6/30/08

Ant Rant

Lynn over at Bore Me to Tears (the blog that asks if you're an Ant trying to understand the Internet) posted about whether or not kids should be tested for knowledge and I wrote a comment that threatened to turn into a short novel, so I figured I'd better post here instead. First of all, I don't think the post at Homeschooling Research Notes that Lynn referred to in her post was talking about standardized testing, but just in case, here's a link that pretty much sums up what I think of that. I'm ag'in it, in case you don't want to click on the link.

I've read some of Rob Reich's writings and I'm ag'in what he has to say also, although I agree that he's a thoughtful, even-minded critic of homeschooling and an advocate for children and their right to autonomy. However, how he squares this with his belief that government testing would be a good idea is beyond me. How can kids learn what they want to learn if the government is testing them for what the government thinks they should know?

What happens when kids fail the tests? Knowing the government the way I do (hey, I sleep with a government worker, don't forget), I can't believe failure or low marks won't lead to more government intervention and possibly a recommendation for remedial learning in public school.

As far as Lynn's "gray area" of worrying about kids who are allowed to learn only as much math as they need to balance a checkbook, while I understand her concern and sometimes share it, I have this to say. I'd rather see that than government intervention and I don't agree that it can't be remedied if a kid decides that she wants to be a doctor or scientist. For one thing, by the time the kid is old enough for the kind of math needed for any math-intensive profession, surely said kid would have a clue that they'll need more than multiplication to be a rocket scientist. If they don't, then I question the desire for that kind of profession.

If I remember correctly, Algebra 1 doesn't really start until 4th or 5th grade and can be learned in a matter of weeks. I know this because when I was in Algebra 1, which started in 8th grade back in the 60's, I got a C-, because my teacher was a kind man who didn't want to flunk me even though I failed every test and never really got the basics so I floundered through both semesters. In 9th grade, we had Geometry which made a lot more sense to me, because I could actually see the lines and angles, unlike those mysterious X's and Y's in the Algebra formulas. (Hey, I'm an Earth sign. What can I say?)

Several years later, I realized that failing to learn Algebra still rankled, so I got an Algebra 1 course that consisted of a textbook and workbook and I slogged through it all by myself until I grasped the concepts and could pass the quizzes and tests. I've never used or thought about Algebra since I closed the workbook, but I learned it. If I did it, anyone can. There are adult classes in high schools and community colleges and online lessons for free in almost anything that a person could need to catch up on.

Daughter is another reason I don't think testing is necessary. She chokes on tests. They give her hives. If something is timed, her IQ slips twenty points and she assumes the emotional attributes of a toddler who hasn't napped, but has ingested a 5 lb bag of sugar. She's wicked smart, but we didn't find that out by testing her. I've figured it out from living with her for almost 11 years.

Those of us who have children who learn at home, whether we "teach" them or "help" them with their unschooling or just let them learn whatever they want with no guidance from anyone, know much more about our kids' intelligence, interests, capabilities, drawbacks and weak areas than any test can show. We also probably know from the time the kid is a pre-teen whether or not they'll need math for science or extra emphasis on language arts to express their love for words or art lessons instead of sports.

Testing does what public school does: It separates learning from life. It breaks down learning into neat little categories like math, reading and writing. As if you can. Life is too big for that. It's "everything" as my late son once said when asked what he was learning at home. I think the only way to "test" our children is by observing whether they're happy and engaged and interested in life. If they are, how can they help but learn what they need to know to succeed?

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6/25/08

Welcome To The Hotel Paranoia

Daughter and I recently managed to combine business, pleasure and terror in a trip to our old stamping grounds in Vermont and New Hampshire. I made some money and she added yet another stuffed animal to her collection, which now rivals the nearest Hallmark store. We also took in the sights, ate a few good meals at the beaneries of Brattleboro and stayed at a motel that wasn't too bad, once I'd cleaned the filter on the window air conditioner/heater unit and used hand sanitizer on the mold on the microfridge's freezer door. Did I mention that this was a frugal expedition?

Well, it was. The idea was to make money, not spend it, so we resisted the urge to flee to better (and more expensive) surroundings and toughed it out for a week. However, as usual, we brought our own bedding and pillows and threw the motel bedding on the floor beside the bed. Other than those few little drawbacks, the room wasn't bad and we enjoyed our stay.

