The Poky Little Pundit


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“We have a civic obligation to support free public education for all.” – Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch bookAfter four days with no voice and a night spent coughing so hard that tears flew spontaneously from my eyes, I am taking a day off. And right now, it is sunny, and so the world is good. I am staring in utter awe at the hot butter sunshine, knowing that in just minutes, it will pull on its hated Autumn-grey sweater.

It has been a month now since my return to teaching – hence the lack of posting. I’d love to report how happy I am to be back – but working 10 hour days for $3000 a month continues to be somewhat of a drag. I can hear some of you thinking, ‘Well, that’s better than minimum wage, isn’t it? She should be grateful!’ And I am grateful to be employed – we all should be – but my myriad degrees (okay, there’s only three) and 12 years of experience balk at my workload relative to my salary.

Luckily, I am not the only one feeling fired up about education: Last Thursday, I went to hear Diane Ravitch speak at UW about her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. She is a tiny, fiery woman whose commanding rhetoric boomed through Kane Hall. She mentioned many ‘hoaxes’ that our media propagates – one being that American education is failing. She quickly proves how untrue this is with actual evidence – for example, high school graduation rates are at their highest point in history. Several other tidbits popped out at me (oh and by the way, these are called titbits in England, which cracks me up):

  • Test scores measure “who is in the class” – and no amount of merit pay is going to increase these test scores if all other variables stay the same
  • Teachers are not, in fact, “hiding their best lessons” in a bid to earn more money
  • America leads the world in industrialized poverty – which is the probable cause of most of our education woes
  • Standardized tests reflect opportunity – not the ability to learn
  • “Charter schools are skimming off the easiest to educate.” Totally!
  • Providing better pre-natal and early childhood care are critical in fixing our public school system
  • Reducing class size has proven benefits (And here, I want to segue briefly to state that one of my current AP Literature classes has 34 souls. In England, the equivalent class had EIGHT.)

It was lovely to walk through my former campus again, and sit back and learn for a change instead of grading papers and being ever the arbiter. Ravitch was an excellent speaker and is an excellent educator – I encourage you to read her book. Read Jonathan Kozol’s review for the NYT here.

In terms of politics – no, I have nothing to say about the shutdown that hasn’t already been said in eight different ways since last night. I’d like to focus instead on some of the amazing local candidates relying on our support this November. It turns out that part of being a Precinct Committee Officer for the 36th District Democrats involves receiving phone calls on my cell from candidates – I have voice messages from both school board candidate Suzanne Dale Estey and Port Commissioner John Creighton! I’d love to endorse them here, but I am still in the evidence-gathering phase of my voting process – I hope you are too. More on this is still to come as I learn about the candidates.

Now for a hot bath, some soup and some Vick’s VapoRub…stay healthy, dear reader!


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Vote on August 6th!

Me and George

George and me about to canvass the neighborhood. (This is an excellent example of my husband’s photography skills. Luckily, he is good at many other things).

Though I have just one month remaining of novel-writing time before teaching swoops down and renders my other life pursuits obsolete, I wanted to dash off a quick post urging everyone to vote. The primaries are on August 6 – which means you need to get your ballot in the mail like NOW.

As the new resident PCO, or Precinct Committee Officer, for section 1761 of the 36th District, I have been spending time this past week knocking on neighbors’ doors and handing them pamphlets prepared by the 36th District Democrats with candidate endorsements. I brought George on my first foray as my little blonde talisman – nothing like a cute four-year-old to provide a distraction from the awkwardness of knocking on a stranger’s door. Sure enough, people were eager to open the door and chat. It is a pretty easy message to sell – here’s some information, and please vote. Even this sales-wary neophyte can handle that.

I also wanted to mention an excellent new economic agenda driven by Nancy Pelosi and fellow House Democrats. It was brought to my attention by an old student currently working in Washington, D.C. It is called “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds: An Economic Agenda for Women and Families.” Susan Stamberg discussed the agenda with Nancy Pelosi just a few days ago on NPR, and it is well worth a listen. Considering the House is currently Republican, critics assume it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell – ironic, no? Isn’t the GOP all about ‘family values?’ These are still things my peon brain has yet to grasp in the world of politics.

