because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Please Don't Give My Kid a Trophy

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Little League was in full swing over Memorial Day weekend, and my son had two games. On Saturday, I watched my boy get up there to bat three times … only to strike out on three separate occasions. It was painful. I could make all kinds of excuses: The 14-year old umpire made a bunch of bad calls; the sun was in my child’s eyes; he was really tired after a late night get-together the night before. I could make excuses, but what is the point?

The reality is my kid is not a ‘ball boy.” He never has been.

My kid is cerebral. At 3-years old, he could easily build elaborate structures out of LEGO’s by following the often complicated instruction guides. These days, he has graduated to K’Nex and creates working shredders, beverage dispensers, even guns with working mechanisms. Granted, these devices shoot rubber bands or other K’Nex pieces, but still they are incredibly complicated little inventions. And the world needs engineers, right? That’s why they make pocket protectors.

So why am I all bent out of shape over his poor performance on the field?

"Little League Baseball" from metzgarpaul at flickr.com

I think it is because I am an athletic person, and sports have always come easily to me. I guess I’d hoped that by now – his 5th year in the League – he’d be more assertive in the sport and that those skills would transfer to his real life. I imagined he’d regularly hear his teammates praise him for catching a pop-fly or hitting a double or (dare I dream) a triple. I could hear them screaming his name as he slid into home, and as he stood up – his white pants brown and dusty – his teammates would smack him on the back and tell him of his awesomeness.

Bottom line: the fantasy didn’t happen. My child’s team got clobbered two days in a row, and he didn’t help much.

A friend of my husband’s recently commented, “The geeks rule the world,” and I guess I believe it to be true. I know everyone struggles somewhere and that adversity builds character; luckily, my child doesn’t define himself as a baseball player so his self-esteem is intact. Nevertheless, I think about these things as my son prepares to enter middle school. Perhaps I remember it all too well – the social hierarchy, and I know that no matter how cool computers have become in the last decade, sports are still important, and it is still easier to be a jock.

I hope they don’t give him some kind of trophy for “showing up” at this level of play. Frankly, he has more self-respect than to accept a bogus trophy for “participation.”


Stealth-Mode Purse Texters: OMG!

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As if The Mosquito Ringtone isn’t enough (see a few blogs back: 5/22/10), teachers also have to worry about making sure students aren’t texting in class. At Monroe Community College, once in a while, I’ve seen students swishing around in their backpacks and purses for extended periods of time. I usually approach these students and quietly tell them to turn off their cell phones. I want my students to know that I notice what they are doing, that their behavior matters to me.

In “How to Successfully Text During Class: Using Your Purse,” Laura Mae instructs students on how they can master stealth-mode texting. She writes:

First, [get a big floppy purse]. Instead of holding your purse in your lap, try laying it sideways on your desk. Keep the opening … facing toward you. Place your phone near the opening. … Your teacher won’t be able to … see your phone … because he/she will be at his/her desk. So you’re good there. If they suspect something and get up to walk around, casually, without looking, push your cellular device back into your purse with your finger just enough so you’re [sic] phone is covered.

If you have a Qwerty keyboard, you can text, but not as easily as if you have an original keypad. If you do have an original keypad, … memorize how many times you need to press each button for the desired letter. I believe every phone has that little bump in the number 5, so that should be easy to navigate to the letters if you find it. Example: While your [sic] not looking, move your finger to the number five. Move up one key. Press three times. Wait a few seconds. Press once. Move back to the center. Move down one key. Press once. I just spelled “cat.”

The dozens of grammar errors in Laura Mae’s article make it clear to me that Laura Mae has not been listening to her instructors for a while. How could she possibly be paying attention when her brain is expending so much energy on composing blind messages as well as thinking about where she has to place her fingers and how many times she has to tap-tap-tap in order to send her messages so that they will be coherent upon receipt? Or maybe it isn’t so much that she isn’t paying attention, but that she seems to care more so much more about her social life than fine-tuning or editing her ideas, important skills which she will need to draw upon in the future.

The pervasiveness of text-messaging in class poses problems for teachers, particularly in the area of  test security, as students can send answers or hints to fellow students via cell phones, destroying the integrity of an entire test with a few keystrokes. Obviously, cheating damages classroom culture, but this is not really the main issue in my essay driven classroom. More annoying is the fact that instruction is interrupted when someone is caught texting. Then the problem extends beyond breaking the rules and not paying attention because instructors have to stop teaching to handle the situation, disrupting the learning environment, wasting time and tuition.

