Sunday, October 5, 2014
Today, the Internet has a confusing multitude of sites and places for you to go. It's possible, I think, to learn today in ways that were impossible only a decade ago. It's another one of those moments where I think, "How did we live without this stuff?" There is almost too much information out there.
What I'm adding, I guess, is my experience in trying to learn and what I'm learning to do. You won't find instructional theory here, or chord charts. But, instead, I plan to journal my process.
I started about a month ago. My stepson got a guitar and my daughter got a flute in July. The daughter got some lessons, practiced a lot, and was able to join her middle school band! I was so jealous because she appears to have actual musical talent! I always wanted to have musical talent! Maybe I could do it she could. So, I picked up my stepson's guitar and started trying to learn based on the stuff I saw on the 'Net. I found www.justinguitar.com for one. I also bought a Hal Leonard Essentials for Guitar book that was similar to what my daughter had for flute.
After about a week, I decided to get my own guitar. This is where I made a mistake I hope others could avoid.
I bought a very inexpensive guitar.
I purchased an Epiphone DR-100 which is not a bad guitar. But, it's not a good guitar either. What I should have done instead was to read just a bit further and realize that getting a decent starter guitar was a better idea. I thought, "Well, what if I don't really like it? I don't want to buy an expensive guitar and then not play it."
Of course, buying an expensive guitar might be the reason I kept playing since I didn't want the money to go to waste. I didn't look at it that way.
Most importantly, I think it's important to have a guitar you really like and that is a quality instrument. For me, that is the Yamaha FG700s. Go look around the Internet and you will see it is universally praised as a great entry-level guitar that is good enough to last you years. And, some people say it sounds good enough to stand amongst the Martins, Taylors, and Guilds that cost much more. I can't say that for sure, but it makes me happy to think I have a guitar like that to play.
I can say it's a really nice guitar for $200. Every time I play it I catch myself thinking, "Wow, that's pretty!" It has a really nice sparkle and resonance in the tone that I very much admire. And, it keeps me wanting to play. I recently found some measurements online and checked. The factory setup is pretty good. The action is a little high but completely acceptable.
Okay, so that's my first piece of advice. Don't buy the least expensive guitar. Get a decent instrument. This Yamaha is the equal of any $400 - $600 guitar you can find. That I can can say pretty confidently. It's important, I think to get a solid top on your guitar, for sound quality. This one has a solid spruce top.
My second piece of advice is to make sure you have light gauge strings. It's easier on your fingers. My third piece of advice is practice a little bit, at least, every day. I shoot for about 30 minutes per day. Once per week my stepson and I go to a group guitar class through the city. It's inexpensive but worth it to have an actual teacher watching you and correcting your issues. There's also that aspect of having accountability to someone. I don't want to show up and not have practiced the things from last week and have the teacher realize I haven't been putting in the work.
So, that's what I've been doing. I've been practicing my chords like A, E, D, C, G, G7, A7, D7, E7, and the dreaded B7. Why dreaded? It's the only chord I've been working on that uses all four fingers! I have a lot of trouble getting all the fingers on the strings and not muting nearby strings. But, I have to say that when I first started with that chord, it just was a dull thud. I have definitely noticed that it is getting easier over time. Today, it still has a couple muted strings here and there, but I can usually get it to ring a bit better.
My friend Pat says it's about developing touch. I also know it's about muscle memory. Like so many things, to learn it is to repeat it. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of repetitions, for the brain to internalize it and the muscles to memorize the movement.
I'm gonna go now and practice for a little bit. I plan to update as I go. Until then...
Saturday, January 25, 2014
heads bowed, dipping
stare, the searchlight glare.
Pen in mouth
Afraid to try and fail.
pencil scratching, sniffles
page flips, taptaptap.
I know, I can
write, think, be.
head bent, brow furrowed.
my future, the past.
a glance, a whisper
nod, smile again.
Tomorrow, next year, five years.
Bricks, stones, wheels, wires.
A look, deep breath
Will I? Will he? Will she?
And when? How long until then?
Breathe, sigh, sniffle, hand up.
Hand in. Now?
I can't fix.
tagged, scratched into the top.
Somebody made their mark, it lasts.
One leg too short, one seat too loose.
Colors don't match, that one green, this one blue.
Gum and godknows
whatelse stuck underneath.
too many of them are marred.
more every year.
Maybe one day they'll get the money
and fix the desks. Most likely we'll
just get new ones.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Sing to me, Muse. Sing of betrayals and long simmering resentments. Sing of shock and surprise. Sing a song of truth and lies. O Muse! Did you sing of questions unasked and assumptions made? Sing now of the pain and the misunderstandings.
