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 | 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 | 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 | August 30, 2012

The Well Educated High School Graduate

1.  What is the most important thing a student should have learned by the time she (or he – don’t feel left out) graduates from high school?

     Those who responded to that question were teachers and administrators in both public and independent education; a judge of the Third District Court of Appeals; a grandmother with a degree in Business; a wine and spirit broker; a writer, radio and television host of Christian broadcasting programs; a theater director; a former college administrator and currently president of a charity that works with museums to bring their collections to hospices; another grandmother who works now with the elderly; a former senator; a literary agent; a graphic artist; a medical technician, yet another grandmother who is also a writer; an acting teacher; a voice-over artist; a former assistant Secretary of State. The youngest is twenty-three, the oldest is eighty-two.

Here now a distillation of their wisdom, bits and pieces of responses to the first question.

  • · “an internalized critical perspective on the world…. (the ability) to evaluate and analyze various types of information.”
    · “ a yearning for more knowledge and the ability both to teach themselves and seek out further education.”
    · “to keep learning, because learning is never done: learning makes life interesting. The more you know, the more you know there is more to know.”
    · “how to record conclusions and the reasoning behind them clearly and logically (the latter suggests they have learned how to think logically).”
    · “English, Math, Science and History.”
    · “being capable of the efforts needed to live a happy and productive life in a complicated world.”
    · “critical thinking.”
    · “(having learned) how to apply oneself, (then) to find the facts for oneself.”
    · know how to read and how to study (in order to) have the ability to learn many things on your own.”
    · “a lifetime love of learning…a continued engagement in reading, exploring the world, tinkering with stuff, creating things, taking classes in subjects which interest (you).”
    · effective communication: oral, written, and even non-verbal… the ability to write and speak effectively for varying purposes, for varying audiences, with varying techniques and styles.”
    · “(ability) to access a wide range of information, think about that information critically and flexibly, and be able to communicate their thoughts through a variety of means.”
    · Effective communication… and the ability to think critically about life and its complexities.”
  • “My first year after high school I was only going to college part-time.  (I) stopped in to talk to my art teacher from high school. I told her that I was eager to start learning about film that I was reading everything about the subject I could get my hands on. The public library became my best friend.  I even discovered free college courses about film in the form of pod-casts available on i-tunes. She said “Well, that’s the whole purpose of high school. To teach you how to teach yourself and to continue learning.”

     To a previous post, All You Need to Know about Evaluation, a friend, a former town librarian, makes this comment: “Do you think a teacher can be ‘evaluated’ in any measurement kind of way? It seems to me that the best teachers are the ones who either instill a love of and excitement for learning, or instill a sense of persistence to achieve a goal. I’m not sure how that can be measured, but each of us can evaluate the teachers in our own lives who did those things for us. Do we need teacher evaluations? Whom do they serve?”

     Quite apart from her having reiterated in her own words that which so many respondents said in their own – a love of and excitement for learning, or instill a sense of persistence to achieve a goal – she cuts to the chase. How can a teacher be evaluated in a measured way?

     To put it kindly, Public Education has become fanatical when it comes to measuring. Much of that fervor has to do with the ever increasing cost of education, or to put it more accurately if less kindly, the bottom line for running any given public school system. According to Stephen Farenga and Daniel Ness, writing in the Encyclopedia Of Education And Human Development, tax-payer revolts in response to increasing education budgets go back as far as 1970. I can’t say I recall that, but I do know that in the 1990s the school system I worked for in Connecticut almost never saw its proposed budget passed until it had been revised downward two or even three times.

     Public School systems, especially in affluent towns, feel a constant and increasing pressure to justify their cost. How is that most plainly accomplished? With facts and figures. They want to be able to point out that their students achieve at a level x percentage points higher than town y’s do; that more of their graduates go on to higher education than town y’s do; that their students score higher on the Advanced Placement (pick a subject) Test than town y’s do. Thus, when taxpayers make noise about what they will be getting for the increase their taxes, school systems want to point to data to illustrate their teachers are n% better than town y’s.

     To do that, public school systems need to be able to evaluate their teachers with some instrument that yields data. Let me ask you, how might one go about measuring the extent to which a student reflects the values inherent in the statements above? I have my own ideas about that, but I’m going to sit on them till next time.

     Countries other than ours administer rigorous exit exams for high school aged students. Their experiences yield ample evidence that such exams have a motivating effect on schools, presumably on both students and teachers alike. Sadly, in our country only the New York State Regents Exams, given at the end of each year of high school, are comparably rigorous. When taking the Regents Exams was optional, a Regents Diploma was widely recognized by employers and universities as marking its holder as well-educated. I have no information as to whether the diploma has maintained it reputation now that the exams are required of all students. While it is true that many states are instituting exit exams, most of them are minimum-competency exams. When you dig into what any given state defines as competency, you will find that your notion of competent and theirs do not have much in common.

