Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kids, Social Action, and the Three Fires West Park Trail

One of my favorite books about teaching is The Kid's Guide to Social Action by Barbara Lewis. The book has some inspiration--it has real stories of how kids and teachers made a difference in their communities, and it also has some how-to--how to write letters, how to write grants, how to make speeches, how to circulate petitions...

When I used to share this book with teachers at teacher trainings, I would sometimes get the stares of fear--how could one start on such audacious projects? That's probably because the book starts out with a group of kids, and a teacher (Barbara Lewis), who notice a local toxic waste site, and end up getting Utah's first Superfund law passed. Yes, I'm serious. Yes, it took more than one year. Yes, the teacher was essential. Yes, the kids were essential. Yes, building allies in the community and the government was essential. Yes, persistence was essential. Yes, parents were essential. And yes, that started a culture of social action in the school. But NO, the kids were not rich, the parents were not rich, it was not a fancy neighborhood. When you read about it, it is ultimately so awe-inspiring and yet seemingly achievable. Those kids are grown now, but I'll bet that a lot of them have gone on to do great things. And they have a lasting achievement--legislation that ultimately made a difference.

But can kids get involved in social action anywhere? Yes, they can. Even in Ann Arbor.

It might be a little hard to read this plaque. It says,
This stone placed February 12, 1929 by the Ann Arbor Council Boy Scouts of America and marks an old Indian trail plainly visible on that date.

The plaque can be found on the southern edge of West Park where the stairs go up. I "knew" about the trail from the sign, but it wasn't "plainly visible" over the years that I've lived in Ann Arbor.
Well, that is about to change. Thanks to the persistence of a few years-worth of classes of kids, and two dedicated teachers (one at Ann Arbor Open and one at Community High School), AND thanks to the parks planners at the City of Ann Arbor, that trail is being re-established. It took persistence on the part of the teachers, especially; and interest on the part of the students.

Click here to read more about the West Park master plan. Thanks, Cindy Haidu-Banks and Denise Chacon-Lontin (teachers). Thanks, Amy Kuras (parks planner). Thanks, everyone else--students and community members--who supported, and support, this small effort to remember the tribes who lived in this area. It's spring! Get outdoors, go visit the trail.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Poetry Redux

On a recent morning, I was listening to NPR, a piece from Planet Money on Recession Haiku.

My nine-year-old says to me, after listening to the poems, "Those aren't haikus. Those are sen-ree-yus." (Spelling: senryu.)
"What?" I say.
"Haikus are about nature. Senryus are like haikus, only not about nature."
(OK, it is slightly more complicated that that, but just slightly.)
"Do you think I should let NPR know?" I say.

I'm not telling you this to boast about my smart child (although of course I think that all my children are above average:). I'm praising the smart teaching that taught him this. And did I mention that that poetry unit was taught by a parent who loves poetry?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

H1N1 and Language

The Ann Arbor school district just came out with updated information about swine flu, aka Influenza A H1N1. While reading it, I noticed that the Superintendent's first letter has been translated into Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Spanish. (I guess those are the top five languages in the Ann Arbor schools for families whose first language is not English.) I'm glad they translated the letter.

It triggered two related thoughts.

1. The county web site has a widget at the bottom that allows you to click on a flag and do a translation into a lot more than five languages. It's not perfect, but it is pretty useful. And no, it's not on the AAPS web site. But it could be! I don't think it is very hard to add to the web pages.

2. If these are the top five languages, then why is Spanish the only one taught at all of the high schools? And why is Chinese only taught at Skyline? Why are we so focused on European languages? These non-European languages would be pretty useful. Want to know how many people speak Chinese, Arabic, and Japanese? A lot (but estimates vary).

And let's not even get into how these non-European languages could be a recruiting tool. [OK, let's get into it a little bit. For instance, they teach Japanese at Greenhills (private), and Arabic at Central Academy (charter). I'm not sure about the rest. If the primary or secondary reason you sent your child to Central Academy was to learn Arabic, and she or he could learn Arabic at Pioneer, would it change your mind?]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Track Meets!

This week, for the first time ever, I got to be an "official" at a track meet. It was fun! It reminded me of my time running track.
The sheer volume of Pioneer kids (at all of the meets I have been at) is rather intimidating for the other teams. On the other hand, it is great to have no-cut sports, and Pioneer has a great program. It was also really nice to see that there are a lot of kids on all of the local teams (including Pioneer) who will not be super-track-stars. And yet they are still out there, running, jumping, and throwing. Keep on!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Drama Queen?

So, Doris Hope-Jackson retracts her resignation as Willow Run Superintendent.

