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Saturday, December 01, 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Coach's Responsibility

The table sat barren. An obvious oddball in a gymnasium filled with tri-fold display boards, buttons, stickers, and other evidence of hard work and dedication. Our table sat dejected and alone. A void. It was a black hole filling the oval of failure on a standardized test. A test taken by the coach. A coach has a responsibility to prepare his team for competition, and the coach of our First Lego League (FLL) team failed in this most basic requirement.

We were excited about our first ever robotics team. In fact we were instrumental in getting it started, securing a grant, bringing in guest speakers, and organizing the ordering of t-shirts. However, we were not in charge. It was a school team so a teacher was assigned to disperse the grant money.  Of course, coaches are responsible for the finances of the team. Our coach apparently deposited  the funds into his own bank account and then would forget to bring his check book whenever we needed money for the shirts. He also failed at the simple task of procuring snacks for the meeting.

He also failed to procure the facilities and materials necessary for the team to function. Early on, another parent provided the coach with a coupon for an additional robot. It was not redeemed. The coach promised to build the practice table for the robot. It did not materialize. We informed the coach that we would need a dedicated computer for programming the robot.  When it was not forthcoming we brought our own laptop that we had recently purchased for our son. The most vital of all materials, of course, was a lesson plan. Amazingly enough this was provided. It consisted of a single word. "BUILD."

Our editorial staff has decided that a caption is not necessary.

The team built the robot and many of the pieces needed for the missions, but without a basic understanding of the competition it was like being handed a bag of baseball equipment and being told to go out and play a game. The lesson for the last meeting before the competition did not even meet this minimum standard. It was basically "Well, ummmm, guys." The coach then repeatedly told team members that they would not have to be at the competition all day. We were just going to go and observe some of the other teams. He also asked the team of 4th graders to arrange some carpooling.

Astonishingly most of the team arrived, without the benefit of carpooling, on time. We walked into the gymnasium and were confronted with the empty table. We were carrying a shoe box containing the robot and a laptop computer. It became obvious that this was not a casual affair. We were in fact at the qualifying round. This was the competition. If we fail here, the season is over. We were in uniform, but did not have the game ball or even a basic understanding of the rules.

The low point of the competition was when the team had to present the research they had done to provide a solution to a problem facing senior citizens. We had nothing. So a group of twelve fourth-grade students stood in front of the judges in silence. Luckily for them they are not as self-aware as the judges and managed to survive the embarrassment of entering a contest without a submission. After this initial setback the parent volunteers pulled the team together enough so that we could compete.

SUCCESS!

We actually ended up with 70 points, but my wife and I are the only ones that know that because by the end of the competition the entire team had gone home. We needed to compete in the final round of the robotic challenges and the only person left was my son. I had spent most of the day explaining to the parents that we were expected to stay all day, but since the coach had told them not to worry, most of them had made other plans.  The story does not end there however. In fact, it makes a hard right into the realm of urban legend. The coach left. He left before the competition was over because he had an appointment at 2:30 on a Sunday.  This strains credulity more than a hook-handed killer on Lover's Peak, Bloody Mary, or an alligator in the sewer.

Our son was absent when the exodus occurred, but when learned that he was alone, he freaked out. I went to the administrator's table to inform her of what happened with the intention of forfeiting the competition and  going home. The coordinator though immediately went hunting for someone from another team to lend moral support. She found someone from the same team who had earlier lent us one of their mentors and a box of Lego parts so we could at least put a robot on the table. So, with the help of another team, we were able to finish the competition. I would equate it to Lightning McQueen helping "The King" after the crash, or the softball players that carried their opponent around the bases. It was a wonderful moment of sportsmanship and humanity made possible by an absolute failure by our coach.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Something for Nothing

Yesterday I was talking to my students about taking pride in their work. As we were going over a quiz some the students claimed that others had cheated off of them and received a higher score. From personal experience I know that strategic cheating can lead to just such an occurrence, but it is rare. In fact, I take a certain amount of pride in being able to game the system. It is my Kobyashi Moru. However, since I teach sweathogs my references to James Kirk settled into a holding pattern just above their heads and the conversation quickly devolved into students complaining about grades. Somehow we got to the point where students just wanted grades handed to them.

I have succeeded where Kirstie Alley has failed.

Two things we can learn from this picture. 1. All of my cultural touchstones are  at least 20 years old. 2. Gabe Kaplan could rock the stache. 

