So, I am definitely having the ACDF procedure on the 28th. I am supposedly an excellent candidate, and I've been able to weather the semester, battling sporadic pain which varies in intensity and duration. I've made it to Finals Week, wherein the demands on my body are much reduced, so (magical thinking, knock on wood) I'm going to be able to finish up. I am disappointed in my performance as a teacher, but considering everything it hasn't been as bad as I feared in terms of student performance, and it is my hope that, with a successful surgical outcome, I will be able to revisit first-semester standards as needed and do more engaging activities in the spring.

Now the down side. Surviving isn't thriving. The pain essentially encourages lassitude and, I hate to admit it, procrastination. "I'll do something later when I feel better." The problem with this attitude is that you have to something on a regular basis, engaging the mind and body, if you want to maintain your present level of mobility and intellectual acuity. So my weight loss that I crowed about back in October hasn't entirely evaporated--I'm still on the good side of 215---but I have gained 6-7 pounds back. And I'm not as sharp mentally as I would like, and many commitments have gone "by the boards."

I wanted to work on a Civil War show, for example....postponed. I have a potential biology book project.....postponed. My CD project, tantalizing close to the final mix stage.....postponed. My plan to rework the arrangements for my church's Christmas Day cantata, adding some instruments, etc......abandoned. Christmas shopping?? Ha!

So, clearly, I'm hoping that the surgery improves my quality of life and I'm counting down the days to the 28th. It's going to hurt, but the potential benefit pencils out so much above the risks that I'd be a fool not to do it. In retrospect, I wish I had done it as soon as it was diagnosed, rather than work around until the holidays. If I had known just how my students would've done, how the church's music program would've evolved, etc. with me at just 80 percent, I would've done it sooner. It testifies to the fact that maybe I'm not good at delegating tasks, and tend to overload myself. If I had more skills in this area, maybe I would've gotten back in form before Thanksgiving and finished strong.

On the other hand, not having the surgery gave me the opportunity to play with the Trike Shop in a pair of October gigs, so maybe it's all for the best. Sometimes, there is no one best answer, but only intelligent choices. Sometimes, not even that. If you can't move without hurting, and you find it hard to sit at a desk or a keyboard, it makes it hard to work on software or music. My dreams have been (for me) unusually memorable, a sign that I'm not using my creative juices when conscious enough. I've been playing with lyrics of late, since this is something I can do at a laptop, standing....I need an outlet.

Still, when you don't want to move, a TV show or a video game is hard to resist. I've never been one to stay glued to the tube or any game for too long, because I get antsy. But I've watched a lot of Cowboys football the last month, much more than usual, and I've drained dozens of hours playing....this.

For the record, my character's name is CattyHatty.



When not keeping track of all the new ways that the Dallas Cowboys have discovered to lose games, I also follow politics a tad.

I remain amazed so that so few people in the media will acknowledge the stark truth: namely, that the "Anyone But Mitt" movement in the GOP has legs, and that at least one of those legs should be labeled 'bigotry', as a significant number of evangelical Christians can't abide the thought of a Latter-Day-Saint as standard bearer. But hardly a peep on this publicly from the pundits or the political classes. Instead, you get endlessly-recycled questions about whether Mitt, you know, has the right conservative views or a set of core convictions. Much of this stuff rings hollow with me, because you could say similar things about many of Mitt's rivals. And yet, for some reason, this stuff sticks to him more, and I don't think it's because he's the putative favorite going into primary season. It's because voters are looking for a reason to reject him.

For example, you hear endlessly-parsed discussions about how Mitt is a "flip-flopper" (like Gingrich isn't?), or that he is out-of-touch with the mainstream of his own party (um, um, Ron Paul?), or that he is terribly-beholden to K Street (Shoot, that's almost everybody other than Paul, isn't it?) I watch Rick Perry make mountains out of molehill from Romney's book, where an overly generous reading of a self-congratulatory line out his state's health care (which includes the now-vilified individual mandate) is inflated as proscribing the exact same sort of solution at a federal level....which, really, if you wanted to look at it carefully, it doesn't. And, really, how does the Tea Party think they are going to maintain their impact on the legislature unless they rally behind a candidate that polls show actually has the potential to beat Mr. Obama in 2012? I mean, hello: Bachmann, Perry, Paul, Santorum....those guys don't have what it takes to win in the general election, and everyone knows it.

