Friday, September 27, 2013

Dismissing a Child's Complaint

Jessica Lahey, a fertile source of blog posts, has a column in the New York Times:

My Son calls School a Waste of Time

A parent writes in saying that her son calls school "too easy" and says it's a waste of his time.  What to do?  Here's the opening of Ms. Lahey's reply:
In my experience, two things could be going on here.
Your son could be a typical young adolescent, whining about the irritating and less than thrilling details of middle school life.
Why does anyone think it's OK to write this way about kids?  It used to be normal to speak this way about women ("oh, those little ladies, complaining about the right to vote!"), but feminists, quite rightly, put a big dent in it. We need a similar campaign for kids.  It's outrageous to propose as the first option that the child's complaints should be belittled and ignored.

Lahey goes on to give really terrible advice:
If, however, he really does yearn for more intellectual and educational challenge, congratulations. You have a motivated kid on your hands. Assuming he is completing the work he is being assigned and meeting the expectations of his teachers, you can go ahead and start talking with him about how to move toward a solution.
This is a familiar catch-22 to gifted kids and their parents; teachers won't allow a child to be considered "gifted" unless he's performing well on the work he's being given now.  The teachers are confusing "gifted" with "good student."  Many gifted kids are not good students, because, like this boy, they find schoolwork pointless and aren't interested in getting a good grade on work that they detest.  It's obnoxious to tell a child he has to perform correctly on tasks that he finds pointless before he'll have a chance to do something he might find meaningful.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Going to School Teaches You How to Go to School

Two interesting articles in the Atlantic:

My Daughter's Homework is Killing Me, in which a father attempts to do his 8th-grade daughter's homework for a week.


My Insane Homework Load Taught me How to Game the System, in which a high school student realizes that the objective of high school is not to become a good learner, but a good student. 

I liked this comment (from dantes342, on My Insane Homework Load):
I've got two high school juniors, each taking a couple of the de rigeur AP courses. The workload is insane, they're hitting the books from when they get home in the afternoon until 10-11 at night and always at least one full weekend day. It's just sadistic.
College GPA requirements are in the realm of fantasy, as is described in the piece.
It's not about a failure of students to buckle down and structure their time. It's about a broken system running on hysteria and disregard for actual learning, and it breeds gaming the system and cheating just to stay afloat.
I see a lot of this in the "good" school district of Upper Tax Bracket.  This is how our kids are overworked and undereducated.

Monday, September 23, 2013


It turns out that in our district, home-schoolers have access to the public schools' extracurricular programs. In our case, this means that Older Daughter has joined the local high school's drama club, which meets 4 afternoons a week. OD already had a friend in the club (actually, that's how we first heard about it.)

So, right off the bat, that's solved my biggest dilemma; getting OD out of the house, doing something she enjoys, with kids her age. Hooray! The depression has lifted. Now I see that we will not evolve into some horrible mother-daughter Howard Hughes phenomenon. (I have also taken on a couple of part-time jobs; one teaching math to small groups of kids, and one working on a computer program. I need to get out of the house too!)

In the meantime, Sainted Husband has been working on the academic angle; they've done some geometry, some writing, and some chemistry (not a whole lot, I'd have to admit.) SH has been reading aloud from Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None" at night.

And that's where we are now. We have a teenager who isn't depressed, which is a huge improvement already. We could do more with academics, but the year has only just started.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Math for English Majors

Investigations homework from Younger Daughter's backpack:

If it's hard to read, the instructions say:
Explain why the image below is or is not an array using 4 or more lines and the following words
  • Array
  • Dimension
I don't know what the right answer is here.  Is it not an array because the items are not all the same size and shape, as YD wrote?  Or is it an array because it's arranged in a 3 x 5 grid?

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to teach YD the times tables, or "Multiplication Combinations" as Investigations calls them.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Not the Best and Brightest

From the comments to Homework Debate: Too Much, Too Little, or Busy Work? :

comment by Really?:
Actually the mom probably does know better than the teachers. Most of the people I went to college with who became teachers weren't our best and brightest. In fact of the dozens of now teachers I went to school with there's only one that I would let teach my kids.
comment by 777abc:
You can't explain this to people. They just don't get it. They think you're bashing teachers. They can't grasp there might be truth to what you're saying. I actually have my degree in education and was horrified at the lack of brightness in some classmates. In a math methods class, we had to take a basic math test to pass the class. It was really all elementary basic basic math...TWO people passed the test the first time in the entire class. I taught for a couple years and got out because I could not work with some of these people every day listening to them complain about their jobs and students. I have always said if people could spend one lunch period in the teacher's lounge, they would pull their kids from the school so quick heads would spin.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Back to School

I went to Fragrant Hills' Back to School Night last night.  I haven't been to one of these events in several years, but Younger Daughter wanted me to go, so I went.

The evening began with a talk by the principal.  In a 45 minute speech, she said not one word about academics.  She said a great deal about making the school safe and inclusive, but nothing about curriculum, teaching or learning.  I'm  worried about getting YD up to speed in reading and math, and nothing the principal said addressed any of my concerns.  And this is a principal I actually like!

