Sun in smoky skies

This is what the sun looked like this morning (and the past several mornings and evenings). A friend in Sacramento wrote on his blog that the wildfiresmoke was reminding him of his childhood, when the rice farmers used to burn the rice stubble every fall. It's funny to be nostalgic about air pollution, but the memory of those distinctive rice-burning days is somehow pleasant for me too.

Here in the East Bay, the smells are not so reminiscent (most of the smoke is actually blown up into the valley), but today it was cold, and with the hazy skies, it really felt like autumn. I heard a firefighter on NPR say that the fire conditions are like those not usually seen until October. Generally this early in the season you'd have the fires cooling off at night and not so much completely dry vegetation. It doesn't bode well for the rest of the summer.

Classroom preview

I visited my classroom today--the one where I'll be teaching next year. I'm so excited to be back in a real classroom! Of course, I've spent more time teaching in other types of spaces that had become classrooms than I have in real classrooms, but there is something motivating about a space that was designed to be a classroom.

The school is an old building, and we're only in half of it. I'm on the third floor, which seems great to me. There are two sets of stairs leading down. My classroom is at the end of the hall, across from the stairs. The teachers' resource room and bathrooms are also on the 3rd floor, at the other end of the hall. Of particular note are six big windows (they open! and there are working blinds!), lots of bulletin boards, lots of white boards, lots of space above the boards for posters, a small built-in closet for supplies, an overhead projector, and dictionaries under every desk.

Scavenger that I am

Today as I was riding past this hippy house a few blocks away, I saw that there were some furniture and books sitting out in the "free zone" (anything sitting between sidewalk and street is assumed to be free, unless there's a person standing there, loading things into a vehicle). I picked up several good cookbooks.

On my way back from my errands, I saw that a new item had been put out: A papasan chair! I have always secretly coveted a papasan chair, but never could justify the expense or space they take up. How could I pass up a free one? I stopped and sniffed the pad/futon part (it smelled perfectly fine), pulled it over to the sidewalk, sat in it, smelled it again, looked at all the parts. Where could I put it? Who might like it? My new classroom! Perfect for the reading corner! How could I get it home?

I went home and got this great bike trailer I have been meaning to rehab, but haven't got around to yet. It is functional, but (a) both tires are flat, and (b) there's no longer a way to attach it to a bike. So I pulled it by hand, walking as quickly as I could. Chair still there! I loaded it in, balancing the bottom stand on the seat, and pulled it home. Here it is on my bottom step:

Now it is filling up the entire entry way! Next challenge: how to get it to Richmond, and when.

The bike trailer, by the way, was originally a baby/kid trailer that my folks pulled me around in when I was four or five years old. I have vague happy memories of being in it, riding down along the American River behind College Town. Later, my dad re-purposed it by attaching a wire basket to the frame.

There is something so satisfying about scavenging. I love the surprise element--not looking for anything in particular, and then suddenly coming across something great.

I love the free aspect because spending money on myself is generally accompanied by internal conflict. I think I enjoy things more that I have scavenged than things that I've bought.

I love that I am appreciating an object which is no longer being appreciated. Sort of like rooting for the underdog. (Of course, there is clearly still a little love there, or the person would have put the item in the garbage instead of in the free zone.)

I love the ecological element:
keeping something out of the waste stream. So many perfectly good goods get thrown away, just for convenience's sake. (Can they still be called 'goods' if they are no longer good? What if they never were good?)

No Flowers or stars or cheese for Charlie or Algernon

For the past couple of weeks, I've been reading the novels I'll be reading with my 9th graders next year. So far I have read Tangerine (E. Bloor), Fallen Angels (W.D. Myers), Flowers for Algernon (D. Keyes), and To Kill a Mockingbird (H. Lee).

I like everything except Flowers for Algernon. It is one of those annoying mid-twentieth-century psychotherapy-laden novels. You probably know what I mean: lots of dream sequences (more on this in another post), lots of repressed memories, lots of sexual dysfunction, and everything goes back to the bad, bad mother. The female characters are all terrible flat stereotypes; actually, so are the men.

The idea of exploring what happens for a retarded man who--through the magic of science--becomes a genius, and then realizes that his intelligence is going to fade and soon is back where he started is an interesting premise. Unfortunately, it almost seems like a gimmick to explore pop-psychology, rather than a true delving into what "intelligence" is.

It would be interesting for someone who is up on the latest cognitive science to re-examine and re-write this story with what we now know about how the brain and mind work, as well as more modern notions of what goes on in the mind of a person with a low-IQ. (The science and scientists in the novel are also ridiculous; for one thing, they perform this brain surgery on the human protagonist after doing it to ONE mouse, without even waiting to see what the long-term consequences for the mouse will be!)

