Sunday, August 29, 2010


“There is a brilliant child locked inside every student.” Marva Collins

Children are born into the world with minds like blank slates which, from the first minute, will fill up fast with positive and negative experiences. Those experiences, in turn, contribute to their future lives - their emotions, behaviors and outcomes. I remember Marva Collins, a well known Chicago private school educator, once telling a group of teachers in Seattle why inner city children, who were failing in the public school system, succeeded with her program. She said that many of them arrived with their mental tapes so filled with negative messages they could not be successful as students. Simply put, she and her staff needed to tape over the old information with new empowering affirmations, academic expectations, and learning in order for the children to later lead productive, happy lives. Self esteem and a belief in the future would follow. Parents needed to be on board as active partners or the students would not be admitted.

With that expectation in place, achievement followed. Students engaged in reading and math far beyond their public school peers. Learning about the classics seemed to be a cornerstone. Even kindergarteners were exposed to Shakespeare. They were all in the process of becoming leaders and lifelong learners.

Marva Collins started Chicago’s Westside Prep in 1975. Now we are hearing about other schools showing dramatic results with their students. Schools like Urban Prep in Chicago boast that every senior is college bound. Capital Prep in Hartford, Connecticut has high expectations about kids getting into college and claims to have a near-zero drop-out rate. In TV news programs about these schools we watch as large groups of predominantly African-American young men, in uniform, faces filled with serious intent, shout out uplifting affirmations about their future.

Recently, as I watched these high achieving students filled with hope and enthusiasm, I found myself thinking about Marva Collins. I was sad to learn that her amazing academy was forced to close in 2008 because, as she put it in an interview, "the community we wanted to serve has not supported, or could not support the school, to the extent financial considerations demand." The $5,000+ price tag for an academic year was simply too much for most folks, yet it costs more to educate a child in the public school arena. What a shame her approach was not able to come under the financing wing of the Illinois public school system - truly a loss for all the stakeholders.

No doubt many students attending these high achieving schools come with their mind tapes cluttered with traumatic experiences of neglect and abuse. Now those tapes are slowly but surely being erased and taped over with new uplifting experiences and information.

Today the ABC television program, “This Week” devoted its news hour to problems in our schools, and how public schools and public school teachers are failing our children. I’m a little tired of hearing about getting rid of “bad teachers.” There are some, and they definitely need to go. But there are also good teachers in bad situations. Is it possible that one problem is the teaching environment? Perhaps the teaching environment and school administration needs to be reviewed. Could it be that some administrators are either burnt out or lacking in leadership skills? Are some of them unable to give teachers the support they need to teach well? Helping teachers to be better classroom managers is laudable. Let's take every workshop we can since poor management is often the culprit to effective teaching. However, know this: It only takes a few acting-out students to completely disrupt whatever learning is taking place. Often the answer is to send the child to the office for a time out or move him/her to another classroom for awhile. How can this be good for anyone? For me, when I was teaching, I would willingly have had a few extra students if, in so doing, the dollars saved would go to some kind of effective behavior modification program for disruptive kids in our school. A specially trained teacher working with such children and their parents would benefit everyone.

Obviously schools like Urban Prep, Capital Prep and, formerly, Westside Preparatory Prep are taking care of business. Granted, they probably don't have the parent involvement and commitment issues that many public schools have, which is a huge problem that needs solving. But, would it be too far “out of the box” to think that our public schools be patterned after these successful schools? Isn’t something that seems to work this well be worth trying? Sometimes it seems like we talk problems to death on every talk show, and in every editorial, often by people who are not in the educational trenches. Let’s get serious about educational reform, but let’s consider using some programs like those above as our recipe for success.


