Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Secret Life of Teachers

This year Maia has an English teacher for whom there are no second chances.

Maia is now trying to improve her grade after failing to turn in a packet on its due date. Ms. English Teacher accepts no late work, and Maia hadn't yet learned that she should turn in all of the work she had done, even if a piece of it was still incomplete. Yes, I know, learning the system is one of the educational process of school. Some lessons just come harder than others...

So yesterday, Maia decided to stop by to show Ms. English Teacher her progress on another big project just to make sure she was meeting her expectations. Ms. English Teacher gave her work a fairly perfunctory glance, told her to shorten a paragraph and handed it back.

Maia left feeling as though her teacher were more dismissive than helpful. To explain Maia said, "maybe secretly inside she doesn't want to be a teacher."

Granted this is a big assumption on Maia's part, despite the fact that Ms. English Teacher's reputation proceeded her. But right or wrong, it was a huge reminder to me about the kind of message I want to send to the students I encounter each day. Am I happy to be there? Do I want to connect with them? Do they see that I'm on their side? It seems to me impossible to teach if your students think "secretly, I don't think she wants to be a teacher."

For Maia, she's going to have to figure out how to learn whatever the attitude of the teacher is.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Merge Early

merge early, expect

sudden slowing or

stopping, watch for

I am a poetry addict, but not a poet. And I look for it everywhere. Recently, this ghosted up on my computer when I opened it up. I thought someone had sent me some poetry, or perhaps had begun writing a poem on my computer. I was mesmerized. Watch for what?

When my old power book finally got it's systems in order, I recognized Chongo's driver's ed program on the screen. The ordinariness of its intended meaning took all the lovely excitement from me.

Except for the part that didn't, the part that still linked to the almost poem, that kept remembering -- all day -- expect sudden slowing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dinner Party conversation

A kindergarten teacher I know went to a dinner party with some of her banker husbands colleagues.

"So what do you do?" She was asked.
"I'm a kindergarten teacher."
A silent pause followed. "Well you can always move up, right."

Have you ever tried teaching kindergarten?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The educational value of the "The Simpsons

My kids have been watching The Simpsons for several years now. It's not always appropriate, but it's always funny, often educational and sometimes even "educational." We limited them to one show per day, not because of time but we just figured that was enough "education" for one day.

I'm sure more than a few thesis have been written about The Simpsons and their commentary on culture, politics etc. -- and my kids are the stellar examples of that Simpson influence. They've seen most of the episodes by now covering references from Nixon's Watergate to Shakespeare. Often, in the middle of a dinner table conversation we turn to explain something to the kids and they say "oh, we know."
"Really?" I'm always surprised. "Where did you hear about that?"
"The Simpsons."
It's an invariable answer -- I've heard it so much I'd roll my eyes if I wasn't so impressed with how complete the education is. Granted it's a superficial, humorous version of events or works, but what they know works like a hangar for the rest of what they learn on those subjects. It means they can sit at the dinner table and not be lost around adult conversation. I'm convinced it makes them more savvy in their understanding of our culture.

The other day Maia rattled of a speech from Macbeth. "Where did you learn that?" I asked.
"The Simpsons," she said. I rolled my eyes. "Well, I heard some of it on The Simpsons, and then I found it online and memorized it."

And isn't that the best thing an educator can hope for? When students learn enough on a subject to so thoroughly peak their interest, that they go out and deepen their understanding on their own.

Sunday, September 25, 2011



Today a friend brought me basil from her garden. Masses of it, and I went looking for a tall, wide-mouthed mug to hold it all in water where it can grow roots and flourish for the next month or two. On my counter was this mug, needing to be emptied of all the odds and ends an open vessel accumulates on a counter, Abundance written in flowing lettering along the front.

My friend brought me this mug many years ago when the kids were little. She filled it with my favorite biscotti and dropped it by one day.
"Why me?" I asked her about the unexpected gift.
"Abundance just reminded me of you," she said.
Since that day the mug has sat on my counter to remind me of my good life. Today I filled it with the gift of basil from a friend's garden and I began again to think about Abundance.

