Archive for November, 2004


Nov 17 2004 Published by under borderland,science

I got a science lesson a couple of days ago. We use a 300 gallon tank to haul water in the back of our truck. We buy it from a bulk fill station because our house is so far out of town and up the hill that a well might have cost a fourth as much as building the house itself. So I bought this used truck and have been dumping money into gas and repairs instead of well payments.

The lesson:
It was twenty below zero, and I was headed home with a load of water. I began to pull forward from a stop sign, but then I stomped on the brake because a car coming from my right was moving a little faster than I thought. The driver then signaled to turn, so I gunned my engine to make the turn and move out of the way. I heard a loud bang – the sound of the tailgate dropping. "œOh, crap!" (or words to that effect) I thought. I looked over my shoulder to see the full 300 gallon tank dropping off the back end of the truck bed. I was in the middle of the intersection, so I made the turn and pulled off on the right side of the road. This was one of those moments when you instantly realize that you are in the soup and your options for getting out gracefully are limited at best.

I knew that there was no moving the tank until it was empty, so I figured I"™d have to stand there draining it in the middle of the road until it was light enough to move. That turned out to be not so much of a problem because the side of the tank was shattered and water was pouring out of it. The drain valve had also been ripped off. So it was draining from two places. I picked up the valve and tossed it into the pickup. Then I went over to babysit the tank and direct traffic.

The road was a skating rink all around the tank. People were slowing down. But nobody seemed interested in stopping. I waved a few people by before a cab driver rolled down his window to ask if I needed a hand moving the tank off the road. I told him that it would be no problem in a minute because it was getting lighter in a hurry. The cabbie and his passenger came over to join me. I grabbed the tank to begin sliding it, and realized it had frozen to the road! Good thing I had help now. We managed to break it loose with a couple of shoves and slid it over to where I was parked. One, two, three, and up it went back into the truck. I threw the busted up gate into the truck with the tank and the valve and cobbled together what was left of the broken strap that was supposed to have held it in the first place.

The theory:
On the way home I figured out what happened. When I stopped for the car the tank slid forward a bit. When I gunned the engine to move out of the way of the approaching car there was enough slack in the strap to allow the tank to slide back against it hard enough to break the nylon webbing. The tailgate is a piece of shit that is not designed to withstand the force of two thousand pounds accellerating from zero to twenty mph in 3 seconds. (I fixed the tailgate by taking it into my basement and jumping on it. It straightened right out, and works almost as good as before.) Newton was absolutely right. An object at rest tends to stay at rest. Because of the ice that collects in the bed of the truck from water spilling there all winter, I simply drove right out from under the tank.

Thank God there was nobody right behind me. Total cost of this lesson: about 570 bucks for the new tank and another strap. And now I wonder what would happen if I got into an accident that sent the whole thing sliding into the cab. I hope I never have to find out.

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Leaving Some Children Behind

Nov 15 2004 Published by under borderland,politics

A couple of other teachers were sitting by me in the bleachers at the middle school gym on Saturday. We were watching our daughters play indoor soccer. The girls"™ soccer coach keeps stats on all of the players. We were watching him make notes on his clipboard, and I began thinking about all of the data that I had on hand for the parent-teacher conferences we just finished.

When parents come to formally meet with us we have about 15 – 20 minutes to say whatever is going to be said. In some cases this may be the only conversation I have with these people. I think that most parents believe they are going to find out how their kid is doing. What they may not realize is that I am gathering information that is far more valuable than anything I have to tell them. Since I know they want to hear about their kid, I try to have a few things on hand to show them. I think of it as show and tell. The artifacts serve as a direct indication of what the student does in school – data, in other words. But I also ask parents to tell me what they see as their child"™s strongest area of need, and their greatest strength. I get a lot of insight into family priorities this way. Only rarely do we go through every piece of paper I saved for them to look at. Those are just props, anyway. By the time we wrap up the meeting, I have a pretty good idea about how much support there is and what the expectations are for each student at home.

At the soccer game I jokingly mentioned that I should be keeping a record of EVERYTHING that happens all day long in the classroom so that I could tell parents exactly what each kid was doing every minute. It seems like if I could just boil everthing down to a number: minutes in the bathroom, time spent reading, words written, words spoken, etc. I would be able to provide a much more succinct and objective picture of each kid"™s real performance. Gary mentioned that in his masters program he had to do teacher action research and gather data, but then he couldn"™t teach. "œI know," I told him. "œWhen I"™ve done that I end up with scraps of paper and checksheets on clipboards all over the place, and they are meaningless. Then the kindergarten teacher said that her school was required to adopt a totally scripted reading program because they failed to make adequate yearly progress on benchmark testing. Those scripted programs tell the teacher exactly what to say throughout the lesson. One of the problems with them, however, is that the kids don"™t have a copy of the script. I asked her if the teachers voted on it. She said they did, but they didn"™t realize exactly what they were voting for when they chose it. The clincher was that the reason they failed to make the grade was because of one severely disabled student.

I couldn"™t resist. I would rather be a heretic than a clone, so at the mention of No Child Left Behind, I proclaimed, "œI am ACTIVELY leaving kids behind!" I don"™t like doing it, but I do it anyway. I"™m a realist. When I think about all of the real challenges being faced by the students and families I work with, I can"™t imagine doing otherwise. Why should all of my students care about state educational standards? There are no standards to guarantee kids a peaceful nurturing home-life. Many kdis are happy to have a warm safe place to be each day at school. Learning to read and write well enough to pass a standardized test is low on their list of concerns. And you know what? NOT ONE parent asked me about the state standards. Nobody wanted to know if their kid would be ready for the big test. The majority were concerned with handwriting and spelling. A few wanted to see their kids improve in math. One thought it would be good if her son read some more challenging books. Good for all of them! Those are all worthy goals. They are goals that I share as well. And I will pursue them.