Just get over it, already. That's what he seemed to say. Granted, it wasn't said, but you know how actions speak louder than words, my Muse. Sweet words find no purchase the way what did and what you didn't do will. Will I ever learn? Will I ever understand? O Muse, I freely admit that I have been unpleasant and unlikeable from time to time. But, never false. In fact, Muse, you might say, and probably have said, that being too truthful has been a greater fault than being false for me.
Don't you have a plan? He had said that, in fact, though not at the time. And, you know, I wished it had been him. At the moment, in the moment, with the blood running hot and the news still ringing in my ears, with grief pouring down from on high, drowning me ice and screamed denials. With the awful realization finally come home to roost, a great black crow that cackled at my tears. And I wished it had been him. How different would it have been? What a different life! Better? I don't know. But, aye, different.
Today? It might as well have been him for all the difference it would make. He is the ghost of a memory. An idol know longer. That ship sailed. With nothing left to offer, no more to say, not a an ounce of pride needed, no more advice wanted, he packed up and went home.
Painful it must have been. How does it feel when you realize you don't know as much as you think you do? How does it feel to see that the student has surpassed the teacher? It can't have been easy. Oh, Muse, trust me, I know how that sounds, but don't get me wrong. I know so well that there tons I don't know, too. But, that, I think now, is a strength. All of us know so little. It is certainty that is the weakness sometimes. Inquiry, curiosity, gray thinking. Don't say yes, don't say no. Say maybe. Maybe. Say I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure. There is power in those words that people ignore and may even not understand.
But, some things I do know. I know loyalty. I know truth. It's in your heart. The enemy of my friend is my enemy. Simple. But, maybe it's not that they didn't understand loyalty. Maybe, Muse, they understood but knew they were not loyal and accepted it. Maybe they had no desire to be loyal at all.
Can we blame them? The wood cannot blame the fire. The frog cannot blame the scorpion.
Blackfish is a documentary about killer whales in captivity.
Today, I won't do it. I am even against going to regular zoos. If an institution or park is holding a primate or other mammal that has demonstrated, scientifically, near human intelligence, I think we need to boycott those businesses.
Orcas, for example, have been scientifically observed exhibiting complex social and cultural behaviors. So have the other smaller dolphins. (Orcas are not "whales" though they are cetaceans. They are the largest of the dolphin species.)
I think that if an animal can be cognizant of its captivity, it should not be held captive.
Death at Sea World is a book that helps explains this.
Did you know that orcas, killer whales, have matriarchal societies? They organize matrilineally, with sons and daughters actually spending their entire lives alongside of their mothers. Males will leave the mother for days, or even weeks, to forage, or mate, but they always return to their mothers.
Knowing this, it makes me think maybe orcas are actually smarter than humans.
Monday, June 10, 2013
Saturday, June 8, 2013
Fast or slow? He inched back slightly and the snake hissed. Slower, he moved little again and the snake didn't react. It even lowered its head and he relaxed himself, just a little. This snake didn't really want to bite him. It was pulling itself back, too.
First movement, Molto Adagio
Sing to me, Muse. Let the furies descend on me tonight, I’m ready for them. Sing to me in my dreams, sing to me of hearts on fire, sing to me you smiling liar. But look who’s calling the kettle black. I lied to myself as often as you lied to me.
I remember a time when it all seemed easy, when answers came to me like whispers from the mouth of God. But now it’s different, now thoughts dance away like dust caught in a sunbeam. I reach out, fumble, and come up empty every time. She was everything to me. Of course, I miss her, but then again, we all miss what we had become accustomed to; we miss it because it's gone, if not because it was dear. It's over and there’s nothing I can do about it now.
All that’s left for me is the awful realization. That’s what’s ailing me, if you must know, the awful realization that we all feel sometime. The awful realization that what’s done is done and the present is past. Now all I have are the consequences of my actions.That’s the hard part for me. The act in and of itself is easy, but the consequences of my actions are what fills me with dread. How do I cope? With the lies sung to me in the middle of the night by the ghost of a shadow. I have to believe it was the right thing to do. I have to believe it because it must be true. She didn't love me and she told me so.
The night is my trial by fire, when my fears crowd me and gibber in my ear like a crazed ape. They howl and buzz in my head, mocking me and my weakness. That’s when the awful realization hits me like a sucker punch. It’s when I turn to the side of the bed where she used to lay and it’s empty. That emptiness makes a sound that echoes in my heart. Only then, with the pain, do I realize that I’m still alive. Only then does it really occur to me that I am alone. Only then do I realize that this is all self-inflicted and that I am alone because I wanted to be without her.
