“Get Out” a scathing satire? Get Out.

(Note: this is outside my “all things education” brief,  but squarely in my “most folks in the media simply don’t understand what diversity means anymore” zone, so it’s a wash.)

I enjoyed this movie far more than I  expected based on the rapturous reviews, which promised a scathing satire on race relations in America cloaked in a horror film an  exquisite comedy of manners,   an alarming portrayal of white racism.  As is so often the case, the movie’s creator doesn’t come near to achieving his stated goals. Jordan Peele isn’t the compleat observer of American mores that he–and many others–think he is, so his movie fails to uncover the “insidious qualities” of white liberals.   This is just a nice, tight horror film with some clever touches and a few non-fatal flaws.

The revealed plot (do not read if you have not seen):

Dean and Missy, a neurosurgeon and his hypnotherapist wife, have developed a means of personality transfer, probably at the instigation of Dean’s father. Missy can submerge an individual’s personality to “the sunken place”, suppressing his or her ability to control his body or mind. The helpless host is then surgically implanted with an invader’s brain matter, giving the invader’s personality full control.

Dean and Missy’s two children, Jeremy and Rose, procure the hosts.  Rose serves as honey pot, taking several months to woo a new lover and then “bring him home to the family”, which includes Walter and Georgina, the family’s “servants”, and always takes place the same weekend as the family’s yearly party, conveniently enough. Except Walter and Georgina are actual hosts for Dean’s parents, who invaded the bodies when their own wore out, and the party guests are actually bidders for the new host.

Jeremy brutalizes and kidnaps his victims off the street. There’s no fake party, no need for Walter and Georgina to pretend to mow the lawn and make the beds.  Rose’s method seems unnecessarily time-consuming; I don’t see why they don’t just send Jeremy out twice as often.

The plot is revealed through the eyes of Rose’s new unsuspecting prospect, Chris, a young photographer with mommy issues. He avoids his fate because his cellphone uses a flash, his best friend is a TSA agent, and because once aroused, he is capable of ferocious self-defense.

Notice how easy it is to describe this story without ever mentioning race. The tale hangs nicely without knowing that Jeremy only kidnaps, Rose only entraps, black people. It doesn’t suddenly make more sense, closing some puzzling plot loophole.

In fact, the interpretation as offered up by Jordan Peele and his following in elite circles makes the movie absurd.

Given a surgical procedure that implants their consciousness into another body, guaranteeing virtual immortality, rich white people would say “Great! Now find me a cute/buff white body that no one will miss.” (They’d also demand a plastic surgeon get rid of the scars.)

Rich white people do not want to be black. Nor do they want to be Hispanic, southern or eastern Asian, of course, but Peele’s horizons don’t extend that far.

Happily, the movie itself makes no such claims. The movie portrays members of this weird, creepy organization who want to be black. The (largely pointless) video forcefed to Chris makes  no mention of race. We only learn that the Armitages limit their procedures to black folks through Chris’s discovery of Rose’s photo album, coupled with Jeremy’s takedown of Dre.  Jim (the only authentic rich white guy to be found in the film) confirms that only black people are hosts, and he makes it clear that the “organization” has some sort of fetish on the topic.

That these particular white folks aren’t normal is supported by the party scenes themselves. Look, I worked almost exclusively for rich white people as a tutor for four years, including  for folks who have been at one time or another on the Forbes 400.  Rich white liberals from the boomer generation on down just aren’t that gauche. The Armitage guests are creepy,  touching hair, feeling biceps, asking about his sexual prowess.  Their cars are all wrong, too.  But my experience isn’t necessary here. Only idiots with critical faculties completely removed would see these cultists as typical rich white folks.

And here’s the thing: the movie thinks so, too. What else is the point of Jim Hudson, played by the always note-perfect Stephen Root? Jim isn’t a cultist. He’s the real thing: a rich white bastard  in all his authentic, heartless glory. He says so expressly in the video, but we don’t need to be told. At the “party”, Jim is the only one who treats Chris like a human. He’s a rich white bastard, but he’s no racist.  More importantly, he’s not a cultist.

I kept wondering throughout why so many critics–and Peele–invoked the Stepford Wives until I realized that they were referring to the cheerful black servants Walter and Georgina. Just as the men of Stepford turned all their womenfolk cheerful, sex-ready, and compliant by making them all robots, so too did Dean and Missy turn black people into servile peasants, eager to please their masters.

But Walter and Georgina aren’t servants. They’re just pretending to be servants for Chris. Walter and Georgina are Grandma and Grandpa, pretending to be servants to fool Chris. They are fully empowered players in this horrific game, welcoming the bidders to the new auction, messing with Chris’s phone, doing everything they can to kill Chris when he escapes. All we’re seeing is the facade. Homage to Stepford, certainly, but Walter and Georgina aren’t even remotely parallel.

Of course, the entire “servants” fakeout is a giveaway of itself. Rich white people don’t employ blacks as servants. That’s what they have Hispanics for, and why so many white elites resist any sort of immigration restriction.  Maybe people were so eager to see racism that they missed the obvious, but  I was instantly skeptical. Liberal white guilt about black servants reigns supreme; no Obama liberal would have them. By the time Walter was chopping wood–I mean, really. Chopping wood? For what, exactly? –I’d called the plot twist. Walter was a white guy in a black man’s body. Betty Gabriel, singlehandedly responsible for every jump-scare in the film, impeccably represents as a little old white woman who can’t quite get comfortable around “colored people”.

So I already had the plot figured out 30 minutes in, which left me plenty of time to wonder not only where the Hispanic maid was, but where the Hispanics were, period. The Northeast, where I’m told this movie takes place, has more Hispanics than blacks. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, even New Hampshire have a higher percentage of Hispanics than blacks. Yet there isn’t a Hispanic to be found onscreen, not even in the police station. Maybe one walked by the TSA guy and I missed it.

At least there’s a Japanese guy bidding for the right to invade Chris, but that seems to be just one more homage to Rosemary’s Baby. Besides, Asians bidding for the right to be black? Look, I can believe in a cult of weird rich white people with a black fetish. (Cf Rachel Dolezal and Shawn King.)  But Asians, particularly  “fancy” Asians , are racist to levels that your average neo-Nazi can’t even conceive of.

But that’s all beside the point. The movie was fun and the performances note perfect.  None of Peele’s ideological agenda made it on the screen. Race just adds a delightful, even gorgeous, frisson of subtext. The cops laughing at the worried friend are all black, although how this casting does anything but make a joke of Peele’s grand designs is left for better minds than mine. Best of all is  Peele’s use of the “black boyfriend”, with Chris constantly worried about making the wrong impression, overreacting to seeming insanity–maybe this is how white folks do things. Then the finale–oh, the finale. I don’t enjoy watching violence, but Chris’s escape is ferocious righteousness that simply wouldn’t have played as well with any other race.

As for flaws, Everything Wrong with Get Out in 15 Minutes or Less picked up most of the flaws I found with the actual movie, as opposed to my complaints about the absurd interpretations. I’d add that Alison Williams would have been considerably more terrifying if she’d maintained her loose, “all American” persona after the reveal, rather than becoming a freakazoid terminator. How scary would that have been, coming after you with a shotgun?

Another nit:   Richard Herd, playing Roman Armitage, was born in 1932, just the right age to be Bradley Whitford’s dad, but just four years old when Jesse beat the Germans in 1936. A Jesse Owen contemporary would have been 60 years old when son Dean was born, and unlikely to be alive when the grandkids were born, much less old enough to lure unsuspecting African Americans into sexual relationships to bring them home for invasion.

Why not Harrison Dillard? He won in 1948, tied the existing world record just like Jesse Owens did. And he’s alive. Using Dillard as a plot point would have been more realistic, less trite, and maybe even brought the spotlight to a neglected black athlete.

So Jordan Peele may have had lofty goals for his little horror film, but thankfully they aren’t to be found in the actual movie, at least not for most white viewers, at least not for those who live in more racial diversity than the average reporter or movie critic. But Steve Sailer  was uncharacteristically harsh; he seems to have seen the movie Peele wanted to make. (I totally don’t see the Alvy Singer parallels).  Mine is–as always–a minority view.

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What Counts as Teaching?

I met Dale, his girlfriend Maya, and their new puppy for lunch on Friday.  Dale and I worked together at my previous Title I school in his first year (my last). Within three years, Dale was department chair,  teaching AP Calc BC and AP Stats,  honors pre-calculus, designing his own courses, settling colleague spats. But Dale began his career teaching Algebra I, and even after taking a leadership position, he never hesitated to take on a low-level class to give his colleagues more variety. Given that Dale’s school, like mine, assigns teachers to categories of classes, he could easily have stayed in the stratosphere, but he easily handles tough kids.

Dale had planned to stay at that school forever. I remember one lunch when Maya and I pointed out he might be better moving to a different school, but he was adamant. However,  Maya (who makes a lot more money) has become exhausted and stressed by her commute. They decided to move closer to her job, which is in a much wealthier part of the world. Dale still isn’t thirty, and you don’t get hired into department head positions, particularly not in the wealthy suburban districts near his new place. Dale knew that, knew that  prioritizing location would limit his options, that he’d be unlikely to get the ideal course load he now had. My own school would have taken him in a heartbeat, given him the AP class load he preferred, but he wanted to be close to home.

