Tuesday, January 28, 2014

NCLB Politics – Part IV (or Common Core Standards – Part I)

     I have nothing against standardized tests.  They're tools like any other tool—a gun, hammer, knife, or saw—and can be used both appropriately and inappropriately.
     That said, I think it's a huge mistake to use standardized test scores to grade primary and secondary schools or teachers based on arbitrary cutoff measures of supposed minimum levels of student proficiency or academic achievement because standardized tests do not measure such things, what they do approximately measure is each student's ability to take standardized tests.  And that's about it.
     I have had numerous friends, relatives, and acquaintances that were ninety-plus percentile whizzes at these tests who did mediocre to horrible in classes and ended up with run-of-the-mill jobs and careers.  Conversely, many academic super-stars and/or those with thriving careers had been very undistinguished standardized test takers.  The problem with these tests are their narrow subject matter focuses and scopes, with over-emphasis on memorization and simple one-way-to-solve problems.  Complexity; human factors; individual creativity, compassion, communicative ability, social skills, motivation, perseverance, confidence, shortcomings, irritations, dysfunctions, morals, appearances, perceptions, social acceptance, family and other connections, frailties, desires, feelings, aptitude, attitudes, upbringing, and personality; the general social, political, and economic environments; local politics and interactions; and all other “soft” factors are virtually excluded from these tests simply because they are too difficult to measure objectively.  Yet these are the very types of real world problems, opportunities, situations, responses, and interactions that most determine probable future success of students in school, work, and life in general.
     In other words, predicting a student's success in school or life is far too complex to reduce to simple, straight-forward fill-in-the-bubbles or scroll-and-click there's-only-one-correct-answer per question standardized multiple-choice tests.
     According to various studies, employers make decisions within the first fifteen seconds of each candidate's employment interview (obviously unconcerned about computer generated test scores plotted on comparative scales).  Further, success at work (one hopes) depends mainly on productivity (including working well with others and learning on-the-job), not standardized test-taking ability.
     In my opinion, the main and perhaps only usefulness of these standardized tests might be in screening outliers—ultra high and ultra low scorers.  The former may be whizzes in other academic pursuits, but then again, maybe not.  Conversely, the latter may indicate extreme problems in comprehension or motivation.  (A bright, wise, and compassionate adult friend of mine with an excellent work ethic and respectable career said that as a child he used to fill in the bubbles of standardized tests to create pretty patterns—zigzags, checkerboards, etc.  I'm sure he could have scored within “normal range”--however that is defined—but just didn't care.  Healthy, normal kids will act out at times, balking at mindless repetitive hypothetical after hypothetical question, or artificial comparison after artificial comparison construct.  “In the long run, who cares?" may be their understandable response.  “It's just a number on a sheet of paper.  It's not who I am or what I'm capable of or what I'm worth.” 
     Indeed, careers are not made or broken based on such test scores as the average person goes through greater than ten job and a few career changes in a lifetime and prospective employers don't ask to see or talk about them.  (The only times I was asked to provide them were on college or scholarship applications.)
     Yet, standardized tests continue relentless for my kids who take from one to four such tests (reading, math, or science) two to four times a year (sometimes taking the same test thrice), totaling two to eight tests per child, a few hours each.  This doesn't even include on-line IXL math and Kidsbiz reading assignments (practice tests) of about two each per week.  So many hours on these that might have been better spent on productive, engaged learning—especially hands-on activities such as science experiments, PE, art, or field trips.
     In an earlier essay titled NCLB Politics – Part I, I said I looked forward to NCLB's repeal.  Yet, though this has in essence happened via a waiver granted to Hawaii and forty-four other states for adopting common core standards—required to obtain access to billions of federal Race-to-the-Top grant dollars, the high-stakes testing continues and will probably be expanded, resulting in possibly even more tests of greater difficulty.  Things for my children—as far as frequency and intensity of these standardized tests go—have not improved.  Neither has their curricula changed from memorized word lists, Kidsbiz, IXL, and other teaching-to-the tests techniques.  Alas, to date, common core standards appears indistinguishable from NCLB and my kids continue to suffer as a result.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Life's Risks

   Risks abound. A car ride. Inadequate sleep and exercise. A poor diet. Or a bad economy. Yet, we get by, confident that we'll be okay, at least for now.
