Saturday, December 10, 2016

here at the end of all things

no Sam to keep me company, no MacGuffin to destroy thereby simply eliminating the armies of trolls and goblins, no Skywalker training in monastic isolation. The eagles are not coming to save us, though in fairness they tried.

Summer Brennan wrote
No one person can defend everything in America that will need defending in the age of Trump. What we must do, instead, is to find our particular hills to defend, and then to defend them as if our freedom depended on it. Even if these battles are lost, the very act of writing down the progression of that loss, as Winston did, is an act of resistance.
I'm having trouble picking a hill to die on, all look good, all are indefensible with my poor weapons.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in
- Auden
I grew up in and studied the history of a police state run by white supremacist racists. It took some time after the election of the unreconstructed Nazis in 1948 for martial law to be imposed. That happened after the massacre of the Sharpeville protestors in 1960. It was called a State of Emergency, under which I was born. There was detention without trial and all the apparatus of the police state.

In the modern world everything happens faster, including the deconstruction of democratic republics once the neo-Nazis win an election. It has happened in Hungary, where Orbán is proclaiming and building an illiberal state. It has happened in Turkey, where Erdogan has dismantled democracy.

In Hungary Orbán won in 2010 with 52% of the vote, but a two-thirds majority of seats, which allowed changes to the Constitution and redistricting of parliamentary seats, ensuring a permanent majority for Fidesz. This is straight out of the Nationalist Party playbook in South Africa. Then of course the usual sequence of events,
"an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor’s office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed “not politically balanced” by a government-appointed panel.)"

We don't even need fines for the US media, which has been constructing narratives of false equivalency all by itself for decades now. Even so, the Republican House has sneaked in an amendment to turn the Voice of America into a propaganda arm of the Trump administration.

In Turkey, an election in 2007 won by AKP with 47% of the vote, slightly more than Trump's 46%, started the ball rolling. Erdogan is now planning to change the Constitution to permit him to rule as an autocrat. Truth is lost.

I don't have much hope that resistance can be effective.
It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. - George Orwell
My father's best friend from high school worked with the SA trade unions. He was thrown off a sixth-floor balcony by the police - in this case BOSS, Bureau of State Security. The murder was covered up as a 'suicide'. Working with trade unions under white supremacist rule turns out to be a form of suicide.
My father's best friend from college had a mother living in East Berlin through no fault of her own. In the late 60s after Sharpeville he visited his mother, and came back to be disappeared under suspicion of being a Communist. After a week of his wife and child not knowing where he was, he was released, luckily only slightly bruised and bloodied. They emigrated to Canada. I should have learned from that.

It is likely there will be a major terrorist attack in 2017. Even without the inflammatory rhetoric, the simple fact that Trump and his administration are not taking security briefings nor paying attention to national security, is enough to make this probable. Similar behaviour in the Bush administration gave us 9/11. 9/11 begat a second Bush term, the second Bush term begat the Great Recession, the Great Recession begat 11/9. Even if the attack does not materialize, I would not be surprised by a false flag operation, mounted to allow for declaration of martial law. For these purposes, an attack on a Trump property outside the US would probably work just as well. 
The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation
Here are some members of the Trump administration.
Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, opposes the provision of health services to the undeserving poor. He also opposes vaccination like Mr Trump, believes that tobacco taxes harm public health, and that Medicare and Medicaid are evil and immoral.
Head of the EPA, Scott Pruit, is a stenographer for the oil and gas industry, and a climate change denialist, who opposes environmental protection regulations.
Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, opposes public education and has used her money to destroy Detroit public schools. That money came from the Amway pyramid scheme, which seems to have been one of the models for the Trump University fraud. Ms DeVos also supports the Acton Institute, which advocates for the return of child labor, so the kids can learn skills on the job in Walmart and McDonalds.
Head of the FDA is currently expected to be Jim O’Neill, who opposes FDA regulation of drugs.
Gary Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, the vampire squid company, will lead the National Economic Council.
The proposed Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, will lead the department that oversees public lands. Rep. Rodgers plans to sell off the public lands.
Rick Perry is proposed to head up the Department of Energy. During the Republican debates in 2011, Mr Perry would have suggested eliminating the Department of Energy as being an exemplar of unnecessary 'big government', except that he couldn't remember what the Department was called. 

