Thursday, May 17, 2007

Abbey's Birthday

Abbey in Grandma Connie's backyard sometime before her second birthdayWhen Abbey was young she was inquisitive. We lived in Canberra, Australia, for almost four years; and because my epilepsy prevented me from getting a driver's license back then, we went many places on a bicycle together. I peddled while she sat in the kiddy seat and asked questions. Question after question after question...

Daddy, why is the sky blue?

I know there's some answer to that - something about how molecules in the air scatter blue light from the sun more than they scatter red light. That's a lot to say when you're peddling up hill with a forty pound passenger on your bike.

It's just that way, sweetie.

Well, why doesn't it rain more here?

Because most of Australia is desert and the air here is pretty dry...

I worked to suck more air in so that I could talk while I peddled.

Well then why doesn't it rain less?

Abbey at a petting zone near Tazewell, about 1998I'm sure there had to be some good reason for that, too.

Well, uh...

Does powdered milk come from powdered cows?

I was still working on "rain less" in my head.

Not quite, I said. We’d had a lot of powdered milk when we'd lived in the Pacific and the girls used to wrinkle their noses up and ask if it was "real" milk. I'd tell them it certainly wasn't imaginary...

Is all grass the same color green?

I knew the answer to this one and I liked "yes" or "no" questions when I was the one peddling.

Abbey on the phone, by her sister HannahNo, I said. Grass comes in lots of different shades of green.

She was quiet for a moment, like she was considering the implications of that botanical fact. I waited for a follow up question. At the age of four Abbey was a pretty sharp child, probably because she was so inquisitive...

Why can't I go to school yet?

Hmmm. No follow up.

Hannah goes to school. Why can't I go to school?

Your sister is older than you, I said. You get to go to school with her next year.

We arrived at our destination. The Youth With A Mission facility in Canberra, where I worked, had a large courtyard; there were other kids Abbey's age whose parents were there for short term training of some kind or other. I unbuckled her from the bicycle seat and she ran off with one of them to play...

It seems like such a long time ago. Abbey's not a little girl anymore. She still asks simple-but-hard questions and often doesn't like the answers she gets.

On May 20th this week Abbey turns 20. If you read this, Abbey, happy birthday. Cheryl and I love you...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My Favorite Isogloss

I love languages. Linguistics, the study of how language works (not some particular language but all language) is one of my favorite topics.

I don't know when it started. In high school I took Latin and German (my father was stationed in Germany in the Army and we lived in Stuttgart). In college I dabbled in New Testament-era Greek. In grad school I took a year of Malay and did linguistic work with native speakers of Lugandan (an African langauge) and Finnish. And in my travels I've learned a few words of Thai, Chamorro, Chinese, Korean, French, Japanese, Tamil, Italian, Hawaiian, Tagalog, Ponepean, Russian, Arabic, and... You get the idea.

An isogloss is a geographic area that is characterized by some linguistic feature. The feature could be phonetic - like the area of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard where local people pronounce the name on one of the states as "nu joy-zee." But my favorite isoglosses have to do with vocabulary - with the words we use.

There's a line my wife and I drive across pretty regularly and when we drive across that line we leave one isogloss and cross into another. It's in West Virginia on US Rt 19. Going north, after you leave Fayetteville, you pass Smales Branch. It's the last "branch" you see. Then shortly after you leave Summersville you come to Spruce Run, and then Bear Run.

As a boy growing up I knew what a "branch" was in reference to a flowing body of water. Springs come out of the ground and, flowing away from their source turn into branches, which then grow to be creeks and eventually are promoted to rivers. We didn't have runs where I grew up. One effect of that was that I always wondered about the name of that great Civil War battle, Bull Run. I could picture the Confederates in gray and the Union boys in blue - and the bulls, running. I figured they probably interfered a lot with the battle. It's hard to concentrate on shooting when you know a bull might step on you at any time.

We've made the drive from the Bluefield, Va. area to the panhandle of Maryland many times. When I first commented on that line we crossed, my sweet wife thought that it was funny (as in puzzling or peculiar) that I thought the line was interesting. She grew up where there were runs and knew that at Bull Run all the soldiers had to cope with was a trickle of water, not bulls.

Oh well, for now at least: my favorite isogloss is that line that seems to divide people's vocabulary regarding flowing water into runs or branches...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Comes the test...

Tomorrow my school system starts the test. You know. The high stakes test. The one to see whether or not we're a good school, or whether the parents deserve to be able to send their kids someplace else.

In my state, West Virginia, the test is called the WESTEST. It's untimed. Tomorrow we'll test reading. The test will start at 9:00 am (or there abouts) and most of the kids will be finished by lunch. I believe we will test Math on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are social studies and science.

I could tell you more of the details of testing, but I figure you'd stop reading this if I did. It doesn't really matter, those details. The bottom line is that we have to make a certain score (at least in Math and Reading) in order to be seen as having made adequate yearly progress. A certain percentage of our kids have to display mastery of the subjects tested, or we're a "bad" school. Mastery is like a low "B" and the students could score in categories above mastery on the test.

At the moment the percentage of students that have to score mastery on the test is probably reasonable for our school. Next year it will be higher. Eventually (2014), every child will have to score mastery on each of the tests. That, of course, is ludicrous considering that No Child Left Behind says it doesn't matter that they child may
  • have a learning disability
  • not speak English fluently
  • have an IQ of 62
  • have recently moved to the school from somewhere else

I would never argue that accountability is wrong. The primary purpose of schools is to teach. But I've said elsewhere that it certainly isn't the only purpose.

I also agree that we need to look not just at aggregate data for a school, but at disaggregate data. It protects minorities and shows weaknesses in the process of education.

I have no problem with the test itself. My problem with the test is with the use of the test. The test is being used to eventually show that the concept of public education is flawed. The Bush Republicans want to privatize education - or at least justify the creation of a large scale private alternative to public education. And they want it to be church-based and paid for with vouchers. They are willing to use the disabled and minorities to accomplish their goal.

In two different states I've dealt with and taught children with educational disabilities from kindergarten to high school. Children have value and their disabilities make them no less valuable. Good teaching brings increases with it in the level of skills and knowledge those children have. But the expectations placed on them that they will all perform as though they have no disability is unreasonable - purposefully unreasonable. The purpose of the unreasonableness is for those behind the Bush agenda to eventually be able to say 'most public schools are bad schools and we need an alternative."

Someone recently said to me, "This is what the school year is all about." I held my tongue, but in my head I yell:

"Bull Hockey!"

This test is not what the school year is about. The school year has been about trying to light a fire. William Butler Yeats was right when he said “Education is not filling a pail, but the lighting of a fire." And George Bush's approach to education is that of the water boy...