The Land of Eternal Dog Days

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 26, 2006.

I’ve read that folks in the Pacific Northwest have more dogs than children. If this is true, I should probably update my first impressions of our new home here to include those of Copper, our 2-year-old Aussie.  This being dog country and the dog days approaching, his opinion of Olympia should count too.

Last fall, as Copper started investigating his new neighborhood, he discovered the fun of snitching gloves and shoes from neighbors, an activity we cut short with an invisible fence. Next, he learned to pick blackberries, nosing his snout in among the vines.

His first real adventures, however, began with the seal. One morning, descending with Copper and my son to the beach, I spotted a log lying above the tideline. Not unusual, except this log had flippers. Quickly, I hustled boy and dog back to the house and went looking for someone to help me with a dead seal. Eventually, I found someone at Cascadia Research, who took some blubber from the seal and anchored it at the water line for the tide to carry out.

The next morning, Copper disappeared from the yard, which was unusual since the electric fence went in. He reappeared shortly after I called, ecstasy in his eye, red streaks down his white chest — reeking. After hosing him down, I spent the rest of the morning, rake in hand, trying to shove that seal back out into the tide.

A month later, as I was walking with my children on the beach, Copper had his first-ever vision of his reason for being. We were collecting a caché of golf balls that had washed up, and a friendly dog came down to sniff Copper out. A moment later, I noticed three more dogs meandering down, and I stood trying to puzzle out why these dogs looked so angular. Then they began to bleat. Copper’s instinct went off, an instant before mine, and no more did he care about his doggie playmate. He was after the goats. There we were, me, my two children, two dogs, three goats, the owner of the goats and his wife, chasing Copper round and round, trying to nab him before he nabbed the goats.  (My thanks to the owner and his wife, who graciously understood a dog fulfilling his mission.)

But it wasn’t just goats. Besides herding seagulls, sandpipers, and an otter, one evening Copper flushed a deer from a thicket and was in hot pursuit.  I was no match for him in my yard shoes. Thankfully, he was no match for the deer. Still, he disappeared down the beach and, after searching and calling till twilight, I turned sadly homeward. Trudging up the steps to the yard, heart heavy, I wondered how to tell my children I had lost their dog. When I reached the top, there he stood in the yard — tongue lolling, eyes sparkling, looking at me as if to say, “Hey, where ya been?”

Oh, doggie.

If I have any skills at interpreting a dog’s mind, I’d say Copper loves this place. His home here sure beats the fenced-in postage stamp of yard he used to know.

There’s a Demon Behind the Test Scores

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, June 7, 2006.

As a parent of children in the public schools, I’m following the debates about standardized tests across the country and in Washington. Recent scores show that math and reading skills are improving, but science scores are declining. There are rumors of cheating on standardized tests in Texas, scores being skewed by the exclusion of students across the country, and still a gap between white and minority scores here in Washington. But we’ve also heard people such as Bill Gates lament the standing of U.S. students in math and science compared with students in other countries. It’s hard to know what to make of all the reports and opinions, and it’s downright frightening for a parent who’s just trying to do right by a child.

When teaching composition at community colleges 15 years ago, I was appalled by the numbers of students graduating high school who placed into remedial writing classes – basic sentences, paragraphs, punctuation. Sure, I taught more of these classes in Mississippi and South Texas than in my native Ohio, but a recent trip to South Puget Sound Community College and a gander at the course catalog there shows there’s still need for remediation.

When I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, the “new idea” was called the Exit Exam – a 5-part essay students had to produce to claim the credits from their mandatory writing classes. Our business then was to make sure students could pass that standardized test. That was in 1985. Now, the business of preparing students for standardized tests has been pushed down to elementary and even kindergarten teachers, whose mission is to help 5-year-olds “set goals.”

My concern back in graduate school was that we were teaching to the test rather than focusing on skills students would need in the real world. On the other hand, my teaching colleague in South Texas tells me that the reforms there improved the performance of students she sees now at the community college. And my daughter’s teacher says that tests like the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do give teachers purpose in what they teach.

The question now is, does that purpose make better students of life or just better test scores? Every teacher can tell you there are good students who don’t test well. And there are students who get by the tests but can’t put their skills to use in the real world. In other words, one size never fits all.

The same is true in comparing scores from the U.S. with those of other countries. Yes, students in other countries outperform ours, but there’s a demon behind those scores. I lived for 2 years in Japan, one of those countries that worry Mr. Gates. The education system there relies heavily on test-taking, and a child’s path in life is set in stone as early as first grade. Faced by the pressure, some children refuse to go to school. Many get through it, and the extra cram sessions after the regular school day, only to develop ulcers by the time they reach college. They sacrifice their childhood to a test score. They become addicted to anxiety. If the U.S. takes the same approach of testing, testing, testing, our scores might eventually look as good as theirs, but the damage to our children might be as great.

Funny, though. The “new idea” about education in Japan is to cut back on the pressure, with changes like getting rid of mandatory school on Saturdays. The Education Ministry is worried that, with all the pressure, students aren’t given time to develop the creativity found in kids from other countries – like the United States.

Learning the Local Language

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, March 5, 2006.

Recently, I moved to Olympia from “flyover country” (FC) — that place east-coasters fly over to more important places on the other coast. My specific spot in FC was Lexington, Kentucky.  If you’re a fan of racehorses or bourbon (or both), you know it. Now that the dust has settled, or been subdued by rain, I’m noticing some language differences between FC and Olympia.

First off, I’ve learned new meanings for familiar words. I’ve heard these words before, but here I’ve come to know them on an, uh, intimate level: septic tank, power outage, and the most critical — generator. In FC, these terms were spoken only by people “in the country” – three more words that now apply to me.

Other words I’ve had to rethink include that ubiquitous phrase uttered by salespeople everywhere: “Have a nice day!”  Salespeople in FC say those words constantly, but they have a different ring here. Shopfolk seem to mean it and look me in the eye when speaking. The cashiers at Safeway even pronounce my name correctly. That’s one advantage of being on the West coast. With the Asian influence, my surname doesn’t seem foreign. And yakisoba is easy to come by.

Naturally, I’ve come up against the vocabulary for ordering coffee in the Pacific Northwest. But I don’t drink the stuff, so I can plead happy ignorance of the terms. The closest I’ve come to a double mocha latté is chai, but I can’t tell you what’s in it. I enjoy seeing espresso huts on every other corner, drive thru ones at that. In FC, you can drive-thru for money, dry cleaning, drugs (the legal sort), and even beer, but not latté. That’s a true measure of the culture.

Certain terms I learned as oddities in FC are common here, especially those associated with yoga:  plank, warrior, and anything ending with –asana.  If I shouted “down dog!” in a crowded theater, everyone inside might actually assume the position. Those street corners lacking espresso huts harbor yoga studios, and my kids even learned the tree pose while standing in the school bus line.

On the other hand, the meanings of some current terms here have already been decided back in FC — for example, smoking ban and water rights. I’ve found the image of a place doesn’t always reflect reality. East-coasters joke about FC, but the folks there are, on occasion, a step ahead.

I’ve also become attuned to the visual language of Olympia, and much of it delights. The Mountain. The calming presence of the water. The sharp outlines of trees against the sky, a scene made possible by clear air.  More men in grocery stores, shopping and working checkout. That booklet in my mailbox detailing issues on the ballot, so I could actually cast an educated vote. Older couples hand-in-hand in a lively downtown. Olympia’s downtown thrives at a level larger cities should envy.

For all the new meanings I’m discovering here, though, there are two visual terms I’m glad not to encounter.  Big hair.  Power suits.