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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Credit Junkies

I am tired of being viewed as a credit-spewing machine. We have created a system in which students are only interested in points, credit, and grades. And though I do not believe that the human mind is equivalent to poultry, I do fear that this system will only churn out pecking hens that as soon as the food pellets stop appearing become quite somnambulant in nature.

The concrete cause of my frustration is a recent vocabulary quiz. Nearly ninety percent of the students failed. The words were drawn from the text that we are currently reading in class, the students were given to 45 minute class periods to fill out a sheet of notes on the words, and we had a Jeopardy style review (using a Smartboard) the day before the quiz. The words were no more difficult than you would find in a daily newspaper.

I decided to give the quiz again. It was as if that day had never happened. Made aware of the fact that they were functionally illiterate, I assumed that the students would study during the intervening 48 hours. Though some of the students responded admirably, a number of them requested to see the old quiz so that they could only study the words that they missed. Yet others were concerned that the score on the second quiz would be lower than the first, and it would only be fair if I were to take the highest score. The disturbing part about this is that the right answers on the quiz were conjured from luck rather than knowledge.

I acknowledge that educators have a different perspective on learning, but is it too much to ask that students, people, should want to become smarter. It is a wasted day in which I learn nothing. Often people will say to me that there are so few surprises in the world today as if the ability to predict likely outcomes is a bad thing. Not only is predictive ability a valuable skill, but anyone that actually lives life would know that it is fallible and that surprises lurk around every corner. Since we have all become credit junkies and live our lives according to the rut of least resistance the only surprise most people experience is when there precious cheese is moved.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Find Them Guilty

I have read many articles recently dealing with the issue of submitting teens to constant invasive surveillance. People are screaming about phone taps of international phone calls to terrorists and a government maintained list of our library books, while at the same time invoking the name of safety to spy on our own kids.

The most obvious of these violations is mandatory drug testing. Private schools, because they don’t have to deal with a pesky Constitution, are requiring drug tests of all students. The assumption of guilt is supposedly anathema to the ideals of the American people, yet this is exactly what we are doing. Even public schools do an end run around The Constitution by only giving drug test to students in extracurricular activities. It’s a little embarrassing for them because they have to test the National Honor Society even though we all know that it is the athlete’s that have the drug problem. It has now gotten to the point that some teachers are willingly submitting to drug test to show solidarity with the students.

Even parents are getting into the act with over the counter drug tests. Before everyone sits down to the dinner table we need all of the teens to please pee into this cup. Hopefully, the fit of laughter caused by the mention of family dinner didn’t distract you from the last half of that sentence. What kind of trust relationship can you have with a child if you are carrying around a cup of their pee? Of course you could just surreptitiously extract hairs from their combs and brushes and maintain the façade of trust.

The façade could be shattered like the windshield of a car if a parent decides to create a GPS link with their child while they are in his or her car. A prying patriarch can log on to a website and track the location and speed of the car. I’m assuming that these computer chips can also tell if the window defogger has been activated. This would of course circumstantially prove that the driver and any passengers might have been involved in some heavy breathing. The technology also exists to turn that car off. Now I will admit that I did not always drive to the agreed upon locations when I was an adolescent, but at least my parents had to have an inkling, if not suspicion, before they would go out and check the odometer or gas gauge.

In the classroom the presumption of misdeeds has led to the increase in the use of services such as those offered by Turnitin. For a small subscription fee these company's will check student writing against an enormous database to fish out any plagiarism. In some districts all student papers are submitted to process. Should we be working under an umbrella understanding that forestalls accussations of copying until the teacher has at least read the paper? A good teacher, or parent for that matter, should have a good enough relationship with the student to be able to spy text of questionable origin without relying on such an impersonal system. Students cheat because they feel like they can't do the work. We should be building confidence not flunking transgressors.

Parenting and teaching involve monitoring the tension between freedom and responsibility. If children grow up in a world where freedoms and privacy are only vague intangible ideas, then they will think nothing of giving up those freedoms when the government decides that it is necessary. There should be a difference between the student roster and the terrorist watch list. Students need independence in order to think independently. With that said I think I’ll head on down the “humane” society and have my three year old neutered and micro-chipped.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

B(f)logging In The Classroom

This is an update on the blogging experience with my students.

First the frustrations. A large number of my students have no experience remember usernames and passwords. Some students still haven’t logged into the computer after the first 10 minutes of class because I have to spend so much time retrieving network logins. Of those that get on the network successfully approximately 1/3 have forgotten the username and password for Some of those students created an account using a fake email address because they don’t have a real one, and hence cannot retrieve their account information. These issues, however, only reinforce the notion that the students need to blog. Lacking the ability to fill out simple registration forms and to remember login information proves that most of these students are passive recipients of information and rarely create or publicize their own work.

