Ramblings on Lobsters, Testing, Brownstones and Poetry over the John

One sticky New Hampshire July summer evening while hosting the annual lobster and clamfest for our UNH Summer Literacy Institute, Donald Murray was in the house.  Now you must know that to have Don in my house was an honor.  He was a man I had admired since I was an undergraduate and then here he was all hot and buttered fingers and faces on the back deck with the rest of us.

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Donald Murray

And then it happened.  He walked right up to me and asked, “Who wrote the poem, ‘Over the John’?”  I froze.  What?  The ultimate test had come my way and as my face heated up and I began to sweat, I flipped through the suddenly empty files in my brain, wracking it for any poet I could think of.  The words, who wrote Over the John? Over the John?, Over the John?, reverberated in my head.  As I agonized I realized he was staring at me…waiting for an answer and so finally, in the ultimate defeat I simply admitted, “I don’t think I know that poem.”  At which point Donald Murray let out a larger than life guffaw of a laugh and re-stated, “No, the poem over the john in the bathroom, who wrote that?”

And in my state of stunned stupidity it still took me a moment to actually realize that he was not testing me at all but simply asking me a question to which I knew the answer.  “Oh!  My daughter wrote that in 3rd grade.”  To which he responded that she was quite a little writer.  And then he left me there in all of my shame to melt in my sense of stupidity.  I hate tests.  I have always hated tests and this was a self-imposed one.  The pressure makes me stupid.

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The “actual” poem over the john!

So what if we are all made stupider by tests?  And if that is not the case then what about the some of us that are?  I will admit it; I am one of the worlds worst test takers.  When I see a question and then the 4 possible answers I try to think about the “right” one and while one might seem “more” or “less” right, I get stuck on imagining the possibilities of what “could” or “could not” be right.  I see grey in a world of black and white.  I stammer in the ideas that the test is probably trying to trick me and so I get obsessed with thinking about outwitting, outplaying, and outlasting the test.  Yes, I want to be the sole Survivor, but I get too caught up in the game and then I simply freeze and ultimately I am blindsided and voted off the island.  I lose.

This past weekend in NYC at Barnard (see previous post as well as here:  Totalwebcasting.com/live/columbiatc/20130504/ for live on streaming) was eye opening on so many levels.  It made me wonder about so many things…many of which have to do with testing and beyond.  I heard stories, saw grown men weep, and felt passion so great it was palpable.  I met people that I have only “known” on-line for the first time in person.

I was welcomed into Renee Dinnerstein’s (See her blog here:  http://investigatingchoicetime.com/)   home in Brooklyn…our first face to face meeting ever and she hosted me for 2 nights.   We talked for all the time I was there.  She introduced me to her husband, Simon and his incredible works of art that line their Brooklyn Brownstone and beyond.   She took me to the public schools of NYC, gave me history of the area, of her life, the schools, the system.  We visited an exhibit at the Brooklyn art museum by Anatsui, amazing!!  Thank you Renee for your kind hospitality and for bringing together great minds for brunch where I also met Vicki Vinton, (See Vicki’s blog here: http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com/)  on-line colleague, for the first time.   But most of all I learned that I am not alone in this endeavor.  There are so many of us out there who are so discouraged, outraged and ready to take action.

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Tomasen and Renee at Anatsui exhibit

And while I was hoping to have a great post synthesizing the weekend, I realize I still have a great deal of processing to do.

And so as my 16-year-old Zachary heads out the door for his annual NECAP testing this morning he seems to be fine with it.  Both of my kids are better test takers than I am.   In fact, he enjoys the testing perks…early senior privileges and the fact that teachers are not allowed to give homework during testing because they want students performance to be stellar.  (Is it just me or can you see how ironic this is?)  Our schools are ready and willing to help students get more sleep FOR the tests, but not for everyday schooling.  Sometimes I think I am crazy, or just looking for answers in my brain that are just not there.  Am I asking the right questions?  That is the real question, or am I just searching for something over the john?

You tell me.

