Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Facilitated What?

Some years ago I saw a Frontline documentary called "Prisoners of Silence"  (original air date 1993.) I recommend it highly.  It tells the story of a wonderful technique called "facilitated communication", which apparently unlocked the inner lives of severely disabled people who previously were thought to be mentally retarded.  People who were believed to have the mental age of an infant or toddler were suddenly writing poetry and authoring papers for conferences.

The technique works through the use of a keyboard.  The client types keys while the facilitator supports his hand.  Astonishingly, people who seemed to be deeply retarded had taught themselves to read and write!

Finally, people started asking questions and running experiments.  For instance, they showed the client one picture (say, a boat) and the facilitator another (say, a hat.)  Then they asked the client what he had just seen.  Every time, the client communicated what the facilitator had seen, not what he had seen himself.

So the miracle technique that would allow the disabled to communicate their inmost thoughts turned out to be a fraud; the facilitators were really communicating their own thoughts, and using the disabled client as a sort of puppet.  Many of the facilitators were horrified by these results. They had genuinely believed they were unlocking their client's inmost thoughts and had no idea they were just projecting their own.

Apparently the world of therapy is like the world of education.  Proving that a technique doesn't work is not enough to prevent its use.  Facilitated communication, after being debunked by study after study, is still going on.

And so we come to a recent New York Times article, "The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield".  Anna Stubblefield was a Professor of Ethics (!) at Rutgers.  She thought she would help a disabled young man through the use of facilitated communication, and wound up falling in love with him and then performing sex acts on him in her office.  She is now facing a possible 40-year sentence (!) for sexual assault.

In case you were wondering whether there was the slightest chance that the disabled young man was really communicating for himself, check out this passage, which actually made me laugh out loud when I read it for the first time:
Anna asked him if he might want to see some pornography, ‘‘to see what things looked like and different positions people used and that sort of thing.’’ She said she wouldn’t want to pay for porn or watch anything offensive, but that she would be O.K. with finding free clips on the Internet that depicted couples engaging in mutually pleasurable intercourse. He demurred, typing out that in his view the women in porn are being exploited, and that, besides, Anna was more beautiful than any porn star, and he really wanted to be thinking only about her when they finally made love.
Now, really.  Clearly Anna was completely delusional and engaged in a fantasy relationship that took place entirely inside her own head.  Does that sound like something a 30 year old man would say?

In order to believe in facilitated communication, you have to believe (among other things) that it is extremely easy to learn to read, write, and spell.  Here's the mother of a disabled man who uses F.C.:
‘‘We figured out that he taught himself to read at age 3 by reading a dictionary,’’ his mother said. ‘‘Now he’s a senior in high school.’’
And here's Anna's account:
Anna brought books for [the disabled man] to read, Maya Angelou and others, and discovered that he read like a savant — 10 pages every minute. (She turned the pages for him.) 
This accords with the modern educational view that kids can teach themselves to read through repeated exposure.  Sure, some extremely bright and verbal kids can do it, but many others can't, and the belief that this is the norm has caused a lot of kids to feel like failures at the beginning of their school career.

In the "Frontline" special, one of the words that a disabled girl types out after her facilitator sees the object is "key".  If you've worked with a child who's struggling to learn to read (as I have with Younger Daughter), you'd notice right away that "key" is one of those tricky English spellings.  Even a bright neurotypical child would be likely to spell it "ke", or, a more educated guess, "kee". How could a child with no formal instruction have magically re-invented the complex patterns of English spelling?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dickon Among the Lenapes

As part of my project of re-reading books I liked as a kid, I recently read The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon Among the Lenapes, by M. R. Harrington (© 1938).  It tells the story of an English boy, Dickon, who gets shipwrecked on the Atlantic coast in 1612, and is rescued by the local Leni Lenape Indians.  He begins as a captive, but is eventually adopted by the tribe.

I think what I liked about this book as a kid was the sense of agency and purpose that young Dickon had.  The Indians taught Dickon how to do all kinds of useful things: to hunt and gather and cook the proceeds; to make his own clothes, cooking pots, weapons, and musical instruments; even to build a house!

Reading this again as an adult, I notice how progressive the tribal customs were.  When Dickon kills his first deer, he brings it back in triumph to his household.
Thunder-Arrow [who will become Dickon's adoptive father] turned to me.
"Do you know", he asked, "what a boy is supposed to do with his first deer?"

"Certainly.  He is supposed to take it home to his family and then help them eat it."

"Ma-ta-ka.  Not at all.  If it is a buck, he must give it to an old man; if it is a doe, to some old woman."
You can see this as a kind of Social Security tax; the young able hunters must contribute to the elderly, who are losing the ability to hunt for themselves.  Similarly, Dickon is surprised to find that after a fishing expedition nets about twenty shad, the man in charge keeps only a few for his own family and gives the rest away to other members of the tribe.  (Can you imagine Donald Trump doing such a thing?)

The tribe is matrilineal; clan membership passes through the mother, so a father and his children actually belong to different clans.  Women also own property, to Dickon's surprise:
[Roaring-Wings, the Lenape doctor, says]: "The woman really owns her house, though, and its furnishings.  She owns the crops which she raises in her garden and even the meat and the skins which the man brings in after they have been turned over to her."

"What, then, does a man own?" I demanded.

"Hoh! A man needs little.  Just his clothes, his weapons, his fishing gear, his tools, and his medicines -- maybe also a bed mat!"

This all seemed to me very strange, for in England the man owns everything, the woman usually next to nothing.