We knew all this. We’d talked about it last year, when he was looking. When Dale accepted a job, we talked about his schedule: a bunch of algebra I classes and computer science. All freshmen. More money, but not enough more to get excited about. Dale’s a cheery guy and showed no resentment, at most mildly philosophical about the change.

End preamble. Nod to Dale’s awesome relationship priorities.

So we’re talking about Dale’s new job at lunch. He is using the district curriculum that is mapped out by day. He spends no time at all developing his own lesson plans, but since the required curriculum has regular quizzes and tests, he spends far more time grading than he used to. He loves it, though. The students  (mostly white) are capable and interested and far advanced of anything he’d seen at his last school. They do homework. They ask in depth questions, demand deeper understanding.

As he told me all this, Dale was grinning. I knew he was remembering something I told him early on in our acquaintance, when he was a first year and I was a third: “Look, I’m not sure what you call it when people deliver centrally planned lessons to prepared kids, but it sure as hell isn’t teaching. Because if it is, what the hell is it we’re doing?”

“So,” I said now. “Is it teaching?”

“Sure feels like it. But yeah, it’s different. Their questions are amazing. We’re really discussing in-depth math. The kids enjoy it. They aren’t obsessed about grades. I’d rather plan my own lessons, although I can see how I’d get used to just downloading the worksheets for the day. But the kids, they want to know about math. And I get to tell them all about math. What is that, if not teaching?”

Every so often, I can get my head around this notion. When I think of reformers going on and on about the importance of curriculum, how arrogant teachers are to think they can create their own, I realize these are people whose notion of teaching is something like Dale’s classroom. When I read a paper stating that to improve teaching and advance student learning requires weaving together the curriculum that students engage with every day with the professional learning of teachers“, I realize they, too, think that my world is just a slightly more chaotic, lower-level version of Dale’s universe.

But see, it goes beyond curriculum. That’s just my pet peeve. Think about what a PE teacher does every day. A first grade teacher. A high school special ed teacher managing twelve aides and eight severely disabled “students” who have to wear mitts to stop from hurting themselves, who will be attending “school” all year round until they’re twenty one because Congress gets crazy some time. Think about any teacher in a poorly managed inner city school, where chaos reigns. Or what about an ESL teacher who only speaks English, but has eighteen students from Congo, India, Salvador, China, Afghanistan, and three other countries?

What counts as “teaching”?

It’s a few hundred thousand blind men and a camel.

I’ve written various renditions of this point throughout the years. And I know teachers aren’t unique. Lawyers, engineers (if there is such a thing), doctors–all the professions have similar width and breadth.

But.

A surgeon can fix the ailment of a patient who sleeps through the operation, and a lawyer can successfully defend a client who stays mute throughout the trial; but success for a teacher depends heavily on the active cooperation of the student…Unless [the] intended learning takes place, the teacher is understood to have failed.–David Labaree, The Trouble With Ed Schools

Labaree goes on to observe that the aspects of health that require patient cooperation–obesity, smoking, addiction–have extremely low success rates. Doctors have offloaded these responsibilities onto therapists, who aren’t expected to have a fabulous success rates.

But when the country began actively forbidding both students from quitting and teachers from limiting their student population, teachers weren’t allowed to offload their responsibilities onto some lower career ladder occupation, or even lower expectations for success. In fact, governments became ever more quantitative in its demands for educational outcomes.

Don’t bleed too hard for teachers. We mostly ignore the outcome expectations. And it’s pretty good pay for most of us, as well as a great working schedule. But for any number of reasons, the public debate and the absurd expectations is a huge part of the job in my region of Teacher World, and not even a tiny blip on the horizon of Dale’s.

That is, if what we do is called teaching.


Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?–Supply

I will never leave my current position. I won’t ever risk leaving the tenure cocoon until I’m ready to leave teaching. I expect to stay seven more years in this job and then move to another state, where I will try to find get a teaching job but will weep no tears if I don’t.

Why? I’m too old to risk being on the market. Barry Garelick couldn’t find a full-time job, and I believe he still works just part-time with kids at a middle school. I doubt I agree with one in five words the man writes but that’s not why he didn’t find work.  I guess he needs an American version of the program Lucy Kellaway has put together  for fifty somethings in the UK.  But in the US, if you’re highly educated and past 40 but think being a teacher sounds rewarding, network like mad, get an internship job first, and don’t spend a fortune on tuition, is all I can say.

But didn’t I just say there’s a teacher shortage?  Well, sure. But age discrimination is everywhere. And there are other caveats.

Ed schools seem to be producing too many elementary school teachers.   One of the first big pieces I ever wrote referenced a study showing that just 77,000 of the 186,000 teacher class of 2010 took a job teaching, and it’s likely that most of the ones who didn’t were elementary school teachers. The best piece on this teaching shortage, skeptical and thorough (and, alas, 4 years old) is still Stephen Sawchuk’s Colleges Overproducing Elementary Teachers, Data Finds.

Notice Sawchuk points out that the data shows this. Note he also points out that “states flush with elementary teachers can face shortages, particularly in urban and rural areas.” And there are many irregularities. For example, Maryland produced 1000 elementary school teachers and hired 1,100, 723 of them new teachers. But over half of the new teachers came from out of state. Wait, what? As Sawchuk notes, teacher supply is complicated.

Another reality: teaching jobs are vastly different depending on the adjectives describing the schools and the students. Some principals can be picky and selective, rejecting and selecting based on their personal preferences. Other principals are the employer equivalent of  drunken out-of-towners looking for love in the bar at closing time: taking what they can get.

These analogical drunks run schools with the wrong adjectives. The schools or their districts are extremely rural, extremely urban, extremely poor, extremely expensive or, of course, two or more combined.  While charter schools definitely contribute to the increase in teaching populations, I don’t think heavy charter presence leads inevitably to a shortage for that state or district, but that’s a data analysis beyond my scope.

So here’s something I always wonder: when those desperate principals are looking, where are the English teachers, the history teachers, the elementary school teachers who change careers or work as substitutes when they can’t find jobs? Are they applying at the schools with the unattractive adjectives?

Reporters don’t often make this clear. In my case, I wanted to work in high poverty districts, although I never got desperate enough to apply to charters or inner city schools. If I couldn’t nail down employment among the suburban poor, I vowed to  move to North Dakota. My kid’s grown and in another state, so I could pretend it was an adventure. Fortunately, I was able to stick within those parameters and find tenure without relocation. Eventually, I probably would have sought out inner city schools, if I had to.

But that was me, with $50K in loans that I could only write off with a teaching job, loans I had no intention of paying off my own self. Suppose you’re a young credentialed college graduate with only a moderate ambition,  no major loans and a parent to help pay them off. Would you be willing to take that 2 am job in the extreme zones? Or were you just interested in teaching with reasonable kids, reasonable pay, reasonable cost of living and reasonable locale offered up by an attractive employer well before the midnight hour?

Then there are the college educated folks working as adjunct professors or barristas or bus drivers that I wrote about last time. Why aren’t they considering teaching?

Well, there’s this other thing to remember: Teaching is brutally hard for some people.

Many otherwise ordinary people can succeed and thrive in teaching. But the job can also crush a healthy ego as easily as an egg.  Who is going to have an easy time, who is going to struggle and thrive, who’s going to slink away with a mental scar that they often flinch away from? Typically, although not always,  counted among the failed are  many Dewey- and dewy-eyed idealists who envision themselves enrapturing a group of wide-eyed, attentive diamonds in the rough who had never once encountered a teacher who really cared. Then they face reality, often with no mentoring and no support. The results are ugly. Some recover. Some don’t.

I wrote about a breakdown I witnessed with a long term sub, one who’d taught in India and had originally planned to teach here in America.  Every teacher has these anecdotes, I think. If you want to read a book about the breakdown of an inept teacher whose psyche was severely unglued by teaching, I suppose you can suffer through Ed Boland’s Battle for Room 314, a truly revolting book about a terrible person whose choices are inexplicable, not least because he clearly despises his students. Upside: the self-absorbed, condescending little jerk  who thought he’d become a Great Savior, is permanently defeated by his shortcomings and other inabilities and he’ll be cringing from his failures for the rest of his life. Downside: the horrible little man got a book deal out of it, as well as all sorts of positive attention.

Sorry. I didn’t write a whole piece on that book because, well, you can see. Where was I?

College-educated people who are unhappy with their economic lot in life choose under-employment or insecure employment are already dealing with a sense of failure. Maybe they know they aren’t cut out for a job that can wreak psychological devastation, even one with  tremendous job security, enviable union benefits, and fantastic vacation time. Teachers  who abandon the field when they can’t find the job they want could be making the same calculation: why risk  soul-wringing failure when they already feel unwanted?

And so, the disconnect. Teaching seems to be easy, seems to offer a  ready supply of jobs, but  the jobs in classrooms with capable kids and involved parents  are much harder to come by, and hey, maybe  it’s not always so easy.

Sing me no happy talk about charters and choice. Megan McArdle’s mea culpa got some pushback, but the public has made it fairly clear it’s not on board with education reform.  Eventually, everyone will realize that lousy teachers don’t cause low test scores. And as I observed in my last piece, even assuming charters are making it more desirable to teach in low income areas, they’re consuming more teachers and burning through them at a faster rate.

TFA found another way to convince people to enter the field: make it a resume boost, but that story stopped selling, eventually.