Still, his offer of $10,000 in an off-hand exchange with Perry last Saturday has both his primary rivals and the Democrats gleeful, and another excuse not to talk about the elephant in the room with the elephantine party, Romney's faith. What a shame.

For the record, if I had made an off-hand offer of a wager to Mr. Perry, I would've offered about $30, which I estimate is that fraction of my net worth equivalent to the value of 10 g's to a man of Mr. Romney's significant wealth (in excess of $200 million, by most accounts). Of course, that wouldn't get me even the door at Tiffany's with Mr. and Mrs. Gingrich, and would amount to a valet parking tip for Mr. Santorum, but let's be real: if rank-and-file Republicans really cared about appearing cluelessly invested in the 1 percent as much as some of them demonize Mormonism as a cult, then Romney wouldn't have a snowball's chance. Populist demagoguing against the rich isn't going to hurt Romney as much as with the GOP base as in the general election, and to the extent that other GOP candidates use it, it reflects their cynical willingness to bash Romney on something that doesn't really bother most Republicans that much, in order to avoid having to directly appeal to anti-LDS bigotry.



So....this just in, a New York artist has claimed that, by turning Da Vinci's iconic Mona Lisa sideways, you can detect images of various animals, among them a lion and a buffalo. These hidden beasts supposedly support the view that the strangely-compelling and legendary portrait is actually a commentary on jealousy....

Frankly, I envy this fellow's imagination. As you can see from the above image, more than a little interpretation is required. What I find interesting is not whether or not there might be embedded images of animals (which is plausible), but that the artist, one Ron Piccirillo, sees a buffalo, or bison.

It is true that bison, or Wisent, were common in Europe....about 1,200 years ago. But the beasts were largely driven to extinction in Southern Europe before the Middle Ages, and were almost exclusively confined by the 15th century to a forested reserve that is about one-third the size of Fresno County, an area which today straddles the border between Poland and Belarus.

How would Da Vinci have seen the European bison? He lived his entire life in Italy and France, regions where the bison populations had been driven extinct more than five centuries earlier. At best, he might've seen a (very old) hide or skulls, taxidermy having not been developed, or else drawings made by travelers. This all seems very improbable, and a telling comment on Mr. Piccirillo's ability to see faces where, perhaps, nothing such was intended. Which is common.



So, towards the end of the first session of summer school, I experienced two events. One has tended to make me motivated, while the other has often made me depressed, and each has to do with my health. Good days, bad days and tough breaks now follow....

On the motivated side, my beautiful wife gets cuter every day as she passed the six-month anniversary of gastric bypass surgery. Prior to the surgery, she was diabetic, was on medication for that and high blood pressure, and weighed more than her already-obese husband, despite being nearly seven inches shorter. Here's a shot from May of 2010, before I went to the Galapagos, and six months from my wife's procedure:

Here's a shot from about a month ago. Post-surgery, she has lost over 70 pounds. She is no longer classified as diabetic and has received clearance to reduce much of her meds. She looks great and spends much of her energy shopping.

As I have joked more than once, my medical benefits paid for the surgery but somehow failed to cover the post-operative clothing allowance. And, with each pound lost, and with each round of old garments given to Salvation Army, it became clearer to both of us that there had been a role reversal of a sorts. Simply put, it was time for me to do something about my weight if I wanted to 'keep up with the Jones's', or in this case, her eat-right, feel-good Jones. I was now the ugly duckling and, frankly, no longer a comely accessory.

Well, that initially infuriated me. I am determined not to be the 'weak link' and I am certainly not going to take any crap in that department lying down. So, I told the wife in no uncertain terms that I had something that she doesn't have: will power. I announced that I was now focused, and that I was going to make her eat her words, and that I was going to achieve this weight loss without surgery.

This has not turned out to be anywhere as easy as I thought. When I went to the Galapagos last summer (2010), I left Fresno between 235-240 pounds (I am, charitably, 5'11" in height). The demands of that 10-day excursion (six plain rides, six crossings of the equator, over 500 miles on boat, daily hikes and scuba dives) helped me shave off some poundage quickly and I returned to the states having lost about 10 pounds. Inspired by this, I lost an additional 14-15 pounds pretty quickly and by the end of August (right before school started) I had my weight down to 209 pounds.

