Sunday, February 25, 2007

On the National Animal Identification System:

I wrote this letter to my Massachusetts state senator asking her to prevent the establishment of NAIS in Massachusetts. I am posting it here in hopes of spreading the word about the problems with this nascent program. For more information, click on the link to the Weston A. Price Foundation below.

I am a mother and it is very important to me to feed my family whole, local, organic foods. That’s why I am so outraged by the USDA’s National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and want to prevent its establishment in Massachusetts. I am writing to ask that you support Senate Docket 1472, which would prohibit the establishment of the NAIS in Massachusetts.

Many Massachusetts residents are worried about food-borne illness and may believe that this system will make their food safer. Actually it will do just the opposite.

The food that I choose to feed my family– arguably the highest quality and safest food around– comes from small farms located near the communities they supply. The problem with the NAIS system is that its onerous and expensive tagging and reporting requirements will make it too expensive for small farms to continue raising livestock. This system will drive small farmers out of business and favor giant Midwest, Western and Southern factory farms. This is exactly the wrong direction for U.S.– and especially for this region’s– agriculture to be moving! Huge factory farms and affiliated centralized processors are the cause of the epidemic of livestock diseases, overuse of antibiotics and the recent spate of food-borne illnesses. New England’s farms are generally small farms, using healthier practices and smaller processors. I think you will agree that we need to preserve these vital resources for health reasons and for economic ones as well.

Tagging and registering animals, invading the privacy of farmers and individuals who choose to raise animals for food, and requiring these people to invest large sums to comply will not make animals healthier. Allowing them to eat their natural diet (for example, grass for cows) and raising them in reasonable numbers will. Many of Massachusetts’s small farms already do this. Let’s make sure they can continue their essential work.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

On Iran's sovereignty and our hypocrisy:

I know it’s scary: long time enemy, Muslim theocracy, "crazy" people potentially will hold nukes. I hate to say it but it’s only fair. Now before you start freaking out, know that I’m basically a pacifist and I can’t think of many situations in which I’d consider the use of force to be just. Saving people from genocide or slavery maybe. I don’t want any country to hold or, God forbid, use nuclear weapons. But the U.S. can’t say “we can have weapons of mass destruction but you can’t” to a sovereign country, not even when its allies are on its side. Though we act as if it does, being big, strong and rich doesn’t rightly make us the arbiter of all things. The attitude that it does may be what makes some people hate us so much. Actions we take (while pretending to be the arbiters of all things) to keep them powerless make some of them desperate enough to do violence to us and our interests.

Further—and this is key—the U.S. cannot go around attacking and occupying sovereign nations, throwing its weight around with shock and awe, because it suspects they might have weapons that they might use to harm us. That is turning the already specious concept of "just war" on its head. We have to wait until they actually do something to us, (September 11th doesn’t count-- Iraq had no part in it and neither did Iran.) otherwise we become the bad guys.

Thanks to Bush, we don’t hold the moral high ground anymore. We’re not better in terms of human rights anymore-- not even overtly. We can’t claim to have better judgment, or to be sane compared to these crazy Iranians; we have a crazy and belligerent leader too.

What happened to the whole mutually assured destruction defense anyway? (I used to think that was crazy but now it seems pretty good to me.) Even if they build a bomb or a few, we’ve got thousands. Even those crazy Iranians wouldn’t be crazy enough to use theirs against us.

Seriously, is it possible that they are afraid of us? We act like we have no part in proliferation. That it's something some "evil" leaders of "rogue" states are up to. We invented proliferation. We're still the only ones to have dropped the bomb. Maybe we should consider dismantling our weapons so Iran and others don't feel they need to build their own.

Friday, February 2, 2007

On teachers and their critics:

I am so sick of armchair experts passing judgement on teachers. I’m sick of the low pay and little respect accorded teachers in this society. I wouldn’t think of going into a software firm or a nuclear power plant and telling those folks how to do their jobs. But look at the No Child Left Behind law. It is Big Brother for teachers, designed by politicians-- many of whom have no experience in education.