There’s one sure way to convince more people to take on teaching pay a whole lot more. Pay so much the salary makes it worth while for people to move to Alaska, teach in Detroit, take a crappy one-bedroom apartment in Salinas for a teaching job in Palo Alto, risk losing tenure, or live in the remote frozen lands of North Dakota.

And none of these measly 20% increases, or $4K signing bonuses. It’s going to take six figures to get reliable sourcing for the schools with unattractive adjectives.

But that makes no sense. (Ha, had you fooled, didn’t I?)

Leave aside the states that need to revisit pay because they are constantly losing teachers to their higher-paying neighbors. Understand that the expensive  districts are paying through the nose already (average teacher salary in the Bay Area is nearly 6 figures as it is).  Understand that 3.5 million people seem to find the existing pay just fine.

Remember, too, that these are government jobs, with government pensions, and our state government pension commitments give responsible people nightmares.  As it is, pensions are a looming threat. Shortages are already leading to higher salaries in many states, and that only makes the commitments even more threatening.

Then there’s the fact that increasing the teacher supply invariably means lowering teacher standards even further–which, of course, I’ve never argued against. But lowering standards while dramatically increasing pay is just adding insult to injury for the taxpayers. And the reformer path to improved teacher quality–threatening teacher pay and benefits, offering merit pay,  reducing job security–only makes the supply problems more severe, as the charter experience shows. That is, of course, what education reformers have never really grasped, and it’s why their efforts have mostly failed.
 

I prefer reducing demand, preferably without too much of a baby bust. Faithful readers can probably remember when I’ve discussed that before, but everyone else will have to wait for the next post.

PS–I don’t want to make this whole series sound deeper than it is. I don’t have any hard research under wraps. I just wanted to discuss the various lines of thought that others have offered, and respond.


Wherefore and Whither The Teacher Shortage?

The Teacher Shortage Myth is typical of the scoffing view that says “How can there be a teacher shortage when the teacher population is increasing at a faster clip than the student population?

We have a teacher shortage.  Debate the breadth and depth as you will. But if teachers were thick on the ground, would principals be so reluctant to give bad reviews to marginal teachers? Would  Race to the Top have failed so satisfactorily if parents and districts alike weren’t worried that their teacher pool would be threatened? Why are California and Nevada and a number of other states bringing in teachers from the Philippines? 

So for the purposes of this article, accept the fact that we’ve got a teacher shortage.

I don’t see why anti-teacher folks make so much hay out of the discrepancy between student and teacher growth. I can think of several reasons why schools would need more teachers despite a stable or even declining student population.  From least to most determinative of obvious explanations:

  1. Since 2002 or so, middle school teachers have had to be credentialed at the more demanding high school standard. Existing teachers were grandfathered in, but as they retire, the newer hires are being drawn from the high school pool. At the same time, education policy in practice now requires all students to take four years of math, although likewise in practice this often means students take four years to pass the required two or three years officially mandated. In any case, there’s been a largely unreported increase in the need for academic subject teachers.
  2. A good chunk of that student growth is in immigrants and non-English speakers. We public schools are required to take all kids of school age the minute they set foot on our soil, regardless of their previous education or English ability. An explosion in immigration keeps the need for ESL teachers growing, and those classes are very small. Our school keeps the equivalent of one full-time hire for about 16 kids.
  3. Similarly, a good chunk of the student growth involved more special education students, another population that has a legal ability to demand small classes.  Special ed students cost, on average, twice that of a regular student (the last we checked, which was 16 years ago). In high school, most of them are eligible for what’s basically a study hall, meaning we pay teachers to do a lot of case management, parent meetings, and run classes of 8-10 kids doing very little most of the time.
  4. The big one, of course, is charter schools. According to Edweek, the public school teacher population grew from 3,385,200 to about 3,800,000 in 4 years, with 218,500 of that group teaching at charters. But what the Edweek reporter doesn’t mention is that those same four years earlier, from the same report, the charter teacher population was just 115,600, or an 89% increase. Public school proper teachers grew to 3,581,500 from 3,269,600, or just 9.5%–a believable increase given the first three points. Of the 400,000 teachers added in 4 years, 25% of them work at charters, teaching just 6% of the population.

    I do not understand why people don’t understand the obvious impact of using public dollars to fund what are basically small private schools–with capped enrollment, no less. We have X students. Educating X students at Y schools requires Z teachers. Educating X students at Y + some number of schools will require Z+ some bigger number of teachers. Full stop.

 

Leaving demand behind, let’s take a look at supply.

Do not expect, dear reader, a jeremiad about the woeful lack of respect the public has for teachers. The public gives us plenty of respect. If you want a fairly well-thought out, pro-union, pro-teacher case for the teacher shortage, here’s Peter Greene from a couple years ago. I don’t know that I agree with all his reasoning, but he’s thorough and logical and despite the anti-reform rhetoric, reasonably compelling. (Remember that I, too, think reform is useless, but our reasons differ, as do our proposed fixes.)

But I think about this differently. Never mind pay, respect, anti-teaching rhetoric. Take a look at these anecdotes from the last few years, all of which describe very current reality:

Millennials are Screwed:

millennialscott

Why So Many Higher Ed Professors Make So Little

adjunctteachercomparison

The Problem With Being Just a Teacher

adjunctteacherslam

I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I make less than a pet-sitter.

adjunctwoes

College graduates working as bus drivers, barristas, or waiters. PhDs desperately trying to cobble a living out of college teaching contingent jobs.

I am reliably informed that teaching has a low barrier to entry. We don’t learn anything useful in classes, the argument goes, and there’s no knowledge base to memorize. GPAs are ludicrously low. The credential tests are a bit of a facer, but certainly not for the well-educated folks of the stories above.  There’s job security so tenacious it’s given birth to a dozen laws intended to dislodge it–laws that have, for the most part, failed, in a world that otherwise sees the tie between employer and employee disintegrate. Benefits are disappearing. Increasing numbers of jobs are contingent.

But a millennial with a business degree chose to be a bus driver when he couldn’t get a bank job. Adjuncts are so easily found begging for work that colleges can treat them like disposable diapers.

I’m not offering criticism or suggestion, just describing a choice that shouldn’t make sense, given the public policy discourse about teaching. These aren’t entrepreneurs choosing a career that will reward ambition and excellence, sneering at the “widget” teacher. These are people who, for whatever reason, aren’t succeeding in their post-college career. Whether  teachers are underpaid, disrespected, or undeserving mediocrities ensconced in a sinecure,  non-trivial chunks of people with college degrees are rejecting these secure teaching jobs with more pay and security for widget jobs with less pay, less respect, and no future.

Why?

So there you go. We have a teacher shortage. I offered some reasons why the growth in demand for teachers might outstrip the growth in students. I’ve pointed out at least two sources of college educated strugglers that apparently aren’t turning to teaching despite its offering of better pay and more security.

I have no evidence for any of this but then, when did that stop anyone else?

Part 2 coming soon, I think. If not, just consider this mind food and mull it over your own self.

Note: I borrowed the feature image, the one that comes through on Twitter, from here

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The Structure of Parabolas

A year ago, I first envisioned and then taught the parabola as the sum of a parabola and a line.The standard form parabola, ax2 + bx + c, is the result of a line with slope b and y-intercept c added to a parabola with a vertex at the origin, with vertical stretch a.   This insight came after my realization that a parabola is the product of two lines (although I wrote this up later than the first).

I didn’t teach algebra 2 last semester, so I’ve only now been able to try my new approach. I taught functions as described in the second link. So the students know the vertex form of the parabola. Normally, I would then move to the product of two lines, binomial multiplication, and then teach the standard form, moving back to factoring.

But I’ve been mulling this for a few months, and decided to try teaching standard form second. So first, as part of parent functions, cover vertex form. Then linear equations. As part of linear equations, I teach them how to add and subtract functions.  As an exercise, I show them that they can add and subtract parabolas and lines, too.

So after the linear equations unit, I gave them a handout:parabolastructure

I don’t do much introduction here, except to tell them that the lighter graphs are a simple parabola and a line. The darker graph is the sum of the parabola and the line. What they are to do is explore the impact of the line’s slope, the b, on the vertex of the parabola, both the x and y values. We’d do that by evaluating the rate of change (the “slope” between two points of a non-linear equation) and looking for relationships.

Now, I don’t hold much truck with kids making their own discoveries. I want them to discover a clear pattern. But this activity also gives the kids practice at finding slopes, equations of lines, and vertex forms of a parabola. That’s why I felt free to toss this activity together. Even if it didn’t work to introduce standard form, it’d be a good review.

But it did work.  Five or six students finished quickly,  found the patterns I wanted, and I sent them off to the next activity. But most finished  the seven parabolas in about 40 minutes or so and we answered the questions together.

Questions:

  1. Using your data, what is the relationship between the slope of the line added (b) and the slope (rate of change) from the y-intercept to the vertex?
    Answer: the slope (b) is twice the slope from the y-intercept to the vertex.
    b2= rate of change
  2. What is the relationship between the slope of the line added (b) and the x-value of the vertex?
    Answer: the x value of the vertex is the slope of the line divided by negative 2.
    b⁄-2= x value of the vertex
  3. What is the relationship between the y-intercept of the line and the y-intercept of the parabola?
    Answer: they are the same.