It’s the being alone that really hurts. It’s living with myself that makes me feel this way. When she was around, I was distracted. I didn’t have to look at the hole in my gut, I didn’t have to see the blackness in my soul. It’s not much of a soul, I admit, but it’s mine. Being alone hurts, but being with her hurt more.
The heart makes an echo that once in awhile finds a place in another. When that other is gone, it is a tearing sound, like sackcloth and ashes. I hear it when I am alone. She once asked me if I believed in angels. I do now. Sometimes I can hear their wings fluttering in the dark, occasionally I see them like tiny blurs at the edge of my vision. At least, I think they are angels. I can hear them talking about me, God knows what they’re saying but I know it can’t be good.
I heard that dreams are the way that your subconscious speaks to you, but what does it mean when your dreams are all nightmares? I keep having this nightmare that doesn’t seem like a dream, it seems like it’s real. I can see her leaving, she’s walking through the door, and only I know there is a killer outside, waiting for her. I can’t move, I can’t call out. I can only listen to the lub-dub echo of my heart in my head. The strange thing is that I can’t tell if it’s the sound of my heart or hers. Then suddenly it stops and I awaken. How do I know that this isn’t all a dream and my nightmare reality? What difference does it make? She’s gone now and I have to accept the consequences of my actions.
Am I really insane? Or is that just a cop-out? I know the difference between right and wrong, but I choose not to care. Isn’t that a kind of insanity? Will that be enough of a defense when the reckoning day comes and I’m called on the carpet to answer for my transgressions?
The heart makes an echo that goes out into the world. It’s like echolocation for the soul, searching for her. The heart makes an echo, like seeing in the dark. Unfortunately, there’s a reason for the dark, it obscures the awful realization from our eyes so we don’t have to live with the consequences of our actions. If I could silence the echo of the heart, maybe then I could go blind.
2nd movement, Allegro andante, con brio.
Sing to me Muse. Sing in me and through me. Sing of victory and defeat, sing of ecstasy and of pain, of my joys and terror. Sing that my truth be told, my soul laid bare, and my story be born.
The heart makes an echo, like echolocation. It goes out into the world, looking for the other. It can see in the dark, which is good because the darkness hides the hurt and the pain and the loss. This is the world of the heart. It lives in the dark, sees in the dark, and when the echo is gone, it goes blind.
The heart makes an echo. It beats a finite song, a tune that cascades inside and goes outward from us. The heart makes an echo and seeks its counter, another heart making a complimentary sound. The echoes join and make the sweet song of the absence of loneliness. I can sing that song today. My heart found an echo. My echo was lost, but now it is found. Or was found.
Once, my heart found an echo that sounded the same. The truth seemed apparent but it was only an illusion. It didn't seem like it at that time but that's the thing about illusions. They look so real! It's only when you pass your hand through them, when you work up the nerve to test it, to see, if it's real, to see if it's true. You put your fingers in the nail holes and it disappears. You doubt no more because now you know the truth. It was all just a dream.
Or a nightmare. Sometimes dreams become nightmares and they turn with the suddenness of a car crash. All is well, the sun is shining, the music is on and then there is screaming and blood and glass and terror. The heart can be lied to. It can be sung sweet songs of deceit and half-truths. I love you, she said, but the song really meant she loved what I gave. She loved what I had.
When the echo was gone it left with a shriek, with a sigh, with a howl. It left and took half of everything, left me with nothing. But, it was gone and my heart could still sing. It sang and heard another echo.
This echo was true. This echo was undeniable. My heart tried to sing another song, but this is the one that rang out. And, in the darkness was light. In the clouds there was a sun. Where once my heart had thought it had clarity, it found it had been living in murk and obscurity. The song it had sung had not been echoed at all.
The other had only seemed to sing the song. But, this new song, that my heart heard, it was a song of hope, of love, and a song of such beauty. It was the kind of song I had always hoped to hear but only heard sung to other people. And now I knew the words! And she sang them to me. She sang them with me!
Our hearts made an echo and found each other. The song they sing is full of fire and succor. It is a song of grace and passion. It is a song with words that neither of us know and both of us know. She knows so many words that I have only begun to learn. And the words that I'm singing she has never heard before but she likes them and learns them. Our hearts sing together and nuzzle against one another.
In the dark, and in the cold, our hearts warm each other. We trace the secret scars left by the world, by the others. We trace the scars and they are diminished by the touch. The scars are angry and red. They are pink and fading. In the darkness, our hearts sing the song that makes the scars fade, but not go away. Never go away.
