Friday, July 31, 2009

To What End?

I put out a survey last week on my Facebook status asking friends what they thought should be the main goal, or goals, of public education. All the reading I'm doing about learning and schools and so forth has my brain cranking with ideas for improving education. But it occurred to me that all that is not much help until we address the primary concern: why are we doing this? Where are we headed? What do we want the end result to be?

It's not as simple a question as you would think, as was clear from the various answers I got. The most common answer: "the basics". The three R's. They need to be able to read, write, and do basic math. But how much math is basic? Is algebra basic math? Geometry? If so, why do we allow kids to graduate from high school without having taken them? And if not, why do we push so many kids to take them? How well do they need to be able to read? 6th grade level? 10th grade? And does that mean just to decode the words? Does that also imply being able to recognize hyperbole and propaganda and so forth? The basics are pretty complex.

Another answer: "citizenship". They need to understand our democratic system and ideals and be able to participate in our government. But understand to what extent? Does this necessarily mean to agree with the said ideals? A conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat would likely describe this system and these ideals in different ways -- who determines whether or not the student's understanding is now adequate?

"Cultural literacy". Kids should know the stories and history that make up our culture so they have a common heritage and body of knowledge to work from. But whose culture? American culture? "Western" culture? Multi-cultural culture? Again, who decides what constitutes "our" culture?

"Thinking and learning skills". Kids need to learn how to learn. We will not be able to teach them all of the knowledge and skills they will need for their lifetime (consider: most of my generation had never heard of a world wide web in high school). They need to know how to locate information they need, how to read and understand the information, how to integrate it with what they already know, etc. They need to learn to analyze, to synthesize, to evaluate, etc. OK -- again, to what extent? What is the minimum amount of analytical skills required for one to graduate from high school? And what if they can analyze an author's use of characterization in a novel, but can't analyze the results of their chemistry experiment? Are they good to go?

"Social skills and self-esteem". Surely I don't even need to discuss the can of worms this can open up . . .

"Ability to earn a living". Is this all that's necessary to define an educated human being?

"To right the wrongs of society". Not an answer given by a friend, but this has certainly been a use for the public schools in the recent past, for better or for worse.

"Develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives." And how do we do that? What specific skills or knowledge or attitudes or habits will get them there? And how in the world would be ever get any consensus on that?

I've got my own answers, I think. Maybe I'll write about them another time. But I know there are a lot of good, wise people who would disagree with my list. And I'm not sure how we can agree on how schools should do their job -- or if our schools are doing a good job or not -- when we can't even agree on what job we're asking them to do.

Please feel free to hit the comment button and add your own views to my collection here. I eat this stuff up, you know. But do go a little deeper than: "To get the little beggars out of our hair while we do more important things." Although I can see where she's coming from some days .....

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Twenty Years and Counting

Twenty years ago today, I married my brown-eyed handsome man. It was apparently the hottest day of the summer, and I was told later that the air-conditioning in the church wasn't working. I didn't know. I was already flushed. :)

We went out to dinner and a movie last weekend to celebrate. (I know a movie doesn't sound exciting, but we both have been dying to see the new Harry Potter.) Raspberry's Bistro . . grilled scallops and exotic mac and cheese . . chocolate souffle . . white zinfandel . . I love being able to afford nice restaurants once in a while now. And Harry Potter was a pleasure, too -- although I have a few choice words for the writer of the screenplay (which, I have to admit, would be a very unenviable job). We don't have any other big plans to celebrate. I'm grilling ribs tonight, and we're going to watch the wedding video with the girls. And hopefully send them to bed early.

I wish I felt better. I'm still coughing a lot (although I think it may be getting a little better with the steroids the doctor gave me Monday). But now I also have a sore throat. And I hardly slept the night before last, which is just catching up to me today. This really is getting ridiculous. I don't remember the last day I felt healthy.

But, it is a big day. So, if you'll indulge me, I'll do a little low-key, low-energy celebrating here by recounting a handful of the many things I love about my husband.

He has awesome brown eyes.

He has strong hands and arms, which make for great backrubs and hugs.

He researches major purchases for weeks so our money is spent wisely. And he's a saver, not a spender. Like me.

He can fix things around the house. At least more things than I can.

He plays with our girls -- laughs, tickles, teases, hugs. He's a great daddy.

He doesn't yell when I do stupid things. Well, not much. Not all the time. Not anymore. :)

He warms up my side of the bed in the winter.

