Tuesday, September 30, 2008

McCain on Downward Trend

Did you hear the one about McCain and David Letterman? He (McCain) was supposed to go on Letterman last week, but he called Letterman on the day of the taping to say that he was rushing to the airport so he could get back to D.C. to deal with the crisis. Letterman booked Keith Olbermann in his place. Later, Letterman was tipped off that McCain was not, in fact, in D.C., but was instead in the same building taping an interview with Katie Couric.

It seems McCain got invited to a "better" party, so he dumped his old commitments and lied about it. That's the sort of thing that middle school girls do to each other. How NOT very presidential of him! Letterman gave as good as he got. While interviewing Keith Olbermann (not exactly a McCain fan) he explained the situation and showed a live feed of McCain being made up for his Couric interview. You can just imagine the commentary. The latest polls show Obama up by 8%.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sarah Palin's Suspicious Silence

Article after article keeps talking about it. Talking heads on television discuss it endlessly. Even Bill Clinton mentioned it on The View. Why isn't Sarah Palin talking to the press? The McCain/Palin camp says that she is simply "too busy" to give interviews, but this argument is holding less and less water as time goes by.

This week she met with several heads of state as part of a visit to the United Nations, but the press was kept almost entirely out of those meetings. Which reporters were allowed inside? Those taking still photos only. In other words, the Palin camp wanted a photo op, but did not want to risk having anyone hear what she actually said. The is an unprecedented move in such a situation. Surely the McCain camp must know how this looks to the public? Are they THAT worried about how she will come off when she opens her mouth? One can only wonder.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Seduced By Baby Animals

Yes, I admit it. Sometimes baby animals are so cute they get the better of me. I know, it's disgusting to be manipulated by big eyes and furry faces. I think my trip to Costa Rica left me extra susceptible because of all the cute, cute monkeys. Here's a wonderful pic from the New York Times, and this is the excellent story. Can you believe the color on that little guy? He or she will one day grow up to look just like mom in black and white.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Student Government

Today was the day in our class when we choose the new ASB representatives. ASB stands for Associated Student Body, and it is a sort of student advisory board for our school. Each class sends two representatives, and they weigh in on issues that are important to kids. It's a nice way to make the kids feel included, and it really does help the administration understand what kids really want and need.

This morning I asked all the kids interested in running to stand up, one at a time, and explain why they would make a good representative. Mostly their reasoning was kind of dubious. For example, one kid stood up and said "I will plan to make school more funner and less educational." Another kid said "I am a good reader, so I will be good at this." In other words, they were not exactly inspiring speeches. Then came one real knucklehead, he explained, with great seriousness why he wanted to be our "USB rep." He was not kidding around, and none of the other kids noticed his mistake.

Lucky for all of us, one girl gave a very thoughtful speech about her qualifications for the job. She spoke about being organized, determined, and having good listening skills. My faith in the youth of our country is moderately restored. Lucky the other kids saw it this way too and elected her as representative #1. Oh yes, position #2? That went to USB kid.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Return of the Lunch Box!

It's that time once again. In the evenings, just before M gets home and we start dinner, I have to decide what to have for lunch. No, no I don't eat lunch and dinner together, but I do pack my lunch for the following day. It turns out that if I try to make choices at 6am, I just stand there, eyes barely open, staring into the fridge/closet trying fruitlessly to force my brain to concentrate.

Thus the need for night-before decision making. What should I put in the yellow bag this time? I don't have any kids to pack for yet, but getting my own take-along lunch together is quite enough of a challenge. I make lunch by four important laws: Can I make it healthy? Can I make it inexpensive? Can I make it appealing? Can I make it in five minutes? Repetition is constantly a problem. Apple/lowfat cheese/soup or apple/pasta salad or apple/burrito/cheese. You get the idea. I really need to get more creative, but this is a challenge on busy weeks. At least I'm lucky in that I have access to a microwave.

I also miss the fun of picking out a new lunchbox every autumn. My mom used to take my brother and me, and we would spend forever choosing just the right one. My favorite was bright red with a panda on the side and a matching red thermos. Those were the days! I hate! hate! hate! even the idea of Lunchables or the grown up equivalent. They violate every lunch law ever made except the one about being ready in under five minutes. Ugh!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Costa Rica Part 6

Leaving Lapa Rios was not our favorite thing. How could anything else compete? We were driven to a tiny airstrip located right along the most beautiful stretch of white sand beach you could imagine. A horse grazed along the strip, and only moved out of the way as the small airplane came in to land. There was a moment of uncertainty when we realized that the pilot was expecting five, not six, passengers. The plane had enough seats, but the pilots are only given enough fuel to carry out the expected run. Nevertheless, he allowed us all onboard, and even put M, the tallest of the passengers, in the co-pilots seat. M seemed rather pleased with the situation, and I'm still annoyed that I didn't have the guts to jump down and take a picture. Very soon, we were off.

