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

Monday, January 30, 2006

In which my alter ego the History Geek explores the antecedents for fragmentation of Iraq

What will happen to Iraq in the wake of the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein? The hope, of course, is that Iraq will become a democracy. History is not so sanguine.

Let us note what has happened to a country which shares much in common with Iraq: Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was founded around the same time as Iraq was cobbled together, in 1918, from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It was overrun by Nazi Germany in the misnamed World War II, and underwent a civil war before Josip Broz (Tito was a nom de guerre) emerged as the supreme leader who unified the six republics into a non-aligned communist state from 1945 to his death in 1980. After Tito’s death there were hopes that Yugoslavia would undergo a new dawn of freedom. Surely, the only thing repressing the power of the people was the oppressive dictatorship of Tito.

Turns out, Tito was all that stood between the people and hell on Earth. This assumption of peace and freedom overlooked some very important facts. Yugoslavia’s people were divided among three religious affiliations-- Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Muslim-- as well as nearly ten ethnic subgroups. According to country-data.com, in the 1981 census (post-Tito), Serbs made up approximately 33% of the population, Croats 20%, Muslim Slavs 9%, Slovenes 8%, Albanians, 7.7%, Macedonians 6%, Montenegrins 3%, and Hungarians 2%. Only 5.4% of the population claimed an ethnicity of “Yugoslav.”
Most of Yugoslavia's six republics and two provinces showed significant ethnic diversity. Only Serbia proper, Slovenia, and Montenegro were largely homogeneous. Croatia had a substantial Serbian minority of about 12 percent. Macedonia had Turks, Vlachs, and a fast-growing Albanian population. Muslim Slavs, Serbs, and Croats made up the population of Bosnia and Hercegovina, but no single group predominated. Kosovo was predominantly Albanian with Serbian, Montenegrin, and Muslim Slav minorities; and a Serbian majority shared Vojvodina with Hungarians (at 24 percent, the largest minority in that province), Croats, and many less numerous groups.

The religious and ethnic hatreds in the Balkans had had centuries to develop, and with no real national identity, genocide was just over the horizon. We all remember what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It disintegrated into a patchwork of independent republics and violence. In Bosnia and the area in Yugoslavia known as Kosovo, complicating the ethnic divisions, the predominantly Orthodox Serbs, the Roman Catholic Croats, and the Muslim Albanians and Slavs turned on each other, and hundreds of thousands were forced into concentration camps, driven from their homes, and killed. Kosovo was the site of countless crimes against humanity and attempts at ethnic cleansing. And over what? The irony is that Serbs and Croats are also Slavs—their main difference in their religion. According to religious tolerance.org:
Peter Black, senior historian at the United States Holocaust Museum commented: "In the Balkans, religious identification became part of national identity, as expressed through language and the communication of the national myth. Thus, being Orthodox is part of being Serbian."

Like Yugoslavia, the country which we call Iraq is not now nor ever has been a unified organic whole. Iraq was created in the aftermath of World War I after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, with most of its boundaries being determined by the British (see here for more details).

In 1920, in the aftermath of World War I, the League of Nations awarded control of Iraq as a British mandate (meaning a former area of the Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian empire placed under the guardianship of another European power until it could stand on its own).

Iraq sits astride of the crossroads between the Arab and Southwest Asian world. According to Stars and Stripes.com, Iraq’s religious/ethnic makeup is currently 60% Shi’ite Arab, 20% Sunni Arab, 17% Kurd (mostly Shi’ite), and 3% Other, meaning Assyrians and Turkomen, two non-Arab southwest Asian peoples. Northern Iraq is populated by Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkomen. Southeastern Iraq is predominantly Shi’ite, and Baghdad lies in an area which is split between Shi’ites and Sunnis. Iraq is divided into eighteen provinces.

In 1933, Iraq was granted its independence under King Faisal I, cousin to the king of Jordan, and in 1936 the military overthrew the government in the first of several coups Iraq would undergo. In 1956, in response to the creation of the radical United Arab Republic, which combined Egypt and Syria, King Faisal II and King Hussein of Jordan joined their kingdoms into the short-lived Arab Union. In 1958 King Faisal II was assassinated, and Iraq devolved to military rule under General Abdul Karim Kassem. Kassem claimed Kuwait as a province of Iraq in 1961 (setting the table for the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which would lead to US involvement in Operation Desert Storm). The Kurds rebelled against Iraqi rule in 1961, as well. Kassem was assassinated in 1963, and the claim to Kuwait was temporarily abandoned. In 1966 a cease-fire was arranged between the Kurds and Iraqi military forces.

In 1968, the Ba’ath Socialist party, which had been born in Syria in 1948, seized control in yet another coup. The Ba’ath party was dominated by Sunni Arabs (although it originally championed secularism and socialism, and thus its religious ties were nonexistent) and largely shut out any other group in Iraq from sharing power. Over the next few decades more coups and mysterious helicopter crashes kept the rulers at the top in flux, not to mention a Kurdish rebellion in 1975. Saddam Hussein rose to power in 1979. By 1980, Hussein led Iraq into an eight-year war with Iran, and during this war, the US supported Iraq, given our stormy relationship with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and his Shi’ite theocracy. Both Iran and Iraq utilized poisonous gas as an offensive weapon during the Iran-Iraq War. In late 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which Hussein claimed was Iraq’s nineteenth province. The UN imposed sanctions against Iraq as a means of pressuring its withdrawal, but this was not enough to alter Hussein’s determination to control Kuwait. The United States led a coalition of forces against the Iraqi occupation in February of 1991 with Operation Desert Storm, during which Saddam Hussein suddenly rediscovered his religious roots, by the way, in an ill-fated effort to garner as much sympathy throughout the Arab world as possible. By the end of a few days of fighting, Iraq was driven from Kuwait and Kuwait’s ruling emir was restored to power.

