Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | October 12, 2014

A Gentle Rant

                   to Gwyneth Paltro in appreciation.

A message from me to celebrities
who feel compelled
to announce their
outrage/shock/umbrage/extreme displeasure/deeply felt anger

at the treatment of

Native Americans/ African-Americans/ Hispanic Americans/ Proto Americans
LGBTs/ Muslims/ Atheists/ WASPs
the Homeless/the Oppressed/the Persecuted/the Unemployed
the Tired/Poor/Huddled Masses
NEA (teachers)/NEA (artists)/ AFT (teachers again)
Emily’s List/La Leche/Code Pink
Sierra Club/Common Cause/Greenpeace/Amnesty International,

By any Republican
Presidential/Senatorial/Congressional Candidate (especially ahead in polls),
former candidate for Vice-President (female),
Supreme Court Justice
(always Scalia/Thomas, often Roberts/Alito, sometimes Kennedy, never the others)
Big Oil/Big Banks/Big Business
The Military-Industrial Complex
Halliburton/ Dow Chemical/Exxon Mobil/J. P. Morgan Chase/Wall Street in general
Big Brother (except the TV show)
Bill Maher
(except for his treatment of Ben Affleck recently)
Rush Limbaugh/Fox News/Rupert Murdoch/Laura Ingraham
Meghan Kelley/Glenn Beck
Chris Christie (limited: okay when hugging Obama,
not okay when chastising union teacher)
Rand Paul/Paul Ryan/Marco Rubio/
Mitch McConnell
(limited to the present, but past political positions held prior to achieving minority leader status okay)
Republican Wars on Women/ Welfare/ Food Stamps/ Unemployment Insurance
Planned Parenthood/ Obama Care/ Minimum Wage Workers
Gun Control/ Gay Marriage….,

Please, I’m begging,
Stop embarrassing yourselves.
Stick to what you do well
e.g. Matt Damon/ Gwyneth Paltrow/ George Clooney/ Bruce Springsteen
unless your celebrity is due only to self-promotion
e.g. Kim Kardashian/Kevin Federline/Paris Hilton/,
then please, just keep quiet.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 19, 2014

The Honor of Your Presence


As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am the oldest of fifty-one grandchildren. Until I was around five, other than a brother and sister, there were no other grandchildren. I am, of course, older than all my cousins, but significantly older than most. Thus I experienced our grandmother and Great Elm differently than all, and significantly differently than most.

  Mimi always welcomed you into her rooms. If she was in bed with plasters on her wrinkles, if she was saying her morning prayers, if she was packing, if she was discussing the menus for the week, if she was writing letters, if she was on the phone, her grandchildren were welcome. She always had maple sugar high in a closet somewhere among her shoes, and no matter how hard you might look for it yourself, only Mimi could ever reach up and produce it. She always had ice water in a pitcher. She always was happy to see you. She always knew a story to tell about Nancy, the young Confederate girl who helped (Cousin) General Lee, or General Stonewall Jackson, win battles against the bad, old (sometimes she said, “Damn!”) Yankee blue-bellies. She was always more proud of you than anyone she could think of when you played the piano for her, or swam underwater the whole length of the pool, or leaned to jump on a horse, or won a tennis match against anyone who wasn’t related to you, or shot a nasty old woodchuck that had been snacking in the garden.
      If you asked nicely, and if there weren’t already too many people coming, she would invite you to dinner at the Big House which was a special treat beyond imagining: because first you got dressed up in a jacket and tie and nice pants. Then you would already be sitting in the patio with your mother and uncles and aunts when Mimi came downstairs. As she entered, you stood up which made her very proud of your wonderful manners. Her high heels clacked loud on the tiles as she stepped to her seat on the sofa that rocked. And she would say, “Come sit beside me, darlin’.” So, of course, you would. Then Jeff would bring you a coke the special way he made it with Angostura bitters and a maraschino cherry. And after he had passed you your coke and everyone else their Old Fashioneds or scotches, then he would pass the hors d’oeuvres which included because he knew you were coming, peanut butter on triscuits that had been put under the broiler.
You would listen to your mother and uncles and aunts and Mimi talk about people and each other and places they’d been and were going. You would imagine being one day as old as they and joining in the conversation.
      Sometimes Uncle John was there; he was the world’s best fisherman and hunter which is what you wanted to be when you grew up if you couldn’t be a pilot in the World War II.
      After Jeff passed the hors d’oeuvres a second time, he would leave them on the coffee table in front of Mimi which meant in front of you, too. Pretty soon Mimi would say, “Jimmy, dear, would you pass the hors d’euvres.” So you got up from your seat and picked up the tray carefully with both hands and passed it around to everyone else. When each uncle and aunt took something, they would say, “Thank you, Jimmy!” and look you right in the eyes and smile. When you put the tray down, then you could help yourself to olives and triscuits with peanut butter and one cracker with deviled ham because a gentleman samples everything his host offers.
      A while later, Jeff comes back with more drinks for everyone, but this time he just has little glasses with bourbon or scotch that he pours right into everybody’s glass (but not mine – he just pours me more coke if I have finished mine already which I always do). Then he asks if you want more ice. If you do he has a small bowl of ice right there on his tray, and with big tweezers, he picks up as many cubes as you want until you say, “Thank you; that will be fine.”
      After you passed the hors oeuvres around one more time, Jeff would come back and stand in the doorway to the patio. Mimi would look up as soon as she noticed. Jeff would say, “Miz Buckley, dinnah’s suhved.” And Mimi would say, “Thank you, Boykin.” which was Jeff’s last name. And I would smile at Jeff, and he would smile at me.
      All would rise from their seats and step aside to let Mimi lead the way. If Uncle John wasn’t there, Mimi would ask you to escort her to the dining room, but when Uncle John was there, that was his job since he was the oldest son.
      Jeff would be waiting behind Mimi’s chair, and he would pull it back for her and then slide it forward as she sat. I would do the same for any aunt who was going to sit next to me. I always sit to Mimi’s left. When Uncle John is there, he sits at the other end of the table. During the week, though, when all my uncles are in New York so only Mimi, Mother, some aunts, and I are at the table, no one sits there.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 12, 2014

