Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NaBloPoMo done

What does this picture have to do with this post? It's about reflections and I'm reflecting on lessons learned from NaBloPoMo, get it? Psych! Really, it's just a cool picture I drew and felt like sharing.
 Lessons learned:
  • With 30 posts in 30 days I win at NaBloPoMo!
  • I can write under pressure
  • I feel that the quality of my writing improved over the course of a month
  • I got lots more traffic on my blog
  • I had very few extended discussions over the course of a month
  • Although one commenter seemed to be offended by a negative post, when I posted the positive flip side of the issue, twice actually, I got no responses at all
So going forward:
  • I know I can post every day, but I'm not sure I want to
  • I really wish I could get some dialog going, but I have no idea how to do that
  • I win at NaBloPoMo!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More teacher shout-outs

39 years ago I was in a BCPSS school

The day before Thanksgiving, on this post, I listed some teachers I was thankful for. They were all teachers that my kids have had, so 20 years ago or less.

This is a list of my teachers that I am thankful for. These are teachers from about 30 - 40 years ago. I might not remember all their names at this point, but I remember the way they changed my life.
  • My 11th grade History of Political Thought teacher, who taught me that political discussions are passionate, personal and enjoyable, even if they are about the thoughts of people who have been dead for hundreds or thousands of years; and this type of discussion uses your whole mind like nothing else I know of
  • My High School Chemistry teacher (Chem I and Chem II), who taught me how great a real science class with real labs could be, which was a defining moment on my path to become an engineer and work in a lab
  • My Jr. High counselor, who thought I was smart enough to skip a grade which turned around my own concept of my academic abilities
  • My piano teacher (1st - 6th grade), who opened my ears to the beauty of dissonance and "modern music" (whatever that means)
  • My parents, who always had lots of books for me to look at or read, and who never discouraged me from buying a book (usually providing the money) even if was something they thought was junk
  • All four of my high school English teachers, who taught me to write by making me write about what I read, and always encouraged a well reasoned argument, even if it didn't match their analysis

Monday, November 28, 2011

A massive to-do list

I could probably come up with some sort of clever joke or something to go with this incredibly hectic time of year, but I'm just going to throw down a bullet list and be done with it.

What I need to get done before December 25th, in no particular order:
  • Company Party - big on obligation, small on fun
  • BSO holiday concert with 2 kids
  • Visit (with interview) to Stevens Institute in Hoboken
  • Two hockey games in one day (one played, one viewed) in Hershey PA
  • Christmas shopping, and since they closed Daedalus at Belvedere I'm going to have to figure out something new - blah
  • Heading up the Adopt-a-family drive for House of Ruth at work
    • Counting/sorting gifts
    • Spending cash donations on un-claimed gifts
    • Taking gifts to House of Ruth
  • Financial Aid meeting at the High School
  • Hockey Holiday party
  • Some sort of birthday celebration for msk
  • Christmas tree and house decorations
  • Shopping for the massive holiday buffet party at our house
  • Making a dish to share for work
  • Mailing gifts to out-of-town relatives
  • More harping on college essays and submitting remaining applications
  • Final report and submittal of 2011 Cookie sale

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How many more essays?

image stolen from this blog. Clever, no?
A goal I had for this four day weekend was for HSS to finish up all the college essays still needed. In hindsight this was overly optimistic.

Sigh...taking a deep breath and getting back on task...

One tool that I think is worth the money is College Essay Organizer. I guess if you don't apply to too many schools, or if their essay requirements aren't to varied, a spreadsheet would work, but the nice thing about this website is that it pulls essay requirements together to let you submit the same essay, or at least a similar essay to multiple schools.

What HSS's  road-map says is still needed:

  • Your intellectual interests and -
    • how college B's academic program will cultivate 
    • how you decided on your planned major at college C 
    • what interests you in your planned major
    • what beyond you planned major are you interested in
  • What unique aspect of college D attracted you to apply
  • A challenge that you faced a persevered through
  • Three things college E should know about you that you haven't covered

I'm hoping we might get through all four that are tied to intellectual interests, but that means a lot of drafts, proof-reading and polishing is on the agenda for today. HSS is not a lover of writing, so this process can be pretty unpleasant.

This brings me to the point I'd like to express in this post, if there is a point beyond just writing what's on the agenda for today that relates to the kind of topics I usually post on this blog. I understand that being able to express yourself and communicate ideas is essential to critical thinking, but is it fair that so much time and effort in college applications is tied up in essays? I think essays are going to take up 95% of the time spent on filling out college applications. I think essays will take even more time then it took to decide on what colleges to apply to and to visit more than half of them. Yes, I'm talking days and days of essay writing.

Shouldn't there be other skills that get individually highlighted? If math is your thing, shouldn't there be a way to emphasize that, beyond SAT scores and writing an essay about it? Don't get me wrong - obviously I enjoy writing or I wouldn't be doing one of these posts every day, but I think writing about non-writing interests still gets judged primarily on how good of a writer you are.

Is that meta enough for you?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Continuing the dialogue

I read a thought provoking post about perceptions and City Schools. I posted a few comments, but it seemed that the discussion was becoming about a specific school (Margret Brent, picture to the left), as opposed to something more general about City Schools. I don't know enough about Margret Brent to keep that discussion going, so I stopped commenting there.

The discussion I'd like to hit on with this post is more general. How do you balance the fact that City Schools have some very real problems with an exaggerated perception by many that sending your kids to Baltimore's public schools is child abuse, at least if you can find any alternative? The schools have faltered and made progress, but that perception has remained. Look at this post from the City Paper from 2000 that sounds like it could be from today.

