Monday, August 31, 2009

Stress Free - commentary

Stress, strESS, STRESS!!! We rarely heard this word when I was a kid more than half a century ago. Now, however, it seems to be a plague upon modern society and its snake oil cures are exceeded only by those for weight loss.

When I think of stress relief, I think of my childhood and Jim Maconya’s cow. We lived in Roslyn, Washington, a little coal mining town in the foothills of the Cascade mountain range populated with Eastern European immigrants, Czechs and Slovaks, who worked the mines. Those of you who remember the TV series “Northern Exposure” are familiar with the town as the program was filmed there, though it was called Sicily, Alaska.

Our house sat high on a hillside on the very edge of town. Out the back door, across the alley and we were in a fragrant pine forest. Jim Maconya and his family lived next door. The only two things I remember about Jim are that he had a daughter named Lucy, and a cow I’ll call Bessie.

As best I recall, Bessie was a petite, brown Jersey. (Probably not, but I prefer petite and Jersey.) Jim kept Bessie in some kind of old shed in his back yard, maybe a garage or a coal shed. Since our houses were in town, she stayed in the shed all day, while Jim worked at the mine.

When Jim came home late afternoons, he took Bessie off to the woods for a couple of hours of grazing on the wild grasses. She had a bell around her neck so Jim could relax, stretched out under a tree on cushy pine needles. As long as he could hear Bessie’s bell, all was well.

When Bessie was full and Jim’s stress had pretty much dissipated for the day, he took her back to the shed, fed her a scoop of grain, and milked her. He squirted any residual stress into the milk pail and then went to the house for supper. Jim got rid of stress, the family got milk, and when there was any left over, they sold it to us for a little extra cash: fabulous, rich with cream, straight from the cow, never been pasteurized, raw milk. Soooo good!!

I suppose we all can see where the stress went. I sometimes think of getting a cow of my own. But hey, I live in Jonesboro with a small back yard. Also, I think there is some kind of ordinance against keeping farm animals in town. Besides, who’s going to care for her while I’m roaming about, camping and trout fishing? It’s hard enough to find a kid who will mow a lawn anymore, let alone one who will or can milk a cow twice a day.

We’ve got to think this through a bit further. Was the cow really the heart of the matter, or was there something else? I don’t think it was the cow so much as the ritual of caring for the cow. For two hours everyday, Jim was separated from his stressors. He could have just sat under a tree, but he would have been thought lazy. By turning his sitting under a tree into a chore, it was okay.

Fishing and hunting serve the same purpose. Go sit on the riverbank for an hour or two everyday and you’re lazy. Put a fishing pole in your hands and you’re a sportsman. Sit in the sun every day and you're lazy, but plant, weed, and water and you’re a gardener.

These all become simple rituals, opportunities for our minds to go blank. They give us an excuse to divorce ourselves from the stressful realities of life. There are many more such activities. One of my favorite, until recently, was motorcycle maintenance. Certain things have to be done on a motorcycle over and over again. I turned them into a ritual. My mind could go blank; I would go through the motion, divorced from the stresses of life.

All these stress reducers are ours for the taking, free of charge, if we don’t mess them up with our modern technology. When Jim and his cow went to the woods, they went alone, just Jim, the cow and Jim’s private thoughts. No cell phone, no handheld computer, and no Ipod (they hadn’t yet been invented). I have seen fellows standing in the middle of a stream, trout fishing, and talking on a cell phone. I hope I never become so important that I can’t just leave my cell phone in the car or at home when trout fishing. Why contaminate the ritual by taking a stressor with you?

Because I have so many fond, early memories of milking cows (It’s how I made my spending money as a teenager.), I favor Jim’s ritual, but I know it could never work for me. I’ll be happy with a fishing pole. You are free to join me or to find a ritual of your own.

Sometimes the Teacher Wins - personal essay

Kids love stories which pit students against teachers and the kids win. But, once in a while, the teacher has to win, and it is not hard to do when it involves the jocks.

I arrived at school early one April Fool’s day at Grubbs public school. It was my first year of teaching. I also drove a school bus and wanted to get my classroom ready before leaving on my route.

As I grabbed my classroom door knob in the dimly lit hallway, I felt something gooey and sticky on my hands. It was a grease of some kind. (As it turned out, this was also my introduction to Icy Hot, a minty smelling balm used by athletes on their sore muscles.) A quick check up and down the hall disclosed the same greasy stuff on all the door knobs except one: the weight room door where the ball players worked out.

I wiped the slippery mess off all the door knobs with some old rags and then rushed to the bus garage, got some thick, yucky axle grease and slathered it all over the barbell bar resting on the lifting bench in the weight room.

As the jocks arrived at school that morning, they did not get any reaction from the teachers, and so they begin to ask them if they had found anything on their door knobs that morning. Since they had not, the teachers were puzzled by the question. I alone had any idea what had gone on.

However, when the jocks went to the weight room and grabbed their barbell bar, they discovered they had been the biggest fools of all. This was one April Fool’s day where the teacher scored and the jocks “got schooled” as my students would say.

My Lucky Day - commentry

I swear it was my lucky day. An article in the Nov. 7, issue of the New York Times, reporting on research published in the American Medical Association Journal says being overweight extends my mortality. Of course this is contrary to everything we’ve been told for the past many years, but it is enough to keep me from ever going on a diet again. Do you ever wonder whose research to believe? I do too. It doesn’t just happen in health issues, it also happens in education.

"The Great Tech Worker Divide," an article in the October 10, issue of Business Week reports that people like Bill Gates are lobbying congress to pass immigration laws to make it easier to import foreign scientists and engineers to fill a shortage in this country. Yet an article that appeared in the October 26 issue of Business Week, "The Science Education Myth," claims our colleges are turning out a surplus of scientists and engineers, that we have more than enough students enrolled in science, math, and engineering courses, and that our secondary students are out performing those from most other countries in the world. Sounds a bit contrary to what you’ve been hearing, doesn’t it?

Statistics, like a picture, freeze a subject in time. That picture of yourself that you don't like is just a representation of you for 1/125th of a second. Had it been snapped a second earlier or later, it would have been a different picture. The same thing happens with statistics. While a statistic freezes reality, time rapidly moves on. Meanwhile, bureaucracies which respond to problems disclosed by the statistics move excruciatingly slow. By the time a huge bureaucracy responds, reality has changed and the response is often all wrong. Do you remember the panic in the 1970's over the supposed teacher shortage? The government put a massive program in place and by the time it got rolling, all it accomplished was to produce a huge surplus of teachers with dozens applying for every available job. In many districts, the only way you could get a teaching job was to substitute for two or three years first.

Consider also that what researchers choose to plug into a statistic can alter the nature of a problem. For example, we had been told for years that test scores are declining. Because of this, we have spent billions trying to boost them and have succeeded to a very modest extent. However, I think researchers are analyzing the wrong data. What I want to know is whether there has been a decline over the years in the test scores of the top 30 to 40 per cent of those tested. If so, then we have a problem. The reality is that we only need so many doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, and other professionals.

As late as the 1950's, we were only educating about half of our young people much beyond the eighth grade. Now, we try to leave no child behind through grade 12, so it is not surprising that the average test score has declined. And, it is not that I want to ignore the bottom 25 or 30 per cent; it’s just that I wonder why we insist that they get an academic education.

If some researcher will answer the question about the test scores of the top 30 or 40 per cent, please let me know. Until then, let's look at some of the conclusions of Urban Institute's Hal Salzman and Georgetown University professor Lindsay Lowell in the afore mentioned article, "The Science and Education Myth."

The article talks about separate incidences in which both Bill Gates and President Bush stated the U.S. is falling behind in knowledge workers and we need to encourage more students to enroll in math and science courses.

Salzman and Lowell found the reverse to be true. They found both the number of students taking math and science courses and the number of units taken per student has increased steadily since 1982. They also found increases in math and science scores in the SAT and the ACT over the past two decades.

"...the report found that the U.S. is one of only a few nations that has consistently shown improvement over time," the article said.

"There isn't a problem with the capability of American children....Science and engineering graduates just don't see enough opportunity in these professions to continue further study or to take employment."

The article also states, "Proposals to increase the supply of scientists and engineers rapidly, without any objective evidence of comparably rapid growth in attractive career opportunities for such professionals, might actually be doing harm." As with the teachers, it would create a surplus and drive wages down. Some in the high tech industries believe that is actually what people like Gates are trying to do by lobbying for less restrictive immigration for scientists and engineers.

Well, I guess my question about how things are going with our top tier students has been answered. So, who benefits from all the negativity that gets thrown at us constantly? Remember, education is a $500 billion business and as long as it appears to be failing, those who profit from it can insist on our government spending even more. Serious problems need solutions and solutions need money.

Valorization of the Trades - commentary

Persistent problems require radical solutions and public education has proven to be a persistent problem. So, let’s look at some radical solutions.

Camille Paglia, libertarian feminist and college professor, in a recent essay, says "I call for a valorization of the trades and for national investment in vocational schools to help salvage the disaster zone of urban public education."

We glorify a college education, mostly through economic comparisons: college graduates make X amount of money more than high school graduates. Why not compile statistics in other ways? Let's compare the incomes of skilled steel workers or pipeline welders against incomes of mediocre liberal arts graduates.

Why not compare life in an office cubicle against the open air work place of an oil field well driller? Whose life is most interesting, the worker who built the building or the paper shuffler who occupies it?

It is time to recognize trades for the grand opportunities they afford young people and make preparation for them on par with college preparation. A high school principal once told me that he did a study of his students and found that only thirty per cent of the students in the school went to college and only thirteen per cent completed a degree. Yet, ninety percent of the budget is spent on the thirteen percent. His school is not unique, yet the standard response is to try and persuade more students to go to college rather than fund preparation for the trades. Those who make such decisions need to read again Walt Whitman’s poem "I Hear America Singing." A career in the trades is every bit as glamorous as being a college educated, expendable part of some multinational corporation.

Professor Edward G. Rozycki, Ed.D, of Widener University, argues for another radical solution: do away with grades eleven and twelve. He suggests those two grades are kept for social and cultural reasons rather than any academic need, things like the prom, the graduation walk, or a fourth year of football. He says, "Let's just stop pretending that the senior year in high school is all that important for the education of all seniors."