And then the Fall 2010 semester began, and I lost my focus. I never put all of the weight back on, and I checked the scale regularly, but I would oscillate from 216-223 over the next eight months. Better than before, but not that changed. My wardrobe was often ill-fitting and tired, and a expensive dress suit that had looked sharp on me in August of 2010 was best left unbuttoned by May of this year. Having said all that, given that I had lost 25 pounds in just three weeks the previous summer, I figured that this year's July resolution would be easily doable.

Uh, no. As you can see from the running chart above, I've gone up-and-down. It's literally taken twice as long to lose half-as much weight. Part of that is aging, part of that is lack of exercise and part of it is....well, the image at the very top of this post.

A few weeks before I began my new regime, I was in an accident, rear-ended by a young woman while I was in the left-hand turn lane at Fresno and Herndon. The back end of my Toyota Tacoma was bent in at a 45-degree angle and the right rear wheel well (try saying that fast, ten times) was deformed. Both the mechanics who worked on my vehicle (over $4,800 in repair costs) and my physics colleagues estimated the collision was in excess of 30 miles per hour. Fortunately, the driver who hit me was driving her mother's vehicle, and her mother had insurance, which paid for the damage to the vehicle.

I felt fine immediately after the accident, which was in the late afternoon on June 29th. Two hours later, however, I began to have ominous symptoms while attempting to compete with my team at the Fresno Pub Quiz. Tingling and numbing in the left hand, soreness in the neck, shooting pains up-and-down the right shoulder and right biceps. In a word, whiplash, and a trip to the doctor the next day.

By the time I was examined, I had determined that the symptoms were more severe depending on whether I was standing or sitting. They tested my reflexes and muscle tone, and came up with a tentative diagnosis of 'cervical radiopathy', which simply means that something in the position of my neck was triggering pain in the left arm and shoulder. They prescribed drugs: a narcotic (Vicodin) for daytime pain and a muscle relaxer (Soma) to help me sleep. They sent me to physical therapy, which did wonders for my neck (the whiplash) but failed to make any headway with the hand tingling or left arm/shoulder pain. After a second visit 45 days later, my primary physician added another drug, requested both X-rays and MRI and referred me and all of this data to a neurosurgeon.

On Wednesday afternoon, August 31st, more than 60 days after the accident, I saw the neurosurgeon....and got bad news. The accident, it seems, had made a previously asymptomatic area of my spine painful. One of my 49-year-old vertebral discs had moved, and as a result the sixth cervical vertebrae (C6) was now impinging a nerve. The recommendation: surgery, specifically a procedure called 'Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion, or ACDF'. You can read more about that here. Or, heck, if it doesn't bother you, you can watch this (relatively low-res) video.

Basically, they cut open your neck, spread the incison to expose a rectangular area above the vertebrae in question, push the other tubes (esophagus and trachea) out of the way and pull out the disc with fancy-schmancy pliers. That part is basically crude: cut, shove and yank. A graft of some material is inserted where the disc used to be, and to hold it all in place, a titanium appliance that looks like the plate on a door lock is screwed into the C5 and C6 vertebrae, two screws apiece, by hand. That part looks reasonably slick. It's relatively-common surgery and patients usually go home the next day, with full recovery taking 2-4 weeks.

I could schedule it after Christmas with minimum disruption of my (two) jobs and the rest of my life, and I have accepted that, ceteris paribus, it will have to be done at some point...if not now, then within the next few years. I have recurrent pain, especially when I sit for any length of time----as, for instance, right now as I'm (owch) typing this blog entry. I would prefer not to have the pain, but I have a pretty high tolerance compared to most people. I would rather not have it if I can avoid it, or just delay it, because a small percentage of those who have this surgery need more than 4 weeks to recover their voice due to brusing of the trachea. There is possibility that the nerve which innervates the larynx (voice box) could be damaged, and the neurosurgeon admitted that vocalists often report a loss of range and flexibility in their voice after surgery.

Mmm. Mmm. Mmm. Pain I would readily accept up to a certain point, in order to avoid or postpone that particular risk. Nevertheless, based on consultation with my neurosurgeon, that may be something that I have to hazard. It will come down to future risk versus present benefit, how much pain I can stand now versus how much more complicated (and clouded in outcome) the procedure would prove at a later date. Obviously, I will have more to say about this later after my next consultation.

So, this is the depressing part, and it's affected my attempt to lose weight. Between the drugs I'm having to take and the fact that I am dealing with a discouraging situation (recurrent pain, possibility of surgery), I've found it much harder to lose weight than in the past. And, while it (ahem) "pains" me to admit it, I am a year older. So, rather than drop 25 pounds in three weeks, it's been much slower.

