Thursday, October 31, 2013

We Interrupt This Program

I know I promised a bit of homegrown analysis on the Verona Apartments issue this morning, but it will have to wait. I just read this morning's post by HowChow, and you need to, too.


This poem immediately came to mind. (from the poem, A Happy Childhood, by William Matthews)

It turns out you are the story of your childhood

and you’re under constant revision,

like a lonely folktale whose invisible folks

are all the selves you’ve been, lifelong,

shadows in fog, grey glimmers at dusk.

And each of these selves had a childhood

it traded for love and grudged to give away,

now lost irretrievably, in storage

like a set of dishes from which no food,

no Cream of Wheat, no rabbit in mustard

sauce, nor even a single raspberry,

can be eaten until the afterlife,

which is only childhood in its last

disguise, all radiance or all humiliation,

and so it is forfeit a final time.

In fact it was awful, you think, or why

should the piecework of grief be endless?

Only because death is, and likewise loss,

which is not awful, but only breathtaking.

There’s no truth about your childhood,

though there’s a story, yours to tend,

like a fire or garden. Make it a good one,

since you’ll have to live it out, and all

its revisions, so long as you all shall live,

for they shall be gathered to your deathbed,

and they’ll have known to what you and they

would come, and this one time they’ll weep for you.


"...why should the piecework of grief be endless? Only because death is, and likewise loss, which is not awful, but only breathtaking."

All Hallows Eve, 2013


Photo credit, Daniela Jakob


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Verona Apartments, Part 2

Let me offer my thanks once more to Jeanne Lay who allowed me to use her letter as the basis of yesterday's blog post. She reached out to me by email on Oct 22, at 4:26 PM, and not 24 hours later (October 23, at 7:45 am) I received an email from my councilman, Calvin Ball, sharing the following information from the County. Both were serendipitous and unrelated. Some times life just works that way.

It's a little long, but I think you'll find it's worth the read.


Verona at Oakland Mills FAQs

Q: What is happening at Verona at Oakland Mills?

A: Verona at Oakland Mills is a 251-unit apartment complex in Columbia that becameavailable for sale by current ownership in May. The Howard County Housing Commission entered into a contract to purchase and oversee operations of the complex, and completed the transaction in October 2013.

Q: Who will manage the property?

A: The Housing Commission intends to maintain the current management firm for at least a year. If it proves unsatisfactory, the Commission would reevaluate that decision and make changes as necessary.

Q: What is the current condition of apartments?

A: The units have been recently renovated, and the vacancy rate is low. The economic and physical condition of Verona is solid. However, there are some improvements that are needed, such as landscaping and exterior painting. The Commission will be making these improvements shortly.

Q: What are the immediate plans for the property?

A: The Housing Commission intends to manage and maintain the property for at leaset 10 years. The Commission intends to follow through on a capital improvement program, making improvements to landscaping, exterior paint and security. The Commission is a responsive, local property owner that is vested in making its properties and the immediate community better.

Q: What will happen to current residents? Will they be displaced so that others can move in?

A: There are no plans to displace current residents. Those who choose to remain in their apartments will do so. The Housing Commission policy is to strictly enforce leases so that problems and issues do not grow. The Commission is committed to protecting and enhancing the value of its asset, and maintaining and improving the quality of life for all residents.

Q: When did members of the public learn about this project?

A: Outreach to members of Oakland Mills Village Board leadership began in August and is continuing. Prior to that, the Commission was constrained by seller’s confidentiality and could not disclose the transaction.

Q: Is Commission ownership and management a good thing for the community?

A: The Howard County Housing Commission has a strong track record of effective management. Additionally, because it is a quasi-public entity, the Commission is responsive to the concerns of the community and its elected representatives. The Commission will follow through on a capital improvement plan, will improve security, and ownership will prevent an “absentee landlord” from taking over operations.

Q: Why does this project make sense for the Housing Commission?

A: In this case, the Commission would issue its own bonds for the purchase, andanticipates that the cash flow generated by Verona’s operations will not only support the repayment, but provide additional revenue for Howard County Housing’s other programs. As the federal government continues to cut back its housing programs, it becomes more critical for the Housing Commission to reduce its reliance on government funding.

Q: Are there other examples of similar projects in Howard County?

A: The Housing Commission owns and operates the 300-unit Columbia Landing project in Long Reach, a successful and viable development purchased and managed through the same mechanism being proposed for Verona. Columbia Landing is 80 percent market rate and 20 percent moderate income, as Verona would be, and has operated successfully and seamlessly in the community for the last six years. Other mixed-income Commission projects such as Monarch Mills and Burgess Mills Station have been widely praised for their quality, for their amenities, and for contributing to community redevelopment in Ellicott City and Columbia. Those would be the models if future redevelopment took place.

Q: What are the current rents and will they be maintained?

A: Verona is a market rate property, with rents averaging about $1,250 per month.Under Commission ownership, 80 percent of units in Verona will be at market rate, and the Commission is hopeful that those rents would rise over the next decade. The Commission is not interested in restricting rents. Some units will be designated as moderate income units, but it is important to note that “moderate income housing unit” rents are actually HIGHER than those charged currently at Verona. For example, a two-bedroom unit rents for $1,264 per month at Verona, but the MIHU price would be $1,349 per month. In short, it is expected that rents at Verona will rise over the next decade, not decrease.