In Thrall to Memory

     My grandfather died on October 25th, 1958. He was 77. About a year later, a book entitled W.F.B., an Appreciation was privately published. My mother, the eldest of his ten children, who would not live ten years more, contributed a piece which she called “Supper at Great Elm.” To begin, she made the distinction between the days when she called her father Papa, and later when, as she and her siblings reached adolescence, they were schooled to call him Father. I, the oldest of his eventual 51 grandchildren, always called him Father, for that was what I took his name to be. Everyone, my mother and her grown up brothers and sisters, called him that. Father was his name, just as my grandmother was Mimi, my mother Mother, and my father Daddy.
“Supper at Great Elm” closes this way:

     Soon – too soon, it seems today – Papa has turned into Father, and the big children are sons and daughters whose eyes no longer widen as they listen [to his stories]. It is only the smaller children who still have Papa, and to them the stories are told.

     As much as my mother seemed to feel regret for not having her Papa beyond her childhood, she experienced none such with her own children, or if she did, she chose not to show it. She treated us in much the same way he apparently treated her. She loved us dearly and passionately as little children, but not really very much when we were older. Oh, sometimes she enjoyed us. She laughed at us and with us. How not? We all share her dry and often disturbing sense of humor. We all have it in us to be witty in the particular way she liked.
     Rarely she was proud of us. Much of the rest of the time she tolerated us in both the best sense of that word but also in the worst: putting up with; enduring. Enough of the time she treated us with scorn, condescension, biting sarcasm, and unconcealed disappointment. She resented, I think, that we grew older.

     Only recently a law suit five of my siblings and I brought against our father ran its course. We lost. We had undertaken the action because we disagreed with our father’s intention to withhold from us after his death the income of a trust our mother had been given by her father. Our suit turned on one phrase in a trust document which we felt as a matter of law had been interpreted wrongly. Nevertheless, as I suppose these things must, the full circus played out – depositions, trials (two: the first judge died before rendering a decision), and appeals. My father was alive when the suit was brought. He was dead before the final disposition. The four siblings who did not join us six as well as his widow have now wrapped themselves in the firm belief that the action we took was responsible for his death, that of a 98 year-old man with a heart condition, previous by-pass surgery, a pace maker, and Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, who was beginning to make a habit of tripping over flower pots, the last time on or about his 95th birthday, which broke his leg. Thus, we siblings are estranged.  Ah, well.

     Today, of my nine uncles and aunts on my mother’s side, two survive. Uncle Jim, who turned 91 two days after my 69th birthday, and Aunt Carol, soon to be 76. I called all save one by their first names. (My Uncle John thought it unseemly that I, a boy, should call him John. He told my mother, and my mother told me I was to call him Uncle John – and his wife Aunt Ann – from then on. I did as I was told. When Uncle Jim married an Ann as well, and distinguishing between the two became a necessity, John’s Ann was called – privately, to be sure, Old Aunt Ann.)
     I believe I used their first names for the same reason my grandfather was Father. I heard them called John, Priscilla, Jim, Jane, Patricia, Bill, Reid, Maureen, and Carol. Before the unfortunate arrival of my adolescence, my greatest pleasure on summer evenings was to sit out of the way during the cocktail hour in my grandmother’s home listening to all of them talk. My only ambition then was to grow old enough to take my place among them. Sure, they were my grandparents and uncles and aunts, but Carol was hardly more than six years my senior. I could have been her youngest brother, and if hers, why not then, the youngest sibling of all of them? Except for my mother, of course, because I was then a small enough child so that being her son was still my greatest joy and pleasure.