     The push to tie SAT and ACT scores to teacher evaluations is ill-informed. It would be an off-label use of those tests, a little like prescribing oxycontin for weight loss. Tests designed for one thing do not yield accurate results when applied to something else. The SAT and ACT are college admission tests. The results may suggest something about a school system as a whole, or perhaps one high school as opposed to some others, but they cannot tell you whether Ms. Jones is worth her salary or should be put on notice that her position is in jeopardy; for Ms. Jones’s contribution to SAT scores is simply not discernible.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | August 24, 2012

Evaluating Teachers in 1905

Since the Cornville Nutmeg last posted, I have been giving more thought about this notion of evaluating teachers. I even went so far as to ask a number of friends and relatives to give me the benefit of their thinking on what a graduated high school student might look like, learning wise, and what a good teacher might look like. The replies from those who answered were illuminating, and I will get to that. Before I do, though, let me pose this question: what is it that has led us societally to feel the need to subject teachers to some standardized means of evaluating their performance as teachers? It’s not that teachers were not evaluated before the twenty-first century. Have a look at this teacher contract from 1905.


The nuts and bolts of the contract appear below.

1. Teachers are expected to live in the community in which they are employed and to take residence with local citizens for room and board.

2. Teachers will be required to spend weekends in the community unless permission is granted by the Chairman of the Board.

3. It is understood that teachers will attend church each Sunday and take an active part, particularly in choir and Sunday School work.

4. Dancing, card playing and the theatre are works of the Devil that lead to gambling, immoral climate, and influence and will not be tolerated.

5. Community plays are given annually.  Teachers are expected to participate.

6. When laundering petticoats and unmentionables it is best to dry them in a flour sack or pillow case. 

7. Any teacher who smokes cigarettes, uses liquor in any form, frequents a pool or public hall, or (for men) gets shaved in a barber shop, (or for women) bobbs her hair, has dyed hair, wears short skirts (could not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles) and has undue use of cosmetics will not be tolerated under any circumstances.

8. Teachers will not marry or keep company with a man friend during the week except as an escort to church services.

9. Loitering in ice cream parlors, drug stores, etc., is prohibited.

10. Purchasing or reading the Sunday Supplement on the Sabbath will not be tolerated.

11. Discussing political views or party choice is not advisable.

12. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes or two evenings a week if they go to church regularly.

13. After 10 hours in school, the teacher should spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.

14. Women teachers who marry or engage in other unseemly conduct will be dismissed.

15. Every teacher should lay aside from his pay a goodly sum for his declining years so that he will not become a burden on society.

16. The teacher who performs his labors faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of 25 cents a week in his pay providing the Board of Education approves.

[My thanks to the Ames Historical Society for the artifact above as well as the details of the contract.]

You’d think such severity would be indicative of a pre-teacher union dark age, wouldn’t you? But, no. Prior to 1857, there were, in fact, teacher unions in fifteen states, but in that year Thomas Valentine, president of the New York State Teachers Association, founded. The National Teachers Association (NTA). In 1870, a number of smaller unions merged with the NTA, and the new group called itself the National Education Association, and the rest is history. Forty-five years later, teachers are still being treated like second class citizens! Hm…Where have I heard something like that before?

Today, of course, teachers are free to dye their hair, hangout at the ice cream store, and purchase and read as many Sunday supplements as they can fit in between correcting papers, but that likely has more to do with changing times than collective bargaining, don’t you think? Still, you have to admit the whole evaluation thing would have been pretty clear-cut. I mean, either your skirt is more than two inches above your ankle or it is not.

Beginning in 1959, collective bargaining became the standard for contract negotiations between boards of education and local education associations (almost all of which are affiliated with the NEA or the smaller but also powerful National Federation of Teachers); I believe it is that fact more than any other which is responsible for the push for standardized teacher evaluation. As I’m sure you all know, firing a teacher ranges from virtually impossible to all but impossible. Teachers who lose their positions for cause are more often than not subsequently tried and convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor, selling or supplying to minors alcohol or drugs or both, or theft of school property; but not for being incompetent. Almost all new teachers successfully jump through the hoops that their state’s education department creates for them, and then they are tenured. Once tenured, save for crimes of moral turpitude, they can and do remain teachers for 35 or more years. And just so we’re clear, while the hoops may be tricky, learning how to jump through them is not hard; neither does being a good hoop jumper have much of anything to do with being a good teacher.

Before collective bargaining, teachers in both public and independent schools were retained or let go depending on how well they taught. You likely recognize this “unfair” condition of employment because it applies to you yourself (unless, of course, you are a public school teacher). If you worked in sales a year or so ago and continue to work in sales, that likely has something to do with your success as a salesman. If you once were a therapist of some sort and continue to be one today, a reasonable supposition is that you have helped and continue to help your patients. Same for pretty much any job except if that job is protected by a union contract.

