Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Ah, for the good ol' days!

I got this via email today, and I loved it. I don't mean to plagarize, but I have no idea where it originated, and I really wanted to share it with anyone who hasn't already seen it. Here it is:

Scenario: Johnny and Mark get into a fistfight after school.

1957 - Crowd gathers. Mark wins. Johnny and Mark shake hands and end up buddies for life.
2007 - Police called, SWAT team arrives, arrests Johnny and Mark. Charge them with assault, both expelled even though Johnny started it.

Scenario: Jeffrey won't be still in class, disrupts other students.

1957 - Jeffrey sent to office and given a good paddling by the Principal. Returns to class, sits still and does not disrupt class again.
2007 - Jeffrey given huge doses of Ritalin. Becomes a zombie. Tested for ADD. School gets extra money from state because
Jeffrey is determined to have a disability.

Scenario: Billy breaks a window in his neighbor's car and his Dad gives him a whipping with his belt.

1957 - Billy works off the car window repair and learns to be more careful, grows up normal, goes to college, and becomes a successful businessman.
2007 - Billy's dad is arrested for child abuse. Billy removed to foster care and joins a gang. State psychologist tells Billy's sister that she remembers being abused herself and their dad goes to prison. Billy's mom has affair with psychologist.

Scenario: Mark gets a headache and takes some aspirin to school

1957 - Mark shares aspirin with Principal out on the smoking dock.
2007 - Police called, Mark expelled from school for drug violations. His car is then searched for drugs and weapons.

Scenario: Pedro fails high school English.

1957 - Pedro goes to summer school, passes English, goes to college.
2007 - Pedro's cause is taken up by state. Newspaper articles appear nationally explaining that teaching English as a requirement for graduation is racist. ACLU files class action lawsuit against state school system and Pedro's English teacher. English banned from core curriculum. Pedro given diploma anyway but ends up mowing lawns for a living because he cannot speak English.

Scenario: Johnny takes apart leftover firecrackers from 4th of July, puts them in a model airplane paint bottle, blows up a red ant bed.

1957 - Ants die.
2007 - BATF, Homeland Security, FBI called. Johnny charged with domestic terrorism, FBI investigates parents, siblings removed from home, computers confiscated, Johnny's Dad goes on a terror watch list and is never allowed to fly on an airline again.

Scenario: Johnny falls while running during recess and scrapes his knee. He is found crying by his teacher, Mary. Mary hugs him to comfort him.

1957 - In a short time, Johnny feels better and goes on playing.
2007 - Mary is accused of being a sexual predator and loses her job. She faces 3 years in State Prison. Johnny undergoes 5 years of therapy.

There are reasons why they call them the, "good, old days."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Communication is wonderful, but............

A number of years ago, I read The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. The book made more sense than any other book I've ever read. One of Howard's points in the book was that in government and education we should hire good people and allow them to make decisions. But instead of that, we end up micromanaging by making all kinds of rules and policies for them, and frequently those rules and policies, although well intended, end up doing more harm than good by tying the hands of those who have to carry them out. I know from experience that that has often been the case in public education, and our school recently had a sterling example of it.

Our entire high school faculty received an email from our administration last Friday that showed micromanaging at its worst. I know that there are some teachers who are knee-jerk anti-administration types, but I have never been one of them. The email we got, however, left me furious. I'm furious because of the lack of respect it showed for those of us who take our jobs very seriously, but I'm also furious because of its stupidity.

The email directed that all faculty members were immediately to begin posting lesson plans for all of our classes each day on our school's website. No questions, no discussion, nothing. This item was pushed through by a parent on our school board who decided we should do this because a neighboring school district does.

It's not that I'm unwilling to use technology to improve communication with parents. Beginning last year, I began inviting parents, especially those with kids who weren't doing well, to join my American History address group so I could send them schedules of upcoming assignments each week via email. This would be targeted to the parents who wanted them, and they would receive them each week, so there would be no need for them to go searching for them on our school's website. No one ordered me to do this. In fact no one even suggested it to me. I just thought it was a good idea, so I did it because I take pride in the job I do. I felt like a professional.