     An old friend and former colleague invited my wife and me to dinner one night in the fall of 1999. She was married to a young man who had been my student, years before they married, to be sure. His attendance at the school predated her employment as a teacher. At the table, the young man, recalled an incident from his days in my English class. “You were giving a quiz,” he said. “And by that time, I had learned from your quizzes that I ought to read my assignment twice, so I was feeling confident. I remember the answer to the question was ‘The truth’ which I wrote down right away. Soon I was aware that my classmates were writing and writing and writing. I got worried that I’d been mistaken. I reread the question. The answer was still ‘The truth.’ Rather than reassuring me, though, that made me worry all the more. You must have noticed me worrying, because you got up from your desk, walked over to me and looked at my answer. Then you smiled and nodded.”
     It was a nice story. I appreciated hearing it and accepted the implied compliment. On our way home that evening, I told my wife, “Until this evening, I would have sworn that M. was never one of my students.”
     Memory is enthralling, or perhaps I mean, I am feeling in thrall to my memories. I once argued with a woman for almost an hour about words that I had heard her say only a few days before. They were – and I believe I can still hear them as clearly and accurately as I did the night of the argument now thirty-eight years in the past – “But he was warned, many times!” In fact, not only can I still hear the words, I can see her speaking them, I can see to whom she was speaking, I can take you and stand where I was standing and point precisely to where she was standing. Yet that night of the argument, she denied over and over and over she said those words or any like them.
     In July of this year, my father would have been 100 but for having been dead for two years. My mother died when she was forty-eight. My grandmother died March 10, 1985, only one day before her ninetieth birthday: Uncle John, three months before his mother; his wife Ann in 1965;  Aunt Maureen a couple of years before my mother; Aunt Pat in 2007, her husband, Uncle Bill ten months later; Aunt Jane also in 2007. Aunt Patricia, Bill’s favorite sister, died five months after Jane; her husband, Uncle Brent ten years prior. My godmother, Aunt Priscilla, died in 2012, a few months after her 90th birthday. My Uncle Reid died in April of this year.
     I remember things about all of them. For instance, I remember when my grandmother suspected I was sneaking rum into my coca-cola. I remember my Aunt Maureen weeping in the arms of her sisters one evening because she believed she was unattractive, and no man would ever fall in love with her. I remember my Uncle John being surprised and grateful that I, age twelve, didn’t shoot at the quail flying between him and me. I remember my mother, during the first moments of her return from yet another stint in a psychiatric hospital, asking me how my broken arm was mending. I had not broken my arm. When I asked what she meant, she said she’d assumed I had since I had sent her no letters. Three months later she died. All those memories are from the summer’s our family spent in Sharon, which is to say, every summer in the lives of my three brothers, six sisters, and me from our births through 1967.
     What I don’t “remember” is much of the framework of those memories. For instance, my grandmother, Mimi, and I were sitting on a sofa in the patio of her home. I was under the age of twenty-one. It was the cocktail hour before dinner. Everyone, as was the custom, was dressed for dinner: jackets and ties for the gentlemen, dresses for the ladies. Others of the family were there: most likely my mother; perhaps my father if the occasion was part of a weekend; any or all of my five aunts and four uncles and the spouses of those already married; perhaps my sister Pam, the second oldest in my family; maybe my brother John, the third. For some reason Mimi suspected I had managed to get rum into what was supposed to be only a coke. She asked me to let her taste it. I had no intention of doing that, but how to deny Mimi, especially in front of most of the other adults in the world whose opinion of me mattered? She pulled gently on my wrist with her left hand, reaching for the glass with her right. “Let me taste it,” she said, gently, quietly.
     “No, Mimi,” said I, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
     Just as my mother began to notice, Mimi desisted. “Be careful about that,” she said, and no more then or ever again.
     My relief was such that I gave no thought to her words; but a quarter century later when my Uncle John, alone in a hotel room on a business trip to Canada, experienced the alcoholic bleed which killed him, I recognized the nature of her warning.
     I would say I can’t let go of that memory, but that isn’t at all what I mean. I don’t want to let go. What I want is not to wince when I visit it. That’s why I say in thrall. My memories are not part of a narrative. They are scenes running in a loop. Back in the olden days – an outdated phrase which itself is from the olden days – if one didn’t arrive for a movie on time, one could simply stay seated while most left the theater. In moments, the movie, preceded by previews and a cartoon, would start over. My brother John and I once walked into a film called Vanishing Point. We were twenty or thirty minutes late so, after it was over, we stayed where we were. Atypically, when the film reached its explosive conclusion again, we sat where we were for a third viewing. That, by the way, is the origin of the phrase, “This is where we came in.”
     At this time, half a year from age 70, I want to replace the thrall in favor of some feeling more akin to pleasure. So I will write of my memories as a gift to myself, hoping this time to leave where I came in.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | July 16, 2014

Sharing with Others

You may not have noticed, but I certainly did. I have not posted to my blog for more than a year. There were reasons. Our stepped up house-hunting was a big one. What is also true, however, is that I was boring myself a bit. While my view of Public Education has not changed, I find have little more to add to what I’ve already said. So, I am going to let the focus of Cornvillenutmeg shift and wander with no particular intent. For the time being at least, you can expect content as diverse as the people you might meet on a cruise.

Speaking of Cruising, until last month, my previous experience with that was nil. While I have before a short time ago traveled aboard ocean-going passenger ships, the primary purpose of those ships was transporting passengers from, in the first instance, Marseille to New York City, and in the second, New York City to Le Havre. No ports of call, no shore excursions, no sharing with others.
Today, I consider myself Cruise Proficient. My wife and I have recently returned from spending fourteen nights and much of fourteen days aboard a medium-sized cruise ship (1300 passengers, 600 crew), which traveled from Seattle to Seattle visiting along the way many places in Alaska and one city in Canada.

At this point, I need to admit that I am a reserved and reticent person. I like people well enough; I just don’t want to spend much time with them. I’m very happy to make conversation with, say, the check-out person in my supermarket. I would rather not engage in conversation with a seat mate on the rare occasions I travel without my wife; but I’m not rude, and if someone wants to tell me about his grandchildren or chiropractor, I will listen after a fashion and make empathetic sounds and short comments. I do not as a rule, however, encourage further intercourse by sharing. On a cruise,being reserved and reticent is not an easy thing to pull off.
At home, we don’t take three or four sit down meals a day. Our breakfasts are, mostly cold cereal relieved by fruit. From then until supper we graze, each on his own. At sea, on the other hand, we ate in the main Dining Room each morning, mid-afternoon, and evening. Lunch we took on an upper deck where a luncheon buffet was served school cafeteria style which is not a judgment of the quantity, quality, or variety of fare. Plates full, we searched for unoccupied seats where we joined other passengers, their mid-day meal already in progress. We often visited mid-afternoon High Tea served in the upper level of the Main Dining Room, and except for one blessed occasion, we did so in company. What each and every one of these dining opportunities meant to me, apart from a growing fear of growing fat, was dismaying and unavoidable opportunities to share with others.
Now, we could have limited our exposure to other guests, as passengers are repeatedly referred to. We could have chosen to eat at the same time each evening, at 5:15 or 8:00. That way we would have eaten with the same people at the same table each evening. (If you are like me at all, the possibility that the people you could find yourself with for the next fortnight would turn out to be less than ideal companions occurs to you immediately. I kept that to myself, however.) In the end we decided the first seating was too early and the other too late; we chose instead “open seating.”