The town of Quipos seemed large to us after all our time spent in the Osa Peninsula, but really it is a small place that was originally built to house the workers who picked bananas for Chiquita. This is not a glamorous destination, and the only evidence of tourism are the shops and restaurants geared more to the backpacking crowd. Like in so many other places, it turns out that the "fancy" people live higher up the mountain.

Leaving Quipos behind, you begin to climb into the hills, and as you do so, you start to notice a change. The landscape is still beautiful, and the views get better and better, but the houses and shops begin to thin out. In there place are condos and hotels. Masses of condos and hotels. They seem practically to be stacked on top of each other, and by the time you reach the plateau, they've become so opulent and ostentatious that they can only mean one thing. Americans. A vanishingly small number of Costa Ricans can pay 600k for an Italianate condo with views of the ocean. An even smaller number can afford to live in the gated communities that feature homes in the millions of American dollars. Welcome to nouveau colonialism at its finest.

Don't get me wrong, our accommodations were very nice, the pool was astonishingly lovely, and you could take a private van down to the beach, but there was always an undercurrent of ickiness about the place. This is not really Costa Rica. The only actual Costa Rican people you see are the ones who serve you, and they've been taught not to chat with the guests.

That said, we did have some good experiences while we were there. One of our guides recommended a restaurant called Ronnie's Place. We took a taxi through the pouring rain, followed the long and very rutted driveway, and eventually ended up at a cute little open-air dining room with a roof but no walls. The food was a decent quality Italian, the ceiling was covered in teeny tiny lizards (geckos and anoles for anyone who cares), and a little gray kitten made the rounds of all the diners. Out over the ocean, a lightening storm kept giving us those split second illuminations of the valley and beach below us. It was a most memorable time.

The beach was also quite something. You know that classic clear blue water/golden sand/palm tree image on postcards and in movies? Yeah, they film and photograph a lot of that in Manuel Antonio. While some parts of our visit there were not great, the beach was the best we found on our whole trip. We lay on beach chairs, ran in the waves, and M even spent some time body boarding! I took one of my favorite pictures there as well. When it's cold and gray in Seattle, I'll be looking at that picture and remembering that beach.

All in all, Quipos and Manuel Antonio might be great places to stay if you don't mind being in tourism central, and you are very careful about the kinds of accommodation you get. The nature reserve and the beaches are great, and probably there are more nice spots for dinners and shopping and such. Just do a lot of homework before you go so you don't end up thinking that Costa Rica is just the land of the expensive condo.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Happy Constitution Day

Today is a national holiday to celebrate the 221st birthday of the United States Constitution. It really is an excellent old document, and the longest running such agreement of its type in the world. What a shame that it's been so beaten and abused in the last few years. The Constitution, like the economy is in need of some serious TLC. Perhaps a new president might be able to help us out with that?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Costa Rica Part 5

Our first view from the balcony at Lapa Rios Lodge made the whole trip entirely worth-while. The lodge is built on the crest of a hill so you have nearly a 360 view of the land below. On two sides are jungle-covered hillsides complete with parrots, howler monkeys, and toucans. On the third side is a breath-taking view of the ocean. All the architecture is designed to blend in with the jungle, and so you feel like you really are a part of your surroundings.

Sometimes you go to a hotel or resort, and find the grounds to be lovely, but your room is then a disappointment. This was not the case at Lapa Rios. We actually had the room used in the promotional pictures. I shouldn't actually say "room" since each bungalow is stand-alone with a balcony over the hillside complete with hammock. The beds are large, white, and draped in yard upon yard of white mosquito canopy. The effect is incredibly romantic. Why am I trying to describe this place in words? Here is the website complete with pictures. Keep in mind that the reality is better than the pictures.

The food was the next pleasant surprise. Many vegetarian options were available at every meal, and the quality of the food was excellent. We tried all sorts of new things. My favorite recipe was something called Volcano salad which involved native greens (a bit like spinach only tougher and more flavorful), red cabbage, peanuts, and tofu tossed in sesame lime dressing. I still dream about it at unexpected moments. M was very happy with the seafood offerings as well. Probably being close enough to see the ocean help quite a bit in this department.

