Monthly Archives: March 2015

#141 Teaching Without A Voice

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I begin the cruelest month of National Poetry Writing hopefully recovering from a bout of laryngitis and ready to go back to the classroom.  Thus, the inspiration for my first poem of 30, one for every day of the month of April, comes not from a prompt, but from this:

Teaching Without A Voice

is difficult,
almost as difficult as
what circus performers
do without nets, or
more apt, what a musician
might do without his
instrument.

I was losing my voice
and I told my 9th graders,
I’m losing my voice so please
don’t make me have to talk
over the top of your talking.

They then proceeded
to make me talk over the top
of their talking so that at
the end of the day all I could
do was whisper and it wasn’t
sexy or anything like that.

It hurt. And early this morning,
voice not yet functioning,
the voiceless teacher
calls in sick, thinking,
there’s no chance I can
teach without a voice,
but something goes wrong
in the process (something about
filing on-line for a sub at 3 o’clock
in the morning) and no substitute
shows up.

Unfed, unwashed,
lunch unpacked, barely able
to stand upright after a
sleepless night of coughing,
I, the teacher without a voice,
stand in my classroom trying
to figure out how I can
introduce Neruda to 11th graders
and the Holocaust to 9th graders
in a whisper, when, less than
ten minutes before kids walk
in the room, a substitute arrives
somewhat miraculously.
In a whisper, because it’s all I can do,
I go over the plans, point to the piles of handouts,
and walk out of the room waving goodbye
to the students already there,
many of whom wish me better health.

I leave the building
crossing my fingers for a minor train wreck,
something somewhat less than a
complete disaster
and for a voice to return
to its rightful owner.

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Embarking Yet Again on Another Forced Creativity Experiment: Year 3 of NAPOWRIMO

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Happy National Poetry Month! Beginning on Wednesday, April 1 (this is no April Fool’s joke), I will attempt for the third year in a row to participate in the NaPoWriMo challenge of writing a poem a day for the entire month and publishing each poem here on the blog site. I promise, once again, not to cheat; I will not be publishing poems I have written earlier, but only those poems I write on each day of April, 2015–the good, the mediocre, the bad, and the mostly ugly.

I remember the last two years the challenge of squeezing out a poem every day, and squeezing out the time somewhere to get it done, and the rewards and pitfalls of writing fast, off the cuff, without time for revision, sometimes from prompts, sometimes from the mundane events of the day or the news, and often inspired by what I was doing in my classroom. Writing about the classroom was a challenge last year; in both of the classes I taught we were studying the same material as the year before, but with a different group of students: the Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty, and American Romanticism. So, I already had a whole series of poems about these things! Luckily, this year at this time I’m teaching different classes.  My freshmen, I’m sure, will provide lots of inspiration, as will my seniors, but for the opposite reasons, and my IB Juniors are studying Pablo Neruda this year, not the Chinese Ancients. It is a cool coincidence (I swear I didn’t plan it this way) that in my IB English class for Juniors  we are studying poetry during National Poetry Month. Last year I challenged my students to play along by writing their own 30 poems. I think I had exactly zero takers.  They want extra credit, but all I’m willing to offer them is the kind of credit that is infinitely more rewarding, but for which they always laugh at me: Extra Soul Credit.

If you would like to help with the cause, you can.  Feel free to send me suggestions for poems–subject matter, specific prompts, stylistic guidance, particular forms, special challenges, over-arching themes.  I’m up for almost anything, provided it’s not ridiculously hard, e.g. write an epic in 300 numbered quatrains about the Higgs boson particle entirely in iambic pentameter.  You could also help by reading, commenting, and following, which I appreciate immensely.  Otherwise, wish me luck.  I hope you can check it out, if not every day, every once in a while.

Meanwhile, here’s a couple of cool related items of interest:

A great resource for poetry:  http://www.poets.org

Another great resource for poetry: http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180

A place to play for free books of poetry:  http://ofkells.blogspot.com

A place to learn about and play the poem a day for a month game:  http://www.napowrimo.net

Cheers!