Her heart sings a song that I never thought I could sing. I never thought it would be sung with me. It is a song that at once fills me with the sweet light of happiness and the screaming black terror of loss. It is a song that I know can be silenced. I have heard the silence of this song. I have heard the echoes dying and it was the worst thing I ever heard. I know the words to the song of death, and pain, and loss. I will never forget that melody.
But, today, that song is just a dusty scroll in the corner, unsung. Its notes fade on the parchment. They fade, but never go away. I found out, I'm not really insane, at least, not any more so than anyone else. I wasn't insane, just hurt. What's crazy is how long I let her hurt me and didn't try to leave. What took me so long was my nobility and wanting to do the right thing. But, what is the right thing sometimes becomes the wrong thing. No conditional morality? Absolute morality is for fascists and the color blind.
You can live so long with the pain and the clouds that it all seems normal. Does the cavefish know it is blind? It does when it is brought into the dazzling sunlight. Now I know it was right. Now I know that it was, and is, worth all the pain. When you have known lack, then you can be truly grateful for bounty. I am grateful for every moment, every smile, every song she sings because I know what it used to be like. I know what it was like to be thrown away, to be lost, to be scowled at. and scorned. No one else knew the song the other sang. She didn't sing it for them. She only sings her public song, wears her public face, uses her public voice. But, today, this one sings the same song all the time.
I wonder, if people heard the other song, would they have agreed with me? I had wanted to keep the songs to myself. No point in sharing all of that. But, then, they said I was wrong. Well, in the end, I decided that they didn't have to live my life. They sang those songs because those were the lives they were living, not mine. They didn't know the songs the other sang. They never heard those words. They never heard that the other hated, wished to leave. And, she never told them.
This is the best song I have ever heard. O Muse! Sing of love and light, sing of the world being a better place because of this voice I hear in my heart every night. Sing of echoes that trip and gallop down brightly lit streets of neon promise and ringing with bells of laughter. Muse, your song is the song of the hills, and the wind, the song of her breathing in the middle of the night. It is the song of her footsteps walking in the same time as mine. Sing, Muse, sing of fire, and life! Sing of candles burning fierce against the darkness, against the night that turns to dawn. Sing of gold and glittering jewels that cannot purchase anything so dear as this. And, even when your song is done, the heart makes an echo that sings this song, fading, but never going away. Never going away.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Are you not satisfied with the educational system?!
In the film, Gladiator, the character played by Russell Crowe, Maximus, is a Roman Soldier who is enslaved and made to be a gladiator. He is already a killing machine, a hardened soldier, and, angry at being forced to kill for sport, he proceeds to dispatch his opponents quickly, easily, and shouts at the crowd, "Are you not entertained?!" He knows they are not. This is not what they had in mind.
So, I feel like shouting something similar right now. I just sat through an hour long "workshop" to help me prepare my students for the California High School Exit Exam, otherwise known as the CAHSEE. This test is supposed to see if the kids have learned the minimum amount necessary to earn a high school diploma. If kids don't pass the test, no matter what grades they earn, they don't get a diploma. So, there are high stakes for the kids.
The adults have a stake in this, too. The pass rate is used by people, district officials, to judge the schools, primarily the administrators. And, the scores are published in newspapers, used by politicians, and part of how schools get funding. People use these scores to decide if the schools are doing a good job. And, more and more, districts are using them to evaluate teachers. The assumption is that if students are passing the test, they must be learning what we want them to learn. The further assumption with this test, and other standardized tests, is that the tests are a valid measure of student learning. In other words, the things that the students learn in school are being tested by the CAHSEE and these are the things we want them to learn.
Educators have been warning that an over reliance on standardized tests will lead to teachers teaching to the test and a narrowing of the curriculum. For years now, the prediction has been that if you put pressure on teachers to raise test scores, that will become the point of the school year, and that teachers will do what they need to do in order to ensure student, and, therefore, teacher success.
The warnings have come true. It has come to pass. The teachers are teaching to the test and the curriculum has been narrowed. Here is the absolute, undeniable truth. I am going to relate to you what happened in this workshop as proof that the canary has died, the warnings have come true, it is no longer a possibility, it is a reality.
The workshop began with us watching a clip of Nick Saban explaining that the reason he works so hard is because he likes to win, to be the best. So, that's the tone of the presentation. We are supposed to want to win. This is reinforced when the presenter* says he is competitive and always plays to win, and that when he was a classroom teacher, he used the student scores on the standardized tests, like the CAHSEE, to see if he was winning at work.
