Torn Again

Last night I spent the better part of an hour chatting with a neighbor who repairs heavy equipment by day and farms in the evening.  We talked about the potential of the farm, for livestock, for grains, even for rescuing farm animals. Ultimately our conversation led us to fences and mowing the east pasture, ridding it of weeds and bringing back the good pasture grass that existed when cattle roamed there a decade ago. We talked about clearing an0ther section of its understory, it’s volunteer trees; maple, walnut, mulberry and others. We talked about whether to fence the creek in or use it as a boundary.

In my mind’s eye I can see the bucolic pastoral landscape, rolling, green, peaceful; hear the lowing of cattle, the whinny of horses, the baaing of sheep. A donkey, llama or dog watches over them, while chickens strut and poke and peck their way through the pasture. Nice wooden fences outline the property and keep the animals safely in their paddocks. It is a tranquil scene, an idyllic world.

Then I took a stroll through that abandoned pasture this morning with the dogs in tow. I’ve cut a four foot path through it; through the ragweed and brambles, the burdock and bindweed.  I can already see the grass returning in place of the poison hemlock. It shows promise. But standing quietly on the path, I wait for the train to thunder past and look around me at the dew covered webs silvery shiny in the morning light. I see the colors of this abandoned pasture, the yellow of goldenrod, the purple of ironweed and pokeweed berries. There is a little orange flower everywhere and a yellow flower looking like a cross between sunflower and daisy. Even the bindweed has delicate white flowers and there are others, tiny, delicate, yet beautiful in their simplicity.

I think of all that I have seen in this field; the wild turkeys, Great Blue herons, ring-necked pheasants. There have been deer and coyotes and otters. Even the beaver has returned after last year’s spring rains washed away his dam. In the creek we have seen snappers and crawdads and snakes. Just yesterday the sky above was filled with dragon flies, monarchs and hummingbirds in numbers I’ve not seen before.

As I strolled along the meandering path I found myself torn between what is and what might be. Why can’t Nature have this one little patch of one tiny little county already full of rolling pastures and fields of corn and beans? In a county full of monochromatic fields of identical plants, why can’t Nature have this one tiny speck for her hemlock and bindweed and thistle; a place where Monarch caterpillars can enjoy milkweed free of herbicides and pesticides? It is a place of color and diversity of flora and fauna. What good can come of making it look like the farms around it, stripping it of its natural beauty in favor of some idea of productivity in need of maintenance and care, which Nature herself doesn’t require?

Perhaps it is because my neighbors are farmers. They don’t see the colors and diversity. They see noxious weeds which threaten their fields. In our conversation the previous evening, my neighbor told of a neighbor of his father’s farm, who was happy to see my neighbor mowing a similar field. This neighbor was happy for that. It would save him work for he had just received a plow order, allowing him to plow under the noxious weeds on property that was not his, because the diversity of nature threatened his beans or corn. How long, I wonder, until  some farmer comes to me and tells me I have to destroy nature because it might interfere with his production?

But there is more to this than nature versus productivity.  We are animal lovers, my wife and I. And we want to make the world a better place. We want to help those around us. The animals we’d bring to the farm would not be for meat, and might not be for fiber or dairy either. They would be rescue animals. They’d likely be used to rescue troubled children. In my mind’s eye our farm  logo would be a goat with a carrot hanging from his mouth surrounded by an oval banner reading “Kids saving animals saving kids” in an unending circle. The children troubled by violence or apathy or drugs or poverty would come to the farm and learn how to care for the animals and develop empathy. They’d learn how to milk and shear and gather eggs and feed and clean. The soybeans in the northern field would be replaced by a giant vegetable garden where kids would learn to grow their own food. They’d create their own farm businesses and learn from losses and successes. They’d learn practical science and math. They’d learn cooperation and sharing and warmth.

But this would all cost money and time and labor, and in the end, there are no guarantees. There is only what might be. When I walk among the hummingbirds and dragonflies and admire the beaver’s dam and the golden rod swaying in the breeze, I see what is. I am torn, for I don’t know that all the changes we might bring to the farm, all the displacement of nature, all the clearing and building and changes will make the world any better than what Nature has already done herself.

