Tag Archives: school

England Days 3-7: The Impact of Jet Lag


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Granddaughter and wife on stroll to school. We are going with her on a field trip.

I started off this visit with a short burst of energy that allowed me to write daily blog posts for the first two days of my English trip, but then jet lag kicked in. Each evening, I would edit and post a few images to Facebook, intending, after that, to write a blog post about the day.

And I failed each day. Except that today, when I checked my blog, there were three recent nonsense posts, one just the numeral 5, while the rest weren’t even words, just strings of letters.

Wow. Jet. Lag.

Anyway, the visit to England has been better than the blogging. Let’s see, what have I missed telling you about?

Wednesday, June 19—Walked grandkids to school, went to City Centre and arranged to rent a bicycle next week. Matt went on business trip and I borrow his bike—first short bike ride.
Thursday, June 20—We drove to a nearby village for book shopping and visit to nice outdoor gardens. Longer afternoon bike ride.
Friday, June 21—Audrey and I are “parents” on a school field trip, Lizzie’s Year 4 class walks to East Anglia University campus for nature hunt in green space by a river. Sunburn.
Saturday June 22 and Sunday June 23—We agree to watch the grandchildren so Matt and Amanda can celebrate their anniversary with a weekend getaway to London. It seems to be going well (knock on wood, it’s several hours before they get home). It’s not as much work as it could be, Juliet was gone for much of Saturday on a Brownie excursion to a zoo, and Elizabeth had a sleepover birthday party, but still, we get some good karma for being brave grandparents.

I complained about the UK a bit on my bike blog, because navigating the streets for a bicycle ride was more challenging that it should be in any organized universe. This post will be way more positive, because there is a lot to enjoy about England.

I can’t claim to be an unbiased judge of that. With my oldest daughter and three of my grandchildren living here, I am predisposed to have good thoughts about the place that pleasantly houses some people I love. Still, biased or not, I can judge when I want to, and isn’t that what a blog is for?

So here are additional good points of the UK.

First, the school system seems good here. I don’t know too much about it, but the Friday field trip was a positive experience. For one thing, it’s a bit of distance from the middle school Elizabeth attends to the university campus. Google maps says it’s 1.1 miles, but that seems like a lie, because that would be like waking from our house to the Collins Aerospace duck pond and back—and we walked a lot farther.

Of course, Google may not be accounting for the walk across the University of East Anglia campus to get to the site of the nature hunt, but that was not a great distance. I am not sure many American schools would walk four classes of fifth graders as far as we walked Friday—and that’s sort of a score one for England.

The day seemed mildly well spent. The teacher and aides seemed to know the children well and to anticipate and deal with issues. There was one allergic reaction to pollen, one girl with sunscreen in the eyes (luckily, not Elizabeth), and so on—normal school stuff, which was dealt with calmly. I imagine many American teachers and aides would have done as well, yet it was still good to see.

Rounders, by the way, looks like a drunk person tried to plan baseball and failed.

A second positive aspect of England is that walking and biking seem fairly normal here. On a weekend in City Centre, for example, there are crowds of people and hundreds of little shops open and bustling. The English are not hidden in their houses watching TV or playing video games, they are out and about. And using their feet and their pedals, many of them—auto traffic is heavy, too, but it’s startling how many people you just see walking downtown contrasted with what a comparable American city is like.

There is also the food. You can find plenty of bland and bad food in the UK—the British are known for it. But that has not been our experience. Of course, part of that is that my daughter is a much better cook than I am, and feeds us grandly. But the meals out we’ve had have been local, quirky and quite good. For example, on our art trip Thursday to the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre and the Alby Crafts and Gardens, we ate lunch at a tea room at the craft place.

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Tea room lunch. We were very pleased with it.

I got a chicken salad, as did Audrey, and we shared an order of fries at the table. It was a leafy, fresh salad with a tasty dressing—somehow, despite all of their reputation otherwise, it seems many Brits have learned not only to cook, but to cook well.

Granted, we made the mistake of buying store meatballs to feed the family Sunday for dinner, and they turned out to be very bland and made us miss American store meatballs—but that was a culinary exception. For the most part, eating here has a been a joy, and we haven’t even had proper fish and chips nor sticky toffee pudding yet.

England! I could eat you up.

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A Fond Farewell to Summer 2016


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Aug. 17, 2016–morning damp on a redbud leaf from rain the night before.

The opening day retreat took place today at Mount Mercy University today, so summer is officially over. Students will be moving in this weekend, and the pace of academic life will take over my life.

