Friday, October 23, 2015

These are the good old days

National attention has been focused for the last few decades on the effort to create meaningful standards for K-12 education. In recent years, Common Core standards have become a flashpoint for conflict. I see Facebook posts from friends both local and far-flung complaining that Common Core is forcing an unnatural and incomprehensible pedagogy on children, especially in math, frustrating kids and parents alike.

Parental complaints like this always reminds me of the Peanuts comics Charles Schulz drew in the 1960s about the so-called "New Math," which focused on set theory, concepts of equivalence, and number lines rather than memorizing arithmetic facts and computation methods. It's clear from the set of strips that Schulz understands the new math, and while he lets Sally channel the displeasure of a generation of angry parents, he doesn't side with her. Instead, he presents her as the voice of willful ignorance and stultifying lack of ambition.

Noel and I were talking yesterday about how we sometimes seem to have stumbled through a portal into an alternate educational dimension, with our kids. Their teachers are, almost to an individual, dedicated, energetic, creative, and loving. Their administrations stress college and career preparedness, and I see that emphasis in the teachers' classrooms. The assignments they give and the pedagogies they employ engage our highly intelligent children; nearly every day we hear from them about what they are learning, and the innovative ways the lessons have been brought home to them. Real-world applications have been presented and stressed; when I ask my kids how a certain abstract concept matters in life or careers, they are always ready with an answer.

Maybe we have just lucked out with the teachers and schools we've had. But I don't think so. Seems to me that, despite all the obstacles in their way (of which the greatest by far is legislative parsimony -- far more than unions or out-of-touch professional training, the favorite villains of conservative media in the state), most educators never stop trying to do their job well. I'm constantly amazed at what my kids are learning to do and how they're being challenged. I went to expensive college prep schools when I was their age, and in so many ways they are getting a better education that I did -- largely because teaching methods are so much more advanced, standards are clearer, assessments measure actual learning better, and enrichment opportunities are more plentiful and more challenging.

I'll always be grateful for the teachers and principals that are giving my kids this terrific foundation for advanced learning and lifelong curiosity. What they're being asked to do now -- and how they're rising to the opportunity -- bodes very well for what they'll be able to do five, ten, and twenty years down the road.

Friday, October 16, 2015

30 minutes

I find myself with 30 minutes and no obvious task pressing itself upon me, demanding to get done. Next week is a short one, only three days of classes before a four-day weekend. I'm running (well, jogging) (well, mostly walking) (okay, all walking) a race tonight, so I don't need to squeeze in time at the gym. I glance up at my open tabs and there is my blog, opened when my browser starts like everyday. So here is my 30 minutes.

Like this unscheduled time, I feel the unbearable lightness of waiting. The steps toward my book's publication have been many in the last four months -- some big, like the compiling of the index and the final proofing of the galleys, which I did in late July and early August; and some small, like approving cover copy and answering copy-editor queries. But on October 5 my patient production editor sent the book to the printer. Now I look forward to holding it in my hands. A part of me worries that it will seem small and insignificant when I do, not worth the years I invested (not to mention the unbounded generosity of my interviewees). A part of me defensively shouts that I don't care if nobody reads it. But of course I do. All those steps, large and small, have left me proud of what it's turned out to be -- a pride that makes me vulnerable to what becomes of it.

And meanwhile my husband takes his own career-expanding steps (like his byline in the New York Times) and my children grow (into their choirs and online communities and YouTube channels and artistic endeavors). I think about what comes next after this book. I'm contracted to write a volume in this series, and I'm looking forward to it, but taking the first step is always difficult. I'm having a great semester teaching, and that makes me want to create new classes, but I also know that I should be making what I'm already teaching even better, for next time -- learning by redoing.

I turned 50 last week. It was marvelous; I feel great, I've lost 30 pounds since this time last year, I'm so much happier than I was two years ago. 50 feels like a freeing milestone instead of an ominous one, like the moment when the drive to the trailhead ends and the actual adventure begins. Noel threw a little gathering over Mexican food and fishbowl-sized margaritas, and I thanked my lucky stars that my terrible friendship skills haven't yet driven away my generous and forgiving friends. We're starting our twentieth year of marriage. I find it hard to believe how much we've done of what we always wanted to do, and how close we are to what we always wanted to become.

My time is up, and I'm off to the conclusion of a work week, spent as always with my students listening to some provocative, challenging, informative ideas. Until the next half-hour presents itself ...