Some people will give me their best Darwinian argument: Students who honestly pay attention will do well on their tests and papers and end up doing better in life then those who are screwing around with their cell phones in class, so let the texters text and grow up to be ditch-diggers. I’m sorry, but I just can’t buy into that argument: Not at the college level and not at the high school or middle school levels either. And my reasons only partially have to do with concern over future skills. I’m genuinely concerned with civility and respect: Two other important values Americans seem to be eagerly flushing down the toilet.

Is it really so much to ask to turn off the technology and respectfully tune-in to and engage with other humans for 50 minutes?

idk.


Note to a Twit, I Mean NYS Governor Paterson

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Dear Governor Paterson:

On Tuesday, May 25, 2010, you sent out your plea to your constituents to understand and embrace your “new and improve” modified sugar sweetened beverage tax package of “one cent per ounce excise tax [to] be added to sugary soft-drinks, bottled coffee and tea drinks with added sugar . . .  [while] eliminat[ing] the sales tax for bottled water and low-calorie drinks that have 10 or fewer calories per 8 oz. sugar-sweetened drinks.”

Later that same day,  I sat and watched a morbidly obese woman eating a ginormous bag of potato chips for lunch. And what was she washing those greasy chips down with? A liter of Diet Coke.

I don’t deny that there is an obesity epidemic in this country, but Governor, c’mon.

Photo by Todd Pitt/PictureGroup at Flickr.com

I understand your stated intentions, but who do you think you are kidding here? Truth be told, drinks that contain aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are not any healthier for people than drinks that contain sugar.

Your proposition is doomed to fail because the  premise upon which it rests is that in charging people more, you will somehow teach them to change their behavior. This is just like the cigarette tax. Did it stop people from smoking? Not so much: Nicotine fiends still find the money to get their smokes.

The same is true here. Fat or thin, people with poor eating habits will continue to make the same choices. No one is going to change his or her behavior because their favorite sugary drink costs a few extra nickels and dimes here or there. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: I know plenty of people who feel like because they drink diet soda they are earning “brownie points” – literally. Like the woman eating the bag of chips, I know folks who feel they can eat that extra slice of pie or that extra cookie because they are washing it down with diet soda. By gosh, they’ve earned it.

Oooh, I have an idea! Why don’t you tax items like chips, cookies, cakes, donuts and all fast food items in addition to sugary drinks. Yes, this is a good idea! Why stop with just the drinks? You aren’t thinking broadly enough.

You say that it is necessary to “take steps to help all New Yorkers adopt healthier lifestyles.” I’m all about helping people adopt healthier lifestyles, but a government tax on soda will not make people skinny or healthier; good diet and exercise by individuals will.

Listen, a lot of us are fat. We know. It’s kind of hard to miss. But that isn’t really what this is about, is it? Clearly, the State needs money, right? Why be so underhanded? Just tell the good people of New York that you need to raise taxes, but don’t pretend to care about the obesity problem in the country. Seriously, you don’t think that taxing sugary drinks is the answer, do you? Or . . . do you?

Could adding taxes on sugary drinks help curb obesity?

Toni Flores: A Woman Who Opened Minds

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I first met Professor Toni Flores as a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I was told by an upper-class student, “You have to take Toni,” and so I found myself in Professor Flores’ Introduction to Women Studies class which was filled with many first-year William Smith students. (The class might have even been called “Our Bodies, Ourselves” as that was our major textbook.) In her class we discussed things I’d never thought about before: sex and gender, the history of motherhood, feminism and the abortion debate, date rape. She challenged nearly every assumption I’d brought to college and turned it on its head.

Professor Flores in 1980s

As the weeks passed, I had the opportunity to get to know Professor Flores and she asked if I had any interest in babysitting for her, then, two young sons. I remember feeling terribly flattered that this woman, this icon, this goddess with long black hair, could have chosen anyone to watch her children – but she chose me. I felt this responsibility, this honor, as I arrived at Toni’s house. Her house was a little dark inside, but it was immediately obvious to me that her house epitomized her. Everything felt casual. Comfortable. There were no areas that were “off-limits” to the kids. There were artifacts – treasures – from her numerous trips to Mexico scattered about, blankets and lots of throw pillows. And books and books and books.

Professor Flores, late 1990s

At some point, during one of my visits with her children, I remember being in her kitchen (probably getting somebody a snack) and noticing a long line of ants marching directly from Toni’s sugar bowl in the cupboard, down the wall, across the floor and out a wee crack in the far wall.

