Monday, December 31, 2012

What Language Delay Sounds Like

This morning Younger Daughter remarked:
"they were dissing appear."
Of course, she meant they were disappearing.

And she still says "she was wearing her new frog!"

Why is language such a struggle for YD?

Older Daughter's theory:  "YD loves to talk, but she doesn't have a passion for listening."

Happy New Year!

(I took this photo of hooded mergansers today at our local duck pond.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One Burnt-Out Teenager

Recent e-mail from Sainted Husband and my Fed-up self to Friends Omphalos:
Dear Teachers--

We're writing because we're concerned about our daughter OD, who is in the 9th grade at Friends Omphalos.  OD is burnt out.  She is very unhappy about school; she feels it's a treadmill she can't get off.  She worries about homework all the time.  Her sleep schedule is a wreck; she gets almost no sleep during the week and then has marathon sleeping sessions over the weekend.   Sometimes OD feels she doesn't understand what the teachers want, which makes her anxious and causes her to procrastinate.   Then she gets into a loop where she isn't getting the work done, but she can't relax either.

If she could at least have weekends and vacations free of homework, she might have a chance to unwind.   This weekend, for instance, she had two hours worth of math homework alone.  There was homework for other classes as well, but she didn't get to it, partly because we were busy and didn't have a chance to walk her through it.

Frankly, we're considering homeschooling.  If we can't find a way for OD to be happy while attending Friends Omphalos, it makes no sense to keep her there.  We need to find a way--soon--for OD to be happy and learning productively at Friends Omphalos, at least for the rest of this year.

Please get back to us about this as soon as you can. Thanks very much. 
and one teacher's reply:
Thank you for your email and for the information about how OD is feeling.  I think she's having the experience that many of our 9th graders have in trying to adjust to the differences between middle school and upper school.  The workload is heavier and learning how to manage it takes time.
The best thing for OD to do if she is feeling overwhelmed is to make appointment with her teachers to talk about things and get some guidance from them.  Sometimes students need help in learning how to approach homework or how to study for a particular subject.  I'm always happy to speak with OD about any questions or concerns she has.

I certainly will not be assigning any homework over winter break.  I'm a firm believer that break is for break.  I can't say the same is true for weekends, although our policy is that students should not have more than 40 minutes of homework per subject each night the class meets (all classes have one skip day in our schedule where no homework in that subject should be assigned). 

I enjoy having OD in class and certainly want her to have a positive experience here.  I'm happy to do what I can to help that happen.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


My previous post brought up the subject of hand-holding and the problem of students who want or expect to be walked through their assignments.

In our own household, I confess we do a great deal of hand-holding, especially with Older Daughter (now in her first year of high school at Friends Omphalos.)  She needs a lot of help to get through her assignments, which often look like this:  "Here's a whole bunch of material.  Figure it out."  Typically, she has no idea how to begin these projects, and the prospect fills her with dread and anxiety.

When Older Daughter was younger, she made a bunch of claymation videos.  Did I hold her hand?  Not a bit of it -- I got her some modelling clay, lent her my camera and tripod, and let her have at it.  Did we have to hold her hand to get her to read Harry Potter, or watch Doctor Who?  No.

It seems to me the missing link is intrinsic motivation.  If Older Daughter is genuinely interested in something, she tackles it head-on, no problem.  If it's an assignment from school, designed and imposed by the teacher, with the looming threat of grades, she balks at the starting gate.

Teachers need to recognize the powerful demotivating effects of assignments and grades.  It's not reasonable to ask students to behave as if they're intrinsically motivated while you're wielding the grade book.

As Alfie Kohn, whom I agree with sometimes, says here:  Education's Rotten Apples:
Grades almost always have a detrimental effect on how well students learn and how interested they are in the topic they're learning.
I count myself lucky that in both my teaching efforts this year, tutoring math and teaching catechism class, I don't give grades.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Figure it out for Yourself!

 From a comment by a college teacher on Chris' blog, A Blog About School:
I am finishing my semester with my college students and one of their last assignments is to create a video on an assigned topic; they work in groups of five or six. Today, as they prepared to premiere the videos in class, one student said, "You know, none of us knew how to use iMovie so most of what we did we just kind of figured out by horsing around with it."

Over the years, I endured bad teaching evaluations (done at the end of the semester by all students in every class) because students write that I am too "vague" and don't give good directions on assignments. I give good directions. What I don't do is tell them how to do assignments. So, for example, the instructions or prompt for the videos are complete; they are thought-provoking; they offer guidance. What they do NOT do is explain how to begin a project on iMovie; which buttons to select for each aspect of editing; and how to export the movie to Youtube. I do implore them to begin early and allot ample time for editing.

When the student made that comment in class, I said that I believe that we in education have taken away all sense of learning by exploration and an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.

Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.
I'm sure this teacher means well, but she's putting her students in an impossible position.  The students are looking for the quickest, most efficient way to complete the assignment and get a good grade.  "Horsing around" with the problem of how to get started is not a reasonable use of their time.
an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.
You can't "challenge" or "force" someone to embrace curiosity; it just doesn't work that way.  The teacher is correct to sense that there is a basic contradiction between telling students to embrace their curiosity and grading them.      
Approaches like this beg the question, "What is a teacher for?"  If she isn't there to share her knowledge, why is she there at all?  You might as well save her salary and just put the students in a room and tell them to figure it out.   

I would add that the topics the teacher wants her students to figure out for themselves, e.g. "how to begin a project on iMovie", are not even the creative aspect of the job.  Why not show the students how to start the project and which buttons create which editing effect, and then let them use their creative impulses in the actual making of the movie?
 Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.
It's time to change your teaching methods.  These are terrible results.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chalk Drawings II

[This is part of an ongoing series about a PREP (catechism) class that I'm co-teaching.]

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, so we celebrated with our second round of chalk drawings.  In the course of a truly ridiculous exchange of e-mails with the parish director I was never expressly given permission to do this, but I was never expressly forbidden either, so we went ahead.  We put the drawings in carefully chosen spots just outside the church, where people could see them but they wouldn't obstruct traffic.  The results were pretty terrific if I do say so myself, especially the above angel.

We also did symbols of the four evangelists (partly so I could point to "instructional content", if challenged):

It's Supposed to Make Sense

After another difficult session trying to teach math to the French-speaking African kids, I've realized there's a very basic problem. They don't get the concept that math is supposed to make sense. For them, it's like memorizing the Koran in Arabic if you don't speak Arabic. It's completely rote. Their goal is to memorize what the teacher did and try to spit it back to the teacher's satisfaction.

How do I get them to the point where they see it all fit together? I'm still trying to teach them about fractions. I've told them several times that any number divided by itself is 1, but I'm not at all confident that they can apply that consistently. I tried to explain to them that 1/2 is the same as 2/4, and I don't think they got that either.

Since they don't expect anything to make sense, I can't use the teaching technique that I'm used to, namely getting them solid on one concept and then helping them to tease out the next step. They don't know what it feels like to figure something out for themselves.

Next class, I'll bring a bunch of unifix cubes. That way, I can walk them through 1/2 versus 2/4, and if they can hold and see the cubes, maybe some light will dawn.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Finding Out What the Words Mean

Yesterday I helped out in a program I heard about from Katharine Beals (of Out in Left Field.) It's an after-school tutoring project founded by a man from the Ivory Coast, who aims to help other French-speaking African immigrants educate their children.

At the end of the 2 hours, there's some time to help the kids with their homework. I sat with one 6th-grader who pulled out a vocabulary list. Each teacher (math, science, social studies, reading) assigns five words; every Friday the kids take a test where they're given the definitions and have to write the appropriate words.

It was clear to me that the definitions given were way over the head of an average sixth grader. For instance, the definition for "sequence" was something like "a list of elements corresponding to the natural numbers with predetermined order" (I don't remember it exactly -- I'm just trying to reproduce the level of difficulty.)