At the entrance to the Dining Room, stern-most on Deck Four, one is greeted by the Dining Room Steward or his assistant. One is asked one’s stateroom number. All cabins are staterooms, even our 171 square feet with unobstructed ocean view the enjoyment of which necessitated only the slightest contortion. (Quite simple really, once you got the hang of it. Starting from a supine position – back of the head on pillow, feet facing the stateroom door – turn over, come to all fours, kneel up, arms at your side, forearms raised, shuffle forward on your knees, lean forward until your forearms come to rest on the sill in front of you. There before you is the ocean, or the coast line, or an interesting view of pier pilings, all depending, of course, on the ship’s location.)

The Steward enters the number you gave, then says, “Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so?”

You nod or say, “Yes.”

The Steward says, “Happy to share?”

Our first evening I had no idea what that meant. “I beg your pardon?” I said.

“Happy to share with others?”

I looked at my wife. I don’t hear all that well, and while I was wearing my hearing aids, certain voices, higher pitched and soft ones particularly, are still difficult. All the dining room staff, in fact most of the crew, are Indonesian. They all speak excellent if not unaccented English, but their voices are also soft and higher pitched. It must be an island thing. Most were from Bali.

The steward rephrased. “Happy to share a table with other guests?”

“Yes,” my wife said before I could think to ask if there weren’t possibly some tables for one or two set aside for reserved, reticent curmudgeons such as I.
And so began our Cruise, my first, during which I shared intimately with more adult human beings in fourteen days than I had cumulatively during my previous 68 years.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | February 20, 2013

Shared (Classroom) Spaces

Unless you are in Public Education (or, alas, in much of  Independent Education as well), if someone were to ask you the meaning of the word consequence, you might say something close to the following:  “Why consequence means something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition.”   Or, let me see, you could say, “A consequence is the relation of a result to its cause.”  Or, to put it yet another way, “A logical conclusion or inference.”  For the dictionary hound, those three definitions come from the American Heritage Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin).

Those in Public Education know that consequence really means punishment.  Observe.

Place: Mr. Assistant Principal’s Office.

Day:  Thursday.

Time:  11:27 A.M.


Mr. Assistant Principal:  Come in, Tom, have a seat.

Tom:  (saying nothing, shuffling into Mr. AP’s office.  He sits in the chair in front of Mr. AP’s desk.  He’s been here before.)

Mr. AP:  Do you know what I have here, Tom?

Tom:  No.  (He does know, but he’s not going to participate in the process any more than he can help.)

Mr. AP:  It’s a Discipline Referral from Mrs. Leary.

Tom:  So?

Mr. AP:  Does that help you remember?

Tom:  How can I remember what I don’t know?

Mr. AP:  Last Monday, when she sent you to the office?

Tom:  Not ringing a bell.

Mr. AP:  For using inappropriate language…

Tom:  That was bullshit, she….

Mr. AP:  …after warning you repeatedly.

Tom:  She accused me of not doing my homework?

Mr. AP:  You couldn’t produce it.

Tom:  What?

Mr. AP:  You didn’t have it with you.

Tom:  How does that mean I didn’t do it?

Mr. AP:  Did you do it?

Tom:  What?

Mr. AP:  Had you done your homework?

Tom:   Honestly?

Mr. AP:  Yes, Tom.  Honestly.  Had you done your homework?

Tom:  No (pause.  Mr. AP is about to add something else)  But she didn’t know that.  She said I was lying.

Mr. AP:  Well, it sounds to me, from what you just said, that you were.

Tom:  How do you like it when people call you a liar?

Mr. AP:  If that were to happen, which it doesn’t, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it at all.

Tom:  See? 

Mr. AP:  Do I see what?

Tom:  It was bullshit.

Mr. AP:  (deciding the interview has gone on more than long enough)  The Consequence for your being removed from Mrs. Leary’s class is Saturday School?

Tom:  No way!

Mr. AP:  It’s in the Student Handbook, under Disciplinary Consequences, p. 47.  (reading from the handbook)  Infraction:  Removal from Class.  Consequence:  Saturday School.  Sorry, Tom,  my hands are tied.

Tom:  What if I don’t show up?

Mr. AP:  (reading again)  Infraction:  Failure to attend Saturday School.  Consequence:  One day in-school suspension.

Tom:  I’ll take that.  At least I won’t have to listen to Leary’s bullshit.


Had I not heard conversations indistinguishable from the one I imagined above, I would not have taken the time to illustrate the point that way.  But I have, too many times, in fact.

Now remember my last post on Food for Thought?  No?  Well, okay.  That was my fault.  I said I’d write more in a few days and a few days has turned into a couple or three weeks.  So if you need to refresh your memory, I’ll wait while you look it over.


Right, now the last line was[Shared Spaces is] saying you’ve got to put responsibility back on people, not on the government.”  Reread that line, but, (1) change people to students, (2) add the word teachers, (3) change government to administrators, (4) begin the sentence at put, and (5) delete the word back.  Now we have:  Put responsibility on students and teachers, not on the administrators.

 I hope I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure most public school teachers would howl at the very idea.  Teachers, most especially those who went to teacher college, will talk your ear off if you want to hear about their approach to Classroom Management, but Discipline is something handled by Administrators so Teachers can concentrate on the import work of Educating Learners. 


To save myself time, I checked out Shard Spaces on Wikipedia and found this:

Risk compensation (also Peltzman effect, risk homeostasis) is an observed effect in ethology whereby people tend to adjust their behavior in response to perceived level of risk, behaving less cautiously where they feel more protected and more cautiously where they feel a higher level of risk. The theory emerged out of road safety research after it was observed that many interventions failed to achieve the expected level of benefits but has since found application in many other fields.