Rozycki says the GED test is based on a tenth grade level and that it is good enough to get you into most colleges. So, why not chop off those two grades and spend the money saved to upgrade the education in the first ten?

My contention is that the most important work of the educator is done in the first eight or nine years anyway. If a good job is done and the student can read, write, and cipher, he can pursue an education with or without a good teacher.

Rozycki also says we should drop any notion of "fullest potential," because we have no idea what it means and even if someone created a definition, you'd never get political agreement on it. "We cannot guarantee success with every child, no matter how imploringly that child's parents beseech us, no matter how ominously that child's parents threaten us."

A prestigious panel calling itself the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce calls for similar action. They want to see a rigorous test given at the end of the tenth grade. Those who pass it leave high school at that point. The only students remaining after that would be those taking remediation so they can pass the test or those involved in challenging academic study so as to get in the elite universities.

In 1997, Leon Botstein, then president of Bard College, in his book Jefferson’s Children, proposed we do away with high school, kind of. He says we should start school a year earlier, say at four years instead of five and end it at age sixteen. After that he says young people should be moved into learning environments more appropriate to their individual interests and life goals.

He says our attempt to educate all children, those who are ready for serious academics and those who are not, creates a serious problem starting in the mid-teens: “The behavior of sixteen-year-olds is influenced by that of other sixteen-year-olds as perceived through popular fashion and trends…. In terms of educational performance, this translates into a powerful dynamic within the high school. The best are influenced by the weakest.”

As to college, he says, “…if a young person comes to college at age eighteen without a serious love of reading, without a reasonable comfort level with mathematics, and without a basic concept of science or history, it is usually too late to fix all this.”

Most students have decided by their tenth grade year whether they are scholars, and even if they have not, their performance speaks for them.

We know that most people are not going to go to college. Also, most people only have so many years they will devote to school of any kind. When we force these kids to spend all those years in academic classes rather than providing vocational training, we condemn them to lower end service industry jobs instead of better paying technical jobs or the trades.

And then there is a seldom mentioned aspect about keeping students around for two or three years after they are through learning: it demoralizes teachers. When you daily face students who have no interest, you too lose interest. We often refer to it as teacher burnout. All too often, when teachers burn out, they don't quit their jobs, they just quit being the best they can be. Interested students keep teachers sharp and both do better.

Reading is Fundamental - commentary

Futurists tell us children today are preparing for jobs that don't yet exist. So how do we prepare our kids for something we know nothing about? We do it by emphasizing skills that are transferable from job to job. Among those skills, reading tops the list. Reading is fundamental, or could we say fun(damental), yet it amazes me how many kids want no part of it. If you are a parent, you would do well to insure that your child reads well and enjoys it. One of my "aha" moments as a young man was that given the right book, I could do anything, whether it was building a boat or figuring the time value of money.

Arkansas is spending millions of dollars on programs to make readers out of our kids. One of the most exciting programs I was privileged to attend was Literacy Lab taught by Ken Stamatis, professor at Harding University. It is a pleasure when I get to substitute for a teacher who has been literacy lab trained. But it is difficult for schools alone to make readers out of kids. They need help from the home.

When children don’t like to read, you can usually trace the problem to the home. Parents, to begin with it is hard to make readers of kids if they never see you read books for pleasure. Fathers, your children need to see you read, especially your sons. It is very difficult to get boys to read because their male role models seldom sit down and read for pleasure. I'm not talking about magazines or professional journals. I'm talking about what the kids call "chapter books" for pleasure reading. (Kids' first books are short and are not divided into chapters. A sign of progress or a badge of honor is when they are reading chapter books.) If you are already a reader or when you become one, the next step is to read to your kids. They will love it and so will you. Dads, if you need some help go to Moms and dads, you will find help at

If you have not yet discovered the books being written for young people, you are in for a real treat. I think the number of books written for our kids and then made into movies underscores that statement: Holes, Hoot, When Zachary Beaver Came to Town, Bridge Over Terabithia, Charlotte's Webb, Harry Potter, Fellowship of the Ring, Summer of the Monkeys, and others. Many of the books will not only appeal to your kids, they will hook you as well. If your kids think they are too old to be read to, then read the same books they are reading and discuss them.

There are some things good readers do naturally that you can help your young readers do as you discuss what you are reading. Good readers visualize; they see pictures in their heads. Remember, a good writer is an artist who uses words to create images. Help your young reader see pictures. Tell him what you see and what the writer said to help you see it. Get them to tell you what they see.

Good readers make connections. There are three basic types. One type of connection is a text to self connection where the reader sees something in the story that reminds him of a personal experience. A second type of connection is a text to text connection. This is when something in your book reminds you of something you have read in another book or something you have seen in a movie or on TV, or something you have heard in a song. A third type of connection is a text to world connection. This is when something in your book connects with something you know about in the world at large.

Good readers also make predictions as they read along. They try to figure out where the story is going and how things are going to work out. Stop at appropriate places and ask your child what he thinks is going to happen and tell him what you think might happen.

With this background you now have things to discuss. Ask your student what they're reading this week. If they say “nothing,” have a suggestion ready, something you have read and enjoyed. If they are reading something, ask what kind of pictures they see, what the setting looks like, or what they imagine the characters look like. Ask them what kind of connections they are making or what they predict is going to happen. All of these things improve comprehension and make real readers out of children.

Remember, reading is a learned skill and like other learned skills, you get better at it the more you do it. One of the reasons kids don't like to read is because they are not very good at it. One of the reasons they are not very good at it is because they don't do it. When students would tell me they didn’t like to read because they weren’t very good at it, I would ask how they got good at shooting free throws or hitting home runs. I asked if they told the coach they were not going to shoot at the basket anymore because they were not very good at it and didn’t like to do it. Parents need to help them break this cycle and encourage them until they get good at it. Reading is one of those skills that will transfer to any job, even those that do not yet exist. Students who don't like to read, who won't read, or who are not very good at it are drastically limiting their future. Any job worth taking is going to require good reading skills.

Myth of the Drop Out - commentary

The year was 1968; I wrote a column for the Coeur d’ Alene Press in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho, concerning the high school drop out rate which was at 25 per cent. Forty years later I read in the Jonesboro Sun that, “One in four children is still dropping out of high school.” Forty years of campaign promises, forty years of increased education budgets, forty years of making education more interesting, more exciting and more fun, the creation of a federal Department of Education and the introduction of technology at a cost of billions and we haven’t put a dent in the problem.

Maybe it is time to drop the myth of the high school drop out which goes something like this: High school drop outs make $271,000 less than high school graduates over a lifetime therefore we must do everything possible to keep kids in school. The success or failure of each student after high school has little to do with a diploma; you have to look somewhere else.

To begin with, the statistic used is the wrong one. Averaged in with the high school graduates are the college graduates, any millionaires, and the billionaires who have a high school diploma.

Here is the way I want to see the statistic averaged: what is the life time income of those with a C average or less verses those who make a B average or more. We expend a lot of effort cajoling at risk students to stay in school. The would be drop out hangs around to practically be given D's and C's just to get them through. But, I think the statistic done my way would show that it makes little difference that they were awarded a diploma.

The success or failure of the high school drop out will depend on why he did it. I think you will find a constellation of problems around the average drop out that leads to his dropping out. It might be drugs, anger management, authority issues, unstable home situation, lack of self discipline, laziness, or any number of others. If these problems are dealt with constructively, the drop out will find a place in the working world and do fine. If these issues are not dealt with, the mere acquisition of a diploma will not mean a thing.

There is also the myth of the high school diploma; because I have one, I'm on my way to success. The value of the high school diploma rests on the honest answer to the question, what is behind my diploma?

I had several students argue with me recently that just getting the diploma was all that mattered. It didn't really make any difference whether they had learned anything. When my son was processing to take his GED, he was reading an article while in the waiting room. He reported that the author, an employer, stated that all other things being equal, he would hire a person with a GED diploma over a regular high school diploma. Why? Because, the author said, you were guaranteed the GED applicant had to have proven a certain knowledge base.

Recently I was lucky enough to get to attend a workshop in Monticello put on by the forestry industry. Part of the workshop included trips to a logging site and to a saw mill. It had been more than 40 years since I had been on a logging site or in a saw mill.

Now, Instead of a half dozen or more men on the logging site, there were only two with two high tech machines. In the saw mill there also were few workers and lots of automation. When I asked the tour guide about the need for a high school diploma to work in the mill or the woods, he said, “even if they have a high school diploma, we're going to test them to see what they know before we hire them.” It is not the diploma that matters, it is what is behind it. Again, the absence or presence of a high school diploma, or even a college degree is no indicator of success.

Do you want to succeed? Forget about diplomas and concentrate on actually learning something. Learn to get up in the morning and get to where you are suppose to be on time. Learn to be responsible and dependable. Learn to be on the job when your employer expects you to be there, and make yourself so valuable to your employer that he cannot afford to let you go. Commit to being a life time learner, whether a diploma is involved or not. These are the important things. But, to continue to spend billions to cajole kids into staying in school when they don’t want to be there appears to be a waste of money.

Military Public Schools - commentary

The next two sentences should be read in a shouting voice. "Hup, two, three, four! Hup, two, three, four! Platoon halt! Report!"

"First platoon all present or accounted for, sir."

Is this the way the school day will begin for your child in the future? As I write this, five public schools in Chicago are now operated by the military and a sixth one will open in '09. When this happens, Chicago will be the only city in the United States to have at least one school operated by each branch of the military.

Students attend these academies by choice and according to a Nov. 2, Associate Press report, 7,500 students applied for the 500 freshman vacancies this school year. The students have to enroll in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. This means uniforms, inspections, drills and lessons in military history. These are college prep academies with an emphasis on leadership training, discipline and character-building.

The academies are built in the poorer parts of the city with large minority populations. Statistics show attendance rate at 94 per cent compared to 84 per cent for neighboring schools. One academy, created out of one of the lowest-performing schools in Chicago, saw graduation rates climb from 55 to 71 per cent in 2006. So far test results have been mixed.