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Tilting at windmills

I’ve started graduate work in Special Education with hopes of helping those most in need. Instead I find myself discouraged more and more by the system as it exists. This is my final reflection for week four of the online course:

The more I read about LREs FAPE, and IDEA; the more I assist students in class; the more I question the whole system. We are to provide an “appropriate” education, as long as that education is tied to curricular standards that may have been written by someone far away with no understanding of child development, and who may have never set foot in a classroom since s/he graduated; curricular standards which have little to do with understanding outside the walls of academia. We are charged with seeing that students are placed in the Least Restrictive Environment, so long as that environment is within the brick and mortar wall of an outdated age-grade divided relic of the industrial age. We are to use only those methods which have been scientifically proven to be effective, when the entire model of our education system is based, not on science, but on history and culture and industrial efficiency, without regard to how a child learns. The curriculum we use is based loosely on the ability of students to understand certain things at certain ages, but as early as Piaget we have understood that there is a vast range between children’s development from concrete to concrete operational thinkers. Still they all must learn algebra within a year of each other. We have learned that student interest can greatly affect the student’s ability to learn and retain information, but student choice is completely absent from the process. I believe that disabilities will largely disappear, or become irrelevant, if student interest drives learning. Instead, we are here studying how to help kids fit the system through adaptations and accommodations. Why? So they can succeed in this existing, completely unnatural system, and graduate as little more than people pleasing grade seekers with Pavlovian responses to bells and authority? In the end, how many of them remember what they “learned”? We are all about benchmarks, grades, assessment and data. Does anyone care about learning anymore?! Does anyone worry why these children are no longer curious by the time they reach us? We need to look beyond procedural safeguards, which do little more than ensure a student gets some “educational benefit” that is likely meaningless outside the walls of school.

“No one asks how to motivate a baby. A baby naturally explores everything it can get at, unless restraining forces have already been at work. And this tendency doesn’t die out, it’s wiped out.” ~B.F. Skinner

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Choosing Wisely

I just read a speech by Lou Holz in which he declares 10% of your life is about what happens to you and 90% is how you respond to it. I’m not sure where he gets his numbers from. I’m not sure if they’re empirically correct. But I’ll go with it. Except that later he states:

Success and failure usually manifest themselves in personal and family income. You choose to drop out of high school or to skip college – and you are apt to have a different outcome than someone who gets a diploma and pushes on with purposeful education.

You have your children out of wedlock and life is apt to take one course; you have them within a marriage and life is apt to take another course. Most often in life our destination is determined by the course we take.

I don’t doubt that. In fact, statistically, if your folks made the correct decisions, you are likely to make better decisions yourself. Success and failure usually manifest themselves in personal and family income. I’m sure as a coach, old Lou would agree that success breeds success. I’m glad I chose to be born to a family with moderate income. Even more so, I’m glad I chose to have a grandfather who was reasonably wealthy, so that when my dad lost his job we weren’t cast into abject poverty. Of course, if I’d chosen to be a Walton or a Rockefeller or a Kennedy, I’d have been a little better off. But, I’m glad I chose supportive parents who didn’t do drugs and supported me in my endeavors. I’m not sure where I’d be if I’d chosen different parents, because they are such an important influence on my life.

I’m glad I chose to be born to parents who were married. Statistically, that is a predictor of marriage stability for me. I’ve been married close to thirty years. But then stable marriages aren’t a sign of success to Mr. Holz, so it probably doesn’t matter.

I’m glad I chose to be white, because that makes me statistically more likely to graduate from high school, to attend college, to get a higher paying job, to run a company. Why would I choose to be black if that only gave me a fifty percent chance of staying out of jail? By being white, I’m statistically more likely to run the for profit prison where I’d more likely be if I’d been born black.

I’m really glad my parents chose to be born white, or they might have been sent to inferior schools where they would have used the cast off books after the white schools were done with them. Because they chose to be white, they got the new books and better schools. So, thanks Mom and Dad for choosing to be white, middle class folks with a wealthy white grandfather!!!!

I’m glad I chose to be male. Again, I’m really not prevented from doing anything, and I’m likely to be paid more to do it. Of course I have a higher chance of being in jail for that choice. But by choosing to be male, my high school counselor didn’t tell me that veterinary school was not for me, and that I should think about being a secretary or nurse or something, like they told my sister. Bummer that she chose to be a girl, because she’d make less money than me even if we held the same job, and I’m way more likely to hold political office than she is, because of her poor choice.

Not to toot my own horn, but I’m glad I chose to be reasonably handsome. That statistically improved my chances of getting a job, promotions and higher pay.

I’m glad I chose to have a high IQ. That was a good choice. I don’t have to worry about struggling to learn things like math and reading. Choosing not to have dyslexia was a bonus as well. Except for choosing to be white, I bet choosing to be born healthy, with my vision and hearing and such intact was one of my best choices.

Maybe not. Maybe it’s the choices I didn’t make. I didn’t choose to have drug addicted parents. I didn’t choose to be born in a crime ridden ghetto with crappy schools. In fact, the school I attended until 2nd grade wasn’t great, and the friends I chose there grew up and got into a lot of trouble. Not me. I chose to move at age seven to a wealthier school out in the suburbs. There I chose friends who were clean cut and into academics. Come to think of it, except for a few girls, most of them had made the same choices I made. They chose to be white boys, born to middle class white folks, and they chose to attend safe, suburban schools like I did.

