Tag Archives: government

Posts That Shimmy & Shake: Paul Johnson & Leanne Shirtliffe

I have two favorite posts that you simply must read this weekend if you missed them the first time around. Or I won’t be your friend anymore. People like to relax. And there is nothing wrong with that, right?

Paul Johnson caught United States’ President Obama trying to relax in the UK this week. Paul Johnson’s outrageous Scenes from the Special Relationship features photographs of Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron chillaxing together while playing ping-pong. What? Two major world leaders playing indoor sports doesn’t sound interesting? Trust me, my friends. The Good Greatsby‘s dashing wit and uber-hilarious social and political commentary is worth a click. The comments are faboo, too!

Another piece of deliciousness comes from Leanne Shirtliffe aka: Ironic Mom. For those of you who do not know Leanne, let me introduce her to you briefly. Leanne is a teacher, a proud Canadian, and the mother of the devil’s spawn delightful twins who keep her notebooks filled with ideas for new blog posts. Well, this week, you get a double dose of our girl from Calgary. I challenge you not to laugh out loud when you read When Irony Ruins Your Day. And if your kids are outside relaxing this weekend, playing with their water guns, sipping their aqua-tinis . . . well, later on, just make sure the taps are turned off. Leanne would want you to.

That’s all for now. After you do your required reading, have a great weekend.

And try to relax.

What are you doing to relax this weekend?

The Giver: Is It A Happy Ending?

The magic in Lois Lowry’s The Giver occurs in Chapter 19 as the main character, the soon-to-be twelve-year-old, Jonas, realizes that everything is not as it seems in his seemingly idyllic community.

Up until Chapter 19, my l’il dude had been feeling really good about the community in which the characters lived their daily lives. He believed everyone lived in total equity. He loved how everything was shared communally, how everything was controlled by “the Elders,” right down to the vocations people were given, the people they were matched up to marry, and the children they received to raise. I think he was ready to up and move there.

Monkey didn’t seem to catch that individual identity had gone the way of 8-track cassette tapes, that no one had any emotions at all, and everyone was essentially just like everyone else.

In Chapter 19, Jonas makes a major discovery. The process of “release,” which is mentioned throughout the book, is nothing more than lethal injection. Needless to say, Jonas is horrified as he watches a video of his own father, a caregiver, performing the procedure on an otherwise healthy infant.

Monkey’s teacher asked the students to please keep the pace with fellow classmates for this book and asked them not to read ahead – something that was exceedingly difficult for my voracious reader.

I promised him there was a reason.

And then one day from the couch, I heard Monkey’s voice “Holy. Guacamole.”

I knew he had reached Chapter 19.

Sitting up, Monkey looked at me. “So…so…so… so… so if they kill people there must be other things that they do that don’t discuss, like who removes the bodies and what do they do with them? There must be tons of secret stuff that goes on.” He paused for a moment, “There are always helicopters flying overhead. I never thought about it. But maybe they are more about surveillance than transportation.”

He was putting things together, making connections. The synapses were firing.

“This book is creeping me out!” he exclaimed and then disappeared behind the couch again to continue reading.

A few nights after Monkey had finished reading The Giver, my son announced, at dinner, there had been a very lively discussion about the end of the book. Apparently, Mrs. English Teacher had asked her students the penultimate question: Do you think The Giver has a happy ending?

Best. Question. Ever.

Monkey reported that some of his peers thought the book had a very happy ending, that Jonas had successfully escaped from his community on his bicycle with Gabriel, a sick infant that his family had been caring for.  They justified their answers by saying they knew it was a happy ending because at the very end, Jonas was on a sled with Gabriel, and they were preparing to slide down into a cozy looking village where there were lights. Monkey said those students felt confident that Jonas and the baby were going to be able to survive in this new community called Elsewhere.

I held my breath.

Because that interpretation is soooooo not it.

Nervously, I asked my son if he agreed that The Giver had ended happily.

Monkey chewed his chicken about fifty times, then swallowed. Finally, he shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, adding that he thought that it was pretty much impossible for it to be a happy ending given that the vision Jonas had of his idyllic community was way too similar to a vision that the Giver had shown Jonas earlier in the book.

Monkey said, “Jonas was probably hallucinating and kinda holding onto one last bit of hope before he and the baby froze to death.”

Wow, if my Monkey was gruesome in his analysis, I didn’t really care.

He was spot on.

I asked my son if he had spoken up and stated his alternate interpretation of the ending and he said that he had. He said other students agreed with him, but a lot of people argued that Jonas had made it out and that he and the baby were going to be fine.

“Some people can’t face the truth,” said Monkey, sounding way too mature making me want him to go upstairs and re-read every book in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Whether or not all the kids agreed about the ending was not the issue for me. I was just happy that my son had turned the corner and gotten from the novel what I believe readers are supposed to get, the concept of dystopia. From the way he explained it, Monkey’s teacher facilitated an amazing discussion about culture and government, people and lies and truth, when people need to know things and when it might be in their best interest not to know things. I was so grateful that this discussion took place in a classroom with a responsible teacher there to facilitate things.