There are no exceptions to this iron law of opposition in the Trump administration. We await only the appointment of the horseman Famine as Secretary of Agriculture.

He's been clocked at 71 lph (lies per hour). It's impossible to combat this. The new censorship is to overwhelm your attention with a farrago of lies and misdirection, until truth lies full fathom five. As Dahlia Lithwick says about Trumps Tweets, "It’s irrelevant whether these tweets are the work of a cunning chess master or a damp TV-watching toddler who can’t control himself when his aides leave his side".

Fact-checking and struggling to maintain the meaning of words are irrelevant too. Karl Rove who informed journalists "we create our own reality" was a mere piker. The new truth is that facts don't matter because they can be drowned like helpless puppies in a flood of verbiage. Scottie Nell Hughes told us this, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” Ms Hughes is both a Trump operative and a CNN commentator, illuminating her own dictum nicely.
When conscripted into the armies of apartheid, I had the choice of jail, exile, or serving my time. Jail didn't seem reasonable at the time. As a white South African, exile would have required illegal immigration somewhere, and resources beyond my means. I chose to serve my time and consequentially to serve apartheid. My naive foolishness reasoned that maybe I could ameliorate the system by working within it and sabotaging it where possible. One midnight murky, at a roadblock looking for gunrunners bringing weapons in for Umkhonto we Sizwe, I found myself holding a rifle on two terrified little girls in the back seat of their father's car. There were also some insights into torture.  I realized then, and now, that I was a quisling. Masha Gessen writes about their great-grandfather who tried to work with the Nazis as a member of the Judenrat, to get his village fed. The end was "the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed."

Sarah Kendzior knows what it is like:
Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.
The only way to survive a police state is to acquiesce in evil, or fight so ineffectually that they don't notice you. The police state notices a lot. My brother spent a year in the US in the late 70s. Upon returning he was interviewed by BOSS (them again). They knew the substance of conversations he'd had with NAACP members in New York. We suspected CIA involvement. During military service I worked with the CIA, defending against our common enemy Soviet Russia.

Eventually I emigrated to the US, when I couldn't stand it anymore. Peter Beinart writes about his father, who took the same path some years before I did - "What he found in America was not a culture he understood, but a state he did not fear and revile."

Now what I wonder. Resolved: try to remain patient and cheerful and help where I can.
The best way to avenge yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer.
- Marcus Aurelius
In any case all this agonizing is irrelevant at best. Trump's plan for global warming is apparently to initiate nuclear winter.  Most likely this will take only one bomb. Mathematician and previous Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, with decades of studying nuclear war, thinks "Even a single nuclear explosion in a major city would represent an abrupt and possibly irreversible turn in modern life, upending the global economy, forcing every open society to suspend traditional liberties and remake itself into a security state."

Jan 26: It is now two and a half minutes to midnight.  For the first time in the 70-year history of the Doomsday Clock, the Atomic Scientist's Board has moved the hands of the iconic clock 30 seconds closer to midnight. In another first, the Board has decided to act, in part, based on the words of a single person:  Donald Trump, the new President of the United States. 

At midnight in the museum hall
The fossils gathered for a ball
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the mastodontic wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
"Cheer up, sad world," he said, and winked—
"It's kind of fun to be extinct."

- Ogden Nash, Fossils, for Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

happy hour

One evening last week I had a happy hour. The timing was much the same as normal though the place was not. This is happy hour for introverts - alone, up to your waist in cool lake water, with bats beginning to flitter overhead. I don't try to be eccentric, it just seems to pan out that way.

The smoke hangs over water as it usually does here in the Western US late summers, since we broke the weather. There's always a wild land fire burning somewhere by September, and typically more than one.

The hours started unhappy. I've been slowly catching and transferring some carp trapped in a pond by receding waters, over the summer. This is the same pond as the last carp rescue of 2014.  The carp fly-fishing forum used to rally the troops for that rescue is now defunct, so had no way to roust anyone else to help. On Monday evening there were more carp than water in the pool, netted four out on my way home after walking the dog. Then life got in the way and I didn't make it back until Thursday which was too late. There were four alive with their backs showing dry above the water. Those were retrieved and transferred to the main lake.

