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

Sunday, August 28, 2005

You Can't Make This Stuff Up-- IEP horror stories

So my district didn't make AYP, partly due to the scores of IEP students in communication arts.

Whoa, big surprise there!

For instance, there was Ringo*, whose IEP said that ANY work he turned in should be counted as extra credit. Not regular credit, EXTRA credit. But I never had to actually enforce this provision, since he never wrote anything that I saw-- unless the lyrics to Marilyn Manson's alleged "song" "Tea and Sympathy" counts. By the way, his mother tried to hand me work of his-- in her handwriting-- in the local grocery store while I was shopping-- she said she saw me go in and went back out to her car to get it for me. STG!

Then there was George*, whose IEP decreed that a 5' by 5' enclosure be constructed in the classroom for him to retreat to should he become overstressed. This was not the first time I'd seen this legally required remedy, by the way. A couple of years back, all the classes that Petula* attended had to have a study carel for her to sit in to minimize distractions for her, which wouldn't have rankled so much if I hadn't been trying to shoehorn 29 other distractions-- oops, I mean students-- into that same small room.

John*'s IEP was about 15 pages long but he was remarkably successful both in class and emotionally, with a B plus average, a sweet sense of humor--until his parents decided they wanted to send him to a private school, but they didn't want to pay for it. So they took him off all his prescriptions and changed therapists (the week before testing, although that's not the most important thing here.) He became deeply depressed, curled himself into a ball under his desk, couldn't sit still, and started scratching at his cuticles until they bled copiously and constantly picking his nose. When the school began calling the parents with our concerns, the parents filed suit to force the school district to pay John*'s tuition to the private school, alleging that we were maliciously failing to meet his needs under IDEA. And because of NCLB, the poor kid still had to test, and I got to sit in a room with him for four hours a day for two weeks (while a sub tested the rest of my students) and try to entice him with the liberal use of chocolate payoffs to finish the damn tests while he wanted to tell me about the bugs crawling beneath his skin and how his dead grandmother came to visit him in the night.

Paul*'s IEP stated that he could not be in the hallway during passing time-- we found out it was because he had a distressing but entrenched habit of shoving smaller kids (and since he was six feet tall in the 6th grade, that was most of them) headfirst into trashcans. So the IEP ordained that I was to walk him down two flights of stairs to his next class after the next class period had started. This, by the way, meant that I was to leave the 25 kids in my next hour class unsupervised (and, by the way, not receiving instruction) for five minutes each day.

But, hey-- the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many, right? Isn't that what IEPs have gotten to be all about?

Mick* was a great kid whose IEP stated that he was to take all quizzes and tests in the resource room. He came back with a quiz that he got a 92 on-- but in class, he volunteered the wrong answers to the very same material. So asked him to take the quiz again at the end of class-- and he got a 7. Percent. It was interesting to see how fast his caseworker ran to my room to try to explain what had happened after school that day. He averaged about 75% on work he did in class, and he worked hard. Y'know, if she'd just have given him the answers to 70% of the quiz, she probably would have gotten away with it.

By the by--Almost as bad are the forty or so kids I've had over the last few years who are doing great, have high GPAs, who refuse to receive any minutes of service from a special ed teacher, and whose parents openly admit that they have kept them under the terms of an IEP solely so that they can get extra time to boost their scores on the ACT and the SAT, not to mention the six AP tests they take each year. How is this not cheating? But it's okay, because at least their scores help raise the chances of us meeting AYP for students receiving special ed services.

And this is just the tip of the ol' iceberg, baby. I'm sure there are a million more stories in the naked city. We are required by law-- remember education is a right, not a privilege or a responsibility-- to take ALL comers. Kids with FAS. Kids with mental disabilities. Kids who used to have behaviors labelled BD, but God only knows what the latest euphemism is for it, because I can't keep up and they keep changing the name for the syndrome every month until it's gotten to be like the judge's famous definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

And by 2010, all of these kids are supposed to be performing at grade level on a standardized test with forty-two constructed response items. Yeah, right.

So I just have ONE question for Rod and now Margaret and George:


*- names have been changed to protect the innocent, although I should out the idiots who wrote the IEPs-- but I won't.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Are Middle Schools bad for kids? Part deux

I am very grateful to the folks at the Carnival of Education for putting my two cents out there about middle schools. A commenter to that previous post asked me a couple of questions, and the answer got so long, I thought, "Hey! There's a new post here." Ooooh! Multi-tasking!

The commenter asked how moving to K-8 schools or some other physical remedy could help. This person also stated that the middle schools had been "sold" at their inception as a way to facilitate multidisciplinary learning. So here's my response:

Well, I'm not too sure it actually matters WHERE those 6-8 grade years are accomplished-- my beef is with the attitude toward the kids by the administration and most parents and some teachers, wherever the kids physically are.

