Bill Gates

Picture courtesy of Niall Kennedy

Here’s today’s grocery list: cranberries, pickled herring, dill pickles, dill herb, cucumber, spinach, bottle of Merlot.

The first six items are a request from my husband, who is recovering from surgery and finding his taste buds out of whack. Nothing tastes good, but he’s experimenting with sour things. Okay, the Merlot is for me, trying to cope with this taste phenomenon.

We keep experimenting. Kosher dill pickles seemed to hit the spot, and then he began spreading a thick layer of dill relish on top of most everything I cooked. With a side of cranberry sauce cooked with 1/16 the sugar called for. I, who’ve always claimed one could put any two foods in an Internet search and come up with a recipe, struck out with  the dill pickle-cranberry combo.

The hospital sent us home with Dietary Standards for people who’ve had heart surgery. Nowhere is there any mention of what to do when food tastes like metal; nowhere is there even any acknowledgment that food will taste like metal. Although the Internet is filled with stories of  heart patients suffering from the same phenomenon, our general practitioner has never heard of it.  Unable to follow Federal food standards right now, I bring on the cranberries and pickled herring.

Yes, there is a classroom analogy here.  As 2012 draws to a close, I count my blessing that I was a teacher long before Bill Gates and Arne Duncan joined hands and money with Pearson to insist on Standards and a Dow Jones skill acquisition theory of education. According to Pearson, in one of their daily bulletin alerts  Evaluations are Key to Student Learning, teachers need “substantive, objective, actionable feedback; the energizing feeling that comes from contributing and being valued for your contribution; a clear idea of what it means to be excellent and help in reaching that level of performance.”

Actionable

1)  furnishing ground for a lawsuit.

2)  liable to a lawsuit

3)  ready to go or be put into action; ready for use: to retrieve actionable copy from a computer

No thanks, Pearson. For 20 years I taught children who experienced great difficulty in school. I did not test them  each day and count up the skills they had acquired so I could feel energized and valued for my contribution. As any teacher can tell you, even those things you can measure and count are illusory. Kids who “get” the apostrophe one day, often “lose it” within 36 minutes or so.

I’m grateful for the phone call from a  mom expressing astonishment that her 7th grade son had insisted on going back into the house as they were leaving on spring vacation–because he needed to get the novel he was reading. “I don’t know if he ever opened it while we were gone,” she related. “But the fact he wanted to take  it was a miracle.” I’m grateful that more than 30 years after she was my third grade student, Leslie, the deaf child to whom I gave a large slice of my heart, found me on Facebook and told me what Amelia Bedelia had meant to her.

Of course, like all teachers, I had my doubts, my moments of skill panic. One year, in the bleak New York February of my life, I became determined to teach something–anything–specific–a concrete, observable, testable fragment of information.  God-only-knows-why, but I decided that my students should “exhibit understanding” of  a geographical kind. I began teaching–and quizzing on–names of cities, states, rivers, and lakes. I know there are plenty of Standardistos out there who won’t be able to grasp this, but for poor urban kids–kids who never take a drive around the block in a family car, never mind a cross-country trek–these geographical notions are abstractions that passeth understanding. For starters, students found it confusing that we lived in New York State and the United States. These were the kids attending a school just a few blocks from the Hudson River, a few miles from the first lock on the Erie Canal, once named the eighth wonder of the world, who, when asked to name five rivers, were stumped to come up with even one.

I think in awe of the 13-year-old Hartford boy who informed the Metropolitan Museum of Art that their map of the Byzantium Empire was wrong. And they later acknowledged he was right. This doesn’t mean that this kid was smart and my students weren’t. It means that when children are encouraged to pursue their interests, wonderful things happen. It means that in the name of measuring up to universal standards, schools are now doing terrible  things to squash individual passion and quirkiness. So what if everything tastes like metal? Just forge ahead with Standards.

To extend the cooking analogy, it seems that the  Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and their Common Core-architects-for-hire decided to remedy their notion of a skills deficit by  picking up Dame Agnes Jekyll’s Kitchen Essays: “Having removed the brains from half a cow’s head. . . .”

Financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,  our corporate politicos declared a curriculum emergency and hired “curriculum architects” who’d never taught (but possessed Ivy League undergrad degrees) to fix it.   This brings to mind  Chapter V of Fannie Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,  which includes a recipe for “emergency biscuits.”  Farmer’s notion of “emergency” is that if you add more milk to baking powder biscuits, you can drop the dough from a spoon onto the baking sheet instead of rolling it out.  This “emergency” requires that you still use all the same ingredients. Proponents of the Common Core State (sic) Standards are now in the process of selling “emergency biscuits” for their standards.  Not having the nerve to completely revamp a one-size-fits-all, moribund curriculum,  instead, they insist that all you need to do is fiddle a bit.

The scheme here is to get people arguing about the amount of fiction that will be permitted in schools and they will stop thinking about what really matters.