Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts

Today I got one of those emails that someone is circulating that contains an urban legend. Here's the email:
Subject: Gun Control in Montana


Shooting in Butte, Montana

Shotgun preteen vs. illegal alien home Invaders.

Butte, Montana November 5, 2006 Two illegal aliens,

Ralphel Resindez, 23, and Enrico Garza, 26, probably believed
they would easily overpower home-alone 11 year old Patricia Harrington
after her father had left their two-story home.

It seems the two crooks never learned two things:
They were in Montana and
Patricia had been a clay shooting champion since she was nine.

Patricia was in her upstairs room when the two men broke through
the front door of the house. She quickly ran to her father's room and
grabbed his 12 gauge Mossberg 500 shotgun.

Resindez was the first to get up to the second floor only to be
the first to catch a near point blank blast of buckshot from the
11-year- old's knee crouch aim. He suffered fatal wounds to his abdomen
and genitals.

When Garza ran to the foot of the stairs, he took a blast to the
left shoulder and staggered out into the street where he bled to death
before medical help could arrive.

It was found out later that Resindez was armed with a stolen 45
caliber handgun he took from another home invasion robbery. That victim,
50-year-old David Burien, was not so lucky. He died from stab wounds to
the chest.

Ever wonder why good stuff never makes NBC, CBS, PBS, MSNBC,
CNN, or ABC news.... Now that is Gun Control

Thought for the day: Calling an illegal alien an "undocumented immigrant"

is like calling a drug dealer an "unlicensed pharmacist"

Montana definition of gun control "Being able to hit your Target!!!"
In response, I clicked "Reply to all" and sent this email:
This incident never happened. As usual, you can check it out yourself at Snopes is an organization that tracks down and verifies the validity of “urban legends.” This story is just that: an urban legend (or a rural one, considering there’s more rural than urban in Montana).

Also—be careful about what you circulate. This story is not only false but inflammatory, and plants the suggestion in people’s minds that all immigrants are illegal, and that they are all hell-bent on crime. That simply isn’t true. I wish I could introduce you to all of my Latino students who are immigrants from various Central and South American countries, all of whom are LEGAL immigrants, who all have after-school jobs, whose parents work two jobs each (usually doing manual labor that no one else wants to do), and who are great contributors to our community. They are highly offended by the perception that they are crime-ridden freeloaders, and so am I.

I challenge you to look around you and notice the hard work that these people do in our society, and get to know them as people. Don’t jump to the conclusion that they are illegal aliens simply because their skin is darker than yours and they may speak another language. There was a time in our great society when speaking more than one language made one cultured—I, for one, long for a return to THOSE values.
I am becoming more and more disturbed by this trend whereby people perpetuate their prejudices by emails that contain falsified information. There seem to be no rules or consequences anymore concerning verification of the facts before perpetuating possible untruths. People send these emails around and hide behind the Bill of Rights while they incite fear and paranoia. It's not pretty and I'm not going to be quiet about it anymore.

Every time I get one of these emails I "Reply to all" and tell them to go check it out at You'd be amazed at how frequently people STILL send these things to me even after I have pointed out that I am not interested in receiving them, and have shown them that the emails contain false information. One person actually responded to me one time by saying, "I don't care if it's not true. I agree with it!" Isn't that interesting--they might as well say, "I agree with a mean-spirited, slanderous email that falsifies the facts." Disturbing.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tips on Etiquette from Delta? Now THAT’s funny!

It is amazing to me how oblivious any and all of us can be to our own behavior. At one time or another all of us have been guilty of trying to remove the splinter from our neighbor’s eye before removing the beam from our own. But this morning I read something really, really ironic and couldn’t keep quiet about it: Delta Airlines has created a series of animated videos to help airline passengers understand the rules of etiquette when traveling. (Read about this yourself at

I found this ironic because at the end of last summer I had to travel on Delta (not my choice—the flight was booked for me) because I was a witness in a murder trial in Alabama. To make sure that I would not have to deal with lost baggage, since it was a quick overnight trip, I only took one change of clothes and my very small toiletry kit, and my laptop computer, all of which I packed in the smallest roll-around suitcase available.

I had intended to take this as a carry-on bag, but when I got to the departure gate (a half hour early, according to my itinerary) I discovered that half of the people on my flight had been sitting at the wrong gate because Delta had printed half of the boarding passes with the wrong gate number on them. Some astute Delta gate agent wondered why half of the flight was still missing when they were making their final boarding call, and started walking down the terminal to the other gates to find out which flight people were waiting for and discovered all of us at the gate printed on our boarding passes. She quickly herded us to the right gate and we all began to get on the plane.

