There Will NOT Be a Test

…there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.

relevance personified
Relevance Personified

“I love your class, it’s all I want to do at school. I can’t stand going to math class after this, I’ll never use algebra.”

My reply:  Back in my day as a public school student, the 1960s and 70s, educators felt there was a specific curriculum you could be taught to be considered educated. A canon, if you will, of math, science, English, and social studies. English, for example, had its American Lit, British Lit, essay-writing, and basic researching skills like use of the card catalogue, the Dewey decimal system, periodicals and books, footnoting their use within your writing, etc.

(I have always LOVED the Dewey decimal system. It’s comforting to think that you can put all of knowledge into groups and number them for easy reference. And the card catalogue! What an incredible piece of craftsmanship, the smooth maple cabinet with the perfect little drawers that slid in and out with the satisfying yet small muffled thok! when they slid flush into the cabinet.)
Back to why all of this is important, or relevant: when those kids told me they saw no need in learning algebra, and I explained to them there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.

(In the case of elementary math we were taught ‘New Math’. It was binary, meaning how to express all numbers as series of 0s and 1s. Of course, I have never used this since, and it is no longer taught to the general population, but do you know how computers work? If you break it all the way down, everything is composed of groups of 0s and 1s to a computer. So somebody got it, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and here we are.)

When I explained it this way, the students grabbed it immediately, and were satisfied to go off to algebra class as a useful activity. If only math teachers were able to explain the relevance of their subject the same way. Because that’s what you have to do with education: make it relevant and make it explicit that it’s relevant, all the time. Just think about yourself. What would it take for you to want to sit your butt in a chair and listen to someone else for an hour or more? Well, it would have to be to get something you could use in your life, something relevant.

I applied once for a job teaching adult education. I now am quite happy doing that in the real estate industry, but this was in an area in which I had no real expertise, medical. It was a communications class, though, so it wasn’t too great a stretch. The interviewers asked me, “What makes you think you can teach adults if you have only taught high school?” It doesn’t matter what you are teaching, or whom, whether it is a class of kindergartners or adults. You have to make it relevant, and you have to make that relevance explicit. You have to tell them, “This is relevant to you because…you will use this in this situation…,” or you lose them. If they can’t see how they can use it, they glaze over and you become like Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Mwaaaah, mwah mwah mwah mwah,” like a muffled trombone.

We need to teach math teachers, and all teachers, that making it real, making it relevant, is what matters to students, and if they can’t do that with their subject material, maybe they shouldn’t be teaching it. Look for another way to get it across, something that makes sense to the person in the seat, not just learning abstract knowledge for its own sake.

Once I thought up a speech in which the speaker identified with an object, and told us why. It is like ‘discovering your metaphor.’ I guess I was wrapped up in an English or Poetry class and wanted to make them think symbolically. They didn’t all get it, and limiting the metaphor to an object you could carry in to school didn’t really open up the world of imagery to them as I had hoped.
To get the idea across, I did the assignment myself. What I came up with as a metaphor for myself was a set of battery cables. I am a connector. I connect people to ideas, to resources, to other people, to themselves. And there is a spark, an energy involved. I bought a new, clean battery cable and after the speech it became a decoration for my classroom, displayed along the top of the whiteboard to generate the question of why it was there. It gave me a chance to let them know how I thought about my job–not as a parent-child relationship, or master-servant, nor anything else that put me higher than them, but on the same level. A tool for them to use to learn, to understand.

Everybody is back to school a week now, so this is a good reminder to students, teachers, and parents. Seek relevance and call it out as often as possible.

Truth about Teaching

Poster for play Dead White Males
Great play at the Hideout!

Since I am about to publish a book on the subject of teaching today, I couldn’t wait to see and review this play!

“You must teach values!”
“How? Where is the curriculum you want me to use?”
“Values are taught by your actions!”