Now don’t have a hissy fit. I am not depicting as being mostly incompetent or dishonest individual teachers, nor for that matter firemen, electricians, gaffers, plasterers, heavy equipment operators, flight attendants, or actors – well, no, strike that; while actors are unionized, the vast majority of them work so little that really the idea of an actors’ union is more joke than anything else. How dumb would it be for Actors Equity to try to write into its contract that producers of Broadway shows must keep paying actors after a show closes? Almost as dumb as continuing to pay a teacher whose phone records, Tweets, and e-mails suggest overwhelmingly she is guilty of unlawful improprieties?

Incompetency ought to be the most common reason for someone not being hired or not having his contract renewed. The disheartening truth, however, is that incompetency is seldom the reason someone never got to be or does not long remain a teacher. How come? Collectively bargained for union contracts. Those contracts do not require a teacher to be a good teacher; they simply insist that a teacher adhere to the standards agreed to between the union and the board of education: for example, timely submission of forms and grades, attendance at meetings, compliance with contracted for administrative requirements, not using tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs on school grounds. Some schools require their teachers to file lesson plans a week or so in advance, but a good lesson plan can and too frequently does mean only that any given teacher knows the format and jargon – edu-speak some call it – that constitute a “good” lesson plan. There is not one chance in ten thousand that a “good” lesson plan guarantees an ineffectual teacher will deliver a good lesson.

Here are the questions I asked a select group of friends and relatives to respond to.

1.  What is the most important thing a student should have learned by the time she (or he – don’t feel left out) graduates from high school?

2.  What is the most significant indicator of a good teacher?

Next time, I’ll share with you what they said.

Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | July 30, 2012

Teacher Testing

Mean SAT Score for reading and math tests, by year

Mean SAT Score for reading and math tests, by year (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

     Remember Judge James C. Chalfant and how he has instructed the Los Angeles Unified School District  to begin to use students’ academic achievement as part of its teacher evaluation system?  How do you think that might work?

     Well, you might say, grades.  Pay teachers based on how many of their students end the year with As and Bs.  Or go about it the other way;  any teachers more than half of whose students get Ds and Fs don’t get a raise.  Yes?  No?

     No.  Anyone who has taken a general psychology course knows that even the most scrupulous, assiduous, and honest teacher will over time – and not that much, in fact – begin to inflate the grades he gives his students. 

     Maybe standardized tests?  Well, okay, but don’t expect  anyone who knows much at all about research and statistics to give her stamp of approval.  Here is just one tiny thing the College Board website says about scores.  “Average (or mean) scores are based upon the most recent SAT scores of all students of a particular graduating class.”  Now, of this I am sure:  any teacher of more than, say, seven years experience out there will swear on his or her pension that from one year to the next, entire classes, identified as their year of graduation, are perceptibly different in any number of ways – behavior, intellectual curiosity or almost complete lack thereof, friendliness, energy or lethargy – one from the next. 

     So you take the SAT scores for Ms. Journeyman’s Juniors for 2010 and 2011 and 2012.  First you might see that the average scores are different by a significant percent.  Then you might see that Ms. Journeyman’s students’ average scores themselves were different during those years by an even greater percent.  Oh, my, you may think, Ms. Journeyman has been slacking off!  Or, you might think you see that Ms. Journeyman is today a much better teacher than she was two years ago.  And you would likely be wrong no matter what those scores led you to believe!  What makes you think you can compare in any meaningful way the scores of one small group of juniors one year to the scores of another utterly different small group of juniors another year? 

     Should you mange to take your findings to an actual statistician, you might find yourself being asked where and under what conditions the tests were administered.  Were the three populations (the groups of students) given the tests by the same proctors?  In the same room?  At the same time of year?  Time of day?  And – watch out for this one – were the tests identical in every way?

     So what’s your answer, hmm?  Let me help you out.  No, I don’t know, maybe, yeah, I guess so;  and no, of course not because if you gave identical tests there would be an excellent chance that the answers to many of the questions would be known to an increasing number of test takers.  After all, these tests and their results are supposed to help colleges with the admission decisions so the motivation for getting really good scores might just possibly lead 85 % or more of potential test takers to take advantage of student entrepreneurs who would most certainly be collecting questions and answers to past tests.

     Pick a standardized test given to any population of students across an academic year and its uselessness in determining the worth of a teacher is a foregone conclusion.

     So, what are you going to do?  Hunh?  You need to create a test, by which I mean a test needs to be created by people who are trained test creators, which will measure what you want to know about how a teacher goes about plying his trade.  Therefore the first question must be, what do you want to know?

     How well the teacher is doing her job.  Good.  Now, what defines a job well done?

     How well or how much the teacher’s students are learning.  Okay. 

     May I assume what you mean by that would be on the order of, say, how much Algebra?  Chemistry?  French?  Yes?  Good.

     How do you find that out?  Hmm.

     Oh, wait, aren’t there tests out there that measure skills and knowledge and facility with things like math and science and foreign languages?  Yes, things like the PSAT, SAT, ACT;  you know, they call them standardized tests. 

     Oh, oh.  Back to square one, hunh?  Bummer.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »