It's odd how memory works, isn't it?

When the kids started school this week, I was trying to remember my classes and teachers from 8th grade.  I didn't expect to remember the teachers' names, but I expected to remember what courses I had; like, what I learned in math that year.  I could not.

I do remember 9th grade math, which was geometry.  I had class in the same room as my homeroom for 9th grade.  The name of the teacher is on the tip of my tongue.  I thought the guy was pretty cool until I had him for math, but he was just another math teacher, really.  But I don't remember 8th grade math at all.

10th-12th grade math classes I remember quite well.  I remember only an impression of 7th grade geography, where I'm waking up from a nap next to the persistently closed blinds in the dark classroom where Mr. Bates only ever showed slides.  I remember home economics, and ironing material to make tote bags, and being partnered with that popular girl who wore a new Swatch to class practically every week.  I remember the TRS-80's in the special education room, my 8th grade homeroom.  I remember my cousin, immigrated from another elementary school, sitting near me in my 7th grade homeroom, and her incredulity at my academic attention and proficiency, unsurprisingly not correlating the two.

During all of this reminiscing I had a flash of Indian Acres, a place where we used to spend summer weekends with my grandparents near the bay.  I remembered harvesting the peanut plants near the shed, playing rummy under the yellow porch light that didn't attract as many mosquitos, buying the complete set of Hardy Boys books at a flea market in the teepee-shaped community center, launching the boat at the dock, diving in the public dump for salvaged refrigerator magnets.  The details of these things exist in varied clarity in my mind.

But I can't remember 8th grade math class.

Clearly, I learned math that year, or I would not have progressed.  Still, it's somewhat distressing that I don't even remember the course.  Was it pre-algebra?  Was it algebra?  Did we do something else that year?  I simply don't recall.

What if life consisted only of what memories we have (doesn't it?), and we spent our lives struggling to hold on to what memories we meant to keep?  Am I missing something significant in 8th grade math?  What am I missing from my memory that can't similar be indexed by the mere fact that I know I experienced 8th grade math in the course of my education?

A year or two ago (have I been dealing with this for so long?), I did something that has essentially turned my neighbors against me.  Or at least, it feels that way.

Something happened, and I didn't handle it well.  I frequently don't handle social things well.  Its paradoxical, considering that if people - specifically, my neighbors - took the time to really get to know me (and vice-versa), they might understand why I don't handle these things well.

Not that the circumstances matter, but it had been a trying month.  I don't want to get into specifics, but suffice to say, it was an unusual evening in that my entire family had sat down together for some family time, and we were enjoying each others' company.  It was a rare occasion after such a trying month, and something I longed desperately to accomplish.

Our evening was interrupted by a doorbell.  When I answered the door, nobody was there.

I should say at this point that we had been victims of a frequent "ding-dong-ditch".  I don't know exactly why, but I think it was due to some animosity built up between our kids and the neighbor kids.

Our kids had spent their summers playing in the trees beside the house.  Under the cover of the huge evergreens, they invented club houses and "shops" for pinecones.  They played with many of the neighbors, but a handful of them didn't want to play the same way our kids did.

I don't know how to describe how our kids are different from the other kids on the street.  I'd start by saying that our kids are not "sporty", but they do play sports, so that's not the entire picture.  Our kids aren't "joiners".  Our kids are creative and empathic, sensitive perhaps beyond what tough skins kids need to have.  As a result, they don't understand kids being "mean" even when they don't mean to.  And they don't really have a tolerance for it, extricating themselves from their own play just to avoid those scenarios.

Also, I hate to call this out, but I think it colors the situation too strongly.  Riley has a tic.  It's reasonably mild, but it is noticeable.  I don't really know how other kids react to it, because he doesn't really allow himself to be close to other kids.  He doesn't like his photo taken.  He's stubborn.  He's strong-willed.  He's actively smart.  He's disturbingly like me when I was his age, and I think that's the only reason I've been able to cope with a lot of his foibles -- because I'm so like him.

The bottom line is that our kids essentially sent the other kids away from the clubhouse in the trees.  They didn't like how the other kids played.  And the other kids, being excluded, did even more things that our kids construed as "mean".  As an adult outsider, it seems like somewhat normal play.  Had our kids embraced it instead of decrying it, it might have all worked out for the good.  Instead, our kids don't really have friendship with the neighbor kids, which alienates them even more.

But I can only suggest being inclusive to the kids so much when their response is always in the tone of, "Why should I play with kids that are mean to me?"  And I don't have a good answer for that.  I can tell them that maybe the other kids aren't really mean.  Or they don't really mean it.  And maybe if they themselves were better friends toward them, they wouldn't be mean to them.  Maybe I could have been a better parent, but there's only so much you can do.  The kids will make their own choices, ultimately, even if they're hard.

So, the doorbell.

Nobody was there.  I had just sat my family down for a night of peace for the first time in a long while, and then this assault.  I had my guesses as to who it was that was doing this to us, these impressions provided by the neighbor kids' animosity toward ours.

I was about to close the door, put it out of my mind, and just get on with my evening, when I heard a dog yapping in my driveway.  The boy up the street - one with which my kids have always had a particularly hard time relating to - constantly has this little dog in tow.  He follows him everywhere.  And here was this dog, yapping at something in my driveway.  It was now completely obvious that my intuition on the culprit was correct.  Or so I thought.

From the dark, a voice.  "They're going to know it's you if he's barking like that."  An adult.