However, when the Brits, who are having education woes similar to ours, sent some observers over here to look at possible solutions, they didn't come to observe our public military academies. They came to observe what some call "extreme education: 10 hour days, parental contracts and zero tolerance behavior policies in small, 200 pupil academies," according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

The schools they visited are Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. KIPP schools are small public charter schools being sponsored by the KIPP Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These schools, built in some of the most impoverished areas of our inner cities, boast of 100 per cent college acceptance, test scores to match private schools and students who play classical music like their uptown neighbors.

The KIPP school principal in Newark, America's second poorest city, told The Guardian, "We have established a school culture which is very distinct from the attitude they walk in the door with. It's a college-bound culture."

If you want your child to go to one of these schools you will have to enter into a three way contract between the principal, you, and your child, each of you agreeing to carry your weight. If your student doesn't have his/her homework in by 8 a.m., you will be called and a meeting set up. Miss the meeting and your child will be sent home and not allowed to return until you show up. Students are tested every six weeks and the school motto is "No Excuses."

Who goes to these schools? The Newark school is 85 per cent African American and 90 per cent of them get free school meals.

What do the critics of these two approaches have to say? Some say the military schools are just recruiting tools for the military and should not be allowed. I guess they figure it is better for kids to be poorly educated and spend a life in poverty than run the risk that a few of them might actually want a career in the military.

The small school movement has been accused of "undoing decades of progressive education," according to The Guardian. This puzzles me. From what I have been reading in the news for at least the last four decades, American education has been in trouble. How could a successful experiment set back progress when there seems to have been so little of it? Those who make such an argument must have some agenda other than just educating our youth.

It is my philosophy that persistent problems need radical solutions. These academies work for several reasons. They work because young people need structure, especially if internal discipline was not established in the home. They work because accountability is required from all participants, the parents, the students, and the teachers. They work because they are small. This is a topic I will address in another column, but I am a believer in small schools.

However, the most significant reason they work is because all the students are there by choice. The unmotivated and the disruptive students are not welcome. These schools demonstrate there are just as many bright kids in the poor areas as in the middle and upper class areas and they will learn if they can go to decent schools populated by others who also want to be there.

We will know in time whether either of these experiments will become widespread. The military approach can certainly provide some much needed discipline, but we are not a militaristic people. I doubt that it will succeed much beyond a few inner city neighborhoods. The KIPP program requires a tremendous amount of energy on the part of the faculty, the kind of energy that resides mostly in young idealists. For this reason, it too is a self limiting reform.

However, maybe we can learn from these experiments about the benefits that come with offering choice and with spending our energy on students who want to learn.

Needed: Male Teachers - commentary

As retirement became reality, I wondered how to spend all my newly acquired free time. One idea was to start a crusade to recruit more men to the teaching profession. I looked back on my fourteen years of teaching as the happiest work years of my life and felt a need to share the experience.

I got involved in other things and put that idea aside. But, a MSN headline last week brought it to my attention once again: "Percentage of Male Teachers Hits 40-Year Low." According to this article, males make up 24.4 per cent of teachers nationally. Arkansas comes in last place at 17.5 per cent (2006 statistics).

Schools need male role models, especially in the lower grades. I have had high school students tell me, "You are the first man teacher I've had." With so many kids coming from single parent families headed by the mother, the need is obvious. Men create a different ambience in the classroom, an ambience that contrasts with the maternal ambience women often create.

Why don't more men teach? The article says, "...low status and pay, the perception that teaching is 'women's work,' and the fear of accusations of child abuse."

Let me rebut each of these. In the eyes of those who count (your students), you have status and that is part of the joy. And, yes there is always the possibility of being wrongly accused, but this will serve to help you remain cautious in your dealing with students. If you create an atmosphere of mutual respect with your students, this is not likely to happen. As to it being women’s work, at the turn of last century, there were many more men teachers than women. The work is gender neutral.

Now let's put the pay in perspective. The article says the average teacher's pay is $49,000 a year. The teacher gets paid for 190 days of work per year or $258 per day. An ad adjacent to the article says the average bachelor's degree is worth $52,000 a year. The average worker puts in 240 work days a year for $216 a day.

When I first came to Arkansas, I was amused by a Lewis Grizzard column in which he said, and I paraphrase, that every Southern good old boy knows there is only one reason to work: to have enough money to go fishing and hunting. As a teacher, you have both the money and the time. Your non-teaching counter part has a little more money, but you have a lot more time.

Here's my list of ten reasons to teach if you are a man:

1. You are needed and wanted. You can't say that about many jobs.

2. You will make a difference in the lives of a lot of kids. Yes, there are some discipline problems and there are kids who don't want to be there, but there are many more who are willing to learn and need you to teach them. Remember, dedicated teachers taught those who fill the careers that are so admired.

3. It is more fun working with kids than adults, especially if there is still a little kid left in you.

4. If things are not going well with this year's students, you don't have to fret; you will get a whole new bunch next year. Every year it is a different job.

5. While pundits, politicians, and the public fuss about the state of American education, you just close your classroom door and go to work. Most of the fuss isn't going to affect you or the kids you are teaching very much anyway.

6. No two days are the same.

7. If you don't like your employer, you can find a new one without having to change your pension plan.

8. When you see students in Wal-Mart years after you've had them in class, they give you a big hug and tell you how much you meant to them.

9. You get more positive feed-back from students and parents than you will ever get from co-workers outside of school.

10. The job is less stressful than most other jobs people with college degrees hold down. I know, teachers who have done nothing other than teach will disagree, but then, what do they have to compare it to?

Men, if you have been slugging it out in the corporate world for 25 or 30 years, your kids are grown and gone, and you no longer need that big income, maybe it is time for a mid-life career change. Or, maybe you're younger but already burnt out on the corporate treadmill.

If you're thinking you would have to go back to college and that would make it difficult if not impossible, maybe not. The Arkansas non-traditional approach to teacher certification may be for you.

To qualify, you need a college degree and enough course work to qualify to teach in a particular subject area. For example, I have a bachelor's degree in journalism, but I have enough course work in writing and literature to be certified to teach secondary language arts. It can often be done without going back to college.

When I was a teen-ager working on local dairy farms to finance the wrecks I called cars, I learned several of life's important lessons. One of them was there is milk and manure with every job. The trick is to maximize the milk and minimize the other. Teaching is one of those jobs where that happens.

Freedom Writers - commentary

"Freedom Writers Diary," by Erin Gruwell: It's a book worth reading. It inspires. It makes you sad. It opens our eyes to a world most of us would rather ignore. The book was first published in 1999 and has since been made into a movie. I missed it in its first wave of popularity but it is a good read anytime.
Gruwell, a young white woman from the privileged class, takes her first teaching job in the Los Angeles school district. Being new, she gets the worst class, the class of at risk students, the worst discipline problems, the ones on whom others have given up.

Most of her students come from the "hood" or the "barrio." Though the school is touted as the most racially diverse in LA, inside it remains segregated by student choice.

Gruwell withstands student attempts to drive her from the profession and hooks them on reading and writing through the diaries of Anne Frank, "Zlata's Diary" and other readings which touches the students where they live. She challenges the students to write diaries of their own. Though Gruwell would probably not put it this way, she formed a gang which had positive guidance for positive ends.

Freedom Writers became the family most of the students never had. In her classroom they found safety, security, and a sense of belonging. They took an oath to pursue education and tolerance and sealed it with a toast.

The book is a compilation of selected student diary entries. A Gruwell entry introduces each section. Most of us have read or heard about homes where children are sexually, physically or mentally molested. Of neighborhoods where people are shot to death because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of people being evicted from their homes with no place to go. Of neighborhoods where education is held up to ridicule and where children are often made fun of for doing well. Of the fear that comes with knowing your parents are illegal immigrants. Of contending with parents who are drug addicts.

It is one thing to hear about these things, but quite another to read about them in the students’ own words as they share their inner feelings about their struggles and their hopes. They reflect a maturity beyond their years in both their ability to express themselves and their depth of understanding. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“…It’s funny how material things mean so much to adolescents. The problem is people grow up thinking that material things are what make them worthwhile. Which is very untrue and causes them to be very shallow. Now as a young adult I’ve realized that love is more important than material things. Material things can’t love you like a father can!”

And, “…Handouts are like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, but John Tu does not give people handouts, he gives people hope. Not even in my wildest dreams did I think that I would meet a millionaire, especially a millionaire that cared about my well-being. John Tu helps people through education, financial support, and high moral standards. I thank God for sending him into my life. He has given so much to me, and because of his actions I want to give to others, and hopefully someone will follow after me and the cycle of hope will continue.”

John Tu is one of the businessmen Gruwell gets involved in her projects. She has a fertile mind for things that will inspire her students and stimulate interest and hope. She works extra jobs to help fund some of these ideas but she also has a way of selling her ideas to people and businesses that can help. Because of this, she is able to get her Freedom Writers out of their neighborhoods to experience a much larger world. She stretches their hopes and dreams with field trips as far afield as Washington D.C. and Europe.

Gruewell has since formed a foundation for the purpose of training other teachers in her approaches to education. The book will inspire individual teachers to make a difference in their own approach, but will it ever have any real impact on education? Consider what this woman did to accomplish the fantastic results she experienced: She worked two jobs so she could help fund her efforts. She created a much needed sense of family for her students. She became mom to 150 kids who needed one. She often tutored kids in their homes and it wasn’t unusual for her to be working with groups of students until 10 o’clock in the evening at the school. One can’t help but admire her and be inspired by her attitude and accomplishments, but if that is what it takes to reach the at risk kids, their cause is lost. Most teachers have families of their own and they are already doing double duty as both parent and teacher. Gruwell has both an unusual work ethic and unusual compassion. Absent from her account was any mention of a husband and kids of her own. To do as she did is to take on responsibilities for society’s problems that are outside a school’s primary mission of educating children.

What can teachers learn from Gruwell? They can learn to adjust priorities. I remember attending a workshop where the presenter commented that the at risk kids were his primary concern. “The other kids are going to make it alright,” he said. The teacher can let the kids’ diaries evoke a new empathy for them and where they are coming from and communicate to the kids that she really cares. And these diaries can inspire teachers to a renewed effort on behalf of the kids at risk. These kids have a lot to offer but all too often their hopes are dashed before they get a chance to cash in on their dreams.

I Won't Accept the Blame - commentary

I’ve noticed a recent trend among idealist educators. They stand ready to accept the blame for educational failures and say we will accept no excuses. We can educate every child, whether they want it or not.

