Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

Saga of the Bees

honeycomb insect bees honey

Photo by Pixabay on

In doing some cleaning out today, my husband ran across this piece I wrote back in 2004. We thought my readers, if I still have any, might enjoy it.

I have to admit that when I read the first chapter of The Secret Life of Bees by sue Monk Kidd, I discounted the realistic possibility that bees could or would actually take-up residence in a person’s home. I shouldn’t have; I know better now.

One of the things I learned when we moved to a home that backed up to a large lake was that the critters who had formerly lived there regarded us as the interlopers to be ignored. They would just as soon share our domicile with us as not. This can be a little disconcerting or a city girl. Co-existence was never an option for me. I don’t think I was aware of the many varieties of spiders, ants, crickets, cockroaches, waterbugs (I refuse to call those huge 2-1/2 inch monsters cockroaches!), wasps, hornets, etc. that God in His wisdom has created to populate the fields of nature. Despite where God intended them to be, they all seemed to feel my home was fair game. I learned to deal with them with appropriate cans of bug sprays and bombs that managed to keep most of the invasions to a minimum.

I did acquire a grudging appreciation for them, I admit. One morning not long after we moved in, I stepped out onto the deck at the back of the house, which was surrounded by a rail composed of 2x4s nailed together to form rectangular frames about every three feet. In every space where two rails joined, a spider had created an intricate web. I wouldn’t have realized how total was their victory over my deck if we had not had a heavy dew that morning. Every strand of every web was draped with beads of moisture, glistening and twinkling as the rays of the rising sun fell on them. The effect was magical; it was as if I had stepped into a fairyland. Okay, I thought, you can have the deck, but you can’t have my house! I continued the battle, and continue it twenty years later, I might add. They never give up!

Of course mice loved our home, much to my oldest daughter’s chagrin. Those we fought with mouse traps and bait. I can tell you that the only thing pleasant about the odor of a bait-dispatched mouse in the wall behind your dish cabinet is the knowledge that one more has bit the dust.

In tackling the repairing and remodeling of our fixer-upper lake house (which, by the way, is a never-ending process), my husband discovered that we had other guests. After his excursion into the floor joists between the two floors, he proudly displayed two snake skins, each about four feet long. No, I don’t know what kind they were–nor do I care! Obviously these creatures had decided to strip right under my bed! Where did the go next? I immediately began an inventory (which I repeat periodically) to locate any possible hole or crack in our living quarters that a snake might conceivably crawl through and stop it up. Snakes can crawl through some mighty small holes. The scariest days are the ones when my husband leaves the garage door open for extended lengths of unattended time as, I suppose, an open invitation to any curious snake, some of whom have accepted the invitation, to have a look-see or find a safe house. My husband, you see, does not have the same feelings about snakes as I do, but I’ll save the snake stories for another day.

The attic of our house had, early on in its existence, been taken over by mud robbers, a kind of wasp that makes a new of mud. Some of their nests were as big around as baseballs. When we replaced the roof a few years ago, we threw so many mud robber nests into the back yard that it looked as though we had had a gray hail storm. I hesitate to estimate the sheer weight they added in the attic. Mud robbers, by the way, can literally make a nest anywhere–handlebars of bicycles, stored water hoses, under the edge of irregularly stacked magazines. The only thing good about these ubiquitous wasps is that at the center of each compartment of the nest is one dad spider.

The cedar siding that our house was originally covered with apparently had a number of gaps at the edges, which various mammalian varieties found attractive. I have watched squirrels duck into holes and heard them at night in the walls. I suspect rats as well, though I can’t prove it. In an effort to combat these invasions and improve the energy conservation of our home, we decided to install vinyl siding. We were very pleased with the result. The crisp, white siding looked wonderful, and we were sure we had foiled the critters. Not so much. One night last winter as I sat soaking in my bath tub, I began to hear a kitten mewing. It sounded as if it were coming from directly beneath me. Sure enough, a wild housecoat had given birth to a litter of kittens right under the bathroom floor! We watched for the mother cat and determined where she was getting in, but didn’t want to stop up the hole until the kittens could be moved. The last thing we needed was the smell of decomposing feline bodies permeating the house. So, for several weeks my baths were serenaded by mewing kittens. Finally the cats were big enough to begin to move around, so we were able to get to them, remove them, and close up their entry hole. We thought we were done with them. Wrong!

A few weeks later, I was keeping my seven-month old grandson and had laid him down for a nap on a blanket in the living room floor. When he woke, I picked him up and noticed that he had several odd little brown specks on him–fleas! Yes, the entire house had been taken over by fleas, upstairs and down. Apparently the cats had left their own unique version of a thank-you note. It took two bombings to get rid of those pesky fleas.

It was the Saturday before Memorial Day the the Bee Saga actually began. My husband was looking for something on the back porch under the deck. Something brushed his arm and he looked up to see a bee, which had bounced off of him and buzzed on its merry way. He noticed that the bee had a number of compatriots and they all seemed to be entering and leaving a small space between the top of the downstairs siding and the underside of the upstairs deck. In fact, they appeared to be swarming!

He went inside the house, removed a portion of the suspended ceiling, and shown a flashlight between the floors down toward where the bees were entering the house. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of bees, busily working a large, white honeycomb.

