Friday, September 19, 2014

Some Notes from the Front Lines

Here are my notes from Wednesday's Board of Education Candidate's Forum at The Other Barn in Oakland Mills. I chose to cover the first part of the evening, where candidates were allotted five minutes to focus on an issue of most interest to them. It had been suggested that they pick one of the topics from the questions submitted in advance. Some did; some did not.

Bess Altwerger-- has worked as a teacher of teachers. Has first hand experience of current educational trends and what is happening in the classroom. Her remarks were confident and focused. She addressed 1. Improving equity based on need 2. Less emphasis on high-stakes testing 3. Economic disparity between students. Was outspoken in her support for the quality of teachers through the county.

Mike Smith--began his remarks with a disclaimer that he was a completely independent candidate who answered to no one, who had no alliances that could influence him. (Note to self: Ann DeLacy?) Then stated that he entered race with no preconceived notions, no causes, no agenda. (No background knowledge?) Took several jabs at Bess Altwerger, including something she hadn't even said. Thinks Common Core is the answer. Says data supports classrooms of thirty five children if run efficiently. Didn't address any particular question. Ran over time, even with reminders.

Allen Dyer--Chose 1st question: "overcoming achievement gap" socio-economic problems. Focused on land use. Spread the lower income housing throughout the county. Desegregate the neighborhoods, smooth distribution of economic groups. Council and executive can address this. Board must get out in front of this issue. Spoke against building "high rises" of poverty (does HoCo even have plans for that?) This is a long term solution, a short term solution would be busing. He's against that, says "Bus the teachers around to where they are most needed." Railed against number of "FARM students". Says class size should be smaller in lower income areas. "The affluent kids can handle all that testing. It's what their parents talk about around the dinner table."

Christine O'Connor: Pleasant, self-deprecating opening, portrayed herself as a nervous teacher in front of a large group of adults. Has fourteen years of PTA experience. Adressed question 4 by trying to relate FARM students and PTA membership. Numbers she used didn't prove anything and even she seemed surprised by this. She suggested PTA revenue sharing within feeds to address disparity of PTA funds. Described how Superintendent Foose recruited her to develop the PTA Parent Portal. (Note to readers, this is what is mentioned by Ann DeLacy here, "...our Superintendent has learned to circumvent the PTACHC leadership by going directly to the local PTA Presidents. ")

Zaneb Beams--Addresses health and wellness question. Uses Telehealth (being introduced in the Model Schools Initiative) as an example of something she has knowledge and experience with as a pediatrician and can help parents understand as it is implemented. Praises the goals of Telehealth, remarks that it is in its embryonic stages. Talks about nutrition, physical fitness, creative ways to increase physical activity. Delivers impassioned plea, "We don't have FARM students, we have children who need help with food." (Spontaneous applause) Concludes by saying that scores are not what make us who we are; dreaming and doing are what matters in the long run. (Again, spontaneous applause.)

Cynthia Vaillancourt--Describes what she is proud of from her years on Board. Happy that we are now honestly addressing issues of equity rather than being in denial. Addresses health and wellness question. Suggests that intent can be good, but execution can be at cross purposes with the goal. Argues for common sense: Lucky Charms and other sweetened cereals on offer are not a healthy breakfast for our students. Speaks to the issue of returning high school start times to a reasonable hour, says we are beyond the point of study, we should be working on how to implement. Says it's important to help community understand what is at stake as we make these changes.

Sandra French--the calm voice of a first grade teacher. Tells us why none of what others are saying is actually possible. Repeatedly says, "we can ask the superintendent, we can ask the staff, we can form a task force, we can examine data." Suggests that people from the community come to them with solutions but they (Board) can't even address that unless they first decide to form a task force to see if it is really a problem. And all that stuff costs money! Seems to suggest that as individual board members have no power, the passions and concerns and qualifications they bring to the board are irrelevant. Describes "this is how we do things." Never addresses whether that works or not. I don't think she spoke to any of the actual questions.

Dan Furman: began by telling about himself --Wilde Lake High School grad, Student Member of BOE, studied Poli Sci, law degree. Practiced Ed. Law, hcpss Council, currently working in Annapolis as a part of the Howard County Delegation. Adressed question 3--parity. Trying to provide all students with equity of opportunity. "We owe that to them." Says we must go directly to the operating budget to address this. Notes that he learned to read an operating budget at age 16, so it doesn't take an advanced degree in finance to understand it. Calls for greater transparency in the operating budget process. Concludes that equity of opportunity means valuing people over numbers.