He tells me I look good even when I know I don't.

He has put up with me for 20+ years, and apparently intends to continue to do so.

Plus, he takes me out to nice restaurants once in a while. And did I mention his brown eyes?

Love you, honey. Happy Anniversary.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer Sundays

Sunday night was our last community band concert for the summer (the last one for our family anyway -- we can't go next week). Keith suggested this activity one Sunday evening back in June, and we've gone several times. Yeah, he has a good idea once in a while. :)

We frankly weren't expecting much from the Sioux City Municipal Band, but they've been consistently good every week. A variety of composers and styles: this past Sunday we heard (among others) a classical piece by Verdi, a Sousa march, a Duke Ellington medley, a Phantom of the Opera medley and that song you always hear at the circus (which is called "Entry of the Gladiators" -- who knew?). We even heard a Toto medley a couple weeks ago. Gave me flashbacks to Godspell rehearsals -- Scott and Mike trying to harmonize to "Africa" and and Lani's "Rosanna" ringtone.

They also always have a couple of sing-along songs. This week was "I'm Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover" and "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer". They're usually songs my kids have never heard of that I'm glad they're learning. Last time we sang a song called "Sioux City Sue". Good to get exposed to the local history and culture!

There's a guest soloist every week, playing a different band instrument (this past week -- the euphonium). And they sometimes have other musical groups there to contribute. This week, the Abu Bekr Shrine Chanters sang a couple songs (why they can't just call themselves a men's chorus, I don't know -- good work they do, but Shriners are an interesting breed).

A man named Dave Madsen, who is apparently a local TV personality or something, is the host -- which means he announces the songs and tells us a little about each piece (like the fact that there is a website out there with scads of different recordings of "Tico, Tico", including one by Donald Duck). He also sticks in a cheesy joke or two, including some Sven and Ole jokes, much to our delight.

The setting is gorgeous. Sioux City has this fabulous band shell that they recently renovated (every time I see it, I think Shakespeare in the Park -- somebody HAS to do that!). It's situated in a beautiful, spacious park on the northside. There are some benches, but most people bring lawn chairs or blankets and sit on the grassy slopes surrounding the shell. It's mostly older folks in attendance, but there are a lot of families, too. Kids run around playing while they listen. Some people bring their dogs. Just a neat atmosphere.

Even the girls seem to enjoy it. I wondered how much patience they would have with sitting through an hour-long (sometimes longer) concert of band music. I was pleasantly surprised.

This is the kind of thing I was excited to come back to the midwest for. Not that there aren't small-town outdoor band concerts somewhere in South Jersey probably, but I doubt they have the same feel. I so often wish I could bring some of my Jersey friends out here to live for a month, just so they get a feel for what the rest of the country is like.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Questions, and More Annoying Questions

I love my youngest. But she's annoying me with questions lately.

"What do you think I'll be when I grow up?"

"Do you think I'll be a good singer when I grow up?"

"What do you think I'll look like when I grow up?"

"Do you think I'll be a good driver when I grow up?"

Seriously -- what's the sudden obsession with her future? Why does she suddenly have this desperate need to know all this information, and what makes her think I can meet that need for her?

I hate these kinds of questions, especially out of the blue when I'm in the middle of something else that is requiring my concentration. But really, I don't enjoy them anytime, because I have a real thing about being completely honest with my kids. I don't see how it does any good to tell my 9-year-old that she'll be a great singer someday if I don't believe that, or if I honestly have no earthly idea. Don't preach at me about "self-esteem". Self-esteem comes from recognized competence, not from artificial praise. Telling a kid she has competence where she doesn't either gives her a warped perception of herself or teaches her that Mommy lies to spare her feelings.

I prefer to actively look for the areas where she's gifted and where she's putting forth a lot of effort and give her genuine kudos where they're deserved. She's funny. She's generous. She's a good story-writer -- she has a great ear for dialogue. She almost always 'fesses up to things she's done wrong, even if it's a while after the fact. I keep telling her to not worry about what she's going to be when she grows up. She should spend her energy looking for what her natural abilities are, developing self-discipline and good work habits, and exploring everything in her world to find where her passions lie. When it's time, God will open up job opportunities that fit these characteristics.

So, what did I tell her about her future driving prowess? "Well, driving takes a lot of focus and concentration -- you can't let yourself get distracted. I expect you're going to improve in those areas a lot as you grow up, and if you do, you'll be a fine driver."

