Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dealing with Dragons, The Musical

This is the second song in my musical, based on Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

Here are the lyrics:

Though I should stay, I long for adventure.
I am not ready to wed or to reign.
I long to go, to do things I’ve not done.
Head for the sunrise, my own goals to gain.

The way may be long, but still I can be strong.
Learn something new on the way.
I am not proper, but then proper’s a bore
There must be more that’s in store. 

Just starting out, away from the castle.
I am determined to find a new way.
Follow the path the frog said to start on.
Head for the hovel, knock three times [knock, knock, knock, snap fingers] 

Oh! Kay!

And here is the song:

Cimorene's Song

Sunday, August 02, 2015

A New Direction

I turned 65 at my last birthday and I have finally come to terms with the fact that I will never have a successful career.  I have done a lot of different things successfully, don't get me wrong, but my career, as such, has been a haphazard shambles.

The biggest successes have been helping to found Countryside School, in order to meet the educational needs of my children - and numerous others.  The school is still doing well and I am happy about my contribution to its start.  I also am proud of the gifted program I ran for 5 years at Gifford School in Illinois.  Gifted education is no longer supported in Illinois and the gifted teacher/coordinator position was eliminated.  I chose to resign, rather than continue with a mishmash of part-time jobs, as teaching K-8 computer classes, 8th grade algebra, and 6th and 7th grade social studies was too much.  Other teachers may understand this: I had 31 different class preps per week, with NO repetition.  Plus I was responsible for all of the computer systems in the school (hardware and software) and the school's computer network.

I have found substitute teaching more interesting than I expected.  Even though it is discouraging to not be able to see much of a personal impact and it is even more discouraging to be paid so abysmally, I did enjoy visiting different schools and seeing different classrooms.  It is fascinating to me to compare schools (both physical layouts and staff), teachers, curricula, management styles, rules and expectations, and so forth.  There is a lot to think about as a sub.  Intellectually, the job is actually quite satisfying.

But, it is also very taxing.  One of my problems is my physical body.  I am arthritic and overweight and subbing is physically difficult - standing most of the day, bending over to help the younger ones, limited access to restrooms, cleaning up the classroom after the day is over.  Then, there is the emotional challenge.  Very few people seem to care that you are there.  Oh, they are glad that someone is there, they just don't care that it is ME (or grammatically, that that someone is I).  I feel more like a placeholder (Who are you today?) than a person.  At one school, I showed up for a job, but there was another person already there who had spoken with the teacher about it.  I could legally have insisted that the job was mine according to the rules of the district, but it was obvious that I was just an anonymous person and the other woman was REAL to them.  Unless you go regularly to one building only, that's what you are - an anonymous placeholder.

So, I am beginning to think of myself as retired.  I may still substitute teach, but I am more focused now on some other directions.  If you have been reading these occasional posts because you were interested in giftedness and/or education, this new direction may not be your cup of tea.  That is fine with me.

My current interest is in writing music.  It is another difficult field, but I am enjoying my beginning efforts.  So TTFN, as Tigger would say.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Money in Elections

The American election process has been bought.  By anyone who has money.  If you don't have money, your voice is worthless.  Your vote will still count, but unless you pony up money, the actual vote doesn't matter.  The jockeying for electoral position, the policy stances, the position statements are all decided well before the actual election.  Who gets to decide?  People with money.  Some candidates are beholden to a small number of people with a lot of money.  Other candidates rely on a larger number of people with more modest sums.  But no candidate caters to someone with only a vote and no money to back up that vote.

I care deeply about a number of issues.  I would love to contribute to causes that desperately need my money.  But I don't earn very much money as a substitute teacher - much less than it takes to live where I do.  My life style depends on my husband as the family earner.  Our history as a couple means that I don't feel bad about relying on him for basic support - food, shelter, clothing, and all those other necessities.  But it does mean that don't have my own money to contribute to causes I believe in.