As for entertainment, Lapa Rios is well-prepared for those travelers who are willing to be at least a little energetic. Many different hiking opportunities, both guided and un, are available. M and I did some of both, and we were amazed by the number of animals were got to see on the one mile self-guided tour near the lodge. Monkeys (that one above is an actual pic I took near the lodge), Poison Dart Frogs, Agouti, and Toucans just to name a few. The guides at Lapa Rios are also quite incredible in just how much they know about the ecosystem of the area. We went on night hikes, coast hikes, and hikes along the Osa Trail. It was the kind of experience where you stop yourself part way through and think "Wow, I'm really here doing this!"

If you ever have the chance to visit Lapa Rios, TAKE IT! This was, by far, the best accommodation on our trip. The only people for whom I would not recommend Lapa Rios are those who want to shop and see city life, or those who cannot handle a lot of walking. We loved the lodge, we loved the staff, we loved the jungle, we loved the animals, and we didn't want to leave.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Congrats Bellevue Teachers!

It seems to be back to class for the Bellevue school district. The teachers reached an agreement with the district yesterday evening, and both sides seem very pleased to have the whole thing over. The word in the paper (and from other sources) says that both curriculum and pay remained sticking points for some time. However, both sides were eventually able to come to an agreement. I believe that the Bellevue Teachers Union has made great strides for all of us standing up against rigidly controlled common curriculum. Returning professional judgment to teachers and principals is something that is way over due in many districts around our state. Thanks again Bellevue for fighting the good fight.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Signs of Autumn

The weather has been so beautiful of late that I can't help but blog about it a little. Right now, outside my window, the sun is producing that incredible golden light that you sometimes get at this time of year. The sky is a perfect, clear blue, and I can't see a cloud in the proverbial sky. Best of all, the temperature has been in the 70-75 range for several days. Absolutely wonderful. I just snuck out on my prep time to take a few turns around the track. Who could resist on a day like today? Fingers crossed that it lasts a while longer.

Nevertheless, there are certain signs of fall in the air. Last week, on the first day of school, a thick blanket of mist covered our neighborhood as I left for work. You could certainly tell that the sun would win out later in the day, but for that moment, there was a definite edge of something colder in the air. I'm ashamed to admit that I actually had to turn on the car's heater because I was wearing a light, summer skirt and sandals.

The days are also getting noticeably shorter. If I want to take a walk before dark, I pretty much have to do it on my own. If I wait for M to arrive, it is usually during blue twilight. All too soon, daylight savings will bring home that point all the more forcefully. Add to all this the pumpkins and chrysanthemums in the stores, the overflowing farm stands, and the return to school, and you have sure proof of the end of summer. This is not necessarily a bad thing since autumn has some very nice feature too. However, if it could just remain a sunny fall...

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bellevue Teachers' Strike Continues

Well it seems that Bellevue teachers are still out on the strike lines. I got so much traffic from that last post; it actually startled me a bit. It seems that many people are out there looking for information, and I just hope they realize that I am NOT an inside source. However, I can provide some information that is commonly available or is true of most teachers. For example, how about a lesson in education funding policy? Doesn't that sound like fun? Here's my simple-minded understanding of the situation.

In the state of Washington, all teachers are paid on a state-mandated pay scale. That means districts must pay the same regardless of where the schools are located. Equal pay is a good thing right? Not always. In most industries, employers link their compensation offers to new employees to the cost of living for the local community. In other words, if your employee has to pay $2000 a month to rent a decent apartment near work, you know you will have to offer more in his/her paycheck. In other words (again) you have to pay people more in Manhattan than you do in Columbus.

In Washington, everyone gets the same base pay. Period. There are some sneaky ways that districts can offer more if they have it, such as the extra duties contracts that many districts have. However, a state cap on the amount of money a district can raise in taxes also hobbles the ability to offer more pay. You can see where this is going.

A teacher in a small town in Eastern Washington earns enough pay to afford a comfortable standard of living. A teacher in a pricey city like Bellevue will have a much harder time affording a house, a car, and groceries at the same time. We lose so many excellent teachers every year who either leave the city for cheaper homes in the outlying areas, or simply leave teaching so they can afford to stay in the Seattle area. My school lost one of its top teachers to this very effect just this year.