Does that sound like education to you? Is education a game to win? Do you want teachers worrying about winning? You might think you do. Let's look at what that means, in practice.
The presenter brought out charts to represent data that showed how students scored on the CAHSEE. We found that about 24% missed passing the test by 5 points or less. We saw that about 80% of the students in the district are passing the test and about the same or slightly more are passing at our school. That sounds pretty good, to me. An 80% pass rate sounds decent. Not great, certainly, but not reason to panic, either.
So, the presenter put up a chart that showed the breakdown of the types of questions that the test has. They were split up by standards. California uses standards as the teaching objectives, the skills that students are supposed to learn. So, for example, he told us that 25% of the test is Reading Comprehension. So, we should focus on activities that teach students Reading Comprehension. Why? Because that standard had the most "bang for the buck". His reasoning, as a certified math teacher, was that if students were learning reading comprehension, then they were learning Word Analysis and Response to Literature at the same time. Maybe, but maybe not. Word Analysis is more like a vocabulary exercise where you use knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, and so on, to figure out what words mean. But, Reading Comprehension is more about figuring out plot or tone or something like that. (Most of this is not very high on the cognitive scale, by the way. It is low, to mid-level thinking, mostly identifying things, recognizing them.)
And, honestly, respectfully, he was talking about teaching English about as well as I would talk about teaching math. That is to say, he was pretty much wrong.
So, my problem is, first, that we are making a lot of assumptions. Most of my fellow English teachers were muttering that focusing on Writing Applications, which comprises 20% of the score, is a better idea. What does that mean? That we would focus on teaching kids to write essays. Why? Well, when you're writing, you're reading. You are literally reading what you have written. When you write, you usually have to read something, like literature, and you need to comprehend it, to analyze it. Realistically, you are probably addressing five, or more, standards in that kind of activity.
It's much more of a bang for your buck activity. Read and write about what you read.
That was mentioned. His response was enthusiastic. Yes! Great! Have them write! And, he said, there are things you can do if the kids don't write well. He said you should make sure they indent paragraphs. You should have them write five paragraphs. You should have them make sure they have topic sentences for all of their paragraphs. This will, he said, help "masquerade their writing" [sic] so it looks as if they know how to write.
He actually said that. It will help mask the fact that they can't write well.
Are you not entertained?!
Basically, this district official was telling us ways to game the system, the best ways to increase test scores. We did not talk about student learning. We didn't talk about what was best for kids. See, that's a given in these areas. This is best for kids. We should use test scores to drive instruction. We should make curricular choices based on what standards will help students pass the test with the highest score. We should win!
Let that sink in. We, as teachers, are choosing the lessons based on what will increase student test scores. We are not asking if this will help kids prepare for college. We are not asking if this is what students need to be ready for life after high school. We are not asking if this will help them get a job and support themselves.
Not only are we teaching based on what standards will be on the test and which ones will raise test scores the easiest, but we are focusing on that. We are narrowing the curriculum so that we can make sure the kids are successful with that. Because, as we were told, success breeds more success. The presenter then recommended that we get the released test questions and spend 3 to 5 days on going over those questions. We should teach them to do better on those questions, help them practice to take the test.
Are you not satisfied with the educational system? Isn't this what you wanted? It must be. We all heard the warnings. Teachers have been saying this for years. We have been telling anyone who would listen, and most didn't, that this would happen. How could it not? How could you put so much pressure on teachers to raise scores and not expect them to focus on those things that would do the easiest and most effectively?
This is the state of the educational system today. This is what No Child Left Behind has given us. Why? Because the pass rate of Sophomores on the CAHSEE counts for 100% of the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) score that is a huge part of NCLB and determines things like if a school is considered failing or not. Of course you, as a principal, are going to focus on this. You're not stupid. Your job is riding on this! They publish these scores in the papers. And, increasingly, districts are trying to use these scores to see if teachers are good or not.
So, am I going to do it? Why wouldn't I? I want people to think I'm a good teacher! This is my job! This is how I pay my bills! It's how I support my family! Yes, I am going to want my kids to pass this test and get high scores. And, you must want me to, as well, because you will base my evaluation on this, you will publish my name in the paper with these scores, as they do in some places, like Los Angeles and New York.
I guess you are satisfied and entertained because I'm still a gladiator and the games don't look to be changing any time soon. The tests are not going away.
*I want to be clear that this is in no way critical of the presenter today. I am sure he was doing the best he could with the assignment he was given. In my opinion, we are all complicit in this problem. We, the teachers that go along with it, the administrators who push the agenda, the citizens who believe it.