Every time I sign a petition or write my representatives on behalf of causes I believe in, EVERY TIME, I am asked for money, money, and more money.  And the causes are always desperate.  Because, well, yes, this is actually a rather desperate time for some of the causes I believe in.  They aren't lying.  It is needed.  But I just can't contribute.  I don't have my own money.

So I feel shut out of the election process.  Without money, my voice doesn't mean much.  Why be interested in the outcomes, when even your side doesn't care - unless you have some spare cash to contribute?

I understand why some people just shut it out.  If you don't have money, you don't matter.  Why not just watch another celebrity's marriage fall apart or, here's an uplifting kitten video.  Have fun.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Explaining to a Skinny Person Just How Dieting Feels

Have you ever been REALLY, REALLY hungry?

Have you ever been REALLY, REALLY hungry for a whole day?

Now, imagine that you feel like that for a whole week.

Then, imagine how you would feel if you were told that you would have to feel that way for the rest of your life.

Then, imagine how you would feel if someone told you there was this great diet you could go on.  It works every time and you would NEVER feel hungry, again.  On this marvelous diet you can eat all of the cockroaches and eggplant you want.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Down Memory Lane 4 - Respecting Differences

A few years ago, I was flying from Dallas Fort-Worth to Denver.  On many such flights, people sitting inches from each other remain silent and just endure the crowded discomfort.  But, sometimes, you strike up a conversation with the person next to you - and it makes a lasting impression.  This was one such case.

I am not sure how the conversation got started.  Perhaps I was reading a children's book - something I do quite often.  At any rate, the younger woman sitting next to me and I got to talking.  She was a teacher; I had been a teacher and was currently a substitute teacher.  So we were discussing teaching and schools and school systems.  She was a devout Christian and taught in a private religious school; I am non-religious and have taught in private, public, and charter schools.  She was conservative politically; I am liberal-progressive.  In such situations, many topics are usually taboo.  We are, after all, in a situation where we will be together only briefly; why risk anger and accusations.  But we did anyway.  She was curious as to how people like me could support things like abortion.  She was interested in my reasons and actually respectful of them, even while disagreeing.  It turns out that she had gotten pregnant before marriage and had kept the baby (who had significant handicaps).  She couldn't imagine her life without him and couldn't imagine why anyone would get an abortion.  She believed in personhood beginning at conception.

My take on it is somewhat different from many liberal-progressives.  Yes, I believe that a woman should have control over her own body and her own health, which can be significantly impaired by pregnancy and childbirth.  But I also come at my views from an ecological perspective.  I believe that the current human population of the earth is well past the carrying capacity of our ecosystems.  We have altered the sustainability of many of those systems drastically, some beyond their capacity to recover.  [See articles about the Sixth Extinction, which some scientists believe is imminent.]  I think it is vital to our survival on earth that we do anything and everything we can to limit the population of humans on earth.

In addition, I believe that everyone should have the chance to live a life free from the devastating effects of hunger, lack of housing, lack of education, and lack of safety.  To live a life in such a manner requires a significant use of natural resources.  In other words, I would like to see it possible for anyone who works at it to live a life that was at least comfortably lower middle class, according to an American-style perspective.  With the world's current population, that level of consumption would exacerbate the current ecological problems.

One thing that I thought of later, that I have now added to my reasoning is that yes, she can't imagine life without her son.  But what about life without all of the other babies that she and her husband didn't have?  Most likely, since she and her husband had two children after they got married, they could have had more.  Do they miss the ones that they didn't have, due to birth control?  Do they miss the ones that she might have miscarried without even knowing it?  These potential children might have changed her life.  Does she miss them?  The answer is probably no.  Most women don't regret each and every menstrual cycle as a missed baby.