But...huzzah! Progress is on the horizon, despite all of this negative crap, and it's the real progres that comes from hard work. There is no secret to weight loss. When asked what I do, I simply reply "Deprivation and suffering." That is....you can't eat as much as you're used to, and you need to exercise. Well, I've done both and kept at it despite a depressingly-long "plateau" which you can find in the data below. About a week ago, I did my second 4-mile hike in as many weeks and I finally moved below the 212-214 range in which I'd been yo-yoing. When I hit 209, that was my lowest weight in ten years!! Hurray!

I've persevered since then, hitting 205-point-something this morning. I had another nice long hike on Sunday evening. I've purchased several new shirts and nice new slacks for work. I've set aside my Size 42 belts (which were fraying, anyway) in favor of a Size 38. Just for kicks, I tried on a Size 34 belt today that was too big for our skinniest boy. Whaddaya know, it buckled at the last notch and I wore it very comfortably today on a pair of jean shorts. I may be in a new "plateau" now, or I may be able to keep losing. We shall see. Regardless of whether my new regime yields linear outcomes or no, this new lifestyle is here to stay....because getting my weight down, eating right and exercising are some of the best things I can do to both relieve the stress on my spine and (if needed) optimize my health for surgery.

The take-home message is that I have a significant challenge, but I am feeling better and better about how I am meeting the challenge on a daily basis. So many people are dealing with health problems so much greater than this, so I want to emphasize I am not having a 'pity party.' I thank everyone in advance for support and sympathy, but please know this: my attitude doesn't need adjustment, I'm no longer depressed by the challenge, and I am looking forward to a great year, personally. If it happens to be a year that includes a surgical procedure, then that's just the way it is.



Over the last several years, I've lost my way as far as being a musician goes. Actually, that's not quite true. I'm not lost, I know where I am....in a comfortable, cradling valley between peaks that stretch away from me, in the distance.

Let me explain.

For most of the last 12 years, I have worked as a musician part-time for a lovely church that I belong to, and it gives me an opportunity to use my gifts in various ways, and for the most part the congregation is very supportive of me crafting my own music. Over the years I've written a sort of mass for the dedication of a new Rodgers organ, a re-casting of some choral music by Gounod with organ and harp accompaniment, a sort of electronic tape piece with narration for Pentecost, a 5/4 rock version of 'Lyrica Davidica' for Easter, and (the last two years) a sort of "It's A Small World" set of overlapping electronic tapes for various tableaux in a live Nativity which has become a new tradition at the church. And, of course, occasional solos of my own stuff, or reworkings of existing hymns.

So, there's that.

However, I sense that unless I find some new avenues to explore, I'm going to go stale. The number of moves that, for better or worse, my wife and I partnered in have left increasingly little time and suitable space for either new recording or composing. The current house, which we leased with an option, has a wonderful location and some charm. But it's old, needs some work, and the kind of nifty 'hidden' room behind the den that I am using as a studio turned sour in May. In fact, the whole house got warm and has never really cooled down. The studio, with all the electronics, is by turns uncomfortable and really uncomfortable. So, we're moving again, into a new property just approved, and we feel very lucky to do it. It's a 'short sale', notoriously difficult to finalize in any sort of timely manner. I will be converting part of the garage from scratch and spending some real money for once on an isolated, largely sound-proofed, air-conditioned space. More on that later.

In the meantime, as part of my realization that I needed to branch out, my long-attenuated CD project "Ballistics and Fingerprints" has profited from my decision to involve more local musician talent. Since I've been away from the live performing scene in Fresno County for most of the last 20 years, I realized I would need to start broadening my social horizons and make connections with artists and musicians of real worth.

That has led me down some wonderful avenues of late:

  • the talents of Poplord founders Stan Schaffer and Tom Magill

....and, especially, the sympathetic ear and occasional advice of Blake Jones, who has recently also given me some opportunities to play out with his group, the wonderfully original Trike Shop. Should I recite "carpe diem" or say "thanks, but no thanks?"

Well....(pretending like this is even a difficult decision).....

My rule of thumb these days is I have little interest in playing covers, even though my last band (an oldies act led by the over-the-top-entertaining William Morris) had a very high-profile gig (opening the millenium for the new Fresno Convention Center). And, while I would like to only play originals, the reality is that I've played a lot in the past and have committed significant money and time into fmy own recording projects, the current one of which is entering (gulp) an eighth year as far as some of the original files go.