Me: "Do you know what a sequence is? Have you ever seen one?"

Kid: "No."

I wrote the numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and asked her what the next number would be. She said "9".

Me: "That's an example of a sequence."

Kid (brightly): "Maybe if I find out what the words mean, I could get extra credit!"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Learning to Take Tests

Two recent articles in the NYTimes caught my eye:

After Number of Gifted Soars, a Fight for Kindergarten Slots

and A New Kind of Tutoring Aims to Make Students Smarter.

The first article reports that nearly 5,000 children qualified as "gifted" in New York City this fall, more than double the number only 4 years ago.  It is now routine to prep 4-year-olds for the tests that bring this coveted label.

The second article reports on a booming new tutoring scheme, that aims to raise kids' performance on IQ tests. 

This is what education has become in our country.  It's all test prep, all the time.  It's not about inquiry or experiment or developing real interests or even about learning any particular subject matter.  It's about getting a good score on the test.  What the test measures is hardly even discussed; once a test is out there, the race is on for a good score.  

Education has become a kind of sport.  It's all about competition; sorting winners from losers.

Anyone who truly cares about learning is out of luck. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Forgetting to Die

From the NYTimes, The Island Where People Forget to Die.  The article profiles the Greek island of Ikaria, where people routinely live in good health into their 90's.

The usual suspects of diet (olive oil, veggies, wine) and exercise (constant walking up and down hills) are mentioned, but the one that interests me is the low stress level.  The Ikarians get plenty of sleep and have strong social networks.  Nobody is rich but everyone has enough.

The contrast couldn't be much plainer to our own society.  We have reached toxic levels of stress, and increasingly, we download our stress onto our children.  School is one of the biggest stressors of all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


[This is part of a series about a catechism (PREP) class that I'm co-teaching.]

Last Sunday, one of the boys showed up wearing a shirt with a big skull and crossbones on the front.

Me:  "That's a Catholic symbol!"

Kid:  "What?  ... no, it isn't!"

I figured this was what they call in the trade a "teachable moment", so at the beginning of class I called him up to show everyone his shirt.  I drew a crucifix on the board with a traditional skull and crossbones at the base, and asked the kids, "Whose skull is it?"  Legend has it that it's Adam's skull (because Christ was called "the new Adam").

Me:  "What did Adam do?"

Kid:  "He died!"

I was about to say, "Hey, you're right!" when I realized that this particular kid always gives this answer, no matter the question.  It's remarkable how many times he's been right.

Then I did some review about Α and Ω, after discovering that the kids didn't remember what I thought I had taught them about it last week; a good reminder to me about the possible gulf between teaching and learning.

Moving along, the big focus was "the Liturgical Year", for which my co-teacher organized the kids into a parade, holding banners of their own making, representing the different segments of the year.  I thought this went quite well.

Next week, my co-teacher will be out of town, so I'm dragging Sainted Husband in to co-teach.  We'll introduce the Ten Commandments, with a focus on iconoclasm, which is a particular interest of mine.  I figure if I'm interested in a subject, I might be able to get the kids interested, whereas if I'm not interested, there's no way I can get the kids interested. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Frog

The other day Younger Daughter was watching an old Downton Abbey episode.  (Yes, I've gotten her into it.)  She said:

YD:  "I like this scene, where Sybil walks down the stairs wearing her new frog."

Me (thinking hard):  "What?  ... It's not a frog, honey, it's a frock.  It's just another word for a dress."

YD:  "Oh, frock, OK ... actually, I was wondering why she would wear a new frog."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Second Chances and Extra Credit

In both of my kids' schools, teachers make an effort to allow extra credit and retakes so kids can build back up from a disappointing grade. This sounds like a good idea in theory, but in practice, it doesn't work out, at least for my kids.

Last year, Older Daughter had a science teacher at Friends Omphalos who was proud of all the opportunities he gives his students to amass extra credit.  For Older Daughter, it just looked like more work when she was already overwhelmed by the workload.  She isn't that motivated by grades and credit in any case.  She never did any extra credit work, much to the teacher's surprise.

Younger Daughter had a geography test at the beginning of this year (3d grade) that she flunked.  Looking at it, I was actually surprised that she had the patience to complete the test -- it was quite long.  You could see that at a certain point she just gave up and started writing anything at all so she could say it was done.  Surely she doesn't actually believe that the direction between North and West is called "eastSouth"?

The teacher tried to give YD a chance to re-take the test, on the grounds that it would boost her confidence to do better, but YD refused.  She also refused to study geography more at home.  She'd rather just forget it ever happened.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Parents and Kids

From the late, great George Carlin.  CAUTION -- adult language!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Chalk Drawings

[This is part of a series about a catechism (PREP) class that I'm co-teaching.]

On Saturday afternoon Older Daughter and I went out to the school parking lot of our banishment (see previous post), and drew outlines for the kids to fill in:

This morning we took the kids out with a big bag full of chalk.  I explained the symbolism of the drawings, and they got to work.  Here are some results:

That last one is the monogram of Mary; the young artist added her own monogram at the top! (I cropped it for privacy.)

Once the kids got started, they worked fast; the project was completed way before the hour was up.  The kids decided to draw a huge cross, which they filled in with glow-in-the-dark chalk:

We had issued a blanket invitation to the parents to come to the class; one mother showed up.  I talked to her after class. She said she appreciated that we were trying to "liven things up."  She reports that she has a sister who teaches catechism, and the kids love it.  The sister says the book we're using isn't much good.  I agree!  The Mom promised to send a copy of the book her sister uses with her son next week.  I'm curious to see what it is.  I asked the Mom to see if her sister has any tips or suggestions for us.  I'm rapidly running out of bright ideas ...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Drugged Children

In the New York Times today, a disturbing look at the use of ADHD meds to boost the performance of struggling students.
Quintn began taking Adderall for A.D.H.D. about five years ago, when his disruptive school behavior led to calls home and in-school suspensions. He immediately settled down and became a more earnest, attentive student — a little bit more like Perry, who also took Adderall for his A.D.H.D.

When puberty’s chemical maelstrom began at about 10, though, Quintn got into fights at school because, he said, other children were insulting his mother. The problem was, they were not; Quintn was seeing people and hearing voices that were not there, a rare but recognized side effect of Adderall. After Quintn admitted to being suicidal, Dr. Anderson prescribed a week in a local psychiatric hospital, and a switch to Risperdal.
Words fail me.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Word Poverty

In the New York Times, an interesting look at "word poverty", and how it influences the all-important test scores.

Blood of the Lamb

[This is part of a series about a catechism (PREP) class that I'm co-teaching.]

My latest light bulb over the head was that I should arrange to do chalk drawings with the kids. We could talk about iconography, and put chalk drawings on the pavement around the church, to be enjoyed by people attending Mass. I wasn't born yesterday, so I knew the first step would be to get permission from everyone who could possibly be in a position to grant it.

Henry Kissinger famously remarked that the reason academic politics are so vicious is because the stakes are so low. Well, the stakes don't get much lower than parish religious education, at least in terms of status or money. My request for permission immediately revealed an ongoing turf war between the director of PREP and the Principal of the parish school.

My co-teacher suggested I bypass everyone and go directly to the pastor and get his permission. Our pastor is a very sweet man; I'll call him Father Magnanimous. In our discussion, it became crystal clear that he doesn't have the foggiest notion what's going on in the PREP program, or what's in the curriculum. For instance, he said that "of course" the kids would all know Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd ..."). I would bet legal tender these kids wouldn't know Psalm 23 if it walked up and bit them in the ear.

But the part of our discussion that I remember best went like this:

Fr. Magnanimous: "Your role as catechist is to serve as a model of charity [i.e., perfect love]."

My thought balloon: "wow, I'm even less qualified for this job than I thought."

What I said: "I'd better bring more than that, or the kids will start a riot."

In the end, Fr. Magnanimous gave his permission, but said he'd have to check with the business director.

