Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday, Monday

The kid was sick most of last week. This morning my husband woke up with a sore throat and I woke up with an ear-ache. It promises to be a challenging week.

Things I would talk about today if I didn't feel like death warmed over:

  • Going to the Symphony of Lights with the family and bringing someone new along.
  • The amazing folks at the Route 100 Bob Evans who threw dinner together for us so brilliantly even though we came in twenty minutes to close.
  • My inlaws' amazing stories of the Hong Kong Occupy movement.
  • The cool guy from AAA who diagnosed and then replaced my car battery in the parking lot of Dayton Oaks Elementary School late Friday afternoon.
  • My fun shopping trip to Old EC yesterday afternoon.
  • Questions about the new school wellness policy as they pertain to classroom holiday parties.
  • Why standing up for the equality of Arts Education does not in any way denigrate or belittle Math/Science Education.
So you see, I have a lot on my mind. I'm just not in any condition to do something useful with it.

Have a great day. Stay healthy!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Staff Meeting

Santa and Santa's helpers have been taxed to the max in Howard County this year. It seems that every holiday season brings more opportunities to see the Man in Red. I can just imagine a staff meeting at the North Pole...

"Okay everybody, let's get this show on the road."

"Aw, c'mon man, it's only Halloweeeeeen!"

"You know the drill. It gets earlier every year. Gotta keep up with the times."

"Everybody have their calendar?"

iPads, phones, and Blackberries are pulled out. Santa himself clings to his beloved Day-Timer but his Head Administrative Elf double-checks everything and enters it into the Main Schedule on his MacBook.



"Herb, what are you doing? That's an Advent Calendar. You can't open that up yet!"

"It's last year's. Didn't eat all the chocolate yet."

The Head Administrative Elf sighs and hands him one of those nice glossy calendars that the North Pole Real Estate Agent sent over and a candy-cane ball-point pen.

"Alright! Howard County! Let's get this one in the books!"

"Breakfast with Santa?"

"Pizza with Santa?"

"Polar Express?"

"Firefighters with Santa?"

Various hands are raised, dates written down.

"Brunch with Santa?"

"Happy Hour with Santa?"

Dead silence. Heads come up.

"What the heck is going on, man?"

The Head Administrative Elf looks over the tops of his glasses, down the long table.

"I beg your pardon?"

"What's up with all the extra gigs? I mean, we all love the regular rounds of doughnuts, pizza, milk and cookies, even those cold rides with the Fire Department. But every year in Howard County they're adding more, more, more!"

A rumble of assent goes round the table.

"Where will it end? Sauna with Santa? Dental cleanings with Santa? Dry-cleaning pickups with Santa?"

Another speaks up. "This has gotten out of hand. This county wants Santa at its beck and call from Halloween right through til Christmas Eve. Someone's got to draw the line."

"Yeah! Santa's Helpers need to get ready for Christmas, too!"

The meeting breaks down into general pandemonium.

In the midst of the chaos, Santa himself, the Man in Red, stands up slowly, looking at the scene before him. Feeling his gaze, the dissenters fall silent.

He clears his throat. He sighs.

"Must I remind you? Must I even speak of this?" His voice trembles a bit with anger.

"Once our children in Howard County had a place to go to visit with Santa and share their wishes. They knew once they saw the Poinsettia Tree that the time had come for Christmas joy." His face darkened. Santa's Helpers looked down at their hands, twiddled their pens, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs.

"But commercialism and greed have turned their tradition over to the Dark Side..." His voice trailed off. Everyone knew what he meant. He didn't have to go any further.

Exhorbitant photo fees. Requirements to buy large photo packages. Prohibition of parent-taken photographs. It was now Santa only for the well-to-do. It went against everything they all believed in.

Herb, wiping the last crumbs of chocolate from his mouth, raises his hand.

"Okay, I'm cool with the Brunch with Santa. Pencil me in."

The meeting continues peacefully. All the dates are filled.

The Head Assistant Elf stands, signalling the close of the meeting.

"Thanks, gentlemen. The children are fortunate that you are on their side. This Christmas will be the best ever."

Santa pats his arm. "Wait a minute. Did we ever schedule Happy Hour with Santa?"

The Head Administrative Elf smiles.

"Oh, that's the Office Party. Second Chance Saloon. Half price burger night. Happy hour prices all night. Uniform optional. Ugly Christmas sweater contest. Raffle, prizes, fruitcake tossing."

That's one date everyone happily fills in.

"That's a wrap, everyone."








Saturday, December 20, 2014

Rudolph Redux

Recently a friend suggested that the children's Christmas classic, "Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer" was, in fact, not so classic.


Hot take: there needs to be a new, updated version of "Rudolph" or the character will cease to be relevant in a decade or two. #getwiththetimes #stopmotionisweird #Donnerisabadfather

What followed was a fascinating discussion about: the history of the show, what people liked about it, what they didn't like, and the deep-seated flaws embedded in the story. I must admit I was taken aback by the whole thing. It's such a part of my childhood that I have always accepted it, whole cloth.