Note: I made it very clear that we were dealing only with a=1, no stretch.

The activity was very useful–even some strong kids screwed up slope calculations because they counted graph hash marks rather than looking at the numbers. Some of the graphs went by 2s.

So then, they got a second handout: parabolastructure2

Here, they will find the slope (rate of change!) from the y-intercept to the vertex and double it. That’s the slope of the line added to the parabola (b!). The y-intercept of the line is the same as the parabola.

The first example, on the left, has a -2 rate of change from vertex to y-intercept. Since a=1, that means b=-4. The y-intercept is 8. The equation in standard form is therefore
x2 -4x + 8. In vertex form, it’s (x-2)2 +4.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish up this handout and go onto the next step: no graph, just a standard form equation. So given y=x2 -8x + 1, you know that the rate of change is -4, and the x-value of the vertex is 4. Draw a vertical line at x=4, then sketch a line with a slope of -4 beginning at (0,1).

This may seem forced, but students really have no idea how b influences the position of the vertex. I’m hoping this will start them off understanding the format of the standard form. If not, well, there’s the whole value of practicing slope and vertex form I can fall back on. But so far, it’s working really well.

By late tomorrow or Monday, we’ll be formalizing these rules and determining how an increase or decrease in a changes these relationships. So I hope to have them easily graphing parabolas in standard form by Monday. Yes, I’ll show them they can just plug x to find y.

Then we’ll talk about factored form, and go to binomial multiplication.

I’ll try to report back.


The Evolution of Equals

High school math teachers spend a lot of time explaining to kids that all the things we told you before ain’t necessarily so. Turns out, for example, you can subtract a big number from a smaller one.  Fractions might be “improper” if the numerator is larger than the denominator, but they’re completely rational so long as both are integers. You can take a square root of a negative number.  And so on.

Other times, though, we have to deal with ambiguities that mathematicians yell at us about later. Which really isn’t fair. For example, consider the definition of variable and then tell me how to explain y=mx+b. Or function notation–if f(x) = 3x + 7,  and f(3) = 16, then what is f(a)? Answer: f(a) = 3a+7. What’s g(x)? Answer: A whole different function. So then you introduce “indeterminate”–just barely–and it takes a whole blog post to explain function notation.

Some math teachers don’t bother to explain this in class, much less in blogs. Books rarely deal with these confusing distinctions. But me, I soldier on. Solder? Which?

Did you ever think to wonder who invented the equal sign? I’m here to wonder for you:

Robert Recorde, a Welsh mathematician, created the equal sign while writing the wonderfully named Whetstone of Witte. He needed a shortcut.

“However, for easy manipulation of equations, I will present a few examples in order that the extraction of roots may be more readily done. And to avoid the tedious repetition of these words “is equal to”, I will substitute, as I often do when working, a pair of parallels or twin lines of the same length, thus: = , because no two things can be more equal.”

First of his examples was:  or 14x+15=71.

Over time, we shortened his shortcut.

Every so often, you read of a mathematician hyperventilating that our elementary school children are being fed a false concept of “equals”. Worksheets like this one, the complaint goes, are warping the children’s minds:

I’m not terribly fussed. Yes, this worksheet from EngageNY is better. Yes, ideally, worksheets shouldn’t inadvertently give kids the idea that an equals signs means “do this operation and provide a number”. But it’s not a huge deal. Overteaching the issue in elementary school would be a bad idea.

Hung Hsi Wu, a Berkeley math professor who has spent a decade or more worrying about elementary school teachers and their math abilities, first got me thinking about the equals sign: wuquotenu2

I don’t think this is a fit topic for elementary school teachers, much less students. Simply advising them to use multiple formats is sufficient. But reading and thinking about the equals sign has given me a way to….evolve, if you will…my students’ conception of the equals sign.  And my own.

Reminder: I’m not a mathematician. I barely faked my way through one college math course over thirty years ago. But I’ve found that a few explanations have gone a long way to giving my students a clearer idea of the varied tasks the equals sign has. Later on, real mathematicians can polish it up.

Define Current Understanding

First, I help them mentally define the concept of “equals” as they currently understand it. At some point early on in my algebra 2 class, I ask them what “equals” means, and let them have at it for a while. I’ll get offerings like “are the same” and “have the same value”, sometimes “congruent”.

After they chew on the offerings and realize their somewhat circular nature, I write:

8=5+2+1

8=7

and ask them if these equations are both valid uses of the equal signs.

This always catches their interest. Is it against the law to write a false equation using an equals sign? Is it like dividing by 0?

Ah, I usually respond, so one of these is false? Indeed. Doesn’t that mean that equations with an equals sign aren’t always true? So what makes the second one false?

I push and prod until I get someone to say mention counting or distance or something physical.

At this point, I give them the definition that they can already mentally see:

Two values are equal if they occupy the same point on a number line.

So if I write 8=4*2, it’s a true equation if  8 and 4*2 are found at the same point on the number line. If they aren’t, then it’s a false equation, at least in the context of standard arithmetic.

So if the students think “equals” means “do something”, this helps them out of that mold.

Equals Sign in Algebraic Equations

Then I’ll write something like this:

4x-7=2(2x+5)

Then we solve it down to:

0=17

By algebra 2, most students are familiar with this format. “No solution!”

I ask how they know there’s no solution, and wait for them all to get past “because someone told me”. Eventually, someone will point out that zero doesn’t in fact, equal 17.

So, I point out, we start with an equation that looks reasonable, but after applying the properties of equality, otherwise known as “doing the same thing to both sides”, we learn that the algebra leads to a false equation. In fact, I point out, we can even see it earlier in the process when we get to this point:

4x = 4x+17

This can’t possibly be true, even if it’s  not as instantly obvious as 0=17.

So I give them the new, expanded definition. Algebraic equations aren’t statements of fact. They are questions.

4x-7=2(2x+5) is not a statement of fact, but rather a question.

What value(s) of x will make this equation true?

And the answer could be:

  • x= specific value(s)
  • no value of x makes this true
  • all values of x makes this true.

We can also define our question in such a way that we constrain the set of numbers from which we find an answer. That’s why, I tell them, they’ll be learning to say “no real solutions” when solving parabolas, rather than “no solution”. All parabolas have solutions, but not all have real solutions.

This sets me up very nicely for a dive back into linear systems, quadratics with complex solutions, and so on. The students are now primed to understand that an equation is not a statement of fact, that solutions aren’t a given, and that they can translate different outcomes into a verbal description of the solution.

Equals Sign in Identity Proofs

An identity equation is one that is true for all values of x. In trigonometry, students are asked to prove many trigonometric identities,, and often find the constraints confusing. You can’t prove identities using the properties of equality. So in these classes,  I go through the previous material and then focus in on this next evolution.

Prove: tan2(x) + 1 = sec2(x)

(Or, if you’re not familiar with trig, an easier proof is:

Prove: (x-y)2 = x2-2xy+y2)

Here, again, the “equals” sign and the statement represent a question, not a statement of fact. But the question is different. In algebraic equations, we hypothesize that the expressions are equal and proceed to identify a specific value of x unless we determine there isn’t one. In that pursuit,  we can use the properties of equality–again, known as “doing the same thing to both sides”.

But  in this case, the question is: are these expressions equal for all values of x?

Different question.

We can’t assume equality when working a proof. That means we can’t “do the same thing to both sides” to establish equality. Which means they can’t add, subtract, square, or do other arithmetic operations. They can combine fractions, expand binomials, use equivalent expressions, multiply by 1 in various forms. The goal is to transform one side and prove that  both sides of the equation occupy the same point on a number line regardless of the value of x.

 

So students have a framework. These proofs aren’t systems. They can’t assume equality. They can only (as we say) “change one side”, not “do the same thing to both sides”.

I’ve been doing this for a couple years explicitly, and I do see it broadening my students’ conceptual understanding. First off, there’s the simple fact that I hold the room. I can tell when kids are interested. Done properly, you’re pushing at a symbol they took for granted and never bothered to think about. And they’ll be willing to think about it.

Then, I have seen some algebra 2 students say to each other, “remember, this is just a question. The answer may not be a number,” which is more than enough complexity for your average 16 year old.

And just the other day, in my trig class, a student said “oh, yeah, this is the equals sign where you just do things to one side.” I’ll grant you this isn’t necessarily academic language, but the awareness is more than enough for this teacher.

Let me say this again: I am not a mathematician. All I’m trying to do is evolve my students’ understanding of the equal sign as they move into more advanced math. And a simple little lecture has helped. I’ll keep pushing at it.


Teaching with Indirection

GeoTrigRep1Technology is a great illustrator and indispensable for presentation. But as a student tool? Eh, not so much. Certainly not laptops.   I found laptops very useful in my history class, but primarily as a delivery and retrieval mechanism, or for their own presentations.  I haven’t found that a compelling reason to submit to the logistics of handing out and collecting laptops. But then, I’m a Luddite on this.  Recently, some colleagues were jazzed with several thousand dollars of cool science tools which I oohed and ahhed over politely. But….? Basically data collection. Fast data collection, which the students can analyze.  I guess. I don’t really do science.