I've taught in a K-8 school, and there's one in my district as an alternative school. From my experience, it doesn't matter where they do these years, it matters how intellectual pursuits are emphasized. Unfortunately at the HS we are seeing that kids from the K-8 school evince the least successful transition to the high school as 9th graders, although admittedly the sample is small as a statistical reference. The middle school kids do a bit better, but a huge number manage to garner at least one semester F in their freshman year-- which I consider to be unacceptable.

When I taught in middle school, I was a part of a team of core teachers plus a reading teacher. We kept track of the kids-- we knew when they were disciplined, we kept them in a small area as they moved from class to class except for electives. I taught two of the core subjects as a combined unified studies class, but frankly, that is NOT what I've seen middle school to be about.

Here's my indictment:

I charge that the middle school philosophy is militantly, prima facie anti-intellectual and indeed is designed to create laboratories for dubious social and emotional engineering experiments in place of schools. The last consideration in these places is whether the students are being educated and whether they are learning. And in the through-the-looking-glass viewpoint of the highfalutin' theorists generating this alleged philosophy, there seems to be a whole slew of years in the midst of a youngster's life where it is ridiculous to expect a child to learn, because he or she is trying too hard to develop a positive self-concept and swim through the quicksand of puberty. In the name of being "child-centered," too many middle schools denigrate the potential of adolescents everywhere. The middle school philosophy begins with the premise that adolescents are too overburdened to be able to learn, and therefore expecting kids to engage in intellectually challenging activities is tantamount to expecting a dachshund to sing a Verdi aria.

My God, before middle schools rescued kids from the vicious expectation to think, how did any of them survive? You would hope that after two decades of this experiment, the least we would get out of this would be kids who were less damaged and vulnerable. We should see some results from all this emphasis on affective development since we're ignoring intellectual growth, right? Oh, but wait-- the lines to the crisis counselor are out the door, and the 504s for emotional issues are spreading like wildfire. And three years' worth of possible learning have gone up in smoke.

It's the reincarnation of that primal-scream-therapy, navel-gazing, finding-your-bliss, what-color-is-your-aura delusion of the counterculture all tarted up as an Ed.D. (Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.)

The people engaged in the work of education have to provide a safety net for kids transitioning through adolescence. They have to provide emotional support and skills to devlop self-reliance and show each kid that you value them as individuals. But schools cannot make emotional development their sole raison d'etre. Where middle schools absolutely betray the task entrusted to them as schools is when it comes down to academic rigor and accountability on the part of the kids in terms of whether they have learned the material in the name of protecting them. You cannot learn or become skillful without practice and struggle. You can't give someone an education-- an education is what meaning you make of the world for yourself. And the ultimate irony in all this is the fact that NCLB-- absolutely poor policy and ridiculous as it is-- at least may expose the truth.

Well, that just goes to show that we can find the silver lining to ANYTHING.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Let us now praise brave actions...

in Connecticut, where they've filed a lawsuit decrying NCLB as an "unfunded mandate." Way to go, y'all! Basically, they're asking Dubya and his pals to put up, or shut up.

Preferably, the shut up part.

Fork over the cost of say, a bunker-buster bomb, and get out of my way! Oh. but the nattering nabobs of NCLB say, "Throwing MONEY-- filthy lucre, whatever you want to call it-- around won't solve the problem!" Yeah, but it might make sure there are texts in the hands of all kids on the first day of school-- there's a frill for ya. Interesting how money can't solve the problems of education but it can solve the heartache of millionaires who want to use my tax money to help defray the cost of their kids' private school tuition....

How about if I rename my high school after Halliburton? Okay to throw money around there, right?


Back in the saddle again....

School’s – Back – in—Session!!! BAH BababaBAH bababaBAH bababaBWABWAH!

All Apologies to Alice Cooper (and Kurt Cobain), but we’re back in it.

I have accomplished everything on my to-do list, making sure I got to:

1. Justify my teaching bona fides to administrator who taught for an amount of time just longer than it took Han Solo to program the jump to lightspeed? CHECK.

2. Humiliate myself in front of all my colleagues and district employees in school-year kickoff skit? CHECK. (If only laughing your butt off actually worked….)

3. Made sure I got punished for being able to get through last year without being screamed at by last year’s sensitive-and-misunderstood boy by being given his two siblings since I “seem to be able to work with the family?” CHECK.

4. Spent tons of money on supplies for my classroom because we each get only $70 and we don’t get paid for four weeks? CHECK.

5. Got the news that our district didn’t make AYP because of kids with IEPs and communication arts—like that is a surprise when you’ve got IEPs that NEVER attempt to move kids toward meeting the standard of writing on grade level? CHECK.

