Archives for the month of: June, 2013
Heather Z.

Me, Heather, and my beloved colleague Becky at graduation June 19, 3013.

Listen to our student, Heather Z., and her answer to B. Wordsworth’s question:  what am I doing here?

We are often told that nobody is going to hand us anything-that there is no silver platter, and that we must go out and seek success ourselves. Nevertheless, there are things that we have been given. Wise people encourage us to make wise choices, but I can tell you that there are a couple of things over which we have no choice: no one chose to be born here, no one chose his/her parents, no one chose which name to be called. Yet, here we are today, ready to graduate from a community where wealth and prosperity were handed to us. We came into this world on a road that was already paved for our future.

However, 7,000 miles from here, there is a dirt road. And that path, instead of leading to success, leads to a dilapidated orphanage in the town of Liling City, China.  And on that road at some point, sometime, a desperate, Chinese mother wrapped blankets around her 5-month old baby and abandoned her. But, as one final goodbye before leaving, she tattooed a circle of blue on her daughter’s wrist, to signify her love. It was the only way that her mother could let her go. That woman was my mother. And she knew that that dirt road would lead to a smoother path and I thank her for every step I take.

When she marked my skin that day, she marked my heart forever.

We are all tattooed with indelible marks. And like my biological mother, many of the people who have touched and changed our lives may never know how deeply their actions have colored them.  Oftentimes, in our hurry to grow up and explore this world on our own, we fail to reflect upon the amount of dedication, love, and sacrifice that have been made for us. Let us think about our parents who protected us, our teachers who ignited our creativity and our older brothers and sisters who acted as our role models when all we wanted to do was grow up. The people whom we admire most shape who we become. All of them have stood by us and comforted us with unwavering support, all leaving their unique imprint.

And it does not stop there. It is so easy to forget the distant heroes, the people whom we have never met, but whose actions make our community safer and more prosperous every day. Let us remember the 66,000 soldiers far from home, working under unspeakable circumstances on our behalf.

And if we stop to reflect upon how many people have left both visible and invisible marks on our lives, we must realize the power that we have to leave a mark on others. So the question is what kind of mark do you want to leave? How do you want to be remembered?

Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is people who create the world, it is people who shape and influence the way we show kindness to our neighbors, the strength in our unity, and the justice by which we live… and now it is our turn to make the world, just as the world that we have grown up in has been made for us.

It is the loving and humble actions of human beings that make tomorrow better and brighter than the day we leave behind. It is these actions that create a world in which a mother gives her daughter a chance, without ever expecting a “thank you” in return, a world in which a different mother opens her heart and raises another woman’s child as her own.

People leave their marks because it is the right thing to do and not because they expect to be praised.

We- are the pride and joy of everyone in this stadium. All of us have our own unique gifts. We owe our thanks to the administration of the Central Bucks School District, the administration of C.B. West, our parents, our friends & families, and our teachers, all of whom have somehow influenced and created the world from which we are graduating.

And to my fellow classmates, remember: there is no question that we will leave an indelible mark for future generations because every time we act we send ripples into the world. Every single thing we do has an effect on the people around us. Instead, we need to ask ourselves this: will we have the courage and humility to leave a good mark? To do what is best, even if it means that we will not be celebrated for it. Austrian psychologist, William Stekel said, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that is wants to live humbly for one.” So, when this ceremony is over and we all take up the journey, let us think to the footsteps we leave behind, as much as to the roads that open before us.

Amen to you, Heather.  What an honor to be the teacher of a young person with such wisdom and promise.

Reading literary fiction makes you better able to deal with ambiguity, a new study finds.

Not terribly surprising to those of us who have watched students right at the age where they start to see that there might not be such a thing as an unmitigated good guy, especially in stories that are actually interesting.

I start all my classes with a V.S. Naipaul short story, “B. Wordsworth.”  Some kids in each class are disgusted by its ambiguous ending:  “it was just as though B. Wordsworth had never existed.”  But the fact of the story proves that the narrator has been changed forever by this relationship.  How interesting, when someone’s words contradict his actions and being.  Other kids, of course, love the depiction of mindfulness.

He did everything as though he were doing it for the first time in his life. He did everything as though he were doing some church rite.

It is a beautiful story of a poet and a teacher.  I hope that it sets my students up for learning in a wide open way.

B. Wordsworth said, “Now, let us lie on the grass and look up at the sky, and I want you to think how far those stars are from us.”

I did as he told me, and I saw what he meant. I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all the blows.

When I said I was better, he began telling me the names of the stars, and I particularly remembered the constellation of Orion the Hunter, though I don’t really know why.

When I said I was better, he began telling me the names of the stars, and I particularly remembered the constellation of Orion the Hunter, though I don’t really know why. I can spot Orion even today, but I have forgotten the rest.

I can spot Orion even today, but I have forgotten the rest.

 Then a light was flashed into our faces, and we saw a policeman. We got up from the grass.

 The policeman said, “What you doing here?”

B. Wordsworth said, “I have been asking myself the same question for forty years.”

 Now that is a good question.