It was a good summer, and it was a busy summer. It was the summer of a grandson. This summer, my wife and I watched a baby grandson who just turned 8 months old.

My wife did more of the baby care than I did, but there was often at least one a day a week when I was the primary grandson caregiver, and it was both exhilarating—a baby of that age is often quite charming—and tiring. Parenthood, I’ve decided, is for the young.

So it wasn’t as lazy a summer as some past ones have been, nor as lazy as some future ones will be, I hope. That’s OK. A baby is only young once, and it was nice to get to spend time with him. We also had several visits from other grandchildren, a few adventures and a couple of family reunions, but not much in the way of travel this summer. That’s as was planned, however. And I do expect that we will travel more in future summers. We have a son who now lives in San Francisco, and it would be a shame not to drop in on the West Coast next off season.

Anyway, it has been a warm, wet summer in our corner of Iowa, and on Wednesday, the day before school officially began, I shot some photos both of the damp post-rain morning and of the deck that will soon be gone.

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Rose of Sharon, above, by deck. Bee, below, drinks moisture from a damp pillow on a bench on the deck.

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We’ve put a down payment on a three-season room, which I hope means we’ll be spending even more time in the semi outdoors in future, lazier, summers. In a few weeks a crew will tear down our deck in prep to build the new room.

It’s a pretty positive change, I think. We can watch spring rains while sipping our morning coffee. I sometimes ate breakfast or other meals on the deck, and that was fine, but sometimes a buggy experience. I hope the three-season room is a bit less insect rich. The deck was fine, and I will miss it, but sometimes something good gives way to make room (no pun intended) for something better.

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Wind chime, above, hanging on eave over deck. We have several and a couple of hummingbird feeders–I bet next summer they will hang outside the windows of our three-season room. On rail of stairs, below, some art by out oldest daughter, who signed the name of a different daughter. I may have to try to save that piece of wood.

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I’m not sure how to describe my mood as the school year starts. At the moment, I haven’t done all that well getting all the stuff ready that I need to, but I also just don’t seem too worried about it. The first class meets on Wednesday of next week, and I hope I’ve prepped a bit more before then.

Well, goodbye summer 2016. I’ll miss you and the playtime I had with a charming young boy. I’m sure I’ll get to play with him and other grandchildren in future summers, too—but this season was unique. And I’m a little sad to see it go and to say goodbye to both it and the deck, but I’m pretty excited to meet new students, see old ones and have another school year begin.

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View of the back deck. There will be a smaller deck off o the new room, so we will still have an outside spot for some of the plants.

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Grandchildren Start Their School Adventures


Nikayla waters my gardens on Aug. 18. On Aug. 20, she starts kindergarten.

Nikayla waters my gardens on Aug. 18. On Aug. 20, she starts kindergarten.

I don’t recall my kindergarten experience very well, except that I know it was cut short. Near the end of the school year, we moved from one California town to another, and I didn’t finish my kindergarten year.

I sometimes have dreams about that. You know how, years after college, you sometimes dream of the class you forgot you were enrolled in but you have to go take the final exam? My kindergarten dream is a bit like that, except I’m an adult who is required to sit on a floor with a bunch of 5-year-olds and a pair of blunt, short scissors, trying to do some kindergarten-style art. (Despite being a creative lefty, I pretty consistently sucked at every academic art experience, which must be why the dream always goes for that subject). In the dream, my master’s degree is in danger of being revoked if I don’t finish the K year.

Let’s hope it comes true.

Anyway, my oldest granddaughter is about to embark upon kindergarten. Nikayla begins her formal school education on Tuesday. The next oldest, Elizabeth, who lives in England, will be starting school soon too, because their system is different and schooling begins earlier. Anyway, what advice would I have for Nikayla or Elizabeth as they start their school journey?

Like I know. I was such a great elementary school pupil. That, kids, is called “sarcasm,” but I think it’s so deeply embedded in your genes you’ll master that genre pretty early. Anyway:

  • Minimize the times you’re a bully. I would say “never be a bully,” but in the simian world of school, sometimes you’re the victim, sometimes you’re the alpha kid. Social interaction among great apes inevitably involves a certain amount of threat display, and despite what some misguided religious fundamentalists might tell you, yes, we’re a branch of the ape family. Remember what it feels like when you’re on the receiving end and try to restrain when it’s your time to dish it out.
  • Don’t take criticism too seriously. Listen to feedback, but don’t let anybody define who you are and what you can do. So what if the current “it girl” in second grade, or whatever, doesn’t like your singing? Even a bigger deal, so what if your second grade teacher doesn’t like your singing? It’s too easy, and it happened sometimes to all of us, to shut a door and decide you “can’t” do something because of some cruel remark. Cultivate the mental ability to get over it and get on with it.
  • Do your best to read. A lot of the school books—especially for subjects like social studies or science that will cover intrinsically fascinating material in the dullest possible way—seem designed to convince you that reading is a bad idea. Too many kids learn that lesson. But the aptitude to read well is the single biggest separator between the academic achievers who will go on to graduate school and the checkout clerks at discount stores—the ability to absorb the complex experience of humankind accumulated over thousands of years in written form is the key to your future regardless of your life path. In today’s instant world, it’s more important than ever to be a reader. The post literate universe belongs to the readers.
  • Don’t get too lost in reading. Play a sport, even if you’re terrible, for a while. Go out and climb something at recess. Go ahead and play Barbie. Reading is the most fundamental of academic skills, but it can also be such a consuming passion that you forget how to ride a bicycle. I urge you to be a reader, but I urge you to be other things, too. Balance in everything. Even reading can get to be too much.
  • Don’t fret the small stuff. It’s possible the principal’s kid will win an academic contest through fraud. It’s possible you’ll do something original and cool in a science fair competition and your teacher will be too dense to understand it—your uncle Jon once wrote encryption software for a middle school science fair. At least one judge recognized it as actual original work, but his teacher did not. He became a programmer at the world’s leading software company. She didn’t … in the long run, the small stuff doesn’t matter, and pretty much everything that happens before your high school graduation is small stuff.
  • Don’t avoid school. I developed a habit during elementary school of having vague gastronomic symptoms that often kept me home to watch reruns of “Andy Griffith” rather than going to school. The irony, of course, is that in my adult life my digestive tract has caused me virtually no problems at all. I’m sure part of it was I was just extremely bored with school, but part of it was I also excelled at being lazy. School is there whether you’re there or not, and despite the social embarrassments and difficult peers, you’ll get more out of it if you’re there.
  • Don’t suffer in silence. If somebody really gets serious about picking on you, and threatens to make it worse if you tell, TELL. It won’t always solve the problem and certainly won’t solve the problem immediately, but if someone tries to threaten you into silence, it means that their nightmare is you won’t remain silent. Give them the opportunity to live out their nightmare.

Most of all, you’ll have teachers good and teachers bad, peers who are scholars and peers who are training for a life with a parole officer, opportunities to define yourself and risks that others will define you. It’s 95 percent guaranteed that you’ll emerge years from now with, on balance, an overall positive experience from your educational journey.

But it’s not 100 percent guaranteed. And it’s more than 95 percent guaranteed that there will be some bumps along the road. The only sure thing you can control is your own attitude towards the whole experience. I think both Nikayla and Elizabeth have pretty good attitudes towards life in general, and that’s a good sign.  Anyway, be a little skeptical—don’t buy every idea on the first try—but smile and enjoy yourself, too.

And laugh. That I can 100 percent guarantee. There will be plenty to laugh about.

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The Bad Boys of Rap Sing To Maria, Mujer De Fe


A school girl carries the Paraguayan flag in a parade. Students with the highest grades were flag bearers.

A school girl carries the Paraguayan flag in a parade. Students with the highest grades were flag bearers.

I can’t say that I know much about education in Paraguay, because I’ve only seen indirect manifestations of it. Jon and Nalena say that the limits of Paraguayan schools and a resulting lack of achievement in this area is a problem that has held this developing nation back. I believe them, but I don’t have the facts firsthand.

What I have seen are little snippets of the educational system, and what I can say is that kids are recognizably kids en todo del mundo.

I was at a school concert last night. Two English classes that Jon and Nalena have been teaching on Thursday nights came to an end earlier in the evening. They had a “certificate” ceremony where students who had attended received a paper—such papers are important in Paraguay, Nalena notes, and only those who had attended most of the classes received one.

English students and their certificates.

English students and their certificates.

At Nalena’s request, Audrey and I had made American treats—she baked an apple crisp, I made peanut butter cookies. Both proved popular.

Anyway, several of the students who had been in one of the classes are teens who attend a Catholic school that is just across the street from the offices where Jon and Nalena held the English classes, and they invited us to come over to the concert. Their grade, they assured us, would perform after 8 p.m., when the English classes were scheduled to end.

Students in one class with Audrey and I. Note some school uniforms.

Students in one class with Audrey and I. Note some school uniforms.

So we went over. The concert has already begun, but in Paraguay they do things a bit differently. Nobody hushes during a school concert, and constant comings and goings, as well as constant conversation, are simply how people behave.