In the wake of the defeat of Hussein’s forces at the hands of the coalition, the Shi’ites in southern Iraq rebelled. In 1992 the Kurds also rebelled and declared an autonomous region in the north. “No-fly” zones were established by the UN in the northern and the southern regions of Iraq to protect these groups in their resistance to Saddam's regime and, no doubt, to prevent more gas attacks. After Iraq had repeatedly violated the terms of the cease-fire, Iraqi targets were bombed by coalition forces in 1993. Iraq again briefly threatened invasion of Kuwait in 1994 but swiftly backed down when coalition forces, led by the US, mobilized more troops in response. In 1996, the UN arranged an “oil for food” program for Iraq, supposedly to allow it to earn about $1 billion dollars every three months with which to buy food and medicine, as well as pay reparations to Kuwait. This program was roundly criticized as a way for Iraq to evade sanctions placed upon it. In late 1997, the UN became concerned that Hussein was attempting to develop stockpiles of biological and nuclear weapons. US weapons inspectors were evicted from Iraq in 1998 on the charge (later reported in the US and Britain as well) that the inspectors were actually spies for the CIA. The case was then made that Hussein was secretly building up a stockpile of “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” but this area of the story is a post for another day.

One of the charges that are repeatedly made against Saddam Hussein is that “he gassed his own people.” There has been some discussion that it was Iran and not Iraq which attacked the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 (see here), but I have not heard of much proof for this claim. Iran would certainly want to gas the Kurds, since the great fear of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey is that their native Kurdish minorities will gain autonomy and then try to unify into an independent nation, thus depriving their current countries of territory, and, in some cases, oil resources. Let’s not quibble this point, and agree, for the sake of reason, that Saddam Hussein was behind the attack. The people Saddam Hussein gassed in 1988 were Kurds and therefore not considered by him to be “his own people,” although this in no way excuses the appalling massacre of the Kurdish villagers. Saddam Hussein’s power base was the Sunni Arabs who lived in the central part of Iraq. Kurds are non-Arabs who have continuously agitated for their own homeland. Shi’ite Arabs in the South were denounced as being sympathizers with majority- Shi’a Iran, with whom Iraq had squabbled for years over the boundary between the two countries, which culminated in the1980-1988 war.

Ethnic and religious rivalries within Iraq threaten to compromise attempts to fashion a democracy in Iraq. Majority rule is difficult where no majority of common culture or interests can be cobbled together. The History Geek greatly fears that the end result will be partition and fragmentation of this entity known as Iraq, much the same way that Yugoslavia devolved into chaos and bloodshed in the 1990s after its strongman was no longer available to suppress discord.

Any further deterioration in Iraqi attitudes toward the United States, especially among the Shi’ites, could drive the majority of Iraqis into the arms of Iran, which has recently elected to its presidency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who may very well have been one of the students leaders who seized 52 American hostages and held them for 444 days from 1978 to 1980. The worst case scenario in Iraq would be a Shi’ite dominated Islamic republic allied with Iran, which has lately been renewing the vehemence of its anti-American (and anti-Israeli) rhetoric, and may also be developing—drumroll here—WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. The Kurdish north (which has a preponderance of the oil fields in Iraqi territory) may then attempt to spin off into autonomy or independence, which would then cause further instability in the Kurdish areas of Turkey and Iran. Iran and Shi’ite Iraq might then go to war against the Kurds, then causing a disastrous collapse in the entire region.

What happens if the people of this area actually do democratically elect a regime which is vehemently antagonistic to America and its allies (like in, say, Ecuador or Venezuela, or lately the Palestinian Autonomous Areas)? Let’s face it, in certain parts of the world, America-bashing is an easy and pain-free way to gain wide populist support. What if the shift to democracy blows up in our faces after we have invested all of this blood, time, and treasure? Will we accept the outcome as the “vox populi”?

Or will we prop up corrupt regimes which are more well-disposed toward the US at the expense of accepting the will of the people, no matter how disastrous that may be to our own immediate interests? (Try looking up what happened to Mohammad Mossediq in Iran in 1953 or what happened when we supported Fulgencio Battista in Cuba, or Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, or so on….

Saddam Hussein is a genocidal maniac whose time in power was all too long. He joins a long list of dictators who have done and continue to do horrifying acts within their countries and destablilized their regions. Unfortunately, too, the end of the regime often creates a void in the power structure which created further chaos and suffering. Like they say, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Let us hope that Iraq does not go the way of Yugoslavia. The consequences for American interests in the Middle East and for the cause of democracy could be dire.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Bolivian president takes a stand for education

Now you KNEW I couldn't let this one go by.
President Evo Morales cut his salary in half and declared no Cabinet minister can collect a higher wage than his own, with the savings to be used to hire more public school teachers.

The move followed a campaign pledge to tackle political corruption and restore honesty to the government of South America's poorest country. But critics called it a propaganda ploy that will do little to help the needy.

Five days into his leftist government, Morales announced Thursday his salary would be $1,875 a month and that his Cabinet would also have their salaries capped at that figure.

