A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, July 30, 2005

those lazy days of summer

Kimberly Swygert at Number 2 Pencil (www.kimberlyswygert.com) cites a recent USA today article ("Childhood pastimes are increasingly moving indoors," July 11, 2005) detailing the lack of desire in today's kids to go outside and play, especially during the magical days of summer. I've had conversations with my students about this phenomenon when we get to the point in the US history curriculum where we discuss "the good old days" for me-- in other words, the Seventies and Eighties (You know you're old when you actually remember stuff covered in a history class.)

Anyway, the article talks about how obesity rates have quadrupled since the 1960s, how kids would rather be playing video games than fishing, even when they acknowledge how fun fishing is:

"The fundamental nature of American childhood has changed in a single generation. The unstructured outdoor childhood — days of pick-up baseball games, treehouses and "be home for dinner" — has all but vanished.

"Today, childhood is spent mostly indoors, watching television, playing video games and working the Internet. When children do go outside, it tends to be for scheduled events — soccer camp or a fishing derby — held under the watch of adults. In a typical week, 27% of kids ages 9 to 13 play organized baseball, but only 6% play on their own, a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found....

"'Boundaries for kids used to be measured by blocks or miles. Now, the boundary for most kids is the front yard. A lot of kids are under house arrest,' says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, a book about how children have lost touch with nature...."

There are a few things that we need to acknowledge about this trend. Parents are afraid of letting their kids out of the house for fear they will fall victim to some rapist or murdereer. But have we overreacted and fallen victim to the worst excesses of our consumer society by giving kids every time-waster ever devised to keep them from resenting our protection? Let us consider the following:

1. There were four television stations in my beloved hometown when I was growing up, including the public television station. Children's programming could be found during the weekdays only in the early afternoons (Sesame Street and a local cartoon show were favorites), and Saturday mornings from 7 am to noon were devoted to cartoons on all three regular networks. The Wonderful World of Disney came on after Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on Sunday evenings. That was it. No Cartoon Network or Disney Channel, or 75 other channels for your entertainment pleasure.

2. Our family had one television to bring us those four splendid channels. It was color, though-- Grandma didn't get color TV until I was 7 or 8 years old. When I had my tonsils removed, my parents rented a tiny TV just for me to watch, and this was a BIIIIIIIG treat. Cable arrived in our town in the mid-70s, and suddenly, you could see all of The Little Rascals and the Mickey Mouse Club you could ever want. Whoo-hoo! We couldn't afford premium movie channels like HBO.

3. Our family had one telephone, and the receiver was connected by a cord to the phone's body in the kitchen, where anyone could hear your conversation. No matter how we stretched that cord, we still had to conduct our conversations completely within hearing range of other family members, especially since my mother spent what seemed like 70% of her life in our microwave-less kitchen.

4. I shared a room with either a brother or sister from the time I was two until I went to college. Even after I understood that a right to privacy had been deduced from the Bill of Rights in general, I knew that my parents were strict constructionists and my siblings were anarchists and there was no such creature in MY life. There was no closing of the bedroom door on that family. I usually climbed up on the roof and hid behind the chimney just to get five minutes to myself while on the familial estate.

5. I saw my first Atari videogame console in high school. We had to go to an arcade in a shopping mall or at the skating rink (with a king's ransom in quarters) to play video games such as Pong or Asteroid.

6. No computers, internet, instant messaging, or text messaging-- well, DUH! I AM a fossil! I also saw my first microcomputer in high school in my geometry class, but the teacher would only let boys play on it (upon my honor!) It had about the processing power of a rancid bottle of ketchup.

At this point, I usually have to assure my students, no, we weren't Amish, nor did we live in Point Barrow, Alaska.

7. I remember, from the time I was 8 or 9, getting on my bike as soon as I got up in the summer, and riding to the nearest park which was one block away, sitting under a tree and reading with my transistor radio (shaped like a Pekingese dog, from Radio Shack, powered by my free 9 volt battery each month) tuned to the local AM top-40 radio station. I might come home at lunch, or I might not if I had enough scratch to go buy a salad or a burrito, and I would play tackle football or a pick-up game of baseball with the neighborhood kids. We had bike races and played war and cops and robbers and mowed lawns to pay for, for me, two sessions a week at the rollerskating rink and books about horses and science fiction.