Q: Are there future Housing Commission plans for the property?

A: The Commission plans to operate the property in its current configuration for at least 10 years, as per the requirements of the proposed financing that would be obtained by the Commission. After that, the Commission expects to refinance and either rehabilitate or redevelop the property as a high-quality, mixed-income community, similar to Monarch Mills or Burgess Mill Station. Such a plan would contribute to revitalization in Oakland Mills.

Here are images of Burgess Mill Station and Monarch Mills:

Burgess Mill Station

Monarch Mills

Q: If that happens, would more units be built? Would density be increased?

A: At other properties redeveloped by Howard County Housing, density has been increased to create the financial resources needed for quality units and amenities. If redevelopment occurs, as with Monarch Mills, 60 percent of the units would be at market rate, near-luxury; the remainder would have income limits. Significant amenities would also be included.

Q: Would there be an opportunity for public input before those plans are developed?

A: Yes. The Commission will work closely with the community in developing plans for either redevelopment or rehabilitation of Verona. It is the Commission’s practice to fully vet all plans with the community, through multiple community meetings, and there would be pre-submission meetings required through the Planning and Zoning process, and meetings before the County Council prior to obtaining state financing.

Q: Has this project received appropriate public notice?

A: The Housing Commission has the right and responsibility to maintain confidentiality as it seeks to acquire property. Potential sellers would be dissuaded from doing business with the Commission if negotiations and discussions took place in public.


Now that you have read a citizen's concerns, and the County's FAQ's, what do you think? Have your questions been answered?

Yes, I am going to offer a little home-grown analysis. Tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Guest Post: Stronger, Healthier, Vibrant

Today's post, about the purchase of the Verona Apartments by the County, comes from fellow OMMS parent Jeanne Lay. I asked her if I could share it because I was impressed with the positive tone and giving spirit that her letter communicates. It is possible to ask questions in a way that speaks to shared goals and values. This piece is an excellent example of what that means.


I recently read in a community email communication, The Baltimore Sun, and the Columbia Flyer that the Verona Apartment complex in the Oakland Mills Village of Columbia, Maryland is being purchased by the County.

I’m interested in learning more about the plans for these apartments. While I’m unfamiliar with strategic planning for apartment complexes, there are some things that I do know about the Oakland Mills community:

• We are trying to build a stronger, more healthy and vibrant community.

• Our Village Center offers many amenities to serve the local population. From “Lively Arts for the Little Ones”, a Teen Center, and commuter buses, to an annual high school Homecoming parade, weekly Farmer’s Market, outdoor festival, and an ice skating rink where the community gathers for hockey games, lessons, and to see a show. Something is always happening at Oakland Mills.

• One of the local elementary schools, walking distance from the Village Center, recently launched a “Blessings in a Backpack” program (, through which many of the student population that receives Free and Reduced Price Meals during the school week receive free food on Fridays to ensure that they do not go without over the weekend. That same elementary school grows a community garden and invites the locals to both give and receive.

• Bright Minds Foundation ( recently visited the local high school to deliver free computers and computer training to families who were without. Three of their free computers were distributed to homeless teens who attend that high school.

• The Village Center and the local schools offer clothing and coat drives to assist the local community.

The Oakland Mills community welcomes partners who will help lift our Village residents up. We welcome residents who want to live in Howard County for the services and amenities it offers: great commutes to both Baltimore and Washington; a nationally renowned public school system; a robust Healthy Howard ( program - bringing together all facets of the community to create a public health model that can improve the health and well being of every Howard County resident.

I know that affordable housing is a necessity in every community to ensure that families with a variety of financial means have housing options that are affordable to them. My hope is that those needing those public services who live within Oakland Mills find that the community supports every aspect of their lives.

My hope is that with the new ownership of the Verona Apartments,( the mix of tenants will contribute to the efforts to invigorate and vitalize the community. I also hope that the new ownership will continue to allow the Verona Apartments to “offer the perfect balance of city convenience and tranquil suburban living. Tenants will also be in a great neighborhood near easy transportation routes and close to shopping, dining, and entertainment options for their enjoyment”.

I appreciate any information that you can share regarding plans for those apartments.


Stay tuned for tomorrow's post--a lot of great information from the County.




Monday, October 28, 2013

Questioning Authority

It started with a question* on Facebook.

Parent A: Parents of 7th grade kids in GT Algebra in Howard County, do your kids have and use a textbook in their class? Curious.

Parent B: Hmmm...

Parent C: I'm interested in any responses you receive. Just had a conversation with the teacher this morning, and it was of value. She did point me to to view the curricula, and we discussed several things. I'm happy to share if you're interested.

Parent D: Same answer you got from G. - L. has one but they don't use it because it doesn't align with Common Core.

Parent A: UGH! WTH?! Same with G. I have a big problem with bringing out a new curriculum without supporting and student-friendly resources. G's class is "making their own textbooks" in their notebooks. Yeah. Great plan. Thank god for Khan Academy and a husband with math sense. Makes me want to spit.

Parent B: My husband is the go-to for this stuff, thank heavens. Ugh.

Parent E: The bigger issue is the lack of timely effective communication. Many of us found out about the lack of an aligned textbook only after we started asking questions. I am not qualified to opine on the effectiveness of common core; however, the lack of communication at the school/classroom level is troublesome. I am continually told that this common core concept has been introduced over the past few years. I wish that the administrators would recognize that effective communication happens at the school/classroom level. "Politics is local" comes to mind. I think that I would have been okay with the lack of a text if I as a parent had been notified ahead of time and reassured about the materials that the kids would be using in lieu of a formal text.