Bottom line: I have no interest in working with anyone who doesn't have a similar commitment, and who isn't a musician of similar or greater ability. No interest, none, because (as the good book says) I have no desire to be 'unequally yoked.' I know that sounds snotty, but there it is. I've got nearly four decades of musical experience as a vocalist, keyboard player, composer and choral director. I just can't be bothered with newbies, wannabes, posers or weekend rock stars. What I want is to play with, and get respect from, creative musical peers.

....so I said...."YES" in a frickin' New York minute to Blake Jones! He's generous with his time and is genuinely beloved by so many in the Fresno music scene. But, in addition to being a nice fellow, he's also just a one-of-a-kind creative force in the local community, able to bring together many different sorts of performers. He has a truly ecumenical spirit in his dealings with others, and musical tastes which are at once both eclectic and experimental. How could I possibly say 'no' to this guy, given the opportunity?

After all, the moment I first caught his act four years ago at a concert to celebrate CSUF campus radio station KFSR, I had to know more about this guy and his music. In 2009, I think I realized that his theremin would be a perfect addition to some tunes on my CD project, and documented his contributions. And, over the years, I've caught him at several shows both with his band The Trike Shop, and as part of the 'Beetles' cover band with Tom and Stan of Poplord. And the more I knew, the more I knew I would want to have a chance to work with him in some fashion.

And so, what do you know, the other day he calls me on the phone and makes this pitch. It takes him about a minute to do that, it takes me about ten seconds to say 'sign me up.' This is really the kind of gig I was looking for, that I thought I was too old, and too out of touch with the music scene, to hope for. So, in 2012 I hope to wander out of my valley of complacency and familiarity, and push myself to play out live, and to be great, and use that as a springboard to finishing my CD and moving on with my the musical part of my life.

BAM ! ! ! ! ! ! !



Continuing self-reflection on more than a decade of Biology instruction at Bullard High School, I think about the time spent in lecture, delivering content. Again, this is an area of instruction that I tend to devote quite a bit of energy to, typically more than my colleagues. There are a lot of reasons for that, and some of them frankly have very little to do with instruction.

Before I was a high school biology teacher, I was a musician and a performer. For me, lecture is performance art, a mixture of low comedy, snippets of song, striking images, provocative questions (and imagery), hopefully wrapped into a narrative that conveys a story of sorts, not merely a recitation of key facts or concepts. The investment that I've brought into such presentations has made me a better teacher, but it also raises the question of how much energy such items take away from other aspects of instruction. I observe, for example, that the time spent lecturing could also be spent with students creating something of their own, doing labs, having experiences. Many of my colleagues are quite a bit more accomplished in these areas than myself, and I would like to see my students have more of these opportunities.

As with testing, the question becomes how much to reduce the amount of time and energy, or at least to the amount of same within the classroom setting. Consider the picture below, which shows a series of file folders. Each orange folder contains a Lecture Guide, which is a partly a 'fill-in-the-blank' recap of key items from the lecture, and partly a series of exercises with illustrations that challenge students to apply the items from the lecture to various problems. Each Lecture Guide also represents one or more Power Point-based lectures and (typically) 2-3 days of instruction.

As you can see from the picture above, that's a significant investment. The Lecture Guides were originally developed as a means to make lectures go faster...but what I discovered was that too many students simply filled in the blanks, didn't do the application exercises, and in general failed to engage with the material. So I abandoned using them this way, returned to conventional lecturing straight into their Composition Books, and used these assessments as means to assessing the completeness of their notes (and as a means for them to self-assess themselves). At the same time, I began the practice of making the class notes available for download from the class blog. Now, the downside of this is the amount of time taken which could've been used for other activities.

Now, I'm loth to abandon these materials that I've invested so much time and energy, and at any rate I have to lecture, because it is the most efficient way to ensure in-class coverage of all the material, and where Biology is concerned, there is much to cover: 50 mandatory standards, 20 additional 'optional' ones, all to be covered in the 140-odd days in the school year prior to the dreaded state tests. At best, you have slightly less than three days per standard!