"I ask for (the ministers') understanding and efforts to try to meet this demand, not for Evo but for the people," Morales said.

He said the savings would be used to hire more teachers, adding: "We need 6,000 new teachers and there is only money for 2,200."

Morales' predecessor earned $3,900 a month. The yearly savings of $24,300 is about enough to pay the annual salaries seven experienced teachers, rent a middle class apartment or buy a new Ford Focus in Bolivia.

Yes, yes, I KNOW he's a socialist. But at least he's being true to his principles-- and I got to see the words "president cuts pay to hire more teachers" as a headline in the local paper. That was a thrill!

Of course, now the guy won't be able to buy a new sweater, which for some reason was the topic of conversation in the news earlier this week (C'mon people! It was alpaca wool. He's from Bolivia! If Reagan could wear a cowboy hat, what's up with the hubbub about the lack of shirtings, as Bertie Wooster would say? At least he wasn't trying to honor his previous profession and sell coca leaves to world leaders....).

If the AFT can do it, why can't NEA???

I was just over at Edwize, and I gotta tell you, it was a very resonant and meaningful visit. A recent post is about the struggles of the blogger-- a first year teacher in NYC-- who is struggling with some of the soul-deadening parts of teaching in the middle school, although the person is obviously treasuring the actual teaching part of the job-- you know, the 10 percent of our jobs that should be accorded about 80 percent of our energies, but doesn't because of byzantine bureaucratic banality (oooh, alliteration!) like, say, expecting a teacher to write an entire curriculum in two days without any release time, not that I'm sayin' anything specific, mind you....

But anyway, other cool posts include this one about "Twilight Schools"-- favorite bit: "How do you communicate with a non-English speaker: it’s easy, you speak louder and slower." Hahaha!

Then there's a pretty incisive one on the disappearance of pensions that should be required reading for anyone over the age of 16.

Now here's the interesting part: Edwize is sponsored by the United Federation of Teachers, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which has sometimes given my politically schizoid soul a few shivers with some of their more Eugene V. Debsian stances. But still, at least the people have a blog voice in the AFT.

Whither art thou, NEA?

Why can't you at least jump on the bandwagon late, now that someone has dipped their toes in the water for you? We're not asking (at least not in THIS post) for the right to democratically elect our leaders, or anything. All we ask (today) is a comments enabled weblog. See Edwonk for more suggestions here and earlier here, among others.

*****UPDATE: I had forgotten that the American Federation of Teachers now has their own blog up. Check it out at:
More proof that it's not impossible to figure out how to get this done.

Do you think NEA would let us help them get it up and running? I bet a bunch of us would be willing to help-- if they would TRUST us to help them.

My take on the teacher who is now a Forty-Year-Old Unemployed Person

Okay, so EdWonk and Smithie have posts about this forehead-slapping story over at their places, but right now I'm Blogging for Sanity since I am back in Oklahoma again where Dad's in the hospital, so a little distraction would seem a good thing.

Fernando del Pino has done his little bit to further discredit my profession by showing his class The Forty Year Old Virgin, an amusing but puerile bit of cinema juvenalia which in no way is as funny as this or this or this or even this or THIS when it comes to laughing about sex. Of course, none of these treasured bits of insanity, which can make me laugh when I am lowerer than low, would ever come within a light-year of being shown in my classroom, not just because I don't want to explain some of the humor to some of my students, but-- get this-- because it's not appropriate!

I have an ambivalence toward eating up my classtime showing movies that these kids could see on their own and probably have seen on their own. Second, I don't want the F-bomb tossed near my presence while on school property. The special ed teachers once used my classroom on my prep hour to "teach" a US history class-- and I walked in one day to find Love and Basketball blaring on the tv-- I heard some of the language and practically flew out the door faster than my puzzlingly Victorian gasp could actually become audible over the pulsing soundtrack. What did this have to do with the US Constitution, which I heard them talking about the day before (I know this because the teacher started asking me questions as I tried to get some materials)? I don't know-- I don't recall which amendment protects the right to waste classroom time.

I once worked with a teacher who was the administration darling who showed Disney movies in her 8th grade math classes all the time. And it wasn't like she was trying to make it remotely relevant to her curriculum, like say, "Find all the examples of Euclidean geometry in Fantasia," or "Explain why Peter Pan could not actually achieve escape velocity with Wendy and the other kids hanging on to him," or something. I consider this type of behavior, while not nearly as galling and idiotic as the example of Mr. del Pino, to be just as wrong.

I appreciate the service Mr. Del Pino has done to further the cause of Mr. "Is Our Children Learning?" and his gang of chimps at the Ed Dept.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Okay, I'm going to go scream now....

Apparently some schools have REALLY decided to abandon their responsibility not just to reinforce values but to actually expect kids to learn. I am obviously a walking breathing fossil, since this makes me want to shriek, and I am NOT a shrieker. I particularly like the doublespeak employed in the justification I emphasized:
In a wireless age where kids can access the Internet's vast store of information from their cellphones and PDAs, schools have been wrestling with how to stem the tide of high-tech cheating. Now, some educators say they have the answer: Change the rules and make it legal. In doing so, they're permitting all kinds of behavior that had been considered off-limits just a few years ago.

The move, which includes some of the country's top institutions, reflects a broader debate about what skills are necessary in today's world -- and how schools should teach them. The real-world strengths of intelligent surfing and analysis, some educators argue, are now just as important as rote memorization....

