Category Archives: general

Why I Blog

I’m pretty sure Dan Meyer wasn’t asking the likes of me, but as I read through the comments, I was reminded again that many teachers blog because they want a community.

I do not want a community, either virtual or meat space. In 20 years, I have had an actual casual acquaintance with just one neighbor, although I can’t remember his name. I may never have known it. He was a chain-smoking, beer guzzling truck driver, we both had teenage sons. A few years ago, the fire alarm at my last apartment complex went off in three buildings at 2:00 am, and so awful a sound was it that we all ran from our apartments fearing not fire but the very real possibility that we’d stab our eardrums with corkscrews in hopes of ending the torture. So we’re all downstairs milling about, dozens if not hundreds of Chinese, Indians, and the occasional Filipino, all of them complete strangers to me and each other, and everyone looking to me for answers. I thought at first they assumed the only white person in sight was custodial staff or maybe off-duty management (hey, I have an ego), but apparently they had designated me the person in charge of conversing with the fire fighters. When the big red trucks showed up, I represented with authority, telling the firemen (they were all men) that, while the community would not be ungrateful for any conflagrations found and extinguished, the Really Important Thing was to stop that horrible noise, which was this sound at this frequency. The firefighters obligingly made the dreadful noise go away, and I got all the credit—perhaps the Chinese thought money was involved, I don’t know. Anyway, the firefighters told me it was a false alarm, I thanked them, and started the trek back upstairs when a Indian gentleman approached me and asked for a status update. Good lord, I’d forgotten my leadership role. I turned, found a small mound of lawn to stand on, and they gathered round while I told them to go back to bed. They smiled, waved, and I never saw any of them again.

I’m not anti-social; in fact, I’m quite friendly. I can’t easily explain why I don’t seek out communities, but perhaps this OCEAN profile (that’s Big Five, right?) explains the paradox (I took the test for the first time last month when a commenter linked it in). Notice that I’m slightly above average on extraversion (in fact, it probably overstates my sociability) but abnormally low on agreeableness—that is, I’m quite comfortable with rudeness. In Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTP, but I’m very much a gregarious introvert.

All of this is to say that I occasionally run into trouble with math teacher bloggers. They’re mad because I disrespected Dan, or because I simply think they’re wrong or because I hold that cognitive ability plays a role in educational outcomes or….you know, I can’t really keep track of all the reasons.

Some of the problems arise because I’m blogging for an entirely different reason than most teachers are, particularly most math teachers. I’m not seeking bonds, looking for collaborative opportunities, looking to share, to network, to get validation. In fact, I’m not really a blogger at all. I’m a writer. I write to convince, to argue, to persuade–even, I hope, to entertain. But I’m not having a conversation.

In a much bigger galaxy, far far away, think about The View. The math teacher bloggers see themselves as Barbara, Joy, Whoopi, and so on (please don’t make me look up the names, the only time I watch the show is when my dad’s in town). Maybe Ellen. They want to exchange opinions and ideas in a safe place, with people they trust, the audience and the stars all part of a big, productive conversation in which everyone can express opinions in a restricted range in a polite voice. If so, they will be respected and heard, disagreement will be polite and constructive. To put it mildly, that’s not how I roll. In that galaxy, I’m akin to a Krauthammer, Brooks, McArdle, albeit several thousand rungs lower on the ladder. It’s kind of fun to imagine how these writers would response to Barbara Walters asking them, sternly, if they thought their columns were contributing to a productive conversation.

So every so often some teacher blogger tells me in frustration that I’m not being productive, that I’d get a better response if I were more constructive, engaged more, and I’m like dude, what are you talking about? I have so much bigger an audience than I ever dreamed of when I began two years ago. But while I’m happy to welcome them to my audience, they aren’t really who I’m writing for. And they can’t conceive of what I’m talking about, because they are writing for each other, to reaffirm their connections, their community, their sounding boards. (Keeerist, it sounds so very girly.)

I don’t want to make it sound like Them and Me. The vast majority of these folks don’t know I exist until I do something to offend. Many of them have far bigger teacher audiences than I, and are far better known. And while they don’t like me, I like many of them as teachers, read their blogs frequently and comment occasionally. But even in my comments, it’s clear I’m coming from a different planet.

Paul Bruno, the only other US teacher I know of who writes broadly about policy, doesn’t seem to experience this dichotomy between his writing and his place in the teacher “community” . But then, he doesn’t write much about teaching, and of course he has, er, a different Big Five score. Probably not as comfortable being rude.

Anyway. I thought I would write this post for the teacher audience, so the next time I’m lectured for being unproductive, I can just link this in.

I also blog for the reasons expressed here.


Well, no. (Short Takes and Snarks)

The items below would take me a good eight months to write about in full (I made that number up), and most of them would drop off the table for the dog to snatch up (I don’t have a dog). How can someone who writes as slowly as I do still write so much?

So briefly (yes, laugh), while working on memory and math and wondering if Corona del Mar has successfully buried its cheating incident, I read many sentences that made me go “Well, no.”

  1. “Even if that was necessary to success — and it’s not — surely she’ll have plenty of time later to agonize about putting a foot out of place.”–Megan McArdle, chastising America for forcing a tenth grade student to think she needs straight As.

    Well, no. For kids with no legacy, no sports, no ethnic desirability (that is, lacking URM status), and no real money, a GPA less than 4.0 puts them out of contention for a top 30 school, certainly, and probably a top 40 school as well. Now, I agree that success can be achieved from almost any starting point, but for any smart kid with strong ambition, a top-30 school should be a reasonable goal. But many kids are out of the game by freshman year, despite excellent brains, challenging transcripts, and sterling test scores, simply because they don’t obsess about grades the way that sophomore does. The problem isn’t the fear of failure, but the corrupt admissions process that has put GPA ahead of everything else. I’m a big fan of Megan McArdle, but when she shows empathy by offering up her devastation at having to settle for 7th-ranked Penn, she’s out of touch with reality—unless her column is meant as no more than a self-help guide for wealthy parents.

  2. “Google attracts so much talent it can afford to look beyond traditional metrics, like G.P.A.”–Thomas Friedman, on his key insight after a free trip to the Googleplex.

