Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

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.

My Diamond Jubilee

Well, it’s here: my 75th birthday. It’s been a long time coming—75 years to be exact. I would like to say I’ve enjoyed every one of them, but that would not be the truth. The truth is, I’ve enjoyed most of them and the ones that weren’t quite like-able were certainly educational and worthwhile.     

     The fact is, few people expected me to live this long. When I was born, the expectation for children with my disability was about 20 years. I certainly spent a lot of my first few years being sick, but, probably in part because I had a mother who would not let me feel sorry for myself or wallow in self pity (hat tip back to you, too, Grandma!), I kept a good attitude. In fact, it took the stares of other children to make me aware that I might be “different.” I didn’t feel “different” so I just got over the pneumonia or asthma or whatever, and got back to work being a kid. 

     There were a few people in my life who tried to discourage me, When I told the lady who did our hair occasionally, at about age 8 or 9, that I wanted to be a dancer when I grew up, I overheard her telling my mother that she should really discourage me from that dream. To my mother’s credit, she never did that.

     I think the driving force in my life may have been my father’s attitude, though. His philosophy about life was, “if you can do a lot of something, I can do a little of it.” He tackled projects most never would. He built his own buildings and campers (He loved traveling and camping.) and tools of all sorts. We still have an air compressor he built out of odd parts—it still works, too! The things he built rarely looked finished, but always functioned as they were expected to. It was this “can-do” attitude that, in part, drove me to compete and to stretch myself.

   I learned early on that one area I could not compete in was neighborhood sports. I was too small and too weak for anyone to want me on their team. So I turned to areas that seemed to be my strength to get the recognition all children crave—I wrote. I started my first novel at age 9 (no, I never finished it). I put together multiple copies of a neighborhood newsletter by copying articles from the real one and drawing “photos” to adorn the pages. Plagiarism, smagiarism—I had no clue about that. I wrote my first “editorial” at about age 12 or 13, at the height of the “sit-in” movement. It was not an assignment; it was something I wrote because I felt so strongly about it. Growing up in a highly segregated society, I couldn’t understand why black people were not allowed to eat at a lunch counter. My dad, who told racial jokes with the rest of his cronies in the oil field, read it and seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at what I had written. That was the beginning of a series of intense arguments we had throughout my high school years over various aspects of politics. My interest in both writing and politics continues to this day.

     So, after 75 years of living, what’s the take-away? Here’s where I bestow you with my accumulated wisdom. If you don’t need or want it, you can stop reading now.

  1.   What they told me about how the older you get, the faster time passes? It’s true! When I was a freshman in high school, my teacher assigned an essay on what we wished for. I don’t remember all I wrote, but I started it out by saying, “I wish I was already 21.” Her comment on that line was, “Don’t ever wish any part of your life away!” Although I didn’t accept that in the way it was meant at the time, I have come to realize the wisdom of it. Each moment is precious, even the uncomfortable and/or painful ones.

     2.  There’s a saying: what goes around, comes around. The Bible says, “you reap what you sow.” Both are saying the same thing. If I sow selfishness and bitterness into my life, I will reap selfishness and bitterness from others. We are all human, under the “curse” of original sin. My view of original sin is that it represents our innate nature for self protection. When others hurt me, I try to understand their actions in terms of how they see their need for self protection, more than as an attempt to specifically do me harm. This view makes forgiveness easier. I know that over the past 75 years, I’ve hurt others. Periodically those incidents come to mind, and I wish the people I hurt were still here so I could tell them I’m sorry. Often they are not, so my “penance” is to forgive others, in a kind of “pay-it-forward-and-backwards-at-the-same-time approach. But it’s really a “penance” that benefits me more than those I forgive. Lack of forgiveness is too heavy a load to carry for 75 years!

   3.  Never retire! Okay, let me rephrase that: only retire if it’s from something you’re tired of doing to do something you really want to do.The idea of retiring so you can take your retirement pension and go home and sit in front of the TV is an anathema to me! If you can no longer do the job you earned your retirement doing or the job has become something you don’t like anymore, then “retire” from that job. But don’t retire from life! In 1996, I was finally able to take on the job I knew I had wanted to do since fifth grade—teach. I taught for ten years in Texas; I loved it and I learned so much! In 2007, my husband’s job change forced me to take an “early retirement” from Texas. Long story short, six months later, I started a new career as a teacher educator at a regional university. This is, I believe, what I was meant to do all along, and I didn’t even get to start it until I was 65! Like I say, only retire if you’re going to something better.