Next, on to the 4th grade classroom to find YD's letter to me (standard procedure for Back to School Night around here.)  The teacher explained her homework policy -- there's homework every night, including a reading log to be signed by the parents (you know my feelings on that one).  After three missed homeworks, the child has to stay in from recess with the teacher, "and it's not fun".  Terrific -- once again, she'll be punishing the children of uninvolved parents.   On the plus side (I guess), she did say that if you didn't have time that night to just write her a note.

She remarked that 4th grade is an important step for the kids because it's when they start to get letter grades.  Ugh.

She walked us through an arithmetic trick where you do a bunch of calculations involving your phone number and wind up with -- gasp! -- your phone number.  In the midst of this she remarked that she's always telling the kids, "it's not two hundred AND fifty, it's two hundred fifty!"  Huh?

I left feeling, as usual, frustrated and out of step.  I'm not on the same page as these folks.  Heck, I'm not even in the same book, or the same country, or the same mental universe. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bookmarks for Teaching Math

I'm always looking for ways to teach math to Younger Daughter, so I thought I'd write a post bookmarking useful sites.  Readers, please let me know if you have suggested additions!

Of course, I start with the great
Singapore Math
For the iPad:
Monty's Quest

Sushi Monster
Dragon Box
Math Ninja 
Worksheets, etc. :
math aids 
ixl math 

Monday, August 12, 2013

PS 150 Dumps Investigations Math

I only wish this was Younger Daughter's school.

I liked this comment from the principal of PS 234, which is retaining Investigations Math:
The school’s principal, Lisa Rip­perger, emphasized that more important than any individual program is support for the teachers. PS 234 has a math and a literacy coach who work only with the teachers. “Nothing to me in my budget is more important than my two full-time content coaches,” she said. - See more at:
The school’s principal, Lisa Rip­perger, emphasized that more important than any individual program is support for the teachers. PS 234 has a math and a literacy coach who work only with the teachers. “Nothing to me in my budget is more important than my two full-time content coaches,” she said. - See more at:
The school's principal, Lisa Ripperger, emphasized that more important than any individual program is support for the teachers.  PS 234 has a math and a literacy coach who work only with the teachers.  "Nothing to me in my budget is more important than my two full-time content coaches," she said.
How did we get to the point that elementary-school teachers can't teach basic math without the services of a full-time specialist?  Either the teachers are incompetent or the curriculum is baffling.  Or, even more frightening, both.
The school’s principal, Lisa Rip­perger, emphasized that more important than any individual program is support for the teachers. PS 234 has a math and a literacy coach who work only with the teachers. “Nothing to me in my budget is more important than my two full-time content coaches,” she said. - See more at:
The school’s principal, Lisa Rip­perger, emphasized that more important than any individual program is support for the teachers. PS 234 has a math and a literacy coach who work only with the teachers. “Nothing to me in my budget is more important than my two full-time content coaches,” she said. - See more at:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Green Visitor

Did Katy blend in to the milkweed?  Katy did!

7 Myths of Education

I've been reading 7 Myths of Education, by  Daisy Christodoulou.  The book describes English schooling, but it's very relevant to some of the trends we see here.   You might call it "half-arsed progressivism" --  that is, it's a lot of poorly-understood progressive ideals pasted on to the traditional authoritarian system we're all accustomed to.  The result is the worst of both worlds:  an enforced school experience with no discernible content being taught.

As Ms. Christodoulou quite correctly points out, the schools are trying to follow the philosophy of people (e.g. Rousseau) who were against having schools at all.  That's where we are today:  we're trying to run schools according to the thinking of people who were opposed to schools.  Similarly, we're using a math curriculum designed by people who don't like math and would prefer to write journal entries.

A few relevant bits:
One of the strongest messages I received when I was training and beginning to teach was that I should not talk very much.  I remember one teacher trainer telling me that if I was talking, the pupils were not learning. 
It is a baffling overreaction:  to move from legitimate criticism of mindless rote learning to the complete denial of any kind of teacher-led activity.  The solution to mindless rote learning is not less teacher instruction; it is different and better teacher instruction.
Independent learning suggests a reduced and sometimes even non-existent role for the teacher.  If it really were possible to learn independently, why would we need teachers and schools?
While the final aim of education is for our pupils to be able to work independently, endlessly asking them to work independently is not an effective method for achieving this aim.
Just because our children are over-examined, it does not necessarily follow that they must therefore be overburdened with knowledge.
That last one really speaks to me.  I often find myself trying to explain to people how it is that our local schools are toxic pressure-cookers and simultaneously not teaching anything.   If the kids are overworked, why are they so undereducated?  It's because the work they do is pointless. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Visitor

An Imperial Moth, hanging out on the screen of our kitchen window.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Skip Counting vs. the Times Tables

When I started teaching Younger Daughter the times tables, she protested that she already knew them -- at least for 2, 3, 4, and 5 -- because she had been taught them at school.  It turns out that what she knew is "skip counting" -- that is, "2, 4, 6, 8, ..." (Back in my day, when we weren't dying of the bubonic plague, we called this "counting by twos.")  But if you asked Younger Daughter what 2 x 3 is, she had to think about it for a while, and the answer she came up with might or might not be correct.  (She's getting better now, after a great deal of work on both of our parts.)