Peltzman, by the way, is Dr. Sam Peltzman.  You can find him speaking about the Peltzman Effect on YouTube.  He’s interesting.

Rooting around on Google, I discovered the following from Dr. Gerald G.S. Wilde in a discussion of Risk Homeostasis.

People alter their behaviour in response to the implementation of health and safety measures, but the riskiness of the way they behave will not change, unless those measures are capable of motivating people to alter the amount of risk they are willing to incur. (Wilde, 1994)


I shall paraphrase to suit my purpose:  Students alter their classroom behavior in response to the implementation of different consequences ( or perhaps I should say negative or positive results) for enumerated behaviors, but the appropriateness of the way they behave will not change unless those consequences are capable of motivating students to alter the amount of risk they are willing to incur.  In the imagined conversation above, Tom’s consequence is an acceptable result of his behavior in Mrs. Leary’s class.  As the saying has it, if you do the crime, you do the time.  The result of Tom’s blissfully spending his day suspended from classes will certainly be a repetition of the behavior that got him to be suspended in the first place.  Being suspended will bring about no chance Tom will mend his ways and (a) begin to do his homework, and/or (b) stop lying about doing his homework.  Nor will his vocabulary improve.

Educators allow themselves to think that motivation is exclusively a positive term, but it is not.  People young and old can be motivated by unattractive alternatives, too.  New to Arizona and not wise to the pleasure the local gendarmerie take in strictly enforcing traffic laws in this part of the state, I ran afoul of a motorcycle policeman whom I now think of as Officer Bonaparte due to the fact that, once he had dismounted and arrived outside the driver’s window, he and I were looking deeply and directly into each other’s eyes.  I had indeed done the crime (although to be fair to myself, it was due to my unfamiliarity with the eccentricities of the town’s ideas of from which of three lanes one may or may not make a left hand turn rather than my anarchic driving habits) and so unhappily I accepted the time, so to speak.  As a result, I am highly motivated not to go through yellow lights, squeeze out in front of on-coming traffic, go faster then 25 miles per hour in a residential zone, 15 mph in a school zone while school is in session, or make a turn from a lane not explicitly created for such a turn.

It used to be that a managed classroom was one in which acceptable and appropriate behavior was expected by the teacher;  conversely. inappropriate behavior was not accepted.  Appropriate, by which I mean good, behavior was rewarded in myriad ways.  A smile, a pat, a note sent home, encouragement, praise, a congratulatory comment, gold stars.  Bad behavior was also responded to.  A frown, a sharp word, a note sent home, what a former colleague used to call “the hairy eye-ball,” detention, removal from class which sometime led to rustication§ .  The latter was the last and least favored, for in such cases, teachers understood clearly that they were admitting failure and turning their problem over to someone else who, by virtue of hierarchical position, was more authoritative and intimidating.

In Middle Schools across the country children learn, of course, many things.  One of the most momentous lessons they learn is this:  almost nothing they do, write, or say is  less than wonderful, astonishing, marvelous, splendid, great, super, incomparable, excellent, and/or outstanding.  Don’t believe me?  Do this:  if you are still young enough to have held on to the journals you wrote in Middle School, look through them.  See what words your teachers used in comments about your efforts.  If you are parents of Middle School children, look at their journals.  If you are a Middle School English teacher and you don’t write such comments, congratulations!  You are an uncommonly sensical person.

To return to the Shared Spaces concept and applying it to the classroom:  what might be the eventual result if next day after Labor Day, teachers were to remove from their bulletin boards the Rules for My Class; e.g., (1) Be On-Time, (2) Bring Appropriate Materials:  book, paper, pencil or pen, assignment book, (3) Be Courteous,  (4) Raise Your Hand.  (5)  Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Work, (6) Do Not Leave Your Seat without Permission?  In other words, what might happen if the principles of Shared Spaces were applied to a classroom? 

Given a teacher with the requisite courage, students would bump up against results (consequences) of inappropriate and unacceptable behavior that made them feel not wonderful, astonishing, marvelous, splendid, great, super, incomparable, excellent, and/or outstanding in any way whatsoever.  On the other hand, they would also discover a number of behaviors that resulted in their feeling good in any number of ways.  These behaviors they would fairly quickly come to understand as ones that are appropriate, acceptable, appreciated, and rewarding.  Does this sound familiar to you at all?  Do you recall the term Behavior Modification?

Once upon a time, teachers made use of what eventually became known as Operant Conditioning because it worked for most all of their students.  Then the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers cast their spell, and Public Education committed itself to Improving and Reforming itself every five to seven years or so, thereby credulously throwing the babies out with the bath water.  In the end, Shared Spaces is a return to doing things that makes sense.  Where the concept of Shared Spaces is applied and ends up making for happier, healthier, safer places, it will have been because behavior in those places has been modified.  There will have been enough positive and negative consequences to people’s actions that the people will have chosen those behaviors that were rewarded and eschewed those that were not. 

  • § You’ll recognize this word as meaning suspended or expelled if you happen to have had the pleasure of seeing the Spencer Tracy film, Captains Courageous.  I used it because I may never have another chance.
Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | January 18, 2013

Did You Know?

The Centers for Disease Control publishes each year the “National Vital Statistics Reports.  All data below is taken from Volume 61,  Number 6:  “Deaths:  Preliminary Data for 2011.”


     Did you know that in addition to the 34,677 people who died in automobile accidents, an additional 952 died in other land transport accidents?  And 1,647 died from water, air, and space, and “other unspecified transport accidents and their sequelae?”  That would be 37,276 people who died as the result of accidents with things on average under less restriction than the purchase and ownership of firearms.

