Sunday, May 30, 2010

Glen Beck, Again

I don’t really care about Glen Beck. Let me amend that, I care that so many people hang on his every word. I realize that he must have done something right to get to the place where people tune in to his shows in such large numbers to be entertained and enlightened by him.

But that’s the thing… does he enlighten? I mean he does entertain. Often he is laughable. But he is also scary. He is also dangerous. One part of his job is to spread ill will toward the president and his family. I don’t mean taking on the president intellectually. That couldn’t happen. I mean, using his vast pulpit to spread fear and, dare I say, political hatred.

Why else would he use so much of his time and resources belittling Malia Obama for asking her father if they had plugged the hole in the Gulf oil leak? It seems like an innocent enough question, doesn’t it? It is the same question that millions of Americans are asking. Indeed the entire world is looking at this fiasco and wanting to know when the hole will be plugged. It seems like Glenn Beck could use his time on the air more wisely by asking the very question Malia asked.

Instead he took off after her on his radio show on May 26th, like she was in illiterate idiot, insultingly mocking her voice, and putting down her intelligence. The thing is, he doesn't sound exactly like a rocket scientist himself at the time he is putting her down... "Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?" Is that's their -- that's the level of their education, that they're coming to -- they're coming to daddy and saying 'Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?' " Plug the hole!

OK, I am a father. If someone mocked my sons for asking a question like this I would be furious. I would take them on. But, hey, I am a dad who loves his children. The thing is, Beck is also a father who loves his children. So I have to ask myself, how does the man sleep at night?

I am also a Christian, and while I have made some huge mistakes in my life, I know that it is simply wrong to belittle a child who has nothing to do with political agendas. It is simple. It is really a no brainer. The thing is, Beck is also a Christian.

I have seen clips of Beck’s tears on TV when he is saddened by the plight of our country. I guess they are sincere. I wonder if he could muster up a few tears asking for forgiveness for what he has done here. This time he should ask Malia for her forgiveness. There is absolutely no excuse for mocking an eleven year old. None. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. He went on and on getting more and more ridiculous.

Once he got going, he just couldn’t shut himself up. At one point in his rant, he asks (while doing this foolish rendition of Malia’s voice in, I swear, a terrible ‘blackface’ routine), Daddy, “Why do you hate black people so much?” To which his partner answers for Mr. Obama, “I’m part white honey.”

Now, Mr. Beck defenders might say this is out of context. That with only a few sentences of his remarks the entire meaning of the piece is lost. If you were to read the entire piece or routine or rant – whatever you might call it, it is clear that he took a lot of time (around 4 minutes) and effort to be deliberately mean spirited and humiliating to Malia and the president. The thing is, he made himself out to be a stupid clod, soliciting laughs using the lowest form of humor. It doesn’t just border on unacceptable racist humor. It defines it.

The other part of me that sees this foolishness as something more than mere ignorance on Mr. Beck’s part, is the teacher in me. If someone were to mock one of my students or to question his/her intelligence (as Mr. Beck does in his routine) it would infuriate me. At best Mr. Beck is a mean spirited idiot (I would love to see his I. Q. compared to Malia’s). At worst he is a cowardly fear and hate monger bent on making himself look better at the expense of a little girl who has nothing to do with his political angst other than being the daughter of the man he despises. The man who happens to be our president. The thing is he calls himself a patriot.

Judge for yourself. Please leave a comment.

BECK: (imitating Malia) Daddy? Daddy? Daddy, did you plug the hole yet? Daddy?

PAT GRAY (co-host): (imitating Obama) No I didn't, honey.

BECK: (imitating Malia) Daddy, I know you're better than [unintelligible]

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Mm-hmm, big country.

BECK: (imitating Malia) And I was wondering if you've plugged that hole yet.

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Honey, not yet.

BECK: (imitating Malia) Why not, daddy? But daddy--

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Not time yet, honey. Hasn't done enough damage.

BECK: (imitating Malia) Daddy?

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Not enough damage yet, honey.

BECK: (imitating Malia) Daddy?

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Yeah?

BECK: (imitating Malia) Why do you hate black people so much?

GRAY: (imitating Obama) I'm part white, honey.

BECK: (imitating Malia) What?

GRAY: (imitating Obama) What?

BECK: (imitating Malia) What'd you say?

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Excuse me?