There's nothing wrong with skip counting, and it's a reasonable first step toward learning multiplication.  This is typical of the new "fuzzy math" curricula (Younger Daughter's school uses "TERC Investigations") -- they include some reasonable first steps, but they don't follow through and actually teach the skills and facts you need to know. 

The first unrelated-to-me kid that I tutored had a similar problem with adding fractions.  I was impressed when she knew that 1/2 + 1/4 is 3/4.  When I asked her how she knew this, she drew a little pie illustration.  Again, this is a reasonable first step.  But when I asked her what 2/50 + 1/100 was, she was completely stumped.  That's because Trailblazers doesn't follow through and actually teach the algorithm for adding fractions.

Feh!  The bad news is that the district of Upper Tax Bracket only adopted TERC Investigations a couple of years ago -- it'll take time for any kind of momentum to build against it.  In the meantime, I'm teaching Younger Daughter math at home.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Schoolhouse Rocks!

This summer, I'm determined to teach Younger Daughter the times tables.  To that end, I downloaded a bunch of Schoolhouse Rocks multiplication songs and made a CD to play in the car.

I also downloaded songs teaching the parts of speech.  It's shocking to see what was considered basic elementary-school fare in the 1970's that is now not taught at all.  Just ask your elementary-school (or even middle-school!) kid what a pronoun is.  Go ahead, I dare you.  After she's fixed you with that dead-halibut look, play her this video:

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Drunk Hook-Up: You Call This Progress?

In the NYTimes, Sex On Campus: She Can Play That Game Too.  This was a truly nauseating article, describing workaholic young women at Penn engaged in the hook-up culture.  I have a sinking feeling that some of these young women are the high achievers of the local schools that Older Daughter won't be attending this fall.
As A. explained her schedule, “If I’m sober, I’m working.” 
The hook-up culture is fundamentally a drinking culture:
Women said universally that hookups could not exist without alcohol, because they were for the most part too uncomfortable to pair off with men they did not know well without being drunk.  
How many of these young women are present or future alcoholics?

The headline is just plain wrong; women are not playing the same game that the men do.  It's obnoxious to try to spin this as sexual equality for women, because women's sexual needs are not addressed by hook-ups.  The hook-up is defined by the male orgasm, and it's over when he's been satisfied:
One girl, explaining why her encounters freshman and sophomore year often ended with fellatio, said that usually by the time she got back to a guy’s room, she was starting to sober up and didn’t want to be there anymore, and giving the guy oral sex was an easy way to wrap things up and leave. 
Well, you can see what the guy is getting out of this deal, but what's in it for the girl? 

From a comment by dc lambert, nj:
These students think that life is a series of shallow, meaningless competitions on their race to make the most money and buy the most toys, and the only way to cope is to do drugs and avoid intimate relationships.
How do schools factor into this?  High achieving girls are the ones who constantly strive for the A and the high test score.  They're certainly not encouraged to develop their own inner compass or to ask themselves whether this is the game they want to play.  In a very deep sense, these are girls who can't say no, either to the achievement rat race or to boys.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Adult Happiness = Childhood Conformity?

From today's NYTimes Motherlode column (why do I read this tripe?), Don’t Make Your Children the Exception to Every Rule:
When we look at the research on the childhood precursors of adult well-being – the traits we see in children who go on to become happy adults – we find that the driving factor is childhood conscientiousness, not childhood happiness. Children who are industrious, orderly and have good self-control are more likely than their careless or undisciplined peers to grow into happy adults.
It turns out that adult happiness doesn’t arise from parents bending the rules to a child’s advantage; it comes from children learning the rules and conforming to them.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Progressive or Traditional? More Thoughts

From a comment by Chris on his blog, A Blog About School:
FedUpMom -- I hear you. It's easy to imagine some aspects of "student-centered" education (for example, some efforts at "project-based learning") being an utter waste of students' time. In my opinion, it's easy to imagine aspects of old-fashioned ("sage on the stage"?) education being a total waste of time, too.

Despite all the talk about research-based practices, we don't really know much at all about the long-term effects of any particular curricular approach -- especially since so much of what gets "learned" for hour upon hour in school does not get meaningfully retained in adulthood.

My own feeling (which I don't claim to be able to prove empirically) is that people are more likely to benefit educationally from an experience if they've freely chosen that particular subject matter, and that that free choice is more important than whether the instruction is "traditional" or "progressive." The kid who really wants to learn about the space program is going to learn about the space program, but forcing people to learn something they're not interested in and don't need in their lives is always going to be a low-percentage enterprise. That's one reason I'd be in favor of a curriculum that gives kids a lot of autonomy over what they learn: I think it's less likely to be a total waste of their time.
This is starting to look like the old progressive vs. traditional debate, which I have very mixed feelings about.  Here's my current thoughts:

There are certain skills that I believe any educated person should have, and that I'm determined my daughters will have.  These would include, at the very least, the ability to read and write fluently, and enough fluency with math that they will be able to handle their household finances intelligently (for instance, they'll need to understand what a mortgage would actually cost them, and possibly how to invest money.)  When it comes to these skills, I'm with the traditionalists; my daughters will obtain these skills whether they're genuinely interested or not.  Of course, anything I can do to spark their interest, or at least obtain their co-operation, I'll try to do.