Dead White Males: A Year in the Trenches of Teaching addresses many of the problems with education, in a very creative set and with superb actors. The production is tight, energy-driven, cast perfectly. The description online makes one think it will be a comedy of errors, with teachers certified to teach each others’ subjects instead of what they are teaching. It definitely has funny parts–I laughed out loud–but it also has a dark side. I don’t think I’m being a spoiler to tell you a true story about teaching in public schools today can’t end very well.

Teachers straining to remain in love with teaching, buckling under pressure to teach history and science lessons chosen by right-wing fundamentalists, hyper-evaluated by administrators and school board members—all ready to throw the first stone since they are safe. As a former teacher, I can testify: there was nothing made up about this play.

First tidbit from mentor teacher to shiny new teacher: When all else fails, lower your expectations. Second tidbit: Cover your ass. Oh, yeah.

Please see this play, but please send a link about it to all of the teachers you know. They will enjoy it, in a “Right on!” kind of way. And a special date would be September 10, the final production, when the playwright William Missouri Downs will be visiting and host a ‘talk-back’ after the production.

Special acting shoutout for Molly Fonseca and Dennis Kelleher Bailey, and director Derek Kolluri for great pacing and staging/design.

Production: Sustainable Theatre Project @ The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress, Austin.


Teeth with Braces

I am convinced that had I not had the meddlesome and sausage-like fingers of one Dr. Blackwood in my mouth at the age of 13, my face would work better today, including lusher lips. Judging from my sons’ faces, lips like Angelina Jolie.

At my age, lip lushness is an issue. Why is it that lips get narrower and narrower with age? Why can’t they be like ears and noses that continue to grow throughout our lives? I’ve even heard that those appendages continue for a while after death, although I can’t imagine who is circulating that rumor, nor how they would be checking its veracity.

When I was 12, my mother was told that I had an overbite that rivaled a rabbit, but looking at my front teeth now I can’t imagine it. Who told her? Our dentist, who lived in our neighborhood and ran off and left his wife and children for his hygienist. His name was Dr. Swindle, if you can believe that. Who would truck with someone who was named Swindle? His wife should have seen it coming. Probably made part of the $2000 proposition, the cost of braces, at that time. $2000 in the 60s!! And you can be sure that it was intimated that the parent must not really love their child if they weren’t willing to spend it.

Upon stern recommendation that I obviously had too many teeth for my mouth, four permanent teeth, the 4th away from center on top and bottom in both directions, were pulled and the rest yanked back using an ever-tightening wire attached to each tooth by running it through a track that protruded from bands attached with cement around each tooth. Hurt? Lord, yes! But not enough. We had to increase the speed with which we pulled those teeth from their rightful places by using rubber bands for constantly increasing pressure. Tiny rubber bands that would not even encircle your pinkie, were attached to a tooth’s track assembly on the sides of your upper teeth, and then anchored to a similar assembly on the bottom teeth an inch or two further back in your mouth. The resulting tension was STILL NOT ENOUGH!! I also had a “mouth-bow”. This was an apparatus (I use this term with the full knowledge that it is only the first of two apparati I have had inserted into my body, the second being a gynecologist’s speculum, duration about 2 minutes) (Don’t try this at home.) that I used nightly. All night. Every night. My braces had small metal tubes on the offending upper side teeth. This bow-shaped apparatus fit into those metal tubes inside my mouth, had a parallel bow outside my mouth attached to an wide elastic strap with Velcro closures running around the back of my head. It was padded, thank you! Don’t want to create pain! The pressure this monstrosity created was like having a fish hook with tension on it attached to a finger or toe nail 24/7.

After all this are my teeth straight? Yes they are, but my tongue has never fit in my mouth. When I close my teeth, my tongue is further back in my throat than feels normal. If my tongue is relaxed, it is between my upper and lower teeth. I’ve gotten used to it, of course, but it just goes to show, don’t fool with Mother Nature. Was it a good thing? Probably not. Now that I see how my own children’s teeth turned out, and how what was mildly out of alignment went into place as the jaws grew to accommodate them.