There's a verse in the Bible that says "I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly."

Right now, I am ignoring the fact that I have an abundance of papers to grade. The chocolaty abundant smell of brownies is wafting from my oven because we are going to a goodbye party for a youth director who was loved abundantly. I'm sure the tears will be abundant.

I'm not sure I know what abundance life is, but I'm going to keep my eyes open to it. Anyway, my birthday is tomorrow and it seems like a good way to start the year.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What makes the blog roll?

Since it's summer, I'm reading a few more blogs than usual. And I've noticed something: controversy, it seems, gets the most comments.

People like getting "up in arms" about issues. In fact sometimes I wonder if bloggers look for issues to get people riled about. Sort of like the news on TV which capitalizes on the gruesome and notorious with sound bites to get you hooked in. The full story is seldom quite as interesting... except when it is more interesting and better read as a full story anyway.

But what concerns me as a person of faith is that in the blogging world we have a lot less grace for people or situations than we would in real life. When people make a mistake we're quicker to think about what a great post it would make, than to try and find out what really might be going on. Of course if I point the finger at the blog that pointed me to this thought I'd be succumbing to exactly the kind of problem I'm writing about. So in this unnamed blog, a known person was called out for a mistake. I fully agreed with the blogger's point -- but as the comments played out, I realized the situation wasn't as obvious as the blog suggested.

In the Conversations Project that our church did, we learned to practice interpretive charity which means what it says. We interpret a speaker's meaning with charity, even when our assumptions about what they said might push our buttons. We ask more questions to clarify meaning, and if we disagree, then we can discuss it, always seeking understanding, not reacting out of our own narrow assumptions.

Unfortunately, interpretive charity doesn't always make for titillating blogging.

Then again, neither does whining about your life and beating yourself up over the stupid things you do... which is another unnamed blog I've had too much time to read (in case you're a digger, it's not one of the sites I follow publicly).

But I'm still going to read all these blogs anyway... and keep writing my own occasionally. My friend's blog title says it all best: My Thoughts are So Important I Write them Down. Check him out -- http://iwritethemdown.blogspot​.com -- when he writes, he's funny.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

These hands

Sometimes, when Chongo is asked what career he wants to pursue, he answers, "a surgeon."

This would be a fine occupation to have, but Chongo says it in jest, not (yet?!) being an ambitious enough student to be looking down the road at all those extra years of study.

But when Chongo says he wants to be a surgeon, I think of one thing: his hands.

Chongo can do the most intricate, minute sculpting with those hands. Like this piece he created out of "green stuff."

But he is ornery. So when I go to take a picture of him working he does this:

And then he replaces himself with his alter ego.

Do they let ornery monkeys be surgeons these days?

When people ask him where he's going to college he says, "Stanford." If he ever becomes a surgeon who went to Stanford, no one will be more surprised than his mother. But with those hands, he could do anything.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sense of humor?

On Facebook an acquaintance of mine posted something cute her four-year-old had said and then commented, "I don't know where she got her sense of humor from."

Really? I don't think your little cutie was being clever.

They way I see it, most kids don't make clever comments to be funny, they make cute comments that turn out to be funny. In fact part of what makes their comments so hilarious is the earnestness they're spoken with. They see life in such fresh ways that we adults are often surprised into laughter. And kids learn from that laughter. I've seen the eyes light up when they realize they said something funny, and I've also seen frustration set in when they see their words aren't being taken seriously.

Not that kids don't try to be funny -- they often do, and most of it we endure with a polite laugh or enjoy because of the general silly, cuteness. But has it ever struck your humor radar? I can almost guarantee if you ask a kid to make up a joke it will include the word "poop" and I'm guessing that's because that word always gets a laugh from their playmates.

With both my kids, cleverness began to develop in about 4th grade. I have no statistics or research on the subject, but I've come to believe that real sense of humor -- starting to see the irony in the world -- begins about age 9 or 10.