BECK: (laughing) This is such a ridiculous -- this is such a ridiculous thing that his daughter-- (imitating Malia) Daddy?

GRAY: It's so stupid.

BECK: How old is his daughter? Like, thirteen?

GRAY: Well, one of them's, I think, thirteen, one's eleven, or something.

BECK: "Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?" Is that's their -- that's the level of their education, that they're coming to -- they're coming to daddy and saying 'Daddy, did you plug the hole yet?' " Plug the hole!

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Yes, I was doing some deep-sea diving yesterday, and--

BECK: (imitating Malia) Daddy?

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Yeah, mm-hmm, mm-hmm, I was doing--

BECK: (imitating Malia) Why--

GRAY: (imitating Obama) Yeah, honey, I'm--

BECK (imitating Malia) Why, why, why, why, do you still let the polar bears die? Daddy, why do you still let Sarah Palin destroy the environment? Why are -- Daddy, why don't you just put her in some sort of a camp?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What I Will Miss

Morning songbirds, announcing their joy at the new day; at being alive

Autumn leaves changing the light, washing the world with crimson and gold

Lightning flashing across a springtime sky, stark, bright, dazzling the night, spearing the darkness

Icy winter river in a midwestern forest, unpredictable, clear, edged with feathered lace

Godlight radiating from a sunset over Lake Michigan waves, bright golden flashes of fire on jade green surf

Night sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids, spring peepers – the chorus of humid darkness

Apples left hanging heavily and lazily, yellow-gold on a gnarly, generous, old, giving tree

North wind, invisible but for the tops of crested waves and the bending dune grass and stinging cold touch

Transparent, glossy wings of the dragonfly, darting across meadow grasses, hungry, seeking

Morning glories, honeysuckle, wisteria, jasmine, gardenia

Elegant simplicity of a fern as it unfurls, pale green, delicate, to awaken and stand upright among others of its kind

Light through deep green sassafras leaves, dappled and alive on the forest floor

Ancient live oaks with spanish moss beards, spreading, reaching and wise, home for countless others

Northern lights, silvery green curtains of surprise and wonder

Ocean spray from Pacific's crystal waters, green sea turtles, coral, tropical fish, singing sands

Milkweed seeds, floating on silky clouds, fearless seekers of the soil, feeders of magic

Adventurous crows, blue black, swaggering, arguing, intelligent, bold

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Test

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. - Albert Einstein

I couldn’t have been prouder of my students than I was this week. Tuesday through Thursday we took the final part of our high-stakes, standardized tests. If you have an elementary age child in SC you know that Tuesday was Reading, Wednesday was Math and today was Science and Social Studies. The tests take an hour and a half or so for these three days. We had already taken the writing part of the test back in March. My students did shine. I am blessed with a bright and curious class. I did not look at any of their answers. I just read the instructions like I was supposed to. But I could tell.

I think one reason they were successful is that we kept alive a tradition started by my teacher buddy Brent Petersen. We created an adversarial fictional character named Ed. Ed makes the tests and tries to outsmart us, tries to trick us, tries to get us to mark incorrect answers, to think illogically, to tire, give up – to bomb the test. The further along in the year, the wilder our Ed character became. Now we have this image of Ed-the-test-maker-scorer as being a greasy guy in a small windowless room, with a single bare bulb dangling from a wire. He is a smoker too. He sits around all day creating these crazy writing prompts and test questions, or reading kids’ responses trying to find fault with our answers. Ed is the enemy. We must defeat him.

No one really believes this scenario but we have fun with the image of Ed. Sometimes he is wearing an old fashioned fedora hat, sometimes a sleeveless t-shirt. At various times he is shiny bald or has big tattoos. We imagine him reading our responses to the writing prompt, or scoring the fill-in-the-dot answer sheets with a cigarette dangling from his lips, the bare lightbulb casting sharp shadows on the cement block walls.

I tell the students and their parents that these tests don’t sum up the year. Not for me. And hopefully, not for them. The way we teach and learn is not rote. It is not a matter of dispensing information that can be picked up like radiation with a Geiger counter at some point later on to see what residue is left.

When we read it is for more than comprehension. It is for captivation and learning about the world and understanding human nature and characters. We read to enjoy well-crafted words, to immerse ourselves in other places, other lives, other worlds. When we write it is to express ourselves clearly, to share who we are, what we know. When we were writing our farewell notes to one of our student teachers last November I asked the children to think of what Tammy taught us, what she means to us, what we’ll remember most. Daquan said, “Well, maybe we should also try and make her cry.” So, OK, we also write to make people cry… and laugh and think deeply.