That’s all for today – this PCO stuff is rather time consuming, and I have more door knocking (and novel-writing) to get done. Feel free to write in and post absurd quotations from the Voter’s Pamphlet. My favorites this time round include a typo in the ‘occupation’ line (he’s an accountantt, apparently), a guy who thinks ‘life is just too short’ so Seattle should be more fun, and a guy whose favorite job is raising his son to be a ‘mighty man of God.’ Love it.

Now go vote!


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Laboring for some kind of fruit

my bean plant

My own garden! This is my first ever attempt to grow beans from seeds. Crossed fingers (or vines).

The past few weeks, I have been saying, to anyone willing to listen, that the next purchase I make will be a condo with no garden. It is absurd, I know, to complain about owning a home. Talk about first world problems. But having a garden is just totally, thoroughly exhausting. And like many exhausting things, also frustratingly worthwhile. Because after a day spent literally digging in the dirt, progress is visible. You have created and sustained life.

I feel the same way, to an extent, about trying to get involved in politics. There is no end to unfamiliar terms, to limits on time and resources, to the careful tending of raw material to yield a tiny bit of beauty or sustenance. And like gardening, there is such a host of people who know so much more than you that it is easy to just think, ‘I give up! Give me some cement and a cocktail!’ A large part of me also laughs at myself for the suburban middle-class-ness of both pursuits.

But I continue to hunger for that one, delicious plant that pops out of the dark earth, fecund with life. I’ve planted a few more this week: I applied to be a PCO for the 36th District Democrats. A PCO, or Precinct Committee Officer, is a person who knocks on doors in the leadup to elections and provides materials on endorsed candidates. Sounds like a great idea.

I also met up with Kirkland City Council member Shelley Kloba, who recently entered the political arena after many years of experience in the PTA. She was not only generous with her time but also with her ideas about how I can use my unique talents to become a part of the change-making institutions in our state. She defines herself as a child advocate and was down to earth, warm and obviously dedicated to serving her community – what a role model!

Finally, I am applying to be a member of the board of New Beginnings, an amazing Seattle organization committed to ending domestic violence. I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than helping women and children in need.

But back to that garden: I have found, as many gardeners have before me, that one can spend an inordinate amount of money on stuff that you stick in dirt. Especially if you are impatient, or lazy, or an unfortunate combination of the two. I was hoping that, by merely expressing an interest in politics and scattering seeds, things would come my way. But no. I have to pick out the right seeds. I have to check the light and have good-quality soil. I have to water them. I have to weed things out. I have to water them again.

Right now, I’m just sowing seeds. And as everyone knows who has grown something from seed, it takes time and it’s kinda boring to watch. So I am taking time this summer to allow my tiny political plants to grow without witness. And, well, I also have a novel that needs finished by September 3 (both my birthday and the first day of school), and blogging is a fantastic way to procrastinate.

So until then, unless something momentous occurs, I am signing off. May all of you pursue goals this summer that will bear fruit!

Love, The Poky Little Pundit


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The Parent Tax

So last Thursday, I went into my high school to discuss my schedule for September with a colleague. My problem is that I no longer have a room – I will be travelling between two classrooms during the day to teach.

To non-teachers, that probably sounds like no biggie – and yes, there are worse things. But it is a bummer. It means I will not be able to set up my lessons for the day on a Smartboard, like I have been doing (that’s an interactive whiteboard, for those who haven’t been in a classroom for 20 years). It means I will not have a private, quiet space to complete my work each day. It means I have nowhere to put up book lists or display my favorite poetry or even make a private phone call, barring a bathroom.

But that’s not actually the part that makes me angry. What makes me angry is that my loss of a room is just another tax I pay for having a child. Yes, it is really that simple. I will break it down for you.

See, the problem is that high school starts at 7:00. We have to BE THERE at 7:00. And guess when all daycares open? 7:00. Do you see the problem yet? Let’s go a little further. Of my department, three of us have young children, which means three of us teach part time. And as my friend and colleague, who took over for me as Department Chair on my leave of absence, blithely informed me: The problem is that we all want the same schedule.

And it’s that tiny little word there – the ‘want’ – that makes me angry. Because I don’t WANT to teach part time just so I can get my kid to daycare. I don’t WANT to lose my classroom, and spend the day carting around stacks of papers, a computer and my personal belongings. I don’t WANT to lose out on a significant chunk of my paycheck because some idiot decided to make high school start at 7 bloody a.m.

