Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Connect Four: Howard County Board of Education Edition

Connect Four

Remember the game Connect Four? Each player takes a turn dropping a token in a column. The goal is to get four of your tokens in a row, either vertically or horizontally or diagonally. There are six slots in each column, seven in each row. Three in a row is nice, but not enough to win the game.

The polls are open, so it's time to "connect four" candidates with seats on the Howard County Board of Education. There are seven adult members of the Board, so most Board votes require four to pass. (There is a student member of the Board who has limited voting privileges, and only high school students can vote to elect that member.)

Many people don't know much about how the Board of Education works, let alone who sits on the Board. Unless you have a strong interest in education policy, it's hard to get excited about watching Board meetings or chatting with members at a Coffee and Conversation event.

I do, however, have a strong interest. I am an educator and a parent and I care a whole lot about public education. I am fortunate to have the time to watch the Board meetings and read the policy proposals and write to Board members and serve on committees. Their jobs are not easy. They must set the vision for the school system, incorporate the needs of various stakeholders into their decisions, and above all look out for the best interests of students and teachers.

At the League of Women Voters of Howard County forum, the candidates were asked tough and important questions. Some candidates just seemed to piggy-back off what others said. Some have served on the Board before and have neither the temperament nor the voting record I'm looking for this year. Some gave responses that made me wonder if they even understand the basic issues at play in public education today. I can't recommend those folks for this office.

We have eight candidates. We get to choose four on our ballots. Here are my recommendations, in alphabetical order:




You can click on their names to read about their experience and vision for serving on the Board. Cynthia Vaillancourt is the only one of these four candidates whom I know from before this election season. She has served the students, families and teachers of HCPSS very well in her first term and we deserve to have her serve us again for another four years.

I am judging Bess Altwerger, Zaneb Beams, and Dan Furman by their statements in a few candidate forums. At the forums, these three candidates stood out to me, along with Cindy Vaillancourt, as people who "get it". They get that there are areas ripe for a big improvement for our students (for example, school start times). They get that standards are important for high quality education, but that testing programs and the ways the test scores are used have more of an influence on a student's education than the standards. They get that these tests can actually damage instruction as is the case with reading. They get that for the majority of students and families, their experiences with HCPSS are good, if not great, but that the environment of working through challenges with families also needs to be good. In short, they get what it means to be respectful and empathetic to those having the hardest time. They see how policies will impact all, and they will speak up to protect those whose needs ought to be accounted for.

That's why the Howard County Education Association endorsed these four candidates, too.


They are smart, caring, and will truly serve our students well. Join me in voting for Altwerger, Beams, Furman, and Vaillancourt for Board of Education.
#hocopolitics

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And the Next Howard County Executive Should Be....

The next Howard County Executive should be someone with a deep history of involvement in the county, preferably with years of elected service to the people here. I want to vote for a candidate who is accessible to the average resident and who listens and communicates well.

All those things are true of both candidates Allan Kittleman and Courtney Watson.

If you've seen their ads you can tell that they are experienced, caring public servants. They are well-liked by others. They have plans and ideas for the future of Howard County. They are both completely qualified for the job of County Executive. It is a blessing as a voter to be able to choose between too strong, good people.

I've come to know each of them a bit through email, social media and face-to-face conversations. They are often out and about meeting people, and they each care deeply about the history and the future of Howard County. They've each taken time to discuss local issues with me. As individuals, I like them both quite a bit.

So how will I choose who earns my vote? At first, my decision came down to economics.

Some people will always be better off than others and some companies will always outperform others, but as long as most people and companies have their basic needs met, we're doing alright as a community. The Great Recession hurt everyone, but it hurt some more than others. The recovery has been slow and uneven, although by uneven I really mean lop-sided. Lop-sided is no good. It's all the lucky breaks breaking for the same side over and again. In government, though, I don't really believe in the idea of lucky. In government, people are making choices, and those choices have both good and bad consequences.

So that became my litmus test as a voter - does a candidate's positions tend to favor the folks who have the most at the expense of those who have the least?

But that's not just an economic test. In fact, I think that's a moral test. My moral convictions compel me to notice the treatment of the least of my brothers and sisters. Notice...and to act.

With that test in mind, my choice for Howard County Executive is clear. I choose Courtney Watson.