   It's when we step outside life's normal routine that things can begin to feel a bit more dicey. A sky dive. A bungy jump. A trip to a lesser developed country. Or a heart-felt letter presented to an impressionable teen.
     This past Christmas, with some trepidation and tons of trust in her and God, I did the last, the recipient being my thirteen year old niece Janice. I had written the letter when she was but an infant, newly adopted and brought over to Hawaii (from Asia) by my sister Joan and her husband Aldwin. It described their lack of success in conceiving, their medical issues, and a one-time unsuccessful medical procedure. Joan's refusal to seek further medical intervention left them bereft until they pursued adoption (see related essay entitled Adoption Option.)
     The letter also described the couple's trip with my parents (Joan was recovering from a surgery at the time) to and from Korea and the immediate aftermath: The friendly fellow traveler at the airport—a Korean national—who offered to take them around during their three days before the pick-up date but who eventually became a pest due to her “Let's get together again,” persistence until they finally stopped answering their hotel telephone. The emotional meeting with the foster mother, a veteran of several foster children. The first meeting (the foster mother had discretely withdrawn) with the baby when Joan burst into tears of joy, yet the baby held firm, alert and self-composed. The harrowing taxi trip to the airport when Janice, realizing that Mom wasn't coming along and that she was being taken somewhere by a group of strangers, shrieked inconsolable, a crying jag that lasted the duration of the half-hour taxi ride plus most of the hours-long flight to Hawaii, only interrupted by short naps induced by physical and emotional exhaustion, Joan weeping joyfully and pityingly while seated on the floor beside her, comforting her and refusing (unlike the others) to take a sleep break in another section of the largely vacant plane. Janice's quick adjustment to life in Hawaii with her new family where she became happy, hungry, and even-keeled—“just fine”, so said my parents.
     The letter foresaw Janice's inclination and curiosity to one day want to learn more of her birth parents and past and that how far she goes with it is hers alone to decide. I described my father-in-law's awful experiences when tracking down his birth mother and the way he suffered and self-destructed as a result. (His birth father's identity and whereabouts remained vague and untraceable.)
     But the overarching tone of the letter was one of love, and although I envisioned presenting it to Janice upon her reaching adulthood or her late teen years, possibly as she struggled through identity issues virtually all adolescents sooner or later face, I changed my mind because of her family's recent ten-day trip to Korea with other adoptee children from the same adoption agency. No one explained to me the impetus for the trip, but I reasoned that obviously Janice must have expressed interest. (Joan said she'd planned nothing for the trip, which suggested it wasn't her initiative; my brother-in-law is a go-along type. Joan said that they were “playing it by ear” whether or not to visit Janice's foster mom but were counseled against it by an agency worker because it takes lots of preparation for something like that, at which point Joan dropped the idea.)
     Deanne was very concerned that Janice might take the letter the wrong way (as was I, but to a lesser extent), and perhaps that Joan and Aldwin might hold it against me if things went poorly. But I felt that this was between Janice and me—I didn't want to have to or believe it necessary to filter the letter through Joan or Aldwin because as parents, they are personally vested in the outcome whereas I have a certain detached perspective that perhaps allows me to focus better on what's potentially best for Janice. And her parents and I surely agree that we all want what's best for her. And once she reaches eighteen she can and will do what she sets her mind to anyway.
     Christmas Eve I raised with Joan, Miley Cyrus's music video awards show performance. I had read about its raunchy simulated sex acts, the skanky outfit she wore, and the shocked reactions from fans who bemoaned what had become of their once sweet, innocent child. Janice had been a big fan of hers from her Hannah Montana days and had an autographed copy of one of her earlier posters. Joan said her performance was no big deal—no worse than any of the other stars'—and that the backlash was identical to the flack Brittany Spears took the first time she broke out of her sweet, innocent childhood mode.
     Janice interrupted and asked which performance?
     I said, well, I don't know if you saw it.
     She said I saw all of them, which one?
     I looked at Joan who had walked away and said the VMA show.
