attending two Proms during my freshman year, though in my public school district I was a 9th grader in Junior High, because we had a three-year high school. Today my students are a bit scandalized when I tell them this. I’m not sure they date at all at my school. Certainly dating two people at the same time is not the norm today as it was in the late 60s when I was in high school. We dated, we didn’t have sex—or anyway, I didn’t. There was behavior I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted my parents to know about, but I remained a virgin through those years. I wanted to “save myself,” as the saying was then, for my future husband.

The other day a student of mine told me that his girlfriend had told him she didn’t want to have sex until she found the one, until she was "sure.” I smiled. He was frustrated, of course, because he didn’t want to wait at all. In fact, he confessed he wanted to have so much sex before he was married that it was “no big deal.”

“It is a big deal,” I told him, and he was disappointed in me. Why wasn’t I on his side?

That triggered delivery of my annual “Girls Date Stupidly” rant to my classes. I try to deliver this particular rant at least once to each class, and I discovered I’d missed a few last year and had to share it with a couple of my senior students. Maybe they were absent that day.

It began fifteen years ago or so when a girl I’d known since she was in preschool began seeing a boy in middle school. He was tall, good looking, and a basketball player. He was also entitled, learning disabled, and mean. He made this girl’s first romance into a torturous experience. He damaged her self-image, her confidence, her sense of what a loving relationship should look like. The next boy she dated when she got to high school was a notorious bully, and later a junkie. I think she might have straightened out the mess he’d made of her emotional life, but it took years.

But back to this boy in middle school. In high school he went with other girls, spreading his poisonous bad temper across the landscape. He began seeing a student of mine, a gifted girl in my English and Yearbook classes. She was a sweet, kind, intelligent person and she was going with an emotion and intellectual moron. Every time I saw them together, he was bent over her, speaking harshly, and she was crying. They would break up, get back together, break up. It was ugly. Finally, her friends and I did an intervention. They told her the obvious: he was making her miserable, he was mean, she wasn’t happy when she was with him. I asked her how she could have a conversation with him? He wasn’t smart and she was very smart and she deserved a boyfriend whom she could talk to. “Every time I see you together, he’s saying something in an angry tone and you are crying.” We ranted, she eventually began laughing, and she stayed broken up.

He moved on to another girl. A fellow teacher bemoaned this new development. She'd been working with the girl who'd had a terrible life and was just getting on her feet. The teacher feared the bully boy would ruin her girl as he’d ruined others before.

But a few days later I witnessed an exchange between these two outside the gym. There he was, face pinched, spewing poison—not so bent over because this girl was tall—and she snorted, shrugged: “Whatever,” she said. She flicked her hand at him, laughed, and turned away, unhurt. I reported back to the teacher, "I think your girl is going to be okay."

Most girls date stupidly in high school. I suppose boys do too, but what I often see with boys is that the nice ones go begging for attention beyond friendship, and the mean ones find girlfriends. That’s because teenaged girls too often deliberately choose the scary, mean, tragic boys instead of their kinder and gentler classmates. They're looking for the thrill ride—someone resembling the swashbuckling hero in some movie perhaps—some romantically raging beast. Maybe that’s what they think boys are supposed to be like—dangerous animals. Some of those girls will go on to marry animals or otherwise ruin their lives pursuing boys not fit to wipe their shoes. They will forever believe that the males of the species are supposed to be bad-tempered, selfish, sex-driven, both emotionally crippled and emotionally abusive.

I’ve know adult women who trail after such men for decades, smart women who find only dangerous types sexy, and really brilliant women who are perfectly able to rationalize this self-destructive behavior as a “normal” marriage. When their husbands die or they give up, they finally come into their own and find a way to live a far more personally satisfying and meaningful life, once the beast is gone. And even then they don't seem to get it, that they chose an animal when they could have had something better.

Because men are not supposed to be dangerous animals; they are supposed to be decent human beings, and most of them are. Yet girls in high school persist in “dating” the wrong ones. That’s too bad, not only for the women who are being squelched, but for the men they aren’t attracted to. And because this preference perpetuates the problem by both rewarding the wrong sort of behavior and by failing to demand better in their partners, we see men who never grow out of their pathetic teen-aged habits. People can grown, people can change, but they rarely behave better that we expect or demand that they do.

By the time women are 26 or so, those who haven’t developed a persistent bad habit, may have figured out that they can have passion and thrills without actually being in danger. They begin looking around with wisdom that comes with age. And then they take another look at those former boys they regarded merely as friends in high school, and lo and behold, maybe they’ll find mature love.

My student who talked to me the other day wants sex to be an ordinary and simple expression of pleasure, togetherness, bonding? Yes, that’s what it should be. But in our society and maybe in our species, sex isn’t that simple and the people we are intimate with—even the ones we don’t actually have sex with—remain with us for the rest of your life. Teenagers owe it to their current and future mental health to consider what sort of person they want to be carrying around for the rest of the century. They might realize that they deserve someone better than they are getting. And the girl friend who's waiting until she's "sure"? I predict a happier future for her than some of her peers, but I'm a little worried about the student who's seeing her becoming a boy who dates stupidly...

