Friday, April 22, 2011


Last night Big Sis's elementary school hosted a Family Science Night with assistance from the local Science Museum.  Our school's teachers volunteered to man the tables and demonstrated the experiments, all simple hands-on applied physics concepts. 

Among the highlights:  constructing an "earthquake-proof" structure out of toothpicks and mini-marshmallows, designing and executing a rollercoaster for marbles using pipe insulation (cut in half lengthwise) and masking tape (we even made loops that worked!), watching coffee-filter chromatography, launching balloon rockets, and constructing catapults. 

I enjoyed the fact that this was an event I attended alone with Big Sis; I could focus completely on her and the projects.  For once, we had each other's attention exclusively.  Big Sis skipped all the way home. 

She was excited to explain the experiments to her sister.  And lo and behold, when I walked into their bedroom this morning, I found the catapult we made last night, and another that she constructed for Little Sis (these contraptions and some cotton balls would make a great birthday party game, by the way!): 

Cork, tongue depressors, plastic spoons, rubber bands.  Awesome. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Deduction Reasoning

I'm doing our taxes.  I started yesterday--well, that's not true; I actually started the day before yesterday, when I sorted the Pile of Denial into piles of "Tax-Related Documents" and "Empty Envelopes" and "Other."  I then felt accomplished and quit for the day. 

Yesterday I began entering our information into the online tax service.  I watched the federal and state tickers at the top calculate our progress, consistently yielding a net "owe."  There would be no such thing as quitting while I was ahead, so I just quit. 

Today I learned that tax day is not actually Friday, April 15, but Monday, April 18.  The whole nation just got an extension on their big homework project!  Probably everyone else knew this, but it was the kind of news that enables a true procrastinator to forge ahead in not forging ahead:  I am now inappropriately confident in my ability to complete taxes by the deadline, and have decided to write about taxes instead of do them today.  Winning!

But really, it's hard to not feel like you're losing when you're doing taxes, even when you're calculating a refund.  If you're getting a hefty refund, you wonder why.  You wonder why you haven't had all that money all year long, and what the government has been doing with it, anyway.  You wonder if someone else is getting a bigger refund.  Someone with the same salary.  Someone with the same number of kids.  If you're me, you're inwardly grumbling about the fact that it sure feels like Everyone Else is getting a refund and telling you exactly how they're already spending it. 

Taxes and death are the two certain things, and they're two mysterious ones, too.  It might also be appropriate to proclaim 'all is fair in death and taxes', since we seem unable to draw clear lines of distinction between what is just and what is not when it comes to how we pay The Man and how we meet The Maker. 

I don't want to cheat on my taxes.  I appreciate that taxes educate my children, provide my salary, and fix the cracking sidewalk in front of my house.  I like that the park down the hill has a new play structure and that the grass there gets mowed, too.  And I'd pay more taxes if it meant fewer hungry, ill, uneducated, and desperate and dangerous people in our society. 

But as I do my taxes, I recognize that it's hard to know if I'm doing it right, hence a fear that I am "accidentally" cheating.  Since I'm filing ours myself I figure it's more likely that I am overlooking deductions that my colleague's so-called "shady tax guy" finds for him.  On the other hand, I relish not having to organize myself for or answer to someone else (besides the IRS, of course). 

All this relativity reminds me of my visit to Wasini Island when I lived in Kenya.  To reach this little island of no cars and roads from the mainland, we had to hire someone in a small boat to paddle or motor us across the channel.  I met an American family at some point during the day, and shortly after exchanging information about our origins and travels, the father asked me how much I paid to cross the channel. 

"Well..." I explained, "I speak some Swahili, you see, and I have lived here for some months now..." 

"Right," the father replied impatiently.  "But how much did you have to pay?"

I admitted that I negotiated a fairly small fee with my ferrier. 

The father stomped his foot.  "I knew I was being ripped off!  And we already paid for the trip back!"

I asked him if he felt, as an American consumer, that the cost of his trip across the channel was worth the experience he was having.  He conceded that it was, but that it chapped his hide to know that others were getting a "better deal." 