     Janice smiled and said, “I saw some, but when she started doing some weird stuff, I walked out of the room.”
     I held an arm out to hug her, she came to me, and I said, “Good for you. You know what to do.”
     She said, “My friend watched it over and over again. She tried to get me to watch it but I told her I don't want to.”
     I again praised her for her good judgment.
     Later, she, my kids, and my brother's son had a nice time together outside on the balcony decorating a prefabricated ginger-bread house. When the kids were eating dinner that night on the same balcony table, I took a break from the adult table inside and stood around and talked with Janice and the others and found her to be a fine and engaging girl. However, when she mentioned stressing out over exams and taking awhile to calm down so she could think, I counseled her to concentrate more on having fun—straight A's all the time shouldn't be the top priority at her age.
     With the letter, I enclosed a cover letter saying to discuss with me before reading and if she wants to stop reading, to return it to me for safekeeping until a later date.
     Christmas afternoon she looked at me, letter in hand, in the midst of the present-opening festivities. I had been thinking maybe I should sit in a separate room with her, Joan, and Aldwin while she read it, but instead I asked, “You know the facts of life, right?”
     She said, “Huh?”
     I said, “You know where babies come from?” She nodded. “And how they are made?” She nodded again. “Then go ahead.”
     Joan said, “Sheesh, this letter... I wonder...” but she laughed as she said it.
     Janice sat quiet, hunched over as she read the twelve-plus pages, intent and serious, while I continued to shoot photos, stay engaged, and check on her from a distance from time to time.
     I relived Joan's tearful joys and Janice's childhood ordeal and sorrows as she turned the pages and her eyes began to glisten and redden. Later, she left the room, and when she returned, her mood was somber and her eyes were puffy and red. She reclined into the folds of Joan's arms—a rare display of public affection. I went over and whispered, “If you like, you can share the letter with Mommy.”
     She said, “Thank you for the letter, she knows what's in it already.”
     I thought a moment and said, “She might have forgotten some. I forgot a lot and only remembered after I reread it.”
     It was a big change from a year ago when Janice had danced about the room exuberant over her new acquisitions: fluorescent soccer shoes, a soccer ball, electronic devises, fashionable clothes, dress shoes, and a pair of flip flops. And I felt good for having done the right thing.

(To Joan, Aldwin, or Janice if you are reading this: I love you all dearly.)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Art – Creating and Acquiring

     One thing that separates man from the beasts is art.  Others—morality; spirituality; and rational awareness of self, time, symbols, ideals, and the meaning of life—exist, but to me, appreciation of beauty and art and the desire to create them  seems a huge part of man's unique essence.
     Birds, whales, baboons, and cats sing, but do they find such music beautiful or compelling?  Can it cheer them up, depress them, make them laugh or cry, or put them in just the right mood?  Do they obsessively strive to improve their craft seeking ever greater beauty or perfection?  Or is art intrinsically good to them because it adds beauty to an imperfect world?
     Every culture everywhere has its history with art.  Usually two- or three-dimensional depictions of nature can be found among the world's most ancient works of art.  (No where in the animal kingdom can such artifacts be found.)  Later depictions often contain spiritual representations, birth, death, fertility, or languages—all parts of many cultures' ancient arts:  offerings to deities, warnings to the observer, fanciful handiwork of the bored, or factual depictions of the present.
     So it's in our genes, I believe, to create and appreciate art.
     My tastes are diverse:  rock and roll and classical music (happy or relaxing); black and white photos with dynamic range (humorous or insightful); literature that is more real than real; humble, down-to-earth memoirs; artsy foreign films; and sculptures with visual puns.
     But the real fun comes in creating.
     I love playing guitar and singing (I've led worship in small-group settings), shooting black and white photos, sculpting clay, writing fiction and creative non-fiction, and on rare occasions, fooling with paints and permanent markers.  Some of our best family outings have been to arts festivals—free to the public—at the Contemporary Art Museum, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawaii State Art Museum, and Windward Community College.  They all put on good shows and allowed much hands-on participation and souvenir-making.