With Younger Daughter, learning to read has been a struggle.  Left to her own devices, it might never have happened.  Of course, we haven't left her to her own devices; we've worked hard with her, and will continue to do so.  I've started working her through some Singapore Math this summer, too, since her school uses TERC Investigations.  (I'm teaching her how to "carry" when she adds numbers; I see from this review of TERC that it "attempts to avoid the concepts of carrying, borrowing, and common denominators.")

Older Daughter has reached the point where the structure of school, namely, being made to produce something, and then getting graded on the produced thing, results in major depression.  So, in her case, I'm getting more progressive all the time.  It's vital that she should have some control over what and how she learns.  Her mental health is at stake.

The PREP class that I teach has the least progressive set-up you can imagine:  the kids are only there because their parents signed them up, and the parents only signed them up because they're compelled to if they want their kids to get confirmed in the Church.  It's a class full of impressed sailors, basically.  In this situation, I feel the best thing I can do is make the class as interesting and engaging as possible.  If the kids get to the end of the class feeling that religion can actually be interesting, and not just a tedious chore, I've done my job. 

So, there you have it; my current mixed feelings about traditionalist vs. progressive education.  My ideal education would combine concern for actual content (from the traditionalists) with the most interesting, engaging, and humane approach possible (from the progressives).  Above all, I hope my daughters' education leaves them interested and eager to learn about their world, with the basic skills to do so.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


PREP class is over for the year, but I'm already thinking about next year.  For next year's conclave, I ran up a couple of prototype miters, here shown expertly modeled by my daughters.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Freedom to Quit

From Peter Gray, The Most Basic Freedom is Freedom to Quit:
Children love to learn, but, like all of us, they hate to be coerced, micromanaged, and continuously judged.  They love to learn in their own ways, not in ways that others force on them.
Well, yes. 

At this point, we're just trying to get Older Daughter through the end of the year at Friends Omphalos with passing grades, so there's no chance she'd have to repeat.  Next year, we'll give homeschooling a shot.  As many people have pointed out to me, we couldn't do any worse than the schools have done.

Monday, May 6, 2013

It Ain't What You Know ...

In the NYTimes, How Social Networks Drive Black Unemployment.

The article describes how people overwhelmingly get hired through favoritism (that is, they get hired because of help from their social network) and this favoritism winds up discriminating against Blacks.

The great Fran Lebowitz pointed out the same phenomenon many years ago in her excellent essay about race:
... not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with.  White people are the playing field.  The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word "advantage" at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that doesn't exist.

It is now common ... to see interviews with up-and-coming young movie stars whose parents or even grandparents were themselves movie stars.  And when the interviewer asks,  "Did you find it an advantage to be the child of a major motion-picture star?" the answer is invariably "Well, it gets you in the door, but after that you've got to perform, you're on your own."  This is ludicrous.  Getting in the door is pretty much the entire game ... That's how advantageous it is to be white.  It's as if all white people were the children of movie stars.  Everyone gets in the door and then all you have to do is perform at a relatively minimal level.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rich Parents Game the System

In the NYTimes, No Rich Child Left Behind.

The article's point, that rich kids have a huge advantage in college applications, is no surprise. The author is, however, clueless as to the cause.  From the article:
The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students.
Well, no.  The academic gap goes way beyond kindergarten.  I live in an affluent area, and what I see is an entire industry geared toward coaching and packaging rich kids to produce good-looking college applications.  Rich kids spend hours with tutors to learn how to write exactly the kind of essay that will score well on the SAT essay section.  They take exactly the kinds of extracurriculars that colleges want to see.  They are coached through every step in the application process.

There's an ongoing myth that rich kids succeed because their parents read them plenty of bedtime stories, teach them a good work ethic, and demonstrate commitment through a stable marriage.   Pshaw!  I say.  Any of those factors might be important, but it's just the beginning of how rich parents push their kids to succeed.

What really toasts my biscuits is the assertion that rich kids get ahead because they're genetically superior, as shown by their high IQs.  Are you kidding me?  These kids are coached for the IQ test!  That's how the gifted program in New York City works.