My first class today began at 9:00.  It was pouring with rain and thundering and lightening, which meant that the walking field trip I’d planned for the next period was off–a bummer.  We’re coming to the end of the year and kids’ energy is low, but their concerns about grades are high.  The bell rang, they were all in their seats, and the first question of the day was asked in the form of a declaration:  “English class is really all about indoctrination.”

Just so.  Et tu, Brute.

There ensued a lesson on quality, citing liberally from Pirsig, whom we’d read.  Plus E.B. White’s riff on Thomas Paine:

A good writer and, perhaps, a good friend.

A good writer and, perhaps, a good friend.

If you doubt that style is something of a mystery, try rewriting a familiar sentence and see what happens. Any much-quoted sentence will do. Suppose we take “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Here we have eight short, easy words, forming a simple declarative sentence. The sentence contains no flashy ingredient such as “Damn the torpedoes!” and the words, as you see, are ordinary. Yet in that arrangement, they have shown great durability; the sentence is into its third century. Now compare a few variations:

Times like these try men’s souls.

How trying it is to live in these times!

These are trying times for men’s souls.

Soulwise, these are trying times.

It seems unlikely that Thomas Paine could have made his sentiment stick if he had couched it in any of these forms. But why not? No fault of grammar can be detected in them, and in every case the meaning is clear. Each version is correct, and each, for some reason that we can’t readily put our finger on, is marked for oblivion. We could, of course, talk about “rhythm” and “cadence,” but the talk would be vague and unconvincing. We could declare soulwise to be a silly word, inappropriate to the occasion; but even that won’t do — it does not answer the main question. Are we even sure soulwise is silly? If otherwise is a serviceable word, what’s the matter with soulwise?

And again from Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Oh, Orwell:  prose like a window pane indeed!

Oh, Orwell: prose like a window pane indeed!

 I so well remember when I first read Politics and the English Language!  The scales fell from my eyes and I knew for the first time that almost everything I’d uttered in my life was rubbish.
And now, here I am in second period, making the case that writing clearly is not indoctrination, nor even subjective, but a moral good.
(One darling kid actually asked, immediately after the gauntlet had been cast, “I suggest that we all pretend that that never got said and there is no argument and we can just go on.  How about that?”)
I love the challenges kids lay down, I love the kids who lay down the challenges, and I wish I knew how to sing the music of the spheres.
Good writing matters.

Good writing matters, as Wilbur well knows.

And yeah, so it turns out, English class really is all about indoctrination.  But don’t say that like it’s a bad thing.
Even NPR can fail to figure it out.

Even NPR can fail to figure it out.

Here’s an interesting piece from All Things Considered that I caught in the car on my way to guitar lesson:

What Kids Are Reading, In School and Out

The thesis is that, while more kids are reading written-for-them books than ever before, Harry Potter and Twilight do not always serve as gateway books to more difficult, complicated texts– and schools are not serving kids’ best interests by dumbing down their curricula to include such dreck as The Notebook.  Classics have been displaced by The Bridges of Madison County and kids are suffering as a result.

Well!

I can’t speak for other districts, but all we read is classics.  I am hard pressed to name a book we’re teaching now that wasn’t taught to me when I was in high school, and I graduated in 1977.

That might seem like a good thing.  My tenth graders read The Crucible, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, and now A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Yes, they get a lot out of them and yes, those books challenge them (just yesterday I was fending off the usual complaint about how hard Shakespeare is, did they really talk that way, surely nobody ever understood this, and the rest)– but what about the books that have been written since 1980?  As one of my colleagues is fond of pointing out, we are not teaching them to read the literature of their own age.

I’m not talking about books like The Hunger Games:  eminently entertaining, readable books that kids devour on their own without a teacher’s help.  I mean books like The Shipping News, which I’m allowed to do only in AP, that challenges kids with its blend of tragedy and comedy, its syntax, its vocab, its unlikely hero.  Or what about Small Island by Andrea Levy or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy:  post-colonial books that challenge our notions of whose culture we’re rooting for?

The fact is that newer books have more curse words and more sexuality, portray difficulties more graphically, than older books do.  Or not:  ask Lear. But the older books are grandfathered in and those who would complain feel foolish objecting to the durable dinosaurs, beloved and relevant as they still are, treading the same old ground.  So older books get a by, even if they’re Oedipus.  But write a new book about a man killing his father and marrying his mother, fathering children that are also brothers and sisters, gouging out his eyes with his dead wife’s brooches, and see how far you get with the school board curriculum committee.

And anyway, what exactly is a classic?  NPR was mum on this point.  Evidently not The Hunger Games, but did To Kill a Mockingbird count?  Of Mice and Men?  Both were mentioned, but equivocally.  And who is the source of the reading levels?

So, NPR, I love you, but you got this one wrong, at least as far as our district goes.  The problem isn’t too few classics.  We’re awash in them.  It’s first of all trying to change parents’ minds.  As one (wonderful) dad said to me, I would only allow that book (it had a couple of F-bombs in it) to be taught to my kid if there were no other book that would work.  Wouldn’t it be possible to reframe our book choices to reflect that maybe, just maybe, the ideal place for kids to encounter difficult topics, language, and dilemmas is in fiction, with a qualified guide?