And while every teacher wants her students to have that epiphany about the literature, the reality is that folks will always have different interpretations of the ending of certain books and, frankly, that’s what makes those books delicious. In The Giver, one’s understanding is truly based on his intellectual and emotional willingness to accept that things are not always what they seem.

What makes The Giver a classic is that it is often the first piece of real literature that students read which allows them to look critically at our own government – which can be scary for kids. It forces them to ask uncomfortable questions: Has there ever been a time when our government has knowingly lied to us? Are there justifiable reasons for our leaders to withhold the whole truth?

As I washed the post-dinner dishes that night, I was happy that Monkey’s class had a great discussion and, from the way it was reported to me, none of the students were told how to think or what the “right answer” was. They were, instead, instructed to look to the literature to find the answers and then left to squirm in their own uncertainty, which can be a very good thing.

What’s got you squirming?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

I Could Not Celebrate: So Kill Me

I know that Osama bin Laden is dead.

I was awake the other night when the announcement was made.

I heard President Obama’s speech and I got this weird feeling that the speech had been written for years and, like a dark Mad Lib, there were just a few holes left for the particulars to be filled in: a few nouns, a few verbs.

How does this help?

Yesterday morning I woke up and I saw all kinds of disturbing images peppering the internet: People screaming at a Phillies game; folks gathered in the streets of Washington, DC and at Ground Zero dancing and singing; Photoshopped pictures of Osama’s head being held by Lady Liberty. Pithy signs.

I felt a little squirmy.

This past Sunday we gathered for YomHashoah, a day commemorating the six million Jews (and others) who were murdered in the Holocaust. Obviously, Osama bin Laden wasn’t a leader who shared our western worldview, I know that. I have a friend who said: “Celebration in the streets is really unimportant either way in the great scheme of things. There are a select few historical figures whose demise is truly wonderful news for the world, and this is one of them — a man whose very existence was a threat to civilization. Ding, dong, the mass-murderer is dead.”

I guess I’m uncomfortable celebrating another person’s murder.

Aren’t we taught not to be joyful when blood is shed?

Proverbs says:

“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice…” (24:17).

So what are we doing?

Really?

I wish that in his speech Obama had thought to caution Americans, to remind Americans that this is a time to act with discretion and with civility. Because the world is watching us. All this partying seems not to be very productive. More likely, it will simply add fuel to the fire. And it certainly will not do anything to end the “War on Terror” when many Americans look like college students on Spring Break: that is, students behaving badly.

I know that Al-Quaeda is responsible for the attacks on our own soil and so many other atrocities abroad. Still, all the screaming and celebration and nationalistic dogma is unsettling. I’ll leave you all with a quote from Mark Twain:

I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.

There is a difference about feeling quietly content about a desired result – the death of a person who openly declared war on another country and its people – and making a choice to bombard people with inflammatory images and mob scenes where groupthink is at play.

Let me be clear: I am not saying that Bin Laden was a good man. He was, in fact, and without a doubt a terrible, terrible person. He was like Hitler, okay. Evil. But the Torah teaches us that it is not right to celebrate when someone else is killed, even if they are our enemies. If you just celebrated Passover you should have read this in your Haggadah. As I understand it, this is why we take drops of wine out of our glasses as we read the ten plagues. This is why the angels were rebuked by G-d for celebrating too much as the Egyptians drowned when the Jews crossed the River and made it to the other side. We can be quietly pleased. We can be grateful. We can be respectful of all those who have died as a result of bin Laden’s horrible crimes against humanity. But “partying” when there have been murders committed, on any side, is just another evil.

For those of you who watch the dramatic series Dexter, you know that Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) is a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department who moonlights as a serial killer. All I know is that Dexter would have handled things a long time ago. Quietly. Discreetly. And he wouldn’t have been celebrating. There is a kind of sanctity to his bloody ritual.

To me, Monday was a little too much like Lord of the Flies.

I got lambasted on my Facebook page yesterday.

It’s okay. I can take it, and I know that others were a little uncomfortable with all the celebration today, too.

One last thing: Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violemce, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction… The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into a dark abyss of annihilation. -Strength To Love, 1963.

And this is just another of the zillions of reasons I love our county.

I can say my peace and have faith that no-one will haul me or my loved ones off in the morning to be tortured or raped or murdered.

Meanwhile how should teachers handle Osama bin Laden’s death? What kinds of statements would you want teachers to make or not make to their students?

Guest Post by Clay Morgan: Lessons From a Pop Teacher & a Few Zombies

Today’s guest blogger is Clay Morgan from EduClaytion.com. Besides being one of my very first cyber-friends in the bloggersphere, Clay is an amazing educator. He is a revolutionary. You know that game six-degrees of separation? Well, in the world of bloggers, it seems nearly everyone knows Clay. He gets around. Today he is sharing his thoughts about using Pop Culture in the classroom.

