A Few Words on Janus

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I’ve always thought the free speech aspect of the Janus case was purely nonsense. Eugene Volokh argued that Abood was wrongly decided in granting that free speech objection in the first place, observing that “compelled subsidy of others’ speech happens all the time”.   How many state-  or CDC-funded ads do we have to sit through, watching people smoke through their breathing tubes?  Or the various “join the military” ads?

I’m not a big fan of unions,although teachers unions come in for a lot of undeserved criticism. But my dislike of unions is professional–totally unrelated to the bizarro conservative hate-on which, I guess, has to do with the unions shoveling millions of easily collected dollars straight into Democrat coffers.

Still, I’m amazed, as always, at the utter cluelessness of the post-Janus gloating–which, typically, focuses almost exclusively on teacher employment, as if there’s no other public employee. I don’t think anyone’s focused on Janus’s impact on cops, for example–unsurprising, really, since the GOP likes cops and doesn’t want to fuss them.

But I’ll go with the flow and talk teachers, since that’s what I know.

First, left or right,  anyone who thinks education reform’s failure has anything to do with unions is kidding themselves. As I’ve written many times, education reform got everything it wanted for sixteen years–and as a result support for charters has plummeted,  support for unions and tenure has increased, and the ESSA deliberately and specifically targeted all the reform “advances” and ripped them into shreds.

So whatever changes Janus brings, I’d bet against Bill Bennett and Fordham Foundation.

We are in the middle of a teacher shortage, so good luck with cutting salaries, raising credential cut scores, or ending tenure. And has often been noted, the recent teacher walkouts have been in weak union states: Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky. Colorado’s governor refused to sign a law that would fire striking teachers.

You know how conservatives and others say look, we don’t hate teachers, we just hate unions. Well, specific union objectives, unlike their political spending, are pretty much in line with what teachers want. In a scarce labor market, killing unions won’t make it any easier to push teachers around.

I’m likewise unconvinced that the billions of dollars the unions send to the Dems has anything to do with Democrat political success. Lordy, did you all learn nothing from Trump? Dave Brat? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

So sure, Janus will lead to less money for unions. But dream on if you think Dems are crippled or the public will suddenly sign on for teacher merit pay.

Moreover, the idea that “millions of public employees” are being forced–yea, forced!–into paying to receive union-negotiated salaries just strikes me as bogus. I don’t like my dollars going to progressive causes, and as an immigration restrictionist, I get really annoyed at union shills wailing about family separations or the travel ban. But when Republican-leaning public employees growl about unions, they are, like me, unhappy about the waste of dollars sent to left-leaning organizations. How many public workers are actively opposed to the fundamentals of public employment? I’m skeptical. If  millions of public employees were outraged by job protections and pensions, conservatives wouldn’t have had to wait so long for the odd ball public employee to hang their case on. It took them years to find Friedrichs and then Janus out on the fringes to make the case.

But why should unions be required to negotiate contracts and protect employees who don’t pay for their services? The Supreme Court waved off the “free rider” problem, but who’s to say there will be paying riders? What’s stopping all teachers from saving hundreds of dollars a year, if the unions will work the contracts no matter what?

Considering that the state laws requiring unions to represent non-members have just been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the unions have a logical next step.

Unions should refuse to work for free. They won’t  provide any service to non-members.

Some services can be easily split between members and non-members. Job protections and other benefits, for example, are easily managed. Non-members who oppose job protections can just live with a greater risk of termination, while members can still ask for union representation.

But contract and salary negotiations apply to all employees, members or not. So unions should refuse to engage in these activities for any salary schedule that has less than 100% membership. Neither members nor non-members will get new salary schedules until someone else steps up to that task–and that someone else will want to be paid.

I can envision many ways out of the chaos that ensues, but certain truths seem obvious. Salary negotiation for millions of teachers, firefighters, police officers, DMV workers, prison guards and the rest is a labor (heh) intensive task. Right now, public employees pay for that task through their union representation. If unions refuse to do this, then how will public employees get raises? Fond fantasies aside, at some point the government is going to have to figure out how to replace that service.

While conservatives dream of a world in which government employees negotiate their salaries individually, absorbing the cost at a unit level, their dreams probably don’t include the onslaught of lawsuits that would follow in a world where local government officials decided salaries on merit. That’s why most charter and private schools use salary schedules, despite their ostensible freedom from these one-size-fits-all charts.

If unions just flatly ended all contract negotiations, the pressure for a Janus-fix would be immediate, particularly for teachers and cops. But wait! unions say–at least, this is what I think they should say. We’re not here to be obstructionist.  We’ll offer membership “tiers”.

Tier 1: Contract and salary negotiations only. Price: a couple hundred at most.
Tier 2: Tier 1 plus performance issues representation. Price: five hundred at most.
Tier 3: Tier 2 plus the cool bennies, political spending, other perks. Price: one thousand at most.

All employees on a given salary schedule must be at least a Tier 1 union member. No 100% membership, no contract and salary negotiations.

Some districts might not be able to get 100% membership. They could then contract to bring the union in for salary negotiations. Still other district employees might decide to do without unions entirely. Maybe they’ll figure out another means of negotiating salaries. Or maybe they’ll realize that union salaries are higher than non-union salaries for a reason.

Unions should not put the cost of their contract negotiations solely on their members. They should demand compensation for the services they perform that benefit all employees. If the employees don’t pay, then no union negotiations.

At the same time, unions could stop charging so much money, accept that they can’t use all teachers’ dues as a piggy bank for their political spending, and be more focused on offering services that all members can benefit from.

Those states with laws requiring unions to represent non-members are welcome to take them to court. However, I like to think that the same conservative jurists who hate unions also think it reasonable that unions get paid if they provide a service.

I’d be shocked, although pleased, if unions took this approach–with adjustments, of course, because I have no idea how much unions costs in other parts of the country, much less all of their many activities.  If they don’t, though, I’m ending my membership entirely. I’ve always refused to do the paperwork for agency fees–too much work for too little money. But I’ve paid nine years of union dues that went to political goals I not only don’t share but actively opposed. That’s enough to cover my next six years to retirement.

 

 

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On Depression and Not Suicide

“I’ve told mine, now go tell yours. “–Kirsten Powers

I had two close friends in high school and on into my twenties; I called them The Jays. Jay One was quiet, often withdrawn, fought depression constantly, and routinely considered suicide but always decided against it. Jay Two never mentioned depression, but at the age of nineteen made a serious attempt at suicide.

Both of the Jays would–and did–unhesitatingly agree that by any objective standard, I won the Whose Life Sucks the Most? contest. Both of them lived in middle class stability with functional families. In contrast, my family and social life had dysfunction, humiliation, misery galore. The Jays knew of enough of these events that they felt lucky.

After I learned of Jay Two’s suicide attempt, I spent a good bit of time wondering why the hell anyone would deliberately seek out death. My fear of death is–I think–healthy and normal? But being a good and proper depressive who masks anxiety with obsession, I worried about death, usually through one focus point. When I was four or five, up through eight or nine, I would lay awake at night convinced that I’d heard a “burglar” coming to rob the house, who would kill us all, and practiced holding my breath so that the bad guy who would look at me and go “Hmm. This one’s dead already.” and move on to my sibs. Then I’d feel bad, because I’d be the only one alive and they’d all be dead, so I told my brother that if the bad guys come, he was to hold his breath. My brother, two years younger, agreed this was a good strategy.

This fear carried me through to age eleven, when a real-life traumatic year or three in school forced me to put aside imaginary horrors.  When that episode finally ended, and I got back to worrying, I was old enough to realize that the “burglar” of my night fears was more properly described as  “serial killer”, who would just wait to see if I started breathing again, so I better make sure I had an exit strategy for my bedroom. For years I avoided plugging in any electric device–both my brother and sister would plug things in for me without even teasing. In my early twenties, it became air travel, a phobia which has stayed with me. Mind you, I flew. A lot. I was a consultant for much of that time.  I’d just convince myself, a la Warf, that today was a good day to die–which stopped working once my son was sitting in the seat next to me, so then I had to go back to worrying.

Prior to Jay Two’s attempt, I understood that suicide existed. Hemingway had done it. Hitler and all his Nazi friends. But it had nothing to do with my life. By twenty, I had three events in my life that, had I committed suicide in today’s media-saturated environment, would have made me a  poster child for one cause or another. Yet I never even conceived of slitting my wrists as Jay Two had.

In no way could I have been considered  a happy-go-lucky, optimistic cheerful soul. An aunt once told me that I’d look back and consider high school the best time of my life.

I said, “Jesus. Shoot me now.”

Nor was I one of those  “shake the dust of this miserable town off my feet” sorts. While my psyche was in terrible shape, my life had many bright spots. My family was dysfunctional and damaging, but also loving and fun. I had no visions of conquering the world, no specific goals, and a self-esteem that was in the toilet.

My twenties saw the same pattern continue–I wasn’t setting the world afire, but was quietly, modestly successful given my upbringing, with a personal life filled with dysfunction that I spent years trying to fix or end. But my son was born, and that changed everything, including my willingness to tolerate insanity. At a certain point, I realized it didn’t matter if this was all my fault or not.

Life in my thirties did get better. I went to a therapist, which was very helpful in smoothing out my life and developing strategies to cope with craziness. My  original diagnosis was dysthymia. I didn’t feel depressed. My therapist had quite a time figuring me out; I used to joke that our conversations were a series of my “bumping into lists”–diagnostic lists, which would serve to determine if some casual comment had actually revealed a deeper issue.

One of the lists I bumped into  while talking about “daydreaming” led my therapist to determine that I’m “O without the C”, or obsessive without compulsion. From that point on, whenever I mentioned “worrying”, I’d hear “You don’t worry, you obsess,” a distinction that made utterly no sense to me for five years until suddenly one day it occurred to me that worrying didn’t mean spending every single waking moment outside of conversation thinking about….something. Whether I’d get another contract. How I would pay the bills if I didn’t get a contract. Whether I was a bad parent. Remembering a book or a movie. Reliving a prior conversation. My brain is in constant motion, and a lot of that time is spent reviewing and rethinking and future-tripping, but when I have a real concern, the one issue grabs every single minute of my conscious time. And the only way I knew to get out of that cycle was avoidance–literally not opening mail, not returning calls, not going to the bank, not doing bills, refusing to think about it, or I’d get into a cycle that never stopped.