And second of all, it’s helping kids to put down their cell phones nervously twitching with tweets and texts long enough to focus on something really hard.

Oedipus:  gory, incestuous, violent, and taught.

Oedipus: gory, incestuous, violent, and taught.

Marvelous book.  Good luck getting it approved.

Marvelous book. Good luck getting it approved.

We have an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer:

New to Central Bucks High curriculum:  Mindfulness Training

A student breathes quietly in class.

A student breathes quietly in class.

It’s a very positive article and spotlights our program beautifully.  Check out these sweet mindful movers:

Kids are wonderful.

Kids are wonderful.

Thanks to all who have brought this to be, especially Todd, Kate, Diane, and Trish– and to Kristin E. Holmes for conceiving and writing the article.

As if to remind us, whether we want to remember it or not, of the fact that new life is as relentless and unstoppable as the other side of the wheel, our house wrens fledged this morning.  As I walked out the door to go to school, there they were, mum and dad encouraging, kiddos hanging back in trepidation, under the gardenia blossoms.

gardenias

If I were a wren, I’d like to live here.

There was a nest like a little tunnel:

Made of leaves and pine straw, untidy but effective.

Made of leaves and pine straw, untidy but effective.

We couldn’t see into it, but this morning, we saw them fly.  In an act of perfidy, rooted in his fear of disturbing them, someone (I name no names) refused to take a picture of the perfect, tiny birds on their way to the wider world.  But here’s what we saw:

Subtly colored yet dainty in the extreme.

Subtly colored yet dainty in the extreme.

And off they went.  May nature treat them kindly– unlike the way she sometimes mauls our hopes.

“Oh, rare Ben Jonson! ” That’s the epitaph Robert Herrick wrote for his dear friend and fellow writer.  Not for the first time I am grateful to Herrick for being exactly who he was.

And I would like to say:  Oh, rare Ben N., Sallie and Jim’s son!  Thank you for being exactly who you were.  I wish it were longer.

No caption possible.

Gentle Giant, sorely missed.

Homegrown.

Homegrown.

Commonplace luxuries, abundant for a short time:  The Generous Gardener roses and iris (not bearded).  Next week at this time, they’ll be a memory, but pretty fabulous while they last.

And here they are with their still-growing fellows in the background.

And here they are with their still-growing fellows in the background.

Now if I could just learn to arrange flowers from Amy Merrick.  .  .

Is it possible that some sanity has crept into the national conversation about public schools?

Today in Salon, this article by David Sirota appeared:

Crush poverty, not teachers:  New data shows school “reformers” are full of it

Sirota looks at the glaringly obvious and indisputable facts that our best (richest) public schools are performing beautifully, while our poorest schools are hurting.  And somehow this is the fault of the teachers’ union?  If the system itself were to blame, wouldn’t there be problems throughout?

Somehow people seem to believe that demonizing teachers, who are getting outstanding results when kids are prepared for school and getting failing results when kids are hungry, hopeless, and threatened by daily violence, will improve their performance against all the obstacles society has placed in kids’ way.  “Accountability” for what?  Kids’ poverty?  Parents’ lack of education?  Neighborhood violence?  Hunger?

Ask MIchelle Rhee about her test scores.

Ask MIchelle Rhee about her test scores.

From the article:

Joann Barkan published a groundbreaking magazine report surveying decades worth of social science research. Her conclusions, again, came back to non-school factors like family economics and poverty:

Out-of-school factors—family characteristics such as income and parents’ education, neighborhood environment, health care, housing stability, and so on—count for twice as much as all in-school factors. In 1966, a groundbreaking government study—the “Coleman Report”—first identified a “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement. Since then researchers have endlessly tried to refine or refute the findings. Education scholar Richard Rothstein described their results: “No analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students.”

Then, just a few months ago, Reardon chimed in again to contextualize all of this. In a follow-up New York Times article, he noted that it is no coincidence that these out-of-school factors — and in particular economic conditions — have created the “income achievement gap” at the very moment economic inequality and poverty have exploded in America.

And here is the big, secret motive:  you can make a lot of money on pay schools.  Oodles.  Just ask Vahan Gureghian:

He served on the transition team of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, having contributed $334,286 to his election, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Gureghian has reportedly sought legislation that would exempt vendors like CSMI from the public records law.  (from Public Source  Power Players:  Pennsylvania’s Top Political Donors 2011-2012)

Gureghian contributed lavishly to Corbett’s campaign.  Corbett’s first draft of education legislation offered to exempt charter schools from the standards for public schools.  No accountability for charters, but increased accountability for public schools, which are under local scrutiny and control.  Does this make sense to anyone?

Read the Sirota article and ask the logical questions.  Are teachers getting rich?  Are CEO’s of charter school companies?  Who is doing a better job with more kids?

I know a lot of teachers:  they’re not the enemy.

Diane Ravitch knows the truth:  she even switched sides.  Ask her about it.  Dianeravitch.com

Diane Ravitch knows the truth: she even switched sides. Ask her about it. Dianeravitch.com

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