Category Archives: general

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, he attended the local community college, where he also had a 4.0 GPA. 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. 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 with my sister, who 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 who aren’t so much anti-college as suspicious that the expense is worth it. I don’t disagree these days, but feel that well-heeled parents of high-achieving, hardworking kids who can afford the fees at a top tier public university should buckle the hell down and pony up.

So I educated my sister and niece on 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. I took my nephew on a field trip to the local mid-tier of the elite university system, including a stop by the transfer admissions office, where he learned he was a near shoo-in for the amazing place of learning he was standing in, and probably eligible for a top tier. His text to me was an announcement he’d been accepted to one of the best public universities in the country.

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

Ysenia had 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, at the request of his special ed case manager and his in-school aide, Mr Patel, 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
 

 


Most Popular Posts and Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy:

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

Pedagogy and Curriculum

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

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


On John Quincy Adams and His Photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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


Propaganda Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Awwww, that sucks.”

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

“NOOOOOO!”

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

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

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

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

Wonderfullifegraphic

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

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


Escaping Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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