I refuse to share in their self flagellation or their whistling in the dark optimism, though I am by nature pretty optimistic. I’m going to relate a recent experience that will explain why.

I read Soldier Mom, by Alice Mead, to my seventh grade students. In this story, the mother is an Army Reservist who gets called to active duty during the Persian Gulf War. She leaves behind a boy friend, Jake, and their toddler son, Andrew. She also leaves in Jake’s care her eleven year old daughter by a previous marriage, Jasmyn.

Jasmyn, who is the main character, plays on the school basketball team and is the captain. Were she to give up the captain spot, it would go to the girl she and her friends dislike the most. Now that mother is gone, someone has to pick up Andrew from the day care before it closes. Unfortunately, it closes before Jake gets off work. This means Jasmyn will have to leave basketball practice 15 minutes early to get the child.

The problem is, she cannot leave practice 15 minutes early and still be captain of the team. Remember, the biggest problem isn’t that she would no longer be captain, but that the position would go to a girl she dislikes. Since the family dynamic has drastically changed, sacrifices will have to be made. The boyfriend has to make some of them, but he expects the girl to make some too. I asked the kids if it was expecting too much, under the circumstances, to ask the girl to make a sacrifice. The overwhelming response was that a teenager should not have to make any sacrifices.

I went around the room, hoping to find at least one of the kids that would recognize that tough times require sacrifices on the part of each family member. Not a one. Not from the Christian kids, not from those I would consider more mature, not from a boy, nor from a girl. Not a one.

The prevailing attitude among my students was that teenagers should never have to do anything unpleasant or difficult. And, you don’t have to be in the system very long to realize this attitude, though not stated as bluntly, is fostered by a generation of modern parents.

This attitude carries into the educational process itself. As long as the process can be fun and exciting, they will participate, but if it becomes unpleasant, they’re through. I talk to a lot of teachers who agree that the number of kids who simply do nothing is growing each year. I’m talking here about the numbers who are not willing to do even the minimum amount needed to pass. In way too many families, the consequences of doing nothing are now easier to deal with than the unpleasantness of doing the school work.

I think if you talked to coaches, you would also find the number of kids willing to do the truly hard work of excelling at sports is also diminishing.

This attitude is working its way up the system, so I was not surprised to read in the April 8, 2005, edition of the Jonesboro Sun, that, “A new study by three professors at Arkansas State University at Jonesboro suggests that time spent studying for class may be declining at an alarming rate.

“Today, college students spend less than half the time that faculty members believe is required to learn and academically succeed.”

Deep down, politicians, school administrators, and even idealistic educators know the problem doesn’t lie with teachers, who are as good as they have ever been. However, they can’t put pressure on the public, so they keep doing the one thing they can do: put pressure on the teachers. As a teacher from an earlier generation, I have this word of warning for educational policy makers. You may find that when teaching for a new generation of teachers becomes more unpleasant than the alternatives, they too will quit.

A Contrarian View - commentary

They gathered in the living room again as they often did, my son and a few of his friends: all of them high school drop outs. As I listened to their chatter my thoughts drifted back to my own teenage years. I had finally badgered my mother long enough that she had agreed to let me drop out of high school. I was seventeen and a junior. I had a job promised working for a local dairy farmer at $200 a month plus room and board. It was good money for a teenager in 1959, and the room and board would get me out of the house.

As it turned out, I didn’t quit, though I had mentally quit long before. Not dropping out is one of the few regrets I have in life as I was little more than a nuisance for the next year and a half to my teachers and fellow students who actually wanted to learn.

As I watched and listened to my son and his friends, I begin to wonder about our public educational system and why nearly thirty per cent of our students drop out. What is or is not being done to create this crisis, or is it even really a crisis? One evening, back in the late 1980’s, I was channel surfing and came across a panel discussion on PBS of leading educational experts. There were a couple of teachers of the year, a couple of professors from colleges of education, and other assorted, noted educators. I don’t remember much about the discussion, but I do remember being astonished by two things that were said: One panelist said that we know what is wrong with public education, but it will never be fixed because there is too much money and territory (political) involved in things the way they are. The moderator, surprised, asked each panelist in turn if that were true. Each agreed that it was. The second surprising comment was that teacher certification should be done away with.

Though much is often made in the media about the problems with American public education, it is usually by people on the outside looking in. Even the PBS panel only had a couple of teachers who were actually working in a public school setting. So, what would it look like from the inside looking out? This looked like a case for immersion journalism.

Since I had a college degree in journalism rather than education, I finagled my way into the classroom through the Arkansas alternative program for certifying teachers. After fifteen years in the public education system, I now have an answer to my question, though maybe not one very many Americans will accept.

An apt analogy of the problem might be the fellow who takes his car to the garage because he hears some ominous noises coming from deep down in the engine. It is apparent to the mechanic that the connecting rods are knocking and that the engine could fly apart at any time. Yet, the mechanic tries to solve the problem by adjusting the carburetor and the timing of the distributor. There is really only one thing to do: Overhaul the engine.

Our system of public education is faltering because of three false premises on which it has come to operate: People can be compelled to learn, education should be provided at absolutely no cost to the beneficiary, and education best takes place in a school setting. It’s not that these premises are written down or were even planned out in someway. They have just evolved over the years and are implied by the way we do school. So, today, when we have more research into how people learn and behave and better trained teachers, the bulk of our students are not nearly as well educated by grade twelve as their great grandparents were by the eighth grade, if their great grandparents went to school.

The system is broken way down deep and most of what we are doing (technology, more teacher training, more stringent curricula, more testing, more central control, etc.) simply amounts to adjusting the carburetor. If we spend enough, we might get a few years when test scores will rise a little, but until we are ready to overhaul the system, not much is going to change.

A Cost to the Beneficiary - commentry

It was a strange story. Prosecutors were considering filing negligent homicide charges against a father for an automobile accident his son had had in which two people were killed.

It seems the father had bought his son a new Corvette. The son promptly totaled the car in a one vehicle accident, so the father, having more money than good sense, replaced it with another new Corvette. This time when the son totaled the car, he also killed two people in the accident.

I’m sure we could all tell at least one story of a kid who has been given a significant gift, maybe a car or a bicycle, and trashed it in short order. Why? American Revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine put it this way in The American Crisis: “…that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The reason for this is simple enough. People who are always given things have no way to judge value because they have not traded any of their own time, talent, or energy to obtain the items.

This brings us to one of the problems with American public schooling: there is no direct cost to the beneficiary or his/her parents and so it is not appreciated and not valued. It is generally known that students in private schools do better academically. When parents put out anywhere from $4,000 to $30,000 a year to educate a child, they make sure the student invests some time, talent, and energy into the process.

All too often, I read about some scheme to pay kids for doing well at school, as if the education itself were not enough. An article in the Jan. 22, 2008, edition of the Atlanta Journal reports that, “Forty students … will be the first to try the ‘Learn and Earn’ program, where students will get paid to attend after-school tutoring programs.” The article goes on to report that these students will be given eight dollars an hour to attend class. The purpose of the program is to see if “paying students to study will improve classroom attendance, grades and test scores.” I will predict the outcome based on an often quoted statement of an economist friend: “You will always get more of what you subsidize.” Very quickly there will be more students in need of tutoring. An Oct. 22, 2007, article in the Sun reports a pay the students program to be tried in twenty-one Arkansas high schools to attract more students to advanced placement classes.

I have even been guilty of proposing such schemes. When Dr. James Best, superintendent at Westside, was expressing concern over the increase in seniors who were dropping out before graduation, I proposed we do a raffle. I suggested we get a good, used Ford Mustang and raffle it off to a member of the senior class. Tickets would be given free to seniors, and the only way to get one would to be enrolled as a senior with no more than 10 absences for the school year. The probability of winning would be much greater than in most raffles as there would only be a hundred or so tickets. As a tribute to his good sense, Best did not buy into the idea, though not long after I proposed it, I read where a Phoenix, Arizona, school was doing a take off on the same idea.

Why should we reward kids for doing something for which they are the sole beneficiary? Do they value the free gift of education so little that we have to add material value to it just to give it away? Yes, there are many who do not value it and the solution is not to add superficial value but rather make it cost the beneficiary something.

Before you start screaming about how this would deny an education to the poor, let me assure you I am not talking about charging tuition to attend public schools. The following quote from Daily Celebration, by William Barclay, states well what I mean: "In getting knowledge, the price of the journey is work. If we are not prepared to work really hard, we only get a smattering of a subject, a superficial knowledge of it, a nodding acquaintance of it …. If we are prepared to pay the fare in the coin of work, we can travel far. No one can learn without paying the fare -- in sheer hard work!"

The price to students should be hard work and if they are not willing to pay the price, they should not be allowed to attend school until they are.

This may seem harsh, but my guess is as parents begin to lose their free custodial care and students begin to lose their primary social venue, they will begin to take school work more seriously. The first year, a school might have to send several away, but once students understand they are going to work or else, the number of students being sent away would dwindle to nearly nothing, and there would be a lot more good work being produced. Students would begin to value their education because it would truly cost them something.

Let 'em Drop Out - commentary

A reform, to be worth our time, must get at real problems. Most reforms stop short of this because they come in conflict with those who have a vested interest in things as they are. If we won't fix real problems, then all our reforms will be limited in the good they do. I am reluctant to even mention one of the real problems because of the hue and cry that will come from so many quarters.

Let me preface my observation with three quotes: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear -- an old Hindu proverb.

"The passion to teach is far more powerful and primitive than the passion to learn..." -- Eric Hoffer, unschooled author who was popular in the 70's and 80's.

And, an aphorism of my own, "Those who feel a need are not necessarily those who have the need."

Each of these quotes gives insight into one of the real problems that plague our schools: its compulsory nature. We spend too much time trying to teach students before they have an interest in learning. Compulsory education at the secondary level is destroying our system.

Compulsory education came about during the early 1900's through the work of child advocates and labor unions in an effort to curb child labor practices. These practices allowed children as young as 10 years of age to work in mines and factories six days a week, ten hours a day. These much needed laws compelled kids to be in school until age 14, which is about the ninth grade. However, these laws have been amended in most states to age 18, and this is a problem.