There was one possible exception in my experience. I'm not certain, but my five-year-old nephew said something once that might not follow my theory. We were in the car on vacation together. Chongo was going on about how he'd eat any kind of burrito, he liked them all. My nephew was questioning him ala Green Eggs and Ham.

Nephew: Would you eat a chicken burrito?
Chongo: I love chicken burritos.
Nephew: Would you eat a bean burrito?
Chongo: Every kind of bean burrito.
Nephew: Would you eat a cow burrito?
Chongo: I love steak burritos. Mix in some potatoes and cheeese and onions, yum.
Nephew: Would you eat a vegetable burrito?
Chongo: Any kind of burrito. There isn't a burrito I don't like.
Nephew: Would you eat a butt burrito?

His comment stopped the conversation in its tracks and made us all laugh. Granted it had the word "butt" -- a classic kid word used to get a laugh -- but the timing, the way it took the conversation to a humorous level, the puncturing of Chongo's inflating balloon of hubris. I'd almost call it clever.

Was my nephew clever? When do you think the age of humor begins?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The end... and the beginning

Today ended another school year. Funny how our little world revolves around that sun. Our calendars defined by that revolution.

And then summer arrives, and time,

Everything stops spinning. Evenings are not pressured by homework and projects and making dinner just so I can get lunches ready for tomorrow. Getting to bed is not followed by the words "on time." In fact "on time" is a phrase that begins to disappear from our vocabulary... or in our house the phrase "... or your going to be late."

What a sweet night this first night of summer is. It's seven o'clock, the shadows are growing longer and the light is making the ripe oranges glow. I'm waiting for the parrots to fly squawking across the sky to tell me it's dinner time.

All this, until Monday when Maia begins summer school at too damn early am. At least we'll have August (and part of July)...

What do you love about the beginning of summer?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Community Service

It's the time of year for choosing classes for next year's high school schedule. Chongo has been avoiding any honors or AP classes, convinced he might have to work harder than he wants to get an A.

But I keep pressing the issue. There's one honors class that, rumor has it, is really the same as the regular class. The only difference is that students have to complete 20 hours of community service during the year.

Community service is a deal breaker for Chongo. If this is true, he's definitely not taking the honors class.

"Why?" asks the volunteer happy mom.

"Community service is actually a punishment courts give to people who have broken the law?" he answers. "Why would I want to do that?"

I'm dumbfounded about that one.... But I'm working on a response, and I assure you it won't include "it's a good thing to do" or "colleges care."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ironic or Insurgent?

Sometimes the pieces of circumstance align around you to create meaning, but sometimes the forces at work are merely human. I humbly request your opinion on this situation.

Here's what happened:
Chongo struggles with passing Spanish and we work with him religiously to help/force him to accomplish this. On the night in question, Grandma was in that honored spot at the dining room table doing his Spanish homework with him.

Chongo likes listening to music while he does homework, and pretty soon I hear Pink Floyd's album "The Wall" coming from the stereo.

Me: (coming back into the room) "I think you should turn this off. It's hard for Grandma to work with you when the music's playing."

We don't need no education.
We don't need no thought control

Chongo: "No, Mom, I can work fine."

No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave the kids alone...

Me: (in my cracking the whip voice) "Chongo, you have to work hard at this. You can't concentrate on Spanish with the music going."

All in all you're just another brick in the wall...

Chongo: "Okay, okay... but listen to the next song first. You should hear it. It's called "Mother" -- it's for you."

Me: (feeling a little flattered... ) "Oh, okay, one more song."

Mama's gonna keep you right here, under her wing
She won't let you fly, but she might let you sing
Mama will keep baby cozy and warm... oooh baby...
Of course, Mama'll help build the wall....

I listen to the whole song, waiting for some redemption.

.... Mother, did it need to be so high.

When I turn off the stereo after the last line, there's no complaining -- just the sound of Grandma explaining the use of subjunctive conjugations with words that express hopes and desires. And my own bewildered thoughts -- Espero que no pienses asi, que no sea la verdad -- because there's something so damn true about what I just heard.

