Monday, April 25, 2011

Public Health Care Option

OK, so maybe this isn't the most important part of the debate, but I am thinking about it now, anyway, so I am going to write about it.

Perhaps one of the reasons businesses are wary of the public health care option is not only because it messes with the insurance industry and the medical industry, but also because it changes the playing field for businesses in general.

Imagine what will happen when your health care is no longer tied to your job.  You can quit your job and go elsewhere and you still have the same health care that you had before.  You don't have to stay with a lousy job, just because you are afraid that you won't be covered somewhere else.  You don't have to take a job, just because it includes health care to cover you and your family.

For businesses, the benefits package doesn't need to include health care.  Maybe the benefits package will look quite a bit different.  Businesses could view that as a positive, but the prospect of losing workers might offset that plus.

The Birthday Concert, Part II

Laura, Alyssa, Marjorie at M's 96th Birthday Concert

Laura, Kathryn, and Marjorie at M's 96th Birthday Concert

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Birthday Concert

My mother turned 96 on April 6th.  Several months ago, I had the idea that I wanted to give a concert for my mother, with songs that she likes.  She is religious, which I am not, but I knew that she would appreciate having me sing the songs for her.

I have sung in choirs since I was young and sang in church choir.  I have sung in the University Choruses at both the University of Illinois and the University of Alaska, and, most recently, I have been singing with the Boulder Chorale.  I have also sung in the Fairbanks Summer (and Winter) Arts Festival - singing in the Women's Chorus, the Beginning Singing Workshop, and, most boldly of all, trying my courage with singing in the Cabaret.  I had even taken a few private singing lessons.  But, I had never had regular singing lessons until this past fall.  I am not sure why I started regular lessons, perhaps for something to do after I moved here, but I have enjoyed them.  My voice is lower than my mother's - I am an alto (technically a mezzo-soprano, I think), but I have also sung tenor.

At any rate, I invited my older sister, who plays piano, to take part in the concert.  She would need to accompany me and then play a few pieces on her own.  And, my younger daughter, who is just starting to play guitar, was also encouraged to come and sing.

Since we live quite far apart (with Kathryn in Connecticut, Alyssa in Washington, D.C., my mother in Alabama, and me in Colorado), it wasn't possible to practice together, but we all practiced pretty hard and long by ourselves.  And my mother decided she wanted to sing one song, too.

The concert was scheduled for some time around the 2nd week in April, since that is when Kathryn had spring break.  She and I flew into Nashville and drove down to Huntsville; Alyssa flew into HSV.  Kathryn and I practiced that evening on our brother's piano, but that was the only time we could practice together.  Sunday morning was the only chance Kathryn had to practice on the piano we had to use for the concert, but as she was practicing, one of the residents there complained about the noise, so she felt like she had to stop.

Kathryn had made programs for the concert, which, to my surprise, included two songs I hadn't been practicing (The Old Rugged Cross and How Great Thou Art) and left out two I had (Ave Maria by Schubert and the Camp Fire Prayer).  Since we didn't have piano music for the Camp Fire Prayer, we left that out, but we added in the Ave Maria, since I had been working pretty hard on that one. 

The concert was open to the residents, but we had purposely not advertised it much, as none of us is a professional musician and only I had performed in public much.  There were about 10 people who came, which was perfect - enough to make it seem like a real concert, but not too many to make us all extra nervous.  And all went well, including Alyssa's songs on the guitar, Kathryn's solo pieces on the piano, Kathryn's and my joint pieces, and Mom's song.  Mom even got an encore.

I recorded the concert on my computer, but I haven't figured out how to separate the songs yet.  I am hoping to make a CD for Mom to listen to now that the concert is over.

And now, the post concert let down.  The songs still run through your head incessantly, but the goal has already been reached, so it is time to look toward a new goal.  What should I work on now - songs for Cabaret at the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival again - or something entirely different?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Introvert's Theme Song

I wrote a song last summer for the Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. It still needs a lot of work, but here is the text:

I wander alone through my mind
All by myself, I'm just fine
It takes a long, long time to circle 'round,
Past all of those stray thoughts, I've found.

Dishes, kids,
The meaning of life,
Groceries, the bank,
The world and its strife,
Big and small, I touch on all,
The flotsam of my life.


My cats need feeding,
I need a new job,
My prescriptions are running out,
Straighten the house, don't be a slob,
Courage, persistence, instead of doubt.