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Alternatives and Activism: Reclaiming the Conversation on Education

This weekend I will join educational colleagues, professionals, parents, students and friends at Barnard College in New York City to “take back” the Conversation on Education.  Does it strike me that this is close to the name of my blog?  Why yes, and while it initially inspired me to make this trip, it was more about the idea that “we” can actually DO something about what is happening in the corporate takeover of our public school systems.  This is the blurb that made me sign-up.

“If you want to move beyond the focus on test scores, performance outcomes, standardization, and data aggregation, if you are tired of seeing your students deprived of real educational opportunities, if you worry teaching is being reduced to test prep and educators are losing their autonomy and academic freedom, and if you believe all our children should have access to a curriculum and extra-curriculum that are far more engaging that stripped down cram courses or subsistence level job training, then this is the conference for you.”

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And if that didn’t convince me then this panel of experts certainly did!!

“Hear speakers such as Susan Ohanian, Barbara Bowen, Carol Burris, Zakiyah Ansari, Juan Gonzalez, Barbara Madeloni, Ceresta Smith, Brian Jones, Nikhil Goyal, Ann Cook, and Shino Tanikawa and join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”

But of course the real kicker is that last line, “join with your colleagues to mobilize resistance.”  What a great line!  At first I recall being in college and while taking one of my initial  courses in education we were assigned the task of doing something we had never done before.  The goal was to get out of our comfort zones and to reflect on that experience.  I chose to go to a local anti-nuclear demonstration.   I did not have to do much to dress the part as anyone who knew me in High School or college knows that I came by the “crunchy” quite naturally.  What I remember the most about this rally was the collective energy and power that I felt there.  It was exhilarating, amazing and empowering.  It was a place where I began to develop and strengthen my voice.

Flash forward, too many years to count, and I find myself at dinner in Ohio with my daughter and 6 of her college friends at a round table where the discussion centered on the increase in tuition for students going abroad, a policy that was delivered to students at an informational meeting.  They were outraged at the way it was handled and so I asked them, “What can you do about this?”   Their collective reply was “nothing”.

They felt they did not have a voice in the policy at Kenyon College even though they entered 2 years prior with a very real sense of what the cost would be for the 4 years.  I talked to them about a Grandfather Clause and what they might be able to do.  This tuition increase was a major hit to most of these kids and yet the overwhelming consensus what that they did not feel empowered, they did not believe they had any voice; they did not believe that anything they might do would matter.

And so, in my not so subtle manner I started asking questions and suggesting ways to let their voices be heard.  By the end of the meal they were fired up and had grand plans to set up a table during parents weekend to bring attention to this issue, as parents were never formally informed and would not even know until the tuition bill arrived in the mail.  And while they had visions of posters and signs and standing up for their rights…none of this actually ever happened.  Why?  Because ultimately they did not believe it would matter.

Isn’t college the perfect place to get  involved in make change?  Have we lost this generation to the cow towing and conformity that they have had a steady diet of?   Or have they just not yet discovered the power of their voices?  Or, are they right?

Looking again at that last line…I get a different feel.  We will gather to “mobilize resistance” and it hits me, these are wartime words.  These are the words of troops and lieutenants.  And I wonder…have we really come that far?  Is this an all out war?

I don’t know the answer to these questions.  I do know that I have such passionate discourse about what is happening and that while blogging about it has helped me to research further and write down my thoughts I realize it is not enough.

I want to join the collective voice of others at the rally.  I want to begin the process of change with like-minded people who are not going to just sit at the table and watch this happen.  I want to join with the forces that believe we CAN and WILL do something.   I want to show this younger generation that there is power in numbers and activism and alternatives to just accepting whatever comes down the proverbial pipeline.  I want to model that they too can have their voices be heard.

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Photo Credit: teacherscount.wordpress.com

So…here I go…off to the Big Apple.  Perhaps I will dig out one of my old Indian skirts, find a complimentary embroidered shirt and sandals for the occasion….and had I thought of it earlier I could have even gotten a perm, “Wonder Tomasen…activate!”

