In the Cloud

About a week ago my MacBook started doing something alarming. As I was typing along, the screen would suddenly go dark. Not completely black – I could still see my desktop, but too dark to see what I was typing. If I shut down and restarted, it was fine – for a while. After a few days of this, it stopped being fine, even for a while.

MacBooks aren’t supposed to do alarming things. Annoying things, perhaps. Sometimes the beachball of doom spins endlessly until I force an unresposive app to quit, but that’s easily fixable. No permanent damage.

Having a too-dark screen doesn’t leave many possibilities for noodling around, trying to figure out a fix. So I went to visit the geniuses.

I had never been to the Mac Store before. It’s not like other stores – no aisles, just large tables where customers played with iPads and Macbook Airs. At the back of the store was a long bar with stools. Customers were seated on the stools, and blue-shirted geniuses behind the bar typed into Macbook Pros. There was no paper anywhere.

Before I could brace myself for frustration, a smiling genius approached me, carrying an iPad. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

I did not have an appointment. I should have known that geniuses do not speak to mortals without an appointment, but I had foolishly assumed that since macs rarely need service, there would be nobody in line.  More


New Math

A few weeks ago I was summoned to the principal’s office to discuss my failure rate.

I knew it was high. When the first grading period ended, of 22 my students were failing English. Things got better, though. By the end of the fourth quarter, only 13 were failing — still too high, but only unreasonable in the fantasy land where we achieve 100% proficiency by the year 2012 — right before the apocalypse takes place.

But the conversation we had was a wake-up call for me. I explained what I had done to improve things – calling parents, cutting deals with students, etc. I didn’t explain how ridiculously easy it is to pass my class; that would have been defensive. But you can be sure that anyone who is failing my class has exerted very little effort.

The awakening happened about three minutes into the interview. I noticed that his data did not include all my classes. My total failure rate is not 36%, as he said, but 31%, because the class he overlooked had only two students failing, a 10% failure rate for that class. 31% is nothing to brag about, but I pointed out the omission.

“Hmm,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, if we add in the 10%, that gives you 46%. Nearly half of your students are failing.”

I was stunned. Was this some kind of New Math? The same kind of math, perhaps, used to calculate other things – graduation rate, adequate yearly progress, proficiency test scores?

Before I could think of anything to say in reply, he stumbled on. “Well, make sure that you’re calling home, etc., etc…”

This was the moment when I knew that all was lost. More

Final Days

 The world didn’t end. May 21 has passed — and we’re still here. I know 9 million bloggers have already pointed this out, but I thought it might make a good segue into my topic: Finals Week.

It is the week before the last week of school, just a few days until we get down to the serious business of deciding who passes and who fails. As always, both students and teachers are sick of it all, ready to be done with the tests and go home a week early. This would solve a lot of problems – papers to grade, whiny kids, water balloons, and whatever else bored teenagers can dream up.

But we have been commanded to wait. If we give finals early, we will have more food fights, more water balloons, more flip-flops being worn against dress code. (Why do they even make rules about flip-flops? Those who make such decisions have bigger things to worry about that what kids are wearing on their feet.) We will have less academic seriousness, fewer students highly educated and ready for life in the 21st century.

Why is it that kids never want to learn anything new the week before the most important grades of the year? They should be working their buns off, knowing that summer break is almost here. Instead, they say, “Can we have a free day?” or “Can we play a game?”

Why do I even bother to try to teach?

Teenagers never want to work. Mondays are out; they’re too tired from the weekend. More

Minds Like Sieves

My Greek teacher used to tell me, “Your mind is like a sieve!” – usually because I’d put the wrong kind of accent on a word. He was a meticulous man, and expected the same from his students.

Though he never said so, I suppose he wanted our minds to be like stopped-up sinks, filling up and never losing a drop. It’s an imperfect metaphor (think about all that Greek flooding onto the floor), but I’m pretty sure this is how our governor understands teaching and learning.

A teacher’s job (perhaps his thinking goes) is to pour knowledge into those eager little sinks, making sure that the drains are properly closed and that there are no leaks. A bad teacher doesn’t keep the tap open, or allows the water to leak away, or maybe fills the sink with potato skins and banana peels so the disposal gets clogged and the sink fills with yucky gray water.