Being of a neurotic tendency, waded back through the ooze and counted 26 dead. Previously had caught eight on fly through the summer while the pond was high, so sixteen saved, twenty-six not. On the other hand the great blue herons were happy. Two of them were feasting on the remains when I arrived, and circled back down when I left.

After that I was a bit downcast. Drove around to one of the inlets hoping for carp or maybe a stray bass or walleye, waded through weedbeds out to rib-deep in the main lake.  A couple of little bass took the carp fly, so switched to a big Gurgler fly with foam and hair and lots of legs, just for the fun of watching the bass attack it on the surface. Every cast after that got a take.

Missed quite a few big splashy aggressive takes as their handsome broad green backs broke the water around the fly. Hooking these surface takes can be tricky, as the fish will hit the fly hard just to cripple it, rather than take it into their mouths. A variety of theories did not help - tried an immediate strike (well not 'tried' frankly, just reacted and yanked back on the first few, in blind frenzied excitement); tried waiting for a pull but never got one; tried counting one before striking, then count for two, then count for three. Eventually just kept a slow steady retrieve continued until the fish was felt. This required the difficult exercise of impulse control, adding an element of virtuous smug self-satisfaction when it actually worked. The bass were attacking shoals of shad on the surface, plop Gurgler near that and someone would immediately show up. At dark was still getting hits on that fly,

but switched to a big white streamer hoping for a walleye. A couple more bass, biggest of the day at 14", then quiet for a while with only a few little 'uns. 

An astonishing evening until then - fastest fishing I've ever experienced, first time ever catching Chatfield bass in the fall, first time in my fishing life of several decades to see the aggressive bass of myth and legend. Guess that's why we go fishing, to see what happens. As John Buchan wrote,
The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.

Tried again last night and got the skunk. The problem with big water is the same as with sea fishing – with all that water, most of it is empty, most of the time. Usually I come home from a big water skunk with the sneaking feeling that I might as well have been soaking flies in the bathtub, for all the fish that saw them. The consequence of this is that it’s impossible to be a successful casual big water fisher. It takes large investments of money – for the boat, depthfinder, gas money for outboards, guides etc – and time, to figure out where and when the water will actually be holding fish.

This day showed the typical fall pattern for this lake. That is the shallows pullulating, thrumming, and seething with small young of the year shad minnows, with none of the predatory fish feeding on them. The best theory I have is there are so many shad, the predators only need to swim around with their mouths open for an hour or so, to fill themselves to satiety. The trick is to be on the water in those few unforgiving minutes.

In the gathering dark two great horned owls flew a pattern overhead for which there must have been a purpose and reason, though I could not understand it. Between the harvest moon rising and the sunset it was almost worth it.

Monday, August 8, 2016

a voyageur abroad - Water of Leith

We took a family holiday with 2 weeks in Scotland. There wasn't any dedicated fishing time, but I snuck out early and late whenever possible. Here's the first episode.

or the fly rod, I packed only a Fenwick FF75-4 Voyageur, 7.5' for 6wt. A graphite Redington 9' 5wt in seven pieces would have been a more rational choice, but given that I barely restrained myself from taking a split cane rod, it was clear I was operating outside the consensus reality anyway. As the trip approached I realized I'd never actually fished the rod. Close inspection found a couple of contusions in the glass in the first section and another in the second. These were re-inforced with an overwrap of Gudebrod brown thread. The color didn't match the original wraps, but blends with the rod quite nicely. For stress testing, we went after some carp of 8-10lbs, just to make sure nothing was going to disintegrate. Here the overwraps can be seen just below the ferrule, with a carp at the other end, about fifty yards out. Stress was applied without problems.