I'm not sure what the answer is. I personally try to spread the word about the educational experiences my kids have had and are having. I talk about my own education - 100% BCPSS K-12. I really do feel like there are some incredible stories to be told.

On the other hand, the things that I see in statewide competitions, that point out the financial disparity between Baltimore City and say Montgomery County, make me feel ill. It takes money to support a robotics team, or a science fair project, or even a chess team. You can make up for a certain lack of money with passion, but passion won't buy bus transportation or a set of tools.

I feel that there needs to be equity on school funding, but I don't want people to think my decision to send my kids to under-funded schools is deluded or some sort of sacrifice to a political goal. It's a choice we've made for the last 13 years, and I think it's the right one.

I'd love to spark a discussion in the comment section to this post. How can we demand better funding without looking pitiful?

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hosting holidays at home

yum... cheese doodles

On yesterday's Thanksgiving post I mentioned that we always do Thanksgiving at our home. This isn't because I have Martha Stewart ambitions, although I do enjoy hanging with the relatively small group that comes over for Thanksgiving (9 this year, never more then 12). Msk's stress level is the main motivation for keeping Thanksgiving at our house, as well as Christmas, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and whatever other party comes up.

Both my husband and I come from Baltimore and the majority of our siblings and parents remain in the area, so we always have a good size group come over. There are other houses close by, but we always volunteer, and after a few years, others stopped offering to host the parties. I'm not complaining; it's become part of our family's definition of home. I've come to love getting the house together the day before and being able to enjoy company without worrying about msk.

When msk was little, and we were still making the party circuit, it was incredibly hard to keep him out of areas he should stay out of. I'm not sure he was exploring as much as he was trying to get a little time on his own. I had all sorts of toys that I brought with us and didn't mind that it turned out that 75% of my time was spent focused on msk instead of socializing at the party. Even so, msk ended up being very grumpy and ready to go home much before the end of the event. Honestly, I was pretty grumpy by that point myself.

It's been a continuing evolution to come up with what is our formula for a successful and sociable party even though msk is anything but a party animal. Here's what we do:

  • The second floor is always open to msk (and our family) alone and gives him a place to escape to
  • Eating schedules are fluid with trays of snacks as well as meals with no rules about what to eat or when
  • The sit-down meal (if we have one, since Christmas is always a continuous buffet) is focused on adults, and no one from the younger generation has to stay at the table or listen to the politics and endless yacking. Too many words can really rub msk the wrong way.
  • We minimize mandatory social interactions - I ask msk to come down and say hi when people who really want to see him arrive, but after hello, how long he wants to chit-chat is up to him. Fielding two questions is about as much has he can handle. 
  • If it works out, b-d tries to either come to the party or take msk out for a couple of hours before or during the party
  • Parties can go to the wee hours of the night, but msk's bedtime schedule remains about the same. This can mean that he's bright-eyed and bushy-tailed way before I'm up for much, but it makes him happy to know that he can count on at least that part of his routine

now there's a Christmas sweater!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

So stuffed...

I would write something thoughtful about Thanksgiving and gratitude, but I'm too stuffed.

How about some pictures instead?

The table set for 9 - Thanksgiving at our place, as always.

a pie with paintings

Flan & pomegranate
 Tomorrow, when I have digested all these calories, I'll be capable of posting something more substantial.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankful for...

Google says Happy Thanksgiving!
I mentioned in a comment to this post that "I’m continually amazed at the number of extraordinary teachers that we've had in very difficult situations." 

So, on this day before Thanksgiving, I thought I'd post a bullet list of some of those extraordinary teachers and the things they've done that stand out in my mind.

In no particular order these are some teachers that I'm thankful for:

  • The preschool teacher who helped us get started towards a diagnosis so gently that we didn't flip out and who never considered asking us to find a different place for msk even though he required lots of extra support
  • The math teacher who immediately recognized genius in different thinking patterns and let a quirky and previously bullied kid immediately start to bloom with strategically placed praise
  • The AP teacher who taught an incredibly challenging course with such enthusiasm that even when getting a C in the class there was no discouragement and in the end there was a 5 on the test and a lesson about hard work paying off that will never be forgotten
  • The teacher who was skeptical about inclusion of severely disabled, but open minded enough to really try, and by the middle of the year, brave enough to admit a change of heart and start to proselytize about how all students in an inclusion class benefit
  • The teacher who emailed me as soon as a student's grades started showing the effects of disorganization vs what they were capable of and took the time to support the student and keep me posted. When I said how grateful I was the response was that it was nothing special, just what teachers do
I could go on, but I'm taking Personal Time Off (PTO) today to try to do massive house cleaning, along with attending a meeting at one school and drop-off/pick-up at another.

In the credit where credit is due department - this post was written in response to the question of Thankful on the SPSOC blog.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


A while back I said I'd post about what I found out from the online financial aid seminar that I attended.  Being totally honest, the main thing I figured out was that, even though I know it's important, I find finances and all the terminology of college aid bewildering and incredibly boring. I suppose your mind needs to be cut out for one type of task or another. My mind is good with quantitative stuff, but you add in business mumbo-jumbo and I start to tune out.

Nonetheless, I know I bear the responsibility for this part of the college application process. HSS really has had no experience with money, so although we will be talking about financial aid awards when they come through, I'm in charge of filling in these forms, finding scholarship info, and presenting it all in a form that HSS can understand in order to be able to compare different schools.

a straight-forward flowchart
I like this figure. It all seems pretty understandable with some icons, terminology and steps laid out as a simple flow chart. So far, all I've done is an estimated FAFSA and applied for a PIN to allow me to enter the real data once I get 2011's W2 form.