Parent A: Although I definitely support teachers having freedom to present materials in different ways, it concerns me that we don't have textbooks for this common core curriculum. What our middle schoolers are learning right now is the basis (truly, the CORE) of what comes next. If their foundation in algebraic skills is shaky... well, they are at risk of dropping out of math. My daughter's mild interest in mathetmatics has completely disappeared this year - mostly due to frustration and feeling "dumb" that she can't just pick the concepts out of thin air (or the internet). If a student is a natural mathematical thinker, they can survive shoddy teaching of skills. That is not the case with all students - even all G/T students.


Think about it for a minute. Our kids have been thrown into a curriculum which isn't ready to be implemented. And it looks like this information hasn't been adequately explained to parents. What do you think about that?


The next day, the conversation continued:

Parent A: I don't have issue, really, with the Common Core itself - just with the shoddy implementation at the middle school level. Learners need to know expectations and structure in order to build confidence at basic skills. Somehow, that isn't happening and I think part of it has to do with lack of preparation? Lack of text? Lack or organization? in the implementation. M's elementary school did a good job transitioning to the Common Core, and even provided before school tutoring to keep kids up to speed. It's that whole "building the airplane while flying" approach that just isn't fair...

Parent E: I ditto what L. said. Poor implementation, lack of communication.

Parent B: All through elementary school, they were continually throwing new stuff at our kids to try to raise test scores. They have been guinea pigs for somebody else's programs at the expense of real, significant learning. This is just more of the same.


My daughter, who has always done extremely well in math, has been coming home since the beginning of this year saying: this is hard, this is boring, I don't get it, maybe I can't be in GT Math anymore if they find out I can't do math anymore. I had a conference with the teacher who said she was getting better all the time and could always ask for help, come in early, get points for corrections on tests. Never in this conversation did any of the issues discussed above ever come up.

I didn't know to ask. I thought it was just my child.

This is a terrible burden to place on our children, and on teachers who have to "build the plane while flying it." I am truly disappointed.

Now what?


*quotes used with permission


Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Follies

In trying to import some material for a Guest Post today, I ended up with an exciting collage of text over text, and Bloggsy doesn't appear to have an "undo" button. So that will have to wait until I can straighten it out.


Instead, here's a potpourri of HoCoBlog choices that I have read over the last week that I think you might enjoy. I try to go the page frequently and pick out posts by bloggers with whom I am less familiar. That's how I discovered From the Scratchpad of an Urban Bushwoman, now one of my favorites. She writes this week about the Fall Health Care Enrollment Festival at HCC.

In the first-time read category (read by me, that is) is J K Squared Blog warning us how our "Likes" may be used on Facebook. It's stuff I kind of knew already but definitely needed the reminder.

I have recently started reading the blog "Away from the Things of Man." It's a surprising choice for me. The writer is unlike me in many, many ways, and yet his good-hearted-ness shines through. I am pretty sure we don't vote the same, or worship the same, and yet, once I read a few posts, I was rooting for him.

The 53 blog keeps getting better and better, in my opinion, although if you check out today's post, you might think that writer Marshmallow Man has gone off the rails. Enjoy the Halloween fun, but then read back a few for a taste of more serious local commentary.

Finally, if you are willing to get a little more thoughtful, and even a bit sad, read this post on HoCoHouseHon. It offers a truthful and almost poetic look at the experience of grief. Although rather heart-wrenching, it will make you smile as you think about the people whom you have loved and lost.

That's all for today!






Thursday, October 24, 2013

Come On Down!


You Have the Power: Recipe for Rebellion (A new game for adults with ambition)

Rules of Play: you are in charge of making a major change that will have an impact on others.

Draw a Power Play Card to determine your mission.*
*Sample Missions:
--Build a County park adjacent to a residential neighborhood,
--Reforest Open Space land to cut down on runoff and mowing costs,
--Design a new plan for an old park,
--Buy property to support affordable housing initiatives

Let's begin!

1. Make a list of things to be changed. Then,
Involve the public in the process
Or not--
Involving the public is time-consuming.

2. Finalize a list of things that will change. Then,
Communicate them with the public.
Or not--
Communicating with the public is fraught with pitfalls.

3. Uh oh! People are up in arms about the change
Draw a Full a Email Box Penalty Card. Then,
Answer their emails.
Or not--
If you don't put anything in writing, no one can hold you to it.

4. A meeting is held to respond to citizen concerns. Then,
Send your most articulate, people-friendly employees to attend.
Or not--
These meeting are merely a goodwill gesture. They don't really mean anything.

5. Move forward with the changes. If they have negative consequences you did not foresee, then,
Respond promptly to remedy the problems.
Or not--
If you didn't foresee these problems, they're not your responsibility.

6. Uh oh! Your opponent has gone over your head by playing an Outside Coercion card. Lose a turn while consulting your legal department.

Yes, I have moved from examining conflict to seeing it as "Conflict: The Game". I've seen this game play out with different players over and over again. Sometimes I find myself sympathizing with one side, sometimes another. But right now, at this very moment, I am tired of it.

Who wins this game? They say it is always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, right? Well, is it?