When she arrived home after her meeting, I thought she might want to know about the bug situation, so I showed her the ants. Unfazed, and – true to her spirit – she crouched down over the little guys and watched them intensely for more than a few minutes. I remember looking at her, studying her, and seeing her smile. I remember the creases around her mouth, the joy she found in watching those little ants. She was able to find so much happiness in the little things. She was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

During my four years at college, she helped me with many things – personal things – but it is that little moment in her kitchen that I cling to.  Toni Flores, Professor of Women’s Studies and American Studies, died on November 3, 1997, after battling a long illness. Toni wasn’t horrified by life, any of it. She was amused by it, mostly. And I have tried to take that lesson from her.

Who was your favorite teacher, and what do you remember about him/her?

Sure, I’ll Write You A Recommendation…

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Mr. Stephenson circa 1980s

In 11th grade, I needed three stellar recommendations that I could send off with my college applications. I felt confident that I would receive solid letters from two of my former English teachers, but then I was kinda stuck. There was no way I could ask any of my math teachers. I mean, I enjoyed Geometry, but I wasn’t necessarily good at it, and my Algebra teacher had retired.

Finally, I decided to ask my French teacher. I’d been in his class for two years. I was reasonably interested in the material (kinda); I liked him a lot (that should count for something, right?); I did my homework (sometimes); and I tried not to laugh too much. Yes, I decided, Monsieur Stephenson would be the perfect person to write me the outstanding recommendation that I was seeking.

You can imagine how shocked I was when he flat out said no.

“Think about your performance in my class,” he said. “Do you give 100% ? Do you take everything seriously? Do you show me that you want to be here? Do you do anything extra?” He pushed his hair back with the palm of his hand and sat up straight in his chair. “Think about the answers to those questions and then you’ll understand why I can’t write you a letter.”

He did not say he was sorry.

Fast forward 25 years, and here it is, recommendation letter writing season and my former students are returning to me, sometimes three semesters after I’ve had them as students. Like frantic homing pigeons who have been lost for an awful long time, they ask me to write them all kinds of letters –  to get into four year colleges, to enter the military, to give to potential employers – so I find myself thinking of Monsieur Stephenson a lot.

Mr. Stephenson in the 1980s

When Monsieur refused me that day, he gave me a big dose of reality. It is not enough to simply show up: A person must do more than make a good impression. Many of my former students think that because they liked me – that because I was kind to them and they passed my class – that they are entitled to strong letters of recommendation, but the best letters of recommendation are not just about “passing the course,” but about work ethic and character, growth and potential.

I am grateful to Monsieur Stephenson for refusing me, as I see his wisdom in holding up the mirror before me and having me take a good hard look at myself and my choices. I understand that his mediocre letter could have prevented me from getting into the college of my choice. Students need to think carefully and be direct in asking any potential letter writer if that person can produce a strong letter of recommendation on their behalf. If a student cannot find a professor or teacher, they may have to get creative and look to coaches, neighbors, religious leaders, perhaps someone who has witnessed their involvement in community service.

I learned more than just French from Monsieur Stevenson: I learned to be selective about whom I agree to write letters of recommendation. They are time consuming endeavors; labors of love.

Having said that, I am happy to write one for you – if you deserve it.

Anybody refuse to write you a letter of recommendation? How’d you take it?

A Day Of Community Spirit

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This year, our temple invited members from synagogues from all over the area to join in a huge community celebration. While rabbis and daddies manned the grills outside to make sure that the laws of kashrut were being observed,  students and parents enjoyed instrumental and vocal performances, saw their children dance to Israeli music, and act in little plays. Afterward, everyone spilled out to a buffet lunch on our first really gorgeous blue-sky, green-grass day.

Girls enjoying the day

Before the kids in this video went inside to perform, I asked permission to videotape them. They are clearly a tight bunch; performing together does that to people. When I asked one of the kids how he felt about the year coming to an end he said, “It’s been a great year. Once we understood and accepted everyone’s different personalities, we could just focus on working together to make something cool.”

So on that day, I served burgers, offering seeded and unseeded rolls (there were also hot dogs and vegetarian alternatives), and my son got a little recognition for having stellar attendance. It felt good to come together as a community. The youngest children played simple games (the kind that involve ping-pong balls and spoons and a lot of running) while older kids played tag, teenagers lounged in the courtyard, and adults stood and chatted nearby. A gentle breeze blew. Not a bad way to end May.

When is the last time you did something that touched your spirit?

I Can't Believe I'm Sharing My Hair Guy

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Every few months, I have my hair highlighted at isobel, a chic little salon located at 796 South Clinton Avenue in Rochester, New York. isobel is truly one of the best kept secrets in town because, Owner, Michael Livernash, and stylist Stephanie Hernandez run the place with a level of personal attention not found in many other salons these days where one person may wash your hair, another may do the cut, while a third person might step in to finish. Not so at isobel where Michael and Stephanie work together to make every client feel special.