This includes not only letting kids use the Internet during tests, but in the most extreme cases, allowing them to text message notes or beam each other definitions on vocabulary drills. Schools say they in no way consider this cheating because they're explicitly changing the rules to allow it.

In Ohio, students at Cincinnati Country Day can take their laptops into some tests and search online Cliffs Notes. At Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach, Calif., seventh-graders are looking at each other's hand-held computers to get answers on their science drills. And in San Diego, high-schoolers can roam free on the Internet during English exams.

The same logic is being applied even when laptops aren't in the classroom. In Philadelphia, school officials are considering letting kids retake tests, even if it gives them an opportunity to go home and Google topics they saw on the first test. "What we've got to teach kids are the tools to access that information," says Gregory Thornton, the school district's chief academic officer. " 'Cheating' is not the word anymore."

The changes -- and the debate they're prompting -- are not unlike the upheaval caused when calculators became available in the early 1970s. Back then, teachers grappled with letting kids use the new machines or requiring long lines of division by hand. Though initially banned, calculators were eventually embraced in classrooms and, since 1994, have even been allowed in the SAT.

Let me tell you what allowing kids to use calculators did. It created kids who do not deeply understand math because they have to spend loads of time actually thinking about scads of little facts that they should have committed to recall. They do not see the patterns in math. It is a mass of disparate facts to them because they cannot see the "big picture."

Let a kid use Cliffs Notes on a test, and kids will not read. Who would? You can't interpret and think about something you didn't read, so the end result will be further illiteracy.

Pay attention to this, business world. These people will eventually be your workers, although how much work they actually will do is a matter of some mystery.

One of my students today was struggling to read a handout about genetics from her science class. I had to help her figure out about 20% of the words. We then got into a big philosophical discussion about how they feel that their reading education has let them down. I got in trouble early in my career from venturing away from the basal reader and giving my kids various types of nonfiction material to expand the range of material they encountered. My theory: if you constantly cave in to the lowest common denominator of kid behavior, soon kids will be setting the standards in the rest of society, which makes no sense. We recognize that minors don't make the best decisions since we do not hold them fully accountable for their actions. So why let the fact that you CAN cheat set the standard of what is cheating?????

And as to open book quizzes and tests: once in a while, I give my students the option of taking an open-book quiz. They almost always turn me down, because they know all of the questions are then on the levels of synthesis and evaluation in Bloom's taxonomy. I tell them this up front, and if you're my student, you know how Bloom's works. The answers are still not in the book, and there is a time limit imposed such that if you haven't read and interacted intellectually with the material, you will not be able to succeed. During my final exams, I make kids pull out their cell phones and other electronic toys, turn them off, and place them face down on their desks where I could see them.

One of the main problems with education in America today is this unwillingness to fight the good fight. In the name of expediency, we are cutting our own throats, because it is obvious that this pattern of intellectual relativism is causing the denigration of American educational institutions. Why doesn't the public trust us to do a good job? Because of surrenders such as these.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

It's best, when being snarky, not to be verifiably WRONG.

In a recent column by Dr. K.P. Loftus over at Educationnews.org,
a current commercial by a tutoring company is used as a chance to decry the feel-good, Everyday Math world we live in. Quoth Dr. Loftus:
A recent television commercial begins with students peering at dolphins in a public aquarium. An oceanographer addresses them saying, "We feed them 13 pounds of food per day. Who can tell me how many pounds of food we feed them in one week?" One girl, who happens to be a minority, responds, "189 pounds!" The "oceanographer" now reveals his true affiliation, turns to the camera and declares, "That's the kind of confidence [the well-known educational tutoring firm] instills in our students!" Unfortunately, 13 pounds, times 2 feedings per day, times 7 days, is 182 pounds, not 189!

Certainly, the authors of this commercial did this on purpose. They were protecting themselves from being held accountable for falsely advertising a guarantee that their students will actually become smarter, only that they will gain "that kind of confidence." Sadly, they may have also figured that most people wouldn't even notice the error. Unfortunately, that's part of what is wrong with American education. Of course, any thinking parent can avoid sending their child to a tutoring firm that boasts of helping a child blurt out incorrect answers. But, most public schools are guilty of an even greater degree of false pride, celebrating and settling for only minimal student achievement gains.

This would be a nice little theory, and God knows I'm all about blasting the self-esteem movement as being a mind-dulling opiate that produces students who feel no need to learn because they are perfect just the way they are, BUT.

The author needs to check his hearing, or his calculations, or both, since he has built an entire forest without seeing the big redwood in front of him. The commercial, which is for a tutoring company whose name alludes to an adjective describing woodsy glades, actually states that the dolphins are fed thirteen AND A HALF pounds of food two times a day. 13.5 times 2 times 7 equals....

189! The little girl, minority member or not, is CORRECT!


Florida: Let them eat laptops!

Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida has stated today that he thinks he has the answer to an anticipated shortfall in teacher recruitment. Due to a class size limitation which was passed this year, Florida will need to hire about 30,000 new teachers, as well.
All of Florida's nearly 164,000 public school teachers would receive laptop computers under a $237 million plan to recruit and retain educators, which Gov. Jeb Bush unveiled Monday at North Miami Middle School.

The laptop portion of the proposal would cost nearly $200 million.

Democrats and teacher union leaders criticized the plan, pointing out that there is another, more capitalist way to ease recruitment woes: (drumroll, please) Pay teachers more! (b'doom CHING!)
Bush said increasing pay -- especially for starting teachers and experts in shortage areas such as math and science -- is part of the solution. Florida's salaries rank 29th in the country, according to the American Federation of Teachers, with its average of $40,598, about $6,000 below the national average....