8. I also remember nearly getting snatched off the street when I was five by a creepy old man before we moved to a safer neighborhood, so it's not like that kind of problem suddenly was invented in the last few years.

I remember when people began putting triangular signs up in their windows with symbols of an adult with its arms around a child, indicating that they were willing to be a safe house for any kid who needed protection. Late 1970s, I think. This was, I believe, the beginning of the end of summer as we knew it.

Well, now that I've completely dated myself, let's fast forward to now. I have three of My Beloved Offspring under the age of twelve. When I let them play by themselves within hearing range of my backyard in the common ground of our subdivision or on the cul-de-sac around the corner, I am accosted as the World's Worst Mother by some neighbors. Okay. There are currently not enough kids in the neighborhood to have pick-up ball games, nor is there a park nearby in which to play games, if they were able to do so, but they are each allowed to belong to one organized sport at a time. It's the best I can do.

But there are some things we as parents can do.

There is no TV in My Beloved Offsprings' rooms, and, hence, no VCR or DVD or Playstation. I bought a Playstation for my hubby, but it is difficult for the kids to get to without my active cooperation. They do have handheld gaming devices, but I try to limit that.

There is no phone in MBOs' rooms, and if I see the handset missing from our cordless phone, I may just get on that phone and listen to anything being said or embarrass said BO by instructing child to hang up said phone-- with no warning. Since our phones are now cordless, this is not a perfect system, but it'll do for now.

An antique Macintosh is now on one of MBOs' desks, but it is not connected to the internet, nor will it ever be, even if its little guts could stand the strain. Its purpose is to print reports for school and to play CDs by some group named-- so help me-- Atomic Kitten.

I have been awarded the Meanest Mother Ever Award (for several years' running now! I'm like the Cal Ripken of Mean Mothers in terms of longevity and dependability) for turning aside all wheedling for a cell phone ("But Mom! Then you could always get a hold of me!" I can already always get a hold of MBO-- I have a pretty good grip, especially since I started judo at the Y.)

They still watch too much TV. But, as much as they can, my kids play-- with each other, indoors and outdoors, even when I catch flak for it. I believe that those long days spent relying upon ourselves in a completely unchoreographed way made us capable of taking responsisbility for ourselves and our actions. Ironically, we were more mature for being allowed to be kids. As a mother who also holds down an outside job shepherding other people's children through adolescence and the mysteries of history, I was only a temporary part of the whole contrived "playgroup" experience. But I know people that orchestrate their kid's every movement because they feel that that is the best way to protect them. But, ironically, the parents whose kids are drowning in the most schwag are the ones who bemoan their little ones' dilated pupils, pasty white complexions and Nintendo Thumb from too many hours plugged in to some device.

One of the parents in this article admitted to calling her kid "The Caveman" because he basically barricaded himself in his room 24/7. See, if you complain that your kids never come out of their room, it's because you've given them all the incentives in the world to stay there. And here's the amazing part-- it doesn't have to be that way! You can make that room less like a palatial refuge breathlessly extolled by Robin Leach and more like a place for sleeping. Just because they're in there doesn't mean you give in have to leave 'em there.

But, unfortunately, there is no way my kids could be gone for hours anymore, even if we moved to the country. The last five kids I can think of that made the local news by being abducted lived in really small towns near our metropolitan area. And I do need to do a better job of getting up and going outside and playing with them. It IS a different world out there. But don't blame the technology; blame the fact that we allow it to be so ubiquitous. We do have to be brave enough to take control of the things in their lives that we can, which means pulling the plug regardless of all the howls of juvenile protest. That's why we're their parents, not their friends.

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Friday, July 29, 2005

It was a dark and stormy night in English class....

Whoopee! The annual Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest has just cranked out another -- do we call it a winner?