Did you know that accidental discharge of firearms killed 861 people;  but 3,555 died from accidental drowning and submersion, 2,621 from accidental exposure to smoke, fire and flames, and 33,554 from accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances?

     Alcoholic liver disease killed 16,634 people.

     Malnutrition and other nutritional deficiencies were responsible for the deaths of 6,170 people.  Salmonella, shigellosis (dysentery caused by any of various species of shigellae, occurring most frequently in areas where poor sanitation and malnutrition are prevalent and commonly affecting children and infants), and certain other intestinal infections carried off 11,022.

     38,285 people committed suicide;  Of those, 19,766 shot themselves, and 18,519 found other means of carrying themselves off.  There were 11,101 homicides caused by discharge of firearms, and 4,852 people were murdered by “other and unspecified means and their sequelae.”  2,580 people lost their lives as the result of complications of medical and surgical care.

     40,239 people died from drug induced deaths, and alcohol took care of another 26,256.  Enterocolitis due to Clostridium difficile, a nasty bacteria that causes severe diarrhea in people whose native population of gut flora has been eradicated by antibiotics, killed 7,994.


The following information pertains to Wisconsin.  I did not specifically select Wisconsin.  It was simply the first state to come up on an internet search of laws concerning the sale of alcohol.  For gun laws, I stayed with Wisconsin.


     Top obtain a license to sell alcohol in Wisconsin, you have to be twenty-one and have lived in Wisconsin for at least 90 days.  You need to have a seller’s permit issued by the Department of Revenue and have completed a responsible beverage server training course.  It’s probably better if you do not have a criminal record, but in the end, whether to issue an ex-con a license or not is up to the given municipality.  The municipality will look at your record carefully.  If you have been convicted of, say, selling liquor without a license or tax evasion, the relevant officials may have some trouble with that.  On the other hand, a conviction for auto theft won’t automatically deep six your chances.  They will look closely at the nature of your violation and take into consideration your overall record in the community (

     Wisconsin apparently has some of the most liberal gun laws in the United States.  Nevertheless, it does seem to pay more attention to who may and may not own a gun than it does to who may or may not sell alcohol.

     Felons are prohibited from possessing firearms.  Now it is true that federal law and some individual states may restore to felons their civil rights, which would include being able to own a gun, but Wisconsin only does that if a felon receives a pardon from the governor.

     Wisconsin law prohibits minors from possessing firearms, but it does make exceptions for long guns used for hunting or firearms used during adult supervised activities such as target shooting.  But, minors judged delinquent based on a felony may not own any type of gun.  Not only that, school districts must suspend pupils found in possession of a firearm either on school property or while under the supervision of a school, which of course would not really have applied to Adam Lanza. 

     Nor would the restrictions imposed on the mentally ill have applied.  The mentally ill may not possess firearms, under certain fairly particular circumstances.  If a person was charged with a felony but found not guilty or not responsible due to mental illness, that person may not possess firearms. Also a person who has been involuntarily committed for treatment of mental illness, drug dependency, or developmental disability, should the court deem the person to be a threat to self or others, such a person may not possess firearms.  In addition, when a person is involuntarily committed as delineated above, that person’s firearms are to be seized or stored until the person is judged no longer to suffer from the mental illness and no longer likely to be a danger to himself or others. 

     If you have a restraining order on you, you may not possess firearms and you are required to surrender your firearms to the county sheriff or a third party approved by the court. 

     In addition, even if you are not one of those classes of people prohibited from possessing firearms, you may not anyway possess machine guns (not to be confused with what some call assault rifles;  a machine gun is fully automatic such  that depressing and holding down the trigger causes the machine gun to fire non-stop until its magazine is empty or it jams.  A machine gun is difficult to control as the uninterrupted firing tends to cause the barrel to rise unless it is held down firmly.  Typically, a fully automatic weapon specialist – think military or SWAT – becomes expert at firing bursts of three to four rounds at a time rather than emptying the magazine in seconds).

     One may not own a sawed–off shotgun or similarly modified rifle. Armor-piercing ammunition is banned by federal law, as are plastic firearms that cannot be sensed by metal detectors.

     It is illegal to use firearms in armed robbery, burglary, or carjacking.  (What might a law abiding robber be able to use other than a firearm in an armed robbery, do you think?)  Discharging a firearm from a vehicle is prohibited as also are drive-by shootings which you might have thought would have been covered by the previously mentioned prohibition, but I guess Wisconsin is just leaving nothing to chance.  You may also not shoot into a vehicle or building.  You may not provide a firearm to a prisoner.  You may not steal a firearm.  You may not use a firearm negligently or while intoxicated.  Furthermore, discharging a firearm near a residence, a public park, at trains or near highways and roads all are prohibited.

     Carrying or displaying facsimile firearms is prohibited.  Imitation firearms are prohibited.  And to avoid any confusion, using those prohibited armor piercing bullets is also prohibited.

     It is illegal to sell, lend, or give a firearm to a child, and if you do that and the child shoots someone, the punishment for that will be greater than it might have been, except for that particular prohibition doesn’t apply to rifles and shotguns used for hunting or target practice under adult supervision.  If you leave or store a loaded firearm “recklessly,” and a child under the age of fourteen gets her hands on it, displays it in a public place or uses it to injure or kill someone, you will be considered guilty of a misdemeanor. 

     Wisconsin law, as do the laws of pretty much every state including Connecticut,  prohibits the possession or shooting of a firearm within a school zone.  Such zones are called Gun Free School Zones.  And everybody who is disposed to be law-abiding obeys that law with perfectly predictable results when someone not so inclined and in possession of one or more firearms invades such a zone.

