Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sixty Minutes

Yesterday morning I met up with some friends at Whole Foods for coffee and conversation. Two men, three women, and two small children. These are people who care about local issues and work to improve their communities. In the course of one hour we discussed adaptive reuse of the Rouse Building, the pedestrian bridge over Little Patuxent Parkway that connects the Mall to the Lakefront, the insufficiency of current minimum wage to support basic subsistence in Columbia, the root causes of the lack of affordable housing in our area, local news, and what happened to Germany during World War II . (Ok, that last bit was one of the kids.)

Yesterday afternoon I attended the Howard County Democratic Club's Labor Day picnic, held at Cedar Lane Park. There were a lot of people there, a hundred or so, all told. These, too, are people who care about local issues and work to improve their communities. The weather was punishingly hot and humid. My sympathies go to the dedicated folks running the grills in that heat.

During the hour that I was there I had a few conversations, nothing intense. Just the normal chit-chat that you would have at a big, family-style cookout. I spent most of my time observing. I watched candidates "work the room", taking time to make contact with supporters. I watched old friends greet eachother. I saw young interns go from table to table, signing up volunteers. Members of the Democratic Central Committee were everywhere, making sure the event ran smoothly.

My take-away from these two events:

  • I am much better in small groups
  • One hour in air conditioning goes by more quickly than one hour in the heat
I noted a possible lesson for future political events. It is apparently not essential to come early. Better by far to come late, be there for the speeches, and still look fresh for the photograph. And yet, for me, a compulsively early type, that may not be the point of being there at all. There's more than one way to participate.

One thing is certain: be it large group or small, once you open yourself up to community involvement, you'll always have plenty to talk about.


Monday, September 1, 2014



Factory worker

Fast Food Worker

Office Temporary Worker


School Cafeteria Worker

YWCA Camp Counselor

Restaurant Kitchen Staff

Library Circulation Head

School Receptionist

Elementary French Teacher

Head of Admissions and Development

Preschool and Kindergarten Teacher

Paid Church Choir Chorister

Summer daycare staff

Preschool Music and Movement Teacher

After-school care worker

Music and movement teacher, early childhood special needs


That's a picture of my work history. I have struggled to survive from paycheck to paycheck. I have worked two jobs to try to make ends meet. Today I have the great privilege to have a day off with my family.

We are not rich but we have what we need, with enough extras that we really are rich, in our own way. I often think of others who are not. In the words of a James Taylor song,

"So may I work the mills just as long as I am able and never meet the man whose name is on the label."

What does it take to just get by in Columbia, Maryland? Take a look.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's in Your Back Pocket?

I have an article that I have bookmarked to consult on days like these.

"Blog Ideas Are Everywhere"

(Oh, yeah? Then why can't I think of any?)

But I re-read the article, calm myself down, stop fighting my own fears at having nothing to say. It's almost like a meditation, or a prayer. When you strive to write every day, you need that. Ask anyone who is attempting to keep the daily discipline of writing.

You want to do it. You enjoy doing it. You love the flow of it when it flows.

You hate doing it. It hangs over your head. You want to rebel against it.

So I keep that article in my back pocket. Re-reading it is rather like renewing one's marriage vows, or recalling why one got married in the first place. Sometimes it jolts my brain into making a connection that produces new ideas. Sometimes it relaxes me enough to to be able to "step away from the computer." After all, the author states, "Your best ideas usually come when you aren’t trying to think about them."

This is where my journey brought me today, a short video by General Electric about--ideas.

@generalelectric: Some ideas start out ugly, even scary. But with the right environment, they can transform into something beautiful.

Yes, it's a feel-good, sappy bit of commercial self-congratulation. But it still gets me. It reminds me that, in my quest for a daily blog post, my hope is always to reach into my back pocket and pull out a beautiful idea every time. Maybe I need to start an Ugly Ideas Journal--a place to nurture ragged scraps and threads and funny-looking concepts--and give them a supportive environment to transform into something beautiful.

The first thing I'm putting in that journal is this guy.

 (Taken from GE Video)





Saturday, August 30, 2014

Strangers Bearing Gifts

Social media was abuzz yesterday with word of a newly-released ranking that Ellicott City and Columbia ranked 3 and 8, respectively, as best suburbs for education in America. As a local blogger I received an email from the creators of the ranking, Movoto, along with a link to their article. My first response was: How did they choose? And, who are they?

It seems that the reponse of most other people was: Woo hoo! look at us! We rate!