6. Found out that during the summer, the tech staff arbitrarily changed all of our passwords to the school server to make us not use the default (who ARE these people??) and now have to deal with the fact that we are only able to change the new default passwords on machines that run an operating system that none of us have? CHECK.

Ahhhh, yes. Glad to be back!

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Saturday, August 20, 2005


Lisa Snell at educationweak posted an interesting review of a study stating that Florida schools "suspended more low-scoring students than high-scoring students during testing periods--even when the students committed similar school crimes."

Well, sure, I'd rather deal with a smart thug than a dumb thug any day!

Testscores Uber Alles!

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Thursday, August 18, 2005

Should teachers be armed?

So I was reading the Carnival of Education #28, and read a thought-provoking post which you can find at http://ticklishears.com/?p=82 (Someday, my browser may let me do all those nifty techie things on this blog, but for now I apologize for the lack of formatting).

Seems a teacher/blogger suggests that in a post- 9-11, post-Columbine world, we need to accept reality that SWAT teams don't work and that teachers should be armed. The author states that terrorists intend to strike soft targets, and US schools, being not very secure, are ripe for a Beslan-type attack. He also states that police are reactive, not proactive, as the slow bleeding death of teacher Dave Sanders at Columbine proves that the police response model is outmoded and ineffective. He cites the fact that Israeli teachers are armed, and claims that that is why there are no school attacks in Israel any more.

So should teachers be the ultimate line of defense? Here are my thoughts.

I have some experience with firearms. I could be certified to carry a weapon if I chose to– I can load, unload, clean and accurately fire a weapon. I am completely comfortable with them, and am in no way squeamish around them.

I also possess the unique skill of being able to convince kids --either with words, commanding voice, or as a last resort, physical leverage-- to stop fighting. Don't get me wrong-- I am a friendly, open person who never raises her voice in the classroom. I am not some thuggy crone who scares the bejeezus out of kids. But, for some reason, I am good at separating junior pugilists, often without having to touch them. It must some kind of subconscious teacher voodoo vibe, like those whistles that only dogs can hear.

Do I choose to own a weapon? No. They don't make me feel safe. I don't think you can get a feeling of safety from having access to a thing. I feel safe because I trust myself and my inner resources. And besides, I have small children who want to eat off mommy's plate, drink out of mommy's drink, and play with mommy's toys. If I did have a gun around, there's no way it would be either loaded or unlocked, no matter how much the NRA claims that they successfully teach kids to go get an adult if they see a gun. This means that, by the time I've got a gun in firing condition if I DID have a need to kill some hopped-up intruder, it would be far too late to use it. And I was taught not to pull a gun out unless you feel a necessity to kill someone with it.

The kind of situations I have encountered in my career certainly have not come close to that standard. The author of the blog I read stated that, during a shooting at a high school in Pearl, Mississippi, a few years back, the assistant principal credited with stopping the shooter used a gun he ran and got from his car, and that the mainstream media hid this fact. Well fine. If true, he got lucky. But it's very possible he could have gotten the shooting to stop in other ways. It's also possible he could have been shot by the assailant even with the gun in his hand.

I currently study two different martial arts– one which includes striking, and one which includes grappling. Not because I am some strutting tough tomboy, but because I need to get in shape and because I enjoy the discipline involved. It also doesn't hurt to add these skills, though, now that I'm getting older, I admit.

Do I use these skills when I monitor troublesome areas in my school? The awareness of one’s surroundings and the projection of a calm, confident mien, yes. But strike or choke a student? No. And the odds are incredibly great that I will never encounter a situation like those at Columbine in which striking or harming a student would be necessary and even, in my opinion, required. And yet it is suggested that I and my colleagues should carry guns.

In a violent or potentially violent situation in a school, we should always seek to use the least amount of force, and once you introduce lethal weapons, you are tacitly upping the ante of teacher response in lesser situations.

When I break up a fight among students, (it’s very rare, but I can do it and have done it over my career) I use the skills and reflexes and open yet commanding demeanor I have honed to assess the situation, and use the least amount of force possible. My main response in a violent situation is neither to watch idly while one kid busts open another kid’s head, nor to bust open a kid’s head myself, but to TRY TO PREVENT PEOPLE (myself included) FROM BEING FURTHER HARMED. (And of course many other teachers and the NEA disagree and tell me not to intervene– fine for you, but I have to live with myself. I do admit I am still a bit resentful of the big strapping male colleague who stood softly chanting "stop, stop" while I did the Heisman on two fighting teens a while back, especially since I had just returned from maternity leave, but that's another story for another day.) How would that dynamic change if I had a .357 strapped to my hip?