Certainly, we don't need 10-year-olds working in factories and mines. And, in a democracy, we do need a literate citizenry. Compulsory schooling helps in both instances. Basic literacy, however, should be achieved by the ninth grade, and by the ninth grade many students have already decided that school holds no interest for them and they shut down. The numbers who drop out mentally continues to grow with each ensuing grade.

Forcing these people to go to school is destroying our system. To really understand this you have to try teaching in a classroom with a handful of students who don't want to be there. It only takes a few such students to seriously disrupt the teaching and dilute the learning for those who want to be there. If parents who really desire a quality education for their children understood this, they would be up in arms.

You cannot force learning; you can only force schooling. Schooling does not equal learning; even fish run in schools. A 15, 16, 17, or 18 year old who doesn't want to be in school will not work, but he will keep others from working and will make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the teacher to teach.

What is the justification for forcing these people to be in a classroom? They are too young to make such decision on their own and when they get older they will thank us for making them hang in there. They will take jobs away from grown men who need them to support families. They will flood the labor market with cheap labor. They will just hang around on street corners and in malls causing trouble and running away customers. We need an educated workforce if we are going attract industries that will bring good jobs.

As to the first argument, it would make more sense to structure our system of education so it would be more convenient for these people to drop back in when they are ready to learn. (I’m glad to see, according to a recent news report, some educators in Osceola are thinking in these terms.) This should be at no cost to them in that we were willing to pay for their education at a time when they weren't yet ready to learn. We could make this delayed education less expensive by requiring them to only complete the core curriculum for a diploma. A motivated student could complete the high school core curriculum in a couple of years rather than the customary four.

Did you notice that only the last argument has to do with education? I would say that the last argument alone would justify compulsory education if in fact it led to a better educated work force, but it doesn't. Because the forced students depreciate the learning environment, it leads to a less educated work force.

As to the other arguments, they each represent a social problem that may need solving, but solve them in some way that will not dilute the education of those who want to learn. To hear politicians argue that we can't have these young people hanging around on street corners causing trouble, so we'll force them to hang around in classrooms is incredulous. If they're getting in trouble on street corners, what do you think they will be doing in school?

I don't expect any in positions of power to buy into this argument and change the law, so we will continue operating with a system that is flawed at its roots. We will continue to spend ever increasing amounts on reforms, some of them quite exciting. And, we will continue to congratulate ourselves over every little gain in test scores when we could be experiencing real progress.

Blocking Educational Reform - commentary

I was channel surfing the other night and clicked on an Obama speech where he was promising better education for our children. Sometime ago, I was watching a movie of an old JFK campaign speech and oddly enough heard the same thing. It happens every four years. The politicians get serious about our “failing” education system and promise to reform it, and yet it never seems to happen. Attempts at serious reforms are always sidetracked by one or another of the three P's of education: parents, politics, or profit.

A young, idealistic inner city teacher back in the 60's, James Herdon, wrote a book entitled The Way It Spoze To Be. When he would try to innovate in hopes of teaching his mostly illiterate students something, they would inform him, "That not the way it spozed to be," even though “the way it spozed to be” had been of little value to them.

Parent's often resist significant reform because, based on their experience, "That is not the way it is supposed to be." They are particularly interested in sustaining all the social and athletic affairs, as well as custodial care. A little reform is alright, just so it doesn't interfere with the way it is supposed to be. The truth is parents pretty much have the kind of schools they want, in spite of what the politicians and professional educators complain about.

Politicians too stand in the way of significant reform. They often pass laws effecting education with little understanding of what is truly needed or of the unintended consequences. They wind up creating huge bureaucracies. To understand this, think of boats. One thing that makes those pesky little personal watercraft so much fun is that they can zig zag at high speeds. However, if you were out on the ocean on an aircraft carrier, it would take you 15 miles to turn around.

If you had an autonomous school district, you could try one thing and another. If what you tried worked for your community, you'd keep on doing it. If not, you'd turn around.

However, when you are controlled by a cumbersome bureaucracy, you are like the aircraft carrier. Now, if current practices aren't right, it takes forever to turn things around. Also, bureaucrats tend to see things in universal terms which means if it is good for Los Angeles, it is good for Jonesboro. If the bureaucracy introduces a reform and it doesn't work, you hurt an entire generation before things get turned around. If a district is allowed to act autonomously, only a few students get hurt.

Bureaucracies usually produce little more than mediocrity. The only thing I hold against Ronald Reagan is that he failed to keep his campaign promise to do away with the Department of Education.

If you can slip educational reform past the parents and politicians, you still have the profit factor. Twenty years ago there were three primary industries deeply involved in education to lobby politicians. Now there are at least five.

The most politically active group is the teacher's union, the National Education Association. Its primary function is to protect the employment of its members. Any reform that looks like it will jeopardize teacher jobs will meet with strong resistance. The NEA invests a lot of money acquiring political capital and doesn't take lightly anything that might interfere.

Another big special interest is publishing. Any suggested reform that affects the profits of this industry will also be resisted. Remember, education is a five to six billion dollar industry and business doesn't like new trends that might shrink the bottom line.

Schools of education also have a major interest. They don't mind a little reform as long as it does not affect their jobs or bottom line. Since many proposed reforms have to do with the way we certify teachers, universities can get real defensive in a hurry. One of Arkansas’ reforms is the growing non-traditional teacher certification program. It offers a pathway to licensure for those with degrees in areas other than education. I hear occasional grumbling from people involved in schools of education because they have encountered a non-traditionally certified teacher they didn't deem to be very good, as if the traditional route produces nothing but the best. One problem with traditional licensure is that a teacher may find, after spending time and money getting a degree in education, she is not cut out for the job. Since the degree hasn't prepared her for anything else, she hunkers down for the next twenty-five years, doing a mediocre or worse job of teaching.

The new players on the scene are the providers of technology, both hardware and software. Twenty years ago there was little or no money being spent on classroom technology. Today we are spending millions, if not billions, on classroom technology.

Rapidly expanding players in the supplier of educational services are the producers and processors of standardized tests. The money spent on this across the
U. S. has grown exponentially since “No Child Left Behind.”

All these special interests have lobbyist. It is no mystery as to why significant reform never seems to happen. Any real reform is going to affect one or more of these special interests. I will make a prediction: In twenty years or less, public schools will be populated by the poor, the lazy, and the special needs students, and the teachers will be as much social worker as teacher. The rest will be in private schools, home schools, or virtual schools.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Ivy League Education - commentary

After reading "The Chosen," by Jerome Karabel, I feel better about my education in nondescript universities like ASU. I now conclude it is academically as good as any Ivy League education.

"The Chosen" explores the history of admission policies of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton from the early 1900's to the present. The book contains several surprises such as the efforts by all three universities to limit Jewish students.

I only read the first 400 pages covering from 1900 through my college years in the 1960's. The startling part of this history to me was the playing down of the importance of academics. My idea that academic learning constitutes the primary purpose of college is apparently an illusion.

During these years, the schools saw as their primary goal the training of young men to be world political and business leaders and social elitists. Academic achievement was a secondary issue. In fact, students who spent too much time in the library or study centers were referred by the pejorative term "grind" by both the faculty and fellow students. The schools were careful not to recruit too many grinds. A gentleman's C was considered adequate for an Ivy Leaguer.

This brings to mind the Kerry – Bush campaign, both of them Yale graduates I believe. Kerry was supposedly the elite intellectual while we all knew Bush was a cowboy and merely a C student. Kerry, however, at first wouldn't release his transcripts. With enough pressure, he did. He too got by with a gentleman's C.

It turns out the most important thing in these prestigious schools was the dinning clubs where the students learned to be social sophisticates capable of travelling smoothly in the rarefied air of the wealthy and powerful of the world. At one point Karabel, discussing a particular study, says, “The twenty-six men studied were a veritable Who’s Who of the America elite: … These men had not compiled particularly distinguished academic records at Harvard; the majority of them had relatively poor grades.”

I hope some of the admissions practices have changed since the 60's, but what I read in the first 400 pages piqued my curiosity. If academic learning was of such little importance that serious students were pejoratively referred to as grinds, and a gentleman's C was acceptable, where did the graduates gain the knowledge to run the government and industry? A question of lesser importance is why did I, a grind, spend so much time in the library maintaining an A minus grade point average when a gentleman's C was good enough for those who were controlling my future? “C’s make degrees,” I was recently told. Why didn’t I hear this 40 years ago?

If academic learning held a position of lesser importance than getting in the right dinning club, where were these future world leaders obtaining their knowledge to lead the rest of us? When I was a young reporter, I would often ask professional people such as doctors or lawyers if their education had prepared them for the work they were doing. The answer usually started with a laugh followed by a “no.”

I received my Arkansas teacher’s certification through the non-traditional program. Those in the program had to attend a week of workshops just before school started in the fall and about seven daylong workshops during the school year. This went on for two years. I suppose this involved 24 workshops and as many presenters. With one minor exception, every presenter started the workshop with words to this effect: You people are very lucky. To get my certification I had to take X number of college credits in education and none of it was useful. It was a waste of time. The one exception was a woman with a doctorate, and she said essentially the same thing but allowed that a little bit of it might have been useful. Add to this a statement I have heard in workshops by two different educators, each holding a doctorate degree: There is no correlation between grade point averages and future success in life. For one of them, this had been the subject of his doctoral thesis.

If academic learning was not essential for Ivy leaguers, if it didn’t really prepare professionals for their jobs, if the required education courses for teachers were of little to no value in teaching, and if there is no correlation between grade point averages and future success in life, where do people acquire the knowledge to do their jobs? On the job maybe?

So, my next question is why do we make such a fuss over academics, requiring every student to reach proficiency in the core subjects while spending millions on testing for something that apparently has so little to do with our careers? In the 00-01 school year the Arkansas State Department of Education spent $4.8 million on student testing and in the 08-09 school year, that grew to $8.2 million. C’s really do make degrees and it’s the degree or the diploma that often opens doors to the job market. Maybe the weakness in our culture is that degrees and diplomas have become the primary way to open those doors. Maybe there should be other ways as well, more meaningful ways.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bam Bea and the Blind Buck - tall tale

I first heard this tall tale 60 plus years ago at some scouting activity as a small boy. A couple of years ago, I put it on paper for a tall tale contest sponsored by the “Jonesboro Sun”

As the leaves began to change color in the little Washington town where I grew up, the attention of many young men turned to deer hunting. The season for deer hunting always opened on a Sunday to the chagrin of the town’s preachers, especially my father. But, the short season required a hunter’s total attention and he could not be easily distracted by such things as church.

