Friday, September 28, 2007

Cat blogging

Is it just me or is Jasper simply enormous?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Making the grades

In my gradebook I now have four marks for my freshmen English students. It is Tuesday of the fourth week of the term. Tuesday afternoon I received a visit from a parent who also happens to be a colleague. He had come to inquire about his son's grade. He came in my room and shook my hand.
"He told me it was a D because he had not turned in all of his reading journal entries." The man took a seat at one of the desks in the room without waiting for an invitation, he was comfortable in this place. "I told him that was unlikely."
"Actually, it's plausible," I said correcting what seemed to me to be a preemptive assertion on his parit. "We only have four grades thus far. At this stage of the game, each one counts."
I opened up the computerized gradebook to have a look. The man's son had received half credit for his journal (the homework component of my course) and six out of ten on two other in-class assignments. On the flip side, he had one hundred percent in the column I label "Participation". The result was a 65% - a D.
The man listened to the report and then said, "I told him your're one of the top end teachers and that it was not going to be easy and so he'd better take care of business. Four grades huh? I would'a thought you'd had more goin' on than that."
It felt like a dig but I chose not to take offense. Instead I said, "I'm not interested in just collecting grades for the sake of having grades in the book. When I feel like they're ready for a serious assessment, I'll give them one."
In retrospect, I'm not sure that I succeeded in not taking offense, and the truth of the matter is that I'm not at all back in the swing of mainstream grading practices here. In France it was plausible that I might have collected six grades after twelve weeks, but American teachers, many of them anyway, generate grades like they were stock market quotes. Parents and kids read them the same way. Last week a kid looked at his F and asked me what his grade would be by next Thursday. Thursday turns out to be the day of his next freshman football game. The request was noteworthy not only for its narrow and short term focus (next Thursday as opposed to say, by the end of the term) but also because it is so very typical. Today I signed fifteen progress reports for football players as a group of students sat in my room waiting to make up tests and be tutored. Next week they'll be back for the same thing. The pressure is on the teacher to generate new grades, to satisfy a demand to be able to monitor students grades as if they were blood pressure readings. And we teachers allow ourselves to get sucked into this mode of operation. I'm of a mind to limit assessments during a term to once a month. Everything else comes under the categories of intsruction, drill, and practice...and participation. If Johnny's grade doesn't change every week some people may just have to acquire a longer term perspective on the whole subject of learning and accountability. They may have to satisfy themselves with observations on changes in classroom behavior and attitude, on levels of engagement and investment...the kinds of things that next to impossible to measure yet indispensable to learning.
"Johnny is showing increased attentiveness and he's volunteering more in discussions."
"Yeah, but will he have a D by next Thursday?"

Saturday, September 22, 2007

going to the college

Going to the college has become the phrase the kids most like to hear lately. It means that we're saddling up the bikes and headed over to the nearby campus of Eastern Oregon University to ride about on its network of wide smooth sidewalks. Recently we've been doing some off road maneuvers on the landscaped berms that rise up here and there.

Tess and Colm are becoming more and more adventurous in their riding, and more exhibitionist too. I often here them calling me or each other to look and I'll turn round and see one of them riding with one hand up in the hair, or two feet splayed out, or their butts up in the air off the seat.

Rather impulsively I showed them riding with no hands and then had to watch rather nervously while Colm pondered the possibilities of duplicating that feat on the move, loosening his grip ever so slightly and for a nanosecnd opening his hands before he swiftly regrasped the handlebars.
The inevitable consequence of all this daring is the occasional crack-up. It's a foregone conclusion that each time we go out, someone is going to take a spill, and most often it's Colm. He's become pretty inured to the spectacle of crashing, a few whimpers here and there, sometimes none at all, and he's back up and at it. Tess too is earning her stripes, though she is much less stoic about hitting the ground.
The campus is especially inviting in September being largely empty. It is a lovely place with beautiful trees and landscaping. The kids really let their imaginations run riot there. They ride into little planted copses, stash their bikes and pretend to be fairy princes and princesses hiding from the mean guy (yours truly). I play along riding about searching for them. They sneak up to my bike and steal my water bottle and my pump and run away to hide them in their fairy castle.
On one of our recent visits, I pointed to the campus security rig (a little pick-up truck) parked on a sidewalk and I told them that it belonged to a troll who wore kahki pants and a blue shirt and whose job it was to capture fairies and lock them up. They walked warily up to the truck and finding it empty stood there awhile. When the security guard appeared a few yards away coming towards them, they ran away and hid, delighted to have another foe to plot against. I don't think the guy had the slightest idea that he was involved in anything more than his usual rounds.
In an effort to recover my water bottle and pump more quickly I posed a new game to the kids.

