Category Archives: general

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 Jay One was quiet, often withdrawn, fought depression constantly, and routinely considered suicide but always decided against it.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.

 

 


The Things I Don’t Write

For someone who struggles to write four essays a month, I do a lot of outside work for my blog. Much of it goes nowhere-I can’t package my thoughts, I can’t find the data I want, I get overwhelmed, or I realize that it’s all going back to the one big idea I have about education which is OH MY GOD YOU PEOPLE ARE DELUSIONAl.

For example, in the last two weeks, I’ve:

  • read three books on various educational topics
  • determined how many immigrants, legal and otherwise, live in each state
  • collected and analyzed the third and fifth grade test scores from Illinois for the years 2001-2006
  • Tried to figure out how to run a regression analysis that I could make sense of. Robert Verbruggen even helped, but I threw up my hands and said alas.

In previous years, I’ve spent weeks trying to figure out the precise development of our modern math curriculum, which I almost have nailed, but not quite. I’ve looked up the demographics of 50 cities on Money’s Best Places to Live list. I’ve spent hundreds of days almost writing things, and then abandoned the effort.

Sometimes I’ve gotten an idea at 11:30 pm and written all night because I know that if I stop, I’ll never get back to it. Other times I’ll write all day and then sudden stop, depressed, knowing it’s going nowhere.

So right now I have 98 drafts in my WordPress account. A lot of them are nearly blank, with a few sentences and a link. Some are considerably more.   And since I spent so much time this week researching, I had a thought–why not just talk about the work I don’t finish?

I couldn’t bring myself to publish the draft posts. That feels like too much of a commitment. These pieces aren’t ready. Instead, I created PDFs of snipped pages. That’s weird, I know. Stop looking at me like that!

Memory: January, 2014

I’d just written Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me, another piece I did a great deal of research for. When I finished it, I really had something more to say, so I promised a part 2.

But part 2 never gelled. I wanted to start by making people think about different things that memory means, and I still like the four anecdotes. But I instantly knew they were too long, too distracting. I left them in and kept plugging away, because sometimes I get focus and put things together in ways I hadn’t originally intended. Then, a second problem–the issues with memory are so directly related to curriculum, to skills vs. knowledge. So I felt I had to discuss those issues, and man, by that time it was just a mess. Each individual part is interesting, but it’s about four pieces.

Today, I’m much better at seeing that, at chunking off pieces and limiting my scope. But back then, I just gave up. So here it is: Memorize What, Exactly?

It’s a big mess, but I do like the four anecdotes, particularly the Game of Thrones one. I was disappointed in my failure to finish this, and for years, I ignored the published essay. But a year ago I revisited it and am really pleased. Certainly the research wasn’t a waste. I talk to my students about episodic versus semantic memory, echoic vs. iconic and they always enjoy it.

May, 2014: Common Core Curriculum?

Paul Bruno was one of my favorite bloggers, one of the only teachers I knew of who cared about policy. (Alas, he cared about policy so much he left teaching and is now working on a PhD, last I checked.) He wrote a piece on Common Core that triggered a longstanding beef I have with the curriculum folks–namely, their peculiar belief that standardized curriculum have any sort of meaning in  a world outside France, which apparently teaches exactly the same thing every day in every school. I can’t even imagine.

Anyway, I wrote one of many different attempts to state how insane it is to care about what textbook we use, at least at the high school level. We all customize. And at some point I went oh, lord, why bother? I have no evidence other than that of my own eyes. So I put it aside.

Common Core and Curriculum

July, 2014: Taking on Andrew Ferguson

The Weekly Standard has three of my favorite writers: Matt Labash, Andrew Ferguson, and Christopher Caldwell. (My tweet on this point neglected to mention Caldwell, but only because I thought he’d left the magazine.)

In 2014, Ferguson wrote this stunningly awesome piece on the Common Core lunacy, shredding what anyone familiar with the landscape would call the reform side of education policy. But then, in two paragraphs, he slimed the progressive side of thing–teachers, ed schools, unions, the like–without the slightest acknowledgement that he was now attacking the opponents of those who inflicted Common Core among us. Imagine reading an article ripping the NRA apart as “gun nuts” and then casually spending two paragraphs mocking the people who want to ban assault weapons–and calling them “gun nuts”, too. That’s what Ferguson did.

I spent a week trying to explain why this was crazy. But then I remembered that Republicans are just utterly ignorant of the educational field of play. Despite his brilliance, Ferguson wouldn’t even care about the distinction that rendered his article almost meaningless. Why spend time and energy criticizing one of my favorite writers who would just shrug me off as a stupid teacher?

Oh, No, Not Andy Ferguson!

May 2015: Why Isn’t the GOP Looking for Popular Education Policies?

The GOP and/or conservative inability to update their priors on education policy has plagued me for a few years now, so a year after I abandoned the Ferguson essay I tried again.

There’s a riot in Ferguson, in Baltimore, and Jonah Goldberg, Charles Krauthammer, and Kevin Williamson all basically blamed white female teachers for problems that, best I could see, involved white male cops and their black male victims. All of this would be solved by choice, they assured us.  Good lord, guys, the 90s are calling. They want their ed policy back. Mainstream conservative punditry and GOP politicians haven’t updated their rhetoric in 20 years. The actual reformers have. They’re in mourning about the utter trouncing they’ve taken both in the political and public arena.