I had an encouraging note from a friend yesterday which included these words,

"We have a great opportunity from this point forward to do better!"

And that's it, in a nutshell. We get to this point in the game and we need to draw an Opportunity card. But I don't want to. I feel like a cranky five year old who knocks over the pieces, complaining, "I'm bored of this game."

Oh, and one more thing. What happens if The Game becomes so frustrating and unrewarding that people don't want to play anymore? Well, this is 2013. Games are apps. And apps get updates. I am so looking forward to the update with a new set of Opportunity cards.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Conflict. Everyone has got some conflict in his or her life. Individuals, families, groups, communities, local, state, national, name it. When human beings have differing points of view, the resulting clash is conflict.

Certainly there are degrees of disagreement. There can be a general sense of agreement where the parties are just hammering out some pesky details, all the way to full blown warfare. So, there will be conflict. What happens after that is up to us.

Here are some local conflicts that are on my mind today:

Howard County Schools intend to administer the MSA's this year even though they will not assess what the students are actually learning. Many parents, myself included, object.

Howard County moves to purchase the Verona Apartments in Oakland Mills. Some residents voice serious misgivings.

The State of Maryland implements a fee system to deal with the polluting effects of storm water on the Chesapeake bay. Allan Kittleman (and others) call it a "rain tax" and want it repealed.

I recently observed an online conflict that arose from one respondent's view that any County money spent on the Bridge Columbia project would be money taken away from updating and improving Wilde Lake Middle School. Money. Priorities. Opinions. Conflict.

How do we handle conflict? So many choices are available: do nothing, get frustrated, make snarky comments, write a letter, go to a meeting, get involved, become violent. I'm not advocating violence! But these are clearly ways that people choose in response to conflict. A friend of mine is involved with CRI, which is the Circle of Restorative Initiatives for Maryland. I wish their website were a bit more informative, although I did learn that there's a Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center At Howard Community College. Does anyone out there have experience in working with them?

The word "restorative" intrigues me. When we are in conflict, what do we lose? Should our goal then be winning, or restoring and improving the relationship which is put at risk through conflict?

I'm going to need to learn more and think more.




Tuesday, October 22, 2013

It's A Long Story

This summer I thought a lot about what it means for my daughter to be a student in the GT program at school. I get the feeling that kids think: they test you, you're smart, so that's your designation. If the work gets tough for you, they may throw you out, because it means you're not smart enough. That's what comes from having so much of your childhood determined by tests.

I wanted to give my daughter a different perspective. So I developed the Grit and Determination concept. GT doesn't stand for Gifted and Talented, I told her. It stands for Grit and Determination: the qualities that GT students are willing to use when the work gets tough. I worked it all out in my head; I was very excited.

Of course, my GT student immediately saw through my plan. "Doesn't Determination begin with a D?" she asked, helpfully. Yes, well...

Today I present you with the result of Grit and Determination:

Oakland Mills Village Manager, Sandy Cederbaum, has been working to get a new sign for our Village Center for a long, long time. How long? Well, the old sign is mentioned in the Master Plan as being almost seven years old. And that was in 2007. So, the sign which was put up as a temporary sign during the Village Center construction--the sign which was old and worn in 2007--was still sitting there in 2013. Until yesterday.

Sandy has been working, negotiating, sending emails, making phone calls, and following up on all of this to get a new, permanent sign for our center. This has involved years of work with Cedar Properties. She never gave up. I can't imagine how frustrating this was. I'm not sure that I would have had the tenacity that she has shown as she worked steadily towards her goal.

So, a giant-sized HoCo Holler! today to Sandy Cederbaum, the extremely gifted and talented Village Manager in Oakland Mills. Her grit and determination are a sign of what I love about our community.





Monday, October 21, 2013

The Challenge of Autumn

I love Fall. I was born for the crispness of "October's bright blue weather." I love the brightly colored changing leaves, apple cider, pumpkins, even going back in the house to grab a jacket. I appreciate each of the seasons for their good qualities, but there is just something about Fall. It speaks to me.

On the other hand, Fall is not without its challenges. Fall means going back to school for all three of us. And with that comes all of the other commitments that are tied in with the academic year: Peabody Chorus, Bell Choir, college gigs, band events, and so on. Lesson planning, preparing workshops for other teachers, doing homework and more homework--that's what happens at our house when Fall comes to town.

It gets cooler, and it gets darker. On chilly, cloudy days I find my moods sinking and my spirit longing for sunlight. It's all fun and games in the pumpkin patch when the sun is shining. But it doesn't last.

That shifting towards darker days is the biggest challenge of Autumn for me. It eats away at a sense of well-being. It can happen quite slowly. I find myself feeling a vague sense of unease for quite some time before I realize what is happening. I am drinking more coffee, eating more sweets, and yet still feeling more tired.

That's when I break out the "happy light." It's a special light made by Verilux made to lessen the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. As I sit and write each morning, I'll put on some music and bask in its brightness. And after a few days I begin to feel a bit more normal. It may start with realizing I don't need a bag of cookies in the car, or making a list of new ideas for the blog or for student lessons. I begin to craft again, or try a new recipe.

Fall is both a wild party and celebration of everything living, and yet a farewell party, too. Trees push off their leaves in order to survive the months ahead. Animals repond instinctively by gathering up food, growing warmer coats, or leaving town altogether. I find myself want to wrap myself up, disengage and hibernate.