And when people say, “Well, it was your choice,” I want to stab them. In all honesty, I had no idea what I was getting into, or how many choices would be taken away from me by my choice to have a baby. Parents should not have to choose between procreation and a career. And a society that sets up such an absurd choice needs reforming.

It is all part of the tax one must pay for being a parent. A tax that starts at conception and doesn’t appear to end until your child can find their own way to and from school. And what age is that? When will I feel comfortable allowing my son to wake himself up, nourish himself and get himself to school so that I can get to work on time? Age 8? 10? 12?

The solution is simple: Start high school, and all other employment where possible, at 9 am. Keep elementary and middle school start times at 8:30.

This would allow the great majority of us to wake our children, feed them, and get them to school or daycare so we can arrive at work without stress and without having to employ a morning nanny. It will also allow high school kids – who can get themselves to school, for the most part – to get much needed sleep, which is more in line with their natural circadian rhythms.

We could also simply be more understanding, as a nation, that parents are not being lazy when we go part-time or arrive to work a little late. We are making the best of a difficult situation for which there is no resolution in sight. And for those of us who do not have grandparents at the ready, or spare cash to pay for nannies, or for those of us whose spouses travel or who have no spouse at all, we are barely hanging on. And for what? So school can end at the bizarre hour of 2:30? 

Fellow parents or soon-to-be parents reading: What sort of “parent tax” do you have to pay in your job? And what can we do to take a collective stand? Considering the absolutely vast quantity of people this continuing problem affects, shouldn’t we be able to make a change if we really want to make one?


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Giving student writers their walking papers

newspaper

What happens when an institution’s watchdog no longer exists? When no one is compelled to take notice and report wrongdoing? When a community’s stories are not told?

About a week ago, a small article appeared in the regional section of the New York Times called “At School Papers, the Ink is Drying Up” by Winnie Hu. You probably didn’t read it, because you think the end of school newspapers has nothing to do with you.

I think it does.

Perhaps, you may be thinking, it is time high schools move into ‘the real world’ and realize that print media is dying an inevitable death. In the real world, just last week, The Chicago Sun-Times fired all their photographers. In the real world, today’s writer must be ‘creating content’ for ‘SEO.’ The irony is that at my current high school, the district does not even trust students enough to allow them to upload stories to a website – so if we are trying to prepare them for the real world, where online expertise is a prerequisite, we are seriously failing these kids.

Adults have fared quite well so far in the post print newspaper world – we are finding other avenues. We are expressing ourselves in droves online. Some too much, perhaps. Online, the odd teenager is producing an insightful blog or a funny twitter feed, but many teenagers don’t know how to fight with the written word. Sometimes, they don’t realize a fight even needs to take place. Soon, they will be like the proverbial lobster, slowly boiled alive. Sadly, my own idea to further bolster student expression in high schools, outlined in this post, is not going ahead next year. Blah blah funding blah.

What lawmakers and school districts may not realize is that by shutting off healthy, organized outlets of self-expression for students like a school newspaper, they are inadvertently encouraging them to find other methods that may not be so amenable to a school’s goals.

So here’s what could happen when school newspapers finally bite the papyrus: Kids could put together online newspapers outside of school, publish it for free, and say whatever the hell they want. No arguing over ethics. No copy-editing. No research. What they might gain, however, is getting the Hazelwood monkey off their backs (read an earlier post about Hazelwood here). No more principals sifting through their work. No more bowing and scraping to ‘the man.’ We are talking about an actual free press for young people – and better online content that may not be as well-crafted than students who passively drift through high school thinking they don’t have the power to instigate necessary change. (The teacher in me wants to remind students reading this that you still need to conform to libel laws and all of that other stuff I taught you.)

We should not cower in fear when we think of teenagers taking to the Internet to tell their truth, as many who make student press laws and district officials who uphold such laws do.

We should be afraid when they have nothing to say.


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The best teacher you ever had

bad teacher 2

No, I’m not talking about me, though if I am being honest, I hope a few of my former students reading this are thinking of me when they consider that (fragment of a) sentence.

I’m going a bit off course on my post today and I hope you will indulge me. What I want to write about is good teachers. Because while my teaching colleagues are busy winding down the school year, counting the days until summer break, and secretly hating every single student in their classes (don’t lie), I am already thinking ahead to returning in September. Given the time off to reflect and consider the successes and failures of my 12 year career, I am feeling strangely optimistic. I am teaching a new class, and the thrill of learning new things and inspiring new people has overtaken my brain space.

