Thursday, February 21, 2013

SIMBY: Sequester in My Back Yard

In a recent faculty meeting, we were told of the effects of the looming Sequester on our district if Congress does nothing by February 28. (What a great job!  Do nothing: cause seismic teutonic shifts in the lives of the little people.)

To our small district the sequestration means a loss of $135,000 annually.  This is federal funding that will cut services to only three subgroups: the poor, our second language learners, and the disabled. Losses will come in the form of losing key personnel and resources dedicated to these specific groups.


Besides calculating how much time and labor has been expended as everyone--right down to the dogcatcher--has madly readjusted budget projections based on a non-action, we were treated to the image of pushing our most vulnerable children off the school bus, running over them, and then backing up and doing it again.

In our district, we know not only how many students will be affected, but also the faces and names of those, our neighbors, who will be condemned to fall even further behind.

Even if everyone does a do-over after this political temper tantrum, time lost to developing kids has large repercussions later.

In the giant pile of money which exists somewhere, $135,000 is not much. But amplify that cut across every school district and you get a picture of a nation divided into the haves and those who face losing what little they already have.  Of course the employees affected by the cuts will quickly be moving from one category to the other.

Oh, yes, some districts will be able to replace some monies from donations (a la 1,000 points of light?), but really, do we want to cast a safety net that has huge gaping holes?

How will the sequester affect your district?  Please share.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

America: Cruise Ship on the Rocks

It was hard to keep from laughing while reading about the rescue of the Carnival Cruise ship adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, while toiling with the next generation working hard for their own opportunity to charge a cruise to their Discover cards, the media was covering this tragedy minute by minute.  Missing out on the breathless commentary must have immunized me to the pathos of the poor victims of the worst vay-cay ever.

It is probably an occupational hazard, but it's hard not to see metaphor, metaphor, metaphor in every aspect of the story--starting with the obvious: the fun on the cruise was only a power generator away from calamity, and the glitter and the glitz but a thin, tinselly veneer over the true human condition.

Zap.  All pretense wiped away and the teeming masses quickly sank into a floating sewage container of their own making.  The ongoing buffett of over indulgence dried up within hours and vacationers were forced to subsist on ketchup and buns.

Can't help it.  It makes me laugh.  A cosmic joke for sure.

The idea of going on a cruise has never appealed, particularly after a trip to the east coast of Mexico where I acknowledge my own culpability as an over-indulged nomad.

First, I witnessed the Very Angry, Very Important, Very Righteous, Very Wealthy man at the hotel desk who loudly berated the staff, as though they were recalcitrant servants, for spoiling one of his Very Precious Vacation Moments.  As the staff behaved deferentially, I searched for a piece of furniture to crawl under, so embarrassed by a fellow American demanding that his hosts speak a more standard English.  Ugh.

As a part of that trip, our group went scuba diving in the underwater natural park just off the coast.  A behemoth cruise ship was moored offshore.  These floating hotels dwarf any other man-made building within sight.  Unless you've seen one, it is hard to imagine how these bright white, floating playgrounds for nearly 4,000 people dominate the seascape.

The Dive Master was disgusted.  He called them floating environmental disasters, leaving in their wake mountains of garbage and destroyed coral forests.  Once again, we paint a lovely picture of excess and entitlement.

I felt my own excess when our drive through some real hard times ended in the manicured, opulent hotel where our drinking water was filtered.

But back to the cruise.  The late David Foster Wallace wrote about his experience in his essay "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again."  He claims the experience transformed him into a self-described spoiled brat.

How much like a cruise is life in America?

Locked on a floating island with thousands of the continuously fed and catered to, encouraged to eschew the reviving sun and seaspray by sitting in darkened casinos dominated by ringing bells and flashing lights, entertained by crooners in spandex and sparkles.

Adventures ashore are highly programmed visits to shopping areas on impoverished Caribbean islands where the bubble of fun avoids any contact with the real lives of those whose memories we collect in native gee-gaws.  ("Don't look over there.  It's the face of poverty, and it will completely spoil your fun. And don't forget, we're having fun.  You deserve it.")  Friendships are arranged via assigned seating arrangements at the opulent meals.

Draw your own parallels.

And when the plug is pulled and the lights go out?  A real, stinky mess.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Huck Finn Takes a Standardized Test

I have a soft spot for the "bad" kids.

My definition of a "bad" kid is a creative disrupter.  These students refuse to follow rules simply because they are there and show their disdain for "stupid" ideas by acting independently, following their own logic.

I qualify these characters worthy of celebration.

Huck Finn lives.  Mark Twain's quintessential bad boy is the American spirit incarnate: He looks at the landscape and acts adventurously, getting off the beaten path and creating his own.

Where would we be if whole legions of Huck Finns had not asked us to reconsider "sivilization"?

So I was amused by the student response to the MAPS test required by the district in Seattle.

Some of the kids just would not play by the rules.

And sometimes they made errors that fit only into the category of kid logicthe delightful way a child's mind can shift adult paradigms. (My son at age three observed that a jet plane was "scratching the sky."  Yeah. Take a look at those jet trails some time.)

So here's what some kids did:

  • When some kindergarteners were directed to put the mouse on the item, they lifted the mouse and placed it on the computer monitor. 
  • When students figured out that a correct answer up-leveled the questions and made them harder, they deliberately answered questions incorrectly so the computer would serve up easier questions.
  • When students were told it would not affect their grades, they rushed through the reading comprehension test without reading so they could get back to doing something they wanted to do.  (Have you ever read something you didn't want to read?  It's really hard to care about it.)

I would qualify all these errors as "good mistakes" a phrase I first heard from a tennis coach.  "That was a good mistake!" he exalted once when a ball went long.  Hitting balls short was a bad mistake--holding the racket incorrectly.  A long ball meant I was starting to get it: follow through and let it sail.

The qualification of an error as a good one was so empowering that I still use it, rewarding errors that show a new skill in the offing.    

I'd qualify all of the above actions as a good mistakes. In every one there is strong evidence of critical thinking.

To a mechanized standardized test, the answer is either right or wrong--no qualification.  It takes the observation of a human being to follow the logic of the error.  

Ironically, these mechanized tests are to be used to measure the effectiveness of teachers in the classroom.  To a teacher who has a led a career of watching and coaching kid's through their own kid logic, relying on mechanized scores feels like tying your hands behind your back while someone slaps you in the face.

So Huck Finn broke the rules.  

He could not ignore his own logic when deciding whether or not to steal Jim out of slavery and help him back to his family. He tears up the letter to Miss Watson that would have revealed Jim's whereabouts:
I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right then, I'll go to hell"--and tore it up.  It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.  And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. 
Sometimes, when faced with injustice, the only choice is taking the road to hell.

As of four days ago the administration of Seattle was still sticking to its sivilized notion of holding teachers accountable.

Long live Huck Finn.