I hoped that the gentleman would not blame the ferryman, when, in fact, he had agreed to a price and paid it.  I was reminded of the inconsistency in airplane ticket prices, in the cost of a gallon of gas, in the value of a shirt on sale at full price today and on clearance next week.  I think we're only ripped off when we don't have options, and when what we're buying is something we truly need.  Most of the time, we choose to value commodities and services by what we're willing to pay, or by the research we're willing to put into competitive rates.

And value is relative.  When I traveled to Morocco with a friend in the late '90s, our truck driver shared a story of delivering a safari mobile across Africa with a tight deadline and dwindling resources and cash.  On a day when they were almost out of fuel and in the near-middle of nowhere, they came to a river with only one bridge across for miles in either direction.  Two men stood at the base of the bridge to charge a toll for crossing vehicles--a rare but lucrative occurrence.  Our driver and his colleague knew the bridgekeepers could name their fee and the drivers would have to pay. 

The bridgekeepers conferred while our drivers calculated the potential damage.  They had a few hundred dollars between them and weeks of travel ahead; they estimated they could part with up to $200 and retain enough to make it to the next town for reinforcements from their company. 

Finally, the bridgekeepers approached the truck, trembling in anticipation of their windfall. 

"Give us $10 to cross," they implored.  Almost laughing in relief, our drivers handed them $20 and barreled over the bridge before they changed their minds. 

Was $10 to cross a rickety bridge a swindle?  Perhaps, but it felt like both a bargain and a boon at the time.  Winning!  It's all about perspective.

Which is why I am ultimately content to do my taxes with an understanding of the grayness and subjectivity inherent in the system.  And yet, I am befuddled enough by estimated sales tax and what we can and cannot claim as business deductions to seek outside assistance next year.

Not to mention, I hear I can write off the cost of tax preparation...

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#blog4nwp: Writing for our Students, Ourselves

#blog4nwp is a grassroots effort to show support for the National Writing Project. The goal is to reach 1,000 posts by April 8 to raise awareness about federal funding cuts to The National Writing Project.  I have chronicled the effects of the Writing Project on my career as a teacher and on my students in prior blog posts.  Today I am posting a letter I sent Congresswoman Susan Davis when the Writing Project was threatened by budget cuts years ago.  Worthwhile professional development for teachers, I argue, is worthy of our time and taxes. 

 Representative Davis:

I once had the pleasure of sitting next to you on a Southwest Airlines flight. At the time I was a young teacher fresh out of Teach for America in Washington, D.C., who had come back to San Diego to be near my family and teach in one of the schools that launched me to Yale College and into what I will characterize as my successful career in public education. I shared with you my excitement at being involved in the San Diego Area Writing Project, a professional organization which had provided me with inspiring mentors and a desire to be an educator dedicated to continual improvement of my craft. You asked me thoughtful questions and I felt listened to and encouraged by you.

Today I am an assistant principal in the high school from which I graduated. I continue to be active in the Writing Project, but more importantly, I have seen how involvement in SDAWP has transformed colleagues' views of themselves as professionals, and how their willingness to share innovative instructional strategies and sound educational philosophies with our staff has created an exciting professional learning community right here on our campus.

We are watching as continued budget cuts devastate the programs and services we provide to our students and increase our class sizes, but as long as inspired educators are among our ranks, we have some hope of continuing to provide relevant, research-based professional development to one another, even as funding for outside support dries up.

The Writing Project has been the single most influential provider of professional development--sought both by our school as an institution and privately by individual teachers--to our staff.

I am writing to urge you to support the National Writing Project as it faces losing its federal funding.
The NWP has 37 years of success in improving literacy among students by supporting the development of their teachers. 

Rep. Davis, I want to thank you for your time and your support, and for that serendipitous plane ride which provided the opportunity for me to talk live and in person with an elected representative I admire. I appreciate your work in our community and support of education.



Saturday, April 2, 2011

Make You Feel My Love

"Our love story may not be traditional, and some people may never understand it, but to me it is a fairytale."

The wedding we attended this evening was magical. 

I struggle with being witness to such abundance of love and to a society which denies its legitimacy.  Nevertheless, hope, too, abounds that our children tearing it up on the dance floor tonight will know another way. 

For A&E

Between you
there is no thing;
there is only
you and you.
There are

Tend the garden beneath
her branches.

Water the base of
her trunk.

Fertilize the soil
within which
the roots of
your strong trees