I am not going to feel that way about following our administration's order. Yes, I guess our school board does have the authority to issue such an edict, but a lack of respect for teachers was literally oozing from this directive. I know that there are those in the public who believe that teachers have a cake-job and that we are all lazy, and the email we received seemed to reflect that opinion. Teachers are really all looking to collect a paycheck while doing as little work as possible, we aren't really interested in doing a good job, so we must be ordered to do things that are good for the students.

As I indicated earlier, I also found this directive so infuriating because it so obviously came from someone who has no idea what we do. Due to cuts our school system has been making for the last several years, many of us feel completely maxed out on our workloads. Throughout my career I have always enjoyed tinkering with my curriculum and trying to find better ways to teach things. This often means adding something to what I've been doing. But those cuts our school has been making have meant more classes for some of us and larger class sizes for all of us, and I've gotten to the point where I just can't add any more. For example, the gentleman who had the AP American Government class before I took it had three other classes to teach besides the AP Government class, and two preparation periods and one study hall. I now have the AP Government class, five other classes, and one preparation period. Besides that, I have larger American History classes than I ever had before. I'm sorry, but I can't give any more time and effort to my teaching than I already am--not without getting to the point where burn-out becomes a real possibility, and that is something I am determined to avoid. I am not the only teacher in our school who feels this way. I talked to one teacher the other day who gets to school every day at 4AM to prepare. She asked, "Do they want me to come at 3?"

Speaking for myself, I need to use my teaching time as efficiently as I possibly can. I began my system of emailing my weekly schedule to American History parents because it made sense for those parents in that class. I regularly give homework in that class, and there are a number of kids who are very disorganized, immature, or lazy, and having parents aware of what is expected and when could be helpful. On the other hand, it makes no sense for me to do the same thing for my Basic American History class because all the work is done in class. There is no need for parents to be reminding kids to do their homework. And my AP Government class is a college class, and I am supposed to be giving them a college type experience. Should I have to count on the mommies and daddies of so-called college students to hound them to do their homework?

Now I am going to have to do exactly that. The problem is that, since I feel like I'm doing as much as I can, if extra duties are going to be added to my workload, then something will have to go. And that something will have to be in the area of instruction. I will have to quit doing something that I've been doing because I believed it would help students learn more or better. Maybe I'll have one of my classes do less writing, or maybe I'll have to cut back on evaluating assignments which, of course, means that more students will decide not to do those assignments. It will also definitely mean that the next time I get an idea for something extra I can do that I think might make me a more effective teacher, I won't be able to do it.

I am all for communicating with parents, but I am already spending a ridiculous amount of time and energy on that--weekly progress reports for every student I have with an IEP, a minimum of two progress per quarter to parents of any students getting C- or below, progress reports to parents of any students who fall into failing territory during any week during the quarter, weekly lists of failing students to the high school office, and of course, my schedule of upcoming American History assignments to parents on my email address group.

Yes, communication with parents is a wonderful thing, but you know what? The amount of time and effort I'm able to put into instruction matters, too. I want to be the best teacher I can, but in order to do that I need be given some latitude regarding the use of my time. I just wish citizens on school boards understood that.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why kids don't know history

After a post I did a couple of weeks ago, Liz Ditz shared this piece from Evan Thomas with me. Thomas complains that kids--even college kids--know absolutely nothing about history these days. He also says that he sees no "joy" from kids learning about history, and he says he is looking for reasons why. Liz asked me to comment on this, and I will, but I'd love to hear other people's opinions on this.