After the Monday holiday, we called the county extension agent, who gave us the name of an exterminator who was supposed to be skilled in bee removal. Yes, they said, they could do it. There would be a $75.00 trip fee and the total process usually averaged around $300.00. Pretty expensive bees, I thought. In the course of the conversation, the lady on the other end of the phone explained that what they did was to vacuum the bees out of their hive using a special vacuum that did not have a propeller so the bees would not be hurt. Once the bees were gone, then the comb with all the eggs, larvae, and honey would have to be removed by hand. This would probably involve tearing a large hole in the ceiling or wall, depending upon where the bees had lodged. Their fee did not include repairing the hole.

As we evaluated our options, my husband began to think that perhaps he could do the job himself and even salvage the bees to set up in a hive in our back yard, (I should tell you that my husband missed his calling. He should have been a farmer or a wildlife management agent.) The next day he stopped by the vacuum cleaner shop and learned that most shop vacs operated without a propeller, so he could conceivably use his shop vac to remove the bees. He began to make elaborate plans for a bee rescue operation. He went to the library and got a couple of books on bees, the names of which I had found in the bibliography of Ms. Kidd’s book. We looked on the Internet for prices of bee-keeping equipment. A complete bee-keeping outfit would set us back only about $499. And that did not include a bee suit. Now the price of the bee operation had shot from $300 to $500+! Something was definitely wrong with this picture.

Later in the week we made contact with an ancient beekeeper who, we were told, might sell us an old used beehive. When my husband explained our bee problem and what the bee remover had planned to charge for his services, the beekeeper said, “Shoot! I can get ’em outta there a lot cheaper than that. I can do it for $175.” In my husband’s mind, he was thinking–bees out of the house, set up in a hive, for only $175–what a deal!

The beekeeper came out sans beehive, much to my husband’s disappointment. Going in through the ceiling of a ground-floor room, he poked in a piece of insulation soaked with a substance with an odor that bees do not care for. The idea was to drive the bees off. This procedure was about 50% effective. The bees seemed determined to stay with the hive.

Plan B was to use an insecticide. This was not what my husband had hoped for, but since he was not “the expert,” he acquiesced. The beekeeper sprayed the hive from the outside with the insecticide. In an effort to escape the deadly fume, the bees flew into the house, only to die in droves on a window sill. With the bees finally dislodged, the next sep was to remove the honeycomb. My husband pulled it out, piece by piece, while the old beekeeper sat in the porch swing and watched. There was about five pounds of honey and honeycomb–all unusable because it had bee sprayed with insecticide.

The beekeeper took his $175 and went on his way. My husband was left with the job of plugging up and caulking all the spaces where the bees–or other creatures–might try to get back in. I was left with the dead bee clean-up. The bees were left without a home. I suspect the beekeeper was the only one who came out unscathed on this one.

So, I am left wonder about (dread?) the next episode in the on-going saga. What creatures will next invade the sanctity of my abode? Possums? Raccoons? I’m just lad I don’t live next door to the Black Lagoon!

Playing with Poetry

Reading George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From, I came across this statement: “The truth is, play and work are not opposites.”

That resonated with me because for much of my life I have been accused of not playing enough, of being too serious. “Lighten up,” they tell me. “You don’t need to not work so hard! You should have more fun!” I’ve tried to explain to people who tell me that, what’s fun for you is not necessarily fun for me, and vice versa. When I am working on something I enjoy doing–for example, writing or even analyzing data, I am experiencing a depth of enjoyment that is as much of a rush as when others engage in more familiar enactments of play. I feel that same flood of dopamine as does a person playing a game of baseball or another knitting or crocheting.

Lyon asks us to look at the visages of children who are playing at building things or acting out stories they know. Their faces are intent and, yes, serious. Their actions are planned, intentional. This is important work for them that we, perhaps in error, call play. She says that we begin to lose the sense of this kind of work/play as we approach puberty and become sensitive to the fact that others are judging us by what we do. Thus, she says, we “rush to judge ourselves first in hopes of measuring up.” This is when we start accepting the ideas of others as to what is work and what is not. The “adult” dichotomous attitude seems to be that work is drudgery and play is fun. This attitude, Lyon goes on to explain, stifles creativity.

My personal belief is that the root of creativity is wonder. I remember being astonished as a new teacher when I asked my students “Do you ever wonder if…” and they looked at me with blank stares. By 7th and 8th grades, they had already internalized the concept that questioning what is or why is unacceptable. In order to create, we must never cease to be amazed at the world and the people around us. We must never stop asking, why is it this way? How do I feel about this? What can I, should I, do about it?

Poetry is a way of doing that. Poetry is harnessing the affordances of language to touch another soul about something important to humanity, and it takes work and creativity. But it’s also the highest form of play I know. Lyon also recommends that we play/work with the seemingly mundane things around us, searching for deeper meaning in them–an old shoe, a childhood memory, a routine activity. Playing with it may require some serious thinking (work) to find just the right words, the rhythm and cadence of those words, what they will sound like when spoken–because poetry is meant to be heard, more than read. (I have a strong belief that poetry existed before the written word.) But the work is really play–trying out new ways of saying something important, just as a child tries a block here or there to see how it fits, or as a knitter tries out different ways of stringing together the familiar stitches.