Once I figured this out, I learned, over the next year, to time my obsessions.  When possessed with a fear,  I’d allow myself to “worry” for five minutes every thirty minutes. When I felt the thought grab me, I’d check the clock…no, wait ten more minutes.

Over time, my obsessions were less able to grab every waking moment, which paradoxically left me vulnerable to unmitigated depression. In my late 30s I experienced a major depressive episode, one in which my therapist had to contact my doctor, to my considerable annoyance, one in which I was constantly offered medication, which I rejected.  While there were a few triggering events, the overwhelming sense of cycle was what defeated me. This is my life. It will always be a struggle. I am Pigpen, attracting troubles and craziness like dust.  I won’t have calm certainty, serene upward progress, happiness. I’ll have craziness spiked with terrific highs and lots of disappointment and inexplicable defeats. There would be no end to this.

I am a high functioning depressive who talks a lot and most of my small group of friends knew my pain. One pal told me, “You always seem completely in control, never in need of help. I don’t know how to give you a hand.” I found this very perplexing, since one thing I don’t have, never had, is any sense of control.

I resented the fact that others who felt this way could consider and reject suicide–or consider and accept it. They had a choice. I had none. I don’t mean this in any noble sense, much less a religious sense, simply that the deepest grip of this dark time, I’d still agonize about air travel, still hear a  bump in the middle of the night and freeze, thinking great, I’m horribly depressed and will get butchered by a sick madman. Suicide meant death. I was absolutely incapable of even envisioning taking action to cause my death.

Except once.

I was driving along my favorite highway, trying to figure out how to escape this intense sense of exhaustion and despair at my nothing of a life and suddenly wondered if I could just drive into a wall. If I hit the accelerator, hard, faced a curve, or a wall, or a train, then no airbag could work well enough and I’d feel….nothing.

I felt it. I felt in that minute, the blotting out that death might bring.

But I didn’t have time to consider whether that feeling was attractive, because literally the second the sensation arose, I could feel my son’s devastation.

All throughout this huge depression cycle, people would tell me, look, you can’t give in to this. Think of your son. I would always shrug that off because they didn’t understand, I couldn’t commit suicide, so I didn’t have to consider my son. But for a split instant, I managed to think of a way  that I might fool myself into dying, and got an equally split second to consider my son’s reaction. No. I couldn’t do that to my son.

That realization didn’t lessen the depression, but now I was relieved instead of annoyed that suicide was not an option. And eventually, that major depressive episode ended. My life since then has been…fun. I still have dysthymia. I’m still  obsessive but, as my shrink said, on a scale of 1 being mild worry that you left the oven on, and 10 being visually tracing woodgrains for hours on end, I’m at a 7–which is much better. Over the years I’ve trained myself to stop avoidance, which has done much to stabilize my finances.

I’ve realized that the ideal lives I thought everyone else was leading were…not so ideal, that trade offs I thought were unconscious were, in fact, active. I’ve been more consciously making life choices than I give myself credit for.  Like joking that teaching was something I just stumbled into, when in fact I realized my skill at tutoring, sought out that occupation, then applied to ed school. And so the wonderful career I have is not just fortunate happenstance.

In no way am I suggesting any moral superiority or strength of character.  My experience in my thirties taught me that I’m fortunate to hate the idea of death, that my mental anguish didn’t force me to daily make a decision to live, to pick my son and my future over ending an existence that didn’t seem to have much to show for the struggle.

But my experience with the Jays taught me that suicide does not correlate with objective misery.  And  my experience with fear has taught me that others have far less tolerance for discomfort than I do.

Everyone assumes suicides are faced with unrelenting pain and depression. But in fact, 54% of suicides are not related to known mental illness. And certainly not everyone fears death to the same degree.  It’s not only possible but likely that millions of people face terrible anguish and horrible life  circumstances and never or rarely consider suicide, while other people kill themselves over minor setbacks. Still others combine a lack of fear with a lack of consideration that genuinely seems spiteful to those left behind. Yet the public reaction to suicide is to unquestioningly accept that the murdered person was tortured and desperate, that this pain led to the decision.

That’s simplistic. Leave aside a painful and immediately terminal illness, dementia, schizophrenia. Absent these conditions, choosing to die is a multi-factorial glitch in the system, a combination of personality, circumstances, and genetics. Those of us left behind don’t have to hold ourselves responsible for others’ choices, whether by blaming ourselves–or  our culture, as Kirsten Powers does.  Not that this makes dealing with their choice any easier.

But having children should put certain choices out of reach. All these celebrations of Bourdain and Spade overlook or barely mention their daughters.

Leaving a child behind with a conscious suicide is not, perhaps, unforgivable, given years of retrospective.  But it’s a choice violates the  fundamental parental creed.

And Spade’s note to her daughter is an obscenity.

 

 


Great Moments in Teaching: The Charge

Friday, two weeks from the end of school, and it’s rally schedule: chop off fifteen minutes from each block for a screaming session in the gym. It’s fourth block, my trig class, and although I try not to have favorites, this semester has been a bit low on students with energy and ability. But even the goof-offs in this class can remember the basics of trig, have put some effort into memorizing the unit circle, reciprocal values, the occasional Pythagorean identity,  know the difference between sine and cosine graphs.  And only two cheaters. The top kids are amazing, enthusiastic, and driven–and there are lots of them, many of whom I just taught Algebra 2.  So a fun class, and really the only one with a genuine personality this semester.

I had given them some extra time to finish up a test from the day before, and it’s now just 35 minutes to rally.

“OK, I want to cover a couple things to set up Monday. Let’s….”

“NOOOOOOO!!!!” the blast of complaints hit me. I turned around and glared.

“Come on! It’s Friday! You can’t make us learn something new!” Tre, who last had a math teacher that wasn’t me in freshman algebra, put on his most ingratiating grin.

“It’s so hot, and my brain hurts. Please, no more math!” Patti slumped dramatically.

“QUIET!” I turned back from drawing a cosine graph to bellow them into submission.

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“I just want to introduce a couple of interesting properties and get you thinking, once again, about…oh, for christ’s sake.”

“WHAT??? What happened?” the students crane their heads forward to see the object of my irritation. I was growling at a student whiteboard sitting on a desk.

“Oh, some student used a fricking sharpie to draw a self-portrait.” and I held up the board so the class could see the penis.

“HAHAHAHAHA!” TJ was cracking up and I whirled at him furiously.

“You know, we use these white boards every day, and if I can’t get the sharpie off, it’s ruined. You think it’s FUNNY that students destroy my stuff?”

TJ was genuinely puzzled. “No. You just called him a dick. Like, without saying so. That was cool.”

“Fine. Ruin the fun of yelling at you. Take one more ounce of joy from my day.” I grinned at him and sprayed cleaner on the board.

“Ain’t no cleaner taking off sharpie,” Ahmed sympathized.

“Dude, this is Kaboom,” Tre said. “Kaboom’s the bomb.”

“Best cleaner in the known universe.” I spray the board and let it sit. All my kids know I love Kaboom. I tell new teachers about Kaboom, an essential teaching tool. When the kids write F*** in Sharpie, it’s so incredibly satisfying to wipe the obnoxiousness out of existence with one spray. Lesser challenges–gang graffiti, pencil sketches, soda spills, even small patches of gum–all disappeared.

“I hate students, dammit.” I turned back to the board. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love you all. But I just hate students. Ruin my stuff, treat it like crap….” I stop, because students breaking my stuff can put me in a foul mood in a hurry.

“It wasn’t us!” Matteo protested.

“Dude, it was you.”

“Screw you, Furio, how do you know?”

“Cuz you’re a dick! That’s your picture!”

I laughed, feeling much better. “Look, back to work. So you know how there’s a line, and then we can square a line, or multiply it by another line, to get a…”

“Parabola,” a reasonable amount of the class chorused, but I could hear talking.

“Shush, whoever’s talking. What happens when we square the cosine function? Take a look at the function and let’s just square what we….BE QUIET BRIAN..see. Cosine starts at…QUIET.” I turn around, wait for quiet. “Cosine starts at what, Furio?”

“1.”

“So 1 squared is..?”

“1”.

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I mark (0,1) in a different color, and move to the next hashmark. “Cosine is zero at pi over 2, zero squared is…QUIET.”

Most kids were paying attention, but there was this low level nattering that rose up every time I turned to the board.  But we got through the first one quickly.

“So here’s the square of the cosine function. What do you notice?”

“It’s a cosine graph!” Vicky.

“Sure looks like it. Period? Amplitude?” and we identified all the parameters for a cosine function graph.

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So the square of the cosine function can also be expressed as a regular cosine graph. Amplitude and vertical shift, one half, period one half the usual.”

Ahmed said with faux judiciousness, stroking his chin, “Ah, but how do we know this? It might just look like a cosine graph!”

“Good question. We can see the key points work, but maybe that’s just a coincidence. So pick a value and let’s plug it in. QUIET!”

“How about pi over six?”

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Carla was impressed. “Wow, when you double the value, it becomes something entirely different.”

“Yes….QUIET!!! I’m always surprised at how the alignments happen. So now let’s go on to the sine function. What do you all think will happ….QUIET!”

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“Jesus Christ, Eduardo and Brian, will the two of you shut.up.? NO! Stop the innocent ‘who me?’ crap. Three times in the past three minutes. I tell you to be quiet, turn to the promethean, turn around and there you are yapping again. Do I need to move you?”

Eduardo (Manuel‘s younger brother) and Benny look abashed, hearing the edge in my voice. I was mad at myself more than anything these two had done. Note to new teachers: don’t push through without attention. Constantly shushing is a sign you don’t own the room..  Don’t push through, stop when you need to. And it wasn’t an accident I’d picked two of the top kids in the class to shut down; it showed everyone else I was serious, if the unusual edge in my voice wasn’t enough.

By now I was furious with myself, and boy, do I get global in a hurry. My rotten students ruin my whiteboards and never shut up. I’m an idiot who decided to teach something complex 30 minutes before the weekend. And there are times when I’ve decided it’s not worth it and call it quits–call a pop quiz, put a problem on the board as an exit ticket, something. But deep breath, act like nothing happened, and push on, vowing to give it one more shot before I bail on an exit ticket activity.