16 May 2010

WILL THIS BE ON THE TEST?

Some of the least favorite questions of high school teachers include: Will we be doing anything important in class today? Does this have to be typed? Will this be on the test? How long does it have to be?

Yes, yes, sigh, and I'm getting to that.

As a high school English teacher, I have questions of my own: What skills do ALL my students need? What does college level writing and reading look like? What skills should I be teaching that will serve all my students regardless of their occupational and personal goals? How do I break this down into manageable and teachable portions for my students?

For twenty years I've been answering my own questions, developing strategies to push my students beyond the minimum and looking for guidance about what to change, add, delete.

Apparently many students arrive at college unprepared to begin writing college papers, or even marginally prepared to begin learning to write at college level. When they are placed in preparatory classes, they are suspicious that their college or university is trying to rip them off, make them pay for extra classes in order to make a few extra bucks off them. The truth is that without preparation in college level writing, most students, whether fresh out of high school, or returning, do badly in general college classes where they are expected to write. They waste tuition, paying for classes that they do not have the skills to pass. And though I am automatically suspicious of statistics, I believe the statistics compiled by many institutions showing that this is the case.

OWEAC (Oregon Writing & English Advisory Committee) has developed outcomes for Writing 115, a class that prepares students to begin college level writing, not a prerequisite for WR 121, but the class incoming students are placed in if they can't meet the minimum requirements for beginning college level writing. Colleges across Oregon (and the country) increasingly frustrated with the need to provide remedial writing instruction to under-qualified students, that doesn't look like remedial instruction. The outcomes are not as clear as I might like, but they do describe specific skills students should master; they mention MLA form, use of sources, and citation. For the past couple of years I've been playing a broken record: Share with high school teachers what you want and we will rise to the occasion. OWEAC has outcomes, they are gathering writing samples, they have clout. Share.

"I keep trying to talk, but nothing happens."

Recently I have attended workshops on State Standards and National Standards for reading and writing at the high school level. I have also visited some impressive classrooms. One of these starred a very effective teacher, with a powerful classroom presence, a comfortable and authoritative manner with her students, and a curriculum designed for success on the state writing and reading assessments. I could see immediately that what she was doing was working. For example, the State Writing Assessment demands a sample written to the student's choice of a few writing prompts, of no more than 2 pages, handwritten, completed without assistance over a period of about three periods. Any of this teacher's students unable to do this after two or three years in this system has switched off his or her brain during class (they can do that).

Here's the problem: The longest paper her students wrote, beginning with freshmen and including Honors juniors, was a handwritten front and back of a page.

Where was peer editing? Revision? Research? Something longer than a few hundred words, like 4-10 typed pages? Incorporation of sources? Summary? Paraphrasing? Citation? MLA form?

They are being taught to a test, but the test is too easy. Most should be able to write those two-pagers by the end of their eighth grade year. By high school they should begin stretching, because there are other skills they should be learning.

Writing isn't only a tool to record what we know, it's also a tool for learning. The process of writing itself is educational. Articulating what we think, clearly explaining what others think, arguing multiple sides of the same issue, searching for both verification and opposition to our views, supporting and countering evidence... these are basic to thought.

Life asks a lot of us. We are continually making choices, weighing the actions and opinions of others and their ideas. Voting, holding our tongue when provoked, responding in situations where we witness injustice, stepping up. Too often we have failed to prepare our students to make balanced, reasonable choices, because we have not shown them the work necessary to balance and reason. Too often in my classroom, juniors in high school are stretching only to prove what they already believe, when they should be stretching to find out what is true. They can't make fair judgments because they do not have the habits of thought to support fairness, to stretch beyond their prejudices.

This is one reason I keep urging OWEAC to share what they want students entering college to be able to do in order to begin learning to write at the college level. What should high school have taught them? Whether they attend college or not, this preparation for college is basic. It was one of the earliest questions I asked my department chair when I was hired as an English teacher: What should they be able to do when they leave my classroom? She had no answer for me. Twenty years later, after doing my best to find the answer, I've found an organization that exists to provide it. Share what you've got, I tell OWEAC. I keep bringing it up. They keep telling me it's a great idea. But like any committee, governmental or otherwise, they keep not quite doing anything about it.

Reading and writing effectively are basic to the processes of thinking and behaving as reasonable adults... there it is again, that word "reason"... not in the sense of having reasons, but in the sense of objectively reviewing and balancing an idea, considering and questioning options. A good writer does these things. My students will all be tested by life, by their roles as citizens, family and community members, workers and consumers; typing allows access to research via the internet and online databases and spellchecker and presentation in correct MLA form; they need to write longer because anything that can be explained in two or three hundred words might be brilliant but is more likely juvenile; and no matter what, we are always doing something important.

Every day we're tested. Every day we're doing something important. Every day. In class and out.