We have to have statewide standardized tests that are so difficult and which are given so much weight that we literally have kids in tears or staying home sick because they can’t deal with the pressure. And we have to teach to these tests rather than just teaching. We have to have standards and schedules and everybody teaching the same material in lock step with no room to utilize the teachable moment or capitalize on kids’ interests and curiosities. We have to have federally-dictated yearly progress goals which are, if the truth is told, random numbers, and because the goals keep increasing no matter how much progress is made, unreachable. We have to have punitive measures for not reaching these goals which include schools being taken over by state bureaucrats (how’s that going to help?). We have to have all this because people do not trust that teachers know how to teach or care enough or work hard enough.

Unlike the armchair experts, teachers are not people who just know about school from having gone themselves or from sending their own kids.

Like experts in any other field, teachers have earned degrees (in Massachusetts most teachers have a Master’s or more) They continually undergo professional development (probably more than in any other field). They know kids because they work with many kids over many years. They know better than any law or policy what is best for their particular kids in a particular year because they spend 5-6 hours a day, for 185 days, teaching them. In general, it is not the teachers who are the problem. The problem is what they are up against.

Not that teaching isn’t rewarding. It is, but it's also just damn hard, and getting harder. A teacher spends most of her time as the lone adult in a room full of kids-- it’s lonely and exhausting. At the elementary level a teacher is standing before her class teaching for about 5 hours a day. Imagine giving a presentation that lasts 5 hours! Imagine doing it every day. Imagine how long it would take to prepare for it.

We are not reading a few paragraphs out of teacher’s manual, mind you. In Boston, where education reform has brought instruction a long way, a teacher is creating reading lessons tailored to small groups of students at the same reading level (she may have 7 or 8 different groups in a class) and based on trade books (a new one everyday in the lower levels) which she has chosen for their fit with students and the teaching point. And that’s just one subject of 5!

I used to work from 5:30 - 6:30 in the morning over breakfast, then get to school at 7 to do more prep, teach from 8:35 until 2:35 (I didn’t usually sit for lunch because I was copying homework or giving extra help or mediating arguments or meting out punishments) continue prepping until they kicked me out of the building at 6, eat dinner then work on responding to journals and grading work from 8 till 11 while trying to watch a little TV. Even my husband got roped in-- he’d help me cut out cards for math or word games and exercises.

There are many more kids with special needs in Boston than the district has funds to provide services for. This means teachers have to serve special needs kids in regular ed. classrooms along with the expected range of levels. In my 2nd grade class I had kids reading at a kindergarten level and kids reading at a 4th grade level and everything in between.

Kids today have more discipline problems. Many have little experience sitting and listening or following rules. Because of the standards, we are asking them to do more sitting and listening when they are younger and younger. This is a recipe for frustration for everybody involved. Kids get turned off of school and teachers struggle to create an environment in which all 23+ children can learn.

Dealing with parents is harder because half of them think you aren’t challenging their kids enough and half of them think you are too hard on their kids. The era when parents respected teachers and parents and teachers presented a united front is over. I’ve had many parents question me in front of their children. I’ve even seen parents swear at principals in front of many children in the hallway or office.

And despite all our passion and caring and hard work, research shows that the school achievement of children is highly correlated with their parents’ wealth and level of school achievement (link to an American Educator article that cites this research below). Much of a child’s education takes place at home. We have read to my son almost every day since he was born. At five months, he would turn the pages of a book– an important behavior teachers note on the road to reading readiness. Some families can’t afford books and don’t have time to go to the library because they work several jobs. Some parents didn’t have a good educational experience themselves or don’t know it’s important to model reading. Kids from these homes may come to school at 5, never having seen a book. They may be average or even above-average kids and they will learn, but they start 5 years behind some others. No matter how good the teaching methods, they may not meet the standards at the same time others do.

Bush and his brethren (armchair educators all-- except maybe Laura Bush) talk about how important it is to attract high quality people to teaching. As if the people already in teaching aren’t the salt of the earth. I’m here to tell you that the bigger problem is retention. By pretty much any measure, I am one of those high quality, highly educated, capable people who could do something else and make plenty money and I chose teaching. I taught for 5 very rewarding but very draining years. I’ve left because I find it to be a nearly impossible, thankless and maddening job. I need some time to myself, I need some peace, I need some energy left to raise my own kid and I need to feel like someone appreciates all my hard work and my and my students’ little victories. Not all my students met all the standards– maybe not even most– but they all made progress.

I’m not the only smart young person who has lasted only 5 years– it’s an epidemic. We don’t need to use tests to prove our teachers are failing and then punish them, we need to support teachers and students to start from where they are and grow.

