A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

John Ortberg calls out the church for its almosts

I wonder about the larger spiritual and moral eco-system of which what happened in Charleston is a tiny, damnable part. I wonder where the church is; at least the church I have known through my life. I wonder why the churches and college and seminary I was a part of look less like the kingdom of God—every tribe and tongue and people–than the military does. I wonder how many leaders in that church almost marched for the rights and dignity of all persons; how many sermons almost got preached; how many barriers almost got breached. I wonder why the networks and training and education and informal relationships of the church circles in which I serve still look as if the apostle had written… ‘He has almost torn down the dividing wall of hostility’; ‘you are almost one in Christ Jesus.’

– John Ortberg, writing beautifully and convincingly for Leadership Journal

A Knight’s Tale Relishes Its Silliness

My students are practicing using the “they say/I say” rhetorical structure in class by responding to a movie review of A Knight’s Tale. This is my own contribution. I find the “they say/I say” structure a very practical and flexible structure for students to use. It almost instantly adds a maturity to their writing they otherwise have not had.

In his 2001 review for New York Magazine Peter Rainer offers a harsh critique of the film A Knight’s Tale. Rainer claims the movie attempts to demonstrate “that there’s no essential difference between then and now.” To make his point, he likens each character to our modern equivalent: the hero’s friends are groupies, complete with squires as buddies, a herald as PR agent, and a pretty lady oogling from the luxury boxes.

By focusing on his thesis that the movie wants us to see how “the fourteenth century was as glitzy and starstruck as our own,” Rainer entirely misses the film writers’ self-consciousness. Surely the writers were not trying to convey a real parallel between the middle ages and the modern world. A noble woman sneaking around men’s tents at night? A prince declaring a peasant a knight because the peasant was tough? Next, a historian might counter, you’ll tell me a king wrote the Magna Carta. At practically every turn, any historical record shows the medieval world is strikingly different than the way the movie portrays it. But before criticizing the movie for this difference, shouldn’t a viewer stop to realize the writers were surely aware of how discordant their story is with history, and that it must have been part of their point? In A Knight’s Tale, filmmakers have reveled in setting the archetypal rags to riches and David & Goliath plots of sports movies in a completely new place. They’re committing the same old clichés in all the new ways, and like homecoming dress-up days, we revel in A Knight’s Tale because we know it’s silly and we think its clichés are fun. In the climactic moment of this movie, William jousts against the world’s second best jouster without armor or a helmet. Somehow—through quick edits and close-ups—his opponent completely misses him, and William knocks the guy off his horse. In sum, anyone who sees an ending like this and does not recognize its aspirations to silliness has been weighed, and found lacking.

A teacher who conveys that he’s learning something from you

As a person, Lou was unique. I have never met anyone like him. He was a great storyteller, but he also listened. I think my daughter’s sketch above captures this listening quality. He was a spellbinding lecturer, giving important words an extra push not with increased loudness but with intensified enunciation. But he was even better as a seminar leader, and even better than that in one-on-one conversation, because he always conveyed the sense that, however stupid you thought yourself to be, he was learning something from you. And I believe that he was, that he saw things in his students and, more widely, in his friends, that they didn’t see in themselves. For me, that is the definition of grace.

from Joel Marcus, describing his former professor. I heartily agree with Wesley Hill’s sentiments on it: “If I could be half the mentor/teacher described in the last paragraph, I would count myself the luckiest.”

Bryan McGraw describes the differences between toleration and regonition

In relatively recent debates over toleration, there has developed a view that says toleration is simply not enough. In tolerating others, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) communicate that what they do or believe is, in our view, morally disreputable. That can have serious effects, of course, on the tolerated’s sense of self-worth and ability to live her life as she sees fit. Instead of toleration, the argument goes, we should instead offer one another mutual respect or positive regard or, and this is the key move, recognition. We need not morally endorse others’ lives full stop, but we should go beyond a grudging indifference to something like a decently warm encouragement. And the reason, broadly speaking, we must do so is because the goods we thought we could secure via toleration are not enough. They still leave those being tolerated the object of social opprobrium and thus at some real disadvantage—or worse.