    Well, no. First, as far as I’m concerned, Google just flat-out lied to Friedman. Specifically, according to Bock himself, Google does require GPA and transcripts for recent college grads. In previous years, Google demanded them from all applicants, no matter how much work experience. Less specifically, Google implies that you should just be a good, creative, humble person and they’ll take a serious look at your resume with its BS in Cognitive Science from Chico State. Please don’t believe that. Quite the contrary: you could be a really good, smart, creative person with a recent degree from Chico State and Google will laugh at your hubris in thinking you could work with God’s Chosen Few. Daniel Willingham raises his eyebrows at Google’s “purported” (ooooh, delicate, that) practices and says “Everything Bock says is probably not true, and if it were true, it would not work well in organizations other than Google.” Indeed.

  3. “For context, KCPS is a system where 70 percent of students are below proficient and the average ACT score is a tick above 16.“–Ethan Gray, CEO of CEE, posting at Eduwonk.

    Well, no. That’s not context. You can’t have test score context without race.

    The Kansas City Public School district is 59% black, 26% Hispanic. The bulk of these students are also poor. The average black ACT score is 16.9, average Hispanic score is 18.8

    Considering that most blacks and most Hispanics aren’t poor, the simple truth is that Kansas City schools are probably neither better nor worse than any other urban, high poverty, black and Hispanic school district.

    But boy, it sounds sooooooo dramatic. Like, you know, the teachers are doing a bad job and if they’d just let the reformers come in, they’d have those high poverty kids at a 20 ACT score in no time.

  4. “While middle school and high school may have brought a few more male teachers into the mix, the truth is, the teaching profession was and really still is, dominated by women.”Amy Mayhew of the Tri-County Times.

    Well, no. As the article itself observes, ” male educators make up 2.3 percent of the overall pre-K and kindergarten teachers, while male elementary and middle school teachers constitute 18.3 percent of the teaching population. It evens out a little more at the high school level with men representing about 42 percent of the teachers overall.”

    Perspective: Law enforcement is roughly 20% female, federal and state combined, but the specifics vary both by agency and
    city. Meanwhile, 4% of firefighters are female, or at least were in 2008.

    So preschool and kindergarten teachers are predominantly female, just as firefighters are predominantly male. Elementary and middle school teachers are as male as cops are female, more so in many cases. And what, exactly, is the problem with the gender balance in high school? You all have got to stop treating it as one occupation.

    If you need to point and sputter at a female profession, try nursing.

  5. “As for the school board, what it should do is feel ashamed for once again putting students, families and educational achievement at the bottom of its priority list.”LA Times Editorial, on LAUSD’s refusal to renew two Aspire charters.

    Well, no. LAUSD rejected the charters because they refused to join the district’s special ed services group, or SELPA, opting instead to pay El Dorado County a small fee to basically funnel their state funds right back to them, with a much smaller haircut than LA takes. Which sounds reasonable, except California takes a $2 billion loss every year providing IDEA-mandated services that the feds don’t pay for (hi, unfunded mandate!), and much of that loss is passed on to local districts. Both San Diego and Los Angeles lose millions each year paying for mandated special education services, and they spread that cost among all the kids. But California gave charters in region the ability to pull out their kids, thus increasing the cost to all the other kids in the district who don’t go to charters. El Dorado, presumably, doesn’t take a bath on special education, so is able to do nothing except give charter funds a hair cut and send them right back. So not only do LA charters have fewer special education students, but they also aren’t required to pay for all the special ed students in the region, like all the other district schools are. (I suspect the charter schools that stay with the district do so because it’s more cost effective, and no, I don’t know why.) Special education is expensive and frustrating, and I understand why any school, any district, would get out from under its thumb. But it’s very, very weird that El Dorado gets to sit back and collect money from charters who just want to escape the costs that everyone else in their district shares. However, the shame here points directly at the LA Times. There’s all sorts of additional reporting to be done on this story, but they can’t be bothered to even really investigate how much money is funneled through El Dorado County, or why charter students are allowed to skate the burden of regional special education. Because the district kids are suffering under a bigger share of the costs, while the LA Times is bleating on behalf of the lucky lottery winners who, as the paper points out, won’t lose their schools despite all the sturm und drang.

  6. “In truth, the well-off kids went to far better “common” schools. The less well-off and minority students went to schools that didn’t give them an equal shot in life. “Andrew Rotherham and Richard Whitmire, on the reformer’s dream “common schools”.

    Well, no. It’s not the schools and teachers that didn’t give students an equal shot, but rather the students’ cognitive ability, their parents’ income, and their peers. The only one of those that schools can mitigate, somewhat, is the peer group. That, not higher quality teachers or a better curriculum, remains the appeal of charter schools, private schools, and districts with well-protected zipcodes. Tracking and a better understanding of the impact of low incentive kids would give public schools much better weapons to fight the problems caused by mixed ability and mixed incentives. Alas, the feds keep threatening public schools if their discipline records aren’t racially balanced. Meanwhile, highly sought after charter schools often expel undesirable students, often free from scrutiny, although taken in total, charters and publics have roughly the same suspension and expulsion rates. And no one wants to talk about tracking. Peer environment remains the huge unmentionable.


2013: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Am I a hedgehog or a fox?

Certainly my life choices reflect a fox. At four or five, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I had no idea. By the time I was a teenager, I knew this lack of focus, this tendency to be relatively good at a bunch of things but outstanding (at my own level) at nothing in particular, was going to be a problem. I’ve had four or five separate occupations, several of which I describe in this post, an essay that pretty much says “fox” from start to finish—as does my essay on acquiring content knowledge through reading, I think. For a person with little ambition, I’ve successfully used my brains to make a decent living in those four or five occupations; for eighteen years I averaged 25 hour work weeks (in tech, averaged over the year, in tutoring, over the month) and raised a son on the income. (I work more hours now as a teacher, but I also get paid vacations, something I had only five years out of the previous thirty.)

