Sunday, September 26, 2010

How to Test

Here's a snippet of an article about standardized testing, by Susan Engels, in today's NY Times:
Instead, we should come up with assessments that truly measure the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live.
I'm preparing to launch 4-H Chess Club for another year.  I hope to reformulate the club as a group of high school kids helping me teach the elementary kids, while I reinforce the fun and challenge of all sorts of brain work with the high school kids.  While I'm not a fan of standardized tests, I do take pride in seeing kids' intellects grow. The markers that Engels mentions in the above quote resonate with me as they reflect the themes of many of the informal conversations that erupt during chess club. I have one kid who likes to draw, not so much to read, but who has checked out and studied every drawing book in the school library.  Snack time is always an exercise in practical mathematics -- chess players want everything to be fair even if it means dividing 36 cookies among eight people down to the last crumb. Chess pieces are metaphors for actual fighters;  in elementary school kids move back and forth between the abstract idea of chess pieces fighting and the "real" fighting techniques of Star Wars characters.  We learn en passant by acting it out on the checkered floor of the cafeteria.  We practice the components of a classic handshake and the more nuanced art of losing and winning gracefully.

Engels' idea of a good test of a kid's intellect is to ask the child to read and discuss a book. I like to observe not only intellect, but perseverance and grace under pressure playing chess.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Liz Graduates!

It was a stormy day in Evanston, but that seemed somehow fitting. The graduates were no less fazed by the weather than they were by the crazy world into which they were graduating. Smart, earnest young people ready to work hard at whatever needs doing -- I had the distinct sensation of passing the torch.
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Spring Break in Washington

Last spring Anna and I were able to go to Washington DC with my brother Chris and his family. Anna and I ended up spending a lot of time downtown, on the mall, hoofing it from one museum to the next. While there is plenty to see in DC, I spent most of the time teaching her the skills one needs to enjoy a city on foot or using public transportation.

Here we are relaxing on the wall around the flower bed in front of the museum of American History. We had brought some small snacks and were listening to the music that was piped into the flower garden. It was all American music, one familiar song after another -- Gershwin, Joplin, and Paul Robeson singing "Old Man River".

If I haven't been blogging much lately, it's because I was living life instead of chronicling it. This was a good day.
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Monday, May 03, 2010

Thursday, April 29, 2010


We are leaving tomorrow for Ann Arbor where Shelagh will graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education. In June, Liz will graduate from Northwestern University and in the fall she will be heading to UM to study law.

Shelagh's impending graduation is quite the big deal because the commencement speaker is President Obama. There are restrictive security measures (no purses or camera cases or umbrellas) and strict rules about showing up late. It is in the huge outdoor stadium and the weather is expected to be around 70 degrees with a chance of thunderstorms.

Once I stop contemplating the crazy logistics, I wonder what the president has to say to these kids. These are the kids who did it all right, now emerging into the new jobless economy. I'm glad my kids didn't have to go deeply into debt to get their degrees, but a lot of their friends are not so lucky.

Shelagh's degree is in elementary education. Everyone wants to talk about how important teachers are, but nobody can figure our how to pay to employ them. I'm interested in what the president has to say about that.

Maybe I'll hear nothing. If the thunderstorms materialize, the whole event may be washed out. But I'll still have a newly minted graduate to hug.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brother Tim on Lockport, New York

This was pretty much my viewpoint on the night that my dad took us downtown to watch the demolition of downtown Lockport.

Brother Tim published a piece in this morning's USA Today, Olympians Can Always Go Home. And the Rest of Us?. He writes about our hometown, Lockport, New York, and the push/pull of the hometown.

Joyce Carol Oates also hails from our hometown. Tim writes
Joyce Carol Oates, another literary lion, recently returned to her home of Lockport, N.Y., for Smithsonian magazine. There she revisited the public library, the old Palace movie house and the Erie Canal locks that give the town its name.She was reminded how much these places still resonate throughout her life and work.