Marva Collins’ Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin, is an easy-to-read book for educators and parents alike. Her belief that all children can learn and that teachers have the responsibility to make it happen should give us hope and encouragement, as we work to help every child reach his or her potential.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


"I know why families were created with all their imperfections. They humanize you. They are made to make you forget yourself occasionally, so that the beautiful balance of life is not destroyed." by Anais Nin

What is a functional family? No divorces, single parents, school dropouts or people addicted to drugs? Nobody on the dole, homeless or in jail? Everyone doing the right thing, working, going to school, and living harmoniously with each other. Ahhh, how sweet it sounds, but I can’t really say it accurately describes our large extended family. Made up of both natural and step great- grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and great nieces and nephews, many have colorful, sometimes painful stories that could make for good reality TV programming. Somebody might even call our family dysfunctional at times, at least in the “Leave it to Beaver” sense. I might add that for me personally, although I have experienced some anger, frustration and mental anguish within our family over the years, I wouldn’t change it for the world. Today reinforced my feelings of family pride in both individuals, and collectively.

First a quick review: In my blog of of August 2 I talked about a trip to Fresno where our family was attempting to right a wrong – namely wresting a fair settlement of the 50% we should have received when my second eldest sister passed away. She had no children, but loved her siblings, nieces and nephews, and had shared with many of us that she was giving us all varying percentages of her half of the estate. She was also planning to recognize three foundations which she held dear. We learned that her will had been rewritten in 2006, just before she was admitted to an Alzheimer's facility. This new will would give 95% of the entire estate to three of her husband’s nephews and only 5% to her own family. It was decided to take legal action. The outcome was a favorable settlement of several hundred thousand dollars. After legal costs were paid there were to be no restrictions on how the money was to be divided.

Now for the amazing part. Today, in a conference room at a local Holiday Express Inn, I was one of a dozen family members working together in a most functional way to solve a fair distribution of those funds to twenty-one family members and the three foundations. The meeting was scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m. and end at 4:00 p.m.. Led by one of the nieces, an educator with excellent group management skills, we set about our task. After an icebreaker where we read short lawyer jokes, we each shared why we had embarked on such a challenging path. Then, together, we charted a “code of conduct” that included the following:

1. No idea is a bad idea.
2. Everybody is equal.
3. No criticism of those unable to attend.
4. Hearsay is irrelevant.
5. Respect all family members.
6. Take turns speaking.
7. Say little, but say it well.
8. Listen with understanding and heart.
9. Avoid yelling, whining and abusive language.
10. Seek to understand and ask for clarification.
11. Keep sidebar conversations to a minimum

The task was complicated by the fact that different percentages were given to different family members. This in itself made a division inequitable if we were to remain close to the 2004 amendment which recognized the twenty-two heirs and foundations. It was further complicated by the fact that at least six nieces and nephews were not even mentioned in the will.

After working until noon to establish a framework and some distribution ideas, the nieces and nephews who brought about the suit left for a working lunch. They returned an hour later, having hammered out what they thought was a fair distribution adding bonuses for those who had been more involved than others in the process. They accomplished three major tasks: First, they were able to agree on differing percentages even if they might seem outwardly inequitable. Next, they found a way to give some money to the six or more individuals who had not been recognized. Finally, they were able to give several thousand dollars to each of the foundations. What an amazing feat! Within half an hour of returning from lunch, they presented their results and the group voted. As part of our ending celebration we each received a “Dare” card to read out loud. Mine said . . . There’s an original song inside you – sing it! If it seems like a strange little song, sing often – it will soon catch on – but sing it! “Alas for those who never sing, but die with all their music in them.”

This achievement came from group members , ages 30 to 88, who had set aside their personal positions, to think about others, and to determine what would truly work for our large, diverse family. I call this a functioning and functional family, regardless of individual foibles and experiences, and I’m proud to claim it as my own. I have a hunch my opinion was shared by the others. We should all sleep well tonight knowing that we were part of righting a wrong. And in the words of my deceased father-in-law, the nieces and nephews in that room today "did their bit and a little bit more."

It would be interesting to know how those on the “other side”, who inherited more than they should have, handled their distribution. They too had a number of family members who were not mentioned in the revised version of the will. Perhaps they can read this blog to see how a functioning family handles a difficult situation with courage, grace and selflessness.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Before someone's tomorrow has been taken away, cherish those you love,appreciate them today." Author unknown

This was a great weekend and I wondered how I could draw a picture with words so that anyone reading this blog could experience my pleasure in the little things that happened. The title "One Fine Day" came to mind along with all the things that made each day fine.