But I also think poetry is a way of processing and dealing with important, life-altering events that we experience. Then it is a work/play experience, rather than the other way around. The work here is sorting through the thoughts to make sense of them, but playing with the words that mean those thoughts often allows us to recognize important insights about those experiences.

A number of years ago, I lost a good friend. Annie Weed was a fellow church member who hosted our Bible studies. She had lost her husband before I came to know her, but she was anything but your little old widow lady! She was vibrant and optimistic and always had a smile and a laugh for everyone. Then she died. It was unexpected, shocking. We were all caught off guard by the sudden finality of her death.

I remember driving home from work a day or two later and coming to the intersection where I turned onto Liberty Grove Road. The tree was gone! The huge old cottonwood that had stood facing that intersection as long as I had been coming this way had been unexpectedly bulldozed down to clear the land for a new housing development. There, instead of a friendly old landmark, was a ravaged and empty stretch of barren land in front of me. It was shocking. Somehow in my mind the tree and Annie were connected. I had two losses to deal with, and I dealt with them by writing a poem that helped me process them both. The missing tree became a metaphor for Annie as I carefully worked to find just the right words to reflect my thinking.

So, I may not be a prolific poet like George Ella Lyon, but I am a poet. Because all it takes to be a poet is to pay close attention to the objects and events around you, wonder about them, and find the most precise metaphors available to tell about them within the parameters of the kind of poem that seems to fit. Is it work or is it play? Or is it both, as Lyon maintains? You decide, but I can tell you that working to write Annie’s poem filled me with a sense of release and fulfillment that was real and pleasurable, much akin, I think, to what a skier feels rushing down a mountain or a potter shaping a new bowl on a wheel. It’s my kind of fun.

Are Graphic Novels for Everyone? Bazinga!

At the conference where my colleague and I presented on graphic novels yesterday, just as we were finishing up, one of the participants asked whether graphic novels are for everyone. My colleague answered, “No, definitely not, because many, like my granddaughter [whom we had discussed earlier], prefer to visualize their own images.”

That is certainly true, but I wish we had had more time to discuss that question. My colleague is right–not everyone likes or appreciates graphic novels, possibly because they have become so steeped in reading print that, to them, the images get in the way. That may be in part because we as teachers have consciously or unconsciously trained them to feel that way. As we teach students to read, we slowly but systematically take the pictures away. Then we tell them to “make pictures in their heads” as they read. Hmmm.

On the other side of the question our participant asked is what we have found to be true about reading graphic novels. American graphic novels have grown well beyond the simplistic comic books many of us grew up with. Plots have become sophisticated, characters are complicated, and images carry much of the meaning. They are not easy to read, as many people think.

Graphic novels have their own conventions related to panels, gutters, and balloons, which have to be learned. To comprehend them completely, the reader must analyze the images carefully and synthesize them with the words. Reading them takes the ability to make inferences and think critically, and these abilities are actually what makes them valuable in today’s classroom. They can be used to teach the kind of critical thinking required for our constant exposure to the multimedia with which the 21st Century surrounds us.

So, the answer to our participant’s question may be “yes” but with the important caveat that those who do not read graphic novels may be missing out on some valuable and important learning for living in today’s multimedia world.

As another participant suggested yesterday, maybe there’s a reason, beyond the Big Bang Theory’s screen writer’s preference, that the favorite hang-out for Drs. Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and (not doctor) Howard is the comics store.

Connecting Cows and Children


agriculture animal animal photography blur

Photo by Matthias Zomer on

I have been reading Temple Grandin’s book Thinking in Pictures, and this morning I ran across this statement: “If an animal balks and refuses to walk through an alley, one needs to find out why it is scared and refuses to move” (p. 167). Dr. Grandin has been making the point in the book that much of her success in designing cattle handling facilities is rooted in her ability to be able to see the world from the cow’s perspective. She then goes on to say, “Unfortunately, people often try to correct these problems with force instead of by understanding the animal’s behavior” (p. 167). This statement brought to mind an incident that was shared with me by a preservice teacher recently.

This preservice teacher (we’ll call her Monique) reported that she often subs for a local school district, and although she is an Elementary Education major, if they call her to sub in a high school class, she goes. In this particular instance, the high school teacher she was subbing for had left good lesson plans for her to follow. Monique explained the assignment to the class and all the students seemed to understand and started to work–except one who announced loudly and forcefully that she wasn’t going to do the assignment. Monique could have responded equally forcefully by informing her that she was indeed going to do the assignment or face the consequences of a potential trip to the office. That certainly would be the reaction of many, if not most people in this situation.

Instead, she waited for a bit, and after the rest of the students were working, she approached the offending student’s desk and asked her quietly if there was a problem. The student spat back her answer: “I told my teacher yesterday I didn’t know how to do this and she said she would help me today! And now she’s not here!”

Monique nodded and said she understood how frustrating that was. Then she said, “Maybe I can help you with it. Will you let me try?” The girl agreed and together they resolved the student’s misunderstanding and she began to work on the assignment.