One should use a gun when one wants to use the greatest amount of force to resolve a situation, not the least amount. Having teachers carry weapons would be a mistake, for a number of reasons.

1. Most people with access to weapons, being reasonable, law-abiding citizens, hesitate to pull the trigger, but they don’t hesitate to pull the gun out, hoping that the perpetrator will be dissuaded by the mere sight of a weapon. Instead, what happens all too often is that the weapon then gets taken away from them after a violent game of “chicken.” So now the perp has TWO weapons. And if he’s really determined, there’s already a dead or wounded “hero” on the ground– because the perp is NOT a reasonable, law-abiding citizen with deep, unacknowledged doubts about his own ability to use violence. We cannot assume that most teachers really have the will to kill, if necessary. That’s why we’re teachers, not cops.

2. Oh, but killing isn’t necessary, you say. Just shoot to disable or wound. But most people don’t have the training to do this, and they know it. Even the police have a less-than-perfect record at this, which is why both cops and civilians hesitate to pull the trigger in the first place, as mentioned previously– reasonable people know and recoil from the permanent consequences of sending that projectile irrevocably down that barrel.

As my gun-loving Uncle “Roy” taught me when he taught me how to use a gun, “Honey, if you pull out your weapon against some threat, you need to know you’re going to use it, and use it until it’s empty.”

And even if teachers were willing to do so, we don’t have hours a week to spend training ourselves to become this skilled– we’re already drowning in a plethora of tasks just to try to educate our students.

The blogger I read noted that the Supreme Court held in the case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales in 2005 that the police have no legal obligation to intervene in a violent situation (Yep, you can look it up at http://www.law.duke.edu/publiclaw/supremecourtonline/certGrants/2004/casvgon.html). If police response is inadequate to handle a potentially lethal situation at a school, it is not the job of teachers to take on the task of being the armed presence to deter violence. Likewise, let me emphasize that I choose to intervene in fights and scuffles at school, but there is NO WAY in our current litigious society that any teacher could be required to do so. And having just some teachers carrying weapons certainly wouldn't be a good idea.

And, finally, I can't seem to say this enough: there has to come a point when society realizes that schools cannot be all things to all people– we can’t be community centers and therapists and year-round cafeterias and social services providers and barbershops and planned parenthood clinics and daycare facilities and at the same time pretend to be focused on education. The more we dilute our attention away from the main mission, no matter how noble the cause, the more we make sure we won’t be good at ANYTHING, especially the all-too-difficult attempt to encourage the attainment of skills and knowledge by our young people. And packing heat is in no way related to my attempts to encourage learning; indeed, I would say it would greatly detract from my main goal.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Shooting for the bottom

I just got back from a visit home-- enjoyed myself immensely, seeing old pals, especially my friend J, who is a teacher. I also managed to run into several teachers I didn't know previously-- working at an Eddie Bauer, working at a Barnes & Noble, and so on, and it depressed me to think about these ladies working retail during their non-teaching hours just to make ends meet, because that was what was going on-- they told me so.

Well here's a little piece of humor masquerading as politics. In another example of closing one's eyes to long term educational consequences in favor of currying short term political favor, the supposedly moderate governor of my home state (which ranks at the bottom for teacher salaries, and money spent per child) has proposed giving a tax rebate to all taxpaying families in the state. Seems "awl revenoo" is looking up- go figure- and so the bright idea of sending each taxpaying family a token check was born.

Nevermind that nearly half the students in public school qualify for free or reduced lunch. Nowhere does anyone contemplate spending the money on teacher salaries in a state which is hemorrhaging teachers across all the borders. The saints who remain behind face some of the most stringent certification standards of any state. For the last ten years, the only way a teacher could get more money short of moonlighting at Sam's Club-- which always makes your students respect you more when they see you as a checker at night-- was to jump through the dubiously objective hoops of the national certification program.

I'm sure the guv is winning friends all across the state who eagerly anticipate their money. But a few bucks in the hands of individuals will buy enough pizza for a family of four a couple of times a year. A couple of million bucks pooled together can buy a lot of textbooks, school repairs, and high-quality teachers.

My home state is not a rich one, but we natives are a proud lot. MHS has experienced a tragic loss of jobs in the last few years, and times are hard for many. In the short term, the checks would make people happy. But one of the reasons why times are hard is that many lack the broad educational background to be able to negotiate the vagaries of the modern job market. So the money would be a wise investment, since companies looking to relocate are doubtless scared off by the lack of support for the concept of an educated citizenry.

I'm hoping someone back there thinks this through and makes an investment in the future.

Thanks to my friend J for the food for thought.

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Jonesboro Murderer Released

One of the two murderers who killed five-- four students and a teacher-- at a Jonesboro, Arkansas middle school in 1998 will be freed today, and his record now bears no evidence that he ever committed any crime.