02 May 2010

MESSAGE FROM BIG PINK


I’ve lived with my husband in only three places. Our first shared housing was in a notorious apartment building in Seattle’s University District known as “Big Pink.” The complex was a few blocks from the University, up the street from the Blue Moon, and constructed of two Queen Anne style houses pushed together and carved into apartments. It was Big Pink, therefore, because it was big and because the owner was a painter and mixed together leftovers that turned out to make a lot of gallons of pink paint. Our rent was reduced to $30/month because we were hired to manage the building. Gary and I were students at the University, working our way through without help from our families. Our managerial duties were to keep the building fully rented and to let the owner know if there were problems.
Our unit, #1, was the original front and back parlor of the front house right off the enclosed front porch. We had ten foot ceilings and tall double-hung windows painted shut—we used a chisel to open them. Our bath and kitchen were squeezed into a tiny alcove—the bath, opening out of the kitchen, was so small that the sink overhung both the narrow shower and the toilet tank. The kitchen contained a miniature stove, a six-foot stretch of cabinets with a sink, and a window. When we kept the fridge in the kitchen it blocked the window, so we usually kept it in the living room and placed a tiny table under the window. When we moved in the living room walls were bright cerulean blue and the kitchen was red and black. We painted out the blue and red, but the matt black enamel looked elegant against the new taupe walls. Friends tried to copy the look.
The unit next door was the formal dining room and real kitchen. Upstairs there were studios made from bedrooms that each had a kitchen like ours, but that shared a bath with a clawfoot tub. Downstairs there was a full one-bedroom apartment. In the other half of the building were an upstairs unit and the largest unit of the building. There might have been another unit in there someplace. There was a laundry room.
Before we moved in, Big Pink had housed prostitutes and drug dealers. The last dealer had a fire in his kitchen and moved out soon after we arrived. The prostitutes were already long gone. But in the years we lived there, the tenants were not without their quirks. For several months #10 housed a Weatherman, staying with the actual tenant, and we were interviewed by the FBI. Two tenants had breakdowns and were hauled away, one by the Seattle Police, who were completely nice and changed my view of the local officers—this was the 70s. Several friends lived in the building: Toni and Jim, Slump the cat.
Mostly during those years we were very, very broke. My mother would periodically ask if I “needed any money?” And I always replied that I was fine. This was not entirely true, but it never occurred to either of us that she could simply have handed me cash each month to ease my budget. I worked 18-30 hours at the University Book Store. Gary worked full time between terms and during rush. Tuition was cheap back then, but minimum wage was less than $2/hour. A night out for us was the one-dollar movie, no popcorn. For a treat on paydays I sometimes bought a small Chinese woven-grass basket from Millar-Pollard on the Ave for a a dollar or so. I still treasure those little baskets. Gary and I sometimes argued about how much bread he ate, how much milk I drank. But because of the people I met at school, I baked bread, learned to cook international dishes, read Adelle Davis’s books on nutrition, and continued my love affair with food. Most Saturdays we went downtown to search pawn shops for guitars, look in shops at the Public Market, and came home with groceries.
Slump the cat’s owners had us over for dinner and we had them over. I recall vividly a conversation one evening. I had heard a newscast about how women were being treated in eastern Europe and I was distraught. “What do you care?” the man wanted to know. “You don’t know them.” I didn’t know how to respond.
There are boundaries of caring. I love my family and friends, I care deeply for my students. I am concerned about co-workers, neighbors, famous people I admire. Where does that end? Where is the line I can draw and say, “The rest of you don’t matter to me”?
Big Pink was my home for three years—July 4th, 1972 until we bought a house in 1975. It’s gone now, torn down and replaced by a more valuable structure. I don’t remember the names of all the tenants—the woman in #8 with osteoporosis who had a breakdown or the people who owned Slump, the spotted white cat. (It's Gary who remembers names.) I don’t recall which country was abusing their women back in 1974. But I wonder, still.
I wonder about the girl, Debbie, hauled away by the police from Big Pink. Gary runs into her former boyfriend on occasion, turning gray now. But he doesn’t know what happened to her. She’d been at a music festival, one of the last big ones at Seward Park and perhaps she overdosed, or maybe something awful happened to her, perhaps her breakdown had nothing to do with drugs. She came home the next day and locked herself in the shared upstairs bath and wouldn’t come out. Water was running in her studio and also overflowing the tub, through the floor and into Jim’s kitchen downstairs. She was humming and speaking in rhymes. We called the police and they warned us that Harborview Hospital was full of overdoses from the festival and probably wouldn’t admit her. But after listening to her rhyming claims about being Jesus, her screams, they took her away and stopped by later to report she’d been put in the psych ward. We located her father in California and the man came up and completely cleaned her apartment where she’d throw food all over the floor, spread feces on the walls. It took a few days. He paid for the water damage, and eventually was able to transfer his daughter to a hospital nearer home. That’s all we know.
She wasn’t related to me, wasn’t my friend. In no way was she my responsibility. My responsibility was getting her out of the bathroom so the other tenants could use it. But I wonder, all these years later. I still wonder what happened.
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