Is America Heading For A Wile E. Coyote Moment?

Most of us are familiar with the scenario repeated again and again in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons directed by Chuck Jones: the famished coyote (sometimes aided by products he has purchased from the Acme Corporation) races to catch the apparently tasty and nutritious road runner. Sadly, at some point the chase downshifts to disaster, and poor Mr. Coyote goes flying off an exceedingly high cliff, sailing blithely through the whistling winds until he looks down, realizes his predicament, and begins his long fall toward a painful impact with the ground below.

Keep in mind that, as the gag goes, he does not begins his fall until he recognizes that he is standing on thin air. Horrified comprehension must, it seems, precede the sad descent.

Given the multiple meltdowns that seem a staple of our daily news, I wonder whether we are now coasting through the ether toward a collective perception of our own doom—right before the terrible splat of finality. Just consider the many upheavals of the past year—you can take your pick of so very, very many here—and cap it off with whatever juicy political scandal or rumor suits your fancy. I half expect to next read that a top-hatted man with a sinister mustache has tied a struggling damsel to a railroad track. It would make as much sense as anything else happening these days. When satire is virtually indistinguishable from fact, you know something is seriously awry with the world.

However, we seem to have avoided the panicked look downward—for now. The Dow Jones Average is still sailing along, the many levels of our government continue to busily borrow and spend, and home buyers seem once again convinced that the laws of gravity have been repealed. What could possibly go wrong?

Just for a start, a stock market that has fantastically decoupled itself from all standard measures of corporate and economic health seems ripe for an Enron-style swan dive. In addition, piling on more and more public debt serves to only further cripple our futures. Finally, given that housing markets can crash—and once more drag our entire banking system down with them—when the spigot of easy bank credit is finally shut off, just a wee bit of rational fear might be justified. This is just a smidgen of a list. There is so much more lurking in the shadows—and right out in the open—to bedevil us, but wasn’t that a great Super Bowl?

We have not yet looked down—but the breeze should be tickling our ears right about now.

All nations face problems on a regular basis, but the size and scope of some of those at our doorstep must give even the most sanguine among us a bit of a nervous chill. Our broken political process—which seems more volatile, more divided, and more frustrating by the hour—does not bode well for our successful navigation of the many issues that beset us.

It sometimes seems like half of our country is not on speaking terms with the other half, so the search for common ground and common purpose is more elusive than ever. As unrealistic as it might be to actually implement, it is worrisome that California may soon have an advisory question on its ballot regarding whether or not to secede from the United States. It is not quite Fort Sumter, but it is a clear sign that many are losing interest in the inherent give and take of the democratic process and care little for values other than their own. This perhaps indicates that, like that ancient Roman army, we have crossed the Rubicon—and there is no longer a chance to turn back—but others believe that those who suggest caution are merely alarmist. After all, why would you want to ruin the wonderful party?

So let’s all try not to look down, my fellow coyotes, and hope for the best….

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Our Schools Need Our Involvement

Although it is sometimes hard to keep in mind when we hear so much about teacher misconduct and malfeasance, the vast majority of public educators are remarkably hardworking and work to create daily miracles under the most difficult of circumstances.  No one becomes a school teacher for the stock options, and the hours and professional demands would give most people pause if they could watch the daily life of an educator.  Our teachers need our support more than ever, and everyone should recognize that their successes and failures affect us all.

Moreover, school funding continues to be a problem.  Plans to create steady sources of revenue to support public education wax and wane in relation to the election cycle and the degree of public frustration with our educational outcomes.  I’ve certainly heard the same sentiment more than once here in our community: “Why should we give more money to our schools when my child is not learning anything?”  It’s not an inappropriate question to ask.  Everyone prefers to see their tax money spent well, and few citizens are unaware of the problems many schools are having with meeting the mandates set by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation that now drive much of what goes on in public education.  Is more money the solution?  No.  Will more money help?  Yes.  We need to move forward on improving school funding if we expect the best from our public schools, and every citizen should consider contacting their elected representatives to voice their concerns.

In addition, schools throughout the country are now in the midst of a massive, some would say revolutionary, revamping of the traditional course offerings based on the need to improve test scores to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and the results are obviously not entirely encouraging.  As many have noted, even if test scores creep up as we continue to pound students with the “test prep” curriculum that now drives much of what is taught in our public schools, the final outcome might not be the well-rounded education based on critical thinking and content learning we naturally expect as we prepare our students for further education and careers in our increasingly information-based workplaces.

When I was running for School Board this past spring, I spoke with a frustrated parent who was not very happy that his son was unable to place out of remedial courses his first year of college, despite receiving all A’s and B’s in high school.  Did that parent have a legitimate concern?  Absolutely.  Would it have been a good idea for him to find out sooner that his son’s education may not have prepared him adequately for higher education?  No doubt about it.