There was plenty of rudimentary animation in kids cartoons back in the day, so the stop motion animation of Rudolph was deliciously detailed to my eyes. I looked forward every year to the opening scenes where stylishly ornamented felt trees glistened and adorable woodland animals sang along with a dapper snowman.

But the abominable snow monster always terrified me. I mean, deep in the gut, dreading-it-in-advance terror. Is he still terrifying to kids today? Or, in this world of advanced special effects, does he just look pathetically hokey? I don't know.

My friend made me think about scarier things embedded in the story. We have the child who is not accepted by his parents and who is mocked by his community. We have his mother and other females who are marginalized by a male-dominated culture. We have a thin Santa who is not acceptable until he gets fat. We have a nasty, dictatorial Elf supervisor.

We have a whole island of misfit toys--well, don't we all identify with them, though?

Standing above it all is the fact that Rudolph is not accepted until his perceived "deformity" becomes a useful "utility" for the group. Then, and only then, is he loved.

How did I never see this? Probably because so many stories are full of similar transformations. Cinderella becomes a beautiful princess, the Ugly Duckling blossoms into a swan, the boring, workaholic pig turns out to be the one who can really throw the best parties. The happy ending touches on that feeling we have deep inside that, "If only ___________ would happen, people would love me."

It is necessary for the story to have a problem, and that the problem be overcome. Could it better? Could it be different? There should be drama, some suspense, humor, maybe a moment of sadness. There should be holiday fun and joy.

Do you think it could be transformed? Or is it a period piece meant to be appreciated as such, like delicate old ornaments that we get out of tissue paper only once a year. What do you think?


Friday, December 19, 2014

Pushed Off the Fence

There's been a bit of chatter amongst my group of friends on Facebook about a new program being offered next year at Oakland Mills High School. This is the information that parents were given:


Important Parent Night to find out about the program-January 13@6:30pm

Parents, please plan to attend a Parent Orientation Night about the new Oakland Mills HS Early College Program. Students who are selected will graduate high school with a high school diploma AND 30 credits of college credit towards an AA Degree from Howard Community College! The focus will be on a supportive cohort experience for a science and education college pathway.

Science focus: Prepare for careers in science, pharmaceuticals, medicine and others

Education focus: Prepare for careers in math or science education


Grade 8: Above grade level math or G/T math

Grade 9/10: High school classes with cohort experience

Grade 11: Some college classes taken at OMHS

Grade 12: College classes taken at HCC with transportation provided. One further year at HCC to gain AA degree.


Upon receiving this information, some parents lamented that the school system's focus seems to be towards math-science and that the absence of a similar track for liberal arts was disappointing. Said one, "Farewell liberal arts and the humanities."

And another, "I strongly feel like someone should tell them that there is a HUGE BIG world out there!!!"

I found myself hanging back from joining the conversation. It's a brand new program, I thought. We don't know everything yet. Let's give it a chance to get off the ground. If it provides a bridge to higher education to kids in our community, that's got to be a good thing, right?

So I didn't say anything.

Tonight we went to the Winter Choral Concert. For the first time in recent memory, the choir had a night to itself, in the Middle School Cafetorium, rather than sharing a concert with Band and Strings and the High School, as is customary. The turnout was spectacular. The room was full and you could hear the sound of extra chairs being put out in the minutes before the concert was to begin.

Some background:

Several years ago our choral program was on its last legs. A long-time staff member was struggling with continuing health problems and the choirs couldn't help but suffer as a result. During this time Joshua Konick was hired, first as a long-term substitute, then as the full time Vocal-General teacher. He has infused energy and joy into the program. Enrollment in chorus has risen. He conducts the 6th Grade Choir, 7th/8th Grade Choir, and a newly-formed Pops Choir, which rehearses after school once a week. This Spring he is set to undertake a musical.

Imagine my surprise when the principal stepped onto the stage to welcome parents and spent at least five full minutes going over the details of the Math-Science Early College Program. That is all she talked about.

No, it was more than surprise. I was horrified. Livid.

Here you have a staff member who has completely turned around your choral program, who has raised participation, who has reached out to all kinds of kids in the school population and you don't even mention that? You have a room filled with parents who are clearly there to support their children's musical education and you don't even acknowledge that?

That room was packed with parents who support their children, and who support music as an integral part of their lives. They got a lecture about the benefits of getting ahead through science careers.

Not one word about the value of Arts Education in the Middle School. No sense of understanding that, for some kids, music is what gets them to school at all, helps them get through the day. More than that, a slap in the face to the entire music staff who were there to support each other and the students.

So, maybe I was on the fence about this initiative. But tonight I guess you could say I was pushed right off. If administrators are going to take their cue from this sort of announcement, then I think we have a problem.

It takes many areas of study to meet the needs of our many different kinds of students. All of them should be honored. Let's not let "the next big thing" mow down the beautiful diversity of options that education can offer. Students need to know that there is "a huge big world out there."

Isn't education supposed to broaden your horizons?




