Follow by Email

6/24/21

Make A Joyful Noise

      I went to Ole Miss to learn to be a band director, but there were some things they didn’t teach me and quite a few things I thought I knew until I found out I didn’t. We did learn how to teach the fundamentals of hand position and mouth formation and care for most instruments, but for some reason the fact that we would be teaching 11 year olds and not each other evaded me until I was confronted with them.  In addition, exactly how to gently steer 6th graders toward tuba or French horn when every girl wanted to play the flute or clarinet and every boy wanted to play drums or trumpet was an art that is only acquired, if at all, through trial and error. Mostly error. There were a couple of other things about being Mr. Music in a small town I wasn’t prepared for.  Strangely enough, church was one of those things.

     Most small towns in the South have more than their share of churches and denominations. Denominations are people’s interpretations of what God said coupled with their firm belief that their particular interpretation is the correct one. I never had the hubris to decide which was right and which was wrong and believed that if they were based on Biblical scripture God would eventually decide whether or not they were what he intended.  God does, after all, have a sense of humor.  Family usually plays an important part in what denomination people belong to, and I had been brought up in the Baptist church.  Mama made sure we went most Sundays and some Wednesdays and that my brothers and I were well known to the other members.  I didn’t know until later that our familiarity with church members was part of the secret Mothers’ Neighborhood Tracking and Intervention System, but that’s another story.

     I had been on the job as a brand new band director for almost a week (without pay) my first summer out of college, and was busy doing all the things (without pay) I thought I needed to do to get ready for summer band camp and for school to start when I had a series of preachers stop by to welcome me to the town and to invite me to dinner at their respective houses. Being all of 23 I did not suspect their motives beyond church attendance, and enjoyed the first dinner until, full of fried chicken, sweet tea and mashed potatoes, the Methodist minister asked me if I would like to be their church choir director. I was more than a little surprised but particularly susceptible to his offer of $100 a month because new teachers didn’t get paid until the month after school had started and it was a stretch living on my savings because I had been a college student and didn’t have any. I had never directed a choir, Methodist or otherwise, but had sung in several.  Not very well, but I could read music, so how hard could it be? Neither had I ever been to a Methodist church, but the Preacher’s explanation that Baptists and Methodists believed in the same God and differed over minor details seemed good to me. Choir practice every Wednesday at 7pm and church every Sunday at 11am. Oh, and revivals once a year for 5 nights in a row...and a Christmas program.

     I found out quickly that, like most things, there was more to it than I had imagined, and that what appeared to be simple and straightforward wasn’t.  At all. 

     My first choir practice didn’t start smoothly. The choir members arrived a few minutes early, and a couple asked to look at the music we would sing that night.  Music?  I had assumed we would be using the hymnals. You remember them. The big red Broadman hymnals that most every church had in the little wooden pockets on the back of every pew, along with the smaller brown Cokesbury hymnals with the shape notes that the older members loved but didn’t like to use because the print was way too small for them to read. It seemed that the choir was, in addition to the 3 hymns that were at the beginning, middle and end of every service, supposed to sing a “special” from a subscription music service the church paid for.  Not only that, the choir director was supposed to pick it out to match the season or the sermon - both if possible - for the Sunday service AND take into consideration which choir members would or would not be there for the performance. I did the adult thing and admitted my ignorance, and they, being faithful practitioners of what they professed, helped me out.  

     There were several of the choir members that had beautiful voices but few had any musical training at all. My first inclination was to indoctrinate them with a rather lengthy and completely unnecessary explanation of chord structure and the rise and fall of the melodic line of the piece they had chosen, but was saved from this by Betty Ruth, the pianist.  She had been a member of the choir for years, and the pianist and organist of record for longer than I had been alive. She informed me quickly at the beginning of my explanation that most of the members didn’t read music that well, but that she would play the parts for them and they would follow along and learn them as she played. I started, in the ignorance of youth and inexperience, to protest against her unmusical approach, but saw several of the choir members nodding their heads in agreement and made a hasty and fortunate decision to do it her way.  The key to my decision was when I remembered - and just in the nick of time - this was a volunteer choir, and that if the experience for them wasn’t a combination of fun and positive reinforcement their incentives for participation would be quickly lost.  I gave in, and the choir survived.

     Later that evening, as the learning progressed, I noticed she seemed to be playing in a key not related to the key in which we were singing.  Remembering the way she saved me from myself earlier, I waited until after rehearsal to ask her why, when the key was clearly A that she was playing in Ab. “Oh, I never learned to play in sharps” she answered quickly, “and I just replace the sharps with flats until I find a key that fits.”  I thought for about 10 seconds of all the musical ways this was wrong and then said “Betty Ruth, I think you just invented the piano capo.  It sounds fine.”  For the second time in the same day I had exhibited adult discretion and was learning how to be correct without being right. It was a banner day, and not often repeated.

     The first Sunday we rehearsed our song in the choir room before the service. I discovered that, in spite of everything I had been led to believe, my conducting was not the cue for singing or for the song to begin.  Betty Ruth did all that from her piano.  When she began, the song began at her tempo and with her pauses and with her endings. I was pretty much a figurehead so I tried to focus on leading the congregation when I was in fact simply following the power of the piano player.  She was in charge, but was gracious enough to let me think I had control.  I don’t think anyone was fooled, and it seemed musically contrarian but it also worked pretty well for a 23 year old director that really didn’t have much idea of what he was doing. In a larger sense, I was being trained on a small scale for what actually happens in marriage, but there again, that’s another story.

     The choir and I struggled through several months together, and I learned again and again that sometimes it was better to keep your mouth shut and roll with the punches rather than fight the inevitable.  I also learned that the same people that came to practice on Wednesday evening may or may not be the same group for Sunday morning, and the reverse applied equally well. One interesting thing - to me, anyway - I noticed was that if the Pastor thought he had presented an effective sermon we sang all the verses of the last hymn.  If he wasn’t sure about it’s effect on the congregation, he cut it down to first and last verses. I don’t think anyone ever actually bet on how many people might come forward on any given Sunday, but the predicted number was a topic of discussion among some of the parishioners.