Many districts offer signing bonuses of $5,000, according to Miami-Dade School Board member Ana Rivas Logan, who added that Miami-Dade should beat those by offering $10,000.

Union leaders, however, worried the recruitment incentives would do little to retain teachers.

''Once that initial money is gone, is the salary adequate to retain the teachers?'' asked Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade. ``If you can't qualify for a mortgage because of your salary, having a down payment does what?''

Of course, there's a reason why giving teachers a laptop is preferred to raising salaries: buying laptops would be a one-time expense, while adding $2000 to every salary would compound through the wonders of the pay scale for the next thirty years.

Well, Fast Freddy, whaddaya think, pal?

Apparently it's a slow news day....

Ms. Cornelius the news junkie has been out trolling, and has found some interesting things masquerading as news, categorized for your enjoyment.

Category: "DUH!"
President Bush says he hasn't seen Brokeback Mountain-- and in more stunning news, neither have Fred Phelps or Jerry Falwell, (although Ralph Reed is said to be a fan)
The Senate Judiciary Committee sent Alito's nomination to the full Senate on strict party-line vote-- not that that means anything....
When it comes to bats, those that are love studs are brain duds-- not that there is anything wrong with that....

Category: "HUH?"
The Vatican released a paper this week that states that intelligent design is not science-- considering the fact that it took 359 years to apologize to Galileo, that's real progress!
Kanye West poses as Jesus with a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone-- oh yes, his millions in sales are signs of suffering....

Category: "GIMME A BREAK"
Subhead: Everyone here behaved like a baby
Student wearing Broncos jersey in Pennsylvania feels teacher humiliated him-- while I have been known to smile beneficently and bestow candy upon students wearing OU Sooner or TU Golden Hurricane regalia, this is too much! (And the class was an ethnicity class, designed to promote TOLERANCE!)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Okie round-up: If you can MAKE it there....

Wayull, guess what? I got a shout-out in the Okie Roundup over at OkieDoke!

I am SOOOO excited!

So run on over there if you want to find out what life is like in the Great Fly-Over Zone between the two coasts and south of Chicago.

Fun for all! Guaranteed! Take a walk on the wild side!

Friday, January 20, 2006

Literacy and the college student, devolving into curmudgeonery (as usual)

According to CNN.com, they report the release of a new study assailing the real literacy of college students.
More than half of students at four-year colleges -- and at least 75 percent at two-year colleges -- lack the literacy to handle complex, real-life tasks such as understanding credit card offers, a study found.

The literacy study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the first to target the skills of graduating students, finds that students fail to lock in key skills -- no matter their field of study.

The results cut across three types of literacy: analyzing news stories and other prose, understanding documents and having math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips.

Without "proficient" skills, or those needed to perform more complex tasks, students fall behind. They cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school.

My students and I talk about real-life applications of what we are studying all the time. When we had a lesson on credit and debt, they were spellbound. These kids need practical knowledge.

I just sat through a staff development presentation which talked about teaching the kids through their interests. I agree with the general idea, although the day that I play the Black-Eyed Peas in class will be a very cold day in Jamaica. (I don't want to know about anyone's "humps." In fact, I would be so appreciative if you would keep those things covered at all times, before you put someone's eye out.) Anyway, my idea of "teaching thorugh their interests" is "teaching them stuff that they don't know by starting with stuff they do know." (Note my complete lack of educrat-ese doublespeak. It's not because I can't; it's because I don't wanna.) I can talk all day long with kids about Death Cab for Cutie or Keane or coldplay or Audioslave or System of a Down, or even Wilson Pickett (rest in peace) or Jimi Hendrix or the Go-Go's or Bob Marley or the Clash.

But I shouldn't. Not if I want to call myself a teacher.

Too much classroom time is spent on tripe like this-- fun tripe, but tripe nonetheless. Real education is uncomfortable, since it requires one to stretch one's boundaries and be willing to attempt to grasp the unknown. It is difficult. But the difference is, I believe the difficulty makes it valuable. Here's another secret: no one can give a student an education. Education is what YOU, the student, make of the opportunities presented to you.

I had to have my beginning of semester gentle chastisement of my students today-- you know, the one where I tell them they actually have to STUDY for a regular level course when they've been acclimated to doing a bunch of banal worksheets and getting their "Gentlemen's B." By catering to the lowest common denominator, to the "interests" of kids who live in a world that is drowning in unlimited access to information but with so little meaning, we trivialize the business of learning.

I have a feeling that these college students are the unfortunate products of this same feel-good system. And isn't that why we are here, in this school, spending these minutes we will never have again and these thousands of dollars? I'll teach you how to read John Locke and FDR's first fireside chat, and from there a credit card offer is child's play.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Carnival of education #50 is up!

So go see over at the Edwonks' place!

Topics o' the day include John Stossel's piece on 20/20 that talked about how stupid Americans are compared to Belgians (insert punchline here: "maybe so but at least we never ____________"), the 65% Plan, attempts to evade NCLB sanctions, dead bugs, homeschoolers who want to come to school for the "fun" things, and discipline in the classroom.

Go wander around there. You'll learn things!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Life isn't fair. It's just fairer than death, that's all.

I have been back in the old homestead, and I've been thinking about where I come from. I come from a place that plays gospel music over the loudspeaker at a gas station-- you can get Jesus while you get Super Unleaded and a bag of pork rinds to go.