Courtney Watson supported raising the minimum wage in Maryland. Allan Kittleman did not. I see neither a moral nor a pragmatic case for allowing full-time work to pay less than a livable wage. No one working full-time should have to live in poverty. That's my moral stance. My pragmatic stance aligns with the Maryland Business for a Fair Minimum Wage statement as related by The Baltimore Sun:
"Raising Maryland's minimum wage makes good business sense," the statement argues. "Workers are also customers. Minimum wage increases boost sales at local businesses as workers buy needed goods and services they could not afford before. And nothing drives job creation more than consumer demand."
Courtney Watson is endorsed by several labor unions. She has the backing of teachers, police, and firefighters. I don't know when "union" became a dirty word or a bad idea, but I think it did based on falsehoods and misunderstandings. If you have weekends off, thank the labor union movement. If your children are allowed to go to school instead of performing manual work, thank the labor union movement. If you are reading this on your lunch break, thank a union. If you enjoy paid vacation and sick leave, thank a union. You can also thank a union for creating workplace safety standards, for health and dental insurance benefits, and for prohibiting workplace discrimination. You don't even have to be in a union to reap those benefits. The labor union movement created that for us all because the business sector wasn't doing it on its own, and yet Allan Kittleman repeatedly introduced legislation that would weaken Maryland's already shrinking labor unions. It's called "Right to Work" and it starves unions of money needed to do the work of advocating for workers. In states with such laws, the larger share of economic growth goes to the owners, and workers have lower wages on average than pro-union states. Right-to-work laws have been studied, and there is no conclusive evidence to support Allan's claim that right-to-work laws spur job creation.

Courtney Watson is a champion for public education. As an advocate for and supporter of our public schools, I'd be completely remiss if I didn't mention that. Courtney's record on education is very strong, and I want you to know that Allan's record on education is one I support, as well. Where they differ, in my view, is their record of finding solutions to the challenges of public education and to balancing the sometimes competing needs and desires of constituents. Courtney does a better job of striking that balance and finding those solutions.

The issues facing Howard County don't obviously fall along political party lines, and I'm not interested in basing my vote on party affiliation alone. For our local officials, I'm interested in people who solve problems. In order to solve problems, you have to recognize them. You also have to be willing to acknowledge that there will be downsides to every solution, that some people will be inconvenienced and hurt by changes. However, I cannot support candidates who allow the greater hurt to go to those who are already hurting greatly.

Courtney Watson recognizes the problems we face in Howard County, and her solutions are inclusive and their benefits are wide-spread. Courtney Watson for Howard County Executive.

#hocopolitics

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Protection from Cooties

One boy, two girls, and some candy wrappers

We arrived at the dance studio about ten minutes early and took our seats on a bench by the windows. A boy of about 14 stood to my right, a dozen or so candy wrappers scattered on the bench in front of him. The girls and I waited while dancers and parents came in and out of the lobby, while a woman typed quickly on her laptop, while two girls chatted about school, while the boy ate another piece of candy and added its wrapper to the rest.

With the candy finished, the boy moved across the room. His movements were unexpected and out of place for the smallish lobby. You see, he almost ran across the room, but at his height he only made about three steps before reaching the bottlenecked space between the lobby and the classrooms. The boy flapped his hands and hooted while he ran. Everyone noticed, though no one reacted. 

I went back to playing on my phone, and I didn't notice the boy had left until the two chatting girls were now on my right. One sat on the bench, then the taller, perhaps older girl said in a loud but disgusted hush, "That's where his candy was!"

The sitting girl jumped up. My heart sank.

Ignore, then gossip

In Firegirl by Tony Abbott, Jessica Feeney is the new girl in school. She arrives just after the start of the school year, and her teacher introduces her by saying, "There's something you need to know about Jessica." It turns out the Jessica has suffered extensive and severe burns, but that is all the seventh graders are told about her before she arrives in their small parochial school. The children react as you might expect - with apprehension. Jessica makes no effort to connect with her classmates, and they pretty much ignore her, in return. Behind her back, however, rumors fly. Disgusting things are said. Their resentment towards her builds. One kid refuses to hold her hand during their prayer circle. Her isolation continues.

I don't know how it ends, but since this book is written for young readers, I hope it ends well.

This mother's fears

My child looks different. Long-time readers know that Seconda has no hair due to alopecia areata. In a school of 700-some kids, there are students with glasses and students who write with their left hands and there are students with food allergies and there are students with emotional challenges and there are students who do not speak. Seconda is the only child without hair on her head. The fear that always lies in the back of my mind and sometimes comes to the forefront is that some other child will say, "Don't sit there! That's where she sat." It's that someone will refuse to hold her hand in some kind of school activity. It's that her classmates will pretty much ignore her to her face but let the rumors and disgusting comments fly behind her back.