It turns out that the story was originally a short story, which I believe I was moved by when I read it in sixth grade. It probably should have remained a short story. I'm going to hunt it down and see if it is worth all its glory. The novel sure isn't.

The novel has been banned and the subject of controversy across the country and the decades since it was first published in the mid-1960s. The objections seems to be the sexual content of the novel. I would never try to stop or even discourage a student from reading the novel, but it certainly doesn't qualify as good literature. I object on the grounds that it is dated, sexist, and leaves the reader feeling kind of embarrassed for the entire pop culture of the time. It smells musty to me, like double-knit polyester and synthetic hair pieces.

Have you read it? Did you love it? hate it?

Is CAHSEE really how we want to measure success?

This is in response to the Open Forum piece in today's Chronicle by Julian Betts and Andrew Zau ("Predicting success, preventing failure"). While I agree with the conclusion that helping students who are falling behind in elementary school would be a wise investment, I disagree with their characterization of the opponents of the high school exit exam. Certainly there are those who "feel it is unfair to English language learners and special ed students," but there are many other, and arguably more important, objections to the test.

I agree with the notion that a high school diploma should mean something, that it should represent a certain degree of knowledge and skills. It is reasonable that some facility with both the English language and basic math be part of that knowledge. One problem with CAHSEE as it now exists is that it does not measure the right things. It does not represent what we really want a high school education to be about.

The essay notwithstanding, the test does not demand real creativity or problem-solving, nor does it measure interpersonal communication skills, mental flexibility, empathy, the ability to understand current events in their historical context, knowledge of basic scientific principles, technological competence, or involvement in community issues. Supporters of the test might say that the test is designed to measure only the bare minimum skills, and that those other competencies are accounted for in the coursework requirements for graduation.

To those proponents, I would point out, first, that graduation requirements are set by individual school districts, and coursework assessment is generally determined by individual teachers. We trust teachers to determine whether students are achieving the really important skills that will mark them as either educated or uneducated people, yet we must turn to a state-wide mainly multiple-choice test to tell us whether the students have the basic skills which they should have acquired years before graduation. This makes no sense.

Another objection I have is to the content and structure of the test itself. Let us just consider the English Language Arts portion of the exam. Despite the traditional division of language skills into reading, writing, speaking and listening, only the first two are tested at all, and those not very well. The 'literary response and analysis' questions do not allow students to demonstrate their own insight or sensitivity to the literature, but merely to choose among interpretations (only one of which will be considered correct). 'Writing strategies' are measured by 27 multiple-choice questions, which do not ask students to write or revise anything, but only to choose among several imperfect and often odd options. A student's mastery of 'written and oral English language conventions' is measured with 15 multiple-choice questions which do not consider oral conventions at all. Students' writing skills (called 'applications') are measured by one essay, on a topic given to them at the time of the test, which may or may not be anything they've ever thought about before or even care about. Is this really the kind of writing we want to demand that high school graduates be able to do? It is neither an approximation of a real-world work task, nor of the type of writing called for in higher education, where writing is a means to expressing one's understanding and knowledge of a particular topic.

Many of us who oppose the CAHSEE cannot help but resent the financial boon it has provided to the testing industry while schools continue to struggle for funds. ETS, which creates and sells the CAHSEE (along with other tests: STAR, AP, SAT, GRE), is enormously profitable. Although it has tax-exempt non-profit status, the company had an operating surplus of $34 million in 2001, according to a 2002 NY Times article. In addition to ETS, other companies profit by providing testing preparation materials, classes and tutoring. The high school exit exam is another step toward the privatizing of (and profiteering from) public schools.

Yes, let's invest in elementary schools. Let's make sure that students become strong readers and skillful mathematicians long before 12th grade, but let's not short-change society or the students by equating passing CAHSEE with having become truly educated.

Out Bush, Outback, Down Under

As some of you have been asking about where we'll be going in Australia, I thought I'd post a few links:

Here's a brief profile of the community. Here's info about the famous strike that took place there and that was a turning point for indigenous people's rights in Australia. Here's a simple map of the NT. Here's an aerial photo of the community.

We're expecting to camp at the caravan park there, unless something better manifests. At this point, we're not sure how we'll charge the batteries in the recording equipment or laptops. Also, we don't expect internet access once we're there, so lower your expectations about hearing from us!

For those who've asked about weather: For the past month, lows have been in the upper 40s to mid 60s and highs have ranged from mid 60s to low 90s Fahrenheit. I imagine that when we're there, that everything may be slightly colder, as we're moving into the winter. Sydney, where we'll be for the first week, is basically like San Francisco in the fall or winter: highs in the low 60s and lows in the upper-40s.

We're not leaving until the end of this month, but this gives you a little time before we go to ask more questions.