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To Test Or Not To Test

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The powers that be, the federal government, the state government, school district superintendents, local school boards and administrators tell us that our students must be tested.  Why must they be tested?  They tell us our students must be tested so that data in the form of scores and percentages can be published, so that schools can be ranked and rated, so that students can be ranked and rated, and ultimately, so that the community knows how our schools are doing. Without tests, how could anyone ever know how our schools are doing?  We certainly can’t trust schools to monitor themselves or teachers to monitor themselves, can we? We can’t trust families and parents to make meaningful judgments about how their own schools are doing and how their young people are doing within them.  I mean, we can’t expect people to actually visit schools and look inside to see what’s happening there, can we? So we must test.

How should I test thee? Let me count the tests. This year in the school house where I have taught now for 27 years, our freshmen have to take the short STAR Reader test three times in their 9th grade, giving up about an hour and a half of instruction. Our sophomores have to sit for the PSAT, which takes the entire student body out of classes for a whole school day.  Our juniors have to sit for three new (and completely mysterious) standardized tests in Reading, Writing, and Math, all three of which take two full 87 minute class periods, but aren’t timed, which means they could take longer, in total, perhaps as many as 9 class periods. Our IB students as seniors take a variety of tests in the spring, taking them out of classes sometimes for as much as a full week.  Too much testing? I wish our parents in Milwaukie were as pro-active as these in the other Milwaukee, or even in my neighboring Portland School District, where parents are actively seeking to opt their students out of any mandatory standardized test taking.

I admire this movement tremendously. As far as I know, there is not a hint of it in my school district. No parents have opted their kids out of testing. I’m guessing that, if parents have developed any kind of antipathy towards these tests, they don’t know that it’s even in the realm of possibility to excuse their kids from taking them.  It seems to me like this should be an essential right, as the parents in our community, as taxpayers and as the primary customers of public education, should have some say in what’s happening there. But let’s take a look at some of the issues involved:

Why would parents want to opt their children out? Here’s a short list: Standardized tests take time away from classroom teaching and learning. The tests are disconnected from classroom curriculum. The content of the tests is not known to teachers beforehand, and even if it was, teachers and parents alike are suspect of schools becoming test preparation factories. These tests are designed by corporations for a profit, corporations that are far outside the realm of the day-to-day workings of the classroom and the communities in which those classrooms operate.  Someone’s making a boatload of money in this time of budget crisis and school funding shortages. Very few if any classroom teachers have an active role in the content or structure of these tests. The tests are inherently unfair, are often culturally biased and favor students from high socio-economic backgrounds.  The tests are high stakes, sometimes graduation itself depends on it. They stress out children.  They stress teachers out. In the case of the new Smarter Balanced tests being piloted here in Oregon for the first time ever, the tests are dependent on computer technology at a level far beyond what our schools are equipped to provide.  In my school, during those few weeks of the testing window, ALL of our technology will be tied up for those tests and completely unavailable for any other classroom use. Additionally, the interface of the test, the way students navigate and work their way through, is unwieldy and confusing. It gave many teachers who attempted a sample test a headache, figuratively and literally speaking.  Many teachers attempting to take the test were so frustrated with the interface that they could not, or would not complete the test.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, high stakes standardized tests take the humanity and compassion completely out of the educational experience and process: they treat students like widgets, they make the ridiculous assumption that all students can be ready for the same kind of work  at the same time, they absolutely and dangerously ignore the science of developmental psychology and best practice educational pedagogy.  That list turned out not to be so short after all.  It’s actually kind of a long list.

Provided they were just not ignorant of the above, or trusting of the system, or proponents of standardized testing–provided that they did feel this kind of distrust of these tests, why would parents continue to allow their kids to take them? My guess? They are afraid. They are afraid of having their kid singled out in any way, perhaps afraid of people misconstruing an ethical and philosophical choice as insecurity about their child’s ability or skills. They are afraid, if indeed the stakes are high, what kind of negative ripple effect refusing to allow their kid to be tested might have on their child’s future. Or they may be so confident in their child’s propensity to do well on these kinds of assessments that they just allow it to slide. Why not? What harm could it do, if the kid is a natural born test taker, to spend some time testing and raising the stats of their school? And, if the kid’s not taking a test while all the other kids are taking a test, what will he or she do with all that time? This last thing is only a question of logistics and will, the logistics to facilitate an alternative, more educationally sound experience, and the will to put it into motion, whether it be in the schoolhouse or at home.

