Saturday, March 29, 2008

91 years old and crawling around the house on all fours.

At least that’s what her age would be if one uses the standard seven to one ration when determining a dog’s relative age. Maggie is a miniature dachshund who we are dog sitting for my sister while she is visiting her fiancĂ©e’s family in the DC area. I’ve known her all her life (the dog that is – I’ve known my sister all her life too – but this post is about her dog) and she is a good wiener dog.

For being a nonagenarian she gets around pretty well. Granted she lists from side to side when she totters around the house her rat tail clicking back and forth with the precision of a German cuckoo clock’s pendulum and she does sleep most time – but all in all she’s hanging in there.

Mag’s hearing isn’t what it used to be – one needs to be relatively loud to get her attention. Standing ten feet away I pretty much have to yell to get her notice and even then when she cocks her head it’s more akin to her remembering what it was like to perceive some high pitched noise in the far distance rather than actually hearing it. Eventually she gets the idea that I want her go outside once she sees through her cataracted and milky eyes that the rest of the canines in the household are headed out the open door. She dodders behind our other two dogs not exactly sure where she is going or why but she doesn’t want to be any trouble and if they are all going this way, well then she probably should be too.

She reminds me of old women one sees on the street in an ethnic neighborhood. Insert whatever locality modified by the adjective "Little" – Italy, Greek Town, Poland, or India whatever – these ancient women are ubiquitous to the sidewalks in these enclaves. Babushka-ed and wrinkled, long sleeved black sweaters in 90 degree humidity - hands as if carved from apples left to dry clutching a hardwood cane.

They stand outside of church entrances or at bus stops with wire wheeled shopping baskets that for the life of you, you would never believe they could move. Seemingly frail, but sinuous and tough as worn leather these are the old women one reads about in the news of the weird section of the paper. The ones who subdue would be purse snatchers with a crack of the cane across the mouth, using the muscle memory of countless chickens beheaded.

This is who Maggie is – a tough old broad who can be forgiven peeing on the carpet every now and then.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

This is only a test...

People love to pay good money for first-rate advice and then ignore it.

Back in my manufacturing days working as a quality engineer I had the opportunity to see a lot of consultants come and go. One gave me the line paraphrased above. Well, the more things change – the more they stay the same. I may no longer be problem solving in a machine shop, but the idea of shelling out cash for advice that will be disregarded seems to be just as prevalent in the education bizness. Now I’m not saying there is any malicious intent from the boots on the ground per se. Chances are I am critiquing a dance that is only being performed because one’s feet are being shot at but there are trends I am noticing.

I teach writing and public speaking to people from third grade up and through adult. The last couple years I have been hearing variations on a refrain in schools literally around the world – Students ask, "Is there going to be a – or will this be on the test?" Or a teacher might say, "Pay attention this will help you on the test." THE TEST - the ubiquitous inexorable reckoning looming on the horizon like some innumerably armed Hindu demigod clutching number two pencils and pink trapezoidal erasers instead of swords of retribution charging forward – the cloud of dust behind blotting out the sun. THE TEST!!!

Pick an acronym: SAT, PSAT, ACT, OGT, SOL, AP, IB, OAT, MEEP, FCAT, MCAT or any other alphabet soup variation moniker of a high stakes test and there is one attribute that is agreed upon concerning these examinations by high paid expert consultants over and over again- HIGH STAKES TESTING DOES NOT MEASURE FUTURE SUCCESS. How many bios of people prosperous include the line "I wasn’t the best student…?" Of course, many adept test takers are successful in life – that is not the point. The point is correlating and pinning future happiness to these tests – and subsequently making the CEOs of these testing companies, the folks who leach a living off of "preparing" students for the examination with pre-packaged programs or $1,500.00 an hour tutoring (this service does exist and has a waiting list) incredibly wealthy – is pretty much an exercise on the treadmill of futility.

I recently had the opportunity to hear two dynamic keynote speakers at a conference, Dr. Ned Hallowell – an Oprah blessed and Harvard lettered child psychologist and Debbie Silver, former Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and education professor. Both said virtually the same thing: give all the tests you want – just don’t expect the results to mean anything. In fact – the stress given to and created by these rituals may be doing more harm than good. In each audience I saw teachers and administrators nod in agreement and applaud each speaker, and I know these folks went back to their schools and prepared for the administration of the very tests that these highly qualified and compensated consultants told them to avoid like the bubonic infested fleas.