   4.  Be a lifelong learner. This is a phrase I picked up in grad school, but the fact is, I was living by it long before I heard the phrase. When I was a kid, my parents bought a set of the World Book of Knowledge from a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. That was absolutely one of the best investments they ever made, at least for me. When I had nothing else to do, I would pour over these books, studying the photos and graphs when I couldn’t understand the text. My experience is a testament to the research that shows that the availability of books in the home is critical to create young readers. The fact is, reading those encyclopedias, I discovered that the world is unbelievably interesting and fascinating! There is always something new to learn about, and every piece of information we take in helps form our world perspective. It is essential that our world perspective be at least as broad and deep as the world itself.

     In 75 years, I have been a lot of places, done a lot of things, and made a lot of wonderful friends. I have a family I am inordinately proud of. I have tried to raise my children and grandchildren to be their own persons and I think they have/are. Most of all I’ve tried to let them know that there is always forgiveness and always hope. And that’s the message I will leave with you, dear reader.

Prescription for Discouragement in the Battle for Public Education

     After the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration, I admit to a strong temptation to just give up the struggle for public education. In the name of public education, I have written blogs, spoken to multiple groups in two states, contacted state legislators and U.S. Congressmen, given testimony before a committee of the state legislature, and posted almost daily on Facebook and/or Twitter for several years. Apparently my voice, and those of thousands of others, could not be heard. I continued sharing an occasional post on Facebook, monitoring the situation, and commiserating with nearby folks who shared my concerns. But I was truly discouraged.

     This past weekend I attended the state conference of an apolitical patriotic organization to which I belong. As I was checking in at the hotel desk, a friend saw me and made a beeline, calling my name. “I have learned so much from your posts on Facebook,” she cried. “I had no idea!” We visited for a moment about the threats to public education before I checked in at the Registrar’s table for the Conference. But that was just the beginning. That night at dinner, without my bringing it up, people around me were sharing their concerns for education and teachers. Of course, I chimed in and added my two cents, and people wanted to hear what I had to say. At almost every event where conference attendees were engaged in conversations of which I was a part, the issue of the pitiful state of education brought about by over-utilized standardized testing and lack of adequate funding came up. I didn’t start it–others did. I came away from the Conference thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, the message is beginning to get through.

     So, I will not give up. I will probably pace myself a little better, and I will certainly pick my battles. I still sincerely believe that public education is a foundational pillar of a constitutional democratic republic, not simply a one-way ticket into the labor force or a stepping stone toward a career. I will fight for it until my keyboard is silenced.  

Words I Long to Hear: “You’re Fired!”

Recently Peter Greene, who writes the pithy Curmudgication blog, has posted two pieces—one here more or less explaining why “Progressives” oppose Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and one here with the down-low on the “Conservative” rationale for opposing her. None of his points will you find anywhere on the mainstream news outlets; believe me, I’ve looked for them there.

Greene does an excellent job of summing up the arguments against DeVos from both camps, but one thing he doesn’t address directly is how the candidate who promised to “get rid of Common Core” has appointed one its biggest supporters to the catbird seat. (Yes, I know she has eschewed her earlier intense support for the Core, but I attribute that to the pragmatics of jumping off a sinking ship. She still hasn’t given up on “high standards” and “accountability.”) So what led Trump to this seeming contradiction?

I’m certainly not privy to all the machinations and conversations that have taken place among those who are putting together the Trump team, but if we look at Trump himself and how he operates, a likely explanation emerges: DeVos is the quid-quo-pro to buy the support of the reluctant Republican “elite,” the money men who have been scared to death that Trump will mess up their charter school, hedge fund playpen. Trump needs the support of these players, whether he is willing to admit it publicly or not. I have no clue whose idea it actually was to suggest that DeVos might be the key, but it was a brilliant stroke in keeping with Trump’s own tactics in deal-making.

When it comes to education, Trump is simply ignorant. He is a businessman who thinks like a businessman. Like most Americans, he feels he is an expert on education because he went to school. He put in his twelve years as “an apprentice” so he “knows” education. But education—especially public education—is a highly complex, nuanced entity, peopled by humans—students, teachers, and administrators—who do not respond like widgets on an assembly line. Education must address issues such as who is taught, what they are to be taught, who gets to teach them, what assurances do we need/have that students are learning, and how it can be done on the cheap—because the American public doesn’t like to give money to schools.

To all of this, Trump is issue-blind but consummately confident in his ignorance. Thus, I’m sure that when the emissary for those hedge-fund-happy Republican donors suggested someone (DeVos) who had an exemplary reputation in “making schools great again” (through charter schools) and who doesn’t like Common Core (now), Trump felt quite comfortable that he was making a great deal, if by appointing her to the Department of Education, he gained the loyalty of the Republican Old Guard. “I give a little, you give a lot, and we both walk away happy, right?” One wonders who gave more. And public education is once again the sacrificial lamb on the altar of politics-as-usual.

