Brought to You by the Country of Detroit or the City of Finland

We were discussing Syria. My students asked where Syria was located. I have put up two big maps in my room, one a world map that has nothing to do with anything in my specific curriculum, although it never hurts to point out England when describing the origins of the U.S. government. I showed them Syria. Then they wanted to know where Kenya was. I took the yardstick and pointed to Kenya. I told them Kenya was in Africa, showed them Africa.

These are high school students. They ought to know this stuff but they don’t. For one thing, no one is teaching geography now. They get a smattering of U.S. geography in elementary school, enough to identify states and capitols, a skill most have lost a few years later. The world remains a great mystery, though, excluded from consideration because there is zero testing bang for your buck in actually being able to find the Middle East on a map.

Eduhonesty: We can chalk this one up to the scramble for test points too, I think. Common Core Standards are mumbling about adding some geography to the still essentially nonexistent social studies standards, but right now the emphasis for testing and curricular purposes is falling on math, English, English and math. That cuts geography entirely out of the game in many districts that are desperate to raise points.

In a time of conspiracy theories

For those who are interested in the economy: Thanks to Bob Frey for the occasional quote:

“What can you say about a society that says that God is dead and Elvis is alive?” ~ Irv Kupcinet

Musing on conspiracy theories: We are furiously working on teaching critical thinking skills. The Common Core is all about critical thinking. Why? Maybe it’s because a number of students would nod agreement if I said something like, “And we need a strong missile-based defense system to defend ourselves against Martians or other extraterrestrial terrorists.”

My students are frequent movie-goers. Not all of them understand that the entertaining ending of Independence Day can only be considered absurd. One told me that World War Z was his favorite movie. I saw World War Z.* The movie has as much in common with the book as Will Smith’s “I Robot” had with Isaac Asimov’s original robot stories. The ending has everything to do with drama and almost nothing to do with science. O.K., I admit it’s a zombie movie. But the ending doesn’t even have the support of pseudoscience. As much as I love Brad Pitt, I’d never see that movie twice and it won’t come close to breaking my top ten list for the year.

Eduhonesty: We have well-documented studies showing that students read less than they used to. The reading they do may be random internet articles or badly misspelled text messages. They go to the movies regularly. No wonder they will support the idea that the moon landing was a hoax, while dismissing evolution by saying, “I didn’t come from monkeys.”

*The book’s great btw. Even if zombies aren’t your genre, the insights into human behavior on a micro and macro level make World War Z worth the read.

Bathroom passes and gender

So bathroom passes are now on an emergency basis. We are supposed to give them out only in cases of dire need. This hugely favors the girls. There’s nothing I can do when a girl suggests her time of the month may have arrived. She gets a pass. Pregnancy allows a student to leave the classroom whenever she feels the need. The boys have no equivalent. One lucky guy in one class can claim inhaler need — another immediate permission to exit — but the rest of them are alleging discrimination. A couple have claimed to be pregnant. We’re getting a few laughs out of “Martin’s” alleged pregnancy anyway.

I just demand documentation and move on with my lesson.

An observation on failure

“You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try.”
~ Beverly Sills

Why I worry about the Common Core and this relentless testing: Some of these kids HAVE given up and are no longer trying. You have to think there is some chance of success in order to try. Inappropriate tests make kids feel stupid and defeated.

Eduhonesty: Too much disappointment may doom our less resilient students. We have to test but we need to shift away from (or de-emphasize) tests we know students will effectively fail. If the kid doesn’t speak English yet, exempt him! Or give him a test related to his English-language learning instead. If the kid’s in special education due to learning difficulties, give him a simplified version of the test.

For adults out there: It’s a lot like regularly having job reviews that are testing you on skills you don’t and can’t possess. Then the Powers that Be make sure you know you failed, supposedly to encourage you to do better.

Hmmmm. The above observation makes me think of some Charlotte Danielson teaching reviews I know of.

Steps (or not) to success

The difference between stumbling blocks and stepping stones is how
you use them.”

~ Unknown

I am working in a poor, academically-disadvantaged school. But some students seize learning. These students will manage in college because they keep working no matter how many obstacles crop up in this battered, old wreck of a building with its lack of air conditioning and frequent staff turnover.

I wonder how to tap this drive. What motivates these students? It’s not just smarts. The halls of this school are filled with smart kids who are letting learning slip through their fingers, unconcerned with any future or even present goals.

Studies show that people who defer gratification to receive a larger reward later do better in life. But what makes that kid decide to wait 20 minutes to get two pieces of candy instead of one? Most importantly, can deferred gratification be taught somehow?

A totally different book musing

The high school algebra books that my students have to carry probably weigh around 5 pounds.