Hence, it is not enough for gays and lesbians to achieve a rough degree of legal and political equality. Nor is it enough for tender college students to hear criticisms that go to the heart of their own sense of identity. Unless their moral lives are, in some real way, recognized and affirmed not only by public (or university) authorities and unless their fellow citizens (or students or speakers) can be counted on to do the same, real, substantive equality will remain elusive.

But this makes for the obvious question: if recognition, not toleration, is the rule of the day, why can’t moral conservatives or others with unpopular views make similarly structured claims? Well, in my view, they should be able to and the fact that they can’t helps reveal an incoherence at the heart of the recognition claim. Given a certain range of moral and religious pluralism, it is principally and practically impossible to extend recognition to all or even most, especially once recognition extends into our everyday social lives. Recognition is, or at least can be, a zero-sum game. And so what is lurking behind the purported argument for recognition—and toleration, for that matter—is a set of moral judgments about what lives are in fact worth recognizing or tolerating, and here is where the misunderstandings of moral conservatives and free-speech liberals will continue to lead to loss after loss. It is not enough to merely beg for toleration on the grounds of tradition or conscience or some-such. Nor is it enough to suggest, as Mill did, that it is worth our while to hear scandalous or provocative views. For when our latter day inquisitors deny the requests for recognition or toleration, the reason is that the moral and psychological harms they suppose themselves to be receiving stem from what they view as morally problematic views of the world. It is the sheer existence (or at least their own awareness) of these terrible people and their ideas that seem to function as a standing rebuke to their own moral self-conceptions—and thus those terrible others must be marginalized and even run out of impolite company.

Bryan McGraw, in an interesting post about the tensions between tolerance and free-speech.

10 Ways for Rapid City to Decrease the Cost of Public Education

My town is set to vote next week on whether to increase our property taxes in support of our public school system.  Many in my town have suggested that my district’s financial woes are due to mismanagement rather than an actual financial crisis; they imply that a more strategic and prudent use of public funds would solve our dilemma better than a tax increase.

They’re right, and I would like to propose a few ways we could decrease the cost of public education in my city.

1. Lower the drop-out age to 14. A few years ago our state increased the drop-out age to 18, but that was exactly the opposite from what they should have done, as it increased the number of students present in our classrooms. If we were to decrease the drop-out age to 14, we could nudge kids out of the system before they cluttered up the high schools, severely decreasing the need for expensive teachers.

2. Cut the number of requirements for graduation. The state mandates a wide number of classes that every student must take in order to earn a diploma. This includes four years of English and even fine arts credits. Cut out everything except for basic literacy and you can axe a plethora of pointless teachers who cover unnecessary topics like civics, geography, and algebra II.

3. Eliminate electives. If you want to cut costs, don’t let students take things that do not explicitly meet graduation requirements. Instead, allow them to take those classes in college, where people can foot the bill themselves and give taxpayers a break. That will eliminate the need for a wealth of teachers who teach extraneous courses like AP chemistry, AP physics, and calculus.

4. Have students buy their own materials. When you go to college, who is buying the books? The tissues? The printer paper? The students. If we’re going to send kids to college and prepare them for the next level, we should train them now by having them buy our textbooks and supplies. Sure, some kids can’t afford it, but that might encourage them to make a more affordable decision for all of us (see #1 above).

5. Online classes.  Colleges and other institutions are surviving by using online education, like MOOCS. Why can’t our teachers offer online courses? Sure, the instructional quality is low, but picture this scenario and try to comprehend how much money it could save. For one of my preps, I, an English teacher, run a ninth grade English course with 200 students enrolled. I the make sure the rigor is high and watch the work roll in. The grading can be easy–student aides could read most of it to verify that it is completed at a high school level–and as a teacher my primary duty will be data entry.  Sure, 120 or so of the students won’t be able to complete the course, but that means that 80 will have completed it at practically no cost to the district. The 120 failures can re-enroll in a face to face course and try again. Or they can explore option #1 above. It’s a win-win for everyone.

6. Increase class sizes. While teachers are quick to trot out studies about large class sizes hurting students, we all know that’s not how it works in the real world. When more people are mailing packages at Christmas, does UPS decrease the routes for their drivers? No, they hire some dimwit to ride shotgun with the regular driver and tell that driver he or she can’t afford to walk up that sidewalk. Have you ever seen your USPS mail carrier running up your sidewalk? That’s why USPS is going broke and UPS is asking what Brown can do for you. So English teachers need to take a lesson from Brown and start sprinting through that student writing. They can even hire a student aide or two to grade the essays. Ultimately they should realize that no one cares what a teacher is writing on that paper anyway, so why does it matter what the teacher is writing on there as long as it has a grade attached?