Why are they doing this? Most to keep their jobs I would imagine. There may be a few out there who believe these examinations are real measures of intelligence and ability (usually folks who did well on such tests themselves) but so much of our behavior is conditioned at the basest Skinnerized level of reward and punishment. Teachers and schools who produce high test scores are remunerated with money, either tax dollars or tuition and, possibly more importantly, the parents (when they are engaged) like tests – as long as the scores look good they will not punish the administration or staff at the next PTA meeting. Check out the book Freaknomics for the correlation between Sumo wrestlers and teachers.

When I am asked if what I am teaching will help on the test I always answer yes because what I instruct is a means to more confident communication, so yeah, it’ll help with THE TEST and all the lessons are applicable to multiple standards but it will also aid, more significantly, after the test when the amalgamation of acronyms have fluttered away leaving one standing face to face with another human being.

Listen folks, since I left school I have never been presented with a life decision that came with a pastel pink inked card full of multiple ovals marked A, B, C, D, or E all of the above. I know it is impossible to take testing out of schools and replace it with interpretive dance or juggling but we can look at it with a critical eye. Shouldn’t tests measure improvement, be just one tool used in preparing future adults for life amongst humans instead of this absolute terminus that we fool our kids into believing? We act as if there is no existence after THE TEST when in actuality most have at least 75% of their life to still live.

I have been picked up at the airport by teachers who identify their school by the exit test administered – I’d much rather prefer to hear how their graduates are affecting our world. Perhaps they are researchers, engineers working on desalination in the desert, philosophers, artists, writers, mothers, fathers, factory workers or maybe some of them are highly motivated, highly educated, and highly compensated consultants beating the drums trying to make a difference – hopefully all of them are happy and consider themselves a success.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

istanbul - photos

sara munching on bread on the street

Little fish shop in Karakoy

Detail of rug pattern

Is this a spy sitting on a pink couch? You tell me.

The Blue Mosque from the ferry.

More at my Flickr site.

Monday, March 17, 2008

back in the U-S of A

Out to dinner in a tradional Turkish eatery in Istanbul with Bonnie Campbell Hill, Sara and a couple teachers from Berlin - ain’t my life tough?


Back at Detroit Metro waiting for a flight to Cleveland. Istanbul was pretty amazing and I’ll have a couple longer posts about the city and the conference in the coming week.

Got a book to recommend - The Death of Visnu by Manil Suri. It was one of those tomes that makes me wonder why I even bother trying to be a writer.Other times I read something on a plane and think "Hell, I could of written that, even better - but then there are the Everything is Illumated or Kite Runners out there that are just inspired. On a scale of 0-10 I’d give this one a solid 8.

Waiting for the the jet to lag,


Friday, March 14, 2008

I do believe in ferries

"If all the nations of the entire world came together and if there were only one capital city that metropolis would have to be Istanbul" so said Napoleon Bonaparte - At least this is what the president of the Istanbul International School board told us at the cocktail party last night.

Opening reception welcoming parties for presenters and administrators have a formula. Swankness is the order of the day – make sure it us up high somewhere, top floor of the Hilton, Hyatt, or Westin – lots of glass incredible view, free booze and delightfully delicious and delicate hors dervishes. If your view is over the water all the better and, as it was last night, if that Basra river view includes a dramatically lit mosque perched on small rock island like a bit of salmon tooth picked to black Melba toast, well you get the picture.

We chitted and chatted – told the administrators from the school we visited how great their students were during our workshops (they were) munched the munchies and drained a half dozen glasses of soda water. These gatherings are the chance for the powers that be to thank all the folks whose hard work has gone into putting the conference on – the boots on the ground troops that back flip through acrobatic changes in flight schedules, AV needs and charter busses to Grand Bazaars or other tour destinations. People who most also being teachers at the host school, make it so a couple poets from Cleveland Ohio feel embarrassingly like VIPs.

Before the reception Sara and I spent the day riding ferries across the Basra. First to a neighborhood full of bookshops and art supply stores here we drank insanely strong coffee on a terrace five or six narrow and winding staircase stories up. Up, up, up our host kept telling us every time we turned the corner on another floor until finally we had a great view of Istanbul across the river. We spied a baklava shop from our perch and when we descended from our roost treated ourselves to crushed green pecan topped pieces the size o a bars of soap, sweet and sticky as maple sap.

We took a second ferry back to old part of town. Now we’re not geniuses, we don’t walk into bustling Istanbul and immediately start expertly navigating like one of the dozens of fishing boats bobbing in the wake of the ferries. Here all one has to do is stand and look confused for a minute or two and someone will come up and offer broken English assistance. Our greatest successes here, taking public transport, ordering in restaurants, buying baklava, has come through the kindness of strangers. Blanche Dubois could do well here.