I am going to do some analysis of all this on Monday. In the meantime, you can get more information from Jason Booms on his blog, Blair Ames of the Sun, and in the Candidates' actual written answers.




Thursday, September 18, 2014

Board and Barn

The first thing I noticed when I arrived at the Oakland Mills Village Center last night was a Mike Smith campaign sign planted in the ground, which I found to be rather cheesy. I don't know what the rules were for last nights Candidate's Forum, but my gut feeling is that candidates were not invited to plant signs on Village Center property.

Once I parked my car, I noticed candidates Mike Smith and Christine O'Connor chit-chatting out front by his campaign sign. From the other side of the parking lot came a friendly shout, "Well, look! There's my favorite candidates!"

It was current Board Member Ann DeLacy.

The candidates' response was rather odd.

"Shh!" They shushed her.

"What do you mean, Shh?"

"Shh! You're not allowed to do that anymore."


"Didn't you see?"

At this point Ms. DeLacy had reached them and they bent their heads together in private conversation. I just kept on walking.

I can't wait to find out what all of that means. It was weird.


I want to thank the Villages of Columbia for organizing the Board of Education Candidate's Forum, and especially Sandy Cederbaum and the staff of Oakland Mills for hosting it at the Other Barn. They had a great turn out. Board Member Jonathan Edelson did a wonderful job of managing the introductions and getting the evening started. And staff from HCC's Mediation & Conflict Resolution Center were there to moderate the event.

As you already know, I think that this election is extremely important and I was thrilled to see so many people taking an interest. People from "inside The Bubble" and "outside The Bubble" were represented. And that's good.

I am going to save my analysis for tomorrow, as I have a lot of notes to sort through. I will say that Zaneb Beams drew spontaneous applause from the crowd twice during her remarks. And Allen Dyer produced possibly the only titter, when he suggested that we must "bus teachers--bus them to where they are needed most."

So, until tomorrow: here are the questions the eight candidates were asked to answer before last night's event. Are there any others that you would like to see addressed?


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

17 Years

Last night when the O's clinched the AL East Division Championship (did I say that right?) I kept seeing the year 1997. "Seventeen years is a long time..." began many a tweet. Something about that year rang a bell. 1997.

Oh, yeah. September of 1997 is when I met this guy.

He had long hair tied back in a ponytail, wore a leather jacket, drove a fast car, and sang counter-tenor in the professional choir at Grace and St. Peter's Church in Baltimore. I was new. He stood behind me in the choir stalls and helped me navigate my way through the complex, high-church liturgy.

Yes, seventeen years is a long time. Long enough for a courtship (beginning approximately 11/98) marriage (11/99) birth (11/00) and many other celebrations, most notably Alice and George's wedding on 9/16/12.

Wait--was this post supposed to be about baseball? Well, maybe. One thing I didn't know back in September of 1997 was how much this guy loved baseball. Over the last seventeen years I have watched him practice tuba while watching baseball, practice harp mournfully as they went down to defeat, practice banjo, acoustic guitar, electric guitar--all with the O's. Now he is writing a book while watching Orioles baseball.

For Oriole's fans, the last seventeen years now seem perfectly framed as the wait for last night, the wait for a sweet, sweet victory. It's Orioles Magic. For me last night's win was a reminder of the blessings of the last seventeen years, knowing and loving the rocker-teacher-baseball guy who has brought my life such joy.

Baseball seasons come and go. The love of home team goes on forever.




Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Five things that scare me:

  1. Football players beating four year old children
  2. Online ads that follow senior citizens around the internet
  3. Dancing With the Stars (wow, is that ever creepy!)
  4. Open Forums where "anything can happen"
  5. Depression

What's your list?


Monday, September 15, 2014

Making Your Mark

Today is Dot Day. I learned about Dot Day by following Howard County Media Teacher Matthew Winner on Twitter. You can learn more about his work on his blog, The Busy Librarian.

Dot Day, or rather International Dot Day, is a "global celebration of creativity, courage and collaboration, (which) began when teacher Terry Shay introduced his classroom to Peter H. Reynolds’ book The Dot on September 15, 2009." Dot Day is significant to me because it is an example of teachers connecting through social media and the World Wide Web to create a creative and affirming learning experience for students.