Next, I got an e-mail from the director of PREP (let's call her "Ms. Charge"), explaining that she had consulted with the parish business director and the parish director (let's call her "Attila the Nun"), and they were concerned that people might walk on the chalk drawings and track chalk into the church, the kids might make noise, etc. Their counteroffer was that we could draw on a remote portion of the parking lot, and that Ms. Charge could bring her personal collection of religious objects to show to the class.

We said OK to the terms of the counteroffer on the theory that we might as well take what we can get. Ms. Charge came to our class this morning and showed the kids her collection; miniatures of items used for saying Mass, a priest's traveling kit, icons, rosaries, etc. This went extremely well. The kids were interested, and glad of the chance to get up out of their seats and look at and handle the various objects.

I'm hoping to draw symbolic animals for the chalk drawings, so I introduced the symbols of the dove and the lamb.  I showed a couple of videos containing doves behaving unpredictably;

Next, we talked about the lamb.  I told them about the use of lambs for a sacrifice; this got a little graphic.

Kid (sardonically): "that's pleasant!"

"It's not pretty", I said.  That's why their curriculum never mentions it.  But if you don't know that lambs got sacrificed, you don't know why Jesus was called the Lamb of God.  It wasn't because of his sweet fluffiness, that's for sure.

I wanted to tell the kids about the Sacrifice of the Mass, part of the dark, mystical, difficult tradition of the Catholic Church, or what I consider the good stuff.

Me:  "does the Church still perform sacrifices today?"

Kids:  "No!"

Me: "Actually, the Church performs sacrifices every day, many times a day."

Kid (raising hand):  " ... but where do they get all the lambs?"

I told them that the Mass is both a sacrifice and a banquet; an important if mind-boggling point.

We still had a few minutes left, so I had time for this:

Me: "So I talked to Fr. Magnanimous earlier this week. He says my job is to serve as a model of charity. Charity is the highest form of love, higher than romantic love. It's the kind of love that God has; it's the kind of love that God is. Do you think it would be easy for me to be a model of charity?"

Kids and co-teacher, as one: "No!"

Me: "I think it's practically impossible."

And with that, the class ended. Next week, chalk drawings, I hope!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Second Step?

Younger Daughter's school is going to use a program called "Second Step". Here's the blurb the school sent out:
We want your child to be as successful as possible at school. Success in school is not just about reading and math. It is also about knowing how to learn and how to get along with others. We will be using the Second Step program in your child’s classroom to teach these critical skills.

The Second Step program teaches skills in the following four areas:

1. Skills for Learning: Students gain skills to help themselves learn, including how to focus their attention, listen carefully, use self-talk to stay on task, and be assertive when asking for help with schoolwork.

2. Empathy: Students learn to identify and understand their own and others’ feelings. Students also learn how to take another’s perspective and how to show compassion.

3. Emotion Management: Students learn specific skills for calming down when experiencing strong feelings, such as anxiety or anger.

4. Problem Solving: Students learn a process for solving problems with others in a positive way.

Your child will be learning a lot this year—and he or she will need your help! Throughout the year, your child will be bringing home Home Links that go with several of the Second Step lessons. Home Links are simple, fun activities for you and your child to complete together. They are a great way for you to understand what your child is learning and for your child to show you what he or she knows.

If you have any questions about the Second Step program, please do not hesitate to contact Mrs. Counselor for more information. Thank you for supporting your child in learning the skills that leads to success in school and in life.

Readers: do you have any experience with this program? Is it good, bad, or indifferent?

Sigh. I'm tired of the canned programs. Can't our teachers come up with their own plans?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

For my sins

In teaching catechism (PREP), I've been getting an effect which is, I'm sure, familiar to any teacher. I would ask the class a question, and the same 5 kids would raise their hands; 3 because they knew the answer, and the other 2 because they like to talk. Meanwhile, the other 15 kids stared vacantly into space.

So, I'm looking for ways to get every kid involved. Last Sunday, I wanted to show the kids how the Church's ideas about penance have changed, so I looked through a bunch of medieval penitentials, and took a couple of examples from history. Then I printed up the sins and penances separately, handed them out to the class, and asked them to match the sin to the penance. The idea was that the kid who got

If a King encourages his friends to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury,
would find a match with the kid who got
he should be publicly flogged at the Archbishop's tomb.
and the kid who got
If anyone steal a thing of middling value,
would find a match with the kid who got
he is to return the stolen object to him who owns it and fast 1 year on bread and water.
Once the kids caught on to the idea, they found the matches quickly; quicker than I had anticipated (it's a bright class.) At that point I stared vacantly into space. Fortunately my co-teacher had printed up a bunch of word searches, where you read a definition and then find the word, out of the book.

Here we encountered an ongoing problem. The textbook has lots of definitions (that's about what it's got for content), but they're so squishy and peculiar that they don't line up with English as spoken by the rest of us. My co-teacher, for instance, got two of the textbook's definitions reversed, and I didn't blame her. What word do you think is defined by "the freedom that comes from trusting God and respecting all people"?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Neuroscientists on Whole Brain Teaching

From (thanks, Another Hole Brain Director!)
NORTH CANTON: When Chris Biffle called out the word “Class!” Wednesday morning at Walsh University, 450 teachers and administrators yelled back, “Yes!”

“Class class?” he said.

“Yes! Yes!” they replied.

“Classity classity,” he said.

“Yessity yessity,” they chanted back.

The method might be fun, engaging and popular, judging by teacher testimonials and company-conducted polls.

But the techniques are not validated by contemporary brain research, according to two experts in the relationship between neuroscience and education who reviewed the claims for the Akron Beacon Journal.

“Nothing I see here indicates that there is any neuroscientific backing for anything they’re suggesting,” said Dan Willingham, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Virginia.

The Beacon Journal also asked David Daniel, managing editor of the peer-reviewed science journal Mind, Brain and Education to examine the research page at

“I think he has these ideas that may or may not work, and he’s using brain stuff to market them,” said Daniel, a psychology professor at James Madison University. “The brain stuff on the web page is very cursory, very shallow. That could be just his way of communicating or it could be his level of understanding. Either way, it’s misleading.”

Jeff Battle, a middle school science teacher in North Carolina who says he keeps current on brain research for the company, said teachers aren’t bound by the same level of scientific rigor as neuroscientists.

“I’m not going to give a Ph.D.-level dissertation to a kindergarten teacher who wants to have a vague idea of why this is working so they can explain it if they need to,” Battle said. “We’re not pure science, we’re practitioners who are applying what we’ve learned so far.”

But, Daniel said, when educators misrepresent the science, they make it harder for researchers who are struggling to translate neuroscience into something teachers can reliably use in the classroom.

“It drowns out the softer voice of what’s credible. That’s what’s harmful,” Daniel said. “There are people doing really good work who, if they had a chance, would love to be helping teachers. But they’re getting drowned out by people who are better at marketing, better at speaking and better at selling.”

Notice the completely patronizing tone Jeff Battle takes about kindergarten teachers, as if it's their fault that he's peddling pseudo-scientific crap. Give me a break!

Monday, September 24, 2012

De-emphasizing Grades

Via NPR, here's an interesting interview with a former President of Reed College, Colin Diver.

Diver discusses his efforts to de-emphasize grades and promote the goal of learning for its own sake (there's a radical notion!) Teachers were required to give extensive feedback that did not include grades. The school as an institution withdrew from the college ranking system, so as to prevent the grading game on the larger scale.

Two-thirds of the students at Reed didn't know their GPA.

I think one of the worst aspects of education today is the universal grade-grubbing and credentialism. It's almost impossible for a kid to develop a sincere interest in learning in this toxic environment.

The Honeymoon is Over

Well, this was bound to happen. After a very successful first 2 classes of PREP (catechism), yesterday was a mess. The kids were rowdy even during the little pre-class gathering, and it just got worse once we were in the classroom.