When we all made it down the sky walk to the plane, the cranky flight attendants told us all that we would have to check our carry-on luggage because there was no more room in any of the onboard luggage compartments. She explained this in a scolding tone that suggested this was our fault because we had waited so late to board the plane, even though it was Delta’s fault that we had been sitting for so long at the wrong gate wondering why we weren’t being called to board. She would have none of this back talk and told us that we would have to get on another flight if we wanted to carry our luggage on the plane, so of course we all reluctantly checked our baggage. (I’ve wondered how only half the flight’s passengers could fill ALL the on-board luggage compartments, and have come to the conclusion that the cranky flight attendants weren’t diligent in making sure that the first half of the passengers had carry-on luggage that followed the rules; so the rest of us had to suffer because of the rudeness of those people and the negligence of the flight attendants.)

I had a very bad feeling about this, so I retrieved my laptop out of the suitcase and let them check my bag. As it turns out I was right to have the bad feeling, because the person who filled out the hand-written baggage ticket only wrote in the first leg of my flight to Atlanta, and not the last leg of my flight in Alabama. So, of course, my baggage never made it out of Atlanta. As it turns out, that was a “Level Orange” Homeland Security alert day, so my bag was picked up by TSA in Atlanta as a suspicious parcel when it kept going around and around and around the baggage carousel and was never picked up.

Needless to say, my luggage never arrived in Alabama. I had to go to Wal-Mart on the way to my Aunt’s house so I would have a clean change of clothes and underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, etc. (thank goodness for those little $1.00 travel sizes you can get now!) for the trial.

The next day, while I was waiting to be called to the witness stand, I had to keep calling the airline to check on my luggage. Each time I called I had to start my story from the beginning—no one that I spoke to had any record of my “lost baggage” complaint, nor did they have any notes available to tell them that I had already called umpteen times before to check on my lost bag. Thank goodness I had thought to take my laptop out of the suitcase!

I got back to Baltimore and spent two more days trying to locate my bag. No one was willing to help me or even seemed concerned that I had been inconvenienced. No one offered to compensate me for the clothes I had to buy to appear in court while I was in Alabama. No one even apologized for the error, or even acknowledged that any of this had been their fault. I finally gave it up as a lost cause and decided that when I stopped being angry about it I would write a letter to the Delta corporate office and complain and request that they compensate me for my lost luggage and its contents as well as the replacement items I had to buy because of the series of errors on their part that led to the loss of my belongings and their poor customer service.

Finally, after I’d given up on the whole thing, two days later a guy from Delta showed up on my doorstep with my suitcase.

I will never fly Delta again. The “friendly skies” were as unfriendly on that trip as I’ve ever experienced them, which is why I find it ironic that Delta is going to teach its passengers how to behave. Perhaps they should start with themselves and do a little in-house customer service training before they put the onus on their passengers to behave themselves. The beam in their eye is obviously blinding them to their own bad behavior.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Fox is Guarding the Hen House

Once again the Department of the Interior (DOI) is caught mismanaging an item of concern which falls under its care. Read this article to learn about the latest inappropriate behavior on the part of the DOI:

The DOI’s job is to be a wise steward of the nation’s natural resources. One would hope that that would include keeping any indigenous species from disappearing from the Earth under their watch. One would also hope that the DOI would be impeccable in its bookkeeping and attention to legal matters in the execution of this important job, but there’s an awful lot of evidence to the contrary.

In the case of these endangered species nearly losing some additional protection that wildlife biologists and other scientists in possession of actual data and evidence to that effect have recommended, the DOI allowed a Civil Engineer (not a wildlife biologist) to affect the outcome of this decision. According to the referenced article there have been seven instances of wrongdoing and thirty instances where "questions were raised about the integrity of scientific information used and whether the decisions were made consistent with the appropriate legal standards."

And that’s just in THIS case. My beef with the DOI started over the mismanagement of the American Indian Trust Fund, which I first learned about as a graduate student in Native American Studies. To get all the details of this gross mismanagement by the DOI (and that is being nice—it’s outright theft, really), go to All of the details of the lawsuit are there. In summary, Eloise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in northwest Montana, sued the federal government (and won!) because the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which is a department in the DOI, owes billions of dollars to Native American landowners who were never paid for mineral or grazing leases on their land.