As a teacher, I’m often amazed at what pools of knowledge I must dive into in order to effectively communicate with my students.

Just the other day I was giving a lecture on Europe after World War II. Many of the students were fading and staring blankly in my general direction. I was about to explain one of the most important parts of the entire course and needed them alert and free of mental paralysis.

Good thing I know so much about zombies.

I’m not referring to the students although any teacher doing the job for a while knows what it’s like to stand before a room of pupils imitating the undead. I’m talking about the zombies of culture, specifically movies.

See, I needed to explain the crisis of Germany after Hitler’s death in 1945. Nations like America and England recognized the importance of a strong German nation, strength that was critical to European recovery. At the same time, someone had to keep an eye on nasty Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union.

But those pesky Russians and their nervous cohorts in France were sick of Germany. They despised the nation that had brought war on them twice in a quarter century. Tens of millions had already been killed. They thought letting those Germans come back again was just asking for global destruction. Plenty of folks wanted Germany turned into a parking lot surrounded by fields.

History as Yawnsville

So I’m teaching this anti-German plan named for U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. Students must understand these events to get a grasp of the Cold War, our centerpiece for the rest of the semester. They didn’t seem too enthused. Then I remembered Zombieland.

Most of my students haven’t seen the greatest films ever made about WWII such as Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, or Life is Beautiful.

But they have seen Zombieland, a 2009 flick in which Jesse Eisenberg (the guy from Social Network) plays Columbus—a college student trying to survive in a zombie dominated world.

Columbus lives by about 30 rules, the most famous of which is probably #4: Double tap. You might not know what that means, but my college students do. It means shoot twice when the walking dead want you to join them. It means be certain that the monster you just defeated doesn’t get back up.

History that Pops

Do you see where I’m going with this?

My class was alive and kicking when I told them that the Morgenthau Plan was the 20th century attempt to double tap. Germany was the zombie. This analogy led to a great discussion on world power and how we should handle those responsible for human atrocities. My students will never forget the stakes of the post-war world with such a powerful visualization. Based on past experience, I have a feeling I’ll get an email in a couple years thanking me for a good class and joking about double tap.

Some education types say that movie references have no place in an academic setting. My question to them would be whether or not they want to connect with students or not. The past couple generations have been saturated in culture. It’s long been in our heads and now it’s in the palm of our hands.

Students live and breathe this stuff, so why not make it work for us? The best way to teach someone what they do not understand is by using what they do. You wouldn’t walk into a Chinese classroom and expect the students to understand your English. Same thing goes in Western classrooms. If you fail to speak their language, you will not be heard.

Applications for using pop culture in educational settings are only limited by our creativity. That’s why a bunch of us started PopTeacher.com, to pool together the best ideas out there so we’ll have a nice reservoir of ideas to dive into.

I expected opposition and ignorance from naysayers. I was even prepared to double tap their arguments. I did not expect such a fabulous response so quickly.

Clay Morgan, Superstar

PopTeacher.com has already been featured in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and I’m now being asked to speak at collegiate conferences about these ideas. That’s pretty funny because my pedagogical strategy consists of a) showing up for work and b) being myself.

The best response has come from dozens of teachers—grade school to higher ed—who are eager to share their experiences and ideas. More email comes in every week.

Teaching as a career is a grind that can wear us down. Then we risk getting tired and disconnecting. We lose effectiveness when that happens. Why not have some fun and dive into our bountiful culture? You never know where the interests of others will lead a discussion. You might even find a way to bring a group to life by talking about the undead.

So what do you think? Do you like the way Clay thinks? Would you want to be a student in his class? Have you ever been in a class where the teacher used Popular Culture references? What do you remember? Or do you think this kind of approach dumbs down our educational system?

Clay will field your comments today.

Does Size Matter?

image from steve garfield @ flickr.com

When I taught at the Upper School at Metairie Park Country Day School in Louisiana in the 1990’s, I had it so good, I didn’t even know how good I had it. Anything I ever asked for, I received. If I needed a stapler, I got one. Tape dispenser? Of course. I had pencils and pens and a clock for my room. Hell, I even wrastled up a rug!

The largest class I ever taught at MPCDS had 18 students in it. Eighteen! I was able to individualize assignments for accelerated students and there was time during free periods and after school to help students who needed help. I also really got to know my students on a personal level. In fact, I am still in touch with many of them twenty years later.

The low student/teacher ratio allowed us not only to move through the material quickly, it allowed us to go deep. We had time to do creative projects: enhance the curriculum with art and music. Students had time to work on their writing and compose multiple drafts of a single essay. They worked very hard, and – with 18 students – it was obvious when they hadn’t read or prepared as discussion would simply stop. With 18 students in a classroom, by and large, everyone participated.

