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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Working 9 to 5

I am a firm believer in using every hour of the day. As distinctly mortal entities, we humans can't afford to waste time. Yet much time is wasted in school, especially in the upper grades. Every class change, students have to traverse the school, go to their lockers, get new books, talk to friends, and text message their fingers off. Then it takes then at least five minutes to settle into class after the bell rings. An additional five to ten minutes are lost at the end of class watching the clock and waiting for the closing bell. This must end. In a typical seven period day, assuming a minimum of ten scheduled minutes between classes, this eats up two hours time. If a the day is only 6.5 hours long, you have already lost a third of it. Add in lunch, assemblies, and other miscellaneous idling and it is no wonder teachers have no time to teach.

It looks like more and more schools are coming up with a simple solution to this time debacle. They are adding back those hours to the end of the day. Rather than go home mid-afternoon, a throwback to the days when students helped tend the farm, some students now work a full eight hour day, just like their parents.

I see little to no downside to this. Students have another two hours to learn the skills they will need. Teachers have another two hours to mold young minds. Critics will say that the new schedule eliminates much extra-curricular time, but those extra activities can now easily be worked into the formal day. There will be more time for all the "extras" that are being cut from the budget. Field trips, art and music classes, etc. Socially, this prepares the students for the oft cited "real world." It also saves money for parents. No more day care. Your kids get home the same time you do.

This is a step in the right direction. If we are going to keep up with the students in developing nations like China and India, we have to work both harder and smarter.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Science of Sleep

Two things prompted this post. One, I have just received the movie by this name from Netflix. Two, I just read an article about the latest sleep study. Prepare yourself for a shock. They found that sleep is helpful to you- or at least your memory. This falls into the duh category of peer-reviewed studies. Anyone who has stayed up all night cramming knows that they would the drowsiness that ensues is more than a little counter productive. Oh sure, the procrastinator in us will keep doing it. But it seems fairly obvious that it's not the wisest of plans.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Standardized Idiocy and Norm-Referenced Stupidity

I am so tired of hearing about accountability in education. I wonder if these politicians even know what they mean when they say it, or if they just know it's a powerful sound bite? Of course, teachers should be accountable! They are accountable for getting up and going to work everyday, preparing challenging lessons, and sitting through mundane and insulting staff meetings where they are told how to do their job by others who have already failed at it. They are accountable for battling spin-doctoring bureuocrats, power-grubbing school board members, lazy students, and childish parents. Mostly they are accountable for performing a job in which failure is guaranteed and success rare and fleeting, a job in which no matter how hard you try, or how much of your meager paycheck you spend, or how many hours of personal time you give, or how much sleep you lose, or how much love and attention you devote to kids who aren't getting it anywhere else, you will have your heart ripped out more often than not. Then you get up the next day and do it all again.

For most, "accountability" is a synonym for testing. Test them until blood rolls out they're ears; that will somehow make them smarter. Never mind the time spent preparing for the tests might be better spent elsewhere. Ignore the ongoing incentive of teaching to the test. Pay no attention to the fact that the test designers intentionally create a test that will give traditional bell-curve results. But above all, no matter how important it may seem, do not under any circumstances mention that not a single, solitary shred of evidence exists to clearly demonstrate the efficacy of these tests. Not one peer-reviewed article, not one scientific study, nothing, nada. Ignore all this because testing is cheap and efficient for the schools, a win-win situation for politicians, and big business for testing companies.