Here’s where the metaphor breaks down. Having a brain full of useless facts is just as bad as having a sink full of stagnant water. A student can pass a standardized test without ever really learning anything important. We graduate them; when they get to college, they realize how little they’ve learned.

Teaching is not just dispensing information. There are facts kids should know, but without critical thought, information is worthless.

Most teachers understand that we have to clear out the garbage before we can pour in anything new. Alas, our curriculum is all about the input. How do you ‘un-teach’ things that kids ‘know’? The curriculum guide doesn’t explain that; it just tells me to cover what will be on the test.

Another problem is that somebody keeps throwing garbage in the sink, and we spend all our time unclogging it. Every time kids turn on the television or surf the internet, they are learning things – but not learning to evaluate them. They believe things because they saw them on YouTube or read them at

Our governor doesn’t know about all the garbage. He just wants teachers to stop blaming the sinks. He suspects that we are pouring vast quantities of cooking grease down their drains. His solution? Drano — for us, not the clog.

If teachers are mind plumbers, our job should be to keep things flowing, not fill the sink. Students’ brains should be like sieves, filtering out what is incorrect or illogical. But it’s not simple; when you live surrounded by garbage, you don’t realize that it stinks.

It would be much better if we stopped treating kids like passive receptacles. “Fix a kid’s drain and his sink will work for a day; train him to be a plumber, and he’ll charge you $60 an hour, plus parts.”

Mandatory Opportunities

While I am at heart an anarchist, I admit that many rules are sensible. Wearing a seatbelt needs to be a law because some people don’t have the individual sense to preserve their own lives. And we’re all here together in the circle of life.

I said that wrong. I mean we’re all together in the spiral of ‘out of control insurance rates.’

What I object to are laws that are actually thinly-disguised ‘mandatory opportunities.’ Laws should protect us from people who hurt other people, not from ourselves.

Compulsory education is such a law. Up until the age of about fourteen, it makes sense to compel children to go to school. For one thing, some parents don’t take their responsibilities seriously, and their children might never get an education otherwise. For another, it gives everyone the basics. What they choose to do with those basic skills is a different matter. But we all learn to read, write, and do math. We all learn where Ohio is and how many inches there are in a foot.

Politicians talk a lot about education. They all have an answer, even though most of them haven’t been in a school for years. But nobody will touch the issue of compulsory education, a ‘mandatory opportunity’ for all kids, because America is supposed to be the country where all are educated, not just a select few skimmed off the top of the primary school vat. We don’t believe in ‘tracking’ kids by performance or ability — an educational class system. We don’t want to leave anyone behind, even those who drag their feet or sit down and refuse to budge.

What we teach kids is that there are no consequences. There is nothing a child can do that will get him or her kicked out of school permanently — until the age of eighteen, when they are dumped into a society that gives few second chances.

I believe in second chances. Messing up teaches us useful lessons. More

Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate? More

Faulty Logic

Everyone has been to school.

Everyone has a story that begins, “I had a teacher who…”

Teachers have stories, too. “I had a kid who…” or “I had a kid whose parents…”

People use anecdotes to prove a point.

But anecdotes, however true, prove nothing.

My grandfather smoked heavily, lived to be ninety. My sister, who never smoked, died of lung cancer. From this ‘evidence’, one might suppose that there is no link between smoking and cancer. Maybe if we all smoked, we’d live longer!

It is from this kind of logic that conspiracies are imagined: “They’ve found a cure for cancer, but the drug companies are keeping it secret because they would lose a lot of money if everyone could be cured.”

Lately, it seems that this kind of anecdotal logic has been applied to education.

You might believe that because you had a bad teacher, there must be a lot of bad teachers out there. You might even think that’s why our educational system is going down the tubes — teachers are ignorant, lazy, and only care about their paychecks. You might even imagine that teacher’s unions are conspiring to keep our schools in decline.

Evidence? Oh, I guess we need some of that.

The evidence is this: the factor that most influences a student’s ability to learn is poverty. Poverty — not class size, school size, teacher experience, how long or short the school day is, or how many tests we give them.

Let me say that again: Kids who grow up in poverty, whose parents have little education, who have not seen a book before they start school, who move every six months, who have never been to a museum or library — these kids are more likely to do poorly in school and on standardized tests.

In other words: standardized tests show us who is poor. Didn’t we already know that?

What about “Leave No Child Behind In Poverty?” More

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