The challenge of Fall for me is to stay engaged. It sneaks up on me every year. This morning I woke up and had that "aha!" moment.

Time to shed some light on my morning.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

What You Don't Know...

National politics have been center stage in recent days. Most of us know what the Senate and the Congress do, and what the President does. Many of us know who our Senators and Representatives are. We learn more about national politics in school, I think, than state or local. When a crisis like a government shutdown occurs, we find out a) how local it can actually get, and b) how much we really don't know about how it all works.

But how much do we know about State government, for instance? I am not addressing this to my friends who are political geeks and enthusiasts--I know that you know. I am talking to basic, ordinary people. What district do you live in? Who are your state delegates? Senator? When they go to Annapolis, what is it exactly that they do? Do you know?

The old saying is that what you don't know won't hurt you. So maybe if we just focus on national politics the local stuff will take care of itself and we won't have to take the time to learn much about it. I mean, it can't be that important, right?

Speaking for myself, I am finding my ignorance and complacency challenged by my friend and fellow blogger Tom Coale, who is seeking to represent the residents of the newly-drawn District 9 B as a state delegate. As he does the work to connect with voters and outline his goals I find myself drawn in. But then part of me backs up and says, "But, this isn't my district."

What difference does the delegate of District 9 B make to someone living in District 13? Shouldn't I focus my attentions on the issues and candidates in my own district? Is getting involved in another disctrict's race "cheating", somehow?

Well, recent events at the national level have given me a new perspective. Lawmakers in both houses, whose names I may not even know, who were not elected by me, worked to get us out of the mess we were in. So, it seems likely that could happen in Annapolis, too. Doesn't it?

And shouldn't we all be invested in bringing one more voice of intelligence, thoughtfulness and compassion into government? We can't be there to watch these people every minute. Public trust is no joke. Or shouldn't be. Just as we strive for healthy, vibrant communities in which to live, we will be best served by electing a healthy, vibrant community of legislators.

Just imagine it.

So yet again, someone has challenged my little voice that says, "It's not really my responsibility." And now I've got to figure out what to do about that.



Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Plan Ahead

I hate rushing the holidays. Seeing Christmas stuff out early in the stores drives me crazy. But calendars fill up fast. Howard County offers some amazing holiday events and there's only so much time before it get to be too much. So I am giving you a date now. Put it in your calendar.

The Oakland Mills Cookie Swaptacular will be returning to The Other Barn on Sunday, December 15th, from 3:00 to 5:00 pm. This event, spearheaded by Mary Kate Murray, hosted by the Cookie Chicks, and presented under the auspices of the Oakland Mills Community Association, has become a highlight of my holiday season.

You'll soon be seeing info on Facebook. When you join the event, more details will be forthcoming, but I'll clue you in right now. Bring 7 dozen of one kind of homemade cookie. Bring a plate to display them on, and bring a container to take home your loot, because we will share and share alike and you will go home with a sampling of everyone's cookies. Yum.

Yesterday I talked about added value. Well, this is truly a value-added event. There's time for cookie sampling and socializing with a variety of hot drinks. Santa will be there to meet and greet kids, so bring your camera to snap a few pictures. There's a children's craft activity table, too.

But wait--there's more: a variety of cool door prizes and party favors for participating. With holiday music in the background and lovely decorations on the tables, you're sure to get that holiday "zing" and come away cheery, if not just buzzing with all that sugary cookie goodness.

Okay--mark your calendar. December 15th from 3-5 pm. The Other Barn, Robert Oliver Place, Oakland Mills Village Center, Columbia. Join the Facebook Group. And start looking at recipes...



Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Added Value

I travel to sixteen elementary schools in the Howard County School system. These schools are home to Regional Early Childhood Centers, operated under the auspices of the Office of Early Intervention. My job is to support the overall curriculum and IEP goals through Music and Movement.

I often feel like the Mystery Shopper of the Howard County Schools. Day in and day out, I am walking through the halls, interacting with office staff, using the restrooms in the faculty lounge, observing classes, and noting the condition of the facilities.

I feel privileged to be trusted enough as a staff member to move freely through the hallways. I'm not here to dish dirt or relate some juicy expose, and in fact, there's nothing of that sort to relate.

There are funny stories of course. I wrote about the window to nowhere here. I find it amusing that posters in the hallways ask children, "Are you single, straight, and silent?" My favorite was the teachers' restroom in a school undergoing renovation. Workers had actually pulled out the stalls much too early in the process, and had to put in temporary plywood ones at the last minute. Female employees responded by labeling the room and stalls with golden crescent moon symbols in protest.

Yesterday I saw a child and a staff member walking through the hallway together. They stopped at a bulletin board. The student was holding a pointer with a pointing hand at the end. "Can you find a letter A?" asked the adult. The girl hunted and searched, eventually resting her pointer on the right letter. They talked about the bulletin board for a bit, then moved on.

Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines the term added value in this way: an improvement or addition to something that makes it worth more. In that moment, I saw: one-on-one attention, the chance to move around and take a physical activity break, empowerment of the student by giving her the pointer, extending the activity of "reading the room" to the wider school facility, using a different approach to reinforce letter recognition.

Things like this are happening all the time in our schools. The depth and breadth of what our teachers and staff do for our children is not always visible. As parents, we get frustrated and angry when our child has a bad day, or struggles, or when things that are being done make no sense to us. And we certainly should reach out under those circumstances for help and clarification. I certainly do.