In fact, i can go you one better. Write all the kids names on individual pieces of paper. Be sure to use a number 2 pencil. Now, throw all the papers down a flight of stairs. Those landing on the top step are in the 99th percentile, the second one down 98th, and so on. It's even cheaper, wastes less time "studying" for the test, and about as statistically meaningful.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

No Religious Test

As long as I live, I will never really understand why anyone would oppose the separation of Church and State. It seems like the best thing for both parties. I understand that it isn't specifically stated in the Constitution, but certainly the fact that it never references God and makes quite precise prohibition of religious tests implies that its authors thought this a good idea. Regardless of your religious beliefs or non-beliefs, it doesn't do your cause any good to mix organized religion with democratic government. Of course, as a citizen, you will bring whatever faith you practice to the table when making political decisions. I accept that as the unalienable right. But I get really nervous when my President starts bandying about his faith as justification for war or the appointment of "common sense" Supreme Court justices. And I get really, really nervous when public school teachers discuss their faith with students.

A teacher in Trenton, NJ did just that recently. In this case, an offended student caught the whole thing on tape so I'm sure the teacher will be reprimanded or removed. Still, the students may be losing an otherwise fine educator, simply because he or she can not keep his or her mouth shut about things that ought to be personal. As I read it, the teacher claims to have been answering questions from students and did not deliberately broach the subject of religion. Still, it is inexcusable. I doubt very much that the teacher would answer questions concerning personal sexual activity, and the at least the same amount of discretion should apply here.

This won't be the last time something like this happens. I know that. I just don't understand why.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Numerology at the Movies

Were I to make a list of dream jobs, film critic would easily be in the top five. I love movies. I see a ton anyway. Why not get paid to write about them? Almost any genre piques my interest, and I will give a director a lot of leeway when it comes to the suspension of disbelief. On occasion, though, a movie's premise is so in conflict with my outlook on the world, that I can tell from the preview that it will only give me a headache. Jim Carrey's new thriller The Number 23 is going to be one like that.

From what I can tell, it will spend some two hours posing irrational conundrums, deifying coincidences, and bastardizing mathematics in the hope of scoring at the box office. As much as I would like Jim to succeed in a dramatic role, I wish he would be more choosy. This one promises to have all the disjointed temporal craziness of Eternal Sunshine without the quirky humor. Hollywood occasionally scores with math movies like, Pi, Proof, or An Innocent Mind, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb by predicting that this one will be a big zero.

In short, unless you are referring to the greatest basketball player that ever lived, leave the number 23 alone.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Behind Bars, But Ahead of the Curve

I wouldn't say I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. But I didn't exactly want for anything either. My high school was in a relatively affluent suburb, the kind where kids get sports cars on their sixteenth birthday and take vacations to Teluride. I wasn't one of those. I had jobs as soon as my parents would let me. Nevertheless, I reaped the benefits of living amongst the upper middle class.

School always came fairly easy for me. I could have gotten straight A's if I had applied myself. Instead I spent my evenings watching Cheers reruns and playing on the computer. Still, I got enough AP credit under my belt to test out of my entire freshman year of college. I scraped by, always willing to settle for the highest grade with the least work. It wasn't until much later that I realized the magnitude of the opportunity I wasted, and even later when I realized that most others never get that opportunity to waste.

I read today of a program in Vermont that is succeeding under the worst of conditions. It is an experimental high school run by the state correction department. It specializes in catching kids before they fall through the last cracks. I don't know if I will have what it takes to make this kind of a difference, but I will certainly keep these teachers in mind.

Community High School Board member Dwight A. Davis said that when he asks inmates if anyone had ever taken an interest in their education, they say "no."

"As an educator, that's difficult for me to accept," Davis said. "A lot of our kids, if they had one caring adult, they would succeed. Unfortunately, they don't. If we can correct that we've corrected a gross error."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Language Mavens and Grammar Nazis

I have a belated New Year's resolution for myself. From now on, I am not going to complain about, look down upon, or get myself in a twist over a person's grammar, spelling, or related "misuses" of the English language. I will not scoff when someone pronounces "comfortably" as though it were spelled "comfterbly." I will not mock people for saying "a whole nother" anything, nor for claiming that they "could care less" when I know they could not. In short, I will stop trying to apply rigorous logic to a system that is by its very nature loosely defined.

