Mastering the Art of Fine

I came from a family where excerpts of Amy Vanderbilt’s Etiquette were read with alarming frequency at the dining table.  We must have been slow learners.  Though it seems unlikely Amy would have condoned the fork jabbing I got for interrupting my father, I was certainly programmed to follow the rules.  Consequently, I know what I’m supposed to say when people ask me how I am.  But why ask at all if no one really expects a meaningful answer?

There are those awkward moments, of course–standing next to someone too lurky, quick-witted, or dashing for me to concentrate properly–when I find myself saying, “How are you?”as desperate filler.  In such instances, even if I might possibly care about the answer, most likely I cannot even hear it.  I am too busy plotting how to weasel out of my clammy-handed corner without drawing too much attention to myself.

But usually I genuinely want to know.  Therefore I feel some sort of moral imperative to answer frankly.  This can be a very bad idea.

The other day, I was really in the abyss, but I decided to drag myself out for some Culture and Shmoozing.  I have no clue why this seemed important in my state, but I got a sitter and shoved myself into something fancy-ish.  Hurtling across town, I practiced, “Fine.  And you?” in a relaxed and self-confident manner.  I knew I was going to see someone who intimidates me terribly.  Someone who makes me sweat but could totally change my life if I could just get her attention and assistance.  My plan was to have a casual chat, perhaps fawn just enough, and then hit her up for a wee bit of advice and support.

The moment of truth.  She turned and smiled when she saw me.  “How are things going?” she asked.  Guess what?  Not well.  My oldest child is depressed and anxious.  A good friend recently betrayed me.  My projects have completely stalled, my husband is out of town, and everything at home is in meltdown mode.  To top it off, I threw my back out vomiting repeatedly while dangling from the driver’s seat.  (My apologies to the kind people on Reposa Street).  I looked at her and started having an out-of-body sort of moment.  I saw myself manage a weak smile.

“It’s a mixed bag,” I squeaked before disappearing into the crowd.  I figure that’s progress.

Don’t get me started

What is wrong with how public education is structured for kids?

I don’t know where to start with this question.  The original structure of the school day was devised to prepare people for factory work–hence the length of the subject periods, regular breaks, that sort of thing.  Accordingly, as a teacher I had to schedule a certain number of MINUTES PER DAY for Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, et cetera.  Nevermind that good investigations, projects, and discussions do NOT conform to those sorts of timeframes, and that it is much more engaging and meaningful to learn to read through the arts or social studies…or learn to write and do math in order to complete scientific explorations.  The results of segregated subjects and truncated work times are often superficial and interfere with real learning.  How can we ever go deep in any particular direction?

About a decade ago, a study (the TIMMS report) revealed that in Japanese schools, 9 and 10-year-olds were exposed to an average of four topics in mathematics over the course of an entire YEAR of instruction.  That means that children might spend months exploring fractions in a meaningful and comprehensive way.  Furthermore, teachers had release time on a daily basis to plan together and discuss how to reach children who might be struggling, as well as those who needed more of a challenge.  What a concept–teachers could work together to hone their skills.  In contrast, a fourth grader in U.S. schools was expected to cover 35 or 40 topics in the same amount of time, and there was NO paid time to collaborate with colleagues.  Here’s your teaching guide, buddy.  Sink or swim. Oof.  There is nothing lonelier than the first year of teaching.

To top it off, No Child Left Behind forced us to focus an egregious amount of our time and energy on TEST TAKING, particularly in “at-risk” schools.  I was told to throw out most subjects and focus on the very basics of language arts and math.  Seriously.  Oh well.  Funding had already been cut for all of the “extras” anyway: art, music, physical education went by the wayside.  What is the goal here?  Test-taking drones?  To be clear, visual, performing arts, P.E. are all still included in the state standards, they just are not supported by funding, resources, teacher training programs and personnel.  And no one is thinking about your school’s play or integrated visual arts projects when they peruse the standardized test scores in the paper.

To make matters worse, every few years the textbook industry fuels an overhaul and we have to introduce a new math or language arts curriculum:  buy all new texts and supporting materials, get new training, and then, just as we start to reach proficiency with any particular set of materials, we start over with new ones.  Furthermore, the pendulum swings wildly between the pedagogy du jour, when the most obvious truth is that not all children learn by the same mechanism, and we need an approach which addresses many different learning styles.

A friend of mine–a teacher and a scientist–mentioned to me that the way we teach science is all backwards.  “To prepare students to be scientists,”  he mused, “we need to set out questions without knowing the answers.  THAT’S what science in the world is all about.  Pose the questions–better yet, solicit the questions–and investigate together.”  Nevermind, if we set aside time for science, we won’t meet the API goals for this year anyway.

Over My Head

Well, it looks like I may have lost my mind.  Decided to sign up for Post a Day to MAKE myself start writing on a regular basis…mainly because there are only 30 more days until Novel Writing Month!  November’s going to be a fucking self-imposed nightmare, so apparently I’m going to try and stress myself out all through October and use up all of my good ideas before the real writing needs to happen.