But all the terminology... take a look at all the terms on the right that go with the flowchart.

Some take-aways that were news to me:
  1. Loans programs are different if they are loans for the student vs. loans for the parent. I plan on supporting a lot (maybe most) of HSS's college expenses, but some part will be student loan and earnings from summer/co-op jobs.
  2. The relative book costs between two colleges has little to do with what the final EFC (if I'm going to learn new vocabulary, I need to start using it - look at the list to the right again). More expensive colleges might have more money for aid; less selective schools might be more motivated to draw in high performing students.
  3. The massive number of scholarships around take lots of research to find. Most are pretty small chunks of money, but taken as a whole they should help out a fair amount. This task might be something to start over winter break.
  4. Government college loans programs for parents are going to look at your credit rating. The advantage of borrowing against your savings (401K or home equity etc), is mainly qualification and ease. The advantage of the government loans is better rates, since they are subsidized.
I see work in my future, but I'm putting it off for a while.

Here are some links that I think might be helpful:

Monday, November 21, 2011

And another thing...

My fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo blogger, @BmoreSchools, posted the same video I'm showing below on  this post on her blog. I wrote one comment, and was about to fire off another, when I thought that maybe I could get a post out of the comment, and at day 21 of NaBloPoMo, I'm looking for post topics to keep me going.

This post is going to focus on a short part of this 8 minute video - from about the 7 minute mark to just shy of the 8 minute mark. John Stewart makes a joke about how it's wrong to pick on bad teachers when the working world is filled with crappy employees (he cites how incompetent fast food restaurant workers can be) and Diane Ravitch responds with an anecdote about how a principal stated that in her 15 years supervising 300 teachers, she only had one bad teacher, who she fired. Her point being that the number of bad teachers is so minuscule that it has nothing to do with education problems.

First, I understand that John Stewart was making a joke, and I do in fact have a sense of humor. I realize that a serious rebuttal to a joking statement can make you seem like an ass, but I'm going to try anyway. If I go to a fast food restaurant and have a totally incompetent server, I have lots of options, most of which I can do right away and have very little negative impact beyond the cost of the meal in question, and my blood pressure rise if I really get steamy about it. I can talk to the manager. I can avoid this specific server if I ever see them again. I can avoid a specific location of the chain. I can boycott the whole chain. I can write a letter to corporate management. Again, there are no big long-term problems with any of these approaches.

I'm going to say here in BIG LETTERS - this is a theoretical discussion based on years of different schools and talking to different parents. THIS IS NOT about a specific situation that I am going through in a school we are now attending.

Let's contrast the fast food problem with a horrible situation with one teacher. A parent probably won't figure this out for a while in the school year. At that point, there are most likely other teachers and classes that are going well. Pulling a kid out of a school for bullying might be able to be done quickly, but for a poor teacher? Not so much. You're lucky if it can happen in a year, and at that point the teacher is in your kid's past, so why bother? In a fast food restaurant, the management is often willing to come up with something to make the customer happy, not so much the administration in schools. If several parents come together and cite a problem, it seems to make administrators more defensive. I think the political ramifications of throwing a fit while leaving your kid in the same classroom is pretty obvious. These are worst case situations, but even  scaled down you can see why, for parents, a bad teacher has bigger ramifications then a bad fast food server.

The idea of 1 in 300 sounds nice. It's not my experience. I'm not saying that training and support couldn't bring the numbers down to that level, but as a customer, that's not my concern or business. In my job we have performance reviews, counseling, moving people to positions where they can do less harm, pushing people to quit, out and out firing as options, and I've seen all happen. It's scary and unpleasant, but some people need to go, or at least be isolated so they don't screw everything up.

I'm not saying that poor teachers are the biggest problem in education. Compared with collapsing buildings, kids living in poverty, and underfunded school systems, it's probably a distant fourth. On the other hand, it's the one direct interaction with the system that happens every school day. With a job as important as teaching, that impacts kids so directly, we need to acknowledge that bad teachers do exist and cause real problems.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A rough start

While I was playing with robots yesterday, msk had a long and very fun day with b-d. That was great, but long, exciting days, followed by late bedtimes seem to lead to rough mornings. Today was no exception.

Rough days are obsessive and tend towards explosions when I try to redirect. Today's grocery trip was tense with lots of echolalic speech. Then it was computer games that msk couldn't win, but couldn't walk away from. General grumpiness and fussing with his siblings...we were stuck.

Thankfully, the weather was beautiful and we were able to take the dog for a decent length walk in the park. The park just beyond our backyard is always a place for finding peace for msk, even though it smells of sewage and has trash on the banks of the stream from gutters and storm drains.

A sonnet from a different day's hike.


White racket, roiling water draws my mind
Transported neither here nor now, attend
Past images – choice, chance – that lie behind
See future paths achieve idyllic end

Though envied, simple lives are not our way
While focus on the now, fruition decrees
To worry, ruefulness, hold vigor at bay
Then sewage’s tang conveys, awakens, frees

Must watch my step ‘round trash on wobbling stone
He splashes, I observe, removed, on guard
Nudge sand, a glim’ring gem – drift glass is shown
Blue essence, stream has polished from a shard

By focus on detritus, treasures reveal’
Unseen when sight is drawn to dreams’ appeal

Saturday, November 19, 2011


I'd like to say "Wordless Wednesday", but it's Saturday and I'm writing at least a few words. After waking up at 0-dark hundred hours and having a "hurry up and wait" type day, I am just too tired for much more than a picture/video posting today.