So, here's the new plan: lecture, as before, but in a streamlined (and fast-paced) way. Expect students to complete their notes on their own time by comparing the outlines and headings of their comp books with the complete Power Points, downloaded as needed from on-campus computers or the class blog. Assess with the Lecture Guides prior to the test, and directly from their Composition Books on the day of the test. I plan to teach it to students with a flowchart that makes explicit the work they must do outside of class just to complete the material. In principle, looking at the number of Lecture Guides, I should be able to free up 20-25 days of instruction prior to state tests, for other activities to enrich the course and promote mastery of the standards.

Anyway...that's the plan.



My blogging has trickled to a stop, in part because I had been wondering if I had anything new to say about the main issues that motivated me to start blogging in the first place. So much has changed in my life, and yet, as far as science education is concerned, so little. Americans are still confused about the difference between science and belief, and a depressingly large number of them neither accept the fact of evolution nor the need to ensure that the theory of evolution by natural selection (TENS) continues to be taught in the public schools.

At the same time, this last semester (and the ensuing six weeks, wherein I taught summer school) has made matters come to a head. It's time for me to start blogging again, even if I don't have any substantial new inroads to report on science education in my area. It's time for me to start doing things like this again, because I am becoming bored with certain aspects of my life, including my work setting. I enjoy teaching, but I am in danger of falling into a rut. I need to make some changes. I need to do more in some areas, but in all frankness I need to give less energy to some of the aspects of teaching that are increasingly robbing me of joy and productiveness. As a friend in high school once said (in a more colorful fashion), you have to make sure the, um, screwing is worth all the...you guessed it....screwing.

So, with that in mind, I've decided to review my own job performance for the last 11 years of teaching biology and other science coursework. What happened? How did I get to Point B from Point A? Most importantly, what has changed, has it changed for the better, and what can I do about it in order to feel useful, productive and (frankly) engaged? I don't want to burn out before I'm 50. Lord knows I see enough colleagues who are just going through the motions after this point, and I would rather do something else with my life than attempt to 'fake the funk' from now until retirement. If I taught for another 11 years, that would be fine, as long as it was as interesting and rewarding as it was prior to 2008.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The final impetus to publicly return to blogging occurred a few hours ago in my unoccupied classroom, the day after the final session of Summer School ended. I was tidying up the relics of the last few years, including....tests. Lots and lots of tests, written by me, in order to assess student performance in whatever course or courses I was teaching at the time.

That includes, in the order I taught them: Physics, Biology, Earth Science, Chemistry and Environmental Science. All of these were standards-based courses that had a state test to go with them. Three of them (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) count as laboratory science courses on the (a-g) standards for the University of California. All of them count towards my school district's requirement that students have three years of high school science. In each course, every year, I would give 9-12 unit tests which varied considerably in length and difficulty, depending in part on the subject matter, the student population that semester and the intellectual climate of the year in question. Each test typically had two versions to discourage cheating. I rarely reused tests, but typically rewrote them every year, often keeping some of the same assessment items, albeit rearrange and rewritten. Thus, each test represents a substantial investment of time in writing, and (especially in the case of Biology and Physics) rewriting.

For example, here is a shot that shows collated copies of the Physics tests that I wrote between the fall of 2000 and the spring of 2003, three years of refinement to teach the state standards in Physics. My degree is in the Natural Sciences. It's supposed to be a teaching degree, which means that I had a year of undergraduate physics coursework, plus an astronomy class. I was initially hired to teach sections of Physics and Biology with my degree, which was supposed to qualify me to teach any introductory science class in the state of California. (This was before NCLB became the be-all and end-all of teacher evaluations in this state). Anyway, if you click on the image, you'll see three years worth of the tests of which I'm bothering to keep a few copies. This does not represent all the tests I wrote, just a sample arranged in order to give me an idea what I did when, and (hopefully) help me learn from the experience.

In any and all cases, far more tests were thrown away than were ever kept. As I type this, I need to take some of these piles out to the recycling bins. By the way, the different colors serve two purposes: first, they allow me to distinguish tests within the same year from one another; second, they allow me (and my students) to distinguish at a glance which version of the test they are taking. Each clipped pile actually contains at least two different versions, sometimes (as with a semester final) three. So the above shot, just of Physics tests, actually represents about fifty (!) separate tests. This is just skimming the cream. The rest.....

....into the trash. If you do a little math, you'll recognize that this represents about 16 tests a year. When I began my teaching career, I had a little scheme all mapped out: two regular tests per each quarter, and a final, for a total of six per semester, twelve per academic year. Keep in mind that every time I'm writing a test, I'm writing at least two versions, so it's really 24 per year.