I, too, hail from Lockport. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Oates, and we discussed where in the town of 21,000 we had grown up. She was from the west side, Transit Road, which has been transformed by shopping malls and multilane highways. When I told her I grew up on the east side, a two-lane road that hugged the Erie Canal, Oates' eyes grew excited. "That's the real Lockport," she said
I'm not so sure. When I visit Lockport I find that the place I remember has long ago sprawled over itself in a headlong rush towards "Anytown USA". I have three landscapes in my head, the place I grew up, the place that it has become, and the place that appears when I dream of Lockport, a Lockport that could have been, but maybe never really was, a town with a downtown and farms and neighborhoods and and quiet places and mysterious places and timeless places.

Downtown Lockport's signature brick front downtown was razed for "urban renewal" when I was about 13. At my 20th high school reunion, one of those lots was still empty, with a "Will Build to Suit" sign. Much of my late teen years were spent exploring the back roads and back streets, my friends and I seeking to chronicle our hometown before it disappeared forever.

These days I serve another town, one that managed to make it to the 21st century with a strong sense of place. Still, the struggle to maintain that sense is constant. There are many people devoted to keeping the area the "same as it ever was" and just as many who expect to see a healthy return on their real estate investments. The trick is in selling the idea that a strong sense of place trumps "Anytown, USA", and selling it one detail at a time.

Monday, February 15, 2010

What was for Dinner

Richard fixed the balky basement light switch just in time for "eat out of the basement season". We usually eat out of the basement this time of year because paychecks are small and heat bills are big. We have potatoes, canned vegetables, salsa and pickles, frozen fruit, frozen chicken and fish.

Tonight I had some leftover Cuban black beans that the neighbor had brought us. To go with it I made the "Skillet Corn Bread" recipe from The Joy of Cooking, enlivening it with fried onions, rehydrated dried garden peppers, cheddar cheese, and a freshly fried bits of the bacon ends I bought on sale at Gabe's Maple City market last fall.

The meal looked like it could use more vegis and protein, so I got a jar of home canned salsa from the basement, heated half of it on the stove, and poached eggs in it while the cornbread finished up. The chickens are seeing the days getting longer and laying eggs accordingly, so it's a challenge to come up with new ways to eat eggs. It was a nice meal, quite colorful for mid winter.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

High Heat

Brother Tim, stuck at home in DC's snow storm, put together this video trailer for his new book, High Heat.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

January Harvest

They didn't size up the way I was hoping when I planted them last July, but getting anything out of the garden in deep January is a coup. these carroys are sweet and crisp and we've been munching them at the dinner table and in lunches. Every year I put less and less emphasis on the traditional garden season and more and more emphasis on the very early and very late season. Next year I will try using shade cloth to cool the mid-July soil so as to get better carrot germination.
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Friday, January 22, 2010

Great Lakes Blog

I have been reading up on the legal and political battles over the Asian carp over at Great Lakes Blog. When I'm done with that issue, I'll see what they have to say about Phragmites, that invasive swamp monster grass that is colonizing the Lake Michigan shoreline and has been sighted in the Lake Leelanau Narrows. Leland Township has been asked to adopt an ordinance that would allow the county Soil and Conservation office to treat Phragmites stands with herbicides in the fall without the specific permission of the property owner.

I've been talking about Phragmites with everyone I meet both, trying to gauge support for a spraying program and trying to find alternatives to a spraying program. Everyone who has seen Phragmites doesn't want to see it in our township, but there are still lots of questions to be asked and answered before a spraying program is accepted.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stop Asian Carp

I'm not convinced that finding Asian Carp DNA in Lake Michigan means that the actual fish are there (seagulls could be dropping fish parts) or that it is time to give up the effort to keep them out of Lake Michigan by closing the locks that can give them access. So I signed the petition here, and I'm urging others to do so.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Easy Winter, So Far

I haven't posted one of these NOAA Lake Michigan temperature maps this year. I haven't needed to. In a normal December, we are huddled under a couple of week's worth of dark clouds dumping foot after foot of lake effect snow. I monitor Lake Michigan surface temperatures, waiting for the day that the big lake gets cold enough to stop adding its moisture to the cold west winds and the lake effect machine shuts down.

The lake is still warm, over 40 degrees, but the winds didn't blow that way this year. After a few days of melt around Christmas, the wind started blowing from the north, from the east, from the northeast, making for cold and wind but no reason to run the snowblower. The rest of the country is seeing low temps and snow, but we are taking a break and even expecting a thaw next week.