But I get worn out by this, too. So one more essay bites the dust. Here’s the skeleton: Education Policy: Restricting the Range

In retrospect, I wonder if conservative blindness about education policy is linked to the general blindness they all had about Trump. That is, they had GOP voters locked up without any alternatives, so no need to cater. They never really understood how unpopular their ideas were with the GOP voters because no one was providing an alternative. Trump figured this out on immigration, trade, and political correctness. I await the day he grasps reality on education.

September 2016: Fixing Schools

This came about after my August road trip, when I was driving all over the Northwest listening to NPR or conservative radio, whatever reception allowed, and left or right, everyone was talking about our failing schools and what to do about them. So I wrote up my own plan: How to Fix a Failing High School

This one’s actually pretty good. I should get back to it.

October 2016: Popular Cities and their Demographics

I spent at least a week looking up demographics for that Money’s Best Places to Live 2016 piece because I was incredibly annoyed at the stated elimination criteria: we eliminated the 100 places with the lowest predicted job growth, the 200 communities with the most crime, and any place without a strong sense of ethnic diversity (more than 90% of one race). (emphasis mine). My mind can’t even conceive of 88% white being granted standing as a place with a “strong sense of ethnic diversity”.

It followed, naturally, that the selected cities would have very little mention of race, which made me curious. I knew, of course, that none of the cities would be majority black or Hispanic. But how many of the chosen were heavily Asian? Or even more interesting, to me, how many were tilting in that direction?

“What our town needs is more black people” said no Asian. Ever. Recent Asian immigrants have next to no use for African Americans, and value Hispanics only for their cheap labor. Hispanics and blacks don’t seem fond of each other; I think New York is the only city that’s managed to grow a Hispanic population while still maintaining the same levels of African Americans, and that may be due to African immigrants.

Few non-majority white diversity levels maintain for the long haul. Three exceptions I’ve noted–remember, all of this is anecdotal.

First,  70-30 Hispanic white high schools persist, perhaps because a good chunk of the Hispanics are multi-generation American and self-identify as white. But a school that’s 50% Asian or black  and the other half majority white will in a few years be 80% Asian or black.  Whites don’t hang around for blacks or Asians, in my experience.

Next, whites do tolerate genuine racial diversity well, probably because there are fewer cultural distortions that arise with both Asians and African Americans.  I can think of a number of 30-30-30-10 schools that hold on to those numbers for a decade or more.

Finally, Asians and Hispanics seem to co-exist without toppling over in one direction or the other.

The idea was that white folks are everyone’s second favorite race–if Asians, blacks, and Hispanics can’t have a majority school of their own race, then they want the majority to be white. At least, that’s what their behavior would suggest.

But then, I realized I could turn it upside down. Whites may be first choice of second favorite, but Hispanics do pretty well at not causing extinction-level flights by any race. So maybe they’re not second favorite, but including Hispanics might be key to maintaining diversity.

I can’t find any data on this, which is why I dropped the piece: Everybody’s Second Favorite.

April, 2017: Thoughts on Gifted

I thought Gifted was a sweet little movie that gave public schools more than their due.  I ended up using a piece of this in a later essay, but my son’s second grade teacher deserves her due:  Gifted and Public Education

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

So there’s a sampling. I left several pieces off because by golly, maybe I’ll write about them some day.

I’ve been writing now for six years, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the attention this blog has gotten, and the body of work it represents. But given I have a day job, I waste too much time and energy on pieces that don’t go anywhere. Perhaps I’m letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough, but that’s not an attribute I display in any other area of my life. This just seems to be how I make decisions about the best way to spend my time.


2016: Five Years On….and then Trump

Having done three posts in a week–no small task for this slow writer–I was going to abandon a retrospective post this year. My traffic is down, and while I’m not concerned, I thought eh, no reason to write about it.

But I’ve written a retrospective every year. I started this blog on January 1, 2012 as a New Year’s Resolution, and when the anniversy went by I instantly felt a nagging sense of guilt and duty–and so, a retrospection. But not really on my blog.

For the first thirty years of my  working life, I played mostly at the edges of occupations. A friend once introduced me as someone who does “obscure technical things” and that was when I worked at a large corporation. For many years, I made a decent living doing things few people cared about, or thought you could make a living at like, say, tutoring. Teaching is a mainstream, non-niche profession if ever there was one, but I was reminded that my opinions are still niche when I tried to write about my career.  Getting any publication interested in my experiences or observations was a total non-starter. I occasionally got nibbles, but the intersection between what I could write about in 750 words and what someone was interested in publishing was almost non-existent–and I gave up trying rather easily.

And so the blog, with this resolution. I could focus on what interested me, not what was fashionable, and build an audience writing on topics as they occurred to me, not on what was timely. I could maybe start getting my audience to look at education as I did, or find like-minded folks, or both. I achieved more success than I ever dreamed in the first year and every year since has been better.

Then this year, this year that so many in the media rather provincially declare a gruesome annus horribilis, because they’re a bunch of narcissistic puppies who demand we share their misery. But I had a simply splendid time and for reasons directly related to the biography above.

I love politics, but as a spectator sport. My life is as niche as my careers are (custodial divorced parent, first generation college graduate, low six figure income, white, English major working in technology OR teaching math–pick three and you still have trouble forming a club,  much less a political action committee. Heads of households who make too much for the Child Tax Credit: not a big interest group.)