In Grandin’s book she relates the seemingly unreasonable outbursts of many autistic children to the instinctive fear of prey animals such as cattle to unexpected changes in their visual field. She suggests that such outbursts may be the result of an over-reaction of the fight-or-flight mechanism of the so-called “animal brain” in humans. I’m thinking that such behavior isn’t confined to children on the autism spectrum. Perhaps before we jump to the conclusion that children who act out like this are simply being defiant, we as teachers need to observe and question what may be at the root of such behavior. It may be based in our own evolutionary history. In the case of the student in the anecdote above, she was angry and felt let down and feared being unsuccessful yet again. I suspect that may have been enough to trigger the fear mechanism that led to her “defiance.”

I told Monique how proud I was of her to have reacted calmly and with thoughtfulness. I told her she had learned a valuable lesson in human behavior. The student was angry and felt betrayed by her regular teacher, but Monique was able to see beyond the outburst and try to meet the underlying need. I think that may be a more important lesson than all the lesson plans and assessments I as a teacher educator may ask her to complete.

From Gunships to God


Spoiler Alert: In light of the season, this piece has a decidedly religious focus.

Most of my friends are well aware of my penchant for genealogy. I’ve been making family charts since I was nine years old, sitting on my grandmother’s front porch interrogating her about her distant aunts and uncles back in Missouri. My children have suffered through many a trek through overgrown cemeteries and musty courthouses, and over the years, without the help of, I have nailed down most of my ancestors as far back as six to eight generations, some even further. Although that’s fun, like the satisfaction of completing a jigsaw puzzle, one of the more satisfying experiences comes in the form of intriguing and fascinating stories that show up unexpectedly. One of those popped up yesterday about a very distant cousin on my Robinson/Harlan line.

His name was Thomas Gregg and he was born during the American Revolution in 1779 into a Quaker family who lived on the border of Delaware and Pennsylvania; he died in western Pennsylvania in 1857. Between those two dates was lived a life of challenge, success, defeat, surrender, and ultimately peace.

Tom left his home in Delaware to follow his uncle John Gibson to Fayette County in western Pennsylvania around 1799. Sometime after arriving there, he married Margaret Moore and they began their family of either 13 or 18 children–reports differ on the exact number. Tom may have farmed as most settlers did, but he seems to have had a knack for working with metals. He built a nail factory and developed a thriving business, which made him comparatively wealthy for the time.

But Tom wasn’t content to make nails; he was an inventor. In 1814, he applied for and received a patent for an “armor clad warship,” with four smoke stacks and no sails. This was a number of years before the development of the Monitor or the Merrimac and only seven years after the invention of the steamboat. The plans for the ship were recommended by Congress to the Navy, but the Navy wasn’t interested. Much of Tom’s money went into promoting this ship but to no avail.

Tom didn’t rest on this one invention, however. In 1832, he also developed and patented a design for a blast furnace for use with the anthracite coal available in western Pennsylvania. He built a foundry to implement it and devoted himself to producing iron. One family story says that while Tom was away on business in Delaware, his foreman at the factory fled to England with all the designs and paperwork for the furnace, which he then used to make himself and others rich without recognition of Tom’s design. The story may or may not be true, but it is known that Tom’s financial position declined significantly in the fifth decade of the Nineteenth Century.

Up to this point Tom’s story is much like that of many entrepreneurs–boom and bust followed by another boom and yet another bust. But for Tom, it seems, this reversal of fortunes became the source of deep introspection. He thought deep and hard about his Quaker roots as he roamed the rocky hills of Fayette County in solitude, searching for answers to explain what had happened to him. Eventually he came to understand his need for “the salvation of God. He was converted on the 23d of March 1845, upon the summit of a high mountain, near his residence. The spot he afterwards called the ‘rock of faith’” (From the writings of Tom’s son, John C. Gregg).

In commemoration of that event, Tom, clearly not an uneducated man, wrote the following poem, which was preserved by his granddaughter and shared on by Mark Welchley:

“Burdened with sin with guilt-distressed.
I searched in vain for full release.
But still the weight was on my breasts
I found no joy or lasting peace.

I wandered to one quiet spot
And mused with sadness day by day.
The mercy of my God I sought
And lingered there to weep and pray.

One evening and the sun went down,
The moon and stars came out above.
And wresting there with doubt and gloom
I longed to know a Savior’s love.

A trembling seized upon my frame
In agony I prayed that night
When to my troubled spirit came,
The answer as a flash of light.

With heavenly joy my heart overflowed
My tongue unloosed, began to praise
The goodness of a pardoning God
To Him: this monument-Praise”

Now journeying on in blessed hope
With all my powers to Jesus given
I trust his grace to raise me up;
Redeemed and saved-at last-in Heaven”

Reading this poem, my own heart was touched. I wonder if the Spirit of humility and surrender that Tom Gregg came to know can still change hearts today as He did for this beaten, discouraged man in 1845. I have to believe He can.

A year later Tom joined an Episcopalian church. Two of his sons became ministers, and the story of his genuine conversion is what is remembered by his family more than the “what might have been” of his inventive genius.

Alexa: Not Quite Ready for Prime Time?

pexels-photo-266176.jpegI confess, I was nervous when my daughter and son-in-law gave us the Amazon Echo Dot for Christmas last year. I was fresh from reading about IOT (Internet of Things), the capability of innocent-seeming objects embedded with Internet capabilities, including toys, to respond and react to/with their owners, as well as reporting these interactions to some database on an unknown server (somewhere in Uzbekistan?) for analysis and use in marketing or who-knows-what. Consequently, I was reluctant to set it up. I wasn’t excited about having a device in my home that literally listened to everything that went on in it and could report it to anyone else who wanted to listen.