That said, I’m a little stingy about sharing Michael. First of all, I’m a bad sharer. I like the attention Michael gives me; I eat it up like the needy, little housewife that I am. I am pretty sure Michael gives all his clients this same level of attention; he seems to know everything about all of us. He sure as hell knows everything about me. He knows I want to look like Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, and he gets me pretty dang close (hair-wise). He laughs at my dorky jokes, but he also answers my questions seriously – when I have them.

Being a twit, I have been toying with trying this Brazilian Keratin Treatment that I’ve been hearing so much about. It’s a pricey procedure that takes several hours and, if done incorrectly, can result in serious damage. A naturally curly-haired girl, I recent saw a Tyra Banks Show where a woman with serious frizz tried the procedure and the results were nothing short of miraculous. She went from hair that was unable to be combed to smooth, shiny locks that obeyed. I asked Michael about it.

Before My Hair Appointment

He explained that it is actually a pretty cool technology, but there are two different kinds of product: one that contains formaldehyde, a serious toxin associated with all kinds of cancers (you know, they embalm dead bodies with that stuff), and another product that doesn’t contain formaldehyde.

Michael said in either case the “keratin penetrates the hair improving and repairing the quality of the hair from the inside.”

“So should I do it? I asked, uncertain.

“You have great curls. Why do you want to get rid of them?”

After Michael's Magic

You see, this is why I love Michael. Not only does he color my hair perfectly, but he says all the right things, too.

For now I am content to have Michael color and straighten my hair once every two months. It’s nice to know I have a choice. It’s even nicer to know I have Michael.

How many of you have used this Brazilian Hair Straightening Process? And what do you think?

Ode to Mark Kelly: The Man Who Helped Me Accept Chaos

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It was my third week at Metairie Park Country Day School and I could barely distinguish the administration building from the science building. I didn’t know where the nearest bathroom was, who to call about the broken desk in my classroom, or how to make the copier stop jamming.

For the first two weeks I called him Jeff. By the time I got it straight, I realized that Mark Kelly was not the technology guy; neither was he the Athletic Director. He was the Middle School Principal, and he’d come to the English office to pay me a visit, to see how I was doing, if I needed anything. How nice, I thought, how friendly the folks are around these parts. Little did I know that he was out to get me. Little did I know that I’d come face to face with the meanest practical joker east of the Mississippi. I made the mistake of sounding secure.

Mark Kelly

“Everything is great,” I said, trying to sound confident.

“Have you been to the Lower School?” he asked.

“Been there.” I said, feigning a yawn.

“What about the library?”

“Pu-leeze,” I lied.

“So you know what you’re doing?” he said, raising his eyebrow. “You have it all together?”

I nodded my head, snapped my fingers two times for effect, and headed off to class.  Later, after school ended and I had erased the blackboard, reorganized the desks in a circle, and collected my mail, I returned to the English office. I saw it from all the way across the room; my desk had been cleared. Everything was gone.

When I realized the gravity of the situation, I gasped aloud: “My grade book!” It held all my students’ grades, all my attendance records.  I think I vomited a little in my mouth.

Sitting behind me, looking calm, was Mr. Kelly.  He smiled, arms crossed over his chest.  “So, you’ve really got it all together…”

“Where is it?  What have you done with it?!” I squeaked.

“It’s around,” he said coolly.

Suffice it to say that Mr. Kelly sent me on quite a scavenger hunt. During my journey, I located the Lower School atrium, the Upper School attendance office, the library – and I met fabulous folks all along the way. In the end, it turned out that Mr. Kelly had stashed all my goods in an empty file cabinet drawer right there in the English office, about two steps away from my desk. I pulled all my belongings out of the drawer, unharmed, and set about reorganizing. Mr. Kelly gurgled and chortled behind me.

Truth be told, I miss the way Mark Kelly batted me around the way some giant cat might play with a mouse or a bird. I miss hearing his booming laugh behind me at school plays; I miss his multi-colored Tabasco ties; I miss his wit, his charm, his teasing, and his teaching. Mark put a little bounce in my step. He taught me to stay on my toes.  He taught me never to brag about being done with something early. He taught me how order in the world is artificial and how easy it is to lose control. He made me explore, go out and meet people, go into unfamiliar territory, and find answers. It is so easy to get stuck in our own little comfort zones.

