Category Archives: Parenting

Entries about being a Dad

#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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Filed under Parenting, Poetry

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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#135: The Eight Year Old Uses Tweezers To Pull A Sliver Out of His Daddy’s Hand

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This happened yesterday, for real, and it was one of those events in parenting, perfectly mundane, nearly inconsequential, that nevertheless felt poignant in that moment, and today even more powerful as parents in my state again lose their children to guns. It breaks my heart. Love your kids.

The Eight Year Old Uses Tweezers To Pull A Sliver Out of His Daddy’s Hand

I’m digging around in there
with the tweezers but I can’t
get a grip on the thing.
My son, eight years old:
I know how to do it, he says,
because Mommy has taught me
and she is the master.
Let me do it, he says,
and I give over the tweezers.
And then, hand as steady
as a surgeon’s, he digs gently
into the palm of my hand
and successfully, painlessly,
removes a sliver, tiny and deep.

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#122: To My Son

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Dear son,
whatever befalls you in life,
whichever direction you choose to go,
wherever you go to school and
whatever you decide to study,
whatever religion you choose to follow,
even if you choose, wisely I might ad,
to follow no religion whatsoever,
to be a spiritual non-religious person,
whatever instrument you tackle,
even if you choose, poorly I might add,
to play no instrument at all,
wherever you decide to live,
whatever work at which you endeavor,
and finally whomever you choose to love,
I have one simple wish for you;
sure, call it advice, or instruction,
or admonition–I choose to think of it
as a request, a favor, a hope, a plea:
son, don’t be an ass.

That’s it.  It would be tempting
to list all manner of behaviors
uncharacteristic of an ass,
all the virtues and values and ideals
antithetical to the ass,
but somehow, I doubt this
would neither be helpful to you
nor make a good poem.  So I
say to you once more,
with the proviso that almost
anyone with half a heart or mind
can see and feel and smell
an ass coming from a mile away,
as I hope you will be able
to sense and check the tendency
in yourself, as your father has
tried and sometimes failed to do:

My dear son, don’t be an ass.

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#120: The Resident Eight Year Old Speaks of Easter

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Well, at first,
I thought it was
just about candy,
you know, just
as I thought
Christmas was
about presents.
And I thought
Easter was about
magical bunnies
just as Christmas
was about Santa.
But now I know.
Now I know that
Easter and the
Christmas holiday
are both about
Jesus. In December,
people celebrate
the birth of Jesus
and in April people
celebrate his death–
which is kind of
strange. But Dad
told me that
people believe
that Jesus
supposedly came
back to life and
that’s partly what’s so
special about Jesus.
I mean, not very
many dead people
can do that; it’s a
skill he had,
apparently. That’s
why, I guess, people
say Jesus is a god,
or that Jesus IS
god. I’m not so
sure. My parents
don’t take me to
church and they
don’t tell me to
believe one thing
or another thing
but I’m no dummy
and I can put
two and two
together and I
have come to the
conclusion that
Mom and Dad
are, all at once,
the tooth fairy,
the Easter bunny,
and Santa all
rolled into one,
or two, and because
they don’t go to church
I’m betting they have
their doubts about
the whole Jesus
coming back to life
thing. I had a lot
of fun this morning
looking for eggs
around the house
and finding the big
basket in the corner
behind the couch.
And I sacrificed a few
of my eggs so that
Dad could have a
hunt when he finally
got out of bed,
but I didn’t see
Jesus anywhere
and we didn’t say
any prayers or talk
about god. In
conclusion, my
Daddy wants me
to be older so that
I can make up my
own mind and
I think that’s fair.
Meanwhile,
Christmas and Easter
are just fun things
that we do and
I’m okay with that
for now.

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#118: The Boy Has Begun Practicing the Piano in Earnest

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The boy has begun
practicing the piano
in earnest, without
haranguing, without
cajoling, when
minecraft is not
available, he sits
down of his own
accord and plays
his excercises.  A joy-
ous occasion for
mom and dad,
who can see the
beginnings of a
fire burning for
music, of which
maybe they
suspected was
there, but had
not yet seen real
evidence. Don’t
count your chickens,
they say. All
right. No chickens
just yet, but a
gladness, nevertheless,
that, on his own,
the boy has begun
practicing the piano
in earnest.

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