Until I began tutoring and then teaching, I never felt I was using more than a fraction of my intellect and almost none of my interest. Teaching test prep and then tutoring in a wide range of areas, in contrast, grabbed me from the start. I was using the full range of my intellect, first to learn two major tests and the middle and high school curricula in three subjects. Then, when I started teaching, I was fascinated by the challenges of developing curriculum and engaging and motivating students, to name just two of many job attractions.

But in teaching, I’m a fox as well, teaching three subjects, test prep even now in four major tests (twelve earlier in my career), and morph pretty effortlessly from one subject to another, day to day and, back when I was a tutor, hour to hour. I’m not trying to win converts to any subject other than classic films. No hedgehog as a teacher, certainly. Teaching has given my writing focus and purpose; I have actually stopped looking for tutoring work because I have more time for writing.

Despite all this, as a thinker and writer, I see myself as a hedgehog. Yes, you can laugh. But this collection of essays is premised entirely on the Voldemort View, that all the policy, all the teacher training, all the curriculum arguments run up against the reality of cognitive ability, and that our refusal to accept this reality is having terrible consequences.

Everything I write begins with that premise.

And yet. I’ve convinced a good many people that teachers aren’t low-achieving, scoffed at the pretend fuss over the lack of minority teachers, but also argue that teacher intelligence, past a certain level, doesn’t appear to be that important. I routinely remind my readers that students in the middle third of the cognitive spectrum forget most of what they were taught, that teaching algebra is like banging your head with a whiteboard, and that no one has had success teaching advanced math to the moderately retarded, but I also talk about the joys of teaching kids with low motivation and low (for high school) cognitive ability. I’ve been arguing, lately, that many recent Asian immigrants are not as smart as their test scores might indicate, and am starting to wonder if black ability might not in some cases, underrepresented by test scores. IQ purists scoff at my opinion that we haven’t really investigated how, and what, we can teach people with lower than average cognitive ability—more than one reader has derided my comment here as goofy idealism.

I get all that, but they all feel linked to the same idea. While I don’t write about other subjects much, I have the same notion: a small number of fundamental ideas inform all my opinions. I have changed my mind on these fundamental ideas, and it’s always a pretty big deal for me, something I remember and acknowledge. That sounds more hedgehoggish than fox, someone who is driven by central ideas, as opposed to a million flexible gametime decisions about important issues as they arise.

So I feel like a hedgehog, but any examination of my life or interests leads inexorably to the fox.

Isaiah Berlin originated the fox/hedgehog paradigm to explore Tolstoy’s psyche: “Tolstoy, in Berlin’s telling, was torn between the hedgehog’s quest for a single truth and the fox’s acceptance of many and, at times, incommensurable truths.” Berlin argues that Tolstoy’s final years were ruined because he wanted to be a hedgehog but could not deny his essential foxiness.

Well, I ain’t ruining my second half being fussed by deciding which side of the dichotomy I fit in with. But I will say this: time and again, I find that people build “if…then” constructs from fundamental ideas that I didn’t sign on to. These people are then annoyed at me for backtracking, inconsistency, or some other sin of logic.

So, for example, the basic Voldemort View: Mean differences in group IQs are the most likely explanation for the achievement gap in racial and SES groups. Or, cognitive ability is the chief determinant of academic ability and other life outcomes.

People build all sorts of “if…thens” from this. If IQ is not malleable, then a high IQ group is superior and more desirable than a low IQ group. If cognitive ability determines academic academic, then it’s not worth educating people with lower cognitive abilities. If higher test scores, then higher academic ability. If smarter, then better. And a host of others.

Hell, no. I’m not backtracking. I’m not in denial. I’m saying, categorically, that these things do not necessarily follow. Go ahead and believe them, that’s fine. Just don’t tell me that I have to accept all those if…then constructs just because I accept the reality of cognitive ability. No superiority or preference follows directly. I can pick and choose the if…then constructs that interest me from that point. And I can change my mind–for example, the last two years has seen me become noticeably more skeptical of higher test scores (although I still think in the main they’re good).

Of course, maybe that refusal to lock in the “if…thens” is what makes me a fox. Huh.

Anyway. The point of all this is to introduce the essays that got the most traffic this year. The numbers are from the last 365 days only. I have made the cutoff 1500 views—whoo hoo! (well, close. I let a 1490 slip in.) Just under half of them (10 out of 22) were written last year. I am not bothered by this. Many of my posts have high information content, others are used by teachers as lesson guides. Google likes me a lot. But I only wrote 61 posts this year, an average of 5 per month.

Traffic growth was huge.

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
12 2878 1326 932 912 1107 3764 6485 10303 5466 5986 14574 13851 67584
23 11846 9416 11386 18306 22891 12032 14086 23491 19077 26747 27296 19265 215839

As I said when the blog hit 200,000 views, this seems like a tremendous amount of activity for someone who barely averages five posts a month. I was reading Old Andrew’s retrospective, since he’s another teacher who writes about policy (as do Paul Bruno and Harry Webb), and he mentioned that his traffic grew substantially. Andrew stays focused on a few key topics, and really was a go-to blog for OFSTED issues this year (I only vaguely know what OFSTED is, but it’s something English). Well, I’m not really a go-to blog for anything. I’ve definitely written a number of go-to essays, but that’s not the same thing. I’m not focused enough to be a go-to blog for a particular issue. (There it is, fox again.) Given the random nature of my subject matter, I find my traffic levels astounding.

I have been very pleased at the development of the comments section. Several recent posts saw seventy or more comments and some active discussions.

Goals for next year:

  • Try to average 6 essays a month.
  • Grit my teeth and finish essays that got stalled. I have at least ten draft posts with lots of research that I never get around to completing.
  • Review the major topics I write on and set myself some goals to further develop some of the ideas. I am well aware that I haven’t finished my series on Asian immigrants (see the previous bullet), but I never even started some plans I had to write on reform math, and high school curriculum.
  • Continue developing some of the strands I started in late November and December on different educational reform philosophies
  • Evaluate what the next steps are for getting an even wider reader base.
  • Write more under my own name. I did that more through August, but I now have four different essays in draft form.
  • Dote upon the granddaughter who will be making her appearance in May. Please tell me I look far too young to be a grandparent.