"Pretend that you are adventurors," I said to them. "And I am an old blind man."
"What do we do?" said Tess.
"Someone has taken my magic pump and my bottle of invisible water."
"We did!" said Colm.
"I don't think so. They were silly little fairies that took them and you..." I pointed to both of them, "You are both brave adventurors. I'm an old blind man who needs your help. Will you help me Adventurors?"
"Yeah!" They stood there smiling but not moving. Obviously they needed one more cue.
"Find the magic pump! Bring me the invisibile water! Can you do it Adventurors?"
"Yeah!" This time they ran off.
When they came back, I thanked them profusely and then I offered to take them to a special place. "Do you like ice cream?" They screamed yes. "I know a place, le pays de bonbons where there is ice cream, but to get there you must be able to ride a bike."
"I know how," said Tess. "So does Colm."
"Up and down hills?"
"Uh huh."
"Over speed bumps?"
"We go over speed bumps," said Colm.
"Let's go then." I get on my bike. Tess pauses.
"You're blind. You can't ride a bike."
"Not without this." I hold up my pump. "With my magic pump I can put magic air into my tires. My wheels will know the way to go."
The kids and I then rode a few blocks down to the pays de bonbons, a local hamburger drive-in joint, Nell's-N-Out. We had chocolate and strawberry icecream cones, giving each other tastes of our cones and admiring the changing shapes of the melting ice cream.

At length, it was time to make the trek home. I designated Tess as the leader and she picked our route home. The next time Colm would get to do it. In all we were out for a couple of hours.
Going to the college....almost as fun as going to college.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lost and Found

A few of you out there have let me know that you're interested in how the Jerrod story plays out. Well, yesterday I got him back. He missed two days due to this scheduling kerfuffle but he's back. It turns out that what drove the whole removal process in the first place was nothing more or less than a narrow adherence to policy. The adults involved were fixated on the math requirement to the exclusion of all other factors.
Had I said nothing, nothing would have happened. Had I merely inquired, I suspect nothing would have happened. In a system in which everyone feels as though they have more on their plate than they can really handle, you don't get anywhere sometimes without getting their attention. If you can succeed in doing that, your chances improve dramatically since in my experience at least, people in this business generally want to do right by kids. It's just that they also seem to feel that they need to move on the next pressing thing. It's interesting to me how we (and I do include myself in this category) are sometimes prone to conflate the institutional demands in play at any given moment with the actual needs of the if by narrowly focusing on our responsiblities we can rest assured that we are therefore also doing what is best for kids.
In the end, what I'll call Team Jerrod agreed that perhaps other factors ought to be weighed more heavily, but it required even more schedule shifting. Amazingly, the parent of this kid was completely unaware of any of the schedule changes from the very beginning- sort of a glaring absence on the team. Jerrod had to drop Art - this made him happy, and he had to drop PE -this disappointed him a little. They gave him the choice and he came back. The class welcomed him back enthusiastically, though a few of them hadn't realized his absence had been anything more serious than a cold or something.
Now of course, I have to do my level best to see that the amiable Jerrod has a successful term in French. Lucky for him I have a teacher's aide during that class who has taken three years of French. With her tutoring Jerrod from time to time, I hope we can make up for the lost class time and maybe even instill a study ethic.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