      We had several extraordinary musical events, some intentional and some not. My friend Ken had a beautiful baritone voice, but was afflicted with almost terminal stage fright, and no matter what tips I gave him or how much we all encouraged him he almost always refused to sing solos. The only thing that ever really worked - as long as I didn’t use it too often - was to assign the solo to someone else knowing that person would not be there for the Sunday performance, and only telling Ken he was to sing the solo when we met in the choir room 15 minutes before the Sunday service. He would argue and try his best to nominate someone else, but usually ended up singing and doing a wonderful job. The first morning we pulled this on him, his nerves were clearly on display as his solo approached. As the piano played a short introduction before his solo, very clearly over the microphone in front of him was heard a plaintive moan of “oh hell.”  I think most of the congregation missed the first half of his solo. Since it was a church service, we will call it snickering and not outright laughter.

     Rose Marie was a  soprano, and did not volunteer for solos but had a good voice and was regular in her attendance, which guaranteed her advancement to solo status. Many of the arrangements we sang were based on old hymns, and one morning we sang an arrangement of Let Us Break Bread Together.  The 1st verse just happened to be the solo Rose Marie was singing.

Let us break bread together on our knees, 

Let us break bread together on our knees. 

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,

O Lord, have mercy on me. 

     It’s a beautiful old hymn, but in this instance the 3rd and 4th lines came out “when I fall on my face with my knees to the rising sun”  and, as you can imagine, disrupted the service for several minutes.  The choir couldn’t sing and the congregation couldn’t listen because they were all attempting valiantly to stifle their laughter.  Rose Marie was blissfully unaware of the issue and didn’t know right away what had happened. We stopped, gave everyone a few minutes to catch up with themselves, and began on the 2nd verse. It was a memorable moment indeed. 

     When I first began working with the choir, my musical self found that there really wasn’t too much difference in teaching kids band and in leading the adult church choir. Neither group responded well to too much correction, however well intended or musically appropriate.  As one of my teachers put it, “you have to find a positive way to say negative things.”  Another similarity is that if they want to participate it’s your obligation to teach them regardless of their limitations and respective abilities. Teach those that show up. One of my friends - Jerry - gave me some advice soon after I began teaching. “You need to remember a couple of things about small towns. First, everybody knows everybody else and most are usually related in some way or another. They all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and love each other anyway. Second, it’s a volunteer choir and band is an elective in school. They all feel good about singing for the services and playing in the band and expect good performances but not necessarily musical perfection. Third, the Bible says “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” It doesn’t say it has to be great, but just needs to be done with the proper spirit and thankfulness.  Think for a minute” he continued, “about performances that always get applause no matter the quality.” That one was easy.  “Kids” I answered, “and the smaller the kid the greater the applause for the effort. Quality is rarely even considered.” Jerry continued “that’s right, and the audience not only smiles but it touches their hearts, even when it’s musically bad.” I began to catch on.  “So God considers the fact that you’re singing more important than how you are singing.” “That’s what I believe” said Jerry, “and that’s why church choirs and school bands are an important part of every small town, no matter what you might think of the quality.  Now don’t misunderstand, there are some wonderful bands and church choirs and singers out there and their musical offerings are absolutely beautiful, but God recognizes the joyful noise of the folks you teach and their efforts, good and bad, as equally as important to Him.”

     So making music, good or not so good, is important.  How do I know that? God said so.  And so did all those volunteers. Keep making those joyful noises, and those rainbows will keep appearing.


5/31/21

Decoration Day Memorial

      Here in Columbus GA, one of the places that claims the founding of the Memorial Day (Decoration Day) tradition, I can sit on my porch in the evenings and listen to what my neighbors call “the sound of freedom” as the tanks and guns practice at the firing ranges at Ft. Benning just a few miles south.  The really big guns like the 120mm cannon on the M1A2 tanks and some of the larger field pieces sound like thunder heading our way, and the army does a credible job of weather prediction by firing on the ranges just before a rain to limit the possibility of fires in the pine forests around the base.  Some people complain about the noise, and I’ll admit it does rattle our windows from time to time, but when I remember they are training to protect us from enemies “domestic and foreign” I find the sounds strangely comforting knowing they will be better prepared for having gone through the experience. Columbus is a town of veterans, and it’s pretty much impossible to go into a store or restaurant without seeing hats from every branch of service covering wispy white hair.  It’s also great to see the new soldiers on their first leaves from training in and around town, almost always in small uniformed groups and all sporting the same shaved head haircuts that identify them - even without the uniforms - as part of the cadre of trainees just completing basic training.  It seems as if almost every family here has a history of service that goes back deep into our country’s history, and count military service as an important part of their family records.

     Both my parents’ families both have pretty extensive records of service, all the way back to the Revolutionary War.  William Scott Mullen, Mama’s great great grandfather (don’t hold me to the exact number of greats in there) served in the 1st North Carolina Battation of the Continental Army, and enlisted on August 15, 1777.  Andrew Jackson Mullen and Benjamin Franklin Mullen died in the Civil War serving the Confederacy as part of the 2nd Battalion of the Mississippi Infantry.  Andrew was killed at Williamsburg and Benjamin at Thoroughfare Gap, and both were part of Confederate General James Longstreet’s corps. I still have an old, grainy picture of a ship from around 1918 that my Dad said brought his Dad back from Europe at the end of WW I after he served with Pershing in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe. My Dad’s oldest brother, Carl, was in the Army and landed in Europe on the day the Germans surrendered in 1945.  He always said the Germans heard he was coming and decided to surrender before he made it to the front. Dad joined the Army Air Force at 17 in 1945 and went through propeller mechanic school. He was in crew training when the war in Europe ended, and was sent to Fairbanks Alaska to work on B-29 propellers in preparation for the invasion of Japan. He said he thought plowing behind a mule was tough until he started working on “those damn props” in subzero weather.  Turns out the Japanese surrendered before they were assigned to combat. That’s when he decided that maybe after that experience the Mississippi Delta wasn’t such a bad place to be after all.  His youngest brother Glen was in the Army Air Corp stationed on Guam after the war, but was killed while on leave back home.  Roy Lee, the 3rd boy of the bunch, was in the Air Force and retired after 23 years as a Master Sergeant. He came to visit us once when I was about 12, and I asked him what he did in the service.  He looked at me with narrowed eyes and didn’t answer for a few moments. I was starting to get a little worried and found it difficult to meet his stare.  After a few moments he said “Son, if I told you that I’d have to kill you.” My consternation grew exponentially in the space of the next few moments.  I said quickly “you don’t have to tell me if you’re not supposed to” before he smiled and I noticed my Dad laughing at the exchange. He told me later that a lot of what he did really was classified, and it had to do with nuclear surface-to-air missiles most people weren’t supposed to know about. I learned from this experience and  never asked him again; you know, just in case. Daddy’s sister Sybil married Lee Roy Logan while he was in the Army at Ft. Benning, and Mama’s brother Carl was also in the army, but a car accident resulted in several broken bones and he missed his units’ assignment to Korea.  

