Category Archives: Parenting

Entries about being a Dad

#224: Early Summer Loss

Saturday night’s carnage


On this hot June evening,
my son and I listen to new music
in the cool basement, staying up late,
having a pretty darn good time.
Before bed, though, one more chore:
fold and put away the laundry
in a pile on the bed upstairs.
O horrors, as I’m folding I see
these little curled up pieces of paper
scattered in the laundry
and soon reach an explanation:
the stack of 12 highly prized Pokémon
cards he’d taken to the restaurant
the night before have ended up in the wash.
I know that, no matter what I do
from this point on, withhold or reveal,
this will not go well, and it does not.
I choose to reveal, and I hold them
in my hands, a pathetic offering, for him to see.
You’d think someone had run over his dog
and then backed up to do it again.
He’s weeping and flailing around
on the floor and saying over and over,
“this is not happening.” At one point,
he leaves the room for a moment
and comes back in the door thinking
he’ll be awake and the crumpled-
up cards, the fanciest ones in his
collection, will be whole again.
I put on my best fathering hat.
I talk him down. I try to help him
see that of all the terrible things
that could befall a boy of ten,
this, actually, is not the worst of them.
A little lesson in privilege and good fortune
but not too far over the top, except the one
reminder that his mother is now cancer free.
There are hugs. A resignation.
Some encouragement that there may be
other Pokémon cards in the future
that may rival these lost ones.
My son encloses his now worthless
cards in a makeshift plastic coffin,
writes an epitaph, and completes
his ritualistic two claps and a bow.
Laundry put away, emotions shifting,
settling back into our cool basement
listening parlor for more new music,
he comes over to my chair for one more
hug and tells me he loves me.

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R.I.P. Pokécards

 

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Filed under Parenting, Poetry

#182: Child’s Play

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My boy has taken to video recording
his game play and adding
commentary over the top.  He’s
seen this on you tube.  Some of
his heroes are dudes who video-
tape themselves playing video
games, who have become
celebrities of sorts; thousands of
viewers can’t get enough of dudes
playing video games filming them-
selves playing video games.

I want to be dismissive of this
kind of entertainment.  I want
to say it’s total bullshit. And yet,
when I hear my boy by himself
in the other room, playing,
commenting on the proceedings
to an imaginary audience with
whom he seems to have a
tremendous rapport, attempting
to capture it all on the iPad
pointing at and recording
the action on the screen, I think, yes.

What did I do as a kid?
I watched Star Trek and then
I pretended I was Captain Kirk
and my stuffed animals were
my crew and my less favored
stuffed animals were bad aliens.
We fought each other in
the hallway. There was dialogue.
There were sound effects.
There was that Star Trek
fight music. I was always
victorious and my legions
of imaginary fans kept coming back
for more. Ultimately, it’s the
same damn thing, isn’t it? Except
I didn’t have a camera on a
stupid smart device.
If I did, you can be sure
I would have captured
every single moment.
And either I am trying to
rationalize my son’s screen
time or I am realizing that,
though the medium is different,
the two activities are
essentially the same,
equally creative, valuable
beyond compare in the endeavor
of every child to become
the person they want to become,
a captain of the Starship Enterprise
or a video game genius with
throngs of adoring viewers.
Who’s to say which of these
pasttimes would have the
greater real-life application?
I could probably say, but for now,
I hesitate.

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#171: Penultimate Poem for April: A Review of Last Night’s Tantrum

Yikes.

Yikes.

Last night’s temper tantrum
was a resounding success.
Let us consider the salient
features of the tantrum and
see to what heights of glory
were reached by last night’s
specimen. Usually, a tantrum
begins with some struggle
right before bedtime, typically
involving the cessation of play
and the transition upstairs.
This was most clearly evident.
Ad electronics.
There must be yelling.
There was a veritable smorgasbord
of yelling, reaching  in several key
moments to the pitch of screaming.
Very nice. Tears are good during
a tantrum, if you can manage them,
and last night’s tantrum produced
puddles of the stuff. Perhaps
one of the most exquisite and
simultaneously painful aspects
of the tantrum is an apparent
absence of anything like squaring
with reality. Last night’s tantrum
included several resounding examples
of this: Why are you being so mean?
Why are you screaming?  Why don’t
you love me? Nobody listens to me
around here!  You get the picture.
Out of a whole season of tantrums
this was one of the most effective and
sustained.  The conclusion, though,
I have to say, was most satisfying,
as the struggle reached a decrescendo
into something like quiet, peace was
achieved, and finally, everybody
went to sleep.