Watch the news; call my mom,
Global warming, which country to bomb,
Solar, wind, or oil for fuel,
Pick up a package,
Drive to the pool.


I have music for the song, but I can't seem to attach it to this. 

International Conference on Gifted Adults, Part II

This is going to sound like another downer, but it really isn't. I am, by nature, an optimist. I tend to take most things with equanimity and make the best of them.

But... (and, face it, you knew that was coming) there are times when pain takes precedence over optimism. What I think was missing at the conference was significant acknowledgement of pain, and practical steps to deal with it.

Yes, pain was mentioned, briefly for each stage of adult development. I brought it up myself when we were discussing Annemarie Roeper's message to us. My mother is 96. She is increasingly deaf and frail, which is an insult to what she perceives of her former self. Her most significant pain is that she doesn't have anyone to talk to. Annemarie alluded to this problem as well. And, as I said in the conference, my mother refers to her assisted living facility as "jail". I know they try and my mother isn't always the easiest resident to deal with (perhaps an understatement of gigantic proportions). But we need to look for practical ways we can help the elderly gifted deal with their pain.

Two other brief allusions to pain were also mentioned: the difficulty of finding a life partner and the pain of losing people in a relationship, either through divorce or death. I happen to know two young people in the 20 to 35 age range, who are not only gifted, one highly gifted, and who are also either gay or lesbian. Imagine how that complicates finding a partner. Which part of you do you hide?

And what about the pain of losing someone in a relationship? I have been married for nearly 40 years, so I don't know that particular pain, but it certainly isn't a cake walk. What are some tools of self defense that we need to make it through that experience?

Or the pain of losing or quitting a job? Which I do know quite well.

I am not spiritual - sorry, Patti - so it takes me longer to find the kernel of that message that can help me. And I believe my pain right now COULD actually be addressed in that dimension. But some of the other ways of coping would also be of interest.

Yes, I know that this was the FIRST International Conference on Gifted Adults. The most significant intellectual piece for me was the delineation of the different stages of adult giftedness. And, I know that many of us tend to be optimists, at least outwardly. But being in the throes of a difficult transition right now, I am particularly sensitive to the pain side and need to take a closer look there.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

International Conference on Gifted Adults

I suppose I shouldn't write about this at all, because it was actually a fabulous conference. But I spent most of the day there crying. And it wasn't because I suddenly realized that I was gifted and that all of my strange idiosyncrasies could be attributed to that. No, I have known for a long time that I was gifted. Ever since I was tested while I was in elementary school and later when I went to full time gifted classes.

No, the reason I was crying is mostly because, in spite of it all, or perhaps because of it all, I feel like such a failure. Here, I was supposed to be in the self-actualizing stage or maybe one of the other stages that made each life stage seem like a new adventure. And I feel stuck back in trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do with my life. I have been a secretary, a teacher, a grad student, a computer scientist, a teacher (again), a biology researcher, a teacher (again), a grad student (again), a computer support scientist, a biochemist, and finally a teacher again. And maybe not in all that order. But I haven't lived up to any of the expectations I had of myself when I was young. I don't feel successful in any of my careers.

And, now I am unemployed, overeducated, old. I feel like I have a lot to contribute, but no one seems to want my contributions. I even had to work HARD to give away my children's book collection - 1112 books, that I finally managed to find a home for.

Unemployment and job seeking is painful. Each new rejection says you aren't wanted. And, though I can understand the reasons - my skills aren't exactly what they need and they have a huge number of people to choose from - rejection still hurts. Every time.

And this is the stage of my life when I am supposed to have figured it all out and feel that I am fulfilling my true self.

I certainly hope this isn't my true destiny. I don't like spending most of the day crying.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Montessori Schools with the Upper Grades

I have never taught for more than a week in a Montessori school - that is my disclaimer. I have subbed in a Montessori charter school for a total of about 3 weeks. Since I am mainly interested in the older elementary students, my experience with Montessori has only been with the students who would have been classified as being in 5th and 6th grades and in 7th and 8th grades.