The city is busy – folks pass buy with purpose in their steps - but they don’t seem to mind stopping and spending the time a diversion may require. Maybe this is a perspective one picks up when they live in a city that has been the seat of three separate empires spanning thousands of years. There is a definite national pride here, but I have not noticed the arrogance one sometimes picks up on in other locales. A collective comfortableness with the permanency one becomes accustomed to when walking to work one passes the remains of a Byzantine arch.

If I’m correct in this characterization – maybe that short French guy had a point.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Istanbul Musings

Outside of the grand bazaar here in Istanbul are hundreds and hundreds of textile shops. Entire stores that sell only zippers of every style and size next to stores that sell cords and string next to yet another selling buttons and clasps. My favorite of these shops though, was the one selling designer labels. Not designer labeled goods mind you - just the labels rolled like raffle tickets – you want to turn that $1.98 T-shirt into a $35 piece of couture just snip a Calvin Klein tag off the roll and sew it into the back of the neckline.

On our drive out to the school we visited yesterday we chatted with a fellow presenter from the conference about language. Specifically we were talking about the current USA administration’s misuse, Orwellian abuse really, of titles for their policies. "The Clean Air Act" which actually allows business to pollute more, "No Child Left Behind" which puts giant text book corporations in front of students, "The Patriot Act" eroding the civil rights our original patriots fought for. Woe begotten is the voice that dare speak against such misuses – that siren will be first decried as a traitor then as a lunatic.

Freedoms of speech – use it or lose it. That’s part of our mission – to help young folks find their voices, to gain confidence in the sound of their ideals vibrating across their larynxes and to understand the tricks of the trade used by the wordsmiths of those who may not have their best interests in mind. Don’t always believe the labels – check the stitching around the sleeve.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Secret Agent Iman

So far Istanbul has surprised me. I was expecting Middle Eastern but instead it is feeling a lot more eastern European or Balkan – I am reminded much more of Croatia than I am Bahrain. The cobblestones are identically treacherous although the amplified call to prayers wailing and undulating through the air is an addition.

Somehow it seems a bit more dangerous here. Not in a being scared for your life hope I don't make a wrong turn down and unfortunate alley kind of way - but more like a suspense spy movie kind of feeling. Everyone looks as if they may be keeping a secret. I don't k now if it is abundance of dark suit jackets worn by men sitting alone sipping apple tea from tiny glasses at pedestal tables outside of cafes or the way everyone greets each other with the double kisses to each cheek (a perfect opportunity to whisper a password) but I can't shake this sense of espionage.

Deep boat whistles waft up from the river mixing with the smell of broiled lamb's meat and we are getting set to explore again.

Stay tuned…

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Turkish De-Ice

Wherever you go then there you are – in this case we are in Monroe Michigan – home of General Custer, The La-Z-Boy recliner factory and of course, Monroe Shock Absorbers. Last night "A Musical Tribute to Johnny Cash" took place at the River Raisin Center for the Arts. Instead of sipping a hot latte in Amsterdam or eating fresh tabouli in Istanbul we have just finished a breakfast of reconstituted scrambled eggs sided with sausage gravy and biscuits at the Holiday Inn Express on I75. "But how did this happen? Last we heard they were boarding planes in Cleveland.

Well dear readers it was a cruel joke perpetrated on your hero. The airport was closed until 10am so there we were sitting in the Continental lounge waiting to hear what was going to happen next – then I saw a plane taxi past the window and they called for the Las Vegas passengers to board. Oh it was glorious! The tittering, the expectations ran 35.000 feet into the stratosphere – do you think we'll be called next? It's easier to take off than land – we just might get out of here. And then the friendly woman's voice came over the intercom system – all waiting passengers, report to your gates for boarding. Oh Kaloo Kalay we're going to Istanbul today!

Now Sara and I were on standby to Newark – we had called the night before to see what was up and decided to try and get on an earlier flight than the scheduled 12:30 one on which we had confirmed reservations. So there was no guarantee that we would even have seats – we were one and two on the list so all we needed were two folks to have given up driving to the airport in the blizzard and we were in. Welly welly well – happy time indeed, when we got to the gate two boarding passes with our names on them were waiting like obedient Labrador retrievers. We congratulated ourselves for being such savvy travelers.

We all shuffled onto the plan – everyone chatting expectantly – I can't believe they're boarding us - do you think we'll take off? As we sat watching the flight for Cancun pull away from the gate next to us the captain crackled across the speaker "Technically the airport is still closed we are just getting ready so that when it opens at 10 (it was now 9:45) we are out of here. Fifteen minutes later another announcement," We have been informed that the airport will remain closed until 10:30am" and then 15 minutes later we saw the Cancun flight pulling back into its gate and the final coffin nailed announcement "We are sorry ladies and gentlemen, the airport is closed for the rest of the day – no flights are leaving today, you may retrieve your checked luggage at the baggage carousel."

