The 3rd grade with microscopes

The Westport 3rd grade got some microscope time today. First, my son Peter told them about his microscope adventures. Then they looked at commercially prepared slides. And then the looked at samples of pond water from Black Kettle, where they had gone on a field trip, and from Ted Cornell's art farm, both of which are in Wadhams, NY. (See yesterday's post.)

I had hoped to get some shots of what the kids were seeing, but both the kids and the wiggly creatures on slides were moving too fast for us to photograph the microscope views. But here are the kids.

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A visit to Edward Cornell's Art Farm in search of water samples for the 3rd grade to look at under the microscope

Ted Cornell

A few days ago, Peter, Elizabeth and I paid a visit to the artist Ted Cornell's art farm, Crooked Brook Studios. The proximate reason for our visit was to collect water samples from his wetland for Westport Central School's third graders to look at under the microscope tomorrow. Peter, who is in 8th grade, has been doing a biology independent study since January and wants to share with the 3rd graders some of the things he's learned.

It was a beautiful day at the art farm, and we had a great time. While exploring, we were accompanied by both my dog Sunshine and by Ted's photogenic black lab, Lily. Here are some of the pictures I took.

The children set out with nets and buckets, past "Rotating Installation of a Minimally Processed Found Object," toward "Floating Stone Cone."

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Cornell explains his monumental sculptures like this:

Crooked Brook Studios was first known as an art farm in connection with the Adirondack Harvest Festival’s Farm Tour in 2005. Becoming an art farm encouraged talking about these sculptures as if they were bio-organic eruptions, a conceit which is encouraged by their leisurely and seasonal growth patterns. They began appearing in the wetlands below the pond, and up near the barn and then in the pond, and then up behind the barns, in an area now known unavoidably as the sculpture garden, about five years ago. They were first known as large slow jokes, and they move in the wind and sport a jaunty devil-may-care attitude. They are junk sculptures making use of previous existences. They are environmental sculptures suggesting the creation of a transcendental asylum.

From the perspective of children with buckets, there for creatures and water-fun rather than art, they are landmarks that structure the farm. Destinations. Trailmarkers.

Crooked Brook Studios

Liz crossing Crooked Brook

Tail at Crooked Brook

Liz & Peter in the painting shed

Liz in the painting shed

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The complete photoset is here.


Goodbye, Joanna:
On the Death of Joanna Russ

In memory, my relationship with Joanna Russ takes place mostly in one room, a building on the University of Washington campus whose architect aspired to be post-Euclidean. It was a poured cement building that was hard to find your way around in, and its rooms were oddly shaped. Joanna's office was there.

I was a very damaged kid who had been broken by high school, and at the UW, I took almost exclusively math and science courses. Joanna's were the only English courses I was willing to take; they were the only English courses I took in my three years at the UW.

When she met me in about 1982, I was a tightly controlled skinny blonde with bad posture, a big vocabulary, and a flat affect. I remembered the books I'd read by the cover art, not by title and author. I'd read really a lot of science fiction, but I wasn't sure what. I knew I'd read all the Poul Anderson books on my dad's shelves. I counted them: there were 42.

I remember what she said about the first piece of fiction I turned in in her class: She said that most of my sentences began with "And then . . ." and that my sentences were all the same length.

Many of her students were scared of her, but I was fascinated. At first I would think up clever questions to ask so I could go talk to her during her office hours, and if no one else showed, I would stay for the whole two hours. Eventually, I learned that I didn't need to prepare. She was happy to talk to me for two hours whether or not I formulated something in advance. 

She was on a lot of medication and so had very little short-term memory.

In 1984 or 1985, Amy Thomson had a birthday party. Joanna showed up in a really good mood and sat on the couch and began to talk and tell stories, and various of us gathered around to listen.

I remember her telling this story about someone's polydactyl Maine Coon cat with six or seven toes on each paw that climbed a screen door and then couldn't get down and was stuck there half way up the screen (gesture of hands held up like paws in the screen) and the cat said meow meow (long drawn out meows). She was amazingly on that night.

It got later and later, and the circle around Joanna got smaller and smaller, until it was just three of us: I was going to listen for as long as Joanna was going to talk. And at some point birds started to chirp, or it began to get light. Joanna looked at her watch and said, Oh my goodness, it's five thirty in the morning and went home.

She was out sick for two weeks after that -- a woman with red hair whose name I've forgotten taught her class for those weeks. Joanna's health was not good enough to allow for staying up all night at parties.

And when she came back, I did my usual thing of going to her office hours and listening to her talk about whatever she wanted to for two hours. And she told me about this great party she'd been to, in immense detail, without ever realizing that the reason she was telling me this is that at that party I had sat there and listened to her talk for 9 or 10 hours straight.