Every one of us has a distinct memory of a great teacher in our heads – usually from high school, when high emotion sometimes eclipses reason in all the best ways. And most teachers – certainly the amazing ones I work with – are striving to embody that uplifting image kids take away from their school years. So today, I want to talk about two great teachers from my old high school: Mr. True and Mr. Blizard. And I want to know what you, dear reader, consider to be a great teacher.

Mr. True was my math teacher for two years. I had him twice because I failed the first time, which was definitely not his fault (there were WAY too many cute boys in that class). After my junior year ‘F,’ Mr. True stayed after school to work with me almost every day my senior year, trying to squeeze out whatever mathematical abilities my brain contained, and managed to pull me through trigonometry with a C. I was so proud. He never made me feel stupid – but he did make fun of me a lot, which taught me to laugh at myself and accept failure gracefully.

Mr. Blizard, who taught me English, was the first adult with whom I actually connected. He was a frustrated writer, a fast runner and a passionate teacher. He pushed books towards me like they were drugs – stuff like L’etranger by Albert Camus when my parents were divorcing and I first felt the futility of life. He looked beyond my silly teenage drama and saw that I was struggling, and he helped. He saw me as a person.

And what else could we possibly want from our high school teachers? Regardless of what you think of merit pay or private schools or teacher salaries or charter schools, I’d love to hear from you today: Who was your favorite teacher, and most importantly, why? What makes a teacher great?


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Don’t ever dig holes under fences

thepokylittlepuppy

Recently a friend asked me about the title of this blog – I naively assumed everyone would get the title without me explaining. Isn’t everyone’s favorite childhood book The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey? Apparently not.

So, for those of you who don’t already know, I stole part of my blog title from the aforementioned text. And it is basically about an independent, adventurous puppy who disobeys his mother and eats lots of desserts. At least that is my childhood memory of it. In actuality, it is about accepting the consequences of our bad decisions and facing up to our responsibilities.

Which is essentially what I am trying to do here with this blog. Face up to being something other than a self-serving ignoramus who complains about ‘the man’ while leaving all the decision-making up to him. Especially when I should be making that man a woman. (Ha ha.)

On that note, last week was Filing Week – when candidates register to run for stuff in WA state for the August 6 primary election. I spent a bit of time on the King County website, going as far as registering to see what I could possibly run for. The obvious choice is the unpaid School Board position – others include City Council or Commissioner, and I don’t think one should run for an office one has to Google in order to understand it. Michael DeBell is vacating his seat on the school board (that’s my district) and three candidates have filed to run for his position. I have not, because I simply do not feel qualified. (Here’s a list of all candidates who have filed, if you are curious.)

So what does it take to become qualified? Why aren’t there little ‘starter’ positions for people who want to ease their way into politics? Teaching involves a great deal of politicking, but truly I should not be making large decisions on behalf of the people of Seattle – I’m still deciding myself on important issues in education, such as teachers’ unions.

Which brings us to Timothy Noah’s article, “The 1 Perfect Are Only Half the Problem.” Firstly, how lovely to read an article by a writer whose bias was not immediately apparent. Secondly, I had no idea he was going to be talking about labor unions until the very end of the article. Basically, he thinks labor unions are a great way to fix middle class economic woes. And while my socialistic leanings predispose me towards loving unions, I don’t.

I want to be clear, though (before my colleagues think I am crazy, and Progressive Majority kicks me off the farm team): I am not anti-union. The NEA and the WEA (the National and Washington Education Association respectively) are integral to supporting teachers. But I do think there needs to be serious reform, including the right for teachers to choose how their union dues are spent – especially since in WA state, we are forced to join them. (I’m still deciding on the right-to-work debate – for the moment, forced unionization seems necessary. Read more about a recent right-to-work debate regarding Boeing here.) Perhaps a trifle petty, but if I ran the teachers’ unions, the first thing I would cut is the eight pieces of propaganda that arrive at my doorstep every day. Seriously? A group of educators made this decision?

One thing I will do in September, when I step warily back into the public education sector, is become involved in the Washington Education Association – boring, but necessary in terms of understanding how unions function. In the meantime, read up on the candidates who have filed – a brave step by many quite amazing individuals! I thought by now the path into politics might become more clear; alas, the murkiness continues unabated. If only I could cut under the fence and still get the dessert, just like my favorite poky puppy.

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