I come from a place where one loves God, Mama, and football-- but not necessarily in that order, particularly on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon.

I come from a place whose football team is named after cheaters in the land runs of 1889-- and back in the Barry Switzer days, some would say that was incredibly appropriate.

I come from a place where strangers wave merrily at you as you drive past them in town-- and where you raise two fingers from the steering wheel and grin past the plug in your cheek as you pass another pickup at seventy-five miles per hour on a country road.

I come from a place whose state song was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein-- nyah, nyah, nyanyah nyah! And those city boys got it right, too-- the wind does come sweepin' off the Plain. We call 'em tornadoes 'round here.

I come from a place where preachers see 900 foot tall Jesuses crossing the street to say "Howdy!" to them.

I come from a place where people pull to the side of the road and stand alongside their cars with their hands over their hearts and their caps pulled off their heads as the funeral cortege goes past.

And it's that last part that haunts me now. My Daddy (this is the proper way to reference that person, pronounced "Dayuddee") is terminally ill. I have just spent four days trying to clean out a house filled to the brim with old Wal-mart receipts and newspapers and old FedEx boxes saved for some kind of future shipping emergency-- when the Apocalypse comes, we will have the means to get that news to you next day delivery. I have looked at caskets (18 gauge steel? 20 gauge steel? stainless steel? oak?) and vaults and burial plots in a far off little one horse western town which I will never visit again in a million years. I have pondered the efficacy of chemotherapy for a man who has had three kinds of cancers and congestive heart failure. I have gone along as my mother blackmailed me into attending her megachurch minimall for Jesus and the only way my Episcopal/meditating heart survived it was to pretend I was in the center of one of those tornadoes where everything is quiet while all hell breaks loose all around you.

He is my Daddy. He has always been my Daddy-- even when he once tried to strangle my Mama before my eight-year-old eyes and I called the police but they didn't come while my sobbing brother clung to my leg in terror. Even when my Mama filed for divorce three times and he secretly lived in the backyard in the playshed. Even when his screaming and raging and drinking made me flee the house to go up on the roof to read behind the chimney with a small transistor radio pressed to my ear to drown out the noise. He is my Daddy when he took me fishing and laughed when I caught something. He is my Daddy who wanted me to sing him old country songs on the guitar he bought me from a friend of his. He is my Daddy who bought me a '66 Mustang and we worked on it together to keep it running. He is my Daddy when we would sit watching football and he'd hold my foot and say all of a sudden "I love you," in a conversational tone when he thought no one was listening. He had demons and he had sorrows and he felt things deeply and you just accept it because he's your Daddy and you can't go through life angry forever without it eating you up inside.

Sylvia Boorstein, in her book It's Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way of Happiness, wrote about how we let our anger lock us away in a prison cell which is actually unlocked:
Sometimes it seems to me we go even one step beyond rattling the bars. Instead of rescuing ourselves, we maintain our position of righteous indignation by recounting our grievances. It's the equivalent to having the key to our cell in our hand, reaching around and locking ourselves in, and throwing the key across the room.

In the famous sermon in the Jetavana grove, the Buddha taught that people who continue to think about how they have been abused or embarrassed will never be released from their hatred. People who can abandon these thoughts, he continued, are able to be loving. I was explaining this to a class one day when a student burst out, "Of course that's true, Sylvia. Forgiveness is the price you have to pay for freedom."

Now my Daddy has a short time to forgive himself, and he's working on it. He told my Mama he's sorry. He's thanked her for taking care of him. He's thought about what happens next. He starts chemo today.

We all now face the uncertain future-- it's been uncertain all along, but you don't think about it until you have to.

Elegy for a Master Teacher

One of my dear friends has decided she's going to try to call it quits in the classroom after this year, and I am mourning. If you care about students and about excellence in education, you should mourn too. She is a master teacher who has trained other teachers in methods to teach one of the most underserved subjects: math. She mentors and encourages and herds kids along the road of life with equal parts mothering and steel. She does countless tasks for her district gratis. She has further added stars to her crown in Heaven by teaching in a middle school, which I believe is one of the toughest places to teach, having done it for 14 years of my career. I have seen the grass on the other side, and let me tell you, the grass in the middle schools these days is sere and withered.

She is leaving because the middle school teachers have been told that if their district doesn't make AYP, it is THEIR FAULT. The TEACHERS' FAULT. I could speculate as to the reason why such a message has been handed down in such a preremptory fashion-- it could be the principals who have a collective five years in the classroom who are yes-people to the higher bureaucracy (also light-years removed from a classroom, much less one that faced the high-stakes testing game). It could be the final deathmatch of accountability versus the feel-good mentality of the middle school philosophy as practiced 'round here, which so stresses affective development over academic development. I remember it well: the accusative "don't fail the kids" by assessing their performance accurately; being constantly asked, "Isn't there any way you could have fewer failures?"(NOT that we retained students even if they failed every single subject!)-- I mean, did it ever occur that we fail our students by not holding them accountable? It could be the fact that since these students have never been held accountable for their actual performance, they don't give a jolly ding-dang about these high stakes tests and so do not actually try (if rotten grades on their transcripts don't faze them, do you think a standardized test matters?) It could be that the early adolescent has other fish to fry than to write a ridiculous essay about early washing machines. It could be the fact that it takes TWO FULL WEEKS to give these tests and that is too much for attention-span limited middle-schoolers to bear.