As I recall, and I’m reaching back decades in my memory, it was not the kind of hunting we do here in Arkansas. There were no deer camps, no deer stands, no deer feeders overflowing with corn, and no video cameras to record who or what was eating the corn. No one painted purple slashes on fence posts to warn against trespassing and there were no 4-wheelers.

Weyerhaeuser Timber Company owned most of the forest land and they had built miles and miles of logging roads, giving hunters access to the timberlands. Hunters hunted by walking through the forest, crossing ridges and searching for any signs the deer might have left. It was in these surroundings that my friend, Bam Bea, set out on his most unbelievable hunt.

Bam began his hunt on foot before daylight from his parking place many miles back on one of the logging roads. By mid-afternoon, he had hiked several miles over a couple of ridges without much luck. He sat down on a ridge top to eat a peanut butter sandwich and enjoy the scenery below.

As Bam was scanning the valley, he spotted two deer, a majestic 8-point buck and a doe. As he watched them, something seemed strange. They were grazing and everywhere the doe wandered, the buck was right behind. In fact, it appeared the buck was nipping on the doe’s tail.

Bam raised his rifle so he could watch the pair through his scope. As he focused in, he watched the pair closely. While glassing the buck, he noticed his eye was a milky white like the eye might have been injured and maybe the buck was blind. As he continued to watch the pair, he realized the buck was blind and he would nip the doe’s tail as she led him around the woods.

Bam aimed carefully across the 300 yards between him and the doe. He put the crosshairs on the base of the doe’s tail and slowly squeezed off a shot. The bullet sheared the tail clean off, and the doe darted off through the woods. The buck was left standing, holding the doe’s tail in his mouth.

Bam quietly approached the buck and took hold of the tail. With the tail, he led the buck back over the ridges to his car where he shot it. He loaded it on the hood of his new 1948 Chevy and headed back to town where he cruised the main street a couple of times as was customary, so people could see his wonderful trophy buck.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The School Stool - commentary

I know it is a tired old metaphor, but it fits the point I want to make so well: education is a three legged stool. As long as all three legs perform as intended, the stool does its job. When I was a boy, a short, three legged stool was used in the barn to sit on while milking cows by hand. If one of the legs wasn't right, the poor milker could lose his balance and find himself sitting in a gutter filled with stuff the cows didn't need anymore. Each leg fully participating was important for getting the job done without making a big mess.

Teachers, parents and students comprise the three legs of the school stool. All three must play their part well if we are going to succeed.

The state of Arkansas has committed millions of dollars to strengthening the legs on the stool. Since the teachers are the only one of the three over which the legislators have much real control, they have been getting most of the attention.

To begin with, the legislators have raised the standards for entry into the profession, thus ensuring a higher quality of beginning teachers. It upsets some administrators who claim the standards make it impossible for them to find qualified teachers, but the changes are necessary if we are going to improve this leg of the stool. We are one of the few states that not only tests new teachers for knowledge but also for performance. They must demonstrate a disposition for working with students and the ability to manage a classroom well. For teachers who are already certified but not getting the desired results, workshops on the most effective approaches are being funded and experts are being sent into their classrooms to coach them. It is an exciting time to be teaching.

Though our legislators don't have as much control over the parent leg of the stool, they are not ignoring that leg. School districts are now required to maintain a parent center. These centers are stocked with materials to help parents help their young students succeed in school. They also have resources to help parents succeed at parenting. People who staff these centers often conduct workshops on both subjects. Teachers are required to make contact with parents throughout the school year and to be available to counsel with them on the progress of their students.

Both common sense and research show that the more involved the parents are in a child’s education, the better children perform. Parents should know what is going on and computer programs such as Edline, make that possible. Edline, sponsored by the state, allows parents direct access to a student's grades, homework, and other school activities.

The student leg is the most difficult part because we are talking about motivation. Motivation cannot be legislated. Exceptional teachers can sometimes motivate reluctant students, teachers like Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland's Opus, or Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. But, to expect all teachers to do so would be like expecting all baseball players to be an Albert Pujols. Parents have the most significant strings to pull for motivating their kids and more parents need to pull those strings.

Too few students see the connection between what they do at school and their futures. It is up to parents to constantly help them make these connections. They need to demonstrate the importance of education by helping with homework, by reading with them, by showing them how math fits in with life, or discussing current events in light of history.

So often, when families gather, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts use it as an opportunity to laugh at times when they pulled some prank on a teacher if they talk about education at all. The little ears hear this and often go off to school with mischief on their minds. How much better it would be to talk to the children about how a limited education has limited their lives, or how their education has led to success.

Pastors and youth leaders can also play an important role. Teach your young people what proper Christian behavior in the classroom would look like. Also talk to them about the importance of literacy to their faith. Christianity is a religion of The Book. This means it takes literate adherents if it is going to prosper. The Church cannot afford a generation of believers who cannot read, yet I hear way too many students declare that they hate to read. The whole community needs to work to motivate its students, because when students get a good education we all benefit.

I think most of us are a part of one or another of these three legs of our education stool. In the past we have spent a lot of time fixing blame, but in the future, let's do whatever it takes to make each leg of the stool strong.

Hug A Tree - commentary

For the 67th time National Arbor Day has slipped by me unnoticed. I can’t remember anything going on April 24 that was more important than sitting in the shade of an old oak tree or climbing in its branches. In spite of annually missing Arbor Day, the way I look at trees has changed over the years.

I worked for a gyppo logger for my first job out of high school. A logger views trees kind of like a cannibal looks at missionaries. However, with the influence of literature, nostalgia, and maturity, I have developed a real affinity for these wooden friends. I can only recall having cut down one tree since my logging days and that was done reluctantly.

The way I look at trees began to change when I read Robert Frost’s “Birches:” “When I see birches bend to the left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees, /I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.” (It’s worth looking up the poem and reading the whole thing.) The poem makes me think of my own childhood uses of trees. First of all, trees were the jungle gym of nature’s playground, especially broad leaf trees. A boy could prove how high and fast he could climb. “Hey guys, look at me.”

If it was an apple tree, it produced ammunition for childhood warfare. The apple trees stir one of my fondest memories. A boy can’t wait for the apples to turn red before eating them and too many green apples lead to a bedtime belly ache. While I lay in bed crying and whimpering with an aching stomach, my father would slip into my room and rub my tummy with his rough, working man’s hands until the ache would subside and I could fall asleep. It is still the most powerful image I have of my father. Even today, I can’t resist candy with a green apple flavor.

A tree always made a good home base for a game of hide-and-seek or a hiding place in a game of the kick the can on a dark night. It was also a place to cobble together a club house from scraps of lumber high in its branches.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy we meet Mr. Treebeard, a walking, talking tree. It has been years since I read about the Hobbits, Treebeard, and other such fantasy characters. But, having met Treebeard, a walk in the woods has never been the same. I half expect the trees to talk and maybe even move around a bit. And though that is not going to happen, it is not hard now to imagine that trees too have a bit of personality.

Harry Middleton, in “The Earth is Enough,” also expresses a fondness for trees. Albert and Emerson are a couple of old brothers who live on a farm in the Ozarks. They cultivate just enough of the farm to provide for their immediate needs and leave the rest of it alone. It bugs the community that they pretty much let the farm go fallow while they spend their time fly fishing. It particularly bugs Durham, the county extension agent, who can’t stand to see farm land go uncultivated. He is trying to persuade the brothers to log off all their trees and plant their land to cash crops.

About the trees, Albert says, “They belong here. … They shade the creek, keep the trout cool. Hawks use them, too. And owls. And turkeys. Nearly every creature on the place, really. Why would we want to cut them down?”

I am not opposed to using trees as I also enjoy fine things made of wood, including a wine glass wherry I made a few years ago, or the teardrop camper I made to tow behind my motorcycle. However, I have come to feel that no tree should be cut down wantonly.

I remember one time reading a statement by a psychologist who said we should all get our feet off the pavement once in a while for the sake of our mental health. That sounds like a walk in the woods to me. One of my favorite such walks is found in the W.B. Brewer Wildlife Management Area out of Beech Grove at the end of County Road 131. As I walk down this trail which follows a ridge, I almost expect Treebeard to talk to me. However, just the wind passing through the trees is therapeutic enough. It is the trees which make the walk a healthy experience.

I can’t imagine a world without trees. They are there for the kids, a sort of jungle gym on nature’s playground, to provide ammunition for childhood wars, to maintain health for stressed out adults, and to provide for the animals. I’m sorry I let another Arbor Day slip by without celebrating trees, but I’ll try to do better next year. Maybe I’ll even be back in physical shape so I can actually climb one again.

Keep It Simple - personal essay

I took up fishing late in life, and even then, I came to it through the back door. The patience I gained with age prepared me for it, but I really took it up so I would have a use for my boat.

I know; most people buy a boat because they have a use for it, but there are other reasons to buy a boat. When we were teenagers, my older brother unwittingly stirred my interest in boats when he built a canvas covered canoe in the back hallway outside our bedroom. The canoe only got used once, in Mashell Creek if I remember correctly. Rather than carry it home, we hid it in the brush and that was the last we ever saw of it. But it wasn't the end of my desire to build a boat of my own.

Over the years, my fantasy grew from a simple canoe to a wooden dory. Don't ask why; it was just the aesthetics of it -- the boat of The Old Man and the Sea, the boat that Captain Courageous and Manuel fished from, the boat on the sea of a hundred romantic pictures. Every few years, I would buy a copy of Wooden Boat from the news stand and renew the fantasy; however, because of my total ineptness at wood working, it remained a fantasy. Thumbing through one such issue, I spotted an ad for a kit to build a fifteen foot, wine glass wherry, a light boat designed for ease of rowing, but it was close enough to a dory to satisfy me.

The kit used an innovative (so it seemed to me) method of boat building called stitch and glue. The finished product was comprised of thin marine plywood planks sandwiched between layers of fiberglass. It looked like something even a wood working klutz could do with a little patience.