From the comments (as usual, better than the article):

from AlexJr60 of New York, NY:
Interesting article, but the writer's research obviously didn't include face-to-face interviews with parents of kids in elite private schools in New York and environs. The kids are programmed from dawn to dusk with every conceivable extracurricular coaching that could help them develop the faintest wisp of a talent of any kind. "Quiet Time" is a non-starter. They are trained to compete from the time they are toddlers; they are exposed to bright highly competitive classmates in school and camp and arts courses and language courses and on and on and on. Most of the parents start them on SAT-prep in the tenth grade. The really top preparation coaches earn as much as the kids' shrinks. The $165,000 income level cited, doesn't even come close to what is spent -- closer to that pretax, is the annual tab for a single kid in a private NYC school who goes to summer camp and has the usual lineup of extra help.
from Minerva19 of Rockland:
We have had an SAT prep program open up in our community. It was not until we enrolled our son that I realized just what an advantage the wealthy have. It didn't teach more math or critical thinking. It taught him how to game the test, when to guess, when not to, how to approach each section. He was able to raise his scores 100 points.
 from Lois Kuster of Lynbrook, NY:
One critical factor that increases the standardized test results of wealthy children is outside tutoring. This is not tracked in studies. Private tutoring starts in the early years of school and continues throughout high school. 
and a reply from Eric B. of Oxnard, CA:
Your post is much too kind. "Private tutoring", which evokes images of young people sitting at home with a tutor, studying subjects in general, very often amounts to joining prep courses offered (at high fees) by groups who have discovered what questions will be on entrance tests and asked in interviews, so the three- and four-year-old children of those who can afford these prep courses can jump ahead of other children. Those of us in the lower classes call this cheating. The rich call us resentful of our betters.
 from lizzie848 of nyc:
I live in Manhattan and work with students on their college application essays. I happen to have a sliding scale and work with kids at all income levels, but the affluent students I work with all have SAT tutors, even the very very brightest of them, and their parents are willing to spend upwards of $300 an hour - and sometimes - so I have heard - $1000 an hour - for this kind of tutoring. I heard of one family whose tutor came to the Southampton summer house to work with the child, and was paid $1000 an hour for all of his time there. I heard of one family that spent $250,000 on tutoring for their child over high school.
from Sharon of Leawood, KS:
So if a wealthy family hires a tutor to ensure their child does well on the SAT, how is that demonstrative of a "love of learning and study"? It's demonstrative of an attitude that success must come at any cost. 
from dclambert in NJ:
As a teacher in an inner city school & a private SAT tutor of the wealthy, I see this phenomenon on the ground.

Wealthy families spend a fortune on their children's education & support in ways that would probably shock the middle class.They have tutors for each subject, hw coaches, etc. They invest at least one year in SAT preparation.
The "meritocracy" is a scam.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Through Katharine Beals' blog, Out in Left Field, I am once again thinking about KIPP schools, and trying to clarify my (extremely negative) reaction to them.

In Schools Matter: A Former KIPP Teacher Shares Her Story, I found the following poster, which is apparently common in KIPP schools:

(It's a bit hard to read; here's what it says.  In the first panel, a coach berates a student: "You ! ¿ a ! ".  In the second panel, the student thinks [sic]: "I won't be bad next time I will be better The coach can be mad so what I'll do better next time".   In the third panel, three smiley-type faces are shown with the captions "I feel okay", "I feel very angry!", and "I feel a little sad".  The "I feel okay" smiley has an arrow drawn to it.)

Here, kids are taught that it's OK if they get screamed at by a coach, or, by extension, a teacher, and that they shouldn't get sad or angry about it; they should tell themselves they feel OK and try to do better next time.  The message of the poster is that kids should accept abuse from those in authority.  (Elsewhere in our society, abusive coaches get fired.)

From an interview with a KIPP student in Schools matter: Why Students Call KIPP the Kids in Prison Program:
I had to sit like this. [demonstrates]
It’s called S.L.A.N.T.: Sit straight. Listen. Ask a question. Nod your head. Track. Track is, if the teacher is going that way you have to… [demonstrates] follow… If you didn't do that, they'll yell at you: "You're supposed to be looking at me!" [points to demerit sheet] "No SLANTing." They'll put that on there. 
If I got into an argument with a teacher, I would have to stand outside the classroom on the black line, holding my notebook out. [Stands up and demonstrates, holding arms out] I would have to stand there until they decided to come out. For 20 minutes, 30 minutes, sometimes they’ll forget you’re out there and you’ll be there the whole period –an hour and forty minutes standing. if you have necklaces you have to tuck them away so they can’t see them – or else they’ll have you write four pages of a sentence about KIPP – “I must follow the rules of the KIPP Academy” or “I must not talk” for four pages.
Here's the bottom line for me:  I don't like authoritarian schools.   I don't like schools that tell kids how to sit, what to wear, where they're allowed to look during class,  and how to walk in the hallway. I don't like schools that take over their students' lives through a long school day followed by enormous quantities of homework.

I wouldn't send my own kids to an authoritarian school, and I don't want to support authoritarian schools with my tax dollars.  I don't accept the values they teach, namely total compliance and unquestioning obedience.  I don't really care whether the kids at these schools do better on standardized tests, because the price is too high.  It's not worth higher test scores if children are being trained to accept abuse.

For that matter, I don't like schools that abuse their teachers.  KIPP schools routinely make their teachers work 90 hours a week.  Only young adults with no families of their own can handle the workload.  I've learned through experience that teachers who don't have their own kids are often much less sympathetic and understanding of the child's point of view, but these are the only teachers employed by KIPP.  