So what do those of us who are opposed to DeVos from either progressive or conservative perspectives do? Do we sit back and wait for this too to pass? I say, no; we did that when the accountability movement started, knowing where it would lead. We as educators protested and groused a little, but for the most part we bit the bullet and tried to do our jobs. The result has been that when accountability didn’t work, the reformers failed to see the error of their ways; they just double-down on accountability and shift it off to the states through ESSA. We cannot afford to continue on the “Do Nothing” path if we want to salvage public education—and I am of the opinion that the future of our democratic republic really does hinge on its survival.

So here’s what we do: we turn DeVos into a huge liability, one that Trump can no longer afford to hang onto. The thing that is more valuable to Trump than the moneyed Republicans whose support he bought with her nomination is the opinions of those who voted him into office. As Peter Greene states, we need to be calling and writing our senators, especially those of the Republican variety to let them know why we think making DeVos the Secretary of Education is a betrayal of Trump’s campaign promises. We must convince enough senators to publicly announce their lack of confidence in DeVos, to the point that Trump understands he is losing the support of those who put him in office. Trump is a pragmatist; if we mount such a campaign and the senators respond as we hope, my guess is Trump’s rejoinder will be, “Betsy, you’re fired!” and rescind her nomination.

We are the only ones who can make that happen. Call, email, write your senators, and then call, email, and write some more—and we must do it quickly as the confirmation hearings will begin very soon. The Network for Public Education offers a “Stop Betsy DeVos Toolkit” with lots of suggestions. A grassroots campaign of social media, letters, calls, and emails to legislators worked in Oklahoma to lay the groundwork to get rid of the Core. Let’s take this spirit of grassroots resistance national!

Elections: Lessons from a Great Great Grandmother

Most of my friends know I’m a genealogy “nut.” I can’t think of anything that’s much more fun than tracking down an elusive ancestor or finding a confirming document or digging up some long-hidden family “dirt.” As a case in point, when I asked my father-in-law some questions about his grandparents and great grandparents, he quickly lost patience with me. “What do you want to know about them for?” he demanded testily. “They were just a bunch of horse thieves and cattle rustlers!” Oh, my, if you think that didn’t get me started! It took a lot of digging, but thirty years later I turned it into a 500 page historical novel!

But every now and then, you run across a little gem, a little story that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I found one of those today. I’ve known for a long time that I descend from a line of smart, opinionated, outspoken, stubborn women, who were almost always right, by the way. I just didn’t know how far back it went. Meet my great great grandmother. fe801721-5b46-4700-9258-2f33bfaabcecHer name is Julia Anna Pfaff. She was born near Barbourville, Kentucky, in 1839, to a family of German stock that had settled north-central North Carolina as missionaries. In 1857 she married William Wyatt Gibson, youngest son of a Valentine Gibson, whose ancestors of that surname first set foot on this continent in the 1600s at Jamestown. Shortly after their marriage, William moved his little family to northwestern Missouri where he farmed and she raised their eight children. To be honest, I hadn’t known much about Julia or her personal character until today, but what I learned, I recognized because I have seen it in my mother and my grandmother.

The “gem” is actually a news article that was published in 1995 in the DeKalb County [MO] Record Herald. Apparently the community was preparing to celebrate its Sesquicentennial and had set up a committee to plan the occasion. The article first announces an upcoming meeting and then explains that the author of the article had been asked if the Historical Society had information on the first woman voter in the county. In response, the author provided the following entry which she found in the DeKalb County Herald dated November 4, 1920. Here is the article as it must have appeared.


Mrs. Julia A. Gibson walked down Main Street Tuesday about 1:00 p.m. She had a firm step. In fact there did not seem to no[sic] any feebleness at all about the way she walked. And when she got to the middle of the south side of the square, she turned north and went up to the circuit court room to the place where the election was being held. And as she moved up the street there was not anything feeble, either, about her voice, as she let it be known that she was a Democrat and on her way to vote the Democratic ticket.

As the author of the 1995 article points out, Mrs. Gibson was probably not the first woman to vote that day in DeKalb County, since the episode is reported as occurring in the afternoon. And in the 1920 election between Harding and Cox, Mrs. Gibson’s candidate lost. But the author goes on to quote another article that appeared in the same issue of the Herald, which opined that “The women vote has about doubled the work of handling an election” and called for more polling places in the county to avoid the long lines for voting and having clerks counting into the wee hours. Well, yes! I wonder if the male election officials really hadn’t considered that women might actually avail themselves of their newly won right to vote. Go figure!