Except for the bikers, who had evidently pooled their social security checks to rent most of the other rooms, the motel was kind of quiet. Evidently, the high price of gas is keeping people home. Who knows? Maybe in a few months, only bikers will be able to afford to go anywhere, so motels will be full of them. That would certainly change the look of the upscale places, especially if, like one biker we know, some of them insist on parking their bikes beside their beds.

But I digress. We were talking about mold, but I don't know why. Let's segue into the next scene where we leave Vermont and travel across New Hampshire on our way back to Maine. Let's turn on the radio and listen to the gentle strains of classical music on NPR. Then let's almost go off the road when that damned weather warning buzzer starts blatting and a hollow, cybernetic voice comes on and says that the National Weather Service in Nashua, New Hampshire has reported a tornado headed toward Northwoods at a speed of 35 mph.

Coincidentally, that's the speed I would have liked to be going at least as fast as, if I hadn't been stuck behind a pulp truck that was crawling up a hill at 20 mph and slowing down by the inch. And, even more coincidence here, folks, Northwoods was the next town on the map. Daughter is terrified of garden-variety thunderstorms, so she went into complete panic mode when she heard the warning. And I wasn't exactly as cool as some cucumbers, let me tell you.

It got worse when we looked to our left and saw two distinct funnel-shaped inky black clouds, swirling toward us. That's when we reached the top of the hill and the pulp truck began to pick up speed. It's a good thing or I would have passed it in the oncoming lane to get ahead of those clouds. As we raced down the hill, Daughter reported on the clouds, which I could see in my rearview mirror. They were still to our left and falling behind us. After another five miles, they were gone, but the sky had taken on that eerie green Wicked Witch of the West glow that so often results in houses pitching, twitching and landing on ladies wearing red stripey stockings and ruby slippers. (Talk about a fashion faux pas, no?)

Well, we made it safely to Sanford, Maine and staggered out of the car and into the first motel that we saw. At that point, the Bates Motel would have been fine with us, as long as it had four walls and a roof. So we checked in and raced into our room without even grabbing our suitcases or anything else. The sky was still very dark and there had been severe storm warnings for that area also. (I was thinking maybe it was us, bringing it with us.)

It was during a lull between bouts of thunder and lightning, that I decided to go out to the car to get a few things. That's when I met our neighbors. She was talking loudly into a cell phone and drinking from a bottle of gin. (I've never known anyone who actually drank gin. We always used it for linament and I didn't know anyone could get past the smell long enough to drink it. Live and learn, I always say.) He was wearing a shirt which said, "Where the F*** is my medication" only with no asterisks. I smiled at them and he bared his teeth and growled.

It was a long night. They made several trips to their car, totally ignoring the vivid lightning, thunder and hail that kept us awake. They also watched TV until 2 and then argued loudly for a few hours. Probably still looking for his medication and I would have gladly given him some of mine if I'd brought it with me. (Linament, that is.) Finally, around 4 a.m., they both began to snore so loudly that I thought the bikers had followed us and checked in next door.

Very early in the morning, I decided to try to shower without waking Daughter, who was exhausted, poor thing. The danged bathroom light was combined with a fan, so I just opened the curtain on the small, high window which barely gave me enough light to see my way to the shower. I opened the glass shower door, grabbed some soap and a packet of "Hotello" shampoo (all vegetarian ingredients and imported from India, no less) and prepared to figure out how to operate the shower.

This is always a challenge for me and this one was even more cryptic than most. There was a lever underneath the water temperature control that said "flow control". I had no idea what that meant, but the water was coming out in a very fine mist, almost a vapor, so I figured I'd turn the flow control up and see if I could get a little more enthusiasm out of the unit. It did seem to perk it up, but not much. It was still more mist than spray, but I stepped under it, prepared to make the best of things.

Then I immediately leapt out of the thing, almost smashing the glass door, because somehow, in spite of the fact that the spray was so mist-like, it managed to feel like tiny little needles penetrating my skin. When I turned the spray down with the flow control, it was so anemic that I couldn't get the soap off my face. I had to stand there for what seemed like hours, just to get most of the suds off and I'm sure there were still soap bubbles in places. Then I tried opening the shampoo, but my hands were slippery and I couldn't get enough traction with my fingers to rip the thing.

So, I did what any reasonable person would do to open a packet of shampoo in the Shower of a Thousand (Paper) Cuts, I grabbed it with my teeth and yanked. It not only opened, but opened with a rush of shampoo that went right into my mouth. All I could think of as I spit flowery-smelling stuff all over the shower was that I was so glad that it was all-vegetable.