We need a humane society.  We can only achieve a humane society by treating all people humanely and with respect. This includes young people, female people, dark-skinned people, people whose first language is not English, employees, and everyone at the bottom of the totem pole.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Few PREP Updates

A few updates from my PREP class:

1.) Regular readers will know my feelings about baseball, and how teachers wrongly assume that it's known and loved by all kids, which isn't true (see especially girls, unathletic kids, and immigrants.) Nevertheless, I found myself playing "Catechism Baseball" with the kids last Sunday. We took the kids outside to the parking lot of our banishment, and drew the bases. When a kid came up "to bat", she would choose "single", "double", "triple" or "home run". I would ask her a question of corresponding difficulty, and if she got it right she would run the corresponding bases; if she got it wrong she was "out", but I allowed her team to try to get the question right, and if the team could answer the question the batter could still run the bases. (This was an attempt to insure that if a question was answered wrong, we would still teach the material.)

What worked: it got everybody outside and moving around in the fresh air. The kids liked it. The different grades of questions meant that the weakest kids had a chance for a hit, and the strongest kids had a chance for a challenge.

What didn't work: the team that was "in the outfield" had nothing to do. We need to either provide some alternate activity for them, or redesign the exercise somehow.

2.) I've been making a whole series of playing-card size cards illustrating various points of doctrine (see above). Sometimes I read the kids a story (for instance, the Passion), and have them put the cards in order depending on the story. If they get the cards in the right order, the letters on the cards spell out a message.

What worked: the kids enjoy it, and I think the exercise of listening to the story and finding the right image helps retention.

What didn't work: I'm amazed at how little time it takes to do this activity, considering the time that went into preparation.

3.) I'm always looking for ways to act out stories, to get the kids interested. For the Wedding at Cana (Jesus' first miracle, where he turned water into wine) I had a pitcher of water and a couple of teapots that I had pre-loaded with red kool-aid. As a demo, I poured water into the teapots, and when the teapots were poured out into cups, the water was red.

What didn't work: I didn't get the "wow!" I was hoping for; I needed younger kids. The 4th graders had it figured out immediately and were not impressed ("You had kool-aid in the teapot! Next!")

What worked: The demo got their attention, and we had a good discussion afterward.

Me: "The Catholic Church uses the story of the wedding at Cana to argue that Jesus approves of certain things. What do you think Jesus approves of because of this miracle?"

Kid (daring): "Wine!"

Me: "Yeah, you're right."

Kid (utterly scandalized): "What?"

Me: "Some churches don't allow any alcoholic drinks, but the Catholic Church has always said that alcohol is allowed, because of the Wedding at Cana."

Next Sunday, we'll act out the Last Judgement, but I think that's a separate post ...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Pleasure of Making Somebody Else Work Hard

In the NyTimes, Rigorous Schools Put College Dreams into Practice.

This is the story of an early college high school that Bard college has opened in Newark.  The early college model has so far been used for elite students who want to get to college-level work quicker; now Bard is trying the same model for disadvantaged kids in Newark.

Why does this article bother me?

1.)  Hard work is not always a good thing.

I love hard work; I could watch it all day.  (Yes, that joke is a million years old, but it's relevant.) 

Schools love to crow about making kids work hard, and most Americans, with our Puritan heritage, find it difficult to criticize work.  As a dissenter, I'm willing to ask:  is the work worth doing?  Is it well-designed, so the students actually learn something by engaging in it?

And even in a perfect universe, where the curriculum is well-designed and appropriate, and the assignments are useful and interesting, there is still such a thing as too much.  There are only so many hours in a day, and human beings are only capable of so much scholarly work at a time.  Are we burning kids out?  What do they no longer have time for because of the workload?

I find an uncomfortable undercurrent of racism when a white reporter tells mostly white readers about black kids working hard.  This is the population, of course, that white people like to criticize as "lazy", going all the way back to the days of slavery (gee, maybe people are less motivated to work when they're paid absolutely nothing.)    

2.)  Learning is necessarily sequential.

From the article:
Gone is the thinking that students must master all the basics before taking on more challenging work.
The article describes under-prepared kids struggling through an essay called "Post-Modernism is the New Black".  The kids don't understand words like "phenomenon" or "sinister", and don't know what "Auschwitz" refers to.  It's just too much to ask anyone to simultaneously remember the meaning of a half-dozen complex words she's never seen before and also engage in a debate using the new words.

Learning is sequential, and you can't skip steps and expect good results.
I see this in my own experience teaching kids math in an after-school program in Philadelphia.  One of the kids I regularly teach is in 8th-grade algebra.  She's a good kid; hard-working and eager.  But it is almost criminal to put her in an algebra class and assign homework where she's expected to work out problems comparing weekly pay.  She looks at "2 + 3n" and adds it to "5n".   She can't reliably work with fractions or decimals or the distributive property.  I spent almost an hour a couple of weeks ago showing her how to add 2-digit numbers, and why it works to "carry" the 10s to the next place. 

It's as if you threw me into a 3d year Polish class.  How hard would I have to work to get anywhere at all?   Wouldn't it be more fruitful to start me out in first-year Polish?