But, as an unappointed Mystery Shopper, I want you to know that there's a lot of added value you may not be aware of. And your involvement in your child's education, at home and through supporting their school, may be the greatest added value of all.

So if you get a chance to walk through the hallways, look for those little moments. They cannot be assessed by standardized tests. They are creative, humanizing, showing respect for the learner. Once you start seeing them, you will notice them more and more.



Monday, October 14, 2013

Expectations Revisited

Today I'm sharing last week's post from HoCoHouseHon. I think a lot of people need to read this: parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians. Please read and share. Thanks. --JJM


I love being a big sister.

Yesterday I was able to chaperone a group of kids, including my sister and one of her best friends, on a trip to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival. Now, if you know anything about me, you probably knew or could have guessed that I am a huge renfaire geek - so naturally sis and I were dressed up in garb and ready to roll.

This baffled a lot of children - I can't tell you how many people asked me for directions at the faire, or whether I worked there. The idea that a grownup could dress up for fun was utterly mystifying to a lot of these kids. Most of them had never been to a renaissance festival before, and I think they couldn't imagine a world in which adults wanted to pretend for a day. It made me think about expectations - my experience growing up led me to believe that dressing up was not only enjoyable but sometimes mandatory (see my Anglican priests in their gold-tinged vestments). These kids didn't have the same experiences, so their expectation of what adults do was entirely different from mine.

But these kids had expectations of their own.

When I was little, going to the faire, I heard a lot of things, from recorders to hammered dulcimers to cannon blast and gunshots. I knew the music and I knew what blank ammunition sounded like. It scared me at first, sure, to see a man pull out a pistol and shoot somebody (who of course, didn't bleed) but soon enough I figured out that it was pretend, just like their costumes and renfaire personas.

The kids I watched over yesterday initially found that music boring, but when they heard the gunshots, the cannons, they immediately stopped talking. Some of them ducked. Some of them hit the ground as if their lives depended on it.

I am not exaggerating. These reactions were those kids' expectations - this was what you were supposed to do.

As for me, I felt a shiver of foreboding when I saw that these children - elementary and middle schoolers - already knew how to react to the sound of a gunshot. Not just foreboding - maybe even shame. Because a world in which children have any understanding of this kind of violence means that we have failed them, that we have created a space of constant danger and fear. A space they live in every day.

How many times do we have to explain to our children what's happening on the news? How many duck and cover drills, how many shelter in place routines do they have to endure before it becomes normal or even expected? I remember my first shelter in place experience - and it wasn't when I was little, but when I was teaching. A classroom full of first graders huddled away from the doors and windows, utterly silent, and none of them were moved by it but I most certainly was. They grew up with it, were growing up in a world of school shootings, domestic violence, domestic terrorism.

Was I naive, as a little girl, to not think that this stuff could happen to me - or was I just incredibly lucky?

Some people might look at the kids I was chaperoning and assume - because of their economic backgrounds, their race, whatever - that they were naturally exposed to more violence. Statistics of urban gun crimes are thrown out there by common citizens and politicians as an explanation of why gun control doesn't work, as if there's a class of people (read: usually poor, usually minority) who just have to accept, just have to take the blame for pathetic gun laws and routine apathy. As if being Black, or being poor, or being generally disenfranchised and disrespected meant that gun violence was normal.

As if it were expected.

But I'll tell you now, those kids were more influenced by school shootings than by "urban gun violence." It wasn't just some subset of kids who got quiet and scared - it was all of them. All of them were living in a world of violent expectations.

And that's what scares me.

Those people who allow and even, by their inaction, endorse gun violence in the lives of little children can't see what happens to those kids. Can't see that they are good kids - that my sister's best friend loved the storyline at the faire and couldn't wait to go home so that she could play pretend and shout, "God save the Queen!" with her dolls the way she had been coached by actresses in pretty dresses. They can't see a group of kids from every background run up onstage to dance to the recorder and guitar - even though they had never heard that kind of music before, even though people were watching. They won't allow themselves to notice that these little people who spend their dollars on fake, furry mustaches and run around still wanting to play dress up are the same little people who live in a world of Columbine and Sandy Hook and who know how to duck when they hear gunshots.

Expectations. How did I end up with garb, and they ended up with violence?

I love being a big sister - wouldn't trade it for the world. I just wish that I could turn back the clock for this generation of children and bring them into a world without school shootings, mall shootings, movie theatre shootings. And I wish, so much, that our lawmakers could help to make that happen.

We had a great day at the faire, and I can't help but think that maybe things would be better if I could have kept all those kids there, where bullets were blanks and cannons shot fireworks.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Right Questions

Last night's Choosing Civility Symposium at the Miller Branch Library looked at civility in our society as it comes up against technology, and, more specifically, the generational divide in technology use. I enjoyed the perspective of each one of the panelists, and was grateful for moderator Korva Coleman's easy facility in directing the conversational flow.

Everyone came last night with opinions and questions stemming from those opinions. But this was not to be a simple Q & A. What happened next was a discussion that centered on what the deeper questions really are. In order for us to address these new challenges in our society, we must first be asking the right questions.

I was struck by a participant in the opening video who said (my paraphrase) "It's up to us to develop a still be human." Technology is completely enmeshed in our daily lives. It does effect our work, communication, leisure, and relationships. This is the reality. So how do we, accepting that reality, develop a way to still be human?

