(John Martin: The Great Day of His Wrath-1853)


It feels larger than life as it rips through my body.

my heart beasts fast

my mind is turned off.

can my anger move the cement stair where I slammed my toe, even when I kick it again in retribution?

can it fix the plasma screen I broke when I saw that laughing face that I hate?

can it bring back the window I shattered to make a point to my brother as he ran off against my will?

will it repair the wooden screen door I slammed? Will it unfracture my finger that was in the frame as I slammed it? Will my anger take away my tears of shame and pain as I hide in the backyard, bleeding?

My anger is tiny, impotent. My anger cannot (move, fix, bring back, repair) DO any thing to change the world around me…save one thing:

It can show me where I need to work harder to understand others. Because when I am angry in that red hot way, that kick the box, slam the door, throw the glass way, I can be certain that I am not trying to understand anything except myself. The world will not move for my anger. If anything, it will stand stronger against me, to show me in the starkest way, where I am turning against the flow. Note to self: my anger is the smallest, least functional representation of my ability.

Bentley Snowflake

(Snowflake photographs by Wilson Bentley-ca. 1905)

I teach the fifth grade. There are approximately 5 million fifth graders in schools across the United States. Some of those schools have money and some are very poor.  At some schools the parents show up and volunteer. Some of the students at these schools bring food to school everyday. Many don’t. Some of the parents at these schools read to their kids at night. Some of the parents can’t, because their work schedule doesn’t allow it. Some schools attract students who take pride in learning and care about the results of their matriculation. Other schools attract students who can’t make it anywhere else. This list could go on and on.

The new assessments, set to be in place by the 2014-2015 school year, will be based on “Common Core Standards” across the nation. How accurate can these tests be at defining a school’s success with so many unaddressed variables in play? How accurate can they be at evaluating teacher effectiveness with such inconsistent conditions?

Before every test I give my classes all a special talk about different skills, some children can run fast, some can paint beautiful pictures, some are terrific secret keepers. They mostly just stare at me anxiously. They already know something that it’s taken me a long time to get: those wonderful traits that I talk about before every test actually don’t matter, because they don’t show up on the test scores. The only thing that matters is whether that number that will flash on the screen at the end of the test will be high enough to make them worthwhile in the system.

The move further and further toward unilateral standard based education assessment has deeper and far more fundamentally insidious effects on the children of our nation.  Through our new and incredibly one-dimensional testing system, we are teaching our children to devalue their own feelings and intuition. We are teaching them that somebody else knows the answer. Their job is to memorize it.

When I hear politicians speaking about education reform I hear words like innovation or inspiration. If every question has a “right” answer and a child feels unable to choose it, that child will begin to doubt his own intelligence, bending instead to the knowledge of those around them. The child will either begin to learn to play the game of “what do they think is the right answer?” or they will live with constant anxiety about their abilities or they will give up. Even the children who don’t struggle with the tests learn the language. If we are trying to encourage flexible and innovative young people who are able to think critically after matriculation, why are we requiring them to think inside the box?

Bentley Snowflake 2

I took my class on an overnight field trip to Opal Creek Ancient Forest Center. We stayed at Jawbone Flats, an area that has year-round residents. Because of this, my students were instructed to not run outside between the cabins. Knowing of my group’s proclivity for running both outdoors and indoors, I asked them what they would do if they saw a friend running where they weren’t supposed to. They were quiet for a long moment as they pondered this question, then, when it became apparent that I wasn’t going to feed them the answer, one girl raised her hand and said, “Stop, stand still and wait for instructions?” I smiled a little and told her that was a good answer, but I was looking for something a little more practical. Her friend then raised her hand and said, “Find an adult and ask for help?”  It took another bit of reasoning to get them to understand that all I wanted them to do was to remind their friends that they shouldn’t be running. They wanted so badly to say the “right” answer that they were unable to think logically about what they would actually do in real life. They’ve been well trained in the one-dimensional, purely analytical response to the question. They’ve been taught to question their own intuitive reasoning so much that now they bypass it, certain that there must be a different right answer.

I know that, in certain cases and at appropriate levels, standards and accountability are imperative. I know that education reform is meant to help our nation’s children fare better in the world and to ensure that every student has the same access to information. But the policy makers are not listening to the data. The test results are showing their failure. Many extremely knowledgeable and experienced people are letting us know that competition and test-driven education curriculums do not make better, happier or smarter students. Furthermore, a system that values only one kind of learning will eventually destroy the other kinds through natural selection.