Hope my new readers will check out the essays below. I refuse to say it’s a fox list. But it’s….eclectic.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 10/08/13    6,663
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 04/05/13    6,305
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 04/28/13    4,532
Core Meltdown Coming 11/19/13    4,063
Kashawn Campbell 08/26/13    3,631
Homework and grades. 02/06/12    3,380
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/19/12    3,076
The Gap in the GRE 01/28/12    2,964
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 03/18/13    2,499
Noahpinion on IQ–or maybe just no knowledge. 10/31/13    2,408
College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences 09/01/13    2,373
Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers 08/01/13    2,334
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/17/12    2,293
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 07/01/12    2,186
About 01/01/12    1,929
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 01/05/12    1,899
Jason Richwine and Goring the Media’s Ox 05/12/13    1,896
Not Why This. Just Why Not That. 11/30/13    1,839
Binomial Multiplication, etc 09/14/12    1,824
The Voldemort View 01/06/12    1,736
An Asian Revelation 06/28/13    1,669
Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard 05/11/12    1,490
 

 


Most Popular Posts and Favorites

I had a huge month in April, over 25% larger than my last winner, November. My blog has a total of 121,000 page views (since January 1, 2012) and have 178 followers on Twitter. The last probably doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but I literally started with 0 followers. I told no friends or family of my blog, although three or four found me over the months. I had just 7000 pageviews in June 2012, when I created a Twitter account. (First follower: the hyperliteral Paul Bruno, of This Week in Education, who I argue with via twitter but quite enjoy as a writer.)

I have absolutely no idea what this means in relative audience size. What matters to me is that, in a loyal band of regular readers, interspersed between teachers, parents, and Dark Enlightenment folk, I count more than a few policy wonks and reporters—and even a publisher, apparently. I might not have a large crowd following my every tweet, but well over half of my followers do. I started this blog to inform and persuade. So far, so good.

I often check my top posts, reading the growing numbers in awe and wonder, because they, too, confirm that my blogging goals have been and continue to be met. The most popular posts cover pedagogy, policy, some unique data analysis or exposure, and my somewhat scathing opinions about the reform crowd. (I don’t much care for progressives, either, but plenty of people are around to debunk them.)

Since my audience has grown again, I thought I’d remind everyone of my most popular posts, in case someone wanted to check them out. Most of my essays represent at least five or six hours work (I worked on the Philip Dick essay for over a month, the algebra pointlessness one for two weeks), and I think any of the 1000+ view entries are worth a look for a general audience.

Title Views Written
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 4,733 Aug 12
Escaping Poverty 3,664 Nov 12
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 3,417 Jan 12
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 2,992 July 12
Homework and grades. 2,576 Feb 12
The Gap in the GRE 2,280 Jan 12
Why Chris Hayes Fails 2,240 June 12
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 2,102 April 13
The Parental “Diversity” Dilemma 1,907 Nov 2012
An Alternative College Admissions System 1,553 Dec 2012
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 1,525 Mar 13
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 1,137 April 13

I left off my “About” page, but both it and “Who am I” right below were nowhere on the horizon last December, so more people are checking out my bio. Neat, if unnerving.

So then we have the 800-900 views, also worth a read for the general audience unless you really have no interest in math pedagogy or curriculum, in which case skip the obvious suspects. But I’m incredibly proud of those curriculum posts; googling modeling linear equations brings up my post in the top two or three as of this writing; likewise a search for binomial multiplication area model brings my post up right near the top.

Title Views Written
Who am I? 966 Jan 12
Plague of the Middlebrow Pundits, Revisited: Walter Russell Mead 918 Mar 13
Teaching Polynomials 917 Mar 12
Modeling Linear Equations 907 Jan 12
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 871 Aug 12
What causes the achievement gap? The Voldemort View 820 Jan 12
More on Mumford 817 Nov 12
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 790 Sept 12

And now the less viewed posts that represent my favorites of the rest. I really wish people would read more of these, particularly the Chris Christie post and the Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform. So pick a few to check out. You can also check my year in review for posts I’m fond of.

Policy:

Title Views Written
Why Chris Christie picks on teachers 699 Aug 12
Radio silence on Clarence Mumford 660 July 12
Learning Math 605 Aug 12
American Indian Public Charters: What Word Are You Forgetting, People? 602 Apr 13
557
Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help 555 Jan 13
Jo Boaler’s Railside Study: The Schools, Identified. (Kind of.) 548 Jan 13
Boaler’s Bias (or BS) 521 Oct 12
Picking Your Fights—Or Not 501 Apr 13
Those Who Can, Teach. Those Who Can’t, Wonk. 493 Dec 12
What’s the difference between the SAT and the ACT? 483 June 12
The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform 454 Sept 12
The difference between tech hiring and teacher hiring 219 June 12

Pedagogy and Curriculum

Probably not too interesting unless you’re a teacher. But I have to say that Modeling Probability is pretty kick ass.

I realize these probably come off as vanity posts, but for me, they’re a great way to take stock. I have had a genuinely terrific year, between blogging and teaching, and it’s fun to write it all down.


On John Quincy Adams and His Photograph

Of late there’s been notice that John Quincy Adams was photographed once or twice (the link is to Razib Khan’s thoughtful post). I’m not sure why the meme started; the picture has been around for decades. These articles seemed to have kicked off the trend.

The two original articles I read paid little attention to the man himself.

This is the man who authored the Monroe Doctrine declaring the US closed for settlement, who was probably the greatest Secretary of State in our history at a time when Sec of State was the second most important job in government. When Andrew Jackson overreached by invading Florida, Adams seized the opportunity to acquire the territory. When the US got involved in an ill-advised Second War for Independence and got mostly trounced, Adams negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, giving Britain next to nothing and keeping what the US had. This man, as both president and ex-President, strongly supported American nationalism and growth, but nonetheless had a relatively sympathetic policy towards native Americans and was one of the great early anti-slavery activists in Congress, routinely fighting the gag rule and, of course, defending the rights of African slaves in the Amistad case; both his opposition to slavery and his support of native Americans mark a profound difference from his much lionized successor, slaveowner and Cherokee remover Andrew Jackson.

