Friday, May 31, 2013

The Wrath of Ptolemy: Why "A" is the New "C" in American Schools

We have all heard people complain about American schools. A little too much, I think. In general, we do a pretty good job. I do, however, believe we often go about it in silly ways. If you ever want your confidence shaken, though, you should do something that I just did: do level-placement of high school freshmen for the upcoming year.

What we use are three things: middle school grades, previous standardized testing and our own placement test (standardized, as well).

On the application information form for some of the area schools, there is also a spot in which the teachers can say whether they think the student is on a "high" level, a "middle" level or a "low" level, in a particular subject. (This will be important later.) Here is the worst case scenario that I have to deal with -- and it happens quite a bit:

A student (we'll call him Copernicus) shows testing that puts him in the twentieth percentile (very low). His teacher rates him as "low." His grades? As and Bs, even from that very teacher.

Now, if I take the evidence of the testing and place Copernicus in the regular level classes, Copernicus's dad (we'll call him Ptolemy -- just because I like silent Ps) calls me up and says he wants Copernicus in honors classes because the kid has all As in middle school. I mention the testing. Ptolemy tells me Copernicus is just a bad test-taker. He has anxiety issues. His performance in class is a clearly successful track record.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Once Upon a Time Signature (A Parable)

Shelly Manne, Stan Kenton's (and many others')
 great drummer.
Once upon a time-signature, there was a young, wide-eyed kid who wanted to become a drummer. His parents, ever the encouraging and musical types, bought him a drum set that they probably couldn't afford. It was a hazy silver/grey color and it was one of the most beautiful things the boy had ever seen.

By the standards of a professional drummer, it wasn't the highest quality drum set, but the boy cherished it and polished it and he learned how to play by taking a few precious lessons and by playing along with records in his junk-crowded bedroom for hours on end. (His parents were also very, very patient.)

For all of his high school years, he would practice for hours each day. Guided by his father, an arranger and composer, he listened to recordings by all of the greats from the old days and he found the modern greats on his own. He was one of the few kids (if not the only one) in his high school who could tell you who Gene Krupa, Louis Bellson and Shelley Manne were, though he did listen carefully to Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Chester Thompson, Vinnie Colaiuta and Neil Peart -- but mostly to Neil Peart.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Truth in Parenthood: a Moment of Proof

Every time I write about parenthood, the idea hovers over me that any mention of success can be read as bragging -- as my asking the world to say, "Wow, Chris, what a great dad you are!" If the truth were told, among mention of these successes, you'd see images of me in bed at night cringing, literally, under the memory of irreversible mistakes too numerous to mention in a blog post. Still, occasionally, a success that results from a committed-to philosophy of being a dad is worth mentioning. This particular success almost brought me to my knees with emotion, yesterday.

My eleven-year-old son had been bugging me to play a game with him for a few days. I had been giving the standard "maybe later" response. Then, it would be bed time, and he would say, "Hey -- we didn't play." I would respond by telling him he had to remind me next time.

The next day, amid many things that needed to get accomplished around the house, he asked me again. I promptly responded by telling him to "give me a break." I was exasperated. I was annoyed. I had -- my reaction implied -- more important things to do. He went into the other room.

A few minutes later, I called him back into the kitchen.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Why We're Doomed (and Other Thoughts for a Happy Weekend)

Yesterday, in class, a student was doing a presentation on the novel 1984. (It was his choice, so don't roll your eyes at me, young man/woman. I'm not pushing my anti-groupthink agenda in class. Much.) The project, based on an assignment my kids do in grade school called "The Mystery Bag," was for my students to read a sci-fi novel, picked off of a list I provided, and then to summarize the book for the class and to present four objects that had significance in the plot and themes -- to explain why the objects are important to the story.

(1984 just yielded the cutest little stuffed rats...)

Anyway, at one point, my student pulled out a thesaurus. He went on to explain that he went to numerous bookstores looking for a dictionary because he wanted to explain the concept of the government changing words in books -- changing meanings of words -- in order to control the population. He then made what I think was a brilliant observation.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Altruism Myth

When I was a youngster, tying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I knew a few things.

The first was that I didn't want a job my kids couldn't explain to their friends. (I used to hate when I asked a friend what his dad did for a living and the kid would respond: "I don't know -- he goes out and comes in with a briefcase.") I wanted a job that you could sink you teeth into: teacher, policeman, baseball player, assassin. That kind of thing.