John Gatto, an award winning schoolteacher who retired after thirty years of teaching, said that he has never met a special education student. I agree with him. I had a boy in my class once who spent most of the fifth grade playing with little scraps from his desk. He would sit and make tiny sound effects as the scraps battled each other, effectively blocking out any instruction from my ever-important lessons plans. He failed to meet achievement standards on test after test. We began the process of having him tested for an Individualized Education Program with Special Ed. I could tell he was anxious. He told me multiple times that he was stupid. Before we completed the IEP process, he ended up moving schools. I see him every once in a while around town.

The interesting thing about this boy is that if you gave him a pair of scissors and a piece of paper, he could make beautiful snowflakes. I’m talking professional grade snowflakes. I’m terrible at making them, myself. I always cut the wrong side and they come apart into multiple little snowflakes. I sat with this boy once and watched him as he considered the folds, held the paper this way and that carefully deciding where he would cut, explaining to me what pattern each shape would make when we unfolded the paper. He was right, and it was beautiful.

What if I could have stopped teaching him fractions and instead learned about his own genius with patience, symmetry and balance? Who would he have become as he understood that the things he was good at are of value as well? (I know, there isn’t much of a market out there for paper snowflakes, but when Henri Matisse did it, it was called gouaches découpés, and they sold for millions.)

Who could our children become if we stop forcing them to learn the same thing as everybody else and let them explore their own skill sets? How much anxiety could we allay? How much confidence could we produce?

Perhaps most important of all, how can we actually reform education so that it supports and values the skills that our children are born with in order to create a system based on respect and confidence, rather than competition and fear?

Our education policy has been on the path of high pressure, high competition, high standards and low results for long enough. It’s time to try something new, something different, something truly innovative. The health and prosperity of our children depends on it.


I recently ran across a quote from American educator and youth rights advocate John Holt: “The main effect of the drive for so-called higher standards in schools is that the children are too busy to think.” The quote gave me pause in its stark contrast to another quote that I keep on a card in my lesson plan folder. “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates said this 2500 years ago.

For the third year in a row Eugene Public Schools did not meet required goals as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Forty-eight percent of the nation’s public schools also did not achieve adequate yearly progress in 2011, the highest percentage since NCLB took effect in 2002. Because of increased concern regarding school’s failure to meet adequate yearly progress, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the decision to offer flexibility on certain No Child Left Behind requirements to states which would otherwise have failed to make student proficiency goals.

I’ve been teaching middle school for seven years in a public charter school in Oregon. One thing that I’ve come to believe during this time is that few things stand more solidly in the way of imparting a meaningful education to the children in my class than the present system of curriculum standards. Unfortunately education reformists in the United States government are determined to create more and more uniform “high standards” across the nation.

With the shift toward George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind in 2002, curriculums across the nation became more focused on math and language arts proficiency as was defined by “standards-based education reform.” The trend didn’t end with George Bush. In 2009 the Obama administration launched the Race to the Top, an education reform plan that Former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch called “an aggressive version of Bush’s No Child Left Behind.” The Race to the Top offered cash incentives in the tens and hundreds of millions to states that adopted Common Core Standards designed to “ensure that all students are college and career ready in literacy and mathematics no later than the end of high school.” The Race to the Top was a program meant to spur reform by inducing the states to compete with one another over which could make their education program most attractive to the federal government by making a plan for reform, improving teacher performance, adopting the Common Core Standards, promising to turn around low performing schools.

What the Race to the Top amounted to in reality was a competition in which the states were pitted against one another to win government funds, as if they were performers in some sort of perverse reality show in which the outcome was deciding whether or not our children have the money for a quality and meaningful education. The amount that the 50 states were competing for? Phase one winners received $20-$75 million dollars and phase two winners could receive $350-$700 million, the total final sum of which added up to $4.35 billion dollars. The final end product? For the first time in the history of standards-based education, forty-eight states adopted common standards.

In 1965, when the first plans for education reform were born, the writer’s specifically made rules against the government having any control over directing elementary or secondary school curriculum, specifying in particular national standards. Why would they do this? Because they knew that different people have different needs, ability, and starting places. Therefore, they need different measure for success. We sold our individuality to our own government for a shot at a few million dollars. How much did Oregon come away with? Nothing. We didn’t win the competition. And now we–children, teachers, and administrators–face even more stringent (read impossible) standards than ever before.

What would Socrates think of an education system that forces teachers to treat every child as if they were exactly the same? What would he think about the death of creativity in teaching?

Those who fall in love with practice without science are like pilots who board a ship without rudders or compass. -Leonardo da Vinci

Q: Why do the Mona Lisa’s eyes appear to follow her viewers around the room?

A: Because Leonardo da Vinci was an expert at creating illusions…based on science and observation.