     What sets activities apart at these are the artists who guide them, whose enthusiasms are palpable.  I love to get them talking about the origination of their art forms, techniques, tools and materials, and their professional or academic statuses.  It's also fun to let my creative side take over and see how my abstract scribbles turn out, or sculpt some mundane silly thing (tooth brush, toilet, a thumb) and see if the kids can guess what it is (they usually can't, even though it looks exactly like the object depicted—my wife can always tell).  One thing that the kids got to do that I always wanted to (but adults weren't allow to) was spin clay.  I later kiln-fired their bowls in town for a small fee, sprayed them with acrylic clear coats, let the kids decorate them with acrylic paints, then sprayed them with acrylic clear coats again—perfect gifts for the holidays.  Another fun activity was carving wet plaster using wood carving tools.  We ran out of time but were told how to finish them at home, which we did using blunt tools and knives, then painted with acrylics.  Jaren, too young to carve, enjoyed gluing scrap wood blocks together, then painting them, instead.
     As an art collector, I love originals.  We can't afford expensive works, so usually it's through happenstance that I discover some affordable artist whose works I love.  The first of these I discovered at my old apartment in Kakaako.  Beautiful paintings were displayed in the lobby front office, propped upright on the floor against a desk front.  I inquired about them and was told that the artists Cece and Fabio were tenants allowed to set up shop in a garage storage room.  I went over and was immediately hooked—everything they produced, I appreciated (including painted flat board cut-out standing sculptures).  I commissioned them to do a painting—anything they wished—for eighty dollars, and they did one on canvass, the wood frame of which was also painted and incorporated into the piece.  I ended up buying four more pieces from their inventory (all sold at steep buyer-appreciation discounts), including one print which I gave to my brother, plus a number of postcard prints of originals.
     The young Brazilian men with heavy Spanish accents were nascent artists striving to attain commercial success without “bastardizing their work.”  One of them—handsome, studly, and full of fire—had paralysis from the waist down and got by with arm crutches.  Their stories and our rapport and goodwill added substantially to my enjoyment of the pieces.
     Another artist I came upon was Robert Kelsey, who displayed his works on Saturdays on the Fence by the Honolulu Zoo.  His fine abstract acrylic paintings were on stretched canvass and extended all the way to the tops, sides, and bottoms—no frames required.  A sign encourage customers, “Please DO touch the paintings.”  I told Braden, then a toddler, “Look what the sign says.”  An elderly gentleman with kind, gentle disposition approached, took a painting off the fence, stroked it, and held it for Braden to feel.  The man joked about his wife from South-East Asia and explained how his mother-in-law, who was such an encouragement to him, gave him Chinese calligraphy brushes that he used in some of his paintings.  She promised him that her daughter would take good care of him in his old age, so when his wife neglected him once when he had sore hands from stretching canvasses, he reminded her of her mom's promise to which she responded, “My mother was wrong!”  Throughout the years, I purchased five pieces from him from twenty-five to thirty-five dollars each, two given away as gifts.
     In acquiring art, I always seek the story—either of the artist or within the work itself.  Yet, the main thing is always the way the work makes me feel.  To paraphrase Duke Ellington, to me, if it feels good, it is good.
     Whereas in creating art, the fun is in the doing.  I don't teach my kids how to play guitar well or shoot compelling photos, instead, I just let them see me have fun doing it, show them the basics, then let them go and have some fun.  If they enjoy it they'll stick with it longer and automatically improve over time.  For a huge part of the fun in doing is improving.






Thursday, January 9, 2014

Adoption Option

     My family has a long history with adoption, so when the time came for my wife and I to explore various options due to medical circumstances, I felt comfortable with this possibility.
     Both my paternal grandparents had had younger siblings adopted due to parental deaths.  Grandma shared how her dad, a sugar plantation worker in Kihei, gave up the family's youngest for adoption to a family in Kula—where she eventually disappeared and was later found dead, drowned in a cistern.  When Grandpa was a child and both his parents died in close succession—his father by drowning when thrown by a huge wave off a commercial fishing sampan off Hilo and his mother from disease—his uncle, a barber in Lahaina decided he could manage to care for but one of the two children.  He therefore sent Grandpa's sister to live with relatives back in Japan.  As an adult, Grandpa, a Kula Sanatorium yard man, sent her money because her family was so poor, World War II ceasing all correspondence for a time.  Many years later, they resumed correspondence, and decades later, reunited in a sorrowful reunion at which Grandpa's sister couldn't stop crying.  Their second reunion, however, went much better as she had found peace amidst all the painful memories.