The only way to learn more about what is going on in our community’s schools is to ask questions and be actively involved.  At this critical juncture in tax-payer supported public education, one of the cornerstones of our democracy, now is not the time to abandon our public schools; now is the time to engage with them in a spirit of civic partnership and goodwill.  It is the duty of our citizens and community leaders to get involved and ask questions as never before.

Rather than read in the newspaper about the stubbornly low test scores in your local school and tune out, or read your neighborhood school made AYP this year and presume all is well, go into your local schools and learn more.  Talk to the teachers, administrators, and staff.  Volunteer.  Sign up to be a mentor.  Join the PTA.  Review the curriculum guides.  Find out how much reading and writing is done on a weekly basis.  Go to School Board meetings.  Ask questions about how the school day is organized and what content material is covered.  Find out how the mandates of NCLB are affecting your schools and advocate for sensible changes.

Our system of public school management is based on the concept of local control.  Exercise your power as a citizen to make positive changes and guarantee the continued economic and social health of our community.  Our future and those of our children depends on what you do today.

Student Reading Success Requires Allowing Teachers To Be Teachers

Recent newspaper articles regarding the results for reading and math achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education point out an interesting dichotomy: We are seeing improvement in math scores across the nation, but reading scores have, depending on the grade level, remained flat or declined.

In response to the demands of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) testing requirements, most districts have moved briskly to routinize their curriculum and set up more rigid standards for curriculum and instruction.  To the extent this process has led to a careful re-thinking of what we teach and how we teach it, that’s all to the good.  However, I strongly suspect it may be the case that the methods of instruction that are going to improve student reading ability are fundamentally different than the methods of instruction that are going to improve math achievement, and we may be seeing the result of these differences in the test scores.

Math is a systematic body of knowledge that lends itself easily to a systematic approach to teaching.  There exists a very natural progression from one level and type of content knowledge to the next, and it is easy enough to refine that natural instructional progression based on both classroom outcomes and educational research.  Whether one is teaching the methods for simplifying fractions or solving quadratic equations, the body of content knowledge may be imparted in a clear, easily defined plan of lessons.

However, I’ve yet to be able to put in my Teacher Plan Book that on Tuesday we “learn to love literature” or on Friday “the magic of poetry will be made obvious” Teaching reading is in many ways more of an art than a science, however much we may dearly wish it to be otherwise.  Although it may be possible to “teacher-proof” the math curriculum so that all that is needed is to follow the program, teaching reading successfully is in my experience wholly based on the enthusiasm, inventiveness, and knowledge of the individual teacher.

I still remember my 11th grade English teacher teaching us A Separate Peace by insisting we form our own boy’s prep school within our classroom.  To Kill A Mockingbird came alive for me when I was encouraged to relate the injustices visited upon Tom Robinson to injustices in my own life.  Antigone made sense to me when we wrote essays in class deciding what we would do if our brother or sister asked us to help them conceal evidence of a crime.  I was at least willing to give Animal Farm a chance when we were allowed to act out parts of the novel as the animals themselves.  In my own classroom, some of my most memorable moments involved helping my students to understand Macbeth by working in groups on rewriting portions of the play in a more contemporary style and setting.  “Cowboy Macbeth” still haunts me.

Student reading success is directly related to a Language Arts teacher’s ability to react quickly to the individual needs of a particular student or class, not being concerned about leaving the lesson plan behind and exploring new ways to fire the enthusiasm and interest of students.  If we try to force reading instruction into a box that looks good in a big binder filed away in the District Office, we are probably going to fail a lot of students.  Personally, I found the days I brought my students outside and read poetry to them under a shady tree perhaps the most wonderful of all; some students, of course, didn’t go for it at all, but I was always encouraged by those who were able to discern the wonder in Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” in a setting more in keeping with the subject of the poem.

Perhaps it wasn’t the approved and pre-packaged method of instruction, but I believe it had some merit, and I would certainly encourage others to give it a try.

Dear Teacher, This is All I Need, Er, Demand This Year

It might be worth taking the time to remind you of a few ground rules if you want to get along with me in class this year.

First, I’ve got a lot of stuff to deal with.  Second, I’ve got A LOT of stuff to deal with.  Third, I’m not going to tell you what it is that I’m dealing with because (a) it’s none of your business and (b) that’s not how it works.  Let’s just presume I’m going to run the gamut from pleasantly goofy to downright hostile for no particular reason you’ll ever really understand.

Even if I do decide I like you enough to open up a bit, remember you’re getting only the parts that don’t seem too freaky or personal to discuss with someone as old as you.  Let’s face it, I neither want nor need you to be my pal.  We’re not going to the mall together or swapping stories about our first kiss; if we did, I’d find that more than a little creepy for reasons I hope are really obvious to you.