Many who see the picture marvel that photography was around to capture a man with such a strong relationship to the founding fathers—how amazing it was that we have a picture of a man who knew Washington and Jefferson. One of the founding fathers was his dad, of course, and he knew many of the early leaders well. But arguably, he was a founding father, less than a decade younger than Alexander Hamilton. Washington—the man, not the city—considered him an extraordinary young diplomat after reading his series of articles in support of Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality. Hamilton and Jefferson fought passionately over domestic policy and saw foreign affairs largely in terms of their own ideological preferences (not that this is a bad thing), while their boss listened and decided, usually in Hamilton’s favor. But neutrality was Washington’s own priority, one he developed from his own experience and values, decidedly rejecting both of his key advisers’ advice. That the first president appointed JQA to his first diplomatic position as US minister to the Netherlands on the strength of that series, read his letters home carefully, and used phrases from those dispatches in his Farewell Address speaks to Quincy Adams’ impact on early US foreign policy.

Like his father, JQA was a cranky misogynist and an unpopular but not necessarily terrible one-term president. He shared the founding fathers’ early vision of the country as a republic, in which an elite and well-informed minority undid the will of the impassioned people, hence his acquiescence to the original Corrupt Bargain.

He had a massive stroke in the House Chamber while voting against a resolution to award medals to Mexican-American War generals (he opposed the war and its treaty saying it would only exacerbate sectional tensions and lead to civil war, and by golly, he was right), dying two days later. Abraham Lincoln was part of the delegation escorting his body home to be buried in Massachusetts.

And while we’re mentioning photographs of people who knew the founding fathers, how about a shout out for this lady on the right?

The socialite Dolly Madison carved the path for the ceremonial but none-the-less essential role for first lady, serving in that capacity for the widow Thomas Jefferson as well as for her husband James. While she didn’t personally cut down Washington’s portrait, she was unquestionably the person who identified it for rescue, along with a copy of the Declaration of Independence. She refused to leave Washington until the last minute when the British army was a few miles away, and rushed back to the city as soon as possible, understanding the importance of her symbolic presence.

But I digress.

Is there any tidbit of information in this Atlantic article or the Daily Mail piece even a tenth as interesting as any one of the facts I’ve outlined above? Both pieces are more interested in minutiae about the pebble in the man’s eye, and maybe a brief mention of hey, he knew the founding fathers!

Yes, it is insanely cool that this man lived long enough to be captured by photography—not because of who he knew, but because of who he was.


Propaganda Films

I don’t normally waste much time in class. Kids come in, I kick off the lesson, it’s all go until the bell rings–maybe twice a month kids finish early and I let them quietly chat for 5 minutes at the end of class. I’m never sick, so the kids don’t lose a day of instruction with a sub. I don’t do warmups (buzzword: “do nows”) since it kills about 20 minutes of classtime to no avail. I don’t spend time on class-long come to Jesus meetings about behavior or student objectives. I don’t do posters (past Algebra I, anyway). Winged porcine creatures will look down upon the Common Core standards frozen solid in the Styx before I’ll spend a nanosecond teaching non-fiction in math class. My kids come in day after day and do math—or, as my evaluator wrote recently, “This is a business-like classroom where not a lot of student or teacher energy is spent doing tasks not related to the objectives for the day.”

So if I set aside maybe 6 hours a year for the class to watch movies, I figure I’m entitled to the time.

I feel no obligation to propagandize math, literature, or history to my classes. I’m fine if my kids hyperventilate at the mere thought of math, think Dickens and Shakespeare are tedious torture, or see no value in understanding the economic factors that led to the Civil War. (That goes triple for science, an opinion which could possibly have something to do with the fact that it’s the one subject I don’t teach.)

I am not fine with the fact that kids today automatically sneer at black and white movies, or indeed any “old” movie—and these are kids who think the first Die Hard is “old”. Consequently, I have for many years committed myself to increasing awareness of the great, near-great, or merely awesome movies of previous generations, making up for my students’ parents’ shocking neglect. In other words, I show movies in class for propaganda purposes: I want them to like “old” movies.

Long before I became a public school teacher, I was showing movies in my enrichment classes, a polite and entirely Asian group of 6-10 kids. I get more leeway and more patience from them, so was able to experiment with a broad range of movies:

Showing movies in public school means a tougher crowd; Rear Window was the only one that made the first cut. This movie’s golden; I can show it to any population and practically guarantee an enthralled and appreciative audience. I always start off by telling the kids that movies in earlier eras felt comfortable building a narrative first, that they should watch to see how the characters are established, where the narrative shifts happen (the scream, the dead dog), and how they will be covering their eyes in the last 20 minutes in a movie that doesn’t spill a drop of blood onscreen. It’s always a big hit.

My first year in teaching, I taught a great elective, Fifties Science Fiction Films—Lord, was that fun. Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers got a huge response, so I tentatively introduced them to my math classes. Them! has gotten a mixed response overall, though —some kids love the flame throwers and the ants, some go eh. But Invasion is another can’t fail hit, everyone loves it every time I show it.

Older films, alas, don’t have a lot of “color”, and for several years I’d been looking for an outstanding movie with significant non-white characters—and I mean genuinely outstanding, not a movie we pretend is great simply because it has non-white characters or a noble goal (e.g., I am unmoved by To Kill a Mockingbird, book and movie both, and think Gandhi is pretentious tripe). I found one last February, when I came across In The Heat of The Night. I’ve loved the movie since I was 13, but hadn’t seen it in a decade or more. It fits the ticket perfectly: a great movie with no significant sex, violence or language problems that far exceeds its makers’ simplistic vision. Listen to director Norman Jewison and star Sidney Poitier in the commentary and you’d think they’d made a tedious liberal tract about those meeeeeean, bigoted white folks in subhuman Mississippi. But in fact, the film is far more nuanced, with great perception about the Southern class system in its entirety—not just black and white, but poor white, working class white, and oligarchy white.