At any rate, it was a very respectful and interesting conversation.  I doubt if either of us changed our views much.  But it was encouraging to me to be able to have such a conversation.  I sometimes fear I am too opinionated to hear others out, but I think, in this case, both of us felt that we had been heard. So, I say, thank you to that anonymous woman.  Thank you for embodying the ability to disagree respectfully.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Are Introverts Worse at Friendship?

I had to teach a lesson that included a 25 question "Friendship Quiz" to third graders. The students were asked to rate themselves: 1 - Never, 2 - Sometimes, 3 - Most of the time, 4 - Always.  I must say, at the outset, that some of these statements seemed above the level of third graders, who are mostly 8 and 9 years old.  But some of them also made decidedly uncomfortable.  Remember, this quiz is titled "Friendship Quiz", so if you think of yourself as a good friend, you want to score pretty high.

Some of the statements that were to be rated:
I enjoy meeting new people.
I enjoy group activities.
I can carry on a conversation with someone I have just met.
I am able to find something I like in most people.

It seems to me that the quiz favors extroverts and that it would leave introverted students feeling as though their less gregarious characteristics mean that they aren't good friends.  There is a scale at the end of the quiz.
     75 - 100 points - You probably already have a lot of friends and are able to get along well with them most of the time.
     50 - 74 points - You have the potential to make friends, but you are probably having some problems  in some of your friendships.
     25 - 49 points - You have much room for improvement in your ability to make and keep friends.

And it was clear that some of the students NEEDED to rate themselves highly on everything.  One young lady gave herself straight 4s.

So, I have several questions about this lesson.  Is it appropriate for third graders?  Reading level: It seems to me that it was worded as though it was intended for older children or adults.  One of the statements was "I avoid criticizing friends."  Quite a few of the students did not understand the word 'criticizing'.  Emotional awareness: again, it seemed to me that some of the concepts might be unfamiliar emotionally to third graders.  How many third graders actually think about their ability to carry on conversations with strangers?  What about the kids who are told to not even talk to someone they don't know?

Then there was the one that was in specific conflict with something they had been told earlier in the year:  I am able to keep a secret.  Evidently, they had been explicitly told that "there are no secrets" at their school.

There were, as I said, 25 statements to this quiz and a number of them, including others not detailed here, made me a bit uncomfortable.  Not only would they make introverts feel as though they were bad friends, the level of introspection might make all the kids a bit anxious about their personalities and their reactions to normal events (meeting someone for the first time).

And a final question: given that the quiz made me uncomfortable and that I thought many of the questions were not worded in a helpful way, is there any way I could have gracefully gotten out of teaching the lesson?  I am a sub and this is a really nice school.  I enjoyed the day with the class.  I really don't want to alienate the teacher.  But I also don't like some of the messages the lesson has.  What should I have done?  What could I have done differently?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Debunking the 10,000 Hour Rule; Embracing the Joy of Doing

When my older daughter was young, she took gymnastics classes. She was good enough that she joined her local gymnastics team. She was good enough to compete at ranked levels. But I questioned whether it was even worthwhile for her to participate, because I knew, from her physique, that she was probably never going to be good enough to be competitive at a national level. Why put in all those hours if it would never be enough? Why?
Because she loved it.  And now that she is grown up, she still does.  She even coaches gymnastics in her "spare" time - while she is working on a Ph.D. in biology. 
I STARTED writing music at the ripe old age of 59.  I am enjoying it tremendously.  Will I ever reach "genius-level" excellence?  No.  Does that mean I should stop even trying?  
I agree that the 10,000 hour rule is a myth.  But I also think that it is time to validate reaching non-genius level excellence. There is a lot of enjoyment to be had from the pursuit of something you are drawn to.  It is great if other people like what you have done and I won't deny that I would love to have my musical entertain an actual audience.  But genius-level excellence is rare and if you don't have a huge amount of time or a huge amount of natural talent, you can still have a huge amount of fun.   