Second, I wanted a job in which I could use whatever talents I might have had. 'Nuff (as they say) said, on that. Pretty straight-forward.

Third, I wanted a job that meant something; a job in which I could affect others positively.

So now I'm a teacher, as my main gig. Mission accomplished, on all three counts. Except, I tend to doubt my motivation for the third criterion.

Mother Theresa; a rare breed, indeed.
At some point, I came to an understanding about myself -- that I became a teacher in order to contribute positively to those around me, because, you know, a job should be important and people should not pursue careers that are selfish. It just ain't Christian. The question is whether or not this understanding is just a myth I have created in order to bolster my own sense of self worth.

We like to pretend life is about making choices, but, in reality, so much of it is about dodging falling rocks and scooping up free cookies. It's cool for me to swagger around, smooth my eyebrows and say: "Yeah. I became a teacher out of concern for the youth of America. I wanted to give of myself to my fellow humans."

But did I? Or did I become a teacher because I like books and wanted to talk about them and think about them for a living? Truth is, it was kind of an accident. And the truthier truth is, maybe I was thinking more of myself than of the poor, culture-starved youth of America.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Drip Heard Round the World

Sometimes I like to watch "reality" shows. This is mostly because they give me good ideas for posts. Also, they make me angry.

Some are worthless, like the "Jersey Shore" type shows (which really are not even worth writing about). Some have created the perception that "paying one's dues" is no longer necessary for success -- just a favorable decision on a game show is necessary -- like "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance." Last night, we were watching the latter.

If you never saw it, the show is basically "American Idol" for dancers. As "reality" shows go, it is one of the better ones. There's a decent amount of sincerity and the demands on the contestants, from an artistic standpoint, are pretty intense. They have to prove their worth in every style of dance from popular styles to the more traditional styles.

Still, it is annoying, as all reality shows are. Last night was auditions. The dancers were on stage and I found myself saying "shut up" a lot, to the audience. Every time the dancer would pull off a demanding or an interesting bit of choreography, the audience would erupt with a resounding "Woooooo!!!!"

Friday, May 17, 2013

Abercrombie and Fitch: Fighting Fire with Fire?

By now, everyone has heard that the Ambercrombie and Fitch owner has made statements about how he doesn't want to make clothes for fat people -- about how he admittedly has an exclusionary policy about making clothes for those who are not thin and beautiful (with much media attention to the fact that he, himself, if sort of...unaesthetic).

Okay. He's a jerk. Of course, it is his company.

But, now, some chap has made a video that people are batting around on social media amidst much praise. The guy is gathering up A&F clothes and handing them out to homeless people in an attempt to "re-brand" the line. This, in some way, is supposed to be a way of sticking it to A&F. Anyway, here's the video. I'll comment after.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Like, Einstein Cool

A local radio station has been running a contest for area schools: "The Coolest Teacher." Each morning, they randomly select an area high school and the kids are asked to text the station with their vote for the "coolest teacher" in the school.

What would have been your guess, say, twenty years ago, for the most-often selected type of teacher? What departments do you  think would have yielded the most "cool teachers"? My bets would have been on English, history, art, music -- the classes in which kids could be inspired to think and create.

I know the first thing people might say in objection to my conjecture is that I am an arts person, so, naturally I would see it that way. But, in the past, don't you agree that no one would have made a movie about an inspiring calculus teacher? The inspiring teacher was always someone in the humanities. Think: Dead Poets Society.

Well, who do you  think the overwhelming number of "coolest teachers" are in this contest? You guessed it: math and science.

Monday, May 13, 2013

To Hug an Electron (My Week of Insignificance)

I had a pretty weird experience over the course of this past week. My wife went away on a much deserved vacation to Aruba. Circumstances meant that I could not go, but she went with a few of her friends.

Owing to the ridiculousness of charges for cell phone communication across the waves, we knew our interaction had to be limited. We texted once or twice, but that was about it. For the rest, I had to rely on seeing her Facebook posts.

I can only find two words to describe this experience: surreal and enlightening.

The surreal part: Watching a visual and a verbal record of the most important person in your life having a good time without you and being turned into just one of the multitude of people with whom she is sharing her experience. Very strange, when you are used to being her go-to guy.