He can even buy a gun, since he is not officially a felon.

I guess we should be grateful he was held until his twenty-first birthday. At the time of his sentencing, local authorities speculated that, due to lack of space, he would probably be released when he was 18.

As posted on KATV.com:

"Jonesboro, AR - A 21-year-old Arkansas man will be released from prison after serving time for his role in a school shooting that shocked the nation. The story is one no one in Arkansas forgets.

Back in 1998, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and 11-year-old Drew Golden waited in the Westside Middle School yard in Jonesboro during a prank fire alarm and then opened fire on the exiting students.

Thursday, Mitchell Johnson turns 21, and because Arkansas had no laws to impose life sentences on children convicted of murder. He will be set free.

Five people were killed…four of them young girls, and one teacher, Shannon Wright.

(Mitchell Wright, victim’s husband) "I got to the campus and a friend of ours who went to church with us stopped me and told me that Shannon had been shot."

Mitchell Wright says the experience was surreal and recounts having to tell his two-year-old son his mother was killed.

However, on August 11, Wright says the pain of losing his loved one will be renewed with the release of Mitchell Johnson. Johnson's mother says her son is reformed after spending seven years in prison.

She says he's truly sorry for what he's done and has even expressed interest in becoming a minister. However, other victims say it’s not enough.

Johnson's mom says her son will move from Arkansas after his release and likely enroll in college."

Let us all remember Mitchell Johnson's victims. In addition to ten wounded, murdered were:
Natalie Brooks, 11
Paige Ann Herring 12
Stephanie Johnson, 12
Brittheny R. Varner, 11
Shannon Wright, 32, the mother of a 2 1/2-year-old son, died later after surgery for wounds to her chest and abdomen. Students said the teacher stepped in front of a sixth-grader as the shots rang out. The student was not hurt.

Let's hope he remembers them, too. Every minute of every day for the rest of his life.

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That's MRS. Old School to you

So I wandered on back to the ol’ schoolhouse to check my mail and see if my AP scores were in. And there was a copy of some new rules/procedures for the upcoming hitch. One that caught my eye was a clarification of our new definition of gang activity.

I am stunned. I didn’t know it before, but apparently I and my fellow teachers actually belong to a gang, which is defined as two or more individuals who:

- Create a climate of fear and intimidation within the community/school. The power to write referrals or use a red pen is the power to destroy. Some are better at this than others.

-Claim a neighborhood or geographical territory. Well let's see.... There's the social studies wing, the math wing, the science wing, the counselor's office, the business wing, and so on. And we are territorial about it.

-Wear distinctive types of clothing or exhibit distinctive appearance. We're got the special staff oxford shirts, we've got the wrinkles and the bags under our eyes, and for the most part, our pants aren't sagging off our butts (if they are, it's an anatomical oddity, not a fashion statement) which certainly makes us stand out from the kids.

-Use a name, a common identifying sign or symbol, or has an identifiable leadership. Teachers take turns sitting on the BLT (Building Leadership Team), practically all of us carry coffee cups for survival, and everyone knows the principals.

-Have a high rate of interaction among members to the exclusion of other groups. Ever taken a spouse or a date to a staff get-together? Do they have the slightest idea what we talk about? Do they care?

- Communicate in a peculiar or unique style. Repeat after me: drop, overfill, paradigm shift, authentic assessment, performance assessment, differentiated instruction, Fry Readability Graph, graphic organizer, IEP, ISS, 504, IDEA, NCLB, K-W-L, LEP, multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner, assertive discipline, Family Math, manipulatives, textual intelligence, fishbowl, diamante, cooperative learning, normed score, standard deviation, site council, sheltered English, Title I, differently abled....

Yep. We got 'em all. We're a gang. And now that I think about it, let's look at the last descriptor, which I was willing to give ourselves a break on:

- Commit criminal acts (including violence, drug use or distribution, and acts of intimidation) or exhibit antisocial behavior on a regular basis. Well, I would hope that most of us were not committing criminal acts, but it’s that second part that gets you. Is valium or extra-strength Tylenol really a drug, or is each merely a survival tool? Antisocial? Talk to me when the February doldrums roll around, and everyone is suffering from seasonal affective disorder, or during last minute cramming for NCLB-mandated tests....

Just something to think about. Happy end of summer!

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

If I was the Queen of the School

So my daughters have made sure that I have heard Gwen Stefani's "If I Was A Rich Girl" on Tune Disney-- and I must say, I briefly tried to picture Tevye singing it wearing Gwen's wardrobe, or Gwen with Tevye's beard. It was almost like a hallucination.