Cactus blooming down the street

Isn't it lovely?

A Few Words about Marriage

I just need to say a word about how proud I am that California is (finally) offering all couples the chance to have their relationships legally recognized as legitimate. The paper is full of pictures of couples who are so happy to get married after 20, 30, 40 years together!

A short note on how my thinking has changed about the institution of marriage. When we got married, I felt first of all that it was ridiculous that our commitment needed to be voiced publicly and legitimized by a stranger at the county office. It seemed to me that those promises should be a private and personal matter. I also felt ashamed that I was benefiting from the privilege granted to me by the fact that my love and I were of different sexes. I had said before that I wouldn't marry until everyone could marry, but then when it came down to going in the Peace Corps together, I threw my principles out the window for personal advantage.

After getting married, I slowly came to appreciate the institution, the idea of a publicly understood and defined relationship. Being married meant that my friendliness would not be misinterpreted as romantic interest in others, I was "out of circulation". Being married meant that people understood that my relationship was deep and permanent, we were not merely playing with each other until something better came along. My marriage has been the most permanent thing in a life that has involved a change in job or housing, often both, at least every year for the past 14. Being married has given me a sheen of respectable normalcy to people who are otherwise baffled by my life choices. These are all about the public face of being legally married, using terms like "husband" and "wife", wearing a wedding band.

I can't say for sure about how those outer trappings of marriage affect the inner life of our relationship. I would like to think that the love we have for each other would keep our commitment to each other and the relationship strong regardless of social recognition, like those couples who have been together for 40 years, waiting for the chance to be legally married. I don't know. I do know that if we had to keep our partnership secret, if in a million little ways on paper and in conversation our relationship was seen as not as legitimate, not as real, as other people's, I would be deeply bitter.

Marriage has taken many forms across the globe and over time. Generally, it has been about giving social legitimacy to a sexual relationship. Many (most?) of those forms have not been about two people choosing each other as equals in a lifelong partnership; however, that is the ideal in our culture here, today. I am happy to be part of a society that is moving in the direction of greater equality, one which recognizes the importance of love in the creation of healthy, lasting relationships of all kinds.

Tinglingly, achingly, burstingly alive

A friend just sent me this in an email, and it seemed especially appropriate after the last posting:

I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive. -Joseph Campbell

What makes you feel alive?

While Walking Past the Cemetery this Morning

"Safely home" reads the gravestone, and I think of people for whom life is merely a dangerous sojourn. Imagine spending your days, your years, decades gritting your teeth, glancing sideways through narrowed eyes, determined to make it "safely home." But then, I suppose, that for those people the journey is always a loop, no matter how short or long, no matter what one endures along the way, one will always wind up "safely home."

Telling Our Stories

I've been thinking about our personal narratives—the way each of us tells our own personal story to ourselves and to others. Two people walking paths that look similar can nonetheless see their journeys quite differently. Did I "drop out of high school" or did I "go to college early"?

Do you see yourself as the victim of circumstances? Or the beneficiary, or maybe the product? Or do you see yourself as the architect and builder of your life? Do you feel lucky or do you feel like you were dealt a bad hand of cards? Do you feel that you worked hard for what you've got? Do you feel guilty about what you have?

Do you trot out your blue collar credentials, your private school education, your activist past, or your international experience? Do you think of yourself as ordinary, a regular joe, one of the people? Or do you think of yourself as extraordinary, unconventional, apart from the masses? If you see yourself as middle class, do you think of that as a financial classification or a values classification?

What would be the most flattering thing a new acquaintance could say about you? What would be the most humiliating?

Along with these questions, I've been thinking about how we deal with our own evolving narrative. As we change (and we all do), we may be aware of those changes, embrace them, ignore them, feel slightly embarrassed by our past. I've noticed that some people seem able to completely shift their values without any reference to their past position, no apparent discomfort with holding an opinion opposite to what they once had.

I am one of those who feel a need to explain why my position has changed or at least to acknowledge that it has. For example, I can't mention my approbation for school uniforms without mentioning how horrified my younger self would have been by my taking that position. I suppose it's because I still like that young woman, I feel fond of her while still being quite happy to have outgrown her, or at least to have grown out of her.

Listen to the stories around you, the stories people tell about themselves. It's not about the plot, not about what happened, but about the characters, and particularly how they are situated in the world vis-a-vis other characters and vis-a-vis the circumstances of their lives. Keep listening.

Turtle Fish Life Death

I took some students to San Francisco a few days ago to visit the Exploratorium. In the lake by the Palace of Fine Arts we saw several live turtles and several dead fish, including this charming pair. It seems like an image waiting for either a haiku or a satiric Onion caption.

Any takers?
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