This is where I sometimes encounter a response from someone who knows nothing about the “special relationship” between members of federally recognized Indian tribes and the federal government that goes something like this: “Yeah, well those Indians always have their hands out looking for money from the government.” That is NOT what is going on here.

Let’s say you own some land that you are not doing anything with at the moment, and it has a lot of grass for grazing on it. Let’s say that someone in your rural community has more cattle than his land has grass to feed, and he finds out that your land doesn’t have any cattle grazing on it at the moment. So you and he work out a deal where he will lease your land and let the cattle graze on it for a fee. He grazes his cattle on your land, pays you your fee, the cows get fat, you make some money, and everyone is happy.

Now let’s change the story and say that you are a Native American person, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, perhaps. If that is the case then the way you conduct business with your neighbors has just changed. You can make the same deal with your neighbor that I have just described, but because of your “special relationship” with the federal government you are not allowed to take direct payment from your neighbor—he must pay what he owes you to the BIA, who will put the money in the U.S. Treasury (specifically, the American Indian Trust Fund), and then (in theory) the money will be paid back to you.

The problem with this arrangement, as Eloise Cobell discovered, is that the money was not making the final leg of that trip—around 300 billion dollars never made it back out of the U.S. Treasury and into the hands of the people to whom it is owed.

Why is it done this way? That’s a really great question. Some might say that it is done this way so that the federal government can bilk Native Americans of around 300 billion dollars, because that is what the Supreme Court has estimated that the DOI owes Native American people, and what they have ordered the DOI to pay. To date, the DOI has paid not one cent of that money to Native American people, and three consecutive Secretaries of the DOI have been found to be in contempt of court for failing to comply with the directives of the Supreme Court concerning this case

To me this all sounds like the fox is guarding the hen house. It is definitely up to us to make sure that we don’t wake up one morning to find the continent denuded of all of its natural resources while a few fat cats from Texas enjoy the proceeds of the looting they did during their respective tenures in the White House. If we aren’t careful, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be next!

Wake up, America, and smell the…the…well, there won’t be much of anything lovely to smell if we keep letting our government rip us off this way. We need to pay more attention to what the government is or is not doing to protect our natural resources and those who are stewards of the same, and make sure that everyone (including ourselves) is accountable in this endeavor.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Benjamin Franklin Was Right

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

–Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack

Turns out that Benjamin Franklin was right, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization who are about to add “overnight shift work as a probable carcinogen” to their list of cancer-causing activities. You can read about this yourself at

There was a book published in the early 1900s about how wonderful industrial automation would be because it would revolutionize work and allow us all to work only twenty hours a week, thus allowing us to enjoy recreation and leisure the remaining twenty hours of the week (plus the weekend, which had already been long established for workers). I have been wracking my brain trying to remember the name of this book and its author—if you know the one I’m talking about, please click on the COMMENTS link (below) and tell me so I can get some sleep tonight.

Then there was another book published in 1957 called “Parkinson’s Law,” by C. Northcote Parkinson in which the author coins the phrase, “work expands to fill the available time.” Parkinson made this observation, if not in response to the author of the book I can’t remember, in response to his own observation of the way things were going concerning the work week and the real relationship between automation and human work: even automated systems must be watched over by human beings, since the systems cannot make decisions about what to do when something unexpected happens.

What does this have to do with overnight shift work now being identified as a probably cause of cancer? Only this: the human drive to work, work, work, is killing us. I readily admit that there are many overnight shift work jobs that have nothing to do with automation; my own husband was a custodian at a university, and before that a grocery store, for years. Custodians in those places generally must work at night because the other people using the building during the day (teachers, students, administrators, customers) find working around the custodian’s chores inconvenient. Perhaps if they knew it was “probably” causing cancer in the custodian they would change their minds? Hard to say. We humans have an alarming track record of choosing our own preferences and conveniences over the needs of others more often than not.

There is a book called “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,” by Carl Honore, in which he challenges this incessant human push to do more and more faster and faster. I have jumped on that bandwagon. Nearly all of us appreciate (and frequently quote) the adage that “no one ever got to his deathbed and wished s/he had spent more time at the office,” but so few of us actually follow that advice ourselves. Honore takes that idea even further and suggests that we slow down in every endeavor and only do one thing at a time. Driving might be a good place to start, since most traffic accidents are caused by either or both driving too fast and/or trying to negotiate another activity, such as putting on makeup, shaving, reading a book—crazy but true, I’ve seen it happen many times—at the same time.