We had earlier said goodbye to several guests, two of whom were my niece Vicki and her friend Julia. It was growing late and I could not put off writing any longer.

As I pondered, the phone rang. It was a very shaky Vicki who was calling to tell me that she and Julia had been in a serious accident on I-5 as they were returning to Seattle. Their car was inches from being a statistic. She said they were fine, but there were several seriously damaged cars and injured people, one of whom was a motorcyclist. Being uninjured themselves, and blessed with calm natures, they were able to lend assistance. This was a horrible, unexpected cap to what had, up to then, been two glorious days of rest and rejuvenation for the two women.

Yesterday they had explored the wonders of Mt. Baker's Artist Point, spending hours hiking and appreciating all there was to see. Today they had relaxed on our beach, then headed for Birch Bay to play and enjoy the sand and warm, incoming tide before returning to their homes and jobs on Monday.

In the blink of an eye they almost lost their lives. Good driving on the part of Julia kept that from happening, as cars ahead of them careened into each other and across lanes of traffic.

The call left me feeling unsettled as I realized how quickly things can change and what that should mean to all of us. Sayings like "Appreciate today, because you don't know what will happen tomorrow" take on new meaning.

So maybe all I need to do is simply talk about a few things I appreciate from this weekend, and commit to encouraging everyone around me to also appreciate life minute by minute, rather than worrying about a future that may never even come.

Here goes. This weekend I appreciated. . .

1. going out on our boat with my husband and my son John on Friday to drop off two crab pots with high hopes for a feast the next day.

2. getting seven steaks at Haggens for $7.00 which we bar-b-qued and enjoyed as we sat watching a brilliant sunset followed by an equally breathtaking moonset.

3. going down to the Sandy Point Marina on Saturday to watch two of my grandchildren along with more than a hundred other kids compete for the biggest bullhead in the annual bullhead fishing derby. The event included lunch and drawings for many prizes. Lily got movie tickets and Kacey got a kite.

4. returning by boat to find nine keepers and one octopus in the two crab pots.

5. driving my husband and sister , with the top down on my Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder, to Boulevard Park on the Bellingham waterfront - the air still warm and the scent of flowers and freshly cut hay in the air.

6. watching my son mix music for a great blue grass band performing for the hundreds of spectators lounging about on the park's grassy lawn.

7. returning to cook the crab and to play a game of cribbage and 500 Rummy under the outdoor heater on the patio.

8. basking in the warmth of another sunny day while watering the lawn and flowers.

9. enjoying another great surf and turf dinner (crab and steak) with two sisters and a new friend.

10. being grateful Vicki and Julia survived a scary accident that is now on the 11:00 news.

I wonder why it takes a tragedy or near-tragedy to give us wake up calls about what is important in life. Let's vow to make the most of every day. Let's take stock of the good in life and appreciate what we have. Let's give love freely and receive it with gratitude and humility. Let's do our bit and a little bit more for everyone around us, and model a better world. What a great gift to give our children!

Sunday, August 8, 2010


"Summer's lease hath all too short a date." William Shakespeare


I am one of those people who uses a phrase, while also wondering where it came from. The “dog days of summer” is one of them. Webster’s dictionary defines it as the period between early July and early September when the hot, sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere they are between January and early March. According to Wikipedia, the roots go back to ancient times when Romans associated hot days with Sirius, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major (Large Dog). This star was supposedly the cause of hot weather. It was believed by some to be an evil time “when the sea boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics and phrensies” (from Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, 1813). Check that site and others if you share my fascination for how the phrase came to be.