I usually give a little talk up front about the impact of the automated cotton picker on the Southern economy, the importance of bringing industry and jobs to the South, and the class system. I tell them that the star of the movie, Sidney Poitier, was the top box office star of that year, and was in three of the biggest movies that year—that when he makes his first appearance onscreen, the contemporary audiences knew exactly who he was, and that the star had shown up. I’ve shown it to 7 classes now, and they’ve all loved it.

So this year, my kids being so much easier than those of previous years, and having also thoroughly enjoyed Heat of the Night, I decided to take a chance at Christmas.

In early December, I told them that they’d get a test on Wednesday (the 19th), and then watch a movie on Thursday and Friday. In both classes (my math support class has a different routine),the conversation went like this:

“Is it a good movie, or black and white?”

“It’s not a good movie, but a great movie, and it’s black and white.”

“Awwww, that sucks.”

“Okay, we won’t do a movie then. Two more days of math! Cool!”

“NOOOOOO!”

“Yeah, you know how it works. Watch the movies I want you to watch, or do math. Is the worst movie in the world worse than math?” I am not big on democracy, have I mentioned?

“Movie. Please? Please show us this apparently awesome black and white movie!”

“Okay. This is a famous movie, so even if you hate it—and you probably won’t—it’s the movie equivalent of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, except way better because TKAM is like vegetables.”

So by the time yesterday came around, they were primed. It was a movie, better than math, but not anything they’d otherwise see. Probably it would suck, but then, they thought that about the Heat movie, and it was good. So they were open to having their minds changed.

Wonderfullifegraphic

And glory be, they enjoyed it thoroughly. They laughed in all the right places, got deadly still during the family tension scene, and clapped at the end. I noticed more than one girl wiping away tears as the lights came back on, and more than one boy ostentatiously jostling around for his backpack, keeping his face down, while he recovered.

Yet another step. One day soon, I’ll risk Casablanca. Roger Ebert, I’m doing God’s Work.


Escaping Poverty

Bryan Caplan asks: “Suppose a 15-year-old from a poor family in the First World asked you an earnest question: ‘What can I do to escape poverty?’ How would you answer?”

I doubt he wants an answer from a teacher/test prep instructor/tutor, but what the heck:

Caplan doesn’t indicate the cognitive ability or race of the poor 15-year-old. Strangely enough, it doesn’t matter too much until the last few steps in the process. So here’s what I’d tell the kid:

  1. Cut your family loose. I don’t mean you have to abandon them, or hate them, but their needs are secondary to yours. If they’re making demands, you have to say “No”. All the time. No, you can’t stay home to babysit because your little sister is sick. No, you can’t go pick your father up at work at 2 in the morning. No, you can’t drop your niece and nephew off at school and be late to class. No, you can’t miss a morning of school to drive your mother to the utility company to help her tell a sob story that gets the power turned back on until she has money to pay the bills. No, you can’t work extra shifts just because the family’s broke. No, you can’t lose an entire weekend to visiting your dad/brother/sister/grandfather in jail. I don’t care if your parents are bums or hardworking joes. They made their lives, and if you want a chance of getting out and making your family’s life better, you don’t get sucked in by their problems. If your parents share your goals, then they’re already making this happen. Otherwise, they are millstones round your neck.

  2. If you live in a city or suburb: within a ten mile radius of your school, there are fifteen to twenty organizations dedicated to helping at risk youth. You are at risk. Go check them out and pick the best one. If your school has an AVID program, sign up for that. There is a bunch of do-gooder money funding a whole host of programs that will give you, for free, everything you need to prepare for college. They will give you daily snacks, mentors, tutoring support, monitoring, care, test prep, college visits, free college admissions tests, and anything else you need. All you have to do is show up. Reporters will periodically feature one of these organizations as if they are unique or their services are rare and surprising. They are neither. Counsellors may not even know of their existence. You must find these places. If you live in a rural area, I can’t be as helpful here, but I suspect your school will be much more knowledgeable about existing support than suburban and urban schools are, and may even be more involved in coordinating these programs. So start with your school. Ask your church. Consult the phone book. If you end up having to do without this support, be certain that it wasn’t out there waiting for you to show up. And worst case, every single fee you can think of has a waiver form and you will certainly qualify.

  3. Stay away from anyone your age who doesn’t share your goals.

  4. Stay away from anything illegal: drugs, boosting cars, sex with anyone outside the approved age range, whatever. I’ve lived a clean life; I have no idea what the temptations are. Avoid. If you ignore this advice, memorize these words: “I WANT A LAWYER. NOW.” While screwing up on this point is dangerous, it’s not necessarily fatal. I know a Hispanic kid who graduated from high school while in jail (boosting cars); he then went to a junior college and graduated as valedictorian and went to Columbia. No, I’m not making this up. I tutored him for his SATS when he was in his second year of community college. Yes, he’s an exception.

  5. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Don’t pretend that you aren’t your own worst enemy if you ignore this advice. I have no happy anecdotes for this rule. Jail has less of an opportunity cost than a kid.

  6. Get good grades. Most teachers grade on effort, not ability. Use this if you need to, which means you can get good grades simply by doing your homework and making the teacher happy. If you get a teacher who grades on ability, take the opportunity as a valuable benchmark. Are you doing well? Your abilities are strong. Are you in danger of failing? Buckle down and take the opportunity to improve to the best of your capabilities. That opportunity will be worth the grade hit. Grades are an area in which your mentoring organization can help. A lot. They are designed around helping you get good grades. Use them.

  7. Don’t believe the people who tell you that you need X years of math or Y years of English to get to college. Race determines your transcript and test requirements. If you’re white or Asian, then you need an impressive transcript and decent test scores, no matter how poor you are. If you’re black or Hispanic, you’ve got a decent shot at the best schools in the country if you have SAT scores of 550 or higher per section, and a decent GPA (say 3.0 or higher). Blacks and Hispanics who can read, write, calculate at a second-year algebra level, and care enough about school to have a 3.0 GPA are an exceptionally rare commodity (about 10% of blacks, 20% of Hispanics).