 If you comment saying you like the cape below I'll blush. I made up the pattern and stitched it up myself : D

Friday, November 18, 2011

A question

If I write about how much I enjoyed talking to most of the people on my kids' CST/IEP/504 teams, with one exception, does that mean I'm teacher bashing? It seems as if saying anything bad about any teacher, labels me as one of those legions of bad people who don't understand how hard it is to be a teacher. From my perspective, I think that saying some small number of teachers are just not currently doing a very good job,  reinforces the idea that being a good teacher is hard work. Some people need more training, or more support, or maybe just aren't cut out for the job. I'm not talking about new teachers that are a little unsure. Maybe their first few years aren't their strongest, but you can see that they want to do better, and that they are trying. I'm OK with that. I'm talking about not listening, being inflexible, and thinking that the S in Child Support Team stands for something mysterious and has to do with someone else.

I try to focus on how helpful and understanding >95% of the people were. Even if they had issues or problems with a kid, they could listen and brainstorm about how we could change something to make things work better. I was willing to make a commitment for what I would do, where I could pitch in, and it felt like that was appreciated and reciprocated. And the student, too, was drawn in and contributing. With these folks, we really were forming a team. I truly am grateful for that, but I keep on getting drawn back to frustration with that <5%.

I am not a teacher hater or basher. I truly appreciate that that being a competent teacher is a hard job. I don't expect every teacher to be teacher of the year.  I just don't accept the idea that every teacher is succeeding at their job.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Open to the possibilities of a rainy day.
There seem to be times in my life when I get completely buried in the day to day. Then, as I as I shake free of the fog and look up, the same message appears everywhere. I'm not a spiritual person, I just think there are times when a part of you knows you need to learn something, and in case you try to ignore this need, you see the message wherever you look. I know I've posted on this synchronicity at least once.

The message of the moment is shoshin, of having a "beginner's mind", to feel a sense of openness, eagerness and lack of pre-conceptions.

I felt the first glimmer of needing to change when I was drawn to this ABC story about Gabriel Giffords' recovery from a trumatic brain injury. Even though I pretty much never watch these types of "News Specials", I was mesmerized by her efforts and triumphs, and most especially by how, though she acknowledged the pain of others' deaths, she had no bitterness about her own torturous journey.

Then, this morning, I was trying to think of a quick post, just to keep up with my daily post comitment. I was feeling tapped out. I opened twitter and followed the link to this post, and the idea of shoshin was dropped in my lap. I stared at the message of rejecting the concept of failure and instead of allowing yourself to be in a place where you are able to learn. Then I scanned my fellow Bmore bloggers and in Epiphany in Baltimore's post the Zen Koan, "when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear" hit me. I need to be ready. Finally, this post from the Special Olymics, about about how we can learn, from both Giffords and special olympians, to focus on the need to get better, sealed it. I see a path opening before me. The challenges that are coming up (foremost in my mind is college for HSS, a high school transition for msk, a changing job definition and the continuing frustration of dealing with a brilliant kid who has no connection to the reality of mundane obligations like homework...oops - still too frustrated to talk about that) require an open mind.

This school year has felt like trudging through slowly thickening mud. There was the brief flicker of excitement with picking up school supplies, but that feeling vanished almost before it started. I had thought how relaxing it would be to have not a single child transitioning to a new school; instead it just made me feel jaded. I've been counting down years until my elder two kids were done with City Schools. I've been thinking that if msk transitions to an autism specific school that would mean that in a lot of ways he would be done as well. I've been focusing on a feeling of having served my time. Reviewing this, I know I am ready for a change, like a breath of fresh air.

So, starting today, I work to free my mind of cynicism. I open my eyes to the fact that I need to learn in order to better serve those who count on me, whether at home, in schools, or at work. I wash away resentments and start with a clean slate.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


This post was triggered by "Quiet Hands", an incredibly moving post on Just Stimming by Julia Bascom

Hand-over-hand "guidance"
I realize that almost all child-rearing is a balance between a kid's comfort zone and the pain of stretching and growing. I believe that finding the balance of growth and safety is always hard, but it is even harder when you're working with a kid like msk, one who doesn't have the words to push back when you force a stretch that is just too painful.

We've made choices about msk's activities (therapy in behavior analysis speak) that probably put us on the coddling side as compared to some "Autism Warrior Mothers" ala Jenny McCarthy. Even though I have big issues with her approach and statements, I've got to admit that sometimes I feel guilty about not pushing msk harder, not attacking some of his autistic tendencies that hold him back, even if doing so makes him seem frustrated and overwhelmed.

We never got on the ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) bandwagon, partly because we didn't have the insurance coverage at the time for the massively expensive endeavour, partially because we have two other kids and a job and responsibilities that make the kind of time/energy commitment seem too hard, and partially because ABA just felt too coercive, or at least manipulative. It's exactly the kind of control and "guidance" that makes msk flip out. Still, when I see how hard some things are for msk, when I worry about what level of independence he will be able to achieve, I wonder if we should have tried harder to get msk into some sort of ABA program. The guilt usually comes after reading a quote like this - "ABA is widely recognized as the single most effective treatment for children with autism spectrum disorder and the only treatment shown to lead to substantial, lasting improvements in the lives of individuals with autism."
msk won't tolerate hand-over-hand, but hand pictures are OK

By chance I came across this post by an autistic adult. She writes movingly about the pain of being forced to have "quiet hands", of the suffering involved in coercive ABA therapies. It made me feel more sure of our choices.