But my other two tech-savvy daughters were so excited about theirs and all the wonderful things it helped them do, that I finally gave in. I deleted my phone app where I kept my grocery list by manually entering the items I needed, and allowed Alexa to take over the job. I could call her by name and ask her to add something to my list. She would politely inform me that she had added orange juice to my shopping list, and sure enough, almost immediately orange juice showed up on the new Alexa app on my phone. Cool! Okay, that’s not so bad, although I realize that if the Echo Dot is syncing to my phone, my grocery list is probably on some unknown server somewhere waiting on some algorithm to analyze my planned purchases and email me coupons.

I tried out a few other affordances of Alexa. I asked her to play some Elvis Presley and some Beethoven. Her choices weren’t always mine, but I could always say “Alexa, stop!” and she obeyed with alacrity. I refused to use her to buy anything, which would entail revealing private credit information, but occasionally she would waken on her own and let me know about wonderful bargains I might be missing out on. I just ignored her.

Then I discovered her timer capabilities. That was a real plus! Setting a timer while I was cooking involved putting down whatever was in my hands, wiping or washing

them, and punching the buttons on the timer on the stove; handy it was not. But with Alexa, I could use my voice. “Alexa,” I would say to get her attention, “Timer, thirty seconds.” Thirty seconds later she played a cute little tune to let me know thirty seconds was up. “Alexa, stop,” I tell her, and she complies. Loving this timer option!

Recently, my older daughter and I were having a discussion on speech recognition (SR) software. As a teacher of special ed students, she had been experimenting with using it to support her students in their writing. Although their writing seemed to be improving, she was wondering if somehow using SR was cheating them from learning to spell on their own. I shared with her an article I had just read where these issues were discussed both positively and negatively. The authors came down in favor of SR, with caveats, suggesting that as long as the students re-read and recopied their writing, they were getting much needed practice in spelling and decoding words.


Reading the article helped me make the connection between SR and Alexa. The Echo Dot and other similar devices are built on this technology. The improvement in SR

technology over the last decade has been phenomenal, but let me tell you, it isn’t perfect! Example en pointe.

For supper this evening, I was looking for something quick and easy. I decided to heat up some frozen quesadillas. It wouldn’t take much time to do, according to the directions, but it was a little involved. First, I had to put one frozen quesadilla on a plate and thaw it for one minute and fifteen seconds in the microwave. Then I was to transfer the quesadilla to a hot frying pan, heat for two minutes and thirty seconds, turn it over and heat for another two minutes and thirty seconds. Seemed pretty straight forward, but I had four to heat, so I thought I could heat one in the microwave,

transfer it to the skillet and cook the first one while I put another one in the microwave. I could use Alexa to time the skillet cooking. It should work like a charm, right?

The first round went well. I actually forgot to preheat the skillet, so I had two thawed out in the microwave by the time I was ready to have Alexa start timing. “Alexa,” I said, “Timer, two—“ Before I could complete my instructions, Alexa said, “Timer. For how long?”

“Two minutes, thirty seconds,” I answered. “Timer, two minutes and thirty seconds starting now,” Alexa said. Two minutes and thirty seconds later, just like clockwor

k, Alexa played her little tune.

“Alexa, stop,” I told her. She did. I turned the quesadillas and then said, “Alexa, timer, two–”

Again she interrupted me. “Timer. For how long?” If you’d just listen until I finish talking, I was thinking.

“Two minutes and thirty seconds,” I said.

“Timer, ten minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”

“Alexa, stop!” I cried and tried to start over. “Alexa, timer, two—”



Yes, she interrupted me again. “Timer. For how long?”

“Two minutes and thirty seconds.”

“Second timer, two minutes and thirty seconds, starting now.”

I give up. Maybe I should just go back to using a watch or an egg timer until Alexa can tell the difference between two and ten. That will certainly be safer…

Late-night Musings of a Sometime Edu-activist Insomniac

A few nights ago I had one of those nights I often have; I couldn’t sleep. Here’s a little of how it went:

chocolate-41500_640I need to be asleep. Eyes shut. Deep breathing. Mind a blank. Nope, not happening.

The reason I can’t sleep is probably because I was sick for two days and slept most of them. No help here.

Personal observation: Hot milk does not help you sleep–even with chocolate syrup in it.

Getting up and reading Smagorinsky’s column on the definition of literacy sure doesn’t help, but tweeting it and reposting it on FB made me feel better.

Back to bed. Toss. Turn. Think. And think. And think. And think some more.

I NEED to sleep so I can get up and DO “STUFF” tomorrow. Like catching up on my bookkeeping. Going to Walmart. Revising my children’s novel. Planning next semester’s classes.

My head is spinning with chains of thought like a top. 