But there are other things that we could engage in singularly, too. What would happen if we all stopped lying to ourselves about multi-tasking? What would happen if we just focused all of our attention on one thing at a time?

Here’s what would happen: corporations wouldn’t make as much money driving us to buy things we don’t need with the extra money we’re making working more than we should. It’s that simple: we don’t need all the stuff we find essential in modern American life.

In the final analysis, all we really need at any given point in our lives is food, shelter, love and companionship, outlets for our creative energy, and that’s IT. All of the rest is just grasping.

Too much automation, too much overnight shift work, is just about grasping more time; borrowing from the night what we don’t really need anyway. Perhaps if we just turned off all of the factories and power plants and automated systems that keep a steady flow of greenhouse gasses pumping into the atmosphere we’d end global warming sooner. That would be one sure way to give all of the people that are “probably” going to develop cancer doing overnight shift work a break. Perhaps if we stopped driving at night (which could be considered overnight shift work, and causes accidents when people fall asleep at the wheel) we could cut down the greenhouse gasses even more. If we actually did these things we’d get to the end of the tube that has no cheese in it even slower, but we might find that if we try this slowing down activity someone might have had some time to put some cheese at the end of the tube—you never know what might happen when you do something good for yourself.

I’m spending my energy these days on figuring out where I’m grasping and where I can slow down and take better care of myself, my loved ones, and the world around me. I’m finding that it becomes easier and easier to say “no,” and with practice it becomes easier and easier to not feel guilty about saying “no.” It’s a process, and results do not occur overnight. But there’s no time like the present to start—care to join me?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Anderson Cooper Asks the RIGHT Question (In This Case)

Even Anderson Cooper thinks people are asking the wrong questions. Though I frequently disagree with the approach and tactics of news media, on this one I happen to agree with the question Anderson Cooper asks in his pre-CNN/YouTube Republican debate: "What were they thinking?" You can view this video at and get a minimal glimpse of what some people thought it was important to ask (we'll no doubt hear the better questions at the debate itself). Mostly, this little video blurb reveals what NOT to do when videotaping yourself for a national media event.

I definitely think that we Americans take ourselves far too seriously most of the time when it comes to politics, and that it is probably good for us to lighten up from time to time. But this Anderson Cooper spot is more evidence that we're becoming collectively sillier and sillier. Perhaps we should take things like Presidential Election campaigns and our participation in them far more seriously. I mean, look what happened the last time--need I say more? Tighten up, America! Four to eight years is a long time to have to suffer the consequences of our silly attitudes toward politics.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The News We Deserve

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the news lately: major newspapers and online news sources have eliminated the Education news section from their papers. As a teacher I have relied on Education news in my favorite news sources to keep me up to date on education legislation that is being considered or voted into law, as well as trends in other states. As a citizen I have relied on Education news to let me know how well No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is working (or not working) to ensure that the next generation of Americans is well equipped to take care of the country when I enter my golden years.

When my favorite online news source redesigned its website and dropped the Education news category from its front page, I went hunting through the website to find any education news and was disappointed. Then I kept getting these pop-up windows asking me to give them feedback on their new site, so I did. I told them that I would find another online news source if they didn’t put the Education section back up. Not only did they not put it back up, they never acknowledged my feedback.

I went looking elsewhere for a favorite online news source, and that’s when I discovered the disturbing trend: NONE of the major online news websites have an Education news section anymore. Well, there was one that did, but I had to go deeper and deeper into it to find it, so it might as well have not been there at all (the average web surfer will give up three layers into a website if they do not find what they are looking for).

What does this mean in the big picture? I’m afraid that it means that Average American is tired of reading or hearing about how poorly NCLB is doing, and is also tired of reading or hearing how poorly our students are doing as compared to students of other industrialized nations. The sad truth is that our students still lag far behind other countries in math, science, social studies, and language arts test scores; and this is after nearly eight years of NCLB.

Again it appears (to me) that we are not asking the right questions. While trying to get our students’ math, science, social studies and language arts scores to go up, we’ve narrowed our focus to those four subjects. In the countries where the scores are high the educational focus is broad, with more emphasis on the arts and foreign languages (much like what we in this country once called a “classical education”). It appears that getting math, science, social studies and language arts scores to go up requires a more holistic approach to education (according to the most current brain research). (If you are interested in learning about why learning art or dance or music is essential to becoming expert in math and science, get one of my favorite books: “Arts With the Brain in Mind” by Eric Jensen.)