There are jokes made about the Brits’ awful teeth, and how they are not nearly as interested in perfection as Americans. They believe it gives a face character to have some flaws. Americans believe in magazine perfection, and that it is not just attainable for each of us, but imperative. I believe that somewhere in between lies the answer—isn’t that always where the answer lies?

My Life in Gardens

Reba's Tomatoes and Peppers
Reba's Tomatoes and Peppers

Planted my little garden a couple of weeks ago and it got me to thinking about gardening through my life. The first one I can remember was my Great-Uncle Joe’s in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a jungle to a four or five year old. Whenever I watch ‘The Godfather’ and see Brando as an old man in the garden where he dies, that is the garden I remember from my uncle and aunt’s house. Towering plants taller than my uncle took up the entire back yard of their small frame house in town, with a tall fence, gate, paths and trellises throughout, filled with leaves and blossoms. Combined with the butterscotch Lifesavers he always had on hand, no wonder it’s such a sweet memory of what a garden is.

The next garden I remember is my Granny McCain’s garden in Coushatta, Louisiana, probably six twenty-foot rows, again fenced with a tall fence and gated, mostly against meandering cows. I was sent to live with grannies every summer, and I remember being in that garden every morning before it turned hot, and especially discovering the prickly texture of okra when she made me pick it. Granny grew all of her vegetables, including purple-hull peas (like black-eyes) which were my job to shell, turning my thumb purple as I pushed it up the inside of the pod to shoot all the plump peas into a big bowl in my lap. You start with a big bowl of long purple pea pods and put the shelled peas in the same bowl, so it gradually changes from a bowl of pods to a bowl of peas. I always loved to run my fingers through them when I was done–it was such a physical glory, a wealth: “Look how much work I’ve done!”

I know there was a lot of acid in that soil because Granny had huge hydrangea bushes around her house and garden that had blue blossom bouquets as big as basketballs. If you don’t have acid soil, the blossoms are pink. Hers were as blue as the sky.

Next was Grandma Saxon’s orchard in Georgia. Grandma didn’t do too much with vegetables, but she was hell on wheels when it came to “putting up”: canning, freezing to fill the big chest freezer, jelly making, even made blackberry wine that she made me drink when I was coming down with anything. Stuff near killed me. Serious peach eating was done there, with the nearly red juice running down your chin, down your arm and dripping from your elbow. Fig preserves were one of her specialties. One plump fig mashed on a piece of toast was all you could fit. Although she was too busy putting up fruit to garden vegetables, she bought them by the bushel when they were in season and she did plant a patch of tomatoes every year and canned most of them. She taught me to eat a tomato like an apple, just holding it in one hand and taking huge juicy bites, with the salt & pepper handy to season each bite, and how to make a tomato sandwich: bread+mayo+tomato=heaven on a back porch.

Continue reading “My Life in Gardens”

Get Physical with Chamber Music

Michelle Schumann's hands at work
Michelle Schumann's hands at work

Most people think of chamber music as being staid, solemn, and proper. When Michelle Schumann is involved in anything, though, those preconceptions float away, along with the surroundings when you close your eyes. Saturday night, went with esposo to the Brahms Violin Sonatas presented by the Austin Chamber Music Center at the First Unitarian Church. Michelle Schumann is the Director of ACMC, in addition to her other work as a performer around the world and as a teacher at Mary Hardin-Baylor. I have seen her 3 times now and try not to miss a chance, because she informs the performance with her narratives about the composer and the times in which each piece was written, and enlivens the piano with her sheer physical joy.

Her research of the musicians and the society and culture they were writing and composing in is always the entry to a fuller experience, and her emotive face nodding, eyebrows raised then knitted, rocking back and forth then slyly looking over her shoulder at her playing partner to coordinate the perfect ending note all add to the feeling.

This time she played with Soovin Kim, also a performer with numerous major orchestras around the world, and the players complemented each other well. Particularly in the last piece which included a melody ‘played on the G string of the violin, and that is just as sexy as it sounds’… Mr. Kim was braced for action with his feet anchored shoulder width apart while the top half of his body swung and swooned with the powerful and evocative music.