When I moved to New York State and started teaching at a local community college, the maximum class size for an English Composition 101 class was set at 24. Last semester, I was surprised to see 27 student names on my roster.

Now that may not seem like a big deal.

You might wonder, “What impact could an extra 3 students possibly have in the classroom climate and culture?”

Let’s just say for each student a teacher gains, that’s another paper to grade, another student who needs makeup work if he or she is absent, another e-mail to answer. If a teacher has 5 sections, adding 3 extra students per section is 15 additional students, which – in my old private school – was an actual class section! And those numbers can get overwhelming very quickly.

I find having more students makes it harder just to remember people’s names. There are more opportunities for students to “hide” in the back row and zone out. In a typical class period, not everyone speaks. I have had to change my methods to make sure that everyone is focused on my material, that they are even awake! Because my sections meet every other day, there are fewer opportunities for discussion. I don’t always have as great a grasp on who has written which paper. As students withdraw from my courses, I feel an embarrassing sense of relief. And let me be clear, this relief is not because I don’t like the students. That is not it at all. The reality is that it leaves me more space in my brain to focus on the students who remain, to help the people who get their work done and who want to be there to succeed.

In a recent article published in Education News, Sam Dillon wrote:

Over the past two years, California, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Utah and Wisconsin have loosened legal restrictions on class size. And Idaho and Texas are debating whether to fit more students in classrooms.

Los Angeles has increased the average size of its ninth-grade English and math classes to 34 from 20. Eleventh and 12th-grade classes in those two subjects have risen, on average, to 43 students.

“Because many states are facing serious budget gaps, we’ll see more increases this fall,” said Marguerite Roza, a University of Washington professor who has studied the recession’s impact on schools.

The increases are reversing a trend toward smaller classes that stretches back decades. Since the 1980s, teachers and many other educators have embraced research finding that smaller classes foster higher achievement.

image from photosteve @ flickr.com

Recently, Andrew Cuomo  made some drastic cuts to New York States Education Budget that has administrators quietly wringing their hands.

And for the first time in my life, I plan to attend a Budget meeting for my local school district, set for March 14, 2011. Why? It is my understanding that in my district no one attends these meetings, and I’d like to understand the process by which these cuts will be made. What exactly will be cut?

Music and art are generally considered extras. I will try to make sure that doesn’t happen. But if saving those courses means my son’s core class sizes will need to balloon to 34 students… well, that’s a tough choice.

There are about to be drastic cuts in every public school across the country, and if you care about the future of your children’s education, I implore you to make the time to attend these Board meetings about the budget. Everyone always complains after the cuts have been made. Be part of the process and try to help the Board with their decision-making. Or at least bear witness to the process.

It really is our civic duty.

Think of it like voting. You know how people always say if you don’t vote in the Presidential elections, you have absolutely no right to complain because you opted out of the process. Well, I agree. And as the band Rush so aptly sang back in the 1980’s: “If you choose not to choose, you still have made a choice.”

I am planning to go to this budget meeting to find out what we, the general public, might be able to do to prevent these cuts. I want to ask the Board how much money we might need to raise to save certain programs. Because maybe as a community, we can raise some money.

Maybe I am optimistic.

Maybe I am delusional.

Hell, I’ve been called worse.

But I do believe that I live in the kind of school district where parents are willing to help.

And I can be the girl who asks.

In the past, I’ve found chocolate and wine can get people to do almost anything.

(But seriously, anyone wanna come with? I’m a little nervous… more about getting lost on the way to the meeting than anything else.)

Do you think class size matters when it comes to education?

Lessons From Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart

Image via Wikipedia

I’m sorry, I friggin’ love Jon Stewart. He does snarky right.

Instead of ending tax cuts to the top two percent, America – apparently – needs to get money from teachers.

Because teachers are incredibly rich.

I know I am.

(Click on the link below to enjoy a few minutes of quality comedy.)

Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Explores Problems in Tax Reform & Education

Feel free to laugh out loud.

Then tell me what made you laugh.

Or cry.

Lessons on Slowing Down

Nearly every parent I know has wrestled with deciding how important it is to have their children take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Parents want their children to have all the opportunities they can get so that they can succeed and be happy in life. (If only happiness could be achieved that easily!) Meanwhile, kids feel the pressure and report feeling exhausted, unhappy and anxious.

People often ask me, as a person who has spent nearly twenty years in the classroom, what I think about AP classes. Should their child take this AP or that AP. And they are often surprised when I respond with a question: “Does your child love French? Because if he doesn’t love it, why would you want him to take the AP which is going to require so much of his time and energy?”

What people (and by people, I mean parents) do not seem to understand is that the demand of an AP class is designed to be similar to a 100-level college class. The difference is that, in high school, that class will likely meet every day – while in college, there is usually an “off-day” where students have time to read and generally better manage coursework.