The truth with love. Right?


And by the way, it's a safe bet she'll look a lot like me when she grows up. Poor thing. :)

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Hate Shopping, Part Deux

As a homeschooler, I have been excused from the annual ritual of shopping for school supplies from a published list. I've heard from friends what a joyful occasion this is for all involved -- how much fun it is to pick out brand-new notebooks, fresh #2 pencils, and so on. It sounded like a good time, something I would enjoy. I was wrong.

We shopped today for supplies for both girls for the upcoming school year, and it was a joyful occasion for no one. Too long a list. Too many choices. Too specific requests (there were no orange pocket folders to be found, at Target anyway -- why orange??). Too many unanswered questions about what the girls will really want in the end when they're sitting in class using the stuff -- and seeing what everyone else bought.

Maybe it was the rainy weather. Or my illness. Or my general distaste for shopping. But actually, I think the main problem was just how unfamiliar this all felt -- and how uncomfortable that made us all feel. I really don't remember shopping for Leslie's first couple school years in school. I know I did, but I don't remember it. And when I was a kid, we didn't buy stuff like dry-erase pens (4 regular-tip, 1 fine-tip, plus an eraser . . . !?!?), post-it notes (the mini size, whichever those are), and book covers. I've heard of book covers, but I've never seen or bought one, much less used one. I hope we can figure out how to put it on . . .

There were days homeschooling when I was absolutely certain that I was doing the best thing for my kids. And there were other days when I feared I was ruining their lives. Every homeschool mom I know says they experience the same thing. I'm sure it's quite normal. But I find it strange that my inexperience with a book cover would drive me to such depths of insecurity today. As if they are now handicapped for life because they've never used a book cover.

I just want them to enjoy school. To feel comfortable and not out of place. To make friends. And, of course, to learn stuff. It'll happen, right?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm Such a Sorry Sap

Wow. I just saw that I haven't blogged for eleven days. I'm wondering why . .

I think it's because I've been sick. Not, like, deathly ill or anything. But about a week and a half ago (coincidentally, the day of my last post), I started coughing in the evening. I slept most of the next day and slept on and off a couple days after that. Since then, I've been hacking away like a chain smoker and haven't had much energy. I went to the doctor Friday and got on an antibiotic. We'll see if it helps me feel better.

Right now, I'm mainly feeling like a wimp. Think of all the people out there who live with serious chronic illnesses, day in and day out. A little bit of a cough (OK, it's a pretty bad cough, but still just a cough) has knocked me out of real life for a week and a half. How pathetic!

I had a friend in Jersey with Multiple Sclerosis. She was uncomfortable in one way or another most of the time. I remember a time period when she had to have a very painful shot every day -- painful enough that when her husband administered it, they would shut themselves in a far back room, with the kids watching loud videos at the other end of the house, so they wouldn't hear her yell. But she never complained. And she was always busy and active and seemed energetic.

How do such people do that? Yeah, yeah . . simple answer is, God enables them. But by what mechanism? Is it like the blind person whose hearing becomes remarkably acute to make up for the lack of sight?

And what about the chronically ill out there who are not so heroic? We never hear about them. Do they outnumber the heroes or not?

In any case, I'm disappointed with myself. I've gotta snap out of it. School starts in about a month, and there's a lot of stuff I intended to get done this summer . . . which I have NOT yet gotten done. Harumph.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

On the Necessity of Reading

I'm reading a great book: Real Education, by Charles Murray. He encourages his readers (whom he assumes to be very intelligent in the linguistic and logical realms, or why would they choose to pick up and read such a book) to consider what school is like for someone who is low on the ability scale in the area of reading. Not untrained or unmotivated, but literally low in ability, meaning they are not likely to ever be able to do it well.

He says, to get an idea of the feeling, consider something that you don't do well and are not likely to ever be able to do well. For me, that would be sports. I'm not a complete clutz -- I can dance -- but athletic endeavors are generally failing efforts for me. I participate only to be a "good sport" or to get exercise. Case in point: a recent bowling tournament with people from Keith's work. I usually do OK at bowling, but I won't even share my average scores from that evening with you. Suffice it to say, I offered nothing to benefit the team. Keith kept giving me tips -- hold the ball this way, throw it more this direction, aim for this spot. I knew all that. The mechanics of the sport I understand; it's the execution that escapes me.