But is it true that she:
  • interrupted professional development speakers brought in from outside the district to tell the teachers she was rescinding her resignation?
  • hinted to some groups of teachers that she felt threatened and therefore carried a concealed weapon?
  • showed teachers some threatening notes and asserted that teachers were threatening her (with proof of threatening notes but no proof of guilt)?
  • told teachers that it was God's intention that she remain as superintendent?
I wasn't there, but that's what I heard. It all sounds completely inappropriate. Doris Hope-Jackson appears to crave attention.
And meanwhile, Willow Run might suffer from the closing of the GM plant.
WRCS does not deserve this.


In recreational sports in Ann Arbor, soccer is both King and Queen.
In recreational sports in Milan, it seems that baseball is King, and softball is Queen.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Next Year in Willow Run

Assuming that this story is true, Doris Hope-Jackson will not be the superintendent of Willow Run Community Schools for too much longer.

Obviously, there was a lot of strife around her, but I also wonder if the fact that the district reported the wrong number of students attending the schools (said there were more than there were) had anything to do with it. If so--and if it was intentional--then we are back to (minimally) malpractice, and maximally some kind of fraud. Although I note that I have no proof that it was intentional--this is pure speculation.

In any case, all of that begs the question--what next?
I think the district needs a strong interim manager. Unfortunately, Robert Bobb (DPS manager) is not available, but James Hawkins is retiring from Ypsilanti. Maybe he wants another tough situation...

Otherwise--maybe there is someone within the district? Someone with strong financial management skills and a giant heart, full of compassion for the kids of Willow Run. If you only care about money, prestige, or your own career, then--please--don't apply.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dandelion Wine and Other 7-12 Tales

My friend was telling me about the Ann Arbor Young Actors Guild performance of Dandelion Wine. This reminded me of how, when I was in middle school, I had to read Dandelion Wine, and I ranked it as one of the worst stories I had ever read. (Of course I finished it--I was a "jeune fille rangee," a dutiful child.) Digression: a few years ago, reading a book on the herbal properties of dandelions, I saw a suggestion to make dandelion wine, and was completely turned off by that idea--only because I couldn't stand the book of the same name.

In any case (because this is the way my mind works), thinking about Dandelion Wine reminded me of a high school encounter with literature. I was in 12th grade and decided to opt into the Humanities (2-semester) course in the second semester. The teacher had a reputation of being slightly ditzy, but also nice, and the class read interesting pieces--for instance, Antigone. As a condition of coming in during the second semester (into what was essentially a year-long course), the teacher asked me to read a few of the pieces they had read in the first semester. A little extra work for me, but I didn't think it would be a problem.

A couple of weeks into the term, the teacher (I'm sorry I don't remember her name although I do remember what she looked like) runs into me in the hall and asks me how my reading is coming along. "Fine," I report, "except for Waiting for Godot."
"Why?" she asks.
"I can't stand it, it seems endless, and I'm only reading it for the class," I say.
"Oh no!" she says to me. "You don't have to read it if you can't stand it. I really don't want that. I want you to enjoy what you read."

Many years later, I still appreciate that teacher's attitude.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Please! Raise My Taxes

Many schools are approaching the year with deficit budgets. Ypsilanti is actually thinking about adopting a deficit budget--which might not be a bad plan for the short-term, although it's hard to see how it's a long-term solution.

Saline has a blog devoted to the budget. The May 11th post details how bad the state funding situation looks, and the information is relevant for every Michigan school district.

Ann Arbor has union negotiations this summer--I'm sure the budget will be a big factor there.

And the state is cutting, and cutting, and cutting. The only reason K-12 education has been spared is that the stimulus money requires it. Instead, local governments are getting cut; and they are cutting. Health, parks, police, fire. Think that won't affect kids? Think again.

I want nice parks.
I want healthy kids.
I want police officers, and firefighters.
I want adequate funding for schools everywhere (the state itself defined adequate as $8400/pupil, and guess what--the only district in the county that is over $8400/pupil is the hold-harmless district of Ann Arbor--most of the districts are at least $500/pupil below that).

Please--raise my taxes--how about that graduated income tax? It's time. I am willing to pay for services. And I hope you are too.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Poetry Units

Recently, two of my kids completed poetry units.

In one unit, the students read a lot of poetry, and they had a lot of poetry read to them. Sophisticated poetry. T.S. Eliot. William Shakespeare. William Blake. e.e. cummings. Gwendolyn Brooks. William Carlos Williams. From books, and from sheets the teacher copied. They learned about meter, rhyme schemes, odes and sonnets. They wrote lots of poetry, including a sonnet. They performed their poetry.