    Thursday, December 18, 2014

    Charity Begins At Home

    Ah, December! Your email in-box is filling up with manic offers from retailers--free shipping! amazing discounts! last minute deals! And appeals for end-of-year giving--you can make a difference! we celebrate your commitment! help us sustain our good works!

    Somebody turn down the noise already.

    Well, I can help. Forget all that for a minute, and consider my wish list. It'll take your mind off all that other nonsense.

    Top Five Christmas Wishes, 2014:

    5. Monty and Mabel, plush. From the heartwarming John Lewis advert. They sold out in less than 24 hours. Now they're being hawked on eBay for exhorbitant prices.

    4. Bean bag couch bed. Doesn't really exist. Just a prototype. I want one.

    3. 6116 Encounter Row. Coolest house in Oakland Mills. Currently listed at $475,000.00. And conveniently located down the street from my daughter and son-in law.

    2. Bridge Columbia. It never hurts to have a few big-ticket items on your list. Besides, it's useful and the whole family could share it.

    1. Inner Arbor/Symphony Woods. Yes, I really, really want it, and I promise I will play with it for more than just a few months and just discard it.

    So there you have it. No screamingly large headlines selling to you in all caps. No heart-wrenching stories of deprivation. Just a moment of whimsy in your now, now, now, now season.

    What's on your wish list?



    Wednesday, December 17, 2014

    Move It!

    My teenaged daughter has become used to periodic lectures in P.E. and Health class about the spectre of Type II diabetes. "You have to exercise an hour a day!" the teachers exhort the students, as they put them through yet another round of physical fitness assessments.

    Too late, too late, too late.

    All through my daughter's elementary years her recess time was limited and the focus was on the push, push, push for better standardized test scores. Parent requests for more recess were met with responses about "college and career ready."

    All through the years of skill and drill mandated by No Child Left Behind, opportunities for movement went down while, outside of school, children spent more time inside on devices and less time playing outside. All the while parents were working more hours to try to get by and falling back on fast food choices in their exhaustion.

    It all adds up.

    Now...when I was little...(you knew that was coming) each day in elementary school looked like this:

    Walk to school. Play on playground until bell rings. Class time. Morning recess. Class time. Walk home for lunch. Lunch. Walk back to school. Play on playground until bell rings. Class time. Afternoon recess. Class time. Walk home. Change into playclothes. Play outside.

    Look at the amount of physical activity embedded into each day. The necessity for movement was a given. And it supported our learning, all through those formative years. We probably had gym class twice per week, but that was only a small part of the picture. Our days were structured with movement in mind.

    I think that our P.E. teachers do a lot these days to encourage the joy of movement. The trend towards giving kids of all abilities different ways to have fun moving their bodies is a good one. But physical activity is not for gym class alone. If we want our children to move, and to be healthy in the long term, we have to invest in more recess from their earliest years. We also need to work with parents to encourage more walking and more family activities that involve outdoor play.

    I have a friend whose mom didn't take him to church as a young child because she thought it would be too difficult. Then, when he was 13, she decided he was old enough. She made him get dressed up and start attending church. He hated it.

    "You take any teenager, make him put on a necktie and do something he doesn't want to do--I just think it was too late for me," he mused. "I didn't see the point."

    Waiting until kids are in middle school and threatening them with Type II diabetes is not going to work. We have to put our money where our mouth is. And I don't mean foisting structured calisthenics sessions on already over-scheduled children. I mean endorsing and supporting authentic, child-directed physical play as a part of a healthy school experience.

    Who knows? Not only will our kids be physically healthier, we just might see improvements across the board.

    Ready to give it a try?

    (Graphic by Ruth Williams)


    Tuesday, December 16, 2014

    It's a Beautiful Day...Isn't It?

    It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood...

    So begins every episode of iconic children's program Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I used to use this piece in a class I taught about the power of music. "Music can make you see things in your head," I'd tell the students. They would deny it. Then I'd play some of this. Eyes would light up.

    "He's getting his sweater!" "He's putting on his sneakers!" They got it.

    It's a neighborly day in this beauty wood...

    The children in the RECC program where I teach have been learning about neighborhoods. When I entered one classroom the teacher, who follows my comings and goings on Facebook, said to the class, "Ms. Julia loves her neighborhood!"

    I think I must have glowed. If other people can see how much I care about Oakland Mills, I must be doing something right.

    I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

    Now, actually living in relationship with one's neighbors is a more difficult thing. It's messier than a simple "Like" or "Follow". It has that potentially awkward quality that a blog post does not. There may be disagreement, or conflict. That's harder for me.

    What would Mr. Rogers do, I wonder. Certainly there is conflict, even in the Land of Make Believe. He includes many tastes of these realities as his characters experience fear, uncertainty, neighbors who are imperious, stubborn, even a little mean-spirited. Somehow they always make it through.

    So, let's make the most of this beautiful day.

    Like the children I teach, I am still learning about neighborhoods. More than that, I am learning how to love my neighbors.

    "Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." --Fred Rogers

    Since we're together we might as well say:

    Would you be mine?

    Could you be mine?

    Won't you be my neighbor?