I went into the Montessori school for the first time with curiosity, but wariness. I had looked into enrolling my own children in a different Montessori school many years before this experience and had decided against it. That Montessori school would NOT allow children to do imaginative play and my daughters were especially enamored of imaginative play at the time. I am not sure how many times my older daughter pretended to lose her shoe, as Cinderella did, and gleefully shouted, "Oh, I almost forgot!" as she pretended to hear the clock chime midnight. [Or the permutation of that event, where instead of losing her shoe, she lost her towel after her bath...her ball gown gone.] I just couldn't imagine barring her from imaginative play. So we pursued other alternatives. But my impression of Montessori schools from that school search and from my readings when I was pursuing my education degrees led me to believe that the Montessori method could be rather restrictive - proscribing some types of creativity and prescribing fixed interactions with materials.

But still, I was curious, so I accepted a subbing job at the school. I was impressed with several things, even as the school began. There were two classrooms next to each other with full time teachers and nearly full teacher aides. The classrooms were arranged with a meeting area, usually a couch and several comfortable chairs, a window seat bench, carpeting, and enough space for the 24 students in the class. Outside of the meeting area were various sized wooden tables, some of which could accommodate only two students, some designed for 4, and some that were pushed together for a larger sized table that up to even 12 students could sit at. The walls were lined with books and materials. Coats and boots were left in the hall. Pencils and markers were common property, as were paper, tissues, and other supplies. Each student had two large three-ring binders. One seemed to be for current work and the other kept as a portfolio.

The day there began with a message to the students on the white board easel, a math problem, and a list of things for the students to start working on - typically beginning with making a list of things that they planned to accomplish for the day. The teacher discussed the day's plan for each student and signed each one as the day began. Students conversed a bit and then gradually started on their work.

The typical pattern of the day was to work all morning, with an interruption some time during the morning for a math class, clean up and meet to discuss things just before lunch. Recess and then lunch, followed by either an additional work time or a group activity time. This meant large blocks of time where the student could choose what to work on, with various constraints.

One of the things that still rather discomfits me is the word "choice" as it was used in that school. In the classrooms that I was in, the curriculum was broken into 3 week blocks, where certain activities in each of the disciplines were to be accomplished. The different activities that were required to be done were called "choices", presumably because the student could choose which one to do on which day and at which time, but, in essence, most of them were not really choices, as I think about them. The task was prescribed, e.g., read this and figure out a solution to the problem presented or learn these vocabulary words. Sometimes there were optional ways to demonstrate the accomplishment of a task, but usually, there was very limited amount of what I would call choice, i.e., a student could NOT choose to not do a particular task that s/he didn't like.

So, what do I think? I liked it much better than I expected to. The environment was respectful of both students' and teachers' needs. There was a snack area, where students could get a mid-morning snack whenever they wanted (only 2 people in the snack area at a time). There was a chart by the door to indicate when students had left the room for work, the rest room, or a physical activity (also one of the prescribed list of activities on the list). The aide from one classroom or the other would accompany the students to the gym or outside, depending on the physical activity on the list and how many students wanted to do the activity at the time. The classroom was busy and productive.

The negatives - I saw little differentiation of the activities, with the exception of math. And two students seemed to be floundering a bit. I suppose it is actually good that I only saw two students really floundering, but it is interesting to me to ponder why they were floundering. One student who seemed to have difficulty seemed to be both lazy and unsure of himself. He always worked with a friend and usually the friend was doing the lion's share of the work. If there was a way to accomplish the task with minimal effort and minimal quality, that was the way he did it. He avoided anything that was difficult or required significant effort. He was way behind in finishing most of his work. When the regular teacher and I discussed him, it was clear that this was a recurrent pattern. He wasn't unable, just unwilling.

Another student had difficulty for entirely different reasons: many of the tasks were simply too complex or too difficult for her. She required a lot more support in just about everything than any of the other students. This, even though it was done tactfully, seemed to set her apart.

And there were still conflicts between and among the students. Although the behavior in the classroom was, in general, excellent, there was still some emotional bullying, necessitating some teacher intervention.

The teachers in the school made some tough choices. One was to do without "specials" teachers for music, PE, and library, which are standard in the rest of the school district, in favor of aides for each classroom.

I would be interested in trying this out for a longer time. I would like to see if it actually does facilitate accommodating students at their own levels, and would thus be a model for inclusive gifted education or even inclusion of special ed students. From what I could see, there were only very mild learning difficulties with the one student. There were two very advanced math students in one of the classrooms, so I do know that mathematical prowess was accommodated. I could not see evidence of any other advanced provisions, but I freely admit that this might have been less visible with reading/writing, and to some extent social studies and science.