7. Eliminate grades. Actually, that paragraph above sounds cold-hearted, but if you want teachers to stay, you have to offer them incentive and make their jobs pleasant, so that’s why I suggest eliminating grading. Instead, base students’ credit upon a final test for each course. Students can even take the test anytime, so if they feel that, halfway through a course, they have learned enough to pass the end of course exam, they can “opt-out” of the rest of the course and test out of it. Teachers can feel free to teach to the test and have students all take it early if they want. That would allow the teacher either to begin summer vacation early (at a discounted rate, of course) or get another job in the school district, like security guard.  That’s an opt-out everyone can get excited about!

8. Have teachers clean their own areas. If we ran our homes like we run our schools, we’d all have personal maids. Having teachers take responsibility for their own instructional space will increase ownership of the school and decrease all the tension that can arise between custodial staff and faculty. Students can assist with these duties as well. And if they don’t like it, there’s always option #1 (see above).

9. More community involvement. One of the great indicators that a school is succeeding is if the community is participating in the education of their youth. That is why students should spend their sophomore years interning with community businesses. They could learn important things right in the workplace and the school district would not need a single teacher for the 10th grade. Obviously a student or two would be upset that their internship was with the inmates sorting trash at the dump, but do you see the inmates jumping for joy that they’re stuck there working for a dollar an hour? Those are the lessons life teaches, so it’s better for students to learn them early.

10. Advocate for homeschool. As it is, most homechoolers are children of highly involved families, where particularly Mom is guiding  the process from home instead of working outside the home. But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. If our school district were to take a cutting edge stance and encourage everyone who wants to sleep in until 10:00am to sleep in until 10:00am and work on some school work whenever it feels good, that would reduce the need for hundreds of teachers. To seize the technicalities of state law (which won’t give the district the per student allocation if the student is not enrolled in the district) the school could “supervise” the homeschooling process, providing materials (well, a link to a website, since #4 above)  that would be equivalent to enrollment. This option would be very similar to the online courses described earlier, but with even less teacher supervision needed.

These ideas are not difficult to produce. I thought of them all while my wife was out for coffee with some friends. That our school district has failed to consider even ONE of these ideas before now is clear evidence of their gross mismanagement of public funds. I can only hope that when it comes time to vote for the opt-out, my fellow residents make them pay for their negligence.

Most software applications don’t foster learning and engagement

In schools, the best instructional programs help students master a subject by encouraging attentiveness, demanding hard work, and reinforcing learned skills through repetition. Their design reflects the latest discoveries about how our brains store memories and weave them into conceptual knowledge and practical know-how. But most software applications don’t foster learning and engagement. In fact, they have the opposite effect. That’s because taking the steps necessary to promote the development and maintenance of expertise almost always entails a sacrifice of speed and productivity. Learning requires inefficiency. Businesses, which seek to maximize productivity and profit, would rarely accept such a trade-off. Individuals, too, almost always seek efficiency and convenience. We pick the program that lightens our load, not the one that makes us work harder and longer. Abstract concerns about the fate of human talent can’t compete with the allure of saving time and money.

Part of Nicholas Carr’s article, “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines.” Carr explores these ideas in full in his book, The Glass Cage, which I am reading now and find highly interesting.

Is there an industrial model of education?

Phrases like “the industrial model of education,” “the factory model of education,” and “the Prussian model of education” are used as a “rhetorical foil” in order make a particular political point – not so much to explain the history of education, as to try to shape its future.

It’s tempting to say that those who argue that today’s schools are fashioned on nineteenth century factories have never read much about the Industrial Revolution. (Frederick Engels’ The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 is in the public domain and available via Project Gutenberg, for what it’s worth.) Schools might feel highly de-personalized institutions; they might routinely demand compliance and frequently squelch creativity. But they don’t really look like and they really don’t work like factories.

This is an interesting essay from Audrey Waters that addresses a myth–the myth of the industrial model of education–that needs to be examined closely, since educational gurus and Federal agencies are making decisions based upon it.

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