So what about Puget Sound’s dog days? In the opening quotation, Shakespeare could have had Seattle in mind had he known about it. Last week we returned from Fresno and its 100 degree weather to fog, 70 degrees, and now rain. I didn't want to go to Fresno during what is usually a week of "best weather" in Seattle. In fact I moaned beforehand to everyone around me about being stuck in Fresno at the end of July. Little did I know then that those might be the only "dog days" I would get. By the way, now I think back with a twinge of nostalgia to strolling along a path in the Sequoia National Forest in shorts and a tank top, the warm sun kissing me and the earth, the heady scent of evergreen in the air. It also seems like the act of eating dinner out on a restaurant terrace at 10:00 p.m., the air still balmy from the day's heat, is more romantic, lending an ambience one doesn't get on a drizzly day.

We in the northwest often find ourselves defending our much maligned weather by reminding people that we get less rainfall than many other more popular cities. According to the internet's Live Science, Seattle's " annual rainfall of 37.1 does not even put it in the top ten rainiest cities, which might surprise you. It did me. Here are average annual rainfalls for the following cities: Mobile, Alabama--67 inches; Pensacola, Florida--65 inches; New Orleans, Louisiana--64 inches; West Palm Beach, Florida--63 inches; Lafayette, Louisiana--62 inches; Baton Rouge, Louisiana--62 inches; Miami, Florida--62 inches; Port Arthur, Texas--61 inches; Tallahassee, Florida--61 inches; and Lake Charles, Louisiana--58 inches.

The difference, of course, is the color gray. Those places listed above no doubt get their rain all at once during a shorter time with long periods of sun and blue sky in between. We get ours in the form of gentle drops, drizzle or mist especially in November through February. I'm actually looking out my window now, during this first week of August, at the color gray - gray sky with some blue in the distance, and the pewter gray water of the Strait of Georgia, north of Puget Sound. It’s ranging from rain to drizzle, and is not what I expected when I fantasized about Seattle while sweating it out in Fresno during its dog days.

Until 2006 when I was teaching full time in Seattle I would begin to panic about this point in the summer break. The first month was devoted to collapsing, rejuvenating, and taking summer classes. Then I would realize I only had a few weeks before school began again and I hadn’t even started on the list of things I had put off during the school year, much less do local sightseeing and get some much needed sun time.

Even though I’m retired now, I still feel cheated as one gray day follows another, and I wonder what has happened to the “dog days of summer” in our area. O.K. O.K. so let’s stop moping around and think about what you CAN do in 60 degree weather that is within an easy commute. How about these ideas, some of them “off the beaten track”. By the way, that’s another phrase I’d like to check out some time.

1. Park your car in Edmonds, hop on the Edmonds-Kingston Ferry as a foot passenger, and explore the little town of Kingston, having lunch in one of several nearby restaurants. Upon your return spend a tourist dollar or two in quaint downtown Edmonds at one of its many restaurants, wine bars and cute shops. Finish your day with a movie at the Edmonds Theater where you go back in time to an old-fashioned venue, even climbing up narrow stairs to a real balcony.

2. The eastside provides many locations for outdoor fun. At Marymoor Park in Redmond, you can walk the dog off leash, bird watch, play soccer, baseball or cricket, climb a 35 foot free standing structure, hike or stroll scenic trails and explore 640 acres, with beautiful Lake Samamish nearby. If the weather is not too inclement, bring along a blanket and a picnic lunch.

3. Go a little further east and have lunch in Issaquah’s XXX Root Beer Drive-In located at 98 NE Gilman Blvd. Talk about stepping back in time. Your senses are assaulted, first by a collection of vintage cars in the parking lot, then inside, which features 50s and 60s memorablia including juke boxes, license plates, posters of old time celebrities, etc. Since you’ve gone that far, drive a little further east on I-90 and check out the always spectacular Snoqualmie Falls.

4. Kelsey Creek Farm, located at 410 130th Place SE in Bellevue, contains 140 acres of meadows, woods, and breathtaking vistas. Children have a chance to see farm animals up close, hike and and view wildlife, picnic and play.

5. Rock wall climbing in Ballard’s Stone Garden is an exciting activity, It’s located at 2839 N.W. Market Street. There are lessons for beginners and pretty amazing walls for more advanced climbers. Then check out the adjacent Government Locks, and the always fascinating fish ladder. Watch the sea lions cavort nearby looking for a tasty meal, then head for Golden Gardens to make s’mores or roast hot dogs in a fire pit.