First of all, I have to admit that I get a little touchy about members of the elite criticizing us peons who are involved in K-12 education. Although Evans, who is the assistant managing editor at Newsweek and the author of a number of history books, doesn't explicitly slam high school history teachers, I thought criticism was clearly implied. Nevertheless, I do think Thomas hit on one point that has made things more difficult, and that is the change in history content that is taught. When I went to school, there seemed to be an agreement about the people and events that kids should know about, but there isn't any more. Traditionalists think we should teach about the "dead white males," but others believe we need to focus on multiculturalism. Some, like those in charge in our state, believe we should compromise by teaching everything, which means we can't go into enough depth on anything to make it interesting.

I believe, however, that the biggest problems are cultural. We are in a "me" and "now" dominated society, and the past just doesn't seem very important--especially to teenagers. Even more than that, however, is something in our culture that hockey coaches like me have been complaining about for several years now.

That's right--you did not misread the last paragraph, and it doesn't contain a misprint. History teachers and Northern Minnesota hockey coaches face a similar problem. In the past, many kids in our part of the country would spend hour after hour at outdoor rinks--often eight to ten hours a day--playing shinny hockey. As a result, by the time they got to high school, some of them had developed incredible skills. But today kids don't do that any more because there are so many other things for them to do. There are hundreds of TV channels, I-pods, cell phones, PlayStation, video games, DVDs, the Internet, MySpace, and YouTube. In fact, there are so many new high tech gadgets out there for kids, and I do such a poor job keeping up with them, that half of what I just wrote might well be obsolete by now.

I think the same problem this causes for high school hockey coaches applies to something like history. I was never an A-student in high school, but I actually did read books about history once in a while when I was growing up. I remember reading books about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Armstrong Custer, Valley Forge, Bull Run, World War II, and I even read John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage. I wonder how many of my A-students have read as many history books as I did. Probably not very many. Would I have read those books if I'd have had all the gadgets and distractions that they have today? Probably not.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


A week and a half ago, there were some things in my life that I thought were really important, and my focus was completely on them. My teaching and coaching were paramount, and I was also pretty fired up about my blog. Man, did that change in a hurry. Spending three days in an intensive care unit will do that.

My father-in-law, John Engberg, is one of the most thoroughly decent men I have ever known. Since my own dad died when I was only 24, he has also been my father longer than my own father was. A week ago Saturday, John was making breakfast for friends--something he loves to do. He did the same thing for our whole tribe every day that we were in the Twin Cities during Christmas vacation. A week ago Sunday, he admitted that he hadn't been feeling well. On Monday, he went to see a doctor, and by 2 AM Wednesday he was on life support.

It's hard to describe how difficult it is when something like this is going on with someone you love, and you are 365 miles away. If you were to measure the closeness of an adult to her parents on a scale of ten, my wife would register at about fifteen. As the phone calls kept coming and kept delivering worse and worse news last Monday and Tuesday, she was being emotionally torn apart. We spent several hours last Tuesday night waiting for the phone call telling us that he had died. When I finally got into the car on Wednesday morning for the seven-hour drive, the chances seemed dim that we would get a chance to see John again while he was alive. We definitely did not expect him to make it through the day.

But John never has been one to go down easily. He made it through Wednesday, and even though we doubted that he would make it to the weekend, he did. In fact, his heart and kidney function seemed to improve, and it began to look like he was out of immediate danger. Nevertheless, when they cut off the sedation and tried to wake him up, there was no response.

By Saturday, it looked like we might be in for a very long haul. I'd spent a lot of time holding the hand of a man whose hand I'd never hold under ordinary circumstances, told him I loved him, and kissed him on the forehead. I had commitments here, so I decided I'd better get back to Warroad. But the hockey game I came back to just didn't seem quite as important, and when I came to school to work the next day, it was hard to get into it. Heaven knows I had enough to do after missing three days. Doing the necessities was hard enough, and I couldn't even look at my blog. I kept on thinking about John and his wonderful wife, Maxine. I watched my father die thirty-two years ago, and I watched my mother die a year ago, and being in that room with John was too much like that. I held out little hope that we would ever have the John that we all knew and loved completely back again. My wife flew back on Sunday evening, and he still hadn't responded to anyone.