Here's the 411: The Bulwer-Lytton contest is sponsored by the English Department at San Jose State University and is named after the 19th century writer who penned an immortally abysmal opening line to his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. Those of you who read the comic strip Peanuts as kids are familiar with Snoopy consistently getting writer's block after typing the first seven words of the infamous sentence:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

(Yikes! After nearly twenty years of teaching, you think I would be inoculated, but I still giggle in a kind of hysterical way when I read it. So many flashbacks of papers I've had to grade, it's dizzying.)

This year's winner, Dan McKay, who sought to plumb the depths of wordsmithing in an equally appalling fashion, gives us this gem:

"As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual."

Wow. If you've ever owned a Triumph Spitfire, and I have, you know exactly what he means, as owning a Triumph requires that you spend more hours (by a multiple of at least 3) under the hood than behind the wheel. But that's not my main point.

In my English classes, I used to have my middle-schoolers study the putrid prose of Mr Bulwer-Lytton, and then attempt to do their own imitation. There are also contests to mimic the styles of Faulkner and Hemingway, and sometimes we would do some of those, too. The hope was that they could recognize good and bad writing when they saw it, not to mention the added benefit of becoming familiar with a little literature in a reading curriculum that mandated boring primer material-- the most exciting thing they got to read every year was "To Build a Fire" and "A Sound of Thunder." I rebelled by trying to sneak in a little variety when the classroom door was firmly closed, such as "The Lottery" or "The Cremation of Sam McGee" (read them aloud for best effect so that the faster readers won't blow it for the slower ones), or "By the Waters of Babylon." (You know, in light of 9/11, you could really do something with that last one.) One class actually read and passed the tests for the entire reader 8 weeks early so we could then have the freedom to read a novel at the end of the year. If I never read "Raymond's Run" again, it will be too darn soon, and it's not because it's horrible, it's because we read it over and over again year after year.

Unfortunately, you will see very little interesting, classic, or challenging literature in today's English classrooms, especially in the middle schools. And don't blame the teachers, who often have no background in reading or literature, but instead are usually generalists in adolescent education instead of specialists in a discipline. Principals like to hire these candidates because they can be plugged in anywhere-- I have friends who have taught science one year and history the next, or, worse, taught both plus a section of reading. Generalists often don't have the time or expertise to devote to teaching reading-- they have just one planning period. In that orphaned reading class, the teacher could have over thirty students with reading levels stretching from three grades below grade level to three grades above grade level. I know, because I had that situation more than once.

The crush to meet standards has left the study of literature or the teaching of anything beyond the most rudimentary expository or narrative writing skills to be regarded as luxuries. The reading selections or writing prompts the kids encounter on these high stakes tests is usually carefully homogenized pap, so as to minimize "cultural bias" or other jargonny claptrap.

If we don't give our students the chance to read great literature or at least intellectually challenging material in class, they probably will never lay eyes on it. They certainly won't get it at home, unless they accidentally run across it online while looking for one of those websites that sells research papers and book reports.

Not that this micromanagement is a new phenomenon. I still remember my boredom in high school when Macbeth appeared for the third time in my four years of high school. My school district had a district-wide curriculum in its twelve or so high schools that was strictly followed. Why couldn't we read Julius Caesar, Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, or A Midsummer Night's Dream? Not on the currriculum. And this was an Honors class. So I sat in the back of the room and composed Ogden Nash- style doggerel in my head until it was over (It's true, there is no word that rhymes with orange.)

Good reading and good writing. That's supposedly what the standards should encourage. But when accountability is a cry that means quantifiable, easy-to-measure-but-mentally-deadening standards that attempt to fit all sizes of situations-- for it's in Washington that our scene lies--then that makes all the difference.