What Would Michael Jarmer Do? Ay, there’s the rub. I have all of the above concerns. Now that I am a father of a nine year old, I will soon have an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I wonder, even, if my child has already taken a standardized test and I did not know about it?! At any rate, when the time comes, or comes again, can I do it?  Will I excuse my kid from taking standardized tests?  And what will be the fallout? Is there such a thing as a good test, and might the test be better, more useful or meaningful by the time my young man is of testing age? For example, even though I mentioned it in my testing catalog above, I have little or no problem with the tests my IB students take as seniors–for a couple of reasons.  One, I think these tests are about as authentic as a test can be and I feel that they actually attempt to measure what I’ve been teaching.  Two, seniors are big kids, they can handle it, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve chosen to take it. I can’t say that about any other standardized test I am familiar with, especially this Smarter Balanced assessment. So check back with me in a while.  I’ll have to find out when my son’s first experience with a standardized test is scheduled–and then steal myself to make the right call. To test or not to test, that is the question.

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Filed under Education, Parenting, Teaching

Notes Toward A Musical Autobiography: Volume II, Letter B

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Herein you’ll find volume two of a written record of the experience of attempting to listen to at least one compact disc from every artist represented in my collection. I think I’m crazy and I don’t know how long I can maintain or persist in this folly. I managed in two weeks and about 3,000 words to get through the A section. The B section, as I have said, proves a daunting task to say the least, as, for some reason, I have acquired an uncharacteristically vast collection of music produced by bands or artists whose names begin with the letter B, many of which have provided me with the most important music of my life. So, here’s a start, but no conclusion, to the second musical letter in the alphabet.

Burt Bacharach, “The Best Of Burt Bacharach, 20th Century Masters.” I think these tunes are permanently etched on the consciousness of any American human being that was listening to music in the 60s and early 70s. This particular record, though, is a collection of original Bacharach recordings of these classic tunes, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” “Never Gonna Fall In Love Again,” “Do You Know the Way to San José,” et al, and not the ones popularized and made into megahits by a half a dozen different artists covering his tunes in later years. No matter. These are mostly instrumental versions of these tunes, but they still give off that same vibe, that same irresistible and almost indescribable Bacharach thing, a thing I wouldn’t fully appreciate until his collaboration with Elvis Costello in the 90’s, which, btw, totally blew my mind, and came to me during a period of intense inner work and transformation, some toward the good, some not so much toward the good. If Bacharach is anything, he’s bittersweet.

The Bad Plus, “Give.” Hey, it’s a jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums) that plays like a rock band and occasionally, at least once on every album, does some whacked out cover tune of a grunge classic, a disco tune, or a hard rock anthem. As silly as that sounds, over the last decade or so I have found these guys kind of irresistible. This record may have been my first acquisition of The Bad Plus. They do rock like no other jazz trio has, I think. And it is indeed jazz and not fusion, it seems to me. Why do I say that? Here’s an attempt: There’s upright bass, almost always. The piano is doing things that jazz piano players do. But the drums? This drummer, Dave King, is nuts, out of control, is no jazz drummer, mind blowingly good and wildly eccentric. He rocks the jazz, rather than fuses the rock and the jazz, which, I think, is what the fusion is supposed to do. I don’t think this makes a lot of sense, but neither often does The Bad Plus. P.S. The covers on this record of The Pixies’ “Velouria,” and Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” will both melt your face off, as they did mine.

Barenaked Ladies, “Born on a Pirate Ship.” A kind of guilty pleasure, I have to admit, because I have always found these guys infinitely charming, smart, talented, all of that, but I have not ever taken them seriously in the way that I have other bands doing a similar kind of thing stylistically. They’re too clean cut, too earnest, not edgy enough, but simultaneously, super engaging. This record is, perhaps, more adventurous than most of what would follow. I would stop listening altogether after the “Stunt” record. I think I have one of my student teachers to thank for turning me on to these guys in the late nineties. This young woman, like this band, had goodness written all over her. And sincerity. It’s a rare quality and enviable in people and in bands, especially when they are successful.

The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds.” This is a different kind of guilty pleasure: guilty, because I didn’t encounter this record as a fully blown album until I was an adult, even though these tunes, a few of them huge radio hits, surrounded my childhood. Given my older sister’s propensity for great pop music, and through her my first and lasting encounter the with the “Sgt. Pepper” album, for which “Pet Sounds” was a likely inspiration, I’m surprised this album was not in her collection. Listening to the mono version, because, apparently, that’s what you do, I’m thinking, yeah, this is clearly a beautiful, inspired record (it ain’t no surf music), but ain’t no “Sgt. Pepper” either.