As long as communication has occurred and meanings are understood, who cares whether things follow the rules. Who makes these rules anyway? So what if Latin doesn't allow infinitives to be split or sentences to end in prepositions. This isn't Latin. If someone chooses "to boldly go where
no man has gone before," I say more power to them. To hell with Harbrace and Merriam-Webster. The more I read about the etymology of language, especially English, in books like The Language Instinct or The Mother Tongue, the more I realize how silly I have been.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Fly on the Wall

Yesterday, I had some time to kill while waiting for a train. I decided to spend it in the cafe of a local Borders. There I was, reading my book, drinking my hot chocolate, and generally enjoying the extra time, when my calm was shattered by the conversation beside me.

A man and a woman were engaged in a tutorial session for the calculus. The man was berating the young woman for not practicing between sessions, pointing out that she was wasting his time and her money. At first, I was on his side. I am well acquainted with the frustration that comes in watching a student struggle with a concept they showed near mastery of the week before. But gradually, my feeling started to change. (I am aware that many of you are judging me for my rudeness. I'm certain none of you have ever eavesdropped, especially when the topic is of particular interest to you.)

The tutor was, for want of a better term, being a dick. His method of instruction differed little from what she could have read in her textbook. It was dry, authoritative rather than explanatory, and lacking completely the level of personal attention possible in one-on-one tutoring. Teachers with thirty students are forced to teach to the center of the curve. ( Well, strictly speaking, they don't have to, but there certainly is a strong incentive to do so.) When you have only one student, you have the ability to tailor your teaching technique to a style that works for that one student. Take the time to explain why any number raised to the power of zero is one. Show on a graph why the derivative of all constants is zero. These are examples from this particular lesson; I'm not pulling them out of thin air. Give examples that the student can understand and that will be meaningful to them. The only analogy this guy used was a lengthy one concerning Tiger Woods, and this girl was not a golfer.

With guys like this on the loose, it's no wonder people hate and fear math.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Prime Example

Here we go again. Another group of concerned citizens has convinced themselves that there is something innately carcinogenic. Not to denigrate the severity of cancer, but seriously , when is this going to end? Whether it's power lines, toxic waste, or irradiated tomatoes, you can be almost certain that the actual statistical effect is no better than chance. This is why I want to become a teacher. The simplest mathematical reasoning could prevent this from happening fifty jillion times a year. I often think that probability should be prioritized over algebra and geometry. The average person can easily avoid using the slope of a line or the parallel postulate, but everyone uses statistics. Every decision we make is guided in some part by our ability to estimate the likelihood of events.

I am constantly hearing phrases like "Isn't that weird?" or "What are the odds of that?" The answers are invariably "Not really" and "Pretty darn good." I completely understand where people are coming from. It's not like evolution has prepared us all that well for this kind of thinking. In fact, we kind of suck at it. That's why we have to be taught the required tools and concepts in school.

Here it is, only my second post, and already I'm ranting. I would like to be able to say this will be an exception, but that would be a lie. I am frustrated with the lack of math reasoning I see in the world around me, and I want to do something about it. Hopefully, I will calm down a bit.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Inaugural Address

It's amazing how much pressure a blank page can represent. Fortunately, I have two sentences under my belt as of this period.

As you may have guessed, this is the first post of my very first blog. Like everyone else, I expect to learn as I go. But I thought it important to lay the foundation for what this will one day become. I have a lot of things to say about a lot of subjects, but I think it best to narrow things down a bit. So to that end, Pencils Down will be devoted to the condition of public education in the US with an emphasis on Math and Science.

I will admit to being a layperson when it comes to this topic. Other than having attended grades K-12 as a student, I have no authority whatsoever. But I intend to change that, and this blog is the first step of my journey. I will return to college in the Fall in the hopes of becoming a Math/Physics teacher.
As I continue to learn and grow, I will use this forum to post queries and observations on the subject of education. Hopefully, I won't just be talking to myself.