Now many people would argue that teachers should vote with their feet when it comes to pay. If they don't think they earn enough, then maybe they should quit and go somewhere else. However, I don't believe it is right to ask teachers to make huge personal sacrifices just so that they can continue to teach in certain areas. If you don't want to pay teachers more, then offer subsidized housing, mortgage vouchers, or any of a number of programs to offer non-cash assistance. In the end, this is as much a state level problem as it is a district one, and I sincerely hope that Olympia is paying close attention to the situation in Bellevue.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Costa Rica Part 4

The next part of our journey required us to fly back from Tortuguero to San Jose. This is often the case in Costa Rica because the roads are not very good (or completely non-existent) in many places. Sometimes, even if you only want to travel 100 miles up the coast, you still have to go back to San Jose, in the center of the country, and take a plane. We took our plane from San Jose to a place called Golfito in the SW of the country. This town was not our destination; in fact it was not even the place where we were supposed to land, but the air strip in Puerto Jimenez was closed, so Golfito it was.

Our plane this time was huge and modern boasting at least ten seats and TWO, count em, two pilots. Of course they still organized the seating arrangements based on the size of each passenger, but this one felt a lot less like a box kite with an engine. We were supposed to fly to another location to drop off a few people and then head to Golfito, but a most impressive bank of storm clouds turned us back. By the time we landed in Golfito, the weather there was sunny, warm, and of course, incredibly humid.

A taxi took us the mile or two from the airstrip to the ferry. The only exciting this about this bit being the way the taxi driver drove at full speed to the very end of the rickety wooden pier in his 20-30 year old conversion van. Stopping on the proverbial dime, he tossed us and our stuff into the speedboat that would take us the rest of the way across the bay.

When I think of ferries, I'm usually imagining the goliaths that carry cars around the Puget Sound. This ferry was, as I mentioned, a speed boat with some rough seats for passengers, and the luggage arranged to provide ballast against the heavier people. A boy who looked about eight took our fares, and then proceeded to chat up one of the other kids who was also a passenger. The ride was great fun. We went quite fast, and we were traveling over the kind of clear blue ocean that appears in the movies. The only sad part was not seeing the whales that sometimes frequent the gulf.

After reaching the town of Puerto Jimenez (motto: We're the "big city" around here even if we don't have any paved roads) we were bundled into an SUV driven by a friendly ex-pat German, and we began our trip up into the mountains. The travel agency warns female tourists to bring along a sports bra for this leg of the trip. The reason becomes immediately clear. The roads are not just rutted; they are full of huge holes that would toss you from one side of the car to the other if you weren't wearing the seatbelt. In places, small rivers wash over the road, and the car is past its tires in water. It was a very good thing that we hadn't had the chance to eat much that day because I was feeling fairly green by the time we arrived at Lapa Rios. Fortunately, one look at the view from the lodge, and any ill feelings were quickly forgotten.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Bellevue Teachers' Strike

Many people have heard about the teachers' strike in Bellevue, and opinions from the public seem to range from rabid anger to fervent support. Having been on the strike line myself I can say, first hand, that being a striking teacher sucks. It is not fun, and anyone who goes around suggesting that a strike is a way to lengthen summer is WAY off the mark. Both teachers and students will have to make up the missed days, so don't worry; "educational opportunities" will not be harmed. Most teachers actually like their jobs quite a lot; they want to be back in the classroom more than anyone else. The only thing that can draw a teacher to vote for a strike is a serious issue. In Bellevue, they have an issue of the gravest importance.

Any newspaper story you read that says the strike is "over pay and curriculum" is only half right. Pay really is not the issue (I have inside sources who are quite clear about this). The district likes to say it's about pay because that makes the teachers sound mercenary. In fact, teachers are striking over the question of who will determine exactly how curriculum is delivered to students. For the last ten years or so, the Bellevue School District has been implementing a "top-down" model of curriculum design. This means that teachers get little or no say in what they will teach and how the will deliver instruction.

This may not seem like such a big issue to someone on the outside. Bosses the world over tell their workers exactly what to do on the job. What's the big deal? The big deal is that no two classes and no two kids are exactly the same. Even if we leave aside questions about creativity and personal strength (it turns out no two teachers are exactly alike either), the piece about pacing cannot be ignored.

A huge part of being a good teacher is in gauging what each kid needs, and in finding ways to challenge that child correctly. There is plenty of research available to defend this perspective. In Bellevue, slowing a class down or speeding one up is not just frowned upon, it can actually get you into trouble with administration. I've heard stories of teachers actually papering over their windows so that administrators can't observe them straying from the set curriculum by offering enrichment activities. A climate like that cannot be good for kids.