There isn’t much room on the test for their “stories” to amaze us, or any opportunities to make a reader laugh or cry. Filling in dots to show what we know about science or math or social studies doesn’t even scratch the surface of what children know about how the world works. So no, these tests do not reflect the two school years we have spent together. Not even close.

But, when I sat with these children, my children, for all these hours over these three days (not to mention the four mornings spent in the computer lab with testing and the two mornings spent in March with the writing part of the test) they worked incredibly hard. They pondered every question, worked in silence, completely isolated – as if in a room full of others in solitary confinement. They didn’t talk at all (an amazing feat in itself), checked over their work, put up with me reading directions in my “Ed-the-Test-Administrator” voice. No one complained. Everyone took it seriously.

I watched them stretch and yawn and give themselves little mental breaks, raise their hands with dulled pencils, read and reread confusing questions, shake their heads, furrow their little brows, look up pensively and think, erase incorrect answers, wink at me to let me know they were doing fine… smile at me – SMILE at me.

I know it’s silly, but during this testing time, when kids were scratching their heads, biting their lips and smiling at me, I felt this overwhelming sense of pride. It was the wrong time in so many ways. Tests are so artificial. They DON’T give a complete picture of achievement or instruction. But these children, my children, gave it everything they had. They know exactly how I feel about the tests but however incomplete the information they yield, I told them this was important. They trusted me and took this seriously. They trust me. Me. 21 minds. 21 spirits and hearts. 21 totally unique individuals. They trust me. This takes my breath away. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but it is staggering that these 21 little friends have this kind of faith in me.

It is one more powerful reason why I will miss these children as they move on to 4th grade. And why I don’t take the job of teaching for granted. It is simply so important. They trust me, you know? And their parents trust me. I don’t know why, but that astonished me a little today.

When we finished the tests, there was no big hoorah. The kids gathered around to learn a new song, munch a few cookies, and have some fellowship. For the rest of the day I listened a little more closely and laughed a little harder (“Hey, Mr. O,” said Joe, examining his cafeteria sandwich, “is some of the chicken for the chicken sandwiches made from the chicken’s… you know… behind?”). Today, with these precious few days left in the school year, I learned again why I love this gig.

“Standardized testing has become the arbiter of social mobility, yet there is more regulation of the food we feed our pets that of the tests we give our kids”
- Robert Schaeffer

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Hearing from my mom is such a treasure. When I was young and on my own, I didn’t look back much. The first big move away was to college. And, while I was a little scared to be on my own at first, Bloomington, IN quickly became my home. I became involved with a new group of friends, thinking ahead to a new life. There were weeks at a time when I didn’t talk to my folks. I got along just fine on my own I thought.

Coming home for the summers became a chore. It was time away from my cronies, and my summer employment was not very fun. I worked in a steel mill, which allowed me to graduate from college debt free, but it was hot, hard, fairly miserable work. One summer I worked a different shift every week and it seemed that I never got a decent night’s sleep. I couldn’t wait to get back to college.

When I was away at school, I would call person-to-person for myself and my folks would call me back. They were pretty touchy about phone bills. We didn’t speak very often and that was sort of OK with me. I was gone and that’s where I needed to be. Of course I loved them both, a lot, but I never told them much. When I called and my dad would pick up, he would quickly hand the phone to my mom, as if he couldn’t really think of anything to say.

After graduating and landing a teaching job is southwest Michigan, I would dutifully go home for holidays and my parents would come up to see us a couple times every year. They were both working too, of course; my dad at Inland Steel Co. where he had gotten me my summertime employment. My mom was a schoolteacher. We had this status quo relationship. We loved each other but from a distance.

I don’t know when our relationship changed exactly. All these years later, my mom is one of my best friends. It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. But now she really is. Maybe it is because we are older and we don’t have as much time left. Maybe it is because Heidi and I are going through some of the same things my folks went through when they were raising my six siblings and me. Maybe I have gotten beyond looking at my mom as an authority figure/matriarch and see her as the truly beautiful person she is beyond those roles. That wonderful, smart, funny person has always been an important part of my life – but now I appreciate her and cherish our friendship in a way I never have before.