A couple months ago, I used laptops and Desmos to teach transformations, and after twoGeoTrigRep2 blocks that went….well, I suppose, I used whiteboards to do the same lesson in the last block. Far superior. I wouldn’t have even considered the hassle, but last year the school decided all algebra 2 teachers warranted a laptop cart and I want to occasionally acknowledge a gift intended to be useful. I would never–I mean no excuses never–book a laptop cart from the library to teach a lesson. But if it’s sitting around my classroom, I’m bound to try and find a way to use it. Still, even if I had a lesson that would be guaranteed superior to the same lesson on paper, I’d be tough to convince. Taking them out and putting them away takes up close to 15 minutes of classtime. Wasted. If all of my GeoTrigRep3students had their laptops with them at every minute, waiting to be used….maybe. I’ve certainly found uses for phones on an occasional basis. But it’s not a huge gap I’m longing to fill.

Teaching is performance art. Sometimes the art lies in holding students’ attention directly, taking them point by point through a new topic. Other times, it lies in making them do the work. In both cases, the art lies in the method of revealing, of making them come along for the ride of understanding–even if it’s just in that moment.

It’s hard to do that if you put technology in the students’ hands. First, they’re too easily distracted. Second, it’s too easy to do without understanding.  A colleague of mine simply worships Dan Meyer, and loves all the Desmos activities.  They are neat. Without question or caveat. But I have limited time, and I’d rather have my students doing math directly, by hand even, than have them work on laptops or phones. Some Desmos activities do, absolutely, require the kids to work or show their math directly. Others are an interesting form of guess andGeoTrigRep4 check, designed (hopefully) to help kids understand patterns. The first, I like, but am unconvinced that the time and distraction suck are an improvement over handwritten work. The second, no. Not generally interested unless I have time for games, and I don’t.

This piece is only partially about technology, though. I wanted to talk about designing experiences, and for me, technology doesn’t give me the freedom to do that. Not with my kids, ability levels, and existing technology, anyway.

But how can I claim that technology is a distraction if I’m busy performing for the students?

Well, recall I said it was great for illustration and presentation. I love my smartboard, although I move pretty effortlessly between smartboards and whiteboard walls.

GeoTrigRep5I have learned it’s very simple to screw up a lesson by speeding it up, but far more difficult to do slowing it down. I like introducing a topic, sometimes in a roundabout way, and having the students do the work alongside. Consider the example displayed here. These aren’t power points of my lecture. I start with a blank screen. I give the instructions, give the kids time to follow along, then use their input to make my own diagram. That way I can circle around, see that everyone’s on track, understanding the math, seeing connections.

I spend a great deal of time looking for ways to build instruction step by step, so that the vast majority of my students have no reason to refuse the effort.GeoTrigRep6 Draw a square. How hard is that? Besides, most of them enjoy drawing and sketching, and this beats posters.

Ideally, I don’t want them to see where we’re going. But then, remember I’m teaching advanced high school math. At various times, I want students to understand that math discoveries don’t always go where they were expected. The best way to do that, in my experience, is give them a situation and point out obvious things that connect in not so obvious ways.

Thus, a trigonometry class is a great place to start an activity that begins as a weird way of breaking up a square into similar triangles. The sketches in the first steps are just a way to get them started, suspend their disbelief.  The real application of knowledge begins at this step, as they identify the equivalent ratios for the different triangles. A geometry-level skill, one from two years ago, and one we try to beat into their heads. Proportionality, setting up cross products,GeoTrigRep7 is also something students have been taught consistently.  A trig class is going to have a pretty high percentage of functional students who remember a lot of what they’ve been taught a lot.

Which is important, because this sort of activity has to be paced properly. You have to have a number of pauses while students work independently. The pauses can’t be too short–you have to have time to wander around and explain–but not explain everything to everyone, which would take too long and kill the mood. Can’t be too fast, either, or why bother?

Ideally, students should be mildly mystified, but willing to play along. As I wrote several years ago, start slow, build student trust in your wild notions. If you keep them successful and interested, they’ll follow along working “blind”, applying GeoTrigRep8their existing knowledge without complaint. Don’t deliver and they won’t follow. Which is why it’s important to start slow.

So in this particular activity, the students drew a square, some triangles, and found ratios without knowing when, or if, this was going to relate to trigonometry. Now, finally, they are using class-related knowledge, although SOHCAHTOA is technically covered in geometry and only reviewed in the early months of the year. But at least it does have something to do with Trig.

I’ve only done this once, but I was surprised and fascinated to note that some students were annoyed that I reminded them about the 1 unit substitution after they’d built the proportion statements.  I liked the structured approach of two distinct moves. They didn’t. “Why you make us do this twice?” griped Jamal, who is better at math than you might expect from his pants, GeoTrigRep9defying gravity far south of his pelvis, much less his perpetually red-eyed stupor and speech patterns. (“He’s a c**n,” he informed me about a friend a month ago. I stared at him. “It’s okay. I’m half c**n, so I can say  that.  Like, my family, we all light-skinned but we c**ns.” I stared at him. “OK, I ain’t no c**n in your class.” I mentioned the discussion to an admin later, suggesting perhaps Jamal needed to be told that c**n isn’t n****r , and is an insult in any vernacular. “C**n?” she said, puzzled.  “Like….raccoon?” It took me a few minutes to realize that she was a Hispanic, so it was indeed possible she had no idea what the word meant. I should have gone to our African American admin.)

It’s not obvious to all students that the ratio labeling each triangle side is the length of that side. That is, if the base is one, then the length of the secant line will be the exact value of the secant ratio, and so on. Breaking the diagram into three distinct triangles helps, but I do recommend spending some time on this point.

So, for example, say if the angle is 30 degrees, what length would the side labeled sine be? What about cotangent? They already know about sine and cosine lengths, since GeoTrigRep10I introduce this after we’ve covered the basics of the unit circle. But it helps to prod them into realizing that the cosecant length would be 2 units, and so on.

My students are familiar with my term “mother ship”. I use it in a number of contexts, but none so commonly as the Pythagorean Theorem. I ask them if they’ve seen Independence Day,  or one of the other zillions of alien invasion flicks in which the little independent saucers  all go back to the big behemoth. Because aliens will centralize, else how could humans emerge victorious? Just as all these little buzzing pods lead back to the big one, so too do so many ideas lead back to Pythagorean. Even its gaps. The Pythagorean Theorem doesn’t do angles, I point out. That’s why we started using trigonometry to solve for sides of right triangles. Originally, trigonometry was developed thousands of years ago to explain planetary GeoTrigRep11motion, and was defined entirely in terms of spheres and chords. Not until Copernicus, a few hundred years ago, did we start to define trigonometry primarily in terms of right triangles.

Until this activity, I’d always taught the Pythagorean identities algebraically. I start, as many do, by reminding or introducing them to the equation for a circle, then talk about a radius of one, and so on. Then I derive the secant/tangent and cosecant/cotangent versions, which is pretty simple.

But I really like the geometric representation. The three triangles are spatial, physical artifacts of what is otherwise a very abstract concept. Ultimately, of course, these identities are used for very abstract purposes, but whenever possible, links to the concrete are welcome.GeoTrigRep12

Besides, isn’t it cool that the three triangles reflect what the algebra shows? I suppose the fact that the triangles are all similar plays into it, but I’m not enough of a mathie to grasp that intuitively. The students, of course, don’t yet know the algebra. The Pythagorean identities are the one new fact set this lesson delivers.

Remember, I don’t use these images you see here in the lesson; rather, they represent a combination of what I say and draw during the lesson, pausing as the students work things out themselves.  Could I do this with technology? Sure. Could they? In my opinion, no. But it’s debatable, certainly. BUT–I also couldn’t do this with a book.
GeoTrigRep13Is it just me, or do students take an absurdly long time, over many lessons and with many reminders,  to memorize the unit circle? I mean, my god, there are five values for each ratio. They go in order–big to small, small to big. How hard could it be? But after a couple years of students looking at me blankly at the end of the term when asked what the sine of pi over 6 is, I’ve learned to beat it into their heads. Some teachers never use the unit circle to teach ratios. I do not understand this. Steve teaches it all with co-functions and trig tables; I have taught any number of his students who know vaguely what it is, but have no conceptual understanding of it. They know the values, their operational ability is no different, but where’s the fun? The unit circle is an amazing entity.

I am a big fan of Desmos. At algebra 2 and higher, I ask my students to download the Desmos app. My students learn how to graph, how to create functions, how to explore functions. I want them to know Demos as a tool when it makes sense. Really.

So eventually–although I haven’t done it yet–I’m going to show my students this puny effort to automate the concepts we explored manually in this lesson.  Hey, I can use the laptops! It will be a great example of inverse calls.

But not right away. Look, my classes do a lot of repetition.  Plenty of worked problems. It’s not all discovery or exploration–in fact, relatively little time is spent on these. My students need to know how, building capacity. Why is the glue. GeoTrigRep14The better a student is at the basics of math, the more important it is to smack them around with why, occasionally.

But I’m a performer.  English teachers talk about grabbing up front with the hook. But in math, ending big, revealing the path they’ve been wandering, is my goal. So when I draw in the circle, put in the coordinates, and hear “Holy sh**!” and various stunned gasps, following by a smattering of applause, I know my planning paid off.

“The f***? Damn. This been the unit circle all along. Shee-it.” That would be Jamal.