I wasn't offended that she didn't remember that I'd been there because if you dealt with Joanna much, you just didn't expect much of her short term memory because she mostly didn't have one; it was a side-effect of her anti-depressants.

Our office conversations went on for about two years. When Clarion West came around she pointed me in that direction, and especially in the direction of her editor, David Hartwell, whom I think she adored. It was fun to be with them simultaneously, because when David was around Joanna was sharp and focused and animated.

In our later conversations, we talked a lot about horror and about haunted house fiction, The Haunting of Hill House particularly. When I moved to New York City in 1985, I continued working on that concept, which I had also been corresponding with David about. 

Once I was in New York, this correspondence evolved into a discussion group consisting of David, Peter Pautz, and I. Two books emerged from that discussion group, The Architecture of Fear, which I co-edited with Peter Pautz, and The Dark Descent, David's historical horror anthology. They tied for the World Fantasy Award.

I don't know what Joanna got out of our conversations, but for me they were transformative and something for which I am very grateful.

I was not in contact with her after she moved away from Seattle, and I wish I had taken some initiative there. But despite the intensity of our conversation, the relationship remained defined as teacher and student, and so I didn't feel it was my place to reach out. I wish I had. 

Goodbye, Joanna.


Year’s Best SF 16 edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer: Table of contents

Year's Best SF 16 cover

Sleeping Dogs • Joe Haldeman

Castoff World • Kay Kenyon

Petopia  • Benjamin Crowell

Futures in the Memory Market  • Nina Kiriki Hoffman 

A Preliminary Assessment of the Drake Equation, Being an Excerpt From the Memoirs of Star Captain Y.-T. Lee • Vernor Vinge

About It • Terry Bisson

Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra  • Vandana Singh 

Under the Moons of Venus  • Damien Broderick

All the Love in the World  • Cat Sparks

At Budokan • Alastair Reynolds

Graffiti in the Library of Babel  • David Langford 

Steadfast Castle • Michael Swanwick

How to Become a Mars Overlord  • Catherynne M. Valente

To Hie from Far Cilenia • Karl Schroeder

The Hebras And The Demons And The Damned  • Brenda Cooper 

Penumbra  • Gregory Benford

The Good Hand  • Robert Reed

The Cassandra Project  • Jack McDevitt 

Jackie’s Boy  • Stephen Popkes

Eight Miles • Sean McMullen

Ghosts Doing  the Orange Dance (The Parke Family Scrapbook Number IV) • Paul Park

We think the book will be out from HarperCollins in May. It is available for pre-order from Amazon.


A response to Debbie Notkin and Victor Raymond

I am really bothered by the responses of members of the Wiscon Con Committee to Jay Lake's concerns that Wiscon -- formerly one of his favorite conventions, and also formerly one of my own favorite conventions -- might not be a safe space for him. Wiscon Co-Chair Debbie Notkin wrote what she clearly intended as a sensitive and reasonable response. It doesn't come off that way to me. 

It is condescending and willfully obtuse of her to assume that the problem for those she's heard from is that some of the people at the convention may be black. The matter at hand with Wiscon and several other conventions is programming that encourages the continuation and escalation of abuse and hostility towards members of the sf community. Notkin's summary response -- "please don't come to WisCon if it isn't right for you" -- is inadequate and inappropriate.

Although Wiscon has gone the furthest to host and encourage some of this kind of programming, this matter is not restricted to Wiscon. No matter how idealistic their reasons for hosting passionate discussions which began online, con-committees need to balance that idealism against the need to provide an environment free from abuse and harassment.

In Tempest Bradford's comment section, Victor Raymond boils the issue down into a dichotomy of whether one is worried about physical assault or just being disagreed with, and wonders out loud whether he is just being dense. While I think a year ago assault was a real possibility in the context of some of these conversations, the way things have played themselves out, the hostility and harassment seem to be mostly in the online components of the convention experience. This means you don't even have to be present to "win." 

Thanks to the Internet, you can now get harassed at a convention without even attending. You don't have to say anything that someone is disagreeing with. You just have to be.

Victor is setting the bar way too low. The question of "safety" should not be merely whether anyone got punched or pinched, but also whether your convention promotes a hostile environment for members of the sf community, even those who didn't attend.

These may or may not be Jay Lake's specific concerns. I haven't discussed this with him. But con committee members should do a lot more listening and a lot less defending when concerns like these are raised.


Cutting the school budget a form of tax relief for the local low income elderly? No. It doesn't work that way.

At the most recent meeting of the Westport Central School District's Board of Education, it was suggested by a man in the row I was sitting in that deep cuts in the school budget were necessary to provide tax relief for those senior citizens living in Westport solely supported by their Social Security benefits. (Cutting property taxes to provide relief to the poor is, on the face of it, an absurd idea.)

Read the rest at my blog www.westporteducation.com

It is a longish blog post that may get longer if I come by more data.