Tops. I remember they told us back in school that tops and other spinning objects revolve around an imaginary axis. You have to imagine an “imaginary rod,” the teacher said, going through the center of the spinning object that the rest of it spins around. But I’ve always wondered, where down deep inside the object does it not spin? There has to be a place like that, some “thing” to serve as the axis. But what if it’s not a “thing”? What if it’s a lack of a “thing,” like a tiny rod of nothing, maybe a vacuum tube one molecule in diameter that runs the entire length of the spinning object? It makes sense that if everything inside the object is spinning out and away as the object spins (centrifugal force), there would be nothing left in the center, in other words, a vacuum. Vacuums in nature have to be filled (It’s a rule!), so at the same time that there is a force slinging the molecules of the object out, there is an equal force pulling them back in. That makes gravity not a force at all but a balance, an equilibrium! Wow! That seems profound. May not be scientifically accurate, but I am now satisfied I have the answer to my lifelong “wonder” and I can put that one to bed. Maybe I can sleep now.


And I actually did, and got up the next morning and tried to write down the thoughts I’d had—or at least some of them—during the night. I even did some quick Internet research to see if my gravity theory had been thought of before. My search came up with lots of sites that call gravity a force and at least one that confessed after all the years since Newton and even with Einstein’s insight, we still don’t know what gravity is. So maybe there’s room for my theory; who knows?

But that’s not the point of this blog post. The point is the kind of thinking I was doing about the concept of gravity. A geophysicist can probably poke all kinds of holes in my little theory, but that’s not the point either. The point is that I began with a question that nobody told me I could’t ask—or didn’t need to ask—and let my mind make connections it had never made before. My thinking was not being restricted by what I’d been told or what others believe and was successful in coming up with a potential solution to the question that was totally new, at least to me. This is exactly the kind of thinking that students should be doing in school on a regular basis, but they rarely are.

Yes, I know there are examples of classrooms where this kind of questioning and thinking is not only permitted but encouraged, but the fact is, these classrooms are very much the exceptions. Most students spend their school day hamstrung by standards and high-stakes assessments. This statement is no surprise to anyone who is aware of the overwhelming demands of well-intentioned policymakers over the last twenty years or more, who sincerely believe American students won’t learn unless we “make” them (in other words, threaten them with consequences of poor test scores) and American teachers can’t or won’t teach what is important for students to know; and by the way, are teachers even needed if we have banks of computers loaded with “personalized learning” software and Internet connections?

The result of these demands has been a reaction among administrators at state and local levels to tighten controls on teachers as to what they can teach, when, and even how. Everything teachers do must be tied to the “Standards,” and all the “Standards” for a given grade level must be covered before the end of the year, no matter what, so that the students will perform well on all parts of the TEST at the (almost) end of the year. The desperate push to “cover the Standards” leaves no time for real thinking. Even when a standard seems to require thinking, the pace of the curriculum and the inauthentic contrived exercises used to “teach” the concept leave no time for questions to be asked, authentic connections to be made, investigations to be carried out, collaborations in or out of school to be developed, etc. These are the kinds of things that support and promote real thinking and learning beyond regurgitated concepts that don’t stick because they are never really learned. Covering the Standards means going very wide but not very deep.

Learning experts tell us that learning happens only when the learner is allowed to make mental and even emotional connections with what is to be learned. In order to make those connections, students must go deep. That takes time. In school, there is no time to go deep, no time for connections, no time for questions. “No,” says the teacher, often reluctantly, “we don’t have time to talk more about this. Tomorrow we have to move on to Standard X.”

A former state superintendent of education who had bought into the national standards boondoggle once screamed, “I’ll be damned if I let another generation of students be lost!” (Slightly paraphrased.) Too late. We already have.

There have been many calls from several components of American society to back away from high-stakes testing. I have added my voice to those calls. Sadly, Congress and the federal Department of Education, and consequently our state education departments, have turned a deaf ear. The 2015 ESSA retained the requirement for annual testing of students, which actually becomes almost constant testing as school districts attempt to anticipate and proactively remediate any knowledge “holes” that might otherwise show up in end-of-year tests for fear of what the ramifications of those “holes” might mean. Now I think it’s time to go further. I think it’s time to scale back standards to what they should be—aspirational goals, not requirements. Goals are laudable and can be motivational; unachievable requirements are punitive and counterproductive.

Standards are what we use for quality control in a factory. Henry Ford standardizedautomobiles-502135_1280 automobile parts and that was a good thing for building and repairing automobiles efficiently. Do we not realize that educating children should not have efficiency as its main focus? Of course, efficiency has a place, but the focus should be on graduating students who can function successfully not only in the workforce but as citizens in our representational form of government.

One standardized part looks exactly like every other standardized part of the same type. Is that what we want—children who know all the same things and no more? It reminds me of an old song from the 60s; “And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.”

To create a standardized part, we need exactly the same ingredients and we must put them together in exactly the same way using exactly the same machines. Well, that’s where the analogy breaks down completely; the diversity among students and teachers in American schools absolutely defies standardization! Yet we keep trying.

Let’s. Just. Stop. Let’s open our schools up to allow students to think and question again. Maybe one of them might eventually figure out what gravity really is. I’ll be glad to give up my own theory when she does.

National Grange Calls on Congress to Reduce High-Stakes Standardized Testing

This is a powerful statement from an often neglected segment of our country. I couldn’t agree more.

Diane Ravitch's blog

The National Grange, which represents rural communities across America, released this resolution. The Grange moves deliberately and thoughtfully before it takes a position. Its resolutions are initiated locally, then reviewed at the state and national levels before adoption.