For more information on this conference check out the blog http://reclaimingconversation.blogspot.com  It will also be live streamed.

The Goody Bag Generation: Conformity, Performance and Privileges in State Testing

These past 7 months have been some of the craziest of my life in a long time.  This past fall my daughter became depressed while away at school in Ohio.   Helping her through her difficult time from 800 miles away via the telephone was challenging…to say the least.  Then my father, now 84 became very ill and almost passed away at Christmas in the midst of their trying to sell their condo and buy a new house.  Then February 1st, I get a frantic phone call from my Dad telling me they are across the river watching their condo burn up in flames.  That night they moved in and stayed for 6 weeks.  The day after my parents moved out my son crashed my new car and it has been in the shop ever since.   And then my dear friend Karen lost her son, Jimmy to cancer.

And yet here I am 7 months later and my daughter has made some very difficult and adult decisions to improve her life and is doing fabulously.  My Dad recovered miraculously and is doing better than ever.  My parents have moved to their little house up north and although my car is in the shop, it is all good.  What is not so good is my friend Karen.  How does one even begin to live after losing a child?  I don’t know.  I honestly don’t know.

 It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.   

~Epictetus

And so here I find myself evaluating what really matters in life when I receive a letter from my son’s High School punctuating, yet again what really matters in our public school systems.

The first paragraph states that several years ago our 11th grade students were not performing well on the State Test, NECAP.  It goes on to say that the “Data Strategies Team” (don’t even get me started here!!)  investigated and interviewed students to understand their lack of motivation.  This study revealed that our students got smart and stopped performing on state tests because they realized these tests had nothing to do with their futures because they did not have anything to do with their class ranks or GPA’s.   (I was on the school board at this point in time and remember celebrating these students and how smart and courageous they were!)

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The second paragraph goes on to say that after these findings they decided to create a big fat carrot in the name of senior privileges for those juniors who achieved a score of “proficient”  or above in all three areas of reading, math and writing on these state tests.

The third paragraph tells me “You are receiving this letter because your son or daughter will be allowed Junior Privileges beginning April 29th”.  This means that my son can leave campus during unassigned periods and it allows him the freedom to “go to various destinations within in the building.”  It is his get out of jail card and all because he was able to perform FOR them.

I am outraged by this…what are we doing hanging out carrots for a one time test?  What about those kids who may not test well?  What if those same kids who bombed the test are stellar students working hard each and every day?  What about students with Special Needs?  WHAT are we rewarding here?   And why?

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Why?  I will tell you why…because these tests have nothing to do with our kids, how they learn or  their futures…it is all about feeding the big number crunching machine to demonstrate that our schools are not failing.

Well…I would argue the opposite.  School is failing my son miserably and yet he gets these privileges because he conformed and performed and did what was expected of him…NOT because he was learning, thinking, creating, wondering, exploring and discovering the joy of learning.  What is the greater message we are sending here?

Is it just me?  I am sure that some parents might be celebrating his or her child’s ability to test well and “earn” these special privileges.  The letter is written on beautiful school stationary to be framed and hung on the wall.  Another badge of honor to be worn by parents to show their child measures up.  But not me.

It is just another reminder that it is not about our kids and their learning.  What matters is that our students consistently conform, perform and then get a goody bag for doing so.

Photo Credits: www.visual-learners.comdouglasemerson.blogs.com,

All in Favor of Free Range Children, Say Bok!

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them. ~ Dalai Lama

Last year my sister ordered 16 baby chicks in the mail so that she could have her own eggs and know exactly where they came from.  Her goal: to raise happy, healthy free range chickens fed the top of the line organic food.  No antibiotics or cheap genetically modified corn products for these chickens au natural!

She loves her chickens.  When they first graduated from the warmly lit crate in the house to the coop she would go daily for “play time”, sit with them and hold them and even talk to them.  Her thinking… happy, loved chickens will eventually produce happy healthy eggs.  Can you say “crazy chicken lady?”  But truly what she was doing really made so much sense!!  Crazy or not!