Riches don't really appeal to me. But being a queen does. So I got to thinking, what if I was the Queen of the school? (Yeah, follow THAT train of thought, whydontcha?) Anyhow:

-Girls couldn't dress like Gwen Stefani, and boys would no longer need that grab-the-crotch duckwalk they have to adopt to keep me from seeing London and France.

-Ketchup would never be allowed to be counted as a vegetable in school lunches. And ground turkey? Yikes!

- No one could become a principal unless they had successfully taught for at least ten years. And once every five years, they would have to take a full year's rotation in the classroom, in another building to prevent getting favorable treatment from his or her fellow administrators, with all the attendant duties, privileges, proximity-to-a-bathroom and salary that implies. During this time, teachers getting their administrative credentials could do their intern experience in that slot, which should last at least a full year.

-Cooperating teachers in a mainstreaming situation (like in class-within-a-class) who stiff their partner teachers by not showing up or bringing a puppy to school or sitting in the back of the room doing paperwork or surfing the 'net would be forced to eat lunch in the boys' bathroom. Without the use of their hands. On the floor. Without a tray.

-The school would only have the rules that everyone in the school will enforce. Anything else makes you look like a chump in front of the kids. If only the teachers in the math wing enforce the tardy policy, what's the point? Especially when administrators make up draconian punishments in the behavior guide and then ignore them? And Principal Perpetual Plea-bargain would be fired.

-Teachers should be evaluated carefully by a principal who has been a teacher, who loved being a teacher, and is a true instructional leader who knows what she is talking about. Principals should have a CFO to handle budgetary matters so that they do not have to spend a majority of their time on tasks which have nothing to do with the instructional needs of the school. Incompetent teachers would be fired. Period. Incompetent administrators would be fired. Not shuffled off to another position.

-Parents who are guilty of educational neglect of their children would be subject to criminal penalties.

-Helicopter parents would be forced to work for a year as a teacher's aide in a different school from the one their children attend.

- No one could pass laws about education unless they had been a regular education teacher for five years within the last fifteen years. And if one might criticize that practically no one in the state lege or in the Beltway could pass laws about education.... um, what would be your point?

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Are Middle Schools bad for kids?

Yes and no. Middle schools aren't-- the "Middle School Philosophy," worshipped unquestioningly, definitely is.

What brought up this question is the article in Time magazine's Being 13 special edition. Sez that several districts across the country are switching to K-8 schools--of course, to raise test scores as one of the main reasons.

I spent more than a decade teaching 13 and 14-year-old kids. I taught in a K-8 parochial school and in a public middle school. Here's what I saw:

If a student had a "failing" grade-- not that that meant anything, since there was no retention-- even after you had mentored and encouraged and voluntarily stayed after school with them on your own dime to tutor them, after you had sent notes home to the parents, after you had repeatedly called the parents (keeping a log of the discussions if you knew what was good for you), after you had spoken to parents in face-to-face conferences, after you had taken countless late assignments and given them six more copies of every paper they ever lost and given them four textbooks since they lost those too (and you knew those books were gone forever because you weren't allowed to charge the kid for the lost books but you had no money to order new ones)-- at the end of the year, you were asked what more you, the teacher, could have done.

With a straight face.

By an administrator who either spent two years in a classroom or who last stood in front of a class 25 years ago. If you said "Nothing"-- which was safer than sarcastically making a remark related to doing their work for them or wiping their "noses"-- then the kids were socially promoted. If you actually could think of something else you could have done-- I had one colleague who actually went to one kid's house and woke him up in the morning, fercryinoutloud-- then the kid was promoted to the next grade because it was really the teacher's failure, not the responsibility of the kid.

It is completely verboten to consider that perhaps the student had some part to play in this drama. By consistently demonstrating no concern with learning, the student learned nothing. And even when she is passed along to the next grade, she still has not learned that material. Which might be useful as a building block for learning in the next grade. And the next.

Not to mention that the student HAS learned that he is a passive player in their own education-- which is the most dangerous lesson you can teach someone.

All in the name of an alleged "Middle School Philosophy" which spurns intellectual rigor and academic achievement in favor of "affective development" and -- my favorite-- "self-esteem."

I say that in today's society, kids don't have three years to spin their wheels intellectually while educators focus on helping them love themselves. Many kids love themselves so much right now that they brook no thought that they could do better and they have no shame when doing wrong.

We have created and celebrated a culture of adolescence in modern society which always tries to make things come easy-- which means nothing. Adolescence is a very recent concept, really developed only in the last few decades. It is no coincidence that bar and bat mitzvah and confirmation-- rites of passage into responsibility and the beginning of the path to adulthood-- have been traditionally scheduled for millennia at or about the age of thirteen. Middle schools infantilize students at the expense of their education. Young people should be transitioning into being responsible for their actions, not being cocooned from every pitfall.