Some fisherfolk call the carp a trash fish. This broad tail in beautiful colors doesn't look like trash to me. Long may they believe it though, it reduces the competition on the carp waters. I've largely given up on trout fishing in Colorado. To get to a relatively uncrowded water with decent fishing is a 6 to 8 hour round trip from Denver. The travel time may be by car or on foot - one hour driving and three hours hiking, or four hours driving, etcetera - but the time itself is constant. This means a dedicated weekend or more which is seldom available.
My first plan was to use a Hardy Viscount 140 for the reel. A lucky bid on ebay secured this fine Hardy-made Orvis Battenkill Mk III, which is my new favorite trout reel. The Hardy-made Orvis CFO III was my previous preference, but it is in fact a little small for a DT5 line. As a result I've lost several good fish as they ran, the reel emptied, and the drag increased due to the small spool diameter. The Battenkill's click/pawl is lighter in action, and the reel just enough larger to fit the DT5 with a comfortable amount of backing: so the effective drag when a fish runs into the backing is significantly less.

This line though is a WF6 Scientific Anglers Mastery in good condition. I detest orange lines, but it seemed a shame to throw away a perfectly good line just because of my color prejudice. Follow that link for an explanation of the prejudice (note that I am still irrationally irked at Kirk for not awarding me a line, as I'd answered his original contest post with effectively the same answer he gives here).

Also, I have never bought a flyline as expensive as this, and wanted to fish it for a while to see if there was any detectable difference between this and my usual lines (nope). Later in the vacation the family was out in a rowing boat on a loch where I was fishing for pike. My wife commented on the line, "I've never seen you fish with an orange line before." I had no idea that she noticed the color of my fly lines.. must be true love I guess. 

Finding fishing in Scotland is a trap for the unwary. They have laws of open access, also known by the charmingly evocative term 'freedom to roam', which allow you to walk about nearly anywhere (do however read that website as there are all kinds of caveats). There is no fishing license required. This sounded like glorious freedom to fish, until the discovery that all fishing is by permission only. Fishing on a Sunday used to be agin the law, and is still frowned upon in the remoter locations. On the isle of Mull it is not possible to get a permit to fish on a Sunday, except in a stocked pond.

Figuring out where and how to get the permission is non-obvious as all such knowledge is local. The best information I found on the internet was to buy the book 'Rivers and Lochs of Scotland' by Bruce Sandison. It has all the details. The 2013/2014 edition is the latest, available on horrible old Kindle for $8. It was accurate for all the waters I got to. Thank you Bruce, the information was invaluable. Edinburgh has the Water of Leith right in town, with a few small brown trout remaining from earlier stocking efforts. There may also be the odd salmon and seatrout which you aren't allowed to fish for, £100 fine if you are caught pestering them. This was one of the things I learned from the Sandison book.

There are also salmon returning to the Clyde in Glasgow, as it has de-industrialised. It is possible now to fish for salmon in the suburbs of Glasgow where my ancestors lived. Of course such fishing is unaffordable for me, still it made me unreasonably happy to know the beleaguered Atlantic salmon is getting a fin back into Scottish water. The sadness is all the Scots who used to have decent jobs building ships, now gone forever.

Brown trout fishing on Leith is free with a permit, obtainable from fishing shops or post offices in town. I got my permit at an Orvis shop selling mostly globalised clothes with a few oddments of fishing tackle in the back. This seemed to be all wrong somehow, would have much preferred a permit from a cheerful Scots post office lady; but time pressed and the shop was right by our hotel.

It is a pretty stream, in this section running through a kind of green canyon of vegetation. No idea what the statuary is about in this picture, though it certainly contributed to the feeling that we were not in Colorado anymore. The book had suggested tiny dry flies or nymphs. Given the stream conditions, strong flows of unclear water, I thought these would not be useful. Actually throughout this trip I fished with a team of traditional patterns, Invicta and Peter Ross, everywhere, and caught fish everywhere.

Both of these are tied with seal's fur, which is now illegal and unobtainable in the US. My stash came (legally) from Veniard's in the 1970s. There's nothing quite like it for translucency once wet, plus the spiky ends capture little air bubbles that both mimic emerging caddis and mayflies as well as adding sparkle. The usual substitute for seal is sustainably harvested angora goat fur. What I have will last to the end of my fly-tying years though, so I haven't experimented with goat or the other synthetic replacements.