 

 

 


Melanie Wilkes, Feminist

Recently, Richard Brookhiser (an essential follow for history buffs) tweeted:

I had a number of picks, none of which was Gone with the Wind, which I consider excellent moviemaking, but risible history. But naturally, someone mentioned it and Brookhiser opened it to the crowd, appropriately mentioning its “lost cause” ideology, while praising it as moviemaking.

I mentioned that Mellie was one of the greatest feminist characters of all time, and someone caviled. Mellie? Scarlett is the one feminists love.

True, Scarlett is the character more typically celebrated by feminists, at least before GWTW became off limits to praise. But when I first read Gone With the Wind in my teens, I was appalled. Scarlett is a loathsome, selfish, vain, cowardly little monster, a characterization the movie does little to soften.

So for a good decade or more, I shrugged off Gone with the Wind.  Eventually I saw it on the big screen and tempered my dislike; the story is beautifully told, the acting from top to bottom is tremendous, and as spectacle it’s impressive.

I’m not sure when I first realized that Melanie Wilkes, played by the great Olivia De Havilland, was the tremendous feminist model that others saw in Scarlett. I do know that from the first time I watched it to now, I preferred Melanie.  Sometime in the 90s, though, I realized that she, not the tempestuous Scarlett, is the exemplar of a powerful female character. De Havilland’s Melanie is, in my view, one of the five great feminist movie roles of all time (the others: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Faye Dunaway in Network, Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, and Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.)

You can easily watch GWTW and see only Melanie’s story. She is a happy woman who was given the gift of a man she adored above all others. From the movie’s first moments to the last of her life, her face lights up in his presence. She wants only to give Ashley a home and a family, and to be a mother and wife. But Ashley must  fight for The Cause, so she must  support him and the other brave men fighting for their country and the right to own slaves. She nurses and works endlessly to the extent her body will allow. She gives every bit of her strength to help in the war so that her Ashley can come home. She is warm and accepting based on others’ character and motives, unheeding of social standing.  She deliberately chooses to get pregnant in the middle of a war despite the risk to her health and financial security, because Ashley’s legacy must be carried on. (The movie is quite frank about Ashley and Melanie’s intention on Christmas Eve ; note Scarlett’s reaction as the two of them go up to bed.) She gives up her wedding ring, a cherished symbol of her marriage, to help support the Confederate Army (although Rhett Butler gets it back). And despite Ashley’s helpless infatuation with Scarlett, the Wilkes’ marriage is a strong one. Notice that Scarlett, for all her protestations of devotion, doesn’t waste a second glance on the ex-soldier she thinks is coming to beg. It’s Melanie who instantly recognizes the distant, shabby figure as her beloved husband, in a homecoming ranked second or third to  Sounder’s “running scene” and the two from Best Years of Our Lives.

She’s “just” a wife and mother. What else was possible in the 1860s south?

But Melanie’s onscreen action rarely involves cooking or childcare. She works with Rhett Butler to stage manage a show that gives the wounded Ashley an alibi, protecting him from Ward Bond’s Yankee captain. None of it is planned. She’s using pure wits while following Rhett’s cues. Watch the fine, upright, honest Mellie lie serenely to keep her husband from a Yankee prison, after Ashley, along with Scarlett’s husband Frank Kennedy, went to clear out the shanty town where Scarlett was attacked–“what a great many of our Southern gentleman have been called upon to do for our protection.”

And when those Southern gentlemen aren’t around? Well, notice that same night, when her husband isn’t home, she has a gun nearby to protect her guests. Or, most notably , she grabs her father’s sword to protect her baby from a raiding Yankee soldier who’d fought to free their slaves. Scarlett got there first, of course. But Mellie was ready to fight for her own, despite being “weak as a kitten” from blood loss during child birth.

“Scarlett, you killed him! I’m glad you killed him.”  And then Mellie, still  faint and dizzy, helps Scarlett pilfer his pockets and hid the body, being quickheaded enough to lie about the noise. (She also takes off her nightgown to absorb the soldier’s blood, giving her the movie’s only nude scene.)

After the war, Melanie more won’t hear a word bad about Scarlett,  not from  Belle Watling, who helped save her husband, not from her other sister-in-law India, not from anyone. The only cross word she ever has for her husband came when he tried to escape Scarlett’s attentions and move his family away from Atlanta. Scarlett wouldn’t hear of it and starts to cry. Melanie is outraged at her husband’s ungrateful, ungentlemanly behavior.

Melanie’s staunch, unquestioning devotion to Scarlett leads many to dismiss her as saccharine, but she is manifestly not a a goody goody. When her sister-in-law and husband are caught in a compromising position, and Rhett forces his wife to go to Ashley’s birthday party, Melanie shoves all that social disapproval right back in the town’s face, insisting they recognize Scarlett’s existence.

For some number of years, I considered Melanie’s only weakness to be her bizarre refusal to see Scarlett as evil, conniving, and weak.  Then one day I suddenly noticed that Melanie never once called Scarlett nice, or warm, or loyal, or any of the qualities that she herself had. Instead, she talks about Scarlett’s bravery. Scarlett saved them in Atlanta. Scarlett protected Melanie and her son. Scarlett found a way to help the families survive. Scarlett rebuilt their family’s fortune by marrying her sister’s fiancee.

I realized that all of these things were, well, true. Scarlett could have left Melanie in Atlanta.  She could have been the model of helpless futility through Mellie’s childbirth, running screaming from the house at the sight of bodily fluids just as she did from the hospital during a soldier’s amputation. But she boils water and hangs tough, encouraging the nobler Mellie to scream as loud as she wanted. She could have ignored Mellie’s desire to preserve her father’s sword but wraps it up to give her some peace of mind.  She saved Melanie and Beau, and got them all out of Atlanta, including the annoying Prissie. She could have run away from her family, leaving them all there to starve.  Instead she rebuilt her family’s fortune, which her sister never could have done with Frank Kennedy. She went to Ashley’s birthday party, even expecting Mellie and the town’s society to wither her with rejection. She did almost nothing without a hefty dose of whining. She did many loathsome things, hiring prisoners and hitting slaves. But everyone who hated her benefited from her courage and furious willfulness, and only Melanie understood that.

Through Melanie’s admiration, I’ve come to a reluctant and qualified admiration of Scarlett herself. Scarlett was awful, yes, but her actions do show her to be worthy of Melanie’s trust and support. And yes, precisely because she continually does the right thing even when she longs not to, Scarlett is a great feminist character, for good and bad. (She’s still not in my top five, though.)

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Gone with the Wind is going through hard times right now.  If in a year or three it’s banished from TCM and movie revival houses and the AFI top 100 (much less the top 10 position it now holds), I won’t be surprised. It’s not a perfect film. But Ingrid Bergman has very little to do in Casablanca, and Diane Keaton even less in The Godfather , both perfect films about men.  It’s another dozen movies down the AFI list until we find All About Eve and Double Indemnity, movies where women as heroes and villains drive the plot.

If I were going to show GWTW in a history class, I would use it as a means of exploring early movie attitudes on race. When I teach US history I focus more attention on the early 1900s than 1965 and beyond. The debate between Booker T. Washington and WEB Dubois is still compelling and relevant to our lives today. Booker and W.E.B. and black society had to build political power during the Jim Crow era, without TV, before the Great Migration had transformed cities and created voting blocs.  We explore the degree to which blacks could simultaneously use their political clout yet be virtually banned from voting in many states.

My students were surprised to learn that in the Jim Crow era, African Americans were able to protest Birth of a Nation in Boston and other cities, leading several states to ban the movie. The NAACP grew its membership considerably during this era, and while the racist Woodrow Wilson may or may not have called the movie “history written in lightning”, the resulting tensions led him to retract his endorsement.  Warren G. Harding was in many ways a terrible president, but his Birmingham civil rights speech, followed by Calvin Coolidge’s open and engaged support also enabled further extension of civil rights, although the Depression and Herbert Hoover led blacks to switch to the Democrats. But by 1938, blacks had sufficient political and ecnomic clout that David O. Selznick sought script approval from the NAACP, and (reluctantly) dropped the use of the n-word. (Selznick thought that it would be okay if blacks used the word.)

I’d be much more tempted to show GWTW in an English class, though. I want my students to feel the kind of passion that leads people to debate and care and argue about fictional characters, and I think this film inspires that kind of passion.

Yes, GWTW promotes the  false “lost cause” view of the Civil War. Yes, the characters hate the Yankees who  died to free the slaves. Yes, Prissie is a terrible caricature. But Hattie McDaniel, who beat out De Havilland for Best Supporting Actress, creates a spectacular character in Mammy, a performance that black actors weren’t really allowed to match until Sidney Poitier’s work in the 50s and 60s. Watch this amazing, single shot up the stairs by Mammy and Mellie. We never see the rage between Rhett and Scarlett as they mourn their daughter’s death. We don’t have to. It’s all in McDaniel’s voice and de Havilland’s muted reactions. How can we show our students the amazing talent of African Americans shining through despite their restricted opportunities if we demand all the movies meet our current norms?

And now, some words about De Havilland who, unlike every other white starlet in Hollywood, wanted to play Melanie, not Scarlett. A much bigger star than Vivian Leigh ever was, de Havilland uses her charisma and presence in service of Melanie’s character, which she  well understood, to create a warm and compelling character out of a role that many other actresses made vapid and sickly sweet.

At 101, she’s still with us. She’s suing the producers and director of  Feud;  her case has survived an attempt to dismiss and begins in November. She changed the history of Hollywood  by suing, so who knows how this will turn out?