For that matter, why is it universally accepted as a good thing that kids should do college-level work in high school?  

3.)  It's all a scam.

The economy is a mess, and middle-class jobs are disappearing.   But here we are tantalizing under-privileged kids with the prospect of a college degree and a good job.  How many of these kids will make it through college?  If they get a college degree, how many will be able to find jobs?  If we don't fix the economy, we're not doing these kids any favors.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

I was inspired by RetroRuth of MidCenturyMenu (terrific blog) to make a lamb cake.  The results were pretty adorable if I do say so myself.

Older Daughter named the lamb "Bartholomew".

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Video!

I just finished my first-ever video, showing the process of my latest painting! Take a look!
The music is by Nino Rota, from the movie "Roma", by Federico Fellini.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Adderall in College

Today in the NYTimes, an article by Roger Cohen called The Competition Drug.

I liked this comment:

Donald Seekins
Waipahu HI

When I lived in Hong Kong in 1970, someone told me that most local Chinese who took opium didn't do so to visit La-la Land (like Coleridge) but to dull the pain of bodies that were physically run down by back-breaking labor. To solve the opium problem, workers didn't need sermons on living a clean life but better working conditions. I think much the same is true of Adderall. We drive students to take this and other drugs through insane academic competition. We tell young people they should work hard to get good grades, pulling all-nighters, but we don't educate them to understand that going to an elite college is not worth ruining their physical and mental health. Use of Adderall will go down drastically when the high stakes of the academic rat-race are replaced by more intelligent and sane standards.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is Teaching?

Chris at A Blog About School has been asking the question "What is Teaching?"

Here's what teaching seems to mean to too many of the teachers I've encountered.  I'll express it as a loop (for non-programmers, the steps in the loop will be repeated as long as the condition after "while" remains true):
while (the sun rises in the East) {
make the kids do something;
judge their performance.
Of these two steps, "judge their performance" is the most important. A teacher's job is to grade the students' performance; a student's job is to acquire good grades.

One of the causes of Older Daughter's depression is the constant grading at Friends Omphalos. For instance, Older Daughter's English teacher wants the kids to bring the book they're discussing to class, so he compels the behavior by giving the kids a grade, worth as much as a quiz, depending on whether they remembered to bring the book. Older Daughter, of course, forgets to bring her book and loses a quiz grade. As a "generous" gesture, the teacher says she can get most of the points back if she remembers her book next time.

Last year, her Science teacher had the kids make a web page as a project. He designed an elaborate rubric giving points for every aspect of the project; one that I remember is the kids could get a certain number of points for having a good picture on the page. This teaches neither science nor web design, but it does generate grades.

The constant grading ensures that the student experiences school as an unrelenting stream of demands made by those in authority over her, followed by constant judgement of how well she fulfilled their demands by their often opaque and unpredictable standards.

It's as if your boss told you to dance the tango and then docked your pay when you flubbed it.

What does any of this have to do with learning?

Friday, February 22, 2013

A. A. Gill on Tweed

From Previous Convictions, by A. A. Gill. The chapter is "Shooting". (For the Brits, "hunting" is performed while riding a horse (e.g., fox-hunting), while "shooting" is performed without a horse.)
Shooting clobber is that peculiarly English thing: studied, posed, rubbish. ... Every single bit of shooting kit should look like it has been put on in the dark by a depressed Method actor. To look this ridiculously ghastly takes great application, and just in case you're ever caught out by an invitation to shoot stupid birds in England, here's a tip: the central mystery of shooting is not skill — nobody gives a fig whether you can shoot or not as long as you don't kill someone who was at school with your father. And it's certainly nothing to do with food or hunter-gathering, or love of fresh air, or nature, exercise, or, heaven forbid, male bonding. Male bonding is one of the things Englishmen carry guns to deter.
The central mystery, the core belief of shooting, is tweed ... Compared with the lightweight, temperature-controlled, breathable, waterproof, utilitarian, stylish and comfortable materials readily available for all sorts of outdoor fun and games these days, tweed is antediluvian lunacy; it's like wearing thatch.
Englishmen will tell you with tears in their eyes that because it works for sheep and their grandfathers, tweed is unimprovable. This is a hairy, ignorant lie. ...
First and last, tweed is hellishly uncomfortable ... It's invariably far too hot, except for those mornings when it's bloody freezing. An Englishman claims tweed is magically water repellent. It's not. It's water absorbent — not the same thing. And as shooting takes place in the Arctic monsoon season, it gets an awful lot to absorb. A decent tweed jacket can suck up three times its own weight in liquid and then retain it like a miserly camel. It will also smell like a miserly camel. ...
Ideally a tweed should be inherited. You should wear your father's or the remnants of your grandfather's. There is no such thing as tweed that fits — it just sags. There is, though, one big plus with tweed; the cleaning. It's very simple. You can't do it. You can't dry-clean tweed, because it turns into chipboard; you can't put it into a washing machine, because it morphs into a dinosaur's fur ball. The recommended method for cleaning tweed — and I'm not making this up — is to "lay it in a cold bath and then dry it flat." Well, I'm sorry, but what in all creation was ever cleaned by being laid in a cold bath? And it would take eighteen months to dry out laid flat.
... The English also make their keepers, beaters, pickers-up, flagmen and stops (all servants) dress up in tweed, like extras and suspects from an Agatha Christie mystery. ... Shoot servants all have to wear the same pattern so they trundle around the heather and the bracken looking like a game of hide-and-seek played by scatter cushions.