losing Jerrod

We're into the third week of school and finally I've had a couple of days without any roster changes. The vast majority of these changes are either kids coming in (new students mostly) or kids dropping the class. All four of my classes are at or above 30 students.
And then this afternoon in my French 1 class I notice that Jerrod (not real name) is absent. When I go to the computer to mark him absent, I discover that Jerrod's name is no longer on my roster. This puzzles me greatly since in these first two weeks of the year, Jerrod has established himself as a terrific kid and an enthusiastic student with a penchant for volunteering. Whenever I need a victim or a guinea pig (classroom lingo for "volunteer) Jerrod's hand is always up, ready, willing and smiling. In fact, I've already mentioned him to my wife as one of the feel good stories of the year thus far. I don't know the details but I know that Jerrod has come to La Grande via family connections seeking to get him away from a less than perfect environment out of state. Jerrod is the kind of kid who just exudes heart. Seeing his chair empty and his name missing on my roster put my own heart ill at ease. I went to the guidance office looking for answers.
I started with the secretary, "So what happened to Jerrod? Why isn't he on my roster?"
I could tell from the secretary's expression that she had no idea, but then one of the counselors stuck her head out of her door, her phone pressed against her head but apparently on hold.
"I switched him out of French."
I was dumbfounded and irritated. The counselor, a former teaching colleague now in her first year in the guidance department, held a hand over the phone receiver. I decided to pursue it.
"Why would you do that? He likes French."
"He needed a different math class." The counselor spoke softly obviously alert for someone on the other end of the line.
"Yeah, so?"
"There wasn't one that period."
"But he's doing great in French."
" This is the third math class we've tried with him."
"So you took him out of French." I paused and then realizing that I hadn't really posed a question so much as repeated an absurdity I said, "So what class did you put him in three weeks into the term?"
"We stuck him in Art." With that she gave her full attention to the phone, leaving me speechless and fuming. As I walked through the office and into the photocopy room I ran into another counselor. She did not have Jerrod as one of her responsibilities but I decided to vent anyway.
"So we have a kid enrolled in this school by folks who are hoping that here he can turn things around. Two weeks into the year he is struggling in Math and succeeding in French. So what do we do? We take him out of French and play musical Math classes. And just to make sure he has a chance to earn the right number of credits, we stick him in Art where it doesn't matter if he missed the first two weeks or the first five weeks. Tell me this is better for the kid, tell me that all the successes he's had in my class, all the smiles and high fives he's had with classmates in there, all the good things that come with showing yourself and others that you can in fact learn in a classroom setting, don't count for as a much as playing Russian roulette with math courses."
My colleague listened patiently and then said she'd look into it for me. I believed her but I knew she couldn't necessarily insert herself into her colleague's turf. I thanked her for listening and headed back to the hallway. Classes were changing, and as I made my way upstream through a crowd of kids, I saw Jerrod. He was wearing his blue LHS football jersey. Seeing him triggered in me an almost absurdly nostalgic feeling. When he saw me his head dropped a little. He walked up to me and said almost apologetically, "They changed me out of French, man."
I nodded, I noticed a couple of his French classmates slowing down as they went by. The grapevine had done its work, they already knew why Jerrod had not been in class. I saw one of the girls from the class shake her head as if to say, "Too bad."
"Look Jerrod, I heard all about it. All about math."
He nodded.
"You like French? You want to stay in there?"
He looked at me. He nodded again.
"I can't guarantee anything, but I'm gonna see what I can get done. OK?"
I gave him a pat on his broad back. "OK. We'll see. Hang in there." I watched Jerrod walk away. He was a big kid, strong but sweet tempered. He filled up that jersey. And then it occurred to me suddenly as he plowed further into the crowd of kids streaming to last period that maybe this whole thing had to do with football. Maybe this bureaucratic maneuvering was about eligibility, maybe math was going to keep Jerrod on the sidelines if he didn't get this thing fixed.
I had been angry as hell - never in my 25 years of teaching could I remember fighting to prevent a kid from being changed out of one of my classes. It felt all wrong to me, to see a kid catch fire and then to him summarily removed right on the verge of doing something positively meaningful. But now the outlines of a larger picture began to sift my anger and left me with a residue of sadness. I didn't know what to believe. All I knew was that I had looked forward to French 1 with Jerrod and now, for all intents and purposes, he was gone.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Point of view or things are closer than they appear

Beth was on the phone when she began seeing flashes of light. It wasn't a migraine coming on; rather, Colm had gotten his mitts on the digital camera.

He went about the house intently recording what caught his fancy.

You know what? I like his work.

He obviously sees the world from a different vantage point

and he equally obviously is intrigued by things closest to him.

What's not in the frame seems almost as present as what's in.

His big brother Tim is a photographer.

Could it be that there is a family tradition in the making here?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Driving at night