And what does that mean? Panelists touched on how technology enhanced our lives. They also highlighted ways that technology can facilitate unkindness, or speed up the spread of misinformation. I found Karen Stohr's comment about the importance of being able to be "alone with our thoughts" one of those essential pieces of our humanity that I don't want to lose.

Later, Dr. Brad Sachs talked about how relationships are colored by synthetic interaction versus enriched interaction. We may transmit information through a text, but the experience of being with someone in real life--listening, making eye contact, sharing a hug or handshake--carries a special authenticity that a smart phone cannot replace. Both have a place in our lives. But we must be careful to remember and value those things which make us human.

Although his remarks came closer to the beginning of the evening, I want to finish up by touching on Congressman Elijah Cummings' remarks. He described a hearing he attended where members of the House were vilifying an employee of the I.R.S.. Clearly he wasn't comfortable with the way in which the woman was being treated. And so he asked her a question.

"Do you have a family?"

Yes, she did have a family. She described her family. And something about the atmosphere in the hearing changed, because now she was not a cardboard cutout to be demonized, but a human being with human experiences.

The speed with which technology is becoming connected to our lives is mind-boggling. Our ability to set healthy boundaries and create appropriate social rules hasn't caught up yet. Last night's event proved to me that the way we must go about that begins by taking the time to ask the right questions.



Monday, October 7, 2013

Forbidden Fruit, or You can't Go Home Again

As a child, I longed for Twinkies. They called to me from tv ads and from the shelf of the grocery store, the corner store, and the Lawson's Dairy store. They were beautiful, spongey, and golden. And they had creme filling! Twinkies were the object of my desire because my mother had declared them to be "unadulterated crud" and would not buy them.

At some point during those years I finally had the Twinkie experience. My memory tells me, so far removed from the event, that they were every bit as delicious as I had hoped. I can't recall if I indulged in them clandestinely, or whether my mother relented. I just know it was heavenly, but I don't think this experience was repeated with any frequency.

Then, as a young parent, I turned to Twinkies at a time when I was sleep-deprived and depressed. Carefree childhood was calling, I guess. This time they let me down. They were oily and sugary, almost inedible. How could I have changed so much? Or had they?

Yesterday I saw a package of Twinkies on the shelf at Walgreens. I thought of childhood, and I thought of Dennis, and I thought about how Twinkies had gone away and were resurrected. So I decided eat some for old times' sake. I ate them in the car on the way home because I felt a little silly about it.

Oh, Twinkies. What has happened to your magic? The first one was sweet but gummy, with a flavor reminiscent of pencil erasers. Not vile, but more an impersonation of a food than an actual food. I ate the second one in disbelief, hoping my first impression was wrong. Alas: mild, gummy, tasteless.

One could do a major scientific study on this topic alone: have my tastes changed over the years, or has the Hostess company changed the ingredients in the Twinkie to a point that, although they may look the same, they have lost the true Twinkieness of their essence? I don't think anyone will, however. But it would be interesting, wouldn't it?


Friday, October 4, 2013

The Gospel According to Abby

Many years ago I taught a preschool class of three year olds. Part of our daily group time was music. Abby was a bright little girl who quickly picked up the songs and the hand motions. She was capable and followed directions. During one class session I smiled at her at said, "Good work, Abby!" What happened next floored me.

Not five minutes later she looked over at a little boy who was not participating, reached out, and slapped his face. "He's not doing it!" she explained. As you might imagine, it took all the joy out of Circle Time.

I realized from observing Abby over time that there was a deep-seated philosophy behind her actions. I have come to think of it as the Gospel According to Abby. Stated simply,

"It is not enough that I be praised; others must be punished."

Abby, and others like her, do not feel content in themselves--not for who they are, or for their own capability and successes. In order for them to experience true satisfaction, others must be punished for failing. If you have ever met anyone like this, you know that they can be quite self-righteous.

I share this now because it seems to me that the Gospel according to Abby is spreading dangerously through our American culture. You can see it in comments on local blogs and internet news sites. You can see it in Congress amongst Tea Party Representatives and those who align themselves with them.

Adherents to this Gospel may say it is about personal responsibility, and about stopping the dependence on government. But, if you listen closely, the Gospel is there.

"It is not enough that I be praised; others must be punished." or, "It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail." Or, in religion, "It is not enough that I am saved; others must be damned."

Why is this dangerous? If your world view and your capacity for enjoyment is dependent on the failure and punishment of others, then you will continue to look for and strive for that. If you can only be happy when others are not, what kind of world do you want to build?

And what kind of a life can you hope to achieve, when your happiness and satisfaction is so precarious, so dependent on the actions and judgement of others?

The mission of this blog is to be a Community blog. I work hard to keep a local view. But current events are overwhelming this week. How do we challenge Abby's Gospel? How do we set free those who are so firmly bound to it?

I'm hoping you'll share your thoughts.



Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Barrel of Fun

I'm having a raffle. You can enter. It's only one dollar per ticket and you could win this enormous barrel of craft supplies, gleaned from my home collection. All items are new or very lightly used. You and your children, if you feel like sharing, can have a lot of fun with this. Endless fun. Messy fun. Creative fun. It is a stashbusting paradise.