She and her colleagues stay at school until 9 pm, and then they take work home. They plan. They assess. They write assessments. They grade assessments. They learn new non-sequential ways to teach which fly in the face of reason and pedagogy just because some high-paid tsunami of consultants says so. When she has finally asked for some rationality to be utilized in the workload assigned to her and her colleagues, she has been rebuffed without a second thought from the ring-kissing Capo Great and All-Powerful Oz-- pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain! future superintendent principal.

One just can't continue in this path and survive. And so she will be buying back years in the retirement system which she spent staying home with her own children so that she can retire while she still has her health and at least some of her joie de vivre. She does this with sorrow in her heart, but basically, she is gnawing off her own leg to get out of the trap. She loved the teaching, once. She loves the kids still-- and not just that, she attempts to hold them accountable to actually LEARN something.

She will be gone next year, playing with her grandbabies and finding less stressful ways to pay off that mortgage. And she's not the only one. And after this exodus, who will lead these kids through the wilderness of early adolescence? Not administrators who are either barely out of adolescence themselves or who are clinging to the frayed edge of senescence. Who will they get to take her place?

Who CAN take her place?

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Not with a Big Bang, but with a whimper ID bites the dust in PA

On Tuesday, the Dover Area School Board officially withdrew the policy promoting intelligent design in the school district.

Now where will the white rabbit next appear? Any bets?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Another Post that'll keep me off the NEA Today's bloglist, subtitled, The NEA: A National Organization Out of Touch With Teachers?

Lots of my compatriots have been writing about the NEA lately.

Edwonk has been challenging the NEA to set up a comments-enabled website, and even suggested a name here, which then inspired a response at Thespis Journal accusing the Edwonk of being "Right-wing" (pause to let me wipe the tears from my eyes....) here. Hey, Thespis people! There are fine folks and pals in the edusphere FAR more virulent in their criticism of the NEA, and frankly, with the rottenness of the CTA, who can call it "bashing?" Jeez, we can't get our voices heard in the national organization, and when we use our very own blogs to try to critique the NEA like grownups, we get hysterics-- and yes, I did intend to imply the classical meaning of that term, as sexist as it is. I have always stated that I would prefer to belong to a professional organization rather than a union (like the AFT, which makes me uncomfortable in its stances even worse than the NEA.) But it would help if the place WAS professional in its positions and its behavior.

I am not "Anti-NEA," and I sure as hell am not "right-wing." (I've got TWO wings, because otherwise one tends to fly in a circle or flutter helplessly to the ground to get trampled.) I belong to this organization and am a member of the executive board at my district. I just wish this organization acted like it belongs to me, instead of me belonging to it, like some sort of medieval flunky.

I believe that the local NEA does many good things for teachers. That said, I also believe that the national organization should focus on improving excellence in teaching, work to protect academic integrity and defend against attempts at harassment by incompetent school administrators, et cetera.

As I've stated before, the NEA should NOT

protect incompetent or unprofessional teachers like these lovebirds or these freaks here, whom I am just using for examples since I don't know that they're members of NEA or AFT. We all know of situations where this type of thing has happened in NEA.

I don't think the NEA should be taking a position on issues like abortion-- and people, don't go trying to parse my stance on that very complex issue from that comment! I just think it has NOTHING WHATSOEVER TO DO WITH HELPING ME DO MY VERY DIFFICULT BUT REWARDING JOB! I would give the NEA a grade of 25%, which in my universe is an F.

What's so scary about the idea of electing our own national officers? Why should the NEA spend my dues on non-educational causes with no veto power by me? It's that kind or insane lack of focus that keeps some teachers from joining NEA. They know they need a professional organization to help them establish working conditions which help both us and our students (don't climb down my back, now, Darren. We're on the same page.) But I respect the discomfort of my conservative colleagues who disagree with many stances of the NEA. That's the truly liberal (in the classical sense of the word) side of me coming through. These positions make me unhappy, too, especially because they prevent you from belonging to your local organization, which can come in very handy if Assistant Principal Plea-Bargain has decided for no particular reason that he doesn't like you and wants to make your life a hellish nightmare.

So who would be up for something different? Any suggestions? The floor is open-- unlike at the NEA.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

C'mon SEVEN!

I’ve gotten tagged with my first meme thanks to shari L at an old soul, and I’m so excited, since Polski3 never tagged me for the weird jobs one that he made up (I was a Christmas Elf/photographer of kids sitting on Santa’s lap. Outdoors. At Utica Square. Tights can freeze to your thighs.)
Well anyway here goes:

Seven Books (Or Series) That I Love
I can read these over and over…

Anything by Robert Heinlein
Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters
Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Mama Makes Up Her Mind, by Bailey White
The poetry of Jane Kenyon, Howard Nemerov, or e. e. cummings
The Bertie Wooster and Jeeves series, by P. E. G. Wodehouse

Seven of my Favorite Movies (Or series)
I’m gonna cheat here—because I can!
The Princess Bride
Grosse Pointe Blank
Young Frankenstein
French Kiss
Animal House (Double Secret Probation Edition)
Sixteen Candles

The Lord of the Rings series
Star Wars IV-VI
Whale Rider
Sense and Sensibility
Dances with Wolves

Seven Things I Just Can’t Do (Or Don’t Wanna)
Stop Teaching!
Watch kids fight and not intervene
Understand why anyone, especially fiscal conservatives, voted for Bush
Drive slow
Hear out of tune music
Stop buying books
Tolerate intolerant people