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Favorite quotes on failure and success

"Failure is not a single, cataclysmic event. You don't fail overnight. Instead, failure is a few errors in judgment, repeated every day."-- Jim Rohn (motivational speaker and businessman)

"A failure is a man who has blundered, but is not able to cash in on the experience."-- Elbert Hubbard (salesman, printer, and reporter)

"Excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure."-- Unknown

"If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate."-- Thomas Watson, Sr. (founder of IBM)

"Never walk away from failure. On the contrary, study it carefully-- and imaginatively-- for its hidden assets."-- Michael Korda (author)

"If you go to work on your goals, your goals will go to work on you. If you go to work on your plan, your plan will go to work on you.Whatever good things we build end up building us."-- Jim Rohn

"‘To swear off making mistakes is very easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas."-- Leo Burnett (advertising executive)

"It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket."-- Werner von Braun (father of modern rocketry)

Failure by any other name...

I love to read the news; in fact, I'm a news junkie. Friends of mine know this and send me little snippets they think I'll like. So I'm sure many of you have seen this one lately (July 28, 2005).

According to the Guardian newspaper, it seems a retired teacher in the Professional Association of Teachers in the U.K. recently put forward a motion that would "delete the word 'failure' from the education vocabulary and replace it with the concept of 'deferred success.'"

Said Liz Beattie, sponsor of the resolution: "I feel very strongly about this. For most of my teaching career I have been upset by seeing some children give up on themselves. If dropping the word 'fail' from our educational vocabulary could help, isn't it worth a try?"

Let's try this out, shall we, and see if it works:

The Boston Red Sox baseball team's delayed success in the World Series endured for eighty-eight years and was attributed to the "Curse of the Bambino."

What we have here is... delayed success to communicate!

If only we could fix everything by just making words go away... no, wait! Isn't decreasing one's vocabulary a BAD thing for educators to do?

But then again, what a fabulously Orwellian concept, one that Winston Smith's superiors in the Ministry of Truth would love! If we have no word for failure, then it won't occur! Right?


Here's the problem. No matter what we as teachers try, some students are going to fail. No matter how we try to paper over the lack of attainment of skills or knowledge, most of the students know they've failed, too. Grown up people-- teachers, coaches, principals, parents-- who try to duck the pronouncement at the moment of truth are doing the kids no favors. First of all, the kids know you're not being honest with them, and secondly, deep in their hearts, they don't appreciate it, either. Once you start down the dark path of euphemisms, kids know they can't trust you to give an honest assessment.

And that's what grades are or should be-- an assessment. Not a lifetime sentence. Not an identity. Unless, of course, you keep excusing away the failures as they pile up. What about the kid who buys your load of tripe, and thinks that nothing is wrong? Eventually, the lesson, the unit, the semester, the school year will end. Eventually, the students will expect to be able to go to the next lesson, the next unit, the next semester, the next grade, or eventually out in the world and do something with the knowledge they are supposed to have attained. Will they be able to do it?

Think of it, to twist the words of Pink Floyd, as a wall. Together, teachers and students are trying to build a wall of skills, knowledge, and facts that is going to have to support students' endeavors and aspirations after graduation. Honest assessments lead to the chance to correct flaws and mistakes before they become crippling weaknesses in that wall, before they pile atop each other. Students who face and recognize their failures get a chance to mend their failures. But what happens if students are allowed to stumble blithely on? Riddled with gaps and holes and in some cases yawning chasms where knowledge and skills should be, will their education collapse under the weight of ignorance at the first challenge?

In our frenzied quest to enhance "self-esteem," we are teaching our kids that it is okay not to do your best; it's okay not to get it right. We are taking away that inner sense of disappointment that encourages us to get it right the next time, and so there is no "next time." What kind of education are we giving our students if they are not held accountable for ever learning material that they have failed to attain previously?

By excusing or obviating failure, we are saying that we don't believe in our students. We are saying that we don't believe them CAPABLE of learning. We are saying we don't believe they can do better. And no matter how much people like Ms. Beatty think they are demonstrating their advocacy for children, by wanting to protect them from sometimes harsh truths, really all they are doing is ensuring that the failures will continue.

Oh, by the way, the motion to do away with the word "failure" itself-- failed to pass! Let's hope that this notion doesn't experience any "delayed success" any time soon.

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