Come to my table "3-2-1 Fun!" at the Oakland Mills Cultural Arts Festival. Pay a dollar, buy a ticket. You need not be present to win. Winner will be notified by telephone and can pick up the prize at The Other Barn during regular business hours.

I 'm having a raffle. You should enter. This raffle supports the Community Based Learning Center at Forest Ridge Apartments. The CBLC is a part of the Black Student Achievement Program of the Howard County Public Schools. I learned about this program when I visited Forest Ridge during the campaign.

Students come after school Monday through Thursday for two hours. There's time for homework, a healthy snack, reading time, outdoor play, and a variety of fun and educational activities which support the BSAP mission. The program director was especially proud of a tea they hold in the Spring where the children dress up and invite family members to participate. Family participation is a vital part of what they do.

Last Monday the African American Community Round Table of Howard County, in partnership with the Howard County Schools, hosted an event focused on the achievement gap. Clearly this is an ongoing problem, one that the a BSAP was founded and works to address. Although I was not able to attend, I have heard great feedback.

I'm having a raffle. It's really quite small. If I raise even fifty dollars I'll be happy. My mission is to say to the kids and program director at Forest Ridge: you are members of our community, and we support you.

Who knows? Maybe they'll use the money to buy craft supplies.



Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Crazy Mixed Up Wednesday

It's Hump Day. My, how that commercial has wormed its way into the collective consciousness. What are some others that you remember from the past? "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!" "Where's the beef?" "Snap, crackle, pop!" "Mr. Whipple! Please don't squeeze the Charmin!"


I sometimes think that I could write a series of blog posts on the sayings of my mother. A sampling:

"If something says new and improved, it probably isn't."

"God stacked the deck against Adam and Eve. He put that snake in that garden."

"If your sister told you to jump out of the attic window to see if you would bounce, would you do it?"

Do you have any brilliant Mom quotes to share?


My older daughter was looking for fun things to do in Columbia/Howard County on a Tuesday night. Suggestions?


I'm getting a little tired of all these "ist" words people are throwing around on the internet. It seems we keep seeing the same tired few: statist, socialist, fascist...Let's get some variety going! Take a look at this list. Surely we can find ways to call people some more creative names, people.


There's something ironic about Whole Foods covering up an expanse of windows with murals of food. On the one hand, they were clearly 'paying for the view' when they made financial arrangements to use the space. On the other hand, they want to make sure people are paying for the food and not distracted by the view. Sheesh.


That's it for Crazy Mixed-Up Wednesday. Your assignment:

1. Old commercials we couldn't get out of our heads.

2. Things Mom said.

3. Things to do on a Tuesday night.

4. Brilliant "-ist" insults.

See you Thursday with more coherent thoughts about our community. I hope.





Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bridge Columbia: Trick or Treat?

We are continuing to read about the proposed Bridge Columbia project in the newspaper and see it discussed in local blogs and on Facebook because of the grit and determination of The Friends of Bridge Columbia. I am excited to see them keep this idea moving forward. Any big change takes continued forward motion and persistent outreach to the community.

In following the Bridge Columbia discussion this past week between The 53 Blog and Columbia Compass, I had a vision. Imagine, if you will, that Columbia and Howard County residents are symbolized by the trick-or-treaters in the classic Peanuts Halloween special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!"

Let's get in the mood, shall we?

At each house, handfuls of candy are thrown into the bags of the children. Imagine that these treats are pieces of information about Bridge Columbia. All of our trick-or-treaters get something different: "I got an iconic local landmark!" "I got a pedestrian/biking/transit bridge!" "I got a connection from the Hospital and HCC to Blandair Park!" Everyone gets something. Well, not everyone. What about Charlie Brown? As the others watch their bags fill up with loot, he laments,"I got a rock."

In my HoCoLocal version I see a few folks who seem to come away with something similarly unexpected.

After each presentation, each article, each blog post and conversation,
they look into their bags and say,

"I'm not convinced."

This is not to single anyone out for criticism. For example, Bill Santos, a blogger for whom I have the utmost respect and whose views are always well informed, has reservations about this project. And he has gone out of his way to contribute to civil discourse, something all communities and all progress require. And I'm grateful for that. The Charlie Brown character, then, is useful here in illustrating how members of a community can engage in identical activities and events but emerge with differing experiences and opinions.

Supporters of Bridge Columbia, and I am one, have to give some serious thought to our friends and neighbors who are not convinced. This does not mean that they are to be mowed down with snark, nor should we see their opposition as a reason to give up.

Bill Woodcock's post, "Uniting Two Columbias", was a very healthy response to our dilemma, in my opinion. He added another thread to the discussion as he talked about how developing shared interests can foster a sense of community. Columbia won't survive without both. And Bridge Columbia can be a vital ingredient in the mix.

In the Halloween TV special, the other children don't care what Charlie Brown gets or doesn't get in his bag. Their trick-or-treating success and their enjoyment of the holiday are completely unaffected by his failure. They don't care and they don't have to.

But we must care. The effort to identify and nurture common interests between villages begins anew with every discussion of Bridge Columbia, one on one, neighbor to neighbor. Whether over cocktails, or coffee, on Facebook, or at a County Council hearing, we have the chance to listen, learn, and speak our minds with sincerity.

A healthy, vibrant Columbia in a successful, dynamic Howard County requires this of us: our best effort.

"I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving." --Oliver Wendell Holmes