In RACE TO NOWHERE, filmmakers Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon speak to educators, parents, tweens, and teens about the pressures they face academically and emotionally, and the physical toll these expectations exact. What results is a picture of a fractured educational system that pushes kids to become successful — but at a cost.

During the Post World War II Advanced Placement pilot program, AP courses were designed to draw the top students into a small class of other students who LOVED the material. In 1952, AP classes were designed to be small so teachers could move at an accelerated pace because of the students’ voracious love of the subject matter. The idea was excellent.

Of course, what has happened over time, is that parents have demanded that their children be allowed entry into AP classes because, these days, there is a warped race to create the best college application. (Believe me, parents want those AP’s on their college applications.) So AP class sizes have ballooned, and there is less one-on-one with teachers. And kids who had no business being in an AP in the first place struggle. Because AP classes are hard. Really hard. When the idea was created, I don’t think anyone from the Ford Foundation would have recommended that any one student take five AP courses.

I always tell parents that AP courses are not the be all/end all. When I say this, they look at me like I have five heads. Then they ignore me completely. (I’m telling you, parents don’t like to hear this.)

I truly believe that the point of education is for children to love to learn. When students are getting sick, when they arrive at college unprepared and unmotivated, there is a problem. Students who feel too much pressure to perform, burn out. Feeling the pressure to achieve, students self-medicate, turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape, and sometimes cheat to complete the ever mounting pile of assignments which need to finished – now! From my vantage point, I see kids who are over-scheduled and overtired.

School should be the place where our teens learn about balance. Schools that allow students to skip lunch periods so they can take five Advanced Placement courses have bought into the hype (or caved into parental pressure). And that is sad. Lunch should not be optional. Humans need to stop and eat healthy food (not a bag of chips) to provide their bodies with energy. I don’t care how many times a parent calls and says, “I want my son to take 5 APs.” Administrators need to grow a set and say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t think that is beneficial to your child.” Students need help learning how to make healthy choices. Sometimes that means they need the school to shield them from demanding parents. And anyway, kids don’t have to be enrolled in a course to take AP tests: a really self-motivated kid who loves to learn should be able to access all the material he needs to prepare him/herself for any AP test.

For the love of Pete, I’m a Tiger Momma. I believe our children need to pick the things they do and do them well. But we need to help guide them to understand they cannot do everything. Our kids need to study hard – absolutely – but they also need to eat. They need to be able to go to the bathroom without worrying they are missing crucial information. And they need to be allowed to tune school out for a while so they can exercise and nurture friendships. They should not be running from this practice to that recital just be sitting on their asses in front of their computers every night.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to take regular English, AP English, or  Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA English). At the time, SUPA was a college curriculum class taught by our own high school instructors who had been trained to teach the course. I worked my butt off in that class, and I did not always excel. I remember getting one paper back with a big fat “D” on it. (Maybe it was a “C,” but in my mind, I remember it as a “D.”) I also remember taking that paper to the library and weeping next to a huge potted plant. I had worked so hard on that paper. And English was the subject in which I was supposed to excel. I did not understand how I could have failed. My ego was battered, but my love for the subject matter made me want to figure things out. I busted my hump in that class. It was truly an amazing experience, and I believe it was the course that best prepared me for college.

When I think back on it, I cannot imagine how grueling it must put in that kind of work into every subject, every day. To me, taking all those APs seems utterly unnecessary. No one has ever asked me: “How many AP courses did you take in high school?” (Well, one pretentious fuck did, but it was after he had polished off an entire bottle of red wine himself.) In fact, many colleges don’t even accept AP credit anymore. It’s true.

So, my recommendation is this: If you’ve got a kid who is interested in some accelerated academic experience, have him/her enroll in a summer course at a real college. That looks good on college applications, too. And the credit might actually transfer somewhere, and it might help transition him or her to the realities of actual college life. Help your child live a balanced life. Have your kid go to summer camp, get a job, plant a garden, try something he/she has never done before. Not for the college application, just because.

In the United States, success has long meant making a lot of money. And the way to do this has traditionally meant attending a great college. But we need to redefine success for children. We have gotten caught up in this “race to nowhere,” as described by Abeles and Congdon. We need to teach our kids to do what they love – not pressure them into taking five AP classes because it will make them look good on paper.

In 2010, over 1.8 million students took over 3.2 million AP tests at about $87 bucks a pop. I’m no mathematician, but even I can tell that some people are taking more than one test. And I’d like to know five years down the line, where those kids are, and if they feel all that pain was worth it.

Check out this clip from the film below. Tell me you don’t want to see it!

NYS Grads Ain’t Reddy For College

graduation caps

Image by j.o.h.n. walker via Flickr

In case you have not already seen/heard this by now, I am reposting Sharon Otterman’s article: Most New York Graduates Are Not College Ready – NYTimes.com in its entirety. If you like, you can click on the link above and read it in its original format. Frankly, this is the kind of news story that makes me weep inside.