I'm sure it's different for different individuals, and in no way am I saying that a choice to pursue ABA is a bad choice. I'm just saying that self-determination, even if you're on the severe end of the autism spectrum, is important.

It's something I need to keep thinking about as msk  becomes a teen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Not good

The last 24 hours or so have been very frustrating. In an effort to keep from saying something that I will regret, I'm going to keep this post very short.

I have a picture that I drew that sums it all up.

A quick Visio diagram gets to the heart of the pointlessness of my existence
I've been doing this all for way too long and I'm ready for something that is less frustrating. Tonight I will try a new approach with a positive attitude and a smile. Right now though, I'm just ready to admit defeat and quit trying.

Monday, November 14, 2011

And you may find yourself...

cover from Ladies of the Canyon
Yesterday, initial plans for Child #2's summer came up. It's very early and all, I was just trying to figure out what has to come before what, with the idea being that she might be doing some lab stuff for a research project. I was talking to the woman that schedules a week long service project where she would be working on fixing housing for rural people in need. And this is her final summer at CTY before she ages out. It's all very exciting, actually.

Then I said something about, "We always go to the cabin for a week in August before school starts." Every summer, in the woods for a week or two with no TV and no Internet. This summer it was relaxed to the point that I didn't even post about it (but I did post last summer).

To which she responded, "Don't forget all that shopping for dorm stuff, and there will probably be some sort of orientation. And some colleges start really early."

Ooofff! It hit me like a sucker-punch to the gut. You'd think that working on applications with HSS would have made this seem obvious, but somehow I hadn't thought of it. This summer is not going to be what we always do. This summer is going to be all weird and scary and exciting.

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi
Took away my old man

Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone...

lyrics from Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Grading Policy?

There's a new policy about grades. It seemed pretty minor to me, but the way the information has been released (slowly and not via an email blast) tells me there is worry about people getting pissed off. I tried to find information on the City School website, but found nothing. This was decided over the summer, but nothing is getting released about it until the day that report cards are issued? Curiouser and curiouser...

Increasing class sizes, cutting budgets, getting rid of teachers happen without a blink. These things piss me off. Switching from an 85 to a 3.6 with whatever weighting for AP classes? Why would that piss me off? I can still tell the difference between a good grade and a bad one. Hopefully college admission people are even more expert with this type of stuff. What's the big deal?

I feel like I'm missing something.

One of my fellow Bmore Ed Bloggers has a post on grading here.

And on that note, please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Sometimes I feel like I'm stuck in some sort of PoMo exploration of how strange life can be.

Last night at dinner, Msk said to no one in particular, "I have trouble with speech."

Everyone looks up and stares at msk.

He continues while staring down, "Speech is difficult for me, I need to use this program."

This starts sounding familiar.

"I am using this computer to help me talk."

Child #2 says, "No you aren't."

Msk  looks up and grins. "Speech is difficult for me."

Child #2 says, "No it isn't."

Msk continues smiling, "I am using this computer to help me talk."

Child #2 says, "No you aren't."

Msk smiles wider, "Please be patient with me as I use this computer to help me."

This continues for several minutes with everyone smiling and laughing. At no time does msk deviate from the script.

A perseverative, echolalic reproduction of a speech aid that was designed for the non-verbal. Is that circular and warped enough?

And one more thing, this program hasn't been loaded on a computer for at least two years, it was probably two years before that when msk last used it, and he remembered every word and inflection. I remain confused and bemused.

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Friday, November 11, 2011

STEM = hard

In an attempt to find something relevant and interesting to blog about I read a New York Times article about why so many students that enter college with STEM majors end up not getting STEM degrees. You can read it here - no paywall or registration required. Given that I'm currently trying to help my HSS get into a college with an engineering major this was actually pretty darn relevant.

So here's my take-away from the story. Even with motivation to want to go into engineering and a strong background in STEM subjects and good SATs and AP scores, getting through college with an engineering or science degree is hard going. The president wants to graduate 10,000 more engineers each year, but that kind of progress isn't going to be reached with only focusing on K-12 education and helping fund a college education. There needs to be thought in supporting and motivating engineering students through their college careers.

Some of the specific problems detailed in the article were:
  • Non-stem classes have more engaging classes
  • Non-STEM classes have higher average scores, and low STEM scores can push a student out of STEM
  • Because of the amount of technical data needed, too little time is spent on applications which would engage students
  • Engineering professors spend more time on bringing in research grants than designing engaging, relevant courses and labs 
Having gotten my own engineering degree in the 80's I can say that most of these problems seem familiar. I remember there were certain courses that everybody knew were supposed to weed out the weaker students. Even back then it seemed weird to me. Didn't they want a high graduation rate? I knew that learning these topics was hard, but couldn't they have provided more support? I know I took two courses pass/fail, and I passed them, but just barely. I remember one test where the average score was 23. This was a junior level course, so if we weren't prepared for it, there was no one else to blame than the school itself. And the teachers seemed to delight in saying things like "the rest of the proof should be intuitive to the most casual observer." He never got any questions after a statement like that.

One quote from the article that I found especially troubling was that "the attrition rate can be higher at the most selective schools, where ... the competition overwhelms even well-qualified students." I have a lot of faith in HSS, but some of the examples they gave, of students dropping out of engineering, they scare me.

On the other hand, I noticed that some of the colleges that we toured were following the directions that this article was pointing towards. There were some great engineering projects in the first three semesters at Drexel. There was a hands-on design and build team project at Lehigh. There was support for engineering students at UMBC. There were senior projects in developing countries or in alternative energy - topics that makes students see the importance of an engineering degree. I'll try to emphasize these things when HSS is trying to pick a college this coming spring.