There was barely enough shampoo left to wash my hair, but it still was impossible to rinse the stuff out due to the low flow situation. I either had to live with soap coating my hair or risk death from water pressure and I chose to live. When I went out into the room, Daughter was awake and very anxious to leave the No-Tel Motel behind us, so we lost no time in leaving.

Unfortunately, in our haste, Daughter left Henry the white stuffed elephant on the floor beside the bed and we got all the way home before we realized it. (As you may remember, Henry is married to Rose, the handkerchief doll and father to Valentine, another handkerchief doll, and they were, understandably, upset, according to Daughter who does voices for all of them, so she'd know.)

I called the motel manager, who said he'd found Henry but would have to have a money order before he could send him to us. We sent one off immediately and Daughter is anxiously watching the mailbox and hoping that Henry will be back with his family before many more nights. If he's not, we'll go back and get him, but it'll be a one-day round trip, let me tell you. And it won't be in tornado season, although who knew that Northern New England even HAD a tornado season? Except for Al Gore and that NASA scientist, of course.

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6/9/08

Mercury Isn't Retrograde; It's On the Floor Next To the Bed

Geekdaddy is an early adopter. If it's technical and it's available, even in Beta - especially in Beta - he's gotta have it. So when compact fluorescent bulbs came out, the geek was first in line at the power company giveaway where you could get four bulbs free. He got 'em and loved 'em. I hated 'em.

They buzzed. They flickered. I complained. "That's a problem for you?" the geek said, not understanding why anyone would object to a buzz that he can't hear anyway with his hearing or a flicker mighty like the one of his beloved computer monitor. After all, this is the man who willingly closes the door on a room that houses "The Smilodon", a computer case that smells like Love Canal used to smell on a hot August day. It gives the rest of us a headache and we're on a campaign to make him get rid of it, but in the meantime, we insist that he close the door.

He's fine with that. Just like he was fine with the buzzing, flickering CFLs that he purchased in quantity and stuck into every light in the house. I thought it was ironic that I, the green maven chez Hawkins, was asking him to stop using something that everyone from Al Gore to the EPA endorsed.

So, we compromised. We put them into some of the lights, but not the lamp next to my chair, the kitchen light or the bathroom. For them, we use long-lasting bulbs while we wait for LED technology to be ready for prime time. Apparently, that'll be a very good thing, because those environmentally-friendly CFLs contain mercury, a heavy metal group that I'm not a fan of.

Unfortunately, I DID get involved a few nights ago when the geek knocked over his bedside lamp, thereby breaking the compact fluorescent bulb which strewed mercury impregnated shards of glass all over our bedroom floor. I have to admit that Geekdaddy cleaned it up immediately and did a very thorough job of disposing of it in the approved manner, but I was still not sanguine with having mercury-bearing bulbs in my vicinity.

Then, yesterday, as I went to open a window so that I could lean out and shake my fist at the heat wave that is inflicting itself upon our usually-cool corner of Maine, I stepped on something very sharp. It was a u-shaped shard of CFL and it was wedged into my foot so tightly that I had trouble removing it and bled profusely even after it was out.

I washed my foot, applied antiseptic and then googled mercury to see if I should be worried. I found this link to a fact sheet on Mercury and CFLs, but it didn't say a mumbling word about what to do if you step on a piece of the glass. Deuced remiss of them, I think. Don't they know any geeks?

So, I emailed a friend who's up on scientific things and I also found a place where I can get a cheap test to find out how much mercury I have circulating in my blood and brain. Considering all the fish I've eaten over the years and the fact that my brother and I used to play with mercury "snakes" from broken thermometers when we were young, I'm afraid the results might be high.

You know, it's interesting that when the planet Mercury is retrograde, as it is now, astrologers say that there will be communication difficulties, because Mercury is the planet of communication, writing and speaking. While, if you get too much mercury, you may have trouble communicating because of cognitive problems and mental confusion. I can understand that mercury, also known as quicksilver, was named for the swift messenger god, Mercury. But how is it that the effects of the planet appearing to stand still in the heavens has the same effect as ingesting or absorbing the metal that's named after it?

I'm not dissing the geek's attempts to be Green. At least he's not trying to be frugal like he was when he used old motorcycle batteries for a battery-backup for his computer. That time, they started to smoke and sizzle and spark after about a week and we were treated to the spectacle of the geek dashing madly back and forth from the four batteries to the back door until he'd thrown all of them out into the snow. This time, at least, there were no flames or smoke, only toxic chemicals, so I guess I should count my blessings.


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