Now, I'm not claiming that each and every one of these tests is an original pearl, full-blown from the head of Zeus. In fact, after the first year, I began recycling questions. The rewriting process is an editing process. Over time, some questions seem more pertinent to the way that I actually teach, or do a better job of encapsulating some key concept and/or state standard. Also, one realizes as you go that you can do things with a test besides assess content knowledge. You can assess effort and obtain documentation about student choices. Over time, I reformatted my tests to improve their readability. I added questions with embedded graphics: charts, maps, and other images. I fussed continually not only with the general length of the test, but the relative emphasis of the various sections. From the very beginning, I have held that a simple, straightforward multiple-choice exam graded by a SCANTRON was not 'the level playing field' desired. There are always a certain number of students who are good at taking such tests, prepared or otherwise. So I would always add other types of assessments.

As you develop assessments, the inner dialogue begins: Lengthen or trim this section? Could this be reworded for clarity? Is there a concept that I am not covering well? Why do students consistently bomb this question? Should I be concerned that most don't get this question, or not? Should I reorder the section? What items to place on an answer sheet?

Hopefully the point is clear. When you rewrite tests, you are engaged in a process of assessment: assessing the course as you teach it, assessing the state standards, comparing what you've taught with what you want them to know and (sigh) what the state expects that they will know, as encompassed in the standards. If every teacher was writing and rewriting their own tests all the time in this sort of process, there would be little need for additional reflection on their own practice. This is a point that many people who are critical of 'teaching to the test' seem to miss. If you write your own tests, then teaching to the tests that you write is not mindless, but inherently self-reflective. Self-assessment through continual reinvention of your student's assessments in light of what your are teaching is far more revealing than any contrived activity mandated, top-down, by whatever hierarchy you are in, precisely because it is authentic.

The short version: While I know that there are many teachers who use the tests from the textbooks, and who simply recycle their tests from year to year, I'm not one of those people. It is those teachers whose 'teaching to the test' tends to be mindless. For me, it comes down to this: which is more likely to be an accurate and fair assessment? Drawing up a list of questions that you want to be answered, and drilling the answers into students? Or, teaching what is needed for conceptual understanding, and then crafting the assessment based upon the most recently-completed rounds of instruction?

I think you know how I would answer that question. It is an irony, then, that I have become disillusioned with the 'standards-based' reform movement's emphasis on testing. My teaching career began as these reforms were being implemented, and initially I felt I was very well aligned with that movement. The truth is, I was and remain a believer in the high-stakes test. After all, when I began my career, I intended to have 12 of them per year. Each test would take up an entire instructional period. I would give additional time at lunch and after school for those who needed it on exam days. Every test would be prepared with a Study Guide given out 2-3 days in advance of the exam date. I would almost always have a Study Session based on that Study Guide after school the day before the scheduled exam, and shamelessly bribe students to attend that Study Session. My internal logic came down to this: since my approach to writing exams involved multiple parts and continual self-assessment, I was heavily invested in the tests. Therefore, I wanted my students to be heavily invested in them. Not only did I weight them heavily, but I used significant time in the school year to prepare and administer them.

That is not, however, what most of my colleagues do. They don't invest much time in preparing or administering tests. They build what are, in my opinion, low-quality assessments that are intended to be administered in half a period, and they do so by "cutting-and-pasting" pre-fabricated questions, almost all of them multiple-choice, from the textbook or associated materials. The attitude seems to be: "Professionals have already developed questions for us to use, so why reinvent the wheel?"

Well. Duh. In order to be creative, authentic professionals yourselves. This is not to say that my colleagues aren't professionals, or shouldn't be treated as such, or that I have nothing to learn from them. Quite the contrary. I genuinely feel that in the first 6-7 years of teaching, that my colleagues were superior to me in some aspects of instruction, most notably setting up and evaluating labs and other classroom activities. I learned much that was valuable by observing them. I know that in such aspects I can still profit immensely from the experience of other veteran teachers.

I have yet, however to find another high school teacher whose tests struck me as either skilled or thoughtful. I am particularly put off by questions from the textbooks, which are invariably simplistic and misleading. And I find myself continually out of step with the agenda of most administrators and many teachers, because of the different ways in which I and others "script" the course, or as we often say, curricular sequence.