In the other unit, the students had to go to several poetry web sites. They had to read poetry online to find 4 favorite poems. They had to write reactions, and type them on google docs. There was a small amount of class discussion. They had to listen to audio. They had to write one or two poems.

Both of these kids enjoy poetry, both reading and writing it. The one who had the first unit was affirmed in loving poetry; the one with the second unit was completely turned off (despite getting an A on the unit--and that's not really the point, is it?).

I use computers all the time. Obviously, I'm writing on one now. But they are a tool, and they are not a good tool for everything. I was, and am, completely perplexed by the idea that "browsing" for poetry on a web site is useful unless you know what you are looking for. [Are you looking for the Dylan Thomas poem that has the line The force that through the green fuse drives the flower? A web search could be the ticket. But if you are just browsing for poetry? No way.] In the first place, as my own child pointed out to me, poetry web sites are not organized for browsing. They're indexed (by author's name, by topic area, maybe by first line) but they are hard to browse when you don't know what you are looking for or even what you like. In the second place, we don't read on the web the way that we do books. At least, I don't, and I think most people don't. I tend to be a skimmer anyway, and the web speeds that up for me. Poetry is full of nuance, and to get that nuance, you need to read slowly. Which is why, for me, poetry (which I love) is challenging. On the web, is a student more likely to understand William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience or Emily Dickinson's I'm Nobody! Who are you? Even though I feel pretty sure that most high school students would like, and understand, both of them, I also feel pretty sure that--online--I'm Nobody! Who are you? is much more accessible.

There is a better way--bring in BOOKS for students to browse through and discuss, to choose "favorite" poems. It's ok to require students to type their work, and once a favorite poem has been discovered, audio might be best accessed on the web. But for r-e-a-d-i-n-g p-o-e-t-r-y? BOOKS are the way to go. And not only that, but the Ann Arbor library has an excellent selection.

I sometimes think that now that teachers have technology, they think that every assignment should use technology. Of course that is absurd, and I hope they come to their senses soon! I am not at all sure that the technology my kids use makes their papers better than they would be without them--although their papers are probably neater.

The big question for me--do I approach the teacher of the second unit, and share my thoughts? Note that I have not spoken to him yet about anything yet this year. I hate to come off too critically, but--English education and curriculum development is something I have a lot of training in, and--I really hate it when a student who loves a subject is completely turned off by it due to the way it is taught.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Young Citizens and School Boards

Sunday's Ann Arbor News had the Young Citizen of the Year Award. There was also a "Where have they gone?" article that was focused on what previous young citizens have done.

To my surprise, two of them (out of eleven!) have found their ways onto local school boards.

Jeremy Keeney, 2005 Young Citizen, has been elected to the Lincoln School Board, running "because he felt unprepared by his curriculum to compete at U-M, and wants to improve it - something he said the board is doing, "one subject at a time.''

Kent Sparks, 2007 Young Citizen, has been elected to the Whitmore Lake School Board, "I'm not joking around here, I'm serious. I want to make a difference in my community and my school district,'' he said. He's studying secondary education at the University of Michigan and plans to go into educational administration. "The current system leaves so many students behind,'' he said. "Someone needs to shake things up, make a difference, educate every student.''

One follow-up that was slightly less surprising to me: A third Young Citizen, Michael Johnson (1998), went to Willow Run High School and is now a 5th-grade teacher in Ann Arbor. "It's all about building positive relationships,'' he said.

Friday, May 8, 2009


Just when you thought things couldn't get worse.

I would like to know, who made this "error?" Was it truly an error, or a series of errors, or was it intentional and done in the hopes of avoiding an audit? Is it time to go back to the "all kids on one campus" idea?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bike, Bus, Walk to School--Curb Your Car!

Teachers, Aides, Administrators, Parents, and yes--kids--It's

Curb Your Car Month! Time for the Commuter Challenge.

I see a lot of teachers in my neighborhood walking to school, and I've seen a few bicycling too (in other words, they are already doing the commuter challenge), but only one school is signed up so far as an "organization." That school would be Clague Middle School, which has not one, but two ambassadors--Jeff Gaynor and Bruce Geffen. If you see them, thank them for their efforts. [Clague signed up as Ann Arbor Public Schools--Clague, so I guess that's a good model to follow for those of you from other schools, if you are the first one from the school to sign up.]

This is a great way to model sustainable commuting for all the kids in your classes, or your kids at home.

You can sign up here, and set your own goals. Did I mention that even one sustainable commute gets you free ice cream from Washtenaw Dairy? (There are some prize drawings too--it didn't hurt my feelings that I won a really comfy fleece blanket last year.)