If you prefer, you can read my repost below and catch all my snarky comments in blue. Red indicates sheer horror. (This is why I cannot loan out my books, people.)

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

February 7, 2011

Most New York Students Are Not College-Ready

By SHARON OTTERMAN

New York State education officials released a new set of graduation statistics on Monday that show less than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers. The new statistics, part of a push to realign state standards with college performance, show that only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009, not counting special-education students. That is well under half the current graduation rate of 64 percent, a number often promoted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as evidence that his education policies are working.

But New York City is still doing better than the state’s other large urban districts. In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, less than 17 percent of students met the proposed standards, including just 5 percent in Rochester.

The Board of Regents, which sets the state’s education policies, met on Monday to begin discussing what to do with this data, and will most likely issue a decision in March. One option is to make schools and districts place an asterisk next to the current graduation rate, or have them report both the current graduation rate and the college ready rate, said Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the Board of Regents.

The move parallels a decision by the Regents last year to make standardized tests for third through eighth graders more difficult to pass, saying that the old passing rates did not correlate to high school success. (Oh good, let’s make new, harder tests. That should fix everything.What else is going to have to fall out of the curriculum so that our kids can pass these silly tests?)

State and city education officials have known for years that graduating from a public high school does not indicate that a student is ready for college, and have been slowly moving to raise standards. But the political will to acknowledge openly the chasm between graduation requirements and college or job needs is new, Dr. Tisch; David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner; and John King, the deputy state education commissioner, said in interviews last week.

With President Obama making college readiness and international competitiveness a top national goal, and federal and philanthropic money pouring into finding ways to raise national education standards, that equation is changing, they said. “It is a national crisis,” Dr. Steiner said.

Statewide, 77 percent of students graduate from high school. Currently, a student needs to score a 65 on four of the state’s five required Regents exams to graduate, and beginning next year, they will need a 65 on all five.

Using data collected by state and community colleges, testing experts on a state committee determined last year that a 75 on the English Regents and a 80 on the math Regents roughly predicted that students would get at least a C in a college-level course in the same subject. Scores below that meant students had to often take remediation classes before they could do college-level work. Only 41 percent of New York State graduates in 2009 achieved those scores. (No duh! This is what I have been seeing for years: Baffled community college students claiming to be “A students” in high school who have absolutely no idea how to read for meaning or write in complete sentences. No wonder they start freaking out when they suddenly get C’s on their essays!)

In the wealthier districts across the state, the news is better: 72 percent of students in “low need” districts are graduating ready for college or careers. (You get that, right? Over 25% of students in more affluent suburbs aren’t pulling their weight when they get to college.) But even that is well under the 95 percent of students in those districts who are now graduating. (We live in one of these “low need districts.” I have tutored students in grades 6-12 who still have not mastered basic comma rules. I have had to teach them commas, semi-colons and colons. I’ve thrown in a few mini-lesson on thesis statements for good measure. But that’s about all I can do. But seriously, the schools can’t do it all. I know they can’t. Why? Because public schools are so busy being mandated to prepare students for standardized tests that they simply do not have enough time to make sure that students have mastered certain things, so they have had to let some things go. I think folks at The Board of Regents must believe that kids pick up things like grammar by osmosis.)

The data also cast new doubt on the ability of charter schools to outperform their traditional school peers. Statewide, only 10 percent of students at charters graduated in 2009 at college-ready standards, though 49 percent received diplomas. The state has not yet calculated results for every district and school. (So charter school are broken, too? What a surprise!)

State officials have also begun a series of meetings in local districts to introduce this data and ask local officials what they want to do about it. A common reaction, Dr. Tisch said, is shock and hesitancy. There are fears of plummeting real estate values, as well as disagreement, particularly in rural areas, with the idea that all students need to be prepared for college.

Jean-Claude Brizard, the schools superintendent in Rochester for the past three years, said that while he was surprised by the data, he welcomed the effort to move the conversation away from simply graduating. In an effort to improve, Rochester has closed half its high schools and opened new schools, including its first high school that allows students to earn credits at several local colleges. 

In New York City, roughly 75 percent of public high school students who enroll in community colleges need to take remedial math or English courses before they can begin college-level work. (I would argue the same is true here in Rochester. Many of my incoming first year community college students are not anywhere ready for regular Comp-101. They need a more basic English class to prepare them for Comp-101. That is what my community college is grappling with now. This semester faculty in the English Department started developing a new diagnostic tool as the old AccuPlacer was proving ineffectual. Not everyone had to take it and part-time students slipped through the cracks.) City education officials said the 23 percent college-ready rate was not a fair measure of how the city would do if graduation requirements were raised to a higher standard, because students would work harder to meet that new bar.

While it has not gone so far as to calculate an alternative to graduation rates, the city has already begun tracking how each high school’s students fare in college, and in 2012 it will begin holding principals accountable for it. “Last year, well before the state announced this plan, we told schools we would begin including robust college readiness metrics in school progress reports,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer.