I chose to like girls too. That was a great choice. It saved me a lot of harassment in school and lowered my chances of suicide tremendously. For that matter, I’m glad I chose to have a brain that wasn’t biochemically predisposed to depression and anxiety. That saved a ton of trouble.

Yep, by choosing to be a straight white male in America ( I mean, why would I choose to be born in some central or south American country rife with violence and poverty, when I could choose to be born in the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world?!) I have statistically put myself in a position to be one of the haves. People don’t follow me around stores or stop and frisk me for no reason. I’ve never been stopped by a cop unless I actually had done something wrong. I was never steered away by a real estate agent from certain neighborhoods. No one ever burned a cross in my yard.

I’m where I am today because of all the great choices I made.

You know, Lou Holz made the right choices too. How many black college coaches were there when he was coaching at Notre Dame? If he’d chosen to be a poor black female, I bet he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in today. Yep. He’s made all the right choices.

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Homework and Time Managemet

It has been asserted that doing homework helps students develop effective time management skills. I don’t know if this is true or not. There has been no research to determine a correlation, much less causation, so we are left to our own intuition. Intuitively, I don’t believe it’s true. I think students with good time management skills get their homework done. I believe kids with poor time management skills get their homework done only if their parents or someone in authority is standing over them to make sure they finish it. I believe there is little change in these students over a school year or even over many school years.

The correlation I do see between homework and time management is not a good one. Homework is the result of poor time management at the administrative or classroom level. Good time management would insure that only the amount of work doable within a given time frame would be assigned. If students have to complete work at home, that means the curriculum calls for too much to be done in the school year, or that the classroom teacher has assigned more work than can be done in a day of classwork.

Perhaps this is not a result of poor time management. Perhaps it is intentional. Either the creators of the curriculum or the classroom teacher has decided that what he has to do is more important than anything the child might have to do at home. While most teachers would complain vehemently about a student taking time from the school year to go on a vacation other than at proscribed times, the teachers think nothing about imposing on family time.

In fact some schools feel their right to impose on family time is so absolute that they have begun to assign work to be completed before the school year even begins. Essentially, they are saying “your time to do as you please during the summer is not as important as what we are requiring. The book you want to read is not as important as the book we have assigned.” It is assigned so the children do not forget over the summer or so that children can discuss what we wish them to discuss on the first day of class. Of what benefit is this to the child?

I realize that most teachers voluntarily complete workshops during the summer. I understand that they pursue additional degrees on their own. I understand that the best teachers are forever trying to educate themselves about methods and child development, searching for that one thing which will spark that one student to reach for the stars. I also know that if principals start telling teachers that they must complete three graduate credit hours every semester, they must attend this workshop or that workshop over the summer, teachers will push back, and if they don’t push back many will quietly seethe at the imposition on their time.

But some schools do it anyway. They impose on the teachers’ summer and give poor reviews to the non-compliant, just like teachers do with homework and summer work. But compliance is what it’s all about. Let us behaviorally train our students to do work on their own time without reward, and punish them with grades if they don’t comply. Then, when they go to work for the job creators, they will already be conditioned to do work on their own time without benefit, understanding that they will be punished for non-compliance.
I don’t know whether homework helps develop time management skills. It’s never been studied. My intuition and time in the classroom tells me it does not. Homework is the result of poor time management, or it is an intentional intrusion into the students’ personal time, which we as adults would disdain if imposed on us by our bosses. Homework is another example of what’s bad for us is good for our children.

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And Jesus said unto them…

A headline on a national news network’s web page quoted a woman from Murietta, California, who was protesting the arrival of dozens of women and children who sought to enter the U.S. illegally. She said “I just wish America would be America again because it’s not…” Does she wish for America to be like it was when there was no immigration policy? Does she want it to be like America when immigration was encouraged? Does she want it to be like America when France gave it a statue which holds in her hand a tablet with writing that begins “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” Or does she wish for America to be like it was when 10,000 separate nations roamed its landmass?
Perhaps she’d prefer it be when the Spanish owned California and Texas, and the French the Louisiana territory. Maybe she just pines for the day when men in hooded cloaks wrapped themselves in flags and burned their holy crosses or lynched those unwelcome in their country. She goes on to say it’s not about the immigrants, but about the failed federal efforts to protect the nation from these criminal women and children seeking refuge from violent and poverty stricken homelands.
The fine folks of Lawrenceburg, Virginia were equally successful in turning away a group of immigrants from using a shuttered college. And folks from across the nation supported them in their efforts to deport those who sought refuge, as I’m sure others did when Cuba and the United States turned away the SS St. Louis with its load of Jewish refugees in the days preceding WWII.
Ah, but I forget the assertions from so many on the internet and elsewhere that this is a Christian nation by birth. So it was intended that we follow the words and actions of Christ in the handling of our affairs. We must remember his words:
“Verily, I say unto thee; go forth and arm yourselves! Secure your borders and turn away those who seek refuge.”
Ok, so that’s not what he said, but one would think, based on the reactions of this “Christian Nation”, He might have. We all know what he really said, but once again, our nationalism and desire to protect our earthly treasures transcend our majority’s devotion to Christ
I can say it no better than Stephen Colbert: “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Let’s stop calling ours a “Christian Nation”, or start acting like one, damn it!