Just listen attentively, let me know you sort of understand what I’m going through, and leave me alone.  That is unless I want to stop by your classroom every day during your prep period; I’ll expect you to drop everything you’re doing to listen to me if that’s the case.  If I disappear for a while and suddenly reappear in your doorway, you’ll just have to roll with it.  I have a life, after all.

Oh, by the way, I’m going to have some really, really bad days this year, and I have no idea when those days are going to be.  It would probably be better for both of us if you left me alone, but I’m going to be really angry if you ignore me.  I don’t actually know what I want you to do, but I’ll just add it to the list of all the other stuff I have to figure out when I get the chance.

More rules.  Don’t mess with my space, my cell phone, my music player, or my head.  Don’t think you have any right to tell me what to do or how to act.  If you ever make the mistake of getting on my wrong side, I have a million little ways to drive you insane.  If I can’t do it by myself, I’ll enlist a few of my friends to help out.  Watch your step and we’ll be fine.

However, if I ever get the impression my friends and I can walk all over you, that is going to frighten me.  Even though most of the adults in my life are not, I need you to be strong because grown-ups are supposed to be in charge and protecting me from everything scary out there.

I see and hear too much stuff I shouldn’t at my age.  There are a lot of creeps out there who fail to realize I’m just a kid.  I don’t really have any idea of how I’m supposed to act or what is appropriate, but I suppose I’m figuring it out as I go along.  I’m pretty grown up in a lot of ways, but I wouldn’t mind being allowed to be a kid now and then.

I know you’re a teacher, so it’s your job to worry about me.  Just don’t embarrass me by making it too obvious.  The last thing I need is to have anyone pity me.  I’m tough; I can carry all my pain and confusion without any help from you.  That’s not actually true, but I can’t appear weak because that’s going to turn me into a target for every jerk in this school.  I know lots and lots of people, but I can’t completely trust anyone.  You would be surprised to know just how lonely I am, even when I’ve got twenty “friends” around.

Just let me know you care, and that will be enough.

Give That Child A Book!

I am asking every parent who reads this to do one special thing for your children: Take them to the library or bookstore and get them a pile of books.  A big pile.  Oodles of prose and poetry and whatever else catches their fancies.  Romances.  Adventures.  Biographies.  Graphic Novels.  Science Fiction.  Horror.  Mysteries.  Get a variety.  Be aggressive.  Don’t take no for an answer, but make it fun.  Stop for coffee or soda together and look through the books.  Discuss what looks interesting and why.  If you don’t want to spend the money on new books, go to a used bookstore and hunt for bargains.  If you don’t want to spend any money at all, dig out or sign up for a library card.  Please.  Do it today.

My parents were Polish immigrants who had to work hard to make it in America.  My father was picked up from the family farm in 1939 and spent World War II–all of it–as forced labor under the Nazis.  When he came to America after a stint working for the American occupiers, he felt like the luckiest man in the world, even if he had to do back-breaking factory work for many years to support his family.  Life was really, really hard in many ways, but there was hope, not so much for himself but for his children, and all those hopes were tied up with education.

Because his own schooling was cruelly interrupted by war, there wasn’t much he could do in the way of helping with homework once we moved out of elementary school, but he knew one thing and knew it well: The more my sister and I read, the better our lives would be.  To this day I have no idea why this idea took hold in him so strongly, but books were practically thrown at us throughout our youth.  No matter how tight money was, any time we wanted to go to the bookstore, money would appear.  However busy he was, rides to the local library were always forthcoming.  You could even get out of chores if you were engrossed in the pages of a book.  If you were home sick in bed, books were placed on your side table along with a warm bowl of soup and expected to have the same curative properties; I suppose the simple act of flipping the pages helped your fever to break

My curve ball may have suffered because I was always massaging my eyeballs with some novel or another, but my life has been made infinitely richer by the lifelong habit of reading I picked up.  Best of all, because good reading is simply a matter of practice, it all operates in a divinely circular equation: the more you read, the better you will read, and the more you will read as a result.  Just as children have to spend countless hours learning how to dribble a basketball or draw a flower before moving from struggle to simple competency to sheer enjoyment, so the time must be spent now honing skills at reading to make sure the habit takes hold.

Books will turn your children into better readers, writers, and individuals.  Reading now will make school easier later.  Books will become companions and comfort in times of trouble.  Reading challenging material will make your children examine their own values and the values of the world around them.  Books will help them to imagine a better future and dream dreams you cannot imagine they would be capable of dreaming.  With apologies to J.K. Rowling, reading is magic that doesn’t require a stint at Hogwarts, and even mere muggles can enjoy its wonder.