The Peter Ross also has a dark iridescent blue/green pheasant neck hackle in place of the usual black hen. This hackle came from one of the birds shot at Ken's farm, a little bit of Asia via Wyoming in the Scottish waters. The Invicta uses a brown hen hackle in place of the beard of blue jay or blue-dyed guinea fowl, and a red tail instead of golden pheasant. The red allows this tie to suggest both caddis ('sedge fly' in English) and hoppers. It's likely the catching would have been better with more modern patterns, still that was hardly the point of my sentimental journey.

The look of the stream made me hopeful - in my experience a river that is dropping in level and slowly clearing after rains is optimal for fishing. What I didn't reckon with is that it is always raining here and the fish are thoroughly used to freshets. Here I had the first of several encounters with stinging nettle. It's not nearly as bad as poison oak or poison ivy, an immediate sharp tingling pain that is almost bracing, and only lasts a day. 

Thus quivering with expectation and the nettle stimulus, stepped into the river and began. Quite soon I was encouraged by this wee fish.

Fished carefully on for 2 hours through some handsome pools and runs, to no effect. Nonetheless I was delighted to find a Scottish brown trout in the heart of Edinburgh. He vanished with a wink of his tail back into Leith water.

Monday, June 6, 2016

lucky 13

Spring fishing was mostly done with the new-to-me Heddon #13 split cane rod. This model is known as '#13 Lucky Angler'. Mine is from either 1940 or 1941, as these were the only two years to use the orange wraps with black trim. The varnish had deteriorated, peeling and sticky, though everything else was in good nick. The first refurbisher had stripped the nasty old varnish already, so there wasn't much to do. A couple of fresh coats of spar varnish had it looking near-new again.

We have been out a number of times and I did not live up to it, getting skunked many times in many trips, on trout and bass then carp. The long winter of fishless discontent finally broke on a warm spring day, with the fish moving and feeding. First three little bluegills, tremendously handsome little fellows but rather overmatched by the rod.

Then a bass came roaring up from the deeps, hammered the streamer just below the surface, ran and jumped several times, a good start to the warmwater year.

A second bass, smaller but still a most welcome acquaintance.

The first bass plug I ever owned was a Heddon Tiny Lucky 13: "owned" rather than "bought" since at the time my brother and I were boys with no money. We fished the local pond for the vlei kurper, a small species of tilapia much like bluegill, and aspired to catch the monstrous great carp we saw. Those carp were well-educated though, and not easily fooled. One day I saw the plug hanging on a weeping willow some 30 feet out, swam out and retrieved it. This gave us the idea there might be bass there - turned out the pond had just been stocked. They were mostly small, but flinging home-tied bugs on spinning outfits with ultralight lines got enough distance to catch numbers. That's where my bass fishing started; Heddon Lucky 13 evokes a multitude of happy involuntary memories for me, a sort of fish-flavoured madeleine, as it were.
And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal.
Shortly after writing this I came across EM Forster's comment on Proust in the Moncrieff translation, which is a marvelous thing. 
A sentence begins quite simply, then it undulates and expands, parentheses intervene like quick-set hedges, the flowers of comparison bloom, and three fields off, like a wounded partridge, crouches the principal verb, making one wonder as one picks it up, poor little thing, whether after all it was worth such a tramp, so many guns, and such expensive dogs, and what, after all, is its relation to the main subject, potted so gaily half a page back, and proving finally to have been in the accusative case.
Returning to our muttons, I still have that plug, since I have swum out to retrieve it from trees or underwater stumps every time it snags or hangs up. At first it was out of necessity, having no way to replace it. Now it is out of sentiment alone. I'm a bit embarrassed about it actually, an old man swimming out to retrieve his lures is on the pathetic side. Maybe the next time it snags in an obvious place, I'll break it off and leave it there for the next boy to retrieve.

Earlier we had attempted trout, in a painfully clear and empty stream.

The only trout of  the year happened just before finishing the Heddon, so it was taken on the South Bend 359 instead. A sturdy strong rainbow, returned with thanks. In the picture I got the rocks beautifully sharp in focus, the fish not so much.

A long streak of skunks on the carp dropped me back to a graphite rod, just in case it could help change my luck. It was the warming weather rather than luck in the end.