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“Wait.” Joanie, probably my top math student this year, sat up and scowled at the graph dots. “How can that be a cosine, too? That’s weird.”

“What kind of cosine function? What’s different?”

“It’s reflected. So cosine squared is cosine, and sine squared is negative cosine?”

“Looks like it.”

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“But what’s the point of this?” Vicky asked. “Since squaring a sine or cosine function just takes you back to cosine, why do it?”

“Well, math applications will quite often require you to square functions, so it’s good to know how they behave. However, I really just want you to think about exploring functions. Up to now, you’ve been working primarily with transformations or known formats with parameters you can just plug in. But now we’re investigating functions that aren’t familiar with. Notice, too, that we did this all graphically with a minimum of evaluation.”

“So just for fun, what if we add the two functions we just created?”

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“Here they are together. So let’s add the five primary points.”

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TJ puzzled. “They’re all one? Really? That’s weird.”

“Yeah, but you can see it in the graphs,” Juan observed. “They’re equal at one-half, at opposite ends at one.”

I join all the points.

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“So the graph y= cosine squared plus sine squared is always….”

“One!” the class chorused.

And then I threw out casually, oh so casually, “And cosine squared plus sine squared is…”

“One!…”

The pause was the best part. I looked down, and waited as the recognition grew, until by god, the entire room was shouting in approval, clapping and stomping.

It’s one of those things that maybe you had to be there. But in half an hour, at the end of a day, in hot weather, right before a rally and a weekend, I’d not only gotten those kids to apply their knowledge of trig graphs in a new approach, but draw a connection from graphic to algebraic. They hadn’t recognized the familiar equation because their minds were in “graph” mode, and only when I asked about a Pythagorean identity, using almost exactly the same words, did they realize that they already knew what the graph would show. But not until then.

And they thought it was really cool that I’d pulled them around to this recognition.

Literally, a minute of stomping until I waved it down. “All right! Thank you. Remember during the first week, when I told you I’m a stickler for understanding the connection between algebraic and visual representations? Here you go.”

And then, “But what about tangent? What happens when you square that?”

Ten minutes left and I’ve got them asking questions. I realized I haven’t had to shush them once.

And just as the bell rings, we established that tan2(x) + 1 = sec2(x).

The kids rushed out to the rally. Rallies are my one Bad Teacher thing: I don’t go. I checked the whiteboard, Kaboom had wiped out most of the damage. Then I walked to Starbucks just completely charged, reliving the math and the applause. All the yelling, all the grouchiness, wiped away. I’d killed.

I keep telling you: Teaching is a performance art.

 


Why Not Move to Where the Jobs Are?

 

“Americans aren’t getting up and going where the jobs are, anymore.”–Charles Murray, Conversations with Bill Kristol

“If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.”–Kevin Williamson

To explain why Americans aren’t moving to where the jobs are, look no further than The Newcomers, an excellent book about a year in the life of South High School’s ELL program, peopled by refugees and illegal immigrants from every pocket of the world.

Let me tell you how good Thorpe’s book is: she believes that we should bring in millions, or at least hundreds of thousands,  of refugees every year. She inserts herself constantly into the story, bleating platitudes about the magical qualities of people who simply happen to come from another country.   A truly admirable African family of ten move themselves off subsidies in a matter of months, while their two high school kids RFEP-ed  in less than a year. An almost certainly mentally ill Iraqi woman turns down or loses most of the jobs she’s offered, buys two cars when she still can’t make the rent, and barely parents her two daughters who skip school every week, until she nearly kills one of them in an at-fault wreck in one of the cars she couldn’t afford–but hey, that’s ok, because, you know, Medicaid will spend millions on the daughter’s recovery.

But to Thorpe, these families are equally adequate for the real purpose of the refugee program:

[Mark and I] did agree on one central thing: that to live in comfort in the developed world and ignore the suffering of strangers who had survived catastrophes on other parts of the globe was to turn away from one’s own humanity. In spending time with refugees, Mark found a kind of salvation, and I experienced something similar while mingling with the kids.They affected all of us this way….The students and their families saved each of us from becoming jaded or calloused or closed-hearted. They opened us up emotionally to the joy of our interconnectedness with the rest of the world.

At some point while writing this piece, I saw a comment characterizing the romantic, narcissistic mindset driving the left on immigration.  (edit: thanks to my own commenters who pointed me to the source)

Immigrants are sacred not because they save us, but because their presence gives us the chance to show how we can save them.

We are the agents; they are helpless and can do nothing without our grace.

That captures Thorpe’s mindset beautifully.

So I’m recommending Thorpe’s book despite vehement disagreement with her savior-complex political and philosophical values, despite the relentless shilling of a refugee and immigration policy I find extremely harmful.

Thorpe is irritating, but thorough. Her rhapsodies on the mystical value of shared culture is as easily parodied as Wordsworth is on spades, but deeply reported narratives here and abroad, the vivid classroom descriptions, and (most importantly), the in-depth look at the expensive and relentless support the refugees received are worth the near-epileptic eye-rolls her misty-eyed romances induce.’

Moreover, Thorpe does a better than average job at classroom action. She nails the details of an ELL class. Like the teacher in her story, I had a class suddenly explode in size (from six to eighteen in less than six weeks). My students ranged from highly motivated to utterly disengaged. Some barely showing up? Check. Others making almost unimaginable progress in a year? Check. Not really teaching English, just giving them enrichment while they absorb the language from their environment? Check. Students who are tagged as English learners when in fact they have sub-90 IQs and have acquired as much English as they’re going to? Check. ELL classroom actually the entire community, as the students are insulated from the rest of the school? Check. She really captures the essential nature of ELL classrooms.

But classroom narratives are incidental to Thorpe’s primary mission of selling her readers on the Great Good Work the refugee program accomplishes.  She doesn’t shrink from revealing just how much time, money, resources, and boatloads of free stuff are lavished on uneducated refugees with huge families of varying motivation who just show up here and qualify for incredible bounty.

Before the bell rang for their next class, Mr. Williams beckoned to his seven teens and asked them to follow him into a large walk-in closet on the far side of the room. Inside, neatly arranged on wire shelving, the students beheld pasta, rice, lentils, beans, cans of vegetables, boxes of cereal, and individually wrapped protein bars. …Although their own daughter had graduated the previous spring, Jaclyn Yelich and Greg Theilen had nonetheless spent the past several days stocking these shelves….

“This is the food bank,’ Mr. Williams announced. “You can come here on Friday afternoon and take home bags of food.”….As he prepared to go home himself, Mr. Williams saw his students line up and wait their turn…They walked out of his room carrying recycled plastic bags bulging with beans, lentils, rice, all the staples.

A few chapters later, Jaclyn “proudly reported” that they were now giving grocery bags to sixty students, and by the next calendar year they were serving eighty families per week, and had moved from just beans and lentils to fresh produce and toiletries, including feminine products.

Thorpe also reveals, perhaps less consciously, how many liberal jobs are dependent on an abundant flow of refugees–while giving detailed accounts of the refugee swag bag:

 Troy was a caseworker with the African Community Center, a local nonprofit that was part of a national refugee resettlement agency known as the Ethiopian Community Development Council–one of the nine agencies that partners with the federal government to resettle refugees in the United States…Troy had found this particular assignment more perplexing than most because the family was large and were processed as three separate cases…. [The two oldest children] Gideon and Timote had “aged out” of the original application….

Right away, Troy handed [all four adults] each a $20 bill. This was pocket money, to use as they liked…..The following day, Troy would visit the family to check on them….and then he would hand every adult another $100 in cash. …Refugees were given a one-time cash grant from the federal government upon arrival of slightly more than $1000 per person, administered by the resettlement agency. They could also qualify for any assistance program open to a legal resident of the United States, depending on their income level. But they were expected to become self-sufficient within a short time. …By the time a refugee family walked into their new home, a case worker had to have secured appropriate housing, arranged for bedding [which must be new] and furniture, provided basic cooking utensils, cleaning supplies, and groceries, and prepared a warm meal of food that the family would find familiar.

Then Troy explained to the new family that they’d qualify for TANF, foodstamps, and Medicaid. Some would receive funds from another refugee cash assistance program. Troy had already expedited the benefits, so they’d get the money in seven days. He then spent hours with the parents explaining how rent worked, how food stamps worked, how TANF payments would come onto the same card as food stamps and how to go get a money order using the card.

Thorpe clearly implies that Trump’s victory will start economic hard times for the non-profits:

Over at the African Community Center, frustrated staff members, including Troy Cox, confronted something they had almost never seen: an empty bulletin board–no more Arrivals Notifications. Trump had suspended the entire refugee resettlement program for 120 and capped the number of refugees…

The only Republican other than Trump making an appearance is an evangelical Christian named Mark:

It struck me as notable that my liberal friends who planned to vote for Hillary Clinton and thought they were pro-refugee were not logging many volunteer hours with [refugee] families–but Mark was, every single week.

Liberals like Troy get paid by government grants to help refugees. Conservative Christians  like Mark volunteer for free.

Oh, that’s not fair. There were plenty of free services offered by liberals: in-class therapy, Goodwill teacher aides, and the aforementioned foodbanks. All tax-deductible, of course, and often covered by federal grants.

Eager to see the dismal lives her beloved pet refugees led before salvation, Thorpe visits a Ugandan refugee primary school with 1,606 children in eleven rooms. The school’s one redeeming virtue is it’s free, unlike the rare Ugandan secondary schools, which cost a great deal of money most can’t afford.

Thorpe goes through the numbers: The camp has 2 doctors who see 2,183 patients a month. Women get raped at the rate of about one a day. Where refugees live in homes with “no electricity, no appliances, no running water, no heating, no light switches, no glass windowpanes, and no doorknobs.” Where houses are made of dark mud.  She does not call the refugee camp a “hellhole”, but she thinks it very loudly.

She eagerly seeks out relatives of the African refugee family of Methusella (the star achiever in her tale). After finding a family uncle, she finally goes to a crowded refugee high school with an indifferent administrator who, with prompting, produces Stivin, Methusella’s cousin and close friend. But her stint at interconnectedness doesn’t go as planned.