     Perhaps the veteran I knew the most about was Betsy’s Dad, Bob Black Sr. Bob was a West Virginian from the tiny town of Alderson that joined the Army Air Corps soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was in the 100th Bomb Group, the 449th Squadron in the 8th Army Air Force and was a Radio Operator/Gunner.  When Bob was 90 we took him to the airport here in town to see a B-17 on display.  The news guys found out he was coming and arranged for him to talk to the pilots. He told them how he went through basic training in Miami (he said the beaches were beautiful but the sand was difficult to run in), gunnery school in San Antonio (we got to shoot at all sorts of stuff every day with everything from shotguns to the 50 cals mounted on the back of a pick up truck) to radio school in Sioux Falls SD (we got to see almost every big band that was anybody coming through the bases) and finally to Thorpe Abbotts in England as part of the crew of a B-17.  They got a new plane and had two weeks to practice before  their first mission on May 24, 1944.  They were part of several hundred planes  headed to Berlin that day, and were one of the planes that didn’t come back.  Seven of Bob’s crew mates - including his best friend - were killed when they were attacked by a squadron of FW -190 fighters. His plane began to smoke and lose altitude, and they knew they were going down, it was just a matter of where. After being attacked again by fighters, Bob said he was pinned to the floor by centrifugal force as the plane fell, and then all of a sudden he was falling through the air. He was sure someone threw him out, but he was apparently thrown out when his plane broke in half at the radio room bulkhead. His parachute wouldn’t open with the D ring, so he began throwing fistfulls of chute into the air and hoping it worked.  It did.  He was quickly captured, interrogated and sent to Stalag Luft III near the Baltic Sea. 

     After turning 21 as a POW and walking through much of Germany as the Russian armies advanced, he and his buddies were liberated by elements of Patton’s 3rd Army in Moosberg in April 1945.  The pilots were graciously listening as Bob went through his story and how he finally arrived back in the States and had to start his life all over again, and how he still cried at night sometimes for his buddies that didn’t make it.  The pilots told him they would be honored if he would go on a flight with them in their B-17 free of charge. Before he answered, he toured the plane with me, pointing out what was missing from “his plane” as he remembered it. He was using a walker before he entered the plane, but went up the ladder and through the fuselage and over the catwalk over the bomb bay like a 20 year old.  As he went back down the ladder, he thanked the pilots for the tour, but said that was enough for him.  “Fellas” he said quietly, “I thank you for the chance to fly again, but I don’t think I can do it.  You see, the last flight I took didn’t go so well.” 

     I think every military family has a story of a brother or Dad or Mom or son or daughter whose flight or deployment or ship or service where “things didn’t go so well.” The important thing for us to remember is that they were there when our country called, and scared or not stood up to be counted when it mattered. It’s a wonderful thing that we honor the sacrifice of those brave soldiers and their families. Sometimes it’s harder to be the ones left than the ones remembered, and not all of the scars of war are on the outside.


5/17/21

Forward Into The Past

      When I was in high school I didn’t care much for history unless it was about battles or airplanes.  I was pretty sure there was nothing cooler than a WWII airplane, and I must have put together a couple of hundred of the plastic model plane kits. Maybe it was the glue.  Now that I am a little older I find myself voluntarily reading history and biographies of famous and infamous people from many countries and eras. It might be that I appreciate it more because I have a larger life sample to provide referential experiences, or maybe I just appreciate discovering that even the best heroes have a bad day or a bad idea or even a bad year sometimes, and that none of us are good all the time.  That’s rather comforting in an odd sort of way. We can pretend history didn’t happen but that’s like hiding under the covers when you think there’s a monster in your room.  Sooner or later whatever you are afraid of has to be confronted or it will be there again the next night - and every successive night.  I have also noticed a strong relationship between youth and self-centeredness, and that I seem to spend more time worrying about the long run now that I’m much closer to its end than I used to be.

     I discovered, for example, that our Founding Fathers were not all agreed on just what sort of country we should have since the king-subject thing didn’t work out so well with Britain.  The problem with monarchies is that sooner or later you’re going to get a king like George III that may not be mentally stable or competent. Hmmm. There were many arguments before and after the Revolution concerning  the underlying principles that would guide our new Republic.  What all the speeches and  arguments finally came down to was federalism and anti-federalism.  Federalism is the belief that the Federal government is the big cheese and that state governments were allowed to make rules and decisions as long as they didn’t conflict with what the federal government wanted or controlled.  The anti-federalists believed that too much power would eventually corrupt the central government and allow it to seize more and more power and  become a tyrannical entity that did not respond to the will of the people. These anti-federalists, convinced the Constitution by itself would lead to a group of “elitists” controlling the central government, insisted on including a “Bill of Rights” that guaranteed the rights of the individual citizen and limited those of the central government.  In addition to a desire to limit the expansion and influence of the Federal government, they also believed in fiscal responsibility, the elimination of the national debt and in the Jeffersonian ideal of strict interpretation of the Constitution. This dichotomy, still present today, was fundamental to the Presidential elections of 1824 and 1828.

     In 1823, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson were candidates for the Presidency, and all were members of the Democratic-Republican party, the only national political party at the time.  While Jackson won more popular votes and an electoral advantage, Adams and Crawford had significant totals themselves. Clay finished fourth and was eliminated from the race, and the election was decided in the House of Representatives.  Clay, a leading member of the House, decided to lend his support and influence to Adams if he were offered the position of Secretary of State in Adam’s administration, since they shared similar views on many issues. Clay also knew the position was considered to be a stepping stone to the Presidency.  With Clay’s support, Adams won the vote in the House and was named President. Jackson, the popular choice, was defeated.  Clay was indeed named Secretary of State by Adams.  Jackson immediately declared the apparent agreement between Clay and Adams as scurrilous and unprincipled, and insisted the election had been stolen as a result of their illicit conspiracy. His supporters began to plan immediately for Jackson’s 1828 campaign.