6. If you want to do something really off-beat with your kids, take them to Creation Station at 18511 64th Aveue W in Lynnwood. They call themselves an innovative craft store. I call them a teacher’s dream craft store and more. Here you can have birthday parties, field trips, and just drop in to create whatever your imagination dictates. You will be using new and found objects ranging from craft and specialty kits to glass beads, remnants, pom poms, etc. It’s a great place to while away a drizzly day.

7. Camp Long is West Seattle’s gem of a city park and a “best kept” Seattle secret. Located at 5200 35th Ave. W, you enter a lodge where you can meet naturalists who will tell you all about the park’s offerings. The lodge has a kitchen space and a meeting room with artifacts and wild life information. Find out about renting one of the ten rustic cabins for a family overnight. Two have covered picnic areas, and there is also a group fire ring and climbing rock. The cabins are scattered throughout the woods which surround an immense meadow with ponds and wetlands for exploring. I have taken many of my classes there on field trips - one of their favorites.

8. Country Village, located at 23718 Bothell Everett Highway has a plethora of shops, restaurants and experiences to delight young and old alike. As the name might indicate, the shops appeal to people who love arts, crafts and goods from an earlier time in America. Experiences range from dance and magic shows, pony and train rides, cookie decorating and more.

9. Mercer Island boasts a number of great parks, but one is particularly oriented to children, ages 3 to 8. Dragon Park at 5500 Island Crest Way is a child’s fantasy land of dragons, castle play scapes and woods that might be reminiscent of those experienced by Snow White or Hansel and Gretel. For the grown ups try the Park on the Lid which covers the I-90 freeway and has wonderful views of the Seattle sky line. Play tennis or basketball, or walk and enjoy the park’s many amenities while 60 mph traffic roars below.

10. Crossroads Mall, located on the eastside at NE 8th and 156th will give you a great multi-cultural experience. It is not like any other Seattle area mall, with its ethnic food booths, and cribbage or checker games constantly in progress. While you check out the available events and activities, your ear might hear Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and English with an Irish accent, among other languages. Truly, this is a local slice of the world.

With these ten ideas you can accomplish three things. First, get to know more about our area’s special places, even if you aren’t able to lie roasting on a beach in 90 degree weather. Next, you can give your children some great memories for their summer vacation, while keeping well within a vacation budget. Finally, if you are a teacher, all the ideas provide enrichment and field trip ideas for your students when school resumes in a few weeks.

Finally, dog days be damned. I’ll take Puget Sound’s weather whatever it is and remember that this most amazing gray weather turns the trees and grass to green, the towering mountains to white, and the western sky to incredible, if not daily, brilliantly beautiful rainbow colored sunsets. If you are reading this from somewhere else, please visit as long as you like. There’s a lot to see on one of our gray days.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


Say not you know another entirely till you have divided an inheritance with him. Johann Kaspar Lavater

Ten members of my large and very close family just returned from Fresno where we were attempting to contest the will of an 85 year-old sister/aunt. In a nutshell, the case was this:

My sister married into an also large family. Since she and her husband were childless their estate was to be divided 50%-50%, half going to her husband’s side of the family and half to ours upon their deaths. My sister had been very open about her half for years. She had decided in 2004 to change her will so that the bulk of her estate went to three foundations and her nieces and nephews. Her siblings were to get token amounts since they were all older and not in great financial need.

Unfortunately she began to decline physically and mentally, ending her last two years in an Alzheimer facility. Upon her death two of us (sisters) flew down for the funeral and met many members of her husband’s family who were previously unknown to us. They treated us with caring and friendship and staged a lovely memorial that was very well attended since my sister was known by many in the area.

Upon her death we were shocked to find that she and her husband, who was also in that facility, had changed their wills in July, 2006 to a 95%-5% distribution, with each of her siblings getting only 1%, and all foundations, nieces and nephews removed! In other words, 95% of the entire estate would go to three of her husband’s nephews! The unfairness and inequity of it fairly took our breath away. Knowing how she felt about her family members and her foundations, many felt something needed to be done. Adding to our concern was information gleaned by two of us who had visited in the weeks before the will change.