I think the reason this little episode speaks so strongly to me is because it brings home the fact that the right to vote, especially for those of the female persuasion, was won after a hard-fought and often bloody campaign that too many of us have either forgotten about or never learned about. My great great grandmother understood what a privilege was now offered her, even at the ripe old age of 81 and she did not hesitate to avail herself of it with all the aplomb she could muster. I don’t think she regretted voting even though her candidate lost.

I am also reminded that for men too the right to vote was won and has been maintained with “the lives and fortunes” of those who were willing to stand up for what they believed in, the right of all men to decide their own fate. The reality of the death and destruction suffered by the former colonists in the Revolutionary War has been muted in our own time, but it was nonetheless real. Thousands died over the six years of that war and many lost all they had.

I have talked to a number of people recently who are suggesting that they are going to just “sit this one out.” Looking forward to the election this November, they don’t like either candidate and so they think they just won’t vote. To be honest, I’m disappointed in the selection of candidates myself, but I have determined that I WILL vote. I refuse to give up what my Revolutionary patriots fought for, what my great great grandmother did with such obvious pride. I will vote, because to stay home is to deny what our patriots stood for and fought for. I will vote, because I want to live up to the example Julia Ann Pfaff Gibson lived out for me.

The Quilt

My grandmother had six sisters. They all loved to do handwork–embroidery, crocheting, quilting–and although they would never have admitted it, they were always engaged in an unspoken competition to see who could do the most interesting stitch or who could come up with the prettiest design. I still have many examples of the work they did, but I have to say that I believe my grandmother was the champion quilter. Not only did she piece the quilts (sew the quilt tops together), she did the actual quilting (the sewing together of the quilt back to the quilt top with a batting in between). This required a quilt frame which stretched the quilt tight so that the quilter could make the tiniest stitches in a delightful pattern through all thicknesses. Nobody could accomplish this better than my grandmother. Her work was well known in her community and people would bring her their finished quilt tops for her to quilt.

When I was about nine, I decided I wanted to make a quilt. I picked a pattern that was much too hard for a beginner. It had many tiny pieces to each section and I had not yet gained my grandmother’s dexterity with a needle. Although I kept at it long enough to finish nine blocks, eventually I laid it aside, packing it away for decades until I recently retrieved it and gave to my daughter who said she wanted to finish it. We’ll see…
I started thinking about quilts today as a metaphor of our American society. Throughout my graduate school experience, we read much about the heterogenous character of our nation, how in the past it was referred to as a melting pot, but perhaps in our time the salad bowl metaphor may be more appropriate. Of course, I understand why these metaphors are suggested, but to me they fall short. I think perhaps the quilt metaphor is better.

Originally, the idea of quilt making stems from need. Back in the times when cloth was woven by hand or purchased at a high price, every scrap was valuable. When a garment was worn past wearing or if there were scraps left over from sewing a new garment, the pieces were salvaged and hoarded until enough were garnered to sew the pieces together to make a large covering. Initially, function was most important, so what the quilt looked like was not a major concern. Humans being what they are, however, some began choosing the pieces and colors to make designs. Some quilts were just aesthetically pleasing, but the map quilts which provided guides to escaping slaves are well known, yet another way to combine artistry and function.

So why is a quilt a metaphor for our nation? As the pieces are chosen for the quilt, the pieces come from different types and colors of cloth to make a single covering, just as people of many languages, cultures, races, and religions have come together to create one country. They have to be sewed together to create seams that join the pieces. This is where the salad bowl metaphor breaks down; in a salad the pieces stand on their own–they have no connection to each other.

The quilter knows the pattern she wants to create and thus has a design in mind, and for me the framework for our “national quilt” must be our Constitution. Each piece, though unique, has a specific role to play in the overall design. This is where the melting pot metaphor breaks down; in the past, Americans felt it was necessary for all immigrants to become like “them” or they couldn’t be “real Americans.” That idea runs counter to the deeper meaning of the Constitution, which does not designate a “right” way to be American other than to follow its tenets.

So in a quilt, what keeps the whole thing together is the seams, the places where two or three or four different pieces are joined. This is what frightens me about where we are as a nation right now. We have never been a perfect nation. There have always been ways in which the design of the quilt has been thwarted and abused. But for the most part, the seams have held. Now, I fear that our quilt is coming apart at the seams. If we don’t figure out a way to reconnect the pieces, to sew it back together, its very design is threatened.

As I write this, one more police shooting is being reported on the news. The news anchors are talking about a “madness” that has spread over our country. Is it madness, or have we forgotten our sewing skills? Each individual piece of the quilt must ask, where is the seam I need to be repairing?

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