The most enthusiastic response I got was when I inadvertently opened the window at the same moment that a skunk sprayed a dog just outside. Otherwise, the kids were very difficult to engage. A bit of dialogue from the day's proceedings:

Me: "The Church names its councils after the place where the council was held. So, where was the Council of Trent held?"

Kid (shrugging): "I'a'know."

It was like pulling teeth.

The kids were moderately interested in acting out a skit about the good Samaritan that my co-teacher organized. Also, they liked a couple of video clips I brought in; one, a very funny confession scene from a Britcom called "My Family", and the other, historic footage of the election of Pope John Paul I (the one who died after 33 days, possibly poisoned.)

Sigh. Soldiering on to next week --

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Conclave

This school year, I've joined up with a friend of mine to team-teach 4th-grade catechism class at our Catholic church.

Before our first class, we obtained the year's textbook. It stinks. It's all disconnected bits of factoids, word search puzzles, match the word with the definition, dumbed-down, sanitized, dull dull dull. The layout looks like somebody's design program barfed on the page. Yes, our curriculum is the Everyday Math of religious ed. We've even got the dreaded "spiral" effect: as my friend discovered this week, "they've done the Beatitudes for the past 3 years, and they don't know anything about them!"

My friend and I agreed that we could get through the assigned content of a chapter in about 10 minutes, so that leaves us 45 minutes a week to do something else.

I decided that we should try to teach the kids some history in our remaining time. The first week, I presented a brief wrap-up of Vatican II, with the line-up of recent popes. I threw out what I thought was a softball question:

Me: "Who elects the Pope?"

Kid 1: "We do!"

Kid 2: "Priests! ... um, catechists!"

Kid 3 (confused): "I thought we elected Obama ...?"

Her friend: "No, he's the President!"

After some discussion, I explained that the Pope is elected by the Cardinals, who were appointed by previous Popes. The kids were surprised. One asked, "if the Pope appoints the Cardinals and the Cardinals elect the Pope, how did we get the first Pope?" (Excellent question, I thought.) My friend said, "Next week, we're electing a Pope!"

So, yesterday we held a Conclave. I was really hoping we could burn ballots and produce black and white smoke, but my friend talked me out of it (we waved black and white fabric instead.) I gave a brief talk about how the Conclave works, appointed the kids Cardinals, and passed out the first round of ballots (I Elect as Supreme Pontiff ____). Suddenly, the room came alive. The kids were competing to be the one to read out the ballot names or tabulate votes on the whiteboard. After four rounds of balloting, they elected a girl (a historic first.) Habemus Papam!

So, for all you teachers who read this blog, I am now getting some experience from your side of the desk. Wish me luck!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Beam Me Up, Scotty

Aargh! We're less than a week into the school year, and already having homework headaches. The really unforgivable part is that it's with 3d-grade Younger Daughter. Why is she being assigned homework at all?

First she had a math worksheet that took 10 minutes for us to fight about (culminating in my swearing like a sailor with a head injury) and 2 minutes for her to fill out. Then she's got a sheet in her homework folder that looks like this:


Sample Questions for 'Interviewing' Your Grandparents

Where were you born? What year?

What are the names and birthdates of your brothers and sisters?

Did you have a pet when you were growing up?

Did you get an allowance?

Who was more strict, your mom or dad?

What were your favorite games and activities?

What chores were assigned to you?

What did your house look like? Is it still the same?

What traditions did your family have?

Did your family have big reunions?

Did you like school? What kinds of grades did you get?

What were your favorite subjects?

When you were a teenager, what time did you have to be home at night?

How old were you when you met grandma/grandpa?

How old were you when you got married?

What was your first job?

Tell me about my mom/dad when he/she was growing up.

Who writes this crap? Why was I born?

Since there was no indication of what exactly we're supposed to do with this thing, I sent the following e-mail to the teacher:
Ms. Third -- what are your expectations about the grandparents' interview sheet that you sent home? Younger Daughter wants nothing to do with it. I'm not a fan of homework in elementary school and I'm inclined not to fight her about it. Thanks. -- FedUpMom
My devout hope is that this sheet was sent home as one of those allegedly fun family activities, and it's no big deal whether Younger Daughter does anything with it or not. I guess we'll find out.

UPDATE: I received the following e-mail from Ms. Third:
Mrs. FedUpMom, It's actually an assignment from Mrs. Liber, our librarian. My understanding from her is it's something for the students relating to her curriculum. I'm happy to follow up for her if you like. -- Ms. Third.
UPDATE UPDATE: This afternoon, while waiting for Younger Daughter's bus to drop her off, I struck up a conversation with another mother of a 3d-grader. I asked her whether her son had gotten the "Grandparents Day" paper, and she said "Yeah! It just showed up in his homework folder with no explanation of what we were supposed to do with it. I ignored it." (She, by the way, is what the school probably considers a "good" mother, not a fire-breathing ranter like yours truly.) When I looked in YD's homework folder, the Grandparents Day paper had disappeared. I asked YD about it, and she said "she [a teacher] took it away because it was overdue!" I think everyone involved has decided to pretend it never happened. Works for me ...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

High joy? High discipline?

Over at kitchen table math, Catherine Johnson has written a post promoting high joy/high discipline schools.

Sigh. My first reaction is the same feeling I have about progressive schools: I'd like to see it done well. I've never seen progressive ed done well, with a true respect for students as individual learners. I've only ever seen it done badly, as a thin veneer of mushy curriculum laid on top of a thoroughly traditional authoritarian structure. If I could see it done well, I might be an enthusiastic convert.

I've never seen discipline done well either. I've seen (and heard of) over-the-top discipline systems where behavior becomes the entire curriculum, and learning takes a very distant back seat. I'm not a control freak by nature (I'm a chaos freak instead), and I'm deeply uncomfortable with any system that puts a high premium on unquestioning obedience. I don't think that's a useful lesson for any human being.

So, a system of discipline that I could be comfortable with would first of all have to be minimalist. That is, make as few rules as possible, about things that really matter. (Parallel to my grandfather's advice about buying insurance: "Only insure against disaster.") So, I'm fine with a rule against kids hitting each other, which of course should be supported by laws prohibiting adults from hitting the kids. On the other hand, a rule requiring kids to walk the hallways in an absolutely straight single-file line, in silence, strikes me as unnecessary and dehumanizing. The same is true for any system that punishes kids with "silent lunch".

I'm very opposed to any system that punishes kids for events that are not under their control. For instance, punishing young children for undone homework, at an age when homework is really Mom's job, and you're effectively punishing the kid for having the wrong kind of Mom. The most egregious example of this is punishing the kid for failing to obtain Mom's signature! Another example is punishing kids for getting to school late.

Following our experience with Younger Daughter, I've seen for myself that behavior problems are not easily distinguished from academic problems. All kinds of people were telling us that Younger Daughter was a discipline problem, and needed more "structure" (i.e, rules and punishments), but it turned out the source of her problems was that she had not learned to read, and felt anxious as a result. Once we got her reading, her discipline problems evaporated.

So, I think a well-designed academic program could prevent many discipline problems in the first place. If kids are learning, they're less likely to start acting up out of anxiety or boredom.

As for high joy, I only wish it was an option where I live. I almost wouldn't care what else was going on at the school. We could fill in academics at home, which we find ourselves doing anyway no matter where the kids go to school. Where I live, it seems like the model of education-as-learning has been thrown out in favor of education-as-hazing. If kids are stressed out and overworked, that proves that the school is doing its job. This becomes especially true at the high school level, where the ferocious competition for entry to "good" colleges has resulted in an insane workload and endemic sleep deprivation, which is now considered a normal rite of passage for upper-middle-class teenagers. This is not what I want for Older Daughter.

This evening, we're attending orientation for Older Daughter's first year of high school at Friends Omphalos. 8th grade was not wonderful for Older Daughter, and I'm really hoping high school will be better. Wish us luck!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bullying in Medical School

In the New York Times, "The Bullying Culture of Medical School".