Mark has been working as Head of School at Annunciation Orthodox School in Houston, Texas for the last 14 years. I like to think that this little Grasshopper has become like her master and that I instill in my students the same thrill for exploration and the same joy at being slightly off- center.

When is the last time someone made you feel a little off balance – in a good way?

Proud Not To Be A Texan

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After much debate, the Texas State Board of Education passed new high school textbook standards that recast U.S. history from the point of view of a conservative movement.

The AP reports on the 9-5 vote by the Republican-dominated board:

The partisan board has amended or watered down the teaching of the civil rights movement, slavery, America’s relationship with the U.N. and hundreds of other items. … They dictate how political events and figures will be taught to some 4.8 million schoolchildren in Texas … for the next decade.

The new standards state that students must “discuss alternatives regarding long-term entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, given the decreasing worker to retiree ratio.” Another clause says students must “describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schafly, (best known as an opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment – which has yet to be adopted), the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association.”

In the video below, note how Republican board member Cynthia Dunbar begins the meeting on Friday May 21, 2010. She says (amongst many other things that made my jaw drop), “I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England … the same objective is present: a Christian land governed by Christian principles,” she says.

Call me crazy, but if people want their children to be “governed by Christian principles,” they might consider sending their children to private Christian schools, from which there are many to choose. But we are talking about public education here. Public schools have always served as the place where children of all races, classes and religious beliefs meet up to learn skills that will help them become productive members of our society. Christian principles non-withstanding, these new curriculum requirements in Texas are so slanted to the right, they seem to actively discourage critical thinking skills.

My ethnically diverse neighborhood in Western, New York is home to Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and atheists. Personally, I was surprised that Ms. Dunbar was allowed the begin the school board meeting with this kind of invocation, as I always thought that Thomas Jefferson strongly advocated a separation of Church and State. I guess in Texas that baby was tossed out with the bathwater, too.

If life were a playground game of “Mother, May I,” it would seem that the Texas Board of Education has just taken one giant leap towards revisionist history. A good educator can work with any kind of textbook (even without a textbook), but it is difficult when such strong bias is presented as Truth to students who simply don’t know to ask about the other sides(s) to these complex issues.

On an up-note, in this miserable economy, I guess it’s a good time to be a textbook writer.

What do you think about the textbook decision in Texas?

Ringtones Adults Aren't Supposed To Hear

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Texting & the rocket summer, originally uploaded by racheocity.

As a general rule, unless someone has an Individualized Educational Plan, I require students to turn off all electronics for the 50 minutes they are in my class. iPods and MP3 Players? Off. Laptops? Off. Cellphones? I don’t even want them on vibrate as I find the buzz distracting. No one has ever balked; however, this past fall I did have a weird experience that caused me to learn about something new in the ever-evolving world of technology.

In this one particular classroom, students generally sat in straight lines facing front: Not my favorite configuration, but we didn’t have many options in our tiny, sterile, windowless space. One day, for no apparent reason, several students looked sharply to the opposite side of the room at the exact same moment while other students covered their ears. Thinking nothing of it, I simply continued my lesson. After class, a most loyal student told me about The Mosquito Ringtone, a tone specifically designed to ring at a decibel that is not easily detected by adult ears. This student also told me that some students use it to cheat.

Apparently, British inventor, Howard Stapleton discovered an ultra high frequency that drives away teens much like a dog whistle affects dogs. His idea was to use his invention to keep teenagers from loitering outside of shops at night, thus making the area around his storefront uncomfortable for loitering teens while leaving the money-spending adult customers unaffected.

As stated in the website for Mosquito Ringtones:

… teens from the inventor’s hometown caught on to what the company was doing and decided to put turn the idea into something they could use. They took the ultra sonic frequency and converted into to a cell phone ringtone which they aptly named “Teen Buzz.”… The ringtone caught on like wildfire in the UK and quickly spread throughout the reaches of the Internet to teens everywhere. Teens learned they could hear each others phones ringing at school but their teachers couldn’t.

Initially skeptical, I was amazed when tried the hearing test experiment with my 10 year-old son and learned that I simply could not hear certain tones beyond a certain frequency. I kept saying, “Can you really hear something?” and he kept saying, “Yes, I can hear it. Now can you turn it off!” I thought I had great hearing! Sheesh! Since that day, I have remained ever-vigilant in class, relying on my eyes as well as my ears. Students are clever and always a step ahead when it comes to technology – especially when it comes to finding a way to use it to cut corners or keep up with their important social lives!

I must admit, I have been waiting for a similar incident to occur. It hasn’t (yet), but at least now I am prepared.

Have you come across this technology in your life? What do you think about it?