I took out my iPhone to show him the same pictures…His face clouded as I described how well his relatives were doing in the United States….The American classrooms in my photographs had wall-to-wall carpeting,glass windows, colorful chairs, shelves of books, and carts filled with laptop computers. The classrooms at his school had concrete floors, no lights, and no windows. There were no books and no computers. I was showing Stivin a glimpse of a paradise to which he had not been invited.

I told him that his cousin Methusella said hello.

…”Tell him to work hard and send me money for a school uniform!” Stivin replied, in a slightly bitter tone.

Silly Stivin. Didn’t he realize his responsibility in this conversation? He was to be awed and grateful to the generous American who came all this way to show him how much her country was doing for Methusella. He was supposed to thank Thorpe for caring enough to seek him out, show him the wonderful life that people like Helen have insisted that America provide for a lucky few of the millions wanting a different life. Poor Helen. All the way to Uganda and no warm fuzzies for her effort.

Thorpe calls her behavior careless. I call her behavior devastating, unthinking, and cruel.

Mark Krikorian and others suggest that it’s cheaper and much more equitable to help refugees where they are. I’m all for that, even given the likelihood that much of the money will end up as bribes and graft. But when refugee programs combine with the “family unification” program, we end up “resettling” hundreds of thousands more.  Perhaps we should simply stop giving refugees the idea that leaving their own country and sitting in camps for years on end might possibly lead to the equivalent of a lottery win, and force them to stop hoping for a rescue to unimaginable luxury. Maybe they’ll stop trying to escape and start the horrible, painful process of fixing their own countries.

Besides, we have our own people to help.

So before I finish connecting the book review to the title of this piece, let me forestall an inevitable rejoinder from immigration romantics. I grew up outside the US.  My education, employment (both in technology and teaching), and community has been in  wildly diverse environments.  I have only lived one year of my life in a town that was over 50% white, and have spent many of the past 30 years in towns that more than 50% Asian.   In my life as a tech consultant, easily 50% of my co-workers over the years were immigrants.  With the exception of my ed school, which was about 70% white, I have attended and taught at schools that were 30% white or less, one that was 70% Hispanic. I’ve liked it fine. I’m so unused to being in a room full of whites that I double take and get nervous.

Thorpe, who was First Lady of Colorado for several years, grew up in a white suburb of New Jersey. When she married her now ex-husband John Hickenlooper, they eschewed the governor’s mansion, sticking to their Park Hill home,  in an area not particularly affluent and particularly African American–the kind of place that prides itself for being diverse but really isn’t. Her innocent awe suggests she isn’t experienced enough to categorize immigrants by ethnicity.  She’s an accurate reporter, but just a visitor. If I’m cynical about romantic vapors about immigrants and refugees in particular, I’ve earned the right. And not for nothing, but I’ve personally helped one hell of a lot more immigrants, refugees and otherwise, than Thorpe ever has visiting immigrants when she gets book deals for doing so.

As a group, would be immigrants have only one universal shortcoming: they aren’t American.  We owe our fellow Americans the resources, staffing, and opportunities we lavish on immigrants, refugee or otherwise.

While Thorpe goes into considerable detail about the cost of relocating and settling refugees, she never mentions the fortune we spend educating  all these first and second generation immigrants–some of whom become exceptional, most of whom need welfare just like mom and dad do.

Scratch the surface of every happy story report of a region that welcomed immigrants, refugees or otherwise, to “revitalize” its economic doldrums, and you’ll see a mention of the tremendous cost of educating new refugees. Immigrants cost much more to educate than native English speakers. They have smaller classes. They have lots of teacher’s aides, often hired from the immigrant community–another jobs program.  Sometimes, immigrant parents become unhappy with the local schools so they use public dollars to set up an immigrants only charters, or perhaps they’ll attend one of the many public schools using tax dollars to run ESL-only schools.

Thorpe describes the refugees’ work: dishwashers, factory jobs, meatpacking plants. She sees it as a selling point: look, the refugees are working, providing for themselves. Without refugees filling these jobs, perhaps the employers would be forced to pay more.  I’m certain rents would be much lower. Perhaps natives–black, white, Asian, Hispanic–would be able to take the jobs as dishwashers and meatpackers and make a living with additional government aid. If every immigrant job was automated away with no net improvement in citizen employment, we’d still be saving a fortune in education and Medicaid from the refugees that don’t become self-sufficient and their descendants.

In another piece on these undeserving American poor, Kevin Williamson suggests that housing policy would encourage the worthy to relocate. While it’s certainly true that Americans are reluctant to relocate to expensive cities, Williamson neglects to mention that immigrants resettling to cities to provide cheap labor are driving up housing costs. And the immigrants’ housing is cushioned by support organizations hunting down the apartments, furnishing them, and handing out ready cash.

To say nothing of the fact that  employers in high-immigration areas use network hiring,  create immigrant “job ghettos”, and are actively biased in favor of immigrants over citizens.. Then, of course, refugees come over with their entire families, all of whom are unemployed with no work history. American citizen families are more complex. Fathers might not want to leave their children after a divorce, or a girlfriend might have a good job that a move would put at risk.

But these circumstances and their increased risk could be mitigated by organizations reaching out to depressed areas of the US, finding jobs, helping entire family systems to move. Who not use all these funds to encourage Americans to relocate?1 Start some government programs to find apartments and give some cash to help out workers relocating from Kentucky or Compton or Detroit. Even if Americans had the same failure rate, same welfare use, they’d be cheaper to educate than immigrants.

Alas, Thorpe could only find salvation in getting a hefty advance for writing a book about low-born immigrants who grovel at her proxied generosity. Troy can only find joy helping people he sees as helpless and entirely ignorant of American ways, so they can thrive under his tutelage. The progressives volunteering in foodbanks are well-meaning only so long as they feel like Great White Saviors.

The entire script of sacred immigration is based on uplift. The only way to save America’s soul is to pay to transport thousands of uneducated immigrants, those “huddled masses”, send them to American schools at taxpayer expense, find them living quarters that increases the demand for housing and drives up costs, spend thousands of hours helping them find and, best case, keep low-paying American jobs. That last bit, of course, is why business has become so relentlessly progressive, or as Ross Douthat puts it, signed on for the Peace of Palo Alto.

When Charles Murray, Kevin Williamson, and others wonder why the hell American workers don’t move, why not instead ask why the hell we spend so much time and resources importing unskilled workers with scores of children who cost a fortune to educate, when we could be spending that money supporting American workers to relocate?

Helen Thorpe’s book answers Murray and Williamson’s questions posed at the beginning of this piece. Americans don’t move to where the jobs are because immigrants, refugees or otherwise, get there first. Immigrants aren’t better than Americans. They’re just more sympathetic to elites with a savior fetish and more affordable to employers who want cheap labor. And so they benefit from  entire public and private infrastructure that uses taxpayer dollars to help those immigrants provide cheap labor and burden our educational system while locking out Americans who need a second, fourth, or eighth chance.

****************************************************************
1I looked for such programs and couldn’t find any. Maybe some exist. If so, we need more.


What Teachers are Worth

I enjoy reading both Jason Richwine, who I’ve defended before, and Andrew Biggs, who I follow on Twitter. But they don’t strike me as persuasive when discussing teacher salaries, which they do often, most recently No, Teachers Aren’t Underpaid , and also the first time they came to my attention, having written Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid (do you sense a trend?).

I made an extensive comment one time on Richwine’s blog that I’m still quite fond of, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Before I begin, let me point out for the umpteenth time that I like my salary just fine.

I differ with Richwine/Biggs as follows:

  • They keep going on about teacher GPAs and SAT scores as indicators without mentioning credential tests. They’ve been doing this for six (nay, seven!) years. Credential tests are kind of a thing of mine, as you may have noticed, so I’ll just refer you to my previous work. But it’s simply untrue that teacher standards are low, particularly in high school. Grades and SAT scores are irrelevant. Passing scores aren’t amenable to affirmative action.
  • They sugggest (sigh) differential pay for math teachers, special ed teachers, and “language teachers”. (Surely there’s no shortage of Spanish speakers nationwide?) Left unmentioned:  the thus far anemic evidence for other pay reforms, which are significant only occasionally, and only statistically.
  • They point out–actually, this is a Richwine thing–that teachers who leave the field usually end up with lower pay. But they never seem to mull what that means.
  • They point out that teachers get lucrative pensions and benefits. That’s the Biggs thing. They accuse the public and teachers of failing to understand the severity of the pension crisis. Naturally, if the public understood how bad things were, the public would instantly put itself on an austerity program, just as it’s done with the federal deficit. Oh. Wait.

At least they didn’t bring up the old chestnut, merit pay.

Like I said, I’m generally fans of both scholars. But the past two years have seen a complete earthquake in the education reform movement, so why is everyone still pushing the same old ideas that were roundly rejected?

Wages are not determined by years of schooling but by the supply and demand for skills. These skills vary by field of study.

The first, sure. The second? If Christina Comerford left the chef’s life to be a secretary, a reasonable job for a woman with a few years of college and no degree, she’d take a big paycut. So is the  Executive Chef overpaid at a hundred grand a year?

But Ed, she’s a chef! An artist!

Sure. An artist who acquired skills outside any academic field of study.

Wages are not purely determined by field of study. Librarians require much more education than teachers for far less pay. College teaching adjuncts work like dogs for peanuts after graduating from a selective PhD program. And raise your hand if you think archaeologists would get higher pay if they had a union and a pay scale.

To quote myself twice:

Teaching, like math, isn’t aspirin. It’s not medicine. It’s not a cure. It is an art enhanced by skills appropriate to the situation and medium, that will achieve all outcomes including success and failure based on complex interactions between the teachers and their audience.

Segue to

And like any art, teaching is not a profession that yields to market justice. Van Gogh died penniless. Bruces Dern and Davison are better actors than Chrisses Hemsworth and Evans, although their paychecks would never know it. …Unlike art and acting, teaching is a government job. So while actors will get paid lots of money to pretend to be teachers, the job itself will never lead to the upside achieved by the private sector, despite the many stories about famous Korean tutors. On the other hand, practicing our craft won’t usually lead to poverty, except perhaps in North Carolina.

Don’t think of this as a plea for respect. I’m untroubled by their contempt. I just thought I’d explain why their arguments keep failing.

Besides, they mention wages are determined by supply and demand without mentioning that teachers supply’s kind of a problem at the moment, as most school districts are neverendingly short of teachers.