The resolution says:

WHEREAS, our nation’s future well-being relies on a high-quality public education system that prepares all students for college, careers, citizenship and lifelong learning, and strengthens the nation’s social and economic well-being; and

WHEREAS, our nation’s school systems have been spending growing amounts of time, money and energy on high-stakes standardized testing, in which student performance on standardized tests is used to make major decisions affecting individual students, educators and schools; and

WHEREAS, the over-reliance on high-stakes standardized testing in state and federal accountability systems is undermining educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators’ efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote…

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The Worst Thanksgiving Ever–Maybe

This year my husband and I decided to just stay home and have a quiet Thanksgiving. We’d both been traveling a lot lately, together and separately, and we were tired of going. We have four children, but all of them were busy with other family or important activities and, although we invited them, they decided they were too busy to come. A part of me was relieved about that, but I knew I would still miss them.

On Thanksgiving Eve, I suggested to my husband, rather than cook a big dinner for just the two of us, that we go out for Thanksgiving Dinner. Now that’s a bigger challenge than you might think, because we live in a very small town with few restaurants, much less ones that might be open on Thanksgiving Day. We might have to drive to Paris or Texarkana, I told him, but he was agreeable to that.

Thanksgiving Day started by my sleeping late. When I did finally get up, my husband and I carried out our normal routine. About noon, since the day had warmed up, he decided he would go outside to blow leaves. Now, he had been at this project for several days before without finishing it. I was skeptical and reminded him that he needed to stop before 5 if we wanted to go to eat. He acknowledged that and went out to manage the leaf blower for hours. I stayed inside entertaining myself with reading, boring TV, and a genealogy program. I began to think how, if we had at least gone to our son’s home yesterday (Yes, we’d been invited.), I’d at least have enjoyed being with family. Finally, after dark, he came in and said, “I’m ready to go when you are.”

I gave him a pained look, knowing that the likelihood of finding anything open was slim and it was too late to drive to Paris or Texarkana. “Let’s go,” I said flatly.

We drove to the Red B. It was closed. He suggested The Oaks. “If the Red B is closed, The Oaks will be, too,” I said.

“Let’s see if Papa Poblano’s is open.” Right, I thought, Mexican food for Thanksgiving. Just what I want!

“Okay,” I said, noting as we passed that even Braum’s was closed. Papa’s wasn’t open and neither was Cielito Lindo’s. We seemed to be out of options except for McDonald’s, and neither of us were up for that.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to go home and eat out of the refrigerator,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, thinking what a boring, disappointing day this Thanksgiving had turned out to be.

He turned the car toward home. We passed Dairy Queen and he noted that the lights were on. “We could go to Dairy Queen,” he offered. Thinking a hot fresh hamburger would be a step up from heating up leftovers out of the refrigerator, I acquiesced.

As we walked in, the young man at the counter greeted us and asked us to wait just a moment. We waited patiently–about ten moments. It soon became clear that the young attendant was the only person working behind the counter. He was taking orders, cooking the orders, and delivering the orders all by himself! The place, while not packed, was full, and people were going through the drive-through as well.

The young man worked patiently and methodically to meet the needs of all his customers. He never lost his cool. He simply did the next thing in front of him and maintained his customer-friendly attitude. And the customers responded in kind. They seemed to recognize his dilemma and waited patiently, as we had, until he could get to them.

My husband and I sat down to wait for our order. Of course, it took longer than it normally would have and yes, my bun was dark and crunchy on the inside from being browned a little too long. As we sat there eating those hamburgers, my husband said, “You know this is probably the worst Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had, even worse than the ones in Viet Nam. But it sure does make me appreciate the other ones I’ve had.”

Hmmm, I thought, reviewing in my mind how impatient and judgmental I had been all day, maybe he’s right. Maybe we need a not-so-great Thanksgiving to keep our perspective on what’s important. And I said a little prayer for that Dairy Queen attendant. I sure hope he had Friday off!

Common Core in Oklahoma: 7 Years Later

I was asked recently by a friend to reflect on where I think Oklahoma is in the aftermath of the Common Core debacle. I told her that would take some thought and thinking often happens best through writing, so this is my attempt to clarify my thinking on this topic. It may be a bit rambling, so hang on…

When the Common Core “State” Standards were adopted by the governor of Oklahoma, I had only been teaching at the university level for two and a half years. The first year of that time, I was still working on my dissertation, so it was head down and plow through; I paid little attention to what was going on at either the local or state level in Oklahoma K12 education. Once the Big D was done, I could begin to focus outside my little bubble, but initially my thrust was on building connections with local schools. 

Along about late 2010, our faculty was informed that PASS (the set of Oklahoma standards that were in place when I came) were “going away” and we would begin using Common Core Standards. I had never heard of these standards and thought it curious that I was completely unaware of any statewide effort to draft new standards. It seemed logical to me that if new standards were needed, there would have been committees formed to determine the framework and details of the standards, but when I asked about it, the response was usually a shake of the head or a shrug of the shoulder.