Most of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti schools have fairly good bus service. And carpooling counts too. And--if you get to school on your bike, or on foot, and there's a thunderstorm threatening on the way home, can even put the bike on the bus!

Last year, Curb Your Car Month was a great motivator to get me to start riding my bike and setting a goal to ride my bike once a week, all summer, to and from work. (I mostly made that goal--but I wouldn't have even started if not for Curb Your Car Month and the motivation of some bicycling pals--it's about 12 miles each way, and knowing I had to meet someone was a big help.)

Yes, it's good for you, good for the earth, and there are prizes--what more could you ask for?

Post-Election, Post-Executive Order Thoughts

In Ann Arbor, the guy who withdrew from the election--though not in time to remove his name from the ballot--and didn't campaign (Adam Hollier) beat the guy who did run, and did campaign (Ravi Nigam). Considering the low turnout, obviously the withdrawal wasn't publicized well enough. But I have often wondered, when people go to vote and they don't know who is whom, are they influenced by names? Was the "foreign-soundingness" of Ravi Nigam's name the ultimate factor in his loss? I'd hope not, but somehow I think so. Alternate explanations will be happily accepted.

In Saline, Craig Hoeft won one seat, but there is a close contest over the second seat (right now, Amy Cattell is ahead of Bari Lynn Livsey, but fewer than 50 votes separate them). 

In Willow Run, the long-time incumbent Andy Blakita has lost to two current parents, Joi Jenson and Anglesia Brown. Here's hoping that they keep the students' best interests in mind. In a recent Ann Arbor News article about closing Kettering School, board member Sheri Washington is quoted as saying, "Kettering is the closest school to enemy lines," she said. "It's a strategic school for us." No! No! No! That is the wrong attitude. Ypsilanti, Van Buren, Lincoln, Plymouth-Canton, and charter schools are NOT the enemy. The enemy is apathy and infighting that keeps Willow Run from seeking the best for its students. For its students--whether that means rejuvenation for WRCS, or merger. Good luck, Jenson and Brown! Remember: it's about giving Willow Run kids the best that you can.

The state is required by law to have a balanced budget, and it is the use of stimulus money that required the state to protect K-12 education in the latest executive order. Don't think, though, that yesterday's executive order won't have an effect on kids. (If you want to see the actual executive order, scroll down to the bottom of the page at this link.) Cuts to Department of Human Services, cuts to the Department of Community Health, cuts in payments to child care providers... the state budget director put it well when he called the budget "horrible." But there is probably worse to come, even in the next few weeks. It's hard to be an optimist.

Monday, May 4, 2009

An Ounce of Prevention...

Is Worth A Pound of Cure (So says Ben Franklin).

As the H1N1 "swine" flu virus is hitting closer to home, schools have some difficult decisions to make...Father Gabriel Richard High School (on the north side of Ann Arbor, but a much wider student base) is closing until May 11th with a couple of suspected flu cases. Plymouth-Canton Schools (which do draw some Washtenaw County kids) are closing today and tomorrow while a possible flu case gets confirmed.

I'm sure there will be more. The CDC is recommending that schools close for up to 14 days! [This is based on contagion patterns.] Is this excessive? In a typical flu season, having one or two students with flu in your school would not cause you to close for one or two weeks. One or two kids with a stomach bug? The schools would not close.

On the other hand, we don't know much about this virus yet. And I guess I would still rather err on the side of cautiousness. I feel very sure that if I was a principal or superintendent, I would not want to end up with any severe illnesses or deaths on my hand. The extension of school by a few days seems like a small price to pay.

Ben Franklin's saying, by the way, applies to a very wide range of circumstances. Think about it.

In the meantime, I need some contingency childcare plans.

School elections

See the linked article (click on the title). It's true for Washtenaw County, too.

Remember to vote on Tuesday, May 5, 2009 anyway.

Top 5 reasons:

5. It will make the county clerk happy:)

4. Some districts (Saline and Chelsea) have sinking funds or other bonds that require your thoughtful consideration. [AND, by the way, Ypsilanti Township--which includes several school districts--and the Chelsea Fire Authority have other items on the agenda.]

3. Some districts (Saline and Willow Run) have contested elections. These people make important decisions for us, and if you don't want them, write someone else in.

2. Even if the election is uncontested, when you have a complaint, you can go to Candidate X and say "I voted for you, and..."

1. They are your schools. You are a taxpayer (yes, even if you rent). Voting is your right, and your responsibility the kids in your district.

OK, I admit, it's not the greatest list. It's hard to get the motivation when there is no contest. What can I say? Vote anyway.