The development of perspective was hugely important in Renaissance art. Many artists of this time were obsessed with painting the world as it actually existed, rather than the way it appeared  to exist. The discovery of linear perspective allowed artists to create art that followed the laws of nature to create dimension, rather than merely using height and width to create the illusion of depth. Then they (the artists of the Renaissance) tossed in a few rockin’ shadows and created the most realistic two dimensional paintings made to date.

But back to Mona. I remember one time sitting on the couch eating dinner watching a television show. I saw something on the screen behind one of the actors and craned my neck to get a look behind him to see what it was. That was the moment that I truly understood the difference between two dimensions and three. No matter if I even stood up and walked across the room, I would never be able to see behind the fellow, unless he moved out of the way.  In a painting this limitation of two dimensions is even more prevalent because Mona Lisa will never acquiesce to a request to budge over so we can see whats going on behind her. She can never ever change what she’s doing. So if she is painted to be looking at the viewer, she will always be looking at the viewer, no matter where the viewer is standing. Once the perspective is set, it will remain forever.

Projective geometry, the mathematics underlying the rules of perspective, was born in the Renaissance and indeed may have ushered in the art of the High Renaissance. One-point perspective appeared first in the works of Masaccio and Masolino in the first half of the fifteenth century, coming to full fruition in the works of Leonardo da Vinci in the second half of the century. Although the scheme was firmly established with Leonardo, it saw further refinement in subsequent centuries with the introduction of two-point perspective a century later and three-point perspective much later–after cameras with tiltable lenses for architectural renditions were invented in the twentieth century. (Bülent Atalay, Math and the Mona Lisa)

(My other favorite artist, Albrecht Dürer)

(Leonardo Da Vinci-self portrait circa 1512)

Leonarda da Vinci has long been my favorite artist. I thought about doing a blog posting on him several times over, but never could focus all the awesomeness into one idea succinct enough for a post. But, as will happen when the time is right, I scored a copy of a book entitled Math and the Mona Lisa: The Art and Science of Leonardo da Vinci by Bülent Atalay. From this score came the succinct thought that I needed. Leonardo da Vinci is known of as a renaissance man. Indeed, it was probably he as a subject, who first generated the term, because of his knowledge, curiosity and deep comprehension of so many varied, and seemingly polar opposite, subjects. Math and art. Science and religion. Circles and squares. These are all supposed opposites, and are also all ideas that Leonardo da Vinci was able to connect with his fabulous and inventive mind (a mind that is referred to as being seemingly superhuman, by some)

Since there are so many great ideas presented in Atalay’s book, I’ll just focus on a few and I’ll spread them out over a couple of postings. Too much goodness just goes to my head! I’ll start off with a quote:

For mathematicians and physicists it is undeniable that there exists inherent beauty in mathematics. This is the aesthetics of mathematics. Perspective, proportion, and symmetry in any context are quantifiable. Accordingly, art indeed possesses quantifiable aspects. There is the symmetry expressible in mathematical terms and then there are ‘nature’s numbers.’ These notations figure into the mathematics of aesthetics. The associated quantification  can be formulated at various levels of mathematical sophistication…The Fibonnaci series gives rise to the notion of dynamic symmetry, the golden section, or the ‘divine proportion,’ which Fibonacci himself could not have anticipated. Three hundred years after Fibonacci formulated the series Leonardo da Vinci illustrated a book called De divinia proportione. But the integration of science and art has many more strands than Fibonacci’s mathematics and Leonardo’s art: It also draws in elements of architecture, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, physics–encompassing the extraordinary range of Leonardo da Vinci’s interests. For him these were branches of the same tree, part of a grand unified structure, the universe. (Ataly, pg 14)

For those of you who skipped the quote, it basically said that beauty is often quantifiable through perspective, proportion, and symmetry and that for Leonardo da Vinci science, mathematics and art were all various parts of the same whole.

Up next…how is the Mona Lisa able to stare at you wherever you go? It’s beautiful…and it’s math.

(Leonardo Da Vinci-Flower of Life drawing)

repent, sinner!

König David tut Buße (King David does repentance)-Albrecht Dürer

I’ve always believed that if you do crappy stuff, crappy stuff happens to you. If you do really kind and compassionate things, same rule applies. I never really thought too deeply about it, until I read a passage from Osho recently, in which he (sort of) negates the idea of karma. He said that Jesus had it figured out properly, that the real problem is not making mistakes or wrong choices, it is in holding onto the thought pattern that caused you to make the mistake. If you repent, the past is wiped clean because the sins are unimportant, it’s the thoughts behind them that have the power.

