Saturday, May 29, 2010

Three Ways to Read, Part One

My senior year of high school, I decided to satisfy my English teacher's requirement of 1000 pages of outside reading in one fell swoop with Gone With the Wind. I sat down to start reading it one Friday evening after dinner and read straight through the entire weekend, stopping only to eat, sleep, and go to church. I WAS Scarlett O'Hara for three days. It was a glorious literary experience. I haven't read the book again since, because when I do, I want to read it the same way.

I've read other books that way. The Bridges of Madison County. The last two or three Harry Potter books, to some degree. I don't often have the time anymore to read a book straight through in one sitting like that, but I still think it's the best way to do it. And Mortimer Adler, in his classic How to Read a Book agrees. He says when reading a novel, one should allow oneself to be completely immersed and lost in the world the author has created. This is the only way to truly experience it.

(And this is partly why I don't read novels much anymore. Just sayin'.)

I think this is the best way to read some books of the Bible as well. The letters, for example. How many of us get a letter from somebody . . . okay, put aside the fact that nobody sends letters anymore in our technological age . . . but how many of us get a long letter from a dear friend and read it a section a day for a week or two? No, we plop down on the couch and read the whole thing straight through the minute we get it. It's not a sermon, or an instruction manual, or an informational text, bits of data to be inputted and stored away for future reference -- it's a conversation with a friend. A relational and experiential moment.

This weekend, on my little personal getaway retreat, I'm making a point of reading some books of the Bible straight through. The Bible is a storybook, after all. And a conversation with Almighty God. Once in a while, we need to read it that way.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Scho-o-ol's Out for Summer!

It's the last day of school. I just got back from walking Eastin to the bus stop. I'm going to miss doing that. And I'm going to miss the drives home with Leslie after picking her up from school every morning. Precious one-on-one time with my girls, hearing about their lives.

Each girl has basically a "free" day today, it sounds like. Eastin brought everything home from school yesterday except a pencil and a pen. And she was told to bring an extra set of clothes for an activity where they might get wet. Leslie has a "field day" today. She said she could go and stay all day for that, or she could stay home because there were no regular classes.

I don't at all begrudge them doing fun stuff on the last day. But it seems a little ironic -- yesterday was the original last day of school until all of our snow days added a day. Strange that legally they are required to have this extra day of playing outside and getting wet.

Leslie had "A-Day" on Wednesday -- 8th grade graduation and a dance in the afternoon. Plus another dance/party in the evening. She had to get a nice dress and everything. I asked her in the morning if she had ever heard much about kids in her grade drinking and such. She said no. Then yesterday she told me that apparently some of the drinks at the party the evening before had been spiked and at least one kid she knew got drunk. Sigh. And it begins.

I went through all of Eastin's stuff she brought home last night. Piles of papers and worn-out folders that went into the recycle bin. A box full of all those supplies that we sweated over purchasing last August -- markers, colored pencils, erasers (unopened), post-its (most unused) . . . I think in some ways it would make more sense for us to donate a certain amount of money to the teacher to buy a supply of some of these things and hand them out as needed. Seems like a lot of waste. I'll have to find some use for post-its in our homeschool next year.

It seems like only a few weeks ago the girls were starting school and so nervous, and I was praying out the wazoo every morning that they would make friends, fit in, feel comfortable, be happy. And God was faithful to answer those prayers. They both have friends now, and even best friends. God is so good.

Now to summer. Let's see if we actually find time to relax this time around!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

I Don't Understand

OK, I have a confession to make, something that may be a little bit touchy with some of you. I have never understood people being uncomfortable with or prejudiced against those of another race, simply because they are another race. But I have to admit that classism I can relate to. I don't understand poor people.

One might try to argue that I haven't spent a lot of time with them, so I couldn't be expected to understand them well. And no, I don't know many folks living under the poverty level. But I have very good friends who have struggled to stay afloat financially all their lives. I love them, I enjoy them, in some cases I have strong spiritual bonds with them . . . but I don't always understand them.

People accuse "rich Republicans" of assuming that if someone is poor, it's their own fault. That's a nasty accusation, because if true, it reveals a cold, merciless heart. I certainly don't think that every poor person is personally to blame for their own poverty. I recognize the power of outside circumstances. Yet, there are things that I see even my responsible, intelligent poor friends whom I love do that simply do not make sense to me.

Like, failing to put money in savings, even if it's only a dollar a week. Give up your cable TV and let that money accumulate interest so you have something to fall back on when emergencies happen. This is such a no-brainer for me, I find it truly incomprehensible that anyone would do otherwise.

Or, not prioritizing their children's education. So much of a child's future success is wrapped up in their ability to learn, and when someone's academic skills are limited, their choices in life are limited. At the very least, read to your kids when they are young. You can get books for free at the library.