The moral of the story is that once a bullying culture has been established, it is exceedingly difficult to fix. Human beings have a way of justifying, and carrying on, whatever happened to them, no matter how negative it was.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Linda Hirshman and the 1%

I don't consider myself a fan of Linda Hirshman, whose screed Get to Work I confess I haven't read. I'm put off by her advice that an educated woman should have at most one child (any more will interfere with her career), and shouldn't study art because it doesn't lead to well-paid jobs.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself agreeing with much of her article, It's about the 1%. Her central point is that well-paid jobs have gotten more and more demanding over the past several decades.

(An academic woman I know told me: "[Famous Academic Bigshot] once gave me the advice that I should be careful to publish one good article a year if I wanted tenure. I didn't have the heart to tell him that it had gone up to two articles a year.")

I especially liked Hirshman's closing:

When ordinary working men got the chance to fight for a 40 hour week, they fought, in many days, to the death. The murderous police attack on labor we call the Haymarket was a response to a rally for an eight-hour day! When did this become a woman's problem? Calling it one only means it will never get addressed. Just like every other problem assigned to women.
I'm sure she's right about "women's problems", and it gives me a moment of insight into the current conversation about education. When people go on about how are kids aren't being correctly prepared for corporate jobs, what they're trying to say is, "Look! Education actually matters! It actually intersects with things we care about, like the corporate workforce!" No wonder they're nonplussed by people like me saying "shouldn't there be a point to education besides the ability to get paid?" What other point could there possibly be?

Overachiever's footnote: I also liked this article about women and work by Sandra Tsing Loh: "I Choose My Choice!"

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Thomas Friedman is Clueless

In today's NYTimes, Average is Over, Part II by Thomas Friedman.

Why am I utterly infuriated? Let me count the ways:

1.) Friedman seems to be living in a parallel universe where parents control the school system. He quotes Jon Schnur saying that "too many kids are not coming out of K-12 prepared for [postsecondary education], and too many parents don’t get it."

Oh really? Lots of parents get that something is wrong with their local schools, and then they discover that they are powerless to effect change. Talk to the parents at kitchen table math, who certainly get that American math education is under par, and ask where their years of activism have gotten them. Talk to Chris over at A Blog About School, and see how much effect he's had on his school system's use of authoritarian discipline.

2.) Friedman seems to think we should ask CEOs what they want, and then design our society to match their needs. I think we should figure out what kind of society we want, and let the CEOs figure out how to run their companies within it. Yes, I'm a far-out lefty.

Currently, a large fraction of Americans are unemployed or underemployed. Of those who are employed, many find themselves working punishingly long hours just to keep their jobs. The top jobs are higher-pressured than ever before (see Linda Hirshmann's article, "It's About the 1%").

Automation and outsourcing first took away blue-collar assembly jobs, but increasingly they're taking away mid-level white-collar jobs as well. We're left with a few high-paid, high-education jobs that will never employ more than a small fraction of the population (e.g., college professor, doctor), and a great many low-level jobs (e.g., nursing, sanitation) that don't pay a middle-class wage. This is not the model of a functioning society.

We are past overdue for serious changes in the American workplace. We need to figure out what employment should look like in a world where more and more work is automated. We need powerful labor unions (remember them?) who will fight for worker's rights. We need shorter workweeks, or at the very least we should start enforcing the 40-hour work week for white-collar workers. Everyone who works full-time should be guaranteed decent wages.

3.) We can certainly do a much better job of educating our kids, and I'm in favor of doing so. But education doesn't create jobs. The fact that college-educated folks have, on average, lower levels of unemployment and earn more than those without college degrees doesn't imply that if we just get more kids through college, jobs will magically appear for them. The large number of unemployed and underemployed recent college graduates speaks to the futility of this plan.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Alcott's Apple and the Marshmallow Experiment

A great deal of ink and pixels have gone to recent discussions (by the likes of David Brooks) of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Here's the experiment: A preschool child is brought to a room with a marshmallow on a table. The child is told that if she can wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, she will then be awarded a second marshmallow. The researcher then leaves the room and watches through a concealed window to see the child's reaction.

A follow-up study found that the children who were able to defer gratification by waiting for the second marshmallow were also later described by their parents as "competent adolescents", and achieved higher SAT scores than those who ate the marshmallow immediately.

Looking at my own family, I'm not sure whether Older Daughter would have waited for the second marshmallow, but I can confidently predict that Younger Daughter would have eaten the first marshmallow, and possibly taken a bite out of the furniture and the returning researcher as well.

There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes). It turns out that Bronson Alcott, transcendentalist, abolitionist, and the barking-mad father of Louisa May, performed a similar experiment on his own daughters, Anna and Louisa, then aged 5 and 4.

From Louisa May Alcott, Domestic Goddess:*

Bronson, knowing that both girls loved apples, left an unguarded apple near Louisa and her older sister, Anna, with the restriction that it belonged to him and the girls were not to eat it. Bronson knew that the girls would be tempted by this literally forbidden fruit, and he felt that the struggle would reveal important information about his daughters. Since Louisa ate the apple, and then unrepentantly stated that she had done so "cause I wanted it," Bronson's intended lesson in self-sacrifice was obviously only half learned. Anna did not eat the apple, and apologized for even thinking about it. Louisa, on the other hand, may have struggled with her will, but in the end she gave in to it, despite her fear of Bronson's displeasure.
Which daughter grew up to be a famous and still widely-read novelist?

Adults favor obedient, disciplined children, and it is no surprise that such children are spoken of favorably by their parents and do well on the SATs. But the child who insists on her own point of view may have more to offer the world in the long run.

*Overachiever's footnote: I'm still looking for an authoritative source for the apple story. If you know of one, please let me know. I dimly remember a book or article called something like "Rebellion in the Nursery", about Bronson and Louisa Alcott, but I haven't been able to find it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Low Standards + High Pressure

Via Out in Left Field, I came across this article:

School is Too Easy, Students Report

It is no surprise to me that students would describe school as "too easy".  One of the worst aspects of school life today is the pervasive lack of content, papered over by utterly pointless projects and activities.  A bright kid who needs intellectual engagement will find slim pickin's in the average classroom.
I take violent exception, however,  to this statement:
Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the center who co-wrote the report, said the data challenge the "school-as-pressure-cooker" image found in recent movies such as Race to Nowhere.
Unfortunately, lack of content does not imply lack of pressure.  The pressure-cooker aspect of school is caused by large volumes of homework, the jumped-up competition to get into "good" colleges, and stress over grades.  It is entirely possible, and actually quite common, to have a pressure-cooker school with low academic standards.  The fact that many kids are stressed out, missing sleep, and working every spare moment in an attempt to keep up with their homework does not imply that the school has high academic standards, or that the kids are learning anything. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Thank-you Note to Fragrant Hills

An e-mail to Younger Daughter's 2nd-grade teacher (with a copy to the Principal):

Ms. Teacher -- just a note to say thank you for a wonderful year.  Back in September, we were worried stiff that YD would have behavior problems again.  We couldn't have been more relieved and surprised at the way things turned out.  She learned a lot, enjoyed school, and made friends.  I'm still not entirely sure how it happened!  So, thank you for all your efforts. 


FedUpMom & Sainted Husband & (of course!) Younger Daughter

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"You're Not Special"

Making the rounds today, a commencement address: Wellesley High grads told: "You're Not Special", from a high school English teacher, David McCullough.
Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have.
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.
The "middle class kids are spoiled by everyone telling them they're special" meme, while popular, is so false it's just obnoxious. Yes, Barney exists, and middle-class parents try to encourage their kids whenever possible ("good job!"). But all of our efforts are totally negated by our kids' school experience, as this teacher should know better than anyone. Middle-class kids today are utterly stressed out by school, from pointless homework that eats what we used to call "free time", to the jacked-up competition for college placement.

What a lousy way to begin adult life, collecting rejections from colleges. Of course, collecting rejections from employers is no better.