I remember playing on a church softball team in junior high for a summer. At one practice, the coach was working with me on batting. When I finally make contact with the ball, he praised me effusely, and then told me to "hit it to the short stop this time." Excuse me?? What unearthly sense of optimism would lead him to believe I could possibly direct that ball in a particular intended direction? The bat and ball made contact. Leave well enough alone.

This is often a point of frustration with Keith and me because he is an athlete -- and a natural one at that. That doesn't mean he doesn't have to work at it; he does. But it means that when he strikes a golfball and it fades right, he not only knows what adjustments he needs to make in his body to correct that, but he has an awareness of and an ability to control the tiny movements of his body to bring that correction about. This is an intelligence I lack completely. I am hopelessly inconsistent at any and every sport we play together, which renders the event much less enjoyable for the both of us.

Could I ever be better at, say, hitting a softball? Probably. But it would take hours upon hours of practice, and very specific instruction from a very patient instructor, and any gains I would make would disappear in a year without continued repetition. If being able to hit a softball to the shortstop on a consistent basis was very important and necessary to me, I could make it happen. But nothing about the process would be enjoyable.

So, is this how a poor reader feels in school? They are told to read, and, even in some good schools, not really given good specific instruction in the truly complicated steps involved in that process. They are asked to make inferences from a text that they have just barely been able to decode at all. They are thrown into classes where being able to read is a necessary skill for success. And they are clearly told -- albeit very indirectly -- that their failure at this task is either because they are lazy or because they are stupid. And that they are now doomed to a life of misery, poverty and failure because they are lacking in this one ability.

There was a boy in our homeschool co-op in Jersey who couldn't read even into middle school. But he knew all the information he was "supposed" to know for his grade level, and maybe more, because his mother patiently read material to him and he retained it with remarkable accuracy. He also had a knack for machines. At an early age, he could take apart any machine, large or small, indentify all the parts and their uses, put the contraption back together again, and often make improvements as he worked.

Don't tell me this kid is stupid. And don't tell me he's doomed to a life of poverty -- what was your last bill you paid for the services of a plumber, or electrician, or some such precious commodity? He will make more in one of those careers than most "smart" kids will make in middle management somewhere with their B.A.s. And I bet he'll be much happier.

I'm not saying he doesn't need to know how to read. He does . . and he's learning. But we need to stop thinking of such kids as educational failures. If he'd gone to school, that's what he'd have been labeled. But because his mother taught him and knew him, he will likely be a successful young man at being who God made him to be. God didn't make us all to be brainy nerds like me who love to read and think and live for the masochism of the classroom. Lucky for us . . . or our toilets would never flush.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Keeping House

- We have bugs. In the basement. Big, black, beetle-looking . . ew. I usually find them dead . . ewww . . but sometimes they're still crawling. Ugh. Seriously. I'm not usually a squeamish person about bugs. I'm all about squoosh 'em, flush 'em, and move on. But there's something about these . . they keep popping up . . like something in a horror movie . . "they're BA-A-ACK". I'm creeped out. Ew -- ew -- EWWW!

- We're painting some shelves to mount in Leslie's room. I'm depressed. I mean, I have a Master's degree, yet I can't manage to put a couple of coats of paint on some flat boards without making a royal mess of it all. I'm reading a book that talks about different kinds of intelligences -- body/kinesthetic, musical, spatial, linguistic, logical/mathematical . . . OK, so whatever kind of intelligence this task requires, I do NOT possess it. But as you can see, I can do a fine job of writing about the endeavor. I know where my talents lie.

- We have another electric dog fence; Keith and I are supposed to set it up tonight. It's a "wireless" one -- no digging up the yard to bury wire. Sounds good -- hope it works. It will be nice to be able to let the dog hang out outside. I'm sure he'll love it. And maybe he will leave less of his calling cards around the house for me to find and clean up.

- Still have piles of yard sale/giveaway stuff in the basement and garage. I think I've given up on the yard sale idea. Just can't make myself do it. It's easier to drop it off at Goodwill and take the tax credit. I'm not a salesperson, you know. Just working to my strengths again.

- I have to find the instructions for our thermostat and figure out how to re-program it for the summer. I've been leaving it off most of the time and opening the windows when we get hot, but it's starting to get too warm during the day for that. Yesterday I turned it on in the afternoon. By this morning, the main floor was FREEZING. It's still set to go down to 64 or so at night, as we had it during the winter. JU-U-UST a bit chilly. Gotta take care of that . . .

Always something to take care of. Tell me again why home ownership is such a great thing.