(Interestingly, a number of students have stored their passwords on their phones. Security issues aside, this would seem to be a perfectly acceptable use of a mobile phone in school.)

Ineptness in filling out the forms has even caused the spam detection software to erringly label some of my students as spambots. Apparently, impatience with site forced some them to repeatedly click the “CREATE” button. Some of them also had problems reading the cryptic letters meant to block spamming. Like a computer the students have a hard time recognizing non-standard fonts.
Not all has been bad. I am excited that some of the students have already accessed the blog from places other than school. The next step is to get some quality posts and to make the blog URLs available to parents and other staff members.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I recently read an article by Alfie Kohn regarding homework (available here). Finally someone is saying what I have been saying for years. Whenever my students ask if there is homework in my class I emphatically reply NO. I am not particularly fond of working at home so why would I force it on someone else. With that said, I don't want to imply that the students never work outside of class, but any work that they have usually involves putting the finishing touches on a project that we started on in class. Drafting a paper that we thoroughly pre-wrote in class. Editing a piece of writing that was conferenced earlier that day. I would never dream of sending a student home to identify the nouns in a sentence or some other type of grammatical fill-in-the- blank.

This type of work has its place, and that place is during 10-15 min. mini-lessons during class, not during time that they should be spending with their family or friends. I would rather them go home and watch a well written TV show (Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, Lost) than waste time faking their way through some mindless assignment.

As a teacher I have never been too concerned about this. If homework was required I would just assigned something easy. My favorite thing to do was to tell students to go home and discuss a topic for a paper with their parents. Often after asking the students to brainstorm a list of fifty possible writing topics a student would say they couldn't come of with fifty. I would would respond by saying, "then your assignment is to go home tonight and get a life."

As a parent of a three year old I am afraid that as he progresses through school that homework will begin to eat into his life. My wife and I (mainly my wife) make sure that our son has a very enriching and entertaining life. We visit museum, attend concerts, make monthly forays into the zoo, play sports, and create art, and occasionally even eat dinner. If that time is eroded by the mundane grunt work of work sheets and repetitive problems, then I will become extremely depressed.

Homework is seen as a tangible measure of hardwork and worse than standardized tests it measure absolutely nothing. Mental growth can't be measured on an Albert Pujols growth poster. Maybe someday we will come up with accurate diagnostic test, but until then we should not substitute the weight of a text book or the height of a stack of homework.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Montage Matriculation

I have a new item for my teacher wish list. I would like to have a full array of educational movie clichés including a montage maker, a nemesis, and a debilitating/potential fatal disease.

The most powerful of these tools is the matriculation montage maker. It is a basic concept really. Edit out all of the hard work, splice together a series of iconic images, and set the entire thing to Peter Gabriel’s Solisbury Hill.

CUT TO: Teacher and student struggling through a basic text together.
CUT TO: Student reading on his own.
CUT TO: Student leaving library with a ridiculously tall stack of books.
CUT TO: Student studying at desk PAN TO window with other kids playing outside.
CUT TO: Slamming book down on desk and pounding fist in frustration
CUT TO: Carnival, teacher winning a large stuffed bear for student
(Editor’s note: Accidentally activated the matrimony montage maker.)
CUT TO: Teacher underlining “MONTAGE” on the chalkboard.
CUT TO: Student collapsing on bed amongst a bevy of books. A look of satisfaction on his face.
CUT TO: Student waking up the morning of the test/graduation/spelling bee with montage induced migraine.

Of course the montage does not eliminate all of the student’s problems. Through the course of his studies the student may lack motivation. At this point the teacher may want consider finally succumbing to a pre-existing heart condition, contracting pneumonia, or risking near death and lawsuits by visiting the child at his home in a less than desirable neighborhood. It will be this act of bravery that finally convinces the student that the teacher cares. Honestly, nothing else works. Not mind numbing hours of repeating the same problems. Not overwhelming patience of the teacher when the student insists on giving up on himself. Not the perseverance despite lack of recognition. Not the long hours for low pay. None of these will work unless the teacher stares down death to teach the child.

None of this would carry the deep sense of satisfaction unless there is an authoritarian nemesis. This is particularly true for the ethnically diverse (read not white) students. If the students are white then they are most likely enrolled in an austere private boarding school. No matter where or who the students are the benefits of having an arch enemy who will pop at pivotal plot points and say, “Mr. Jones Bobby/Jamal/Alice/Esperanza just isn’t capable of doing this work,” is incalculable. After reaching the pinnacle of success the evil ogre of an administrator will appear to make accusations of cheating. At this time the teacher, or even better a deeply affected student, can deliver the theme with all of the eloquence that can be mustered by the screenwriter.

After the teacher has done all of this they can, “continue teaching at the same under funded school in which he had one year of success. With the profits the teacher made from selling his story, he was able to purchase much needed supplies, books, and tissue for the class.