     Wisconsin requires anyone born after January 1, 1973, to complete a Hunter Education Program before being issued a hunting license.  The program includes instruction in the commonly accepted safety principles for handling hunting firearms. 

     Recall that Wisconsin’s gun laws are considered liberal, in the sense of not strict.  Do you think it’s fair to say that getting a license to sell alcohol which accounted for the premature deaths of 42,890 people in 2011 is easier than buying and keeping guns, which can be said to have been the second-hand cause of death (you know the saying, guns don’t kill people, people do) of 31, 728?

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | November 20, 2012

Schools as Business

     A letter in the Wall Street Journal the other day got me thinking.  It was in response to an op-ed piece making the point that Public Schools ought to be run more like businesses.  The letter writer took the challenge.  She said, okay;  if a school is a business, it has top-level executives, whom she identified as administrators.  Then the managers would be the teachers, and the students the workers.  Having set up the trope, she posed questions such as, how successful would a business be if it increased the workers any given manager was supervising from 25 to 35 or 40 or more?  How successful would a business be if it didn’t reward its managers with adequate compensation and benefits?  Or how about if it required its managers to work with fewer resources and support?  If it required its managers to provide out of their own pockets the material their workers need to do their jobs?

     Okay, yes, I got it.  The answer for each question posed was the same:  not very successful at all.

     I took her point for what it was worth, only it would have been worth much more were there a real world equivalency between business and education.  What militates against the equivalency is the purpose of business: to make money;  while the purpose of education is, well, education.  I suppose the letter writer would argue that what education produces is educated citizens, but then we’d need to identify who or what the consumer for that product might be, and how much might the education industry expect such a consumer to pay for an educated citizen. 

Part of the data states require from each public school system is in effect an annual price tag for each student.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, per pupil expenditure in Connecticut for 2009 was $13,959.  Let’s round that up to $14,000 and say then that the cost to educate a high school student from 2009 to 2012 was $56,000.  Add four years of college for another $100,000.  So the price tag on the product education is selling – adding fairly modest amounts for text books, commuting, or rooming and boarding costs – is on the order of $200,000.  Who or what is going to pony up that for each young man or woman who our colleges and universities graduate each year?  According to CBS News, in 2010, 5.9 million people were awarded post-secondary degrees.  Say that 2.9 million where either foreign students or post-graduate students.  Then the cost to the as yet unidentified consumers of the newly minted and educated citizens for one year would be six trillion dollars.

     If you would argue that Public Education should be run like successful businesses, you must also be willing to see the end result as the artifacts those businesses are producing.  As the paragraph above makes clear, however, the notion is preposterous.  Still, suggesting there are practices that successful businesses follow which could be incorporated into Public Education is worth considering, but in that regard, simplicity is best.  How about this?  What doesn’t work needs fixing;  what does work needs to be left alone.


Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | October 3, 2012

Master Teachers as Evaluators

Standardized tests won’t do it (and by the way for a superb explanation of why, check out and supervisors are too removed from actual teaching to do it, teacher unions too paranoid about Management cynically taking advantage of every opportunity to wring every last ounce of work and blood out of teachers without paying them a living wage, students too self-interested, and parent the same.  So, who is left to turn to for a meaningful evaluation of teachers?  Well, how about teachers?

In the rest of the evil, money-grabbing, greedy, unfeeling world – which is to say any country where any rational person might want to live – on leaving school and entering the workplace, a new hire soon gets to know well an old hire who both trains and evaluates the greenhorns.  Such old hires are experienced, respected, and trusted.  The mind turns naturally to the so-called trades:  professions such as plumbers, electricians, brick-layers;  but the practice is essentially the same in virtually all other professions:  think medical interns, newly minted JDs, recent MBA graduates, rookie police officers and firefighters, boot recruits in the armed services.  Any successful enterprise from the Targets of the world to Habitat for Humanity uses experienced workers who are respected and admired by their colleagues to train and evaluate neophyte workers.


During the penultimate year of my tenure at my first school, the Headmaster created the title of Master Teacher.  Then he elevated a handful of faculty to be the first corps of Master Teachers. While it was so that all of us in the faculty had always tacitly acknowledged them as the master teachers among, the Headmaster’s actions conferred official status.  Of course, each discipline had its own department chairman, but while the chairmen were often consulted on matters of hiring and letting go, mainly their tasks were secretarial and administrative in nature.  The newly minted Master Teachers, however, were, among other things, directed to take a hand in evaluation.  It was a system that worked well in all respects, for before any evaluating or supervising happened, the Master Teachers took under their wings their junior colleagues.  By the time any criticism of the new teachers entered into the dynamic, the relationship between Master and apprentice had been established as that of trusted mentor and mentee.

Would this system work in Public Education?  Of course it would.  And besides, in a limited, informal, but no official way,  it does already.  Almost any teacher new to a school – freshly graduated from teacher college or not – will gravitate toward an experienced teacher with whom he feels a connection.  (And if he doesn’t  that should set off alarm bells, for it is in the nature of good teachers to want to learn to be better teachers.  Arrogance is not always a bad thing, but one needs first to earn the right to it .)

While to take the informal and admittedly hit or miss de facto system that already exists and make it both formal and official could be simple and easy,  the culture of Public Education would resist that path in favor of a recondite, prolonged, top-to-bottom-to-top approach.  A system wide committee would be formed by the Superintendent.  After school meetings would be held (which are, trust me, the kiss of death to any initiative;  no teacher in his right mind ever willingly or happily or productively sits through an after-school meeting).  Sooner or later what would almost certainly become known as The Master Teacher/Mentor Pre-Tenure Teacher Professional Development and Assessment Initiative (MTMPTTPD) would become part of the collective bargaining process which in all likelihood would mean that it would end up on the bargaining room floor, sacrificed in the interest of adding an extra Teacher Development Day to the next contract in return for a pro-rated additional day’s earnings in lieu of the union’s giving up its demand for a three and half percent raise coupled with no additional days to the  teacher work year. 