    But what if you can’t hit that ability mark? What if you aren’t very intellectual, work hard but don’t do very well on tests, can’t score above 500 on any section of the SAT, despite all your test prep? All is not lost. Whatever you do, don’t lie to yourself about your abilities, and don’t let anyone else lie to you. If you are a low income black or Hispanic kid, many people are uninterested in your actual abilities. You are a statistic they can use to brag about their commitment to diversity. That’s fine. Use their self-interest to your advantage. But if you can’t break 500 on any section of the SAT, then college is going to present a considerable challenge. Don’t compound that challenge by choosing a college where your degree would be a case of overt fraud. Start thinking in terms of training, not academics. Find the best jobs you can, and build good working relationships. Put more priority on acquiring basic skills, and find the classes that will help you do that. Tap into your support group mentioned above, tell them your goals. This doesn’t mean college isn’t an option, but it’s important to keep your goals realistic. If you are a low income white or Asian kid with little interest or ability in academics, no one will lie to you, and no one is interested in helping you because you represent the wrong sort of diversity. However, the advice remains the same. And for all races, if your skills aren’t too low, don’t forget the military.

    Remember that colleges only use grades for admission. Once you’re in, they give you placement tests and grades don’t matter at all. This is great news for high ability kids who screwed around in high school; bad news for low ability kids who worked hard. Remediation has derailed a number of dreams. Be prepared, know what to expect, and minimize your need for it by taking advantage of every minute of your free high school education. And remember: no matter how bad your school is, it has teachers there who can teach motivated kids. Be one of the kids and find those teachers.

  8. Do not overpay for college. Set your goals based on the advice I’ve given here, as well as the advice of those you trust. Get a job to offset expenses. To the extent possible, find jobs that look good on a resume. A secretarial job looks better than a stint at Subway; a tutoring job looks better than a custodial one. Bank your money; if it’s at all possible to accept an unpaid internship that looks good on a resume, you want the option. If you’re studying for a trade, learn everything you can about the job opportunities: from your college, from seminars, from employers in the field. Try to know what you can expect and what sort of positions you want. But if you don’t know what you want, then don’t drift. Find a job, even if it’s not perfect, and see what happens.

If you’ve managed to achieve everything up to that point, you will have escaped poverty. How and by how much are yet to be determined, but you’re on your way.

It’s too easy to say “Get a good support system, go to school, don’t get knocked up or locked up, go to college.” All are optimal, most are necessary, but they sure aren’t sufficient if you don’t understand the game and jump through the right hoops. I’ve tried here to point out some hoops. Good luck.


Teaching Movies

I wrote this up five years ago for some friends and decided to add it here, because I wanted to start writing about the importance of movies in teaching. I’ve mentioned my enrichment class before; I teach summer school every year. The first year, I had an whole extra week without a book planned, so I asked the director if I could teach a week of movies. By some miracle, he said yes.
*******

I’ve been heading a summer school film festival this week, which thus far has been a roaring success.
My first plan, offered to assuage any concerns the director might have, included these three movies:

  • White Heat
  • Fort Apache
  • His Girl Friday

I liked all these films, but more importantly they included four quintessentially American film types: gangster and noir, Western, screwball comedy. I was concerned that if I just chose purely fun movies, the director might be worried.

Two things happened to change my plans. First, the director wasn’t even in the building the first day, nor did he have the DVD player and large screen monitor available (he’d forgotten). Second, I only owned White Heat, but had ordered the other films last week and damned if they weren’t late. They’re finally arriving today.

After tearing home and grabbing my 7 year old laptop, which I keep around only to watch DVDs when there’s no TV handy, I became far less concerned about what the director wanted. Fort Apache got booted, Singin in the Rain and Rear Window got added.

Learning objectives:

  • Taking notes in the dark, while someone else is talking. They have to do it in high school and college, so may as well start now.
  • Writing film reviews, writing a synopsys, and the occasional persuasive essay.
  • Reading film reviews.
  • Analyzing characters and motivations.

Day 1: White Heat

Popcorn: None. I wasn’t sure that Asian kids would like popcorn. They assured me they would.

They were interested in White Heat, but it was an academic interest. They certainly enjoyed the great lines, and watching Jimmy Cagney, but the investigation scenes didn’t make up in interest what they added in lack of excitement. I suspect that the film will always be associated with “dramatic irony” though, as most of them heard the term for the first time when I explained it.
Without my planned films, I resorted to my own library. I also hooked up an old monitor to the laptop, creating two viewing areas. Sound remains an issue, dammit–the sound quality is fine, but the volume is a bit low.

Day 2: Singin’ in the Rain

Popcorn: Two full batches. I brought paper bags and salt. They devoured it in 20 minutes.

I selected Singin in the Rain first because I had it, second because it would be a nice change after Heat and finally, glory be, for relevance. As an opening lecture to the festival, I explained the history of movies, going through the impact of The Jazz Singer, the lack of technical expertise, and the problems that some actors had with squeaky voices. As part of the intro to this film, I naturally explained the difference between a Broadway and Hollywood musical, the importance of the Freed unit, and how the screenplay writers had been told that they had to write a story that fit this group of songs.

Big success. They loved every moment (confession: I skipped through the Broadway Melody section). They were riveted by the dance scenes; many of them noted that “they don’t chop it up, like in Chicago.” They laughed in all the right places. In their reviews, they all mentioned “the evil but funny Lina” and the great “dignity” speech. They were duly impressed that Cathy was Princess Leia’s mom, but even more stunned that Jean Hagen was dubbing her own voice, as Debbie lacked gravitas.

Day 3: Rear Window

Popcorn: 3 full batches, likewise devoured in 20 minutes. I am not sure where the bottom lies.
I wasn’t sure if they’d like Rear Window, but I thought it safer than The Third Man, and while I had It Happened One Night, I was still hoping my movies would come in and I didn’t want to preclude His Girl Friday.

Their note taking had gotten spotty, so this time I made them to track all the major characters, track all the “window stories”, and also the usual note good quotes, good scenes, and any questions. This did the trick; all of them had two pages of notes.