It turned out that it was something I could do and did do. So, I had my dream boat; it was aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but what use was it? It seems there is really only one thing to do with a row boat -- go fishing. I had given up fishing as a teenager because it bored me. If I did not get any action in the first thirty seconds, I looked for other things to do. But, forty years later, something slow-paced looked good. I bought a simple cane pole, some line, a few hooks, some bait, and went off to the lake.

I soon realized, though thousands of fish have been caught on a cane pole, I needed a rod and reel. And then, I needed a second rod and reel, and a third, and some lures, several different sizes of hooks, different baits, a subscription to two magazines, some videos, a fish finder, a net, a fishing vest, a couple of tackle boxes, several catalogues, and the list goes on. The old saying, "if the wind is from the north, don't go forth; if it is from the east, they bite the least; if out of the west, they bite the best," was no longer good enough. I discovered fishing has become a competitive thing with an ever increasing plethora of scientific research to back it up.

I discovered that in this sub-culture, it's not enough to catch a fish. It has to be the biggest fish, or the most fish. Soon I was investigating thermo clines, hatches, presentations, color, seasons, moon cycles, and migration patterns. Sitting and cogitating with a line and hook dangling in the water was turning into a real project.

To regain perspective, I dusted off my old copy of Thoreau's Walden. "We do not ride on the railroad; it rides on us," he mused, and then advised, "simplicity, simplicity, simplicity." I had come to fishing through the back door, through the aesthetics of a simple boat, and the act of fishing itself should be kept just as simple.

It is enough to be in the middle of Spring River as day breaks, to watch the mist rising off the water, to watch the blue heron and otter ply their skill at fishing, or to watch the raccoon slip along the riverbank in search of food. Sometimes an unexpected treat comes along, like the time a twelve-year-old boy, fishing a few yards upstream with his grandpa, caught his first fish ever, a twelve inch rainbow trout. For a moment, I was in the presence of the greatest fisherman of all times with the greatest catch. No science, no fancy equipment, just a cheap rod and reel, a worm, and a fighting fish.

A few days ago, I took my rod and reel, tackle box, and can of worms off to a nearby pond for a little cat fishing as my boat was in the workshop waiting for a new finish. When I arrived, there was only a middle aged couple doing a little fishing, but since the fish weren't biting, they left after a few minutes. I baited my hook, cast it in, and settle into a long wait. Twenty minutes or so passed, and I hadn't yet had any action. A grandfather, father, and son showed up. The father baited the hook of the boy's little rod and reel and cast it out for him. Within seconds, the five-year-old had a catfish on the line. He began dancing about and cranking on his little reel as hard as he could, landing the first catch of the day.

Soon a family of six showed up! There were both boys and girls, and they ranged in age from maybe five to twelve years of age. The father landed the first fish and a big one at that. The little boy started jumping about with excitement, making sure everyone noted the size of his father's whopper. However, the little eight-year-old girl was the first of the children to bring one in, and soon the boy who had been so excited over his dad's catch had one of his own pulled up on the bank. He was all excited, but having watched his bobber, I knew he could have had one a lot sooner had he stayed with his own fishing instead of everyone else's.

Well, there was no science in all this, nothing beyond a recognition that a wind out of the south was blowing in a new front. There were just some simple rods and reels, the kind that sell for under $10 at the discount store, a few worms, and a lot of happy kids. I pulled up my stringer of four fat catfish, my tackle box, and my rod and reel and started on home full of simple pleasure.

I'll have the new finish on my boat in a few weeks, as soon as the thermometer at night stays above sixty degrees so I can apply the temperature sensitive epoxy based paint. It's a small boat. Once in a while I think about getting a little electric trolling motor for it, but I think about batteries, chargers, electrical cables, and things that quit working. Then I look a the simple, hassle free, maintenance free set of oars and wonder why. And at times I get out the thick catalogue of fishing gear with all its possibilities and reflect on the kids with their little $10 poles and worms and also wonder why. Why insist on complicating life? For the most or the biggest?

I backed into fishing because of a simple little row boat that was pleasing to the eye, though owning it seemed to imply using it. But if using it complicates my life, what have I gained? A man should be wary of things that interfere with his cogitating. A simple pole, a can of worms, a set of oars, and a lake or river early in the morning are all the soul wants. Anything else simply gets in the way.
Copyright 2000

Monday, August 24, 2009

Dak Goes to Work - short story

Dak sat staring at The Panther, his sport touring motorcycle, as he drank his morning coffee. He loved cool spring mornings with the Dogwoods in bloom. He still had a chunk of money left from his reward for catching the fugitive up in the forest. However, he didn't have enough to take the long trip he dreamed of. "Looks like it's time to find a job," he sighed.

A good place to start looking would be the barber shop since he needed a haircut anyway. Nothing much happened in town that Bud didn't know about. He finished his coffee and rode into Mt. View.

"Well, well," Bud said, "look who wandered in off the street. Where ya been, Dak?"

"Over in Tennessee," Dak said, "ridin' the Tail of the Dragon on my new bike."

"I've heard of that stretch of road. Did ya set a record?"

"A record speeding ticket," Dak said.

"You'd probably of done better if ya hadn't been totin so much hair. Sit
yourself up here and let me chop some of it off."

Dak sat down and Bud went to work.

"I need to find some work," Dak said. "I want to take a long road trip and I need to make some money. Anybody been askin' around for workers?"

"As a matter of fact, Jacoby was in here just this mornin' talking about
needin' a ranch hand or two."

Jacoby has a couple thousand acres spread east of town where he keeps a herd of pure bred Charolais beef cattle. Dak figured Dr. Zuk would be better transportation than Panther for ranch work so he got the Suzuki out of the storage shed and rode on over to Jacoby's.

"Sure I'll hire ya," Jocoby said," fifteen hundred bucks a month plus board and room. Move your stuff into the bunk house over the weekend and be ready for work early Monday morning."

As Dak hauled his stuff into the bunk house he was greeted with a cheery "hola. You must be the new ranch hand."

"Sure am. Dak's my name. I live up the road a few miles."

"I'm Albert. Came from Mexico."

"Pleased to meet you. Which bunk is mine?"

"I don't care. Mine's the one under the window in case I need to make a quick exit. Immigration people ya know."

Dak chose the bunk across the room from Albert and got his stuff put away.

Both the guys were up before daybreak Monday morning and off to the ranch house for breakfast at six. They sat down to a real ranch breakfast: biscuits and gravy, fried taters, ham, sausage, eggs, milk, and hot coffee.

"Well boys," Jacoby said as he ate. "There's a lot of fence that needs repairing over on the backside of my property. It's got to be fixed before I can run the cows on that piece and I want to move them over there in a couple of weeks. You'll find tools in the tool shed, along with several spools of barbed wire. There's a four wheeler with a trailer for haulin your stuff. Albert knows where it is. Penny, my wife, will have your lunch ready about ten so one of you can run back and pick it up and I'll see you back here for supper at five."

Albert and Dak finished eating and while Albert hooked up the four wheeler and trailer, Dak went over to the bunk house to get some bug spray.

They loaded on the tools and wire and then Dak handed Albert the bug spray. "Here, you'd better spray down or you'll be eaten up with chiggers by the time we get back."

"Chiggers don't bite Mexicans," Albert replied. "They won't run the risk of being deported with us when we get caught. Even chiggers don't want to live in Mexico."

They took a trail through the woods and it wasn't long before they came to a stretch of fence that was down. "Looks like we should have brought some fence posts with us," Albert said.

"Sure thing," Dak replied. "Why don't you take the rig back and get some and I'll start tearing out this section we need to replace."

Albert drove off and Dak started pulling staples from the downed fence posts that held the barbed wire in place. As he worked he heard something stumbling around in the woods. He stopped to listen. There shouldn't be any cows over here or people. He could tell from the sound it had to be something big.

Dak set his staple puller down and starting walking quietly through the woods toward the noise. He could hear an occasional breaking twig or snapping branch. As he came into a small clearing, he was face to face with a huge sow black bear. "Oh, big mamma," Dak quietly whistled through clenched teeth. Both he and the bear froze for a few seconds and then the bear lopped off through the woods.

"What brings her over here?" Dak thought. "I think I'll follow her a ways." He hadn't followed Big Mamma long before his question was answered. They came upon another clearing and from his hide out in the brush Dak could see Big Mamma's pair of year old cubs feasting on the dead carcass of a young Charolais heifer.

Dak made his way back to where he'd been working. Albert was already there with the fence posts. "Where ya been?" Albert asked.

"Looks like we've got some cattle rustlers at work," Dak answered. "I just stumbled across a family of bears feasting on one of the boss' young heifers."

While eating supper that evening, Dak told Jacoby about the bears. "It figgers," Jacoby mutter. "The Game and Fish people want to rebuild the black bear population in Arkansas. We told 'em the bears wouldn't work well with all the cattle in these parts, but they had to do it anyway. I guess we'd better go bear huntin tonight."

"It would wind us all up in jail and Albert back in Mexico," Dak said. "Let me call Uncle Jim. He's the game and fish guy up in the forest. Let's see what he suggests."

"I suppose, but something has to be done before I lose any more stock."

After supper, Dak rode over to Jim's place and explained the situation to his uncle. "It's a problem for state officers since it's over at Jacoby's place. But we work together on the bear population project. Tell Jacoby we'll be over tomorrow to see if we can come up with a plan for trapping and moving them."

Jim and two state officers drove into Jacoby's yard as the guys were getting ready to head to work on the fence. "Follow us," Dak said. "We'll show you where they are feeding."

The bears weren't around when the men arrived but quite a bit of the carcass was still uneaten. The officers studied the scene for awhile. "It appears the bears have been hanging around here for some time, but they didn't kill the heifer. See that broken bone. It was broken by a bullet. You can also see a hole where a bullet exited that piece of hide over there," Jim said. "The bears were just opportunists. Mostly they don't kill their own meat. They prefer it several days old. But, now that they've tasted prime beef they might want some more, so we'll try to trap 'em and move 'em somewhere else, but I'd say Jacoby has a human rustler problem."

"We've got a road kill deer over at the station we can use for bait," Jim told the Game and Fish guys. "Plus we've got one trap. You guys get a couple more traps and we'll meet back here about one o'clock."

Dak and Albert went back to their fencing. "How do they trap 'em?," Albert asked.