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#153: My Son Loves Cows

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My Son Loves Cows

He used to love hamburgers,
but now he loves cows
and is experiencing his first
serious moral dilemma
in his 9 years on Earth.
The last time we fired up the grill
he wept through the whole meal.
You don’t have to eat it, son;
on this occasion we WILL make
you something else. But he insisted
through the tears on finishing
that burger; so delicious
and so terrible.

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#143: The Silent Note-Writing Game

The Silent Note-Writing Game

I don’t know how we landed on the idea.
Perhaps chaos of the 9 year old variety
inspired me to propose a game in which
we must be silent and can only communicate
through written notes to each other
back and forth on a shared
piece of paper or two. He loved it.
And in the last few days, months after
the first time we played, he’s saying,
Daddy, let’s play the silent note-writing game.
And so, tonight, sitting in a dark room
at his desk under a lamp, we take turns
writing and we have a silent conversation
on the page. There is talk tonight of
how fun this is, and questions about why
sometimes I don’t want to play, an agreement
about how anything, no matter how fun,
sometimes requires the right mood, the right space.
He asks me why I write like I do, all left-handed,
with improper pencil placement, upside-down like,
and I tell him that’s just the way I learned,
despite how my teachers tried to correct me.
We talk about his Skylander characters and
their various powers and skills, how some
of them are mommies or daddies and
sons and daughters. He farts, writes about that,
then erases it. I write about the view of oak trees
out his bedroom window. He turns on his microscope,
finally, and we look at some slides of leaves
and pollen and it’s too fascinating and so we
break the rules for awhile to ooh and aww over
the majestic microscopic, the immense
complexities beyond the power of the naked eye
after the inexplicable joy and intimacy
of speaking without voices. I say,
there’s a poem in here somewhere.

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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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#140: I Was Raised By. . .

Another mentor text, this time the one we used with our freshmen, to inspire poetry about who or what we credit for “raising” us.  The wonderful thing about using a mentor text, learning explicitly the moves of a writer we admire, is that all the 14 year olds end up writing these lively, effective poems.  Theirs are likely as good as mine.  Here’s the video of Kelly Norman Ellis performing her poem, “Raised by Women,”  followed by my attempt at following the mentor text.

I Was Raised By . . .

(After Kelly Norman Ellis)

I was raised by Mom and Dad,
easy going with me (but not for my older siblings),
music listening, affection giving,
martini drinking, catholic practicing,
church going, money saving, penny pinching,
state park camping, trailer pulling, swimming pool
building, garden planting, perfume and after-shave wearing,
square dancing, forgiving, loving kind of Mom and Dad.

I was raised by older brothers and a sister,
8-track tape popping, reel to reel spinning,
turntable turning, drive-in working,
hallway fighting, irresponsible under-age
drinking, kidney dialysis machine fixing,
marrying too soon, having kids too soon
and divorcing, Jesus finding, Bible-thumping,
Precision Castparts working forever,
heating and cooling installation
kind of older brothers and a sister.

I was raised by music,
drumming on tables, my big sister’s records,
my brothers’ records, the Beatles and the Monkees
in one room blasting, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix
in the other, the pop and the rock in the same house,
inhabiting my musical skin, forging my tastebuds.
I was raised by my first record, “Captain Fantastic,”
my first stereo system, a hand-me-down from brother #2,
full blast home alone lip syncing with a tennis racket,
my first band jamming at the house,
neighbors yelling the line from “Joe’s Garage,”
“Turn it down!  Don’t you boys know any nice songs?!”
kind of rock and roll music. 

I was not raised by books at first, but
by television, monster family showing,
combined family living, night stalking,
creature featuring, witch marrying,
50’s diner hopping, and space traveling
kind of television.

I was raised by teachers,
novel reading, chalkboard scribbling,
overhead projecting, big hearted,
mostly generous and well meaning
“You have a gift for writing”
kind of teachers.

And finally, almost adult,
the life of the word finally adopted
and raised me, at first mostly men,
Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Wordsworth,
Coleridge, Milton, Orwell, Joyce, Beckett,
Ellison, Twain, Vonnegut, Barthelme,
and then my literary mothers, Atwood,
Robinson, Walker, Morrison, Oliver;
all these widening my perspective kind of writers
after the teachers and television and the music
and the family, I was raised, brought up finally by the word.

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Filed under Literature, Music, Parenting, Poetry, Teaching, Writing and Reading