So since I never expected politicians to speak to my interests, I became very interested in determining who politicians were talking to, which eventually led me to realize that politicians were weren’t talking to. Broadly, I realized that politicians were flatly ignoring an important interest group: working people making less than, say, mid-six figures. Note I said “interest group”. Many vote ideology, just as I do, despite their income level and best economic interests. Politicians seemed to be taking this for granted. They were running on issues largely ideological terms, both left and right. But they were ignoring areas that clearly affected and interested wide swathes of the electorate.

I came to this realization via immigration and education, two areas that I’ve been watching and reading about for thirty years. I was unaware of the depth of disaster done by China to manufacturing in this country, but it plays to the same failure to speak to the public’s interests.

So even before Sean Trende pointed it out, I was wondering why no one was making a play for white voters. This realization is one of the issues that led me to notice the great Steve Sailer in the early oughts. Like Steve, I’m not a white nationalist–in fact, I believe that implementing the “Sailer Strategy” would ultimately result in more blacks and Hispanics coming to the GOP. But white voters were a large enough group to make zeitgeist defiance a worthwhile risk. From there, it’s a short step to understanding that the GOP was just giving lip service to immigration and cultural issues because, in part, the conservative elites shared the same values as the media and liberal elites and had no plans to change anything.

Like many others, I’ve long believed elites were engaging in an effort to shut down opposition to these key values. The left and right both brought about political or economic doom for those who went against the grain–no donors to run for office,  shaming, job loss,  whatever was needed to achieve an apology or social and economic obliteration. That’s….not how our country is supposed to work. I have a close friend who said, years ago, that the only person who could break through would be a really rich person who didn’t give a damn about winning approval. I went further than that: I was certain that many in the country were deeply disgusted with the media’s enforcement of the canon, whether or not they called it The Cathedral, and were longing to see someone take them on–and that person, yes, would have to be really rich and already famous.

Enter Trump, but this isn’t about the election. It’s All About Me.

Instead of playing my usual role disengaged but passionate political observer, I was watching a neophyte politician with a genius for stagecraft promoting exactly the ideas that I thought were necessary to win disaffected white voters, using exactly the unapologetic, flagrant violation of media expectations I thought it would take. I had skin in this game. I wanted Trump to win the GOP nomination. I hoped he would win the presidency.

Not only was I fully engaged, but I had genuine understanding and insight into the forces driving the greatest and most shocking presidential campaign in our history. No longer niche, baby.

This mattered to no one but me. My Twitter engagement numbers exploded, but as mentioned, my blog traffic was down. Moreover, I’m not a predictor. I didn’t make any Ann Coulter or Scott Adams calls early on, didn’t go out there like Bill Mitchell and confidently call the election. I’m all about if-then. In fact, while I expected Trump, my hope for his victory was an if-then:

What I valued about the experience isn’t increased fame or respect (“strange new” or otherwise). I cherished the opportunity to really participate in an earthshaking event. When you’ve spent your life in niche issues, reading about politics but not caring terribly who wins or loses,  playing on the main stage, even as one member of a huge choir, is exhilarating.

I watched the whole thing happen. Unlike the vast majority of conventional thinkers that populate the airwaves and web, I understood most of the events. I understood Trump’s popularity. I understood why the media’s anger and outrage only helped him. I understood why he didn’t apologize, didn’t back down, struck hard when attacked. I understood why his voters wanted this.

Thanks to Twitter, I got to voice my disdain of the experts (who often answered, if only to block me), as well as my considerable outrage that cable TV, in particular, gave little time to Trump voters, while over-representing Never Trumpers. (My concern was not for equal time, but for the very real probability, early on, that the Never Trump folks would undo the primary results without giving the opposition a fair hearing. Fortunately, polls intervened.)

Best of all, I found kindred spirits, people who were watching the election with very similar insights and hopes. Ed Asante and David Pinsen were , like me, were  “ordinary” people who happened to support Trump (often referred to as “sane Trump Twitter supporters”), and I thoroughly enjoyed agreeing with them throughout the year.  Media folks Mickey Kaus, Michael Goodwin, and Mark Krikorian also viewed the election through the same lens of media skepticism and enthusiasm for the ideas of Trump, if not necessarily the imperfect vessel himself.

I don’t know if I can adequately convey how much sheer fun I had actively participating, being “on point”to others  unless you, too, are an introvert whose concerns, professional and personal, are usually shared by perhaps a dozen people. Maybe a thousand or so nataionwide. And suddenly, the single biggest issue in my interest area was shared by millions.

I even learned something. While I still believe immigration won Trump the primary, I’m leaning towards the notion that trade was essential to putting him over the top. If it’s true that many Obama voters in the Big 4 (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio) voted for Trump this time round, then that has to be trade, not immigration that moved them. However, Trump couldn’t (and can’t) back down on immigration, because he can’t let down the GOP base.

The campaign period was not without difficulties, but they were all the struggles of any Trump voter: reading your favorite writers express utter disdain for you, never mind Trump, getting blocked early on by conservative writers who simply couldn’t grasp what was happening to their beloved party, feeling outraged at the media’s utterly unhinged misrepresentations and open bias. Nothing to dim the joy I felt.

I don’t know if I’m going to feel more vested in political events going forward. I’m going to enjoy finding out.

So. That is my retrospective on the year.