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What is “Real Education?”

“It (education) would change before lunch if parents at home cared about real education.”
I saw this posted by a former colleague on a friend’s page in response to an article on the importance of love in education. It struck me immediately for two reasons. First, this is a teacher implying that parents are at fault for the state of education. As a teacher myself I have plenty of experience with parents who feel decidedly opposite. Second, I wondered at the meaning of “real education”.
What is “real education”? Is it the consolidation of students into age grade divisions of economic efficiency based on the factory model? Is it the transmission of the three R’s? Is it the learning that children do every day through free play and social interactions? Is it the modeling we do as parents, teachers, adults and other authority figures and/or role models? What is “real education”?
I’ve written before that what we do in schools is completely unnatural. We expect kids who need to be moving, who need to play, who need to be creative, who need to interact, to sit quietly for periods of time way beyond an adult’s span of attention, provide them information on stuff that may or may not be of any interest or relevance to them, and expect them to learn it. When they don’t, we blame ourselves as teachers for not reaching them, we blame the kids for not doing what we ask, we blame parents for not supporting teachers, or for not providing an environment at home conducive to our instruction. Parents and politicians blame teachers. Teachers and parents blame politicans. We blame poverty and student inattention and behavior and standardized tests and any number of other things. A lot of great teachers I know blame themselves for not finding that magical button to push to reach a student we think we let down.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is our arrogance as adults that gets in the way of “real education”. We have decided what every child should know and when they should know it. The Common Core is the ultimate in arrogance. Handed down from on high, it provides the standards that everyone should be able to achieve at a given age. Because we all know every child is the same. Every child is capable of learning the exact same thing at the exact same time, and the child’s interest be damned! We know what children need. We know what their real education should be about. Just look at the world today. We know what’s best, and our world today is evidence of that!
What if real education was about allowing a child’s natural curiosity to flourish? What if real education was about allowing the child’s natural desire for social interaction to grow without impediment? What if real education was about allowing children to play as they were designed to do, whether through selection or intelligent design? What if real education grew from everything we knew about child development and psychology, social and otherwise, instead of using what we know to extract as much as we can from children in an artificial and unnatural environment?
We spend a lot of time learning how to motivate children through grades, behaviorism, token economies, even love. I wonder if motivation would be an issue if children were allowed to develop naturally through their own pursuits. What if ‘real education’ began with the child instead of the system?
Doubtless some would grow up not knowing the ‘theme’ of a Shakespearean play. Some would not know how to find the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Good lord! Some might not know how to balance a chemical equation!!!!! Unless, of course, they wanted to because they were interested in science or math or literature.
How much better might the world be if ‘real education’ was about children being children and pursuing their own interest in their own time? How much better if children learned who they were instead of who Thomas Edison was? How much better if children learned to advocate for themselves, to solve their own disputes, to learn from those older than them and to nurture those younger? How much better to learn they, not their teachers, their curriculum, their parents were responsible for their actions? How much better if they participated in democratic rule on an equal basis with their teachers, rather than learning that they are powerless before authority granted by title? How much better would the world be if we let children be children? What if “real education” was about the passions of the children instead of the unnatural system that is forced upon them by those who have forgotten what it was like to be a child?

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This morning

This morning, I saw
Driving home this morning from coffee with Mom, I saw….
I saw the young man in dreads with baggy pants and a truckers cap on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse
A business man in a suit and tie walking briskly through the sprinkles,
A young woman in a blue sundress, a tattoo on her leg looking like a birthmark from afar, strapping her children into the back of her mini-van,
A vegetable garden in an abandoned median,
Another woman, older, stopping to look at the vegetables in a garden in front of a rundown house,
A mother and her children waiting for a bus in the shelter,
A cow licking her calf,
The dark gray clouds of a departing storm,
Deep green fields of corn and beans,
A rabbit darting into the grass,
Chickens scratching,
This morning, I saw.

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