Did I expect or want her to have a horrible time without me? Of course not. But, until this point in recent human history, time apart from one's lover and best friend amounted to phone calls that ended in: "I miss you. I love you. See you soon." The rest was up to the imagination -- I wonder what she is doing now...

In the Facebook era, "I can't wait to tell you all about it" has become "Just look at the pictures with everyone else."

Friday, May 10, 2013

By the Book (The Most Staggering Comment Ever Made?)

Wherever you stand on the issues of religion and abortion, the quotation below has to be one of the most staggeringly portentous things ever said. Can you hear the brakes squealing? Can you feel the paradigms shifting and grinding like tectonic plates? Staggering.

Catholic Cardinal Shane Brady apparently threatened excommunication for those who support an Irish bill to allow abortions in cases of a threat to the mother's life. This quotation, from The Huffington Post, is Prime Minister Kenny's response:

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

To Hades With the Science of Sex!

Oh, you do it too, so don't act so demure. Tell me, if you are flipping through the channels and you see a show with "sex" in the title, you don't stop at least to see what it is. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.

Well, I stop. Sue me. The problem is, I only usually wind up watching for a minute or two. Usually, these shows are about the science of sexuality. (If they were not, I suppose they wouldn't be allowed.)  I couldn't be less interested in anything in the world.

So, here's what I see, last night, when The Discovery Channel pops on: Two professors in lab coats are watching a monitor, standing in the room three feet from a couple (in strategically-opened hospital gowns) who are...occupied in the act. The couple are engaging in conversation with these professors, as they...go. The camera is carefully handled to avoid showing the naughty bits. (Naughty bits that are apparently okay to show on an ultrasound machine, in full motion. [Backward ethics?])

Monday, May 6, 2013

Profiling Ourselves

I don't know about you, but I tend to agonize over profile pictures. The only place I really have to worry about it is on Facebook -- and here, I guess. Once I find one I am willing to use, I usually leave it there for a long time. I just think the whole process of choosing one is so weird. The reason for the choice can only be based in some kind of vanity, when you think about it. Sadly, vanity is the order of the day in the social media age.

My profile picture on this site (under "about") is one I had my wife take when I needed one for When Falls the Coliseum. I thought I would steal from Ray Bradbury, who had an author picture with his cat. I liked that having a pet in the picture took the emphasis off of "me-ness." And I guess I also liked that is said something about him: "I like my cat." Well, I like my dog and she serves to take the attention off of me a little, to, so I used that pic. (For the home page, I use the rabbit. I think of him as more of a symbol than a profile, though -- my goal: finding the rabbit under the hat.)

Friday, May 3, 2013

Crashing Awake

Last night, coughing, I popped up in the dark; I remember sitting on the edge of the bed for a second -- or standing, I can't remember -- then, in an instant, I slammed to the ground, feeling distinctly like my head was being thumped, front and back, with wood -- or as if it were bouncing around in a box.

My eyes opened; I was on the floor next to my bed, hands and knees, and a memory was fading and undulating like a boat-wake behind me: a memory of falling, but more of crashing. That part -- the crashing part-- still hasn't faded: my body slamming to the wood floor; no attempt made to stop myself; just a flat, dead fall to the floor and hitting a few things on there way down.

I knelt there in the dark, literally shaking my head, trying to come around.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Am I Smart Enough to Teach Fifth Grade?

Yesterday, I taught a class of fifth-graders. It was the only time in my teaching career that I felt even a little nervous. It was my son's Language Arts class. He's been dying for me to come in -- some of the other dads had. One was a cop; the other was a fireman. I think my son wanted to show the other kids that his dad was as cool as the other dads, which, clearly, he most certainly is not. How do you compete with firemen and policemen?

Still, I do have the being-in-a-rock-band thing going for me, so I slipped that in. They were impressed.

A fifth grade class of the past. 
Anyway, I did a mixed kind of career-day/creative writing lesson with them. I started by telling them I was going to read their minds. I asked them to think really hard about what they want to be when they grow up. They squinted; they rubbed their own temples; they held their breath. I acted like I was trying to read their minds. We all giggled a little.

After a while, I said: "Okay, here it is..." I pushed a button on a PowerPoint and a phrase emerged: "A Happy Person!"

They all laughed. They knew I was right, but I was still wrong. They had all thought of careers. We talked about a question: Why is it that when people ask us what we want to be when we grow up, we spit out a job?