If you want to see the last concert of the season by this group, it will be next month, April 17th again at the First Unitarian Church. Great acoustics.

Check out the program, which will include works by Amy Beach, Paul Schoenfeld, and Mark O’Connor’s 4 pieces on Johnny Cash (!) by Ms. Schumann on piano, Clancy Newman on cello and Tereza Stanislav on violin, at their website,

WPA for Today?

forgingIn the State of the Union speech last month, the President asked Congress to prepare a new jobs bill for his signature asap. What should it include? The powers that be seem bereft of ideas. Obama has dropped all his talk of ‘weatherization’ creating the jobs to bring us out of the recession, thank goodness. Not that it’s a bad idea, you just can’t put millions of people to work caulking. Obama is now lobbing the problem over to Congress. Wonder what they will come up with? Pork perhaps? Earmarks already identified? Road projects to repair our crumbling infrastructure, especially in states such as Texas that pride themselves more on tax cuts than taking care of people?
I shudder to think.

I’ve been wondering though, since all this ‘jobs’ talk started way back at the beginning of the recession. Back when we weren’t even calling it a recession yet. I admit to being a bit excited at the prospect of what the government could do, since I have always admired the work done during the WPA era. Those great Arts & Crafts designs for public works buildings, bridges, parks, schools. Almost every community had something constructed by the agency. It also operated large arts projects, including drama, media and literacy, fed children, and redistributed food and clothing.
It was a wheel that could be reused, instead of creating a new one.

The jobs paid the prevailing wage in their community (this was before minimum wage). WPA jobs were limited to 30 hours per week, and only one adult of an unemployed couple could get one, to spread the jobs among as many breadwinners as possible. Continue reading “WPA for Today?”

Out of the Closet, Book Buyer!

book_pilesI am moving bookshelves of books, boxes of books, finding random books stacked 2-3 together in smaller, less appropriate places. Back when I went to church, a very erudite minister told me that I am one of those people who believe in Salvation by Bibliography. In other words, having (and displaying) the books on philosophy and theology is as good as actually reading them, so I have books everywhere. I also have a husband who refuses to get rid of any books; they are his journal of his lifetime that he views, poignantly, with head tilted, whenever we move and he has to box them up again.

One of the greatest Readers I have known was a Jesuit priest (if you’ve never known one, they have incredible libraries), who would loan you a book for 24 hours. He had stuff that was not published in the US yet, plays direct from the London stage, books from around the world (way back in the 70s). You could borrow one when you were ready to go home, sit down and read it, then get it back to him. Very protective, very smart. I tend not to lend, unless I have a spare copy or am willing to get another one. Well, that’s not true, I have given the PERFECT book to someone right when they needed it, then looked for it the next time not remembering I had gifted it out.

I’m betting that there are several of you out there like me, a person whose book buying outpaces my book reading. So I have a question: What is the best book you haven’t read? Do you, like me, have a lot of books you have purchased because they sounded like such a great idea, but haven’t had the chance to read yet? The advent of online book ordering has exponentially increased my library.

Continue reading “Out of the Closet, Book Buyer!”

The Senator’s Letter

John Cornyn
John Cornyn

It all started with an email from John Cornyn in my inbox, explaining why he was going to fight to the end to protect me from health reform. Where did he get my address?

Well, it made my blood boil. And I think that would be a pre-existing condition for me when it comes to contemporary Republicans and health insurance. So I responded, letting him know in no uncertain terms that he was NOT representing me in his actions, that I doubted that he took the time to listen to ANY of his actual constituents to find out if he was representing them, and called him a prostitute for the corporations who fund his lifetime job through contributions to his political campaigns. Well, after calling someone a whore I don’t expect a reply but I got one today, likely a form answer from an aide. “Who’s going to do the health care pile responses?” “Oh, let me!”

The ‘Senator’s letter’ and my response are below.