Her kindness – even in the face of cruelty or meanness.

Her generosity – beyond measure. My mom always has a giving project going. When I was a kid our house was filled with plants my mom started and potted and repotted. These were sold to benefit the Lake County Association for Retarded Children. Until very recently she volunteered in a store whose profits benefit battered women. In Mexico she adopted an orphanage and became involved with Ninos Incapacitados, an organization dedicated to helping handicapped children. I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t working hard for someone else.

Teaching – My mom has always worked with challenging kids from mentally handicapped children to fairly rough high school kids, many of whom were on their last chance in school.

Humor – I never spend time with her without laughing. A lot. Her wit is dry and deep. She is not a joke teller per se, but can find humor in the mundane.

She is self-deprecating and modest and hard working. This winter when western North Carolina had a terrible ice storm, my mom and her husband were iced in. Their driveway was covered in two inches of solid ice with a few inches of snow on top. Broken branches were everywhere. I brought up my chainsaw and went to work chipping ice, piling up wood. It was hard. I was at it for hours. My mom was there working with me the entire time.

My mom taught me to read. She let me have the Kindergarten year off to spend it with her and my baby brother, Dan. She read to me in her bed every day. I remember reading Danny and the Dinosaur for the first time. Really reading it. By myself. My mom had probably read it to me fifty times. And Hop on Pop, and Go Dog, Go and Ten Apples Up On Top, and The Cat in the Hat. She surrounded me with books, bathed me in story. I could already read in first grade when Mrs. Redding was pushing us through phonics workbooks and “See Spot run”.

My mom taught me to write. I have long letters from many years ago. Some of what she wrote was about work, or my brothers and sisters. Some was about the natural world and what was happening with the trees and birds. All of what she wrote was seasoned with love. We have changed over to emails a lot now, but even these are sweet and deep and meaningful.

My mom gave me music. When we were little, she made my brother Pat and me be in the CYO band. Pat played brass, I played clarinet. From second grade to grade eight, we practiced every Saturday morning and played three or four concerts every year. I resented it pretty much of the time when I was young, but what a gift that was. She listened to show tunes and we sang along with “Music Man” and “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “Brigadoon” and “My Fair Lady”. And when I got old enough to play guitar and write my own scrawny little songs and sing to her with my breathy little voice, she listened. Like no one else. She still does.

My mom loves nature and has passed that on to me. When we were young we spent summers in Michigan City, IN on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. We played in the dunes and water all day, every day. At the time I would have rather stayed in our neighborhood and hung out with my friends, but those endless summer days at the beach in our little ski boat are treasured memories.

My mom has this sense of social justice, of knowing what is truly right and wrong and acting on it. Through her work as a teacher, through her politics and willingness to actively campaign for the best candidates, through the very outspoken bumper stickers on her car, and her work on social causes – she shines.

I am who I am today largely because of her influence. I could never list all of the ways she has positively affected my life, all of the gifts she has given me. I could never live up to the goodness and humility she has. I want to be like her when I grow up. I want to be like Ruthanne Hill O’Keefe Engdall Burns. I am so blessed to know this good woman and to have her for my friend.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Advice for New Teachers From 3rd Graders

Tomorrow my third graders will sing at a special ceremony honoring new graduates in Elementary Education. Some of them we know very well. Heidi and I are going to do some speechifying at the event and my class will sing a couple of our greatest hits (we're also going to try to hawk some of our CDs there). I took snippets of my students thank you notes to our wonderful student teacher Miss Kristin and wrote this poem. Only I didn't really write it, I just assembled it. This will be read in parts, "Reader's Theater" style. Heidi will read the red, I'll read the blue and we will read the black words together. The kids will read the last few lines with us. Even if you are not a teacher there are bits of real wisdom here on how to simply live a good life.