My colleagues at Bullard and throughout much of the educational system, most of them are doing their best to teach the students they are given with a series of scripts which were largely crafted for them: state standards, pacing guides, benchmark exams and departmental assessments (more on that stuff later). I, on the other hand, want to write my own script. I want the freedom to satisfy the standards following a curricular sequence that reflects my own continual self-assessment. That is what I used to do most of the time prior to the fall of 2008, and what I would prefer to do now. In my next post, I will explain why the intellectual climate within my district and my state is discouraging to me, and why I am ready to break with my past practice.



So, here is is, February 9th. A project I've put a lot of time into (a proposal to adopt uniforms at my school site) is nearing the end. This evening, the FUSD Board (meeting at Yokomi Elementary) will rule first on whether to amend the district's policy on uniforms, and then almost immediately after approve or deny the Bullard School Site Council's request to implement uniforms.

I am understandably interested in the outcome, and will attend.

But is that the most important thing going on in my life? Not hardly. When I think about it, I forget to blog about the things that are the most important in my life. I tend to focus on this or that aspect of science education or personal nerdiness.

The most important thing that's happened to me, recently, however, is that my wife underwent surgery and (so far) seems to be making a rapid recovery as part of a treatment that includes changes in diet.

I took off two days last week to facilitate that. Tonight, the wife vows to do Pub Quiz....without me, since I'm committed to this school board thing. I will be thinking about her, though. She's been very brave, and very focused, and I'm very proud of her.

The next thing on my mind is that I'm slated to become a grandparent sometime this spring.

My son and his sweetie are expecting a baby girl, to be christened Savannah. I feel so fortunate that I can experience grandparenting at this stage of my life, when I should really be able to enjoy the crap out of it. I certainly hope so!

Another milestone: our oldest kid living at home (not the one with a bun in the oven) passed another one of his credentialing tests, and just missed passing the last one. There is a prospect that rescoring the tests could lead to a passing score, and without waiting for a retest date, that our spawn could pursue a full-time teaching job for the fall, with eventual independence (sigh) around the corner. That would be tremendous.

Finally, I have a student teacher this semester with a wonderful work ethic. I have really enjoyed watching her take on lesson preparation and delivery, and it really inspires me to 'up my game' and to be intentional in everything I do. Makes going to work twice as fun as normal!




So, let me put my cards on the table.

I'm on the Bullard School Site Council this year. Two years ago, I served as Council President, and this is my third year on the Council. One of the main responsibilities of the SSC is to rule on matters of dress code.
A parent group (Bullard Pride) has for some time maintained a presence on the SSC. Bullard Pride is heavily populated by former Bullard grads concerned about what they perceive as neglect of their alma mater by the district, to the extent that they pushed to elect the former SSC President (Michelle Asadoorian) to the Fresno Unified Board of Trustees.

They were successful in that, and Ms. Asadoorian is presently the Board's clerk.

I'm just a teacher, but I decided to cast my lot with this group and its fortunes after participating in a SSC-sponsored 'fact-finding tour' of Long Beach Unified, which drew national attention back in the mid-1990's by adopting a uniform policy for K-8, as well as converting one of their high schools (Wilson Classical High School) to uniforms. Here's a video that shows some of the things we saw and heard on that tour:

Both the district (and the Long Beach Police Department) have been extraordinarily successful at reducing crime and violence both at their school sites and within the general community.

The thought was, could adopting a school uniform policy to supplement the site's existing dress code be part of a comprehensive set of reforms, one which could address our growing safety concerns, and (along the way) promote improved attendance, school pride and academic achievment?

Our principal (Brian Beck), who did not participate in the original fact-finding effort, certainly thinks so.

The FUSD Board will discuss possible changes to board policy affecting this effort on January 26th, and then (based on that discussion) will rule on board policy on February 9th, and presumably that same evening will either give a 'thumbs up' or a 'thumbs down' on the adoption of uniforms.

I hold no illusions. Requiring uniforms in and of itself will not improve school performance across the board. I am convinced, however, that it could give BHS an edge in 'branding' itself within our community and serve as a focal point for change, as it did in Long Beach. It is a symbol that could become a sign. I am committed to making sure every Bullard student and parent knows about it, understands their options and considers what might possible if a community finds a common vision for excellence.

We shall see.



...beware the power of the Drake Equation (properly tweaked):

Unfortunately, no word yet on the probability that I or anyone else will morph into Ryan Reynolds, who now bears the deadly sobriquet of PMSMA.