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keeping parents out of schools

A while back I wrote a post called "Getting parents to come to school". Feel free to go and read it if you like. It seemed a pretty non-controversial post to me, but it got one reader so pissed-off that they said they were never coming back. I suppose the issue was that in his/her mind, schools already do all they can, that they are in no way responsible for any lack of parent involvement. To which my response is, maybe at your school...

So, I thought I'd try a post looking at the problem from the other side. What happens at schools that keep parents from being more involved. I'm looking at administrators, PTA/PTO leadership, teachers, or North Ave depending on the problem. I'm also going to say what I think a solution is to this problem, because no one likes a whiner who complains, but doesn't suggest anything that would work better.
  • Have PTA meetings that go on and on, but really don't have any positive results that justify parents sacrificing their time to be there
    • PTAs need to have real agendas and time lines and actions and responsibilities for each and every meeting. I realize that this is a lot of work and a lot to ask from poor schmucks that make the mistake of running for office, but I believe this is the number 1 reason people don't come to PTA meetings. If the school administration really wants to have a PTA, maybe they need to help develop these agendas, at least until the leadership can figure out how to do it on their own.
  • Allow a single parent to monopolize all the time at a PTA meeting talking about something they care passionately about, but isn't on topic and/or doesn't follow the agenda.
    • A PTA leader should offer to talk more about this after the meeting ends at which point they need to come up with an action plan that will drive this issue to closure that the aggrieved parent agrees to. Most times a parent repeatedly yammers on about something like this, it is because they don't see any change or progress being made. If it's a dead issue (i.e. can't be done) the PTA leader needs to own up to this and say (in private) that we can't talk about this any more
  • Make going to report card conferences chaotic, rushed and hit or miss as far as talking to the teachers you would really need to talk to, often being blindsided by a problem at the meeting
    • One solution would be to have teachers reach out to parents with the current grades and how concerned they are about specific students. Then have actual appointments with enough time to talk about concerns. Knowing that there's something important to talk about, the parent could juggle between various teachers and come up with a possible schedule that lets them meet with the right teachers. On the other hand, if there are no issues, maybe a quick email is enough and they can take conference night off and leave it to parents with bigger issues
    • A second solution would be for the team of teachers to meet with parents, like an IEP. This would allow everyone to discuss issues and at a certain age would include the student.
  • Have lots of fundraising, with no real idea of what the money is for, or after the fundraising, how well the fundraiser went.
    • The solution here seems obvious - fund raise with a specific goal in mind, communicate that goal to parents, communicate successes and failures, thank everyone who pitched in. If that's too much to do, don't complain about poor participation.
  • Whenever a parent calls to ask about something negative that they think is happening at the school, get defensive quickly and go on the offense against their child and/or the parent
    • If you want involved parents, expect that their ideas of how things should be run might very well be different than yours. Understand that loving parents want to believe and support their students. Thank them for being involved and genuinely listen to complaints. This takes time and patience, but if you want to form a team with parents, you might have to engage in unilateral disarmament.
  • Try to solve all problems at the same time with equal priority, or alternately (since the end effect is about the same) maintain that there are no problems and spend all the time you interact with parents on defending the status quo
    • Brainstorm initially to identify problems, but focus and prioritize. Some issues that have real importance will be totally overlooked, but progress, momentum and a sense of accomplishment is worth a great deal, while a diluted message is confusing and discouraging.
Applying that final point to myself, I have clearly written too much and should expect that there's not a whole lot to take away from this post. On the plus side, it helps me meet my post a day objective.
For something a little more concise, check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How boring is it?

Lately I've been watching back to back episodes of Luther, first on Netflix for season 1 and then on iTunes for season 2. If you've never heard of it, you might want to check out the website. It stars Idris Elba, Stinger Bell from the wire.

The basic concept is hunting down psychopaths. Actually, it's a lot more complicated then that, but this is not a post about the series. I'm posting about Luther because of something from the last episode that I watched. The two bad guys had devised a way to communicate securely with each other across the Internet, while arousing no suspicions. I'm taking a course in cryptography and network security at the moment, so I was curious. They talked via the comment section of a blog. The world's most boring blog. There was no need to worry about drawing attention. No one would ever bother to look there.

My eldest commented, "Just like your blog. Schools, kids, PTA meetings - what could be more boring?"

The bottom line? Rest assured that your comments are secure.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Everyone in, no one left out

Pilfered from
I've blogged a bunch about Girl Scout cookies lately. I'm not sure if people who buy cookies understand what it's all about. I can't speak for other troops, but I can tell you what it means for our troop.

We are a very economically diverse troop, which pretty well reflects our neighborhood. We are not one of the troops that meets at a school and is made up of students from only that specific school. We are open to anyone who can get to our weekly, hour long meetings. We have decided to not ask parents for money, beyond the Girl Scout registration, which can be waived for financial needs. Every year we get a few requests to waive the ~$15 fee. Times are tight.

This means that no parent or child feels left out of an activity because they can't afford it. This is really important to me. There's a Girl Scout motto about supporting every girl.

How does this relate to cookies? The cookie sale is our one and only fundraiser. Our troop will be making 75cents per box we sell. In addition, Girl Scouts of Central Maryland will be using some of the proceeds to keep campgrounds operating. They also fully fund troops in economically destitute places like the Maryland Penitentiary, where incarcerated moms get to bond with there daughters through a troop.