     Jackson believed Clay to be corrupt and more interested in his own advancement than in that of the country, and Clay thought Jackson, despite his military experience and service as the Governor of Tennessee, unprepared for the duties of President. Their mutual animosity was established years before the 1824 election when Clay labeled Jackson’s Florida military campaign as illegal, and denounced not only the expedition but its military leader.  Additionally, Clay  thought his “American System” of using Federal dollars for roads and projects a legitimate function of the government, and Jackson believed such a system was unconstitutional, illegal and a threat to American prosperity.  Jackson was a populistt with ideas that became known later as “Jacksonian Democracy.”  He envisioned the power and influence of large corporations and business influences being replaced by the interests of common men and allowing the vast majority of white males, especially laborers and farmers, suffrage. He campaigned on a promise to end rampant corruption in Washington and believed strongly in  Manifest Destiny as a governmental policy to push American growth westward, largely at the expense of Native American peoples.  Jackson also believed that Native Americans should assimilate or be moved west of the Mississippi. He did not count them as citizens.

     Adams, on the other hand, began his term of office acutely aware that ⅔ of the electorate did not support his presidency, and that many of his colleagues considered him aloof and unwilling to compromise on his programs and ideas. Adams’ proposals were extraordinary for the time, and included federal support for scientific and economic development to be paid for with increased tariffs on trade and commerce. His ideas were condemned by Jackson and by Thomas Jefferson as unconstitutional. Both were convinced Adams’ programs would undermine states’ rights and create “an aristocracy...riding and ruling” over the common citizenry.  President Adams did little, if anything, to build support for his policies, and refused to fire administration officials that opposed his programs and worked actively to defeat their implementation.  His signature on the “Tariff of Abominations” in 1828 also contributed to his unpopularity.  Southerners were convinced the tariff on imported goods was beneficial to the industries of the north and unfair and harmful to the South. Adams’ policies on Indian removal were also unpopular.  He did believe Indians should be removed from the South to lands west of the Mississippi, but that their lands should be purchased and not just taken. Adams also insisted that treaties made with the Indians be honored. These were not popular stances, especially in the West.

     The Presidential election process in 1828 differed significantly from campaigning in its present form.  State legislatures nominated the candidates, and, since travel was slow and often undependable, newsprint took on an increasingly  important role. The number of newspapers in the US almost doubled between 1824 and 1828. Political writings and pamphlets were circulated among newspapers, and political cartoons were especially popular. Rather than attempt to hold rallies at a variety of distant locations, candidates often relied on friends and supporters to present their platforms at meetings and rallies. 1828 was also the first presidential election in which all white males, regardless of whether they owned property or not, were allowed to vote.  Qualified citizens had from October 31 until December 2 to vote, and 145,788 votes were cast; about 9.5% of the population.

     While we might believe that mudslinging in political campaigns is a relatively recent development, that is certainly not the case. Adams supporters portrayed Jackson as a military martinet, a heavy drinker and gambler and unfit for the office of President. They also noted his participation in several duels, and accused him of murder because he had several deserters shot during his military campaigns. Jackson’s supporters countered with claims that Adams was an “elitist aristocrat” that did not keep the Sabbath, had installed a pool table in the White House, was a gambler, had married a foreigner and had, while Secretary of State, provided a prostitute for a foreign diplomat.  Also prominently featured among the attacks on Adams was his quote from his first address to Congress, when he said “politicians should not be palsied by the will of our constituents”; providing proof to his opponents that his elitist beliefs would lead the nation to disaster.  Adams’ supporters also brought up an old story about Jackson courting and marrying his wife before her divorce to another man had been finalized, an attack that Jackson never forgave. Jackson’s wife Rachel died between his election and his inauguration, and Jackson was convinced it was the public airing of the story of their marriage that killed her.

     After Jackson was elected, it seemed that most of the residents of his home state of Tennessee decided to attend his inauguration, and Daniel Webster noted with disdain that “most of them seem to think the nation had been saved through his election from some horrible disaster.” Jackson and Adams, in spite of having a good relationship before the campaign, did not reconcile after the election.  Jackson refused to call on Adams when he arrived in Washington, and Adams refused to attend the inauguration.  In the election of 1832, Jackson beat his old enemy Clay, and, in his estimation, repaid him for the “Corrupt Bargain” with Adams in the 1824 election.

     The election of 1828 is often seen as the beginning of the “total war” political campaign that has become the standard we expect to see.  The primary difference in then and now is that the Press Corp is not evenly divided among candidates, and they have not only discovered but developed to a high degree the power and ability, through the addictive powers of television, not just to report the news, but report the news in such a way as to effectively sway public opinion.  I will leave you with three thoughts; Mark Twain observed “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled”;  Norm Chomsky noted “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow lively debate within that spectrum”; and William Casey remarked “we’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American people believe is false.”  Maybe the real channel of the news is 666.  None of this bodes well for the future of our Country.

     Watching the nightly or weekly news is like settling yourself on the couch for your daily dose of angst and a continued indoctrination of fear and hopelessness with a new disaster appearing weekly.  Don’t ignore the news, but don’t watch it. Read for yourself and leave the videos for pets, kids and recipes. You’ll be a better and happier person for doing so, and may even discover what it’s like to think for yourself again.

     

     

     


4/22/21

Testing, Testing 123

 Testing, Testing 123


     Want to see a teacher curse ? Maybe not out loud, but I’m pretty sure they’ll internalize profane thoughts the moment you mention standardized tests. They resent the time spent on testing materials, testing procedures, testing review, testing pep rallies (yes they really are a thing) and the days missed out of actual teaching because of the preparation and administration of the test. They also resent the fact that they are required to assist with test administration AND are blamed when students don’t do well….or well enough. The USDOE has allowed testing companies to determine testing procedures, so during those days and weeks when tests are reviewed or actually given teachers are told not to actually teach or do anything that might possibly distract students from THE TEST. 

