Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Slice of Life Tuesday: Of Standardized Testing and Birding


We're doing standardized testing this week. It's been a long time since we've done any, because last year the pandemic began right before we would normally have done it. I'm sure many schools are in the same boat right now. The kids can't remember how it works to sit still and fill in bubbles with number 2 pencils, and maybe aren't too thrilled to learn about that now.

I recognize the benefits of having some data to track kids through their years in our school, and also to see how we're doing in our instruction, but I also remember very well that this time last year, many were saying that skipping testing was the best thing that could have happened to all of us. Do you remember that? Or was I just thinking those things in my head? 

The other thing I wanted to write about this week was birding, because Saturday was Global Big Day, which takes place every year in the second weekend in May. Birders around the world go out and see what they can see, keeping track of how many species they can find in 24 hours. It's a particularly good time to do this because it's at the peak of spring migration (in the northern hemisphere). And as I thought about these two topics, standardized testing and birding, I started to see some connections.

Our kids aren't standardized, not at all. Each one of them is unique and different. So comparing them to each other, or to kids across many schools, is of only limited value. What if, when I was looking at birds on Saturday, I had compared them to each other? What if I had decided that some were more valuable than others, or more skillful, or just plain better? What if I had placed each in a percentile, a chain of being in which, say, a Mourning Dove didn't get quite as many points because there are plenty of them around, or a White-necked Crow got marked down because of how very noisy it is? 

In the class for which I was proctoring on Monday morning, there were all kinds of kids. There was a cartoonist. There were several skilled soccer players. There were some excellent gamers. There were some great readers, and some other kids who have trouble sitting still long enough to read anything, but who have other strengths. Maybe they don't know about those strengths yet, or maybe they know perfectly well, but haven't revealed them to their teachers yet. Many of the students in that room were taking the test in their third language. All have been through a couple of extremely challenging years, living here in Haiti through a time of political, security, and medical crisis. Ranking them wouldn't make any more sense than ranking the beautiful birds I peered at through my binoculars on Saturday. 

There's nothing wrong with testing students, as long as we realize that evaluation is only one of our goals. Maybe we should also take some time to just appreciate them, in all their variety. Maybe that kid who couldn't seem to focus his attention on his test booklet won't do brilliantly on this particular test, but there is still something to appreciate about him. The testing may help me learn how to teach him better, but I also need to remember that the results are only one aspect of the humanity of this child. 

One of the things that's so great about birding is discovering the variety of birds that exist. The more differences we see, the happier we are. We stop, and stand still, and look, and say "Wow." We let the birds teach us about themselves as we stay quiet and observe. Let's do that with our students, too.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Reading Update

Book #34 of the year was The Overstory, by Richard Powers. This is a novel about trees and people who love them. There was a lot in this book that I loved, but there was also just a lot in this book. Ultimately I think some of the characters and some of the events could have been cut out without the book losing much. I don't mind books being enormously long, but I like everything there to feel as though it needs to be there. I did enjoy the writing about trees.


Book #35 was Just Like That, by Gary D. Schmidt. I have been waiting for this book for a long time. My family and I, and several years of seventh grade classes, really enjoyed Schmidt's book The Wednesday Wars, about a seventh grade class, and specifically a kid in the class called Holling Hoodhood, in the 1967-68 school year. The sequel to that book, Okay for Now, is about another kid in the class, Doug Swieteck, who moves to a new town at the end of seventh grade. Several years ago I read in an interview with Schmidt that he was going to write another novel about a girl in the class, Meryl Lee. This is that book. I loved many things about this book, but I didn't love it as much as I had hoped. Maybe I had built it up too much in my mind. For one thing, I could hardly get over the revelation in the first chapter, and I don't know if I've forgiven Schmidt for it yet. (Sorry, I'm not going to tell you what it is.) For another, it seemed as though this was two separate books. (That insight comes from my daughter, and she's absolutely right.) It's definitely not as perfectly crafted as Holling's and Doug's books, but I do love Meryl Lee. 

Book #36 was Lovely War, by Julie Berry. A friend recommended this in the context of Iliad/Odyssey retellings. This isn't exactly that, but it is a story of World War I told by a group of Greek gods, each admitting his or her part in the plot development. Aphrodite, Ares, Apollo, and Hades talk about how love, war, music, and death work together in the lives of the characters. There are interesting themes like racism in the military at this period, USO performers, and PTSD. I did enjoy this one.


Book #37 was a reread, Fire, by Kristin Cashore. I think I enjoyed this book just as much as the first time I read it, described here.


Book #38 was The Wright Sister, by Patty Dann. It's the story of Orville and Wilbur Wright's sister, Katharine. While this is based on true events, it's not really an effort to be accurate to the historical truth. The author read about Katharine getting married in her fifties, and that after her marriage, her brother Orville never spoke to her again. While I really enjoyed the book and found it convincing, I was disappointed to learn at the end that the author hadn't done much research at all on the actual story. I really do want to know more about Katharine. 