The Bears, “Self-Titled.” From 1987, the first disc in the collection that is a pirated copy of somebody else’s album. I don’t have too many of these, surprisingly. When we were kids we copied records from everyone and their dog onto our cassette recorders, and for some reason, when the collection turned toward digital, I insisted on buying most every one of my acquisitions. I’m spinning this thing—and as cool as it is—I remember none of it; I might be listening to the record for the first time, which goes to show, it seems to me, that we value the things (especially art things), that we pay for! This is really great pop music from a band that features one of the most inventive guitar players in rock, Adrian Belew. In this regard, perhaps, he has the honor of showing up twice in my collection under the same place in the alphabet. I’ve got all kinds of Adrian Belew. And here’s this thing I’ve never heard, or at least don’t remember that I’ve heard—what a nice surprise.

The Beatles. How do you decide, when you’ve got the whole catalogue in your collection, which record to spin from The Beatles? There’s a part of me that wants to spin every single one in chronological order because they’re all that good and they’re all that important. I realize, if I did that, the B section of my music library would go on forever. Should I listen to the one that had the most personal impact on me, or should I listen to one equally loved but late discovered? Should I ask facebook friends for help? Okay, did that. We’ll see what happens: Early on it’s a facebook tie between “The White Album” and “Abbey Road.” But for now, if I had to pick just one damn album by The Beatles, I would have to choose the one that was my first, the one that had the most early influence on my musical brain, the one that I sat in my sister’s bedroom on the floor spinning over and over again on her little portable suitcase turntable, the first album for which I committed to memory every single little word and to this day still remember. It has to be The Beatles, “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It turns out, though, that I could not stop at just one. There may be only a handful of groups or artists in my entire collection of which I will not be able to choose just one; The Beatles are the first. So I also spin “The White Album” and “Revolver,” in that order.

Beck, “Midnite Vultures.” I’ve got to say, I loved the 90’s. It was a transformative decade for me, a time of enormous growth, youthful energy coupled with the benefits of an adulthood on an upward and forward trajectory in almost every sense. I established myself in a profession, I earned an MFA in creative writing, I finished my first novel, and I discovered a meditative practice, and all the while I was rocking harder than I ever had. This Beck record comes as maybe one of the last and maybe most  important records of the decade, 1999. It’s brilliant, fun, absurd, absolutely infectious, groovy and geeky, all at once. Nicotine and Gravy. Debra, I want to get with ya, and your sister. Oh baby. And I just have to say right here in this space how proud I am of Beck for winning a Grammy this year, and in his modesty and humility and good humor, without even trying, for making Kanye West look like a tool.

The Bee Gees, “Greatest Hits.” In 1979 it became the fashion to hate disco and everything associated with it, so I was dismissive about the Bee Gees of the “Saturday Night Fever” phenomena and pretty much failed to make the connection between those tunes and the earlier hits, in particular, “Nights On Broadway” and “Jive Talking,” which to me tonight, sound absolutely and totally hip. Rocking. Got the whole family dancing for a few minutes. This is a two-disc collection of almost 40 tunes. I can’t quite make myself spin the second disc—not at all because I couldn’t stomach those disco era tunes, but because there are so many B’s and a limited amount of time. “If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody, baby.” There’s a good line. Perhaps, this music, more than any other music of this era, has my puberty written all over it. Ick. That didn’t sound right.

Beirut, “The Flying Club Cup.” It’s the 21st century and a lot of pop music is beginning to sound like it was made a long time ago. This American band almost defies description. Are they a big band? A marching band? It’s worldy (new word alert), but from which part of the world? France? South America? New Orleans? I don’t have a good enough handle on these things to make a firm determination. What I do know is that it’s at once fresh and classic sounding, familiar and strange. But the bottom line is that there are stellar performances here and good tunes, strong lyrics, inventive and sophisticated, beautiful singing. And horns. And accordions. What sounds like a percussion section as opposed to a drum set player.

Adrian Belew, “Mr. Music Head.” Bringing the 80’s to a close, here’s a whacky record from a whacky guitarist for a whacky 20 something pop music fan with a serious progressive leaning. I think I first discovered Adrian Belew’s madcap guitar and vocal work on King Crimson’s classic “Discipline” album and I was hooked. This, his fourth solo album, more pop than progressive, is sometimes silly, irreverent, and sentimental. It’s still cool. Great record for painting—which is the thing I was doing while I listened today.