Here’s what we should do:

1.) Use innovative professional development to support our teachers in their never ending quest to do better

2.) Continue to innovate in instruction

3.) Allow and encourage teachers to capitalize on kids’ interests and curiosities. We need standards but every classroom shouldn’t be exactly the same because all kids are not exactly the same.

4.) Offer parents more guidance in child rearing from the time their kids are young

5.) Decrease class size to about 15 or put a second teacher or smart, well-educated paraprofessional in every room

6.) Increase parent and community participation in schools

7.) Increase special ed services to meet the need

8.) Stop teaching to the test– it is not education If the test doesn’t measure kids’ progress in what we are teaching day to day, then it is the wrong test. One test is not an accurate indicator of how kids or teachers are doing. We need various ways of assessing, including formative assessments (basically work that students are already doing which the teacher is using formally to determine their levels of achievement) and observations of classrooms.

9.) Show teachers some respect with better pay and a more professional work environment (if we need to raise taxes it will be worth the investment; this is our future, after all)

10.) Phase in new curricula and tests. It’s not fair to institute, as Boston did, a totally new math curriculum system-wide when students are in 9th grade and then require those same students to pass the high stakes test aligned with the new curriculum before they graduate high school. The requirement should begin with the students who had the new curriculum from kindergarten.

source: "...How to Make AYP Work...", American Educator Magazine

Thursday, February 1, 2007

On driving in an uncivil society:

Every time you get in your car, you take your life in your hands. Not because of all the giant SUVs on the road-- well at least that’s not the primary reason. It’s because people either don’t remember what the driver’s manual says or they just don’t care to follow the rules. In Boston, at least, we are literally at the point of automotive anarchy. It is so common for people to run red lights in this town, that I don’t think the police even notice anymore. I have had to develop the habit of pausing to look both ways before I proceed into an intersection when I’ve got the green light. When I stop during a yellow because I know it is about to turn red, the guy behind me honks and makes gestures in my rearview mirror. (As if it’s not bad enough having a toddler in the backseat incessantly saying, “Mama go?”)

The yield sign has similarly lost all meaning. I was on Memorial Drive the other day and a guy merging on almost hit me. He seemed to expect me to slow down for him. I beeped and gave him a dirty look but I’m sure it was lost on him since he apparently didn’t know he was supposed to yield to me! I yielded getting onto the Jamaicaway recently (like the sign said) and the woman behind me was so busy not yielding that she actually hit me!

One place you can be pretty sure people around here aren’t going to yield is when they’re entering a rotary. But-- oh yeah!-- that’s the law! I think they think there’s no light so they shouldn’t have to stop. Or maybe they know vehicles on the rotary have the right of way, but they figure if they’re aggressive enough, people on the circle will give way and they’ll get where they’re going 30 seconds sooner. Or maybe they’re all from Turkey where the law is that people on the rotary have to yield. In Turkey they have an apt expression which translates loosely as: “How’d you wait in your mother’s belly for nine months?” You’d think they have heard it.

Another area of great confusion is the right on red. You can do this only when there is no sign prohibiting it and only after stopping first. But be prepared, because if you do stop first, a chorus of horns will erupt, egging you on. And those intersections with a separate lane and light for the right? Sorry, no right on red at all. Brookline– the strict traffic rules capital of Massachusetts– has signs that explicitly state both of these laws but I still see people breaking them all the time.

And how about the ubiquitous practice of pulling out onto the road even though there is traffic in the lane you want to enter? You don't want to wait for both lanes to clear, so you sit there in the middle of the road, blocking traffic in the other lane and all those people have to wait. Likewise pulling into an intersection when you aren’t sure you can get through it by the time the light changes just creates gridlock. It’s inconsiderate. It breaks the rules of the road, and it makes other people mad and impatient and more willing to break the rules...

I know what this is all about Bostonians and I feel your pain. I know it’s hard to get anywhere fast in this city, but society creates these rules for a reason: for safety and to ease the flow of traffic. Disregarding them will only lead to– has led to– chaos, accidents, gridlock and road rage.

We could all stand to review the Massachusetts Driver's Manual periodically. To do it now, click on the link below.

Mass. Driver's Manual, Chapter 4 (Signs)