Seven Things to Do Before I Die
Watch my children become happy, loving adults who want to buy mama a nice house and keep her in Thai food
Take a long vacation to New Zealand
Sing and play guitar with Neil Finn (I could easily combine these two)
Earn my PhD and/or be ordained
Move back to my hometown
Learn to speak Spanish
Earn my black belt in judo

Seven Things That Attracted Me to Blogging
The chance to toss my ideas out there into the void
The chance to learn from other people’s ideas being lobbed into the void and feeling like I’m not nuts
It’s less painful than banging my head against a wall
To really write again for the first time since the babies came
To vent in a way that won’t get me fired
Because I share everything else in my life, including pop and bathtime and my guitars and plates of lukewarm food and my lap, but this is JUST MINE
It’s cheaper and far less repugnant than therapy

Seven Things I Say Most Often
Hold on, I’m reading….
My little peanut
He’s Satan’s little minion….
Here’s fancy word to impress your parents and confuse your friends….
Holy crap! NOW what?

Seven Impractical Things I Think Would Be Really Cool Anyway
Sitting as a student at the feet of Jesus, the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, and Esther
Teachers making more money and being given more respect than Tino Martinez;
To create a special “tip jar” where a teacher could put in ten bucks and say what really needs to be said to parents, students, or administrators with impunity—teachers would be poor, but stroke-free;
Making learning the only priority in education!
To be Professor McGonagall
Make my car invisible to radar and immune to idiot drivers
My own spaceship

And I’m gonna tag…
Educat at Ramblin' Educat
Fred at Fred's World
Polski3 at Polski3's View from Here
Mr. C at classroom biz
TMAO at Teaching in the 408
Mr. Lawrence at Get Lost, Mr. Chips
GuusjeM at Of Life, Education, E-bay, Travel, and Books
Amerloc at Kibbles 'n' Whine

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Now what was it Locke said? Life, liberty, and laptops?

Fullerton, California has jumped on the bandwagon to encourage computer literacy in students. Officials in the district want students as young as first grade to have an Apple G4 iBook. But here’s where the fun begins: they expect parents to pay for the computers.
Heather Sutherland was excited to learn her public school system was using laptop computers to teach elementary students such as her daughter. Until, that is, she found out parents were expected to pay the nearly $1,500 cost.

“I said, ‘What? You must be joking,' ” Sutherland says. “I think it's unfair that the (school district) is requiring us to ‘pay to learn.' ”

The public school system in this quiet city 27 miles southeast of Los Angeles is pushing the frontiers of computer technology in the classroom with a program that puts a laptop computer into the backpacks of children as early as first grade. It is pushing the boundaries of financing, too, by asking parents to pay $500 a year for three years so each of more than 2,000 elementary and middle school children can have their own Apple iBook G4 laptop….

The Fullerton program, at four of 20 district schools, has created a storm of controversy for the school system and its superintendent, Cameron McCune. It also has raised broader questions about how far public schools here and elsewhere can go in using costly technology in the face of tight school budgets and limited funding.

Some parents worry that whatever its educational benefits, the program has created an expensive burden for struggling families and has forged new divisions in the public schools.

Sutherland, who kept her 11-year-old daughter out of the program, is concerned that it creates “a horrible form of financial segregation.”

“It's mind-boggling that they would even suggest such a thing,” Sutherland says.

Some parents say the financial expectations and price tag violate California's constitutional guarantee of a free public education — a principle also in other state constitutions. The parents are threatening a lawsuit and have enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The California constitution is very, very clear: My children attend a free public school,” Sandra Dingess says.

Dingess moved three of her four children to another school within the district to avoid the big computer bill and what she says was the embarrassment her children faced from being unable to pay. Her fourth child, an eighth-grader, remained in the program for a final year.

Now some people might say that there is no difference between having a bond issue to help the district to provide computers and having the parents buy the computers outright. I would disagree. If a family has three children in this program, they are being asked to pay $1500 a year in addition to their taxes and the cost of all the other incidentals involved in their children’s education. Suspicious, cynical me also wonders if this isn’t going to lead to economic segregation in these schools, with a corresponding rise in test scores when the less affluent parents transfer their children out, as Ms. Dingess did.

Further, although I love Apple products myself, I’m not so sure a school district should force consumers to purchase a certain brand of computer (in the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I am also an Apple shareholder. As such, I would be furious if I were forced to purchase a relic of the Microsoft Empire and thereby pollute into my pristine, Mac-filled home, heh heh.)

I also doubt the efficacy of placing an iBook in the hands of a first grader. How long do you think it would take a six-year-old to break an iBook? I’m not willing to let my kids play with mine to find out, but I bet it would be one week, at the outside, especially if it was in my kids’ backpacks (shudder!) which get slung around more that a calf in a rodeo roping contest—I actually watched my adventurous middle child slide down a snow-covered hill on hers once. True, maybe the kids would take better care of the computers if they were theirs. I have a long-standing policy of never giving pencils to students who don’t have one, from the bitter experience of learning that when you give something away, it becomes worthless in the eyes of the recipient. But since the kids themselves would not be paying for the computers, I still predict that the machines would be treated the way most of their other toys are.

I wonder if anyone has connected California’s wacky experiments in “taxpayer rights,” like the infamous Proposition 13, to the decision of the school district to pass the cost for a required piece of equipment directly to the parents? Once again, you CAN’T get something for nothing, people! You can’t be guaranteed a free public education in the California constitution, and have cutting edge technology in the schools, and have low taxes.

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