     Tests are nothing new to education. Teachers have been creating and administering their own tests since, well, since there were teachers.  They use tests to determine what students know or don’t know, and also to give them an idea of the effectiveness of whatever teaching techniques they use. Every teacher knows that every student learns in different ways at different times and each student responds effectively to some methods but not to others. That’s what differentiation is all about.  Want to see this in action? If you have two children, you already know it. For every Wally there is a Beaver, and for every Marsha there’s a Jan. Now take those personalities and add 23 or 24 more completely different entities in one class, mix in two or three students with learning disabilities  and a couple of kids with 504 plans and you begin to get an idea of just how difficult teaching really is even without the imposition of other things we think should be a teacher’s responsibility.

     So when did these tests become such a big deal to students, to teachers, to schools, to districts and to states?  Back in the 1950’s and 60’s (and even before) students would spend a few hours of one school day taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (or something like it) but there was little or no anxiety or commotion because the test results were not used to evaluate students, teachers, schools or states.  The results were used to - hold on to your hats - let teachers know which students might benefit from remedial instruction or review in specific academic areas. Teachers and Administrators could look at the results and actually use them to improve instructional practices. That all changed with NCLB in 2002, and education allowed people that had obviously never heard of the bell curve to decide that we would all work toward 100% proficiency for every child in every subject, and if there wasn’t sufficient progress toward that goal then a progressively stringent series of tortures would occur, including more and more tests. When this didn’t work, all the politicians seemed surprised and decided it must be the fault of bad teachers so they decided to do what politicians always do; throw more money at the problem and make it even more punitive with Race to the Top. This initiative was more costly, was still based primarily on student test scores and tried to slip in a national curriculum at the same time. If Lewis Carroll had written this script we all would have thought “this is pretty entertaining but I suspect a profound chemical imbalance affected the script design.”

     I have often wondered how politicians can say with a straight face that every student deserves an individualized, personal education and that we are going to measure that education with a test that’s the same for everybody.  They really must believe it, though, because testing companies are raking in over $1.7 BILLION per year from states for mandated standardized testing. Costs per student vary from state to state, but the money totals are significant. Georgia spends about $14 per student on testing per year, Hawaii spends $105 and DC $114. (You can figure that disparity out.) That means Georgia spends over $25 million on mandated standardized tests each year.  That’s not just $14 per student, it also means about $209 per teacher and about $10900 per school that could be used for something - anything - else.  Whether the money comes from state coffers or from the USDOE, it’s all from taxpayers and provides useless information that teachers cannot use in the classroom to improve instruction.

     Wait a minute - what? Of course they can use the information. Not so fast, my friend. Schools don’t receive standardized test scores until the fall of the following school year, too late for them to use because the students have moved on to another grade and other classes. The scores they get are nothing but autopsy reports that benefit only politicians. Teachers are not allowed to know the questions, discuss the questions or have input in designing the questions their students are to answer.  Besides that, students and teachers must sign a nondisclosure agreement before the tests are given, and are encouraged to report any student or teacher they overhear discussing the test. I’m not making this up. Just for good measure, you might want to find out what testing coordinators at each school are required to do.  If they don’t account for every test booklet, for every set of test questions for every student for every test administered and attest to a mandated chain of custody for those items, they can lose (and have lost) teaching certification. 

     Then there’s the 95% requirement.  That means 95% of every school’s student population must take the test.  No excuses.  Only 1% exceptions. So no matter about Special Education students or IEP’s or 504’s or learning disabilities or physical handicaps or student absenteeism or behavior disorders or family issues the test is administered.  And all scores count. Of course we all expect all scores to improve.  Every year. If they don’t then the problem can’t be with the test it has to be those bad teachers again.  Maybe we should beat them with the stick that had the carrot on it.

     So what do we get from all the taxpayer money the states and the USDOE people spend on testing each year? What we get is - take a deep breath - state and local tests given in an attempt to prepare students for federally mandated standardized tests. Preparing students for testing by giving more tests is like the farmer that wanted to increase the weight of his cows so he weighed them more often. 

     So surely these test scores are good for something, right? Like predicting success in college? You might think that, but you would be wrong.  The best predictor of student success across four years of college study is high school grade point average.  Say it with me; HIGH SCHOOL GRADE POINT AVERAGE (ERIC # ED502858). HSGPA, as an admissions criterion for colleges, also has less adverse consequences on disadvantaged and minority students than standardized tests.  You might want to read that one again. It seems that the single most consistent result of standardized tests is known as the zip code effect.  They have been designed since their inception to discriminate. These inherently biased  tests can accurately predict the socio-economic status of the family of the student test taker with uncanny results. In other words, not only are the tests undeniably prejudiced, they have never been accurate and reliable measures of student learning. Ever. Add to that the fact that we are the ONLY country that uses these abominations to judge educational quality. Wonder why? Because the tests were originally designed to replicate racial and economic inequality. They don’t just define the achievement gap, they create and serve to perpetuate that division.

     So why do we keep spending this money and giving these tests and subjecting students and teachers to needless pressure and stress? The answer seems to be simple. Testing companies want to continue making big money and they currently make more than enough to be able to contribute to political campaigns. The real purpose goes much deeper; testing is designed to give the appearance that public education is failing.  This allows politicians to divert more and more public funds to private education to pay for their kids and grandkids. Standardized testing, in its present form, is nothing more than educational malpractice on a national scale. 

     I once heard a quote from the CEO of a sandwich company about his business philosophy. “Everyone in this building has one job, and that’s to sell our sandwiches.  If you’re not doing that, you’d better be helping someone who is.” I think we should apply that philosophy to teaching and finally put our educational reform efforts toward productive educational policies.  What a novel concept - trusting teachers to help kids. That’s a reform from which we could all benefit. Especially students.

  


1/29/21

How To Eat A Chocolate Cake


     Mrs. Moore at Raines Elementary was one of my favorite teachers of all time, and part of that was because she challenged us to do things we were all pretty sure we couldn’t do.  She didn’t come out and verbally issue a challenge like we were going to have a duel, she just expected results that most of us were pretty sure she wasn’t going to get.  Not completely, anyway. Like most teachers of the time, she wrote on the blackboard and we were expected to write down pretty much everything she wrote. That doesn’t sound too bad in itself, until I tell you that she wrote with her right hand and erased with her left hand at the same time. The words would be up there for us to see - in cursive, of course - and when she finished two lines she would begin to write on the third and simultaneously erase the first line while continuing on with her writing, so by the time she got to the bottom of the board the top was already clear for her to begin again. It was an impressive thing to watch, especially since most of us couldn’t rub our stomach and pat our head at the same time. It also meant that our room had more chalk dust per capita than any other two rooms at Raines, and I’m pretty sure she had to pay the custodians extra to clean each evening.