Cookies allow our girls to budget, plan and chose activities. The girls lead and the adults support. The girls reach consensus on activities and prioritize them. Then we keep tabs on how the sale is going and reflect on what that means, what we will be able to add or will have to cut back on.

But even beyond money, I think cookie sales help our girls. Booth sales let girls learn about speaking out and interacting with strangers in a professional manner. Their personal sales teach them about organization and following up on commitments.

I should probably put some sort of fine print disclaimer here:
I am not a spokesperson for Girl Scouts or Girl Scouts of Central Maryland. The opinions and views I've expressed in this post (and every post on this blog for that matter) are my own. I haven't been compensated by anyone for anything I have or haven't said here.

So there!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Self advocacy

Image from Self Advocacy for Young Adults
I read a post on The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism a few days ago. You really should read it yourself if you wonder about disability rights for severely disabled people. Here's a link - it'll just take a few minutes to read (although the comments will take longer).

This, and some other posts from Autistics Speaking Day have got me wondering about when we should get msk involved in his own IEP meetings. He's getting older, and at some point he will need to make decisions about his life. On the other hand, lots of talking, especially about him, makes him uncomfortable. Trying to involve him in these types of conversations, by asking questions or prompting him to speak, is therapy, and pretty hard therapy at that.

One thing I love about his middle school is that they have team report card conferences for every kid in the school. These remind me of IEP team meetings, with much less paperwork and formalities. Even at that, msk attends, but is only pulled into the discussion occasionally. We look at his work and talk to his teachers. He moves between observing us from across the room (and listening, I'm sure, with his incredible hearing), and being pulled in to answer a question or display some work. I think he's at least a little uncomfortable. I know I am. But we plug through, and I believe it's good for him to see that we all care about what he's doing in his classes.

IEP meetings, though... I'm just not sure. There are a lot of people in a small place. The most useful parts of the meeting (at least in my eyes) are when we brainstorm about issues or problems or possible paths forward. We discuss, with smiles, about some of his special skills. I wonder if this kind of talk, even if we didn't ask for his contribution, would make him uncomfortable to the point of him acting out. And during the meetings, I really work hard on listening, taking notes, contributing, and thanking team members. I'm not sure I could focus that well if I was keeping an eye on msk and honestly, feeling a little uncomfortable about his interaction, or lack thereof.

It's got to happen at some point. We're talking about a kid who is at least as sharp as your average 12 year old. And we're talking about big decisions as we come towards a high school transition. We just need to figure out a way to implement something that  pulls him in in a positive way.

I'd love to hear some suggestions. What experiences do any readers have with significantly disabled students attending their own IEP meetings?

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Seems wrong somehow

Today I went to the bank with $1311, mainly in one's and twenty's.

Last week it was $3313 and the week before $2989.

Sort, count, recount, total and recount again.

It makes me feel like I'm involved in selling drugs, but I swear, it's just cookie money.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

9-80 Day

My work has gone to a new schedule - I work 9 hours Monday thru Thursday, 8 hours on the first Friday and the second Friday is off. Nine days to work 80 hours. When my kids were younger I didn't do it. I really wanted to rush home for homework before dinner. Little kids don't do well with late evening homework in my experience. My kids aren't so young anymore. I don't help with high school homework beyond asking if it's done and maybe some help in scheduling longer term projects. Msk is often out with b-d until 6:30 and even if he's home he prefers to do homework with child #2 rather than me. My evening is freed up, and I now work 9-80.

I usually worked beyond an 8 hour day in the past, but it was at my discretion. Now I have to stay that hour or take personal time. I've also got a very long commute (at least to me) these days. All of that is to say that my days feel very long to earn my every-other-Friday-off day. But earn them I do.

Today was one of my "off" Fridays.
Here's what I actually did (hubs was indisposed, luckily on an off Friday):
  • Take HS students to school (40min round trip) with msk in tow
  • Take msk to school
  • Drive to my mother's apartment to help her with some stuff - my mom is 88 years old
  • Drive to Ellicott City to pick up 26 cases of Girl Scout cookies
  • Organize count and pack said cookies into my car to allow me to have 2 passenger seats open for kid pickup
  • Catch up on on-line book-keeping related to Girl Scout cookies - this took a few hours
  • Pick up msk from school
  • Clean up the kitchen at least a little and load & run the dishwasher
  • Pick up HS students from an after school activity at 5pm
  • Stop by a neighborhood store to confirm they are OK with a booth sale tonight
  • Drop off cookies and table and forms and junk to the mom who's running the booth sale tonight
  • Watch the drama of hit and run accident and a subsequent fight complete with cops and an ambo
  • Collect money from a mom after dinner
  • Have a drink to celebrate the fact that I didn't have work today
Chaotic? Yes, but I actually felt pretty good at the end of the day.

In the credit where credit's due department - this post was inspired by this post from Maryland Math Madness

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Friday, November 4, 2011

Seems clear to me

I'm a fairly shy person when it comes to personal topics, but I promised myself that every time I heard a person say or write "retard" or "retarded" I would call them out. I was pretty uncomfortable with the idea, but I figured I could stand a little discomfort if maybe, even occasionally, I could help someone understand the problem with using the R-word as an insult, or even as a clinical description.

This led to one very good conversation on Epiphany in Baltimore (on a post that I can't seem to locate to link to, 11/14/11 - found it here). That felt pretty good, I talked a little about people first language, ideas were exchanged. Win-win.

Then there was a Facebook post. I really don't think the poster got what I was saying, but he apologized and so that wasn't too bad.