One thing that is helping districts get over their shock, Dr. Tisch said, is the opening of a discussion about how to improve things. On their tour, which has visited Albany, Buffalo and Rochester and will visit New York City, Westchester County and Long Island in the coming weeks, officials are presenting a menu of options. (Oooh, a menu! Well, I’ll take one helping of smaller class sizes: Eighteen students would be lovely. I’d like two helpings of students with parents who value and support education. I’d like a pile of teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject matter. I’d like intelligent principals who support their teachers and support staff. I’d like a double-helping of students who accept responsibility for their actions. I’d like to see Honor Courts comprised of the most ethical students, as nominated by teachers and peers. I’d like all students to sign an contract stating that they understand no one has the right to interfere with anyone else’s right to learn – because if they do, they will be expelled. And, um, I don’t see this on the menu but if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to request students who remember to bring the necessary materials to class. Every day. Or at least just a pen.)

One idea is to simply report a college-ready graduation rate as an aspirational standard and leave it at that. (I have no idea what this means. So a principal could report: “We aspire to have 35% of our students graduate by 2015. That is insane! That is called The Anti-Aspirational Initiative.) Another is to impose tougher graduation standards — like requiring that all students in the state take four years of math and science, or permanently raising the passing score on high school Regents exams to 75 in English and 80 in math. (Be still my heart! Could it be that The Board of Regents is starting to realize a 65% is not really a passing grade. It’s a friggin’ low D! Way to go, Board of Regents. For the love of Pete, it’s only taken thirteen years for you to realize that teaching to a low standard is only bound to enforce that standard. Oy!)

But they are also discussing increased flexibility for districts and students, so that they can spend more time on the subjects they are interested in. For example, students might be permitted to choose at least one of the Regents exams they must pass to graduate — currently all students have to pass math, English, science, global history and American history. Students might be able to substitute foreign language, economics or art for one of the five. Or students could replace one Regents with a vocational skills test in an area like carpentry or plumbing. (Non-snarky response: I actually love this idea. Traditional education is not for everyone, and we need to value our vocational students more. Honestly, those middle and high school years are the only times in life where we expect people to be universally excellent at everything from foreign language to math to science to social studies to English to gym to sewing and cooking! People aren’t made that way. It would be great if we could allow students to specialize in their areas of interest. I mean, you could have asked me if 5th grade if I was going to be a nuclear scientist and I would have told you, “Hells bells, no!” and then I would not have had to suffer through calculus. I can honestly tell you that in my career, I have never used calculus. Ever.

Alternatively, the state could grant flexibility to districts to give credits based not on how many hours students sit in a classroom — currently 54 hours per semester per credit — but on whether students show competency, based on examination or online course work. (Really, so a student who can demonstrate that he already knows his shit might not have to sit through a required class. Just because the State says he has to take it? Now that’s somethin’!)

To press their case, state officials said they hoped to get political support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The political environment was particularly challenging now, because the state will roll out a new system in July to evaluate teachers that has the potential of strong opposition from teachers’ unions. (Oh great. Let’s blame the teachers who can’t “fix” their students in one calendar year, and if their numbers aren’t high enough, let’s put them on probation (or possibly fire them), ‘cuz teaching is not stressful enough without wondering if you are going to have a job the following September. And everyone knows that when students fail, it’s definitely the teachers’ fault.)

“The obligation at the end of the day,” Dr. Tisch added, ” is to make sure that when youngsters graduate, that graduation means something from New York State.” (I think Dr. Tisch meant to say: The obligation is to make sure that graduation from New York State means they have a set of skills which will enable them to succeed in college and in life. Because right now, that is just not the case.)

The Giver: Thirteen Years Later

The Giver

Image via Wikipedia

It’s happening.

My son is reading a piece of literature that I used to teach.

He is reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the story of a young boy named Jonas living in a highly controlled community some time in the future. The novel fits into a larger genre of cautionary tales called “dystopian literature.” If a utopia is a society in which everything is perfect, a dystopia is the opposite: everything has gone wrong. The novel explores Jonas’s encounter with memories of “the past,” a time when people still had the freedom of choice.

When I first taught The Giver, the book had just come out, and it was controversial. In fact, it was banned in many schools for its disturbing content and ambiguous ending, but I taught The Giver to 9th graders in an independent school, so I had a lot of freedom. The Giver explores an age-old debate: Should government let people have freedom or seek to “protect them”? Should we value individuality or the greater good? Are emotional highs and lows better than the steady middle ground?

Fast forward. My son is now in 6th grade. Oh, he can handle the language and the concepts just fine. He is a voracious reader, and he seems to understand the book thus far. I have struggled over the last weeks because, really, I want him to discover the book himself. I want him to be stunned when he learns that the main character’s father has lied to him, that it is his father’s job to kill babies. To nurture them, yes, but also to decide which one’s live and which one’s die. Jonas watches his father administer a lethal injection to an otherwise healthy infant twin because the community has decided there can be no twins. And he learns that his father will have to “release” a baby that has been living with the family because he simply cannot sleep through the night without crying.