Nevertheless, as a good little soldier, in the fall of 2011 when I taught my emergent and primary literacy classes, I began to have my teacher candidates attempt to apply the new CC standards to the lesson plans they were required to write for 1st-3rd grade students. We began to discover that the standards components for these age groups and grade levels simply did not match the developmental concepts they were learning about in their textbooks. I became quite frustrated and began looking outside my institution, which seemed to have no answers, for an explanation. To be honest, I cannot remember whose article or whose blog I stumbled across that began to enlighten me as to the real source for these standards. I do clearly remember a video I watched of a woman whose name I do not remember but who had made a large floormap of the intricate relationships between and among the wealthy individuals, for-profit organizations, and political units who had collaborated to create the standards and pass them off as “state-initiated.”

 Call me naive, but I was shocked. But that was only the beginning. Later we learned that not only would there be new standards, but there would be new–and more–high-stakes standardized tests for our K-12 students to take and new more “rigorous” teacher evaluations that would be tied to the students’ results on those tests. And all of this would, of course, cost more money.

 Then came May 20, 2013, when an EF5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma, killing 24, many of them children in a school that did not have a storm shelter. When I read that the board of the Moore schools had considered putting in a storm shelter in the new Plaza Towers School but had elected not to because of other costs including the rising costs of more testing for students, I think I lost it. I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper asking why all schools in Tornado Alley were allowed to operate without adequate protection for students but money could be found for meaningless tests. I expected some blowback from the letter, but there was no response at all. Two months later I was in Walmart (In a small town like Idabel, you run into someone you know every time you go to Walmart!) and I met a lady I recognized from one of the local schools. I was just going to smile and say hello, but she stopped me. “I want to thank you,” she said, “for that letter you wrote.” 

 “Really?” I responded. “I didn’t think anyone even read it!”

 “Oh, no,” she said. “We’re all talking about it!”

 A couple of weeks later I received a call from a local teacher. She had been doing some research on the CC herself and had made contact with a group in the Oklahoma City area called ROPE, which then stood for Restore Oklahoma Public Education. ROPE was interested in coming to do a presentation on the true origins of the CC but wanted someone local to also present to provide credibility. I agreed to do it, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was involved in multiple presentations, mostly in Southeast Oklahoma, but one in Texas, was interviewed on the radio and by the newspaper, testified before a legislative Interim Study, wrote numerous blogs and Facebook posts, and spent a day at the State Capitol lobbying against the CC. I was so involved in it, that my campus coordinator was worried I might incur the wrath of the governor. He reminded me I didn’t have tenure yet. But even with all of my involvement, many sacrificed much more in the cause. The day when the legislature repealed the CC and set in place a requirement for “new and better” standards felt like a victory.

 Sadly, the victory seems hollow. The outgoing state superintendent made what appeared to be a good-faith effort to start the process of developing standards by inviting people across the state to apply. I applied to be a member of the committee. Her defeat at the polls that fall meant that the process was restarted by her successor and the process seemed much less transparent and more rushed. The result of the process–the new Oklahoma Academic Standards–aren’t awful, but they certainly aren’t great. I reviewed a preliminary portion of the first draft and suggested that there needed to be a standard for structured and unstructured play in the PK and K standards. That didn’t make it into the final draft. Interestingly I’m seeing more and more articles reporting studies that find play an absolute necessity for these children. One thought-provoking article following the Las Vegas tragedy has suggested that a common thread of male mass-shooters is play deprivation as a young child.

 Shortly after the legislature repealed CC, the superintendents of the two largest districts in the state announced that they would not give up Common Core. As far as I know they are still operating under those standards, which is incredibly sad, if not tragic, for the young people forced to “learn” under the pressure of standards that are too “rigorous” for their developmental level. One rationale for that decision was that the districts had invested too much in materials aligned with CC and they couldn’t afford to ditch them. And yet, there are studies that show that most of the publishing houses, rather than actually realigning their materials to the Common Core, simply slapped a “Common Core Aligned” sticker on their old stuff and kept selling it.

 I live in a very remote, isolated part of the state which is therefore quite rural. My impression is that the CC have not impacted the rural areas as much as the urban areas, but I have no data to support that, and I have only rare opportunities to visit other parts of the state or talk to educators in other sections. And around here, the subject of Common Core just doesn’t come up any more–except when I talk about in my classes, and I do talk about it.

 Although the laws adopted to establish CC in most states included an MOU that states that the CC is copyrighted by the CCSSO and cannot be changed, I get the impression that states do not feel threatened by this toothless assertion. I think they will make changes as they deem necessary. However, I am not aware of any specific state that has attempted to “amend” the standards to align them better with developmental continuums.  

 Close reading has become a touchstone issue for literacy educators. The insistence on close reading without the use of background knowledge, which the CC appear to require, has led to situations in which students are being asked to carry out an action that flies in the face of years of research on comprehension. In addition, the tendency to prepare students for tests by having them read mostly short passages and then answer multiple-choice questions discourages the development of silent reading stamina. In short, the Common Core Standards are a huge experiment taken to scale without evidence to support it and are leading to the shortchanging of the education of our students.

 Through all of this, my position on standards in general has changed. Whereas I used to feel that standards were a useful tool, the fact that they have been co-opted in the service high-stakes standardized tests makes their usefulness highly questionable. Standards, in the end, lead to standardization, which is fine for widgets, but not for children.

 It is amazing to me that we could have become the most advanced nation on the earth in most areas without educational standards, but we have swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the notion that we can’t stay in that position without them. Maybe we aren’t as smart as we thought we were.

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