Are We Exceeding Our Mandates?

The following are my remarks relayed to the Westport Central School Board last night in Westport, NY. I verbally gave a quick summary of this during the first 5 minute comment period, and then submitted the full text to the board for their consideration. —Kathryn

via www.westporteducation.com

My name is Kathryn Cramer and I am a Westport parent. This is our first year in this district.

In response to questions about the budget raised in some widely circulated emails, I set out to find answers about education spending in our school district. By far, the most complex question is whether the Westport Central School District is “exceeding its mandates” and giving its students a “Cadillac” when a “Chevy” will do.

One first must identify the unfunded and underfunded educational mandates. I found a group of Westchester County school districts that had put together a spread sheet. 

The “unfunded mandates” explored in the spread sheet include “Special Education & Special Services”, “NCLB Requirements/Academic Intervention Services (AIS)/RTI”, “Transportation”, “Health & Safety,” “Buildings & Grounds (Not included in Health and Safety)”, “Professional Development”, and “Finance.” In the Westchester districts reporting, “unfunded mandates” amounted to about 16.3% of the budget. If the proportions are the same for our district, that would be a dollar amount of roughly $815,000. 

In terms of the relative size, No Child Left Behind, compliance with Megan’s Law, asbestos abatement, DEC compliance, etc. pale in comparison to the first category “Special Education & Special Services,” which is mostly Special Education. That first category makes up three quarters of the un- or underfunded mandates for the Westchester districts that created the spread sheet.

So the question we are REALLY asking when we ask whether the district is “exceeding its mandates” is whether it is overfunding Special Education—which is to say whether we are buying our Special Ed kids “Cadillacs.” The law entitles all children an “adequate” K-12 education, including those who are more challenging to educate.

I looked at Essex county special ed instructional spending for 2007-2008 from the The New York State School Report Card Fiscal Accountability Supplements. Special Ed instructional spending is a highly volatile number, more volatile for smaller districts, and depends on the needs of individual students which fluctuate from year to year.

The average district spending for Essex County for the school year 2007-2008 was $37,216.09 per pupil. Willsboro and Ticonderoga spent the least per pupil and were substantially below average for New York State, spending only about 75% of what the average NYS school spends. Newcomb and Minerva spent the most per pupil. The ratio between the highest per pupil expenditure and the lowest (Newcomb:Willsboro) is a little shy of 8:1. (The smaller the district, the more volatile the number.)

The bottom-spending five school districts were on average spending only 82% of what the average NYS school spends per pupil on special ed, strongly suggesting that special education is systematically underfunded in some or all of those districts. New York State itself has a special education graduation rate of just over 50%—only slightly better than the graduation rate of Rhode Island school that is in the news because the district fired all the teachers and administrators and is starting from scratch.

I checked where New York State ranked nationally in terms of overall graduation rates. I was surprised to find that it has the worst graduation rate in the Northeast and fits comfortably in the bottom quarter of states along with Nevada and most of the American South. By contrast, our school in Westport has the SAME graduation rate for Special Ed students as for general education students, which is to say about 100%. 

I doubt that anyone would argue that any of these WCS graduates lead such a charmed life that they didn’t need the diploma and to provide it was the equivalent of buying them a Cadillac. The New York State average is nothing to aspire to. The law is that Students are to receive an adequate education, and if these students can reasonably be expected to leave high school with a diploma, we are supposed to make that possible. That is the mandate against which spending is to be measured.

It is technically possible for us to fail to meet these obligations in order to save money, but special education spending is like spending money to comply with building codes. Sure, we could save a bunch of money on the proposed complex up the road if we don’t build to code, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. Ignoring special education mandates makes for more fragile communities less able to bounce back from hard times, just as not building to code makes for more fragile buildings.

An interesting sidelight to this is the issue of how districts that are systematically underfunding Special Education can get away with it. The reason it is possible for them to shirk their responsibilities is that the policing of what services districts provide is largely left up to parents. The annual cost of having a neurologist consult with the parents about this can easily run $800/yr. A private occupational therapy evaluation run $400 - $1,000. A neuropsychological evaluation, the tool of choice for assessing what is really at issue with a child with a complex of learning disabilities, runs $3,500 to $5,000 and private insurance may decline to pay for any of it. A special ed. lawyer costs $500 for the first meeting, and $1,500 for each CSE meeting attended (which could amount to $6,000 a year just for meeting time). So how some of these districts—spending only about $18,000 a year for Special Ed instruction in districts where more than 2/3rds of the students qualify for reduced price lunches—can get away with failing to provide mandated services is unpleasantly obvious.

My general conclusion is that Westport is not “exceeding its mandates” in any large scale way. Rather, Westport Central School is doing a cost-effective job of satisfying its mandates in a state that systematically underfunds Special Education, and that we should be proud of our school and of the community that supports it.