Administrators in Bellevue need to trust more in the professionalism of their staff, or they will certainly see more strikes. Not only that, but the more subtle effect of their micro-management is clear to me every day I go to work. In our district, we are lucky enough employ many excellent teachers who used to work in Bellevue.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Costa Rica Part 3

According to our guide, Tortuguero is a place where pirates used to come to hide out and bury their treasure. Who knows if any of it is actually true, but seeing the silvery beaches, the river that snakes back into the jungle, and the shadowed mangrove swamps, you half way expect to see Long John Silver-type people looking out at you from behind a vine. We never did see any pirates, but we were still amazed by the way the ocean and the river seem to weave themselves into everything that happens in Tortuguero.

In fact, there are not any real roads at all (at least none that we saw), and I can't recall seeing a single car or truck. The river provides the only sort of transportation that matters. Just a few short steps from where our plane landed we discovered a dock complete with the sort of flat-bottomed motor boat that is so common to the area. Boats do take the tourists to their inns and on wildlife tours, but they are not just there to amuse the foreigners. We saw boats full of locals going to work, boats laden with all types of groceries, building supplies, and other goods; we even saw a boat that was ferrying dirt from one building site to another. It turns out that Venice does not have a corner on the water highway lifestyle.

The first thing you notice about Tortuga Lodge is the fact that it actually hangs out a little over the river. The second thing you notice is the noise. The wall of sound created by an unseen cloud of cicadas is unbelievable. There can be no doubt that the jungle and the swamps are all around. The lodge itself is not meant to be overly glamorous or impressive. Instead, the surrounding gardens and the setting on the water are the main attractions.

The first thing we did upon arrival was go up to the dining room for some food (it was only about 8:30am). This is where we had our very first taste of Costa Rican breakfast. The main dish is something called Gallo Pinto which is made from the rice and beans from last night's dinner. They are cooked together with another Costa Rican specialty, a sauce called Salsa Lizano. Both gallo pinto and salsa Lizano are most delicious especially when paired with the eggs, fried plantain, and sliced avocado and tomato that complete the breakfast. Did I mention the fruit? Oh the fruit!

The main entertainment at Tortuga Lodge is taking the boat to view the wildlife. On our very first visit out we saw a crocodile almost immediately, but our guide told us that, at about six or seven feet long, it was considered a small one. We also saw turtles, layman, hundreds of birds including a very friendly Brown Pelican, and even some monkeys swinging from the vines just the way monkeys should. We also managed, on that very first boat ride, to get fairly impressive sunburn. Why, oh why, didn't I remember the sun block? I blame lack of sleep and lack of caffeine.

The other big attraction at Tortuguero is the GIANT sea turtles. Remember the surfer turtles in the movie "Finding Nemo?" These are the very same ones only without the comic relief. They never come to shore except to lay their eggs, and they only do so at night. Therefore, we left the lodge at about 10pm, took a short boat ride to the village, walked through the village and jungle for half an hour, and ended up on the beach. It just so happened that a lightening storm was coming in over the ocean, so a sudden flash of lightening illuminated the beach from time to time. This was pretty much the only light we saw since flashlights and other white light are not allowed around the turtles.

It was kind of a surreal experience with a long line of people waiting on the dark beach for their turn to look at the turtles up close. The tiny red lights held by the guides gave the turtles a kind of strange glow, and I felt a bit like a voyeur looking up the back end of the turtle as she tried to lay her eggs into a hole in the sand. They looked exactly like leathery, cream-colored ping pong balls, and each turtle was capable of laying hundreds in various different places along the beach.

Tortuguero is not the sort of place you forget in a hurry. The boats, the turtles, the breadfruit, all combine for that classic image of tropical life. However, one of the most memorable incidents of our visit did not have anything to do with the local area. Most of the rooms in Costa Rica do not actually have windows, or at least they don't have glass. Instead, shade cloth is used to keep out the bugs but let the air flow through. This means that you hear every single thing that happens outside your room. One night, with the curtains drawn, we lay on the bed and listened to American teenagers trying to shock each other by discussing drug use. Now you might be horrified (teens and drugs!) but it was so obviously a show meant to impress, that M and I lay there laughing silently in the dark.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Back to School

Sorry folks, I know I should be done with Costa Rica by now, but the start of the school year just keeps getting in my way. Once all the hubbub dies down, and all the kids are safely back in their seats, I should have the time to take it up again. At least my classroom is looking quite spiffy if I do say so myself. I'm also glad to say that I've reached the point in my teaching career where the first day of school no longer has my heart in my throat. Still, wish me luck tomorrow.