Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I Left My Heart in San Francisco (and maybe some other things too!)

What a great city. San Francisco is friendly and beautiful, and sooooo welcome after Utah's very ambivalent spring. Apparently 10 inches of snow fell in Utah while we were gone, downing various branches around the city. Glad I missed the whole thing.

We had a blast and wore ourselves out doing it.

Our first stop was the Jelly Belly Factory. Free tours and jelly bellies, and food shaped like jelly beans. So fun for everyone.

San Francisco's Exploratorium was more cool hands on things than any two hands or 12 hands in our case could ever have time to explore.

China Town was the real deal. We didn't find such great bargains as we'd hoped, but then we didn't have time to dig too far into the non-touristy areas. We had Dim Sum at a authentic little place, and liked most of it.

The most interesting and gripping place we visited was Alcatraz. Touring the prison with old inmates narrating the experience was a little scary at times, but Leah held up. The highlight was meeting Darwin Coon, a prisoner there in the late sixties, who was signing his memoir book. Learning about the escapes, the food and punishment was enough to want to keep us all crime-free.

Pier 39 was very fun and touristy, but by far the highlight was was the sea lions camped out on their own thrones (floating piers) and their antics. They were hilarious to watch. We probably watched them for an hour. They played king of the hill, and the older ones told off the younger ones when they got too rambunctious. Apparently they are there year round since the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

Oh yeah. There was an aquarium thrown in there as well. Small and doable in less than an hour. Great since our feet were killing us.

The Mechanical Museum was a hit. It was so fun we ran out of cash and nickels. The kids had a blast playing all the turn of the century games (our equivalent would be an arcade of pin ball-type machines). We managed to avoid the peep show girls and the sex-0-meters, but had fun with arm wrestling, horse racing and fortune telling.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom was way more than your average theme park in my opinion. This was the activity that I was least looking forward too, but ending up really enjoying. My kids will tell you they rode the best roller coasters, ever. I will say I rode just one of the many there, and that was plenty enough to last a a good long while. Whew! Our favorite family ride was the river rafting, where we all had a wet, wild ride.

Golden Gate Bridge was beautiful. We walked half way across, enjoying the views of everything, occasionally looking straight down to the rocky water below. It was unbelievable when a helicopter flew over the bridge with a big banner. We were so excited to see what the banner said. Another Geiko ad!!!! At the Golden Gate Bridge! Now for sure I will never call to save 15% in 15 minutes, cause they spoiled my maybe one and only experience standing on the bridge.

Watching the San Francisco Giants was amazing. The view of the bay made it hard to concentrate on the game, as our eyes would wander out to a passing ship or sailboat. We hoped someone would hit a home run into the bay, but that only happens 45 times a year, and it wasn't our night.

Whew!! Loved all the family memories. Thanks to Aunt Georgia and Uncle Dave for allowing us to intrude upon them in their home in Walnut Creek for four nights. This is our last trip before Adrienne graduates next month. It was everything we had hoped it would be before she moves on to college.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Test Me, I'm Yours

Just as springs breaks through a bit and students start thinking the school year's mostly over, it's the time for teachers to reflect on what their students have learned over the past eight months or so.

I suppose "reflect' is a far too gentle word for the pressure that teachers feel right now. They must determine if their students have met their goals for the year. They have to try to keep them focused and working, a full time job in and of itself.

For kids in regular ed, they do that by administering standardized tests. They don't just measure student performance. Everything is measured from these tests--student performance, teacher performance, principal performance, school performance, district performance, statewide performance, and nationwide performance. There is a lot on the line when students are filling in the bubbles with their freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.

If a state is following curriculum mandated by the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) there is even more pressure for teachers to adequately prepare students for these exams. Poor student performance could mean a teacher's job is on the line.

When parents are deciding where to buy a house, they often look at the test scores of the neighboring schools. This is often more important than numbers of rooms or bathrooms or whether there is a garage. It is inevitable that more affluent neighborhoods produce higher test scores. This is a sad fact of life that isn't fair for those who go to schools with lower scores, but it has always been this way.

If I had my way in this world (which I don't, I've been told)I would narrow the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots." I would ensure that every kid could be a "have" when it comes to education. Socio-economic status would affect home life, not school life.

For students in special education, there is even more red tape that teachers have to cut their way through. They come up for air for just enough time to dive in again to the sea of forms, forms and more forms. "I would go into special ed," one friend told me, "if it weren't for the paperwork." How sad. My sister who is a special ed teacher claims most of her job is filling out forms.

I have been working in a special ed classroom this school year. It is discouraging to see how some students actually worsen both academically and behaviorally from August to April.

It is frustrating for teachers to watch special ed students flub the test when 10 minutes before they knew the material. With special ed kids, you never know what's going to set them off to keep them from performing their best. For autistic kids, it can be a strange smell or a piece of string on the floor! Just because they knew it once is no guarantee that they'll remember it when it counts.

For example, in my class this year, there is a student who is very low-functioning. We have been working on letters and numbers all year. In September he could sign all his numbers from one to ten. Toward the middle of the year he added 10-20 to his repertoire. Now that it's time for an evaluation, he acts as if it is all new material. He looks at us as if we've asked him to repeat the pledge of allegiance when we ask him to count. (Big deal since he doesn't speak!)

At the end of the school year he as lazy as a lump. He doesn't care at all. He just wants to suck his thumb and eat lunch and avoid moving around. It is as if the desire to learn has been completely extinguished. He makes me want to tear my hair out daily.

Another student has gone from hardly speaking at all, to swearing up a storm and whining nearly all day. He has gone from being able to follow simple commands to crying and screaming about everything. No amount of reward or punishment changes this behavior. I don't know if I can take the whining another year if I return to this classroom.

Then there's the little boy who had me wanting to quit after the first day of school. His middle name is stubborn. He ran away from me and would repeatedly bang his hands on the desk. He fought me over writing with markers. He fought me over everything. He is still fighting and he is still a pain, but one day out of this stubborn boy came a few words.

His little voice is the sweetest sound I have heard all year.