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Writing Sentences

I was teaching a literacy lesson today for third graders.  There was a reading selection and then 3 pages of worksheets about the lesson.  I went over the directions for each section of the worksheet, slowly and carefully.  I emphasized that the students were to write their answers in COMPLETE sentences.  I reviewed what a complete sentence was: it begins with a capital letter; it ends with punctuation, and it expresses a complete idea.  I gave and elicited examples of complete sentences and sentence fragments.  Then I let the students work.  They worked very well and were completely focused on their work.

When they finished, they were to bring their work up to me to review, before turning it in.  AT LEAST two-thirds of them had failed to write complete sentences.  WHY??? Did they not understand  the directions? No, they understood the directions. Did they think that their sentence fragments were sentences?  No, they realized that they were not complete sentences.  WHY didn't they do the assignment correctly?  Blank looks.  So, I sent them back to re-do it.  And re-do it.  And re-do it.  Some of them took three or four tries before they were even close.

Oh, and these were gifted students.  I really don't understand why this is so often the case - and it is.  Not just in schools for gifted students, but for kids in a lot of elementary school classrooms.  They learn to spell a word for spelling instruction, but they spell it wrong in writing class.  They learn correct grammar on worksheets, but fail to use it in an essay.  They know how to write complete sentences and they know they are required, but they don't write them.

I am still puzzling out WHY???

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dividing by Decimals

I taught a math lesson today where the premise was that the cost of making a cat's eye marble was $0.312.  The idea was that the students were supposed to figure out how many dimes that was (3.12), how many pennies that was (31.2), and how many tenths of pennies (312) - only this made absolutely NO SENSE to the students.  One student insisted (correctly) that it would take 4 dimes to pay for the cost of that marble and he absolutely could NOT understand the idea of cost using a fraction of a dime.  I thought maybe the money comparison, especially when taken to the thousandths place might be the problem, so I tried explaining the concept using distance instead.  Some of the students were able to understand the problem, once the units were changed, but a lot of them were so confused by the money example that they just gave up.

I have never taught this lesson from this particular book before.  Is this a standard way of explaining division by decimals?  I don't recall having so much difficulty with other textbooks.  Is this part of Common Core?

I probably won't be back in that class tomorrow, but if I were, is there a way to help them understand it, now that they are already confused?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Substitute Teaching or Working at Walmart?

With Walmart workers now making $10 an hour, will school districts need to raise substitute teachers' pay? 
Walmart: $10/hour * 8 hours/day = $80/day.
Sub pay: $95/day with no benefits and no guarantee of work and a maximum of 180 working days.

Advantages of working at Walmart:
1) steady work
2) regular workplace
3) some benefits

Disadvantages of working at Walmart:
1) physically difficult - on feet most of the day
2) not especially intellectually challenging
3) benefits are still minimal

Advantages of working as a Substitute Teacher:
1) interesting work
2) can choose to take days off
3) variety

Disadvantages of working as a Substitute Teacher:
1) anonymity - "Who are you today?"
2) no benefits
3) even if you work every single day, there is no way to earn even poverty level wages.  
$100/day * (max) 180 days/school year = (max) $18,000 per school year.  And just try finding a part time job for the days when there is no school.  

Disclaimer:  I am sure there are many more things to say about each job.  Many more.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cinderella, the Musical and Fat Shaming

This is a review of the musical as it was performed in Denver at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

I went to the matinee performance, so there were many little girls dressed up and getting their pictures taken by the wall poster of the stairway.  It was one of the highlights of the event for me.

The audience was, as might be expected, largely female.  I was sitting in a row that, except for a couple of men, was all women and girls.  In front of me, were six college age women, who seem to have come together.

The "book", as they call the play's script, has been changed some for this version of the Rogers and Hammerstein work.  There was a male protester, who was demanding better treatment of the poor people in the kingdom.  And the role of the advisor to the prince was to shield him from the fact that the plight of the poor was partly due to using the funds for the court.  The prince became a rather lost young man in search of a sense of self.  The fairy godmother was a vagrant, witchy woman - until she was transformed into an Oprah look-alike.

