Category Archives: Parenting

Entries about being a Dad

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

Fancy Em

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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#87: Morning Meditation with Nerf Gun

Em with Gun

While the boy loads his weapon and hides,
Dad walks slowly around the yard, breathing.
He knows the ambush is coming, but tries for
and momentarily achieves a quiet mind.
Even while he’s absorbing the cool morning
air of a sunny spring day and loving the trees
as they await their first blooms of the season,
Dad is no sitting duck.  He walks and breathes,
but at his side is a loaded nerf gun,
six darts in the cartridge, ready for battle.

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#83: The American High School English Teacher Tries To Do Second Grade Math

Math-Symbols

Show your work, the instructions say, in tens and ones.
Okay. Fair enough. What’s the problem?

35 – 18 = ____

When I was a kid learning to do the math,
we were taught to borrow from the tens column
which made a problem like this easier to do; it
made one hard problem with two big numbers
into two easier problems with smaller numbers and
everything worked out nicely.
You ended up, without too many mental gymnastics,
with 
a neat and tidy correct answer:  17.

But now, you must show  your work in tens and ones.

I could not figure it out.  I learned, only after
an email to the teacher and specific instructions sent home,
that you create a graphic representation for each number,
say, three slash marks for 30 and next to that, five circles for 5;
underneath that you make one slash mark for 10 and eight circles for 8.
You cross out one 10 from three tens and you get 20, but you know,
you can’t take 8 ones away from 5, so you have to do that borrowing thing
by graphically crossing out another 10 slash mark
and then replacing that by putting 10 more circles over there with the
5 over the 8.  Okay, now we’ve got something like 15 circles over 8.
Subtract or cross out  8 from 15 and you’ve got 7!  Ad that loner 10 to the 7
and you’ve got 17.

By the end of that first evening, before I got the remedial second grade
math help I needed, the symbolic part, flustering even his double
masters degree dad, gets the boy 
saying the words every parent,
but especially one who happens to be an educator, dreads,
that homework sucks 
and math, in particular, is stupid,
and additionally,
the boy is weeping and throwing a tantrum.

I’m doing my best to be encouraging and supportive
but it’s really difficult because I’m having a real
hard time with the new math where the young ones
are expected to make the abstract concrete
by drawing pictures for every move in a problem
they can probably do in their head while they cry
and begin learning to hate school.

I am there to do some cheerleading.
Maybe it helps the boy to see his father
struggling with the problem; maybe the boy
feels validated when his dad says he’ll
write the teacher an email asking to be
taught some second grade math so that
he can help his son;  and maybe he learns
the really difficult lesson that so many
of my high schoolers never picked up:
hold to the difficult, Rilke says, learn
to love the questions themselves.
The math will be solved when it’s
ready to be solved and soon, maybe
we’ll live our way into the answers.
So we move the second grader from
addition and subtraction of double digit
numbers to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
and we see how that flies.

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#80: Shaping the Pixels (Another Minecraft Poem)

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There seems to be an inexhaustible amount
of stuff that can be known about this game.
Dad writes a poem to articulate his emerging
understanding of his eight year old son’s
favorite past time, and realizes in short order
that he’s only scratched the surface, that he’s
only scratched the surface of the surface,
that he has discovered about Minecraft
the upper topmost tip of an iceberg
that’s not melting, or, the equivalent of his
meager lifespan compared
to all geological time.

And the boy wants to teach his father
everything.  What do you want to know
about minecraft? he says.  And Dad will ask questions.
What’s the most important thing to know?
Or, what do you like most about the game?
And he says, I like to mine and I like to craft.
And he’ll want to build things there, just for Dad.
Dad, make a list of things you want me to build!
And sometimes the conversations get weird.
There’s food in minecraft, he says, and without minecraft
foods you wouldn’t be able to survive in minecraft.
You have a hunger bar.  And if the hunger bar
goes all the way out, you start losing health
and you might die.  How do you find food? Dad asks.
You kill animals or find them in dungeons.
I found an apple pie once in a dungeon.
Can you choose to be a vegetarian?
There are no vegetables in minecraft, he says,
only carrots and potatoes.  Is a potato a vegetable?
No, a potato is a potato and an apple is a fruit.
How do you tell the difference between a fruit
and a vegetable?  By looking, of course.
Okay, but just by looking, how do you tell them apart,
how do you tell a fruit from a vegetable?
Because in real life, he says, I shape the pixels
into what it is, and that’s that.

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#79: A Minecraft Poem (Dad’s Understanding Emerges)

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As I understand it, Minecraft is a computer game
in which a first person player named Steve
wanders through a seemingly endless outdoor landscape
made entirely of blocks of things. The grass, the trees,
the water, the hills, the clouds in the sky–all blocks
(nothing in this world is curved, arched, or angular-slanty).
In his wandering,
Steve digs holes in the ground, holes that consist
entirely of right angles. In his digging,
he finds things and collects things and stores them
away for future use. This is the mining aspect,
I gather. Steve can then build things with the stuff
he has collected, whatever he wants, again, using
only square blocks of collected stuff: wood, iron, dirt, glass,
brick, grass, and a dozen or more other kinds
of material, the names of which escape me.
Steve can build a house, a restaurant,
a library, a fort, a shelter, a tower,

a tunnel, a roller coaster, he can plant
a garden, he can make any thing that might
amuse him.  This is the craft aspect, I assume.
So he wanders, mines, and crafts.  But Steve is not alone.

The world is inhabited, if Steve chooses it to be,
with blocky entities called Creepers and  Zombies,
cube-constructed animals like chickens, cows, and pigs,
all of which, I think, Steve can “spawn” for his
use and amusement, or even  kill, if he likes.
If he kills a chicken 
or a cow or a pig, the death
of that animal can become 
food for Steve.
It is necessary in this game, I think,

for Steve to consume food.  To kill a Creeper
or a Zombie, or an animal for that matter,
Steve must simply hit his target with something,
some kind of weapon he has mined and crafted,
and as he hits his target it jumps back a few times,
stunned but decidedly unharmed.  But if
Steve continues to hit at the Creeper or
the Zombie or the animal, it flashes red
as it jumps back, indicating, I think, its eminent
demise.  When it dies, it falls over on its side
and then simply disappears.  Not a gory
affair, by any measure, but violent, nonetheless.

But the killing of things, or the fighting of
bad guys, does not seem to be the game’s primary
purpose. The goal of Minecraft, at least from Dad’s
perspective, is allusive, ambiguous.  But he thinks
he may have stumbled on a working theory.
Dad has finally reached the conclusion
that the ultimate goal of Minecraft
is to continue to play Minecraft.

The graphics are surprisingly primitive,
the soundtrack minimal, often soothing,
but what gives the boy  the ultimate thrill
that keeps him going and going until Dad
and Mom pull the plug is this feeling perhaps
of unlimited possibility and unfettered control
to move and manipulate this endless space,
this landscape, this mutable and ever-changing
environment that becomes entirely his
and only his. And if he chooses, if he tires
of being Steve, he can reinvent himself
with a new skin and a new identity.
And, if he is feeling lonely, he can join
others via the mighty web in worlds
they have created and opened up
for visitors.  This is the aspect that makes
Dad nervous, but so far, as far as Dad can tell,
no harm, no foul.  What also worries Dad,
to a lesser degree, is that what seems to interest
his son is a game called Minecraft.  After that,
Minecraft comes in at a close second.
His third choice: Minecraft.  And finally,
in a tight race for fourth place but moving
steadily and stealthily into stiff competition,
are videos of other guys playing videos
of Minecraft.

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