     I learned a lot in Mrs. Moore’s room, and still diagram a sentence or two just for fun in my spare time, but there was one time she almost lost me. She handed out a mimeograph, all purple and white and still a little damp, with 100 prepositions in alphabetical order. Remember the smell of mimeographs? It was the smell of elementary school for many years until Xerox ruined it.  Every test, every study sheet and every handout was a mimeo, and the first thing every one of us did was sniff it before we looked at it. This one was a full page. There were 5 rows of 20 words each, and I thought it was a pretty neat reference sheet to have handy.  That’s when she dropped the bomb - it wasn’t a reference sheet.  I will mention that Mrs. Moore was rather insidious in that way.  She would say something we thought was innocuous that in the next sentence turned into an impossible situation for us.  Here it was again. We had to memorize it. All 100 words. In order. Before next Monday. Since this was Monday afternoon, we figured out pretty quickly that we had a week left to live, because nobody thought they could do it. Nobody in my group, anyway.

     The bike ride home after school that day helped me forget, for a while, the impossible assignment. That and the magic saddlebags on the back of my bike. I thought they were magic because a lot of the stuff I put in there - homework, tests for parent signature, report cards and other school stuff - often disappeared and magically reappeared just before or after the due date. I wasn’t sure how that happened, but there did seem to be a combination gravitic/temporal anomaly in there somewhere, but it didn’t happen with this one because I had to let my Mama know that my teacher had finally gone nuts.

     I had tried this tactic with Mama before, and it had failed every time. My teachers would make some crazy, off the wall requirement that was clearly impossible or excessive or an exotic combination of the two and I would get home as quickly as I could to show Mama they had finally gone over the edge. I was a little slow in figuring out that Mama and my teachers had a mystic, cosmic connection that required them to agree with each other and for each to not only understand the others’ madness but to approve of and reinforce its manifestations.

     It was the same this time.  Mama did not seem upset or concerned about the draconian expectations of Mrs. Moore, and, after she sniffed the paper, quickly scanned it and handed it back to me.  “You’d better get started” she said, “those prepositions aren’t going to memorize themselves.” I was crestfallen. My biggest supporter, benefactor and confidant had once again taken the teacher’s side. Was it possible that the whole world was crazy and I just hadn’t figured it out yet? Was it possible that once again that mystic, cosmic teacher/parent connection appeared at just the right moment to ruin my life forever? Was there after all a secret parent/teacher society that required one to support the other even to the point of abandoning their children? Alas, that certainly seemed to be the case.

     I took the paper with a look of dejection that must have been apparent to Mama. I was, after all, reasonably objective about the ups and downs of  life except when it concerned my model planes, Boy Scouts or baseball, and she had the ability to read my moods like a book.  “It’s like eating a chocolate cake” she said. “You can do this with no problem.” That pretty much did it for me. She was on the teacher’s side again.  I resigned myself at that moment to failing the 6th grade, dropping out of school and joining the army.  I already had my own genuine surplus army helmet and canteen belt, so I had a head start there. I was big for my age, so they might believe I was 17 and take me without calling the house. I’ll bet they didn’t have to memorize prepositions in their foxholes.

     Mama interrupted my foray into abject self-pity with “did you hear what I said?” “Yes ma’am” I replied, “but I didn’t think you were paying attention.” She smiled at me and asked “how do you eat a chocolate cake?” I knew I had to answer, so I said “as quickly as I can so my brothers won’t steal it.” It was honest, but not what she was looking for.  “No, silly,” she said, “you eat it one bite at a time.” She thought that would conclude the matter, but I didn’t get the connection.  She saw my confusion and explained further; “if your job was to eat a whole chocolate cake, could you do it?” I had to think.  A whole cake was a lot, even for me, and I wasn’t sure I could finish the whole thing at one time, but I was willing to try.  I decided to play her silly game to see where it went. “I probably couldn’t eat it all at once” I told her, “but if I could hide it from my brothers I’m sure I could do it in two days.”

     “I’m sure you could, too” she offered, “but that’s not exactly what I meant.  What I mean is that if you have a big cake to eat the best way to finish it is one bite at a time.” She waited a moment for the light bulb to go on over my head. After a few long seconds it finally did, and I told her “so you mean that if I cut the cake into slices and eat one slice now and one later and one later after that pretty soon the whole cake will be finished.” “That’s exactly it, and if it applies to chocolate cake it will also work with prepositions” she stated with a small degree of smugness that I have often noted in teachers. “OK, so just to be clear, you’re telling me that if I memorize 5 or so prepositions today and 5 or so tomorrow that maybe this isn’t quite as impossible as it sounds?” “See” she said cheerfully, “I knew you would find a solution to this” and turned and walked quickly to another room where my little brother had been suspiciously quiet for the last several minutes.. 

     Left alone for a moment, I tried to think through what had just happened.  Again. My teacher had gone nuts, my Mama had backed her up and shown me how to do what I was pretty sure couldn’t be done and had managed to give me credit for figuring out something she had actually figured out and explained and left me to feel good about doing what she was actually responsible for.  I gave up after a few minutes of confusion, pulled out the mimeograph for one more sniff and started to memorize the first 5 words. They had tricked me into succeeding once again. I was merely a pawn in the giant chess game of life, and was becoming more and more convinced that  real power in life was in the hands of Moms and teachers. Or both.

     

     


12/29/20

WERE YOU THERE WHEN THE CURVE GOT FLAT?

    WERE YOU THERE WHEN THE CURVE GOT FLAT?


     We’ve been trying to do our part (mostly) by wearing a mask and staying at home (sort of) and not holding family ...OK, we’ve done a lot of hand washing and stuff, and I just got to thinking about just when that curve might be flattened enough so people that make decrees would think it’s safe to come out again? I can’t find anybody that knows.  Some even think that months and years might stretch into practically never, and I’m not prepared for that kind of sacrifice for me or my kids or my grandkids. You’re probably not either.