Overachiever's footnote:  here is yet another great example of the pointlessness of "text-to-self".  This was one of my favorite books as a kid, and it certainly wasn't because it related directly to my daily life.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Opting Out

This year, for the first time, we are opting Younger Daughter out of standardized testing.  In previous years, she didn't want to be singled out as different from the other kids, so she went ahead and did the tests.  This year, there's been enough of a groundswell that she knows other kids who are opting out, so she's ready to join them. 

Today we went (by appointment) to the school to look at the tests.  We had to sign forms saying we'd keep the contents secret (is this legal?) The tests were about what you'd expect; the standard multiple-choice mind-numbing fare. 

Next, we'll write a note to the Superintendent stating our religious objections to the test (by state law, the only way you're allowed to opt out), and then we're done!  The school is arranging some kind of activity for the refuseniks to do while their classmates are filling out the test.  The anti-test groundswell is growing ...

Monday, January 26, 2015

I Wish This was the Last

I wish this was the last post I would ever write about homework problems, but I doubt it is.  The latest wrinkle is that YD is being assigned ridiculous spelling and "language arts" homework, but is determined not to let us complain to her teacher, because "he might be mean to me!" and also because "I want to be a normal kid!" (that is, not getting some special deal because of our complaints.)  Argh.

Speaking of spelling, I liked this:  Why Some Kids Can't Spell.  A few excerpts:
Spelling remains the most relentlessly tested of all the literacy skills, but it is the least taught.
Sending a list of words home on Monday to be tested on Friday is not teaching. Nor is getting children to write their spelling words out 10 times, even if they have to do it in rainbow colours.
If spelling words are simply strings of letters to be learnt by heart with no meaning attached and no investigation of how those words are constructed, then we are simply assigning our children a task equivalent to learning ten random seven-digit PINs each week.
The people who don’t benefit from spelling tests are those who are poor at spelling. They struggled with spelling before the test, and they still struggle after the test. Testing is not teaching.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Troubling Reading for Troubled Kids

Older Daughter is now back at the local public high school for junior year (long story).  I've been helping her write an essay on "Death of a Salesman" for English class.  True confession:  I haven't actually read "Death of a Salesman", but I skimmed the wikipedia article, from which I deduce that "D of a S" is one bleak, dismal bummer of a play.

Here's a partial list of OD's assigned reading at school:  Into the Wild (a misguided dreamer starves to death alone in Alaska), Catcher in the Rye (a depressed prep-school kid), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (racism and child rape), Persepolis (a girl growing up in Iran learns that her grandfather was imprisoned and tortured by the Shah; the revolution is not an improvement), Night (a horrific first-person account of the Holocaust), and Romeo and Juliet (two teenagers fall in love and wind up committing suicide). Notice a pattern?

Depressed people are commonly advised to avoid "ruminating", or chewing over depressive thoughts.  I think this is good advice.  In an ideal world OD should be avoiding depressing reading, but that's just not possible when she's going to high school.

Why is high school English reading such a downer? I can think of a couple of reasons (both idiotic, but that's par for the course):

1.)  Dismal = Deep.  A light-hearted or happy book can't be an Important Work of Literature. If we're going to be taken seriously, we must be seen to suffer.  (This also happens in art education, where making the students suffer proves the seriousness of the course.)

2.)  Since teenagers are often troubled, moody and depressed, and complain that the world is unjust and cruel, it's thought to be appropriate to give them books full of troubled, moody and depressed characters living in an unjust and cruel world.  This is the theory that people can only understand books that relate directly to their own experience -- the old "text-to-self" concept.  Bah, humbug! I say.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Same Old Same Old

In the New York Times, Room for Debate: Should Parents Help their Children with Homework? featuring many of the usual suspects:  Sara Bennett, Alfie Kohn, and Jessica Lahey.

Sigh.  It's all the same stuff.  It seems like nothing has changed since Sara wrote The Case Against Homework (2006!)

I'm writing this post mostly to bookmark the article, which for some reason is not easy to find.

Also, I liked this comment:


New York, NY Yesterday
Assigning so much homework that young people with after school jobs or household responsibilities (caring for a younger sibling or sick family member) cannot possibly finish the homework and also show up for their other responsibilities sure separates the rich from the poor in a hurry.
Good point.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Life is a Job

From the New York Times,  Our Mommy Problem., by a woman who objects to random adults addressing her as "Mom".   As usual, the comments are more interesting than the article. I was struck by this one:

Bismarck North Dakota

I am a Mom but also sooooooo much more - runner, spouse, head of a department at a Fortune 500 company, motherhood does not define me. I'm not up to my eyeballs in my kids stuff. I monitor their grades, their work and occasionally turn up at their athletic, dance and orchestra events. They are building their own lives with my and their Dad's support. The author hit the right tone - something has to change and it starts with us. We can take the conversation back and redefine ourselves as a mom, not as "Mom". This is the first salvo - thank you.
For this commenter, motherhood is a low-level managerial job. The mother's responsibility is to monitor her kids' performance and ensure that it's up to snuff. If their assessments are high, she's managed them well.

I see a lot of this where I live. The corporate paradigm is the filter through which we see the rest of life. School is a job for kids, which prepares them for adult jobs by forcing them to be show up on time, put in their hours (plus extensive overtime!), and get their paperwork filled out correctly and submitted to the appropriate supervisor. The kid who performs well at school is rewarded with a credential which will eventually result in a well-paid adult job.

In my high-achieving professional-class district, we have "good schools", which means that a lot of our kids go on to competitive colleges and high-salary jobs. Are the kids knowledgeable in real subjects, like math and history? Can they write clearly and intelligently? Are they happy? Do they have friends? Do they have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives? Who the hell cares? All we need to know is the name of the highest-ranked college they got into and we know where they stand.