An aside: with no formal music classes, that subject may have been considered short changed, but the upper grades did put on a musical every year and at least one student, who was an outstanding singer, chose to attend this school and was extremely supportive of it, even though he had to go outside of school to get his music instruction.

Class Sizes

I have read some of the research that says that class sizes don't effect learning outcomes substantially and I just don't believe it. I have taught school off and on from 1971, in public schools, in private schools, in charter schools. I have taught in inner city schools with racial problems, in rural schools, in relatively wealthy suburban schools. I have taught and subbed in 4 widely differing states (Massachusetts, Illinois, Colorado, and Alaska). I have subbed in classes of 15 students and taught classes of 35 students. From what I see, numbers make a difference. There seem to be several major ways that numbers make a difference: discipline, content, ability to differentiate, personal connection.

No matter how well-trained a class is, 35 students inevitably are harder to organize than 15. Just figuring out where to put all the desks/tables/chairs is a huge logistical task for a class with 35 students. And young people are not miniature robots, or, for that matter, miniature adults. They haven't yet learned all of the social behaviors that adults can usually manage to bring forth in large group situations.

Part of getting students involved in their own education is to make a personal connection of what they are learning to what they already know and ways that they can use the new knowledge in their lives. If you are trying to have a personal conversation with 15 students about this, it is possible to touch on each of the students in the group. With 35 students, you have to have recourse to other methods - e.g., dividing up the group into smaller sub-groups, then reporting back to the whole group. With 15 students, you can alter the content of the lesson to address particular facets of the topic that impact members of the group. With 35 students, this is rarely possible.

In the many years that I subbed, about 8 years, I only ran across one teacher who
tried to individualize students' learning completely. I don't know how successful she was, but as a sub, it was extremely difficult. But not all of the students in any given class are in the middle of the ability/readiness range for the lesson. There are ALWAYS some outliers, ones who may already know the "new" material and ones who haven't yet mastered the prerequisites. With a class of 15, it is possible to individually support both ends of the outlier spectrum. With a class of 35, it is rarely done. Yes, teachers are taught about differentiation in college, yes, they say they understand how to do it; no, I don't see them actually doing it. It is simply too hard. Imagine a college professor teaching chemistry. Do we give him/her a class that needs to cover elements and atoms, acids and bases, all the way through to quantum mechanics? Of course not, that would be absurd. We set up a general sequence of learning chemistry and apportion the students into classes based on what they each need to learn next. Yet, we give an elementary school teacher 25 to 30 students, some of whom can barely read and some of whom are reading 4 or 5 grade levels above their nominal grade placement. With 15 students, and say 3 sub-groups, it is possible to reach more children than with 25 students. It is also a matter of simple math. If I have 50 minutes with 15 students, 20 minutes of which is spent in whole group instruction, there is a possibility of 2 minutes per student of individual help. With 30 students, there is 1 minute. How much can you get done in 60 seconds?

In a class of 15 students, a teacher can really get to know the students. With 30, it is much more difficult. That personal connection between teacher and student is what makes much of teaching and learning intimately fulfilling. Without it, teachers begin to feel like simple curriculum delivery vehicles and students begin to feel like insignificant cogs in the information factory.

Years ago, I read a research report that consolidated observations from different sized classes, from tiny classes of 6 or 7 through huge classes of 50 or 60. From what I remember, there seemed to be several breaking points in class size and class dynamics. With extremely small classes, children often had trouble finding kids who were similar to them in learning stage. At 12 to 15 students, there seemed to be change in classroom dynamic - enough diversity for different types of interactions depending on learning activities. Class dynamics changed again around 18 to 24 students, with more whole group instruction and fewer individually tailored assignments. With 25 or more students, the classes were largely given over to whole group instruction and standard assignments. There was some support for students with difficulties, but little or no accommodation for students who already knew the material. I would love to find that research again, but haven't been able to locate it.

The politicians now are bent on cutting funding for education and class sizes almost certainly will increase in many schools across the country. I can't help but feel this will make teachers jobs even more difficult than they already are. I suppose, if the research study above is correct, increasing class sizes from 25 to 30 students might not substantially change how the classroom functions. It does substantially increase teacher work load - but what do the politicians care about that - teachers have a long summer vacation to recover.