     Trying to find a few answers, I found the place where the curve itself seems to have originated way back in March (https://www.flattenthecurve.com).  This is also the place where the lockdown idea was thought to have come from, and, according to the site, was developed by some not so well known people and an assistant professor from Oregon State.  There doesn’t appear to be a lot of research to back the theory, but I would guess that most people, when asked about the ideas’ validity, heard “well, it’s based on a mathematical concept” and immediately stopped listening and said “If it’s based on math don’t try to explain and I’ll just do whatever it is you want.” So we have. Mostly.  Sort of.

     What really happened was that Bill Gates said he thought it would be a great idea and most of us bought it because he must know all the answers because he has most of the world’s money and why would he lie? China did lockdowns, but what they did was several levels above and beyond anything allowed in the US unless you are a Cuomo, and even he can only go so far before someone stands up and says “enough is too much.”

     I’ve never understood why the opinions of Bill and other “famous” people were immediately sought for solutions of any type, much less those opinions about actions to be taken in a health emergency. Do we actually believe that because they are, for whatever reason, famous that means they must be endowed with Mensa level IQs and powers of divination and mystical abilities beyond the ken of mere mortals? Evidently, some of us do. I, for one, do not.

     For those of you, however, that are grounded in reason and facts and seek more information to make your own decisions, the answer you most often will get is whatever you come to believe has been “debunked” as a conspiracy theory. “Debunked” for the uninitiated is a term that originally meant “disproven” but in the 1990’s Hillary changed the definition to “that idea is not something we like or approve of so we will tell everyone you’re nuts if you believe that.” It no longer means proof is involved, simply the application of the term “debunked” to indicate if you believe something besides what we want you to believe, your level of intelligence is not very high.  Certainly not on the Clintonian level.

     So we are to believe that all doctors and disease transmission experts and microbiologists and mathematicians and Jeff Bezos believe that lockdowns are an effective way of fighting COVID?  Maybe even the ONLY way? Not so fast, my friend. It seems that infectious disease epidemiologists and public health officials have other ideas. It doesn’t seem they have yet been “debunked” but maybe that’s why NBC and the other alphabets haven’t said anything about them. As of this moment there are 

712, 345 concerned citizens, 13,084 medical and public health scientists and 39,544 medical practitioners that believe lockdown are ineffective, inefficient, cruel and counterproductive in solving the COVID crisis, and that maybe, just maybe, there’s another solution.

    Short and long term public health effects of lockdowns include drastic decreases in childhood vaccination rates, fewer cancer screenings, higher risk for cardiovascular disease patients - all leading to higher mortality rates in years to come - at least one year of school lost for most students, a drastic increase in mental health issues, and irreparable damage to our economy, especially small business. Our ECONOMY you scream! Is money all you’re worried about you heartless ...No, it’s not just about money, but the connection between personal income and food is an important one.  One UN report surmises that lockdown restrictions worldwide will lead to millions suffering from hunger and about 10,000 children per month are perishing from starvation. Lockdowns have ended vaccination projects for measles and polio, and resultant measles outbreaks have already occurred.  Estimates of 400,000 deaths from the lack of TB treatments have or will occur in the poorest countries soon, and it’s a sure bet surges in polio will soon follow.

     But lockdowns have been proven to work, right? I mean, surely there’s a history of success with that method in eradicating infectious diseases? So you might think, but you would be wrong.  Basic epidemiological disease theory tells us that lockdowns not only fail to reduce the total infection rate, they have NEVER IN HISTORY led to the eradication of any disease. Never.  Ever.  In History.  At best they can delay infection rates for a short period of time and at great human cost. Eventually lockdowns will fail, partly because of human nature and partly because infection rates will eventually rise.

     So what’s a better option?  Is there one? Yes, Virginia, there is.  One methodology is Focused Protection.  You can read about it for yourself at https://gbdeclaration.org/  “What’s this?” you ask.  “Why have I never heard of this? It sounds important.” You’ve never heard of it because all of our news people have been replaced by social influencers that don’t really care much about anything but being socially influential. Science tells us that the COVID virus is more than 1000 times more dangerous to our older population than to children and young adults. Adopting measures to protect those in nursing homes and retirees should be a focus while allowing those with minimal risk of death to live normally.  Hand washing and staying at home when sick and other common sense procedures will allow our population to reach the herd immunity threshold quickly. Schools should be opened, activities resumed, restaurants and other businesses should be reopened and church services restarted.

     Unlike lockdown procedures, herd immunity is not heartless and has not been “debunked” by science. Now that several vaccines have been developed and made available, those and herd immunity will soon contain the disease, and lockdowns will fall into that category of things that were tried and failed, a lot like “duck and cover” that was supposed to protect school children in case of a nearby nuclear blast.   Some might still insist that lockdowns be continued in spite of their negative results and the law of unintended consequences. If so, perhaps we should investigate the motives of those that cry “follow the science” and ignore what the science says. Perhaps they are lying dog faced pony soldiers, and their motives are more insidious than the disease itself. Sometimes control can be a dangerous drug in its own right. Maybe there’s a lockdown for that one, too.



7/11/20

True Confessions

     I used to be a Socialist.  Well, sort of anyway.  As much of a socialist as an 18 year old in the middle of Mississippi in 1970 with a brand new high school diploma could be.  There I was with my long hair, bell bottoms, new saxophone and a hastily developed attitude of moral superiority that seemed to grow with every day that went by.  My circadian rhythms were completely backwards because on weekends I usually went to bed around 4 or 5 am and slept till 3 or 4 in the afternoon because most of the stuff I was interested in being a part of was happening at night. Especially Friday and Saturday nights.  Mama said that nothing good ever happened after 10 pm, and she was probably aware that at that age “nothing good” was exactly what I was on the lookout for. My parents had been pretty strict, but I had worn them down over the years and when I turned 18 or so they were used to me being out late playing on the weekends because for better or worse I had decided to change the world through music and that meant late nights in some places they would rather I not be. It wasn’t nearly as glamorous as I made it out to be but at that age it was a taste of freedom I had not known before.