It's a fear that has, for the most part, not come to fruition. For probably nine months of the year, the fears lie dormant in the way back of my mind because our school and our neighbors are everything I hope for when the fears rear up. I hope for a world where no one cares if you have no hair. I hope for a world where my family can go out without inducing stares. We have that in our small corner of the world, but when the fears rear up, I just wish I could somehow make the whole world aware of alopecia areata so that Seconda and I never have to have another conversation about it with others again. I mean, does anyone really talk about people wearing glasses to help their vision? No. Do people talk with wonder about a child who writes with her left hand? No. People see it and they just know. 

Numbers

Roughly 2% of Americans, or about 4.5 million people, will be diagnosed with some form of alopecia areata in their lifetimes. An estimated 1 in 1000 children has alopecia areata. 

That's about 160,000 kids living with alopecia.

One out of every 68 children in the United States has an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

That's about 235,000 kids living with autism.

Around 300 children each day are treated by emergency departments for burn injuries, and 2 of those children die.

That's about 109,000 kids living with burn injuries.

Protection from cooties

The chatting girls in the dance studio acted as children do when another kid has "cooties". The characters in Firegirl treated Jessica Feeney the same way. They avoid the "affected" child and classify his things as unclean. They protect each other from catching the cooties themselves.

Maybe it's because my own child is at risk for a peer-diagnosed case of "cooties", but nevertheless I found myself sad for the chatting girls. Sure, I have empathy for the boy who left his candy wrappers out and ran across the lobby. The chatting girls, however, stayed on my heart because I wonder who is watching out for them. Who is watching out for their character, so that they might not diagnose "cooties" in another child?

Knowing better, doing better

A friend of mine who works as a special education teacher shared this video today. It is about a boy with non-verbal autism who delivered his school's graduation speech.


I saw the video and thought of the chatting girls again. Lectures to children about teaching others with respect rarely work. They are just too vague. Respect is something you know when you feel it. Our words for respect lack the nuance to really describe it. Respect is often confused with politeness, or simple obedience. True respect is about empathy, and people can't be lectured into empathic feelings.

Stories, however, whether true or fictional, can develop empathy. I think most of us recognize that truth just from our own experiences. Think of all the social media memes asking you to list the books you read that "stayed with you" the most. Think of the TV shows you watched as a child, as a teenager, as a college student. Which stayed with you? Which changed your worldview? Which confirmed it?

We have our personal anecdotes about the power of fiction to develop empathy, and we have scientific research as well. Researcher David Comer Kidd said, "What great writers do is turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others."

Empathy is about understanding the minds of others, and as with any other kind of knowledge, when you know better, you do better.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

From This Little Corner: Purpose

There are lots of heavy topics on my mind today, the 13th anniversary of the 9/11. I mourn for those killed that day. I mourn for those killed in the 13 years of war we've waged since. I sit in disbelief that last night, the eve of 9/11, President Obama announced a new war.

I'm thinking about Ray Rice, domestic violence, and toxic elements of our culture that have come into the light once again. I'm still thinking about Ferguson and American racism, especially as people around me debate the meaning of the Confederate battle flag after a high school student in a predominately white local high school waved it at a football game last week.

I think about all of that and more all day. I was thinking about the world in which we live and the world my daughters will grow into as I walked into the quiet house after taking Terza to school. I was thinking about all of that when I saw this:


Those bears have been loved, and continue to be loved, by three young people. Seeing those bears (and dog and lamb and Perry) arranged like this, knowing that not one of them were there when I came down this morning, remembering how every time Terza entered the room she brought a new bear with her, my purpose in this world came into focus once again.

That purpose is to create peace in this world for my daughters.

As far as purposes go, that's not earth-shattering, revolutionary, or even new to me. I've been working to create peace in this world my entire adult life, and the desire for peace is what fuels my volunteerism and civic involvement. It is what keeps me up at night.

But the way my thinking has kept me up at night has been a distorted view about creating peace. Of course peace starts at home, and I do credit myself and The Man of the House for creating a largely peaceful one. Our daughters' larger world is mostly peaceful, too, in that we have great food and shelter, good health, loving friendships and interesting hobbies. We have it good and I want that for everyone.

Peace is more than the absence of war and violence. When people have it good, they have peace. We have it good and I want that for everyone.

Let us create peace in this world, for everyone, every day.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Good Ol' Days of TV and The Benefits of Harry Potter

I don't know anyone who actively teaches their children to hate other people. Well, at least I don't think I know anyone who does that. Yet, kids still develop prejudices based on lots of types of stereotypes, don't they. How does that happen?