The New Rat Race

From a comment on the NYTimes article Not Just a 'Feminine Mystique': (as usual, the comments are better than the article):
Cheryl of Huston:

My cry of rage would be, "Why did it all become such a huge rat race?"

When I grew up (I am 48), my father's one job, with regular hours (home by 5), provided health insurance, enough income for a comfortable, middle-class life for a family of 5 and for retirement.

Meanwhile, my mom went to college as an adult at a good state university. It cost a few hundred dollars a semester. Even then, that was no big deal.

There was enough time for them to be with their kids and to hang out with extended family. They renovated houses, made art, participated in local government, grew extensive gardens, even kept bees as hobbies.

There was no angst in our house about where we kids would go to school. We went to the local public schools, where the teachers were not overwhelmed by huge class sizes and where they did not grade using rubrics. I remember getting papers back where it seemed like they had written more in commentary than I had written in the paper itself.

And getting ready for college? I didn't worry about grades, I wasn't inundated with homework, it never occurred to me to participate in an extracurricular because it would look good. In fact, my friends and I all had part-time jobs strictly so we could have walking-around money. I walked into the SAT cold, without having taking any kind of test prep, and took it once. I submitted all my applications myself. This got me into a great college.

Why is everything so hard now?

Friday, February 8, 2013

No Feedback Loop

One of the biggest problems I see in schools today is the complete lack of any meaningful feedback loop. Schools and teachers do their thing, and they have some result; but there's no effort to correlate what the teachers do with the result they have, and then change what they do in an effort to get closer to the desired result.

For instance, the teachers might assign reading logs, and the result is that kids hate reading. Surely that indicates it's time to try something new? Apparently not, because no matter how many parents might tell them so, the teachers simply refuse to believe that their actions have the result they actually have, rather than the result teachers want them to have ("the kids will learn time management skills!")

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A. A. Gill on School

from Schools Are Ruining Our Kids, by A. A. Gill:
In the 100 years since we really got serious about education as a universally good idea, we’ve managed to take the 15 years of children’s lives that should be the most carefree, inquisitive, and memorable and fill them with a motley collection of stress and a neurotic fear of failure.

... Childhood is a war of attrition, like some grisly TV game show where the weak and the kind and the quixotic and the dreamers and the gentle get dumped at the end of each year. Only the gimlet-eyed and the obsessively competitive and the driven make it to the finish line.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pointless Labor

The Nazis used to harass their prisoners of war by forcing them to move a large pile of rocks from one side of the exercise yard to the other, and then back again.  They understood how demoralizing it is to spend your days in pointless labor.

I am reminded of this watching my Older Daughter go through freshman year of high school.  So much of what she's asked to do is demonstrably pointless. 

In English, they read a book and then "analyze it to death", as she says.  They have to write essays about the books, but the process is drawn out step by step, every step analyzed and critiqued, either by the teacher or by other students.  The formula is so confining and unnatural that it's just about impossible to learn how to convey your thoughts on paper.  They aren't her thoughts any more after they've been extensively critiqued, and she can't convey them clearly and fulfill the teacher's formula at the same time.

In History, which is allegedly World History this year, they're doing some bizarre role-play of conflict resolution.  It's been going on for weeks.   OD is supposed to be writing up her notes on the process, but she's highly resistant.

And her teachers wonder why she's depressed!  The only way to get through this without depression is not to care whether your efforts have any larger purpose, or to accept that their sole purpose is to produce a transcript that might get you in to an exclusive college.

We're dragging OD through freshman year "like a thorn through a fleece", as the Yiddish saying goes.   Enough already. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Another Dispiriting Meeting

Today I had a little conference at Friends Omphalos with the Co-Head of the Upper School and the Dean of Students.  Let's call them Ms. Co-Head and Mr. Dean.

The take-away message is that they would like Older Daughter to be happy, but they're not willing to actually change anything.  They can't even imagine what might be changed or how anyone could go about changing it. 

I kept coming back to what I feel is the central problem, even more basic than the homework load:  OD isn't engaged in the classes she's taking.  This problem is especially acute in English and History, which ought to be interesting for a bright, verbal kid.  Not to put words in their mouths, but the look on Ms. Co-Head and Mr. Dean's faces seemed to say:  "You mean somebody might be interested in English or History?"

One very revealing moment was when Ms. Co-Head remarked that her own daughter attends Friends Omphalos and likes it, but "it's not about the classes for her."  So, the kid who does well is the one who enjoys the social scene and maybe some of the extras like sports or orchestra, and is willing to do what's necessary to get through the classes.  You call this education?

Sigh.  One step closer to home-schooling, I'd say.