Middle schools and their adherents demonstrate their lack of faith in students to learn. They assume that kids can't do it by coming up with the hit-parade of excuses. Guess what? If you have real rapport with your kids, when you talk to them they will cop to the fact that they didn't work hard enough, and that they deserve their grade.

Although it would be easier if I didn't, I fiercely love my students. I am such a sap that when I see those "Eureka!" moments with my kids, or when I get hugged by gawky former students, I get tears in my eyes. Really. It's very embarrassing. And the kids know I love them when I demand their best effort, nothing less.

I manifest that love by expecting them to learn-- to read, write, contemplate, to wrestle with ideas like Abraham wrestling with the angels. Letting them off easy is, unfortunately, the middle school way. And it's not working.

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

No Excuses.... unless-

So as part of my summer homework I read No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, by Abigail and Stephan Thornstrom. I think I will muse periodically about this, but there are two things I am pondering right now.

All of the successful schools cited as being able to spur minority achievement in the book are charter schools. Hmm, interesting, since most of the charters near me have been spectacular failures-- and before I listen to any howls of protest, let me say that I would like to see charter schools succeed as long as the junk charter schools are allowed to duck are removed from my life as well. My point is, maybe the ones nearby should be run in a professional manner, like the ones in the book, not like a banana republic. It seems to depend upon the local laws, and in our state, someone with a fifth grade education can home-school his kids. (My favorite one was the parent who had the principal ask me to send her ALL of my materials, assignments, quizzes, notes, and tests. She's still waiting, by the way. Up until that point I'd never actually physically alternated between slack-jawed shock at the utter gall and hilarious laughter. The only thing she didn't ask me for was recipes for lunch and toilet paper.)

I am also wondering if all the administrators in my district have read this book. Because one of the big suggestions in No Excuses is adoption of the "Broken Windows" theory of political scientist James Q. Wilson. I like this, and it has always been my policy, as far as I as a lowly cog in the machine can enforce it. But I wonder if the initial terrifying deluge of discipline referrals would be tolerated if we tried to take this seriously, because, there is a hardened -- calcified-- minority of students --and teachers-- which would require some "attitude adjustments," to put it mildly. And, since the taking up of a place in school or a classroom has been termed a "right" without any talk of "responsibility" or "privilege" in American society, what would we do with the kid who just won't get with the program? A charter school can say "Adios!" but the problem is that regular public schools have to take everyone, and people, that covers quite a lot of ground behavior-wise.

In the long run, the Broken Windows theory absolutely works, but when have you really seen teachers and administrators who get the chance to run things look at the long term if it means they have to suffer through some intense but short term unpleasantness?

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Intelligent design and intelligent debate

Well, today there is this headline in the newspaper that caught my eye: President endorses teaching intelligent design. Quoth Mr. Bush: "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought."

Y'don't say! Can I hold you to that? Because I'm all about open, civil, intelligent discourse-- I just wasn't sure that many of the people Mr. Bush is courting with this pronouncement cherished the same goal.

The article goes on to say that the State Board of Education in Kansas-- always a bellwether in cutting edge educational thinking-- "is considering changes to encourage the teaching of intelligent design in Kansas schools, and Christian conservatives are pushing for similar changes in other school districts across the country." Luckily, not everyone in Kansas is so ready to acquiesce in this. In the words of Leonard Krishtalka, who directs the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, intelligent design is "creationism in a cheap tuxedo," trying to sneak into the Ball under false pretenses.

Faith and reason: complementary attitudes in the search for truth, or implacable adversaries? My faith is so important to me that the last thing I want is a teacher attempting the tightrope walk of explaining it in science class. Although my own personal belief is that God's existence is proven by the wonders of natural laws that tick along in complexity, this is just that-- a very personal religious belief which I would never share in class. Now, do I mention religion in my history classes? Yes. I have to, since religion informs behavior throughout history. How can a teacher explain current challenges facing American society without discussing certain religious beliefs and how they influence human behavior? But do I tell students that they personally have to ascribe to the beliefs that I have to explain? Absolutely not. And when I do have students who have legitimate questions about their beliefs, I gently but firmly suggest that this is a discussion they should have with their parents or guardians or religious leaders, if they've got them. Period.