While I have been immersed in the stories from Ferguson, Missouri following the police-involved shooting death of an unarmed teenager, my thoughts continue to go to the disconnect so many people feel from fellow human beings. This ages-old human tendency to put other people in categories that separate, and to judge our own categories as preferable or superior to others, well, it just causes so much pain and suffering.

Growing up in a town whose founder designed everything to break down the idea of "other" between people gave me a strong sense of empathy for and connection with all people. Yet, I don't remember anyone specifically telling me that all people are equal. It is a lesson I learned over time, reinforced by countless people and messages from all around.

It's hard to even know how we learn values and world-views, right? I mean, it's not like you could honestly say "I learned my values in Mr. Jones' 11th grade history class. Lucky me, I got them all right then." So I found it really interesting to come across two news items this summer that reveal a bit about how we do develop our values.

First, I came across this NPR piece, "What 'The Golden Girls' Taught Us About AIDS."
Rose's dialogue embodies several misconceptions about HIV infection, pervasive at the time: that "people like her - an older, middle class, heterosexual, "innocent" woman - shouldn't get such a disease, that none of her friends will want to associate with her now, and that she is being punished for some kind of bad behavior.
To which Blanche thoughtfully replies, "AIDS is not a bad person's disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.
All of those concepts about AIDS seem like big "well, duh" moments now. I bet my kids would have as hard a time imagining how people could treat those with HIV and AIDS the way they treated Ryan White, Pedro Zamora, and the more than 100,000 other people living with and dying of the disease in the 1989. I watched "The Golden Girls" regularly and can still sing the whole theme song. ("...and the card attached would say..." Sing it with me!)
But this is what The Golden Girls was so good at: bringing home those topics that often made people uncomfortable - racism, homosexuality, older female sexuality, sexual harassment, the homeless, addiction, marriage equality and more - and showing us how interconnected and utterly human we all are at any age. 
Reading this piece about one of my favorite shows made me long for that kind of art for my daughters, and it made me wonder what other shows served us well by tackling tough issues or showing culturally marginalized characters. "The Cosby Show", "Roseanne", "Will and Grace", "The Real World", and "I Love Lucy" re-runs all come to mind. For me, these shows all showed us our interconnectedness and our humanity. We don't watch a lot of TV in our family, so I truly do wonder if there are shows on now that do for today's viewers what my "good ol' days" of TV did for me.

While my children don't watch a lot of TV, they do read a lot of books. It made me very happy to read that many students who read the Harry Potter series had positive attitudes towards people in the LGBT and immigrant communities. (Unless the readers identified with Voldemort. Hmm.) Prima and Seconda have each read the entire series; Terza might begin it this year.

It's not really surprising that the shows we watch as children (and the commercials that air during the shows) as well as the books we read strongly shape our attitudes and values. What do the people selling cleaning products look like? Do you remember the controversy about a recent Cheerios ad? Do TV sitcom fathers remind you of any fathers you know in real life? What do the toy aisles of big box stores reveal about how children with male genitalia and children with female genitalia play? Does the evening news give you a certain idea about life in a particular city? Is there more to the story of that city?

As a parent, I am grateful for resources like A Mighty Girl and Common Sense Media which review books, shows, movies, and games with an eye towards the values and messages these media impart. I think of media consumption a lot like nutrition - you are what you eat, so make it good.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Few More Montana Thoughts

The Fort

On Rt. 287 in Cameron, just south of Pearson Road, you’ll find a few homes. 
You’d be forgiven if you mistake one for a junk yard.
Well, I’d forgive you, anyway.
You see, it’s not a junkyard.
It’s The Fort.
Rows of trashed cars and other metalstuff line the driveway.
Brown palisade fences surround the house.
First, though, is the warning sign -
Stay out.
Stay out.
Stay out. 
No Trespassing.
Your In Danger Here.

(sic)

Night Sky

People asked, "Why Montana?"
Mountains and open space and not a lot of people
But most of all
Stars
We came for the night sky 
With its Milky Way and Perseids 
And more of the cosmos than we can view 
From lamplight-drenched suburbia

We came for stars
We got clouds
Night after night
No Milky Way, no cosmos
Save one dusky glimpse of the moon
Until, at the last,
A break in the clouds


Friday, August 8, 2014

Madison River Valley




Mountains and trees and a shallow river to delight my eyes

Quaking aspens, sister-trees standing together to welcome 

The deer, for sure, mama and two tykes who traverse the meadow between groves

Chickadees fly 'round like suburban kids at Sky Zone

Chip and Dale pay regular visits, looking for snacks, perhaps

Unexpectedly, a Broad-tailed Hummingbird did as well, buzzing the air by our heads - 

“Well if Hawk can, so can I.”



Yes, yes you can.