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Sister Lisa with one of her “Goldies”!

There are more and more people ordering baby chicks to free range them.  There are many movements to eat locally and small farms seem to be sprouting up everywhere you look.  We are urged to get back to our roots and consider where our food comes from.  We know that GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms) are taking over all of our food sources.  These modifications involve the mutation, insertion or deletion of genes to produce something more quickly, more efficiently and to be adverse to pests or to improve the shelf life of a particular food.  What is happening is we are creating foods that our bodies do not recognize and that we cannot process.  The results are out there.  Just look around and see more obesity than ever in history.  We are farming with our heads and forgetting our hearts and we are hurting our food sources and ultimately ourselves.  So the movement is to move closer to home, closer to the heart.

Free ranging is defined where animals are ”permitted to graze or forage rather than being confined to a feedlot.”  And if you have not seen those feedlots then it is well worth your while to check them out.  There are various documentaries that show how these poor chickens are raised to mass-produce and it is completely inhumane.  (See King Corn, Farmageddon or Food Fight)

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And I would argue here that what we are doing to our kids in schools is equally inhumane.  The idea of kids mass-producing great numbers on sterile tests is so far away from why we are here on this earth and what really matters.  It is education without heart.  It is education without soul.  It is education without wonder, curiosity and surprise.  It is all about the brain.  We are intellectualizing ourselves right out of ourselves. We need heart AND mind!!

While I am a proponent of competition in some areas of life, this notion of competing has become the GMO’s of education. Performance is all that is looked at and yet what do we need for our kids to perform?  They need just what the chickens do!  They need opportunities to be free and think and make decisions and to fail and ultimately they need their own version of “the crazy chicken lady”.  Someone who is so dedicated to their needs and the raise them as well-rounded and happy chickens!!  There are so many crazy chicken ladies (and men) out there dying to do their jobs but are less and less able to do so.  We are hurting our kids and our teachers and everyone else involved with the sole purpose of production.  It is a business model that is being taken to the extreme.

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If all we ask of our students is to perform then we are going to crack and break them one precious egg at a time.  And dare I even say, what happens when they don’t perform?  Will we then consider genetically modifying them to fit in?  Call me crazy, but I think this has already begun with the increase of kids who are medicated in our schools for ADD and the likes.  Why?  So that they will conform to the feedlot of corporate education.

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Hmmmm…and so I imagine a world of free -range children…where schools are a place where hearts and minds  are permitted to graze and explore instead of being confined to the feedlot of corporate America.  What a beautiful fantasy this is.  Can you even imagine?

It makes me think of my dear friend and colleague, Louise, who tells a great story about teaching preschool in the 70’s in northern New Hampshire.  On any given day she and her co- teachers might decide it was a nice day for a field trip.  So they would load up all the kids in the VW bus, leave a note on the door for parents as to their whereabouts and head off to the local mountain or lakeside or whatever their fancy.  For me this is the epitome of free range education and something that would never happen today.

The corporate takeover in education is daunting.  The more people and parents and friends and anyone  I talk to outside of education don’t even know what is going on.  Even those of us in education are often left helpless with the enormity of the situation and just how enmeshed it all is. I just want to say BOK in favor of free range children and baulk at these takeovers and say enough is enough.   Will you Bok with me?  Just say Bok!!

I love eating the eggs from my sister’s chickens.  There is something so perfect about it…I mean even my son when he had his first taste of these eggs exclaimed, “these are the best eggs in the world!!”  And they are.  They are not like supermarket eggs.  They are all different shapes and sizes and the color of them is glorious.  A deep orange that screams with great energy, love and hope!

I know, I know…all that in just one egg!  But you know…it is all in that one egg.  The love, nurturing, heart, soul and respect for the production of that egg that goes on to nurture those who eat it and so on.  The same can be said of taking care of and nurturing our kids in schools…one egg at a time. Bok Bok!!

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt  “~ Dalai Lama

Photo Credits: www.slow-life.co.uk , www.mamamia.com.austrategicoutcomesgroup.com