Book #39 was a verse novel, Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo. It's set partly in the Dominican Republic (the neighboring country to Haiti, where I live) and partly in New York City. The title comes from the fact that Dominicans clap when a plane lands at the airport in their country. Haitians do, too, so this detail really grabbed my attention. There's also an important Haitian character in the story, and I enjoyed that, too. The book is about a plane crash. A Dominican man who dies in the crash has two daughters, one in DR and one in New York. The girls don't know about each other. This story completely drew me in and did a great job of exploring the differences in the lives of these two girls, based solely on where they were born and the circumstances of those different geographical places.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Poetry Friday: The Poet Laureate Writes

In April as Americans were celebrating National Poetry Month, the British had another poetic occasion: the death of their 99 year old Prince Consort. Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was celebrated in many ways after his death on April 9th. One of the ways was by having a poem written by the official Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Simon Armitage. 

The role of Poet Laureate is a time-honored one in Great Britain. It has been held by many famous men (and one woman) since 1668: to name just some, Dryden, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hughes, and Carol Ann Duffy. It used to be that the Poet Laureate was required to write about all the royal occasions, but now there is no official job description. (You can read about that, and various other FAQ, here.) So Armitage wasn't required to write about Philip's death, but he chose to, anyway.


Writing about royal events is a bit more of a tricky proposition than it used to be. There are mixed feelings about royalty in the United Kingdom these days. I read several articles during the funeral period about how the BBC had received many complaints about their coverage being too long and extensive. But of course, there are others who couldn't possibly get enough royal coverage.


I thought Simon Armitage hit a nice compromise with his poem, in which he eulogized (or eulogised, as they spell it in England) not just Philip, but his generation. The poem begins this way:


The Patriarchs - An Elegy

by Simon Armitage


The weather in the window this morning

is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,

a slow winter's final shiver. On such an occasion

to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up

for a whole generation - that crew whose survival 

was always the stuff of minor miracle,

who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,

fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea

with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.


You can read the rest here. And/or, you can listen to it as you watch this video released by the Royal Family, including photos of Philip from throughout his long life.

Of course, many towns and cities and countries and other bodies have Poet Laureates, too. Who's your favorite Poet Laureate of the past or present? And do you think you'd like a job where you're supposed to write poems for official events? Would you thrive with all those built-in poetry prompts, or would it give you writer's block?


You can see this week's roundup here.

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Blossoms of Joy


This month's host, Carol Varsalona, has asked that we reflect on Blossoms of Joy. (You can see everyone else's posts at that link.) I have already been reflecting on blossoms, because at this time of year, our flamboyant trees (poinciana) are starting to be in bloom here in Haiti. They aren't anywhere near as bright and beautiful as they will be in a month or so, but they are starting.  This past week I took a picture of the first flowers on our campus and wrote a haiku to go along with it.

You can see pictures of the flamboyant in more dramatic colors, as well as a poem I wrote about these gorgeous trees, here


I really do see these blossoms as a gift from God each year.  And the blue air mail paper, in my childhood, was a joyous thing, as I spent so much time in a different country from people I loved. Those blue air mail letters appearing in the mail were always welcome. It's something my own children haven't even experienced, not because they aren't in a different country from people they love (they are), but because air mail letters seem to be a thing of the past. They are much more likely to do an online chat instead.

Flowering trees are a wonderful thing no matter where you live; probably every location has some that are particularly treasured. In Tokyo, it's the sakura (cherry blossoms). I reveled in the beautiful photos again this year, some in the news, and some taken by people I know who live there. But I also got a little bit of a shiver when I read that they were early this year. Not just early - the earliest ever. And lest you think that means the earliest in some weatherperson's life, no. They have been keeping records for twelve hundred years. When they say it's the earliest ever, they mean it. (Here's an article about that.)

Sakura blooms pink

Festival dates changed this year

Spring warmth came early.

The blossoms still brought joy. We can feel more than one thing at a time.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Slice of Life Tuesday: Graduation Speeches

Any teacher knows that there's a lot going on at this time of year, as we head into the last few weeks of school. This weird 2020-21 school year is no exception, and I've been thinking about and working on ways to end with just the right mix of normal and festive. 

The other day, our Head of School stepped into my classroom and added something else to my to-do list. Had I been thinking about the 8th grade promotion, he wondered? Usually, my 8th graders end the year with a speech unit, in which the culminating activity is to write and deliver a graduation speech. Then the kids vote on the best speeches, the ones they'd like to be part of their class promotion to high school. (None of this is my idea; I shamelessly stole it from the wonderful Nancie Atwell.) 

This year, everything is different. We have a whole different curriculum we're using, chosen by our administrators to accommodate the hybrid style in which we began the year. I have half as long each day with my 8th graders as I did last year. Almost all of the ways I usually do my teaching have been jettisoned (and while some great new ways have emerged from this, and I'm proud of how I've made the best of it, in general, I yearn for how it all used to work). 

So I was pretty happy when my administrator told me he'd like the 8th graders to write and deliver speeches for their promotion, as usual. He called the kids' work a highlight of past years and said that he can always tell I've worked hard with them. That made me feel great, and encouraged me to incorporate getting ready to start working on the speeches into this week's lesson plans. Already I've been enjoying what I always love about this assignment as the kids have been brainstorming things they remember from their years at our school. Their whole middle school time has been strange, since Haiti had lockdowns (for political reasons) before the rest of the world joined in when the pandemic started.

It's great to get to showcase the students' work and to celebrate what they've achieved so far in their academic careers as we get ready to say goodbye to them and send them upstairs to high school. And I'm excited that speeches from my class will be part of it.