He was caught in an urban pond with a walking trail nearby, on a Sunday afternoon. A large audience gathered. One little boy retreated in horror and took his mother's hand, when I lifted up the fish to show him. Clearly it was a fearsome great carp. A conversation earlier that day with a little boy on a scooter: him, excitedly, "oh ! a fishing rod !" sadly, "I had a kids fishing rod once, but it broke." cheerfully departing, "Good luck, I hope you catch something."

As a bonus that day, the crappie (no really that is the fish's name) had moved shallow, caught a number of them mostly by accident. They would grab the fly as it sank in front of a carp that was the real target. I didn't mind a bit, like to see these bright creatures. Never caught one there, before or since - suspect with a relatively large lake and no-boating regulations, the deeper water functions rather like a sort of marine reserve. Fish can feed and grow unbothered in the deeper water, where they are quite inaccessible. This makes for good fish but sporadic fishing.

The carp spawn started up at that pond, so abandoned it and tried at a larger cooler lake. I prefer not to bother the spawners - how would you like it, after all ?

Started at the inlet which was cold and carpless, 56deg water. Moved on to the flats, warmer and carpless, 62-3deg. There were lots of bass though, a few nice 12-14", so that was just fine. 

This was the first outing for this Browning reel, which is a re-badged Martin LM 78. It came off ebay pristine, with the original grease still sparkling clear. A good solid US-made reel, for less than $20. Really I cannot think of any reason to buy Chinese-made reels for hundreds of dollars.

The first fly was a Sculpiny Mcsculpinface intended for carp which worked well on the bass too, but broke it off stupidly on a backcast into the woods.

Not skunked today, not at all. It was in fact a perfect hour: cottonwoods alive with birdsong, clear green water and plenty of fish, flashing in and out of view in the sunny water. The only blot on the landscape was the imminent necessity of returning to work.

The state of the skunked is pitiful at best. As singlebarbed observes,
"I realized that “getting bit” was akin to Popeye’s Spinach, how without the ability to torture things smaller than me, I was a caricature of my former self."
Sad but ineluctable, as I noticed myself, in the last paragraph here.

Life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can't be solved by analysis.
- William Empson, note to the poem "Bacchus". 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Common Core alias PARCC alias Pearson in the wild

High-stakes punitive testing regimes run by for-profit companies like Pearson are not education. Colorado is subject to the PARCC testing. The sins of the fathers are now visited upon the sons: as long as the parents allow PARCC to rule the children will suffer its meaningless testing.

Here is a story from a teacher in New York about a fourth-grade PARCC reading test. This story was censored by PARCC on both the original weblog and on Twitter, on the grounds of copyright infringement. At what point did public education in the USA become subject to copyright infringement ? Why are the taxpayers of the USA paying for Pearson to copyright and profit from testing our children ?

Story follows:
Here is the critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam  by an anonymous teacher, as it originally appeared on Celia Oyler's blog before she was threatened by PARCC and deleted key sections.  See also my post about my tweet that was deleted  after PARCC absurdly complained to Twitter that it infringed on their copyright!

As an act of collective disobedience to the reigning testocracy, I urge all other fellow bloggers to paste the below critique and copy it into their blogs as well.

As the teacher points out below, "we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States. "

No high-stakes test that is used to judge students, teachers and schools should be allowed to be kept secret to escape accountability for the test-makers -- especially ones as flawed as these!  

The PARCC Test: Exposed

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.

I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?

There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.

The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate

In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.

A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]

The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).
Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?

So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.

Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.
  1. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”
Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.
The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]

The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2
Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.
 Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.

It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”

In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.
However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3
  1. In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.
Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.

Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)

Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.

Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)

So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.

We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.

In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.

Monday, March 21, 2016

on the desert air

boys at the edge of illimitable oceans
throw stones only to watch
flight, splash, descent
into an imagined peace
this is my stone

for #worldpoetryday also here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

robodog II - the sacrificial socks

Robodog 1 was only partially successful, so we had to try again. Here's Artie, bold and resolute, duct-taped and skid-plated, ready to throw himself into the fray of swamp-pheasant hunting. "Gentlemen: we can rebuild him. We have the duct-tape." 