She is amazing as Melanie and charming as Maid Marian, but her finest performance is as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress, for which she received her second Oscar. Both movies originate from American fiction to which both stayed amazingly faithful, but while GWTW never aspired to be literature, Washington Square by Henry James is an American classic. The movie is quotable, beautiful, and one of the most psychologically painful movies you will ever run into.  Don’t take my word for it. Ask Martin Scorcese.

 

 


Coaching Teachers

In 2011’s Personal Best, Atul Gawande recounts his desire to “up his game”, by hiring a retired surgeon who had once trained him, Robert Osteen, to act as a coach.  I often reread the article just for the best passage in an already great piece: when  Osteen gives Gawande feedback for the first time.

Prior to his own coaching experience, Gawande explores the difference between “coaching” and “teaching” in the teaching career itself. He sits in on a lesson and coaching session with  an 8th grade math teacher. One of the coaches was a history teacher, the other a math teacher who’d given up teaching to work at the district. While Gawande implies coaching is unusual, many school districts have coaching staffs, usually made up of history teachers and middle school math teachers, just like this one.

Everything that crackles and glows when Gawande describes Osteen’s observations falls with a thud in the teaching section. The lesson on simplifying radicals sounded fairly traditional, but seemed dull in the telling. The coaching feedback was similar to what I’ve experienced–banal platitudes. Socratic questioning. “What do you think you could do to make it better?” (Translated: I personally have no idea.) Not the same assertive advice Osteen gave Gawande, but carefully scripted prompts. Critzer seemed to like the “feedback”, such as it was, but I found the whole exchange extremely antiseptic. In no way were the two coaches “operating” (heh) on the same level as Osteen’s expert.

In 2011 I was a newbie. Now I’m edging towards a full decade of teaching and have now mentored  three teachers through induction and one student teacher. I’m better prepared to think about coaching, both as provider and recipient, and the stark differences in those two passages keep coming back to me.

My ed school supervisor , a full-metal discovery proponent, gave me one of the great learning experiences of my entire life. She never tried to convert me or push particular lesson approaches.  I can still remember the excitement I felt as she pushed me to think of new methods to achieve my goals, while I realized that regardless of teaching philosophy, teaching objectives remain resolutely the same: are the kids engaged? Are they learning, or parroting back what they think I want to hear? Am I using time effectively?  Osteen’s feedback reminded me of those conversations, and as I moved into a mentor role, she became my model.

A couple weeks ago, a district curriculum meeting ended early and I went back to school just in time for fourth block to observe my newest induction mentee.  This was an unscheduled observation, but she welcomed me into her pre-algebra class for a lesson on simplifying fractions prior to multiplication. Through the lesson, the students worked on this worksheet. The concepts involved are not dissimilar from the ones in Jennie Critzer’s lesson.

Here’s my feedback, delivered immediately after the bell rang.

“Okay, I’m going to split my feedback into three categories. First up are issues involving safety and management that you should take action on immediately. Everything subsequent is my opinion and advice  based on my teaching preferences as well as what I saw of your teaching style. I will try to separate objective from method. If you agree with the objective but not the method, then we’ll brainstorm other ideas. If you disagree with the objective, fine! Argue back. OK?” She agreed.

“For immediate action, make students put their skateboards under that back table, or in a corner completely away from foot traffic. The administration will support you in this in the unlikely event a student refuses to obey you, I’d also suggest making all the students put their backpacks completely under the desk. It’s like ski week around here, you nearly tripped twice. Now for the suggestions…”

“Wait. That’s the only mandatory change? My classroom management is good?”

“Yes. Kids were attentive and on task. But I want you to move about the room more, as you’ll see, and the way your kids strew their stuff around the floor, you’ll kill yourself.”

“I was worried about management because the students often seem…slow to respond.”

“We can talk more about your concerns before our formal observation so I can watch that closely. I’d like more enthusiasm, more interest, but that’s a subjective thing we’ll get into next. They listen to you and follow your requests. They’re trying to learn. You’ve got buy-in. You’re waiting for quiet. All good.”

“Phew. I’m relieved.”

“Now, some opinions. I’d like you to work more on your delivery and pacing.  You are anchored to the front of the class during your explanation time. Move about! Walk around the room. Own it. It’s your space.”

“I am never sure how to do that.”

“Practice. When you have a few sentences nailed down, just walk to the back by the door,  stand there for a minute or so, then move to another point, all while talking. Then go back up front. Do that until it feels comfortable. Then ask a question while away from the front. Then practice introducing a new topic while away, and so on.”

“I didn’t think of practicing. I thought it would come naturally.”

“I’m as big a  movie star teacher as they get, and what I just described is how I escaped the front-left cellblock.”

“OK.”

“Next up: you’re killing the flow of the lesson.  Here’s what you did today: give a brief description of method, work an example, assign two problems, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Then assign two more, go around the room looking at student work, come back up, work the problems. Lather, rinse, repeat. This precludes any concentrated work periods and it’s hurting your ability to help your top students. It’s also really boring.”

“Yes, many of my students have worked all the way through the handout. But I have to help the students who don’t get it right away and that takes time, right?”

“Sure.  So give a brief lecture with your own examples that illustrate two or three key concepts–NOT the ones on the worksheet. And while that lesson is going on, my advice is to insist that all students watch you. Right now, the strong students are completely ignoring your lesson to work the handout–and from what I can tell, occasionally getting things wrong.”

“Yes, they don’t know as much as they think they do in every case. But it’s good that they’re working, right? They’re interested?”

“Not if they aren’t paying attention to you. You are the diva. Attention must be paid.”

“But if they know it all…”

“Then they can finish it quickly after your lesson–as you say, they sometimes make mistakes you covered. So do an up front lesson of 15-20 minutes or less, depending on the topic. Then release them to work on the entire page or assignment. Let them work at their own pace. You walk around the room, giving them feedback. Don’t let the stronger kids move ahead in your packet. Have another handout ready that challenges them further You might have an answer sheet ready so kids can check their own work.”

She was taking notes. “How do I get these more challenging handouts?”

“Ask other teachers. Or I’ll show you how to build some. I know you’re using  someone else’s curriculum, but you can have additional challenges ready to keep your top kids humble. Math gets much harder. They need to be pushed.”

“So then I teach upfront and give them 30-45 minutes to do all the work, giving the kids who finish more work. Maybe a brief review at the end.”

“Bingo.”

“Got it. I’m going to try this.”

“Last thing on delivery: you’ve got a Promethean. Use it. It will free you from the document camera.”

“I don’t know how. I asked the tech guy for guidance and he said you were one of the most knowledgeable people on this brand.”

“Well, let’s do that next. Now, onto the much more difficult third topic: your curriculum. I could see you often backtracking from your own, authentic instruction method to return to the worksheet which forcefeeds one method: find the Greatest Common Factor or bust.  I could tell you didn’t like this approach, because you kept on saying ‘they want you to use GCF’, meaning the folks who developed the worksheet.”

“Yes, I kept forgetting to avoid my own method and  support the worksheet’s method.”

“Why?”

“Well, I have to use that worksheet.”

“Toots, you don’t have to use a thing. You’re the teacher. They can’t require you to teach it. I don’t dislike the curriculum, but that particular worksheet is flawed. As I walked round your room, I saw kids who just cancelled the first factor they saw, and then had an incomplete simplification. So 9/27 became 3/9 because the kid turned 9 into 3×3 and 27 into 9×3.”

“Yes, that’s what I saw, too. They didn’t realize it wasn’t fully simplified, because they weren’t realizing the need to find the GCF.”

“That’s because the method isn’t as important as the end result.  Who cares if they use that method? That’s what the one student said who challenged you, right? You were trying to push her to find the GCF, and she pushed back, saying ‘what difference does it make?’ and you were stuck because you agreed with her, but felt forced into this method.”

“God, that’s so right,” she groaned.

“But you weren’t giving them any plan B, any way to see if they’d achieved the goal. How much advanced math have you taught? Algebra 2, Trig, Precalc? None? You should observe some classes to see how essential factoring is. I talked to many of your students, and none have any real idea what the lesson’s purpose was. Why do we simplify at all? What was the difference between simplifying fractions and multiplying them?  What are factors? Why do we use factors?  I suggest returning to this tomorrow and confess that the student was correct, that in the case of simplifying fractions by eliminating common factors, there are many ways to get to the end result. Acknowledge you were trying to be a good sport and use the method in the handout, but it’s not the method you use.”

She wrote all this down. “And then I need to tell them how to know that they have fully simplified.”

“Exactly. Here’s what I saw as the two failures of the worksheet and your lesson: first, you didn’t tell them how they could test their results for completeness. Then, you didn’t tell them the reason for this activity. Namely, SIMPLIFY FIRST. When using numbers, it’s just an annoying few extra steps. But when you start working with binomials, failing to factor is disastrous for novices.”

“OK, but how can I circle back on this? Just tell them that I’m going to revisit this because of what I saw yesterday?”

“Yes! I recommend a simple explanation of  relatively prime. That’s the goal, right? The method doesn’t matter if that’s the end result.  And then, here’s a fun question that will startle your top kids. Given “two fourths”, why can we simplify by changing it to 2×1 over 2×2 and ‘canceling out’ the twos, but we can’t simplify by changing it to 1+1 over 1+3 and ‘cancel out’ the ones? Why don’t we tell them to simplify across fractiosn when adding? ”

“Wow. That’s a great question.”