Blogwise: traffic was down, but I still had more “big” pieces than 2014, which is still my highest traffic year. I’m down from 2015, when I had 11 pieces over 1500, this year I had only 5. The midlists were off–I had no essays with 2000 pageviews, and a ton of work that usually hit 1000 plus views didn’t make it that far. I’ve been looking at the quality and topic of the pieces, and don’t see a huge difference. Given the disconnect between my twitter growth and my blog page views fall-off, I’m thinking it might be a falloff in my teacher readers. I hope not.

But it might just be that haven’t been promoting my work as vigorously. I’ll try to do better.

I set my sights on 48 essays. Hahahahaha. I did make 37, one more than last year! I shall try again for 4 essays a month.

Essays written this year with over 1500 page views:

Title Date Views
Notes from a Trump Supporter: It’s the Immigration, Stupid! 01/31/2016 5,147
Defining the Alt Right 09/05/2016 3,499
Citizens, Not Americans 06/16/2016 3,264
The Many Failings of Value-Added Modeling 05/20/2016 1,968
The SAT is Corrupt: Reuters Version 03/29/2016 1,903

Pieces I think are quite good:

Happy Teacher Stories–I think you need to be a skeptical cynic to really deliver in this genre, so I’m born for it:

  • Citizens, Not Americans (above), is one of my favorite pieces ever; I was pleased to see it do well. I have a good friend who is a highly-esteemed professor of education, who was devastated by Trump’s win. When we go to lunch, he asks about Dwayne, Chuy, and Omar. And if you want to know how they felt about Trump’s win, check out Celebrating Trump in a Deep Blue Land.
  • Graduating My Geometry Class: I taught roughly 75% of my school’s class of 2016, including a group of freshmen four years ago in the first class of my (and their) first year.
  • A Clarifying Moment: a student comes back to visit. By the way, Hui brought me some insanely amazing baked goods for Christmas.

Classroom Action

Pedagogy

Teaching Issues–you know, these are all interesting aspects of teaching that most people don’t think about and got little traffic, so pass them on.

Education Policy:

Finally, one piece that may become more viewed in the Trump era: Arizona’s Experience and the Tale It Tells, about the Wall Street Journal’s report on Arizona’s illegal immigration law.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Teaching in the Off Hours

I recently got a text message from my nephew: “Thanks so much for believing in me because I never would have applied if you didn’t tell me I could.”

After a high school career of a 4.0 GPA with numerous AP courses, my nephew got the same excellent grade point average at the  local community college. As of last summer, he had no plans further than transfer to the local mediocre mid-level state uni, maybe take a year off and work with his dad.

I was unimpressed with these plans, just as I’d been unimpressed with his twin sister’s plans eighteen months earlier. Said twin had an identical high school and junior college resume, and a stated objective of getting an AA in nursing and then maybe going to an online university in a couple years to get a BA. I threw a small fit, and my sister, the twins’ mom, balanced my expert input with her husband’s reluctance to pay more than a pittance for college. My sister and husband are wealthy evangelicals, with a high school diploma and trade school AA between them, and aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense of paying a bunch of liberals to attempt to indoctrinate their children wouldn’t be worth it. I don’t entirely disagree, but as I told my sister, well-heeled parents  should buckle the hell down and pony up the funds for the top tier schools that accept their high achieving, hard working children.

After chastising my sister, I educated her and my niece about the opportunity cost of putting off a nursing BA. Last fall, my niece transferred to a 4-year school, accepted into its well-regarded nursing program. (Update spring 2018: she’ll be graduating in May.)

So when my nephew explained his lackadaisical thoughts for his next steps, I invited him up to my section of the state and  took him on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system. After he was utterly wowed by the campus, we stopped by the transfer admissions office, where a counselor informed the young man he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier.

My nephew went home, scheduled a meeting with his community college adviser. The text I mentioned above was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country–one several tiers higher than the one we visited. (Update: he’ll be graduating in December).

The cool thing about my work with the twins, to me, is that I was able to do my teacher thang for family. Usually, I only get to help students.

For example, Ysenia was one of my favorite students at my last school. Before I knew her, she’d a terrible first two years of school only to make one of those miracle turnarounds. Late in May of her senior year, she came to me for advice. She wasn’t a star student, just a good hard worker who’d done really well in the vocational program our school interacted with. Should she take out a loan to go to a for-profit trade school and get out quickly, to start working as a dental technician? Or should she go on a waiting list and wait a year or more for a much cheaper community college? Her family was poor (and, for the most part, here illegally); she wanted to get a salary and help out as soon as possible.

I didn’t know the answer, but spent time researching options and getting her in touch with the right people to advise her. She still hadn’t made up her mind by the time she graduated, and I left the school that year. I still wonder about her, and what the right decision would have been, in light of the Corinthian College meltdown. But what I do know, at least, is that one teen living in poverty who didn’t make the decision unthinkingly, unaware of the downsides, unaided.

Just last week, I met with Javier, who been a top student in both my algebra two and trig classes. His special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, had asked me to advise him because they were worried Javier was ignoring reality. Mr. Patel, a retired immigrant PhD, had been caring for Javier’s physical and academic needs since the eighth grade, when Javier’s muscular dystrophy put him in a wheelchair. Javier, who also has a 4.0 GPA and several AP courses to his credit, was making college plans without giving any thought to the physical care he’d need, or arranging for it.

I asked Javier who would take care of him while he was in college. How he would get to college. What support programs, if any, the colleges he was considering had to offer. The answers were all I don’t know, yeah, I need to look into that, and I don’t know. Was it possible, I asked, if he was avoiding the nitty gritty administrative details of his college life. He allowed it wasn’t just possible, but definite.