What?  What is this madness?  Encouraging your kid to do this?  Is this a joke?

It took me a moment to find my shoes and storm across the street to the neighbor's yard, from where I'd heard some noise.  Many neighbors were there, enjoying a fire pit, as often happens around here.  I'm no longer invited to these, by the way.

The particular neighbor who I am certain I heard in my driveway and his boy were present. And while everyone else was trying to have a good time, I said things that I probably should not have said.

There's no defense, really.  I have excuses.  I was tired.  Tired of the conflict in my own family.  Tired of being targeted by this miscreant ringing my doorbell and running off.  Tired of my kids being spent emotionally by the neighbor kids' attitude toward them. Tired of feeling ignored as a human by the neighbors in general, for whatever reason, whether because our kids don't play together, or we aren't "sporty" people, or we don't participate in the activities they do, or we aren't in sales, or that we both work, or that I just don't feel like I really belong in this neighborhood after having grown up in lower circumstances than the area in which we now live.

I shouldn't have done that.  I shouldn't have said those things.  At least, not there.

And now I suffer.

Today at the bus stop, I tried to speak to my neighbors, in spite of knowing that I'm anathema, but they didn't say a word to me.  Riley didn't want to be in the 1st day group photo they all took, which I knew.  We played frisbee in our driveway instead.  I wasn't ignoring you neighbors, or disrespecting you.  I was keeping my kid from starting his first day in a new grade by being miserable.

I hope Riley has a good day.  This is ruining mine.

I read a piece by Cory Doctorow called Standardized testing and schools as factories: Louis CK versus Common Core which talks about a comedian who dislikes the application of Common Core.

I'm not writing to defend Common Core, at least not fully.  People around our district that talk about it seem to have a limited understanding or a skewed perspective on what it is.  I think the problems with Common Core are often not what people most frequently surface.

8ef7c930-b44a-11e3-84f5-9547b2943d40_commoncorephoto.pngConsider this critique of Common Core math homework.  It complains that the problem solved with Common Core techniques is significantly more complex than traditional methods.  But the traditional method of solving this seemingly simple subtraction problem (427-316) has some problems of its own.

First, using the "line up the numbers and subtract the bottom from the top" method for the solution is just as much a contrived procedure as the Common Core way.  There is no intuitive leap that a child can take that puts these numbers in this layout to ease the subsequent artificial process of subtracting the bottom number from the top.

Second, if the problem required "borrowing", such as the problem 427-336 might, the traditional method gets much more complicated.  In contrast, the Common Core method of solving the problem is exactly the same.

Third, the Common Core method of solving the problem gives a more complete and fundamental intuitive explanation of why a person can solve the problem in this way.  The traditional method doesn't provide any explanation of - when you subtract the 3 from the 4 you get a 1 - what has actually happened to the quantities involved.  Having this intrinsic understanding of the number is incredibly important to build on for subsequent math.  It's my opinion that lack of emphasis on this understanding when using a traditional approach to teaching math is the reason why our country is lagging so far behind the rest of the world in mathematics concepts!

I would ask parents who don't understand the Common Core concepts to consider whether they're willing to prepare their children with the appropriate tools for the future.  Using the old ways is like giving your child a chunk of clay and only ever showing them that it can make ash trays, when a better understanding of clay's properties and capabilities would be more likely to lead them to great artistry or utility.

Many complaints I hear about Common Core are from parents that simply don't understand how their kids are being taught a subject.  Rather than complain that you can't help them, why don't you try to learn what they're learning at school and participate?

Now, that said...

Common Core utterly fails when it comes to evaluation.  It presents these concepts in good, new ways, but then insists that everyone learn to produce the results in exactly the same way.  This is completely contrary to the advantages that Common Core can deliver!

Moreover, the standardized testing that Common Core encourages is so extremely gamed by the teachers that it's almost worthless.

I love (the majority of) our school district's teachers.  They're excellent at their jobs, and work in a bad market.  And I don't blame them for wanting to do their best to get the best for our kids.  Still, once a year for a whole week prior to actually taking them, the teachers focus on how to best take the assessment tests.  Not just strategies, but practice tests for the types of problems that will be on the test.

This isn't the kind of test that you'd want to do well on to get into college.  This is an assessment of how well the school is able to convey the Common Core topics to its students.  You can see that if you teach to the test, at least in the way I've seen our kids being taught, you're defeating the purpose of the test entirely.

There is also the case of kids learning at different rates and in different ways.  Sometimes, the students don't take tests well, or can't concentrate for the test, but yet be totally competent at the subject matter in a different environment.  Some students excel at the work, and are held back by having to study concepts that are well-known to them just so that their classmates can pass a portion of a state-mandated test.  Some students need help, and need to be coached through things they don't understand yet, which is not allowed on the test.  These are real, common problems that these all too common assessments don't seem to address well.

The quantity of these tests is astounding, and the importance that our school district lays on them is mind-numbing.  If we didn't spend as much time testing constantly, the kids might actually learn twice as much! 

I don't know what the answer is to these assessments, because clearly, we need to make sure that the students are learning what they need to learn at each level, and that the school is doing what it needs to do to achieve it.  But what assessment consists of in a perfect world? I don't know.  All I know is that the current situation is not the best case.

Worse, I believe our schools are suffering by focusing entirely on STEM education, at a detriment to the arts or a more well-rounded and integrated program.  Not all of our kids are going to be the scientists of the future.  And even those scientists will need a lens through which to interpret the influence, utility, and beauty of their work.