A further sad truth is that our collective response does not seem to be to try to solve the problem, or even to educate ourselves about it. When searching fruitlessly for education news online I made another startling discovery: where the Education category once existed there is now a category called Living (on my favorite news website) and additional Entertainment categories on that site and all the other news sites.

I fail to see why we need additional Entertainment categories when Brittney Spears and her travails are already considered headline breaking news (much to my dismay—I could live the rest of my life without ever knowing what her next debacle might be). No, we Americans would rather ignore the problem of the ever declining intelligence of our children so we can learn more about our favorite TV programs and their stars, and how long the Hollywood writers’ strike is going to last so we’ll know when we can expect to see the beginning of the next season of our favorite show.

Voltaire said that nations get the leaders they deserve. Well now it seems that we’re getting the news we deserve as well—drivel to satiate and titillate our diminishing collective intellect.

The good news for me as a teacher is that there are all manner of Education publications that I can get my hands on to find out what the state of education in America is. But that doesn’t make my mind rest easier, because the lack of education news in the mainstream news (in paper or online) suggests that people just don’t care to hear about how poorly we’re doing anymore, and that is disturbing to me. We all need to wake up before we become so dumbed-down that we can’t even understand the entertainment news anymore, and I’m afraid that day is not so far in the future if we continue the way we’re going.

Monday, November 26, 2007

We're Asking the Wrong Questions

Finally, someone admits he inhaled. Not that I really care one way or another; but I have to agree with Mr. Obama that the whole point was to inhale—you get no “benefit” from the drug if you don’t.

To know what I’m talking about, go to and read about how yet another presidential candidate was asked if he smoked marijuana, and how he responded to this tired, unoriginal, and unrevealing question.

When Presidential hopeful William Jefferson Clinton was asked this question he responded with the now famous, “I didn’t inhale.” Obama effectively cries, “The emperor has no clothes on!” by responding that the whole point was to inhale, underscoring the importance of being totally honest if you’re going to be honest at all.

By responding to this question in the way that he did, Obama is not making a statement about being honest so much is he is making a statement about the stupidity of some of these questions. Of course by answering honestly he diminishes the possibility that someone will be able to flag around his dirty underwear later on and compound the negative effect by having been caught in a lie.

But the real importance of Obama’s response is that it underscores how irrelevant some of these questions are. Even our own born-again President George W. Bush admits to having imbibed in illicit substances in the days prior to his entry into public office, and no one really cares, nor does anyone really think anything he did while a teenager or twenty-something affects how he runs the country today (outside of the possible deaths of a few million brain cells). The really important thing about Obama’s response is it reveals how little we care about what a candidate might have done in his or her youth that he doesn’t do now, but how persistent reporters are in continuing to ask questions about what we don’t care about.

In the blog that I’ve referenced here, Mitt Romney says, "I agree with the sentiment that nobody's perfect and most of us, if not all of us, in our youthful years have engaged in various indiscretions we wouldn't want to have paraded in the front of a newspaper...On the other hand if we're running for president, I think it's important for us not to go into details about the weaknesses and our own failings as young people for the concern that we open kids thinking that it's ok for them." This begs the question why do reporters keep asking this question? If we don’t want to set a bad example for our kids by suggesting through our own honest admissions that we may have participated in the very things that we forbid them to do (culturally and legally), and if no one really cares about what the candidate of their choice did in his/her youth when they go to the ballot box, then why do reporters and Senate committees keep asking this stupid question?

I don’t have the answer, except that it has become the status quo, somehow. Perhaps one of the reasons that we have so much trouble finding out what candidates really stand for when we are trying to decide who to vote for is that no one is asking them the right questions. While I want to find out what Mr. Obama’s position on foreign policy, health care, and the budget are, reporters are asking whether he smoked Marijuana in high school or college; and then the response to THAT question is what the news publisher (in this case CNN) thought was worthwhile enough to publish.