Oh crashing spirits, Mother Nature is a cruel mistress and she had just bitch slapped us across the head. I went down to pick up our bags and Sara worked on re-booking us. People's nerves were fraying a bit by now – the congenial chitter chatter was replaced by grunts and complaints, I steered clear as I waited for our bags which were going nowhere to return.

Sara came down to join me and told me she was successful in booking us on a plane the next day with one string attached – it left from Detroit. So after a series of train rides, a stop over at her daughter Katy's a ride back to the airport from her husband Doug (in the giant Ford 4x4 SUV that we have complained they spent to much money on in the past but never would have got where we were going without) we rented the quintessential old persons boat of a car – a Chevy Impala and we drove to Detroit in the blizzard of the decade!

Suffice it to say – it was a harrowing trip until we hit Toledo where the sun was shining. We stopped in at Tony Packos – had a fine dinner, there are a couple of left over stuffed cabbage rolls in our fridge here waiting 'til lunchtime for us – I challenge any of you to finish the Tony Packos feast menu item. I'll let the pics tell the story of our turnpike adventure.

So now we are a 20 minute drive from the Detroit Metro airport – where in 8 hours we are expecting to board a flight for Amsterdam and then onto Istanbul. Cross your fingers.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Oh the weather outside is...

View out the window from the Continental lounge

So my parents are stuck in a snowdrift on the freeway with our stupid little foo foo dog - hoping for a tow truck they called to eventually show.

They bravely drove Sara and me to the airport as we start our trip to Istanbul. Or - more relative to our current situation as we cool our heels at the airport which was just closed 20 minutes ago. We were told that there would be no updates for two hours so we stare into the white out sitting in the Continental lounge hoping to somehow get onto a flight that takes us away from this Blizzard of the Decade.

Instant update! My mom just called, a couple of hippie burn out type kids pushed them out of their snowy snare! Cigarettes dangling from their mouths long greasy hair - I imagine they probably had Metallica T-shirts on. Hooray for heavy metal samaritans! I can see them shouting to my dad "Drive safe old dude man!" flashing the forefinger and pinky horns as he fishtails away, Suzi thankfully barking at them as the rear wiper flings ice in their wake. This eases my guilt a bit.

Folks around me are beginning to introduce themselves to strangers sitting by them - where ya from - where ya headed? That bonding that occurs in any crisis or inescapable situation. Those fleeting microcosms of relationships, rolling through our pre packaged introductory stories, rehearsed with every new aquaintance.

Holy moley - a plane just pulled past the window and the Las Vegas flight is boarding! Got to get those gamblers on their way! Okay - cross your fingers, I have promised to bring a belly dancing librarian from Parma some finger bells back from Turkey. Maybe we will get out of here today.

Stay tuned....

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Ice 9 - Michael 0

I snapped this shot of my car in the school parking lot after school.

Today was not a snow day. Even thought the weather was 20 times worse than it was last week – the school district I am working in this week has already used its allotted snow days so they had a 2 hour delay.

I drove down an ice covered route 271, crossing lanes over humps of snow and solidified sludge – what would usually be an hour and 15 minute trip took 2 hours. Not insanely longer – but white-knuckle all the way. That feeling when your stomach detaches from your esophagus and intestines then just starts bouncing around like the dot in the old video arcade game Breakout.

The kids hung in there today though – even though we had truncated periods because of the delay. More on them later.

I hope it's warm where you are – no matter the weather outside.

the only thing you could cook on here would be a chilly dog

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Or forever hold your peace

I just finished a residency at McCormick Middle School in Wellington Ohio working with the sixth graders. We worked on writing and public speaking. Another stellar bunch of kids – a little on the quiet side but very thoughtful – take a close look at all their faces – each one tells a story.

This is what I hoped to get across to this gang. We all have stories, ideas and opinions and each one is important. We talked about public speaking being the number one fear of humankind and that the root of this fear is probably just the fear of being embarrassed. I also explained that in over thirty years on various stages I have never seen anyone die of mortification.

I explained that if they don't learn to speak up there are plenty of other folks out there that would be more than willing to speak for them. Of course this second bunch of folks will only have their own interests as an agenda. Silence is tacit permission. And if you let someone else do all your talking for you – sooner than later you just become angry. Quiet – but angry.

Seems there are just a few too many adults out and about that never learned this lesson – people too worried about looking foolish, being embarrassed or "upsetting the base" to speak up when they have something important to say. Others let themselves be shouted down by bullies who exploit this ingrained fear of standing in the open.

Hopefully the sixth graders at McCormick will know better. They're a smart bunch of kids and I'm interested in what they have to say.