But maybe I’m wrong.  Anyone out there in a PTO?  Care to propound the proposal?

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 19, 2012

The Demise of the Department Chairmen

The Demise of the Department Chairmen.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 12, 2012

Good Teachers and How to Know One

     Sister Myra Paul, all four feet eleven inches of her, stepped in from the hall, turned to close the door, and walked to the front of the room. Without notes, without reading from a text, she began to talk. “Once upon a time, almost ten thousand years ago,” she said, “in a land known as Mesopotamia, lived a tribe of people.” That day was Tuesday, September 5th, 1961, and Edie Petrello and her two closest friends, Evelyn and Kathy, along with thirty-seven other sophomore girls began to write in their notebooks. Sister, who taught World History at St. Brendan’s High School in Brooklyn, New York, went on with her story. Edie stopped writing in her notebook. The story was too good to look away from.

     When the bell rang again, Sister stopped talking. No one looked away. No one moved. “Well, she said, “I will just have tell you about Gilgamesh tomorrow.” With that, she bid them good day and stepped back into the hall.

     In May of 1962, Edie, Evelyn, and Kathy gathered in the library to begin to review for their Regents Exam in World History. They took out their notebooks. There on the first page of her notebook, Edie found the paragraph of notes she had taken on September 5th, and not much else. While I cannot tell you how Evelyn and Kathy did on their exams, I can tell you that Edie scored 95%. Sister Myra Paul had captivated, intrigued, engaged, and fascinated her forty students with what Edie still remembers as the Story of World History, of which Edie learned apparently a great deal.

     Sister Myra Paul embodied the qualities, inherent and explicit, in the responses I received to the question: What is the most significant indicator of a good teacher? Recall that those who sent me their answers are educators, both teachers and administrators, parents, grandparents, performance and graphic artists, politicians, judges and lawyers, broadcasters, business men and women, and medical professionals. Here is the distillation of what they offered:

§ The teacher’s humanity. Yes, content knowledge and intelligence are crucial; (however,) when I think of many memorable moments in teaching, they were about my ability to read students’ needs..

§ …the good ones I remember excited us…they knew their fields, lectured with confidence, demanded top effort…being well liked was surprisingly low on my list of a good teacher….the ones from whom I really learned something were demanding…and generous in their praise…

§ There really isn’t one perfect indicator of a good teacher… One way is to listen to what students and parents say… For example, there was a teacher named Mr. Hook whom all the students and parents loved. And everyone was well aware of this..

§ Confident students

§ A good teacher should never ever for one minute be boring.

§ One whose students learn English, Math, Science and History.

§ The ability to cause students to want to learn more.

§ That students are fully engaged in meaningful learning.

§ Patience. Encouragement. Listening… Looking for the best in students. One of the greatest obstacles to true learning today is that many children don’t want to be (in school); they end up becoming a nightmare for teachers who want to teach and the students who want to learn.

§ If a teacher is respected by his/her students, they can then be inspired to learn.  And the teacher has to want success for students…There are many teachers who just go through the motions. 

§ One who knows how to motivate students.

§ As far as good teacher bad teacher: my two sons had as little talent playing baseball as I did.  My eldest son’s coach said to him, “I’m going to make a 300 hitter out of you.”  And he did, and the team went on to win its division. My youngest son’s coach told me, “Your son is out of his league, and he is off the team.”…That same kind of attitude exists in the classroom.  Good teacher works, bad teacher doesn’t.  One of the teachers I most admired was Fr. Phillip Kellett, SJ.  He would say, “All I want on my tombstone is ‘He Worked.’”

§ That the teacher loves her subject area, as well as learning in general, and does her very best to impart that love on to her students in a supportive, engaging atmosphere — in-class and out.

§ One quality (talented teachers) all seem to share is passion…for their subject, for learning, for teaching, for students…they exude it. 

§ Passion for the content, a keen desire to learn and to help others learn, the ability to communicate both their passion and content to others.

     To return to Edie for just a moment, a year later she and her friends took U.S. History. She does not recall the teacher’s name. What she recalls about that course is memorizing lists of names and dates. She will tell you that what she truly knows today of American History she learned anywhere other than that class.

     We all – I hope –had one or more teachers like Sister Myra Paul during our student lives. I suppose an argument could thereby be made for student evaluations of teachers. Who better to know firsthand whether or not a teacher has helped a student’s progress toward becoming someone who thinks well? The problem in that is no matter what, until approximately the age of twenty-four, the human brain has not fully developed, so relying on Sophomore Sally Go-getter’s appraisal of her teachers has a built-in catch that only time can erase. In addition, teenagers, through no fault of their own, are what they are, so for every honest, accurate, and fair student assessment of a teacher, there would certainly be at least one dishonest, inaccurate, ego-centric assessment as well. Take a random sampling of twenty-five high school students, give them a choice of answering true or false to the statement: “I like school.” Do you think the majority of those twenty-five would answer True?

     The answer above that speaks of Mr. Hook is factually true. Mr. Hook and I were colleagues. He retired two years before I did. What is also true, however, is that Mr. Hook’s colleagues knew he was a good teacher, particularly his fellow math teachers.

     With the possible exceptions of the absurd mega-high schools with thousands of students, teachers who have worked in a school for five years or more know who the good teachers are. They know that in exactly the way a majority of employees anywhere know who the good workers are, and it makes very little difference what the job is. That being the case, who do you think would make the best evaluators or assessors or judges of teachers? I would suggest the Mr. Hooks of the Public Education universe fill that bill.

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