Here's the confessional part: because these choices seem SO obviously bad to me, I don't always have much compassion for those who make them. I need to understand them to feel their pain with them. Why don't you skip your weekly movie night and put that money in savings? Do you not know the value and importance of saving? Do you know it, but not have the self-discipline to do it (I can sympathize with that -- witness my increasing dress size)? Have you heard it, but you don't believe it's truly that important? Is it such a foreign concept to you that you're not even sure how to begin to accomplish it? Is there something in your "world" that legitimately keeps you from doing it?

I want to understand. Really. I want so much to believe the best of people.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Why School Reform Fails

I need to read the local paper more regularly. There was an article yesterday about the Sioux City district deciding to go ahead and pursue federal Race to the Top money (if Iowa gets awarded the money) despite concerns the board has over how it would have to be used.

One of the concerns is the options for school reform given in the federal program. There are four:

1) Turn the poorly performing school into a charter school.
2) Replace the principal and 50 percent of the staff.
3) Replace the principal and change the curriculum.
4) Close the school.

The board doesn't like any of these options. The last one is kind of dumb. What do you then do with all those students? Per number three, if the curriculum sucks, then you should change the curriculum--but why should the principal be held responsible for failures due to the curriculum?

Number two assumes incompetence on the part of both the principal and the teachers, which might be possible in some extreme cases. But seriously -- if half of the teachers at a school and the principal are all so terrible that they need to be let go, there are some higher-up heads in the district that need to roll for allowing the school to get into that condition to begin with. OR (and this is probably the most likely), there are policies and regulations in place that tied the district administrators hands to the point that they couldn't act in the students' best interest to get rid of these people earlier. So, fix THAT.

My preference is option number one -- charter school. Because I tend to think that schools fail more because of the restrictions of "the system" they are required to work within than for any other reason. If a curriculum is defective, it is often because it is written to accommodate the requirements the state or local board imposes on what will be taught when and how. If teachers grow lazy and apathetic about their work, it is often because they have learned that efforts to do things in a better way will be thwarted by the limitations placed on them. If principals fail to move their schools forward significantly, it is often because there is only so far they can go within the confines of "the system".

I worked with a fabulous principal at Hutchinson High, Mike Wortman, who encouraged us to think completely out of the box about the best ways to educate kids. If we could scrap everything we do now -- hour-long class periods, subject divisions, 7-hour days, letter grades, grade levels, paper and pencil tests -- what would be the most effective ways to teach students? The problem was, we couldn't scrap most of those things, and that's why real school reform never happens.

The system can't reform education because the system is what needs to be reformed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Exploration or Recess?

Wow -- I'm really getting lax on my posting here. Sorry.

Just read an idea from a fellow blogging educator. He suggests that one day a month, schools should schedule a "Man-Made Delayed Opening". For the first hour and half (or so) of a day, kids are allowed to go to whatever room in the school they want, work with whichever teacher they want and explore whatever learning topic they would like for that time. The idea is to give kids an opportunity to participate in learning where they are genuinely engaged. Call it Exploration Day, or something.

Sounds good, I suppose. My concern is that I bet there would be scads of kids -- maybe even the majority of students -- who would not be able to come up with anything they would like to explore or study.

That, in itself, is sad. Think about your typical 5-year-old. They're curious about the whole world. They explore everything. An ant crawling across the sidewalk. The inside of a marshmallow. The contents of the bathroom cabinet. Kindergarteners love school. So do most first-graders. By the end of elementary school, however, most kids will tell you that their favorite "subject" in school is recess.

What a tremendous failure of our society that we manage to squelch that innate sense of wonder and curiosity long before our children reach the point of having the intellectual wherewithal to completely satisfy it -- or make use of it for the betterment of society!

Seriously, folks. That's a travesty. We've got to do something about that.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Worship Routine

Last Friday, Leslie and I went to the confirmation of one of her friends at a Lutheran church. For those of you who don't know, I was raised Southern Baptist. I haven't attended a Baptist church for . . oh . . at least 15 years now, for various reasons, but doctrinally, I'm still quite Baptist, I think. Yet there are a lot of things I appreciate and enjoy in the traditions of other denominations, even while I disagree with some of their theology.

This was a new experience for Leslie, though. She has never been to a liturgical church before, with the ritualized serving of communion -- standing, sitting, singing "Amens" after each step of the process. I followed along in the hymnal, but she didn't know to do that and just watched and tried to mimic those around her.

I can see how, to those raised in that tradition, the routine of the liturgy could be very comforting and meaningful. I can also see how it could be boring and a stumbling block, especially for young people. I think it's all in how you approach it spiritually.

When I was at a conference in Gambier, Ohio, many years ago, I went to Sunday morning services at the only church within walking distance (I didn't have a car) of where I was staying. It was an Episcopal church, I believe, in a really beautiful old building that I'd been wanting for days to see the inside of. A lot of the service felt very foreign to me, but I enjoyed it. Kind of like visiting an African American congregation. It's good to worship in someone else's "love language" once in a while -- opens your perspective.