Is it possible that we are getting a bit sucked into top ten rankings and click your town to supremacy contests these days? I wonder.

So, to answer my questions:

How did they choose?

  • Student-teacher ratio
  • Money spent per year per student (bolding mine)
  • High school graduation rate
  • GreatSchools.org rating (based on test scores for the area)
Who are they?

This is Movoto. They are a real estate company. The ranking appears to be a function of their blog. I don't really know anything else about them. I am not here to cast aspersions. But I would ask that folks actually look into the background of groups handing out rankings before accepting their accolades.

If you read the article you will see the words wealthy, affluent, spending, money. Close behind? Test scores, test scores, test scores. Possible conclusion--buy into these affluent suburbs and you will be a part of these high-ranking school systems.

The biggest and most reliable prediction of school failure is poverty. Conversely, higher test scores correlate with higher incomes much of the time. This is why Ellicott City ranks above Columbia--Columbia has a wider spread of household incomes. So what is this ranking really celebrating?

Yay! We have money! We bought expensive houses! Our kids will make the school system look great!

I have been a part of many conversations recently where residents are fed up with schools being defined by test scores. This is not what excellent education is really about. Included in that frustration is the knowledge that realtors reinforce this specious definition by steering families toward affluent areas and away from many Columbia neighborhoods based on test scores alone.

I love our schools. We have incredible teachers doing wonderful work every day. We have beautiful children to challenge, support, inspire. That is worth celebrating.

We don't need a pat on the back from a real estate company. We're bigger than that--aren't we?



Friday, August 29, 2014

Make It So!

A new buzzword in the education field is engagement. You can read more about this in an article about a Gallup report on teacher engagement. Apparently teacher engagement is crucial to student engagement, and the numbers are down. (Really?) Yesterday I passed a brand-new bulletin board display in a teachers lounge. It read: I feel engaged when...

And it was blank. I laughed to myself.


Now, it was blank because it's the beginning of the year, and it is obviously an all-school exercise meant to fill up over time. But I found it to be a bit disconcerting because there are so many answers that teachers would probably like to put on that bulletin board that they don't dare to.


I feel engaged when:


  • My knowledge and expertise is solicited and considered when curriculum and programming changes are being considered.
  • I am permitted to speak openly with parents who ask me questions about my subject area.
  • I am treated with respect by the Board and Superintendent during contract negotiations.
  • My planning time is respected as a valuable part of the educational process and not usurped for administrative meetings.
  • My teaching is evaluated through consistent and fair observation, and not by student numbers on high stakes testing.
  • I am actively involved in choosing and participating in relevant Professional Development sessions.
  • I am encouraged to teach in a way that truly benefits my students.
It is too simplistic to say, "these numbers say teachers need to be more engaged, so--get engaged, teachers!"


It is no surprise to me that, given the current environment in education both in the U.S. and in Howard County, that teachers lose heart. But let's be honest and talk about why, and really do something about it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Back to Work

Today I begin my twelfth year teaching music and movement to special needs preschoolers in the Howard County schools. I am extremely lucky to have a job which uses my specific interests and talents. I travel to sixteen different schools in the county.


Over the last eleven years I have experienced joy, frustration, sadness, triumph, and even hilarity in my work. I am privileged to work with wonderful students, teachers, and support staff. When a lesson goes well I am walking on air. When it doesn't I go around under a cloud until I figure out a way to improve it.


In the grand scheme of the program of Regional Early Childhood Centers, what I do is just a tiny piece. I try to remind myself of that when I get bent out of shape about something. But, to me, each class is my whole world. It is a chance to get that airplane off the ground and take flight.


I have spent a good deal of time on this blog championing music education in our schools. I see every day what music can do to lift up and engage students on the autism spectrum, or with language delays, physical impairments, cognitive delays. I witness how students with special needs and those without can be united in the enjoyment of creating music.


To quote the old, old song:


How can I keep from singing?


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Definition of the Thing

I have climbed up on the blog twice this morning, and twice it has thrown me off. As an act of sheer desperation I give you the following homework assignment:

Do you see Columbia's Villages as being self-contained? Why, or why not?

First, a definition:



(of a thing) complete, or having all that is needed, in itself.

synonyms: complete, independent, separate, free-standing, enclosed

"each train was a self-contained unit"

From Wikipedia: Columbia is a planned community comprising ten self-contained villages, located in Howard County, Maryland—the second wealthiest county in the United States, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures.

So, what do you think? And, does it matter?