If I suddenly say that this is going to be the last day, and tomorrow the world is going to disappear, the H-bomb is to be dropped, and then I say: Repent!–then your total being will be focused, centered, you will be here and now. And then there will come a scream, a cry, a wild scream from your being. It will not be in words–it will be more existential than that–it will be from the heart. Not only will you eyes weep, but your heart will be filled with tears, your whole being will be filled with tears: you have missed.

If this repentance happens–this is an intensity of becoming alert–the past is cleaned. No need to undo it–no, because it has never been a reality. It was a dream, no need to undo it–just become alert. And with the sleep, all the dreams and nightmares disappear. They have never been there in reality in the first place, they have been your thoughts. (Osho-The Mustard Seed)

A wild, primal scream. Not a Hail Mary or a mumbled apology. An existential howl from deep in the bowels of the land of nightmares. I doubt that it’s a simple thing to muster, especially since it requires the real threat of death as a precursor, but it sounds right to me. Not that I don’t believe that our actions have real repercussions, and that those repercussions may even be beyond the physical realm (eye for an eye type thinking) But it feels right to say that shifting the underlying thought pattern that produced the “bad karma” changes the energy both forward and backward in time. It wipes the slate clean.

Anyway, I haven’t mastered the primal scream. Not even close. I am chipping away at the alertness-ability. It’s very difficult because I’ve procrastinated, put off even noticing that I have anything to repent for. Once I do notice, the fleeting feeling of repentance is quickly followed by sadness/guilt and then denial/ blame. I keep trying to catch it, but it’s a tricky buggar. A well worn groove.

Working on my scream…

daylight savings.

(The Rat Poison Peddler-Rembrandt, 1632)

I began this day in a tither, because I thought a good friend of mine had insulted me in a group email. I had checked my email from bed, because, of course, my cell phone is conveniently located within arms length of my pillow. That’s where the charger is. I got up and walked the dog to clear my mind, and I saw a woodpecker scouting out termites on the neighborhood trump (tree-stump), which was cool, but not cool enough to stop me from stewing.

I recently told another good friend, not the friend who’d electronically disappointed me so abhorrently, that I’m beginning to hate my cell phone, because I can’t stop checking it. Checking, checking, checking. He told me about a story he’d heard on NPR, about a scientist and some rats. The scientist put a few rats in a cage with a lever that dispensed food consistently when the rat pressed it. He put a few other rats in a cage with a lever that dispensed food occasionally when the rat pressed it. The rats is the consistent cage pushed the lever when they were hungry. The rats in the cage with the inconsistent food dispensation became obsessive lever pushers, whether they’d just gotten a pellet or not, they pushed the lever every time they were near it. The scientist likened this behavior to checking email. You never know when you’re going to get that pellet…

Anyway, I got home from my walk and started a witty and sarcastic email response. Having the attention span of a…geez, I can’t even think of a thing that has the same shortness of attention as me. I started to say a gnat, but then I thought, gnats are pretty damn persistent, which is why everybody finds them so annoying. Then I thought about a gerbil, but again, they pretty much do the same thing all day long: wiggling around in bark. So, pretty much, I have the attention span of myself, and so I checked facebook halfway through finishing said sarcastic email. There I saw a banner of a quote from Lao Tzu that said this:

When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.

Hm. I always respond to insults with witty, sarcastic group email responses, I thought to myself. Perhaps today I should do something different.

So I did. I copied and pasted the offensive material onto an email directly to to offender and asked her if she meant it the way I was reading it. Then I checked my email obsessively, waiting for her response. Strangely enough, she just called me, rather than responding electronically. Well, I guess calling is electronic these days too. Probably has been since the days of Pony Express, but whatever. I called her back. She told me that she isn’t a sarcastic person and of course, she didn’t mean to be insulting to me. She said that her feelings were hurt that I would assume that she was capable of that. Email always makes people sound more blunt than it actually is. I apologized. I believed her. I felt better. I don’t know if she felt better, but I hope she did.

I’m sarcastic. I assume that others are too. I’m metaphoric in my language. I assume that others are too. I jump to conclusions. Sometimes I’m right.

I lost an hour today, but I gained something else. Thanks Lao Tzu (and whoever posted him on Facebook. I can’t remember who you are, but maybe sometime I’ll check back and see…well, I’ll be honest, I probably won’t because I’ve already moved on. But thanks anyway…you rock!)

And thanks, friend, who I now know wouldn’t insult me via email. I think I’ll move my phone charger to a different outlet.

(Confucius Lao-tzu and Buddhist Arhat, Ming Dynasty, painting is located in the Palace Museum, Beijing.)