Like many kids with a severe physical disability, Javier faces life with a preternatural optimism that cranky pessimists like me find somewhat infuriating. This conversation had dimmed his usually cheery face. I felt so frickin’ mean.

But I told him that US law means he gets guaranteed services in high school that are a different matter once he graduates. (Ironically, he’d get the services for longer if he were cognitively incapable of high school level work.)

I gave him specific objectives: file an application for state services, contact the state rehabilitation services for an assessment, get a list of services offered by the local community college and his top state pick. I told him these objectives outweighed his high school homework, which he agreed was getting more focus than it needed out of a desire to avoid thinking about his future.

I heard from both his case manager and Mr. Patel; Javier is making calls, filling out forms, and getting his support in order.

I’m now running a school club that offers free 30 minute test prep after school two days a week, but for years, students have come by after school for practice sessions. I’ve coached kids, read application essays, advised on college selection, provided perspective on parent priorities (alliteration!), and basically operate my own small, free, consulting service to many students of all races and ethnicities who couldn’t otherwise afford it–even after graduation. There are kids in top colleges today who once never had a thought of attending, because I had the opportunity to work with them. There are kids with scholarships and grants thanks to respectable SAT scores achieved working off-the-clock, in my classroom, coming in weekly on their own time and mine. There are also kids who I’ve helped convince their parents that community college is their best plan, and saved themselves considerable debt, kids doing better in high school because I’ve convinced them they have a future, kids who will be going to trades with a high school diploma because I’ve convinced them that they can put in the time and make it pay off. There are kids in the military who entered as officers with more prospects and kids who took the time to work at math to get a better ASVAB score and more career options.

High school teachers all have gigabytes of memory archives of similar stories. This isn’t a Huggy Happy Teacher Tales Edition, though. I actually have a point, one related to my time in the tech halls of corporate America.

The best, happiest time in my tech life was my five years at a major financial company, a time that made an appearance in this autobiographical essay of a few years back, specifically this bit. I loved that job. I ran a whole bunch of applications for every aspect of change, problems, and service that IT (information technology) supported. None of my apps were business critical or even known to business, making my job laughably uninimportant.

I tried, my first year or so, to get into a more glamorous line of work supporting the line of business systems, either operations or apps, and came close a couple times. But ultimately, I stayed and offered apps that provided essential, timely data to enabled business critical staff to support equally important systems or justify their budget, or an increase in budget. Over time, I became a known quantity–almost, dare I say, respected. While at first my job was the butt of good-humored jokes (which I took in kind), I ultimately became a bit of an institution. When a department needed to improve their services, they’d always send a friendly naysayer who’d come in dramatically waving his arms (“I can’t believe I’m doing this”) and ask if I could build or modify an app.

For the last two years, I ran my own little empire. I took on my own projects, had my own little service request form. I’d build new reports, add fields to collect new data. I was part of the corporate ecosystem. Project managers pulled me into meetings and new initiatives so I could plan changes to their service apps as they changed their business apps.

And then I left. Never regretted it. I never got paid enough, and after my divorce, money and time at home became a premium. I became a consultant, worked less and got paid more for the next decade, before the dot-com crash.

It was never as much fun. I often got paid $15-20K for jobs that never happened; people just hired me to talk them through meetings then decided not to move forward. Or I put hours and hours in on a project that lost its funding even though I got paid nicely. This is quite normal in that line of work; it was only my longevity in my last job that allowed me to build a suite that got used and trusted–and then expanded. But consulting work is quantified and measured; it’s a budget item. Everything must get approved, politics and leadership change, plans change, you know how it is.

So I suddenly realized last week when talking to Javier that finally, I had my old job back. When I was a tutor, I could talk to the kids whose parents or well-meaning philanthropists paid for me, or for Kaplan classes. That was satisfying–much more satisfying than any tech job. But now, my salary covers all sorts of services that would never survive a budget or line item query: ad hoc test prep, counseling advice, adult supervision, sometimes just a place to sit and chat. Many kids just stop by and find me and sit, talking about their parents, their plans, their hopes, troubles at school. While I’m sure many teachers just listen, my support is usually a tad more active. I’ve been paid to give opinions most of my adult life. Why stop now?

Rick Hess talks a lot about cagebusting teachers, and how teachers can influence policy and practice. I like Rick Hess; he’s usually right in his assessments if often wrong in his prescriptions. But he’s a guy who left teaching after two years, frustrated at the bureaucracy, feeling he couldn’t make a difference. And as a policy wonk, Hess particularly pushes the dramatic, bold teacher-driven initiatives–leaving teaching to work at the district level, heading up a grant-funded after-school tutoring program.

Me, I like becoming part of the community–part of the eco-system. I don’t need to be an invasive species. I’m not interested in getting grants or extending my power. I want and have my own locus of control. I am….unconvinced….that charter schools as a whole will ever be able to build a sustaining ecosystem. They have way too much turnover. Most of them are obsessively interested in either a) good test scores or b) progressive ideology. Teachers are more constrained, in my view, by one of these goals—and then, turnover prevents slow growth. I could be wrong.

I’ve mentioned many times on Twitter that this has been a simply awful year for education reformers. So let me say again: you can never change teaching until you understand it, and understand the people who enter the profession long term.

So start by understanding that teaching goes on in the off hours. Many–I’d never say all–teachers find some way of offering extra value for their salary. They provide ad hoc services that would cost a small fortune if ever quantified and salaried and required, but because they’re just baked in, never cost an additional penny.