Despite what reformers constantly bewail as teaching’s low standards and excessive pay, all sorts of college graduates who, on paper, have “fields of study” that would allow them to teach, don’t teach. They’d rather work as, well, bus drivers. Or horribly paid college adjuncts. From 2009-2013, 45% of college graduates worked in non-college jobs, at the same time ed school enrollment plummeted.  Notice that those who pishtosh the shortage aren’t the folks trying to fill the jobs.

No blaming unions, either. West Virginia’s unions are basically social clubs. The teachers aren’t even allowed to strike.  (With teacher’s unions suing Trump over DACA and wasting my fees in various pointless efforts, I’ll cry less about Janus.) Kentucky’s Matt Bevin got whomped and was forced to apologize for insulting teachers in yet another state with weak unions. Is it likely that Colorado’s school districts will fire striking teachers when  ed schools face declining enrollment and thousands of jobs  go unfilled each year?

I’m not gloating. I don’t know where this ends. I understand pensions are a problem. But federal policy and court decisions, to say nothing of political realities, have put tremendous pressure on teacher supply. Perhaps Biggs and Richwine should consider attacking teacher pay from the demand side for a while. Richwine, at least, should find that appealing.

Under 1000!


My Week, Part Two

Thursday, cont’d.

Part One ended on a knife chord. Thursday was already a busy day. Cullen, the professor in charge of the demonstration,  would be arriving at lunch to test the technology in a school network, which often blocks unexpectedly. The actual demonstration itself was after school, if anyone came. I was praying for non-zero.

Now Friday was shaping up as a catastrophe, one in which the price paid and the pain suffered was all on the students. No shows at the demonstration  became a second-tier worry.

My  ELL class, still much improved, read quietly  as I spent second block messaging with Regina, the director, miraculously keeping my temper and sarcasm in check, finding a line somewhere between furious outrage and craven grovelling.  Regina was apologetic but unmoving. Finally,  Bart and I surrendered to the inevitable, deciding to attend the competition and try to appeal the decision afterwards.  But how to tell the students?

“Wow. You have huge classes!”  My third block pre-calc class was finishing up the Wednesday test, leaving me little time to feel miserable. Then, suddenly, it was lunch time and Cullen was here with a box of eight Arduinos, stunned at a class of 36.

My Chromebooks wouldn’t recognize the microcontrollers, so  I emailed the tech guy, who  was there in under two minutes, earning himself more green beans when the Sunday seeds I sowed get around to producing.

Bart came by, looking like a bruised puppy, with even more bad news: because we’d not registered on time, we had to get to the competition on our own dime. No van voucher. I spent lunch switching from discussing work arounds to our school network obstructions to looking for vans on Expedia to running through the least horrible method of delivering crushing news to our three competitor teams.

A 12-person van cost $300 a day. Big expense for a competition our kids were doomed to lose. Only one company, one location.

Awesome tech guy decided to simply life by loading eight laptops with Arduino programming environment.  Cullen got set up and left to pick up some lunch.

My trig class was starting the linear and angular velocity unit, which is a favorite lesson, so I put all the looming catastrophes out of my mind and had some fun.

Cullen and his colleagues came back just before the bell rang, with the awesome tech quy and eight laptops in their wake. After profusely thanking the tech guy, damned if I didn’t see Will, chatting with the professor and Devlin, one of our competitors in the Arduino event. Two!

The colleagues asked me for a signin sheet and by the time I found a notepad,  suddenly, magically, seven students have materialized: five seniors, two juniors.

And of these seven kids, five were expecting to compete the next day: Devlin and two of his team members, Malcolm and Raj. Lorelei, who like Devlin had done all of the coding, was there with her teammate, Amira. I cravenly waited to break the bad news after the demo.

Despite my panic, the presentation on a compelling environmental issue in our immediate area snagged my interest. We live in an essential floodplain, or something (look, science isn’t my bag), and well, I lost some of the details, but the kids clearly didn’t.

Malcolm was so fascinated by the presentation he decided to skip a volleyball game in favor of learning the technology, and towed me over to his coach as evidence of his academic intent. On our way back, I got a text from Regina asking me to call.

“Hi, I talked to the other school and they’ve agreed we’ll just say the emailed project reports got stuck in my spam filter. But I can’t do anything about the van at this late date.”

I lean against the wall, weak-kneed with relief. “Not a problem. Thank you, Regina. Thank you. Thank you.”

“The rubric is online. Score them, send the reports and the scores to me.”

“Done.”

I texted Bart, sprinted for an administrator. Before I forked out $300 of my own cash for that van, I wanted to confirm the district wouldn’t come through. My boss gave it his best shot, but our district won’t give out buses without a week’s notice and they’re very expensive. I booked the van. From school to rental company to home is 50 miles. Street parking, so I could leave my car there.

I returned to the demo,  90 minutes in and going strong. Devlin and Lorelei were coding the sensor to respond, while the other kids are getting to “blink”, Arduino for “hello world”. I signaled the first two, told them to email me project reports immediately, then texted the club president to tell the freshmen team the same. Within an hour I had all three reports and the rubric printed out.

The technology lesson wrapped up at 5:30, with kids enthusiastically ready to proceed with afternoon meetings. The consultants were absolutely thrilled, and I take a moment to feel some pride. Yes, I’m ridiculously disorganized with a talent for missing due dates, but by golly I seized an opportunity that got seven motivated students to come learn a new technology and some environmental science on a late Thursday afternoon.

I called Devlin, Lorelei, and the others outside to delivery the now not terrible news.

“I have spent all day beating myself up. However, right there on the project spec you’ve used as a bible it says no reason will be accepted for a late submission.  Note for future–if someone else is responsible for delivery of your essential project,  nag endlessly. Get proof in writing.” These are bright kids, they realized I wasn’t blaming them, just handing on a life lesson. “And I will have to score these ruthlessly. Remember that whatever points you get are far more than what you were on track to get a few hours ago.”

Cullen’s gang and I briefly discussed the next steps; they left at 6. After scoring the three reports–Lorelei’s was disturbingly low, missing one key area the rubric valued twice as high as anything else.  Devlin and the freshmen team did much better–I sent all that in to Regina, left school at 7:30, had a quick dinner, picked up the huge van.

Home at 11 pm.

Friday

The morning went by in a blur.  My ELL kids got a movie. I designed a trig concepts worksheet for thhe fourth block class I’d be missing. Bart took care of getting our subs.

The drive itself was nearly 2 hours. My back was still pretty bad, so by the time we arrived, it took me a good half a minute to dismount from that huge van, and I could barely stand up straight.

“I’m done,” I told Bart. Emotionally, physically, stressed past my limits. “I need to find a place to sit and just chill for a while.”

We’d arrived a bit early, so sat quietly in the library. The students broke off into their teams and practiced in low voices. Never laid too low to opinionate, I’d offer the occasional comment–“Money. Mention money. Your solution is cheaper than others because it’s open source.” or “Don’t adjust your presentation on the fly just because a partner said your line. Just add, ‘As Areeka mentioned,’ and emphasize the same point.” Bart, now filled with energy, was dashing around helping set up.

Regina asked if we could be judges. I demurred, using my back as an excuse.

The competition was held in classrooms far away from the library with limited indoor seating. I just sat outdoors at a lunch table with a few slices of cold pizza and enjoyed the view. Periodically I came back to earth, wandered around finding students to ask how their presentations went–they had two each–and tell Lorelei my concerns about her project report. Lorelei produced her engineering notebook, which had all the design elements that were missing from her report. Arggh. I ran into Bart, who was judging the technology interview portion.

“Devlin’s team was weak,” Bart said. “Lorelei and the team from the other school killed it. Our freshmen were really the best of the five.”

“Dev’s team was weak? He integrated a microcontroller with Excel!”

“Something he never got around to saying.”

He went off with the other judge to debate scores. Regina came out to see me.

“Why was Lorelei’s report scored so low? She’s doing a great job!”

I asked if Lorelei could submit her project notebook as part of her report and take a scoring hit on length. Regina agreed, so Lorelei produced the notebook and I rescored.

The second round of presentations, the pitches, had ended, forty-five minutes after the events had ended, moving in on 6:00, and no decision, I peeked back into the judge’s room.

“Oh, hi, Ed. Come on in! We’re almost done!” The director and two teachers from the other school were in the room, no Bart and the other yet. Wait, what? How could they be almost done?

The results are on the board. Dev’s team is in third place, Lorelei’s in fifth. All of the presentation scores are in the high 80s and 90s. Dev and Lorelei have a 90+ score. My kids’ project report scores were from 30-60 points lower than the others. Lorelei’s new project score wasn’t taken into account.

This piece is long enough without my rendering a lengthy, detailed, conversation, so I’ll try to explain me instead. Most people who watch Twelve Angry Men find it a powerful reminder of the importance of assuming innocence, of sticking up for those with no voice, of  tolerance triumphing over racism. But some, the folks who use the movie in management classes, see it as a master class in argument and persuasion.

I’m Juror #8, but only in the second view. Not “I’m the righteous advocate for social justice” but rather “I’m the unmovable, persuasive master of argument who relies on neither social status nor authority to prevail, standing squarely between you and your objective.”   In both teacher and corporate world, I’ve been pulled into meetings by those who want my skills to either achieve their goal or stop another. It’s one of the most inescapable attributes of my personality. I often flatly avoid speaking out in large work groups because self-knowledge has (finally) taught me I won’t be able to back down, and in instances where those in authority have their minds made up, I become quite unpopular.

Sometimes this sucks. Many friends have pointed out that this exchange describes me, and they’re not wrong. But the skill is a blessing far more than it’s a curse, and in many cases  I’ve simply spoken up and without effort achieved amazing turnabouts in group opinion. By the end of a 30 minute conversation, my observations about the many scoring irregularities I saw had won everyone over. Regina was texting some engineering professors at the sponsoring universities who agreed to review the project reports and other written deliverables, take the feedback on prototypes and “score” them again using the rubric. And no one was mad at me; everyone felt good about the outcome.

The event was supposed to end at 5:30; we left the meeting at nearly 7. I told the kids that no news was pretty much the optimal outcome, with a few details. I tried to be neutral, but Malcolm said “I know you probably convinced them to rescore, so thanks” and the rest nodded.