Ironic? or Insurgent? You decide.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Observation #1

Even the coolest kid can look forlorn, standing all alone on the sidewalk -- the last one -- waiting for a ride home.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A rant

As I went looking through the file where I throw everything school related for Chongo, I came across his Freshman class request list. And that old anger at the way counselors have steered us wrong came bubbling back up into my stomach so that I sat there for several long minutes, just trying to recover.

We've had many negative and discouraging experiences, but do all the details matter? Today I saw proof that we really had tried to get the counselor's help in placing Chongo in the right art class. But we were never contacted and Chongo was placed in a beginning art class. After freshman year Chongo said, "I'm never taking another art class. It's such as waste of time." Which made me very sad, since he's actually good at art. Even his teacher at the end of the year told us, "he really didn't belong in this class." I know now it was my naievete as a parent, thinking I could rely on a counselor to be looking out for my child.

So this is a rant about counselors (Mr VB excluded, except that he retired just when we needed him most)...
  1. Every time I turn around I discover that something they told me, even insisted on is either entirely untrue or contradicted by the next counselor.
  2. When you don't take seriously something they said (" we don't change classes") they get angry despite your repeated experience of #1.
  3. They seem to think scheduling classes is formulaic, as if there's homogeneity among the 2500 kids trying to keep their heads above the academic water without losing interest or stamina or hope.
  4. It appears there's more interest in getting their schedule organized than in personalizing students schedules to best serve them.
  5. A pure, unadulterated prejudice against anyone who keeps her desk perfectly neat, devoid of papers, nothing out of place. Really? Okay maybe that's my own issue, but I believe it explains why this particular counselor does not understand the vagaries of my child.
A caveat: I am fully aware that counselors deal constantly with pushy, insistent parents who can only see their child's needs and not the larger community, and I am sure it can make them cynical. And I know there are many great counselors out there who have made a real difference in the lives of their students (did I mention Mr. VB?).

Now that Maia's filling out her high school registration form I had to email her counselor. "Surprise me," I wanted to say. Show me up, let me be wrong. Care about students as individuals, assume vocal parents might actually be saying something worthwhile, and above all, work imaginatively.

This time, I'm going to follow up.

P.S. I couldn't decide if I should publish this one... because a rant generally serves only to make me feel better, not to actually help anyone else. And I don't have any good advice. Except to counselors, which I mentioned, but which, if I were a counselor, I wouldn't even be able to hear after a rant... unless I was already a good counselor...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Conversations in Middle School

A seventh grade conversation after I had used the desire to cheat as an example of internal conflict.

Argumentative Boy: "But what if you were a bad cheater. That would be external."
Me: "Yes, if you were caught, it would definitely be an external conflict."
Another boy (off-handedly): "That would be a sin."
Lovely, young girl (world-wearily): "Does anyone still sin these days?"

I would have loved to continue that conversation... but we were pressed for time and it wasn't on the sub plans!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday is upon us... and since it's so late this year, I've had a long time to think about what I might doforLent as in "what are you doing for Lent?" When I was growing up we never talked about Lent, but our church now celebrates Ash Wednesday with a service... so now I think about what I might doforLent.

The big question is always why.

A couple years ago I began to ask myself this question and was inspired by a poem by Mary Oliver called "Gethsemane" from her book Thirst. And it reflects on the poor disciples, falling asleep in the garden when Jesus was agonizing over the death to come, and the stars and wind that kept watch with him that night. In the Bible Jesus says "watch with me" and this is what I want to doforLent. I want to keep my eyes open to Jesus in this world, not to fall into the bleary sleep of everyday life. It takes intention, and open heartedness, and more courage, I am sure, than I have.

So I do acts of discipline, like pinches and slaps, to keep my eyes open during the long night of Lent. And sometimes I still fall asleep. Because, as Mary Oliver says, "this too/must be a part of the story."