I facetiously agreed with them and asked each student what grade they wanted. Most of them of course chose an "A". One of the more criminally minded student asked for a "C" because it was more believable. Only one student gave the answer right when she said that she didn't want to play my game. The answer I really wanted to hear was, "I want the grade that I earned."

Since I did not get that answer, it was time to break out the sports analogies. One of the students played football so I asked if he would take credit for stats that were not his. He responded with a rambling amorphously mumbled, "maybe," that stunned me into silence. I couldn't believe that students are okay with, and even take pride in, numbers that don't truly represent them. They were equally stunned that I would not take advantage of false statistics.

In order to prove their point they hauled out the steamer-trunk of improbable hypotheticals and a boat-load of cliches. "If you think about it, it would be like if somebody just came up to you and handed you $1000, you know what I'm saying?"

I conceded that if the financial incentive was large enough I might understand some claiming numbers that aren't theirs, but no such financial incentive exists when it comes to high school grades. Perhaps if there was a scholarship on the line or you were 1/1000th of a  point behind the valedictorian, I could understand a little scheming.

You know when I was talking about scheming students, this was the picture you had in mind you racist.

Enough of my students were familiar with golf that I was able analogize the heck out this agrument. In golf you keep your own score, and unless there is a large financial reward at the end of the tournament, I could not think of a decent reason to alter my score. The modest increase in respect from my fellow players would be squashed by the amount of respect I lose for myself.

I hope that beer is worth it Tim.
So when politicians and society create high-stakes tests and try to motivate students with high paying J-O-Bs all it does is create a damp dark fecund environment for the fungus of fraud. If a society wants highly educated students, then we should stop incentivizing the masquerade, and if students want respect from teachers and employers, they have to respect themselves enough to not participate in these self-delusions of grandeur.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

3 Bullshit Arguments About Education


I love to argue about education. It is what I do. However, I would greatly appreciate it if society would no longer resort to following three bullshit arguments.

1. My Enemy Obviously Doesn't Care About Education Because He Does Not Hold Instruction Time Sacred.

Concerns about instruction time are legitimate when is comes to extending the school year. Some studies show that it would be the most effective means of school reform. But I am not talking about reasoned debate concerning the school year. My issue is with people that use it as an ad homonym attack essentially calling their opponent a instruction-time-taker-awayer. They then drop the microphone and walk off the stage.


These boys have been in school since 1941 and score an average of .002% higher on the latest state math test.

It comes up frequently during contract negotiations when each side claims that the other side doesn't care about the students. Administration believes that teachers are a bunch of slacking tenured blobs, while the faculty views the leardership as dictatorial facists more interested in saving a buck than a child.

The argument would work if either side would offer a solution that would increase instruction time while being financially feasible. Which brings me to the next bullshit argument.

2. You Can't Just Throw Money At The Problem.


We were going to hire Dr. Dre as superintendent, but he can't make it rain like Dr? Fat Joe.

Yes, you can. As I pointed out above, more instruction time means more capable students, but this would require an increase of funds. Studies of instructional time have been historically difficult because the schools with the most instructional time have also been the schools with the most money.

Keeping a building open when you are worried about making the electric bill is not a viable solution. Students would then be leaving a home in which the bills are not always paid to go to a school with the same problem. Cooling a school to make it a proper learning environment is a costly proposition.

Teachers won't, nor should they be asked to, work additional days without an increase in pay. "But wait," you say, "aren't teachers in it for the children?" We are, but it is not a volunteer position.

So, what is the solution. I don't know. Throw money at it?

3. Tenure Makes Teacher Lazy. After Five Years They Just Put It On Cruise Control.

Bullshit. This is a horrible argument to make about anyone, but especially teachers. We enter the job because we love to learn, read, create, analyse, solve and synthesize. The stereotypes of "Ditto" or the Ben Stein character from Ferris Beuller are misremembered, hormone infused images created by adolescents and amplified by adults to create hyperbolic characters that we can laugh at.

To a teenager a history teacher may seem the epitome of monotony,  a gym teacher may be the high school equivalent of a Sith Lord, or a math teacher could become a rule bound robot on the verge of a melt down when confronted with a little congnitive dissonence. In reality they are historians, athletes, and mathmeticians eager to share all of the amazing aspects of the thing they love the most.

All tenure says is that administration has to give a reason for firing a teacher and not just get rid of them because of a difference in pedagogy.

There are a million places I can think of that would be more pleasurable to become a fat ass on cruise control than a high school classroom. Number one on the list? Conservative talk show host.


Can't somebody take his tenure away? What? No, you are going to honor him with a bust instead?