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Weather Report

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Well, today was my first day back at teaching, and all I can say is that it was nowhere near as depressing as I thought it was going to be.  That’s something, of course, and I’m going to hold onto it.

In the meantime, Hurrican Irene–which is supposed to be down to a cat 1 storm when it hits Long Island, and not much more than a tropical storm when it gets up here–has caused our new governor to have some kind of massive anxiety attack.  The entire state is under a declaration of emergency in anticipation.

And Connecticut Light and Power is warning that there are likely to be massive and prolonged outages.

And nothing has happened yet.

This does not bode well.

In the meantime, I’d like to point out that:

a) I never said a thing about punishing teachers.  In fact, I said tests should be used to assess students, NOT teachers.

b) I agree that children should be taught to read first, of course, and I VERY MUCH agree that if they don’t learn they should be required to repeat a grade.  More than once, if necessary.

c) However–nope, I won’t give up on the general knowledge thing.  I think we should set standards in reading, writing, mathematics, history and science and students should be rigorously–not multiple-choice–tested in each, by outside proctors, and be required to pass each one before they’re allowed to graduate from eighth grade and from high school.  AND

d) I do think we CAN test for knowledge in these areas. 

e) Plus, all that other stuff–teaching them how to think, or to find answers on the Internet, or to have a “love of learning”–leave me cold.  I’ve got nothing against them, but it’s not what I am willing to pay teachers to do.   What’s more

f) I think each separate district should be allowed to establish and enforce its own standards, and that these standards should be set by the voters in each district, NOT by educational experts of any kind, including teachers on their own.

So if you’re teaching in a district where I get to vote on the budget, you’re just going to have to teach that core curriculum.

Well, assuming I can get the rest of the district to go along with me.

But, even so, I don’t think what we’re doing now is the way we ought to do this.

In the meantime, I’m writing syllabi and going to faculty meetings and feeling, as I said a few days ago, that what we’re involved with is a monumental scam. 

In the straightforward voc training programs–nursing, dental hygiene, that kind of thing–we provide the necessary skills training.  In the rest of the curriculum, we’re “teaching” and “assessing” in a frantic attempt to make sure nobody notices the obvious–that when they get out of a two year or a four year “education,” they still won’t be able to write clear and grammatical English, decipher even low levels of extended reading materials, or do enough math to figure out whether it’s cheaper to buy plums or apricots at the supermarket.

And when we get one level above this one–but nowhere near the top–we send the kids through long “programs’ of make-work low-level scattershot stuff that not only won’t ‘teach them to think” but won’t give them any clear overview of the history of their own civilization, and then declare their “education” “valuable” because–it’s education!

I’ll stand by what I said on this blog over a year ago–the ACTUAL result of this new push to ‘get everyone to go to college’ has been to make it virtually impossible for anybody but rich people to get a real education at all.

Forty years ago, you could show up at Western Indiana State and still get a fully fleshed out liberal arts education, if you wanted one.  These days, you get into the flagship campus or, more probably, a “name” private school, or you get vo-tech and then only if you’re lucky.

We used to be proud that our Aggies and our Engineers had read Plato and could quote Cicero.  Now we waste their time on “Mass Media and Society” and “The Image of the Other in Comic Books” and charge them tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege.

I am NOT in a good mood about this stuff at the moment.

And we’re about to have weather.

Written by janeh

August 26th, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Weather Report'

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  1. I’m in general agreement with Jane but I have doubts as to whether history or science can be usefully taught in 8th grade.

    In fact, given the hysteria about evolution, cell phones and brain tumors, and vaccination and autism, I’m not convinced that science can be taught in high school.


    26 Aug 11 at 5:24 pm

  2. Science can–indeed MUST–be taught, and you’re showing why. Teach the scientific method, and statistical methods. Give the kids as much raw data and as little interpretation as possible. And quote Saint Paul: “Test all things: hold fast to that which is good.” If the facts support only one interpretation, I’d expect kids to notice that–or admit to it–earlier than teachers or politicians. If the facts support several interpretations, we’ve no business insisting on only one.

    History too. Eighth Grade is certainly not too early to get basic sequence of events and key dates, and may be too late to start. Do you really think a 14 year old can’t get Greece, Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation in proper order with training? Or remember that the French Revolution comes after the American Revolution and before the Civil War? Remembering 1066, 1492, 1688, 1776 and 1863? But if they don’t have a basic narative framework, they’re never going to make sense of Walstonecraft, Frederick Douglass or Suffragettes.

    With Jane pretty well all the way on this. My notion of testing would include probably more multiple-choice. It’s adequate for many subjects, and where it is it’s cheaper and faster. And I would truly love to have a national standardized test on English, Science and Mathematics. I can understand the constitutional argument against imposing one, though it’s less onerous to me than many violations of the Constitution we already have, and there is no good argument against states and dsitricts agreeing to use a common one.
    I am just a bit tired of “educators” changing the tests because they don’t want anyone to see how their students compare with earlier students or students from another system. It’s that “scientific method” bit I mentioned earlier.


    26 Aug 11 at 6:12 pm

  3. Hit “Post” too soon. The push to get more kids into college wouldn’t have broken the system if the colleges hadn’t been willing to break it. They could have held to it that “you don’t get into Purdue without a particular SAT score,” or “we’ll let you into Indiana University without a respectable score, but only into remedial classes until you pass those.” Or they could have said, “anyone can come, but THIS and no other is the standard for graduation from Kansas State.” It would have been very hard to argue against such stands. But the easy money, the expanded administration and the least hassle from government and pressure groups was in admitting unqualified students as full students and passing them whether they learned the material or not.