We have our work cut out for us. If parents can"™t get their kids to write neatly, and that is their primary educational concern, we have a long long long way to go before I can stop leaving kids behind. I need to focus on the real concerns of the people I work with. Standards are for pencils, not kids. Pencils are standardized so they can all fit the sharpeners. Kids are being standardized so they can all fit the workplace. But standards will never work for all people because people come from places that are far from standard. Parent conferences remind me that Washington DC is neither near, nor far enough away from my classroom. The kids need me to help them find a way through the system, and the government wants me to service its institutional policy. I can effectively do neither if I try to do both.

The tyranny of statistics has victimized us all. Even the soccer players won"™t know if they played a good game until the coach analyzes his stats.

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Difficulty at the Beginning

Nov 07 2004 Published by under borderland,politics

I have to wonder about my feelings after 11-2. I feel alienated from half the people around me. My like-minded compadres all seem to feel the same. We are trying to make sense of Bush"™s popularity with a lot of people we know and work with. John stuck his head in my door and waved a newspaper at me. "œWhat do you make of this?" he groaned. I looked up from a desk I was moving before class. "œI know!" I said. "œAnd they claimed that it was a vote for moral values." That really got him going. He went off about Iraq and the wholesale death and destruction we"™ve exported there in the name of American democracy and national security. What"™s so MORAL about THAT?!!

Everywhere I"™ve gone in the last couple of days I"™ve heard people talking about feeling despondent, discouraged, confused, disoriented, and wondering what awaits usin this post-11-2 world. I"™m confused. My alienated confusion is interesting to me because I"™ve always felt alienated from the mainstream. But since the mid-70"™s it"™s been more about lifestyle-level preferences than anything really consequential. When Vietnam and Civil Rights were hot issues there was some real serious alienation, but after those ended we were left with more posture than substance. Most of us got on with our funky lives, trying to fit in without giving too much away.

I have new respect for the depth of the gulf that divides America. How could so many people have voted for the cowboy pres? I don"™t believe anything he says, and I don"™t like his nervous little chuckle when he gloats. Should I extend my distrust of him to all of the people who voted for him? That"™s hard. But then, maybe not. I don"™t think even a single one of my friends voted for him. So maybe there really are two different countries separated by this ideological abyss. In a way, the election is a survey of the changed landscape after the shockwave from 9-11.

It"™s as if an earthquake has fractured the world"™s crust all around us. Bush Backers have to know that the election wasn"™t about morality, even though that"™s what they claim. We"™re all MORAL, for God"™s sake! Nobody has a lock on that. The ideology behind the Republican agenda is more about materialism and cultural values than anything like ethics or morality. I think the word "˜morality"™ has been put in their mouths by media puppetmasters. The appeal of national security was sold to people with a strong dose of fear and the threat of more terrorist attacks, even while innocents continue to die in hideous ways in a foriegn country that had no plans to attack us. The "œumbilical" Christian Right wing won"™t look at the destruction, discrimination, deception and denial of the Bush administration. I guess that Christ had it right when he called them "™sheep"™. I"™m a Christian, but I don"™t agree with those who embrace a narrow-minded, intolerant political agenda. Jesus preached spirituality. Christ never preached fear. America got it wrong.

The Book of Changes tells about Difficulty at the Beginning. It is a time of chaos that occurs when the creative power of heaven descends upon the earth. Clouds and thunder, powerful forces, come together. It is a difficult time that brings with it the challenge of sorting things out, as one would untangle a mess of tangled threads. Helpers are necessary for the work that must be done. Appeals to "œbridge the divide" are customary after a dispute. We should not be tempted (How could we be?) to think that interests opposed to the president"™s agenda will be considered. Bush is going to spend his political capital. He told us so. But I predict that he will overdraw his account. The dialog that needs to happen now is between those whose political will did not prevail – and we need to talk about things that matter.

One big difference between this time, and 35 years ago is that the Left is no longer focused and vocal. We must not be silent. It is time to organize. The Republican party is on an expansionary colonial mission. They want to bore deeply into our culture, and apparently the cultures of other nations, and impose a narrow vision of self-interest and privilege for those who were born to it. They claim otherwise. But they lie. They lie to themselves.

And everyone should think about this: get used to the fact that this mess won"™t go away by itself. Don"™t ignore the danger. Power is real. And it cuts both ways. We can oppose injustice. We can resist it. We can creatively engage problems and even have some fun with them. It"™s still our world as long as we claim a stake in it.

Have fun. Be difficult. Cop an attitude. It"™s not over. There"™s work to do.

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Nov 02 2004 Published by under borderland

Time to move in. It has been long in coming-this publishing project. And it seems fitting somehow that it should occur on election day. This is the day that our nation can clean house. And so it is with this blog. In my case, though, I"™m just moving in. Things aren"™t quite completely ready yet, but the basic structure is in place. I"™ll need to move the furniture around a bit, so to speak, until I feel comfortable with how things look and feel. I was up late last night with the style sheet trying to get the color scheme and the layout just how I want it, but too many late nights can play havoc with my teaching job.

What will this blog be about? That"™s hard to say at this point. But I know why I want to do a blog. More next time"¦.a school teacher does not have more than a moment or two to do anything. And even those are stolen or borrowed.

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