Think of it as your tax dollars at work.


2015: Turning a Corner. Maybe.

This chart may be complicated, but since these retrospectives mostly function as my diary, I’ll not worry about that.

blogpageviewcomparison

So here’s the last three years: Year 4 (blue, 2015), Year 3 (yellow, 2014), and Year 2(green, 2013). The last set of columns shows the cumulative traffic for each year. So Year 3 saw slightly higher traffic than Years 2 and 4. In 2015, I saw about 214K views compared to 215 in Year 3 and 223K in 2014, my high point.

If I wanted to, I could be bummed and think man, I’ve had no increase in growth over the past two years. But that’s why the jaggedy lines are there, to cheer me up. They remind me that if I want people to read me, I have to actually write. I put out a grand total of 5 posts in May, June, and July. Five posts! I only got two out in November, too.

Since I get a minimum of 200 page views just by actually posting, those three months cost me a lot of traffic. And since I’m not really in this for the overall traffic, it means I shouldn’t fuss about the lower overall number, and I won’t. Except to remind myself that I need to write more.

In 2014, I set myself the goal of writing 72 posts, and only managed 46. This year, I just managed 36. THIRTY SIX. That’s ridiculous.

Before I go onto the brighter side of last year, I want to write this down, to document my change in productivity. I wrote 108 pieces in my first year. Year 2, 2013, I wrote 61 essays. It’s like that math activity where the kids bounce balls and measure the height. My essay output is a decaying exponential function….Output year=.75 * Outputyear-1.

What the hell have I been doing with my time since? It’s not that I’m lazy, or that I did less research back then. Some of my best, most popular pieces were written in 2012, including 5 of the 18 pieces that saw over 1500 views just this year–or 6 of the top 20, if you prefer that method, but I don’t because it doesn’t allow like to like comparisons. Admittedly, many in that first year were short teaching stories I don’t do anymore (short? Me? Let’s all laugh.), but that just makes it more astonishing. I did some major research and throwaway posts. How?

I’m not out of ideas. I am more than occasionally frustrated by the utter nonsense I see bruited about confidently, by people paid huge heaps of money to be experts. But instead of writing about it, I get bogged down. That’s the problem. I try to do one big piece and cover everything. I need to create bite-sized chunks. The problem, alas, lies in my knowledge of the likelihood that I’d do the next chunk rather than move on to something else.

The problem isn’t the writing. I can knock out essays in relatively little time when I need to. I did On The Spring Valley High Incident in an evening (a very late evening, though), because I wanted my thoughts to be in the mix so timeliness was essential. I got the five political proposals and their bookends done in a month, a magnum opus of focus. (I suspect hocus pocus. Sorry.) The problem is in the organization and structuring, identifying the goals of the piece.

And yet, this studied consideration is often a strength. I spent nearly a month mulling the “explaining your answer” discussion and came up with the first “math zombie” piece, which contributed much more to the longer term discussion than whatever I would have written in the first week. Except, alas, I couldn’t get beyond thinking about it and so didn’t write anything else that month, killing the momentum I built up from August through October.

I read a P-J example in a Myers Briggs book somewhere. The president of a hobbyist club asked for a volunteer to put out a monthly newsletter. The volunteer who responded put out a charming newsletter, filled with fascinating and useful information, a real pleasure to read—but always put out on the third, rather than the first. In frustration, the president took it over herself, and put out a brief, functional newsletter right on time. Or the test question: “Do you think a meeting is successful when everyone leaves knowing what to do, or when every issue has been thoroughly explored?”

Which is not to say that everything done to task on time is always dry and boring. Mickey Kaus quotes someone else (I forget who) saying that he writes faster than anyone who writes better, and better than anyone who writes faster.

I will put more emphasis this year into improving my essay entry procedures, to stop putting off the challenging task of structuring a piece so that I can write it. Moreover, I was once able to write more than one piece at a time, putting out something simple and descriptive (say, on curriculum) while working on a larger piece. I need to get back to that.

I’m going to try to get back up to consistently four pieces a month. Wish me luck.

Now, on the bright side:

While 2014 saw the most consistent traffic, year 3 was also a relatively unpopular year. Of those 42 pieces, only 18 of them saw over 1000 views that year. My usual benchmark is 1500, and only eight made it over that mark.

This last year was much better. A full 24 of my paltry output of 36 pieces saw traffic over 1000 views; 11 made it over 1500. The most popular essay in 2014 was 2,800 views; this year my international SAT piece saw over 6,000 hits. My college remediation piece and the one on the gaokao got over 4,000.

These numbers are nowhere near my average essay popularity of 2013, the year of my all-time popular piece on Asians, as well as my Philip K. Dick piece on IQ, both of which went over 6,000–and that was just the start. I did some good work that year, and I’m pleased that 2015 was at least in the hunt.

So even though 2014, year 3, was the high point traffic wise, my new work received much more attention this year.