     My maternal grandmother died when Mom was a child so Grandpa, a farmer with a fifty acre plot in Honokaa and seven daughters to care for, gave the youngest up for adoption.  Though Aunt Mae seldom was included within the close, tight circle of all our other aunties (partly because she lived in Chicago and other faraway places), my mom and aunties corresponded with her and met up with her in recent years for vacations and other gatherings.
     My sister Joan adopted her sole child from Korea.  The two couldn't stop crying on their trip home together to Hawaii—my sister for joy and pity at her daughter's tears; my one year old niece due to fear of the strangers taking her away from her beloved foster mom.
     My sister's husband's twin sister was given up for adoption shortly after birth due to their mom not feeling up to the task of raising them both. I met Samantha at my sister's wedding—a beautiful, confident woman who is included in numerous of my brother-in-law's family gatherings back east where he grew up in New Jersey.
     And my half-Scot, half-Siamese father-in-law was as an infant adopted by a Chinese family in Malaysia.  He grew to six-foot-four and played for his future country's national basketball team as center, but quit when he saw the United States' team in which their shortest player was taller than he was.
     Our personal encounter with adoption came over a year ago when routine ultrasound images showed abnormalities in our eight-weeks-old fetus my wife Deanne was carrying.  Our doctor made us an appointment at a fetal diagnostic center and offered to later test for chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome and spina bifida—early notice apparently to give us time to decide whether or not to terminate the pregnancy.  I told Deanne, who later brooded over the prospect of caring for a special needs child that if we didn't feel up to it, we could consider giving it up for adoption.  But if we did give it up, we'd have to do so at birth, because once we brought it home and cared for it, we'd become so attached, it'd be too painful to give away after that.  She didn't like the adoption idea because when her dad, as an adult, tracked down and talked to his biological mother, she outright rejected him and told him to never bother her again, which devastated him.
     Abortion was something neither of us felt comfortable with, so that left us with planning to keep the baby, possibly skipping the test, and praying everything would be fine.
     Two weeks passed and the next ultrasound showed the baby fine, clear, and healthy, but also an abnormal bulge in the uterine wall that the doctor said the fetal diagnostic center may better be able to identify.  Three days later, the fetal diagnostic center's high-tech ultrasound showed the same size fetus with no heartbeat, and multiple chromosomal abnormalities—possibly Down syndrome.  The fetus had apparently died in the intervening period.  We opted to wait for a natural discharge of the fetus' remains (or a miracle recovery), but ten days passed and Deanne seemed increasingly less pregnant.  At the next doctor's visit, the ultrasound confirmed no growth and no heart beat or blood flow.  The doctor recommended a procedure to remove the fetus, placenta, and other baby-related support systems to prevent infection, which Deanne and I agreed to.
     The miscarriage shocked and disappointed us.  We had been buoyed by the prospect of a fourth child yet stressed at the same time by the logistics of planning a preparing for its arrival and funding its future.  What eased the pain and emptiness was knowing God had decided for us.  It was if He said, “No, not now.  I want this child with me, chromosomal abnormalities and all—it doesn't matter to me, I love it just the same.”
     Deanne had a dream a couple days later of her deceased father (who recently died after a prolonged bout with colon cancer).  She placed a baby in his arms and said, “Here's Jen.”  Dad had never met our youngest child Jaren, who just turned six, and Jen was the name we had preselected from six-and-a-half years ago to name him, had he been a girl.
     A part of me wondered:  If God blesses us with another daughter, will we still feel comfortable naming her Jen?  It took us awhile to come up with that name (not her real name, by the way, we don't share that with anyone until after birth).  But after Deanne again got pregnant, we realized, no, Jen would not do.  So we came up with a different name.  God again called the fetus to Him (after two weeks).  It had been such a short pregnancy, and we had guarded our hearts just in case, so the shock of disappointment was not quite so severe.  God's will be done in all things.  He has been good to us beyond compare.