  Woodstock had gone on without me just a couple of years before, and I remember the feelings of frustration when my mother wouldn’t let me take her VW bug to New York to at least try to get there through the traffic and blocked roads.  I mean really, I had been driving for over a year and I told her I would be careful and we all knew that bad stuff only happened to other people, so what was her problem anyway?  I had, as much as possible in the center of Mississippi, developed what I later described as a semi-hippie attitude to go along with my semi-hippie attire (including bell bottom fringe and worn sandals), and money wasn’t really an issue because I had no bills. The $40-50 a week I made being a rock and roll star covered my expenses pretty well, and Mama made sure I had plenty to eat. Daddy had threatened to charge me for sleeping and eating in his house but hadn’t gotten to that point yet.

     I had convinced myself, with teenage assurity, that I had an enormous number of solutions to societal problems but couldn’t seem to get anyone to ask me the questions that would allow those solutions suitable widespread presentation and implementation. It probably didn’t help my case or my presentation that I considered my mere presence as beneficial to both my family and the world, and seldom suffered from the self doubt and lack of assurance that I read about in books. Like most teenagers, though, I wasn’t politically active because politics was an ugly game, and because my parents wouldn’t even consider letting me participate in demonstrations and protests.

     I was also convinced that LBJ’s Great Society was a good thing, and that giving money to everyone that needed it was part of responsible government policy. That was before I found out that a lot of the money they were giving away was going to come from my paycheck. I spent a summer driving a forklift and stacking plywood at a company in Oxford in between rock bands, and I was at first convinced there had been a processing mistake with how much the government took of my weekly check and, after learning that “no, young man, there’s no mistake” from the company bookkeeper, astounded but resigned to the fact that this legalized appropriation was the price of being allowed to work. That was pretty much the moment I began to believe that maybe socialism wasn’t such a great idea after all.

     A lot of my ideas about how things should work had come from sitting around late at night with friends and colleagues in college dorm rooms or off campus housing discussing politics and religion and monetary theory in great depth and detail.  We were all completely inexperienced in practical applications of pretty much anything, but without exception sure of the purity and purpose of our intentions and convictions. Our teachers encouraged us to question things, and we had no trouble following their lead. We were all convinced that “the man” was screwing things up and we could show him (them?) how to fix it all just as soon as we got into a management position...like maybe after working a year or two first.

     We did read a lot about different forms of government; you know, like plutocracy, republic, democracy, theocracy, Marxist, Socialist, dictatorship and Disney, and decided that maybe labels weren’t  a good thing, and that we could all get along if we just all believed in love and gave peace a chance...man. As I got a little older and had to start working full time in order to eat and have electricity and a car and gas - you know the pattern - I started reading things that I wanted to know about instead of stuff I had to read for a grade. One interesting comment that stuck out for me was attributed to William Casey to the effect of “a man at 20 who is not a Socialist has no heart, and a man at 40 who is a Socialist has no brain.” 

     Socialism is an idealistic theory that can’t function effectively in reality because it fails -actually ignores - the fact that all humans are fallible, and when given choices between self interests or altruism will eventually, given enough opportunities, succumb and choose self interest.  Once someone in charge decides they deserve a little extra the whole theory reveals itself as the house of cards it is, the supporting idealism falls by the side of the road and life becomes pretty miserable for everyone except those at the top.  Time and time again history repeats itself, but then someone always says “yeah, but this time will be different” but it never is. Like Yosemite Sam once observed “people is dumber than anybody.”

     One of the other strange things I discovered about Socialists is they never seem to want to give their own money away, but have no qualms or compunctions whatsoever about freely distributing yours.  I learned in elementary school that effective leaders modeled the behavior they wanted others to display.  If that’s true for Socialists, why does Bernie have 3 houses and make millions of dollars? Why do Alexandria and Ilhan not distribute their funds to hospitals or the poor and needy? Could it be that their goal is only Socialism if they get to be in charge of distributing other people’s money? There used to be a kid in our neighborhood like that.  We weren’t allowed to use his football unless we played by his rules that he made up as the game went along. We only played that game once, and never fell for it again. Seems to me that the history of Socialism is full of examples just like the kid that owned the football and made his own rules and always rigged the game to his advantage.  It’s a pretty good deal if you’re the one in charge and not doing without food and electricity and toilet paper or having to eat your neighbor’s pet, but not much fun for anybody else. I must also admit to being a little confused as to why they would want to tear down a system that allowed them to rise to their current positions.  I mean really, isn’t being a representative for your state a pretty significant step up from bar tender or unemployed refugee? Would scrapping a system that not only allowed but encouraged that much upward mobility be a good thing?

     Strangely enough, though, as time went on the more money I made the more money I noticed being taken out of my checks and the less convinced I became that other people deserved part of it without my input.  This gradual change in my belief system coincided, strangely enough, with the addition of experience and maturity, and while neither expanded to the extent I might have hoped I have managed to live longer than I ever expected to, so there’s that.  Now don’t misunderstand - we pay taxes and give money and goods to charities of all types, but we choose those charities and how much of our income we distribute. Taxes are pretty arbitrary, but I look at them as a necessary cost of doing business, and pretty much balanced out by being born in America.

     I also have noted similarities in my attitudes and idealism and beliefs at 18 and those who call themselves socialists today.  Very few have any work experience, very few are contributing members of society, even fewer actually pay the taxes they are willing to designate for free this and free that and the current “if you live here you deserve someone else’s money” programs, and most seem convinced, as I was then, that the way to change a light bulb is to stand on a ladder, hold the bulb up and wait for the world to revolve around you.

     So maybe the answer to anybody screaming about the unfairness of capitalism is to let them have their little socialism fantasies for the 4 or 5 years of college and wait until they graduate or flunk out and have to get a job and life changes their mind. Perhaps they should have the privilege of living in a socialist country for a year or two just to reap a little bit of what they are trying to sow. Maybe while they’re at it they could pay for all the stuff they broke while having their little tantrums about having their way or holding their breath until they turn blue. Like the little kid having the tantrum in the grocery store, the only way they can win is if nobody steps in to be the parent and just gives them what they want to make them stop. Mama had a saying for that situation too. “If you don’t correct it, you are teaching it.” These tantrums are the height of selfishness and juvenile behavior, and need to be corrected. Immediately. Somebody has to be the adult around here. It’s probably too late to teach them what it means to get the switch they’re gonna get used on them, but somebody has to stand up and tell them no...and mean it. I don’t think timeout is going to work at this point.