I write a good bit here about what high stakes testing and the emphasis on data, graphs, and endless meetings about the same, are doing to education. Dot Day is an example of what teachers really want to be doing: creating, collaborating, challenging students to be their best selves. These teachers don't need professionally vetted surveys to rate their level of engagement. They are engagement. As they are open to learning from one another, and from their students, we should be open to learn from them.

From the Dot Day website,

The Dot is the story of a caring teacher who dares a doubting student to trust in her own abilities by being brave enough to "make her mark". What begins with a small dot on a piece of paper becomes a breakthrough in confidence and courage, igniting a journey of self-discovery and sharing, which has gone on to inspire countless children and adults around the globe.

For some reason, the whole concept of Dot Day makes me think about this wacky, funky little book by Daniel Pinkwater called The Big Orange Splot. It is also a testament of sorts to self-expression. If you take the time for the read-aloud, you'll also see why this is the sort of book that might make Columbia RAC committees tear their hair out. It is hard to tell if the book was truly meant for children or really for adults. Perhaps both.

It challenges our comfortable acceptance of conformity. It gives us permission to dream our dreams, and then live them.

The Dot is available in our Howard County Public Libraries. The Big Orange Splot, alas, is not. They do carry forty other Daniel Pinkwater selections. I wish they had this one--in fact, I almost wish there was a Big Orange Splot Day.

Do something today to express yourself and break out of the mold!


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Time Marches On--Are You With It?

This post was originally published about a year ago--9/24/13, to be exact. I am running it again to ask the same question: what are you willing to do to participate? What will it take for you to be engaged?

A Face in the Crowd

Saturday I attended the kick off event for Courtney Watson's campaign for the office of Howard County Executive. I was with the band.

The Lexington Brass Quintet

Truth be told, I would have been there even if my husband hadn't been playing tuba. I like Courtney. I've seen her reaching out to constituents through social media, most notably during storms and power outages. And I like the people I see working to support her.

Someone must do the work. Even before well-wishers walked in the door Saturday morning, people were busy. It's not just about wearing a "We're With Watson" t-shirt. The event itself had to be planned, the venue chosen and booked, tasks assigned, logos for signs and t-shirts created, food ordered, supplies purchased, speakers chosen and invited. In that room Saturday morning were people who care enough to get up early, stay up late, make lists, brainstorm, reach out and follow up.

You can tell a lot about a candidate by looking at who those people are. And when it comes to Courtney Watson, those people are ones I admire and respect. So I'm looking forward to great things from this team.

Let's not forget the guests. Some were clearly enthusiastic supporters, some were good democrats who root for the home team, some came to see and be seen. At every political function there will be people who view the event as an opportunity to forward their own interests. You can look at that as selfish, or simply as choosing to take advantage of fertile ground for networking.

I don't know what I think about this, probably because at heart I am not a politician. I was just happy to be a face in the crowd. I didn't need to be important. I saw friends, I learned more about what Courtney stands for, and I fulfilled a very necessary function: I was happy to be there.

We all choose, in one way or another, the degree to which we will be involved in our communities and in the workings of democratic self-government. There is room for many kinds of participation--from running for office to staying well-informed about the issues.

It is clearly campaign season in Howard County and it will be for the foreseeable future. How will you participate? What will you learn? What will you share?


There are about fifty-some days until Election Day. You can make a difference by learning about the issues, talking with friends and neighbors, volunteering for a campaign. More than anything else, you will make a difference by voting. Don't let someone else make the decisions about your community. Be the change you want to see in the world.




Friday, September 12, 2014

Oh, Those Crazy Kids

Scene: two teens on Twitter.


"just saw the article on the Glenelg student."


"seriously.... what if their flag offended me? Bet you they wouldn't get suspended. people need to get their facts straight."

"exactly .... ppl are stupid"



"You can drive around out here in a couple locations and see Confederate flags, southern flags flying up on flagpoles," he continued. "I am not going to question the intent of people flying them, but clearly they feel comfortable flying them and they have no issue."


Oh, those crazy kids. They say and do the darnedest things.

Wait, that second quote is from Republican Warren Miller, Maryland Delegate from District 9 A.

That quote is from an adult?

I highly recommend reading the entire article. It's very educational.

I wasn't going to write about this issue again today, but as I teacher I am overwhelmed by the desperate need for education here. And it clearly doesn't stop at the schoolhouse door.