Got the kids back to school, then did the 50 mile trip to get the van back on time. Home at 10. Cheese and crackers for dinner.

Saturday

I slept in til noon. Only as I was walking to Starbucks did I realize that Regina wanted me to judge precisely because these events are like Olympic figure skating before they turned it into a numbers game. Favoritism is expected. Balance is needed. I can’t believe I was so obtuse, and making one last attempt to advocate, texted Regina, asking if we shouldn’t just declare a tie, since five projects from both schools were all declared excellent. But no, ties weren’t allowed. (I refrained from observing that rubrics were required and rescores were banned. Because so were late submissions.)

Checked the garden, which I’d ignored all week thanks to some well-timed rain. Three huge artichokes. Beans hadn’t sprouted yet, but weeds were. A glutton for punishment, I tried to figure out why shoveling had laid me low, and dug up some dandelions while determining that I’d been using my left foot to push and my right hip to balance, putting too much strain on my right hip. So I spent some time reversing the legs. Maybe that would balance out the pain, or something.

Later that day I went to a bar and wrote up the first half of the week. During dinner (yes, still at the bar, but I drink slow), I checked email. Regina had sent the results.

Devlin’s team was first. Lorelei and Amira were second. The freshmen were 2 points out of third.

I went to bed early, headed for work on Sunday. Grading had stacked up.

 

 


My Week, Part One

Sunday

I did some gardening, digging up a few rows to plant green beans from seed. I started my garden earlier this year, a reaction to last season’s late start, so tomatoes, peppers, and squash are already in the ground, lettuce and onions flourishing in the raised bed. Saturday night, I spotted a spectacularly huge artichoke in my five foot tall perennial that my housemate brother prepared for our enjoyment–from garden to plate in 45 minutes. Really, the only flaw was we had no eggs so I couldn’t whip up a Hollandaise. Still, it was sublime, and had inspired me to keep up the garden labor.

After that, I went to work, getting there at about 2:30. Grades were due the next day, and I was going to be out of the office for the calculus textbook selection committee. My classes only go up to pre-calc, but two of our calculus teachers were preparing their students for the AP test and besides, they hated committee meetings. The non-AP calculus teacher, Wing, was in China, leaving only Hank, the department chair, and me as upper-math options. Hank teaches Stats, and Monday was my birthday, so I thought it’d be nice to sleep in a bit and get out early without guilt. Plus, I like textbook selection committees–a bunch of free textbooks. And one of these days I want to teach non-AP calculus.

I was at school until 11:00 pm. First, I had to finish grading the Algebra 2 tests. Then I had to enter all those tests and the trig class’s tests and review grades. After submitting the final results, I had to prepare for the sub, which was irritating because most subs are a waste of time. I’ve found one sub who is better at math than I am, which is amazing, and one sub who’s an experienced teacher and at least gets kids working, which is a great second best. But neither was available on short notice, so I’d get an incompetent who’d sit on her phone all day, which sucks. But I was getting free textbooks.

Then I had to put flyers around campus, which I’ve never done before. A month earlier, I had seen an email from a district coach about middle school robotics and had emailed him, asking for information about Arduino or robotics activities for high school. As co-director of our school’s chapter for a well-known technology competition, I had discovered how many kids were interested in programming and robotics and was determined to start a club on either or both next year, independent of the competition. The district coach had forwarded my mail to a city government guy who had a grant to encourage community science projects, and was hooked up with a huge project to use technology to collect data about our local environment. (I can’t be specific here.) Next thing I knew, I was given $2000 for a six week project ($600 for me, $600 for another teacher, $800 for expenses!)  that would kickoff with a demo of the technology for interest students. Highly educated people from prestigious universities would be coming from out of town to give the demonstration. I told them that I was completely on board but couldn’t guarantee two things: first, that we could complete any technology project in six weeks towards the end of school and second, my biggest fear, that anyone would show up for the demonstration. I told them that I was pretty sure that I could get two or three kids, but even that was just a hope.

They reassured me: no problem, if no one came, they’d show me and we’d map out next steps. So I’d talked it up in classes, and in the after school club, and now I was putting out flyers, but inside I felt like an 8 year old terrified that no one would show up at Chuck E. Cheese for my birthday party.

I got home at 11:30.

Monday

My birthday. I woke up feeling slightly stiff from the garden labor, which was odd. Mattocking, which is basically a stand-up sit-up, can wreck a back without proper support, but all I’d done was turn over soil with a shovel, which shouldn’t have done any damage.

The calculus committee was much more interesting and relevant than I thought it would be, renewing my determination add calculus to my preps. First step, though, was much more pre-calculus than I’m currently teaching, which for reasons I’ve mentioned will be difficult.  I got six textbooks.

I had a doctor’s appointment with my allergist, who yelled at me for not starting my allergy and asthma regime in February, leaving it to March which allowed the congestion and breathing problems to take hold. I agreed, but pointed out that her regime had me in much better shape than I’d been in years past–save for last year, when I followed it from February on and never had an attack. Seriously, I don’t say this much, but this doctor actually helped me with a real health problem. Usually they misdiagnose me or tell me I’m perfectly healthy despite routine 20 second bouts of deep, unproductive coughing and the wheeze of a lifelong smoker.

For dinner, my mother and stepdad took me out to a Brazilian steakhouse.

Then I went home and found my password for H&R Block.  They bought the prior company I used, although I can’t remember what that was. It’s like with banks: stay with any bank long enough and you’re a Bank of America customer.

When I grade, I do the key and group the tests one day, maybe grade a couple. Then I come back later to do the rest. Similarly, with taxes, I always take one day to get all the forms in order, the login found, get started until I run into a roadblock and quit. Then I come back certain all the small stuff is handled. So Monday evening, I found all the tax forms dumped in my mail crate, logged in, started putting in information. H&R Blocked seemed to think I owed $4,213, which was unnerving. But then I couldn’t find my investment INT-99 forms or my rental property year-end report, so I shot off some emails and went to bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday morning my back seemed fine, much less stiff. The substitute’s note said that all my kids ignored her and had been on their phones all day. One girl left without permission and came back an hour later.  I yelled at the kids, banned phones entirely in every class with some pre-emptive removals just to reinforce the ruling, told everyone they’d have a test or quiz on Wednesday.  The  pre-calc test wasn’t even started, of course, but righteous wrath must out.

Our school has instituted an interesting innovation for advisory. Instead of 30 minutes with one of our regular classes, teachers create lessons on any subject they like, and the students sign up. This is a wrap-around of RTI–basically, what do we do with the kids who aren’t in intervention?–and is thus far pretty successful, two weeks in.

Today I was offering “ESL Word Games” for the first time. I put the kids in teams and play a variant of “Wheel of Fortune”. Surprisingly, some native English speakers were enrolled; apparently, our study halls were overloaded. So I assigned two of them as team advisors and one of them helped me come up with clues.

The session was a huge success. the advisors took their jobs seriously and had a great time giving hints and suggestions. The kid working with me thought up “WATCH READY PLAYER ONE” with the clue “something you do in your free time”. The kids figured out the movie name fairly quickly, but were driven to distraction by “watch”, which stumped even the native speakers. Great lesson, great learning experience, the ESL speakers had a ball, and the native speakers said they wanted to come back.

I stayed at work until 9:00. But there was a bright spot.

Got home and mostly finished my taxes. That $4,213 tax shortfall held all the way through to itemized deductions, which was confusing the hell out of me because all of my passive rental losses were rejected. Then the web application informed me that, since I’d reported $10,551,000, I would need $791,325 in medical bills before I could start to deduct qualified expenses. That’s when I realized that the $4,213 I thought I owed had a comma after it and was in fact four plus million dollars.

Note to H&R Block: If a teacher reports an eight-figure income, suggest they entered a comma instead of a period.

Result: $1056 refund. Yay.

Wednesday

It took me five minutes just to get out of bed. Why did it take my back three days to react to a bit of digging?

Easy day, generally, with three tests. Which was good, because while standing and walking was manageable, and sitting was pretty easy, moving from standing to sitting or vice versa took two or three tries and caused considerable agony.

The next two days would be busy. Thursday was the technology demonstration that had so much potential if kids would just show up. Friday was the second  half our our technology club competition. While the other contests had been held a couple weeks earlier, the Arduino project showdown had been delayed and moved from a Saturday to a Friday, due to the limited number of entries–just seven.  Three of those entries were from our school. That is, we had three groups of two to four students who had been working on Arduino projects since November, all of them learning to code for the first time, developing prototypes, writing project reports.  We’d done well in the other competitions, taking a first and two thirds. We had high hopes for the Arduino kids.   On Friday, Bart, my partner in crime in the technology club, and I were taking these nine students to a town I hadn’t even heard of, 90 minutes away if there’s no traffic, but there’s always traffic.  The organization would pay for us to rent a van. Our principal would pay for us to miss fourth block.  I would drive, because Bart considers time spent behind a steering wheel a usually unnecessary evil.

With all that on deck and a screaming back, I vowed to leave early and actually got out at four, after printing an algebra 2 handout I’d need. On my way out I ran into Will, a senior and a talented writer who wrote great stories for our school paper. I invited him to the kickoff tomorrow, saying whether he was interested in technology or not he could run the blog showcasing our progress, as a significant goal of this six week pilot was showing other schools how to get started. His involvement in this high-profile project would definitely be useful when applying for internships. He promised to think about it.

Went home, finished filing my taxes, and went to bed early.

Thursday

At nine in the morning Bart, my partner in crime, texted me in a panic, telling me that the director of the technology competition had assumed we weren’t attending the Friday competition. Why? Well, no good reason, really. The real crux of the matter was that the students were two weeks overdue on submitting their project reports. Why? Well, because the date wasn’t on the competition sheet, and the director had only sent out one note with the due date, as an afterthought on another email and we’d missed it. But our students were registered, right? Well, no, they weren’t because the student database was constantly out of date and Bart had kept asking for a clean copy and also, frankly, because Bart is terrible at deadlines. And no, I’m not blaming Bart because I’m terrible at deadlines which is why I gave the job to Bart, along with two-thirds of the stipend.

Before you’re too hard on us, keep in mind that this organization had changed the dates of both competitions, including putting one date right at the end of spring break, which made for brutal logistics and lost us several competitors whose parents belatedly realized that their kids would be out of town that day. Also keep in mind that the director understands we’re teachers, with other actual jobs, and is extremely nice on due dates.