Some highlights:

  • My seven essay series on unmentionable education policies, most of which topped the 1500 mark–the rest just missed. I’m most proud that I gritted my teeth and followed through, devoting the entire month of August and not giving up.
  • What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao highlights my ability to go deep and make a whole bunch of information digestible by the casual viewer–and got lots of traffic for my troubles.
  • I did carry through on my vow to write more about math, showing different aspects of my teaching and writing. Illustrating Functions is a nice pedagogy piece, while functions vs. equations sparked some tremendous discussions throughout the math community. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Jake’s Guest Lecture and The Test that made them go Hmmmm is an accurate representation of my classroom discussions. The zombie sessions with my private student capture my strength as an explainer. I also contined to build my series on multiple answer math tests, and what I can learn from the student responses.
  • I was offered a chance to write an op-ed in a major media outlet about my college remediation policy! I had to turn it down! The downside of anonymity. Although really, is it so terrible a newspaper publish an anonymous op-ed? They use anonymous sources and expect us to believe the journalists have used their judgment. (cough). So why not op eds? But still, it was great to be asked.
  • My Grant Wiggins eulogy—and may I say to Grant, wherever his spirit is, you’re sorely missed.

The pieces that didn’t get as much attention, but should have:

On a personal note, my granddaughter has a new baby brother! My next generation is expanding. And while I like to beat myself up for not writing more, I didn’t waste the time. I had a wonderful year of travel that took me to amazingly beautiful sights, multiple, happy family get-togethers necessitating time spent preparing fabulous food, and oh, yes, I taught a grand class or two. It was a fun year.

So let’s see if I’ve turned the corner on the productivity slump for 2016. Wish me luck.

Below are the pieces that had over 1500 hits.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 10/08/13 6,948
The SAT is Corrupt. No One Wants to Know. 12/31/14 6,329
Homework and grades. 02/06/12 4,491
Ed Policy Proposal #1: Ban College Level Remediation 08/01/15 4,360
What You Probably Don’t Know About the Gaokao 01/18/15 4,325
On the Spring Valley High Incident 10/27/15 2,948
Five Education Policy Proposals for 2016 Presidential Politics 07/31/15 2,944
Evaluating the New PSAT: Math  04/16/15 2,866
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/19/12 2,717
Binomial Multiplication and Factoring Trinomials with The Rectangle 09/14/12 2,699
Education Policy Proposal #2: Stop Kneecapping High Schools 08/02/15 2,253
I Don’t Do Homework  02/15/15 1,799
Education Policy Proposal #3: Repeal IDEA 08/07/15 1,708
Teachers and Sick Leave: A Proposal 05/26/13 1,629
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/17/12 1,616
Education Policy Proposal #4: Restrict K-12 to Citizens Only 08/16/15 1,582
Kicking Off Triangles: What Method is This?  11/12/12 1,572
Functions vs. Equations: f(x) is y and more 05/24/15 1,514

Strange Happenings of the Everyday

A few weeks ago, the principal’s voice broke in on the loudspeaker.

“Okay, the lockdown drill begins now. Please proceed.”

I don’t know if all teachers do this, but even without the reminder of a school shooting, I periodically go through the “what-ifs” for my particular room. This one has two doors and really doesn’t offer a good line of fire to someone standing outside the room, since I sit my kids in groups. If a school shooter ever did show up and took it into his head to use my students as sitting ducks, I’d have some reaction time.

I’d told the kids of the drill the day before (as we were supposed to). This was the small class, and the boisterous contingent interrupted my explanation some 30 times a minute until I finally made them put their heads down and just listen. But they all went into motion as we’d discussed.

Kyle got ready behind the bookcase, waiting for me to open the left door and do one last check for any outside strays. As I shut the door and hit the left light off, he pushed the bookcase in front of the door. Elliot and Ahmed pushed some desks in front of the right door and, at my direction, switched the right light switch off. Kyle, Elliot, and Ahmed sat in the back middle, between the two doors. Ali sat behind the closet on the far back left, out of range. The other ten or so students moved to the front right of the room, creating a small barricade of desks and a huge table. I went back to the front left of the room, turned off my monitor (has a 2 minute sleeping time), and ducked behind the desk.

Within 30 seconds of the call, we were all sitting on the floor in the dark. I wondered briefly if I’d locked the door, but remembered that we were required to now. Our security team had been through training and learned that school shooters don’t usually try to break down doors, but rather try doors looking for open ones. So we have to lock our doors constantly, which is a drag because I have to stand by an open door as my students enter the room each block. Some people call this “creating a welcoming environment”. I call this a waste of five minutes.

“I have to pee.” Naturally, Mohammed. Giggles. “Can I get a pass?”

“No.”

“But I really have to pee. I’ll have to go on the floor.”

“Then you’ll clean it up. And I won’t give you any paper towels.”

“What would I use?”

“Well, your pants would already be wet. You could just be a Mohammed mop, swishing around on your butt to soak up the excess.”

“Or I could take them off.”

“You take off your pants in this room I’ll throw you outside and let the shooter get you.” No, I didn’t say this. I just thought it. Dre said it.

“Whaaaaat?” This shut Mohammed down, as he likes attention but not when the class is laughing at him.

“Okay, class, who starred in Die Hard?”

“Oh, I know! Bruce Willis!” Dylan, one of the quiets, spoke up.

“Who sang Bohemian Rhapsody?”

“QUEEN!”

“What’s the ratio for the sine function?”

“Oh, that stars the Hawk guy, from The Avengers!” Elliot.

“Opposite over hypotenuse,” from Amanda, another quiet one.

“How many Hunger Games movies are there?”

“Two!”

“No, four!”

“They aren’t out yet. It’s just two!”

“The third one is coming out.”

“Yeah, but it’s part one.”