The plot also added the transformation of one of the sisters into a best friend of Cinderella's, when she decides to run off with the protester - reminiscent of both Wicked and Frozen.  It is the best girl friends model of musicals.

And the final meeting of Cinderella with the prince is the meeting of the protester, with his group of poor people, talking to the prince and the prince now finding his purpose in life - to make the plight of the poor easier and, incidentally, to also marry Cinderella.

All of these changes could have worked for me, had I not been expecting the original Rogers and Hammerstein work.  And they probably worked just fine for the audience that was substantially younger, for the most part, than I am.

But one thing has been bugging me and it is enough to jade my feelings about the musical in general. The other step-sister, the one who doesn't run off with the protester, is made up to be hideous.  She is fat and is dressed more gaudily than anyone else.  She is a perfect example of fat shaming.  Of all of the characters in the musical, she is the one who is made fun of, who is held up for laughs.  Two of the male characters are also hefty - but their weight doesn't mean they are held up for ridicule.

Just as a mind exercise, I have been imagining what would have changed, had the fat step-sister been the one who befriended Cinderella and who ran off with the protester.  It doesn't quite work.  It isn't funny enough.

And there we have it.  Making fun of fat people is funny.  We (and yes, I am one of them) are open game for laughs.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Down Memory Lane - 3

When I was 16, I went over to Germany as a foreign student with the Youth for Understanding program.  It was a wonderful year, which I may write more about over time, but one of the reasons it was so valuable was that it gave me greater perspective on the influence of culture.  In Iowa, I was part of a conservative, relatively religious family.  I went to church on Sundays, sang in the church choir, attended Sunday school, and even joined the church youth group.  My parents and grandparents voted Republican and were supporters of conservative government.  I remember going to a parade to honor Barry Goldwater.

But this was an era of change: Vietnamese War, civil rights, women's rights.  And as a teen growing up in that changing time, I was bound to change, too.  One of the interesting changes became apparent to me through song.  In the US, just before I left for Germany, The Ballad of the Green Beret was popular.

Ballad of the Green Beret by Barry Sadler

Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men we'll test today
But only three win the Green Beret

Trained to live, off nature's land
Trained in combat, hand to hand
Men who fight by night and day
Courage deep, from the Green Beret

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
One hundred men we'll test today
But only three win the Green Beret

Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her this last request

Put silver wings on my son's chest
Make him one of America's best
He'll be a man they'll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret

When I got over to Germany, I found that this tune was also popular. It was a while before I was able to realize, though that, far from being a pro-War song, in German, this song was very much ANTI-War.  The war at the time was the war in Viet Nam.  These are the German words.

Irgendwo in Fremden Land

1. Irgendwo in fremden Land
Ziehen wir durch Stein und Sand.
Fern von zu Haus und vogelfrei
Hundert Mann, und ich bin dabei.

2. Ein hundert Mann und ein Befehl
Und ein Weg, den keiner will.
Tag ein Tag aus wer weiß wohin
Verbranntes Land und was ist der Sinn?

3. Ganz allein in dunkler Nacht
Hab ich oft daran gedacht,
Daß weit von hier der Vollmond scheint
Und weit von mir ein Mädchen weint.

4. Und die Welt ist doch so schön,
Könnt ich Dich noch einmal sehn.
Nun trennt uns schon ein langes Jahr,
Weil ein Befehl unser Schicksal war.

5. Wahllos schlägt das Schicksal zu
Heute ich und morgen Du.
Ich hör von fern die Krähen schreien
Im Morgenrot. Warum muß das sein.

This roughly translates to:

Somewhere in Foreign Land

1. Somewhere in a foreign land
We pull ourselves through stone and sand.
Far from home and free for the vultures to pick us over
One hundred men, and I am with them.