My husband and I had gone to see her in February of that year and saw immediately that she was not herself. We were there at her request to find a retirement-assisted living facility for her husband, and possibly also for her. The night we arrived we made arrangements to pick them up the next morning to tour various care possibilities. Upon our arrival, to our disbelief, she had forgotten all about it. Things went from bad to worse after that. My other sister observed other disquieting signs of her mental impairment.

But, let's get back to the will. Because of a no-contest clause in California, the siblings could not challenge it. However that was not the case for the now disinherited nieces and nephews, and they decided to sue for a return to the 2004 amendment. The process dragged on for over a year, involving information-gathering, the taking of depositions in Seattle, the failed attempt at a settlement, and finally the realization that there would be a lawsuit in Fresno. This would involve a lot of people having to leave their jobs, homes, and families to try to right the wrong done by greedy individuals or human/attorney error. Feelings were running high and leaning towards the greed angle. The words "undue influence" were bandied about.

The proceedings were to start on a Tuesday morning, but only a few judges were available. One had been called to jury duty. We would try again the next day while lawyers on both sides continued settlement discussions.

That evening found the entire group on the terrace of Fresno’s Macaroni Grill along with one of the attorneys who presented a settlement offer of 33% to us. Because we had hoped for a 50%-50% split there were many feelings expressed - anger, sadness, resignation but also relief. Continuing on with the lawsuit would have meant another $50,000 in legal expenses. All present voted to accept the offer.

Early the next morning everyone on both sides entered the courtroom, were introduced, and the settlement was entered into the record. A lawsuit was avoided and people were free to leave. If the will was not fully broken, at least there was a severe dent.

Was justice served? I think my deceased sister would be only slightly mollified by the outcome. I also think she would have been truly horrified to see her family and foundations placed into such an expensive predicament. But wills are almost impossible to break. In the case of our sister/aunt we would have had to prove something approaching a diagnosis of insanity.

As the family later rehashed the events of our several days we knew three things for sure:

1. We proudly believed that if the situation had been reversed we would have recognized the inequity and made sure that the estate was returned to a 50%-50% split. It's the way we are. Integrity is important.

2. We vowed to tell others to make sure their wills were written in such a way, with representation on both sides, that the document could not be broken if those making the will/trust became emotionally fragile.

3. We had grown closer as a family.

· A grandson was happy to have had what he called the first real conversation ever with his grandmother.

· Two adult male cousins found out how much they had in common and had a lot of unexpected and fun experiences.

· Several sisters spent quality time in the pool talking, laughing and growing closer.

· A mother and daughter had two wonderful days exploring the area and found pleasure in little things they did together

· A nephew learned a lot of family lore from his aunt, some of which surprised and amused him.

· Six aunts, sisters and nieces discovered they loved thrift shopping and spent several hours doing just that, finding treasures in the process.

. Everyone learned a lot about this kind of legal action, and were thrilled with their legal representation. They considered their lawyers and staff as top of the line!

· All ten found the experience memorable, poignant, heart-wrenching and eye-opening.

As you know, I attempt to find something I can tie to education in every blog. My connection this week has to do with careers in the legal field. Good lawyers make a LOT of money. The suit, even without going to court will end up costing more than $l00,000. Legal assistants, paralegals, legal secretaries, court reporters, and judges all take a piece of the fee. Was it worth it? In our case enough was at stake so that the petitioners will each receive a little money, though far less than my sister would have wanted. The bigger victory had to do with principle. In the words of D.H. Lawrence, "Ethics and equity and principles of justice do not change with the calendar." Nor, in my opinion, should they change because of bending a situation to meet one's own wants and needs.


If you are looking for law firms in the Fresno area, here are two recommendations:

Dowling, Aaron, Keeler (DAK Law)
William Keeler
8080 North Palm Avenue, Third Floor
Fresno, California 93711

Wright & Johnson (Janet Wright)
7110 N. Fresno St., Suite 420
Fresno, California 93720