I particularly remember a prayer time they had. The . . pastor? priest? not sure what his title was . . . went through a prescribed list of general prayer needs (from the service book in which I was following along), and after each one, the congregation responded, "Lord, hear our prayer." And at the end, he added needs from the local congregation. "Lord, hear our prayer." At first, I was a little perturbed by the roteness of it. But about half-way through, I started thinking about the thousands and thousands of people all around the world who were saying the exact same prayers that we were at that moment. And then I was moved by it all.

I have to say, though, that I lean toward more variety in my worship. Even in a "contemporary" church, when we do things the same way every week, it loses a lot of its power. Maybe it's just our ADD/Sesame Street generation that gets bored easily. But worship is about a relationship -- and any relationship can start to atrophy when it is the victim of over-imposed routine. The Psalms talk frequently about singing a new song to the Lord. There's probably a reason for that.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Value of Higher Education?

(I'm noticing that my daughter is the only one regularly commenting on my blogs these days . . . perhaps you all are busy? . . . or I'm less interesting? . . . whatever . . . just hinting)

Just skimmed an article about Obama speaking at a Hampton University commencement. About how in this day and age, in our economy, a high school diploma just isn't enough. About how education is the door to success, especially for minorities. About how we "must offer every child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our knowledge economy." All nice words -- I don't suppose I can disagree with any of them.

But I keep thinking . . . if we really educated every child to the max, gave them the best we had to offer, so that every single kid has a bachelor's degree and a "competitive edge" in our international knowledge economy -- well, to be blunt, who's going to be the custodian at the neighborhood school? Who's going to ring up my rice and beans at Fareway?

I know that comment can be taken very wrongly, but I do think it is something we need to consider. Such jobs do not require a college degree, but they have to be done by somebody. There are a lot of jobs like that. The ones we think teenagers and college students should be doing until they are out of school and get a "real" job. (Only teenagers and college students these days don't want those kinds of jobs . . . )

But really, what's wrong with someone just loving being a cashier at the grocery store? You can usually tell which checkers really enjoy their jobs and which don't -- and wouldn't we all rather be in the line of the chick who lives for getting your food through her line efficiently, bagging it up safely and compactly, and just generally making the whole experience a pleasant one for you? They add value to our world in a very real way.

I think my point is, although we do well to encourage people to get an education and strive to reach their fullest potential, we need to recognize when someone's calling and potential have no connection with educational attainment and get off their back. I bet there are thousands of kids in college right now who, if we really knew the path that God has laid out for their lives, we would see have no business wasting their time and money on a college degree.

And for Pete's sake, let's stop making them feel like lower class citizens for that. My checker at Fareway seems much classier -- and happier -- than many folks I know with graduate degrees and fast-paced careers. We should all be so lucky.

Sometimes Life is a Blur....

Well, heavens -- I haven't blogged in over a week. Trying to figure out exactly why . . . I suppose I've been busy, but not more busy than usual, I don't think. I haven't slept well this past week, but again, that's par for the course. I dunno. But here I am. Now what to write about . . . and maybe that's why I haven't blogged in over a week.

Leslie commented the other day that she is constantly daydreaming. Always thinking about something, even while other stuff is going on around her, or even while she's supposedly involved in the stuff going on around here. I know what she means. My mind is constantly wandering, too. And it gets worse when I'm sleepy.

And sometimes it gets so bad, I start kind of missing out on life. Leslie and I have missed three of her orthodontist appointments in the past month -- just completely forgot about them. I did the same with a doctor's appointment of my own last week (although I blame Jim Henry for getting me hyped up on Petra music that day, which made me lose much of my afternoon hunting youtube. Yeah -- yeah, it's all his fault). The girls' birthdays were a week ago, and we still haven't done thank-you notes or calls to the family (Keith thankfully remembered to call home for Mother's Day yesterday, or we'd really be in the doghouse.)

And then I get depressed and frustrated at how behind I seem to be getting in things. Which makes me want to take a break and get away from it all for a little bit. Which gets me even more behind. Yeah, you see where this is going. Dreary, rainy weather today doesn't help. Sigh.

Case in point: I was just interrupted in my writing this to drive Eastin to the busstop, and I couldn't find my car keys. Digging and hunting everywhere. I finally sent Eastin walking -- in the rain, with her violin and all -- because she had to get there, and I didn't know what else to do. I kept looking in the same places over and over again, because I couldn't think of where else to look. After she left, I remembered my purse falling on the floor of the van last night and checked there. Yep, there were my keys, on the floor. Luckily, my neighbor saw my poor girl running through the rain with her bulky violin case and drove her to the next stop for the bus. Poor thing. She needs a better mom.

I've started seriously wondering if this sleep problem is just my personal thorn in the flesh -- a trial that God refuses to take care of so that I stay dependent on him. Ugh. I suppose I could accept that, if it was only me that was affected by it. But it's not fair that my family suffer, too.