McCullough goes on to offer completely generic American-dream advice, which you can also hear from Barney:

I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in ... Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself.
The current crop of middle-class high-school seniors, after years of overwork and stress, is facing a ruined global economy and an uncertain future. They deserve much better than to be talked down to by pompous windbags like this one.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Fair Exchange

Conversation with Younger Daughter on picking her up at the bus stop:

YD: (showing me a duck-shaped eraser): "Look at this cute eraser!"

Me: "Very nice. Where'd you get it?"

YD: "A boy in my class said he'd give me his eraser if I stopped talking to him!"

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Future of Work, Marriage, Children

What kind of world will our kids graduate into when they're done with school? What will the economy look like? Will decent jobs be available?

On a completely anecdotal level, I've been noticing for a while that those with young-adult children report that their daughters are completely job-focused and hard-working, while their sons are drifting around finding themselves. This NYTimes article confirmed my observations: Young Women are More Career-Driven than Men.

The headline statistic was this one, comparing young men and women who said that being successful in a highly-paid career or profession is "one of the most important things" or "very important" in their lives: 59% for young men, 66% for young women.

The poll also reveals that marriage and parenthood are becoming increasingly separate goals, at the expense of marriage. Young women say these issues are "one of the most important things in their lives" at these rates: 37% for having a successful marriage and 59% for being a good parent.

What careers will be available to our kids? Some speculate that in the future there will simply be less work to do, because of advances in technology. I've been meaning to read this book about it: The End of Work, by Jeremy Rifkin. As reported in the Atlantic Monthly, in Making it in America:

There’s a joke in cotton country that a modern textile mill employs only a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to keep the man away from the machines.
I liked this article in the NYTimes: Let's Be Less Productive. Productivity is not a useful way to think about caring professions, e.g. teaching. A teacher with more students in the classroom is more "productive", but it's usually not in the best interests of the kids.

I'm also WAY in favor of a drastically shortened workweek as a way to increase the number of jobs. Of course, to make that work, we'd need universal health care, so that employers wouldn't be penalized for taking on more employees.

Readers? Thoughts? What will the future look like? What should it look like?

Friday, May 25, 2012

Attributing Motives to Kids

Over on Jessica Lahey's blog, she's got a post about hubris. Among other things, she talks about the desire of kids to "test boundaries" and "challenge authority".

Well, maybe. I've been noticing lately that controlling, authoritarian teachers (and, doubtless, parents) are very quick to attribute these motives to kids, in almost any situation. One such teacher thought my daughter was being defiant when she had simply forgotten a trivial piece of her homework.

There's a narcissism at work here; like a certain type of vain, clueless man who thinks a woman is flirting with him even as she's walking away.

Jessica Lahey says:

I think students test their teachers because they know they are safe with the teachers who care about them. They push us away because they know we will still be here when they return to their senses.
Or perhaps these adolescent students, in the tricky phase between child and adult, are trying to establish a more equal relationship with an adult they care about. They won't manage it if the adult in question can only think in terms of "boundaries" and "authority".

Maybe that child who behaves in a way we don't like is "testing boundaries". On the other hand, maybe she's trying to tell us we've restricted her freedom too much. Maybe she's right.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Novel Way to Aggravate Parents

Concerned Parent (thanks, CP!) sent in a link to this article: Parent Report Cards are Novel Way to Boost Support.

I really hate the article, beginning with the headline. There's nothing novel about report cards, which are highly over-rated as a motivational tool. And I'm not reassured by the point that the parents are encouraged to grade themselves, which, if possible, is even more patronizing. "We know it would never occur to you to wonder how you're doing as a parent, so we've provided a handy rubric!"

This paragraph had steam coming out of my ears:

Nashville resident Christi Witherspoon favors the measures. Despite her busy schedule as a doctor, she and her husband, Roger, spend as much as three hours each night helping their two young daughters with homework.
The daughters in question are 6 and 9 years old! Homework has eaten the family's life, and Mom is OK with that? There's a word for spending 3 hours a day doing academic work with your kids -- it's called "homeschooling."
Under Tennessee's contract legislation, parents in each school district are asked to sign a document agreeing to review homework and attend school functions or teacher conferences, among other things.
Correlation is not causation, people! While it may be true that the children of parents who attend parent-teacher conferences do better in school than the children of parents who don't show up, that doesn't imply that the parent-teacher conferences actually accomplish anything. It's more likely that the kind of parents who show up for conferences are also the kind who offer a supportive environment at home.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Parents as Drivers

Overheard in the car while chauffering Older and Younger Daughter:

Younger Daughter (to Older Daughter): "How come Mom isn't yelling at the traffic?"

Older Daughter: "No, Dad is the one who yells at the traffic. Mom just gets lost all the time."

This was the same trip where Younger Daughter got into my wallet and exclaimed in a voice of wonderment: "Wow, Mom's got a driver's license!"

Saturday, April 14, 2012

IQ vs. Achievement

From a comment to a NYTimes article, After Number of Gifted Soars, a Fight for Kindergarten Slots:
Nancy, PA

I teach gifted kids, albeit at the secondary level, and what's described here doesn't sound like "giftedness" to me. Truly gifted children are often NOT high achievers - they're much more likely to be the oddball dreamers, the ones who are disorganized, the ones who don't necessarily behave, who refuse to cooperate because they don't see the point of what they're asked to do. In my experience, there's actually an inverse relationship between IQ and school achievement. The brighter the kid, the more turned off by school he or she tends to be. Which is why gifted kids need special programming - not a curriculum aimed at eventually getting them into Ivy League schools (although some of my students do end up there, even though we're a small, relatively poor, rural high school), but one aimed at intellectually engaging them and stimulating their natural sense of wonder.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Defensive, or Arrogant?

School districts don't really care what parents want, especially if they are chronic complainers (i.e., any parent who complains more than once.) — Guy Strickland, Bad Teachers
This post is a response to Chris' recent post at A Blog About School. To recap: the public elementary school attended by Chris' kids has brought in an authoritarian classroom-management system (PBIS), and, among other problems, has turned lunchtime into an exercise in trying to prevent the kids from talking normally to each other through constant scolding and punishment. Chris is engaged in a discussion with the principal at his local elementary school to discover why this policy was agreed to in the first place. The principal is increasingly refusing to interact with Chris.

Chris says:
This strategy of avoiding public answers genuinely puzzles me. It just makes the district look defensive, as if it lacks confidence in its own practices.
I don't think the district is being defensive, or lacks confidence in its practices. From the point of view of the district, the fact that a policy has been adopted means that it's right. PBIS is the latest and greatest, and will continue to be until the next fad comes along. The idea that parents should be able to question it, or demand answers as to who made what decision, is completely foreign to them.

Imagine that you had an irritating neighbor who was always coming around to complain that you don't mow your lawn frequently enough, or your porch needs to be repainted, or you shouldn't let your kids leave their bicycles out. Would you be interested in an ongoing public dialogue with this neighbor? Of course not. You would say to yourself, "who does he think he is telling me how to run my household?"

This is exactly how a public school district thinks about parents. Who do they think they are telling us how to run our schools?

I close with one of my favorite Guy Strickland (op. cit.) quotes:
Bastions of ignorance aren't bastions for nothing.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

No School Volunteers in England

In today's NYTimes, The Non-Joie of Parenting, U.S. Style. The author contrasts the relaxed, adult-centered life of European parents to the harried, child-activity-centric life of American parents:

The word “volunteer” was never used in England, where my children’s primary school teacher felt the need to warn me, as an American, that my services would never be needed. “In the morning you will drop your children off and you will leave,” she instructed me. “And in the afternoons, you will not come in, you will not talk to the teachers, you will not ask to help with anything, you will just leave,” she repeated. “Sign me up,” I said, happily.

Please, sign me up too! Involve me out!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

NCLB to be Repealed

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have agreed to push for the repeal of the No Child Left Behind education-reform law, and will abandon their own program, Race to the Top.