On Monday evening, they took John off the ventilator, and he continued to breath on his own. Yesterday, he gave one of his sons a thumbs up, and later he said that he had to go to the bathroom. By nightfall, he was mad at his wife because she wouldn't get him out of that damned hospital. Maybe we will get the old John back after all! John's not anywhere near out of the woods, yet, but right now, we're feeling a lot more hopeful than we were a week ago.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

I didn't study!

Joanne Jacobs had an interesting little blurb the other day called Respect for Nerds. Her post dealt with a book by David Anderegg, and he complains about America's anti-intellectualism. In other words, we tend to portray smart people in the most negative possible light.

I certainly see Anderegg's point, but as a teacher, I see it as more than just anti-intellectualism. It's contempt for anyone who consistently tries to do the right thing. Although I haven't heard the term for a few years, the term kids in our school used to use for it was "preppy." For some, the greatest insult you could give other students was to say that they were preppy. "Preppy" referred to any students who tried hard in school, did their homework, studied for class, or just dressed nicely. Not surprisingly, the students who were most likely to call other kids preppy were those who never did anything positive.

I haven't heard the word "preppy" for awhile, but the attitude that brought that term about hasn't gone away. And that attitude is reflected by something that some students are anxious to say every time I give a test: "I didn't study." It always boggles my mind when I hear it, because the kids who say it always do it with pride. Students--at least the mediocre ones--can't wait to tell each other that they didn't study. And this is definitely not anti-intellectualism. In fact, their big fear is that if they studied--especially if other kids know they studied--there is the possibility that they might not do well on the test. And if that happens, well, that must mean that they are dumb. They'd much rather be viewed as not trying, because there's nothing wrong with that. Heck, being lazy is downright cool.

That is something I would to change.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Education: Are we the ones with the right idea?

I am about to speak heresy. I'm also about to contradict things I've said in other posts, but you know what they say about consistency.

I've been thinking about this since November when Mark Tabor did a post on the film Two Million Minutes: A Global Examination. That film compares education in America, China, and India by following around students from each country. Although I haven't seen the film, my impression from what I've read about it is that American education comes off as much less rigorous and American students as much less serious than our foreign counterparts. I also get the impression that the implications this film attempts to convey are ominous. But a funny thought occurred to me: maybe we're doing it right.

Since long before I became a teacher, American education has consistently been blasted for being woefully deficient in academics. In fact, in March of 1958 Life Magazine did a feature with a nearly identical concept to that of Two Million Minutes. They followed around a couple of students from the Soviet Union and a couple of students from the United States. While the Soviets were busy doing complicated physics and chemistry experiments, the Americans seemed only to be concerned about the upcoming sock-hop. Anyone reading those articles must have wondered how America could ever win the Cold War. But we did!

Anyone reading Nation at Risk in 1983 would probably wonder how the United States could possibly remain a world economic power 25 years later. But we are! And it was reported in September that those bozos who have been coming out of our schools make up the most productive work-force in the world.

Every year, I see former mediocre students who have become much more successful than I ever thought possible. For some reason, their not having wowed me with their performance in American History when I had them as tenth-graders didn't hold them back very much. Amazing! At some point, they realized what they wanted to do, and once they did, they went after it and achieved it. I don't know if it's something having to do with American practicality, but that seems to happen a lot.

There is great value in academics, and I don't think there's any question that a lot of other nations put much more emphasis on them than we do. I have to admit that I've always felt guilty about that. But a lot of our students get part-time jobs and put a significant amount of time into them, and other students put an incredible amount of time and energy into high school sports. That doesn't happen in other nations. But maybe there's more value in those things than we realize. Maybe the fact that we don't emphasize academics as much as those other nations, which allows our students to put so much time and effort into those other things, is actually a good thing.