Three quarters of Rear Window is, as Roger Ebert notes, elegant foreplay. It then ratchets up the suspense with three exquisite shocks:

  • The Miss Lonelyhearts distraction cut to Thorwald’s return with Lisa still in his apartment.
  • Thorwald’s look from Lisa’s ring to Jeff, looking on.
  • Jeff answering the phone. “Hello, Tom? I think Thorwald’s cleared out. Hello?” and then his look of horror as he realizes who has called.

The students were fascinated throughout, commenting on the various “window plots” and speculating about what Thorwald had done. They gasped as one during the three shock scenes, laughing in horror and telling Lisa to “run!” And when it was over, they asked if they could have another Hitchcock today. I told them no! but you know, he’s at Blockbuster and on Netflix.

I was grinning like a lunatic during the last 25 minutes. As a teacher and a movie buff, I couldn’t have been more pleased by their response.

Day 4: His Girl Friday

I was worried it’d be a bit of a letdown after the huge success of Window and it was, just a bit. But still.

Their three biggest laughs:

  • After Walter has relegated Hitler, the Chinese earthquake, and the Polish corridor to page 6 or the funny pages, he says “No, keep the rooster story. That’s human interest.”
  • The entire scene with Bruce’s mother, from her entrance to her exit over Louie’s shoulders.
  • “Hey, I wonder if Bruce can put us up!”

Before the film, I had given them a good deal of info on Ralph Bellamy and Cary Grant (including Grant’s real name), so they got both of those jokes. I also told them what newspapers were like in that era, that big cities had 6 or 7 papers at least, and that newspapers were far more influential then. They absolutely got the message when the reporters gave fifty different versions (“Earl didn’t give up without a fight!” “Earl didn’t struggle!” “Earl tried to shoot, but his gun wasn’t loaded!”), and that for all our complaints about the media, things are a lot better these days.

They also loved the cameraderie of the press corps. One of my favorite moments in HGF occurs after the men have humiliated Molly and she leaves in tears. They know they’ve gone too far, and are sitting in silent embarrassment. It’s one of the only quiet moments in the film. Anna said, “Look, they feel bad” and the rest murmured in agreement. Later, when Molly shows up again, Michael pointed out how nice the reporters were at first, to make up for their rudeness.

So now it’s over. Lordy, I want to do that again. The whole summer was a great deal of fun, but this last week was teaching nirvana for me.

***************

This week was hugely influential in my teaching. To my elation, the kids really responded to “old” movies. Thanks to the ten kids in the class that day, a couple hundred kids have seen movie classics whenever I had a few spare hours.


Busy schedule

Spring is my busiest time. In addition to my normal teaching job, I have four private instruction classes:

  1. English lit enrichment/PSAT: 3 hours, every Saturday. I wrote about ithere.
  2. ACT prep course: underprivileged kids and the ACT. I’ve done this every year but one of the past six. Nothing is more satisfying than teaching test prep. Every year, six or seven kids who wouldn’t otherwise have escaped remediation do so because they took my class. 3 hours.
  3. AP US History Survey: two classes, 3 hours each. I stand up and talk about US History for 3 hours. No notes, either. I love it. Every year I find something new to add.

So that’s close to 12 hours of private instruction. I also tutor 6-8 hours in a slow week, 10-12 on occasion.

Why, yes,I have a life. But I don’t sleep much.


Enrichment

I teach composition and book club on Saturdays at an SAT academy, which is codespeak for a near-entire Asian (ethnic Chinese, Korean, Indian, and Vietnamese) first generation immigrant parent clientele who want a place to send their kids from 7th grade on. My kids spend three hours every Saturday with me for a year, then I teach summer school, often to some of the same kids. Understand that most of them live in Asian enclaves in which they rarely run into white people, much less black or Hispanic. The public schools they go to are 80% Asian, then they go off to public or private universities that are 40-50% Asian, they (thus far) marry other Asians and will eventually form additional enclaves and renew. I always start off every new year by asking the kids to estimate the percentage of the American population that is Asian–the lowest guess ever has been 15%. Most of them guess 30%.

I love it. I have my doubts about the impact this same population is having on public schools and college admissions, but my affection for the kids themselves knows no bounds.

It’s a book club, and the primary emphasis is on vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing in different forms. But I nonetheless include a great deal of instruction on “white people world*” and most of them soak it up eagerly. I am often the first person they’ve met who has told them that watching more TV is actually helpful, that good grades are nice but only if they are accompanied by actual knowledge and achievement which is not the same thing, and who understands but gently mocks their parents’ demands. I can only be satisfied by them thinking for themselves, and there are no grades—a topsy turvy world for these kids.

Each class quickly grasps that I will mention things that they’ve never heard of, and that they should know of, and that I think it’s a problem, or at least a deficit. And periodically, the deficit will be so significant that I immediately act to remedy it.

Which is what happened today, when we were going over the news of the week. They all knew that Whitney Houston had died. It took me a while to realize that none of them could identify a single song of hers.

“Seriously? I Will Always Love You? Never heard of it? Hmmf.”

“Was she really popular?”

“Oh, hugely so for about 15 years back in the 80s and 90s. She came from a talented family. You’ve probably never heard of her mom, and probably wouldn’t know Dionne Warwick, but Aretha Franklin was her godmother, and…..” I see the blank looks.

“Oh, come ON. You do too know Aretha.” They all shake their heads. “You have too. What’s annoying is that you’ve heard her and just didn’t know it was her, and you SHOULD. So I’m going to play her most famous song, you’re going to go ‘oh, yeah, I know that song!’ and from now on you are going to know who Aretha Franklin is.” I am thumbing through my Android as they assure me they have no idea who Aretha Franklin is. Their assurances last through the opening of “RESPECT” and then , as her voice comes on, sure enough….”

“Oh, is THAT Aretha Franklin! I know that song!” and they are all cracking up because they are doing exactly what I told them they’d do.

“Now. Never forget who Aretha is, okay?” They nod.

I then play two Whitney songs. Not only had they heard them before, but one of them had “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” on her Ipod.

Don’t worry, parents, we talked about art and Asher Lev, too.

*Yes, I know, there’s a certain irony in my calling it “white people world” when I’m explaining Aretha and Whitney.


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