"It's time to let parents and teachers work together to determine the course of their local schools," said President Obama. "We've relied on coercive, top-down measures for too long. Nothing has been achieved by years of testing except stress heaped on children and teachers alike."

Obama and Duncan are developing a new educational program, called the "Actual Learning Project", which will focus on curricular reform. "We'll look for the world's best curricula, and encourage all our public schools to use it. Currently, we're researching Singapore Math, phonics-based reading programs, and the Story of the World series. We will encourage all public schools to use the most effective, engaging, and relevant curricula."

Under the "Actual Learning Project", public schools will be strongly discouraged from using authoritarian classroom management systems such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports or Whole Brain Teaching. "These systems have almost nothing to do with learning, and create a school environment that is hostile to the goals of developing citizens of a democracy," said President Obama.

Friday, March 30, 2012

How Not to Teach Art

In the NYTimes today, a review of Draw it With Your Eyes Closed, a book about teaching art.

Apparently this is a compilation of terrible art assignments that various art teachers thought were a good idea. I admit I was momentarily intrigued by "Redesign the human genitals so that they might be more equitable", but I wouldn't want to do that assignment, nor do I think it teaches art. Mechanical engineering, maybe, but art?

There’s a lot of (legitimate) pushback to the notion that art can be taught, or that assignments do anything except promote subservience and callow grade grubbing.

While I agree with the observation about the effects of assignments, I believe a great deal of art can and should be taught; namely the basic skills, such as drawing, perspective, color mixing, etc. Heck, one of the most useful things I ever learned from a painting teacher was how to clean my brushes! Art history is well worth teaching too. The part that can't be taught is the creative spark, and art teachers should step carefully and try not to extinguish it.

The editors note that “many of the anti-assignments collected in this book use the slippery logic of ‘I command you to disobey me’ and other infamous tricks of the oracle.”

Hmm ... this reminds me of Jessica Lahey and her attempt to make deep connections with her students by ordering them to write revealing personal essays, graded by her.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Whole Brain Teaching Rakes in the Shekels

Due to a reader's comment ("Whole Brain Teaching is FREE!"), I've decided to collect articles about the money being made by Chris Biffle and his Whole Brain Teaching system.

First up, I've posted on this subject twice:

Whole Brain Teaching for Profit

There's Gold in Them Thar Brains

Next, two commenters, Anonymous and Another Hole Brain Director, have chased down the following links: (Thanks to both of you for your efforts!):

2011 - 2012: Desert Sands Unified School District:
Provide Staff Training and Support on Whole Brain Teaching ... Chris Biffle, Consultant; $6,000.00 (page 7)
Nov. 2011: Lancaster School District:
Chris Biffle will teach Whole Brain Teaching to 3d Grade Teachers for $2,500.00 (item 41)
Oct. 2010 - March 2011: Gilroy Unified School District:
Contract not to exceed $10,000 for Chris Biffle to teach Whole Brain Teaching
April 16, 2011 & May 7, 2011: Lemon Grove School District:
2 one-day Whole Brain Teaching seminars: $3,700.00 to Service Provider Chris Biffle (pg. 15)
July 2009: San Bernardino City Unified School District:
Chris Biffle to present workshop on "Power Teaching Challenging Students" — not to exceed $1,500.00
Aug. 2009: Hemet Unified School District:
Approval to Hire Christopher Biffle; not to exceed $12,500.00 (item K-23)
Aug. 2008: Hemet Unified School District:
Approval to Authorize Hiring Chris Biffle; not to exceed $5,500 (item K-49)
Feb. 2008: San Bernardino City Unified School District:
Urbita Elementary School to hire Chris Biffle to present two two-hour workshops — not to exceed $700.00

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Textbooks in the Olden Days

From On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

Then Ma took them into the bedroom. She knelt down by the box where she kept her best things, and she took out three books. They were the books she had studied when she was a little girl. One was a speller, and one was a reader, and one was a 'rithmetic.

She looked solemnly at Mary and Laura, and they were solemn, too.

"I am giving you these books for your very own, Mary and Laura," Ma said. "I know you will take care of them and study them faithfully."

Imagine a world where textbooks could be handed down from mother to daughter. How did the publishers make money?

Those of us with late readers in the family will be pleased to hear that Laura was at least 7 when she started school in Plum Creek, and she barely knew the alphabet. Her future husband Almanzo was still in the primer class at the age of 9. It doesn't seem to have held them back much ...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

A commenter asked me what I think of this blog post:

Luria Learning Blog: The Perfect Homework — 4th Grade and Up

What do I think of it? I think "meh".

The post bemoans what a hassle homework is — for teachers. I don't doubt it. But instead of asking the deeper questions about what the homework is for, and while we're at it, what the schoolday is for, she proposes teaching a particular system of note-taking, and having the kids write summaries of their notes every night for homework.

Well, maybe that solves something for the teacher, but I don't see it solving much for the kids. If they don't care about the material, or didn't understand it, not much will be achieved by their writing a summary. How many summaries will they have to write before they loathe the whole process? (Not many, for my kids.) It's only 4th grade, so it's still really the parents' responsibility to see that it gets done.

This is something I see in a lot of teachers' forums and blogs: an obsessive interest in trivialities. Should I organize with colored folders or numbered tags? Who the hell cares?

Kids Learn What They Want to Learn

From Satan is Real, by Charlie Louvin:
... when we got enough tobacco together, we'd wander off and get some brown paper sacks, chew the edge up, and roll us some cigarettes. I was only five when I learned to roll a cigarette. I had to, because nobody would help me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

School Uniforms and Gender Messages

Hienuri mentioned in a recent comment that in his country almost all students wear a uniform. Here in the U.S., uniforms are worn mostly in Catholic schools, some private schools, some charter schools, and a few public schools. I have never worn a uniform to school; neither have my kids.

The last time I saw a lot of kids in uniform is when we were visiting England, where school uniforms are standard for both state-run and private schools. The part that interests me is how girls are dressed for school. They wear neckties and blazers, which in every other context are only worn by boys and men. What's the message here? I think the uniform says that for the purpose of school girls are honorary boys. As we all know, a girl being dressed or treated as a boy is taking a step up, whereas a boy being treated or dressed as a girl is being humiliated. (Thanks, guys!)

It's partly a historical accident. School uniforms were originally designed for boys because only boys went to school. When schooling became more customary for girls, it was easier to just fold them into the existing structure. The school uniform tells us that male students are the norm, and female students are an afterthought. (Similarly, in the U.S. we have school sports teams that are called the "Lady X", where X is the school mascot. The message is that the male team is the norm, and the female team is an afterthought.)

While girls are dressed as honorary boys from the waist up, they wear skirts below. We can't have them wearing the pants! The skirt in the uniform would have just about killed me as a child, if I had to wear them; I hated anything girly. Thank God I grew up at a time of unisex children's clothing.

Schoolgirl uniforms usually have short skirts; this dates back to a time when short skirts for girls, matched by short pants for boys, were a signifier of childhood. (My father once mentioned his "first pair of long pants" as a big moment for him.) Today, little boys are no longer dressed in short pants, but the short skirt remains in the schoolgirls' uniform, where it is now wildly inappropriate. Catholic schoolgirls in our area routinely hike their skirts up to show as much leg as possible, and you can imagine the distracting effect this has on the boys. It would be more modest to put the girls in pants, which doesn't mean it'll happen any time soon.

Cross-cultural footnote: I'm using "pants" in the American sense, meaning "trousers", not in the British sense, meaning "underpants."

A Response from the Principal of Fragrant Hills

This goes in the bulging file entitled "I Don't Get It":
Dear FedUpMom,

Thank you for your email. I am sorry that the morning routine was difficult one. I do want to explain that our school colors are black and gold and there are times throughout the school year in which we have spirit days and we do encourage the children to wear these colors. It is not mandated and we want for families to feel comfortable with what the children are wearing to school.