But this is more of a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't"-- literally. One of the things alleged "conservatives" constantly decry is schools invading the prerogatives of parents, as with the teaching of sex ed, because it violates their religious beliefs. "This should be taught in the home!" it is cried. (Agreed! I would love to not have to teach this topic, but from what I've experienced, a majority of parents don't. My own parents were so embarassed by the thought of talking about this with me that they sent me to a class. My father can be reduced to stuttering incoherence by the mere word "menstruation.") I find it interesting that the people who are most concerned about schools usurping the role of parents don't see the hypocrisy of having schools teach religious doctrine. Further, many of the people who promote the teaching of creationism in schools also spend a majority of their time denigrating in the most vicious terms the intelligence, industry, capability and intentions of teachers in general when it comes to teaching supposedly "basic" topics like reading and writing. And now they want people they consider to be evil, or even worse, numbskulls, teaching religious beliefs, with their millions of interpretations, as science?

My Beloved Offspring are occasionally taught things with which I do not agree. That doesn't mean that I will demand that the teacher conform the day's lesson to my beliefs. That means that as, a parent, I pay attention to what MBO are studying, and then we discuss our beliefs in our home. I also do not send said offspring to sally forth into class the next day and argue the point with the teacher. It is my responsibility as a parent to attend to my children's religious education as a part of our home life.

Another problem is this: many people who denounce the separation of religious teachings from schools only want THEIR religion taught, to the exclusion of viewpoints which conflict with their beliefs. Hmm, how should be handle this conundrum? Obviously, a show of hands won't work, because if democratic principles applied in religion, we would all still be placing offerings before altars to Jupiter-- Christians were once greatly outnumbered by those who adhered to the Roman state religion, and that was before Christianity was divided up into dozens of denominations with competing dogma. Judaism as a minority religion worked so well against the same Roman juggernaut that the Jews were expelled from Palestine for a millenia or two. If those examples are to remote for you, we can look at the modern example of the former Yugoslavia, or northern Ireland as cautionary tales of what happens when religions struggle for supremacy. Once we start injecting religious interpretation into schools, the next big problem, is: Whose interpretation? The Roman Catholic one? The Baptist one? The Jewish one? The Lutheran one (would that be Missouri Synod or Evangelical)? The Hindu one? Even people within denominations and religions do not agree with each other on matters of doctrine.

Let's just say that Mr. Bush gets his way on this one. Many people of faith aren't going to be satisfied with intelligent design, either, since some believe that Adam was created from clay and divine breath (or, if we interpret that etymologically, as "inspiration"), and that he and his male descendants are missing a rib under his armpit (Shall we teach that in anatomy?) Intelligent design fudges on this issue, to say the least. Religious people, beware! Intelligent design is still the injection of a small part of an overall religious interpretation with which only a minority of you would agree. It is also highly presumptuous that the only religious beliefs which should be promoted in our schools are Christian beliefs.

Another article about this story on the 'net contained the following quote: John G. West, an executive with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank supporting intelligent design, issued a written statement welcoming Bush's remarks. "President Bush is to be commended for defending free speech on evolution, and supporting the right of students to hear about different scientific views about evolution," he said. But does any one else see the irony of this championing of free speech in this context?

The concept of intelligent design is a Trojan horse for adding religious content with which you probably disagree to schools' already overburdened curricular load. Speaking of Trojan horses, I know of several teachers who have been challenged for teaching Greek mythology, since the stories once served a religious purpose-- suddenly, then the cry from the religious right is that we are teaching religion in the schools! Apparently some schools of thought ought not to be subjects for exposition, freedom of speech be damned. Perhaps we should make sure not to teach FALSE religions.

Okay. Which ones were those, again?

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Obesity and schools

There is currently a big push to offer more healthy fare in school cafeterias, and it is certainly a good idea. The days that I fail to bring my own lunch to school are always days of tension, as there is no way that an adult who is concerned about their weight can eat the food in the school cafeteria. It seems like 80% of the calories come from starches and fat. I would love to be able to explain to the people who make up the menus in a typical school that if you substitute ground turkey for beef as an ingredient (which by the way, unfortunately, tastes completely different, and by that I mean unpleasant), that cooking it in lard is spectacularly missing the point. If I'm going to clog my arteries, it should at least taste good. Which is the first problem: healthier fare won't do any good, either, if the kids won't eat it.

But there is another problem that is more important, if we are going to take this issue seriously. My school district currently requires 1.5 credits in physical education during the four years of high school, and the half credit is taken care of by a health class. There is currently talk of reducing this to one credit. In middle school, many students attend PE only every other day if they play a musical instrument. This is not enough. Then there is the fact that I often easily lap students taking "Power Walking" when I'm walking from one hallway to another on my planning period without breaking a sweat-- even in my street clothes and as ancient as I am.

Now, before people think that I've gone all "Multiple Intelligences" on them, let me say that I am all about the primacy of academics in schools. Nor do I believe that it is the job of schools to solve all societal ills-- far from it! However, physical education has been part of the educational landscape for decades now. My experience has been that people can use their brains better when they are not prisoners of lethargy. Physical education is a key component in an excellent education.

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