Heck, I’ll go weigh one.

Correction: My blue Algebra 2 book weighs 6.4 pounds. Algebra 1 is only slightly lighter. I carried three textbooks out to my car at the start of the year, my home set. These books together weigh 15 or 16 pounds or so.

If we want to know one reason why the homework is not getting done and the books are not getting home, or from home back to class, I’m sure I know part of the reason. Students don’t want to carry these books around. If their locker is near class, they’ll grab the book during a passing period. But if that locker is across the school, the book’s such a big pain that they often don’t bother. Teachers and administrators say, “you should carry your books with you during the day.” But we don’t allow them to have backpacks in the classroom for security reasons. That means they have to carry the books in their arms. My shoulders hurt after carrying three books downstairs and to my car (I’m a bit of a wimp.) so I can see their point of view.

These books are simply too heavy. If they must be sold as hardcover books so they will survive longer, they ought to be broken up into three or four books. Carrying home over 1,000 pages of algebra when you only need three is a recipe for unfinished homework. For that matter, what algebra class is going to finish over 1,000 pages of algebra in one school year?

Eduhonesty: These books are absurd.

I also wonder if these books do not represent another piece of subtle discrimination against our impoverished and urban school systems. Middle-class high schools rarely require uniforms. They frequently allow students to keep their backpacks during the day. Uniforms and backpack-rules are features of schools with gang problems and high levels of security. But in the absence of a backpack, there’s no good way to carry 20 pounds of books.

Musings on books

Given the 2003 study by L. M. Morrow, “Motivating lifelong voluntary reading,” that states that “students in classrooms with libraries read 50% more books than students in classrooms without them,” I wonder why school districts don’t focus more on purchasing diverse books for purposes of building up classroom libraries, especially highly visual books designed to benefit reading-challenged and bilingual students. Is this simply a matter of a shortage of funds or is it a matter of allocating resources according to curriculum requirements that do not include random, recreational literature? Is it a combination of these two considerations as well as other factors? The last two districts I worked in spent little money on classroom books.

Eduhonesty: I am afraid part of the problem is overly rigid curricula which do not allow time for activities that are not specifically planned. We have left little time for books that don’t directly address the test. In my last middle school position, we eliminated silent reading time because there was no “empirical proof” that silent reading provided educational value. We substituted a test preparation period instead.

In appreciation of C.’s patience

He just got here from another country. He speaks almost no English. I was forced to make him take the same English-language standardized test as everyone else with no translation or even extra time allowed. I was told extra time had to be asked for in advance. We checked on test day just to make sure there was no extra time. That time might have benefited a few students whose English is improving. For C., more time would have been irrelevant I suspect. If you can’t read the test, more time to be unable to read the test does not do a whole hell of a lot of good. I reassured C. that the test would not affect his actual grades, told him I was not allowed to translate for him due to the test rules and cut him loose. I want to give C. credit. He did his best. He was minimally disruptive, despite a few complaints about the kid behind him touching his chair. Spending a whole morning doing something you don’t understand for reasons that are unclear to you has be very tough and this is an energetic kid. I have to remember to sit down and thank him for his effort on Monday.

Eduhonesty: America is filled with new immigrants taking these school and state tests despite the fact that their total English-language vocabulary is often less than 1,000 words, sometimes much less. Testing these kids on materials that they can’t read is purest stupidity. We wallop the kid, adding to his or her sense of hopelessness, and learn nothing for our efforts.

Candy goes a long way

My advisory was pleasant today, despite the morning of testing. Not everyone reported the same. I gave them candy and played music. I figured they deserved the break. My last district had banned parties because they take away time from our relentless academic push. I thought that was a mistake (and I staged a couple of “cultural celebrations” which were remarkably like parties) because kids are not adults or robots. Especially in these unmotivated and undermotivated times, a little goodwill can go a long way. I can get kids to work for me who will not work for themselves. But I need leverage, rapport to fuel those efforts.

Eduhonesty: Push push push can push kids right out the door. The desperate fight for points needs to be leavened with earned rest — especially since many of America’s students don’t understand what they are working for. That test that administrators are panicking about? A number of their constituents don’t give a damn about any scores, having sensibly detached themselves from their personal test results as a direct consequence of never scoring well in the past. If we want to keep those students in the game, if we want them to give their best on the next of the endless tests, we need to reward them for their efforts along the way.

We will be testing all morning tomorrow

That will make two and one-half days that have been all testing so far. We are not even to the middle of September. We have two more iterations of this particular test to go, and who knows what other testing. MAP testing may or may not have been cancelled for the year — and MAP testing was the only standardized test that gave me useful, timely data.