"The traps are just big cages with spring loaded doors. They'll put a chunk of the deer carcass in each one. When the bear goes into the cage to get the meat, the door springs shut, trapping the bear. Then they tranquilize them and haul them off to another part of the state."

The guys finished the section of fence they were working on and moved on, looking for the next break. For the rest of the morning they mostly found loose wires that needed to be pulled tight or staples that had come loose. Shortly after lunch, they heard the Game and Fish truck coming through the woods. They quit work to go watch the officers set the traps.

"Come by here in the morning and you should find your bears," one of the officers said. "That deer has been dead for several days and the bears should smell him pretty good. They're still hanging around and they'll be after this meat."

After the officers set their traps and left, Dak and Albert returned to the fence line. They had gone about a quarter mile when they came to a place where the barbed wire had obviously been cut and tracks from off the road vehicles ran in several directions. "Looks like where our rustlers operate," Dak said. "We'll tell Jacoby about this tonight and see what he wants us to do."

"Give me a day or two to decide what to do" Jacoby said as the guys discussed their find at supper. "First, though, I'd better report your findings to the sheriff."

The next morning, Dak and Albert headed to work on the four wheeler. "Let's go by the bear traps and see what's going on," Albert suggested. As they neared the traps they could hear a lot of breaking branches and loud snarls and growls. When they came into the clearing they saw they were in big trouble. The two cubs were trapped in cages, but Big Mamma was loose and mad. She had tipped the cages over trying to free her cubs and now was crazy with rage, she had torn up most of the small trees within thirty yards of the cages.

When she spotted the four wheeler she charged straight at it. Dak was driving. He swerved to avoid a deadly collision with the crazed bear and raced down the forest trail at full throttle. He didn't see a hole in the trail in time to avoid it and he and Albert were both thrown from the machine in different directions. The four wheeler landed on its side with the engine still running.

The roar of the engine and the spinning tires held the bear's attention while the boys fled the scene on foot. As Dak looked back, the bear was ripping the machine apart. The engine had stopped and the bear had ripped the seat to shreds, broken the plastic body parts and bitten holes in the tires.

The guys limped and ran their way back to the ranch house to get out of the enraged bear's territory. Dak called his Uncle Jim on the phone. "Uncle Jim, you've got a problem at the bear traps. The two cubs are in their cages, but the sow is enraged and running loose."

"I'll get the Game and Fish officers and we'll be right out."

Dak and Albert decided to stay out of the woods until the Jim arrived. He showed up along with the Game and Fish officers mid-morning. "Did you bring a tranquilizer gun?" Dak asked.

"Sure did, along with a 30-06 in case we need to kill her," Jim replied. "Let's all ride out there in the Game and Fish suburban."

As they approached the clearing with the traps, Big Mamma was resting near the cubs' cages and the guys could see the wrecked four wheeler up ahead. As they approached, the sow got up and again went into a rage.

She charged the suburban, hitting the front fender from the side with her shoulder. The impact put and huge dent in the fender and knocked the front of the truck a good ten feet off the trail.

Jim quickly loaded a tranquilizer dart in the gun and shot for the bear's hind quarter. He missed his shot, reloaded and shot again. The explosion in the enclosed vehicle sent sharp pains through the guys' ear drums. The second shot hit the bear. She ran a few steps, stumbled and fell to the ground.

The guys sat quietly for a while to give the tranquillizer time to take full effect. Jim loaded the 30-06 for backup and they all got out of the truck. As they approached the dozing hulk, she let out a snarl and staggered to her feet. Though she was in a bit of a stupor, the shot was too weak to keep her down.

Dak turned to jump clear of the old sleepy sow. As he did, she grabbed him by the coat with her mouth and tossed him in the air. He landed with a bone crushing thud ten feet away where he lay dead still, hoping Big Mamma would turn toward someone else. When he opened an eye to look, the bear was charging him. He screamed at the bear just as he heard the shot from Jim's rifle.

The bear staggered and fell dead, her body pinning Dak's legs to the ground. The fellows pulled Dak from under the bear and he slowly got up. Pain racked his chest, indicating a couple of broken ribs. Other than a few cuts and bruises, there didn't seem to be any other damage.

"I sure do hate to lose a sow from our bear project," Jim said, "but I'd hate even more to lose a good nephew." He then turned to the Game and Fish officers. "I guess we'd better get a truck up here to haul the cubs and Big Mamma's carcass out of here."

With that, Dak and Albert went back to the ranch house and got Jacoby's old Farmall Cub to tow their trailer and got back to work.

As they gathered for dinner that evening, Jacoby commented, "From the looks of the four wheeler, I'd say you boys had a little bear trouble today."

"A little," Dak replied. The pain from broken ribs kept his breathing shallow and his answers short. "But, the bears are gone now."

"So I hear. Well, I'll take the four wheeler into the shop tomorrow. A couple of new tires and a few new plastic body parts and she'll look a little better. I don't think anything mechanical was damaged. But, we've still got the problem that started all this."

"You mean the rustlers?" Albert asked.

"That's right. I talked to the sheriff today and he's going to keep an eye out for any unusual shipments of cattle or sale of meat. However, he's not going to put any resources into investigating it."

"Why not?"

"Because, it's probably just some local helping himself to some free meat. Besides, I donated a lot of money to his competition last go around."

"Ya, but his competition was your cousin. You had to donate to him to keep peace in the family," Dak said.

"Maybe it would help if you could establish the cows were illegal immigrants," Albert joked.

"Good idea," Jacoby laughed, "but I think they've all got green cards. I've got a couple thousand acres, much of it woodland and grazing acreage. That's three square miles. Starting tomorrow, I want you guys to walk every foot of it, lookin for evidence of rustling. If the heifer the bears were feeding on was an isolated incident, we're not going to waste any more time on it. It might have just been a novice hunter mistaking the heifer for a deer. But if it is more than that, we'll have to do something."

"It could be the rustlers dumped the carcass where we found it to draw the bears away from where they were working," Albert suggested.

"Could be."

The next morning Jacoby gave the guys a GPS and the various coordinates for his property. "The cattle are currently over in section three, so let's check it out first," Dak said.

It was a couple miles through the woods over to section three and Dak and Albert rode to it on Dr. Zuk. The guys decided they would separate by ten yards and walk back and forth across the section until they had covered it all. About ten o'clock, Albert took a break while Dak rode back to the ranch house to fetch their lunch.

"Well Albert, what do you think of Arkansas ranching?" Dak asked as he took a bite off one of the chicken legs in the lunch box.

"I don't know. Hiking up and down these ridges and hollows is wearing me out. And, in Mexico we'd be riding a horse not a four wheeler or a motorcycle."

"Ya, but you have to feed that horse even when you don't ride her. I guess we'd better get back to our job."

Aside from the up hill, down hill the forest was easy to walk through. The trees were mostly hardwood with a few pines mixed in. There wasn't much underbrush. It was mid-afternoon when the guys came across their first real find.

"Look up that hollow," Albert said. "See where it ends in a sort of a box canyon? Someone has put a log fence across this end of it."

The guys walked up to check it out. Not only was there a fence, but there was a loading chute made of fairly fresh cut logs, and five cows were lying among the trees peacefully chewing their cuds. "I'd say someone is going make a haul out of here soon," Dak said. "Let's mark this spot on our GPS and stake it out tonight."

The guys told Jacoby about their find as they at supper that evening. "I think we'd better stake that site out the next few nights and see what we can find out," Jacoby said. "Did you bring a rifle with you, Dak."

"No, but I'll run home and get it along with my night vision goggles and meet you back at the bunk house at dark. As it grows dark, don't turn any lights on so your eyes can adjust naturally to the night."

Dak rode Dr. Zuk home to get his stuff and was back at the ranch as the sun was setting. "Let's quietly walk over there as it gets dark so we don't mess up our night vision," Dak suggested. "Be sure you have the GPS," he said to Albert.

The guys established an observation post on the ridge above the makeshift corral and settled for a long wait. It was a clear night with a three quarter moon. A screech owl occasionally ripped up the silence and the crickets and katydids kept a chirpy rhythm going.

About midnight another sound could be heard in the distance. "What's that?" Albert asked.

"Don't know," Jacoby answered.

"Sounds like a truck winding and whining its way in our direction," Dak said.

It wasn't long before the guys could see headlights twisting and turning among the trees as the truck slowly worked its way to the corral and came to a stop. The driver then backed up to the crude loading ramp they had constructed.

"It looks like they're here for business," Jacoby said. "Let's let 'em get the cattle loaded before we make our move. That way we have good evidence about their intentions."

The driver turned the truck off and three men got out. They rounded up the five cows, herding them toward the loading chute with sticks and broken branches. After much yelling, swearing and running around the corral, they had all five cows in the back of the truck. By that time Jacoby and the guys had slipped up beside the truck, concealed by brush and the dark.

"Okay fellows," Jacoby said in a calm voice. "Put your hands above your heads now. We've got you covered."

As he was speaking, the driver of the truck jumped behind the steerin wheel and fired up the engine. As he hit low gear and began to drive away, Dak jumped into the passenger side and tried to turn the ignition key to off. The driver was a big fellow, six two or three and at least 250 pounds. He grabbed and twisted Dak's arm. Pain shot to his brain, forcing him to drop the arm. He quickly scooted against the door, turned so his feet were on the seat and begin kicking the driver repeatedly, distracting him. While trying to fend off the kicks, the driver lost control of the truck and crashed grill first into a tree. The driver quickly shifted in reverse to back away, but the crash had split open the radiator and spilled all the coolant. The truck engine overheated and froze up.

The driver jumped from the truck and starting to run with Dak right on his trail when they both heard the report of a rifle and heard a bullet slightly overhead parting the leaves and the air. The man turned and walked toward Dak with his hands overhead. Albert had the other men tied up. He then tied up the driver. As he did so, Jacoby got on his cell phone with the Sheriff.

"I've got three rustlers tied up out here in the woods and I need a deputy to arrest them."

"I'll see that one gets right out there. Have one of your men meet him at the house to show him the way."

"I'll do that Sheriff."

The deputy soon arrived and arrested the three rustlers. The next morning the boys slept in but were back at work by the afternoon. Dak continued to work on the ranch until the fall. By then he had enough money to take his trip. He just hoped he could talk his friend Albert into going with him.