The school apparently goes from lower grades all the way through high school, and they arranged the concert so that they skipped around between lower and upper grades. When one third grade performed, the daughter of one of the people Jon and Nalena works with sang, so Nalena and I joined the cluster of parents at the front of the aisle snapping photos.

Since it was a Catholic School, all of the songs were praises to Mary. And the concert took place in a kind of facility that would be very familiar at almost every older small-town school in Iowa: A gymatorium. There was a stage at one end of a large room, the floor was painted with basketball court lines and a hoop was at the other end, with stands along one side and most of the audience seated in removable chairs arranged on the gym floor.

At the concert, one of the lower grades and their "Mary."

At the concert, one of the lower grades and their “Mary.”

The difference between this gymatorium and those found in Iowa was that one side of the space was completely open to a cobbled central school courtyard—in Iowa, our climate demands four, rather than three, walls on our school gyms.

It was interesting watching the school groups perform. The kids were noisy and boisterous, but mostly pretty serious when they got to sing (or at least stand up there and move their lips, I’m certain that some of that was going on, too). Most of them, except the special performers, were in the grey and white uniforms of their school, skirts for girls, pants for boys, black ties for both (sorry, SHS alums, no awkward jumpers).

Each class had designated one girl to be “Mary.” Some had rather elaborate skits that accompanied or preceded their songs, often in which Mary rescued someone from despair and helped her (always her) turn back to God.

Nalena asked one of the high school students from her English class if it was an honor to be Mary. Not really. The student replied, in Spanish: “The blonde girl gets to be Mary.”

Indeed, most of the Mary’s were rather lighter in hair tone than the other students in their grades—a bit of a historic anomaly. Given who Mary was and when she lived, she probably looked much more like the raven haired girls relegated to the chorus.

Anyway, the concert got a bit long, and we were fading by around 10, but we did see the group that had Jon and Nalena’s high school students in it. Despite the late hour (Paraguayans are night owls), I thought the concert was a hoot. It was just fun to watch all the kids be kids. In each group they varied in size and shape. Here in the fourth grade or so is the big boy in back who looks like he’s about to explode out of his suddenly undersized uniform. I felt for him. With my August birthday, I was always one of the youngest students in my grade, but nonetheless almost reach adult height in sixth grade.

One of the pleasures was the variety of skits and songs. At one point, a girl was in despair, surrounded by two twirling, black-costumed dancers, until Mary came to her and she perked up and white-clad ballerinas started twirling around. She was saved, by Maria, Mujer de Fe.

Mary has saved someone and is surrounded by white-clad dancers.

Mary has saved someone and is surrounded by white-clad dancers.

Anyway, we burst out laughing during another number. It was a rock-and-roll style tribute to the mother of Jesus—and two girls were, at first, the primary singers, but as they performed, a quartet of bad boys entered the stage behind them. We could tell they were bad boys—their uniform shirts were not tucked in, and their ties were loosened.

They proceeded to rap in praise of Mary. We’re not sure how the nun in the front row reacted.

We laughed.

The final group we saw, with a student from the English class in it.

The final group we saw, with a student from the English class in it.

School in Paraguay takes place in shifts, and students only have three hours of class time a day. High school science courses are deathly dull, a student told us, because chemistry, for instance, is strictly lecture—there is no lab.

That’s too bad, and I hope Paraguay finds ways to lengthen the school day, and extend more science labs for students. They’re just kids, after all, and have all the potential, problems and eccentricities of children anywhere.

We saw this school concert. Several days earlier, we viewed a long parade that featured the favored pupils of Villarrica in a procession that celebrated the republic’s glorious victory in an obscure 1930s war that left it in possession of most of a desert except the corner that has oil in it.

There’s a religious parallel there. Moses led the chosen people around a desert for 40 years until he settled into the one corner of the Middle East devoid of petroleum.

Mary has a place in her heart for the red, white and blue--of Paraguay.

Mary has a place in her heart for the red, white and blue–of Paraguay.

It seems to me that the Paraguayans sometimes take pride in the wrong things—but then again, militaristic displays using red white and blue motifs (the colors of Paraguay’s flag, too) are not a sin restricted to Paraguay. Still, despite the odd military overtones of the procession, the parade was mostly a day for school kids to dress up and march around and be admired by the town.

Officer at city hall watches over parade, music provided by military band.

Officer at city hall watches over parade, music provided by military band.

Worldwide, parents take pride in their kids. Well, they ought to. And I hope as time goes on, the education that those kids receive can be improved. I suppose that’s just as verdad en los estados unidos como es en la republica de Paraguay.