“Yes. Then come up with a good, complicated fraction multiplication example and show them why all these things are true. Make them experience the truth by multiplying, say, 13/42 and 14/65. They might not retain all the information. But here’s what’s important, in my view: they’ll remember that the explanation made sense at the time. They’ll have faith. Furthermore, they’ll see you as an expert, not just someone who’s going through a packet that someone else built for her.”

“Ouch. But that’s how I feel.”

“Even when you’re going through someone else’s curriculum, you have to spend time thinking about the explanation you give, the examples you use. This isn’t a terrible curriculum, I like a lot of it. But fill in gaps as needed. Maybe try a graphic organizer to reinforce key issues.  Also, try mixing it up. Build your own activities that take them through the problems in a different way. Vary it up. You’ve got a good start. The kids trust you. You can push off in new directions.”

I then gave her a brief Promethean tutorial and told her I’d like to  see a lesson with some hands on activities or “cold starts” (activities or problems with no lecture first), if she’s interested in trying.

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

Mid-career teachers, like those in any other profession, are going to vary in their desire and interest in improving their game. Twitter and the blogosphere are filled with teachers who write about their practice.  Perusing social media is a much better form of  development than a district coach that isn’t experienced in working with the same population and subject. Conversations with motivated colleagues interested in exploring their practice, but hared to find the time or interested participants.

But  unlike other professions, we teachers are given ample, and often paid, opportunity to be coaches, and not the weak-tea district sorts. Induction and other new teacher programs give us a chance to push others to find their best.  I find these activities also lead me to review and improve my own practice.

If you’re tasked with helping beginning teachers, then really dig in. Challenge them. Encourage them to push back, but do more than ask a few questions. They’ll thank you later. Often, they’ll thank you right away.

 


Restriction of Range

I read Scott Alexander because he’s a pretty good weathervane for insight into the respectable crowd. For reasons I don’t understand, he periodically gets raves from writers way up the food chain, so he’s clearly writing about sensitive subjects without activating their panic buttons.  I once read this book on Highly Sensitive People, and the author was like “OK, this may be painful, so stop and take a breath before you move on. Sense how you’re feeling. Breathe again. Now turn the page.” I found this extremely irritating, and Scott reminds me of that author. Who, by the way and despite the offputting habits and an entirely unscientific theory, provided me with a successful frameworks and some useful tips. Yes,  I am a Highly Sensitive Person. Go ahead, laugh; it’s 20 years and I still think it’s funny.

Anyway. While this may seem like insider baseball, I’m writing this because the issue at hand illustrates an important point.

Recently, Scott wrote a soothing reassurance to the many people writing him “heartfelt letters complaining about their low IQs”.

See, the correct response to “heartfelt letters complaining about their low IQs” is a gagging noise or, perhaps more maturely, a discreet eye-roll. But that’s just me.

Scott quotes a Reddit commenter echoing a typical concern:

I never got a chance to have a discussion with the psychologist about the results, so I was left to interpret them with me, myself, and the big I known as the Internet – a dangerous activity, I know. This meant two years to date of armchair research, and subsequently, an incessant fear of the implications of my below-average IQ, which stands at a pitiful 94…I still struggle in certain areas of comprehension. I received a score of 1070 on the SAT, (540 Reading & 530 Math), and am barely scraping by in my college algebra class. Honestly, I would be ashamed if any of my coworkers knew I barely could do high school-level algebra.

Scott does something like five paragraphs on the measurement and meaning of IQ and how it’s great for groups but not terribly valuable for the individual. All that is just duck and weave, though, because basically, his response is “Well, your IQ test wasn’t accurate”.  But Scott’s worried that if he says that, it will undo all the hard work he’s put in convincing people that IQ has meaning.

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

So reading the post, the reddit thread, and the comments, I’ve concluded that my–well, somewhat undue–frustration has two sources. First, I  believe abrupt, brusque and occasionally rude responses are not immoral and frankly necessary. But more importantly, I’m dumbfounded that Scott would treat these queries as worthy of a treatise, so I’m wondering why.

I don’t usually quote Malcolm Gladwell unless it’s his ketchup piece, but this is instructive:

Of course, Gladwell was actually quoting someone with actual expertise, Arthur Jensen:

While individual IQs are irrelevant, the tiers are pretty useful. Those who interact regularly with all three tiers can place people pretty accurately in those tiers.  My various occupations have given me access to the entire range of  IQs, from the occasional low 80s to third standard deviation and possibly beyond. As a result, I don’t know a 98 from a 105, but I would never place either in the below 90 or above 115 group.

And from that vantage point, I can’t figure out why Scott is equivocating, because there is simply no way the Reddit poster, or indeed anyone who reads Scott’s blog, has an IQ much south of 115. The idea is ludicrous. Instantly risible.

Alexander is clearly aware of this. His characterization: “Help, I got a low IQ score, I’ve double-checked the standard deviation of all of my subscores and found some slight discrepancy but I’m not sure if that counts as Bayesian evidence that the global value is erroneous” oh so gently mocks his emailers–and mocks them in a manner that only higher IQs could understand.

But why would he spend so much time on the topic? Maybe it’s my (extremely low) opinion of the SSC groupies, but it’s pretty obvious that the emailers are looking for validation from their hero.

“I’ll tell Scott or random people on the internet that I’ve got a low IQ and they’ll go, pish tosh! and tell me how smart I am.” . Write an intellectual email, tossing in all the right buzzwords, worrying about their IQ, in order to get a reassuring  “Don’t be silly! You’re far too intelligent for a 90 IQ!” that they can brag about.

In short, I think Scott’s emailers are lying to get an ego boost.

Sure, it’s possible that IQ tests are routinely handing out scores of 90 to  people with 80th percentile SAT results. It’s just extremely unlikely.  Alternatively, these folks could be IQ-denialists lying to seed doubt and confusion about IQ tests. “We’ll be, like Russian agents and post fake news through Scott. No one will trust these foul instruments!”

I’ll take “Needy Validation” for $1000, Scott.

He may simply be too polite to say “I don’t believe you”. But no one else did, either, in all the megabillion comments he gets on each blog. Some of the reddit folks gently pointed this out, but their views didn’t catch on.

Hence I wonder about restriction of range. Are the people in the discussion, from Scott Alexander on down, so unfamiliar with the intellectual capabilities of a 94 IQ that he thinks it merely unlikely that the IQs are inaccurate, as opposed to a possibility that can be instantly dismissed?

Maybe that’s it. After all,  most of the educated world is setting their intellect standards like the second graph of this grip strength study illustrating the essay title:

 

restrangepic

As the author says, note the change in the x axis.

In perhaps his most famous piece, Scott characterizes the other, the people outside his inadvertently constructed social bubble as “dark matter”. These people exist. They are legion. But somehow he never runs into them, never has any contact.

It’s a neat little metaphor, but really all he’s describing are social bubbles that restrict your range pf experience or understanding. Just as most progressives never run into a conservative, so too are most college graduates who aren’t teaching in high poverty districts rarely going to meet an average IQ,  much less sub-90 intellects.

Steve Sailer, with the ruthless accuracy and snarkiness that (wrongly) inspires disdain for his excellent observational skills,  once observed that Rachel Jeantel, who testified at George Zimmerman’s trial  was a high school student. Steve, who notices things, was pointing out that our expectations for high school students must include Jeantel, when in fact most people yapping about at risk black high school students have Will Smith in mind. Wrong. Smith is a bright guy.

Rachel was 19 when she testified, and graduated the next year from high school at 20. The media reports that “extensive tutoring” helped her graduate, but high schools will graduate anyone who tries hard enough. In my opinion, the support and the attention, not the tutoring, is what helped Jeantel graduate.  I can’t find much about her life since then, but no news in this case is pretty good. I’d guess Jeantel below the 90 tier, but she might be right above it. She’s pretty functional. She’s savvy about how to handle her moment in the sun. She took advantage of the support offered her.

Listen to some of Jeantel’s testimony. Go back up and read that Reddit post that Scott says is typical of the worried emails he gets from people who are saying that they have roughly the same IQ as the young woman in that video.

Perhaps then you’ll see why I think the emailers deserve derision, gentle or otherwise.

Derision not because a low IQ is to be mocked or dismissed.  Derision in part because I believe these people are seeking validation and ego boosts. But mostly, derision to reinforce  and educate people about these tiers. The more people understand the basic realities of a 90 IQ as opposed to one of 115, the more we’ll understand the challenges of educating and employing them. The more people who engage in these debates understand how cocooned they are, the less foolishly optimistic they’ll be in considering education policy debates.

Educators, the peasants of the cognitive elite, can offer some guidance. Many educators deliberately ignore cognitive reality; I’m not saying we all have the right answers, or that I do. But I would like all educated people who think they understand American education to look at the whole picture, rather than be allowed to ignore the “dark matter”.

I really don’t  know if Scott himself is refraining from mocking these IQ queries or if he really doesn’t understand that their fears are impossible.

Ending where I began: I read Scott Alexander because he’s a pretty good weathervane for insight into the respectable crowd that prides itself on its skeptical humanism.  Unfortunately, either interpretation of his behavior is consistent with that set.  I remain befuddled.