The PSSAs are a stressful assessment. The goal of the Basketball game this afternoon was for the staff members to play a short game with the children cheering as a way to come together as a school community in a fun way and for the students see us working hard and doing our best- even basketball is not a sport in which we excel. We saw this as a way to model for the students that we want for them all to do their best and work as a team when appropriate. The goal of the afternoon was not to celebrate the PSSAs but rather to celebrate the hard work the children engaged in this school year.

I hope that this provides some additional insight into the goal of this afternoon and we will be very mindful of your feedback when we are holding spirit days in the future.

[Principal of Fragrant Hills Elementary School]
What the #$%^@&*#? The kids were cheering while the teachers played basketball? What could possibly be the point? I can guarantee you that my daughter would have vastly preferred running around the court herself, and gotten a lot more out of it.

What does the PSSA have to do with teamwork? If the kids try to help each other on the test, it's called cheating. (Does the school want that?)

I'm glad I don't work in that school — I don't know the rules for basketball! (Yet another example of assuming that sports are a universal interest.) I'm sure Younger Daughter doesn't know the rules for basketball either.

This doesn't descend to the level of Stupid Principal Tricks, but I think it shows the same myopia and lack of understanding of the child's point of view. I don't think young children find it the least bit reassuring to watch their teachers do something badly. They know the teachers are in charge and they want to be able to trust them and feel confident in their judgement.

I could never have predicted when Older Daughter first started school the sheer level of wackiness of the stuff that goes on. People can have debates about whether schools are too traditional or too progressive, but stuff like this doesn't fall clearly into any camp. It's just head-scratching peculiar.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Another e-mail to Fragrant Hills

To the Principal:

Younger Daughter missed the bus to school today because I discovered at the last possible moment that she was supposed to wear black. She refused to go to school without black clothes. She doesn't have any black clothes (I'm not a fan of black clothes for young children.) I eventually put her in one of her older sister's black shirts.

Then I found the notation in her homework folder that she's supposed to wear black for a PSSA pep rally! I am completely opposed to the current focus on standardized tests, which in my (widely shared) opinion is wrecking public education. It's bad enough that you're holding a pep rally for a standardized test, but to ask me to dress my child to show support is too much. Please don't do this again.

Sincerely, FedUpMom

She Had to Wear Black

Another fun morning in the FedUp household ...

I woke Younger Daughter about 10 minutes before her bus would arrive. I got her some new clothes and told her to get dressed.

Younger Daughter: "I have to wear black* clothes today! It's for a game!"

Me: "What? You don't have any black clothes! Nobody told me about this! The bus will be here in 5 minutes!"

I dug around and found the darkest clothes I could — dark purple and green. She sulked and refused to put them on. After a brief tantrum (mine), I eventually found a black t-shirt belonging to Older Daughter (as a card-carrying teenager, she has plenty of black clothes), which Younger Daughter wore as a sort of dress over her own clothes.

You can imagine my feelings when I finally found the notation in Younger Daughter's homework folder — she's supposed to wear black for a PSSA (standardized test) pep rally. AAARGH!

* I suppose I should explain that the school colors are black and yellow. Since when does an elementary school have school colors?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jessica Lahey and the Myth of Too Much Homework

In the NYTimes Motherlode column, Jessica Lahey opines on The Destructive "Too Much Homework" Myth.

She claims that there is no problem of homework overload, and if there is, it only applies to "uptown" middle-class parents, so it's not worthy of national attention. Thanks a whole arfin' lot.

Interviewing a Family Member

Please do let me know if there is an assignment such as interviewing a family member — something that simply couldn't be done at school but that is important to the things you're doing in class — and we'll be happy to work on that together. — from an anonymous parent letter on Alfie Kohn's website.
The above quote is one reason I initially thought that Alfie Kohn had written the parent letter himself — it's right out of his book The Homework Myth (which I mostly recommend highly):
"Why can't they just do this at school?" is a reasonable question to ask ... But it's a question that answers itself in the case of certain assignments, such as having children interview parents about their family history ...
Interviewing parents is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory but, in practice, is a raging pain in the rosy arse*.

First of all, many kids don't have a family member who is available to be interviewed, even in the high-achieving suburbs, and it's not fair to put these kids on the spot.

Second, parents and kids alike are burnt out by the constant demands of school. I know we are in my family. The interview assignment would not come across as a welcome "meaningful" assignment; it would come across as one more invasion of what used to be our free time.

Third, I can't believe the parent of a first grader would mention the family interview as a reasonable assignment. Maybe her kid is precocious, but I think an interview would be way beyond the capacity of most 6-year-olds. My 8-yr-old second grader couldn't conduct an assigned interview (although she does a good job of quizzing us on certain subjects, like her adoption. But I digress.)

I would like to see no more homework that requires parent participation. Let the teachers teach the students, and only assign appropriate homework that the students can reasonably take complete responsibility for. That means no homework in elementary school, when kids aren't old enough to have the organizing skills that homework requires. Then, when the kids are old enough for homework, it should be minimal, and only assigned when necessary for learning the material (yes, there should be actual identifiable content that the kids are learning.)

It shouldn't be a part-time job for parents to send their kids to school. Enough already. Involve me out!

* please excuse the British spelling; I've been watching too much Downton Abbey!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Truy Misplaced Modifiers

After a long and rather confusing discussion over at kitchen table math, I believe we've reached a consensus that Groucho's sentence, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas", is NOT an example of a misplaced modifier.

In the interest of helping Catherine's writing students, I proposed the following example of a truly misplaced modifier:

Some years ago I was listening to the radio and an ad for an amusement park came on. The slogan at the end was: "XYZ Amusement Park — it's just not for kids any more!"

Now there's a seriously misplaced modifier ("just"). They wanted to say that XYZ Amusement Park was fun for both adults and kids, but instead they implied that they don't even allow kids any more. Of course, they should have said "it's not just for kids any more."

Readers, if you have more examples of truly misplaced modifiers, please send 'em on in!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Bad Advice from English Teachers

Older Daughter is in an English class where they write multiple drafts of every paper. One recent draft was "corrected" by other students. Older Daughter got a comment from the correcting student that said "Remember, don't use ; or :. They're not formal!"

Sainted Husband sent the English teacher an e-mail saying that he's published several books and served as the head of the linguistics department at a famous university and has never heard that there was anything wrong with ; or :. He got an e-mail back from the English teacher, who said that he discourages the use of ; and : because "the kids write so many run-on sentences."

Well, wouldn't it be better to teach the correct use of ; and :, instead of giving the kids the impression there's something wrong with them?

In another example of bad advice from English teachers, I was very surprised to read this post on Catherine Johnson's teaching blog, about Groucho Marx's famous elephant joke. I usually agree with Catherine, who is a founder of the kitchen table math blog, but not this time.

The Groucho joke is not an example of a misplaced modifier; there's nothing wrong with his original statement, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas." Linguists would describe it as grammatically ambiguous but pragmatically unambiguous. That's why the joke works; grammatically, it's possible that the elephant is wearing the pajamas, but pragmatically, everyone hearing the statement for the first time assumes that the speaker is wearing the pajamas.

Catherine's proposed "correction" (really, there's nothing to correct) is that the statement should have been "Wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant." This is in no way more correct or preferable to "I shot an elephant in my pajamas."

Ambiguity is an inevitable part of natural language. It's not a bug, it's a feature! There's no getting rid of it.

Here's an example of ambiguity used by linguists: "I saw a man with a telescope." Did the speaker see a man by looking through a telescope, or was the man that he saw holding a telescope? This one is both grammatically and pragmatically ambiguous.

Here's another one: "Visiting relatives can be boring." Is the activity of visiting relatives potentially boring, or are the relatives visiting you potentially boring? Again, this one is both grammatically and pragmatically ambiguous.

For more discussion of different types of ambiguity, see this post about writing recommendations: Linguistic Humor, Ambiguous recommendations.