At work though, it's a different story. It's the same people, over and over again, who absolutely don't get what I'm saying. So here's my pitch, you can tell me if it's obscure to you.

This word is too loaded to be used any more. When it is used as an insult against people who are not intellectually disabled, you are implying that people with intellectual disabilities are valueless, the ever accessible butt of any put-down. If you use it as a clinical term, it has way too much baggage from usage as an insult. It's a general label that's sweeping and hurtful, and really, in the end, doesn't help you understand an individual any better. Use a sentence and actually describe the challenges a person is dealing with. Try to be compassionate, while you're at it. Finally the biggest reason to stop using the word is that the people that you are labeling don't want you to call them by the R-word any more.

Here are the comments I've gotten which let me know my ideas aren't coming across:
"Oh, so you're saying I'm insulting retarded people when I call X a retard. Ha, ha, ha!"
"It's the term that I learned to use for lower IQ's and I mean it clinically, not as an insult. Why should I change?"
"Oh, that's right, your kid's autistic...sorry"

I won't stop calling people out when I hear the term, but honestly, I don't think I'm doing much more than making them think I don't have a sense of humor.

Please check out my fellow Bmore Ed NaBloPoMo Crew:
Epiphany in Baltimore
Maryland Math Madness
and The Smallest Twine

Thursday, November 3, 2011

And the next step is...

Money, it's a drag...
So, I enrolled my High School Senior (HSS) in an online course about college applications. It's through JHU's Center for Talented Youth and is given by Options for College. You can find more info and a course description here. Given the cost of a college education and how clueless I was about the process, $750 seemed like a good investment. Maybe I worry too much (yes, that is an intentionally sarcastic understatement).

Anyway, HSS has been "attending" these classes, getting feedback on her college choices and essays and generally both of us are a little less worried about these applications that are going in now.

Tonight is the last class, titled "Need-Based Financial Aid" and this one is for students and parents. I got a large binder in the mail already, but honestly, I haven't really looked at it too much. Money, financial bargaining and budgets make me uncomfortable and vaguely nauseous. I'm proud to say that I don't have MS Project on my PC.

Anyway, I purposely told HSS that I wanted her to pick colleges for application without regard of cost because I had no idea what sort of aid package we would get. "We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," I said. I guess we're just about there.

I'll keep you posted with my take from tonight's class. If nothing else, I should get a blog post out of my hour and a half on line tonight.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Autistics Speaking Day

So, yesterday (11/01) was "Autistics Speaking Day". You can read more here and here. The basic theme, to my mind, is to reinforce the idea that the autistic community, especially autistic adults, should be the first party to talk when the topic is autism support and autism research.

I respect that idea and I value this expression. On the other hand, msk is just not at a point where he can speak up for himself. I don't think I'm underestimating him, it's just that questions and speech and listening to people talk, especially about him are not his strong points. In fact, I'd say they irk him to the point of pain.

On the other hand, I have a video from a few years ago of a composition that he made up and let me video. It's all about numbers and chord progressions.

I'll see if some time this month I can get msk to type an entry and let me load it onto this blog. Or at least a newer video where you can hear that his voice has changed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A different halloween

I thought that this was maybe the year to end trick-or-treating. I mentioned nothing about Halloween and did no last minute shopping for costume stuff. I bought candy for the house and msk and b-d had bought a pumpkin as part of his doing things out and about therapy. Minimal Halloween effort.

During my usual "I'm about to head home, anything I need to pick up" end of day call I asked child #2 if there were any plans for the night. They all decided they wanted to go trick or treating. I told them they had to get it together all on their own and I would get home as quick as I could, but that was the extent of my effort in the project.

We traipsed through the neighborhood from 6:15 to 7:30. I let my elder kids help msk at the doors and resolutely stayed on the sidewalk waiting. I occasionally called for msk to keep moving when it looked like he was getting stuck, but that's all I did.

I'm sure we made a strange crew for anyone who paid attention. A group made up of (almost) 13, 15 and 17 year old kids generally doesn't have a parent in tow. Almost teen boys may be rude, but they generally get the whole social clue thing of Halloween better. He and his sisters dealt with all sorts of tricky situations including:
  • do you take candy or wait for it to be dropped in your bag? - different at every house
  • when you recognize someone from school do you greet them with a hi or a hug?
  • when people who don't know you ask complicated questions that you can't answer what should you do?
  • when doors are opened, but no one comes out, should you go in?

As recently as last year I was making a point of going to doors with msk and prompting him for appropriate speech. Lots of "What do you need to say?" and "Don't forget to say thank..." My point was more to inform people who were coming to the door that there was a reason that he was acting differently than some vague hope that a once a year practice of these bizarre skills was going to make him become the typical trick or treater.

This year he seemed big and functional enough that that kind of talking from his mom would be insulting. His sisters could do whatever they wanted to to explain atypical behavior. People could shake their heads and think he was a rude boy. There are plenty of rude teen boys, so really, who cares?

I believe this was the least stressful Halloween for me since msk's preliminary autism suspicions, nine years ago.

I have spent eight years trying to mould his behavior, framing the night as therapy. "He needs to learn to talk to strangers." "He needs to learn that social rules can be changed on special days." "I need to make autism more visible and understood." For one year at least, I have given up on all those goals and just walked around the neighborhood with my three kids. Next year there will only be two of them, so this year is probably the last time.

For the record, the world didn't come to an end and there is now, as is always the case the day after Halloween, way too much candy in my house.

Sometimes you just need to let go and relax.

This is my first post of NaBloPoMo. Please check out my fellow Baltimore Ed NaBloPoMo partners at their blogs: