Sunday, August 26, 2007

What a Difference a Lifetime Makes

I know I get people of all age groups reading these little columns of mine. I think, but don’t know for sure, that most readers are middle aged or older, but I know there are some high school students who are regular readers even if they’re not exactly fans.

So to that broad spectrum of readers, especially the older ones, it should come as no surprise that getting older changes your perspective on things. At least I know I’ve changed my viewpoint about myriad issues since I was in college, and even more so since elementary school.

For instance, when I was in college, I was a big tree-hugging liberal environmentalist. I even sent a long telegram to Pres. Richard Nixon (much to the dismay of my father who had to pay the phone bill for the telegram) urging the president not to approve the proposed Alaskan oil pipeline because it might hurt migration routes of the caribou herds.

I still like trees, of course, and I think we all should be environmentally aware. But I’m no longer an activist. Some of my youthful idealism has been replaced with a little conservative pragmatism.

I’ve become more pragmatic in my religious conviction, too.

Way back when I was in elementary school, there was this bully who confessed to a group of us, his rabble of victims, that he didn’t believe in God. He was moved to make this confession because the kid he was victimizing at that moment uttered a two-word curse at him, the first word being “God.”

Now, those of us standing around watching the mayhem were shocked and awed that one of us, even if it was our most dreaded bully, did not believe in God. To me, and most of my cohorts at the time, God was a given.

Now, of course, as I near the middle of my sixth decade of life, I realize the bully was probably not alone in his opinions. Or perhaps he was just way ahead of his time. A small but significant number of Americans, and an even larger number of Europeans, don’t believe in God at all and many more are open to the possibility that there may not be such an entity, and that even if there is, we can know nothing about him/her/it. I’m part of that second group.

As it turns out, surprisingly, so was the woman who spent most of her life taking care of the poor and hungry in Calcutta, India. Letters written by Mother Teresa, and recently published in a new book by her close friend, Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, indicate that she was suffering from a huge crisis of faith that spanned four decades. In her letters, about 40 of them, she admitted to having serious doubts about the existence of God and heaven. Her public exuberance for her religion, she admitted, was a façade.

Mother Teresa started her work in India around 1950, about the same time she started having doubts about God. She is being considered for canonization by the Vatican. A British newspaper says that the Vatican indicated the newly-published letters will not hamper progress toward her sainthood.

Ironically, years after my elementary school experience, I happened to see this same bully at a funeral. I didn’t run away as he seemed to be dressed appropriately and was acting civil. As it turned out, he had become a born-again Christian. I recognized the symptoms when he started thumping his bible at me.

Yes, things can sure change when you get older, sometimes in very unexpected ways.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

My Love-Hate Relationshiop with Summer

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the summer season. Going back to my childhood, I remember loving summer because, well, school was out. Summertime meant I had free time to play and have fun without having to worry about homework or studying for tests (not that I really worried about those things too much anyway).

It was no different when I was in college and, later, when I became a teacher. Summer was my free time. And except for those years when I was working on my master’s degree, I always took the entire summer off. There were no part-time jobs for me. I enjoyed my free time too much.

I look at summer break as kind of an annual preview of retirement and I’ve come to realize that, unlike a lot of retirees like my mom who must find a part-time job to retain their sanity, I believe I can remain perfectly sane and never work again. But I digress.

The other aspect of summer I have always enjoyed is that it is vacation season. As a kid, summer vacation meant going to visit relatives in Kentucky. We never went anywhere else. I spent my entire childhood in and around Edinburgh with a couple of trips to Kentucky each year.

When I was old enough, I started planning vacations for the family. I had the entire itinerary written out for a trip to Florida. We never went. Finally, the summer after I graduated, Dad finally took us on a vacation to the state in the opposite direction of Kentucky. We went to Michigan, more or less following my pre-planned itinerary.

So summer really has its good side for me. The free time, the vacations, and did I mention the free time?

But then there is summer’s other face, the Mr. Hyde of summer. I have always really hated heat. There are a few people who don’t mind the hot, humid days of summer, but I’m not one of them. Most people admit they don’t like it hot and humid, but they accept it because it’s part of Indiana’s climate and there’s not much that can be done about it.

I can’t do anything about the climate either, but I probably have always hated heat and humidity more than most Hoosiers, even as a kid. Kids care nothing about the heat. When I was a preteen, I don’t really remember caring how hot it got as long as I could go out and play.

But somewhere during my teen years, the summer heat really started to bother me. I became interested in the weather back then. It was my main hobby. I would keep weather records every day and report them to the state’s climatologist as a voluntary observer. And I became keenly aware of the variations in temperature.

Summer temperatures were no fun. I remember long stretches of days in the 90s. I can even remember a few when it got about 100 degrees. I yearned for a return to the cooler autumn weather, even if it did mean going back to school.

In central Indiana, it gets to 90 degrees or higher an average of 17 times during a normal year. Recently, most summers have had fewer than 17 days of 90-degree weather. We’re making up for it this year. And I hate it.

School is back in session; that typically heralds a return to cooler weather. But my classroom is in a building that is undergoing major renovation, and I have no air conditioning. So not only is the worst part of summer still upon us, but I have to endure it while in school.

Ok, so there are worse things than having to endure a hot classroom for a few weeks. But as I’m sweltering in the heat while trying to keep 35 eighth graders in line, I can’t really think of what those things might be.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

New School Year, Same Old Focus

This week, and for the last two, we’ve seen the longest streak of 90-degree weather in decades. Summer shows no signs of waning soon. Yet, for kids and teachers, summer is officially over. School has started.

When I was a student at Edinburgh I remember hating Labor Day. It was my least favorite holiday. The reason was that we had just started school after a long summer break. I was eager to get back into the swing of things, get to know my new teachers, and get reacquainted with some friends I hadn’t seen all summer. But just as school started, here we were on another vacation, albeit only a day.

That was back when school began the week before Labor Day. These days, as a teacher, the time between the beginning day of school and Labor Day Weekend seems painfully long.

I’m not really sure if there are any more days in the school year now or whether they are just distributed differently. Schools must conduct school for students on at least 180 days during the year. Teachers usually get a few more for meetings and record keeping.

In Indianapolis, a handful of students were supposed to return a month early, because their schools had failed the requirements of the dreaded No Child Left Behind Act. It sounds good, but is woefully flawed and can never really reach its lofty goals.

As a teacher, my contention is if students can’t learn the curriculum in 180 days, they probably won’t learn it in 210. It’s not a matter of total time at school; it’s a matter of time on task, focus, and parent involvement.

At any school, there are three groups of students, considered academically. There are those at the top who would learn regardless of the situation. The best thing teachers can do for them is not screw them up. Then there are those at the bottom of the ladder who show no inclination to climb it.

The vast majority of students are somewhere in the middle. They are certainly not going to learn on their own, but they are all open to being taught. These are the students who can be helped the most by a good teacher.

Obviously, there are teachers who have a special talent at reaching those students on the lower rungs of the ladder. But those teachers are so rare that when one emerges, they make movies about them (such as the Ron Clark Story). And when a classroom contains a mixed bag of students, from all three levels, the teacher who concentrates so much on inspiring the low-achieving students invariably under-educates the larger group of students in the middle, the ones who will benefit the most from their teachers’ attention.

I’m not advocating ignoring the severe underachievers. But we must acknowledge that, regardless of our good intentions, some of them are going to be left behind. There will be those who will drop out, those who will be incarcerated, and those who might struggle through the years, but never graduate.

The best thing teachers can do is to motivate the middle students to learn. If all students in the middle group could be encouraged to improve their standardized test scores by 10 percent, few schools would be in trouble with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The students in the top group are already passing tests such as ISTEP+. Students at the bottom would still flunk it even if they did manage to increase their scores by 10 percent. So that large group in the middle is definitely the group to target.

Increasing the length of the school year will be of little or no value. Focusing our efforts on the area where we have the greatest impact on students will make the most difference in improving school performance.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Making Rocket Science of Dining Out

I eat out a lot. In fact, until I moved into my new place last week, I seldom cooked anything at home aside from the occasional egg or omelet. Heating up a can of soup or popping a packaged dinner into the microwave was my idea of cooking at home.

It’s not that I can’t cook. I used to enjoy cooking and even making up recipes. But cooking for one can become a drudgery; it’s far easier simply to go out for food.

But eating out has its disadvantages, even for the bachelor who would rather not bother to cook at home. First of all, it can get expensive. My daughter is home for summer break from college and she refuses to eat fast food, which really inflates the dinning out budget.

Beyond the expense, however, is the fact that restaurants don’t always get the food right. In fact, I would say they get it wrong more often than right.

The less expensive, family-style restaurants do a fairly good job of preparing ordinary home-cooked meals like meat loaf or manhattans, but they often stumble when preparing specialty dishes, such as fish. I’ve learned that if you want a good fish dinner, most of the time you have to go to a restaurant that specializes in seafood.

I don’t eat at the high-priced five-star restaurants where you need a reservation and where the appetizers cost more than the entrées at Denny’s. But I occasionally eat at the marginally upscale restaurants. My daughter’s favorite is the Cheesecake Factory.

Admittedly, they have a huge menu selection and their portion sizes are grand. But, for my taste, the meals are substandard for the price. Like most of the more expensive restaurants, they always undercook their veggies.

That seems to be a trademark of most general-menu restaurants, regardless of how upscale they are. They tend to severely undercook their vegetables and overcook their meat, chicken, and fish. I don’t eat steak, but ground beef should be cooked medium for full flavor.

Chicken and fish should be cooked just until the last bit of pink turns white. Every second of cooking after that point results in overly-dry, tough bites. In fact, I like my salmon cooked so that a bit of pink remains.

Vegetables, on the other hand, need to be tender. I know it’s personal taste, but serving crispy hot vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower is unacceptable. I might as well just eat a warm salad.

Restaurants cook for the masses. So obviously, either the masses have different tastes than I, or they are less picky about what they eat before complaining. If I order a dish a certain way, and it comes back differently, I have no reservations about sending it back, even multiple times if necessary. I figure if I’m paying good money for a meal, it had better be the way I like it, not the way the average customer likes it.

In general, I’ve learned that the lower-priced restaurants or family-style diners tend to serve up better fair than the more expensive places. It’s not universally true, but a good rule of thumb.

But I’ve eaten out enough to know that if I want good, inexpensive fried fish to go to Long John Silvers. If I want good seafood in general, I go to Red Lobster. The best spaghetti is at the Old Spaghetti Factory. The best biscuits and gravy are found at Sunshine Café. The best omelets are at Café Patachou. The best chopped steak dinner is at Grindstone Charley’s. The best potato soup and salmon are at O’Charley’s. The Greek Island on South Meridian is the place to go for good Greek fair. The best chili is at Charlie and Barney’s. For the ultimate salad bar, go to Ruby Tuesday. And the best grilled catfish is at Cracker Barrel.

Oh, and if you love burgers, definitely go to Steak ‘N’ Shake. Their Frisco Melt is heaven on a plate.

Ok, now I’m hungry.