    Even then, they could certainly have kept–and some do keep–the courses which make up a respectable education. I’m sure teachers finding it easier to teach “The Image of the Other in Comic Books” than to learn Homer or Tolkien well enough to teach them has nothing to do with it.


    26 Aug 11 at 6:25 pm

  4. Robert, if you teach history as a string of names and dates, you turn out students with no interest in history.

    What I want is to teach students that Persia was a large rich empire and was defeated by a collection of small city states. Also that the Peloponnesian War ruined both Athens and Greece. Conclusion, war is a very risky way of solving problems.


    26 Aug 11 at 7:02 pm

  5. jd, you think they can’t absorb that by age 14? By all means go for annecdote–but don’t neglect dates and sequence. I don’t mean to foster pointless memorization, but without some framework, the stories don’t hang together. You just have tales told to support the teacher’s politics. And it’s a pretty dull student who doesn’t begin to think other tales could be chosen to make the opposite argument. (Who wrote recently that we neded more foreign policy analogies than just Munich and Vietnam? He had a point.)

    I’d have said “people and events” rather than “names and dates” by the way. Knowing that Robert E. Lee was a Civil War general gets them nowhere. Knowing that he was the son–born late in his life–of the Revolutionary War general, and married to Washington’s heir gives them a feel for interval and explains some of the sentiment motivating his cause. Knowing that the “fourscore and seven years” of the Gettysburg address covers the span from the Declaration of Independence to the midpoint of the Civil War places generations of history in context and sequence. Tell them about the crowds convinced that a single battle would end the Civil War–because, after all, it HAD ended Shay’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion–and let the students draw their own conclusions about the uncertainties of warfare.

    But given the consistently depressing results of asking college students to place events in the right half-century or in sequence, I don’t think we’re in any immediate danger of overdoing teaching context.


    26 Aug 11 at 9:57 pm

  6. I agree with Robeert on this. I graduated from high school in 1956 at age 16 and a half-ish. I didn’t study history formally in my last two years, although I picked up a lot from what was being taught around me to others while I was supposed to be working on my own subjects. Apart from a general interest in history, particularly military history, I never studied the subject in any depth outside a year at the RAAF Command and Staff College.

    Yet I’m certain that even as an Australian kid, living thousands of miles on the other side of the world from Europe and the US, I knew all the relevant major facts, if not all the details, about the historical events and personalities mentioned by Robert above. A teenager in those years would have had to have been deaf and blind not to be aware of them what with Hollywood glutting the market with French Revolution and American Revolution and Civil War movies. We’d learnt about and had read the main points of Magna Carta, the US Declaration of Independence, much of the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and understood the broad issues involved in the Civil War and other major world historical events. And I was by no means a swot or any sort of genius. It boggles my mind that my sons, in their forties and both graduates of one of Australia’s best universities, usually ranked among the world’s top 50, are probably still no match for me in Trivial Pursuit.

    If we could do it back then why can’t modern kids do it, or be at least expected to try to do it?


    26 Aug 11 at 10:21 pm

  7. John, I think I’m going to have to disagree with you on that one. I think both history and science should be taught early. It’s relatively easy to do science with elementary-age children in a way that avoids some of the rather poorly-thought out or poorly-understood or difficult fads of the day. You stick more to descriptive stuff, animals and volcanoes and a bit of the structure of the solar system and magnets and movement. You could introduce the bare beginning of experimentation in there, too, but NOT, oh please, the idea that they’re supposed to discover on their own the same things Galileo did by repeating his famous experiments. Even Galileo didn’t do that. Older children – in high school perhaps – are perfectly capable of learning more complicated things like some of the challenges of the experimental method and some of the more complicated and challenging of the models humans have developed to describe and explain the world around them.

    History is even more important, particularly if people want their children to belong to a particular culture and to know who they are and where they came from (um, not biologically speaking). Some people don’t, they want the easy kind of diversity that means no one has a strong connection of that kind. Whichever view a particular school system takes, it is very important that people know at least the basics of the history of the world, with special emphasis on the part they live in, because if they don’t they won’t understand it and they won’t understand why many of the people who inhabit it think and act the way they do.

    Now, you don’t get all that in an elementary school history or social studies class, much less the primary grade class pilgrims display for thanksgiving. (I wish someone would inform all Canadian primary school teachers that pilgrims and turkeys have absolutely nothing to do with either Canadian history or thanksgiving celebrations!) And without putting my own experience as some kind of perfect example to be mimicked everywhere, there’s nothing much wrong with starting at about Grade 5 (age 10, more or less) with Stories From Local History even if the child later learns that the British weren’t quite as determined to keep all the settlers out of Newfoundland as those stories made it sound. If you must teach national history in Grade 8, as was done in our system, I strongly recommend AGAINST a book that recounts treaties, acts, and other boring historical detail. I get a magazine now that contains lots of entertaining stories from Canadian history, but the author of that textbook never met a treaty clause or a government report he didn’t like. Grades 9-end would be for world history (in my day largely Western European history) although on reflection, I’d put some of this earlier to that the timelines are familiar to students.

    I started getting a lot of my history from fiction, starting before I hit grade 5, so I’m probably not a typical product of the system. But everyone else who went on to most post-secondary programs had the same history (weaker students did geography instead, and although I liked this at the time because I hated geography, I now think it’s a shame one group lacked history and the other geography because both are important.

    And they’re warning US about Irene, although when a hurricane is still that far south, it could do anything from petering out at sea to coming ashore in the US or NB or NS instead, so I’m not worrying yet.

    My mother, on the other hand, bought bottled water yesterday.


    27 Aug 11 at 8:59 am

  8. Irene has come ashore in North Carolina. I didn’t think it would come this far north.


    27 Aug 11 at 9:11 am

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