Continue reading “The Senator’s Letter”

Giants Among Us

Benini: Three artists sitting in a row. Two older flanking one younger (but still middle aged) in the middle. Someone in the audience asks the panel, “Where do you get your inspiration?”

The first old artist, a sculptor of great repute and large proportions, says “My inspiration comes from nature.” And it’s obvious from looking at his work that it does. Forms that recollect plants, trees, shells, planets and skies.

The middle one, the youngish one of the three, says “I am a doctor most of the time, and my inspiration comes from humanity, where I work every day.” And it’s obvious from looking at his work that depicts dancing figures and gods, it does.

And the last one to answer, the second old artist, who has grown tired of all this question and answer stuff, says “I’ve been through all those. My inspiration is in my mind.” And looking at his work, the ability to make planets and layers appear suspended in a dimension that looks vaguely familiar but not ever seen on Earth (and he does this in two-dimensional paintings), that he has been around the block and you are in contact with a being who has lived a lifetime the way he wanted to. The way that allowed him to connect, and this is what you get to when you live that way.

I went out to the Sculpture Ranch a while back for the last of the ‘Arts Encounters’ that the Beninis sponsored for a couple of years. They were gracious hosts of visual artists, musicians, filmmakers and authors talking about their work and having a chance to extend their reach to an appreciative audience. The Sculpture Ranch is near Johnson City, a 140-acre piece of Texas Hill Country that started as a collaboration between these three prominent contemporary sculptors to display their large outdoor works for sale. The initial landing was by Benini, an artist with a near 50-year career documenting the 60s, 70s, and early 80s with art that combined social statements with technical proficiency, followed by a 20-year focus on the symbol of the rose, into a recent period of play and work with dimensionality, which is a total trip to meditate on. His friends Johann and Kristin Eyfulls followed, and Johann’s work entailed many semi-trucks of deliveries from around the world to collect his outdoor works into one place. Benini’s younger friend, the doctor Marshall Cunningham, joined them in the venture, finding a place where he could display the large works he completed in his ‘offtime’ from the Hill Country Memorial Wound Care Clinic in Fredericksburg.

Treat yourself–they are no longer hosting the Encounters but do welcome visitors on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays (check the website below for times and directions). Please pack a lunch, take a camera and hiking shoes, and go explore this place.

I encourage you to visit; I encourage you to tell your moneyed friends about it. I encourage you to go and get inspiration about what you might think of in your own outdoor spaces. Here are some websites

Sculpture Ranch visiting info.

About Benini.

About Eyfells.

About Cunningham.

Maybe you could teach?

teacher-doris-dayFour years for a college degree, maybe six for a masters’. Four years of teaching. Leave teaching. Five years later, still paying student loans. That’s me, and that’s the experience of nearly half of those who enter the teaching profession today. Biggest contributing factors: lack of control over your own work and unmanageable workloads. We are burying teachers under the responsibilities that our society doesn’t want, and the burden of the documentation to prove that they are doing it.

I had a chance to talk at great length with a man who had risen through the ranks of a union to become the union president and then negotiator. He also served three governors of his state on their Education Panel, a position that studied many aspects of education in that state. Not the least was teacher satisfaction. During his lengthy tenure on that panel, things really changed. What he told me was that when he started, the teachers were concerned about gum under desks. Twenty years later, they were worried about guns under desks.

I have a friend who teaches elementary school in a small neighborhood school in Texas. She has been there 25 years. For the first 15 years, she was home by 4:30-5pm. Gradually, it has ramped up over the past ten years, a half hour at a time, until now when she doesn’t get home until 7pm. Every day. This is because she must document specifically what she has taught each child, how that child has responded to it, and compared it to what the standardized tests say that the average/below average/above average ranges would be. And when I say document specifically, you have no idea of the degree of specificity and minutiae that can be dreamed up by the ‘instructional coaches’, principals, standardized test creators, and the myriad other positions in the education business that are more highly paid than the teachers.
Continue reading “Maybe you could teach?”