As I continued to paint a wall in the basement, I took the opportunity to spin a couple more B records, but because I was painting, unable to take any notes, I listened to these two back to back and can only say a few things about both: Belly, “Star.” It’s 1993 and Tanya Donnely from Throwing Muses forms a new band, a rocking thing standing out in the early days of grunge as being particularly upbeat, melodic, and delicious.  A few tunes really hum along and I remember liking them, and continue liking them as I’m listening and painting, even though before putting this record on I would not have been able to sing you a single line even if I had a gun to my head.  A good record I totally forgot about–so how good could it be, right? Well. . .  And then comes Dan Bern, “Self-Titled,” from 1997.  Another anti-grunge record, this thing is full-on folk, guy with acoustic guitar, a Bob Dylan with a sense of humor.  And I’m not kidding about the Dylan thing–this guy sings almost like he’s doing an impersonation of Bob.  I respect Dylan, but was never a fan.  I bought this Dan Bern record, I remember, because the guy was political and he made me laugh.  Not a whole lot of staying power in my musical consciousness, though, but again, good painting music.

The Bird and the Bee, “Self-Titled.” From 2007, this record has the distinction of being the first pop album our young son, Emerson, really took a shine to, and at two years old, his first favorite record with a parental advisory sticker, the first record to which I remember him actually singing along. The duo of Inara George and Greg Kurstin created this sweet and hook-laden mash-up between electronica and melody driven pop—and it’s a beauty. Clever, inventive, difficult to forget, expertly performed and recorded—with some curse words thrown in. And I discover on this evening another gift of proceeding with this mad task of listening to all of these neglected cd’s languishing on shelves.  On a few occasions, especially if there’s a piece of information I need, like the date the record came out because the liner notes on the cd package are too damn small to read, I’ll do a little webby research to find out some stuff.  On this occasion, I discover that Greg Kurstin was in another one of my favorite 90’s bands, Geggy Tah, and things click for me that hadn’t clicked before!

Bjork, “Selmasongs.” The Icelandic mid-to-late-eighties band The Sugarcubes was a revelation to me.  On principal, I’ve followed Bjork’s musical solo career ever since.  It’s been a rough ride.  She’s a true genius, I think, and I admire her adventurous and experimental spirit.  It’s hit and miss, though, and I was disappointed in the sterile production and overuse of machines in her first two solo records after being so totally spoiled by the incredibly rocking skill of the drummer and the rest of the musicians from The Sugarcubes.  This record, however, the soundtrack to the terribly bleak film in which Bjork had the starring role, “Dancer In The Dark,” is tremendously powerful and frightening and beautiful.  I pulled this one out because I think it is my favorite Bjork record. It was a heart breaking film.  The music, too, is painful, but it’s difficult to listen to Bjork’s singing and unconventional arrangements without smiling, without feeling a little hopeful.

I realize, have realized for some time, even though I’ve been railing against the conclusion, that I cannot finish the B section of the music collection in one blog post.  So, knowing that I still have 19 more B artists to cover, I conclude tonight by listening to one more compact disc, the first album I bought by the Glasgow band Belle and Sebastian, the 2003 release, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.” I feel kind of like a DJ.  I wish there was a way, a quick way, say, through telepathic communication, while my readers were reading this, to project album cover art and clips from songs and me doing funny dances interspersed amongst all these words, to truly make this a multimedia experience. Sorry. I didn’t do any of that. I’m going to shut up and listen to this record.  Afterwards, I’ll tell you about it.  Here goes:  I’ve been following Belle and Sebastian ever since I bought this record, but this first track, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is still my absolutely favorite song ever by this band.  The subject matter is serious, delivered from the point of view of the bad guy, an office manager who is sexually harassing his female employees, but the tune itself is a romp, dramatic, cinematic, full of these lovely tempo changes and wonderful musical surprises, something this band doesn’t do very often. And after “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” the record evens out and becomes significantly less adventurous, but still a lovely listening experience.  “There’s something wrong with me. I’m a cuckoo.”  Indeed.  Good night.  Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead. Wish me luck on finishing up with the B’s.  Do you think, dear reader, that we will ever, in a thousand years, reach the letter Z?

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