We need to start asking the right questions if we ever want to find out anything that is worth knowing. Who will start?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Fish Bowl of Life

This is for my sister, Butterbean, who will think this is funny for sure:

I went to your blog yesterday (as I already told you) and was curious about how blogspot works, so I created an account. When I put in my username for my blog as ceilon it told me that was already taken. Drat! I figured my namesake niece had just beaten me to the punch, so I set up my blog as ceilonaspensen. I go to my new blog and click on “View Blog” and see my blank blog page. Out of curiosity I remove “aspensen” from the url (so becomes to see if that is my niece Ceilon’s blog. The page changes but it looks exactly the same—same template, colors, and lack of any content. Curious. So I think, well maybe I already signed up for a blog and don’t remember it. I try to log in and can’t, so I choose the “Forgot Password” option. It tells me to type in the name of the blog ( that I want to have them send me the password for. I get an on-screen message that says that an email has been sent to my email account. Hmmmmm…… I check my email and sure enough there is an email telling me that I should click on the link below to regain access to that account. I do, and am taken to another screen that tells me that all blogs for existing Google mail account holders (even though I have my own domain-based email I host that email at Google for free—it’s awesome) must login under their Google account. I do, and now I have two blog accounts listed in there: and

And the moral of this story, boys and girls, is that “it’s Hell to be old!” as my long-gone friend Bessie Mulhurn said so often. I actually almost remember when I might have set up this blog account (about six or seven years ago), but did so, never put anything on it, and then completely forgot that I had done it. What’s more is that when I was choosing a template for my new blog account just now I spent a good 5-10 minutes trying to figure out which one I would like, even though it says right there that you can change the template any time (but you know me). So when I find this old blog that I barely (if at all) remember setting up for myself, guess what? It is the exact same template that I agonized over choosing this morning.

And the moral of THAT story, boys and girls, is that I’m so damned predictable it isn’t even funny. Not only did I forget that I already had a blog account, but I also chose the same template and colors that I chose before, and spent quite a bit of time figuring it out, only to have it be exactly what I had chosen before. I should just give up ever trying anything new because it appears that I will always outsmart myself and choose the same thing that I always choose, even when I don’t remember that I already chose it before.

OR, perhaps I should just enjoy the fact that every trip around the fish bowl is a new experience for me, and not spend any time at all worrying about whether I’ve been here and done this before (because, apparently, I’m going to forget it anyway). OR, perhaps I should just become one with my predictability and forgetfulness and enjoy the zen-ness of that.

Whatever. I’ve got a blog now, and now I have something posted to it. Here’s hoping I remember to come back here sometime and post something else.

Copyright © 2007 Ceilon Aspensen All rights reserved. No part of this website, nor any of its contents, may be reproduced in any form without the express written permission of Ceilon Aspensen.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Autumn Teaching Update

It has been a while since my last “Baltimore City Teaching” update, but of course I was off for the summer, and just haven’t had a chance to send out another dispatch until now. Things are going well, and I am having another successful year so far.

Though I am still teaching in the city, and at the same school as last year, we moved out to a little bayside suburb called Joppatowne that is fourteen miles northeast of Baltimore City. Weirdly enough, this is the same community I lived in as a child when my family returned to the states from Munich, Germany. I attended 4th-6thgrades at Riverside Elementary School (just three miles up the road), and 7th grade at Joppatowne Junior/Senior High School (just a mile and half up the road, and now it is just a Senior high school). We originally just came out here on a little Saturday afternoon drive when we had cabin fever last year, so I could show Jonathan where we had lived when I was kid. While we were driving around I said to Jonathan, “Wow. It’s really nice out here.” He agreed. It is a happy little fairyland by the Chesapeake Bay, and now it has a wonderful little park (that did not exist when I lived here as a child) with paved walking/biking trails, squirrels, rabbits, a bunch of little fishing piers, and LOTS of birds in the summer time (blue herons, all different kinds of ducks, cormorants, etc., etc…). So we started looking for a place, found one, and moved in during the first week of school. It is delightful out here! It’s not Montana, but it’s “cool and green and shady,” as the old John Denver tune goes. Our townhouse sits up on a hill above the main road that goes through this part of Joppatowne, and though there is a shopping center directly across from us we can’t see it. Our living room has a sliding glass door that looks out into the canopy of trees that cascade down the hill, so my view is of sky and trees and leaves and squirrels…..aaaaaahhhhhh….such a wonderful change from the alley-view we had in the city. It is extremely therapeutic to come home to this every day, and makes teaching in the city (and the short commute that I have to do every day now) doable.