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Hope for Future from 10-year-olds


Students were Gazette editors, but not this Gazette ...

When I went to a school called “Sacred Heart,” we had to wear blue shirts and blue bow ties.

The students at Sacred Heart in Monticello don’t have uniforms, a fact that is mildly surprising to Mrs. Kent, their teacher.

That’s a pretty small difference between “then” and “now,” and there are larger differences. I went to Monticello Wednesday to do a news activity with the 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes at Sacred Heart, and noticed a lot has changed in the 42 years since I was in 4th grade.

The classroom itself is probably about the size of the room I had 4th grade in.

The “look” and feel of the room, however, are totally different. When I was in 4th grade at Sacred Heart in Clinton, Iowa, the desks stood in rigid attention, all lined up for a military parade, all facing a black (actually, green) slate board that covered most of one wall, with a bit of space on either side for a bulletin board.

The only “flair” in the room was those bulletin boards. Otherwise, the room had the charm, feel and look of a POW barracks from a WWII movie, if the POWs had slept on small desks rather than bunk beds.

Mrs. Kent’s room featured a desk area where the students face each other, and other “zones,” including a cozy looking area with pillows for sprawling and reading.

I know that not all changes in education in the past 4 decades have been good, and there is something to say for the order and structure of the “old” days, but darn. I really missed out on 4th grade. Mrs. Kent’s room seemed like a much more relaxed, friendly place.

Not an unruly place. The children were all diligently working at their desks, and when Mrs. Kent had to direct them as a group or individually, they seemed to give her instant, instinctive obedience. There is an art to controlling a set of unruly mammals, and Mrs. Kent has it. I can praise Mrs. Kent freely, because not only is she a great 4th grade teacher, she is also my daughter, Theresa.

And, to be honest, I really didn’t care for school in the good old days. I was a 4.0 student in high school and college, but not in elementary school, where I got a fair number of Ds. Elementary school seemed like sheer tedium and torture to me.

How did the visit and activity go? Very well. The children were interested in what I had to say, and, although a few asked off-the-wall questions that I didn’t always understand, by and large we got along and communicated nicely.

It gives me some hope for the future of journalism. Newspapers have not found the way forward in an on-line world, and our democracy only functions when the nooks and crannies of government are exposed to the light by journalists. Without newspapers, there would have been no Watergate scandal. An occasional exposé and scandal are important checks on the darker instincts of the powerful.

The 4th graders seemed to show they still hunger for news. There is some comfort in that.

Mrs. Kent had her students inscribe some thank-you cards. One student noted that “no offense,” but he still plans to be a scientists, composer and artist, although he did say he was more interested in journalism as a result of my talk. (No offense taken. Good luck with the techno science beats and blots). A girl in the classes noted that “Mrs. Kent teaches us she is the best teacher.” I suppose she intended to state that “Mrs. Kent teaches us, and she is the best teacher,” but the line is cuter without the punctuation or conjunction. It sounds like Mrs. Kent is indoctrinating followers.

What was the exercise? It was a “budget meeting,” the daily session held at every city newspaper where editors decide what news to feature in their paper.

I wrote up a little budget summary and told the 9 to 12 year olds that they were editors of the Gazette and they had to choose four of the following stories to be on the front page:

1) Iran Announces it has Atomic Bomb (nuclear test confirmed)
2) Winter Storm Strands Thousands in Britain (Heathrow closed by 6-inches of snow)
3) Cap’n Crunch Quaker Oats Plant to Add 600 Jobs (my favorite cereal rescues CR economy)
4) Xavier Girls Win State Basketball Title (includes picture of lead scorer hugging her coach/father while holding title trophy)
5) Ex-President Breaks Leg in Cedar Rapids Spill (Jimmy Carter was working on the roof of a Habitat for Humanity house)
6) Obama’s Daughters Successfully Lobby for First Cat (Sasha adopts a stray)

A cat but not news

Photo of a cat. Cute, but probably not front-page news ...

They had more information (including notes on photos) for each story. They were were in about six groups and each had a “managing editor” who reported back on what the group had decided. A few picks were eclectic—one group selected the cat story, which was clearly on the list to not be selected–but the classes overall were able to apply news criteria and did come up with what I had considered the “main” news stories (numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 with the dominant news story being the Iran A-bomb.)

The kids heard and applied the traditional news criteria—timeliness, impact, proximity, conflict, human interest, novelty—and referred to them in their thank-you notes. One student noted that “I didn’t know all those words existed.”

Well, they do. With your help, kid, I hope they continue to exist and shape news budget meetings for a long time.

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