We're driving across the valley from Mt. Harris. The kids have been craning their necks trying to keep track of the Big Dipper and the North Star in the night sky. Beth and I are hoping one or both of the kids will have fallen asleep by the time we reach home, but the signs point toward a rather different outcome. We eavesdrop on their conversation and we hear Tess patiently explaining something to her brother.
"Grandma and grandpa, they used to be mommy's mommy and daddy. Just like Mommy is our mommy."
Beth breaks in, "They still are sweetie. They will always be my mommy and daddy. Just Daddy and I will always be your mommy and daddy."
Colm says, "Daddy will always be our daddy?"
"Even when you're dead?"
I look at Tess in the rear view mirror. She and Colm have been sniffing around this topic for weeks now. Saying things and looking at us, waiting for something. Only a few days earlier, Tess seemed to experience a sort of epiphany on the subject. She had been playing with a doll when she began talking about what she might name her own baby. She seemed to favor the names Susyanna and Charlie, both of which struck Beth and I as very considered choices. Then suddenly Tess said, "When grandpa and grandma die then you and daddy will be Charlie's grandma and grandpa, and then when Charlie gets big, he'll have a baby, and then you'll will be dead and I'll be a grandma."
"Me too!" said Colm.
I remember thinking how breathtakingly she had effaced two generations and closed the circle. Beth and I stared at her as if trying to ascertain whether she had indeed listened to her own words but the surface of a child is as impenetrable as that of the deepest sea.
Meanwhile Tess's question remains unanswered. I say the first thing that comes to mind.
"Yup. Even when I'm dead. I'll be your dead daddy." I'm a little taken aback by own response, though part of me wonders if I haven't stumbled on a cool blues lick.
"Tess?" says Colm.
"When we're big... can I live with you?"
Tess pauses but not for long. She seems preoccupied, but her response sounds unconflicted, matter of fact. "No... But you can visit all the time."
"Can I visit too?" asks Beth.
"We can all visit all the time!" says Colm.
Then Colm says nothing for awhile. The two lane road ahead is dark and empty and I hazard some extended looks in the mirror. The kids are looking straight ahead between the two of us...out there at somewhere we haven't quite gotten to yet. It's Colm who breaks the silence, his voice high and plaintive.
"Yeah sweetie?"
"I don't want you to die."
Already I repent of my glib comment. Colm has not the ear nor the soul for irony. But he has sensitive skin and he feels the frisson of fear. He no sooner heard "dead daddy" than he sought to somehow to get some guarantee against losing his two remaining human landmarks in the world, his sister and his mother. His deepest yearnings are tied to his family.
It's easy to pretend that it's otherwise for me, to be diffident in the face of death, or at least the mention of death, but in truth, I'm no different from my little boy. It's not just that I want to live; it's that I want to be always in the bosom of my family. Just like Colm does.
All I can do is keep my hands firmly on the wheel and keep driving.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Out of mind

I've decided to direct the play "Snow Angel" by David Lindsay-Amaire at the high school this year. It's appealing on several levels, it has a large cast, the characters are all teenage types, the set requirements are minimal...the latter is especially critical since according to the athletic director who oversees all extra curricular programs, our budget for the play is about seven hundred dollars. After buying scripts and paying for performance rights it leaves us with about three hundred dollars to spend on things like paint and props and materials.
Anyway, I sent the AD my order for playbooks. Ten days later with auditions around the corner, I asked him when the scripts were due to arrive. The blank look he gave me told me what I feared...the order hadn't been place yet. It's not a huge deal, just annoying that's all. As I walked away, I mused over the likelihood that if I had ordered shoulder pads or helmets how the result would likely have been different...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Marimba music

Beth belongs to a marimba group called Kupenga Marimba. They get together once a week and play. Over the past three years or so they've gained enough skill and confidence to perform in local public venues.

Here's a clip from this morning's gig at Saturday market in La Grande, Oregon.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Walking into another world

Tess and I walked to school today. The first of many such walks we'll be taking this year. It turns out that I can squeeze in walking her to school and going to work...I'm so looking forward to this little ritual time with her.

This morning we got out of the house early, even with the difficult dressing up decisions. We chatted in French the whole way to school, talking about how big the high school kids were and how they had cars instead of bikes.

It seemed to sink in on Colm as we went out the door. Last year in France, they left the house together, but this year they'll be on completely different schedules.
Fortunately for Colm he is recently in love with a bow and arrow we made for him out of willow branches at Minam campground over Labor Day weekend. He carries them around everywhere, inside the house and out.
He is still learning the ropes and the rules. Just yesterday in the span of five minutes time he managed to spear (quite literally but quite by accident) Beth's achilles with an ill aimed dart and then whiz an arrow past my head as I entered the dining room.
I took the bow away for the rest of the day and promised to give it back on the condition that he recite faithfully the two rules of bow shooting: never in the house, never at a person. I know that some of you out there would have added a third: never at the cat - but honestly I think two rules was all he could handle in his emotional state (he was sobbing)... This morning when he woke up, I gave him a couple of minutes to shake the cobwebs and then I asked him what the rules for the bow and arrow were. He smiled cheerily, and recited them letter perfect. I gave him back his bow. All is once again right with the world.