The second year of teaching is infinitely easier than the first one for a lot of reasons. The first reason is that I’m now well acquainted with the culture of the school district I teach in, know what to expect from my Head Principal and Assistant Principal (lots of support in every situation), and know the kids and how to deal with them (they are like little wild things who have no idea how to behave in an organized social setting because no one has taught them this, and they have no idea what purpose school serves in their lives because hardly anyone they know has finished high school and even fewer people they know—if any—have gone on to college, and they are desperate for some kind of direction and meaning in their life, and the most successful deliverers of such are the gangs, despite the incredibly high profile of churches EVERYWHERE in this city). The second reason is that now I have some experience trying to get my “little wild things” to learn even though their minds are on anything and everything but my lesson—in college education courses they don’t even teach classroom management (though recently this has begun to change), much less tell you how to teach in anything less than the ideal classroom setting.

WARNING: The following paragraph contains a bit of a political RANT on the ills of our society—you may skip it the end if you are not in the mood. (It does make sense of my teaching situation, though, so if you are interested in understanding that, don’t skip it.)

One of the BIG problems with education in America is that everyone is talking about “No Child Left Behind” and how to “level the playing field” for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged students of our country, but the institutions that train teachers are still preparing them for only one classroom setting: traditional, middle-class students who are prepared by their families and culture to succeed, and perhaps even excel, in a school environment, and in life. NO ONE (it seems) in higher education is preparing teachers to teach in settings like the one I teach in, not even the “alternative routes to certification” that are designed to get teachers into these areas quickly. The focus of the latter is still on how to get students to achieve, and how to be a better teacher, but there is exactly ZERO focus on how to get that one kid in your class (who is so miserable and dissatisfied in his own life for reasons that he is too young or too emotionally stifled/confused/repressed/fill-in-the-blank to verbalize that all he can do is act out and be disruptive in a negative way, and to whom what you say or do or think of him doesn’t matter one iota so no traditional forms of discipline work to get him to “play ball”) to participate in the lesson in a way that allows him to learn and allows the other students to learn. I say “he” but my experience so far is that the classroom malcontent is just as likely, if not more likely, to be a “she.” What “they” WILL tell you is that if you just make your instruction more relevant and meaningful that you will never have these kinds of problems in your classrooms—HA! I would like for the people that shovel out that kind of instructional manure to teach my students for one week—they’ll never make it if they are shooting for 100% satisfaction guaranteed, and might even change the way they teach future teachers.


Even though that is the environment in which I teach and those are the kids that I teach, I have somehow managed to figure out the dynamic and get the vast majority of students to learn and enjoy learning in my classroom. Though I have read a gozillion books on “teaching in the urban environment” by now, and have attended a gozillion “professional development” seminars on the same, I can honestly tell you that I have learned exactly ZERO from those books and in those seminars about how to get kids to learn in the conditions I have described. What has ended up working for me is this: I just love the kids as if every last one of them were my own, and I deal with them individually in every situation exactly as if they were my own. So, I am generous and profuse with my praise when they are doing things correctly and kindly, I am stern and firm and unyielding when they are disrupting my class and mistreating me or their classmates; and when nothing is working and they are so disruptive that I can’t teach and the other kids can’t learn, I send them to the principal (over and over again if necessary—for the most hardcore disrupters this usually results in them choosing to skip my class on a permanent basis, which works for me because now the rest of my class is no longer held hostage by a disruptive malcontent and are free to learn).

The biggest problem with “No Child Left Behind” (from the view inside my classroom) is that it assumes that the reason that students don’t achieve is because teachers let them down in some way. But NCLB doesn’t seem to even remotely consider the fact that there are a handful of students out there who will sabotage themselves and leave themselves behind—this is not the fault of the teacher, the school, the district, or even the parents in many cases. There are just some kids who make really poor choices no matter what their circumstances are. Why they make those choices is something that should concern all of us as a society, but it is not something I can solve for every child in my classroom every day. Learning THAT has made it possible for me to teach successfully and develop good relationships with the vast majority of my students. If I consider myself a failure because I was unable to reach one or two kids out of seventy each semester, then I shoot myself in the foot psychologically and make it difficult to impossible to effectively teach the other 68 students who show up every day with their unique variety of idiosyncrasies, but who are willing to learn regardless. I still fret over the one or two who choose not to participate (and dream about them, and worry far too much about them), but there’s nothing I can do for a student who never comes to class, or who comes to class and blows it up every time s/he is present. Accepting my own limitations in that regard has been key to attaining success in my classroom for the majority of students.