I now had something much bigger to worry about than whether anyone would come to my birthday party.

So I’ll stop there, since this is pretty long.


Four Obvious Objections to Direct Instruction

Recently, I defended teachers from Robert Pondiscio’s accusatory fingerpointing. Why no, sir, twas not teachers at the heart of the foul deeds preventing DI’s takeover of the public schooling system.

I don’t have any great insights into why DI isn’t more popular. But any reasonable person should, without any research, have several immediate objections to accepting the Direct Instruction miracles at face value. Hear the tales about Project Followthrough and spend ten minutes reading about this fabulous curriculum, and a few minutes thought will give rise to the following obstacles.

The weird objection

I’ll have more to say later, hopefully, about the roots of Direct Instruction. But no research is necessary to see the B. F. Skinner echoes.  Direct Instruction looks much more like conditioning than education.  A curriculum sample (I can’t make it bigger, click to enlarge):

NIDIcurriculum

You’re thinking good heavens, those “signals” are just optional, right? Nope. This video , without prompting, tells the viewer that yes, “signals” are required.

Recently Michael Pershan observed that ” while schools are primarily in the business of teaching kids as much as we can, it’s not anyone’s only priority. There are other things that teachers, administrators, parents and kids value besides instructional efficiency.”

Yes. Many of us value public schools that don’t feel like a cult.

The age objection

From the meta-analysis that’s given rise to all the recent stories:

The strong pattern of results presented in this article, appearing across all subject matters, student populations, settings, and age levels, should, at the least, imply a need for serious examination and reconsideration of these recommendations.

It’s behind a paywall, but I can’t help but be skeptical. I’ve never heard of Direct Instruction implementations at high school.  High school is leagues harder than elementary school and middle school. How would DI work?

Teacher script: “Hamlet Act One Scene One Word One What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Elsinore!”

Or math:

Teacher script: “Y=mx + b is the slope intercept form. Word m What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Slope!”
Teacher: “Word b What Word?”
[tap]
Class: “Intercept!”

How many subjects have been broken down to that level? How many books have they scripted for instruction? Or is the high school curriculum like this US History sample, a few questions every paragraph?

I don’t know. I’d guess the researchers don’t know, either.

If DI’s curriculum isn’t entirely defined for high school students in all subjects, then how can the claim be made that DI works for all age levels?  How can we be sure that the gains made in elementary school aren’t subject to the dreaded fadeout? What if DI is simply a good method of teaching basic skills but won’t address the gaps that arise in high school?

Maybe answers–good answers, even–exist, maybe DI works for fifteen to eighteen year olds, maybe Romeo and Juliet can be broken down into tap-worthy chunks. Or maybe those writing paeans about Project Followthrough have no success stories about older kids to tell.

The money objection

There’s a new meta-analysis [that] documents a half-century of “strong positive results” for a curriculum regardless of school, setting, grade, student poverty status, race, and ethnicity, and across subjects and grades.–Robert Pondiscio(emphasis mine)

If it works for all income levels, why aren’t rich kids using it?

I mean, surely, this incredible curriculum is what they use at Grace Church School or Circle of Children to teach these exclusively and mostly white little preschoolers how to read. Distar is the gold standard at  exclusive Manhattan elementary schools. All the teachers are going word one, what word? (tap) and all the little hedge fund progeny obediently repeat the word, or Word.

Except, of course, that’s not the case at all. Check all the websites and you’ll see they brag about their inquiry learning and discovery-based curriculum.

 

Zig Engelmann has written that he focused his attention on the “neediest” children, but that his curriculum helps all students achieve at the highest level. In which case, Zig, go sell your curriculum to the most exclusive private schools. Public schools spend much time arguing that poor children deserve the same education rich children’s parents pay for.

The race objection

I almost left this section out, because it is necessarily more detailed and less flip than the others. At the same time, I don’t see how anyone can hear about DI the miracle and not ask about race, so here goes.

About thirty years ago, Lisa Delpit wrote a stupendous essay, The Silenced Dialogue that just obliterated the progressive approach to education, effectively arguing that underprivileged black children needed to be directly taught and instructed, unlike the children of their well-meaning progressive white teachers.  As I looked up her article to cite  her comments about the “language of power” I realized that Delpit actually discussed this using the context of Direct Instruction (Distar is the primary Engelmann brand):

DelpitonDistar

Note that Delpit, who so accurately skewers progressives for withholding the kind of information that black children need, then rejects the notion of “separating” students by their needs.

She wants it both ways. She wants to acknowledge that some kids need this kind of explicit, structured curriculum while denying the inevitable conclusion that other kids don’t.

DI claims that all kids, regardless of race, see strong improvements.  But take a look at the videos, like this one from Thales Academy, and notice all the students reciting together. They all learn at exactly the same pace?

 

Really?

So I’m going to spoil alert this one. A quick google reveals that Direct Instruction doesn’t allow a student to progress until he or she has mastered the level, and yes, there is ability grouping.

History suggests that the students who move forward quickly will be disproportionately white and Asian, while the students who take much longer to reach mastery will be disproportionately black and Hispanic.

In fact, public schools are strongly discouraged from grouping by ability, and by discouraged I mean sued into oblivion. So how can Direct Instruction achieve its great results without grouping? And if DI helps all races equally, then won’t the existing achievement gap hold constant?

It’s quite possible that DI is an excellent curriculum for at risk kids, particularly those with weak skills or a preference for concrete tasks. It’s not credible that DI instituted in a diverse school won’t either lead to very bored students who don’t need that instruction or the same achievement and ability gaps we see in our current schools.

As I said, these are the relatively straightforward objections that, I think, make a hash out of Robert Pondiscio’s claim that teachers, those foul demons of public instruction, were the source of all DI discontent.  Next up, I’m going to look at some of the actual data behind the claims.

 


Great Moments in Teaching: From Dead Animals to Disney

ESL this year hasn’t been particularly enjoyable, unlike last year, which troubled me ideologically but was a joy to teach. I am primarily challenged by a hard truth: my students simply aren’t interested in learning English. In fairness, they’ve had a tough year, the details of which I won’t share. When I arrived, they weren’t grateful, but rather annoyed that they had a teacher who expected them to speak English rather than watch movies.

Most are eager to learn, having been out of regular school for a year or more. They’re just not  eager to learn English, and they particularly don’t want to speak English. I’ve been having trouble getting any conversation going; my questions are met with either utter silence or a request, in Spanish, that someone give them a one word answer to get me off their backs.

I can focus on any content, anything that sparks their interest while reading or at least hearing English.  I taught them ratios and fractions. We constructed some robots. They enjoy grammar, primarily because they just like completing worksheets instead of talking.  I showed them Zootopia, a clever little movie, and tied it into “prey” and “predators”, which then expanded into “producers”, “consumers”, and “decomposers”, then into “herbivores”, “carnivores” and “omnivores”. This went over pretty well, so I found an ESL science book and reinforced all that with pictures and text.

I’m a teacher tailor-made for covering a wide range of topics, and I’ve improved their compliance and cooperation. But they are still a sullen lot, with no cohesion and they aren’t that crazy about me, which is a hard ego hit for someone who’s quite used to being “favorite teacher”.

So I needed a day like last Friday.

Notably, Reyes was absent. “Behavior problems” and “ESL students” don’t see a lot of overlap; unhappy ESL students act out by passive inaction, in my experience. But Reyes, a junior from Mexico, became a huge behavior problem once the others started showing even minimal compliance and improvement.  He chases girls around the room. He pulls his hood over his head when he’s trying to ignore me. He constantly speaks Spanish, interrupting me and making crude comments  that cause the other Spanish speakers to giggle.  He refuses to speak English, even simply to ask to go to the bathroom. He’s not a bad kid, really, but nonetheless a disruptive force in the room was gone, and that mattered a lot.

We’d left the day before on “food web” and “food chain” and I brought the image of a spider web up again, intent on explaining in some way  that the original meaning of “web” has transformed, to start to get across the notion of metaphor. Then  I googled “web” without spider and bring up one of the results.

You get this sound, in ESL classes–at least you do in mine. It’s a genuine “Aha” of comprehension and connection. It’s a great sound.

“See? We use ‘web’ to describe the connection because it’s many connections to many other connections. It’s not one way up or down. Now look at ‘chain’” and I googled the word and tabbed to images.

Again with the “aha”.

“See the difference? In a chain, every link is directly connected to only two. See this one? In English, we often use the word ‘chain’ to mean one up and one….”

“Down!” they chorused.

“So when we talk about food web, we are talking about many to many.  See the many connections? All these animals exist in a web, with different relationships. Now look at a food chain. See the clear cycle, or circle?”

So far, so good. Then I lost them: “First, we’re going to focus on food chain, which is a basic way of seeing who is eating, and who is being eaten.”

I was quite surprised to hear a big groan from Allie. “I HATE English!!!”

Taio agreed. “Both eating! Why eaten sometimes, sometimes eat?”

Ah. “So when is it eat? When is it being eaten?”

Allie threw up her hands. “They are both the same thing!”

“No, they’re just the same verb root. But…. Huh. Let me think.”

“See? English is stupid!”

“No, no, I get that! And you’re right. English can be insane. But I’m not teaching you verbs right now. I just want to figure out how to make you see the difference. Oh, wait.”

And I quickly googled up “rabbit eating carrot“.

“The rabbit is eating the carrot. The carrot is being eaten by the rabbit.”

Pause, but I could see they were thinking. So I googled up “fox eating rabbit”.

“The fox is eating the rabbit. The rabbit is being eaten by the fox. So if you are eating, you are the one getting food.”

“If you are eaten, you are the food?”

“Exactly!”

Elian stood up and came to the front by the projector. “Who eats fox?”

“Great question. I don’t know? Who would kill and eat foxes?”

“Birds?” Allie again.

“Hey, that’s an idea.” I google “eagles eating foxes“.

“So then someone eats eagles?” Taio asked.

“Maybe. But some predators aren’t eaten. Like humans. We kill other predators, though, because of competition. So we kill foxes because foxes will eat our chickens and rabbits. Or we kill eagles because we like their feathers.” Elian nodded, and leaned against a desk, still up front.

“Let’s try another chain.” I google “mouse eating“.