So I will be waiting for his response.

Because right now, he thinks The Community is a pretty good place to live.

No one has to worry about money, he insists. The climate is controlled. The birth-rate is controlled. Jobs are determined by Committee Members based on careful scrutiny of children and their personality traits. Kids who like to build become engineers and kids who like to play with children become Nurturers. There are Laborers and Birth Mothers. All kinds of jobs. My Monkey likes this kind of order. It seems logical, and it appeals to him.

“Sameness eliminated fighting and wars,” Monkey said matter-of-factly. “There is no more racism.”

“True, but people can’t see or appreciate colors. Everything is kind of beige, so they can’t appreciate hot pink flowers or the blue of an ocean,” I said. “And they don’t know snow or sunshine because of climate control,” I suggest.

He shrugged his shoulders at this. He isn’t far into the book yet to know what is coming.

While he was out today, I re-read The Giver from beginning to end. And I am struck by how Orwellian Lowry’s vision is. And I am amazed by all the ways the government has slowly intruded into our lives since 1993. Post September 11, 2001, video cameras are everywhere. Everywhere we go, we are being filmed. If we purchase something, our credit card transactions are tracked in a way they weren’t before. When we go to the airport, we are made to practically strip down – and we agree to do so, in the name of the greater good; we take off our belts and shoes and put our liquid products into baggies to be searched. We have caller identification so we no longer have to answer the phone. And every prank phone call can be traced back to the place of origin. The government is more involved in public education than ever, practically dictating to teachers the curriculum that needs to be taught. Textbooks, which have been approved and distributed throughout our country to our children, are filled with hundreds of factual and grammatical errors and people do not seem to be outraged. The latest version of Huckleberry Finn has had the “n” word removed. (Sure, you can still get the alternate version, but tens of thousands of students will never even know that another version exists because it is easier to edit the language of difference.) Journalism has become entertainment, and few people read primary sources. Most people just pop onto Blackberries and iPhones and read commentary (read: secondary sources or the ideas from “specialists” telling us what to think) about everything from the food we eat to the latest shooting. I see people forgetting how to think critically. I know people who do not know much about our Constitution. They could Google United States Constitution and read about it, but most folks would rather read Status Updates on Facebook or download the latest App designed to make us forget that our country is engaged in a war.

“There is no war in Jonas’s world,” Monkey said, his chin angled up defensively.

“True,” I said, thinking to myself but there is no love either.

And I wonder how many civil liberties my child might be willing to give up if the Government told him it was for the greater good.

If My Kid Writes One More Book Report…

 

Sleeping Student

Sleeping Student

Monkey has been writing a helluva a lot of book reports this year.

In an English class, a student can — of course — write a formal essay in response to a piece of literature. And they must know how to do this competently. But let’s face it: Writing five paragraph (or two paragraph or three paragraph) essays after every book, can be a real drag. And there is no reason for this when there are a skillion (yes, a skillion) other ways to evaluate a student’s comprehension that are about 100 times more engaging than any book report.

Students could create a piece of art in any medium that represents a character, situation or theme from the story; they might compose a poem or a monologue which explores a situation or character or which develops a theme from the literature; they could write a script for a scene in the story and perform it before the class, or imagine a scene that could have been in the story/play but wasn’t; they could offer an alternate ending or imagine the characters in the future. A musical student could write a song that explores a situation or a theme from the literature and sing/play it for the class. A dancer might choreograph a piece that represents a situation, character, or theme from the literature. Someone could create a diary for a character, not just chronicling the facts of plot, but the character’s emotions regarding his/her experiences. A budding historian might want to research a historical reference he or she noticed in the literature and was intrigued by. Hell, a student could bake something symbolic which links to the literature. I’ve had students bake highly symbolic (and very delicious) cookies!

With any performance based assessment, there always has to be a written explication that accompanies the more creative project in which the student explains his or her intention and explores how the project helps his or her peers understand something important about the literature. Ideally, the assessment process informs the teacher and the learner about student progress and, simultaneously, contributes to the student’s learning process.

I could go on about some student projects that I have received over the years. One of my favorites involves a student who upon completing Lord of the Flies, made a trip to the local farmer’s market and bought a whole pig’s head and recreated the scene where the terrified boys, beat and unintentionally kill their classmate, Simon, and then put a pig’s head on the stick.

I still have the video (which I’ve had switched over to DVD) and I still watch it. And that kid makes movies now.

I know that No Child Left Behind supports “standards-based education”and is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

So I get it. My school district clearly wants our kids to pass the standardized test.

They want a slice of the pie.

But our kids are dying of boredom.

So please, for this mother.

No. More. Book. Reports.