Enjoy your new class

Have a great time teaching

Be kind

Be patient

Stay confident in yourself

Be positive

Be understanding

Be a success

Not an epoch failure

Enjoy your recess

Play with your kids

Give lots of time to read

Laugh and joke a lot

Be a learner along with your students

Write a lot

Remember the power of pencil on paper

Do lots of fun science with baking powder

Love your students

Be creative

Do your best

Have reasonable consequences, you’ll have to have them

Be yourself and bring your family into the class

Remember you can do this

You’ve done it before

Let your students know that you are the teacher

There DOES have to be someone in charge

Remember that sometimes students have the floor

When you do read alouds, make

Connections to your life

Play games with your students. Have lots of


When you’re not being serious

Smile as much as possible

Know what you’re teaching about

It helps

Ask your students what they want to learn about

Help other people in the whole earth

Like Haiti, China, Chile, Pakistan,


Be a friend to all of your children

Be encouraging

Be brave

Stand up for justice and liberty

Have lots of books in your classroom

Share your favorite books with your

Best friends

Be best friends with your kids

Read good books by candlelight

Let your children express themselves

Do lots of hands on activities to demonstrate how the world works

When you are doing reading and writing

Put on quiet music

Be funny

Be athletic

Be smart

Be friendly

Don’t be too strict

Don’t be too mean

Don’t just listen to one side of the story

Keep your sense of humor, because-

What’s a teacher without a sense of humor?

Never give up and you will go along way

Make a difference in kids’ lives

Help them change the world

Respect and love – that’s what it’s all about

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The New Neigbors


We have a couple of new residents in our neighborhood. They live about 25 feet up in a tall pine just across the street from where we live. They started moving in about a month ago. Heidi spotted them earlier. They had been landing on nearby trees just watching, taking in the woods, observing, hanging out. We got a few pictures but they were always backlit, making them silhouettes. But we can see them just fine.

Adult rufous form

I was chopping wood at the bottom of our hill one Saturday and I could hear the hawks screeching nearby. That is pretty common out here in the country in Lexington, SC. You hear it all the time. But they hung around all that day. As I looked up over and over I could see them doing their aerobatic mating dance, spiraling together through the air, crying out. Oblivious. For hours. The next day it was the same. My neighbor Randy and I exchanged stories about them. Then we could see them flying sticks up the crotch of this tall pine at Randy and Kay’s place. They didn’t seem to mind our eaves dropping or spying. They were preoccupied. They were in their own little world. They were moving in.

Adult rufous form

Red-tailed hawks are not uncommon. You probably see them often. They are all over North America and get along fine living near humans. These hawks look a little like vultures when they soar. They’ve got big shoulders and flight feathers that stretch out finger-like when they fly. Often they sit in a tree or on a utility pole and just wait. They are patient hunters. At first, like almost every animal that you know casually, they all look alike. They are dark brown above and pale colored underneath, streaked and mottled. If you are lucky enough see one from right underneath, and the sun is shining through their feathers, you know why they are called red-tailed. It’s not red like a cardinal, more of a light cinnamon color. Orange-ish brown maybe. Warm red maybe. There is a dark brown band across the ends of the tail feathers. When you get to know one, it is a special creature in all the world. It is different from all other hawks.


Once, years ago, a student’s mom brought in a red-tailed hawk that had just been killed by a car. It was still warm and limp. She stretched out its wings and my second graders oohed and aahed. She wanted to pull out its flight feathers and give one to everyone as a souvenir. I said no to that. First of all, I wasn’t sure if it was legal. But more importantly, it just didn’t seem right. It was just too beautiful, too regal. Too important somehow. We examined its elegant, curved beak, touched its strong sharp talons, stroked its feathers gently and then buried it outside our portable classroom. We did not take a single feather. But we had that memory.


I have a couple red-tail feathers now. My son found them on the ground. they are beautiful treasures. These feathers I don't mind keeping.

I know I have a double standard. Every year we examine rolly pollies or earthworms or mealworms. I know we must make them uncomfortable. We gather swallowtail caterpillars and feed them up until they become chrysalises. This year we watched a monarch come out of its chrysalis and released it into the butterfly garden of our school. We take tadpoles from their ponds or mudholes and wait for them to metamorphose. I know that every creature from slug to mole, from opossum to wild boar has it’s own particular beauty, it’s own individual form that makes it fit in perfectly into its habitat. But for some reason, hawks have this special place inside of me. They leave me a little breathless, a little in awe. It’s one of those weird feelings, like if I was to come back as an animal, I would want it to be a hawk. There’s nothing scientific or even intelligent about that thought. It just is.

Anyway, a new couple moved in across the street. We really don’t like seeing into our neighbor’s homes. That’s why we moved out into the country. But in this case, I don’t mind looking out my bedroom window or sitting on the front porch and seeing exactly what the neigbors are up to. I think they’ll be having a family real soon. I can’t wait.