In the course of the previous hunt, one of the $40 dog boots was left behind somewhere in a field of deep hard-crusted snow. I lose more boots (money) that way. Perhaps it's time to fabricate a pair of suspenders to keep the boots at least loosely attached. On the other hand, between the black leather look of the duct tape, and the suspenders, the whole endeavor is becoming a little disturbing. For Robodog II we went with a pair of sacrificial socks under the tape. This provides the warm, durable, yet stylish, armored leggings seen above.

The skid plate is for the low-slung underparts. His belly has a rich assortment of scars from all the cat-tails and other undergrowth he goes crashing through. If I could get him to slow down a bit it would help, but he doesn't do slow.

Artie started dragging his right paw while running, so it gets abraded on top and bleeds. Here is the early season Robodog version 0.9, on the Wyoming operating table (an ATV is useful for about everything, up on the farm) as Ken wraps the paw. Tau meanwhile looks alertly at the woodpile which is emanating suspicious scurrying sounds. Small rodents are also known as 'snacks!' to the dogs. If there aren't any birds around and they get bored, will usually starting hunting independently for a little supplementary protein.

Later that day we visited Ken's neighbor Casey, who had been working on AI in his barn. He had some computer troubles so Ken and I attempted to troubleshoot, concluding eventually it was hardware and not susceptible to our software wiles. Casey listened to us discussing it and observed, "I don't understand a single word you boys are saying, but I bet if I got you out in the barn to do AI, you'd be completely lost." We had to agree. This is of course Artificial Insemination cowboy style, rather than AI in the software sense - wrestling cows, with sensitivity. A good AI man or woman is hard to find, commanding high rates. We can conclude AI is a career with excellent prospects wherever you practice it, on the high plains or in the wretched hives of scum and villainy where software developers fail to mechanistically extract wisdom from data.

First hunt of the season, showing once more the kind of nonsense up with which the poor dog has to put. In the middle of the picture, there is a V of calm water with a black dot at its apex. That's Artie, swimming out to fetch the bird I didn't hit hard enough.

Glory be to God for dappled things. For the overcoat of burrs on the fur, not so much.

Two very truly run-after dogs loafing in the sun. It takes six hours of hard running in the snow to get them stationary for a photograph.

Midseason. Today Artie had to cover ground for three hunters, which he did beautifully as always. That means for every twenty yards we walk forward spaced twenty yards apart, he has run eighty yards up and down the line of hunters, two or three times. Do this across a fifty-acre field with deep cover a few times, add in a quarter-mile sprint down the dirt road after a running bird followed by a triumphant trot back with the bird in his jaws, and he needs a lift up into the car at the end of day.

We don't have a rustic barn with comfortable wood stove unfortunately, so have to make do with a bed in front of the gas fire for recuperation.

Here's a barn pic, from when we were all much younger.

Late season, looking for pheasants in the corn stubble. In these conditions the birds can see, smell and hear you coming, so they fled hundreds of yards ahead of us.

In the evening we huddle under the cottonwoods watching for the evening flight of pheasants into the swamp. The dogs are back in the barn resting so that the birds are not molested or disturbed on their way to bed: this is just bird-watching, the hunt is over. In the spring a pair of sandhill cranes nested here, successfully raising their chick and leaving with the fall flights south, their valedictory rattling bugle calls floating down to us.

Above us hundreds of blackbirds, which used to migrate away from Wyoming in the winter, back when there were reliable winters.

Sunset over the barn mediated by branches and cloud. It was a good year.

Colorado's season goes on for a month after Wyoming closes. For the first time in a decade, a wet spring and summer brought good cover so most of the broods could reach adulthood, and the pheasant population was up. We went out once. This was an historic occasion for me - ten years of hunting in CO, and this was the first time I'd actually fired a shot. It's not a blood sport the way I shoot, much to Artie's regret.

When Artie was young, he would render a chew toy into shreds within a day, so I stopped buying them. His cousins from Australia sent him some new ones which have survived for months now. Instead of getting a shoe to welcome me downstairs in the morning, or home from work in the evening, I get a hedgehog (above), white rat or badger. Of course now I feel terrible that I deprived the dog of his mouth-comforts for so long.

Anno Domini: measuring him by dog years, Artie and I are the same age this year; that is to say, in the prime of life. We'll have to get in some extensive hunts before we are old next year.