“Elian, is the mouse eating or being eaten?”

“Eating!”

“Yes! So Taio, what is happening to the blackberry?”

“The blackberry is…eaten?”

“Allie?”

“The blackberry is eaten by the mouse?”

“You got it! So who eats mice?”

“SNAKES!” I had all seven kids playing along as I google snake eating mouse.

“The snake…” I prompted.

“the snake is eating the mouse!” even my non-English speakers, like Chao, was moving his lips, at least.

“THE MOUSE IS EATEN THE SNAKE!” announced Hooriyah, my lone Afghan student.

“No. Eaten BY,” from Elian.

“Yes. The BY is very important. Otherwise, in English, it sounds like you are saying ‘eating’.”

“That’s why I don’t like English. Eaten and eating sound the same!” Allie nodded.

“So remember the ‘by’. That will help.”

“Do snakes eat deer?” Taio asked.

I can’t begin to explain how pumped I was. We’d now kept steady conversation for close to ten minutes, where everyone was chiming in without prompting. So I googled “snake eating” and we paged down looking.

“THERE!” Taoi pointed.

“I have a question,” Allie announced. “What do you call that word that snakes do to….” she paused. Kept pausing and then shrugged. “I don’t know the word.”

“Crushed? Constricted? Squeezed?”

Allie had come up to join Elian, standing by the Promethean, looking at the images for one specific thing. “No. The other way. Before.”

“Poison? Some snakes bite their prey and the poison kills or at least paralyzes–makes the animal not able to move.”

“No, not that. It’s….” and here Allie gave up  in frustration, looking at me, trying to “think” the word at me.

Up to now, I’ve been doing a good job, but it was all ad hoc teaching, taking what comes.  But I don’t think all teachers grasp the essential moments of their job. This was an essential moment and I made it a great one.1

Nothing is more important to me in that minute than identifying Allie’s word. Writing this a week later,  I have a vivid memory of standing next to the projector, looking intently at Allie, oblivious to everything else, trying to grab the word out of her brain. And best of all, I could see that she knew this. She knew I was absolutely intent on figuring out her word, that I wanted this, that I wanted to be useful because hell, she’s stuck in this class learning a language she hates, can’t the teacher give her information she actually wants? For once?

My second great moment arrived, but I’m not sure it’s a pedagogical moment or just that of a very good and quick thinker. Because instead of trying to prompt more information from her, I started thinking about snakes. What are the ur-Snake things? I’d gotten constriction, gotten poison, what other snake categories are there?

Cobra?” Allie stared intently at the google results, but shook her head. “No, it’s…” she paused again, giving up.

“What do you call that?” Elian pointed.

“That’s a hood. Cobras have a really distinctive look. That’s why I thought maybe Allie was thinking of them.”

More ur-Snake. What else? I stare at the cobra images, and suddenly, miraculously, I think of Indian snake charmers.

“HYPNOTIZE!” I practically shouted.

“YES! WITH THE EYES!” Allie was overjoyed. “It makes the animals….something.”

“Obedient. Calm.”

“What’s hypnotize?” Hooriyah.

Third great moment, back to teaching. How to show kids what Allie is thinking of, and the meaning of “hypnotize”? I switch over to youtube.

“This is a famous Disney movie. Has anyone seen it?”

“Yes!” Allie was over the moon with excitement. “This is what I was thinking of!”

So as the scene progressed, I showed the students the broadly caricatured meaning of hypnotize.

When this was over, Allie rested content, sitting back down.

“How do snakes hypnotize?” Taio asked, saving me the trouble of raising the issue.

“I don’t think snakes actually do. I think people just think it is true.”

Allie nodded. “My neighbor has a snake. He says they don’t hypnotize.”

So I googled again, and we found a few highly verbal sites that seemed to deny it, but I didn’t dwell on this much.

Final pretty great moment in teaching: I brought it back to food chains!!

“So. Remember where this all started? Eating and…..”

“Being Eaten!”

“Let’s go through some food chains that you might see in a farm.” I wrote on the board.

corn->mouse->owl

“Owl?” asked Hooriyah, and I googled “owl eating mouse”.

“So now we know three bird predators: owl, hawk, eagle.”

Another food chain: wheat->caterpillar->black bird

“What’s wheat?” Taio again. “I don’t know wheat.”

“Every country has a primary grain. In South America, the big grain is corn. Maize.” Elian nodded. “In China, in most of Asia, it’s rice. In Europe and in America, also the Middle East, wheat is big.”

Allie, who has Brazilian parents but was born in Germany, nodded. “Yes. Bread is made from wheat.”

“And the Germans do amazing bread.”

“Bread!” Suddenly Taio is galvanized. “We have bao bread!”

I know a lot of Chinese food, but this one was new, so I googled.

“Oh, like in pork buns! I didn’t know that.”

“Dumplings. I hate dumplings,” Maria, Salvadoran, my best English speaker, had been missing from most of the class and had just arrived.

“No, this isn’t dumplings.” I corrected her. “Dumplings are like shu mei. It’s food wrapped in a pastry.” Chao sat up and chattered excitedly to Taio, who answered in English.

“Yes, that’s dumpling.”

I grinned at Elian, my only repeating student. “This feels like last year,” and he smiled in recognition. Last year, we’d talked about food in class all the time, going around the room talking about various foods just for fun–what they eat in Afghanistan for breakfast, what they eat in Vietnam for dessert, why Westerners make the best desserts (that was my claim, anyway, although my students roundly disputed this assertion).

We finished up with explanations of caterpillars and cocoons, and discussing the difference between blackbirds and crows–“One is just a black bird, the other is a blackbird.”

The bell rang off for once on an animated conversation.

I started this article a week ago, and was originally going to finish it with the hope that my class had turned the corner. My perpetual lagtime in writing allows me to say that it is better. Last week was a distinct improvement on every day that came before the great moments. More conversation, less lag time, and a much improved sense of camaraderie, even Reyes is speaking with a bit less prompting.

Before last Friday, I’d been telling myself regularly that tough classes are good for me. They keep me humble, keep me looking for answers, for methods, for strategies to help my students want to learn.

Besides, I’d tell myself grimly, tough classes make the triumphs all the sweeter.

I love being right.

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

1Again, the great moment is mine. I’m standing there going oh, my god, this is a great moment in teaching, in my life. For me! The kids, hey, if they liked it, that’s good.

 

 

 


Should Reporters Allow Teachers Pseudonymous Opinions?

Look, I’m not defending this idiot, who uses her picture, her location, and her occupation to discuss how she “infiltrates” the public school system with her white nationalist views. If she discusses in class her belief that Nigerians have lower IQs than Swedes,  if she teaches her students nudge-nudge-wink-wink that whites are superior, then she should be fired.

But she should be fired for what she does, not what she believes.

Maybe she’s been an item of constant concern at her school. Maybe she’s convinced her students to lie for her, as she merrily runs her pre-pubescent white supremacist club. Maybe she’s teaching them that the South was destroyed by Northern aggressors, that slavery was really a well-meaning effort by paternal whites looking after their helpless African “workers”.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that she’s mild-mannered Mildred at school, that her podcast is all fantasy land. What if she’s a popular teacher, much loved for her accessible lessons and commitment to equitable outcomes? She thinks all the equity talk is feel-good, useless preachery and runs a podcast to vent her distaste at the liberal nostrums she has to preach. Her little podcast gets popular beyond her wildest expectations, and she starts talking up fiction to increase her audience.

Likely? No. But imagine, for a moment, that she is a good teacher who doesn’t proselytize, who has equitable outcomes.

Does this Florida teacher deserve to lose her job? She isn’t denigrating her students, as Natalie Munroe did.  As I understand it, a teacher’s right to free speech is balanced with the school’s right to efficient operations. Her district will certainly be able to claim she is a distraction to the school’s primary business.

Now. Now, she is. Once the Huffpo reporters got her in their targets. Once they tracked her down and  went to her employer and raised questions, her termination due to the disruption is reasonably certain. I wonder if the union will bother to protect her?

And of course, she used her own picture, used her own town, and claimed to be influencing her students, which gives the reporters a reasonable pretext to out her.

But what if she’d offered no specifics? What if she hadn’t used her picture, hadn’t bragged about influencing her kids, about parents complaining?

I don’t like the teacher’s opinions, although some are far less shocking than the HuffPo folk like to think. It seems quite clear she wasn’t calling for Muslims to be eradicated. I am unfussed by her sarcastic dismissal of white privilege. I find retweeting KKK and the “JQ” comments to be beyond the pale (although apparently the latter is a term not unknown to at least one  US Democrat congressman. )

But no matter how repugnant, these and other views, such as accepting as fact the average intelligence levels of Nigerian and Swedish students, are not illegal.  They’re minority fringe political opinions in a country that says it protects free speech.

What if she just had a podcast and Twitter account as an teacher using a pseudonym, without any talk of infiltration, no use of a picture? I don’t see that stopping the HuffPo reporters once they’d gotten the tip. They clearly see this passage as damning:teachervotingtrump

Three in ten teachers voted for Trump.. Are journalists intending to hunt us all down? Or will that just be added fodder, after the teacher has been nailed for supporting immigration restriction or IQ science?

John Fensterwald is considerably more reasonable than any HuffPo reporter, yet he can’t conceive  of the possibility that a teacher is capable of separating his or her personal beliefs from classroom interactions. In that case what stops any reporter for hunting out teachers who express their opinions in political forums using a pseudonym?  If reporters can’t even imagine that a teacher can treat students decently despite his or her political opinions, then they’ll feel wholly justified in outing these teachers. Hell, it’s a sacred duty.

Don’t even dare suggest these reporters might be deliberately creating a chilling effect for free speech. That the reporters are deliberately creating a furor that forces the district to terminate the employment of a teacher purely for wrong opinions, regardless of the teacher’s professional behavior and teaching ability. Don’t suggest that perhaps  journalism should acknowledge bias, let anonymous people alone rather than enforcing their ideological preferences in the guise of reporting a story.

All that remains is to define racist, intolerant, the “wrong opinions”.

I find that….unnerving.

I guess teachers should know better than to express the wrong opinions.

For now, I’m mildly grateful that a foolish young woman provided a test case that suggests reporters will at least try to find some public interest before outing anyone.

Do I take this personally? Why do you ask?