If you are interested in a more abbreviated version of how things are going for me this year: It’s going OK and I’m doing fine. But it’s hard for me to do anything but get really wound up about how absolutely broken our public education system (and our society) is, though; so please forgive the digression into the ills of the modern Roman Empire that we seem to have become.

WARNING: Another political RANT begins here.

A lot of teachers just choose to call it quits and go do something, but I really think that if more and more people take on that attitude that in a few short years we will have no one working to solve any of these problems and the whole system will collapse. American society and public schools (and I really think the two are inextricably connected) are only going to be fixed when we all work together to solve the problem. I also think that it cannot be solved at the national (executive branch) level, and was never intended to be solved that way. To attempt to apply NCLB from the executive branch of the federal government to school districts which are administered at the state level is to 1) interfere with the rights of the states to administer public education, as is provided for in the constitution, and 2) to colonize children of the many varieties of cultures in this country according to the “pleasure of the President.” This topic causes both the Native American Studies scholar (anti-colonization) and the southerner (states rights) in me to rise up with indignation. There are a lot of things going on here and, in my opinion, federal interference in the education of our children has aided the process of “dumbing down” our populous and speeded it along toward its inevitable outcome: a population of verbally, scientifically and mathematically competent (though not excellent) students with no creative imagination whatsoever. It’s hard to know whether to participate in that kind of process as a teacher; but I suppose that as long as I teach in a school that at least offers art as an elective (thus at least playing lip service to a “well rounded classical education”) then I’ll continue to participate.


Meanwhile, I’ve dropped my courses at Johns Hopkins, because I don’t need a second masters degree, I don’t need the courses I would take there to be certified, and I don’t need to be so damned busy all the time that I have no time to nurture my own inner creative and imaginative life. So, I’ve finally gotten a grip on my teaching job such that I rarely need to bring grading home or do any lesson planning at home, and am able to use that time to write and create artwork and read and walk and enjoy the autumn colors. I’m starting to feel like my “normal” self again (whatever that is—the “self” being a moving target that seems to evolve as we age). Suffice it to say that I am beginning to experience some peaceful joy in my life despite the frantic and general Habitrail-style chaos of the East Coast Megalopolis by which I am surrounded. I have found that what a friend once said to me long ago is actually true: “If you take care of yourself first, and do what you need to do, everyone else will automatically be taken care of.” This may seem to be in conflict with the idea that “he who seeks to save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life….will find it,” but I believe that it’s not; because by “losing myself” in the act of nurturing my own inner creative and imaginative life (prayer) I am taking care of myself. This pays dividends not only for me but for those around me by filling up my well (so to speak) so that I have abundance to share with others. My students benefit by my generally healthy state of mind in that I am more satisfied, relaxed and content in the middle of the chaos of my work place.

With less time at home spent grading and planning lessons, I’ve been able to devote some energy to becoming more established in our community and making some friends. On yet another of our “cabin fever” weekend drives, we took a wrong turn on our way to somewhere we had planned to go and discovered a restored grist mill and covered bridge just 3.5 miles from our house. It is part of Gunpowder Falls State Park and is full of hiking trails along the Little Gunpowder River in beautiful woods, so we go there pretty often to get our nature-fix. Driving home from our first accidental encounter with Jerusalem Mill (the grist mill I just mentioned—you can check it out at we saw a not-so-little but not-so-big (“it was just right!”) United Methodist Church sitting just as pretty as you please in a grove of trees by the side of the road (like a postcard). We were driving slowly enough to read the marquis announcing that they have an 8:30am Sunday service, so we decided to try them out the next Sunday. In this way we found Union Chapel United Methodist Church, a church a lot like Bozeman United Methodist Church (though there is only ONE Dave McConnell!), and are now regular attendees. (This church was established in 1821 and was a joint congregation of Quakers, Episcopals, and Methodists who shared its original log cabin sanctuary until they were each able to build their own church buildings—you gotta love that kind of ecumenical cooperation.) I joined the women’s crafting group and spent several weeks painting wooden Christmas ornaments for their annual Fall Festival that happened last Saturday. Again….I am beginning to feel like a real human being again, almost normal. This assuages the homesickness for Montana, some (though I doubt anything will ever kill it altogether).

It was really, really good seeing all of you (with whom I was able to connect) in Montana and Alabama this past summer! We are hoping to make a longer visit to Montana next summer, and have less “business” to take care of when we get there, so hopefully we’ll be able to get together again! (I’ll keep you posted.) I hope everyone is well. You are all in my prayers.