2. One hundred men and one command
And a way that no one wants
Day in day out, who know where to
Burned up land and for what reason?

3. Completely alone in the dark of night
I've often thought
That far from here the full moon shines
And far from here a young girl cries.

4.  And yet the world is still so beautiful
If I could just see you once again
Now we are separated for a whole year
Because one command made our fate

5. Randomly fate strikes us 
Today on me; tomorrow on you.
I hear far away the crows shriek
In the red of dawn. Why must this be?

Once I understood the differences between these two interpretations of the song (same melody, different words), it made a profound difference in my thinking.  Intelligent, well-informed people could have diametrically different views on important subjects.  Another culture could completely reject some views that I held without questioning.  

It was a life altering realization for me and one of the reasons I think that travel is so important.  

Personal Connections to Learning; Ten Obvious Truths about Educating Kids that Keep Getting Ignored

Re:  Ten Obvious Truths about Educating Kids that Keep Getting Ignored

The above article touches on a lot of what I have to say, but I want to consolidate my own thoughts about what we know, but ignore.

Engaging interest; telling our personal stories.

There is a huge time crunch in schools these days.  As a teacher, you are supposed to get through the given reading lesson, for several different reading groups.  You are supposed to teach mini-lessons on writing to a given writing prompt and there all all those other literacy things that you are supposed to teach, too.  You have a (largely scripted) math lesson that needs to be taught.  You have to fit in those social studies and science lessons somewhere.  And then there are silent reading and read-aloud times that you know are so beneficial.  There isn't really time to get the students really interested in the subject matters and most of all there is no time to pursue things that the students really ARE interested in.

Say you are supposed to be teaching a lesson about longitude and latitude.  How many lessons actually start with kids holding a plain ball (an orange, a pummelo?, a rubber playground ball) decorated with random dots?  How do you get kids to actually wonder why we need longitude and latitude?  How could you get kids to describe exactly which dot was indicated?  Put random continents on the ball.  What directs would you give to get from one dot to another?

Who has time for this?

Instead, you have the kids read the two pages on longitude and latitude and then do a worksheet trying to find Chicago (which half of them think is a state or a country) or find the object that is at 40 degrees North and 105 degrees West.  Which they also don't care about - unless they live there, and then it is mildly interesting, but quickly forgotten.

When I am subbing, I generally carry a picture book to read to the kids, if there is an awkward time when something is cancelled, a lesson is too short, kids need to settle down from recess, or whatever. One of the books that has been very effective for me is Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French.  Part of the reason this book is so effective is that I take the time to talk about going to Australia, going to a couple of zoos and seeing wombats in real life.  I physically show them about how big wombats are and tell them that the ones I saw were rather stinky, but still adorable.  Then I tell them about the author of the book, who actually had a wombat living under her house.  All of these stories are personal things that interest me.  And since they interest me, I am able to get the students interested in them.  And even though the kids don't really know me, personal stories connect them to the book.  If there is time, we can also talk about their personal encounters with interesting animals.

The key word in the previous sentence is "time".  Too often, there just isn't time.  How many times have kids been assigned the ubiquitous "Do a report on your favorite animal" project?  How much time does the teacher take to help the students decide what it is about the animal that they find interesting?  Usually, what I see is a list of things the kids are supposed to find out about "their" animal (habitat, range, life cycle, etc.).  And a stack/shelf/cart of books.  And Kid X can't do their project on Animal A, because that animal was already taken by Kid Y, so they will have to do Animal B.

Perhaps most teachers do take the time to develop the interest in these projects before they set the kids loose on them.  As a sub, I am only there for a short time - usually just one day - so I probably, yeah UNDOUBTEDLY, miss most of what the teacher has done.  But I also know that kids generally seem detached from these sorts of assignments.  They aren't really following up their interests.  Gory shark attacks aren't generally allowed to be discussed in their slide show, but it is really what interests them about sharks.  There isn't time for that.

We need more time and more personal connections.