Fortunately, they don’t ask me to adjudicate, since I had no idea how many Hunger Games movies there are. I thought they’d tell me. While they debated the issue, I wondered how my colleague was doing. His huge room has no windows and a heavy door, also windowless. His next door neighbor, with an interior adjoining door, teaches the severely autistic students who can’t tolerate sitting in the dark–or indeed, any sudden change. So when the drill went off, she just brings her students into his pre-calc class. Sudden change, just not sitting in the dark. Hope it went well.

Just then, my email bell went off and the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker.

“Students and teachers, a local school is experiencing a security alert and we are now in lockdown alert mode, although we are in no immediate danger. The lockdown drill will continue. Thanks for your continued response.”

Pause.

“The hell? I thought we were in lockdown already,” from Dre.

“Does this end the drill and we can turn on the lights?”

I turned my monitor back on and read the email, which largely restated the principal’s message. No parenthetical about how we were nesting a real lockdown inside a lockdown drill. Huh. I turned the monitor off again. “Real” lockdowns are issued during local security alerts, requiring us to keep all the kids in the room with a locked door.

“What’d the email say?”

“Nothing helpful. There’s probably a security alert somewhere–a bank robbery or power line down. So we’ll just keep going.”

“That’s weird.”

“I’m sitting on a dirty floor in a pitch black room with fifteen teenagers. Weird left the building five minutes ago, shaking its head at our wacko ways.”

“You funny.”

“Would you save us if the gunman came?” from Elliot.

“Yeah. I’d try to. Whatever door he tried to come in, I’d throw desks and white boards and books at him as long as I could, distracting him best I could, and hope you guys could escape out the other door.”

“But he might see us.”

“Yeah. In that case, we’d stay in. Either he stays out, and we’re relatively safe in here, or he comes in and you all leave.”

“Or maybe we could all attack him.”

“Except Mohammed, who’d be mopping up his pee.”

“No way, I’d throw pee at the shooter. Burn his eyes.”

Principal’s voice came on again. The lockdown was over. Elapsed time: 15 minutes. We turned on the lights, put the desks and bookshelves back, and went on with class.

We passed the drill with flying colors, which is not always the case. At one school I participated in a fire evacuation procedure that made Arnold’s first attempt in Kindergarten Cop seem a paragon of efficiency, and got us a stern talking to by the district. The “real” lockdown inside the drill had been called because of an armed robbery nearby. Sorry for the confusion, they said.

I was reading The Secret Lives of Teachers, an essay at Larry Cuban’s blog (by Steve Drummond), one in a series about teachers when they’re at home and the varied lives they lead. Somewhat implied is the contrast with the sameness of our jobs at school as the kids and the public perceives them: grade papers, make copies, hang out at the luxurious faculty lounge and, occasionally, teach. But then we all go home and really live the lives that fuel our passion, or something.

I’ve always thought our work was pretty interesting. Besides, every so often we get to sit in the dark with our kids and pretend a deranged adolescent is trying to kill us.


Why I Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I also blog for the reasons expressed here.


Well, no. (Short Takes and Snarks)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2013: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Am I a hedgehog or a fox?

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

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

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

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

Everything I write begins with that premise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traffic growth was huge.

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

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

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

Goals for next year:

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

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

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

 


Traffic

I am not competitive, but I like comparisons. How is my little corner of the blog universe doing? Why am I getting all this traffic? Are people actually reading me? Are all these clicks just random clicks from autobots of some sort? For most of October, I wrote only two posts, but two days before the end of the month it had been my biggest month (click–can’t figure out how to render full-size).

Stats115
That’s not impossible; my essays are often discovered after the fact. Mine is not a time dependent blog linking in news of the day. Still, I wonder.

So I figured out how to use Alexa, a little (click):

AlexaNov5

Alexa says that rankings are kind of sketchy until you’re under 100,000. Well. Diane Ravitch’s ranking is something like 161K. Education Excellence–the website, not the blog–is something like 220K. Diane is the only individual education blogger I could find with really high rankings; I didn’t include her on this because the scale eradicated all the other differences.

This is primarily a comparison of my site to those of education policy wonks and reporters, with the exception of Dan Meyer. Most individual teacher bloggers I looked up were well below my ranking; everyone I could think of was in the 2 million range or not ranked at all. I couldn’t look up individual edweek bloggers, so I have no idea how Sawchu, Hess, Gerwitz or Cody do, for example. Alexander Russo’s entire site (scholastic administrator) came in below a million—I didn’t include it because I’m not sure how his blog relates to everything else. Daniel Willingham’s site numbers are for everything, but I’m figuring his blog gets most of the traffic.

I can’t figure the whole thing out—it’s clear I improved a lot from a low point in May, but May was a huge month for me. June and July were big dropoffs. It’s also clear I ended “up”–if I’d done this a few weeks ago, I’d have been slightly below some of the bloggers I’m now above. Larry Cuban has been my own benchmark for a year; I used another site (Quantcast, I think?) and because we are both on wordpress comparisons were pretty easy. He’s usually right above me; it’s a fluke that right now I’m ranked slightly higher than he is.

However, I thought this was a helpful graphic. I’m not imagining things; Alexa thinks I’m doing pretty well in a relative sense. I mean, there’s really major bloggers who are in the same million rankings with me! And I do it for free. Kudos to Joanne Jacobs, who I’ve been reading for years and does it all on her own. Dan Meyer, also doing it all by himself, as a teacher no less, has great numbers, too.

Any ideas? Other sites to check out? Or do your own comparison.